I’ve been going to beer festivals for 30 years, I’ve served behind the bar at them, I’ve organised them, and I’m still not sure I really like them.
The problem is that whatever time you go, it’s always Friday night – that is, the bars are packed, it takes ages to get served, often the beers you want have run out, it’s frequently too noisy for conversation, and you can’t find a seat to sit down.
All the same, this is the first time in almost two decades that I’ve missed the opening of the Great British Beer Festival – having to fit in with someone else’s unbreakable holiday commitments meant I was on a Greek beach (of which more in another blog). One of the benefits of being a member of the Zythographers’ Union is that you get to blag your way in to the GBBF trade session on the Tuesday afternoon, which means there will always be a large number of people there I haven’t seen since, in some cases, the previous year’s GBBF, so that’s always fun. This year I didn’t get back to Britain until the Thursday night, so the one GBBF session I managed was Friday early evening.
First impressions were not good – I arrived at 4.30pm and the drab-looking stall that sells Festival glasses had notices declaring that half-pints were sold out. But around the corner from the glasses sale counter the first sight is the Oakham Ales stand, very style-bar, the shiny titanium-and-steel look followed through to the chromed handpumps, the effect brought back to spit-and-sawdust by the crowd of T-shirted, jeans-wearing 30-to-50 male beer drinkers with either ponytails or baldy own-up No 1 haircuts.
Reminded, or influenced, by the giant inflatable pint of Woodforde’s Wherry best bitter nodding near the entrance. I decided to make my initial half-pint a beer I still remember encountering, for the first time, at the Cambridge Beer Festival 25 years ago, which deeply impressed me then as the first beer from a new small brewery I had tasted that matched the peaks climbed by brews from long-established concerns. It was light but full of character and hoppy depth, with a lovely long finish, and it’s stayed a favourite. Finding the beer at Earls Court took a while, since it was a distance from where the blow-up pint was. But it was worth the journey – not, I think, after four or five days on stillage, at its fighting best but still a drink with a tremendous amount going on, masses of hoppy flavour and aroma that goes all the way down when you swallow, and comes back at you when you exhale (a phenomenon generally unrecorded, I think, by zythoenthusiasts, but the “afternose” on a well-hopped bitter is another little slice of the overall pleasure circle.)
There was one opportunity, at least, for schmoozing: had an appointment with the Very Tall Editor up in the festival press office, where I was treated to a glass of Sleeman’s IPA from Ontario (acceptable, sparky bitter beer but I wouldn’t rush to buy it) while we discussed another, short series of pieces for the Beer Buffs’ Monthly on historical themes. They should make interesting writing, and I can justify some of the money I spend on books about beer, pubs, brewing and associated subjects …
Back in the hall I made for the Bieres sans frontieres bar, and a half of Fruh Kolsch. Kolsch is a style that some have sneered at for its (alleged) blandness, but I drink a lot of Alistair Hook’s Meantime brewery version, and I wanted to try again an authentic example. This one’s a terrifically pale, almost green, gold colour, not a lot of condition, slightly sweet, not a particularly forceful beer but if this was a session and I was drinking it as a session beer I’d be happy.
In utter contrast, I went next for the Plevna Siperia Imperial Stout from Finland, eight per cent ABV and £4.20 a pint – I only had a third, smart decision. It had a nose like smearing a chocolate bar around your nostrils and then ramming your head hard into a hop pocket, while in the mouth the hop levels were turned up far past 11. Rather than what I would think of as an Imperial Stout, with dark malts dominant, this was more like the American idea of an Imperial IPA, that is, hugely, hugely hopped, except that chocolate malt and roast barley had been poured on top to stoutify it. I was unsurprised to find on the brewery’s website later that the IBU (International Bitterness Unit) level was 100, or about two and a half times what you might expect in a Best Bitter.
It was an interesting experience in the sense that it was a practical example of how enormously high hop levels don’t work at all in a strong dark beer, because the overwhelming floral/bitter flavours of the hops fail utterly to integrate properly with the chocolate/coffee/roast barley flavours from the malts. Victorian stout and porter brewers, where they used large amounts of hops, used old hops, where the flavour side was more muted but the preservative effect of the hop resins still survived. Maybe this beer would benefit from being laid down for three or more years, when the hoppiness would tone down a little: with a fresh cask the best approach is to lay it down and walk swiftly away …
Tod’s Blonde from the Little Valley brewery near Hebden Bridge in West Yorkshire, on the vegetarian beers bar, was my next choice, being as far from an over-hoppy Imperial Stout as you could get – another golden ale, chilled, not too much condition, grassy, attractive, a very sessionable beer.
After that I just managed to grab the last of a lambic I think was made by Girardin – unfortunately the bar staff took the cask away before I had time to record the name properly. But ach! love that beer – any other country in the world they would return it as “off”. Happily the Belgians, continue to revere lambic as a sour, tart, invigorating experience that wakes up taste buds the rest of us never knew we had.
Nearly didn’t make it to the last of this year’s Champion Beer of Britain, as well – in fact there was so little of the Hobson’s Mild left, just 45 or so minutes after the latest cask went on sale at 6pm, that I was again the last person to thrust a glass forward as the beer was running out, and all I got was around an eighth of a pint, so little the server let me have it for nothing. It was enough to see why the judges had made Hobson’s their choice – it’s a triumph that an unbelievable amount of powerful roast malt character had been squeezed into a comparatively pale (mid-oak), otherwise thin 3.2 per cent ABV beer. But personally, I found it unbalanced: the huge flavour was too top heavy for a beer of its low strength, and there wasn’t enough “backing” behind it. For me, this wasn’t a true mild because the taste was far too assertive: a mild should be a companionable session beer, not one that pokes you in the ribs with every sip.
I followed that with Sgt Pepper’s Stout from the Spire brewery, which as its name might suggest, is brewed with a quantity of black pepper in the mix. Putting pepper into ale to give it an extra buzz is an ancient habit, though the spice usually used was Long Pepper, Piper officinarum, a rather milder flavour than the black pepper, P. nigrum, we are used to now. The pepper was apparent on both the nose and the tongue, and while I wouldn’t drink this all night it was a good choice to have with my Cornish pasty (four pints in, and with nothing to eat since lunchtime I was now feeling the munchies).
Sgt Pepper’s finished, I had a whirl round the stalls, picked up three of the latest books from Camra’s Pub Heritage Group series on regional pub interiors “of special historical interest” (good to see one of my favourite locals, the Builders’ Arms, in the London edition for its “pretty” Art Nouveau detailing – this is probably Teddy Town’s least-known pub, halfway down an Edwardian residential street, which is undoubtedly why it remains largely undefiled), bought a couple of silly T-shirts, and five bottles from the Bieres sans Frontieres stall from countries as far apart as South Africa, Brazil and Lithuania for later consumption – and went home…
Back next year? Probably – but only for the trade session …