Monday, 5 October 2009

Sheffield CAMRA 35th Steel City Beer Festival!

The first weekend of October has rolled around, so once again it is time for the Sheffield CAMRA Steel City Beer Festival. Now in its 35th year, the festival has seen a lot of change in the recent past. After the terrifying ordeal that was the Darnall Liberal Club, standing out in a field with beer seems like a much nicer proposition. Unfortunately, reviews of the 34th festival were tainted with dissatisfaction, both with the venue and the organisation as a whole.

I didn't attend last year, but I attended this year with some trepidation. Thankfully, the whole event was better run than I had been led to believe, but not without its fair share of hiccups. Two marquees provided more indoor space, the place didn't smell like a donkey sanctuary, and the beer tasted great. There were around a hundred beers to try, and thirty ciders, so even more than some previous years.

After a couple of false starts, our little troop of merry drinkers (myself, Emma and Chris) finally arrived at the gates of the festival around 8pm. A very strange 15 minute wait in a queue of 10 people then followed. It seems that the people handing out glasses and tokens weren't coping well, which was odd since actually getting aforementioned items took seconds once we finally were allowed into the marquee. Annoyingly, my CAMRA membership only went as far as a single extra token, so, almost half a pint. Disappointing.

First impressions were of puzzlement and a little of dismay. After being wowed by the Oakwood festival earlier in the year, the presentation of the Sheffield festival left something to be desired. The glasses were actually plastic, although still stamped with the festival logo, and the programme didn't actually include any beer; just cider. The beer was on a little printed slip of paper inserted into the programme, and had little or no room for ticking.

Just to add confusion into the mix, gone was the usual token system, where you pay for beers with "token + extra", whether that extra be 10p, 20p, or even money back on some brews. Instead, tokens had two possible values, £1 or 10p, and you had to make up the value using these. Makes sense in some ways, but still managed to confuse us for a little while.

Still, we were there, and there was beer to be had. I somehow managed to end up designated "beer chooser" for the evening, so I lined up a few nice starters. I had a half of Abbeydale Absolution, a familiar taste to sip while perusing the rest of the available brews. Emma had a Spalt IPA from Acorn brewery and Chris had a Ginger Daze from The Brew Company. All were thoroughly enjoyed, and everyone had a taster of the others to ensure a fair and even experience.

Time, then, for a few more beers, including Brewdog's dangerously drinkable 7.1% ale Chaos Theory, Allgates' Porteresque (a very aptly named beer) and Brass Monkey's Tamarind Mild. All the beers were excellent and went down a treat. Unfortunately, I did my usual trick and managed to carefully note every beer tried ... then lose my copy of the programme. Thankfully a replacement copy and a reasonable memory for beer provided a workable solution!

We met up with a few of my colleagues at this point, and shared opinions of the festival and the beers. Got an excellent recommendation for The Brew Company's Raisin To Live, a lovely 7% raisin stout brewed especially for the festival. Also on the recommendations list was the Proper Pasty Co's sausage rolls and scotch eggs. I tried a new delicacy ... A scotch egg made with black pudding instead of sausage meat. Delicious! Emma and Chris chickened out and had boring old sausage rolls.

One of the trips to the bar resulted in Emma ending up with possibly the worst smelling beer I've ever experienced. It was, apparently, a lemon beer, but it smelled like a cow had already eaten and passed the lemon. After trying to trick someone else into drinking it without success, another of my colleagues happened by. He'd tried the "Power Hour", in which you drink the 6 strongest beers at the festival (7.5% to 12%) in one hour. He was steaming, and drank the awful concoction with the single comment "mmm, it's lovely." Suffice to say, a lesson in always sampling ales that aren't on the official list was learned!

A trip to the toilets, then, and just about the only reason to go outside. There were further food stalls, including a German sausage grill like those on Fargate during the continental markets, and "Stuff in Oatcakes", the van that provides butties for Emma at work. I passed on all that, preferring to stay with my beer. The toilets were standard festival fair, portaloos with no lights in. Thankfully they were at least clean! Somebody had put up a sign on the fence: "Toilet Out Of Order". Whether this was a deliberate joke or not, it made my drunken self chortle.

Once we'd put away a fair few of the beers, we decided to give the cider stall a try. This always marks a descent into madness, and this time was no exception. After acquiring a Hucknall dry cider from Nottingham for myself, and a Hunt medium sweet cider from Devon for Emma, we sat in the patio furniture provided for our comfort.

A couple of lads sat near us pointed out the hilarity that could be had with the broken chairs that would recline all the way back when pushed. Of course, we just had to have a go (well, Emma didn't, but we of the dafter sex did). It was during this little escapade that Chris decided to push my feet up and I performed what I hope was a graceful backward roll off the chair, under the edge of the marque, and ended up upside-down, halfway outside. Sadly, I fear that "graceful" was not the word, and "ridiculous" may in fact have been more fitting.

At this point we decided that it was probably time to head home. Of course, one major contributing factor to this was time being called, so a hurried round was got in first. I got a full pint of Raisin To Live, and Emma got an Erdinger. Unfortunately they'd run out of Weissbier, so I ended up fetching a Pikante instead. Apparently it's not nearly as good as the usual Weissbier. Ah well.

It was a fun evening, overall. Had some good beer, some good laughs, and a good time was had by all. I drank much less than previous years, it seems, but that just meant I could walk home in relative sobriety after a nice evening and still appreciate the taste of the beers I was trying. Hopefully my reconstructed-from-memory programme provided accurate information for this post! Looking forward to see what happens next year, and this year will have a positive tick by it, in spite of the issues.

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