GBBF 2012

It sounds a bit silly, but the Great British Beer Festival for me is usually mostly about the foreign beers. Nothing else in the UK can match GBBF for volume & variety of imported beer in one place. However this year I drank far more British cask beer than imports. A combination of the people I was hanging out with and the amount of time I was at the festival. If you’re at the GBBF from near opening until last orders drinking nothing but “Imperial” beers — hop bombs or lucious stouts — is going to kill your palate & also your ability to stand upright. So, my GBBF 2012: all about great cask ale. (But I did sneak in some stunning imported beers of course!)

The British do love a good queue!

The British do love a good queue!

I always come prepared with a list of preselected beers. I also always end up wildly departing from this almost immediately & just “go for it” circulating through the bars. This seems to be a common pattern amongst festival-goers I meet. It didn’t help that this year the spreadsheet I generated from the GBBF website was missing the entire Champion Beer of Britain bar! I find the GBBF website effort is a bit half-arsed really. Pretty — but not functional. Clearly a project managed by marketing folk not quite clued up on modern website usability & functionality. (A common CAMRA online–experience situation.)

I showed up at around 14:30 on Tuesday to attend the trade session with a fellow North Hertfordshire CAMRA committee friend. The trade session has practical uses, the main one being meeting brewers to discuss how we can get hold of interesting beers for our beer festivals. There are a lot more people present that you’re likely to know too, which makes for a more enjoyable day. Wandering around bumping into people I’ve not seen for a couple of years, or who I see every week (local pub landlords for example), and even who I’ve never met before but “know” on twitter — all sharing a common interest: beer!

I’m going to split some of my verbose GBBF thoughts into two additional posts:

Outside of those arenas I’ll add that I love Olympia as the GBBF venue. So much more open and airy than Earls Court. I’ve only known GBBF at Earls Court until now and always considered it a rather ugly venue for the event — all concrete with dingy corners, it felt like a beer festival in a multi-story car park (an analogy I’m stealing from Dom of the Devonshire Arms in Cambridge, he described it this way and I immediately thought “yes, that’s it exactly“).

More Olympia in future please!

More Olympia in future please!

The value of attending the GBBF is called into question every year. Why go, queue up, deal with manky glassware, pay to get in, etc. London is turning into such a hive of craft beer venues that you could make better use of your trip to the city perhaps? If it is a big trip to get to London then I’d suggest: do both! There is plenty of value in the GBBF — you’ll find rare foreign brews otherwise not available, and (to counter the door charge) the prices are pretty damn good, especially on the bottles. Generally if you pick the right times queues don’t seem to be a problem. As for the glasses — you can swap for clean ones whenever you like. No need to rinse out in the loos! (Yes, I saw this happening.) Beer-ticking aside, there is also value in having the sheer range of cask ales there in one place. If you buy cask ale for pubs or festivals then this (along with Peterborough Beer Festival and the National Winter Ale Festival) is one of the best research opportunities of the year. You’re also more likely to meet and talk to useful people in the beer industry at GBBF (and not just at the trade session), meeting people & forging sales links is part of why they’re there.

This GBBF — with everything well managed and on hand-pump — didn’t seem to suffer from the usual beer festival quality issues. I do still hear a lot of reports of flat/tired beer, maybe my experience this year was skewed as I was there on Tuesday and Wednesday? The least-good condition beers I sampled were actually from the brewery bars, interesting in that you’d consider them to have more riding on serving their own beer in the best condition!

Well, that’s my 2p worth anyway. I almost skipped GBBF this year, in retrospect I’m mighty glad that I didn’t. I expect I will certainly go again. Apologies for being unfashionably pro-GBBF.

Project Venus, Sugar and Spice

Project Venus, Sugar and Spice


GBBF 2012 — Great Beer

Now, I’d be lying if I claimed all beer at GBBF was “great” — there certainly are a lot of rather dull beers. The fact that Greene King IPA is even allowed in the room makes me sad. Then again, there are people who like the stuff — does that justify it? Sorry, I’m going to say “no” and that I think these people are wrong & broken. Just as I think people who like McDonald’s are broken, and the list can go on.  May as well let Molson Coors run a Carling bar in the festival. I had a handful of “dull” beers, but only one that I thought was “broken” — rotten egg gas & TCP just doesn’t belong in a 3.8% light brown English bitter. That’s all I’ll say about not-great beer, on with the great!

