This past year has normalised many things that we wouldn't have even considered a thing not too long ago, and one of them is this: the beer festival that you attend from home. Send people some money over the internet, have them send you a box full of beer in exchange, and then on a specified day connect with those people over a different bit of the internet where you can share the experience of drinking the beer together.
And yes, that is normalised. If it wasn't, how come we recently attended three of these things over the space of four weeks? And how did they end up being so wildly different from each other? Research data follows.
Here's another thing you wouldn't have considered possible a year ago - that the Campaign For Real Ale would be trailblazers of a sort. Last September, the internet version of their annual Great British Beer Festival gave you a curated selection of eleven beers and a weekend full of video material (including live tastings over Zoom) for just £46. Now, it turns out that in between GBBFs, they run a smaller festival in Birmingham every year known as GBBF Winter. We haven't really cared about that in the past because, well, no offence, but, it's Birmingham. But as the pandemic goes on, they've made GBBF Winter an online festival - so why shouldn't we attend that one, too?
One possible reason became apparent immediately - because it wasn't as good value as the London one, with only six beers delivered for an entry fee of forty quid. Still, we bit the bullet and went for the least obvious beer collection for a British beer festival (but the most obvious for us), a case of six American craft beers. As was the case in the previous festival, each box of beers had its own online tasting session dedicated to it, and that was how we started our weekend. Thanks to the grinding slowness of my current laptop, we ended up joining Lotte Peplow's tasting a couple of minutes late, which meant that we missed an important part of her introduction: that she was only going to cover two of the six beers provided, and we were to explore the others at our leisure. So it came as a bit of a shock when she wrapped up the session after only forty minutes (especially as it looks like the sessions involving British beers lasted closer to an hour and a half on average). Still, what we had was entertaining enough, with interesting contributions from Adam Dulye on the art of food and beer pairing: although it felt a bit of a cheat that one of the beers was Sierra Nevada, which is so common these days it's become a staple in many supermarkets.
Things got better for the rest of the weekend, though. On the Saturday, the main event was a Zoom panel on how pubs are going to cope with the challenges of Covid. It's hard to shake off the stereotype that CAMRA is a backwards looking organisation, so it was reassuring to find a consensus being reached that going back to how things were pre-pandemic was not an option. The closest we got to old school CAMRA was one of the audience leaving his microphone on and starting a loud conversation with someone else part way through about his dental work. ("Get him off!" screamed a woman at one point, giving some real You Have No Authority Here Jackie Weaver energy to the proceedings.) We spent the rest of the day with a couple of English ales from our personal stash, while watching some of the chunky collection of on-demand content available from the festival – brewery tours both old and new, intriguing promo films for bottle shops, charming pub-based archive footage from Midlands news programmes. The only bit we couldn't really navigate was the entertainment section, where it's a bit much expecting people to choose video clips of music or comedy based on the evidence of a single video thumbnail.
And then came the final day, with a small burst of inspiration on CAMRA's part that made up for the comparative stinginess of their beer box. Christine Chyne's talk about the history and judging of the organisation's top award, the Champion Beer of Britain, was advertised with a simple request to bring along four beers of your choice: a brown bitter, a golden or pale ale, a lager or sour beer, and a dark beer. She'd then describe the tasting process used to judge each of those four categories, while you applied that process to your beer to judge it for yourself. This became the most enjoyably educational session of the weekend, and we learned quite a bit: for example, a beer containing the sort of ingredient additions that The BBG quaintly refers to as 'adjuncty bollocks' automatically goes into CAMRA's 'speciality' category, meaning that our choice of dark beer - Elusive Brewing's Spellbinder coffee porter - wouldn't be judged as a dark beer at all. It's a shame that we missed out on the printed tasting guide that was meant to accompany the session - possibly a consequence of our ordering the American box, which had its own guide - but this was still a fun way to wrap up the weekend.
But a mere fortnight later, GBBF Winter stopped being our favourite online beer festival of the year, because Siren's The Grateful Eight happened. You may be aware of Siren Craft Brew: they even managed to gatecrash one of my BrewDogging pieces by celebrating the fifth birthday of their Finchampstead brewery on the same weekend that BrewDog opened a new bar down the road in Reading. I guess that must have been three years ago, because The Grateful Eight was their online event to mark the brewery's eighth birthday. By comparison with CAMRA's do, it was much shorter – a mere six hours on Good Friday afternoon – but ridiculously packed, starting with a box of ten beers for £50 as your price of entry. This included a bottle of the Maiden 11% barley wine they traditionally brew every year for their anniversaries, as well as several bags of beer snacks that got their own tasting session during the day, so there's no way you could complain about value for money.
