Category Archives: Beer Festivals

Derby Beer Festival

It happened again to me this summer. This keeps happening to me and I swear it’s not deliberate. It’s early July, and I’m sitting in our luxurious accommodation near Carsington Water in Derbyshire. I’m perusing the pages of the Good Beer Guide.

“What are you checking?” asks Lady Alebagger from across the table.
“I’m just looking at where we should go this evening,” I reply, barely looking up.
“Well,” she says, innocently, “Maybe we should go into Derby.”
Derby’s a few miles away, but certainly not beyond the range of our chauffeur. I look up at her and she pushes a local CAMRA mag across the table at me. I look down at the page she’s indicating. There it reads “36th Derby CAMRA City Charter Beer Festival.”

Derby BF 4

The Derby Beer Festival! One of the biggest of the year! And it’s on tonight! And we’re within striking distance!

All right, enough with the exclamation marks. It’s true though, it is one of the biggest of the year, and I didn’t even know that it was on whilst we were in the area.

We decided to spend the afternoon and evening in Derby, looking round the city and then meandering, as if by chance, into the festival. During the afternoon, we happened to look in the city’s cathedral. It’s quite new by cathedral standards. If you’re used to the great mediaeval aircraft-hangars, then Derby will come as something of a surprise. The oldest part of the building, the tower, was built only in 1510 – 1530. The body of the church is a 1725 rebuild, and it only became a cathedral in 1927. The original foundation of the church dates back to AD 943, but no trace of that building remains. By accident, Lady A and I got invited onto a tour of the tower itself, and were witness to the huge musical box (the ‘carillon’) playing one of its daily tunes at 6 o’clock. I only mention this because of the coincidence that the beer festival this year was in honour of the tercentenary of John Whitehurst, clockmaker and polymath, who installed the carillon’s predecessor in 1745.

The Derby Beer Festival normally takes place in the Main Hall of the Assembly Rooms, but this year, renovations forced the festival into other rooms. Within the Assembly Rooms, there were bars in the foyer and in the Darwin Suite upstairs, along with a City Bar at the top of the stairs outside the Darwin Suite. Dominating the festival however, was the huge marquee which filled the Market Place outside. This was surrounded by temporary fencing, keeping the non-drinking public away from the fun.

The Marquee

The Marquee

We found our way to the gap in the fence, and flashing my bendy silver plastic membership card, I paid the pittance charged to CAMRA members and waltzed in. Seating was at a premium on the Market Place; there was none inside the marquee and what there was outside was the smoking area. Eventually, we squished up on two seats round a table. This wasn’t to last, though, and we soon made our way inside to the Darwin Suite where there was plenty of seating available.

Darwin Suite bar

Darwin Suite bar

The line-up of beers was impressive; 282 ales from over 100 breweries, 32 continental and foreign beers and 41 ciders and perries.

With a selection like that, there are bound to be a few duffers. I guess Lady Luck wasn’t with me that night. I got a fair few of them, and only three would I have been happy to have again on that night. Most of the others were perfectly drinkable, but not exceptional. One or two were awful. Unfortunately, the superb Brass Castle Bad Kitty, which I last sampled at the York Beer Festival in 2011 was not on, despite promises from the programme. Cursing my luck, I tried for the beer which had (for me) the name of the festival – Comrade Bill Bartram’s Egalitarian Anti-Imperialist Soviet Stout, only to find that wasn’t on either.

This happened to me a few times, the end result being that I got to sample very few of the beers that I actually wanted, and ended up just taking a stab at whatever was in a nearby barrel. Despite this, I enjoyed the festival a great deal. There was plenty of room, the live music was in the marquee which meant that you weren’t deafened by it (nothing ruins a beer festival like overloud music you can’t get away from – when will organizers learn this?). The staff were enthusiastic and friendly, and there was a great buzz about the whole affair.

Stillage behind the bar in the Darwin Suite

Stillage behind the bar in the Darwin Suite

My beer of the festival was Grainstore The Nip, a 7.3% old ale. It’s a dark orange in colour, sweet with a strong spirituous overtaste. Raisins and fruit abound and overall it’s very warming, like a barley wine. The finish is especially warm and spicy. Lovely stuff.

