It's been a while since I graced church with my presence. I'm not a Holy man you see, but if there was something that would help persuade me to mend my wicked ways - it would most likely be beer!
It's a good job then, that over the weekend of the 1st and 2nd September, the ABV Craft Beer Festival situated itself again on the sacred turf of Carlisle Memorial Church in Belfast. Having already previewed the list of Breweries who would be officiating during this 2 day Service of 'Thanksgiving for Good Beer', one thing was for sure, I wasn't going to miss it!
Friday afternoon crept around and as I closed my laptop to signal the end of a week's work, I donned my 'Sunday Best' (hoodie and converse sneakers) and skipped my way to the train station in Bangor. Ahead of me lay the quest for the Holy Grail. Thankfully, this had nothing to do with Camelot, Killer Rabbits or Knight's who say "Ni", but instead symbolised a Snifter Glass with the letters ABV etched across the side and filled with cool, fresh, frothy beer 🙌🏼
As I arrived at the church, I was equipped with a golden wristband for the weekend and then greeted with my empty (grail) glass, pencil, beer list and beer voucher (for the first drink). Beaming like a Cheshire Cat, I met up with two of my fellow beer bloggers, secured a seat and surveyed the beautiful surroundings before making our way to the alter - were they were serving the sacred brews.
First impressions of the venue were very impressive. Joking aside, this festival is actually inside an old disused church. Whilst the stained glass windows are now mostly gone, the thought that I was enjoying a beer in a building that people where singing hymns in just 35 years previous, brought a gratifying smile to my face.
Excusing the pun, we were indeed blessed to have the opportunity to enjoy good beer in such a beautiful and historical venue.
Picture courtesy of http://www.martinandhamilton.co.uk/
As far as the layout was concerned, there was plenty of seating. I went to the Friday and Saturday evening sessions and was lucky enough to get bench spaces at both. Whilst there were plenty of people on their feet it didn't seem too unbalanced and there was a vibrant and happy atmosphere all around.
The beer was served at the front of the church and whilst queues began to form during the busier times, there were plenty of staff behind the bar to keep things moving quickly so it wasn't really a problem. The volunteers manning the taps were clearly there for 'a love of beer' and behind the smiles they seemed well versed in what they were serving and happy to give recommendations when asked.
Beer and Church - now there's one way to increase congregation numbers 🤔
There were various stalls dotted throughout selling chocolates, cheese, merchandise etc and along one side of the church there was a self contained area where scheduled talks and tastings were held throughout the weekend. Unfortunately, I didn't get a chance to attend any of these talks myself. Time just tends to go too quickly and I found that I didn't really want to give it up from sampling the Festival beers with my colleagues.
Outside there were three main food choices, pizza, burgers or a selection of Greek food. I opted for a pizza on the Friday night although I wish I'd braved the queue for a special 'ABV Burger' instead as people were raving about it. But I wasn't there for the food, I was there for the beer and on that note, I certainly wasn't disappointed 🍺
Unfortunately, I could have used a straw to eat the middle of my pizza 😐
Well, where do I start? Overall, the beer selection was quite simply awesome. From big hitters like Cloudwater, Verdant, Tool, Mikkeller, The Kernel, Yellow Belly and White Hag along with some local favourites such as Boundary, Mourne Mountains Brewery and Bullhouse to name a few, we were certainly spoilt for choice.
Festival favourites over the two days were hard to pick as there were some real crackers on show. However, special mentions should be given to:
Verdant Brewing - Further DIPA 8%
Just what you would expect from Verdant. Juicy, hoppy and impressively smooth (especially for a 8% beer).
Lost and Grounded - Accidental Icarus Pale Ale 5.6%
I loved the fresh lemon kick this beer provided to my tiring tastebuds. The perfect mid session palate cleanser and very easy drinking.
Burning Sky - Imperial Stout 8.5%
My wife isn't the biggest beer fan (I'm working on it!) - she LOVED this sweet and delectable Impy however. It's since been added to my 'must get' beer list (brownie points 😉).
The winner was clear though. I'd tried it before ABV Fest but never fresh from the Keg. It's sweet, smooth and warming mouthfeel is enough to make any Self Confessed Beer Geek go weak at the knees - it's a good job I was sitting down....
