Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Festival fatigue

Last weekend, I spent three days working at the annual Stockport Beer and Cider Festival. Now, this continues to be a very popular and financially successful event. However, it was noticeable that attendances and beer sales were a little down on the previous year, which itself showed a small drop on the one before. This is a trend that is being repeated across the country, with even CAMRA reporting a loss at a national level following disappointing sales at the Great British Beer Festival.

Obviously, compared with thirty or forty years ago, the unique attraction of beer festivals has been eroded. Most sizeable towns now have a handful of pubs selling a constantly changing range of often brand-new beers, and many pubs and voluntary organisations are staging beer festivals of their own. If you wanted to, you could probably attend a beer festival within reach of your house every weekend of the year.

In comparison with this, the attractions of putting on a random selection of real ales in a draughty public hall with unpalatable food begin to pale, especially when it’s often difficult to ensure that the beer condition is on a par with that in the pub. This doesn’t mean that the days of beer festivals as stand-alone events are numbered, but it’s no longer good enough just to view them as a doing-it-by numbers method of making easy money.

More attention needs to be paid to the details that often put customers off, such as ensuring there are adequate, clean toilets, providing extensive seating, replacing stodgy institutional catering with street food and – most important of all – doing your best to keep the beer cool and serve it in peak condition. Using a festival to launch brand-new beers is a good way of attracting punters. Plus the objective should be to make it an occasion in its own right in the local social calendar that will appeal beyond the community of “beer buffs”, for example by associating it with special events and hiring entertainment that fans will travel to see.

22 comments:

  1. You must be blessed. I could get to about 6 beer fests a year and at my favourite one I have to take a camping chair or risk having backache for days after. Love trying new to me beers don't get to see stouts, milds or porters anywhere else.

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  2. I didn't know you were working; I'd really like to have come and hassled you for samples but I was making tea for old ladies.

    A agree with your points, though if Beer Fest wither and die, does it really matter ? I doubt many people whotip up at the average beer fest will be seen drinking in their local pubs regularly.

    MT

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    1. Yes, I have to admit that I don't really have much interest in beer festivals as a punter, hence the perhaps slight lack of conviction in this blogpost. There were pubs before beer festivals had been invented, and there will be pubs after they have disappeared.

      However, a lot of people nowadays seem to be "event junkies", and hence that must be the way forward for beer festivals. Look, for example, at the success of "Foodie Friday" in Stockport Market Place.

      The point also needs to be remembered that beer festivals are a major source of funds for CAMRA.

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  3. Strange things beer festivals. They are not as nice as pubs, even the pubs which of themselves are not that nice & they expect you to pay to get in and buy a glass. Then you have to pick from hundreds of basically identical warmish flat beer served direct from the metal barrel in the same unwashed glass as last time and lacking a bit of condition. While stood around with middle aged blokes in anoraks asking if you've got a pen because they want to right down what they've had.

    It's not really a festival is it? Not like them Mardi Gras you see in Brazil on films where people dance about in the street and there's lasses with hardly any kit on and there's music and fun and what not.

    I guess it was considered quite good back when you were a lad and the only other entertainment was prodding cats with sticks on a cobbled bombed out street or keeping calm and carrying on or whatever else people did in bomb shelters during the blitz like waiting for Hitler to be defeated and telly & internet & playstations to be invented.

    Why not just go get a pint of bitter from a pub, if that's your thing?

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    1. And what exactly is your thing, Cookie?

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    2. A can of chilled lout in front of the telly, I'd say ;-)

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    3. Eye, I like a can of lout in front of the telly. Most recently I have been watching Buck Rogers as I had done the Dukes of Hazzard to death. I also like a change of scenery like a trip to spoons where I can get on the wifi and get Bud Lights delivered to my table.

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  4. I think there's huge potential on the micro scale: in pubs where the facilities, seating, cellar etc are already in place. I went to one at the bank holiday weekend. A brilliant line-up of cask inside and key kegs outside. This proved very successful as the casks didn't need constant nursing & hosing under the sun so it was cellar cool. All beers sold out and proved both cask and (key) keg can work in a small festival.
    The macro ones - the GBBF are causing increasing fatigue though I appreciate the work that goes into them. I'm either doing slow circuits of the venue or queuing. Other beer festivals have dispensed with both cash and queues resulting in a very different dynamic but still lack creature comforts.

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    1. Tokens, if anything, are more of a faff than cash and also impose considerable printing costs on the organisers.

      If you're talking about "all you can drink" festivals, then I think they're highly questionable as they don't offer pricing proportionate to strength and encourage the consumption of stronger beers.

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    2. I've never worked a festival bar where tokens were used, but in my experience the bingo-style tickets where you score out the value with a pen, are far quicker than cash. Not my job, but I assume they are far less hassle for the treasurer as you then require far less mounds of small change.

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    3. The point of them is to stop thieving. A bar manager will not know half the volunteers & cannot keep a constant eye. It's to stop the barman giving change for a twenty from a pint paid for with a fiver.

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  5. Mind you, beer festivals are a good excuse to visit a town you've never been to before

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    1. I never need much of an excuse :-)

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  6. I would agree that the USP of CAMRA-style beer festivals has definitely been eroded, especially as at this time of year they are two a penny. A friend and CAMRA colleague of mine compiles and emails out to local members, a regular update on branch socials and other beer-related activities.

