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Manchester Beer & Cider Festival 2015 - You Live and You Learn

“Every time the same arguments are had. But you live and learn, so they say, except, actually, they never do.”

This was written by myself, last year, in reference to the farcical events of the 2014 Manchester Beer & Cider Festvial at the National Cycling Centre. The events of that infamous Saturday, as I stood by the foreign beer bar watching insanity ensue around me, could have turned the most ardent supporter of festivals into stay-at-home drinkers. It was hilarious and infuriating all at once. They never learn, I thought - but, guess what, they did. Because this year was terrific.

I’m capable of education too, since much of last year’s post raged on about a “sanctimonious trade session” that I blamed for much of the beer’s disappearance. This was, as it would seem, not entirely true and to add a little irony to the fold I was going to Wednesday’s trade session this year for redemption or possible ambush. I was always going to be there Saturday to attend with those who couldn’t get time off work and to gratuitously see if it would be another chaotic circus.

The festival continues to be housed at the National Cycling Centre which is a venue that requires myself to put all my anxiety and rage into a small box that I’ll hopefully not open once I’ve had a few beers. It’s difficult to explain my feeling for the sport and the people involved in it, but parts of my soul died each time I knowledgeably explained the various sporting events that were being practiced around us. When I remembered what a Derny was and why it was used I wanted to push my pint glass through my eyeballs.

So I arrive onto the trade session Wednesday – enjoying what I love best with some great people, yet surrounded by CAMRA members and bicycles; a delightful paradoxical experience. I stayed in my little piece of heaven surrounded by several literal circles of hell. Dante could write poems about such.

Personal feelings towards children’s sport aside, the Wednesday Trade session was delightful. The organisers had heeded some of the many criticisms from last year, moving more of the beers to the outside concourses and closer to the toilets and putting some food choices in the centre. This allowed for more moving around and timing your toilet breaks around beers. On the Wednesday, I must confess to being a little lazy, enjoying the company of my group and other familiar faces that I bumped into, therefore I predominantly chose beers from the track centre at Bars 3, 4 and appropriate brewery bars. This, of course, was my own choice through absurd laziness. I did make the effort to saunter around the venue more on the Saturday, though we were given little choice when the floor centre wasn’t open for the first hour.

Generous measures always welcome
MBCF2015 also ventured out with the glassware this year, offering a stemmed half pint option that I completely ignored so I could get my usual generous half pint measures in a full pint glass. Getting your money’s worth is a tactic one must employ at these festivals, especially since the days of "festival prices" are long gone.

The food seemed a bit sparse and hit and miss. I’m sure Farmer John’s do lovely meats and cheeses, but who wants to start building a ploughman’s whilst drinking at a festival? (One of my group, actually, but they can’t be saved.) The velodrome’s own curry café  looked fairly decent, but at £5 a head wouldn’t be amiss at an overpriced street food festival. The winner for us was El Gringo’s Mexican buffet between Bar 2 and the OffBeat bar. It won for being a £6 all-you-can affair that, if you were savvy, you piled up to offensive piss-taking levels and then shared between a couple of others for pennies. You can tell its January.

The use of the ample floor space was better served this time, with the shops moved to the sides and actual tables and chairs provided in an incredibly sensible move. Of course, by the time of my arrival at 2pm Wednesday, the majority of the larger tables had their seats “saved” by people who weren’t occupying them but had placed their coats and bags on them. (Yes, the Velodrome does have fucking cloakrooms, but why use them, eh?) Mind you, we all know to treat seating at Beer Festivals like the Priority Seats on trains.

And the beer? An exceptional selection of different styles and different breweries are on offer here. It is pleasing to see so many local breweries - many only opened within the last 12 months - given chance to excel. The diversity of styles was also pleasing and many of the darker beers really stood out, as they should at a Winter festival.  Being my first January Manchester Beer Festival where I arrived for session one, I was looking forward to trying everything on my list. Interestingly enough, when I arrived on the Wednesday and immediately went to seek out Quantum’s Imperial Buckwheat Stout, I was told it wasn’t on by a rather irritated volunteer. Was this the Saturday? Had I come on the wrong day? How was the beer not available at the beginning of the festival? "We haven’t finished setting up yet." Oh for God’s sake…

Taking whatever beer was available back to my table, I started to picture another circus of farce begin to crumble around my beaming face. Luckily, the sitatuon was rectified and all beers seemed accounted for by within the next couple of hours.

When I did get to the Imperial Buckwheat Stout, it was just as good as I was hoping. It was enjoyed as much as Marble’s Barley Wine and Marble/Hawkshead's Beer Matts, that probably made up my beers of the festival. My less controlled choices on Saturday didn’t stand up in the same way, though I was impressed by Squawk’s Beanbrothers Coffee Stout.

