The Permanent Technicolor Beer Festival

Horse-drawn Thwaites dray at the Great British Beer Festival.

It’s taken us a couple of weeks to think through our reaction to CAMRA’s Great British Beer Festival. We don’t go every year because we haven’t always enjoyed it enough, frankly, to push us into making the effort, but then sometimes we do. This year, we got tickets for the trade session (gratis, free, and for nothing) and, as we were in London for the Olympics decided to give it another go.

The venue, Olympia, was a vast improvement on the vast hangar-like Earl’s Court of previous years; there were some very exciting beers on offer (Greene King 5X); all the volunteers we dealt with were lovely, especially the rebel who’d ditched his mandatory Hobgoblin T-shirt; and it was nice to bump into beery people we’d only previously met online.

But… on the whole, what did it offer that we couldn’t get on a pub crawl in London? Or even in East London? Yes, there were some specific rare beers, but we’re not much into ‘ticking’, and, anyway, every pub we went into in the course of a fortnight had wonderful beers we’d never tried before.

These days, and long may it last, London is a year-round, permanent beer festival, so why endure queues, grubby festival glasses, deposit schemes, hours spent leaning against pillars for want of a seat, and the constant clattering of Betty Stogs’ marching band?

Here’s a contrary view from Tandleman.

32 thoughts on “The Permanent Technicolor Beer Festival”

  1. I have to agree with your assesment of the GBBF. This was my first year going to it, but I won’t bother again, as a lot of the beer was very average. I like cask ale, but many of the beers that I normally enjoy don’t come in cask, so next year I will be looking to attend a more inclusive festival with higher end beers. I did enjoy Windsor and Eton Conqueror and Brodies Dalston, but that was about it. Had a much better time the next day visiting the kernel and the rake and a few other places.

  2. because it is a change of pace to the usual pub going and you’re more likely to meet up with people you know

    1. Dunno about the meeting up thing… with a bit of Tweeting, the same could be said of Cask/Craft Beer Co.

  3. “These days, and long may it last, London is a year-round, permanent beer festival”

    You have been away a bit haven’t you? Most pubs aren’t like that at all in my experience. It is improving, but quality was far better at GBBF. Choice obviously is.

    “every pub we went into in the course of a fortnight had wonderful beers we’d never tried before.”

    You went in pubs randomly and found wonderful beers in each? You need to buy a lottery ticket. Quick. Or take me with you so I can get some. 🙂

    1. “quality was far better at GBBF”

      Er, we weren’t going to mention it, but our first four beers at GBBF were all a bit stale/dull/nasty…

      “choice obviously is”

      But how much choice do we need? There are something like a hundred different beers on offer in Leystonstone/Stratford/Walthamstow, and that’s without counting Wetherspoons and the like.

      “went into pubs randomly”

      Well, yeah, pretty much, smart arse! (Don’t do smileys but imagine one there.) We let other people choose the pubs on several occasions and got to drink Windermere Pale Ale at the Eagle; enjoy the full range at the Red Lion in Leytonstone, which just happens to be the local that several of our friends drink in, where they grew up and live; and *tons* of stuff at Tap East cos it was in the Olympic park.

    1. Maybe high end was the wrong term to use, but basically ones that I have heard of, or had heard of the brewery and therefore was keen to try. I’m living in Ireland, so have to rely on getting a lot of my beers shipped over from beer ritz, so would not be as familiar with a lot of them as someone based in the UK. I’ve recently been drinking a lot of beers from Buxton, Thornbridge, Kernel, Magic rock, hardknott etc. I guess I consider them high end because they seem to push the boat out, and in relation to the effort that I have to go to to get them, and how much I nearly always enjoy them. There was very few offerings from any of these, which was a bit dissapointing, but maybe I was a bit naive to expect them to have casks at the GBBF, when it might not be there main method of dispense. I did try a lot of different beers, but only a few stood out to me. I think in future I will try to go to smaller festivals, where I have a better idea of the breweries attending, where it’s not mostly cask. Although I do love cask beer, the lack of any other alternatives is a bit offputting.

  4. Bailey. You see my point though? You can obviously pick some good pubs in London – usually miles apart. Cities like Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield, Derby, Edinburgh, Norwich etc have more of them and close together. London still has a long way to go.

    haven’t drunk in Walthamstow for years mind and it wasn’t bad then. Must go back. 100 different beers would be quite an achievement.

    If I got four duff beers in a row at GBBF, I’d be annoyed. Hope you complained. No wonder you didn’t like it.

