Beer festivals, for the most part, wouldn’t function without volunteers. It’s that simple.
While there’s the romantic notion of volunteers enjoying a beer with brewers at the end of the festival and taking home some of the leftovers (and there’s some truth to this), the reality is usually a lot less pretty – a never-ending string of jobs to do and messes to clean, from before the festival starts until after it finishes. They’re constantly at work behind the scenes, running errands and delivering messages and freighting beer and emptying bins.
What kind of person would sign up for a job like this, for little thanks and no pay?
Someone who loves beer, and is keen to find ways to serve and rub shoulders with others who love beer.
One such person is Ellen Kittson, a seasoned veteran of the beer festival volunteer circuit. Ellen has volunteered at more beer events than most people have attended, including GABS, Good Beer Week Gala Showcases, the Australian International Beer Awards, plus festivals in Ballarat, Geelong, Albury, Abbotsford and Flemington Racecourse.
She’s volunteered at so many that she knows the trends: “There’s always the group of friends dressed in matching flamingo shirts… personally, I’ve never seen the connection between this bird and beer.”
She’s seen every beer and food matching you could think of: “Lollies, chocolate, cheeses, donuts, ice cream, plates of items ranging from teabags to sliced passionfruit… it seems to me there are no rules about what flavours go best with craft beers.”
And she’s seen festivals learn from their mistakes: “At a Good Beer Week event of matching beer and opera, there was more than the sound of arias filling the air – about halfway through the night, the special occasion glasses used for tastings were being dropped every few minutes. It sounded like a Greek wedding. The next year, plastic goblets were used.”
Ellen’s seen beer festivals at their best and at their worst, and still loves them like the day she first discovered them. While beer’s always been Ellen’s drink of choice, she found a sense of belonging when she started attending beer festivals; surrounded by kindred spirits and revelling in the atmosphere of excitement, she felt in her element at these events. With a growing passion, a thirst for knowledge, and a desire to give back, Ellen looked for opportunities to volunteer at beer festivals.
“I think I was looking to do something very different than my ‘day job’ in a very structured office environment," she says. "How more different could you get than being a volunteer at a beer festival?”
Her first volunteering position was at the Ballarat Beer Festival, where she was placed in a role supporting the beer masterclasses led by Peter “Prof Pilsner” Mitcham. Amid the work, she got to soak up wisdom in the masterclasses, hear story after story from the brewers, and chat with punters, all of which swelled her love for beer even further.
Since then, she's proven happy to help out with whatever needs doing; at some festivals she’s out on the floor, emptying spittoons, bringing ice to stalls, and running errands between different brewers. At one beer festival, she was assigned to work the wine stall, and experienced one of the longest and loneliest days of her life.
But, after volunteering at numerous festivals and trying her hand at a variety of roles and tasks, Ellen found her initial placement into a masterclass support role, while random, was suited perfectly to her.
“I remember volunteering at GABS in the Royal Exhibition Building working the taps. [It turns out] I’m pretty bad at drawing a beer without serving a huge amount of head! So I decided to stick with what I’m good at: serving beer in the masterclasses.”
Ellen has since taken on masterclass support roles at many different festivals, and now specialises in such a role, having learned the patterns and similarities between festivals.
“I solicit and collect beers from the presenting brewers throughout the day. I chase up presenters who are late to sessions. I help prepare any special requirements for sessions, like cutting cheese or setting out plates of goodies that accompany the beers. I serve beer during the session. And, after each session, I clean up and dispose of empty bottles, waste and look after the stuff people leave behind."
There's fun to be had along the way too.
“At this year’s Geelong beer festival, a rowdy group of friends arrived at one of the last masterclasses, after they’d been ‘celebrating’ craft beer all afternoon," she recalls. "One fellow kept asking me for a six-pack whenever I poured his taster.
"Finally, on the third round, I said to him, ‘Do you really want a six-pack?’, and he said that he did. Looking him in the eyes, I said, ‘Then I suggest you do a lot more sit-ups.’.”
Although Ellen’s developed a skill set that streamlines the tasks she’s done a million times before, she still faces challenges when things don’t go quite as they should – when everyone’s racing around worrying about their own jobs, the logistics aren’t quite lining up, and things aren’t going to plan.
“Sometimes the presenters or organisers of the masterclass aren’t very organised, and that puts pressure on the volunteer. For example, a class with 60 people in it cannot be run efficiently with only two volunteers!
“Sometimes things are so busy there isn’t a break time when you feel you need it. Sometimes the people who are meant to relieve you don’t show up. It’s hard if you had ‘plans’ that are time bound.
“Sometimes the weather can be very different than expected: rain and wind or extremely hot conditions all make it hard to keep things running smoothly.”
What's more, there’s still the odd unfortunate occasion when volunteers are taken for granted, or not treated as they should be.
“There can be people who challenge what you are doing or don’t see you as a person trying to do the right thing," she says. "I think I’ve developed a thick skin for when this happens… but it is a rare event.”
For the most part, volunteers are recognised as the heroes they are, and the organisers treat them well.
“Some offer food and drink vouchers or passes on days that aren’t your work day. Recognition of volunteers by organisers in a meaningful and material way is important. Most organisers do appreciate the volunteers and check during the event that you are taking breaks, being fed and are comfortable with the work you have been assigned.”
