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!