1st, I'd like to get this out of the way - I've never been to this one before. So I won't be comparing it to the other venue. To those unaware, this year the venue was further from the centre of Manchester - about 3 minutes on the bus was our experience - and this upset some people. But anyway, moving swiftly on...
The Night Before
I was travelling up with Buster, from Breconshire Brewery (more on that later), his better half (who is regularly known as Welsh Dragon amongst Camra festival stewards the world over), Ian from the Star at Talybont (this year's local POTY winner, and deservedly so) and Tony from Tudor Brewery. As Buster was judging one of the groups (stouts I think) he needed to be there early, and so we planned to leave Brecon at just past 7am. This being the case, I finished work in the bar and headed down to Brecon for the night before.
A couple of drinks in the Boar's Head, which (unofficially at least) is the tap for Breconshire Brewery, having most of their range on, including seasonal ales. After half an hour of debating whether that penalty should have been allowed, we set the world to rights, what challenges would we face in the upcoming year, have I still not got planning permission for the brewery yet, and a manner of other subjects, I remembered what I had brought down in the car with me, and so we collected said item and retired back to the house.
Tactical Nuclear Penguin is a beer that needs no introduction. I bought a bottle for £40 inc P&P, and opened it when I opened the pub on Christmas Day, allowing those that wished to indulge a little could. About half the bottle was drunk, and the rest left on my kitchen side with the cap back on. I didn't like it - I like stouts, I like strong ales, but this just made me think of cough medicine, thick, syrupy, slight burn at the back of the throat. Not my cup of tea at all.
Back in Brecon, we poured a suitable measure each, Buster talked me through the flavours, what I might taste, did I get that smoky/peaty Islay flavour from it, and by the end of the glass I found myself enjoying it a lot more. It may be that Christmas day at midday stone cold sober isn't the best time to taste TNP. It may be that leaving it open for so long had smoothed it a little, taken the edge off. It may be having several pints before hand and a generous measure of the stuff had helped. Whatever it was, it felt like money well spent.
Wednesday - Trade Session Day
Firstly, a big well done to the organisers from my point of view, as I normally find trade sessions have a couple of 'friends of the publican' present, which in small doses isn't anything that bothers me, but when trying to chat to a brewer about their beer and being interrupted every couple of minutes by the following:
'Sorry, just wanted to say I really enjoy X, Y and Z beer, absolutely lovely'
Brewer: 'Thank you very much, which pub are you from?'
'O, I mainly drink in the X but tried your beers at Y whenever I'm that way'
Anyway, I may have just been unlucky in the past festivals I've been to, but it was nice to be able to casually talk shop to a couple of people for the first 15 minutes.
I mentioned before that I'd never been to the NWAF before, and in fact I've never been to Manchester before, so I was completely open to the idea of a small pub crawl ending in the Marbles for lunch before the 2.30pm kick off. First port of call was the Manchester & County (JDW). Pleasant enough, but the swarm of beer lovers straight of the train put a strain on the seemingly solo barman, who struggled to serve everyone on the bar and focused mainly on one section - an easy mistake to make. From a customers point of view, I've never waited so long to be served, but with good company, a busy pub and no particular rush it wasn't an issue for myself or our group.
After a couple in there we wandered on to The Millstone, a JW Lees pub. Just the one ale in here, and surprisingly a flatscreen TV playing chart song videos - surprising because the dozen or so customers didn't seem the type, most reading the papers or chatting quietly.
A swift half in here then another saunter to The Angel, which was my pub of the trip. Around half a dozen ales on and one cider on draught, ranging from a lovely Elephant IPA to a cask lager I can't quite recall. The 10.5% ale on offer, whilst the name eludes me, sticks in my mind as being £2.50, like all the other ales. Unlike all the other ales, this was for a half! A price I wouldn't mind paying, especially if it was in the same condition as the others I tried - every one spot on. I planned on calling in here on the way back from the Marbles to try it, not willing to go that strong on an empty (foodwise) stomach. The thing that made this pub for me though, was the young barman.
I'm a huge believer in the idea that the staff make the pub, and their knowledge reflects on you, the landlord. This guy offered us a free taster of every ale we ordered, topped up every glass without being asked (they do like their sparklers in Manchester), knew enough about each one (strength, colour, characteristics) to make suggestions (with the offer of a sample), was clean and smartly dressed, polite, and whilst making small talk asked which station we were heading back to later. Learning it was Picaddily, he recommended a good cask ale pub (we never quite made it, although not for lack of wanting). I couldn't fault him, really couldn't.
