Anatomy of a Beer Festival Part 10
Part 10: The Trials and Tribulations of a Beer Orderer
A much debated topic at our planning meetings (and I expect at most other festivals) is the beer list.
Everyone involved has an opinion about what breweries and beers should or should not be included or would like their own favourite beers to be put on year after year. We have to remember that the festival is not actually for us, that is to say we aren’t necessarily the audience we should be aiming for.
As with the choice of entertainment, I feel this is another area where we need to appeal to a broad range of people – both men and women, from students to pensioners, CAMRA members and non-members, experienced drinkers and those trying real ale and cider for the first time. I’m also of the opinion that if you concentrate your choice on too many local beers, then you are appealing to a limited number of people. Why would people pay to come to your festival to drink something they can get in a local pub for a similar price without an admission charge? In the same way, there seems little point in putting on mainly crazy experimental beers from breweries that no-one has even heard of or tested the quality. Like most things in life I feel the balance is somewhere in between.
Whilst trying not to be unkind or unfair, it must be said that dealing with most brewers and breweries is a nightmare. Although there are a lot of extremely talented brewers out there, in my experience quite a few of them are lacking in business skills and organisation. Some of them almost seem to brew on a whim; basically they get out of bed and decide what they are brewing that day, like choosing what breakfast cereal to eat or whether to have a cup of tea or coffee!
Finding out in advance what a lot of them will have ready for the time of the festival can be quite challenging. You also need to approach wholesaling breweries if you want to put on beers from outside of your local area which nearly all beer festivals do. A lot of the time they will have regular swaps with other breweries allowing both of them to offer a wider range of ales than just their own.
The beers can’t be ordered too far ahead as often the brewers don’t know their brew schedule more than four to six weeks in advance at best so this is one of the last things that is finalised before the festival takes place, despite it being one of the most important.
Initially you start off with a wish list and slowly narrow it down, or in a lot of cases make significant changes to it, often not by choice. I always ask for suggestions from others but it’s surprising how many of these turn out to be seasonal, one-offs or specials that just aren’t available. There’s also the question of balance: strengths, styles, colours, etc., and I am very particular about this, probably a lot more so than some. I have a spreadsheet with a lot of formulae in it which allows me track different statistics any time a beer is added, removed or changed in order to maintain a balance and I have very detailed records of every list we’ve ever done and the associated stats. It’s quite a scientific approach but one that I think has worked both times I’ve done the list before (2012 and 2014).
This is easily the most time consuming and labour intensive process in the whole planning of the festival. I don’t keep track but I would guess I spend somewhere in the region of 70-100 hours on it each year. I start off with the beers that I wanted last year and couldn’t get for whatever reason, add some that I want to bring back from previous years and then look at any that I’ve had myself or that’s been recommended to me during the last year. To put it in perspective, there’s roughly 550 on what I call the long list, with beers being added or removed constantly.