We always look forward to the Derby Summer Beer Festival, having been going there together for over 12 years; it's become some kind of close-to-end-of-term ritual for me and for both of us a prelude to the start of our holidays in a couple of weeks time. We also visit the Derby Winter Festival too, to support a local CAMRA branch and of course to taste lots of (hopefully new and different) ciders and perries.
And that's one of the great things about real cider and perry - they are natural products which are always slightly different due to the weather, climate and growing season. Not like beers which are always brewed to fixed recipes and are (usually) utterly predictable and, to be honest, sometimes a bit boring. Nothing like a bit of natural variation in something to add that extra bit of interest...
We were really excited before the Derby Festival this year, as we had received an official invite and according to the letter of invitation, were to be treated as VIPs! We have had our cider on sale at a number of festivals, CAMRA and otherwise, but unlike the brewers and hangers-on (of which there are legion!), we have never been invited to the Producers Session and opening ceremonies. However, thanks to Andrew and Carl we finally got the green light to attend.
Getting to my mum's house at Sandiacre (where we were going to crash-out for the night) was a nightmare due to the almost total gridlock situations on the roads west of Nottingham. But we made it in one-piece, just in time to shed work-clothes and leg it down to the bus stop to catch the Rainbow 4 into Derby.
We hastened into the VIP entrance at the Assembly Rooms and after showing our VIP letter and passes to the nice lady and gentleman on the door, made our way into the Darwin Suite where we were promised a free commemorative glass, free real ale and a buffet. We attached our Hucknall Cider Co. identity badges to our shirts, collected our glasses and made our way to the "free ale" bar, but found only beers; this was no surprise to us, but hey! no problem as there were six or seven tubs of cider and perry on the 'real' bar, so off we trotted across the room to slake our thirsts. Unfortunately, when we asked for a glass of cider, we were told that they couldn't serve us due to not having a till nor any float. We explained that we were official "VIP" guests, flashed our ID badges and so could we just have a 'free' half to wet our whistles, as we didn't want to mix beer and cider. The answer was that we were at least the third folks to ask for cider, but he was very sorry that he couldn't serve us - we'd have to make do with beer!
We weren't even allowed to buy our own cider, sat on a shelf a metre or so away!!! How ironic is that?
Someone else (who will remain nameless) then intervened and was extremely rude and brusque in language and attitude towards us. We explained that we only wanted to buy a half of cider as we did not want to mix beer and cider, and that we thought arrangements would have been made for folks such as us, who had been invited as cider producers. We were then very curtly told: "What do you expect? This is a BEER festival!". So it was a case of take it or leave it, it seemed. So we decided to leave it.
Were we being treated this way because as local CAMRA members we were known and deemed therefore un-important compared to the local brewers? Or maybe it's because the chief protagonist who was so rude is a confirmed beer-drinker and cider-hater?
Whatever, we left the Darwin Suite and decided to go over to the Great Hall to buy a glass of cider and bring it back to the VIP reception. The couple on the door were surprised to see us leaving after a few minutes, so we explained that we wanted to go over to the Great Hall to get a glass of cider and return. The nice and friendly door folks said not to worry, go back upstairs and if you push the side of the partition which separates the Darwin Suite off, you'll be able to get to the Great Hall - please just shut the divider after you. Great, we thought...
Ha, not so fast or easy. As Gail tried to push open the partition, we were accosted by the person-who-will-remain-nameless plus another side-kick. Again, we were treated with absolutely no respect or politeness and sent packing, no matter what explanation we tried to give. By this time were very unhappy and wondering why we had bothered going to the "VIP Reception"; we would have received much better treatment if we had gone along as regular punters, as we have never had any problems whatsoever in the past at Derby. So we made our way (again) down the stairs to the entrance, much to the surprise of the still-very-nice lady and gent on the door. We explained the situation to them and so they told us how to get straight into the Great Hall without queuing.
We went into the Great Hall and were treated with respect and friendliness by the staff working the bar, and their welcome, plus seeing friendly faces (such as Julian), helped lift our gloom and spirits. I started off with a very dry Naish cider while Gail opted for a dry Parson's Choice; we prefer dry ciders and perries so that there is nothing masked or 'hidden' by sugar and sweeteners. As we had attended the APPLE AGM last year at Derby, we thought we might be able to go through the same meeting room to slip back into the Darwin Suite and resume enjoying the "delights" of the promised VIP reception... No one challenged us, simply saw that we were wearing our VIP producers badges and let us through and so it was that we entered what had now become a bit of a free-for-all...
