sole legitimate representative of British beer drinkers puts on its flagship festival, and pilgrims come from all over the world to London to discover (or rediscover) the path of cask-conditioned enlightenment.
I’ve only been going for three years but it’s become a firm fixture in my calendar. I’m a little blase about local festivals of the sixty-firkins-in-the-town-hall type nowadays. The Great British Beer Festival is different both in its vastness and in its complexity.
One thing I have learned is to keep track of my drinking using the Pork Scratchings Index (PSI). It is quite simple: a sober person finds the very idea of pork scratchings revolting. Thus, once the idea of getting a packet of pork scratchings starts to seem attractive, you know that you have consumed too much beer and need to go home.
As I always do, I started with a pint of dark mild. It washes the city dust out of my throat and means I don’t run out of beer while wandering around trying to get my bearings. Last year I kept bumping into people I knew on the way in and due to all the chat it took me about an hour to get my first beer. To avoid that happening was the reason I spent my first few minutes striding purposefully about, studiously ignoring everything around me (sorry again Pete). Moorhouse's Black Cat was light and refreshing as ever. I was very glad to find that the cooling systems were holding up under the heat of London in August.
I don’t bother with a tick list these days, as I prefer just to scan the labels and handpumps to see what’s actually available. It’s quicker than reading the catalogue and thinking “Ooh, that sounds nice”, only to find the beer isn’t on. So I'm having a relaxing pint and watching tickers manically filling suitcases with rare and recherche bottles from the foreign beer bar. I think I have the better time of it.
After my mild and a good old wander round, it’s time for a hoppy beer. Sierra Nevada Torpedo to be exact. I wasn’t too impressed by this the first time I had it from the bottle. This is better. The cask version is fresher-tasting, yet only subtly bitter. Where are the hops?
Wander around, talk to bloggers, drink some beer, talk to brewers, drink some more beer.
Over at the Worthington stand, cask White Shield makes a good first impression — it’s properly farty as a Burton pale ale should be. But it’s not bright, it’s overly sweet and not bitter enough. Worthington ‘E’, poured by Steve Wellington himself, is better, with a caramelly touch but a more balanced dry finish. Worthington’s stand is pretty slick with smart new pumpclips and signage in Gill Sans, and they do a mild too!
Am I drunk enough for pork scratchings yet? Definitely not.
One of the exciting things about the beer renaissance is that some breweries who were thought of as sleepy and staid are waking up and starting to brew a wider range of beer. One such is Thwaites. Their new IPA is true to style at 3.9% and pleasant, but in the end still too cautiously hopped for me. I wanted to try their Triple C all-Cascade beer too, but ran out of time.
Am I drunk enough for pork scratchings yet? No.
Brewster’s Hophead at just 3.6% is the beer I've been looking for all afternoon. Dry, bitter and austere, it makes my lips smack in the way the supposedly über-hoppy American beers failed to.
Am I drunk enough for pork scratchings yet? I believe I am. Which means it’s time to leave. It’s a terrible shame my liver and wallet won’t allow me to stay longer. GBBF is absolutely unique in the range of beer available; Earl’s Court may be a bit of a barn but you’ll do a lot of travelling to find all these beers otherwise.
Before I do leave, a glass of lambic to help me on my way. Girardin is pleasant and surprisingly (i.e. noticeably) bitter. It does go rather well with the pork scratchings.