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WRITER, CONSULTANT AND BROADCASTER SPECIALISING IN BEER, PUBS AND CIDER. BEER WRITER OF THE YEAR 2009 AND 2012

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Monday, 30 September 2013

Beer festivals and festival beer: how Carslberg is missing a trick with its music sponsorship

You can have anything you want. So long as you want Tuborg.

When I'm not propping up the bar in a good pub, I like nothing better than jumping up and down and shouting at men with guitars.

I've been doing a great deal of the latter this summer at music festivals. The first time I went to Glastonbury in 1987 most people hadn't heard of it, and for those who had, to suggest going was about the same as suggesting you quit your job, start freebasing crack and buy a mangy dog on a piece of string.

In 1987, the only mention of Glastonbury in the national media was the number of arrests (it was never pointed out that this number was always far lower than in any town of a population size equivalent to the festival over the weekend). Now it gets wall-to-wall coverage, and tickets are impossible to come by. And so we've seen a huge proliferation of festivals, with several happening every weekend from June to September. When we look at declining beer sales figures every summer, it's a shame these events aren't monitored. The picture might look a little different if we could take into account a hundred thousand people drinking steadily for three days each weekend.

Festivals are now big business, and big brands are all over them. And this led to two very different beer experiences at the festivals I attended this summer.

The Latitude Festival is held just outside Southwold in Suffolk. Recently it was taken over by Festival Republic, who also run Reading, Glastonbury and various other festivals. The organisation has signed a deal with Carlsberg to supply Tuborg lager and Somersby cider to all these festivals. At Latitude, at the ten or so bars around the festival site, Tuborg was the only lager on offer, Somersby the only cider. Hobgoblin was on sale too - for some reason. Whether Carlsberg thought this was a better bet than their own Tetley's beer, or festival republic signed a separate ale deal with Marston's, I'm not sure.

I have nothing against Carlsberg really, even if I don't drink much of it myself.  Tuborg is no better or worse than its mainstream competitors. Personally I don't like Somersby, but other people do. And while I like the odd pint of Hobgoblin, it's far too dark and heavy for a sunny festival weekend. After all, it's achieved huge success by positioning itself as a beer for late Autumn. With these beers as the only choices on offer, anywhere, for four days, I ended up simply not drinking very much beer.

The Green Man Festival in South Wales is very different. It's still independent. This year there was a real ale tent stocking 99 different Welsh ciders and cask ales. At the other beer tents on the festival site,
the selection was different from the Festival Republic formula, but just as narrow. 

And here we saw a fascinating experiment emerge. 

The queue in the real ale tent was never less than six deep, from midday to midnight. Men and women from eighteen to sixty stood around discussing the list, asking each other for tips. It took at least twenty minutes to get served. The ciders and perrys started running out on the Thursday night, before the festival had even begun properly. By Saturday everything had gone, and they were sending vans around Wales to grab whatever beer and cider they could to fill the empty stillages. 

By contrast, you could walk up to any other bar on site and get served straight away by bored staff, grateful for something to do. Ironically, after championing cask ale for a living and writing so much about interesting beer, I spent a lot of Green Man drinking their generic lager because I didn't have time to queue for the good stuff between bands.
I've been in meetings where brand sponsorship of events is worked out. According to its website, Carlsberg likes to think that "the Tuborg brand is building a youthful, fun image through sponsorship of music and live festivals." I'm sure the idea is that people will try Tuborg or Somersby at festivals, having no choice to drink anything else, and then grow to like it and order it next time they see it, because they now associate it with good times. 

But I fear it doesn't work like that. People go to festivals (of any kind) because they want to see and try something different from the norm - whether that be bands, comedians, writers, food or drink. It's one of the biggest examples of consumers seeking ever-greater variety in all walks of life. To go to a festival and be confronted with a range of drinks that any pub in the country would consider too narrow is anathema to the whole experience, and leaves a lingering bad aftertaste.

