Time certainly flies! Somehow we're now in the middle of October but that means one of the best times of the year has only recently been and gone. Last week saw the return of the annual Nottingham Robin Hood Beer & Cider Festival, a place of pilgrimage for many a year!
Now in its 2nd year of at least 3 years at the Motorpoint Arena whilst Nottingham Castle is closed for redevelopment, this year's festival once again saw 1000 different beers from hundreds of different breweries, alongside ciders, a designated Key Keg bar, a gin bar and all manner of artisan stalls and food vans. The overall layout of the festival had been slightly altered from last year but still included the entire interior floor space and outside areas backstage and in Bolero Square. Who would be joining me on this year's session? Well, I'm glad you asked. Obviously, Amy would be accompanying me and were joined by Matt who had driven up from Bristol on the morning of our visit. We had once again opted to go on the Thursday. We've decided that this is our preferred session, largely because it's significantly less busy earlier in the day and there tends to be a lot more beer left over!
Matt arrived shortly after 10am and approximately an hour later, he and I hopped on the tram into the city centre where Amy was due to finish work at midday. Once our trio was complete, we made the short walk to the arena, handed over our tickets, collected our glasses and beer tokens and prepared to immerse ourselves in one of the greatest beer festivals in the land. Usually, I don't have much of a strategy in terms of picking beers and will tend to gravitate towards any beer names or styles that sound interesting. This year however, I was prepared and had a plan in place. My goal would be to work my way through the alphabet, choosing breweries in alphabetical order from A-Z and see how far I could get. It was going to be an intriguing few hours but a rewarding one nonetheless.
It, of course, made sense to start at A. Amy and Matt were both very supportive of my strategy and so accompanied me to the first destination which turned out to be a relatively local brewery. My first beer of the day came from Alter Ego, based in Heanor. Sidekick (4.5%) is a fruity, session IPA with flavours of orange, grapefruit, citrus and underlying pine notes. It was a very good choice to begin the day and Amy agreed after following suit. Matt opted for Ohm (4%) from Hull-based Atom, which turned out to be a very tasty west coast pale ale. We decided to enjoy our first beer sat in the backstage outside space at a picnic style table whilst we perused our programs and tried to identify beers for later on in the day. I knew straight away that my next beer would either be from Black Iris or Blue Monkey for reason of quality as well as continuity. I ultimately decided to opt for the latter over the former. Returning to the inside area, we approached the Blue Monkey brewery bar. Matt dived straight in with the Baboonska (8.5%), a Russian imperial stout brewed in collaboration with Nottingham CAMRA and here offered in both cask and key keg. Having tried both, Matt decided that the extra cooling offered by the key keg brought out the flavours more and stuck to his guns. I, on the other hand, went slightly more conventional with Guerrilla (4.9%), a malty pitch-black beer with a genuinely robust bitterness. Amy went for a different style again with the Fat Ape (7%), a strong, warming, golden IPA. Blue Monkey has become a must visit at the beer festival and I feel like I should make more effort to visit their pubs in the region. The beer is always excellent. We decided to make our way out to Bolero Square to take in more of the ambience where we found a handy table under a marquee just as a short shower started. It wasn't long before more beer was required. Matt and Amy both decided to try their luck at the nearby Navigation Brewery bar, one of 2 they had in the outside areas. Matt chose New Dawn (3.9%) a pale, straw-coloured beer with a well-hopped flavour and refreshing finish. Amy chose Saviour (5.5%), their version of an American pale ale with grapefruit, citrus and tropical fruit flavours. My next destination though, lay back in the main arena. As much as I love good beer, I also love a good pun (as some of you may have noticed throughout these entries) and my next brewery combines both in equal measure. We had now made our to the Brew York bar and I'd already decided on Haze of Thunder (get it?), a 4.6% juicy, hazy pale ale. It was a cracker of a beer and I was glad I'd doubled up on 'B' breweries.
