Hours before Untapped Beer Festival became a national trending topic on Twitter on Saturday, Waxhaw’s DreamChasers Brewery owner Neil Gimon was killing time with his staff on the field at Bank of America Stadium, waiting for the inaugural Untappd Beer Festival to begin.
Untappd was to feature 176 breweries pouring beer to a sold-out crowd of 12,500, and Gimon’s team was ready and waiting — and waiting. “We were told to be there between 10 and noon, but the event didn’t start until 3 p.m.,” Gimon said. “We were fooling around, talking to other breweries for three hours.”
This was more than just a time suck: Gimon was paying his employees by the hour to hang out on the field, waiting for the festival’s start time.
Gimon also ended up paying for parking and lunch for his employees, an expense he said is not typical for vendors at beer festivals, and one that adds up for a small brewer. Gimon has plenty of events to compare it to: the brewer attends about 12 festivals a year.
“This is the absolute worst festival I’ve ever been to.”
Could the issues be fixed for next year?
Also in the field that day was Charles Willett, the controller for NoDa Brewing. “Honestly, I’ve been to worse-run events,” he said. “Everything was either out of control, like the weather, or something they can fix. If they do a good job in addressing it, I don’t see why it can’t be a good event going forward.”
Untappd’s beer festival was one of Charlotte’s biggest and most anticipated events of the spring. With the support of big names Untappd and Bank of America Stadium (note: this was not one of the city’s rent-free days), this would be a festival like no other in Charlotte, its organizers claimed.
It quickly unraveled into one of the most divisive social events the city has seen in a long time.
Attendees cited admission lines that wrapped around the building with few people checking IDs, long beer lines, broken cups and a lack of refunds when weather delays led to beer not being served outside for an hour and a half of the rain-or-shine event.
For many who waited out the thunderstorms in the stadium’s concourse and were able to go back to beer sampling on the field after, the festival felt salvaged. Organizers even extended the event by an hour, helping to make up for lost beer-tasting time.
But for others, the experience had the makings of a nightmare. Those who were still in line to get in when the thunderstorm started stated they were either told the festival was canceled or told nothing at all. When lightning and rain began, many chose to leave, forfeiting their ticket prices of at least $50. The no re-entry policy would later be lifted, but many had already left, citing safety concerns and lack of communication.
The battle played out on social media, with attendees who were granted early access and waited out the storm arguing that the experience was not so bad and that Untappd should not be blamed for bad weather. The attendees who were never allowed in, even to seek shelter from the storm, argued that refunds were the least Untappd could do.
Untappd promised exactly that on Monday evening: full refunds for those who were not allowed inside.
Several attendees started calling it the Fyre Festival of Charlotte, a reference to the infamous failed luxury music festival created by Billy McFarland and recently documented on Netflix and Hulu. While Fyre was outright fraud by the legal definition, Untapped was being called out for having poor planning and event execution.
An understaffed event
“Everybody’s experience is a little bit different,” NoDa Brewing’s Willett said. “I can only say what our experience was, working the booth.”
It was clear the event had been short-staffed, he said. Vendors had been given the option to drop off kegs on Thursday and Friday, where they were to be stored in refrigerated trucks and then delivered on the day of the event. When he became aware that beer and ice would not be delivered on time, Willett and a few of his neighbors on the field went to get their own kegs, using hand trucks.
Gimon said when his tent ran out of ice, he did what they’d been advised to do: texted their block captain for more. After the storm, when the kegs ran out, they texted the block captain again. Both times, Gimon said there was no response. He finally ran over to the refrigerated truck and was told that the kegs were on their way. After a delay, two kegs were delivered, but both were IPAs. When he asked for the lagar to be brought instead, the wrongly delivered IPA sat on the green, getting warm.
Brewers continued to make it work when organizers got creative after the souvenir cups were broken and cracked. “We saw nacho cheese ramekins and all different-sized cups,” Willett said. “We tried to keep consistent pours across the various vessels — I joked that I would pour in someone’s hat if I needed to.”
With glass not allowed on the playing field, a durable plastic cup would have been fine to hand out as a souvenir cup, Dream Chasers’ Gimon said. “Now people are coming at us with nacho cheese ramekins, then red SOLO cups. You do that for a kegger in your backyard, not for your beer festival.”
An extra hour
After the storm, brewers said they were not notified ahead of time about extending the festival for an hour. “The communication for that was just like everything else,” Willett said. He learned about the later last pour along with the patrons: over the P.A. system. He said he did not mind staying the extra time, but it may have been tougher for brewers with a drive outside of Charlotte. “Once they made that announcement, you can’t really pack up and leave through the crowd at that point,” he said.
Over at Dream Chasers Brewing, the CEO of Untappd stopped by the tent after the storm to thank Gimon and his staff for coming, then alerting them to the festival’s extra hour. “We’d been there since 11 a.m., but I was too busy to be able to rip this guy’s head off then,” Gimon said. He knew this extension would mean cost him more as he would need to pay his employees that were staying.
“How is this a way to treat your breweries?” Gimon said. “I sent a really nasty email to our contacts and I don’t expect to hear anything back. They’re going to have to do quite a bit if they want to come back to Charlotte.”
Should Untappd try again?
Untappd took on a big endeavor, Willett said. “It was to be the largest beer fest in Charlotte and one of the largest in the country. For the first time at a new venue which has strict regulations and with only about a two-month planning period, they did a lot in a relatively short time,” he said. “They kinda scrambled on the day of.”
Willett said he hopes Untappd tries again next year. “Everything that went wrong, they could absolutely fix. It was a huge undertaking,” he said. “It’s something I think could be a very positive thing for North Carolina and for Charlotte. It would be a shame to see it wasted. I’m looking forward to seeing what they can make out of it, honestly.”
Gimon also said the issues were fixable. Those comparing it to the Fyre Festival might be overreacting some, he said. “It wasn’t a fake festival. There were over 170 breweries there. I think it was just incredibly poor planning and they tried to do this on the cheap.”
The Panthers did not respond to CharlotteFive’s requests for comment. Untappd sent over this statement: “We are in the process of working through our next steps for those who had a negative experience. We will reach out with a follow-up statement on the actions we’ve taken by mid-afternoon. At this moment in time, our focus is on making things right with those who did not have a positive experience on Saturday evening.”
On Monday evening, the company posted a statement on social media offering to address individual complaints. Untappd is offering full refunds for anyone who was been denied entry. For those that experienced other issues, email organizers at email@example.com.
All ticketholders are also being offered pint glasses with Untappd logos. To redeem, email your name, address, and email address associated with your ticket purchase to firstname.lastname@example.org.
A representative from Town Square Media, the company associated with helping Untappd plan the event, sent CharlotteFive an email stating that she was not the correct person to talk to, and she would connect us with the appropriate party. A follow-up email was unreturned as of Monday evening.
This story is developing and may be updated.