Tag: festivals

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Beer festivals and festival beer: how Carslberg is missing a trick with its music sponsorship

You can have anything you want. So long as you want Tuborg.

When I’m not propping up the bar in a good pub, I like nothing better than jumping up and down and shouting at men with guitars.

I’ve been doing a great deal of the latter this summer at music festivals. The first time I went to Glastonbury in 1987 most people hadn’t heard of it, and for those who had, to suggest going was about the same as suggesting you quit your job, start freebasing crack and buy a mangy dog on a piece of string.

In 1987, the only mention of Glastonbury in the national media was the number of arrests (it was never pointed out that this number was always far lower than in any town of a population size equivalent to the festival over the weekend). Now it gets wall-to-wall coverage, and tickets are impossible to come by. And so we’ve seen a huge proliferation of festivals, with several happening every weekend from June to September. When we look at declining beer sales figures every summer, it’s a shame these events aren’t monitored. The picture might look a little different if we could take into account a hundred thousand people drinking steadily for three days each weekend.

Festivals are now big business, and big brands are all over them. And this led to two very different beer experiences at the festivals I attended this summer.

The Latitude Festival is held just outside Southwold in Suffolk. Recently it was taken over by Festival Republic, who also run Reading, Glastonbury and various other festivals. The organisation has signed a deal with Carlsberg to supply Tuborg lager and Somersby cider to all these festivals. At Latitude, at the ten or so bars around the festival site, Tuborg was the only lager on offer, Somersby the only cider. Hobgoblin was on sale too – for some reason. Whether Carlsberg thought this was a better bet than their own Tetley’s beer, or festival republic signed a separate ale deal with Marston’s, I’m not sure.

I have nothing against Carlsberg really, even if I don’t drink much of it myself.  Tuborg is no better or worse than its mainstream competitors. Personally I don’t like Somersby, but other people do. And while I like the odd pint of Hobgoblin, it’s far too dark and heavy for a sunny festival weekend. After all, it’s achieved huge success by positioning itself as a beer for late Autumn. With these beers as the only choices on offer, anywhere, for four days, I ended up simply not drinking very much beer.

The Green Man Festival in South Wales is very different. It’s still independent. This year there was a real ale tent stocking 99 different Welsh ciders and cask ales. At the other beer tents on the festival site,
the selection was different from the Festival Republic formula, but just as narrow. 
And here we saw a fascinating experiment emerge. 
The queue in the real ale tent was never less than six deep, from midday to midnight. Men and women from eighteen to sixty stood around discussing the list, asking each other for tips. It took at least twenty minutes to get served. The ciders and perrys started running out on the Thursday night, before the festival had even begun properly. By Saturday everything had gone, and they were sending vans around Wales to grab whatever beer and cider they could to fill the empty stillages. 
By contrast, you could walk up to any other bar on site and get served straight away by bored staff, grateful for something to do. Ironically, after championing cask ale for a living and writing so much about interesting beer, I spent a lot of Green Man drinking their generic lager because I didn’t have time to queue for the good stuff between bands.
I’ve been in meetings where brand sponsorship of events is worked out. According to its website, Carlsberg likes to think that “the Tuborg brand is building a youthful, fun image through sponsorship of music and live festivals.” I’m sure the idea is that people will try Tuborg or Somersby at festivals, having no choice to drink anything else, and then grow to like it and order it next time they see it, because they now associate it with good times. 
But I fear it doesn’t work like that. People go to festivals (of any kind) because they want to see and try something different from the norm – whether that be bands, comedians, writers, food or drink. It’s one of the biggest examples of consumers seeking ever-greater variety in all walks of life. To go to a festival and be confronted with a range of drinks that any pub in the country would consider too narrow is anathema to the whole experience, and leaves a lingering bad aftertaste.

