What we learned from
our Church Beer Festival
Written by Jim Thornton, Reader at St Andrew's
Would anyone go to a Church Beer Festival?
We had gone to watch The Play That Goes Wrong with a couple of friends. One of them was a member of General Synod. Chatting in the interval she said, in a rather embarrassed voice, that her son had just run a Beer Festival at his parish church and sold all 150 tickets in 24 hours.
I was astonished. I knew nothing about Beer Festivals, I had heard of CAMRA (we lived next door to one of the most popular pubs in Hertford), but why would anyone go to a Church Beer Festival? Bell ringers do beer, I knew that. So do choirs. But, also, I was told, monasteries were in on the brewing game centuries ago.
I asked those at the Staff Meeting what they thought about the idea of a Beer Festival as a way of changing perceptions about St Andrew's and doing something for blokes? I was told, firmly, that it is not just ‘blokes’ who like beer, but they would take soundings before putting it to the PCC.
This was when I started doing some serious research. My wife, Viv, and I joined CAMRA, and four of us bought tickets for the Ware Beer Festival. Laura, who is a keen Sunderland supporter and whose husband’s ashes are buried behind the goalposts at the Stadium of Light, said it reminded her of a Northern Working Mens’ Club. Laurence, who has been mistaken for Jeremy Corbyn when demonstrating in London, was not entirely sure how it would translate. Viv and I had no idea what to think as it was quite outside our usual experience.
There are already quite a number of church Beer Festivals. The largest annual Festival is held in the Lutyens-designed crypt of Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral and it lasts for three days (details are on the Liverpool CAMRA website). Some churches have the Festival in the nave of the Church, others in the hall, others in the churchyard.
Research and ideas
Our research found that there are 72 pints in a firkin cask, so 18 casks would give over 1,200 pints, which is enough for 500 people at 2.5 pints each. One pub gave figures for its Beer Festival: 700 people in one day, £5 entry fee, £3.50 a pint, £2 half-pint and a turnover of £15k.
Nobody actually opposed the idea of giving it a try, but some were more enthusiastic than others. From the initial reactions we decided (a) we would hold it in the churchyard (b) we would have thought-provoking displays in the church and invite people to wander in with a pint and look around or sit and chat and (c) we would protect the war memorial and the ashes burial ground.
The Chair of the CAMRA area committee was extremely helpful and gave us some good ideas. We realised that if it was a bad Festival, not only would it dishonour God but it would upset people in the congregation. We, therefore, tried to find out what the best Beer Festivals did, and resolved to be as excellent as we could afford to be.
How many beers should we have, and how do we select them?
A new young family had recently joined the church, and were sitting behind us: they were both keen on politics and Alex was Chair of the local Labour Party. I now do Independent politics, but in my time had been Chair of a different party, so we got on well. When the idea of a Beer Festival was suggested, Alex immediately offered his services and told us he was an experienced cellar and keg man. Finding this unexpected expertise within the church family was a real encouragement.
The important issues we identified were: (a) number of beers (b) range of beers (c) commemorative glasses (d) tasting notes and (e) food. We thought about live music, but decided to concentrate on the beer for this one. We had no idea how many people would come. The research suggested that you should have at least ten beers, and we decided to opt for 16. We knew that this would probably mean we would lose money, but to have fewer would make it much less attractive as a Festival.
Rather than advertising widely, we decided we wanted church people to invite their friends. Unlike our friend’s son’s church, tickets did not fly out the door. Three weeks before, we put up a 16-foot banner at the front of the church advertising the event, and this certainly got people talking. But ticket sales were stubbornly low. We had decided on £5 per ticket to include entry, a glass, a pint and Tasting Notes.
'What would Jesus brew?'
A few weeks before, I rather nervously told my 96-year-old teetotal Baptist parents that we were having a Church Beer Festival. I wanted them to be praying for the event. My mother’s response was: “What a wonderful idea: did you see the nice young christian brewer on Songs of Praise?” We went on BBC I-Player and watched the interview: this led us to Emmanuales in Sheffield, with their strapline 'What would Jesus Brew?' and their range of beers with names such as 'Jonah and the Pale', 'Oh Hoppy Day', and the 10% ABV 'Four Horsemen of the Hoppocalypse'. Nick Law (Balding. Brewing. Modern Monk) was really helpful, and we bought four cases of their beers; we had to move fast as the BBC programme had produced a rush of orders from around the country and there was now limited availability.
What about food?
No burgers, it was decreed by the catering team, an excellent Beer Festival should have top quality Cornish pasties and posh ploughmans with only English cheeses. The pasties were a great hit, but our freezer is now full of interesting cheeses. We also decided to have ciders, perries and English wines.
How to get people thinking during their visit
Our main problem was what we put inside the church for displays to get people thinking? In the end we decided to pick up Philip Yancey’s suggestion in Vanishing Grace that the only people the world will listen to on matters of religious faith are Pilgrims, Artists and Activists. This fitted in well with skills we have: Alan, our parish priest is himself an artist, and we have a good activist team who raise our awareness and get us to do things. We trialled a Hertford Pilgrimage last year, and I have published an embellished version of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress with material for church home groups.
'Gladden the heart'
For the Artist display, Alan produced a video loop on Anthony Gormley’s Angel of the North. The cartoon in The Times on the morning of the Festival was of the Angel with George Osborne’s face and Theresa May as a seagull passing over and decorating the top of his head. I told the prayer walkers about this as we set off round the churchyard before the Festival opened, but they did not seem totally to share my view that this was an expression of God’s sense of humour and support. Perhaps a better encouragement was that Jane’s set reading that morning was Psalm 104:15: Jesus, too, gave wine to ‘gladden the heart’.
So what actually happened on the day?
We had started researching in February 2016 and were able to stage the event on 17 September 2016. We believe about 400 people came through the door. The teenagers did a roaring trade on their non-alcoholic cocktail bar and it was a great family event. We had prayed specifically that good conversations would take place and that there would be a real sense of warmth and welcome and easy talking. The positive feedback confirmed that this had indeed happened.
Would we do it again?
There was a demand that we do it again in 2017, but we have decided to leave it for a year and hopefully do it again next year.
What would we say to other churches who might think of doing the same thing?
There are practical things such as: a long bar helps good conversations and free beer for those helping clear up makes the end an enjoyable event in itself. But much depends on the space you have. We have made the original research and feedback notes available below for those who are interested.
Did we make money on it?
We had a research grant from a Trust for £4,000 and were able to make a donation to WaterAid of £1,287, but we can do much better next time. We made the conscious decision to do it well rather than make money and we do not regret that decision.
On his way out at the end, one of the senior CAMRA members congratulated me on the event, and said we only made one mistake. It is against the law to leave a Beer Festival with a beer glass unless it is in a paper bag: we had failed to provide paper bags.
St Andrew's Beer Festival 2016 - read a review of the event
Resources for those wishing to put on a similar event
Documents concerning how St Andrew's Church planned, publicised and reviewed the event
Jim Thornton is Reader at St Andrew's Hertford, a Chartered Civil Engineer, and author of 'Pilgrim’s Progress in Colour'
(Top image courtesy of Radnatt at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)