the best beers out in 2016

the best beers out in 2016

It’s time to reflect on 2016, its beers and the places I drank them in. Frequently lugging a camera about has helped preserve my memories and added some nice detail to blog posts. The unsung hero, though, is the mobile phone which is always in pocket. Swiping through the image archive is a resource we didn’t have just a few years ago. It’s amazing how many (mostly dreadful) photos I took but without it, many recollections would’ve been lost. Admittedly, this can often be attributed to the drink itself.

I’ve decided on a list of seven to sum up beer in 2016. Some I blogged about, some I didn’t. Each is included for a different reason. I rarely leave the orbit of St Albans or London so they all take place there. I also want to keep the focus on the pub, bar, brewery or taproom so I’m not regurgitating experiences I had at home.

The garden of the White Lion, St Albans:

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One thing I love about summer isn’t so much the nuclear light of early afternoon but how long into the evening it takes for the sky to darken and how many transcendent colours it turns. In St Albans the celestial streaks from aircraft contrails add a Jackson Pollock flourish to the canvas too – both Luton and Stansted airports are very local. On the pub’s lawn, burning brasiers provided a primal warmth. When the heavens finally deepened to indigo, the fires radiated their orange and hunched over, people sat around as they have done for thousands of years with their shadows flickering about them. It felt so natural and timeless and it intensified conversation to the clandestine. On pallets we sat back to back with a friend or acquaintance without even realising it as they were engrossed in equally intense exchanges. What was the beer I was drinking? I’ve no idea but it was good and came in rounds. Elemental and outdoors, it just felt like freedom.

The London Craft Beer Festival, Bethnal Green:

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I want to avoid cliché here and not use the sweetshop analogy but can’t. It was a full-on Willy Wonka extravaganza but I can at least customise it a bit by specifically referring to the 1971 version with Gene Wilder. That film had technicolor psychedelia and a brooding menace. It was like having free reign in a sweet shop because this festival has dispensed with cash, pint measures, tokens and (virtually) queues too. It’s one swig of beer after another. All the hipsters with their common sartorial pomp served well as updated Umpa Lumpas too. I usually keep tally of how many pints I’ve drunk but that measure – for good or ill – has also taken voluntary redundancy at the Oval Space. No idea how much I drank and difficult to even remember which I consumed. Only the most memorable gobstoppers punctuate the memory. Somehow I made it back home. The recollection will be forever date-stamped by the geometric hulk of gas holder five – the gasometer cage that lends the venue its name.

Paradigm Brewery, Sarrat:

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I spent an hour or so exploring a quiet village in a low hanging mist. It was the first chill of winter and Sarrat seemed deserted – a perfect Midsomer Murders venue. I descended into the Chess Valley to find a commercial watercress bed and bought some by leaving money in an honesty box. Watercress has a long history of being stream-farmed in Herts and Bucks. I then dropped in unannounced to Paradigm brewery who brew a beer with it. It was in the fermentor on my visit. I met the two brewers going about their grind in a converted pig house. They were hopping, taking orders, driving, collecting, delivering and good enough to show me around. I was given a glass of a Mosaic-hopped beer straight from the cask in a cool room. It was carbonated, cold, zinging and utterly refreshing in a way I don’t usually associate with gravity dispense. Paradigm is a brewery successfully exploiting the traditional and the present.

St Stephens Tavern, Westminster:

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This is the only entry I include where the beer was bad. It was a pint of First Call by Hall & Woodhouse and it was awful. Despite that, it makes it into this roundup for the location’s surreality. Even if the beer had been good, it would never have matched up to the sights and sounds – the unreal view of human and vehicle traffic teeming past parliament. It made me want to pinch myself. The architecture of the pub interior had window panes soaring towards the sky. Summer was rearing up. The scene from the service bay looking towards Queen Elizabeth Tower was like standing in the aisles of a giant movie screen – the backdrop to a documentary about parliament you could walk into! Just order a half.

