CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale recently announced that they weren’t going to be putting on their flagship Great British Beer Festival in 2024, swiftly followed by the now expected outcries about “how have they not booked somewhere far enough in advance”, and “can’t they just find another venue at short notice”. Changing something the size of the Great British Beer Festival takes a lot of planning, having to find a new venue along with the changes to layout, set up, take down, and everything else involved is not an easy or quick task. And then there’s the marketing and promotion and letting people know about the change of venue and just as likely the change of dates.
The venue they had booked let them down (due to extended building works likely to over-run), so CAMRA made the decision to take the year off and use that time to look at potentially moving the festival to a new location, and possibly changing aspects of it too.
But what can be done to change a beer festival? Rather, what should and shouldn’t a beer festival – of any size – be like? I didn’t just want my own views on this, if beer festivals stand a chance of surviving they need to be there for everyone. So I asked on social media what other people like and don’t like about beer festivals, so we can have a discussion about what can be done to improve, and possibly see them rejuvenated for the modern age.
Before we can start looking at the future of beer festivals, perhaps we should take a step back and briefly look at their past; why we have them, and then look at their present with some ideas about the future.
The oldest beer festival is arguably the Munich Oktoberfest, first organised to celebrate the wedding of the crown prince of Bavaria to Princess Therese von Sachsen-Hildburghausen and subsequently carried on as an excuse for a party.
Many years later, the modern beer festival was born in September 1975 when CAMRA held a beer festival in Covent Garden in London that attracted over 40,000 people and set the seeds for the Great British Beer Festival.
CAMRA festivals then started popping up around the country as a way to highlight to people how many good breweries and beers were out there, and how good Real Ale was when looked after properly. Publicans were invited to come along to trade sessions to meet the brewers who made these beers, and maybe chat about stocking them. The public came along to the main sessions to try a wider range of beers than they could get elsewhere, and to see what the beers they knew were supposed to be like; subtle education was happening and drinkers went back to their local pubs armed with the knowledge that “no, it *shouldn’t* be like that”.
The festivals were popular, and they grew. They became a great recruitment ground for CAMRA; and a great source of income.
But times changed, people’s drinking habits changed, and more commercial beer festivals started for those changed tastes – and the income that the festivals were making. And CAMRA being an organisation the size they are and being directed ultimately by their members was slow to change and fell behind a little.
It took quite a while for CAMRA to start selling beer from kegs, and some of their festivals still don’t want it.
The modern craft festivals in the UK took a leaf out of the American beer festival style, having breweries bring their own bars and beers as well as the staff to sell them and discuss everything with the drinker. Traditional festivals already had brewery bars, but they were from the more traditional breweries, ones that the drinkers by then already knew everything about, and often after the opening sessions these were staffed by volunteers who weren’t able to answer any questions anyway. A major restriction with having a festival full of just brewery bars though is that you are only serving beer from those breweries. A traditional festival may have just the one cask from five or six different breweries, whereas a brewery bar would have those six beers from that one brewery. And the breweries that can usually afford to send a bar and staff to a festival tend to be the larger ones with marketing budgets, so the smaller independents often miss out.
There’s definitely a balancing act to perform between brewery bars and smaller breweries on the bar. Of keeping it as a beer festival, and not a trade show which is a lot less fun.
Fun is a strange, but apt word to use there, it means different things to different people. At the more traditional festivals fun entailed tombola, drinking horns, silly hats and suspect t-shirts. At the craft festivals it was DJs and stickers and serving beer from slushie machines. There really was a generational divide.
But even the newer craft festivals could be accused of getting stuck in their ways. Where once they hosted a range of brewers not usually seen, they have often settled into an annual showcase of the same breweries and beers, which like the CAMRA festivals before them are now available in the surrounding pubs throughout the year.
One of the reasons that beer festivals started, to showcase the unusual to make it usual, has succeeded. The variety of beers available now far exceeds that which was available back in the 80s. So do festivals need to seek out the new, or should they carry on as they are? Or perhaps another balance is needed.
I think CAMRA can learn a lot from the newer festivals, and they already have. But I also think that these newer festivals can learn a lot from CAMRA. Which is why if we look at every aspect of beer festivals, both traditional and modern, we can possibly see how to stage a new style of all-inclusive beer festival. One where everyone has fun, and everyone enjoys their drink.
Getting the beer range right isn’t just making sure of the right balance of styles for the target audience, though that itself is hard enough as everyone has different tastes. Knowing, and appealing to the target audience is the first step in deciding what drinks to put on, not what drinks you might like. You may love the idea of an Imperial Pastry Sour Festival, but it’s not overly appealing to everyone, and the numbers it would appeal to will limit the size and scope of the festival itself – themes can exclude people. In their rush to stand out, to be something different, themed festivals can leave behind those that just want to hang out and socialise with their friends; who might not like that theme.
If your target audience is more than just fanatics of a particular style, or is even just generally for everyone, then cider, wine and even potentially spirits are now other considerations that need to be looked at when deciding what to stock, and how to display the drinks.
