Friday, 7 March 2014

2014 Festival, Friday evening: what do you recommend?

Friday evening sessions have long been renowned as ‘the session to be at’ at the Sussex Beer Festival. For several years, the Friday session was totally sold out within weeks of tickets going sale in January.  In 2014, we experimented with holding back 100 tickets for on-the-door sales, and based on that we rolled this out to all sessions this year. As it happened, all 100 tickets were snapped up within 30 minutes of the doors opening at 5pm, meaning lots of people wouldn’t have managed to make it down here in time after work. Still, there’s always the option to buy in advance next year…

Friday evenings are also the most hectic shift behind the bar. It can start off slow (not always, but it did tonight), but that’s just the calm before the storm. Come 7pm, the crowds flock in (having been home from work to change) and start going at it hammer and tongs. Already this evening, we’ve seen eight beers sell out in the first two hours (having already taken a hammering in earlier sessions), with plenty more teetering on the brink.

Friday evenings also see a change in the crowd. Whereas Thursday tends to be a relaxed crowd of knowledgeable drinkers and Friday lunch brings the scoopers I mentioned earlier, this session can be a mixed crowd, with first-timers, nervous ale drinkers and lots of trying. On the subject of trying before you buy, this is something CAMRA – and this festival – heartily supports, but there are limits… generally, two or three tries between purchases is considered the polite limit; any more, and looks like you’re trying to drink a pint in instalments for free! 

Everyone behind the bar is a volunteer, but the main perk for most of us is the free beer. We’re expected to remain upright, tuned in and ready to serve but, on the other hand, we do have a certain ‘duty’ to try all the beers in our section so we can provide recommendations. This skill becomes even more important as the festival progresses and more beers sell out. There are two usual ways to ask for a recommendation from a volunteer: 1, “what’s your favourite beer/what’s selling fast/what seems to be good?” or, 2, “what do you have that tastes like…?” Part of this is luck of the draw, as some of our volunteers are grizzled veterans with robust opinions on each and every beer style, whilst others are pulling their first ever pint behind a festival bar, but there really is no harm in asking!

And what’s my favourite beer? Well, it depends on a number of factors, including what I’ve eaten, what time of day it is and what mood I’m in. Earlier on today, I was very much on a lighter ABV, golden beer tip: my pick of the bunch there was possibly Oakham Citra (now sold out) or Alechemy Citra Burst. Later on, after my dinner, I’ll be heading for the dark beers, much the same as last night, when the beers at the top of my list are likely to be Rooster’s Londinium (coffee dark beer), Arundel Old Knucker or even a Harvey’s Prince of Denmark (a strong, end-of-evening fireside beer).  I know that the excellent Bristol Beer Factory Milk Stout has already sold out, but I’m not too disappointed – after all, I knew how good this was so made sure it was the first beer I had on arrival yesterday.

Of course, something nearly every festival-goer will say is that most of the fun of a beer festival is trying new beers: don’t be afraid to ask for recommendations, but don’t be afraid not to either!

2014 Festival: Friday lunch = scooper time!

So, after some internet problems (updates this lunchtime have gone from laptop to the world wide web via my mobile phone – mobile hot spotting!), we’ve just about managed to stay online. Which is handy, as it’s the only way I can justify my existence at the IT hot desk between Bar A and Bar B (if anyone actually bothers reading these blogs on the day, please do come and say hello!).

The Sussex Beer & Cider Festival has five separate sessions over the Festival weekend: Thursday evening (preceded by the two-hour trade session I revealed last night), Friday lunch, Friday evening, Saturday lunch and Saturday evening. We close for two hours between the day and evening sessions on Friday and Saturday, which gives us a chance to clean up a wee bit, have a break and let our crack team of cellarmen weave their magic.  Perhaps as a result of this approach, each of the five sessions has a distinct ambience all of its own.

