Now don’t get me wrong. I love drinking local ales in local pubs. Living in the south of Cambridge there are many pubs I am proud to call my local, and an understanding wife who drives means that my locals extend from Hinxton in the south up to Waterbeach in the north. The beer I currently would like on draught in any afterlife I’m lucky enough to inhabit is Greene King Abbot Reserve, Thornbridge Jaipur or Brewdog Physics. A real heaven will have all three.
So why go to beer festivals? Well, those of you have been to one will know of their special atmosphere of camaraderie and joint purpose. People are friendly at beer festivals because they’re there to undertake and share in an enjoyable activity - a sort of swingers’ club without the sex. There is an instant rapport inasmuch as everyone has a local, everyone has a favourite beer and some have undertaken an epic journey to be there. Some of the settings of the festivals are awesome – majestic West Midlands town halls, converted East Anglian churches, even railway stations.
The other reason to go, of course, is the beer - that relentless search for the ultimate pint, and all the hard work and tasting you have to put in to find it. There are at least 50 new beers coming onto the market every week, and at every festival there seem to be two or three breweries I’ve never heard of. A barman at a recent festival I attended asked me why I bought the same drink for each of our group. This got me thinking that part of that quest for the ultimate pint is sharing the triumphs and tragedies along the way. We sometimes suffer for our beer, but we suffer together!
So what should you take on your outing to a festival? The first requirement is a drinking pal. I am lucky to have Stevo, who seems to have an employer who is happy to allow him random days off a couple times a month. Stevo is one who suffers for his beer – not for him weeks on sun-scorched Greek beaches, not when a rainy day in Wolverhampton, Nottingham or Bury St. Edmunds beckons.
Next you need to take a bag. This bag should include a pencil, to record what you drink in the festival programme. This record is important if you keep a record of the beers you drink, and it provides a firm database when you lie to your doctor about how many units of alcohol you consume in a week. The bag is also useful to bring home the festival glass, as well as anything you win after laying out £20 on the tombola. In the bag you can also carry your CAMRA membership card, and your railcard. If you’re going to be a regular festival-goer, you should invest in a railcard. Wives are notoriously unreliable in providing lifts to far-off places, and most buses don’t have the washroom facilities necessary after six or so hours’ steady tasting (I would personally recommend drinking halves in order to take in a greater range of beers, but sixteen halves is still a lot of beer). Finally, I would suggest you take your mobile phone. One of the pleasures of sitting down to your first half at 11 a.m. is texting relations and friends who are working to pay for your pension to tell them what beer you are enjoying. Responses tend to be quite short, and tend not to be expressions of joy.
Before I embark upon the tour, you may notice that most of the festivals Stevo and I attend are within striking distance of Cambridge. We both agree that excessive train changes unnecessarily aggravate the bladder. You’ll know that if you want to go anywhere north of Cambridge, you usually have to change at Ely. This can involve a long walk between platforms, so we try to make that our only change. You’ll also notice that some festivals are more than one change away, and I tend to go to these with family after an overnight stay.
I start late in January, as my liver has just taken its annual holiday after the excesses of Christmas and the New Year. The first visit is on home territory, at the Cambridge Winter Ale Festival. The setting is the wonderful University Social Club, in Mill Lane, a labyrinthine building. I’m always torn between queuing to guarantee a seat, and slipping over to the Mill and getting one in while viewing the entrance to the festival from a well-situated window. My favourite room in the USC is the one that holds what Stevo calls the ‘pokey ales’.
February is thankfully a short month, for our next trip is in March to the London Drinker. This has been located in the fine Camden Town Hall, fine because it’s only a short walk from King’s Cross station. It is a festival for the devoted drinker, as there is no seating, only leaning. One of its plusses is that it is near some great pubs like the Euston Flyer and the Bree Louise, so if you do want to sit down later the chance is within walking distance. When working in the north one March, I did visit the Walsall Beer Festival, which is remarkably similar to the Wolverhampton and Dudley Festivals down the road.
In April comes the Bury St. Edmunds Beer Festival, which from the point of view of train times starts inconveniently at 12. It does, however, mean that there is the opportunity to rub cheeks in the Nutshell, just across the road from the Corn Exchange (if you’ve been to the pub, you’ll know what I mean). Stevo and I have met some very interesting Americans at the Bury Festival, and you can always get a seat. April also brings the Coventry Beer Festival, held at the rugby ground. It was there that I inaugurated my nephew into CAMRA membership. I felt he was a good addition as he is the fastest downer of a first pint that I have ever seen.
