I was sure some things had changed since my first visit. While I’d never claim my memory of any beer festival is, ahem, spotless, I had noticed some differences over the years. While both the festival and I have got bigger and more confident as we’ve aged, what really interested me was the change in the make-up of the rest of the crowd.
I remember having a very strong impression, back in the old days of 2008, that I was one of a very small number of women, and certainly part of a very small group of under-30s. This year, it seemed that the crowd was much more mixed – it seemed to be pretty much a 50-50 female-male split, with a whole range of different ages.
I’m glad to see the real ale industry growing. There’s a lot of ‘trendy’ focus on local food, and the traditions of local brewing are just as important. Beers from different areas will taste different based on the local hops, water and brewing techniques – and of course creating and selling beer is a craft-based source of employment too.
After a serious dip in the 90s and start of this century, the number of small breweries across the UK has shot up in recent years – check out this map on quaffale.org.uk for an idea of just how much choice there is out there.
I’ve written before about why real ale is good, and you should try it (with some tips for where to start if you’ve never had any ), and a beer festival is a good place to try a whole range.
In the case of the Sussex Festival, tickets are between 4 and 7 quid, depending on when you want to go. The festival takes place over 3 days, with morning, afternoon and evening sessions. Evening sessions are more expensive and for that you get some live music and, if you go on the first night, the widest choice of beers. But I’ve usually gone on the last day – the Saturday morning session – and while some beers will have gone, you’re not exactly stuck for choice.
The first beers to get finished are always the most unusual ones. If you want a chance to try beers flavoured with Elderflower, maple syrup, chilli and coconut, you’d better go to an early session.
If you just want to try out some new beers and see what you like (and don’t), feel free to steal my approach. Which is to carefully study the booklet you get when you go in that lists all the beers, and select several you want to try. And then wander up to the casks, chat to the volunteers who pour generous measures and know their stuff, and pick something based on an interesting name or a recommendation.
You can buy beer by the pint, half or third, which in theory means you can sample many many beers. If that’s your plan, do not send someone else to buy your beer for you. All I really remember about the 2011 festival is being presented with a pint of 11% beer. At 11am. It was good, and the rest of the festival was fun, but damned if I can tell you which other ones were good...