ALE Summer 1998 No. 291

Fear and Loathing at the Cambridge Beer Festival 1998

By Kier Finlow-Bates. Originally posted on the cam.misc newsgroup.
'Let's go to the beer festival sometime next week,' I suggested to some of my friends at the weekend. 'I think it's in town again. It's being held at the Cambridge City football grounds on the corner of Milton Road.'
'But there is no football ground there,' was the unanimous response.
'Yes there is,' I insisted. 'We can meet up inside at about six in the evening on Tuesday. I'll see you there.'

* * *

Six PM, Tuesday. I'm standing on my own amidst a crowd of beer aficionados in a large tent pitched on the Cambridge football ground and I'm clutching a pint of Caledonian Porter (4.1% ABV) in one hand, and a hunk of bread in the other. I keep expecting to see a large number of bearded fat-bellied sandal wearers among the crowd, but they appear to be in short supply today. Far more common are long-haired serious young men in black jeans and white tee-shirts, wearing thick rimmed glasses and looking like junior programmers. Indeed, the few conversations I manage to overhear are about Java and Microsoft and the US Department of Justice.

Six-thirty PM. I thought my friends would be here by now. The Caledonian Porter, described in the beer guide as 'Anther (sic) rare beer, dark and malty', was indeed dark and malty, but wasn't especially 'anther'. In any case, I've finished it - so it's time for more. On this visit to the bar I choose B & T Edwin Taylor's Stout (4.5% ABV). The name is a mouthful, and so is the beer, which has a gritty and extremely bitter taste to match my mood. Where are my friends?

To while away the minutes I go over to the souvenir section and buy a badge bearing the legend 'Trust Me - I'm a Doctor' for 75 pence. A guy next to me asks, 'And are you one?'
'Yes,' I reply, 'but only metaphysically, of course.' This seems to satisfy him, and he wanders off.
I finish my pint and head for the beer tent. This time I order a pint of Leatherbritches Scrum Down Mild (5.3% ABV), which is described as an extraordinarily strong mild. I manage to down it in three long draughts, so it can't be that strong. An Orkney Dark Island (4.6% ABV) seems the perfect follow on. I order a pint and begin to weave my way through the crowd, back to the souvenir area. I seem to remember that some shiny metal things are on sale there.

It's quarter past seven, and I'm standing by a display where they are sell pewter hip flasks. I feel an overwhelming need to buy one growing in me. The guy behind the flask counter is engraving something into a pint glass. He is using something that looks like a cross between an electric screwdriver and a dentist's drill, so it is with trepidation that I approach him. Apart from the whining device in his hand he has a huge bushy beard and a mad look in his eyes, but worst of all his forearms are covered in swastika tattoos. Perhaps he is only a Hell's Angel or some English equivalent? I wait until he has finished his task before I speak.
'Err, I'd like one of these flasks,'
'The Lindisfarne design? That's sixteen pounds, that one. What do you want engraved on it?'
For some reason I haven't thought through this requirement before placing my order. My mind races, trying to grab on to a sensible slogan or expression, as the engraver glares me impatiently.
'Keir's flask,' I suddenly blurt out.
Oh how very imaginative, a tiny voice mutters in the back of my mind. To compound the humiliation the engraver makes me write it down for him on a scrap of paper. Then he copies my scrawl onto the surface of the metal, translating it into an attractive gothic font in the process.
'This okay?' he asks.
I nod (I could hardly disagree with him, now, could I?) and immediately metal grinds on metal for a tooth-shattering two minutes. He hands the flask across to me and takes the money. I back away, tentatively offering my thanks.

By the time I'm back in the beer tent my confidence has returned. I push past two inebriated folk music fans vociferously arguing about the relative merits of two bitters, and order a pint of Hopback Entire Stout (4.5% ABV). By now this tastes bland and weak to my dulled taste-buds; it has nothing like the 'strong roasty flavour' mentioned in the guide book to it, but I knock it back with gusto anyway. I buy a pint of Hopback Summer Lightning (5.0% ABV) as a follow-up, and it is more to my liking, so I take it on a walk with me. I am still searching for my friends, if friends they are.

A mad tombola guy is walking around the grounds now too, shouting out semi-coherent phrases. To me he looks like the kind of person who refers to the people behind the beer tables as 'stout yeomen of the bar' and orders his drinks by exclaiming 'bring me a goodly pint of your finest ale'. I offer money to a couple of random people if they will punch him, but no one sees fit to oblige me.

I think I fell over at this point.

It is nine o'clock. I think it is nine o'clock. I can't tell. My eyes are too unfocussed to read my watch. I'm just finishing off my pint of Elgoods Black Dog Mild (3.6% ABV) and I need to leave this place. As I walk out of the gate the man at the till backs away from me - perhaps he can spot the embers of belligerent discontentment in my eyes, or perhaps he is scared that I will throw up over him. Or perhaps he didn't back away, and it was just a trick played on me by my intoxicated mind. Whatever. But as I sway back and forth in the entrance trying to get my bearings I notice a group of people walking towards me. My so-called friends have just arrived.
'Good evening,' I say. 'I was just leaving. Now for God's sake, call me a taxi.'

Keir Finlow-Bates, Cambridge, 19/5/98

Mr. Finlow-Bates chose well in his beer selection, as the voting results show.


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