Friday 18 August 2017

How Was GBBF for You?

The Great British Beer Festival - GBBF for short - is over and once again there is reflection on how it was and indeed how it should be.

For me, working on the German and Czech Bar, it was business as usual. The bar is always fairly quiet until around three o'clock and then business picks up. It is quiet on Tuesday and to some extent Wednesday until work finishes and rammed the rest of the time. So far, so normal.  It is my habit to skive off early doors - around 12.30 or so - and with my old mate Graham, take a wander around. Our bar is quiet then and fully staffed. The newbies can cope. Our forte is digging people out when it gets busier - or so we like to think.  Comparing GBBF year on year is difficult, as layout changes, the number of brewery bars varies, and frankly, you just can't remember how it was.

My impression this year was that it wasn't quite as busy, though that varied from day to day, but that there was a very much younger crowd, though of course, the diverse (some might say motley)  nature of the customer is very much a plus for me.  The cask beer I tried - and it was more than I usually do - was all cool, conditioned and enjoyable, the food was great, especially the addictive chicken tandoori wraps with fearsomely hot chilli sauce - and my abiding impression was the exuberance of the customers who had clearly come for a good time and were jolly well having it.  For me, as a long standing volunteer, it was one of the best. A great atmosphere, beer quality has never been better, I met lots of people I knew on trade day and enjoyed talking to them, our bar was excellently staffed by old friends and new and I had a really good time.  It is just as important to enjoy yourself as a volunteer as it is as a customer. Us volunteers wouldn't come back otherwise and then, simply, the show wouldn't go on.

Ah yes, good times?  The purpose of the Great British Beer Festival is to promote and showcase cask conditioned real ale and to encourage the drinking and understanding of it. In addition to cask beer there is the bottled beer bars flogging both brewery conditioned beers from abroad and real ale in a bottle from the UK. We also have our German and Czech, our Belgian, Italian and Dutch bars and of course traditional cider and perry. So pretty much something for everyone - unless you are a craft keg drinker - but hey, still enough to go at surely?

It is an expensive business to put on a show such as this.  I don't think it is giving away much of a secret to acknowledge that it isn't a money spinner. It's main aim is to be a showcase and in that it succeeds admirably. Around 50,000 punters had a good time and drank lots of beer and went home happy with good thoughts about beer drinking. Job done? Well it depends on your point of view. My good friend Matt Curtis, looking at it from the standpoint of a beer writer rather than a customer, made this point on Twitter:

Now is this fair?  I can see where he is coming from as far as the aforementioned keg craft is concerned and this "modern" style of beer is either a wonderful, innovative interpretation of the brewer's art - or in in the view of some - me included in the case of "London Murky" - a pretentious way of starting a new trend to mostly sell to the gullible. We at Manchester Beer and Cider Festival do sell keykeg beer, but it is conditioned in the keg and while hazy, not opaque.  Personally I can see no issue in selling keykeg that meets CAMRA's real ale definition and there are some splendid and enjoyable ones around, but would draw the line at the kind of stuff described on Stonch's Beer blog:

"I'd forgotten just how shameless London micros are in putting out murky, unfinished product. People must still be buying pint after pint of this stuff, though, or those that make it would need to brew their beer properly. As it is, they're still getting away with beery murder. When will consumers wise up?"

You can see the offending pint here and make your own mind up.

So is it the job of CAMRA and the GBBF to promote "modern" beer or should it stick to its knitting and continue to promote traditional beer and its enjoyment in convivial company, while slowly nudging forward in favour of non real ale styles?  That is what CAMRA's Revitalisation Project is really about and it won't be long until us members have to make our minds up.

Choose wisely Folks, but remember the murky.

Yes GBBF should continually modernise, but like CAMRA itself, beware of babies and bathwater. At least you don't have to put up with suicide inducing repetitive bass as is so often the case in modern bars and beery events. 

We should always rember too, that beer is an accompaniment to good times, not neccessarily the good time itself.


Curmudgeon said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Curmudgeon said...

It's not the role of GBBF to promote "modern" beer anyway. Curty seems to want it to be something other than what it actually is.

Lizard Seer said...

I'm sure those who want miniature measures at massive prices while contemplating the intrinsic qualities of beer will find plenty of alternatives to the GBBF in London.

Cooking Lager said...

I found your beer festival to be as delightful as it always is. Well done and keep at it.

As for the question you pose, as to the purpose of a CAMRA beer festival which I read as none rhetorical.

Neither of the options. The purpose is to make money to send to St Albans via the selling of beer to enthusiasts & by utilising & monitizing free & willing labour.

Anonymous said...

