How could I justify yet another trip to the UK in the same year? I had been once in May, another for the christening for a friend's child in early September. Another trip within the space of a month?! This needed another reason to go and I didn’t have to search long before I found it. Which came first, the egg or the chicken, the Wessex Beer Festival or the Great British Cheese Festival? What mattered was that both festivals were being held on the same weekend, the last weekend of September, 26th to 27th to be exact. We were soon on our way.
The ambitious Wessex Beer Festival is just two years old this year, a relative new-comer on the beer festival scene and held right in the heart of cider country, at the Bath and West Showground, Somerset, SE England. I say ambitious because it is located, as said above, in Britain’s premier cider producing region (bad!) and because it has attracted so many breweries (good!). However, it needs also to attract the punters before I can call this particular beer festival a success. Looking around the festival hall I figured the ratio of keg to punter was about 1:1 and I might have been kind by not mentioning that that statistic included the entertainment, their families, and venue staff as well...
Taking the ferry from Rosslare to Pembroke we arrived at the Bath and West Showground within 4 hours and set about our accommodation for the night (camping £10 per pitch). It’s a huge showground used for a multitude of shows, events, and sporting occasions with plenty of room for tents (7 in all!), toilets and shower facilities. It was a beautiful Friday afternoon and I was quite jealous of the group of lads setting up their polytunnel-shaped gazebo and deckchairs. In a perfect world it would have been me barking instructions to correct the sagging awning.
The beer festival hall itself was a huge hanger of a building and by 5pm when we walked through the doors a band was setting up shop in a corner (I was only slightly disappointed to learn that the Morris dancing wasn’t until the following day!). At the far end of the hall was an impressive sight indeed – a double line of kegs stretching from one side of the building to the other (see pic above). It was quite a sight and I subconsciously squeezed the festival programme as if all the beer descriptions within would magically seep into personal knowledge. The hall was practically empty and the long walk to the kegs felt all the longer.
The barman I had eyed 100 metres to go greeted us warmly but set the record straight from the get-go. “I can’t recommend any of the beers” and “I can’t suggest any because I haven’t tried most of them yet!” We laughed and I squeezed the programme once again but still no luck. I choose a beer by the Empire brewery called ‘Strikes Back’. Why not? If I had no magical force myself then I figured I would look elsewhere. “Pale golden bitter with hoppy aroma, citrusy flavour, and very light on the palate”. I don’t have access to RateBeer right now but I’m quite comfortable plagiarising the festival programme for that quite accurate description!
Drinks were served into your very own festival half pint glass received upon paying entrance and tokens were £1 per glass. We sat in the outside section enjoying the sun set over the Somerset countryside contemplating the long list of beers and ciders (see pic to left). I figured the beers to number no less than 80, the ciders and perries maybe 30. I could get used to this I thought.
When the sun set we drifted back indoors to sit at a table by the side of the hall and survey the festival in full flow (see right). That didn’t take long however. It’s a shame because we had such a great night and so did many others it seemed but one couldn’t easily ignore the vast empty chasm of the hall. The available seating at our table attracted an elderly gentleman to join both myself and Claire. He had also expected a bigger turnout and we both noted that the hall felt very big indeed with so few people in it. There was maybe a crowd of 60 sitting between several tables and propping up both the lengthy cask ale bar and the separate cider and perry bar. And these included the wives and girlfriends of the two bands that played too loudly during the night! There were a few groups of lads diligently filling out the tasting forms at the back of each festival programme. Then there were one or two pub groups from the local area as identified by t-shirt slogans such as "If found, please return to the Toad and Hole".
The three of us set about the task at hand and, once dismissing the impressively long list of fruity drinks, ticked and bashed our way through the wall of real cask ale. The range included bitters, premium bitters, best bitters, strong bitters, milds, porters, and stouts. Choice ran from the sessionable Bank Top’s ‘Bikes, Trikes, and Beer’ at 3.6% to Lee’s ‘Moonraker’ at 7.5%, a formidable half pint by the end of the night. Each of us had our favourites of course but the highlights for me were:
Derventio’s ‘Venus’ – a premium bitter, a light coloured tasty ale.
Branscombe Vale’s ‘Sommathat’ – a special bitter, hoppy and golden.
Bushy’s ‘Manx Export Bitter’ – a mild with great hop taste.
Cheddar Ale’s ‘Potholer’ – a best bitter, another golden citrus ale.
RCH’s ‘East Street Cream’ – a special bitter, sweet and smooth.
Conwy’s ‘Honey Fayre’ – a best bitter, the way a honey beer should be.
Hopback’s ‘Summer Lightning’ – a best bitter, familiar to these shores in bottle form. The kegged version is king.
At the 11pm closing time the crowd had grown and peaked at about 100. The pub groups, who I can only presume were bussed in, had livened the atmosphere somewhat and I was really enjoying myself despite everything. I had grown used to the volume of the band and they had even attracted a few old-school dancers onto the floor. A smile crept over my face at the memory of weddings and uncles swinging mortified aunts. Back to the tent for a pickled egg and some cheddar.
And this brings me onto the second leg of the journey. Friday was the Wessex Beer Festival. Saturday we were on our way to the Great British Cheese Festival. This event is Ireland and Britain’s premier cheese festival and has found a permanent home in Cardiff Castle as of this year. I like my beer and I like my cheese so if you’re like me then this weekend has it all and I recommend it to everyone. In the festival there are various cheese-related classes to attend and I choose to go to ‘Something Old, New and Blue’. It was presented by Juliet Harbutt and was excellent, a real eye-opener. In particular, she bestowed the beautiful combination of blue cheese and mead and one which I will be eternally grateful for. As a mead maker myself I was slightly surprised to sit down and be faced with a selection of 7 blue cheeses and a sample of mead as it so rarely appears on the radar. But my surprise soon turned to delight as I gently bit into a ripe piece of blue cheese, chewed slowly to awaken the senses and then took a sip of the honey nectar. A truly wonderful match. And it was yet another pleasant reminder that there is always something new to learn and discover in the world of mead making and brewing.
The cheese market tent itself had over 40 exhibitors manning their own stalls, each one busy cubing their cheeses and speaking to interested parties (while also conducting the all important business of selling the actual cheese!) Toothpick in hand we drifted around the stalls sampling and buying as we went. It was great fun and the range of cheese was simply astounding! My favourites were the Lincolnshire Poacher, a world class cheddar, the Isle of Man Creamery’s selection of flavoured cheeses, Lyburn Farmhouse (overall Champion winner for their Barkham Blue), and Charles Martell who makes the delicious Stinking Bishop. But there were so many fantastic cheeses that choosing which ones to buy was proving difficult! With bellies fuller, wallets lighter, and shopping bag heavier we were lucky enough to grab a picnic table outside where we sat enjoying the sun and the 9-piece jazz band against the backdrop of Cardiff Castle. Only with a glass of cask ale could this be bettered and within 5 minutes I was relishing a cool pint of Timothy Taylor’s Landlord.
Seems naive now to think I was alone in my beer and cheese fancying that weekend. Inside the drinks tent we had a choice of maybe 20 cask ales, 10 ciders, and maybe 10 perries (see right). After being joined by some friends we broke out the various cheeses at the table and discussed the merits of our recent purchases and how bloody great the weather was; how bloody great the cheese was, and about how bloody great the beer was. It was a bloody great day. A bloody great weekend...