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.

38 replies on “A Not-so-Hot Take on the Great British Beer Festival”

One thing I’ve tried to argue about changing for years is the Champion Beer of Britain process. At the moment you get loads of categories (which are significantly in need of updating), all of which are announced at one festival, and all that the press notice is the overall winner.
Far better to have differing styles judged at regional festivals (giving some very worthwhile local press releases for those festivals), and then the best of the best come together and the beer of the year gets awarded in London. You lose nothing for the central event, but gain publicity for other festivals.

We already have that model a little bit with the National Winter Ales festival selecting the Winter BOB, which also travels around, and I’m not sure that it manages the level of awareness even among beer geeks that CBOB does. I’ll buy something with a CWBOB clip if I see it on the bar, but I won’t seek them out in the same way as CBOB winners.

The real problem with regional festivals selecting a national winner by style is the burden it puts on the regional festival – even if you have just two darks/specialities from each county, that’s over 100 darks/specialities which is a big ask for many festivals. You could tailor it a bit – have Brum always judge the darks, Manchester always judge the pales, but then people would complain that the dark winner always tasted like Banks and the pale always tasted like Track Sonoma. Not that that’s a bad thing, but you would struggle from a festival point of view to have 100+ darks at Manc, the punters in the home of Boddies just don’t like dark that much.

The way to do it is not by style but by region, like SIBA do. It’s logical – there’s already huge effort at local level for branches to use their branch festival to nominate beers towards the champion of their county festival. But that’s then ignored for GBBF. Logically it should be the culmination of the county shows – and if there was a flat requirement that the top 3 in the county competition were on the county bar at GBBF, then that a) answers (most) criticism of favouritism b) makes sure there’s some decent beer. Like B&B I head first for my “local” bars at GBBF, and am baffled by some of the beer choices – last year there was one brewery present that I would easily put in the bottom 10% of brewers in the county.

At the same time, you have to take some account of balance for styles, otherwise you end up with an entire festival of blueberry stouts. But if a county had the top 3 and then an attempt to balance beyond that, then it would be a start.

You also have to think about these things in a LocAle context. If you think local is good, then if you go to GBBF you want the beer that is good enough to give you a reason to go beyond your local breweries. There’s plenty of local breweries doing a Cascade pale ale, I don’t need to go to Cumbria or Devon for one (having said that, Goat’s Milk is good). There’s an increasing interest among the wider public in localism and terroir, and it’s a good angle for CAMRA to exploit.

Vested interest: CAMRA life member x 2

We used to love going to GBBF, but when it left Earls’ Court it seemed to lose something, starting with the full English in the Troubadour before commencing the day.

Where we live a quick taxi ride will take us to one of the best Micro pubs in Kent, a short walk takes us to another and an even shorter walk to a third.

3 x 8 real ales = a mini beer festival and it is available seven days a week (except pub number 1) and 52 weeks of the year with rotating ales. Taxi home in 10 minutes.

The outing to London seems less of a special occasion unless you want to go as a group. It is a pity but times have changed as you note in your post.

There is a certain naffness to the local CAMRA festivals I’ve visited, and for me this is somehow part of the charm. For many years the location of for the Brighton branch festival was Hove town hall – an ugly 1960’s concrete block with garish carpets and cheap wood paneling. Yet the kitschness of the venue contributed a certain quality to the event – like a trad boozer with peeling wallpaper – and to this day the old festival is still talked about with affection.

To me the GBBF is a gigantic realisation of this vision. Its slight cheesiness may not be entirely intentional, but it feels like an event with its heart is in the right place. Run by volunteers, many of them clearly not professionals but giving it their best shot, it embodies a certain ‘Britishness’ in its bumbling lack of finesse. Does this appeal to your modern craft beer drinker or align with the brand values of hip new breweries? Perhaps not. But it feels like the exclusivity and excitement associated with the more crafty festivals has a limited shelf life, and, given time, perhaps again it may become hip to be square.

I wouldn’t hold your breath on that one; craft is the only beer sector experiencing growth in a declining market.

It’s more likely that CAMRA will ultimately fall by the wayside, as it becomes increasingly entrenched and anachronistic.

