This past weekend the granddaddy of all UK beer festivals ended in Cambridge for another year. Determined to get there Mr & Mrs Fueled by Beer rode two trains, traversed London in the process, and found it was well worth making the trip to the famous university city for the festival’s closing day…
In my post for the 20th Reading Beer & Cider Festival I mentioned our interest in visiting CAMRA’s Cambridge event because it represented an opportunity to compare our recent experience in Reading with another large outdoor festival. We also looked forward to returning to East Anglia where we had such a wonderful experience at Ely in February for CAMRA’s 5th Elysian Winter Beer Festival. The region has some really superb breweries and they are currently producing some truly knock your socks off good real ale.
The Cambridge Beer Festival is the longest-running and, depending on who you ask, the second or third largest real ale festival in the UK. It started in 1974 and has been held since 2001 at Jesus Green located on the north side of the city centre alongside the River Cam. This year’s theme is the Tour de France: the world-famous cycle race kicks off its third stage from Cambridge on 7th July.
Cambridge railway station, which is located south of the city centre, is 1.5 miles from Jesus Green by the most direct walking route. However for our day out we took a circular walk via Trumpington and Trinity Streets which allowed us to stop off at Fitzbillie’s Restaurant for breakfast (highly recommended). We then continued through the historic centre of the city past the various colleges, including King’s College, before arriving at Jesus Green. After leaving the beer festival we returned by way of two more parks: Christ’s Pieces and Parker’s Piece, and then Hills Road back to the station. Roughly 4 miles altogether (Google Map).
Now that Mr & Mrs Fueled by Beer have attended several CAMRA festivals we think it’s fair to say that in most respects they are run along similar lines. It’s in the small details where the most significant differences lay. With this in mind this post about our experience at the Cambridge event will highlight the differences we observed there that we believe make it a better experience than, say, Reading. This is of course an opinion, so not necessarily objective, but we do feel our UK festival experience combined with our previous extensive experience of Washington festivals qualifies us to be good judges.
Why Travel To Distant Beer Festivals?
This has been mentioned before: it is the opportunity to experience ales from small (often new) breweries whose beers are not found in Reading and, lacking national distribution, are unlikely to be found even at our very best real ale pubs, like the Nag’s Head. Our experiences at every festival we have attended so far, including Cambridge, has reinforced this rationale.
Beer Selection & Availability
Every beer festival starts with a finite amount of beer that the organizers order prior to the event: when it’s gone it’s gone. This puts the longer festivals, like Reading and Cambridge, at a disadvantage: they can start running out long before the weekend. And it can make the shorter one and two day weekend events in many ways more attractive because you run less risk of showing up to find not enough selection left to make your visit worthwhile. This year is a good example: Reading was already severely depleted when we attended on the Saturday and it was almost completely sold out on the Sunday, the closing day. This was the source of most complaints posted by visitors on the Reading Beer Festival Facebook page and on Twitter.
Last year Reading showcased local brewers with a separate LocAle bar however this year it was absent – a shame we feel. The local brewers, although still well represented, were simply ‘mixed in’ to the general alphabetical order on the main bars.
At Cambridge the same approach applied to the smallest local brewers however several regional breweries were invited to participate in the festival by setting up their own bars. This made a major difference by serving mutually beneficial ends: the breweries who invested most could present their beers with much greater prominence and the festival organizers gained something of a hedge against running out of beer because the breweries could replenish their bar as needed.
In fairness, when we arrived at the Cambridge event on its sixth and final day, around three quarters of the 200+ casks on the main bars were already empty. It could be argued that this was pretty much the same situation we encountered at Reading, even though at that festival there was still another day to get through after ours, a terrible scenario for Reading’s closing day attendees. However there were two important differences at Cambridge that reduced the impact of sold out beer: firstly what was left was more varied and therefore had broader appeal (at least for Mr & Mrs Fueled by Beer). Secondly the brewery bars were still offering the same broad selection they started with on day one (except for Adnams’ festival special ale).
