Tag Archives: camra

Beer writing – past, present and future

20141023_152154As we approach Hook Norton Brewery in rural Oxfordshire, the Victorian tower brewery comes into view through the trees, its five storeys looming above us. We are here for a seminar jointly run by the British Guild of Beer Writers (BGBW) and the Brewery History Society on the topic of “beer writing – past, present and future”, and this historic setting of the 160-year-old brewery could not be more perfect.

Our education begins with an introduction to beer writing in the Victorian era by Dr James Sumner, who has recently published a book on the history of brewing science and technology between 1700-1880.

James informs us that although there were a few publications about beer prior to 1800, these tended to be few and far between. When cheap mass printing took off with the dawn of the industrial revolution, everything changed, and there was a much wider scope to print about a variety of topics. One organisation who took advantage of this new technology was the Society for Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, a Whig-supporting organisation who created pamphlets to educate the increasing numbers of literate members of the public on a variety of subjects. This included the 1829 publication The Art of Brewing, and marked a point where it could no longer be assumed that the basics of brewing were common knowledge, especially for those living in a more urban environment. Another example of this came in 1851 when Percival Leigh – commissioned by none other than Charles Dickens to write for Household Words – wrote The Chemistry of a Pint of Beer. This light-hearted piece used a comic narrator, Mr Saunders, to subtly pass on information whilst not appearing to question the reader’s level of understanding:

“Now for the malt. What is malt? Not many of you, I suppose, are such Cockneys as not to know that malt is barley, steeped in water, laid out on a floor, let be there till it is just about to sprout, and then dried on a kiln, at a heat high or low, according to the colour you want it to be; pale, or amber, or brown.”

f4Another trend during the Victorian era was that of brewers and engineers writing to promote their inventions, and these took the form of very long, technical manuals such as William Tizard’s Theory and Practice of Brewing (1850) and Henry Stopes’ Malt and Malting (1885). There was a sense at this time of the professionals drawing together against outside forces such as taxation, the temperance movement and the “pure beer movement” which claimed that beer was a bad and potentially dangerous product. In 1852 Allsopp’s were forced to defend themselves in print against claims that their beer contained strychnine. In 1900 there was an arsenic poisoning epidemic in Manchester when brewers sugar bought from Bostock & Co sugar refiners turned out to be made from sulphuric acid containing the poison and this lead to further writings, including humorous cartoons in Punch.

James reminded us that at this time there was no real national distribution of beer – it was nothing like today where we can be anywhere in the country and drink the same product. So a lot of the writing focussed on overall quality and safety rather than specifics. We were still a world away from tasting notes or reviews.

Ray Anderson, President of the Brewery History Society, took the baton from James for his talk on beer writing between 1900 and 1960. Apparently a staggering 500 books on beer were published over this period, with over half of them focussing on pubs. Specialist journals also began to take off during this time, including trade titles such as Brewers Journal and Country Brewer’s Gazette, and also technical titles such as the Journal of the Institute of Brewing. So there was definitely an increase in the amount being written about beer.

Ray pointed out that the people really making a living from beer writing at this time were the consulting brewing chemists such as Edward Ralph Mortiz and Alfred Chaston Chapman. The arsenic poisonings of 1900 meant that brewers had to start analyzing their beer, so there was plenty of work for the chemists. They were prolific in their writing during this time, with Mortiz writing more than 40 scientific papers, and Chapman a staggering 120.

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Pubs were certainly the hot topic during this period. While a lot of urban pubs had degenerated into either “gin palaces or hovels”, country pubs were still written about and regularly appeared in idealised forms in literature. In an attempt to reform the pubs, in 1916 the government began the Carlisle Experiment, taking control of five breweries and a total of 363 pubs. They changed these dramatically, making them bigger, providing table service and food, gardens and sporting facilities such as bowling greens, and even pull ins to encourage more middle class customers to visit by car. There was a huge backlash against this, as many people found the “improved pubs” austere and lacking in personality. The Journal of the Institute of Brewing launched an attack in 1932 stating that many historic pubs were being torn down for rebuilding in the new Carlisle mould, destroying heritage. This led to a trend for writing sentimental nostalgia about the traditional English inn, such as Maurice Gorham’s The Local (1939). Publican’s memoirs also became popular during this time, both genuine and fictional, with John Fothegill’s Innkeeper’s Diary (1931) being one example.

