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.