The Six Bells, St Albans:

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I can be a bit of a ticker (less so these days as it increases the amount of crap beer you pay for), but when Timothy Taylor’s Dark Mild and Ram Tam come around, the stakes change. Both are ales I’ve been aware of for years, they just don’t break out of West Yorkshire much. The feeling was like celebrities coming to visit your home town. They were here as part of a tap takeover and food pairing that had happened a couple of days before which I missed due to work. But I crossed the threshold at my earliest opportunity. Even though the Six Bells had few customers at the time, I ordered a half of each together in case one cask ran out. I then returned for a pint of each at a more civilised pace. I had the chance to savour them, talk to them, listen to their concerns and make plans for our retirement together in the Pennines.

The Harp, Covent Garden:

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The relaxation and comfort I associate with a pub I don’t expect to sit down in speaks for the pub’s conviviality. This is the feeling that’s been reinforced over a decade. The Harp is the kind of pub that gives a backbone to pub mythology. Not only that, but this glow was made even more cosy by a glass of fondant manna – Fullers Vintage Ale straight from cask. You don’t so much drink it as absorb it like a vanilla sponge soaks up brandy. The Harp is one of those pubs where you feel yourself willingly becoming part of the structure – you start to melt into the wall you lean against like you’re becoming one of the many characters portrayed in its paintings. I hope to be reincarnated as part of the decor so I remain forever.

Craft & Cleaver, St Albans:

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In London you could probably tap one of Cloudwater’s 2016 smash hit DIPAs and turn an hourglass over next to it to see if there’s any sand grains left in the top before the keg runs dry (especially if you’ve Tweeted about it too). In St Albans, it lasted a week and I seemed to be the only person drinking it. I went back to the Craft & Cleaver four or five days on the trot like an addict returning to the drug. Each time I sipped it in quietude – I think it’s best savoured this way. I don’t want anybody speaking and interfering with the taste. This is good anti-socialism: the kind you sometimes need. Cloudwater DIPA is a beer you need to shut your surroundings out from to allow a large empty space for contemplation. I witnessed so much footage gazing down at the headless surface. Beers that force you to drink them slowly have this power. The price was worth it.

Conclusion:

In 2016 going out to drink has lead to a wealth of experiences – some opposing, some complementary. They have reflected not just socialisation but introspection, heritage as well as modernity and both solitude and conviviality. The feeling of outdoors has been as remarkable as the awesome anatomy of architecture and it’s been a year where institution can equally accommodate innovation.

The humble shoehorn

The humble shoehorn

The post I had envisaged writing has been ruined by research. This often happens. I was planning to chart the change in cask ale at a CAMRA beer festival over the last five years. I suspected – and it’s hardly controversial – that tastes were drifting away from the bitters and golden ales to the IPAs, porters, black IPAs, rye ales and fruit sours. In a way, that assumption has been borne out but not in the way I’d anticipated; the results are wearing camouflage.

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The only beer festival I’ve been to each time in the past five years is the St Albans Beer and Cider Festival thrown each summer in the Alban Arena. Not only have I visited and volunteered, but retained each year’s brochure with the beer lists. Over the course of the lustrum (five years to you and me), this literature is what I’m basing my findings on. It won’t be 100% accurate because as each festival’s set up, some beers never arrive, some don’t get drunk because of cask or ale defects whilst others are substituted at the last minute. Notwithstanding all that, I’m taking the lists at face value.

First I counted the overall cask tally and then the amount of each style within it.

The amount of golden ales has increased and then dropped. The peak was 140 in 2014 (out of a total of 348) and has come down to a low of 75 out of a list of 337 in 2016. Other traditional styles – the stouts, porters, milds and barley wines have stayed within similar margins each summer.

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From 2012, the bitters make up just under half but that proportion obviously dropped right? Except it didn’t. It went up. This year, over 50% (180 out of 337) of the beers on offer were bitters. This didn’t seem right.

I then scrutinised the bitters a bit more carefully. Unlike the GBBF, the festival at St Albans hasn’t included the increasingly popular IPA in its categories. By extension, it hasn’t confirmed black IPAs , American IPAs or DIPAs in its flock either. Amazingly, all these developing styles have instead been shoe horned into the bitter or golden ale category.