When I first started my brewery I made the decision that it would be 100% vegan, and apart from a couple of very notable exceptions (Cock Ale and Meat Stout anyone?) we stuck to that, and all our labelling had it front and centre. It put a few people off at first, but people got over it, and we ended up with a wider range of drinkers. We weren’t the first vegan brewery by a long way, and now of course there are lots more. People have tried the beers and realised that there’s no difference really these days. The same is now happening with Gluten Free beers. Several years ago all GF beers were either made from grains that gave the beer a weird taste, or were incredibly thin, suited only really to lagers and pale ales. But again that’s now changed and there are some great GF beers out there that you’d not even know we’re GF, except that more people can drink them. But some breweries are still put off putting the words “vegan” or “gluten free” on their labelling because some drinkers are still put off drinking them, assuming that vegan beer will be yeasty muck and that gluten free beer will either taste a bit weird or be incredibly thin. What better place to educate people and show how wrong those outdated assumptions are, and how great these beers can be than at a beer festival?
So now when putting a drinks range together, if there’s a choice between a couple of different beers of equal quality and one happens to be vegan and/or gluten free, then it’s a no brainer really to widen the possible drinker base and get those beers instead. And make sure to let people know about them! Having spoken to a few gluten free drinkers they don’t want a separate bar promoting it, they don’t want to feel different, they just want to go to the bar and order a drink, like everyone else.
To allow all drinkers to just go to the bar and order a beer labelling is vital, else how are folks to find what they can, and can’t drink. We have a rule at the local homebrew group that when introducing a beer for people to try before the bottle is even opened you must say if it’s been brewed with anything other than malt, hops, water and yeast. This is because it’s not just gluten in beer that can trigger an allergy, there’s a lot of things, and we’ve got members who are allergic to quite a range. 1-2% of the UK adult population has a food allergy, and 5-8% of the child population has one; the number of people with allergies is growing; so beer festivals should start looking at labelling everything properly now so that it becomes the norm. The law in the UK already says that you must have allergen information available if the products contain cereals containing gluten, crustaceans, fish products (except fish based gelatine), peanuts, soybeans, milk (including lactose), nuts (other than peanuts), celery, mustard, sesame, sulphur dioxide and sulphites, lupin and molluscs. These only have to be displayed on pre-packaged foods, which include cans and bottles of beer, but the list does have to be available for draught products. If you don’t have them displayed though, then your staff are going to be constantly asked if things do or don’t contain lots of specific ingredients, and unless you’ve trained them very well, they won’t know and will have to look it up each time for each person ordering their beers. And that’s if they order their beers themselves and don’t have a mate buying one in a round and not being totally sure what they’re getting. So displaying all allergies and all dietary preferences clearly at the bar and in a programme can save a lot of time at the bar, making everyone happier, not just those that might die if they drink the wrong thing.
We call them beer festivals, but we need to be honest with ourselves and admit that not everyone drinks beer. This was a brutal lesson that brewery taps learned quickly. People go out drinking with their friends, it’s a social thing to do, and no matter how many times someone might say “You’ve got to try this Imperial coconut and banana upside-down cake pastry sour”, someone who normally drinks cider just isn’t going to suddenly have a revelation that it’s exactly what they’ve been missing out on all their life. So like the brewery taps before them, beer festivals should cater to those drinkers who just don’t like beer. And not just by shoving a gin bar in because “ladies drink gin, yeah?”
As with the beer, the other types of drinks available should be a showcase of how great these styles can be. If there’s a spirits bar, showcase those you wouldn’t normally find, the small and artisanal makers, with the correct way to serve them. It doesn’t need a cocktail list, cocktails were originally designed to disguise how bad the spirits were, not how great they are. But if it’s best served with a mixer, have those mixers available, kept properly and not just piled on a shelf behind the bar. And have ice, and the right glasses. It doesn’t have to be a wide range, but a good, focussed range. The same goes for wine, yes it’s not a wine festival but that doesn’t mean that you can’t showcase a few select bottles from local producers, the sort of things that people don’t normally see. Britain has a great and growing range of wine makers, yet they’re very underrepresented in bars, restaurants and shops. Just like the brewers were back when the CAMRA beer festivals first started.
How providing a more focussed, highly curated range of the better quality drinks can improve a festival experience was shown at the Manchester Beer and Cider Festival in 2020 on the cider bar. Despite having a smaller range than previous years it was one of the busiest years that the bar had seen. By focussing on having higher quality ciders using full juice with no artificials flavourings, across a range of dispenses including keg, the organisers were able to show how good cider can be and in turn found that drinkers were coming back for more and more, rather than just nursing their drinks while their friends ploughed through the beer range.
It needs saying that not everyone drinks alcohol. “Why do they go to beer festivals then?” The same reason so many people give as why they attend a beer fest, to hang out with their mates, who do drink. And the quickly growing range of no and low alcohol beers really should warrant their inclusion at a modern beer festival. According to recent (2022) research no-low alcohol drinks made up 3% of the overall alcohol drinks market, with Tesco reporting in June 2023 that sales of no-low had grown by 23% in just 6 months. This is a quickly growing market that it seems foolish to ignore, especially as there are smaller independent producers out there that are being eclipsed by the marketing budgets of the multinationals.
One thing to be careful of though is not putting a low/no bar next to the soft drinks, you just know someone will complain that it’s then appealing to children, because obviously only children drink soft drinks. Which is ridiculous, a lot of people don’t drink alcohol or don’t like the taste of beer so avoid the no-low options. But they do still like to go out and socialise with their mates. At a lot of festivals all that’s offered to them is water, at the more thoughtful ones there is perhaps a variety of mainstream cola. Given how many great soft drinks producers there are though, why is the soft drinks offering at beer festivals always so limited? Surely by now it warrants a proper bar with a range of drinks on draught? As with beer when festivals first started, can they now be used to promote the wider range of soft drinks that are available to publicans to stock?
