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Brewing up idea for festivals.


TWO years ago Hawkshead Brewery owner Alex Brodie conducted a little experiment. At his first-ever beer festival he counted heads. Then he counted ladies' heads. He was so excited he got someone else to count, too.

Both results confirmed the business plan was not only performing as predicted, but some of the massive investment in premises, plant and people at the Lake District site was beginning to pay off.

Of the 100 or so visitors in the custom-made beer hall, 50 were women - exactly what the former BBC foreign correspondent and World Service anchorman had in mind when he expanded out of a former milking parlour into a 20-barrel (720 gallons) beer business brewing five times a week.

"I wanted this to be a place where people could be comfortable and bring their children," he says.

The beer hall acts as a visitor centre, dining room, brewery tap and beer shop. Festivals and national beer competitions were in the original script and have now become regular features, helping enormously with consumer awareness. They also keep tills rolling.

Behind Hawkshead's green sliding doors, five 20-barrel fermenters and six conditioning tanks shimmer as if ready to take flight. The occasional brown dribble betrays what they're really doing.

The beer hall's counter, bar fittings and furniture were commissioned from the designer next door. Solid benches invite all-day sittings, while suspended lighting panels take the glare off the corrugated angles above. Screens can be pulled down to show films with a sound system for live music while 24 beer lines drop into the cellar from below the bar where a racking system allows quick-change artistry and easy access.

Hawkshead's most recent beer festival - last weekend - featured more than 100 beers, 65 of which were judged earlier on the first day for the northern section of the Society of Independent Brewers (SIBA) annual competition.

"Then we opened the festival so people could drink the entries," says Alex Brodie.

Such is the growing influence of SIBA, the beer tasting attracted some of the most significant names in the brewing industry to swirl and peer and nose and gurgle their way through nine categories in a series of blind tastings that included strong ales, best bitters, milds, speciality beers and bottled beers. the organisation's membership is so wide-ranging, the competition is held over two heats before the final in Southport in January.

"We have 117 brewing members in the northern section alone," said Alex Brodie.

"We've stillaged 65 casks in the brewery cellar and the warehouse. They've all been vented for 48 hours, so there should be no difference between them. There are also 90 dozen bottles being stored in cellar conditions."

SIBA chairman Julian Grocock offered advice for the judges. "This is a structured competition, but you are encouraged to be subjective," he said. You can take your likes, dislikes and personal tastes into consideration, but what we're looking for in each category is the best example of its type.

"You're free to discuss the beer like you would do in a pub. If someone beside you appears to be an expert in beer matters, please listen carefully to them - then forget everything they've said and do it for yourself."

With beer festivals now a regular date in pubs, marquees, leisure centres and even trains from Berwick to Basingstoke (the Gosforth Winter Beer Festival is in full swing this weekend and the Newcastle Arms Festival in Newcastle will introduce a surprise or two when it opens next Thursday) it may be opportune to ask what makes a good one.

"You've got to have a good breadth of beer styles," says Stacy O'Brian from SIBA's distribution arm, the Direct Delivery Scheme. "You've got to have the right venue, then people create the atmosphere."

Venue, choice and atmosphere - is that the trick? It's something Kevin Mitchell of brewing products firm Murphy & Sons is in agreement with.

"You've got to have an offer," he says. "If you stood two pubs side by side and if you didn't know what beer they sold but one was half-timbered with hanging baskets and the other not, you'd go to that one first, wouldn't you? "There's a beer festival held in the grounds of Nottingham Castle, a very attractive venue - previously they had a disused swimming pool in the old Lace Market. There's no comparison. Then it's the people attending who create the atmosphere."

Former Harviestoun Brewery owner Ken Brooker selects Tuckers Maltings in Newton Abbott, Devon, as one of his favourite beer festival settings.

He says: "It's in beautiful Victorian buildings which creates a good atmosphere straight away. The venue makes it, definitely."

His wife Ingrid flies the flag for Edinburgh's Assembly Rooms where she believes the attractiveness of the building adds to the ambience of the Scottish Beer Festival. First opened in 1787 for the Caledonian Hunt Ball, its fancy ceiling roses, fluted Corinthian pilasters, long mirrors and magnificent chandeliers have it described as "exceeding that of the Great Room in Bath in its elegance and just proportion".

Alex Brodie's vision is as strictly site-specific. He says: "What we're offering at Hawkshead is not a draughty room with casks and pipes all over the place; it's a purpose-built beer hall."

The view through the room's large windows and from the long veranda stretching below is dominated by the River Kent tumbling down from some neighbouring fell - which admittedly doesn't do much harm to the beer-sampling experience.

A chalkboard informs visitors which beers are being brewed at any given time - and who among the crew is brewing them - along with slightly more technical information that may be familiar to some but a revelation to others. This is no gimmick, it's important that people are made to feel welcome and invited to be part of the process.

Somebody once banged on about location, location, location. Somebody else cited education, education - and all six can be applied to beer festivals. They're a developing part of our culture.

As Alex Brodie says: "I'm at risk of being tedious with the message, but I always say 'do you realise how much of an evolution is taking place?'" A random entry from our notes from the Bottled Golden Beer tasting category reads: "BG08, grassy farmyard aroma with a spicy hop sharpness to the flavour. Cinnamon? Aftertaste lingers and develops through spice and pleasant bitterness."

And, if we ever find out what it was, we'll ask for several more "just proportions".


RAISING A GLASS Tasting show judging at the SIBA North beer competition.
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Copyright 2009 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:Nov 13, 2009
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