Great British Beer Festival 2015. Some thoughts – a lot of them critical

Great British Beer Festival glass

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.

CAMRA meets US "craft" in casks

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.

The Harveys bar under Olympia's fine vaulted roof

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.

National pride
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.

The splendid new-old Harveys van

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.

Triple FFF Brewery's Pressed Rat and Warthog

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.

A bit dusty, not as aromatic as hoped from the Elder Ale, by Flowerpots, from near my home town of Winchester

Sorry but…
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.


Filed under Ale, beer, Discussion, Events

11 responses to “Great British Beer Festival 2015. Some thoughts – a lot of them critical

  1. think it’s very good. like it when you get opinionated. you might want to make mention of the fact that the dumpster had nothing to do with Harvey’s.

  2. Agree with a lot of what you say in this refreshingly no-punches-pulled article! There is one cross-over beer I’ve come across called DNA, which claims to be hopped with both British and American varieties. Problem is, it doesn’t have the rich maltiness you’re also after, and is a bit of a bland brew. And with so many start-up craft breweries seem to be churning out generic, hoppy IPAs & pale ales, I think there’s quite a gap in the market for the elusive hybrid you’re after. Hmmmm, perhaps I should dig out my brewing kit….

    • I don’t think I’ve had DNA. And you’re welcome to any hop cones I grow – next year. Probably would need combining with some high alpha imports. We should grow some barley on your allotment

      • Oh, and talking of beers that span the divide, Alex, do you know 360 Brewing Company? Another local one in Sussex, near Sheffield Park. Had their #39 Pale the other day – night mix of UK and US hops, bit of body, but light enough for a refreshing summer drink.

  3. Ben pf

    Interesting points but I’m not sure you can blame Camra. The bins are in proportion to the amount of rubbish – if they are not there, where will the rubbish go? There is enough scattered around the floor even when the bins are there, but without them you’ll be wading ankle deep through it.

    I can understand your point on measure, although it’s not something I would want (you can’t really taste a beer with a single mouthful). The problem is that the law says that beer can only be dispensed for sale in third of a pint, half pint or multiples of half a pint.

    On the distinction between craft and real, you first need to work out what “craft” means. It is used by a lot of brewers without any definition – some craft is real and some not (i,e, pasteurised and filtered) and even some of the big brewers like Greene King use the term for bland uninteresting beers. Camra promotes its definition of real ale – live top fermented beer that has undergone secondary fermentation. Some of the “craft” brews fit into that, and were at the GBBF. If they don’t fit it, they aren’t there, but that’s because Camra believes in live ale, which is only still with us because of Camra’s campaigning in the 70s and 80s. You can’t expect Camra to “move on” by promoting something it doesn’t believe in, even if you do.

    I will declare an interest – I am one of the staff at GBBF and I will mention your comments on the bins.


    • Hi Ben, thanks for your comments. I’m not saying “no bins” – I’m saying “better bins”, with lids, and some recyling options. And perhaps not right in the heart of the event. I reckon there would be space around the edges, for example.

      As for measure – you reckon a quarter of a pint is a mouthful? That’s a helluva gulp, or perhaps two or three good mouthfuls, so that’d be good for me. 100ml worked well, IMHO< when we did it at the Fermentazioni.

      Not sure I'm ready to try and solve the problem of how one defines "craft" but for me, I favour beer that's not made on a huge, automated industrial scale – and involves brewers working hands0-on, involves them using their skills, their craft. Perhaps that's semantics, but the point is that traditional brewers *are* craft brewers.

      Yes, I know about CAMRA's defininitions. I was trying not to get hung up on definitions. No one really knows how to define "craft beer"; the US definition, for example, seems far to large-scale toe me. So instead with this post I was lamenting how we seem to have these parallel cultures in Britain currently, which is a shame for people like me who are receptive to all decent, real beer. Even keg! (Though I favour live stuff myself, as I said.)

  4. Hi Dan – came across this blog today (researching beer at lunchtime – again) then realised it was you ( I occasionally bump into around Lewes with the kids)

    Terrific read and agree with most points here and it reminded me of my recentish conversion. For a longtime I was that industrial beer drinker, despite much encouragement and teasing from friends – but it was the move to Lewes in 2013 which saw me convert to a much more diverse range of beers. And like all converts I became devout

    Those hoppy and American ales are a gateway for many – without them I doubt I would be looking forward to the Dark Ale festival at the Gardners Arms just a few years later.

    But that period was also confusing for the reasons you mention – the whole real ale/craft divisions (real and perceived) were at their peak just as I got interested. Then again, maybe that noise was a factor in my being drawn to more interesting beers in first place

    Anyway thanks for the read

    • Thanks Sean.

      Was just talking today with another beer-enthusiast friend about the real ale/craft beer division. We agreed it’s, broadly, nonsense, and we just like good, real beer, whatever its provenance or branding.

      My gateway beers were Black Mac in NZ in the mid-1990s (it’s a light porter, charcoaly and sweet), then Fuller’s Honey Dew, an organic, light, somewhat lager-ish summer ale in London in the mid-late 1990s.

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