Between the two World Wars, British beer was in a dreadful state. Compared to 1914’s beer, 1933’s brews were 23% lower in gravity, and had 20% less hops in them. Both breweries and pubs were run down and failing. This seemed to galvanise writing on what was going wrong with the product, such as John L Shimwell’s series of papers on brewing microbiology between 1935-39. He stated he wished to bring “order out of chaos”, and explained in scientific terms why beer went bad, and what to do about it.

Towards the end of the period we finally saw what we might be able to call the first real piece of beer writing as we know it now in the form of Andrew Campbell’s The Book of Beer (1956). Interest definitely seemed to have grown in the topic by this point, to the point where The Times ran a special edition about beer in 1958.

At this point Ray Newman, one half of blogging duo Boak & Bailey and co-author of the recently published Brew Britannia, picked up the reigns as we passed into our final period: 1960 to the present day. Here, Ray told us, the trend began to drift towards writing for popular audiences, with less technical information. Most writing was sponsored by the industry itself, and after a rough ride through the two world wars, there was a desire to raise beer’s profile with the public without encouraging anyone to be too critical of the product.

untitledIn 1963 the Chancellor removed the requirement for home brewers to have a license. This led to a dramatic increase in popularity for home brewing as people sought to make their own cheap beer at home, and there were a huge number of manuals published during this period. Some, like Ken Shale’s Brewing Better Beers (1967) boasted sales of over 250,000 copies on covers of subsequent editions, and went on to sell even more. There was also a sense during this time that the accountants at the breweries had too much control over what was available, so home brewing was seen as a rebel alternative.

The 1970s, of course, marked the birth of CAMRA, and sparked a revolution in the beer world, holding brewers to account and highlighting the closures of so many family-owned regional breweries and pubs. In 1974 CAMRA published the first edition of the Good Beer Guide, which of course is still published annually today. From the 1980s this began to include beer essays on the issues of the day, which provided a valuable outlet for beer writers who were struggling to get their voices heard elsewhere in print.

Another big turning point for beer writing came when Michael Jackson published The World Guide to Beer in 1977. It was the first time that someone had talked with authority about the taste and quality of beer and the first attempt to elevate beer to the status of wine. Many books throughout the 1980s mimicked Jackson’s style, and although there was nothing ground-breaking or particularly new, the community of beer writers had begun to grow. In 1988 the British Guild of Beer Writers formed, bringing with it a statement of intent – a demand that beer would be taken more seriously.

The 1990s saw a cultural shift as beer’s image continued to evolve. Laddish, blokey travelogues heavy with beer references had their moment of popularity as beer continued to raise its profile. After the millennium, interest had grown and list-based books such as Roger Protz’s 300 Beers to Try Before You Die!, really took off. This style seemed to suit beer, and publishers quickly snapped up variations on the theme. They were light and engaging, with tasting notes which were brief enough not to alienate more casual drinkers. Pete Brown’s writing, starting with Man Walks Into a Pub in 2004, really nailed it in commercial terms, showing personality and humour could engage even those without a deep interest in beer. This really set the template for a lot of beer writing which has come since.

Across the pond in the USA, Garrett Oliver published The Brewmaster’s Table (2010), the first book on beer and food pairing. It was a sign that beer’s reputation was beginning to change, and in 2011 the drink was finally honoured with its very own Oxford Companion. Although many complained that it was full of inaccuracies, it was a sign or respect for the craft of brewing.

Ray wrapped up by pointing out that the renaissance of ebooks has been important for beer writers, as now there is less of a barrier to getting work out there – no reticent publishers. Beer blogging has also taken off in a big way, with many authors such as Pete Brown and Mark Dredge writing blogs as well as books.

Beer sommelier and broadcaster Marverine Cole took over at this juncture to ask whether beer is getting its fair share of voice in the media today. In her view, she said, a lot of people have stopped reading print media. Now the focus is on radio, TV and web content, and beer is not being sufficiently represented.

