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...

The calm before the storm

The last of our 100 walk-up tickets was sold between 6.30pm and 7pm - just a handful of odd returns (we don't give refunds, but we will try and hook up willing buyers with willing sellers) remain on the door.

Although this evening is always the most hectic, it tends to be contained in relatively short bursts - 8pm (or just before) until 9pm, and then the final 30 minutes or so tend to be non-stop.  Right now (or 15 mins ago, to be precise), the Sussex Bar downstairs practically had tumbleweed blowing through it! We all know things are going to get a little crazy shortly...

By 7.10pm, we've had 18 beers sell out (Tiny Rebel from South Wales must take the prize - all three of their beers have gone already, including Urban IPA which was first to go last night!) and 7 still to reach condition.  From our starting point of 222 beers, this means that a stunning 197 beers are available to choose from right now!

All-in-all, I have to say everything's gone really well so far.  The beer list changes have been manageable (unlike last year, when nearly 20% of the beer list changed from the programme!), the catering options are superb (hot food on the balcony, chocolates in the Main Hall stairwell foyer and the amazing Olives and Things downstairs opposite the Bottle Bar (I admit it - I'm a sucker for chili-pickled eggs!) give a multitude of options that go great with beer.

Two-and-a-half sessions to go: here's hoping everything carries on the same vein and that the paying public is having as much fun as me (even if I am sitting in a half-lit kitchen on my own typing this blog...)

Refreshed and raring to go

For the first time ever, I've stayed in Hove Town Hall between shifts.  Usually, it's a good idea to pop out for some fresh air (even when that fresh air is merely the gap from HTH to The Neptune!), but today - with the website to update for beer changes between sessions (following the post-session dipping by the cellar guys) - it was more prudent to stay put.  The beer festival is a sedate and peaceful place when not open to the public - small groups of staff unwind over a beer or two and rest their weary legs (as fun as the bar work is, it is tiring!).

Relaxing between sessions:

This is however a fantastic time to have a good look for unusual beers (and to spot which beers have been flying out and are likely to run out shortly!).  The angle of the cask - known as the "stoop" - is often a good indicator of how much beer is left inside.  This should only ever be done by an experienced cellarman - stooping too early will churn up the sediment and can render the beer undrinkable (as can tilting the cask by hand, no matter how well-intentioned the motives are!).

We did have the unusual phenomenon of a queue forming before 4pm - possibly in reaction to the 100 first-come, first-served tickets for sale on the door.  Friday night is our flagship session, often selling out three or four weeks beforehand, so a busy night is expected.  This is also the session I often describe to people as being more comfortable behind the bar than in front of it, as we have more space!  

A postprandial post

One of the many advantages of volunteering at the Festival is a free meal for each volunteer at each shift.  This year, the catering is an unqualified success and has been provided by the Real Meat Sausage Co ( - I had the pasta last night, and just a cheese and pickle roll for lunch now (having had a big breakfast), but fellow volunteers are raving about the sausages and pies.  We even have a specially screened-off seating area up on the balcony to ensure volunteers get some peace and quiet to sit and eat for their 30 minute break.

Volunteering is a lot of fun, with bar work the bread and butter essential activity that keeps the festival flowing.  All volunteers are loaned a glass (usually from a festival gone by) and are largely free to taste as many beers as they wish (provided they don't neglect their duties and remain sufficiently compos mentis to carry out their role).  When it comes to working the bar, it's almost a duty to have a taste of all of the beers on your own section, as customers will continually ask "what's that one like?".  Even though I'm spending the majority of my time squirreled away in the kitchen this time around, I've still pulled a fair few pints at the busiest moments and there's a real buzz and camaraderie both with fellow bar workers and in bantering with the festival-goers.  

Once upon a time, only CAMRA members could volunteer (for insurance purposes) but now anyone can ask to do a shift - having said that, it makes sense that members would be interested, as (1) it's already their passion, and (2) they will likely already have a good idea how  good ale should be served.  If anyone is interested, then the Membership Stall at the Festival (just outside the doors to the Main Hall) is a good place to ask during the Festival; otherwise, keep an eye on or contact your local CAMRA branch.


Morning, or as they say in Olde Sussex dialect, "Nin!"

Last night's final update didn't quite go to plan - things remained hectic right up until 10.30pm.  I then trotted down to the Sussex Bar to get myself a half of Harvey's excellent Prince of Denmark, which at 7.4% is definitely in "getting close to the end of the session" territory and is very nice (if a little sweet and treacly), when I got caught up in a rush and ending up pulling pints (and thirds and halves) right up until "Time" was called.  I also heard a classic quote whilst pausing to buy a chili-pickled egg (one of my weaknesses) - "They've called 'time' early down here, so I'm going upstairs...!".  Needless to say, the Sussex Bar and the Main Hall are still in the same time zone and the gentleman in question found that his quest was fruitless.  We do have to stick very closely to the rules - although we're not permanent, we do have a licence that we need to have renewed every year, so we really can't bend the rules!

Anyway, my first hour back at Hove Town Hall has involved running around and speaking to the cellar teams to see what's come on for Friday lunchtime and what's already sold out.  Tiny Rebel - from Newport in Wales - took the honour for the first beer to sell out, with their well-received Urban IPA that sold out last night!  It was closely followed this morning when the last couple of pints of Oakham Citra were supped within 20 minutes of the doors opening.  Unfortunately for me, I didn't get a chance to try either - I've made up for this today by using some 'inside information' on what's likely to be the next beer to go.  I can't mention the beer itself (for fear of causing a stampede!), but I can reveal that it's from the Sussex Bar.

People often ask us why we can't get more beer in to replace the ones that have sold out - or why we can't go to the brewery for a new cask.  As I'm sure a lot of people already know, real ale is alive in the cask, and it needs time to settle (or 'condition') - once the cask is tapped, the very small amounts of air cause the yeast to sink to the bottom and form sediment.  Only when this happened over the course of a few days is the beer ready to be enjoyed - the decision as to when each beer is ready rests with our cellar team.  We also have limited space - we've squeezed in just over 220 casks this year, but not all are the same size - and there's no 'sale or return' with a live, temperamental product like real ale, so all we can do is try our best to estimate what people are likely to drink over the five sessions and buy in the appropriate amount of beer.