The old Central Station is reminiscent of Olympia without the balcony and the fancy bits. A bit smaller, and only one hall, but quite a large impressive space nevertheless, set out with an island in the middle and bars and stalls around the outside.
Whichever way I looked at it, I just couldn’t help comparing it with the Great British Beer Festival. It wasn’t just the hall and the layout neither, there was a similarly massive range of beers available too, 750 British beers on cask and keg, 650 beers from the rest of the world and impressively 103 ciders and perries.
The festival ran over four days from Wednesday 24th (Trade and CAMRA members only) to Saturday 27th January. When I arrived half an hour before opening on the Friday there was already a decent sized queue amassed outside Manchester Central and by noon the line had snaked down and out onto Windmill Street. According to one of the stewards the queue had been even longer the day before.
Entry on the Friday was £10 which included a £3 returnable deposit on the glass. We’d bought advance tickets and I couldn’t understand why our queue moved slower than the pay on the door line? Someone commented, in raised tones, that it was all the old CAMRA farts holding up the queue while the security people searched their rucksacks. Turns out it was the issuing of £4 worth of complimentary beer tokens to CAMRA members who had paid in advance that was taking the time. Who’s laughing now mate?
To be fair the professional security officers doing the bag search, and the volunteer stewards were all brilliant. Holding my Morrisons carrier open I declared, ‘Four sarnies, two packets of crisps and some pop mate.’ To which the reply was, ‘Best sandwiches I’ve seen yet, what’s in ‘em?’
We weren’t the only ones with our own food neither, plenty of others raced for a table to lay their feasts upon. They needn’t have bothered because there were rows and rows and rows of tables and chairs, poseur and café style tables, and you could still (just) find somewhere to sit down at 6pm, if you looked.
In my rush for a table I forgot to tell you about the glassware. The oversized schooners, lined at 2/3 ,1/2 and 1/3 of a pint, are the best glasses I’ve had at a festival. Yes you could have had a straight sided pint glass but the Rastal, I think they are the Craftmaster 2 shape, glasses were just so much better. Like proper beer drinkers glasses. I mean, it’s only traditionalists and piss heads who drink pints at a beer festival, isn’t it?
The beers were dotted around the hall, the three main cask bars along the far wall were arranged alphabetically by brewer and the Brewery bars were on the ‘island’, along with a small section of Irish brewers and the 100 club, a selection of brewers who have been brewing for over one hundred years; think Harvey’s, Fuller’s, Holt’s and the like.
The keg beers were on a separate bar, as was the cider. I didn’t pay much attention to the cider bar, but that doesn’t mean that I didn’t think it was a top effort to present so many different ciders and perries, including a North of England selection.
I told a lie earlier when I said I’d rushed in to get a table. I didn’t, I sent Mrs C to stake our claim. I actually rushed to Bar #1 (A – G) for a pint of cask Cloudwater! DDH (Double Dry Hopped) Pale NZ Chinook. I needn’t have done, it had sold out the day before! There was no way I was going to drink their 12% Belgian Impy Stout with my smoked ham, turkey and balsamic vinegar mayo sarnies, so I though I’d save that one for later. Guess what? I needn’t have done.
I did get a 1/3 of Cloudwater IPA Simcoe Chinook on keg though and it was cool. It’s not my business to tell others how to run their business, but if I was Paul Jones I’d still be selling cask beers to selected venues, there is a real proper demand for it, even from old fart CAMRA types.
Talking about Cloudwater leads nicely into pricing. My notes said we paid from £3.20 to £5.10 a pint for cask ales, depending on ABV. I reckoned the prices were par for the course. A bloke from Bury thought most of the beers were all the money and told me he normally pays around £2.40 a pint in his home town. I think we paid more for some of the keg beers, but I’d gone beyond making notes by then.
The bloke from Bury and the nice chap from Stafford, who knew Paul Mudge – ‘surprised he isn’t here?’ Takes us into the people arena. We sat most of the afternoon with these two guys, chatting about much more than beer; ‘watch me stuff will you’. And I thank them for their company and entertainment, hopefully they are now walking round their respective localities proudly sporting their beerleeds.co.uk button badges.
I was surprised how many people I met, not just familiar faces from the Manchester beer scene, there were plenty of Leeds faces, drinking and volunteering their services. Mind you, you know you’re getting old when the stewards start looking old.
One very noticeable feature was the prominence of the Equal Opportunities policy. In fact you couldn’t escape it; page 4 of the programme, table tents, even on the walls. I know there have been hotly debated cases rumbling around in this part of the UK for a while now. And I know that organisations have to be seen to be doing something, which is entirely different to actually changing things. Please don’t think this is a slight against the organisers or the good folk of Manchester, it isn’t, it’s more a heart felt comment on how society does things these days.
I struggled to work out whether, ’you know it’s ten percent don’t you?’ was helpful advice or whether the guy behind the bar thought I was a total numpty that knew nothing about beer? I mean, there was row upon row of tables with people sat poring over their programmes, making notes and annotation, carefully selecting their next beer. And I did ask for a third. For the record, I wasn’t offended, I just thought it was strange. Maybe it was the guys own personal values speaking; like he probably never drank anything over 5% or something?
Anyhow, it was delicious, Torrside Monsters: American Barley Wine 2017 – Bourbon Barrel. As soon as it said 6 months matured in oak it had to be drunk and it merited 5★ in my little book. Viennese Whirl from the same brewery was also highly recommended, lots of biscuit and raspberries.
Other standouts were Millstone True Grit, Moor Old Freddy Walker and Weird Beard 5 o’clock Shadow (cask). Not so was Track Denali single hop, an experimental hop. I’ve experimented and I’ve learnt something! I wasn’t taken with Red Willow’s Faithless 77 Kveik Pale the Norwegian Farmhouse yeast did nothing for me beyond tasting of yeast. I tried it though!
All in all a brilliant day and even after six hours, I still couldn’t stop comparing it with GBBF. Eventually I concluded that MBCF was more manageable, more relaxed, more friendly, more convenient (read nearer) and just so much better than GBBF for so many reasons. All we need to do now is to move London to a moveable point along the M62 corridor and call it the Northern Powerhouse.