Marverine’s belief this that there is still a misconception that beer is loutish and uncouth whereas wine and spirits are more sophisticated. While the passion is obviously evident in the industry – there are huge numbers of events and festivals across the country – there is not enough pressure on the media to get that message across. She went on to share some insider tips on how she felt fellow writers and broadcasters could maximise beer’s coverage and begin to affect change in how it is perceived in the media.

historypinAfter a quick lunch break we return to hear from Nick Stanhope from HistoryPin, a new website where contributors can pin photos, videos and anecdotes on an online map to share history and foster intergenerational relationships. Nick said that in their work they’ve noticed how pubs have time and time again been focal points of communities, and that the loss of so many pubs over the past few decades has been a recurring theme in their research. They have recently been working with over 5,000 pictures rescued after the closure of the Charrington Brewery and investigating how the information can be used to help pubs reconnect with their lost history.

Our final activity for the day was a panel discussion on how we can ensure that beer writing has a postitive future. This featured all of the previous speakers and was chaired by BGBW Secretary and author, Adrian Tierney-Jones.

Adrian sparked off the discussion by ask pointing out that beer writing is a renaissance of sorts, incorporating many different subject areas such as travel, food and history. Ray Newman pointed out that there have not really been any breakthrough books on beer in past few years, and that much of the writing tends to be a variation on the same old material. He wondered whether we need to accept that it will never be a mainstream subject and just address the niche, or do we need to challenge ourselves as writers to come up with something new and refreshing, as Pete Brown did so successfully in the mid-2000s.

Marverine agreed with this point, saying that what we needed to do now was engage young people. The craft beer movement has introduced a whole new generation to beer, and what is needed now is for them to take on the mantle and try to put more pressure on the media to show that the interest is out there, and get more coverage. She pointed out that we have to start shifting our focus to digital mediums such as ebooks and the internet.

Adrian asked whether the panel thought that it was our role as beer writers to act as a cheerleader of sorts for beer, and educate the public. Marverine believed that it’s important to mix education with entertainment in order to remain engaging, and cited Ben McFarland and Tom Sandham’s Thinking Drinkers as a good example of this – mixing comedy and beer, and presenting something different.

Ray Anderson pointed out that it was very difficult to convert an enthusiasm for beer to actually reading about it. He had just returned from a trip to Berlin where he went to a bookshop and found a mere seven books on beer in the whole shop, despite being in the beer capital of Europe.

James said that in his experience as an academic working on the topics of brewing and beer, he found that people tended to be dismissive and treat it as a bit of a joke. It was only when he could show them the academic hooks and connections in history, industry, or science that they begin to be drawn in and begin to take it seriously. He believed that a key to gaining a larger audience was to get more academics on board to help give the subject more gravitas.

Nick agreed with the idea that beer has to be seen as inextricably linked to our history and society. He said that his experience with HistoryPin has shown that people don’t just want facts, but that stories, history and a narrative thread are powerful tools to engage people.

imagesAdrian pointed out that, like HistoryPin, digital appears to be the way forward, with apps such as Will Hawkes’ Craft Beer London proving hugely popular. Ray Anderson agreed that he tends to go to Google before he goes to the bookshelf nowadays.

At this point the debate opened up to the floor, where one contributor pointed out that in the UK we have become “far too good at celebrating orthodoxy”. He believes that we celebrate beers that are of poor quality and that there is still a feeling that we push cask as being best when it is not always true. Ray Anderson agreed with this, saying that we now have as many breweries in the UK as we had in 1929, but it’s a similar situation – many are small and producing a substandard product.

Ray Newman said that it was certainly true that beer writers do not generally challenge the brewers on beer quality and have a tendency to keep writing light and positive, which could have contributed to this “celebration of orthodoxy”. Adrian acknowledged this but said that it is very difficult for beer writers to maintain independence. If breweries send them samples, it is hard for a writer who does not want to damage their relationship with that company to be critical of the product. Ray responded by saying that the Guild needs to push back collectively, and let the brewers know that they have to grow up and accept criticism. They could also be reminded that controversy breeds interest.

