Neil Sowerby with how to sup the most from this year's avalanche of ales

AS I pen this preview of the biggest Manchester Beer and Cider Festival yet it’s Blue Monday. You know, the most depressing day of the year. So the prospect of all that merry quaffing at the end of the week (19th-21st) is a shimmering oasis in dark January, momentarily banishing hard Brexit and Trump inauguration misery.

It is a Campaign for Real Ale event, making a point that, despite the keggy craft beer boys having stolen their thunder, the champions of ‘living’ cask ale still count. Definitely – with over 170,000 members and myriad malty fellow travellers, not all of them paunchy middle class geeks.

Ok some CAMRA diehards are still struggling through a dark night of the soul over whether it’s right to allow the compromise ‘Real Ale in a Key-Keg’ bar a corner of the vast Manchester Central. Well, it’s happening at the festival again after last year’s trial. The battle’s lost. At the 2016 annual conference delegates voted to sanction the practice of serving real ale from ‘key-kegs' and to recognise cider with whole fruit and spices as ‘real' (interesting to see how many of these pop up at what is jointly billed as a Cider Festival).

But all this is a niche drop in the ocean with 750 different tipples from over 100 brewers and cider/perry makers, occupying 30 per cent more floor space, to try over three days. Steady as she goes. Here are ten recommendations to make the most of it…

1 Support your adventurous local brewers. Blackjack is always ripe for collaborations and we expect great things from their festival special brewed jointly with Welsh community brewers Cwr Ial. Their on-site brewery tap will also showcase their barrel-aged range.

2 Blackjack also volunteered to take part in one of the Festival’s most fascinating experiments. Sue Hayward, head brewer of Waen in South Wales has taken her award-winning Pamplemousse golden ale ‘on the road’, seeing how its grapefruit flavours handle being brewed at four separate breweries – nearby Hopcraft in the Rhondda Valley, Stroud Brewery in Gloucestershire, Loch Lomond and finally at the BlackjBrewers inevitably like to unleash some new creation at the Festivalack premises in Irk Street. Sue’s there on Friday, June 20 at 5.30pm, to talk punters through the four different casks she ‘gypsy brewed’. Will they vary greatly?

3 There’s a strong Welsh influence about the proceedings. It could almost be Cardiff Central. I first encountered Tiny Rebel, that city’s tip indie brewery, when they did a hugely impressive takeover at Port Street Beer House, since when they have won a clutch of awards, including CAMRA’s 'Champion Beer of Britain' in 2015. That ale, Cwtch (it’s Welsh for hug), will be on their MBCF stall alongside a real wild card, Puft Marshmallow Porter.

Brewers inevitably like to unleash some new creation at the Festival

4 Take a walk on the Wildside. That’s the name of a new project by Brightside of Radcliffe, being launched at the festival. Eighteen months in gestation, it allows them to tinker with more experimental small batch brews quite different from strong Brightside brands such as Amarillo and Manchester Skyline. Look out then for a Red Chilli Lager and a Ginger and Orange Ale on cask.

5 As with Wildside there is a strong element of surprise. Brewers inevitably like to unleash some new creation at the Festival. Check out specials from the likes of Rochdale duo, old-stagers Pictish and the fledgling Serious Brew Co, Piccadilly Beer Mile newcomers Origami, Manchester Brew Co and the often wild and wacky Thirst Class Ale from Stockport. 

6 Above all, be brave. You may really get off on Torrside’s festival special, Oatmeal Liquorice Mild, not the most outlandish beer concept you are going to encounter if you last the full seven or so hours.

7 Don’t be a Little England-aler. Sip back and think of Europe at the Bière Sans Frontières bar. This year it’s particularly strong on German beer styles – regional specialities such as Altbier from Dusseldorf, Kolsch from Cologne and Rauchbier from Bamberg. Or maybe go Dutch with a 11.5% caramel fudge stout from Kees! or a ‘Tropical Ralphie' wheat beer from Two Chefs. Bar manager Ralph Luxon (no relation) recommends the rarely seen draught beers from Belgium’s Dochter vd Korenaar, including the 11 per cent Imperial Russian Stout, 'Sans Pardon'. Perhaps 11 per cent is the new 10 per cent?

8 Listen to an expert. John Clarke, genial driving force behind CAMRA’s NW monthly mag, Opening Times, is also an expert on Dutch beer. Don’t miss his ticketed talks, highlights of the events programme, where he bigs up the ‘Dutch Beer Revolution’ and separately traces the influence of monks on the beer history of the Netherlands and Belgium. There’s also a tutored traditional cider and perry tasting, hosted by expert Christine Bulmer (amazingly she’s no relation).

9 After all this, you need some ballast. Expect queues for Handmade Cornish Pasties (vegan and gluten-free available) and also from the South West filled muffins from The Muffin Man and Co. Nearer to home there’s Cheshire’s Viva La Toastie, Lancs burger boys What's Your Beef, and from Yorkshire the Crusty Pie Company and The Pickled Porker specialising in applewood smoked pulled pork. All a bit less hip than street food at IndyMan, but we expect the bee count to be similar.

10 Finally, back to the dreaded key-keg conditioned. It is indicative of changing trends that relative newcomers Stubborn Mule of Altrincham and Fiveclouds of Macclesfield should be introducing their beers in that form. The Manchester brewery that bridges the cask-key keg divide is Mark Welsby’s Runaway from the arches on Dantzic Street. Whatever form they appear in, these are remarkably consistent and exemplary. Ditto Track up on Sheffield Street. There’s so much exotic stuff on display at Manchester Central, but don’t neglect our own stars.

PS If, after all this dipping into the challenging world of 21st century British brewing is putting your palate in a spin, look out for a rare visitor this far north. Lewes brewery Harvey’s may be keen to promote their strong ale Prince of Denmark unusually in cask form, but don’t miss their famous Sussex Best Bitter. It’s a true classic, full-flavoured traditional English bitter with remarkable balance. Not many of those around.