Wednesday, 12 January 2011

In the Beginning

I think we've enough beer for the first hour
I remember well my first beer festival. It was1974 I think, or maybe 1975. A friend turned up in the pub one night and handed each of us a small card and demanded £2 each or whatever the price was. It was a long time ago.

He told us that his work colleagues had put him under pressure to buy them and he was now doing the same to us. “What’s an ‘Exhibition of Fine Ales?” I asked cautiously. The premise was explained as comprising lots of beer served in a big hall. Good enough for me.

The venue was the Everyman Theatre in Liverpool. At the time it was no different to many auditoriums up and down the country. Slightly down-at-heel, investment was much needed to enable it to survive. It was lucky in that the investment would arrive a few years later and it now enjoys a well-earned reputation (and sells good beer in the downstairs bar).

As a beer festival venue it wouldn’t pass muster in a Health & Safety inspection nowadays. The casks were down the left and right hand side of the stalls, where the seats remained intact. There was no circulation area, so when a scrum formed at the bars we had to pick our way across the rows, glasses in hand to find a seat as if we were about to watch a production. Many spillages took place as punters continually had to stand up to allow others to pass.

My knowledge at the time consisted of two facts. Beer in pub ‘A’ might taste different to that in pub ‘B’. Secondly, it was difficult to find Mild down south. I was hardly a budding Michael Jackson. This was different though, a Road to Damascus. The beers had taste. I hadn’t know that real ale existed or that there were so many breweries. Higson’s, Wilson’s and Burtonwood were my new heroes. I became a convert on the spot.

Those early beer festivals seemed very different from now. Each was an opportunity to try something new, to blag bar towels and ash trays from the brewery reps, to get very, very, drunk by 10:30 closing time. I still remember the pride at meeting Bill Tidy (another Birkonian) and persuading him to draw a Kegbuster cartoon on my CAMRA membership card. I still treasure it.
My first Membership card. I'm not telling you which year.
Present day beer festivals mostly preach to the converted. Their purpose is to raise funds for CAMRA or charitys and the focus is on obscure beers to attract the train-spotting wing of beer drinkings. We all know a lot more about beer than we did then, or at least we think we do. I don’t go to many beer festivals in Britain now. The quality isn’t always great. Unproven beers and poor practices by some wholesalers may be to blame. I have an idea for a good beer festival. Decide on the best breweries and offer only one beer from each. The one judged to be their best. Simple!


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