Never stop

Surviving the beer festival merry-go-round


On one of the hottest days of the year, I headed to South London’s Tobacco Dock for the sixth annual London Craft Beer Festival. The blazing sun above felt like a great laser beam, perhaps set upon us by Dr. Evil himself, with the objective of turning all and sundry into sweltering wrecks. I wasn’t going to let that deter me from drinking all the beers, however, so donning my shortest shorts, I marched on towards the venue. In my bag, my usual festival survival kit of suncream, antacids and plenty of drinking water. No matter how much fun you’re having, always remember to stay hydrated, folks.

The British craft beer industry is as convivial as it is cliquey. Despite continuing to expand at an almost fearsome rate and welcoming new people to the fold every day, it still feels as though everyone knows everyone. The first session of London Craft Beer Festival (LCBF) invited members of the trade to come down and, amid a selection of some of the finest beers in the country, members of that industry moved from person to person, hugging, shaking hands, sharing anecdotes and catching up on the latest gossip; keeping the wheels of the industry greased, as it were.

Only the week before I was at another festival, Hagstravaganza, organised by The White Hag Brewery in Sligo, Ireland. That same weekend also saw the Liverpool Craft Beer Expo take place. Just a week later was CAMRA’s annual Great British Beer Festival. Looking at my calendar I can see that the Beavertown Extravaganza and Leeds International Beer Festival are just around the corner. Bristol Craft Beer Festival comes just a week after those and before you’ve even had time to recover there’s The Independent Manchester Beer Convention (IndyMan) and Newcastle’s Craft Beer Calling, already prodding their party hats over the horizon. 

Of course, the increasing prevalence of beer festivals is a wonderful thing. Although nothing will beat the experience of visiting a truly great pub or bar for an extended session on the ale, a festival gives you an opportunity a pub doesn’t—to truly get caught up in a fizzing, vibrant atmosphere. It gives beer drinkers like you and me more reasons to celebrate great beer, spend time with friends and discovering exciting new brews from all over the UK and from further afield.

Looking at the lineup for all these festivals, however, I realise that many of them see a lot of the same breweries attending. And while as consumers we can dip in an out of sessions here and there, brewery employees don’t get the same option. They have no choice but to see the entire party through from beginning to end. 

You do five days of 18-hour shifts, grab a few hours’ sleep a night, and then it’s over

At LCBF, a friend remarked how the brewers behind the bar looked to be having even more fun than the punters themselves. Having worked behind the bar at the odd beer festival myself, I can attest that this was true – the only way to stoke that festival atmosphere is to fully embrace and in turn project it – but with plenty of booze involved, this can take it out of you. With festival season now in full swing, I found myself asking how folk in the industry look after themselves during the tumultuous beer festival season.

“From the inside, it feels less like a season and more like a constant year-round crop cycle,” The Bottle Shop’s communications manager Chris Hall says. “There’s the occasional week or two lying fallow, but as the craft sector grows, available spaces in the calendar get filled to accommodate.”

I’ve known Hall, a close friend of mine, for a few years now. Like me, he’s something of an old hand at beer festivals – by modern standards at least – having previously worked as communications and events manager at London’s Brew by Numbers, before taking on his current beer industry role. He spoke to me about what he sees as an increased demand being placed on small breweries, as they are invited to an increasing number of beer festivals in Europe and beyond, and what effect that might be having on the employees of those breweries.

“Those of us in events roles at breweries and distributors typically have to juggle time spent at events with already very hectic and highly reactive full-time roles that leave little time to spare,” he says. “If you’re lucky, you have the support of colleagues and industry friends who can help you get things done, vent frustrations and blow off steam. In the less fortunate cases, “coping” can come after a period of intense work and stress, typically with a burn out. Those can stack up too, and like all debts, get harder and harder to pay off.”

His final point was at the very crux of my investigation. Imagine, as a consumer of beer, if you were given the opportunity to attend every session, at any beer festival you wanted. But you have to do one every weekend, and not just enjoy yourself; you have to set up, maintain, and eventually pack down displays and dispense equipment, all the while serving hundreds of thirsty festival-goers while maintaining that jovial, festival attitude. Something that may be worth remembering the next time you head to a festival yourself. 

“Working on a festival bar is a strange experience. It’s like all the fun bits of pub work and brewery sales all rolled into one, with added excitement,” Marble Brewery’s Hannah Davidson says. “The stickers and glitter come out later in the day and we’re sustained by a diet of deep-fried food to make sure all the beer we’re tasting doesn’t go to our heads. We’re as excited to be there as the customers on the other side of the bar.”

