Thursday, 15 August 2019

GBBF 2019

Right, let’s look at last Friday’s visit to CAMRA’s annual flagship event, and the grand-daddy of all UK drink festivals, the Great British Beer Festival. It’s an event that needs little in the way of introduction, so let’s cut to the chase by saying that it hadn’t been my intention to go to the festival.

It had been several years since my last visit to Olympia, which took place in 2016, and as that occasion was the opening day Trade Session, it’s difficult to make comparisons with what I experienced this time around. Before describing the 2019 event, it’s worth mentioning that this blog has covered Great British Beer Festivals from 2009, 2012, 2014 as well as 2016. I also did a write-up of 2017’s event; even though I wasn’t actually there!

Two things persuaded me to go along this year, the first being the good report I received about last year’s event from two members of my team from work. Admittedly 2018 was their first ever GBBF, but they came back full of praise. I was several thousand miles away at the time, travelling to a location just outside Washington DC, for the American Beer Writer’s Conference, but the pictures my colleagues posted on Facebook did rather make me wish that I was there, at Olympia, sharing the experience with them.

There were no such clashes this year, but the thing which really inspired me to go along, was the well-illustrated and extremely positive write-up in CAMRA’s BEER magazine; the award-winning, quarterly publication, sent out free to all CAMRA members.

So with my mind made up I decided it was high time to renew my acquaintance with the Great British Beer Festival, with one proviso. I didn’t want to pay the rather steep admission charge, so instead I applied for a Press Pass - something any beer writer is entitled to do. CAMRA, quite naturally, will expect in return, a good write-up of the event, and I feel I have done this without compromising my integrity as a writer.

I don’t feel guilty either  about depriving CAMRA of potential revenue, as not being a life member, the organisation have taken more than enough money in membership fees from me, over the years.  Besides, without the Press Pass, I wouldn’t have attended, and I wouldn’t have spent forty quid or so on beer and food.

I arrived at Olympia, shortly after midday, after a pleasant, but rather slow journey on the Number 9 bus from Charing Cross. Sitting on the top deck gave me views of central London that I would not have experienced had I taken the tube. I joined the queue, which snaked around Olympia, before making my way up to the Press Office to collect my pass. After that, I was in and ready to start drinking!

I’d arranged to meet up with prolific blogger and champion GBG ticker, Retired Martin for what would be his first visit to the Great British Beer Festival. We’d agreed to rendezvous at bar B11, where there was a selection of Cornish beers on sale, although not Doom Bar, much to Martin’s disappointment.  

I started off with an enjoyable half of Kor Dogel, an easy drinking pale, hoppy ale from Padstow Brewery. It wasn’t long before Martin showed up; I can’t remember what he had as I wasn’t keeping score, although I do recall that sometime, quite early in the proceedings, he had a beer from Arkells of Swindon. Arkells of course, are a long established brewery and are one of the few remaining, independent family brewers to have survived into the 21st Century.

Continuing the old family brewer theme, a little later on in the day, I decided on a glass of Holden’s Black Country Bitter; another old fashioned, but very quaffable bitter which brought back memories of visits to the West Midlands.

The pair of us had a good wander around, bumping into fellow blogger Tandleman on the way. We paid a visit to the foreign beer bar he was working on, where I went for a glass of Kellerbier, an unfiltered beer from St.Georgen Bräu of Buttenheim, a large village between Bamberg and Erlangen in the Franconia region of northern Bavaria.

The beer was good, being cool, full-bodied and well-hopped, but somehow it didn’t taste the same as it did the day, nine years ago, when son Matthew and I sat in the shady beer garden, on the edge of Buttenheim, knocking back several half-litres of this delicious beer, served in traditional stoneware mugs. If proof were needed that location and actually being there, adds provenance to a beer, then this was it!

We had a couple more beers between us, noticing that the hall was starting to get quite busy. I still wouldn’t say it was heaving, and there was very little waiting to be served.  Martin was getting itchy feet, and told me he was aiming to catch a certain train. Before he left I had what for me was one of the best beers of the festival in the form of Heart & Soul; a really tasty 4.4% session IPA from Vocation Brewery.

Martin had been drinking Vocation beers the night before, in Leeds, at a special event to commemorate Beer Leeds blogger and writer, Richard Coldwell who sadly passed away at the end of June. He told me Vocation has some rather good beers on tap, including a special one in Richard’s memory.

