The Great British Beer Festival, girlfriends, and a creeping malaise

Your best mate doesn’t approve of your girlfriend*, you just know it. That’s what being at the Great British Beer Festival made me feel like on my short visit to its old home at Olympia, earlier this month. You perhaps know the feeling: the gig is still enjoyable, but there’s something in the air that gets in the way of full-out, hands-in-the-air fun.

The unease had been festering in me since I mentioned in my pre-GBBF post my disappointment that some of the exciting newer British breweries were absent from the festival’s beer list. Thankfully, as I’d hoped, several did turn out as late additions. But where were the others? I could sense something was up.

Gbbf_2012_drums_med

Drumming makes you fuzzy

I tried to ignore it. I managed to summon up some muted elation in being able to “tick” Greene King 5X – a vintage, oak-aged beer that normally only sees the light of day as part of the blend that makes up Suffolk Old Ale. It wouldn’t go away. I attempted to force it into the cellar at the bottom of my subconscious as I made my acquaintance with the Armagnac cask-matured wonder that was Fullers Brewers Reserve No. 4. Still, this nagging sensation forced its way up through the mental floorboards.

A Cornish marching band almost did the trick, piping and drumming their way around the hall, stopping not so briefly at the table where I was delving into the depths of Lagunitas Undercover Shutdown. I couldn’t hear myself drink, and briefly, I had some respite from the creeping malaise.

But the pipers and drummers eventually marched on, and there it was again, the smell. An oozing, severed rhinoceros head (horn missing) that is The Schism.

Magicrock_carnival_pumpclip_smaple

Sample from Magic Rock pumpclip: Not appearing at GBBF

Now I know a review of an event should be about what was there, rather than what wasn’t, and what I did driink was very good. But I couldn’t get away from the thought that a significant fraction of members of probably the most successful consumer campaign ever (certainly one that has had anything to do with British beer) doesn’t approve of my girlfriend. Yes, that’s right, some real-ale types look down their nose at craft beer. And I’m rather smitten with craft beer.

That some CAMRA bods take the opposite view is nothing new, but it’s not just the cask vs. keg thing, that subject is soooo pre-Olympics, darling. People, whose opinion I respect, regard as keg-hugging heresy any form of deviation from the Dogma of “the only way is cask”.

These very same people are championing the cause of the British pub partly by organising an e-petition to get rid of the nonsensical beer duty escalator, and how can I not support that? I cannot just dump CAMRA wholesale.

Some equally dogmatic champions of the opposite side, the church of craft beer, snootily regard GBBF-types as festival of hundreds of slight variants of brown beer (despite much of it being golden these days, anyway…) That’s not really how it is either. Just have a look at beer sommelier Sophie Atherton’s preview of 10 new British cask ales.

So why should this bother you, this Schism? After all, to the person interested in beer but not moved to write about it, surely all that’s important is to be able to get the fantastic beers you hear about in The Nightjar and elsewhere, isn’t it? And in most cases, that is surely how it is for most people. There is no Schism.

CAMRA can champion whatever their members tell them to. And other organisations can big up craft beer. It’s just I get the feeling a schism, or at least, divided, strongly-held dogmatic views on either side tend to get in the way of celebrating and drinking great beer.

Will we see Magic Rock and the others next year? Maybe not, and if not all over a question of definition, then I wonder how much. But that’s a post for another day. Meanwhile, I’ll continue to go out with whomever I choose.

Links
Stop the beer duty escalator e-petition

Champion Beer of Great Britain 2012: winners list
I’d link to Greene King, but it’s a bit of a dull site.
Magic Rock Brewing, home of great craft beers. Not at GBBF, as far as I know.
Fullers Fine Ale Club. Bookmark this page for when Brewers Reserve No. 4 comes out.

* Obviously, swap genders as you see fit to your preference.
With apologies to my wife of nearly 20 years, MaltCim. It’s just a metaphor, honest!

Great British Beer Festival: heads-up for a couple of surprises #GBBF

If you go to the Great British Beer Festival at Earls Court this year, between 6-12 August, you’re in for a big surprise. It’s not there. You will find instead, another hop-filled event: the Olympic basketball (ho-ho…).

This year, GBBF, as it is known, is back at Olympia of the Kensington variety, which I take as one in the eye for the branding goons who decreed that a certain Dutch beer brand giant has sole “pouring” rights in the Olympics, with the idiotic corollary that allusions to “Olympics” or “gold” are forbidden.

Gbbf_2012_logo

There are many reasons to go to the GBBF. Sampling the wares of the biggest, most familiar breweries in Britain has never been one of mine. Until now…

If people want to come and drink Sharp’s Doom Bar, or even Timothy Taylor Landlord, that’s up to them, but it doesn’t float my firkin. This year, one British brewing major has done something quite exciting.

So who is it? Fullers? Nope! Sure, I always look to Fullers for some hard-to-find speciality. Sometimes it’s cask Vintage Ale, this year it’s Brewers Reserve No. 4. Fourth in a, hopefully, ongoing series of barrel-aged versions of the Vintage ale (or close variant). I will be queueing up with the rest of them again to sample the limited amounts of the cask version, later to be released in a limited edition bottling.

No, the news that’s got me all excited comes from Greene King. Yes, you read that right, Greene King. Touted as a once-in-lifetime opportunity, in an unprecedented move, a very, very limited quantity of Greene King 5x will be available to the public. 5x is not a new beer, it’s a 12% ABV “vintage” ale used as part of the blend that goes to make the bottled Suffolk Strong Ale.

5x is never available on its own to the general public. Did I mention that? Can hardly wait to get my sample third of a pint. Watch out, and listen hard for the announcements. There will only be one firkin a day.

One of the main reasons I go to GBBF is the American bar, and the chance to grab some cask versions from some of the best breweries on the planet. It’s hard to give hard-and-fast recommendations because it’s impossible to predict what will be on when. But get there early, especially if you want to stock your cellar with hard-to-find American bottled (and canned) craft beers. They are usually way cheaper than is possible to sell from the online UK specialists.

The Great British Beer Festival has been a great showcase for British beers for decades. It is a great opportunity to hunt down beers you’ve wanted to try, but which never make it to your neck of the woods. The beer list is so vastly, unmanageably huge, that even despite some notable absentees from the list of breweries, planning ahead is vital, so you don’t end up settling for something you don’t really want.

What you need is a hitlist. Although you can see the whole festival beer list here, be warned, it’s a movable feast. Unfortunately, you can only make and store your own hitlist if you are a CAMRA member. A pity that there wasn’t a way of allowing non-members a way of using this facility, but you could always use a pen and paper, if some enterprising person hasn’t invented an app for it.

A pity also, is the absence in this “showcase” of many of the new greats of British brewing. It might seem a churlish of me to mention it, but a GBBF without the likes of Hardknott, Dark Star, Magic Rock, Summer Wine Brewery, The Kernel, Thornbridge, and Windsor & Eton is a major disappointment. I know the selection process arcane, and I hear, political, but I only hope this is not the start of some schism.

Maybe there will be late additions, but if not there will still be plenty to try (Marble, Mallinsons, Arbor, Bristol Beer Factory…)

Links
List of beers
Get your tickets in advance here. It will save you a LOT of time.
Back story on Olympics “pouring rights”:
Boycott called up for Lords as Heineken rule out Hoggard