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FINAL Video Blog – It’s August. It’s GBBF!

I would say it’s been a long twelve months but it only seems like last week that our motley crew assembled in Nottingham for the first time, to talk to last year’s Champion Beer of Britain one month on from GBBF 2010.

That’s when we began our series of 12 monthly video blogs over the course of the year, financed solely by Peter Amor of Wye Valley Brewery, who wanted to put something back into an industry he felt he’d done rather well out of.

Peter’s brief was strictly to champion British real ale, and to address the lack of pride and attention we have for it.  Regular readers will know I’m becoming increasingly frustrated by partisanship and the creation of false enemies within the beer world, no matter what side it’s on.  Single-minded real ale advocates have long been the worst for this, but craft beer snobs are making efforts to catch them up.

But wherever your own beliefs lie, no one can argue that British real ale, while not entirely unique, is one of the most special, individual, eccentric, flavoursome, well crafted beers in the world.  It is the only style of beer that can pack in a flavour explosion at 3.8% (excepting beers that are so hop-imbalanced they’re undrinkable – and I say that as a hophead).  Belgian and American beers are just as wonderful on their day – but they only seem to start being so at around 5% ABV.

If real ale were French, it would no doubt be iron-clad in appellation controlees and EU Protected Designations of Origin. It would be as famous globally – and as celebrated in its homeland – as Bordeaux wine, French cheeses and foie gras.  It is a peculiarly English trait to be indifferent or even negative about things we’re good at.  I’ve never met a single non-real ale drinker who nevertheless sees our brewing prowess as something to be proud of, and I’ve met many real ale drinkers who believe it is not.

So even though I get frustrated with Old CAMRA diehards and am personally at least as likely to enjoy an American craft beer or German lager as I am a pint of best bitter, I was proud to be asked to co-present these blogs.  We’ve toured the country, seeing a year of beer first hand, trying many excellent ales and meeting people from brewers large and small who love their craft.  Every pub we’ve drunk in has been of outstanding quality.  We’ve hopefully shown that Britain really should be proud of its beer and its pubs.

This final blog is from GBBF 2011 – edited and finished in time for you to watch it and then go along and try both the beers and the atmosphere.  We both use the occasion to make some points we’ve come to feel strongly about on the journey.  And I get to taste some beers that we missed along the way, several of them among my all-time favourite real ales.  We didn’t get chance to get everywhere in the country, and I’ll always regret missing out Yorkshire and, to a slightly lesser extent, Kent and Sussex.  But maybe there will be chance of another series.

Anyway – hope you enjoy the blog:

Thanks to Eggy, Kaz and Dave, to Ian for channeling an exasperated primary school teacher as he tried to direct and produce us, and especially to Mr Amor for the funding, the cantankerousness, and most of all the hats and bow ties.

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July Video Blog: Scotland!

I bloody love Scotland, me.  I lived there for five years while at university, getting a degree and booking bands in the students’ union in St Andrews, going to buy records and get drunk in Edinburgh, going to chill out in the stunning beauty of the Trossachs.

This month I got to reminisce about all this as we attempted to cover the brewing scene of an entire country in about twenty minutes.


Because this particular series of video blogs is all about cask ale, and from an admittedly low base, cask ale is growing in Scotland at about 30% year on year.  When I was at uni there were three types of beer, all from Tennent’s, all a bit tasteless and horrible, apart from the ones that tasted of burnt sugar and were horrible.  So bad was Scottish beer I switched from being a cask ale drinker to a standard lager drinker.  It took me ten years to recover.

It is very, very different now.  Brew Dog, who we don’t visit here (their Edinburgh bar is all keg, and the man who pays the vlog bills wants to focus on cask) is merely the most visible of Scottish brewers who are currently displaying extraordinary levels of invention and enthusiasm.

In the Guildford Arms in the centre of Edinburgh I find one of my old favourites.  Then we go to Caledonian, where Peter looks round one of the most stunning traditional breweries you will ever see.  Many in Scotland are unhappy about the takeover of Caledonian by Scottish & Newcastle, and more recently Heineken. Not without justification, there was a feeling that things would be bastardised and cheapened.  But I visited before Heineken took over, and now going back again, the unique coppers, the hop room full of whole leaf hops, the open fermenters, the range of beers, are all unchanged.  The only real difference is a massive commitment to health and safety, a more corporate head office presence through boards displaying targets for reducing accidents and so on.  The brewing process and the resulting beers are unchanged.