Quality – Bar, Cellar & Staff
Dispensing beer has always been an issue at beer festivals, especially if we’re looking at them showcasing how good beer can be. Modern cask beer is usually designed to be served through a handpull with a sparkler attachment, yet at beer festivals where you get your glass and keep it for your entire visit sparklers can’t be used. It’s not very hygienic having your glass with your dregs of spital covering the swan neck ready for the next glass.
And serving beers at their best isn’t just a fresh glass each time, pouring beer is a skill.
Gravity pours themselves aren’t just a case of opening the tap and letting the beer flow either, when done right it’s possible to get a good head on a beer, but that skill is rarely taught and gives rise to the myth that without a swan neck and sparkler (ie “down south”) beer is served flat.
Using a handpull requires a different set of skills and using one with a sparkler attachment requires a different technique again. And then there are all the different types of keg faucets.
If you think it’s easy and all the same, just look at any photo-op from any politician trying to pour a pint and be part of the “common man” and you’ll see how easy it is to get wrong.
All dispense, whether keg, hand pull or gravity pour needs staff training. Everyone working behind a bar at a festival should be trained to a high standard, perhaps working with organisations that provide hospitality apprenticeships, or even just with local bars. Serving beer is a skill, and whilst it’s not a difficult one, it’s one that needs that training and practice.
CAMRA did initiate a set of training courses for their volunteers, and whilst this is a great start, I have to say that it’s only a start. I’ve worked with staff who’ve passed those training courses and knew little to nothing about bar work, just about pouring beer. They’re introductory courses that make sure people know what they’re doing. Their cellar courses and manager courses go a little further, but they are aimed squarely at the necessities for people working a beer festival, which misses a lot of the “soft skills” needed for bar work and almost all the skills needed for running a pub on a day to day basis week in, week out. But at least CAMRA have made that effort to provide proper training for their volunteers, something the more modern craft festivals could really do to emulate.
And if we’re wanting all this from the staff, then surely they should be properly compensated for their time and skills? At a lot of festivals staff don’t get anything in return. They give up their time because they enjoy it. At some they get free beer, to a point. Other festivals offer them free entry to a different session as well as some beer tokens. T-Shirts also feature across the spectrum.
The return for the staff should be more than enough to compensate them for their time and knowledge. Especially if you’re running a festival for profit. You wouldn’t expect to run a pub and not pay your staff, so if we want to see well trained staff, they should be well compensated; with things they want.
It’s not just bar staff though, it’s the cellar staff. Looking after beer isn’t just a case of whacking in a vent and a tap and sticking the cask on sale, or rolling a keg into place and hooking it up. There is a range of skills needed here too; some of them unique to beer festivals.
Stillaging time is far too often overlooked. Ideally cask beer needs four to six days minimum before you vent it, so that greatly increases the time a venue needs to be hired for. The festival itself may only run from the Thursday to Saturday, but those casks for the opening session need to be tapped and checked on the Wednesday to make sure they’re ready, so really they need to be delivered to the venue the previous Saturday to ensure that the beer is as good as it possibly can be, we are showcasing how good beer can be after all.
Then there’s the different cooling for different types of beer and different dispense methods that need to be done properly, gas systems need to be set up safely, and beer needs to be constantly available for the staff to pour for the drinkers. And that means knowing about beer and gas pressure, about how long the beer lines need to be, about what coolers are needed, and what electrical draw they’ll require. It means knowing about what beers will need to be in which areas, how long they’ll need to sit and clear before venting, tapping or connecting. It means knowing what weight those beers will total and what type of stillaging will be required to handle that. There’s a lot of work that goes on behind the bars to make sure that the beer is ready to drink when the doors open.
And then there’s the glasses. If we want to showcase beer for what it truly can be, then we need to have a system in place for a fresh glass each time which would allow for hand pulls with swan necks and sparklers.
This would mean that rather than having a souvenir glass, it would be a generic one, likely to then be used for subsequent years. This is a large investment though, and potentially leaves beer festivals with a large stock of glasses left over, and doesn’t provide that souvenir that some people like to take home. Storage for these glasses wouldn’t be cheap either with a shipping container store currently costing around £2,000 a year as an additional ongoing cost. It is possible to hire glasses, for about £2,500 for 10,000 glasses.
With using fresh glasses each time there’s a lot more glass washing facilities needed too, including the space to put them, the utilities to power them, and the staff to operate them. This is full scale commercial equipment too, not just a couple of sinks and a pair of rubber gloves. Plus, there’s also the collection of the empties, taking them to the washing area, and taking the clean ones to where they’re needed on the bars. And it’s not just a case of one glass per person, there’s at least two needed: one in use, one ready to be filled when they come back to the bar. Part of this could be mitigated by charging people a small deposit on the glasses as they arrive and then “swapping” clean glasses for dirties that people have brought back to the bar with them. This would also allow people to have a few different glasses at a time to be able to compare some beers side by side.
But what about the souvenir glass though? A potential solution would be to offer these to people that did want one when they buy their tickets in advance. This would also help for festivals to not be left with boxes of unwanted glasses afterwards. But they wouldn’t be able to be used with hand pulls, just keg fonts and gravity pours so the “rental” glasses would still need to be used.
