The thing about beer festivals generally, and the GBBF by extrapolation, is that there is only so much beer that you can drink. I don't mean that there is a limit on the number of beers you can taste, but ultimately, there is a finite number of units of alcohol you can take on board before you think "I'm hot, tired, and want to go home". In short, before you get too drunk for it to be fun any more.
This was admirably demonstrated to me very early on - my first beer, in fact. Hopshackle Hop and Spicy (4.5%abv) was the only beer from them that was on cask. Fulsome praise from the Reluctant Scooper made me think that anything by them would be fun. Sadly, Hop and Spicy was a dark brown ginger beer - a bit thick, muddy, and definitely not what I wanted as my first GBBF beer. I had a sip, and realising that this was taking up valuable units that might otherwise be expended on things that were more in my target drinking zone, asked the doughty volunteer barstaff to dispose of it.
Fyne Jarl (4%abv) proved to be exactly what I was after. My notebook says "Brilliant gold, lively, with persistent lacing. Softly spicy Saaz-like lemony aroma, soft on palate, with persistent pithy bitterness in the finish. Great" Wonderful beer, in great condition. Inveralmond Ossian (4.1%abv) was of a similar style, but "caramel, honey and vanilla on the nose. More honey in the swallow. Finishes with snappy biscuity malt. Nice". At this point, I lost patience with the layout of the British bars - breweries are listed alphabetically according to county of location, with no map of the bars in the festival programme [edit - I'm totally wrong about this - see Ed's comment below] - and hit Bieres Sans Frontieres.
Toccalmatto Zona Cesarini IPA (6.6%abv) will get a blog post all of its own in the next few days. Mindful of a time-specific invite, I joined a happy few in front of the Fuller's bar, and was led away to a tasting of Fuller's Vintage and Brewer's Reserve beers. I've blogged about Fuller's before, but this tasting served to demonstrate what Fuller's do well (produce classic English ales that are suitable for ageing), and cemented John Keeling's place as the brewer that consistently delivers, both in terms of beer and of entertainment. The picture of him and Derek Prentice I've used here is intentionally misleading - they are great company, and don't hate each other as much as the photo implies. And the pretend leaking of their heritage porter project was a nice bit of theatre - to summarise, Fuller's will be releasing a traditional porter later this year, from an 1891 recipe, that's a blend of stock (aged) and running (fresh) ales. If my notes are to be believed, they will also be using porter that has been aged in casks that have previously held Brewer's Reserve.
But (perhaps sadly), one can't spend the whole day at GBBF in an anteroom being fed rare beers. Plunging back into the fray, my notes tell a tale of a man reaching the end of his capacity. Beck Brau Zoigl (5.8%abv) was possibly my beer of the festival. As I mentioned earlier, there are only so many units of alcohol that you can take on board, and I remember having three thirds of a pint of this. My notes say "yeasty, unfiltered liveliness, full of vanilla grain character, splendidly bitter finish".
Looking at my notes, and from memory, I also had a few American beers from cask, including Oskar Blues Pale Ale (6.5%abv) and Ballast Point Big Eye IPA (7%abv). Ballast Point was full of marmalade and tangerines, and in my opinion, needed to be chilled and force carbonated to show at its best. Oskar Blues was surprisingly good from cask, although from memory, it was better from can when I last tried it (in New York, 2007, with Cajun food).
Finally, a couple of beers that I only had sips of. American Flatbread Solstice Gruit (5.4%abv, beer of the festival for Impy Malting) was an interesting unhoppped curiosity - the way herbs had been deployed in place of hops reminded me of the Stone - Victory - Dogfish Head collaboration Saison du BUFF - eccentric and intriguing, but not necessarily something that I'd drink a lot of. The only other beer that was noteworthy (and not in a good way) was the dry-hopped Revelation Cat lambic, a beer that not only missed that mark in terms of flavour, but also had the texture of liquid that had been retrieved from a saloon bar spittoon.
*with apologies to Damien Hirst