A few weeks ago I wrote a post in which I described how I was suffering from “Festival Fatigue”; tired and disillusioned with the whole CAMRA beer festival scene. It’s somewhat ironic then that last Saturday I ended up eating my words and going along to the Maidstone Beer Festival – an annual event organised by the local CAMRA branch.
I must confess there is a personal interest here, as back in the early 1980’s when I was living in the county town, I was an active member of Maidstone and Mid-Kent CAMRA, and still keep in touch with several members of the branch. My association with Maidstone CAMRA was strengthened recently, as back in April I met up with a contingent from the branch at the CAMRA Member’s Weekend and AGM in Norwich.
Maidstone CAMRA have been running their annual beer festival for more years than I care to remember, and for a long time the event was held at the Kent Museum of Rural Life, at Addington, just outside Maidstone. I was a regular attendee at this festival, as was my son when he was younger, for there was always something different and interesting for him to see at the museum, whilst I enjoyed a few beers. However, in 2010, alarmed at the increasing costs of admission to the museum which, they believed, was starting to discourage people from attending, Maidstone CAMRA decided to take the festival elsewhere and relocated it to East Malling Research Centre. The event is now organised and run solely by the branch.
For various reasons I have missed attending the festival since its relocation, so Saturday was bound to be an interesting day out. I am vaguely familiar with the site, as in the past I have walked through some of the extensive orchards which form part of this important fruit research centre. To reach East Malling from Tonbridge my friend Don and I travelled by train along the scenic Medway Valley line, from Paddock Wood and then up through Maidstone to Aylesford; site of an ancient river crossing, but these days marred by industrial development and extensive paper mills. There was a free, half-hourly shuttle bus, running between Aylesford station and the Research Centre, making an almost seamless journey. The admission charge to CAMRA members was just £2.00; far better value compared to the £11.00 or so charged by the Alternative Maidstone Beer & Hop Festival, which is run by the Kent Museum of Rural Life, and takes place over the same weekend.
I have to say that East Malling Research Centre is a lovely place to hold a beer festival, with its orchards set against the backdrop of the North Downs and with the dramatic gap formed by the River Medway in the distance. A couple of marquees, set at right angles to each other, are used to store and serve the beers and also to provide a limited amount of indoor seating and protection against the elements, should it decide to rain. That perhaps is the main drawback to this festival, as it is much more weather dependent than most. We were lucky this year, as although temperatures had dropped significantly from their mid-week peak in the upper twenties; for the most part it remained sunny, allowing festival goers the chance to soak up the early autumn sunshine and to listen to the varying live acts that formed the afternoon’s entertainment.
However, although the large open field in which the festival takes place is surrounded by tall hedges, of the type traditionally planted in fruit-growing areas as protection against cold winds, there is little in the way of shelter should the heavens decide to open. We were lucky to get a seat inside the tent, as a couple of Don’s friends, who live locally, had arrived virtually on opening time and had managed to procure a table and chairs, so the folding canvas chairs I had brought as a precaution were not needed.
As for the beer, there was a mix of local brews combined with offerings from further a field, with around 60 beers in total. As things turned out, this was not enough. The sunny weather had attracted large numbers of people, and from mid-afternoon onwards thirsty drinkers were four or five deep at the bar. I felt sorry for the hard-pressed staff as they struggled to serve the hordes of thirsty punters, but by 6pm their tribulations were over and the beer had all run out. The cider had run out an hour or so beforehand, proving how popular this traditional alternative to beer has become in recent years. Unfortunately there were still two hours left, but with no beer left, Don and I decided to make a move, and catch the next bus back to Aylesford station before the queues built up too much, once people decided to leave en mass.
Beer of the Festival for me was Salopian Lemon Dream, a 4.5% bright-golden top-fermented, wheat beer, served “bright”. According to the copious tasting notes supplied as part of the festival programme, the recipe uses a small amount of fresh lemon to compliment the citrus flavours produced by the Goldings, Saaz and Cascade hops. Also on top form were Raspberry Blonde, from Saltaire and Top Totty from Slaters.
Would I go again? Yes if the sun is shining, but definitely not if it is pouring down with rain.