A couple of months ago, I received this email from my good chum, Big Al:
Dear all, I have decided to utilise my annual leave wisely this summer and take a day off to visit the Great British beer festival at Earls Court. If anyone has the inclination and can spare a day off from work for this Earth-shattering event then I hope you can join me. You can look forward to a glass of some unidentifiable fetid, cloudy, sulphurous brew whilst being surrounded by generally overweight men with questionable personal hygiene who have probably been drinking this kind of stuff all week and have the kind of deep, penetrating flatulence and gastric upset that only good real ale can induce. Can't wait.
Well how could I refuse such an invitation particularly as I've never been before and hadn't really drunk much in the way of 'real ale', the identikit pubs in my neck of the woods just don't serve it up. And by the sounds of it, I might even fit right in, especially on the wind front. So I fired an email back saying "I'm in!" and before I know it the first week of August comes rolling around, when the Great British Beer Festival is held. Hell, I didn't even have time to grow a beard so I opted for the standard issue socks and sandals instead.
Our small party consisted of myself, Big Al and Jerry (who is not German) and as tickets had been purchased for the Friday, which by all accounts is one of the busiest days, we decided to meet at Earl's Court in the early afternoon to beat the evening rush hour. Yes it was to be a Leo Sayer and I could only hope that it would end on a higher note than the last one I went on. A combination of Blur, Tuborg, sun and no hat beat me into submission you see and plonked me in an ambulance, silly boy.
We rocked up to the exhibition hall at 3pm like giddy schoolboys and once we got inside the cavernous space, it was hard not to be impressed by the sheer scale of the event with it's morass of bars, chairs, tables, food stands, memorabilia stalls and people wearing stupid hats shouting loudly at each other. This really was the mother of all pubs with 450 different beers on offer from the UK and around the world. And so the three of us handed three quid over for an official festival pint glass and dived straight into the seething pit without any care or safety or even any idea of what beers we should go for. To say that I was clueless would be an understatement but here is a brief overview of the fine ales and not so fine ciders that I drank anyway:
1. Dark Star - Hophead (3.8%). Yes it is hoppy, very hoppy indeed, too hoppy in fact. Aftertaste has subtle tones of washing up liquid. Not the best start.
2. Wolf - Granny Wouldn't Like It (4.8%). This is more like it! Gutsier, stronger, nice cherry flavour and dark in colour but not too heavy. Hmm I really like this.
3. Bartram's - Dark Side (5.0%). Another dark one but a wheat beer this time. Guide says that it has Maris Otter in the grist, what the hell does that mean? Quite pleasant, fairly strong coffee aftertaste though.
4. Wentworth - Bumble Beer (4.3%). A pale golden beer which is very refreshing. Slightly sweet but thirst quenching nevertheless.
5. Brains - The Reverend James (4.5%). From Wales. Strong, rich and spicy. Like Tom Jones. Very good actually. Could drink this as a "session" pint (quickly picking up terminology).
6. Greg's Pit Cider - Brown Ellis Kingston blend (god knows). Sweet Jesus! This is terrible, just plain fucking terrible. Were the apples pressed using old farmer Greg's sweaty, soil stained, baggy y-fronts I wonder? Thought about taking this back the stall to complain but the ginger metal head druid who served it up scared the hell out of me. So I poured it down the toilet instead.
7. Bernard - Svetly Lezak (still reeling from cider to make note of percentage). Glug, glug, glug, glug, glug......burp! Ah that's better. A fine pilsner from Czech Republic, they know their stuff about beer they do. Phew!
8. FX Matt Brewery - Black Forest Lager (5.3%) Confused by the 'lager' label, tastes and looks nothing like Fosters. Which is a good thing. Gorgeous dark beer, quite malty but goes down very well.
9. Sharp's - Doom Bar Bitter (4.0%). Last pint. OK, not brilliant, bit too flowery from my liking, had trouble finishing to be honest.
We had managed to consume this amount by 7pm which was no mean feat (oh and a singular pork and ale sausage roll) but by that time the numbers were really swelling and the cacophony was reaching fever pitch. Glasses were starting to get smashed at regular intervals sending mexican waves of riotous cheering around the hall and the bars were filling up by 5 bodies deep. So to our shame, we decided to retreat early to a dodgy bar on Earl's Court Road to sup a few more pints of Becks before going our separate ways to fall asleep in cabs and on tubes and in Big Al's case, flat on his face in Clapham (by all accounts).
Putting the all earlier dodgy stereotypes aside, I have to admit that CAMRA really did know how to put on a show and all through the efforts of a voluntary strike force. With over 100,000 members, it's looking like the organisation is gaining a lot of clout so perhaps something can be done about halting the decline of the traditional British boozer. I was surprised to find out that 38 pubs are closing down every week across the UK so I've signed up with the intention of becoming more informed about the situation and of course to educate my taste buds to the delights of proper 'real ale'. Hopefully, by the time the festival rolls around next year, I may even know what beers to go for. Who knows, Greg's Pit might be appealing by then. But I doubt it.
Jerry (who is not German), Food Urchin and Big Al, resplendent with stupid hats
I want this t-shirt!
Damn they've sold out of Ginger Knob!
Pork Sausages! (can you see a theme emerging here?)
Granny Wouldn't Like It - my personal favourite
Greg's Pit - Rough as a badger's arse