August in London has been dominated by a competition involving contenders from every corner of Britain; some from relatively humble origins, others burdened by the weight of expectation, but all vying for the title of champion.
Yet this battle was not fought on the superhuman stage of Olympic Park. Far from it. This war was waged in London’s Olympia at none other than the Great British Beer Festival (GBBF) on 7-11 August.
The annual event, previously held at Earls Court, is organised by the Campaign or Real Ale (CAMRA) and stakes a solid claim to be the ‘Biggest Pub in Britain’. This year’s event comes at a time when the market needs it most. Real ale is increasingly popular with a younger demographic, driven to enjoying a finer drop on a diminished disposable income, but these producers and microbreweries need stockists.
Since 2005 – incidentally the last time this event was held in Olympia – 8,000 pubs have closed in the UK and the number of young pub goers has dropped from 38 to 16 per cent. In fact, according to CAMRA, almost 40 per cent of us are visiting pubs less than we did a year ago, if at all.
“Hard-working publicans have been hammered by the government in recent times, and what we’ve seen in the past seven years is that young adults in particular have been priced out of an affordable night down their local pub,” said CAMRA chief executive Mike Benner.
“The Government has encouraged people to use their pubs as community assets, yet this is a hollow message when punitive increases on the price of a pint have meant that consumers are deterred from visiting their local, causing beer sales figures in this country to fall flat.”
All of this intense competition for less space makes the market for real ale a hard-fought one.
Not that you’d know it from inside the hall, where an army of fine ale enthusiasts are taking their time, glass in hand, to sample the best of the best. On entry you are greeted with a counter where you buy your pint glass. The hall revolves around a central island flanked on the left-hand side by bars, while food stands run down the right. More of both can be found upstairs.
Towards the back there’s a large social area, with a stage occupied in the evening by bands and competition announcements. And being sociable is what the Great British Beer Festival does best.
The event opens with one trade/press day, but the rest is very much a public, social affair, visibly picking up at 5.30pm as people get out of work.
CAMRA’s newly appointed Great British Beer Festival organiser Ian Hill pointed out that while not a trade show, this showcase for the UK’s fine ales does much to boost business.
“It’s a consumer show, but then you can’t support consumers without supporting trade,” he said. “If you want a proper ale, you have to be at GBBF.”
This is the largest of CAMRA’s UK events, which vary in size from city events to those approaching a county-sized representation. All are made possible by the group’s loyal base of volunteers, and even at the London event only a handful of the production team were professional staff, 800 volunteers comprising the rest. This year’s event was held in Olympia, as opposed to Earls Court, as a result of the Olympics. The event is aimed at the on-trade sector (where drinks are consumed on the premises), offering punters a chance to taste ales best consumed in pubs, an important element of drinking these brands. “The pub is the best market for real ale, and it’s the safest place to drink. Supermarkets don’t give you that,” Hill said.
GBBF has a loose association with the New England Real Ale Exhibition (NERAX) in the US. The two events share knowledge and commit to introducing beers from each other’s markets to the local event. America’s east coast, according to Hill, has similar brewing trends.
“But while the east coast has similar breweries, the pub is very much a British institution,” he claimed.
It’s a fact that will have escaped many at the Olympics, where ale became generic at the behest of licensing and sponsorship agreements. Colourful titles like Sneck Lifter or Broadside were notably absent, while John Smiths was relabelled, rather blandly, ‘British Bitter’.
GBBF is shared by what CAMRA refers to as its own bars; that is, the bars where they display microbreweries, and pitches that can be taken by larger brands, such as Marstons or London’s own Fullers. “There’s good competition for those pitches. We are constrained by space,” Hill said.
And this is the inescapable fact; the UK will always have a thirst for fine ale, and CAMRA’s events such as GBBF give people a place to engage it.
A new breed of exhibitor:
Ian Lewis, head of marketing at cider producer Westons:
Lewis said Westons also attends Imbibe, the BBC Good Food Show and the Restaurant show. But despite its loyal following of real ale drinkers, GBBF’s visitors fit the target profile for Westons almost exactly.
“We’re at the Great British Beer Festival because we can meet our market and see how the individual products are performing,” he said.
Lewis claimed there are enough people in London to justify exhibiting even during the second week of the Olympics.
“We have really benefited from meeting them face-to-face,” he added.Kirsten Salter, business development manager in London and the South East at drinks producer Fentimans:
Despite selling products that include premium alcoholic ginger beer, the very British crowd of fine ale connoisseurs is almost a perfect fit for Fentimans.
“We fit the premium niche, and the GBBF is full of good brands,” Salter said, adding that this is helped by the association running it. “CAMRA is quite quirky itself,” she continued.
“Fentimans sells its products online through Drinkshop.com and Whole Foods, but GBBF gives us a chance to make our presence known among other premium brands.
“This is our biggest growing market [on-trade]. We’re growing more in on-trade markets. This is where GBBF is aimed.”
This was first published in the September edition of EN. Any comments? Email email@example.com