St Albans Beer Festival comes of age

St Albans Beer Festival

St Albans Beer Festival - Credit: Archant

If a beer festival is a celebration, then this year’s St Albans event is a loud shout of joy. It marks the 21st festival to be held at the Alban Arena and it proves the doomsters wrong who said back in the 1990s that the city had so many pubs – 55 at the time – that there was no need for a separate festival.

St Albans Beer Festival

St Albans Beer Festival - Credit: Archant

But while the city had a lot of pubs, beer choice was poor. Two giant national companies, Ind Coope – part of Allied Breweries – and Whitbread dominated St Albans’ pubs. The festival unlocked the dam and proved to local beer lovers that, thanks to the prodigious efforts of CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale, with its head office in the city, there were scores of fine beers being produced by a growing number of independent brewers.

John Bishop, publicity officer for the festival, says there had been festivals on a small scale in St Albans and Hertfordshire dating back to the mid-1970s, when beer was 20p a pint. The first was in a hall in Drovers Way, now a multi-storey car park, followed by events at Hatfield House and Hatfield Polytechnic.

The first festival in the arena was organised by Geoff Harrison, chairman of the Lions, who are still involved in the event to this day. Geoff went on to become a Lib Dem councillor and mayor. He was followed by CAMRA stalwarts Steve Bury and Phil Defriez, who remain key organisers 21 years later.

John Bishop shows how the event has grown with some fascinating statistics. The first Alban Arena festival offered 90 beers while this year’s event will have 90 beers from Hertfordshire brewers alone. There will be 350 cask ales and 50 ciders for 2016, plus 70 foreign beers and a special stand for 50 bottle-conditioned ales – that’s beers with live yeast that will improve with age.

St Albans Beer Festival

St Albans Beer Festival - Credit: Archant

Two thousands drinkers attended the first event while 10,000 are expected to pack the arena this month. The main arena is no longer big enough to contain the festival, which now extends to a patio outside and also in the basement.

There will be additional bars this year and one major attraction will be the famous Czech beer Pilsner Urquell, the first golden lager brewed in the mid-19th century, which will be served at the festival unfiltered and unpasteurised from a special tank brought all the way from Pilsen in central Europe.

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Local brewers are queuing up to support the festival. Red Squirrel from Potten End will have their own bar and have brewed a special beer using hops from the brewer’s garden. There will be a total of 20 special festival beers from, among others, Tring and Ale Craft.

Volunteers manning the bars will wear a special 21st anniversary shirt that will be on sale: it’s worth buying, as the Olde Fighting Cocks pub will sell you a pint of Farr Brew beer for just £3 if you wear the shirt.

There will be beers from all parts of the country and John Bishop will be keen to see if the St Albans festival keeps up its record of selling more Oakham Citra pale ale than either the Peterborough festival – where Oakham is based – or the mighty Great British Beer Festival in London.

John and his colleagues cast their net further afield than the UK. As always, there will be a large foreign delegation of beers, with many famous ales from Belgium, including those brewed by Trappist monks, while And Union from Bavaria will be on show with their Germanic interpretation of India Pale Ale: they say, in English, that it’s not a beer for “woosies” – Achtung: you have been warned.

Creature comforts are not ignored. Food this year comes from the Crusty Pie Company, curries from India Gate, German bratwurst or sausage, which may be suitable for woosies but not vegetarians, and Piper’s Crisps.

And the joint will be rocking every evening with the likes of the Zipheads and Geno Washington and the Ram Jam Band plus the more restrained offerings of the Bagatelle String Quartet at Saturday lunchtime.

The festival runs from today to Saturday 1 October and will be open 11am-11pm every day. For full details of prices, beers and entertainment go to Entry is free for CAMRA members.

So come and raise a glass and salute the pioneers who have turned the festival in to one of the best in the country and at the same time encouraged the city’s pubs to break free from the shackles of giant breweries and offer superb choice to local drinkers.

*Roger Protz will be at the festival on Saturday evening, 1 October, to sign copies of the 2017 Good Beer Guide.