It must be a hidden rule for many Homo Sapiens that if there is something being given away, any group of people can quickly de-generate into an "owt for nowt" feeding- or drinking-frenzy. Such was the case in the Darwin Suite where the hangers-on and beer-groupies were pushing, shoving and squabbling over the remaining beer left in the casks on the "guest's bar". We stood on the sidelines and watched with amusement, tinged with a little disgust, at the antics of some of the beer-groupies. We noticed how some CAMRA members wearing the official Derby Festival T-shirts were fawning round and ingratiating themselves with some of the brewers, and with a certain Peter Tulloch who was there to test the beers for Cask Marque accreditation. Oh, to have received a soupcon of such politeness!
Fortunately, there were also some great people in there too, such as Rhoda, Russ, Rob and Andrew, who made us feel welcome, and who had time for a chat with a pair of cider lepers.
And that sadly, is how we felt. Throughout, we were treated like lepers or second-class citizens just because we wanted a glass of cider, not the free beer available. Some people cannot get it into their heads that Gail and I actually LIKE beer - you have to like real ale in a cider desert such as the East Midlands! - but sometimes we choose to drink cider or perry only. We don't like to mix our drinks and have no interest in getting "hammered" or "wrecked" by doing so.
It is perhaps unfortunate that too many CAMRA members, particularly (and sadly) those who hold responsibilities, appear to be paying mere lip-service at most to the National campaigns that are part of CAMRA's desire to promote and protect the production of real cider and real perry within the UK. Can a Leopard change it's spots?
So here's the rub:
I would be horrified to think that any other genuine un-known-locally non-CAMRA Cider or Perry producer would be treated the way that we were. Without respect, politeness, nor any attempt to understand what we wanted (ie: to buy one glass of cider each!).
Back to pleasanter things: Cider and Perry
We decided to leave the Darwin Suite for good and not bother getting involved with the free-for-all bun fight which we now knew the VIP Presentation Buffet would degenerate into. Back in the Great Hall, I tackled the dry "Ostlers Scrumpy Blackcurrant" - which looked like normal cider, but had a distinct aroma of blackcurrant and a subtle taste of the same fruit: weird, but nice! Gail had a Hecks Glastonbury Port Wine, which pleasingly was much drier than when we've come across it before.
We had a chat with Chris Rodgers who had put the cider and perry list together, along with wife Sue. Chris is an interesting, animated guy, with a real passion for cider and perry - and like us he also likes beer! Chris was dismayed to hear about our experiences so far and apologised for being treated that way; he's going to try to ensure something similar does not occur again, perhaps by having special tokens for those who do not want to / can't drink the beer, but making it clear that they can ONLY be exchanged for cider / perry. As we said to Chris, two tokens each would have been ample for the duration of the VIP Presentation. We congratulated Chris on the cider / perry list; it was nice to see a balance of very dry through to sweet ciders and perries.
Carl stumbled past looking harrassed and busy, but had time for a quick chat on his way back. I wonder how Carl manages to fit all his CAMRA activities in and still find time to earn a living - and find time to eat! Kim landlord of The Old Poet's Corner, Ashover, stopped for a chat and asked if we had some cider for him? Unfortunately, we've sold out, but I've told him I'll put some on one side for next April / May. Kim also asked if I still do my cider talks and would I be prepared to do one at his new pub, The Poet & Castle at Codnor? Kim explained that cider sales have really taken off there and we agreed that was due to the fact that it is really obvious that they sell real cider / perry; it isn't hidden away and has to be asked for like many pubs - it is in-your-face. I told Kim I had recently given a cider talk to the Ladies' Monday Club at Heath (including the lady vicar, who sat on the front row!) so would be happy to do another one for him.
Now that the presentation stuff was over, we walked back to the Darwin Suite and again met up with the very friendly and helpful guy who was on the door downstairs; he remembered us and asked if we were sorted now? We thanked him for his help and efforts, and said we understood that all CAMRA festival workers are volunteers and that opening sessions can be stressful (not least for the invited ones!).
We then bumped into "The Usual Suspects" pictured with Gail: Rob, Russ and Andrew. They all looked like smart dudes in their shirts and ties. Mind you, we also got a lot of comments about our T-shirts!
Will we be going to Derby Festival again? Yes, but not as VIP's. Nor would I recommend any other cider / perry producer to go! It has left us with a bad taste in our mouths, shame as it is a great Festival. We were planning to go back today (Saturday) for a day-time session, but not this year... Think we'll pass...