Saturday, 8 August 2009
Great British Beer Festival diary
I'd read all sorts of stuff about the Great British Beer Festival before I actually went there. It was going to be full of flatulent, bearded codgers and there wouldn't be a woman in the place, the venue was horrible and the British beers on offer dull and boring. I thought these opinions were probably quite exaggerated anyway, but was still pleased not to have them confirmed.
I've only ever been to relatively small CAMRA festivals before, such as Paisley (and I think, though I'm not sure, that's Scotland's biggest). Compared to that, GBBF at Earl's Court is huge. I mean really big; you can spend hours just wandering around. And it's great seeing so many people in one place, all there for the great beer. Although it's quite pricey to get in, the cost of beer and food inside is reasonable; you can very easily pay a lot more for beer in London. And there's a good selection of food too, not just pies and sausages. They could do with losing the stall with the misogynistic t-shirts, though.
I was already a bit star-struck having seen the Thornbridge crew in the queue on the way in. More than anything else, I was thirsty after a sweaty tube journey. I went for a pint to wash down the dust. That was Hook Norton Bitter, served a tad flat, perfectly drinkable but disappointing in taste.
This was also my only pint of the festival. I had acquired both a pint glass and a third glass but quickly returned the pint glass for a refund. I got to really like the third glass; it's not as ridiculously little as it sounds (not that much less than a half) and is great for tasting beers.
I wanted to try some US beer on cask, as it's something practically never seen where I live (not that it's common anywhere else). I went for Stone IPA which reminded me very much of BrewDog How To Disappear Completely, but obviously, fuller in body. As the Dogs are well-known fans of Stone, it's not difficult to detect a resemblance. But hops a-go-go. 20 minutes after finishing the beer, the empty glass still reeked of hops. I even tried to exchange it for a clean one, but nothing doing.
Next up was Keesman Herren Pils. Now I've had this before and knew I was in for a treat. This is what beer is about. Beautifully balanced with sweet malt not standing in the way of a tremendous finish. I thought drinking it in an aircraft hangar in West London would be an anti-climax after having had it in Bamberg, but I have to say it tasted just as good.
I then wandered around the British bars. It was about this time that I realised I'm really a session beer kind of guy at heart. I can enjoy strong beer too, but I was planning to be there all afternoon and drinking strong beers for six hours is kind of mad in my book, however good they are.
In advance of the festival some people had been complaining that the British list was boring. Maybe, but with over 400 to choose from there's plenty that's great. I went for some Bateman's G.H.A. – clearly brewed with very hard water, sulphury, minerally, bitter finish. Like drinking from a mountain stream in heaven. Fantastic beer and the only one that I went back for more of during the festival.
The best thing about trade day is that if you like a beer, you can turn round and say so to someone from the brewery, possibly one of the brewers. I got the chance to tell someone from Bateman's how much I enjoyed their G.H.A. while standing at the relevant bar drinking it. It's also a bit poignant; I probably wouldn't have been there drinking beer if it hadn't been for seeing Michael Jackson on TV twenty years ago, where he was visiting the GBBF and Bateman's brewery and interviewing "Mr George" Bateman.
I actually preferred Stone's Levitation Ale to their IPA. Lovely, resinous hops with just enough body to support them. Next a genuine scoop. White Shield Brewery P2. The moment I saw it I knew I had to have it, if only because there's a good chance I'll never see it again. The same imperial stout as brewed by Bass in eighteen-what-the-hell, cask-conditioned, a piece of history you really feel privileged to be able to drink. And it tastes fantastic.
I think they announced the Champion Beer of Britain about now, but I don't care who won and don't know anyone who does.
On to Marble Manchester Bitter, nice aromatic hops, but there's something (I don't know quite what) that I just didn't like. I seem to be the only person who liked Thornbridge Kipling. My notes just say "GOOD". Somewhere in the limbo between tasty session bitter and mental hop monster.
I'd never had a Harvey's beer before so went for a Harvey's XX — nice to see a beer with a proper name for a change. Unfortunately I didn't like it much, which is a pity as it's a fine ale if you like minerally, yeasty flavours. It's dark and rich for a mild with refreshing, tasty water and a somewhat incongruous bitterness. I really wish I'd liked it. The next one, Bristol Milk Stout, was amazing; tremendously complex, sweet and yet acid, a million miles away from Sweetheart (which tastes of Supermalt and flat cola). Dark chocolate malt and creamy-smooth sweetness.
The last time I was in Franconia I was quite shocked at how sweet many of the local lagers were. Greif Annafestbier brought all that back. Extremely malty, foretaste of caramel and grain, unbelievably full-bodied. Hardly any hop finish, but who the hell cares. Beck Lisberger Lagerbier was quite similar. It's kind of ironic that the sugariest, stickiest, maltiest beers and the hoppiest ones were being served at opposite ends of the same bar.
And with that, knowing I still had to meet friends for dinner and be able to stand up, I reluctantly called it a day.
Wednesday dawned and I didn't really feel like a beer, but I couldn't justify spending so much on rail tickets without making the most of my time in London. I have wanted to visit the Jerusalem Tavern and the Gunmakers for a while, so off I went to Clerkenwell. Walking up from Fleet Street I realised I was at the Old Mitre, where I'd also never been before, so as it was such a nice day I popped in for one. Just my bad luck that they had a Scottish beer festival on and the beers on offer were ones from Perthshire and Orkney that I regularly see at home! I downed a quick half of Dragonhead Stout and headed round the corner to the Jerusalem Tavern. What a lovely pub. It was a scorcher of a day and the beer was a bit warm, so I only had one pint of their St Peters Bitter before wandering round to the Gunmakers, where I drifted into a late-afternoon reverie over Wild Goose, Timothy Taylor Landlord and Summer Lightning.
I headed back to the festival in the evening for a couple of hours to hang out with a couple of friends. There I started off with Uerige Altbier, then couldn't resist a second glass of Bateman's G.H.A. Sadly I only learned on the way home that this was only launched recently. Mahr's Ungespundet Kellerbier, Cains IPA (tedious in the extreme) and Marble IPA finished the evening off. None were remarkable but it didn't matter. I may have filled in a direct debit in favour of CAMRA about now, but only to get a discount at the book stall.
On Thursday I had a quick pint of Harveys Bitter in the Market Porter before going for my train home. It's clearly a terrific beer, rich and dry at the same time, but as with the XX, not to my taste; too complex and yeast-dominated. I guess those are the qualities other people appreciate in it.
I really enjoyed the festival. It's a real eye-opener to go to a beer festival that's so vast; I've only been to ones in church-hall-size venues before (the Munich Oktoberfest is bigger, but that's not really a beer festival, more a funfair that happens to sell crap beer). It was fantastic seeing so many people trying so many different beers and it was great to meet some other beer bloggers: Mark Dredge, Mad Brewer, Reluctant Scooper, Stonch, Beer Nut and Woolpack Dave. If I didn't accost anyone else, it's because I didn't see or recognise them, not because I wasn't looking for them. Shame that Cooking Lager didn't turn up, though. I think he would have liked it.