Of course as a beer purist it would be easy to say Carlsberg shouldn't sponsor festivals, festivals shouldn't be corporate, and everyone should celebrate small and independent. But the real world doesn't work like that. Green Man retains an overall better atmosphere than any other festival I know because of its independence, but the price of that independence is that there's no budget to book decent headliners - at least, there wasn't this year. Thanks in part to Carlsberg's dosh, I got to see Kraftwerk at Latitude. 

So the bog brands aren't going to go away. I just wish they'd be a bit cleverer and show more of an understanding of what festival-goers want. Like any other multinational brewer, Carlsberg has a wide range of brands in their portfolio and is always looking at new product development. They have the Jacobsen and Semper Ardens beers, dark lagers and Belgian beers and stouts and wheat beers from around the world. Why not use festivals as a testing ground instead? With this captive audience, why not try new brews under the Tetley's brand, or see how Carlsberg and Tuborg perform side by side, or see if there's a UK market for their eastern European bocks or amber lagers?

I'm sure sales figures from the summer's festivals were great. But as the glorious, independent experiment at Green Man proved, I'm positive they could have been even better.

24 comments:

Peter Brissenden said...

I go to Green Man's sister festival End Of The Road in Dorset. I can report that they also have several decent beer bars with loads of different cask beers as well as Freedom lager on tap that are always rammed.

Interestingly, Meantime have been invited to quite a few music festivals- Lovebox, Isle of Wight, Standon Calling. Camden have too, I think they did Gentleman of The Road and the Lewes Weekend.

Tim Murray said...

Yes, End of the Road is an excellent place for beer lovers. All their bars (about 5 I think) stock a good range of cask ales and the beer list takes up about four pages of the festival programme. And there's also the Somerset Cider bus.

StringersBeer said...

There was an excellent offering from Liverpool Craft Beer Co at the International Festival of Psychedelia last w/e. Busy little bar. But yr point - Why don't the big beer owners use these (no doubt expensive) opportunities to try out the "thinner" ends of their range? Is it cos they is squares? And are completely missing the f*cking point?

Big Mac said...

I go to a lot of live music - from small venues, to wide open spaces. What frustrates me is what I perceive as an insult to my intelligence. Go to Hard Rock Calling in Hyde Park ("for the kids") and the only choice is Tuborg. Go to the supposedly more "mature" Battle Proms and there's a choice of beers and a wine list. Organisers wouldn't dare give audiences a choice of one at those events. I'm the same person regardless which event I attend and it frustrates me that I can't have the same choice. As you say Pete, they're missing a trick.

Tony Leonard said...

Camden and Harveys ran the bars for the Mumford & Sons Gentlemen of the Road Stopover in Lewes. Harveys gave the concession to the seven bonfire societies in Lewes who ran it jointly with volunteers and split the profits between them. Lewes Bonfire is liable to be louder than ever this year as a result!

Anonymous said...

It's just corporate ignorance. to them, beer is all the same, so why not slop it out at the biggest profit (choice is expensive). Same at the Olympics. The only beer was Heineken, but I bet that the choice of wine was pretty extensive cos that's what the organizers drank.

Helen

steve lamond said...

Glastonbury serves cask and decent cider at at least four bars around the festival +cider bus. Good to hear end of the road range has improved, when i stewarded at the first one it was just the ruddles range + GK IPA.
Decent beer (or more specifically the lack thereof) in music venues has long been a bugbear of mine. So many decent venues are sponsored by carling and don't offer even a keg bitter, having not been out to a live music event for almost 2years now I don't know if that's improved any. Love the Cowley Club in Brighton for gigs though cos they do have decent beer!

Cooking Lager said...

Is Tuborg not craft?

Steve Edgeller said...

Is there a concern over keeping Cask Ale correctly at a festival. Surely they'd rather just roll-in some kegs and be done with it?

steve lamond said...

Steve's oicked up an important point...the really big festivals just serve beer straight from tanker trucks because of volumes (the joke goes that they're simply connected back to the portaloos for a constant supply...)

Alex Hall said...