I did my best to “untappd” all my beers at the festival, though did end up having to catch-up a few the following days. The great advantage of this is I have a good record of what I drank and even the occasional note if there was something distinctive about it. One clear fact is that this year GBBF was actually a “real ale” festival for me, with a peppering of foreigners sneaking in. This resulted from the combination of the company I was keeping for most of the festival, and a current “research” interest in the cask ales — I’m buying for the Letchworth Beer Festival this year (as I did last year). This “research” was productive, I ended up dumping a couple of beers from the list because I thought they just weren’t up to scratch, and adding a couple because they really did stand out (or I met the brewer — it helps!)

My notable beers of the festival, in order of imbibance, were:

Sandstone, Edge

My first Sandstone beer. After following the ever critical & acerbic James B on twitter for some time I’m glad I’ve finally had a chance to try his beer, and that it was good! I do hope I get a chance to try some more sometime. I’ve tried to find a source for our beer festivals but no luck, so far… short of driving it myself. (I like Wales, so it is definitely an option.)

Sandstone Edge

Sandstone Edge

Strands, T’ Errmmm-inator

A beer and a memory! On my Hardknott beer collection trips to Cumbria I normally stop up there for a couple of days of hillwalking. One March (last year I think) we camped at Wasdale Head and did a great Scafell loop. However the night was too cold, it hit -7C, too cold for me even (need better sleeping bags). Thus we spent the next two nights in Nether Wasdale, at the Strands Inn. Home of the T’Errmmm-inator. It was a great place. Hearty food of excellent quality and a great range of beer brewed on-site. The owners and the brewer, especially, were good for a chat too. I liked it so much I blogged it.

The beer was as good as the memory. A rich & unctuous stout.

Stone, Sublimely Self-Righteous Ale

I now think of this as Pete-beer. Nothing sets in the memory like the landlord of one of your favourite pubs rubbing your freshly shaved head.

This was on cask, and to be honest I don’t think it was better off for it. Thick, rich, sticky – it needed to be colder, and possibly fizzier.

Still a bloody fantastic beer though. If I didn’t know it in its usual form I’d not be complaining at all.

Daniel Thwaites Brewery, 13 Guns

Hey, the big(ger) guys are catching on… maybe it is just because Punk IPA is being brewed at the brewery, or perhaps it is just the sands of time. This is a really good IPA offering. Fresh and hoppy, and crisp in what I’m thinking of as the “UKIPA” style.

I tried this both with and without sparkler and in my opinion the sparkler did it no good at all. The beer felt and tasted kind of “squashed”.

Thwaites, 13 Guns

Thwaites, 13 Guns

Project Venus, Sugar And Spice

A “research beer” as I have it on my Letchworth Beer Festival list. Overall I recall ginger being dominant, and the beer being a little “rough around the edges”. But I think that given another month and a half it might smooth out. I certainly look forward to finding out. Enjoyable ale and firmly staying on my list.

I’ve been following the Project Venus beers since the start. I haven’t managed to try all of them, but I’ve had most. I ensured we had two previous ones at our festivals but I think my favourite has been the Venus Jade which I found in a local pub.

Stone & Wood, Pacific Ale

Aussie! Aussie! Aussie! Well, I just had to try something from “home” (even if it is the wrong side of the country). Came through very pineapple-y and a tad thin. I took a bottle home and it was much better (less thin) in isolation, but still tasted a bit like those pineapple sweets.

Stone & Wood, Pacific Ale

Stone & Wood, Pacific Ale

Ska Brewing, Decadent Imperial IPA

I was chatting to the brewer… so I just had to, didn’t I. Pity it was a 650ml bomber and I had to drink the lot! (Me being “between friends” at that stage, and the Ska Brewing dude being well stocked already.)

This is, in my limited experience, your typical US-DIPA — loads of caramel “balanced” (countered?) with loads of hops. It works. This is a great example of it working. However, I expect that I, with my not-really-at-all-sweet-tooth, will just never appreciate heavy use of crystal malt.

