Sunday 29 November 2009

St Austell’s swagger of a beer festival

There’s a queue outside St Austell’s stern stone-faced brewery at 10.40am, 20 minutes before opening time. I arrive before midday and the top bar (the old wine cellar) is no place for a claustrophobic. The crowd is dense and a lifetime’s knowledge of dodging and jinking to get to the bar comes into play. In the bottom bar people are singing along to Definitely Maybe as a band limbers up. Beer is everywhere and everyone is drinking it.

St Austell’s annual Celtic beer festival is underway. CAMRA men, Cornish lads, beer girls, old fellas, sporty types, beer-bellied men, young lads who look like Pete Docherty, young girls with a pint in their hand all swirl about — this is beer as a common currency, a democracy, a gathering, a moot of the senses, and like Brigadoon it only appears once a year.

Watching a young band go through their retro 80s indie-disco set it occurs to me that this festival has the sort of swagger that you would normally associate with some sort of unbearably hip rock star; it’s also an inventive event at which St Austell’s head brewer Roger Ryman tries his hand at all sorts of things — amongst the 29 beers from his brewery along there is a crisp and refreshing Proper Pilsner, a well-made Belgian style Dubbel and Triple, a chilled IPA, a chilli chocolate stout, an oyster stout, a double IPA and his attempt at a Flemish style sour red, which sadly I didn’t get to try.

Taunton Alan lifts his glass when I join some friends and says ‘Bastard’. I beg your pardon. He’s on his second pint of Arrogant Bastard and it’s not yet 12.30pm. As soon as I hear the news, I head straight for the world beers selection, where alongside Arrogant Bastard, there is Ruination, Sierre Nevada Harvest and Pale on tap — plus beers from Brittany and some crowd-pleasers such as Maisels Weiss, Leffe Blonde and Gaffel’s Kolsch. Meanwhile the cask ale crowd get over a century of ales, including ones from Wales and Scotland plus a selection of southwestern breweries (I didn’t get to try Sharps’ grand Imperial Porter sadly, I hope there is some left when I go up there to brew next month); and if that’s not enough there’s a selection of St Austell’s fellow family brewers.

There’s a lot going on in the Cornish brewing scene, as amongst the flood of Tributes and Doom Bars we see both Ryman and Sharps’ Stuart Howe looking to other countries for their inspirational one-off beers, playing with making beers that don’t just fit into the pigeonhole of real ale. Later on before getting the train, wet and soaked, I sit in the White Hart in town for a quiet contemplative pint of Tribute. I mention the festival to the young girl who serves me at the bar, ‘I’m looking forward to going there later,’ she says. St Austell are doing a good job.

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