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.

Music to my beers

There are few things in life that are impervious to fashion trends and beer isn’t one of them. We’re seeing more and more trends emerge beyond merely hopping beers to the nth degree and seasonal brews. This year for instance we were promised more single hop beers and wet/green hop beers on the market, as well as more Belgian-inspired beers from the US. Let us not forget the increasing range of beers that have been aged in whiskey, wine, cognac and virgin-oak barrels. However, one trend has been emanating from England and that has to be collaboration brews with musicians. Not content with brewing beers conceived by a myriad of writers and reviewers ranging from Roger Protz to Pete Brown and many more in between, breweries have latched on to this idea to reach out to new audiences as well as trying to achieve some sort of “coolness” factor.

Robinsons in Stockport has really kicked off this new trend (while there were a few music-inspired brews before hand) by rolling out across the UK a beer produced alongside Elbow, which was released in bottles and cask. The followed this up with the May release of Trooper, a beer produced by Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson (I don’t think Fuller’s will be too pleased as Bruce lives around the corner from their Chiswick brewery!). I wish I could tell you more about the bands themselves but I am terrible when it comes to music. All I can tell you about either is that growing up I thought Iron Maiden had the coolest stage show due to the presence of Eddie and their plane is cool. My musical knowledge thankfully is still being passed on by my older brother.

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One of my all time favourite bands, Madness have also brought out Gladness, a beer produced by Essex’s Growler Brewery. In May 2013, Hanson released their excellently titled Mmmhops. Enter Shikari have also brought out one. Although I have to take it on good advice that they are actually a band because I have never heard of them and apparently they’ve little in common with Shakira. Madness’ brew is a golden ale produced to resemble a lager and perhaps there is no more fitting beer to sum up a London band that made it big in the 1980s. However, if you ask northerners like my Mancunian cousins, they would think it just sums up the softer inhabitants of southern England.

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A recent musically inspired brew available in Dublin is Reverend and the Makers from Thornbridge. This is a fantastic summer ale that carries a fantastic aroma from a combination of potpourri strength aromatic hops of Amarillo, Galaxy and Cascade with Fuggles performing as the support act. The beer has a crisp and slight bitter finish. The recent warm spell of weather (long may it continue) of course helped as did the fact that I had this on draft in Probus Wines & Spirits. At 4.8% it is a pleasant session tipple and rumour has it that Reverened and the Makers are a band that I might like. I do like things from Sheffield such as Pulp and Sheffield Wednesday and I think the innovative brews from Thornbridge as some of the finest out there, especially in d’Engerland.

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The number of music-inspired collaborative brews seems to be increasing by the day. Indeed as I was putting this piece together it was announced that Mumford and Sons have teamed up with Sussex brewery Harvey’s to produce Lewes Stopover Brew, a 4% “soft” golden ale made with Fuggle and Golding hops. While it is being brewed specially for the Lewes music festival (Idea for the Electric Picnic?), I wouldn’t imagine it will be too long until it is put into more regular production.

These beers can a bit of fun and do attract a lot of attention. Trooper has become Robinsons’ fastest selling beer of all time and reached a million pints within 6 weeks of its launch and six months ahead of target. Perhaps this will inspire some of Irish brewers to follow suit.  I can say is that I can’t wait for is a beer developed by the Saw Doctors (with Galway Hooker per chance?), the breweries down in Cork can look to the Frank and Walters or Sultans of Ping FC (or even Crystal Swing) and Trouble Brewing could link up with Bell X1, Damien Rice or even Christy Moore and Five Lamps and the Porterhouse have a number to choose from. I don’t think we will be seeing either Kinnegar or Donegal Brewing Company bringing out one with Daniel O’Donnell (maybe of it is brewed with a nice cup of tea or horlicks?), although maybe one of the Brennan’s might be keen.