Words & Photos - Matthew Curtis
The train shakes slightly, just enough to wake me from my doze. I grasp at the half eaten prawn mayonnaise sandwich in front of me and gingerly take a bite, I am very hungover. I had spent the previous day on a stag do in Cardiff which involved a trip to the Tiny Rebel Brewery and the discovery of the Welsh capital's young, blooming craft beer scene of which Tiny Rebel are at the beating heart. I was heading back to my home in London which might have had a couple of years head start on Cardiff in the craft beer stakes but it feels like the UK is definitely reaching some sort of 'craft equilibrium' with vibrant, exciting scenes popping up wherever they're welcome.
Attending the stag weekend meant that I had missed the first two days of London Beer City, a nine day celebration of London's incredible beer culture organised by beer writer Will Hawkes. A remarkable amount of events were somehow crammed into a week that was bookended by CAMRA's Great British Beer Festival (GBBF) and a new alternative event, the London Craft Beer Festival (LCBF). I put plans in place to absorb as much of the week as possible. Tickets were purchased and a little time off work was booked, I just had to shape up, both physically and mentally. Right now I was a total wreck. After I'd been home a couple of hours I managed to crack open a can of Beavertown's fridge staple pale ale, Gamma Ray to remind my body that we would and could still do this. My body merely shook its fist at me, it wasn't happy about this at all.
Monday brought with it that damp sense of melancholy that a heavy weekend on the booze often brings. Or maybe that was because I'd forced myself to walk a mile in the rain to the train station in order to try and sweat some of the alcohol out of my system before I arrived at work. The clock ticked down slowly, despite my physical condition I was excited to jump back into the beer scene once more. Monday night brought the British Guild of Beer Writers annual GBBF warm up event. This was kind of weird, I've been a member of the guild for about eight months. I joined to connect with people in the industry and in a vain effort to try and get my writing in front of more people. Being in a room full of writers you admire and respect and have done so for a while is a little overwhelming. Well, it was for me at least but then you meet them and speak to them and realise that they have the same fiery passion for beer flowing through their veins as you do and suddenly you feel like you're in a very good place.
There was a lot of good beer here, much more than I expected. Rare unlabelled 'Ghost Bottles' from Brooklyn Brewery containing beer that tasted like pineapple juice blended with champagne, varying vintages of Boon Kriek Mariage Parfait, various cans from Terrapin in Athens, Georgia and err... Wells Bombardier on cask. There's nothing wrong with that of course, I'm being facetious as per usual. Literally every type of beer drinker was catered for but what alarmed me (but shouldn't have) was the rate at which the throng of beer writers tucked into it. The Guild certainly knows how to throw a party.
Late in the evening I absent mindedly stuck my hand into the nearest ice bucket to grab another drink after being disappointed that we'd already drank all of the Boon Kriek. I look at the twelve ounce bottle in my hand and slowly read the label. Founders Kentucky Breakfast Stout it said, I paused for a moment, blinked and then looked again. Yep this was KBS all right, a beer that I'd wanted to try for years just popped into my hand from out of nowhere. Seconds later I was pouring the bottle vigorously into a wine glass and quickly opened a second and poured my partner in crime Chris Hall a glass too. It was a pure delight, chocolate and coffee tied up in an immaculate bourbon flavoured bow all perfectly balanced and in total harmony. It was quite simply one of the best beers I've ever tasted. I reached into the ice bucket once more hoping I could find another bottle to squirrel into my bag and take home but sadly it too had been rinsed by the beer writers, and rightly so. This didn't stop me from making a circle of the room and forcing the contents in front of anyone else I could. Even Tandleman liked it, and he doesn't like whisky.
The event begins to die down and Chris and I decide to retreat to the Euston Tap where we reconvene with Maggie from the Beer Hawk who was also at the Guild shindig. For London Beer City the Tap were hosting a Czech takeover with vaguely familiar names like Matuška and Bernard gracing the chalk boards. Tap Manager Tom Clay recommends a Svatý Norbert IPA from Strahov. It's an incredibly bitter beast with a grapefruit flavour thats more distinctive than even some of the best American pale ales I've tried. There's something distinctively Czech about it though and it's the malt character shining through that made this beers country of origin undeniable. We then dive into a plethora of beers from Matuška ranging from a by the numbers (and absolutely brilliant) unfiltered pilsner through to another intensely bitter and accomplished American style IPA that's fittingly called Raptor.
