Great British Beer Festival – is it a girl thing?

Posted on August 24, 2010


Earlier this month I took some time out to enjoy a day at the Great British Beer Festival (all in the name of research). For me it was like an extra Christmas, 450 ales under one roof all wanting me to try them out and I had great fun. Two standout beers for me, once I managed to tear myself away from the Thornbridge bar, were the Titanic Chocolate & Vanilla Stout and Brewsters Hop a Doodle Do but there were lots lots more.
As a reminder of the day I hopped onto the website to take a look at the festival photos and was surprised to see so many nubile young ladies in the photos that seem to have been missing from the day itself!! One thing that the GBBF does, I’m afraid, is bring to life a lot of real ale stereotypes with an audience largely made up of overweight, bearded men in sandals (apologies to Mr Dredge). Now CAMRA are no fools, they’re not going to put photos of fat Kev and his bermuda short wearing compatriots on their site – they want to attract people to next year’s show, but is the GBBF really the hotbed of young ladies the photo gallery would suggest?
CAMRA have talked lots about the growing number of women drinking real ale. As part of this years National Cask Ale Week they claimed that women are turning to real ale in ever-growing numbers. In the space of one year, they say, the number of women drinkers trying real ale has nearly doubled from 16% to 30% and now there are 1.3 million women drinkers of real ale.
Research showed many women wouldn’t even try real ale because they didn’t know what it was, where to start or because they thought it would taste too bitter but my hunch is that more women are turning to ale through the efforts of good publicans than any concerted effort from CAMRA. Pubs are offering more choice, better service and education that is enticing women into the beer category, if the GBBF is anything to go by CAMRA have a way to go in understanding how to market to women and as a result I only saw a handful of women like those in the pictures.
I’m aware there are two schools of thought when it comes to making beer appealing to women; either there is nothing wrong with the beer category, women just need to appreciate it and any attempt to market specifically to women is patronising and unnecessary OR that beer is overly masculine, has ignored and even alienated women and there’s a lot that needs to change to make beer relevant to women (lets not forget over 60% of women don’t drink beer, ever). I’ve made no secret of the camp I’m in and whilst there is a lot right about the GBBF there’s a lot they can still do if they want the lovely ladies in the photo to make up more of their actual audience.  Nearly half of women look for great food,service, atmosphere and entertainment in the places they choose to drink in so how did the GBBF measure up?
Service – the barstaff were brilliant. In the main volunteer and the level of knowledge and enthusiasm they had was outstanding. You could walk up to any bar say “I quite like jellybeans and the smell of hot tarmac on a wet summers day” and they would find you a beer that you would enjoy,taking the time to let you try any number of beers until you found one you liked without once rolling their eyes. But I had to stand up all day and put my sleeve in wet patches on the bar far too many times – keeping a clean bar and offering a table service area would have really made my day.
It was great that there was a range of glass sizes on offer (pint, half and 1/3) but there was no way of rinsing your glass between beers or emptying out a beer you might not have liked – something that’s the norm at any wine show. I know it’s difficult when you’re dealing with such large numbers of people and I’m not expecting Michelin standard service but offering people the chance to rinse their glasses (especially after some of the big hoppy beers) would make a real difference.
Food – there was loads of it, and the pork scratchings were legendary, but there was no obvious link between the food and beer. Should I have picked a certain beer for the Thai food, something different for the fish and chips – there was no way of knowing, meaning that when people left would they remember anything other than “I tried a lot of beer” instead of a really great food and beer pairing that they’d want to try out at home and impress their friends with their new found knowledge. The festival programme has some basic principals on matching beer and food but I would have liked to see the food and beer mixed in together and signs on each stall of which beers they would recommend went with their food.

Atmosphere – this is something that scored highly. One thing I’ve learned in the last year is just what a welcoming and friendly lot the beer community are and the GBBF was no exception. Mixing a room full of guys and 450 beers always has the potential to be tricky but not here, it felt very relaxed and a completely safe environment for a woman on her own. Everyone was there to enjoy the beer and enjoy the company and the atmosphere was hard to fault.
Entertainment – my view of CAMRA is that a lot of their views are stuck in the 70s and the entertainment was a real reflection of that. Whilst Hank Wangford is one of the finest names of a musician I’ve ever heard I’m not sure he’s that relevant to a younger, female audience. Clearly he has appeal to the more traditional CAMRA member, as did all the entertainment, but what was lacking was real diversity. Am not suggesting that JLS are booked up for next year but there needs to be more than just country music and skittles if you want more women through the doors.

The GBBF are using Twitter but there seemed to be no recognition of the power of social media at the event itself and the number of people blogging and tweeting live from the event. I’d love to see free charging stations for your mobiles as many big shows offer (my battery died after beer no4) and free wifi for next time.
All in all I’d say a B- with definite room for improvement and hopefully next year there will be as many women there as the photos suggest.