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National Winter Ales Festival 2013 - A Reasonable Farewell

Perhaps if this had been three years ago I would really have lamented the loss of the National Winter Ales Festival in Manchester. Not only has it long been held in my home city, but it was also my first ever beer festival, signifying a special place in my heart.

That first visit was in 2006 and the event was then held in a co–operative building near Victoria station. At the time, my young ale loving mind was rather gobsmacked by the wondrous multi roomed, multi floored experience as barrels and casks of the good stuff stood waiting for me to try at no more than 90p for a generous half pint. Breweries and beer styles I had never heard of were present. It was also where I had my first taste of rauchbier, an encounter I have never regretted.

I paid £3 to enter that day as a non CAMRA member. The organisations members that did travel with me on the occasion entered the festival for free (so they say, I’m inclined to believe they paid at least £1.) “They’re not a money making festival,” they informed me, sensing my bewilderment. And so it seemed. Surely this is the biggest and best festival I would ever visit, I thought at the time.

In the past seven years I have revisited the festival several times including one instance at the latest Sheridan Suite location, on Oldham Road. The new location proved functional and spacious, though it lacked a little of the awe provided by the old setting. Still, I had to attend this year as this was to be the festival’s farewell to Manchester and a little part of my drinking heritage.

So why am I not as sorry as I would have been two or three years ago? Well we shall get to that.

First let me say that I did enjoy this year’s event despite my pessimism on entering. Due to work reasons, I was only able to attend the festival on Saturday, a pet peeve of mine. Usually when this is the case I don’t actually get to try any of the beer I intend to as it has all run off. Whilst this was the case for a few ales this year, it was not in the extreme it has happened on previous occasion.

There was a more jovial ambience than I have experienced at more recent CAMRA run festivals and less prehistoric volunteers growling at my youth. In fact, youth was a rather impressive factor here. I remember at that first visit in 2006 remarking to my brother that we were the only people under the age of 45 I had seen all day. Not the case this year, with groups upon groups of younger members in attendance, though my insistence that I would win any festival’s best-looking and best-dressed categories still remains (the fedora is still not an acceptable fashion accessory). A good sign of the recent good beer resurgence.

There was also no line measuring (see picture left for a third pint measure) at this festival. Generous halves and very generous thirds were the order of the day, as they should be at every festival.

I certainly had a good go at trying as many beers as possible and made use of the third measurement on the glass toward the end. In under three hours I tried thirteen different beers (that I can recall.)  Whilst many in the running for the champion beer prize had long since been polished off, I focused solely on beers new to me. I was also notably impressed with Brentwood’s ChocworkOrange and Offbeat’s Venus Ella. We were all very captivated by our first taste of Liverpool Craft and their excellent Icon Dark and pleasant American Red Ale.  Whilst the two CAMRA members I had in company went back for more of the Worthington’s Winter Shield, my favourite beer on the day, by a good mile, was Quantum’s Grimley’s Brown Bombshell, a beer that reaffirms my love of the US Brown ale style.

What has really appealed to me about this event, and something that will always be lacking from the new wave of beer festival, are the stalls selling all manner of beer parafonalia. Whilst the many posters and t-shirts showing love for Oliver Reed seem to have passed as a fad, I spoke for a good while with the man behind the book stall and had a good browse at his merchandise. I told him how sorry I was that I couldn’t buy most of his stock, which I was enthralled with, but that I hoped he would keep returning to these festivals. I was disappointed there was nobody selling old pump clips!

Well organised and well run, it has only been seven years for myself since I first came to NWAF and, despite an alteration in venue, there are a lot of things that haven’t changed.  Nor need they as this was still an enjoyable experience. Unfortunately, the major difference in the last seven years comes down to finances.

In 2006, I paid £3 for entry (which included a programme) and £1 for a glass deposit. Breaking out a pound sterling for an ale at the event must have meant you were purchasing a real specialty. These were festival prices. In 2013 I paid £5 for entrance, an additional £1 for a programme and £2.50 for a glass deposit. Needing also to dump my coat, I paid out another £1 for someone to put my coat on a hanger. All this after paying £6 for a taxi to reach the event from the station. As for the beers, well I understand we’ve had a tax hike inside the pubs but…

This is an enormous leap for a non profit organisation. If you’re not in it for the money then what part of my £5 didn’t cover a programme that is full of advertisements that would have paid for it anyway? If this is a non profit organisation, who got the £1 I gave you to hang up my coat? The volunteer shouldn’t have needed it. If this is a non profit organisation, what glass maker are you using who has recently hiked his prices up by 150%?

