Welcome to Hagstravaganza

Robyn Gilmour meets the brewery behind the Hagstravaganza magic


It’s been a long two summers, with the warmer months of 2021 proving such a tentative re-emergence into the world of beer festivals, as to not quite scratch the itch we’ve had for fast-paced surprise, unexpected encounters, connection, colour, flavour, and friendship. In the interim, beer has gathered even more meaning for us; we’ve come to appreciate how festivals function differently to taprooms, events to destinations, bars to bottle shops. Our enforced break from festivals has given us a greater appreciation of those differences, and re-ignited the passion of even the most jaded festival-goer.

We speak to breweries of all shapes and sizes for this issue, with most coming from an array of places and backgrounds, that deal with different markets, and are at varying points of growth and development. Each has a different approach to hosting and attending festivals, but all have struggled to fill the hole these turbocharged events have left in the fabric of the industry these last two years.

For smaller breweries, it's an opportunity of game-changing calibre to have all the distributors and export managers they work with under one roof; it can mean the difference between six flights and one, saving them on costs, and saving us all on airmiles. For breweries without taprooms, festivals are an opportunity to place pints directly in the hands of fans, gather live feedback from drinkers, and be encouraged by the positive feedback they can go so long without.

Finally, from an industry standpoint, festivals can be the birthplace of collaborations; they are times and places where big meets small, skills can be shared, ideas challenged, and expertise handed from professional brewers to those whose homebrewing obsessions have become a business. Time behind the scenes is invaluable, whether that be during set up, or after hours, when adventures beyond the brewery and engagement with the surrounding locality can lend context to a brewery’s identity. 

With all this inspiration, curation and engagement, it is a joy to shine a light on what essential work festivals do, and celebrate friends old and new through The White Hag’s 8th birthday bash.

This box has been many months in the making, after many years of friendship with The White Hag. Speaking about his involvement in Beer52’s first two Cyber Festivals, Co-founder and Commercial Director, taking care of sales and marketing, Bob Coggins, says: "The White Hag has been working with Beer52 for many years, since the outset of their business. We've grown with them, and as the [pandemic] kicked off, Beer52 doubled down on the support for small breweries, organising a cyber fest that brought our breweries and our beer directly to the consumer base who support our livelihoods. That order at the pinnacle of the Covid crisis was a lifeline, and a real opportunity to grow a strong engagement with their community, educating on our brand and our beer.” 

Educating on brand and beer is something The White Hag does spectacularly well, and there’s no better example of how they deliver on this than at Hagstravaganza. This festival is so much more than an opportunity to sample the craft; it’s a time and place that encourages drinkers to engage, learn, observe and taste on a deeper level - it wants to bring producers and consumers into the same fold, so each can come to more fully appreciate the other. 

“One thing we try to do every year is bring a small brewery and announce their attendance at the festival first, basically present them as a headline brewer, with the idea being that it’s nice to shine a spotlight on smaller breweries”, says Bob. “For example, we’re having Dick Macks at Hagstravaganza for the first time this year, and are helping them brew the beer both for the festival and for the Beer52 order - because their brewhouse is tiny, they can’t get a canning line in there, and so don’t usually do packaged beer, so we’re more than happy to help them out”. 

This festival is so much more than an opportunity to sample the craft

Bob later tells me that these relationships with smaller breweries form organically over the years, and come about through dropping into different venues, tasting new beers, and just generally getting to know people by chatting here and there. It warms weary cockles to hear of big players extending active support to newcomers in the game. 

But brewing enough beer to reach an audience that would gain a small brewery market traction is only half the battle. “Being a small operation, these guys don’t get to do an awful lot of travel, and don’t get to a lot of beer festivals, so we really wanted to bring them in and have them in the room on the day of the brewers tour” Bob continues. The date before the festival kicks off, The White Hag crams attending brewers into buses, trains, boats and cars, and takes them off on a tour of Sligo to get them better acquainted with the brewery’s locality, but more importantly, so they get the chance to get to know each other. 

“We show them the sights in Sligo, feed them, water them and they all have a good time together, so what you get is a community of people who are creating beer just sitting out chatting and getting to know each other - as opposed to when you’re at the actual festival you get to know the people your stand is beside, and you get to talk to consumers. So what the festival is, is small on the Friday and broad on the Saturday when all parts of the industry get together.”

On the broader side of things, Bob says Hagstravaganza really aims to peel back boundaries and barriers that usually conceal the day to day operations of the brewery; for The White Hag, this festival is an opportunity to really showcase, not just how beer is made, but what the heritage of the brand and the beer is. “It’s not easy to get to Sligo, it’s in the West of Ireland” Bob says. “Even Ireland itself can be a trek to get to, so it’s a big deal for people to come here. For this reason, we’re always trying to show off Sligo, and build people’s understanding of the beer and the brand.”

I must here pause and admit that hearing this reframed how I have thus far thought of The White Hag. With the difficulty Irish craft breweries can have getting taps in bars that have mostly been monopolised by big beer companies, it had always been my assumption that brand awareness, as opposed to brand understanding, was the pinnacle of importance. But upon hearing Bob’s mention that “getting people to scratch the surface, and take a deeper look into the brand is really important to us”, it struck me that The White Hag’s comms and branding all point west, to the location and locality that informs what the brewery does, and tells the story of where it came from. Hagstravaganza is not a promotional event, but a rare embodiment of The White Hag itself. 

Getting people to scratch the surface, and take a deeper look into the brand is really important to us

“Even at the airport today” Bob says, speaking of The White Hag bar recently opened in Dublin Airport “we were talking about maybe getting ten of the staff down to come to the brewery, do a brew, and then go and do a bit of surfing, do a bit of hiking, come for dinner, stay overnight, and just see Sligo - we want staff who are invested in us, we want people working at the airport to actually know about the place as well as the beer, we can do all the training we want on beer in the bar, but it's really important that they get to know the place too. 

“The oyster farm, the surf school, the mountains that form along the coast, Knocknarae and Ben Bulben, it's all part of the ecosystem” he continues, “it's part of the community and it defines the landscape around Sligo. The sea is a big part of that also, we use a lot of nautical terms in the beers, like The Atlantean and The Night Wave. These are terms that come from the locality, as well as from ecology and storytelling. So it really can’t be overstated how big an impact the Atlantic, and Wild Atlantic Way, have on our heritage.” 

The festival will also host and incorporate the range of local business that the brewery works with on a year round basis; the oyster farm of which Bob speaks, will feed the brewers on the night before the festival and sell oysters at the main event, while local food vendors, and coffee roasters that often contribute coffee to the brewery’s beer, will keep guests fed and caffeinated throughout Saturday’s lineup. For those unable to attend the festival itself, a live streamed version will be available to those still keen on enjoying live performances and tasting sessions with the brewers. 

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