Last weekend saw the 26th Sussex CAMRA branches beer festival at Brighton’s Corn Exchange. Here are some thoughts on my experience of the festival and the beers I drank.
With over 170 beers at this year’s festival, the 13 mild ales on offer might not seem much. But I’d all but declared mild extinct in this part of the country - admittedly, many of the examples here are from further afield (further North), but there’s a certain type of beer geek that’s inexplicably drawn to such unfashionable styles, and I’d proudly count myself among them – so 13 milds in one room is pretty exciting to me.
That said, I drank only a few as there were so many other beers I wanted to try, but they were all very tasty and extremely moreish (mild isn't best suited to third-of-a-pint servings) and helped clarify my idea on what mild means. First was Leeds’ Midnight Bell, an elegant beer with a lightly roasty malt backbone and some earthy, vegetal hops adding depth. The hoppy bitterness is bigger than I expected from the style, possibly due to the unusual addition of Willamette hops. Kissingate’s Black Cherry Mild is, obviously, also atypical, though it does have a similar light roasty foundation. It’s too sweet for my tastes, although it does taste like real cherries rather than a sticky, syrupy synthetic flavouring. Arundel’s Black Stallion , a mild that actually does hail from Sussex (though they seem reluctant to refer to it this way), was another solid offering, and I really hope I get to become properly equated with a few pints of it some time. Finally, Summer Wine’s Resistance was the best of the bunch - beautifully balanced between sweet toffee-like malt and bitter hops, with a hint of vanilla adding depth. I've unjustly ignored this brewery for no good reason for too long, and I’ve clearly been a fool.
Stewart’s 80/, a Scotch ale, isn't so different to some of these milds – a little sweeter with next to no discernible hop bitterness, it’s a big, soft, fluffy, malty comfort blanket of a beer. Brighton Bier’s Freshman, an IPA in the Vermont style, is at the other end of the spectrum – super pale malts imparting as little character as possible, accentuating the big, juicy hop hit I’ve come to expect from this brewery. It’s all about hop aroma and flavour, and bitterness is consequently low – it’s exactly the kind of IPA I love, and Brighton Bier’s most accomplished beer yet.
There was also plenty to appeal to fans of smoked beer like myself. Gun Brewery, from Heathfield in East Sussex, have often impressed me, and the new Smoked Rye they've brought with them is excellent – an authentic swirl of Bamberg-style smoke, with a wonderful herb-like finish recalling oregano and rosemary. Langham’s Aegir porter also brings a hefty dose of smoke, alongside a smooth, slightly sweet malt character. Brigid Fire from Celt Experience is a smoked rye IPA that slightly disappoints in the smoke department, and doesn't present itself as particularly hoppy either. Its interesting feature for me is the bierre de garde yeast, which imparts the kind of honeyed sweetness you find in a beer like 3 Monts, or the marzipan character of Jenlain Ambrée. It’s a complex beer that I pondered carefully with every sip.
And finally, some big hitters. Hammerpot’s Baltic porter was smooth and full bodied, with a rich tang suggesting port wine. Kissingate’s Murder of Crows was my undisputed highlight of the festival - a huge, double-mashed imperial stout, reportedly aged for a year before release. It’s rich and sweet with muscovado sugar and clementine flavours, but also slightly tart and tangy, resulting in a balsamic sweet and sour character reminiscent of a Flanders Red. It’s a very special beer, and one you absolutely must order if you’re lucky enough to see it out in the wild.
Alongside some great beers, the event was well organised – all beers in tip-top condition, very few not ready in time for the opening session – and the volunteers were great, everyone enthusiastic and friendly.
Room for improvement
There’s definitely room for improvement, though. I’d love to see the introduction of key kegs (as per the recent CAMRA festival in Manchester), especially as increasing numbers of local breweries are beginning to experiment more with kegged beers. Although I was happy to stand throughout the session and saw plenty of free seats, it’s a shame the seating has to be tucked away around the edges of the room, isolated from the atmosphere of the festival, and seats with tables would be especially practical. I accept that this is a necessary compromise given the space available at the Corn Exchange, and the choice of venue may well explain my other complaint – the food.
The food is, I think, provided by the venue’s in-house catering, and it’s possible that they won’t let the festival bring in outside food vendors, although that wouldn't make much sense considering they’re bring in hundreds of casks of beer from outside. Most of it looked fine, but the festival website and programme both promised vegetarian and vegan options. When I asked about the vegetarian option, I was given a choice of a cheese and onion pasty or chips. The pasty offering was a bit crap, but consigning any vegans to nothing but a plate of chips is just an insult, and especially annoying since it would have taken very little effort to knock up a vegan alternative to the food that was already there – a vegetable chilli alongside the meaty equivalent, vegan sausages (which are available in pretty much any supermarket) for hot dogs. Don’t claim to cater to dietary requirements if you can’t be bothered to do it properly, or even better, ask one of the innumerable vegan-friendly food businesses in Brighton to do it for you.
Whilst it’s not the CAMRA festival’s fault, it’s a shame that so many beer events in the city coincided in such a short space of time. Tiny Rebel’s ‘town takeover’ at various pubs across the city overlapped, and the Thursday night session that I attended clashed with a Siren tap takeover/meet the brewer event at Craft Beer Co. BrewDog Brighton also organised a Sussex keg beer event which I’d have been keen to check out if it wasn't for their continual childish CAMRA baiting in promoting it – there are plenty of us who like cask and keg beer and don’t drink the BrewDog Kool-Aid any more than we pay regard to the conservative faction of CAMRA, so why alienate these drinkers?
Several of these events stretched across the whole weekend if not longer, so in theory interested parties could have attended all of them. But if, as in my case, time and money are limited resources, this isn’t realistic. A little forward planning would benefit everyone.