The rise and rise of the beer festival
It’s sometimes said that you’re never more than six feet away from a rat, which is a sobering thought. These days, you could equally say that you’re never more than a few days from a beer festival, a claim which has the benefit of being rather less sobering and far more likely to be true. Britain has surely never known so many beer-focused events: any pub or club worth its salt will have at least one annual shindig, while the latest addition to Britain’s crowded music festival calendar is as much about BrewDog’s beers as the tunes.
The kingpin on the festival scene, though, is BrewDog’s old bête noire, the Campaign for Real Ale (Camra). They’ve been putting on beer festivals since Jesus was growing his first bum-fluff ’tache and they’re currently responsible for around 160 annual events up and down the country. The biggest of those is the Great British Beer Festival (held every August) but No 2 on the calendar is the National Winter Ales Festival (NWAF), which opened in Manchester on Wednesday and runs until tomorrow night.
If the crowd that surged through the doors on Wednesday afternoon as the festival opened is anything to go by – and it was a trade session – then the beer-drinking public are far from tired of festivals, and far from all of them wear a dishevelled beard (about 20 per cent, at a guess). Nonetheless, many are predicting a difficult year in the real ale world after a decade of growth, and Colin Valentine (below), chairman of Camra, doesn’t necessarily disagree.
“One thing we’ve been waiting on happening is the bottom falling out of the market and it hasn’t,” the Scotsman says. “Obviously, with the economic circumstances as they are – we’ve no scientific evidence, but we hope people are thinking ‘I’ve got a bit less money to spend, but I’m going to spend it a bit better [by going to a beer festival]’. Beer festivals are seen as much as events as anything. Most beer festivals at the moment are increasing in size.”
Plenty of them, too, involve the crowning of a champion beer, and at the NWAF the title decided was Supreme Champion Winter Beer. As a member of the final judging panel, I had a close-up look at the process by which the award was decided. Very little was left to chance. The panel of eight were squirreled away in a small, airless room at the back of the venue – the Sheridan Suite on Oldham Road – armed only with tiny torches (to check the appearance of the beer), water biscuits (to cleanse the palate between tastings), a pencil and a notepad. If it would be going too far to describe it as a solemn process – and it would, even if there was a fair amount of debate over whether certain beers satisfied the style requirements – then clearly everyone was taking it seriously (see image below).
Quite right, too, given that victory here can be an important boost for a small brewery (and congratulations to Cornish brewery Driftwood, whose strong, sweet ale “Alfie’s Revenge” carried off the laurels). Nonetheless, festivals are less about awards than about providing a broad showcase for an indigenous product that is thriving across the country. Valentine believes this is one of the key reasons why they are so popular at the moment.
“I know the Camra stereotype is of a middle-aged guy, probably bald, with a beard and beer belly,” he says. “[Well] I’m middle aged, I’m not bald and I shaved my beard off last year! But we get all sorts at our festivals. The analogy I use is bread and cheese; people want a little more provenance. I don’t know if it started after BSE or not, but the butcher I use says, ‘the beef comes from here, the lamb comes from here’. I think people like that idea that they know exactly where the beer comes from. There are a lot of brewers out there [at the NWAF today]. You can talk to the person who made it; it’s not some faceless corporation.”
Any festival is another chance to make the case for beer to a government that seems hell bent on demonising the humble pint. Valentine says beer festivals are a demonstration of how civilised most beer drinkers are. “People think that at beer festivals people are going to be rolling around drunk, the police will be called,” he says. “It’s not true. Occasionally someone will go over the score but it’s very much the minority.”
This applies equally to pubs, he says: “They are very highly regulated. A licensee is breaking the law if they serve someone who’s drunk. Whereas if you’re sitting in the house with a bottle of £8 vodka, there’s no regulation there. It’s interesting that they go after beer but in the last 30 years only one part of the alcohol market has gone up and that’s wine. The guy sitting on the street corner or the guy rolling about in the town centre after too many pints – that’s the obvious bit of alcohol abuse. The bit you don’t see are the people who have a bottle of wine at home every day. Drinking in pubs has gone down markedly. It’s still the best place for a drink.”
The second-best place being, presumably, a festival. Such gatherings are undoubtedly a good place to introduce people to real ale (or, indeed, good beer of any type), which is why Valentine travels to Boston, Massachusetts every year to help out with the New England Real Ale Exhibition. “It’s now a fairly major thing,” he says. “The brewing scene in America has exploded, although personally I think they use far too many hops.”
Too many hops or not, American brewing’s influence can be seen on this side of the pond in beers like Thornbridge’s Halcyon and Offbeat’s Out of Step, both on offer at NWAF. Actually, there is a reasonable variety of beer at the festival – not all of it, as critics often say of Camra events, between 3.5 and 4.5 per cent – but perhaps the most impressive aspect of the event is the fact that no-one working there is getting paid. “The members get no financial benefit out of it – our organisation does but these individuals don’t,” says Valentine. “I suppose it’s one of the mad British things that make Britain the country it is.”
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