“IT’S like a well-oiled machine.” A week ahead of Leeds Beer Festival, CAMRA branch chairman Mike Hampshire seems remarkably relaxed about the three-day bash, which will see almost 160 beers consumed by the thousands who flock to this annual event.
His confidence is founded in continuity. This will be the 22nd event in Pudsey’s cavernous Civic Hall; the umpteenth masterminded by festival organiser Dave Dixon. “When it comes to discussing plans for the festival, so much is a given. We’ve done it plenty of times before. It means we can concentrate on the controversial issues.”
Last year that meant a switch from pints and halves to two-thirds and third-pint measures – something many CAMRA diehards found hard to swallow, yet has opened up new possibilities for festival-goers who can now browse a still greater range of beers during their session. This year’s bone of contention was Key Cask ale – whether the festival should admit real ales dispensed by tap, rather than by handpull. Nationally, CAMRA has acknowledged these as real ale, but it took significant debate before a dozen were allowed to join the roster at Pudsey.
“These are the things which stir the passions,” says Mike, whose tenure as Chairman has brought a softening of attitudes to an organisation where tradition is everything.
The festival opens next Thursday (March 17). “We’re into the business end of it now,” says Mike. “We get into the hall on Monday and that’s when all the beer arrives.” Three frantic days of preparation will see the beers racked and tapped before the first punters pile through the doors.
This year’s theme is the Leeds-Liverpool Canal, completed 200 years ago, creating a vital artery of trade between the city and the Atlantic port. Several breweries close to the canal have supplied beers for the festival; others have created brews to 19th century recipes. Leeds’ own Northern Monk has joined forces with Mad Hatter of Liverpool to produce an Imperial Salted Mild apparently in homage to seawater.
Others to look out for include two from the tiny Hungry Bear brewery in Meanwood, whose beers are rarely sold outside the premises. Calm Before.. (3.2%) and ..the Storm (7%) are twin ales from Leeds microbrewery Sunbeam, both in 1816 styles. Abbeydale’s Chocolate Orange Stout is the one Mike is most excited about. The Global Bar features beers from Estonia, Japan and Austria, amongst the famous Belgians and hop-heavy Americans.
But it’s the inclusion of the key cask beers which most shows the festival moving with the times. “I’ve always been an advocate of widening the horizons,” Mike tells me over a pint in Whitelocks. It’s an obvious choice of venue for two real ale lovers, but Brewdog’s “Equity for Punks” badge on his collar demonstrates a willingness to embrace the wonders of craft keg beers too.
He acknowledges that Britain’s buoyant brewing scene, whether in traditional cask or dispensed from the once-despised kegs, is the mark of success for a consumer group founded in the dark days of the 1970s. But the fight goes on: “We are always going to champion real ale, but right now there is a lot of emphasis on saving pubs. In Leeds, the city pubs are doing well, but outlying areas have seen them struggling.”
It’s a mixed picture. Mike cites the Fleece at Pudsey as a thriving suburban community pub. But just a couple of miles away, the famous old Beulah has been closed for months.
“We are also campaigning for another cut in excise duty. It will keep it competitive for brewers and keep people coming into pubs. That’s what it’s all about.”
Leeds CAMRA Beer Festival
Venue: Pudsey Civic Hall
Opening hours: 11am-3pm and 5-11pm Thurs March 17; 11am-11pm Fri-Sat (March 18-19)
Admission: CAMRA members free except on Friday evening when it is £3; non-members pay £3-£5 depending on the session time
Beers: Amazing choice of ales, predominantly from the UK, but with a rich global selection and a great choice of ciders and perries. From £2 for a two-thirds pint
Food: Hot and cold food available
Entertainment: Live music includes local bands The Tabloids and Summercross, the latter featuring Parliament’s own Minister for Beer, Greg Mulholland
Charity: Profits go to Leeds Teaching Hospitals Charitable Trust and in particular their fundraising for kidney patients.
Children: Not especially suitable
Disabled: Disabled access available
Parking: Large car park to rear of Pudsey Civic Hall
Reviewer: Simon Jenkins