It was the small conversation with him just before leaving that struck me - he asked if they sold lager at the beer festival. As far as we knew there would be a few continental lagers, but we'd all made the same mistake. Given that he knew enough about the ales, we presumed he drank them. Not his cup of tea, but he did like trying knew drinks, preferably cold and fizzy.
As we left, we decided to give him the extra ticket we had - we were all very impressed, and I'll certainly make the effort if I'm in Manchester again to go back to that pub.
With a definite need for some pub grub, we continued up the street to The Marble Arch which was full, but not bursting (luckily for us). Huge range of beers, I think 8 on tap (7 theirs and 1 from Pheonix Brewery). We couldn't resist the urge to have a pint of Pint, and it certainly wasn't a bad choice! I picked up the menu from the table, to find it was a beer menu - with a staggering selection of bottled ales and fruit beers.
This is the pub where we bumped into the Otley boys, who match their knowledge of brewing with their knowledge of drinking! After a Marble Burger (recommended), a couple more pints and much merriment and mirth, we realised that if we didn't get to the festival soon we'd be on the train without making it! It just so happened that the Smithfield Hotel had a beer festival on, and it was (roughly) on the way to the bus station, so we called in for a swift on.
Lovely array of beers on handpump and a chalkboard with more on straight from the cask in the cellar. Lightweight was my choice, which I slightly regretted after tasting Castor's offering on the basis that Lightweight lived up to it's name - not a bad beer by any means, but certainly not the best of the day. After more mirth and merriment (much to the delight of the two barmaids, I wouldn't dare think what they thought Wales was like after that!)
We then finally made it to the bus stop, just in time to miss the first bus. Unaware of how long we might have to wait, a couple of the group decided to walk the mile up to the venue, and a minute after they left the next bus pulled up! More merriment and laughter (must mention the driver here, a great sport and joined in the banter directed at him when he stopped to let the other two on)
The Beer Festival
We finally made it to the festival, with about an hour to spare before we had to leave. We were met by an ecstatic Buster, who had won the old ales category with Ramblers Ruin. It got better, he told us, as he won silver overall! A couple of drinks as a group to celebrate, and then we drifted off to meet others and try beers of our fancy. I'm partial to strong ales, including Barley Wine, and a couple of friends had told me that Old Tom was a fine drop. It was as I finished this and ordered a half of Last Rites (Abbeydale - 11%, lovely) that I checked twitter and found that Woolpack Dave was sitting behind me. Very easy to chat to, although by the time I had ordered some of JJJ IPA (which was, and indeed was today, very heavily recommended by a certain blogger - and rightly so!) I was aware that my conversational skills had been slightly, shall we say, diluted.
Fortunately (for either him or me, possibly both) it was time to leave - I don't like the thought of embarrassing myself and I'm not a day-time drinker at the best of times. On the way out we walked past the bookshop. Now most of you will know, Pete Brown has recently done some heavy blogs looking at the statistics used recently by the latests health committee/group to show headlines that 24hr drinking isn't working, that binge drinking is getting worse and we're all alcoholics because we all drink more than the government's made up daily units allowance (both the units and the daily allowance are randomly picked out of thin air). It turns out, using their own original data and an un-biased view, that they are just lying. No other way of saying it. I would like to ask each and every one of you, even if it's just skim reading, to look over Pete's blogs. The first one I recommend reading is found here - it's his last in the series but it gives an overview and is slightly easier to read that some of the heavier work earlier on - that's not a criticism of his work I hasten to add, you need to look at the data in detail to see the truth, and he has done that brilliantly. More and more people need to be aware of how data can be twisted by those with an agenda. Alcohol is being denormalised and targeted to make everyone feel bad about having more than a pint at any point in time. The worst thing about it is, newspapers and the media in general have no reason to doubt the Health Select Committee, and without work by people like Pete, there would be no doubting of them whatsoever.
If you get time, I would ask one more favour of you. Simply to email a newspaper - local, national, broadsheet, tabloid, anyone in the media, and ask them just to have a look at Pete's blogs. Because this is the real threat to pubs - and the trade is so disparate at the moment, with some blaming the smoking ban, some the pubco's, some their LLA, some the amount of duty, that the bigger picture just isn't being seen. And I'd hate to think what that could lead to.
PS I may well edit this into 2 or more blogs in the coming days - thank you if you've made it all the way through!
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