Sunday, 20 July 2014

40th Kent Beer Festival

The Kent Breweries bar

Following on from last weekend’s SIBA South East Beer Festival, this weekend saw the Kent Beer Festival taking place at Merton Farm, just outside Canterbury. The Kent Beer Festival is the second oldest CAMRA festival in the country, and this year the event celebrated its 40th anniversary.

The first festival took place back in 1975, and was held in Canterbury’s Dane John Gardens. It continued to be held on this site until 1984, when it moved to the Kent County Cricket Ground for a two year spell. In 1986 it moved again to Gravesend’s Woodville Halls; the only time it has been held outside of Canterbury. The venue didn’t prove to be a success, and the following year it moved again to its current site at Merton Farm, just outside Canterbury.

All 40 festivals have been organised by Gill Keay, formerly Knight; but this will be her last event in charge, as she is standing down for a well earned and well-deserved rest. There can be few, if any, other people, who have served such a long unbroken stint as Gill, and she describes in this year’s souvenir programme, how 40 years ago she had to drive round to various parts of the country in a van, to collect the beers herself, as there were no beer agencies, in those days. Gill also mentions that in 1975, there were just two breweries in Kent: Shepherd Neame and Whitbread-Fremlins; both of Faversham. Forty years on and there are now nearly 30 in the county; how things have changed!

Serving the thirsty  punters
Four of us from the Tonbridge area travelled down to Canterbury, by train, on Friday to see what was on offer. It was one of the hottest days of the year, so far, and after overnight thunderstorms and heavy rain, it was particularly humid out. I always enjoy the train ride to Canterbury, especially the section of line north from Ashford, along the Stour Valley. As the train approaches Wye, the first station from Ashford, I can just glimpse the solid square tower of the Norman-built, Brook Church, across the fields in the distance. I spent my teenage years living in Brook, and my friends and I would often cycle to Wye, in order to catch the train for a day out in Canterbury.

Canterbury is an obvious popular tourist destination, and the centre is invariably crowded with throngs of visitors from both home and abroad. In previous years we have walked up from the rail station to the city’s bus station, in order to catch the free shuttle bus which runs back and forth to Merton Farm. This year though we decided to take a taxi, and split four ways between us, it only worked out at a couple of quid each. It not only saved a walk through the sweltering heat, but it meant we arrived bang on opening time.

The festival filling up
A couple of friends who had arrived even earlier  had saved us some seats at a table, so after purchasing our glasses and beer tokens it was time to head for the bars. As might be expected, there was a strong emphasis on Kentish beers, with brews from all the Kent breweries currently in operation showcased on the Kent Breweries Bar. There was also a 40 Favourite Festival Beers Bar, with the top 40 beers, from previous festivals, as voted for by customers at these events. Of more interest though to those of us who wanted to try something new, there was a further bar dedicated to Other Breweries, from across the UK. My favourites amongst this section included Cheddar Ales-Gorge Best, Wylam-Gold Tankard, Great Oakley Wot’s Occurring and Black Hole Bitter from the Burton-on-Trent brewery of the same name.

In keeping with the farmyard setting
For those who have never been to Merton Farm, the festival takes place in a massive cow-shed. This year, given the warm weather, there was a definite “farmyard” smell about the place, but my main gripe was it was stiflingly hot inside. I countered this by nipping outside from time to time, as despite the searing heat from the sun, there was at least a cooling breeze blowing.

A tasty and filling Goan chicken curry helped soak up some of the beer for me, but there was also the option of fish and chips, pork pies, Bratwursts or Scotch Eggs to assuage people’s hunger. We saw Gill wandering around the shed, checking on things in this, her final time as Festival Organiser. The festival will continue in its current form, and at the same site, next year, and hopefully will carry on for many more years to come.

The Friday lunchtime session finishes at 4pm, and the festival then re-opens at 6pm. The evening session is traditionally “ticket only” and, as in previous years, all tickets had been sold out weeks in advance. We therefore caught the first shuttle bus back into Canterbury. On the bus we met up with some CAMRA colleagues from neighbouring Bromley Branch. They were keen to try some Canterbury Brewers’ beers on their home patch, but we knew from previous experience that the Foundry Brew-Pub, where the beers are produced, would be packed. Instead we headed for the company’s other pub, the City Arms, close to the cathedral. There those who had missed it at the festival were able to try the Kent 75 beer, specially brewed to celebrate the event’s 40th anniversary. Although only 3.6% in strength, it certainly packed in a lot of flavour, and appropriately was hopped using only local East Kent Goldings and Challenger hops.

Our Bromley colleagues departed soon after; heading off to Canterbury East station for a train back to Bromley. Our trains, on the other hand, depart from the city’s West station, at the other end of Canterbury, so as we made our way slowly back towards it, we decided to take in a couple of extra pubs on the way.

The Old Buttermarket is just a few minutes walk from the City Arms. It fronts on to a small pedestrianised square, right opposite the cathedral gate, and the tables and chairs set outside the pub looked very inviting. My friends though managed to find something even more welcoming given the fierce heat outside, namely a large air-conditioning unit, in the back room, blowing out some lovely cool air. We sat at a high table, just below it, after first grabbing ourselves a few beers. 

The Old Buttermarket, Canterbury
The Old Buttermarket is a Nicholson’s pub which means it serves a diverse and changing range of interesting beers. For this reason, the pub is quite well-known to us, as we have stopped there on several previous visits to Canterbury. I went for a couple of halves; the first being Hadley’s Blonde from Great Yorkshire Brewery; a 4.0%  refreshing blonde ale, brewed in conjunction with, and named after, Tony Hadley, former singer with Spandau Ballet. The other beer was Xingu Gold, from Everards; a golden ale, originating from Brazil, specially brewed for the World Cup. (Not always a good idea, given our national team’s inevitable early exit from the tournament!). Despite the inclusion of Nelson Sauvin and Cascade hops in the brew, this beer failed to deliver for me; certainly in comparison to the Hadley’s Blonde. Still, you can’t win them all, and after an afternoon’s steady sampling I can’t say my palate was at its best!

Our final port of call, before the train home was the Unicorn; an unspoilt, traditional city-centre pub just across the tracks from the station. I was pretty much “beered-out” by this time, but the half of Whitstable Brewery’s Citra did at least refresh my palate.

On the short walk back to the station we shared a couple of bags of chips between us, and watched the skies steadily darken, and the wind getting up, as a thunderstorm approached. Fortunately we were on the train by the time it hit the city, and when we arrived back in Tonbridge it had more or less petered out. Another good day out, and hopefully we will be repeating the process in a year’s time.

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