Very slowly I realise that it's late, I'm drunk, again and I have a big day at the GBBF ahead of me. I ignore this and drink some more beer before Chris eventually pulls me out of my hole and sends me home, something he managed to do at exactly the right time for most of the week. Damn those Czech beers were great though, that's yet another beer scene that's definitely worthy of some serious exploration.
Tuesday dawns and I gradually manage to make my way from my bed to the kitchen. An extra scoop of coffee goes into the Aeropress and I pray the extra caffeine will lend me the resolve I need to get through this day intact. I'd never been to trade day at the Great British Beer Festival before but this time I'd been granted a press pass and I intended to try and make the most of the privilege. I arrive at the Olympia early and already flagging nip inside a nearby branch of Costa Coffee for a sub standard but desperately required flat white. With little else to do I join the already lengthening queue. A parade of circus folk including clowns, stilt walkers and the like pace up and down, shouting, trying to get the crowd in the mood but my gut feeling tells me people just want to get inside and start getting pissed. Personally I just want this damn clown to leave me alone. I see a few people I know as I wait for the line to start moving, eventually I'm joined by Simon Williams, founder of the Campaign for Really Good Beer (CAMRGB) and his friend Chris. This was an early indicator that today would be more about friends than beer.
We stand there, resplendent in our CAMRGB t-shirts and I think for the moment if by this I am trying to make a statement. I'm not a member of CAMRA but I'm not against their hard work over the decades either. I had hoped that by wearing that t-shirt I might have found myself having some interesting conversations with CAMRA members but none of them seemed to either notice or care.
Eventually the queue starts shuffling along and as I reach the end of it I notice the press entrance and realise that I needn't have stood in line at all. I flash my press pass, get handed a half pint glass and bundle of press releases that had already been emailed to me days ago before being shoved (not literally) into the already bustling Kensington Olympia. It turns out the trade session, although well represented by those in the trade is pretty much the same as any other session with plenty of regular punters getting tickets from contacts in the industry. I do a quick orbit of the Olympia to get my bearings and thankfully it seems that most of the stands are in the same place as last year and they've sensibly moved the US bottle bar next door to the US cask bar which is where myself and most of my friends set up base camp for the day.
Traditionally I like to start GBBF with a glass of draught Lambic from the Belgian bar so I shuffle along only to find out that none of the draught lines on this bar had been hooked up yet. Disappointed I then move to the adjacent German and Czech bar only to be told by a dejected looking Tandleman that none of their keg lines were hooked up either. Yes, keg lines, it still baffles me that at this great festival of cask beer that the German and Czech bars are always allowed to present their beer on keg as the brewers intend it to be served but this rule is not allowed to be applied to any other brewer. Raising any issue about it though is about as useful as throwing punches at the air in a dark, empty room. Besides as I would discover later in the week this doesn't matter and the key to GBBF, for me at least, is to forget everything I know and simply try and enjoy myself.
So I went and got myself a tip top half of Crouch Vale Brewers Gold, its classic pale malt notes and a gentle gnaw of grassy, bitter British hops getting my palate calibrated for a battering. I didn't get through as many beers as I would've liked although I certainly had a good few. Habit made sure I spent most of my time hovering around the American bar. Left Hand's Milk Stout worked incredibly well on cask and Lagunitas Maximus double IPA was tasting sublime. It was hands down my beer of the festival but couldn't help thinking that it lacked condition, an argument for it to be served on keg but this didn't seem to matter too much at the time. The best British beer I drank was Marble Dobber but the Manchester brewery's flagship IPA is rarely anything other than a sheer delight. Once the German bar was up and running I managed to enjoy a Tegernsee Hell as did anyone who crossed the path of Thornbridge's Dom Driscoll who insisted they tried it whilst he stood rooted to the spot drinking pint after pint of the stuff. A true hero amongst ordinary men.
Plenty of other beers were drank but they drifted into an ether of conversation. The magic of the trade session is that it puts an incredible amount of acquaintances together in a very big room. I try to speak to as many people as possible, to make new friends whilst spending as much time as I could with my existing ones. In the end it was all a bit overwhelming and as I zoned out into a state of hyperactivity my man Chris Hall pulled me out of the maelstrom and put me on the train home. What a day it had been though, the beer trade sure is home to a lot of wonderful folk. Folk that like to get drunk.
