The Beeranauts have been pretty quiet this year. The Great British Beer Festival had to manage without us, and it was a minor contingent that made it to the London Drinker gathering back in the spring. Apart from that, nish since Battersea. A bit of a poor show, frankly.
We made up for that on Friday, with a trip up to Nottingham for the Robin Hood Festival. Held in the grounds of lovely Nottingham Castle, it’s perhaps the biggest British Beer Festival after the Earl’s Court spectacular. And it’s far and away the best.
Consider. Three decent sized marquees, a massive selection of food, a rolling feast of rock and blues in the bandstand, all set in picturesque grounds with stunning views out over a city that’s in the throes of a cultural and social resurgence. It’s big enough never to feel crowded, small enough to keep a warm and friendly feel. OK, it helped that the weather gods offered up blue skies and glorious sunshine, but I think this festival would still be a blast under rainy grey skies.
The choice of beer at Nottingham is mindboggling. There are 925 different varieties on offer this year, a world record. There’s no way you could try them all. You end up taking stabs in the dark, going for a mild, then a stout, then an IPA, then something lighter, maybe a cider or perry, perhaps something just because the name amuses you. I took advice from the excellent chaps at the Nottsbrew site, who came up with a handy checklist of their frontrunners. I also tried to drink beers from areas that meant something to me personally – hence tastes of beers from the Tunnel brewery, just down the road from TLC’s mum, and one from the town where Rev Sherlock was born.
There were a couple of innovations at Nottingham that I hope to see at other beer fests. You can’t use cash to buy beer now – it’s all done through token exchange. You get some included with the ticket price, another five if you’re a Camra member, and then you buy what you need. This speeds up your purchases at the counter, and means the volunteers don’t have to struggle with mental arithmetic – an increasingly tough call as the day wears on and those cheeky halves take hold.
Speaking of which. The glasses at Nottingham are sweet little half-pint tankards, which means that unless you bring your own, you’re not drinking pints. Not that we do, of course – sticking to halves means you get to try a much wider range of beer. It does, sadly, mean that there was no chance of an unsteady volunteer topping you much over the half-pint line. But it does mean that stock control becomes a bit more predictable, and serving something more of a no-brainer. Again, it speeds up delivery of my beer to my gob, so it is therefore a good thing.
My recommendations, then? Well, Blue Monkey, a local Nottingham microbrewery had some tasty treats. Simian is a sharp, hoppy blast of goodness that blew away our cobwebs after a two-hour train ride. I loved Oxfordshire Ales’ Triple B, that smelt just like a Crunchie bar with a similarly honeyed flavour. It would be remiss of me not to mention the host brewery, Castle Rock, whose prizewinning Harvest Pale is a long-term favourite that tasted glorious on it’s home turf. From my companions, Rev Sherlock loved Milestone’s Fletcher’s Ale for it’s heavy-hopped tang, while Mighty Matt wisely tagged Brampton’s Tudor Rose as a balanced session beer with real staying power.
And you’re missing out if you don’t try a chunk of Melton Mowbray pork pie with your beer. It certainly brought me back from the mid-afternoon snoozy brink.
It was a bit of a trip for this softy Southerner to make it up to Nottingham, but it was more than worth the effort. Robin Hood has a great, friendly atmosphere in a lovely location, with a depth and range of choice that really needs all the time you can spare to make the most of. We had a full day and barely nudged the surface. Seriously, this one’s a must.
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