should the GBBF just serve British beer?

further reflections on the GBBF 2016
DSC_0005
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.
 
DSC_0033
 
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. 
 
DSC_0012
 
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
 
DSC_0002
 
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.
 
DSC_0023
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.
 
20160810_160202
 
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. 
 
20160810_171622
 
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!