“What? Do something for nothing? Are ye mad?”
That was one of the less than positive responses given when informing a beer festival attendee that I was not being paid for pouring him his required tipple thirty seconds earlier.
Whether I choose to work or not is entirely my choice but the simple fact of the matter is that many beer festivals across the UK and Ireland may not exist if it was not for the generosity of people giving up their time to join in the craic by pouring festival beer.
And that’s exactly what it is. Super craic. Don’t get me wrong, it’s hard work but for the most part, folk who attend beer festivals want to chat about the beer almost as much as drink it. That applies to me too.
In 2018 I volunteered to pull pints, 330s, halves and tasters at three of Northern Ireland’s top beer festivals: ABV, Portrush and the Belfast Beer and Cider Festival.
Now in its fourth year, the ticket-only ABV event was held over a weekend at the start of September and poured some of the most sought after and exclusive beers from the likes of international giants De Molen, To Øl and Founders.
Basically any NI, Irish, UK or European brewery (and a small handful of US) worth its salt was pouring here. Food is superb too with some of the poshest muck trucks out the back. The vibe inside the stunning Carlisle Memorial Church was laid back and my fellow volunteers possessed a wealth of information about what or who’s pouring.
ABV was followed a few weeks later in October with a trip to the north coast and Portrush Beer and Food Festival in the town hall. Like ABV, I’d volunteered to work both days over the weekend. A festival in its third year and this was my first time not being a customer.
It’s a different set up to Belfast in that each brewery is responsible for its own stand. It’s a smaller venue too and some say that’s in its favour. I would agree to a certain extent but I think the potential for the Portrush festival to expand is there, if only a suitable larger venue is found as good as the town hall.
Even though I’d answered a call from Lacada brewery to help out for a few hours each day, speaking to the other brewers early that afternoon, I’d mentioned I’d muck in with them if they needed an extra pair of hands. That’s how volunteers roll.
As well as some great Northern Irish breweries attending, it’s always super to see the Yellowbelly gang every year and kudos to them for making the long journey up from Wexford.
Finally, the turn of CAMRA’s Belfast Beer and Cider Festival in the Ulster Hall. A predominantly cask event, this has had great changes in recent years with keykeg beers now also being served.
The casks were chilled using a generator and cooling jackets and in 2018 for the first time that I can recall, the casks were on stage (performing their wonders as they should be) with the entire bar being at the front of the hall.
The cider and keg bars flanked the main cask bar so everything was handily in the one area. The stage bar allowed for much more seating in the hall – this previous lack of seating was something that had been a major gripe in years gone by. Some of the casks still weren’t as cool as I’d have liked but the organisers need to be praised for making the much-needed changes. Those alterations made volunteering easier with more space behind the bar and passing from the cask to cider bars was a cinch.
The common denominator with all the beer festivals mentioned above is simple: a relaxed vibe pouring some tasty beer while having a chat and a laugh with a stranger across the bar. If you have the time in 2019, lend a few hours to help these events flourish for the sake of the local beer scene.
You’ll also get quality conversation and a free beer or two – now that’s winning at life.