I love the idea of getting members to come up with the list, and then getting a proper expert (appointed by HQ) to strike off the ones that they shouldn’t have picked. I can see absolutely no downside to this.

The pub-based-virtual-festival idea is an appealing one – stuff like the Norwich City of Ale and London Beer City always seem to get a buzz going – but I can’t really imagine how it’d work if it was organised nationally and not by a pubco. Presumably the regionally specific ones work partly because people are willing to travel for them – otherwise, every pub in town running a simultaneous beer festival would just result in a lot of unsold beers, or pubs being unwilling to participate. Whereas the national ones like the Spoonsfest work to get people into Spoons by tempting them away from other pubs, which is fine if they’re being organized by JD Wetherspoon Inc but probably not by a supposedly neutral third party that kind of wants to stay on good terms with everyone.

Scott’s idea about devolving CBOB a bit is a nice one. I think qq (passim) is probably right that the categories could do with a bit of tweaking as well – having three categories for bitter and one for anything golden seems a bit out of step even with fairly mainstream drinking these days.

My what-if bomb would be to keep most of it the same but replace all the foreign beer bars with British beer bars selected by similar people to similar criteria (but all on cask). It’s fair enough to essentially only going to have one part of the festival dedicated to fancy-pants geek-bait, but why not make it British and cask? Why not pull some strings and get some rare stuff, some old stuff, some not-usually-in-cask stuff. They could even use it to promote a slightly different perspective on the craft thing – look, it wasn’t all bitter until the Awesome Americans came along, we’ve got a cask of Lees Harvest Ale in the mix, some Harvey’s Sussex Best that we’ve kept until the brett gets noticeable, some historic thing from Fullers, maybe a three-year-old cask of Tally Ho…

Hah, I thought that last one was my over-the-top-talking-point-only proposal rather than a solid inch-by-inch one.

My sensible inch-by-inch one would be to slightly reduce the number of beers picked by the branches (while maybe giving them a bit more flexibility on style, regular availability etc) and make up the difference with a list chosen by some appropriate eminences.

As to who’d get to choose, how about brewers themselves? Change it up every year, but pick maybe a couple of head brewers from established family or regional brewers, someone from a CAMRA-era trad micro and someone from a new wave crafty establishment. (Or maybe give it as a perk to last years CBOB / CWBOB medalists? Looking back at previous winners that would actually tend to give you a pretty nice spread.) Give them each 10 or 15 beers to pick, no choosing yourself, no repeats from the same brewery, but otherwise no restrictions except to showcase what they love about cask ale.

The Fullers vintage on cask had one of the longest queues of the day…

The wood aged thing is a “thing” that seems to have passed GBBF by – I’m sure if there was a mini-Woodfest bar it would sell out as quickly as the American bar, although I’m coming to the conclusion that even good UK brewers still haven’t quite sussed wood ageing yet.

On the pub festival front – pubs from different companies are more willing to collaborate than you might think – there’s certainly been whole-town “festivals”/pub crawls that work quite well. It takes some people to get off their back sides to organise the first one and get pubs to chip in a modest amount – say £60 each – for some roadside banners and some T-shirts for staff and as prizes for a draw for anyone who ticks off 12 pubs say, but encouraging people to “crawl” gets them into different pubs as well as trying different beer. Probably best time to do it would be May bank holiday – 3 days helps and its probably the quietest one for pubs as the weather is least predictable.

Disclosure: I, too, get free tickets to the GBBF trade session. I’m a small scale brewer of cask and bottle-conditioned beers, and I’m also a many-years-standing CAMRA member.

That’s an interesting blog post and I would have to agree with a lot of it. I think the situation with the GBBF is a result of the problems with CAMRA itself at the moment and without rethinking their attitudes towards keg beer they will eventually become irrelevant to a lot of beer lovers, if they aren’t already.

CAMRA was set up in the very early 1970s as a response to bland, mass-produced keg beers that threatened to wipe out traditional cask beer. It has succeeded hugely in its aims and we now have a very healthy brewing industry with many small brewers and lots of interesting beers.

However, things have now moved on – live beers in the cask are not the only way to enjoy novel and interesting beers because there’s been a huge increase in so-called ‘craft’ brewers using kegs and cans which fall found of CAMRA’s definition of what makes a good beer.

