I haven't written about the Great British Beer Festival until now and as far as I can make out not that many have either. There are one or two moaning exceptions which I'll mention in a moment or two, but my own thoughts first. I want to address the complaint of "sameiness" which is a recurring theme of the knockers. As someone who has been working at the festival for many years, you do get a feeling of familiarity and indeed cosy sameness about it when you show up and it is all there set out invitingly before you (I don't do set up - I'm far too old for that) but even so I still spend my first "let loose" half hour checking what's new and what's different. There is always enough. It may look the same, but subtle changes are always being made. But back to the cosy sameness. That is to some extent the point. You are showing up at a huge version of your local. It has a set of features you enjoy, usually the chance of bumping into people to chat to and it has a lot of good beer. And the beer is getting better. Huge efforts are made to cool the beer and present it well and I for one didn't have a pint at an unacceptable temperature, nor did I have a pint that was flat. So given that it is served Southern style, nothing to moan about there.
"Ah but the choice?" I hear you shout. The GBBF has a huge choice of beer. If you can't find enough there to keep you happy you are unlikely to be happy anywhere. It represents what British Brewers in the main are brewing and what British pub customers in the main are drinking. It does include in cask form, beers from many cutting edge brewers and some of them rather exotic. The number of great small brewers is slowly increasing as it is elsewhere at beer festivals. But it isn't a showcase for strong and obscure. If you want a pineapple sour aged in feta cheese barrels coming in at 11% and £5.50 a third, well yes, you'll be disappointed. That's not what it is what it is about. What it is about is a jolly good day or night out, in a great friendly atmosphere where beer assumes the position it was always meant to assume. It is an accompaniment to fun. It isn't the fun itself. Thankfully almost all of our customers see that and simply go to enjoy themselves. Watching and observing, I saw huge numbers of people doing just that. Back to that pub analogy. Everyone came, had a good drink and a great time and went home happy. Job done!
So who's moaning this year? Well Simon Williams is. In his blog he describes it as "lazy, out-moded and tired looking." The organisers have simply "plonked everything down in the same place" and brought in "lowest common denominator" food suppliers. How all the 50,000 plus that attended must have been disappointed. Except of course they weren't, as 99% of these people drink and enjoy themselves just like 99% of the population do and the GBBF suits them just fine. Like pubs CAMRA has to cater for the majority of drinkers. Simon's somewhat sneering tone continues throughout, though I do agree with his observation that CAMRA needs to make its hall decoration and festival theme somewhat more contemporary, so at least he made one valid observation to justify his press pass. Looking at the comments on his blog (mine didn't appear) read what Des De Moor says for a more thoughtful and considered appreciation of the the issue of beer choice and the festival itself -and Des isn't that complimentary to CAMRA. (Funnily enough Des liked the theme, which shows how difficult all this is!)
Jumping on the same CAMRA bashing bandwagon is another press pass holder, Martyn Cornell who agrees with everything Simon says. In fact, so overcome by agreement is Martyn that he says somewhat astonishingly "I don’t think I’ve ever read a blogpost I agreed with more than Simon Williams of CAMRGB’s take on the Great British Beer Festival at Olympia
last week". Perhaps Martyn doesn't agree with that much he reads then, but it's still some claim. He like Simon goes on to compare GBBF with London Beer City Beer Festival (apples and oranges if ever there was). He says "At the LCBF, in contrast, the beers are almost without exception challenging and exciting, the stalls are staffed by people from the breweries involved who are delighted to chat." This is a hugely geeky thing to say. Now here's a thing. I'd say most people don't go out drinking to be challenged by beer, or have a wish to discuss the beer's philosophy and upbringing with the brewer. They go out to enjoy beer as part of a social occasion and just want a bloody beer, maybe with a taster or two first. Comparing the two festivals in this way, as like for like, is disingenuous. I could go on but you get my drift. While I can accept Des's well thought out and constructive criticism, this sort of lazy stereoptyping, as fellow blogger, Jeff Pickthall would say,
"Boils my piss." However the most telling remark of all to my mind was buried within the comments in Martyn's blog. It was this:
Karen Eliot on said:
"But doesn’t this take it for granted
that the purpose of a beer festival is to present people with a
challenge? The GBBF is deservedly popular as a jolly day out, the beer
needs to be good but it doesn’t have to be ‘interesting’.The CAMRA /
Craft divide seems to be less about method of dispense these days as
ways of drinking, with one mode – characterised by small measures, high
ABV, high prices, an unusual attentiveness on the part of the drinker
and an emphasis of novelty over consistency and intensity over
drinkability - assumed by its proponents to be superior." Doesn't that make sense? There's the craft / cask divide summed up nicely. Jolly days out versus challenging novelty. I'll add that to my own observation that beer should be an accompaniment to fun, not the point of the day out. Let's just enjoy a beer festival for what it is, not what it isn't.
There's a certain irony too that the sneerers found the best bit of GBBF bumping into people they knew, while the best bit of LCBF was being challenged by the beer.
My comment didn't appear on Martyn's blog either. No conspiracy theory. just the dreaded Wordpress I assume.
And Simon. The two worlds aren't meant to collide. They should be taken for what they are, not forced into a daft comparison. People that think GBBF hasn't changed have obviously not been going as long as I have. As for the more comtemporary festivals, they tend to do much the same a CAMRA. They take a formula that suits them and then tweak it. Babies and bathwater!
Also many beer geeks and writers were there at GBBF. I spoke to them. Don't remember many glum faces. Nor was the food at all bad with a choice and variety outweighing anything you'll usually get at "alternative" beer festivals and eminently suitable for those drinking a fair amount of beer. I even heard tell that pulled pork was available!!
A bit of a CV. Tandleman is a veteran beer lover, local CAMRA Chairman and activist, beer writer, beer reviewer and pursuer of all things good in beer. He lives in the North West of England and London. Despite his CAMRA membership, he does not limit himself to cask conditioned beer, though he believes that cask conditioning, when done correctly and appropriately, brings a quality to beer that is hard to equal by any other kind of presentation. He is a strong supporter of Northern methods of beer dispense and avidly detests poorly presented beer and dislikes pasteurisation. He regularly visits Germany, has conducted corporate British and German beer tastings for CAMRA at the Great British Beer Festival where he has worked for years on Biere Sans Frontieres and was Deputy Organiser at CAMRA's very successful National Winter Ales Festival in 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012 and at the Manchester Beer and Cider Festival from 2013 to date. He admires good brewers wherever they are and has travelled extensively in pursuit of good beer to drink.
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