16 March 2011

"None of Us are Party Planners" - An Interview with Three Floyds' Barnaby Struve

Monday, March 14th was a busy day at Three Floyds Brewery in Munster, Indiana. In addition to the production of a collaboration beer with Indianapolis' Sun King Brewing (more on that later), the brewery was visited by two film crews and yours truly.

After things settled down for the day I was lucky enough to spend a few minutes with Three Floyds' Head Brewer and long-time employee Barnaby Struve. While our conversation touched on quite a few long-term brewery issues, the section below touches on something a bit more immediate: Dark Lord Day.

Tickets for the event go on sale this Saturday, March 19th. In the meantime, we hope to hold you over.

Why the changes this year? What went wrong last year, and what do you think needed to be fixed?

“That’s a Pandora’s box. The reason why we’re having changes this year is – every year we have changes. This thing grew organically. None of us are party planners but now we’ve been forced to do that because so many people come to the brewery every year.

There were 25 people the first year, 50 at the next, 200 at the next, and then 4000 and on and up, so all of a sudden we were like, ‘Wow, we’ve got to get a bunch of chemical shitters for these people, what do we do?’

The good people of Munster don’t mind us doing this but it cannot grow exponentially every year. We’re a small regional brewery that has a small parking lot and a little bit of space in our warehouse and that’s it.

It’s funny – you’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t. People want to come, but then they complain that there are lines. We’re like, ‘We’re going to try to manage the crowd better by making it a ticket only event so that also we know A) how many people are going to come and with that knowledge we can have the right amount of food for everyone, we can manage lines and crowds better, and B) it’ll be safer – it’ll be just a better event.

It’s so hard – we’re trying really hard to do the best thing we can to organize this thing. In order to have it go from year to year we have to limit the size. Munster is going to put up with only a certain amount of drunken revelry every year. There were somewhere around 10 to 12 thousand people here last year. We can’t have 20,000 this year and 30,000 the next year. We’re just a little brewery.

Everyone will complain about it, but they don’t realize that before the sun comes up the next day we’ve got a whole team of people out here cleaning up our entire neighborhood so that we can try to be good neighbors to the people that we live with the other 364 days a year.

I love people coming here and I want them to have a good time and I want them to bring beer and to trade beers. What other event – in previous years – what other event has been free where you could bring your own beer, you could bring your own food, the music is free. I don’t know of any other beer event ever that’s like that.

So this year, for the people that really truly care about it and that can get tickets – we just want to make it better for them. We want to make it more user friendly, we want to make sure that the longevity of the event is insured, and we want to make sure that everyone can get their beer, have a good time, trade with their friends, try Sun King beers, try Russian River beers and all the other breweries that we’re friends with and send us stuff. It’s fun. That’s the intent anyway, but sometimes people get a little upset.”

There’s this sort of feeling that Three Floyds tells you what they want to tell you—

“Absolutely! What company doesn’t?”

Is that fair?

“Is it fair? What I think, #1 – I love the fact the people care enough to obsess about it, but we have to control information because look at how many threads there are on whatever websites about Nick’s personal life or what we’ve got going on or what we’re making or releasing and all this other stuff. You have to control your message, especially when people want to know everything about it and everyone’s talking. There’s one thread that we printed out the other day that was, ‘How come I can’t find Gumballhead?’, and the response was, ‘These guys just sit around and smoke weed all day, and then when they want to make money they come in and brew a batch of beer and then sell it.’ They don’t understand that we’ve grown by over 30% every year and because... I actually just typed up a state of the brewery address to let people know what we’ve done growth-wise so they can understand us. Because as our name grows, the demand grows, and that’s actually exceeding our growth. You can only do so much. Like with regards to Dark Lord Day – it’s like when was the last time you and your nine friends held a party for 12,000 people? We’re honestly trying to do the best we can, and I think that people should not necessarily always focus on what is negative about the event, and try to come and have a good time. And if you don’t like it… I’m sorry. We’re doing our absolute best, honest-to-god.”

