Diversity at GBBF

“Diversity has defined this year’s festival”

GBBF 2019

These were the words of Catherine Tonry, organiser of the Great British Beer Festival 2019. Held at the gigantic Olympia, London, the great behemoth that is GBBF rolled to a close last night. Tens of thousands of beer and cider fans have passed through, sampling nearly a thousand different brews.


I saw a great deal of commitment to diversity on display at the festival. On the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots and the 30th anniversary of the charity, the CAMRA run festival supported Stonewall as its main charity. It was a pleasure to see Stonewall stickers adorning nearly every punter. Many people threw some money in the bucket. I considered the impact of ‘corporate Pride‘ recently. So I was pleased to see that CAMRA’s commitment to the charity appeared considered and genuine. hope to see it last well into the future.

*Shock Horror* KEG BEER

Another key change in this year’s GBBF was the diversity of serving styles. Finally a live craft keg bar has stormed the gates of the CAMRA stronghold. There was still a considerable amount of heckling when mentioned at the presentation of the Champion Beer of Britain Award. Some of it jocular, some less so. Clearly there is still a lot of work for keg beer to do to win the hearts and minds of some CAMRA faithful.

Keg bar at GBBF

KeyKeg were also representing heavily. Their main focus was in presenting the reusable and recyclable properties that their brand is developing. This has been a major criticism of these vessels for some time now. This was evident in the public displays across the festival, as well as in the press pack I was given. They need to tell their website though, as the focus is still on KeyKegs as ‘one way disposable’ containers. It takes a little digging to get to the ‘sustainability’ information. It’s certainly not put up front and centre like I saw at this year’s festival.

Diversity in CAMRA

However, there were other elements of the festival where the injection of more diversity would be a shot in the arm. I find CAMRA to be relatively inclusive as an organisation. However, its National Executive and permanent staff still seems to have a little way to go to be representative of the diversity of our population at large. The same can be said of the volunteers at the festival. CAMRA volunteers are a wonderful breed of people. Passionate, welcoming and enthusiastic, they are the true flag bearers of the organisation. At this year’s GBBF I was once again impressed by their knowledge and attitude. Truly they are the beating heart of CAMRA. But I think it’s not unfair to say that the white, middle aged stereotype prevails.

A volunteer at the Great British Beer Festival
This guy made excellent recommendations

There’s nothing wrong with this per se. And efforts in recent years to attract a younger membership are clearly having some impact. Doubtless the appearance of keg at GBBF will have done more to attract a younger demographic too. Can they then be coaxed across to cask?

As a resident of Leicester, I see firsthand that a proportion of real ale drinkers – albeit a minority – are more ethnically, socially and economically diverse than perhaps we see at the moment. Not necessarily a criticism, but food for thought nonetheless when CAMRA’s banner is raised for diversity.

Great British Beer Festival

I also found the overall festival to be remarkably similar to last year – in feel as well as content. The layout, the food vendors, the entertainment. Clearly the food traders etc. do well at this event and will jealously guard their spot. But I would have welcomed a diversity of things to try in more than just beer, as well as activities. That said the Discovery Zone was a welcome addition. I applaud the building of beer resources on the CAMRA website.

Low and No Alcohol Beer

The real criticism I have of this year’s GBBF is the conspicuous absence of low and no alcohol beer. There was the usual stall of alcohol free beers from Braxzz, who failed to impress me last year. There is also an IPA from the Wild Beer Co – PIPA labelled as 0.0% on the festival website. But this is a typo, it’s actually 6% – hope that didn’t catch anyone out!!

The Great British Beer Festival 2019

Now, I know there are many arguments for why a massive real ale festival won’t have a range of alcohol free beers. I can understand the problems of trying to sell alcohol free beer to traditional beer festival goers. I can see the issues with making non-alcoholic beer possible in cask commercially speaking. I’ll confess I don’t even know if it’s possible from a practical perspective (do tell me in the comments below). But the Morning Advertiser was writing about how alcohol free beer on draught is the next logical step a year ago.

And it is widely known that non-alcoholic beer sales are climbing dramatically in the UK and Ireland. This article reports a jump of 28% in the year to February 2019. I’ve become a bit of a evangelist for alcohol free beer in the last year, due to my pregnancy. There are a lot of good ones out there and the market continues to grow. There is a bar for international cans and bottles at GBBF. Why not one for low and no alcohol beers? Increasingly more CAMRA ‘acceptable’ breweries are bring their own versions to market.

