Searching for a New Order at the Manchester Winter Ales Festival

There ought to be an extra factor in the equation that defines where in the calendar “Blue Monday” falls: the distance in miles you are you away from a winter beer festival. January is bad enough as it is, but what makes it worse for me is the envy I feel towards those lucky enough to live near a festival of winter beers. Finally, I’ve done something about the problem that January gives me every year: I’ve broken my winter beer festival duck at the National Winter Ales Festival in Manchester, the third stop on my journey Around the Year in Beer Festivals.

Winter was made for strong, dark beers; not the other way around. Only, it’s not always easy to find them. What you need is a festival. As my epiphany in Stockholm showed me, I think the point of a beer festival is to sample, to taste something new. The sampling aspect is near necessity if the majority of the beers you want to try are stronger than 5.5% ABV.

When I was planning my year’s tour of beer festivals, the UK’s National Winter Ales Festival (NWAF) filled a sizeable gap between Woking in November and Copenhagen in May. Winter and Christmas beers seem to be more part of the culture of countries in the rest of Northern Europe, so how would Manchester fare? Could it be part of the change to beer culture in the UK that I’m looking for? Are we embracing greater diversity in our beer styles?

Winter ales and more
There’s no doubt that the NWAF showcases winter ales, but it’s not exclusively the winter warmer style throughout. In fact, the beer list has a wide representation of ales that could conceivably turn up at any time of the year. I was disappointed by that at first, but the reality is, you could do all four sessions of the festival and not come anywhere near exhausting the winter stuff. Even If dark-and-strong’s not your thing, you could just stick to the impressive range of non-seasonal beers local to the North West of England.

And that’s just where I started, with Hawkshead Red. I’ve heard a lot about this brewery from the Lake District, and good though the Red was, with its malt-dominated flavour (you can guess the colour), it wasn’t what I’d come for. But the winter ales weren’t at the standard bars; if you wanted a beer entered in competition (for best winter ale), you had to go to the Competition Bar. Confused me at first, but the organisers got this right; it meant you only needed to visit one bar to satisfy your winter ale craving.

So, after a quick grand tour to scope the breweries arranged around the hall from A for “Amber Ales” to Y for “Yorkshire Dales”, the Competition Bar became irresistible. Brodie’s Prime is Hawkshead’s entry. It’s in the winter warmer style, medium bodied and fruity with a hint of roasted malt. Thankfully, the Mwnci Nell from Bragdy’r Nant, failed to live up to its printed tasting note of “fish”, but the Port O Call from Bank Top did indeed turn out to have a hint of port. Really quite Christmassy, without being over-spiced and gimmicky.

I’ve championed Thornbridge before and was drawn to the cask St. Petersburg imperial stout. A favourite of mine from 2010 in the bottle, what would the cask version offer? At 7.7%, it is satisfyingly warming, but it has the body and the roasted flavours to balance. Definitely one of those “what winter is made for” beers. As was Thwaites OBJ. Rich, fruity and sweet almost to the point of a barley wine, but without quite the strength. There aren’t many beers like this, and it’s good to see one of the traditional Northern breweries (they are from Blackburn) keeping up the interest alongside the micros.

A predictable demographic or are we missing a trick?
The festival is a success, no doubt. It’s hard to fault, and yet something is bothering me. It’s not the venue, which is pleasant enough and big enough for the occasion. It’s not the beers; the large range of interesting beers includes a “foreign” beer bar boasting beers in the winter styles of their respective countries.

There’s something very different about the NWAF compared to its summer equivalent, the Great British Beer Festival (GBBF) held in August in London. And it only hits me when my festival companion introduces me to a friend, who opens by quoting Captain Beefheart. Of course, I get the  reference – Dave has set me up. And I’ve been thinking music references all day, all associated with Manchester: from Joy Division and New Order, to the Smiths and Oasis. Surely I could come up with a more modern Manchester band or musical icon. But I couldn’t, and it didn’t look like there were many other festival goers who could either.

Now, I suppose a Friday afternoon is not the best session to assess whether the younger population of Greater Manchester has completely deserted the dark side of the beer world. I just wonder if there is an image problem with dark beer. I’ve noticed a marked decrease in average age at the GBBF as well as a lurch towards blond and golden ales. Are the two perhaps related? If you look at the photo, there are some under 40s, but not many. Please, somebody who went to any of the evening sessions, set me straight, if you can.

In trying to make ales look more like (ordinary) lagers in order to entice a new generation, are brewers merely exchanging one style monoculture for another? Mild ales are already on the endangered species list, what needs to be done to stop winter ales joining them?

Given the opportunity, when people are introduced to the darker beers; whether from the forward-looking micros like Thornbridge (St. Petersburg) and Marble (Chocolate), or even some established bigger players like Fullers (London Porter), they often really like them. And my experience from the south of Argentina to the north of Sweden, is young people go for the dark stuff in a big way.

Obviously, we are at a festival that celebrates the diversity of beer styles, especially if you include the dunkels, the smoked trippels and bocks of the foreign beer list. The list of winter ale styles in competition shares the diversity, even if you might argue about defining styles:

  • Old Ales and Strong Milds
  • Porters
  • Stouts
  • Barley Wines

The existence of new micros, brewing such delights as the fantastic Superior Damson Stout from Liverpool’s Wapping, alongside Robinson’s promoting its established favourite Old Tom, is very pleasing. But I wish more UK breweries would be a bit more exciting with their winter beers; most are lagging behind the lead of the US, where craft breweries who boast a broad range of styles. Be braver! Sure, have a flagship beer, but promote the range, forget the bland marketing of promoting The Brand – it’s old hat. 

CAMRA organises the National Winter Ales Festival, and should take credit for it. I would certainly go again and take more friends. And even if I happened to attend The Antiques Roadshow session, I hope both CAMRA and the breweries build on the success by encouraging even more of a younger crowd to attend – It’s certainly a good antidote to Blue Monday.

Links and references:
The list of Winter Ales competition winners in all categories.
The (somewhat clunky) National Winter Ales website.
Blue Monday explained in Wikipedia.

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