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/

British general election 2015: political pint scoring

Britain goes to the polls tomorrow. The outcome of General Election 2015 will likely have an effect on the British beer industry, well, the entire alcohol industry. As a bit of a political anorak, I couldn’t help but scan each party’s manifesto to see what alcohol measures were being put forward. The following doesn’t include other business-friendly policies, such as commitments to reduce business rates, which would benefit the brewing industry.

Over the duration of this past parliament, an interesting shift has taken place in attitudes to the alcohol industry. This has been on the back of heavy lobbying by the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), the Society of Independent Brewers (SIBA), publicans, the industry directly and a few umbrella campaigns. Tax breaks for small breweries were improved. The infamous duty escalator was abolished and Budget 2015 marked the third year in a row of cuts to the beer tax. These cuts were small but symbolic. The lasting impact, however, of the duty escalator remains. Between 2008 and 2012, excise duty on beer increased by 42%, thanks to the British economy witnessing high inflation during those years. This is the big reason that pints have been topping £4 and above.

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Of course, alcohol is again being singled out as a key contributor to crime and violence. A number of measures are being put forward to tackle the anti-social behaviour. More support is being promised by the majority of parties to tackle the issue of alcohol dependency. These are the ‘old dependables’ in policy terms.

The introduction of minimum unit pricing (MUP) seems to be the flavour of the day. The rationale put forward is that it will help to curb alcohol-fuelled violence and reduce binge drinking etc.  Interestingly, the Conservative party remains silent on the issue. Back in 2013, the party ditched plans to introduce such a measure at the eleventh hour. Only UKIP remain vehemently opposed to MUP. While some are awaiting the outcome of the legal challenge to the Scottish case (Liberal Democrats), others go so far as to suggest prices to be charged per unit. This can range from 50p per unit on all alcohol (Plaid Cymru) to “40p per unit of beer and cider to 50p per unit of spirits” (Ulster Unionist Party).

Alcohol sponsorship of sport is also proving to be a hot topic. Yes, this may be more of an issue for macro-breweries but there are potential local issues involving regional and small breweries. While we may not see it in football, there are a number of county cricket teams that receive some sponsorship from their local breweries. This is not to say it doesn’t happen with rugby. The Green King IPA Championship aside, local clubs often look to their local breweries for support. The Tories, Labour and UKIP are campaigning to retain such sponsorship. The Lib Dems are silent on the issue but the Greens are against such sponsorship and are advocating a complete ban on “advertising (direct or indirect) and product placement on remuneration or reward”.

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Two parties are actively promoting ‘personal freedom’ policies but come at it from completely different angles. The Green Party wants to decriminalise cannabis because “people should not be criminalised for the recreational use of a drug which is no more harmful than alcohol or tobacco”. In fact, they want to regulate it in a similar manner to alcohol and they are pushing for tougher regulations on alcohol. On the other hand, UKIP wants to reverse the plain packaging legislation and to “amend the smoking ban to give pubs and clubs the choice to open smoking rooms provided they are properly ventilated and physically separated from non-smoking areas”.

This is not to say that policies won’t pop up in the next Parliament. Some may be harder to enact. Examples of such policies may be along the lines of UKIP’s one-time policy to ban long-term welfare recipients from buying alcohol and the Scottish National Party’s attempts to prohibit purchasing of alcohol online from English retailers. Other examples might include banning happy hours in Northern Ireland and the DUP proposal to explore the introduction of a rates levy on off licences and supermarkets that sell alcohol. The revenue generated by this “could be used for dealing with adverse impacts of alcohol abuse in society”. The Green Party wants to go so far as to increase the tax on the “net profits of tobacco companies and companies producing alcohol for consumption”. These proposed taxes would be in propoprtion to the amount of alcohol in the finished products.

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CAMRA have been running a visible campaign (www.ge2015.camra.org.uk) in the run-up to the general election, including stands at the main party conferences. They have received pledges from over 1,000 prospective MPs to “support well-run community pubs”, “promote Britain’s 1,300 breweries” and “represent pub goers and beer drinkers”. This includes letters from Ed Miliband and David Cameron.  “The Labour Party are leading the pack as most pub and beer friendly,” according to the real ale body, with pledges from 292 election candidates, “followed closely by the Green Party (264), with Liberal Democrats in third place (225), Conservatives in fourth (160), and UKIP bringing up the rear in fifth (118), although famously pro-pub UKIP leader Nigel Farage is among those pledging support”.

