ABV Beer Festival is 5!

‘I want to have a festival that I’d really like to go to’. That was at the forefront of my thinking when I went to meet three other beery folk back in January 2015. But what did that actually mean back then and what does it mean for me as we approach the fifth ABV festival in Belfast in less than two months time? 

As I’ve mentioned before in this blog, I had travelled to an early incarnation of Indy Man Beer Con with a good friend back in 2013. Admittedly it was a considerably different beast back then, but we were both struck by how different it was to anything we had experienced before - room to sit and move around, friendly staff and volunteers, great food and most striking of all, a truly diverse crowd of people all enjoying themselves drinking thirds and half pints of some of the best beer on earth and not thrashing down mediocre pints while sneering at anyone who doesn’t look and dress exactly like themselves. Bloody revolutionary.

Kells and I were high on believing not to mention many, many thirds of imperial stout on the train back to Liverpool that night. I wished that there could be something with that feeling in Belfast for our friends and us to enjoy. But what exactly was that feeling? Ultimately it’s something that can’t be bought or manufactured, it’s genuine community.

Now ‘community’ often gets used as an exclusionary term in NI. ‘Our’ community, ‘your’ community is a way of making the ‘other’. But there’s no doubt that it can be a powerful anchor around which people organise and feel part of whatever group of ideas that appeal to them. And as much as the concept can be co-opted to divide, it can also be used to unify, to make yourself and others happy, to create in whatever tiny way you can manage. 

That was undoubtedly one of the motivating factors for me anyway in putting together the first ABV with Darren, Felicia, Matt and Rosie in 2015. That and having more amazing beer in Belfast than had ever been seen before, obviously. We were unbelievably lucky to find an amazing first year venue in Titanic Drawing Offices, and set about bringing that festival that we all wanted to go to to my home town. After months of ridiculously hard work, we managed to have a wonderful sunny weekend in the Titanic quarter, with what for me captured that feeling that I’d experienced 18 months beforehand in Manchester. How? With the help of amazing, generous people at every step of the way, that’s how. People who had no need to do anything for us, but they did, friends who were happy to help carry our wee dream over that first line. And volunteers who we had never met knocked their pans in all weekend, smiling constantly despite having no running water and the most rudimentary of setups in the grand but dilapidated surroundings. Many of those folks are now friends too. Brings a tear to the eye. Superheroes, each and every one. I’ll never, ever forget it, thank you all so very, very much. 

Author and activist George Monbiot  advocates ‘Building Thick Networks’ as he puts it.  It’s a staggering powerful and attractive notion where in times of fractured politics and difficult economic conditions, we can build small participatory ventures and create new forms of social activity which are self perpetuating and generate increased feelings of community cohesion. i’m not going to bang on too much about this, but I’d strongly recommend you read ‘Out of the Wreckage’, if generating positive social relations is your cup of tea. Now while I’ll not credit our wee festival with changing the world at all, I do think it generated some small sense of community that weekend, something i’ve been keen to build on each year and it’s a philosophy that’s constantly on mind now and will probably motivate what i do until I kick the bucket. What’s not to like? More co-operation, more friendship, more positive community. Everyone benefits in so many ways.

It’s not difficult to see many of the seemingly disparate little ventures that are popping up all over the place. But together they become more than the sum of their parts. My argument is that these come about not because of some politician’s claim of creating ‘Big Society’, but precisely in opposition to an abandonment of the fundamental fabric of society on behalf of an increasing detached class of decision makers. Again, I’m not claiming any sort of kudos for anything here, we’re a beer festival first and foremost, but I’m saying that I believe that there are definitely signs of, and an urgent need for us to organise around ideas of community and inclusivity, to get more involved with each other, make plans, do stuff!

But where are we now, with year five of ABV fast approaching? Well, we were signposted from the Titanic Foundation to the equally magnificent and equally idiosyncratic Carlisle Memorial Church. We lost Matt after year one to his responsibilities at Boundary Brewing co-op. But the other four of us are still there, trying our best to give those who visit and volunteer at our festival the best possible experience, hopefully a weekend of huge fun and enduring memories. We still work hard on being as inclusive and welcoming to absolutely everyone as we can possibly be - and we’re still going to bring some of the best beer on this planet to my home town. We’re still helped along the way by wonderful folk, too numerous to mention, all doing their bit, taking absolutely zero credit for their contribution. It’s a genuinely humbling thing and by far what I’d miss most if i wasn’t ever to do this again. 

There are clearly a variety of ways to organise a beer festival in much the same way as there are a variety of ways to conduct business. People are motivated differently and of course that’s part of the beauty of life, as my granny used to say, ‘if we all liked the same thing it would be a boring world’. You can see that and feel those motivations in the very fabric of all festivals and events, if it feels good - then it probably is. If it feels a bit cynical, then….   if you’re a nerd of festivals like me you can feel them change each year as a volunteer, as a customer, as an organiser.  I hope that ABV continues to be the warm hug of a thing that we set out to deliver on day one.

So now the cheesy sales pitch. If you’ve volunteered before, please do again. If you haven’t, please consider it, I hear it’s a gas!  Fire us an email at  Should you feel more motivated to come along and have a beer - whoever you are, you’re very, very, welcome, you can buy your tickets at  See you in September!


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