In the wake of the Huddersfield Beer Festival, I started thinking about what makes a good festival. Let's face it, most of us beer drinkers visit a few festivals a year. Why do we like some and why do we return year after year ? Or why do we go to some and never go back ? What is it we actually want ?
To take the larger picture first. From the organisers point of view, a good festival will be one that runs out of beer and everyone goes home happy. The running out of beer is a bit dodgy though. It is all down to ordering enough beer to satisfy everyone who is expected, but not too much that there is a lot poured down the drain. I know of festivals that hold beers back for sessions to spread beers available throughout its duration, Bradford is a prime example. This is no help to the visitor early in the proceedings, only to find the beer(s) they particularly wanted kept for those visiting later. The other side of the coin obviously is that the early visitor snaps up all the interesting beers leaving little for those attending later.
Nottingham goes some way to solving this problem, marking the reserve beers in the programme, but out of 700 plus beers there should be no problem for the visitor to find something to his taste. The Swan festival uses a system where the first beer is replaced with a reserve barrel but again this is clearly marked in the programme.
The visitors all go to festivals for different reasons. I go for new beers and new breweries, others go for local beers that they cannot get in their local area, and some go for tried and tested beers they enjoy. It is common sense that the larger festivals try to accomodate all visitors. The smaller ones tend to concentrate on one of these three. The Star tries to find all new beers, some of the other local ones do find a balance between old and new. The organiser has to know his or her clientele and provide what will sell.
The Great British Beer festival, allegedly the flagship Camra festival, always uses established breweries, but always seems to attract plenty of customers. However, being in London, is not the easiest festival for everyone to get to. They do put their Winter Ale festival on in Manchester however to make sure us northerners get a fair chance of at least getting to one of their events.
I suppose that no festival can tick all the boxes. Everyone has his own favourite. In the last few years I have tried to get to as many as possible to give me chance to compare them. Many I have only attended once and will not return to, but others I will return to time after time. It is common to find the same faces at festivals, and good to look up old friends, and compare notes, and keep up to date. Many of these people travel miles to get there and sample the beer on offer.
But I am going away from the point. What else makes a good festival, apart from the beer and the craic ? The cost is obviously a factor. Some are free, some are more expensive. In these times where cash is tight, we all want value for money. Some festivals price themselves out of some peoples pockets before you even start buying the beer. The cost of the beer is also a consideration. This clearly will vary from place to place but should be realistic. I know of two pubs in Sheffield who have done themselves lots of harm by overpricing. One with a massive admission charge, the other with a ridiculous price for the beer on offer. It takes a long time to get a reputation for having good festivals, and a very short time to destroy it. Ask the tickers !
Another consideration is the venue. Some hold them at places that are completely unsuitable, at least in my eyes. Many pub festivals are better in this respect. Using rooms set aside, either temporarily or permanently for the purpose, or outside marquees to house their beers. Camra have to take what is reasonably priced and on offer for what they require, hence some of them being less than inviting.
The main consideration is the quality of the beer. The best serve beer on handpulls. But generally the larger festivals have a mixture with beer served on stillage as well. It is a great skill to provide a large number of beers in good nick at one time and keep them in that condition throughout. Some succeed, some do not.
So what do I want ? A decent environment to drink my beer, which is reasonably priced and in good nick. Personally, I look for new breweries and new beers. I prefer pub festivals to Camra events, thinking that the publican who cares enough to try to have a festival deserves some support, but that will not preclude me visiting bigger festivals. I want a beer list that is interesting, and preferably like to see it before I go to the festival to arrange my drinking in advance. I want to enjoy my visit, and feel I am getting value for money. Give me all that this year, and next year you will see me again. Surely that is what the festival game is all about.