As I may have mentioned once or twice, my taste in beer has a definite tilt towards the tawny and malty end of things, so the National Winter Ales Festival was right up my alley. In fact, if I had any criticism of the range of beers on offer, it would be that it was too broad – a festival consisting entirely of best bitters, strong milds, old ales and barley wines would have suited me fine. But there was some very fine beer to be had all the same.
I’d be lying if I said I had a clear memory of my visit to the NWAF, but I have got several different clear memories. For example…
Not meeting Pete Brown. The very first person I saw when I reached the venue was the Famous Pete Brown!!!1! Wow, I thought, the bloggers are here tonight! Unfortunately I don’t actually know the Famous Pete Brown!!!1! to speak to, and I certainly wasn’t going to charge up to him and say “hey, you’re the Famous Pete Brown!!!1!”. (If I’d had more presence of mind I could have scribbled a quick comment on a post-it note and passed it to him – “Wot no keg??!? Just kidding! – Phil (Oh Good Ale)”.) And I don’t think the bloggers were out in force; at least, I didn’t see anyone I recognised, not even Tandleman. No matter, there was
Beer to sink (into). I drank my first half while doing a circuit of the venue, and my second while doing another circuit in search of somewhere a solitary drinker could sit down (it was busy). By this time I was losing my inhibitions with regard to plonking myself down in vacant seats – which was just as well because the third – Thornbridge Saint Petersburg – was not a beer to be knocked back or swigged while vertical. I settled down with my imperial stout and my LRB and let the world roll away. Memories of this part of the evening are particularly vague, but I do remember reading a piece about the photographer Francesca Woodman, who had an extraordinary career before she killed herself at the age of 22(!); I composed a poem on the spot about how unbearable it is to live in a world where talented people like Woodman, Nick Drake and Peter Bellamy commit suicide, and got slightly tearful thinking about it. What can I say, it was fun at the time (and alcohol is a depressant, after all).
Curry and chips. Don’t knock it, I say. After I’d drunk myself sober – or at least into a state where I wasn’t feeling maudlin any more – I hit the fixed-price hot buffet and worked my way through a plateful of onion bhajis, vegetable curry, lamb curry, pilau rice, chicken and mushroom pie and chips. (What was I meant to do, these people kept offering me food.) Very nice indeed. I think I’ve had a better lamb curry, but I don’t remember when. I also remember finding room for a plate of chips later on, and a bag of Seabrook’s after that. Disgusting, really, overdoing it like that – I’m sure I was way over my daily allowance of deep-fried food.
Cash to burn. I’m a sucker for a tombola; at past festivals I’ve come away with a pump clip (since sold on eBay) and a 2001 Stockport Beer and Cider Festival half-pint (still knocking about). This time round my luck was in, as I won twice in four tickets, which I reckon comes in at a probability of 64/625 or just over 1/10. The numbers secured me one(1) copy of Clive la Pensée and Roger Protz’s CAMRA-published Homebrew Classics: Stout and Porter, and one(1) bottle of beer: pick a bottle, any bottle, and never mind that they’re all six feet away at the back of the stall. I went for… er… that one, which turned out to be Liverpool Organic Brewery’s William Roscoe. It’s a light, floral pale ale, says the label; having drunk it (several days later, I hasten to add) I can confirm that if you like the kind of beer where the hops do a kind of gymnastic display using the malt as a mat, you’ll like this. (I don’t, particularly – which is why I was at the Winter Ales Festival in the first place – but it was a pretty good beer.) I didn’t initially take much interest in the book – I’ve never really fancied brewing my own – but on inspection I think it’s a bit of a find: Clive la Pensée (who wrote most of the book) appears to be Martyn Connell‘s evil twin, with an even greater appetite for historical brewing trivia and even stronger opinions, mostly about how brewing has gone to the dogs since the eighteenth century. The blurb on the back of the book promises that it gives “full instructions for brewing your own Stouts and Porters with modern ingredients”, but I think this is wishful thinking. A quick scan of the book reveals 27 different recipes, but out of these all 27(!) are labelled ‘historical’ and only three look at all followable – and those three are prefixed with comments like “now things go from bad to worse”. I think this is going to be my kind of beer book.
