There are beer festivals. And then there are beer festivals.
For the third year running, Rev Sherlock and I have gathered a like-minded group of Beeranauts and taken the train up to Nottingham in the second week of October. It's a lovely bit of the country. Lively, historical, and very pretty.
We go for the Robin Hood Beer Festival. We think it's the best fest in the country. Allow me to sell it to you.
Firstly, there is the sheer volume of beer on tap. The Robin Hood attracts artesian brewers from around the country, from single-barrel heroes to some of the big noises. There are, over the course of the five-day event, nearly 1,100 beers, ciders and perries to try out, with every style represented from mild to heavy-hopped American-style IPAs. Unless you're bag is insipid generic lagers, you'll find something to tempt you.
There's only one festival in the UK that can hope to contend with that kind of range. The Great British Beer Festival in Olympia is the flagship event for the British beer drinker. But the Robin Hood has significant advantages over the GBBF.
The location, for one thing. Robin Hood takes place in the grounds of beautiful Nottingham Castle, spread over two big marquees. There's room to spread, enjoy the gardens, take in the view. There's a great mix of blues, rock, soul and jazz in the bandstand, and a parade of food tents. Doesn't that sound nicer than spending the day in Olympia's cavernous, soul-less warehouse?
The food is a massive draw for both the Rev and I. The two of us are food nerds of the highest order, and have been known to spend hours debating the finer points of a dal recipe. The grub at Nottingham is top-notch. From decent gourmet burgers (try the zebra) to curries from the award-winning Memsaab restaurant, there's plenty to keep the beer wobbles at bay. We always grab a Mrs. King's pork pie to go, and Merry Berry's chocolate stall is a handy way to keep the ladies we love sweet when we get home late and a bit smelly. There are honestly times in the run-up to Robin Hood when we're talking more about the nosebag than the booze.
But let's talk about the beer. The Robin Hood Festival is heavy on locally brewed ales, with solid support from East Midlands and Lincolnshire names like Blue Monkey (celebrating a birthday this year with stick-on tattoos that turned up on faces, necks, cleavages…), Castle Rock and Navigation. It feels like a celebration of the LocAle initiative, rather than a vast clearing house of every beer under the sun. In other words, although there's a huge choice, the Festival feels curated, thoughtful in the choices available. You can take a punt on something interesting and it's unusual to feel shortchanged.
It helps, of course, that our band of merry men usually includes Super Sam, who lives up the road in Newark. He knows a lot of the local brewers and has some great tips. For example, he pointed us in the direction of the Funfair Brewery, who had refurbished an old fairground stall as a mobile tap. Everything Funfair brew is tasty, but I should point out that they are the creators of Teacups, the best proper ginger beer you'll ever taste. Crabbie's has nothing on these guys.
Recommendations? Well, Coppa Rup from Penine was the hit for the Beeranauts; full flavoured with a real tingle of sherbet behind it. Blue Brew from Belvoir is brewed with stilton whey, giving it an earthy twang but without the cheese. And I loved Fownes Brewing's fantasy-themed brews, especially their Dwarven Ale, Ulfsberg Cross. I nearly bought a drinking horn to celebrate, and sang songs of my ancestors all the way home.
The quality of the event is reflected in its popularity. Advance tickets sold out well in advance, and the grounds are roadblocked after sunset most nights. But the atmosphere is friendly, welcoming and celebratory throughout. Yes, sure, there's conspicuous drunkenness, but it's to the credit of the organisers that any incidents of falling asleep in toilets were dealt with calmly and without fuss. Trouble? I didn't see any. It's just not that sort of event. Think Glastonbury for drinkers. The same chilled-out vibe. The same mix of young and old. The same proliferation of silly hats and unfortunate t-shirts.
As ever, we the Beeranauts rolled back to our beds replete and happy. The Robin Hood Festival is the one we look forward to more than any beer festival on the calendar. It never disappoints.
Yes, I was very sleepy the following day.