Saturday, 11 February 2012

Beer Festivals

This post started out as a write-up of my experiences at Dickie Doodles beer festival in Kendal last weekend, but the more I've thought about it (especially given the events of the last week or so), the more its turned into a more general musing on beer festivals as an entity.

Firstly, Dickie Doodles. Tucked into one of Kendal's many 'yards' (alleys), Dickie Doodles is a small bar, with a big reputation for its live music nights. Walking in, I was greeted to the sounds of Sergeant Pepper, remade lovingly, track-for-track, in a reggae style. Bare-stone walls, adorned with local artwork depicting classic motorcycles (including a magnificent rendering of an Indian Scout), provide an excellent acoustic and make it plain why this is such a magnet for the local music crowd.

The bar was sporting 6 handpull beer engines and a further two beers were available via gravity on the back of the bar. I was immediately heartened to see our own Katalyst on the bar, its probably my favourite cask beer of ours.

The format was the same as many CAMRA-run festivals, you buy a card for a fiver with 5x50p, 10x20p and 5x 10p squares to be crossed off as they are spent, with the beers being sold at either 80p, 90p or £1 per third. This caused me a problem right away as I was encouraged to drink in thirds. I haven't a problem with that as a rule, especially when there is a wide selection of beers, or everything available is of a high ABV, however the strongest on offer was Coniston Blacksmith's, at 5%. As it was, I had 6 thirds over the course of an hour or so, where I would normally have had 3-4 pints. Bad news in terms of stock management.

I don't want to decry the chaps at DD's though, this was their first festival and they had a nice list put together. On the bar when I was in were; Stringer's Yellow Lorry (a classy pale beer, grassy bitterness with nice fruity notes too), the afore-mentioned Blacksmith's (malty sweetness and nutty with a full-bodied mouthfeel), Pennine Amber and Real Blonde (lager-y sweetness, an unquarrelsome pale), Dent Aviator, Cross Bay Winter Moon Porter (I did try this, but I wouldn't want to publish my thoughts on it), Hawkshead's classic Brodie's Prime (stunning porter with a nice gentle, rolling bitterness) and Katalyst (with all its bits in the right places, to my satisfaction). All the beers were in great condition, even those served on gravity from the bar top, complete with their frozen towels to chill them! The blackboard proclaimed such delights as Saltaire's Elderflower Blonde and Hawkshead's super-special NZPA as 'Coming Soon'.

I did call back in later, as the band were warming up, and was served a couple of pints, rather than going back on to thirds. Unfortunately, the weather had closed in all day, leaving the bar rather empty and forlorn at the time they should have been busiest.

All in all, a good first fest I'd say, but there was a definite feel of a CAMRA run festival about it, which to me spoiled the atmosphere a bit. I expect next time around, the management team will be wanting to keep the event more in line with its regular trading pattern, perhaps introduce some more exotic beers (maybe including bottles) and give people the option of a pint or even a half on the more sessionable beers right from the outset.

Fans and followers of the Hardknott blogs/twitter feeds may be aware of the controversy we courted following the SIBA National Keg Competition, held at The Barrels in Hereford last week. I don't need to remind you of all the grisly details, needless to say we were all pretty incredulous at what we had been told.

What really got me thinking though, as someone who has both organised and patronised a fair few beer festivals, is what we were told by the manager of The Barrels after the event. Their decision to not serve Queboid, at 8%, and Mutiny, at 9.3%, was based upon the grounds of the 'responsible retailing of alcohol' and that they would not ordinarily serve beers of over 4.5%. This last fact is the decision of the licensee and as such is fair enough, I'm certainly not going to tell him how to run his business, but this claim of the 'responsible retailing of alcohol' sticks in my throat somewhat.

When I was running the bar at the Masons Arms, Strawberry Bank, I would regularly have beers such as Coniston Infinity IPA (6%), Hawkshead NZPA (6%) and Citrillo (5%) (or Cumbrian Five Hop as it is now) and Hardknott Infra Red (6.2%) on the bar on cask, we periodically sold Leffe Blond (6.6%) and Duvel Green (6.8%) via keg and had many bottles at way over 10%, including Tokyo* and Tactical Nuclear Penguin. The Masons, much like the Barrels we are led to believe, is a place that must be driven to for 95% of its clientele. It isn't on a bus route, in fact the nearest bus stop with a regular service is over 4 miles away. I never once stopped to think that I wasn't retailing alcohol responsibly. I wonder if Glyn, Tom, Dean, or Will have ever had that doubt? My guess is their response would be the same as mine, 'Of course not, particularly strong beers come in shorter measures.'

The fact is, if someone has had enough, they don't get any more. It's the basic principle of innkeeping that goes back centuries, if not millenia. If I was a regular, I'd be unhappy that my beer selection was being censored on the basis that the landlord didn't want me getting a bit pissed of a Saturday night. It makes even less sense to me that he wouldn't even serve halves of an 8% beer, when he's quite happy to dish out pints of 4.5% beer. Simple maths tells you there's something wrong there.

I had my first experience of GBBF last year, I have to say I was unaccustomed to drinking anything less than pints at that stage, especially as a first drink. I arrived a tad late and whilst looking around to find Ann and Dave, I decided a beer would make the search easier. Arriving at the BSF American bar, virgin pint glass clasped in hand, I asked for a Lagunitas IPA, at around 5.5% as I recall.

"A half or a third, sir?"

"Errrr, pint???"

"Oh, er, yes, of course, er, right away."

It seems my request was somewhat foreign to the bar tender. Perhaps my ideas of strength are askew? I'd regard anything up to 6% as 'sessionable', depending on style somewhat. But that's just me and it's all subjective, something we'd all do well to remember once in a while.