My legs were aching, I discovered muscles in my thighs that I never knew I had, and my face was dripping wet from the heat. When I was planning my visit to the 39th Cambridge CAMRA Beer Festival I imagined scenes of relaxing on the grass in the sun, pint of beer in hand. So how on earth did I end up on the other side of the bar serving customers?
It’s actually incredible that the UK’s second largest beer festival went ahead at all considering that two weeks ago Jesus Green was a swampy marshland after the wettest April on record. But lo and behold, the rain stopped just in time, and despite the mud the hard-working volunteers managed to lay down the roadways on the grass so the beer and equipment could be delivered. The creation of a beer festival was underway.
The sun certainly helped with the delivery of beer from one of the local breweries. Joe Kennedy, from BlackBar Brewery in Harston, delivered his beer by punt. He can usually be seen transporting his beer by bike in his trailer, but after realising that he couldn’t quite carry 21 casks he decided to transport them a different way.
So he was punted from Grantchester to Jesus Lock by Scudamores whilst he supped his own Marzen beer in the sun. It wouldn’t have worked so well in the rain. At 5pm on Monday the gates opened and the crowds poured into the large marquees, keen to sample the 200 plus real ales on offer from local and regional breweries, plus foreign beers, ciders, perries, wines, meads, as well as cheese available from the famous CAMRA cheese counter. I picked up a glass and programme, browsed the beers and chose BlackBar’s Blacklight, a tasty golden and hoppy beer, then headed outside.
The beauty of this beer festival is that is has a fantastic outdoor seating area. There were people from all walks of life on the seats and the grass: students, office workers, families with children, pub landlords, girls on an evening out - beer festivals are not all about the stereotypical bearded man in sandals. And you don’t even have to like beer to come to the festival; there are many other choices.
The weather continued to improve. The next day was baking and more people came out – and so did the sun cream. Over 40,000 visitors were predicted to visit over the 6-day festival.
Queues snaked all the way down the tree-lined avenue, although CAMRA members can skip the queues with free entry – one of the benefits! My sister came down, a cider drinker, but I managed to persuade her to try beer – it would be a shame not to. After sampling several fruity ales she went for an Oakham Citra, full of zesty grapefruit flavours. She actually liked it. My mission was accomplished.
I was enjoying a delicious Cambridge Moonshine Wonderful Wallace, a fruity, amber beer (the proceeds of which are going to Wallace Cancer Care) when I was approached by a festival volunteer, a bar manager called Steve who had worked there for 20 years. "You write about beer don’t you?" he asked. "How would you like to see how the other side works? Fancy a stint behind the bar?"
So that’s how I ended up working behind the bar at the Cambridge Beer Festival. I filled in the volunteer form, and the next day I collected my badge and t-shirt. I’d never worked behind a bar and was apprehensive – what if it got really busy, what if I couldn’t remember who I’d served?! I needn’t have worried. Hester, the bar manager, ran through everything, and I met Bert, the festival organiser. I tasted a few of the beers (research purposes of course) and it was suddenly time for the gates to open. I was ready to rock.
It was busy – non-stop actually – but it was lots of fun. I got used to shouting ‘Cellar…CELLAR!’ to the cellar guys when the beer was low so they could tilt or change the cask. I got used to darting about like a mad thing, trying to serve as many people as quickly as I could in the 30 degree heat whilst trying to remember faces. And I got used to turning the taps off at the right time before the beer went too far over the half pint or pint mark, although some lucky people received some very good measures. However, I couldn’t have predicted how much the muscles in my thighs would ache the following day from all the crouching down to reach the casks at the bottom of the stillage. Up, down, over and over again. If only all customers would order the beers located at chest height!
The volunteers work hard, and so much organising takes place behind the scenes that customers are not aware of. They work long hours, from putting on new ales, to quality control, to sourcing extra beer, not to mention staffing and security. They receive free beer and food for their efforts, but they do it because it’s fun. I actually enjoyed it so much so that I volunteered to do it all over again the following day. I’m already looking forward to volunteering at the next festival. But just don’t tell my aching legs…