You can almost feel the collective shudder from the beer-averse across the region as the Cambridge and District CAMRA Beer Festival is announced. If, like me, you’re not a natural beer-lover, then these pointers are for you:
1. What to expect
An enormous marquee smelling of hops, cheese and testosterone, lined with beer barrel backed counters and animated volunteers and drinkers alike.
2. What to wear
You have two choices here. Dress up or dress down. Old jeans and a t-shirt will do fine as a dress down option. Dressing up will involve following this year’s theme, ‘The Thirty-Nine Steps,’ a novel by John Buchan.
3. Be brave, but not too brave
Enthusiasts will tell you that beer festivals are all about tasting the different styles of beer at their best. The experts behind the counter, often the people who have actually made the stuff, will be able to give you a plethora of advice so don’t be afraid to ask for recommendations and break out of your wine or spirit fuelled comfort zone. But remember this: beer is beer, and however much the brew sounds like a honey-infused cocktail, it will still taste mostly of beer.
4. Sound like an expert
Shhh, don’t tell anyone but Cambridge App Solutions have made an electronic version of the festival’s beer booklet available to download as an iphone app. It contains a list of all the beers along with tasting notes and average ratings collated from other festival-goers. You can search by brewery, name, strength, type or rating and it even shows the real-time availability of brews preventing the panic pick at the bar when you discover your honey-infused cocktail has run out.
5. What to ask for
Check out the booklet or app descriptions and figure out your preference. IPA’s tend to be bitter, astringent and hoppy, golden ales are smoother while stouts and porters are dark and bitter. Beers brewed with lager hops will taste more like lager and wheat beers are a bit like Hoegaarden. The festival also serves foreign beers including the strong, complex and often sweeter Belgian beers. Smoked German beers such as the Rauschibier apparently taste of bacon which may be well paired with a mustardy British beer to make a lovely ham and mustard sandwich if you’re getting peckish. But remember my advice: beer is beer.
6. Try before you buy
Don’t be afraid to ask the friendly volunteers for a taster. They are always very accommodating, no matter how busy they are.
7. What to go for
If you really can’t do beer there are thankfully lots of other options. Cider or perry (pear cider) can be tasty and still comes in pint glasses ensuring you still ‘look the part.’ The festival also serves mead, an ancient and delectably strong blend made from honey, somewhere between wine and whisky to my mind. Local wine from the Chilford Hall Vinery is also served.
8. How to look as though you're enjoying it
Pick out a few words from the beer’s description and repeat them as you nod, disguising your sigh of disdain as a sigh of appreciation.
9. If all else fails
Swap your pint glass for a wine glass, gorge on the delicious meats and cheeses from the CAMRA cheese counter and check out the other fantastic food stalls that will abound Jesus Green. Alternatively you could always pass the time playing ‘spot the best Brian Blessed lookalike’.
10. The next day
No beer festival excursion would be complete without the regulation hangover (particularly if you are drinking cider or mead) so be sure to cancel any plans.
The Cambridge & District CAMRA 39th Cambridge Beer Festival takes place on Jesus Green from Monday 21st - Saturday 26th May 2012