What makes a British Beer Festival great?
Musing on Beer Festivals
After attending the Great British Beer Festival in August, I have been mulling the experience over. It was the first time I have been to this national extravaganza. It is the jewel in CAMRAs crown – the biggest beer festival in the country with over 1000 different beers, perries and ciders on offer. But why has it been playing on my mind?
It’s quite simple – I didn’t like it. I had my pick of over 400 breweries, a huge range of food stalls, lots of fun traditional pub games to play. Yet I didn’t really enjoy myself. Truth be told, neither did The Boy. We mooched around for a couple of hours, then left to explore London and find a nice boozer with a beer garden to soak up the beautiful sunshine for the afternoon instead before heading for our train back to Leicester. Now anyone that knows us will know this is WEIRD. You usually have to prise my bloody fingers off the door frame to get me out of a beer festival.
What’s not to like?
The Great British Beer Festival courted some controversy this year, with a brewery I rather like – Tiny Rebel – pulling out just before it opened. But it was nothing to do with CAMRA policy, nor the way the beer festival was run. We agreed that the volunteers were excellent and made the event run incredibly smoothly.
I think I just found the event to be too big. There were so many breweries that I had not tried before that trying to make any kind of informed choice about what to choose seemed pointless.. And that’s even with my usual beer festival scattergun approach. It was a good 30 minutes before we even spotted a programme, but I know from bitter experience that holding one just gets in the way, and so I didn’t bother buying one. But this meant no map and no indication of how the massive festival hall was set out.
Don’t get me wrong, this is not to say that we didn’t have fun and try some excellent beers. We also didn’t wander round complaining about what an awful time we were having. I’ve seen someone doing that at a beer festival in the past and trust me it’s not pretty. If you don’t like the condition of the beer at festivals, don’t go. If you don’t like all the people at beer festivals, don’t go. It’s not rocket science, it just makes you into a terminal bore. I just realised that I had had enough and when I mentioned this to The Boy, he was relieved to have the excuse to leave.
What is a beer festival?
So I’m left wondering why I absolutely adore beer festivals, but disliked this one so much. The obvious problem is that it was in London. I’m not a big fan of our nation’s capital, but this is more about scale and sociability. When I go to a smaller beer festival in Leicester, there are people I know. I can meet up with a group of friends, and bump into endless streams of other acquaintances while I’m there. This makes it more of a social experience.
The Great British Beer Festival is so huge, and so central (at the Olympia) you kind of have to plan to get there, and the people you are with are ‘your group’ for the day. This takes out a huge element of the fun for me – chatting with randoms didn’t really happen, and so I was less likely to get surprise beer recommendations to help me find something new.
You’re not from round here…
Rather than this strictly being a parochial thing on my part (although doubtless this is partly the case) I think I making an argument that the strength of a truly great British Beer Festival is its social aspect. There is more beer there than you can try. So that’s nice. Everyone’s doing their best to deliver it to you in the best possible condition. That is lovely. But being surrounded by a smaller crowd of people inspires conversation. You get more time to chat with brewers, publicans and fellow beer enthusiasts. Many are familiar faces, some are just friends you haven’t met yet. This is what I love about beer festivals.
In London, I felt I was walking an awful long way just to pick a beer at random then sit down with The Boy and drink it. It felt like trying a few different beers was sort of mandatory and the object of the exercise, rather than it just being a nice way to spend an afternoon. On the whole the condition was fine (although we did get a couple of humdingers!) And we’re usually quite content just the two of us – as nearly 16 years of marriage hopefully demonstrates!
Save our pubs
This discussion puts me in mind of the campaigns aimed at lowering beer duty and helping to preserve the traditional British boozer. See Long Live the Local. While those on the outside might just see us as an odd blend of possibly well-meaning and almost certainly misdirected pissheads (and there is undoubtedly some truth in that), we are a little community.
I have enjoyed watching the demographics of the beer festival grow and change during my beer career so far. The explosion in micro breweries and craft ale has certainly played its part in encouraging more younger people, more women and other previously ‘niche’ groups to attend beer festivals and to frequent their local. The social element cannot be overlooked. For me it is something worth defending.
What do you reckon? Am I on to something? Is the Great British Beer Festival a lot more fun if London is your local? Or does everyone have more fun when they go to a beer festival in a community hall with 15 beers and just 99 other punters? I’m interested in your thoughts.
Laura, I attended this year for my 15th consecutive year. I meet up with former work colleagues , which I only see for 6 hours once a year.
The trick is to check the beer list before you go, note the ones you want to try ( and hope some are still on.),it saves a lot of time . Getting there at opening time helped as I grabbed a table for the 8 of us, which we used as a base for the day.
Top tips Ken!
