I’ve a confession to make: I have never attended a beer festival. I know, right? Crikey, crivvens and good golly – never, not even once? Not even once – but that’s an omission I’m ready to rectify.
Beer festivals, unlike their music or art equivalents, don’t command a great deal of column inches. Though they’re popular with ale enthusiasts, you’d hardly class them as mainstream. That being said, the sheer volume of beer festivals taking place throughout the UK – particularly in August – indicates they’re are as popular as ever.
That pleasant, beery, warm-fuzzy state of inebriation
Like a shard of destiny glinting in the gloom, I foresee a beer festival in my future; I envisage myself necking a brimming flagon of oak-aged beer with a studied expression on my face, smacking my lips in between chatting to pot-bellied brewers, careening towards that pleasant, beery, warm-fuzzy state of inebriation whereupon one bursts into cheerful, scatter-gun cascades of coloratura.
The most famous such festival in the world is, of course, Oktoberfest. Held annually in Munich, it’s a fortnight-long knees up, a funfair, a celebration of life – and beer. In recent years, British cities have witnessed their own Oktoberfest-style festivals pop up, with oversized tents, lascivious girls in lederhosen and a generous assortment of German brews on tap.
I’ve decided to omit them from my rundown of the nation’s best beer festivals, though. Those venues that achieve a berth on my shortlist step out from the considerable shadow of Oktoberfest, impressing with the diversity of their bitters, stouts and milds, the friendliness of their brewers and the fertile atmosphere of good cheer they engender.
Ensure your other half doesn’t quaff the kids’ inheritance
It’s no stretch to say that beer is the tipple of choice for most men, but “Come one, come all,” say the following festivals. Don’t expect discrimination here: you won’t have to demonstrate the difference between a cask and a keg ale before gaining entry to these booze-themed Aladdin’s Caves. Provided you aren’t teetotal, you pays your money and takes your choice.
On the flip side – let’s say for a second you are teetotal – you may wish to come along all the same, for the food, the atmosphere, and – most vitally – to ensure your other half doesn’t quaff the kids’ inheritance.
The Great British Beer Festival, 12-16 August – London Olympia
CAMRA – that’s the Campaign for Real Ale to the uninitiated – is behind each of the following festivals, and none mightier than the Great British Beer Festival, which returns for its 37th year in 2014. Held at the London Olympia in Kensington, the festival commandeers the two largest halls in the facility, namely Olympia Grand and Olympia National, both of which will be packed to the rafters throughout its five-day run.
Veterans and newbies alike – over 50,000 are expected – can choose to sample from a colossal collection of 900 different real ales, ciders and perries, as well as umpteen top-rated international beers. Those of the “Eh, just the usual” disposition, then, might wish to broaden their horizons! Fear not, though: there’ll be 350 brewers on hand to help you break from the old routine.
Day tickets are £10, or £8 to CAMRA members, and given booze forms just part of the event, you can’t say better than that. There’ll be music and food too, you see, the latter in the form of burgers, steaks, pasties, sausages, curries or noodles, the former by way of a smorgasbord of tunesmiths making sounds on the main stage. Moreover, there will be several tutored tastings taking place – you know, just in case you wish to pick the brains of an expert rather than your half-cut drinking buddy. I’ll get you in the Wells & Young’s bus.
Try not to plow through the heady selection too swiftly
Manchester Beer and Cider Festival, 21-25 January 2015 -Manchester Velodrome
Photo: Manchester Beer Festival.
Whether you like your ale cask-conditioned, or the phrase ‘craft keg’ is enough to give you a drouth, the beverages on offer at the second Manchester Beer Festival are sure to hit the spot. Amusingly the event is held in the Manchester Velodrome of all places – but the only time you’ll utter “on your bike” is if the bar runs dry. 500 unique potations await, everything from fruit and spiced beer to modern IPAs, special brews and heralded Old Ales.
The taps are spread evenly between two dozen bars which occupy the track and surrounding concourse, and as the track is used daily by the Great Britain cycling squad, you might even get to see some Olympians training while you slug a cold one. Try not to plow through the heady selection too swiftly though; the event lasts for five days, remember.
Should you get hungry, the National Cycling Centre’s catering team has risen to the occasion: you can grab everything from burritos to roast beef and gravy at the food stalls. Nab yourself a day ticket for just £3 (£6 after 5 pm on Friday 24th), or go free if you’re a CAMRA member (£4 after 5 pm on Friday).
Cambridge Beer Festival, 18-23 May 2015 – Jesus Green, Cambridge
Photo: Cambridge Beer Festival.
