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A Festival Of Memories....

Last week would normally have been the week of the Manchester Beer Festival. In its unfortunate absence this year, my mind has wandered back to some of the beer festivals I have visited over the years. I have also thrown in a potted history of the beer festival as I see it and a few thoughts for the future for no extra charge, so off you go....

My Facebook memories over the past couple of weeks have featured plenty of photos from the Manchester Beer Festival which in recent years has normally taken place in the city centre at Manchester Central/G-Mex around late January. Banks of handpumps disappearing into the far horizon; views of the crowds of enthusiastic beer lovers enjoying their drinks below the stunning arches of the roof as the giant clock seems to eat up the time; assorted photos of friends, the odd selfie, groups of pub tickers, the occasional handshake with an ex-editor of the Good Beer Guide and guest speaker; people from all walks of life united in a love of beer and/or cider enjoying themselves in perfect harmony, a collective hum of contentment ringing in the air. Programmes studied, new beers tried, recommendations proffered. A chance to talk and drink beer all day. What can be better than that?

All the fun of the Festival: Manchester 2020

The sheer scale of the operation has taken some organisation but the Manchester Beer Festival has over recent years grown into one of the country's premier beer events, representing not just a showcase for the best of British cask beer, but keg has also been embraced, unlike some of the more traditional festivals. Overseas brewers have been welcomed and there has recently been a healthy number of Irish brewers present, showing that there is much more to the Emerald Isle than a sea of Guinness. The cider range has been interesting too. The quality of the speakers and tastings has been particularly high. Manchester has aimed high and in most cases, managed to succeed. A wonderful way to pass a day at least, an escape from the greyness and gloom outside, and one event I have missed very much this year.

Another festival around this time of year which I have attended many times has been the Bradford Beer Festival, which for several years has been held towards the end of February in the stunning surroundings of the multi-roomed Victoria Hall in the World Heritage site of Saltaire. Situated just up the road from the giant mill complex built by Sir Titus Salt who created the model village to house his workforce and their families, Bradford is much more of a traditional festival than Manchester, in many ways a throwback to the festivals of the 1970's and 80's, with a more conservative approach, even having a break between the afternoon and evening sessions! But nonetheless, it is always another great event and another opportunity to catch up with old faces.

Bradford Beer Festival

I cannot actually remember the first beer festival I attended, although I have vague memories drinking a pint in a chilly marquee at the old Salford RLFC ground, The Willows, which I guess was back in the mid-1970's. CAMRA started with the first national beer festival in the late 1970's, and I visited the first one to be held outside London at the long-demolished Queens Hall in Leeds in 1981, when I was living in the city. It was a big deal, as back in those days we were used to drinking a limited range of beers dictated to us by the tied houses in the area where we lived. Leeds at that time was dominated by Tetleys, and excellent that so much of it was in those days, the opportunity to sample a wide variety of beers from all over the country - ironically in a location only a few hundred yards from the Tetleys brewery - was one not to be missed. Talk about kids in a sweetshop.... The old former tram shed, with its huge floorspace and cavernous interior, made an excellent location for the festival, and the bigwigs at CAMRA HQ must have thought so too; the festival returned again the following year, and then after a year in Birmingham and a few years in Brighton, it returned to Leeds again for the 1988 and 1989 festivals, but then from the 90's became ensconced in London, never moving out of the capital again. Sadly, the Queens Hall went into a gradual decline and was subsequently demolished after an illustrious post-tram shed career. It had been the location for many different events over the years, with bands like The Rolling Stones and The Who playing there, and whilst I didn't get to see them as they were both before my time, I did get to see gigs there from The Jam and Thin Lizzy. Happy memories!

The long-demolished Queen's Hall, Leeds

Beer festivals sprang up across the country, many organised by the local CAMRA branches, but there were plenty where local groups got together to raise money for a particular cause or a charity. In fact, the beer festival became almost the default choice for local community groups to raise funds. Indeed, many a glass was raised to help a leaking church roof. The beer choices could vary considerably; inspired, eclectic, themed, localised, random: the beer itself perhaps a little too warm and not expertly pulled with the willing local volunteers eager to put in a shift. But, they succeeded in bringing people together from the local community and raised a lot of money for worthy causes. For the dedicated beer drinker, the larger festivals in particular offered an opportunity to try beers from different breweries and different parts of the country that you wouldn't normally see on the bar of your local pub.

In many ways the heyday of the beer festival was the 1980's and early 1990's, when beer choice in pubs were more limited than they are today. Giant companies like Bass, Whitbread, Courage, Grand Metropolitan, and Allied Tetley ruled the roost and supplied their own beer to their own vast pub estates with virtually none from anywhere else. The Beer Orders Acts of 1989 forced these huge companies to sell off thousands of pubs and set limits on the numbers they could own. This enabled other, smaller breweries to step in and buy some of the pubs, but it also enabled the growth of the previously rare free house where beers could be bought from a much wider source. The guest beer concept was also brought in to those pubs that were still tied to a brewery, so all of these factors contributed to an overall increase in the variety of beers on offer in the average pub.

