Wednesday, 16 August 2017

GBBF - in need of a little TLC?

Anyone who has been following this blog recently, will be aware that I didn’t attend CAMRA’s Great British Beer Festival (GBBF), this year. I won’t repeat my reasons for not attending the Campaign's flagship event, but without wishing to sound smug, I’m rather glad I didn’t.

Last Friday, at Fuggles Tonbridge for their official opening night, I bumped into a friend, and over a few beers, the subject of GBBF cropped up. My friend had attended the festival two days previously, and he was not exactly brimming over with praise for the event. His two main gripes were both cost-related, and were the exorbitant entrance fee and the equally high price of the beer.

GBBF 2012
Now he is not strapped for cash, by any stretch of the imagination, so I was slightly surprised when he said, “I’m a CAMRA member, yet I still had to pay £11 to get in!” With programmes a pound each (£2 for non-members) and glasses £3 each (ok we know this cost is refundable if you don’t want to keep the glass), my friend complained that he’d coughed up fifteen quid before he’d even had so much as a taste of beer!

He then moved on to the price of a pint, saying he’d been charged the equivalent of £4.40 a pint, for a very ordinary, mid-strength stout. On the plus side, the festival wasn’t too crowded, which was perhaps not surprising for mid-afternoon on Wednesday.

Now I know it’s fashionable to knock CAMRA at the moment, but with GBBF remaining one of the largest and most successful beer festivals in the world, what’s not to like?

Food offerings
I went along to last year’s festival and after my visit made the following observations here on the blog. “The organisers have got the whole event off to a tee. Years of practice, and fine tuning, means the phenomenon which is the Great British Beer Festival is a slick, highly polished and ultra-professional event, which runs like clockwork to a well tried and tested formula.”

All good, positive stuff; I even went on to say, “I couldn’t fault it at all. There was plenty of seating; something the festival lacked just a few years ago. There was a huge variety of different food stalls, selling all manner of different foodstuffs - essential at an event like this for soaking up all that beer which people imbibe. There was adequate room in which to circulate and, for those of us who remember the greenhouse effect, back in the 1990’s, from that massive glass canopy at Olympia, air-conditioning! Consequently, customers remained cool as did the beer.”

So what has changed, and as someone who didn’t bother to attend, am I the right person to be asking these questions? Well over the years I’ve been to quite a few Great British Beer Festivals, including the first one at Alexandra Palace as well as the one held under canvas following the fire which destroyed much of that particular venue.

Earls Court 2009
I’ve also attended two excellent GBBF’s in Brighton, plus a disastrous one at the Docklands London Arena. Olympia was always a good venue, and the installation of air-conditioning, which was a real godsend when it eventually happened, makes it ideal. However, I was never keen on the now demolished Earl’s Court, which was more like drinking in an underground car-park. I was also present at the Covent Garden Beer Exhibition, which took place in 1975, and was the forerunner of GBBF.

In short, I’ve been to a fair few festivals, and have seen GBBF evolve from a slightly shambolic, and at times totally chaotic happening, to today’s slick and thoroughly professional event. And therein lies the rub, as having reached this state are the organisers now just content to rest on their laurels and lie back whilst the money rolls in? Is this strategy starting to unwind, and does GBBF offer sufficient to attract an increasingly discerning audience of beer lovers?

Champion Beer of Britain finalists 2016
On the face of it, an event which showcases 900 different beers might be exactly the sort of thing to bring in the punters; but ironically, this vast selection represents far too much choice.  My own observations from previous years, that there are just too many “samey” beers, have been backed up by other observers; one even pointed out, "There were far too many insipid golden ales from too many uninspired micros."

So where were the really interesting beers  and where were the really great beers? The answer appears to be on the foreign beer bars, with the American Cask Bar not only taking the lead, but proving so popular that it ran out of beer by the end of Thursday evening. Isn’t this a rather damming indictment of a festival designed to showcase the very best of British beer? The popularity of the American Cask Bar demonstrates there is a demand for complex and challenging beer, and there is no reason why such beer cannot be British real ale.

