Thursday, 22 August 2013

The day I queued up for Greene King

Queueing up for 5X
What is there to say about the Great British Beer Festival that I haven’t said before? Well, it’s two years since I was last there so I hope I can come up with something.

It must be tough organising an event on this scale. It’s too big to be cutting edge anymore, and the selection procedures move too slowly for it to include breweries who have only sold their first beer three months ago. At the same time it’s too small to include every one of the now over 1200 breweries in the UK.

Both these things draw criticism. In some quarters there even seems to be a belief that there is some sort of conspiracy to exclude exciting new micros. On the other hand, if GBBF had featured a London bar with the new railway-arch hipster breweries, just imagine the whining there would be people in other parts of the country, who already believe it to be too London-centric.

Whatever is excluded or included, there is an embarrassment of riches on offer and I’ve never found myself bored at having to consume yet another British beer. It’s more a question of how many I can try and still be able to negotiate the tube home afterwards.

After waiting in the queue in the sun, a nice mild is called for to wash the London dust down. Thwaites supplied horse-based entertainment outside so let’s have a Nutty Black – ubiquitous round Blackburn way I’m sure, but a treat where I live.


Wandering around we find some seats equidistant between the Bieres Sans Frontieres bar and the Harvey’s of Lewes bar. Not moving from here then…

Harvey’s, old-fashioned old buffers in a very good way, have a new beer with those trendy new hops. Still, you can tell instantly it’s a Harveys beer with that unmistakable yeast aroma, just as you recognise a Rolling Stones record as soon as you hear it. It’s still a British-style brew with austere bitterness rather than perfumey hop aroma.

Round the corner to the American bar. One of the saddest ironies of the beer world is that CAMRA has a relationship with US “craft breweries” going back decades, before most of today’s British CAMRA-bashers were old enough to drink. Every year NERAX, the New England Real Ale Exhibition, gets a load of British cask beer sent over to the US. To use the shipping most efficiently, the empty casks are then filled with American beer and sent back. The result is a bar of American cask beers, many of which are unique in this form on either side of the Atlantic.

The first one I taste is Clown Shoes Galactica double IPA. Tasting it blind, I’d say it was a British “American-style” beer from someone like Great Heck. Ballast Point Sculpin is spectacular, with huge hop aroma, lovely fresh leafy hop taste, crisp and cool with a substantial, satisfying bitterness. An excellent retort to those idiots who go around saying that hoppy IPAs don’t work from the cask.

On my tick list, I don’t have any American or Belgian beers. What I have are a few beers from very unfashionable British brewers. Namely, I want some Courage Russian Stout from Wells & Youngs and some Greene King 5X. I am forced to wait, however, as I discover both beers are rationed, being poured at specific times. At first I think this is cutesy deference to their strength, which is a bit silly since the American bar is cheerfully pouring 10% beers for anyone who wants them, but later I discover that the brewers only have limited amounts of each so need to eke them out.

While waiting for the Courage imperial stout I may as well try Harvey’s imperial stout – a rare chance to experience it cask-conditioned. It’s rich and luscious with dark bitter chocolate and chocolate-coated raisins, an aroma of burnt toast and dark rum, hop bitterness melding with roasty bitterness but somehow remaining magically distinct.

Shortly before two we are at the Greene King stand. Queueing. I didn’t think I’d ever queue up for a Greene King beer, but there you go. As news of the queue spreads, there are a number of condescending tweets along the lines of “stupid CAMRA peasants, queueing up for Greene King piss”.

What know they of craft beer, who only craft beer know? What we are waiting for is 5X. It’s 12%, aged in oak for two years and only available here. 5X is one of the components of Strong Suffolk, of which I am very fond and wish it was more widely available. Although like many beer lovers, I avoid Greene King IPA, I’d happily drink in a pub that offered their XX mild and bottles of Strong Suffolk.

