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The British Summer of Beer
With The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee to celebrate and the Olympic Games taking place in Britain for the first time since 1948, it’s going to be quite a summer in the UK.
Visitors to these shores will have plenty to keep them entertained, even if the British weather lives down to its usual expectations.
Of course, one of the saving graces of a wet day is the chance to repair to a welcoming pub and to sit out the showers with a few pints of fine British ale.
But, should the sun shine and the clouds lift, then there are plenty of other beer-related amusements to enjoy over the coming months.
It wasn’t so long ago that seasonal ales in Britain amounted to no more than a glass of winter warmer or a pint of Christmas cheer. But all that has changed.
Seasonal beers are now the norm and throughout the spring, summer and autumn, there will be lots of interesting choices on the bars of British pubs.
Many of these new beers will be inspired by The Queen’s Jubilee celebrations or the Olympic Games – even though the threat of legal action from the organizers will ensure that the term ‘Olympic’ will not feature in many of the beer names.
There has been understandable outrage that traditional cask-conditioned ale – a great British institution – will not be on sale at Olympic venues, because the pouring rights have been sold to Heineken, but there are numerous splendid watering holes close to the action centres where some first-rate British beer can be savoured.
Close to the main London stadium, these include Tap East in the Westfield shopping centre at Stratford, The Black Lion at Plaistow and The Eleanor Arms at Bow. Other great London beer venues (and events) are now highlighted through CAMRA's London City of Beer initiative.
While the Jubilee and Olympics may steal all the headlines this year, we shouldn’t overlook all the usual beer-related activities that make the British summer so special. A pint while watching cricket on the village green, or after a dusty country ramble, is up there with life’s supreme pleasures.
Long, light evenings mean that pub gardens come into their own, and there’s no finer place to savour a brew than on the well-tended lawn of a charismatic rustic pub or in the secluded courtyard of an inner-city boozer, shielded from traffic noise and fumes. With the barbecue smoking, what more would you need?
Then, of course, there are beer festivals – hundreds of them up and down the land. The big one is the Great British Beer Festival (pictured above), forced to decamp this year from London’s Earl’s Court to its sister venue just up the road at Olympia, because of Olympic obligations.
The GBBF, staged in early August, will be a smaller affair this year as a result of the move, but you’ll still discover hundreds of cask-conditioned beers from brewers big and small, and many rare imported beers on the Bières Sans Frontières stand.
CAMRA’s second largest festival also takes place in August, this time under canvas in Peterborough, Cambridgeshire.
More than 40,000 visitors pass under its awnings every year and this year there’s the added bonus of Tipplefair (pictured left) – one of Britain’s largest breweriana collectors’ fairs – taking place there on the Saturday.
Visitors to the UK will also be keen to sample great beer in tourist centres away from the capital. Cambridge and Lincoln have beer festivals in May and the festival at Ludlow, Shropshire, in the same month, is held inside the walls of the ancient castle.
Keswick in the Lake District, Salisbury and Stratford-upon-Avon will all be hosting events in June, as will Norwich when the whole area becomes one big beer festival for Norwich – City of Ale.
The Great Welsh Beer & Cider Festival also takes place in Cardiff in June, while the Scottish Real Ale Festival is staged in Edinburgh three weeks later. Historic York has its own beer festival in September.
Alternative beer festival experiences can be had at British racecourses, with Newbury hosting a Best of British day in May and Ascot an increasingly successful event in early October. You can sink a few pints while having a flutter on the horses.
If steam railways are your thing, then look out for ‘rail ale’ days in North Wales, the Cotswolds, the Midlands and the Isle of Wight, as well as the steam traction engine rally that is part of Woodcote Festival of Ales, near Reading, in July.
Music fans will appreciate real ale and jazz events at Lichfield in June and Reading in July, while those with a deeper interest in British brewing history will enjoy the Faversham Hop Festival in early September, which celebrates the new hop harvest and the traditional hop pickers’ ‘holidays’ in Kent.
When the clocks turn back at the end of October, we’ll have the comforts of pubs with real fires and nourishing winter beers to look forward to, but there’s nothing quite like a British summer with a pint of wonderful ale to quench an eager thirst that the sun, if it’s in a good mood, may generate.
For the latest on beer events, see our Events and Festivals listings.
Travellers to the UK should also check out Beer Lover’s Britain, a bargain-price Kindle e-book that highlights everything needed for a successful trip, from beers to seek out to the finer points of pub etiquette.