Ilkley Beer Festival – Review
By Matt Callard
These are dangerous days. One minute you’re pestering Dickie Bird with stories of your deceptive medium pacers which terrorised the Bradford League’s U-16s in the mid eighties. The next you’re sitting on a wall outside Ilkley train station with an empty commemorative pint pot and a strange desire to walk home across the moor. How did we get here? Come inside.
Let’s get this straight – I don’t drink ale. I don’t like it. Then again, my experience of it starts and ends with the kind of gaseous tap-poured slime you get in lager-fuelled theme pubs – welcome to the On: Magazine Friday night out. But this is the real stuff. The serious stuff. And I’m here to learn and, maybe, convert.
The Ilkley Beer Festival could be an intimidating arena for a novice. I’d been expecting barrel-some men with frothy beards, Black Sheep Brewery t-shirts and questionable hygiene. And while some of the wilder beards on display actually do host a selection of our smaller hedgerow bird life, there is a pleasing informality and a general bonhomie inside.
Cash purchases are eschewed in exchange for a complex cash-for-tokens-for-ale triple-header. White slips are passed to stout men in orange t-shirts who work the pumps and the copious barrels. I admire this vigorous denial of our monetary system. There’s something pleasingly olde-worlde about it. But somehow I can’t help wishing they’d gone the whole-hog and given us wheat sheafs to exchange instead.
“Where’s the tongue-curdling bitterness?”
I’ve been advised to pace myself. Don’t mix the drinks too much and start on the low percentage beers. But instead, I come up with my own strategy. It is based around the helpful and extravagant names of the ales. If it’s got a lightweight-sounding name, it’s probably safe to attempt. If it sounds like a death metal band, it’s best left for later. And if it’s called Certain Death, it’s best left altogether. So I ignore – for now – Kamikaze, The Village Bike and, my personal favourite, Darkside Pup. Who says there’s nothing in a name?
Trying to look like the seasoned ale supper I point to a West Country Gold with its gentle promises of ‘a sweet malt flavour with delicate vanilla and fruit hints’. Immediately I’m aware that something is amiss. It tastes nice.
Where‘s the tongue-curdling bitterness? The harrowing after-taste? The lumps? This was oozing a mellow, meadowy summer-ness. It was smooth and calm and pleasant. Best of all, you could see through it and there was nothing floating in it. Maybe this ale thing isn’t so bad after all.
“Dickie doesn’t do tokens”
Exchanging a second token for a half of Harrogate’s Dales Blonde (‘a great quaffing beer,’ I’m promised) I spy professional Yorkshireman and living legend Dickie Bird signing copies of his book. Never one to pass on an opportunity I quaff on over for a conflab. Dickie’s been here all day and he’s doing his usual heroics for charity. He’s more than happy to pose for a picture (for a donation, of course). He skilfully points me towards the beers he’s also promoting, which I instantly feel obliged to pass over a tenner for. Dickie doesn’t do tokens. Still, it’s all worth it for a few moments in the presence of slightly eccentric greatness. A small crowd starts to buzz around him and I saunter through to the kitchen area, regretting I never told him about my 5 for 26 in 1987.
There’s a hearty supply of coronary-inducers in the catering area. Nearby are a few tempting off-piste ciders and perrys. Now, I like cider. It tastes of apples. I’m reliably informed it’s made of apples too. Unless it’s pear cider, which is made from pears. The men at the cider stall are very friendly and, I sense, harbouring a small inferiority complex towards the massed ranks of ale juggernauts across the room. I’m a sucker for this and use up my last tokens on their ‘sparkling, clean and refreshing’ beverages (Janet’s Jungle Juice, anyone?).
“There is only one place to go from here – the abyss”
Freshly be-tokened and feeling braver, I decide I’m ready to take a dip in the intermediate pool. The next few tokens disappear to the splendid, evocatively named Cascade Pale Ale, Golden Salamander, Wild Oat Stout and Midnight Bell. I’m warming up and feeling, strangely, more and more like a sing-song.
A couple of hours into the night and there’s a genuine beer hall feel about the place. Gruff laughter, red faces, the clink-and-clank of tankards and rolling barrels. There’s also a surprising amount of women. There was I thinking serious ale drinking was the last refuge of man-on-man action. Terrific also to see the orange-clad pumps-men inebriated, sweaty and, let’s be clear, really enjoying their work.
So people are drunk. While that’s hardly earth-shattering news at a beer festival, let it be said this is good-drunk. The kind of bawdy Viking drunkenness that accompanies good humour and a good night out. And not the kind of drunkenness that accompanies a fight in the kebab shop. This is a recommendation.
Well, there is only one place to go from here – the abyss. This is research, don’t forget.
So, how did I end up sat on a wall contemplating a ‘short-cut’ home over Ilkley moor? Here’s the roll-call: Spikes on T’way, Old Leg Over, Monkey Wrench, Killer Bee, Mudpuppy, Outlaw Wild Mule and, yes, Kamikazi. Maybe there were more. I remember old Dickie making his excuses and leaving. 5 for 26, Dickie! 5 for 26!
A great night. No hangover. A convert. I’ll be there next year. I’m working on my trainer beard already.