beer festivals

There’s no conspiracy behind the Champion Beer of Britain

Greene King Abbot Ale was named one of the Champion Beers of Britain at CAMRA’s Great British Beer Festival leaving some angry, and others confused.

We weren’t going to write about this because it sometimes feels as if everything there is to say has been said. (Oh, no – what a jaded blogger cliche!)

But then we saw Martin Taylor’s post on the subject.

We nearly included it in our weekly roundup but decided, instead, to give it a little spotlight of its own.

Martin writes:

CAMRA Discourse has been full of conspiracy theories about a “special version” of Abbot being used to dupe the blindfolded GBBF judges, so I was keen to find out if our award winner was “drinking well” in Sheffield… My pint is £4.40, which seems at the high end of Sheffield prices to me, and sadly it’s a bit dull and “milky” (NBSS 2.5)… 2.5 is the level at which you don’t take a beer back, you just decide NEVER to try cask again.

A couple of things struck as interesting here.

First, yes, this is exactly the kind of beer Abbot is: it turns up in pubs that don’t especially seem to care about beer, where everyone else is drinking lager or Guinness. So even if it is a good beer, deep down, what chance does it have to impress people?

We’ve certainly had good pints of Abbot in Wetherspoon pubs where they’re selling a shitload of it and it’s always fresh. And we know a couple of people who love it, without caveats.

Secondly, the talk of conspiracies reminds us of the World Pasty Championships.

When Ginster’s wins, people are generally outraged, because… Ginster’s? Those pasties in the plastic packets you buy at the garage, in an emergency?

But of course that’s not the pasty they actually put into the contest. No, there, it’s a handmade championship-grade pasty created by one of their chefs.

We don’t think that is what’s happening with Abbot Ale but, even if it was, it wouldn’t be that weird to submit the best specimen you have for judgement.

Like giving your dog a shampoo and haircut before it trots onto centre court at Crufts.

How CBOB is judged

In the comments on Martin’s post, he asks a (slightly snarky) follow up question: “Who judges? I thought it was legends like Mr Protz…”

As it happens, back in 2016, we were invited to take part in CBOB judging at GBBF and agreed, partly out of sheer nosiness.

We were escorted to a backroom at the festival venue along with a bunch of other CAMRA branch members and volunteers.

Here’s how we wrote it up for our newsletter back then:

Taking part in this process removed a lot of the mystery that surrounds it, and highlighted its strengths and weaknesses. For a start, the beers on the shortlist with which we were faced were chosen by CAMRA members from across the country, and it was hard to understand in the odd instance exactly why. And, despite the best efforts of the ‘pourers’, few beers really had the kind of condition you’d expect in the pub — soft, loose, bubble-bath heads were the best we could hope for, if any.

The biggest problem, without a doubt, is that the categories are few and broad, meaning that judges might find themselves comparing a dark, malty brown bitter with a super-pale very aromatic one, or an American-style IPA with an ESB. The moment amateur judges like us began to grumble about this, veterans sank in their seats: they’re sick of this debate which, we gather, goes round in circles. No-one wants 130 categories like at US festivals but there is a recognition that the current groupings might be inadequate.

On the upside there was no doubting the sincerity and earnestness of the judges. Everyone wanted to be fair and honest, and to put aside personal prejudice. There were lots of deep conversations about how to mark a beer that was obviously good but in a style the taster didn’t like, or that the taster liked despite its flaws. A balance between the hyper-technical types and the more instinctive-reactive tasters meant that the final results, from where we were sitting at least, seemed the right ones.

In other words, we don’t have a lot of patience with conspiracy theories or whinging about CBOB.

Do you know how hard it is to manage a conspiracy? And it’s even harder when your plot relies on a bunch of slightly tipsy beer geeks working as volunteers.

Can you imagine telling these people that they had to give Greene King an award because they’re sponsoring the event? They’d string you up. Or at least blab about it on social media at the first opportunity.

No, the beers that wins CBOB awards are those that a bunch of people sincerely believe, on the day, are the best they’ve tasted.

The outright winner, by the way – the Champion Beer of Britain – was Elland 1872 Porter, which everyone likes, and whose victory, funnily enough, nobody seems to find suspicious.

beer festivals Beer history

CAMRA Beer Festival, 1979: The Great Debauch?

Part of the reason for keeping up a blog and presence on social media is that the ongoing conversation draws new information out of the woodwork, such as the late Nigel Graves’ note on the 1979 Great British Beer Festival.

Nigel Graves was born in 1955 and died in 2004, at the age of 49. In 2014, his friend, Tim Sedgwick-Jell, edited an anthology of his writing as something by which friends and family might remember him.