Furthermore, I take issue with the entrance fee for a Saturday. £2 entrance on a Thursday when only the retired will make it and there will be the full range of ales available. £3 on a Friday when travellers from further afield would be unable to come and most of the beers will still be there. But on the Saturday, when really we’re just soaking up the dregs that weren’t good enough for the others? Oh sure, we have a much smaller range available to us so hike up the price. Fair.

Not many beer festivals are cheap these days, not even the ones I really enjoyed last year, such as Indy Man BeerConvention or the one at MOSI. However, it is the creation of these rival events that has led to me not being particularly saddened by the loss of the NWAF to my city. I enjoyed those festivals more. They didn’t run out of beer on a brutal scale. They had better and more enjoyable locations. They had friendlier and more helpful staff. I’m sorry, but they were just better.

The National Winter Ales Festival will always hold a special place to me, but I do not lament its impending departure as I imagined I once would. I look forward to the replacement event at the velodrome anyway. Sure, it won’t have an official title, but frankly what difference is that going to make ?


Looke said…
I have to admit I did think NWAF was a bit steep. My first, and obviously, last year at Manchester. I wonder what it will be like in Derby?
Cooking Lager said…
All Camra beer festivals are profit making except the f*ck ups. That is the point of them. To raise money to send to head office to fight the war against poor people drinking.

They used to be about encouraging people to try real ale but the spoons do a better job so they just concentrate on emptying the wallets of beer geeks these days.

Considering they don't pay the staff, they just dish out a few beer tokens worth a fraction of the minimum wage they are raking it in.
Yvan Seth said…
The organisation is non-profit, the festival itself not necessarily so though. Festivals are both a cask ale marketing mechanism & a way to raise funds to back the wider campaign. I don't know the numbers for the NWAF... but I would suspect that some profit is intended to be made?

Anyway - I agree! I've travelled to Manchester for NWAF, it is a good festival with some good beer. IMO the food is shite, but I like good food as well as good beer... (I also find the GBBF decidedly uninspiring in the food department...) I went to IMBC in 2012 and it rocked... better beer, better food, better location (and, to be a bit mean, a better crowd too... this is probably a function of generation gap.)

I'll continue to travel to Manchester for a beer festival each year, but it'll be IMBC not NWAF. I considered NWAF this year, but... well I only have so much time & money for beer festivals and I know IMBCv2 is on the way! The decision not to go wasn't a difficult one.

I wonder if CAMRA is going to take any noticeable hit from a new (and hopefully sustainable) wave of non-CAMRA festivals? Hopefully there are enough beer drinkers to go around (despite a few rough edges, I am generally in favour of the continued existence of CAMRA).
Curmudgeon said…
If you budget to break even at or near sell-out, then if for whatever reason you fall short of that then you make a sizeable loss. And who's going to pay for that?
Yvan Seth said…
Not quite accurate. Many branches make little more profit than what is required to fund their own activities in their branch area. This pays to subsidise a handful of promotional events and activities (minibus trips, brewery visits, etc) and things like glossy branch newsletters. Importantly cash in the bank is required to get the next beer festival off the ground too. Any excess profit does go to HQ of course.

