festival fatigue

There is increasing fatigue expressed towards beer festivals which coincides with a boom in their numbers – everywhere has one now. That might be a factor.

I also think that people’s perception of beer festivals can depend on how long they’ve been “into” beer. The novelty of beer festivals is still a thing of spectacle and plenty to those who have just joined us. I claim a rough decade on the junket but many, to quote Alan Sugar, have forgotten the bullshit I haven’t even learnt yet.

My personal fondness for beer festivals reached a nadir last year.

A local pub set up stillage in the rear garden for a two-day festival. The racking was right under the sun with nothing to keep the casks cool. One cask stopped pouring and it was up to a customer (heavily involved in CAMRA) to point out to the staff that it needed venting in order to open again. Most beers came out hazy but none were supposed to. We, the beery people, felt we needed to be there for emotional support but were glad to later retire to another pub so we could drink beer as it was intended to be served.

I also went to a couple of London CAMRA festivals but found myself foot-lame. Each was a basic room of overweight men where you’d stand in one place, then go and get another beer and stand in another to view the herd from a different angle.

Social media permeates everything and all-ages. Being a people-watcher, I can tell the level of people’s enjoyment based on how they use their devices: there is the passive scroll that passes the time, and active engagement – folk enthusing about the beers or festival online. The customers (like me) leaning on the NO SERVICE sections of the bar who weren’t reading the festival programme were absorbed in the passive scroll. This signals a lack of interest in the venue around them. We are equally blessed and cursed to live in an age of social media and twenty-four hour rolling news.

But I haven’t given up on festivals completely.

I attended a beer festival in a smarter pub during this year’s May bank holiday which brought in both the regulars and the event-seekers. It’d made the wise decision to not put cask ale on stillage outside to be left to the mercy of the elements – the heat or the cold. Instead, cask ale stayed in the controlled climate of the cellar whilst key keg was served in the garden from a refrigerated twirly box. This meant it was possible to try chilled Brewdog, Fierce Beer, Lines Brew and Magic Rock outside, and Ilkley, Track, Siren and Wild Beer on cask inside.

These beers were also well-sourced, matching up perfectly for the warm weather. That festival just worked. And it was on a human scale: I got to try virtually each beer.

I also went to the Epping Ongar Real Ale Festival in Essex with a bus group.

This festival had the steam trains with bars on them (and Des de Moor doing tutored tastings!). It had vintage route master buses. In other words, it had a massive distraction as a working museum. Though it didn’t occur to me at the time, steam engines and real ale (though this festival isn’t actually CAMRA-run) are kept alive as traditional British things by mostly older enthusiasts.

An engineer paused as he opened his engine door to yank a rag from his breast pocket and rub away a mote he’s spotted on the train livery; absolute unconditional pride in his vehicle and role.

At the venue, I saw visitors in their sixties act like rebellious teenagers to ushers a generation older as they were herded out of the way for incoming vehicles; it was like a window into the 1970s. I witnessed a driver in his eighties climb up the side of a bus, fold up like origami and post himself through the door to get behind the massive dinner plate steering wheel.

The London Craft Beer festival does things differently too (though I wasn’t able to go this year) by dispensing a slug a time and doing away with cash and by extension – queuing. It focusses the senses – brewing amuse-bouches – not the imperial measure, nor the session. It got me thinking further about paying for the time slot rather than the actual drinks. How might that work as a permanent business?

An so to the Great British Beer Festival (GBBF). You could argue that the GBBF is an extrapolation of the pub – albeit an extreme one: the beer engines along the bar are simply multiplied into near-infinite shards of a kaleidoscope.

My first venture to this beer exhibition was in 2009, and though familiarity erodes wonderment over the years, I still experience a moment of awe when I walk in and am rendered miniature under the vast bowing girders. The light is celestial and the acoustics an echo chamber. I feel the labours of determination over decades that made this possible in the first place. I don’t take it for granted.

The festival involves a lot of pacing. You could, if you wished, just stand in front of one specific bar and still only drink a fraction of the beers on offer. For me, it’s the acquisition of brewery branded beer mats that’s the aim.

There is truth in the fact that beer festivals of this stamp have plateaued and become dull. But there’s also truth in the fact that if you get bored, you are boring. The thing that captivates me more than the beers are the creatures that forage and perambulate in their geek colours letting it all hang out.

The thickest crowds were around the foreign bars and we can draw an ironic conclusion from this: the festival set up to showcase real ale is being helped afloat by the beers that aren’t “real”. And that’s also the case for me. This isn’t a dig at cask ale it’s just that (with genuine thanks to CAMRA) I get good cask beer in pubs most days so I actually go to the GBBF to get the beers I can’t.

From recent times when cask ale simply had to face up to industrially brewed Lager, we now have an increasingly discerning public aware of the quality beer not just from abroad but from this country too. The oases of real ale in the Olympia cannot fill this spectrum anymore.

Hundreds of cask ales are grouped by the first letter of the county they’re from: Dumfriesshire, Derbyshire, Devon. There aren’t really any regional differences anymore as ale is influenced and hopped from international ingredients so this system is arbitrary – but I don’t have a better suggestion.

I can’t organise it to make any more sense, so maybe we should follow that thought about our beer taking its cue from the world and push that to a logical conclusion.

Having had my first Kölsch on tap – by both Früh and Reissdorf – it’s also made me reflect on how thin the membrane is between foreign beers and our own cask beer. This German beer from Cologne is arguably an ale. What if instead of The British Beer Festival, it was The World Beer Festival and partition came to an end?

4 Comments

  1. I see now the origin of your later post, somehow I missed this earlier one.

    I think the festival has probably had its time, simply because it did its work. It will still be popular for social and even historical reasons. But as you said, beer is not really regional any more, so why present simply more examples of what a few pubs in any decently breweried area will offer?

    In a sense too, cask ale campaigning has probably done its work although I still feel a lot of affection for the concept. It is historical with all its faults and angels on a pin problems. It is unique to Britain or ended up that way (all beer was cask to begin with), so it’s worth preserving and is a point of distinction for CAMRA, they are not just another beer lobby or appreciation group. But beer has probably now evolved too far for CAMRA to stick to its knitting, something will change I think.

    Gary

    • Indeed. I mentioned in the first few lines that the campaign, for now, carries on as it has. And I have no problem with that as a proud member of CAMRA myself. But we have the London Beer City event and the GBBF – the biggest beer festival in Britain – somehow isn’t the focal point anymore. CAMRA needs to ask itself how that’s even possible. The resurgence of brewing good beer in Britain as well as America was in no small part down to CAMRA.I just think it got too preoccupied with equating Cask beer = good and keg beer = bad.

  2. By coincidence, I wrote a post with the same title back in June. I’d agree there is a need for organisers to take a step back and think about what beer festivals are actually *for*.

    A key point that you don’t mention is that they offer an unrivalled opportunity in the beer world for networking.

    • Sorry for nabbing the title. I genuinely didn’t see that post. There was much networking going on at the GBBF. Another modern day phenomenon is recognising people by their Twitter image. That’s how I recognised Tandleman serving at the German bar (though it was too crowded & loud for introductions).

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