It's that time of year again. The nights are beginning to draw in, X Factor is well underway and the weather remains unseasonal and unpredictable. That also means that it was time for the annual trip to the Robin Hood Beer & Cider Festival at Nottingham Castle. Joining me on this year's crusade were my eternal drinking partner Amy, a particularly excitable George and Chris, back for a week from his Iceland sabbatical and looking to get as drunk as possible, along with his friend Paris. Amy and I arrived just after the doors had opened and promptly exchanged our tickets for glasses and tokens. We were both very excited. This is always one of our highlights of the year and I was interested to see what new beers were to be found amongst the hundreds on offer.
Whilst we waited for the others to arrive, we decided that a palate cleanser was required and so we started off at the lower area of the festival, near to the bandstand. Whilst there were many new beers on offer, we started off with a renowned classic to get us in the mood. Our first stop was the Everards Brewery bar where we both opted for Tiger (4.2%), currently being brewed at Robinsons in Stockport. For those unfamiliar with the beer, it is a clean, malty best bitter with a hoppy aroma. It was a good way to start the festivities although Amy was less keen! Chris and Paris arrived shortly after this so, after collecting them and a festival program, we were ready to get properly stuck in! We had once again this year arrived at the festival on the Thursday, meaning that it was fairly quiet early on and unseasonably warm for mid October. The pleasant weather encouraged us to stay at the lower area initially, at least whilst we waited for George. To pass the time, we headed into the smaller of the 2 marquees that hold the majority of the beers. There seemed to be a big emphasis on fruity and unusual flavours at this year's event, which is by no means a bad thing and I was immediately drawn to an intriguing candidate. From Church End Brewery, based in Atherstone, Warwickshire, I selected Rhubard & Custard (sic). At 4.4%, this is a pale ale with all of the flavours of rhubarb and custard without being too sickly or overly sweet. It was an interesting beer indeed and one I can happily recommend. We headed back outside to wait for George and to allow Chris and Paris to get some food. Upon George's arrival, we took the opportunity to investigate some of the tents and brewery bars that were nearby. I decided, out of pure curiosity, to explore the bar of locally-based Shipstone's Brewery, resurrected in Old Basford a few years ago. Amongst their core range brewed under the Shipstone's name were a couple of beers brewed under the Hollow Stone label and it was one of these that I decided on this time. Their Pale Ale (4.2%) prides itself on containing all British ingredients as well as Jester hops and cultured yeast. It's a refreshing and hoppy beer with citrus undertones and goes down very well.
George was determined to further investigate the marquee that we'd previously visited in hopes of finding some unusual beers. He'd also been intrigued by the rhubarb and custard beer that I'd had and so went to seek that out whilst the rest of us decided on our next beverage. I was drawn to an interesting sounding beer from Welbeck Abbey, another local brewery. Billed as an Australian-style IPA, I chose Claire's High Koalaty (5%). This was very crisp and uplifting with a host of big, hop flavours. I'd never heard of an Australian-style IPA but, based on this example, it's a beer style worth seeking out! The time had come to explore the much larger marquee at the top of the site for the first time, to see what hidden gems we could discover amongst the stillages and brewery bars. It didn't take long to track down something very unusual indeed. Having seen it listed in the program, I sought out the beers of Errant Brewery, based in Newcastle, in hopes of trying their beer called Crystal Skull (4.4%). This is a five-hop ruby red ale, brewed with the addition of Rooibos tea. This provides additional fruity notes and the noticeable flavour of tea! It's a strange but very tasty concoction! The Blue Monkey brewery bar was our next port of call, itself a regular on the beer festival agenda. I instantly decided on the Infinity IPA (4.6%), a satisfying golden ale with a great big hit of Citra hops, which produces a nice, heady beer with a zesty aftertaste. It's very tasty indeed and almost goes down too easily. Another brewery bar got a visit a few minutes later and this was one that I'd never seen with their own bar at the festival before, although the brewery itself is well established. At the other end of the tent was the bar belonging to Nene Valley Brewery, out of Oundle in Northamptonshire. They had a large number of beers on offer and it took a while to decide before I eventually went for Big Bang Theory (5.3%). This is a pale ale with a huge hop aroma, malty sweetness and a gentle, bitter finish. Nene Valley are developing a good reputation for a differing mixture of beer styles and strengths and hopefully their beers will start appearing a bit more locally soon.