For Hannah, a beer festival is a chance for a brewery to bring its ‘A-game’ to its customers. And despite the hard work involved for both brewery and festival organiser, she’s universally positive about the benefit it has for people on both sides of the bar. She also points out that consumers can join in the party behind the bar by volunteering and experiencing what it’s like to work at a beer festival for themselves (it’s also a great way to skip the queues).

“Big beer festivals can’t run without huge teams of people working really hard behind the scenes,” she says. “Being part of that is really rewarding, both from the beers you get to try, and the great memories.”

The modern beer festival experience began to change around 2012 and 2013, with the emergence of events like IndyMan and LCBF. Festivals were always an important part of British beer culture, but for a younger audience, the model of a large marquee or hall, racked high with local casks, might not quite muster the same appeal as a hall full of 60-plus of the trendiest breweries, plus DJs, live music, and everything you might need to enjoy a night out.

However, the influence of CAMRA’s festivals should never be downplayed. If you haven’t been to GBBF, the winter ale festival in Manchester or East London CAMRA’s Pig’s Ears event, then you’ve not experienced the UK’s rich festival heritage. The atmosphere a beer festival manages to conjure when it’s in full swing is really something, regardless of whether that particular festival is championing real ale, or modern craft beer. What often goes unseen, especially when an event is running so smoothly, is the effort that goes into them from the organisers. 

For veteran CAMRA festival organiser and chairman of the campaign’s Rochdale and Oldham branch Peter Alexander, the pressure on festival organisers is “fairly intensive”. 

“Fail to plan, plan to fail is a cliché, but true,” he says. “The happiness of the customers and watching people enjoy themselves is very satisfying, but you can’t expect those paying money to worry too much about how it all comes together.”

The next time you visit a beer festival, be sure to high five your bartender

Co-founder and organiser of the London Craft Beer Festival Greg Wells also has his own, somewhat unique take on the pressures of organising a large beer festival.

“I have no idea if this is true, but I always liken to it to a play or theatre, because it all boils down to that opening,” Wells says. “Every time, a year of work comes down to three days. There’s a big high as the event hits. Then you do five days of 18-hour shifts, grab a few hours’ sleep a night, and then it’s over. Then you get a couple of days off before you’re onto thinking about next year.”

The London Craft Beer Festival might have grown into a monster that attracts thousands of customers and breweries from all over the world, but it wasn’t so long ago it was only just starting out. The first ever LCBF took place at Oval Space in Cambridge Heath, East London in 2013, far smaller surroundings than its current home at Tobacco Dock. It’s remarkable not only to see an event such as this grow so fast in just five years (as well as develop sister festivals in Edinburgh and Bristol) but to see how many similar events have sprung up all over the UK. 

But with such epic growth, how do the people behind these events manage the associated stress with not only expanding, but running a larger event?

“Experience and a good team are the things that mitigate stress to be honest. Fortunately, we have both,” Wells says. “If you don’t take time to enjoy it, and to celebrate success, you won’t do your job well next time. So for us it’s imperative to get that personal fulfilment and not let stress be heavy or a burden.”

Creating a great beer festival involves an inordinate amount of hard work from those involved. Be that from organisers, attending brewers or the plucky band of volunteers along for the ride. While as a consumer there is no responsibility to consider the well-being of those behind the scenes – you’ve paid your hard earned money to be there after all – it might be that giving a little consideration to those putting in overtime to ensure your downtime is top notch, could make the experience better for everyone involved. If the people behind the bar are having the time of their lives, then the people on the right side of it undoubtedly will too.

“The best beer festivals are the ones where the bar staff are excited and energetic, the attendees are friendly, engaged, and inclusive; and the beer is top notch. This is only possible if everyone focuses on fostering a positive, inclusive environment,” Marble’s Hannah Davidson says. “At the end of the day, we work in beer because we love it and we want everyone else to love it too.”

As a consumer, paying heed to the efforts of festival organisers is one thing. But as industry, looking after customers and colleagues alike can be equally important. Beer is fun, make no mistake about it. However, the festival schedule is getting increasingly taxing on those involved behind the scenes. Taking time to ensure that staff get breaks, drink water — even something simple like making time to eat — might seem trivial. But if we want the good times to keep rolling then we have to make sure the folks at the wheel are in the best possible shape. 

So the next time you visit a beer festival, be sure to high five your bartender and remember—they’re probably on their third 18 hour shift in a row and they’re there to ensure that you’re having a great time, with a great beer in your glass. 

“Events workers, organisers and other staff need protected time on both sides of the event itself: beforehand, so that they can dedicate concentration and focus to everything that needs to be done without distraction; and afterward, so they can get some time to recharge before throwing themselves back into the fray,” The Bottle Shop’s Chris Hall says. “Thankfully, mental health is becoming less of a taboo subject, and in an industry that’s volatile with emotions, stress, workloads and expectations, the more we talk to each about it the better.”

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