London Beer City

London Beer City

 

About damn time.

That seemed to be the overall consensus when London Beer City was announced. At last, some truly city-wide recognition and celebration of just how incredible the London beer scene is right now. That’s the best thing about it too: that immediate sense of right now, the vibrancy and bottle-able excitement.

Craft beer in London is about the pursuit of something special that we can enjoy and share with others. The best bars, pubs and breweries in the capital, the places and people that really embody that idea, are all involved a calendar-busting programme of events taking place across London. I’ve written before about how that pursuit, the seeking, is what motivates me. London Beer City seems packed with opportunities to do just that: seek, find and taste incredible beer in a huge variety of places.

This event, hopefully the first of many annual occurrences, is the culmination of a huge amount of work by 2013’s Beer Writer of the Year Will Hawkes, who has managed to co-ordinate a schedule that captures the very best of what London beer can be, whether it’s historic, traditional, trend-setting or esoteric. “I want London Beer City to be an annual focal point, something Londoners look forward to. A relaxed, fun occasion, with events for all tastes and pockets. I hope London Beer City can show off the best of beer,” says Will, “and also help bring about world peace!”

A noble aim. Of course, corralling a city of seventy breweries (and rising) and dozens of quality venues was no easy task. “There are a few really tough things,” Will explains, “such as: ensuring you have enough events every day (I just about achieved that); getting a good spread of events; making sure everyone understands what the week is about; and collating the information quickly and accurately. Overall, though, it has been quite smooth since so many of London’s breweries, pubs and bars are keen to be involved. The London Brewer’s Alliance has been really helpful.”

So what is Will looking forward most next week? “It’s difficult to say! Siren’s live brew at the Earl of Essex, Pete Brown’s Music and Beer matching at The King’s Arms (it’s also on at the Bull in Highgate), Brodie’s sour tap takeover, anything Camden Town are doing … there’s loads of stuff. I’m hoping to get to two or three things each day and still retain a functioning liver come Sunday evening.”

Most people I know have similar concerns. How can we hope to fit in so many incredible events, especially those of us with day jobs? I think the key to enjoying a week of events like this is to pick a few things to definitely attend, and then just throw yourself into something new and different every day. There’s obviously the Great British Beer Festival and the London Craft Beer Festival to consider, too. New events are being added all the time, so it might pay to have some time free for something unmissable and just-announced.
Many events are free to attend, and ticketed tastings, festivals and dinners offer some irresistible opportunities to meet amazing brewers and try some wonderful beers and food. I’m hoping to see London’s beer community embrace this exciting week of events in the way the city got drunk with excitement and pride during the Olympics. Only this time, in a slightly more literal sense, too. Here are some of my own highlights from the schedule:
  • Porters, Peers and Pilgrims: a London brewery heritage walk – I’m gutted that I won’t be able to make this, but this looks fantastic if you’re interested in learning more about London’s brewing history at street level. Des De Moor is the guide for this tour of historical brewing locations across the City and East End.
  • Beavertown Welcomes Rough Trade – Beavertown’s tap room is fast becoming the city’s best new beer destination/all-day hangout, and this day of music provided by DJs from Rough Trade, beer from Beavertown’s tap room and some bangin’ street food looks like a fantastic way to spend an afternoon.
  • Weird Beard Pop-up bar in Bermondsey – In a move that surely out-crafts even the craftest of crafty craft brewers in Bermondsey, the suspiciously good Weird Beard will be opening a pop-up bar on the Beer Mile for one Saturday only. Because the one thing the Beer Mile needs, is more beer.
  • Tasting Beer with Melissa Cole – You’d have to be crazy to pass on a tutored tasting from a beer expert with Melissa Cole’s knowledge, and this tasting just happens to be in one of the city’s best bars, BrewDog Shepherd’s Bush. What’s not to like?
  • One Hells of A Beaver – A collaboration between Beavertown and Camden Town Brewery is a thing to be celebrated in its own right, but as it’s going to be a mash-up of Camden Hells and Gamma Ray, it might also result in the Beer of The Summer. If that wasn’t ‘craft’ enough for you, on the brewday at Camden there will also be a collab-label art-off between Camden and Beavertown’s creative types.

Some people think that London’s beer scene is already disproportionately over-sized, that the scene is nothing more than one more bubble that pops in the head of a pint of cheap, dirty lager. The fact is, it’s about goddamn time that we have something of this scale. The revolution is over. It’s time to start taking this shit seriously if we want it to last. If you think London’s ‘beer ego’ is already so big it can be seen from space, then I’ve got bad news for you. We’re only just getting started.

Great Beer Festivals: GBBF vs LCBF

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In the blue corner: GBBF…

It’s taken me a while to write this post. It has a lot to do with a lack of spare time, but when I have had time, I’ve still struggled with it. I’ve rewritten this post several times over the past week or so, never happy with what I’ve said or the conclusions that I’ve reached. I think it’s actually the pursuit of a conclusion, the need to have something to say and not just report the things I saw/tasted, that has hampered me.

I wanted to directly compare the Great British Beer Festival and the London Craft Beer Festival. The scheduling overlap of putting LCBF right on the closing weekend of GBBF makes it clear: this was what the organisers of the LCBF wanted us all to do. Compare. Contrast. I even saw people on Twitter two weeks earlier asking whether people would pick one, or both. Whilst there was nothing as tangible as an actual competition or rivalry between GBBF and LCBF, there should definitely have been closer examination of what these two festivals represent in the modern beer landscape. At least, that’s what I thought at the time.

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… and in the red corner: LCBF.

