Friday, 17 October 2014

A Beer Buyer's Lot is Not a Happy One!

Waiting for the thirsty hordes

As regular readers will be aware, I’ve been charged with ordering the beer for the forthcoming beer and cider festival which our local CAMRA branch is running in connection with the Spa Valley Railway. The latter are a preserved railway who runs trains over five and a half miles of restored track between Tunbridge Wells West and Eridge. This line, which closed in 1986, was one of the last to axed by a cash-strapped British Rail before it was split up and privatised. A senseless closure given the line's strategic importance as a cross-over route, but since when did sense ever come into these decisions?
To return to the fast approaching beer festival; the event takes place next weekend, from Friday 24th to Sunday 26th October. What makes the event unusual is the fact that beer is available at the stations at both ends of the line, as well as the intermediate stop at Groombridge. Beer will also be served on the trains! As you can imagine, the logistics of setting up and manning three separate static bars, as well as two moving ones, have been a bit of a nightmare, so surely picking up the phone and ordering the beer should be a piece of cake in comparison?

Last year’s experience should have told me otherwise. Brewers may be wonderful, creative and interesting people, but they are often not very good at dealing with sales enquiries. Whilst this might seem perverse, given that there is no point in them brewing the beer if no-one is able to buy it, you have to remember that many brewers are extremely busy people, who as well as stirring the mash tun will often be out delivering the beer, sorting out the accounts or stuck out in the yard carrying out every small-brewer’s favourite job – cask washing!

This explains why  quite often they don’t return phone calls or respond to email enquiries, and whilst I can  understand why, it doesn’t make the job of ordering beer any easier.  I cheated this year, though by placing the lion’s share of the order through a beer agency, and then struck lucky when a local publican came to our rescue by offering to source those beers we’d had difficulty with. Our friendly landlord and I spent several evenings mulling over lists, together with the CAMRA colleague who had drawn up the original list, and by last Monday we were finally there.

There had been quite a few changes along the way. Several breweries were unable to supply for reasons ranging from distance, lack of capacity or even a reluctance to supply CAMRA festivals. I won’t name the latter as I understand and respect their reasons, but all this had meant the beer list was in a continual state of flux as we strove to achieve a balanced selection.
Green Hop Ales at last year's festival
Unfortunately all the threads which made up the final list came together two days after the print deadline for the festival programme, which meant some of the work another colleague had put regarding tasting notes, beer styles etc, was wasted. I felt for him, and understand his frustration, but the decision for going to press early was that of the Spa Valley and not our own.

Had we waited a few days longer, everything would have been good, but such is life! I’ve spent today ringing round those breweries who are delivering separately, just to check everything is still on course. I’ve been assured that it is, so fingers crossed that all the beers we’ve ordered do actually turn up next Tuesday, as promised. I’ll be on site the following day, helping to get the beers stillaged and then tapped and spiled. Come the weekend I’m looking forward to serving them to the thirsty punters. If you are in the Tunbridge Wells area next weekend, then do call in and say hello.

“A veritable smorgasbord of the county's finest 3.5% flat brown bitters.” Was how one rather unkind commentator described the festival. He couldn’t be more wrong, as ironically, traditional “brown bitter” is quite hard to come by these days; especially from many of the smaller micro-breweries. Golden ales, pale ales, IPA’s and all manner of porters, stouts and other dark beers, are abundant, but apart from local stalwarts Harvey’s and Westerham, not many other breweries in Kent and Sussex brew a brown bitter. My colleague and I both reached this conclusion whilst compiling the list. Perhaps CAMRA should launch a campaign in the same manner as that for mild, only this time for “brown bitter”!

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