It was pointed out from the floor said that with the advent of beer blogging there is actually a huge amount being written about new beers and breweries, but it doesn’t seem to be influencing public interest all that much. Marverine said that we have to remember that quality varies a lot online, and this could be part of the reason why the movement has not been more influential.

Another contributor said that we are shying from controversy. If breweries invested more in their PR they could get more coverage in the media, like the wine industry, rather than relying on advertising. This could change beer’s image and also increase its profile.

20141023_152553After the debate we broke into groups to take the opportunity to tour the magnificent Victorian tower brewery. This remarkable building was powered by an enormous steam engine on the ground floor, installed in 1899 and still in use as recently as four years ago. This powered the machinery all the way up the tower and even provided heating for the brewery workers. While there have been many modern innovations over the years – including the abandonment of the vast copper flat cooler at the top of the building – the incredible Victorian machinery and architecture is still evident throughout.

After climbing up and down all those stairs, we retire to the Visitors’ Centre to enjoy a few well-earned glasses of some of Hook Norton’s offerings, including Old Hooky (4.6%) and Flagship (5.3%).

We thoroughly enjoyed the seminar and learned a huge amount – massive thanks to the BGBW and the Brewery History Society for organising it, the speakers for taking part and giving such informative talks and to Hook Norton for being such gracious hosts.

If you wish to visit Hook Norton Brewery you can find details of their tours on their website. You can also find information on the Brewery History Society and details on how to join online.

– PS

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How should CAMRA campaign? Group responds in ‘sexist leaflet’ row

  • Organisation offers apology over leaflets some deemed sexist and says it wants to work with young members on new campaign.

The beer drinkers’ club CAMRA has apologised for any offence caused by recruitment leaflets it circulated to universities, which featured images of women in low-cut tops and dressed as pin-up models.

More: Read our original story on the leaflets

Keith Spencer, CAMRA’s Director of Membership, said that the leaflets had been withdrawn. “CAMRA’s recent young membership campaign has been met with both positive and negative feedback since its launch a few weeks ago. However, as a number of people have informed us they find the imagery sexist and are offended by this campaign, CAMRA has decided to withdraw this material from circulation.

“CAMRA takes all complaints very seriously and we would like to apologise for any offence this may have caused”

The campaign was discussed with young marketing professionals within CAMRA’s Young Membership Marketing Group, which is made up of men and women, and they supported this creative. However, CAMRA takes all complaints very seriously and we would like to apologise for any offence this may have caused,” he said. “Now that CAMRA has decided to remove this campaign, it will work with CAMRA’s young membership to create a new campaign. If any CAMRA members would like to feed ideas into this campaign then please email marketing@camra.org.uk

– ED

CAMRA offers to pull ‘sexist and insulting’ recruitment leaflets, but young drinkers demand public apology

Young beer drinkers have expressed outrage at a “sexist and insulting” series of recruitment flyers CAMRA has distributed to universities across the country.

The flyers, which aim to recruit new members to the real ale society, feature pictures of women in low-cut tops and dressed as pin-up models.

A copy of the leaflet reproduced on a website petitioning CAMRA to withdraw it

A copy of the leaflet reproduced on a website petitioning CAMRA to withdraw it

They were sent to university real ale societies to be distributed at Freshers’ Fairs.

The CAMRA Young Members board expressed their disapproval when they were consulted before print, but said they had been ignored.

Rowan Molyneux, a young beer blogger, said that she originally thought the leaflets were a hoax.

“What sort of people do they want to attract? Slavering ‘lads’, drawn to the organisation because of the use of attractive women as window dressing?”

Members who contacted CAMRA to complain were “brushed off”, she added, and the organisation rejected claims that it was being sexist because it had women in its board.

CAMRA has offered to withdraw the leaflets, but young members have called for a full public apology to the university societies that acknowledges “the sexist nature of the flyers”, an apology to the Young Members Board and the creation of a transparent complaints process.

A petition calling for action from CAMRA currently has 77 signatories.

Samuel McNamara, of the York University Real Ale Society, said: “We welcome everyone as an equal participant. Women are not window dressing for a boys’ beer drinking club.”

