Three Nights of Beering

GBBF-- a grim venue in which to get your buzz on.

GBBF-- a grim venue in which to get your buzz on.

“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.

My tombola win and a half of Chocolate Cherry Mild

My tombola win and a half of Chocolate Cherry Mild

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.

13 Responses

  1. I find the only tolerable way to enjoy the GBBF is to go in a group. We go every year and colonise one or two tables, then take it in turn to go and buy rounds, each one from a different bar. The rounds are mixed, with each individual deciding what they want from that bar — the bar is announced a few minutes in advance, and the designated beer-fetcher takes orders.

    We usually go on Thursdays (and we have at least one person there from the start so no trouble getting a table); if you’d like to join us next year then just drop me a line (you should have my email address from this comment but if not then it’s Can’t help with the Friday though — Friday at the GBBF is my idea of hell.

    Incidentally I had a question that I was wondering if you could help me with. I had a beer the other day (Archer’s One For The Road) that tasted quite sour to me and I was wondering if it was meant to be like that; but I have no idea how to find out. Are there any mailing lists, newsgroups, forums, etc, where I could ask what other people thought of this beer (and expect to get a decent number of replies)? I tried googling but it’s quite a tricky name to google for.

  2. Hey Kake– I really like your masterplan! Next year I will take you up on the invitation.

    I realized that part of my misery was doing the whole thing alone, or coming after work so there was no way to grab a table, etc. One night I did go with a group but not early enough to get a table.

    I had never gone on a Friday before– you are right. Primal! I will avoid it next year.

    I have never had One for the Road, but if it was sour it had probably gone off. What did it smell like? I have had other Archers beers and they all were very good. I would ask the folks at the blog– they seem to know almost everything, or will know where to find out.

  3. Oscar Wilde is available in the Nags Head, Walthamstow. Let me know if you fancy a trip some time…

    I’m touched by your faith in us… I don’t tend to do newsgroups etc but if there’s a particular beer I’m interested in reading reactions to, I have a look on the beer blog search engine set up by the nice guys at Hop Talk.

    Of course there’s always RateBeer and BeerAdvocate.

  4. Hi Boak–

    Oscar Wilde would be worth a trip to Walthamstow, not to mention the good company! Next week I’m in Weston but when I get back I will email you.

  5. The stuffed ram makes it. I’d probably go to every beer fest in Portland if I got a stuffed doll each time.

  6. You’re wrong about Tuesday being for tickers – one table of ’em were still there on Saturday, post-it notes stuck to their glasses as they desperately sought more stuff to tick 😉

    They set up by BSF on Tuesday at opening to chase the Brewers’ Association bottles, then the De Molen Imperial Stout, the US draughts…

    I thought this year was the best fest since the move to Earl’s Court. It’s still a grim place to try and chill with a beer, though. Better luck next year.

  7. How can I have gone so long without reading Boak and Bailey? What a great blog. I’m reading through all the back issues now (and linking to the reviews from RGL).

    I suppose you’re probably right, and my pint was off — I really should start trusting my own judgement a bit more when it comes to beer. I’ve been drinking it for a long time but I still don’t feel as though I know what I’m talking about.

    Boak, unfortunately the beer blog search only brings back this post 🙂 But thank you for the pointer; I’m sure it’ll be useful in the future! RateBeer was helpful though; the review there didn’t mention anything about sourness, so it sounds like it was quite unintentional.

  8. Hi Dan– they should have Tombolas at beer fests in Portland. The Tombola is the best part of the festival, next to the beer.

  9. Simon– I didn’t go on Tuesday as it is set up for professionals and journalists. In the post I said tickers seemed to outnumber other people on Wednesday. I’m sure they are there every day.

    I think more than luck is needed to really have a really happy time there, though.

  10. Hi Kake– I know what you mean about trusting your own judgment. There is a pub near me that often serves pints of beer that have gone off. I would try beers that other people rave about and think they were horrible, when really they’d just gone bad. I started to not trust my own palate! I thought maybe I didn’t get British beers. And then I stopped going to that pub and tried some others and realized that sometimes it’s not your tastes that are off it’s the way the beer’s been kept.

    I realize I like to drink small amounts of very intense beers. I don’t really like “quaffing” ales or piney hops, but that doesn’t mean the beers with those qualities are bad, they just aren’t for me. Though it did take me five years since my “beer conversion” to realize this.

  11. anglo-dutch’s Tabitha is a fave of mine – when i can get it. the chocolate cherry mild sounds really interesting though – i’ll keep an eye out!!

  12. I worked several years as a volunteer when the GBBF was in Alexandra Palace. Great fun. Sometimes it’s more enjoyable on the staff side of the bar.

    I’d recommend trying it yourself one year. You can volunteer for a single session. It gives you a whole different view on the festival experience. And you find out which are the beers really worth drinking.

  13. I’m not sure I quite qualify as an obsessive or ticker but given how you describe the other days I’m glad I popped in on Wednesday.

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