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.
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.
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.
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.
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/