If you ask people if they’ve heard of any famous beer festivals it’s a racing certainty that a majority will answer “The Munich Oktoberfest”. It’s the most famous festival based around beer in the world — helped by the fact that it’s been going since 1810.
The Oktoberfest also gets massive promotion in Germany. The opening ceremony, with brewers’ drays parading through the city and the Lord Mayor of Munich tapping the first barrel, is widely reported on TV.
But Munich is no longer the only city to stage such events. On 26 May, Marion Maxwell, the Lord Mayor of Norwich, accompanied by the Richard Marks, Sheriff of Norwich — they don’t do things by half in “the Fair City” — travelled through the streets by horse drawn brewer’s dray to celebrate the opening of the annual City of Ale festivities.
It’s the sixth City of Ale, the brainchild of Dawn Leader and Phil Cutter, and it’s a brilliant boost for beer and pubs in both Norwich and Norfolk. Leader and Cutter are an unlikely duo: she’s a college lecturer while he runs one of the best-known pubs in the city, the Murderers, so-called because a grisly death took place there in the 19th century.
What unites them is a love of good beer and pubs. When she’s not lecturing, Leader is busy tasting beers for her database PintPicker that currently lists no fewer than 16,631 beers.
Cutter is equally hard at work managing a large, rambling, beamed ale house near Norwich Castle, with a tremendous range of beers and regular festivals featuring ales from all over East Anglia.
City of Ale is a new concept, but there’s no shortage of beer festivals in Britain. CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale, stages some 200 a year, culminating in the Great British Beer Festival in London in August, and they have been joined by Craft Beer Rising and similar events that focus on modern craft keg beers.
But City of Ale takes beer out of a single fixed venue and takes it to people in pubs. As you leave Norwich station you’re confronted by the Compleat Angler with a large banner proclaiming City of Ale and the message is endlessly repeated as you walk the cobbled streets with pubs modern and medieval.
Such is the enthusiasm for the event that it’s backed by brewers throughout Norfolk and Suffolk, and further afield in Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire. There are now 40 breweries in Norfolk alone and the choice of beers is remarkable.
City of Ale has inspired other similar events. There’s now an annual Beer Week in Sheffield in March. Fellow Publican’s Morning Advertiser columnist Pete Brown — from Barnsley — has written a special report on the history and revival of brewing in Steel City. He claims that, with 57 breweries, the area of Sheffield is the brewing capital of Britain.
Derby, just down the road, is not to be outdone. It boasts a dozen breweries and is raising the intellectual level of debate. By the time you read this, I will have spoken about beer and the history of CAMRA at the Derby Literary Festival, no less. Tuppence to talk to me now.
This autumn, Cheltenham, lacking a cathedral, will stage a Town of Ale week and can already boast it is home to CAMRA’s 2016 National Pub of the Year, the Sandford Park Alehouse.
These events are far more than just about drinking. They include Meet the Brewer talks as well as tutored beer tastings. During City of Ale, beer writers Matthew Curtis, Adrian Tierney-Jones and myself gave talks to appreciative audiences at St Andrews Brewhouse.
We were accompanied by local brewers, in my case, the amazing Martin Warren from the Poppyland Brewery in Cromer, Norfolk. He is a forager brewer. He combs the cliffs and surrounding pastures of Cromer to add herbs, flowers and spruce to his beers. He has a passion for the Belgian style known as Saison and produces a variety of beers under that title.
For our two talks, he supplied a Saison, a Norwegian farmhouse ale with the addition of spruce, and Tragic Empress Imperial Austrian Porter, a strong dark ale that commemorates the estranged wife of the 19th century Austrian emperor Franz Joseph.
It’s a sign of the times that such unusual beers are not only brewed, but find favour with an ever-increasing number of drinkers.
To emphasise the point, I ended my visit to Norwich at the Plasterers pub (no jokes, please) where I helped add coffee beans to the strong dark Moongazer Mild brewed by Rachel and David Holliday at Norfolk Brewhouse. The coffee came from the specialist Grey Seal coffee blenders at Blakeney on the North Norfolk coast, famous for its colony of grey seals.
Beers brewed with coffee, spruce and in honour of a long-dead Austrian princess. On the eve of the referendum, I don’t want to upset my German ancestors, but there are rather more interesting beers being brewed in Britain than the lagers offered at the Oktoberfest.