A Not-so-Hot Take on the Great British Beer Festival

Over the last month we’ve been thinking about the Great British Beer Festival (GBBF) and why it doesn’t quite seem to click in these days. What, if anything, might be done to give it back its mojo?

(First up, though, a bit of disclosure: we’ve had free trade day entry to GBBF for the last two years, but paid for our own beer, and we write fairly regularly for Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) publications.)

We resisted writing this because, frankly, every year brings a slew of blog posts and articles criticising GBBF, often repeating the same points; and also because few things seems to cause tempers to rise quite like criticism of CAMRA, even if it’s intended to be constructive. This year feels a bit different, though, and a couple of people asked us nicely to express a view, so here goes.

How is this year different? Well, more than one person with connections to CAMRA has whispered to us, off the record, that the Festival is struggling, not bringing in enough money to justify the difficulty of mounting such an event. Sometimes, you take these things with a pinch of salt — GBBF has had its ups and downs in the past but is still running after 40 years, and people are prone to fretting — but it does feel as if there might be something in it this time round what with CAMRA’s open acknowledgement of lower then expected income.

Pete Brown is right, of course, when he argues that, for all the moaning, GBBF retains its status as The Default Event for people within the industry, and (we think) it’s the only one that reliably makes the national news. (Though Beavertown’s bash last week trending on Twitter might be the social media age equivalent.) Ed’s observation is a good one, too: GBBF is the only chance some of the smaller breweries get to appear on the national stage. And plenty of people turn up and have a great time, both volunteers and drinkers, especially (we reckon) non-beer-geeks and tourists. (But even Tandleman, at that last link, acknowledges ‘that it wasn’t quite as busy’.)

Our gut feeling is that GBBF is suffering through competition. In 2007 it was more-or-less the only serious beer-focused festival in the game. Now there are lots of other festivals (and beer weeks, and pub/bar events) serving various niches in various corners of the country. In absolute terms, GBBF has improved in the past decade — the beer seems in better condition than ever and the crowd seems less homogeneous than it used to be, to pick just two ‘key performance indicators’. But the competition has raised the bar in various ways:

  • More attractive venues.
  • Better food.
  • Rarer, sexier, more exciting beer.
  • Tighter focus on specific sub-categories (regions, cultures, styles).
  • ‘Coolness’ (GBBF somehow contrives to feel both corporate and a bit like a church fete).

For us, the main stumbling block to really enjoying GBBF are two interconnected issues: the venue and the scale. Olympia is not a pub or anything like one. It’s draughty, overwhelming, tiring to schlep around, and dim — a soul-sapping indoor simulation of an overcast February afternoon. We would rather go to a pub, or on a pub crawl, any time — more so these days than even a few years ago when we first made this point.

What, if anything, can be done to give GBBF a shot in the arm? No doubt greater minds than ours, and which understand the logistical and financial issues from within, have already had and dismissed all of these ideas, but for what it’s worth…

1. Scale Back the Ambition

One of GBBF’s problems is surely the need to be Great. CAMRA can sometimes feel arrogant — it’s been winning battles and dominating the discourse for half a century, after all — and that perhaps comes across in GBBF in its current Imperial Star Destroyer mode. Or perhaps a more apt metaphor would be a jumbo fried breakfast bulked out with beans and dodgy sausages when it could be something smaller and more appetising. The sheer scale and spectacle draws people in and wins headlines but, at the same time, drags down the quality of the event. A more intimate venue, or several locations, perhaps even in different parts of the country, might make for a better atmosphere and a less arduous experience. At the same time, or instead, CAMRA might also…

2. Throw Itself Behind Local Festivals

Again, this is about giving up some of that central control. Insofar as we enjoy festivals (which is not much, generally) we’ve had more fun at local and regional events. They might feel scrappier, or less progressive again, but they’re often both more manageable and more lively. This might tie into…

3. The Olympic Model

What if GBBF was every four years so that it felt like a something really special? There’s been a lot of chat about how the best way to appreciate GBBF is to avoid attending every year and we think there’s something in that. This would also leave more oxygen in the room for local festivals (see above) and pubs (see below). The downside? The first year it didn’t happen would prompt Is This the End of CAMRA? thinkpieces and/or crowing from habitual CAMRA haters.

4. The Pub-Based Virtual Festival

One major criticism against festivals is that they take custom away from pubs which are already struggling and which CAMRA is supposed to be supporting. With that in mind, what if GBBF was more like the Wetherspoon’s festival? That is, a fortnight-long PR drive by CAMRA, with special and rare beers dispersed among a network of pubs in the Good Beer Guide or local Pubs of the Year, with organised crawls, maps and tasting notes. It could even be supported through sponsored buses or trains. It might even be an opportunity to encourage pubs that don’t usually engage with cask and CAMRA to give it a go. This would also address the complain that GBBF is a Londoncentric event.

