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.
- 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.
- 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.
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
Fear & Loathing at the Cambridge Beer Festival 1998;
Decadence and Depravity at the Cambridge Beer Festival 1999.
ALE Autumn 2000 No. 299
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