I've just spent three days working at the Wigan Beer Festival and staying with my friends Ken and Carol, who help organise the event. I've described this festival in previous years, and while it was run in much the same in the way, it does seem to be getting ever more popular. One or two people still mourn the loss of the Wigan Pier site, but that venue was perhaps a quarter of the size of this one, and the festival was outgrowing it anyway, even before it was developed and put to different use.
The foreign beer bar was all draught, no bottles at all, and was handed over to the young CAMRA members to organise and run, as was the cider bar. As Ken says, they are the future. The foreign beer bar manager told me on Friday that he estimated that sales were up by 40% on the previous year.
Something always goes wrong. At a peak moment on Saturday when the Wigan Athletic match across the road had just finished and the festival was filling up with thirsty football fans, the glass washing machine decided to give up the ghost, and a queue quickly backed up. Fortunately there was another one in the centre's bar, which was brought into use after we reminded them that CAMRA had paid for the use of a glass washing machine, but for a short while the well-oiled machine came off its wheels.
What strikes me about Wigan is how many groups of young women, many very stylishly dressed for a night out, roll up in groups. They aren't there with boyfriends and they aren't CAMRA members; often they know little about what's on sale, but they're prepared to give it a go. I was asked a few times whether we had anything a bit like Fosters or Carling. I just offer them a sample of a light-coloured beer which isn't too dry or hoppy; ones with a citrus tinge usually seem to do the trick. All right, they won't go from there to seek out obscure microbreweries, and will probably revert to their usual drinks later, but on the other hand, they'll know that they can actually enjoy certain real ales. And as they looked as though they having a good time, I expect they'll be back next year. If they'd had to queue for hours for advance tickets on a cold winter's morning in - say, off the top of my head - November, none of them would have been there. Wigan festival has a better gender balance than any other festival I've been to, and it's a fact that where the young women go, the young lads are likely to follow. Advance ticketing would kill all that at a stroke: Wigan has no tickets, and yet one employee of the centre estimated that there were perhaps 1400 people there on Friday evening, proving that ticketless mass attendance can be achieved.
All in all, another successful festival at Wigan, which is definitely one of my personal favourites.