Volunteering at the Great British Beer Festival

There are few finer things in life than a beer festival. The selection of beers on offer, the banter with the bar staff, the food stalls, everything there except the queue for the toilets is a delight. It’s easy to forget, however, that these festivals can only run because of a dedicated crew of volunteers giving up their time and energy to make it all run smoothly.

I’ve attended my fair share of festivals. This GBBF, I figured it was about time I gave something back. And so last Thursday morning, I trotted off to Kensington Olympia to work my first shift behind a bar since 2006.

The day starts at 10am, when I step past the diehard beer fans already queuing at the door (me last year) and head to the staff office. The friendly pair greeting me there soon narrow down the range of possible jobs (Bar or non-bar? British or foreign beer? Hand pump or key keg?) and I’m on my way to bar B04.

Proudly sponsored by Mr Porky pork scratchings yet again

Any apprehension I may have had evaporates immediately on meeting Gill. She and her husband John are in charge of the bar, and right away Gill is showing me around, patiently taking me through the induction, and furnishing me with a brewery t-shirt. Once dressed in my proper apparel, I’m set to work laying out beer mats and towels in front of the pumps in anticipation for the drinkers’ arrival. Around me, volunteers are checking the pumps are working correctly and setting up the tills. Everyone is laughing and joking about, which creates a really welcoming and light-hearted atmosphere.

There’s a few minutes’ lull before service starts, which I use to familiarise myself with the beers on offer. We are both blessed and cursed in this respect: on the one hand, we get to serve the champion beer of Britain, Surrey Hills’ Shere Drop! On the other hand, we have to serve the champion beer of Britain, dealing with the rabid crowds that come with it. Gill warns us what to expect. With two people working just that one pump and another taking payments, we can serve an entire cask of this stuff in around twenty minutes.

A brief pep talk later, the bar opens. It’s slow to start at first – only those die-hard beer fans we saw camping by the doors. They have checklists to work through. One has printed a spreadsheet. These chaps (and they were 90%+ chaps) mean serious business.

Pretty soon, though, business picks up. I pull my first ever pint of real ale, Electric Bear’s Whirly Bird. The next order is for two half pints, then a third, then four halves. After a shaky start, my mental maths skills kick into gear and I’m totting up tabs like a seasoned pro.

It’s a busy first hour, and before I know it I’m being pulled off the bar to take lunch. Upstairs, I tuck into a hearty plate of fish pie and savour a third of my first beer of many today, anticipating another mad rush once I return to the bar.

Green Jack, Trawlerboys

Phwoar. This is what a best bitter is meant to be. Russet brown and clear, with a seriously appetising, malty aroma like old-fashioned wholemeal bread. On the palate it’s almost decadently rich and malty, with a spicy hit of ginger biscuits toward the back end. 4/5

Trawlerboys – it’s a damn shame the barrel ran dry before I could get a second helping later

I needn’t have worried: my first task after lunch was guard duty, checking everyone in and out of the volunteer-only area. Dull work at first, but before long I’m chatting with the regular faces passing through, and with some merry festival-goers stationed nearby. My gigantic orange steward shirt is a beacon for questions, and I find myself directing people around the building like a conductor: this way for the loos, that way for the smoking area, around the corner for Shere Drop.

Speaking of which, I’m back to the bar. Crunch time is approaching: word has got out that there’s a fresh barrel of the champion beer ready to start serving, and a crowd is already gathering. A weary steward arrives holding the sign to mark the end of the queue, which is already thirty people long.

Gill grabs me and a couple of the old hands – are we up for managing the pump, she asks? We’re all game, and a few tense moments later we’re off. The production line means I’m alternating pulling pints with my colleague next to me, barking out prices to our third teammate collecting payment.

The pressure is high to start with, but soon we find our rhythm and it’s like operating a well-oiled machine. At one point we somehow managed to get the queue down to just one or two people, before some of the earlier drinkers spotted what was happening and rushed back up for a second go. Around twenty minutes later, the barrel is done, and the last few drinkers in the queue amble away disappointed.

The rest of my shift is a blur, as I whizz up and down the bar pulling pints, recommending drinks and complimenting passers by on their many excellent costumes. Before I know it, 4pm rolls around and I have to slip off to pick up Dad and my partner. I head back up to the staff office to pick up my free festival glass and beer list, and buy a couple of sheets of tokens (volunteers can buy £10 worth of tokens for £7.50). Now, it’s about time I get to experience the other side of the bar…

So much beer, so little time…

If you’ve ever been to a beer festival, you’ve benefited from the tireless work of the volunteers pulling pints, checking bags, clearing up broken glass and directing you to the loo. Offering to help out – even if it’s just for a half-day shift like I did – is an amazing experience and a great way to chip in. I honestly cannot recommend it enough.

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