The Great British Beer Festival 2011

On Thursday we headed to the Great British Beer Festival in Earl’s Court, London. This is the mother of all UK beer festivals, with over 700 beers on offer as well as a multitude of ciders and perries.

At around 12.30 we emerged from Earl’s Court station straight into the pouring rain. We made a running dash for it over the road and entered the exhibition centre to the voices of stewards shouting repeatedly and urgently to the eager (and sogging wet) crowd ‘Don’t slip on the wet floor!’

I was initially overwhelmed by the size of the place. After grabbing a couple of £3 souvenir pint glass and beer programmes (free for CAMRA members) we had a look around. I found it to be a very confusing layout; breweries were ordered by groups of counties rather than alphabetically, which surprised me. I don’t always know the name of the towns that some of my favourite breweries are from, let alone the county. The bars were all given names and letter, such as P4 Gray, which confusingly had beers from counties H-L (not G, as you might vaguely hope/expect). So really, you would have no idea where to go without your brochure, and would have to aimlessly wander around hoping you would come across a brewery you were looking for – the names are listed on the backdrop behind each bar. But they could make this so much easier by listing the breweries alphabetically like the Cambridge beer festival does, as opposed to regional location – it would therefore be obvious where to go  if you wanted an Adnams beer or a Youngs. In my opinion.

So, rather than trying to figure everything out immediately upon arrival whilst still clutching an empty beer glass, wander we did. Luckily, we soon came across what we were looking for, the Bières Sans Frontières bar, or more precisely, the USA cask beer bar (or W2 Blackwell, if you want to get all technical). This was the reason I was here. I had composed a list comprising of no less than 24 US beers I wanted to try. OK, I knew that I wouldn’t get through 24 strong US beers in one day, but I knew several were bound to be gone already, so I had to give myself a few options, just in case…

Bières Sans Frontières

Bières Sans Frontières

When we got to the bar there were quite a few US beers on, but many had indeed gone already – including, unfortunately, most of the beers on my ginormous list. I was most disappointed to see that Deschutes Mirror Pond Pale Ale was one of them, which was due to be my first beer of the day. Grrr. This beer was going to evoke happy memories of Portland, Oregon, where we drank it in the Deschutes bar (see my US beer trip post). That was the plan anyway. However, the barman informed me that the beer was so amazingly fantastic that he had been recommending it to all his customers the previous few days, and now it was gone. Dammmit. Luckily, Adam managed to find the last remaining bottle of it on the adjacent bottled beer bar, so he grabbed that along with some bottles of Cascade Ale and Green Lakes Organic Ale by the same brewer, both wonderful beers. The great thing about Deschutes is that they don’t overdo their hopping like some US breweries; everything is nicely balanced and just right. However, I do love a massive hop kick too. Any day of the week.

So out of my 24 US beers, I managed to try a grand total of 4. Pah. Here they are:

Country Boy IPA

Country Boy IPA

Everybody’s Brewing, Country Boy IPA (6.2%)  – This wonderful beer from Washington state didn’t taste its strength although you could tell it wasn’t a 4%er. A golden ale with a fantastic hop aroma and citrus flavour. Contains lots of NW hops such as Chinook and Cascade but wasn’t overdone. This incredibly drinkable beer was one of my favourites of the fest and a very pleasant start.

Il Vicino, Wet Mountain IPA (7.2%) – I love the name of this beer – this conjures up for me the Cascade mountain range in Oregon with soaking wet hop fields from the incessant rain and lots of wonderful grassy smells. I had to try this beer from this New Mexico brewery, and it didn’t disappoint. Full of resin from the bundles of Pacific hops such as Cascade and Centennial this beer provided the much loved hop kick. Dark amber and very sweet with dry hop flavours, and tasted its strength. I was drinking 3rd pint measures (which is great about this festival) and glad I was – I couldn’t have survived on larger measures drinking beer this strong. Great beer.

Sierra Nevada Torpedo Extra IPA (7.2%) – Oh dear, not another 7.2%er. Again, this tasted its strength, if not stronger, and again very resinous. Not as sweet as the Wet Mountain, but a drinkable beer from this great Californian brewery who were the sponsors of the BSF bar. Their Pale Ale is also superb and ubiquitous in California.

Widmer Bros Okto Festival Ale (5.3%) – This beer hailing from Portland, Oregon, was OK, not bad, but not really to my taste, more malty than hoppy. This amber beer wasn’t very effervescent but it was smooth and drinkable, I just wanted to move onto the next beer though really.


So that was it for my US beers. Onto the UK beers.

