Conjure up an image of the Great British Beer Festival in your mind, and it's probably a collection of middle aged men with beards, enjoying a traditional British ale. I used to believe the very same thing, however this year my perception of this mainstay of the beer calendar has been changed. This was not my first time at the festival (having worked at a brewery, I've seen my fair share of London's various beer events), however this was the first time I really noticed the shift in demographic. Don't get me wrong, the staples of the festival were there - Charles Wells, Fuller's and St Austell's to name a few - but there were also a few newer, more outlandish breweries in attendance (here's looking at you Tiny Rebel Brewing Co.). So, what happened when my Latvian colleague and I visited what he aptly called 'the most British place he's ever been'?
1. There was a lot of beer
Which is to be expected - but more than being overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of the stuff, it was the variety that really impressed us. We started off with a sample of Fuller's golden ales (Oliver's Island & Summer Ale) and ended with Tiny Rebel's hoppy, zesty beers (Hadouken & Juicy), with a dash of some perry somewhere in between (it's really quite hard to drink ale consistently). A far cry from the traditional ales at a beer festival, which are still rightly drawing a large crowd (don't get me wrong, t's hard to beat a Tribute or a London Gold), GBBF has recently become a showcase of just how interesting and innovative real ale can be. From experimenting with unusual hop combinations to playing with the ABV/drinkability balance, there was, indeed, a lot of beer to see (and much too much to drink!)
2. Real Ale and Craft Beer are not mutually exclusive
Anyone that I've spoken to about traditional British Ale will be bored by me repeating this again - real ale and craft beer (in my humble opinion) are peas in the same pod. The brewers at GBBF definitely exhibited this even though the big names in craft beer were not present - you should look out for them at festivals such as Craft Beer Rising, or London Craft Beer Festival (coincidentally taking place on the same weekend as GBBF) - by demonstrating their skills as traditional breweries. Their craftsmanship demonstrates clearly that they paved the way for modern (micro)breweries to be as wacky and exploratory as they want.
Not only the quality of the beer demonstrated this link between the traditional & craft breweries - the way in which the breweries were exhibiting was almost the most exciting it has been at GBBF for years! Of course, the Charles Wells/Bombardier bus was front & centre, but it was interesting to see signs that the traditional breweries are taking note of their craftier compatriots. St Austell's brewery were blasting the ABBA with a disco feel, and whilst it was a bit of an odd Scandi-Cornwall hybrid, it did work. However, amongst the collection of refurbished vans and trucks, it was The Rev James' (Brain's brewery's cooler younger brother) photo booth that really stood out.
The fact that they embraced the more craft-dominated world of social media, by creating GIFs which could be posted using a bespoke hashtag, made this stall stand out head and shoulders above the rest of the exhibitors, and showed that there is a credible place for real ale in the world of craft.
3. The GBBF stereotype is oh-so wrong
Groups of young professionals and even a hen do were spotted at the festival this year - and not even as anomalies. I know that I'm being horribly stereotyping expecting to see beards, bumbags and socks with sandals (although there were a few) at a CAMRA event, but this is a view held (very wrongly) by a younger generation. We expect to see our dad and his friends, not Jack the young graduate holding a job in the City, at these events, but this younger crowd is getting increasingly involved with these beer festivals. This, especially seeing groups of 20 to 30-something women wandering around, gave me a real sense of pride - the great British tradition of fantastic beers does not seem to be a dying one. Helped, undoubtedly, by the micro-brewery boom, British brewing is appealing to a more diverse group than ever before. And whilst it might take me some time to persuade my mother that women do indeed drink beer by the pint, I am incredibly proud to see that this seems to be a generational belief, and that young men and women from around the country are embracing the diverse world of Great British Beer.