Triumph Through Positivity
I’d like to start this post off by repeating our heartfelt apology to all of you that had your plans altered or cut short by the events that unfolded late Friday and early Saturday of Friends & Family & Beer 2019, and for any stress, anger, doubt or confusion that caused.
Our goals for our first festival were ambitious: raise money for charity; put Manchester on the map as a city more than capable of hosting a world-class beer festival; and create opportunities for our brewing family to enjoy each other’s company whilst creating a great vibe for our customers.
Let me go through some of our run-up, and over the Friday and Saturday, so that you all understand what led up to us being told to shut down, and how all of you bent on good things saved our sessions on Saturday. I also want to cover what we’re going to do next.
I’m lucky enough to have been to so many of the world’s highly regarded festivals in Europe, the UK, and North America, and have seen things that work really well for customers, brewers, logistics people, and organisers. I’ve witnessed parties that made the whole room feel like champions, and warm welcomes of customers that made enough broad-smile cheer to last a year. But I’ve also seen infighting that ends up pitting an organising brewery against the rest of the city, and some breweries having the red carpet rolled out for them whilst others wrestle with accommodating fixed, low price-per-litre on their beers. There are highs and lows, both behind the scenes and in plain view, as festivals around the world deliver great beer to customers whilst building a scene, a brand, a bank balance, or a bit of everything.
When we started planning for F&F&B early 2018 it was with an ambition to harness and build on all the great experiences we've had, and stay as far away from all the things that felt anything of a low for folk either side of the bar.
The Run Up
Our first beer collections from the US took place on the 5th of February (for beer that both attending brewers and us were confident wouldn’t decline at all in quality), with the bulk of the beer collected between the 15th and 21st of February. Some of the beers you all got to sample were as fresh in Manchester as they would be right where they were shipped from. We took all the beer into our 5ºC and 3ºC cold stores at the brewery, and hired refrigerated vans to transport the beer to the venue, then loaded beer into the venue session-by-session. Not only did all this result in excellent quality beer for the festival itself, it also left us with partial kegs that are still of a standard that both pleases us as brewers, and respects the quality of the beers our brewing family work for too.
We are all delighted that Friday’s sessions created such a top buzz. Worries we heard online from some customers about guaranteed pours, value for money, the quality of the beers, or the measure sizes, quickly drifted away against an upswell of great vibes and big smiles.
Below is a short video of the festival shot by Soulonaut. It’s great to see so many people having a great time sampling some of the best beers in the world!
I spent most of Friday saying to our visiting brewer family, and friends from all over the world, just how great it felt that everything was going so smoothly. But that quickly changed with a tap on my shoulder from Hannah, our Head of Retail, saying, “You’d better come quick. Connor is in the back of a police van.”
The Fall Down
After months of drive, determination, and diligent work, I got to the police van, shut and guarded by two police officers, to see Connor flooded with despair. He was more animated in this moment than at any time during planning. My travel schedule is fierce, and daily commitments in the brewery when I’m on the ground here in the UK meant that Connor carried the festival planning on his own for 6 months, until in the closing weeks when other team members were assigned roles and responsibilities. Never once did I see him lose his cool, but there he was, with two licensing officers and a policeman, looking like his world was crashing down.
Luckily, I managed to convince the police officers to let me get in and talk to the licensing officers too. There was no long story, only a short one, with a serious warning. The venue was not licensed for the sale of alcohol, there was no time to secure a TEN, and no alternative way to license the premises. We were told that we could finish the evening’s session as a shutdown would cause unnecessary disruption (indeed the officers commented that it was obvious just how well we’d otherwise organised for the event), but also that if we opened the next day I could face six months in prison or an unlimited fine.
I don’t know how to describe the next 24 hours. We were instantly a turbulent mix of numb, utterly devastated, yet also stoic, and grounded. We’d worked so hard, and tried to plan everything to deliver a truly great time for the 1300 attendees that had enjoyed Friday, and 1600 people we knew were on their way or arriving into Manchester on Saturday. How on earth we’d figure out a route forward was truly beyond us.
Connor and I left the police van, walked back through the venue full of people having a lovely time to the tiny office, and therein decided not to tell any of the staff or anyone else until we’d had a bit of time to try to figure things out. The buzz was great on Friday, so we really didn’t want to worry the rest of the team or customers before we knew which options, if any, were open to us.
We poured over correspondence with the managing agent charged with the responsibility of running the space on behalf of Manchester City Council. Connor had clearly asked, indeed triple checked, and gained approval multiple times in both written correspondence, the agent’s license to operate, and conversation, that all the necessary supporting licenses were in place. Given we knew there’d been events selling alcohol in there over the past year, and that We Are Lager was scheduled in the space in April, we had no reason to doubt the signed license to operate our festival and multiple assurances we were given. This is a mistake we’ll ensure never to repeat in the future. We like to play by the rules, and not leave any bodies responsible for the safety, well-being, or satisfaction of city centre visitors or residents with any doubts. But we took an operation license and several people at the agency on their word, when we should have stopped at nothing until all the documentation was in our own hands.
I’d like to stress that even though I am trying to faithfully unpack the events, I am not suggesting that blame for the risks we overlooked lie anywhere outside Cloudwater Brew Co. This is the only fair, reasonable, and responsible way to take ownership of the situation, and guarantee that we never leave you, or us, or all the brewers that travelled so far to party with us, exposed to such dramatic lows ever again.
