If I had wanted confirmation that the “non-macro” British beer scene is now split into two separate camps, serving different constituencies, with remarkably little cross-over between them, considering that both sides are dedicated to the pursuit of terrific beer, two events a couple of weeks back could not have made it clearer.
In West London, the Campaign for Real Ale’s annual Great British Beer Festival at Olympia delivered the products of around 350 different cask ale brewers to some 50,000 people over five days. Meanwhile, over (almost symbolically) on the other side of the city in East London, at the Oval Space in Bethnal Green, the first London Craft Beer Festival, on for three days in a considerably smaller venue, served beers from just 20 brewers, (only four of whom were also at GBBF*), most or all of it dispensed from pressurised containers that would have kegophobe Camra members fobbing with fury.
The most remarkable contrast between the two events was not the rather different attitudes to the idea of how “good beer” could be dispensed, however, but the very different sets of people attending each festival. The GBBF crowds were a wide selection of the sort of drinkers you might find in any pub in a middle-class area, minus the families though mostly male and skewed, it appeared to me, towards the over-40s – indeed, I’d say the number able to get to Olympia using their Boris bus pass (ahem – like me) was considerably greater than in the pub population at large.
The LCBF crowd, in contrast, was in parts almost a parody of hipsterdom: man buns and “ironic” short-back-and-sides with beards, plenty of checked shirts and Converse All-Stars, and with the hipster “ironic band T-shirt” (where you display on your chest the image of a beat combo popular with teenyboppers in the late 1980s) replaced with the “ironic beer T-shirt” (Tusker lager – I must dig out my Foster’s Special Bitter T-shirt from 1994 …). There were far more women as a proportion of the audience at the LCBF, and the age range was considerably narrower (and younger) than Olympia: I was older than 95 per cent or so of everybody else at the Bethnal Green event by a good 20 years, and (unlike Olympia), while there were plenty of beards, I was wearing one of the very, very few showing any signs of grey.
What else was there to convince me I wasn’t in Olympia anymore, Toto? The seating looked like it had been nicked from a pub in Shoreditch: worn padded leather sofas and ex-cinema swingdowns. The food, in utter contrast to the meat pies and curries available at the GBBF, included roast shoulder of goat in a coffee and black cardamom sauce (recommended beer: porter), and cured breast of wood pigeon with blue cheese rarebit (recommended beer: IPA). The music included Craig Charles DJing (not while I was there, alas) and an “alternative indie-electro-pop band from France” (the festival programme’s description) called We Were Evergreen.
The pricings were rather different, too: at the GBBF a ticket costs £10 (less for Camra members) and the beers work out at around £1 to £1.20 or so for a third of a pint (my preferred glass size for beer festivals now – if a particular beer’s rubbish you waste less, and I can also drink more individual beers without falling down). At the LCBF, tickets were £35, but that included 15 vouchers for a third of a beer at a time. However, as far as I could work out, each voucher was specifically for one particular brewer’s beer, so if you wanted, say, two different beers from To Øl, you had to go and buy another voucher – and if you couldn’t drink through all five pints’ worth of vouchers, the average cost of your beer escalated dramatically. Something to work on for next time, LCBF organisers, I think.
I wonder how many people, like me, went to both the GBBF and the LCBF – and how many Camra members went to LCBF? My take on the GBBF is coloured by the fact that, as a member of the British Guild of Beer Writers for 25 years, and Camra for 36 years, and as a journalist covering the hospitality business, I know a fair number of people likely to be at the first-day trade session, so a large part of my time there this year was spent chatting to people I hadn’t seen for some time. The beers are almost a sidebar to the conviviality (though I did make sure I was in the queue for both the Courage Imperial Russian Stout from the cask and the draught Greene King 5X – that last one made highly amusing by having to deal with the people who, not knowing about 5X, couldn’t understand why anyone was lining up for a Greene King beer.)
At the LCBF I didn’t think I would know anybody, though I was wrong: Andy Moffat, head brewer at Redemption in Tottenham, North London, spotted and hailed me, and was kind enough to give me a free glass of the brewery’s new Pisco Pale, a 4.7 per cent beer flavoured with Peru’s national firewater, even though it wasn’t strictly on sale at that hour. This is basically a draught Submarino, without all that faffing about dropping the glass of spirits into the tumbler of beer, and the pisco, even though only a small amount goes into each cask, gives a fantastic aroma to the final beer.