    1. We didn’t complain. Annoyingly, they were just bad enough not to be good, but not verifiably *off*. Just tired. Not a showcase for the best of British beer.

    2. (Cambridge, too…)

      I agree somewhat with Tandie’s comment that the quality is available in London over some distance, but I must add a few decent crawls exist now which didn’t even five years ago. Especially up through Leyton, Clapton and Hackney, as alluded to by B&B.

      I was astonished by the quality in depth and variety (both of beer and pubs) in Manchester when I nipped up last year. Loved it.

  5. Thanks for the explanation Taf. When you say “Although I do love cask beer, the lack of any other alternatives is a bit offputting.”

    I would probably remark that you shouldn’t be too surprised at to find real ale at a real ale festival.

    Your list of breweries is interesting. “Buxton, Thornbridge, Kernel, Magic rock, hardknott”. The vast majority of their output is in cask. Kernal excepted of course. So you wanted bottled beer? Plenty of those available too.

    And surely there must have been many breweries you’d heard of?

    1. I did realise that it was a real ale festival, and was only expecting to drink same, and that was a particular element I was looking forward to, so I suppose my point about alternative methods of dispense is not really valid, if that was not the reason that these breweries did not have much if any beer there. I drink them in bottle all the time, so was really looking forward to trying them from cask. Maybe it’s a Camra thing or just the preference of those breweries, rather than the actual dispense method that meant they were not there? There were lots of breweries that I had heard off, but many more that I hadn’t, and I guess that I am just not used to that choice, after living in Ireland for the last 20 years. Although things are slowly changing here, as I now have a few locals that regularly have cask ale on, and I go for them straight away.
      If I was to go to a Camra festival up north, do you think I would see more representation from some of these breweries? I went to one in Newcastle a couple of years ago, which I thoroughly enjoyed, but wouldn’t have been as familiar with these breweries back then, so wasn’t looking for anything particular.

      1. My single experience at a CAMRA fest (save combi-CAMRA/SIBA fests in Manc) has been at Leeds in March. It was bloody brilliant for me, a cask ale lover and fellow non-England-resident. One reason why I don’t figure I’ll ever do the GBBF is that I’ve always heard that the British bits of the fest are rather mundane compared to at other CAMRA fests.

        Can’t wait for the Nottingham one in October.

  6. As far as I know, Betty Stogs & co aren’t there for the paid public sessions, so I guess that makes them your punishment for getting in on a freebie. (-;

  7. I hadn’t been to be GBBF for years until I started to get trade tickets and having recently returned I must say I’ve enjoyed myself immensely.

  8. Is it just me, or was there no decent list of beers available without having to click through region/brewery/beer down to single beers? Wouldn’t want to go if I couldn’t make a spreadsheet before hand!

  9. Taf: GBBF by and large only has one beer – sometimes two – from the breweries invited. That’s largely due to space. The breweries are representative, not definitive and will change from year to year in some cases at least. Local festivals are much more likely to feature local beers, but there is no guarantee.

    Nick: What would you have wanted? You are a member. Suggest a change. I would agree that an alphabetical list would be good. Mind you, I’m happy just to wander round and see what I fancy.

    1. The website was – as usual – a pile of crap. It looked pretty and all, but was functionally useless. May as well have used flash! The printed booklet was as unwieldy and unfathomable as usual.

      Let people do what they want to do: download a damn spreadsheet. Or in HTML present the list in a useful tabular form, with a proper search facility, and column sort (glorified HTML spreadsheet).

      I actually wrote some perl code to spider the site and convert it to a spreadhsheet in the end. Annoyingly it turned out that the online list was missing the entire Champion Beer of Britain bar.

      In this day and age the level of tech incompetence shown by CAMRA isn’t acceptable. I’ve had communications with marketing folk at CAMRA about previous IT faff (the Community Pubs Month site for example… what a bloody waste of time!). Only to be told that I’m wrong, have it implied that I don’t know what I’m talking about, and that they have experienced professionals on the case. I almost hung up my CAMRA involvement at the time… turf the incompetent old-school marketing folk, and pick up some people who understand modern marketing & social media, etc. [It is getting better… but still has a way to go.]

      1. The reason for not having the Champion’s Bar in the programme is that in publishing it you give away which beers are being tasted in the blind judging. That said, there were a few brewers tweeting that they were definitely supplying GBBF and they weren’t listed on the website – i.e. they’re on the Champion’s Bar and being judged for CBOB.

        It’s a “can’t please everyone” situation.

        1. Not putting the CBoB beers up until later wouldn’t be a problem if the data wasn’t presented in a shit way in the first place. (As then people like me and Erlangernick wouldn’t feel the need to create our own spreadsheets before the event.)

