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Vikings on the Knavesmire....

I went to York Beer Festival the other day, only a few days after visiting the lovely but very small beer festival at The Blue Pig near Hebden Bridge. It was a much grander affair with around 450 beers available over the forthcoming days, so you approach it from a different point of view. Here's my thoughts, along with some other bits of news and other stuff....

A guy nonchalantly rode through the huge marquee passing the bar on a bicycle. Meanwhile, an earnest CAMRA member was trying to welcome a group of us to judge some of the beers available at the festival, but his efforts were, initially, in vain, as one thing or another distracted him from what we thought was his main purpose here. Next up, a low loader pulled up across the way to collect some key kegs which appeared to be empty. And then a group of guys dressed in medieval-style peasant dress armed with Viking drinking horns and a flag marched through the marquees bellowing a football-style shout of "Rud-ga-ate" to advertise the presence of the brewery who were no doubt paying for their beer for the day. It was the opening session of the York Beer Festival which was taking place in a huge marquee at York Racecourse on the wide, open spaces of the Knavesmire, facing the Clocktower and Main Stands.

I had been volunteered to help judge the beer of the festival during the trade-only session so had duly turned up for the appointed time of 11.30. I had caught the train from Halifax, and with it being my 3rd visit to York in about 6 weeks it did cross my mind that I ought to get a season ticket.... After checking the various transport options once I arrived in York, I swiftly decided that my best bet was to walk to the festival from the station. It took about half an hour, though I took the optional cock-up version which involved missing the entrance and walking along the back of the main stand to the open views beyond. Still, it did give me the opportunity to appreciate the sheer scale of the place, and as an FYI if you need to go in one of the posh stands on a race day, you can hire a jacket for £40 and a tie for £10. Mind you, I don't think the horses would be bothered....

So, once I was in, ushered through what in CAMRA terms amounted to a VIP entrance by a steward accompanied by a friendly little dog, I checked in, got my drinking vessel and headed to one of the special tables set aside for us judges. I settled on a table with 3 other guys; Nigel, a retired accountant who lived in York, Andy, who organises the beers for the Sheffield Beer Festival, and a guy originally from London who now lives in Easingwold who worked in IT for various breweries including Brass Castle. There were probably another 20-odd people spread across the other tables. We waited and nothing much happened, and then a CAMRA member appeared with an old Grolsch-style bottle with a label saying A39 Mild. We had a score sheet asking for marks out of ten based on aroma, taste, after taste, and likeability. We each took a small quantity of the beer, swirled it around, then sniffed and tasted it. And so it carried on, with a swig of water here and a dry cream cracker there to refresh the palate between beers; B52, D39, E96, C34, etc, with a bias towards premium session pales. I have to say it dragged on though, and after tasting and scoring 17 beers over a two-hour period I have to admit that along with several others from the neighbouring tables I gave up the ghost as I wanted to check out the rest of the festival. So sadly, I cannot bring you details of the winning beer....

The judging in full flow at York Beer Festival

Elsewhere at the festival, there was a long, long bar featuring plenty of handpumps along with a wall of casks on racking at the back of the bar. There were also dedicated bars for several local breweries including Ainsty, Brew York, Kirkstall, Ossett, Roosters, Rudgate, and Wold Top. There was a key keg bar, a cider and perry bar, and another one which paired wine and mead, not a combination that immediately springs to mind. There was the usual tee shirt stall along with one selling Viking drinking horns, not cheap and probably not the most practical way to enjoy a beer with their pointy ends, and whilst you could buy a stand in which to rest said horn, there was something well...not very Viking about them. I had been quite sensible during the tasting by limiting how much I had of each beer, and so when I ordered my first beer from the bar, I had probably had 3 pints at the most. And I resolved to drink thirds of each one I tried so I could try a reasonable selection. My first beer was a 4.5% English Pale from old favourites Almasty, which was a very refreshing beer with floral notes on the nose and a taste with hints of citrus and tropical fruits. My original choice would have been their Simcoe Centennial, but like a lot of beers, it was not available, no doubt being held back for the likely busier days to follow.

The obligatory beer festival shot of the beer line up fading into the distance

"Rud-ga-ate". As the afternoon progressed, the regular sound of the Rudgate campaign continued to ring around the site, as the team went off on another mission to drum up support no doubt bolstered by the odd beer from their drinking horns. One of Rudgate's most popular beers is their 3.8% blonde ale, Jorvik, named after the Viking name for York, whilst the guys from Brew York, who resemble latter-day Vikings, were visible throughout the afternoon, greeting all and sundry in their wake. 

