Next came pub beer festivals. The earliest I recall were put on about 25 years ago in the Bold in Churchtown, Southport, by Dave Dobson. This was so unusual at the time that friends of mine travelled all the way from Liverpool for the festival. Dave, who was a licensee for Allied Breweries, was particularly pleased when after a couple of years he managed to persuade very nervous managers to let him put on beers from outside the Allied range: breaking the tie was then such a huge step then. In contrast, pub beer festivals are now so common that pubcos often suggest to their licensees that they put them on.
More recently, festivals have been put on for charitable purposes, such as Round Table, sometimes in association with CAMRA - Bent & Bongs is probably one of the better known in the area - but now we are in the era of the wholly commercial beer festival. In Merseyside, Liverpool Organic Brewery has put on well-run beer festivals loosely along CAMRA lines in Old Christ Church in Waterloo and in the Black-E and the magnificent St George's Hall in Liverpool. The Ship & Mitre pub has run a festival in Hulme Hall, Port Sunlight, Wirral.
There are a one or two differences between CAMRA festivals and the newer commercial ones:
- CAMRA festivals still theoretically have the primary campaigning purpose of presenting real ales that may not be available in the locality. Commercial festivals are money-making ventures.
- CAMRA festivals refund any beer tokens you have not spent; commercial festivals don't.
- CAMRA festivals refund the deposit on your glass if you don't want to keep it; commercial ones don't.
In Merseyside, these festivals automatically put their tickets for sale on-line, which eventually forced the hand of the CAMRA Liverpool Beer Festival to follow suit - they had resolutely refused to do so hitherto, as I reported here in November 2011. So we can say some good came out of the competition.
The question arises: with so many different bodies putting on beer festivals - CAMRA, pubs, charities and breweries - and with the range of real ale in pubs being so much broader then ever before, is there actually a campaigning need for CAMRA festivals? Or are they now just preaching to the converted? There's no easy answer to this, but my own observations suggest to me that around 70-80% of punters could be called the converted, but I found there were lots of 'the converted' at beer festivals when I began working at them in the mid-1980s, so this isn't a new situation. Among the remainder, there are still some who come in and ask for a lager. Away from the festival, despite the growth of real ale, sales of smooth beers and lagers still dominate pub beer sales, so arguments that I've read in What's Brewing and elsewhere that CAMRA has won the war to save real ale are very wide of the mark.
I do tend to feel that some festivals have become institutionalised - i.e. we do it because we've always done it - but they do still have a certain, although not massive, role in publicising the cause of real ale. And to be fair, despite their commercial basis, real ale festivals run by breweries and pubs can have a similar effect. If I didn't feel festivals have some campaigning impact, if they just existed solely for the benefit of existing real ale drinkers, I doubt I'd give up my time to work at them.