I have concluded that the way to really deal with the Great British Beer Fest is to drink American beers with Irish Craft Brewers.
It is the day after a rollicking beery adventure in extremes, and let it be said I am not hung over. (I can’t confess to never being hung over because the minute I type this I know my particular superpower will abandon me.) I skirted the edge of sensibility, starting with a 9% double IPA and continuing with crazy-bold flavors and highly alcoholic brews for six hours before quitting while I was still able to feign a civilized demeanor. The only giveaway that I was quite squiffy: I woke this morning in a panic, thinking I’d left my tasting notes under Thom’s bottle of Alaska Smoked Porter. I was more chagrined that someone might read my absurd ramblings than losing the notes.
After braving the GBBF last year by myself or with non-beery friends, I considered giving it up. Was it really worth it to be overwhelmed by the dire Exhibition Centre and all those less-than-friendly beery dudes? No matter what careful planning I made of beer lists, once confronted with the crowded, cavernous space, the experience devolved into a joyless, inebriated wander. But not this year! The Beer Nut and Bionic Laura had the keen suggestion that I should come on Trade Day, which is the Tuesday before it all kicks off and attendance is limited to media and beer professionals.
I arrived a half hour before the doors opened, thinking I would be one of a few waiting around. I was amazed to see a massive queue of the UK beer demographic, boomer-aged men, wrapping around the building. The talk in my point in the queue was of beer– American Beer. The men behind me were trying to outdo each other with stories of their US beer-tourism and I felt vindicated that American beers dominated my list.
I had printed out a beer list from the CAMRA site, lovingly plotting my tasting sequence based on intensity of hops and alcohol percentage. All that flew out the window when I arrived at the World Beers section the first 5 of on my list were not on cask yet or were only in bottles. I went for the Captain Lawrence Reserve Double IPA at 9%. It was intensely warming with a refreshingly floral nose. The dominant grapefruit-hop character danced around a hard-candy sweetness. It immediately went to my head– I was starting in the deep end!
It was then that I saw Mark (who really should have a beer show on Radio 6). His enthusiasm matched my own: I’m drinking something insane from my homeland! It’s doing me proud and making my cheeks red! This is going to be so much better than last year! Mark already had a Father-Christmas satchel of incredible bottles from the US. Yes!
Then I spy Laura who brought her knitting and has her posse with her, the Irish Craft Brewers. I find myself sitting next to Thom and Kevin, comparing notes and beer lists and when Boak and Beer Nut show up the party had started in earnest. In the past I’ve had to pour out beers at the GBBF, but not this time. Everyone around me has such good ideas– every beer I tried was delicious. The other benefit of sitting with a bunch of generous beer geeks is that everyone opened bottles for the table to try and we shared each others’ beers as well.
And it wasn’t just ticking either– Laura and I busted out our knitting and kept our hands busy. She made me the adorable Beer Jumper in my favourite color green (pictured in the above photo). At some point during the afternoon that beer jumper was on every bottle we tried, and later it was actually doing some disco moves, too. And there was Tombola-tomfoolery (Tombolafoolery?): with Sarah winning a false beard.
Seriously, though, Sarah could capture a beer in just a few words. She had the foresight to buy a bottle of Dogfish Head’s heady Midas Touch for the table. Based on an ancient Sumerian recipe it was very mead-like, fragrant and earthy.
(At one point the beard ended up on Beer Nut…)
- John dons the Tombola Beard
The other beers I had were:
Crouch Vale Amarillo, an old favourite I had just to add a British mellow in between the intensities.
Alaskan Smoked Porter (Thanks, Thom) which was a synesthetic delight reminding me of an experience I’ve yet to have: eating chocolate smarties on Bonfire Night.
Grain’s Tamarind IPA and Marble’s Ginger (both UK beers), recommended to me by Kevin, one of the Irish Craft Brewers, who didn’t steer me wrong all afternoon. They were lovely, with the Tamarind being decidedly tannin-y and the Ginger very fresh, juicy and full of spice.
I also tried the Tsarina, which sat beckoning in an old oak cask, its name painted in a contraband-scrawl. Mark exclaimed, “I don’t know what it is but I want it!” At 11% it was the biggest beer of the afternoon, an imperial porter (De Molen Tsarina Esra Reserva) coating the glass in a treacle veil with intense chocolate-raisin smoothing out with a bittersweet finish. It was too rich for me, and even though I couldn’t finish even a third it was still delicious.
But there was one beer that surprised me. It lingered in my mind so that I woke up up craving it– the Allagash Interlude, an experimental ale brewed with Belgian yeast and fermented in oak wine barrels. At first it sounded like there is just too much going on. I’d ruled it out, having had bad experiences with American beers using Belgian yeast, but after tasting Laura’s I had to have some. Complex fruits and animal scents with an addictive tartness, a demanding puzzle that remained refreshing to the last. I’ve contemplated going back today in hopes it would still be on, braving the whole thing alone. That’s how good it was.
If I go back, maybe I could even win myself a mustache in the tombola and my perfect GBBF would be complete.
EDIT: I stand corrected on two counts: it was actually Dave’s Alaska Smoked Porter that I was bogarting. And Pete Brown was the first to suggest I get myself to the Trade Day. Thanks, guys.