Caught by the River

Beer Here Now

8th August 2012

To say it’s been a strange twenty-four hours is something of an understatement. My Monday night plan – ration out another two episodes of Breaking Bad season four – was derailed by a 5pm phone call from a mate telling me I was on the guest list for the Stone Roses first London gig in sixteen years. From not even knowing they were playing to walking into Village Underground in Shoreditch directly behind Olympians Bradley Wiggins and Jessica Ennis three hours later was surreal to say the least – a state of mind reinforced the nagging thought that ‘these things just don’t happen to me since I left the music industry’.

And what a gig it was – a kind of hyper-nostalgia where things are as you remember them, or, more likely, as you choose to remember them. The band were brutally sharp, the songs armour plated. Staggering out of the venue at one in the morning, feeling lucky as hell, I remembered why I don’t go to gigs like I used to. It’s because bands aren’t like they used to be. And I’m not either.

Twelve hours later and I’d already ricocheted across country from Cornwall to Orkney then back down to Cardiff. The scenery blurred past so quickly I hardly managed to make out the faces of my fellow passengers. It was as much as I can do to shout directions. With each stop, something unique – a feeling, a look, a smell and a taste. Each order – another half poured from the festival bar and I’m on another sensory zigzag trip through the British countryside.

Much like the Roses guest list, entry to trade day at the Great British Beer Festival is something of a golden ticket (one that I got for the first time this year, gratefully taking the mighty Pete Brown – beer writer supreme – up on his kind offer). I’ve written a couple of books about pubs and a fair few pieces for newspapers on beer and pub culture but I’ve yet to find favour with the good people at CAMRA. And it’s very much a CAMRA club here. The GBBF is their Glastonbury. It’s their Olympics.

The event takes over Olympia, a venue I last stepped into to see Primal Scream dust off Screamadelica a few years back. Back then, silver ravers were met by a phalanx of sniffer dogs straining at leashes. At the beer festival, it’s a volunteer army of amiable Gandalfs that greet you, each of them keen to aid your journey around Great Britain in third, half or full pint measures.

In the three hours spent wandering around Olympia, I managed halves – smaller measures being the result of lessons learnt from visits made in previous years – from eight different breweries, half of which I’d never heard of, a couple of which were personal favourites and a couple that came recommended. Highlights? A quick nip of something from Brains’ new craft brewery; an incredible IPA from the Orkneys and an award winning APA from Brighton’s Dark Star that I’d drunk numerous times before yet never fails to make me smile.

In many ways, the Great British Beer Festival is as much a nostalgia trip as the Stone Roses gig. CAMRA reckon the event creates ‘Britain’s biggest pub’. If that’s true, then it’s Britain’s biggest theme pub – that theme being an unspecified, golden age before pubs had all the eye-popping, ear-mangling trappings of the 21st century. On the stage, Eric Bristow is playing darts. On the floor, Truro’s Skinners Brewery have employed a marching band fronted by a bloke who is dragged up to look like their brand mascot, Betty Stogs. Food options are all coronary inducing and oh-so-tempting – this place has yet to undergo a gastro revolution. When a Liberal Democrat MP gives a speech to open the festival, he isn’t met with boos and bottles but with warm applause. Really, the GBBF is less like a pub and more like a gigantic union conference from the early ’80s – a room packed with like-minded, earnest souls all united for the common good; beer and sandwiches and end of the pier entertainment.

And it’s fantastic here in this strange constituency, here among these weirdly bearded people who I identify with much more easily than the Olympic athletes, the rock gods and the super models in the Shoreditch nightclub. These pasty eating people who stand there hanging on Good Beer Guide editor Roger Protz’s every word as he announces the winners of the beers of the year in bronze, silver and gold categories.

If I’m being honest… these are my people. These daytime drinkers and fulltime dreamers who stand ticking beers off handwritten lists, lost in the afternoon, whiling the day away carefree and mildly pissed. Truly, these are my kind of Olympians.

As I said – a strange twenty-four hours.


The Great British Beer Festival is on at Olympia until Saturday.