I don’t think I’ve ever read a blogpost I agreed with more than Simon Wiliams of CAMRGB’s take on the Great British Beer Festival at Olympia last week versus the London Craft Beer Festival, also last week, in Hackney. Read it here. Basically, the problem with the GBBF, 40 years on from the very first one in Covent Garden, is that it’s utterly unimaginative, dull, unengaging and uninspiring. Too much of the beer is too samey (mind, that’s a reflection of the state of the British small brewing scene), and while there are interesting and challenging beers to find, it’s a pain in the butt trying to track therm down. What’s more, reports suggest that if you go at the end of the week, all the most interesting beers will be long sold out. It really needs a serious rethink in terms of presentation, approach, purpose: in particular, there should be far more involvement from the breweries supplying the beer than just turning up with casks and pumpclips and then buggering off. At the LCBF, in contrast, the beers are almost without exception challenging and exciting, the stalls are staffed by people from the breweries involved who are delighted to chat. Despite the room the LCBF was held in being far too hot, I enjoyed myself, and enjoyed the beers, far more than I did at the GBBF. I could say much more, but Simon has said it all, and very well.
Wandering around the Festival of Good Beer outside the football stadium in Wrocław, southern Poland last weekend with the Welsh beer blogger Simon Martin, it was quickly clear I was in the presence of a genuine superstar. A stream of young Poles – mostly male, but including the occasional female – were rushing up to Simon, greeting him by name, shaking his hand warmly and asking if they could have their picture taken with him. During a break in the flood of fandom, Simon wryly told me that he wished he was half as famous back in the UK as he is in Poland. His YouTube video blog, Real Ale Craft Beer, has just under 10,000 subscribers and gets around a thousand views a day – respectable numbers. But while, clearly, many of those viewers come from the UK – after all, Simon is based in this country, and speaking in English – a surprising number come from Poland. The reason seems to be that in the past four years, Poles have developed a growing thirst for craft beer, and an equal thirst for information about the subject, and access to easily digested, enthusiastically delivered knowledge about new craft beers. That is what Simon’s beer-reviewing video website brings them, and they love it – and him.
Poland, you may be surprised to learn, is the third largest brewing nation in the EU, and looking to soon overtake the UK and move into second place. It produced around 40 million hectolitres in 2013, from 155 breweries, 96 litres per head per year, up 10.4% in four years, against 42 million hectolitres a year in the UK from 1,490 breweries, 66 litres per head per year, down 7.1% since 2009, and 94.3 million hectolitres a year in Germany, 107 litres per head per year, down 3.8% in four years, from 1,350 or so breweries.
From those figures you would be guessing that the Polish brewing scene is dominated by big concerns, and it is. SAB Miller has around 38% of the market through Kompania Piwowarska, including the Tyskie and Lech brands. Heineken has another 35% through Grupa Żywiec, and Carlsberg has 14% through its Polish subsidiary, which includes Okocim, leaving just 13% for the independent sector. But that independent sector is thriving: Tomasz Kopyra, the Polish beer blogger who invited me to the Wrocław festival (and who is even more of a superstar among Polish craft beer fans than Simon Martin – Tomasz has 50,000 followers on his own video beer blog and could not walk two yards across the festival grounds without being mobbed by people wanting selfies with him) told me that there were 500 new beers launched on the Polish market last year, a number that will certainly be exceeded by a considerable margin in 2015, when 100 new beers were launched in April this year alone.
Poland now has some 30 newly built craft breweries, and around 30 or 40 other craft brewer concerns contract-brewing their beers on the plant of older-established businesses. The beers they are brewing, just like the beers made by craft brewers elsewhere, largely reflect what is happening in the United States, with big, hugely hoppy IPAs and thumping stouts (though Poland has had a long tradition of very strong porters dating from the 18th and early 19th centuries, when London brewers such as Barclay Perkins exported porter and stout to the Baltic region and local brewers were forced to compete with their own versions). Continue reading
If I had wanted confirmation that the “non-macro” British beer scene is now split into two separate camps, serving different constituencies, with remarkably little cross-over between them, considering that both sides are dedicated to the pursuit of terrific beer, two events a couple of weeks back could not have made it clearer.
