21st Reading Beer & Cider Festival

RBFlogo2015The 21st Reading CAMRA Beer & Cider Festival recently concluded after four days of merriment under the giant marquee at King’s Meadow. For the first time Mr & Mrs Fueled by Beer experienced a beer festival from the ‘other side of the bar’ – literally – we joined the ranks of CAMRA volunteers who staff these events up and down the country…

This year’s festival opened with 564 British cask ales (40,608 pints), over 150 British ciders and perries, and a selection of British wines. The foreign beer bar offered over 150 Belgian and Dutch bottled beers sourced from a supplier in Rotterdam, plus over 40 draft and bottle beers brought over from Germany. Hot and cold food was available throughout the festival and live music was provided on Friday and Saturday. Sunday was family day with entertainment geared for younger children.

Just prior to the festival starting the official program was published on the issuu.com website where it can be read online or, if you sign up, it can be downloaded as a PDF. It’s a pretty good read.


During the course of the festival we worked entrance, where we were able to observe the important role the stewarding team plays in managing site capacity (3500 maximum). Controlling on the day ticket sales and always keeping the door open for prepaid ticket-holders, while insuring total combined admissions never exceeds site capacity at any time is a delicate balancing act.

We also worked all the cask ale bars, where we gained valuable insight from the cellar team who manage the ale stock over the course of the four days. Naturally some beers are more popular than others so the casks deplete at widely varying rates. This requires good cellar management, a highly specialized skill, to maintain all the beer in tiptop condition throughout the four day festival.

And finally we worked the foreign bar, but not until all but one of the German draft beers had already sold out. We very quickly learned how much we don’t know about Belgian, Dutch and German bottled beers. 😉


OUR DAY BY DAY EXPERIENCE…

Thursday (trade session)

badgeAlthough the festival didn’t open to the public until 4:30 pm there was a private session for the pub trade and breweries from 1:00 pm. It was very relaxed, never too busy, and it was great to meet and serve beer to folks from several pubs we have visited as well as ‘talk shop’ with some of our favorite local brewers.

After the public session started many of the trade folks stayed yet even with swelling numbers the festival vibe remained relaxed. I didn’t know it then but it was the calm before the storm; my baptism of fire wouldn’t come until Friday. Nevertheless, given the full selection of beer available and the incredibly relaxed atmosphere of the Thursday sessions, I wouldn’t hesitate to work this entire day in the future.

Friday (all-day session)

I have to believe that an awful lot of folks either took the day off work or called in sick. When I arrived at the site around 10 am a long queue of advance online ticket holders – mostly groups of young men – had already formed around the perimeter. Apparently just over 2000 advance tickets had been sold for the day’s session. Doors opened at 11 am but as I was working the ‘on the day’ ticket line I had to wait around 30 minutes for the queue of around 1600 advance ticket holders to be scanned in before any of my lot could start coming in.

One advantage of the advance online ticket is guaranteed fast-track admission for the first three hours after each session opens. I stayed working the entrance until 3:30 pm by which time I understand all the day’s advance ticket holders had entered the site and around 1000 on the day tickets had been sold too. Although site capacity was never quite reached I heard from the stewards that they came very close to instituting their one-out, one-in policy between 4 and 5 pm.

Friday around 7pm (credit Reading & Mid-Berks CAMRA)

Friday around 7pm (credit Reading & Mid-Berks CAMRA)

One of the things the festival organizers do for volunteers who sign up for multiple shifts during the same day is to assign different work areas from shift to shift. So, on Friday at 3:30, I moved from entrance to the cask ale bars. Long before I got there however they had been slammed since the 11 am opening and, as I was to learn, there was no let-up. As happened last year, 12 hours of non-stop heavy drinking resulted in the first beers selling out long before time was called at 11 pm.

Simply put, Friday was not fun; I was unable to leave the bar for rest breaks or even take time to snatch a quick taste out of a cask to familiarize myself with what was available – something I had been able to do on Thursday. Consequently it was almost impossible to answer the never ending questions “what do you recommend” and “what is that beer like”?

For the next 7½ hours it was a non-stop round of take the order/pour the beer/take the money/move to the next waiting punter. Folks were piling up 3 and 4 deep along the entire length of the bar and as wait times got longer and longer, some customers became increasingly impatient, unpleasant and downright obnoxious. There was no time for any interaction beyond just service; and too many customers were self-absorbed, seemingly mindless to the fact that we were volunteers doing this for reasons other than a need to put bread on the table.

