[Pictures to follow]
I spent last Friday morning reading articles on extreme episodic drinking before going to get drunk in a much more respectable way in Dover.
I suspect the last time I went to Dover was for last year’s White Cliffs Festival of Winter Ales, one as I recall was delayed in getting to by teaching commitments. And I think I went to the one before that — but it gets a little fuzzy. The sales pitch of the festival is that all of the beers are 5% or more when I guess the majority of ones we drink are between 3.7% and 4.5%. In other words, a number of them are twice the strength of session drinking.
Festivals take a bit of working out how to work — often you pay to get in, you pay a deposit of a pint glass and you pay money for tokens. At the Kent Beer Festival there’s a variable price per pint, between £3 and £4 typically, so the tokens come in £1, 20p and 10p combinations, typically leaving you with loose paper. The price tends to reflect the ABV — the stronger the beer, the higher the price. Dover, on other hand, charges £1.50 a half, allowing a chance to try more beer. At CAMRA organised festivals I’ve been to, CAMRA members get in for free, but there’s still a queuing up. Last year I had a big of trouble as the senior citizen on the welcome desk didn’t seem to know what I wanted, but eventually I was given my entry card. Then you have to go to the other end of the row of barrels to pick up tokens and a glass — here it was £9 for a glass and four tokens, but you can then buy additional glasses.
The festival is held in the Maison Dieu, a clearly ancient building that has been a hospital and a town hall, and from our point of view has a long space with tickets, barrels, food, folk music and some circulation space, and a bigger room with four long tables and about twelve round tables. At one end is the CAMRA tombola where an annoying horn is sounding every time a win is achieved and a bookstall.
But that is to get ahead of ourselves.
First you need beer.
Some festivals publish a list of beers ahead of time, but this isn’t one of them, and you’ve only just got the details. Each barrel is labelled, and it takes a while to work out what’s what. Here the beers are alphabetical by brewery, aside from all the Kent beers that are under K and Sarah Hughes is under H. (This does make sense, as many brewers are named for the family, but drop the first name.) You want a beer — but you are aware of the room filling up and the need to get served.
At this point I panic.
I noted a couple of Mordue, their IPA and their Pandazilla, both of which I’ve had in bottle form and preferred the Pandazilla. It would be interesting to try on draft, although of course it’s 7%.
Tactically I always feel it’s best to start with a lower percentage and work up — partly it’s a sense of limbering up, partly a sense of trying to control the intoxication (and this is lunch time drinking, don’t forget) and partly that the lower ABVs taste deceptively watery after 7%.
And frankly I think Pandazilla is better in a bottle — or perhaps was being poured wrong in the south, although barrels are I’m assuming less different than hand pumps with or without sparklers.
So, having found a table, and joined by a couple of strangers with which there could be some random chat, I perused the list and became more cautious. Derby Old Intentional, Sarah Hughes Sedgley Surprise and Portobello American Pale Ale were all 5%; I’ve had Derby and Portobello before and enjoyed, but these were just ok, and I’ve failed to get the Hughes before but it wasn’t great. Then a slow move up — Blue Anchor Spingo Middle (5.1%), Black Hole Cyborg (5.5% – as always a name more seductive than the beer), Beowulf IPA (7.2%) and Fyne Ales Ragnarok (7.4%).
There was a Burton Bridge Thomas Sykes (10%) but I decided to be wise.
My experience is that the stronger the beer, the sweeter it is likely to be, tending sometimes to treacle. As Steve says, these can be chutney beers. Some of the stronger beers have what I think of as a machine flavour, something chemical, in some cases even oily (a Brodie Mocha Stout had a taste of MDF; Brodie’s pale ales tend to excellent though). And I suspect that in a barrel in a room is not the best way to keep beers — have they settled enough? So whilst I had some good beers, there were no great ones.
The gents toilets — I can’t speak to the ladies — are down a flight of steps and put me in mind of a 1930s cinema. The walk is a little tedious, not to say a little dangerous, and there’s the increasing need to do so.
Looking around, you can’t help but note that the crowd is overwhelmingly male and over fifty, if not sixty. This may be the fact of it being an afternoon session — there were some student types but nit many. There were some women, but probably only one in thirty at most. I wasn’t aware of any people of colour. Certainly I’ve been to real ale and craft ale pubs where I’ve been the oldest person there, so real ale isn’t just greying, but the day time weekday session was clearly a maturer crowd.
Last year we then went on to the Rack of Ale micropub, but I decided to go straight home and pass out. There is of course the worry that the passing out will happen before the destination station is reached; here extra fun was had by the train announcement lying about where we were. I do need to go back — there are a number of micropubs to be checked out.