Peterborough Beer Festival kicked off again this week, so we prepared by perusing the list of around 400 beers, aiming to narrow them down to a few beers we particularly wanted to try. Living in Cambridgeshire and having previously lived in Norfolk and Suffolk, I thought I’d start with beers from East Anglian breweries, and before even looking at breweries from further afield, I already had a list as long as my arm, with more beers than time or tolerance would allow me to consume. It’s one of those ‘nice problems’ that football managers are so fond of, where the depth of quality leads to difficulty choosing which ones to start with.
Not only are there a growing number of microbreweries in East Anglia – following their debuts at the Cambridge Beer Festival this year, there are first appearances at the Peterborough Beer Festival for Norfolk’s Poppyland, and Cambridgeshire’s Calverley’s and Three Blind Mice breweries, along with a debut for TinShed from Kimbolton – the range and quality of beers in the region has probably never been better, with the more progressive local breweries helping to challenge traditional tastes in the Greene King heartland.
A fine example of this is Bexar County brewery from Peterborough, the nearest brewery to the festival. Papa Steve imperial stout was simply one of the best beers I had last year, while I’ve yet to taste a better Gose than the one Bexar County brought to last year’s beer fest. This year, along with more Papa Steve, beers included Smoked Ciruela Stout, carrying a wisp of smoked oats, a slightly vionous plummy edge, and at its heart a warm, roasty, full bodied stout, and ‘Biere de Garde’ a sweet, malty ale brewed in collaboration with Mile Tree brewery from Wisbech, who also had their own stand again this year. Bexar County’s beers are always amongst the first to sell out. Enough said.
We were also really impressed by the beers from Nene Valley of Oundle, Northamptonshire. The beers we tasted were a big improvement on ones we’d tried previously, the Fenland Farmhouse Saison and the well hopped Big Bang Theory in particular. It came as no surprise when their Bible Black was awarded overall Champion Beer of the Festival this year.
Amongst the friendly faces at the festival were DK and Cheko from Korea who were serving the beer they brewed with the help Brendan Moore at Iceni brewery. They told us they’d contacted several breweries in the UK in the hope they could come here and gain experience brewing the kind of real ales they couldn’t get at home. Brendon offered to host them and help with their OHDOL Beer project, however he apparently neglected to tell his wife who, in her surprise at the sudden appearance of the pair of Koreans, both of whom had completed mandatory military service in Korea, exclaimed “you didn’t tell me there were going to be two trained killers living with us!” – this then became the name of one of the beers they brewed, ‘Two Trained Killers’, which DK, Cheko and Brendan all agreed was their favourite of the four beers they collaborated on. This wasn’t available at the festival (a limited supply can be found at the brewery shop), but we did get to try the Korean Pale Ale, a very grainy beer with a pleasant hint of ginseng to liven it up.
As one of the bigger CAMRA festivals, Peterborough comes under pressure from the bean counters at HQ to turn a bigger profit so money can be ploughed back into campaigning funds, and as it’s a particularly expensive festival to host, a number of changes were made this year to make it more financially viable. As well as seeking sponsorship from local businesses, and working with reduced budgets, the organisers made a couple of changes which would have been noticeable to many of the festival’s customers. First was the tentative introduction of third-pint measures. To gauge more accurately the uptake, while avoiding the additional cost of glasses with third-pint lines, the volunteer staff were asked to first pour the beer into a third-pint glass, then decant that into the customer’s pint or half-pint glass. Perhaps demand had been underestimated, as only a short way into the festival both volunteers and customers alike seemed to be finding this a bit of a faff, so it’s likely that lined glasses will be considered for next year’s festival.
Another change this year was the decision not to serve tasters. The organisers perhaps thought that along with the introduction of third-pint measures, this would encourage people to take a punt on a small measure of beer they might previously have asked for a taster of, and thus provide another saving for the festival. I’ll admit to being disappointed when I read this in the festival programme published online prior to visiting. Personally, I tend to have a taster of a beer to confirm that it’s good enough for me to then buy a pint or at least a half-pint of it. I was concerned that by not offering tasters, this might discourage people from trying an unfamiliar or experimental beer and would work against the interests of smaller breweries as people chose instead to stick to ‘safe’ choices to mitigate against the risk of spending money on a beer that turned out to be ‘wrong’ for whatever reason. However, in practice it didn’t change my own buying habits much, although I ended up buying smaller measures more frequently, it amounted to about the same overall volume of beer. I always tend to try some new or experimental beers as well as some old favourites, and I wasn’t unduly concerned at spending a little more (most thirds seemed to be between £1.10 – £1.50) to do so. Only one of the beers I tried was a miss for me, and I reported the off flavours to the staff and received a replacement so that’s fair enough. Many people I chatted to were also bemused by the decision to stop offering tasters, but likewise admitted it hadn’t really affected their choices, and there appeared to be no impact on the popularity of the more experimental beers being served from the Singles Bar, or beers from less established breweries – indeed amongst the first beers to sell out was Funky Pigeon from local microbrewery Extreme Ales. That said, I’d still like to see tasters being offered again next year – one of the things I enjoy most about working at beer festivals is guiding someone to the ‘right’ beer for them, and this often involves a few tasters to get there – but from the conversations I had with organisers and staff, I’m reassured that the decision will be reviewed in light of customer feedback and beer sales.
Anyway, I maintain it’s the friendly atmosphere, as much as all the beer, that makes this festival such an enjoyable experience. The festival continues until 11pm on Saturday 23rd August.