ʽʽHi, I’m Benjamin Nunn – critic, gourmand and author of Ben Viveur. I like to eat and drink. And cook. And write.

You might have read me in an in-flight magazine, or a beer publication, but here on my own blog I'm liberated from the editorial shackles of others so anything goes.

I deal with real food and drink in the real world, aiming to create recipes that taste awesome, but which can be created by mere mortals without the need for tons of specialist equipment and a doctorate in food science. Likewise, I tend to review relaxed establishments that you might visit on a whim without having to sell your first-born, rather than hugely expensive restaurants and style bars in the middle of nowhere with a velvet rope barrier, a stringent dress code and a six-month waiting list!

There's plenty of robust opinion, commentary on the world of food and drink, and lots of swearing, so look away now if you're easily offended.

Otherwise, tuck your bib in, fill your glass and turbo-charge your tastebuds. We're going for a ride... Ben Appetit!

Monday, November 4, 2013

A rough guide to British beer festivals

The English language is an interesting beast.

Whereas some foreign tongues have rigidly prescriptive rules, grammatical genders and other shittingly complex stuff that I don't have a kitten's chance in Hades of ever getting my head around, colloquial English is rather more subtle and nuanced.

Which is good. I like subtle and nuanced.

So, some words and phrases take on subtly (or indeed completely) different meanings, depending on context, but, crucially, we don't need to explain them because we just 'get' the meaning because we get the context.

For example, if your seven year old son comes home from school and tells you he's been invited to Sanjay's party, you'll instinctively have vastly different expectations than those times when you pick up a guy in a bar in Soho and he asks you knowingly if you like to party.

Same word, but differently nuanced (unless Sanjay's birthday parties feature fisting and crystal meth instead of pass-the-parcel and ASDA Cola these days, obviously!)

Likewise, if your beloved suggests a trip to New York over Christmas to do some shopping, it's not the same as picking up some shopping on the way home from work. Not by a very long chalk. 

Not all beer festivals are this big
The same is true of a 'Beer Festival'. Yes, they always involve beer but the level of festivity one can expect varies wildly. As far as the format goes, a beerfest can mean almost all things to all beer drinking men.

But unlike a lot of the other nuanced phrases we use, the subtle detail isn't always widely understood yet outside the inner sanctum of beer geeks, so it's about time somebody wrote a guide to the subject.

Any volunteers?

Anybody want to identify and define the eight different kinds of Beer Festival we have in this country?

Alright then, I'll do it...

CAMRA, national

OK, let's start with the big behemoth, as Gorilla Monsoon would say. Even though I suspect he never went to a beerfest in his life.

In all honesty, this category only really applies to the very biggest beer festivals in the country - the Great British Beer Festival, the National Winter Ales festival and possibly, at a pinch, some of the largest regional festivals like Peterborough, which, curiously, always takes place only a week or two after the GBBF.

These - and the GBBF in particular - are quite possibly the greatest places on earth to be a beer drinker. Yes, they can get crowded, yes, you'll have to pay a fair old whack just to get in, and, yes, some of the beers will be the same old everyday stuff chosen by cautious and conservative committee members.

GBBF: Where nobody minds if you look like a twat
But who cares about such trouble in paradise? You're not forced, gavage-style, to drink the same old boring beers and the best thing about such massive beer festivals is that there will always be hundreds more beers than you could never manage to drink.

Some of my fellow tickers will try to argue the toss (possibly over a pint of Old Toss porter), but with literally hundreds of beers to choose from I really don't think there are any arguments against the big CAMRA festivals that hold any water. Or beer.

As well as the main bars there are usually several 'brewery bars' staffed by regional brewers looking to sell you their wares and promote their latest beers.

And in addition to 300-400 different British cask ales (usually even more at the GBBF), you can also expect a fair choice of draught foreign beers and cider and perry, as well as bottled beers aplenty if that's your bag.

There will typically be a range of outside catering, as well as merchandise stalls, games to play and, at the GBBF, auctions, tutored tastings and loads of other stuff going on. There'll be a range of entertainment, often some big names, but enough space to completely get away from it if you want to.

Over the years I've seen: Ade Edmondson and the Bad Shepherds, Alvin Stardust, John Otway, the Ukelele Orchestra, and even my favourite band Steeleye Span. And loads of others.

There is nowhere I'd rather be in early August than at Olympia/Earl's Court. Nowhere.

But if you've been to the GBBF, had a fan-fucking-tastic time, and then seen an advert for a local beer festival in your area, you might end up distinctly underwhelmed, because all beer festivals are not created equal.