The other high scorers were Harthill Dark Hart Festival Reserve and Leatherbritches Game Over. Dark Hart is described as an 18th century style porter, and packs a respectable wallop at 6.5%. It’s chewy and tastes quite strong. Smooth with fruity and coffee notes, sweet in the midtaste, where you can detect a slight toffee hint, and there’s a dark coffee finish. Throughout is an alcoholic overtaste that reminds you of the ABV.

Game Over is a dark mild, though strong for type at 5.0%. It’s very smooth and rich, mainly fruity but with nice toffee hints.

Derby BF 2

I would draw two other beers to your attention – both are worthy of a try. Firstly Spire Sergeant Pepper Stout. There’s a smell like frankfurters to this 5.3% stout. The taste is strong and black pepper is in evidence. There’s a bitter finish laced with treacle (or possibly liquorice). Secondly, Dancing Duck Abduction is worth a go if you see it. It has an interesting taste, strongish flavour and a gentle mouthfeel. There are plenty of hops, giving a real smack.

If I happen to be in the vicinity of Derby at a future date when the festival is on (and stranger things have happened) then I would have no hesitation in going back for another crack. I would recommend you to do the same.

Alebagger at Derby2

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Posted by on 30 October, 2013 in Beer Festivals, Cask Ale


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The Salford City Reds Beer Festival

The Salford City Reds Beer Festival. Never heard of it? No, neither had I until I was told about it by one of the volunteers working there.

‘Salford City Reds’ is a rugby team. It used to be called simply ‘Salford’, but apparently rugby teams now have to have daft American-style names invoking a fierce animal or something. Salford thought long and hard and came up with the colour of their shirts. I would have preferred to see some sort of existential protest to the imposition of silly names, ‘Salford City Greens’, maybe, or ‘Part of Manchester Giraffes’, but that’s just me. It doesn’t affect the beer festival in any way, I’m just filling up space here.

Nice sunny concourse, but not exactly packed

Nice sunny concourse, but not exactly packed

It wasn’t just you and I who hadn’t heard of the festival either. Apparently we were in the vast majority, judging by the very low attendance that I observed on the 8th June when I was there. Immediately before going to the festival, we had been visiting friends who live a mile or so from the venue (Salford City Reds’ stadium, beside the M60 Manchester ring road). They had plans for the afternoon and were unable to attend the festival, but had they known anything about it, they would have attended. They live on a quiet side street, and although they had heard nothing about the beer festival just over a mile from their door, on the lamp-post outside their house was an advert for another beer festival – this one in Mottram, nearly 25 miles away. It’s all the more shame because they have two young children, and the Salford festival deliberately set out to be child-friendly.

I think the problems started with the Salford City Reds’ web page, where the beer festival was announced. I don’t know who wrote the piece, but what impression does “There will also be a wine bar for those with more refined tastes” give?

What the hell does “more refined tastes” mean? That people who drink beer do NOT have refined taste? The wine is (obviously) better than beer? That people who drink wine are better than people who drink beer? Leaving aside the incredible crassness of believing that wine is more ‘refined’ than beer, what does this say about the attitude of the hosts towards their prospective clients? It is stupid, prejudicial and insulting. Nice start.

I noticed that the Greater Manchester Ale News website subtly changed the official line, stating that there would be “a wine bar for those looking for a break from the ale.”

The day was sunny and hot, and the festival was being held in a room that opened up onto a wide concourse, allowing drinkers to sit in the sun and enjoy the heat. If you didn’t want to sit in the sun, there was seating elsewhere inside. I didn’t go searching, but I was told that it was available.

The bar. Well laid-out but deserted

The bar. Well laid-out but deserted

The bar took up one long side of the festival room. There were about 60 ales available. Quite ambitious for a start-up festival. The emphasis was very heavily on light, pale-coloured ales, though there were a few dark ales available. The festival was sponsored by Robinson’s, Stockport’s major brewer. I applaud them for that, but did we really need twelve Robinson’s beers on the bar, most of which were indistinguishable from each other in their blandness?

