Thursday, 13 October 2011

Judging at beer festivals ... or how I learned to love drinking in the morning!

10.30 a.m. Slightly overcast but a mild 15 degrees C in Nottingham, the wind is light and the sun is desperately trying to push its way through the clouds, whilst I desperately try to push my way through the crowds.

Now call me old fashioned, but I've never been a fan of beer in the morning, even as hair of the dog, so the prospect of judging beers for a SIBA competition at a CAMRA beer festival was slightly daunting. I mean it's not as if you can taste, swill and spit like those light-weight wine tasters, you have to swallow.

The Robin Hood Beer Festival in the magnificent setting of Nottingham Castle's grounds is now in its 35th year and quite frankly I was absolutely gob-smacked at the sheer scale of it. One of the largest marquees I have ever seen set atop the castle mount overlooking the city centre plays host to a truly staggering array of artisanal ales, ciders and English wines, along with various hand crafted foodie offerings.

The statistics are simply amazing - over 300 brewers exhibiting and 31 of them fitting the CAMRA criteria for LocAle (i.e. from within a 20 mile radius of Nottingham) offering up an incredible 900 different cask ales and 91 real ciders. 

Luckily I only had to sit on two tables this year, both for Premium Bitters though, so the head is still banging a bit as I write this ... even by strictly limiting consumption to a third of a pint this means I quaffed getting on for 8 pints in less than three hours and starting at 11 in the morning! I can only thank the organisers for not putting me on the final tasting table for the SIBA Midlands champion beer (that would have been a further 8 ales to try from the other categories) as I feel an ambulance may have been required.

The feeling of bonhomie and camaraderie (or should that be CAMRAderie?) was palpable not only amongst the judges' tables (must have been well over 60 of us) but amongst the hundreds of paying visitors, exhibiting brewers and volunteers running the event. With all the doom and gloom prevalent nowadays it was joyful to see so many smiling faces and all well before the sun had hit the yardarm. 

Even if you were to visit every day of the three day festival and spent all day long sipping thirds of pints you wouldn't be able to sample everything on offer ... but that's the great thing about beer festivals you can re-visit old favourites and discover new favourites to be. At this year's Robin Hood you could spend the three days just sampling the wares of the 55 new brewers that have been added to the roster. That is 55 new brewers who have set up this year alone and produced a plethora of varying ambrosias ... to name check a few of the locals Black Iris (Peregrine Pale - 4.6% - crisp), Wentwell (Farm Hand's Bitter well rounded copper ale at 4.1%), Wellbeck Abbey (Spyke's Gold full of Goldings Hops at 4%) and one from a pub from my student days in Hull over 30 years ago ... The Wellington Inn (a darkly serious brew at 4.5%).

My final thanks have to go, albeit posthumously, to Spyke Golding, the recently deceased legend of the Nottingham CAMRA branch who gave so much encouragement to both brewers and publicans in the area. His monumental frame and good nature is still missed so it was a nice touch for this year's festival to be dedicated to his memory - including a cracking festival ale from Castle Rock of Nottingham bearing his name.

Now I must go lie down in a darkened room, keeping one foot placed firmly on the floor to ground me and drift into the arms of Morpheus ... 

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