Yesterday I found myself at the Great British Beer Festival. It was “hat day” and most of the drinkers had on some kind of headgear– cardboard new year derbys, giant guinness pints with plush shamrock brims, white caps emblazoned with the Saint George flag and in the case of one gentleman, disco 45s taped together.
Even though one senses CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) is trying to change their “Beard, Belly, Beer” image, it’s not really happening. I found it to be a strange mix of British nationalism (the tee shirts for sale of a British bulldog pissing on the Euro sums it up) and indulgent self-deprication (ie– the “I ate all the pies” teeshirt.) But ultimately, it’s a celebration of liver execration (see Oliver Reed themed shirts on special.)
And it’s a dude kind of affair. Where is a woman’s place in this scene? (“If only these were brains” across the bust of a baby doll tee shirt.) There were women there, don’t get me wrong, but we were like some brave, alien race. (“I have the PUSSY. I make the RULES” tee.) I felt a special allegiance with the women who were not under the arm of a man. Women who had come here because they liked beer, not because they’d been dragged along.
When 4:30 came round and the suits started rolling in, things went in the Lad-derly direction– a wink’s as good as a nod– if you catch my meaning. That kind of direction. But before then I got some drinking in. Not as much as I would have liked, mind you. All my careful planning (light to dark, start with thirds and NO CIDER) failed me.
It was a bit of culture shock. In America, passionate, real beer drinking of the CAMRA type is not directly associated with sloppy machismo or flag-waving. I found it all rather overwhelming. To get oriented I committed what felt like sacrilege, going to the international counter first. It was very small, and mostly featured bottled stuff. I was looking for Rogue but my country was singularly represented by Sierra Nevada. I shuddered and slid down to the German section. Behind me, all of Britain was represented and I held out my glass for kolsh. It was illogical, ridiculous really.
And then I had a dunkel.
I was about to try the Bavarian Andrechs spezial when my friends convinced me to branch out, go native. Wink wink, nudge nudge, say-no-more.
The Hambleton Nightmare Porter was singularly spectacular, and worth the price of admission. I only wished I’d had a whole pint of its malty comfort. I sat with my friends Liza and David on the floor of the utilitarian Earl’s Court Exposition Centre, splitting a plate of buttery Wensleydale cheese and ale chutney with biscuits. It was perfect. For a moment I understood this English pride precisely– the urgent love of the countryside and the bounty of tradition and all that. And I wanted another pint.
My friends were set on cider and I caved– I broke my no cider rule– why? Cider makes me drunk and does my pallet in. I had something that was quite drinkable if not memorable, and it predictably went straight to my head. I felt an achy melancholy creeping up, like what I get when I drink champagne. The choice was either to buy an Oliver Reed tee shirt and keep up the red-cheeked work or go home. Of course the later course won out.
I even thought of going back to the festival today by myself just to undo this grave error. (Does she go? Is she a goer?) Next year I’ll start at the Yorkshire counter and work my way widdershins around the island, map in pocket. (said the actress to the bishop.)