There was one point when I lost it with a group of Gen-X assholes who didn’t think I was doing a very good job keeping up with demand along my section of the bar. The Fueled by Beer temper snapped and I tore into them with a “if you don’t f@c/ing shut up I’m gonna call it a day and then you’ll have to wait even longer.” Then I reminded them that (a) I was a volunteer doing this for fun and because of them I was not having fun; and (b) nobody could fire me so they’d better lighten up. They lightened up.

I can now safely say that if I ever sign up for Friday bar work at a future Reading Beer Festival I will only do so if I can limit myself to no more than 4 hours – anymore is just too much for this old Fueled by Beer body – and short temper – to handle.

Saturday (separate afternoon & evening sessions)

Saturday is traditionally the festival’s busiest day and in recent years it has been split into two separate sessions to give more people a chance to get in. It’s basically Friday’s all-day ~3500 attendance done twice in one day. From the volunteer’s standpoint it is a much better day to work. It was on this day that Mrs Fueled by Beer joined me and had her baptism of fire. We were assigned to the same work areas all day long – so we stayed together the whole time – and the 1½ hour break between sessions gave us time to rest our aching bodies awhile, sample some beer, and have some food.

Mr Fueled by Beer on the ale bar

Mrs Fueled by Beer working the ale bar

We worked entrance together from 11 am, switched to the ale bar from 3:00 til session close at 4:30 pm, then resumed working the same ale bar after the break. We worked the same bar from 6:00 (start of 2nd session) until time was called at 11 pm, managing to take turns taking short breaks along the way. It was exactly the kind of experience we signed up for.

The bars during the evening session were just as busy as Friday but there seemed to be a slightly different demographic: the groups of young men were still in evidence but with less time available they were not out to drink as much as their Friday counterparts.

There were also many more couples including some in groups. Saturday evening at the festival was definitely date night for a lot of folks and the headline music act – local pub faves and rock covers band Swallow – certainly brought out the party crowd with their very loud take on Zeppelin, Guns n Roses, et al. All in all Saturday was infinitely more enjoyable for us volunteers.


Sunday (family day)

The final day of the festival opened with 221 casks remaining including some additional brewery bright casks shipped in overnight from Siren Craft, Wild Weather, and Binghams to try and plug the very obvious gaps along the bar. Based on estimates of what was left in the remaining casks, around 35,000 pints of beer had been consumed so far. Put another way, with around 10,000 paying punters through the door so far that’s around 3½ pints per person, and that’s assuming everyone is a beer drinker – which of course at a beer and cider festival they’re not. So the average beers per person (among the beer drinkers) had to be higher – more like 4 or 5 – which would explain the lightweight assholes on Friday night.

Face painting for kids of all ages

Face painting for kids of all ages

Anyway, in keeping with its moniker “Family Day”, Sunday was a delight. In addition to the usual beer festival crowd there were loads of mums & dads with babies in buggies (strollers) and slings, kids of all ages getting their faces painted, pet dogs, etc. It was another day we’d work again in a heartbeat.

Our day started on the foreign bar where the sole remaining German draft beer was a really nice smoked Märzen Rauchbier from Schlenkerla brewpub in Bamberg. I had a taste before it was gone – it’s an acquired taste but one I really enjoy – it was good.

We then had a crash course on selling Belgian, Dutch and German bottled beers. Even though the selection was severely depleted it was still a bewildering array of styles. Just when you think you know about Saison & Flemish Red, Lambic & Geuze, Blond & Wit, Trappist Dubbel & Tripel, etc., an experience like this shows how little we really know. More ferry trips over to Belgium are in order methinks. As it turned out Mrs Fueled by Beer rose to the challenge with great success – must be the accent. 😉

After a break we wound up on the cask ale bar again – where the additional supply of Siren Craft was still flowing. This is where we remained until time was called – I can’t think of a better way to end a beer festival – supping Finchampstead’s finest.


2016 AND BEYOND…

Sadly 2015 is the last year Reading CAMRA can hold its Beer & Cider Festival at King’s Meadow. As soon as the giant marquee comes down the site is to be redeveloped. Reading CAMRA is discussing alternative site options for 2016 and beyond with the local council. The preferred site is Christchurch Meadows just across the Thames from the previous site. Fingers crossed they can work it out.

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