The heat was obviously causing some problems with the beer, and one of my favourites, Sarah Hughes Dark Ruby Mild, was quite vinegar, and it had only been delivered the day before.

Other beers fared better though, and there were some good ones. Here are three that I particularly enjoyed:

Burscough Sutler’s IPA, a proper-strength IPA at 5.5%, this is strong and flavoursome. It is bitter with great hints of pithy grapefruit and bags of hops.

Front Row Collapsed, another real IPA, with an ABV of 5.6%, this has quite a strong taste – smooth, hoppy and good.

Privateer Dark Revenge, a 4.5% dark mild, full-bodied with heaps of dark malty flavour.

We were approached by one of the organisers, who asked if we were CAMRA members as he really wanted the opinions of people familiar with real ale and real ale festivals. He was clearly disappointed by the poor turnout. Whilst we were there, the attendance probably didn’t top fifty people. That was on a gloriously sunny Saturday afternoon. I mentioned that nobody seemed to have heard of the festival, to which he replied that 500 leaflets had been delivered to nearby houses. I could hardly believe that when he said it. 500? Was he expecting every single person who got a leaflet to come along and bring one or two friends? If that happened then maybe he would have got the numbers they really needed, but the return from a leaflet drop very rarely reaches 1%. So if he was lucky, the 500 leaflets would have generated 5 customers. He was clearly keen for the festival to be repeated in the future, but with such low attendance, I can’t imagine that it made a profit. Much beer will have been wasted.

That’s a pity, because the venue is good, the volunteers were very good, the organisation was also generally good, and clearly a great deal of work had gone into the preparation of the festival. If the Salford City Reds Beer Festival is to have a future, and I genuinely hope that it is, then massive publicity will be necessary, not 500 leaflets.

Oh yes, and sack the clown who wrote the article on the website.

Nice day for it

Nice day for it

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Posted by on 27 July, 2013 in Beer Festivals


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The Dulcimer Real Ale Festival

Every once in a while, I like to go on a little pub crawl. Not necessarily a huge three-day affair like my epic trip round Sheffield, but just a gentle afternoon amble, taking in three or four pubs that are not too far apart.

My most recent such foray was prompted by a beer festival held at a pub called The Dulcimer in Chorlton-cum-Hardy in Manchester. I’d never heard of the Dulcimer before. I found that it was not listed in this year’s Good Beer Guide, but that does not mean it’s a bad pub, or even that it’s not excellent. There’s a lot of local politics in what goes into the GBG. Browsing the GBG, though, I did notice that it had several entries within easy walking distance of the Dulcimer. It seemed an excellent opportunity for an easy pub stroll.

So it was that on a miraculously mild Saturday in early May, a day nestled between the Never-Ending-Winter and the Never-Starting-Spring of 2013, my mate and I were dropped off on Chorlton’s Wilbraham Road by Lady Alebagger, who was going that way anyway. Wilbraham Road is the main east-west artery through Chorlton, and is a moderately busy thoroughfare.

Dulcimer Ext

The Dulcimer sits at the western end of Wilbraham Road, and was festooned with a brightly coloured banner advertising the beery delights of their real ale festival. We walked in and checked out the beers available on the bar. There was something wrong here, surely? The handpumps were there, but not in great number – is this the beer festival? Are we in the right place? Hoping inspiration would strike, we took off our coats and sat at a table to consider our options.

Within a few seconds, inspiration did strike, in the form of Otto Rhoden, a man who seems to live at beer festivals. After the obligatory back-slapping effusive greetings, Otto said “Festival bar’s upstairs, lads,” Ah! We wandered upstairs to the upper bar, in a long room with windows at the far end overlooking Wilbraham Road. The bar here looked far more promising. This bar positively bristled with wickets, each with an intriguing pump clip attached.