At the same time, in the years since 1971, cask beer has also changed a lot with huge breweries buying out many small ones and a few brands dominating the market place in many places (e.g. Greene King’s acquisition of many brands which are now no more than trusted names on GK’s interpretation of what a cheaper version of that beer might taste like, or the mass production of several trusted names at the Marsdens brewery).

In short, cask doesn’t guarantee quality, keg doesn’t imply lack of quality.

Unless CAMRA embrace this rather fundamental change and support local breweries more actively then they will continue to become increasingly irrelevant.

In terms of the champion beer judging and what to do with the GBBF, I would very much support a revision in the judging categories, fewer regulations over beer-styles per region and actually, holding a country-wide GBBF in pubs, with CAMRA trying to encourage free-of-tie beer availability for local beers in chain pubs all year round would be a great idea.

I’ve enjoyed GBBF for the last 3 years now.Formerly fron the West Midlands and now living in Devon, I can agree with the sentiments of not exciting.
However in North Devon the 3 best breweries (Moonchild,Art Brew and GT Ales) weren’t selected to go to GBBF.The 2 breweries that appeared..well I’ll keep my opinion to myself as to how they got the nod but Camra politics was definately a major factor.
I di my homework first and used Untappd as a guide to select the higher rated beers on offer,including foreign bottles and casks and this method serves me well everytime.I hear people say the beer wasn’t very good that they tried ,then when I see what they have sampled you could quite easily have told them beforehand it wasn’t going to be an enjoyable day for them.
I for one will keep going,avoid the ‘twig juice’ and enjoy but Camra politics will always stop it from being better.

There was a time when GBBF felt really special. You’d take a day off work, go with your friends – you’d be thinking about it months in advance. Now it just doesn’t feel special anymore, and I’m not sure it’s anything CAMRA has done (although it took until this year not to see any sexist merch available) – there’s a new breed of beero and that beero has access to a lot more beer and a host of beery events All The Time, particularly in the big cities.

I don’t go to CAMRA festivals necessarily for the same reasons I go to other beer festivals and I don’t think it needs to compete with the ‘coolness’ of events such as the Beavertown Extravaganza. But I think it does need to be more aware of its position and adapt the way it presents itself.

Your suggestion to make it the Olympics of Beer Fests is a good one and with 4 years to organise they’d have the time to make it really special and eradicate that corporate/church fete vibe it very definitely has going on.

I’m not sure about the Olympics idea – certainly I think it’s important for the industry to have an annual CBOB to create some buzz. Possibly alternate between a winter and summer event as the main one of the year (and hand Olympia over to EvilKegFest on the other years? ) – or designate Manchester as the CBOB-deciding festival in alternate years?

I don’t think you ever get away from the corporate-village fete thing though, even IndyMan has it to some extent.

Disclosure, I’ve volunteered at GBBF for over 20 years but attended this year, for the first time, as a customer. I’ve never served a British Beer at GBBF. I spent last weekend working at one of the best beer festivals around, Leeds International Beer Festival.
There are many ideas knocking around as to how GBBF can regain it’s buzz, we know it’s been getting a little frayed around the edges but it’s what we have at the moment.
If the intention is to make it the Premier event then it has to be made more attractive by offering a package that ticks as many boxes as possible.
Beer, with over 1800 breweries it is impossible to accommodate everyone, somebody is not going to like it and we get stupid entirely false comments appearing in The Morning Advertiser. So, how do we make the selection of Breweries more representative whilst ensuring they are the ones that will attract customers? I warm to the idea of someone who can say no to a Branch suggestion, but not everyone who thinks they are an expert is an ‘expert’. Who does the job? One thing that should be born in mind is that Breweries are required to supply cask beer in 18’s, this, unfortunately, excludes a large number of contemporary Breweries. I’d like to see a smaller number of Breweries invited, but ask them for one beer that they’re best known for and something new. Brewery Bars have been part of GBBF for a long time, there are a limited number of spaces available and any Brewery could take one of those spaces.
Food, as far as I understand it any ‘Street Food’ stall who wishes to be there needs to put themselves forward, and if they can meet the demand they’re likely to face then they stand as much chance as anyone else of being there.
CBOB, this will only improve if the idea of larger Regional festivals is embraced and each becomes responsible for one or two categories, those Champions can then go forward to the supreme Champion. I understand that CAMRA is giving serious consideration to the establishment of regional festivals which it can then put its weight behind. Those of you who’ve been to Manchester Festival can see the model for the regional approach.
Space could be found to incorporate a ‘Craft’ Beer Room, a festival within a festival. If you had been to London Craft Beer when it was at the Oval Space will appreciate how small it was, that space could easily be afforded in GBBF.
It has been said that part of the problem is the moribund organisation of GBBF, but without people willing to come forward and take on the tasks that those volunteers take on then change will be slow, Anybody fancy putting there hand up and arranging accommodation for 900+ volunteers?
You don’t touch BSF.
It’s easy to be a critic, too easy. It’s a lot harder to actually step up to the mark and take the job on.