You don’t want to be the guy that’s like, “If you don’t like it don’t come,” but on the other hand it’s like—

“No, and I would never say that. We’ve been having weekly meetings and the sole focus of our weekly brewery meetings for the last probably three months has been just Dark Lord Day planning. Like, ‘How are we going to make it better this way in terms of how the space is organized?’ ‘How can we get the toilets to not overflow?’ ‘How can we cut down on lines?’ ‘Where can we have more food stations?’ ‘How can we make it safer?’ ‘What’s going on with this?’ ‘What’s going on with that?’ A lot of work goes into it and we like having the event. It’s the one day that we retail beer instead of wholesale it. Everyone thinks that we’re driving around in Mercedes or something but I’ll tell you what, last year’s Dark Lord Day paid for is a new 100 ton chiller that we’ve got outside that actually helps us produce more beer, which allowed for 30% growth last year. So this year, what are we going to do with it? We’re going to put a new roof on our building. And a new roof is going to cost us a ton of money.

It’s not as though we’re like, ‘HA HA HA! We are lording over the beer and we don’t want you to have this and we don’t want you to have that.’ It’s just so bizarre that people care that much.

I think it’s great, and I get maybe – it’s like a 50/50 response when I go out to events. Like some people are like, ‘Why don’t you guys do this, why don’t you guys do that?’ And they’re a little bit negative about it but – you know the dissenting voice is always the loudest. The other 50% are like, ‘Guys, I understand. I love what you do. It’s really great that you’re doing this. Don’t listen to those other people.’ And that’s what I would rather focus on is the positives out there. We’re putting a lot of beer out there. And the people that do get it? It’s great. And I want those people to keep coming and drinking the beer and if people want to be negative about it, I think they should maybe focus on something else, get another hobby besides drinking.

That was a really long rant.

That’s the thing, I don’t want this to be negative, I don’t want to say, ‘Hey if you don’t like it, don’t come, don’t drink our beer’. That’s not my intention or my message at all – we wouldn’t be where we are today without all these people’s support. And we rely on them – they’re our customers so they’re the people we want to make happy. It’s just that if we were a big giant conglomerate – a huge brewery that could take care of everyone’s needs at the United Center – no one would want to come. People like us because we’re a small regional brewery and we make limited edition beers. If we did that, if we grew, if we got a bunch of revenue and grew by 300% and had Dark Lord Day at the United Center or Soldier Field or somewhere where everyone could come get Dark Lord, no one would come, because then we would have sold out.

So it’s like this double edged sword that’s really bizarre to me, and I think – like I said – the loudest voice is the dissenting one, and for every person that complains, we have hundreds of people coming through our pub every day that really really enjoy the food that we make and really like the atmosphere and people that we are. We’re not a bunch of aloof, snooty fuckers.”

There were rumors that you considered moving the event to convention centers, was that actually a consideration or—

“It’s always been a consideration. But we can’t do it because of the archaic beer laws in this country. Like I said – we work really really hard to make the event accessible to as many people as possible. So that being said, of course we’ll look into different locations, but we can’t because we can’t sell our beer off the premises. The fact is that, yeah, the beer is $15 a bottle, but it’s been that way since we put it out. We’ve not raised the price at all, but it’s also an incredibly expensive beer to make. If we were to do that, and make short lines, and go to the convention center we would probably have to be upwards of $60-$70 because we’d have to sell it to a distributor, they’d have to sell it back to us – so it’s just – right now, this is our little brewery, and this is what we’re doing.”

A correction - Barnaby Struve's title within Three Floyds Brewing Company is Vice President, not Head Brewer as reported above.


  1. so we can bring BYOB and food? the only thing i dont get is where everyone is going to fit. and where everyone will stash their DL after purchase. i understand it cant be open to the park, but when it was, it made it easy to set up little camps of friends to "keep" everything. with everyone packed in the 3F space, i don't see how that's possible.

  2. Not sure about food, but as for BYOB, this is from the DLD FAQ page:

    "We allow people to bring limited amounts of beer for trading and sampling with other beer lovers. The idea is to celebrate craft beer not have a raging kegger. Please no kegs and be respectful of the event."

    Don't know what the answers are to the other logistical questions.

