Friday, 5 August 2011

Ale to the Chief!

With over 100 cask beers from 18 different states, plus one from DC-based Capitol City, the Blackwell/W2 bar at GBBF has one of the largest ions of US real ale in the world.

And it's proving a big draw, according to deputy bar manager Jim Laws. "Some people go for the strength, but a lot are going for the hops," he said, noting that while the US is famed for its big hoppy IPAs - and it is International IPA Day today, after all - there are plenty of porters, stouts and others on tap too.

He added that the beers from bar sponsor Sierra Nevada have been going particularly well: "The Sierra Nevada beers have been flying out - we've got three on, the Pale Ale, the Porter and the Torpedo Extra IPA."

There's even been a few that weren't in the programme, due to last minute shipping changes. Lowell Beer Works is the house brewery for a small chain of pubs in Massachusetts, and its tasty 15% Godzilla sold out in just a few hours on Tuesday afternoon. Its smooth Brookline Weizen Bock was still available on Thursday, fortunately.

So how have the US cask beers measured up to the exacting standards of CAMRA's volunteer cellar staff? Overall they have done extremely well, it seems. "One or two gave a few problems," Jim said. "But considering they've had a heck of a journey that's only to be expected."

Around half of the 100 had already run out by late Thursday afternoon, but Jim said there were still several more casks to go up on the stillage - including some more from Sierra Nevada - never mind the ones that had already been tapped and would be ready for sale shortly.

"There should still be a good range by Saturday," he concluded. "You can never tell though, it depends how busy we get tomorrow."

A taste of history comes home to London

Doing good business on the US cask bar (W2) today was something that originated just a few miles from Earls Court: Virginia brewery Devil's Backbone's re-creation of a 1930's London Dark Lager, using a recipe from long-gone Southwark brewer Barclay Perkins.

Lager brewing in London in the 30s? And dark lager at that? Absolutely, according to Ron Pattinson, the brewing historian and writer who suggested the brew to Devil's Backbone.

"I wasn't sure how it would turn out, to be honest!" he said. "A dark Munich style is not what people expect of British lagers in the period. But I've got records from Britain of lager brewing as far back as the 1840s."

He added that any Bavarian brewer would have recognised the techniques used in British lager back then - this was real lager, properly conditioned and quite probably served without additional gas.

The beer itself was delicious, by the way - ruby-black in colour, with coffee and toasted malt aromas and then a smooth body with fruit and malt balanced by a light bitterness and a faint red wine, almost bock-like, character.

Talking to Ron - who was signing copies of his books on the Cogan & Matter stand (S65) - I got the sense that he very much enjoys using the history of brewing to overturn modern assumptions and expectations about beer, and about the past.

Indeed, if anyone reading this has an old pub going spare, he said he has another pet project you might be interested in.

"I'd like someone to get an alehouse and brew Edwardian ales," he explained. "I want to give an impression of what it used to be like and how different it was, when you didn't have anything weaker than 4.5%."

Who knows, it might even make a reality TV series - we've seen it done with country houses and farms, now how about 'The Edwardian Pub'?

Beer for all seasons

Given the general soggyness of this grey day, it wouldn't be too surprising to find that sales of darker and stronger beers were picking up today as visitors veered away from the golden ales and summer bitters that went down so well yesterday- and the GBBF Twitter feed was bearing that out.

Amber's medal-winning Chocolate Orange Stout (B5) was the choice of chMKUK, while kmflett was on the US cask bar (W2) enjoying the cask re-creation of Barclays London Dark Lager, brewed by Devils Backbone in the US in co-operation with beer historian and blogger Ron Pattinson.

Hermanoprimero reckoned that the Goacher's Real Mild (P4) "tastes like smoky bacon" - was that a compliment or a criticism? Titanic's Chocolate & Vanilla Stout (W5) won more fans too, with unclewilco calling it "very drinkable" and with a "stunning aroma".

