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Everything feels muted: quieter, more relaxed. There is still laughter and chatter but it’s somehow softer, maybe because the music has been turned down. That’s not to say the mood is subdued—everywhere I turn, there are smiling faces, and people talking to their friends across designated tables. Single-use cups start stacking up after being decanted, a visual record of how many beers everyone has tried. And there are still so many yet to drink.
I don’t know what I’d been expecting from a beer festival in late 2020, but the reality is both stranger and more laidback than I’d imagined. COVID-19 isn’t going anywhere, and all we can do is adapt to it.
That realization hit Greg Wells, co-founder of British beer festival producer We Are Beer, during a Zoom meeting with the Bristol City Council. Early on in the pandemic, the city’s mayor, Marvin Rees, had announced that all events were to be postponed until July, instantly canceling the Bristol Craft Beer Festival (BCBF), which had been scheduled for June 12.
Deciding whether to push back the date and go ahead with the event was a “rolling decision” for Wells and the rest of the We Are Beer team, given the week-by-week changes to guidelines, restrictions, and the virus’ impact. But by early July, Oliver Dowden—secretary of state for digital, culture, media, and sport—gave the go-ahead to outdoor festivals under a certain set of guidelines. The Bristol Craft Beer Festival is held in the open-air Lloyds Amphitheatre every year; suddenly, the event looked possible again.
Informed mainly by a desire to help the industry, and the belief that beer is a social drink—that pubs, bars, taprooms, and festivals are where ideas are exchanged and culture is really born—the organizers rescheduled BCBF for the weekend of September 12, three months after its original date. Once that was confirmed, the planning got underway, with a borderline military rigor and precision. “Seven years of hard work, seven years of graft, brand and relationship-building that we’re putting on the line—and we wouldn’t risk it if we didn’t think we could do it correct[ly],” says Wells.
FIRST IMPRESSIONS It’s never easy to throw a beer festival; in a pandemic, it’s insurmountably harder.
Wells tells me a huge amount of focus needed to be placed on hygiene, including screens on bars, personal protective equipment (PPE), hand sanitizer, and specialized glassware. All plans were scrutinized by the Safety Advisory Group, and went through two rounds of approval. The festival build had to be extended to create additional space to allow for social distancing; special provisions included increased hand-washing facilities, extra bins for paper towels, more staff, new cleaning sessions, and many more toilets. Because capacity was decreased from 1,200 to 600 attendees per session, an extra session was added. All of this entailed extra costs.
“This year is about getting an event on and not bankrupting ourselves doing it, but it's a different set of objectives,” Wells says. “This year was just doing it, putting it on safely and having a good time in those cities, and bringing people together.”
When I arrive, it’s strange to see things open early—arrivals are free to trickle in instead of being pent up until the last moment, followed by the inevitable stampede to the most popular breweries. I walk past stand after stand of hand sanitizer; instead of commemorative festival glassware, beer is served at the bars in single-use, compostable Vegware cups to minimize touch points.
Four marquees with open fronts housing the bars face the benches and stage in a crescent. A one-way system is spray-painted on the ground via orange stencils of feet guiding the flow of movement through the festival. Stewards and security guards in hi-vis jackets stand ready to marshal the crowd. Four desks made of crates sit between the tents and the benches with a steward behind each clutching a clipboard and directing groups of six or fewer to their allocated seats. I watch as one or two people per group are sent by friends to line up—two meters apart—to enter the uncrowded beer halls, masked, and retrieve beer served from behind plastic screens to bring back to their tables.
Meanwhile, tracking and tracing is done directly in the event’s app. Before arriving, every attendee was asked to download the app and enter their ticket number, acknowledge that they’d read BCBF’s COVID-19 statement, and confirm that they had no symptoms through a safe health declaration, which they received when buying tickets. Refunds were guaranteed to anyone displaying symptoms after purchasing their tickets.
“Seven years of hard work, seven years of graft, brand and relationship-building that we’re putting on the line—and we wouldn’t risk it if we didn’t think we could do it correct[ly].”
