Drive all the way from Cork to Belfast for the inaugural ABV Fest? When the pints are coming from all over Ireland, the UK and Europe, being served in a historic venue and the whole thing has been set up by four energetic craft beer lovers – Felicia Matheson of Prohibition Drinks, Darren Nugent from Pokertree Brewing Company, Boundary Brewing’s Matthew Dick and photographer Michael Kerry – that's a proposition that's hard to resist. Held in the Harland & Wolff drawing offices where Titanic was designed, the setting was crumbling and magnificent and atmospheric, complemented by meet the brewer events and cheese/beer pairings taking place in a nearby 104-year-old steamship, the White Star's SS Nomadic, aka “Titanic's little sister”.
As dictated by the venue, this was a small beer festival, with just 500 people for each of the three sell-out sessions, one on Friday night and two on Saturday. A ticket for each was £12, getting you in the door, a stemmed glass, the all-important beer list and a pencil for ticking off beers tried and tasted. The beers were sold in 1/3 pint or 1/2 pint measures; anything over 7% – and there were quite a few of those – was only served as a 1/3 pint. Each of the sessions had a different beer line up, spread across two volunteer-staffed bars, with local bottled beers and ciders also on offer.
This event was all about the beers rather than the brewers, with a focus on offerings from Northern Irish breweries like Boundary, Pokertree, Inishmacsaint, Clearsky, Mourne Mountains, Glens of Antrim Ales and Northbound Brewery. Southern breweries were also represented (Rascal's Brewing, Trouble Brewing, White Gypsy) along with a selection of beers from UK and European breweries (Liverpool's Mad Hatter, Denmark's Evil Twin and To Øl, London's The Kernel Brewery). With a total of 23 taps pouring the good stuff, there was more than enough scope for tasting and sampling and drinking through different styles and countries. Prefer your beer cocktailed? There was the option of getting your hands on a Bloody Mexican, Passion of the Pip or Russian Roul8, developed specially by The Albany bar manager Gary Moran for the weekend.
Beer antidotes were supplied by a quality line up of vendors, including serious caffeine from Established Coffee, Farm & Food's smoked pulled pork, with chunky from-their-own-orchard apple sauce, and generous plates from Mike's Fancy Cheese (his Young Buck raw milk blue? Unmissable).
It was the first beer festival that I've been to where I spent (almost!) as much time gazing at the surroundings as I did at the beer list, especially when I learned the drawing offices are due to be redeveloped into a boutique hotel. The venue may not remain but the ABV Fest - a small festival with a big, big heart - looks set to return. Until then, I'll raise a glass to the hard-working foursome who put the show on in their own backyard and pulled it off in style.