Why you should go to the Great British Beer Festival #gbbf and what to do when you get there.

Take a bunch of friends, and when you get your festival pint glasses, charge them only a half or even a third full. Share with anyone who doesn’t have a cold. Yes, the Great British Beer Festival (#GBBF) is on this week in Earl’s Court, London, and if you have any interest in beer, you should go. This next couple of short posts are to give a little guidance to the GBBF newbie or ditherer. Let me explain…

Next year, Earl’s Court will be a venue for the Olympics, afterwards, it will be demolished to make way for flats, or a BrewDog craft beer bar, or something else. This venue is practically hallowed ground; I have seen Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan, and Genesis here. I foolishly missed Pink Floyd’s The Wall here. You could have seen Oasis here, too, had you not been in Sweden. For one final week only, starting 2nd August, it will be the home for the biggest pub in the world.

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GBBF is great and intense beer fun. You can come here and beer tick, or have a pint of your favourite with your workmates. Or something in between. There is no right way to do the festival (although there are a couple of wrong ones). Like the best pubs, there is a real mix of people and the demographic is getting noticeably younger. Stuffy, as has been accused by BrewDog? Not a chance.

Speaking of whom, there’s been a bit of BrewHaha (TM) surrounding the appearance and withdrawal of BrewDog at this year’s festival, but hey, that was a good bit of publicity for CAMRA and the messiahs/very naughty boys of British Brewing. Even if you are a staunch supporter of the BrewDog party line, you’ll be missing out if you don’t go, because there is some brilliant beer of all descriptions.

Don’t know where to start? The GBBF website is very helpful, dividing the beers into British Ales, Ciders and Perries, and International Beers. You can browse the list of breweries, get some tips, and compile a list to take with you of stuff you want to try.

Things really are changing in Beer Britain and this is reflected in the list of cutting-edge breweries: Thornbridge, Redemption, Bristol Beer Factory, Brodies, Dark Star, Fyne, Hawkshead, Kernel, Marble, Otley, Williams Bros… All are brewers of modern, innovative, interesting and above all, really delicious beers. And these are just the ones from Britain.

Start making your list, and come back here for some more tips from the list of International Beers.

Book your tickets online here and print them at home.

Cask vs. Keg at The White Horse: The Verdict

The Cask versus Keg Festival at the White Horse, Parson’s Green was set out as a test of beer ideology. Is cask old hat? Can keg ever get “real”? Eight beers, two halves of each: one cask the other keg. Three tasters on the jury, one point for a win. The results are in. Catch up on Part1: Battle Plans are laid, and then read on! there’s nothing to lose but your prejudice.

Let battle commence!
Meantime London Pale Ale 4.3% ABV
What else are you going to call a brewery from Greenwich? Meantime is known for a range of beer styles and embracing keg. What would it’s cask be like? Both beers were low in carbonation, but the attractive toffee and malt in the aroma of the keg version was replaced in the cask version by a sort of rounded funkiness. I thought there might be an appley note. The verdict tipped by the cask being served too warm.
Keg 1, Cask 0.

Magic Rock Highwire 5.5% ABV
The first of several beers on today from this new brewery. In the style of an West Coast American pale ale bitter. Immediately the keg gives up its gorgeous aroma of passion fruit and citrus liveliness. Eventually, the cask catches on released those tropical fruit and delivers has an extra dimension. Is it chewier? rounder? The equaliser!
Keg 1, Cask 1.

Harviestoun Schiehallion  4.8% ABV
Schiehallion is a Scottish lager, but there its similarity to Tennents ends. It is one of the very few cask-conditioned lagers available in the UK. The lager from the keg is more carbonated, and seems more lager-y in appearance. The finish of the keg, is long and creamily malty. Definitely superior we thought, despite the cask pedigree of its brother.
Keg 2, Cask 1.

Magic Rock Curious 3.9% ABV
Curiously, Curious – an English-style pale ale, is darker than the lager. Well, curious for many lager drinkers in the UK, perhaps. The cask is noticeably warmer, but has a dense, attractive head. The aroma, of both is similar: a gentle herbiness. Both have a lemony bitterness, but the taste of the keg is thin by comparison.
Keg 2, Cask 2.

Black Isle Red Kite 4.2% ABV
It’s from Scotland but it’s not an island, I learned last year. Lovely reddish colour in both, with nutty chestnut aromas in the cask with a lovely fruitiness. The cask has a lovely fruitiness but the keg has a gorgeous mothfeel: soft and round. A score-draw.
Keg 2.5, Cask 2.5.

Thornbridge Jaipur 5.9% ABV
At this point burgers became involved because it has become impossible to resist the barbecue aromas wafting in from the green. This powerful, hoppy India Pale Ale should be just the job. The crisp hoppiness with a backbone of light malt matches the burgers brilliantly. A close one this, but the keg has slightly more fizz and it just suits the burgers, and so wins the day.
Keg 3.5, Cask 2.5

Black Isle Porter 4.6% ABV
Back to the Highlands again. The cask knocks the socks off the keg here, with its chocolatey smoothness. Here, for once, the keg seems as artificial as its detractors claim. The roasted malt flavours go brilliantly with what’s left of the heavily loaded burgers.
Keg 3.5, Cask 3.5

Magic Rock Cannonball 7.4% ABV
This is a mighty ale in both cask and keg, styled as a “hop bomb” IPA. Both versions are really good: gorgeous fruity lemony sweetness. The keg is lighter and more sherbety, while the cask is full of depth and round. At the time, I tweeted the cask had a “fruity happiness”. The auto-correcter on my phone got the better of me, but this time the cask got the better of the keg.

