Great British Beer Festival Experience

This American girl knows a thing or two about the real ale scene, which won’t surprise my regular website visitors but might shock a few of the first time British visitors to my blog!  Since January 2012 when I officially became a UK resident, I’ve made it a goal to immerse myself in British culture and the real ale scene. That’s why I was confident that my first experience at the Great British Beer Festival in London would be a memorable one…

At the Great British Beer Festival 2013

I attended a few previous CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) beer festivals and even volunteered at the Battersea Beer Festival earlier this year (see my previous post), so I expected this event would be similar – just on a slightly larger scale.

But it wasn’t until I stepped off the train platform at the Kensington Olympia station and saw the looming Olympia venue in the distance that I fully understood why it was called the “GREAT” British Beer Festival.

Olympia, London venue

Olympia London venue

So what made the Great British Beer festival so great? There were a few things that completed the experience for me –

127 year old Victorian location filled with beer

Massive exhibition centers make ideal beer festival venues.

Back in 2010, I attended the Atlantic City Beer Fest in the state of New Jersey in the U.S., held in a huge convention center with a sold out crowd.  It was the first time I attended a festival at a large exhibition venue. It was wonderful and the space was ideal for the 17,000+ people who attended over the 2 days of sessions, but I have to admit it did not compare to the awe factor of the Olympia venue.

The Olympia Grand room’s barreled glass roof (the largest in the country when it was built in 1886), showcases beautiful Victorian architecture built with massive amounts of glass and iron.

Olympia London venue

Olympia London interior – Olympia Grand space

The primary room, the Olympia Grand, at 14,355 square meters (~155,00 sq. feet) has a capacity of 10,000 people. Next to the Olympia Grand was the Olympia National room, at 8,730 square meters (~94,000 sq. feet) with a capacity of 5,000 people.

Eight hundred bottles of beer on the wall…

The beer variety was actually a little overwhelming, with over 800 different beverages including real ales, ciders, perries and foreign beers available and 24+ bars.

For those attending the GBBF in future years, I recommend that you get a beer program on entry! CAMRA members can pick up one for free, others can purchase one for 2 pounds.

Beer signs grouped by regionThe 13 CAMRA bars were each given a label and a creative name, along with a note of the regions of Britain where you could find the beer. With my program in hand, I could easily search by brewery, beer style, region, etc. and then locate the bar by either the name (like “The Ring O’ Bells” in the adjacent picture) or location (“B4, B5, etc.”).

In addition to the 13 CAMRA bars, there were 11 bars sponsored by individual breweries. The expected British breweries were front and center in the main room, like Fuller’s, Greene King, Shepherd Neame, and Wells & Young, and all seemed to have good options of beer available for tasting.

I particularly enjoyed the Brains Craft Brewery area. Brains Brewery started its business in a three story building in Cardiff, Wales in 1882. The company is known for some of its traditional cask ales, like SA Best Bitter that was introduced in the mid 1950s. But in May 2012, Brains diversified their business, and launched a separate 15-barrel brewery to brew new styles and experiment with flavors.  I love that they’ve stuck to their traditional business model while also branching out and experimenting for the growing craft beer marketplace. We are now seriously contemplating a road trip to Wales in the near future.

Brains craft brewery display

Brains Craft Brewery display

An added bonus were bars that carried selection of great beers around the world. Jim sampled a US cask ale and I tried out a sample at the Dutch bar, but beer was available from other countries, too, such as Belgium, Czech Republic, Italy, and more.

Cards with fellow beer drinkers

Once we explored the whole venue, we wandered upstairs to the gallery to secure a seat. We joined a table of 3 guys from Bromley in South London and began a conversation.  One of my favorite things about these festivals is getting the opportunity to meet new people, and as the beer sampling session progressed, we even started a group card game with our new friends (Elliott, Mark & Tony) and taught them how to play a card game we remembered from our college drinking days.

For those not equipped with playing cards, there are no shortage of pub game options throughout the festival that you can play for a small price.

Jim at GBBF

Great Friday afternoon and evening at the festival – I was impressed at the ease of entry, the capacity I had to move around comfortably within the venue, and the relatively short lines (“queues”) to purchase beer.

Overall, a very well organized and tremendous beer event in London!

Great British Beer Festival 2013




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About Tanya

I’m a freelance travel and beer writer and a passionate and energetic 30 something - determined to enjoy life and see as much as possible along the way. Recently I lived abroad in London and traveled to 20+ countries within two years! As of January 2014, I'm back in the USA, and currently living in Charlotte, NC. But before all of that, my roots were set in small town America, where I spent the first 23 years of my life living, going to school, and working in the state of Pennsylvania.

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