GBBF 2013
There were complaints about the live entertainment, which now seems to be made up of cover’s bands and tribute acts. A decade or so I saw the Acoustic Strawbs play an excellent set, and there have been other well-known acts, including Chas'n'Dave, Steeleye Span, the Bad Shepherds, and the band which featured the late John Bonham's sister.

Some have argued that this is down to cost; CAMRA is rumoured to be strapped for cash, and the decision to charge for programmes – especially when they are packed full of adverts which will have more than covered the cost of printing, seems another penny-pinching way of trying to reduce the reported deficit. I also saw a comment that the decor was “minimalist at best”, with just a few banners in support of CAMRA. The same observer claimed that the only splashes of colour and excitement were those provided by the brewery bars!

American Cask Bar 2013
These may sound like pretty minor points, but small changes can often have big effects, and also unforeseen circumstances. Charging what you think the market will stand, or what CAMRA thinks it can get away with, is not going to win the organisation many friends; especially when those prices are often in excess of those charged by many London pubs.

I appreciate the necessity of the entrance fee, given the prestigious nature of the venue and the fact it is in the heart of our capital city, but with the festival relying on an army of unpaid volunteers, surely the double figure entrance fee is unjustified. CAMRA is a large, powerful and influential organisation which is more than capable of putting on a much more inspiring festival if they chose to. With so many interesting and, at times, amazing home-produced beers available, it's disappointing that instead they appear to have kept with the same tried and tested “safe” formula of previous years.  

Foreign beers again finding favour
Playing safe, whilst trying to make as much money as possible,  surely isn’t what GBBF and the Campaign for Real Ale are all about, but it's not too late to turn the festival around. The Great British Beer Festival is a long-established event which commands a large attendance, a massive profile and an enormous amount of goodwill, inspired by the 1,200 odd volunteers who every year, give up their time to ensure the festival is a success. This side doesn’t need to change, but the thinking behind the event definitely does. 

With no overall strategy, or even an attempt to see the bigger picture, the inertia of years of doing things a certain way has left the festival floundering and unsure of its real purpose in an increasingly crowded beer market. So please, let’s  have less bland Golden Ales, Ordinary Bitters and “ordinary-tasting” milds, and let us really celebrate all that is good with British beer. 

If this means less involvement in the ordering process from local branches, with their politics and individual prejudices, and more input from people who really know about beer, then so be it. It may even mean the involvement of a company which specialises in organising events. There are plenty of them about, or is this a step too far?


Anonymous said...

Well balanced piece Paul.

I've never been to GBBF, and doubt I will. Festivals can't compare with the mixed crowd you get by visiting a variety of pubs in an evening, whether in Stockport, Cambridge or Tunbridge Wells.

As you say, who needs 900 beers ? Now Fuggles is open even Tonbridge could provide a choice of more beers than you could possibly drink, with the Windmill a short bus/taxi away.

My own experience of festivals is of groups of people talking to people they already know in unpubby surroundings. On occasions I tried to strike up conversation with a few visitors, I just got blanked and they returned to their ticking. I prefer the local pub !

Matt said...

I went to the GBBF for the first time three years ago and blogged about it here (despite the final sentence, I haven't as yet been back).

On the question of cost, things seemed to have changed since then: although the ticket was £10 (iirr), programmes were free to CAMRA members and beer was surprisingly inexepensive, especially for central London.

Alexander Wright said...

Thank you for your report. I will be forwarding it to the organising committee.

Some notes:

We buy all the beer at trade prices, and charge a fixed markup that is consistent across the festival. Our aim is to be in line with London prices.

Olympia is very expensive to hire! All costs have gone up markedly in the last five years.

The popularity of the American bar is understandable, as most of the beers sold were, I believe, unavailable anywhere else in the UK.

BryanB said...

The 1000+ volunteers aren't free, either, as I was reminded the other day. Hundreds come from outside London and need accommodation, and like most local festivals, GBBF subsidises their food too.

Nor is it the only festival with perhaps too many golden ales, or brown bitters, or whatever - but its scale makes it more noticeable. However, given the whines from brewers when their beers are not represented, it's hard to see how it could be changed.

qq said...

