Sampling the Ales of Wales
Following a firm hint from Nik Antona, our Regional Director, that someone from the branch should attend tthe 2008 National CAMRA AGM, Kevin Clarke and I decided to spend the weekend in Cardiff from 18th-20th April.
The AGM, complete with its own festival featuring around 80 real ales, was held at the rather opulent City Hall, which was built just over a century ago. We drove down on the Friday afternoon and checked in at the Premier Inn, a couple of miles out of the Centre. Walking towards the Centre, we sampled our first pint of Brains SA at the Vulcan, a small locals' Brains boozer that is currently under threat of demolition for redevelopment. A poster on the door proclaimed that Alistair Darling is well and truly banned from this establishment (and I guess many others too!)
Suitably refreshed, and having discounted the rather glitzy Glo Bar, where there was no real ale available, we continued to almost unpronounceable Owain Glyndwr / y Tair Pluen in St John Street. This is a 'pub in two halves', the quieter section being the Tair Pluen (Three Feathers). The four ales available there were Cambrian Best Bitter, Brains Reverend James, Otter Ale and Shepherd Neame Spitfire. We sampled the first two before heading to City Hall.
The 'Beerex' festival was in full swing, and we were soon sampling the fruits of the Welsh micro-breweries such as Purple Moose (Gwynedd), Jacobi (Carmarthenshire) and Bryncelyn (Glamorgan). Micros from the borders also featured strongly such as Wye Valley (Herefordshire), Corvedale (Shropshire) and Weetwood (Cheshire). Our favourites from this session were Cwrw Glaslyn (4.2%) from Purple Moose and Butty Bach (4.5%) from Wye Valley.
Having soaked up the excess liquid with a deep pan pizza, the session continued with the likes of Facers (Clwyd) and Otley (Pontypridd), before we set off back towards our hotel, pausing for a burger on the way. As we ambled back we were rather taken aback by a young woman who enquired whether we would like some company for the night. We declined her offer politely - in any case the liberal amounts of alcohol imbibed during the evening may well have adversely affected our ability to take advantage of her services.
Saturday morning saw us in Wetherspoon's cavernous Prince of Wales (formerly a theatre) for a more than adequate farmhouse breakfast. We hurried into the conference hall just as Paula Waters, CAMRA's National Chairman, was castigating some branches for going against CAMRA policy. The conference was more interesting than we had expected, with guest speaker Rhodri Morgan (First Minister for Wales) and policy discussion groups splitting up to consider various topics such as the threat of the "new temperance movement", promoting pubs, making branch meetings more interesting and what makes a good newsletter.
We stretched our legs, and devoured an oggy (Cornish pasty) whilst sheltering from the driving rain and counting the broken and discarded umbrellas which seemed to be everywhere. We supped a quick half of SA Gold in the Goat Major before rejoining the afternoon session. Various motions were debated, supported, passed or defeated, and then Richard Davies, Sales and Marketing Manager for Brains entertained us before we split into discussion groups again. Topics this time were the National Beer Scoring System, the LocAle initiative, the new Champion Beer of Britain process including tasting panels, and the implications of the Sustainable Communities Act. Nottingham branch were presented with an award for the best newsletter, which was a truly impressive A4 magazine.
We decided not to go on the various brewery visits that were on offer, but instead to sample a few more of the festival delights and visit some of Cardiff’s more interesting hostelries. First up was the Pen and Wig, converted from an ophthalmists in 1994, and so named due to the close proximity of many legal practices. Here we sampled Shepherd Neame Spring Hop and Brains Milkwood, a russet coloured ale with toffee flavours balanced with a crisp bitterness.
Next was the Wetherspoon's Central Bar, recommended to us by one of the locals. Here we opted for six third-pints of the most interesting beers on offer: Wadworths Horizon, Robinsons Top Tipple, Highgate Scotch Whisky Ale, Cains Bock, Youngs Bitter and Archers Gold. Feeling the pangs of hunger, our next port of call was the Chinese buffet, where we probably ate more than was good for us, before setting off across town towards Y Mochyn Du (Black Pig).
With Cardiff Arms Park and the impressive Millennium stadium on our left, and the Castle on our right, we crossed the River Taff and turned right into Victoria Park. To the accompaniment of very loud dance music emanating from a cluster of huge marquees, we crossed the park and reached Y Mochyn Du (the Black Pig), which has an unusual fairy tale appearance, opposite. Not surprising, as it was voted Pub of the Year 2007, this pub was absolutely jam packed.
We chose two of the local beers - Otley OG (from Pontypridd, Glamorgan) and Cwrw'r Mochyn Du (from Vale of Glamorgan, Barry) and threaded our way through to the back of the pub, where it was slightly quieter. We managed to settle ourselves on two conveniently vacated bar stools. We slowly sipped what would be our last pint of the evening - both of us were feeling a little jaded by this time with stomachs distended from over-indulgence of Chinese fare and those banana fritters! We headed back across town for our hotel beds and a somewhat earlier night.
The McDonalds in Cardiff is open 24 hours, so a quick McBreakfast and we were inside the conference hall in good time for the final session - a series of motions for debate and summary reports from the previous day's discussion groups. Some of those members who proposed or opposed the various motions were really quite entertaining.
Then came our moment of glory - our web site was chosen as the best of the 157 CAMRA branch web sites. We stepped up to receive the trophy from Brett Laniosh and applause from around 600 delegates. Photographs were taken, which will presumably appear in the next What's Brewing. It was a fitting tribute to Kevin's expertise and hard work, and the support of all the Solihull & District members that have contributed to the content.
The conference closed and we sampled our last couple of beers and a pasty each before setting off for our hotel and the drive back home. It had been an interesting weekend, and we had learned a lot, socialised with many other members and officials, and enjoyed a good range of beers. Next year the AGM is in Eastbourne. I wonder what the pubs are like there...