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Last week I spent three days at the SIBA organised, but CAMRA run, Great Northern Beer Festival here in Manchester. It was a good do.

On Wednesday, I judged beers, first of all in the first round of ordinary bitter category and then in the finals of specialist bottled beers and more bottles, this time in stouts/porters old ales categories. I had not of course asked to judge bottled beers, but that's the way the cookie crumbles in judging sometimes. Now I have to say a lot of the ordinary bitters were very ordinary indeed. In fact some struggled to reach ordinary, but as always, there were some that shone and while I don't know whether any I judged in the first round were winners, those in the bottled category certainly were. I would say that I was surprised by the very high standard of most of the bottles, but of course, those that bombed had been weeded out by my fellow judges in the first round, as that's the point of doing it. The judging process is interesting, but fortunately individual, as one or two judges based their scores, not on whether it did what it said on the tin, but whether they actually liked it. One interesting aside is that in the words of wisdom to judges by the SIBA Chief Executive, Julian Grocock, we were advised that clarity was no longer an decisive point, but that SIBA hadn't worked out what to do about beers that were deliberately not clear. The advice was basically "Make your own mind up." I didn't get the impression of enthusiasm for this change.

My main job once the bars were open, was to manage the large bar of 64 handpumps. The quality from our overhead cellar was excellent, temperature spot on and each beer was served into a fresh glass, through a sparkler, as God intended. I tried many of the beers and can pick out a few breweries that impressed. These, in no particular order were, Stringers, Hawkshead, Kirkstall, Peerless, Bollington, Allgates, Abbeydale, Acorn and Roosters. No real surprises there you'll be thinking, but quality will out, though there were plenty examples of well made beers from other breweries too. I think SIBA North probably has the best set of breweries in the organisation, but I would say that wouldn't I? I was also hugely pleased to see so many stouts and bloody good most of them were too, with Stringers and Roosters -OK a porter - standing out. We don't see enough stouts on sale in pubs and in winter rather than dark, malty beers, give me a roasty and (if possible) hoppy stout any time.

It was also good to meet so many old friends, both as judges and when the trade session opened, brewers.

Beer. It's a people thing.

The gold winner in speciality beers was Hawkshead Whisky Cask Aged Damson and Vanilla Imperial Stout and in the Porter/Stout etc category, it was Croglin Vampire from Cumbrian Legendary Ales. The overall SIBA Champion Beer was Watermill Inn and Brewery Isle of Dogs.