Woking Beer Festival: The Return of the Native

A Saturday afternoon in November was approaching the time of, well, lunch, rather than twilight, as it had been in the opening line of Thomas Hardy’s Return of the Native. And as I was seeing Woking Park embrown itself instead of Egden Heath, it could only mean I was on my way to the Woking Beer Festival.

Woking might not seem an obvious addition to a calendar of Around the Year in Beer Festivals that started in Stockholm, and I hope will go on to include Copenhagen, Manchester and Denver, but in my split-level existence, it is one that I can call local – the laziest travellog? Perhaps, but it’s hard to pass up a beer festival that you can walk home from, especially when it’s as good as this. Anyway, you need to know home culture before you can properly assess “abroad”.

It was the prospect of BrewDog 5 AM Saint that got me salivating as we walked to the venue: Woking Leisure Centre. I was priming MaltCim, Nathan and Tom on what to hunt down. In fact, so intent was I in getting to there I had forgotten to go to the cashpoint. Heroically, MaltCim offered to zip off to the ATM while we made sure the 5AM Saint was still on. “I’ll save you a sip.” I said, rather unheroically.

The remains of the BrewDog 5AM Saint, waiting for MaltCim at the Woking Beer Festival 2010

This was the second time the four of us had been to Woking beer festival, but it’s the 17th time it’s been held. The Leisure Centre is just across the road from Woking Football Club. If the town’s football is played in the lower echelons of the soccer hierarchy, the beer festival is grand enough and has a range of beers that might push it into the top division of festivals organised by CAMRA.

No hanging around finding starter beers; straight to the 5 AM Saint. I really liked the bottled version (from Morissons), but this cask is very special: incredibly aromatic with passion fruit, lychees, and pineapple. But if you think you’d be better off with a fruit salad in a Chinese restaurant, the taste leaves you in no doubt this is a beer: richly malty and bitter, with a fight between the exotic fruit and resiny bitterness as you swallow.

MaltCim shows up with the cash, and I have indeed saved her a sip. “What do you think of this?” we enthuse. “It’s tastes a bit soggy,” she says. Oh well, maybe these Nelson Sauvin and Simcoe hops aren’t for everybody. She goes instead for a Bottle Wreck, a porter style from Hammerpot in Sussex. MaltCim has long been an acolyte of the Dark Side.

I like the Woking fest because it is a very friendly, down-to-earth and local festival. It gives flavour of southern England outside London. Not quite Hardy-esque, I admit, but it’s the sort of festival you’d bring the Swedish side of your family to (which we did a couple of years back). And if the location is generic-looking, it makes up for it by having a real-live, old fashioned Wurlitzer cinema organ, which is used to full effect every session for a rousing sing-along.

It’s quite a big festival, by anyone’s standards, with 75 cask ales, some ciders and perries, a respectable “foreign” bar that mostly has Belgian bottled beers. There is a healthy proprotion of micros from London and the South East: Twickenham, Sambrook, Surrey Hills, Ascot… good marks for that. But what elevates the festival for me is the smattering of craft beer gems brought from around the country. As well as the BrewDog, there’s Thornbridge, Marble, and Saltaire.

The pick from Saltaire on show this time was the Blackberry Cascade. It might sound a bit gimmicky, but the addition of blackberry was subtle, and with the American Cascade hops and good juicy flavours from the malt made me wonder who has the ideas for these brews. Somebody at Saltaire has a real feel for flavour combination.

Saturday afternoon turns towards evening and before time is called for this session, there’s one last call to the Foreign stand for an exclusive carry-out or two, and out back across Woking park. I’ll be there again next November, and so should you; Woking is just 30 minutes from Waterloo Station. And maybe I’ll get around to reading past the first sentence of The Return of the Native.

Woking Beer Festival 2010 Beer List

Proper quotes from Thomas Hardy’s Return of the Native

Monty Python’s Novel Writing Sketch (whence my intro)

Saltaire Brewery website

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