Here’s a small sample of some of the “bitters”: Dark Star Green Hop IPA, Red Squirrel Double American IPA, Thornbridge Jaipur and Siren Craft Brew Liquid Mistress.

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Stout, porter and mild all get their own colour tag yet they’re often difficult to distinguish. It’s hard to get a Rizla rolling paper between the first two.

There were just twelve milds at this year’s festival (including Timothy Taylor’s Golden Best – this, I think, was just an honest publishing error). There were in the region of 27 beers that self-identify as IPAs or could be included in the broad definition. There were also a number of self-proclaimed black IPAs or black india ales including the beer advertised on the staff festival T shirt – Farr Brew’s Blacklisted India Black Ale. Yet they’re all bitters or golden ales according to South Herts CAMRA!

This year even saw the entry of some barrel-aged beers, Saison and fruit sours – all on cask. Each was duly baptised as a bitter or golden ale. A locally brewed bottle beer – AleCraft’s Sonoma Double IPA weighing in at 8% – has during the course of the lustrum been both bitter and golden ale. It’s never been able to “come out” as what it really is to the family.

The problem is twofold:

Firstly, this categorisation reflects beer styles as they used to be to the point that the monikers mean absolutely nothing if they encompass all of the above under the same umbrella. Bitter and golden ale have basically come to mean anything that can’t be lumped under other headings.

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Secondly, punters coming to the festival to learn a bit about beer styles might end up leaving more confused than they arrived. A golden ale could’ve been the sweet honeysuckle of Tring Brewery’s Fanny Ebb’s Summer Ale or alternatively it could be Oakham Ale’s aggressive Green Devil – a visceral grapefruit flesh nectar on steroids. Sampling bitters might have thrown up Dark Star’s Green Hop IPA or Windsor & Eton’s Conqueror – their black IPA. These are nothing like the more textbook Boltmaker or Sussex Best.

It’s time to revise the evolving topography in the field of beer categories. The GBBF does list IPA (how can it not?) but this is only one category more than its smaller cousin in South Hertfordshire. In reality, the craft of brewing, the technology used and the wider range of ingredients are shaping beer’s future. The old chalk-scrawled categories on the casks are becoming obsolete.

Albion august

August azure

 

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The pores of your skin dilate from the lurid heat. The way the light in the evening sends people’s shadows spilling across the ground, you’d expect to see a mushroom cloud on the horizon. God it’s hot.

The lounges and snugs of St Alban’s public houses gape empty and still. The illuminated beer founts glow alone in the darkness. This void hasn’t come about due to the death of business but very much because of its health: everybody’s outside in the oven glow of August.

When summer gives over to autumn in this country, it’s the sun’s last stand. Over the past few weeks we’ve witnessed its nuclear core in its final charge. It’s going over the top.

The customers sunbathe at picnic tables in the beer gardens. Pale-skinned people have finally darkened and the elasticity patterns and strap lines of June have been absorbed by these brown-hided herds.

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People move at a slower pace and pints of ale carried aloft navigating their way through the tables glow like nodes of clearest honey. Glasses of red wine become rubies, white wine refracts like diamond.

In the garden of the Mermaid, a beer festival/contest is taking place: Oakham Ale’s pale beers versus Titanic Brewery’s dark beers. The weather would suggest a bias towards the former but the victor hasn’t yet been called. A rack of twelve casks tilt respectfully towards the drinker. These precious pupae require reverse parental care whereby their nappies need to be kept moist. This keeps the contents of the casks’ bellies cool. Each time the diapers dry out, the pressurised hose comes out again.

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My own leaning is in favour of Oakham Ales but the two halves I had from Titanic did give the Staffordshire brewer a little leap up in my book. The Cappuccino Porter tasted more like its eponym than the sweet caffeine froth itself and defeated the Peterborough brewer’s gingery Oblivion. But then Velvet Claws by Oakham saw off Last Porter Call – bold grapefruit, pine and lemon zest trumped dry roast coffee and malt.

