Ah, the Great British (Cask Conditioned) Beer Festival. Trade Day is always an excellent chance to catch up with far-flung friends, meet new folk, and do a bit of beer-celebrity spotting. This year was no exception; many names and faces were matched to profile photos and Twitter handles, and firm friendships forged in the seas of ale.
Arriving bright and early, I bumped into Suzy the Pub Geek (@lincolnpubgeek) and, our Press Passes securely pinned dickheadishly to our tops, we did a circuit of the festival. Glancing at the beers listed above each of the bars, I made a few mental notes as to what I might try later, but nothing was grabbing me. Suzy nabbed a Fownes Frosthammer, brewed by a pal of hers, but I was still feeling uninspired. “Fuck it,” I sighed, “let’s gravitate to the American bar”.
A cheerful volunteer took one look at us and asked if we’d like to try something sour. Big smiles now: “YES PLEASE!” It transpired that he’d been half-joking, hating the style himself, but we were happy, and my stemmed third glass soon contained the first beer of the day: Single Hop Sour, from Fate Brewing Company in Arizona, a kettle-soured wheat beer with El Dorado hops. Light, tart, and lemony, it was a pleasant way to begin the session. I hear that Fate also brew a Cucumber Single Hop Sour, which I am rather desperate to get my hands on…
Sipping our beers, we soon spotted some of the regular crew, and joined them. This seating area by the American bar swiftly became known as ‘The Craft Wanker Table’/’Craft Wanker Corner’, a veritable who’s who of brewers, bloggers, pub/bar people, and various other beer nerds. When traversing the festival, acquaintances would spot each other, “Hello! How are you? See you at the craft wanker table? Yes? Good”. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many people I like and respect all together in one space, and the atmosphere of cheer and camaraderie was genuinely uplifting. The next beer I chose was R&D Dry-hopped Pale, by Ninkasi Brewing Company in Oregon. Clean, clear as a bell, with masses of grapefruit, the primary word I’d use to describe this beer is ‘fresh’.
Wandering away from the craft wanker table in a bid to find the delegation from The Hope, Carshalton, and Cobbett’s Real Ales in Dorking, I grabbed a glass of Hogsback and Andy Parker (@tabamatu)’s Collaboration: Cascade, Centennial, and robust malts. Eventually I found my crew ensconced on the practically deserted upper level – at this point, few people had braved the climb up the stairs. After a few disparaging remarks about the festival programme’s Tesco adverts in counterpoint to the prominent ‘Pubs Matter’ displays placed in the hall decrying the conversion of pubs to other uses such as, er, supermarkets, for example, the 110 (at least) new Tescos converted from pubs since January 2012, we felt the need for another drink, and made our way to the German and Belgian bars.
Unfortunately the keg set-up on the Belgian bar wasn’t working, and nobody we asked throughout the session seemed to know when they would be on. The German bar it was, then, and a Schneider-Weisse Tap 4 went down nicely. Passing the T-shirt stall which seems to do the round of CAMRA festivals, I noticed that nobody had bothered to ask the stall owner to remove the vest tops with “Designated area of outstanding natural beauty” and “Weapons of mass distraction” emblazoned over the tit area. Now, I know there’s no malicious intent here, but those items being on sale at a beer festival just doesn’t sit well with me. At a small branch festival, that sort of oversight is forgivable, but at the flagship national festival, you can’t be seen to be condoning the objectification of women. By allowing those t-shirt designs to be displayed, you’re sending a message to the women present that you don’t care if they are made uncomfortable, and you’re helping to reinforce the stereotype that CAMRA consists of sexist old men. It’s unfair to your members, and alienating to your potential members.
But this was a minor unpleasantness in an otherwise delightful day, and who knows, maybe nobody who can do anything about it has actually ever looked in detail at the t-shirt designs on offer. At any rate, it was almost time for the announcement of the Champion Beer of Britain, so I decided to do what I do best, and live tweet the whole thing. The announcement was considerably delayed, and at one point the assembled crowd started booing, to mine and Suzy’s bafflement. Was this a jokey ritual? Perhaps the booing was ironic?
Eventually the announcements were made. Gold in the Mild category went to Bank Top Dark Mild – not one I’ve tried, but it’s from Bolton, so I’m sure I’ll see it around up here soon. Gold in the Bitter category went to Timothy Taylors Boltmaker. I’ve found Timothy Taylors beers in general to be pretty dull, with Landlord being the best of the bunch, and I tried Boltmaker back when it was called Best Bitter: fine, but bit bland. Gold in the Best Bitter category went to Salopian Darwin’s Origin. I like Salopian, and think they make solid beers. I’ll be trying this if I see it. Gold in the Golden Ales category went to Oakham Citra, a good go-to beer, and well deserved. Gold in the Strong Bitter category went to Church End Fallen Angel; another brewery I’m not familiar with. Gold in the Speciality category went to Saltaire Triple Chocaholic, which I haven’t had for a couple of years but remember as being tasty enough. Another Chocolate beer won Gold in the Real Ale in a Bottle category, with Marble Chocolate – a big seller at The Epicurean up here in Didsbury.
The overall Champion Beer of Britain Bronze went to Salopian Darwin’s Origin, Silver to Oakham Citra, and Gold to Timothy Taylors Boltmaker. Once again, the general consensus amongst the assembled crowd seemed to be that Boltmaker was, in fact, rather dull. It reminded me of attending in 2011, when Mighty Oak Oscar Wilde was declared the Champion Beer of Britain. Considering that some of the best breweries in Britain didn’t even have a presence at GBBF, I shouldn’t be surprised by these outcomes. This isn’t to cast aspersions on the beer, the brewers, or the judges. Boltmaker isn’t bad, it just isn’t the best bitter in Britain, let alone the best beer. Getting Bruce Dickinson on stage to make the announcement was a nice touch, though; I haven’t tried Trooper yet, but you can’t beat a bit of Iron Maiden.
We legged it back to Craft Wanker Corner to break the news about Boltmaker, and to further explore the offerings from the American bar. After this point in the afternoon, my Untappd check-ins become less consistent; there were too many people to talk to, too much beer to enjoy. Franklin’s Brewery Psychedelic Smokehouse, from Maryland, was something rather special, being a smoked sour brewed with Copper Fox Mesquite-smoked malt. Smoked cheese wafts up from the glass, an insistent presence, while still being light and tart on the palate. Of all the beers I drank at GBBF, this is the one I’ve been craving in the days after… If anyone knows how I might get my grubby mitts on some more, please do drop me a line!
Other honourable mentions go to Dark Star NHA, Cantillon Rose de Gambrinus, Lagunitas Maximus, and De Molen Hemel & Aarde Octomore. As ever, though, the real joy of the day came from the people. It’s always wonderful to catch up with friends old and new, and I look forward to seeing everyone at IndyMan. It’s going to be a blast.