Complaining that a CAMRA festival doesn't sell keg beer I'd like complaining because a cricket team don't play baseball. Go to a craft keg style festival for that (& and be willing to pay for the product)

Anonymous said...

The best beers I had were from the Palmers and Harveys brewery bars and the worst from the American bar. Make of that what you will.

My GBBF problem for years has been the descriptions of the beers in the programme - far too many that are described as 'deep amber and malty' actually being identikit golden beers. My tactic for several years has been to go for porters, stouts and milds and it's generally worked.

Seating is better than it ever has been but - while acknowledging the comments I've seen elsewhere about cost of both beer and the venue (apologies, I can't remember where), it did feel very expensive this year.

Michael Henchard said...

Well I, for one, joined the Campaign for REAL ALE, not the Campaign for CRAFT KEG, and we all understand the difference between the two. If the young `uns want to promote Keg, then feel free to break away and start your own campaign; don`t enforce it upon me...

Paul Bailey said...

An excellent and well-written post TM, and you describing it as “one of the best” almost made me wish I’d come along this year. The truth is though, that for a number of reasons, not least of which is the sheer scale of the event, I haven’t really enjoyed the last couple of festivals I’ve attended (2013 & 2016).

Leaving this aside, I have been wondering for a while how does GBBF go about showcasing the very best of British beer. A decade or so ago this was quite straight forward, as there was no question that cask-conditioned “real ale” represented the peak of the brewer’s art and the very best of British brewing; but whilst this statement remains true in part today, it has been diluted (certainly at GBBF), by a preponderance of lacklustre golden ales and rather bland brown bitters.

The paradox is, that within the context of socialising with friends in a good, but perfectly ordinary local pub, like many of us I would be quite happy to be necking back a few pints of these “boring” beers, as this is putting them in context, but at a festival, which is supposed to represent the “Best of British”, then I’m afraid I want something a little more exciting.

Even before I saw Matt Curtis’s Tweet on your post, I was thinking does GBBF really go out of its way to offer tasty and exciting beers that are full of character, or is it hidebound by the constraints of what local CAMRA branches think it should stock, just to keep some of their favourite breweries happy?

The advent of so-called “craft-keg” over the last 10 years has muddied the waters; and no this isn’t an intentional reference to the infamous “London Murky”. There are some exceptionally good craft-keg beers around, which for reasons of CAMRA policy, are unacceptable; certainly at the national, flagship event which is GBBF. As you rightly point out, CAMRA’s Revitalisation Project has been considering these points for some time now (rather too much time, actually!)

On the other hand, there is that yeast-ridden abomination which Stonch drew attention to on his blog yesterday, describing it as “ A murky, unfinished product, which tasted just how it looked: yeasty and indistinct,” so CAMRA has to be careful where it draws the line.

With many new wave brewers prepared to push the envelope to that extent, and drinkers equally prepared to drink the stuff, we are in equal danger of going too far the other way. A yeast-ridden, mouth-puckering “hop-bomb” of a beer is the antithesis of a “boring brown bitter”, and both types really have no place at an event designed to demonstrate the very best of British beer.

Personally, I think your suggestion of selling key-keg that meets CAMRA's definition of real ale, alongside the very best of cask ale, is the way forward for the festival; as long as the beer is conditioned in the keg and while possibly hazy, is definitely not opaque!

Let’s see what happens when the “Revitalisation Project” finally sees the light of day.

Stono said...

as I think was mentioned several times over the course of GBBF this year local CAMRA branches do not play a part in the selection that appears, there is no "hidebound by the constraints of what local CAMRA branches think it should stock" because thats simply not how it works.

GBBF consistently puts on the widest selection of cask ales for the whole duration of the festival, I know some festivals still go for the ultimate total number of beers by selling incredibly limited one offs, but I know pretty much whichever day of the festival I visit Ill have a selection of hundreds to choose from, and I never ever get anywhere near the German/Belgian bars,that would be a days vist in itself

but Ive been going every year since 2006, and Im still hitting nearly 90% new cask ale choices every year, the other 10% are beers I cant resist drinking, because I can bank completely on GBBF for it being in top condition, or Ive just plain forgot Id already had them

and for me GBBF is very innovative, they never just put on the guaranteed best seller beers at all the bars, theres no Doom Bar or GK IPA anymore, the top selling Cask beers by volume arent automatically just on all the bars, you get new beer styles, new hops, old styles revisted, classics,new flavours, its a whole mix of beers that changes year to year.

it once used to promote itself as the worlds biggest pub, and I think if you take that approach to GBBF it makes more sense, its the place you go with friends, or to meet friends, in the worlds biggest cask ale pub, its not trying to sell you beer as a concept as such, its not a beer trade show, it recognises by being there youve already crossed that threshold of understanding

John West said...

