Sunday, 11 August 2013

The Birmingham Beer Bash (2) - The Actual Thing

OK, so my previous post tried to give a context to the event; the event being the Birmingham Beer Bash.

This bit of text [mit piccies] is an attempt, instead, to try and capture my sense of how the two days actually went.  That sounds rather vague and is, because my overriding memory of the 26th and 27th July was threefold, a) mega stress, ii) time whizzing by at a break-neck pace and 3) enormous relief.

Normally I try** to sprinkle my writing with wry, pithy prose.  This post however, verges on mawkish sentimentality and I make lots some no apologies for this.   


The set up of the Birmingham Beer Bash took place over a 3-day period leading up to the first session on Friday lunchtime and it was characterised by eerie intervals of slack and {conversely} intense periods of insane and often sustained madness.  But anyway, as the doors opened, we were prepared, we were steeled, we were eager and we were ready to seize the day.

Being as I am, a thoroughly impractical and unskilled person, my role in the execution of the event was always going to be a case of slotting in where I could cause least damage.  There was never any possibility of my understanding how cask and keg bars need to be operated and I hate getting my hands dirty, so, therefore, I gravitated to a front of house position, which was entirely appropriate, given my upfront PR efforts to promote the Bash*.  I shook hands with quite a few brewers as they are arrived and tried to ensure a warm welcome, but more (or equally importantly) I also tried to provide a professional and friendly 'bonjour' to all of our brilliant customers.  I was determined that people's first impression of our event would be a positive one - professional and enthusiastic.  It helped that I had some awesome volunteer staff alongside me and is worth noting that all of the volunteers who gave up their time to help at the Birmingham Beer Bash were sensational and crucial for us.

 So then, during that first session, as the punters cascaded through the doors, the intense dread seemed to wither slightly..... it appeared that people were enjoying themselves and that we had not really delivered any massive cock-ups.  By the inter-session break I was already tired, but the adrenaline ensured that during those few minutes between chuck-out and re-opening of the gates, I was running around like a mad thing, because the big Friday night rush was on the way, we were smelling a sell out and the place needed to be restored to it's earlier, tidier state.  By around 21.00 on the Friday, having been at the venue for some 14 hours already, I finally started to relax.  On that beautiful Summer evening, I started to get a sense of how happy our customers were.  The venue was working beautifully, with people creatively using the outdoor spaces to compliment their drinking.  The air was filled with satisfied chatter, the food smelled excellent and the bars were surrounded by excitable throngs of craft beer drinkers.  It was looking good.

The mix of people was beautiful: young, old; male, female; beer geeks, beer novices; the enthusiastic, the curious.  One of our first customers of the day was a lovely older chap who shook my hand and said "Thanks for putting this on" - I could have kissed him.     

In those last few hours of Friday, I took the time to catch up with chums who had come along to support the event.  Without exception, they told me how much they were enjoying themselves.  "You've done it" said one, "You've created something in the Birmingham beer landscape, and people have bought in to it.".  It started to get to me.

As that first evening drew to a completion, I stopped to glance at the tweetwall which we'd set up in our main bar area: positive comment followed positive comment.  Rapturous, universal acclaim; the online buzz was tangible and I finally knew that we had delivered something which people had loved.  By the end of that first day, I realised that we'd done what we set out to do, we'd provided the precise experience that I imagined/dreamt.  As I looked once more at the tweetwall, the lump in my throat hardened and a couple of tears escaped a duct and drizzelled down my cheek.  It was mainly relief.

One always wants to impress one's peers.  The desire to impress those who impress you is lifelong.  So when Beer Beauty hugged me at the end of the session and told me how much she had enjoyed herself and that she felt emotional for us organisers... that made me emotional too.   

Interestingly, during that entire Friday, I did not allow myself a single drop of beer until we closed.  I was so wired that I couldn't risk losing my focus.  That first beer of the evening was well worth waiting for - an Arbor/Moor Double Dark Alliance on keg - utterly outstanding.  This was quickly followed by small tasters of Siren Craft QIPA, Wild Beer Ninkasi, Northern Monk New World IPA, Buxton Black Rocks and Redwillow Witless III: all delicious.  It seems that we stocked a bagful of great beers - no wonder people were happy!

Saturday was equally fantastic.  An effort of will was required, as energy levels were depleted, but the satisfaction was all around me.  A succession of great Twitter friends came and went - all loving the experience.  Laughter, big smiles, delight at the beer selection, handshakes aplenty.

By Saturday evening, the rain came down in droves, but it didn't seem to hurt us - we sold out again.  In fact, on that rainy evening, people were queuing for returned tickets.  Mind boggling.  Towards the end of that last session I finally stood behind a bar for the first time (in order to show off to my sister).  Behind our International Bar, it really was lovely to talk to customers, recommending great beers and sharing my enthusiasm.  Those few scraps of conversation which I remember were special - a unique opportunity to invite strangers to your gaff and delight them with delightful beer - a captive audience to proselytize to.  Me in the pulpit at last.

During the last few minutes of the Birmingham Beer Bash, the main hall was filled with the sounds of Motown and grown men were dancing - probably due to lovely beer, but I'd like to think it was due to pure joy.  

And that was it.  It was suddenly over.  All gone too fast.  Me too wired to properly enjoy myself, but, in retrospect, the satisfaction palpable and real.  Phew.     