And what about the other beers? Some very impressive brews, actually, which if there were any Camra members there sceptical about the “craft keg” movement, should have persuaded them that, yes, properly brewed and handled, keg beers can easily be the equal to almost any cask ale.
Having written about session IPAs earlier this summer, I had to try Magic Rock‘s version, at 2.8%. The carbonation actually helps with the lack of alcohol here, boosting the mouthfeel, meaning I don’t think this would work as well on cask. I was getting quite a bit of sulphur on the nose, alongside a good American hop hit – grapefruit, passionfruit, you know the thing. Ultimately, though, while one glass was enjoyable, and I’d have it as my sole pint if I was driving, it was ultimately too thin, for me, to consider for an evening’s session.
The next glass was Kernel’s Ella pale ale, a cloudy brew which increasingly grew on me as it went down: I thought I detected something almost chocolatey when I started with it (no idea why), but that was replaced by a more Belgian note, with a great full mouthfeel and, again, lovely “American fruity” aromas: very satisfying. Which I couldn’t say about Black Betty “black IPA” from Beavertown, almost the festival’s local brewery, from nearby in Hackney Wick. This was much more a heavily hopped sweet stout than a black IPA, and most of it went into one of the large plastic bins placed handily by each brewer’s stall for slops.
Fortunately Mikkeller was there to show how hoppy brown beers ought to be made, with Jackie Brown (or “Jackie Fucking Brown”, as it was labelled on the stall, underlying the link to the Tarantino movie): the sweetness was dialled right back, and a complexity of roast and chocolate malts came through, with laid over the top a lovely carrotty, gingery malt topping. That’s the way to do it.
Another disappointment arrived with Camden Town’s Gentleman’s Wit: it looked like lemon meringue pie, and tasted like it as well, sugary where it should have been sharp. Maybe an actual quarter of a lemon in the glass might have helped. Crate Stout, from another new Hackney Wick brewery, handled that side of the beer experience much better, a lovely light chocolatey glassful just lifting off at the end of the delivery from being too sweet.
The “craft keg” equivalent of cask ale’s Boring Brown Bitter is citrussy pale ale: so easy to do, so difficult to do well. Well done, then Siren Craft Brew, which only started up in February this year in Finchinhampton, near Reading, and supplied the LCBF with as good an English-brewed American IPA as any I’ve had. It’s not difficult to guess that the man with the brewmaster’s apron on here had masses of experience bunging hops into coppers, and indeed, Ryan Witter-Merithew has a hugely impressive CV encompassing well-known breweries in the US and Denmark. Soundwave IPA, unusually, lets the malt have almost equal billing alongside the mango and grapefruit, which walk hand-in-hand with a touch of burnt toffee. I shall definitely be drinking more Siren.
In all I had an excellent afternoon, marred only by the lack of any hard-line anti-craft keg Camra people around to grab by the hair while forcing them to drink a glass of Soundwave or similar and shouting in their faces: “Admit it, ye fecker – it’s great and yet it’s not cask!” Still, frankly, that’s an argument which is increasingly becoming irrelevant. I went to a talk in Bloomsbury earlier this week on “Using Digital Humanities Techniques to Study the History of Beer and Brewing”, by Harvey Quamen, associate professor of English and humanities computing at the University of Alberta, which was vastly more interesting than it might sound (and which gave me and the people I went with much amusement when a quote about the history of porter from one of my books popped up on screen during the presentation: it must have been unnerving for Professor Quamen to suddenly realise the author you are quoting is sitting in the audience staring at you). Afterwards I and Tim Holt, editor of the Brewery History Journal, went down to the nearby Holborn Whippet, for a pint of something craft. As we looked around the Wednesday evening crowd, it was clear that, just like the LCBF, the drinkers were all (apart from us) under 40, at least 40 per cent of them were smartly dressed young women, and everybody – including the smartly dressed young women – was drinking beer: not a pinot grigio rosé to be sighted. And I’d be prepared to bet that of the 153,000 members Camra now has, not a one was in the Whippet that night.
*Thornbridge, Dark Star, Redemption and Harviestoun, since you ask