Creature Comforts & Accessibility
At both Reading and Cambridge the beer festivals are held at a large outdoor green space – a city park in both cases – but an open field nonetheless. Large marquees house the bars, indoor seating areas, some food offerings, etc., and they provide shelter during inclement weather. The layout of both sites outside the marquees is pretty much the same in relation to outside seating, hot food concessions, and loos. However at Cambridge two enhancements make a huge difference to the overall experience.
At Cambridge the grass surfaces leading to the marquee as well as the entire interior is covered from wall to wall with rigid plastic flooring panels while at Reading the grass surface is left uncovered inside and out. So, while the bumps, dips and various other imperfections to be expected in an open field can make mobility in Reading’s marquee ‘interesting’, the underfoot experience in Cambridge is far superior for everyone. And, in particular, it facilitates an accessible venue for those with limited mobility.
One of our biggest complaints at Reading’s beer festival, both this year and last, is lack of seating. A problem exacerbated unfortunately by too many 20-somethings of an antisocial disposition. This age group, in our experience the majority at most beer festivals, when approached by ‘old farts’ like Mr & Mrs Fueled by Beer looking for somewhere to sit, claim the empty seats belong to a friend who has “gone to the bar” or “gone to the toilet”. Even when challenged these unfriendly brats don’t concede the empty space.
In all our Seattle festival experiences, where people are supposed to be cold and standoffish, this hardly ever happened. Anyone would be welcome to join a table, take an empty chair, whatever, and if someone did return with freshly filled glasses or from a trip to the loo, everyone would just squeeze closer together to make space available.
At Cambridge we encountered similar selfish behavior from the youngsters but because there was so much more seating available, particularly outside, we were able to find seats to sit down (twice) to enjoy our platters from Cambridge CAMRA’s awesome Cheese Counter (local artisan bread, cheese, and so much more).
While seated we conversed with a couple of 40-something guys who were engaged in discussion about the joys and pitfalls of fatherhood. They evidently started their families relatively late in life and were great fun to talk with. It left Mr & Mrs Fueled by Beer wondering if the aforementioned antisocial 20-somethings will ever become selfless enough to have children. Quite frankly we’re not certain we want the future of the human race to be left in their hands (hands being being more than a loose term here).
Other than a display by the local fire brigade Cambridge Beer Festival had no entertainment; well not any that the organizers presented. However a number of stag parties were in attendance including one pictured here. We chatted awhile with these guys who by coincidence were also visiting from Berkshire.
Another stag guy we weren’t able to photograph took inspiration from Austrian cross-dresser Conchita Wurst, recent winner of the Eurovision Song Contest. The guy, complete with facial hair and hairy legs wore a low-cut Oktoberfest-style Dirndl dress with outrageous fake boobs stuffed into the cleavage and a long blonde wig. He was so trashed he had no idea what was happening when a ‘friend’ inscribed c**k in magic marker across his throat.
With all the stag activity going on Mr Fueled by Beer rather hoped there might be a hen group in attendance that would emulate Poland’s Eurovision entry but alas no it wasn’t to be.
Although the recent Reading beer festival had the same entertainment stage as last year the acts, at least during our Saturday session, were unremarkable. Cambridge’s unofficial entertainment was much more fun.
As mentioned earlier around three quarters of the 200+ casks on the main bars were sold out by the time we arrived on day six the closing day. However, with a full complement still available at each brewery bar plus maybe 50 or more casks left at the main bars, we were still presented with a very respectable range from which to choose. Unlike at Reading, where we were left sampling ales we might not otherwise try, we had no trouble finding our preferred styles along the bars in Cambridge.
