|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.