This session – Friday lunch from 11am until 3pm – is probably my personal favourite, both as a paying punter (back in the day!) and as a volunteer. The crowd tends to be a mixture of retired folk and people who have taken the day off to enjoy probably the widest selection of beers.  Most beers will have reached condition, and only one or two are likely to have sold out on Thursday night – this year, our first two sell-outs came within minutes of each other around twenty-past-twelve mark: Thornbridge Jaipur IPA on Bar C (my opinion: a great beer, but one that’s usually quite widely available) and Top-Notch Hop Festival from the Sussex Bar (brewed by a man in his garage in Haywards Heath, I’m reliably informed – quite a feat to be selling as fast as one of the acknowledged great British ales!).

Friday lunchtime also sees the greatest concentration of ‘tickers’ (or the slightly more modern version, ‘scoopers’).  These renowned, but perhaps sometimes slightly eccentric, folk are the backbone of any festival that takes itself seriously in trying to source unusual or rare beers. For many of us (certainly for me), a beer festival is a chance to try some different beers and perhaps to find one that’s particularly nice and settle on that for a larger measure (although we serve three measures at Hove – thirds, halves and pints – halves tend to be favoured by the majority) or two. For a ticker/scooper, on the other hand, life is a relentless pursuit of beers that have not yet been tasted (or ‘ticked’ or ‘scooped’ in the relevant parlance).  They will try to obtain a copy of the beer list beforehand (to be fair, we do our best to help this by publishing our list as soon as it’s finalised, and then tracking updates throughout) and will often come to the Festival with a prepared plan of attack.

So, how does one identify a scooper? Well, some are just like you and me, whilst others can be distinguished by their lever-arch folders of carefully handwritten notes (seriously!), often bulging out of a well-worn supermarket carrier bag, or by the bulky rucksack that the wearer is strangely reluctant to take off, let alone entrust to the cloakroom.  Don’t fear these people – after all, without their constant demands for new beers, some beer festivals may be tempted to rest on their laurels and rely on the same beer list year-in, year-out…

Enough about Friday lunchtime - what are the other sessions like? Well, the trade session (invitation-only, strict door policy, not-what-you-know-but-who-you-know etc) is a mixed bag of genuinely interested landlords and the odd (and yes, I do mean odd) punter who’s sneaked in with the landlord of their local. It’s not too difficult to spot the difference! Thursday evening starts off as a mixture of enthusiastic trade session attendees who’ve stayed on and purchased tokens and local festival goers who are keen to try ales with a good chance of having the widest selection (not all beers necessarily reach condition by the start of the festival – last night, around 20 of the approx 240 beers weren’t ready for sale).  With a few exceptions, people tend to be more sensible, restrained and the crowd (if not the individuals within) starts to thin noticeably after 9.30pm. Sometimes, one or two particularly popular beers will sell out on Thursday night – this can be a double-edged sword for the brewer as, although a real vote of the beer’s popularity can be a source of pride, a beer that only lasts for a single session is less likely to attract the votes required for the Beer of the Festival.

Friday evening is the busiest session – although the volume of punters allowed through the door is capped strictly at 1,000 for each session (which we’ll tend to reach on at least one other session), Friday evening sees a crowd of dedicated drinkers firing on all cylinders, arriving early (we’ve seen people queuing before 4pm – an hour ahead of doors opening – in previous years) and tending to stay until ‘time’ is called. As Friday evening consistently sold out weeks in advance, we experimented last year by holding back 100 tickets for sale on the door, a measure which proved so popular we’ve repeated it for all sessions this year.As a volunteer, I often say that Friday night is the best session to be working, not least because it sometimes feels like we have more space behind the bar than the crowd has on the other side!

Saturday lunchtime can change depending on whether or not the Seagulls are at home (they are, and were last year too), as that brings in football fans from both the Albion and often the visiting team, all of whom leave around 1.30pm (along with a good proportion of our bar volunteers, leaving those of remaining quite busy!). Much like Friday lunch, the pace is slower than the weekend evening sessions, but with less ‘scoopers’ the crowd always seems a lot more laid back.