Brewery bars were set up by the following regional breweries:
- Adnams Brewery, Southwold, Suffolk
- Brentwood Brewing, Brentwood, Essex
- Moonshine Brewery, Fulbourn, Cambridgeshire
- Woodforde’s Brewery, Woodbastwick, Norfolk
- Elgoods Brewery, Wisbech, Cambridgeshire
And here, in alphabetical order, are all the beers we ended up sampling. Number of stars denote our favorites this time around.
Mr Fueled by Beer
- Brentwood Brewing Co, Essex: Chockwork Orange Old Style Ale ∗∗
- Castor Ales, Cambridgeshire: American-style IPA (triple dry-hopped Amarillo)
- Elgoods Brewery, Cambridgeshire: Black Dog Dark Mild
- Harvey’s Brewery, Sussex: Prince of Denmark Baltic-style Porter (8% ABV) ∗∗∗
- Mile Tree Brewery, Cambridgeshire: Well Stream ESB
- Moonshine Brewery, Cambridgeshire: Heavenly Matter American Pale Ale (Citra-hopped)
- Portobello Brewing Co, London: American Pale Ale (hopped with Amarillo, Citra & Summit) ∗∗
- Wibblers Brewery, Essex: Hop Black Cascadian Dark Ale (1st UK brewer I’ve seen to say “CDA”) ∗
- Brauerei Heller, Germany: Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier Marzen (1st tasted in Reading, on tap again at Cambridge)
Mrs Fueled by Beer
- Brentwood Brewing Co, Essex: Marvellous Maple Dark Mild ∗∗
- Cambridge Brewing Co, Cambridgeshire: Wayne’s Brain Hefeweisen ∗∗
- Elgoods Brewery, Cambridgeshire: Apple Wheat Witbier (Belgian style infused with fresh apple and vanilla) ∗∗∗
- Moonshine Brewery, Cambridgeshire: Hot Numbers Coffee Stout
- Moonshine Brewery, Cambridgeshire: Raspberry Night Watch Porter ∗∗
- Panther Brewery, Norfolk: Ginger Panther Wheat Beer with Ginger
- Winter’s Brewery, Norfolk: Geniuss Stout
Despite encountering severely depleted selection on the main bars at both Reading and Cambridge just a glance at the list above shows that the brewery bars in Cambridge greatly filled the gap by providing fully 50% of our selections. And of the roughly 50 casks remaining in Cambridge there was still more than enough choice to allow selections of our preferred styles from several different brewers. We didn’t have this range of choice in Reading – of the casks that remained way too many contained styles that were of no interest to us.
Food offerings in Cambridge were also vastly superior to Reading. Not just the CAMRA Cheese Counter but the hot food concessions clustered outside around the perimeter of the venue as well. I understand food offerings in Reading have been better in the past but our experience from this year and last did not measure up.
Seating inside and out was much better at Cambridge than at Reading. At Cambridge we were able to find seats when we needed them, and have social interaction with our neighbors. At Reading we had to stand the entire time, even when eating hot food purchased outside the marquee. Taking turns to eat, passing a plate back and forth, while the other held the napkins and beer glasses, was truly a pain in the butt. This is particularly annoying when all the seats are occupied by selfish 20-somethings with just a glass in front of them and an iPhone in their hand (how they can sit there texting their ‘friends’ while not actually talking to a soul in their immediate vicinity is beyond me – maybe I’m just weird).
The plastic flooring laid atop the grass leading into and completely covering the interior of the marquee at Cambridge was a major enhancement that really showed its value during one brief but sudden downpour. As the crowd of people outside surged towards the marquee to shelter inside I was following a wheelchair-bound guy who was able to move at the same speed as everyone else because of the solid surface. I could not imagine he would have been able to accomplish this on rough grass at the Reading venue.
At the end of the day, despite attending Cambridge on the festival’s closing day, it was a worthwhile trip from Reading. However, if I lived in Cambridge, knowing how the Reading event might be on it’s final day, I don’t think making a similar trip from Cambridge to Reading would be worthwhile.
41st Cambridge Beer Festival – we’ll definitely be back for #42 in 2015. 🙂