Where's the love?

Matthew Curtis emerges into the post-COVID world, in search of the community, exploration and bonhomie that make beer festivals great

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Ankle-deep in the tall grass of an exceptionally sunlit Glen Fyne, surrounded by 3000 other revellers, with almost 100 different beers pouring in the tents either side of me, I feel a surge of excitement and contentment. I was back, ready to enjoy myself at a beer festival, with the anxieties of the past two years finally behind me. 

And those anxieties have been felt keenly. I might be repeating myself when I say that we’ve experienced what can only accurately be described as collective trauma, as cases of Covid-19 surged across the globe, but it feels important to acknowledge it happened, and how it has shaped us. One of the reasons it was so challenging for many is because much that was normal to us, that helped us cope with the day-to-day, was taken away. For myself and many others, that meant the comfort of a good pub, or the revelry at a beer festival. 

I’ve written about my struggles with getting back out into the world before. For Pellicle last year I documented my experience at the 2021 Leeds International Beer Festival; an incredible event, but one my hang ups from multiple lockdowns forbade me from properly enjoying.

PHOTO: Great British Beer Festival

But things have changed since then. Most of us are vaccinated, and with the passing of time, a general sense of ease – and dare I say normality – has crept back into our lives. Little by little, those subconscious fears began to drift into the ether, and I found myself able to enjoy the surroundings of a good pub once again. I didn’t know when this would happen at a beer festival, but if there’s any festival where it was going to happen it would be at one of the best: FyneFest. 

While the first Fynefest, which was organised by parent brewery Fyne Ales in 2010, welcomed just a few hundred attendees, it now sees almost ten times as many. And while it’s a festival run by a brewery, and features a lot of amazing beers, it’s not really a ‘beer’ festival as such. It’s more a chance to make the kind of weekend you want, with hiking, river swimming, local food, live music, and many fantastic beers to sample. I’ve attended every year since 2018, and the two years where it didn’t take place left a significant hole in my life. 

But as we emerge into a brave new world, other challenges arise. Everything is becoming more expensive, driven by multiple global factors, from war to climate change, to the continuing pandemic. This is impacting both what we can spend individually and the cost to businesses. Quite simply, unless you have vast resources, or great sponsorship, funding a large scale event like a beer festival is immensely challenging. And if people can’t afford to go to beer festivals, then how viable is running them in a post-pandemic climate?

PHOTO: London Craft Beer Festival

“Philosophically, [at FyneFest] we celebrate the best of what beer is about, but we don’t put it on a pedestal,” Fyne Ales’ owner and managing director Jamie Delap tells me. “When you get away from putting on a tasting event and focus on a weekend festival experience it gives us the opportunity to think more broadly about how beer can fit in.”

While Delap is positive about the festival experience his brewery creates, and how it stems from the desire to replicate his own experiences of growing up in Glen Fyne – essentially enjoying a barbecue and a few beers (“mostly terrible,” he says) with friends – he’s open about the realities of running a brewery in the current financial climate. In a recent tweet he shared that Fyne Ales’ utility bill had increased from £7000 to a whopping £21,000 between April 2019 and April 2022. He’s equally honest about the role and viability of beer festivals in the current market. 

“At their best, beer festivals provide a chance to meet friends, try new beers and share a fun experience with a community of others enjoying the same things,” he says. “I think that’s certainly valid and worthwhile, but I couldn’t make the case it was ‘important’. In challenging times people are going to have to make choices on how they spend their money, and hopefully a lot will still decide that this is worthwhile for them.”

FyneFest was fortunate enough to sell out of tickets and still go ahead in June 2022, while other beer festivals have not been so lucky. Earlier this year, Denmark’s To Øl brewery announced that it would be cancelling its Beer City festival, scheduled to take place at its site just outside of Copenhagen on 5-6 August. A statement on the brewery’s website said: “Due to unexpectedly slow ticket sales, we have decided to pull the plug so that our guests can make other plans for the summer.”

PHOTO: FyneFest

In the UK, We Are Beer, which organises successful annual beer festivals in London, Bristol, Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow also had to cancel its flagship event, Bigfoot. The first Bigfoot festival successfully took place during the lull in lockdowns over the summer of 2021. Similar to FyneFest, it differs from a typical beer festival in that it’s a weekend-long party, with camping, live music from household names, and food from top chefs and restaurants. 

“The cost of living crisis and rising prices has played havoc with the music festival industry. Many businesses are facing significant struggles,” We Are Beer co-founder Greg Wells says. “It would have been irresponsible to push ahead in 2022. We're already looking forward to 2023 and plans are underway. Hopefully the turbulence the economy is currently experiencing will level out by then.” 

Despite these challenges, there's a strong sense of optimism to Wells’ outlook. I guess if you’re in the business of organising large-scale beer festivals, you have to be. We Are Beer recently welcomed a throng of eager beer drinkers at the first ever Glasgow Craft Beer Festival, its second visit to Manchester is imminent, and this August its longest running event – The London Craft Beer Festival, which launched in 2013 – will return to the sprawling Tobacco Dock venue. Evidently, there’s plenty of enthusiasm for good quality, well organised events, and Wells is confident enough to press on, despite the cost of living crisis impacting people's willingness and ability to go out.

“We're enjoying being back and putting on great shows,” he tells me. “I think festivals as a place for everyone to come together and celebrate their passions, and the communities they belong to, are really important. We're still coming out of lockdown, and festivals are a great place to recapture that feeling and love of all things craft beer.”

PHOTO: Great British Beer Festival

But what of the UK’s largest, and best-known beer festival? Three years since it was last held in 2019, the Great British Beer Festival (GBBF) is set to return to London’s Kensington Olympia this August. Organised by CAMRA – The Campaign for Real Ale – the festival had run almost continuously since it was founded in 1977, with the exception of 1984, due to a fire, and 2020-21, due to the Covid-19 pandemic. 

To run an event at scale, like GBBF, or the London Craft Beer Festival, a great deal of resources are required, from the financial to the people willing to put in the long hours and make sure they go off without a hitch. Having not run a festival in three years, I’m curious what the feeling is. Excitement? Trepidation? Relief? Perhaps it’s a combination of all these and more. 

“For a festival that’s been running as long as GBBF, there’s always been a certain momentum and structure to the event planning,” festival organiser Cathrine Tonry tells me. “This year, however, it has felt like we have had to start from scratch again in some areas.”

PHOTO: London Craft Beer Festival

An advantage of this, Cathrine says, is that this has enabled CAMRA to make changes to the festival that may have been considered too risky in the past. There has been plenty of extra stress too, with serious concerns about the number of people who will actually attend, making budgeting for the event more challenging than usual.

But as quickly as she mentions these challenges, so too does Cathrine point out some of the exciting additions to the festival’s lineup. These include a brand new homebrew competition, a huge lineup of formal, and informal tasting sessions at the Learn & Discover bar (also making its debut this year), and prize giveaways. Cathrine makes sense of why people are pressing on with beer festivals, despite, well, everything; they’re important because people treasure the time they spend there, and the people they spend it with. 

“As competition from other beer festivals has increased, we've had to evolve over the last decade to widen our appeal to a larger number of people,” she says. “Our focus has been inclusivity. We want people to feel welcome on the ground, and have taken active steps to ban sexist images, and have introduced the Ask for Angela and Ask for Clive schemes to help everyone feel safe.

“We're all incredibly excited to see the return of the greatest celebration of live beer in the UK.”

Cover photo: London Craft Beer Festival

Header photo: FyneFest

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