I fully agree with Ian, the Leeds International Beer Festival is one the best festival i have ever attended. Definitely more needs to bring the buzz of GBBF and I love the idea of having regional festivals as this can then accommodate a lot of the local breweries as there is so much scope for Champions within each of the local areas of the UK.

Simple way to freshen it up – move it about the country again, at least every other year. My favourite ever GBBF was Brighton ’85, but hold it in Leeds, Manchester, Cardiff, Bristol, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Newcastle or wherever. Olympia is a hole for sure, there have to be better places in London, too.

Wherever you want it must have a venue of sufficient size that is willing to allow a beer festival (many large venues worry about the state of the floors), there should also be sufficient reasonably priced accommodation for the volunteers and good transport connections.

While I wholeheartedly agree with you about moving the festival round the country, there is a major problem in that every major venue has signed restrictive contracts with the big drinks providers which would mean CAMRA’s input would be minimal. Here’s a true story: when visiting a major Birmingham venue to see whether the GBBF could move there, the organising committee were told that the existing bars (I think they were M&B or some other crud) would have to order the beer, serve the beer, and take the profits from the beer. Thus cutting us out of the picture completely. Olympia has similar contracts in place but because of our historic ties with the venue, our modus operandi has given us prior usage rights. The refreshments shops there either close or put up with reduced sales for the duration.

Yup,my feelings entirely.
There are only so many times people are prepared to schlep to that there London to drink many pints of very similar beer.
The last time I went every brewery was going through its golden ale phase – it put me off them for years.
A different location around the country every year would encourage people to travel to places they might not ordinarily go to.
I’ve also often thought the GBBF is arse over for.It starts with a bang – the awards being announced midweek – then ends with a whimper at the weekend.
The awards should be the culmination of the event and be voted on by everyone attending it and not just a handful of select “experts.”
By the time most people can get to the festival – on the weekend – the Champion beer has always gone and most of the interesting stuff too.
And final rant – the second B in GBBF stands for beer and not cask.It is simply ludicrous for CAMRA,with an ageing and declining membership,to think otherwise.
The pong-lovers need to embrace their inner keg.
I love boring,brown bitters as much as the next old fart but the most exciting beers I’ve tasted in recent years have almost always been keg.

Disclosure: CAMRA National Director

Hi Everyone, Thank you for your positive comments. It is refreshing to see constructive criticism, rather than complaints.
As Ian Garrett has said: “It’s easy to be a critic, too easy. It’s a lot harder to actually step up to the mark and take the job on.”

That said I, and by extension the festival organisers, welcome ideas for improvements.

One note about why we use kils, (kilderkin – 18 gallons) and not firkins (9 gallons): We ask every brewery to supply four kils as this makes logistics far simpler. Keeping track and moving that many containers from lorries to the appropriate bars is far from simple, and dealing with double the number of barrels if we used firkins would make it that much more difficult.

Finally, Who is GBBF for? The beer connoisseur, seeking the latest and greatest flavours, or an opportunity for an average London Pride / GK IPA / Doom Bar drinker to expand their tastes? Both?
What should the festival look like to satisfy these groups?

“Finally, Who is GBBF for? The beer connoisseur, seeking the latest and greatest flavours, or an opportunity for an average London Pride / GK IPA / Doom Bar drinker to expand their tastes? Both?
What should the festival look like to satisfy these groups?”

