However, in recent years, a new challenge has emerged in the form of London Craft Beer Festival (LCBF). Organised by We Are Beer, LCBF this year featured about 100 of the finest breweries in the world. With unlimited pours included in the ticket price, and some extremely rare beers on offer, LCBF was undoubtedly gunning for GBBF’s crown.
During the past week, The Morning Advertiser headed to both festivals to answer the question: which festival is the best?
Both these festivals are, first and foremost, beer festivals, and hence it seems only right to begin by assessing the range and diversity of beer on offer at each event. Of course, we weren’t able to sample more than a small selection of the thousands of products on offer across the two festivals, but we aimed to try a selection of products across all packaging formats.
Cask is king for GBBF and, although there were a few breweries serving craft keg beers and a reasonable selection of UK and international bottles, the overwhelming majority was served in traditional cask format. As expected a huge variety of styles were available, from porters and milds, to big IPAs and barley wines, while there was also alcohol-free beer available for the first time.
London Craft Beer Festival, on the other hand, puts craft keg at the forefront, choosing to showcase the most innovative and exciting beers from modern, forward-thinking breweries. There was also the Cask Yard, where drinkers could sample the likes of Fuller’s Vintage Ale and classics like Dark Star Hophead, and a large selection of bottles and cans to takeaway from Beer Merchants.
It’s hard to call a winner here, although London Craft Beer Festival probably slightly edges it on the account of the presence of some of the UK’s most exciting breweries such as Verdant, Deya, Magic Rock and Cloudwater.
The biggest concern heading into the two festivals was how the respective dispense methods would hold up in the searing London heat. Would the boiling weather cause LCBF’s keg beer to become a fobbing, unpourable mess? Would the sun’s rays turn Olympia into a greenhouse and result in tepid, warm cask ales?
We’re pleased to report, therefore, that the quality of beer at both festivals was, on the whole, very good. The cask at GBBF was very much the right side of 14 degrees, while oversized glasses at LCBF meant that any fobbing didn’t cause serious difficulties for those manning the stands.
However, quality wise, the average beer at LCBF was streets ahead of GBBF. Fruited goses, imperial whisky stouts, ice cream IPAs and juicy table beers from some of the finest breweries in the world were proudly displayed, leaving GBBF’s offer looking a little traditional and dated.
There were some highlights from the latter event in the form of Champion Beer of Britain Siren Broken Dream, and the excellent selection on both the Thornbridge and Five Points bars, but these were the exception rather than the rule.
Value for money
Another difficult one to compare, as both festivals operate a different approach to ticketing. GBBF tickets start at around £11 (cheaper for CAMRA members) and range up to £29 for a season pass or £39 for a VIP pass that includes your festival glass and programme, as well as £15 worth of beer tokens. Drinks are then purchased using good old fashioned cash, with beers tending to set you back around £1.20 to £1.50 for a third of a pint.
LCBF on the other hand, however, operates on an ‘all-in’ ticket approach. Attendees pay for entry to a five-hour session (£45) and then can drink as much as they wish during that time, with beers typically poured in 150ml serves.
On our visits to the two respective festivals we probably spent around the same amount of money. It really depends on how one chooses to approach the day as to which ticket system offers better value for money. If you like to sample lots of different beers, then LCBF’s smaller pours and all-in ticket is likely to appeal more, but if you’re keen to avoid the initial investment of a ticket up front, GBBF might work better for you.
Although the primary purpose of a beer festival is, and remains, to sample lots of delicious beers, there is now something of an understanding that other forms of entertainment should form part of a beer festival’s offer, be that live music, tastings and talks, or awards.
LCBF prides itself on its close connections with the music industry, and has always put DJ sets on since its inception in 2013. This year, the headline acts included Everything Everything and Two Door Cinema Club, while there was also the return of the popular Hip Hop Karaoke. The festival also included, for the first time, a series of informative talks from industry figures such as Bruce Gray of Left Handed Giant, and James Rylance of Harbour Brewing.
