I first went to a beer festival when I was 20. It was in Cambridge and I was handed a half of Tiger bitter from Everard’s (I don’t know why I remember that). I took a couple of sips and left it. Around me, men, yes it was mainly men, whirled about in alcoholic contemplation, slapped each other on the back with cheerful endeavour and lifted handled glass mugs to the sky as if to toast their good fortune. I, on the other hand, pulled a sour face, wondered what I was doing there and why there were no bottles of Holstein Pils for sale.
A decade or so later, I went to my second beer festival, London Drinker, an annual event in Camden until several years ago and organised by the North London branch of CAMRA if I remember rightly. This time, I think I got it and drank six pints of Woodforde’s Wherry, so entranced by its flavour was I. My appreciation of beer festivals had begun and I went on to attend ones across the UK, and also in Belgium, Italy, Czechia and the USA (and let us not forget the most archetypical festival of all, Oktoberfest, which I visited in 2012).
The point of all this remembrance is not to wallow in the warm glow of nostalgia and recall how things were all so much better when the only people who wore masks were superheroes. This is more about how several years back, I hit a wall with beer festivals. They tired me out, I wasn’t really interested in drinking lots of different beers, I was bored with them. I only went out of habit or because other beer writers went to them. Who wanted to stand in a draughty space, being jostled by people whose scale of intoxication ran from 0 all the way up to 10? The best place to drink beer was in the pub. To be fair, some environments were good, such as Thornbridge’s al fresco Peakender and the Indie Beer Feast in an old cinema in Sheffield, but for me the traditional beer festival was dead.
However, and that’s the kind of ‘however’ a private detective from the golden age of crime fiction would utter when revealing the murderer, I have recently become aware that I am missing traditional beer festivals, presumably as a consequence of the pandemic and the resulting lockdown. I am missing the different kinds of beers, both cask and keg, the good-humoured banter that comes from several glasses of something delicious and even the architectural oddness of some festival venues (I think of the Victorian gothic frontage of Winchester Guildhall, where I gave a tasting and talk at last year’s beer festival in March, possibly one of the last to happen before lockdown came in).
Whether this admittance is the aforementioned nostalgia or something more fundamental I am not entirely sure, but as I sit at my desk typing these words, I long to have in my diary the date of a beer festival. This will be a festival, whether traditional or post-modernist, where beer will be drunk in rather intemperate qualities and conversation of inconsequence exchanged with strangers while the unsteady gait on the walk home or the sleep on the train will be the reward for a time well spent.
I look back a year and there were so many things within beer I took for granted. I moaned about the quality of cask beer and the insignificance of so many traditional brewery offerings, but I note regular desires for a pint of strong bitter where — horror of horrors — English hops are the song and dance in the glass. I think about the times when I would look at a list of beers and think there’s something I haven’t had before.
What I imagine is that this year long lockdown, which isn’t over yet, by any chance, has given me a chance to reset my relationship with beer, given that my constant involvement within its confines may have made me blasé and almost spoilt for choice. I have come to realise that I like both bitter and NEIPA, West Coast IPA and porter, all members of the lager family and beers from around the world. I like beer and really cherish its culture, its people, its flavours and aromas, its sights and sounds and everything that whirls around it like a multitude of satellites. And within that world, the beer festival now has a place for me, whether it’s traditional (save me the Morris dancers though please) or one where cask and keg and food carts all exist in a symbiotic relationship. Sometime in 2021 I hope, I will reset things and go to my first beer festival.