Great British Beer Festival 2014

gbbf-logoImagine every beer festival you ever attended, well perhaps with the exception of Munich’s Oktoberfest, then put them all together: that’s the Great British Beer Festival, or GBBF for short. Mr & Mrs Fueled by Beer attended this year’s jamboree this past weekend and we’re here to tell the tale – click the thumbnails to open photos in a new window…

First off, until you go to GBBF, you can’t begin to imagine a beer festival this big. We certainly didn’t: Reading, Cambridge, Washington Brewers Fest, the largest festivals we have been to; all three combined are dwarfed by GBBF. Here are some of the numbers:

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Click to view the poster

  • GBBF takes over the entire ground floor of London’s Olympia Exhibition Centre – over 210,000 square feet under roof.
  • 350 British breweries participate – that’s around one in every three from the length and breadth of the UK.
  • Roughly 550 British cask ales; 350 draft and bottled beers from Europe, the USA, and beyond; plus over 70 English cask ciders & perries.
  • Over the festival’s 5 days (day 1 is Trade Day) total attendance tops 60,000.
  • Over 300,000 pints of beer consumed (source CAMRA).
  • Over 1,000 staff run the event – every one a volunteer.

Besides the sheer physical size of the event the other elements of a typical beer festival are also present on a grand scale: the food offerings, the entertainment, the pub games and, of course, all the related craziness.

However at the end of the day GBBF is still, first and foremost, a beer festival. And like other multi-day festivals where we attended on the closing day, the starting beer selection was somewhat depleted. Nevertheless we still had more to choose from than we would had we attended Reading, Cambridge, etc. even on their first days. We found some excellent beers both British and foreign.

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Loser Pale Ale

Unfortunately the USA cask bar was dry before we arrived so we hit the bottle bar instead. After agonizing over a choice of American beers that would have rivaled Total Wine & More back in Bellevue, WA,  we settled on two old favorites from our time in Seattle. From Elysian Brewing, the first recipient of this blog’s Puget’s Perfect Pint award, a wonderful bottle of Loser Pale Ale was enjoyed by Mr Fueled by Beer.

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Obsidian Stout

Meanwhile Mrs Fueled by Beer was treated to a gorgeous Obsidian Stout from Deschutes Brewery across the Columbia River in Bend, Oregon. This bottle was lovingly poured by Jos Brouwer, who we chatted with about the American craft beer scene. Jos, who knows a thing or two about beer, came over from the Netherlands to volunteer at the GBBF and was looking forward to a trip to Portland, OR in the near future.

Over at the German bar Mr Fueled by Beer found something he had long been looking for: an authentic Düsseldorfer Altbier. The GBBF delivered spectacularly with an Alt from the oldest surviving brewer of the style, Düsseldorf’s Brauerei Schumacher, and it was served from cask.

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Schumacher Altbier – Best of Fest

Up until now all the Altbiers Mr Fueled by Beer has enjoyed came out of a keg. Simply put, the Schumacher cask conditioned Alt was amazing – without question the beer of the fest for Mr FBB. The Alt was malty, it was sweetly hoppy, and the mouthfeel was sooo silky smooth – there was no lingering bitterness in the finish.

The very best exponents of ESB, arguably Alt’s closest English style, are hard pressed to produce something this good. Fuller’s ESB, in peak condition, perhaps gets closest. Oh well, a road trip to Düsseldorf may need to be brought forward methinks.

A word about Altbier: before the invasion of Bohemian (Czech) lagers during the 19th century and their impact first on the Munich brewers, then the rest, most beer in Germany was brewed in the Alt (German for ‘old’) style making it a very close cousin to English ale.  Traditional Alt is ‘top-fermented’ at a higher temperature than lager then conditioned in the cask it will be served out of just like a traditional English ale. Lagers in contrast are ‘bottom-fermented’ at lower temperature then conditioned for an extended period in cold storage (or ‘lagered’ in German). After lagering the beer is transferred to a keg for serving.

Anyway, now back to the festival…

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Mrs FBB at the Wells & Young Brewery Bus

A feature of the GBBF – seen previously and much liked by us at Cambridge – was the brewery bars. Wells & Young’s drove their ‘beer bus’ to the GBBF and their bar featured a nice memorial to recently departed writer and comedian Rik Mayall.

While Mr & Mrs Fueled by Beer will always think of Rik as “Rick” from the early 80s TV sitcom “The Young Ones” many people remember Rik Mayall more recently from the brewery’s “Bang On!” TV ads for Bombardier Ale (watch him – he’s so funny).

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George Gale’s Horndean Special Bitter – HSB

Moving on, the Fuller’s bar put out a nice selection of their core ales plus a few specials. These included the 2014 limited release of Fuller’s Vintage Ale at 8.5 ABV but there was also Mr FBB’s personal favorite from Fuller’s – Horndean Special Bitter or “HSB” – so it was a no-brainer, a third of HSB it had to be.

