A lighter shade of ale: Liverpool Beer Festival
Robin Brown heads to the Liverpool Beer Festival - and finds reasons to be cheerful
What better place for a booze up than a cathedral? There’s a long association between alcohol and the church, after all. Why, did Jesus himself not attend a beer festival the day after the resurrection?
Perhaps not. But, either way, the crypt of the Catholic cathedral makes for a wonderful setting for the Liverpool Beer Festival. Many beer festivals are held in vast, modern convention centres with as much character as a pint of Carling. Manchester’s beer festival, for example, is held at the hideous Sheridan Suite; a place more suited to an air conditioning reps’ convention than a celebration of beer.
No, Liverpool wins hands down when it comes to beer festivals. Ours is so over-subscribed that it’s no mean feat to get a couple of tickets. We’ve wondered in the past why the event doesn’t go on for longer when the demand is clearly there.
This year the festival seemed a lot less crowded than previous years, which was something to be grateful for, especially in an environment where the men were to be found outside queuing for toilets a few years ago.
Nevertheless, at 7pm there’s a lengthy queue of middle aged gents in the cold and wet outside the cathedral; beer festival goers (and real ale types) seem either miserable and rather po-faced or incredibly jolly and this lot can be split fairly evenly.
With beer and food and music there’s something of a beano aspect to a beer festival. Noticeable in terms of audience are the empty-nest couples enjoying their retirement – enjoying good beer, food and music – tonight form four-piece jazz outfit Cushfoot; Loose Moose played on the Saturday. The food comes from the Liverpool Cheese Company and two other pie-and-scouse-themed foody places (I had a pork pie). It’s a good combination and perfect entertainment for a more mature audience.
Yet the old fellers don’t have it all their own way these days. Ale is fashionable again. These days we have Lark Lane’s Lodge and the likes of Bier in town that are trying, with some success, to make real ale cool. Rose Lane’s Pi is, perhaps, the most successful example of a bar that succeeds with young crowds by putting unusual beers and lagers on the table. There are even some women drinking beer these days – and a smattering are evident at the beer festival.
Some say that the real ale explosion is a fad and real ales hold no superiority over lager. I love good lager, but despise the chemically pap in evidence in many British bars. Any good brewery tour should tell you why real ale is a superior drink; should your taste buds need a clue.
That’s not to say that there aren’t bad bitters, ales, porters and stouts. There are very bad beers out there. And there are good beers that don’t travel well or may not be looked after properly. Enter a beer festival and you’ll find hundreds to choose from. If you’re an ale drinker you’ll have your favourites – or discern which ones will fit your palate. But there’s always an element of chance.
Luckily at a beer festival you’ll never have more than a half: you get your own half pint glass; you choose your beer; you sup and you move on to another. You’ll generally buy chits or tokens in exchange for beer. Four or five pints of real ale – across a number of types and ABVs should be enough for most, especially if you have work the next day (I do).
Choosing your beer is made fairly easy at the Liverpool beer festival, in that the barrels are colour-coded: yellow for light ales; green for fruity beer; blue for mild, stout or porter – and so on. I tend to seek recommendations from the CAMRA volunteers that serve the beer, or from other knowledgeable sources. You can ask for tastes too, if you’re not sure – unlike in some Liverpool pubs that sell real ale. I also tend to start light and go dark too, for reasons of tasting and so I’m not blasted after the first two hours.
I will also choose a couple of beers simply for their names, though, as I like to see a bit of wit rewarded. Some beers give you a clue as to what they’re likely to taste like (Hot Ginger), what they’re likely to do to you (Giggle Juice; Post Horn) and what you’re likely to smell like afterwards (Old Tom).
If you can’t take your ale it’s usually a good idea to steer clear of any beer whose name suggest some kind of threat, state of advanced intoxication or otherwise nightmarish imagery (Aston Distressway, Matron’s Delight). There’s a baudy element to many names too. Who would risk trying a Trapper’s Hat? And what of Spank and Mi Lady’s Pleasure? What women make of the various ales named after vixens and witches is anyone’s guess too. For the record, my favourite names this time around include Coal Porter and 99 Red Baboons.
Local brewers are well represented at the 2012 Liverpool Beer Festival. Naturally Cains is there, but the Liverpool Organic Brewery, Wapping, Liverpool One Brewery and newcomers Liverpool Craft Brewery all present and correct – among a dozen or so other local microbreweries. It’s heartening to see so many small brewers cropping up – a hangover, if you will, from a deft bit of politics from Gordon Brown ten years that gave tax breaks to small brewers.
Cains has brought its Blonde Bird, brewed specially for the festival, along and Cains’ new head brewer, Jim Kerr, is attending the festival. I’m, frankly, disgusted that he doesn’t like Strongarm, the beer of our mutual hometown of Hartlepool, but that’s beer for you.
He’s not happy with Blonde Bird though. In between brewing and drinking, something has gone wrong. I can confirm that something has indeed gone wrong with Blonde Bird; it’s bloody awful. Kerr looks disheartened, but such is the life of a brewer.
It’s a great example of the peculiar alchemy of brewing beer; those combinations of malt, hops, sugar and toil. Not to mention blueberries, raspberries, plum and ginger. There are plenty of fruity beers at the 2012 beer festival. Perhaps they hold the key to opening ale up to a greater audience; many of the ladies at the beer festival seemed to be enjoying them.
Men of a certain age – and certain inclination – love beer. They love drinking it, visiting the sort of places where you can drink it, making it and discussing it. But it seems that beer is no longer the preserve of men of a certain age; something the beer festivals seems to highlight.
That’s heartening – and the explosion of small breweries and a new man at Cains, who will hopefully revitalise a brewery not especially renowned for its brews, seem to spell a bright future for beer in Liverpool.
For the time being it’s enough that Liverpool’s Beer Festival is still going strong. It’s a great night of entertainment and its wonderful venue – the stunning Lutyens Crypt – means the Liverpool Beer Festival is probably the best beer festival in the world.
My tasting notes will not be of much use to anyone, but they’re printed below. Pipe Dream and Jaipur IPA were my favourites.
Cains’ Blonde Bird – horrible, bitter water. Apparently ‘going very quickly’. Specially brewed for occasion.
Liverpool Craft’s Tane Mahuta – New Zealand hops. Hoppy and malty. Full bodies. Quite sweet but enough dark malt to balance.
Peerless Crystal Maze – Birkenhead brewery. Very drinkable.
George Wright’s Pipe Dream – Lovely. Hints of sweetness and bitterness of grapefruit.
Liverpool Craft’s American Red – V nice.
Wapping’s Perch Rock – V hoppy.
Titanic’s All Aboard – inoffensive.
Liverpool Craft’s Icon Dark – malty, deep caramely notes.
Thornbridge’s Jaipur IPA – Excellent.