The Scottish Real Ale Festival is done for another year, and once again it generated a fair bit of debate. In fact, 2011 seems to have been one of the more contentious SRAF’s of recent years. You may have noticed our daily posts didn’t make it into the final day (Saturday) – an official tweet was released mid-afternoon stating they had run out of beer, and the festival had closed early as a result.
So in many ways, the event was a success – following the difficulty of a venue switch, to get that many people in the doors to drink Adam House dry was pretty impressive. Certainly, the round-the-block queue when we turned up on Friday night showed a healthy interest in Scottish beer. The twelve new brewers in the lineup had their products showcased – and one of them (Kelso’s Tempest Brewery) undoubtedly won the BeerCast beer of the festival with the magnificent RyePA.
So why the gnashing of teeth? This seems to lead back to two issues – the victors of the showcase award, the Champion Beer of Scotland (CBoS), and the venue the festival was held in. We had a direct input into the former, so let’s deal with that first. The overall winner was Isle of Skye Cuillin Beast. Second was Cairngorm Black Gold, and third Houston Peter’s Well. Amongst the (small but selective) Scottish blogosphere a resounding ‘errr…what?’ emanated.
No household names there. I include myself in the bafflement, as admittedly (and I mean no slight by this) I had never heard of the third place beer until it was announced. As a member of the judging panel I copped a fair bit of flack for the result – but we had nine beers placed in front of us, and those were the ones that scored the highest on the day. Cuillin Beast had a great toffee sweetness and a boozy finish, so I don’t regret that it came out on top.
There is an issue here though – more than one, in fact – the selection process takes an age to get the beers through to the final, and then at the final one off-day can scupper everything. The beer I scored lowest was very poor indeed, only later did I learn it’s one of my favourite Scottish beers – this is clearly the danger of a one-off judging event. Of course there are plenty of better beers around at the moment – but on the day, those three got the nods from the experienced panel.
It’s great for a relatively small producer like Isle of Skye that they won CBoS. On the day, Cuillin Beast was the best beer we tasted – so congratulations to them. There may be some discussion on the structure of the process – the lag of twelve months between the rounds should be addressed, for example – but time will tell. Lost in the fallout was the fact that a 7% barley wine won CBoS for the first time – definitely an under-utilised style north of the Border.
The other SRAF issue that cropped up in conversations on Twitter and in person was the venue – Adam House on Chambers Street. The usual venue on George Street was unavailable as the Assembly Rooms are being renovated, hence the switch. The multi-level hall was always going to be tricky, with everything spread over four floors (five if you include the toilets). Crowds at beer festivals always happen, but throw in all those stairs and it becomes far trickier. Personally I didn’t witness any incidents, but hopefully it all passed smoothly.
The biggest bone of contention however, was the heat. Trying to keep the smaller rooms cool (even with the typical inclement June weather outside) was very hard. Even on the relatively empty Trade Session Wednesday, the temperature was getting to the people, and the products. We spoke with one brewer who took his beer off as it had been sitting in the lines too long in the stifling room, and later on in the week people were actually leaving as it was too much.
This is a shame, hopefully these were just teething problems that were caused by the new venue. Beer festivals are inherently warm and uncomfortable when busy, and as a method for showing beer they leave a lot to be desired. But as a method of getting hundreds of beers together for the public, there may not be a better alternative. Keeping the beer as it should be served under these conditions is tough, and clearly at some point things took a downhill slide.
But the SRAF will return, and so will we. There were some great beers out there, I think personally I got through about 25 – from dark roasty porters to lemongrass infused golden ales. We got a surprise CBoS, but one that will hopefully lead the brewery to bigger and greater things. With the stupendous Fyne Ales Jarl winning the SIBA competition, look for good things to come at next year’s festival – just don’t wear too many layers…