With the number of craft beer festivals on the rise, I’ve started viewing each one with a level of scepticism. What is this festival trying to accomplish? Is there a niche that they are trying to fill? Is there space amongst an arguably oversaturated calendar? When I visited Craft Beer Calling last month in Newcastle, I kept these questions in mind, and although Wylam didn’t really give me a definitive answer, they still put on a damn good show.
What I liked
It’s hard not to get excited about a festival when it is being held within one of the most visually stunning breweries in the UK (as I touched on in my Newcastle travel notes, the Palace of Arts is a spectacular building). The festival was mostly hosted in the Grand Hall, which is a magnificent, imposing circular room often booked out for live music events, weddings and other private hire purposes. Brewers were situated around the outside, as us customers mingled and compared beers over the long banquet tables that formed the middle.
The atmosphere at Craft Beer Calling was electric, with punters and brewers alike sharing stories and chatting happily. The lighting was ambient, with exposed string lights forming a canopy above the hall, and red spotlights giving a darkroom moodiness to it all. It was cool to see the rest of the brewery opened up too, with a number of brewers setting up shop amongst the tanks and equipment.
In the Grand Hall you would find a DJ perched merrily on the stage, laying down classics such as Hotel California and Don’t Stop Me Now. The music was often upbeat and amicable, but the DJ wasn’t afraid to slip in the occasional oddity. Having been to festivals playing trance and dubstep before, being able to recognise and sing along to the songs (terribly, might I add) was a major boon and lifted my spirits considerably.
The beer range
The breweries that had come along and the beers they had brought were top notch. If you were looking for the finest of what the UK had to offer, you couldn’t have come to a better place. Let’s reel some of them off: Wylam (duh-doy), Verdant, Cloudwater, Magic Rock, Northern Monk, Wander Beyond, Track, Burnt Mill, Boxcar, Tiny Rebel…need I go on? For me personally, it was also exciting to sample drinks from breweries that I hadn’t tried before such as Almasty, Beerbliotek and Black Lodge. What was particularly great was that almost all breweries had four kegs on at any one time, giving you plenty of options.
Food-wise, the festival offered a limited but well-curated list of street food trucks. The pizza I had from Scream for Pizza may have been the best truck pizza I’ve ever tasted. If you ever see them, just shut up and let them take your money.
Update 11/10/19 – Scream for Pizza have since opened a restaurant in Newcastle, which is absolutely fantastic to hear. Go visit them next time you’re in the city.
What I wasn’t so keen on
The missing beer list
Where was the beer list, Wylam? There wasn’t even any teasing or build-up on social media ahead of the big weekend; the organisers failed to create much buzz despite the impressive and rare beers that they would be hosting. From my point of view, having a list ahead of time would have allowed me to plan out what I wanted to try, or at least attempt to try, and would give me more time to enjoy the festival, rather than having to play a memory game all night thinking back to what each brewery was offering. I understand that it might be tough finalising exactly what everyone is bringing, but even a vague point of reference is better than nothing!
The token system
The token system was functional, but could have done with some finesse. For starters, there was only one token point in the venue, and oh boy did the queues pile up. I was lucky and was through the door and token’d up fairly quickly, but within 10 minutes the queue was snaking all over the place. The token system was to exchange cash into £2 and £1 tokens which could be exchanged at bars. Things were simple for the most part but there were a few times when the pourers themselves looked unsure which way a ½ or a 1/3 would break (there were no smaller denominations).
At the end of the night you could get a full refund on unused tokens, which was nice at least. It was better than Moseley Craft Beer Festival’s system, which I went pretty hard on previously, but I still wasn’t a fan. Give me an all you can drink or a one for one system please!
Beer of the night
Newcastle locals Box Social smashed it out the park with their Imperial Campfire Porter. Think roasted marshmallows and rich chocolate sauce. The regular edition is already something special, but the imperial version elevates it to new levels. Wonderful.
Honourable mentions include Cloudwater’s bourbon barrel aged imperial stout and Odyssey’s cyro IPA.
Left Handed Giant, Salted Caramel Porter. I needed this beer to be good to restore my faith in LHG, but it just didn’t hit the mark. It was lacking in all flavours, there was no salted caramel present to wrap my taste buds around – I just didn’t find it enjoyable.
Final thoughts on Craft Beer Calling
On the whole, Wylam put together an extremely enjoyable, if unremarkable, celebration of UK craft beer. There were a lot of positives of Craft Beer Calling 2018, especially surrounding the beer on offer, but I feel there was a lack of finesse that ultimately let the customers and breweries down.
Did you attend Craft Beer Calling? What were your thoughts on the event? Let me know in the comments below or on Twitter.