MAINTAINING professionalism at a beer festival is a difficult thing. To go to one and not have a drink is a bit like going to the moon and not getting off the spaceship to have a look around. And look around I did.
So much so that my memories of Woking Beer Festival, held at the Leisure Centre on Friday night, are as clear as some of the rich stout on offer. But here’s what I do remember.
Now in its 19th year, Woking Beer Festival is a celebration of real English ale. As you would imagine, it is a relaxed affair –bellies flew at half-mast and peeked out from beneath their owners’ stretched T-shirts and the evening ended in a mass sing-along.
From 6pm merrymakers poured into the Leisure Centre to be met with a programme and pint glass by the always-helpful volunteers from organisers Camra, the Campaign for Real Ale group.
The list of available beverages, with more than 70 ales to choose from, as well as perry, cider, and imported beer, was as long as the queues for the toilets.
You might think that 1,500 ale lovers and enough alcohol to pickle a blue whale would end in tears. For some it probably did.
But there was no hint of trouble. Camra steward Jeff Bates said: “Most lagers are around 5 per cent in strength, but these real ales start at 3.5, so it allows for more responsible drinking. Real ale lovers are responsible drinkers and they’re passionate about ale.”
Not all of the beer available was such a paltry strength. The knockout blow for me was the 8.5 per cent Dupont, a thick and sweet Belgian honey beer. But many drinks originated closer to home, important in an age of food-miles and carbon footprints.
Woking Beer Festival organiser Ian Johnson said: “We have an ale here from Thurstons brewery, in Horsell, and 20 breweries from within a 25-mile radius.
“There are about 1,000 breweries in Britain, which is 300 more than last year, and good considering 5 or 6 pubs are closing a week.”
The barrels of ale, like the 130 dedicated Camra volunteers, had rolled in from all over the UK. Steward Jeff had travelled from St Albans, and revealed that some volunteers spent the night sleeping on the leisure centre’s crash mats.
His colleague, Mark Meadows, had come up from Devon. He said: “I do 5 or 6 beer festivals a year, from Devon to Yorkshire. I do enjoy them – especially the drink at the end of the night.”
Christal Cheslock and her partner had travelled nearly 4,000 miles to get to Woking Beer Festival. She said: “I’m from Green Bay, Wisconsin, USA. We’d flown in to Heathrow and were going to see a concert in London, but it was cancelled, and we saw this advertised so thought we’d come along.”
The hubbub in the leisure centre was punctuated throughout by Len Rawle’s playing of the ‘mighty’ Wurlitzer organ. Towards the end of the eveing, many tried to cram into the smaller hall to get close to Len for the sing-along finale.
Those that didn’t make it watched on a big screen from the main hall, and, adding a real sense of togetherness, 1,500 beer-soaked ale lovers joined in boozy harmony to sing a medley of pop hits and traditional songs such as the Beatles’ She Loves You, I Wan’na Be Like You from the Jungle Book and the perfect finale, Show Me The Way to Go Home.