Those arguing the likes of Matt Curtis are after some sort of craft keg bonanza are erecting a straw man. Matt never suggested that - and given CAMRA accepts real ale KeyKeg, this is a matter of debate quickly put to bed.

What Matt I think is getting at - and I agree here - is that the selection feels under-curated. This has certainly been my experience at GBBFs.

GBBF this year showcased 900 beers from the UK's 1,500 breweries. Call me a cynic, but there is scant chance these are all good. Looking at the list, many I know to be lacklustre or poor.

The absence of Marble beer has become a cause celebre, but I will admit it seems baffling to me that such highly regarded cask was absent when so many poor brewers were in attendance.

For what it's worth, I think GBBF should be a more tightly controlled event. Not smaller, but - say - Britain's Best 100 (with enough casks of each to guarantee a decent shout of getting them) would be a real treat. You could also have a new breweries bar for outfits less than 18M old to make sure newbies have their moment.

The argument is less that there should be keg Buxton or Cloudwater; rather more that we should rein in the ordering of identikit brown bitters and insipid golden ales (leaving space for genuine class such as Harvey's offering, Bathams and Timmy Taylor to shine alongside more contemporary cask styles from the likes of Burning Sky).

Like Paul Bailey, I did not attend this year. Another point made on twitter (and I believe RetiredMartin has made this case) is that in major urban centres, you can usually find more cask beer than you could comfortably drink, in decent quality, in pubs. Often with a terrific selection.

London is notoriously poorly served for cask (I have the scars on my back...) but though density is poor, I have no trouble finding a number of gaffs with decent real ale. And at prices cheaper than those on offer at GBBF, if correspondents this year are correct.

At a decent cask pub, I have a tight selection and don't have to pay £14 just to get in. Charging £1 to CAMRA members for the programme is crazy, incidentally. Just hike the ticket by a quid if you like. Jeez.

Finally, London Beer City (running alongside GBBF) was meant to accompany the buzz around CAMRA's landmark fest, but has become competition.

Many of the events (I benefited from a Marble tap takeover and meet the brewer event at Highgate's Duke's Head) looked smaller scale and more interesting than stuff on offer at GBBF.

There will always (et tant mieux) be an audience for organised fun. GBBF will never be empty.

But it should, in my view, always look to be exciting, showcase quality and attract stalwarts, nerds and the generalist fun-seeker in equal measure.

That balance looks to be off, at present.*

(*As ever, hats off to the many volunteers, for whom I have nothing but respect. I should add my local CAMRA branch fest - Pig's Ear in early December in Hackney - is always excellent. I suspect the necessarily smaller selection allows for greater choosiness.)

Cooking Lager said...

In all this mention of beer selection, no one has yet mentioned sponsorship. A brewery would not buy sponsorship at a festival that did not showcase their beers so sponsorship becomes a defacto pay for display form of appearing. Harmless and benign but offering paid for advantage.

Are those moaning they have been blacklisted aware they can buy a spot? Some some brewers simply expect to be selected whilst others accept it for what it is and sponsor something?

ABrewHaHa said...

Lord save us from 'curated'beer festivals, whatever that means. This year was my first visit to GBBF as a customer, I've been behind the bar for well over 20 years and thought it time to take a break and see if it was as enjoyable from the other side.
We all can agree that things could and should be better at the premier UK Beer Festival, the choice of beers is almost always the starting point. Much has been said about Marble not being there, and The Morning Advertiser even ran a story that said they were told their beers were not good enough. Now call me naive but I'll bet those words were never used, not even the CAMRA Dinosaurs are so stupid as to say that. But it does beg the question as to which Manchester Brewer Marble think should have relinquished their place to accommodate them?
Having to select 900 beers from over 1500 Breweries must be a nightmare, you have to show a fair regional balance and accommodate all styles. Some of that selection is already spoken for by the Brewery Bars which are essential to bring in additional sponsorship and I'm sure it's no secret that GBBF is not a cash cow for CAMRA. Then there are the beers that are going into the CBOB competition as Regional winners, that cuts down selection again. It is impossible to satisfy everyone, and we're all going to find that one, or more, of our favourite Breweries aren't there.
GBBF has much to learn from the likes of IndyMan and LIBF in the way they are attracting a different demographic. Hopefully talk of CAMRA Regional Festivals will give greater opportunity to showcase the incredible range of beers we are lucky to have here.

John West said...

