I must admit I didn’t enjoy this year’s Great British Beer Festival as much as I thought I would. I attended the festival on the Thursday, instead of my normal Friday, along with a number of friends from my local CAMRA Branch. I was determined not to go making unfavourable comparisons between GBBF and the brilliant Annafest which I’d visited three weeks previously, as the two festivals are completely different events. However, despite my best intentions, my mind kept harking back to sitting out in the cool, shady woodland setting of the Kellerwald and contrasting it with the packed, noisy hall at Olympia.
To be fair, I don’t think the location where we chose to base ourselves on Thursday helped. I appreciate my friends’ over-riding concern to grab a table, as it gets very uncomfortable being on one’s feet all day at Olympia, but right at the rear of the hall, facing back towards the stage was not a good idea, as events were to prove as the day wore on. Lacking the natural lighting of the main part of the hall was one thing, but not being able to hold a proper conversation due to the reverberation from the sound system was quite another. The music acts weren’t too bad, but the interminable CAMRA auctions, which took place during every interlude, really did grate, as the acoustics, or lack of them, in that part of the hall meant we were bombarded by a wall of distorted noise, rather than a proper indication of what was actually taking place on stage.
Later in the afternoon I wandered upstairs to look for Fred Waltman, an American beer enthusiast who runs and maintains the Online Beer Guide to Bamberg & Franconia. Fred had emailed to say he was visiting GBBF and would be upstairs, but I must admit I left it a little later than originally planned to go and look for him. Despite carefully perusing table after table of drinkers on the upstairs gallery, I failed to spot anyone with a Franconian Beer Guide hat. Equally I failed to make out any American accents amongst the myriad of drinkers, so gave up on my quest. What I did notice though was that although the rear mezzanine section, where we based ourselves last year, had been blocked off, there was still plenty of space up on the gallery and, had we gone upstairs when we first arrived, we would almost certainly have found ourselves a table! It was light and airy up on the gallery, and a nice temperature too, with the ducting for the air-conditioning blowing out refreshingly cool air just above people’s heads. Contrast this to the artificially lit section we were sitting in downstairs and you can perhaps understand my frustration.
That’s probably more than enough moaning, especially as where we chose to sit was our own decision and nothing to do with the festival organisers. So how was the festival? Good, I would say, but not, in my book, as good as last year’s. Again, this is nothing to do with the festival organisers, or all the hard-working volunteers who give up their spare time to run this well-respected and long established event. Instead this assessment on my part is entirely due what I can only describe as “festival fatigue” on my part. I intend to write about this, at greater length, in a future post but for now let’s just say I was bored!
Anyway, what about the beer, which after all is the raison d’etre of the Great British Beer Festival? Well there were getting on for 800 of them, so there was something for everyone. The only problem was deciding which ones to go for out of such a lengthy list. I initially picked a provisional short-list of 65 beers which took my fancy, and then highlighted 15 that were definite “must try” beers. The list was flexible though and was designed so that there were many “second choices” I could opt for, should I find a particular bar too crowded or if I happened to find myself at a bar where one of my “must try” beers wasn’t available.
The other part of my plan was to start off with a few light and refreshing Golden Ales, before moving onto some higher strength IPA’s. Eventually I would finish up with a few Porters, Stouts, plus the odd esoteric, or rare beer.
Of course it didn’t quite all go to plan, and I ended up trying a few porters and stouts somewhat earlier in the proceedings than I intended, although I did switch back to IPA’s towards the end. I made a conscious decision not to go for any foreign beers as not only were there just too many to choose from, but also the majority were far too strong, with a number of the American offerings weighing in at 10% plus! Most, if not all, of the foreign beers were sold at a premium price, which is entirely understandable given the time and effort involved in sourcing and importing them. For me though, part of their appeal is drinking and enjoying them in their home country of origin. I am pleased to day I have achieved this aim for most of the German beers that were on sale, as well as quite a few of the Belgian ones. The next stop has to be the United States, and I am working on a visit to that country, for sometime next year.
So, did any of the beers I tried really stand out? Happily several of them did, with Dissolution IPA, from Kirkstall Brewery, my beer of the festival. This really was an excellent example of a “new wave” IPA. Not too strong at 5.0%, but a beer which really delivered in terms of both taste and appeal. My runner up was Triple Chocoholic from Saltaire; a completely different beer, but one which really managed to deliver the chocolate without being too cloyingly sweet. Also worthy of a mention were Art Brew – Monkey IPA, Ascot – Anastasia’s Exile Stout, Moor - Revival and Purple Moose Glaslyn Ale.
We left the festival shortly after 9pm. It had been a long day; I hadn’t drunk too much, but I was still feeling very dehydrated by the time we departed, (this was despite drinking water wherever possible in between beers). I didn’t manage to meet up with Fred, but I did manage to bump into Peter Alexander, aka Tandleman, and that, more than anything, helped reinforce my belief that the social aspect of GBBF is every bit as important and enjoyable as the appreciation of the beer!