I’m not expecting this to be wonderful – it’s not brewed to be drunk on its own, after all. But I gingerly take a sip and it’s rather good. Rich and smooth with barely any alcohol heat. Richly fruity with dates and marzipan. The oak is only subtle, unlike some sawdust-flavoured beers. The most surprising thing is that it’s not sour as I’d been led to believe it would be. Despite sitting around in wood for two years it remains “sound” as old-time brewers used to say.

Then inspiration strikes. As a student I used to read and re-read Michael Jackson’s New World Guide To Beer over and over, avoiding revision and wishing I could afford to go to Brussels, Munich or Prague. So I know chunks of it off by heart, including the bit where he says that Strong Suffolk stands up to pickled herring.

There is a seafood stand directly opposite the Greene King bar. It is surely a sign.

A rollmop herring in a decidedly vinegary dressing is not normally something I’d considering eating with beer, expecting it to completely clash with just about anything. But with 5X, it works wonderfully, flavours deepening and melding, the sweetness of the beer an excellent counterpart to the stinging acidity of the heavily malt-vinegared fish.

I have never paid attention to the Champion Beer of Britain before. It is not something that affects what I choose to drink, so I am not especially interested in the results. However, for some reason I go to listen to the announcement this year.

As I think there is going to be quite a bit of speechifying, I grab a beer to drink while listening. Crouch Vale Citra is, as expected, a splendid quaffing beer of the washing-up liquid pale’n’hoppy genre.

The sound is awful and you can barely hear what Roger Protz is saying. But it’s just as well we are there listening to the announcement this year, as it turns out that Fyne Ales Jarl wins Champion Golden Ale and comes third overall in the Champion Beer of Britain. Not surprised to see it do so well – it’s easily worthy of coming top. They’d better hurry up with the planned expansion, though, if they’re going to take advantage of the increased demand from winning yet another award. (Glasgow CAMRA denies that there is any arrangement for Fyne to win lots of CAMRA awards in order that they have no spare beer to put in Evil Kegs).

The Champion Beer of Britain overall is Elland 1870 Porter. On our way back to the the centre of the hall, we see a slightly built fellow in an Elland Brewery polo shirt moving in the opposition direction. “Congratulations!” we shout. “Have we won something?” the bemused young chap replies, and hurries on.

At 4pm we finally get a chance to try the Courage Russian Stout that Wells & Youngs have held back until now. It’s very viscous and unlike any other imperial stout I’ve tasted; which is to say it doesn’t taste like coffee or chocolate – it just tastes like stout. Very interesting in a strange kind of way.

I don’t attempt to use apps or tweet much at festivals any more; the amount of chat and limited battery life don’t permit it. It’s the old paper notebook for anything that needs written down: faster and less vulnerable to beer spills. But as the afternoon wears on the chat gets faster and the tasting notes go out of the window too: Harvey’s Lewes Castle, Sierra Nevada Amber Ale, Timothy Taylor Boltmaker, Löwenbräu Buttenheim Kellerbier all just come and go to accompany the chat, which has displaced the beer as our focus. “The biggest pub in the world”, they used to call this. Might be onto something there.



2 comments:

  1. There's a passage in Blue Highways--sort of a post-hippie Bible for 70s wanderers--in which the writer visits my neck of the American woods. I can't remember what he asks a local, but it's something to do with the local topography or flora. The local doesn't know. He comments (I paraphrase): it's characteristic of a local that they don't know what they have around them.

    I've always felt that with the English and Greene King's 5x/Strong Suffolk. It is the last remaining link to a type of brewing that was once ubiquitous, that once defined British brewing. Suffolk ale is, in fact, a protected sort of old-timey beer. I got to taste it out of the vat when I visited two years ago and found it extraordinary. Our impressions of wild, barrel-aged beer now all come from the Belgian tradition, which is very different. The bugs are different, the beer is different, the tradition is different. Beer geeks should really celebrate it as one of the most important products on the planet, and the British should celebrate it as an one of their best beers.

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  2. Fortunately there was no queue at the Greene King stand during the trade session. My first time having 5X and I, too, was surprised by the lack of sourness. Relly, really niced aged flavour, mind. Lots of sherry notes. They really should try selling the stuff straight regularly.

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