One of the small irritations of a British beer festival can be that nearly everyone you speak to will at some point ask, “Are you a member of CAMRA?” or “Which branch of CAMRA do you belong to?”
For this visit to the 11th Annual Catford Beer Festival, I prepared carefully. No T-shirt with dumb logo or message (Beer Drinkers Do It Standing At The Bar), no woolly jumper, and no beard. And I certainly did not carry round my battered copy of The Good Beer Guide which many seasoned festival goers feel a need to consult before giving any opinion of a beer they are drinking. Ha! I even left my flat cap at home - the flat cap that seems to be worn by every drinker in photos of British pubs. Knowing that the food would be mostly of the curry and sausage variety (firm festival favourites), I lined my belly with wholesome veggie food before entering the hall.
As I made my way across the busy roads of Catford, a multi-cultural and slightly run down area of South East London, I could already see the beer bellies of fellow festival-bound drinkers wobbling resolutely in the direction of the Broadway Theatre, a venue more usually associated with 2nd rate comedians and soul acts from the 60’s.
The afternoon sessions at the Catford Festival are free, which suited me fine as I work in the evenings. (And afternoons are less crowded.) The half-pint glass was £2.50 (refundable if you don’t wish to keep it) and engraved with a cartoon sketch of the owl and the pussycat in their little boat, both drinking beer. Cute. Of course I kept it.
I went into the main hall first. Two sides had the double-racked beer casks, one side had the T-shirt stall and the cider bar, while the third had tables and chairs for the more thoughtful drinkers to sit down and study their beers before making notes.
It is becoming fashionable at beer festivals to have some form of theme. At a recent Gillingham festival the theme had been animal names, the theme for this year’s Catford festival was “northern lights”. The idea had been to concentrate on beers from the north of Britain. As it worked out only seven breweries from the cold wastes of Scotland had made it, plus a brewery from Yorkshire calling itself Pictish.
I started with a beer from the Hebridean Brewing Company, a micro on the Isle of Lewis that only started up in January of last year. Sadly, this was a poor beer to start the festival - a watery bit of nonsense with a thuggish hop finish. I didn’t fancy finishing my glass and so found the toilet and poured half away. Which then gave me an idea...
I made my way to the downstairs bar - a more intimate location, though unfortunately so close to the food stand that the smell of curry had slopped all over the place. I surveyed the casks and made my second choice - Timothy Taylor Dark Mild. I now tested out my idea: “…And just half fill the glass,” I said.
The volunteer barman paused. “Just half?” he queried.
“It’s a half pint glass,” he observed.
“That’s right - just half of a half.”
He shrugged, did as I asked and gave me the beer. The beers were priced in pints and half pints. The average was £2.00 a pint and £1.00 a half. “50p?” I suggested. He shrugged again and took my money.
From behind me came the familiar question: “You a member of CAMRA?” I turned and answered no. “Well, if you were you could go round and ask for a sample of all the beers for free.” We talked about Timothy Taylor and the free publicity that Madonna had given to the brewery. Even though invited to judge at the GBBF she had turned the offer down. I fixed my attention to the Dark Mild - huge seaweed aroma and some soy sauce flavours - an interesting interpretation of a mild. One of the best beers of the festival.
Next up was Milton Brewery’s Neptune. A different barman. “Just half fill the glass,” I said again.
He looked at me as though I’d just farted. “You sure?” he asked.
“Yep, just half the glass, that way I can drink twice as many beers.”
He passed me the beer. “I’ll have to charge you for a full glass.”
I nodded at the other barman. “He only charged me 50p”
Quick exchange of words between barmen. “OK,” he shrugged.
Milton is a micro just outside of Cambridge that opened in 1999 and has already acquired a reputation for fine ales, especially Pegasus, which won Champion Beer of East Anglia last year. The Neptune has a fine aroma and is a good beer but is a touch too sweet.
