GBBF Trade Day: Do you know where your beard is?
August 5, 2009

Laura & her knitted beer jumper!

Laura & her knitted beer jumper!

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.

Dont you wish your Beer Fest was as fun?

Don't you wish your Beer Fest was as fun?

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 a the Tombola Beard
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.

Naked on a beer rug.
August 11, 2008

Pump clips from the GBBF.  So. Not. Sexy.

Pump clips from the GBBF. So. Not. Sexy.

Beauty is in the eye of the beer holder…from today’s Mirror, researchers prove beer goggles exist. Which begs the questions– why did they need experts to prove this, and why, exactly, is this news?

The researchers administered vodka to test subjects– probably mixed with something to mask the alcohol. So, technically, they really haven’t proved the validity of beer goggles, at least in my mind.

Beer isn’t really sexy-making, is it? Beer in the quantity that gives one goggles also bloats and queases. Beer marketers have a lot of work to do if they really want to bring sexy back in a more universal aspect– this would mean more than a stemmed glass (apparently the stemmed 1/3 pint glass at the GBBF was designed to appeal to women. Does anyone else find this strange?)

Yesterday I was at the Market Porter, drinking a wonderfully estery Crouch Vale Eldorado when I spied a pump clip for a beer called “Forbidden Fruit” featuring a be-thonged prepubescent-looking buttocks with a disembodied hand holding a strawberry over the tail bone. The tag line read, You know you want it. Er…ok. But can you put it in a stemmed glass? Part of me thought, gee– that beer must be pretty great to survive such a horrible pump clip, but I’m not getting anywhere near it. Many beers are marketed as “sexy”, with a shameless use of women’s bodies. (In the US these babed-out ad campaigns are reserved for the “Bud Girls” and other megabreweries.) It’s just uncool, really, and no amount of beer goggles could make this bad taste good. Every time I see something like this it’s the equivalent of a cold shower. Is it any wonder women drink wine? Have you ever seen a crappily drawn bikini clad woman on a wine bottle? Real ale in the UK would be forward looking if that approach were just ditched, lumped, exstinctified. In my more paranoid moments I figure these ad campaigns in the UK are designed to deter women and save all the good stuff for men.

Witness the wrong-on-all-levels Shepherd Neame ad:

...a bowl of water for me bitches

...a bowl of water for me bitches

So, while beer advertising evolves (one lives in hope), let’s talk about beer. What is the sexiest beer you’ve even had? What made it so? Mine without a doubt would be Paradox Grain. Teh hotness.

Doing Two Things at Once
May 11, 2008

dove pub

Having lived in London for three years, it’s just long enough for me to understand I’ll never get to everying, and there are no more secrets to discover. Everything has been marked and claimed and remarked and I will present little new light. This is the case with the famous Dove pub in Hammersmith, the oldest riverside pub in London, where James Thomson composed Rule Britannia and William Morris got pissed.

It was purchased by Fuller, who still owns the pub, in 1796, but it existed as a pub for at least 100 years prior. I had walked past it many times while strolling by the Thames there, and it looked so cozy but I never went in until yesterday. One of my American brewer friends is attempting to replicate Michael Jackson’s favourite drink, Fuller’s Mild, and has been prompting me to do field research because I live close to the brewery. I thought it being the “Month of Mild” for real ale drinkers they were bound to have it on tap at this Fullers pub.

It was one of those hot days where Londoners are a bit miserable but won’t admit it, and everyone is forcing themselves to have fun, wearing things that don’t come naturally to the English, like plastic sandals and board shorts. The Dove was packed with people in this mode, all drinking Pimms and Lemonade or bottled cider. On ice. Why is it this is the only time you can find ice here, in this atrocious manifestation? Anyway, the promise A FRIENDLY WELCOME SERVED ALL DAY, outside on a chalk board, gave me a twinge of trepidation. In my experience any pub which claims this will offer you nothing less than tepid animosity inside. But one lives in hope.

Upon entering, another chalkboard sign offered a new way to drink Fuller’s honey beer– “TRY HONEYDEW ON ICE” I cringed. I cringed some more while scanning the taps: all bog-standard fair– Guinness, Carling, Fosters, save four Fullers taps– no mild. I went for my usual choice of Discovery, which is one of despair. I’m not that keen on Fullers ESB or Chiswick Bitter. I’ve had many a crap pint of Discovery, too. The only thing is, when I tried to order at the bar, the bartender took the order from Mr. Malting. He then asked if he wanted anything else and I piped in, “One pint of Discovery,” and the bartender mysteriously walked away to wait on some guy in affected apres-surf gear next to me. (This is a rather common occurrence in pubs– where I am passed over for a man next to me– but I digress). Plus, there was no loo roll in the ladies. Warm welcome, my ass.

So M and I split the pint, crowded into a corner. Of course it was beautiful inside with low ceilings and wooden rafters, and I imagine it would be cozy on a winter’s night but today I had to wonder, sweatily, why had all these people come here to drink the same thing they always do, with the same people? With the countless pubs in London, why suffer one that is coasting on its atmosphere and history? M and I used the time to plot our next move. Inspired by Knut Albert’s beer blog, we decided to check out the Magpie and Crown in Brentford, a steamy bus ride away.

Magpie and Crown Pub

Both of us had been by this pub many times and even asked friends about it who wrinkled their noses at the idea, no doubt put off by the fact that it is a local boozer and also caters to the “Beardy Weirdies”, or real ale lovers, as Stonch so affectionately puts it. I knew as soon as I walked in that this was the place. Despite the ugly, worn out carpet and footie blaring on the wall, I could see countless taps gleaming before me, all with beer I haven’t tried yet. I noticed they even had Fentimans, my favourite non-alcoholic drink.

I started with Crouch Vale Blackwater Mild, a total winner– it was, well, the blackest of blacks and beautifully balanced. Unable to resist an Essex beer named after a place in Texas, I tried Crouch Vale’s Amarillo next. Holy cow! This beer had an aggressively estery nose– yellow roses, you could say. And the hops seemed actually spicy, a bit like lemon pickle if you’ve ever had it. I shouldn’t have liked this beer. Maybe it was because I was sitting next to my own Texas sweetheart, but you know, I was so into it. I tasted a couple others but it was the Amarillo that merited a second pint.

beerboard

As I sat sipping, the crowd of chunky men watching the footie started in on a rather ugly conversation about the government taxing white Englishmen while Muslims just get away tax-free. I thought, yeah, this is why beer culture is not considered cool in this country– there is all this racist nationalism tied up with “real ale”– a false sense of authenticity. But this is a topic for another post.

Meanwhile, as the men had at it, a tiny woman with a sensible bob and Liberty handbag came in and ordered a pint of mild, and sat across from us, drinking it quietly. I overheard one of the men yell, “I’M NOT A WOMAN, I CAN’T DO TWO THINGS AT ONCE.” The mild-drinker wrote something down and checked her makeup in a little brown compact. At the bar, the only other woman in the place sat hunched in her dirty winter coat, carefully raising her glass to her face with one violently trembling hand. I took notes and drank, noting the model ships, freshly dusted, on shelves all around. One was actually made of Shweppes cans. The governor (named Steve– thanks, interwebs) in a shirt that said THE LIVER IS EVIL AND MUST BE PUNISHED, was busy filling a stein with a German beer with a head as voluminous and dense as mousse. Try that next time, I promised myself. In fact he told us that if we came back in three days all guest taps would be changed again. I think I can wait that long.

EDIT: Comments are closed for this post, which has been distorted out of context on another site. I am receiving comments that are not relevant to this post. If you want to talk to me about beer, great! Please do.

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