CAMRA, regional

These remain, for the time being, the bread and bitter of our beer festival scene and thanks to the hard work of thousands of CAMRA volunteers, you can still find them all over the country and throughout the year.

You'll pay a small admission fee, almost always with a reduction for CAMRA members, and you can expect to find around 100-200 real ales, a reasonable selection of cider and perry, and perhaps a few draught foreign beers.

The admission will typically include a glass specially branded for the festival which you can keep or return (the probability of the latter occurring tends to correlate with to the number of festivals you've been to before and the number of pint glasses you've accumulated at home over the years!)

The locations are varied - theatres, converted churches, sometimes out in the open, which I tend to prefer unless it's completely pissing it down. Space and seating and general comfort will depend on the venue, but as a general rule these festivals tend to be popular and very crowded, particularly when you have hundreds of drinkers in a confined space for a Friday evening session.

My absolute favourite is probably the Chappel beer festival at the East Anglian Railway Musuem where beer and the golden age of steam transportation combine effortlessly to profound aessthetic effect - the shelter of the goods shed and the outdoor platformy and fieldy bits offering a unique setting for your relentless binge drinking.

The Chappel beer festival
Other examples of regional CAMRA festivals include the Pig's Ear fest in East London (coming up next month), and the Ealing Beer Festival in the spring.

CAMRA, local

These are typically held in a small village hall or similar venue and feature around 50-60 beers, sometimes more, but sometimes fewer. The number available at any given time, particularly towards the end, might even be less than you'll find in the nearest pub.

There are unlikely to be draught foreign beers though there may be a few bottles. The range of cider (and possibly perry) will be fairly limited, though still better than most pubs.

Admission is likely to be nominal (a quid) and usually free to CAMRA members, with a deposit payable on a glass, though at a fest of this size the glass will probably have the name of another, bigger, festival from several years earlier on it. Peterborough '05, Nottingham '87, that sort of thing!

Catering will likely be limited and provided by the venue, and there are unlikely to be stalls or games to amuse you. Live music is also uncommon at a festival of this size.

I know I'm sounding quite negative about these little nano-fests. It's just that I've had some disappointing trips over the years, like Wallington and Battersea (which is almost big enough to qualify as the next size up, but is often reduced to a tiny handful of beers mid-way through the last night).

It's not all bad and they are often worth going to - just aim to go on the first day if you can and check the list to make sure there are lots of beers you want to try.

CAMRA-esque, local/regional

These used to be more common than they are now, as many have either been scaled down to become pub/club fests, merged with official CAMRA festivals or simply cancelled altogether.

But there are still a few. The Medway Beer Festival next week is one such example, and maybe in some ways this is the successor to the excellent Dartford Real Ale Festival that used to be held every Summer in Central Park. (Not the one in New York, obviously).

They may be organised by a consortia of local pubs or clubs with the assistance of the local authority.  Generally these are bigger than can be held in a pub, so you can expect a choice of over 50 beers, maybe even up to a couple of hundred.

While they're not CAMRA events, it's likely that local activists will be involved in the organisation and members might get a discount on the admission price which is likely to be modest and, in some cases, non existent.

For larger events there might be specially branded glasswear and you can expect some form of entertainment some of the time. Indeed, sometimes these sorts of beerfest are combined with a music festival, though this will usually not be a good bet if you're only interested in the ale.

Food may be provided by the venue or by outside caterers, and at the larger fests there will probably be a choice.

Modern, national/regional

In the last couple of years we've started to see a new style of craft beer event that is, if not anti-CAMRA, then definitely non-CAMRA. And that's not necessarily such a bad thing so long as it's in addition to, rather than instead of, the traditional beer festival that a lot of us know and love.

A very different sort of event...
The most obvious difference is that not all of the British beer will be real cask ale. There is usually quite a lot of cask, but there will also be keg and bottled beer, both domestic and imported, and a wide range of styles and strengths.

Another distinction is that the venue layout and entertainment policy is often geared towards a younger audience and the general atmosphere can be very different from a more traditional festival.

There are also differences in the way they are run - without the network of CAMRA volunteers there may be more reliance on paid staff (who might not be beer people) and a greater tendency towards bars set up and run by the breweries themselves.

All these distinctions add up to a very different sort of experience, but not one that is necessarily bad per se, as I discovered at Craft Beer Rising, probably the biggest event of this type in London so far.

Entry and beer can be somewhat expensive, but that hasn't put people off attending and there are likely to be many more events of this nature before the 'craft' bubble bursts.