Dulcimer Int 1

I started with a Wild Beer Stalker. Now I know that most people will start with the weaker beers and work their way up to the stronger offerings, but  my problem is that I don’t read the pump clips properly, and so began the afternoon with a 7.0% strong ale. But, wow! What a start! Stalker is dark orange in colour, very smooth and creamy. It is sweet with a mild malty undertaste and a slightly hoppy finish. The whole taste is mild and gentle and washed over with a swell of butterscotch. It is an exceptional beer, and dangerously drinkable. ‘7%? No way!’ you will cry as you stagger out of the pub.

My second jar was Buxton Dark Nights at 5.0%, described on the pump clip as a ‘US style porter’. So I knew what to expect. Masses of hops, and that is what I got right from the first tentative sniff. The taste starts smoothly maltily and is followed quickly by a strong hoppiness. I’d be happier calling this a black IPA than a porter. Of course, I’m not really happy with the phrase ‘black IPA’, either. It’s self-contradictory. It’s not an IPA, it’s not a porter. It is what it is, and it is very good.

Thinking now would be a good time to move to a lighter beer, so I opted for a Moor Revival, a pale ale with a modest 3.6% ABV. It’s pale yellow and a little bit hazy. The taste is bright and hoppy with clear notes of grapefruit pith and a touch of elderflower. Nicely bitter and lip-smackingly good.

Next was a golden ale and despite my misgivings about many golden ales (see here), this was brewed by Thornbridge, so it had to be worth a punt. Thronbridge Lumford is a palish yellow beer that weighs in at 3.9%. I’m sorry to report that my issues with golden ales were raised again by this offering. It has a slightly odd flavour that I can’t quite place. Otto thought it was lemon. He may be right. Average.

Dulcimer Int 2

Back to the stronger brews, next was Hardknott Azimuth, a strongish, orange-yellow ale with an above average ABV of 5.8%. This is more like it! Dark malt blended with a quite strong hoppiness, rich in texture and flavour. Splendid.

I had to double-check the ABV of the next beer. 2.8%? Is that right? Yep, 2.8%. I somewhat unenthusiastically agreed to a half. Kernel Table Beer is a perfectly decent orange colour, and I prepared myself for a rather taste-free experience as I sipped. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Table Beer is wonderfully hoppy, the hops being quite sharp and up-front. Full of flavour, this is astonishing for a 2.8% beer. I do hope this starts a trend. Lower alcohol beer means lower tax, and is a driver-friendly alternative. Kudos to Kernel for a great beer.

Having been a little disappointed with the Thornbridge Lumford, I was determined to recover Thornbridge’s reputation in my own eyes. Fortunately, another beer on offer allowed me to do that. Thornbridge Seaforth is a strong ale (5.9%) with a warm orange colour. There was a slight whiff of sweaty socks about this beer, but only very slight. The mouthfeel is pretty smooth, and the flavour is well-rounded with some nice fruitiness. Good.

With Thornbridge back in its rightful place, I chose my final beer for this festival. I decided on Blackedge Stout. Blackedge brewery is in Horwich, pretty local to me, so I feel a strange sort of parochial patriotism when I see one of their beers on a bar. I’d not had their stout before, so was keen to try it. It proved to be a fine way to finish. The ABV is 4.5, spot on for a stout, and the colour is black, likewise. The mouthfeel is smooth, as it should be, with well-balanced roasted malt flavours. Excellent, I’ll be looking out for this one.

With that we were done at the Dulcimer, and prepared to leave for a short pub stroll before going home. We had been very impressed with the pub and its staff. All the bar staff were knowledgable and friendly. Beer served with a smile always tastes better. I cannot for the life of me imagine why this excellent watering hole is not listed in the Good Beer Guide. I will be returning to the Dulcimer.

On to another couple of pubs now, but that must wait for another day.

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Posted by on 28 May, 2013 in Beer Festivals, Pubs


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Quantum Brewery, Stockport

On my Christmas pub crawl round Manchester last year, I visited the excellent Port Street Beer House. Whilst there, I sampled an Imperial Russian Stout (with cranberries) from a brewery I had not heard of before – Quantum.

