Top tips for enjoying the Great British Beer Festival

Beer festivals are fantastic for discovering new beers and breweries. The Great British Beer Festival kicks off today and I’ve put together the following advice based on experience of attending the festival this week.

Develop a plan of attack: The GBBF is big and spread out. The festival bars are manned by enthusiastic volunteers but some of the larger breweries like Fuller’s, Brain’s, St. Austell and Shepherd Neame have their own stands. The beers are grouped by region not alphabetically. The official festival website has a beer finder tool (http://gbbf.org.uk/beers/beerfinder) but also don’t forget that the festival programme is a worthwhile investment.

Don’t ask, don’t learn: Confused about beer, don’t know what a IPA is or what hops do? Ask. Beer festivals aren’t just for beer nerds like me (don’t worry there’ll be plenty of us at the festival) and don’t feel intimidated by other people asking fairly intense questions. Feel free to tell people behind the bars what styles you like and let them suggest beers to try, although this may be harder to do when it’s busy. Also, why not consider booking a place or two on one the tutored tastings running throughout the festival.

Great British Beer Festival - One of the largest out there
Great British Beer Festival – One of the largest out there

Leave the darker, heavier beers to last: A simple Belgian rule is starting with the lighter beers first and move in ascending order of alcohol strength before moving gradually darker. It’s basically about intensity of flavour, try a hoppy beer before a lager for example and you may not be able to detect little else but carbonated water. Obviously there are exceptions to the rule – lambics, anyone?

Sample before you buy: Festivals are a time to discover something new as well as reacquainting yourself with old friends. Don’t be afraid to ask before you buy. It’s a great way of getting to learn about different styles and tick off a number of the beers at a festival, although be considerate and try not to abuse this. Also, remember the beers are served in three measures (third, half or pint) and priced accordingly so there’s plenty of time to sample without breaking the bank.

Timothy Taylor's Boltmaker, the 2014 Supreme Champion of Britain
Timothy Taylor’s Boltmaker, the 2014 Supreme Champion of Britain

Try a winning beer: This is not just a beer festival it’s also the British Open of beers. On the opening day of the festival, the Supreme Champion in CAMRA’s Champion Beer of Beer competition and the category winners will be announced. Their pump-clips will indicate the prize they’ve won. Expect some of these beers to run dry quite quickly as brewers may be caught by surprise by not having enough kegs at the festival or others will be put on at special times throughout the festival and served in limited quantities.

It’s not just British beers: The international bars at the festival have beers from all over the world. Many a beer aficionado can be found crowded around them looking to try beers from Europe and beyond. Some are served on cask, some draught and others may require you to purchase the bottle or can. Also, remember some of these can be purchased to enjoy at home. If you don’t want to carry them about, there’s a cloakroom at the festival for storage but might be worth bringing your own bag to put them in.

Get out there and try the British and international beers at the festival
Get out there and try the British and international beers at the festival

Take notes: This can be as simple as noting down the beers you like, you can quickly forget otherwise. I’ll leave it up to you how best to record what you tried, some guides have notes sections under the beers or others can be simply recorded on the back of beer mats etc (I use my iPhone for instance). However, I must warn you that this can quickly become addictive and and you could be in danger of becoming a “beer ticker” like the rest of us.

Take to social media: Festivals can feature limited runs or rotating taps of beers that you might want to try. Also, some beers may be even more popular than expected and run out early. Twitter can be a great way of finding up to the minute information on latest developments, so get learning the hashtag for the festival (#gbbf2015). If you like a beer or brewery, take a photo and tell the world. Following a brewery that you like is a great way of finding out if they’re coming to an outlet near you.

Take to social media to share your views on the beers you try but also to keep track of what's pouring
Take to social media to share your views on the beers you try but also to keep track of what’s pouring

Food: Beer and food matching is a real thing. Check out if they’re food stands and use it as an opportunity to try first hand what styles of beers go with particular foods. Who knows you might be doing the food vendor a favour!

Don’t forget to drink water: This is my version of the “Surgeon General’s Warning”, you can easily pass more than a couple of hours at a beer festival, so hydration will be an issue (especially as the venue heats up) as it is with drinking in general but it also helps cleanse the palate and will assist you moving from beer to beer and appreciating each one on their merits.

