Bensoir! It's me, Benjamin. I like to eat and drink. And cook. And write.

You may have read stuff I've written elsewhere, but here on my own blog as Ben Viveur I'm liberated from the editorial shackles of others, so pretty much anything goes.

BV is about enjoying real food and drink in the real world. I showcase 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. And as a critic 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!

Friday, August 11, 2023

GBBF 2023: A Call to (Volunteer) Arms

I've been attending the Great British Beer Festival for 29 years now, and have long been a staunch supporter of the event. 

Typically I'd get a Season Ticket, attend most or even all of the sessions, and drink lots of beers during the week, which would be one of the highlights of my year. I've seen it grow in size from the mid-90s onwards; the evolution as it moved from Olympia to Earl's Court and then back again. And I sorely missed it in 2020 and 2021, when it didn't take place. Its return in 2022 brought a sense of purpose back to my life. Well, back to my first week in August, at any rate.

But despite being a GBBF Superfan, I'd never volunteered - until this year - and it's only right that I now give you my honest assessment of how I got on last week.


I've always said that I have a lot of time and admiration for the unpaid GBBF staff and everything they do. That view has now gone up a notch - it really is hard work, even things you might think would be 'easy', so kudos to everyone who has ever volunteered there.  

Game for anything?

Come and play!
I approached with some trepidation on the first day as I entered Olympia by a different entrance to the one I'm used to and reported for duty. Excited, yes, but also a little worried that my new status as 'Staff' would mean that I didn't get to experience the event I know and love in the way that I know and love it, if that makes sense.

I'd sort of vaguely thought I'd work on the USA cask bar, if given a choice, because that's often where I hang out the most, particularly over the first couple of days. Or maybe I could work on several different bars, so I could get my pick of the beers - and of course to draw upon my knowledge as a beer writer and experienced drinker when customers wanted recommendations.

It's fair to say that I hadn't considered for one minute that I'd be working on 'Traditional Pub Games' on my first day - or that I'd agree to stick with the games team for the rest of the week. But life can take you by surprise.

About an hour into my first shift - I'd barely learned the rules to the games and how to take customers' money - the Prime Minister turned up to play Shuffleboard, so the surprises continued. But I began to enjoy myself. Cheese-throwing, Table skittles, Beer pong, Shut the Box. It was all good fun.

Just some ordinary customer
I like to think my customer banter was pretty good, and I started 'upselling' extra games to losing punters and pushing the 'six games for six quid' tickets. Processing card payments, putting coins into the cash box, handing out prize tokens to the winners and telling them where to go to collect their prize. I almost felt like a natural from the get-go.

Maybe I didn't get to advise customers on which of the IPAs had more stone-fruit character and which was more tropical, as I had envisaged, but I did give tips on the probability of rolling an eight and the best tactics for throwing a ring over a handpull!

But time spent hosting games - exciting though that is - isn't time spent drinking beer. Well, it sort of is. We were allowed to drink while working, which made things a whole lot more enjoyable. And that brings me on to the fantastic team. The reason I had no hesitation in coming back to the games area on every subsequent day was largely because it was such a great, easy-going bunch of people to work with.
It's hard work. I'm not exactly used to standing for hours, and what with the various ailments I won't bang on about now, I was frequently dead on my feet. But it was undeniably a blast.

Would I do it again? Yeah, of course.

Insider Info

One thing I'd been intrigued about for years was the 'Volunteer Arms' - the staff bar, completely separate from the public ones, where the beer is free. The legend turned out to be true. There is a long bar with 20-odd cask beers and a similar number of ciders.
There's no way of knowing what's going to be on (they don't show up in the Festival app)

Yeah, I needed a rest
And when 'the volley' isn't open, you can get yourself beers from the 'CBoB Fridge' - a self-service walk-in cooler where the actual casks of the Champion Beer of Britain finalists are kept. Which is a major perk.

I even tried a taster of Greene King Abbot, after it controversially won Silver overall. Yeah, it still wasn't to my taste, and probably the joint worst of the ten different ales I sampled that day. But that's what you get for not having me on the judging panel.

I managed to tick 31 new beers over the week, which isn't bad, though I didn't necessarily get all the ones I specifically wanted, and I did have a couple of beers I didn't 'need' - when working on the games, various beers would be brought down for us from the Volley.

So I had to compromise my ticking habit a bit, but perhaps not quite as much as I feared, and I made damn fucking sure on the first day that I got the two I really, really wanted from the USA bar (because they were 11.1% and 13.9% respectively - two new ABVs for me, saddo collector that I am!)

Olympia is a big site, and the GBBF takes up a lot of space, but when you're Staff, it's even bigger. Christ, it's big. The 'backstage' areas (and the canteen and volunteer arms staff bar) add significantly to the overall size of the thing, and it was a bit annoying that the games were located just about as far away as it was possible to be from the staff area. 

I'd have liked a printed 'full site' map, but this isn't just a staff issue. Every customer I spoke to was unhappy about the lack of a printed programme this year. I hope this feedback reaches the organisers.

The downside of being staff is that you don't get to experience it as a punter, and I'd be lying if I said I didn't miss that. This is one of the things I worried about, and to some extent I was right to be worried. Yes, I hung around after my shift finished and had a couple of beers in the main halls, met up with friends, and desperately searched for somewhere to sit the fuck down! But it wasn't quite the same as usual. You get a modest discount on beers from the public bars via a voucher system, and sometimes you can get a 'staff half' for free, but there's no real consistency to this.

Bad food

One thing that really isn't good is the staff canteen. Indeed it's so horrendously bad that plenty of the volunteers don't use it at all. I picked at a couple of meals from there (which are free for staff only if you're commuting in and not staying in subsidised accomodation) and the less said about them the better. A lasagne and salad was fairly OK, but most of it - fish cakes, pasta, burgers - was bland and underseasoned.

This potato should not have been inflicted on anybody
The only thing I actually enjoyed was a mustardy potato salad, while the worst offender was a 'potato with cheese' that had been cremated then reheated and really should not have been served to anyone, staff or otherwise.
When there are so many rather good food vendors throughout the festival, I'd ask if it's even necessary. Why not just give staff vouchers they can use 'downstairs' to get a sausage or a curry or a delicious hog roast?
There is a staff party on the Saturday night too, though frustratingly (to me; others are used to the way things are done) it doesn't kick off immediately after the festival closes to the public. I had kinda hoped that we'd get to go round all the bars polishing off all the remaining beer, but instead there's a clean-up operation (which tends to suck in even the staff whose shift is officially over) and a long wait until the Volley opens.
Personally this was the low point of the week for me as I was tired, struggling with an arthritic knee and just wanted to chill with a few pints. But it's not my place to tell them how to run the show.

I cheered up after the Volunteer Arms opened and served me a delicious, fruity pint of Mr. Winter's 'Peach Tea Pale' (4.0%) which was my favourite beer of the festival, though Church End 'Stout Coffin' and Castle Rock 'Bold as Love' deserved honourable mentions.

A couple of people on the games team told me that the staff benefits aren't as good as they were a few years ago, and there are concerns that the festival won't attract that many new volunteers. As a newbie I didn't know any better, but apparently I've missed the real golden age for staffing.
That said, it's still worth doing, and I'd particularly recommend it to anyone a bit fitter than me who doesn't share my preciousness around beer-ticking. 
Next year I might elect to dedicate a full day to being a regular customer again, but I'll defintely be back on the team.

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