Of course as a beer purist it would be easy to say Carlsberg shouldn’t sponsor festivals, festivals shouldn’t be corporate, and everyone should celebrate small and independent. But the real world doesn’t work like that. Green Man retains an overall better atmosphere than any other festival I know because of its independence, but the price of that independence is that there’s no budget to book decent headliners – at least, there wasn’t this year. Thanks in part to Carlsberg’s dosh, I got to see Kraftwerk at Latitude. 
So the bog brands aren’t going to go away. I just wish they’d be a bit cleverer and show more of an understanding of what festival-goers want. Like any other multinational brewer, Carlsberg has a wide range of brands in their portfolio and is always looking at new product development. They have the Jacobsen and Semper Ardens beers, dark lagers and Belgian beers and stouts and wheat beers from around the world. Why not use festivals as a testing ground instead? With this captive audience, why not try new brews under the Tetley’s brand, or see how Carlsberg and Tuborg perform side by side, or see if there’s a UK market for their eastern European bocks or amber lagers?

I’m sure sales figures from the summer’s festivals were great. But as the glorious, independent experiment at Green Man proved, I’m positive they could have been even better.

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Cider, Cheese, Bluegrass and Mayhem: The Gower Cider and Cheese Festival

Long blog post alert!

In two weeks’ time the Welsh Perry and Cider Guide, co-authored by me and cider photographer Bill Bradshaw, will be launched. We were commissioned to write it by the Welsh Perry and Cider Society, and spent much of last year touring Wales to research it. The highlight of our research, for me, was the Gower Cider and Cheese Weekend. It didn’t look that great on paper, but like all the best drinking occasions, its charm snuck up on us and captured us before we knew what was happening. 

For many reasons, some of which will be obvious if you read on, much of my write-up was completely unsuitable for an informative guidebook. So here’s the long version of the brief, restrained account that features in the Guide. 

The Welsh Perry and Cider Guide will be officially launched at the Welsh Perry and Cider Festival which runs from Friday 24th to Monday 27th May, and will eventually be available via Amazon and through Welsh bookshops and tourist centres. Photos below are copyright Bill Bradshaw – see more of his brilliant work at his blog, IAMCIDER.

The festival is happening again this weekend, Saturday 12th and Sunday 13th May. If you can go, I urge you to do so. 

If you time it wrong, driving through Swansea can be a dispiriting trudge past endless TGI Fridays and Premier Inns, the kind of urban crawl where, to relieve the tedium, your brain wanders off to dream up creative new methods of suicide. This is followed by an eternal limbo of endless suburban streets that only make sudden appearance of the magical playground that is the Gower Peninsula all the more surprising. At the end of another dull road you duck under some trees and instantly you’re in a dreamy, alien landscape of dunes and grassy outcrops, and winding roads that curve around cute pubs and swoop down dips and through copses, and steer you gently but firmly into conversations about scouting and woodcraft.

Fifteen minutes later we descend into a broad, shallow natural bowl ringed with trees, and arrive at the Gower Heritage Centre. This self-styled ‘vibrant crafts and rural life museum’ advertises itself as ‘a superb day out for all the family’, situated only 20 minutes walk from the spectacular Three Cliffs bay, ‘as seen on ITV’s “Britain’s Favourite View” with Katherine Jenkins’.

My accomplice Bill Bradshaw and I need no further encouragement to settle in for the day.

Built around a watermill that resembles a friendly giant, the centre is a real world manifestation of Toy Town or Hobbiton, an eccentric complex of brightly painted shacks, shops and workshops that tumble over each other to create a maze of narrow corridors and tempting doorways that assault the senses like Dorothy’s first glimpse of Technicolor Oz. Past the dairy, the puppet theatre, the ancient games arcade and village shop, all roads eventually converge on a red-tiled courtyard, roofed against the rain. On one side stands a tea-room, on the other, a pen full of small, rideable plastic tractors.

I’m trying not to say it, because it’s clichéd and lazy, but at this point I crumble. I’m only human.

“Ooh, isn’t it quaint?”

We grab a cuppa while we wait for Richie, our busy host. I browse the tea shop’s information stand: today’s event is part of a busy summer that includes Pirate Week, Viking Week, and a Medieval Fun Week where you can meet a knight and learn how to slay a dragon.

That’s it – I want to live here.

At first, I’m not so sure about the festival itself though. I’m used to beer and cider festivals with long lines of trestle tables with endless casks on stillage. Here there’s one stall with bag-in-box ciders piled three-high, and one long table selling a huge array of Welsh cheeses that all seem to be the same type of cheddar.