However, it is also International IPA Day today. I'm not quite sure who organised this - do let us know in the comments if you know - but quite a few festival visitors are taking advantage of the range of IPAs available to celebrate it to the full. AndrewBowden recommended the Windsor & Eton Conqueror (B2) and Megfdavies the Thornbridge Raven (B1), two great examples of the new category of Black IPAs - look out for more of these around GBBF.

Thornbridge's regular IPA, Jaipur, was the tipple of choice of Ahnlak, while SamSWalker tried the Potton Shannon IPA (B3) and Ilkleybrewery cheekily recommended the Ilkley Lotus IPA (B2).

The US is noted for its IPAs of course, and the GBBF US bars have several great examples. Beer_Talk reported enjoying "a lovely Everybodys Brewing Country Boy IPA" for one, while festival sponsor AlesByMail sampled both that and the Il Vicino Wet Mountain IPA.

For now, #GBBF is off to see if there is any of that Barclays Dark Lager left. Happy IPA Day, everyone!

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Real ale sets the Twittersphere abuzz

With well over 400 British cask ales to choose from at GBBF*, how do you decide where to start - or indeed where to finish? The high-tech option is to ask Twitter, and sure enough, the festival's Twitter feed (@gbbf) and hashtag (#gbbf) has been buzzing with recommendations since we opened at midday on Tuesday.

Nethergate Old Growler (P2) is a lovely well balanced porter, says Pete_Tinley, and having had it in my local recently, I can say he's absolutely right. He's now waiting for the Champion Beer of Britain, Oscar Wilde Mild (P2) to come back on - incidentally, I overheard one of the barstaff from the Vane/P2 bar saying they'd already sold three of the four casks at the festival, the fourth was going on this afternoon - but stay hopeful, because more is on order from Mighty Oak.

There's a vote for Harveys Lewes Castle brown ale (B7) from kathrynpiquette, "A bitter edge with treacle undertones - or overtones?" she says. "Fab either way!" Meanwhile, De_Mote says Thwaites Nutty Black is "Mmm..."

Among the stout fans are PhilPriston who recommends Hook Norton Double Stout (W4), _gmh_ who says Raw's Dark Peat Stout (B2) is "veery drinkable", and Nikonvscanon who recommends the Titanic Chocolate & Vanilla Stout (W5). There's votes too for the Irving Admiral Stout (P4) and several tweets praising B&T's Edwin Taylor's Extra Stout (B3).

The golden beers are getting plenty of attention at the bars too. Axatl says Country Life Golden Pig (B7) has just overtaken Salamander's Golden Salamander (W7) as his festival favourite, while Nottingham Rock Ale Bitter (W4) and Arkell's Wiltshire Gold (W7) are also winning fans.

Fortunately, whatever style you prefer - and most of us like several styles, if not all of them! - it is almost certainly here somewhere. And if you can't find your first choice, well, my reaction is usually just to try something else - and I'm usually very pleasantly surprised.

*Not all of them at the same time, sadly

First love: real ale

One of the joys of GBBF is introducing people to ale for the first time. (Although can you introduce someone for the second time? Never mind...) Yesterday it was a friendly and very interested TV crew from Japan, here to film the festival, interview CAMRA chief exec Mike Benner and then cover the CBOB announcement.

One thing I didn't have time to give them a tour of though was the Japanese beers. Yes, we have Japanese beers - 10 of them, on the New World bar (Urbani/W3) alongside other Pacific Rim brews from Australia and New Zealand.

Slightly confusingly, this part of Bieres Sans Frontieres is also where you will find the Scandinavians, which this year mostly means the Danes, although there are one or two Norwegians as well.

Also here are the stunning beers of Danish microbrewer Mikkeller, although as the eponymous Mikkel doesn't have his own brewery - instead co-operating with other breweries around Denmark and the world to use their facilities - he is listed as a 'gypsy brewer', which may not be politically correct but is apparently one of the terms he prefers.

Wood you believe it...

Wooden casks are sadly something of a rarity at GBBF these days - but this year we have three huge examples in use, and just to confuse you, they are not on one of the British ale bars but on the Belgian and Dutch bar, Vesalius/P5.

