The Not so Great British Beer Festival

GBBF 1985 logo.The Campaign for Real Ale’s Great British Beer Festival begins tomorrow (13 August) and is something of an institution in the world of British beer. A quarter of a century ago, though, it was on the ropes.

The nine­teen-eight­ies saw CAMRA in the dol­drums. Mem­ber­ship had dropped from the late nine­teen-sev­en­ties’ high of 30,000 to few­er than 20,000; while mem­ber­ship fees had crept up to cov­er the short­fall, and to pay for an increas­ing­ly well-staffed and expen­sive bureau­cra­cy.

Mem­bers were under­stand­ably furi­ous, there­fore, when the Campaign’s lead­er­ship announced that the 1985 GBBF had made a £11,500 loss, and that, as a result, the £7 mem­ber­ship fee would be increased to £9. Geoff Par­sons of the St Neots Branch summed up how some mem­bers felt with a let­ter head­lined SCRAP THE GBBF! in What’s Brew­ing, April 1986.

At the annu­al gen­er­al meet­ing the same month, the Nation­al Exec­u­tive faced an angry crowd, and a motion to scrap the Fes­ti­val was pro­posed by Dan Kane of Edin­burgh: ‘It’s like a jug­ger­naut run­ning on and on. There seems to be no way of stop­ping it. We could do more worth­while things with the mon­ey.’

The venue, Brighton, was thought by many to be the root of the prob­lem, with Roger Protz call­ing it a ‘large­ly derelict one-horse town’ and lob­by­ing for the Fes­ti­val to return to Lon­don. He also pro­posed that a ‘supreme beer of Britain’ con­test be intro­duced to gen­er­ate media atten­tion, thus invent­ing what we now know as the Cham­pi­on Beer of Britain com­pe­ti­tion.

For­tu­nate­ly for fans of GBBF, the 1986 Fes­ti­val was an enor­mous suc­cess, thus neu­tral­is­ing calls for its abo­li­tion.

The Great British Beer Fes­ti­val is at Olympia, West Lon­don, from 13–17 August. Doors open to the pub­lic at 5pm on Tues­day. You can also fol­low it (them?) on Twit­ter at @gbbf.

3 thoughts on “The Not so Great British Beer Festival”

  1. So 1986 was the year it stopped being about try­ing to get peo­ple to try pongy grog and became about milk­ing as much cash out of those that already do? Inter­est­ing.

  2. Which year was it that Evil Keg (or the “Con­ti­nen­tal Beer Stand” as CAMRA call it) arrived at the GBBF? And what was said by the Active Mem­ber­ship at the time?

    1. Not 100 per cent sure, but there was Amer­i­can beer ‘under pres­sure’ (not keg, as such, we don’t think, but cer­tain­ly not ‘CAMRA kosher’) at the 1985 fes­ti­val. Some mem­bers were very hap­py to be drink­ing inter­est­ing Amer­i­can beer; oth­ers put a motion to the 1986 AGM demand­ing a change in pol­i­cy to ensure that it wouldn’t hap­pen again.

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