I posted my review of the Port Street Beer House and the beers I drank there – including the Quantum Impy (I loved it, but couldn’t taste the cranberries) – here on my blog. Shortly afterwards, I received a tweet from Jay Krause, owner and head brewer of Quantum brewery promising to add more cranberries next time he brewed it. During the following few days, we passed messages back and forth and Jay revealed that the recipe for the impy was one that he had adapted from a homebrew recipe. Growing more curious by the minute, I arranged to meet Jay in the brewery the following week.

Inconspicuous – apart from the smell

The Quantum Brewery is located in a single unit of a very small industrial estate in Stockport. There are no big ‘Welcome to Quantum Brewery’ signs, but as I climbed out of my car in the tiny courtyard, my nose told me I was in the right place. The alluring aroma of mashing malt led me straight to the right door.

I had arrived at the end of the mash, and the grains were being sparged. Although normally a solo brewer, today Jay had an assistant, a young lad employed by a local pub and being trained in the art of brewing.

Jay and I sat down with a cup of coffee – from a cafetière, no less, and let the obviously more than capable young chap get on with it. Jay is late-twenties, long-haired and gentle voiced, and he told me about how he bought Dukinfield’s Shaw’s Brewery when it came up for sale. It was run down, and little more than a hobby brewery by the time. Unfortunately the premises did not come as part of the deal, and he had to search around to find suitable premises to set up his new brewery. He got the keys to his current premises on the 1st April, 2011. The brewery’s key words are ‘local’ and ‘quality’. Everything is sourced as locally as possible, and to as high a quality as possible.

Quantum produces three regular beers – Bitter (3.8%), Stout (4.8%) and American Amber Ale (5.3%), plus a number of one-off beers, seasonal specials and a couple of series beers – Fleur series (using different flowers in each brew) and a single-hop IPA series which so far has included Motueka hops (New Zealand), Super Alpha hops (New Zealand), Nelson Sauvin hops (New Zealand), Willamette hops (United States), Summit hops (United States) and Aramis hops (France).

As you can probably tell, Jay is an experimenter. He’s been home brewing for eight years, and clearly has a talent for coming up with exciting and great tasting beer. His enthusiasm for brewing is infectious. ‘Look here,’ he says at one point. We squeeze between the brewery’s two fermenters and he points out a bucket of homebrew tucked in behind them.

‘Try this,’ he says, pouring a little beer out of another homebrew barrel. The beer was not fully ready for presentation, it was pretty cloudy, but the taste was incredible. Rich, thick, exceptionally smooth malt flavours present at the start, and just as you’re thinking ‘Oh, that’s nice!’ the hops leap out of nowhere and smack you in the taste buds. Quite sensational. He looks ruefully at the beer. ‘I can’t afford to make that one commercially – the hops are far too expensive, and as it runs to about 8.5%, the duty would be crippling.’

Quantum currently runs a 5 barrel plant, supplying 50 or 60 outlets, and sells everything that it produces. He’s running at full capacity and needs to expand. Demand is understandably high for the amazing beers produced by this tiny little start-up brewery.

As I take my leave, Jay presents me with an unlabelled bottle. ‘It’s SK1,’ he says. This is Quantum’s 7.4% barley wine. The labels for the bottles are still at the (local) printers.

I drank the SK1 (Stockport’s premier postcode) a couple of weeks later. It’s a deep ruby red in colour and has a rich fruity smell. The fruit carries through into the taste, but with an added bitterness. As the wonderful mouthful of fruit fades, it is replaced by hops, leading to a long, bitter finish. Absolutely cracking stuff, and I for one will be heading to the Stockport beer festival in June, where a barrel of SK1 will be available.

Quantum SK1 Barley wine

As I’m leaving, I mention to Jay that he just seems like a home brewer with bigger buckets than most of us. He nods, ‘Yeah,’ he says, ‘it’s really a hobby that just got out of control’.

So, if you spot an interesting beer on the bar, and see that it’s from Quantum Brewery, take a tip from me – buy with confidence!

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Beer Festivals and Music

I’m sure you’re familiar with the moment. You’re sitting (or standing, depending on the venue). You have a nearly finished pint in your hand and you’re having a really interesting conversation with someone you’ve just met who shares your love of beer. Or maybe it’s a nice person of the appropriate gender, and chemistry is just starting to develop. You’re settling in nicely for the evening.

