Saturday 11 April 2009

Festival Frivolity

When you do something that you are passionate about it can be something of a downer when you get criticised. When running a pub in the middle of the mountains it happens all the time. A few people can't understand the difference between a town pub and an out-in-the-sticks place.

I'm sure that people who give up their spare time to organise beer festivals must find it difficult when some smart Alec makes a glib and unfair comment about their gallant attempts to bring together a vast array of beers under one roof. In this post I mentioned, all too briefly and completely unfairly that I had reservations about the Newcastle Beer Festival. Quite rightly a volunteer commented on the post for clarification. It would be unfair for me not to give a more balanced and constructive critique of the event. After all, it wasn't as if I didn't enjoy going to this particular festival.

What I realised though was that it is not this festival in particular that I have concerns about, but more the overall ambiance of real ale festivals in general. Enjoyment of beer starts with the feel of the venue. This is true in a pub, a bar, a restaurant, sitting having a picnic with the family in beautiful scenery on a sunny summers day, a few tinnies floating in the burbling brook or in a large hall with the synergy of other beer fans.

I have followed a very successful geeky career. Beer is only my latest fad after a long line of techno fuelled pastimes. Computers, electronics and radio fares have featured large in my repertoire of days out, sad really. Stalls and stalls full of gizmos, shiny gadgetry and military cast-off rubbish used to endear my pastimes. These events usually left me exhausted, physically and mentally. A sit down in a pub with a nice pint usually the therapy needed.

I guess this is my concern about beer festivals. They are often in large unfriendly halls, the beer cannot be stillaged and cooled to optimum effect, they can get very busy and you don't even get a clean glass for each new beer. Being able to sit down is often not an option, my joints are still in reasonable order, but I stand all day in my job, getting a seat is nice. I can get a wide range of good beer and a seat in many pubs around here.

Go on reader, pick up on the important thing in the above paragraph; They are always busy. That's right; they can't be that bad otherwise people would stay away in hoards. There is a wide range of beer available that you just can't get in one venue at any other time. It's not really badly kept considering the equipment and venue that the organisers have to deal with.

The Student Union in Newcastle University might well be my least favourite beer festival venue, but I did notice a reasonable number of younger drinkers; Students perhaps?  At least if it gets the interest of this cash strapped demographic then that can be no bad thing and at the younger end of the punters there was a much better gender balance of numbers.

I do enjoy beer festivals, but I also enjoy getting to sit down in a pub, with my beer in a clean glass and relaxing. Comparing the two is perhaps a little like comparing a burger from my favourite burger van with a fillet steak from a good restaurant; a futile and irrelevant comparison. Or a bit like comparing a remote country pub with a town pub, perhaps.

My pub, as forecast, has been nicely busy. This post has been stuck in the pipeline for several days. Next week is looking busy as well so normal posting might not resume for a little while.


John West said...

I agree entirely with your analysis. I go to beer festivals chiefly because I am aware of the degree to which they support CAMRA (and I'm not averse to showing solidarity) and because of the likelihood I can persuade those not entirely convinced that cask beer can be interesting to at least turn up to a beer festival.

But the converted are seldom satisfied. Tandleman said over on Paul Garrard's Realaleblog that he rarely goes to beer festivals even though he is very involved in running some. I think this is indicative of the role of beer festivals per se - to win over new converts, rather than to please seasoned beer hounds.

After all, the points you raise are obvious, if you think about it: often the hall or marquee has only been secured for a fixed period, so conditioning time is limited; the atmosphere is necessarily barn-like.

As an ale fan, but one whose capacity is relatively moderate, the prospect of drinking from - as in Cambridge - 350 beers is no more exciting than the constantly changing range of 10 beers at my nearest pub, the Cambridge Blue - how many can I try before oblivion calls, after all? And of course the pubs can condition the beers in a much more controlled environment.

For what it's worth (and this is Garrard's idea, but I like it) I think CAMRA ought to augment its necessarily fund-raising festivals by getting pubs to arrange festivals in groups, so that a brochure can be produced between, say, three different pubs with the beers they will have. This will be well kept beer and would drum up trade for local pubs (my experience in Cambridge is that the good pubs realise there's something to cooperating now and again). What they call a win-win, I think.

Am glad you're busy, hope you can grab a minute or two for a beer!

Sat In A Pub said...

As you say, you can't really comapare beer festivals and drinking in pubs. They are totally different experiences.

You cannot beat having a pint in a good pub. The beer will always be in better condintion and the facilities much better. Beer festivals have traditionally been about getting people to try real ale.

However, wih more beer chocie in pubs, the increasing bureaucracy in running a festival etc I often wonder if the old festival model is doomed.

Leigh said...

