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Manchester Beer & Cider Festival - 1 Festival, 2 days, 2 very different experiences.

If you don’t make mistakes then how do you learn?

The problem for large CAMRA run festivals for as long as I've been attending them has always been to do with the Saturday dregs the majority of hard working folk are punished with supping. Each time this happens people complain that they have to pay the largest entry fee for the poorest range of beer available across four days. Every time the same arguments are had. But you live and learn, so they say,except, actually, they never do.

To address this issue I had to take matters into my own hands when it came to the Manchester Beer and Cider Festival 2014 that was being held at the remarkable venue of the National Cycling Centre. The location prospect, plus early beer lists made me excited to have chance to attend, but I knew that the organisers would do nothing to target the problematic Saturday run-off. So I risked jeopardising any work I had to do in my job Friday morning by heading down to the festival Thursday evening after work.  My experience of the festival on this evening was very different to Saturday and so I would like to briefly speak on it as if I had never attended the farcical Saturday session.

Friend Sat in imaginary chair
For one, I really liked the setting and location. I don’t think anybody enjoyed the cold, utilitarian and functional Sheridan Suite much, unless you are passionate about the décor of Working Men’s Clubs. In contrast, a large spacious floor in between a functioning cycling track was a joy. The problems that were well documented were the strange insistence that they used the abundant floor space for as few tables and chairs as possible. Leaving plenty of standing room is great, but the amount of people who took to sitting down on the floor was remarkable. Perhaps the organisers hoped more people would sit in the stands, but I think we can all acknowledge that the hike to them was irritating.

Speaking of irritating hikes, the trek to the toilets became an issue to everyone and understandably so. There were plenty of full bladders knocking around who did not want to negotiate four flights of stairs for practically every pint drunk. I'm not overweight so don’t mind stairs, just not with a big crowd and bursting Urethra. Here I blame the Velodrome designers, rather than festival organisers. The walkway to the centre of the track seemed like a perfect place to have a few toilets to me and would certainly have been more practical for us, rather than walking back to the building entrance. I got around this irritant by timing toilet breaks with going for food, which was just by the toilets or taking a strong beer I wanted to drink slowly in the stands with me to sit down. Simple.

I mentioned going on Thursday to have a full crack at the beer range and I was not disappointed. This festival had a really good range of Classic and Modern cask beer (though don’t get me started on naming the bars “Craft bars.”) I took my time to check which beers I really wanted to try that would be doubtless gone by Saturday and worked my way around.

Black IPAs happened to be the winners here for me, with not much to choose for my beer of the festival between Alechemy’s Black Aye PA, Weird Beard’s Fade to Black and the surprising Thwaites’ Fallen Nun. Quantum Brewery’s Small Beer also deserved notable recognition for being one of my favourite treats of the day. Unfortunately, British Brewers proved again that so many have no idea what to do with Smoked malt, as I was excited to try some of the new smoked beers around, only to be repeatedly disappointed. Offbeat and Otherton’s Zany Smoky Winter Wit may have had some interesting character but the smoke was far too subtle. York’s Great Walls of Fire was again far too understated and shamed by the fantastic Schlenkerla Urbock on the European bar. I’m pretty sure Thwaites’ forgot to add the rauchmalt to their Smoke Stack.

In terms of other festival aspects, an interesting and wide range of goods for sale and decent food choices made for a good experience. Ample cloakroom space and a good number of volunteers made Thursday evening just about my favourite January Manchester Beer Festival. At this point I was looking forward to writing a favourable review and congratulating event organisers for choice of venue and execution.

Then came Saturday…

As stated earlier, beer festivals such as this one always have problems with so much beer having run off by Saturday. They've had plenty of warning of this problem, yet never address it. On the Saturday of this Manchester Beer and Cider Festival, it wasn't just the good beer that started to run off – it was ALL of it.
Missing White tickets
I returned for Saturday so I could take a couple of friends of mine who could not make the Thursday session (one day festivals will acknowledge people with jobs.) We knew something was amiss on arrival when we realised on arrival at noon that the entry fee had been reduced to £1 (free for CAMRA members.) The reason given was a thank-you to us all for our overwhelming support. But as I recall from the National Winter Ales Festival last year, CAMRA do not give much away for reasonable prices. I knew at this point what the problem would be and my fears were confirmed as I arrived on the festival floor to see what a staggering number of beers had run off. They couldn't justify charging high prices to drink nothing much but Dark Milds and Robinson’s beers. In fairness to the organisers, they’d obviously tried to bring in emergency supplies from somewhere. I had a lovely pint of Moor’s Hoppiness that had appeared since Thursday. But the drafted in beers were never going to be enough to quench the mass queue that had formed outside at this point.
I would have sympathy with the volunteers and organisers who had done such a good job to this point, if it weren't for two galling factors. The first was a tannoy announcement of lies (which we’ll get to); but the second is all about the bloody trade session from Wednesday.

Why oh why do events such as this still insist on having Trade Sessions? What purpose do they have? People who work in the industry are going to know what beers to head straight for, even though they've probably already had the majority of them. There aren't going to be many in the trade plumping for a JW Lees Bitter or Robinsons’ Unicorn. They are going to drink the one-offs, the festival ales and the champion beers before Joe Public gets a foot through the door. Why does this day exist? If you are going to insist on a trade day, run the festival from Thursday to Sunday with the Trade session on Sunday afternoon. Pure, infuriating stupidity.

