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Britain has always been famous for its ale and beer has permeated deep into our culture. So to get a glimpse of the industry by going to two beer festivals in two days was a fantastic opportunity, not only to discover some amazing new breweries but to inspire me to create some interesting brews myself.
I was invited along to The Great British Beer Festival, organised by the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), on Saturday. I believe this is the largest British beer festival with over 900 beers on offer. Granted, they aren't all British (I'll get to that in a bit) but the vast majority come from all over the UK. On Sunday I went to the London Craft Beer Festival, which is much smaller, intimate and the complete opposite of TGBBF.

It's astonishing to see such a large number of beers yet so little diversity. I tried dozens, and some really stood out as fantastic beers, but the vast majority tasted like "English ale". The Great British Beer Festival highlighted the homogeny of traditional breweries.
I would like to reiterate my previous point that there were some great beers which stood out and by all means this is not an article about how all traditional breweries lack creativity, but it seems most are missing an opportunity to create something new.
It seems like a lot of the beers are using the same grain bills and the same hops. When I asked a barman on the stand "what hops does this beer contain?" he answered "saaz. They all have saaz". It was a bit disheartening to hear that. Brewing should be innovative and experimental, not creating a drink you've had 25 times before.

I went round trying various beers I thought might stand out from the others by reading the description, but usually they all tasted too similar: the third blonde beer of the day tasted like the first and second, they all tasted like the best bitters I sampled, which tasted awfully familiar to the IPAs.
Brewers who tried to mix New World hops with traditional brewing styles seem to be afraid to let those flavours come through. Quite often there'd be an IPA brewed with Cascade or Columbus, but it seemed they would be placed too early in the boil to really let the flavours come out.
The best beer of the day came from the small Belgian stand. I had a terrific Belgian IPA, bitter and black IPA.
I had a great day sampling beer and getting a perspective of what CAMRA, one of the biggest beer groups in Britain consider the best beer from around the country. The London Craft Beer festival was the opposite of TGBBF in almost every way. Hosted in the Oval Space, it was a much more intimate venue, possibly an eighth the size of TGBBF, yet there was more diversity in this room than the whole of that hall. Out of two dozen craft breweries, maybe two or three were from outside the UK, the rest showcased what British brewers are really capable of.
The majority of beers were pale ales and IPAs, yet with this one style there were so many variations of it. From single hopped to lemongrass, there were plenty of innovative and experimental brews by British brewers who are trying to break the norm and challenge themselves and the drinker.
I realised that a lot of the brewers present at the festival were like me: they weren't content with the homogeny of traditional ale, yet were inspired by the few which stood out and wanted to create something different. BrewDog, one of Britain's biggest craft breweries and possibly the most well known, started for this reason. As one of the first breweries in the UK's craft beer revolution their beer was considered new, exciting and innovative.

Punk IPA, their flagship beer, is now a staple beer and readily available around the UK, but is now becoming "standard". As a standard beer it's a good beer, but since its climb to fame there have been many breweries which have created more interesting IPAs, let alone the hundreds of other beer styles. At LCBF I enjoyed a lemon saison, a ginger and lime ale, beers brewed by heavy metal bands, and a wealth of nothing short of perfect beers.
I think as long as there are breweries pushing the boundaries, home brewing will be about trying to push them even further and this innovation feeds off itself. As breweries create new and interesting beers, this makes home brewers try and recreate and improve them, which in turn pushes the breweries to create something even better.
So you had the Bruce Dickenson/Iron Maiden-inspired Trooper Ale?
I think you should avoid golden ales at beer festivals, they are for the mass market! Regarding the barman, all the festivals are staffed with volunteers, so it is pot luck what info you get.
You went to the great British beer festival and were a little disappointed it was full of British beers?. Hmmm. If I went all that way to drink British ales and found boring old hop driven APAs I'd be disappointed.
"Brewing should be innovative and experimental..."
Preach it!
And there's not a thing wrong with finding what one likes and brewing the hell out of it. Not a thing. Power to them. '
Ha! My cat was ready to post. Anyway...