    At Bank Holiday weekends in particular, it seems as though practically every well-known free-house in the area is running its own beer festival, along with the local football/rugby or cricket team. These days I tend to prefer these types of festival to major events such as GBBF or the Kent Beer Festival, as they are more personal and more manageable.

    To me it is pointless having a couple of hundred different beers on sale, as the adage of too much choice meaning less choice applies. Olympia is just too large and the festival too impersonal for my liking.

    I normally volunteer to work at my own branch’s festival, which is run in conjunction with the Spa Valley Railway in Tunbridge Wells, and in the past I have acted as beer buyer for the event.

    I therefore know the amount of hard work which goes into running these festivals, so I wouldn’t knock them for one moment, but like you Mudge, I do wonder whether the popularity of these large events has now peaked. They have either become victims of their own success, or perhaps people just prefer something a little less formal and a bit more intimate.

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    1. I think in some quarters there is a tendency to run a beer festival "because that's what we've always done" rather than taking a step back and questioning the underlying objective. They can still be very successful and enjoyable events, but the rationale behind them that existed in the 1970s has largely disappeared.

      Another factor that hasn't been mentioned before is that they do provide an opportunity for networking. At this year's Manchester festival, and at Stockport, I met several people with whom I'd only previously corresponded via Twitter and blog comments.

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  7. I'm with the first commenter: there's never enough seating, and some festivals are ridiculous for this. Considering many attendees are past the first flush of youth, having little seating is ridiculous.

    I'm also agreeing with Cookie about unwashed glasses, a sticky glass with the dregs of the last beer in can't ever be good, but I should say some festivals offer glass washing facilities and the last one I visited happliy exchanged glasses- but this was the small type of festival Paul Baily refers to above.

    Oddly enough I greatly enjoyed Walsall's beer festival despite (or perhaps because of?) a problem with the venue that turned it into a town-wide pub crawl.

    One point of tokens: Walsall CAMRA introduced them to centralise the cash handling after cash went missing. They issue sheets of (IIRC) £5 value in mixed demonimations that get struck through with a marker as they're used- seems to work well and is actually quicker than cash.

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    1. One feature of Stockport is that there *is* plenty of seating, both in the stand of the football ground and in the two downstairs rooms where the food and entertainment are. The main bar in the concourse is a bit cramped, though.

      A huge amount of seating was put out at Manchester last January, but that was all occupied when it was busy, despite the average age probably being well below the typical festival.

      Tokens are only ever justified as a means of protecting against financial loss - they're never a benefit to the punter.

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  8. I think the word of the blog is "event". People are no more "event junkies" than ever they were, but these days a typical CAMRA type festival are ten a penny and not an event.

    What's more, whilst pricier the newer craft festivals offer more of an event, smaller ones offer better value for those ticking.

    I gather the point of them used to be to highlight "real" ale to the public and offer hard to get beers for beardies. Both of which is usurped by others. Funny how a lot of CAMRA activities go beyond their usefulness because they need to continue for revenue. Taking up time & volunteer effort. At the same time you are all wondering why a new generation don't show much enthusiasm for taking up the reigns. Maybe you have to kill off some of the more pointless activities to free up time & volunteers for things that have a purpose?

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  9. Isn't the reason festival attendances are falling because there are so many nowadays. 10 years ago most CAMRA branches ran one, but nowadays it seems that in addition to CAMRA every second pub holds one, as well as various other bodies.

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    1. festival attendances flucuate due to a variety of reasons, I think you have to keep them feeling fresh and as organisers on top of making sure you use every means you can to promote them.

      I think alot of festivals flounder because a committee will get stuck doing the same things every year and they become stale or are missing the bigger picture of what they are trying to accomplish, and ultimately CAMRA festivals are run by volunteers it takes certainly for the bigger ones and often some of the smaller ones, a year to organise properly, which takes alot of personal time out of peoples lives, you are dealing with quite literally hundreds of different suppliers, some who will let you down, some who you might even have to take legal action to get monies owed from, and then there are all the hoops you have to jump through from the council and thats before a single cask has been setup or a drink poured, and before stuff goes missing, or the cash doesnt add up, or someone spots the 1 pumpclip out of the hundreds of the things youve probably had whizz past your eyes in the last week that you missed, and tries to turn it into some weird social media argument.

      unsurprising and increasingly people arent as prepared to give up their time and go through that hassle anymore.

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    2. Many festival attendees take the simplistic view that beer festivals just “happen”, without pausing to consider just how much work goes into organising them. They are also blissfully unaware of their voluntary nature as well.

      I can identify with most of the points you raise Stono, and could add a few more as well. I’ve had drayman phoning me up a work, because no-one was present, on site, to take delivery of the beer, and don’t get me started on the pedantry aspect, when some bright spark spots an error in the programme or tasting notes!

      You are quite right in your observation about people being increasingly unwilling to give up their time to organise and run these events. I now confine myself to helping out behind the bar, but even that can have its issues. Customers are three deep at the bar, and one awkward sod wants a beer which is right down the far end. Or the prat who can’t make his mind up and keeps asking for samples – again when punters are crammed in tight against the bar, and desparate to be served.

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  10. The cardiff festival got bigger and bigger, more and more impersonal, until it priced itself out of a suitable venue and wasn't going to hold it that year. The Craft lot in town put on a smaller and very successful festival, and suddenly CAMRA rushed to put on a festival later that year, same smaller venue. At least that is what it seemed like by outside observers.
    The CAMRA one got too big and soulless, and this (?forced) readjustment has benefited it.

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