The Great British Beer Festival – a test of enjoyable endurance

August marks the annual pilgrimage to London for fans of real ale. The Great British Beer Festival (or GBBF to its friends) now in its 36th year features over 800 real ales. This was my second experience of the festival after having combined it with tickets to Katie Taylor’s gold medal winning fight at London 2012. It was most certainly a great way of continuing the celebrations. In 2013, the festival was once more held at the Olympia in Kensington, having returned here the previous year because Earls Court was being used for Olympic events. Accompanied by Cillian on this occasion, it was to be his first experience of the GBBF.

The Great British Beer Festival is a mecca for real ale lovers and is the annual pilgrimage for CAMRA members. Over 55,000 patrons were expected through the doors of what is effectively Britain’s largest pub (for the guts of a week at least). The attendee numbers are testament to both the work of CAMRA in promoting the popularity of real ale as well as the general growing interest in different beers across all walks of life. However, attending the festival one is reminded just how strong the stereotype of the real ale drinker is. Bearded and sandal-wearing, these attendees can be spotted as far away as Earls Court station and grow in numbers the nearer you get to the venue. Some are dressed accordingly for the festival and wouldn’t be out of place on safari, complete with tasting glass tied to clothing. Think plenty of beards coupled with sandals and I haven’t even gotten to hat day (oh yes Festival Thursday is Hat Day).

It is not a comfortable festival and requires a fair bit of stamina. Given the sheer vast range of beers on offer, it was hard not to imbibe on all the strong and rare beers on offer early on. Also, the lower strength ales quickly begin to blend into one another. To get around and taste as many while still staying fairly upright, ordering thirds was the name of the day (because often you ended up getting a half for the same price). Thirds tended to be the selected measure that the rarer of award winning beers were served in.  However, at times half or full pints were ordered on favoured beers. For those who haven’t been, Pete Brown has put together a survival guide for the festival which gives a flavour of what attendees face. I even came across a few regular attendees that have deck chairs and provisions in tow. These are the particularly hardcore element that are settling in for the week because season tickets can be purchased.

There is of course a serious competitive element to the festival with a handful of beers in line for the coveted Supreme Champion Beer of Britain, an accolade that can change the fortunes for successful breweries Think of Timothy Taylor Landlord, the winning-est beer in Britain having scooped the title on no less than four occasions. Success for a particular beer style will also see many other breweries try to emulate the victor. There was a noticeable increase in barley wines on foot of Coniston’s victory last year with No. 9 Barley Wine (coincidentally the blend contains Bluebird Bitter, which won in 1998).

The announcement of the champion beer of Britain takes place on the afternoon of the first day of the festival. A large crowd gathers around the main stage and Roger Protz runs through the category winners before moving on to the overall winner. A succession of cheers takes place as each medal is announced. Most of the gathered audience seem to be just happy to have either tried the beers or failing that having heard of them, whereas others support particular breweries/beers like their local football team. The best description of the whole ceremony was provided by Cillian who summed it up as all “very British”. One of those phrases that no one can define but understand what it means.

Elland 1872 reigns supreme

This year Elland 1872 Porter from West Yorkshire took home the prize. As soon as it was announced, a number of regular attendees soured the festival programme and made a beeline for the bar that was serving it. I had a feeling that this was going to be the year for stouts. Besides the competition winner, those that I particularly enjoyed were Ascot Anastasia’s Exile Stout, London Fields Porter and of course Courage Imperial Russian Stout is brewed by Wells & Young’s in Bedfordshire.

Besides porters and stouts, there was of course the opportunity to indulge one’s moreish side by availing of a range of strong ales on cask. Particularly enjoyed were Hogs Back A over T and one of the much publicised pre-festival ales, Fullers Vintage 2013. I have a soft sport for Fullers’ beers and more than a few ESBs, 1845 and Old Burton Extra were consumed during this trip to London.

It is of course interesting to see real ale brewers tackle new world hop bitterness and aroma with the traditional sessionability that British brewers do so well. Beers tried included Goose Eye Chinook Blonde, Harvey’s Armada Ale, Tydd Steam Golden Kiwi, Thwaites 13 Guns, Redemption Hopspur and Oakleaf Nelsons Oak. The Citra© hop is very much in vogue and we can expect more and more brewers to be using this hop in English ales over the coming year. Two excellent variations were Durham Citra Nova (which will make @TheBeermack happy) and Pictish Citra. However, through tasting enjoyment was found in the excellent Moor Revival (on cask and certainly not at the price that we have to pay for a bottle in Ireland) and St Austell’s Big Job, the new brawnier brother of Proper Job and more likely to be found in bottle form in the future.

This year, the international beers featured prominently. It was hard to keep ones self-discipline and not to over-indulge on the foreign beers that all tended to weigh in at higher strengths than their British counterparts. Also, the prices at these bars show the increase in excise duties in the UK that has taken place over the last number of years. Beers that I allowed myself to consume include two different Dutch beers Joppen Mooie IPA, De Molen Rye IPA, one from the US in the form Allagash Brewing’s Confluence from Maine and a Belgian saison from De Ranke. The international bars proved extremely popular amongst patrons and the largest queues were found at them. This didn’t go down well with the more traditional real ale attendees and even with the organisers based on the number of pleas on twitter over the course of the event asking people not to just frequent the international bars. Perhaps they had a point because after-all the festival was to promote the real ale in Britain.