The Cambridge Beer Festival is one of three such festivals to take place in the busy university town, an opportunity for brainiacs to cut loose from their studies and indulge in their favourite beer or to adopt a new one. The other festivals, incidentally, are the Cambridge Winter Ale Festival, typically held in January (good luck if you’re a Cambridge denizen whose New Year resolution is to give up booze!), and the town’s very own ‘Octoberfest’, a more recent addition to CAMRA’s schedule that focuses largely on European imports.
The main one, though, gets under way in summer, and celebrates its 42nd year in 2015 – making it the UK’s longest-running CAMRA festival. Unique from many of its competitors, the well-regarded Cambridge event doesn’t focus solely on ale, although there’s plenty of it – from local brewers like Cambridge Moonshine and Lord Conrad’s, as well as the Scottish Highlands and further afield. Patrons are given a chance to eschew beer, should they desire, indulging instead in fine wine – with a selection of traditional cheeses served up too.
Pork pies, pickled eggs and pork scratchings
While we’re on the subject, the edibles department is truly stocked: fresh soup, locally-produced bread, pork pies, pickled eggs and that classic pub favourite, pork scratchings. Having welcomed some 38,500 revellers this past May, when they celebrated a ‘Tour de France’ theme in honour of the race’s path through the town, the organisers will be hoping for a similarly impressive turnout in 2015. Oh, and tickets are a steal at £3-5, depending on which day you visit.
York Beer and Cider Festival, 17-20 September – York Knavesmire
Boasting in excess of 400 draught real ales, as well as 100 ciders, a foreign beer bar and dozens of bottled beers, the York Beer and Cider Festival certainly punches above its weight; in point of fact, it’s the largest beer festival in the North of England. Held in a bustling super-sized marquee close by York Racecourse, the event precedes York’s annual Food and Drink Festival, which runs from the 19th until the 28th: ideal if you want to line up some sumptuous hangover food!
Like last year, the festival will also host the Society of Independent Brewers’ North East Beer Competition, which crowns brewers in such categories as the Best Pale Ale and Finest Premium Bitter. Who knows what the weather will be upto in mid-late September, but a beer garden offers at least the possibility – oh, the possibility – of some late-summer al fresco action.
There are no advance tickets for 2014’s York Beer and Cider Festival, with hop-heads instead able to pay on the door – or at the tent flap, in this case. Like its Cambridge cousin, tickets are extremely affordable at between £3 and £5. My favourite festival perk: you can respect your limits – or simply counteract bloatedness in order to sample more beers – by imbibing from a ⅓ pint or ½ pint glass. Let’s do this.
Nottingham Robin Hood Beer and Cider Festival, 8-11 October – Nottingham Castle
There’ll be more than a few merry men in Nottingham Castle during its annual craft beer and cider festival! Stocking what is reported to be the world’s largest selection of draught cask-conditioned ales – well over 1,000 casks – this feel-good beer fest has all the hallmarks of a weekend you’ll never forget…or remember. I say weekend; in fact, the festival opens on Wednesday and concludes on Saturday. Sunday, in the time-honoured tradition, is reserved for the hangover you may or may not be nursing after swilling top-grade produce from almost 400 British breweries – everything from ruby ales to strawberry-infused wheat beer.
There’s also as many as 200 real ciders and perries on offer. The great thing about Nottingham is the sense of community inherent in the festival’s trade ethos. Last year, a quarter of the volume of its beer came directly from breweries located within a 20-mile radius of the venue. CAMRA’s LocAle scheme was, in fact, created in the Nottingham branch back in 2007.
Tickets for the event (October 2014) are sold as a package, £15 for all nights except Wednesday, when it drops to £10. Though this is a shade pricey when compared to some of the other festivals listed here, entry buys you a commemorative glass (refundable at £3), ten beer tokens worth 50p each and free entry to the castle museum (open daily 10am-4pm).
Go on – treat yourself
There’ll also be a programme of entertainment to enjoy in and around the Victorian bandstand – line-up announced in September, so keep your eye peeled – and you can enjoy exploring the delightful grounds at your leisure (although wandering off while tipsy is never encouraged!). The aforementioned SIBA will have a presence in Nottingham, this time to judge the finest beers in the Midlands on Thursday, after which you can try the winners of all eight categories. Go on – treat yourself.
Well, there you have it: five of Britain’s top beer festivals. Of course, this is by no means an exhaustive list. Festivals celebrating ale are popping up all over the country, from Cornwall to Glasgow; Derby to Belfast; Morecambe to Cardiff. Think you’ve attended the best? Pop your recommendation in the comments box below. I’d love to hear your favourite. In fact, I’ll drink to it!
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