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A beer festival for 171,000 people

All you need to know about the 2021 virtual Great British Beer Festival

Earl's Court, West London, Summer of 2006. Over 66,000 people consumed some 350,000 pints of beer — one pint sold in less than half of every open second. Ten years later, in the Winter of 2016, the Roundhouse in Derby (Derbyshire); Precisely 13,832 people, have drunk a combined 57,000 pints of the 470 beers on offer: mostly strong ales, stouts, and porters. 

Sounds impressive, right? Well, this year, the Campaign For Real Ale (CAMRA) is planning to thirst nearly 170,958 people! That is the total number of CAMRA members on today's date. The occasion will be the Great British Beer Festival Winter (GBBFW), which showcases real ales in the UK in the winter months, especially the darkest and most vigorous. It was first held in 1997, alongside the Great British Beer Festival (GBBF), and the main CAMRA annual beer festival established in 1977.

The GBBFW and the GBBF have been styled as the "biggest pub in the world", but neither one has ever seen so many thousands of people attending their festival. It's crazy to think that at this time, during the current worldwide outbreak of a global pandemic, they could run such a celebration. How? Virtually. 

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(credits: Billy Abbott) 

Dave Glenwright, the Creative Director of the Great British Beer Festival Winter at Home Edition, told us: "Very early in the first lockdown, several breweries started to put on virtual beer tasting events, where they would deliver a box of beers to your house, and you'd then join at a set time to go through a tasting just like you would at the brewery. These events proved popular, and so once it was clear that our summer festival, the Great British Beer Festival, wasn't going to go ahead, work started to organise a week of these kinds of events, featuring beers and ciders curated from several producers, and a programme of beer tastings and other live talks".

The GBBFW, which was due to be held at New Bingley Hall, Birmingham, will instead be held online, in line with current Covid-19 restrictions. Mr Glenwright said, "We ran GBBF in February 2020, which turned out to be one of the last beer festivals in the country (though we didn't know it at the time!). Since then, a team consisting of volunteers and CAMRA staff has been working hard to figure out how we can recreate the festival experience but from the comfort of your own home. We've worked closely with the GBBF team, who hosted a virtual event last September, to work out what worked and what didn't, build on their experiences and deliver a fantastic virtual event this March." The event took place from the 19th to the 21st of March 2021.

We were curious to hear if the GBBF could find a way to deliver a great festival during the unprecedented times. Mr Glenwright told us: "The volunteers that organise GBBF, GBBFW and countless other beer festivals up and down the country have been committed to finding ways to put on events for the public and provide support to a hospitality industry that has been hit hard over the past twelve months".

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CAMRA is considered one of the most successful consumer organisations across Europe. Founded by four real ale enthusiasts back in 1971, today, they represent beer drinkers and pub-goers across the UK. It's great to hear that pubs, breweries, cider producers and bottle shops, businesses that have struggled through the pandemic, have been supported by the CAMRA. 

"The Great British Beer Festival at Home will work hand in hand with those in the industry to share their stories, their deep-rooted knowledge and their excellent products with our attendees. In turn, we hope it will help us share the message further that pubs, breweries and producers need everyone's support to ride out the impacts caused by the pandemic''. 

When we've asked Mr Glenwright how different to host an entirely virtual beer festival, he said: "This has, without a doubt, been an enormous learning curve for us, but an exciting one. Many of the skills required to organise a traditional 'physical' festival - logistical planning, selecting and buying drinks, budget planning, marketing - are all still needed to organise a virtual event. Still, they're used in a completely different way".

It has been a team effort to deliver such an incredible journey: "We're fortunate as a committee in that we have some experienced veterans of beer festivals who have contacts with breweries and can curate some fantastic beer and cider boxes. Alongside that, I head up a creative team of volunteers who are skilled in digital marketing, graphic design, and video production. This means that combined, and we've been able to approach loads of people for content and support them as they create it and send it over to us to host. Will we run anything like this in the future? That remains to be seen! We plan to return to a physical festival in 2022 if we're able to, but if there's a demand for it, we'll certainly look at what we'll do online in the future".

alex_downham_virtual_beer_fest

(credits: Alex Downham)

The GBBFW at Home is working hand in hand with those in the industry to share their stories, deep-rooted knowledge, and excellent products with our attendees. In turn, they hope it will help them further communicate the message that pubs, breweries, and producers need everyone's support to ride out the impacts caused by the pandemic.

When I've asked Mr Glenwright if virtual events are here to stay, he replied: "I think that virtual events are, without a doubt, here to stay in a post-Covid world. Of course, nothing can truly replace the atmosphere and excitement of a physical festival, but there are a whole host of benefits that are unique to online events. With GBBFW at Home, we're accessible to people worldwide, and we're able to give small, independent businesses a platform to engage with possible future customers directly. I think that it's entirely likely that as restrictions relax, other event organisers and we will look at ways in which events can offer the best of both worlds - a physical event supplemented by a virtual fringe of additional content for those who want more or can't be there in person. The last year has forced us to embrace technology like never before, and there are going to be tremendous opportunities to benefit from this in the future".

hazel_john_virtual_fest

(credits: John Davies & Hazel Turner)

There's plenty for everyone, from a beer connoisseur looking to learn more about beer or want to meet up with friends in your local area… and you just need a laptop. The (beer) future is bright.

About CAMRA

camra_logoThe Campaign For Real Ale (CAMRA) is considered one of the most successful consumer organisations across Europe. Founded by four real ale enthusiasts back in 1971, today they represent beer drinkers and pub-goers across the UK. CAMRA is well-established as a powerful campaigning force within the beer and pub sector. Over the following three decades, it influenced a number of pieces of legislation aimed at supporting and improving the beer drinkers and pub-goers experience.

Over 200+ branches spring up across the country, each of which runs local beer festivals and awards to celebrate the industry. CAMRA Books publishes hundreds of titles about beer and pub campaigning, and their national awards and Great British Beer Festival draw the attention of the national media. 2021 marks the 50th anniversary of the organisation.

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contributed by Gabriele Bertucci

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