The problem for the organisers is that they were victims of their own success. They marketed this event very well yet seemed to prepare based on the poorly advertised festivals of years prior. Everybody in Manchester knew about this festival. There were flyers everywhere. Poster advertisements adorned every tram stop on the new line for commuters to soak in. The venue made for intrigue and appeal. Football fans going to a 3 o’clock game across the road made this the stop off point for the pre-match pint. The new tram line made it very easy to get to for all. Beer is more popular than it’s been for 40 years so the surge in young visitors was always going to increase numbers. I even heard many foreign accents, including one chap in the queue on Saturday who was having a few hours at the festival before getting a flight home at 5pm. It was always going to be busy, but nobody seemed to expect this. How did they not know?

The festival became a free for all with people just buying whatever beer they could get their hands on – a truly terrible way of introducing others to different styles. At this point I was happy to be drinking all the Schlenkerla at the foreign beer bar. What truly baffled people me is that the volunteers at the other bars – who now had no beer to sell – didn’t rush to help their colleagues with the five man deep queue at the other areas.

To make everyone feel truly hateful, a lovely announcement came across at about half 3 to tell us the following: “We’re shutting the festival at 4 as the metrolink stops running at 4.30 because of the football match.”

What a load of bollocks

Call me Mr Morality here but I hate being lied to. It’s a dirty trick that was working as people new to Manchester rushed to the exits believing they’d be stranded at Velopark for the rest of their lives. We took it upon ourselves to inform them that they were being lied to as boos and jeers rung around like a chorus of football fans who’d just noticed El Hadji Diouf in possession of a football. We left shortly after with the disgruntled masses. Apologise, sure. Admit you’ve made mistakes, definitely. Perhaps considering offering a £1 refund on the exit. But NEVER lie to people to cover up your problems.

So there you see the divisive nature of this weekend’s event that really had to be experienced. I do hope they bring it back to the velodrome next year because there was so much right with the event and location. It was organised well but managed on the Saturday very poorly. Despite obvious comparisons to the NWAF, this was actually an inaugural event with teething problems. Come again Manchester Beer and Cider Festival, just try to remember to bring actual beer with you next year. Or, at the very least, ditch the sanctimonious Trade session. 


GeordieManc said…
Sorry, but there were no lies. Metrolink standard policy is for services not to stop at Velopark station when their is a football match for at least an hour from the end of the game - in Saturday's case 4.45 to 5.45 (if you really don't believe us check out their website at the next game or can send you the e-mail where they informed us).

With a planned 7pm finish this wasn't going to be a problem but faced with the prospect of beer actually running out at around 4.15, the organiser took the decision to call time at 4pm to give everybody (1800 in the building at the time) the time to catch a tram while Velopark was operational. Even despite this, we've received complaints that 4pm was too late and by the time they had drunk up and got to station, they couldn't get a tram.

As for the trade session, they are a useful opportunity for brewers to meet publicans they want to sell to and for publicans to speak to brewers they may be interested in buying from. It may surprise you, but most publicans haven't "already had the majority of them" - most publicans are too busy to spend all their time sampling beers so use the festival to sample some and then do some negotiating with the brewery on the spot. You are also wrong about the tastes of publicans - both Robinsons and JW Lees were very popular during the trade session with members of both families in attendance for the session - a chance for their tenants to meet the hierarchy. From the festival's point of view it's nice to be able to support both brewers and publicans in facilitating this exchange and it is good for the festival to help build relationships with brewers who may become future suppliers or sponsors.
Mark Johnson said…
Thank you for your response.

Whilst I have no need to believe your Velopark information at matchdays is wrong (though extensive searching comes up with no information online so it's obviously a big secret) it still serves nothing. Perhaps it isn't LYING just with-holding information (such as the fact the Etihad station is just around the corner so we'd all get home fine anyway. You obviously know that this wasn't what anybody was told so it still remains, as I eloquently put, bollocks.

Having spoken to a number of people at the trade session who didn't touch Unicorn or JW Lees Bitter and "why would we" I can only assume I've targeted the wrong percentage of the audience (and it still doesn't have to be Wednesday - unless we admit it's for monetary purposes)

The fact that the beer ran out is also not addressed at any point. Well reasoned all round. I knew somebody would ignore the praise and focus on the negatives
GeordieManc said…
The positive comments are most welcome but don't go accusing people of lying without knowing the facts.

"fact the Etihad station is just around the corner so we'd all get home fine anyway"
Would have been plenty of complaints if we'd left our 1800 customers fighting with 40,000 from the football trying to get through crowd management systems at EtihadCampus station.

"You obviously know that this wasn't what anybody was told".
People were told this:
"If attending Saturday, note that due to ManCity game, @MCRMetrolink services will not stop at Velopark station between 16:45 – 17:45)" - @MancBeerFest - 4:52 PM - 24 Jan 2014. (Repeated during Saturday).
"For passenger safety and security our services do not stop at Holt Town or Velopark after the match." - @MCRMetrolink 6:47 PM - 24 Jan 2014

Trade session "unless we admit it's for monetary purposes":
Not got a clue what you are on about - what monetary gain could there be in giving away thousands of free tickets to pubs and breweries? As you spoke to people at the trade session, sounds like you were more than happy to take up one of those tickets yourself.
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