A while ago I walked into a country pub and chanced upon a lovely looking beer festival happening in the car park. Tents festooned with cheerful bunting; I watched as overweight middle-aged men wearing cargo shorts and joggers sank pint after pint of ale. Their faces grew pink and pudding-like from the sun and the alcohol, eventually resembling the insides of those horrible little jellied pork pies. It was a sight most tantalising.
What made this encounter special to me was that it coincided with the Sydney GABS. Residing a mere 17,000 km from Australia’s east coast, the closest I came to GABS and Good Beer Week was being subjected to the systematic torture of the thousands of photos and tweets splashed all over my newsfeeds. I was drowning in a sea of FOMO.
A colleague of mine had previously spoke to me at length about the wonders of little British beer festivals – the kind that happen in dusty community halls with light entertainment after 7pm. He explained that festivals, alongside traditional British styles of ale and pubs that don’t sell any food other than crisps, form a holy trinity of all things enjoyable and worthwhile in life.
He is a homebrewer who firmly believes that all kegged beer is evil by definition. Stella, Becks, Sierra Nevada, Brewdog, he doesn’t give a shit – they’re rotten to the last wretched drop. A lifelong CAMRA member who grows his own hops; I have seen this man gladly tell a bartender to fuck off for underfilling his drink. He also carries a curry to work everyday in nothing more than a plastic shopping bag tied at the end.
From what I’d heard from the posterboy of British beer, I had been forewarned that what I’d chanced upon was not going to be GABS – but I was interested nonetheless.
The tap list was about 18 metres long; the first 17.8 metres devoted to British traditional styles served from the cask – all 3.8%. All breweries had names like Dumble Dick, Twatshire, Featherbottom and Nut Nibbler. All decals were complete monstrosities. Beer was meticulously pulled into plastic pint glasses, lest it be ruined by the faintest trace of foam.
The few beers I did try were actually wonderful. Properly balanced, hard-working English bitters with spot-on noses – the type that do so much with so little. Their signature low carbonation doing the trick of adding a sense of body that belies the modest ABV.
Not a single dessert beer within a 30-mile radius. Nothing above 4.5%. No Yenda wheels, no tasting paddles, no bahn mi. No outwardly visible signs of anyone having any fun. Just thousands upon thousands of almost identical but thoroughly excellent British ales, and lots of men with heads like boiled sausages shuffling around. Not GABS but pretty great.