Monday 11 April 2011

Beer Festivals - What Are They Actually For?

I had a cracking night out on Friday. Just 200 yards from my front door was the second Rothwell beer festival. I met up with a mate and we hit the bar, along with about 500 other people - not a bad feat for a hall with a capacity of about half that. The thing that made this festival so special was that we were allowed back out of the hall, into the churchyard in front of the church you see pictured. It was a warm evening, and the combination of great beers, an enthusiastic and genuinely mixed crowd, and a 'first day of summer' feeling made it quite an event. Indeed, so caught up in the revelry was everyone that they pretty much did for all of the beer on the first night - by the time I went back at 7pm on the second evening, there were only 5 beers left on.

I've gone on record as being a bit of a miserablist about beer festivals - they're generally not conducive to sitting around and chatting, they're usually held in slightly naff municipal settings, and they tend to live up to all the clichés about real ale that you expect to find. I won't rehash those here, but I will say that I was delighted by the really broad mix of people at the Rothwell beer fest - maybe it's because it's a more suburban effort, but it really did draw everything from hip young things to grizzled old soaks. I'd like to think of myself as somewhere between the two, but judging from the amount of 'hey beardy' stick I got, I fear I'm nearer the far end of the spectrum.

But as well as drinking some great beers (highlights included Five Towns Peculiar Blue, and Elland Eden), it got me thinking - what are beer festivals actually for? Are they just a big, hit-and-miss sort of a party, where you turn up and make your own fun? Are they a bit like a pub that you only visit once? Are they more about the beer than the festival, or is it all about "the craic"? I like to use the odd solitary session at beerfests purely to try as many different thirds as I can, as I find that gives a really clear idea of who's failing, who's hitting the mark, and who's trying too hard. Well, until about the 12th third, when it all becomes a bit academic, and I settle on a final pint of something a bit pokey that I'll come to regret on the bus journey home.

So then: Beer Festivals - How Do You Like Yours?



  1. I suppose beer festivals must have a raison d'être, but I would guess that a straw poll of attendees would give you another dozen reasons on top of those you've already listed.

    Mine? Beer festivals are like golf and fishing: it's very unlikely that the wife will say, "Oh, I really fancy that can I come too?".

  2. I've been to so many beer festivals that have been lacking in anything that can be described as "festive".

    None of these synonyms for "festive" from come close to describing these dreary events:

    "blithe, bouncy, carnival, carnivalesque, cheery, chipper, chirpy, convivial, festal, gala, gay, gleeful, go-go, grooving, happy, hearty, holiday, jocund, jolly, jovial, joyful, joyous, jubilant, juiced up, jumping, lighthearted, merry, mirthful, peppy*, perky, rocking, snappy, swinging, upbeat, zippy"

    There must be a better word than festival.

  3. I don't think you're drinking enough Jeff, I find the atmosphere starts to kick in by the time I'm on my third pint!

  4. For me, as an early 20s woman, beer festivals are about introducing my mates to good beer. I regularly volunteer at two, and one of my favourite things to do is to find a beer on the bar that a non-beer drinking woman likes. My favourite is the York Knavesmire festival, because of that end-of-summer celebration feeling, although when its hot it's not so good for the beer I'll grant. Good atmosphere though.

  5. As you say, beer festivals vary between relaxed & welcoming social occasions and grim anonymous scoopfests, with nowhere to go & nothing to do but sink the third you're holding and then get the next one.

    The ironic thing for me, as a solitary ticker, is that the more social occasions can actually feel less welcoming - if all the seats are at tables for six, and all of them are taken by parties of four or more, the lone drinker rapidly starts to feel like a bit of a spare part. (At least until the third pint kicks in, as Ed says.) Of course, anyone lucky enough to do their festival drinking in parties of four or more will have a different perspective!

    I think the best fest I've been to in the last few years was the Winter Ales, and that was at a hotel - the venue wasn't as grimly functional as some, or as garden-partyish as others.

  6. My previous experiences of festivals have been fairly positive, whilst i also know the feeling of wandering around looking around for a seat to rest and check up on what i've been drinking i've also volunteered and found this to be the best way to avoid this happening, as you get to meet some of the people you're working with and talk with them about whats on etc, the free vouchers help sum what towards it too being a student ha.

  7. Difficult. Despite organising some I rarely go to any that I don't work at or more likely, am involved in, as frankly I get sick of them.

    From a real ale point of view they are good for recruitment to CAMRA and awareness, but of course they can be bad too if the beer isn't right and that can happen a lot, given the venues, lack of cooling etc. Seating is always a problem and lack of suitable venues and cost is always a limiting factor.