Their arrival earlier in the week from Dutch brewry De Molen caused great excitement, not just because of their size - 225 litres, or around 50 gallons - but also because of their contents. They have been cask-maturing Hot & Spicy, a smoked Imperial stout with chillies, the faintly lactic Hout & Hop, and Tsarina Esra Reserve, a full-flavoured strong porter.

If they've run out - though hopefully with casks those size, they won't have! - there's plenty more Low Countries beers on offer, including half a dozen more on draught, plus bottled Trappists, lambics, fruit and honey beers, stouts and more. And if all that gives you a taste for the subject, you could tap it at its source - bar sponsor Eurolines runs buses to beer festivals in both Belgium and the Netherlands, as well as many more beery places around Europe.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

A brewer's caution over Brewers Reserve

Fullers bar came under siege on Tuesday afternoon, as the first cask of the latest Brewers Reserve No.3 went on sale. Only available in thirds, it is £1.80 and around 9%, and the next cask is due on sale at 6pm on Wednesday.

According to head brewer John Keeling, it's Golden Pride that has been matured in Auchentoshan casks for over 800 days, blended down to a saleable strength using ESB. The Fullers brewers have done several experiments with cask-ageing beer, discovering quite early on that the result could be a tad harsh, and that the answer was to blend it with fresh beer. John said that the two ales used for No.3 are the same ones that went into Brewers Reserve No.2, although in that case the Golden Pride was matured in cognac casks. "We found that this combination worked best," he explained.

Blending with fresh beer is also aimed at solving the grogging problem. Basically, when you age spirits in a wooden barrel some of the alcohol seeps into the wood - whisky distillers call this The Angels' Share, and it accounts for about 2% ABV per year. If you then put another liquid into the barrel - even water - some of that alcohol will seep back out. This is called grogging and it was made illegal by the Finance Act of 1898, as it was a known scam in Victorian times. It still counts as evasion of excise duty and it will have HMRC after you.

The idea was therefore to blend the aged ale back from its barrel-enhanced 12-14% to nearer its original beery strength, thus ensuring that Fullers achieved only a flavour advantage from the barrel and not an ABV one. John said Fullers still has people working with HMRC on the technicalities of this - "We thought we had the grogging problem solved, but apparently not," he sighed.

Fortunately for us, the beer is still on sale. It is rich, and not surprisingly has a lot of whisky and grassy character, along with honey notes and that classic Fullers tang of dark orange marmalade. It is drinking well despite its youth, but will undoubtedly get better still with bottle ageing. "It'll be good for 15 years," John predicted.

Festival Freebies at GBBF

If you're coming to GBBF this week, you could walk away as a winner - and not just from the famous CAMRA tombola... Several of the brewery stands are running competitions and give-aways, and so is GBBF itself - if you check-in at the festival on Facebook or Foursquare, find the Festival Organiser and show him your check-in, you'll get a free beer!

For those who prefer clothing, Brains has t-shirts on offer for anyone showing the relevant tweet at the bar. There's only a limited number available, but there's also a free Brains dragon tail for every pint bought at GBBF today, so you shouldn't go away empty-handed - or should that be empty-tailed?

If Bombardier is your tipple, then come on Thursday dressed as your hero and a free pint is yours from the Bombardier double-decker. In the meantime, get yourself snapped with the bus and you could win a year's supply of ale.

Greene King will have cake today to celebrate CAMRA's 40th birthday, then once the public sessions start later on there will be a competition running to win not one but two cases of Hen.

If you're a Fullers fan - and if not, why not? - you can sign up at the bar for the brewery's Fine Ale Club. With occasional members' freebies and events around the country, that's a prize in itself. They also have key rings, just go up to the bar and ask!

And lastly, for anyone who has the munchies on their way out, Pipers Crisps has 40,000 packets to give away to departing festival-goes who are taking their glasses with them.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Ready for take-off

If you've been watching our live webcam you'll know we are pretty much there now. The bars are all up and ready to go, and the food stalls and other stands are just adding their final touches.