Having said that and now I've had time to process both this years and last years festival I'm pretty sure I don't get as much enjoyment out of GBBF as I hope to. CAMRA were keen to advertise this years GBBF as 'London's Biggest Pub' but that's not what I want from this kind of event. I want a sense of occasion, a vibrant carnival atmosphere. I can go to an amazing pub whenever I want. GBBF needs to evolve and find a way to offer its customers more. Perhaps they could achieve this by only serving British cask beer, it is the Great British Beer Festival after all. At this moment I'm not sure if I'd go again.
My post GBBF head was not as bad as I was expecting although I was feeling a kind of weariness that I could almost reach out and grab hold of. It was now Wednesday, the halfway house, hump day and I had tickets to a tasting with actual beer legend Melissa Cole at BrewDog Shepherds Bush. I could almost hear the clock grinding down the seconds as it approached five thirty but eventually it did and I made the short journey from my office on Scrubs Lane to one of Brewdog's best bars. I arrive early so once again opt to calibrate my tastebuds, this time with the Scottish brewery's most in form beer, Dead Pony pale ale.
While I wait I take the opportunity to try Buxton Brewery Ace Edge, a twist on their flagship Axe Edge IPA that uses the unusual, savoury tasting Sorachi Ace hop. I like Sorachi Ace, in fact the 2013 incarnation of Duvel's Tripel Hop made this hop sing and cemented it as one of my favourites. Still there was something about this beer that left me swaying on the fence. Axe Edge is one of the best draught beers I've drank this year but Ace was rough around the edges, it lacked refinement and balance. Sure it was a massive hit of lemongrass and sage, the kind only this unusual hop can provide but it was almost too much. There was a time when I liked 'too much' from my beer but now more often than not its balance that sends me back to the bar for more.
There was a twist to Melissa's tasting this evening, sure we would be trying some tasty beers but these would be interspersed with glasses of Carlsberg spiked with horrid flavours. Melissa was giving a tutorial on off flavours in beer, I had paid money to be reminded what butyric acid smells and tastes like, well done me. Of course what I had paid for was for Melissa to impart her expert knowledge and this was well worth it. She is, as you probably already know, a true pro and her technical knowledge was both impressive and very well explained. With her guidance almost everyone present managed to identify all of the off flavours correctly which thankfully included myself. The night concluded with friends arriving from another day at GBBF down the road and I was once again drinking myself into an hole but, you've guessed it, my man Hall was right there to pull me out again. Honestly, I'd probably be dead now if it wasn't for that guy.
Thursday was dark, the steady build up of toxicity in my system had reached its peak and my body demanded a rest. I decided to take a fallow day pausing only from this to participate in my weekly Beerbods twitter tasting. I was thankful of the rest but I'm glad I dipped my toe, my failing body needed a reminder that the London Beer City had not yet drawn to its inevitable conclusion.
The four pound pint of Gamma Ray. It exists, I've seen it, I've tasted it. It tasted good. I've paid as much as six pounds and fifty pence for a pint of my go-to beer but here at the vibrant and atmospheric Camden Town Brewery Bar it was just four pounds. I drank as much of it as I could before the keg kicked and when it did well it didn't matter because there was Camden's excellent Indian Summer lager bringing up the rearguard.
Today Beavertown and Camden had joined forces on a brew called 'One Hells of a Beaver' the brew team were mashing in the second batch when I arrived and Camden owner Jasper Cuppaidge and head Brewer Alex Troncoso were relaxing after brewing the first batch with Beavertown founder Logan Plant. In a twist the label for the beer would be designed live that evening by each breweries in house graphic designer. All you had to do was shout at them what you wanted them to draw. An increasingly less sober gang of attendees gradually yelled out more and more ridiculous ideas for the design. At one point in the evening I accosted Logan and shouted "DRAW A SHARK BUT A CRAFT SHARK BECAUSE THEY DIE IF THEY STOP DRINKING CRAFT BEER." I left a bemused looking brewer in my wake as I headed back to the bar.
Before I descended once again into the realms of the inebriated I managed to catch up with a very happy looking Will Hawkes. He was tangibly buzzing with delight at how successful the week had been. When I asked him if he planned to do it all again next year he seemed to think so and that it would be even bigger and better especially with time for added planning and some experience under his belt. What he really wanted was a rest and I can't say I blamed him, he probably felt worse than I did and I was knackered. Still, caught up in the energy of one of my favourite drinking spots in London I proceeded to have a very good time as I always do when I come here.