In May of course we have our own wonderful Cambridge Beer Festival. It continues to be a prime advert for joining CAMRA, if only to avoid the enormous queues of non-members. The food and tombola are the best on the circuit, as is the proportion of beautiful young women. In June Stevo and I drive up to Wolverhampton and stay with our pal Pete. To keep in touch with northern developments in beer it’s a good idea to know at least one drinker who lives north of Peterborough. The Wolverhampton Beer Festival is held in the Wulfrun Civic Hall. The chairs are laid out in two lines along the centre of the hall for a giant game of musical chairs that never takes place. The tombola there is also unique. Not just your glasses, beer mats and t-shirts – the tombola prizes include household goods, cleaning materials and toys. On my last visit I won nine sachets of cat food. I do not have a cat, so sold them for a token pound to someone I suspected of lurking around the tombola to do his weekly shop.
Summer by now has arrived, and festivals go open-air. In early July I visit my brother-in-law who plays in a jazz group at the Haddenham (Bucks) Festival. This isn’t CAMRA-sponsored, it’s run by the village for village organisations. Also in July Stevo and I tried the Poppy Line (Sheringham) Beer Festival for the first time this year. Where else could you sit in a railway carriage supping ale and listening to a jazz band play on the platform? The railway carriages were apparently introduced because so many people fell onto the railway line last year. We did meet a couple from Barnsley who were on a caravanning holiday, but we didn’t let it spoil our enjoyment.
August, of course, is a time of pilgrimage to the Great British Beer Festival, currently at Earls Court. Always easy to find a seat if you’re early, great range of beers and food, possibly should be compulsory attendance for all CAMRA members (though I can’t think of a punishment for non-attendance – sharing a carriage with a caravan couple from Barnsley?). We are spoilt for choice this month, as later on is the Peterborough Beer Festival. This is held in two huge marquees by the river, which sometimes means that it is a bit damp. Stevo and I one year waded through ankle-deep water to the mobile loos, prompting me the following year to invest in a pair of Wellingtons, which I wore to the festival. The ground this time, of course, was bone-dry, providing Stevo with months of mirth thereafter.
In September we have tried the Ipswich Beer Festival. On each occasion it coincided with a home game at Ipswich Town. Now, I know football-goers are people of habit, and perhaps they like meeting up at the same pub before every match, but on these two occasions the attendance has been very light. Stevo and I also tried the St. Albans Beer Festival this year. Again it starts inconveniently late, and we had to try out the nearby Wetherspoons along with sixty OAPs taking advantage of a breakfast and coffee offer.
The nights are starting to draw in as October arrives. Stevo and I always go to the Norwich Beer Festival even though it closes mid-afternoon and even though it operates a tokens system after the till was stolen at their first-ever festival. The setting is a converted church in the centre of the city, again convenient to a Wetherspoons, and the building has very fine acoustics. Stevo and I thrilled to the Norwich Ukulele Society this year. One year we also tried the Nottingham Beer Festival, situated in the castle grounds. A huge variety of beer. This contrasted to my visit to the very first Eastbourne Beer Festival, held in the same month. I went with relations on the Sunday – the festival had sold out of all but its Sussex beers the night before. Its World Beer stand was stocked with the best that Eastbourne Tescos had been able to provide that morning. I was very happy to drink Sussex ales, but the locals largely stayed away that morning.
November, and the year draws to a close. The Watford Beer Festival is another I attend with relations, and is held in a social club with a remarkably good bar of its own. The Dudley Winter Ales Festival is also held this month, and drinkers largely of my age pack into Dudley Town Hall. Finally, in December, is the Pig’s Ear Festival. We were proud to find it this year, given the wintry weather and the walk from the station. Sadly, few others did on the day we were there.
And that’s it. There are many more we haven’t mentioned, and Stevo and I are getting a little more adventurous as he approaches retirement and I, well, wallow in it. Each festival is a unique experience made by the locals who voluntarily man it and come to it. Have a good year – I’m just off to watch some football.