Measures, Pours & Tasters
One of the great things about a beer festival is being able to try lots of different beers that you might not have previously tried, or might not get as often as you like. Which was why it was so great when third measures became readily available and you didn’t have to rely on pints or halves. Smaller measures are great, however the law is an arse: Draught Beer can only legally be sold in measures of 1/3 or 1/2 of a pint or multiples thereof.
There’s no getting around that.
A sale is a transaction, where money changes hands for something. This also applies to all-in festivals where money changes hands for a ticket that gives access to the beer. The argument that the money is for the ticket and not the beer doesn’t hold up in law as you can’t get access to the beer without the ticket, therefore the ticket is access to the beer, and a transaction has taken place for it and the beer can only be served in 1/3 or 1/2 of a pint or multiples thereof. 50ml and 100ml taster pours are illegal in the UK.
Which is stupid. Smaller pours allow people to drink less, it allows them to control their alcohol consumption better. But the Temperance Movement backed Institute of Alcohol Studies haven’t pushed for a change in the law to allow these measures because they would still allow people to drink alcohol; which the teetotallers are against.
The other problem that all-in festivals face is the irresponsible promotion of alcohol, which is one of the main tenets of alcohol licensing in the UK. No licensed venue can promote anything that may encourage people drinking excess alcohol, such as timed drinking games, buy-one-get-one-free offers – and unlimited drinks. By limiting the session time, and by making the ticket price as much as if you’d bought the drinks individually as well as making the overall event a “premium offering” some festival organisers that have been pulled up by their local licensing officers have been able to successfully argue their case. Although other festival organisers have been advised by their licensing officers that they can’t.
But this is where the law now becomes a bit of a murky grey area. Whilst it is illegal to sell beer in any measure other than 1/3 or 1/2 of a pint, it’s not illegal to give a taster of a beer before a purchase.
Not a sample, a taster. There’s a very distinct difference here in that you can only give 1.5 pints of beer per drinker as samples, but there is no limit on tasters. Most pubs will offer a taster or two before they get you to buy a beer, and most bar staff know when someone is taking the piss with tasters, and gently but firmly encourage them to make a decision and buy a drink. What’s the difference between a sample and a taster? A sample is measured, a taster is not. Okay, it’s a little more complicated in that a sample is all the drinker will have of a drink, and a taster is something that they’ll have before deciding whether or not to make a purchase, and the intention would need to be proven in court if it got that far. But that does mean that if the all-in festivals using smaller measures wanted to be strictly legal, they could just not measure the pours unless the drinker wanted a full 1/3 of a pint.
Some people like the smaller measures of 50ml and 100ml, and if you want to taste a lot of beers they make absolute sense. Especially compared to either drinking 1/3 of everything you order or leaving some of everything. But other people also like to savour a beer and find that they’ve not made their mind up on it until they’ve finished at least a half pint. Others still just want to grab a pint of something they like and hang out chatting with their mates. Catering for everyone sounds like it could be tricky, but it could actually be incredibly simple. A festival that operates on a pay as you buy basis could sell a “tasters” card or wristband that would allow the bearer to have as many tasters as they like, before settling on a drink to purchase. Yes, it’s an extra faff but could be marketed as part of special VIP tickets where the customer has paid up front for their drinks and the faff of individual transactions don’t have to slow the bar down. It would, however, mean that security would need to make sure that the person isn’t “buying” drinks for their mates, but that could be minimised by both the use of a VIP glass, and by the same security who wander around checking that no under 18s or anyone who is or appears to be drunk is drinking alcohol; which they’re supposed to be doing anyway as part of the premises licence.
Smaller measures lead nicely onto water stations. I can’t remember when these started to appear but I am very glad that they did. They’re used for two reasons; allowing people to get a drink of water to help them stay hydrated and reduce the effect of the alcohol, and to allow people to rinse their glasses. Even if a festival moves to using a fresh glass every time to allow for the use of sparklers, water stations should remain so that people can just wander up and get some water when they want it. During one particularly hot summer at my brewery tap I set up a free soft drinks bar. When Steep Soda stopped putting their sodas into kegs they gave me a couple of the remaining stock and I set up a self-serve soft drinks bar where people could pour their own halves or pints of orange or lemonade. By having the glasses next to the free bar, separate and away from the main bar, we found that far more people were using it to keep hydrated and pace themselves than when we’d previously offered free soft drinks at the main bar. It still seems that people felt awkward ordering a soft drink in a bar, even though they wanted one. By having water stations dotted around a beer festival, people will use them to help pace their drinking, far more than if they have to ask for water at a potentially otherwise busy bar.
Tradition, Innovation & Education
One thing that came up a few times when asking people about what they’d like at beer festivals was education, but in different aspects. The two main ones were having the brewers there, pouring their beers and answering questions about them, and having the ability to learn more about brewing and beer in general.
It’s always surprised me how little people know about the beer they drink; its history and tradition as well as how it’s made. But then a lot of people have no idea about how any of the food they eat is made either. In the late 90’s CAMRA’s Peterborough Beer Festival did something a little different with their Membership & Information stand to try and educate people more about beer. The information part was no longer just about CAMRA or the festival, but was about beer too. They laid out samples of different malts for people to taste, and different hops for people to rub and sniff, they had signs made up so that people could read and learn at their leisure – pint in hand. This has now developed into their Learning & Discovery arm, a whole branch of CAMRA that sets out to help people learn more about what they’re drinking, its history, how it’s kept and served, and the pubs doing that.
