Oxford Beer and Cider Festival back with a bang

120 real ales plus 30 ciders and perries lined up for first event since 2019

It may seem like we’ve never been away, when the queue starts forming at Oxford Town Hall on Thursday 20 October for what promises to be an excellent two-day event. But of course we have “been away”, and how, since the last festival. At the height of the Covid lockdowns, when closed pubs were made pariahs for allegedly spreading the virus, the very thought of a crowded – even packed – beer festival, full of boisterous people having a good time, was unthinkable. We just didn’t know if we could ever hold one again. But here we are.

That said, no-one can be sure that severe strains of Covid won’t return and plunge the whole of society into chaos again – with hospitality, aka pubs, bars, restaurants, cafes and nightclubs, particularly vulnerable. And the truth is that the organisers of this year’s festival, the 23rd, just don’t know what to expect. We’re budgeting for 2,500 visitors over two days – note that there’s no Saturday opening this year – which is only slightly down on the three-day events of the past, but the cost of hiring the Town Hall on a Saturday isn’t covered by sales. There are slightly fewer beers and ciders, but not a great deal less. And there may be fewer volunteers to serve them and undertake all the other tasks, bearing in mind that most aren’t in the first flush of youth and concerns over Covid linger at a time when infections are on the up.

But the festival is still set fair. CAMRA festivals in other parts of the country held so far this year have generally been very successful, as have local events organised by pubs or other groups. The Charlbury Beer Festival in June, and the Masons Arms festival in Headington Quarry, Oxford in September, both sold out of all beer before their scheduled closing times.

The Oxford Beer and Cider Festival will once again feature a stellar line-up of around 20 local brewers among the 80-plus breweries invited to showcase their products, with a wide range of beer styles including bitter, IPA (India Pale Ale), mild, stout and porter. What they have in common is they are all “real” or cask ales, rather than pressurised keg beers made fizzy using carbon dioxide.

Nearly every brewery operating within 30 miles of Oxford will be represented, and on Friday there will as usual be a “blind” tasting session, by invitation, to choose the Beer of the Festival and runners-up from the local line-up. All the usual suspects will be present, but the festival also highlights less easy to find local products from breweries such as Barn Owl, Turpin (a past Beer of the Festival winner) and Wriggly Monkey.

Most local breweries are supplying two beers, such as festival debutante Craftsman brewery of Abingdon which is sending Chocolate Orange Stout and Plum Pudding Stout – believed to be the first cask ales by this small operation which normally sells in bottles. Bicester Brewery, which normally operates out of the Angel pub in the town, is using a very old recipe to produce Wallingford 8d ale. Also new is SOX, a small brewery based in Wallingford.

Beers from outside the local area are mainly from East Anglia and the West Country, having been sourced by wholesalers Harwick and Avalon respectively. In the past there have been more beers from the North and even Scotland, but with some wholesalers having disappeared during Covid, ordering the beers has been more complex than ever.

Graham Baker

The man in charge, Graham Baker, says: “In a sense we have come full circle as our first beer festival at the Town Hall in 1998 was organised by Tony Morris, formerly of CAMRA’s Ipswich branch, who had good local contacts there. We are particularly pleased to have so many local ales, as although some people wonder why, many are hard to find and here they are all under one roof.

“Since I started asking around for this year’s festival back in July, quite a few breweries have closed and we have some of the last beers produced by Thames Side brewery in Staines. The list of beers is continually changing and that will continue until opening day. We have many unusual beers in addition to the well-known styles, and Bicester Brewery’s Wallingford 8d ale uses a 19th century recipe with Belgian and Bavarian hops, which was very rare at that time.”

There will also be a separate bar selling over 30 real ciders and perries (pear ciders), predominantly from the well-known apple producing areas of Somerset and Herefordshire but also including cider or perry from Kent and a couple of Oxfordshire producers, Hitchcox from Chalgrove and Ravencroft from Bicester.

The last two years have of course been very hard for brewers and cider makers, who faced the total loss of the pub trade during the Covid lockdowns and are now threatened by soaring energy costs and the squeeze on people’s disposable income. Times remain tough, but the festival is an opportunity to celebrate the best of real ale and cider whether produced locally, or from around the UK.

Real ale and cider are traditional British products that you can only normally buy in a pub or at a festival like this, but they have been losing ground to so-called craft beers that are served cold and fizzy from the keg or can. But we don’t see any reason to offer keg beers or other drinks at our festival, because real ale and cider have made past our festivals very successful.

Opening times over the two days of the festival are 3pm-11pm on Thursday 20 October and 11am-11pm on Friday 21 October, with no Saturday opening this year. Entry costs £15 including glass and £10 worth of drinks vouchers, reduced to £13 for CAMRA members.

The same organising team as in recent years is led by Grahame Allen, and everyone involved is an unpaid volunteer. Please remember that, if the festival gets crowded and you have to wait a little longer than you expect to be served.