Then there’s an ear-splitting squeal from the speakers (which look like a scale model of Manhattan) and the band begins to play. For some reason, the band (one you’ve never heard of and will never come across again) thinks that you’re there to listen to them, so they’ve turned their Dixon’s budget amp to maximum.

The result is an instant shock to the system. You glance at your beer, and see that it is bouncing like the cup of water in Jurassic Park as the Tyrannosaur approaches. As conversation is now impossible, you indicate by sign language to your new friend that you’re going to the bar for a top up.

Once at the bar, a member of the bar staff approaches and indicates  non-verbally that he’s ready to take your order.

‘Half a Crudgie please’ you scream at him.

He looks puzzled. ‘HALF A CRUDGIE PLEASE!’ That hurt – you think you’ve loosened your tonsils.

‘Pint of what?’ he bellows back.

You indicate with your finger and thumb. ‘HALF – HALF – HALF A CRUDGIE PLEASE!’





Eventually you walk back from the bar with a drink you didn’t ask for. You don’t even know what it is. The band is so loud that you can’t really hear it. It’s just a sharp pain in your ears. Your new friend has gone.

As you can tell, I have a bit of an issue with bands at beer festivals; and I’m not alone. I, and I believe the huge majority of attendees at beer festivals, do not go there to ‘listen to’ (i.e. be deafened by) a band that believes (as they all seem to) that louder is better, loudest is best. Their ears may be useless wreckage, but I have no desire for mine to be.

The problem is that the noise completely inhibits conversation. It is unpleasant, and frequently injurious to the hearing.

I’ve held these opinions for many years, and am very sorry to see that bands are now becoming a fixture at nearly all festivals. The worst festival for this, in my experience, is the Wigan Beer Festival. It is held in a huge gymnasium, three or four badminton courts in area. The acoustics are the worst it is possible to imagine. There is nowhere else for the ‘entertainment’ to go, so they’re in the gym with the rest of us. Maximum volume. The sound bounces mercilessly around the space, making talking quite impossible. It’s a really horrible experience. Wigan CAMRA generously provides what they call a ‘quiet session’ on one afternoon of the festival. Note – one afternoon. If you don’t want your ears to bleed you have to start drinking at lunchtime. I don’t like drinking at lunchtime, I like drinking in the evening.

I wasn’t at the National Winter Ales Festival this year, but my spies there informed me that they had the same problem. The band was in the same room as the bar. Apparently, when the band started, a large proportion of the punters drank up and left, and during the performance, takings at the bar dropped considerably. One of my sources said the noise eventually gave him a headache, and he left the festival an hour and a half before he had planned to. He says he’s not going again.

So what is the point of a live band at a beer festival?

Do they draw in more punters? – most likely no, but the people who are attracted by a live band when they are not attracted by the beer festival itself, are not the sort of custom we’re looking for at a festival. They are the wrong sort of punter.

Do they add value to the festival? – this depends on the band. If they are poor (and let’s face it – the bands that a beer festival can afford are going to be trending that way) then no. If they are good but too loud then no. If they play reasonably well at a reasonable volume, then probably yes.

Are they value for money? No.

Do they provide more takings for the charities supported by the festivals? – no, quite the reverse.

Do they increase takings at the bar? – Demonstrably not. Again, quite the reverse.

The answer is quite straightforward to my way of thinking. If a band has to be hired, the following areas should be addressed:

1. Is there a separate room for the band to perform in?

2. If not, will the band undertake to play their music at a level that will permit non-shouted conversations?

3. Is the band truly worth the price that’s being paid for them?

4. Would the money spent on the band be better going to the charity supported by the festival?

5. Do you really want to depress your beer sales?

6. Do you really want to lose a portion of your attendees early?

7. Do you really want people to stay away for fear of aural assault?

I think the majority of festival attendees would be happy with a little gentle piped background music. Really, nothing else is necessary. Less is more.