— Greg Wells, We Are Beer All these extra considerations needed to be made in line with government event guidelines. These policies were slow to come through, and then needed to be interpreted at a local level, which meant decisions were often delayed—but Wells has “praise, nothing but praise for Bristol City Council.” Regular Zoom meetings took place with the Bristol City council, Deputy Mayor Asher Craig, the head of the Safety Advisory Group, the council events team, and public health consultants to make sure the festival operated under both government and local regulations.
I watch as more and more people arrive, filtering through the obstacle course of barriers and sanitizing stations. Given the myriad restrictions, it’s a wonder the event was able to go ahead at all.
CALM AND ORDERLY “It’s so quiet in here.”
I catch myself saying this, over and over again, to friends working behind the bar in the beer tents. Without the lines, it’s hard to know where the in-demand beers are pouring: the wait at each bar never seems to get past four or five people, so there’s no visible indication of hype.
International brewers may not be standing at the ready behind the bars, but at least their beers are in attendance. Norway’s Amundsen Bryggeri, Spain’s Basqueland Brewing Project, Denmark’s Alefarm Brewing, Canada’s Collective Arts Brewing, Sweden’s Dugges Bryggeri, and Estonia’s Põhjala Brewery, among others, are pouring alongside a number of British breweries. Michaela Zelenanska, a brewer from The Kernel Brewery, tells me how good it feels to escape London for a few days and to be back in a festival environment, even from behind a plastic shield.
One tradeoff is that there appear to be fewer local breweries at the festival this year. New Bristol Brewery, Arbor Ales, Bristol Beer Factory, and Fierce & Noble are the only ones with dedicated stands. That said, beers from local favorites like Left Handed Giant, Lost and Grounded, and Good Chemistry Brewing are pouring on the U.K. Bangers bar, and the special-edition Festival Saison, made in collaboration with Bristol brewery Wiper and True, is available all weekend.
Outside, most of the benches and tables are occupied; even with capacity down by half, it still feels full. But there are no groups floating around the crowd, mixing and blending—the reduced flow of people is tightly controlled. That sounds like it might make for a sterile atmosphere, but there seems to be an understanding that this year is different. Most people just seem happy they’re able to be at a festival among friends, full stop.
“The staff are super friendly, they were very organized with seating us. It’s just a shame you can’t dance,” says one attendee, Jess Brierley. For some, having more breathing room is even a bonus, and might offer lessons for festival-planning in a post-pandemic future. Andy Parsons, another guest, praises the pre-festival organization as thorough and goes on to say “being allocated specific tables was actually an improvement on previous years, in my opinion.”
“It’s good to see that the industry has the ability to provide much of what we all seek from it—community, conviviality, socialization, and generally a way to relax—even when under various restrictions and regulations.”
— Oli Carter-Esdale Mark Pursey, another attendee, is sitting at a small silver table on the edge of the festival when I speak with him. He points across the river to groups of people sat drinking in the sun with their legs dangling over the edge of the harbor. “I feel safer here than I would over there,” he says.
Like day-to-day life, a lot of things here feel fundamentally off-kilter—but not enough to dampen spirits. Beers flow freely, the sun has shown up, and connections are still being made. It’s hard to gauge, but I doubt the restrictions have caused anyone to try fewer beers than in previous years. Almost predictably, Hazy IPA brewery DEYA’s kegs kick early, which feels like a pleasant fragment of normalcy.
Of course, the festival isn’t perfect. How could it be? As the session draws to a close, I watch several people walk into the beer tents through the exits, missed by stewards preoccupied with those waiting in line. On the longer bars, perhaps the plastic screens could be wider, and not all staffers are wearing masks. I notice select groups of people standing closer than two meters apart both inside and outside the tents. But for the most part, I’m surprised by how painstakingly the rules are enforced.
WEIGHING THE COSTS These issues aren’t lost on the We Are Beer team. “There were tweaks in terms of how we sat people, communications, managing numbers, but small iterations,” Wells writes to me in an email in the days following the event. Multiple visits were made over the weekend by the police and the council to ensure the event stuck to guidelines, he says—some who had come to scope out the event, according to Wells, even purchased tickets for the Sunday session.
