Bensoir! It's me, Benjamin. I like to eat and drink. And cook. And write.

You may have read stuff I've written elsewhere, but here on my own blog as Ben Viveur I'm liberated from the editorial shackles of others, so pretty much anything goes.

BV is about enjoying real food and drink in the real world. I showcase 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. And as a critic 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!

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Rising, falling or standing still?

So, this weekend I've been to a beer festival that's a little bit different.

Possibly not as different as the organisers would like to believe, mind, but different enough. They didn't use the word 'festival' for a start.

When, some months ago, I first heard about Craft Beer Rising at the old Truman Brewery in Shoreditch I rolled my eyes in exasperation.

The blurb informed me that the event was 'here to throw off the shackles of a traditional beer gathering by crafting events, experiences and environments that take craft beer to the masses.'

Hmm. Smells a lot like marketing wank to me. Besides, I like 'traditional beer gatherings'!

All rise for craft beer?
Further reading inscribed more horror stories in my jaded mind... Nothing much to do with CAMRA... 'craft' keg beers... trendy location... Probably horribly overpriced, overhyped and overrated. Ugh. Basically everything that's wrong about the current Brewdog ethos writ large.

The beer equivalent of Lapland New Forest, perhaps?

Then, a couple of days beforehand, I saw the beer list and decided that I would go, albeit determined to follow up with a damning write-up about how desperately misguided and disappointing it all was.

It's a good thing I did though, because it was ticket-only and sold out every session over the two days, so they must've been doing something right, even if it's just marketing!

Get in!

Queuing outside in the snow surrounded by young offenders talking about 'craft beer', I started blogging in my mind... the seething, the disappointment, the despair at the way the world is going. A cauldron of cask-conditioned prejudices waiting to be affirmed...

And, yet, the truth is that it wasn't all that bad. Not really.

The debate about what exactly 'craft beer' means will ramble on, and everybody these days seems to be trying to hijack the term for their own shit, but a few observations about this event:

  • About 75-80% of the beer available actually seemed to be cask.
  • The 'cask room' was generally packed. The 'keg room' less so, and the Brewdog and Meantime (and other breweries who were only showcasing keg) stands didn't seem to be particularly swamped with fanboys.
  • Some of the countries biggest breweries had stands - Greene King, Marston's, Sharp's, Wells & Youngs...

Not your usual beer festival
Make of that what you will! I was a bit disappointed that one of my fave breweries, Thornbridge, was only doing keg though, and I do wonder if their marketing bods misjudged the mood of the event.

I don't mind good keg beer at all, I just don't like it at the expense of real ale and would like everybody to be given the choice.

True, I didn't see too many of 'the usual suspects' - the folks you recognise by sight who always seem to show up at beer festivals, and I suspect that the organisers weren't expecting them either.

But the kind of youngish crowd here wouldn't be out of place in the mix at the GBBF, and they are not a completely seperate market from the CAMRA crowd when it comes to what they drink. Yes, they do actually drink real ale, whether they drink keg as well or not.

What did I like?

You know, the usual format for CAMRA and CAMRA-sympathetic beerfests where either the beer is entirely ordered in by the organisers, or where brewery-run stands are a secondary component (as at the GBBF) is all well and good.

But I have to admit, I quite like the idea of every stand being commercial. For a start it enables breweries to showcase something close to their full ranges, rather than getting, say, a mild from Hanby, a golden ale from Harvey's and an imperial stout from Harviestoun.

Having a large range from a smaller number of brewers works well, and I'd like to see more beer festivals run along these lines.

Most importantly, I also liked that there were interesting beers to drink. I scooped nine pints, all winners, including some rarities, like Brentwood's 2.5% BBC.

The second half of my session was unexpectedly spent loitering around the Bateman's stand where they had a range of experimental adjunct-heavy beers on, all at 6%.

The Orange Barley Wine was a curious combination that really worked and tasted almost like a soft drink, while the dark Hazelnut Brownie was all kinds of tastiness.

It has to be said that the beer prices themselves weren't that expensive - generally £3 or £3.50 a pint, which was a pleasant surprise.

I also like the fact that disposable plastic glasses were available as well as glassware. This lets you have more than one beer on the go at a time if you so choose, which can't happen at fests where you have to pay a deposit for a glass and keep using it throughout your session.

Yes, there are lessons that 'traditional beer gatherings' can learn here.

So, what were the downsides?

Well, firstly, the admission was simply unacceptable. Tickets for the (four hour) Friday evening session were £10 plus about £1.50 in charges. Needless to say, no discount for CAMRA members here.

Pub-organised beer festivals are almost always free to get in, and CAMRA local fests are either free with your membership card or cost just a couple of quid. Even the GBBF - the biggest and best real ale festival in the world - is only something like £6 for the Friday if you book in advance.

I know there is a kind of stereotypical CAMRA member who is as tight as Norbert Colon and eternally whinging about overpricing. I'm not one of them, but I don't like being ripped off and generally believe that the cost of entry should be nominal when the entire point of the event after you get in is to spend your money on stuff!

I'll also have a moan about the long queue outside, followed by another queue inside for beer tokens, and I don't like having to use tokens at beer festivals in general.

The Blue Room
For one thing, the total cost of the beers you consume over the evening won't necessarily add up to a multiple of £5 or £10, so your choices are influenced by 'what can I afford without having to change more money'.

And then there's the complete nonsense that the food stands didn't take the vouchers, defeating the purpose of keeping the floor free from cash.

The room with the DJ, blue lighting and dry ice was just baffling. Does this sort of thing have a place at a beerfest?

The organisers seem to think so, but the room was emptier than the beer room, and I didn't see a whole lot of folks dancing around like twats.

In a strange way, because it wasn't too loud of full of sweaty cunts, it was almost relaxing. More of a chillout room, really.

I can't see it taking off at a CAMRA fest though, and naturally, a bluesy, folky sort of combo would have been more my sort of thing.

And I missed the helpful, half-cut CAMRA volunteers that you get at 'traditional' beer festivals. Aside from the brewery stands, the event appeared to be staffed by a mix of soulless bouncers and event managers who, shall we say, weren't 'at one with the beer'.

All that beer makes me hungry

One has to eat at a beer festival (even if they don't use the word 'festival') and there was a good variety of artisany streetfood, and the spicy 'beersticks' - like a kind of twisted, natural pepperami - were a noble, meaty accompaniment to the ale.

You done too much, much too much jelly.
I also tried a Pork and Stilton pie from Hartland Pies (£4) and I have to admit, it was alright but nothing special. The Crusty Pie Company that shows up infallibly at the GBBF every year is better, and better still are the pies at the Craft Beer Company and Southampton Arms.

The problem was the jelly. Way, way too much of it. The point, surely, of the Pork and Stilton variant is that melted Stilton is poured into the case instead of jelly, but this example had just the faintest hint of Stilton in with the meat, and shitloads of jelly.

And I fucking hate jelly!

But, importantly, I didn't completely fucking hate Craft Beer Rising.

Sure, I found it annoying in places, but then I'm not the target demographic. I was expecting to have the anti-cask antichrist waving his cock in my face, and that didn't happen.

A bit expensive, and a bit too 'Shoreditch tosser', yes, but I drank a lot of decent beer, and that's what ultimately mattered to me.

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