Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Beer festivals - why?

Beer festivals were developed in Britain by CAMRA for the purposes of promoting real ales, largely because the brewers at the time were mostly turning their back on them. They provided the drinker with the chance to taste beers that were not readily available to them at a time when most towns were dominated by a single brewery or, if they were lucky, a handful of breweries. So much is familiar.

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.


  1. "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. "

    Too true.

  2. The proportion of "the converted" obviously varies but from my first trip to the GBBF last year I'd say there was a pretty even three-way split there of CAMRA members, people who don't regularly drink cask beer there for a day out and business people entertaining customers.

  3. Another reason for doing them is that beer festivals raise a lot of money for CAMRA ;-)

    There are some people for whom finding a beer festival to visit every weekend has largely replaced "normal" pubgoing, so the festivals have become an attraction in their own right rather than a campaigning tool

  4. "Another reason for doing them is that beer festivals raise a lot of money for CAMRA ;-)"

    Money - and members. Most CAMRA members I know joined up because it worked out cheaper than entrance to the beer festivals.

    The new members may not partake in CAMRA at all, but the sheer numbers is good propaganda and makes the organisation seem more credible and less like a bunch of old loonies attempting to foist their own niche interests onto the wider community.

    Real ale is popular wherever there are a lot of middle class people.
    Festivals with their warm half pints are more likely to put people off than attract them.

  5. I drink plenty of cask ale, like other people I do so mainly because its cheap.

    I imagine most of it is sold brewery conditioned and with the aid of cask breathers though so its not actually real ale as currently defined.

    "I probably drink in far more real ale pubs than you do"

    I bet you don't.

    As well as the usual middle class real ale emporia, I also go into the odd genuine working class estate pub, the kind of place where if you asked for real ale you'd get a good kicking. Perhaps you know the type?

  6. Py: every mass members organisation - and I have belonged to many over the years - has a large majority of mostly inactive members, and CAMRA is no different. As for the Campaign's supposed aim "to foist their own niche interests onto the wider community", you've just displayed your ignorance. Unlike keg or smooth, a cask of real ale has to be sold in its entirety within 5 days, or it will go off, be poured away and lose the pub money. Consequently, no licensee will continually put real ale on if it doesn't sell just because of pressure from CAMRA members. If it's selling, then people are voluntarily buying it, so using the the word 'foisting' is actually quite silly in this context.

    I also don't agree that real ale is exclusively a middle class interest: I probably drink in far more real ale pubs than you do, and have done since 1971: quite simply, in my extensive experience, you are wrong.

    But don't mind me: why let facts get in the way of your habitual and tedious negativity?

  7. No, you wouldn't get a good kicking in an estate pub if you asked for real ale. It's both snobby and inaccurate to assume that working class people are inherently violent: do you also use the word 'chav' to describe people you disapprove of?

    If most people, as you claim, drink real ale because it's cheap, then logically Spoons would have put all other real ale pubs out of business. It's a mistake to judge everyone by your own miserable standards.

  8. Every spoons that opens puts at least 2-3 real ale pubs out of business.

    But of course, real ale's target demographic (middle class people like myself), don't like wetherspoons because it doesn't conform to our idea of what a pub should look like.

    I see you have never been in an actual working class pub. I guess you're even more middle class than I am. At least I admit it.

  9. You just make it all up as you go along. You see nothing, and offer nothing - except your whingeing sarcasm and futile attempts to be provocative.

  10. I'm not whinging, nor am I being sarcastic. I'm extremely positive as to the current beer situation in this country. Despite overwhelming negativity from CAMRA, the craft beer movement has really made a huge improvement in the quality of beer on offer in your average pub in just 10 years. I've put a lot of hard work into promoting beer to young people and undoing the damage done by CAMRA, and it does seem to be having some real effect.

  11. @py - to suggest that Nev has never been in an actual working-class pub is a ludicrous assertion even by your standards.

    And even now I would say that the "average" pub has precisely zero craft keg lines.

  12. Martin, Cambridge29 April 2015 at 09:25

    Pub beer festivals, like the ones we'll be seeing over the coming Bank Holidays, do seem to bring people into pubs who would otherwise not bother. I don't go to non-pub festivals anymore, as sitting on grass is no longer fun.

    Real ale is drunk by all classes, as anyone who visited most Spoons's (e.g. local Tivoli before it burnt down) would see.

  13. Py: your most recent comment is, I agree, neither whingeing or sarcastic. Individual CAMRA members are entitled to hold whatever views they like about craft beer, but they don't speak for the Campaign. I heard Colin Valentine, CAMRA's national chair, make this crystal clear two years ago at the Norwich AGM when he said that CAMRA is not anti other people's preferred drinks - it is simply pro-real ale.

    As for festivals: for decades, the only beer festival on Merseyside was the CAMRA one in Liverpool. Now there are other CAMRA festivals, Liverpool Organic Brewery run 2 or 3 a year, the Ship & Mitre pub is also running festivals outside its own pub, and there is a plethora of in-house pub festivals, not least by Spoons. There was also a craft beer festival in Liverpool last year. The popularity of beer festivals seems to by multiplying by the year. This is all to the good.


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