Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Things We Learned At The Great British Beer Festival 2013

1. If you go with a chap with unusual hair, you need to be someone who can enjoy the dazzling array of ales while retaining your sense of humour, tolerance and patience. The hair will be challenged - early and often, and not just by Armstrong and Miller. So-called normal-haired drinkers will approach to laugh, mock, covertly photograph and occasionally praise. This was at its best when a couple of Spurs fans wandered over for a chat near the American beers bar and at its worst when a giggling group approached with a handwritten sign saying "knobhead" on it and asked if it was ok if the chap with unusual hair held it for a group photo. I ask you, dear liberal-minded ale drinker - who is the real knobhead in that situation?

2. The atmosphere on Friday is very different to Wednesday. I've gone in midweek for the last ten years or more, but this year I had to go on what is usually the busiest day of the festival. There were a lot more large and loud groups of the sort of younger weekend drinkers you tend to find dressed as super heroes in Manchester city centre. I'm going on Wednesday next year.

3. Porters and stouts are still seducing the medal judges for some inexplicable reason. A thick, impenetrable ale seems to win every year - this year it was Elland's 1872 Porter (6.5%) from West Yorkshire. It seems the Camra top tongues are not content with their sensational success in turning us into a nation of real ale drinkers - they won't stop until we're all glugging nothing but chocolatey, roasted, black beer. Forget it. This is August and we should be raising our golden, citrus-drenched IPAs towards the swifts and swallows.

4. Don't bother queuing for the Champion Beer of Britain. Demand means it's rationed for certain key times - 6.30pm on Friday after being picked by the porter-pooters on Tuesday. The queue started around 6pm and snaked around Olympia. We dutifully joined it and got chatting to another festival-goer. He soon persuaded us we were wasting our time and should try something from the Tatton Brewery instead. Turns out he owned it. But the Tatton Gold at 4.8% was indeed backed by a robust hop character. Just didn't get his name.

5. IPAs are the kings of beers. The rest are dusty, backroom ne'er-do-wells in comparison. I love them. The American ones set the standard but their huge alcohol content means you have to approach The Spirit of Enterprise bar with extreme caution to go with your jaunty festival glass. The explosion of hoppiness is worth every percentage point - Sierra Nevada's Side Car Amber Ale (5.6%) made me laugh out loud and Stone Brewing's Stone Ruin Ten IPA (10.8%) - both from California -  was like getting tickled all over by a gooseberry.

6. Scribbled tasting notes made towards the end of the evening are tricky to decipher the next day: "I've got an Art Brew Monkey and a BG Sips. Fair dinkum." Meaningless.

7. My favourites this year: Ramsbury Belapur (5.5%) IPA from Wiltshire - it's got everything, Jerry; Tyne Bank Southern Star (5%) from Tyne & Wear - a deliciously sharp and limey New Zealand IPA; Abbeydale Deception (4.1%) from South Yorkshire - stringent apples, pears and peaches; Great Heck's Yakima IPA from North Yorkshire - a fabulous, strong, 7.4% ballbreaker; Raw's Grey Ghost IPA - excellent 5.9% refresher from Derbyshire; Liberation Ale (4%) from the happily liberated Channel Islands - complex blackberry profundity; Greene King IPA Gold (4.1%) - sweet, crisp, vanilla.

8. Ones to avoid: Moorhouse's Black Cat mild from Burnley - weak, weedy and a bit vinegary; Sulwath's The Grace from Dumfries and Galloway - dusty and too damn sweet; Rother Valley's Smild from East Sussex - had us grimacing; Greene King's Belhaven Black - made me cough; Stringer's No. 2 Stout from Cumbria - tasted like roast chocolate caramels. That's it - no more black stuff until November at the earliest.

9. Don't lose track of time if you want to see Alvin Stardust play live. I've always liked his glam rock hits - My Coo-Ca-Choo is magnificent. He did two sets - one from his rock 'n' roll Shane Fenton years and a second from his better 70s days. We got to the Olympia stage just after the Fenton years had finished and didn't make it to part two. Shame. He's 70 and got more stamina than me.

10. This year's festival programme colour-coded the beers so you knew if they were dark, pale or inbetween before pestering the heroic volunteers staffing the bars. Great idea.

11. Olympia is a great venue for the GBBF. I prefer it to Earl's Court. It's a more manageable size, the bars are closer together and it's slightly nearer to my house. And this year it didn't leak.