With summer comes the only religious festival that I am strict in my observances for – the Great British Beer Festival. With work rather busy I only made it down for one afternoon and only managed to fit in a few beers of my own before my, now traditional, assault on the Italian bottle bar and stumbling wander home.
One of the delights of beer festivals for me is the bottled beer stand. Not necessarily for the there and then drinking, but more for the drunken acquisitions that I take home. Often they seem so very appealing at the point of purchase only to turn out to be pretty labels wrapped around a bottle of beer made specifically to the taste of the guy who made it, but increasingly I’m finding some gems.
At this year’s GBBF the Bières sans Frontières stand had grown considerably and been split up amongst a number of bars by country. I was very pleased to see that one of the countries that was well represented this year was Italy, a land that I associated until recently with fizzy yellow beer that tastes pretty good but always costs too much compared to the wine in the restaurant where you’re trying it. However, after reading Zak Avery’s tales of wandering around the beer spots of Rome last summer I realised that there was something I was missing about Italian beer, and I don’t like missing out. I had a long and drunken chat with the chap on the bar and he recommended me a few beers, including one that I chose mainly for the name – Bastarda Rossa.
It’s summer, the Edinburgh festival has begun, everyone seems to be on holiday…that means I’ve not yet got round to writing up my visit to the Great British Beer Festival yet again. In an effort to get it off the todo list here is a special Quick Tastings post (I used to do these more often…) of the things what I done drinker there.
Before the boozes though a couple of comments about the festival. Firstly: well done – it was one of the better GBBFs I’ve been to in recent memory. I didn’t have an off beer, the bar staff were all friendly and helpful, and the beer was managed so that it would last well through the week. However, the thing I was most impressed with was the stuff that doesn’t necessarily fall into CAMRA’s remit – foreign ale and cider. Rather than lumping them as two big bars like usual they instead spread them around a bit this time, with a couple of cider bars and at least two Bieres San Frontieres stands. The range of foreign beer was impressive, with the US cask/keg bar limiting themselves to ‘only’ putting on 27 barrels a day so as to keep things running throughout the festival, and there was enough expertise behind the bars that even when nothing I wanted was available (mainly due to not having been put on yet) I was still able to pick up a round that met the palates of my companions and I.
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.
I will, naturally, be writing overly wordily and obsessively about the festival later this week, but for now suffice to say that I’m going to be there on Wednesday and Friday afternoons, having a few beverages, and will be working there during the day on Thursday. If you are around and want to say hello please ping me on twitter or drop a comment here if you want to meet up for a swift half. Or five.
Tickets are available on the door for £8 for CAMRA members and £10 for non-members. There’s a £2 discount if you buy online in advance (although they charge a £1 transaction fee per order, no matter how many tickets you buy) and you can print your tickets out or pick them up on the door.
There are certain beers that I have quite serious troubles describing. “It’s like a regular Fuller’s beer but with porridge in” (Fuller’s Red Fox), “It’s like a glass of really hard water, Soda Streamed with the finest bubbles ever created and then magically turned into a lightly flavoured lager” (Kasteel Cru), “It’s like someone has shoved a spike up your arse, tied your lips together and then punched you in the stomach” (Dogfish Head 120minute IPA), “It’s like someone has dipped an apron string in some shit and drawn it across the back of your tongue” (A pint of very off £1 a pint beer at a Wetherspoons in Hexham) – these are beers I have successfully described, to some extent. However, I still have troubles with this one – Schlenkerla Rauchbier:
As with many of the random mainland European beers that I’ve tried, I first found this at a beer festival, with it being jammed into my hands by a very enthusiastic chap at the Ealing Beer on Broadway festival a few years back. I’d heard of rauchbier from some of my more continentally versed compatriots and was keen to try the mystical ‘bacon beer’ that they described.
The beer is brewed in Bamberg in Germany by the Brauerei Heller, although my looking online suggests that most people simply refer to them as the Schlenkerla brewery after their brewpub in the centre of town. The beer’s distinctly smoky flavour comes from the smoked malt, dried over open fires burning beech logs. They have three varieties of smoked beer, also serving a weizen and a bock, as well as an unsmoked helles (which I tried by accident this year at the GBBF – it was rather nice, with a hint of smokiness to it that Wikipedia informs me is due to the brewing process happening in a building surrounded by smoky malt), although the Aecht Rauchbier is the only one that I’ve found in the UK with any regularity. The smoking of the malt used to be a side-effect of the drying process, before kiln drying took over in those places where drying the malt in the sun was not quite as regularly possible as needed, and Bamberg is one of the last places that use the flavour as the distinguishing mark of the local beers.
Flavour-wise it’s quite an eye opener – a dark, lightly carbonated beer that is quickly overwhelmed by flavours of woodsmoke. The smokiness lingers and tends, in my opinion, more to the sweet end of things with hints of sweetcorn in addition to smoked ham and maltiness. It’s definitely more savoury over all, but with a vanilla edge at the back of the tongue. The thing that surprises me most is its lightness – while it’s not a crisp lightly flavoured drink, it’s definitely lighter than the heavily smoked smell and flavour at first suggest. It reminds me of the crispness of Asahi Black and some of the flavour of Budvar Dark with a can of corn (drained) blended in. I suspect that with its strong flavour but lightness it’d compliment food well, adding a distinct extra element to similar flavours in stews and casseroles heavy enough to battle the smokiness. Just the sort of thing they serve in The Schlenkerla in Bamberg…
I found it on tap at this year’s GBBF, after my accidental grabbing of the Helles, and while it wasn’t poured from an oak barrel as it is in Bamberg it was fantastic – less fizzy and thus with a slightly thicker and heavier taste. Both my drinking buddy and his dad took home beermats with my drunkenly scrawled “Schlenkerla” on, promising that it was on their list of things to keep in the fridge. It’s most definitely not for everyone and not one for all night (unless you’re in Bamberg), but as an occasional treat it’s filling, tasty and strangely moreish.
Aecht Shlenkerla Rauchbier
Smoked beer from Bamberg. 5.1%
Available from specialist beer shops and some branches of Tesco – list available on their website
I got mine from Utobeer in Borough Market