Those of us who think this way should be prepared to speak to the organizers of festivals and make these feelings very clearly understood. The simple and plain fact is that overloud bands are ruining our beer festivals. Please stand up and be counted.

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Posted by on 24 February, 2012 in Beer Festivals


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The Bent ‘n’ Bongs Beer Bash

The first highlight of the beer year for me comes in the last week of January. The annual Bent ‘n’ Bongs Beer Bash is organized by Atherton and Tyldesley (Bent and Bongs in the local dialect) Round Table. It’s a charity do, a new charity being selected each year. This year the charity was the Marfan Association. Marfan is a little known syndrome which is not particularly rare, but can be fatal. More information about Marfan and the Marfan Association can be found here.

This charity was selected because of the death of Simon Taylor, a regular volunteer at Bent ‘n’ Bongs, who died suddenly from Marfan’s Syndrome in December 2010. He didn’t know that he had it, and neither did anyone else.

There are three sessions at the Bash, Thursday, Friday and Saturday evening and Saturday afternoon. I volunteer for the three evening sessions. I work at the lager and fruit beer bar, which surprises people when I tell them, because I don’t like lager and fruit beers. The answer is obvious, really – I’m not tempted to drink the product. We get enough breaks for me to grab plenty of fine real ales for myself. Also, the lager bar is the busiest bar at the festival, and the time just flies.

It’s a great festival, one of the busiest I regularly attend. The venue is Formby Hall in Atherton, about ten miles WNW of Manchester. Not a huge place, but just about right. There are actually two halls, side by side. The large hall houses the lager and foreign beers bar, a real ale bar and the food, whilst the small hall has a second real ale bar and the cider bar. This year there were 85 real ales, 12 ciders, 5 perries, 19 foreign draught beers, 12 bottled beers and 10 bottled fruit beers. Full list here. Plenty for every taste.

Over the past few years, we have found that the most popular beer on our bar is Van Diest Früli, a strawberry flavoured lager. It is in huge demand and we get through many barrels in the three days. Personally, I find it thick and cloyingly sweet, and a little piece of my heart dies every time somebody asks for it, turning their backs on the fantastic porters, stouts, goldens, pales and bitters behind them. Hey ho, each to his or her own.

Each session has entertainment. Now I have to ‘fess up right away that I’m not a great fan of live music at beer festivals. I’ll go into this in more detail on another occasion, but basically, the problem is decibels. There are just too many of them. It all makes for quite an exhausting three days, but it’s fabulous fun, and as I’ve noted before about beer festivals in general, it is all very good-natured. We have bouncers on the door, but there is no trouble.

The fast, furious, noisy sessions when the doors are open are one thing, but then there are the quiet moments. As a confirmed ticker, I spend an hour or so before the doors open on the Saturday evening just walking slowly on my own along the two real ale bars, pouring myself a taster of each beer that I’ve never had before. This year I got 27 new ticks.

So to my favourite new beers from the festival. This year, four beers stood out for me. In alphabetical order, they were:

Dancing Duck Dark Drake, a 4.5% stout from Derby. Very smooth and creamy, sweet and treacly with highlights of chocolate, liquorice and toffee.

Geeves Smokey Joe,  5.0% stout from Barnsley. It certainly lives up to its name, smoke is the predominant flavour – dark and malty with a pleasing dryish finish.

Phoenix Porter, 5.0% porter from Heywood near Manchester. Very smooth with obvious notes of coffee and treacle and a hint of chocolate. Sweet but with an interesting undertaste of bitter hops.

Redwillow Heartless, a 4.9% chocolate stout from Macclesfield. Here’s Redwillow again. Previously mentioned in these blogs, they’ve come up with another winner. This beer is rich and malty with treacle and chocolate flavours with a slight underlying hint of smokiness. Beautiful.

It seems that as soon as its started, its finished. Time to hang up my beer festival socks until the next time. Can’t wait.

