- Choose your attendance
Unless you're willing to risk all the local yahoos and lager-drinkers turning up at your gate, it's best to make it a closed private party. That obviously means you can't charge, which also means you don't have to worry about a licence. We invite family and friends, who bring their own friends who, in the course of seven years, have become our friends. If you have grown-up children, as we have, you are guaranteed to finish any quantity of beer that you order. We ask people to make a donation (unspecified) towards a charity, and we're constantly amazed how generous they are.
- Choose your suppliers
About a hundred people attend our event every year, and we've found that about 250 pints sees us through the day. This has increased of late, because breweries seem to be catering more for the female palate, and the females who come to our festival do like a drink. This means we provide about 11 different beers, as well as a cider. It made sense early on to 'theme' our beers, although the very first was what Ed Read at Bacchanalia on Mill Road had in stock at the time. Since then we've had Suffolk, Norfolk, Cambridgeshire, Shropshire, Kent and Sussex festivals. Ed is a useful source for most breweries in East Anglia, and Nigel@The Bitter End in Bromley has supplied south coast beers. The Shropshire supplier personally delivered the beers, and stayed the night with us.
You might need to pick up from some of the more remote breweries. For the Norfolk festival we ventured to Tivetshall St. Mary, which we drove round three times before asking the local garage the way to Buffy's Brewery. The garage owner denied there was a brewery in the village, but luckily a local car owner was able to direct us down a farm track (only 30 yards from the garage!) to a semi-derelict mansion. We were greeted by two brewery workers standing outside the garages that comprise Buffy's Brewery, only to be told that the man who pulled off the beer into polypins wasn't there yet. Promising to return in an hour, we drove off through the back lanes first to Attleborough, where Mr. Wolf showed us around his brewery and sold us three polypins, and on to Ickburgh (by way of a wrong turn into a nunnery) to collect some Iceni beer. All this was done on the hottest day of the year, with the air conditioning on full belt. The key Buffy's man was there, so we collected some of their excellent beer.
Once the beer is home, we found the garage the best place to 'rack' it. If it's live it does need to be 'racked' - we use plant pot holders - but with bright beer you needn't be so careful. The beers are organised in ascending strength. The lowest we've had was this year's Harvey's Hadlow Bitter, at 3.5%; the strongest Mauldon's Black and White Adder, both at 5.3%. If this seems slightly wimpish, remember you are catering for drinkers of all types and both sexes. Glasses are not a great problem. Spending up to a day's pay at the tombola of every festival I attend, I have accrued a large number of glasses, along with t-shirts, beer mats, beer towels and multiple copies of the 9th Essex Beer Guide.
You'll need to provide food as well. We have an excellent deli round the corner (Balzano's in Cherry Hinton Road), and over the years his pizza, ham and cheeses have proved very popular. The Cambridge Beer Festival has been our guide here, only about a million times smaller.
- Prepare the venue
Garages are cobwebby, dusty places, so yours, like ours, will need a good clean. Ours is also unnaturally hot, so the week leading up to the festival day is spent in cooling it down. Again, those tombola prizes come in handy. T-shirts from long-forgotten festivals are enlisted to block out the sunlight through the windows. Space is made among the beer mats stuck on the garage wall (a colleague once claimed I had every sadness known to man) for details about the charitable cause, and the table-tennis table is cleared to make way for the food. On the day before we erect, with much profanity, a pergola, and put seats out in the garden. A key function, which I've taken upon myself, is to test the beers early in the morning. Only a little sip is recommended if you want breakfast to taste the same as always. It's a good idea to signpost toilets as well, for obvious reasons.
- Enjoy the day
We hold the festivals in mid-July, and have been extraordinarily lucky with the weather - just five minutes' rain in seven years. This has not been enough, however, to lure my mate Stevo (you may remember him from my Brussels Beer Festival article) from the garage, which he annually inhabits for seven hours without a break with a vampire-like respect for daylight.
Family arrive, and start drinking, before the official opening time, and from 12 onwards a steady stream of friends arrive and enjoy the ales. I've noticed over the years that the number of lagers consumed has declined, possibly because of the shame of having to go to a cold box labelled 'Turgid - too strong' to get them.
The day ends in sweet exhaustion, a stomach full of ale and ham, guests gone. Clearing up is surprisingly minimal. Beer dregs are fed to grateful plants, which generally respond later in the summer with sumptuous blooms. And I start working out which county and which beers we'll have next year. My wife has promised, if I pass on to the great pub in the sky before she does, that the last festival will be my wake. And there'll be a tombola of t-shirts, beer mats, beer towels, beer glasses and copies of the 9th Essex Beer Guide.