A Celebration Of Ales: On Beer Festivals and the Bath Pavilion Beer Festival 2009

It is an odd state of affairs that a good beer festival must be simultaneously about the Ale, and yet also must not solely be about the ale.

The first part is the easier to comprehend. Without the beer, a beer festival is destined to be nothing more than a gathering of oddly thirsty individuals and so it is the second part of that statement that I shall expound upon.

If a beer festival concentrates purely on putting on a selection of ales, it will find itself lacking despite whatever wonderful range it puts forth, for, especially in this day and age, the beer fan can find hundreds of world beers with nary but a willingness to type words into google. A good festival will have advantages in economy of scale in that they can present beers that would be difficult for an individual to gather without excessive overheads, and keg and cask ales can often taste significantly different to their bottle cousins that are more easily available, but still a beer festival is no more just a collection of drinks that a good tavern is.

A beer festival should not only provide the ales, but an area for enjoyment that is more than not only a home drinking session, but also more than would be available in a decent tavern.

On that note I shall move to look at this years CAMRA festival at the Bath Pavilion. Its selection of ales from around the UK was significant and well ranging, with over 70 ales, and a smattering of Belgium and world beers, plus some ciders.

In previous years there have been problems with security preventing people sitting on the floor, which when combined with the lack of seating available meant anyone with any disabilities or medical problems that made standing for long periods painful found the event less that hospitable, with little comfort shown by the staff and security. Thankfully this year, several chairs spread across the floor became evident, making for a much more hospitable environment.

This however did bring into focus the issue, that for a beer festival there was little in place to encourage and interaction between the many people who came here with a common passion for ale. Whilst, with effort or just by unusual habits (yet again, the taking of beer tasting notes sparked several conversations, including some friendly discussions with the somewhat bemused security staff) conversations could be sparked to discuss preferred ales, mostly the usual circles remained together.

However nothing seemed organised by the festival to help encourage this discussion of drinking habits. The festival would have benefited by maybe an area set for shared tasting of the same ale where drinkers could compare notes and thus help break people out from their usual discussion groups.

The beer program given on entry provided a nice guide to the beers, but in many cases failed to even list the style of the beer – which would seem, even more than ABV, to be the most important information to give.

Also with so many beers being local, getting some people capable of giving more information on the beer would have helped elevate the festival above being just an extra large drinking session.

Any representatives of the Breweries should surely be interested in promoting their ales to such a receptive public, and the information they could give on choices made in developing the beer, its brewing methods, and information on their smaller breweries, would have added a context to the ales that would have surely encouraged a more meaningful sip. Even the organiser giving information on why the chosen beers were ordered for the festival would have given an appreciation of the selection that was unfortunately lacking.

Aside from that even just charts showing what hops were used for which beers, to allow you to see trends between favoured ales or to compare when you find similar notes would add to the joy, and provide a single point to meet and encourage sharing of your newfound knowledge.

It is these lacking details that I referred to in the early paragraphs – without these, or other similar additions, we have but an overly large and less comfortable drinking establishment. Which, whilst impressive in its range, does little to add to the experience of the ale.

Similarly the provided music, which whilst perfectly placed on the first night – proved to drown out conversation on the second night, reducing, rather than enhancing the atmosphere

The festival itself was enjoyable more than this discussion would suggest, but in many ways it was a festival that only gave back to you if you pushed it to do so. Without such prodding it would not open up and become sociable, and thus remained just a collection of ales rather than a festival.

And thus is the crux of an issue, why does so often the ale festival forget that amongst the ale one should find some festivity?

So now I throw the discussion open here on how can these festivals become more, and provide more than just alcoholic refreshment?