 *Wordsmith, rather than practical person = moi.
**I do.  I'm not saying I succeed at this, just that I try. 

All photos are taken from the Birmingham Beer Bash Flickr group, and as such all rights are reserved

Sunday, 4 August 2013

The Birmingham Beer Bash (1) - The Build Up

It won't (or will) have escaped your notice that I have become an absent blogger over the preceding 3 months.  The reason for this is that I have been busy on the Birmingham Beer Bash, assisting my fellow team members in ensuring that it was a roaring success.  This was a big collective effort, but was more than worth it.

So then, now that the Beer Bash is over* I suddenly find a lapse in a my life, a lull in my stress.  It is only fit and proper therefore, that I resume my typing duties today and reflect upon the Birmingham Beer Bash - which I am absolutely convinced was a momentous occasion in the history of beer in the Second City.

In order to properly cover the various aspects of BBB that I wish to cover, I am resolved to produce a triptych post - dealing with the before, the during and the after of the Birmingham Beer Bash.  This first part will deal with what was going on, in the lead up to the 26th and 27th July 2013.

For the sake of telling the whole story, the Birmingham Beer Bash was effectively born on the 21st April 2012, which was the date of the first Birmingham Twissup.  This event was the first time that the Birmingham Beer Bash team had ever met each other in the flesh.  Of course, at that point we were not a team at all, we were just a group of bloggers and tweeters who shared a set of values with regard to good/craft beer and it's availability in Birmingham.  During that first meeting, we toured the city's pubs and chatted about the kind of pubs and brewers who we hoped would come to Birmingham sometime soon.  We were exasperated that beers from the toppest, freshest, most excitingest microbrewers never seemed to pop up in the pubs of Birmingham.  At all.  We drunkenly discussed the idea of mounting a showcase event - a new kind of beer festival, which would present these fantastic new brews to the beer fans of the Midlands, and introduce the city of Birmingham to all those cool breweries.

And thus the idea was born.  In the following months, things started to get a little bit organised: a company was formed, paperwork was signed, there were shareholders.  With a group of enthusiasts signed up, the ball started rolling.  Fast forward to the Birmingham Beer Festival of October 2012 and we were {mostly} all together once more.  By that time we'd already ditched out first version of the event name (Brumcraft anyone?) and needed to decide whether we really were going to do this thing.  Well... as we crowded around the international bar, we looked each other in the eyes and sort of knew the answer.  The answer was "Yes".  (The question was does Birmingham really need a craft beer event.) 

Post Christmas, it all got serious.  Suddenly, in a cavalcade of developments we had a new name, a new logo and a venue.  Our Twitter account started to gather a large number of followers, people were mad keen.  This was going to be a cinch, yeah?  Build and they'll drink, right?  Well, sort of.  Between 1st January 2013 and July 26th 2013, an incredible amount of progress was made, and each step was paid for in stress and sweat.  Mainly that sweat belonged to David Shipman (our Leader and inspiration), but all of us did our bit.

My bit was the social media and PR portions of the project.  The Twitter thing was OK - we'd tapped into a rich seam of goodwill and were grateful for it.  But what about those people in the world who weren't beer geeks?  How could we get them to come along to our Bash?  That was the tricky part and it was that which drove my preciptiously steep PR learning curve.  Thanks to the generous support of some clever PR professionals, I was able to try a few things to spread the word.  Of course, they didn't all work, but lessons were learnt and we started to play the game, a bit.  Appearances on Radio WM and in the Birmingham Post and Mail were important for us - they won us extra credibility.  The production of our fabulous beer Rotunda poster was also an important step - giving us visual appeal and a bit of class.  Meanwhile we turned up the volume on Twitter and Tim played a blinder of Facebook.

Against a backdrop of wonderful brewers signing up for the event, plus speakers, beer celebrities and talented caterers, we suddenly had a fully formed, enticing offer; a multi-dimensional beer experience awaiting our public.

Now obviously this could not have happened without the support of our sponsors, nor the vision of the organisers (again, I must tip my hat to our Leader).  Perhaps our real success in the first 6 months of this year, was to effectively and persuasively translate our raw passion and enthusiasm into a credible and deliverable business proposition.  Because after all, this wasn't just a bit of a jolly boys' outing - big money was involved in mounting the Birmingham Beer Bash - it cost a fortune and needed to cover it's costs.  This was a RISK.  And with financial risk comes BIG STRESS.

Putting aside for a minute the hard physical work in setting up the event in the 4 days beforehand - the thing that most tired me out was the nerves.  The fear of failure was palpable - not through any lack of planning or organisational skills, but purely because it was our first time.  We did not know what to expect, and the cold, bony finger of doom certainly bumped it's way down my spine on that sleepless night before we opened....

But that's melodramatic isn't it?  It seems a bit OTT given that I'm now on the other side of that stress.  But it was real.  As we opened the doors on Friday morning, I felt nauseous.  I knew that I would give it the full welly, to make sure we achieved our objectives.

And it's worth reminding ourselves what those objectives were.  Where have we come from?  And what did we tell people we were going to do?  A grand statement perhaps, but the original idea, spouted at that first Twissup meeting was this - we wanted to change the beer landscape in Birmingham.  Could we do it?

*for this year, at least