Thanks, Alexander Wright, for dropping by. I don’t know how GBBF performed financially this year – nor am I asking, btw. If it is a financial boon for CAMRA, there is an argument it can be left. If there are, as B&B suggest above, signs of strain, it is worth undertaking a zero-based-style review.

As you ask – what is it for?

Ultimately, if it is to be the GREAT British Beer Festival, I think it has to appeal to both the audiences you identify.

There are myriad suggestions on how that might work – both here and on Tandleman’s GBBF comments thread linked above.

Personally, I think scaling back a good idea. Britain’s 100 or 200 best beers and enough 18s to make sure you can really try them. 900 beers will always include duds.

But other than that, DaveS’s comments above (10:44) are the kind of changes that wouldn’t scare the horses but would make geeks sit up and notice.

With the scale GBBF has, there is room to introduce those to a wider range of beers and satisfy the wilder desires of the crafty types (none of whom, btw, are remotely anti-cask – BrewDog bars aside, vanishingly few of the most on-trend craft beer bars eschew cask).

FWIW, I am a 34 year old CAMRA member living in London who hasn’t attended for some years. I find the fest overweight bitters and “meh” golden ales (Thornbridge being represented by Wild Swan seems to me the most egregious example of this – a great brewer, but a beer I see everywhere).

The problem for CAMRA is it should aim for “civilians” as well as hardened beer nuts. The former likely outnumber the latter. But *without* the latter, the event loses both cachet and a decent chunk of revenue.

“Finally, Who is GBBF for? The beer connoisseur, seeking the latest and greatest flavours, or an opportunity for an average London Pride / GK IPA / Doom Bar drinker to expand their tastes? Both?
What should the festival look like to satisfy these groups?”

There seems to be this implicit, unthinking assumption that the best way to excite “average” or new beer-drinkers is to give them nothing but this very narrow band of brown bitters and watery golden ales. It seems like the idea of giving them something a bit too “flavourful” might scare the horses.

If I wanted to introduce a new drinker to beer, I sure as hell wouldn’t give them a pint of bitter – it must be one of the most acquired tastes known to man, and very inaccessible to beginners. A worse introductory beer I could not think of.

I’ve done a fair bit of travelling for conferences & events – at one time I was on the train to Euston every few weeks – but I’ve never had the slightest inclination to go to the GBBF. Living in Manchester, I’m – at the furthest – a bus ride away from two or three festivals a year, at any one of which I can sample new and/or interesting stuff until I fall over. Perhaps the GBBF is bigger, but so what? The Stockport Beer & Cider Festival is big enough that my wishlist always ends up with a few ticks missing (even if I go twice, as I did last year); any bigger than that would just be a waste.

Who is GBBF for? I think it’s for two groups: those who drink beer but don’t go to beer festivals, and those who go to all the beer festivals (with or without panda-pop bottles). The trouble is, I suspect both of those groups are shrinking, irrespective of what’s happening to the numbers of beer drinkers or CAMRA members.

Beer Festivals in CAMRA terms made more sense in say the late 70s. I lived in Leeds then for a couple of years and basically you could get Tetleys easily enough, Sam Smiths in a few pubs, a range in the CAMRA pub including Taylors, but after that the choice fell off – so a Festival could give great variety. Now, I reckon I can have a selection of maybe 30 beers within a short distance of my home, which is far more than I would ever try at a festival. Some local pubs have ‘guests’ which change regularly. So it just doesn’t make sense to go somewhere that I have to pay to get in, pay for a glass, pay extra travel costs to get there, and so on. Plus the chances of getting a seat are usually minimal, and often there are long waits for toilet facilities which were never intended to accommodate hundreds of drinkers. The original concept of showing that there were lots of interesting and different beers in the country has simply been superseded. Many of these events just seem to be run as money-spinners. As Treasurer of a local festival, admittedly also a few years ago, I know that even then there was pressure from St Albans to make money that could be ‘donated’ to central funds – although the preference of our team was to finance campaigning locally. I’ve seen prices at the GBBF quoted at over £4 a pint, which of course rises to at least £6 with admission (the ‘average’ drinker has four pints). This is far above what I pay in a comfortable pub locally in London. I don’t want the ‘entertainment’ either.