In West London, the Campaign for Real Ale’s annual Great British Beer Festival at Olympia delivered the products of around 350 different cask ale brewers to some 50,000 people over five days. Meanwhile, over (almost symbolically) on the other side of the city in East London, at the Oval Space in Bethnal Green, the first London Craft Beer Festival, on for three days in a considerably smaller venue, served beers from just 20 brewers, (only four of whom were also at GBBF*), most or all of it dispensed from pressurised containers that would have kegophobe Camra members fobbing with fury.
The most remarkable contrast between the two events was not the rather different attitudes to the idea of how “good beer” could be dispensed, however, but the very different sets of people attending each festival. The GBBF crowds were a wide selection of the sort of drinkers you might find in any pub in a middle-class area, minus the families though mostly male and skewed, it appeared to me, towards the over-40s – indeed, I’d say the number able to get to Olympia using their Boris bus pass (ahem – like me) was considerably greater than in the pub population at large.
The LCBF crowd, in contrast, was in parts almost a parody of hipsterdom: man buns and “ironic” short-back-and-sides with beards, plenty of checked shirts and Converse All-Stars, and with the hipster “ironic band T-shirt” (where you display on your chest the image of a beat combo popular with teenyboppers in the late 1980s) replaced with the “ironic beer T-shirt” (Tusker lager – I must dig out my Foster’s Special Bitter T-shirt from 1994 …). There were far more women as a proportion of the audience at the LCBF, and the age range was considerably narrower (and younger) than Olympia: I was older than 95 per cent or so of everybody else at the Bethnal Green event by a good 20 years, and (unlike Olympia), while there were plenty of beards, I was wearing one of the very, very few showing any signs of grey.
Young Singaporeans love to PARTAAAY. Which means that while Beerfest Asia, held in the city every June since 2009, now places a hefty emphasis on craft beers from small producers, for very many of the more than 25,000 people who pour in over four days to the festival site, the 400-plus different beers available, from Sweden to New Zealand, and Japan to Belgium, are less important than the opportunities to get pissed with friends, wear very silly hats, listen to very loud music and dance on the tables.
This probably explains why no one seems to think it incongruous that alongside all the craft beers (such as the highly regarded and multi-awarded Feral Brewing from Western Australia, Mikkeller from Denmark via various other places, Hitochino from Japan, De Molen from De Nederlands, Stone from California, Moa from New Zealand and our own dear BrewDog) there was not only a large stand for Jagermeister, but big bars run by AB InBev (featuring Stella Artois, Becks and Budweiser) and by Asia Pacific Breweries, the Far Eastern arm of Heineken, selling the Dutch brewer’s eponymous eurofizz, plus Strongbow cider, Desperado tequila beer, and Sol. Truly the sublime being served alongside the ridiculous. Continue reading
Until last weekend, Hong Kong had never seen a beer festival: not a proper one, with a choice of beers from a range of different brewers. Odd, perhaps, for the home of Asia’s oldest microbrewer, the Hong Kong brewery, still running after 16 years in Aberdeen, on the south side of Hong Kong island. But most Hongkongers don’t seen enthusiastic about beer except as a thirst quencher or a relaxer. And yet … since 2009, Singapore has been running a hugely successful beer festival, Beerfest Asia, which attracted 30,000 people over four days last year, to try 300 beers on 40 stands. So Asian cities CAN run successful big beer festivals.
Mind, Singapore, despite having a smaller population than Hong Kong, manages to support far more micro-brewers too: seven, Beer Avocado suggests. Hong Kong still only has two, albeit one is probably the only brewery dedicated to reproducing hand-pumped British cask-style ales in the whole of Asia, the tiny Typhoon brewery, founded by an airline pilot from Devon, Pierre Cadoret, in 2009.
