Having attended the Great British Beer Festival (GBBF), held at Olympia, for the last few years now, I feel like I’ve become a bit of a veteran! Although my years of attendance is a drop in the ocean compared to the 40 years that this huge festival has been going for.
This year’s 40th anniversary comes at a time when the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) continues to face some real challenges to its purpose. Drinkers are more aware now of the products they are drinking and cask is widely available. Other beer dispenses are also massively popular and we live in a time where choice has never been so much. In a digital era, CAMRA still primarily uses older media avenues to engage its members. More worryingly, the number of volunteers seems to be on the decline and this is the one thing that could signal the end of CAMRA as we know it today. Just a few of many things I could write about.
However, GBBF continues to be the centrepiece of CAMRA’s festival calendar and is a great way to get people interested in beer and the campaign, from veterans to people who are sampling beer for the first time.
What initially struck me about this year’s event was the different layout and how much space there seemed to be. At first, I put the additional space down to going on a Thursday rather than a Friday, but there was lots of evidence that this wasn’t case.
For those who have been before, the Olympia National hall (the hall to the left-hand side as you enter Olympia) had significantly less bars in it. Instead, much more seating and a very popular area hosted by Beerhawk, who were giving out free beer tasters.
In the Olympia Grand hall, the Wells’ Bombardier bus is no more, replaced instead by an Inveralmond Brewery bar which took up much less space than the bus! Just on this point, I was pondering why the bus wasn’t here this year, then I recalled the Marston’s brewery takeover of Well’s. It’s surprising how little we see of any Marston’s or Marston’s owned breweries at GBBF.
Digging a little deeper under the skin, I then started to observe that some bars, once laden with hand pulls and additional stillage at the back of the bar, were now just dispensing from hand pulls only and I started to think that perhaps the number of beers had been reduced on the previous year. I was told that this wasn’t the case, they’d just been clever about how they could make more space. Just so I’m clear though, I don’t think a reduction in beers available is a bad thing – CAMRA can focus on quality with less beers and it can be less overwhelming for the consumer. Let’s face it, even with a weeklong entry pass, it’s unlikely someone would even make a dent in the 900+ beers available!
The other change this year is there seemed to be more non-beer related stalls. Food, hats, Viking drinking horns amongst many others. It’s an interesting shift, especially when you see other non-cask focussed events doing the same thing.
One of the benefits (I thought) of going on the Thursday session would be to take advantage of the American Cask bar. It always saddens me on a Friday when I usually attend and the bar is sold out. It turns out that even Thursday is a stretch to get to for the beers on this bar, which I counted around just 10 remaining early in the session. All too high in ABV to start the day on, so instead I opted to drift around bars randomly sampling beers I’d not tried before.
My beer pick of the day was from the Inveralmond Brewery. Part of the Innis and Gunn family, it was the first time I’d had anything from this brewery. The beer was the appropriately named GBBF Original, a 5.2% ABV “experimental oak matured scotch ale”. It was a lovely smooth drink, with caramel and butterscotch. The alcohol was a little bit sharp but not unpleasant, aged for a bit longer and this would have been even better.
Overall, it was another cracking event and great to see so many people there to celebrate beer. I will, of course, be back again next year.
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