Drinking in the Shadow of the Five Rings

The Great British Beer Festival. Usually the highlight of the year for London beer drinkers, where they would congregate at Earls Court. This year, well someone decided to run some small piddling athletics thing called the Olympics in there so we got shunted over to the Olympia.

Seriously I’m fairly sure there are more people who have a pint once a week than there are people who do exercise one a week. That’s all I’m saying.

Anyway, decided to take a quite relaxed view to the whole thing this year, normally I’m running around grabbing tasting notes and photos. This year we had a gathering of friends as we prepare for a brewery road trip, so decided to take the whole thing a bit more holistically and record thoughts as I went along.

It was strangely quiet to begin with, despite all the warnings of mad rush, London is actually pretty quiet during the Olympics. In fact if it wasn’t for the fact that we got bloody lost and needed to rely on “The Knowledge” of London Cab drivers to get us there then we would have had no problems whatsoever.  Though my nigh religious belief in “The Knowledge” took a hit when our taxi driver needed to look up where The Olympia was. Still he got us there no problem so I shouldn’t criticize too much.

Anyway, I digress. The Olympia itself was also initially pretty quiet, which gave me a chance to talk with the volunteers behind the stands.  Everyone was joking, happy to help, recommend or just talk beer.  This and the interactions with early arriving drinkers is oft my favourite part of the beer festival(ok second after the beer).  It’s the people there with a love of beer and a friendliness from this shared love. Despite the vast quantities of beer drunk during the day I saw not a single incident.  It really shows the difference an appreciation of beer can make. When the aim is to enjoy a beer and not to get drunk on it there is rarely problems. A fact I wish beer demonising media would notice.

The beers themselves? Well of most interests was Dunham Massey: Chocolate Mild. Absolutely delicious, basically a beery black forest gateaux in a glass. Oddly looking at rate beer they don’t rate it highly. This is wrong. Perfect session abv, lovely flavour and something different. Despite being Gateaux like the real ale styling was very evident, making if feel like a traditional beer at the base and thus it was never over sweet.

What else? Well Brains have their own craft brewery now, turning out an IPA (Barry Island IPA) which was ok but not hoppy enough for my tastes and a Wheat Beer (Weiss Weiss Baby) which was actually very nice. I take back half the kicking I gave them over Brains Black. While so far I’m not rating them as high as say Brodies, Brewdog or the like they are turning out very drinkable beers and hopefully getting peoples attention in Cardiff where most of their output is being sent.(Most beer batches are intended as one offs I have been told) I was told that the Boathouse often has some of their craft output as well, something I may have to investigate.

What tends to grab my attention at this Great British Beer Festival, perversely as it may be, is the world beer selection. Here I love the fact that CAMRA is willing to put its Real Ale rhetoric aside in part and put on great beers of all sorts from a round the world.  This year I thought they were doubling down in an unfortunate fashion on the whole traditional ale things as both bottled and cask selection of world beer was much smaller than usual, with no New Zealand or Japan beers this year.   A talk with the people at bar however helped clear this up.  It looks like the reduction in foreign and non real ale beers was purely to do with the reduced space available in the smaller Olympia and in no way reflected a change in policy from CAMRA.  A good sign to see, while CAMRA’s rhetoric on real ale can be exclusionary, when it comes to practise at GBBF they do very well.

The biggest impact on the world selection (apart from the absent countries) seemed to be the chezch beers. Last year they had an utterly fantastic range, this year, just various Budvar beers.  A great pity as the coriander unfiltered lager last year was gob smackingly great.  Still there were many beers worth checking out. From the USA Oskar Blues: Old Chub in cask was a doubly whammy of surprise, not just being a scotch ale, but tasted somewhat spiced without being dominated by those flavours. Two difficult to do well styles in one beer. Very nice and soothing. The Netherlands brought us Emilisse Barley Wine aged In Jack Daniels Casks.  Punchy as hell, but did the great job of showing the subtleties of Jack Daniels that paradoxically are often lost in the whiskey itself.

One of the notable absence was the more keg friendly of the Craft Beer scene. The Kernel, Brewdog, Meantime and the like all notable in their absence.  While I dislike the infighting between the two scenes I can understand CAMRA’s reticence in altering their stance. Their organisation in the most part created in response to the influx of poor quality keg beers of the past. It would be nice if there could be an understanding reached between the groups though as there are some great beers absent because of it.

There were the notable two big release, both of very limited stock. Green Kings 5X at  a hardy 12% ABV and but a firkin per day, and Fullers Brewers Reserve No4 aged in Armagnac casks. Both of these drew pretty hefty queues to try. My friends had tried 5X the prior day and had been fairly slating of it, stating that it failed in any way to hide the burn of the alcohol from it’s strength. Thus I have to admit I was not too disappointed that the beer ran out before I even got to the stand.  Fullers reserve on the other hand was quite the treat, close to the Cognac aged version, as would be expected, but seeming richer. I was not at my best by that point so would hesitate however to attribute too much weight to this view. Will have to keep an eye out for the bottled version.

There were a few points that bugged me at the show. Minor but notable.  One is the ever ongoing CAMRA’s railing against the high beer tax. A giant poster watched down us us decrying the evil of a third of our beer being paid in tax. Now I understand CAMRA is in part a politically active entity representing the Brewing organisation and thus have their financial interests at heart. However my main complaint about our high beer tax in this country is that the current government seems not to want to give us a well equipped NHS in return.

The actual principle of tax on beer annoys me more when it provides a break for lower abv beers to try and shift the style produced.  This, which can have a massive effect on the styles of beer made, has been generally welcomed by CAMRA.  Also I feel that this reinforced view of high strength beer being a fuel for trouble was not countered by CAMRA themselves within the show itself.   While the foreign beers had high abv on all day, the local regions stands seemed only to break open their higher beers later in the day. Possibly a coincidence, but it did seem to play to the unfortunate view of high abv beers as troublesome.

Minor details I will say and probably more reflective of both my political and beer viewpoints than problems with the show itself, but I felt worth mentioning for honesties sake.  I did also notice than my long held opinion that doing tasting notes results in a more sedate drinking session than otherwise held true here, as I did end up trying many more beers than usual. Not a bad thing, its nice to have a wilder day once in a while, but not something I’m going to repeat often.

Overall. A good show despite the limitations put upon it by its decreased size, and in fact the reduced size and attendance actually allowed much more community spirit and much better taking advantage of the servers knowledge which gave better background knowledge to each beer we sampled and thus a more enjoyable beer when finally tried.

My previous view on festivals still hold true, that there could be better availability of information about each beer beyond the short entry for each in the leaflet, and with the technology available to us these day a smart phone linked app would be able to provide much of what I am calling for (in fact quick looks ups on rate beer and the like doing a useful job but something more open and precise to the festival would be useful). All in all they did a good job, very high quality volunteer staff this year, pretty good beer list considering the circumstance. A fun day

(Note:  Tasting Notes should be back Tues: After GBBF I had a few dry days to relax so with not doing notes at GBBF  there’s  not much in the pile at the moment)