In July, CAMRA hosted its annual Scottish Real Ale Festival in Edinburgh. The festival showcases Scottish cask beer and cider (with some English cider too) over three days, and I was lucky enough to get time off work to attend the event on the first and last evenings. I had been prepared by my workmates and local beer geeks to expect a lot of grey-haired, bearded men with know-all attitudes, and a varying quality of beer.
The Thursday was the day for the hard-core Real Ale geeks and trade clients to head along, but it was open to all members of the public too. Entry was £6 (or £4 for CAMRA members), and you received a programme and the choice of either a pint glass or schooner. You could also get in for free to any other day of the festival with your glass.
I arrived shortly before 6pm, where I entered a massive hall and was greeted by long racks of casks standing like walls behind the four bars in the centre. They were encompassing the many glycol units which were keeping the casks cool through the jackets they were wearing. It was an impressive set-up.
And, as expected, there were many men, mainly aged over 50, but I was not prepared for the severe absence of women. The only female volunteers who were behind the bar were serving the cider, with the other volunteering women on the meet and greet desk. As for the attendees, I could count on two hands the number of women in the entire room. It was a shock.
I was also shocked by how I was treated by some of the men. When I took an infected ale back to the bar and asked for a different beer instead, the man serving me dismissed my complaint and said “I think you’ll like this one better love” as he handed me a serve of a 6.9% stout. Merely 15 minutes later, a couple of retired men blocking the bar took it upon themselves to order my beer for me when I simply asked them if they could step aside so I could be served.
Having grown as a beer geek in such a welcoming environment in New Zealand, where I was often the only female attendee at SOBA Wellington meet-ups during my first year as a member, being spoken down to and treated as a bit of second-class citizen was a completely new experience. However, I was also in the young bracket when it came to the festival age-range, so it may not have just been my gender.
But, as the first day was very much considered the “trade day”, I was determined to come back on Saturday night to see if the vibe was any different. And, thankfully, it was. There were women there! Drinking beer! And there was even a woman serving beer!
While the attendance ratio was only about 90-10 male-female, it was far more balanced than the Thursday evening crowd. There were also a lot more people aged in their 20s and 30s.
The atmosphere was better too, with a bagpipe band entertaining the crowd and more people seated at the tables having conversations with friends, rather than leaning against the bars talking to the bartenders.
As for the beer itself, the quality of the ale being served was varied. Most beers were being served via gravity directly from the casks, but there were also beer engines lined up right across every side of the bar to dispense a select few. The beer had only been venting for two days, when most bars serving Real Ale will try to give casks about four days of venting before serving them.
I had some excellent beer from Swannay in Scotland’s Orkney Islands, two excellent IPAs from Top Out near Edinburgh, a tasty black pepper saison from Loch Lomond in the country’s west, and my highlight was a stout from Five Kingdoms in the Isle of Whithorn.
I also had an infected Dark Mild and a couple of diacetyl-heavy ales that all got tipped. But the majority of the beer was middle-of-the-road with nothing that blew you away. Something, I’m sure, that an extra day or two of venting could have improved. But having to hire an entire venue for four days before the festival even begins I’m sure would cause a massive increase in the entrance charge, which would not go down well with the Scottish Real Ale drinkers if their attitude towards rising ale costs in pubs is anything to go by.
While I enjoyed my time at the festival overall, there were definitely some disappointments and downright unpleasant moments. And considering how cheap, varied, and well-looked after cask beer is in some of my favourite Edinburgh bars, I think I’ll be giving the Scottish Real Ale Festival a miss in 2018 – at least not as a punter.