Tending Bar at the Cardiff University Ale and Cider Festival

logo with dragonThis coming Thursday, I’ll be bunking off a seminar and taking a long train journey down to Cardiff for the Real Ale and Cider Society’s 17th Annual Festival. It’s the largest student festival in Britain. There should be about 50 ales and 50 ciders – I’m told there is a list, but apparently it’s being kept Top Secret until the festival begins – 5 types of mead and 7 types of wine. My mouth is watering at the very thought.

Despite this being my fourth year at the festival, I have never visited as a customer. I’ve always worked behind the bar, recommending my favourite brews, serving up the ale with a flourish and partaking liberally in the quiet moments. A certain degree of familiarity with the different types of ale is a most desirable characteristic, and so long as you don’t drink more that you serve, the few genuinely sober people about are quite forgiving.

On my first year, I went home for the festival weekend, and only worked on the Thursday – how little I knew back then! Still, I returned to my halls addled enough to forget to shut the shower door, and completely drenched my ensuite – so evidently it was not time wasted.

The second year was a bit of a blow out, I admit. I managed to time myself so perfectly on the Thursday that the last thing I remember is last orders. And then, as usual, I woke up in bed, in my pyjamas, to find it was the next morning. My survival instincts often astonish me like that.

The festival that year was a sell out success, so there wasn’t the same chance to drink myself under the table as there was on the Thursday night – the paying customers had it all, the greedy beggars! I blame the undercover policemen, who prowled around quietly on the first night and came back to drink on day two in a massive group. But my memories are good. Being the most beardy member of the society at that point, I was quite identifiable, and got a lot of hugs. There was a lovely moment when I was listening to a band I’d helped book – who were fantastic – with a pint of ale in my right hand and my left around a rather pretty girl, and I thought how jealous and disbelieving my sixteen year old self would have been if he could have seen me now. I felt cool, which, God knows, doesn’t happen often enough. Unfortunately, I blew it almost immediately by reaching that plateau of drunkenness where I can dance completely unselfconsciously. The last band started off by covering Staying Alive, and got cheesier by the minute. At no other point have I, or would I EVER, dance to Gay Bar.

But all too soon the beer and cider had vanished down a thousand thirsty throats, and it was all over save for taking everything down the next morning, and the massive fried breakfast that inevitably follows.

The next year was not quite so exuberant, as I had begun to develop an (utterly unjustified) reputation about the committee, and they refused to give me any mead after nine o’clock. Spoilsports. There was a rather fun moment in the clearing up, where my housemate lent her head against my arm and said ‘Carry me home.’ She was out of the Great Hall and halfway out of the building before she managed to convince me it was a joke. What the security guards must have thought, I don’t know.

Surprisingly, considering I hadn’t drunk myself into complete insensibility, that morning was the worst hangover I’ve ever had at the festival. I stumbled into work at 3pm in my day-old festival t-shirt and oldest jeans, looking like hell and smelling of stale beer. Yet to my astonishment and delight, I pulled shortly after last orders, and turned up to the fried breakfast on Saturday with a big cheesy grin on my face that didn’t fade for a week afterwards.

I doubt I’m going to get that lucky again. But whatever happens, I’m going to have two nights of good music, cracking cider and wonderful ale, among some lovely people who I haven’t seen for over half a year, and that’s more than worth the journey.

The Cardiff University Real Ale and Cider Society Festival is open from 2pm to Midnight on the 21st and 22nd of February. Entry is £3 with a commemorative pint glass.

My First Time Drinking Mead

In hindsight, my mistake was in thinking I was a Viking.

It was a houseparty for one of my friends in Cardiff, the delightful Cathy. She will laugh at anything, and is never found out of her hoodie, and she may drink her ale in lady-like halves, but she can still match me drink for drink with ease. I was sprawled out on the sofa introducing myself to some Spanish exchange students when my friend Jamie came in, carrying a five-litre plastic container, something like the size of a desk drawer on its end. A rich and mysterious looking brown liquid was sloshing about within.

‘What is it?’ I asked, wondering if one of his regular home-brew disasters had finally come to fruition.

He slapped the container. ‘This, my friend, is mead.’

‘Mead?’

‘Medieval mead. Specially brewed for authenticity. Have a glass if you fancy.’ And he went off to talk with Cathy.

I have never been behindhand in trying new drinks. My glass of warmish ale swiftly vanished, and I got to my two tipsy feet to sample the mead. The only thing I knew about it was that the Vikings drank it in horns, and that a horn held about two pints. So I poured myself a pint of mead, and sat down again.

It was delicious. I have never been much for sweet drinks since I sampled my first Guinness, but the mead was flowery, dark and sweet and tasting of all the scents of summer brewed together. It vanished with surpassing swiftness.

‘The mead’s lovely, isn’t it?’ I shouted to Jamie, when he glanced my way.

‘It’s great. You’ve got rather a large glass there, haven’t you?’

I looked at my quarter-pint incredulously. ‘Don’t be stupid. Vikings used to drink it in horns. I haven’t even drunk half a horn yet!’ I stood up on feet that suddenly seemed even tipsier than before, and carefully poured myself another pint of mead.

Everything gets a bit hazy from thereon in. I think someone tried to explain to me that mead was 14.5% abv, and that I’d been drinking wine like beer. Someone else told me it was probably time to go home. I just remember lying back on that sofa, grinning toothily at the ceiling, the most chemically happy I had ever been in my life. If Vikings felt like this every time they got drunk, how did they ever manage to get up the testosterone for all that raiding and burning and pillaging? This was bliss!

And then my friend Chris was walking me home, whilst I was laughing at everything and qupting the Rubiayat of Omar Khayyam at the top of my voice. That was my first night drinking mead, but it wouldn’t be the last by a good way.