In her new column, brewer Charlotte Cook discusses what beer means to her, and sets out her vision for a better, healthier industry
Saturday 20 November 2021
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This month I did something that I haven’t willingly engaged in for quite a number of years: I went to a beer festival as a punter. For the past half a decade or so, going to beer festivals has been an integral part of my job. You’re sent to pour beer, chat, and generally drum up enthusiasm about the latest West Coast IPA/ 120 IBU IPA/ Milkshake IPA/ Brut IPA/ NEIPA (delete according to year). To willingly spend my Saturday afternoon, tiny glass in hand, trying out the new and exciting brews often seemed like a bit of a busman’s holiday. I’ve not been to a festival for ages due to the pandemic, and I’ve been buried under my dissertation for the past few months, so when I was offered a ticket to The Riverside festival hosted by Brew By Numbers I said: “yeah, go on then”.
The festival itself took me about half an hour to find, but after a detour around the decidedly un-bucolic industrial estates of the Greenwich Peninsula, I was welcomed into the slightly cavernous festival space. This will eventually hold the new Brew By Numbers production facility, and provided you know where you’re going, the site will be a great spot to sit by the Thames and bask in the glow of Canary Wharf and the Old Royal Naval College; the old and new London in one impressive vista.
My reluctance to go to beer festivals mostly stems from the fact I’m not a very good drinker, I can manage about three pints tops before I’m a liability and need to go home. Festivals are often where brewers choose to showcase their creativity, and this generally comes with a hefty ABV, which for a lightweight, is a precursor to a Very Bad Time.
Harassment and entitled behaviour needs to be stamped out.
Another aspect of being a brewer that I hadn’t foreseen is how learning about beer faults leads you to critically analyse every beer you taste, to the point it can detract from your enjoyment of it. This analytical approach is essential in the brewery before release, or when trying your own beer out in trade, but when you’re trying to have a good time with your mates it can be distracting, and you can come across as pompous and pretentious. Beer festivals shouldn’t be about that, they should be about good times, people and good beer.
The festival itself had a great line-up of beer and an excellent selection of food, which is absolutely essential. A scotch egg and a few crisps really isn’t going to set you up to tackle 15 imperial stouts before last orders. It was also delightful to see other beer people in real life, many of whom I hadn’t seen for nearly two years, rather than through an exchange of pithy Twitter messages.
I had been apprehensive about attending, as friends have recently experienced some quite horrifying sexual harassment at London beer festivals, including unwanted comments, touching and one person was even contacted on Instagram to continue the harassment. This is deeply worrying, as everyone should be able to attend a beer festival, drink as much as they want and enjoy themselves safely and without pestering.
Readapting to being around people will take some time
This kind of behaviour really seems to have escalated in the weeks after lockdown was lifted; a combination of high spirits, cabin fever and the release of months of built-up frustrations. While it’s great to see people out enjoying themselves, that should never be at the detriment of someone else’s enjoyment. What may seem like harmless banter to one person could make another feel unsafe, ruin their night and prevent them from attending beer festivals in the future. As an industry, we need to make sure that festivals and beer venues are welcoming for all, and harassment and entitled behaviour needs to be stamped out. Women of the Bevolution, a US-based organisation, is working on a code of conduct to be adopted by breweries and festival hosts to help bring harassment to light and introduce robust policies to deal with offenders. These are designed to make attendees feel safe and highlight that troublesome behaviour will not be tolerated from the outset.
Luckily my time at the festival was trouble free, and the atmosphere was friendly, open and people were excited to try some beer from breweries we don’t see too often in the UK. This is a true strength of beer festivals, to be able to try beer from breweries you’d otherwise need to pay a hefty sum for. And the pours are small enough that you can have as many as you like, so you can do a world tour of beer in an afternoon and still have money for the bus home.
I had a great time, I tried some delicious beers, saw friends and met some people for the first time. I also drank less than three pints, so I didn’t try and kidnap the very cute French bulldog that was doing circuits charming the crowd. I, like many, still find being in throngs of people – breathing contagion on each other like a Soviet germ factory – a little disconcerting. I think that readapting to being around people will take some time, and while I won’t be beating down the door to the next festival, I think some of my cynicism has dissipated and I’ll be a little bit excited for the next one.
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