The parks have also caught the sun and the sward is exhausted like the edges of burned parchment. Concrete pathways appear to have quartz marbling from the diffusion of sunlight through the canopies. Several weeks ago twitching clusters of ragwort heads glowed an impossible yellow – each petal imprinted like a mercury blade onto the retina when you shut your eyes. Now they’re reduced to faded crepe paper.

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The townscape is seen as if through smoked glass, the buildings look like aged photographs of themselves.

For the second year running, the Sopwell area of St Albans is running a Sopfest over the August bank holiday. Six pubs are taking part. The beer range has improved this year and become as varied as it’s possible for cask ale to get. It covers fruit beer, Saison, spirit aged, milk stout, black IPA, barley wine, porter, Belgian pale, wheat beer and honey ale. It even has the odd archaic bitter.

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People are having halves in pint glasses because we’ve all turned from swillers to nosers. This used to be done furtively by appreciators of fine ale for fear of social ridicule. It’s now done proudly and publicly. With a beer aged in rum casks you’d have to be dead for your eyes not to swivel back with post-coital bliss into the back of your skull from inhaling the aroma.

I hear my name called by a shape. You can’t recognise people right in front of you as they’re a pastel silhouette – you need to raise your arm in a hook over your brow to see them.

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Before the bank holiday weekend comes to a close, there’s live music on in the White Lion garden. I’m drawn in to an acoustic version of Cockney Rebel’s “come up and see me” by a bearded man in his sixties wearing a straw hat. To shudders of glee from the audience he then tightens the pitch his voice and actually nails “kiss!” by Prince. I witnessed this within reach of the beer stillage. A pint of pale ale seeded with Belgian Saison yeast complimented the experience.

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Young mothers dance barefoot with their toddlers on the grass and fat couples snog each other as the vault above us turns from white to golden to crimson. Darkness is finally creeping in though it’s still balmy. This is where I have my last beer of Sopfest – Bona Nox by the brewery I started this post with: Oakham Ales. The title is latin for good night and served as my august nightcap.

The Oval Space

beauty within and without
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It’s just the name I don’t like. It’s too contrived. The Old Gasworks would’ve been better. I came here to experience the London Craft Beer Festival – just follow this sentence.
 
I hadn’t counted on the awe of the Oval Space. I’ve tramped up and down Mare Street many times completely unaware of the sleeping giant in the neighbourhood.
 
You see a gas holder cage as you approach the venue but it seems underwhelming, barely peeking over the low buildings you walk by. It’s only after you’ve crossed the threshold of the Oval Space that reality distorts with crab nebula beauty. Once you enter the building and go up a flight of stairs, the wall and roof are cut away. The sky becomes the ceiling and the wall becomes a breathtaking industrial panorama: you gaze directly at the metal skeleton of gas holder 5 in what used to be the Bethnal Green gasworks and the blazing azure summer framing it. You’re bathed by it. As you look up from your low elevation, it’s like you’re kneeling in its presence. 
 
Though we don’t think of them as such, Kentish oast houses and Norfolk windmills come from the industrial age. The gruelling days of physical labour we have the fortune never to have known in our own lifetimes have robbed these buildings of the oppression they once bore. in the 21st century, they’re the rustic postcard pin ups of the English landscape.
 
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So it might be for gas holder 5 built in 1889 – the smaller tower – holder 2 that stands behind it is a couple of decades older. Though we still have working gas holders or gasometers, they’re gradually departing the scene splitting people between those that would love to see them demolished and those that nail their hearts to them. In just over a decade, I’ve experienced the same regard towards the buildings of Battersea power station. 
 
Some feats of architecture were never meant to stun but do so in their industrial largesse. Others diminish like Marble Arch. It’s now dwarfed by the buildings that surround it and seems so puny.
 
Gas holder 5 reminds me of something ritualistic – a circular standing formation. Arenas in the Acropolis, the Colisseum, the Calanais standing stones on the Isle of Lewis, a circle at Carnac, Stonehenge. 
 
I can imagine sacrificial offerings being made under its steel struts at the winter solstice.
 