Helping local causes: Bailiff Bridge Beer Festival

Despite these changes, the appeal of the beer festival continued over the years although many previously well-established festivals have disappeared, with factors such as increased costs, lack of volunteers to help, lack of suitable venues, etc. often cited. But the beer festival has also evolved and appeared in different formats and settings, sometimes as part of a wider event, particularly in recent years. Many pubs have organised their own very popular festivals, such as The Cross Keys and Three Pigeons in Halifax. And also in Halifax, the IndyFax Festival has been run across a number of the town's most popular bars in the past few years. With the growth of breweries with their own taprooms, festivals featuring their own and guest beers have regularly taken place. In Scotland, Fyne Brewery, based on the Glen Fyne Estate in Argyllshire have hosted the highly-popular FyneFest with guest beers, live music, and camping, for example. And, for example, Manchester Beer Week, which was held in June in the city in the last few years before the pandemic, the event has been a multi-venue and multi-format event, ranging from the railway arch brewery taprooms to many of the city's most iconic pubs. Mentioning the pandemic, not surprisingly, there has been a number of virtual festivals and tastings held where you get to sample a range of pre-supplied beers in the comfort of your own home and share the experience with fellow drinkers via formats such as Zoom.

Manchester Beer Week: Underneath the arches at the Track Brewery tap

And so what of the future for the beer festival? Once we move on from the pandemic will there be a desire for them? The cost, the time to organise, likely increased insurance charges, the ease with which crowdfunding for a cause can be organised online, potential inertia from a public that has grown accustomed to drinking at home and not going out, there could be many factors mitigating against the beer festival as it was.

I do think though, that when we finally emerge, blinking, from our bunkers into the brave new post-Covid world, that the basic human desire to meet up at larger events will gradually return, despite all the potential reasons listed above pushing back against doing so. And so I think there is a future for the beer festival in some, or various, shapes or forms. After all, after 12 months or more, we have a lot of catching up to do, not just with our immediate family and friends, but those occasional faces we only see and those we only get chance to chat to when an event is on. It could be a neighbour, someone from across town, or someone drawn from further afield. As I said earlier on, what better way to catch up than whiling away a few hours over a few beers? And for local communities, I am sure there will be a desire to bring people back together communally after many months of isolation. I am sure the beer festival has a part to play in this re-building process, rather than just setting up a Gofundme page. Never underestimate the power of the shake of a bucket of coins and a persuasive smile in raising money. And yes, the beer might be slightly too warm, the choice of beer not quite what you would normally choose, but that's not really the point, is it?

The last beer festival I visited was at Wigan early in March 2020, as the warning drums were beating ever louder as the case numbers of Covid rose and the calls for lockdown were growing ever louder. The atmosphere at the festival, organised by the local CAMRA group and held at the Robin Park Leisure Centre in the shadow of the DW Stadium, though was superb, the beer range was varied and interesting, and we had an excellent afternoon there, surrounded by a wide mix of happy people drawn by a love of good beer.

Happy customers at Wigan Beer Festival, March 2020

It was a fitting reminder of why the beer festival, when done well, still has an important role to play 40-odd years since I stood in that freezing marquee in Salford.... 

Follow me on twitter: @realalemusic


  1. Some good memories, Chris. I think you're right, the heyday of festivals was in the 80s and 90s when beer range in pubs was so much more restricted. Attending a festival in Cambridge really was a different world.

    But these days, a stroll round Halifax, or north Manchester, or Kelham Island will give you unlimited choice, often at better quality than at a festival.

    And just as I find micropubs a bit boxy, I find festivals a bit too open. I guess a fest today is mainly a chance to meet your mates, and nothing wrong with that.

  2. I was once, a huge fan of beer festivals, especially as they afforded the chance of sampling lots of different beers. However, as more and more breweries appeared on the scene there was just too much choice, and far too many beers to try, so in the end, I went off the idea.

    I now prefer drinking my beer in pints, rather than halves or thirds, and for that reason a visit to a new town or different location, and a trip around a few classic pubs, suits my needs much better. I still have a soft spot for festivals, which dates back to the early days of CAMRA and my visit to the Campaign's first major beer festival.

    This pioneering event was billed as the “Covent Garden Beer Exhibition” rather than beer festival and took place in September 1975. It was held in the old Flower Market in London's Covent Garden. I attended the opening lunchtime session with a group of friends, and had to queue to get in, (no changes there.)

    It was certainly an eye-opener, so far as I was concerned, as I’d never seen so many beers on sale in one place. They were all dispensed by gravity, direct from casks, stillaged on the old flower stalls. It is difficult now to recall exactly which beers I sampled, but I do remember enjoying beers from the now sadly defunct Yorkshire Clubs Brewery.

    All the beers I tried that day were new to me, and it was very encouraging to be in the company of so many like-minded people, all enjoying decent ale in pleasant, if somewhat basic surroundings. The event far exceeded the expectations of its organisers and set the seal of approval for subsequent festivals, culminating in the hugely successful, annual Great British Beer Festival.

    I have since discovered that the Covent Garden Exhibition attracted over 40,000 people in total and am proud to say that one of whom was me! I still have my souvenir, half pint, festival tankard, somewhere in the loft.

    1. Hi, Paul, thank you very much for sharing your memories. The early days of the beer festival were very special, and yet in a different way I think done in the right and relevant way they still have something to offer.

    2. Those early days of beer festivals were indeed special Chris, but I much prefer pub festivals these days. When our pubs do eventually reopen these events will be worthy of special attention - more so than the mega festivals we have become accustomed to.

  3. Yes, good beer fest memories Chris. Manchester is the one I most look forward to, partly because of the great range of beers, but mainly because it's a great day out, meeting up with friends who I maybe haven't seen since the previous year. Part of that, and I think this may be partly my age, is that we can all a get a seat together for the whole day! I find that plans to try the beers I've identified in the programme go out the window after a couple of hours and it becomes like a day out in a giant pub.

    I went to a couple of the GBBFs at the Queens Hall and remember one of them as having my first experience of a blond ale. It was Exmoor Gold and it was a revelation. I missed the Jam concert but my wife tells me she was there!


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