For the first time in a good long while, I did a bit of advance research before setting off to The First National Woodfest. The line up of near sixty beers looked impressive on the website, but you can’t do sixty and I really wanted to experience the best that wooden casks could provide. I had my eye on a few and while compiling a list in my little book, I had a bright idea! That Roger Protz bloke went to the opening on Thursday, and he was on the judging panel. He’ll know what’s what. So I tweeted him and this is what he said;
Eager as I was to try the recommendations, when I got to Castleford, about twenty minutes before the event started, the town centre was busy, but there didn’t seem to be much activity at the venue? The Junction was closed and the adjacent Lagentium Brewery Tap looked similarly deserted, so I decided to take a few photos of the outside, which looks quite impressive with the original Beverley’s Fine Ales lettering and blue tiling exposed.
I got so taken with the pubitechtural details that I failed to notice the small crowd, who suddenly appeared from nowhere, and were now queuing up to get in. It didn’t matter though, I’d booked and paid my £2,50 entrance fee online. On top of this, I handed over a tenner at the door, for a souvenir glass, programme and four natty little orange tokens. Further tokens were £1.50 each, which bought you a half or a third, dependant on ABV.
I did hear quite a bit of grumbling from some quarters, along the lines of, ‘Ten quid for two pints!’ Personally I thought the moaners were missing the point and failing to realise that it costs money to put a beer festival on. I thought it was a pretty good deal, all told. Quality doesn’t come cheap and I’m sure there are plenty of places in Cas’ selling cheap mass produced beers. Despite the comments, the moaners were all still there at the end!
Looking round, there were many of the same old faces you see at festivals all over Yorkshire. Mostly older blokes, but it would be on a Friday afternoon when lots of people are still at work. As the afternoon progressed a few younger types started to appear, which was nice to see. But where were all the hipsters? No beards and checked shirts here. This sort of worries me a bit, for a variety of reasons;
A lot of the beers wouldn’t be out of place at any ‘Craft Beer’ event where they would get rave reviews. Personally, I think the whole beers from the wood concept is not only a worthy one but also very cool and modern, in a retro, yet going forward at the same time sort of way. What worries me the most, and I’ve seen recent discussion around it, is the perpetuation from craft beer types that real ale/CAMRA/SPBW is crap and exactly the same sentiment going back the other way. One bloke, present at Woodfest 2017, once tried telling me that Northern Monk was just crap craft beer. I think not! There’s plenty wooden casks sat in their brewery with beer ageing in them.
Apologies for the polemic, I just hate narrow minded prejudice. Good beer is good beer whatever you want to categorise it as, and crap beer is crap beer whoever makes it. Like minded people, no all people, should respect a plurality of viewpoints.
Now you might have started thinking that I turned up to Woodfest 2017 with bit of a bee in my bonnet? If you did you’d be totally wrong because I had a brilliant afternoon. I’ll get onto the beer side of things in a minute, after I’ve covered the people side of the event, because it’s the people that makes it good. The people that organised and set up the event, the volunteers that worked behind the bar and put so much hard work into it. I don’t really know Rob Shacklock, festival organiser, so I didn’t speak with him, but top marks for a brilliant event mate.
A big player in all things ‘Woody’ is Mr Neil Midgley, landlord of ‘home of beers from the wood’ The Junction, Castleford and owner of Lagentium Brewery Tap, where the festival was being hosted. I caught up with him while he was trying to find somewhere to hang up a shield he’d been presented by Vivian Bairstow, Master of The Worshipful Company of Coopers to commemorate Woodfest 2017. The plaque was no cheap ornament and the coat of arms was beautifully enamelled, I could tell he was dead chuffed, rightly so.
To be fair, If I was a proper beer writer, I should have gone to the Thursday evening session with the Lord Mayor, to witness the grand opening, presentations and the judging panel’s announcement of the champion beers but transport logistics put paid to that; like I couldn’t have a decent drink, and more than a couple of hours there, and still get home on the bus.
I found another significant contributor serving on, in the cellar bar. When I say significant, I mean significant, as Alastair Simms had made all the casks for the event at his White Rose Cooperage in Thorp Arch, Wetherby. With him being the only independent Master Cooper in the UK, I guess there’s no one else out there making them. Anyway, he’s always good for a laugh. He’s a pretty shrewd businessman too, but I didn’t think he’d ever go so far as to sell himself. That’s what he did though, and he raised the hammer on himself at £105. I thought that was a very cheap price to pay for a full days experience, hands on, making a cask with Alastair at the cooperage.
I met plenty other interesting folk as well, including members of the only SPBW branch from outside the UK, SPBW Chesapeake Bay Branch. Their dedication in travelling across the Atlantic for a beer festival is unbelievable. I’d already caught up with some of these guys earlier in the week in Leeds, when I asked Mitch Pilchuk, former brewer at Smoketown Brewing Co. Brunswick, Maryland, which session of Woodfest 2017 he was attending, he just looked at me daft and said, ‘All of Them!’ He’s only ‘former brewer’ because he got ‘Pissed’ with his boss and walked out. Discussion around various Americanisms revealed they actually hadn’t been out for a few beers together neither!
