We need better beer at music festivals – here’s why

October 3, 2015

This summer I had the most incredible experience of my life as a professional beer writer.


I was on stage in the literary tent at the Green Man Festival. It was noon, and I was opening the stage.


Last year, when I first did my beer and music matching gig in this slot, it worked OK and we had a decent audience – far bigger than we’d anticipated with the few jugs of ale we had to serve.


So this year we were prepared: the guys running the beer tent had installed six barrels by the stage. We had jugs, plastic glasses, and a team of six people to do the pouring.


This proved to be nowhere near enough.


The tent held seating for 800 people. It was almost full fifteen minutes before I started. By the time I went on stage, there wasn’t a spare seat, and the crowd was lined up three or four deep outside, trying to get in. I was told later that I’d been up in front of over a thousand people.


I’d love to say that this dramatic increase in attendance was the result of my growing fame, that people saw my name in the programme and said, “Yes!” But when I spoke to people in the book signing queue afterwards, and when they came up to me, and even up to the people who had been serving, throughout the weekend to say how much they’d enjoyed it, it became very clear most of my audience hadn’t heard of me before they arrived at Green Man and read about the event.


You might say it was the free beer, but the copy in the programme didn’t even mention that this year.


I think it was simply that the event fit the space and time. I was matching the beers available at Green Man’s Courtyard Bar with bands playing across the festival’s stages. In doing so, I was inadvertently highlighting what’s so special about festivals. Unfortunately, it’s a lesson most festivals haven’t learned.


The whole point of going to a festival – of any description – is to try something new and different, something out of the ordinary. It’s easy to get complacent in your choices and fall into a routine. When you make the choice to buy a festival ticket, you’re making a statement that you are being adventurous.


This applies across all kinds of festivals. You might buy a ticket to a music festival because your favourite band is playing, but they’re only going to be on for an hour or so. Perhaps there are half a dozen bands you know and love, but over three days that still leaves a lot of downtime. You fill this by checking out bands you’ve heard about but haven’t seen, bands you’d be curious to see but wouldn’t buy an individual ticket for, by looking through the programme to find something good, or even simply by wandering around at random and seeing what grabs you.


At a beer festival, very few people drink their favourite brands. You go there to seek out what’s new and different. Research for the Cask Report reveals that most people who drink real ale do so only occasionally, and that they think the best place to try it is at a beer festival rather than in a pub.


It’s the same in beer as in music. Which is why I find it bizarre that most big music festivals offer a beer selection that would be considered a bit shit even in a fairly run-down back street boozer.


Too often, you’re offered one brand of 4% ABV standard lager (which always tastes like it’s been watered down) one commercial faux-cider, and if you’re really lucky, Hobgoblin ale.


It’s not enough to keep you satisfied for an evening, let alone a three-day festival.


For the last three years, Green Man’s Courtyard Bar – happily, still independent – has sourced a phenomenal bar boasting 99 beers and real ciders, all made by local producers. It’s far busier than any other bar at the festival, or any bar at any other festival I’ve been to. There’s a leaflet with tasting notes, and giant chalkboards listing the range, ever changing as casks sell out and are replaced. And unlike some beer festivals, in the face of a sustained, day-long assault from increasingly fried punters, the bar staff aren’t just polite – they’re positively cheerful.


The Courtyard Bar at Green Man would put most beer festival bars to shame. That it exists inside a music festival is phenomenal. It’s done so well, it’s even trialled a successful off-shoot: a couple of weeks ago, the Courtyard Bar took over a site in Kings Cross, London, bringing some of the bands of Green Man with them for good measure.


By matching the beers and bands of Green Man, I was highlighting what makes this festival so special. To pull my talk together, I had to listen to music and drink beers I’d never tried before. Sure, I could have just matched a bunch of hoppy IPAs to Slowdive, The Fall and other eighties/nineties greats, but I felt I had to do justice to the full spectrum of flavour and style. In doing so I discovered and then paired beers with the wonderful Courtney Barnett, and found my festival theme tune and earworm of the year in the blissed out psychedelic funk of the incredible William Onyeabor. The best pairing was probably Saturday headliners Hot Chip with Waen’s Snowball, a coconut and vanilla flavoured stout that had people holding up their glasses, pointing to them and shaking their heads in delighted disbelief.


That’s what festivals are for. And that’s why Green Man, in both its musical and food and drink line-up, is currently displaying a better understanding of what a festival is than any of its larger, corporate competitors.