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.