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GBBF Festival Report

Fancy A Pint?
Beer Travels August 22, 2002      
Written by Oakes

Vancouver, CANADA -

Click on thumbnails for larger image

<P>Time for something we haven't seen for a while here on Ratebeer (really subtle hint) - a FESTIVAL REPORT! And what a festival it was, ladies and gentlemen. The Great British Beer Festival is, quite simply, an exercise in absurdity. Spanning 20 km² of real estate at the mammoth Olympia Hall in London's Kensington district, and pouring 700 different beers from some 300 breweries (some 223,000 pints worth!), this five-day festival is a Roman orgy of hops and malt. As a staffer (more on that later), I went to the upstairs gallery first, and got a bird's eye view of the main hall.

<P><a href="/images/features/gbb-1.jpg"><IMG border=0 SRC="/images/features/gbb-2t.jpg">

GBBF Main Hall

<P>There is also a hall at the back of the main hall, where beers from Scotland and new breweries were featured, plus another hall to the left with food vendors, a stage for the band, bottled English beers, the cider and perry bar and yet another bar pouring real ale. That's the beautiful thing - this is a real ale festival. And unlike certain other "great" festivals, you get a half pint of each beer - none of this one ounce crap. Indeed, you probably get more than half a pint, given CAMRA's fussiness about getting 100% liquid for your money. I know I didn't pour any short measures.

<P>There are nine bars pouring beers from different regions of the UK (each bar pouring some 30 beers), plus bigger breweries get their own bars (by bigger I mean Young's, Adnams and Shepherd Neame, not Interbrew and Guinness, neither of whom were invited). The ciders and perries had their own bar, there was another bar with bottled English bars, and then there was Bières sans Frontières, the foreign beer bar.

<P>Bières sans Frontières is a festival all its own. There were dozens of American microbrews on hand, many on cask including hard-to-find stuff like Perkuno's Hammer, Three Floyds Dreadnaught, and Dogfish 60 Minute IPA. The former two have eluded me to date, so I was pretty excited to see them. However, unbeknownst to me, Michael Jackson had featured them both in a newspaper article earlier that week and they sold out with a quickness. So they still elude me.

<P>Irish micros like Dwan's, Porterhouse and Mssrs. Maguire were there. The Belgian bar had a cask of Cantillon lambic, the dark version of Achel 8, oude gueuzes from Oud Beersel and De Cam, and many other Belgians you don't see everyday. Italian micros were present on cask and in the bottle. The German section could have been renamed the Franconian section without compromising accuracy - they had Klosterbräu, Keesman, Greif-Bräu, Hartman, Schlenkerla...some pouring by gravity from wood barrels. Around the corner they had Czech and Russian beers, including my favourite bottle ever - Afanasiy Temnoe. Sadly my photographic skills rank with my ballet skills and so I have no picture to show you of this fantastic bottle.

<P>If you could pry yourself away from those delights, there was more English ale than you could reasonably drink in five days. I came into London on the Thursday from Bristol, and that morning had wandered around Bath for a couple of hours. The pubs weren't open yet, so to make up for it, I started my fest with the famous Bath brew, Abbey Ales Bellringer, a former Top 10 here at Ratebeer. Then I had Plassey Bitter from Wales, and Stuart Ale, a session ale from Traquair House. I have to admit, I found it hard to track down porters, stouts and brown ales, but in the early parts of my visit I gave it a go, finding the most success at the Scottish and foreign booths. Many times I found myself at a bar staring down twenty beers I'd never had before - a little unusual for me, I have to admit. I often went for a brewery I knew, or whose reputation had preceded it, like Dark Star, a micro in Brighton whose beer Hophead caught my attention. It's a unique beer in that it has an English abv of 3.8%, but the robust hoppiness of an American beer. I moved onwards to some Aecht Schlenkerla Lagerbier, which they don't even call a rauchbier, but is certainly not lacking for smokiness.

<P><a href="/images/features/gbb-2.jpg"><IMG border=0 SRC="/images/features/gbb-1t.jpg">

Fancy a pint?