Yeah, brew what you like. I think a lot of us home brewers do like to experiment. I do. If all I wanted was the standard fare, I could go buy a case at Texaco. They have some good beer there.
Since I brew though, I can have whatever I want. A gallon or five of swamp donkey bath water isn't going to sink my brewery. When I hit on some wild idea that actually tastes great, it's a win for me. And since I know I like weird, weird is what I like to find. Marionberry? I don't even know what that is. Gimme a bottle.
Turns out a marionberry is a blackberry. Okay, not that weird, but Rogue made a great braggot out of them.
At first I was thinking.. "British Beer Fests but longing for something more American" Then I realized that I see very similar issues with American Craft. They are starting to fall into the same taste range. IE: they all use insert-newest-hot-hop for their dry hop.
Nothing wrong with having a similar beer to the next brewery, but at least have something different from them too.
The GBBF is not a craft beer festival and so you won't find the innovations and new trends you were hoping for (as you said, you found those at a craft beer festival). The British real ale industry is providing a proven product to a customer base that is used to drinking a relatively narrow range of beers, particularly with regards to ABV. The traditional ale drinker wants to have at least 8 pints and isn't overly concerned with pairing the beer with truffle oil-drizzled scallops; he just wants a packet of pork scratchings. If you go to the GBBF you just need to drink in the history of a country that produced some of the most popular and original beer styles ever. I wonder if double IPAs will be found at festivals in 250 years from now?
@KeninMN yes I have. It's pretty good and when I see it I do like to buy a bottle or two, but it's not my favourite beer.
@Twinkeelfool @CA_Mouse that probably is the case. I love going to USA and Canada because of all the amazing APAs, but as I'm only ever there for a 2 week holiday I can get my fill and leave happy. I do like a good bitter, but they are hard to find in America, as are a lot of Belgian beers. If you ever did come to the UK, I would recommend trying the cider.
A friend of mine read this article and said that craft beer is becoming synonymous with IPAs, and it's getting a little dull now. I sort of agree with him, throw a stone in a craft beer bar and you will hit an IPA. I can't even use that phrase because Stone is a brewery who make some good IPAs!
@KevG I would agree if we were sitting in a local pub or Whetherspoons type place, but at a festival of 900+ beers I would expect some more variations. It's supposed to appeal to beer drinkers of all types. My friend and I were walking around for ages before we could find a suitable beer to pair with our oil drizzled scallops. We got truffle oil all over our skinny jeans and beards.
English ale used to be a lot stronger than it was now, although this is going back to the 1800s/early 1900s or so. A "mild" would be around 6%. Because of a couple of world wars, heavy taxation on beer and the temperance movement getting a lot of ground, beers became a lot weaker during the 20th century. Pete Brown's "Man Walks into a Pub" is a really good history of drinking in England if you want to know more.
@shetc I didn't have it at the festival but I've had it before. It's alright and wouldn't turn down a glass if it was handed to me! Not really the type of thing I usually go for though.
The images system for articles is...unique. I want to improve it.
@biochemedic - why is that funny? Scotland is part of Great Britain as much as England and Wales are. At least for the next 2 days. You probably should've waited for another 2 days and a "Yes" vote before posting that :)
I love traditional real ale and wish we could get it here, rather than over-chilled and overcarbonated draft beer.
Do you go to Paris and then eat at McDonald's? Going to England and drinking American style craft beer is essentially the same thing. You'd probably have the same complaint about Oktoberfest. Its not always about creativity, its about doing something well. ...and wow! IPA is such a creative style! "Here is a new hop variety that smells like a cat pissed on gym sock full of pine needles and celery, lets see how much we can isomerize in a pale ale". There is a reason you don't find that at a traditional beer event: The only reason its good is because you have never had it before. Its not something that you will want to drink more than a few times.
@gbx I think you missed the point. Being from England, I am in Great Britian, meaning I have been brought up surrounded by ale in a culture which places a lot of emphasis on beer and alcohol. Have you ever been to Britain? Drinking culture is a massive thing here. I've not been to Vancouver, but have been to Toronto a couple of times and there is some amazing beer there, but it's difficult to find a good best bitter. (My display pic was taken in Amsterdam brewpub on the lakefront in Toronto!)