Matt Jones, who has worked on the committee of a university ale and cider society, said: “This campaign, with its sexist imagery, perpetuates the image of beer drinkers of lewd, old men that we have worked so hard to get rid of. Ale is for everyone, regardless of their sex, sexuality, age, race, creed and background.”

ICIP has approached CAMRA for comment.

-ED

Great British Beer Festival 2014 – festival report

I’ll admit it – I am pretty anally retentive. A worrywart. An Order Muppet. I plan everything in advance. I’ve always got a pen. I love to make lists and – more importantly – tick off said lists (mmm).

So, when I was handed my pint glass and programme for this year’s GBBF, and staggered into the barrel-vaulted spectacle that is London Olympia, panic began to set in.

DSC_0219So many beers. So. Many. Beers. The completist in me started nervous twitching as I struggled to accept that no amount of planning or tactics would allow me to drink over 900 different beers, ciders and perries in just five hours.

DSC_0226Luckily, my neuroticism was immediately soothed by Mark Payne, Off-Trade Sales Manager from St Austell, who offered me my first drink of the day at a pleasantly numbing 7.2%. This was Big Job Double IPA, big brother to their popular IPA, Proper Job (clocking in at a more sedate 4.5%). A fantastic burnished caramel colour, this heavy hitter is hopped with Citra and Centennial, and has a lightness which belies its high ABV. Mark told us that they use Cornish Gold malt and attenuate it until nearly all the sugar is gone, allowing those hops to really sing. It’s a good start.

Next, we made the mistake of visiting the USA cask beers bar. I say “mistake”, because once we’d checked out the list of available brews, there was a serious danger that we would never leave, and we’d only been at the festival about fifteen minutes.

Surrounded by a huge throng of beer fans, this bar was perhaps one of the most popular of the festival, and for good reason. The sheer variety of beers on offer was outstanding – everything from a 4% wheat to a whopping 9.3% Imperial IPA – and we started off with a Franklin’s Psychedelic Smokehouse (5.3%), a smoked, sour ale. It poured light with a seriously smoky nose, like getting a delicious faceful of BBQ and bacon, but then shocked the palate with a light, zinging acidity.

DSC_0241Next we went for something at the other end of the scale – a dark, rich Left Hand Milk Stout (6%). We’re usually sceptical of milk stouts because we’re frankly evangelical about Bristol Beer Factory’s take on the style. But this impressed us mightily. Hopped with Magnum and US Goldings, this stout was incredibly smooth and seemed to stealth its way down your gullet, leaving a strong, cocoa-nib bitterness behind. Dreamy.

Promising ourselves “one for the road” before we headed off to… uh… the other 21 bars, we went for a Buckland Brewery Ginger Pale Ale (5%), brewed with macerated ginger. A deep coppery colour, this promised a lot on the nose but didn’t quite deliver on taste, although we got a pleasant ginger tingle lingering at the back of the throat.

We did finally tear ourselves away from the delights of the good old US of A… here are some of our other festival highlights.

DSC_0250I was confronted with an offer I couldn’t refuse when I spotted Kissingate Brewery’s Black Cherry Mild (4.3%). I had initially made fun of this beer in my GBBF preview post, saying that it was the kind of gimmicky fruit concoction I would select when already inebriated, only to find that it was rubbish. I then found out that it had won numerous awards, and, having tried it, I now see that I should eat not only my words but also my notebook, pen and GBBF souvenir pint glass. It was delicious – smelled like a bowl of fresh cherries but had no cloying sweetness, just a rich, smooth mouthfeel and a really nice dry finish. Just goes to show that no matter how much beer you try, there will always be something to surprise you!

DSC_0256When we fancied something lighter, we were drawn to a beer by Jo C’s Norfolk Brewery – Norfolk Kiwi (3.8%). The brewery was established by Jo Coubrough and this beer is a tribute to her husband Chris, a native New Zealander. It uses locally-grown Maris Otter and a mixture of British and New Zealand hops, giving a tropical, zesty punch despite the modest ABV. Refreshing and extremely quaffable.