I stopped by the Edwards bar (B8) to check out the range of bottled real ale, which is bigger this year than ever. Bar manager Hannah Pettifer says it widens every year, with the whole variety of ales now being bottled as 'real', not just the traditional strong ales and barley wines - although there are plenty of those on sale here too.

"We do have one expensive one, at just over £10 - Thornbridge Bracia at 10%," Hannah says, "but apart from that they are all £2 to £4."

She adds that if there is a theme emerging this year, it is ginger, with several spicy ales among the 80-plus on offer, including a Ginger Stout from bar sponsor Hop Back.

* All the bars this year are named after medical pioneers - this one is named for the British co-developer of IVF, Dr Robert Edwards. You might be amused to know that this even extends to the staff bars, which are named for Doctors Frankenstein and Jekyll...

More than just a breakfast drink

My contact with beer started even before I reached GBBF this morning. It wasn't quite bitter for breakfast - though in hindsight that might have been nice - but while cycling to Earls Court the delicious aroma of brewing wafted under my nose, carried by a kind breeze from Fullers. Perhaps it helped in getting the journey time down from yesterday's 30 minutes to around 25 minutes today, but more likely it was just the practice.

Here at GBBF, it may be early but there are already glasses of beer out. Not for yours truly, but for the Champion Beer of Britain Judges who have a hard morning's tasting ahead of them before we hear the results of their deliberations at around 3 this afternoon. And it is a hard job, albeit also a very enjoyable one - remembering the first beer you tasted once you've got to number six or seven requires a fair bit of focus and concentration, especially if they are of varying strengths and bitterness levels. It's even more of a challenge for the final panel who must fairly compare beers of quite different characters - golden ales with stouts, for example.

The first round of judging is about to start, and the second round panellists are gradually arriving, ready for their turn later this morning. I can't tell you who the judges are yet - the full list is still super-secret, I'm told it is known only to two people in the GBBF hierarchy, and of course they are closeted in with the judges!

For those of you who can't get to GBBF this afternoon - we open at noon for the trade session and the beery press - there will be a live audio feed of the CBOB announcement from the stage at Earls Court. Stay tuned to our Twitter & Facebook feed for details.

For this evening's public session we hope to have full printed results available on the CAMRA Membership Stand, and of course we will have it on the GBBF website here - beware though that this link won't go live until after the announcement.

We also have some news on beer pricing at this year's festival. Beers start from £2 a pint, while the majority of our 430 British cask ales are under £3 a pint. Our beers range in strength from 3% to 9.5% ABV, and if you're looking to sample lots of ales, we have 121 cask ales under the 4% ABV mark. If you missed the National Winter Ales festival, some of the champion beers are showcased at the festival too - oh and 8 of our beers are over 7%. If you're a vegetarian, vegan or coeliac, there are beers available for you too - ask for details at the Membership and Information stand in the centre of the hall.

Monday, 1 August 2011

Have you got the bottle?

So today is the judging for the 2011 Champion Bottled Beer of Britain (CBBOB). I can't tell you the result yet of course, partly because the judging hasn't finished yet and partly because it's a blind tasting and the organisers won't even tell the judges which beers were which!

It's a very interesting competition though - the real ale CBOB competition gets the attention, yet as organiser Christine Cryne pointed out, in many ways CBBOB has greater reach. After all, you might see both winners in your local pub, but the CBBOB winner could also be in your local supermarket, and indeed in your living room.

CAMRA's Real Ale In a Bottle (RAIB) campaign is also striking chords with hotels and restaurants which cannot - yet - justify serving cask. Among the CBBOB judges were guests from this year's sponsor Hotel du Vin, and from past sponsor Travelodge, both of which see the best of British beer as a powerful addition to their menus.

This year's CBBOB candidates include some excellent golden bitters and ales, some stunning porters and stouts, and at least one wonderful "brown bitter" - and all will be on sale on Bar 8/Edwards.

The results - along with the CBOB results - will be out tomorrow at 3pm or thereabouts. Stay tuned...