As long as these events make money, then why not run them? But I do wonder whether the market has peaked, at least for the GBBF, and CAMRA might have to be less optimistic in future budgets.

I have attended GBBF for the past 10 years or so. I don’t think it has changed much since then, and that might be the problem. Newer, craft festivals such as IMBC, Leeds International Beer Festival, and numerous others have raised the bar and it feels like GBBF just hasn’t caught up. These newer festivals have much better food, are in venues full of character, offer more for the ticket price (eg include glass and programme). But most importantly for beer fans like me, I can expect a range of beers in a range of styles from some of the most exciting breweries in the UK and around the world. The selection of beer at GBBF is of course huge, but the quality is mixed and the range limited, especially in the British bars. Most breweries only have one beer available which leads to endless bitters and golden ales (styles I love, but to drink all day at a beer festival). It also means that breweries can’t properly showcase what they’re about. And it means some of the best breweries in the country are limited to one beer (or even none), alongside too many mediocre breweries. It certainly doesn’t feel like you will find the best the British beer scene can offer. Maybe this is less of a problem for casual beer drinkers – I genuinely don’t know – but it’s certainly why I find it harder every year to persuade friends to attend GBBF. They prefer the competition.

Interesting. I’d have to say the opposite. Festivals such as IMBC, that initially appeared to be innovative, have become much more restrictive that the GBBF or indeed other CAMRA festivals have ever been. They’re now only concentrating on keg beers, which immediately eliminates a huge swathe of breweries and their output. The end result is many of the same breweries appearing each year albeit it with different, often specialty, beers. Which is all very nice but if you just look at it in terms of beer; the GBBF actually wins hands down.

Some great points made by a lot of people here. I agree with my old friend Ian Garrett about the volunteer practicalities and this really has to be considered in a festival of this size and complexity. I like his idea “Space could be found to incorporate a ‘Craft’ Beer Room, a festival within a festival. If you had been to London Craft Beer when it was at the Oval Space will appreciate how small it was, that space could easily be afforded in GBBF.” This would be a great addition to the current offer and would not be that difficult with a little imagination.

Moving it around the country is superficially attractive, but with the growth of major festivals in places such as Manchester, Peterborough, Norwich and many more, to some extent at least, that is already covered and it would be financially risky and hard to find affordable or willing venues.

Suzy is spot on when she says “The selection of beer at GBBF is of course huge, but the quality is mixed and the range limited, especially in the British bars. ” Again this is something that can be fixed (not as easily as you might think — see below) with a little imagination and flexibility. Some of the ideas of “outsiders” having a role in beer selection are worthwhile, but this would have to be as a part of a beer selection team for the practical reasons outlined elsewhere.

Ian G also hinted at what is going on in Manchester – disclosure – I’m Deputy Organiser. Here we’ll have an ever expanding Keykeg Bar, we are looking to have the most interesting beers possible from the best breweries we can find, as well as old favourites. We are constantly changing and learning, as is GBBF, but you do need to be nimble and wise enough not to piss off the core customer base as well as tempting those that want a more eclectic offer. It really has to be wide ranging and something for everyone. No easy task for us with around 14,000 visitors and presumably a lot harder when you have 50,000 like GBBF. And you have to pay the bills. We do this and we keep prices down. You can come to our festival a few times for the money you’ll pay at private festivals and hopefully you’ll get just as interesting beers. All at prices you can afford.

Going back to Boak and Bailey’s points: someone had to.

1. Scale back the ambition

Not exactly. Change the ambition to be more bold and innovative. Remove a lot of duplicated beers and get brewers to do something different or simply present their more unusual beers – harder than you think as Marketing Departments want you to take Doom Bar rather than the one off collaboration. Even small brewers want to promote their best selling beer, not their most interesting beer.

2. Local Festivals

Are just that. But CAMRA should look to promote them more as they are different to GBBF and different to each other. Not always in a good way, but the best are excellent.

3. Olympic Idea

Four years would be too long as volunteer momentum and skills would be lost, but maybe every two has some legs? Worth at least exploring.