    At their best they are a fun thing. At their worst they are crap. Even as a punter I love GBBF for example, but an overcrowded town hall on a July Friday? Not so much shall we say.

  8. It's an age thing - the need to sit down. It's a fact that proper beer does taste better when you're sat down having a chat; that other stuff (I can't bear to write the word) is for standing up and talking loudly about football. OK, that was all a bit of a stereotype but I'm sure there's a PhD in there.
    For me beer festivals are about getting a bunch of mates together that generally live miles away from each other.
    That means we all have to travel to meet up which gives as sense of adventure. The beer is important but yes dreary municipal buildings can be tiresome but there's little alternative.

  9. We actually had this discussion on Twitter during the Leeds Fest, so I'm glad you've put your side across. For me - mostlyv positive. I've seen an increase in ones being held to raise money for a range of things - sports teams, charities, church repairs etc. I think that's great - and I'm sure its a great way to make money. Personally, I like a festival. For me it's about hitting that one beer that I've never had, and enjoying it. Sure, most beer fests will strike 'down the middle' when it comes to beer range, but I think Festivals have to cater for the massses. I could sum it up thus; for me, Festivals are like having a really big pub in front of you for the night. Get some mates along, get your tickets, and have fun. Leave the ego at the door and get stuck in.
    ps: the first time I tasted Marble Pint, Nethergate Umbel Magna, Nottingham Rock Mild, Durham Amarillo and Hardknott Infra Red was at Festivals. So the gems are there.

  10. Chris - before we had out nipper, my Mrs was a keen beer hunter. Well, that's not quite true, but she certainly enjoyed a few brewery visits with me.

    Jeff - or maybe we need to do it the other way round - make the beer festivals moreblithe, bouncy and carnival-esque. Steve Skineer's entrance into the GBBF last year, with a kilted, marching pipe band was a good example, I thought.

    Susie - it's a good opportunity to convert people for sure, and there were certainly enough young people of both sexes in attendance on Saturday to make me think that beer is, if not the new black, certainly not the old yellow any more.

  11. Phil - I'm quite accustomed to gatecrashing tables with a half and scotch egg, sitting to tweet or write notes for a few minutes, then moving on. People are mostly politely bemused by my behaviour.

    Scott - it's true, a few freebies can certainly help. As can a few chairs.

    Tandleman - you make it sound like a beer festival can be as hit-and-miss as going into a pub you don't know, and that sort of sums up how I feel generally about them - pleasantly surprised when I have a good experience.

    Richard - maybe we'll see boutique beer festivals springing up, held in really cool buildings, serving all manner of great beers under various modes of dispense.

  12. Leigh - I sort of think that a good festival is a leap of faith, a plunge into the unknown, as much about the frame of mind of the drinker as anything. Having good mates around you helps. It's all about mindset and setting. Hang on, am I confusing beer festivals with acid trips again?

  13. Interesting question and something I hadn't thought of...

    I go, generally, to hang out with friends and to drink lots of different beers, but that's the easy and obvious answer. When it comes to drinking it's very much a tick-a-thon of getting through all the beers I want to try and sipping the ones my mates order. It's great to try new beers from new breweries too. So there is an element of search and discover, although I tend to err cautiously with the breweries I've heard of (no one wants a bad or boring beer, do they).

    But they are hit-and-miss. Luckily, if there's a lot of beers to choose from and your mates are there then it almost doesn't matter if the beer isn't amazing as it's about the atmosphere. The venue is also very important - it can make or break the whole thing.

  14. For many CAMRA branches it is their main source of funds. Campaigning does seem to be a minor consideration. Tickets for the Liverpool festival are mostly sold on a single Friday morning in December. Hardly the way to attract the general public.
    I find that beer quality is not always top notch. A carefully chosen pub crawl will often provide a good choice and better beer.
    I go to more festivals in Belgium than England. It is not the festivals per se but it is a catalyst for friends from all over the world to meet up on a particular weekend.

  15. Well, at Stockport we certainly have no shortage of seats as we have the use of a football stand. With (usually) several hundred people out there drinking and chatting the atmosphere is excellent (perhaps not as festive as Jeff would like but then again I think that anything linked to CAMRA would struggle to gain his seal of approval)

    We usually manage a pretty decent beer list, too (although my plan for foreign cask this year has fallen through). With no advance ticket sales (we can effectively let in as many people as we want - queues are a rarity)our target audience has always been the people of Stockport, who reward us by turning out in droves. June 2-4 this year, by the way.

