The Great British Beer Festival isn’t about the beer. Well, OK, a large part of it is about the beer, there are hundreds of different brews on sale. How could it not be about the beer. But for me the beer isn’t the main pleasure: instead it’s the chance to meet a large number of pals without having to ring them up beforehand, because I know they’ll be going. I can predict who many of those I’ll share a beer with at Earls Court after an unplanned encounter around the bars will be. But there are always surprise stumble-upons, old pals recognised with a start. Plus beer!
I missed the Zythographers’ Union pre-GBBF get-together at the White Horse last year, for the first occasion since the 20th century, because I was in Greece. This year Greece is next week, however. The meeting room above the bar was as hot as it always gets, which is what you’d expect if you cram a large number of (many of them large) bodies into a confined space in August. But, vitally, it was still possible, despite the crowd, to get (a) to the bar, and (b) to the food, which seemed as good as it was when Mark Dorber was in charge of the pub. The beers available included bottles of Ola Dubh, Harviestoun’s hard-to-obtain whisky cask-aged stout, which was a coup: cask-aged beers, the 21st century’s first new beer style.
Between catching up with old mates such as Martin Kemp (the more deserving of fame Pitfield Brewery man, not the ageing ex-Spandau Ballet singer and actor who once played a Kray) I also managed to hand out leaflets for the new e-book, Amber, Gold and Black, while thanking people for “coming along to my book launch party” – a hat-tip to Melissa Cole for organising the event, and also for not slapping me for being cheeky by trying to hijack it for my own publicity. (And another hat-tip to Mel for getting a great plug for women and beer into The Times the day after the GBBF opened.)
I had an invite for the launch as a proper magazine of Beer, previously a pull-out section in Camra’s What’s Brewing, which was taking place at the GBBF trade session on Tuesday afternoon, so this, rather than my press pass, got me into the Earl’s Court hall. The “corporate lounge” (sic – actually an area away up at the top of the hall divided off from hoi polloi by the sort of semi-glazed portable “walls” that look like the partitions between classrooms in a cheaply built 1960s college of education), where the launch was being held was not the throbbing crowd of hob-nobbing beer journos I expected, however. Instead it was an arrangement of empty tables, and just Tall Tom the What’s Brewing editor, a couple of people from Think Publishing, Camra’s partners in the new-look Beer magazine, and, if I’m remembering correctly, Zak Avery of Beer-Ritz, who, like me, was featured in the first issue.
Since there was obviously much more fun going on in the rest of the hall Tom suggested I might perhaps like to take advantage of the free beer vouchers thoughtfully placed in pint glasses on each of the empty tables. Nanoseconds later I was by the Fuller’s brewery stand, where Derek Prentice and John Keeling, brewing manager and brewing director respectively at the Griffin brewery, hailed me, twisted my arm up behind my back and cruelly forced me to accept a half of Chiswick bitter on their tab.
Every conversation I have with Derek or John I learn new things. Derek, who worked with Young’s at Wandsworth before he joined Fuller’s, and at Truman’s in Brick Lane, in the East End, before that closed in 1989, was refreshingly blunt about the current state of beers from a couple of famous real ale breweries, saying their beers, including a widely available cask bitter, now tasted “underboiled”. I won’t tell you their names: sorry, but if I did I’d probably be found face-down in the Thames and heading out on the tide past Hammersmith Bridge.
Derek also revealed that he had been asked to add to something written by Jeremy Moss, head brewer at Wychwood, on the dropping or “double-drop” system of fermentation. Now, if I ever have to fill in a form where one of the questions is “name your favourite semi-obscure fermentation method”, I would confidently tick the box marked “dropping system”. It’s the one where, after fermentation has reached its most vigorous phase, the whole brew is dropped out of the primary fermentation vessel to another one below, aerating the wort and leaving behind all the gick – coagulated protein, dead yeast and so on – produced so far.
Today the only beers publicised as being brewed using the dropping system are those from Brakspear, whose entire kit was transported from its original home in Henley in 2004 to Wychwood’s site in Whitney, where the dropping set-up was recreated. But it used to be a popular method of fermenting ales, used by breweries from Bristol to at least as far north as Newark, and quite a few London brewers had dropping systems installed: Derek knew it at both Truman’s and Young’s, actually used it at Young’s in 2005 to make a one-off revival of Young’s Burton Ale, and told me that the place where Fuller’s former dropping system once was can still be seen at Chiswick. He promised to send me his notes on the system, and I shall be using them as the basis for a later post.
Leaving Fuller’s, I picked up a half of Black Swan mild from the Vale brewery in Brill, Buckinghamshire. Whatever happened, btw, to people saying “brill”, and indeed “triff”, to voice their approval? Irritating slang expressions from the 1970s or so, now as dated as “fab”, or “22-skidoo”. Anyway Black Swan wasn’t brill, but pleasant enough, chocolaty with slight tartness (which probably wasn’t meant to be there, though it worked well) and an attractive foundation of roastiness.
