Last week, in the space of three days, we visited two very different beer festivals in London and after a little bit of time to reflect on both here are my thoughts.
The first was the Sunday session of the London Craft Beer Festival (LCBF) at the Shoreditch Electric Light Station. Some alarm bells are probably ringing all ready, Craft beer! Shoreditch! Doesn’t that mean bearded hipsters drinking out of Teku glasses and discussing how the Mikkeller tasted much better last time they were in Copenhagen? Well no, not at all (apart from the drinking out of Teku’s part). This was a festival which really showed the cutting edge of the brewing world today. Whether it was the best of British brewing from Cloudwater, Beavertown, Verdant, Kernel, Siren…I could go on or some import beer that beer geeks like me can normally only dream of drinking: Dry and Bitter, Other Half, Dugges and Stillwater Artisanal to name just a few. The thing with this festival though was that even though they had all these super modern breweries it still paid homage to that cornerstone of British brewing heritage: Cask Ale.
In a dedicated area sponsored by Fullers there was a diverse range of cask beers which could hold their own with the keg beers being poured in the main area. Ok, so London Pride might not be something to get excited about but how does Fullers Imperial Porter or Imperial IPA (both 10.5%) on cask sound? Or the exciting collabs where Fullers worked with newer breweries like Marble and created a NZ hopped Saison or the recreation with Moor Brewery of the original 1971 recipe of ESB. Drinking beer like this gives me a real buzz especially knowing it might not be brewed again. It is a credit to the organisers that they have a cask area and hopefully it got some people who normally turn away from cask giving it a try.
The way the festival is run allows you try as much different beer as you can responsibly handle. The ticket price is all inclusive meaning you get your snazzy Teku tasting glass on entry and then you simply visit a brewery stand for a 100ml serve of whatever they are pouring at the time. Sure if you break it down to a £ per pint basis it might seem expensive but drinking ten pints isn’t what this festival about, it is the opportunity to try small servings of incredible beers that if you could even get your hands on them would normally cost you an arm and a leg. While we were there I tried 37 different beers (I asked for smaller servings than 100ml for a lot of them) which for the entry fee I thought was fantastic value. While it would be hard to pick favourites two that have lasted long in my memory and I would dearly love to try again are the DDH Mosaic DIPA from Other Half which had an incredible aroma and intense Mosaic hit and the Dry and Bitter Christian Bale Ale which luckily, we have managed to secure a case of for the shop.
Overall, I came away with the impression that this is a seriously well run event, sure there were a few minor niggles; I would have liked more seating areas and the toilet situation in one area was a bit odd with some confusion over which was the males and which the females, I don’t think it was my beer addled brain which was the problem. The music might not be to everyone’s taste but it suited the event and the little touch of wristbanding people waiting in the entry queue meant that once the doors opened it was a speedy entrance and didn’t take long to get a beer. Would I recommend going next year? Without a doubt.
Two days later we were attending the 40th year of the venerable institution that is the Great British Beer Festival which features over 800 different drinks available, with approximately 450 or so of those being cask ale. Now I am going to start this by saying I love cask ale, one of the things I looked forward to each time I came to the UK was the cask available everywhere so this festival should be right up my alley, but yet I came away a little disappointed, having experienced a struggle to find any cask ale that I really wanted to drink. The ones we tried ranged from good enough to ‘can you please tip this away for me’ and sadly there was no wow moment where I immediately wanted to go back and order the same beer again. This might be a reflection on me as drinker and where I am at but as a lover and frequent drinker of cask ale frankly I was left disappointed about what I was trying. The best beer I tried was on the European keg beer.
This got me wishing (much to my amazement) that the GBBF featured more UK keg beer. If it is good enough to serve European Keg then why not more UK keg? Frankly I was surprised to see Tiny Rebel were allowed four keg taps and Harveys had one as well. Yes, I realise that CAMRA is all about Real Ale so why would they encourage keg but it is there already. Imagine this scenario: Next year the GBBF has a UK keg bar as a test to see how popular it is with the drinkers. I have a sneaking suspicion that it would be very popular and maybe that is something they are afraid of? Sure, there will be old time CAMRA members who look down their nose at keg in any form but why not give it a try and embrace all the fantastic beer that Britain has to offer? Who knows, it could even lead to a keg beer being named Champion Beer of Britain?! I don’t think it is a threat to cask beer and it would add to the reasons why the GBBF is the Great British Beer Festival.
Look, I don’t want to come away sounding like I didn’t enjoy the GBBF at all as that was definitely not the case. As a place to have a good time and meet other people in the industry it is fantastic. If you treat it just like a giant pub as beer writers Matt Curtis and Will Hawkes suggest after experiencing GBBF fatigue themselves you will have a brilliant time. But is it the place to find the best beer in Britain? Well best is always such a subjective term but for me and my taste buds then this year at least it sadly wasn’t. Will I be back next year? Of course, but with an attitude of ‘let’s just have a good time’ and treat the discovery of any amazing beer as a bonus rather than the purpose of attending the festival.
On reflection, the funny thing is if I had to choose between attending one or the other it would be a struggle. Sure this year at least I preferred the beer at the LCBF but there is something about the GBBF that draws me in, perhaps it is simply the size but more likely it is the tradition and heritage surrounding it. I just hope that the heritage doesn’t become an anchor that stops it evolving as the British beer scene evolves. In closing I really would urge you to try and attend both festivals next year if you can and if it has to be one or the other? Well as much as I try I really can’t answer that sorry.