The major triumph this year was the one thing so many beer festivals, especially this one, have got wrong. The Saturday selection. I arrived on the weekend morning with a little trepidation. One of the surprisingly few moments I wanted to cross the unspoken rule that you do not criticise the volunteers happened on entry on the Saturday. I had one of the free admittance tickets that had been sent out to various establishments. On presenting it the happy-go-lucky always smiling and certainly not decrepit chap on the desk looked at it and said, with just tonnes of humour,

“We don’t accept these.”

I felt my fists clench and realised that box of emotions I thought I’d locked was opening until the much more charming person sat next to this volunteer looked at him in disbelief and said,

“Yes we bloody do.”

Never been one to draw attention to myself
I was allowed admittance with a completely valid ticket. Amazing. Anyway, we were allowed early entry on Saturday, though the centre floor was still closed as they continued set-up. And there was beer. There was, actually, rather a lot of beer. Obviously, a few things had run out and such action is unavoidable. But, on the whole, I nearly swallowed my proverbial hat and took up cycling as my eyes wandered over the boards and white sheets that still held so many beers. They weren’t going to run out this year. They were actually going to be selling the stuff we came to drink.

The difference the changes made this year should be praised, even by an evil “childish” misery like myself. The organisers had done an outstanding job. Across both sessions, people were relaxed and jovial. The track temperature never reached the sort of heights that made old people start suffering terminal dehydration last year. I didn’t hear one complaint about the toilets, the measures or the general organisation. Some volunteers still believe they are immune from criticism but HEY not everybody was born with good manners. The Twitter feed wasn’t being run by an angry pubescent teenager this time, though the continuous finger given to anybody that tweeted the page and not the hashtag started to feel like bullying by Saturday. And I didn’t throw my pint pot at a passing cyclist like I’d threatened to do several times. The box stayed locked. I was even polite to the Velodrome staff. Overall – THIS WAS GOOD.  Credit to all involved.

Yes but Mark, this is YOU. You must be annoyed about SOMETHING.

Well, I’m glad you said that random italicised keyboard man. This year’s festival was in association with Henshaws Society for Blind People – a worthy cause. The donations to the charity were made through the selling of the programmes and use of the cloakroom. This made me happy as I have griped about the amount of money that must be being made by the organiser’s in previous festival posts. Indeed, on arrival at the Trade session, I immediately bought a programme from somebody outside whilst they used the line. “Do you want a programme? The money goes to charity.”

I didn’t use the cloakroom Wednesday, but did on the Saturday. As I passed over my coat and scarf, I had a chat with the person working it.

“At least it’s for charity,” she said, as I lamented not trusting the Saturday attendees as much as I did those that were around on the Wednesday. “And at least we get more for the cloakroom than we do for the programmes.”

Alarm bells. “Sorry, how much do you get for each?”

“80p from the £1 cloakroom goes to Henshaws. Just 10p from the programme does.”

Before the tirade begins about the cost of making and printing a programme, I’ll point out two things. Firstly, the programme is filled with advertisements. Secondly, the programmes were being sold to people under the pretence that the money goes to charity. The latter has all the credibility of a BBC phone-in donation. It doesn’t sit right with me, sorry. I’m sure Henshaws raised a lot of charity money this year. I bet another organisation earned more.

Still, one gripe unrelated to the overall running organisation of a much more successful festival than the previous year. We weren’t lied to over tannoy systems this year and they actually remembered to sell beer too. I told them at the end of last year’s post to come back and be better and it worked. They listened to many and learnt from all. They can be taught. That’s all you can ask for. Aside from that, let’s just drink the bloody beer and enjoy it. That was the best part of this festival.


Cooking Lager said…
In the 1970's the beards created beer festivals as a way of inviting the public to enjoy the pongy grog and informing publicans of the strong demand for the product.

The market has now changed. Most pubs have cask ale & most punters know what it is and whether they like it. The point is to make a few quid to send back to HQ. To monitize volunteer labor.

Most CAMRA things have moved thus. Starting off as a tool of a campaign but when they become obsolete they are impossible to end because of the cash they raise. Thus cash becomes the point.

Charidee is an effective way of masking the gauging of the punters.
Anonymous said…
So long as they keep paying me in beer and food it is a marriage of convience I'm happy to deal with.

And as with any charity, you just have to be comfortable that your cash will be spent less wisely and efficiently than if you would be if you gave it to the homeless drunk begging next to the cash machine.
ABrewHaHa said…
how sad for you, you go along to a CAMRA Beer Festival and find yourself surrounded by CAMRA members, my heart bleeds. And worse is still to come! You get in free, expect to get free beer (that's what the over measure is) your cheapness extends to ripping off the food concession by displaying inordinate greed. More horrors, CAMRA volunteers raise money for CAMRA by organising a Beer Festival to enable CAMRA to Campaign for Real Ale.

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