Odd Event Reviews... The Great British Beer Festival 2003

Andy Simpkins reviews the Oddity that is The Great British Beer Festival, Olympia Hall, London, August 5th - 9th 2003

Who says that real ale goes to your head?

Right, let's get one thing straight before I begin. There are a lot of stereotypical images of what a real ale drinker is like. I must set the record straight. They do not:

  • Wear fishermens jerseys,
  • Wear pebble glasses so thick that it takes light about 3 minutes to penetrate the lenses,
  • Sing dreary folk songs about obscure mining disasters with a finger stuck in their ear,
  • Drone endlessly on about how beer is watered down in fun pubs,
  • Discuss the original gravity of obscure West Country ales whilst lying horizontally on a sawdust strewn floor.

The GBBF is something of a pilgrimage for me as I do not tend to frequent town-centre pubs as they are invariably bursting at the seams and 5 deep at the bar, have an endless supply of spotty-faced teenagers drinking bottles of lager and trying to look the bee's knees in the hope of impressing the crowd of blank-faced, gum-chewing girls barely out of puberty down the other end of the bar.

Even when you make it to the bar after much shoving and jostling, you ask for a pint of real ale and are met with the retort from a smart-alec barman:"It's all real, mate!"

Take a ticket, for a journey, on a double, double, decker Bombardier bus...

Living on the outskirts of a large town does have its compensations though. A short drive from me are a host of lovely old-world pubs;spotlessly clean, thatched roofs and timbered interiors, good bitter on tap and a comprehensive bar menu. The downside is that they are only accessible by car and unless you wish to attract the unwelcome attentions of West Sussex constabulary asking you to blow into a little black box and watching it melt, you have no alternative but to nurse a single pint for the whole evening. Anyway, I digress. On with the review.

After a long and rather hot train journey up to the capital, followed by a short tube train journey, much slowed down due to the speed restrictions imposed due to the rails buckling in the heatwave we have been having, I arrived at my destination.

News of The Great British Beer Festival 2003 had spread to even the remotest parts...

Olympia Exhibition Hall was built back in the Victorian era and serves a multitude of purposes. This was irrelevant as I joined the hosts of other people queuing up to get in to the Aladdins cave within. As it was only 4:30 in the afternoon, I texted my esteemed colleague on this site, Keith Dunn, in order to tell him that I had arrived and was enjoying my first pint of the day;a pleasant session bitter called Adnams Southwold. I was texted back a few minutes later with the word:"B*stard!!!" as he was at work and could not share in the experience with me. It's a dirty job but someone's got to do it!

For the uninitiated in the arcane arts of real ale drinking, allow me to explain:The GBBF is a yearly event organised and hosted by CAMRA:The Campaign for Real Ale. An organisation devoted to the welfare of beer drinkers throughout the UK. They do sterling service promoting real ale, campaigning for drinkers rights and to generally make sure that the UK brewing industry is well promoted.

The term 'Real Ale' covers a multitude of things so I will break it down into 3 very potable sections. Mild is a dark but low-alcohol beer, very popular to slake ones thirst with on a hot summers day and to wake up the following morning trilling:"I feel pretty, oh so pretty. ", Ordinary bitter or 'session bitter' is the biggest of the group, mid-strength ales that range in colour and taste but make for a pleasant evenings drinking in your favourite hostelry and finally Extra Strong Bitters:Very drinkable but they endow the drinker with a reckless courage that makes them want to go out and do extra-ordinary things like climb church steeples in the nude, hijack JCB's or even get married.

A picture from Jerome K. Jerome’s new novel: '5 Men,A Lady and lots of beerglasses In A Boat'.

The main hall of Olympia had bars set out in a rectangular pattern and these were subdivided in to areas for the for the different regional brewers. As you walk into the main hall, facing you were bars supplied by the major brewers in the UK;such as Youngs, Everards, George Gales, Adnams, Marstons, Fullers and a few others I could mention. These brewers, although having been around for a couple of hundred years or so, were the vanguard in the opposition to the gassy keg bitters that were so prevalent in the 1970's such as the emetic qualities of Watneys Red Barrel and Worthington E. These so-called bitters were uniformly bland and tasteless that the brewing industry, in the throes of merger-mania, was prompted to rally and produce quality bitters that were flavoursome and unique.

The past 30 years or so have seen a renaissance in the real ale industry and have seen a host of small independent breweries start up and flourish in the conditions that prevailed thereafter.

Being a native of the South East of England, beers from that region were uppermost in my mind. Youngs Special and Fullers ESB I partook of and also Adnams Southwold bitter. I won't bore you with such florid terms as "A nice little number, reminiscent of blackberries and orange" or "Goes down well like a back-street hooker. "If wine buffs want to use such purple prose, they are welcome to it. Real ale drinkers are a little more direct in their opinion.

My thirst temporarily whetted, I moved onto the food stands. For connoisseurs of real ale, have discriminating palates when they want to and to meet the demand for pre, during and post imbibing sessions there where a variety of stands catering for different tastes;offering everything from home-made pie, mash and liquor to freshly prepared Thai food to my perennial favourite whenever I am up the GBBF, a stand offering freshly cooked Grillwurst and Bratwurst German sausages served with saurkraut and a selection of sweet or sour pancakes made to order.

'Another satisfied customer...' as caught on film by our roving reporter.

The afternoon wore on into early evening and the crowds showed no signs of decreasing as workers, hot and tired from a day chained to their desks somewhere in the City, filtered in to enjoy a drink before heading home. As there were a plethora of small regional brewers there plus a small but very busy ciders and perries stand, I will just say that a few of my favourites included Smiles Molecatcher bitter, Ringwood Old Thumper, Samuel Adams ale and a few others from the American beer stand(a very pleasant change from all that gassy Budweiser and Miller Lite) and a couple of sweet but decidedly potent farmhouse vintages from the cider stand.

So if you are looking for a change from the occasional bottle of plonk you might throw in the trolley when you are down Sainsburys or emitting a cavernous belch after drinking 1 can of John Smiths 'bitter', try the GBBF or one of the smaller regional beer festivals in your area.

All in all, a good day with some good memories which I might partially recall one of these days.