Bacon, Eccles cakes and beer. More than a decade after moving to the sunny shores of the Med, these are the only foods of my birthplace that I still crave. Sometimes my local supermarket stocks bacon, but we have to rely on visitors to import the delicious Lancashire pastries. As for beer, it is impossible to get a decent pint on the continent. I do not mean lager, nor bottled Italian artisanal birra, but warm British cask ale. The only way The Man and I can satisfy that thirst is to make an annual pilgrimage to the Great British Beer Festival (GBBF).
This year, thanks to a stubborn Easyjet passenger with a health problem we were an hour late arriving, on Wednesday 8 August, at Kensington Olympia. Once we had paid our deposit for two pint pots, we lurched for the bar like desert trekkers before an oasis. My first sweet, sweet drink was 2018's gold-medallist XX Mild, a rather boring name I thought. It was pleasant enough, if unmemorable, slightly chocolatey with a smoky aftertaste.
What next? This year I ignored the official tasting notes and bought blind off a list of Milds downloaded from the GBBF website. This type of beer is usually a dark colour, has a lowish alcohol content and is less hoppy. As a consequence it tastes less bitter, so I was surprised by my next choice, Look Both Ways, which was a straw-colour, smelled of honey and lemon and had a touch of bitterness, perfect for a summer's day. I followed it with Gannet Mild, a bitter chocolate taste, not too sweet and my favourite of the day.
Whilst drinking The Man and I shared a table with two friends and three strangers. Sitting next to me was a red-faced fellow, born in Newcastle and raised in Yorkshire. "Try Chocks Away," he urged me, "It's a stout." At 4.3% alcohol it was also stronger than I preferred. I should have stuck to my list. It was too sweet, with an overwhelming milk-chocolatiness, like drinking liquid Galaxy, not to my taste at all. As a dessert beer it could have been paired with vanilla ice-cream or tiramisu.
At around five o'clock the background hum increased and the crowd demographic changed. Office workers in white shirts and suits began to arrive and soon outnumbered the students wearing amusing headgear. I had enough stamina to sink two more mildly alcoholic Milds: bronze-medallist Orchid with notes of dark chocolate and tobacco, and Black Dog, tasting of liquorice and bitter chocolate. The Man and I sat at a table with a group of techies near the VIP area, where a blonde-haired acoustic guitarist was playing requests. As I sipped my last half, everyone nodded along to Bill Withers's "Lean On Me," a perfectly suitable song on which to end the day.
What I drank, including official tasting notes:
- Black Dog, Elgood's, 3.6%, liquorice, hints of roast malt, growing dry bitterness
- Chocks Away, Belvoir, 4.3% (stout), full-bodied, rich, thick creamy head, full of chocolate
- Dark, Rhymney, 4% (stout), darkly roasted malt, bitter chocolate, hints of coffee
- Gannet Mild, Earl Soham, 3.3%, sweet fruity flavour and coffee aftertaste
- Look Both Ways, Torrside, 3%, easy drinking summer refreshment, hopped
- Orchid, East London Brewing, 3.6%, subtly spiced with vanilla
- XX Mild, Greene King, 3%, smooth, sweet, bitter aftertaste, roasted and chocolate dark malt
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