ʽʽHi, I’m Benjamin Nunn – critic, gourmand and author of Ben Viveur. I like to eat and drink. And cook. And write.

You might have read me in an in-flight magazine, or a beer publication, but here on my own blog I'm liberated from the editorial shackles of others so anything goes.

I deal with real food and drink in the real world, aiming to create recipes that taste awesome, but which can be created by mere mortals without the need for tons of specialist equipment and a doctorate in food science. Likewise, I tend to review relaxed establishments that you might visit on a whim without having to sell your first-born, rather than hugely expensive restaurants and style bars in the middle of nowhere with a velvet rope barrier, a stringent dress code and a six-month waiting list!

There's plenty of robust opinion, commentary on the world of food and drink, and lots of swearing, so look away now if you're easily offended.

Otherwise, tuck your bib in, fill your glass and turbo-charge your tastebuds. We're going for a ride... Ben Appetit!
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Thursday, August 16, 2018

GBBF is officially Great again

This time last year, I begged the question: Has the GBBF lost its G?

CAMRA's flagship beer festival was, I felt, in the doldrums. A victim of both its own success and the younger, more exciting competition. Many agreed with me. Long-time GBBF volunteer Tandleman asked 'How was GBBF for you?', stimulating further debate.

(I like debate. Though possibly not as much as I like good beer.)

Well, we've had another one since then. So how was the Great British Beer Festival 2018?



The Verdict


If you weren't able to make it to Olympia last week, or deliberately swerved the event, I'm delighted to report that this years GBBF was, well, a massive improvement. You missed out on something seriously good.

Yes, some of the issues that came up last year remain. The pricing, the entertainment, the overall lack of a sense of 'fun' beyond the beer. And I'm sure for some, these will still be deal-breakers.

But for me - because this is first and foremost a beer festival, and the most important thing is the beer - this all doesn't seem to matter all that much. They got the beer right this time.

How did they get it so right, compared to previous years? Quite simply, variety. This year's beer list was a far better reflection of the contemporary beer scene. Yes, there were the standard milds and bitters and golden ales, but also a far greater selection of fruit beers, herb beers, tea beers, coffee beers, sours, saisons... yes, there were more lagers, more imperial stouts, more experimental, batshit-insane stuff from more inventive brewers.

And that is exactly what the GBBF needed.

Come back next year, please
Part of the credit for my high levels of enjoyment must go to Thornbridge, who had a bar at the festival for the first time in several years. Tracking down new beers from my favourite brewery is a slightly obsessive hobby of mine, and I was spoiled here, with five new Thornbridge beers (plus others) all in the same place.

And some of these were just stunningly superb - the Strawberry and Salted Caramel editions of the Lucaria ice-cream porter are gorgeous sweetshop concoctions, while my beer of the festival (a very difficult decision) might well have been their newly launched Honeydew Melon pale. These three beers alone pack so much flavour into a sessionable 4.5% ABV package.

But the truth is that there were interesting beers everywhere, including on the main CAMRA bars. Brew York Tonkoko, a 4.3% coconut stout with cakey notes is the sort of thing you just didn't see here a few years ago. More conventionally, XT/Animal Siamese Fighting Fish (4.6%) is a hoppy, red ale very much in the American style. Another style that has possibly not been represented in the past.


The cider and perry bars too had far more variety. More fruit ciders, more rum-cask-aged, more everything.

If attendances were down this year - and it looked like they probably were - I hope that the decision-makers realise that this was probably a reaction to poor GBBFs over recent years, rather than the improved offering this time. There will surely be many who regret not attending under the spotlight of hindsight.

Quality

I wrote the other day about poorly conditioned, badly served cask ale at a local CAMRA festival - this was not an issue here. The cask beer quality throughout the festival was sterling. Pretty much faultless. Probably better than it has been in the last few years, if we're honest.

Not all of the beer was cask, but the vast majority of it was, so the fundamental ethos of GBBF and CAMRA itself has really not been lost. Volunteers wore t-shirts proclaiming 'Cask and Keg and Bottle and Can' (though at least one person had concealed the last three with gaffer tape!)


Didn't attend? You missed out.

There were lots, and I mean lots of beers on the list that I wanted to try but never got around to, and I attended on four days out of five and got through about 35 pints! Usually that is the case only with the American cask bar, but this year applies to the entire offering. Every bar had 8-10 beers on that I actually wanted to try - not just tick because I hadn't had them before.

Talking of the US bar, that was an interesting one. Last year it had completely run dry by the middle of the festival. This year, due to a logistics issue, the beers didn't actually become available until the Thursday, much to the chagrin of those who attend only the Tuesday session on a free trade ticket or press pass. But this may not have been a bad thing as it brought these beers to a different audience.

The American beers, when they arrived, were great as usual. Brooklyn brewery's Black Ops (Orange Brandy edition) was as complex as an 11.5% stout can be, with flavours of Tia Maria and cough mixture over charcoal, while Marble (of New Mexico, not Old Manchester!) amazed me with Pink Phunk, a cactus sour that was quaffable and quenching even at 6.7%.

But this year, the US cask (and indeed for a couple of days the lack thereof) didn't matter quite as much because the British beers on offer were so bloody good.



It just shows that, when it comes down to it, all the GBBF really needs to be Great is an interesting, varied beer list. Everything else will take care of itself.

3 comments:

  1. Glad it was sio good for you Ben.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Come on, is it really really worth the high entry and high beer prices? really? You can get far better beers in pubs these days without payin through the nose for the privelege

    ReplyDelete
  3. Personally I look forwards to the day when beer at a beer festival can taste of beer, and people who like alcopops made with a fermented grain base can go and run their own festivals.

    ReplyDelete

Comments are always welcomed and encouraged, especially interesting, thought-provoking contributions and outrageous suggestions.