It was time for the obligatory purchase of more vouchers before the beer exploration continued and once these had been successfully procured, the drinking recommenced in earnest. My next beer was courtesy of Langley Mill based Abstract Jungle. Sturdy IPA (5.6%) does exactly what it says on the tin. It's brewed as a classic IPA with big hitting American hops that give it a hell of a kick! It was another interesting name that allowed me to choose my next beer, namely Loch Lomond Brewery's Lost in Mosaic (5%), an American pale ale that, in case it wasn't obvious, features Mosaic hops. This was another very hoppy, very refreshing beer and came with a very nice hit of citrus in the aftertaste. I decided that it was time for something a bit darker now. To that end, I selected Dark Secret (5.6%), from Monty's brewery, based in Montgomery in Powys. This is a full bodied oatmeal stout with strong flavours of chocolate and coffee. It's big, heavy and delicious with a delightfully smooth, almost treacly feel and a distinctive smoky aroma. I was very pleased to have chosen this beer as it really stood out. Amy and I decided that some food was now in order so we made the move back down to the lower area in search of sustenance which was much appreciated and very nice indeed. Before long, it was back to the beer and the afternoon continued with a visit to the bar belonging to Magpie Brewery. I decided on the Jay IPA (5.2%), a classic take on an IPA, brewed with all British hops. It's punchy and hoppy with lots of classic IPA flavour and a very smooth, refreshing finish. I'm a big fan of Magpie beers and I don't drink them nearly enough. That will soon change! Another perennial favourite of mine has always been the beers and Steampunk-themed bar of Elston's Funfair Brewery. It was about time that it got its annual visit! Amongst the beers on offer, one in particular stood out, namely Through the Looking Glass (5%), a big brother to Tea Cups which is another of their beers. Both of these are cloudy, traditional ginger beers but the one I've chosen is both stronger and has a fruity twist which makes it truly unique. It was also served from a pump disguised as a retro teapot, adding to the quirkiness of the whole thing.
It was back to the smaller marquee now, where I was eager to try a beer I'd earmarked earlier, due to its fascinating name. Molten Universe (5.8%) comes via Torrside Brewery based in New Mills, Derbyshire. This beer is full of big flavours as it comes heavily equipped with both US and European hops, all jammed into the appearance of a red IPA which boasts a lot of fruity hits on the palate. I wanted something darker again to follow this and this meant another wander up to the main tent in search of just the right thing. I found it in the form of P51 from Northants based Kings Cliffe. At 5.1%, this is brewed with 6 different malts to provide distinctive flavours of both coffee and dark chocolate. This had an almost syrupy quality that worked wonders in the aftertaste with lots of complex malt flavours. A very tasty beer indeed! Another excellent brewery with its own bar in the main tent was Thornbridge and it would have been almost rude to not sample some of their wares whilst the opportunity arose. Crackendale (5.2%) was a good choice. It's a single-hopped pale ale, hopped with Citra and providing a whole host of tropical fruit aromas that lead to zesty and citrusy flavours and a smooth finish. There was time for a couple more beers before we decided to call it quits for another year. The penultimate beer of choice was Wolf Bite (4.8%), from Crafty Little Brewery in Brough, East Yorkshire. This is a classic take on an APA with a heady citrus aroma and a little touch of pine which makes for an interesting, dry aftertaste. Our one for the road, as it were, was to be sourced from the lower area so we could enjoy it on the walk out. I decided I'd make my last beer another from one of the brewery bars and this time I went to the bar belonging to Thorley & Son, from Ilkeston. Their Ruby Ale (5.2%), has a nice amount of spice from the use of Willamette hops and essences of both fruit and floral aromas. It's a cracking combination and a great way to end an excellent day!
So, how does this year's Robin Hood Beer Festival stack up against previous years? I have to say that this may have been the best one yet. I've been every year since 2012 and can honestly say that I don't think I remember such a range and quality of beers from both near and far, served so well and tasting so good! All of the brewers here, even the ones I haven't mentioned, deserve recognition and praise for the work they have done and continue to do in plying their trade to deliver fantastic beers in so many different styles. This is by far one of the best festivals of its type and long may that continue. Next year sees the event relocate to the Forest Recreation Ground so that renovation work on the Castle can begin. It will be interesting to see how a (currently temporary) move to a bigger site will affect things but, if this year is anything to go by, I fail to see that much will change. Following this year's fantastic festival will certainly be a tough ask but I have no doubt they'll try!