Your metaphor is not comparable. Just because a country serves a particular style, does not make it automatically good, and just because it's a regional speciality doesn't mean it should be on a pedestal. Try eating Surstrmming. I'd also like to point out that the Italians laugh at both British and French cuisine, they think it's the worst in the world.
The type of festival of Oktoberfest is really different from TGBBF. The former is a traditional beer festival, and as it's German the Reinheitsgebot plays a major part in the beer served even to this day. The latter is about the wide range of British beer available.
@jceg316 fair enough. I guess if you live there your perspective is different than mine as a visitor. And I'm not saying that you should drink a local style because its good, but a tourist should drink it because its the local style. The craft beer scenester here values new, bigger and different above drinkability and quality. It always bums me out when I hear one of them talking about their trip to London and they didn't drink a single cask conditioned bitter or when they say something like "the German beer scene sucks but Belgium is starting to come around".
There was still a decent selection of beers available at GBBF, porters, IPAs, (trad british ones, transatlantic ones)milds and some specialty beers. Plus all the foreign bars were good too
There's a large diversity within bitters (and all the others) as well though, I think you really have to have drunk a lot of them over a long time to understand them. Malty, hoppy, dry, sweet, not bitter, intensely bitter, some roast notes some with none, light, dark, loads of different yeast flavours. But if you drank dozens in one or two days even at the 1/3rd pint level then I can understand not being able to tell them apart one from the next. Also there are certainly too many middling ones too, but the same goes for US IPAs in the states or pils in Germany. Every great brewing nation has this
The GBBF certainly has its faults, like the categories for rating the best beer in britain is one glaring example and allowing kegs from other countries but not from the UK is stupid - Given that it's run by CAMRA they should say cask only, which would be fine by me, there's a lot of other festivals that can be built around the full range of british beers being produced in kegs. Also I think it's CAMRA who decide what beers from the breweries to showcase, so they err on the side of caution rather than pick what might be more "creative", even though a lot of traditional breweries are producing many interesting beers, CAMRA will just pick their best bitter.
Good to see some british festivals getting highlighted on the front page of HBT
@gbx It's funny people would do that! As mentioned there definitely are some gems out there which are readily available in the UK but difficult to find abroad.
I agree that some breweries seem to be making their beers more bitter, upping the hop amounts for their beers etc. instead of making a more well rounded brew. I have some friends who only want hoppy beers, and think that traditional beers don't have any, or have hardly any. I explain to them they have hops, and most beers they drink have hops, it's just noble and European hops taste very different from New World hops so the character would be different and should be appreciated differently.
Anyway, yeah I feel like when someone says they are "into beer" and all they drink are IPAs and disregard everything else, they aren't really into beer, they're into IPAs. That's absolutely fine, but "beer" is a whole lot more than that as I'm sure you are aware!
@hanglow that's really interesting about CAMRA and the "politics" of the event. I think CAMRA does some really good work, but sometimes they really annoy me! Don't get me wrong, overall I had a good time at the festival and would like to back next year, but with 900 beers I think there's room for traditional ale as well as taking a risk with some different beers.
Thanks for this article, jceg - very interesting! I think our beer culture in the UK is in a great place at the moment. Not only do we have our own excellent traditional beer culture, we also have good access to Belgian and German beers, and some new craft breweries brewing innovative styles and hop-forward American-style beers. The other day, I went to my fridge and had a choice of Duvel Belgian Golden Ale, Erdinger Kristalweiss, "Brew by Numbers" Simcoe and Willamette Session IPA, or Doombar Bitter.
Having said that, it can be quite hard at times to get that sort of variety if I go to the average English pub - it's usually either bitter, stout, or continental lager, possibly an IPA and possibly a golden ale. And whilst I agree that there are many subtle nuances of bitters if you look for them, I would concur with jceg that it would be nice to have some bolder flavours from the traditional breweries.