This weekend past, Cape Town’s beer lovers were treated to - get this - two beer festivals, contested by the false David/Goliath dichotomy of South Africa’s beer world: on Friday night, We Love Real Beer Craft Beer Festival engulfed the Old Biscuit Mill in Woodstock; from Thursday through Sunday, the South African Breweries Limited hitched up immense gazebos on their Village Green for their Oktober Bierfest. These were two very different beer festivals, with two very different aims, attracting two very different crowds and producing two very different, very imperfect results. But if you just liked beer like I do, it was a treat.
But in country in which nothing is perfect and everything is a competition, it was unavoidable that attendees of both festivals would wage war over the two beer festivals this weekend on Twitter and elsewhere. In this tradition of petty name-calling and “my-opinion-is-better-than-yours” rhetoric, I will review both festivals, answering criticism and providing conjecture, over the next two days. I will begin today with:
We Love Real Beer Craft Beer Festival, Old Biscuit Mill, Friday 30 September 2011
It’s now becoming glaringly obvious that the We Love Real Beer brand is picking up momentum. Nowhere was this more evident at the Old Biscuit Mill, at which a hell of a lot of people turned up to drink some beer on Friday evening. The first time the event was held either on a Friday or in the evening, it turned out to be a difficult test for its organisers.
Not wanting to break fire laws two-thirds of the way through the evening, the organisers told the crowds that spilled out onto Albert Street that they couldn’t admit any more people. Outside, people left disappointed, cataloguing their emotions with furious taps on their smartphones. Twitter was soon abuzz.
Things were also abuzz inside, where hundreds were crammed. This naturally made walking through the hangar, where all the beer was sold, quite difficult. Few lateral paths, caused by too many tables taking up too much floor space, made getting from one side of the hall to the other an ordeal at times. The ATM broke a few hours into the festival, too, meaning longer queues at the bars as people increasingly had to use card machines to buy their beer. Cue much angst, a bit of jostling and a few unhappy faces.
Bad management, you say? Well, as much as the public jumped at WLRB’s throats, I don’t think it’s simple as that.
During the afternoon, everything seemed to be going along with precedent quite nicely: it was busy, buzzing, but pleasant. At previous festivals, the doors opened at 2; crowds milled in, sozzled themselves with delicious beer and then stumbled out a few hours later. Things seemed to be going the same way on Friday. The doors opened at 4 and the vibe was wonderful. As the sky darkened on Friday, however, it became quickly apparent that everyone in fricking Cape Town had long planned to come here for after-work drinks and a night out in Woodstock.
The festival’s usual infrastructure was quickly overwhelmed, but I think this might be more of the Old Biscuit Mill’s fault than anyone else’s. The back of the hangar, comprising a good few hundred square metres more space, was inaccessible - perhaps in view of the next morning’s Neighbour Goods Market - and the outside courtyard was not utilised well at all. OBM is a pretty big place and, although there are businesses and restaurants who operate during the evening, not using the maximum amount of space - for what was never a small festival to begin with - was asking for trouble.
And herein lies the problem: underneath everything, people tend to be assholes. Throw a thousand people into a small place, ply them with beer and watch an ever-increasing handful begin to push and act obnoxiously towards people who are in the same place as them for the same reason as them. I got to thinking that the simple mathematics of uncomfortable crowds + beer might begin to spoil a few people’s nights, and, by what I’ve been reading on Twitter and the blogz, it did.
And that is a massive shame, because - apart from the crowds and the broken ATM and the under-utilised floorspace - WLRB was such a good time. The overwhelming majority of people were there to enjoy some great beer, and some great beer they got. Boston Brewery’s Van Hunks Pumpkin Ale was a huge treat for many, as were Birkenhead’s Karoo Honey, Paulaner Bräuhaus's Weiss and Camelthorn’s Sundowner. England’s Hook Norton Breweries was also impressive. Their Double Stout is frankly once of the best beers I’ve ever had. These beers present a standard of quality that breweries new and old could all do well to strive towards.
The strangers and brewers who I spoke to as I quaffed a healthy number of delicious brews were unfailingly friendly and in good spirits throughout the evening. It stands testament to the driving force behind this festival: for the vast majority of these brewers and promoters, this is not a money-making exercise. It’s about showcasing their love for their craft, showing off their beers to a market that can very easily make or break their businesses. The spirit behind WLRB is for the most part pure, an attempt to create something brilliant without the financial backing, infrastructure and ubiquitous support that an institution like SAB has already.
To me, the crowd and venue issues are only concomitants to the ever-increasing swathes of people who are tuning in to the excellence of South(ern) Africa’s craft beer. Some people spoke of greed causing the problems. Charging R50 here as opposed to R75 per day at SAB isn’t a measure of greed. An increasing availability of beers and breweries at competitive prices with each successive festival isn’t a measure of greed. Managing to fill a venue to its capacity isn’t a measure of greed. In fact, it’s the opposite. Yes, people were incredibly disappointed to be turned away - and they have every right to feel that way - but isn’t that an indicator, for better or worse, of just how strongly people feel about beer here?
It’s no question whether or not WLRB will sort out these issues - this wasn’t a “wake-up call” as some have suggested, but rather an eye-opener for everyone to the potential of this event. Knowing the people behind it, this potential should be fulfilled, perhaps with a bigger venue, a revised admissions system or just a well thought-out refinement of what they already have in place.
What was once a buzzing afternoon event is suddenly growing up into a craft beer phenomenon. Friday night was only its awkward puberty.