Sunday, 13 April 2014

The 38th Newcastle upon Tyne Beer and Cider Festival

“Beers over 6% will be served in thirds”

I imagined my glass falling from my hand in cinematic slow motion, shattering into a million thirsty pieces as a crowd of list-ticking CAMRA diehards all turned on me, fingers extended, yelling “a drunkard is in our midst!”

I’ve seen few signs as upsetting as this.

“A third of Fat Ape IPA” I coughed out to the barman, wanting to die on the spot.

“I’ve given you a half” he replied, filling my glass with a cheeky smile.

Thank fuck for that.

This year the Northumberland branch of the Campaign for Real Ale celebrated its 40th anniversary and held its 38th Newcastle beerfest, in the setting of Northumbria University’s student union.

I need to get this out of the way first: student unions ain’t what they used to be. The union bar on my campus was a ramshackle dive with sticky floors. The Newcastle University SU building had its plush Men’s Bar, dingy basement venue (I’m told it’s a coffee shop now and cry about this at night often) and a serviceable cafe/bar on the top floor.

Northumbria Uni’s student union appears to be a large brown box, live music for the use of.

If it wasn’t for the “battle of the beers” flag hanging from the ceiling and the beer lists high above the bar that covered three of the four walls the 38th Newcastle Beer and Cider Festival looked like a generic trade show for any one of a thousand industries. Except everyone was drinking. Oh shit.

But I’m a professional, Goddamn it. I put on my spacesuit and strode into the vacuum of the beer hall, putting aside my issues with the setting.

The first beer of the night was Blue Monkey’s Fat Ape IPA, a 7% IPA with an eyecatching wild-eyed simian on its pumpclip. Having it pumped up to the half pint mark by the cantankerous barman made it all the sweeter. It roars in screaming like an irate chimp on a sugar high and the first woodsy, earthy mouthful made all my distaste for the venue fade into the background. I was going to drink some good beer tonight. Or die in the attempt.

Up next was Tyne Bank’s Quarenta, a 4.7% bitter conditioned with ruby port that is shockingly good, leaving a powerful cloying aftertaste in the mouth and smothering the senses. It’s a decadent, rich beer to drink as the world falls apart and the walls catch fire.

At this point my drinking buddy’s rugby knee started to gyp him something rotten with all the standing around, so we sloped off to what looked like a library sans books and felt like an airport departure lounge sans tourists to find a seat. Drinking here felt weirdly dissonant, as if we were getting pissed in a council office. At least the box had a wooden floor!

Back to the box it was, then, for Lossiemouth outfit Windswept’s Tornado IPA which weighs in at 6.7% abv and is dangerously sessionable, blowing gales of tropical fruit over the tongue. This is a beer I would return to several times over the course of the night and is in part responsible for  the wheels falling off my notes by closing time.

By this point I was forgiving the venue its mundanity. It’s hard to find a good venue for something like this in Newcastle these days. And it could have been worse. They day they hold a beer festival in the Metro Radio Arena is the day I leap from the Tyne Bridge.

We met up with some old friends as the sun went down and the night went on, and the sports-hall vibe of the event was all but forgotten as the drink and laughter flowed. Then my drinking buddy returned from the bar, a half pint held above his head like a comically tiny Excalibur, announcing “Imperial stooouuuuut!”

The game was afoot. Highland Imperial Stout (8% abv, brewed 2012) is up there with some of the best that I’ve tasted. I drank a lot of it that night. Rich, warm, filling, luxurious and licorice-toned, if this stout was a person it would be Charles Dance, in a smoking jacket, sitting by a fire in a room full of massive dogs.

Another standout of the night was Maxim Brewery’s Simcoe Kid, a 4.2% golden ale that’s highly sessionable, brightly citrussy and seems to have all the makings of a great summer drink. Maxim don’t always hit the target but like their machinegun namesake they blow holes in it when they do. And look at the pumpclip art. Glorious. 

Soon the kicking out time of 10:30pm crept up on us. I had scorned and scoffed at this premature closing time earlier in the night but by about 10:00pm the reasons behind it were obvious. They were running out of beer (especially the really good ones) at high speed. Bearing in mind this festival had started two days earlier I’m surprised any beer was left at all, given the speed that “sold out” signs appeared on the bar tariffs.

I’ve said a few things about beer token festivals. I’m not a big fan of them on a smaller scale, but with a gargantuan operation like this I’ll put my hand up and say yes, beer tokens are a good thing. I’m still adamant that It Comes In Pints but at least a half is a little easier to walk around with in your hand all night, what with the lack of tables.

On a sadder note (and I won’t out them on here because I don’t believe in unleashing the flying monkeys) I saw a guy on Twitter berate the organisers for “overfilling” glasses past the half pint mark.

I want to be clear on this. Whether you’re a hardcore CAMRAman, a Craft Wanker or just a machine for the destruction of lager we can all agree (I hope so) that a glass full to spilling point of sweet, sweet beer is a good thing, and not to be complained about on social networking.

The 38th Newcastle festival was a good one, and I can grudgingly say I’ve been converted to beer tokens, to a point. It fought off the shackles of a pretty poor venue, showcased excellent beer, and raised money for an important cause (St. Oswald’s Hospice in Newcastle) while doing so.

I’ll be back for number 39 with a vengeance. Meanwhile Gateshead’s got a month to prepare itself for my assault on its fifth annual festival. Heads up.

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