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Great British Beer Festival

August, 1998

By Bobby Bush

Once we overcame the language barrier, our visit to the 21st Annual Great British Beer Festival, held in London’s Olympia Exhibition Hall August 4-8, was as exciting as it was enlightening. With over 300 cask conditioned ales to choose from, each of our requests for a half-pint of ale, at any of the seven bars positioned in two large halls, were met with a blank, bewildered stare. It wasn’t until we learned to ask for ‘alf pint, faking a cockney accent right out of “Oliver Twist,” that our mild, bitter or best bitter ale orders were quickly, and correctly, filled.

The Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), an august semi-political organization, now 50,000 strong, that supports traditional, naturally conditioned real ales, is constantly fighting to preserve British heritage. Somewhere in England, there’s a regional CAMRA festival almost every weekend. But this was the big one, the granddaddy, grown from a domestic celebration to an international salute to real English ales. Handpumped and gravity fed ales flowed freely over the event’s five day run. Sessions ranged from short two-and-a-half hour lunch breaks on Wednesday and Thursday, August 5 and 6, to an eleven hour marathon on Friday, followed by eight-and-a-’alf hours on Saturday. Over 40,000 thirsty souls attended.

After purchasing an admission ticket, ranging in price from $2 to $8 depending on length of the sessions, a half or full pint glass is procured and the fun begins. Ales are purchased, with English pounds and pence, at each stall. Many larger brewers, such as Adnams, Batemans and Fullers, poured their ales from smartly appointed company booths. Most breweries, however, were represented by racks of chilled stainless casks nicely arranged behind long rows of serving tables. Manned by knowledgeable volunteers, each group of tables served the brewing creations of a particular region of Great Britain, from South East England to Lancashire & North West England. A New Breweries Bar, never tried before, seemed to be a rousing success. It, along with the Wessex, South West & Wales bar, a bar for Ciders and Perries and a stage kept active by musicians or breweriana auctioneers, filled the smaller National Hall.

At the far end of the adjacent Grand Hall resided Bieres Sans Frontiers, a foreign refuge featuring, for the first time, a Belgian Lambic bar. Imported beers, in bottles and casks, were available from as far away as Australia (Thomas Cooper) or as close as Ireland (Guinness). Two Czech lagers, Kozel and Budweiser Budvar, seemed to do brisk business. But the American bar, with no Yankee faces present, except ours at the Saturday session we attended, piqued the most curiosity. Eighteen draught ales were on tap when we stopped by, varying from Boston’s Atlantic Coast Brewing Tremont Best Bitter to Oregon’s Deschutes Bachelor ESB to Peoples Pint, a small brewpub in Greenfield, MA. Bottle-conditioned US brews were more plentiful, with selections available from scores of brewers, including Anchor, Brooklyn and New Glarus Brewing’s Wisconsin Belgian Red, a cherry inspired Belgian sour brown ale which took gold at the 1997 Great American Beer Festival, held each October in Denver.

Like the GABF, the GBBF conducts a blind judging of these British real ales. This year, Coniston, a Cumbria, UK brewery, took honors as CAMRA Overall Champion Beer for its Coniston Bluebird Bitter, creating a run on available festival casks and assuring the brewery of continued demand for at least the next 12 months. Awards were also presented for Mild, Best Bitter, Strong Beer, Specialty Beer and Bottle Conditioned ales.

Food- pizza, sausage, cheese, cajun fried potatoes -was available from a number of stalls. Vendors hawked brewery paraphernalia and t-shirts. CAMRA sponsored games, like Tombola (every 1’s a winner), Roll the Barrel, Northamptonshire Skittles and Ring the Handpump, offered chances to win beer souvenirs. Bathrooms were plentiful. Tables were not, forcing many weary, or hungry, patrons to sit merrily on the floor. All in all, this was one well run festival.

Ale is essential to the English way of life. Were it not for the efforts of CAMRA, England’s beer would be as unmemorable and lifeless as our commercial beers are, leaving that historic legacy with little more than a light beer with which to propose a toast. Once a year, the nation, and the world, gathers to celebrate centuries-old tradition steeped in real cask-conditioned ale. Long live the Queen. Long live CAMRA and the Great British Beer Festival.

This article first appeared in Focus, a weekly paper published in Hickory, North Carolina.

© Bobby Bush

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