Even the quite successful festivals I've been involved in don't make significant profits that could be called "raking it in". A festival, as run by CAMRA branches, could never been a commercially viable enterprise. I did the numbers on it once (vaguely inspired by the idea of trying something independent), we couldn't even afford to pay the volunteers half the minimum wage. Door prices & beer prices would have to be a lot higher to make the events something that make what I'd consider "reasonable" profit. (And that's on the assumption that staff numbers are drastically lower than volunteer numbers - volunteers are great, but to be honest are also pretty useless half the time.)
Mark Johnson said…
I'm tempted to go to Derby out of pure intrigue but if the prices are similar to this year's, plus travel expenses, it wouldn't be viable for me
Mark Johnson said…
I imagine you made entirely the right decision. If there were no rivals to NWAF then I would accept the prices - Indy Man wasnt exactly cheap. But the fact that there are numerous other festivals in the city centre and of a much better quality... roll on IMBC2
Mark Johnson said…
I see that angle. Out of all the fees it's the programme that bothers me most because it is already full of adverts. You can see why people would question it, but I have faith that, as you say, the intention is merely to break even and as long as that is always the case I will pay what it takes
Curmudgeon said…
No, the intention is to make a profit, but realistically you have to budget to make a profit to avoid the risk of making a big loss which ultimately would have to be underwritten by the members of CAMRA. Beer festivals don't in general make huge amounts of money - the punters may well not realise, for example, how much hiring the hall costs.
Birkonian said…
Why pay for a taxi when CAMRA negotiated a £2 return bus ticket from Manchester City Centre -every 5 minutes or so. Entry was free to CAMRA members on Thurday and £2 on Friday. Why not join, you'll soon get your money back in 'Spoons vouchers and discounts at festivals including some abroad. Most poeople attending on Thursday weren't retired. Many like me planned ahead and booked a day off work.
Cooking Lager said…
If you like getting pissed up on pongy grog, it is well worth joining the beard club. Pays for itself. What gets forgotten is the often free brewery tours with free bars which occur a few times a year in most branches. If you are a quick study you will soon learn how to get to the front when the tour ends, get to front of the bar and get a good skin full down you for nowt so long as you neck it quickly.
Cooking Lager said…
If the profit aspect bothers you, steer clear of the big events for these are little more than money generating exercises. Also steer clear of those events where sponsorship has clearly taken precedence. The smaller community events with the smaller beer choice and lack of weird looking people wearing a lot of beige will barely financially scrape by. Anything of which there is a doubt will reoccur next year is a good sign of losing money hand over fist too, though not if like NWAF is is moving to Derby & being replaced in Manchester due to internal conflicts among beards.
Tandleman said…
Would you like the official NWAF position? Well, as Deputy Organiser. here it is.

Firstly I'm afraid that the venue itself isn't cheap. The door money will just about cover the hire. That's the way most festivals operate. You get your money to pay the landlord through the door and you then hope to make some money (for campaigning purposes) after selling some beer. And yes, we aim to make a profit. We have to, otherwise the budget will not be approved. What profit there is, goes straight back into paying for the Campaign. No apologies for that.

Of course there are overheads too. Hire of this that and the other, costs of getting people home at night, kit - how do you think we buy all the steel to do it in the first place? We have a considerable amount of beer to buy, some of it up front. There is many more things, but hopefully you get the picture.

Programmes? We used to give out a free programme, but you know what? If you give them out free, nobody values them. They just chuck them on the floor, leave them on tables, use them as beer mats and then just ask for another. They are free after all, so why not? It meant that despite ordering enough for the prospective audience, we ran out by Saturday lunchtime. When people pay they value it. I know. I cleared tables and floors both then and now and believe me, few aren't taken home now.

Glasses? Yes the costs of these have gone up considerably and anyway, if you don't want it, you get your money back. Or if you don't fancy hiring one, bring your own, as long as it is lined to third, half and pint. No problem.

Coats? Again, we have to hire in racks. There is limited space. If it was free, we'd be overwhelmed, so we try and recover the cost of hire and make best use of space. the people manning the cloakroom like to think they are contributing to the campaign too. It is a bit of a soul destroying job, done with amazing cheerfulness and we do look after your property.

Taxi? Your call. As someone pointed out we had a £2 return on the frequent buses. You could have walked from Piccadilly in half and hour or got the bus round the corner.

Saturday. If you call having over 200 cask beers, around 30 ciders and about 50 foreign beers (which is what we had at 8pm) soaking up the dregs, then you are a hard man to please. Beer Festivals are like sales. Come early for the best selling and most popular beers, but nobody can say, nearly 300 alcoholic drinks doesn't offer choice.

As for the admission fee. See above. You could join CAMRA and come in free or book a day off or get a pound off. Your call again.

"They didn’t run out of beer on a brutal scale. They had better and more enjoyable locations. They had friendlier and more helpful staff. I’m sorry, but they were just better."

We didn't run out of beer on any scale, never mind brutally. As for friendlier elsewhere? I doubt it. Better? Your call, but you'd spend a damn sight more at IndyManBeerCon. MOSI is a unique location, but it is staffed by mostly the same people. Again, your call.

