Oliver Cross: There for the beer

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CAN you guess where I was on Saturday night? Wrong. I was at a beer festival in Colne, Lancashire.

This came as a bit of a surprise because I’m a lager man myself and didn’t imagine I would ever find myself supporting the Campaign for Real Ale by sampling the distinctive, sometimes quirky, products of small or independent breweries, many of which wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for the campaign’s efforts.

Actually, the last time I went to a Camra beer festival, about 15 years ago, I let myself down by asking, in jest, if they had any Carlsberg. I also formed the view that real ale fans were mostly chaps with beards and woolly jumpers who didn’t appreciate juvenile jokes by lager drinkers.

So I left very quickly, worried that the real-alers were, by the looks of them, morris dancers as well, and what chance would a pacifist lager drinker like me stand against a troupe of outraged morris dancers armed with steel-tipped clogs and big sticks?

But the Colne beer festival (which I went to so I could meet some old friends) was not threatening at all. It was the best-organised, most good-humoured drink-related event I’ve been to since my last annual garden party, at least if you omit the ‘best organised’ bit.

If you have never been to a beer festival before, you have to imagine a grand, old-fashioned municipal hall (called, in Colne, The Muni because East Lancashire doesn’t stand on ceremony).

At one end there is a stage where some talented grey-haired musicians play songs by The Hollies, Van Morrison, The Eagles and other crowd-pleasers. Lined up, the musicians look like that bit in the Never Mind The Buzzcocks quiz where you’ve got to guess which one used to be a top guitarist in the 1970s.

Around the walls are stacked barrels and barrels of beer – more than you could ever get round to sampling, even though this is a three-day festival and the most popular drinking measure is a third of a pint.

The important point for eco-boozers is that few of the ales have had to travel very far; mostly they come from Yorkshire, Lancashire or Cumbria (or, for those with a taste for the exotic, the Isle of Man) although that doesn’t limit the huge range of beer types and tastes on offer.

It’s a tribute to localism and small enterprise and a snub for the big brewing conglomerates producing pasteurised, industrialised, insipid, globalised beers for us lager drinkers.

On the floor of the hall is a crowd more mixed than you would expect, if, like me, you are prone to stereotyping.

There are very few men with beards and woolly jumpers but lots of women of all ages and people under-30 and if you bump against somebody on your way fetch to a beer, which you’re bound to do because The Muni is as crowded as a Cairo square, they will smile gently and say ‘No problem’. It’s lovely; like a happy wedding before the drink takes over.

Which, at Camra beer festivals, the drink doesn’t because sipping small glasses of beer slowly while noticing nuances of taste undetectable to lager louts is no recipe for drunken brawls, although it does seem to produce some intriguing dancing and mating rituals, which may have more to do with ancient Lancashire customs (this is the heart of Pendle witch country) than beer festivals.

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