A history of the North’s largest beer celebration
In 1977, CAMRA volunteers organised its first major event in our region – the Manchester Beer Exhibition. The three day event at the Royal Exchange ran from July 21st – 23rd attracted 3200 people drinking over 8000 pints with the most popular beers including Whitbread Bitter and Stones.
While festivals were held in satellite towns across the region in the following years, it would be almost 20 years before central Manchester held another such event with the first Manchester Beer & Cider Festival taking place at Upper Campfield Market in February of 1996.
Featuring over 100 beers and ciders, the festival was hailed a success with over 3000 customers. Sadly, due to the relocation of the Royal Exchange Theatre to the Campfield Market following the IRA bombs’ devastation of their home venue, no festival could be held in 1997 or 1998.
In 1999, Manchester hosted CAMRA’s National Winter Ales Festival (NWAF) for the first time – beginning what would become a long association with the Campaign’s flagship winter event which had been launched just two years earlier with festivals held in Glasgow in January and December of 1997. The first Manchester NWAF was again held at Campfield Market and would return to the venue for the next three years before uncertainty about the venue’s future saw NWAF move to Burton On Trent for its 2003 incarnation.
It would return to Manchester in 2005 with a new home at New Century Hall, beginning a nine-year long residency in the city. Six festivals were held at New Century Hall before the proposed demolition of that venue (a demolition which never happened) forced a relocation to The Sheriden Suite (aka The Venue) on Oldham Road. By the last NWAF in the city in 2013, the festival had grown to attract just short of 10,000 people over four days.
However, in 2013, CAMRA decided that NWAF should move around the country on a three year cycle with Derby being chosen as the host from 2014 to 2016.
A new beginning
Manchester Beer & Cider Festival (MBCF) in its modern form began in January 2014 to fill the void in the city’s calendar left by the departure of the national festival..
The new festival set out to continue to offer the great range of cask ales that NWAF had become known for , but also to offer a wider range of beers from the UK and beyond in a new and modern setting.
The new festival’s first home was the Velodrome at the National Cycling Centre with all the bars set up inside the iconic banked cycle track. The new event was an immediate hit, attracting three thousand more customers than had been expected and, regrettably, running out of beer.
In 2015, the festival expanded with additional bars located on the concourse around the track, with around 12,000 customers attending over the festivals four days. Unfortunately, 2015 was to be the events’ last at the Velodrome as British Cycling decided that they no longer wished the Velodrome to host the event.
Since 2016, the festival has been held in the heart of the city at Manchester Central – the former railway station turned conference and event centre. The venue has allowed the event to expand to welcome up to 15,000 customers and continue its mission to offer visitors new experiences.
Innovations over the past five years have included a partnership with Barcelona Beer Festival (BBF) which saw Spanish brewers attend the festival to serve on the BBF bar and five of our local brewers travel to the Catalan capital to serve on the MBCF bar at Spains largest beer event.
2016 saw the festival introduce a bar dedicated to the finest UK beers in keg and KeyKeg format to complement the range of traditional and modern cask ales.
In 2018, the festival introduced the Little Ireland bar dedicated to cask and keg beers from Ireland – including brewers from both sides of the border. This bar returned in 2019 with leading Irish brewer The White Hag inviting some of their friends.
2018 saw a first for a CAMRA festival when MBCF welcomed our friends from Barcelona Beer Festival to host their own bar at the festival. The BBF team were accompanied by brewers from Garage Brew Co, Dougall’s, Bidassoa Basque Brewery, Cervesa Lo Vilot and Black Lab brewery. Two months later, MBCF took five Manchester’s breweries (Runaway, Track, Blackjack, RedWillow and Marble) to pour on our bar at the Catalonian event.
While championing modern styles and breweries, the festival also celebrates the best of traditional British brewing and in 2017 invited the Independent Family Brewers of Britain to host their own bar. The following year, The Hundred Club bar championed brewers who had over 100 years of brewing experience behind them.
2019 saw the first Beers From The Wood bar, in partnership with The Society For The Preservation of Beers From The Wood, featuring 40 beers from a range of breweries served from traditional wooden casks. The bar was so popular that for 2020 it doubled in size but still sold out every single drop.
Also new for 2020 was the Coast to Coast bar – a 60m long journey from the Merseyside to the Humber through the breweries of Merseyside, Lancashire, Greater Manchester and Yorkshire.
Sadly, Manchester Central’s conversion to a Nightingale Hospital in mid 2020 meant the 2021 festival was in doubt even before ongoing restrictions due to the Coronavirus pandemic made it impossible to host a physical festival.
With Manchester being under severe restrictions for most of 2020 even before Lockdown 2, then Lockdown 3, the organisers looked to see how they could support some of Manchester’s threatened pubs during this time. The Manchester Pubs Matter festival was born.
The Manchester Pubs Matter Festival took MBCF to the pubs of the city – the festival team joined with five of the city’s most revered pubs to bring five online events. The festival’s five sessions each saw see one of the pubs open their virtual doors and host an exclusive online event (via Zoom). Each event was accompanied by a box of beers or ciders which were delivered to participants homes.
These weren’t just five tasting events with different breweries – each session offered something different that represents the character of the pubs – from Wigan Central’s quiz night to The Smithfield Market Taverns night in the pub with the Devil’s Jukebox. You can read more about the Manchester Pubs Matter Festival here.
Although it had been hoped that the festival would return to Manchester Central in early 2022 – with dates in late February 2022 pencilled in as early as June – ultimately a combination of ongoing uncertainties due to the pandemic, the financial risk involved if further restrictions were imposed and concerns from volunteers, in November 2021, organisers had to conceded that they had run out of time to hold the festival in February 2022.
Sadly as the country recovered from two years of disruption we were unable to secure dates at a suitable venue to be able to plan a festival in 2023. However all is not lost, the festival team is in discussions with potential venues for a return in early 2024.