Phew, that was a heavy couple of weeks. A week of pub touring with my friend Pat from Finland to start and the RateBeer European Summer Gathering to finish. With four days at the Great British Beer Festival sandwiched in between. The last GBBF at Earls Court. Next year Earls Court is being used for the Olympic volleyball and GBBF moves to Olympia. After the Olympics, Earls Court will be flattened to make way for a new housing development. Which raises the question of a longer-term home for GBBF.
Olympia is without doubt a more aesthetically pleasing venue but it’s smaller than Earls Court. And anyone who has been at the GBBF during the busy Thursday and Friday evening sessions will know how crowded even Earls Court can get. But Earls Court is probably the best London venue that’s available, at least in terms of what CAMRA wants GBBF to be. Sure it’s a horrible, soulless concrete bunker with no natural light. And it has a nasty echoing boom when there’s a band playing. But it can pack the punters in and has an easily accessible London location, which I think are key priorities as far as CAMRA is concerned.
The fact is that GBBF can’t be all things to all people. Those who already appreciate beers that are not mainstream mega-commercial products (see how I avoided using the terms “craft beer” or “real ale” there) generally find it flawed for one reason or another. The geeks find the UK beer range too conservative to tickle their taste buds and tend to gravitate towards the foreign beers. The scoopers find insufficient new stuff on the UK list and many steer clear of foreign muck. Some of the more mainstream CAMRA types regard it as overcrowded and overpriced. But GBBF is not squarely aimed at existing beer enthusiasts. It is a shop window hoping to attract the gaze of those who are normally more at home supping Stella, or Guinness, or Magners, or even a chilled Pinot Grigio. Take a look around at the composition of the crowd and you will see a lot of tourists, and office parties, and groups of lads on the piss, and groups of girls on the piss, and those who are simply curious and have a free evening so pop in to see what it’s all about. It’s all very jolly, and all very good natured and CAMRA hopes that those people will be inspired to change their drinking preferences. Sure it sometimes leaves us diehards wanting something rather more adventurous in beer terms but, hey, I have a cracking time anyway.
All of which leads me to the conclusion that, despite its shortcomings, Earls Court is a very suitable venue for GBBF in its current format and with its current priorities. So when I walked out of an Earls Court GBBF for the last time last Friday it was without doubt something of a bittersweet leave-taking. Will Olympia be up to the task of reclaiming the permanent home spot when attendance is well up on what is used to be? I guess we’ll have a better idea this time next year. Some people have been suggesting that other changes should be considered. Such as moving GBBF out of London to somewhere like the NEC near Birmingham. Or accepting that it will have to be housed in a smaller venue and limit attendance. Those are certainly possibilities that are worth considering but GBBF would surely become a significantly different beast to what it is today. The demographic of those attending would certainly change. My experience of a number of CAMRA festivals, and festivals in the United States, where numbers are limited suggests that the more casual visitors would be replaced by those who are prepared to go through a few hoops to secure tickets. And moving GBBF outside London would certainly attract fewer “casuals”. So there are lot of issues to consider. Hopefully those in the CAMRA hierarchy will be giving serious thought to what they want GBBF to be and how best to achieve that.
In the meantime, Earls Court – so long and thanks for all the good times and good people I’ve rubbed shoulders with there. And hopefully I’ll see plenty more of them in the future wherever GBBF ends up and however it evolves..