Festival of Brewers – The Life of an Organiser

In late June 2018, Festival of Brewers made its debut in Leeds. This was the first festival I’d ever led the organisation of. Having had some time to reflect on the experience, I thought I’d share with you what it’s like to be a beer event organiser!

An Idea Is Born

Back in October 2017, I found myself at Craft Beer Calling at Wylam, in Newcastle. As fantastic as the event was, it quickly became apparent I was surrounded by familiar names. Cloudwater, Magic Rock, Northern Monk, North Brewing, Tiny Rebel and the list went on, like a popularity chart of the big names in UK craft brewing.

Now don’t get me wrong, I am a big fan of these breweries and their beers. However, this was the umpteenth time I’d been to a Brewers Market style event that year, and at every one, there seemed to be the same breweries.

Outdoor seating in glorious sunshine

“There’s no real representation for the smaller breweries at these kind of events” I mulled, whilst sipping on Tiny Rebel’s Imperial Stay Puft. “They’re just consistently dominated by the same breweries each time, it would be great if the smaller ones could get this type of focus.” All it took was one wry smile from the person I was at the festival with, and I knew what I had to do next.

I left Wylam with a rough idea in my head as to what I wanted to do. I’d previously helped organise the Leeds CAMRA Beer Festival over the course of a few years. Plus, I’ve been a customer at so many others that I felt I knew what might work and what might not.

A Brewer’s Market

So, the first thing I had to choose was the format of the event. I opted for a Brewer’s Market format. This is where breweries pitch up their own bar, bring their own beers and serve to customers directly.

What I wanted to offer, was an intimate experience where you get to meet the people producing the beer. Not just marketing and events teams. Doing this format of event enabled me to do that, and I knew with the size of breweries I’d be showcasing, that it would be owners and brewers themselves who would be serving the beer.

Sunbeam Ales

It also simplified organising the festival. I could leave it up to the brewers as to what beers they wanted to bring and how they wanted to serve it. Leaving them in complete control of showcasing their beers and brewery.

After deciding the overall format, it was time to see if the idea had merit or not. Having already got some great brewing contacts in Leeds, and the surrounding area, I targeted those who I knew hadn’t yet been to these style events, be it through size or opportunity. Imagine my delight when every single one of those breweries said yes to the idea. Time to really put my organising skills to the test!

Venue

I initially asked, and got backing, from eight breweries. It later became nine as the festival started to take shape. Thank you to Crooked, EYES, Horsforth, Meanwood, Nomadic, Quirky, Sunbeam, Wilde Child and Wishbone.

Next on my list, then, was a venue. I initially wanted to be able to do this right in the heart of Leeds City Centre. But, my budget was limited (I had to personally finance the initial costs), so I had to be realistic. So, the search for a venue went directly in the centre and surrounding areas, within around a mile or so.

Ruby’s Street Kitchen

I must admit, I was pretty stunned at some of the prices I got quoted for City Centre venues. Even some that were essentially the same size of where we ended up hosting the event.

Ultimately, I worked with New Craven Hall to host our event. This was looked at as a potential Leeds CAMRA Beer Festival venue a few years ago, but but it didn’t work out. Even back then, though, I could see how a beer event might work there.

The New Craven Hall team are fantastic, Ben and Jane who run the place primarily as a wedding venue, were incredibly supportive from the first day we started talking about hosting the event there. I’d found a home.

At this point, the need for a name was growing stronger! It went through a few iterations, but I settled on Festival of Brewers. Incredibly, I couldn’t spot this name used for any other event in the UK.

Festival of Brewers is born; thanks to Christine Jopling for this ace logo!

The List of Tasks Grow

It’s amazing from this point how soon you have to then get into the real nitty-gritty detail. How do I balance the budget? Do we have cash bars? How do we publicise? Do we need wristbands? Where do we get glasses from? How many do we need? What about sponsorship? Who can help with the logo? Questions that needed answering were coming thick and fast.

This is where I used my Excel geekery to my advantage. Building a nice plan, with timelines up to day one of the event. Organisation is key!

The budget planning was probably the hardest element. I’m good with finances, but organising a new event meant I had no experience really to call upon on costs. So off I went on research duty. Then to recoup costs, I had to think about ticket prices and sponsorship. More Excel geekery!

Festival Glass and a bottle of “Mike’s” my collaboration brew with Nomadic Beers

Once the budget was sorted, it all then started to slot in to place with my plan. We went with cash bars, breweries would pay a pitch fee, and keep their own profits. We got publicity through flyers, beer mats, I even appeared in the Yorkshire Post twice and live on BBC Radio Leeds’ Breakfast Show! Coloured wristbands were used for admission on each day. Glasses were sourced from Festival Glass. Sponsorship came from participating breweries, Nomadic Beers for the glasses, Wilde Child, Meanwood, Horsforth and Wishbone for the beer mats. The wonderfully talented Christine Jopling created the event logo. Everything coming together nicely.

Finally, the Festival!

It wasn’t all plain sailing during the organising phase. I’ve learnt some invaluable lessons along the way. Not only about the planning, but the execution of it. For example, from how I did ticket sales and the decision to hold the event over two days, to the individual requests and wants from the breweries themselves. At times, quite challenging in the build-up, but on day one, it made it all so very, very worthwhile.

Doors open, getting into the swing of it!

At 8am on Friday 29th June, New Craven Hall opened for setup (technically, two of the breweries set up the night before, with one dropping equipment off). From an empty hall, within a few hours, it had been transformed into a brewer’s market.

It was an awesome feeling of joy and excitement to look around that hall, just before doors opened for customers, and see how that spark of an idea ten months ago had become a real thing.

Hosting a tutored tasting, with Mike’s Tap Room contributor Matt Grant and his party!

I couldn’t have done this alone. From the brewers themselves, to friends and family, the venue, the food traders (Little Bao Boy and Ruby’s Street Kitchen) whether you came as a customer or volunteered, everyone has helped me along this road. Whether it was a passing “I think that’s a great idea, Mike”, or significant time investing in the event, or lending me support at tough times in the run up to the festival, all of it has been so helpful to me, and I am grateful to everyone for that. Thank you!

At 1pm on Friday 29th June, we opened to for customers. From then until 8pm closing on Saturday 30th June, I had the most fun. Running tutored tasting sessions, helping to pour pints, talking to customers, talking to the brewers, meeting people who had previously just been Twitter handles and seeing everyone just enjoy themselves. It was such a positive vibe and experience that really resonated with me.

Will There Be Another?

It’s been nice to have some time to chill out after the festival. The organising does become all consuming, particularly the closer you get to open day. It makes it even more challenging when you’re working a full-time job too.

Transforming the hall back into it’s original format

The number one question I was asked throughout the event, and afterwards, has been “will you do another one?” With the overall positive feeling I had, and armed with lessons learnt, I would love to have another bash at this. I won’t say it’ll be bigger (that’s not the point of the event), but I reckon it can be better. Watch this space.

Check out the homepage for some links to focus articles I wrote on some of the participating breweries, to learn more about them, Also, Gareth over at Barrel Aged Leeds helped write some too, be sure to have a read; thanks Gareth!

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