Circumnavigating the hall, I spotted the stall where Geoff Brandwood, probably the country’s foremost expert on pub interiors, and his co-author Jane Jephcote were signing copies of their new book for Camra, London Heritage Pubs: An Inside Story. I have a beef with Camra about this book: I wrote two short pieces for it, on London’s old breweries and London’s old beer styles, and the miserable farquhars have declined to send me a free copy.
However, I have no beef with Geoff at all, he’s a very nice man, so I went across to say hello, and to check that my name was spelt correctly in the book (it is). Geoff and Jane were just signing a copy for a white-bearded Scandinavian purchaser, so I offered to add my signature to his copy as well, over one of my pieces. I’m not sure the elderly Nordic knew exactly what was going on, and why this fat-faced English loony was scribbling indecipherably on a page in his handsome new book, but he went away with what is now a unique copy.
By now the winners of the Champion Beer of Britain competition were being announced, so I moved to the edge of the huge crowd around the Earls Court stage and tried to hear across the hubbub and the appalling acoustics who had triumphed this year. I might have tried to work my way further in to the mob, but I met Stonch, London’s best pub manager/beer blogger, who also features in the launch edition of Beer and Adrian TJ, secretary to the Zythographers’ Union, who had been complaining to me the night before that he hadn’t been invited to the Beer magazine launch – he was a happier hopper when I told him he wasn’t missing anything.
If I was the organised ticker-type I’d get hold of a copy of the festival programme and mark all the beers I wanted to try, but I CBA – my method instead is to wander around looking at what’s available until I spot something that appeals at that moment. So it was a half of Bakewell Best Bitter from Peak Ales next, just because it reminded me of how annoyed my mother used to get when every time Joan Bakewell appeared on BBC2 I’d shout: “She’s a tart!”. (Yes, I’m easily amused, thanks.)
The same desire for a beer-fuelled sprint along Memory Lane drew me to Cameron’s Trophy Special – I haven’t had a pint of anything called Trophy since the 1980s, when Whitbread was calling all the different ordinary bitters from the breweries it still owned around the country by that name. Several of those Trophies, such as the ones from the former Fremlin’s brewery in Faversham, the former Strong’s brewery in Romsey and the former Starkey, Knight & Ford brewery in Tiverton, were excellent session beers. Hurrah, this one, which I’m guessing is derived from the Trophy once brewed at the Castle Eden brewery, a management buy-out from Whitbread that then moved its operations to Camerons, is good, too: a Burton-like snatch on the nose, perhaps slightly too sweet for a long session but pleasantly palate-cleansing after the mild.
Stap me, it was more memories for the next drink, when I spotted Ian Miller serving on the Hook Norton stand. Ian is, since 2004, the landlord at the Peartree, the Hooky brewery tap, but I met him first when he was keeping excellent beers in the early 1980s at a pub on the old Great North Road in mid-Hertfordshire: later, when I moved back to London, he was running another pub in the same village that was one reason to return to Herts regularly, since its eclectic beer range was better, and more varied, than anywhere in my part of the capital. Courtesy of Ian, I sank Hooky dark mild, dry and uplifting: there isn’t a country in the world that does marvellous low-gravity beers like this as well as Britain.
Probably because as I’ve aged I’ve grown increasingly to like dark beers, which are no longer widely available in London pubs, I’m drawn to the more stygian brews at beer festivals, so it was Woodforde’s Norfolk Nog next. Woodforde’s make one of the country’s top bitters, Wherry, which stunned me when I first tasted it at the Cambridge Beer Festival more than a quarter of a century ago, it was so rammed with flavour, and is still the beer I get in on draught at home at Christmastime. Nog is another delight, sweeter than a porter properly ought to be, perhaps, but passing all the rest of the exam questions for its style.
Before that I’d had another serendipitous bump-into, with Graham Page of the market analysis company Nielsen, whom I was able to thank for supplying me with figures showing cask ale sales are holding up. Graham is someone else with whom I never have a conversation without learning something: his insights always make good reading, as the BBC discovered this week.
Made it back to the Fuller’s bar to be able to say farewell to Georgina Wald, who is leaving Fuller’s to be PR person at Domino’s Pizza: insert your own joke here. Incidentally, Stonch, if you’re reading this, Georgina has threatened to punch you for the rude comments you made about Fuller’s Honey Dew under a web report about John Keeling speaking in Canada. George was with the couple who run the Turk’s Head in Twickenham, who revealed that they find it not worth stocking ESB in the summer: all the wealthy middle-class SUV owners who are the only people who can afford the three quarters of a million squid needed to buy a terraced house in that part of the home of English rugby are away on holiday in Italy, and ESB sales plummet as a result.
