ʽʽHi, I’m Benjamin Nunn – critic, gourmand and author of Ben Viveur. I like to eat and drink. And cook. And write.

You might have read me in an in-flight magazine, or a beer publication, but here on my own blog I'm liberated from the editorial shackles of others so anything goes.

I deal with real food and drink in the real world, aiming to create recipes that taste awesome, but which can be created by mere mortals without the need for tons of specialist equipment and a doctorate in food science. Likewise, I tend to review relaxed establishments that you might visit on a whim without having to sell your first-born, rather than hugely expensive restaurants and style bars in the middle of nowhere with a velvet rope barrier, a stringent dress code and a six-month waiting list!

There's plenty of robust opinion, commentary on the world of food and drink, and lots of swearing, so look away now if you're easily offended.

Otherwise, tuck your bib in, fill your glass and turbo-charge your tastebuds. We're going for a ride... Ben Appetit!
ʼʼ

Monday, August 14, 2017

Has the GBBF lost its G?

Right, that's another Great British Beer Festival over for another year.

And, to be honest, at the end of the week, I've come away feeling a tad, well, underwhelmed. Meh.

Normally, I'd put that down to mid-life-crisisism, post binge-drinking comedown and my generally bleak outlook on life. But a few conversations with other attendees seem to confirm a pretty widespread view that this really was the most lacklustre GBBF for some time.

I don't yet know how it worked out from CAMRA's perspective, but here are few collated thoughts - not just mine but those of my friends, drinking buddies, random strangers and - of course - teh interwebz: 



Pricing. There are always a few folks (I hesitate to generalise but very often older people from other parts of the country) who whinge about the GBBF pricing. This year they have a point.

The GBBF in better times
'Ordinary' strength beers (e.g. 3.8% to 4.5%) on the main bars were typically selling for £4.20-£4.60 a pint. This is noticably more expensive than in recent years and indeed more expensive than a lot of West London pubs which don't charge you £14 for the privilege of being there.

Yep, it's now £14 on the door for a non-CAMRA member, which is bordering on the ridiculous, though it makes the £24 Season Ticket for members seem like exceptional value.

What do you even get for your money? No beer is included, you have to pay the deposit for your glass, and they were even charging for the programme this time (£2 for non-CAMRA members and £1 for members) which really feels a bit grasping.

The decor and theming was 'minimalist at best'; truly a case of every expense spared, with very plain beer signage and a few 'join CAMRA here' type banners. And that was it. The only splashes of excitement and colour were those provided by the brewery bars.

Contrast this to previous years where the event has been heavily themed, oftentimes quite effectively  like the 'circus' theme of a few years ago (with spot prizes given to lucky winners who had a magic sticker on their glass). Sometimes it's been a bit naff but at least it felt like some effort has been made to make the GBBF more than just five days of sustained hard drinking!

Competition. And not taking it seriously.

As I've written previously, I don't really agree with the logic of holding London Beer City concurrently with the GBBF. But I'm baffled at CAMRA utterly failing to raise the GBBF game to try and compete effectively. They can't blithely assume that punters will come through the door and drink what they're given forever - especially now there are some very attractive alternative options on the table.

I took some time out this year to attend a Siren tap takeover at the Craft Beer Co. and don't regret doing so. Pints I drank there are pints I didn't drink at Olympia. And they were, for the most part, more interesting beers too. (If you're interested, Project Barista: Turkish and Primal Cut on cask for the first time, a stunning Gin-spiced Soundwave and an 11% Bourbon Biscuit Shake imperial stout. And about 25 more!)



The American Cask Bar running out. This situation had been improving. Over the last couple of years, they sorta rationed things a bit (while not admitting to actual rationing) and there was a reasonable selection available every day. This year saw a reversion to type, with almost everything gone by the end of the Thursday session.

