Friday, January 23, 2009

A Beer Festival Disappointment

This is the week of the Winter Ales Festival in Manchester, a national CAMRA event. However, alongside this mega fest are many other festivals in the local real ale pubs. This is the story of just one. The Smithfield Hotel, in Swan St, Manchester is a stones throw from the large festival venue and is a pub that has been a Mecca for beer enthusiasts for years. They were holding a festival during the week and I managed to find a beer list online for it. It had a mouth watering selection of new breweries and new beers, so seemed to be the place to head for.
For those unfamiliar with the place, it is a long narrow pub, with an entrance at one end, bar on the right hand side with 8 handpumps, and tables throughout. The entrance to the cellar is across from the bar. Trust me, it will all make sense soon.

It opened its doors at 11 am, I arrived about 1130 am and the place was fairly full but I managed to get a table in the far end of the pub, and duly started with 2 beers; one from a new brewery. The list showed 12 new breweries for me, out of 33 on offer. Only one was on the bar. In addition to the beer on the bar, some was served in jugs from behind the bar, there were 3 on offer on my arrival, but again no new breweries. Things did look to be improving, when at 12 noon, they started 'cellar runs'. (ie beers brought from those tapped and vented in the cellar).

By this time, I had met 2 colleagues and we duly filled out the slip provided and handed it to the cellar runner, to be advised we had to pay at the bar first. This we did, only to be told that out of the 6 beers we had chosen, only 2 were available. Anyway, undeterred, we altered the order and handed it to the bar staff, (the pub was now heaving, and the staff seemed to be doing their utmost not to serve people).

The slip only showed the beers, and the name of the orderer. If you were well known, this would have been no problem, but no one knew us and we waited at 45 minutes for our beer, and only then after speaking directly to the cellar runner. Obviously, this was less than ideal, but as I said, it was busy and there were many others wanting beer brought up too. The situation was not helped by the cellar running out of glasses which slowed service down - and a group of people standing around the entrance to the cellar didn't help either.

As it quietened down a second order was served quicker but I was sitting thinking that there must be a simpler way. Then it came to me. If they intend to use slips then why not give each person that orders a number, and deliver the beer to that number? It would make the cellar runners life easier and save him shouting names out, maybe even have different colours for different parts of the pub to identify where the orderer is seated. If the intention is to have cellar runs, and it gets so busy, why not have 2 doing it instead of one. And why only have a selection of the beers available? I feel I was cheated a bit by having a smaller selection to choose from.

I am sure several people will have just walked out because of the shambles. I certainly left without several beers I wanted to try because of the time taking to fulfill the orders. It makes one pine for the superb organisation of festivals such as the Star at Huddersfield where all the beers are available at once on handpumps and everyone can sample the beers of their choice.

This is not meant to be a criticism of Alan Douglas, the cellar runner, who worked stoically nor Mike Knowles, who sourced many of the beers, but rather a way of trying to prevent other pubs falling into the same trap as the Smithfield did. As an aside, for those Pictishophiles amongst us, the new beer Atlas (4.0%) is on the bar at the aforementioned Star. Not as assertively hoppy as some but still a very tasty beer.


Anonymous said...

Giving people a number??!!! Sarky git!

Sam said...

I did manage to drop by later on Thursday evening after a few nips at winter ales. They had jugs of beer going warm on the back bar. I sensibly opted for the hand pulls instead.

Shouldn't beer festivals in pubs be about presenting beer as it's intended to be served? There seemed to be a sort of... "because we can" attitude to the effort, aiming their line up at those seeking the wierd and so new it was brewed yesterday.

You sound like one very angered scratcher Tim but we all know you'll be back over the weekend to scoop what you missed on the first visit.


Leigh said...

what a shame - seems chronically underthought. I wonder how many real lae lovers/nerds/drinkers like us walked away unsatisfied - especially thouse who may have travelled.

Tyson said...

The Smithfield is now generally avoided by the old hands of the Manchester drinking scene. It has many faults, some of which you highlighted. Sadly, the arrogant management are more interested in "keeping up appearances" for out-of-town tickers, than actual quality.