I tried a few more beers: Castletown Bitter from Bushys based on the Isle of Man, which was my first encounter with their beers, as was the Rhumsaa Bitter from Odins and EPA from Kaneen's, both Manx breweries I had not come across before; Bitter from Lambs Brewery based at the Queens Arms in Littondale; Strike a Light from a new-to-me Sheffield brewery called BrewSocial, whose cheerful representative was very visible at the festival; a best bitter from the excellent Northumberland farmhouse brewery, Rigg & Furrow; a kolsch-style beer from the Jolly Sailor Brewery in Selby. Most of the keg beers were not available, so I only got to try Burst Into Bright, a 6.0% IPA hopped with New Zealand Cascade hops and fermented with Kveik yeast giving it plenty of layers and depth. This was my first encounter with Manchester's Queer Brewing. Back on the cask, my favourite beers were an old favourite, Pale Armadillo from Tempest, which always hits the spot with me, but it was just shaded by a 5.0% modern brown ale from Half Moon, Caramel Seduction, featuring a smorgasbord of different malts, which was absolutely delicious.

The great thing about beer festivals is chatting to people you may or may not have met before, but it doesn't really matter as you are all there for the same reason. A conversation at the bar with someone you may or not have met before, exchanging views on what beer to try, what to avoid, and which is the best brewery/beer/pub in ******* (insert location of choice). The guy from Tiger Tops Brewery - identifiable by a tatty yellow tee shirt advertising said brewery - greeted me like a long-lost friend; we hadn't formally met me before, but he must have recognised me from the ten minutes or so when he gatecrashed our stint on on the table an hour or so earlier and proceeded chat to one of our number.And then I spotted a familiar red leather jacket sat at one of the picnic tables set up in the sun outside; it was none other than Simon Everitt, aka BRAPA who was having a break from CAMRA pub-ticking forays and checking out his local beer festival with his mate John. But Simon being Simon, he had to put some order into his trying the beers, so he opted for doing an A to Z of beers/breweries. We had a good catch up about blogging and the like over a couple of beers and then it was time for me to head back to the station to catch my train home. I had had a cracking afternoon; despite the somewhat disorganised tasting, it was clear a serious amount of hard work had gone into organising the festival as a whole, the beer list was excellent, the atmosphere was great, and full credit to York CAMRA for all their efforts. And no, in case you're wondering, I didn't head home armed with a drinking horn....

Festival catch-up with John and Simon. Photobombing courtesy of the man at BrewSocial

We are now into the beer festival season, and I would no doubt be persona non grata with the local branch if I didn't mention the Halifax and Calderdale Beer Festival which opens at noon this Thursday (22nd September) at the Viaduct Theatre in Halifax running through to Saturday evening. Over 60 beers from over 40 breweries are on offer with 19 beers having matured from and being served from wooden casks. There are a number of talks and tastings taking place with a highlight om Friday being a talk from writer Jane Stuart aka Blackpool Jane who writes a very entertaining blog featuring pubs and other highlights on her trips over the country as a supporter of Blackpool FC, and there is also a talk the following day by Leslie Gillon on the resurrection of the iconic Puzzle Hall Inn in Sowerby Bridge. Next month, 19th-22nd October, sees the Sheffield Beer Festival taking place at Kelham Island Museum with over 230 cask beers and over 50 key keg beers available.

And finally, some sad news. One of the breweries who were on the list of beers at the York Festival and who had become a popular supplier to local pubs over the past few years was Nomadic. It was announced a few days ago that the Leeds-based brewery has unfortunately ceased trading. It was always a pleasure to receive regular cheery e-mail updates from the brewery and my inbox will be all the worse for their absence in the future. Meanwhile in an act of seemingly inevitable big company consolidation, Carlsberg Marstons Brewing Company announced recently that they intend to close the Jennings Brewery in Cockermouth in the Lake District, blaming declining volumes and operating at below capacity for several years. One could argue that had there been investment in and invigoration of the brands produced there this could have avoided, but that doesn't seem to have considered by the accountants wielding the axe and so a significant part of the area's brewing heritage looks likely to disappear....

Halifax and Calderdale Beer Festival 2022, Viaduct Theatre, Dean Clough, Halifax, HX3 5AX. 

Steel City 46, Sheffield Beer Festival 2022, Kelham Island Museum, Alma Street, Sheffield, S3 8SA.

Follow me on twitter: @realalemusic


  1. I'm not a Beer Festival person, Chris, but you certainly get the stars at your events. Chris Dyson, Blackpool Jane, BRAPA, a bloke with a sword. Hope to see you in Halifax on the 23rd.


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