Our press officer reflects on the GradBar’s latest festival, where he found his mind wandering...
Beer with me as I wax lyrical. I have a vision: it’s twenty-odd years from now and the children of today’s university students are themselves students — young, fresh-faced things newly embarking on a fulfilling undergraduate course of beer drinking.
After sampling their first glass of cask conditioned ale (a mere £100 a pint, but that’s another story) they turn their exultant, beaming faces to their doting parents and ask, “Mum, dad” - or perhaps, given these politically correct times, “Mum, mum” or “Dad, dad” - “who was it introduced you to this wonderful drink that you now recommend to us?”
“Ah, son/daughter/A.N. Other,” the parent replies, their eyes misting over in fond recollection, “it was a great man called Gareth Ellis. I recall little of my degree course, but I remember every bit of my real ale education, thanks to Gareth. It all began on the first day of the Graduate Bar beer festival when...”
All right, enough of the lyricism, and lose the soft focus: let’s have some hard facts. Fact one: after a break last year, Lancaster University’s Graduate Bar Real Ale and Cider Festival returned last week for its seventh outing. Fact two: 35 ales and 15 real ciders were available over the four days, dispensed by hand pump on the main bar or straight from the cask in a larger air-conditioned tented area known as the stage bar.
Fact three: this was the best festival yet, a beautifully organised and smoothly executed tour de force of ale, a beer heaven for even the most cynical beer atheist. Writing about the ales two days after my visit I can still taste them in all their mouth watering glory, and experience again that sense of delight that only the discovery of a “new” beer can bring.
The selection was outstanding and showed a subtle and original mind at work. The beer list offered gems (yes Gem from Bath Ales was there) from the gorgeous Hobson’s Mild (3.2# abv), a new ale for me, to the 9# A Over T from Surrey’s Hogsback brewery. The majority of beers are rarely if ever available locally - the beautifully complex RCH PG steam, for example, Dorset brewery’s quenching bitter-sweet Weymouth Best Bitter, or the ripe and thickly fruity Stewart’s 80/-, a genuine Scottish “heavy” and a revelation. Even the beers from closer to home — from Watermill, Ulverston and Whitehaven — are not usually found outside Cumbria.
For me, the beer of the evening was the longed for and long awaited Sarah Hughes Dark Ruby Mild, the famous 6# brew which I sipped in a sort of reverential ecstasy, closely followed by the Hobson’s, undoubtedly one of the truly great mild ales. For others it was the 6.5# 1872 Porter from Elland brewery in West Yorkshire. Everything I tried was in immaculate condition, and even the beers on the stage bar were served cool.
The thinking behind the beer choice was summed up by GradBar manager Gareth Ellis, who last year won Lunesdale CAMRA’s award for Oustanding Services to Real Ale for his years of promotional work for cask ales on campus.
“This is the next generation of real ale drinkers,” he said, indicating the eager crowd at the bar. “Personally I can’t see the point of a festival that offers more of the same. An event like this is an opportunity to lay on something different as well as showing young drinkers the sheer range and variety of British ales.”
The patrons were certainly enthusiastic, turning out in large numbers — according to Gareth it was the busiest Friday evening ever. They were a good natured crowd intent on enjoying the beers and the music (which this year was outside, a positive move), the football, and the conversation. Service was efficient and very friendly, as we have grown to expect at these summer festivals.
As I walked out into the cool June air it occurred to me that I had been part of a celebration of culture that spoke both of the past and the future. A celebration of the historic skills of our craft brewers, preserving and developing a rich tradition that embodies the best of Britain; and a celebration of the discernment and common sense of today’s youthful drinkers of real ale who are charged with ensuring that tradition is continued.