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Great British Beer Festival – is it getting actually quite good at last?

This week saw the first GBBF at Earl’s Court, rather than Olympia. It was an opportunity to change some aspects of the festival that have been attracting mounting crticism… from, er, me, as well as a growing number of other people.

The thing about CAMRA is they are very touchy about criticism. In Man Walks into a Pub I praised them for their undeniable achievements, then said what many feel about them today: that they are luddite, out-of-touch, reactionary, and are therefore acting as a force against the spread of decent beer rather than for it. People in CAMRA only noticed the last bit, and the reaction was a George Bush-like “You’re either 100% unquestioningly for us, or you must be completely against us.”

Over the last few years I’ve repeated my criticism of the GBBF as a closed shop, elitist event, but always with some positve suggestions for what they could do. CAMRA, usually in the shape of self-aponted attack dog Roger Protz, have again and again responded that there was no validity in any points raised.

But at the same time, I got to know a few of the full-time officers within CAMRA, and of course they turned out to be decent, friendly, articulate, intelligent people who didn’t agree with everything I said, but could see the validity in some of my comments. (I’m not 100% right. No-one ever is.) I’ve not met Mike Benner, the newish CEO, but from conversations I’ve had with people who know him I’m pretty sure he’s an intelligent pragmatist. Under his leadership, CAMRA are showing unmistakable signs that they have discovered not just the twentieth century, but nmaybe even the twenty-first.

The trouble seems to be that these people are at odds, not necessarily with the bulk of CAMRA’s membership, but with the hardcore of activists who seem to wish it was still 1950. CAMRA is an organisation that depends on volunteers, and it seems that many of the people who are the most enthusiastic about volunteering also hold the most extreme views (and the most eccentric dress sense). These are the people who follow the classic English hobbyist stereotype. Beer is not just a drink for them, it is a Hobby. Campaigning is what they do. But in my opinion, at the same time as shouting about what beer should be like, they don’t seem to want masses of people to agree with them. Rather than make real ale a welcoming environment for the novice, they enjoy the cliquey aspect and delight in knowing more than anyone else. If you aren’t as knowledgeable as them, there’s no point talking to you.

Sadly, at GBBF this sect have tended to be the dominant force. It’s their day in the sun, the highlight of their year. They volunteer to man the stalls and do the doors and for five days they have a bit of power. Apart form being frankly freakish to look at in many cases, they are rude, unfriendly, and make absolutely no effort to help you make an interesting beer choice.

So was this year any different?

Well, it’s important to give credit where it’s due, and a sizeable amount is due here. We had third of a pint tasting glasses to try to help move the focus from downing pints to sampling the vast range on offer. We had the introduction of a new visually-based tasting system, similar to what you see on wine bottles, so that people can evaluate different beers and learn what styles they prefer. This system was all around the building and was used liberally throughout the programme by the brewers who have signed up for it. Even where it wasn’t used, the programme tasting notes continue to become clearer, so you can get a sense of the beer even if you have no idea what a fuggle or maris otter is.

And someone seems to have had a word with the volunteers as well. The Warsaw Pact-style officiousness was gone from the main door and the baggage search desk, replaced by a courteousness that actually made you feel special. All these are huge – and important – improvements.

But… (you knew there was going to be a but, didn’t you?)

A few years ago the Whychwood brewery introduced a new ad campaign for Hobgoblin lager which showed a 1970s prog rock album cover-style goblin holding up his pint and saying, “What’s the matter, lagerboy? Afraid you might taste something?” It’s a good ad if it’s aimed at people who already drink real ale because it reinforces the sense that they have made the right choice, that they know something, that they are better than the people who perhaps look down their noses at them when they order something other than a pint of Fosters in the pub. But if you want to recruit new drinkers to the category… oh dear.

Now. Wychwood is under absolutely no obligation to convert lager drinkers if they don’t want to. It’s up to them. But constitutionally, CAMRA does have such an oligation. It spends an awful lot of time and energy trying to recruit new members. So Christ only knows what they were thinking when they decided to allow Whychwood to sponsor the volunteer shirts with the Hobgoblin image and the slogan “Definitely not for lager boys.”

