My appreciation of good beer began in West Yorkshire.
I went to university in Leeds, and lived in the area for several years afterwards. I arrived there as an alcohol-omnivorous student, drinking Guinness to appear sophisticated, but left with a firm idea of what beer, and good beer, really was. I thought it was something that could be made either locally or far away, but it had to taste proper, and that it had to have something special about it. While I now know the definition of good beer I had as a younger man was vague and nebulous, I occasionally envy his simple understanding. Still, every time I return to Leeds, I’m reminded of great pubs, great beers and great times.
Last weekend, Craig Heap and I returned to Leeds to meet up with friends. It was only a week or so beforehand that I realised Leeds International Beer Festival (LIBF) was on that weekend (honestly). I’d heard good things about the previous two years, and I was curious to see how the Town Hall handled such an event.
It was a fantastic festival. Saturday’s afternoon session was lumbered with damp, drizzly weather, but the outdoor portion (where the street food vendors and disco/beer tent were found) had a music festival atmosphere, while the parts inside the Town Hall reminded me of the better aspects of Craft Beer Rising and London Craft Beer Festival. Friendly staff from the brewers (for the most part) were behind their respective bars, pouring cask and keg beer in great condition from across the UK, US and Europe (Italy and Spain in particular).
It was great to see Ilkley rubbing shoulders with BrewDog, Kernel with newcomers Golden Owl, Magic Rock with Fourpure, Beavertown with Hand Drawn Monkey. HDM’s Brew #100 was my beer of the festival: a blend of imported Nelson Sauvignon grape must blended with 7% abv DIPA, dry hopped with Nelson Sauvin, refermented and barrel aged in a Sauvignon Blanc barrel. The resulting 11% brew had the electric, crisp and juicy intensity of its two key components in equal amounts, the body of a Greek god but the lightness of touch of a butterfly – a truly stunning technical accomplishment.
London was well represented too, but by no means disproportionately so. It was fantastic to see brewers like Weird Beard bringing some very, very special beers (Ardbeg and Macallan barrel aged versions of Bearded Nurse) and welcoming newcomers to their classics, too. Well, the welcome I got from Gregg Irwin was “You wankers get everywhere!” but I think that was a good thing. Camden Town Brewery brought their classics too, as well as some very tasty rarities, particularly their White Knight (a “barrel-aged Belgian sour”) which was reminiscent of both a tart Berliner weisse and BrewDog’s muscular and woody Everyday Anarchy but at an all-day abv of 4.3%.
It wasn’t all whacky beers, either. There was a healthy representation of handpulls on many bars, with brewers like Marble, Oakham and Kirkstall showing how well-brewed and satisfying cask beers are really done. It was this diversity of intent and execution that really marked LIBF out for me as one of the UK’s best beer festivals. The crowd was happy, friendly and varied: older real-alers wandering over from Mr Foley’s and the Town Hall Tavern to mix with earnest beer geeks seeking the Edge, and lively, facepainted, ‘try-anything’ craft fanciers tasting a lot of beers and styles for the first time. It was that last portion of the demographic that interested me most, and indicates our best hope for all of us continuing to enjoy the great beers like those at LIBF for a long time into the future. Beer festivals need to welcome not just beer geeks, but also people open to the idea of being converted.
Now more than ever, it feels like it was long time ago that CAMRA were providing the best beer festivals in the UK. A very long time ago indeed. Newer, better beer festivals are fighting the good fight in new and better ways, and LIBF is absolutely one of them.