ABrewHaHa: So despite "Lord save us from 'curated'beer festivals, whatever that means." add: "We all can agree that things could and should be better at the premier UK Beer Festival [...] GBBF has much to learn from the likes of IndyMan and LIBF in the way they are attracting a different demographic."

So basically we agree?

Ben Viveur said...

We all have our own ideas of what the GBBF should or shouldn't be, but surely the range of beers on offer can be broadened a little bit without alienating those who like it 'just as it is'. How many different identikit 4.2% golden ales do you want?

My starting point would be to update the nonsensical CBoB categories to reflect the greater range of beers out there these days (5% ESB-type beers and 9% DIPAs are really not the same!) and then work on a more varied beer order to reflect this.

This NEED NOT mean an invasion of keg or London Murky etc. The success of the USA cask bar proves that beers of all kinds can work on cask and will sell well.

In fact, why can't CAMRA use their flagship event to showcase cask versions of beers that aren't normally available in cask, thus promoting the merits of cask conditioning?

On the subject of volunteers, GBBF staff are of course mainly fantastic, dedicated people. BUT, I do wonder just how cost-effective the staffing arrangements are. If we have to pay for someones travel and accomodation and food and beer for several days, is there a reasonable chance that these 'expenses' might actually work out more expensive than hiring non-drinking temp staff on a commercial basis (as several non-CAMRA fests do)?

Or do we not ask questions like that because things are done the way they've always been done?

Nick said...

@Ben Viveur

"In fact, why can't CAMRA use their flagship event to showcase cask versions of beers that aren't normally available in cask, thus promoting the merits of cask conditioning?"

That sounds nice, but is it realistic? Sounds like it would require even more planning than what's currently required. A noble cause in any case.

Tandleman said...

Some great comments here. One or two thoughts: Ben - the idea of hiring staff to serve the beer is offthewall. It would be difficult to attract members just to set up and take down. Or would you farm that out too?

Upgrading the categories on the other hand is a good idea. Beers that arten't available in cask will not feature for that very reson and as Nick says, totally impractical.

Abrewhaha is right that it is regional and local festivals that tend to have the more unusual beers, but I do think we could do more in the area of choice. The thinking and logic behind why we only have rtegularly brewed beers is to encourage peole to ask for beers they might actually get, but I feel that is somewhat dated now. A rethink there too.

Finally prices. Hmm. It was pricy!

Lots of other good stuff too, but John, I refer you to what Stono says

DaveS said...

Wouldn't most of the US cask stuff fit into the category of "not usually available in cask"? How much work would it be to get a cask-special from a UK brewery, beyond sending someone a polite email? Maybe I'm being naive about this, but I have to admit it does feel like the sort of thing that Britain's biggest beer festival ought to be able to achieve!

But generally, yes, it does feel like there's space somewhere in the list of 900-odd beers to get a few dozen that would get geeks hot under the collar without having to turn the whole thing into IndyMan South. As it stands, it seems to reinforce the idea that some people in CAMRA are determined to keep at arm's length from anything that smacks of craft even when it's offering them an open goal for promoting cask.

Anonymous said...

I work at a brewery and always struggle to understand how the beers are selected. For the past few years one of the distributors who buy for the GBBF have asked us for beers that we've only brewed once or twice. Not sure why they've asked for them as in some cases there were single hop ales that we thought didn't work as a single hop. Or a beer we no longer brew. We normally no longer brew them for a reason..poor sales etc.
Just not sure of the criteria for ordering.

Stono said...

but thats the thing there were beers not normally available on cask at GBBF this year in cask for everyone to try, Green Jack Flower Power all 6% of it,which even Rate beer (the beer geeks bible surely) notes its cask status is uncertain, was there on bar B4, and very nice it was too.

Ive only had it in bottle before, infact I thought they only ever made it in bottles, its a stronger version of their 4.2% Summer Dream,which no doubt some would claim was just a boring golden beer, and though Im sure it appears on cask occasionally at the brewery tap in Lowestoft and maybe the odd one escapes elsewhere, but GBBF is the first beer festival Ive ever seen it on, and its definitely a rare beer given its entirely seasonal nature.

then across the hall at B11, Crouch Vale had Ekuanot, which is everyones new hop of the year choice for beer it seems, and must have been a festival first too in that beer was brand new, it only started to appear in pubs whilst GBBF was on, it wasnt even on in Crouch Vales brewery bar till after GBBF had started.

so I dont accept that the beer at GBBF was in anyway not offering things that beer geeks wouldnt have been getting very excited about, or that it was all samey bland stuff, that people seem to not have paid enough attention to what was actually on offer, is that GBBFs issue ? should they add another column to the beer lists that says "special for festival" "first time at festival".

I sometimes think when people talk about curation at beer festivals, they mean take the work out of choosing for themselves, the tell me its special and Ill drink it, not just let your own taste buds explore

Ben Viveur said...

@Tand, basically, yes, I mean hiring temp staff to do the set up/take down as well - I'm not necessarily advocating this, but some sort of cost/benefit analysis on the costs of hired staff vs volunteers would be interesting to see.

@DaveS Yep, I believe that's pretty much how it works on the US bar - e.g. most of those beers aren't regularly available on cask in their native land, and I suspect some are the only casks in existence. How hard can it be to do something similar with UK breweries (but commissioning more than one cask of each so they don't run into the same frustrations as the US bar).

@Anon, The only principles they seem to follow with the beer order are 'not more than one beer from any individual brewery' and 'make sure every mainland county is represented', neither of which are a guarantee of variety.

John West said...

<< great comment, DaveS

Tandleman said...

Dave S. If such a thing were to happen it wouldn't account to much, but as a novelty and as a camapigning "thing", maybe not so wrong. Logistically difficult though.

Guaranteeing quality is very difficult no matter what. Some of these Yankee beers were hard to appreciate.

Quinno said...

Two points:

1. It is an expensive business to put on a show such as this. I don't think it is giving away much of a secret to acknowledge that it isn't a money spinner. It's main aim is to be a showcase

Expensive indeed - although it enjoys financial 'flexibility' in a way that other large-scale festivals do not. Paying volunteers' accommodation expenses!? Well we'd love to be able to do that at Reading...

2. All the craft flim-flam. Either whack some CAMRA-friendly key casks on or simply change the Name to the Great British Ale Festival and be done with it.

David said...

Most people who think it neesa a bit of modernisation aren't suggesting it needs keg beer, or 30+ NE DIPAS, but browsing through the beer list, it could definitely do with freshening up.

There are a lot of breweries that produce great cask ale, but are forward thinkig whilst upholding traditions. Off the top of my head in five minutes:

Brass Castle
Brew York
Wiper & True
Brew York
Magic Rock
Northern Alchemy
Summer Wine
Tiny Rebel
Burning Sky
Five Points
Northern Monk
North Brewing
Red Willow
Lost Industry
Wylde Child
Buxton (appreciate these last two dont often put out cask anymore, but sure they could be conviced to)

Some of the breweries listed above appeared, but most didn't and for those that did it seems to have been their most bog standard stuff you can get anywhere/anytime (Moonshine, Wild Swan, Jakehead, Windemere Pale).

If the likes of the breweries above (plus the many more I've inevitably forgotten) were asked to bring 2-3 of their most exciting, seasonal beers, I cant help but think it would a much more exciting list with an absolute plethora of styles

Curmudgeon said...

@David - how many of those breweries have appeared in previous years, though? Given that the sheer number of breweries means all can't be represented, inevitably some favourites are going to be left out.

And it's a simple fact of life that, even at beer festivals, the vast majority of the beer drunk is going to be in the gold/amber/copper colour spectrum and between 3.5% and 4.5% ABV. Beer ordering has to reflect that, and that will mean in many cases what is selected is the "bog standard stuff".

John West said...

There's the rub - if it's going to be the "bog standard stuff", I'll pass. Why bother?

I agree with David - it's not about lines of keykeg and loads of murkbombs. It's about jazzing up the list a bit and maybe thinking a little more about pricing, aesthetic and entertainment (apparently lacking this year).

Mudgie also says all cannot be represented. I suppose that's right, but looking at David's list, it's tough to imagine a Great British Beer Festival that wouldn't have the majority of these.

Again, the likelihood in major urban centres capable of holding GBBF in 2017 is that more interesting beer selections will be available in a decent number of pubs.

So why go?

Curmudgeon said...

@John West - you're not a typical beer festival punter, though. And I'd stand by my assertion that the vast majority of consumption at GBBF or any other CAMRA festival falls within the category of "ordinary" beers. The fact that a handful of specials sell out quickly to geeks doesn't detract from that.

Also do we know how many of that list of breweries *were* represented at GBBF 2017?

John West said...

@Mugie - no-one's talking about alienating the "typical beer festival punter", of course. As I said, jazz up the list *a bit* and have a think about pricing, aesthetic and entertainment. I don't think that's particularly radical.

Personally, I'd prefer a really *this is the best of the best* fest. But if it's meant to be a snapshot, let's just throw a bone to effete, bed-wetting, Graun-reading, Hackney-dwelling types like us, eh?

Curmudgeon said...