Martin departed soon afterwards and, as it turned out, leaving when he
did was the right decision, because later in the afternoon, a large chunk of the UK national rail network was knocked out by a massive power outage, leaving trains and their passengers stranded. I, in the meantime, wandered off to grab a bite to eat.

There were plenty of different food stalls to chose from, so I had a pasty from the Crusty Pie Company, plus a bacon roll from the Real Sausage & Mash stand. It was around this time that I too was thinking of following Martin’s example, but a half of Adnam’s 5.0% Dark Side of the Moon, a rather interesting marshmallow and coconut stout, plus the equally interesting Smokin’ Gun Porter, from Big Hand Brewing Company, set me off on a quest to find the group of friends from West Kent CAMRA, who I knew would be sitting upstairs in the gallery area, where there were plenty of tables and benches.

I must have walked past them a couple of times, before a text alerted me to where they were sitting. I sat down and joined them, and that was where the rot set in. It involved quite a few more beers, another pasty and a 9.15pm departure, but on the plus side, there was plenty of interesting, and useful conversation.

One of the beers I sampled was another survivor from the past; this time XXX 4.3%, a ale from the Three Tuns brew-pub in the picturesque Shropshire village of Bishop’s Castle. I’d only sampled this beer on one previous occasion, and that was in 1976, as a student.

A girlfriend and I had driven with a friend, all the way from Rugely in Staffordshire, to Bishop’s Castle, with the express purpose of enjoying a few pints of the Three Tuns “home-brewed” beer. The beer was well worth the long and tiring drive, and drinking it 43 years later at GBBF, brought back fond memories. I have to say though, that this was another example of location and occasion adding provenance.

Some final thoughts, as I’ve waffled on far longer than intended. First I felt that CAMRA really had taken all the criticisms from previous years on-board and addressed them in a professional and positive manner. The bars seemed better laid-out than hey were three years ago, and they were much easier to navigate.

The food stands were plentiful and what they were offering was good. My only gripe was the absence of the Piper’s Crisps stand, or indeed any crisps at all. There was live music, for those that wanted it, and Swallow, the band Martin and I saw and heard briefly, were very good. Another major positive at GBBF, was the beer quality, which was very good. The same could about the range, although once you’ve had six or seven halves, they all start tasting the same, and you’re never going to make a dent in the 1,000 + beers on sale at the event.

There were a few moans about high prices, although I personally didn’t really notice, as I was drinking either half pints or thirds. Also, considering the substantial overheads involved in staging an event like GBBF, in the heart of London, these factors have to be considered when setting the beer prices, and whilst some were undoubtedly on the dear side, there were still a few bargains to be had, if you looked around.

Finally the attendance figures. My friends, who are regular attendees, thought the attendance at this year’s event was again down on previous years. This also became obvious to me, as the evening progressed. I’m not sure why this should be, although perhaps people are becoming blasé towards the event, despite CAMRA’s best efforts.

There may be other factors involved as well, such as conflicting events taking place at the same time, but despite all this I’m still glad I went, even though it will probably be several more years until my next GBBF. 

If you haven’t been, do give the event a try, and despite the odd minus, there are a lot more pluses!


retiredmartin said...

Great summary, Paul.

Also scrupulously fair. There was good beer, and good choice, and really lovely volunteers. And decently priced beer.

I was glad I had you to talk to and compare notes with, or I might have got irritated with the lack of seating.

I'm glad I went, but whether I go back depends more on the company than the beer list!

Paul Bailey said...

Thanks Martin, it was good to catch up with you and spend time chatting, whilst sampling a few different beers. The Vocation beer, and the Adnam's stout, were the ones which did it for me, but it was also good to re-visit some of the "old-fashioned" examples, like Holden's and Three Tuns.

The lack of seating is a perennial problem, and whilst there were places upstairs, it's a bit of a hike down from the gallery and back, every time you want a half. Apart from that, there was little to find fault with, once you accept exactly what CAMRA are attempting to achieve with GBBF.

I'm pleased you mentioned the unsung army of volunteers, who give up their free time, not just to serve the thirsty hordes, but to carry out all the other work that goes on behind the scenes - including the setting up, and taking down.

Like you, I'm glad I went but, as I mentioned, I far prefer the outdoor German events, like Frankische Bierfest, or Annafest. There's something about enjoying a few glasses of beer in the great outdoors!