True to my word I did indeed spend the last three days camped out at Earl’s Court enjoying this year’s GBBF. The plan was simple but elegant – drink on Wednesday, work there on Thursday and do some more drinking (maybe with an insider’s perspective) on the Friday. The plan, as they say, worked perfectly.
On day one I was coming from work so wasn’t able to join the queue of CAMRA members who bought their tickets in advance and take part in the traditional scramble for tables when the doors opened (after a trek through the tunnels beneath Earl’s Court so as to keep the main doors opened for the queue of people who still needed to part with cash). I turned up at about 1:30pm to find a table and chair already saved for me by drinking buddy Bob, which was nice. It does seem that CAMRA have noticed the seating issue, with a question on their yearly questionnaire asking if we’d be willing to pay for guaranteed seating. I would, but that’s because I am a) lazy and b) old before my time. The last time I volunteered at the festival, the last year at Olympia, I helped put out all of the tables and chairs and despite their scarceness later in the day I can vouch for the fact that there are a lot of them.
Me, Bob and the rest of the gang who floated in over the days have fallen into a fairly predictable GBBF routine – find a table, obtain many pork scratchings from The Crusty Pie Company, buy rounds of halves from a bar chosen by whoever’s round it is, go home later than planned. The only break in that this year was that it took until Thursday for Bob to make use of the ‘Five bags of scratchings for £5’ offer and Friday for me, something that usually happens within minutes of arriving. As usual the pies from The Crusty Pie lot were good and my main sustenance for the latter half of the week, something I am now rectifying with a diet of carrots, peas, potatoes, limes and assorted botanicals (although those last two are mainly being delivered in mixed drink form along with quinine).
The biggest change this year was that instead of the bars being ordered by region, with each bar grouping together local breweries, they instead alphabetised by subregion, with West Sussex, West Yorkshire and Worcestershire all sitting on the same bar rather than by their more geographic neighbours. At first I was rather against this, with my forcefully put across opinion of ‘Change is Bad’ being echoed by many of my bearded CAMRA brethren, but after the first few rounds I realised that it didn’t really matter – with regional beer styles gradually going out of fashion and with breweries producing interesting brews wherever they are in the country, the groupings on each bar didn’t really make any difference unless there were specific breweries that you were looking for, and as we had a programme that wasn’t particularly difficult. The naming of each bar after a military commander may not have helped change CAMRA’s usual olde-worldy image, but at least this time we didn’t have scantily clad women as the mascots, even if they were chosen ‘to empower female drinkers’ in previous years.
One thing that especially interested me this year was the doubling of the number of American beers, growing the Bières sans Frontières foreign beer bar to half as big again (maybe double) and providing us with a load of interesting beers straight from the cask, in some cases beers that don’t really get a cask release in the US, as well as in bottles or from the pump. Unfortunately I didn’t make it over there much until the Friday, at which point they had pretty much sold out of everything – even with the increased number of casks the hassles of importing the beer and the difficulty in obtaining much of it still meant that stocks weren’t as high as could have been sold. That said, there was still a vast quantity of British beer to try and I’ll just have to make sure to shift my bar patronage to be more heavily American earlier in the week next time.
So, the important bit – the beers. I didn’t write everything down and these were not all mine, as being the caring and sharing types we passed each beer around the table. Better for our ticky-lists of beers, better for our increasingly fragile livers.
Left Hand Milk Stout – my first beer and one from the USA, picked up on my way to find Bob on arriving. It was a very dark beer with a hint of orangey brown and was very sweet. Behind the initial condensed milk burst there was burned caramel and a creamy mouthfeel. A good set up for the day.
Salopian Shropshire Gold – moving on to my normal style of beer for the festival, a solid golden ale with citrus hops throughout and a floral hop hint on the finish. The deal is that normally I drink the golden beers and Bob has the dark ones. Unfortunately for Bob I also rather like the dark beers and he’s not much of a fan of the golden ones…
Nottingham Rock Ale Mild – a dry dark mild with a biscuity/nutty character.
Highland Dark Munro – an intense dark chocolate malt to start, fading to a sweeter mid. It looks and smells dark and heavy, but is much lighter and more quaffable than it looks.
Arbor Oyster Stout – totally opaque with a rich stouty nose. Very bitter indeed with burned coffee grounds, but became creamy after some time sitting in the glass.
Amber Chocolate Orange – Very chocolatey and orangey on the nose but not so much on the flavour – dark malt and a hint of cocoa.
Ashover Liquorice Alesort – dark and bitter with a slight liquorice astringency and sweetness in the finish.
Ballards Golden Bine – a dry golden ale with a hint of grapefruit.
Purity Gold – rounded, golden and hoppy.
Blindmans Golden Spring – a musty, dry golden ale.
Milestone Raspberry Wheat – a pleasantly sour raspberry beer. Light and refreshing with a bitter finish.
Vale Black Beauty Porter – A dark porter with a graing heavy flavour – maybe even a hint of wheatiness? Bread fading to a bitter finish.
Iceni Fen Tiger – I normally know Iceni from trying to taste their Raspberry Wheat beer each year, only to find that it had sold out. I finally tasted it last year and didn’t like it, so was quite please to try one of their others. This was a very fresh citrusy pint with the coriander in the brew adding only popping in the finish – rather nice.
