Insights from the Great British Beer Festival
It is generally accepted that there are three great historic brewing nations: Germany, Belgium and Great Britain. British beer styles in particular have been popularised by the craft beer movement over the last thirty years.
U.S. home-brewers visiting Britain in the 1970s and 1980s would return home with their palates whetted by the top fermenting styles that they discovered. Several would go on to found the microbreweries that would produce the pale ales, IPAs, porters and stouts that would influence generations of craft brewers who followed. British ale styles, with their huge diversity of malt and hop profiles, are today the fastest growing in the world.
However, in Great Britain itself, “craft beer” is a more recent phenomenon. Well before the U.S. Brewers Association had coined the term “craft beer” in the 1980s, the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) organisation was founded in Great Britain in 1971 to promote cask-conditioned British ales and to combat the rise in imported, kegged lager from continental Europe.
It was thought that Great Britain was in danger of losing its beer heritage and this independent consumer group would be hugely successful over the next forty years in promoting cask beer and the British pub as an institution.
Real Ale: A Quick Guide
Cask-conditioned Real Ale is relatively unknown outside of Great Britain. Lager beers (and most ales) are filtered, kegged and force-carbonated at the brewery. Real Ale, on the other hand, is left unfiltered and is matured in the same cask from which it is dispensed. Because the yeast is still active in the casks that are delivered to the pub, great care must be taken with them: temperatures need to be controlled, pressure needs to be released and the beer needs to be hand-pumped into the glass it is served in. Real Ales are typically served warmer, flatter and often cloudier than kegged beers.
Real Ales also have a shorter shelf life. While kegged beers are dispensed with carbon dioxide, the headspace in a cask is replaced by air. Once tapped and exposed to oxygen, Real Ale will remain fresh for up to a week.
The Great British Beer Festival 2014
The forerunner to the event, the CAMRA Covent Garden Beer Exhibition, took place in 1975. By 1977 this had become an annual fixture and was rebranded to the Great British Beer Festival (GBBF). Today it is one of the largest beer festivals in the world, taking place over five days and attracting 60,000 visitors.
The 2014 GBBF took place at the Olympia, London in mid August. Having attended the festival several times over the last decade (the last time in 2007), I was curious to see how British brewers had progressed and how this traditional method of producing beer was being influenced by the rapid growth of craft beer, particularly in London.
Here is a summary of the my observations:
GBBF is the Mecca of the session beer: While the general trend in craft brewing has been the production of higher alcohol, “big” beers, the tradition of casked Real Ales has always been about low-alcohol thirst-quenchers that can be enjoyed by the pint. These beers, all between 3.5-5.0% ABV are less forgiving to brew. The variety available at the GBBF is unequalled and there are few gimmicks or attention-grabbing ‘extreme beers’.
Rise of the Golden Ale style: Although British malsters were the first to product pale malts, there has not been a long tradition of brewing golden ales in Britain. However, since Crouch Vale’s “Brewers Gold” won the Supreme Champion Beer of Britain two years in a row (2005/6), the game has changed. This style has taken off, becoming one of the most popular styles at this years festival.
Hop Experimentation is Welcome: Because CAMRA has been working hard to preserve brewing traditions, there had been some reluctance by British brewers to use new world aroma hops, with most just sticking to the familiar English varieties in their recipes. This year, it was very apparent that hop experimentation with new varietals from the U.S.A or New Zealand is welcome. Citra, in particular, was a favourite of the Golden Ale brewers.
The ‘Real Ale’ versus ‘Craft Beer’ War: When CAMRA was founded forty years ago, the enemy was kegged beer: “tasteless, yellow, fizzy liquid”, as several CAMRA members put it to me. In the last three years, there has been an explosion of young British brewers producing pale ales, porters and stouts under the “craft beer” banner – but distributing these in kegs.
These brewers pose a challenge to CAMRA –British beers brewed by small, independent brewers are more difficult to paint as an enemy of beer. There is a very heated debate about the role of these brewers in the GBBF, with blood being spilled on both sides. Germany is not the only brewing nation where the new craft brewers sit uncomfortably with the established order!
Foto: Photo via GBBF 2014