It wouldn't be a problem if the USA bar was a little sideshow, but for many, many GBBF attendees, it's the main attraction. The range and quality of beers on this bar generally outshine their British counterparts, and for punters paying to get in and hoping for something a bit special, it's a slap in the face to greet them with an empty bar.

Indeed, my favourite beer of the festival this year was Aeronaut 'Passionfruit Sour Planet' a stunningly refreshing 3.2% Berlinnerweisse from Massachusetts, while the Brooklyn 'Destroy all monsters' at 9.9% was also a generously-hopped highlight.

Yes, there were good British beers, but the range is still hugely dominated by 4.2% golden ales and 3.7% milds that are all just a bit similar to one another.

Why not order more interesting UK-brewed beers for the main bars? It's really not that difficult.

The popularity of the American Cask bar tells you that there is a demand for complex, challenging, and indeed slightly insane beer - and that such beer can be real ale.

I know there are many who want CAMRA, and presumably by extension, the GBBF, to adapt and promote non-real beers, though I'm not sure how valid an argument that is in this context.

There was a very small quantity of British keg available for, presumably, the first time ever. The skies did not come crashing down upon us, and, in all honesty, you'd hardly notice its presence. (It was on the Harvey's and Tiny Rebel brewery bars, and possibly elsewhere.)

Obviously European keg has been a feature here for years though, interestingly, it never sells out as quickly as the American cask...



The venue. OK, Olympia has kinda become the default position for GBBF, and I doubt anyone has seriously put any thought into possible alternatives. It was first held there in the early-1990s, moved to Earl's Court in the mid-Naughties, having apparently 'outgrown' the venue, only to wander back almost as if admitting defeat once Earl's Court was closed.

I'm perfectly happy with Olympia because it's the venue I grew up with. I've been attending GBBF here for as long as I've been drinking beer, but, once again, has any real effort been made in this area? If they want to make GBBF bigger, I've always felt the Excel centre might be a decent fit, but perhaps something radically different is called for? Possibly even spread GBBF over multiple venues?

And how about extending the event by another day or so? Maybe start with a preview night on the Monday, and run a full Saturday session through to midnight, with the staff party an all dayer on the Sunday? They've stuck to a rigid opening pattern for years and years and years. Need it be thus?


The 'Entertainment'. Cost-cutting measures look to be very much in evidence with a bill utterly shorn of big name acts. Or indeed medium-sized name acts. The GBBF stage has played host to artists as varied as Chas'n'Dave, Steeleye Span, the Bad Shepherds, (the late) Alvin Stardust, John Otway and Kitten & The Hip. But it's as though they've given up now and settled for, basically, pub covers bands.

Almost certainly because they are a lot cheaper to book.

In the past fans of the acts would get through the doors to see, effectively, a relatively cheap gig and be given an introduction to good beer in the process. I really can't see anyone showing up mainly for the bands now. Probably not even the bandmembers own families...

Look, it's not all bad. The range of food vendors is more varied than it hass ever been. And I appreciated the quiet tranquility of the Member's Lounge - this time in a comfy, convenient location. It's not as though I had a terrible time.

But when I've given up pretty much a week of my year and a fair chunk of cash, that's not really enough to show for it, is it?

Adapt or die?

I don't have easy answers here. For all I know, the event might be considered a great success by CAMRA top brass. It might've been stupendous for their balance sheet. And maybe some liked the 'no frills' approach and didn't begrudge paying extra for it?

For me, it's one of the fixtures of the year, like those people who always go to Glastonbury, or Royal Ascot, or whatever. GBBF is my thing, even when it's a bit disappointing.

But I can easily see outsiders or first-timers coming along this year, feeling a bit ripped off and wondering what all the fuss is supposed to be about. And if that happens, the greatest event in the beer calendar will spiral inexorably into decline. 

The thing is, this was the 40th anniversary of the first GBBF. A great excuse to 'go large' and make a big splash if ever there were one, right? Instead we got what felt like an budget festival that was going the motions and trying to make as much money as possible, while simultaneously cutting as many corners as it could get away with; a super-thrifty festival of austerity - except, of course, that it wasn't actually cheap.