But among the attenders at the 2010 Beerfest Asia in Singapore was a 28-year-old Canadian called Jonathan So, whose parents had emigrated to Toronto from Hong Kong in the 1970s. Jonathan had moved to Hong Kong to work for a software company, bringing with him an appreciation for craft beer picked up while a student at Columbia University in New York. The Singapore festival impressed him deeply: “I thought, ‘How come Hong Kong doesn’t have anything like this, even a fraction of its size?”
The London Brewers Alliance beer festival at Vinopolis, by Borough Market, a couple of Saturdays ago was a terrific event, thoroughly enjoyable. In one room were gathered a dozen or more (I forgot to count) stalls representing breweries from in and around London, with the brewers themselves serving their beers and happy to talk to the punters about them.
It was the kind of “meet the brewer” show common in the US but almost unheard of in the UK that we really should be seeing repeated across this country. And it’s good to see London’s brewers working together in the 21st century to support each other in exactly the same way their ancestors did almost eight centuries ago, when the Brewers’ Guild was founded at All Hallows’ Church, London Wall.
It was also good, for me, to see that the Brewery History Society had a stall there: the LBA clearly has an interest in London’s history as a world-class brewing city, and everybody needs to be reminded of this almost forgotten heritage. I’d argue that, historically, London has an excellent claim to be regarded as the greatest brewing city in the world. Yes, I AM a Londoner, so of course I’m biased, but I dare you to deny that over the centuries London has given the world more new beer styles than any other brewing centre on the planet:
After I had met Matt Brynildson brewmaster at the Firestone Walker brewery in Paso Robles, California, on his way to make a Californian-style pale ale at Marston’s brewery in Burton upon Trent, for this year’s Wetherspoon’s International Beer Festival, I was eager to try Matt’s brew.
The problem with the Wetherspoon’s festival, though, is that with 50 beers on offer and no one pub able to do more than eight or so at a time, finding the one you want in any random ‘spoons outlet is, at best, five to one against: indeed, some pubs, I found last year, weren’t carrying any festival specials at all.
But since I was on the eastern side of the City on Friday night I decided the Masque Haunt in Old Street was worth a punt: despite the poor reviews you’ll find at that link, this is, as pubs underneath office blocks go, not bad, I’ve been drinking there for a dozen years and the condition of the beer is generally good, the customers are no more wacky than anywhere else in the City after 8pm when anyone normal has caught the train home*, and, most importantly, it offered a very good selection of beers during last year’s festival.
Result! Not only was the Haunt stocking Matt’s California Pale Ale, it also had two of the other three “international guest brewer” beers on tap, Baron’s Black Wattle Original Ale, with the Sydney-based brewers coming to Banks’s in Wolverhampton to recreate their beer (two more different places than “Sinny” and “Walverampton” it would be tough to think up) and Yona Yona from the Yo-Ho brewery in Kitasaku, Japan, being brewed at Banks’s.
The Great British Beer Festival isn’t about the beer. Well, OK, a large part of it is about the beer, there are hundreds of different brews on sale. How could it not be about the beer. But for me the beer isn’t the main pleasure: instead it’s the chance to meet a large number of pals without having to ring them up beforehand, because I know they’ll be going. I can predict who many of those I’ll share a beer with at Earls Court after an unplanned encounter around the bars will be. But there are always surprise stumble-upons, old pals recognised with a start. Plus beer!
I’ve been going to beer festivals for 30 years, I’ve served behind the bar at them, I’ve organised them, and I’m still not sure I really like them.
The problem is that whatever time you go, it’s always Friday night – that is, the bars are packed, it takes ages to get served, often the beers you want have run out, it’s frequently too noisy for conversation, and you can’t find a seat to sit down.
All the same, this is the first time in almost two decades that I’ve missed the opening of the Great British Beer Festival – having to fit in with someone else’s unbreakable holiday commitments meant I was on a Greek beach (of which more in another blog). One of the benefits of being a member of the Zythographers’ Union is that you get to blag your way in to the GBBF trade session on the Tuesday afternoon, which means there will always be a large number of people there I haven’t seen since, in some cases, the previous year’s GBBF, so that’s always fun. This year I didn’t get back to Britain until the Thursday night, so the one GBBF session I managed was Friday early evening.