Friday 18 August 2017

How Was GBBF for You?

The Great British Beer Festival - GBBF for short - is over and once again there is reflection on how it was and indeed how it should be.

For me, working on the German and Czech Bar, it was business as usual. The bar is always fairly quiet until around three o'clock and then business picks up. It is quiet on Tuesday and to some extent Wednesday until work finishes and rammed the rest of the time. So far, so normal.  It is my habit to skive off early doors - around 12.30 or so - and with my old mate Graham, take a wander around. Our bar is quiet then and fully staffed. The newbies can cope. Our forte is digging people out when it gets busier - or so we like to think.  Comparing GBBF year on year is difficult, as layout changes, the number of brewery bars varies, and frankly, you just can't remember how it was.

My impression this year was that it wasn't quite as busy, though that varied from day to day, but that there was a very much younger crowd, though of course, the diverse (some might say motley)  nature of the customer is very much a plus for me.  The cask beer I tried - and it was more than I usually do - was all cool, conditioned and enjoyable, the food was great, especially the addictive chicken tandoori wraps with fearsomely hot chilli sauce - and my abiding impression was the exuberance of the customers who had clearly come for a good time and were jolly well having it.  For me, as a long standing volunteer, it was one of the best. A great atmosphere, beer quality has never been better, I met lots of people I knew on trade day and enjoyed talking to them, our bar was excellently staffed by old friends and new and I had a really good time.  It is just as important to enjoy yourself as a volunteer as it is as a customer. Us volunteers wouldn't come back otherwise and then, simply, the show wouldn't go on.

Ah yes, good times?  The purpose of the Great British Beer Festival is to promote and showcase cask conditioned real ale and to encourage the drinking and understanding of it. In addition to cask beer there is the bottled beer bars flogging both brewery conditioned beers from abroad and real ale in a bottle from the UK. We also have our German and Czech, our Belgian, Italian and Dutch bars and of course traditional cider and perry. So pretty much something for everyone - unless you are a craft keg drinker - but hey, still enough to go at surely?

It is an expensive business to put on a show such as this.  I don't think it is giving away much of a secret to acknowledge that it isn't a money spinner. It's main aim is to be a showcase and in that it succeeds admirably. Around 50,000 punters had a good time and drank lots of beer and went home happy with good thoughts about beer drinking. Job done? Well it depends on your point of view. My good friend Matt Curtis, looking at it from the standpoint of a beer writer rather than a customer, made this point on Twitter:

Now is this fair?  I can see where he is coming from as far as the aforementioned keg craft is concerned and this "modern" style of beer is either a wonderful, innovative interpretation of the brewer's art - or in in the view of some - me included in the case of "London Murky" - a pretentious way of starting a new trend to mostly sell to the gullible. We at Manchester Beer and Cider Festival do sell keykeg beer, but it is conditioned in the keg and while hazy, not opaque.  Personally I can see no issue in selling keykeg that meets CAMRA's real ale definition and there are some splendid and enjoyable ones around, but would draw the line at the kind of stuff described on Stonch's Beer blog:

"I'd forgotten just how shameless London micros are in putting out murky, unfinished product. People must still be buying pint after pint of this stuff, though, or those that make it would need to brew their beer properly. As it is, they're still getting away with beery murder. When will consumers wise up?"

You can see the offending pint here and make your own mind up.

So is it the job of CAMRA and the GBBF to promote "modern" beer or should it stick to its knitting and continue to promote traditional beer and its enjoyment in convivial company, while slowly nudging forward in favour of non real ale styles?  That is what CAMRA's Revitalisation Project is really about and it won't be long until us members have to make our minds up.

Choose wisely Folks, but remember the murky.

Yes GBBF should continually modernise, but like CAMRA itself, beware of babies and bathwater. At least you don't have to put up with suicide inducing repetitive bass as is so often the case in modern bars and beery events. 