 

The Great British Beer Festival is organised by the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) and offers visitors the chance to explore over 900 real ales, ciders, perries and international beers. It runs from 11 – 15 August. Tickets can be purchased online or at the door. For more information, including opening times visit http://gbbf.org.uk/

A bitter finish to summer with an India(napolis) Pale Ale

It’s August. Where has this summer gone? Never mind the weather, it’s hard to believe the new football season is already upon us and the Rugby World Cup will kick off next month. The summer season is when I like to catch up with other sports such as cricket. Having dropped the sports package on the TV, I came across a half-season pass t the baseball, which reminded me of an appropriate beer that I recently tried.

Half Cycle is an IPA out of Indianapolis by Flat 12 Bierwerks. It’s billed as a cross-between a regular ol’ IPA and a double IPA. It’s named after a baseball term when a batter hits a single and a double in the same game. At 6% abv and weighing in at a reported 104.1 IBUs, this beer is in keeping with the baseball theme of being a big hitter. I’d have thought Indiana would be more interested in football, basketball and motor-racing than America’s favourite pastime.

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The beer pours a yellowish-gold colour. It’s topped by big, frothy head, the kind you get in a coffeehouse when you need a good five minutes to find your coffee through all that foam. The aroma has melon, pineapple and other tropical fruits in abundance. Pithy grapefruit dominates the flavour. However, the body is extremely sticky and the sweetness gives it almost jelly-like characteristics. You may find yourself reaching for a spoon, purely by instinct.

It's like the Porterhouse's "Brewed by Men, not Machines" but it could become a negative for female drinkers
It’s like the Porterhouse’s “Brewed by Men, not Machines” but it could become a negative for female drinkers

There’s plenty of bitterness in the finish, which pairs nicely with this time of the year when you realise that the summer’s almost over (and the baseball too). It’s a decent beer and the tall, narrow cans would come in handy for sneaking them into sports venues over here.They should probably drop “this stuff is made by guys” from their cans at some point in the future, however. It may become too much of a distraction as the brewery grows. I will look to check out more of Flat 12’s beer range at some point in the future.

Orders please: the Westminster Barliament is open

Wow, what an election that proved to be over there in Britain.  I had an eerie feeling that it could prove to be ’92 all over again for Labour.  In certain areas it was even worse. While they retain control of every former mining area, they ‘lost’ Scotland. The SNP, the real surprising force, now occupies the third party spot, previously held by the Liberal Democrats in Westminster.  And with 56 out of a total of 59 seats, they are the undisputed party of Scotland.  Whereas UKIP and the Green Party received 15% of the popular vote, they only managed one MP each.  In an election full of surprises, few expected the Conservatives to win an outright majority. However, this could prove to be a pyrrhic victory. Without the Lib Dem crutch, they could find themselves at the mercy of their Eurosceptic wing.

Two pints for two-terms as Prime Minister - David Cameron returns with a single party government
Two pints for two-terms as Prime Minister – David Cameron returns with a single party government

Last month, I featured a piece on what the election could do for beer (British general election 2015: political pint scoring).  Now in its aftermath it is time to look at what is likely to happen.  The Queen’s Speech to parliament contained few bills that would have direct impact on the British beer industry. This is hardly surprising, as the Tories wish to remain silent on the issue of Minimum Unit Pricing, for the time being at least. It could be back on the agenda pending the outcome of the legal challenge to the Scottish equivalent.

Harriet Harman is acting leader of the Opposition and of the Labour Party. She is pictured alongside Lib Dem Danny Alexander, former Chief Secretary to the Treasury and one of the big names to lose
Harriet Harman is acting leader of the Opposition and of the Labour Party. She is pictured alongside Lib Dem Danny Alexander, former Chief Secretary to the Treasury and one of the big names to lose

In a move that will boost consumer demand generally but will spill over to beer, the Treasury will not increase income tax rates, VAT and national insurance before 2020 at the earliest (i.e. not before the next general election, providing it goes full-term). What is unknown is whether George Osbourne will reduce excise duty for a fourth consecutive time. There is a second 2015 budget scheduled for July 8. But this emergency budget is likely to focus on measures to reduce the deficit. We may have to wait until Budget 2016 before seeing any additional moves on excise.  Britain needs to address the legacy of the duty escalator, which caused excise to increase by 42% between 2008 and 2012.