Looking Forward

To play a part in increasing diversity at GBBF, a better commitment to low and no alcohol beers is a no brainer for me. It is an excellent way to encourage responsible enjoyment of the festival. Thinking about it, this is not something we currently see at a high profile. It could encourage attendees that would otherwise give the event a swerve. There is a clear trend towards teetotalism amongst young people. Non-drinkers are making up a higher proportion of the demographic than ever before. And those young people are only going to get older, slowly edging their way towards the traditional CAMRA demographic.

Alcohol plays an important role in the flavour and weight of beer. But producers are getting clever. I was surprised to recently discover that I actually prefer the flavour of Adnams low alcohol Ghost Ship (my current favourite in the non-alcoholic stakes) to the original. So perhaps to fulfill Catherine Tonry’s vision of a truly diverse beer festival, this is an area that warrants closer scrutiny and less tokenism in the future.


Bestselling author and freelance drinks writer. Champion of pubs and breweries. Occasional printmaker.

8 thoughts on “Diversity at GBBF

  • There is a lot of confusion being perpetuated here regarding “cask” ale – when what is actually being talked about is “Live” or “real” ale – and indeed it is very difficult to have very low or zero alcohol real ale. For clarity – “cask” is simply the container – like a bottle, a keg or a can – and does nothing to describe the contents!

    We did make efforts at GBBF this year to ensure that there were plenty of lower strength options – our lowest ABV on the cask side was 2.2% – and there were others below 3% also. On the Keykeg we went as low as 2.7% if I remember correctly. These were ALL live, real ales – as indeed all the UK beers at the festival were. (And by the way, the Keykeg stuff didn’t storm any gates – we took the gates off their hinges and positively ushered it in!)

    • Thanks Robyn. ‘Storming the gates’ was rather for dramatic effect (but not entirely misplaced judging by the heckling in the crowd at the CBoB presentation).

      I do understand what you are saying as cask being merely a container. However, when I was pregnant even a 2.2% beer is something I would only have a half of once a month or every six weeks or so, and I think on the whole a large range of people are interested in 0.5% or lower options. As you point out, not technically easy. So the point I was trying to make, I think, is should the industry be focusing on trying to make a very low alcohol real ale, or should CAMRA be considering promoting more of the wide range of quality bottled and canned low alcohol offerings that already exist? Or am I wrong to flag it at all?

  • In Eastern Europe it’s still fairly common to find traditional Kvass, which has a gentle condition very much like cask beer. In bottle it tends to be far more sparkling and is presumably force-carbonated – I’ve also had it from a keg-type dispense which was predictably more keg beer-like in nature.

    As this is naturally fermented but doesn’t get stronger than about 0.5%, it looks like it’s possible to get a cask-style conditioning without the alcohol. I wonder what hopped Kvass might be like?

    • That’s a very interesting example. Using rye bread instead of just rye I guess fewer sugars are extracted, keeping the ABV low. It reminds me of a homebrew book I have which gives a supposedly Leicester recipe for using toast to make beer 🙂

  • A major point of casking is that the beer develops a moderate level of carbonation, aka ‘condition’. Without it beers taste flat, and low-levels of carbonation seem to enhance some of the flavours in beer (the high levels found in some kegged beers can kill flavour in my view, but I’m sure you’ll find people that disagree with that). Assuming you remove the alcohol prior to casking, you’d still want fermentable sugars and yeast to be present, possibly be re-seeding with fresh yeast if the beer has been heat treated. If the yeast then acts on the fermentable sugars to produce C02, it’s also producing (a small amount of) alcohol. If you then remove that alcohol you’re going to lose the C02, hence no condition. I’m not what the way round this would be, but obviously if you’re force carbonating the beer (ie. kegging) it doesn’t matter anyway. If you’re after a ‘low’ abv cask conditioned beer you could probably get away with it but I can’t really see the point tbh.

  • No-alcohol cask is a fundamental problem. The whole point of cask is that it conditions in the vessel it’s served from. Condition through the action of yeast on fermentables = alcohol.

    Of course there’s no reason why a no-alcohol beer shouldn’t have condition, just not the real ale version.

    • This is the bit that I don’t understand. I get the processes involved – heat extraction, osmosis and direct extraction. These would all be done before the beer was casked. But is the condition only influential on the fermentables – e.g. there would be no point in casking vs kegging, bottling or canning?

      I value others’ expertise here to help me understand it better!!


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