DSC_0268We couldn’t pass up on an offering from Bristol Beer Factory. We first discovered this gem of a brewery on a cottage break to the West Country in 2011, when we popped into a beer festival at The Tobacco Factory. This was when we fell in love with their Milk Stout in particular, but their other beers have never disappointed and we hadn’t had the opportunity to try the 3.8% Nova pale ale before. This beer has a light malt base (Maris Otter, CaraPils and wheat malt) providing a perfect, subtle backdrop for the hops, coming through zesty and fresh with a grapefruit tang.

DSC_0262It was nostalgia that initially encouraged us to give Exe Valley Brewery’s Winter Glow (6%) a try – Mr Pip and I are Exeter University alumni. This is a traditional old ale, and usually the brewery’s winter seasonal. While we weren’t entirely sure why it had showed up at a beer festival in the middle of August, we enjoyed the rich, dried fruit and malty nose and the dry bitterness after the 6% punch. Hope that we spot it around once the nights draw in a bit to enjoy it in its proper environment!

After a pork roll to soak it all up and much wandering, sampling and poring over our programme, we decide to visit to the cider and perry bar, which we often end up neglecting. Since our trip to Stocks Farm earlier in the year and being introduced to the wonders of cider, we felt we needed to at least try a couple.

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We begin with an offering from Lancashire, Dove Syke Cider’s Ribble Valley Gold. This comes in at 6.5% and is described as “medium dry” on CAMRA’s scale. It is delicious – no cloying sweetness, but not too acidic either. Encouraged, we persevere with a taste of Oliver’s Yarlington Mill (also 6.5%), which had a little more sweetness than the Ribble Valley but not to the point of excess – it still had a good level of dryness to round out the flavour. We enjoyed chatting to one of the CAMRA volunteers (complete with pirate hat) on the cider bar about the different varieties on offer and were very grateful for his recommendations and tasters. Cider is still a bit of an undiscovered country for us but we’re certainly going to continue our exploration of it in future!

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We have to fight through the crowds to get near enough to hear the announcement of the Champion Beers of Britain competition. With eight categories as well as an overall “Supreme Champion”, there are too many winners to list here, but special ICIP claps on the back must go to our friends at Oakham Ales who took Gold in the Golden Ales category as well as Silver in the Supreme Champion contest for Citra (4.2%), and also the guys at Sambrook’s who took joint Bronze in the Bitters category for Wandle (3.8%).

DSC_0287The results of the Supreme Champion contest were announced by Bruce Dickinson of rock band Iron Maiden – an avowed real ale fan who has brewed his own successful beer with Robinson’s Brewery – Trooper (4.7%). The announcement of first place in this year’s competition – Timothy Taylor’s Boltmaker (4%) – is met with some consternation by the crowd. “Did he just say Timmy Taylor’s?” someone asks behind us, while the chap to our right goes with a more forceful “Timothy Taylor’s? Fuck off!” As the crowd disperses, we hear another festival-goer commenting to a friend “it’s average at best”. It’s obviously a controversial decision. We haven’t tried Boltmaker so we can’t comment, but we’ll be keeping our eyes open for it in future to see what we think.

DSC_0243The atmosphere at the festival was characteristically jolly, and although the gender ratio is still way, way off (still the only place in the universe with no queue in the ladies’ toilet!), we spotted plenty of women enjoying their beer and there was thankfully no sign of the sexist poster seller that so disappointed us last year. We did slightly question the choice of the “circus” theme (lots of strongmen etc vs scantily-clad female acrobats strewn across the branding) which still made it all feel a bit masculine… but let’s face it, I look frickin’ distinguished with a moustache.

Overall then – a great day with some top notch beers. It was fantastic to see such a broad range of different styles and countries represented, and there really was something for everyone. There are up and down sides to attending on Trade Day – the entire programme is still available, for example, but you don’t get the added fun of talks and signings by the pros or live music. But that wasn’t going to spoil our day.

Being the pernickety fusspot I am, I am already looking ahead to next year and working out my tactics. If I attended for all five days of the festival next time, that’s just… 180 beers a day… which is just… er… 60 pints, if I drink thirds…

I’ll get back to you next August.