Final Score and verdict
Keg 3.5, Cask 4.5

Hardly a crushing victory for cask. Are we surprised either way? That “proper” keg is good? Only one cask was vastly superior: the Black Isle Porter, and only one keg was way better than its cask counterpart: the Meantime London Pale Ale.

So, what of the supposition that some styles more suited to one or other dispense? The two Magic Rock American-style beers which you might have expected to be keg-favoured were great in cask, but honestly, there wasn’t much in it. Lighter, ales seem to work better as cask, with the caveat that the sample was very small; we skipped over the Fullers Chiswick, and got into the Otley, which was only on as cask. We deserve reprimands.

If there is any clear verdict on the basis of one session: the “enemy” is not keg. If there is an enemy it is pasteurisation and strangulation filtering that rips the character out of a beer. And, serving beers at the right temperature makes a difference.

You could argue that I’ve come away confirming what I already knew, but at least I have some hard(ish) evidence to back my view up.

I suspect the battle will rage on.

Breweries

Meantime Brewery
Magic Rock Brewing
Harviestoun Brewery
Black Isle Brewery
Thornbridge

And not forgetting, this was another brilliant beer event from The White Horse.

Cask vs. Keg festival at The White Horse: Battle plans are laid

“Haven’t you got any ordinary beer?” said the man standing next to me at the bar at the White Horse.

His request for a beer had started out in quite a normal fashion, not to say mundane: “A pint of Harviestoun Bitter and Twisted,” had been the opening gambit. Innocent enough.

To which, the response from behind the bar was, “Cask or Keg?”
“Sorry?” he said with genuine surprise.
“Do you want the cask version of the Bitter and Twisted, or keg?,” while this contained more words, it clearly did not produce a deeper understanding in the customer.
“Whatever is quickest and cheapest.”

Our man was standing right next to the keg fonts, but I’d seen the prices on the chalk board.
I was no longer paying attention to my place in the queue to be served. She served a pint of the keg, and said, “Five pounds and sixty-five pence, please.”

“Sorry?” For the second time.
“Well, I did a quick cost/benefit analysis based on your “quick-and-cheap” request, and since I was standing next to the keg, I thought the downside of the extra 50p would be outweighed by the extra time it would take waiting for the cask tap to be free.”
“Oh, thanks. I appreciate your effort.”

Although everything else in the reported dialog happened, in reality, there was no “cost/benefit” exchange, and our thirsty, and increasingly indignant punter merely came out with, “£5.65 for a pint?!” and the line that opens this post. He was in the wrong place for “ordinary” beer, even if I did have sympathy for his reaction.

£5.65 is expensive for pint in a pub, even in Parsons Green, London, but as the bar person explained, this was a festival, and there were was no charge for entrance. There was no “ordinary” beer and this was no ordinary festival. This was The Cask vs. Keg festival.

There is a lot of talk about contentious subjects in the beer world. You might have read my report on the Twitter flash-mobbing of Saturday Kitchen in relation to getting food and beer on TV. More contentious by far, in the UK at least, is whether good beer can be served from a keg.

Here, at the White Horse, was a chance to try cask versions of a beer next to their keg counterparts, Instead of just declaring “two legs good” in the modern way, or sticking to the dogmatism of the old, we had the opportunity to find out who was right; the craft beer “revolutionaries” or the faction of CAMRA that says only cask deserves support, by which they mean so-called real ale. Unmissable, surely.

So where was everybody? I mean, it was a pretty full pub, and the green outside was chock-full (even if there was a lot of Pimms being drunk). By “everybody” I mean people who really need to test their own beliefs in this Cask vs. Keg thing. Maybe they went on other days in the weekend, or came in after I left, but in my experience, the sort of people who get invited to these sort of events usually arrive early. Ah, they could have come early. However, I haven’t seen anything written. Maybe I should look harder.

So what’s the festival all about? Maybe I should explain briefly why a festival called “Cask vs. Keg” should arise in the first place. (Beer “Bloggerati“, look away now!). Let’s start by saying (again) that without the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), this blog would probably be about whisky, wine, and food, as beer as an interesting drink would probably have shuffled off this mortal coil in 1974. Back then, kegged beer was the “enemy”; it was pasteurised, filtered, and pumped full of and dispensed with CO2. A dead parrot.

These days, the techniques in kegging beer have moved on, thanks largely to the craft beer movement in the US. Beers of all styles (not just ales) can be put into kegs without pasteurisation and with minimal or no filtration, so they contain living yeast. They can also be served using compressed air. As I understand it, this equates to what CAMRA calls “real”. Anyone who has tasted beers from Flying Dog or Stone presented like this knows that Polly most definitely has voom.