Needless to say, it wasn't long before I was lining up a beer for 'C'. I found it in the form of Crooked Brewery, based in Church Fenton, North Yorkshire and a beer called Bang (5.2%). This was an interesting one, a dark ale flavoured with blackcurrant and Thai ginger, which was initially sweet and malty but had a subtle, spicy warming note at the end. Unusual, yes. Tasty, also yes. I decided we should go and say hello to my colleagues on the Magpie Brewery bar (more from them later) after which Amy decided the time was right to purchase more tokens and Matt did the same. I made the same decision a few beers later. Amy had decided to switch to cider and we made the short wander to the cider stand where there were hundreds to choose from. After some help from the excellent volunteers, Amy settled on a cider from Heck's of Somerset that went down very well indeed. Matt had procured a particularly lively key keg beer from the Ferry brewery bar and I had lined up my next beverage. 'D' was covered by Digfield of Barnwell, Northamptonshire and their Mad Monk (4.8%), a smooth, rich porter. Dark beers would become something of a theme for the day, in a departure from my usual choices. I generally like most beer styles but have a habit of going for paler beers. Up to this point, it was 3-2 in favour of the dark stuff. The need for food was calling now but I picked up another beer for the walk to Bolero Square, levelling up the scores by going for Overdrive Lap 15 (5.5%), from Elusive of Wokingham, Berkshire. This is a big hitting American pale ale with Centennial and Cascade hops for proper hoppy flavours. Food was definitely a good idea now and Amy and Matt ordered loaded fries from a stall in Bolero Square. This consisted of fries covered in cheese and a choice of pulled pork or beef. Amy went for pork, Matt for beef and I was going to order my own but the portions were so massive that Amy let me share. Much needed it was too!
As I've previously mentioned, there are some breweries that always get visited at the beer festival, often as much for the novelty value as the excellent beer. My quota for 'F' would be just such a brewery as we headed backstage to the Steampunk-inspired bar for Funfair brewery, subject of much lyrical waxing in these pages in the past. My choice from their selection was Blockhead (5.3%), a traditional ginger beer flavoured with raspberry that pours bright pink and was served directly from an oversized papier mache head. What's not to love? By this stage of the afternoon, the live entertainment was in full swing and we had already witnessed the final couple of songs from a jazz/funk group made up of elder gentlemen. The stage was now occupied by an acoustic duo in the slot of what should have been a mod band, who I suspect pulled out although this was never confirmed. It was back to the pale beers for the next one. Now on 'G', I located Glastonbury brewery, somewhat confusingly based in Somerton, Somerset and Voodoo (4.8%) another fruity session IPA with grapefruit and pine flavours and a citrus aroma. This led to a reminiscence about our trip to Glastonbury with Matt which is somehow almost 3 years ago and can be read about in a prior entry. By now, Amy was well and truly staying on cider having found a delicious local cider called Floppy Tabs from Torkard Cider based in Hucknall. I was also well into the swing of things and starting to hit my stride. Next up was a beer that was very much out of left field. From Hybrid in Grangemouth, Jar Nektar (5.7%) is a farmhouse style saison with the addition of spicy pear and hints of banana. The fruity additions give it a distinctly weissbier flavour with banana and hints of clove, which dial down the sourness that I'm not normally keen on. It's unusual but brilliant!
My enjoyment of puns once again surfaced when it came to choosing my next beer. Inferno in Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire have brewed a beer called Sloe Burner (6%). This is yet another dark beer, one in the form of a stout brewed with chocolate and sloe berries. Very nice it was too! We had now more or less positioned ourselves between the main arena floor and the backstage area in good view of the stage for when live music took our fancy again. This made for a very good base from which to access the majority of the beers. It was just as well really as my next choice wasn't very far away at all. Glasgow-based Jaw had now taken my fancy and I was won over by Wave (4.6%), billed as a Bavarian style weissbier. This hit all the right notes for the style and reminded me of the awesome saison from a couple of beers earlier. The day was moving forward very nicely indeed and I was impressed, as I always am, with the efficiency and dedication amongst all of the brewers, volunteers and other staff who we had encountered thus far. It was back on the dark again soon. This time, I veered towards the beers of Kinver, based in Compton, West Midlands. Witchfinder General (5.5%), brewed in collaboration with Phil Cope, former guitarist of the eponymous heavy metal band, is a strong, dark and heavy porter with dark undertones. Just what you'd expect to be honest! And this was by no means the last heavy metal reference of the day. The next band scheduled for the main stage were about as far removed from that genre as you could imagine. Electrik Vinyl were described as an 80s cover band who 'can be booked as a quartet, trio or duo'. We would soon see exactly what this would entail.
