At least, if this wasn’t the beer festival of the year, the one that is will be really something.
I’m speaking of the Manchester Beer and Cider Festival, which this year was held at the old Central Station (or G-Mex as I still think of it; stupid name, but it stuck). This had quite a few advantages over its previous location:
- Lots of space – trade shows tend to partition G-Mex to bits, but you can also just use it as one very, very large room
- Lots of seating
- No stairs
- Central Station is about right; the place could hardly be more central
The disadvantages were minor in comparison:
- No serendipitous discoveries of extra bars hidden away in rooms on another level, which you only stumble upon while looking for something else (usually the loos)
- No cyclists to watch
- It got a bit draughty down at the door end
- That’s it
As for the beer… let me tell you about the beer.
My established routine at fests is to get the first thing I fancy, then do a circuit of the bars & get the best thing I see, then sit down and have a look at the programme. The first thing I saw when I came in was the Blackjack brewery bar. I started on their Snip Snap Snorum, which was a fine, herby, tobacco-y pale ale. Then a circuit of the room, and what should I find but Bathams Best Bitter. Bathams! After having it on home turf I came away with the conviction that its reputation is well-deserved; it’s a light, sweet-tasting pale bitter – almost a light mild – but one that develops enormously over the course of a pint, finishing dry and aromatic. I’ve likened it to a ‘session tripel’ before now. A half confirmed that I wasn’t wrong – it’s a lovely beer, and one that I never thought I’d see in Manchester. (Now, if only I knew for certain how to pronounce the brewer – BAT-ums? BAY-thums? Bat Hams?)
Like most CAMRA people I know, I was pleased that the festival had a key keg bar; one of the brewery bars (Runaway) was also KK-only. There was a distinct crush at the KK bar; as I approached I could practically feel the average age dropping (and the beard quotient rising). As it goes, I didn’t fancy any of the beers they had on that night. I did like the look of the Schlenkerla Marzen on the Bières Sans Frontières bar next door, though, and very nice it was too.
Then three in a row from the back end of the alphabet. Waen Snowball is a strong stout (7%); to be more precise, it’s a strong chocolate, vanilla and coconut stout. On the plus side, the flavour combination does work; on the minus side, it doesn’t work quite well enough to answer the question “why am I drinking a 7% chocolate, vanilla and coconut stout?”. Vocation Heart and Soul was terrific – I’ve yet to have a beer from Vocation that isn’t – but I chose it partly as a palate-cleanser between two stouts. The second was the Ticketybrew/Quantum Marmite Stout, which – slightly to my surprise – worked a lot better than the Waen had. I think the key is that it’s a sweet stout; Ticketybrew’s Stout is made with treacle, and I suspect this is too. As a result the Marmite flavour (which is unmissable) has sweetness to play off rather than burnt-grain bitterness; it works really well.
It was time to get some food. I ended up with a pulled pork brioche bun (très craft) and a half of Holden’s Mild. At first taste I badly underestimated this beer: it was a thinnish, sweet dark mild, it was a bit lacking in condition, and I could see myself knocking it back to wash the food down. How wrong you can be. Although it was only 3.7%, the beer had an astonishing depth and complexity; I found myself thinking of dense, malty porters, then of rich, sweet dubbels, then of strong dark bitters. Lovely stuff, and – against strong competition – my beer of the fest.
Then it was back on the hard stuff. I was quite excited to see Moor‘s old ale Old Freddy Walker, and it didn’t disappoint: sweet, heavy and strong, it drank like a throwback to the Burtons of old. The Faithless series apart, it’s not often I see a RedWillow beer I haven’ t tried, so I had to try Thoughtless from their brewery bar; it’s a 9.4% imperial stout, and it’s terrific.
The units were stacking up by this point, and I was planning to get something from the Conwy brewery bar and then call it a night. Conwy make a couple of tremendous dark, malty bitters, neither of which they’d brought along; they seem to be making a fairly concerted assault on the pale’n’oppy market. Sadly, their bar wasn’t at all busy (you couldn’t get near the Cloudwater bar…); perhaps they’re falling between two stools. Not that I personally helped matters, having decided at the last moment not to give them any custom myself. The problem was that I’d just remembered that Fuller’s Past Masters 1914 was on. It’s a fantastic beer, which somehow managed to find the mid-point between an old ale and a best bitter; although both were 7.3%, it seemed to be half as heavy as the Moor old ale and twice as drinkable.
Then I thought I might as well just revisit Bathams on the way out and had another third of the BB. This, I think, was a mistake – going for the third, that is: the first mouthful just tasted like sugar water, and it was only really starting to show itself as I drained the glass. But I’d had the rough equivalent of five and a half ‘normal’ pints by this stage, and that seemed like plenty. I got home without incident, drank a coffee and a pint of water, slept well and got up without any noticeable hangover.
What else did I do while I was there? Not a lot. I bumped into several people I knew – not only through CAMRA – most of whom were behind a bar, slightly to my embarrassment. The pulled pork bun was excellent; the choice of food was pretty good, too, although nothing was dirt cheap. I have fond memories of the Winter Ales fest which, as well as a full-dress food counter, had a stall selling plates of chips for a pound; very welcome in mid-evening, that was. More in the way of soft drinks might have been good; that Winter Ales bash also had apple juice and dandelion & burdock(!) on hand pump, which was a nice way to get a bit of hydration in between beers. As for the merchandise, some familiar stalls were present, and some other familiar stalls conspicuously weren’t – the laddishness (and worse) which has marred some merchandise stalls in the past was nowhere to be seen, as far as I could tell. But the stalls – even the food stalls – were secondary; this festival was there for the beer (and cider), and so was I (apart from the cider). And what very fine beer it was.