Saturday evening sees the band take the stage, so the session can sometimes feel more like a gig than a beer festival in the Main Hall.  The stage is the corner of the hall nearest the cider bar, and for this reason (and because beer stocks tend to be running low by this point), the cider and perry usually makes a late surge in sales. I always try to warn people planning on only coming to this final fifth session not to pin their hopes on trying a particular beer as, if it’s as good as they’re hoping, other people will have doubtless snaffled it all at previous sessions!
Anyway, that’s it for now, and I’ll be back with something new for this evening’s session.

(In all seriousness, I have a lot of respect for scoopers - and I hope nobody takes offence at the above, which was intended to be light-hearted.  The website Scoopergen is an excellent source of information for beers, particularly when travelling abroad).

Thursday, 6 March 2014

2014 Festival: Here we go again...

So, it's back to Hove Town Hall once again for the 24th Sussex CAMRA Beer & Cider Festival. Yet again, I've (barely) managed to keep my head above water with the pre-Festival website updates due to travel and work commitments, however I have 1.5 days holiday from work now in order to try and keep our live beer list up-to-date across all five sessions.

Helen (my wife, and the Beer Fest's new Twitter person) and I live up in Surrey these days, so we try and find a cheap hotel deal for the three nights, as it's a lot more relaxing knowing we don't need to rush for a train (or even face a bumpy 45-minute taxi ride whilst, ahem, tired and emotional at the end of a long shift!).  Our usual stand-by, the Holiday Inn, was too expensive (and I'm running out of loyalty points and don't want to squander them), however the Travelodge on West St came up trumps with a £50 a night deal.  We even have a sea view (well, a very oblique one, if you tilt your head in a particular way, and across the battleground that the bottom end of West Street will inevitably become late each night!).

When I arrived at the Festival this afternoon, the top-secret, invitation-only, more-desirable-than-an-Oscars-afterparty Trade Session was in full swing. This runs from 3pm-5pm before the doors first open to the general public and it gives CAMRA the chance to showcase some of the beers to landlords and other people within the trade (and sometimes, some of the landlords favourite regulars, perhaps...!) - the idea being to help promote the wide variety of ale styles and tastes and hopefully encourage pubs to cast the net wider in their search for guest beers.  Even the volunteers are invitation-only for this one!

Sussex is just beginning to catch on to the micropub revolution that launched in Kent a few years ago, and I bumped into Nigel, the landlord of the the first (and currently only) micropub in Sussex - the excellent Anchored in Worthing - on the stairs on my way in.  I hadn't expected to see him at the Trade Session, as micropubs tend to keep quite restricted hours, however he'd managed to find a stand-in to allow him a chance to sample some of the ales on offer.  I've made a point of popping in to Anchored every time I've been down in Worthing, and Nigel has done an excellent job of rotating three casks of Sussex ale over the past few months (with one notable exception - his 'alien ales' week).  The bug is catching, with new micropubs planned for Shoreham and another in Worthing, with the Argus running a story just this week on a potential micropub for Hove. For anyone who hasn't tried a micropub yet, I can't recommend it enough - no music, no alcopops, just quality ale, cider (and sometimes wine) and friendly conversation.

I'll be back again tomorrow with another update, but before I go, I want to recommend the Caveman Citra (on Bar B, but likely to be one of the earliest to sell out) and the Dunham Massey Chocolate Cherry Mild (another Bar B ale), which smells like Ski yoghurt (are they even still in the shops?) but tastes of bitter chocolate and cherry without being overly sweet.

Saturday, 2 March 2013

Painting the Forth Bridge

I've had to abandon my plans to do one final sweep of the beers remaining for the final hour of the festival (we close at 10pm on the Sat night to give the staff a chance to put their feet up with a beer or two)... it's like painting the Forth Rail Bridge, as just as soon as I've swept one bar, another beer behind me will have gone!  It's been taking at least 30 minutes to cover the four ale bars, plus additional delays caused by needing to weave between ever more unsteady punters!

