Ironic Shirts, Beatboxing & Shite Ale: The Worst Beer Festival In The World

"I’d now been there for two and a half hours, and I was one more ironic t-shirt from burning the entire show down and ploughing the ground with salt..."
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“Has anyone heard of dubstep?”

It’s half two on a wet Saturday afternoon, and a small sad man is coughing into a microphone. “This is a loop station,” he explains for the fourth time in ten minutes, “and everything you’re hearing is my voice.” We’re sitting about eighty metres from Broadway Market, and everyone but me is wearing a checked shirt; the fact that ‘The OxBox’ feels the need to explain the futuristic technology at his fingertips doesn’t seem to bode well.

Against all the odds, I wasn’t visiting some sort of musical therapy group for people who can’t accept that Nathan Barley came off the air nine years ago; I was at its closest 2014 equivalent, a craft beer festival. The British Craft Beer Challenge is a rambling contest set across five dates this summer, each of which will see beers from arbitrary parts of the world sold at once in an attempt to decide who’s the best at letting mashed up barley rot in a tub. In a couple of weeks, Round 2 will pit the UK’s best brews against the cream of Europe; my visit saw the earnest beardy brewers of London and the South take on the muscle-bound beer bosses of the North, where every pint is laced with resentment and mangled vowels.

Having chained my bike, confirmed that my name wasn’t actually ‘Sabotage Times’ and briefly considered actually making tasting notes, I squared up to one of the three jury-rigged bars squatting in the striking railway arches of London Fields Brewery. My first choice of beer hadn’t been delivered, and my second cost an impressive £8 - half-pints were, admittedly, the order of the day, but I was wary of starting too small in case Jeremy Clarkson turned out to be hiding behind a barrel waiting to shout “bender” through a rolled-up copy of the Sunday Sport. I sank into an excellent and very strong Orkney stout and, revived by the equivalent of nearly two shots of ethanol, decided that an overabundance of UAL bags and men with Statement Haircuts didn’t necessarily mean I’d have a shit time. I was, obviously, completely wrong.


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Don’t get me wrong - I’m an enthusiastic ale fan when the fit’s upon me - but you’d be better off staying home and pouring K Cider onto an open vein than heading into Hackney for the next heat. I was last at LFB for 2013’s astonishingly successful Black Market Ball, a Halloween event for which I wore a whole pumpkin on my head. Happily, the restricted conversational opportunities and sense of alienation which come with the territory when you’re wearing a massive gourd were an ideal dry run for the BCBC. The first chap who served me admitted that he didn’t really know his stuff, and later proved it by recommending, when I asked for something to clear my palate, an IPA that tasted like being skull-fucked by a sherbet lemon. In my genius, I paired it with a nonsensical pastry called a Bedfordshire Clanger, which is basically a pasty that turns into a fruit slice halfway down. There is a reason that nobody has done a pop-up.

It was whilst I was trying to reconcile the tastes of under-seasoned lamb, stringy rhubarb and whatever the fuck that beer was that the beatboxer launched into ‘We Will Rock You’, which became ‘I Love Rock and Roll’ and then turned into a sort of avant-garde spoken word piece from the point of view of a miscarrying foetus. I assume that was what he was going for, anyway. Then it started raining. I moved on to Five Points’ superb Railway Porter, a sensational beer that tastes (in a good way) as if it’s been made by roasting a barista and then straining out his body jewellery. The decent thing to do seemed to be to pair it with some pork scratchings, which looked very appetising in their paper cones until I ordered and saw my portion being hauled out of a clammy plastic sack. Sure enough, the rich colour and cutesy presentation masked a parade of soft, doughy curls of skin that might have been peeled straight off an eczema-ridden pig and popped straight into my mouth without ever having seen an oven. For probably the first time in my life, I left a serving of pork unfinished.

I’d now been at the British Craft Beer Festival for the thick end of two and a half hours, and I was one more ironic t-shirt or crappy bar snack from burning the entire show down and ploughing the ground with salt. Happily, the all-day live music which my press release had promised was a complete fiction. Once The OxBox (I feel that if you choose a stage name that utterly stupid you deserve to have it used) had finished his dismal squawking, the microphone fell silent and so did the festival. There was none of the cheery idiocy that you might associate with a CAMRA event, no men sporting unnecessary walking boots and jolly sideburns; just a handful of lacklustre twats, a few gamely slugging through the whole menu and the rest absent-mindedly drinking some dull sub-Brewdog swill and talking about their trousers. I had another two halves to use up my drink tokens, and then went home to drink wine like a grown-up.

Follow John on Twitter, @JM_Underwood