To be honest, I wasn’t there for the UK beers, which sounds terrible as this is the British beer fest after all. But I had only drawn up a short UK list; breweries that I wanted to see weren’t there like Kernel and BrewDog, and other breweries that I like only had one beer which I didn’t want, e.g. Redemption only had a porter, Crouch Vale only had Brewer’s Gold, which is a great beer but I drink it all the time and wanted something different, and so on.

Here are some of the UK beers I tried:

Mallinsons Stadium Bitter (3.8) – I really love Mallinsons Simcoe, at almost the same ABV, but this beer was not as good – it was slightly hoppy and pale, but a bit astringent and I found it a bit dull. Or maybe the US beers had mashed my tastebuds by this point.

Moor Northern Star (4.1%) – This wasn’t on my beer list originally but I saw that someone had mentioned it on the GBBF Twitter feed so had to try it. It wasn’t bad, very pale with a slight egg aroma which put me off a bit, but pleasantly hoppy if also slightly astringent; I just would have liked to see more US hops in there. It’s an award winning beer, so must give this another go another time.

Thwaites Triple C (4.2%) – I wanted this beer as it is brewed with US Cascade hops. But I really couldn’t taste my favourite hop. It was pleasantly drinkable but uninspiring. Sorry, Thwaites, I do like what you do (I love your Wainwright ale ). I again blame the US beers for messing with my tastebuds. I will try this another day too.

Arbor Yakima Valley American IPA (7%) – Onto a strong American style ale by a UK brewery as I was obviously not getting on so well with weaker UK beers at this point. I had to wait for this beer to come on, but it was very nice, fruity and literally bursting with hops as they had thrown so many in. It actually tasted stronger than US beers of the same ABV – I would have liked to have done a taste comparison with this and, say, the Torpedo, but by this point I was starting to suffer so that wouldn’t have been such a good idea…


The queue for Oscar Wilde mild

The queue for Oscar Wilde mild

Adam queued in a very long line for some of the newly awarded Champion Beer of Britain: Mighty Oak Oscar Wilde,  a nutty mild beer. This beer was pleasant and easy drinking – maybe that’s part of its charm – but I don’t understand why this beer won the award with so many other amazing beers out there.  Anyway, the queue for that beer  just kept getting longer and longer.

So there we have it. I’d like to have returned for another session, but quite honestly, after the long slow journey home, the painful head the next day, and the fact the US beers had virtually gone,  it unfortunately wasn’t going to happen. It was good fun though, I thoroughly enjoyed it and it was obvious how much organisation and planning had gone into the whole thing. I came away with a couple of good books from the CAMRA bookshop. I enjoyed chatting to various people along the way who joined our table, like Garth and Bob from Devon who were on the darker beers and travelling back to Devon the same evening, a group of older gentlemen from the Kent beer club who were on the Worthingtons and had never heard of a decent US beer, and the guys from Hornchurch drinking Sharps Doom Bar (great beer) whose journey down the District Line almost took as long as ours from Cambridge.

Next year the GBBF will be in the venue of Olympia as Earl’s Court will be used in the Olymics and then possibly demolished. I’m looking forward to it already (more US cask beers please CAMRA!). There are many beer festivals to enjoy in the meantime though, including the Peterborough Beer Festival on 23-27 August. And it’s only a couple of months until the Cambridge Octoberfest 2011 on October 14th-15th…

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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. this was the second or third time I’d been to GBBF…my summary is always the same. Too many beers, badly organised in a venue with little atmosphere. Fingers crossed the change of venue next year will help address the atmosphere somewhat.

    Still…..mmmmmmmmmmmmm, beer 😉

  2. Ah, The Great *British* Beer Festival and, of thirty-six new beers I sampled over three days, I had…precisely no British beers. As always, the British list seems dull and conservative. The BSF bars, however, are a different matter. Beer of the festival had to be the de Molen Hot & Spicy, Menno’s stunning imperial stout base with a judicious addition of chillies. The Sixpoint Gemin-IPA and Green Flash Palate Wrecker DIPAs from the States also hit the spot for this crazy hop monster. However, the find of the festival were the Japanese beers. The ones I had from Baird and Hitachino Nest breweries were at least good and some were excellent.

    Adam: sorry to disappoint you, but Olympia is probably an even worse venue than Earls Court for the festival (and it’s going to be smack bang in the middle of the, er, Olympics). I wonder whether we’ll see the event move out of London in 2013. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a move to Brum or Manchester.

  3. That looks really fun I would love to make it over there to go to some of these festival someday. Great post!!!

    • Thanks, glad you liked the post! The festival was a lot of fun, worth making a trip over for! 😉

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