Author and Cillian clearly enoying the festivities

All in all, the festival is firmly on my annual to-do list and I think it’s now on Cillian’s as well. It was definitely worth going earlier in the week because it was slightly more relaxed. However, I fear I may have over dosed on scotch eggs during the festival and will have to get in better shape for next year. This is definitely a festival that one shouldn’t miss.

Brewing up new businesses

With the International Craft Beer and Brewing Convention being held last month in Dublin, there’s no more appropriate time to talk about beer entrepreneurship. The Convention was the brainchild of Dundalk-native and now resident of Lexington, Kentucky Dr. Pearse Lyons.

Entrepreneurship and people who created their own businesses has always been an interest of mine and it was a natural fit to mix in beer as the dynamism in the explosion of microbreweries really embodies the spirit of entrepreneurs everywhere – combining a passion for their craft together with a sense of collective togetherness and striving for success against big beer’s marketing muscle. I first heard about Pearse Lyons in Brian Yaeger’s book Red, White and Brew. It’s amazing but in Ireland we don’t really celebrate our successful entrepreneurs. Perhaps this is down to our character or perhaps down to the fact that we have so many multinationals in this country but we undervalue the role that the likes of Naughton, Quinn, Smurfit, Ryan and co have played in Irish life.

In 1980 Lyons founded of Alltech, a global leader animal health product through its innovative use of yeast fermentation, enzyme technology, algae and nutrigenomics. Over that time he has not shied away from constant innovation and a drive to create new business. As such, he returned to his brewing routes to create Lexington Brewing and Distilling Co. which consists of brewery (four beers – Bourbon Barrel Ale, Kolsch, Pale Ale and a Bourbon Barrel Stout with coffee) as well as the Town Branch Distillery. He also found the time to have business interests in beef, coffee and a golf course.

It was with that spirit that Dr. Lyons brought the convention to Dublin. While it remains to be seen if the convention inspired many to just go and do it, their was definitely a sense that many more breweries will be popping up all over the country. Over the course of two days, delegates heard about issues in brewing and distilling, whether you were experienced in the trade or were dreaming of starting your own operation. What was particularly poignant was that an enterprise day was held as an individual track because let’s face it Ireland needs to do more in terms of new business start-ups.

Pearse Lyons sharing his words of wisdom

A lot of attention in the discourse in Irish craft brewing has been placed on the 2005 tax break for brewing as a key driver of growth in the sector. Indeed it it had been in place in the 1990s, perhaps the initial wave of new breweries might have had a few more survivors. However, some of the other framework  conditions for encouraging entrepreneurship also played a part such as the Business Expansion Scheme. It would be fantastic if the Enterprise Incentive and Investment Scheme will encourage new investment in the sector. It is unlikely that start-up or expanding companies will attract venture capital or angel investment (a lot of negative experiences from investing in US breweries during the mid-90s). Brewers continue to turn towards informal networks such as family and friends for investment. Thankfully the rise of crowd funding is proving to be an additional source of funding. This is all without discussing the issue of access to credit, which is a subject for another day.

Bord Bia and Enterprise Ireland have important roles to play. While start-up breweries can turn to the city and country enterprise boards, more can be done by the agencies to support the actor as a whole. While many breweries are too small at present for many of the direct support schemes operated by Enterprise Ireland, the agency should be encouraged to take a cluster approach to the sector to promote growth and exports, which ultimately will lead to job creation. Brewing is no different to other sectors  in that sustainable growth needs to come through exporting. Perhaps the agencies can fund not only marketing initiatives and market entry support but also provide support to share export costs and minimising potential risks. This is not to say that Irish independent beers cannot be found in overseas markets but as the number of breweries grow, pressures on the existing channels in Ireland will increase.

Oliver Hughes from the Porterhouse sharing his insights on creating a profitable bar business through craft

Hopefully Budget 2014 does not bring any additional problems to Irish micro-breweries. Increases in excise duties as well as VAT in recent budgets were unwelcome but alcohol has been seen as a soft target by successive governments. The jury is still out on minimum pricing and it’s impact on craft beer. It is too simplistic to see it as just affecting cheap beer and the like. One of the particularly unwelcome proposals being out forward on behalf of publicans is the “lid” tax, a surcharge on off-sales. This is the latest in a long line of attacks on the off-licence trade in Ireland. If this measure is introduced it could significantly impact on the price and choice of craft beers by bringing them closer in line with the price of the pint. Such a strategy could discourage off-licences to take  chance on new or unknown beers or even cause a few establishments to shit outright.  pro-pub strategy is similar in line with the approach taken by the music industry in the face of online file sharing. They ignored the need to innovate at their peril. People cons be enticed back into pubs and a number of them have bucked the trend during this recession and can provide useful lessons. They have to acknowledge that people’s tastes have changed. Also, we are in the middle of yet another baby boom and as such people are staying at home, and I haven’t evenstarted on the impact of tougher drink-driving rules etc. Two definite area pubs need to improve on is their food and of course their beer selection. Look to the success of the Cottage Group, the Porterhouse and other specialist bars for showing that choice can safely coexist with success. I wonder if any new pub being established today does not offer a craft beer or two?

Ireland it on the right track in terms of the number of breweries being established. We need to ensure that the right environment is in place to help them survive and thrive. This will complement the passion of all those breweries who are also entrepreneurs.