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Hale’s Ales, Seattle

I have written before about this brew: when Mr FBB was but a wee lad HSB was the flagship brew of Horndean, Hampshire’s George Gale & Co. In 2005 Fuller’s acquired Gale’s and transferred brewing to the Griffin Brewery in London. Gale’s HSB is the brew so faithfully reproduced in Seattle by Mike Hale as Hale’s Special Bitter and of course appears today in the Hale’s Ales lineup also under the name “HSB”.

Other breweries that showcased their ales at the GBBF through their own dedicated bars included Greene King, Harveys, SIBA, Hogs Back, Shepherd Neame and St. Austell. None of these offered anything particularly compelling so we passed them by. Two brewers did however have something to tempt us so we partook of their wares: Welsh brewer SA Brain of Cardiff came up first.

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Taste of Wadworthshire beer garden

Mrs Fueled by Beer was rather taken with Brains Dark Mild, whose rich flavour and velvety mouthfeel did not betray its modest 3.5% ABV. The other brewer was our regional favourite – Wadworth – whose Fox & Hounds pub is so well liked by Mr & Mrs Fueled by Beer for its superb food and Wadworth ales.

At this year’s GBBF the Devizes brewery went all out, their first attendance in ten years. They not only stocked their own brewery bar with their impressive lineup of excellent ales but also provided the “Taste of Wadworthshire” beer garden, a large seating area right in the middle of the main hall.

This area alone provided more seating than everything Reading had and it was only one of several seating areas at the GBBF. For Mr Fueled by Beer it only seemed fit to settle down in Wadworthshire with a third of Swordfish. And it was also fit to raise a toast to our US Navy sons: Wadworth originally brewed Swordfish to commemorate 100 years of naval aviation. Swordfish is essentially Wadworth’s 6X Ale blended with Pusser’s Navy Rum, the rum produced in the British Virgin Islands that since 1665 has been issued to every Royal Navy sailor daily as their rum ration.

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Novel bar arrangement – breweries grouped by county

As the afternoon wore on and we explored the enormous expanse of Olympia, checking out the GBBF food stands, the CAMRA & Brewery merchandise shops, and the various games booths and entertainment on the main stage, the GBBF revealed thirteen more cask ale bars featuring British brewers. These were arranged alphabetically by county where the brewer is located.

This is an interesting approach compared to the usual CAMRA festival setup. Typically the breweries are arranged by name alphabetically so you wouldn’t normally see, for example, Binghams and Windsor & Eton; or Butts and Two Cocks situated near each other (stop your giggling – these last two are real breweries).

At the GBBF however they all appeared on the same bar because they are all Berkshire breweries. Anyway, by the end of the visit Mr & Mrs Fueled by Beer downed thirds of the following cask ales – our faves marked as usual by smiley faces:

Mr Fueled by Beer

  • Bristol Beer Factory, Bristol – Nova Golden Ale – 3.8% ABV
  • Cumbrian Legendary Ales, Cumbria – Grasmoor Dark Ale – 4.3% ABV
  • Elysian Brewing, Seattle, WA, USA – Loser American Pale Ale – 7.0% ABV 🙂
  • Felstar Brewery, Essex – Crix Forest Dark Mild – 4.0% ABV 🙂 🙂
  • Fuller’s Griffin Brewery, London – Gale’s HSB Special Bitter – 4.8% ABV
  • Goacher’s Ales, Kent – Crown Imperial Stout – 4.5% ABV
  • Brighton Bier Co, East Sussex – Kemptown Thirty Three Golden Ale – 3.3% ABV
  • Brauerei Schumacher, Dusseldorf, Germany – Altbier – 4.6% ABV 🙂 🙂 🙂
  • Two Roses Brewery, South Yorkshire – Full Nelson Pale Ale – 3.8% ABV
  • Wadworth & Co, Wiltshire – Swordfish Special Bitter – 5.0% ABV

Mrs Fueled by Beer

  • SA Brain Brewery, Cardiff, Wales – Dark Mild – 3.5% ABV
  • Bullmastiff Brewery, Cardiff, Wales – Welsh Black Stout – 4.8% ABV 🙂 🙂
  • Dartmoor Brewery, Devon – Legend Special Bitter – 4.4% ABV 🙂 🙂 🙂
  • Deschutes Brewery, Bend, OR, USA – Obsidian Stout 🙂

 

Final Conclusions

The Great British Beer Festival is a fantastic event, well worth attending even on its final day. Based on our experience it had all the best qualities of the other CAMRA festivals we have attended but without many of the downsides we occasionally encountered. Plus it was held indoors and its venue, Olympia, is so easily reachable by public transit. Olympia train station provides access to both the London Underground and Overground networks, and by extension the National Rail network. A perfect Fueled by Beer destination.

There is one issue however that Mr Fueled by Beer is becoming increasingly frustrated about: CAMRA’s outdated view of what a craft beer actually is. Nowhere is this more evident than at the GBBF.

While CAMRA stubbornly sticks to their original 1970s-era founding definition of ‘real ale’, British breweries are increasingly embracing the UK’s growing demand for craft beer in kegs and cans as well as traditional casks and bottles. Unless CAMRA can come to terms with these market realities they run the risk of becoming marginalized and possibly even rendered irrelevant. In my next post I will discuss this in much greater detail.

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