Due to circumstances created by the amount of drinking that occurred the previous evening, Saturday required another rest of sorts. Scattered, occasional drinking, just to keep me ticking over. Sunday was London Craft Beer Festival day. This event, in only its second year takes place at the Oval Space in Bethnal Green. I travelled there with my friend Peter who takes the opposite approach to Chris when I get stuck in my drunk hole. His approach is to carry on pouring beer into the hole and then, once the victim is submerged he seals you in and leaves you to your fate, before climbing into his own hole and repeating the act on himself. Today was going to be a good day.
I was feeling relatively bright and breezy all things considered, I had taken in what I felt was a good amount of the camaraderie that London Beer City brought with it and this festival would round things off nicely. We trained it east with cans of Gamma Ray in our hands and were caught in a downpour as we exited Bethnal Green station. There was no other thing for it, we darted for nearby Mother Kelly's. There I had the second North American beer of the week that had managed to not only knock my socks off but also take some of the skin on my feet with them as they flew off. The beer was Westbrook Gose, a salty, sour delight that tasted almost like doing a tequila slammer but ignoring the shot of tequila and sucking the slice of lemon right after you've licked the salt.
After the rain had subsided we finally made it to Oval Space. We handed over our tickets, grabbed our tokens and glass before heading inside. This was the final session at LCBF and I was worried briefly when the first stand I visited, Camden Town Brewery only had their flagship Hells Lager left on draught. Still this worked as an ideal palate hard reset before I delved into a plethora of great beer. At LCBF you can have as many tasters at each bar as you like. Each brewery has its own bar staffed by its own employees who were more than happy to answer my questions or simply chat for a bit. The ticket price of £35 included five tokens which could be exchanged for a larger pour but in my case these were useless. The tasters were poured to a line on the glass and they were very generous indeed. I didn't use a single one of my tokens and managed to try more than double the amount of beers I tried at GBBF. This was much more my sort of thing.
It wasn't just an out an out keg lovers festival either, there were plenty of cask beers on offer too although I did feel that the organisers didn't do a good enough job of publishing this or how the tasters worked well enough. What is apparent is that although this is a young festival the organisers are learning quickly and as I supped the sublime Magic Rock Bourbon Barrel Bearded Lady I mused that this might quickly outgrow its comfortable surroundings. That would be a shame though as the Oval Space is a great space indeed especially with its long outdoor balcony being bathed in the afternoon sun. LCBF had much more of a festival atmosphere than GBBF, it was exactly what I wanted it to be.
As a bonus there was a little Belgian section over the road being run by the Flanders Tourist board. Here there were some fantastic Belgian beers, several of which I had never tried before and they were handing out some incredible Trappist cheese from Westmalle too. It was practically empty when Peter and I headed over there but apparently there had been a bit of a party in here at last nights session. One treat, for me at least, was seeing someone take their first sip of Duvel and falling in love with it, remarking that they'd seen it so many times before but never thought to try it. The engagement between the people on either side of the bar was a different standard to what I experienced at GBBF. Of course, this is due to the volunteers at GBBF having to deal with a massively higher volume of customers but maybe this is a sign that smaller, more intimate beer festivals are a much better way of helping people to experience beer. Perhaps CAMRA can learn something from this especially if they are to remain a vital part of British beer culture.
When Peter and I get back to North London we duck in to one more pub and have, perhaps unnecessarily, pints of Lagunitas IPA. Our conversation had tipped over into the realms of existentialism, no doubt because we were both half cut but one thing we agreed on was that it had been a fantastic day.
London has needed a week like London Beer City for some time or at least I've thought so but perhaps only now is it just about ready for it. It seems that almost every week these days brings beer events, meet the brewers and tutored tastings, hell I'm even doing my own, but to condense that spirit into a week, that was essential. We, the hardcore, the ever-loving beer lovers have blinkered vision, blinded by our zeal for our favourite beverage. What London beer city did was create an environment that made beer more accessible to everyone else. I watched onlookers, stragglers and casual passers by not only stop and look what was going on but wander in and start a beer journey of their very own. Beer is becoming more inclusive and it needs to continue to do so. London Beer City deftly managed to avoid marginalising anyone and produced an event to cater for everyone. It will only go on to become bigger and better in years to come.
Some incredible brews hit London's taps that week but the beer only managed to finish in second place as it was the cities people who were the real winners. Brewers, Volunteers, Festival Goers, bystanders, passers by and anyone else who paid an iota of attention to what was going on in London that week is what made it so great. You can have all of the best beer in the world at your disposal but without people to drink and talk and laugh and enjoy themselves its all worthless. It's less London Beer City and more London Beer People.