ALE November 1999 No. 296

Decadence and Depravity at the Cambridge Beer Festival 1999

By Kier Finlow-Bates. Originally posted on the cam.misc newsgroup.
(Being a follow-up to Fear and Loathing at the Cambridge Beer Festival 1998)


It seemed like much more than a year had passed since my last visit to the Cambridge summer beer festival, but time can be a strange thing. A year older, and therefore a year wiser, I wanted to make sure that this visit would be different to the last. Firstly, I informed all my friends and acquaintances on which day I would be going well in advance. And secondly, I decided that there should be more to my visit than just the drinking beer. I intended to take onboard the role of amateur social anthropologist, with my intended topic being the festival drunk. I vaguely remembered from my previous visits that although the vast majority of beerfest goers are polite, sensible and responsible, there are always a few of those 'types' meandering incoherently around the Cambridge football grounds, rudely pushing their way in front of others at the bar, and only asking for pints of the strongest beers. They should, I imagined, form suitably interesting subjects, provided they were studied from afar.

* * *

Jon, one of my best mates, is waiting by the entrance as I arrive late on Thursday afternoon, and my girlfriend Sue is there with him too. "Hi guys," I say to them. "Shall we go in?" I pat my pocket to check that I've got my small pad of paper and a pen. After all, I'm going to need to take some notes this time.

Thankfully we've turned up ten minutes before they start charging a two pound entry fee. At the table immediately to my left they're selling beer glasses. Sue and Jon each buy a half-pint glass, but I get a full pint glass (with extra space for the head - there are no undersized measures at the Cambridge Beer Festival). There's a mark for half-pint measures so I don't have to drink pints if I don't want to. Furthermore, I seem to have broken most of the pint glasses at home so this one will make a nice replacement.

I start off by buying a pint of Orkney Raven Ale (ABV 3.8%) at the second bar; it is early in the evening and a beer of that strength shouldn't be too taxing. It will take a while for the prey of my literary focus to arrive, so I might as well join in the spirit of things a bit. Given that my beer is named after a black feathered bird it is surprisingly light in colour. It is very hoppy in flavour which initially I find a bit overpowering, but by the end of the pint it has grown on me. I head down the way to the first bar for a top-up; this time I have a pint of Bateman's Dark Mild (ABV 3.0%). This is more my kind of tipple - fruity and malty with a nice dark colour to it. I drink it down swiftly, as it's not that alcoholic.

Scott's Strong Mild (ABV 4.4%) also lives up to my expectations. It's a smooth, slightly quirky dark ale, but try as I may I can't find the medium chocolate flavours mentioned in the programme.

I take it with me and sit down on the grass in the sun to relax, possibly for the first time this week. But then the tombola guy wanders past, shouting out, "And we have another winner! And we have another winner!"
"Look," I tell him, "didn't you learn from last year. What does it take - death threats?"
"Oh, it's you," he exclaims. "You wrote that story about the previous beer festival, didn't you?"
Fortunately he doesn't try to sell me a ticket, so I suppose compared to the Morris dancers skipping about a few yards to my right he is only a mild annoyance. I drain my pint and stand up.

As I am swiftly served at the bar for the fourth time in an hour, I wonder to myself: what is it with everyone here? Have I picked a quiet night or something? Everyone is polite, and no one jostles me or tries to push ahead. In fact, I'm served with surprising quickness each time. No one is careening about, or slumped back in some damp corner.

I choose a pint of Isle of Skye Black Cuillin (ABV 4.5%). There is no description to go with this beer in the guide, which is probably a good thing for its brewers. 'Bland' is the best word I can come up with. But then again, it's still better than the usual stuff I buy in my local pub. I guess I'm being spoilt a bit for choice here.

By this time I've finished my drink I've developed a bit of an appetite. I go and find Sue and Jon and ask them to accompany me to the cheese and bread servery, where I harangue the guy behind the counter until he opens ten minutes early. I am still keeping an eye out for drunks and miscreants, but so far there has been no sign of any of them. Perhaps they will arrive later in the evening. In the meantime I try to decide whether to have Wensleydale or Stilton.
"There don't seem to be many stereotypical CAMRA people around," I comment to Jon, who is quietly queuing beside me.
"You know, the bearded, beer-bellied and be-sandled. These people all look like computer industry geeks to me."
"But Keir," Jon says, "You're a computer industry geek too."
I make a disparaging noise, and head off with my plate of food to the bar for a pint of Highgate Dark Mild (ABV 3.2%). It disappears as fast as my bread and Wensleydale. Night has fallen very quickly, so I wander back onto the field and sit down next to a group of vaguely recognisable people. They seem to know me, which I suppose is a good thing.
"Do you want to come back with me tonight," I mumble into the ear of the girl next to me.
"Stop being so stupid," Sue answers. "Of course I'm coming back with you. You live with me."
She looks at me in what I can only assume is a disapproving manner, as I wipe away some beer and saliva that appears to be dribbling from my mouth.
"Mind you, if you continue on like this, you'll be staying in the guest room," she adds, and ignoring my protests she gets up to go somewhere else.
What else is there to do but for me to swagger back over to the bar and nonchalantly elbow my way through to a pint of Tomos Watkin Merlin's Stout (ABV 4.2%). Who knows what it tastes like? I certainly can't remember.

* * *

I must have switched over to auto-pilot after that last pint, because events flashed past me unnoticed until I found myself handing a tenner to a taxi-driver, and staggering to the front door of my house. A five minute fumble with keys ensued - they seemed to be made out of butter instead of brass. But I finally managed to get in, and carefully hauled my way up the stairs using the banisters.

There, as I stood in my bathroom gripping the sink, I saw him in the mirror - a monster; a slack jawed, unshaven lout with his hair in disarray and sticky dark beer stains down the front of his shirt. He glared at me, unfocussed in his stupor and yet unsettlingly belligerent. And with a shock I realised that I needn't have searched so diligently for a yahoo to write about.

I should simply have looked at myself.

Keir Finlow-Bates, Cambridge, 27/5/99


Mr. Finlow-Bates again chose well in his beer selection, as the voting results show.


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Cambridge & District CAMRA