4. Pub Based

Too difficult to organise. Brewers and pubs are like herding cats. Just don’t see much merit in this as a national event.

5. Tweaking

It is tweaked very year but needs a wholesle re-think to get it all going again – for its mojo to be re-instated. I thought it lacked “oomph” this year. For a start, it is a big hall. A better layout of bars would help, but not that easy. You are always going to have to walk about.

Lastly food. Don’t know what the moaners are moaning about. Fish and chips, curries, pulled pork, burgers, felafaels, seafood, olives, butties, pies, sausages, etc. etc. What else do people want FFS.

The answer to me seems to be a combination of a couple of what people have suggested.

Individual branches pick their top 3 of the year, all of which are entered into the CBOB comp (and nothing else). This gives branches more responsibility and perhaps will make more people join if they feel their votes will affect the outcome (or however each branch do it). If there are no restrictions over which beers each branch can put into the CBOB comp then surely regions will end up specialising / reflecting what people drink in those areas. If I knew that a particular region was famous for its dark milds, I would be much more interested in going to GBBF so that I could try the one they voted the best. A lot of people drink medal winners because they want to know what good tastes like. I don’t think you would just get 3 pale ales every time as I would expect the local CAMRA members would be too embarrassed to be seen to be so one dimensional unless they had good reason.

We can then get experts to flesh out the rest of the beers available, which ensures the majority of beers have at least a basic level of quality and random punters will have a good time.

I would also support a keg room. Assuming that whoever runs it charges the standard extra £1 per pint purely for the additional CO2 then this extra profit could mean the festival is a bit more profitable for CAMRA to run (Yes, I do prefer cask ale, but no I’m not a CAMRA member).

I was a bit surprised to read this article. I’ve been attending the GBBF since the 1980s, and I genuinely thought this year’s festival was the best ever. All the beer I sampled was in good condition, and unlike in previous years, almost everything in the programme was actually available. The food outlets have undergone a continuous process of improvement, and the ones I tried were really excellent this year.

So I don’t see a reason to change the festival. And seeing the lines of people queuing to get in on each of the 4 days I attended this year suggests that the festival has maintained and improved its popularity. In my view there’s no need to change, and I’m already looking forward to next year’s festival.

I realise I’m a little late in coming to this one, but having put up my own post on GBBF, a couple of weeks ago, it’s good to see alternative thoughts and suggestions from other commentators.

I’ve been attending GBBF, on and off, ever since the first one back at Alexandra Palace, back in 1977. If I really wanted to brag, I could also mention that I was also present at the Covent Garden “Beer Exhibition”, two years previously.

My own take is that GBBF is too large, too busy and far too impersonal for me. As others have pointed out, the event has lost its sparkle, and like many I see no reason to attend. A friend of mine, who goes along every year, admits he attends more out of habit than anything else, and added that after this year’s festival, he probably won’t bother going again.

I find myself almost totally in agreement with Ian and Suzy’s comments and I fully understand where Phil is coming from as well. Tandleman, as always, puts forward some good positive points, and I will promise myself a trip up to Manchester in January, to see ow it’s done there.

Apart from these observations, I’ve nothing really to add of my own, that hasn’t been said already; either by me or others, but I shall watch with interest how things unfold next year.

Hi everyone,

Thank you all for your comments. They will be circulated to the other directors (or more accurately, I’ll summarise them and point people here).

Size is a tricky one. Earl’s Court was a better, more successful and bigger venue, but sadly no longer with us. London is short of smaller sized venues with the right sort of logistic capabilities too.

Frequency is also a tricky issue: If you don’t book the same slot every year, venues tend to fill it with someone who does. If we went to a two year model, we might get stuck with somewhere to hold it. That’s not to say no, but the risks need looking at.

Risk is the key thing too. When you are spending the sort of money that a week long festival in Olympia costs, you really can’t change too many things at once.

I was very happy to see a recognition that both dedicated enthusiasts and casual drinkers should be catered for. This is certainly my belief.

One of the things we are after is campaigning impact. We are, after all, a campaign! This year was one of the most successful ever on that basis, with the BBC doing live broadcasts from the festival floor throughout the day. Some publicity you can’t buy.

If anyone would like a more extended conversation, please drop me an email.

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