Thursday, 8 March 2012

Leicester Beer Festival: What The Dickens?

I've been coming here for a number of years. More than I care to remember. I can recall coming here in the early days after work one Friday and there being about 20 people drinking. If you pop in on a Friday at 5pm now everyone is already squashed elbow to elbow. Try and get in after 7pm and you will have to queue for over an hour. It's popular, but what does it do to promote beer?

The logo for the festival this year is Mr. Pickwick (Charles Dickens 1812-2012). This obviously has nothing to do with Leicester and beer festivals, but tweeness dictates there has to be a "theme". There's a festival special called Oliver Pist. Oh dear.

The venue is pure school canteen dreariness.
Sitting at formica tables in an echoey room under neon strip lights.
Some don't seem to mind though, I know people that come here every year for the novelty of drinking different beers but would never drink ale in a pub. What's that all about?

Look hard enough and you can find some great beers amongst the mediocre slop. It's also worth saying that all the beers I drank on the opening night were in great condition, a lot better than beer served in some of Leicester's CAMRA endorsed pubs.

The Brodie's RyePA Red was a gorgeous dry-hopped surprise, replacing the listed Hackney Red. The Flipside Russian Rouble was an impressive Imperial Stout. The Arbor Ales 500 Minute IPA at a hefty 10.7% abv was the beer that I suffered for the following morning.

So, a great night out drinking some great beers with friends, but does a beer festival like this serve any other purpose?
We won't see most of these beers in Leicester again, as the pubs already have their suppliers and their regular ales. Plus I expect many of the beers won't be brewed again.
Will we ever have a change of venue in Leicester? Probably not.
Great beer suffers from a bad image in these surroundings. I know people that won't drink at the festival because they don't like the venue. It's understandable. That parochial club needs to remove the blinkers and follow Nottingham's example.
Great beer deserves better than this.


  1. Its worth remembering for many years the Nottingham beer festival was held at the Victoria Leisure Centre in Sneinton, and was very successful, it took an enormous amount of courage, vision and guts to risk relocating it to a seriously larger venue and more importantly to find a venue that also shared that same courage, vision and risk. Had that not been the case we'd still be drinking beer with the familiar chlorine accompaniment.

    Leicester I suspect is like most cities and towns across the UK, it doesnt really have a suitable "beer festival" venue, let alone one like Nottingham castle with 6 acres of prime hirable space in the heart of the city, even if it did chances are there would be any number of barriers that might not be insurmountable, but could be costly in terms of organisation, we shouldnt forget festivals are largely run and put together by volunteers.

    So its a compromise and you end up in old town halls, inevitably still with 60's makeovers,converted concert venues,exhibition halls, church halls etc, etc, all designed primarily for other stuff and the beer festival kind of has to fit in around it.

    Just having a great looking venue isnt always the whole story either, Norwich is a prime example, St Andrews Hall is great venue,people hire it for weddings, but its too small now for the size the festival has become, you need something twice or even three times as big, you talk about queueing at Leicester Friday night, you queue to get into Norwich at 11am on Friday for little more than a 3hr lunchtime session youd get at a pub and Ive seen people leave at 2:30pm and join the queue already building for when the doors next open several hours later.

    Though space isnt always the answer, few years back Chappel beer festival attracted so many visitors, it being held mostly in the open there was plenty of room for people to keep coming in, but the bars were overwhelmed, it was taking 30-45mins to get served which actually resulted in people ordering more beer when they did get served which then increased the waiting time even more, as a result Chappel have had to go ticket only on Friday nights to limit the numbers so they can cope...and you know guess what people complain theres now less of an atmosphere instead :)

    So I dont know what the answer is in terms of venue, its incredibly difficult to find one that ticks all the boxes, its alot harder I think than getting a pub venue right.

    As far as the purpose goes the benefit in being able to try a wider selection of beers than is available down the local, well surely thats the point,if all that was on offer were the same beers down at the local, why not go to the local instead, the festival allows you to try many good beers from regions that you maybe will never be able to sample under normal circumstances and beer supplies do and can change, theres more of a push to get more than just the standard in all the time, even in pubs who arent necessarily sold completely on cask ale.

    I know in cases of the festival specials Ive not quite got my head round fully either yet, some you think are just taking the proverbial,but I do also see it as a good way for brewers to try out new recipes in a commercially safe environment for them, theyll sell the beer guaranteed, but they wont have wasted their time or money marketing it and making it commercially if its not up to scratch and will have got decent feedback in the process.

  2. But aren't there some local beers in the mix too, or ones that are regularly seen in Leics? E.g. the Everard bar? Now I'm not personally keen on Everard beers, but if some people who normally drink lager are persuaded to try some ales and come to recognise a few that they *will* see around town, maybe they will try those again in pubs? It's not a given, but it was certainly one of the campaigning aims when I was running a CAMRA fest & choosing the beer list - as well as seeking out specials, exciting beers, new breweries, to please those seeking them, there was also an aim to have a good balance of styles & ABVs, and also beers that novice ale drinkers may find appealing and also may find again regularly in pubs in the city - e.g. if selling something like Purity or Fullers to a newbie ale drinker, and they liked it, I'd tell them where they could seek it out in Brum - in the hope they might progress from drinking those, to trying out other beers. I haven't examined the Leicester list but I'd be surprised if it didn't have some of those aims in mind when Andy was choosing it?
    I don't run festivals at present but would genuinely be interested to hear any ideas on other ways a festival can campaign to newbie drinkers or serve other CAMRA purposes - cause I may end up doing it again at some point in the future and it's always good to generate ideas!

    1. Unfortunately we don't see many of the beers in Leicester that are on the "LocAle" bar. It's a sad fact. There are a few from Belvoir, Grainstore and Langton that pubs here stock more often. Some we'd be lucky to see once a year. Flipside have turned up a few times at the Swan and Rushes in the past 6 months. If I want Dowbridge I have to go to The Chandlers Arms in Shearsby (10 miles away). I don't know why, could be a number of reasons. Maybe it's that some pubs just stick with using distributors like Small Beer, and just stock what they deliver.

  3. The idea of having unusual beers is to enable people to say to their pub "I had x at the Beer Fest. It was great - why don't you get some in?"

    The idea of local beers is to remind people that they can get these fairly easily, so why not do so.

    Otherwise the other two comments have covered it. Pretty poor stuff AC.

  4. I'm aware that's the point, the sad thing is that I know the pubs around here won't stock them. In my own experience I have suggested pubs stock some of the beers enjoyed at LBF and elsewhere but they stick with their usuals. See my previous reply about LocAle. Poor stuff, TM.