Around the year in Beer Festivals: a conclusion, a beginning

To paraphrase Frank Zappa: Without beer to decorate it, time is just a bunch of boring production deadlines or dates by which bills must be paid. A good beer festival, then, one that celebrates the diversity of great beer, should be there to decorate the calendar.  It is a highlight in the year where we can be grateful that we have lives that afford us time to spend with friends of all political persuasions and viewpoints and celebrate a common passion. But why stick at one highlight?

I have travelled around the last twelve months with the aim of seeing how beer is celebrated. I’ve called this blog trip: “Around the Year in Beer Festivals”, and it’s seen postings from Woking in South East England and points north, up to Stockholm. If you’ve followed the trip, this is the final post of that journey. If this is your first visit, you can follow the see the whole journey unfold on the page Around the Year in Beer Festivals, as it happens.

As I sat down to write up the final festival of the year, the Great British Beer Festival, news came through that Croydon was burning. The Tottenham Riots became the London Riots, and writing about a big beer party seemed trivial. And for most of us, beer is trivial. If you don’t make your living from selling it or making it, beer is merely an accompaniment to daily life, a social spice, a beverage to go with whatever you are eating, watching, or listening to.

Then, as rioting and looting spread, Twitter, Facebook, and blogs came alive with opinions as to why they had started, what lay behind them, and what should be done about the people and communities involved. A complete spectrum of opinions, in fact. “friends” that I’d made through a combination of beer and social media turned out to have wildly differing politics. Who’d have thought… Just because we agreed on single varietal double IPAs or approved of the use of kegged craft beer, there was no guarantee for a homogeny of views on Solutions.

Then I realised: everything is covered in beer – much like Wetherspoons on a Saturday night. .

Of course, what Zappa actually said in that quote about time was  “Without music to decorate it…”. Truth be told, Uncle Frank was not a fan of beer – or any mood-altering substance other than tobacco, but he is famously attributed with saying that in order to be a proper country, it needed to have its own beer. I think that should be changed to “a country needs to have its own beer festival”.

A new beer festival year starts with the 20th Stockholm Festival. Maybe this year I’ll finally make it to the Great American Beer Festival, or a Belgian Christmas beer festival. I’ll report back – riots or not.

For the complete story, see the page:
Around the Year in Beer Festivals





Around the year in beer festivals. Final stop: Great British Beer Festival. All change?

And so, my journey Around the Year in Beer Festivals that began in September 2010 in Stockholm, comes to a conclusion in London. The final stop on my trip is the Great British Beer Festival. And what was that conclusion? Well, as far as the GBBF goes, it was mostly Great and it was mostly British.

Mostly great? It’s not quite right to say there is something rotten in the state of Denmark, but Marcellus (who spoke those words in Hamlet) might be forgiven for reporting that he has detected some off flavours. However, GBBF is a real celebration of beer from the UK and abroad, and that’s what these Around the Year… posts are about. I will save the investigative stuff for another day.

As was widely publicised in the run-up to the festival, there was a falling out between a certain Scottish brewery and CAMRA, the organisers of GBBF. This Brewhaha ™ was not resolved and so BrewDog – whom we are almost obliged by law to describe as “maverick brewers” – did not have their Brewery Bar. This did not lead to mass protest or boycott, but did lead to some funny hats.

Thursday is (silly) hat day. I’m not mad about the hatters, would a “posh” festival do the same? Oh, yes, I almost forgot: Ascot. What is it about silly hats that so attracts the British? I don’t know. Back to the beer…

You could spend the entire week at this British festival and not touch a drop of beer from these islands. The Bières Sans Frontières (BSF) bars mean you can get your hands on cask and bottled beers from Alaska to New Zealand, taking in Italy and Japan, as well as the more expected Belgian and German beers. Around the World in one beer festival perhaps.

Some of my favourite beers were the American cask-conditioned ales. The Sierra Nevada Torpedo Extra IPA at 7.2% ABV was terrific, and best sampled as a third of a pint, so it wouldn’t have a chance to live up to its name. At the same strength was the Wet Mountain IPA from Il Vicino. a peak experience at this festival, maybe. I lured some of my “traditional British” friends into tasting some, without giving away the what, where from or how much. They were enamoured until, even when I revealed its secrets. It felt like a victory.