I'm sure there wasn't exactly a shortage of bones for craft wankers, beer snobs and other such people - the American cask bar for starters.

Ben Viveur said...

@Mudgie, the American cask bar ran dry on the Thursday. There WAS exactly a shortage. That was the problem.

qq said...

I must admit, as a visitor I had a nice time but the British cask beer was probably the most meh part of the whole experience. That Curtis tweet definitely resonates with me, I think GBBF needs to do more to show a visiting Martian (or at least, the many international visitors) the highlights of British cask beer, rather than the average bits of it. To take one example - Beartown took the top two slots in Champion Beer of Cheshire, with a 5% mild and a ginger-flavoured beer. Were either representing the county at CAMRA's premier beer festival? Of course not, there was a different beer from Beartown there though which fitted "the gold/amber/copper colour spectrum and between 3.5% and 4.5% ABV". That's just nuts. Treat GBBF as the culmination of all the county beer festivals, and represent each county at a minimum by the Champion Beer of X top 3, then start on the style balancing.

And whilst Buggins turn helps counter local branch favouritism, it means that some really bad breweries get a slot on the bar. Seriously -there was one brewery there that I would rate in the bottom 20% of local breweries - I'm not sure how their presence at GBBF helps anyone. I don't know how you balance things, ideally GBBF should provide a platform for the breweries that are just bubbling under national awareness whilst rocking things at a local level - someone like Deva for instance, who had Champion Beer of North Wales with Pandemonium. I'm not so worried about Marble, they're now well known enough to not need GBBF, but the trade (and consumers) want to discover the Devas of this world. Pandemonium is the kind of thing that Curtis was talking about - 5% APA is a popular "modern" beer these days, but there was very little at Olympia.

Think of the logic from a trade perspective - if you're promoting the idea of LocAle, then the trade can get bog standard Goldings brown or Cascade pale from a LocAle source. If you're treating the GBBF as a trade show for cask ale buyers, then you aren't particularly interested in another bog standard pale just because it comes from Durham or Dorset - you want to find the beer that is so extraordinarily good that it's worth going beyond LocAle sources. Inevitably that will probably include some less common styles that take more skill to brew, but just give us all the champions.

Like David, I'd love to know the thought processes that end up with one of our most interesting breweries being represented by Wild Swan, perhaps Thornbridge's least interesting beer that you can get in Asda for flip's sake. You can't even blame the ABV, Thornbridge have recent <4.5% beers such as Django with Thai spices or one made with the new Godiva hop. I've made the comment elsewhere that it feels like the balance between styles is being made at too low a level - if you only have to produce four beers then you'll produce two pales, a brown and a dark, whereas if you're producing twelve beers then you can be more granular, you might have 5 pales, 2 browns, a stout, a mild, a saison, a strong and a tea beer. I completely understand the need to balance styles, but I think the current mix being targetted is rather old-fashioned and aimed at 50-somethings rather than a more representative sample of the population, certainly of London. Obviously you tailor your list to the market, but the GBBF list would be better suited to a branch festival in the provinces than the premier event in the middle of one of the most sophisticated beer cities in the world.

The argument that "people only drink <4.5% at festivals" is plainly disproved by the likes of IndyMan and the GBBF's own US bar - I think CAMRA are missing out on a generational shift where people are tending to drink less volume but a bit higher ABV and more "interesting"...

qq said...

There seems to be a knee-jerk reaction to something like the "modern beer" mentioned by Curtis as being code for #evilkeg but it's not - there's a whole range of beer styles that are very poorly represented at GBBF (outside the US bar) - wood aged ones for instance. I guess the rules against one-offs militate against those, I'd argue they need to be relaxed - the nature of the brewing industry is shifting, with a much higher % of beer produced being short-run specials qv Cloudwater and less core beer. And frankly, the way a festival justifies my entry fee is by letting me drink stuff I can't get elsewhere, whether through rarity or because it's not commercial for my local pub to carry 6% beers in cask. Given the choice now available to punters on the High St, festivals have to try that much harder to justify their entry fees - having a proportion, say 20-30% of beers that pander to the ticker market helps make the economics work. The excitement over the US bar is partly just knowing that it's the only time you'll see these beers in the UK - and that's a draw.

Note I'm not saying have no 3.8% pale ale - but I think the current mix needs revising. In particular I'd look at the definition of "Speciality". Something like Tatton Lazy Haze (tea and honey) is 3.7% and presents flavours that are well within the spectrum of "normal" beer - its strapline is "Subtletea", so would be a way to add interest to the list whilst keeping ABVs down and without turning it into a freak show. Plum Porter would be another example - there needs to be a separate category of "adjunct beers that taste like normal beer" as distinct from "weird stuff". I think that's one area where there's a lot more going on (in part due to the "craft" influence, in part by the commercial need to stand out against 1500 other breweries), and just lumping everything together in "Speciality" no longer represents where the market is at.