I have a chat with Steve Crawley, MD of Heineken, in which we discuss whether the brewery’s flagship, Deuchar’s IPA, really is ‘not as good as it used to be’.

And then we’re off to Bridge of Allan, just outside Stirling, where Peter gets a bit tipsy talking to a round table of four brilliant Scottish brewers about the state of brewing in the country: Fergus from Inveralmond, Douglas from Traditional Scottish Ales, Amy from Harviestoun, and Tuggy from Fyne Ales (who I’m currently trying to persuade to adopt me).  I review a Scottish Wit Bier, try to sum up the style of stout in under a minute, and by the end we’re struggling to do a decent outro.  It’s hardly surprising.

Next month – next week in fact – we are filming our final video blog of this series at GBBF.  If you’re there on trade day, come and say hello.  If there’s anyone you think we should be going to talk to, please shout!

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Eyes down for a full house!

It’s just a bit of fun, OK?

Have had a rollicking time at the Great British Beer festival this week.  Curiously I haven’t actually been drinking that much beer: had lots of meetings, work presentations and chats around the festival venue, and in between them was greeted by loads of people wanting to say hello, have their copies of Hops and Glory signed and stuff.  Absolutely wonderful and quite humbling, but also utterly knackering over the course of three days.

Anyway, between all the handshaking I’ve been keeping myself amused with a new game I invented called GBBF bingo.  I’ve been posting sights you often see at beer festivals, and asking people to tweet photographic evidence of them if they spot them.  The person who discovers the most gets a pint from me – a full house gets a signed set of my books.  Or just the pint if you’d prefer.

With two days of GBBF to go, the Twitter leader has a mere two.  So I’ve gathered the ‘numbers’ together and designed my own bingo card, below.  If you’re going to GBBF today or tomorrow, print this off and take it with you, capture the evidence, and you could win fantastic prizes!

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Beer summits for all

It’s one of my broken record mantras: beer is the most sociable drink in the world. And this week proves it – if only people reported on the GBBF as much as they did about Obama, the world would be a happier place.

ATJ posted recently about how the sad demise of Beers of the World magazine means “we’re all beer bloggers now”. He wasn’t criticising blogging at all, merely saying that it’s increasingly the only outlet for those of us who want to write about beer. But his comments did lead to a bit of a discussion about the merits of blogging versus other writing.
Without wishing to get into that, whatever your views, the existence of blogging, Facebook and Twitter has revolutionised beer appreciation and led to a far more diverse, colourful, fun and interesting beer community than existed when I began writing. Everyone was talking about GBBF and building the anticipation and when we got there the atmosphere was fantastic. It was great to meet Jay R Brooks, Mark Dredge, Beer Nut, Woolpack Dave, Bionic Laura and the remarkable Laurent Mousson for the first time after much online interaction. Great also to see again Impy Malting, Stephen Beaumont, ATJ, Stonch and Boak, all enjoying themselves. Beer brought us all together and really that’s the only argument you ever really need to make in its favour.
Mrs PBBB was lured along to the Guild of Beer Writers event and was so charmed by meeting everyone that she was immediately roped in to come to GBBF trade day too. She was quite taken aback to realise that she has a cult following of her own, mainly consisting of people asking how she puts up with my beer-related behaviour.
I semi-retract the comment about ‘freakish volunteers’. There are always a number of remarkable specimens, but I made it sound like I was slagging off people en masse. Once I would have. Now, I don’t know what CAMRA have been doing, and I’m over-generalising based on isolated events, but I’d like to offer up the following illustration of how this event has changed since I slagged it off, somewhat notoriously, in Man Walks into a Pub.
Mrs PBBB: “Hello, I quite like blonde and summer ales. Do you have anything like that?”
Volunteer on Fuller’s stand: “We’ve got this one that’s strong and gets you pissed quickly, and this one that’s weaker and gets you less pissed. Now which do you want? I’m busy.”
This week was the first time I’ve been able to tempt her back since.
Bloke standing next to me at East of England stand: “Um… I’m not sure what I want. I don’t know where to start.”
Volunteer on stand: “Well do you think you prefer darker, maltier beers, or lighter, fresher, hoppier beers?
Bloke: “Um… darker and maltier I think.”
Volunteer: “Well let’s start you off with a little taster of this one and see how you get on…”
I’d be back there tonight but Leeds beckons. A visit to the Beer Boy in his wonderful retail emporium, followed by reading and signing in Borders from 6-8pm, with the very high likelihood of beverages in the North Bar afterwards. Please come and join me if you’re north of Earl’s Court.