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I’m not sure of the age or origins of the Oval Space unlike the Pickle Factory behind it that reveals all in its name. Looking into it’s creation does turn up an irrepressible Lithuanian priest who tried to stop the change of premises to a music venue:
 
 
Maybe what makes this metal guardian so compelling is that it’s fading into history as you look at it like a relic in the making. You can see it turn sepia and the periphery of your vision curl and brown like an old photo.
 
The Oval Space has the biggest lounge conversation piece on the planet. Please let’s not demolish it.
 
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London Craft Beer Festival 2016

    how the LCBF knocked me sideways
 
 
On Saturday evening I decided to go online and book a ticket for the London Craft Beer Festival at the Oval Space in Hackney. I hadn’t planned to do this but got tempted by seeing the brochure of someone who’d just come back from it.
 
I intended write a pros and cons assessment of this festival against the GBBF but that’s not possible – they’re not remotely comparable. 
When I entered the main hall upstairs I submitted to some mild panic. This happens every time I hear eardrum-throbbing music or sound in an enclosed space but this is just a reflection on me and my unoutgoingness. I soon got used to it as the rhythm entered the bloodstream but it did have another disadvantage: all the brewers whose beer you’ve been raving about – and whose produce has done things to you you long to thank them for – cannot hear your praise or anything you say
 
You end up mouthing the name of the beer to be lip-read or just pointing at it. I took a couple of photographs of brewers I hold in high esteem – I just wish I could have told them at the time. The ones with their backs to the window were slowly being bisqued in their own juices as the panes acted as a magnifier to the sun’s rays. 
 
You get the beer in shots – as many as you want so you can taste beer of all colours, styles and strengths. No money changes hands as all drink is included in the ticket. The dispense is fluid and uninterrupted meaning minimal queuing. 
I love the thought that’s gone into the little practical details: water butts have been put on the corners of bars so that you can open a tap, rinse out your glass and chuck the dregs into the bin underneath. This way you can switch from a Simcoe IPA to a chocolate coffee porter without their respective foams compromising each other’s taste.
The second half of this festival is just across the road in the Pickle Factory. Your glass needs to be empty before you traverse because of licensing detail – the Oval Space doesn’t lease the road so alcohol cannot be consumed on it.
 
 
This smaller venue is cut off from the light and feels clandestine. Fuller’s brewery is running it and has brought together some of the best breweries and a menu of delicious cask ales that span the ale spectrum. 

For the first time ever, I had the opportunity to sample the Imperial Stout, 1845, Vintage Ale, Brewer’s Reserve, Golden Pride and other heavy Fuller’s beers rarely seen on cask. 
 
Waddling back to the Oval Space (glass empty for the scrutiny of the security bods), you ascend up the stairs, come back out into the light and are ambushed by one of London’s most beautiful urban vistas. This could almost be an analogy about leaving the constraints of real ale in the little shed behind. Am I talking about the Pickle Factory or the GBBF?
 
 
This festival is free from any technical definition of beer. Developments in brewing, in its technology and in its process can all be accommodated under the craft banner. This is a project that just makes the sensory experience between you and the beer its goal – all else is irrelevant.
I’m still turning this experience around and around in my head.

should the GBBF just serve British beer?

further reflections on the GBBF 2016
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In the autumn issue of CAMRA’s Beer magazine, the item of debate was whether the GBBF should only sell British beer (with my assumed emphasis on tap rather than in bottle). The question was also put out as a poll on Twitter. I voted but without much thought or verve and as ever, it’s retrospectively I actually start thinking about the question in the first place – only once it’s been and gone!In the autumn issue of CAMRA’s Beer magazine, the item of debate was whether the GBBF should only sell British beer (with my assumed emphasis on tap rather than in bottle). The question was also put out as a poll on Twitter. I voted but without much thought or verve and as ever, it’s retrospectively I actually start thinking about the question in the first place – only once it’s been and gone!
 
The binary question, alas, gets no binary answer from me but a swinging hinged one – the kind of answers I give when I overthink things.
 
