The 2nd CAMRA Ashbourne Beer and Cider festival looked to be a roaring success when I visited on Saturday evening. Beer festivals are a celebration of the variety and quality of beer we produce in Britain. They tend to have a real mix of attendee and Ashbourne was no exception. This year there was a hen party to lift the mood, lower the average age and significantly increase the female roster.
And what of the beer? Well there was certainly plenty to choose from!
There were 60 beers in the programme from England and Wales. After last year’s focus on local breweries the reach was much broader this year. I started my evening with a glass of Welsh Waen Festival Gold. I do like a pale ale and this was a decent starter for ten. The strengths of the beers vary greatly. The Festival Gold was 4.2 which is a pretty average beer strength but the highest was the Tsar Russian Imperial Stout at a staggering 9.5.
By recommendation of Dave Leigh (when you are confronted by 60 beers it helps to get a little expert advice) I then tried another pale ale – Pale Rider from the Kelham Island Brewery in Sheffield. This was a really nice drink and some of my accomplices carried on drinking this for the rest of their visit. At 5.2 it is strong for a pale ale but full of flavour.
I then made a detour downstairs to a section of unfined beers. The emphasis here was on beers which hadn’t had the process which uses isinglass to clarify the beer. Beer will become clear naturally over time but to speed up the process brewers add finings to basically drag all the yeast and other junk to the bottom of the barrel. Isinglass is made out of the swim bladder of fish and so the other consequence is that real ale is not strictly vegetarian. The gentleman I spoke to at the beer festival had a selection of unfined, and therefore vegetarian, beers on offer. Some people also claims the fining process removes some of the flavour from beer. This area was one I was glad there was an option for a third of a pint rather than halves. I had been fascinated by First Chop brewery’s Fig and Molasses Small Beer. It had a strength of only 2.8 and the nice thing about beer festivals is that, within reason, you can try before you buy. I had a small taster of this one and it really was pretty good. You would never have guessed the low strength. The flavour was like no other beer I have tasted – it reminded me a little of some dessert wines I’ve tasted but without the body. I dived in and tried a third of a pint of Silk Road – presumably named after the notorious dark web site as no details were advertised in advance. In the end it turned out to be a very strong ale (over 8) and just too strong and sweet for me. It had a warming effect that you get from some fortified wines. After drinking just a little of it I was undeterred and finished my visit to this section with a third of a pint of Buxton Brewery’s Axe Edge – a 6.8 pale ale which was full of flavour and possibly my favourite of the night.
I kept on the pale ale theme with a glass of Fubar, made by the Tiny Rebel brewery in Newport. They seemed to be pale ale specialists as the Fubar was an American-style one to go alongside their Billabong Australian-style brew made from Tasmanian hops. Behind the scenes of all the beers on display will be a phenomenal amount of knowledge and love and just drinking the stuff doesn’t seem to do it justice somehow. I ended my visit with a half of the Waen brewery Pottery Pig – a neat bookend returning to the same brewery I started the evening.
It was very busy on both floors of the Town Hall but I saw no indication of any trouble, just good natured folk having an evening out. Praise should go to all the volunteers who are making it a success. There were plenty of staff serving and marking off the sales on the beer tokens. Swamptrash provided good entertainment with some foot-tapping Cajun interpretations of “folk”.
All in all a great little beer festival which was well organised and with a good selection of beers. Hopefully it was successful financially for the organisers so that we will see it again next year.