  3. Short and to the point.

    Don't listen to all those F*&ers. You're doing awesome.

    I'd love to see Barnaby rolling in a Mercedes though. That'd be a riot.

  4. It's always been BYOB&F. Never felt the need to bring food though, the food they cater in is awesome! (By the end of your trip the White Castle nearby will also be awesome). The whole thing is amazing. The lines and the stuff he said other people complain about, that's part of the experience. I think that's why a lot of people don't like the changes, they just want to re experience the last year. But I've been going for 5 years, they've changed up a lot and it's great every year.

  5. i went to dark lord in 2009 (orderly and fun) and again last year, which, as he acknowledges, was a genuine clusterfuck. In the end, after standing in a line that was literally frozen for 4-5 hours, I and a bunch surrounding us decided to check out the entrance, where we quickly realized the "line" was just a giant mass of people crammed among the food and toilet lines. Everyone was cutting in front.
    Mr Struve correctly points out they're "not party-planners" and clearly would rather stick to brewing beer.
    Well--outsource it. There are thousands of area marketing and event planning companies that take all of this off of your hands. It'll be another cost, but probably worth it in the end... Or you could make the experience worse and worse until you get back down to 50 people.

  6. Gotta say, I got sorta WTF up front in the article, but by the time I read through to the end, I feel them..3F that is. It is a huge essentially uncontrollable ordeal as it has been for the past 3 years. But that's part of the fun in my opinion.

    It really isn't their fault..none of complaints are a directly result of 3F NOT wanting to have a great event. Mostly they are the result of just tons of freaking people. 95% of those people are happy to stand in line, park in a yard 2 miles away and freeze their balls off all day to just have some fun with a bunch of like-minded people. This is what throws this year off for me: why change it? It must have been the neighbors in the small Meunster Industrial park bitching, because so far as I can tell, they should've been charge $25 a parking space for every inch of green and black within the 3 mile radius. No one would've cared, and it would pay for the additional pissers and security.

    I guess it comes down to a few of the truly unappreciative (or maybe jealous) folks who ruined it for everyone else. I have been there for the last 5 years, including the one that was rained out and ended up with 35 people hanging out in and out of the brewery / pub...but sadly I'm going to have to miss this one.

    This might have been one of the best illegal / somewhat legal events this side of modern day alcohol regulations for a long time to come.

  7. Really nice piece, I can't imagine how difficult it must be to plan and organize a thing like this. Hell, I get stressed when more than four people come to my house at one time. All I can say is they are badasses for trying as hard as they do to make it work.

    And the kids love 'em, am I right?

  8. I'm quite sure I heard the solution to their problem in the article: "We're not event planners." Nope. And I'm not a plumber, so when I have a plumbing situation, I CALL A FREAKING PLUMBER. He comes and does what he knows how to do, and everyone's a lot happier. Boom. Done, and done.

  9. We happen to be event planners - see Microbrewers Festival and Winterfest - and I can say that not knowing how many people to expect is a HUGE obstacle in planning any event.

    You might remember that the 2009 DLD went off pretty much as well as anyone could have hoped for - I think it was the case where they guessed at home many people were going to show up, and that guess was pretty close. In 2010, the crowd (from all looks of it) doubled - I just don't think they could have expected that.

    There were just way too many unexpected things - like the line splitting, or the fact that despite having what seemed like 100s of portapotties, they still overflowed - all new problems. And once one of these things start, it's basically impossible to coordinate efforts to fix them - just trying to get your staff together to relay a message is tough. Trying to reconfigure or combine a line of 5000 (or however many it was) people would basically be impossible. It's easy to see ways you'd fix things after they happen, but doing it on the fly.. you just can't.

    This year they've seen that the main problem is that they had no idea what to expect, and they've worked to resolve that. I don't see a problem with that approach - I think you'll see a markedly better event because of it.

  10. Mike, the biggest problem with your last comment is that A LOT of people WON'T see a better event because of their efforts. I'm not chiding them, or you, but I think the fact remains that the event will lose some steam as a result of their decision.

