Brown's beer: The Great British Beer Festival - and the winner is...

Historian and writer Pete Brown argues the merits of this year’s winners and the festival’s evolving demographic

CAMRA Beer Festival 2012

CAMRA Beer Festival 2012

You may have missed it thanks to a certain global sporting event taking place in our city (am I allowed to to say that?), but last month London hosted the country’s biggest celebration of beer, fittingly enough, at Olympia.

The Great British Beer Festival is the busiest time in my professional drinking career, but it hasn’t always been the triumph it is today. 

When I first started writing about beer, I went every year and came away angry. Organised by the Campaign for Real Ale and staffed entirely by volunteers, this was the beer geek’s one day in the sun (perhaps literally) and some would revel in their power to search bags, let you in (or not) and tell you where to go. 

In 2006 the then chairman of CAMRA used her opening speech to tell us that lager drinkers were not welcome at the event, which must have delighted the genuine Czech lager brewers who had paid thousands of pounds to CAMRA for the privilege of having a stand. When I took less beery friends along, they would develop a look of nervous terror and decline an invitation for a repeat visit the following year.

I felt the biggest opportunity of the year to get people into interesting beer was being squandered, and had several spats with CAMRA over my criticism of the event, one of which almost led to legal action. 

Happily, things have changed. 

What began as a creeping, grudging admission that there were aspects of the event that I enjoyed, has become wholehearted endorsement. 

The staff are now unfailingly polite and helpful, there’s increasing emphasis on craft beers from around the world as well as traditional real ale, and the place now has that most essential but often overlooked aspect of a festival – a celebratory atmosphere. 

The event moved from Olympia to the soulless hangar of Earl’s Court back in 2006. Now kicked out of there by the Olympics, the festival found its old digs much improved, and the world’s biggest pub finally acquired a pleasant pub vibe. If you didn’t go this year, you really missed out.

There’s still the odd quirk, and the festival is what you make it. Every year CAMRA issue press releases claiming that real ale is now being drunk by a much broader group of people than you might think, and illustrate this with photos of happy, attractive young women with pints in hand. 

You have to be careful though – a few years ago, when these photos appeared with headlines claiming real ale was now young and trendy, a PR from the wine industry simply sent his own photographer down there and captured images of men with huge beers and bellies, strange hats, sandals and black socks, and their own leather tankards attached by lanyards to their khaki shorts. 

Both images of the festival are true.

The hoary, beardy stereotypes are still there, and there in greater numbers than you might find them elsewhere (which makes them more noticeable), but they are now a distinct minority. So are the gorgeous pint-quaffing women to be honest, but the truth is that GBBF caters to a very wide demographic. All human life is there, and anyway, Thursday is specifically designated silly hat day, and many of them don’t normally look like that.

The Festival also sees the announcement of the Champion Beer of Britain (CBOB). Beers are put forward from regional festivals around the year, and then judged to find the best example of styles ranging from golden ale to mild to strong ales, stouts and porters. From the winner of each style, an overall champion is then selected.

This final choice is often controversial, and never more so than this year.

You have to ask how you can judge a great stout against a great golden ale and decide which is better, and political considerations often seem to enter the mix. Mild, for example, is an endangered style that CAMRA is trying to preserve. Golden ale, on the other hand, is a popular style that tempts diehard lager drinkers to try real ale for the first time. 

It just so happens that a golden ale or a mild has been Champion Beer of Britain almost every year for the past decade.

Which is why everyone was astonished this year that the overall victor was Coniston No 9 Barley Wine, a Cumbrian beer weighing in at a whopping 8.5%.  

If there is a script for beer promotion, this definitely wasn’t in it.

I was speaking to a couple of the final judges afterwards and it seems there was quite a lot of argument. On the one hand, some felt that in the current climate of media-driven hysteria about Britain’s (fictitious) binge drinking epidemic, it was a dreadful idea to showcase a beer that almost everyone would regard as extremely strong.  

On the other, there were those who thought that raising awareness of beers like this served to demonstrate the diversity and variety of beer styles that are brewed in Britain.

And then there was the one judge who said he’d been under the impression that they were there to simply choose the best beer in the competition, and that was it.

Personally I’m delighted it won. I think that last judge had it right, but it’s high time we did a positive PR job for the range of British beer styles. Inevitably, when I introduce someone to a strong beer like this, they raise the cliché of how many pints you’d be able to drink before you fall over. The pint is a great British icon that should be celebrated and protected, but anyone who thinks that any beer, no matter what it is, has to be drunk by the pint is an idiot. 

Barley wine is best served in a brandy balloon in a measure no bigger than a third of a pint.  It’s perfect as a post-meal digestif, with as much character and complexity as drinks with at least twice as much alcohol. Look at it that way and it’s a responsible, moderate alternative to port or brandy.

Coniston won CBOB in 1998 with Bluebird, a 3.6% ABV pale session beer. The fact that one brewery can win this competition twice with two such wildly different drinks is a brilliant advert for British brewing in all its glory. 

And I’ll raise a pint glass (or brandy balloon) to that.     

Pete Brown is one of the UK’s leading beer writers, working across business and consumer press. He’s the author of several best-selling books and blogs at petebrown.blogspot.com. He was recently named joint-37th most influential person in the British pub industry – a claim he strenuously denies.

 

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