Craft beer festivals perhaps unknowingly approached the education aspect in a different way whilst organising entertainment, with brewers pouring their own beers and answering questions, and with the talk panel where industry issues of the day were discussed by experts in front of an audience of drinkers.
Each of these three methods of passing on knowledge have their own benefits and drawbacks.
Brewers behind the bar provide in depth personal knowledge of the specific breweries and their beers, but can lead to longer queues as people get technical on a one-one basis.
Having a stand with posters and samples can allow people to read at their own pace while drinking, but needs knowledgeable supervision and can be quite generalised in what it can pass on.
Talk panels provide a cross section of expert knowledge, but are only at a specific time, and might not be covering a subject of interest to all the drinkers.
Perhaps the most overlooked aspect of education at a beer festival is the beer itself, taking us back to educating the drinker to have the confidence to respond with “No, it’s not supposed to be like that.” But also there is the cellar itself; the racking and dispense for the beer. Very few pubs have their cellars on display, yet most beer festivals do. It’s an ideal opportunity to show people how beer is looked after, and how it’s served. Being able to actually see the different cask sizes (and no, they’re rarely barrels!) as well as the stillaging systems. One of the most interesting things I’ve seen, first at a meet the brewer event and then at a beer festival was a cask with glass ends, which when back-lit showed what was happening inside the cask; the hops and yeast settling to the bottom and the beer being pulled from it. And one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen was the wall of wooden casks at CAMRA’s Manchester Beer & Cider Festival which greeted drinkers as soon as they walked into the hall and allowed them to try for themselves a piece of beer’s heritage, and tradition.
Session times are a surprisingly contentious issue with beer festivals. Originally beer festivals closed in the afternoon because law dictated it. It wasn’t until August of 1988 that pubs were allowed to serve alcohol all day, and as late as 2005 that the specified hours which a pub could open was scrapped. Prior to this first change pubs shut to the public for a while during the afternoon and used the time for the staff to take a break and get some lunch as well as to clean the place up and get ready for the evening opening; and the beer festivals used it for the same reasons.
It also made staff rotas a lot easier, with some staff working the day, some working the night, and a few doing the split shift of both of them and getting fed at the festival itself. Without a break between sessions, staff breaks have to be staggered with rotas ensuring that there are enough people behind the bar at any time to serve the customers.
The other benefit of split sessions is that it’s easier to manage the number of customers themselves. If a festival is popular and attracts 400 people wanting tickets, yet the venue has a capacity of 200, then half can come during the afternoon, and half in the evening, and there’s no tedious business of having a one-in-one-out queue of people standing around waiting for someone to decide to go home so that they can get in and start their drinking. The first thought that comes to mind with this problem though is “why not get a bigger venue?”, well because venues cost a lot of money, and the bigger the venue the more it costs. But surely if there’s a bigger venue, and there’s more people in there, then that’s more money over the bar?
This is a tricky one though, and really depends on who the drinker is.
Some festivals have found that by opening longer, people don’t rush their drinks and therefore don’t drink more than one or two extra before heading home – not enough to cover the extra cost of their space in the venue. But other festivals have found that people do drink quite a bit more if they’re able to relax with their drinks, as their body works the alcohol out of their system as they’re drinking it.
Having two sessions does mean two sets of ticket sales and that extra income which really helps cover the costs of running the festival, but when I asked on social media almost no-one wanted separate sessions and would much prefer the single one. And the cost of two tickets to be there all day didn’t even come into the reasons given.
The main reason people didn’t like split sessions was the times:
“Split sessions are a bit of a faff if travel is involved – ‘daytime’ often too early to allow decent scran beforehand and ‘evening’ can be tricky for return by public transport.”
This response sums up a lot of the issues with split sessions. If the daytime session starts at 12 to allow for as much time inside as possible, then it’s hard for people to get food in their stomachs first, even more so if it’s an 11am start. A late breakfast has to suffice, often leading to having a full stomach when arriving at the festival and therefore not drinking as much as you might if you started a bit later, once you’d digested. And public transport is not kind to late night drinking anywhere outside of London.
Being able to turn up when convenient, and leave when desired, makes for a much more relaxed atmosphere for drinking, but there is the flipside then of making sure that the venue is large enough to fit in everyone who wants to be there, when they want to be there, and is within the budget of the festival.
Several festivals that did sessions in the past have dropped them, and found that the atmosphere is much better. There is the staffing aspect for a full day opening, but it’s usually quiet enough at times to let staff grab a break when they need to, and the bars aren’t as rushed. And although staff need to be on the door for longer, apart from occasional bursts it’s a much easier job as attendance is spread out.
Personally I hate separate sessions at a beer festival. I keep different hours from most people and am often known to head to the pub around 1pm or 2pm for a few before heading home around 5pm, or staying out until 8pm if the mood takes me. I like to drink what I want, at my own pace, trying all the beers that I want to try without feeling rushed. And having fixed hours that don’t suit me really puts me off.
I’m going to segue a little here on the subject of food, and look at what defines Street Food. It’s a bit of a tricky one as it used to be quick snacks you could get from a market vendor or the back of a truck. But now that variety has grown to being able to get pretty much anything from a food truck as vendors strive for the new and the different.
