I’ve been quite anticipating Boak and Bailey’s “long read” for March 1st, but as it has got closer I’ve drafted and deleted more posts than I think I’ve actually published in the two and a bit years that I’ve been doing this for now. The problem is it keeps turning into a rant – there’s always an underlying point to it but in the effort to keep writing that little bit more it just gets all flabby and unnecessary – a sort of middle aged spread if you will. Or the self-indulgent waffle we’re urged to avoid! This will be my last effort, boosted by the extra words this explanatory paragraph has added, but if I can’t get to the end of it and be happy with what is written, well you won’t be any the wiser as you won’t be reading this! By the time (and if) the end is reached it may or may not actually meet the “long” target, but if it doesn’t, well let’s just keep that as our little secret, eh? And it is probably still waffle, and undoubtedly self-indulgent, but you can’t win them all.
Sometimes you really have to stop what you’re doing, lift your head up and look around to realise how much has changed while you’ve been lost in the detail.
Without knowing it at the time, about two years ago I set off on a journey. I met up with some strangers I’d only previously been in contact with through the internet (how many horror stories in tabloids and the coffee table magazine market share that theme!?!) and we had a drink. We had a few more. If I’m honest we got a teeny tiny bit tipsy. And then finished it off by getting drunk. On that day we never discussed doing anything more permanent then maybe doing it all again sometime. But the next time was different. From somewhere we had formed an idea. I don’t know any more where (or who) it came from, or how it got shared, but initially sensible discussions fuelled by beer became bolder. A vision was born. Only an outline at first, blurred but recognisable. We created the Birmingham Beer Bash.*
The lack of variety in Birmingham’s beer scene was a key driver. We’d recognised, and some of us had written about, the lack of some key pubs and bars (in terms of style and offering, rather than a specific chain), certain beery developments, that we saw as being indicative of the problem we bounced around amongst ourselves. We recognised the odd recent improvement, for sure, and there were always the exciting rumours of more to come. But we didn’t want to wait for change to come, especially if we’d end up getting it in a form we would all individually be just that little bit disappointed by. We chose to bring about a bit of change ourselves.
Since then, the change has been happening. It’s steady, to be sure. The Scottish punks moved in, and made their mark from the start; weeks later a tired old pub was revitalised so effectively that in less than a year it had its traditional cask ale brewery owners installing keg lines and relaxing the tie, while the pub powered straight into third place for the local CAMRA branch’s pub of the year. And then the summer came.
Before that, although Leeds were strictly speaking first in line, it was Manchester that made everyone sit up and say “Wow!” with a new kind of beer festival. Paying it a visit I admit there were mixed feelings – a stunning beer selection, in a stunning venue, but a clear indication of how high the bar had been set. Suddenly the lack of a venue wasn’t a problem for us – the lack of a superlative one was.
London got in on the act in the spring, but Liverpool upped the game completely. The bar was adjusted upwards once more. London actually had two goes before Liverpool, and the second of those was when the bubble burst. Overnight, in a torrent of tweets, fallibility was detected. Not only did it show that success was not guaranteed just by wanting to put on the best beers around, but it was the penultimate such event before our own. By the time we got to late July the negatives were still fresh in everyone’s memory, despite Liverpool restoring the faith to some extent. But we weren’t a brewery or a bar, an established business or simply backed by wealth, we were just a bunch of seemingly crazy amateurs. We earned the faith of some, to be sure, but others clearly thought “hmmm” and watched and waited.
More than that though, we were committed, in every sense. Thousands had been spent, and thousands more were owed. There was no backing out – there had been one point where we could have walked away, lost a chunk of money and licked some wounds, but once that moment passed we were on a treadmill that wasn’t going to stop again. Lessons were learnt from what we had seen happen to others, and fortunately many of the perceived mistakes were already being dealt with differently. This could be done. There was no room for complacency though.
The first day of set-up was greeted with pouring rain. The outdoor space in particular looked and felt grey and miserable and our incumbent saboteur** was gleeful about our impending failure. He’d bought the cheapest ticket he could to get a ringside seat at the disaster. All we had to do was do what he’d failed to do so far, and bring about our own failure.
The day came. So did the (relatively minor) disasters.*** So did the sunshine. And so did the people. They liked what they saw, and they loved what they drank.
Our saboteur liked it too. Enough to come back that evening for the second session. It was such a shame**** we’d sold out by then. By the final session even a downpour didn’t dampen the enthusiasm. We built it and they came. Maybe we’d count the cost later, but we had succeeded in creating an event that was more than any of us had dreamed it could be.
Once it was over, there was time to look up again, at what was going on around us. Change was still happening, one step at a time. It continues to happen. Anticipated developments, perhaps inevitably, run late, but one by one they finally happen, or soon will do. The landscape has changed, not unrecognisably perhaps, but significantly. Were we a part of that? Undoubtedly. Would it have happened without us? Of course, but possibly without quite such a shot in the arm. Are we proud to be in the middle of it? Oh yes.
The clock winds on. A festival that at times we felt was treated with caution is back, but this time the name is not unknown, the prospects are not unsure. The flicker of recognition in a respected brewer’s eyes when you introduce yourself is a reward in itself. The friendships, acquaintenances and professional relationships that have developed form proof of the successes achieved, as does the rapid take-up of tickets months away from the actual event. The oft-mentioned friendliness of the industry is witnessed at first hand again and again. And yet, greater awareness attracts greater interest. It seems not everyone remembers to be friendly, or even polite. Unreasonable expectations and demands from strangers grate when you’re putting your all into something for no more reward than the love of the job. They’re thankfully few and far between, the utter amazingness of most you deal with more than making up for it. Except for those brief moments when your button is pushed, and you’d snap if it wasn’t for those who have your back, acting as your safety valve. The lows are inevitable, and surprising regular, but manageable. The highs, well they just keep cropping up by surprise when you least expect it.
It’s a little ironic, given that blogging and tweeting is what got me into this to start with, that the effort of bringing about a repeat event has seen both of those activities diminish. The opportunities to write, and even to keep up to date in order to have something to write about, are lost to the myriad of other tasks that need to be fitted into the sparse time available. Not to mention the difficulty of not always being able to write about the one thing that is taking up all your attention. It was during a snatched few moments on the train that I wrote the past few paragraphs, when my ears tuned in late to the exceptionally loud Liverpool accent directed down a phone elsewhere in the carriage. I’d been blocking it out, focusing on my own small bubble for a moment, when my ears pricked up at snippets of conversation. I detected “Beer Bash”… “Birmingham”… “yeah, could stay with mates, get a hotel even”. A chance in thousands at least, but one of those amazing little highs that make the lows seem so small. And something more. Something meaningful. A little sign of how things have changed. How people are talking about coming to Birmingham for beer, because it has become more of a beer destination. Because we’ve become a destination event. Because things have changed.
And things are changing still.