We attended CAMRA’s Great British Beer Festival in Kensington Olympia on the opening night, Tuesday August 13, which was also a friend’s birthday. It was a slightly odd feeling to be entering almost as soon as we were allowed to, but the drinking had already been going on for five hours because it had been the trade session all afternoon. I didn’t come to the GBBF last year, so this was my first experience of the Olympia venue, which compares favorably to the Earl’s Court where it was held for several years before. As usually, the event was well-organized, with lots of food and entertainment available; and as it was Tuesday night it wasn’t too crowded and there were enough seats for all of us.
I was hoping to start the night with a pint of Fyne’s Jarl, but it was just my bad luck that that beer won the bronze medal in the best ale awards, so it had all run out even though we arrived only half an hour after the doors opened to the public. Instead I settled for a glass of their Maverick, which was also very good: a lovely bright red-brown ale with impressively frothy head and a slightly acidic odor; a massive tart apple first taste; disconcertingly it was a bit sparkly further in the mouth, but had a good touch of caramel and satisfyingly bitter grapefruit pith in the swallow. I was happy.
Ayr, Rabbie’s Porter was also a pleasing early taster: a pitch black porter with brown foam, a smell of woodsmoke off the head, and a tart syrupy first touch. There’s coffee and pine sap in the mouth, and slightly sour, lingering barley swallow to finish off. Maybe not a session ale for me (at least not at this time of year!), but a very nice example
I know it’s always a risk, but I succumbed to temptation and went next for an Amber, Chocolate Orange Stout: a black ale with rather ephemeral head, a peppery, orange pop odor, and extremely tart and fruity on the tongue. There’s more coffee and pitch further back in the mouth, and quite a nice, stout-like swallow, but overall one of the less pleasing of the chocolate orange style that I’ve tried.
I quickly therefore moved on to a Raw, Grey Ghost IPA, which turned out to be one of my favorites of the night: a very pale, almost insipid-looking pint with a thin layer of head, but a tart, sweaty odor promising more strength behind it. Sweet but very pithy in the first touch, and a zesty orange swill thereafter. Finishing off with intense kernel bitterness in swallow, like chewing on lemon pips—might have been too much for an all-night staple, but a beautiful, American-style beer for early in a festival tasting session.
Skinners, Ginger Tosser (which I wouldn’t have chosen because of the silly name—Skinners have a penchant for somewhat tasteless names and labels [even by British brewers’ standards] but their beer is usually good enough): a light golden ale with honey aroma, and a fleshy orange first taste. Later there was slightly bitter orange peel and crystallized honey, but barely a hint of ginger. Nice, but not very memorable in the swallow.
Rectory, All Saints Tipple: a creamy amber with a fusty, cidery smell; sparkly-sweet, with a bit of rotten fruit at first, then more bitter peel following, but not lingering enough to leave any lasting impression. I could have overcome the disconcerting start if it had ended better—that would just have made it interesting and complex—but eh, no.
Another good one was the Stewart, Zymic: a dusty yellow ale with light foam and a delicious, zesty lime odor. Very sharp, green fruit sweetness, then a robust juicy mouthtaste and quite fleshy flavors in the satisfyingly intense swallow. It was a point in the middle of the evening that means I don’t remember it well enough to say much more here, but from my notes I can see that I really liked it. I’ll have to look it out again some time.
The Mighty Oak, Oscar Wilde was another beer I didn’t choose myself, although I like milds so maybe I should spend more time with them: a dark, ruby-red pint, with roast coffee aroma and a lovely dried berry and chocolate first taste. Further back on the tongue is a promising orange bitterness, but the smoky finish kind of overwhelms the aftertaste for me. It was Simona’s favorite of the evening, however.
Another Skinners ale, their iconic Betty Stogs, was a warm amber color with red highlights, and a rich mix of citrus scents promising fierce hoppiness. It was indeed very hoppy, especially on the tip of the tongue, but the smooth malts later on in this pint were perfectly balanced to counteract the harshness that you can get from some IPAs, so this really was a beer you could drink all evening. It was Valeria’s favorite of the night.
I was drawn to the Gower, Black Diamond by memories of childhood holidays on the peninsula, and sadly it left me with the same slightly frustrating aftertaste that spending time with the family does! A pitch black ale with smoky odor, it’s nice and fruity, slightly sparkly at first, but then disappointingly bland and ashen on the swallow, not bitter or interesting enough. Ach well.
No nostalgic memories, but a good pint in Rhymney’s, Hobby Horse: a cloudy light amber with toffee aroma and an intensely sour first taste; a juicy, almost meaty swill follows, and there are savory herbs and honey in the lingering bitterness. Really interesting and complex. I’m not sure how much I would have liked to drink this all evening, but I did like it a lot.
Wantsum, Dynamo is a light gold ale, with a mixed malic and citrusy smell, and watery vegetable taste, like boiled broccoli, then a hint of arugula bitterness in the mouth. Finally there’s a slightly fruity, vaguely bitter finish, but it didn’t balance very well for me. Maybe I’d had too many interesting beers for another bland gold to do much for me at this point.
For another gold that worked better, however, the George Wright, Citra was a bright yellow pint, with lemon blossom honey on the tip of the tongue; gently hoppy in the mouth; and a subtle sappy swallow. It may not be terribly memorable overall, but the bitterness lingers well, and it was satisfying as far as it went, so thumbs up on aggregate.
Facers, Splendid Ale was yet another light gold ale, this one with a dusty berry odor, forest fruit first taste and sour wood and bit of earthy bitterness further back. On the swallow I got under-ripe summer fruit, which was apparently nice, but I can’t honestly remember it very well.
Finally, just as we were being kicked out of the venue I gulped back a couple of swigs of someone else’s Highland, St Magnus Ale: a light amber ale with the unusual scent of roasted citrus peel—dark, a little bit coarse, but well-rounded. The first taste had the bulging sweetness of overripe peach blended with the smokiness of caramel; later on it was chewy, sweet, and bitter, giving a really interesting complexity. I don’t recall the swallow lingering especially, but perhaps that’s because I was in a hurry, so I don’t want to be unfair on this obviously well-put-together pint. It was definitely a good one, but hasn’t entered the ranks of my very favorites of the evening.
See you next year!