I learned a lot about American brewing from Mitch and SPBW Chesapeake Bay Branch President Jason Black and founder Joe Gold, sales manager at Heavy Seas Brewery, Baltimore, MD. I thought the presentation of a commemorative wooden plaque to Neil and Maureen, his partner, was nice touch. There were more commemorative plaques flying round than a Trophy shop, I tell thee.
Funnily enough, all the Americans I chatted with thought the festival, the beers and everything connected to it was wonderful, remember, several of these were guys involved in making (the rest were mainly involved in consuming) what we would call Craft Beer. They can rightly call it Craft Beer too, because there is a clear determination of it in the USA.
In terms of beer, I tried all Mr Protz’s recommendations, and a couple more besides. My one regret was not trying the Hawkshead Tiramisu, I’m not entirely sure why this was? One of the Yanks said they thought it was way too rich to drink at anything other than sipping pace, that, and the 10% ABV just put me off. I mean I’d only got four and a half hours?
The only disappointments were the Beer Nouveau ales, both of them were on my advance list and endorsed with three stars. The East India Pale Ale, a recreation of Tetley’s beer of the same name wasn’t available, I managed to secure a taste and it was acidic and very sour, so much so you couldn’t discern much else. The Barclay X was on, but unfortunately this recreation of the 1852 recipe was going the way as the EPA and although I got elements of it, the, almost vinous, acidity spoiled it. Big shame that, because I’d set my heart on them. I don’t think there should be any negative reflections on the brewery here, these things happen; personally I don’t think I’d have put either on to save potential embarrassment?
My favourite? On balance Gypsy Hill Hepcat just shaded it over Ridgeside Stargazer, both beers being to my taste with their New World hops. In fact I preferred both of these over the medal winners, but what do I know? The Gold awarded champion Hook Norton Haymaker was the first to sell out, a nice drink, but I didn’t think it was meant to be hazy?
I made some notes in my programme about the Silver champion Half Moon (Collab with Sunbeam) Moonbeam, but I must have switched programmes with someone because the one I managed to get home tells me nothing! I did make a note in my little green book about the Bronze medal awarded Elland Beyond the Pale which simply says ‘touchstone’ and Neil Midgleys’ catchphrase, ‘it adds another dimension’! The wooden cask that is.
According to my little book, Brew York Big Eagle was amazing and better than the overall champion? And Wylam Puffing Billy simply has five stars at the side of it, do they make anything other than outstanding beer in that Geordie brewery? Seriously, I remember drinking this in the cellar bar and it was a multi layered wonder of flavours underneath it’s smokiness and twice cask matured complexity.
I couldn’t quite get the hang of the beer/bar categorisation. A notice above the upstairs bar said, ‘Yorkshire, Nottinghamshie and Eire.’ So I was a bit surprised when they were able to serve me a half of Clun Brewery Pale Ale, presumably Shropshire has moved since I last looked? The other bars were in the cellars, and amongst other things, served a strong contingent of Northern Irish beers. The Knockout Stout, as recommended, was particularly good.
It was while I was down there, in the cellar proper, that I bumped into another Yank, Jay Sheveck, who was filming what at first glance looked like a slender necked, sleeping hydra. Jay is currently filming, directing and producing a documentary film entitled, Beer Pioneers™. We had a good chat and it sounds a really exciting project about the revival of traditional methods in the Craft Brewing Industry and definitely worth looking out for when it’s released early next year.
Being in Castleford, one has to put up with the banter from the natives, and I couldn’t really miss the friendly beer connoisseur bedecked in Cas’ Tigers Tartan. I didn’t have to talk to them though. But I did, and the world was far better for it. I even admit saying that Cas’ are currently the most exciting team in RL, and will win everything before them if they keep firing on all cylinders; one misfire and it will be The Rhinos year though! Seriously, wonderful people and we had a good laugh, even though the Twitter banter with the lovely @tigers_4_me carried on well after I’d left the building.
After a brilliant session at Woodfest 2017, the schoolboy error I made was going into The Junction afterwards, although I couldn’t resist Mr Midgleys’ promise of a taste of some eighteen month cask aged Elland 1872 Porter, I just shouldn’t have had a pint of it. Worth it though, it was very, very different; 1872 Porter? Yes, but dry, dry, dry, so dry. As I tasted it, he winked at me from behind the bar and mouthed his catchphrase.
Anyway, sat with festival outgoers and some local lads, I sort of got a second taste and tried Neil’s second recommendation, Wishbone Brewery Cloudy with a chance of hops. It was definitely cloudy. A chance? They’re having a laugh, there’s more Mosaic and Nelson Sauvin in there than you can shake a hoppy stick at.!
Down town Cas’ Vegas, Friday tea time, in a once run down boozer full of locals and festival goers, drinking murky beer from Keighley that’s chockablock with the finest hops, hops, hops and more hops. That’s all I can remember, apart from the photos …