Well, that’s OK then, surely everyone is happy, no? Not everybody, but a lot of people are happy. Cask beers have a cachet in the US and certain parts of Northern Europe and people in the UK are catching on to a whole New World of beer styles. Sure, they can be a bit cooler and are generally more carbonated (as they don’t lose CO2 when the cask is breached), but some some believe certain beer styles are more suited to the new keg methods.

Unfortunately, there is intransigence on both sides. I find the standpoint, “CAMRA and real ale. Epic. Fail” just as tedious as “What’s the matter lagerboy? Frightened of tasting something?” Which is why the White Horse was such a draw for me; a chance to do an A/B comparison of a range of different styles of beers, each available in cask and keg.

In Part 2, find out what we tasted and what the verdict was.

Backstory

One of the first Nightjar posts: Cask jousts with keg at Hampton Court Jazz and Beer Festival.

Beer “Bloggerati” refers to a remark made at a CAMRA AGM by an official in reference to supposedly troublesome beer bloggers who didn’t toe the CAMRA party line. These influential beer writers of a certain disposition would have no reason to read my explanation of the cask vs. keg debate origins, even if they did read this blog.

The “lagerboy” reference is a quote from an advertising campaign by Wychwood Brewery for their Hobgoblin ale.

What is “real ale”?

The White Horse, Parsons Green, London.

Craft beer revolution still not being televised. @HardKnottDave takes on Saturday Kitchen

“And so that’s three fantastic beers on Saturday Kitchen this week.” Said TV cook James Martin, Presenter of BBC’s popular Saturday morning food programme, in a parallel universe. In the real world, he didn’t say “fantastic beers” he said “fantastic wines”.

But it could yet come to pass, thanks to a campaign by Dave Bailey of craft brewery Hardknott. Dave was provoked into action about the perceived attitude to beer in traditional media, especially the BBC. It wasn’t just that Saturday Kitchen pointedly refuses to mention beer, or talk even to beer writers about it, it was the way they promote wine exclusively, recommending named brands from named UK supermarkets. And with fellow beer writers, including me, doing little more than moaning, Dave decided to do something about it. Using shorter sentences.

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HardKnottDave Bailey himself

And so, after writing to Ofcom, he started a Twitter campaign. As @HardknottDave, he encouraged his Twitter followers to tweet their beer suggestions and enthusiasm during Saturday’s programme, shown on 3 July. By including the hashtag #SaturdayKitchen, other Twitter users could follow the conversation without having to specifically subscribe to receiving tweets from the people who wrote them.

Pretty soon, beer-loving twitterers in the UK were enthusiastically filling the conversation to such an extent that one unsuspecting “normal” #SaturdayKitchen follower was moved to welcome the beer community’s “Flash Mob” contribution. Wine writer Tim Atkin became embroiled in the lively encounter, resulting in a beer vs. wine evening being arranged at The Thatchers Arms pub, with Telegraph beer columnist Adrian Tierney-Jones in the hop-and-malt corner.

Not that it’s really about beer versus wine, as Dave Bailey agrees, but the big-hearted, complex beers being brewed by newer breweries in Britain, such as HardKnott and their like, are even more deserving of a place on the table. The reason many writers blogs about HardKnott Dark Matter, Kernel Black IPA, etc. is because we love them. And many of us love them with food, from proper vanilla ice cream to asparagus and Serrano ham, and we think more people would as well.

Already the campaign is beginning to produce results. Will Hawkes blogs about Dave Bailey’s campaign in today’s Independent. Olly Smith, whom I chastised for recommending on Saturday Kitchen that Champagne would be a suitable match for fish and chips, wrote an encouraging beer piece in his wine column for the Daily Mail. “Craft brewing has injected a new lease of life into beer the world over,” he wrote, “and there’s never been a better time for wine lovers to get involved“.

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A selection of HardKnott Brewery beers

Maybe, as a consequence of these pieces and Dave Bailey’s campaign, more mainstream media will pick up on the possibilities of craft beer. Perhaps then the BBC will change what is looking like a biased policy. The supermarkets are already stocking more exciting brews, and so some good choices can be made for last week’s recipes that would conform to the Saturday Kitchen supermarkets “rule”. For example, Waitrose has Thornbridge Jaipur IPA (Crab spring rolls with crab cakes and watercress), and Thornbridge Kipling (Roast daurade with Parma ham and rosemary butter sauce).

There is a sea change happening in the beer world, with some calling it a craft beer revolution. Food matching is an ideal conspirator. It’s already started and now it’s time for the revolution to be televised.

With apologies to the late Gil Scott Heron.

Links
HardKnott Brewery’s Dave Bailey announces the Twitter campaign
Will Hawkes in the Independent.Beer: the perfect drink for Saturday morning
Olly Smith in the Daily Mail Some beers born to be adored by wine lovers

Saturday Kitchen recipes from 3 July
MaltJerry chastises “Champagne” Olly

Follow these fine beer people on Twitter:
Dave Bailey @HardKnottDave
Pete Brown @PeteBrownBeer
Adrian Tierney-Jones @ATJbeer