Pig’s Ear of it

12 Dec
casks of ale
casks of real ale

My trip to the Pig’s Ear beer festival left me feeling a bit disappointed.

East London and City branch of CAMRA (The Campaign for Real Ale) held their annual beer festival for the 28th time this week. That’s a lot of beer. For nearly 30 years this event has resolutely upheld the traditions of British beer. Cask-conditioned real ale was unloved, anachronistic and in decline when CAMRA and it’s network of local branches started 40 years ago, but now thanks to their perseverance and foresight, interest in this unique, traditional craft product is once more on the rise. Nuff respec’.

As I’m a fairly recent convert to the delights of craft beer I haven’t attended many beer festivals. So I was excited about going. A chance to sample some rare and unusual brews, and to get to know more about the local beer scene. Hackney was without a local brewery until this year, now there are several and more are opening all the time. With the festival being held in Clapton, which is rapidly becoming the new Dalston, this event should be something special. A celebration of a burgeoning craft in a vibrant and exciting setting. Surely?….Not so much, no.

So what was wrong with the festival then? The venue is amazing, a beautiful grade II* listed building with plenty of space and a

view from balcony at festival

Drinkers at the Festival

very dramatic atmosphere of its own. You couldn’t find a better building to have a festival. Perhaps with some subtle lighting and decorative touches it could have been enhanced, but that is a minor gripe, because it is a stunning building. Paying £4 to get in (£2 to CAMRA members), is a bit steep, as this only buys you entry. You then have to hire a glass, which involves getting to the other side of the hall and another financial transaction. Why can’t the glass hire and entrance payment be done in one? Probably because a lot of casual visitors would baulk at the idea of handing over £7 just for the opportunity to buy a beer.

Once you have completed these formalities it is time to get a drink. Great, forget having just been fleeced for seven quid, we’re in now, lets relax and have a beer. But where do you start? How do you decide which of the impressive array of beers on offer to choose? You can look in the festival programme, but that doesn’t help much. The choice is dazzling and vast. I asked the barman for one of the brews from the new local breweries. He gave me a taster of one, brewed specially for the festival. It was warm and brown and dull. I asked if there was a different one, but there wasn’t. Only one cask of local ale on offer amongst all this beer seemed a strange situation.

So I thought I’d go completely the other way and try some of the Italian cask ales that the festival had specially imported. A very impressive array of Italian cask ale was lined up on the other side of the hall. This is something you don’t see everyday. I asked the barman here for  a recommendation. His ‘beer of the festival’ was a 9% Double IPA. I asked for a taster, but apparently they don’t do tasters (even though I’d had one on the other bar). So I took him up on his glowing recommendation and had a half. Big mistake. A beer of this strength and body should not be served warm, it was undrinkable. A schoolboy error on my part maybe, ordering such a strong beer, but the barman had done a fairly hard sell on it, saying it was great and there wasn’t much of it left.

I really wanted to like this festival. I love beer, and I love exciting food-related Hackney happenings, but this just didn’t do it for me. I could overlook the lack of ambience (would music distract too much from the drinking?), the lack of seating, the abscence of delicious tasty morsels. I could get over the fact that I was in a crowd of 96.7% males, I wasn’t on the pull. No, I was looking for extraordinary taste sensations, amazing beers delivered in peak condition, the ‘Ice Cold in Alex’ moment, where nothing else can slake the thirst but lovely beer. Unfortuantely this festival didn’t deliver. The main event; the beer, just wasn’t up to it. I don’t mean to imply that the beer should be served ice cold, but it should be served cool. Between 12 and 14 Celsius according to CAMRA’s website. The beers here were served warm in a warm room.

This is real ale at its most unreconstructed and rather than expand the audience for ale, I fear events like this will put the uninitiated off.

6 Responses to “Pig’s Ear of it”

  1. Bill Green December 12, 2011 at 5:30 pm #

    1. The £3 glass charge is refundable.
    2.Seating for 300 in the easily-accessible Gallery. No space for chairs in the main Hall.
    3. Attendance is predominantly male in the afternoon. Younger mixed group in evening
    Other opinion:
    Well back in Denmark I want to thanks all the guys behind the Pigs Ear
    Festival, really enjoyed it 🙂
    and especielly a huge thanks to Bill ( short, greyhaired guy in the bar )
    for telling me when new beers went on 🙂 hope someone will pass it on to
    Merry Christmas all, see you next year

    • Tommy Rumbles December 12, 2011 at 5:41 pm #

      Thanks for commenting, I don’t want to mislead, £3 glass hire charge is refundable. I still think the amount of money changing hands before you get a beer would put most casual punters off.

      My main criticism is the fact that there was not enough local beer available all the time, and the beer was served at (warm) room temperature.

      • Bill Green December 12, 2011 at 5:50 pm #

        There was a record attendance at the Festival – 1400 more than in 2010 so plenty of casual punters not put off.

        The four local Breweries are mini-micros with limited output capacity and three have only operated since September. So they couldn’t physically supply constant quantities.
        Your view on beer temperature is held by some. Others, however, dislike “frigidisation”

  2. Tommy Rumbles December 12, 2011 at 6:44 pm #

    Yes, I see there were 4400 attendees. That’s a lot of entrance fee, perhaps it could be reduced next year based on those numbers?

    I’m not sure about your mini-micro classification, but in the programme for the festival, East London Brewing Co. is described as a 10 barrel plant, which I understand means they brew circa forty 9 gallon casks at a time.

    My view on beer being served at between 12 and 14 degrees is from the CAMRA website here: http://www.camra.org.uk/page.aspx?o=180651

    I quote:

    “Real ale is served at cellar temperature 12-14 C (54-57 F), which is somewhat cooler than room temperature. If real ale is too warm it is not appetizing, it loses its natural conditioning (the liveliness of the beer due to the dissolved carbon dioxide).”

    • Bill Green December 13, 2011 at 10:49 am #

      The £4 charge applies only to non-members. As the Programme and Festival publicity proclaimed it is £2 for CAMRA members – 45% of the attendees. We can only reduce the entry price if our costs for Hall Hire, materials and Beer/Cider are reduced. This year, of course, the rise in VAT has been an extra financial levy. And we do have to cover costs.

      We’ve received dozen-plus comments on the Festival – your’s is the only one to bewail Beers temperature. Perhaps you were unlucky with the few Beers of the 200-plus you tasted. ELB Beers were normally available throughout the Festival but London Fields and Redchurch beers sold out by Wednesday and they supplied all they could.

  3. David May 13, 2012 at 10:13 am #

    I too made the error of trying the Italian Double IPA. It was one of the worst beers I’ve drunk for a very long time.

    I do like the festival though

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