The problem I think is that is that sometimes people think that because the volunteers are free, that everything else is. Hire of commercial premises, is horrendously expensive, especially as we need this hall for nearly 11 days. Price that up and I think you'll change your mind and yet still, the average price of a pint was something like £2.90, which, given that there was a lot of strong ales, isn't bad. I think we went as low as £2.20 for some.

Our foreign beers, both bottled and draught, given their rarity, sold way below pub levels.

And thank you for showing how much over measure you got. I'll pay particular attention to that, to prevent it happening so much at the Velodrome. Maybe because of my position, I found staff were pretty keen to ensure my half pints were exact! (-:

So, I'm sorry you felt underwhelmed by it, but hope at least you can see why some of it is done.

See you at the Velodrome.
Mark Johnson said…
There are elements to the campaign I have conflicting views about so I haven't joined on that basis. It would be like joining the conservatives if I hated rich people. Whilst I appreciate the work they do I won't join just to get into festivals for free
Mark Johnson said…
Thank you for taking the time to take me through that. It has given me good information. Firstly, let me say that I was not underwhelmed by the festival - I very much enjoyed it. It was terrificly well run and I congratulate yourself and everyone else involved on that. Secondly, I appreciate that all costs will have gone into consideration before the pricing, but there has been a noticeable leap. Inflation I guess. I accept the taxi was my choice, I just arrived in the city unsure of where to get the bus from - my fault.

Finally, please don't start encouraging stricter measures! I had a nightmarish experience of that at A Huddersfield festival and it ruined it. Relaxed and unstrict staff makes for a more jovial festival, and this was the case here.
Sat In A Pub said…
Hmmm. I feel compelled to put in my tuppence worth after reading some of the comments here. Tandleman has answered some of the points raised about NWAF but steered clear of addressing the negative comparisons that were drawn with IMBC. So, I’ll try to redress that balance.

Ultimately, it’s got to be about the beer, but let’s take an overview. Venue: I don’t live in Manchester, so neither venue was easier or harder to get to than the other and it cost me the same. A better venue? I suppose this mean a “nicer” venue. Certainly the Victoria Baths was a picturesque setting, but not very practical. That and the lack of seating gives the NWAF a win in my book.

The IMBC was horrendously expensive and you were restricted to third measures. The NWAF treated you as a grown up and at a much more reasonable rate-the foreign beers were particularly good value.
Now we come to the beer; well, that’s no contest at all. IMBC did have some fantastic keg beers, but as we’re comparing like for like, we’re left comparing the cask selection. Forget the gulf in actual numbers, the selection at IMBC-with one or two exceptions-wasn’t very good. It was disappointing, but understandable; to see a group of CAMRA under 30s abandon the cask bar for the allure of the superior keg offerings.

NWAF was far more inclusive and approachable than IMBC which came across as something more akin to a beer geek’s wet dream than a true beer festival. So I for one,am sorry that CAMRA politics has driven the NWAF from my doorstep.
Cooking Lager said…
I don't like the fact they are a campaign of the middle classes against the less discerning habits of the working classes, But heh, free grog is involved and it's a no brainer if you like that sort of thing. The more people to tell the old bearded codgers that they are talking arse the better too.
Cooking Lager said…
You might want to mention that IMBC was a private venture run by a profit making company too for lining the pockets of producers whilst the beards use the profits for piss pointless campaigns against Tesco. It all depends where you want your money to go, dunnit?
Mark Johnson said…
All you've done here is prove that you have a different opinion on what makes a good "festival" to mine, which is fine. Everyone seems to have completely ignored the part where I described how much I enjoyed NWAF and why. Everyone has abandoned that pretence just to focus on me moaning about the pricing, but you're defending (as Mr Cooking Lager states above me here) whether it should be cheaper at a festival run for a profit or by a "non-profit organisation." If I went into Harvey Nichs I wouldn't guffaw at a £300 suit, but I might if I saw it in Cancer Research UK

As for the poor selection of cask at IMBC, I suppose that depends whether you want a Cantillon Gueze or a Robinsons Unicorn. Personally, I know which one I preferred as an overall experience and day out. But, hey, some people like Cheddar and some people like Cheshire
Tandleman said…
"whether it should be cheaper at a festival run for a profit or by a "non-profit organisation."

It was way cheaper at NWAF. On all counts.

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