Me and my brother used to volunteer to work at the GBBF every year, when it was held in Alexandra Palace. For those of you born later than 1960, I'll tell you that was in the late 1970's. It was my summer holiday.
It was hard work, but great fun. Being voluntary, the pay was zero, but they fed you, let you drink just about as much beer as you wanted and gave you a bed. I say bed, some years it was just a space on the stage in the hall itself.
We did the whole week. The first couple of days was setting up. Building the scoffolding for the bars and rolling the barrels into place. A day of hard physical work, rounded of with a couple of hours boozing.
When the festival opened to the public, the first few sessions weren't too bad. Friday and Saturday were something else. They'd be three or four deep around the bar. It was often hard to remember when you came back with the drinks who had ordered them. One of the reasons I've never considered running a pub is the huge amount of work. Serving at the festival gave me a good idea of just what hard graft it is. For a week, it's fun. Fifty-two weeks a year would be a living hell. I have nothing but admiration for landlords and their staff. That's why I try to be polite, patient and helpful (I always take my empty glass back to the bar).
During opening hours, each of the bars had a nominated "staff beer". This was free for all volunteers. You didn't have to limit yourself to the bar you were working at, you could fetch a staff beer from any bar. After the public had been kicked and the place tidied up, there'd be a staff session at one of the bars and you could have any beer you wanted from that bar.
After the final session, everything was staff beer. That's how I came to have my first taste of Belgium. This is long before the days of a whole foreign beer bar at the GBBF. But they did sometimes have a couple of foreign beers. One year they had Lambiek and Faro in little plastic containers. It had been quite expensive, so I hadn't tried it while the festival was on. I headed straight for it was the festival was over. Great - there was still some left. One of the staff from the bar was still there and he poured me a half of Lambiek. I took a sip. "Euuugh. It's off." "No, it's supposed to taste like that." "Surely not. It's sour." "I know, horrible, isn't it?" My first Belgian beer and I couldn't finish it. I threw most of it away.
I had some great times at Ally Pally. Even the year when it burned down a few weeks before the festival was due to start and it was held in tents in the grounds. If you're good, I may one day tell you of the special version of "I'm forever blowing bubbles" we sang one year. Perhaps.
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