I find the strong UK-IPAs coming out at the moment are generally avoiding this heavy caramel. We’re seeing more crisp, dry, and sometimes even white-wine vinous finishes to strong IPAs here. Personally I think we’re better off for it.

Ilkley Brewery Co., Siberia Rhubarb Saison

Cask! Finally! I first tried this at Melissa Cole & Mark Poynton’s beer-and-food matched degaustation at Alimentum in Cambridge. I loved it on the night and promptly ordered 12 bottled from Beer Ritz. The bottles were a little disappointing, but only due to them having far too much condition. We’ve enjoyed them regardless and even used a few for a very tasty beer-and-beetroot punch!

On cask at GBBF this beer was at its best. A word: sublime.

Ilkley, Siberia

Ilkley, Siberia

Brains, Barry Island IPA

Another larger brewery (albeit their new “craft” brewery) with a UKIPA! And another good one too. Nothing in your face, very well balanced. I’ve not really rated Brains as being of much interested until now… but I’ll be looking out for their “craft” productions in future. This particular ale is highly repeatable (perhaps a little too repeatable for the ABV).

This was another for the sparkler challenge. In this case the beer was better WITH the sparkler.

Gasthaus-Brauerei Braustelle, Cedarwood Alt

Close your eyes. Conjure up a scent — the scent of sawing through a pine sleeper. That is the dominant flavour in this beer. It is incredibly odd, yet intriguing. I’d probably not be able to handle more than a pint, but I can see some amazing uses for something like this in food pairings!

Brouwerij De Molen, Rasputin Speyside Oak Aged

OMG! Always a favourite. This is MY style of beer. Imperial Stout in Wood.

Rasputin in Wood!

Rasputin in Wood!

Brains, Weiss Weiss Baby

Most memorable name of the festival? Alas the beer didn’t work well either with or without sparkler. The girl who served me said it was really designed to be on keg. Yes, I think this is what the beer needed. Otherwise it was just kind of flat and thick. I want to find it on keg now.

The Durham Brewery, White Stout

If a stout can be a black IPA then an IPA can be a white stout!

This seems to be a pretty decent example of what I think of as a UK-IPA/Brit-IPA. The rave reviews I’ve heard are not far wrong, it is a good beer. Rich and far more hop-forward on cask than the bottle I had a couple of months ago. I found the bottled version I’ve had just a tad on the cloying side.

Bierbrouwerij Emelisse, Imperial Russian Stout

A fitting end to GBBF! I just wish I’d not missed the whisky cask versions.

Beer, Beer, Beer!




GBBF 2012 — Great People

Don't forget the horses!

Don’t forget the horses!

Great Beer & Great People: complimentary ingredients. There is nothing more sad than drinking a beer alone, and nothing more dull than a gathering of people sans beer. Hyperbole aside, GBBF is generally a very friendly and happy festival I find, compared to some others I know well. I’m not sure what the magic ingredient is — perhaps the sheer size of the thing is important? Anyway, here’s a run–down of some great “people” moments at GBBF 2012.


Every time a glass is dropped a great cheer goes up. It’s a beer festival classic.


The people you go to the beer festival with. They’re half the motivation for going all the way to London. The prospect of hanging around the festival is much more pleasant if you know you’ll have friends present. Alas this year Kat was unwell… but my fellow North Herts CAMRA committee cronies were going to be in attendance — sorted! Attending the festival as a CAMRA group isn’t as dreadful some folk would think. We’re not talking the “beardy weirdy” stereotypes.

On Tuesday I attended with one fellow committee member who’s a multinational engineering wheeler-dealer in the telco — Andy has run the North Herts festivals for years now, and is also the proprietor of one of the branch’s best pubs (the Our Mutual Friend in Stevenage). On Wednesday Matt Williams (another “young” 30ish committee member like myself, current festivals organiser) and a friend were my core company — and we bumped into a couple of other North Herts friends from time to time as well. Not a single beard between us… though some may rightly consider my festive mohican haircut quite weird.


It’s always great talking to brewers about their winning beers. Whether or not they’re CAMRA fans I find brewers are always appreciative of a bit of public recognition for their hard work.

