Great British Beer Festival: the leopard is changing its spots

By Pete Brown

- Last updated on GMT

Open playing field: cask beers have been joined by KeyKeg at the GBBF
Open playing field: cask beers have been joined by KeyKeg at the GBBF
Pete Brown looks at the evolution of the Campaign for Real Ale’s (CAMRA) Great British Beer Festival (GBBF)

“Remember your article a couple of years ago where you talked about how the GBBF never changes?” asked Catherine Tonry, the organiser of the festival I have often criticised in print, when I met her a few weeks ago.

“Yes, but you saw what I was doing there, right? You know it was kind of an affectionate admission that we secretly like it because it never changes?” I replied.

“Oh, I know exactly what you were doing. But you won’t be able to write the same article after this year’s event, I promise you.”

It sounded like a challenge. I chose to accept.

Changes at the double

You’ll have seen by now that two big changes have been widely reported: the admission of keg beer, and the exclusion of sexist and offensive pump clips and beer names.

Let’s deal with keg first. For the whole time I was there, the KeyKeg bars were busier than the cask bars, proving what an astute commercial decision this was. The colourful stands hosted by Tiny Rebel, Wild Beer Co and Magic Rock gave the place a brighter and jauntier feel.

And guess what? The sky didn’t fall in. CAMRA did not dissolve like a vampire exposed to sunlight. The cask ales were a triumph too. Another less-trumpeted change seems to have happened behind the scenes. The quality and condition of the cask ales I tried were uniformly excellent, reminding everyone who tried them what is so special about cask. Many of us switched between cask and keg as the day wore on. You’re allowed to like more than one thing, and the presence of quality keg beer is not (or doesn’t have to be) a threat to quality cask beer – here or anywhere else.

The biggest surprise of GBBF 2019 though wasn’t the infiltration of the demon keg. On the hungover morning when I’m writing this, CAMRA’s decision to exclude sexist pump clips is the most clicked through story on The Guardian’s​ website.

It’s a move that has been broadly welcomed, but by no means exclusively, by women working in the beer industry. Together with the softening in attitude towards keg, even long-time CAMRA critics are welcoming the organisation’s somewhat overdue arrival into the 21st century.

Of course, not everyone is happy. ‘This type of cancer is why more and more people despise liberalism’, said one over-reactor on Twitter. ‘It’s a bit sad really. Very snowflaky. Bit surprised, CAMRA should focus on beer, not virtue signalling’, wrote another contributor, unaware of the irony of becoming upset by this move while simultaneously calling other people snowflakes.

That joke isn’t funny anymore

I’m sure many readers of The Morning Advertiser​ will share these sentiments, even if most of them will be slightly less hysterical about saying so.

Whenever this issue comes up, there are always people saying ‘Can’t you take a joke?’ and ‘What about free speech?’

Well, the jokes are rarely funny, and as far as free speech is concerned, you’re perfectly free to call your beer ‘Old Slapper’ or create a pump clip featuring a woman with massive cartoon boobs for your blonde ale. GBBF and anyone else is also free to call it out as sexist crap and decide not to stock it.

As far as I’m aware, CAMRA was only forced to refuse two beers and one cider under this new rule, which suggests this tired old trope is going out of fashion anyway. It’s about time.

At around 4pm on trade day, I met up with a friend who used to work in the brewing industry and moved a year ago to work in another drinks category. “I really miss working in beer,” she told me. “But the thing I love most about my new job is I’ve only had my bum fondled once in the past year.”

In four hours at the GBBF trade day, she’d been inappropriately touched seven times.

Imagery and humour that dates back to the age of Carry On​ films helps create an environment where the behaviour from that era can also survive. Yes, we should have freedom of speech. But women should also be free to come to the highest profile beer event in the country without being groped or fondled against their will by leering, sexist b******s with daughters the same age.

Catherine Tonry was both right and wrong: some things at GBBF have changed, massively for the better. But it’s still going to take a while for this to feed through to some long-standing aspects of beer culture.

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