In some ways I don't have a problem with the prevalance of brown and golden beers - if you're trying to represent the state of British cask ale, then that's kinda where it's at. There's only so many "weird" beers you can drink in a session - although I'd agree the GBBF goes a bit too far the other way, it's like the proportions were fixed in the 1990s. It feels like maybe the proportions are fixed at too low a level to allow "interesting" beers in - if you are only allowed to choose three beers you'll pick a pale, brown and dark in most cases, whereas if you're choosing 12 that gives you room for say 5 pales, 3 browns, a stout, a mild, a saison and a wheat.

I'd also disagree about the US bar - the US beers didn't disappear because (in the main) they were so much better, but just because it's about the only time people get the chance to try them in the UK, certainly in cask. I tried to go there about half an hour after it opened, and the bar was 5-deep so I went elsewhere. The next time I wanted a drink 2/3 of the casks were empty, all the ones I'd marked in advance had gone, and I have to say I was rather underwhelmed by what I drank from what was left. As I was last year, when they were far less popular. There's clearly a market for a US cask festival, it feels like that bar is outgrowing the GBBF. But don't expect beer to be automatically amazing just because it carries a Stars & Stripes.

As for "people" - I had some really nice chats with random strangers - albeit all foreigners - and bumped into a few people I knew. But I generally seem to use it as a way to go drinking with friends from further afield - I go to local festivals with local friends. And frankly it's a unique beery event, so I have no problem with it being more about the beer than the people - a festival is not the same as the pub.

Two improvements though :
The alphabetical layout is maddening, especially for something like Dunham Massey which is generally thought of as being in Cheshire but instead is just over the border in the "M's" (or was it "G" for Greater Manchester?) - at completely the other end of the site. Regional bars would make it much easier from that point of view, would help highlight regional styles - and would also benefit from volunteers with better local knowledge than a Devonian serving beer from Cumbria and Essex.

Aside from tweaking the style allocations, it needs to be more about presenting the best cask beer in Britain to a wider audience, helping local breweries get onto the lists of (inter)national distributors. As such it should be the culmination of all the other festivals and awards, as a bare minimum every county should be represented by the top 3 beers in Champion Beer of [County]. I don't care about the politics or anything like that - just give me one opportunity per year to have the best cask beer from places I'm unlikely to go. As one example - Beartown took the top two places in this year's Cheshire competition with a 5% mild and a ginger-flavoured beer, but were at GBBF with a best. Which I love, but it felt like the result of arbitrary decisions about numbers of strong beers and speciality beers rather than wanting to show off the best of what the county had to offer.

Overall I had a good time, but I did feel a wee bit bored of the selection, especially compared to what's available in many city centres these days. Maybe I'm the one that is a bit jaded.

Paul Bailey said...

Thanks for the comments so far, I will endeavour to reply to them individually, but for starters I want to emphasise I have tried not to be too negative in my observations about GBBF, as I am fully aware of the tremendous amount of work which goes into staging the event, both at the festival itself, and more importantly in the weeks and months leading up to it. This is where all the unseen effort takes place with regard to the planning and logistical side.

The fact this is all carried out by unpaid volunteers, deserves to be shouted from the rooftops, so please don’t get the impression I am just carping from the side-lines. Having said that Alexander, I am pleased my comments have been noted by CAMRA and being passed onto the organising committee. I have been a CAMRA member since the mid-1970’s, and attended a fair few festivals, including many GBBF’s, so would like to feel my views carry some weight.

My view of beer festivals (particularly the larger ones), has changed over the years, from absolutely loving them, to finding them alright in small doses. I have come round to your viewpoint Martin, that beers are better appreciated in a pub, than in a huge hall, where your own observation about groups of people talking to people they already know, in un pub-like surroundings, matches my own experience.

The make-up of festival crowds is going to be different though from what you would find in the average pub, purely because people tend to visit these events with friends, or meet up there with people they already know. People also go to a festival like GBBF, in order to sample beers they would not normally come across in their local – assuming they even have one! Some also go for the festival “experience”, which may be better or perhaps worse than their local pub, but it will obviously be different.