Breconshire Ysbrid y Ddraig – we think this is ‘Spirit of the Dragon’ and it’s a whisky cask aged beer. Lots of whisky on the nose leading to fruit and smoke to taste. Really interesting and worth it’s bronze medal in the speciality beer category.
Hogs Back Slovenian Rhapsody – smelled of cabbagey farts and tasted of lemony sweat. Maybe not one for everybody…
Bob’s Brewing Chardonayle – thick and syrupy to start leading to a hint of citrusy hops to finish.
Cannon Royall Fruiterer’s Mild – Fruity smell – almost like making a fruit cup with beer (Pimm’s but not Pimm’s…). Maybe a hint of ham. Buttery mouthfeel with fruity malt.
Arran Dark – thick and malty with a hint of fruit and a very dry finish.
Fuller’s Brewers Reserve #2 – the scarce beer of the festival, with only one or two barrels going on each day – the second release of their oak cask aged barley wine, on tap rather than in bottles like usual. There was a 15 minute queue on Wednesday evening when I got to it and all in all they served 216 1/3rd pints in 45 minutes before it was all gone. I’m not sure if it was worth the wait but it was quite tasty – a bit like Golden Pride but with a bit of vanilla and smoke from the barrel aging, thick with malt and fruit. It was smoother and less alcoholic tasting than Golden Pride is on tap and definitely one to try if you see it without too much of a queue…
Forge Hartland Blonde – dry golden ale with strong bitter hops and a touch of nuttiness.
Goachers Fine Light Ale – a beer made just down the road from my old school and one that I used to see, if the romantic memory isn’t a false one, delivered in a hlaf-timbered Morris Traveller. This was a deep golden light ale with a touch of hops and biscuits.
Rogue St Rogue Red – I started the second day similarly to my first, with a trip to the USA bar. This one was very cloudy, although I was assured that was fine, and reddy brown. It smelled of dry hop pellets and was sweet, quickly travelling through thick maltiness to a bitter hoppy finish. A refreshing start to the day.
Schlenkerla Rauchbier Märzen – a beer that I know I like and obtained for Bob because he asked for something ‘smoky’. This was a new barrel and rather lively, with the glass when I took it away containing 1/3rd of a pint of beer and 2/3rds of foam. It settled down into a generous half, with an ungenerous half a pint of foam on top, and was exactly what you’d expect – overpoweringly smoky with bacon and a sweetcorn sweetness. It’s a bit smoother and less fizzy on cask (despite the foamy head) and definitely worth a try whenever it appears.
Whitewater Crown and Glory – chosen at it was the Northern Irish beer I could see. Crisp and biscuity with a light hoppiness.
Townhouse Flowerdew – my terse tasting note says ‘Grapefruit’.
St Peter’s Grapefruit – by coincidence this one was bought at the same time as the Flowerdew (and not mixed up – it was my round and I made sure) and my equally terse tasting note says ‘Grapefruity’. I really like this beer – it’s got a strong grapefruit flavour to it, with the mouth puckering sourness sanded away by the underlying wheat beer. It’s one I always grab when I see it on.
Stewarts Edinburgh No. 3 – an old fashioned malty best bitter, with a chunk of musty sweetness.
Saltaire Triple Chocolate – the most chocolatey of the chocolate beers I’ve tried, although significantly lighter than you might think. In the end it reminded us all of a dark chocolate mousse.
Thornbridge Jaipur – a big chunk of citrus hoppiness with a central malty sweetness and a bitter finish. A solid and rather tasty IPA.
Thornbridge Craven Silk – one of the most interesting beers I tried at the festival, with a finishing flavour that I couldn’t identify until I read the tasting notes – elderflower. However, rather than the usual sweet syrup elderflower that is sometimes added to beers this was a sour and floral flavour that really added to the overall taste.
Thwaites Nutty Black – a mild that tastes very strongly of hazelnuts.
Adur Black William – a dry dark beer with both bitter chocolate malt and dark chocolate.
Blue Monkey BG Sips – Thick with citrus hops and a syrupy sweetness. One I tried to get a couple of times and was rather pleased to eventually get a taste of, although it did almost taste as if they’d stopped it brewing a bit early.
Fyne Jarl – A refreshing golden ale that my notes just list as ‘Lemon biscuits’. Really tasty.
Camerons 6th Sense – Big sweet fizzy malt with a thick mouth feel.
Amnesia Desolation IPA – my last beer, so I ran over to the American bar to find that they only had 3 beers left on – the Rogue from earlier, Sierra Nevada Porter (nice, but I’ve had it on cask before) and this. It wasn’t bad – charred malt, light hops and a rounded smoothness.
Jacobi Original Bitter – Bob’s last beer and the last one I tried – it was for both of us the worst of the festival. A touch of citrus but overwhelmed with a stale sweaty flavour. Not good.
I then ran away via the Real Ale in a Bottle bar (where I’d worked the day beforehand – I managed to grab one of the last bottles of Chocolate Marble then, as well as the almost as popular Marble Lagonda IPA [which I have waiting in the fridge], both of which sold out by Friday), where I picked up an Otley O8 and a Harveys Double Imperial Stout, and the USA bottled beer bar, where I grabbed a Rogue Morimoto Soba Ale and a Shipyard XXXX IPA. They are now sitting on the side waiting for an excuse to be drunk…
A good festival and I will, of course be returning next year.
There’s a complete list of all the beers that they had on at the festival, with ABVs and tasting notes, over on the GBBF website.