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Hurrah for the Great British Beer Festival

Feeling very benign about the world this morning after a cracking 21st birthday bash for the British Guild of Beer Writers last night.

And I don’t know if it’s just that this year we’re all twittered, blogged and facebooked to the gunnels, but I’m feeling a real buzz of excitement about GBBF that I’ve never felt before.
I say that as someone who first made my name as a beer writer by dissing CAMRA and GBBF. Seven or eight years ago, when I was writing Man Walks into a Pub, I was sickened by the fact that no one ever seemed to criticise CAMRA in print. Even back then I went to the GBBF every year. I obviously thought it was a worthwhile event. But I saw big problems with it that prevented it from becoming even better. Many of those problems have now disappeared. Some are still there.
I still criticise CAMRA today – in fact I do so in this week’s Publican – because no one in the world is above criticism. But I’ll be queuing outside when the doors open at twelve. I’ll be there with people who will complain throughout the afternoon about the acoustics, about the weird way it’s organised by region, about the grumble between regional brewers and micros – both of whom will feel under-represented and hard done by compared to the other – and about the freakish volunteers enjoying their day in the sun, their moment of power, as they get to boss us around.
But for all that – we’ll be there. And we’ll have been looking forward to it for weeks. And we’ll all try beers we’ve never seen before, and all rush to sample the winners before they run out, and we’ll all have the same conversations we had last year with people we haven’t seen since last year and we’ll all end the day rhapsodising at the bieres sans frontieres bar and unwisely consuming one too many American extreme mofos before making our way unsteadily back to the tube. And we’ll look back on it with fondness.
GBBF isn’t perfect – but it’s pretty damn special, and I’ll admit to loving it through gritted teeth if you will.
I’m signing copies of Hops & Glory on the bookstand at 5pm today and tomorrow.
See you there.

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It’s that time of the year again…

The first week in August – time to wander down to Earl’s Court and mingle with some of the weirdest people ever to crawl into the daylight in the name of research and networking, come back home and write an article or blog entry fuelled by anger and frustration – yes, it’s Great British Beer Festival time again!

This year’s festival opened yesterday and I was down there for the trade day. And I just had one problem: there was nothing to complain about. This bloke wasn’t even there.

I feel slightly cheated. I also worry that perhaps this means I’m going native and turning into one of them through over-exposure (I’ve even started wondering about growing a beard.)

I mean, yes, there were the usual things – the fact that it’s cask only doesn’t represent the true picture of British beer. But they’re a cask-only organisation, rightly or wrongly. That’s not going to change. Yes there was the usual motley collection of weirdos, but that’s half the fun – I’d have been devastated if they weren’t there.

And of course, they still refuse to stock my books in their bookshop.

But most of the specific things I’ve ranted about in the past seem to have disappeared: the door staff were unfailingly polite; no-one was wearing T-shirts with messages like “If you drink lager you’re a moron and you’re not welcome here”, the service was mostly attentive and, again, polite. They’s sorted out the acoustics so you could hear what was happening on stage. It’s the second year at Earls Court, and they’ve made the venue look a bit nicer – there are more seating areas, though still not enough really.

They’ve brought back third of a pint glasses, and these are elegant and stemmed, so women don’t have to stand holding a pint. The pint glasses also have half and third of a pint markings, so everyone can explore more. I didn’t have a full pint over the eight hours I was there. I must have tried ten or twelve beers, but only drunk about three and a half pints. This is the future for beer festivals, and it’s the way American festivals have always been run, with the emphasis on trial and exploration rather than drunkenness.

And the ‘Bieres san Frontieres’ bit, the exception to the cask only rule (it’s great that they do this – just stupid that you can have non-cask beer if you’re foreign, but not if you’re, say, Greenwich Meantime, who brew great beers just down the river) is bigger and better than ever. We spent most of our time drinking awesome American IPAs and unfiltered, unpasteurised Czech lagers. In both cases, this is the only time these beers are available in the UK. In both cases, this makes you want to get on a plane and spend a bit of time drinking in the beer’s country of origin.

So for the first time in my beer writing career, I can heartily and unreservedly recommend that you go. It’s on till Saturday.