          Personally I like what Cambridge Beer Festival have been doing with their iPhone and Android apps. It would be good if HQ/GBBF looked into doing the same – and maybe provided a way for branches to do so for their festivals.

          (I always mean to do an app for our festivals… but that’s easier said than done and I have thus far never had the time. My OH might have the time this year. But failing that we always make a spreadsheet available at least.)

  10. Great British Real Ale Festival: You would expect this to serve the best of British Real Ale.

    Great European Beer Festival: you would expect this to serve the best of European Beer.

    Great British Beer Festival: You would expect to serve the best of British Beer, would you not?

    Well you would be wrong: for accuracy sake, the name “Great British real ale and European beer plus some wine, cider and mead but no other types of beer” festival would be a more appropriate name.

    A degree of false advertising perhaps?

    1. py0 the Great is from “Great Britain” not suggesting that the beer is necessarily “great” and in any case great doesn’t mean best. I suppose you could also think of it as Great=big as its a pretty massive affair, though by no means the biggest range of beers any more

  11. I hadn’t been to the GBBF until this year, for some reason I had always thought it would be more of a trade fair than a beer festival. I also had tickets to the Friday night, and experience tells that going to the penultimate day of a beer festival usually ends in having little in the way of anything interesting left, and what is there is usually far past its prime. The Scottish Real Ale Festival last year was awful in this regard. The ‘Alternative’ Beer Festival round the corner was far better on that occasion.

    But to be honest I was quite pleasantly surprised, as there was still plenty of selection, and most of what I had was in reasonable condition (not to say I didn’t have any stinkers though). I know there are plenty of pubs in London now that are essentially year-long beer festivals, but even though I enjoy those places they don’t have the same beer festival atmosphere.

    So I think I would go again next year. There could be more stuff form the more American-influenced new breweries though, like Kernel, Magic Rock, Summer Wine, Hardknott etc. etc. I know CAMRA have certain restrictions on how beer needs to be supplied to them, but I would have thought it would be in there benefit to be flexible, especially their aim is to promote as much British beer as possible after all. And that online beer list needs improving…

  12. Ack! And by ‘restrictions on how beer needs to be supplied’, I wasn’t referring to cask vs. keg, but don’t CAMRA require casks to be of a certain size, which might not be easy to accommodate for some brewers?

    1. The limit to kilderkins is for practical reasons. Organisation and logistics for beer festivals is a huge hassle – the core volunteers are usually pretty stretched as it is.

      In my limited experience GBBF seems to be getting better over the last few years though. Like most people in this sort of forum, I also think it could do with some “more exciting” British beer. But also must admit the reality that my “more exciting” is too strong and even unpalatable to a lot of cask ale drinkers. I buy beer for a couple of smaller CAMRA beer festivals and know all too well that the backbone of the beer list needs to be made up of bitters and best bitters – some better than others, but nothing too “out there”.

      Us “craft ale” lovers must be realistic and take on board that we are a minority amongst the beer drinking community. (Cask ale itself is a minority product as it is!) However, we have big breweries doing stuff like Barry Island & 13 Guns now – that’s pretty amazing progress IMO. The taste for more exciting brews seems to be spreading – and brewers & festivals are responding to the building demand! 🙂

      I’m pushing the limits a bit on our next beer festival… still the expected “backbone” but more stronger brews than usual. Come September 20/21/22 I’ll learn whether or not this was a bad idea. If it works well, maybe we’ll push things out a little more next time. I’ll report how it goes. With luck we’ll also trial KeyKegs on hand-pump…

      1. Totally agree with everything in your comment here. I would like to see some branches make more of an effort to nominate their local brewers, especially if they haven’t been represented before.

  13. Playing devils advocate here, I think cask ale drinkers might still be a minority despite the fact that most people have, at some point, tried it, whereas craft beer drinkers are a minority because so few people have tried it.

    I know hardly anyone who had heard of Brewdog or Magic Rock or Thornbridge etc before I introduced them to it. They had given real ale a go, hadn’t got into it, and were all confirmed lager drinkers. But they were all instantly amazed.. and then horrified when it was explained that even in 2012 the nearest outlet for this style of beer on draught was still a hours train to London ride away.

    Nevermind, at least we can try it at the beer festival they said. Oh the beer festival refuses to serve it, I replied.

  14. I agree with Yvan that the GBBF experience continues to improve. It’s just that the competition (ordinary pubs) has got better, certainly in London. Also, being honest, neither of us have the stamina for massive multi-ticking binges these days…

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