  11. Sure, but what were they going to do? Fence off the entire industrial park? Distribute beer from multiple buildings?

    There's just not enough space to accommodate 12,000 people out there. And without the steps they took, they'd probably have more than that this year. At that rate it becomes impossible to keep the customer and the city happy. They chose the best option - a compromise for both.

    Sure, it's not going to be the same event, but at least it'll be a better event for those who are lucky enough to get tickets.

  12. Mike, I glad you wrote this as it provides some good insight into everything that goes into planning something like DLD. It's funny b/c I have actually been having a discussion with a friend of mine who seems to be a lot more upset than I surrounding the changes for this year. I’m more apt to simply accept these changes as a necessity, whereas he’s more bullish in thinking that they’re alienating a lot of their real customers/followers, but he did come up with a decent point.

    Now, to preface, I was 1 of the lucky ones who was able to get 2 tickets to this year’s DLD. That being said, the fact that all the tickets sold out in 4 minutes leads me to believe that there are a lot more people who didn’t get tickets than those who did. Again, with a limited event like this, it’s completely understandable. But, they can obviously handle the production of that much Dark Lord as there was more people last year, so why not make it Dark Lord Weekend? I mean, sure, there will still be people who will be there both days, but in turn, you could also have Golden tickets for Saturday and another one for Sunday. So, in essence the 6,000 tickets sold this year would allow for 12,000 people (technically) to attend; 6,000 on Sat & 6,000 on Sun. Not only would this alleviate the giant mass of people because there’s still only 6,000 people per day, but also allow for more people to experience the event, less complaining, etc..

    Again, just a thought and maybe the fact that after the 1 day everyone’s so completely exhausted that a 2nd day would be unthinkable to them, but IMO it seems like it would be an easy fix & a great way to expand.

  13. I would like to see ticket sales for DLD managed like Winterfest in Indianapolis. Whereby when you buy your online tickets, you're required to fill in the name/names of the persons the ticket is for. The tickets are then printed, and the name of the attendee and a barcode is on the ticket. When entering the event, the barcode is scanned, name is confirmed, and ID is also required. Now there is no way to forge or scalp tickets. What does everyone think?

  14. I think maybe they should hire HBG to work out the details and volunteering schedules :)

  15. Mike said...
    I'll pass, thanks.

    Does that mean you really don't mind that tickets are bought up by re-sellers (scalpers)? It seems to me that the people who honestly want to attend are getting the short end of the stick, if it is in your power to improve the way ticket sales are managed.

  16. Nah, that means I wouldn't be interested in organizing DLD. I'm much more interested in attending DLD.

    As for the ticket/name matching - Yes, your ID is checked at Winterfest, but it isn't checked against the ticket. It's just checked to see if you're 21. Checking against a ticket gets pretty difficult when you think about couples buying tickets, or friends buying groups of tickets - unless you're going to a straight one ticket per purchase per person system, that won't work.

    The scalping thing is unfortunate, but it happens for every in-demand event (regardless of if beer is involved). Even in places with laws in place to curb it, it still happens. I just don't think 3Floyds are going to be able to fix it.

  17. Thanks for your reply, Mike. But, I have to point out that Winterfest tickets are only issued with each individuals name printed on the ticket. When ordering, I have to type each persons name. Also it definitely looks to me that the name is checked when we enter (the wife and I, in my case) I only bring this up as CONSTRUCTIVE criticism. Thanks for the dialog.

  18. This is going to look like I'm trying to win an argument, but as one of the 8 folks behind the organization of Winterfest, I thought I'd at least check with the guy who handles our ticketing... Chris.

    And he says:
    "It's not the same person looking at the two items - we assign different people to check IDs and scan tickets."

    I'm not saying that it's impossible to check names against tickets, but I know that we already take a little (very little) heat for lines not moving fast enough. Checking names against IDs would slow things considerably.

    But, yes, it could be done.

  19. Thanks again for addressing my comments, Mike. I understand there is no perfect solution.
    My wife and I have been to EVERY DLD! We really love the event and the people we meet. We also have been to Winterfest #2 & #3... so I can't help but make some comparisons.