When it comes to job requests from the editor, being asked to drink a few lunchtime ales was no hardship. It’s a tough job but somebody’s got to do it. And the volunteers at the 23rd Bristol Beer Festival organised by CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) were equally sympathetic to my cause.
‘It’s all research, isn’t it,’ grinned the chap pouring my first beer of the session. And with 85 beers to choose from (plus 30 or so ciders and perries), there is certainly a lot of research to be done.
This is the first CAMRA Bristol Beer Festival since the pandemic and although it has moved back to City Hall (where is was a regular feature for years) from the larger Passenger Shed at Temple Meads, there’s certainly a buzz about its return.
The beer glasses may still have the 2020 date on them (the festival that year was pulled at the last minute due to Covid so the glasses weren’t needed), but the list of beers on offer are as fresh as can be. The rows of barrels along one side of the room contain a wide range of beer styles, from low alcohol golden ales to 8.5% dark and fruity brews that taste like Christmas in a glass.
With a steaming hot, Bristol-baked Clarks meat pie for stomach-lining sustenance, I carried my decorative festival glass to the far end of the bar to start ‘work’. The beers are helpfully arranged in the same alphabetical order as in the 24-page programme with full tasting notes and empty boxes waiting to be ticked off, trainspotter-style.
I had already scanned the list to see which beers I wanted to try but my choices changed during the time I was there as people kept recommending and raving about the drinks they had already ordered. I kicked off with the Acorn Barnsley Gold, a clean and refreshing golden ale from South Yorkshire that was a light and hoppy start to proceedings.
Sticking with the 4.3% ABV, I moved onto Cairngorm Trade Winds, a specialty pale ale brewed in Aviemore up in the Scottish Highlands - the first time I had ever had the opportunity to try one of their much talked about beers. Slightly flowery but with a zesty edge, it was a dangerously drinkable ale and I was tempted to order a second.
It was now time to move up a gear with something a little stronger. Made in Burnley, Lancashire, Moorhouse Pendle Witches Brew (a premium bitter at 5.1%) is one of those legendary beers you hear about but rarely see outside the area where it’s brewed, and I certainly can’t recall it making the journey to Bristol pubs.
Amber-hued, slightly sweet and with a tingle of spice, it’s proper winter warmer. If I wasn’t due back at the desk, I would have happily ordered another pint or two and told the boss I was otherwise detained on important business.
As the session progressed, the colour of the beers soon moved from the light and golden to the dark and inky. I tried a glass of Five Points Railway Porter (4.8%) brewed in Hackney, London. Made with 100% British ingredients and seven different malts, it was a full-bodied porter as smooth as silk and with a nuttiness and slight smokiness. But the best was yet to come.
Word had spread about the limited edition Titanic Grand Reserve (6.5%, made in Burslem, Staffordshire). It was already the most popular beer of the session judging by the number of pints being poured. A strong porter the dark brown colour of a conker, it had the fruity richness of Christmas pudding but was also slightly bitter on the finish so not as cloying as it looked.
After five very different beers, my head was already getting a touch fuzzy as I waddled back to work. The fact there were still 80 beers I hadn’t tried made me want to book tickets for the remaining sessions of the festival this weekend. And with beers like Roosters Baby Faced Assassin, Epic Old Slug Porter and Arbor Ales Devil Made Me Brew It on tap, there are plenty of reasons to head back.
And that’s the great thing about well organised, friendly beer festivals such as this. It gives people the chance to try beers they would never usually see in local pubs and meet fellow enthusiasts. After two years away, the Bristol Beer Festival is certainly back with a bang. Next year, I’ll book it as a day off work, though.