Around this time of year, someone usually asks me: "I suppose you'll be going to the Great British Beer Festival?" It's funny the surprise the answer "no" seems to elicit. I have been to the GBBF twice: it was in the late 1980s when it was in Leeds. It was a much smaller affair than it is now, and I did enjoy my visits, staying in student accommodation and working on pub games for the most part.
But London? The cost of travel and accommodation (and admission if you're not volunteering) would add up to a tidy sum even before you raise your first glass to your lips, and frankly I wouldn't find it worthwhile any more. I could easily wander around Southport pubs and find twenty different types of real ale in a day, although I'm not sure whether I could manage that in pints nowadays. The next day, I could travel to Liverpool and find an even bigger range - and this is before you consider Wigan and Preston. Admittedly, these choices will include some familiar beers, but increasingly with the proliferation of micro-breweries, I can usually come across quite a few that are new to me. If I want to try a good range of beers, I can do so with the minimum of travel, and sleep in my own bed.
I'm not criticising the GBBF. It provides tremendously good publicity for real ale (the press loves it), the beer awards are widely broadcast and are taken very seriously by the industry, and it is clearly enjoyed by those who attend, both customers and volunteers. Plus it annoys the craft keg advocates who fulminate that it's an outdated dinosaur, like CAMRA itself, even though the rising attendance figures of the festival, like the membership figures of CAMRA, tend to disprove such arguments.
It's just that if I think about going, the first things that spring to mind are the hassle of travel, finding somewhere to stay and the overall cost. The choice I have in pubs within - say - an hour's travel from home means that the lure of being able to try different beers is much less of a unique selling point than it once was.
But that's just me, though: if you're going, I hope you have a good time.
The Great British Beer Festival - 11 to 15 August at Olympia, Hammersmith Road, London, W14 8UX.
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