Sometimes though, I like these “meet-up” situations, as witnessed by the time I have spent at our local Tonbridge Festival, organised by SIBS South-East, and hosted by the town’s rugby club. For the past three years I have attended this event as part of an extended family group, and it does provide the ideal opportunity to catch up with family members, whilst enjoying a few pints out in the fresh air.

I agree with your observation Matt, that if you live in Britain and like beer, you really should go to the GBBF at least once. I am fortunate to have experienced quite a few GBBF’s, and several different venues as well, but then I live quite close to London

My main gripe, which looks to have been picked up on by CAMRA, is the high cost of admission, and Alexander’s reply has answered this concern; at least in part. I also understand what you are saying BryanB, about CAMRA covering the volunteers accommodation costs and subsidising their meals, but as they are giving their time (the most important and valuable asset any of us possesses), this surely is the least the Campaign could do. As for the whines from brewers who are not represented, with over 1,00 breweries in the country, this is always going to be an issue.

qq, I have only just seen your lengthy and carefully considered contribution, which makes some very valid points and some rather pertinent observations. I’m afraid though I will have to leave my reply until tomorrow, as I’m off out shortly– to a CAMRA social ironically enough!

Paul Bailey said...

Last line, second to last paragraph should read, "with over 1,500 breweries...."

Tandleman said...

Good piece Paul. I agree about the entrance prices. £14 walk in on Saturday afternoon for non members is counter intuitive as well as counter productive. It is just too much.

As for prices, I don't see why GBBF needs to mirror the excesses in London pricing. Rather they should be at the cheaper Euston Tap end, especially after paying a great wedge to get in. But CAMRA is skint and it did seem slightly skimpy on the appearance.

We have a new organiser next year, so who knows what she'll come up with?

See my blog for a different take.

Barm said...

CAMRA has more members than at any time in its history – why is it skint?

Paul Bailey said...

Catching up on recent comments, there is much I agree with in your lengthy piece qq, especially about your point the bars, the layout of which seems purposely designed to confuse the hell out of visitors. Last year’s bars were named after pubs, but then followed the alphabetical order you refer to. However, would you really put South Yorkshire under “S” or West Sussex under “W”?

Selecting overall winners from each county is much harder as, with a few exceptions, CAMRA operates on a regional, rather than a county basis. I do agree that the winning beers from these regions should automatically be selected; assuming they are available, of course.

There is still far too much ordinary beer, and regardless of whether or not this represents the current state of cask ale in the UK, the organisers need to use a lot more imagination.

Glad you liked the post, TM. I have just finished reading yours which, as you say, gives a different take. It’s good to read something written from the perspective of someone working at GBBF; especially someone who has worked there as long as you. I will no doubt be adding a few comments later.

Like Barm, I wonder why CAMRA is suddenly strapped for cash, particularly in view of its record membership levels. Could this be why the Campaign is hell-bent on getting readers to switch to electronic versions of “What’s Brewing” and “Beer”?

I would quite happily switch the former, as there hasn’t been much of substance in “What’s Brewing” for ages. "Beer Magazine” is a different beast altogether, as it provides a good mix of features, some excellent photography and has a nice feel to it. CAMRA could easily make the magazine available to a wider audience; but not if it’s in electronic form only.

Sorry, if I’ve strayed s bit of topic there, but CAMRA’s cash crisis, and what lies behind it, is undoubtedly the reason for what, by many accounts, was a rather lacklustre GBBF.

Jonas said...

I have visited several other CAMRA-festivals up and down Britain and always having a good time.
This year saw my first visit to GBBF, which in my point was good value for money and offering a mind-boggling selection.
I have lived my entire life in Scandinavia...

The only con of this festival we really see is that the ventilation was rather poor.
A lot of food was being fried by the food vendors and the smell from that was a bit overwhelming.

Syd Differential said...

Drinking regional beer at London prices seems to defeat the object if you ask me.
I much prefer small,local festivals where the missus will come and pick you up when you're full to the cap badge.

Paul Bailey said...

The high price of a pint does seem a recurring gripe amongst the comments here; despite the CAMRA spokesperson's claims they are reasonable and in keeping with prices elsewhere in the capital.