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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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