The last time I attended the Hitchin Beer Festival was a year or two after I moved to the town in the early Noughties. It was a sunny Saturday afternoon, and as I strolled into the Town Hall I was confronted by a scene much as I’d expected from a beer festival…a fairly sizeable, male dominated, and to be brutally honest, fairly aged crowd of stereotypical real ale enthusiasts, either standing around in small groups clutching their half full pint pots discussing the merits of their current brew, or queuing up at the very long bar that ran the length of the hall and behind which were stacked barrel after barrel of quirkily named ales of every colour, type and strength imaginable! I didn’t stay longer than it took to down a couple of half pints that afternoon. I’d mainly ventured in out of curiosity having fairly recently made the switch from drinking increasingly bland lager to the much more interesting and varied world of real ales. Being on my own, and feeling more than a little self-conscious and out of place, I headed for the exit!
Fast-forward to 2012 and having received a Twitter invite from one of the growing band of Hitchin Tweeps, I found myself strolling up Brand Street at around 7:30 on Friday evening, with a slight feeling of trepidation, for only my second visit to the Festival. Outside the Town Hall I made my way through the obligatory crowd of smokers and into the foyer where a small queue waited to pay the £2.50 entrance fee, and from there, on into the main hall which was absolutely rammed! The layout was the same as last time, with an L-shaped bar running the length of the hall, with a huge variety of kegged beer and cider, all arranged in alphabetical order, stacked 2 high on special racking behind the counter which was staffed by members of the North Hertfordshire Branch of CAMRA.
What I immediately found surprising was how varied the crowd was compared to my last visit. There were, without doubt, a good number of the aforementioned stereotypical real ale enthusiasts, but I was struck by the large numbers of the younger generation in attendance, and also by the fact that the male to female ratio was a lot higher than on my first visit. I wonder if that’s down to the fact that real ales have become increasingly popular in recent years?
Anyway, on to the main reason for being here…beer and friends…not necessarily in that order. There was no immediate sign of said friends, so my first task was to head to the counter in the corner of the hall that was handing out souvenir festival glasses for a £2.50 returnable deposit. These are pint glasses with a twist. As well as the normal markings for pint and half-pint, they also have an extra line marking out one-third pint. With more than 75 UK cask beers, ciders and foreign beers on offer, that one-third pint measure is very useful! All the beers and ciders at the festival are sold in pint, half pint or third of a pint measures! This allows you to sample a good number of beers without over-doing it. In the course of drink 3 pints, for example, you’ll potentially have sampled 9 different tipples!
I eventually hooked up with my companions for the evening…most of whom had been there since late afternoon…in one of the side halls where they had managed to annex a table and some chairs. They were all relatively sober considering they’d been there for 2-3 hours already! I had some serious catching up to do….my first port of call was the cider section where I had spotted a familiar name…Millwhites are regulars at the monthly Hitchin Farmers Market. Their Rum Cask medium cider which is aged in old rum barrels is a very nice drink, although at 7.5%, I was grateful for the 1/3 pint option!!
Not surprisingly, my glass was soon empty, and I was ready for more…there are beers and ciders from all corners of the UK on offer at the festival, and with a family holiday to the North Norfolk coast to look forward to in a couple of months, I decided to try and get in a bit of advance local beer knowledge, and having consulted the festival guide, I settled on Reedham based Humpty Dumpty breweries Nord Atlantic….described in the guide as a dark, thirst quenching, hoppy ale with Target and Centenial hops. Being a relative real ale novice, I can’t claim to appreciate the finer points of real ale tasting, but it slipped down the throat easily enough! Having subsequently checked Reedhams location on Google Maps, I don’t think it I’m going to be bumping into Humpty Dumptys finest on our travels though!
Next up was Quantock Ale from Somerset…Amber coloured, three malts give a fruity, full bodied flavour . English hops create a balanced, fruity character. A traditional English bitter, read the guide…nice taste, easily drinkable say I!
Finally, with my companions beginning to flag a bit, it was time for one final visit to the bar…I decided to look for a recommendation from the experts on the table, and eventually settled on Aylesbury Brewhouses Old Glory (Guide: An American style wheat beer … Ant: light, crisp and fruity…and gone in 240 seconds!)
That was it for the night…I opted to keep my glass…well worth the £2.50 for a nice souvenir of a great evening…..well done to the North Hertfordshire Branch of CAMRA and the Hitchin & District Round Table for putting on what is a great, and clearly very popular and well supported festival which Hitchin can be justifiably proud of…I, for one, hope to make this a regular annual visit from now on!
Update: Just re-reading the festival guide, and forgot to mention the food! Some may consider this a bit of a distraction at a beer festival, and I have to confess it didn’t cross my radar, but by all accounts from those that had been at the festival a bit longer than I had, and needed something to soak up some of the alcohol with, the food provided for the festival by the people behind top Hitchin dining pub The Radcliffe Arms, in partnership with rare breed sausage local producer Cardona & Son, was top notch.