Back as Chancellor, will George Osborne continue work to reverse the "beer tax"?
Back as Chancellor, will George Osborne continue work to reverse the “beer tax”?

The British political scene is marked by “buzzword” overkill.  This could be observed when the British monarch confirmed that her government will be doing the hokey cokey on the Brussels dancefloor in the lead up to an “in-out referendum” to be held by the end of 2017. Speculation is mounting that it is likely to be held sometime in the autumn of next year. Cameron won’t want this issue to completely dominate the national agenda and the longer it drags on, the less stable his government could be. The deal he will seek to do with Brussels will focus primarily on regulatory issues and possible opt-outs. These discussions and the subsequent referendum may attract a negative sentiment towards British imports across the EU, but this is likely to be over-stated.  What is likely to happen is that more sectors of the British economy will publicly acknowledge the importance of the EU for their business. The brewing industry could well be one of them. While its practitioners may not agree with all aspects of labelling regulation, a move on the origins, ingredients and ownership issues would be supported by the likes of the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA). So too would dealing with certain issues as part of the EU-US trade deal, the Trans-Atlantic Investment Partnership.

Nigel Farage of UKIP and "pint-op" fame lost his election bid and can look forward to more beers in Brussels and Strasbourg
Nigel Farage of UKIP and “pint-op” fame lost his election bid. He can look forward to more beers in Brussels and Strasbourg

A new Enterprise Bill will be introduced to Parliament with the objective of cutting £10bn worth of red tape. We can expect to see plenty of bizarre regulations appearing over the coming months to illustrate the types of reforms that will be introduced, such as the removal of fines for “No Smoking” signs being the wrong size or in the wrong font. The main beneficiaries of this bill will be small businesses, which includes virtually all breweries in Britain. Business rates are to be reformed and a Small Business Conciliation Service will be introduced. This will be a low-cost mechanism for solving disputes (e.g. payments) and could bring benefits to the supply-chain dependent industry that is brewing. Energy costs are also likely to be addressed but as part of a separate bill.

Devolution is back on the agenda, with added powers promised for Scotland and Wales.  Expect to hear a lot about “metro regions” and the “northern powerhouse” (buzzword overkill?) as regional administration is reformed and new directly-elected mayors introduced. Pub goers can expect more integrated public transport across cities and not just London, apparently. Holyrood has recently agreed to commission a study into the tied-pub sector in Scotland to provide evidence on what changes need to occur. However, it remains to be seen whether any changes can be introduced ahead of next year’s Scottish parliamentary elections.

New MPs can look forward to enjoying one of eight bars in Westminster
New MPs can look forward to enjoying one of eight bars in Westminster

CAMRA ran an effective campaign in the run-up to the general election and sought pledges from candidates to “support well-run community pubs”, “promote Britain’s 1,300 breweries” and “represent pub goers and beer drinkers”. Over 10,000 of its members contacted their local candidates to support these issues. The organisation received pledges from 1,162 candidates, of whom 211 were returned to Parliament. This means 32.5% of the MPs in Westminster have committed to supporting the beer industry. As the table below shows, this support is spread right across the board, with less than a third of the ruling Conservative Party pledging their commitment to beer. Oddly, UKIP’s sole MP, Douglas Carswell didn’t sign up to the campaign. This is in spite of UKIP incorporating these priorities in its manifesto, along with other issues close to CAMRA’s heart. Perhaps he had enough of Nigel Farage’s endless “pint-ops” for Britain?

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But it’s early days and naturally it’s difficult to predict with any great certainty what the political landscape will look like next year let alone in five years’ time. What will happen to the likes of Nigel Farage? Will he finally be allowed to resign as UKIP’s leader? Obviously, alcohol will continue to be linked to health and crime policies by all parties. Regardless, I think “pint-ops” will be here to stay and the All-Party Parliamentary Beer Group will have some new faces.

Irish Beer & Whiskey Fest

The Irish Beer & Whiskey Fest kicked off yesterday and for five days I’ll be referring to the RDS as a second home. It would be rude not to when it’s taking place practically around the corner.

