Words & Photos - Matthew Curtis
In 2011 I made my first ever trip to the Great British Beer Festival with my good friend and fellow ale enthusiast Dom Green. The event was held at Earls Court and as it was the first time I was making an appearance at the event I went in with very few expectations and as a result had a stonkingly good time. The beer was great and in plentiful supply and as it was a Friday night there was a real party atmosphere within the venue, my only real complaint being the lack of space and seating.
'They pushed us through the gates and let us loose inside'
For this years event proceedings were moved to the Kensington Olympia as there was some sports event or other happening at Earls Court and for me this was a blessing in disguise. Thanks to a relatively new mezzanine level there was plenty of seating and there was a lot more room to move about between the bars which was a welcome relief. Once again Dom was joining me on my beery adventure but this year we were heading down on the Thursday and as it was my day off from work I made my way there a little earlier and spent the first hour sampling a few brews by myself and doing a spot of people watching.
The thing that strikes me hardest about the GBBF is the massive mix of different people that attend the event, and thanks to it being on during the Olympics there was a mix of people from all over the world (but noticeably more Americans, Aussies and Kiwis) that I hadn’t noticed the year before. There were your stereotypical ‘CAMRA’ members, ‘lads’ on the piss, boys and girls who looked to be barely over the legal drinking age all wearing Brewdog tee-shirts and many more besides. The GBBF genuinely has something for everyone and now that beer and real ale has shaken it’s 'old fashioned' label it’s a fashionable event to attend, in fact I would say that you don’t even have to enjoy beer to have a good time (although it helps, of course) and you’ll probably leave the event converted to the way of the ale.
So I arrived at 5pm and had a good look around, the event was in full swing and there were already people who had imbibed a little to much collapsed on the floor, excellent effort that. First things first I picked up a half pint glass and then headed to the nearest bar and acquired a half of Dark Star American Pale Ale which was nice enough and certainly lubricated my palate but still had that air of ‘Britishness’ to it so I wasn’t particularly blown away. While I consumed my first half I walked around the whole arena to take in the lay of the land but most importantly to locate the USA and Belgian bars where I planned to spend most of my time. When I arrived at the Belgian bar I noticed how small the barrel of Cantillon Gueuze was and as my glass was empty I immediately ordered a half lest the barrel be empty by the time I return. Those ridiculously sour apple flavours took me back to that heady weekend I spent in Belgium all of two months ago, I feared it was so sour my palate may be done for but I seemed to manage ok.
I won’t go in to detail of every beer I consumed, to be frank there were a couple not even worth writing about and I wasn’t taking tasting notes (but was doing a bit of cyber-ticking with my Untappd app) however I did taste some absolute stunners. Dom joined me at 6pm and he immediately fancied something big and hoppy so we headed straight to the American bar and bought one of the biggest, hoppiest beers at the festival, Bridgeport Hop Czar. The Hop Czar had huge flavours of mango and grapefruit but the malts were amped up a little too much and were almost sickly sweet. The beer was resinous and coated the mouth and all in all was very enjoyable but was a little too cloying to be classed as excellent.
After this I was dying to get some Brodies Black IPA which I reviewed earlier in the year and is strong a contender for my beer of the year. Dom’s favourite beer is Thornbridge Raven and I had billed it to him as a Raven beater, not that I condone the beating of Ravens but if it’s in self defence then that’s acceptable. It was as stunning as I remembered, citrus and pine on a bed of chocolate and freshly roasted coffee, I’ve put quite a few black IPAs Dom’s way and although he didn’t think it was quite as good as Raven he did say it came pretty close. For me it was the beer of the GBBF and now I’ve had it in bottle and on cask I really want to try it on Keg which I reckon might just be the best way to serve a strong black IPA such as this.
Brodies might just be my favourite London brewer along with Kernel but sadly due to the short sightedness of the CAMRA no keg at GBBF policy I wasn’t able to make the comparison that evening as Kernel only package their beer in bottles and kegs. In fact I would say that the biggest negative of the GBBF is that some of the best breweries in Britain weren’t actually there. I strongly think that a keg bar should be introduced at next years GBBF, it’s the kind of step CAMRA need to take to get my membership, brewers such as Magic Rock, Camden, Summer Wine and ‘that Scottish brewery’ have every right to be there and if they did choose to have a keg bar at next years event I might even volunteer to work on it!
The return to the Kensington Olympia was a sound choice
Anyway, back to the festival and it was around this point I popped to Bar B7 to shake the hand of Chris, or as I know him @ckdsaddlers who was working behind the bar. Chris is one of the multitude of excellent people I’ve met through writing this blog and from being a general twitter beer geek. Chris recommended me a very pleasant pint of Yates Tropic Ale which was one of the better British ales I tried that evening, thanks again Chris! Dom and I then settled into seats with a few more friends where we remained for the rest of the evening taking it in turns to visit the bars.
I worked my way through a couple more bland pale ales which served as fantastic palate cleansers before I returned to the American bar and got myself some Sassy Rabbit Red Rye Ale from the Haverhill Brewery who are based in Massachusetts. I’m really acquiring a taste for Rye based beers and this was no exception, fantastic zingy notes of citrus and pine were held up by toasty, biscuity malts that were never too sweet, there’s something in the mouthfeel and finish of a Rye beer that I can’t quite put my finger on but it really works and it’s something that warrants significant futher investigation.
I was coming to the end of this years GBBF journey but there was still time to make sure Dom tried Cantillon which he compared to a ‘ridiculously dry cider.’ Coming from a man who was trying Gueuze for the first time I thought that was a pretty accurate description. I was also really impressed by another London brewery, I had never tried any Sambrooks beer before but their Pumphouse Pale Ale still shone through despite the pummelling my palate had already taken that evening. I then tried another Black IPA, this time from Netherlands based Bierbrouwerij Emelisse, it was good but not a patch on the Brodies.
There was still time for one more beer so I set off in search of ‘something ridiculous aged in a whisky barrel’ sadly these were all sold out but I was consolidated by a half of De Molen Rye IPA which more than made up for the lack of the huge barrel aged stout I was searching for. Before I left I picked up some bottled beers from Deschutes, Firestone Walker and Lagunitas, three USA breweries I know well from my trips to the States but had so far never seen their beer on sale in the UK. I was particularly excited about seeing the Firestone Walker beers available as along with Odell I think they are one of the top North American breweries so I hope we start to see more of their brews in the UK soon.
GBBF felt like a more relaxed affair than the previous year, once again I didn’t plan which beers I wanted to drink beforehand and played it by ear which I think is the best way to approach a festival with this many beers on offer. I must’ve drank far too much because I don’t remember much about the following day apart from being sat at my desk at work drinking lots of tea and not moving much or doing much work. Next year I’d love to see a keg bar featuring the new wave of British Brewing, I’d love to see some local London street food vendors and I hope that CAMRA decide to continue using the Olympia as it works really well as the venue for this brilliant event. Until next year, GBBF!