Opinion: What Pete Brown feels the GBBF can learn from the Barcelona Beer Festival

By Pete Brown

- Last updated on GMT

International flavour: Brown visited Barcelona Beer Festival and has some pointers for GBBF. Photo: James Beeson
International flavour: Brown visited Barcelona Beer Festival and has some pointers for GBBF. Photo: James Beeson
Pete Brown enjoyed a trip to Barcelona to experience a different kind of beer festival, with advice for the the Great British Beer Festival (GBBF).

Last month, I was lucky enough to be part of an international delegation of journalists visiting the seventh annual Barcelona Beer Festival. 

It was held in a giant conference space and has clearly been influenced heavily by both the GBBF and the Great American Beer Festival. Warm tributes were paid to British brewer Steve Huxley, who passed away in 2015 but loved Catalonia and was clearly a big influence not just on the festival, but on the whole of the region’s emerging beer culture. 

This strong link with Britain is further enhanced by the number of British brewers exhibiting here, and also by our bumping into a delegation from the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA). They were in Barcelona on a fact-finding mission, seeing if there’s anything they could learn and apply to this year’s GBBF. It was great to see them there, taking it in, looking for new ideas and inspiration. Here are five of my favourite aspects of a wonderful event, which I hope CAMRA noticed and will take on board. 

Encourage more brewers to create exclusive beers 

A festival of any description should, by definition, be a break from the norm. There’s an increasing trend for festivals outside CAMRA’s remit to show beers that have been brewed exclusively for the event – when they’re gone, they’re gone. This creates a sense of novelty, excitement and urgency. Some of this happens already at the GBBF, especially with the American beer bar. But more brewers should be encouraged to join in, and these exclusive beers could be highlighted more prominently.

Ring the changes

The central feature of the Barcelona festival was a big bar featuring all the rare and rotating beers. The names of the beers and the breweries, were featured on a giant chalkboard that ran the entire length of the bar and was accessed by a scaffolding gantry. 

Two smartly dressed staff members kept the board up to date. Whenever a keg ran out and a beer was changed over, they’d rub out the name of the old beer and neatly chalk in the new one. Then, one would ring a stock exchange-type bell while the other pointed at the new beer. The first keg ran dry 50 minutes after the doors opened, and the bell rang every five or 10 minutes after that, each time sending up a loud cheer as people consulted their programmes to see if a beer they were interested in trying had come online. 

Broaden the range of activities and speeches 

The GBBF always features a consistent line-up of talks and events around the main action. Barcelona had many more, covering a much broader range of topics, including beer cocktails, beer and music pairing, and lectures on the ingredients of beer. As well as the talks in the side rooms, in the middle of the main floor there was a ‘meet the brewer’ stand, with a timetable of brewers who would pour their beers for an hour or so and chat about them. There was always a large queue. 

Food 

The food stands at the GBBF are the cheerful post-pub stodge every year. In Barcelona, there was an emphasis on local produce, a diversity in the style of cuisines available, and beer matching recommendations with many of the dishes. The events also included demonstrations and tastings on the subject of cooking and pairing with beer. 

Embrace beer’s internationalism

The foreign beer stands at the GBBF have always been a highlight for many, but they do sometimes seem to be offered grudgingly. Barcelona had foreign brewers peppered around the entire festival floor. But it also has stands for beer festivals from countries you might not expect: Russia’s Big Craft Day, Finland’s Artisan Brewery Weekend, the American Brewers’ Association, Bieres et Saveurs de Chambly from Quebec, and – what’s this? – CAMRA’s very own Manchester Beer and Cider Festival all had their own stands, showcasing the best of the beers they’d had at their own events. 

Catalonia has always had a very strong gastronomic culture, but its interest in beer is very new. This makes for a powerful combination that’s throwing out fresh ideas. There’s no shame in nicking some of them – beery inspiration is always at its best when it flows both ways.

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