Ah, the autumn beer festival season. Pavements run with beer, plastic pint glasses crunch underfoot, air thick with the smell of barbecuing street food. You’re more likely to be rained on than you are at a summer festival, but you’re also less likely to keel over from dehydration after the 11th pint.
Two of Britain’s biggest beer chains have run “beer festivals” within weeks of each other this autumn: Wetherspoons (ran October 16-31) and Nicholson’s (running 21 October – 17 November).
“Beer festivals”, we say: by nature, they’re short, packed, ticketed, temporary affairs. Pilgrimage-spots for the beer-lover. Part of the fun is sampling a one-off brew and, for the London-based boozer, luxuriating in the week when some of the best ales in the country come to you (travel outside the north circular? Me? What?). Can big chains recreate the magic of the summer beer festival? Can you have as much fun sprawled on the floor of your local ‘spoons as you can in the
long, lush charred remains of grass, cigarette ends and syringes in London Fields?
ICIP went to the White Horse in Soho, a Nicholson’s pub, to find out.
This year’s autumn festival marks the chain’s 140th birthday and showcases 50 cask ales (and ciders) on rotation. Your local will change the beers it has on offer every week or so – and will do so in consultation with nearby pubs to make sure one area isn’t flooded with the same IPA. Nicholson’s Cask Masters, the company’s trained beer experts who select the beers on sale in pubs, are on hand in each pub to talk punters through the range and offer recommendations.
The brand does a great line in nostalgia, buying up old British pubs in prime locations for (at least in London) the ultimate Dickensian drinking experience. It’s given them some fantastic locations in London – Soho, the West End, the City – but, as Nicholson’s Assistant brand manager Ben Lockwood tells us when we meet him for a glug-through the beers on offer, it doesn’t always make it easy to accommodate events us excitement-hungry Londoners require, like a real ale festival. And it is these excitement-hungry young drinkers that Nicholson’s hopes to attract with its IPA-heavy festival. Sales of cask ale are on the rise, Ben tells us, and the chain has seen a shift in the age of its punters to a younger, 25-34 audience.
Set around an old-style public bar, which dominates the centre of the pub, the White Horse creates what Ben describes as a traditionally British experience, particularly when coupled with the expertise and local knowledge of the landlord – Nicholson’s well-trained staff, who Ben says are encouraged to talk to customers and offer them samples. But – in the White Horse, at least – you run the risk of entering through the wrong door, having your view of the festival obscured by the bar, and leaving none-the-wiser. This is one potential pitfall of holding a festival in this kind of environment. This is the tradeoff, we guess, for holding a modern beer festival in central London in an environment built for 18th century gin-sippers.
However, this certainly doesn’t affect the quality of the brews. We kick off our tasting with a half of the stunningly delicious Great Heck, an American IPA (5.5%). You can taste America in its breadth of the “c” hops – Cascade, Chinook and Columbus among others – but it’s well-balanced and warm enough to earn a place in an Autumnal line-up. Next up is Thwaite’s 13 Guns, another 5.5% stuffed with New World hops but brewed in Blackburn. It’s lighter than Great Heck – despite being the same abv – but as there’s a lot of halves ahead, this is no bad thing.
We wondered if Nicholson’s beer choices reflect the average punter’s beer taste – and particularly if they are mindful of the ever increasing number of women beer drinkers. “Times have changed,” Ben tells us. “Women drink what they want.” He isn’t surprised to hear we like dark beer – and remembers when a half of Guinness was the quintessential lady’s tipple – but says he would probably recommend something blonde and lemon-y, around 3.8%, to a first-time festivaller.
We move on to Nicholson’s own Porter, brewed by St Austell to a recipe from 1910, which makes an interesting change. Hopped with Fuggles and Styrian Goldings, it’s a rich, dark toasty beer. We were interested in the brewer’s choice of British hops, but Ben told us that a popular taste for zingy, new world hops is endangering home-grown varieties.
Feeling slightly guilty, ICIP tucked into his next suggestion – Broughton’s Hopopotamus (3.8%). Following the Porter it feels a bit lighter – this would make a tasty session beer. Although now the Amarillo, Cascade and Chinook taste less like grapefruit and more like GUILT. We finish off with a half that isn’t part of the festival – Cameron’s Gold Bullion (4.3%) – but makes for a light beer with a citrus-y finish.
Avowed cider newbies, we weren’t sure what to do when Ben offered us a parting half of Orchard Pig’s Explorer Bib (4.5%). ICIP wondered what we were missing when we walked straight past the wall of ciders at the GBBF – and, turns out, we were missing quite a lot. This cider is fragrant and smooth, packing more punch than you’d expect from it’s 4.5%.
We staggered out of the White Horse pub-based beer fest converts. It’s all too easy to sniff at big-brand endeavours like Wetherspoon’s festival – but corporate dollar, at least in Nicholson’s case, has devolved to local expertise (in the form of its Cask Masters), a great spread of beer. You’ve got almost a month to enjoy them – meaning there’s less of an excuse for panic-downing eight halves of whatever you can reach – and, crucially, you can have your fill without fear of being swept into the Thames by a passing seasonal hurricane.
Nicholson’s Autumn Beer Festival runs until 17th November.