So, after some internet problems (updates this lunchtime have gone from laptop to the world wide web via my mobile phone – mobile hot spotting!), we’ve just about managed to stay online. Which is handy, as it’s the only way I can justify my existence at the IT hot desk between Bar A and Bar B (if anyone actually bothers reading these blogs on the day, please do come and say hello!).
The Sussex Beer & Cider Festival has five separate sessions over the Festival weekend: Thursday evening (preceded by the two-hour trade session I revealed last night), Friday lunch, Friday evening, Saturday lunch and Saturday evening. We close for two hours between the day and evening sessions on Friday and Saturday, which gives us a chance to clean up a wee bit, have a break and let our crack team of cellarmen weave their magic. Perhaps as a result of this approach, each of the five sessions has a distinct ambience all of its own.
This session – Friday lunch from 11am until 3pm – is probably my personal favourite, both as a paying punter (back in the day!) and as a volunteer. The crowd tends to be a mixture of retired folk and people who have taken the day off to enjoy probably the widest selection of beers. Most beers will have reached condition, and only one or two are likely to have sold out on Thursday night – this year, our first two sell-outs came within minutes of each other around twenty-past-twelve mark: Thornbridge Jaipur IPA on Bar C (my opinion: a great beer, but one that’s usually quite widely available) and Top-Notch Hop Festival from the Sussex Bar (brewed by a man in his garage in Haywards Heath, I’m reliably informed – quite a feat to be selling as fast as one of the acknowledged great British ales!).
Friday lunchtime also sees the greatest concentration of ‘tickers’ (or the slightly more modern version, ‘scoopers’). These renowned, but perhaps sometimes slightly eccentric, folk are the backbone of any festival that takes itself seriously in trying to source unusual or rare beers. For many of us (certainly for me), a beer festival is a chance to try some different beers and perhaps to find one that’s particularly nice and settle on that for a larger measure (although we serve three measures at Hove – thirds, halves and pints – halves tend to be favoured by the majority) or two. For a ticker/scooper, on the other hand, life is a relentless pursuit of beers that have not yet been tasted (or ‘ticked’ or ‘scooped’ in the relevant parlance). They will try to obtain a copy of the beer list beforehand (to be fair, we do our best to help this by publishing our list as soon as it’s finalised, and then tracking updates throughout) and will often come to the Festival with a prepared plan of attack.
So, how does one identify a scooper? Well, some are just like you and me, whilst others can be distinguished by their lever-arch folders of carefully handwritten notes (seriously!), often bulging out of a well-worn supermarket carrier bag, or by the bulky rucksack that the wearer is strangely reluctant to take off, let alone entrust to the cloakroom. Don’t fear these people – after all, without their constant demands for new beers, some beer festivals may be tempted to rest on their laurels and rely on the same beer list year-in, year-out…
Enough about Friday lunchtime - what are the other sessions like? Well, the trade session (invitation-only, strict door policy, not-what-you-know-but-who-you-know etc) is a mixed bag of genuinely interested landlords and the odd (and yes, I do mean odd) punter who’s sneaked in with the landlord of their local. It’s not too difficult to spot the difference! Thursday evening starts off as a mixture of enthusiastic trade session attendees who’ve stayed on and purchased tokens and local festival goers who are keen to try ales with a good chance of having the widest selection (not all beers necessarily reach condition by the start of the festival – last night, around 20 of the approx 240 beers weren’t ready for sale). With a few exceptions, people tend to be more sensible, restrained and the crowd (if not the individuals within) starts to thin noticeably after 9.30pm. Sometimes, one or two particularly popular beers will sell out on Thursday night – this can be a double-edged sword for the brewer as, although a real vote of the beer’s popularity can be a source of pride, a beer that only lasts for a single session is less likely to attract the votes required for the Beer of the Festival.
Friday evening is the busiest session – although the volume of punters allowed through the door is capped strictly at 1,000 for each session (which we’ll tend to reach on at least one other session), Friday evening sees a crowd of dedicated drinkers firing on all cylinders, arriving early (we’ve seen people queuing before 4pm – an hour ahead of doors opening – in previous years) and tending to stay until ‘time’ is called. As Friday evening consistently sold out weeks in advance, we experimented last year by holding back 100 tickets for sale on the door, a measure which proved so popular we’ve repeated it for all sessions this year.As a volunteer, I often say that Friday night is the best session to be working, not least because it sometimes feels like we have more space behind the bar than the crowd has on the other side!
Saturday lunchtime can change depending on whether or not the Seagulls are at home (they are, and were last year too), as that brings in football fans from both the Albion and often the visiting team, all of whom leave around 1.30pm (along with a good proportion of our bar volunteers, leaving those of remaining quite busy!). Much like Friday lunch, the pace is slower than the weekend evening sessions, but with less ‘scoopers’ the crowd always seems a lot more laid back.
Saturday evening sees the band take the stage, so the session can sometimes feel more like a gig than a beer festival in the Main Hall. The stage is the corner of the hall nearest the cider bar, and for this reason (and because beer stocks tend to be running low by this point), the cider and perry usually makes a late surge in sales. I always try to warn people planning on only coming to this final fifth session not to pin their hopes on trying a particular beer as, if it’s as good as they’re hoping, other people will have doubtless snaffled it all at previous sessions!
Anyway, that’s it for now, and I’ll be back with something new for this evening’s session.
(In all seriousness, I have a lot of respect for scoopers - and I hope nobody takes offence at the above, which was intended to be light-hearted. The website Scoopergen is an excellent source of information for beers, particularly when travelling abroad).