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

Great?

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

  1. 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.

    1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

    1. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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…

      1. 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.

    1. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

    1. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

    1. 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.

    2. 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.

    3. 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.

  12. 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?

    1. 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.

    2. 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.

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

  15. 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.

      1. 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.

  16. 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.

  17. 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).

  18. 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.

  19. 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.

  20. 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. alexander.wright@camra.org.uk

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