We should always rember too, that beer is an accompaniment to good times, not neccessarily the good time itself.

Tuesday 1 August 2017

Losing Confidence in Cask?

I was in Scotland week before last and as usual, in the land of Tennents Lager, was wary about choosing cask beer where there was any. My experience, even in high turnover places like Wetherspoons, is that it can be hit or miss and more often than not, it misses.  As it happens, my first opportunity, fresh off the train was in the Counting House off George Square and it was hot, so looking at the pump clips with an array of dark Scottish beers, I decided, given the heat, that I wasn't chancing it and enjoyed instead - and I did - a couple of pints of keg. More of that later.

That night in the Captain James Lang, another JDW house, I thought, having spotted that Loch Lomond Brewery's Southern Summit was on the pumps, that I'd give it a go. It was only £1.79 and actually fairly good.  Alas when I returned to the bar, it had gone. I chose Skye Blonde and was immediately, before I'd go it to my mouth, assailed by a distinct whiff of vinegar.  I pointed this out to the barperson who had obviously read the Book of Barkeep Excuses.  "I think" she posited "it's meant to taste like that". Moving on to page 2 of the tome she added "I don't drink beer myself".   I was though given an exchange and turned down the offer of a whisky flavoured 7.8% beer from Strathven - despite it also being £1.79 a pint - in favour of a bottle. Minimum pricing? Take that Scottish Government.

I was in Helensburgh next day meeting an old pal. Alas in the Henry Bell, there was no cask I wanted to drink. All were around 4.8% and brown. As the barmaid herself, a Northern Irish lass of some character, noted "They could do with something pale and hoppy on, that's what I drink". Put her in charge of the cellar I say.  I did take her wise words on board as I stood wondering what to have. "Don't have the Tennents" my sage advised, "it's really shite."  This lass will go far or at least, ought to.

The day after my sister took me out for an hour. We went to the Balloch Hotel on Loch Lomondside, me having noted that it has a wide choice of real ales.  Of course it wouldn't be a Tandleman day out if some idiocy hadn't occurred.  The bar as you enter is L shaped with a bank of five handpumps immediately on your left. On the wall facing is the sign in the photo. My sister sat and I surveyed the wickets. "I'll have the Adnams" I thought. A few moments passed and I looked up the bar to the corner of the L. No barperson appeared but an old soak on a barstool shouted along the other angle of the bar and after a while a barmaid appeared. She seemed annoyed. "You should have come up to where the tills are quoth she."  "Are there more cask beers there then? I enquired. "No" she said "but I stand up there." This was getting interesting, but she had the last laugh. Only two handpumps were on. I chose London Pride which was a little tired but OK. This place is owned by Mitchell's and Butlers as a matter of interest.

On my return to Glasgow Central I had a pint in the Counting House again. This time I went for cask in the shape of Oakham JHB. That distinct whiff and then taste of vinegar again.  On pointing this out the server called a colleague, presumably the cask beer champion or something along these lines.  He took a straw out, dipped it in my beer and allowed a drop to roll onto his tongue."Hops" he pronounced. "And something else."  I agreed and pointed out the something else was vinegar.  My duff pint was exchanged for, yes you've guessed it. Keg.

Right I'm getting a bit fed up of reading this myself, but I am sure you get my drift by now.  Dodgy beer and dodgy bar staff don't make for a great combination.  It's the offer Stupid. If that isn't up to snuff, then you are on a loser.

I rather liked the beer pictured above from Jaw Brew whom I haven't even heard of. Really decent, though you do have to knock a bit of the CO2 out. I had it both visits and despite the murk, it didn't disappoint. Oh and I'm not losing confidence in cask really, but rubbish cask makes others do so.

For those that know Glasgow, I understand, Camperdown Place, another JDW just 50 yards away from the Counting House, has now closed due to Queen St Station redevelopment. Shame, as for the traveller with a suitcase, its ground floor toilets were a boon even if the beer choice was less extensive.