5. Or, Just Some Bureaucratic Tweaks

Even if GBBF continues as it is, in the same venue, it would be good to see something done about the beer that gets selected. As one CAMRA veteran said to us, ‘I get sick of tasting beers at GBBF that have fundamental brewing faults.’ For our part, we focused on beers from Devon, for the sake of our Devon Life column, and while they were all fine they hardly did much to excite us or, if the conversations we had on Twitter are anything to go by, to get anyone else buzzing about Devon’s beer scene.

The current process, evolved over some years, means that only so many beers from each region make it to each bar; the breweries are suggested (not chosen) by local branches; and that each bar is expected to cover a range of style and strengths. We’d say, (a) scrap that latter restriction — if Devon is represented by eight pale ales, so be it, as long as they all taste great — and (b) balance those local recommendations with input from local ‘experts’, along the lines of the new Eurovision scoring system. So, in the case of Devon, listen to the local branch, but then ask, say, Adrian Tierney-Jones to vet the list. Sure, this would piss people off in all sorts of ways, but it would probably mean BETTER BEER ON THE BARS.

A few years ago, we were arguing for CAMRA to loosen up and find a way to accommodate the best of keg beer at GBBF, but that moment has probably passed. Perhaps now the best approach would be to officially partner with an existing keg-friendly festival, inviting them to run a bar or even a whole room at GBBF. This would send a signal while allowing CAMRA to maintain some distance.

* * *

So that’s our two penn’orth, expressed somewhat reluctantly, and with the best of intentions. If you’ve got ideas of your own do comment below.

News, Nuggets and Longreads 13 August 2017: Steel, Skittles, Sexism

Here’s everything that grabbed our attention in the past week from dwile-flonking to brewery takeovers.

For the BBC David Gilyeat returns to a favourite silly season topic: traditional pub games. There’s nothing especially new here but it’s an entertaining round-up that draws on the expertise of, among others, Arthur Taylor, whose book on the subject is definitive:

Arthur Taylor, author of Played at the Pub, suggests Aunt Sally – which is played in Oxfordshire and parts of Buckinghamshire – has rather grisly origins.

‘It can be traced back to a barbarous business called “throwing at cocks”, when you threw sticks at a cock tethered to a post that if you killed you took home,’ he says.

‘What was barbarous turned into something that wasn’t, and the cock became a coconut shy… and eventually it became the game we know.’


Thornbridge, 2013.

For Good Beer Hunting Oliver Gray has investigated the manufacturing and sales of stainless steel brewing kit, much of which originates in China, even if the vendors might like buyers to think otherwise:

Chinese steel producers like Jinfu have begun establishing ‘reseller’ companies that sell their goods under different names. One such company, Crusader Kegs & Casks LTD, works out of Rushden, England, and was on site at CBC 2017. At quick glance, one would have no idea they weren’t selling British kegs. The capital U in the name is a St. George’s flag kite shield, and the reverse side of their business cards have a sword-wielding, armor-clad Templar, almost like they’re trying really, really hard to ensure they look as ‘British’ as possible.

There are plenty of other disconcerting details in the story which is a great example of the kind of insight generated by asking awkward questions.

(GBH has connections with AB-InBev/ZX Ventures; provides marketing/consultancy services to smaller breweries; and has also been one of our $2-a-month Patreon sponsors since May.)


Macro image: 'Hops' with illustration of hop cones, 1970s.

There’s some spectacular hop-nerdiness from Stan Hieronymus at Appellation Beer: a new study suggests that first-wort hopping makes no difference to the quality of the bitterness in the final beer. But many brewers disagree:

Fritz Tauscher at Krone-Brauerei in Tettnang, Germany, uses a slightly different process. He adds 60 to 70 percent of his hops as he lauters wort into the brewing kettle…. He explained that initially he added all his first wort hops (what he calls ‘ground hopping’) in one dose. ‘I thought the bitterness was not so good,’ he said. He opened his right hand, put it to his chin and slid it down his throat to his clavicle, tracking the path a beer would take. ‘It was, I’m not sure how you say it in English, adstringierend.’ No translation was necessary.


Beer is Best poster, 1937 (detail)

This is exciting news, brought to us by Martyn Cornell: the classic British ten-sided pint glass is back in production, and available at pub- and consumer-friendly prices. We look forward to drinking, say, Fuller’s London Porter from them in a proper pub at some point in the not too distant future.


Takeover news: Constellation Brands has acquired Florida’s Funky Buddha brewery, adding it to a portfolio which already includes Ballast Point. (Via Brewbound.)