A plastic bag. I was now wandering around the festival carrying a half-pint glass, a programme, a London Review of Books, a book on porter and a 500 ml bottle of beer, a combination which you couldn’t call wieldy; in fact, I had the book and the bottle stashed in a jacket pocket, which even in my fairly advanced state of inebriation struck me as not a good look. So I joined CAMRA. I hasten to add, the fact that they were handing out sturdy plastic carrier bags wasn’t the only reason I signed up – I’d been thinking of joining for a while – but it was certainly a consideration. The bag contained a membership pack (including £20 worth of 50p JDW’s vouchers , which should nicely cover the first year’s membership fee) plus a copy of last year’s Good Beer Guide; I was also given a pint’s worth of beer tokens, which was nice. But mainly I was just glad to have somewhere to stash my book and my bottle.
Oh, and good ale. I had eleven different halves and thirds in the end; I kept count on the back of the programme, and if all the measures had been on the line I would have had the equivalent of half a pint at 49% – or five pints at 4.9%. (As most if not all of them were slightly over, we can call it a round 5%.) Say sixteen units (calculations here); on a week night, that was plenty for me. Here’s what I had and what I remember about it (if anything):
Dunham Massey Chocolate Cherry Mild was my first beer. The first time I had it, I got the impression of a really good beer that hadn’t quite come off. Unfortunately it was the same this time.
Robinson’s Ginger Tom (4.3%) was, I’m afraid, the dud of the evening for me. It’s not made with ginger but with Fentiman’s Ginger Beer, and it tasted it; the only contribution the Tom seemed to make was to make it even sweeter. I’ll look out for the 6% version all the same.
Thornbridge Saint Petersburg Oh my. A very fine – and very strong – imperial stout: black as ink, heavy as gravy, with a flavour that makes you take your time and an alcohol content that demands it. Lovely beer. I couldn’t drink a pint of it, though, or not without clearing the evening.
Coniston No 9 Barley Wine After that it got better. “Rich in fruit flavours with marzipan, herbal hoppiness and cognac overtones”, says the programme. Just next to that I felt moved to write my own notes, which said: “Genius beer”. Excellent stuff.
Allgates Mad Monk Oh blimey, not another imperial stout! I realised as soon as I’d paid for this that I’d been expecting an old ale, possibly influenced by Marston’s Merrie Monk. (The monk in this case is Rasputin.) It was good, I’ll give them that – not quite up there with Saint Petersburg, but good.
Otley O Garden This was a bit disappointing. I could tell what they were aiming for, but they weren’t really anywhere near; it reminded me more of Marble Ginger than anything.
Dunham Massey Winter Warmer This was more like it.
Round about this time I had a pint of Dandelion and Burdock (but draught Dandelion and Burdock, none of your bottled muck).
Then Saddleworth Shaftbender was off (at least, I don’t think it was supposed to taste sour), so I went for
Bragdy’r Nant Mwnci Nell; I had to have at least one Welsh beer. This one was… OK. Like Jerry, I was mostly relieved to find that it couldn’t taste the ‘roasty fishy notes’.
Hawkshead Red sounded like my sort of thing, as did
Exmoor Beast. My memory is not forthcoming with regard to these ones. This was around the time that I overheard a volunteer saying that all the people who’d got there at 5.00 when it opened would be “reaching capacity” about then. I got there at 5.15.
As for Fuller’s London Porter, I had no recollection of this being my last beer of the evening until I checked back through the programme just now. I’m sure it was very nice.
Good beers, including a couple of classics; good food, good venue, good volunteers. In short, a right good do.