I love festivals. I love how, in defiance of depressing summer after depressing summer, beer festivals, literary festivals, music festivals, food and drink festivals continue to multiply across the country.
The word ‘festival’ covers a huge variety of events, and three weeks ago (12-14 August) I was speaking at an event that combined the best bits of several different types.
The first International Craft Cider Festival in Llancaiach Fawr, south Wales (thankfully I never had to ask for directions), was organised by the Welsh Perry and Cider Society, and featured scores of 100% pure juice ciders and perries in three marquees: English, Welsh and international.
These were arranged around three sides of a pretty courtyard outside a National Trust-owned manor house, with the fourth taken by local heroes Otley brewing, for a bit of contrast. A colourful food market inside the building fleshed out the epicurean treats on offer — the pink-mohicaned, Stuart-era clothed musketman selling jerky could have passed for one of the period actors in the manor house itself, where it’s always 1645.
But the festival vibe came into its own further out into the grounds: a full-size stage played host to bands throughout the weekend, who entertained a main arena fringed with food tents. Over the hedge, beyond the Portaloos and showers, we joined many festival-goers who completed this curious Ludlow-Glasto hybrid by camping for the weekend.
And I loved it. I loved rolling out of my sleeping bag, appreciating anew the often unremarkable benefits of toilets, showers, morning bacon butties and cups of tea, recast as delicious luxuries by the practicalities of sleeping in a field. I loved chilling out on the damp grass, and then rolling up to a few tutored cider tastings to get the day’s drinking off to an agreeable start.
And if the ‘festival’ side of things made the International Craft Cider Festival special, so did the ‘international’ bit.
What I find endearing about cider is that it has many pockets of passionate producers and consumers around the globe, and they’ve only just started talking to each other. Each is an enclave believing they’re the only ones who do it. There’s no cider equivalent to Michael Jackson’s Beer Companion or Hugh Johnson’s World Atlas of Wine (although I’m hoping to change that).
So here, in south Wales, we had German Apfelwein (‘apple wine’) manufacturers talking us through why some of their products really do sit more comfortably alongside vivacious Italian whites; flamboyant Asturians ‘throwing’ their sidra to oxygenate it for a brief mayfly life of sparkle; and ex-pat Brits showing Normandy perry, whose dry bite and lovely mousse-like texture is at least the equal of Champagne; as well as a (literally) dizzying range of still and sparkling, strong and weak, sweet and dry and bitter-sweet beverages from closer to home.
First years are always tough for any festival. You start off having to rely on local custom before you can draw people in from farther afield, and this corner of Wales perhaps didn’t have the best catchment area for a perfect event. Numbers were lower than the organisers hoped.
Also, I quickly grew weary of local lads playing covers of Guns N’ Roses and Kings of Leon up on the stage. The rambunctious, cider-fuelled mix of folk, blues and ‘Scrumpy & Western’ played at Somerset wassails would have helped this festival put its foot to the floor more effectively.
But these grumbles aside, the event — years in the planning — did work. With the difficult first year out of the way, I look forward to a busier and better 2012, and hope that funding, ambition and motivation all remain in place.
Late in the day an exhausted, wired Dave Matthews, chair of the Welsh Perry and Cider Society, told me: “Beer is the better drink, because it has the multiple ingredients that give it the complexity and sophistication cider will never have. But I believe cider is the better world, the better culture.”
You may disagree. But you owe it to yourself to at least get in there and do a very thorough comparison first.