– PS

You can read our review of last year’s festival here, and also take a look at our investigation into women’s attitudes towards beer and festivals here. Check out more pictures from the event on our Facebook page.

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ICIP revs up for GBBF 2014

It doesn’t seem possible that it’s almost time for another CAMRA Great British Beer Festival. Last year’s event marked our first foray into the murky world of beer blogging, and we kicked off the ICIP project with an investigation into where women fitted into this real ale lark, and what women at the festival thought about beer.

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GBBF 2013

This year, returning as a seasoned Beer Blogger (my press pass says so and everything), I’ll be hitting up the trade session. The massive benefit of this is that ALL the beers will be available and nothing will have run out (until at least halfway through said trade session, I imagine). With this in mind, I’ve been perusing the beer list with quite some excitement.

Young's LogI’m having a bit of a real ale love-in right now. This was partly borne out of necessity – living on the fringes of south London, us Wimbledon-ites are somewhat excluded from the craft beer boom that seems to be invading the rest of the capital. We have the great By The Horns half a mile away, and The Antelope over in Tooting, but beyond that, there’s not much craftiness about. What we have in abundance, however, are Young’s pubs.

While we can occasionally hunt down an offering from the likes of Meantime or even Rocky Head at these pubs, generally it’s traditional ale all the way, often Wells and Young’s own brews. These tend to be the classics – Young’s Bitter (3.7%), Special (4.5%), London Gold (4%).

Maybe it was the effect of sitting on the edge of Wimbledon Common in the sun on a lazy Sunday at the Crooked Billet. Maybe I had been to too many craft beer bars and festivals and drunk one too many kegged 7% hoppy IPAs. But I started to remember how much I enjoyed lower ABV ales. I started to feel a twinge of disappointment if I walked into a pub dominated by keg lines. I even passed over keg and opted for Orchard Pig cider if I spotted it on occasion.

With a newfound passion for real ale, it appears that GBBF couldn’t come at a better time for me.

the_great_british_beer_festival_2014The beer list this year is dizzying, with over 900 ales, ciders and perries. As well as a healthy list of British offerings, there are also beers from countries as diverse as Japan, Sweden, Sri Lanka, not to mention the inevitable swathe of American, German and Czech brews (many of which will be kegged or bottled).

When presented with such a huge array of options at a festival, there is always the temptation to go for beers with unusual tasting notes and breweries you haven’t heard of. Sometimes this can end in disaster, but often you can find some real gems (the downside being that it may not be until the following year that you encounter the brewery again if they’re not local).

There’s the added pressure, as the event runs on, of estimating your beer saturation limit. How many tasters and halves can you get through without falling over? I remember an ex-colleague going to the 2010 GBBF and boasting he got through 38 halves (this figure is unsubstantiated), but that’s sadly not an option for little old me. Is it worth passing up on that tantalising half of Thornbridge Jaipur so you can try the potentially dodgy beer from Lincolnshire which proports to have a toffee-pumpkin-mocha-oak chip-cobwebby horse blanket aroma? And how will you live with yourself if you don’t try it to find out?! That’s not to mention the ciders and perries – often neglected in favour of the beers.

1150547_1389865414573752_639728861_oSkimming the list, I have to admit to being ignorant of the vast majority of the breweries represented. The odd name leaps out- Fyne Ales, Brewsters, Camerons – along with the big daddies such as Fullers and Greene King. But for the most part, I’ll be flying blind, with only the programme tasting notes to guide me.

I’m sure that after a few halves I’ll inevitably do something stupid (there’s a Black Cherry Mild* – that could very well be it). But, sometimes, that feels like it’s all part of the adventure of exploring new beers. It’s about learning what you like, what you don’t like, and having a bloody good time.

-PS

*I have just looked this up and have seen that it’s won bucketloads of awards. So maybe I should be less judgemental about my hypothetical inebriated beer choices.

Great British Beer Festival 2013 – festival report

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.

The Great British Beer Festival 2013

The Great British Beer Festival 2013 at Olympia.

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:

Pip:

  • 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)

 D:

  • 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.

Classy headwear.

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.

ICIP enjoying GBBF

Pip (l) and D (r) enjoying their first GBBF. Cheers!

– PS