Everyone has their own personal boundaries as to what they feel is safe and appropriate, and for some, no amount of police visits or organizer reassurances could persuade them to attend a busy festival. Sam Espensen, owner of infused spirits line Espensen Spirit as well as the Bristol Spirit bar, feels it would not have been wise for her to go. “There are a load of friends and industry contacts who go to BCBF, who I haven't seen for a really long time thanks to COVID,” she says. “Bearing that in mind, and that I am an affectionate person, I couldn't trust myself not to loosen up after a few drinks and forget not to get too close to people.”
“I couldn’t trust myself not to loosen up after a few drinks and forget not to get too close to people.”
— Sam Espensen, Espensen Spirit Sarah Dunn, who volunteered at the first BCBF and has attended every year since, also missed the event this year. She notes that “the venue can put all the measures in place, but they have no control in individuals once they leave a venue. Often people like to make a day of it, try a few pubs … but with venues having a reduced capacity for social distancing, plus an influx of people and a smattering of inebriation, you've got a potential recipe for disaster.”
The picture was a little less dire from the opposite side of the bar, according Oli Carter-Esdale, who spent the weekend running a bar in Tent Four. “I enjoyed my time working there. It's good to see that the industry has the ability to provide much of what we all seek from it—community, conviviality, socialization, and generally a way to relax—even when under various restrictions and regulations.”
For some local businesses, the additional footfall from the festival was also welcome. “Across both Small Bar and the brewpub, we saw an increase in trade, and it was really exciting to have brewers and friends from around the U.K. back in town,” says Bruce Gray of Left Handed Giant and Small Bar. “I think the guys had a real challenge trying to run a beer festival in the current climate, but managed to execute it admirably.”
TREADING A FINE LINE COVID-19 is a divisive issue. It has tragically taken well over 40,000 lives here in the U.K., and many believe we should err on the side of caution, be patient, and wait for a vaccine before we socialize in the way we did before. However, there’s no getting around the fact that the pandemic is having a devastating effect on our economy, especially in the events and hospitality industries, which is forcing many into financial insecurity and poverty.
It’s a complex ethical debate that I am far from qualified to weigh in on. I’m not sure there’s a right answer either way, while others, like Wells and the We Are Beer team, believe that you can’t just turn life off. They are willing, they say, to tread the fine line between wanting to support businesses but also making sure people who are vulnerable to the disease are safe. “It's this horrid weighing-up of risks and costs on both sides of which there is no pretty answer,” says Wells.
Since mid-September, the U.K. has seen rising COVID-19 case numbers, and the recent introduction of stricter guidelines. As a result, a 10 p.m. curfew for pubs and restaurants has been put in place in England, putting additional pressure on the hospitality industry. Rules for socializing have since been tightened, and a tier system for localized lockdowns has been established. Living in a country where it feels as though new restrictions are being implemented constantly has resulted in feelings of frustration and fatigue with updated guidelines and changing rules. For many in the beer industry, BCBF was a necessary relief. “It’s a social industry … and the heart and soul of that has disappeared this year,” says Wells.
We Are Beer, like countless others in the industry, is experiencing a loss-making year. In the end, the Bristol Craft Beer Festival was its only significant event to go ahead in 2020: its inaugural Bigfoot Festival, originally scheduled for June, as well as sister events Beer Central in Birmingham, the Edinburgh Craft Beer Festival, and the London Craft Beer Festival have all been postponed.
In the meantime, We Are Beer is determined to take it all in stride, with 2021 dates locked in as well as new events in the works. But positivity only gets you so far. To help businesses in the U.K., the government previously implemented a furlough scheme and bounce-back loans, both of which We Are Beer has leaned on to stay afloat.
Perhaps the true test of the Bristol Craft Beer Festival is whether any COVID-19 cases have directly resulted from it. Wells says he hasn’t received a single call or track-and-trace notification to confirm that, which suggests it was a success. How history will regard the events of this year remains to be seen. As for the Bristol Craft Beer Festival, it will likely be remembered as a curiosity and an oddity—a lone party in a plague year.
Words + Photo
by Nicci Peet