<P>At the beginning of the festival, they announce the Champion Beers of Britain, and the various category winners (Mild, Cider, Foreign, Bottled). While past winners like Landlord, JHB, and Workie Ticket are all excellent brews, this year's winner was Deuchar's IPA from Caledonian, a rather standard pint for my money. But then, I've found this award to be hit-and-miss in the past, with clunkers like Bluebird Bitter and Moorhouse Black Cat also winning in past years. Anyway, the award winners usually sell out very quickly, so I decided to hunt for a few of them. One I found was also my personal award winner for the best name at the fest - Pressed Rat & Warthog, from the micro Triple fff, which is very quickly gaining a huge reputation for itself. Pressed Rat & Warthog was one of the medallists for Mild, which is a style of beer I have a thing for, if it's done properly. Respectably complex, I found it, but not of the calibre of Church End's Gravedigger's Mild. Nor the fantastic Cain's Dark Mild from the Liverpool institution that, as long as ownership doesn't strip it for parts as one Liverpool industry source told me was going to happen, is probably the best brewery in England.

<P>As I was trying to drink my Pressed Rat, I ended up talking to some Swiss guys. Lauren Mousson was one of them, and I asked if he ever heard of a guy called Philippe Corbat (a.k.a. Bov), and he did! The other guys didn't, but I wasn't so sure of them. They knew their beer, but had scammed a fistful of staff drink tokens, which didn't seem the gentlemanly thing to do. Anyway, the last few hours seemed to pass quickly with little beer sampling done (evidently I was drunk), but no worries, because I still had one more day to go.

<P>I did have a day off in between festival visits, and the Friday night I met a pile of beer lover's at the White Horse on Parson's Green, the famous west London pub. Most of the others in attendance had come from the fest, so I was pretty sober in comparison, which is kind of rare. Per showed up, and tried very hard not to act too drunk. I used my relative sobriety to crack into some stronger Belgian fare at the end of the night, but had to pack it in early as I was working the next day. It worked out well, as last orders were called at the same time as I was ordering the last beer at the White Horse that I hadn't yet tasted. Cleaning out famous beer pubs in foreign lands - I feel like Jackson.

<P>Saturday I was a volunteer at Bières sans Frontières. This was the first time I'd ever worked a beer fest, and it does look different from the other side of the bar. The first thing about volunteering at the GBBF is that it is understood you are there to have a good time, too. You get three heavily discounted pints to start you off, and nobody concerns themselves if you want to help yourself to a half as you're working. BSF staff get 50% off on the bottles, too, which comes in handy when trying to buy a £5 bottle of lambic. Most of the staffers at BSF work there every year, so I was kind of the "new guy", but it was all right. I worked the section with the Italian, French, Irish and American beers. The three most served beers of the day for me were Porterhouse Plain, Dogfish Head 60 Minute, and Samuel Adams Lager. With the first two, we hardly turned the tap off during the peak hours between 1:30 and 3:30pm.

<P>What I really liked, though, was that I met a lot more people by working there than I did on the Thursday, when I was staggering around the halls on my own. I plugged Smokeless Joe's to a lot of people who had indicated that they'd been to Toronto or were going soon. I told them all about my visits to Dogfish Head. I met one guy who had a friend in Bellingham, WA, and we chatted about Archer's Ale House for a bit. Eczematic dropped by to try some of the American micros. I wore my Ratebeer shirt but nobody asked me about that - next time we'll need some coasters or something.

<P>Over the course of the day, I cracked into some of the Italian micros, a handful of English beers that had previously eluded me, including the third-place finisher for the Champion Beer of Britain, Triple fff's Moondance, which blows Deuchar's out of the water. And then the fest shut down.

<P>Now here's where being a volunteer is a good thing. After the festival is over, there's about an hour of clean up work and then the staff party begins. We lined up the Bambergian barrels, uncorked some oude gueuze and got down to business. We had an excellent food spread with cheese, salamis, pate, "crisps" and fruit to accompany our beers. There was more free beer than I could imagine and my only regret is that I had to get up early the next day to fly home or I would have gone berserk trying to sample them all. But it wasn't to be. I settled on Norbert 14 from the Czech monastery brewery Klásterní Pivovar, and then settled on Wentworth WPA as my final beer of the entire Iron Liver Tour III - and it was a fine pint, thankfully, or I would have had to get another.

<P>All told, I tasted more beers, with far greater sobriety and for far less money, as a volunteer than I did when I was a visitor! I not only stronger recommend a multi-day stay at the GBBF, I also would encourage anyone going to volunteer and help the cause. You have to join CAMRA or an EBCU organization to do it, but it's worth it because you get free accomodation (in London, this is very much a good thing) and will end up trying all the beers you want for maybe £10 a day.

<P>Volunteering information can be found at <a hrefhttp://www.gbbf.org>www.gbbf.org. I would personally like thank Matthew Wilson for recruiting me, and I'll be back someday (just not next year, because it's held the same weekend as the Great Taste of the Midwest).



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