Even beer festivals cannot escape the Global Greening initiative
Even beer festivals cannot escape the Global Greening initiative

This festival marks the evolution of the Irish beer festival that took place around St Patrick’s Day in the IFSC over the past few years. However, those festivals were more of a large craft beer bar where breweries sent kegs rather than be present themselves.

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It’s by the organisers of the excellent Irish Craft Beer and Cider festival that takes in the RDS every September. This time it takes place in the Main Hall, a space that’s considerably bigger than the Industries Hall. The Main Hall may bring back memories for some of participating in the Young Scientist Exhibition (even as far back as when Aer Lingus used to sponsor it).

Whiskey always had a place in the September edition but it has gained more prominent billing for this festival. 7 cider makers are also represented and the food offering is the biggest yet.

19 breweries are present. Yes, this is a drop in the number of stands when compared to the last two editions of September festival. However, it’s been a fairly packed calendar for beer events of late with the Alltech Craft Brews & Food just a fortnight ago. Brewers have had to choose what festivals to focus on, how much beer to have on hand to attend them etc. Don’t worry there’s plenty of good beer to be had at the festival.

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Some to look out for include Mountain Man’s Sneaky Owl; Searbh Rua (Imperial Sour Red) and Coffee Rocket by White Hag; Enigma and Polar Vortex from Eight Degrees; and Buck It by Black Donkey. There’s cask beers on offer too so be on the look out for O’Hara’s Leann Follain and three from Station Works (stout, blonde & brown). These are of course those that I tried on day 1 of the festival. There’s plenty of good beer on offer from Trouble Brewing, Independent Brewing, Alltech Lexington Brewing, Rye River (also pouring Innis & Gunn and Coisbo), Porterhouse, Franciscan Well, Rising Sons, O’Brother Brewing, White Gypsy, Wicklow Brewing and Wicklow Wolf.

So far it’s shaping up to be a great festival. The new hall has given it a more spacious feeling, somewhat reminiscent of the early years of the September’s festival. It’s €2.50 for a half pint though above 7% beers are served in thirds. Some stands will give you a pint but not in the official festival glass. If you want a pint, you’ll have to make do with plastic.

Hopefully you get the opportunity to drop in in this festival.

A project to catch drinkers on the hop

Guinness is at it again. Following up on last September’s kickoff, hitting Irish outlets in October, a new beer has been released as part of the Brewers Project. The new beer’s a departure from the porter and stout category. They’ve even leaped outside completely.

Hop House 13 is a lager. I have heard plenty of chatter on how the brewer doesn’t like such beers but persevered for the sake of making a decent but different take on the style. At 4.1%, the folk in St. James’ Gate are attempting to compete in the lager category against old and new offerings by other macro breweries and even those they brew under licence. It’s certainly priced that way. If it eats into craft beer sales (if being sold in the same pub), I’m sure they’ll take that too.

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To cover all bases, not only is this aimed at the lager drinker it also is trying to cash in on the “cool” drinker. The one who may want to appear fashionable because he or she has heard of something called “hop”. To make it even easier and perhaps a more attractive proposition Guinness has gone and put it smack bang into the name of the beer. This is the “Fr Trendy” of beers.

Hop House 13 pours a clear golden colour. So a big tick for that. Little perceptible hop aroma. There’s citrus and apricot in tasting so I’m told. I got the subtle citrus flavours but it had more of a red berry than apricot taste for me. However, I tried this after judging a beer competition and my palate was fairly shot.

I have tried this beer on two separate occasions. It could prove popular as the weather gets better. Already countless “sure there’s a grand stretch in the evening” comments can be heard. It could pass muster for fans of summer ale as there’s a teaspoon of bitterness in the beer. It’s a little thin and watery but overall not a bad attempt.

The “crafty” Brewers Project appears to be picking up momentum. Hop House 13 will be featuring in bars across the island but not in all of them. It’ll be a similar rollout to Dublin Porter. The Brewers Project is clearly becoming a brand, label (or call it what you will) in its own right.

I’m just waiting for the day when I might overhear a drinker remark that “13” refers to the types of hops in the beer. For the record, there’s only three: mosaic, topaz and galaxy.

You could have worse beers than this but you could certainly have better. This is where it fits in. Could be better, could be worse.