Apart from the curry aroma, the downstairs bar was the more pleasant room - cosy and friendly with good conversation - and only once had I been asked if I was in CAMRA. I cast my eyes over the casks and selected a beer called Big Red from one of my favourite micros, the Wolf Brewery, makers of Granny Wouldn’t Like It. Big Red is a wholesome brew with a touch of blackcurrant. I decided to treat myself to another beer from Wolf - one I’d had in the bottle, but not from the cask: Norfolk Lavender Honey. A deeply gorgeous ale made with honey and lavender, this had won Best Beer of the festival for the previous two years. A touch of vinegar adds to the interest. From conversations I had around the festival it seems sure it will win again this year - it certainly got my vote.
It was now time to go back upstairs and try out my new beer measurement on the beer staff in the main hall. Two beer bellies were raving about the dark beer they were drinking so I decided to give that a go: Broadstone’s Priorswell Porter. “Just fill half the glass,” I said again. No problem with this guy - he’d been helping himself to a fair share of samples so was in a cheerful if slightly bemused state. It was clear, however, that his eyes had ceased to focus. “Up a bit, to the left, left a bit more - that’s it - fire!” The half full glass was plonked in front of me. “The guys downstairs have been charging me 50p,” I suggested.
“Good idea, “ he slurred, turning away to help himself to some more beer. Broadstone started out in 1999 and has been brewing at the Rum Runner pub since 2001. I found the porter to be as acidic as a lambic, more interesting than pleasant. I compared notes with my fellow beer bellies only to discover that I had the wrong porter. I managed to drag the barman’s attention away from his systematic drinking of every cask in the hall long enough to pour me Iceni’s Ported Porter. This has a bottle of port tipped into every cask like O’Hanlon’s Original Port Stout and the Swan micro brewery’s Swan On The Portside. It behaved rather more like a mild than a porter which my fellow beer bellies agreed with, but was one of the finest beers of the afternoon.
I decided to explore a mild next and chose Mighty Oak’s Oscar Wilde, which I took into the smoking room. Tobacco is the best accompaniment for a mild. A CAMRA veteran with full uniform of long hair, beard, beer belly and T-shirt with a message invited me over to his ashtray. He was on his fourth full pint and planned on having eight more. We compared beer bellies - his was clearly wobblier than mine, though he blatantly denied it. A rare female beer drinker joined us round the ashtray - and our beer bellies seemed to mysteriously vanish.
The mild was intriguingly complex with balsamic vinegar and red wine qualities. The woman recommended the Arran Ale so I went back into the hall to seek it out. Unfortunately, the volunteer working the Arran Brewery section of the bar was clearly some kind of out of work lawyer. “I can’t give you half a glass, it’s not a full measure,” he snorted through his wispy beard.
“Everyone else has.”
“Well they shouldn’t.”
He poured me half a glass and took my 50p. He looked very unhappy.
The beer was as fragrant as an orchard in spring, with an interesting aroma of old socks to add to the sweet perfume. The taste was citric sharp - a lovely beer.
It was time to check out the bottled beers in the foyer. There was a huge banner advertising the Rogue beers that Gavin of Bottles had imported. The price was £4.50 a bottle - I’d bought mine from Gavin at £3.00 a bottle. I started to make my selection of Belgian and German beers. The man serving was sweating and complaining about the heat because of all the fridges he had operating. A chap with no beer belly or beard came up and asked for a Mocha Porter to be opened. A bottle was brought out of the fridge.
“Not a cold one!” he snapped.
“The others are too warm,” he was told.
“I like my beer warm.” A bottle from the shelf was offered. He felt it. “That’s too warm,” he observed.
“That’s why we’re keeping the others in the fridge.”
“Well I’m not paying £4.50 for a cold beer.” And he stormed off.
I took my two bags of bottles and my engraved beer glass. It was time to go. Well, maybe one more beer, perhaps with a bit of festival food. I returned downstairs and ordered a Jamaican veggie patty - mmm, spicy! - then went into the downstairs bar to get my last beer. Tindall’s Seething Pint (or in my case, a whimpering quarter) washed down the patty nicely.
Feeling pleased with myself I left the hall with my two bags. Only one person had asked me about CAMRA. Quite clearly I did not look like your average CAMRA beer drinker. As I dashed across the road, a gust of wind caught my flat cap and whipped it from my head. Damn! I’d forgotten I was wearing it.