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.

News, Nuggets and Longreads 13 August 2017: Steel, Skittles, Sexism

Here’s everything that grabbed our attention in the past week from dwile-flonking to brewery takeovers.

For the BBC David Gilyeat returns to a favourite sil­ly sea­son top­ic: tra­di­tion­al pub games. There’s noth­ing espe­cial­ly new here but it’s an enter­tain­ing round-up that draws on the exper­tise of, among oth­ers, Arthur Tay­lor, whose book on the sub­ject is defin­i­tive:

Arthur Tay­lor, author of Played at the Pub, sug­gests Aunt Sal­ly – which is played in Oxford­shire and parts of Buck­ing­hamshire – has rather gris­ly ori­gins.

It can be traced back to a bar­barous busi­ness called “throw­ing at cocks”, when you threw sticks at a cock teth­ered to a post that if you killed you took home,’ he says.

What was bar­barous turned into some­thing that was­n’t, and the cock became a coconut shy… and even­tu­al­ly it became the game we know.’

Thornbridge, 2013.

For Good Beer Hunt­ing Oliv­er Gray has inves­ti­gat­ed the man­u­fac­tur­ing and sales of stain­less steel brew­ing kit, much of which orig­i­nates in Chi­na, even if the ven­dors might like buy­ers to think oth­er­wise:

Chi­nese steel pro­duc­ers like Jin­fu have begun estab­lish­ing ‘reseller’ com­pa­nies that sell their goods under dif­fer­ent names. One such com­pa­ny, Cru­sad­er Kegs & Casks LTD, works out of Rush­den, Eng­land, and was on site at CBC 2017. At quick glance, one would have no idea they weren’t sell­ing British kegs. The cap­i­tal U in the name is a St. George’s flag kite shield, and the reverse side of their busi­ness cards have a sword-wield­ing, armor-clad Tem­plar, almost like they’re try­ing real­ly, real­ly hard to ensure they look as ‘British’ as pos­si­ble.

There are plen­ty of oth­er dis­con­cert­ing details in the sto­ry which is a great exam­ple of the kind of insight gen­er­at­ed by ask­ing awk­ward ques­tions.

(GBH has con­nec­tions with AB-InBev/ZX Ven­tures; pro­vides marketing/consultancy ser­vices to small­er brew­eries; and has also been one of our $2‑a-month Patre­on spon­sors since May.)

Macro image: 'Hops' with illustration of hop cones, 1970s.

There’s some spec­tac­u­lar hop-nerdi­ness from Stan Hierony­mus at Appel­la­tion Beer: a new study sug­gests that first-wort hop­ping makes no dif­fer­ence to the qual­i­ty of the bit­ter­ness in the final beer. But many brew­ers dis­agree:

Fritz Tausch­er at Kro­ne-Brauerei in Tet­tnang, Ger­many, uses a slight­ly dif­fer­ent process. He adds 60 to 70 per­cent of his hops as he lauters wort into the brew­ing ket­tle.… He explained that ini­tial­ly he added all his first wort hops (what he calls ‘ground hop­ping’) in one dose. ‘I thought the bit­ter­ness was not so good,’ he said. He opened his right hand, put it to his chin and slid it down his throat to his clav­i­cle, track­ing the path a beer would take. ‘It was, I’m not sure how you say it in Eng­lish, adstringierend.’ No trans­la­tion was nec­es­sary.

Beer is Best poster, 1937 (detail)

This is excit­ing news, brought to us by Mar­tyn Cor­nell: the clas­sic British ten-sided pint glass is back in pro­duc­tion, and avail­able at pub- and con­sumer-friend­ly prices. We look for­ward to drink­ing, say, Fuller’s Lon­don Porter from them in a prop­er pub at some point in the not too dis­tant future.

Takeover news: Con­stel­la­tion Brands has acquired Flori­da’s Funky Bud­dha brew­ery, adding it to a port­fo­lio which already includes Bal­last Point. (Via Brew­bound.)

GBBF con­tro­ver­sy: in an open let­ter Man­ches­ter’s Mar­ble Brew­ing has alleged that the local CAMRA branch effec­tive­ly pre­vent­ed their beers appear­ing at the Great British Beer Fes­ti­val, sug­gest­ing that a dis­pute over an inci­dent of sex­ist behav­iour might be the cause. CAMRA head office has con­firmed it is inves­ti­gat­ing the issues raised. (But don’t read too much into that state­ment.)

And final­ly @nickiquote has found the moment where Doc­tor Who and the real ale craze inter­sect­ed:

Updat­ed 14.o8.2017 15:29 – the dis­clo­sure state­ment for the GBH arti­cle has been amend­ed at GBH’s request.

In Their Own Words: The 1975 Covent Garden Beer Exhibition

This arti­cle first appeared in the Cam­paign for Real Ale’s quar­ter­ly mag­a­zine BEER in 2015 and is repro­duced here with their per­mis­sion. The orig­i­nal beer mat in the main image was giv­en to us by Trevor Unwin. We’re very grate­ful to David Davies for the use of his con­tem­po­rary pho­tographs. 

