Is it possible to be too hot, at an outdoor beer festival in Scotland? Almost never, you would think, but the weather gods were beaming down on Argyll last Friday for the first day of 2015’s FyneFest. The annual beer, music and camping festival is many things – but it’s rarely uncomfortably warm. The very first one, held entirely within the confines of the brewery courtyard in 2010, was apparently greeted by blazing sunshine (although I wasn’t there), and the people who had made the long trip up the stunning A82 to the head of Loch Fyne must have had similar feelings at the end of last week.
I wasn’t there either, though – after finishing work and obeying all traffic regulations and speed limits, it was 7pm before we arrived and managed to snap the sun disappearing over the westerly spur of the valley, casting a glow over the opposite side as it went. After a healthy application of Smidge that Midge (check out the Blair Witch-style video) and the traditional tent-based meltdown – it not having been out of the cupboard for 364 days – it was off to the large marquee and a pint of the traditional FyneFest opener, Jarl. Launched at that initial festival five years ago, it’s probably the Scottish beer I’ve had most of since (maybe Punk IPA shades it, though). There’s not a better first beer out there. Or second.
If you’re not familiar, FyneFest is the yearly beer festival hosted by Argyll’s Fyne Ales, held on location where the beer is made, and where the principal ingredient often arrives in spades. Since the early days, it has changed beyond recognition – with the move to its own field, the arrival of guest beers, and then a whole host of changes. One thing that hasn’t changed though is the generous pours (see above for a ‘half’), but the beer list has now become on par with other amazing UK festivals. It really is that good. Over the course of the weekend, offerings like Siren’s All Bretts Are Off, Alechemy Malacca Black IPA and Freigeist Salzspeicher Cherry (a German sour cherry porter) were notable highlights.
Not for me though. After last year where I went all out and very definitely paid the consequences, this particular FyneFest was a determined effort to stay at home and enjoy the local flavour. By that, I mean I pretty much just had Fyne Ales beers the entire time. The chalk displays (v. craft) hoisted up over the bar had some tempting treats – and I did eventually branch out into Galway Bay’s Full Sail IPA and the always-excellent Hawkshead IPA – but by and large it was Fyne Ale after Fyne Ale. The best beer they make, Vital Spark, followed by all the golden stablemates (Avalanche, Rune, Hurricane Jack), and this year’s festival debut, the American-hopped Wheat Ale Yakhop.
It kind of made sense, for me. FyneFest is now about catching up with people you haven’t seen for ages, it’s about eating amazing food (looking at you, BowlFood) and being as comfortable as you can be, in a rain-blasted field (unfortunately the Saturday was not as blessed as the Friday). It’s about familiarity and relaxation. Of course you can take notes and try the new stuff, but with no phone signal and after a busy week, it’s become even more of a pleasure to turn the brain off and coast to the bar, before picking whichever Fyne Ales beer you find yourself in front of. Because it will always be the right choice.
People talk of pubs as being extensions of their living room. FyneFest is an extension of your garden, into the largest beer garden in Scotland. Since the early days, Jamie and the team have worked tirelessly to add more and more; bigger numbers of food trucks, second and third tents, and now a whole second bar and stage up at the courtyard, where it all began. It’s a testament to them that so many people brave the elements and journey to the head of Loch Fyne to join them. I know I’ve said before that IndyMan is my favourite festival; but each time I get that first pint of Jarl and have a look round to see what this year’s FyneFest has to offer, I realise where my real favourite lies.
Oh, there was one beer I didn’t like – Monarchy Methusalem – a 10% sour smoked altbier which tasted like a Pepperami that has been on a windowsill for three weeks.