We made calls to everyone we could think of that might be able to help us find a way forward. Event planners for Indy Man Beer Con, bar owners, volunteers, brewers, and, heck, just about everyone seemed to be rooting for us to proceed one way or another. I can tell you from this recent experience that I am so glad to have skipped over a handful of negativity online, instead focusing and harnessing the immense positive energy welling up all around us.
What I’d like to go into now, however, is how you all, with only a tiny bit of help and direction from us, got Friends & Family & Beer open and running on Saturday.
A Win Through Positivity
On Saturday morning, on almost no sleep, the F&F&B team gathered at Unit 9, still with no solid ideas of how to make it work. Everything we heard late Friday night was said in no uncertain terms that we’d simply have to move the whole festival elsewhere and that there was little hope of finding a solution at stay on site at Upper Campfield Market. It had taken six solid months of planning, and three solid days of install to open on Friday. How on earth could we move it all to a new place, with only hours before Session 3 was due to start? We also faced the dilemma of trying to get information through to ticket-holders as quickly as possible, even whilst we continued to work towards the best possible solution and didn’t have the full details ourselves.
I had countless calls that morning. With other event organisers, with event space managers, with senior council officials and advisors including Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham and his advisor on nighttime affairs Sacha Lord. Each round of calls ended with new opportunities and leads, but with the same warnings that we simply must move, and that there was likely nothing that could be done.
As a few of us did everything we could at Unit 9 to make all the calls and brainstorm all the ideas about how to notify 1600 Saturday attendees of a change in address, the real miracle we were trying to pull was actually occurring because of the efforts of you all online.
Though we never gave up hope, and tried each and everything we could, we firmly believe that we owe a great debt of thanks to all of you that pleaded and made a case for the festival going ahead. Everyone we spoke to in a position to make calls and ask favours noticed the buzz online on Friday, and the positive drive and pleas for help that morning on Saturday. There’s no way we would have got through, or that we could have carried on without your efforts! Positivity was the saviour of the day.
I’d like to say clearly that we understand all the frustration that built up amongst a small minority of Saturday attendees, and that we really appreciate your patience and trust anytime anything goes wrong. The very few folk who popped up online just to try to bring us down a notch (most of whom it seemed weren’t even planning on attending the festival) just didn’t help at all. We aren’t angry back at those people, just sad that they thought Connor, Doreen, Mark, Hannah, Vilma, Adam and I yielding to the immense shame and disappointment we felt already would somehow solve problems better or quicker than if we continued to focus fully on solutions and making the best of a bad situation. Thank goodness the positivity of the many that offered us encouragement and support won out over the bitter efforts of a very few.
Eventually, we narrowed our new venue focus to Academy One, a hire that hinged on a thumbs-up by their security team, and enormous will by a small army of volunteers, brewers, and staff, to relocate and set up ten times faster than before.
Whilst we waited for confirmation that the security team at Academy would give us a thumbs-up, several more calls came in from people in various positions of responsibility, stressing that we really ought to consider going ahead at Upper Campfield Market. Still without an official license document, we took the reassurance that the worst punishments and fines would be highly unlikely at face value, and called the rest of our team at Upper Campfield Market, who, just after loading everything into a fleet of vans, put it all back in place in 80 minutes. Unbelievable.
Shell-shocked, and still a little worried about future repercussions, we managed to open up a few hours late. It was, and still is, deeply disappointing to us that all the Saturday morning attendees were left in the dark for as long as they were, as we put all our energy and efforts into finding a solution, but it seemed like the shorter session was still very enjoyable to most and we received an awful lot of positive feedback from folk who had travelled from all corners of the globe to be with us. By the time we got into the evening session, the buzz was definitely back. I even took to the mic to ask everyone not to drink too much (a condition stipulated by the council to ensure no repercussions) and got a round of applause! We can’t even begin to thank you all enough for such a positive reception.
Manchester, you outdid yourself. Never before have we felt so supported by our home city. Everyone that could have helped did. We’ll do our level best to carry your positive energy into everything we do for you all, and for this city. I’m thrilled to say it looks like we’ll be able to make a decent donation to our three chosen charities - Coffee4Craig, Mustard Tree and the Greater Manchester Mayor’s Homelessness Fund - thanks in no small part to the breweries that decided to donate their festival beer free of charge.
Thanks to Andy Burnham, Sacha Lord, Councillor Pat Kearney, Fergus Swift, and a number of other officials for throwing yourselves at our licensing nightmare, and doing everything you could to help us operate on Saturday.
Thanks to our team of volunteers, many of whom gave up extra time without question. The efforts they put in, alongside our amazing family of attending brewers, were nothing short of phenomenal. To see so many folks rally round us in our hour of need and give their time so willingly to help us make things right was incredibly moving and a gesture we will never forget.
Thanks to our food traders, Vaso Kitchen, Wallace and Sons, What’s Your Beef, and Soffles, for keeping our customers well fed and in good shape, even through an extra break down and set up! And also to Honest Crust, Steep Soda and Idle Hands, who had been with us on the Friday.
Thanks to our sponsors, Brewer’s Eye, Kegstar, Lallemand, White Labs, and Yakima Chief Hops, as well as Murphy & Son and Simpsons Malt, for providing crucial support, without which we simply would not have been in a position to pull off such an ambitious event that will be able to deliver a substantial donation to charity.
Thanks to all our brewing family, for sending beer, and travelling to be with us and our amazing beer community in Manchester. We can’t wait to have you back! We’ll be back soon to update you on just how much we’ve raised for charity, and thereafter as we feature the work our three charities do to transform the life of incredibly vulnerable people in Manchester.