Switching to the complete other end of the cultural spectrum, I traded the crowds at the British Museum for the happier crowds at the Great British Beer Festival, one of the largest beer festivals in the world. This four-day event, sponsored by CAMRA, is held at Earls Court, one of London’s major convention centers, and is truly beer-drinker heaven.
CAMRA, as you may have read here earlier, is the Campaign for Real Ale, major promoter and guardian of all things having to do with traditional British pubs and beer. Americans can imagine it as the “NRA for traditional ale”. And, just to be clear, traditional ale is not Budweiser or Coors. This is the lightly-carbonated, regionally-brewed stuff from a cask that is hand-pumped up from the basement in most British pubs and served cool but not icy cold. My foresight in joining CAMRA last spring served me well today, as my membership card produced discounts and freebies and access to the pleasant members’ lounge overseeing the exhibition space.
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I can only state the obvious: this huge gathering is all about traditional ale and food, with major and minor breweries well-represented. The program said there were 450+ different ales available, some brewed just for this event. The crowd of many thousands was festive and happy, but I saw no one who was really drunk and in distress. There was live music and also non-beverage vendors of things with a beer theme (belt buckles, mugs, bar accessories, and hilarious tee shirts, to name but a few). Hundreds of CAMRA volunteers staffed the event.
I picked up a pint glass at the door and dove in. Yes, real glass – no plastic cups here (clearly no paranoid American liability attorneys had been consulted) – yet no broken glass littered the floor. I limited myself to six half-pints and so was able to sample six different traditional ales. Most of them ranged in ABV (alcohol by volume, roughly ½ of “proof”) from 4.5 to 6% but I couldn’t resist trying out one 9% brew; which was tasted terrible – too sweet and syrupy.
The names given to beers are often very entertaining: one called “Nelson’s Revenge” was promoted with paper bicorn hats that were being worn by many attendees (see picture). Zany hats were rather the norm, for some reason. Other fun names included: Dive Bomber, Cakewalk, Tanglefoot, Icy Maiden, Celtic Queen, Oscar Wilde Mild, and I Can’t Believe It’s Not Bitter.
Unlike typical conventions where there are many booths but little seating, many wooden picnic tables were provided and so there were places to sit and relax with your ale, food, and friends. Nonetheless, after three hours of fun and with tired legs, I picked up a complimentary carrying bag for my glass and headed home.