“It’s quiet, isn’t it?” I say to Bill. “We can probably get what we need here in a couple of hours and then go and see some more of the Gower.”

On reflection, my naiveté about cider back then was staggering.

Richie finally bounds into view and introduces himself. Impish and hyperactive, he appears to be dressed in my old school uniform of grey shirt, grey v-necked jumper and red tie. He welcomes us in a lilting, music accent and introduces us to Shaun, a local man selling his cider here for the first time, and then he’s off on another errand. We seem to have started drinking cider, and it’s nearly midday, so we take a seat and decide to do a bit of product sampling.

The centre makes its own cider on an old press rescued from a farm in Pembrokeshire. The overflow car park is an orchard with geese snoozing under trees that are only now coming into blossom, weeks late thanks to the incessant rain. Today – on the first day of the year that you actually dare to hope for summer – the produce of last year’s last year’s crop is a deep russet red, a good, honest cider at 7.4% that’s sweet and sharp with a mouth-watering metallic hint.

We’re trying to drink halves because we want to be able to sample as many as possible. Gwatkin’s Kingston Black is tart with hints of smoke and sherry. Blaengawney Blindfold has loads of structure, a real journey from acidic to dry with a hint of bubblegum before a full, pure apple flavour opens out. Two Trees Perry is clean and clear like unfermented pear juice with no trace of its 6% alcohol until it’s far too late.

By lunchtime a mellow, family-friendly vibe permeates the courtyard. There’s folk music on the stage, and the smell of barbecuing burgers and sausages in the air. The queue at the cider bar gets longer, until it snakes around the courtyard, and we decide it would be far more efficient and practical to switch to pints.

We’re sitting by the cheese stall. A chubby black Labrador, obviously the inspiration behind the invention of the hover floor cleaner, makes sure any spillage is swiftly dealt with. I love Welsh cheddar. It’s hard and strong but it melts in your mouth, seducing you unexpectedly.

I suddenly notice that I’ve been eating Snowdonia Black Bomber for some time. I wanted to see if I could find a perfect cider and cheese pairing, but that seems to have gone by the wayside. Instead, I start to imagine that the cheese can speak, and it’s saying to me in a very pleasant, reasonable South Wales accent:

“Alright mate? All it is, right, what I’m going to do, is I’m going to destroy all your willpower and any defences you have, and I’m going to come in there, and there’s going to be nothing you can do about it.  You’re going to carry on eating me, and I’m going to fill up your arteries, and then fill up your heart with cheese, and I’m going to kill you, alright? And you’re gonna love it. Anyway, enough talking, open wide.”

Gwynt Y Draig’s Black Dragon is a real crowd pleaser, open and golden with all the fruit you want before a dry tannic finish. And I suddenly realise I can’t remember how much we’ve had. The folk music onstage is sounding better and better as the afternoon progresses. The Baggy Rinkles – a Swansea sea shanty band – tell us they enjoy singing traditional drinking songs but the influence of the chapel meant they had to go to England to find them. The people waving the ancient Welsh yellow cross on a black field – somehow more terrifying than the modern dragon flag – don’t seem to mind. Give us the punch ladle, we all roar, and we’ll fathom the bowl.

A teenage boy walks past wearing a hearing aid and a Guns and Roses T-shirt, a combination which amuses me enormously for some reason. Two young couples have liberated an old Buckaroo game from the village shop, and are becoming steadily worse at playing it.

By five o’ clock, there is a very slow, mellow vibe in the air. Folk singer Ian Jones complains from the stage that his cider has run out, and one of the Buckaroo girls comes up and pours the dregs of her glass into his. Some people are wearing wellies, others flip flops. There are trilbies and deer stalker hats, and the writing in my notebook is starting to look strange.

We decide we need to sober up a bit so we pop out to walk the short distance to Three Cliffs Bay (as seen on ITV’s “Britain’s Favourite View” with Katherine Jenkins’, remember.) Folk music follows us through the woods and down the valley, echoing off the hills until we’re half way there.

When we get back to the centre, the atmosphere has changed. It’s quite a lot looser and giddier. One of the Buckaroo girls is now slumped with a hood over her face like someone waiting to be hanged. People are playing mandolins and flutes. One of the bands that was on stage earlier has now invaded the children’s little plastic tractor enclosure. While the kids charge around gleefully crashing their tractors into each other, the musicians proceed slowly and extremely carefully around the pen, as if trying to ensure they don’t get pulled over for driving under the influence.