Mark Dorber slapped me on the back at this point as he shot past with a long tail of acolytes, so I never had the chance to ask him if Gordon Brown had made it across the river from Southwold to Walberswick to drink his Adnams. By this time I needed some food. so back to the “corporate lounge” where, not lounging but standing, I soaked up the beer with some of Camra’s rapidly staling but free sandwiches (which didn’t make up for the lack of a free copy of London Heritage Pubs, ye feckers).
The Thornbridge Brewery guys were in there, so I chatted to them about last year’s wood-aged beer seminar, held at Thornbridge Hall, and this year’s lager seminar, at the same place, where I have volunteered myself, whether anybody wants it or nay, to give a short talk on the surprisingly long history of lager brewing in Britain: if you thought you knew enough to date it to the start of the Wrexham Lager Brewery in 1882, you’d be out by almost half a century. If you’d like to know more before the seminar, you can (advert) spend just £5 and learn about that and a lot more with Amber, Gold and Black. I also found time to flip through Beer, and spotted straightway one serious marketing no-no if they really want to attract new young readers. Two pictures of me. Double-chinned, greying, increasingly tonsure-headed middle-aged farts are not the image cask ale needs promoting it.
My free beer tickets couldn’t be used on the Bières Sans Frontières stand, so for the first time I had to put my hand in my pocket (tsk!). I was going to restrict myself to a couple of the Irish beers, since I could feel I wasn’t going to be able to drink much more, and I hadn’t had their brews before. The Franciscan Well Shandon stout started off as a disappointment, but after I’d left it untouched for some time while talking to some more people I hadn’t seen since, ooooh, the last GBBF, I found on my return a pleasing spiciness coming through. I only caught the end of the cask of Galway Hooker IPA, so it would be unfair to comment on its flavour, since in the glass it was like a wet afternoon in Dingle (that is to say, of course, extremely cloudy).
After that (and a quick Cornish party – I love Cornish pasties) I was drawn, after all, to one of the American offerings: Moat Mountain Spruce Brown Ale from New Hampshire. Spruce ale from America was on sale in the New England coffee house in London in 1785 (you can read all about that in Amber, Gold and Black for just £5 as well), so it’s a very old tradition: Moat Mountain describes this 5.7 per cent abv beer as “an English-style brown ale” (hmmm) “lightly ‘dry-hopped’ with local spruce tips”. It can certainly be described as “sprucey”, with some ginger notes as well: I’d definitely drink it again.
Another fortuitous bump-into with more old acquaintances near the East Anglian stall meant I tried Wolf Brewery’s Straw Dog, since it was handy: very pale, slightly cloudy and a hint of what smelt like Brettanomyces suggesting this dog had been rolling in something it shouldn’t have. Round the other side of the hall I spotted, from the Whitewater brewery in Derry Down, Clotworthy Dobbin – a beer, not a chap, though named after a chap: Mr Dobbin was the wonderfully appellated gentleman who, in the early 19th century, began what became Caffrey’s brewery in Belfast, after which Bass named its infamous nitrokeg ale. As a member of the Brewery History Society, I ordered a glass in Mr Dobbin’s honour. Unfortunately I wasn’t much impressed: a brew not worthy of Clotworthy, on this showing.
It was now, despite a second Cornish pasty (I told you I loved them), time to go home: a detached part of my brain could tell I was talking even more bollix to people than I normally do. In fact on the evidence of what happened next, it was well past time to go home. Home lies on a branch line only one change of train from Earls Court. I made it onto the right connection: but I woke up as the train was pulling into the next-to-penultimate station on the line, three stops further away from London than I wanted to be.
Cursing, I was out the carriage door with a hurtle, and over the footbridge to the opposite platform, thinking that I could catch the next Waterloo-bound train. As I stared at the electronic platform indicator showing the next train’s arrival time, and where it was going, I was remarkably quick, under the circumstances, in working out that, on the evidence of the indicator board, the train I had just got off, and whose red lights had now disappeared up the track, WAS the one back to Waterloo. I had slept not just past my stop, but right to the end of the line, and stayed asleep as the train began its return journey. If I had continued on that same train, and not jumped off in a panic, I would have been home in ten minutes. Worse, the train I had rushed out of was the last one that night going London-wards. I now had a walk, in the dark, of an hour and a half before I could see my bed.
After thirty minutes’ march past darkened homes and shuttered pubs, my mobile phone rang: Mrs Zythophile, wondering why I hadn’t come through the door yet. She was, astonishingly, not interested in hearing my rant at the miserable bastards who failed to wake me up when the train arrived at the line’s end: still, I probably would have let a snoring old git snore on too, figuring I deserved all that fate was about to award me.
You might think I should have rung for a taxi: but I hate paying the stupidity tax represented by a late-night taxi fare brought about by over-sleeping on a train and, masochistically, I reckoned I deserved the punishment of a long walk home. Fate spared me the complete penalty: about a mile and a half from my house a late-night bus appeared, and bed was arrived at earlier than I had feared.