  16. I'm quite accustomed to gatecrashing tables with a half and scotch egg

    After a couple of pints I'll sit down anywhere, with or without scotch egg. I guess the trick is to tell myself "I'll be feeling pretty uninhibited in half an hour's time, so why not start now?"

    (With respect to sitting at occupied tables, that is.)

  17. I reckon the best beer fest in the universe is The Owl's in Rodley. If you're after a bit more than your CAMRA fest offers, it's got a fairground ride, rock bands on one day and the High Pressure Soundsystem have been blasting out reggae and dub on one day the last couple of years. Adventure playground in the beer garden for the kids. 100 odd beers in the cellar...and they use sparklers!!!

    After that yeah York and Peterborough CAMRA ones are ace - anywhere with grass underfoot! Just music is usually the missing ingredient isn't it.

  18. Apologies for undermining any serious discussion, but here are my beer festival rules:

    1. No beer with comedy names. They only make one person laugh, and he's a pillock.

    2. Anyone serving beer should actually know something about it. A minor issue I know but, hey, I'm a traditional kinda fellow.

    3. No entry to anyone with a pewter tankard on a belt-clip.

    4. Scotch Eggs must be served with a side order of Salad Cream.

    5. You will not question Rule 4.

    6. You are allowed to have fun. I repeat, you are allowed to have fun.

    7. Previous year's beer festival T-shirts do not mean you have preferential service at the bar.

    8. A Led Zep T-shirt circa 1974 does mean you have preferential service at the bar.

    9. Wearing clogs will be frowned upon. You may also end up slipping on discarded Salad Cream (see Rule 4).

    10. CAMRA is not an anagram of 'karma'. If it is, then it is bad karma. Or dyslexia.

  19. "Tandleman - you make it sound like a beer festival can be as hit-and-miss as going into a pub you don't know, and that sort of sums up how I feel generally about them - pleasantly surprised when I have a good experience."

    It is how I feel and me too when it is good.

  20. Mark - that's the thing, there is just an ephemeral 'something' that can make an event great, or conversely make it deeply tedious.

    Birkonian - indeed, the pull of a good festival is undeniable, and adding in good friends to the mix makes a huge difference

    Phil - perhaps you just need to carry more scotch eggs, as an ice-breaker with your tablemates?

    Neil - I agree with exactly 90% of what you say, although I'm finding it increasingly hard to tell which is more annoying - seeing CAMRA clichés writ large at beer festivals by a minority of attendees, or commentators behaving as though the vocal minority of CAMRA members speak for the relatively passive majority.

  21. As a folk singer, I used to get narked with people who came out with the old folkie cliches - beards, sandals, pewter tankards, multi-coloured trousers... We're NOT LIKE THAT! I would shriek, in a calm and rational sort of way. Then I went to my first folk festival. Dear, oh dear. Pewter tankards and multi-coloured trousers as far as the eye could see.

    I think there are some people who just like identifying with the tribe, and they have more definite ideas than you or me about what the tribe is (or what 'identifying' is).

    Semi-relevant anectode: in 1979, as a first-year student, I went to see a talk by Douglas Adams, and was very impressed to see some fellow students in the college bar beforehand with a copy of The Book (complete with 'Don't Panic!' in large and reassuring letters). 31 and a bit years later, at a 'Meet the Brewer' event this evening, I noticed a youngish guy wearing an 'H2G2' teeshirt. We don't change - even those of us who weren't born in 1979.

  22. That's why in long itchington the beer festival is held in six pubs at the same time. Beer in pubs not church halls

  23. I was that youngish guy in a h2g2 teeshirt, although I was actually born in 1974 :¬)

  24. Have to say in strong defence of CAMRA (of which I am a member) that we have a lot to be grateful to them for: without them, a lot of beer festivals simply would not exist.

    Last night I attended a local (non-CAMRA) beer festival and it was brilliant to see a full bar serving some very good local / regional beers. No pewter tankards in sight, just lots of people enjoying beer, food and live music.

    It takes all sorts and if the beer festivals is where we see and meet 'all sorts' then long may they continue and long should we support them.

    No Scotch eggs last night and just the one vintage Led Zep T-shirt...

  25. Hi, Anonymous! Sorry I post-dated you. (I was the guy with the hat & the beard lurking by the door.) What did you think of the beer? I had four different Buxton ales & I have to admit I didn't actually enjoy any of them, although I did think they were good beers - the double IPA was very good & the black IPA was extraordinary, a real flavour-bomb. Just not my kind of flavour-bomb. Roll on the malt backlash...


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