Evil Twin - Even More Jesus Imperial Stout 12% abv
My ABV17 Beer of the Festival
Just look at the lacing around that glass - An Incredible Beer 👏🏻
There are plenty of great points about the festival, a lot which have already been mentioned but here are a few more.
- Excellent Beer Glasses (take note Alltech Beer Fest!)
- Outstanding venue
- Free bottles of water when required
- Glass rinsing (on request)
- Good amount of bar staff to keep the queues moving
- Fantastic selection of Big Name Breweries
- Beer Cocktails: Without these, it would have been difficult to have convinced my wife to go. She loved the Radler Americano in particular.
Oh yeah, did I mention the great venue?
Could be Improved
With all of the great plaudits there are a few points that I hope can be useful for the team to use (or not) in the planning of future events. These are just my personal opinions and I hope that they are taken in the correct way along with all of the plaudits.
- Beer Rotation
Whilst I loved the overall selection of beers available for the festival, I wonder could different styles have been staggered better throughout the two days. On the Friday Afternoon/Evening session less than a third of the beers offered were under 6% abv. That's fine for the evening but during the afternoon I would personally preferred to have a larger selection of more sessionable beers.
Funnily enough, on the Saturday night it was the opposite. When we were ready to finish the evening off with a few of the more heavy hitters there weren't nearly as many available. In this instance over half the beers were under 6% with most of the DIPA's and Impy Stouts having already run out (they still had more Eviltwin though 👍🏼).
- Toilet Facilities
Always a nightmare to get right but such an important part of an event that encourages you to drink. The toilets consisted of a row of Portaloo's outside the main building. On the Friday night there appeared to be lights in each cubicle but on the Saturday it was like you were locking yourself in a dark cupboard. I was reluctant to use the torch on my phone for fear of the unthinkable - dropping it into the dark hole of evil that lay beneath. Going to the toilet in near pitch darkness isn't much fun or indeed particularly easy especially after a few glasses of Cloudwater's finest. I can only imagine it being a much worse experience for those of us who need to sit down 😳
Perhaps specific urinal Portaloos for the guys would speed up processes and more importantly, help keep some 'female only' toilets in better condition. I appreciate that there may be money constraints or lack of choice of the facilities but hopefully something better can be arranged in the future (I'll remember to bring my head torch next year 😉).
- Where are the Local Brewers?
It's great to see the 'Big Breweries' there in force and I realise that's what draws the crowds in but at Northern Ireland's Premier Craft Beer Festival it felt a bit like the local breweries had gone missing? I know that we had some local beers available but with only 2 or 3 out of 31 in each session, it seemed like the home teams didn't really turn up.
When my Southern friends were asking me about the best breweries we have in the North, rather than being able to recommend a beer for them to go and try I was having to tell them about what they 'could have won'. The scene is moving on so well up here and we have some genuinely 'Top Class' beers now available. I can think of no better place to profile them than at ABV. I'd love to see more at next years festival 🙂
Believe it or not, this was my first visit to the ABV Festival having only moved back to Northern Ireland in the past few years. But out of all of the beer festivals that I have visited during my time, this has to be one of my favourites.
Of course, it is awesome beer that makes a festival great but it takes more than that to make it 'Outstanding'.
For me, it's about the people and that is exactly what ABV Fest has in spades. The expression 'good craic' is quickly becoming a bit cliche around these parts but it sums up ABV perfectly. The atmosphere over the two days was electric. The love and appreciation for good beer coupled with people out enjoying themselves made for a simply awesome experience and an event that Belfast should be proud to host.
Sure, it may not have had the best toilet facilities in the land and perhaps there are festivals that offer a bigger range of beer or food but in this instance that doesn't really matter...
ABV Fest has Personality and in the words of Jules Winnfield from Pulp Fiction - "Personality goes a long way".
- So, how did the quest go?
- Did I successfully discover the Holy Grail?
You bet I did and it was filled with a dark and sweet tasting nectar with 'god like' status, appropriately named 'Even More Jesus' 🙌🏼
But there are plenty more beers out there just waiting to be discovered and you can be sure that I'll be be back again for ABV 18, to begin the quest all over again... I'm looking forward to it already 😁
Cheers to everyone on the ABV Fest Team for your hard work and roll on 2018 🍻
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