Pub/club festival, expansive

These are usually held by individual pubs or clubs once or twice a year, though some may put them on more frequently.

Typically it will involve a significantly broader range of draught beers than the place normally sells - usually cask ales set up in a corner on stillage.

Get a seat right by the beer!
It might be 12 beers, it might be 30, it might be 50. And some pubs have the space and turnover to put on about 100 beers in a big marquee outside - as at the Halloween beer festival at Le Gothique last week, which was up to their usual high standard judging by the preview night. (Oh yes, it's particularly good when a beer festival has an all-you-can-drink preview night!)

The range and quality of the beers will ultimately depend on the place holding it. In the past year I've been to some excellent festivals at the Leyton Orient Supporters Club and, of course, the BV London Pub of the Year, the Catford Bridge Tavern.

I've also been to a couple recently where I've struggled to find a beer on the list that I've not had before - and that really isn't what the beer festival experience should be about.

You won't normally have to pay to get in, but there might be a deposit payable on a festival glass.

Food will generally be provided by the pub, though they might do something a bit special for the occasion - barbecue, hog roast, that sort of thing - and the bigger events may also feature some sort of live music, if it's in keeping with the ethos of the venue.

Most pubs that have a serious commitment to real ale will put on a festival once or twice a year - though they may not feel the need to if they have a really vast number of beers on all year round anyway.

Pub/club festival, contained

It's debatable whether these would even qualify as beer festivals in the mind of anyone other than the landlord organising the thing - basically these festivals just involve a pub swapping out some of their regular beers and putting on a few different guests.

Sometimes the beers will be interesting. Sometimes, not. I recently saw one such pub 'festival' advertised that included only beers from the Marston's stable. No, really.

They might print out a few lists and put a sign outside, but otherwise it will be just like going to the pub, but with a different range of beers on - which may or may not make it worth your while attending.

Needless to say, you should never be charged admission to a 'festival' like this and they are very rarely worth going to.

The last one is always hard to find...
Think about it - if a pub thinks that having Doom Bar, Pedigree and Exmoor Gold on tap instead of Greene King IPA and Abbot constitutes a 'festival' of anything, it was probably a fairly shitty pub in the first place, so why would you want to go to a shitty pub's beer festival?

Pub chain festival

This is the genre invented by Tim Martin, and love or hate him, it's had a huge impact on our collective understanding of what 'Beer festival' actually means.

Wetherspoons often claim that their bi-annual beer festivals are the biggest festival in the UK, which is a claim that should, of course, be taken with a pinch of salt (and two sachets of mayonnaise - you'll find the condiments over there to your left by the stairs...)

Normally running for at least a fortnight (with the beers lingering on long after), the Wether-formula has now been adopted by other pub chains like Nicholson's and Taylor-Walker, though they're still playing catch-up when it comes to sourcing interesting and unique beers.

The extent to which the individual pubs participate will depend on how relevant they are in their local real ale scene, if indeed there is one. Run-down Spoons in one-horse towns aren't usually much to write home about, unfortunately, even if they are the best bet in a beer desert.

Days of yore...
Back in the mid-1990s when Tim had far fewer pubs, the festivals were always exciting, even when the idea of bringing over foreign brewers to produce exclusive beers was just a vague thought lurking somewhere beneath his mullet. I guess we've come to take them for granted.

The wetherfests have 50 beers on the list these days, but a lot of the pubs will only ever put on a limited subset, and many will be reluctant to even displace their standard beers.

Some of the more enthusiastic pubs will use all their available handpumps and a few will even set up stillage in an attempt to make as many as possible available at any one time. Either way, if you're in London you should be able to find all 50 beers over the duration, with a bit of trapsing about and a few phone calls.

Ultimately though, this 'festival' is nothing like the other types. At best it's a fun treasure hunt for beer tickers, and a chance to get a more interesting selection of guest beers in chain pubs for a few weeks.

And so, there you have it. The eight different species of beer festival. Some common, some endangered. Some that won't even have any beer on by the time you arrive.

Use the UK Beer Festival calender to find one near you!

1 comment:

  1. Since I wrote this article, the 'Modern' category as predictably expanded somewhat and can now be broken down broadly into two distinct subcategories:

    - the festival where you pay a modest admission and then buy your beer inside in whatever quantities you choose

    - the 'American' format, where you pay a substantial admission and are theoretically entitled to unlimited beer, or at least a sample of every beer available, but in 'small pour' measures in a tiny glass.

    Needless to say, as an avowed full pint drinker, this is not a development of which I particularly approve...


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