As we entered the yawning aircraft hangar-like space that is London’s Kensington Olympia, a Mexican-style cheer rushed towards us from the far end of the venue. Raising our snazzily-branded pint glasses, we roared with approval as the wave of noise hit us. We had arrived, and our Great British Beer Festival (GBBF) experience had begun.
Despite our beery love affairs, we have only recently become CAMRA members, and this was our first GBBF. Our previous experiences of beer festivals were more on the craft side – smaller, more “trendy” affairs in London’s Shoreditch and Hoxton – and this was to be a very different animal. As feminists, we hate stereotypes, but CAMRA and real ale festivals certainly conjure up certain images for most people – beards, beer bellies and a whole lot of MEN. We wanted to find out if the festival – and its patrons – had been unfairly typecast. Also, most pressingly, we wanted to try some delicious beer.
“I go to real ale pubs with my boyfriend – it’s great to come here and try something new together” – Hayley, 31
The obvious downside to coming to the last date of a five-day festival is that many of the casks had predictably run dry. Additionally, the dizzying variety of ales available meant that we had to be selective even out of what was still on offer. While this was a bit of a disappointment after spotting some favourite breweries in the programme (Thornbridge! By The Horns! Bath Ales!) it meant that we tried a lot of beers that we otherwise wouldn’t have done, and we discovered some breweries we didn’t even know existed before.
Some of our favourites:
- Marble’s Ginger Marble (4.5%). I’m a fan of Bath Ales’ Ginger Hare and this was of a similar ilk – a light, fresh, summery ale with enough sharp hop to keep it tasty. Really like how they get the ginger bite in the mix without it taking over or tasting gimmicky. Big thumbs up. (@MarbleBrewers)
- Bristol Beer Factory’s Sunrise (4.4%). I visited a beer festival run by BBF in 2011 down at the Old Tobacco Factory and it’s always nice to spot their stuff in up in the capital. This had a really sour, citrus tang on the nose but gave way to a light, refreshing flavour. (@BrisBeerFactory)
- Three Tun’s 1642 (3.8%). Really biscuity on the nose but with a cracking spiced, bitter kick. Reminded me of tasting daddy’s beer on hot summer days when I was a kid. Surprised to see its middling reaction on Untappd as I was really keen on this one. Traditional British bitter at its finest. (@ThreeTunsBrewer)
- Fyne Ales’ award-winning Jarl (3.8%) was chosen for me by a barman upon whom I’d heaped much pressure. “It’s my first beer of the day!” “I only like dark beer!” “But you must select me a beer that isn’t dark so I don’t overload my tastebuds”. Jarl, you answered my prayers. Light, floral, extremely refreshing; this would make an excellent lo-o-ong summer session drink and would pair well with food. (@FyneAles)
- Kelburn Brewery’s Dark Moor (4.5%) So, right, everyone knows that boozy chocolates don’t work. Chocolate is chocolate, not some liquored-up chemical spill. So how come chocolate-y booze DOES WORK? Ask Kelburn. Dark Moor is what those dark, cherry rum-filled Christmas chocs should taste like – with incredible liquorice endnotes. Try it – even if you don’t usually like liquorice. (@kelburnbrewery)
- Stocklinch Ales’ Black Smock (5%). If smoked meat tasted this good, I’d ditch Veganism. I kid! But really. Thick, dark beer that tastes like Autumn air, all hazy with woodsmoke and bonfires.
“We’ve been coming here for years. There’s always a really good mix of people, all demographics” – Heather and Andy, “mid forties”
So what of the atmosphere? Were the stereotypes justified? It has to be said that we immediately noticed that the demographic at GBBF was very different to the craft beer events we had been to. For example, last February’s Craft Beer Rising seemed to have around a 50-50 male female split, and everyone looked under 35 (to our eyes, at least). At GBBF, men outnumbered women at least three to one, possibly more (we corroborated this statistic when we went to the toilet and DIDN’T HAVE TO QUEUE. For the FIRST TIME EVER). There were many older men (and women) there, including Pip’s 71-year-old dad who had come along with us for the ride. Interestingly, though, there were still a lot of younger drinkers, and the twenty- and thirty-somethings seemed to be well represented. We spotted several stag parties and – brilliantly – a hen party. And, we won’t deny it… there were a lot of beards.
So GBBF hosted a real mix of drinkers of all ages (if with an overwhelmingly male bias). This was pleasing to see, and it was certainly fun for three twenty-somethings to hang out with a septuagenarian, enjoying a drink they are all passionate about, and for us all to feel at home in that environment. But it appeared that women and ale were still not a natural partnership. Maybe they’d been put off by the independent poster stall trading crap slogans like: “Why are women like computers? Because they’re both useless unless they’re turned on”; maybe they didn’t think the enormous balloon penis hats were very funny – whatever reason, women were remarkably under-represented. Unless they’d been installed to flash cleavage at punters from the other side of the tap (yes, we did notice that the women behind the bars were all pretty buxom and much younger than their male counterparts).
“It’s a shame there are so few women here. But at least there are lots of men with long hair!” – Alex, 27
We took some time out to chat to drinkers – male and female – about why they thought fewer women showed up. And it was revealing. Later this week we’ll have an in-depth report into this – find out why (almost all) the women we spoke to wouldn’t order a beer on a first date, and what women drinkers think the industry can do to help.
To soak up the booze there was a great range of grub available and we were really chuffed to see some more varied fare, for example the International Seafood and El Cantara stalls. Something we really want to champion on this blog is that beer can be enjoyed as part of a healthy lifestyle, and it was awesome to see the festival organisers providing drinkers with something other than pies and burgers to choose from (although admittedly we had wild boar burgers. They were delicious). We also enjoyed the Merry Berry Truffles chocolate stand – Pip could hardly believe her luck when she realised her day would combine beer and chocolate. Only D was brave enough to try their “Scorpion Death Chilli” flavour but this didn’t stop the rest of us trying all the other varieties on offer.
Something we missed from our craft experiences was the involvement of the brewers themselves at the event. Speaking to one of the guys from By The Horns at their brewery tap the previous weekend, he said they were planning to go down on trade day, and maybe other brewers made the same decision – but something we love about craft beer is how accessible the people behind the beer are: being able to get up close and personal with the brewers and chat to them about what they do is all part of the fun. Although the bar staff at GBBF were all friendly and helpful, and the format of having a range of ales grouped together in different bars was nice for variety, we did pine a little for the brewers having more of a presence than just their pump clips.
In summary, our first GBBF experience was overwhelmingly a good one. We tried some great beers, didn’t have to queue for a wee and we had some interesting – not to mention enlightening – chats with our fellow drinkers. A good time seemed to be had by all, sharing their love of real ale with friends – and there was chocolate. What could possibly be better on a summer Saturday afternoon?
The only downside was, of course, the dearth of women there that day. As we mentioned previously, we will be following up on this later this week with a full report, so stay tuned.