Ain’t no party like a craft beer party - the evolution of the London Craft Beer Festival

By Adrian Redfern, Beermonger

Like many people, the first time I started to realise that there’s a hell of a lot more beer out there than I could find in my local boozer is when I first found myself at a major beer festival. Now that may have only been 15 years ago but looking back it feels like a different world in comparison to what’s happening right now. Never the less, my inaugural beerfest experience was one hell of an eye opener!
With 500 odd beers from far and wide, no kegs of course, this was a cask-o-rama in true CAMRA style. It was the Nottingham beer festival in fact, which was and still is one of the biggest in the UK. Back then it was in an old Victorian leisure centre, with wall to wall stillages and a proper canteen with a choice of pies, faggots and/or mashed potato all served with a side of minty peas. Fine faire I might add and I probably wouldn’t have survived without it. If those of you visiting the LCBF in East London this month thought there were a lot of beards and tattoos knocking around in there, well that was nothing on this crowd.
But something that fascinated me even more than the people watching was the constant activity around the ‘back of house’ areas. Expert cellarmen, carefully sampling beers to figure out when they’re ready for serving. Arranging and changing hundreds of cold, damp tea towels, draping them atop row upon row of stainless steel casks, monitoring the rate at which the thirsty punters are devouring their ales and racking and venting more beers so they don’t run out as the five day bosh-a-thon progressed. There seemed to be a lot of beer experts on my side of the bar too, paying close attention to the fine art of the cellarmen so they were in the right place at the right time to consume the rarest un-ticked beauties in optimum condition. It was beer geek central and there was some full on banter alright (some things at least never change).

So fast forward about 10 years to 2012 and the popularity of keg beer is now really beginning to kick off. Thanks to the ever-growing availability of American and Scandinavian craft beer and a bunch of small but progressive UK breweries (some of which are not so small these days), the time had come for a major beer festival where keg beer could be at the forefront. But keeping and serving serious volumes of keg beer is even more technical and temperamental than traditional beer. Anyone who’s poured a keg at a house party will know that getting the beer out of the keg is not as easy as it looks.
It felt like a critical mass was hit, and with the number of new breweries rising exponentially, the race was on to see who could put on the most epic keg party. Being based at one of East London’s fledgling breweries at the time I was fortunate to meet a couple of guys who were planning to do exactly that and were in need of some beer. The scene was set, the iconic Oval Space in Bethnal Green with its post-industrial gasometer backdrop, smack bang in the epicentre of the burgeoning East London craft beer heartland. The location couldn’t be better but there were still some major conundrums to overcome. Not least of all, the dreaded FOAM. However, the thing which really interested me when I first met Greg and Dan, who were planning what is now known as LCBF, was that rather than ignoring the inevitable consequences of putting a hundred kegs of unfiltered beer in a warm event space, they were actually talking about refrigerating the beer.

There are many different models you can apply to beer festivals these days. Some are organised by breweries who have a bit of space and want to open their doors and get all their friends involved. Some events companies will deal with all the marketing and logistics and charge the breweries a pitch fee to sell their beer directly to the public. Some are organised by collectives of beer bars and bottle shops. Some have beer tokens and others have gone for an all-inclusive ticket with a time-limited session. Some choose to refrigerate the beer, others don’t.
At the time Greg and Dan admittedly knew relatively little about beer dispense, they were events guys. So instead they tapped into knowledge of small independent breweries and got them all involved. Instead of hiring a shed load of dispense equipment they knew that all the breweries had a little bit of their own dispense equipment kicking around which they could bring with them. So they hired in refrigeration instead because this is what everyone really needed but nobody had. The breweries could deliver their kegs days before the event, safe in the knowledge that they wouldn’t be slowly cooked in the August heat. Serving at the event was brilliant, I got to set up my dispense exactly how I needed it for the beers I was serving and then there was a team of people bringing COLD kegs out to change over in between sessions. This may seem like the obvious way to do things but it had never been done this way in the UK before.
To this day I still really love this model. Not just from the perspective that the beer is in perfect nick. It means that all the people who make and sell the beer are there pouring, having conversations with the customers and building the relationships with fellow brewers. Relationships which have led to the hugely popular collaborative brews we all love to devour. Another important factor was curating the event. This means that big breweries can’t just buy their way in. Everything from the breweries to the food and the entertainment was carefully considered and put together based on quality.

That year was a milestone in our modern beer culture. Not only in London but with the same trends showing all over the UK as the first Indy Man Beer Con kicked off shortly after and with new and exciting breweries popping up everywhere.
Back then LCBF showcased around 20 breweries and welcomed 2,200 punters. Beer was served in third pint measures in stemmed glassware (this was also a pretty bold move at the time). All the beer was stored in one 15ft refrigerated trailer, meticulously loaded to make sure the kegs could be located and excavated as the breweries needed them. It all went very smoothly given that nobody really knew what they were doing and there was some pretty awesome beer flowing.
To put this into perspective … by 2018 the LCBF has now grown to accommodate almost 90 breweries from all corners of the globe, pouring over 600 kegs and opening its doors to 10,000 thirsty beer lovers. As you can imagine, the challenges of refrigeration and logistics have also grown exponentially. Unlike the cask beer festivals where you can watch all the cellaring action while supping a half, the magic at a beer festival of this scale and ambition all happens behind the scenes. It also involves some serious planning and equipment with the back of house keg store at Tobacco Dock this year comprising four fully refrigerated 20ft shipping containers.

As we all know, #ColdChain beer is the future. The BottleShop is always firmly involved in the UK beer festival scene. When a festival like this is coming up, our breweries are relying on us to help them get the beer in the right place, at the right time, in perfect condition. This involves co-ordinating refrigerated haulage, shipping and air freight. Getting all the beers through customs and into our chilled warehouse in time not only for the festival, but for events at bars and bottle shops all over the city. With Amundsen, Stillwater, ToØl, KCBC, Dugges, Against the Grain, 18th Street and Civil Society all putting on fringe events this year, that kept everyone at BottleShop HQ pretty busy!

If you missed LCBF this year then worry not, there are plenty more festivals where you can hang out with us and our #WorldClass brewery friends. With the Bristol Craft Beer Festival just around the corner from the 14th to the 16th September bag your tickets here! We will be bringing over lots of exciting beer for IMBC from the 4th to the 7th October with some sessions already sold out be quick and book yours. For the lovers of all things dark beer there is the ultimate beer festival in Dark City on the 16th and 17th November, as if you need an excuse to drink stout and venture to Leeds, grab you ticket now. So come along and if you see any of The Bottle Shop Beermongers while you’re there then make sure you come over and say hi.

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