Several years ago I had a conversation with Jason Bailey of Grub about what is and isn’t street food, and I think we came to a pretty good conclusion. My initial view was it has to be food you can eat with one hand while standing up, usually walking down the street; he then pointed out that a lot of the original street food needed chopsticks, so you’d need at least two hands. So after a bit of discussion about the different types of food that did and didn’t class as street food to us, we decided that street food was (roughly) “food that you could eat with one hand.” Whether that was sitting at a table and using chopsticks, a fork or just your fingers, or when you were walking down the street. It’s a definition that works. Bowl/cone of chips, sandwich, burger, pizza slice, doughnut, noodles; all these can be considered to be street food.
So where does this fit into the whole beer festival thing? Because that’s a definition I think works well for beer festival food. You can grab something to eat with one hand while wandering around the festival with your pint in the other hand, or you can choose something that requires you to sit down (if you can find a table) for a few minutes. And that’s the other definition applied to street food, it doesn’t take long to eat.
If more substantial food is planned, then adequate seating for diners needs to be provided. This could even take the form of using the festival space as a canteen when the bars aren’t open, allowing customers to sit down between sessions for a solid meal, and maybe a couple of pints.
I remember several times before heading to CAMRA’s Manchester festival I’d meet up with some friends in a nearby pub for a full English breakfast to line the stomach. Something I was reminded of what someone suggested having a full English as a food option at the festival. I mean, why not? Why don’t festivals that provide food open up a couple of hours earlier to allow people to get a decent meal on site before they start drinking. Although this could also involve having a smaller bar open or shared jugs of beer on the tables, bringing a new meaning to breakfast beers.
Not everyone wants meals though, quite a few people just wanted snacks. Pork pies, rolls, crisps, bhajis and samosas featured highly in the replies and these are all ideal quick yet substantial snacks to eat while walking or drinking.
As with the beer range, the food really should cater to dietary requirements. Recently I was out drinking with a group of friends and one of them had to head home early because the place that usually provided gluten free food didn’t have any in. It cut her night short and kinda put a dampener on it for the rest of us. So food really should cover that, and be properly labelled.
One thing I didn’t touch on about the beer range, but is far more relevant to the food is pricing. At festivals food traders often see their audience as captured, and the prices reflect that. Some have charged as much for a single burger as it would cost to get a catering sized box of them. There are understandably costs to cover, but often the menu prices are quite frankly taking the piss. The food offering should cater not just to dietary requirements, but also to financial ones. Having a £15 burger on the menu is fine, but also have a £5 on there too. Fast food outlets learned this a long time ago and you still get the basic cheese burgers alongside the Big Macs and Whoppers, and they still sell a lot of them.
The other thing about these styles of food is the speed at which they can be prepared and served, helping to keep queues down. Perhaps the best idea for what could be at a beer festival came from a request for more pasta dishes: Pot Noodles. Often seen as the epitome of late night drinking food when you can’t be bothered to leave the house to get a kebab, only a couple of minutes to prepare, a wide range of flavours, and all you need is a kettle. I’m really hoping we see Pot Noodle make an appearance at a beer festival. And yes, I know it’s owned by Unilever who are a rather dubious multinational, but it’s my one vice. I suppose we could have a smaller independent company providing something very similar.
Choosing, and arranging a venue is possibly the hardest part of setting up a beer festival, and seems to be the main cause of the postponement or cancellation of most festivals, including Olympia in London not being available for the Great British Beer Festival in 2024. This is why when a festival finds a venue that works, they try to keep it.
Where it is held is key to a lot of aspects of the festival itself. The number of visitors at any time, the layout, the stillaging able to be used, the amount and type of cooling, the opening hours, the time prior to set up and after to close down, what sort of food offering you can have, what toilet facilities there are – and what you might need to bring in, what cleaning facilities too.
Toilets are always a contention for festival organisers. Even the Stockport Beer Festival held at a football stadium with enough toilets to cater to the half-time urinal rush occasionally found itself with queues of gents waiting to empty their bladders. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a beer festival that had enough toilets so that no queue happened. So all I can say here is that as long as there are enough toilets to keep the queue moving, and the toilets are kept clean, that’s good enough. One thing I have found with one festival I was at though was that the toilets were in smaller groups dotted around the site rather than in one main area, and people tended to go to them as they passed them, rather than as their bladder was needing emptying. And this did seem to work to keep queues down, with only a few people waiting at the busiest times.
The other thing that kept coming up as never being enough of was seats and tables. Some venues such as Edgeley Park football ground which hosted the Stockport Beer Festival for many years has far more seats than any other beer festival with almost 11,000 seats available – on the terraces. It makes for a great view, but they are not that easy to get to, are far away from the bars, aren’t that comfortable and all face the one way which isn’t great for conversation. It was the same when the Manchester Beer Festival was at the Velodrome, with its mere 3,500 seats. The festival bars were in the centre of the track, but the seating was back through a tunnel, up some stairs and all facing inwards. The views were superb though, watching the Great British Cycling Team training while you sat there with a pint of beer. In future years the organisers put bars on the top promenade too, so you didn’t have to traverse the tunnels and stairs to find a beer.
The layout of venues varies drastically. Some venues are big, wide open halls wonderfully described as reminiscent of a “cold railway station platform at 4am on a Sunday in winter.” whilst others and a collection of small snug rooms linked together in a pattern so labyrinthian that you wouldn’t be surprised to bump into Theseus when looking for a beer, and you make sure to use the toilet when you’re passing it in case you can never find it again.