Food and drink have played a visible part in the general election campaign, from Ed Miliband bungling the eating of a bacon sandwich to the constant photos of Nigel Farage with a pint in hand. They’re easy props for photo ops, but they’re very presence may be significant. It’s reasonable to assume that the recent policy developments and new promises could indeed herald better times for Britain’s beer industry.

Of course, if a voter casts their ballot purely on the basis of what their MP might do for alcohol, their beer goggles might be on a little tight… But as a beer lover, I have to say, I’ve heard worse reasons for going out and voting.

Britannia brews with a little bit of help from the Irish

For St. Patrick’s Day, one may think it’s unusual to turn to the book Brew Britannia by Jessica Boak and Ray Bailey. Yes, it covers the recent history of British beer industry and it’s a thoroughly engrossing read as well. However, the book’s subtitle is the “strange rebirth of British beer” and there are plenty of Irish connections throughout.

Many people would have heard of Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA). This consumers’ movement has become a British institution in its own right. Few people may be aware that this organisation was conceived during a lad’s trip to Ireland back in March 1971. The idea for launching the “campaign” and early ideas for the acronym were discussed in and around St. James’ Gate. Eventually they settled on the Campaign for the Revitalisation of Ale. The inaugural meeting of CAMRA took place Kruger Kavanagh’s pub in Dunquin, Co. Kerry on 23 March 1971 “probably”. While the four holidaymakers were already concerned with the state of British beer, apparently Smithwick’s “offered a nightmarish vision of what might to come to pass back home”. Although apparently the lads were also concerned by the lack of Indian restaurants in Ireland at the time and it is possible that if the beer was better, they might have gone and founded the Campaign for Indian Restaurants instead.

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The revival of brewing in London has a significantly Irish tinge to it. People may be familiar with Evin O’Riordain who founded The Kernel Brewery and has been part of the revived interest in the more American-inspired offerings. However, the capital’s brewing revival can be traced back to Patrick Fitzpatrick, a son of Irish publicans who operated pubs in London and Dublin. In 1977, Fitzpatrick was to open Godson’s Brewery, with the name borrowed from his hop merchant. Perhaps it was canny business sense not to use a distinctly Irish name back in the late 1970s Britain. He made a point of brewing naturally and stating that he used no added sugar or adjuncts. By 1980, his beers were available in Amsterdam but “before long, everything that could go wrong for Fitzpatrick did”.

Evin O'Riordain's The Kernel Brewery in Bermondsey has become a mecca for fans
Evin O’Riordain’s The Kernel Brewery in Bermondsey has become a mecca for fans

There’s a great section on the “pioneering” Belfast-native Brendan Dobbin. Rejected for a Guinness job, the Heriot-Watt educated brewer gained experience at Ringwood Brewery before moving to the new Antrim-based start-up Hilden Brewery in 1982. He firmly holds the view that he was the first microbrewer in Britain and Ireland to make lager. After a short stint with Hilden, Dobbin headed off to the US to discover new beer styles. Arriving too late for a brewing job, he worked with Campbell’s soup of all places. Nevertheless, he developed a knowledge of west coast hops, particularly Cascade and was to take this to Britain when he moved back in 1985. First, working back at Ringwood and then to opening his own brewery and pub in Manchester. The West Coast Brewery was located in the King’s Arms Hotel in a fairly rough area that bordered the Moss Side.

By the time Dobbin had opened the pub and brewery, he had already been experimenting for years with new world hops from as far away as New Zealand. This was cutting-edge stuff. He also had a knack for making clones. His clone for Sierra Nevada Pale Ale won prizes and the silver it took at the 1989 Great British Beer Festival brought Dobbin’s work to the attention (for the wrong reasons) of Ken Grossman and his Chico-based company. Dobbin renamed his beer Yakima Grande Pale Ale. While noted for his use of new and innovative hop varieties, Dobbin was “scornful” of ‘hop heads’ because “hops aren’t the only flavour in beer…So, no hops aren’t everything”.

