The day dawned bright and fair – well, it wasn’t raining, so it pretty much counted as a balmy summer’s day in Manchester – but the weather was of little concern to the cyclists, whizzing round like mad things inside the Velodrome. Now, I don’t know about the mentality of these super fit athletes, but when I’ve been exercising (the readers roar with laughter at the thought of me actually doing any exercise), my thoughts turn towards a nice, refreshing pale ale. If these poor cyclists are already fighting the urge for a pint after their training, it’s going to be a hell of a lot harder for them this week, as they are cycling round and round a beer festival. Which sadistic bastards thought that one up, eh?
Some rather efficient and dedicated sadistic bastards, that’s who. The National Winter Ales Festival has moved from the Sheridan Suite to, um, Derby, leaving a gap in our beery calendar. But no worries, cask-lovers of Manchester, our local CAMRA folk had already got it sorted, with a new festival featuring over 300 cask beers and 75 ciders and perries. When this came to my attention last year, I popped it in my diary straight away. I don’t generally get to drink as much cask beer as I’d like, so a CAMRA festival is always a pleasant change.
On Wednesday afternoon, I met my partner in crime for the day, BrewDog Mancs’ Becky, and we got the tram out to the Velodrome. This venue had already won points over the Sheridan Suite in my book – it had its own dedicated tram stop, which made everything so much easier than the long trek up Oldham Road/the wait for the inevitably packed out bus/shelling out for the cab ride of doom on the way home. Glasses were either pints with the MBCF design on, or half tankards with the National Winter Ales logo (why?). I generally prefer a tankard to a pint glass, especially in a beer festival environment, but, nerdy collector that I am, I do like to get this year’s glass – so the pint it was. Following the well signposted route, we made the trek through the tunnel to the beer floor. Down, down, into the mines of Moria, and up again into a veritable Lothlorien of beer. Don’t worry, that’s the last Tolkien reference you’ll read in this post, I promise* (*I promise nothing).
Wary of being flustered by the choice, I’d browsed the beer list online beforehand, and made a little list of what sounded appealing, bar by bar. Aren’t I organised? We started at the responsible end of the scale, with a third of Beartown Peach Melbear (4.4%), which was very perfumed, but pleasant. It was Becky’s first beer festival, and, being her aged and esteemed guide, I had sent her a text reminding her to get cash out beforehand – a trek to the cash machine at the nearby Asda was not something that particularly appealed – but in my preoccupation with beer money, I had forgotten one of the most important factors in beer fest preparedness: layers, layers, layers. Most beer festivals seem to have their own tropical microclimates once you’re in there, and the Velodrome was no exception. It was sweltering at the bars, and we found ourselves retreating regularly into the middle of the beer floor, where the temperature dropped to something resembling comfortable. The seating areas around the outside of the track were, of course, far cooler, but we couldn’t particularly be arsed wombling through the tunnels to get over there, especially while we were ploughing through low ABV thirds and frequently needed a top up. The next beer was Brightside Our Town (4%), a pale ale. I think I slightly prefer their Odin (3.8%), also pale, which I tried on cask the other day in Mary and Archie, but everything I’ve tried from them so far has been pretty good. They also have excellent branding – clean, modern and eye-catching, whilst somehow still seeming ‘classic’ in a way that I can’t quite define.
Wandering over to the Ilkley bar, a quick chat with one of the chaps there led to my first half of the day, Ilkley Forbidden Fruit (5%), a grapefruit pale ale using a new hop which is currently exclusive to Ilkley (#1391, for those who are interested). Forbidden Fruit was brewed with Melissa Cole, who has worked with the brewery before to create such beers as Siberia, a rhubarb saison, and Green Goddess, a green hop IPA. The first word that sprung to mind when I tasted this beer was ‘refreshing’. What with all of the big, sour beers that are so prominent at the moment, we were surprised at how restrained the grapefruit aspect was. But you know what? In that moment, parched by the heat of the Velodrome, Forbidden Fruit was the absolute perfect beer to throw back. I really don’t understand why people drink crap lager ‘because it’s refreshing and easy to drink’ when you could drink something like this, which fulfils those criteria but tastes nice as well..! We all know I love my sour beers, but sometimes you just need a good pale ale.