This is exactly why a new (small, 550 capacity) festival was created back in 1996 with 50% emphasis on quality performers and 50% emphasis on rare cask beers and real farmhouse ciders and perries. There is lager there for those who want it, but not much gets sold. Literally it's a weekend-long music and radical poetry extravaganza thrust together in the same building as a CAMRA-style real ale festival. As homage to Glastonbury (as it was created in a year it was cancelled), the festival is called 'Glastonwick', and it's held near Brighton each year in May or June. The concept works...

lagerfrenzy said...

I was always a big supporter of Carlsberg (and Tuborg) using their entire portfolio in this way, but sadly the internal competition between brands and country organisations, coupled with the cost and complication of getting beer in the right place has always worked against it happening.
We did manage to get a few crates of Gamle Carlsberg over to a Guild do once, but it wasn't too popular internally :-)

Paul Bailey said...

"They have the Jacobsen and Semper Ardens beers, dark lagers and Belgian beers and stouts and wheat beers from around the world. Why not use festivals as a testing ground instead?"

Because vast, multi-national corporations like Carlsberg are run by accountants and marketing w*nk*rs. I've met these sorts of people; in fact one of them was a good school friend of mine, until he swallowed all the corporate bullshit and hype which surrounds big-brand marketing. You of all people, Pete, ought to know about this having worked in this rather distasteful field.

The naivety surrounding sentiments such as "the Tuborg brand is building a youthful, fun image through sponsorship of music and live festivals," says it all about these sorts of people. Hopefully, festival goers are much more intelligent and discerning than to be taken in by this sort of drivel, and they certainly deserve far better beer than bog-standard Carlsberg and Tuborg - especially as the latter has long been just another brand, rather than a separate beer.

ps. Haven't done a festival in years - I prefer my creature comforts, and decent pints of beer, far too much!

Swidge said...

Glastonwick. Oh boy does it work!

Brother Logic said...

Women can play guitars too these days.

Matthew Dashper-Hughes said...

Having done only a couple of big festivals this year (Download and Leeds) the homogenity of the corporate beer tent has for the first time in a while not been tempered by the experience of the small independent festival and its attendant quality beer tent.

Last year I did Shrewsbury folk fest and the year before I did the Green Man, both of which knocked the big fests I did into a cocked hat when it came to diversity in food and drink... but not music.

I 100% agree with Pete's central point, that those people that are prepared to expand their comfort-zones by spending a weekend under canvas, indulging in festival camaraderie, and listening to music, tend to be the same people to whom the homogenised, sanitised, corporate branded marketing machine has got the least to say.

But the big bucks behind the big brands can book some big acts, and that's ultimately what drags the audiences into a festival.

Sad but true - I loved seeing Fleet Foxes and Laura Marling at Green Man (2011), I loved seeing Richard Thompson and Kate Rusby at Shrewsbury (2012), but the fact is that they didn't attract the 90,000 strong audiences of Slipknot (Download) and Biffy Clyro (Leeds) I saw this year selling the quantities of 'product' necessary to justify the marketing expenditure...

M.Lawrenson said...

I doubt somewhat your average festivalgoer pays much attention to the choice of beer on offer. Most are probably not Crafties, and will be perfectly happy with a pint of Tuborg, as it meets their minimal expectations of temperature and alcohol content.

I reckon Carlsberg have done their research about what beer will sell best at a Music Festival. I don't think the result came out as Tetley Cask Bitter. Say what you like about Tuborg, it's undemanding and easy to throw down your neck in quantity.

I could see Special Brew gaining a certain cachet at the heavier end of the Festival scene, though...

Anonymous said...

Green Man Festival did have their 'Green Man Growler' beer which was brewed by Wye Valley Brewery.

Pete Brown said...

Steve E, real ale for festivals is racked bright - conditioned and taken off the yeast in the brewery - so it doesn't need to settle. Disadvantage with bright cask ale is it only lasts a few days but that's not a problem for festivals.

M Larwenson - my point about the comparison with Green Man is that the relative buzz around the different beer tents suggests you're mistaken about the tastes of festival goers.

Brother Logic. Yes they do. But not in my favourite bands. Does that make me a sexist?

Sam said...

