There is no greater pilgrimage for the intrepid beer-chaser than the Great British Beer Festival. Running from the 7th – 11th August, with over 800 cask and bottled beers, and one or two ciders and perries, it is a comprehensive run-down of the best from the brewing world. This was my fifth festival, and with me was a true veteran, one who had been to the very first way back in 1783* – my father. We went on Thursday, which is traditionally, and inexplicably, known as Hat Day, so we had plenty to entertain us. One man was wearing a fox on his head. Another had a magnificent tribute to the Olympic rings, complete with tiny figurines competing in assorted sports. I settled for a flat cap.
This year the GBBF shifted locations from Earls Court – apparently the World Tiddlywink Championships were taking place the same week – to Olympia. A grand structure, standing at 115ft high and just shy of an acre in size (thank you Wikipedia), the first thing that strikes you is the sheer scale of the festival. You get an immediate sense that every single pub you’ve ever been to has suddenly been rammed into one hoppy kingdom of barrels, bellies and crusty bar-limpets, who stare briefly, glassy-eyed, at the appearance of a newcomer, before returning to their latest copy of the CAMRA regional mag. And the beer – oh, the beer. More than you could ever have imagined existing, and all right in front of you, waiting patiently to be consumed. The accompanying programme alone, with its extensive tasting notes, is more like a short novel, and to the uninitiated it can be a daunting prospect. My advice is to come up with a system. You could choose only beers that start with the letter R, or beers that can be somehow linked to Kevin Bacon. I chose ones with animal-related names. The links became increasingly tenuous as the evening wore on.
My first was Village Idiot by the Oxfordshire-based White Horse Brewery– a fine start with a salty (the book said hoppy) finish. My dad went for Yorkshire Terrier by York Brewery, which didn’t have much to offer until the aftertaste, but was pleasant nonetheless. I followed up with Glaslyn Ale from the Purple Moose Brewery – or Bragdy Mŵs Piws – based in Porthmadog, North Wales. This was wonderful; rich, fruity and eminently drinkable. Munro Senior had already forgotten the theme and plumped for Sandstone Brewery’s Edge. It redeemed itself, however, by being a perfect example of a Wet Dog Beer; a beer that, quite simply, smells like a wet dog. This is one of the categories in my Patented Beer Classification System; the Jam Sandwich Job (strawberry, naturally) is another, typified this festival by Wolf Brewery’s very tasty Coyote, alongside Coffee-Chocolate, Smokey Bacon Crisps, and Grass. This year I also discovered Cotleigh Brewery’s Commando Hoofing, which tasted like feathers, and Yeovil Ales’ Lynx Wildcat, which tasted like Yeovil, but I suspect these were misnomers.
We ended the tasting with a brief foray into the foreign beers collection. De Molen’s Chinook Rye IPA (Chinook is a type of salmon, my father assured me) was like licking the windows of a sweet shop; there was a hint of peachy sweetness, without being overpowering. Gritty’s Maine’s Best IPA (our cat was a Maine Coon breed, my father reminded me) provided a fun game of ‘spot the hops’, made as it was with a unique blend of American varieties. Rauchbier Eiche by the German Aecht Schlenkerla brewery (we’d lost any pretence of a system by this point) featured malt smoked over oak chips, rather than the more traditional beech, giving it a slightly gentler flavour. It was a little disappointing that there were no beers from more non-traditional brewing countries – Japan, for instance, has some cracking numbers – but the selection was good enough, particularly from America.
By this point we were losing the will to stay upright, we’d been robbed blind by the tombola and the chat had taken a turn for the drunk. We parted ways with thoughts of chips, of soft drinks, and of sweet inebriated sleep. It had been a pilgrimage of epic proportions. We were looking forward to next year already.