It was a Saturday morning in November and my face was drained of all colour. I clung to the nearest pillar on platform 4 of Manchester Piccadilly. I casually wondered whether 16-year-old me had been right all along; that I would indeed die from too much Irish stout. Whilst the majority of my matter was silently screaming for my bed, my heart wished it was on the now-departing train to New Mills that I had been watching from several platforms away.
It was the first morning of Smokefest 2019, hosted by Torrside Brewery, and I'd been looking forward to the event ever since I purchased ticket numbers 3 & 4 as they went on sale. (I am still not sure which rascal snapped up 1 & 2.) My only saving grace, that kept me going as I continued to feel very sorry for myself for the next 24 hours, was a ticket for the following day and a determination to be well enough in time for it.
I've never made much of a secret of my love for smoked beer. From pre social media days, to the times when I had around 5 followers on Twitter, to the unfortunate blogging years, I've spent more time than I care to remember lamenting the lack of smoky goodness in this country. For a period I felt like the only smoked beer evangelist around though it didn't stop my solo campaign.
Then Torrside Brewery formed and I never went wanting again. They became a brewery I eulogised about so much that I have been asked several times whether I work for them. No, I just, to use a verb that I am sure is close to being added to official lexicon soon, fanboy hard over them. I am fortunate that they are less than a half hour drive from my house or 45 minutes on the train. It means that I've attended every tap weekend they've held this calendar year with exasperating zeal. If there was any fear that I spend too much time here, one need only look at my dog's giddiness as we pull up to the brewery or the fact that he has taken to treating it like his home and barking at “intruders.”
All of that is part of the introduction as to why I would be that excited to be at a smoked beer festival. Because, honestly, who on earth would even have dreamt of a festival dedicated to smoked beer? I would - most of my drinking life. And who on earth would be stupid enough to actually create a festival dedicated to smoked beer? Torrside. Torrside would.
So what for them may well have been a fantastical idea first discussed after too much barleywine is for me a representation of everything the beer scene could be but hasn't been as of yet.
We are still a young and tentative industry with nobody willing to stick their neck out to create something that represents both passion and fun. In times when some beer festivals come with bag searches or more-than-a-focus to turn a profit, or when we are constantly reminded from the influencers that all beer events should provide “better quality,” doesn’t somebody taking a smoked gun to a pack of Flying Saucers and Battenberg sound more becoming of a celebration?
Whenever I enthuse over a positive experience in this industry there are those that want to cut it down as over-sentimentality; that I should relay my joy as "just beer." Yet I also see the same negativity from the supposed opposition in those commentators that are repeatedly reminding us all that this is a business; one in which money must always be considered. A business whereby everyone within has to strive towards better practices, innovations and content to stay relevant to... those commentators themselves; those that, like all media, script how and when we should enjoy "just beer."
A small festival that is far removed from that is a blessing then. It is an afternoon that is beyond being “just beer” but is also distant from financial commentary. I wonder what the latter communicators would make of the casual approach to service. "Can we get a cup of tea?" "Yes Mark - you know where the kettle is."
I digress, yet this still forms part of a wider commentary in my head that runs as we walk through the brewery doors, dog straining at the lead and previous day’s hangover/cold just about being kept at bay.
Smokefest itself features a journey into different types of wood smoke and the versatility of the style – again, something I’ve been promoting for years. Whilst the classic rauchbiers of Germany are what many think of when imagining a smoked beer – and they are available on keg at this festival – this is also a smoked beer list that features American Pale Ale, Belgian tripels, Milkshake beers, pastry stouts, lagers, saisons, dubbels, porters, whisky macs… if they can brew it then it is here. If anybody thought that this would be similar to doing a Schlenkerla vertical tasting then they are very wrong.
Even the pies have barleywine in them.
Over the course of the afternoon the smoke gun is taken to cherry bakewells, chocolate digestives, foam bananas and shrimps and chocolate teacakes, amongst other snacks.
The beer highlights are many, especially from Torrside’s own stock, but the two lagers – from Moor and Solvay Society (helles) – are a particular revelation. As I have spent a long time saying – even during a two and a half hour podcast – people who dismiss all smoked beer just haven’t found the right one yet.
Ultimately though, it feels reminiscent of those tap weekends that we visit every month and with reason. It could have been that a brewery that dedicates much of its time to smoked beers could have owners like those at Redwell or London Fields. It could have been that my relentless stanning could have been such an irritant that the door was slammed in my face. Instead we were welcomed by the loveliest team who still do the vast, vast majority of work at tap weekends and festivals themselves.
It was a shame that a couple of days in Dublin affected my Smokefest experience but the following afternoon more than made up for it. Next year I’ll be sure to prepare better and there will be a next year.
Some people want a better quality of festival. I want more representation of the passion that led to people being involved in this industry in the first place. Nobody wants a smoked beer festival but in little New Mills one exists. And it is everything that this industry can be.
I didn't take many pictures on the day sadly as I was busy chatting so here is a picture of my Marley and brewery dog Toshi from earlier in the year