As it happens, Tim reads our blog (or, at least, subscribes to the newsletter) and recently got in touch to ask if we’d like a copy of Far Be It From Me to be Hyperbolic because pubs, beer and beer festivals were frequent topics for Nigel’s writing. (If he’d lived a little longer, might he have started a beer blog?)

The bulk of his notes on beer and pubs are in one chapter – snippets, diary entries, letters and so on.

There’s a fiery letter to Wetherspoon corporate HQ, for example, sent in July 2000 after he was told he couldn’t bring his children into the Temeraire in Saffron Walden:

I believe your company was originally established to provide a type of pub modelled on that in George Orwell’s essay ‘The Moon Under Water’ and I know that several of your early pubs were given this name… Perhaps you would like to consider the following passage from this essay:

“The great surprise of the Moon Under Water is its garden… Up at one end of the garden there are swings a chute for the children…”

For balance, in another piece he acknowledges that the general relaxation of the rules on kids in pubs then underway was great when you were with the kids, but less so when you wanted a session with “the lads”.

The extract that really grabbed our attention, though, was a diary entry written when Nigel was around 24 years old, giving an account of the 1979 CAMRA Great British Festival:

I actually went to the CAMRA organised Great London Beer Festival a few weeks ago. The usual unfriendly interior of the Alexandra Palace was as unalluring as ever, but had the added drawback of being cram-packed full of drunken wallies behaving as if they’d never tasted beer before in their lives, and demonstrating just about every [unattractive] male characteristic imaginable. Because of the tube-train conditions, it was impossible to sample any interesting new brews, or real cider, so I spent the evening drinking Ansells (wow, thrill!), avoiding steaming pools of puke an dodging spotty adolescents reeling around in search of the Gents. Great – I might as well have spent an evening in The Carpenters, or almost any other pub for that matter.

We like this because, as with the original CAMRA national festival in 1975, the official PR (necessary to gain a licence, of course) had it that the festival would consist of well-behaved connoisseurs gathering to sample beers in moderation. Pools of puke was not part of the image.

How many more valuable first-hand, contemporary accounts of key moments in British beer history are locked away in diaries, letters and company newsletters?

Or, worse, how many such accounts were taken to the tip or burned a week after the funeral?

Main image derived from a photo by Nicolas Lysandrou via Unsplash.

beer festivals News

News, Nuggets & Longreads 16 September 2017: Beavertown, Burials, Biggsy

Here’s everything beer- and pub-related that caught our eye in the last week, from viking funerals to mysterious pressure groups.

beer festivals News

News, Nuggets & Longreads 19 August 2017: Breakfast, Blackness, Beer Festivals

Here’s everything in beer and pubs that grabbed our attention in the past week, from breakfast boozing to totalitarianism.

For Vice Angus Harrison asked a very good question that yields interesting answers: who exactly are the people you see drinking in Wetherspoon between breakfast time and lunch? Knee-jerk assumption has it that they are tragic alcoholics living chaotic lives outside the rules of society but, of course…

You perhaps wouldn’t notice the pub was full of finished night-workers if you’d just walked in, but as soon as you know what to look for, it becomes obvious. The barman gestures to a table in the corner where six blokes in battered denim and dusty T-shirts sit hunched over pints. Upstairs, three journalists who have just left the news desk drink lagers before heading home for a sleep. In the smoking area out front, a member of Stansted’s lost luggage team tells me he often pops in around this time, on his way home from the airport.

Illustration: a pint of beer with Van Gogh textures.

For Eater Lauren Michele Jackson writes on a subject that feels especially topical, this week of all weeks — the thoughtless, politically charged, overwhelming whiteness of ‘craft culture’ in food and drink:

Craft culture looks like white people. The founders, so many former lawyers or bankers or advertising execs, tend to be white, the front-facing staff in their custom denim aprons tend to be white, the clientele sipping $10 beers tends to be white… The character of craft culture, a special blend of bohemianism and capitalism, is not merely overwhelmingly white — a function of who generally has the wealth to start those microbreweries and old-school butcher shops, and to patronize them — it consistently engages in the erasure or exploitation of people of color whose intellectual and manual labor are often the foundation of the practices that transform so many of these small pleasures into something artful. A lie by omission may be a small one, but for a movement so vocally concerned with where things come from, the proprietors of craft culture often seem strangely uninterested in learning or conveying the stories of the people who first mastered those crafts.

(Via @robsterowski.)

Beer hall: German student society c.1897.

