Friday, 26 August 2011

Festive Season

I've been to a good few beer festivals over the years. Less than some folk I know, quite a few more than most I'd imagine. Possibly enough to consider myself an 'experienced' festival-goer, which is not that big a deal in itself, but perhaps surprising when I tell you that actually (and I'm going to whisper this) I'm not actually that big a fan of beer festivals!

Shocking I know, particularly when you consider that a fair bit of our own cider and perry is consumed at festivals, and many of our friends are involved in running, working at, and indeed spend a good deal of their time drinking at them. So why the antipathy?

Put simply, it's not so much that I find beer festivals necessarily bad (though some inevitably can be), more the fact that by and large they're not located in pubs (though some naturally are). For my taste, I've always found that drinking is a social experience best enjoyed in the atmospheric environs of the pub. For the most part, beer festivals resemble a pub only in the fact that beer and cider are served into glasses by friendly bar staff, and with the best will in the world, it's just not the same.

The busy Cider Bar
At their best, beer festivals are busy, bustling social events, with the added attraction of music, good food, friendly faces and, well... Beer. Some, can quite literally be the highlight of the local social scene, with a wide mix of clientele, there for the buzz as much as the beer. Sadly, this isn't always the case, and there's no getting away from it, at worst a beer festival can be nothing more exciting than a big hall full of barrels and (ahem!) beer enthusiasts. Alright if you like that kind of thing, but in my opinion, that's not a festival, it's a Conference. I need something more or I really might as well be in a good pub.

So what for me makes a beer festival worth travelling for? Well, to use a well-worn cliche, Location, Location, and for me at least, a really good range of ciders and perries. A well located stillage makes a hell of a difference to a beer festival, and I'm not just talking aesthetically. Leicester CAMRA Beer Festival is, on the face of it, a hall full of barrels, but what makes it a destination is that the hall is located within a top quality Indian Restaurant. Our local Welland Valley Beer Festival has a head start by being spread out around several rural pubs, connected by a truly unique vintage bus service. The recent Rutland CAMRA Beer Festival has as its backdrop the County Museum, which is eye-candy of sorts and helps to give the festival a unique character. The Derby Winter Beer Festival is located in the similarly eye-catching location of the Roundhouse.

Which one would you vote for...?

A cider-gut, yesterday
I must say at this point, that the old fashioned 'hall full of barrels' style of beer festival is getting much harder to find now. Festival organisers are only too aware that if they want to attract more fringe custom (arguably the whole point of a beer festival, particularly a CAMRA organised one), they have to raise their game a little and offer something more than a very well stocked beer cellar.

Perhaps the best example of this is the well-established, and extremely popular Peterborough CAMRA Beer Festival. Located under canvas on the edge of the town centre, and probably attracting more 'non-enthusiast' drinkers than any comparable festival in the country. Live music plays a very important role in the success of this festival, along with a wide range of good quality food, English Wine bar, funfair, brewery bars, and an all-round proper 'festival' feel. The fact that well-supervised children and dogs are welcome on site during the daytime sessions, is I feel a crucial factor in the ownership Peterborough folk obviously feel for the festival. It's a big social day out for many, the beer just one of several attractions to locals and visitors alike.

Cyderman (aka Ray Blockley of Torkard Cider)
almost ready for lift-off
I went to the festival yesterday, met up with friends, chatted, drank a little too much perry, and came home fully satisfied and slightly envious of those staying for the evening entertainment. Congratulations to the organisers on another great event, and thanks also to the hard working volunteers who kept filling my glass throughout the day.

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