Big Session Beers!

I’ve got a bit of a love-hate relationship with beer festivals, something I may write about in more detail another time, but one I always enjoy is the real ale bar at the Oysterband’s Big Session Festival.

The Big Session has been held each June since 2005 (apart from last year when it was forced to take a break while a new venue was found) and is broadly a folk music festival that goes out of its way to be a pleasure to attend in all respects rather than an endurance test interspersed with musical interludes.

This year it offered 16 beers – if you include the Thwaites’-brewed Kaltenberg Royal Lager, the presence of which caused wrinkled noses among some real ale aficionados, a decrease on previous years but the beer did not run out – unlike in the first year of the festival when we managed to drink the bar dry by Saturday afternoon (the festival runs from Friday afternoon till Sunday evening).

This year’s Big Session also included a number of beer talks and an official introduction to the beer aspect of the festival – all of which I disappointingly managed to miss due, variously, to problems with tent-erection (ooer missus), bad weather and the excesses of the night before (more related to late nights than over consumption … mostly). However, assuming these talks were half way decent – which given the high standards of the rest of the festival is more than likely – their inclusion is a commendable commitment to spreading the word, the love and the knowledge of The Best Drink in the World backed up with a further commitment not just to British but often local beers.

In common with one or two other festivals the Big Session also had its own official beer, Ragged Kingdom, but this festival beer was a recreation of a ‘lost ale’ originally brewed in the 1860s to quench the thirst of Victorian farmworkers at harvest time so its revival went further than ‘brewed for the festival’ and added to the feeling of beer being championed.

Giant Ragged Kingdom pump

And so to the beers…

I started with Phipps NBC’s IPA, a 4.2% beer which I’m told is brewed to an authentic 1930s recipe. It had a good balance of malt and hops with citrus and slight honey flavours coming through the more I drank, leading to a biscuitty and hoppy aftertaste. It was a very enjoyable beer that I definitely wanted more of.

Sadly I wouldn’t stay the same for the festival beer though, also brewed by Phipps NBC (who have an interesting history themselves – see link to their website below). Described as a ‘tawny’ coloured beer – about which there was much debate. Ragged Kingdom (3.7%) had an astringent, biscuitty taste and a slightly floral aftertaste – but frankly I found it a bit dull and didn’t have another.

99 Red Baboons, a 4.5% offering from Blue Monkey, on the other hand was a thoroughly engaging beer that I went back for time after time. Chocolatey and fruity and apparently defying definition when it comes to style (“…porter… mild? You decide!) it was my favourite beer of the weekend.

A close second was Thornbridge Brewery’s Lord Marples (4%) which although the official tasting notes mention caramel* (a flavour that often comes from liberal use of what is known as ‘crystal malt’ which in many beers seems to overwhelm the hops creating a cheap confectionary flavour so boring it makes me want to cry) turned out to be a tasty ale in which the mix of hop flavours – spicy and floral –  danced and twirled on my taste buds making me smile after every mouthful.

I also enjoyed Nottingham Brewery’s 4.6% Dreadnaught, which was the sort of bitter I wish my local would stock, and reacquainted myself with Hopback’s Summer Lightning (5%), a fantastic golden summer ale with a delicious bitter bite to it, but couldn’t decide whether the herbal and slightly vanilla flavours of Crop Circle (4.2% also from Hopback) were meant to be there!

Big Session even has a real ale bar in its music tents!

As well as the quality and variety of beers on offer, the bar staff and patrons were a friendly bunch, lending an air of being in a pub under canvas rather than in a queue to be fleeced for an overpriced pint of something cold and fizzy that you probably didn’t want but was all that they had.

So despite wet and windy weather and having to sleep in a tent for three nights, it was a good weekend of beer and music that I’m happy to recommend.

The music was pretty good too! Pictured – June Tabor performing with the Oysterband


*Perhaps the ‘c’ word of beer?!


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