The centrepiece event at GBBF is, of course, the awarding of Champion Beer of Britain. There are also live acts (of the more rock and folk variety) throughout the weekend, a pub quiz on the Saturday, and a couple of auctions thrown in for good measure.
Ultimately, it’s hard to compare the two festivals in this department because the enjoyment you’re likely to derive from the entertainment is probably going to come down to your own personal preferences. We enjoyed the Raise the Bar talks at LCBF, but it’s hard to match the excitement of the Champion Beer of Britain announcement. Let’s call it a tie.
CAMRA festivals tend to get quite a lot of (sometimes unfair) stick for their lack of diversity, and high-profile instances of alleged sexist and racist abuse have not helped their reputation in the past. It was pleasing, therefore, to see a much younger and more diverse crowd in attendance at this year’s trade day.
However, any feelings of positivity were quickly swept away when we approached bar staff to ask them for their experiences. A number of staff reported being made uncomfortable by the attentions of visiting attendees, while one reported being asked if they were “as cold and tasty” as the beer they were serving.
Many people respond to instances of sexism at festivals like GBBF by saying the festival will eventually adapt or die as society becomes less tolerant of this type of abuse. To them, we say the following: that is not good enough. GBBF has promised to fully investigate the instances we uncovered, and has reiterated to volunteers the importance of reporting any incidents to staff on-site but a more severe crackdown is evidently needed.
By contrast, LCBF was a joy to attend, with an array of people of all sexual orientations, genders, ethnicities and ages enjoying their afternoon in a relaxed and welcoming environment. The festival is signed up to, and heavily promotes The Everyone Welcome Initiative, and operates a zero-tolerance policy for any sexist, homophobic and otherwise discriminatory behaviour. GBBF could do a lot worse than to adopt a similar stance.
The key to avoiding a bad end to a festival is good grub to line the stomach. The surging popularity of street food and subsequent increase in mobile traders has done worlds of good for the food offering at beer festivals, with an array of cuisines from across the globe now available to punters.
LCBF had a total of five traders at the festival, including family-style Sri Lankan Hoppers, wood-smoked meats specialists Pitt Cue and rustic Italian traders Luca. Prices ranged from around £5 to £9 and although portion sizes weren’t massive, the quality was very high. We enjoyed a delicious Koththu Rotti, a mixture of chopped flatbread, paneer cheese, herbs and spices, from Hoppers.
By contrast, GBBF boasts around 25 traders in total (although not all of these supply full-blown meals or hot food). The diversity of cuisine is impressive, with bar snack classics such as sausage rolls, crisps and pickled eggs (including a bizarre passion fruit sour beer flavoured variety), and more exotic dishes such as dumplings, Philly cheese steaks, and crayfish. Prices were very reasonable, and there were lots of freebies also being offered.
It’s hard again to pick a winner here, but in terms of variety and value for money, GBBF probably just edges it.
The Great British Beer Festival has been London’s biggest and best beer event for many, many years, and with good reason. Without CAMRA and the influence of its showcase beer festival, it is unlikely that British beer would be in the impressive state it is today.
However, the event has suffered in recent years. While other festivals have moved on in terms of the quality of the beer, the use of new dispense methods and the addition of high-quality entertainment in order to elevate their offering, GBBF has remained disappointingly stationary and has started to feel somewhat stale.
The beer at this year’s festival was better than it has been for some time. However, it was disappointing that unsavoury instances of sexism continue to surface. Adoption of a zero-tolerance stance and more severe recriminations for those found guilty will go a long way towards creating a more inclusive atmosphere for all attendees.
LCBF, by comparison, felt like a breath of fresh air, paving the way forward in terms of innovation, quality and diversity. The festival might not quite have the gravitas and heritage of GBBF, but it certainly has the edge when it comes to the overall customer experience.