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Tuesday 21 June 2011

The Scottish Real Ale Festival and why I was not there

Disclaimer- This article is not intended to offend. It is not intended to be Anti-CAMRA or a jibe at SRAF organisers but rather some constructive criticism. I currently have no brewery links and this article was not paid for by anyone.

Ok now that I have that out the way I feel I should explain why I didnt attend this years Scottish Real Ale Festival in Edinburgh. After all I am a CAMRA member and I do like a good pint but I just had little desire to attend this year which ultimately ended up with me just staying at home. There was a bit of a stramash before the festival with rumors of an alternative festival in BrewDogs new bar in the Cowgate. This turned out to be true and in true maverick style BrewDog named their festival the 'alternative' Scottish Beer Festival. Fair play to the guys; different markets, different beers and ultimately a different sales technique. That's not the reason why I didn't go to the SRAF though.

Number one reason; the beer list was thoroughly uninspiring. I know it must be difficult to keep a beer list exciting and new every year especially when most of beers available will be similar year after year; well certainly outside seasonals, once brewed beers or new brews. Nevertheless the beer list was at least 85% the same as last years (I havent checked this out as cold hard fact but I have compared both lists). Now I am sorry but that just is not acceptable for a beer festival the size of SRAF. There were plenty of breweries on the list but some of them only had some of their less brilliant beers there. Now I don't want to get into naming names as it is not clear to me who is at fault for this but Scotland really does have much more to show than what was on offer at this years Scottish Real Ale Festival.

Put plain and simply a beer festival is mediocre at best without a good and challenging beer list which rotates if not changes year in year out. Yes the big hitters and the festival winners and favourites are sure to be there every year; I don't have a problem with that. Please just shake it up a little bit more next year. Take some the the bland boring stuff out and source some more from some new breweries that have popped up recently. Dare I say it even have some stuff from the rest of the UK (GBBF have an international bar after all)

I have nothing wrong with other organisational aspects of the festival although naturally the one thing I cannot comment on is the change of venue as I was not there to experience it. However usually the atmosphere is great, as is the entertainment. That will never make up for a bland beer list though. Lets not get too negative here though. I know that I can't expect the best of the best every year. I know that there are constraints ; like what breweries have available and the links that organisers have with the breweries. Lets face it though; It happens once a year. In reality there should be plenty time to organise a good and changing beer list year after year if you are putting on a serious commercial festival. Alloa festival (especially the OctoberFest ) is always well run, very well in fact. I have no idea if any of the same people are involved in beer ordering but if not then they should be.

This years beer list did not make me want to pay for a train ticket to Edinburgh and certainly didn't inspire me to make a day of it like I usually would. I never go to a beer festival with the intention of getting slaughtered but I do usually like to try things I have heard good things about or things I haven't tried before. In terms of this years festival I dare say I could have spent and hour at most soaking in the atmosphere and having a few pints but I wouldn't have had any desire to stay longer. For me that does not make for a good festival. I know there will be those that will disagree with me, especially anyone involved or anyone who had a great time there. This year it just did not appeal at all to me.

I will still be organising a trip to other CAMRA festivals with Stirling University Craft Beer Society (notably Alloa OctoberFest) but unless I see an exciting list for next years SRAF I think I will be staying away again. Nothing against anyone involved but I don't want to see the same beers year after year.


  1. well if you want to contact any of them with feedback they have a contact us section. Owen Bell is credited as having chosen the beers.

    Craig McCallum

  2. Craig, thanks for the comment. I will forward on a more level headed feedback form through the website. As I say I never intend to offend but rather offer some advice and my opinion.

    My fear is always that people don't take feedback too well and I can understand this. I would love to see the quality of some of the regional CAMRA events play through into the national event

  3. Hi Michael, when I first looked at the beer list I thought it looked really similar to last year as well - but (and only because I had a spare 20mins) I went through them both. Turns out 85% was way off the mark - there were 149 beers listed at the final online list (although some of them didn't end up making it to the festival). 79 were also on the 2010 list, 70 were not - so that's only 53% the same as last year.

    I'm not a numbers geek, but when we wrote our preview the 12 new breweries compared to last year really stood out. It's great that more new brewers are entering into the festivals - however the major negative that came out of the SRAF was the way the beer ended up. The venue was too warm, and the beer (new and familar) suffered as a result.

    I agree with your point about having other UK beers - if the SRAF wants to go the way of becoming a 'GSBF' like the Earls Court event, then a Bieres sans frontieres style offering would be great. But maybe that's for the future...


  4. God forbid you ever go to the Oktoberfest where they have the same six beers every year.

    I think beer geeks need to accept that festivals like this are not aimed at them, but at the general public. A hell of a lot of people go to beer festivals who otherwise never drink real ale, or aren't even beer drinkers. Deuchars is new to a lot of people.

    Having said that, I thought the beer list was interesting enough; I've been to festivals with a much duller range. Tempest were there with three stunning beers, Orkney had cask Dark Island Reserve, Traquair House had a cask beer (both of these normally only in bottle), Stewart had experimental single hop beers, new brewers like DemonBrew, Scottish Borders and Barney's were represented. I certainly found enough things I wanted to try.

