Over the years Great Britain has lost its pre-eminence in many areas. We have ceded military power to our competitors in the American Revolution (though they had home advantage), Penny-Farthing sales are down and steam engines are not as popular as they were. There is one area though in which we still lead the world. Beer.
This week at London Olympia is a celebration of all things alely, organised by CAMRA – the Campaign for Real Ale, which aims for Britain to have a greater appreciation of traditional beers, ciders and perries. What sort of festival does an organisation like CAMRA put on?
CAMRA has over 140,000 members, so things are on a large scale. Imagine if you will the biggest pub you’ve ever been in. Multiple the size by a hundred. Imagine over 20 bars. Imagine that none of the bar space is wasted with lager or soft drinks. Imagine over 800 different drinks are available.
You should now have an inkling of what to expect at the Great British Beer Festival. There’s a lot of beer flowing – although there are over 8000 real ales being brewed in Britain, so even this huge selection is only 10% of the country’s output. Over 1000 volunteers help dispense the thousands of pints that are supped over the five day event. If you like real ale or want to find out more about why you should like it then this is a don’t-miss event.
I find it hard to choose what to drink when a pub has a choice of four ales, so when there are over 800 the decision is almost impossible. I could have chosen to try beers at random, or maybe some of the winners in the beer olympics that is the Champion Beer of Britain competition – Elland 1872 Porter had just taken the 2013 title.
Winner Michael Wynnyczuk speaking to Roger Protz, with organiser Ian Hill watching on
Instead, for reasons that remain unclear, I decided to go for beers with odd names. That’s quite a challenge as real ale is a field that attracts unusual names. When most products are named by committee or focus group, Real Ale stands out as the last bastion of what can be – let’s be honest – silly names. Try and buy a car with a silly name and you will find it tricky. But an ale? Why there are hundreds. Gravediggers mild anyone? Bourbon Barrel Aged Peg Leg?
I plumped for A Drop of Nelson’s Blood. The tasting notes said it was initially sweet, but becoming very bitter in the aftertaste. They were spot on. I took my glass of 3.8% bitter with a light head and retired to a drinking area. The two men sitting at tables on either side of me had very complicated looking notebooks from which they gleaned information and ticked off beers in the catalogue. I felt rather amateur not having arrived with a drinking plan and years of tasting notes. Nelson had very dark blood, with a deep malty taste. But what an aftertaste! So bitter! The story goes that after his death Nelson’s body was kept in a barrel of brandy. Rather than waste the brandy when they returned to England the sailors on the Victory drank it. In honour of this fact every glass of Nelson’s Blood has a drop of brandy in it.
As I sipped I flicked further through the catalogue and realised that as names go A Drop of Nelson’s Blood was fairly sensible. I spotted Comrade Bill Bartram’s Egalitarian Anti Imperialist Soviet Stout at bar 18. Finding bar 18 was a little tricky, until someone showed me that page 79 of the catalogue folds out into a map of the venue. That made things much easier.
Darker than Guinness, Comrade Bill starts with a whopping sweetness. It is balanced and treacle-like before the 6.9% stout knocks you in the face with a bitter – and very long – finish. Delicious and thinner-bodied than a typical stout, you don’t feel as though you are having a sit-down meal when you have a sip. The tasting notes mentioned pepper, I didn’t get that, but thick waves of chocolate before the long bitter aftertaste. It’s so dark it’s like drinking night-time – gentlemen, you deserve your plaudits.
At an event called the Great British Beer Festival, British beers are obviously the main attraction. However there are four bars called Bieres sans Frontieres. These bring rare European, American and Rest of the World beers to London. There is also music every evening as well as stalls where you can get can get food, from Cornish pasties to seafood, steaks to fish and chips. There’s also the largest pork scratchings stall I’ve ever seen. (Disclaimer: I haven’t made an in depth study of pork scratchings stalls. Maybe they’re all enormous). When your appetite is sated there are also tutored beer tastings, old fashioned pub games and book signings.
The Great British Beer festival is a great place to try different beers, discover new brews or reacquaint yourself with old favourites. It is an ideal evening out after work, although it opens at 12.00, so on Saturday you might want to make a day of it. If any of your foreign friends ever imply Britain’s best days are in the past, just say one word to them. Beer.