I mentioned new hops - the geek in me would love to see a dedicated bar devoted to showcasing new British hops, they're the future of the industry. Again it's the sort of thing that could only really work at GBBF, but is an important part of consumer education. I make a point of trying to seek out beers with new British hops but the current structure doesn't make it easy - perhaps there could be a tick box on the online list for it? More generally, I think CAMRA could do more informal education at the festival. I don't really want to be dragged away from my friends in a formal tasting session, but a bar of single-hop beers in the same grist to show punters the difference between Fuggles and Jester and EKG would work I think, it's the sort of thing that could perhaps be made by trainees on a brewery pilot plant. In a world where the Champion Beer of Britain is a Cascade/Chinook pale, CAMRA needs to do a bit more to support the British hop industry, they're a key part of maintaining a distinctively British beer culture and creating more consumer awareness of different British hops would help I think.

Then there's the layout, which remains baffling to the casual visitor. If you don't know that Dunham is a mile inside the boundary of Greater Manchester, you'll be looking for it under Cheshire, on the other end of the show. I wish the bars were regional - it would give a better sense of "place" as well as making it easier for volunteers - someone from Devon is more likely to have some awareness of Somerset beers and breweries than they do of Cumbria and Essex.

The bar numbering system is hugely inefficient, you could convey far more positional information with those three characters. Right wall of the main hall is bars 10-19, right-centre row is 20-29 and so on, if you run out of numbers then allocate the brewery bars as eg 22a if between 22 and 23 (ie roughly where Fullers were, I've not got the map to hand).

John West said...

<< very constructive comments, qq. Completely agree. We're talking tweaks that would mean a lot to a large number of potential festival goers but that would not alienate CAMRA lifers and those drinkers with a preference for classic bitters and milds (lord only knows I love these beers, too).

Curmudgeon said...

"people only drink <4.5% at festivals"

I never said that. But at festivals with a generalist appeal, they predominantly do. And I really don't think a craft wanker extravaganza such as IMBC has anything to teach CAMRA about running festivals.

qq said...

And I wasn't saying only have >4.5% stuff. But I think the _balance_ needs to change a bit, in part down to that generational thing. I'd suggest that the average 60yo might drink 90% <4.5% at a festival, but the average 20yo might drink 60% <4.5% - and a 40yo might have drunk 85% a decade ago but is now drinking 70% <4.5%. So where 90% <4.5% might have been appropriate in the 1990s, now the mix should look like 75% under 4.5% if you want to appeal to a wide range of the population.

I've made up those numbers but you get the gist of what I'm trying to say. As I mentioned, never mind IndyMan, you have the evidence of the US bar of GBBF punters being keen to try beers that are higher ABV.

And if you lack the humility to learn from others, then you are on the road to extinction.

Two other things I meant to mention. As someone who tries to make a point of having one cider at a festival, I didn't this time because the cider bar was away from the main circulation. And having it so far from the main seating areas was unfair on the groups who have 1 cider drinker. I don't have a particular thing for cider, but as the only bar of its type at the festival, it should have had a more central location - roughly where the bookshop was for instance.

And given how bottled beer has become so much easier to find in recent years, I'd make the festival draught only, but with more foreign draught.

Curmudgeon said...

"And if you lack the humility to learn from others, then you are on the road to extinction."

Oh dear, looks like we're introducing a personal note into the discussion :-( Maybe you need the humility to respect the fact that other people may have a different view from your own.

qq said...

Huh? Obviously I wasn't saying you personally are "on the road to extinction", I was talking in the general sense, perhaps I should have made it clearer by replacing "you" with "one" or "organisations".

I'd suggest that compared to many people on these blogs, I'm far more respectful of differing opinions than most - I certainly wouldn't use language like "beer snobs" before dismissing some people as "wankers" based on their beer choice.

I want cask beer to thrive - it's 90% of what I drink in pubs. In the last year I've been to maybe six cask festivals (including one on the bar, in the past I've done the beer ordering so I understand the need for balance) and one keg festival. But I also have some awareness of how the market is changing and that for cask and CAMRA to thrive, their showcase event has to evolve. If CAMRA thinks people like me are the problem, then extinction is probably closer than we realise.

John West said...

Exactly, qq - I'm a firm believer that things need always to change (often subtly) to stay the same.

DaveS said...

"I'm sure there wasn't exactly a shortage of bones for craft wankers, beer snobs and other such people - the American cask bar for starters."