I'd made it all the way to 'L' at this point and the chosen beer for this letter would be from Litchborough Artisan in Towcester. Galaxy (4.5%) was yet another drop of the dark stuff, being a black IPA with delicate tropical fruit flavours. An odd combination yes but a successful one. We were all starting to feel the alcohol kicking in but, not to be deterred, we pushed on. I decided that it would be rude not to stick close to home for 'M' and show some brand loyalty in the process so we returned to the Magpie bar. After a moment's chat with my boss Katrina, during which I introduced her to Matt and reacquainted her with Amy, I chose Raven Sloe Berry (6%), a festival exclusive version of Raven Stout with added sloes and gin flavours. It was very much like drinking gin in dark beer form. Amy had tried the Chocolate Orange version earlier in the day and was similarly impressed. From my current employers, I then moved on the previous one. As well as their bar on Bolero Square, Navigation had a smaller mobile bar in the backstage area and it was to here that my attention would turn. Toffee Apple Amber (4%) is an excellent Autumn beer, dark amber in colour with a rich mouthfeel and a crisp, sweet finish. By the time I had returned from the bar, the band were in full swing. Electrik Vinyl turned out to be one guy and 2 girls (one of whom tried her best to look like she was playing a keyboard) who rattled through a large number of classic 80s songs including medleys of both Bananarama and Wham! as well as songs by Human League before closing on a suitably rousing version of 'We Don't Have to Take Our Clothes Off' by Jermaine Stewart. If nothing else, they were enthusiastic.
For my next dose of beer, I once again turned to a favourite brewery of mine, namely Oakham. As tempting as it was to have Citra, I branched out and instead went for Dragon (5%), a cask aged golden ale brewed with its namesake hop. Fresh, aromatic and with a real bite, it proved to be a superb choice. It was at this point that Amy decided to make her way home. I think she felt bad for leaving us but she'd been up very early and been at work before the festival so was feeling understandably tired. I would obviously return to her later. Matt and I soldiered on and the next stop for me was Pheasantry and their Smoking Rauch Bier (4.6%). This was a strange beast. A reddish, amber beer with a lingering spicy smokiness that did exactly what it said in the program. The next band were beginning to get underway and this consisted of four very talented musicians in a variety of novelty headwear belting out some classic and modern rock covers, interspersed with snippets of their own material. Finding a brewery for 'Q' was no easy task but I managed to locate just what I was looking for in the form of Q Brew from Carnforth, Lancashire. Chopper (5%) was the chosen offering, a pale IPA jammed with Chinook hops. The band were well underway now and Matt and I had an interesting discussion about the height of the drummer's cymbals and whether it was deliberate or the consequence of borrowing the headline band's kit. Thoughts of drums soon turned back to beer and the letter 'R'. Roman Way, based in Potterspury, Northamptonshire were the lucky recipients of my next tokens as I imbibed upon their Claudius IPA (4.7%). This was in every way in a traditional golden IPA with a good balance of malt and hops. The return from our latest beer run was heralded by a belting rendition of 'Rhinestone Cowboy' which prompted an impressive crowd singalong, although I don't know how many people know any words that aren't the chorus, with no disrespect to the late Glen Campbell.
Time was certainly moving on now and I was very close to my target of completing the alphabet. For 'S', I chose Steel City (no prizes for guessing where they're based) and the intriguingly named My Wine in Silence (5.5%). This turned out to be a pale ale, aged in white wine barrels and with the addition of grapes. It was very much like drinking wine but with a real beery kick. I wasn't sure what to expect but I enjoyed it. Heavy metal again got a nod with the next beer. Two Towers, from Birmingham, had provided Paranoid (5%), a porter with added chilli for delicious heat and warmth on a malty backbone. It's named after the song by Black Sabbath, who are from Birmingham in case you were unaware of the connection. This beer went down very well indeed, accompanied by the band rattling into a raucous rendition of 'Gay Bar' which then segued into 'Whole Lotta Love'. I was flagging decidedly by this point. I was so close and I pushed on once more. For 'U', Uppingham Brewhouse from Rutland got the nod. UB2 (4.3%) is a delicious golden ale that evokes memories of proper summer days. If the brewery don't do a red wine barrel aged beer called UB40 then they're missing a trick.
And with that, I could take no more. I'd gotten so close! My plan had worked to a point and I was impressed with how far I'd been able to take it. I'd found some absolutely belting beers with a hefty number being on the darker side of the beer spectrum. Ultimately however, I had been defeated. Imagine my dismay when I discovered that the only breweries remaining began with W and X and I'd tapped out just a couple of beers shy of my goal. Still, not to worry. I was pleased with myself for setting myself the challenge even if I didn't quite get over the finish line. As ever, the beer festival had been fantastic! We all had an awesome day and I think it's genuinely impossible to have a bad day at a beer festival. What better ways are there to spend an afternoon than with thousands of beers, a few live bands, cracking food and good company? Was I disappointed with myself? Yes, I was but I still got further than I think I expected to. And besides, there's always next year!