At a similar time in mid-August, two beer festivals will take place in London – the CAMRA Great British Beer Festival (a.k.a. the ‘GBBF’) in West London, and the London Craft Beer Festival in East London.
These are marketed as rather different types of beer festival – one an annual institution with its own Wikipedia entry and a history stretching back more than three decades; the other describing itself as “a new kind of festival”, ostensibly focussing on “Europe’s most exciting craft breweries”. But are these competing events really that different from each other? We compare...
What could be more important at a beer festival than the beer itself? Not much, we reckon. And as a solely beer-focussed organisation, CAMRA has always been obsessed with the range and quality of beer at the Great British Beer Festival. This year’s event promises “more than 800 real ales, ciders, perries and foreign beers” – based on previous years it’s likely that the vast majority of this selection with be cask-conditioned ales from brewers around the UK, usually in pretty good condition. It’s clear that there will be an epic range of beer, with something to satisfy the tastes of pretty much every ale aficionado.
However, despite the massive range that will be available at the Great British Beer Festival, CAMRA has received flak over the past few years for what some perceive to be an out-of-date stance on what defines a good beer. With its long-term distrust of keg beers and its public spats with certain ‘craft’ brewers, it has appeared to overlook some of the more interesting beers from newer breweries. This is where the London Craft Beer Festival comes into its own: while it offers many fewer beers than the CAMRA behemoth, its confirmed list of breweries shows a deliberate focus on relatively new brewers, including some who probably won’t be present at the larger festival. Many of the breweries are based in London, although a few high-reputation brewers from further afield also feature. The beer here might be a bit more ‘challenging’, depending on your tastes.
The Great British Beer Festival is massive. We’ve already mentioned the huge number of beers available, and the attendance is likely to be of a similar scale. Over the festival’s five days, CAMRA expects the best part of 20 bars, a similar number of food stalls and 55,000 people to fill out the rather large Olympia Grand exhibition hall.
The London Craft Beer Festival is of a smaller scale. Taking place over a weekend, in the Oval Space in Bethnal Green, this is more of a ‘standard-sized’ beer festival (if there is such a thing). There’s considerably less scope for becoming disoriented and losing your friends here, which may be handy after several hours of drinking crazy craft beer.
Someone once told us that hops are closely related to cannabis, which is why beer drinkers get the munchies. This is almost certainly complete nonsense. One thing’s for sure though, a beer festival needs to provide good beer-soaking food.
The Great British Beer Festival does well here, with numerous stalls providing a great variety of sinful eating pleasures, including The Best Pork Scratchings Ever (in our opinion).
Eager to follow London food trends, the London Craft Beer Festival’s publicity cites food options involving barbecues, meat from posh butchers, street food and, oddly, “supper clubs”. This could be great, or insufferably wanky, depending on how well it’s executed.
Both festivals offer live music, with the London Craft Beer Festival’s line-up looking decidedly more contemporary (and obscure) than the more traditional bands performing at the Great British Beer Festival (whose ‘headline’ act appears to be Alvin Stardust). The London Craft Beer Festival also promises several DJs, including Craig Charles from BBC 6 Music (and Red Dwarf) fame. Nice.
It’s clear that the London Craft Beer Festival is targeted at a ‘younger’ and ‘cooler’ demographic than the Great British Beer Festival, and this might be reflected in the festivals’ respective clienteles, although not as much as either sets of organisers would have you think – both events will probably attract a fairly mixed crowd.
The different venues will likely have a greater effect on the events’ atmospheres. Olympia, hosting the Great British Beer Festival, comes across as largely utilitarian and charmless for this event, despite its Grade II listed Victorian architecture. Conversely the Oval Space, if used well, could enhance the vibe of the London Craft Beer Festival, as well as providing some potentially pleasant outside space.
Of the various criticisms directed at CAMRA, disorganisation is rarely one. It has a long history of running successful beer festivals, and 35 years’ experience of organising the Great British Beer Festival. We’d hesitate to say that the event will be run with ‘military precision’ – it is a beer festival, after all – but we’d certainly expect it to go smoothly.
So will the London Craft Beer Festival be as well-organised? In honesty, it’s almost impossible to tell. We have no knowledge of any ‘track record’ for this event’s organisers, and similarly-marketed previous events this year (albeit from different organisers) have demonstrated a large variance in organisational competence. All we can say is that we’re cautiously hopeful that this event won’t suffer the same problems as some of its predecessors.
Here the two festivals adopt very different approaches. Unsurprisingly, the Great British Beer Festival is quite straightforward in its ticketing, with advance tickets for a full day priced at £10 (£2 less for CAMRA members, or £2 more if you buy tickets on the door) and beers are usually sold at standard-ish London pub prices.
Conversely, the London Craft Beer Festival take what they describe as a “continental approach”: £35 buys you entry to a five-hour afternoon or evening session, a festival glass, and 150ml of beer from every brewer stand (which they claim will add up to more than five pints). Thirstier attendees can purchase more beer for cash. On paper this looks like reasonable value (especially considering some craft beers can be rather pricey), but it does rely on some fairly ambitious assumptions about what people will want to drink, as well as the availability of numerous different beers for every session. There’s a lot that could go wrong here, so it’ll be interesting to see how well this approach works in practice.
So, it’s clear that these competing beer festivals will be quite different from each other – the Great British Beer Festival providing a reliable and semi-traditional experience; the London Craft Beer Festival offering a riskier, but potentially funkier prospect. Take your pick, or steel your liver and go to both.