ALE Autumn 2000 No. 299

Lethargy and Libation at the Cambridge Beer Festival

From our intrepid correspondent Keir Finlow-Bates...

There I sat in a Boeing 747 at Heathrow, in the early afternoon of the last day of the Cambridge beer festival. Seven days hard work in the United States were over and done with, and I had failed to sleep a wink on this, the return flight. Any sane person would have gone home, had a cup of tea, and collapsed into bed in a comatose state, but the summer beer festival comes but once a year, and I had to go and experience it. I ignored the protests of all around me, to the effect that I looked too exhausted to make it, and got my ride from the airport to drop me off at the Cambridge [City] football ground, pen and notebook in hand.

Sue, my girlfriend, and a friend called Paul come along with me - this is as much to ensure that I don't fall asleep in some corner of the grounds as it is for the beer.

I decide to start with a pint of Cox and Holbrook Crown Dark Mild (ABV 3.6%). In my jet-lagged state it wouldn't do to go for the strong porters and stouts I usually drink at the beer festival. Best to start off calmly, I reason. It is indeed a dark coloured mild, and I briefly wonder if there is such a thing as a light coloured mild. The beer has a faint reddish tinge if you hold it up to the light, and a slightly burnt taste with an oily finish. This is not as unpleasant as it sounds, and I soon finish it.

Oldersham's Newton's Drop (ABV 4.1%) is my next choice. It is a pale coloured bitter with a faintly disturbing smell of sewage to it, which is fortunately not reflected in the taste. It has a good balance of malt and hops, but the initial crisp flavour gives way to a metallic aftertaste. It is consumed at the same rate as the previous pint.

"What's with the beer festival logo this year?" I ask, looking at the side of my empty glass.
"It's an Egyptian theme," Sue answers. "The Egyptians were very keen on beer. They used to make a type of it with a grain called spelt."

I get out my notebook.

"A grain called what?"
"And how is that spelt?" I ask.
"Oh, shut up," she replies, and leaves the festival early.

My third pint is Blanchfield's Black Mild (ABV 3.6%). It is surprisingly sweet for a weaker beer, with no trace of hops, and a taste that fades away quickly and cleanly. I follow it with a pint of Old Chimney's Military Mild (ABV 3.3%), the darkest mild yet. I am not that impressed - it has the taste of a reasonable home-brew made from a pre-hopped processed kit, and I expect better than that from a brewery.

[tapping barrels]
As a diversion I decide to sneak over to the tombola stand, while the tombola man is off getting a pint or something. To my surprise, of the ten tickets I buy, four have the number 1 in them; they win me a pint glass with pigs on it, a book on brewery breaks, a bar towel with the word "Brains" on it, and a ticket for a free pint. Unfortunately the ubiquitous tombola man has returned by the time I have opened all my tickets, and indeed on handing him one of them, he shouts out, "And we have another winner!" Then he takes a closer look at me, and says in a quieter Ken-Livingstonesque voice, "Oh no, it's not you again, is it?" I nod, and take my free pint token. I decide to claim the rest of my prizes later.

Hyde's Manchester Mild (ABV 3.5%) is my next choice, and it answers my question about light milds - it is the same colour as your average bitter. It has a strange taste to it, that reminds me of the artificial grape flavouring some sweets used to have when I was a kid. The ewe's milk Wensleydale and a hunk of bread I buy afterwards is fantastic, and it takes a lot of willpower to resist returning for seconds and thirds.

Somehow I have acquired a second pint glass, and this compels me to buy two pints at the same time - Humpty Dumpty Nord Atlantic (ABV 3.7%) and Green Tye Wheelbarrow (ABV 4.3%). Unfortunately half way down each beer I lose track of which is which, and it takes all of my tasting skills to separate them again. The Wheelbarrow has a fuller thicker flavour to it, whereas the Nord Atlantic has buttery overtones and less of a hoppy taste, I conclude. Strangely enough the Nord Atlantic doesn't look like a red ale at all, and I wonder afterwards if I was served the wrong pint. Or perhaps confusion has set in.

[Foreign beers]

To have a break, I take out a cigar I brought back with me from the United States, and light it. In the meantime Paul comes over, bringing with him a couple of pints of Kent Garder Happy Major (ABV 4.0%).

"What are you smoking?" he asks, handing me one of the pints.
"Cigar," I reply. "Brought it back from my travels. Apparently it's the same type that Clinton and Lewinsky shared, or so the bartender who gave it to me claimed."

I sniff the beer I have been handed.

"Strange," I comment. "This beer has a tarry smell to it."
"I'm not surprised," Paul replies. "You're holding it in the same hand as that cigar."

And indeed, when held in the other had the beer doesn't have the faintest trace of tar to it at all. It is slightly opaque, with a gritty burnt malt flavour overlying the hops, although by this time I don't trust my sense of taste or smell anymore. I decide to make this beer my last.

[Milton Brewery beers] There is now a late bus to my village, added to the schedule this new year, and as a result I don't have to catch a taxi home. Instead I get to sit near a crowd of noisy young revellers who have spent their evening in the Regal and the Rat and Parrot. At least their shouting and laughing keeps me awake, and so I don't miss my stop.

I walk home through the dark to my house, and go up the garden path to the front door. But to my surprise, as I go to insert the key into the lock, the door slides alarmingly to my right and downwards. I stare at it in amazement until the damp grass pressed to my left cheek causes my sense of balance to reassert itself, and I realise that I am lying on my side. It is there that Sue finds me, and helps me to bed.

Strangely enough, the next day I have a serious headache. I know that transatlantic flights can mess up your body clock and disorientate you. But I never knew they could cause a hang-over. Until now.

Pictures by David Marchant of the Cambridge Round Table

Previously: Fear & Loathing at the Cambridge Beer Festival 1998; Decadence and Depravity at the Cambridge Beer Festival 1999.

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