Beer Festivals are a tricky one. As someone who does attend, i often find it hard to 'convert' my family or mates to beer at a festival - simply due to the locations of half of them; sterile, hot, halls. Yet give me one well-chosen pint in a decent pub and it's no problem at all. I love festivals; only because I go to sample new beers (note; sample, not get mortalled) and thus support independent breweries- and i guess, in the process, CAMRA. I'm lucky enough to have a local and a couple of pubs in Leeds that hold fine festivals each year that may not have the range but a fine atmos as well.

Unknown said...

Interesting comments, for which I have too little time to do them justice.

JJ, the concept of CAMRA-pub cooperation is unlikely to work unless the branch is particularly commercially savvy. Pub-pub cooperation can and does work, but there are conflicts that can cause problems. I know, we hold one in June.

Tyson, Bureaucracy, I would have to agree, is a problem.

Leigh, In my experience, one of the nice things about festivals is the lack of drunks. In my view as level of inebriation is independent to the ability to remain in control of your actions. I know plenty of people who can be well oiled but remain in control, they are often at festivals.

ChrisM said...

Dave - thank you for posting this 'more balanced and constructive critique' of the Newcastle Beer Festival. I am speaking as branch secretary and a Beer Manager, but have taken my rose-tinted spec's off for a moment ;-)

I do agree with you that the venue itself isn't too nice (I'm a student at the university and detest the student's union building...!), although when you've spent the full week there it begins to feel like home... It is, unfortunately, the best venue that we have in Newcastle (unless you can think of anywhere else!?)
It was great to note just how many young people that were there, though, something I haven't really seen at a beer festival before, which as you say may be down to the venue.

As you've noted, there are limiting factors to beer quality at festivals such as the lack of time - personally I would love to be able to condition each beer for the appropriate amount of time, but it's just impossible (especially with late deliveries and other set-backs).

I am surprised that you've mentioned cooling of beer in relation to our festival though, as we employ a system which uses vertical extraction of the beer and in cask cooling loops of food-grade silicone tubing, circulating ice cold water through them from the 10 or so coolers on the scaffolding gantry. This is in contrast to many festivals which use stillage and slightly damp bar towels over the top...! Our system is very effective at cooling beer and I have to say that yours is the only complaint received about temperature. The system isn't perfect, but we are working on it!

Constructive criticism is always welcome, and if you can think of any ways that we can improve the festival then please let us know.

Will you be at Tynedale Beer Festival in June? Our branch will be providing technical support and equipment. It is held in a marquee with live music etc, and it is also slightly closer to home for you than Newcastle!

Thanks and regards

Chris Mansfield

Unknown said...


Unfortunately I will be unlikely to attend much more in the way of festivals this year. However, your festival is just after ours, a day out might just be the tonic needed. Is there a trade session?

Talking about temperature, I think sometimes this can be personal perception. In our pub we not only have a temperature controlled cellar but a cooled python and water jacketed handpulls. Some people say that this delivers the beer too cold.

Personally I'd like a dark malty strong beer dispensed slightly warmer and a light hoppy thing cooler. Few commercial systems allow for that.

When beer travels along non-cooled pipes and sits in non-cooled beer engines it will warm up a little. I suspect in your case the beer is considerably cooler than in many festivals hence my comments on temperature being pedantic rather than significant.

As an aside, at the winter beer festival in Manchester the cooling system seemed more obvious but I suspect similar in nature. The beers I had there were all nice and strong so perhaps my perceptions were different even though perhaps the beer was at the same temperature.

You could of course just translate perception to state of intoxication.

Paul Garrard said...

I suppose where you live will also help to dictate your frequency at beer festivals. Bury St Edmunds, apart from it's brew-pub, offers mostly GK for obvious reasons. Living there I was encouraged to seek out many festivals. Now that I have more choice than you can shake a stick at beer festivals are not quite the pull for me.

John Holland said...


While I can add nothing to Chris Mansfield’s comments (12.04.09.) about the venue and beer-cooling system at the recent CAMRA Newcastle Beer Festival.

I do feel that one of your other points; “you don't even get a clean glass for each new beer”, needs a response.

At our festival customers who prefer a fresh glass for a particular beer simply exchange the one they have just used for a new one at the counter.

However another of you remarks; “They are always busy", referring to beer festivals in general is particularly applicable here. So much so that some such people have been known to have a beer while waiting for the glasses queue to die down!

John Holland.

Unknown said...


Thanks you for your comment. I was not aware that you could ask for a replacement glass. That would indeed be a nice thing to do.

Further, no one can claim that festivals are not popular, long may they live.

Anonymous said...

The big ugly bloke in the middle of the picture is our CAMRA chairman - Pete, it truly is a small world.