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/

Top tips for enjoying a beer festival

Beer festivals are fantastic for discovering new beers and breweries. I’ve put together the following advice based on experience of attending festivals.

  1. Develop a plan of attack: Festivals can vary in their size and approach, some may be banks of taps manned by enthusiastic volunteers or others may be stands with the brewers themselves, either way there could be 100s of different beers that could be sampled. Have a look at the festival guide and get a sense of the breweries present and the types of beers on offer and target breweries that you want to try or particular styles that you may like.
  2. 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. Brewers are more than happy to talk to you because they want to win you over and gain new customers. Feel free to tell them what styles you like and let them suggest beers to try. You might like them and when the festival returns, you might be the one asking those tricky questions
  3. 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?
  4. Sample before you buy: Festivals are a time to discover something new as well as reacquainting yourself with old friends. It’s not in the breweries interest if the only beer you try from them is not for you (they may have plenty of other that do) so don’t be afraid to ask before you buy. It’s also a great way of getting to learn about different styles and tick off a number of the beers at a festival.
  5. 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.
  6. Talk to the brewers: Get to know their story, their inspiration and where the beer comes from, it can give you an added appreciation of the beer in your glass. Who says that wine can be the only one with terroir!
  7. Visit breweries making their festival debut: New breweries are popping all over the place. Festivals are often the first time outside select venues or localities that the general public get to sample them. Stop by and see them and give them some encouragement. It’s a good feeling when you see a start-up brewery that you first met at a festival starts becoming available over the months in off licences and bars. It gives you a sense of belonging to a movement.
  8. 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. 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.
  9. 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!
  10. Look for water stations: 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.
  11. Go to more festivals: It’s like when your holiday’s over, the advice is to start planning for the next one. It’s the same with beer festivals and there’s plenty of them out there and can be a great idea for planning a weekend break away or getting a gang of friends to come to the next one. They’re in the large part fairly chilled affairs and enjoyable experiences, you’ll be hooked. Check out sites like www.beoir.org for a list of festivals upcoming in Ireland (the next one is never that far away).

 

Festival goers taking advantage of the weather at the Irish Craft Beer and Cider Festival


Beer festivals are a great place to try beers from exciting places, in this case Revolution IPA from Spain’s Molta Birra brewery

 

Great British Beer Festival – One of the largest out there


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.