38th Peterborough Beer Festival

Last week Mr Fueled by Beer rode the rails to the edge of the Cambridgeshire Fens to check out what is purportedly the UK’s largest outdoor beer festival. A fun day was spent working bar #4 and the LocAle bar during the afternoon followed by an evening exploring the festival’s delights from the customer’s perspective…

Prior to Peterborough Mr & Mrs Fueled by Beer have experienced CAMRA outdoor festivals at Bexley, Ealing, Maidenhead, Cambridge, Chelmsford, Reading and Woodcote; all with different sizes, durations and setups. So how does Peterborough compare?

First off, Peterborough certainly lives up to its claim to be the UK’s largest outdoor beer festival. Three giant interconnected marquees enclose around 5800 m² under canvas; much larger than any of the aforementioned festivals – including Reading. Inside the marquees are four general CAMRA ale bars, a CAMRA ‘Singles’ bar, a CAMRA LocAle bar, and six brewery/sponsor bars. The main marquee also houses entrance/ticketing, glasses, the hospitality suite, and the staff bar, canteen and dining areas. Over the festival’s five days the cask ale bars collectively poured around 90,000 pints of beer (consuming roughly 1300 barrels). And then there was the foreign beer, cider and wine bar business to add to that – all significant. Preliminary attendance estimates are around 35,000 paying customers.

Observations: things I think might work well at Reading…

While I didn’t see anything particularly notable about the foreign beer, cider and wine setup, Peterborough does employ a very different approach with its cask ale. Based on the program listings you might think Reading is larger than Peterborough. Reading’s cask ale list is certainly longer (564 beers in 2015). However Reading generally has just one cask of each beer whereas Peterborough has three, and more in the case of the brewery bars. Less overall choice perhaps (374 different beers in 2015) but Peterborough didn’t run out before reaching day five like Reading has the past two years.

Peterborough takes full advantage of its timing during the school summer holidays. The children’s funfair makes a big impact by attracting family attendance during the weekdays. On my day – Thursday – families made up a significant proportion of afternoon attendance and because mums & dads had evidently taken time off work to be at the festival it led to evening crowds you would normally associate with a Friday or Saturday. Options for Reading to take advantage of its bank holiday weekend beyond designating Sunday as ‘family day’ perhaps?

Peterborough invests heavily in brewery bars, which is something I’ve observed at every other East Anglian festival I’ve been to – both winter and summer, indoor and out. So far in our area I’ve only seen it at Maidenhead (introduced this year, a toe in the water with Windsor & Eton Brewery). I don’t know if brewery bars have been tried at Reading before my time but I for one would love to see some interspersed between the CAMRA bars. They add breadth to the choice of beers available and they also provide variety and ‘color’ to the festival’s look and feel compared to the utilitarian CAMRA bars.

Observations: things I wasn’t so keen on at Peterborough…

Peterborough’s ‘Singles’ and LocAle bar setups introduced unnecessary confusion (and frustration) for both customers and bar staff.

The Singles bar featured special and seasonal ales – mostly higher ABV – of which the brewery sent only one cask. Some of these made sense: one-off specials that warranted separate billing. A good example is to consider what happened with our own Wild Weather Ales. Single casks of Summer Breeze and Cumulo Chaos were setup on the Singles bar. However three casks of Sunday League Relegation Playoffs were setup on Bar #4 (my bar). Several people came up asking for Summer Breeze, I would have preferred to have these all in one place.

Treatment of LocAles was even more confusing. Out of 113 different LocAles only 40 were being sold on the LocAle Bar; the rest were setup either at their respective CAMRA bar (1-4) or on the Singles Bar. Fortunately for me, working bar 4, I also served the LocAle bar. This made it easier for me helping customers but I would have hated to be on bars 1-3 or the Singles bar, not knowing where to send someone for a LocAle brewery’s specific beer without having to pull out the program and look it up.

So, for example, if I wanted Mile Tree’s Meadow Gold I’d have to go to the LocAle bar; if I wanted their XX Mild I’d have to go to the Singles bar; and if I wanted their Larksong I’d have to go to bar 3. Wayyyy too much hassle.

Conclusions…

I want to see Reading reintroduce a LocAle bar – but only if it means putting all the LocAles in one place – like they did in 2013. I also want to see Reading introduce brewery bars – but only each brewery’s beers are all in one place. Of course some brewery bars could be operated by LocAle breweries, in which case they must be located next to the LocAle bar. Any brewery bars provided by non-LocAle breweries should be interspersed at intervals along the main CAMRA bars.

I think that pretty much covers it. Here are some photos from my Thursday session…


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