This is the time when I would be packing my bags for a week at London Olympia. The Great British Beer Festival is the highlight of my working year and it’s hard to believe it has been snatched from us in 2020.
GBBF for me means the drama of judging the champion beers of Britain, the thrill of hearing the names of the winners and then giving a series of tutored beer talks. Someone once asked me if I was nervous when I give one of my talks. Of course: when you’re confronted by 60 or 70 people, beer glasses to hand and waiting for your words of wisdom, you do feel a touch queasy until the first ale is appreciated and the first joke gets a laugh.
My involvement with the festival goes back to the early days at Alexandra Palace, the people’s playground in North London where television first saw the light of day. GBBF was held at Ally Pally from 1977 until 1980 and my job was to run the press office and get media attention for the event.
I had previously worked at the London Evening Standard and, as the crowds came panting up the hill from the station, I phoned an old colleague on the paper and said: “Dick, you really should give this beer festival some coverage. There’ll 50,000 people here over the next few days.”
“Beer?” he replied. “Do you really think the readers of the Standard want to know about beer?” Perhaps he didn’t go to pubs where you saw people drinking beer and reading his paper.
Lack of support from the snobs at the Standard didn’t stop the crowds piling in. One year there were two brilliant jazz sessions, first with the National Youth Jazz Orchestra and then the Ronnie Scott Orchestra.
Bill Ashton, the director of the youth orchestra, was a real ale fan and as they toured the country, he introduced the musicians to the beers of local breweries. In 1977 they recorded an album called In CAMRA, with each track dedicated to a brewery. The stand-out track for me was a re-working of a famous Frank Sinatra/Nelson Riddle number that Bill called Young’s Makes Me Feel You So.
The most memorable Ally Pally festival in 1980 almost didn’t happen. I’d been on a visit to Burt’s Brewery on the Isle of Wight and when I returned to the mainland, I saw a newspaper headline reporting that the palace had been destroyed by fire. Undeterred, the CAMRA volunteers hired large marquees and set up shop in a deep dip in the grounds below the smoking ruins of the palace.
And then the rains came…The deluge lasted for days and the site became a quagmire. Duck boards were laid out, the festival started on time and the crowds obligingly rolled up. We all wore wellingtons, which gave a new depth of meaning to the advice “fill your boots”.
In 1981 the festival moved to the Queen’s Hall in Leeds. The doors opened at 5pm on the first day and I saw two young men clamber down scaffolding on a building site over the road and head for the festival. They looked in awe at the array of casks holding beers from all parts of the country, paused for a moment, then one said: “Let’s start with two pints of Tetley’s”. Welcome to God’s Own County.
One year in Leeds I showed the American beer writer Charlie Papazian round the hall. He was impressed with the range of beers and the large numbers enjoying them – so impressed that he returned home and laid plans for the Great American Beer Festival.
Who says beer doesn’t travel? It may not have got to Olympia this year but, fingers crossed, we’ll enjoy some in 2021.
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