In days gone by, as real ale was disappearing from pubs and when there was far less choice of beer styles and flavours to be found, going to a beer festival represented an opportunity to try new brews from near and far. In recent years, with increased availability of real ale in pubs, including a good variety of styles from the ever increasing number of small brewers, visiting pubs is more attractive to me than beer festivals which somehow never seem to have that pub ambiance I so enjoy.
Visits to one of the ever increasing number of micro-pubs rarely disappoints – long live tie-free hostelries – in particular the opportunity to socialise without intrusive music, sports TV, or gaming machines.
As others have suggested, perhaps the beer festivals’ raison-d’etre has been and gone..
Thanks Mike, yes this is an interesting point and ties into the debate about CAMRA’s future too…
I know many people share the view expressed, just as many do enjoy these big events, as I do.
I like talking to people there, but primarily focus on a few beer types. Not so much the breweries – I had the guide but hardly used it – but specific types I saw listed at the stands: bitter or strong ale, black or brown IPA, an American or German beer or two.
I’ve attended a few small, regional CAMRA festivals. Given my focus on the beer, I didn’t really find them all that different except I tasted a much larger proportion of beers available than at GBBF with its huge range.
We are all different and the big festival format suits some, not others. You explained well why many prefer the smaller-scale format, or pub.
Thank you for your perspective Gary. I was trying to be quite careful not to say there was anything wrong with GBBF – this is just my perspective as you say. I tend to choose according to beer type too – and either from a brewery I know or one I don’t depending on my mood!
For various reasons Ive never experienced the GBBF (but am possibly going down to volunteer next year) so I cant speak from experience of it, but you echo some of my misgivings about attending. Yet I’m buoyed up threat Ive never had that experience at the large (but admittedly smaller than GBBF) Manchester Beer and Cider Festival at Manchester Central. Yes its large but Ive never found it lacking of randoms to plonk your butt down on a bench next to and chat away about beer and generally put the world to rights. Maybe its a Northern thing!! What is worrying though is what seems to be a trend of falling attendances at Beer Festivals. Maybe there are just too many, these days the world and his wife are organising them, not just CAMRA, from the local rotary club,to charities, heritage railways and even individual pubs. Not that I’ve got anything against that, I love beer fests but maybe we are at saturation point (no pun intended) and a festival devoid of a lot of happy imbibing customers is a dull one. Which brings it full circle to the GBBF, perhaps there’s just too much space for the amount of visitors rendering it a bit soulless?
I would definitely agree with that. I was at the trade session, so I acknowledge it probably gets busier in the evenings and during the weekend, but I did just find it simply too big (physically).
I get this. Despite being actively involved in CAMRA I’ve only been to GBBF a couple of times in he last decade. Its location is a pain (now the Underground service to Olympia has all but stopped); it’s soulless, uncomfortable and dear. If you go during the week, you run a gauntlet of drunk and often unpleasant London suits.
I don’t think the Big Beer-driven Long Live The Local is the answer, though. I’d rather see a campaign that celebrated the pub, its idiosyncrasies and reach, and confronted its aggressors – yes, that same Big Beer in the form of pubcos and breweries like Heineken and Marston’s who muscle out small brewers and asset-strip pubs. That’s where CAMRA should really be at.
Interesting Elizabeth. I went on the trade session so I suspect I was treated to the most amiable and benign crowd! I do like the Long Live the Local campaign, simply because Big Beer has a big reach. I am generally uncomfortable by takeovers, but having seen what it has done for Brixton brewery (I covered it a little here) there does seem to be the potential for increasing reach while maintaining quality and identity…
I have the most fun when I go to the pub. I came to the conclusion several years ago that the reason I love going to the pub, and was increasingly finding going to beer festivals a bit of a bore, is I love pubs and pub culture much more than I love beer. As social events there are better and more interesting things to do for me than beer festivals. If you’re lucky enough to live in a reasonably sized town or city, theres enough beer choice now to make beer festivals somewhat pointless as places to explore beer. It’s interesting to know that attendance at (CAMRA) beer festivals seems to be on the slide, perhaps the concept has had its day. It’s been a few years since I went to the GBBF. I didn’t much like it, but then I fully appreciated even then that it wasn’t really ‘for’ me. Since then almost every beer festival I’ve enjoyed has dropped off my calendar. I’m down to Nottingham now, a festival that has been much more of a ‘festival’ than most for a few years now, hopefully the same at its new venue. If it isn’t, no great loss for me, Nottinghams pubs are excellent…
Thanks Mark – yes the cup runneth over in Nottingham and here in Leicester too. I suspect there is an element of horses for courses – I like going somewhere new and that our local crowd often brew festival specials which increase their reportoire and sometimes take on a new life beyond the festival.