Well done lads, I’m sure there were whoops of delight among the volunteers when you ripped open the boxes and started handing them out. But think about it: if you’re going to get new people interested in real ale, where are they going to come from? They’re lager drinkers who are looking for something more. So they walk in, curious as to what they might find, and the first thing they see is a T-shirt slogan that effectively says, “FUCK OFF! You and your kind are not welcome here.”

It’s the most stupid, ignorant, short-sighted thing I think CAMRA have ever done. As someone who drinks lager, I felt personally insulted. Someone may try to argue that it should be taken as a joke. All I can say is that if I’m a potential new recruit to the cause who is nervous about what to try, I may not get the humour.

To make matters worse, we then had an extraordinary performance from Paula Waters, CAMRA’s chairperson. This was on the trade day, just before the announcement of the champion beers, the point when any press attending the festival were likely to be in earshot. CAMRA should be grateful for the appalling acoustics in the venue.

Waters began, “There have been those in the press who have suggested we make this event more like the American Beer Festival, with smaller glasses for tasting, big brewers involved, and lager as well as beer available.” I nodded – I’m one of the people who suggested all these things in a piece in trade journal the Brewer’s Guardian last November. I was keen to hear what arguments, if any, she would counter these sensible suggestions with – they may not be right for this festival, but to hear why would make for a constructive debate. (And lager IS beer, but let’s not get into that). Waters then gave her response. She grabbed one of the T-shirts, opened it across her chest and yelled, “As long as this festival is run by CAMRA and staffed by volunteers, it IS DEFINITELY NOT FOR LAGERBOYS!”

So there you have it. If you drink lager, like me and ninety five per cent of Britain’s beer drinkers, you can fuck off. If you brew lager, even if it is excellent lager like Cain’s, who had paid CAMRA a big chunk of money to take a prime space at the event, or Budvar, one of the finest pislners in the world, you can fuck off. And most pertinently, if you have any constructive ideas as to how to make this festival even better and more relevant to a greater number of people, you can most assuredly fuck off.

Thanks Paula. Thanks a fucking bundle.

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Free Beer

I’m half way through a mini-tour of UK bookshops promoting my new book “Three Sheets to the Wind: One Man’s Quest for the Meaning of Beer”.

The idea is we taste a few beers, and I read passages from the book that have a tenuous link with the beer in hand. Then we talk about how great the beers are. And hopefully people buy copies of the book and I try to think of something amusing to write in the front.

Future dates are:

Thurs 6th July – Borders, Oxford Street, London, 7pm. All beers kindly supplied by the Meantime Brewery, Greenwich

Saturday 8th July – Taste of Birmingham, at the Speciality Beer Academy – 2.30pm and 8.30pm. International beers supplied by

Thursday 20th July – Borders, Bournemouth, 7pm. Beers supplied by the Badger brewery (Hall & Woodhouse)

Wednesday 26th July – Ottakars, Salisbury, 7.30pm. Beers supplied by

Thursday 27th July – Ottakars, Greenwich, 7.30pm. Beers supplied by the Meantime Brewery

Come along! Taste some amazing beer!

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Manifesto for a beery blog

Thanks for visiting my blog!

Think of this as a place a bit like a great pub. Except you can’t get any beer here, and there’s no juke box, and we probably shouldn’t extend the analogy to my qualities as landlord. But it is open 24 hours a day, and the seats are comfy. Well, mine is anyway. And we can hopefully have the same kind of chat as you do down the pub, only hopefully it won’t gte really repetitive and unfunny after about 10pm.

Beer is the most sociable drink in the world and needs to be celebrated far more than it is. Too much writing and discussion about beer is either campaigning or negative or argumentative. But beer culture is about having a laugh, about relaxing, about digressing off the subject.

Beer’s merits as a drink, it’s diversity and dazzling array of tastes, are always worth discussing so long as we don’t over-intellectualise it. I’m glad there are people out there who micro-analyse beer’s components because without them we wouldn’t know about the great beers that are there, but I’m not one of them.

Be honest: most of the time you go to the pub, the beer is very important, but it’s a stimulus to talking about sport, women, the books you’ve just read, or about how my car/shirt/house/hi-fi is better than yours, or cracking inane jokes. Now doesn’t that sound like a worthwhile use for a blog?