I say all this because I care. I want the GBBF to survive and thrive. I want it to have the 'Christmas in a Sweetshop' sense of excitement that it possessed when I was 17. But I want it to stay relevant.

I want it to be Great again.

16 comments:

  1. Possibly CAMRA's straitened financial circumstances have something to do with the steep prices and evidence of cost-cutting...

    Come to Stockport Beer Festival where beer will still start from under £3 a pint next year :-)

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    1. Hmm, factoring in travel and accommodation costs, I wonder how many sub-£3 pints I'll have to drink there in order to make a saving...

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  2. Will be interested to see the attendance figures, if they get released. Felt quieter than usual (went Thursday, which my usual day), but a CAMRA official chatted to went for the line that that was an 'optical illusion' as they'd 'made better use of the space this year'. We'll see.

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  3. Im not sure I agree, except on the point it felt a little more low key this year, but hey hands up everyone who remembers the 30th GBBF, the theme at all ? anything special about it? or the entertainment provided by the likes of the Fulham brass band, or Jean Genie (David Bowie Tribute obv), I suppose Dr Feelgood might count as a name people might recognise from the 70s, thats the thing about the past it always seems better than it actually ever was.

    for me, I thought the beer prices were atypical for London, admission, well its only £9 for CAMRA members, but I suspect the full admission price deters alot of the leave the office early worker drinkers who used to turn up. But I was quite happy with all the beer styles I tried, the vast majority Id never had before and are never likely to see in my neck of the woods and I left wanting to try more, I didnt feel like Id run out of beers Id wanted to try, which doesnt always happen at beer festivals even the very big ones IME, I had a great time.

    on the venue itself, well first off they have tried lots of venues over the years, Brighton, Birmingham had it one year, Leeds for a few, Alexandra Palace, even Docklands Arena once though everyone hated that, and Olympia thesedays is about 1/3rd bigger as an exhibition space than it was in 2005. I dont believe the National hall was ever open for use back then, and it definitely wasnt on the first year back at Olympia as the place was still going through massive restoration and redevelopment. But I do remember the one thing that was constant feedback back before the underground car park experience of Earls Court, was there wasnt enough room for the bars, seating, anything at Olympia, till they redeveloped it to how it is now. and tbf I think the organisers are still trying to work out the best way to use the available space. But it felt ok to me, as trust me a venue that size that is "too big" is much more noticeable that you are rattling around in than anything GBBF has felt like.

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  4. I’ve been to a good many beer festivals but haven’t once been inclined to visit GBBF so I admit I read this with a good deal of confirmation bias.
    Olympia just conjures up images of trudging round trade shows (been there, got the t-shirt and lots of other marketing tat) and I suspect a lot of the GBBF is for “the trade”. As a rule, if an event has to tell you how to have fun (hat day!), it’s generally not fun. Turning to the main thing, the beer, from the past programmes I have perused, there’s a lot of established folks rocking up with their most popular brews. This leads to a conservativeness that is the very opposite of the new, different and sometimes downright strange ones I seek out at a beer festival. At the Great British Beer Festival, one of the most popular outlets is the American Craft bar, need I say more.
    So to these prejudices of mine, Ben adds some more solid evidence of Camra ceasing to be a campaign for real ale. It now seems to concentrate on trying to save moribund pubs and hosting receptions at the Houses of Parliament. A great way of encouraging people to embrace real ale is to get them to try it and enjoy it – and what better way than by staging beer festivals. The GBBF entry price is hardly likely to entice anyone slightly curious. The “craft revolution” has shown us you can get away with charging much higher prices in London and the South East for some quite ordinary beer. Camra has lost no time in embracing this trend. Remember how we used to complain about the Chancellor increasing duty on a pint by a penny! I’m sure there are cost pressures but a lot of the festival is run and staffed by volunteers who do some amazing work.
    Having a big event in the capital city does generate some good PR so maybe that’s a good reason to keep it as is and I’m sure there are many people for whom it remains a must-do. But I do worry that Camra like football clubs and political parties is becoming too distant from its grassroots.