In 1975, the Campaign for Real Ale invented the modern beer festival when it staged a five-day event with more than 50 beers attended by 40,000 thirsty members. Forty years on, we asked those who were there – volunteers, Campaign leaders and drinkers – to share their memories.

Chris Bru­ton (organ­is­er): A Cam­bridge branch mem­ber sug­gest­ed a beer fes­ti­val in the Corn Exchange at an ear­ly meet­ing in 1974. The main cred­it should go to the late Alan Hill – then a Per­son­nel Man­ag­er at Pye in Cam­bridge. The fes­ti­val made a sig­nif­i­cant prof­it, and the dona­tion to cen­tral funds was essen­tial to keep the Cam­paign afloat dur­ing a dif­fi­cult peri­od.

Chris Holmes (CAMRA chair 1975–76): Because of the suc­cess of Cam­bridge, some­one had the bright idea of a big­ger fes­ti­val in Lon­don. I’d like to say that we were being very sophis­ti­cat­ed and test­ing the mar­ket for a nation­al fes­ti­val but, real­ly, we just had the oppor­tu­ni­ty and said, ‘Let’s do it!’

Chris Bru­ton: By this time CAMRA had employed a Com­mer­cial Man­ag­er, Eric Spragett, who was a Lon­don­er. The main organ­is­ing trio was Eric, John Bish­opp and me. For some time a huge ware­house at St Katharine Docks was the favoured site but the logis­tics proved insur­mount­able. Final­ly, we found the old Flower Mar­ket in Covent Gar­den.

Con­tin­ue read­ing “In Their Own Words: The 1975 Covent Gar­den Beer Exhi­bi­tion”

News, Nuggets & Longreads 23/08/2014

Pint of beer illustration.

We found time to put together a (small) Saturday round-up after all! Yer tis.

→ Saved to Pock­et: Evan Rail on how a renowned com­put­er hack­er is bring­ing Berlin­er Weisse back to the city of its birth. (From what we’ve read so far, this looks like a superb ques­tion­ing, prob­ing piece of writ­ing.)

→ Home brew­ers with a love of detail: Derek Dellinger’s home brew­ing exper­i­ments con­tin­ue with tweaks to yeast selec­tion and water treat­ment.

Stephen Beau­mont lays down the law on the use of ‘Bel­gian’ and ‘Bel­gian-style’ as descrip­tors, and Stan Hierony­mus gen­tly ques­tions his under­ly­ing assump­tion.

→ The Beer Nut’s series of posts on Bris­tol (1 | 2 | 3) have made for good read­ing in the last week. We agree with sev­er­al of the points he makes, espe­cial­ly this one:

Mov­ing from Brew­Dog to Zero Degrees was like step­ping back in time. Even though the chain only dates from 2000 and the Bris­tol branch is four years younger again, it feels like a peri­od piece from a time before bare wood and dis­tressed let­ter­ing, when icon­o­clas­tic British beer meant cav­ernous halls, bare con­crete and steel gantries.

UPDATE: we’ve removed the bit about the atmos­phere at the Great British Beer Fes­ti­val and might try to revis­it lat­er in the week.

Failure to be Outraged


Once again, we find ourselves struggling to summon what is apparently the appropriate level of outrage as the Champion Beer of Britain (CBOB) award is announced by the Campaign for Real Ale.

It’s an impor­tant com­pe­ti­tion which can tip a brew­ery over into the big time, sure, but it’s not the Word of God.

If you accept that, of the thou­sands in pro­duc­tion, it’s legit­i­mate to name a sin­gle beer The Best, then there’s no rea­son we can see to be angry that the award has gone to Tim­o­thy Tay­lor’s Bolt­mak­er, aka Best Bit­ter.

Now, we get as bored as any­one of enter­ing pubs and find­ing three ubiq­ui­tous and under­whelm­ing bit­ters on offer, and we have to admit that we did hope some­thing a bit sex­i­er might win for once – the pale’n’hop­py Oakham Cit­ra, uni­ver­sal­ly loved in the Blo­goshire, which came in sec­ond place, for exam­ple.

But, like it or not, bit­ter is part of the land­scape of British beer – should it be banned from the com­pe­ti­tion because its char­ac­ter derives from some­thing oth­er than promi­nent aro­ma hop­ping?

We’ve not had Bolt­mak­er, as far as we can recall, but we sus­pect we’d prob­a­bly enjoy it. Two of our most fond­ly-remem­bered pub ses­sions have been on Tim­o­thy Tay­lor beer – one in Haworth, and anoth­er at the Brick­lay­er’s Arms in Put­ney – and it can be tran­scen­dent­ly won­der­ful, in that sub­tle, inde­scrib­able way that region­al brew­ers some­times achieve. (See also: the Batham’s.)

Per­haps that’s how Bolt­mak­er tast­ed today? Enthu­si­asm on the part of the judges cer­tain­ly seems a more like­ly than a sin­is­ter con­spir­a­cy aimed at the sup­pres­sion of ‘craft’.

(Hav­ing said that, we’ll cer­tain­ly be fil­ing today’s result in the mem­o­ry banks for next time some­one claims tra­di­tion­al bit­ters are some kind of endan­gered species that don’t get enough atten­tion…)

The Great British Beer Fes­ti­val runs until Sat­ur­day 16 August.