Next up was Waen Chilli Plum Porter (6.1%), which didn’t do it for me, as the chilli was pretty rough. I’m a bit of a chilli fiend – the Mr always rolls his eyes at me for adding hot sauce/jalapenos to my meals – but this particular chilli beer unfortunately didn’t quite work. Luckily, the rest of the afternoon featured, among others, such excellent beers as Marble Earl Grey IPA (6%) and Weird Beard Fade to Black (7.3%), both of which I’d somehow never tried before but had come highly recommended, and the glorious Hawkshead NZPA (6%). An old favourite, I love this beer in cask, and I must admit, once I got on it I was loathe to drink anything else! A number of these were sipped while hanging out with various beery human beings, honourable mentions going to the chaps from the other side of the hills (including Sam, Scott, David of Bier Huis, etc), the inimitable Max from Dulcimer (that scamp!), and of course, Jim of BeersManchester, (who has already been back to the festival and written TWO POSTS about it in the time it’s taken me to get round to writing one! Pro!) and the excellent @CJJazwinski who recommended us Coniston No 9 Barley Wine, which I didn’t get round to trying because I got distracted by the Coniston Infinity IPA (6%), which, the general consensus was, tasted about 4%. Not necessarily a bad thing.
Now, I haven’t been to a CAMRA festival for a while, but I really enjoyed it. Fancy, trendy festivals are great, but sometimes you just want cask beer, a plate of pie and mushy peas, and a vendor selling pub memorabilia. Becky and I both come from a cask background, our careers starting off in little, community pubs serving real ale, so it was a nice, nostalgic diversion from our city centre trendy ‘craft keg’ bar jobs. Not that there’s anything wrong with drinking cool beer in the city centre, but to me, there’s something a bit special about cask. The volunteers were absolutely lovely, as has generally been my experience, and almost everyone I dealt with was very personable, especially one of the chaps on Bar 1, who served us a few times but whose name I didn’t catch. The only slight issue I had with any of the volunteers was with a young woman who we found to be a little brash and unhelpful – but perhaps everyone else was being so nice that her way of interacting with people was a bit jarring. They were all working very hard, at any rate, and I hope they had fun doing it! I must volunteer at a beer festival some time soon; it’s on the to-do list. Sadly, there were the inevitable uncomfortable moments caused by random attendees. Nothing malicious, just cringy “we’ll have to put that tshirt on you, ooh, we’ll have to lube you up to do it” Kegbuster-esque bollocks, which were met with the standard look of disapproval and subsequent manoeuvres to avoid the offending party. To be fair, everyone around this particular offender looked embarrassed for him. There were a few little things along those lines, and, of course, that bloody awful t-shirt stand which shows up at every CAMRA festival. I like the Exorcist parody tshirt ‘the Excessist’. An ex bought that for me at a CAMRA festival when I was eighteen or nineteen, and I’ve only just thrown it away. What I’m not so keen on are the t-shirts ‘for women’. You know the ones – strappy/low-cut tops with terrible slogans written over the tit area. Other than the initial vague amusement at a bit of wordplay when they first hear the pun, I know very few women – or men – or anybody who doesn’t subscribe to a certain gender – who find them funny. Most, if not all, of the people I know would find them sad, and a bit offensive. We’re trying to move forward, kids, and get more people using our pubs – we don’t want to be alienating our audience, now, do we?
I know that some people had complaints about the distance between the beer floor and the seating area/food/loos, and, later in the week, queues and closing times. I think it’s important to remember that it’s a new festival, in a new venue, and there were always going to be teething issues. Overall, I’d say it was a great success. I am aware that I was experiencing the festival as a 23 year old able-bodied person, with less creaky knees than some of the other attendees, so, Mines of Moria jokes aside, the walk to the loos and the lack of seating on the beer floor didn’t really bother me. They put out seating on the beer floor the next day, in response to criticism, and anyone who seriously complains about queues for the men’s loos at a beer festival… Well, they clearly haven’t attended too many. I didn’t get to go to the Friday or Saturday sessions, as I was working, but I hear that they had far more attendees than expected. When 2500 unanticipated people turn up to drink your beer, you can’t be blamed for running out earlier than you thought you would! And, well, as someone who was working in a beer bar Saturday night, we got a lot of custom from the overspill, so it’s good for the community, right? It’s wonderful that Manchester has so many people wanting to drink beer, and it bodes well for next year’s festival. I was very happy with the choice of venue – watching athletes cycle as you drink adds an extra surreal magic to the proceedings – and I hope everyone involved has enjoyed a few well deserved pints. Cheers, kids, and see you next year!