Writhing in the abyss of a hangover, wrestling with fatigue and thirst, random images, thoughts and sentences dig their way out of the recesses of my mind. Adulterated by booze and increased sodium levels, some are fined and bright, others lost in the hazy murk of repetition. Exaltations as the phrase ‘finish him’ flashes past my eyes. Resting a glass on the roots of soft and wispy trees growing from a concrete floor surrounded by people wearing flashing headphones. A blue and red man covered in hands thrusting his many flapping fingers into the throng.
What’s clear is that Leeds International Beer Festival exceeded expectations this year. Take your average City beer fest, double the amount of Bars and Beers, add a load of food of extremely high quality, unique varied and exciting entertainment and a room of free classic arcade machine and you’ve got what amounts to a huge, friendly, bustling house party in the grandest gaff in town.
I flopped out of work on Thursday afternoon and dragged a few colleagues, all of whom were first time LIBF attendees, up to the evening session. Arriving at the festival gates, I was familiar with the layout of previous years, and having picked up our glasses and beer guides we stumbled into the old Victorian Cells which was again occupied by the North Bar crew’s Atomium Bar, a small nod to the Bruxellois way of doing things – Le Chouffe on tap, Orval and the Duchesse in the fridges. Later on we would revisit when there was significantly less room to manoeuvre, but with only a couple of drinkers occupying the benches we pressed on.
From the candlelit darkness we passed through the Town Hall’s service corridors, past a few more cells that looked like they’d seen more recent use – one of which was in use as a station promising Beer Cocktails – and passed through a storeroom into the Crypt. I’d visited the Crypt just before Christmas last year for an immersive theatre experience called ‘The Wood Beneath the World’. Having left me a slight sense of bafflement, but with a well created mysterious set and a creepy atmosphere, the experience was unique. The organisers of the Beer Festival must have thought so too, as they’d sparingly used trees and other parts of the set to create an indoor beer garden, flanked by bars offering the best of Mikkeller’s range and a selection of Beers from rarely seen European Breweries.
I was particularly excited to see Galway Bay’s of Foam and Fury available, along with their other Beers, and even as a Mikkeller-hype sceptic the selection on their Bar was exciting and varied. There was a quiet buzz about the room, and even an hour into the first public session of the festival space was at a premium. This may have been down to the drink prices, which although by no-means cheap, were extremely reasonable for the Beers on offer. Relatively speaking to other bars across the City, £2.50 to £4 a half for a rarely seen Beer from the continent is a bit of a steal, and at a festival with such a huge range of Beer on offer, having a section of the event set aside for Beer like this is an extra course for the feast.
Time shifting to the Saturday night session, I attended again – this time with my wife, who hadn’t been put off by some grunt with a gunt telling her ‘yes, that’s what you would want’ when she ordered a half of Framboise last year. Just goes to show that even at the most progressive, ‘Craft’ Beer Festivals, some Men will still be slavering dongs. That attitude is far from representative of the volunteers at the festival however, and the other attendees I know, male and female, commented on how helpful and eager the bar staff were this year. I don’t think I waited longer than a minute to be served at either session, and considering how packed the Saturday was, that’s some feat.
I’m not normally one to harp on about food at Beer Festivals, but my experiences have generally ranged from cheap and shite to expensive and overcomplicated; ‘Yes, this amazing burger with 8 different toppings was a snip at £5, but how do I get the sauce stains out of my shoes?’ Luckily, most of the food offerings this year were edible when holding a beer glass in the other mitt, and a clear winner for me was Andy Annat’s Crackerjack BBQ stall – big slice of Wild Boar with a manageable portion of shredded beef in a toasted bun. Sometimes simplicity wins out. Especially when I don’t have to put my Beer on the floor to eat. I went to sleep hungry on Sunday evening as I’d had a flavour flashback, it was that memorable.
As far as Beer Festivals go, Music usually seems an afterthought, but again I was surprised by the level of quality on offer this year. Louis Louis Louis on the main hall stage on the Thursday, the silent disco in the Crypt on Saturday, and DJ sets from friends of the Festival and local bands were all well received. Some were distinctly odd (in a good way), others a bit more relaxed, and then there was Misty’s Big Adventure. If you weren’t familiar of the band before the festival, and were casually sipping a half with your back to the stage deep in conversation with friends, then you may have been perturbed or, like me, slightly terrified, when a man in a costume covered in stuffed hands came bounding towards you. Luckily the skills I had honed in the Arcade Room earlier on Mortal Kombat didn’t need to be utilised, as he was more interested in hugs and high fives than being some sort of whirling dervish bitchslapping fiend. The music was great too.
Visually but not aurally traumatised, I went outside for some air and chat. The Town Hall steps are the Festival’s equivalent of a chill out tent, full up with drinkers in various states, mostly merry and gazing out into town. I’d had my eye on Tuatara Brewery’s Sauvinova from the New Zealand Craft Beer Collective Bar and I took my extremely generous half to a cool stone step for a sit. Even with this rambling description of my experience at this year’s event, I’ve barely come close to describing the full events. I’ve barely mentioned the Beer I drank, or the people I enjoyed the event with, and not quite explained how the event features everything and everyone who makes Leeds a great place to drink and how the festival deservedly showcases these people and their businesses. Hopefully though, this post nudges you to pencil in 1st-4th September 2016 to your diary, as it’s already scheduled for next year.