Regular A FemAle View correspondent Rachel Woolgar shares her thoughts on returning to the Great British Beer Festival and how it might inspire her drinking habits for the rest of the year.
The Great British Beer Festival, aka GBBF, ignited my thirst for trying different beers from unfamiliar breweries. So following a successful first foray last year I was delighted at the chance to return.
Writing for Sophie means doing research (or it does this time) so I spent a while beforehand perusing the GBBF website beer finder. I needed to discover some new beers from breweries I’ve not encountered before. Reassuringly the beer finder also selected some beers I‘d already tried and liked – but would it deliver in reality?
I headed down to Olympia. This year I was prepared for the cacophony of noise in the main hall. Last year the rowdy din left me slightly anxious but now I can’t wait to join the noisy hoards supping their beer, wearing dubious articles of millinery (yes, I was there for Hat Day again) and no doubt ready to engage Sophie and I with witty repartee (apart from you, drunken on-the-pull man who repeated the question “So are you enjoying the beers?” about ten times until Sophie lectured you into submission with a mass of facts about cask ale).
Before we got stuck into my beer list we sampled some of the ‘Hell’ style (sic) German lagers from the Czech and German bar. These helped us acclimatise as I consulted my personal beer list and worked out where each of the bars was.
I’d spotted that some of my old favourites were on offer (Beartown’s illusive Peach Melbear and St Austell’s Proper Job) but I needed to push the boundaries and step outside of my beer-drinking comfort zone. (I now feel terrible at depriving you of Peach Melbear! Ed).
First up East London’s Jamboree (4.8%). This caught my eye as the tasting notes alluded to kiwi fruit. I found the flavour more grapefruit with a hint of elderflower. I did not detect kiwi! While not unpleasant it was fairly unremarkable.
Next turned out to be my beer of the night. Black Cat Hopsmack (4%). I tried it on the
recommendation of the bar staff as my first choice was sold out. I was very glad
as I loved it and didn’t want it to end! Brewed with Amarillo hops, which are usually a winner with me, I thought it had a subtle, almost Turkish Delight taste to it. A delicious discovery which I hope to have again. Hats off (plenty of hats around) to the volunteer behind the bar for suggesting it.
After the highlight of Hopsmack came the lowlight: Penpont’s Creation Pale Ale (4.2%). I usually favour pale ales so it should have been right up my street. The tasting notes promised fruity, citrus hop notes with subtle oak and vanilla. What I got was an initial stale Malted Milk biscuit taste which then segued into cheesy sick. I’ve been told old hops can turn cheesy but I can’t tell you if that was to blame here. Whatever the cause it resulted in an extremely unpleasant taste.
Despite my initial scepticism, at Sophie’s suggestion I also tried a barley wine: Tring Brewery’s Death or Glory (7.2%). My misgivings were quickly forgotten as I enjoyed the rich treacly taste, which was the perfect pairing for the cheese and crackers we had with it. I even found time for a quick third of St Austell’s Big Job (7.2%) which I was curious about being a huge fan of their Proper Job.
I’m glad I pushed myself to try some new beers, despite the slightly mixed results. I find it all too easy to fall back on the familiar and shun different styles, like barley wine which it turns out I actually enjoy.
I found my return to GBBF hugely enjoyable but recalling my nerves last year I asked some other first timers how they found things this year.
My non beer drinking pal Nik said she’d definitely return, although she would have appreciated some decent bottled ciders as there was not much left to try on the cider bar by Saturday. She thought the pub games a brilliant touch and rated the food as excellent. In particular the pickled egg stall was, apparently ‘the thing of dreams’.
But other pals Amy and Paul preferred their experiences at smaller, more intimate festivals. They feel these offer better music and atmosphere even if there’s fewer beers to choose from. Amy was impressed with the range of glass sizes available though, and found a selection of porters to try. Some disappointed, but she really enjoyed Tiny Rebel’s Stay Puft (5.2%) as it was lovely and thick in the glass and despite the marshmallow element had a hint of sweetness rather than too much.
With two GBBFs under my belt I’m beginning to feel more au fait with the set up. For some a beer festival on such a large scale is always going to be too busy and noisy. The inflexible might not enjoy it either. That beer supplies dwindle as the festival draws on can’t be helped. This can be a blessing though – as you might discover a great new beer that you can’t wait to find again down the pub. It’s fair to say I find GBBF impressive and I certainly hope to go back next year.