Beer guru Pete Brown on the must-attend beer festivals for the year
August already! And in the beer geek’s calendar, that only means one thing. This is the month every serious toper descends on the capital, tankard in hand, to meet up at Olympia – temporarily the world’s biggest pub.
The Great British Beer Festival (GBBF) from August 13th – 17th is the daddy of all beer festivals. I wrote last year in this column about how, as beer enters the 21st century, GBBF has evolved gently from being a Gathering of the Nerds into something people who simply like beer rather than obsess over it can enjoy and not be freaked out by.
Yes, it still offers wonderful opportunities for exotic people watching. (Three years ago, I invented the game of GBBF I-Spy Bingo, where I tweet descriptions such as ‘Man Who Thinks The Matrix Is Real,’ ‘Gandalf In Mufti’ and ‘Man Quaffing Beer While Standing at Urinal,’ and anyone who can tweet me pictures of the full set gets signed copies of my books.) But it’s now run well enough and broad enough in its appeal that we can be fond of the festival’s eccentric quirks rather than frustrated by them.
And all that really is irrelevant anyway, beside the beers. This year there are more than 800 beers and ciders to choose from. Real ale is the star of the show, but what Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) insists on referring to as ‘foreign’ beers has seen massive growth in recent years. The incredible rate of change in British brewing means I genuinely don’t know what to expect of the range of beers available this year. CAMRA can’t even dream of stocking a decent representation of all of Britain’s 1000-plus breweries. Will they stick to the traditional styles they know? Or will they embrace the new wave of craft beers?
Some beer fans aren’t waiting around to find out. Which is why, for the first time, this August offers the London-based beer fan far more than one beer festival.
Urban Sessions opened its doors at the start of July and is now seriously hitting its stride. This gloriously ambitious project is a 16-week long celebration of great food and drink based in The Old Baths, a quirky art deco building in Hackney Wick. The beer strand is being curated by writer and – ahem – sommALEier Melissa Cole, who knows a thing or two about flavourful brews. As well as the best beers from London and beyond, there are cocktails, food wagons, live bands and DJs. There’s also live brewing, where home brewers can have their efforts assessed by expert judges, and collaborations between well known brewers will happen in front of your eyes. Apart from the impressive indoor space, there’s a lovely outdoor area, perfect while the weather holds. It’s open to the public Wednesday, Thursday and Friday evenings, all day Saturday and Sunday, and runs until October 31st.
Also, as GBBF reaches its climax next weekend, anyone who still has a liver can check out the inaugural London Craft Beer Festival. To some, craft beer is the new thing that’s going to come along and displace real ale. To others, it’s an annoying fad. To people who simply enjoy great beer, it’s another slant on how to define that beer, forsaking technical definitions based around modes of dispense for a looser, more artisanal, creative approach.
Like Urban Sessions, the London Craft Beer Festival has taken a sharper, hipper approach to how it celebrates beer. GBBF is what it is: your real ale quaffing is accompanied by oom-pah bands and pub rock singers, and you have a choice of pasties or floppy burgers to soak up the booze. Craft brewing – as any regular reader of this column will have figured out – is accompanied by an edgier creativity.
Part of this comes from a desire to reposition great beer and make a radical break from a past that is still seen by some outside beer circles as a style-free zone. Partly it’s a recognition that beer is now trendy, and therefore has to be dressed in hipster clothing. But mostly, I feel, it’s simply about a new generation of creative, inventive brewers, cooks and entrepreneurs reflecting their own influences, interests and aesthetics rather than those of previous generations.
The London Crafty Beer Festival therefore has an urban aesthetic compared to GBBF’s Best of Traditional British cheer. There’s a sure hand guiding the selection of beers available, with stars of the craft beer firmament such as Thornbridge, Mikkeller, Camden Town, the infamous Brew Dog and Kernel all sending their brewers along to talk people though their beers. There are no entry criteria based on size or location, only recognition that the beers must be interesting and well-made. For craft beer geeks, the full list of breweries attending is mouth-watering, with some beers exclusive to this event alone. Like Urban Sessions, oom-pah bands and pasties are out and DJs and street food are in. But there’s also a Mezzanine restaurant with a thoughtful beer-and-food-matching menu, the dishes created to marry with the character of the beers.
There’s a lot riding on these events. London’s Brewing, which I wrote about a few months ago, didn’t quite go as well as hoped (apologies to anyone who went along on my recommendation and ended up being let down). But the organisers of the London Craft Beer festival and Urban Session know what they’re doing, and have applied a professional approach that should be able to cope with any unexpected hitches.
These craft beer events don’t seek to displace the Great British Beer Festival. While some who exhibit there and maybe even attend might be critical of CAMRA’s hoary institution, the flourishing of these different events alongside each other demonstrates that there’s more than one audience for beer, and more than one way of celebrating it. Together with GBBF, they make August a huge festival of great beer in London. Individually, they represent the maturing of the craft beer movement, and point to a greater ambition that goes beyond beer geeks and hipsters.
Impossible to imagine a few years ago, it now looks like flavourful, interesting beer could become a mainstream proposition.
Pete Brown is the author of the newly published Shakespeare’s Local, an amusing romp through six centuries of history through the George Inn near London Bridge, watering hole to Chaucer, Dickens and the Swan of Avon. It is currently Radio 4’s book of the week. Pete is also celebrating being crowned Beer Writer of the Year for a second time.
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