Beer Festivals, Real Ale Festivals, Cask Ale Festivals, you see them advertised all the time and they range in size from the national and regional festivals organised by the Society of Independent Brewers (SIBA) and the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) with hundreds of beers to the more humble local pub showcasing half a dozen ales for its regulars.
Consider this, that if you stock real ales, then you are in effect providing a year round beer festival; all you do with a specially promoted beer festival is try to peak consumption in a very short period. If you keep and serve real ales then you can run a beer festival, it just needs a little planning and organising.
Apart from giving you the chance to find out what real ales your clientele prefer, you can try new products out on them and increase custom in your pub. Get it right and a real ale festival is great fun and can be highly profitable and will be a talking point for a long time after the event.
Look in your local newspaper, you'll often see Cask Ale festivals either being advertised or reported on and as such are a great way of promoting your outlet in the local community and the local newspaper. This is especially true if aligned to a community or charity event (for instance local art festival, food faire, charity fundraising events such as sponsored runs or family days)
As with all promotions and entertainment and other activities within your pub preparation and planning are key to the success of a real ale festival. You need to allow plenty of time to plan and arrange your festival, as many elements need to be coordinated. Weekends (especially during the summer are a favourite time) you stand a greater chance of more customers attending, however, with the seasonality of brewers output these days a winter or Christmas beer festival can be just as viable.
Summer festivals can be stand alone events (where people come along just for the sun and the beer) but in my experience winter festivals need to be aligned to some other event such as a Christmas Food and Craft Fayre (the last winter festival I held was just as successful as the one held in the summer but only because of the addition of a small farmer's market and craft stalls in the car park).
If you give yourself enough advance time you can avoid clashing with other local beer festivals or events that may draw your potential customers away.
Generally a beer festival might be run over a whole weekend (maybe taking in one of the spring/summer Bank Holidays) or over consecutive days and nights. If you think you have the customer base you could run a mini-festival on one night (say up to 6 ales) especially if it is coupled with an event such as a charity fundraiser.
The equipment you need will depend on the extent of your cellar/bar/outside areas. Don't despair if you haven't got everything you need as many CAMRA branches have their own equipment (Stillages, cooling jackets etc) If you haven't been involved with CAMRA then get involved, they will be more than willing to help you (as a member) or point you in the right direction. Local wholesalers will also be happy to help if they have the kit and you are buying product from them (even if you are tied for beer and you only buy your wine and spirits from them)
As always you really need to be able to sell the beer within 24 hours of tapping; one way to ensure that you can maximise sales within the period is to ask suppliers for "bright" (pre-conditioned) beer. How many you stock depends on your feeling for what custom you are likely to attract. Check out local real ale festivals to gauge how many you might stock, talk to other publicans. A rule of thumb I have used is that for a weekend festival allows for 50% uplift in sales; this can either be achieved by offering more choice or stocking multiples casks of fewer ales. As with all stocking policy it is better to run out than be left with stock you cannot sale.
CAMRA champions small and regional brewers through its LocAle scheme so ensure you stock at least one that fits the LocAle criteria. Again your local CAMRA branch will advise you and might even suggest some local favourite(s) that will sell well.
Many beer festivals now feature real cider and English wines which you should consider offering as well. When I have run winter festivals I always make sure that I have mulled wine available and roasted chestnuts for sale; the rate of sale on these items has often been huge and very profitable.
If you are tied you will need to speak with your landlord to explore the range of beers available to you. Whilst some beers may not be available from their usual range they should be able to set you up with a SIBA account to cross-order your choice of ales in (and not breach your tie as they will be a nominated supplier). If you are free of tie then you will have a virtually unlimited choice.
For more advice and top tips on running a pub in the UK, visit my website: http://howtorunapub.co.uk