And, of course, volunteers usually get to enjoy a little liquid incentive, and occasionally receive tokens of gratitude at the end of the day.
“Festivals are places where the brewers try out new products or make a brew that will be very limited release. As a volunteer, you are in the front row to sample these special beers. It’s also a bonus when there is beer made available to volunteers to take home with them – a gift that keeps on giving!”
But while this is an enjoyable benefit, Ellen insists it shouldn’t be the main reason for volunteering.
“Don’t volunteer thinking you are owed anything or that the day is about you.”
Rather, she says festivals are a chance to get involved, to immerse yourself in a group of fellow beer lovers, and to help both brewer and festival-goer have a great day.
“I like the people who like craft beer. I like that something that brings together all sorts of people provides an opportunity to everyone to be involved, even when they aren’t part of the industry or part of the organising team. A volunteer can enjoy the festival as much as the person who has paid to be there.”
Ellen’s Words Of Wisdom
If you’re thinking about volunteering:
“Talk to the volunteers at the next festival or event that you attend, and ask them whether or not they are enjoying themselves. Speaking to organisers is also a good idea but remember that on the day they are flat out, so contact them before the event if you have any questions.”
Before the festival begins:
“If you are unable or unwilling to do certain types of work, then say so in advance and between the organiser and yourself work out if volunteering is really what you want to do.”
“Get up early and get to the site of the festival well before it begins. Make yourself familiar with the layout of the site because people who come to the festival will be asking you all day where things are.”
“Become very familiar with the use of any equipment that is used at the front gate or at voucher stands. EFTPOS machines are different at each festival and the technology, and ease of use, has really changed over time.”
“When the bell rings or the siren sounds, expect to be run off your feet, so any prep you need to do ahead of the start of the day, make sure it is done well in advance.”
During the festival:
“It’s important to remember that you are there for the brewers and the festival goers, not yourself. You’ll end up having a great day if things run smoothly.”
“Current RSA training will give you an understanding of the legal requirements and skills needed, but it’s really more about your attitude and stamina. Be someone who is prepared to work hard, including being willing to lift and carry heavy things.”
“Be prepared to be adaptable and flexible.”
“One really useful skill is being able to see the things that need to be done before you are asked to do something – you need initiative and ability to judge what needs doing now and what can wait."
“Be prepared to pitch in where it is needed to support the brewers as well as the other volunteers. Step up and ask if your fellow volunteers need help once you have finished what you were doing and have some free time.”
“Remember a lot of the people you will be dealing with are also volunteers so leave your ‘bossy boots’ attitude at home if you aren’t asked to be in charge of an activity.”
After the festival:
“The trip home is always hard, as you’ve been in a very noisy and active environment and then it drops off to nothing during a long car trip home. One tip is to think about staying the night after the day you volunteer for out of town festivals. Then you can crash sooner than otherwise would be the case, if that’s where your head is at.”
And Ellen’s final words of encouragement…
“If it turns out being a volunteer isn’t your thing, don’t give up on festivals. They’re a great place for learning about our thriving craft beer scene and enjoying being in a place where everyone is there to enjoy themselves too. Party on!”
The View From The Organisers
Siobhan Kerin has worked with volunteers at many events in and outside the beer world, most recently in her role running Good Beer Week in Melbourne, while Craig Williams is the event director for GABS. Here's what they had to say about the importance of volunteers – and why such events love them.
How important are volunteers to the success of your events?
Siobhan Kerin: If we didn't have people willing to jump in and help out Good Beer Week wouldn't happen.
It's really cool to see the same faces coming back each year, taking time out of their jobs and days and social lives to do difficult and demanding stuff. It's so cool that they are there because they are passionate about beer and enjoy being involved in something, while getting a look behind the scenes, and their involvement really is the backbone of all things Good Beer Week.
Craig Williams: Every year, an army of some 600-plus passionate volunteers put their hand up to help GABS run smoothly. Many volunteers return year after year, often taking it as an opportunity to reconnect with other beer lovers, be part of the fun, and go behind the scenes of one of the biggest highlights of the beer calendar.
As you can imagine, there is so much involved in staging a large scale event of this nature, and we just wouldn't be able to deliver the experience we want to deliver without those helpful hands setting up tables, welcoming attendees on arrival with festival glasses and guides, manning the Craft College and food and drink stages, and much more. In return, we provide them with an exclusive GABS Crew shirt, two tickets to another session of their choice and even a post-event wrap party!
We've also for the last few years started a Volunteer Hall of Fame acknowledging many of our longest-serving volunteer legends!
What makes a good volunteer?
SK: We look for the positive, reliable and enthusiastic people that are respectful of our brand. We want Good Beer Week to be inclusive, fun and welcoming, so if people come in with that attitude that's awesome.
Plus, it helps if they love beer.
CW: A love of beer, a positive attitude, and a big smile goes a long way when working on any festival, and GABS is definitely no exception.
GABS Brisbane takes place on April 27, the first of four GABS festivals in 2019 – details here.
Good Beer Week brings more than 300 events to Melbourne and Victoria between May 10 and 19, 2019 – check out the full program here. Photo of Good Beer Week Gala Showcase at top by Amy Whitfield.
And you can find other entries in our Day In The Life series here.