The cellar team (Kim, Rudolph, Byron and Steve upstairs, Paul and Paul downstairs) have assured me that we won't run out of beer this evening, but obviously customers aren't necessarily going to get their first choice (unless they really, really like milds - I'm lucky, I do!).

For next year, I'll need to look into whether there's a better way to do this - if I can design the necessary pages to be updateable from an iPad, for instance, then at least I can do updates on the hoof rather than have to scurry back to my corner of the kitchen!  Alternatively we may be able to set something low-tech up with the bar managers, however that won't provide for the scenario we had this lunchtime where we had too few volunteers.

Anyway, I'd be very interested in any feedback on how useful the live beer list updates were?  Did anyone use the full list, or was the Beer Changes page better?  Is there anything else people would like to see, and how well did it fit on a smartphone screen?

On the home straight

We were drastically under-staffed by volunteers for the Saturday lunchtime shift, meaning all hands literally were to the pumps!  This curtailed my ability to update the beer list from 1pm until the session ended at 3pm, but I was all too aware that many beers were running out from what I could see with my own eyes.

Without resorting to stereotypes, the Saturday lunchtime crowd differs from the previous day's - where Friday has dedicated ale drinkers to the fore (consider the demographics - a good proportion of CAMRA's membership must be retired and therefore easily able to devote a weekday to quaffing quality ales!), Saturday has more of a party feel, as evidenced by the fancy dress and the novelty hats (sold from the ever-popular Smart-Ts stall in the Main Hall).  One of the possible consequences of this is that not every customer will realise that the whole festival is a volunteer enterprise - some can be quite demanding and question any poor service.  Whilst nobody likes waiting with an empty glass, sometimes a little understanding would go a long way...!

Anyhow, lunch turned out to be a truncated affair - I'm looking forward to a proper hot meal this evening with my staff meal voucher! - and the two hour break between sessions brought little respite either.  With the beer list needing updating, the only thing for it was to grab another programme and go around the bars updating by hand, then rushing to get the live beer list and beer change lists updated before the doors swung open again at 5pm.  Whilst we can't magic up any new beer, the best we can do is at least try and make the information as readily available to people.

A slow start to Saturday (for me, anyway)

I've not made it out of the kitchen yet, having raced round with my helper (thanks Helen!) to record which beers didn't survive the final hour of Friday evening.

As the kitchen doubles up as a staff room, where volunteers can sign in (there's a health and safety one-pager we all have to read and sign), store their coats, change into their festival logo t-shirts and pick up their staff glass, I get to hear where any resource crunches are.  For instance, within 30 minutes of opening time we had a rush in the Sussex Bar, followed slightly later on Bar C (the first bar people entering the Main Hall encounter).  We've also got a few volunteers ducking out early to get across Brighton for the Albion match at home to Huddersfield, however its also quite possible a corresponding proportion of customers will do the same, thus offsetting any staff shortages we'd otherwise have. 

My next task is to do another sweep of the bars to check what's sold out in the past 90 minutes or so, then update the live lists, before almost certainly stepping behind a bar to help cover lunch breaks.

Friday, 1 March 2013

Number crunching

I'd love to stay and chat, I really would, but...

The last 30 mins of Friday night can be a wee bit challenging for the bar staff, so it's pretty much all hands to the pump(s)!  In the past 45 minutes, I've run around again annoying our excellent cellar team of Kim, Rudolph and Byron (Main Hall) and Paul and Paul (Sussex Bar), finding out that 4 beers are still playing hard to get in terms of condition and no less than 43 are sold out (with a few either way possibly temporarily taken off sale to ensure we have sufficient quantity for the SIBA beer tasting session tomorrow where a handful of hand-picked beers are being judged for national competition.

The upshot of this is that, by 10pm (more than halfway through the five sessions) we had around ONE-HUNDRED-AND-SEVENTY-FIVE different beers to choose from.  That's not bad by any measure!

Now, off to pour some beer I go...