How to: Start a beer festival

Everyone and their mum has their own beer festival these days. What's stopping you?

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There are beer festivals for cutting edge craft beers and there are beer festivals that celebrate ancient and heritage beers. There are festivals that are centred on doing good in their communities, and festivals that focus on music, entertainment and the arts. There are pop-up festivals, and long-running festivals, and large-scale week-long festivals and one-night-only minifests. Basically, in 2019, there will be a beer festival niche enough to suit your every interest and whim held somewhere in the UK.

How often has a beer festival been to blame for a person’s obsession with beer? Beer can be an extremely intimidating world to step gingerly into, but a festival makes it easier. It welcomes you in, offers you tasters, gets you drunk on flavours you’ve never tasted before. Whether your local festival is a CAMRA event in a village hall or a corporate-sponsored street party, one thing will always be the same: every festival’s main focus will be on getting people to try and enjoy great beer.

But what if there’s nothing nearby that truly tickles your fancy? Maybe you’ve got the specifications for your ideal beer festival tucked away in the back of your brain and it just doesn’t seem to exist yet. Haven’t you ever wanted to have a go at starting your own?

That’s exactly what every beer fest started off with: a big idea.

Step 1: Your Big Idea

“We started in 2012/2013 – there weren’t any good festivals then,” says Greg Wells, co-founder of We Are Beer. “We noticed there seemed to be this massive difference in the emerging beer culture and your traditional beer festival; the people, the product, the experience, everything. We wanted to contribute to the emerging craft beer movement and do things differently.”

Rachel Auty, founder of Women On Tap festival in Harrogate had slightly different reasons to set up her dream festival. Proud of her town’s beer scene, she wanted to raise the profile of something close to her heart.

“Initially the idea was to showcase beer brewed by women,” she said. “It was very much an experiment at first.”

“Harrogate is a small town that punches well above its weight in beer and hospitality. I wanted to show off our establishments, making the work we do locally a sustained contribution to the local economy.”

So, in different ways, both Rachel and Greg’s reasons for starting up their own events chime – they wanted to present something different to the world that really excited them. Similarly, Gautam Bhatnagar who founded Craft Beer Cares back in 2017 had the bright idea of launching a beer festival to highlight causes that are important to him and the wider community of London craft brewers. But that’s not how it began.

“Originally I didn’t want to run a beer festival,” he admitted. “I wanted to highlight the great work other people were doing and shine a light on how people are willing to help. I was initially inspired by Cook For Syria, and after speaking with small, independent brewers they were keen to get involved. This idea became a plan for a friendly, accessible fest that tapped into the passion brewers and drinkers feel for beer and for their local communities while raising the profile of charities we cared about like Art Against Knives.”

Step 2: Cement your goal and create your team

Any event organiser knows that they are nothing without the people working solidly behind the scenes. Right from the start you need your festival to have a reason for being.

“You need a differentiating factor,” says Gautam, “and put it front and centre. The festival market is crowded, so find something different, contact local breweries, link into your community and smaller local charities. Tap into that passion.”

The sooner you get a crack team of excellent people together to help realise your dream, the better. The Independent Salford Beer Fest is in its sixth successful year, and founder and organiser Jim Cullen is open about how much hard work it takes to run a charity festival like his – but how rewarding it is too.

“My dear friend who ran St. Sebastian’s Community Centre needed to raise funds to keep the place running and hit upon the idea of a beer festival. She asked could I help, and petrified, I said “yes”. I had no idea where to start, so I asked Twitter. I was deluged with offers of Graphic Design, Beer, Web Design, Warehousing, Logistics, Volunteers, Bar build… within an hour. At this point, I had met NONE of these people. Now they are good friends, both to me and each other.”

You might not already have a dedicated following as ready to help as Jim, but if your festival is committed to raising funds for charity, doing something great in your community or it’s simply an ace idea that excites and delights, you’d be surprised how many generous, fantastic people are out there ready to lend a hand.

Step 3: Gather even more support

Jules Gray is the director of Sheffield Beer Week and Sheffield’s Indie Beer Feast, and both festivals have become national treasures both within Sheffield and in the wider world of great beer. Jules says that to gather support, particularly in the beginning, it’s well worth putting in the legwork.

