Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Feeling Festive

Good news to begin this entry! I'm now officially back in Nottingham and have been for almost two months. I don't intend on leaving ever again so I guess you're stuck with me now which at least means that I'll be making use of my spare time to make regular excursions of the local drinking scene. One of the perks of being back is that I was here for one of the highlights of the local real ale scene, namely the Robin Hood Beer and Cider Festival at Nottingham Castle. Many of you may remember my debut at this event last year in which, although the heavens opened and people were not obliged to join in with a Toto sing along, much beer was drunk and a good time was had by all.

For my second trip to this fabulous event, I was joined by a different ensemble cast from that of 12 months previously and the weather was significantly better. On a calm and surprisingly warm Saturday morning in mid-October Amy, Matt, Chris and I arrived at the castle before the doors opened and joined the moderate queue that was starting to build. We were all feeling a mix of excitement and trepidation. Excitement for the obvious reasons, trepidation because Matt and Chris had been unable to obtain advanced tickets. Needless to say, fingers and toes were crossed that they would still be able to join us inside what I decided last year was my idea of heaven. In the end, we needn't have worried. The queue was considerably shorter and quicker moving than this time last year and it wasn't long before we were at the front. Matt and Chris had no trouble getting in and soon we had exchanged money and tickets for our tokens and commemorative glass. I took great satisfaction in flashing my CAMRA card at the entrance to ensure that I obtained 5 extra tokens. The perks of being a member!

Once we were inside, opinion was divided as to where we should begin. Chris wanted food, I was happy to start with beer and Matt and Amy agreed. We began with a wander around the numerous food tents to see what was on offer in case the hunger took hold later. Arriving so early was definitely a good idea as it meant that not only did we have all day to kill but we also missed the larger crowds that would be in evidence later. Once we had gathered our bearings, it was time for drinking to commence! We made our way to the main tent, where we would end up spending the majority of our time throughout the day and tried not to be overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of beverages on offer. Until this day, Chris was a beer festival virgin so Matt and I had taken it upon ourselves to introduce him to how things worked and find him things that we knew that he would be able to cope with. Amy is a cider girl but she was more than happy to help! I was unsure where to begin and it took me a few minutes to decide what my first beer of the day would be. For reasons of proximity, I was eventually drawn to a nice sounding one from Bakewell's Thornbridge brewery. I am familiar with Thornbridge beers and they are nothing short of excellent. My choice on this occasion was Sequoia (4.5%), a pale ale with heady citrus and pine notes. I chose this because the name sounded interesting and also because it would probably be easier to say the name whilst I was still sober. This was a good way to start the day and, after Amy had chosen a cider, we headed back outside to allow Chris to grab some food and for us to make the most of the reasonable weather. Discussion quickly turned to the plan for the rest of the day. Amy's best friend and her house mates would be joining us later but as we didn't have a definite time, we decided that we would play it by ear until they arrived and then meet up with them at some point. Already this early in the day, the atmosphere was relaxed and brimming with excitement.

One thing I noticed this year was what appeared to be a larger number of bars run exclusively by local breweries. The cataclysmic weather at last year's event meant that not much time was spent outside so it is possible that these bars were overlooked then. All the more reason to investigate them more closely this year! Matt was determined to try a brand new beer from Castle Rock, largely because the badge included the emblem of local band Evil Scarecrow. Determined to sample this for myself, I followed Matt to the Castle Rock tent, which wasn't far from where we were currently located. The beer in question, Red Riding Hood (4.3%), is a reddish best bitter with a character of new world hops. It was certainly very tasty and, two beers in, the day was shaping up very nicely. We made our way back to the main tent for our next choices as Amy wanted to have another look at the cider and perry range that was on offer. Another pleasing site was the number of new breweries that were present at this year's festival. One of the new crop is Scribblers based in Stapleford. It had clearly been a good festival for this team as they were already onto their reserve casks. It soon became clear that one factor in their popularity was the puns included in their beer names. Examples included 'Beyond Reasonable Stout' and 'One Brew Over The Cuckoo's Nest'. I was drawn instead to a beer named Rebecca (4.8%), a smooth ruby beer with hints of chocolate. I offered Amy a taste and she initially refused but then changed her mind. She didn't enjoy it as much as I'd hoped.

With glasses refilled, we headed out the back of the tent so that everyone apart from me could have a cigarette. The air was fresh, the company was jovial and the beer was excellent. We used this opportunity to check on George who had been at the festival the day before. He eventually replied to confirm that he was still alive but was suffering considerably from the previous day's exertions. The festival was starting to get a bit busier by this point and there was a clear atmosphere of happy contentment and joy in the air. I was already enjoying this year's festival more than the visit 12 months prior and I think that was down to the relaxed feel of the whole event. Soon, it was back to the beer. After a perusal of the rows of casks I opted for a beer from the Cerddin brewery in Maesteg, Mid-Glamorgan. Cross Eyed (5.3%), is their winter beer and this was the first cask to be released of this year's batch. It certainly went down very quickly and can definitely be classed as a winter warmer! I had already started to move up through the ABV of the beers I was trying, a tactic I always try to employ when I'm having a proper drinking session. That way, you can enjoy the lower ABV beers and then move on to the stronger ones without drowning the weaker flavours as you tend to do if you do things the other way around. Depending upon range, this can be a difficult rule to stick too as will become clearer later.

Things were in full swing now and the beer was flowing merrily. I'd already decided that I would soon be requiring more tokens so I wasted no time in finding candidates to take the ones I already had. Next on my list was Speciale (5.8%) from Chesterfield's Brampton brewery. This is an ale in the style of an IPA with a fruity hoppiness and a residue of sweetness. By this point, I had 3 of my original tokens left so I was looking for something to splash out on a half of. I was instantly drawn, largely by name alone, to a brew from Cheshire's Merlin brewery, the excellently monikered Dragonslayer (5.6%). This was a delicious dark brew with lots of complex flavours working through it. No sooner had I had a sip then I was already queuing to purchase more tokens. After parting with a tenner, I was left clutching an unfeasibly reasonable 20 tokens and already perusing the guide catalogue for potential options. Amy had already upped her token quantity by this point and had found a number of ciders that she was thoroughly enjoying. She was obviously having an excellent time as were the rest of us. Once token purchasing was complete, we ventured once again to the outside of the main tent, where the children's play area is and linked with Claire and Harry, friends of Matt who I know from a long time ago but haven't seen for ages. We had received word that Sarah and her housemates were on their way so the anticipation was building to fever pitch.

My next beer was another intriguingly named concoction. Sharks Against Surfers (4.8%), is brewed by Hopcraft, another brewery from the wilds of mid-Glamorgan. This was an extra pale and extra hoppy beer with US and Australian hops in abundance. I think in this case it was a dead heat between extreme sports stars and killing machine of the seas. I rattled through my next couple in quick succession. Next up, from Hinckley's Elliswood brewery, was a lovely brew called Shipwrecked (5.4%). This is crisp and dry yet surprisingly smooth with a clean, hoppy taste. I fancied something darker for my next drink so I changed tack and went for Black Horse Porter (5.0%) courtesy of, confusingly enough, Oxford's White Horse brewery. Sarah had arrived by this time so we made our way back down towards the band stand where we had been previously so that we could meet up with her and the rest of our motley crew. The band stand was surrounded by an ever-growing crowd as the entertainment was in full swing and we spent a good long time in this area listening to a duo perform impressive renditions of Hendrix classics. Earlier on the same stage, we had witnessed an old gentleman singing songs accompanied by a ukulele. Whether he was supposed to be there or not, nobody seemed to mind and there was something quite charming about the whole spectacle.

Being encamped in this area for a while, gave us an opportunity to try things from some of the other tents and bars. We had managed to procure a bench and some space around it in which to stand and chat which at least gave us a landmark to look for in the event that any of us got separated. I had developed a considerable thirst again by now and was drawn towards a beer from a brewery with an excellent name. Howling Hops do their business down in Hackney and I gave their Ruby Red Dinner Ale a try. At 5.6% this is red and hoppy with Citra, Centennial and Galaxy hops at the forefront. I decided to have an explore of the nearby tent which had a range of beers from breweries not represented in the main area. It was interesting to me to see the different options on offer, both for ale drinkers and for those who prefer their alcohol made from apples and pears. The breweries represented here were generally smaller and less well known but no less impressive in the range of produce they had provided. After a brief exploration, Amy headed to the cider bar to see what she could find whilst I was attracted to a range of beers named after themes from Norse mythology. Fownes brewery is based in Sedgley in the West Midlands and I opted for a half of King Korvak's Saga (5.4%). This is a traditional porter with roast, chocolaty flavours. I have to say that I'm enjoying my branch out into darker ales. I think it is worth having a try of ales from different ends of the spectrum and I feel that I can say that my palate has widened from I first became a concerted real ale drinker. This is definitely helped by festivals of this type, although I have to say that this particular event is probably the best of its type, at least locally.

