I HAVE been enjoying the Cambridge Winter Ale Festival, not only for the ales but also for the whole atmosphere. To step through the door out of a dreich January drizzle into the warm fug, the gregarious clatter and chatter of enthusiasts at play, is a pleasure.
This festival is on a smaller scale than the tented summer fest, and all the better for it; but there’s still more than enough variety both in ales and ale drinkers. Indeed, a private pleasure of mine comes in matching the quirky names and vivid descriptions in the list of beers with the appearance and likely personalities of my fellow enthusiasts.
There is a man in the corner with a weathered face, a mass of grey hair, and a mischievous twinkle in his eyes who seems a good match for “Old Nogg: warming, mild-bodied, with a slightly nutty flavour”. Although contrary to the clichéd image, it’s not all bearded men in woolly jumpers, and the young of both sexes are well represented.
I notice that the beer list has an American-hopped IPA which is described as “Hazy, golden, with a big head” — well, I can think of a couple of candidates for that, here and in the United States — and there are a fair few at this fest who would match up to Crafty Beer’s wonderfully named Sauvignon Blonde. It’s as well I’m not allowed to smoke my pipe in here, otherwise someone might already have me down as “Smokin’ Angel: complex, malty, dark, with smoky aroma”.
This festival, and hundreds like it, are testimony to CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale: a grassroots revolution, and one of the earliest and most effective consumer pressure groups; a vast network of ordinary people who wouldn’t put up with the standardised, ersatz, advertised beers foisted on them by the big breweries, but preferred the local, the traditional, the particular, and sometimes peculiar character of a living beer, not a gassed-up pasteurised counterfeit.
Pulling on my pint of Marcus Aurelius (you know you’re in Cambridge when there’s a beer called Marcus Aurelius), I found myself remembering the opening lines of Blake’s Little Vagabond:
Dear Mother, dear Mother, the Church is cold,
But the Ale-house is healthy & pleasant & warm;
Besides I can tell where I am use’d well. . .
And I wondered if the Church might take a leaf out of CAMRA’s book. Not for the first time, I began to fantasise about founding CAMRE, the Campaign for Real Evangelism. Eschewing identikit evangelistic courses and formulae, or fizzy American imports, CAMRE would revive living local traditions, each as distinct as a local ale but each carrying the active ferment of the gospel; stirring and refreshing good news.
After all, Golden Grain, Living Water, and Secretly Working Yeast, the three essentials in every distinct brew, are also all essential images and parables of the Kingdom. Perhaps we should see each small parish as a kind of microbrewery, combining an ancient recipe with local ingredients for a lively, distinct, and refreshing gift to its own community.
And maybe CAMRE could be as welcoming as CAMRA to the thirsty newcomer who has so much to learn and to savour. I’ll be first up for the festival.
Listen Malcolm Guite talks about his new book, Love, Remember, here