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Craft Beer: Irish brews come out on tap for Belfast Beer and Cider Festival

Happy 18th – the Belfast Beer and Cider Festival is finally legal

THE Belfast Beer and Cider Festival is 18 years old this year – old enough to be of legal drinking age, you might say – and once again the array of brews on offer next weekend is sure to entice discerning drinkers through the Ulster Hall this weekend.

At last count (and by that I mean the beaverish work of the Quare Swally beer blog) there are 31 breweries in Northern Ireland, which includes a half-dozen contract breweries – that is beers which are brewed elsewhere but very much marketed as local.

If you chuck in the amount of breweries and brew pubs which operate in the south, you're not far off three figures. The rapid growth of craft beer in Ireland in undeniably and the CAMRA-run Belfast Beer and Cider Festival is a handy barometer of just how much it has grown.

The early incarnations of the festival were designed to give Northern Ireland-based members of CAMRA the opportunity to sample the hand-pumped real ales that were not widely available in pubs here.

In those days, the vast majority of those ales were shipped over from England, Scotland and Wales, but bit by bit, Irish breweries have gradually tipped the balance.

Last year, a very slight majority of the beers on offer had crossed the Irish Sea, but a quick perusal of the provisional list for this year's festival shows that Irish beers appear to have attained the upper hand.

Around 70 beers from breweries north and south will be tapped at this weekend's gathering as opposed to just under 50 from across the water. However, good beer is good beer no matter where it comes from.

I have to admit, though, that of all the local beers listed, the one which has most piqued my interest is Hillstown's Barrel-Aged Spiced Imperial Red Ale. Coming in at 9 per cent abv, it have been aged in 29-year-old whiskey casks and boasts 'moorish malt and seasonal spices'. One for a crisp autumn evening.

A more exhaustive list can be found at camranorthernireland.com so you can pick out a few favourites of your own, although be warned the more popular a beer, the more chance it will run out before the weekend's out. The festival runs from noon until 11pm on Thursday, Friday and Saturday and is £10 in (£12 on Friday) although if you have a CAMRA membership, entry is only £5.

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