The truth is that they can’t be directly compared. With GBBF, we have a firmly established behemoth of the British beer scene, stocking over 800 beers in the enormous and beautifully lit surroundings of Olympia. LCBF is a far trendier, tight-jeaned urban animal, nestling in Hackney’s suntrap/gig venue that is Oval Space.

Comparing attendance figures would be like comparing those of Premier League and Conference football matches, and sheer size is not really the point of a beer festival. It’s the experience and the beer that we actually drink, not see, that we measure beer festivals by. My experiences and the beers I tasted were so vastly different that, again, they defy comparison.

Standard perspective shot of some pumps taken at a just-the-beer-takes-over angle.
Standard perspective shot of some pumps taken at a just-as-the-beer-takes-over angle.

At GBBF’s trade session on Tuesday, I bumped into CAMRGB’s Simon Williams. We were stood by the Bieres Sans Frontieres Bottle Bar (AKA The Globe), which I had sought out expecting to find people I knew there. But the USA cask bar, The Spirit of Enterprise, was on neither side of The Globe, as normal. “I’m looking for my friends, you know, all the Craft Wankers,” I explained to Simon, who pointed me to the other hall, where the USA cask bar was located. Off I went, and indeed I found a veritable Growler of high-quality Craft Wankers propping the place up. My girlfriend remarked “Oh my God, he was right!” There was even a chap with the names of four varieties of wild-fermenting bacteria on his t-shirt. Seriously.

I eventually met with several fine people, and drank a great deal of good beer. But given the hype, the excitement, the brewers and the beers themselves present, few were better than just ‘good’. It almost seemed a cruel joke in a way, that the hugely popular bar of American imported draught beers were a) on cask, and b) all right but rarely incredible. Many remarked that they needed to be served  by keg or bottle to be at their best. Craft wankery? Perhaps. But it was hard to deny the truth in it. There was also the occasional bit of GBBF Weirdness (see below).

The juxtaposition of a Cornish wrestler dressed as Betty Stogs and a hot dog vendor's sign saying 'TRY MY TWENTY INCHER' was almost too much for this correspondent.
The juxtaposition of a Cornish wrestler dressed as Betty Stogs and a hot dog vendor’s sign saying ‘TRY MY TWENTY INCHER’ was almost too much for this correspondent.

On Saturday, the chaotic, barrel-scraping end to GBBF was in full swing by the time I got there. Maybe 60-70% of the beers on most bars had gone, so it was a case of plumping for whatever was selling and looking good. I had a couple of so-so golden ales, then came across a few delights. My focus on Saturday was on British beer. I’d stuck mainly to the USA cask, Belgian/Italian cask and BSF bottle bar on Tuesday, and felt that I ought to  seek the very best British beer I could find. I was hoping to replicate my moment of elation at last year’s GBBF after trying Oakham Green Devil for the first time. I couldn’t find a beer to match it this year, but I came close a few times.

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How many things can you hang above a terrace? Quite a blummin’ lot, mate.

At LCBF meanwhile, I expected a similar situation on a larger scale. Again, I went on a trade/press session, this time on Friday afternoon. Instead, I found that the crowd was more varied than I might expect. Sure, there were a lot of Hackney People, who work in Those Sorts Of Shops and have friends who laugh Very, Very Loudly, but for the most part it was a very relaxed, eclectic crowd. Trade sessions, however, are not always the true litmus test of these things I suppose. I spent most of my time up on the shady terrace, chatting with nice beer people, drinking increasingly excellent beer and feeling far more relaxed than at GBBF. The other outside area, a long sunny balcony, had a slightly too oppressive view for my mood.

Who controls the craft controls the universe.
Who controls the craft controls the universe.

LCBF’s large indoor space was covered on three sides with bars, with beers from Five Points, De Molen, Weird Beard, Beavertown, Magic Rock, Kernel, BrewDog, Alpha State, Partizan, Brodies, Siren, Redemption and more, all served from keg. The conditioning, temperature and quality of all the beers I tasted on Friday was impeccable. Easily the most consistently good quality dispense I’ve experienced at any beer festival in fact. I’ve been served cask beers in better nick on occasion, but far, far more rarely than I would like. Siren’s Limoncello IPA was on top form, as was Partizan’s Camomile Saison and Magic Rock’s Lime Salty Kiss. Each beer I had at LCBF was an absolute delight.

GBBF’s dispense quality varied from bar to bar, beer to beer, but overall was still very impressive. The occasional dud was normally offset by something quite sublime. It was great to taste the Malt Shovel Mild, brewed by Fernandes in Wakefield. Aside from it being a really great mild, I have fond memories of drinking in their brewery tap (the fittingly named Brewery Tap) back in my student days. There was some great weissbiers being served on the German and Czech draught bar, especially the Josef Greif (for which I was given grief for pronouncing it grief when it should be said grife). Though, if I had one regret from Saturday at GBBF, it would be not spending more time at the SIBA bar, where I had a magnificent specimen of Kirkstall Dissolution IPA.

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So, if I can’t compare the two beer festivals directly, and I had a great time at both, what can I say that’s worth saying?

For starters, both festivals are a measure of the health of the beer scene. Whilst we are starting to hear of closures of newer breweries, indicating an imminent plateau, there is also a steady increase in the number of beer festivals that aren’t organised by CAMRA. These may be run by people who just want to make money, they may be run by people who simply want to be the best at it (Craft Beer Rising are probably leading that particular pack). The most important thing is not just that the current beer ‘scene’ in London, such as it is, can  sustain two vastly different beer festivals, but that they can be happily attended by the same people.

It might not be an earth-shattering conclusion, but it’s the only one I can really get behind. We have a vibrant culture of beer that is creating  excellent events and encouraging the brewing of even more excellent beer. So let’s all enjoy it while it’s here.