The festival guide cover says, “The Campaign for Real Ale proudly presents…”. But one of my strongest memories from the the Great British Beer Festival yesterday isn’t of a standout ale, but of standing near the Harveys bar and handsome delivery van, chatting with Edmund Jenner (of said brewery). Beside us stood a row of an industrial-size wheelie bins. Their contents: a suppurating mix of packaging, food and dregs. There are no specific receptacles for dregs; no water for rinsing or moderating the flow either. No lids for the bins. No recycling.
Now, I’m not relishing being critical, nay negative, here and I’m very thankful to Ed for offering me a ticket to the trade day. I do wonder, however, if CAMRA needs to raise its game a bit for this festival, held annually at the fine Olympia, Kensington, west London. Oozing dumpsters, centre stage of a drink and food event: is this really the best we can do to celebrate our national drink?
Now, some commentators are suggesting that the event, and CAMRA itself, are changing fast, but I’m not sure I got a great sense of that. Sure there were some beers showing the influence of more experimental “craft” brewing (in-your-face hops, apricot juice, US beers in casks etc) but overall the vibe was somewhat tired, staid, mired in convention. Not a showcase of the best of our brewing tradition. And it’s all still very male, very middle-aged, very white to boot.
Time to move on
This becomes a thorny issue, however, as any discussion of younger beer-drinking demographics brings us to so-called “craft beer”, which the younger, or new-to-real-beer, demographics favour. The purists will dismiss “craft beer” as the product of upstart breweries that most likely keg their beers, and may even pasteurise them. The purists themselves preferring the CAMRA-sanctified virtues of live cask beers.
This is troubling for someone like me. I do naturally tend towards cask, most frequently drink Harveys, but I’m open to any decent beer that’s made with knowledge, passion and skill – any well-crafted beer. CAMRA’s narrow focus is depressing – especially now.
British beer culture, frankly, is in a bit of a muddle. For people like me – forty-something, neither young craft beer hipster nor aging CAMRA member – the disjunction between “real ale” and “craft beer” is largely irrelevant; for others just dipping their toe into the waters of real beer, it’s probably just confusing. CAMRA saved real beer in the dark times of the 70s and 80s; but it can move on now, surely? Great British Beer Festival should be about all great British beers*. And represent a wider spread of the populace who enjoy real beer.
As Spain, France or Italy are enormously proud of their wine culture and heritage, Britain should be of its beer.
It’s our national drink, it fed and watered centuries of British artisans and farmers, workers and traders; it was one of the key fuels of Britain as it rampaged around the globe; it was something we took to colonies and conquered countries. The latter has difficult imperialist connotations, but the point is that Britons were among the key migrants to take the craft and skill of brewing overseas: notably to America. And yet many young British brewers today look to the US “craft beer” scene for inspiration over their own extraordinary British beer heritage.
While the results can be brilliant – The Kernel, Beavertown etc – they can also be crude, with brews overly laden with high alpha hops, resulting in concoctions that are reminiscent of toilet cleaning products. Compare such a thing with the subtle, nuanced blending of British hops and malts in a Harveys ale, for example, and it can be quite shocking.
Straddling the divide
I live in hope of encountering more British beer that straddles the gap, connects the disjointed cultures – a beer that truly balances and combines assertive hoppiness with full-bodied, warming maltiness. Oddly, I’d say I drank a few beers that fitted this description better while living in Italy – a country whose new generation of brewers happily take inspiration from the US and Britain, or Belgian, or Germany.
Yesterday, I sampled several beers from the hundreds on offer. None of them really straddled the great divide. I wish I could have sampled more, but it’d take days to drink through more, especially as the event also adheres to another frustrating convention. At the GBBF you can only order in pint, half or third measures – that is, 568, 284 or 189ml. Even the latter is a big measure if you’re not sure if you’ll like the beer in question or if you’re a drinker who wants to sample as much as possible but stay sensible and compos mentis.
A few days ago Fran managed to – boo-hoo – break one of our two glasses from the inaugural Fermentazioni beer festival, which we attended in Rome in 2013. The remaining glass is marked in 10, 20 and 30cl measures – 100, 200 and 300ml. Now, sure, a Brit may want a full pint if he or she has found a desirable drink, but I do appreciate the 100ml measure – enough to get a whiff and a taste when there are hundreds more beers on offer. What about introducing a quarter pint (about 140ml)? It’d be especially useful for those beers at 6% plus.
Sample sizes are just one of the ways that CAMRA could revise and, dare I say it, modernise the festival. As far as I’m concerned, the ideal route would be somehow overcoming the differences and enlarging the Great British Beer Festival to include not just cask beers that tick the CAMRA boxes but also the newer wave of “craft beer”. It just seems silly to have separate entities in the form of CAMRA’s GBBF and, a few days later, the London Craft Beer Festival. Surely, they’re all craft beers? I mean, what’s a traditional British brewer doing if not using his (or her) craft? I do not like the distinction.
I do not like the filthy bins. I do like lack of a small sample measure. I do not like the divided demographics: GBBF I would say was about 70/30 male; Fermentazioni was about 50/50. A wine festival I attended in Italy, meanwhile, was also very mixed age-wise – from youths to oldies, male and female equally. If Italians celebrate their wine that broadly, why don’t we do so with our beer?
Craft beerists – you need to look more to your own country’s heritage. CAMRA – you need to recognise all real beer. Enough of this absurd division! Put them all under one roof, and us consumers can pick and choose as we like. And many might even learn something, overcome their prejudices. And proudly celebrate all our brewing culture, traditional and modern, with more open arms. Oh, and please, sort out the bloody vile dumpsters!
* Real beers that is. Not generic industrial lager etc from semi-British owned multinationals and whatnot.