Thursday, 11 June 2015

First come, first served

It’s now almost forty years since CAMRA held its first national beer festival at Covent Garden in London. Since then, the number of beer festivals has mushroomed and, alongside the Good Beer Guide, they are the aspect of CAMRA’s activities most visible to the general public. From being an opportunity to showcase beers you might want to seek out in the pub, they have become an attraction in their own right, often featuring new and rare beers you would be lucky to find anywhere else.

In the early days of beer festivals, it made sense to stagger putting the various beers on sale, as there was always a risk of not selling out, so you might want to sell unbroached casks on to local free trade pubs. This also had the advantages that, if the festival lasted more than one day, choice would be maintained throughout and the chance of getting tired beer towards the end would be much reduced.

However, in more recent years, this approach has attracted growing criticism, partly, although not entirely, from the beer-ticking fraternity. You never know when each beer is going to be on sale, and it seems unreasonable to withhold a beer when it’s perfectly read to be served. So the preference is increasingly to put all beers on sale at the beginning of the festival, and when they run out, they run out. At one time, customers were happy that a beer festival simply a provided a decent choice of unfamiliar beers, but now some are much more insistent on being able to sample a particular new or rare beer. This way, at least they know they will be able to find it on at the start.

Obvious drawbacks are that, with the best will in the world, beer stillaged in a beer festival is likely to lose its sparkle more quickly than in a pub cellar, and the choice towards the end of the festival will be limited, with all the more appealing or unusual beers having run out. On the other hand, it has to be recognised that a beer festival is run in the interest of the customers, not for the convenience of the staff, and if there’s a strong demand for something then it makes sense to respond to it. In effect, first night punters are being favoured at the expense of final session ones.

Last month, following years of grumbling, it was finally decided to adopt this approach at the Stockport Beer & Cider Festival. The results were entirely as expected, with a magnificent range of fresh, lively brews available at Thursday teatime, but by Saturday evening many of those remaining being distinctly tired, and some customers complaining of lack of choice – although that is always going to be an issue on the final session. The festival overall showed a substantial increase in attendance over the previous year, and virtually sold out, so the punters didn’t seem to be too concerned.

Realistically, it’s an approach you can’t follow if your beer festival lasts more than three days, and even that to my mind is stretching it a bit. Quality should never be sacrificed for maximising choice. If managing beer availability is seen as a major negative factor by customers, then the only way round the issue is to have fewer individual beers but buy two or more casks of those that are expected to be more popular. In a sense, this was what was done at Stockport with the “Bar Nouveau” (pictured) which highlighted beers released for public sale for the first time. There were around ten different beers, with three firkins being ordered of each. They all went on at the start, with the last cask being emptied late on Saturday evening. That way, the principle of free choice was maintained, but the customers knew they were always getting a pint from a cask that had been tapped less than a day before.


  1. When do you start setting up your beers in order for them to be ready on thursday?

    At Southampton we get in to the venue on Wednesday morning and get the beers up as soon as we can build the stillage, then vent them that afternoon and tap them first thing Thursday morning.

    We generally find that on the Thursday evening session about three quarters of the beers are ready for sale (the bar I was running this year with local beers had a lot more with just three of 26 that weren't ready). Most of the ones that are ready don't taste that great. Friday is the best day for choice of beers, and the condition of those that are available.

    By the start of the Saturday evening session we still have about three quarters of the beers on - we expect most of them to run out during the session. The condition they're in varies, most are a little bit flat but not undrinkably so.

    We normally end up closing with about a quarter to a half of the beers still on, though mostly getting very low (this year we had 16% of the total beer unsold which is higher than we normally get).

  2. Most of the beers at Stockport are delivered on the Tuesday for a Thursday afternoon opening, so probably at least 90% were saleable from the start.

    I'm really trying to raise a general point, though.

  3. I don't think we've ever intentionally kept beers back in order to improve the choice or quality of later sessions. Certainly not in the 10-15 years I've been involved.

    There's no point - we always have enough choice at the end anyway, and the quality on Saturday is generally good enough.

    The only time we keep beers back is if they will be judged for a competition (we always have our own Hampshire beer of the year competition, and often have a CBOB heat). In that case we put them on Thursday as usual but going by the dips at the end of each session may decide at some point to take them off from then until the judging is complete.

  4. With so many pub fests now, do think the novelty of Camra fests is wearing off.16 percent of the beer left seems a high figure for wastage.Sad statement that on the Thurs the beers don't taste that great.

  5. Anonymous - I'm not sure that applies across the board. At Martin's fest they had 16% of the beer left (which I agree does sound like a lot) but at Stockport we had almost no beer left and a 16% increase in attendance

  6. Anon: CAMRA beer festivals have been going since the 1970s, so the novelty has well and truly worn off. Despite that, the number of beer festivals is multiplying with breweries and pubs running festivals more or less along CAMRA lines, leading to the fact that there are several every year in Liverpool alone.

    As for wastage, this is impossible to anticipate. Festival venues have to be booked long in advance, but anything can happen to seriously affect attendance; big sporting events in particular can be very damaging, but then so can really lousy weather.

  7. Would into not make sense to stagger the release, but simply advertise which selections of beers will be tapped on which days?

  8. 16% is high, and is probably because we had slightly fewer people coming in this year than in previous years. We would normally expect more than 10% left though. Apart from, as Nev said, needing to order a bit more than necessary to ensure we don't run out, we want to still offer a reasonable choice up until we close (and for staff to drink afterwards!) and that inevitably means some wastage.

    When I said the beer doesn't taste great on Thursday, it's still good and I'm not embarassed about serving it, I meant only that it doesn't taste as good as it does on Friday. Most beers seem to improve with a bit of time after tapping (possibly due to oxidising slightly?). I'm not sure there's much we could do about that. Even if it wasn't going to compromise the quality on Saturday, tapping a day earlier would be silly as it would result in some beers being past their best when we opened.

  9. Mark, £10 for the Friday night session is a bit of a rip -off.Who wants another Camra beer fest glass to take home?My local beer fest Ealing is free in the afternoon and about £2 or £3 at night and it gets bigger attendances each year.I know little about serving beer but if you open on Thursday the beer should be fine on Saturday. cheers

  10. Nottingham & I think Peterborough beer festivals are the only ones I know of, that specifically list they are keeping certain beers back for certain nights (generally friday/saturday) to ensure theres enough choice left to encourage people to turn up on those days, everything else goes on day 1 till its gone, which is usually rapidly.

    the only other festivals that keep beer back deliberately, but dont list the beers, are the ones that sell tickets for sessions as its unfair to expect people to turn up Saturday night having bought a ticket and 3/4 of the beer has gone.

    its a tough arrangement to call, if you put everything on and it sells in the first session, you then spend the rest of the festival telling people it sold out you should have been here when we first opened etc. if you buy volume instead, so just keep selling, effectively the same beer, then everyone moans you arent putting on enough choices.

    but then I spent much of the last week serving & telling punters at our local beer festival, the beer they wanted wasnt on yet,it was happily sitting racked but there was a choice of about 70-100 other beers they could have had instead and needed to drink through before we got to that specific beer.

    I also know if we had put every single beer that we'd got on, though physically we couldnt because of space limitations, but had we by Saturday the beer would certainly have been way past its best, we'd not have sold it all, there would be far greater wastage, and then people complain the beer isnt up to scratch.


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