Czech it out! Bohemian beers get my vote at GBBF as Essex is again The Only Way

Tuesday’s opening night at The Great British Beer Festival 2011 marked the 21st consecutive year that I’ve made the pilgrimage to this temple of beer. Ever since the festival made its permanent home in London, in fact, although the current event bears little resemblance to the one-off edition that began my adventure at the London Docklands Arena in 1991.CAMRA clearly learned a lot from that Dantean Inferno of an event, which – on the day I visited at least – saw most of the beers on offer dispensed at a temperature more akin to that of a brew kettle at full blast than that of a cool cellar. GBBF moved the next year to the greater expanse of Olympia where it stayed until 2005 (it’s going back in 2012) while barrel cooling jackets rapidly became de rigueur at all CAMRA festivals. The overall excellent condition of the various tipples sampled on Tuesday night at Earls Court, which would largely have passed muster in a Good Beer Guide-listed pub, is testament to the skill and knowledge that the Campaign’s volunteer army brings to the World’s biggest bar.

So what were my highlights from Tuesday? Another Champion Beer of Britain accolade for an Essex brewery was a major achievement for a county that only a few years back could boast Crouch Vale and little else following Greene King’s closure of Ridley’s. Crouch Vale’s consecutive successes with Brewer’s Gold in 2005 and 2006 set the scene for an Essex brewing revival that now sees Maldon-based Mighty Oak’s Oscar Wilde mild take the big prize. This is also a major shot in the arm for mild, a favourite style of mine, with Oscar Wilde having long ago marked itself out as a classic in my eyes. But Mighty Oak’s success is doubly pleasing to me given that the brewery’s original home was less than half a mile from my own!

Fortunately, my familiarity with Oscar Wilde mild meant there was little need to chase down a sample at GBBF. Indeed, I can enjoy a pint of Mighty Oak’s finest at the excellent Viper pub in Mill Green, only a few miles bike ride away. Instead, after a few British ales (largely chosen at random nowadays but with a definite leaning towards lower strength offerings of late) I inevitably revert to type and immerse myself in he beer cultures of near and far flung lands care of the Bieres sans Frontieres bars.

Top of my 2011 tipples list – at least from opening night, I’m going back again tonight and possibly tomorrow – must go to Bohemia’s Rakovnik Pils. I’ve already come clean about my love of unfiltered, unpasteurised lagers in my post on unexpected Turkish delight Perge Pilsner, but good quality examples from the original homeland of straw-coloured lagers take the experience to another level. Even my lager-sceptic friends were impressed. With two other similar brews on offer on the night, from Bernard and also Budweiser Budvar’s “yeast beer”, I was already a very happy tippster. With plenty of other interesting brews on offer too, including interpretations of British styles and “fruit-enhanced” lagers of a kind frowned on in neighbouring Germany, GBBF’s Czech bar is finally starting to stretch its legs after years peddling only the most obvious of that country’s beers.

If my focusing on foreign brews at the Great British Beer Festival seems perverse the reasons are simple: GBBF provides about the best regular opportunity in the UK to discover at least a sampling of the many delights that our counterparts overseas are able to enjoy. But not everything I see here pleases me.

Why, for instance, advertise that the American beer bar will be offering a rare Belgian-style oud bruin from the excellent Deschutes brewery only to be told that the 12 (yes, 12!) bottles that had been procured had sold out by 12:30 that lunchtime during the trade session, when average punters such as myself can’t normally gain entry. Adding insult to injury, the otherwise helpful bar person told me that getting hold of a bottle was a “perk of working at the festival’. I’m not questioning CAMRA’s right to reward its volunteer staff in any way it sees fit. But it’s probably wise not to raise the expectations of the paying public by advertising something they’ll never actually be able to acquire.

But I digress. Overall I’m deeply grateful to CAMRA for going to great lengths to entice circumspect (or is that suspicious?) British ale drinkers into trying different, and often somewhat “challenging”, new flavours. And no doubt I owe something of my love of “foreign” beer to my early days of experimentation back at the Docklands Arena (although let’s not forget Michael Jackson’s New World Guide to Beer and his great fun The Beer Hunter TV series, which I still have on an old VHS). But I can’t help thinking that aficionados are being a little short changed in some areas.

For instance, the German bar presents a very nearly identical selection of draughts and bottles each year. While I do deeply enjoy the dunkels, alts, Kölschs and other varieties on offer, for a country of some 1,300 or so breweries the selection is somewhat uninspiring to regular returnees drinkers. Where’s the revived sour Gose of Leipzig, for instance? I’m still waiting.

Equally, why can’t the American real ale bar source some brews of sensible strength? Or at least look for more variety to intersperse among the massive – and near ubiquitous – IPAs and Imperial stouts? And why is it anyway that the US brewers represented feel compelled to do so in cask-conditioned form, a decision that does not accurately represent most US microbrewing today?

On the upside, the growing representation of committed Italian microbrewers always turns up something unusual, from a beer culture whose references span all the great brewing nations and package it up with American levels of enthusiasm. and Italian panache Indeed, several of my takeouts this year were Italian (more about them in a later post).

For sure CAMRA’s beer festivals have done a great deal to promote good beer, British or otherwise. And no doubt the Campaign would argue that that the festival is primarily one of British beers. Even so, I feel there’s room for more innovation around GBBF’s foreign beer offering. Or maybe it’s time to give them their own festival…

Author: The Tippster

Ex-journalist with a love of unusual and misunderstood beverages spanning over 25 years.

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