There’s an old Eddie Izzard routine about how, if you follow the continuum of ‘trendy’ to ‘unfashionable’ to it’s furthest extremes, the ends meet up and it becomes a circle, not a line. In the outer reaches of sartorial expression, the most daring, cutting edge fashionistas and the most terminally square start to look alike.
Izzard would have taken this year’s Great British Beer Festival (GBBF) as some kind of vindication.
Real ale has long been attacked as the drink of ‘beardie weardies’ and has recently done a great deal to shed its old-fashioned stereotypes. But last Tuesday, the beards of the coolest skinny Hoxton hipsters and the beards of old geezers with hair yellowed by nicotine and grease, eyeballs a similar rheumy hue, were pretty much identical.
Once upon a time, I hated GBBF. As an angry youngish man, I thought it summed up everything that was wrong with real ale, and encapsulated all the things that
held it back from contemporary popularity and relevance. I was partly right, and part hopelessly wrong.
In the last decade or so, both GBBF and I have changed. I’ve mellowed, and have come to understand and accept CAMRA’s stance and the broad church of opinion it represents.
And GBBF has moved with the times.
The volunteers are rarely rude or officious these days. The tasting notes in the programme are less alienating. The range of beers from around the world has been expanded and is presented less grudgingly.
There are still the stands selling grossly sexist T-shirts, and the fat men in drag trying to take beer back to the 1970s, who the national press spot and snap and offer up as a representation of what GBBF is all about. But these days I’ve got my annoyance with GBBF down to the brief half-hour each year when I wonder why I’ve never been asked to judge and why none of my books are ever sold in the bookshop. For the rest of the day, I have a wonderful time.
But maybe because of my ill-tempered past, I still attract a lot of grumbling drinking buddies. Hey, Pete, isn’t it outrageous that they won’t sell a London brewed lager here? Isn’t it sad that a traditional beer like Timothy Taylor’s Boltmaker won Champion Beer of Britain when there’s so much new stuff around? Isn’t it awful that someone chose to host a rival craft beer festival across London the same week as GBBF? Isn’t it ludicrous the way they’ve arranged the beers?
Most of the time, I have to shrug my shoulders and answer in the negative. GBBF is what it is. It’s never going to change in any way the organisers don’t want it to, and there’s a lot to it that I don’t think should change. (I’m delighted by Timothy Taylor’s victory.)
If you don’t like it, don’t go: these days, there are plenty of alternative beer festivals that are probably much more to your liking.
And I don’t have a problem with these new rivals either. I once heard the food writer Jay Rayner tell an audience of hoteliers and restaurateurs that if you have the only fine dining restaurant on a street, and then another one opens a few doors down from you, this is ultimately good, not bad, for your business, because it is turning your street into a foodie destination.
I know many people who see the new London Craft Beer Festival (LCBF), which also took place last weekend, as a two-fingered salute to GBBF. I don’t see it that way, and I doubt Jay Rayner would either. There are lots of people who go to GBBF every year who would never dream of going to LCBF, and vice versa. And everyone I know who fancies both goes to both – you don’t have to choose between them.
This week in August has become, with GBBF at its heart, a bigger celebration of beer in all its forms. This year, beer writer Will Hawkes masterminded London Beer City — a week long celebration of beer, where the capital’s brewers opened their doors and created special brews, and pubs held special beery events all across the city.
It’s been a wonderful initiative with something for every drinker, and I’m sure GBBF has benefited from it rather than been hurt by it.
Those of us who are close to the industry will always debate controversies both real and invented. Craft versus cask. Cask versus keg. CAMRA as belligerent dinosaur versus last guardian of a vital tradition. Beard versus beard.
But the research we’ve done for this year’s Cask Report — out next month — shows that the vast majority of drinkers don’t care about the definition of craft beer, the pros and cons of cask breathers or anything else some if us believe to be vitally important: in increasing numbers, they’re just getting on with enjoying the beers.
And I’ll drink to that.