Richie, having rakishly discarded his grey jumper and loosened his tie a little, jumps onto the stage to announce that he’s had to send up the motorway for some more cider, that they’re meeting Gwynt Y Draig half way, and this raises a loud cheer. He jumps back off the stage and starts collecting glasses and clearing up litter, seemingly a one-man festival staff operation.

My notebook is looking really odd now. I’m pushing letters uphill onto the page. I have no idea what that means, but I write it down anyway. Something is happening to me that has only happened once before.

When I drink, my handwriting generally becomes messier the more we go on, but when I decipher the scribble later I’m usually pleasantly surprised to find that I was writing some good stuff. But once I found an absinthe bar in a seedy backstreet in Barcelona, and got inside-out drunk: the more the absinthe hit my system, the neater my handwriting became. But the stuff I wrote made no sense whatsoever, and was quite disturbing in places.

Now, here on the Gower, my handwriting gets neater, then messier, then neater again as my drunken self makes an extra special effort to send messages to the sober me who will read this notebook the next morning. Or the following week. Or six months later, only days before I need to make sense of these notes for a reading at the Abergavenny Food Festival, having left it to the last minute.

At some point, I write:

“This is what my handwriting looks like when I’m a bit drunk and concentrating harder on making it look neat than on what I’m saying.” 

We drink some Gwatkin Yarlington Mill, a smouldering glass in which a candy sweetness meets a grainy, spicy dryness.

And then I write:

“It gets harder and harder to feel like this, the older we get. We’re just trying to recapture joy. We’re trying to achieve transcendence, run from boredom and mediocrity that we can’t endure. Sobriety is an illness to us, an awful state of self-doubt and awareness.” 

There’s still a family thing going on in the courtyard, but it’s wrapped around a vitality running through the place, as if it’s on a ley line. I’m conscious that I’m missing the final of Britain’s Got Talent, but I think I’ve got the better deal. In fact, I think I’m watching next year’s winner. A teenage boy is on stage singing and playing guitar, and a semi-circle of cider-drunk women seem to be closing in on him, the intense look in their eyes making it clear how keen they would be to help him grow up a little. Then he plays the Jungle Book’s ‘Bear Necessities’ for an encore. If there were any hearts in the place not won over, they are now.

I drink some more cider.

And I write: 

“Lascivious Flautism.” 
Up The Creek, a Swansea Bluegrass band, have taken the stage. And I learn that Bluegrass pulls everything in and makes you its own. I’ve written a lot about pairing the right music with the right beverage recently, and pairing cider with bluegrass is like dropping a packet of Mentos into a fizzy bottle of Coke, or a magnesium strip into water. Anything you’re holding flies into the air. Banjo and fiddle tear the corrugated plastic roof off the courtyard and fling it into space. I have no idea where Bill is. Everyone is going absolutely insane, surfing a wave of pure joy. Richie is grinning, having finally stopped working. He catches my eye, and gestures to the band. Everything about this festival, this weird little place, now makes perfect sense.

I drink some more cider. And decide it’s probably time I put my notebook away and focus on the music.
This is the first of various posts I intend to write in the drunken travel theme of my second book, Three Sheets to the Wind. If you enjoy this aspect of my writing, look out for the label ‘Four Sheets’ as I document more of my recent tipsy journeys.

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A jolly weekend in Cockermouth (stop sniggering at the back)

Great weekend last weekend, but I have to slow down and get this damn book written.

After the Social Media Beer Tasting in Glasgow, I went down to the Lake District for Taste Cumbria.  They’re really doing an awful lot to promote Cumbria as a food and drink destination, and it’s working really well.

Friday night I stayed at the Kirkstile Inn just outside Cockermouth, one of those pubs where the thick stone walls, wood fires and silence outside save for the hiss of river and tree lull you to sleep like a baby.  Another reason to go there is that it’s the brewery tap for the Loweswater Brewery, also known as Cumbrian Legendary Ales.  Their Loweswater Gold was named Champion Golden Beer of Britain at this year’s Great British Beer Festival, and the only thing better than sinking a few pints of it would be doing so after tramping across some of the irresistible mountains just outside.  They were calling to me, I tell you. They just weren’t calling as loudly as the comfy seat by the fire, or my bed, or one other very noteworthy beer.