I visited the GBBF on wednesday and made sure to visit the Bieres Sans Frontieres bars. There were three general clusters: German & Czech, Netherlands, Belgium and Italy and American & Nordic (Nordic meaning Scandinavian). The odd thing is that these clusters do actually represent breeds in a way. The first isn’t surprising – Germany and the Czech Republic border each other and have a shared culture of Lager styles. I believe that if I had to shoehorn Italian beers in anywhere, it would indeed be with Belgium & the Netherlands. The last one’s harder to explain but is true with regard to the style – Scandinavian breweries definitely emulate hop-heavy aromatic American beers. 
 
I tried American cask beer for the first time – a toasted brown ale (Aeronaut Brewery) left very little impression but then I spied a mild (Into The Mild – Cambridge Brewing Co) and recalled that American yeast clarifies malt and hop profiles in higher definition. I rolled it around my tongue trying to work out whether this was in evidence or just the power of my own suggestion. It did seem a bit less murky than a lot of our British counterparts. So maybe.
 
There was also a cask take on a Kölsch hopped like an IPA (hard not to just write this off as an IPA). It hadn’t yet come on but I would’ve been intrigued to see if a cask Kölsch could manage either the Rhineland’s effervescent carbonation or its gentle apply flavours. I wish I could’ve slaked my curiosity but I remain highly sceptical until proved otherwise.
 
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If I really want to try something different, though, I’ll need to leave the comfort of cask.
 
My three favourite beers this year were Fullers Vintage Ale (cask), Prince of Denmark (Harvey’s – cask) and Alvinne Stout from Belgium – a beautiful tipple dispensed from an oak barrel. It was fruity and dark on the palate but smelt of red wine. It wasn’t particularly complex just a sensory joy. 
 
The Alvinne Stout was from the Belgian, Italian and Netherlands’ bar which offered to rinse out my glass each time – something very welcome, especially as I opted for Cantillon whilst a blanket of foam from a cask stout was still clinging to the inside of my vessel. This was mid afternoon however, so this service may have been “efficienced out” when it got busier. 
 
If I’d had more foreign beers – some Flemish red, Czech Pilsner or Belgian Gueuze, would the Alvinne Stout still rank as high? Or does it stand out just because it’s different to all the cask beers – a palate cleanser. And this is where I round on that overthought hinged answer I promised:
 
The best thing about the festival is it’s like a drinking banquet with as many overlaid dishes as possible. I want as much variety as possible to give my taste buds a comprehensive rogering and this can only be achieved through oases of beer – meaning different methods of dispense.
 
The question as to whether there should be foreign beers on tap at the festival is actually a Trojan horse. As far as I can see it was asked with no ulterior motive for a yes/no debate in the magazine but unwittingly, via the back door, it’s also the question about whether we should have craft keg in the festival. 
 
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The very same reason that Alvinne or Cantillon, Früh or Rodenbach might stand out is because of the difference in style and most importantly, like Kölsch, like Pilsner, like sours or Lambics they don’t particularly cask well and aren’t therefore “real ale”.
 
Yes there should be foreign beers served at the GBBF if all the British beers are cask only.
 
No there shouldn’t be (or at least, it would be less necessary) if the beer styles are represented by British brewers via keg and key keg as modern brewers take inspiration for their beer from all over the world.

GBBF 2016

some thoughts on this year’s festival
 
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This year I arrived at Olympia from Kensington High Street tube station. It’s just a fifteen minute walk and feels more free and breathable than getting the overland train. As I passed some of the borough’s street signs, it struck me that W8 mirrors E8 if London were a folded Rorschach blot. The former postcode marks creamy stuccoed splendour with wide avenues, the latter designates working class terraces but also an emergent brewing epicentre. Hackney’s leases are beginning to rise by as much as 400% as the city creeps east. London eh? It’ll catch up with you in the end.
 
When gaining on Olympia, you see the ambition in its Victorian stamp (built 1886). Massive steel-latticed arches haven’t been constructed like this since the monarch of empire passed away. The only problem is you can’t get the view the architect (the aptly named Andrew Handyside) intended because of the cramp of London’s built environment; the places where you’d stand to take a picture of Olympia face-on have been built on themselves. The only way is to get onto the upper levels of the buildings the other side of the railway track. I therefore have no image of Olympia as the oblique angle down the service road just doesn’t do the beast justice. 
 