The ex-King's Arms source: Gazza Prescott  http://hopcraftbrewing.blogspot.ie/2013_10_01_archive.html
The ex-King’s Arms source: Gazza Prescott http://hopcraftbrewing.blogspot.ie/2013_10_01_archive.html

By 1995, Dobbin decided he had enough of running the brewery and operating the pub in pre-urban regeneration and a little to mad for ‘Madchester’. He shut the brewery down and then focused for a while on installing brew-kits for the Firkin chain of brewpubs. He also consulted in Ireland for Clare’s Biddy Early Brewery as well as brewpubs Messrs Maguires and the Porterhouse in Temple Bar. One slight omission in this book is the role that the Porterhouse played in the London beer scene. When it opened in Covent Garden back in 2000, it was only the second specialist beer pub after Mark Dorber’s phenomenal White Horse (learnt from the book that the pub had an unwelcome nickname, “The Sloany Pony”)in Parson’s Green. Dobbin can be found down in Bandon, Co Cork as a quasi-hermit/banana grower. He recently was involved in installing the kit into yet another brewpub, this time for the Cotton Ball in Mayfield in Cork.

Great British Menu judge Oliver Peyton, popularly known for having “his face permanently contorted into a look of disgust and boredom”, makes an interesting appearance in the book. Mayo-born and Sligo-schooled Peyton became a beer importer in Britain during the 1980s and even held the exclusive UK rights for Sapparo. Before becoming a restauranteur, he also operated a number of clubs around London.

Oliver Peyton in front of the fermenters at Mash, Great Portland Street, London (1999) Source: National Portrait Gallery
Oliver Peyton in front of the fermenters at Mash, Great Portland Street, London (1999) Source: National Portrait Gallery

In 1996 he opened Mash and Air in Manchester, a venture that combined two different dining experiences and a microbrewery. He hired Alistair Hook, who would go and found Meantime Brewery, as head brewer. Lunch menus while pricey had a brewery tour and beer tasting thrown-in. Apparently the high prices “alienated more traditional beer enthusiasts” as did the did the styles brewed. According to Peyton, they were “nothing like the kind of one-dimensional British beers there were then”. This gastro-brewery concept was once thought to have the potential to expand like Belgo (remember that?) but it stopped at two locations. The Manchester operation ceased trading in 2000 and while the Great Portland Street restaurant is still going, Peyton’s no longer involved and brewing halted in 2007. However, the book hints that we may not have seen the last of his involvement in the beer scene and he may make a return as part of his burgeoning culinary empire.

It would be hard to write a book about British brewing today without mentioning Fergus Fitzgerald from Limerick, who’s head brewer at Adnams. He pops up in the book during a section on the uneasy relationship between ‘real ale’ and ‘craft beer’. Adnams are long noted for real ale but have been taking on-board (they love their nautical references) some trends some may commonly associate with the ‘craft beer’ camp but they ignore the fact that breweries like Adnams were craft before craft. On their Innovation brand, he says: “Fair enough, it’s been ‘pimpled’ now, and has more horsepower, some shine new banners and has been fitted with a ‘banging’ sound system so you can hear it coming, but it’s still the same wagon”.

Limerick-native Fergus Fitzgerald is the Head Brewer of Adnams Source: Adnams
Limerick-native Fergus Fitzgerald is the Head Brewer of Adnams Source: Adnams

This book traces the revival of British beer from the early days of tie-wearing members of the Society for Preservation of Beers from the Wood to CAMRA to the rise of pubcos and Thatcher’s de-regulation of the pub industry. It takes in the faces and places of breweries started in the last forty years, including those counter-revolutionaries to real ale. At each step, there’s seems to be an Irish hand. There could be more as this book is peppered with names such as Sean Franklin, James Lynch, Roger McBride etc. It’s possible they have Irish roots too. Dave Bailey also gets a mention and he practically deserves a passport for the number of appearances he’s made at Irish festivals and Hardknott’s collaboration with Waterford’s Metalman Brewery.

Ultimately, it’s an enjoyable read and is written in a style that makes you feel part of the journey. It’s a skill that many history writers lack. You can also check out their musings on their blog: http://boakandbailey.com/