As usual, it was an excellent event and I enjoyed the weekend enormously from both sides of the bar.
The visitors also seemed to enjoy it: they certainly drank a lot of beer!
The unofficial figures that I heard banded about suggested that around 90% of the 100 casks of ale and over 90% of the 35 pins of cider were consumed over the two days: impressive going.
What surprised me though was the clear indication of beer preference – and the equally clear indication of those styles that are less popular.
The weather over the weekend was, by and large, dry and pleasant (a few brief rainstorms notwithstanding)
Both Friday and Saturday afternoons saw a good number of people relaxing, chatting and chilling in the sunny cloister courtyard.
So what beers would you expect to be popular on such an occasion? A nice session bitter? A refreshing pale ale?
No. Stout and Porter.
There are many factors that contribute to the popularity of a specific beer at a festival, including the description in the programme, a funny name and the position on the stillage. (This latter certainly shouldn’t be underestimated; people have a tendency when confronted with a huge choice to pick the first one they see).
However, the overwhelming feature that dictates the popularity of beer style must be the fashion at the time.
The current fashion, on the basis of our beer festival, is clearly for dark ales.
This is surprising: reading beer articles and blogs it is clear that dark beers are having a resurgence, but I thought that the pale, ultra-hopped beers still ruled the day.
Don’t get me wrong, these styles were also popular, but the dark beers knocked them into a cocked hat.
The first beer to sell out was Mad Dog Stouty McStoutface. Guess what style that is.
That scored both in terms of novelty name and position on the stillage, but I’m sure that alone wasn’t enough to see it to victory.
Stouty McStoutface sold out mid-Friday evening and was very closely followed by the ultra-sweet Wild Millionaire which was tucked away on a lower shelf. My personal favourite, Three Shires Coenwulf, didn’t last too much longer. By early Saturday evening there wasn’t a stout or porter to be had.
Then the milds started to disappear.
So what didn’t sell?
Anything characterised as a bitter.
And anything where the description didn’t hint of hops, speciality flavourings or other distinctive flavours.
Does this mean that no one wants a good quaffable ale any more?
I know trendy, hipster craft-beer drinkers habitually refer to bitter as ‘boring brown beer’, but for most real ale drinkers I’m betting that if they saw any of those lesser-popular beers on the pump at their local they’d be only too keen to try it: they were all from interesting and unusual breweries. And having tried many of them (ahem…) I can attest that they were mostly very nice.
Perhaps it is just a feature of beer festivals that people naturally seek out the distinctive, unusual and extreme. I must admit that I can be guilty of that myself.
I hope that’s the case, because I’d hate to see good, sensible, well-balanced bitters go the way of the dodo.