Words & Photos - Matthew Curtis
A couple of weeks ago I went to the 2013 Great British Beer Festival (GBBF) which was back at the Kensington Olympia for the second year on the trot. It's the third consecutive year I've attended the festival and the first time I've been on the opening day. My usual attitude towards beer festivals is thus; ignore any beer lists, coerce some mates into coming along with me and then concentrate on working my way through as many beers that come my way that evening until eventually staggering homewards a little worse for wear.
This time was different, I'm not sure if it was accidental or deliberate but when I clicked on the link to the beer list for this years GBBF I instantly took my festival experience down a notch. I sat at my desk at work and poured through the draught list, coo-ing at the offerings that would be available from the likes of Cantillon, Ninkasi and Deschutes and then made a plan of the beers I hoped to try when I made my way to the Tuesday evening session. I didn't have to convince any non-beer geek friends to attend with me this time because I knew that by buying a ticket for the opening day I would bump into a bundle of the wonderful people I've met through writing about beer.
My GBBF Glass 2011-2013, Evolution of a beer geek?
Conveniently, my office is in Willesden which is a whole two stops away from the Kensington Olympia on the London Overground which means I left my desk at 5.30 and had a glass of beer in my hand at 5.47. When I arrived at the spacious Olympia I bumped into CAMRGB 'El Presidente' Simon Williams who had been at the trade session for several hours and we were in matching CAMRGB t shirts. We embraced like long lost brothers, it was a beautiful moment, he recommended me some beers and then had to dash for his train. I was soon inside and to my delight I noticed that in addition to the usual pint and half pint glasses a neat new tulip for holding a third of beer was available. This is what I plumped for and this was the second decision I soon lamented, some beers are just not meant to be sipped in thirds.
I wandered over the the Belgian branch of the 'Bieres Sans Frontiers' bars and plumped for a glass of Girardin Oude Lambik to whet my appetite for the onslaught of awesome beer I was anticipating. It didn't set my world on fire, Gueuze on cask doesn't really work for me, it's a style that's best appreciated out of a bottle. It didn't have that Champagne like spritzyness that lifts this style of beer and the cider vinegar notes were allowed to dominated this flat and tepid glass of beer. Whilst supping away on my first beer I bumped into Mark and Tony and chatted for a bit before departing to have a wonder and work out the lay of the land. This year, instead of using two levels on one hall they had opened up the second hall and hadn't really used the first floor. I found the order in which the bars were strewn about the place completely random which often meant a bit of a trek if you wanted to try beers from different bars that were quite a ways apart from each other. Apart from that there was plenty of space and the bars were long and well staffed so it was easy to move around and it never took long to get served.
On my way to the American beer bar where I had intended to set up camp for the majority of the festival I wandered past the Thwaites stand and picked myself up a third of 13 Guns, which bills itself as an American style IPA. I was fooled for a few moments by it's deep auburn appearance but the pine and lemon zest on the nose soon informed me that I was going to enjoy this. It was all citrus and sitka with a rich vien of chewy biscuit and caramel underpinning the whole thing, it was arguably the best beer I drank that evening but I was kicking myself for not getting a bigger glass, this beer deserves to be drank by the pint.
I eventually arrive at the USA beer bar and bump into a whole gaggle of friends, so many in fact that I can't remember exactly who was there but I know there was an Andrew and a Chris and a Crema and a drunk South African gentleman who had spotted my t shirt and wanted to talk to me about CAMRGB which seems to happen every time I wear the t shirt in public these days. Glasses are passed around, I get a sip of Ballast Point Sculpin, one of the best West Coast IPA's in the world but certainly not THE best in the world and Icon Green from Houston, Texas' Saint Arnold Brewing. Icon Green is a Hefeweizen dry hopped with Amarillo and it was one of the most interesting and more likeable beers I tried that evening, a brewery I'll be seeking out again no doubt.
I then come over all nostalgic for my home from home, Colorado and order a Flashback India Brown Ale from Boulder Beer Company. It fills me with joy to see beers I discovered over the pond make their way over here and even though I've tried this beer before it was nice to try it served from a cask under gravity. It had all of those resinous, chewy caramel and pine notes that I remembered but it was lacking the effervescence of CO2 to lift those flavours to the next level. Like most of the beers I tried that evening, it simply hadn't been in the cask for long enough and wasn't ready to be served, a bit of time and conditioning would have lifted both the quality of the beers I drank and my mood. I thought to myself that if I'd gone on Thursday or Friday the beer would have been in better nick but then cast these dark thoughts to the back of my mind and attempted to get on with enjoying myself.
I found a seat at a table in the corner of the venue and joined forces with my stalwart drinking pal Justin and his wife Sarah before heading back to the bar. Smuttynose Finestkind IPA was a delicious citrus and tropical fruit treat but like the Flashback lacked a certain something as did the strange and interesting Confluence from Allagash Brewing. It's billed as an American Wild Ale and the guys serving behind the bar couldn't tell me much about it, I immediately detected the unmistakable funk of Brettanomyces which underlying hints of watermelon, again, a little extra gas could have taken this beer to the next level but I soldiered on nonetheless.
The next beer I tried went on to win the best USA draught beer award at this years show which is a shame because I thought that it was either in poor shape, a not terribly well made beer or more likely a little bit of both. It was bourbon barrel aged Cryptical, an imperial stout from Virginia's Starr Hill Brewing Company. I've had the pleasure of drinking several barrel aged beers over the last couple of years and some of them have been up their with the best beers I've ever drank but this was not one of them. For starters it was totally flat and stank of booze, now I love whisky and the feeling of alcohol burn as it warms my throat but in an 8% beer this should be a side note and note the main attraction. Barrel ageing is a tough act to pull off, for me it should enhance and metamorphose the beer into a different beast while never taking away from the fact that it should still taste like a beer. All I got from this was cheap, paint stripper bourbon, a little malt vinegar and not much malt or sweetness. It wasn't terrible but I fail to understand how this is the beer that walked away with the award when there so many USA beers were on draught that I personally thought were much better.
Speaking of beers on draught, the evening was steadily drawing to a close and I hadn't managed to try a single one of the beers on my tasting list. The reason why is that not a single one of them had been put on yet, the revellers who were due to arrive over the next few days would be the lucky blighters that got to try these beers and they probably didn't have them on a list, they're probably just there for a good time, I am jealous of these people.
I make my way over to the Empire Bar where my friend Chris is working his thirteenth Great British Beer Festival as a volunteer. I have a third of Redemption Hopspur which again is lacking in a bit of condition and again I'm longing for a long, cool pint rather than a pissy little third. I briefly catch up with Jack and Sophie before I wander to the USA bottle bar for a few takeaway treats to try and cheer me up. I leave with the disappointed feeling that I've not made the most of my festival experience and I suspect that's because I'm still painfully sober. I've missed the point of GBBF, nay every single beer festival entirely. These events are put on for people who love beer so that they can have FUN, entering this building with my poor preconceptions of what I wanted to get out of my evening was the worst mistake I could have made. I approached the car crash that was the London Brewers Alliance festival with completely the opposite attitude which I why I had such a good time. Lesson learned, I won't make this mistake again. That said GBBF was once again impeccably well organised and I shall return next year with no clue of what beers are on and attempt to get utterly shitfaced.
As I make my way out of the Olympia with a disappointed smirk on my face I turn my head upwards and see a giant advert for the misguided 'Let There Be Beer' campaign projected on the wall opposite. I turn my head away and give it the total ignorance that it deserves, board the train and make my way home.