When I realized that I’d be in Canterbury in early August, I knew I had to attend the UK’s biggest beer event: The Great British Beer Festival. The GBBF, a week-long event, showcases almost 1,000 cask ales, craft beers, real ciders, perries, and wines. I attended back in 2008, when I lived in Reading, UK, and I had a ball. I wasn’t going to miss this opportunity.
First, you must understand the event’s organizer: CAMRA (the Campaign for Real Ale). CAMRA is dedicated to the British beer industry (though it’s a private organization and is not owned by any huge brewers) and the preservation of the English pub. That last bit is important, because one UK pub goes out of business every single day. Some of that is down to the pandemic, but it was happening before COVID, too, as a result of government regulation and predatory industry practices. CAMRA helps pubs survive and lobbies the government extensively to prevent beer taxation. Putting it into an American context, I like to think of it as the “NRA of Beer”. Yes, I have been a member since 2008, when I first attended CAMRA’s famous Reading Beer Festival.
This year’s GBBF is being held in the Olympia Exposition Center, near Hammersmith, in west London. I took an hour-long train ride from Canterbury to London St. Pancras station and then a 25-minute taxi ride to get there. London Black Cab drivers are never boring to talk to and mine did not disappoint. One gave me the low-down on the woes of getting driver’s insurance when you’re 70+ years old, and the other was driving while waiting for his television show script deal to come through!
Olympia is a vast space with two big halls and, in it, the GBBF featured 18 bars offering beverages grouped by categories, food stalls, and merchandise vendors. For example, all the beers, some 65 of them, from the US were served at the “Statue of Liberty” bar. Hmm – so many beers, so little time. I consulted the online beer list the previous evening and made a plan. Well, one had to, or risk being lost.
It’s important to lay in a good foundation before starting to drink at these affairs, so I went to the Handmade Cornwall Pasties booth and bought a “Moo and Blue” (that’s steak and Stilton cheese) pasty:
There were also plenty of other food offerings, including traditional English “pies”, shawarmas, cheeses, sausages, “Bombay Street Food”, and more.
And then, it was off to the bars! I may be a rare breed, but I’m surely not alone: the sight of hundreds of beer handles just gives me goose bumps and makes my mouth water.
My entrance ticket included a real souvenir Imperial pint glass. Beers were sold in full-, one half-, and one third-pint servings, which was great for sampling. My entrance ticket also included £15 of beer tokens.
In case the pint glass was not to your liking, you could go native with the purchase of a Viking Drinking Horn:
Each day of the GBBF has a theme and the day I attended, Thursday, was “Wacky Hat Day”. In 2008, I saw large groups of people wearing amazing hats and there was some kind of team competition. This year, there were fewer hats (although perhaps they appeared later in the day) but there were some amusing specimens:
About the beer: I had some old favorites and a few new ones, some of which were not that great. My beer list follows:
Timothy Taylor: Landlord 4.3% (always a winner)
St. Austell: Tribute 4.2% (ditto)
Harveys: Sussex Best Bitter and Armada Ale (both meh)
Downton: Honey Blonde 4.3% (very nice)
Five Points: Best Bitter 4.1% (okay)
Surrey Hills: Shere Drop 4.2% (last year’s Champion Beer, very nice)
The volunteers manning the pumps were pretty casual about the servings – several times I received a half- when I asked for (and was charged for) a third-pint. Sounds good but maybe not if you’re trying to avoid seeing double by the afternoon’s end.
For those keeping count, I only had one half- or one third-pints and, as a result, I didn’t fall on my ass getting into the taxi going back to St. Pancras station. Which happened about three happy hours after I arrived.
What a nice event. Special thanks to all of the CAMRA volunteers who manned the pumps, served as stewards, and generally made it all happen. I had several long conversations with fine, beer-loving folks, and enjoyed some great traditional English ale and food. If you’re ever in or near London in early August, you should put the GBBF on your schedule in future.