“Why would you need to go to a festival to get beer?” The guy from the mail room, who’d stopped by the new high security den in which I work, asked. My co-worker had just informed him that I was going to the GBBF again, after having gone almost every day this week. They found this hilarious.
I told him there were hundreds of beers by small breweries, beers you could never get at your local pub or off license.
“Stick with the big names, that’s what I say. You know how they’ll taste. You know what they’ll do to you.”
I have to admit that after three days of drinking countless and varied thirds, I see a sliver of wisdom in this man’s words. You see, I don’t feel so great. Friday night my feet were covered from blisters– after working 8 hours in heels and corporate costume, I now stood for another five drinking. And then I spilled mild all over my only good work skirt, and I wasn’t even drunk. I was in serious beer overload.
It’s hard to get drunk happily at the GBBF. There’s a lot of trekking around, looking for the beer you want, and then queuing, and then more walking around looking for a small, calm corner in which to enjoy it. You realize there is really no such thing, so you drink it while being jostled by unfriendly crowds. And then with the next 1/3 of a pint it starts all over again.
If Tuesday belongs to the professionals, Wednesday belongs to the obsessives, the tickers. Thursday belongs to the suited hedonists: City workers drinking as fast as they can before their 9 o’clock train. And Friday belongs to all the people you’d rather not drink with. Friday is one giant stag night. Groups of men roam, roaring in unison every time a glass breaks or they win at something or just because they think they need to jump-start the craic. They’re wearing purple western hats usually reserved for desperate fun of the hen night, or tams with “ginger” hair attached, or jester hats. And it’s not even hat night. That was Thursday. And there are more women on Friday, but they are tarted up in the tiniest skirts and stilettos.
After wringing a half pint of mild from my career-wear separates, I’m really no better. I just wish I was drunk like them and maybe none of it would matter.
But the thing I realized as I watched a saintly CAMRA volunteer set up the “roll the barrel” game for the stream of drunk asshats (in America the equivalent would be frat guys, but in the UK I’m not sure) I realized why I came every night wasn’t just for the beer, or the spectacle of machismo, but the sheer wonder of this volunteer-run event. To work unpaid in the dismal Earl’s Court Exhibition Centre with drunks and beer obsessives sounds like its own kind of hell. You’d have to really love beer to do this. I hope they all got lots of it.
A lovely CAMRA volunteer encouraged me to try my luck at the tombola– only a pound to play, and you are guaranteed to win! When I won a little stuffed ram toy she whispered, “If you don’t like it you can pick another.” But how could I? I’d already won.
Here are my tasting notes:
Abbeydale Black Mass: a thinner stout, quite hoppy– almost soapy.
Anglo-Dutch Brewery, Tabitha the Knackered: a favourite of mine from the festival. Golden amber with an orangeflower water nose. Slyly warming at 6%. Refreshing but complex.
Bushy’s Oyster Stout: Another favourite. I would like a glass of this right now please. Very close to Porterhouse’s version, minus the salinity and with more chocolate happening.
Dunham Massey, Chocolate Cherry Mild: An amazing beer, exactly like its name except that it’s not too sweet at all, balanced by a gently hoppy finish. I drank a lot of this.
Mighty Oak, Oscar Wilde Mild: It was tasty but through a major party foul I ended up wearing most of this.
Valhalla, Old Scatness: Named after the Iron Age village in Shetland and brewed from the ancient grain bere, this was really a light but satisfying beer– one which I went back to again and again. While in the Okneys we lived on the local flat bere loaves and the fresh white cheese made at a farm near our cottage. I thought this beer would have gone perfectly with these lunches. It made me long to go back to the Outer Hebrides.
Thursday was a blur of ciders– the most memorable was Rathay’s Old Goat with its mossy, forest creature nose and very dry finish.
I had several other milds and a few other stouts but I neglected to make note of them.