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Posted by on 3 February, 2012 in Beer Festivals, Cask Ale


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Cockermouth Beer Festival 2011

It seems that there is no time of year when a beer festival is not being held. Looking through the listings in What’s Brewing details enough beer festivals to fill every weekend of the year. Even early December, dismal and dank, has enough festivals to keep the dedicated drinker happy. The Cockermouth Beer Festival was held from Thursday 1st December to Saturday 3rd December 2011. Cockermouth is a pretty market town in the county of Cumberland, and the administrative area of Cumbria. It’s a major population centre in the midst of the sparsely inhabited area between the Lake District and the Scottish border.

The festival was held in the Kirkgate Centre on Kirkgate, and attractive street of early 18th century cottages, one of which Lady A and myself rented with a couple of friends for the festival. Being only a hundred yards from the festival has obvious advantages. Our friends had been to the Cockermouth Festival before, and pre-warned us that seating was limited and we would need to get there soon after the doors opened if we were to have any chance of sitting down. We duly arrived at the door of the Kirkgate Centre at 7 o’clock, and managed to secure a table.

The downstairs bar

The Kirkgate Centre has two main halls, one upstairs and one downstairs. For this first session, we sat in the downstairs hall, away from the deafeningly loud live music that blights so many beer festivals these days. The beers were arranged alphabetically, and downstairs had A-G (the bar upstairs was longer, being arranged along the hall instead of across it.) Breweries represented were Abbeydale, Barngates, Blackbeck, Coniston, Cotleigh, Cumbrian Legendary Ales, Dent, Derwent, Ennerdale, Foxfield and Geltsdale. The hall filled up very quickly, and I soon saw the wisdom of getting in early. It became quite a scrum to reach the bar.

We went upstairs for the Saturday afternoon session, getting in just on 12 o’clock. The bar upstairs continued from G to Y, dispensing beers from  Great Gable, Hardknott, Hawkshead, Hesket Newmarket, Jennings, Keswick, Kirkby Lonsdale, Madcap, Marston, Newman, Salopian, Strands, Stringer, Tirril, Titanic, Ulverston, Watermill and Yates Breweries. It was damned cold in the upstairs bar that afternoon, but it kept the beer in good condition. I can say that none of the beers I had at either session was out of condition.

The upstairs bar

Top beers for me from this festival were: Foxfield Encounter, a 4% bitter (I assume), with a thoroughly modern taste – smooth, slightly creamy and with a nice hint of biscuit. Another Foxfield brew – Stout, at 4.4% offered treacle, dark coffee and small traces of smoke. Hardknott Code Black, a 5.6% dark ale was an intensely hoppy mouthful with strong citrus notes and a devilishly bitter finish. Yates Best Cellar, a red-coloured beer, stronger than it tastes at 5.5% had a good, smooth mouthfeel with distinct toffee and fruit flavours.

Honourable mentions can be given to Blackbeck Carnival Kiss, Blackbeck Dolly’s Trick Shot and Stringer’s Stout No. 2.

The festival was well arranged and organised. All beers were dispensed through handpumps, and as I mentioned before, were in good condition. The staff were all helpful and ethusiastic.

If I may level one criticism at the festival, it would be that the beer list was a tad too ‘safe’. Most beers were in the 3.5 – 4.7% bracket, with only four breaking the 5% barrier. These were Hardknott Code Black (perhaps the most pleasingly different of all the beers I sampled), Jennings Snecklifter (a Jennings stalwart, always a favourite), Madcap Smoked Madness (at 6.9% by far the strongest beer on offer) and Yates’s Best Cellar (again, already mentioned as amongst my festival winners). There were lots of beers that tasted very samey. The majority of beers on offer were middle-of-the-road bitters and goldens. For example, when I came to read my tasting notes for the two Blackbeck beers, I found them to be almost identical. I enjoyed them both, but would have been happier if there had been something to distinguish them. Quite a few of my notes contain the words ‘dull’ or ‘uninteresting’. I want more from a beer festival, I want to taste new and exciting beers.

Although I understand that the festival was not a CAMRA one, but was organised by the local Round Table, and therefore raising money for charity was the main objective, I think there was room for a few more adventurous choices.

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Posted by on 9 December, 2011 in Beer Festivals, Cask Ale


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