“It’s good to attend other beer weeks or beer festivals events locally and outside your city or neighbourhood if you can - other beer weeks or beer festivals. It always helps to meet people and encourage support.”

For Jules, the support her festivals gain has a lot to do with the benefits they bring to her local community.

“Beer tourism is a positive area that’s growing and we really champion that and try to get people behind it - it brings footfall to your city, boosts the local economy, and keeps the high street buzzing, especially in these tougher political and economic climates. Those involved in Sheffield Beer Week events really make Sheffield shine that little bit brighter in March each year.”

“We even had support from the Lord Mayor of Sheffield Magid Magid at Indie Beer Feast this year to show support. The local council, city BID scheme and Visit Sheffield have really started to engage and support the beer week, [and] Sheffield University has been behind and supported us from the start too – a big thanks to Professor Vanessa for driving that.”

“I’d definitely say think outside of the beer world and talk to cultural, food and other experts in your city if you can. You often find some great natural synergies.”

Step 4: Get your ish together

Beer festivals aren’t just about chatting to your favourite breweries and hanging out in cool event spaces. There’s a lot of organisation to do to even get your plans and finances in order, and then after that you’ve got myriad other ways things could potentially go wrong.

Essentially, your job as a festival organiser is to think about every potential disaster, and think of at least two ways each of these disastrophes could be averted, avoided or at the very least, cleaned up with the minimum of fuss.

Rachel Auty says that WOT takes most of the year to put together.

“In terms of the practical stuff, we have to think about finances and funding first which usually happens the summer before. We then start talking to the venues and spaces we’d like to use and we start regular meetings to talk events from around September onwards.”

Greg Wells also warns about the time-consuming nature of beer festival logistics.

“The technical side of putting so many new breweries in a small room, all pouring their own beers, with lots of sensitive packing etc. is a challenge. Also the marketing, We Are Beer was so new then and there wasn’t a huge following so we worked really hard to make sure we had a room of people - thankfully we got there on both fronts and didn’t lose too much money in year one.”

Ah yes, that last point leads us neatly onto step five…

Step 5: Be positive, not deluded

“You’ll need some capital up front to secure the venue which will be one of your main costs, plus paying for glasses if you include these in your beer festival – most do. It’s worth writing down a costing sheet to see if you can achieve your goal, based on venue capacity numbers and realistic ticket sales. You can’t rely on the ticket sales for income, as you need to make sure this is ring-fenced in case of any issues after the event.”

It’s worth saying that again – ticket sales cannot be relied on for income. They most definitely will not see you making a profit.

In fact, Greg Wells has a similar warning to share:

“Lots of people doesn’t equate to insane profits. The sheer cost of putting on world class events is eye watering.”

Something else to remember is that festivals take a lot of time and effort and work and blood and sweat and tears and long, long phonecalls. Greg adds:

“Another common misconception about beer festivals is that they come together quick. They are year round strategising, planning and execution. Everyone’s seen the Fyre fest doc on Netflix right? You need to work early. Most breweries are planning their festivals over a year in advance now.”

Rachel Auty (WOT) says that the best advice she received early on was from Rich at The Little Ale House, Harrogate before embarking on the second year of her festival planning.

“He advised that we should take it slow – it was only year two. So we did. We kept it to 5 venues and 10 events and have stepped it up again for 2019. It’s great to enhance an event each time, but slowly and step-by-step is ok. Be patient. Especially if you’re doing it in your spare time – don’t break yourself. Remember why you’re doing what you’re doing and try to make sure it always excites you.” 

Step 6: Promote!

What’s the point in kicking off your dream beer festival, planning it for a year and falling down at the marketing hurdle?

For many people, marketing isn’t second nature. It can be difficult to know who to reach out to and how to do it, so Jim (Salford Beer Festival) recommends a few things to consider.

“I had a reasonable Twitter following on my blog account so years 1 to 3 I battered it. Strategically placed posters work too (not too many mind), I had a target market of those who read what I wrote, so postered up venues they were likely to drink in. Fabulous design helps too.”

“I tweet from my bed before I start the day,” says Rachel Auty. “Thankfully, I work in the centre of Harrogate so often my lunch involves a WOT-related meeting or a print drop-off!

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