Session 16– Beer Festivals

Teeshirts at the Great British Beer Festival

It’s Beer Blogging Friday. This one is hosted by the Geistbear Brewing Blog and the subject is beer festivals, a subject I have written about on this blog in a previous post, but also on my other London blog, Feral Strumpet Teatime. I’ve decided to revisit my post about the Great British Beer Festival for this month’s session.

Great British Beer Festival Ad by oiyou on flickr

Great British Beer Festival Ad, photo by oiyou on flickr

Upon entering the huge Earl’s Court Exhibition Centre,the first thing that greeted me, besides the overwhelming choice of beer available, was this tasteful billboard. I gave this Bishops Finger booth a wide berth, thinking, I see your finger and raise you a knuckle sandwich. The party mood evaded me from the get-go, even though it was “hat day” and most of the drinkers had on some kind of headgear– cardboard new year derbys, giant guinness pints with plush shamrock brims, white caps emblazoned with the Saint George flag and in the case of one gentleman, disco 45s taped together.

This was my first Great British Beer Festival, and I didn’t have a game plan. I did bring a friend who kept insisting with fatherly concern that I was “drinking too fast” from my third pint glass. (Note to self: don’t bring him this year!) I decided to people watch and became fascinated by the teeshirts on the drinkers and those displayed for sale. There was a strange mix of British nationalism (ie bulldogs pissing) and indulgent self-deprication (the “I ate all the pies” teeshirt.) But ultimately, it was a celebration of liver execration (see Oliver Reed themed shirts on special.)

And it was a dude kind of affair. Where is a woman’s place in this scene? (”If only these were brains” across the bust of a baby doll tee shirt.) There were women there, but we were like some alien race. (”I have the PUSSY. I make the RULES” tank top.) I felt a special allegiance with the women who were not under the arm of a man. Women who had come here because they liked beer, not because they’d been dragged along.

When 4:30 came round and the suits started rolling in, things went in the lad-derly direction– a wink’s as good as a nod–kind of direction. But before then I got some drinking in. Not as much as I would have liked. All my careful planning (light to dark, start with thirds and NO CIDER) failed me.

Having no posse to buffer the culture shock, I tried to take it all in but I needed a drink first, and fast. To get oriented I committed what felt like sacrilege, going to the international counter. It was very small and mostly featured bottled stuff, but unlike the other counters it wasn’t packed with punters. I was looking for Rogue but my country was singularly represented by Sierra Nevada. I shuddered and slid down to the German section. Behind me, all of Britain was represented and I held out my glass for kölsch. It was illogical, ridiculous really.

And then I had a dunkel.

I was about to try the Bavarian Andrechs spezial when my friend convinced me to branch out, go native. Wink wink, nudge nudge, say-no-more. The Hambleton Nightmare Porter was singularly spectacular and worth the price of admission. I only wished I’d had a whole pint of its malty comfort. I sat with two friends on the floor of the utilitarian Earl’s Court Exposition Centre, splitting a plate of buttery Wensleydale cheese and ale chutney with biscuits and a few different ales. It was perfect. For a moment I understood this English pride precisely– the urgent love of the countryside and the bounty of tradition and all that. And I wanted another beer.

My friends were set on cider and I caved– I broke my no cider rule. Why? Cider makes me drunk and does my pallet in. I had something that was quite drinkable if not memorable, and it predictably went straight to my head. I felt an achy melancholy creeping up, like when I drink champagne. The choice was either to buy an Oliver Reed tee shirt and keep up the red-cheeked work or go home. The later course won out.

I even thought of going back to the festival the next day by myself just to undo this grave error. (Does she go? Is she a goer?) This year I’ll start at the Yorkshire counter and work my way widdershins around the island, map in pocket (said the actress to the bishop).

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10 Responses

  1. “Achy melancholy” — wait, yes, that’s exactly what I get when I drink sweet-ish boozy things. Thanks for putting a name on it.

    I think I might actually need an “I Ate All the Pies” t-shirt. And cheese and chutney and biscuits!

  2. Holy crap! Until you added the picture I honestly thought you were joking about the Oliver Reed t-shirts.

    Superb post.

  3. Hey Lori– I’m sure they will have the pies tee shirt this year too. I will get you one, but the sizes were pretty big– you might have to wear it as a dress!

    You need to come here just for the cheese! I have a pot of clotted cream in the fridge and everytime I get it out it asks me “Where is Lori?”

  4. Hi Beer Nut– There were several versions of Oliver Reed tees. Spoiled for choice– if you bought three of them you got one free. Having only seen him in The Devils and Oliver!, someone had to explain to me his spectacle of alcoholism.

  5. Gender relations is one area that’s always worried me about GBBF. I no longer loathe the event with every fibre of my being the way I once did, but somehow, whenever I persuade a female acquaintance to come along, she never wants to go back again. Maybe it has something to do with a popular T-shirt design you seem to have missed – the one with the slogan, “If you can read this, the bitch fell off”.

  6. When was this?

    GBBF does seem to get better each year. When I first went (about five years ago, not really into beer at the time) it was full of dreadful t-shirts and very testosterone fuelled.

    Last summer was a real contrast – very mixed crowd, a lot less dodgy t-shirts. The international counter was superb, with some great American stuff. We had a good time, and I would certainly bring non-beer geeks next time.

    Main trouble with GBBF seems to be the condition of the beer. Certainly by Friday a lot of it has gone off. Just goes to reinforce the stereotype of ale being a bit “farty”.

  7. Hi Pete– I’m relieved I didn’t see that tee shirt. Presumably someone wearing that is really trying to say they are terrified of women and never actually want to get laid.

    I am already working on finding more people to go with this year– the idea of being a woman alone in that mess, trying to elbow your way to a crowded counter for a third of a pint of something– it’s just depressing!

  8. Hi Boak,

    This was last year. Now I’m wondering what it might have been like in years previous. I went early on the Wednesday or Thursday I think. I will keep that in mind about the beer condition and going later in the week.

    I’m trying to rope in as many non-beer geeks as I can this time– bring the party with me, because I certainly wasn’t finding it there. Your Beer Fest post was spot on– I would argue the GBBF needs more of the festival aspect!

  9. I agree, it does get better. CAMRA is still full of arcane Luddites, but the poeple who actually run the organisation now seem to have their heads screwed on and are doing a great job of bringing GBBF and CAMRA itself into the twenty-first century. The international stall gets better every year and was awesome last year. The programme is getting more helpful, the tasting notes are now comprehensible to non-geeks, the staff have, in the main, learned a basic degree of inter-personal skills. All to the good.

    The best day without doubt though is the trade session on Tuesday afternoon, when everything is fresh. As bloggers you guys should try to get press entry for that session. It’s not one you can take a big bunch of mates to, but it always makes me want to go back again later inthe week, which has to be a recommendation. Fridays and Saturdays I’m never sure about…

  10. Hi Pete– Thanks for the tip re. the Tuesday– I will look into it. I realize that to really get the most out of the festival I would have to go once in lonely “ticker” capacity, and then maybe again with some mates and just have fun. There’s just so much, but I’m not sure I’m ready to show up with a spreadsheet!

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