Britain produced some big hitters too – it’s not all boring brown session beers, here. Thornbridge Raven, at 6.6% was remarkable and in the oxymoronically named beer style “black IPA”. Sorachi Ace hops, if I’m not mistaken. Subtly showing its odd aromas of Play Doh and rotten mandarins. Doesn’t sound good, I know, but these notes had to be coaxed out; malt is integrated with hops and you’re left with a beer of great complexity.

Titanic’s Nine Tenths Below was a point under 6%. It was my first IPA on the day nominated as IPA day (but not by the festival). Full of flavour from the malt as well as the hops, and some estery bubble-gum aromas reminiscent of a Bavarian wheat beer.

Fullers were not to be outdone. It’s become something of a tradition for them to launch a special edition beer at the GBBF. There’s usually only one cask per day, and it’s highly sought-after,  leading to long queues. This year the Brewers Reserve No. 3 was the draw. Matured for  800 days in barrels that had previously held whisky from the Scottish Lowland distillery Auchentoshan. Lots of Christmassy cake spices and rum, surprisingly. Can’t quite forgive them for decorating their stand with a huge image of Top Gear’s James May.

Half the other point of GBBF is finding new (to you) beers from your own country. Some very promising brews from Oldershaw, Brewsters, and Brodies, whose Amarilla was a tropical hoppy delight, but I would love to have tried their Superior London Porter. I also wish a few more Brits would be a little more daring with style. If a Czech brewery can do an American style IPA… (Klasterni Svaty Norbert IPA, by the way.)

As well as my final stop this 12-month, it was also the final stop at Earl’s Court for the Great British Beer Festival. Next year, this will be an Olympic venue. With a touch of irony, GBBF will return to Kensington Olympia. Then it’s all change.. I will still champion it, wherever it is, at the same time looking to right those off flavours. Next year will be even better.

Come back for the Conclusion…

Around the Year in Beer Festivals links

The idea is formed and the journey begins.

Stockholm Beer and Whisky Festival September 2010

Woking Beer Festival: The Return of the Native. November 2010

CAMRA Winter Ales festival, Manchester, January 2011

Copenhagen Beer Festival, May 2011

Born in the USA. Why you should go on two days to the Great British Beer Festival #GBBF

Today sees the opening of the 2011 Great British Beer Festival (#GBBF). Earlier I wrote why you should go to this remarkable festival, whether you’re a seasoned festival goer, a newbie, a ditherer, or a disappointed BrewDog fan.  Actually, you should go on two days because there are just too many good beers for one session.

From the 2nd to the 6th of August, Earl’s Court, becomes the centre of the beer universe, with over 1000 beers available. Or perhaps that should be “center”, because London is being invaded by some great American beer. And what’s more, you get to taste them in cask form.

Things have changed in the last few years; hardly anybody bats an eyelid when you say that the USA is the most exciting brewing nation on the planet. The so-called craft beer revolution has been going a couple of decades in the US. Microbreweries in brewing nations the world over – with the possible exception of Germany and the Czech Republic – take their inspiration if not lead from North America.

But there is one area where the US still looks to Britain: cask ale. Craft beers in the US are largely delivered from the keg, and even if we’ve long since settled the argument that “proper” keg is every bit as “real” as the ales that CAMRA champions, the cask is an irresistible draw for many of the star names in US brewing from Brooklyn to San Diego. This week is your chance to find out what they make of it.

North American breweries often produce a much wider range of beer styles in general than their British equivalents: lagers of all hues, bocks, saisons, what beers, and so on. But this week is about styles that suit the cask, so you’ll find ales, porters and stouts – all with the distinctive American touch: lots of big-flavours, shed-loads of fragrant, citrussy, piney hops, and higher ABVs than we are used to in Blighty.

If you’re new to the US scene, you might want to sample beers from breweries you might stand a chance of finding in bottles in UK supermarkets or beer retailers: Flying Dog, Rogue, Brooklyn Brewery… Or take a couple of recommendations from Stan Hieronymus of the Appellation Beer blog: Red Ale (6.2% ABV) by the Marble Brewery (from New Mexico, as opposed to the one from Manchester), or perhaps Vanilla Bean Mal Pais Stout (7% ABV) from Le Cumbre (also New Mexico).

Me, I’ll be heading straight to Bar W2 – The Blackwell Bar, because the American beers sell out fast. I’ve got my eye on Lagunitas Censored Ale (6.9% ABV). Their IPA was my first beer last year and it almost ruined my festival it was so good. I’ll save the Great British stuff for Day 2.

Find these and other beers from Germany, Holland, Italy, Denmark, New Zealand… at the Bières Sans Frontières bar: