This year we did things slightly differently to prior visits. Unable to get the Saturday off due to work commitments, Amy and I opted instead for the Thursday session which, as well as being considerably quieter, led to the chance of more beer and an always welcome opportunity to meet up with George and Claire. Sadly, Matt couldn't make it any earlier than the Saturday so he was unable to join us. Nevertheless, what followed was an excellent experience that well and truly reinforced that this is the best festival of its type anywhere in the world.
We arrived at the castle fairly early, around 11.30, with Amy meeting me following an early delivery shift at work (for me, not her). We were immediately surprised by the lack of a queue, especially given that we hadn't procured tickets this year and were buying on the door. This was not an issue at all though as we were inside almost instantly, clutching our commemorative glasses and beer tokens (as usual, 5 extra for me due to CAMRA membership).
Our first destination, after a brief exploration of the relatively unchanged layout, was the lower area near the bandstand which, although smaller than the main marquee further up, was easier to access for now and offered an interesting range of beers to choose from. As usual, the beers were arranged in alphabetical order of brewery with a larger choice in the main marquee as well as a number of dedicated brewery bars and the lower tent which features lots more! My first tipple of the day was highly seasonal. With Halloween just around the corner, I was instantly drawn to Fright Night, the solitary festival beer from Pennine Brewery, based out of Batley, West Yorkshire. At an easy drinking 4%, this is an amber ale with a roasted bitterness and a slightly spiced aroma. It was a very warming beer and a great start to the day that certainly got me into the mood. Using this first beer as a palate cleanser, we made our way up towards the main tent where we got our bearings and worked out what our next move would be. As it turned out, another beer was our next move and we found just the thing at one of the brewery bars, specifically that operated by Laneham based Springhead, whose beers I am more than familiar. Following recommendations by the very knowledgeable barman, I was drawn to the Blind Tiger (4.5%), an aromatic pale golden beer with full oranges added to the brew, which provided the whole thing with a slightly cloudy appearance and citrusy flavour. All in all, it was very nice indeed.
Things were progressing nicely now and, determined not to spend too much time in one area, we once again made our way down to the bottom marquee. Following a quick examination of the beers on offer, I was surprised to see a single beer from St. Austell brewery. The aptly named Bucket of Blood (4.5%) is a spicy, classic red ale with a malty toffee palate and a very nice flavour that went down much more quickly than I was expecting. It was back to the main marquee next and straight to a local brewery that I have all the time in the world for and who, once again, boasted their own bar at this year's festival. I speak, inevitably, of Blue Monkey brewery. Some serious decision making went into my choice this time. In the end, Amy and I both went for a third of Nuts (4.6%), a nut brown ale with a fruity flavour and smooth bitter afternotes. It was different to a lot of Blue Monkey beers and certainly a departure from what I expected. Blue Monkey is still flying the flag for excellent local beer and long may it continue! Continuing the back and forth that had so far been the theme of the day, we soon found ourselves back by the lower bars again and drawn to the bar of a brewery that I always make the point of visiting at every beer festival, due to both the quality of their beers and the quirkiness of their bar. Funfair Brewery had once again outdone themselves, last year's steampunk themed BBQ was now an Alice in Wonderland themed caravan, reflected admirably in their beers. My choice was Cheshire Cat (4.9%), a dark, malty, and very easy drinking strong bitter. The novelty value of this bar was once more enhanced by the serving of some of the beers (regrettably not mine) out of a teapot.
At this stage, we were at something of a quandary. We were very tempted to head back up to the main marquee, whilst also being very aware that George, Claire and Rich's arrival was imminent. In the end, fate (or something like it) intervened. As we were debating our next move, the advanced party, namely mutual friends of both myself, George and Rich (whose names are too numerous to mention) arrived and immediately headed for the Traffic Street bar. Thinking it rude not to get involved, we quickly did the same. An offshoot of Castle Rock brewery, Traffic Street specialise in speciality beers, many of which were in evidence here. Initially unsure where to progress next, I was finally swayed by the Rat Race (4.7%), a rich and biscuity red ale. Despite the relatively low ABV, it tasted a lot stronger but, thankfully, did not have too much of an adverse effect. Absorbed into the sudden increase in numbers of our group, who then decided that buying novelty traffic cone hats was the best idea in the world (it was not), we once again ventured to the main marquee which by this stage was considerably busier than it had been early doors. My beer exploration next me to the offerings of a new brewery, namely Brew York from, er, York which amongst its portfolio offered Viking DNA (5%), a very dark porter which packed a hell of a punch and was certainly worth giving up tokens for. My initial quantity of tokens was almost exhausted by now so I resolved myself to finding a decent beer to get a half of before I purchased further tokens. George and I had a discussion which led to a mutual interest in beers with amusing names, not that we weren't already fans of unfortunate/rubbish puns. To that end, the only place to really go by this stage was into the realms of Staggeringly Good Brewery, from my home town of Portsmouth!! At 6.5%, Velocirapture was worth a taste for the hilarious name alone. This strong (very strong!), American IPA was delicious, hoppy and smooth as well as adding another notch in the belt of a city that already boasts Charles Dickens and a football team on the verge of a return to greatness.
Our next step was to purchase more tokens which took next to no time and then it was straight back to the brewery bars. I was intrigued to see what Grafton Brewery had to offer this year. Renowned for their use of unusual flavours in their beers, they had been responsible for the excellent green beer last year. Between the small group of us, we opted for a range of the beers that were being proferred our way this year with myself being drawn to the Chocolate Mint Delight. This 4.8% stout was flavoured with peppermint, chocolate and coffee/cocoa flavours and was deceptively delicious. Fair play to Grafton for daring to go against the masses and produce beers that aim to be different. At this stage, Amy, George, Claire and myself once again headed back down to the lower area, making a bee line for the tent which was shared by Black Iris and Totally Brewed. Torn between the 2, George and I eventually opted for beers from the Totally Brewed stable, with my choice being 4 Hopmen of the Apocalypse (5.2%) with its piney, citrus hop character and caramel note. I have to confess that I hadn't previously tried many of Totally Brewed's beers but, if this is any indication, then it's clear that I've missed out. The main marquee once again held the day's next delight, in the form of a very interesting beer from Lincoln Green, which had one of the largest selections of any brewery at this year's event. The wonderfully named Gin and Beer It (5%) is infused with juniper berries, orange, lemon peel and coriander seeds, tasting for all the world like a gin and tonic, in every way that that is a good thing.
The sheer range of beers on offer this year was truly staggering and, the longer the day went on, the more I remembered how much I love the beer festival and how empty my life was before I first experienced its wonders. Still in the main tent, it was time once again to crank up both the ABV and the flavour, this time with Monster from Edinbrew, from Edinburgh in case you hadn't guessed. At 5.7%, Monster is a golden IPA packed with lychee, mango, lime, grapefruit and orange along with some big hop flavours. Monster is about right! Continuing the theme, the next beer was straight out of Somerset, courtesy of Electric Bear from Bath. Their Livewire is a big American IPA with a massive hop kick, all at a surprisingly drinkable 5.4%. Time was definitely getting on by this stage but there was still more beer to be drunk before the day was out. The taste for high strength beers was definitely catching on by now as my next choice was the 5.6% Aurora from Lewes based Burning Sky. A pale ale with big citrus and hop flavours, it went down far too easily and it became clear that I probably had 2 or 3 more beers in me before it was time to call it a day.
As it would turn out, the lower bars would be our destination for the remainder of our visit. It was time to pop in to the Castle Rock tavern to see what they'd brought with them this year. Baptism of Fire (4.8%), a ginger infused amber ale, instantly caught my eye and drew my attention away from the hardcore band on the bandstand who were struggling with their sound levels. Too much guitar and not enough vocal in my unprofessional opinion. Getting their mixing desk completely wrong was Amy's very educated verdict. Time and tokens wearing on meant that there was time for 2 more beers before we departed for home. The penultimate beverage for me caught my eye from the description alone. Out of New Mills, Derbyshire, Torrside Brewery have produced Late to the Party (5.5%), a black IPA (I'm still not sure how that works), with a healthy dose of New Zealand hops and roasted dark malts.
It had come to that time of the day. The last beer. The point where you have to decide carefully exactly what you want to do with the last of your tokens. It's always a tough decision, especially when the alcohol haze sets in and you don't want to make a snap decision for fear of regretting it. Thankfully, I'm a seasoned pro at this by now and I'd been eyeing up a suitable candidate for a while. Completing this year's beer festival journey was Werewolf. Brewed by Windswept in Lossiemouth, Moray, Scotland, this is a 6% dark, strong ale infused with chilli. All in all, a worthy climactic brew for what had been, once again, an excellent festival. The weather had held out, the beer and company had been excellent and everybody involved should be very very pleased with themselves. Once again, the Robin Hood Beer Festival has shown everybody how it should be done. It's no wonder that so many people, including myself, go back year after year. It's a one of a kind experience and one that other festivals can definitely learn. Will I be there next year? Obviously. Should you be? Definitely.