Great British Beer Festival 2019: where tradition meets a progressive future

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The focus for Great British Beer Festival 2019 is not just on the exceptional ale, but on creating a more inclusive and supportive landscape for consumers, says CAMRA's Katie Wiles

The Great British Beer Festival 2019 (GBBF) will see more than 40,000 people hit Olympia London between 6-11 August to sample from 1,000 beers, ciders, perries, gins and wines. Michael Jones met with Katie Wiles, senior communications manager of organisers CAMRA (the Campaign for Real Ale), to discuss the size, and scale of the show, what’s new this year and why the Festival is still so relevant:


What’s new or different about the Festival this year?

Katie Wiles: We’ve got a few different initiatives. We’ve been running for 42 years, so obviously things have changed a lot since the first GBBF.

This year we have an entire section dedicated to craft beer, served from key keg containers, rather than from real ale hand pulls. It’s a different kind of dispense. You get many different flavours and it attracts a different kind of audience. So rather than the traditional real ale stalwarts, we’re looking to get to younger drinkers who might go to other craft beer festivals by having this section dedicated to key keg.

That’s been pioneered by four breweries: Tiny Rebel (pictured), Magic Rock, Siren and The Wild Beer Co. They use small keg containers and we are working with a partner delivering recyclable materials for the kegs.

Cask is usually much more environmentally friendly than keg, because you can reuse a cask, but now our partners can provides recyclable kegs for festivals, which means were keeps our environmental impact down.

What other initiatives are happening at the Festival?

Another key thing for this year is our new Discovery Zone. Across CAMRA we’re trying to help educate people about their favourite drink and get more members to learn about beer and real ale, how it is made and dispensed and the ingredients that go into it. So, we’ve got an entire section where people can do comparative tastings between cask and keg beer, they can touch the different hops, smell the barley and meet brewers to discuss the brewing process. It’s about bringing that educational element to members.

Another key extension is we’re trying to make our festival accessible to everybody, so we’ve got more vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free beers than ever before. We’ve got non-alcoholic beers and ciders and we have also tripled our wine and gin offering to try and make sure this is the destination for everyone who enjoys a great drink.

What are you most excited about seeing at this year’s show?

The key keg area is incredibly exciting. I was down there earlier and I tried a coconut porter, which was delicious. It brings a whole new dimension in terms of flavours and styles. Cask is always going to be king, because making it is an art – using a living substance, a live product – and you don’t necessarily get that with all types of dispense, but having that flexibility to bring in different types of beer from different dispense methods, means you get a bigger showcase and more options available.

How indicative is this show of wider beer trends? Is it a bellwether for what the UK drinks, or will be drinking?

I think so. The beer industry in general is moving towards trying to be a lot more inclusive and open to everybody. We don’t want this to just be reserved for ‘geeky beer lads’, where you have a to have a high level of knowledge to order something at the bar.

We want to try to educate people about different flavours and styles so anybody, especially female drinkers, can go up to the bar and feel totally comfortable ordering a speciality beer without having to default to red, white or rosé wine.

We’ve made a huge effort this year to ban all sexist beer at the festival – anything with sexist or discriminatory images or logos. That’s incredibly alienating and something that the beer industry has been quite slow to react to. It needs to be challenged.

The wind is turning towards a more inclusive and open beer landscape. At the moment, 17% of beer drinkers are women, but they are 50% of the population. That’s a huge missed opportunity. We tend to find that the beer industry has been ‘male, pale and stale’ and we need to change that.

How much growth is there in gluten-free, vegan or vegetarian beers?

There are at least 30-40 vegetarian or vegan beers here at GBBF, which is a large increase. It’s growing massively. Non-alcohol is getting a big investment and a lot of pubs are starting to stock options that aren’t just fruit juices. That’s so helpful for designated drivers or for people that can’t or don’t want to drink alcohol. There is a lot more interest in and more attention being paid to gluten intolerance, or those who are vegan or vegetarian. The industry is certainly adapting to that to make sure everyone’s got more choice.

What role does CAMRA play?

CAMRA represents consumers, not the brewers or publicans. We’re an organisation that supports beer drinkers and pub goers. So, whatever they think is important, we have to represent.

It is a membership organisation, made up of 200,000 volunteers – and they are the ones that set our agenda and our campaigns for the year. One of the key things we focus on is keeping beer affordable and pubs open.

Why does this show matter? Why is it still relevant?

This is the place to be for anyone that loves beer. One thing that makes GBBF so special is because it’s run by volunteers and is completely not for profit. People serving behind the bars here are using up their annual leave to pull pints and talk to people about beer, because they love it.

We don’t make massive amounts of money for CAMRA doing this. Anything we do make goes into our campaigning and supporting the industry – keeping beer prices down or stopping British pubs from closing. It’s really recognised by brewers and publicans because of the causes we work towards – this is the flagship, visible, in your face example of that. With the interest and publicity we raise through GBBF, that impact lasts all year long.

GBBF is very historic. 42 years ago when it first started, this was the only place you could get beers from outside of your local pub. You couldn’t get beers from all over the country. The landscape has massively changed, but we still have a very important role to support the sector and to help campaign for pub goers.

There are 14 pub closures every week in the UK. People are losing their sense of community and it’s having a social impact. We did some research recently with Oxford University that found that people that have a local pub are happier, more trusting of others and feel more connected to the local community. That can’t be overstated: pubs can combat social isolation and loneliness.

What has been your favourite beer here at the Festival?

There is a coconut porter here that is delicious. Titanic Brewery’s Plum Porter is really nice. My personal preference is for Silkie Stout by Loch Lomond, while Tiny Rebel’s Cwtch, which means ‘cuddle’ in Welsh, is a fantastic, hoppy beer.

Michael Jones