It’s the small details that give a vivid insight into the bigger picture. Zoom in on the cameo role of one individual among a mass of others at a recent beer festival. She suddenly shouts (literally), “I’VE FOUND THE HOLY GRAIL!” It’s a Eureka moment, a “Yes!....Yes!!...YES!!!” earth-moved-for-me happening. If smoking was allowed she would have lit up after it.
The beer in question was Sarah Hughes 6% Dark Ruby, the event the 10th Summer GradBar Real Ale and Cider Festival held at Lancaster University. The four-day craft brewing feast boasted 35 ales and 15 real ciders and perries from breweries throughout England, Scotland and Wales.
As that Sarah Hughes virgin discovered, this was a stunning, extraordinary and intensely memorable event. A typical festival offers the usual beer suspects and generates the expected vibes. This one had a deeply impressive line up, including many lesser known beers, and generated a sense of delighted discovery — serendipity in a glass.
Fests like this depend on a number of factors. Perhaps the most important is demonstrable respect for the drinker. This was shown in the choice of perfectly conditioned beers and ciders, their physical arrangement in two bars, efficient and friendly service from a staff clearly committed to the job in hand (rather than texting friends), and the provision of intelligent and readable tasting notes. Add some tasty food and a good band and you have all the right ingredients.
Just as with the previous nine festivals, our thanks go to manager and organiser Gareth Ellis, whose customary flair was even more in evidence this time, with an array of ales to suit every palate, from golden and hoppy, through fruity and red, malty and brown, to deep liquorice black. Beers benefiting from a tight sparkler were served via hand pump on the main bar, while those best served straight from the cask were available in the stage bar. This was also the home of a treasure trove of real ciders and perries.
Dark beers, often overlooked, were well represented. Indeed fans of dark styles could have had a mini-fest of their own, such was the choice: Cairngorm Black Gold , Kirkby Lonsdale Jubilee Stout, Ulverston Fra Diavolo, Lymestone Stone the Crows, the aforementioned Sarah Hughes Dark Ruby (described by Roger Protz as “the Bordeaux of the beer world”), Adnams Tally Ho, Bath Barnstormer, Exmoor Beast and Hopback Entire Stout. Mind blowing.
If these were in the “afters” category, the starters and main course menu were even more impressive. I particularly enjoyed the wonderful Copper Ale, a 3.7% stunner from Dorset brewers Palmer’s, a refreshing orange wheat beer from Green Jack (both straight from the cask and bursting with flavour), and Purple Moose’s Snowdonia Ale and Bushy’s Old Bushy Tail from the main bar.
And the punters? The GradBar is one of the friendliest venues I know, and at festival time that quality is multiplied. It was packed with a good natured crowd, all ages but predominantly young, enjoying themselves in the most civilised way: talking, laughing, consulting tasting notes, savouring the brews.
It’s difficult to overstate the positive contribution of these ten GradBar festivals to enriching people’s education in the proper sense of the term. My time at university was spent drinking fizzy, dead keg — there was simply nothing else available in the bars. Today 35 real beers — a sort of accumulated cultural history of living ale and the places that lovingly produce it — open the learner’s mind to the versatility of the drink and the astonishing creativity of the craft brewer.
It’s history, geography and art in a glass. With Eureka moments aplenty.