Pete, totally agree with the main thrust of your argument (though the price put me off as much as the choice tbh) - but just to note there was another ale available from the Latitude bars, which was a fairly tasty brown bitter. Can't for the life of me remember what it was called though. (Oh a quick google tells me it was Hektor's Pure http://henhampark.com/hektors-brewery).

James Partridge said...

Maverick Festival in Suffolk uses cask-conditioned beer (i.e. not bright) exclusively from East Anglian brewers.

We do about 50 firkins over the weekend so it ain't so hard to do. We would always keep it like that whatever the scale, I'd imagine.

Also intrinsic to the festival are the local lager and cider producers, Calvors and Aspall respectively.

It's just another of the traits of a typical smaller festival that cares about its customers and follows through on certain principles regarding localism and loyalty. The music (largely Americana) is imported but the vittles aren't!

Michael Havard said...

Dear Mr Brown,

If i may make a few points:
1. do you actually believe that the big breweries care about anything other than their bottom line? I worked (for my sins) for Inbev for eight months and resigned in disgust for the reasons you have discussed. I watched them try and close some of their niche brands because they weren't profitable enough (not loosing money), they are so big that care for the actual product went years ago.
2. When running an independent event you have to take into consideration the increase cost of brighting(anywhere from £4 to £7 per tub) and the fact that you get no SOR on brighted kegs. As an independent this can massively effect your bottom line and without the money provided by the large brewer brands what we do on the bars becomes a very important part of the events revenue. Then add that to buying products from craft suppliers, which are generally more expensive - I assume you don't recommend we just buy main stream - it means we have to be careful how we manage our systems, finally we charge only £3.80 a pint which, for a festival is cheap. Taking that into consideration I hope you recognise that we have to be very, very careful.
3.I must declare an Interest by the way - I work on the Greenman bars, and I have to say I do think you have been slightly artistic with your writing but you have some valid points. I would like to point out that you never mentioned the fact we bought all of our ales and ciders from local suppliers, put a huge chunk of business back into the local community and tried to balance the customers wishes with the above. 50% of the local ciders could not supply any more so we restocked with others (as you know - you had them for your sampling) To say the bar ran out of all its ale was a slight exaggeration as we had 20 on all the time and 40 guests (which did run out quickly but we still had 10 guests on saturday night) . You are correct though, we were down to 3 by 10pm sunday and as a concession we dropped our prices as a sorry to £2.50.
4. As an independent festival to lose huge chunks in wastage is just impossible and small batch suppliers can't afford SOR so I would be open to your thoughts on how to manage this better.
5. Two of the other bars were dedicated to other products, one being wine with 12 different wines and the other being a rum and cocktail bar, we do cater for other things than ale. The main bar is there for people to grab a drink quickly whilst they watch the main acts and is thus not dedicated to one specific thing.
6. With that though we have taken on board how much people want ales and ciders and we will be upping our offer.
As an event that runs only for one weekend we have to try and balance three key factors, customer requirements, suppliers capacity and carbon footprint. We shall always try to do the best we can in regards to all of these. Next year we shall be stocking 150 ales and ciders across three bars but we shan't compromise our support for both the welsh cider association and the welsh independent brewers association. Sometimes you have to limit yourself to do the right thing.

Finally though we always want to be better so if you have any suggestions on how we can improve within the context of what we are then we would love your help.

Take care and I hope you had some fun over the weekend.

Mike.




Hungry Horse said...

I thought the real ale festival at Green Man was amazing but it was packed throughout the weekend.

I have to say I thought the stuff on offer at the other bars was a cut above what you get at other festivals. As Anonymous says, Green Man Growler is brewed for them by Wye Valley and is bloody lush, the cider is Westons and the lager was 5% German pilsner, a big difference between that and Tuborg!

Pete Brown said...

Yes, the stuff on the other bars at Green Man was much better than other festivals. It says something about how amazing the real ale tent was that it felt a bit dull in comparison but if that's all there had been you would still have said it was a cut above.

Mike, I hope this post reads as nothing other than huge praise for GM's bars. The point about all the beers selling out was simply stressing how successful it was. You sound a bit defensive, but no criticism was intended - far from it!