Most beer festivals have started to produce maps to help people find their way around, unfortunately there’s always last minute changes to layouts and rarely are there signs within the festivals themselves to point people in the right direction. Thankfully if the festival is planned well there shouldn’t be any layout changes by the time programmes go to print, and if there is it’s still possible to print out and put up posters of a revised layout. Unlike the beer list which changes minute to minute. I’ve personally given up buying programmes from beer festivals for the list, because it’s almost never the same as what’s available, preferring instead to wander around looking at the bars for something that takes my fancy. Having an online list is a great thing, and a few festivals have dipped their toes into this and seen it work really well. But having a guide to where things should be is an absolute must these days, especially for those who may be infirm on their feet or needing to use a wheelchair. Finding your way through tunnels and ramps (if there are actually ramps and not just a service lift out the back of the kitchen) and negotiating crowds is hard enough, you don’t need to then find that the layout has changed and you need to fight your way back to the other side of the venue. Organisers please, think about accessibility when arranging venues and laying out the floorplan and building your bars. It shouldn’t need to be said these days, but you may be able to lean on your bar easily enough, but think about someone in a wheelchair trying to order over it.
One other venue restriction that came up a couple of times was allowing Children inside.
There is often a lot of confusion about children and licensed premises, with a lot of pubs not allowing children in saying it’s “against the law for them” purely because they don’t actually want children inside. The Licensing Act 2003 does not state at any point that children are not allowed in a pub. The Act says that no under 16s are allowed in unaccompanied. If a venue does actually have a restriction on its premises licence, then it has either stated in its application that it doesn’t want under 18s inside, or it is a restriction imposed on the licence by the local licensing authority who may be concerned about children on site. So regardless of personal views, children can go into licensed premises – unless there is a specific reason why they shouldn’t, which is usually either the provision of adult entertainment or late night operating hours.
Personally I’d like to see more beer festivals allowing children, but also parents need to remember that it’s a beer festival, not a creche. It’s the same problem that pubs face day in and day out, some parents turn up and turn a blind eye to their childrens’ behaviour. But then also some adults’ behaviour isn’t that great.
It used to be that people met in pubs, as pubs were the places that people went to socialise, and then later as they settled down and had kids, they’d take them to the pubs where they’d met and still socialised. In more recent years people have met in brewery taps and at craft beer events, so when they settle down and have kids, and want to continue to socialise how they did previously, that means that they want to go to those same brewery taps and beer festivals. Most brewery taps now allow children in, at least during the day. And I think that this is something that the beer festivals should also adopt. Just because a couple decide to have children doesn’t mean they no longer like beer, or even drink beer.
Then there’s the venue costs which aren’t cheap by any standards, and with so few available costs remain high. Some venues then also restrict things like food, making you use their in-house caterers, or their own preferred security company as part of the hiring agreement. They do this because they’ll then get an overall discounted rate for their events, and a cut of the services for the ones they hire out. More often than not though, as with any restriction like this, the value is less than ideal with the costs usually being high and the service being low; back to cheap burgers at high prices.
So yeah, finding the right venue that matches your needs is very hard, and more often than not organisers have to change the festival to fit the venue. And even if you do find the perfect venue for your festival, at a cost that works with your budget, and it happens to be available for the dates you want, there’s no guarantee that it will be available or affordable the following year. Or that your festival won’t outgrow it to the point that snug side rooms become cramped cubbyholes and you’re back to square one looking for a new venue.
Another thing that can actually be restricted by the venue is the different types of payment that can be taken. We take it for granted these days that everywhere is online, and moan a little to ourselves when we don’t have a connection. But it is just one factor that festival organisers have to look at when deciding what payment system to use.
There’s a few main options out there, each with their own pros and cons.
Cash, apparently it’s king. Yet it’s been going out of favour for a while now, with the 2020 pandemic speeding that process up. We were the last brewery tap in Manchester to still take cash, everyone else had moved to card only. We carried on because we didn’t take much of it, and we had a few regulars who only used cash for a variety of reasons. But with cash you need to make sure you have enough change on site, and for a large festival that’s a lot of money that you have to keep around. I remember when I used to volunteer at Peterborough Beer Festival, each day a security van would come along with bags and bags of coins, and would come back at night to take away bags of notes. The security risk and the insurance implications of having large amounts of cash on site make it a troublesome option for a lot of festivals. Then too is the time needed to take payment and make change over the bars, especially if you’re staffed with volunteers who don’t normally handle cash quickly. Mistakes will happen, and occasionally so will theft amongst the volunteers. Another downside with cash is that once someone has spent the cash they have on them, they tend to go home. This is also an upside for some drinkers as it helps them to budget better.
Token sheets started to take over at a lot of festivals, quick and easy to mark off how much a drinker has spent on them, no need for change. Still a chance of mistakes but no chance of theft. But they do cost money to print off and are a huge waste of paper when you think about it. Plus if you decide to go down this route double check the type of paper you print on and the ink you mark the amounts off with, because at one festival a pint was spilled over the assorted token sheets and washed off all the stamps giving the group sat there a whole load of “free” beer. A gripe that comes up often with token sheets is unused tokens, and not being able to cash them in. It seems a bit stingy to cash in a sheet that has 10p or 20p on it, and a lot of festivals do have a charity box they can be dropped into, but that is still unspent money and a method of returning it to the customer really does need to be in place, especially as sometimes the sheet still has £8 or £9 on it and a few festivals refuse to refund that.