GBBF controversy: in an open letter Manchester’s Marble Brewing has alleged that the local CAMRA branch effectively prevented their beers appearing at the Great British Beer Festival, suggesting that a dispute over an incident of sexist behaviour might be the cause. CAMRA head office has confirmed it is investigating the issues raised. (But don’t read too much into that statement.)


And finally @nickiquote has found the moment where Doctor Who and the real ale craze intersected:

Updated 14.o8.2017 15:29 — the disclosure statement for the GBH article has been amended at GBH’s request.

In Their Own Words: The 1975 Covent Garden Beer Exhibition

This article first appeared in the Campaign for Real Ale’s quarterly magazine BEER in 2015 and is reproduced here with their permission. The original beer mat in the main image was given to us by Trevor Unwin. We’re very grateful to David Davies for the use of his contemporary photographs. 

In 1975, the Campaign for Real Ale invented the modern beer festival when it staged a five-day event with more than 50 beers attended by 40,000 thirsty members. Forty years on, we asked those who were there – volunteers, Campaign leaders and drinkers – to share their memories.

Chris Bruton (organiser): A Cambridge branch member suggested a beer festival in the Corn Exchange at an early meeting in 1974. The main credit should go to the late Alan Hill – then a Personnel Manager at Pye in Cambridge. The festival made a significant profit, and the donation to central funds was essential to keep the Campaign afloat during a difficult period.

Chris Holmes (CAMRA chair 1975-76): Because of the success of Cambridge, someone had the bright idea of a bigger festival in London. I’d like to say that we were being very sophisticated and testing the market for a national festival but, really, we just had the opportunity and said, ‘Let’s do it!’

Chris Bruton: By this time CAMRA had employed a Commercial Manager, Eric Spragett, who was a Londoner. The main organising trio was Eric, John Bishopp and me. For some time a huge warehouse at St Katharine Docks was the favoured site but the logistics proved insurmountable. Finally, we found the old Flower Market in Covent Garden.

Continue reading “In Their Own Words: The 1975 Covent Garden Beer Exhibition”

News, Nuggets & Longreads 23/08/2014

Pint of beer illustration.

We found time to put together a (small) Saturday round-up after all! Yer tis.

→ Saved to Pocket: Evan Rail on how a renowned computer hacker is bringing Berliner Weisse back to the city of its birth. (From what we’ve read so far, this looks like a superb questioning, probing piece of writing.)

→ Home brewers with a love of detail: Derek Dellinger’s home brewing experiments continue with tweaks to yeast selection and water treatment.

Stephen Beaumont lays down the law on the use of ‘Belgian’ and ‘Belgian-style’ as descriptors, and Stan Hieronymus gently questions his underlying assumption.

→ The Beer Nut’s series of posts on Bristol (1 | 2 | 3) have made for good reading in the last week. We agree with several of the points he makes, especially this one:

Moving from BrewDog to Zero Degrees was like stepping back in time. Even though the chain only dates from 2000 and the Bristol branch is four years younger again, it feels like a period piece from a time before bare wood and distressed lettering, when iconoclastic British beer meant cavernous halls, bare concrete and steel gantries.

UPDATE: we’ve removed the bit about the atmosphere at the Great British Beer Festival and might try to revisit later in the week.

Failure to be Outraged

timothy_taylor_474

Once again, we find ourselves struggling to summon what is apparently the appropriate level of outrage as the Champion Beer of Britain (CBOB) award is announced by the Campaign for Real Ale.

It’s an important competition which can tip a brewery over into the big time, sure, but it’s not the Word of God.

If you accept that, of the thousands in production, it’s legitimate to name a single beer The Best, then there’s no reason we can see to be angry that the award has gone to Timothy Taylor’s Boltmaker, aka Best Bitter.

Now, we get as bored as anyone of entering pubs and finding three ubiquitous and underwhelming bitters on offer, and we have to admit that we did hope something a bit sexier might win for once — the pale’n’hoppy Oakham Citra, universally loved in the Blogoshire, which came in second place, for example.

But, like it or not, bitter is part of the landscape of British beer — should it be banned from the competition because its character derives from something other than prominent aroma hopping?

We’ve not had Boltmaker, as far as we can recall, but we suspect we’d probably enjoy it. Two of our most fondly-remembered pub sessions have been on Timothy Taylor beer — one in Haworth, and another at the Bricklayer’s Arms in Putney — and it can be transcendently wonderful, in that subtle, indescribable way that regional brewers sometimes achieve. (See also: the Batham’s.)

Perhaps that’s how Boltmaker tasted today? Enthusiasm on the part of the judges certainly seems a more likely than a sinister conspiracy aimed at the suppression of ‘craft’.

(Having said that, we’ll certainly be filing today’s result in the memory banks for next time someone claims traditional bitters are some kind of endangered species that don’t get enough attention…)

The Great British Beer Festival runs until Saturday 16 August.