I  love entering Olympia and getting bathed in its soft platinum light. At the same time, you enter its echoing sound bubble – something well-tuned as the day wears on as glasses break to local cheers. 
 
I like that the GBBF has come back down to earth this year with regards to its theme. This year each bar is named after a pub that has won CAMRA’s champion pub of the year so I felt a tingling feeling near The Harp bar. Last year the explorer theme felt a bit laboured – the banners hanging from the ceiling had curled up and there was a general feeling of fatigue. The circus theme the year before that was jolly but I couldn’t work out the connection it had with beer. But then again, I’m a grouch.
 
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Harvey’s Brewery has come up with a heading based on Sussex’ county motto – “we wunt be druv” (we won’t be driven). Maybe it’s a fitting tribute to the brewery’s impermeable stubbornness through three centuries but it does sound like it’s being said by someone with a lobotomy scar spanning their scalp. In their new, more minimalist branding, they’ve also added an apostrophe after the “y” to the delight of grammar pedants. This little change also differentiates them from the popular furniture storeroom. I had three glasses of beer from this bar – the Dark Mild, the Green Hop and of course Prince of Denmark – an ale worth the visit to the GBBF each year in itself. 
 
The Tiny Rebel bar demonstrates what can be achieved in such a small amount of time for a startup brewery (it started brewing in earnest in 2012). This presence is no doubt in connection with Cwtch winning champion beer of Britain last year. Following an article in the Autumn edition of CAMRA’s Beer magazine, the brothers are very careful to hold cask ale in high esteem and seem very much to want to keep CAMRA on their side in contrast to many new urban breweries. Maybe it’s about hedging bets: if British keg comes to Olympia they can exploit it. If it doesn’t, they can exploit that too. Their Loki Black IPA is delicious in any case.
 
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One of the simple pleasures of the festival is aimlessly wandering around. I love the characters that are drawn out each year – many look as though they were created by Tolkien – Middle Earth’s most hirsute snd wobbly.
 
The upper gallery reserved 75% of its orbit to its VIP lounge, corporate, and other restricted events. In the 25% that remains for the general public, extra barriers have been erected to keep you about twenty feet back from the original railing. This is frustrating as it’s the only “aerial” viewpoint you can take of the festival by camera and you have to crop the barriers out of the picture later. You can’t take a shot downwards. 
 
My beer list this year was as follows:
 
Dark Mild, Green Hop, Prince of Denmark (Harvey’s), Menha Du (St Austell), Toasted Brown Ale (Aeronaut – American cask), Into The Mild (Cambridge Brewing Co – American cask), 1872 Porter (Elland), Cantillon (Cantillon – on keg), Loki Black IPA (Tiny Rebel), Alvinne Stout (Alvinne – oak barrel), Vintage Ale 2016 (Fullers) and Pine Porter (Rameses – Netherlands).
 
My top three beers of the festival in no particular order were Fullers Vintage on cask, the aforementioned Prince of Denmark and Belgium’s Alvinne stout served from an oak barrel – it had a tart red wine nose but fruity portery body. 
 
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Third measures are definitely the way to go. I found that in the five minutes before Fullers vintage ale was due to be pulled through at 16:30 (and it was – on the dot). I ordered a third from an adjacent bar and then had plenty of time to drink it whilst waiting in the queue for Chiswick’s finest.
 
I left with a warm feeling that isn’t just the alcohol. It makes me think of when I was about nine years old and a keen palaeontologist (into dinosaurs). One year we took the trip by rail from my home in Bangor, North Wales to the Natural History Museum not far from this festival. I left with that same sensation of awe that I do when I leave here. The impossible size of the venue, the exhibits, the buzz.
 
I think CAMRA is increasingly putting the pub at the centre of its campaigning – even above the primacy of “real ale”. From all the differing opinions I’ve heard about The Revitalisation Project, everyone seems to agree that saving pubs should be paramount.
 
Maybe next year the bar names could either represent pubs threatened with closure or those that have been saved after a successful ACV campaign. Keep the focus on the pub!