Tokens have appeared at a few festivals as a cash replacement and are a lot quicker than using sheets whilst retaining all their other benefits. They’re quite an investment to start with, but that soon pays off as they’re reusable time and again. But they also have some of the drawbacks of cash in that they can require making change with other tokens or checking that the right type and quantity of tokens has been handed over. Some festivals have got around that with 1 token = 1 beer, but that brings with it a whole other issue of beers at 3.5% abv costing the same as those at 5% abv. I know which I’d usually go for. It’s possible and indeed usual for festivals to then vary how many tokens a beer costs, with 1 token = 1 third of low strength, or 3 tokens = 1 third of high strength and we’re back to the staff having to know which beer costs which amount and making sure they get the right amount of tokens.
The last main type of payment system is contactless. Whether it’s by card or phone, or watch, for the drinker it can be the quickest and easiest method to pay. According to a Barclay’s report in 2022 64.1% of payments in pubs were contactless, growing 92% from the previous year. And this growth is showing no signs of slowing down.
Contactless does have its drawbacks for a festival though, as each payment has to be run through a till system, which can slow service down if staff aren’t trained properly. We’ve all been in pubs where a member of staff spends a few minutes trying to find an unusual item on the system somewhere, with a beer festival that would be every item. It’s possible to get around that by not actually putting items in the till, but just getting the staff to manually enter the amount to charge. Doing that though would lose one of the other major benefits of using a till system, its stock control abilities. With constant up to date stock monitoring the cellar staff would be able to see at a glance which beers are selling quickly, and be on hand to swap casks and kegs out as soon as they empty. It’s also possible to be able to use the stock levels to display a current availability list for drinkers. The additional data of what types of drinks were bought at what times during what sessions would also help organisers set out the ordering and bars for future festivals.
Perhaps the best payment system I’ve seen at a beer festival was in Dunedin in 2015 where they used RFID wristbands. When getting our tickets at the door (we only found out about the festival two days before it opened and were then on the other side of the island) we were able to load a set amount of dollars onto each of our wristbands for use inside. People who bought their tickets in advance were able to preload their wristbands, with them being sent out along with their tickets, and didn’t have to queue to get in, just flashing their wristbands when the doors opened. Each bar was brewery run and had a till that listed just their own beers. We ordered at the bar, the staff rang it into the till and we tapped our wrists. The bars were also able to tell us how much was left on the wristband if we asked them. When I ran out of dollars I was able to walk to the cash office and pay for some more to be put onto it. At the end of the festival, any money left on all the wristbands was automatically refunded back. I looked into the supplier of this system and found out that each bar was able to see their own stock levels and takings, but not any other bar. The organisers were able to see the overall figures though. Since then the system has improved and there’s a lot more features, including being able to transfer money onto it from your phone, as well as check your balance there too.
I was recently pouring our beers at the Grand Prize Ale Festival organised by Kirkstall Brewery and have to say I absolutely loved almost everything about it. Except, I’m sorry to say, the entertainment. Our bar was right next to the stage, and initially the speaker was directed across us. As soon as the music started I got an earful and couldn’t hear myself talk. The organisers were great though and quickly redirected the speaker out into the crowd, probably affecting the quality, but at least I could hear people ordering beer again. It seemed a bit of a joke and a laugh to be honest, because I am quite well known for being loud and talking a lot, so maybe they were seeing who was louder, me or the PA system.
The problem though, was it also put people off coming up to us as our beers were very unusual and we need to talk people through them, to explain to them how to adjust their palates to the more heritage and historic styles, and generally have a natter about how we recreated them right down to getting the right malt kilned in the right way. Which we couldn’t do because of the stage right next to us. And then there was the burlesque act. I’m most certainly not a prude, but I’m also not a fan of burlesque. Sorry. And from looking at the audience I wasn’t the only one. But that’s okay, not everyone has to be a fan, it was just unfortunate that there was no getting away from it.
And I think that pretty much sums up all the comments about entertainment at beer festivals, you’re never going to please everyone with what you put on, but you should at least try and not force it on everyone. Whether that’s the volume or the location of the entertainment.
When we were setting up our brewery tap we had the pretty standard visit from the local licensing officer, along with the local police. And one question they asked was “Is this the volume your music will be at?” to which my response was “Yeah, it’s background music, should be in the background.” And I hold to this view. There’s nothing worse than going to a pub, or a beer festival, to hang out with your mates and finding yourself having to shout to have a conversation. Except maybe when the staff realise they can’t hear the music over the volume of everyone’s voices, so they turn it up some more.
One festival I think gets the entertainment element right is CAMRA’s Peterborough Beer Festival. They’re lucky in that their venue is made up of huge marques so are able to designate one of them as the music tent, with a setup that some nightclubs would be envious of. But when you’re in the main beer tent, the music is at a background volume.
And background music is important, you need something to stop the place feeling like a library on a Tuesday morning.
As you can see from this rather long piece, there’s a huge amount that beer festival organisers need to consider, and hopefully when reading this some will make notes for good or ill. It’s not a guide to how to run the perfect festival, because like with the beer itself, and the burlesque, what may be perfect for some will be horrendous for others.
I’ll leave the comments open on this one, as I’d love to know other people’s thoughts on what they would love to see at beer festivals, and what they’d happily never see again.
But if you take one thing away from this article, let it be that organising a festival is very, very hard work. So thank the people that do, and cut them some slack if something isn’t perfect for you.