But it's the size and ambition of The Grateful Eight's online content that really gave this the edge. Logging into their Canapi platform gave you access to three concurrent livestreams of programming – just like a real festival, you had to make choices about how to cope with clashing sessions, and whether to risk ducking out of one early to go to another. One of the channels was largely run by Jonny Garrett and Brad Evans from The Craft Beer Channel, who did such a good job of hosting BrewDog's online Collabfest last year. They had a terrific series of informed chats and tastings, with lots of special guests – Melissa Cole leading a masterclass in how to taste beer, or escape room entrepreneurs James and Bond (yes, really) discussing the links between storytelling and booze, as a lead into a short story competition tied in with Siren's new brew Bones Of A Sailor. Meanwhile, on the other channels Siren's own staff were running even more sessions, including an online brewery tour which had the unexpected consequence of making 'massive tanks!' the catchphrase of the day.
But there’s more! That was just the live material, not counting the couple of hours of afterparty held on Twitch after the main event finished. There was also a whole swathe of pre-recorded programming you could watch at any time - in fact, at the time of writing it's still up there. The best of this was the challenge Siren put out to a dozen or so nearby breweries, inviting them to take part in a lipsync battle. In effect, because there's only a limited number of places that you can film at the moment, it turned into a dozen small brewery tours accompanied by music. As is usually the case with these things, the less predictable the music choice the better. When it’s beardy tattooed craft beer types miming to heavy metal, it’s fun but a little bit predictable – you can watch that happening on the other side of any BrewDog bar after May 17th, hopefully. It’s the breweries who pivoted away from Radio Whiteboy who really succeeded, and for my money Wild Weather got all the elements just right: an unexpected song choice (Vanessa Carlton's A Thousand Miles), a singer who was prepared to go that extra mile to make themselves look ridiculous, and the jaw-dropping realisation that the tune's been repurposed as a love song to the actual concept of pints. Watch it here if you don’t believe me.
Which brings us to an important point, in case you've been wondering why I've not linked to many other videos here. Apart from a few bits and pieces like the Wild Weather and Siren promos above, all the online content at GBBF Winter and The Grateful Eight was paywalled - buying the beer box gave you exclusive access to the videos, and will continue to do so for several weeks afterwards. BrewDog's Punk AGM 2021, on the other hand, was completely open to everyone - in fact, you can watch the whole thing from beginning to end right here, right now. In much the same way as you can watch Punk AGM 2020, in fact. And that's a big part of the problem.
Punk AGM 2020 was impressive at the time, I guess. The real-life meeting in Aberdeen had to be cancelled with just a couple of weeks' notice, leaving BrewDog with the quandary of how to hold their annual financial report cum piss up. When they quickly put together an online version just a few weeks later, it seemed like a radical idea - they were the first to come up with the box-of-beers-plus-online-content formula that's all over the place now, and it all held together terrifically considering they'd had less than a month to put it together. One year later, they've had to hold another one... and they've chosen to make it a carbon copy of the first, not considering that in the interim even frickin' CAMRA have pushed the envelope in terms of how to organise an event like this one.
So if you saw the 2020 AGM, you know what to expect from the 2021 version. A box of beers, sure - forty quid for thirteen of them, if you're doing price comparisons with the other two events - but to be honest, they were a little bit of a disappointment. We were sent two cans of most of the beers, two of which were lagers (hawk, spit, although the B Corp lager was actually quite interesting): one of which was Mallow Laser Quest, because apparently someone somewhere wanted a beer that tasted of Trebor Fruit Salads: and the one beer that came in a single serving was the anniversary beer Dog J, which has sadly become a copy of a copy of the original Dog A we had at our first AGM nine years ago.
As for the video content, it was broadcast as a livestream on YouTube and open to anyone who knew the URL, which takes away from the exclusivity that made the other two festivals feel more like events and less like drunk vlogging. And it didn't help that the show was being run by Tim and Gendle, who've been the hosts of BrewDog's regular Open Arms online shows throughout the pandemic. If the aim of such events is to replicate digitally the feeling of being in a real-life bar, then Tim and Gendle are the noisy buggers who eventually force you into moving to another table on the other side of the room. As I mentioned earlier, in between their two pandemic AGMs BrewDog had the Collabfest event hosted by the guys from the Craft Beer Channel, who are much better at this sort of thing: sadly, it looked like Siren bagsied them first.
In a measly two hour slot (well, measly compared against six hours or an entire weekend), we got a short business update from James Watt and Martin Dickie, where the most interesting announcement was of a new BrewDog hotel planned for here: a rapid tasting session for six of the seven beers in the box: and a chaotic pub quiz with several hundred punters all trying to give their answers simultaneously in the YouTube comments. In between all those elements, we had some live music too. The Dandy Warhols made for a ridiculously underpowered start, leading to someone commenting on Twitter that "so far this has all the easy energy of someone being fired on a Teams call": Yonaka (a Brighton outfit who've been regular guests on those Open Arms events) turned out to be surprisingly enjoyable: and Johnny Marr was the predictable highlight, playing one of his own solo tunes and then obligingly showing us what There Is A Light That Never Goes Out sounds like when sung by someone who isn't a massive racist.
So, entertaining enough in the end: but compared with what CAMRA and Siren were able to pull off with similar resources, BrewDog's attempt was a little bit thin. Hopefully, this time next year we can all assemble in some sort of hangar close to Aberdeen Airport and do Punk AGM right. But if we can't... well, they might need to put a bit more thought into it next time.