Well, as Ben points out, there actually was a shortage. But generally, this is precisely the thing that drives me up the wall about all this. There are clearly plenty of people going to GBBF who want to drink this sort of beer (and there might well be more if there were more beers to tempt them), but despite the fact that plenty of British brewers are brewing cask ales in this sort of style, CAMRA seem determined to send the message that if that's what you like then you should stay away from British cask and stick to the foreign stuff.

To be honest I'm genuinely baffled that people are defending this situation. It just feels like they're objecting to any sort of change as a matter of principle, or out of resentment towards any sort of criticism.

StringersBeer said...

"craft wankers" @mudgie? Really? That's what we call people who like the beers we don't? This is the kind of shit that gives us reactionary old farts a bad name.

Curmudgeon said...

Oh, I think "craft wankers" are usually happy to describe themselves as such, ironically of course ;-)

Craft Wanker said...

That's our word, man.

qq said...

Aside from vital matters such as whether it should be spelt "craft wanka" to distinguish from "craft wankers, beer snobs and other such people", how does the GBBF respond to the changing demographics and preferences of drinkers? As one learned blogger put it last week :
"It’s also important not to forget the role of demographic churn as an agent of change. Many of the shifts in patterns of pubgoing are not due to existing customers changing their behaviour, but to new entrants to the population of potential pubgoers having very different habits from those whose custom has been lose due to age or infirmity. "

If pubs have to evolve to reflect the requirements of those new entrants, is the same not true of the GBBF?

Curmudgeon said...

@qq - that, of course, is an explanation of pub decline. And, of course, they have evolved in response to it by turning themselves into things more appealing to a different demographic such as convenience stores, Indian restaurants and blocks of flats.

qq said...

So you think GBBF should stay unchanged until it gets closed down and is replaced by the Great British Curry Festival?

On the assumption that none of us actually want that, it's a question of how to respond to those very real pressures from changing tastes. All I'm suggesting are tweaks rather than revolution - like having more cask beer in the styles that the new entrants like to drink. From what you're writing it comes across as though you want GBBF to stay exactly as it is with no care to its long-term sustainability because it won't be your problem by the time it's not sustainable. I'm sure that's not what you really think, but it's what you seem to be saying here.

Ben Viveur said...

CAMRA Dinosaurs consider me a 'Craft Wanker'.

Craft Wankers consider me a 'CAMRA Dinosaur'.

I think that probably means I get the balance just about right...

David said...

I lol'd

Those were the toughest names we had!

David said...

qq makes some excellent, well articulated points.

I should add, my initial comment wasnt intended to shit on the GBBF or CAMRA, but just my two penneth in the context of some wider criticisms and wider issues surrounding the organisation (revitalisation project etc)

CAMRA may be perfectly happy with the fest and its wider membership numbers. However, without this wanting to come across as a big ego massage, ultimately I'm a 30 year old with a decent disposable income, I drink a lot of beer (in pubs and at home) and enjoy cask ale (drinking a pint of Vocation Chop & Change as I type), as well as keg. Moreover I'm interested in beer beyond just the odd pint (hence why I'm commenting here) and go to several festivals a year (Peakender, IMBC, CBC, Sunfest in Sheffield etc). I based a 70 mile bike ride around the Stalybridge Buffet Bar yeaterday juat so I could have a few pints of Sonoma. Yet despite all of this I have no interest in joining CAMRA or going to the GBBF as it stands. Maybe everything is rosy in the garden as things stand, but if I was CAMRA I'd at least be considering why that was

Unknown said...

I've not been to GBBF but year on year it seems the winners can be the same old faces, and 90% of the winners are taking prizes for very traditional beers with very little of the more forward thinking beers in the list. And some beers win the same categories year on year, this is rather dull.
I'd like to see more interesting beers in the winners list, maybe a new bunch of people need to do the judging altogether?? or limits on Brewers entering the same beers year on year??

Just ideas.

qq said...

@Wishbone Brewery - I'm not sure you can say that the winners are "the same old faces" - noone had heard of Tiny Rebel, Binghams or Church End outside their immediate area before they won CBOB. And the reason why the likes of Salopian often appear on the podium in the individual categories is that they make great beer and do so consistently. Other breweries usually manage only one of those. I don't think that's "dull" - it's a criticism of the other breweries.

However as well as tweaking some of the categories, I think that there's probably scope to have more awards given the size of the industry and the commercial benefits of CAMRA endorsement. In particular I think there should be an Ernest Salmon award for the best beer using British hops and some kind of award for best young brewer, or best brewery under 2 years old or something.