With the day now at the mid-afternoon stage, it was safe to say that people were getting merry but in a cheerful and well-paced way. Indeed, no one appeared to be roaring drunk which I think is a sign of how well we planned and carried out our approach to the day. Opposite the bench that we had claimed as a base was a caravan containing a bar operated by Elston's Funfair brewery. Matt and I took the opportunity to investigate this further and also to discuss life in general. I'm a huge fan in general of Funfair and their beers and I tried one that I'd never had before, Ghost Train (5.0%), a stout that certainly lived up to its billing as dark and scary, although it was delicious and had strong coffee aromas. Following my return from the 'Caravan of Funfair' which I've just this second decided to call it, we spent a while chilling out and having a chat around our commandeered seating apparatus. Whilst exploring the smaller tent earlier, I had been pleased to see that one of the bigger breweries represented was Oakham, one of my favourite breweries. Now based in Peterborough, the Oakham part of the tent was incredibly well stocked and I was swayed towards the unusually named Hawse Buckler (5.6%), a black beer with chocolate, raisin and dark malt aromas. I was disappointed that The Kraken's Ink, an even stronger dark beer, had sold out but I had gone for a more than adequate replacement.

The entertainment had taken a temporary break by this stage so we vacated our bench and moved closer to the band stand, largely to get back onto our feet again. It was suddenly clear by this point that Cheryl, Sarah's friend was quite drunk and Sarah appeared to be going much the same way, which would lead to some hilarious consequences later. I was ready for a stronger beer again by this point so I selected Calista IPA (6.1%), from Dover's Time & Tide brewery. This golden/copper ale had an intense hop character but also managed to be really refreshing. With no sign of entertainment beginning again soon, we made a consensus decision to head back to the main area. We took up our position in the outside area, alternating between leaning nonchalantly against the slide and sheltering from occasional drizzle under a surprisingly small gazebo. A beer with another unusual (but awesome) name took my attention next. Submissable Anarchy (6.4%) from Cwmbran's new Mad Dog brewery is billed as a winter juniper IPA, something I was unfamiliar with. The flavours within were reminiscent of citrus with juniper berries. It was an interesting yet enjoyable mix. Conversation was now in full flow, people were noticeably drunk and photos were being taken by pretty much everyone. Sarah attempted, unashamedly encouraged by me, to get everyone singing Bohemian Rhapsody with limited success. At some point she'd also got talking to a lad that she would later end up going on a date with, although nobody remembers her talking to him so that's a mystery for another day. I was now down to 4 tokens, which meant I had to choose my final 2 beers wisely.

The penultimate choice of the day for myself was from Nottingham's new Totally Brewed brewery. The Simcoe Kid (6.0%) is a strong, hoppy ruby ale with stone fruit character. Based upon the quality of this beer alone, Totally Brewed are definitely one to watch in future. I was starting to feel the effects by this stage and darkness was beginning to descend, conversation was going down some increasingly bizarre avenues but I still had another beer in me. My final beverage at this year's festival needed to be up to the standards of the others that I'd had throughout the day. I found a worthy concoction from the Fell brewery, based in Flockburgh, Cumbria. Tinderbox IPA (6.3%) is a heavy hopped IPA and it felt like it, all citrus flavours and zesty finish. It was an excellent way to end what had been a wonderful day.

And that was that. A full day enjoying the best beer festival in the country with some of the best people in the world. The entirety of the staff, volunteers and breweries at this fabulous event deserve full praise for an amazingly successful weekend with an even more impressive range of beers than last year. It is events of this sort that prove that, not only is cask ale and real cider alive and well, it is developing a stronger, sturdier, more determined and more ardent following. Over the hours we spent in the shadow of one of Nottingham's most famous historic landmarks, I learned many things: slides and climbing frames aren't just for kids; trying to start a sing along isn't the same if people have to keep reminding you of the words; there are only so many times you can shout 'chocolate plums' before it starts to sound like a safety word; beer is excellent; I have the best friends in the world; life is brilliant right now in all its forms. With my return from the ashes of earlier this year and my relocation back to the city that feels like home more than any other, long may it continue.