Cloudwater Brew Co will double down on its ambition to run one of the U.K.’s best craft beer festivals next year—despite the fact that the last one was nearly canceled after just two sessions.
On Feb. 20 and 21, 2020, the Manchester, U.K. brewery will host its second Friends & Family & Beer event at Manchester Central, a historic former railway station in the heart of the city. The site will allow Cloudwater to double the number of attendees to nearly 6,000 across three sessions, bucking a trend that has seen several U.K. craft beer festivals close their doors for good.
Last year, Cloudwater’s first festival invited 64 globally-recognized breweries to come to the city and pour over 300 different beers, accompanied by local street food vendors and DJs at Upper Campfield Market. It raised £20,000 for charity, a fact that probably helped it survive when it was found to be operating at a venue without an alcohol license.
This next edition is expected to be much bigger, even as the festival market gets more competitive. Belgian beer festival Ales Tales didn’t return for 2019, the Brighton Craft Beer Festival sold just a few hundred tickets across five sessions at a 700-capacity venue, Birmingham’s Lock & Key failed to find a location this year, and recent vegan beer event FABfest was cancelled due to low ticket sales caused by transport issues and coinciding with another local beer festival. However, with Beavertown not running its Extravaganza this year in the wake of its partial sale to Heineken, there seems to be a new gap in the U.K. market for an invitational-style festival, even as success has been hard to come by for other companies.
WHY IT MATTERS
Cloudwater co-founder Paul Jones has already shown an ability to bring in headlining American breweries; the likes of Hill Farmstead, Trillium, Jester King, and The Veil all attended last year. BrewDog also hosted a brewery invitational festival last year called Metro Mayhem, which managed to attract Hill Farmstead, Jolly Pumpkin, and 18th Street from the U.S. This factor has given these festivals an edge over other operators, who have in turn focused on bringing in elements from music and restaurant cultures to reach a wider audience. While this allows them to compete, booking DJs, bands and upmarket food vendors does not come cheap, and makes it tricky to hit margins in a competitive market.
Greg Wells, co-founder of We Are Beer, which runs four craft beer festivals in Edinburgh, Bristol, Birmingham, and London, says the incredible line-ups at brewery-led invitationals initially “scare him,” and that being able to write off losses as marketing spend gives them much more freedom.
“For these brewery-led festivals, so long as you’ve covered your man-hour costs internally, if it’s your branded event you can put a marketing value to that,” he says. “If you’re like us with a [dedicated] back-of-house team you’ve got to take sponsorship if it’s going to be a successful business. That’s true in any festival business but especially a high-end product like craft beer.”
While Wells worries he is abiding by slightly different rules, he also believes that such events play in another, geekier market, leaving room for less beer-reliant festivals if they can attract a wider audience.
“We had over 20,000 people through the doors this year, which is around 30% or 40% growth for us,” says Wells. “That said, you can get it so wrong if you don’t do the numbers. People think you can whack some hype brewers on the bill and tickets will sell. It’s not true, it’s an evolving industry. You’ve got to nail the experience and include food, music, and drink. I think our food line-up was the best at any festival in the U.K., not just beer festivals.”
The focus of Friends & Family & Beer will clearly be on the beer, and attracting beer geeks from all over Europe. The brewery is so confident in its concept, however, that it has put tickets on sale six months in advance, before even announcing the breweries. The early announcement has caught many by surprise. Cloudwater was expected to take more time before deciding to host another event after the first Friends & Family & Beer festival nearly ended in disaster.
The brewery was confident last year, too. An exciting roster of brewers meant the 3,000 tickets sold out months in advance, leaving the organizers to focus on delivering the event rather than racing to break even (an issue that many craft beer festivals encounter in their first few years).
To the attendees of the first two sessions, everything was going to plan. However, at 12:35 a.m. on the first night of the festival, Jones sent a tweet announcing that Friends & Family & Beer would have to move, and might be canceled. Despite several assurances from the site management that Upper Campfield Market was licensed for alcohol, it turned out it wasn’t, and officers had arrived to shut down the festival. Jones found his community manager and festival organizer Connor Murphy being interviewed in a police van, and himself facing an unlimited fine or six months in jail if he continued with the event the next day.
“Someone came to me halfway through the evening session and said ‘Connor’s in the back of a police van, I think you need to come now,’” he says. “They let me in, and I tried to defuse the tension because Connor was devastated. I said we just needed to get out of that van and figure out who we could get in touch with.”
To start with, none of the other staff knew what was happening as they started to call anyone who they thought could help. One of the first phone calls was to JW Lees Brewery’s head brewer and production director Michael Lees-Jones. As Lees-Jones was a family member in one of Manchester’s oldest beer businesses, Jones was sure he would know somebody who could help. He put Jones in touch with a licensing solicitor who confirmed they had no legal recourse but instead called Sacha Lord, the Manchester mayor’s night-time economy advisor.
“We went through cycles of despair and hope,” says Jones. “We were thinking about the 1,700 people we had coming the next day, some of whom had traveled from the States, even. We thought we might be able to move the festival elsewhere and still deliver an experience, so we put out the blog and a call to all the brewers for ideas, and then went home to try and at least get some rest.”
At 7 a.m. the following morning, the Cloudwater team met at the brewery taproom and started calling people again. Jones himself had several conversations with the Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, as well as Lord and the council. Even so, there was no suggestion that the festival was going to be able to stay at its current site, so the brewers and volunteers had started—and by midday, finished—packing up the festival into vans. By that time, Jones had received assurances from a source he could not disclose that, even without the license, they wouldn’t face severe punishment for continuing the festival. So he gave the word and, within an hour, those same people had put everything back in place and opened the doors.
“It was just utterly insane,” says Jones. “We’ve never felt anything like that momentum in beer before. All that positive energy is what got us up on that Saturday morning. It was only because of that weight of positivity that people like Andy Burnham and Sacha Lord and all those folk tuned in and realized that people were buzzed to be in the city, and that they had to turn it around.”
There is no doubt that the media storm around last year’s festival will help generate interest in 2020’s event, for better or for worse. Cloudwater certainly does have a niche they can fill if they manage to repeat the brewers’ list of 2019, especially as other brewery invitationals follow the We Are Beer model. The team will again rely on the goodwill of the brewers and drinkers.
“Out of all the pain we had in the first year and the crisis we faced,” says Murphy, “the one thing that stood out really strongly was the ethos that we created around the festival. The actions of the brewers, the volunteers, the customers and within the local authorities completely vindicated how we had set up the festival. They really rallied around us, and we want to bring those threads through to this year.”
Hopefully that community spirit will endure, and will not have to be called into action again.