Not only here for the beer

by
29 March 2019

Continuing our series on parish initiatives, Jim Thornton describes his church’s beer festival

DURING a theatre visit, a friend (who happened to be a member of the General Synod) mentioned, 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. Why would anyone go to a church beer festival? Although I knew nothing about beer festivals, I had heard of CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale), and we lived next door to one of the most popular pubs in Hertford. Bell-ringers do beer; so do choirs; and monasteries were in on the brewing game centuries ago.

So I asked the staff meeting what they would think about a beer festival as a way of changing perceptions about church and Jesus, and it was agreed to take soundings before putting it to the PCC.

This was when I started doing some serious research. There were already, I found, many church beer festivals. The largest annual festival is a three-day event, held in the Lutyens-designed crypt of Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral. Some churches have the festival in the nave of the church; some in the hall; others in the churchyard.

We learned that there were 72 pints in a firkin cask; so 18 casks would give more than 1200 pints: enough for 500 people at 2½ pints each. One pub supplied figures for its own beer festival: 700 people in one day, £5 entry fee, £3.50 a pint, £2 half-pint, turnover £15,000.

Nobody opposed the idea of giving it a try, but some were more enthusiastic than others. The chair of the CAMRA area committee was extremely helpful, and gave us some good ideas. We realised that, if the festival was done badly, 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.

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BUT how many beers should we have, and how should we select them? We realised that we needed technical expertise, but the pub along the road was concerned about competition, and so declined to help.

A new young family had recently joined the church, and regularly sat in front of us; we used to chat about politics, as we were both involved locally, although in different parties. When I put an appeal in the weekly Messenger, Alex, instead of talking politics, immediately offered his services, and told us that he was an experienced cellar and keg man. It was an example for us of an astonishing answer to prayer (did Jesus, perhaps, enjoy a good pint?). In another extraordinary way, we came across the Christian brewery Emmanuales, whose slogan is “What would Jesus brew?”

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; we opted for 16. We knew that this would probably mean that we would lose money, but to have fewer would make it much less attractive as a festival.

Rather than advertise widely, we decided that we wanted churchpeople to invite their friends. In contrast with the experience of our friend’s son’s church, tickets did not fly out of the door. Three weeks beforehand, we put up a 16-foot banner at the front of the church advertising the event, and this certainly got people talking. But advance ticket sales were stubbornly low. We had decided on £5 per ticket to include entry, a glass, a pint, and tasting notes.

No burgers, it was decreed by the catering team: an excellent beer festival should have top-quality Cornish pasties and posh ploughman’s with only English cheeses. (The pasties were a great hit, but we were eating “interesting” cheeses for months.) We also decided to have ciders, perries, and English wines.

Our main problem was what to make available inside the church to get people thinking. In the end, we decided to follow Philip Yancey’s suggestion, in Vanishing Grace, that the only people that the world will listen to on matters of religious faith are pilgrims, artists, and activists. This fitted well with skills that we have: our parish priest, Alan, is an artist; we have a good activist team who raise our awareness and get us to do things; and I have published an updated version of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress in the style of James Patterson, with material for home groups.

On the morning of the festival, we did a prayer walk around the churchyard, and were encouraged by a quotation from the set reading, Psalm 104.15: Jesus gave wine “to gladden the heart”.

 

What you really want to know:
 

What happened on the day? We had started researching in February, and were able to stage the event on 17 September. 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.

Could any church stage one? It is certainly worth exploring. We have put our research papers up on our website, www.hertfordstandrews.co.uk, if you want to learn more from our experience. It was a great way to engage church members and to use their varied expertise and talents.

Did it make money? We had a research grant of £4000 from a trust, and were able to make a donation to WaterAid of £1287; but we made a conscious decision to do the festival well rather than make money, and we did not regret that choice.

Would we do it again? Definitely — and we did.

 

AS HE left, one of the senior CAMRA members congratulated us on the event, and said that we made only one mistake: it is against the law to leave a beer festival with a beer glass unless the glass is in a paper bag; and we had failed to provide paper bags. Next time round, we used compostable plastic.

 

Jim Thornton is a member of the congregation at St Andrew’s, Hertford.

 

TO THINK ABOUT:

  • Have clear objectives.

  • Find a brewery that will hire out the staging and chillers you will need (CAMRA will help with advice).

  • You need someone who knows their beers: this can be as divisive as church music, or Brexit.

  • Set reasonable pricing that fits with pubs in the area.
  • Use social media to advertise.

  • Try live music and “Beer and Hymns” to draw people in.

  • A long bar helps good conversations.

  • Advertise follow-up events for those with questions.

  • Free beer finishing up the kegs meant that there was no shortage of people to clear up.

  • Check current legal and local requirements. Not everyone knows about the legal requirement for a paper bag for your glass: one of the two police officers who checked us out during the festival came back later, bought a glass, and crossed the road to his patrol car without a paper bag.

Use social media to advertise.

Try live music and “Beer and Hymns” to draw people in.

A long bar helps good conversations.

Advertise follow-up events for those with questions.

Free beer finishing up the kegs meant that there was no shortage of people to clear up.

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