  5. Gerald Stewart21 June 2011 at 17:25

    There was only one fact relevant to this "article", and you couldn't bother your arse to check it.

    Poor show.

  6. Thanks for the comments guys. I realise that maybe these events are not aimed at beer geeks and I don't think for a second they should be.

    Rich- Thanks for alerting me to the fact that some of the list was not the same as what was at the actual festival (another problem in my opinion, would be nice to see this updated the night before the event with a 100% accurate account)

    Barm- I know that there needs to be a focus on the general public and thats why I am leaving CAMRA this year. I obviously have different ideas about how to go about it.

    Gerald- Whats with the negativity and putting the word article in inverted commas. I estimated my facts and I made it clear that I was doing that. Anyone reading the article realises that I wasnt actually at the festival so I can only give a point of view from the wrong information on the SRAF website

  7. Gerald Stewart21 June 2011 at 17:46

    There is no "wrong information" on the festival website.

    The list on the website is, as far as I can tell, an accurate portrayal of the the beer that was available at the festival. There may have been some beers that weren't delivered (Tempest being the obvious example, as I can only remember seeing three and not six) but that would mean the variety in the list is GREATER on the site than at the festival.

    You're simply WRONG about the variety between 2010 and 2011, and saying you'd estimated the only fact relevant to your post isn't a defence.

    What's the point in an article where the only salient piece of information is, buy your own admission, a guess, and a horrendously inaccurate one at that?

    The difference between my negativity and yours is that mine is a valid criticism of poorly researched misinformation, and yours is the target of that criticism.

  8. Whether some of the beers were not delivered or not doesnt change my belief that some of the best examples of Scottish brewing (obviously in my opinion) were not available. I have conceeded that I was wrong about Tempest and I would have loved to have tried the IPA's from Stewart brewing. This doesnt change my opinion of the festival though. I still think the beer list needs a shake up (whether it is 85% or 50-odd percent the same as last year). Also an international or at least UK section would be a nice addition (although this should never take away from the main event; Scottish brewing)

    You can look into 'the point' of my argument all you like. Most of British journalism (especially editorial work) doesnt usually have a point. I write because I enjoy it and I write for the people who usually read my blog.

    There is little negativity in my post. I have offered the problem in my opinion- the lack of the best of the best in Scotland and I have offered some ways around that.

    I would ask all those who havent seen the selection at the Alloa OctoberFest to join me for a pint there this year and I shall buy you a pint. I have no vendetta against the organisers or attendees of SRAF I just think it could be done better.

  9. Gerald Stewart21 June 2011 at 18:18

    Which "best of the best" beer wasn't available?

    Which beer would you have ordered that was not?

    You have a lot of conviction, but very few (accurate) specifics.

  10. Gerald I have to say this was what I did not want to have to come down to because I don't know who is at fault for certain beers or brewers not being there. It could be the brewers fault or it not being ordered by the organisers. However since you ask me to name names I am happy to be more specific.

    I take this from what was on the website as I cant be 100% as to what was there and what was not. If I had been ordering I would have had more Williams Brothers for a start, especially some more of the historic Scottish ale styles that they make. I would have had some beer from Madcap brewery in the borders. I would have pushed Traquair (my favourite Scottish brewer) to have more beer on cask. Whilst I know this is not usually how they sell, its great to let fans try stuff that they can't usually get elsewhere.

    Harviestoun should have been asked to send more seasonals or a cask of Ola Dubh. Personally speaking I wouldnt have had Inveralmond there buts thats purely a personal choice and I realise a lot of people would have enjoyed their offerings. I would have tried to get some more stuff from Caledonian and also see if Innis and Gunn would be willing to send a special cask of something.

    I would also try to make sure that beers are rotating on a year to year basis with some of the brewers sending 5 or more beers. And as I have already said I would have a 'Rest of UK' selection of 5 or so casks from up and coming UK breweries.

    I dare say there are some I have missed. I would love to see some WEST there but they dont cask and I know CAMRA dont do keg even if it is unpasturised. I know and accept that CAMRA cant magic beer out of nowhere, I just think this fest needs a wee facelift and that was what I was hoping to provoke with this "article"

  11. Hi Michael - there was a fair amount of stuff there that I hadn't seen before, which was great. From your list of beer you'd have liked (MadCap, Traquair, Ola Dubh, Williams Bros Heather Ales) you're obviously into the big hitters. Me too, but the majority of SRAF punters aren't really after that kind of thing (although that's an assumption on my part, I admit).

    One of the few high abv's there this year was the Dark Island Reserve, and to be honest it was awful. And no disrespect to Steve, but the Stewart single hop beers were really lacking as well. Wether this was down to the venue or serving, I don't know. But there were some good, unusual beers on offer - Tinpot's Thai/marmalade/beetroot concoctions, for example.

    You're never going to please everyone with the general nature of a beer festival - Barm has it spot on in that CAMRA want to attract people who are curious about real ale, and so giving them options around the Deuchars staple is probably a good idea. The dozen new breweries this year really lifted it for the rest of us (albeit the conditions detracted).

    The first beer to sell out was Fyne Ales Jarl, so there's hope for everyone there...



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