Perhaps if this had been three years ago I would really have lamented the loss of the National Winter Ales Festival in Manchester. Not only has it long been held in my home city, but it was also my first ever beer festival, signifying a special place in my heart.
That first visit was in 2006 and the event was then held in a co–operative building near Victoria station. At the time, my young ale loving mind was rather gobsmacked by the wondrous multi roomed, multi floored experience as barrels and casks of the good stuff stood waiting for me to try at no more than 90p for a generous half pint. Breweries and beer styles I had never heard of were present. It was also where I had my first taste of rauchbier, an encounter I have never regretted.
I paid £3 to enter that day as a non CAMRA member. The organisations members that did travel with me on the occasion entered the festival for free (so they say, I’m inclined to believe they paid at least £1.) “They’re not a money making festival,” they informed me, sensing my bewilderment. And so it seemed. Surely this is the biggest and best festival I would ever visit, I thought at the time.
In the past seven years I have revisited the festival several times including one instance at the latest Sheridan Suite location, on Oldham Road. The new location proved functional and spacious, though it lacked a little of the awe provided by the old setting. Still, I had to attend this year as this was to be the festival’s farewell to Manchester and a little part of my drinking heritage.
So why am I not as sorry as I would have been two or three years ago? Well we shall get to that.
First let me say that I did enjoy this year’s event despite my pessimism on entering. Due to work reasons, I was only able to attend the festival on Saturday, a pet peeve of mine. Usually when this is the case I don’t actually get to try any of the beer I intend to as it has all run off. Whilst this was the case for a few ales this year, it was not in the extreme it has happened on previous occasion.
There was a more jovial ambience than I have experienced at more recent CAMRA run festivals and less prehistoric volunteers growling at my youth. In fact, youth was a rather impressive factor here. I remember at that first visit in 2006 remarking to my brother that we were the only people under the age of 45 I had seen all day. Not the case this year, with groups upon groups of younger members in attendance, though my insistence that I would win any festival’s best-looking and best-dressed categories still remains (the fedora is still not an acceptable fashion accessory). A good sign of the recent good beer resurgence.
There was also no line measuring (see picture left for a third pint measure) at this festival. Generous halves and very generous thirds were the order of the day, as they should be at every festival.
I certainly had a good go at trying as many beers as possible and made use of the third measurement on the glass toward the end. In under three hours I tried thirteen different beers (that I can recall.) Whilst many in the running for the champion beer prize had long since been polished off, I focused solely on beers new to me. I was also notably impressed with Brentwood’s ChocworkOrange and Offbeat’s Venus Ella. We were all very captivated by our first taste of Liverpool Craft and their excellent Icon Dark and pleasant American Red Ale. Whilst the two CAMRA members I had in company went back for more of the Worthington’s Winter Shield, my favourite beer on the day, by a good mile, was Quantum’s Grimley’s Brown Bombshell, a beer that reaffirms my love of the US Brown ale style.
What has really appealed to me about this event, and something that will always be lacking from the new wave of beer festival, are the stalls selling all manner of beer parafonalia. Whilst the many posters and t-shirts showing love for Oliver Reed seem to have passed as a fad, I spoke for a good while with the man behind the book stall and had a good browse at his merchandise. I told him how sorry I was that I couldn’t buy most of his stock, which I was enthralled with, but that I hoped he would keep returning to these festivals. I was disappointed there was nobody selling old pump clips!
Well organised and well run, it has only been seven years for myself since I first came to NWAF and, despite an alteration in venue, there are a lot of things that haven’t changed. Nor need they as this was still an enjoyable experience. Unfortunately, the major difference in the last seven years comes down to finances.
In 2006, I paid £3 for entry (which included a programme) and £1 for a glass deposit. Breaking out a pound sterling for an ale at the event must have meant you were purchasing a real specialty. These were festival prices. In 2013 I paid £5 for entrance, an additional £1 for a programme and £2.50 for a glass deposit. Needing also to dump my coat, I paid out another £1 for someone to put my coat on a hanger. All this after paying £6 for a taxi to reach the event from the station. As for the beers, well I understand we’ve had a tax hike inside the pubs but…
This is an enormous leap for a non profit organisation. If you’re not in it for the money then what part of my £5 didn’t cover a programme that is full of advertisements that would have paid for it anyway? If this is a non profit organisation, who got the £1 I gave you to hang up my coat? The volunteer shouldn’t have needed it. If this is a non profit organisation, what glass maker are you using who has recently hiked his prices up by 150%?
Furthermore, I take issue with the entrance fee for a Saturday. £2 entrance on a Thursday when only the retired will make it and there will be the full range of ales available. £3 on a Friday when travellers from further afield would be unable to come and most of the beers will still be there. But on the Saturday, when really we’re just soaking up the dregs that weren’t good enough for the others? Oh sure, we have a much smaller range available to us so hike up the price. Fair.
Not many beer festivals are cheap these days, not even the ones I really enjoyed last year, such as Indy Man BeerConvention or the one at MOSI. However, it is the creation of these rival events that has led to me not being particularly saddened by the loss of the NWAF to my city. I enjoyed those festivals more. They didn’t run out of beer on a brutal scale. They had better and more enjoyable locations. They had friendlier and more helpful staff. I’m sorry, but they were just better.
The National Winter Ales Festival will always hold a special place to me, but I do not lament its impending departure as I imagined I once would. I look forward to the replacement event at the velodrome anyway. Sure, it won’t have an official title, but frankly what difference is that going to make ?