A GBBF 2012 highlight for me was chatting to Bob from Son of Sid brewery — who was bubbling over with joy at having won bronze in the mild category for Muck Cart Mild. A great chap who’s genuinely enthusiastic about beer and brewing. Modern punk-type beer snobs knock milds, and anything even vaguely traditional… I feel sorry for them. Despite the none too alluring name, Muck Cart is excellent and I’ll make a point of trying to get hold of some for our next beer festival.


I was lucky enough to bump into “Hardknott Alex” — the new(ish) face at one of my favourite breweries (Hardknott… duh). We met supping foreign beers at the German / Eastern Europe bar. Heathens! A long, twisty, and fun conversation about brewing, CAMRA (the good, the bad, and the ugly), and beer ensured.

Alex introduced me to his accomplice MattAdam (oops!) from the Derby Arms (nowhere near Derby, but conveniently en-route to Hardknott). It sounds like a right brilliant pub and I think I’ll be staying there on one of my fairly regular trips to the area. See, GBBF: constructive, not just a drink-a-thon.


Drinking with Pete — landlord from the Live & Let Live in Cambridge. He’s a “Black IPA” fiend, blacker & more hops seems to be his mantra when it comes to beer. In his pub you’ll usually find some of Oakham’s best beers – be it Green Devil or a darker form of the  IPA art. Pete was kind of smashed… no surprise, he’d been drinking pints of Stone’s Sublimely Self Righteous black IPA — weighing in at 8.7%. I duly had a half-pint myself, beautiful stuff. I think it’d have been better in keg format though. I tend to find the cask US beers are just a bit too cloying and work better (for me) to be served at a cooler temperature, probably with a little more fizz.

US Imports

Free Beer!

Free Beer!

Meeting the brewer from Ska Brewery. Brilliant brewery name! Terrible flash/noisy website. I’ve forgotten the dude’s name alas, but it was good chatting with him about the differences between British and US IPAs. He’s keen to sell his beers to the UK market — I certainly wouldn’t mind seeing them over here a bit. From all the good reports I’ve heard about his visit & reception in London on the grapevine I expect there may be some interest. I kind of accidentally ended up with a whole pint of his 10% Imperial IPA – Decadent. Ah well… beaut stuff though. Just a tad too much caramel for me, as is my usual complaint for strong US IPAs. I picked up some bottles of Ska Brewery beers to take-home the next day… tucking into one right now!

Before heading on his way he handed me a few beer tokens :) Can’t complain!

New & Old Twitter Acquaintences

Tapping a dude on the shoulder to ask where he got his t–shirt. It was a Weird Beard Brew Co shirt, of interest to me as I’ve been following Bryan Spooner on twitter ever since meeting him at the 1st Brewdog AGM. Bryan & another bloke called Greg Irwin are working on getting a new craft brewery going in London. The chap I tapped on the shoulder was Greg. I sat with Bryan, Greg, and Andy Parker (and their respective GBBF accomplices) for the remainder of the evening. Buggered if I can remember much of the conversation though, I think the strong American brews were getting to my head! (Good thing my hotel was 50 meters from the entrance.)

Bumping into Tony – another 1st-wave BrewDog shareholder who I’d not seen since that first AGM. He’s a fellow techie who used to work up Glasgow way but has now moved to London. So hope to catch up again sometime — probably in a “craft beer” establishment! :) [We did in fact, not long after at Brodie’s #witterfest!]

Bar Staff

An eclectic collection of folk work behind the GBBF bars; from festival organisers, through CAMRA volunteers, to brewery employees. They’re all doing a great job. Some get a bit grumpy, but what would a beer festival be without a grumpy volunteer or two. They’re not being paid to be there so I try to cut them some slack.

I tend to find the brewery bar staff the most interesting, most of them will have brewers present from time to time and all are happy to talk about their beer (and listen to polite criticism!) I found the Thwaites and Brains bars particularly friendly and helpful this year (they also had the best brewery-bar beer IMO).

One of the bars this year was tweeting, this definitely added some character to the GBBF twitter presence! The bloke running it, Ben, was wearing some sort of weird drag outfit… I never did find out what the story behind that was (assuming there is one!)

The Rest

If I’ve left someone out then it is through befuddled memory! So many excellent folk, such a mixed crowd, and a super-friendly atmosphere. It was grand!

Even the live music was excellent!
(No, not the bloody Skinner’s band…)