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.