CLA also brew Croglin Vampire.

Completely out of keeping with a range of beers that’s very nice but nothing you wouldn’t expect from a Cumbrian brewer, Croglin Vampire is an 8% Doppelbock, rich and spiritous, dark and brandy-like, and utterly wonderful.  Currently the Kirkstile Inn is about the only place you can get it.  Don’t worry, it’s a worthwhile trip.  Just as well they have rooms.

Next day we were off into Cockermouth – yes, Cockermouth – for the festival itself.  This is where Jennings Brewery is.  Again, the beers are good quality but nothing that you wouldn’t expect here.  But I love the story of Jennings brewery.  I’m not an apologist for big regional brewers – I just have an open mind about them.  I find this quite an interesting place to be. When Jennings was bought by Marston’s in 2005, the local CAMRA branch shouted that Marston’s were going to close the brewery, and continued to shout this even when Marston’s invested £250,000 improving the brewery.  If Marston’s had the slightest intention of closing the brewery, they had the perfect excuse to do so when it flooded in 2009.

Photo: Vanessa Graham on www.visitcumbria.com

But they didn’t.  They invested millions getting it open again.  I don’t know if anyone still thinks Marston’s are going to close Jennings, but if anyone does think that, I’ve got some magic beans you might want to buy.

But I digress.  On the first day of the festival, Jeff Pickthall and I were doing a beer and food matching event.  We’re both a bit vague about organisational stuff, and so were Taste Cumbria, so we ended up with about two hours to put some pairing suggestions together from food and beer being exhibited at the festival.  Not everyone was keen to have their stuff featured.  It was like an episode of the Apprentice. But as people filed into the room, we were just about succeeding in putting plates together for the following:

Mitchell Krause Hefe Weizen with goats cheese from Wardhall Dairy

Hardknott Cueboid with smoked cured boar

Jennings Sneck Lifter with lovely raisin fudge from Duerdens Confectioners of Burnley

Coniston Brewery’s Blacksmith ale with an amazing chocolate cake from Ginger Bakers in Ulverston

(We swapped these two around – people were split on what went best)

The aforementioned Croglin Vampire with Parsonby, another cheese from Wardhall which has been rind-washed in The Black Galloway porter from Sulwath brewery.  Beer washed cheese is the future, if you like your cheese smelly and overpowering like I do.

Thanks to everyone who agreed to donate stuff for us.  Amazingly, despite time constraints, exploding hefe weizen bottles and seventy extra people turning up just when we thought we’d done enough plates of food, it all went rather well, and the matches were ace.

Later, we sampled the delights of Cockermouth nightlife.  And encountered the Boogie Bus:

The ‘Big Boogie Bus’ – does that mean there’s a little one somewhere?

As you can see, it’s a pink bus that has pole dancers and lap dancers and glowing dance floors inside it. It roams the streets of Cumbria, stopping to lure stag and hen parties on board.  Then it glows brightly, drives off, and the stag and hen parties are never seen or heard from again.

Jeff and I decided to pass.  Instead we roamed the pubs in search of good beer.  And finally, after trying everywhere else, we found Cockermouth’s perfect pub, a place I’d be happy to see in any town.

1761 is modern and stylish without trying too hard.  It has Guinness, Strongbow and Carlsberg on the pumps because that’s what people want.  But it also has a good selection of local cask ales, and a small but perfectly formed range of craft beers in bottles including Little Creatures, Orval, Duvel, and Pietra.

There isn’t a full kitchen, but they do something I wish more pubs would do – a small, simple tapas menu.  We had stuffed jalapeno peppers, a cured meat platter, cheese platter, and some chorizo cooked in wine, which formed a great alternative to the curry and Cobra we were planning on.

I write about 1761 because it deserves to be written about.  It’s not a fully fledged craft beer pub, but it’s a pub with aspirations that understands the needs of its local community, is independent, and friendly.  It’s not boring like some.  It’s not too raucous like others.  There should be more pubs like it.