Of the many wonderful things about May in Reading – the days getting longer, the evenings getting warmer, lunch breaks in Forbury Gardens – the best for me is surely the annual Reading Beer and Cider Festival. For the past 24 years our summer has kicked off with this huge festival hosted by Reading & Mid-Berks CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) to celebrate all things beer.
This year is the big 25th anniversary and promises to be as brilliant as ever. The group of dedicated CAMRA volunteers who organise and run the festival recognise that nothing spells bliss quite like a relaxing afternoon with glass of something tasty, and have lined up hundreds of real ales, keg beers, ciders, perries, UK wines and more. To make it even better there’s live music, food, games and entertainment – it’s a day out not to be missed!
When and where is the Reading Beer and Cider Festival?
The beer festival is held over four days, from Thursday 2 to Sunday 5 May, in Christchurch Meadows, a short five-minute walk from the centre of town and the train station. There are five separate sessions that you can buy tickets for:
Thursday 2 May: 4.30-11pm
Friday 3: 11am – 11pm
Saturday 4: 11am-4.30pm
Saturday 4: 6-11pm (the two Saturday sessions are ticketed separately)
Sunday 5: 12-7pm (or until the beer runs out)
Children are allowed at all the sessions until 8pm, except for the Saturday evening session which is over 18s only. The Sunday session is known as the ‘family day’ where there will be plenty of child-friendly activities, so I would recommend this session for those looking for a family day out.
How much are tickets?
The prices vary depending on the session you go to and whether you buy in advance or on the door. Buying a ticket in advance ranges from £14 (Thursday/Sunday) to £19 (either of the Saturday sessions) to £20 (Friday). These earn you extra treats such as priority entry and four beer tokens included in your ticket.
The cost of entrance on the door ranges from £5 to £10 to £11 in line with above, but you might have to queue up in busy periods and you don’t receive tokens with your ticket.
If, however, individual ‘sessions’ are not your thing and you just want a full weekend of beer (ahem, me…) you can buy a ticket in advance for £70 which lets you in all weekend and rewards you with four beer tokens for each session. To buy this Master Ticket (or any other advance ticket) visit the Beer Festival website here.
How do the bars work?
You will receive a glass and programme upon entry – keep it nearby, this is your beer vessel and beer map you’ll need throughout the session. You then visit the various bars to purchase drinks by the pint, half pint, or thirds. The prices of the beers vary but will be listed at the bar and in your programme. The cask ale bar is in alphabetical order, and it’s huge, so make sure you’re walking towards the right letter, or you’ll have a big walk back.
The bars all accept cash as well as contactless card payments. If you have received tokens with your advance ticket these are accepted at the main beer and cider bars and are equivalent to half a pint. You will also be treated to additional beer tokens if you flash your CAMRA membership card (two extra), or if you have completed the Ale Trail and opted to receive tokens.
What beers are available?
Reading’s Beer Festival is one of the largest in the UK and boasts over 450 cask ales and a smaller bar of 50 KeyKeg beers (think colder and fizzier) and a foreign beer bar.
The official beer list features local breweries including Elusive Brewing, Double Barrelled Brewery, Siren Craft, West Berks and Wild Weather. From slightly further afield there’s Windsor & Eton Brewery, Tap Social and New Wharf Brewing. Breweries to look out for from across the UK include: Eight Arch, Brew York, Three Blind Mice and Bull of the Woods.
See the full, searchable beer menu to plan your session with this mobile friendly list of beers put together by local pub reviewer Quaffable Reading.
You can also use this handy link whilst at the festival to check if the drinks you have seen in the programme, such as the pizza flavoured beer you desperately want to try on the Foreign Beer Bar (yes, it’s a real thing), are still available.
A quick search of the list also tells me there’s 163 ciders, 63 keg ales, 118 foreign beers and 14 beers at more than 10% ABV – the strongest of which is the Belgian Land van Mortagne, a sweet quadruple pale from Alvinne.
The programme will also list gluten-free, vegetarian, and vegan beer options. There are a range of beers with low alcohol too for those of you who have bought the all-sessions ticket and need to pace your weekend.
Is there anything else to drink apart from beer?
Ale-scorners, don’t despair! There is plenty of choice for you if real ale or beer in general isn’t your thing.
There’s a big cider bar with 140 traditional ciders and perries. You can also find UK wines and mead, plus a range of soft drinks. With such a huge selection it’s guaranteed you’ll find something you like – and you will also get to try mead.
What can I eat?
The range of food available at the festival in my experience has always been excellent, and the list this year looks to follow suit. My personal recommendations are the comically large but totally delicious bratwurst at Yuley’s Bratwurst, followed by the ‘Scorpion Death Chilli Dark Chocolate’ at Oddfellows Chocolate Co which will need to be chased down by the creamiest milk stout you can find. There are also hog roasts, pasties, curries, and more.
The festival is also the perfect place for a picnic, and you’re free to bring in your own food – please get rid of rubbish in the bins around site and don’t try and bring your own alcohol in.
What entertainment is there?
The whole weekend is bursting with activities to do besides ticking off the beers you’ve tried. Thursday evening’s famous pub quiz is back, and Friday and Saturday have live music all day. Look out for local bands Dolly & The Clothespegs and The Oubliettes, and try to catch Swallow closing out the festival on Saturday night, who were great fun last year. See the full list of bands.
There is also a dedicated games area open every day featuring traditional pub games including long alley skittles, shuffleboard, table skittles, shut the box, toad in the hole, and an outdoor games area with prizes to be won. I was successfully rubbish at all of these last year, but at £1 per game or 6 games for a fiver it was entirely acceptable.
Something I was a lot less rubbish at was endlessly entering the tombola until I won something and getting my face painted for free – the tombola is open every day and the face painting is available on Saturday and Sunday. The Sunday family session also has a ‘Half Pints’ area with crafts and activities to keep kids entertained.
And finally, don’t forget the Kennet Morris Men, who will be dancing on Saturday – nothing says ‘beer festival’ quite like a Morris dance.
I’m about to buy my ticket – is there anything else I should know?
The most important thing to know is that the Reading Beer and Cider Festival is truly a joyous weekend to be involved in. The scale of it alone is impressive and the dedication of CAMRA and the volunteers who plan and deliver such a successful event should be applauded and bought a pint.
That might have been me being cheeky – I’m volunteering at the festival again this year, so if you see me say hi, you can buy me my pint then. See you there!
Ellie Rapley moved to Reading as a student many moons ago and hasn't wanted to leave since. She's on the committee of Katesgrove Community Association, loves cycling (mostly around the pubs of the Ale Trail) and eating all the food.