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.

Session #96: Festivals — what are they for?

Our host for the 96th session is Joan Villar-i-Martí at the Catalonian beer blog Birraire who asks, quite simple, ‘Festivals: Geek Gathering or Beer Dissemination?

Beer festivals, as we know them today, were pretty much invented by the Campaign for Real Ale in the 1970s, when they were a brilliant hybrid of political protest and beer geek fan service.

When choice in pubs was even more severely limited than it is today, and beers from one region of the UK were rarely seen in the next, festivals were highly appealing, and people were willing to put up with draughty old halls and basic facilities for the chance to try something as exotic as a best bitter from two counties over, while surrounded by other members of their tribe.

So, they were about a 50/50 split, to use Sr. Villar-i-Martí’s terms, between ‘geek gathering’ and ‘beer dissemination’.

These days, however, the latter function is somewhat diminished. There is more variety on offer in pubs, bars, supermarkets and shops than even reasonably dedicated beer geeks can hope to process, so what’s on offer at festivals is generally either (a) stuff we’ve already had, probably in better condition; or (b) gimmicky one-off weirdness that we don’t have the time or energy to be bothered with.

For tickers, on their brave quest to taste every beer in existence, festivals remain obligatory — it’s the only place that five litre batch of Mango-Coconut Weizen-Stout is being served!

For others, though, their value is increasingly tipped towards the social, especially for those who belong to communities, cliques or sub-cults whose presence is otherwise entirely online.

Main image adapted from ‘Great British Beer Festival’ by Katie Hunt, from Flickr, under Creative Commons.

St Austell Celtic beer festival

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The now annual Celtic beer festival at St Austell brewery is clearly a major event in the local social calendar. Despite the pouring rain, people were waiting outside in the road river for two or more hours to get in.

Inside were labyrinthine cellars, a music stage and young folk on the pull – a party atmosphere more like a nightclub than a traditional beer festival. We know St Austell can brew, but they can also, most definitely, organise the proverbial P-up in a B.

With 35+ St Austell brews plus around a hundred from other breweries, we could only start to scratch the surface, particularly as we had to traverse the meat market to get to the more interesting ones. We started with our new favourite, 1913 stout. This has already dropped in strength from when we had it last, which is a little disappointing, but was still tasty, and if this change is a precursor to rolling it out to more local pubs as a Guinness-challenger, then we’re in favour.

At the more experimental end, Smoking Barrel was a refreshing Rauchbier; Bad Habit was a superb 8.5% triple; and Hell Up was a very convincing Alt Bier. There were also beers for the sweet-toothed West Country palate – High Maltage was a turbo-charged HSD, whereas 1851 was a sugary, honeyish pale ale.

As you might expect, everything was in perfect condition – probably the best we’ve ever encountered at a beer festival. Korev lager came across really well, even against more exotic competition, which we put down to freshness.

The only way this festival could be improved (for us) would be to have either a quiet room or even better, a quiet day beforehand for beer geeks to taste all the experimental brews. But maybe that would be contrary to the very essence of this celebratory event.

Full disclosure; we received “VIP” access (cringe) to the festival, which got us in for free, and included a few free pints and grub.