On a related note, Alan McLeod at A Better Beer Blog AKA A Good Beer Blog has been too preoccupied with the anxiety-inducing global political situation to write much about beer, until the two subjects came together in these notes on moments when fascism, communism and racism collide with our favourite drink:

Earlier this year, Hungary witnessed a bit of a political controversy over the appearance of Heineken’s red star – which Hungarian law considers a totalitarian symbol… In 2016, a brewery in Bavaria was accused of offering a Nazi friendly lager named Grenzzaun Halbe, or Border Fence Half… Then there are the old boys who, you know, just say those sorts of things…

Closed sign on shop.

For the US magazine Draft Zach Fowle gives a substantial treatment to a subject we’ve previously prodded at here on the blog: why exactly do breweries fold when they fold? It’s hard to get people to talk about this because it’s so raw, even humiliating, but Fowle elicited some great frank responses:

For us, it was really a production restraint. It’s simple math. Overhead was too high for the amount of beer we could produce in the space we had. There were all kinds of things that were always limiting: pump space, floor space, combined with the big cost of the space, the people we work with, and we were also a shared facility hosting several other breweries. That was something we were really passionate about, but these breweries are taking 20 percent of the space but not paying 20 percent of the overhead. We were basically landlocked in a very expensive building… I learned in this process that whatever money you’re raising, double it. Maybe triple it.

GBBF handpumps in action.

In the week following the Campaign for Real Ale’s (CAMRA) Great British Beer Festival there has been, as ever, much debate about whether it works in its current form. Tandleman, who works there as a volunteer, says, broadly, ‘Yes’:

A great atmosphere, beer quality has never been better, I met lots of people I knew on trade day and enjoyed talking to them, our bar was excellently staffed by old friends and new and I had a really good time.  It is just as important to enjoy yourself as a volunteer as it is as a customer. Us volunteers wouldn’t come back otherwise and then, simply, the show wouldn’t go on.

But in a comment on that same post retired beer blogger John West (@jwestjourno) provides a measured and typically eloquent counter-argument, suggesting that GBBF is ‘under-curated’. He reference Benjamin Nunn who on his own blog, Ben Viveur, expressed his disappointment at the event:

Normally, I’d put that down to mid-life-crisisism, post binge-drinking comedown and my generally bleak outlook on life. But a few conversations with other attendees seem to confirm a pretty widespread view that this really was the most lacklustre GBBF for some time… There are always a few folks (I hesitate to generalise but very often older people from other parts of the country) who whinge about the GBBF pricing. This year they have a point…

(Disclosure: we got free entry to this year’s GBBF because we were signing books and are frequently paid to write for CAMRA.)

ILLUSTRATION: "Kill the Bill".

We feel no shame in including our own 4,000 word post on the rise of the lager lout in Britain in the 1980s, which we stupidly posted last night when everyone was in the pub:

In 1988 the British government faced a now forgotten domestic crisis… Previously placid towns, villages and suburbs up and down the country were suddenly awash with mob violence – the kind of thing people expected in forsaken inner cities but which seemed newly terrifying as it spread to provincial market squares and high streets… In September 1988 at an informal press briefing John Patten MP, Minister for Home Affairs, pointed the finger: the chaos was a result of ‘the Saturday night lager cult’ and ‘lager louts’.

And, finally, here’s an illuminating nugget from Joe Stange:

beer festivals beer in fiction / tv

Watch the 1989 Beer Hunter TV Series at Leeds Beer Week

Michael Jackson’s influential TV series about beer isn’t available commercially in the UK but several episodes are going to be shown next week in his native Yorkshire.

It’s being shown as part of Leeds Beer Week which runs from Sunday 28 August to Tuesday 6 September. We saw a Tweet about the Beer Hunter episodes from Sam Congdon (@greenarmysam) and asked him for a bit of background. Here’s what he sent us with a couple of small edits:

Like many others, I watched the Beer Hunter series when it was freely available on YouTube or Vimeo, with Dutch subtitles, about six years ago, and I loved it. It fitted in perfectly with where I was on my ‘beer journey’, after moving to Leeds from Plymouth and finding North Bar. I think I found it online after watching all the available Zak Avery video blogs about classic beers.

It’s probably best I don’t go into where I finally sourced copies of the six Beer Hunter episodes, but since then I can’t fault Channel Four for being so open and willing to let us use these episodes for the events. I needed the expertise of the Leeds Bicycle Film Club (who put on cinema events at The Reliance) to contact the right people and ask the right questions but all Channel Four want is a credit for them and the production company (Hawkshead Ltd) to be visible at the events.