Blow winds, and crack your cheeks. Or, “Flippin’ ‘eck it’s ‘orrible out there,” as the bard might have written. Yes, the weather was somewhat inclement for this year’s GradBar Real Ale and Cider festival at Lancaster University. Flaming June? More a case of flaming Norah.
Did it dampen our spirits (or, rather, our ale, cider or perry)? Not a bit of it. It would take more than a hundred millimetres of rain and a howling wind, some wildly flapping canvass and the cancellation of the band to spoil one of the year’s great beer festivals. Though at one time organiser Gareth Ellis did look a trifle glum.
But this event has always had such a powerful presence, such a concentration of good things, such a feel-good atmosphere that even Friday evening’s tsunami proved incapable of crushing it. I’ve tried in previous pieces to define the magic of this festival, and always reach the same conclusion: the beer and cider range, the good-natured crowd, exceptional service. And hovering over it all the benign expertise and flair of Mr Ellis.
People here really savour what they are drinking. This is no swig and swill event. Take a look at the crowded tables and you’ll see people consulting tasting notes, comparing and contrasting their choices — fully immersing themselves in the real ale and real cider experience. And the animated faces, the laughter, tell you they’re having a lot of fun doing it.
This year the accent is on more session-strength beers, with darker styles well represented. The main bar is due to host 22 in the course of the festival, with 13 more served from the cask at the stage bar. Eleven ciders and 4 perries complete the banquet.
This year, as in each of the previous ten years of GradBar festivals, there are rich pickings for those seeking something new. When’s the last time you had Atlas Three Sisters round here? Or another Scottish ale, Stewarts 80/-? Not to mention Jarrow Bitter from Tyne and Wear and Milton Pegasus from Cambridge.
My drinking companions raved about the milds. Bateman’s, a mild in the classic style, got one “mildly excited” — both a pun and a deliberate understatement. One always marvels at the amount of taste and sheer depth of flavour a brewer can wring out of 3% abv. Gorgeous — could drink it all night. But don’t, because there is also Brentwood’s Magnificent Maple Mild, a 3.7% stunner with a hint of maple syrup. It works.
As for the ciders, well this is certainly the place for apple heads, with the Yellowhammer Carnival (7.0% ) going down well and the 6.7% Millwhites Rioja Cask going down even better.
But for most, the crowning glory, the crème de la crème, the piece de resistance, is Hawskhead Imperial Stout, weighing in at a timid 8.3%. Truly les bollocks du chien., to use an old Cumbrian expression. “Exquisite....rich....like Christmas cake in a glass....dark fruity, nutty... fantastically complex...amazing lingering finish.” Can I put that down as a yes?
As usual, profound thanks and congratulations to Gareth Ellis and his superbly efficient and warmly welcoming team. The GradBar fest is just about as good as it gets. As I write there are still two days left to catch it. Go.