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  5. I got in at 17:30 of the first public session and found that Brasserie De La Senne's Taras Boulba on tap had already been polished off by the trade session buggers! I agree with a lot of what you wrote, though. The bars that were difficult to get to were the foreign beer bars. There are two ironies to me.
    Firstly, for someone who has good cask regularly, I actually go to this festival to seek out things like Kölsch which I can't find on tap anywhere else.
    Secondly, in showcasing real ale in the hundreds, the festival actually highlights cask ale's limitations in style.

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    1. They didn't open the USA bar until 3 in an attempt to prevent this sort of thing from happening and a lot of trade sessioners whinged about it. It is crazy that a beer can run out before the public are even allowed in...

      I think the festival probably reinforces prejudices about cask limitations, especially with the current outdated CBoB categories - though the US cask obviously goes some way to countering that. There are plenty of British brewers around now who could do the same, given the opportunity and the encouragement from CAMRA.

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  6. Load of wank if you ask me.

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  7. I enjoyed the GBBF immensely. But I go on the trade day, so don't have to pay for the ticket, travel or accommodation and I catch up with loads of people I know. Before I became a brewer I had given up going due to the cost of the ticket and travel.

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  8. In my early twenties I went on one of my first overseas trip. Twenty years plus later I returned to one of the places we visited which had then been magical in its remoteness but I suspect most all its newness to us. Revisiting was a mistake, the magic had gone. While we wanted it to have the 'Christmas in a Sweetshop' sense of excitement that it possessed when we were young, we had to accept that that experience was of a different time

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  9. Camra losing lots of money and trying to make it back?

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  10. All the negative comments for this years GBBF all fail to nail the reason. And thats quite simple. This year continued the pattern of diminishing input by regional brewers. If you recall, upon entry to Olympia you were previously struck by the plethora of regional brewers all with their colourful stands. Every year one less..until this year there were none. Well Harveys were there but only because Camra agreed to staff the stand on their behalf.
    And the reason the regional brewers have pulled the plug on providing tailor made stands for the GBBF? They are fed up with the cost of the stand and then losing the cash to Camra. Its seems unbelievable that Camra expect the regionals to pay for their pitch, staff the stand then give most of the takings back to Camra.
    In general each of the regionals feel well pissed off that their carrying of the real ale flag has been pissed upon by Camra who are now more likely to support some micro start up with bar space than they are to the regionals who kept real ale alive during the dark ages.
    So that lack lustre feeling upon entering Olympia is the loss of the vibrant regional breweries. Even the Charlie Wells Bombardier double decker bus was missing this year.
    Camra should be PAYING them to have a stand not asking 10k

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    1. The family brewers are probably distinctly unimpressed that CAMRA is happy to take their money while sneering at their beers and kicking their pubs out of the GBG in favour of micropubs and brewery taps with limited hours and limited appeal.

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    2. But does anyone go to any Beer Festival to drink Charles Wells Bombardier... seriously? Did they ever sell any beer when they were there?

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    3. I wouldn't drink Bombardier at the GBBF or indeed anywhere else, but the brewery bars have tended to offer 'interesting stuff' in addition to the ultra mainstream brands. In the past we have seen new beer launches and ultra-rarities on these bars - even this year you could get Fuller's Brewers Reserve, Titanic Plum Porter Extra (or Export or whatever they named the strong version) etc.

      I would actually like to see more brewery bars and indeed an end to disincentivisation.

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  11. I don't partake myself, but some food for though here.

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Comments are always welcomed and encouraged, especially interesting, thought-provoking contributions and outrageous suggestions.