The mystery at the heart of Irish whiskey. Jameson Twasting #irlsps

What is it about Irish whiskey?  In all my 16 years of judging in the whisky competition at the Stockholm Beer and Whisky Festival (SBWF), Irish whiskeys have won shovelfuls of medals. There’s no doubt there’s some fine whisky, from the Emerald Isle, but I don’t often buy it. Why?

At this year’s SBWF I met Fintan Collier, Jameson brand ambassador for Scandinavia, and mentioned this “phenomenon” and suggested I wasn’t alone in my divided attitude. I also suggested he hold a whisky tasting on Twitter (Twasting, in the parlance). Apart from giving a chance to taste a range of whiskies in the range, a Twasting is a live discussion across the Internet – it gets the word out.

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The mystery “dram” at the heart of the Jameson Twasting

With samples sent out to a disparate collection of enthusiasts from Sweden, Netherlands and Germany, as well as at least one in the UK, we gathered together around our separate computers to see what the deal was. So, five Jameson whiskies, right? Well, not exactly: certainly three different Jamesons, but what’s this Mystery Dram? And what’s this Midleton whiskey doing here?

More of the Mystery Dram soon, but a Midleton whiskey in a Jameson tasting, that’s a bit odd, isn’t it? Well actually, no; they are from the same distillery. Jameson whiskies are made at the Midleton distillery in Cork, and for me, herein lies some of my problem: Irish whiskies often don’t fit neatly into the distillery-equals-brand, unlike single malt whisky in Scotland. I find it harder to get involved in a brand than a distillery.

But once you taste the whiskey, it’s very easy to get involved. We start with the “ordinary” Jameson. I say “start”, but Fintan makes us wait with some pertinent information about Jamesons and Irish whiskey in general. Rather like I’ve made you wait to find out what I thought about his whiskies.

This “ordinary” Jameson is the world’s biggest selling Irish whiskey. It goes under the slogan “Triple distilled, Twice as smooth, One great taste.” People like “smooth” apparently. Even Royal Mile Whiskies say the Jameson is very smooth. I think “smooth” sounds like a back-handed compliment. Boring, even. But the Jameson is not boring.

It is a blend, though. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with blends among the cognoscenti, these days. Last year, the received wisdom about whisky, that single malt = quality, and blend = inferior was blown out of the water when Jim Murray named a blended whisky (not Jameson) as the best whisky of 2010. The Jameson is a blend of grain whiskies with some single pot still whiskey, as Fintann puts it – pure pot still, if you like. This is a traditional Irish, but more expensive way of making whiskey. 

Enough talk: on with the Twasting!
The “Jameson” has no age statement but a very pleasant aroma and taste of apple crumble, with some restrained floral notes that typify many Irish whiskeis. But there’s pepper – not known for its “smoothness”. Somebody mentions egg nog and baking spices.

The Jameson 12 year-old Special Reserve has a thicker, deeper, darker character. Like a light Christmas cake to the Dundee cake of the unaged. We are told this character comes from a higher proportion of pot still whisky, and also more whisky from sherry casks (as opposed to bourbon casks, which provide the vanilla, egg noggy flavours). Extra oiliness comes from pot still too, says our man. More pepperiness and more assertive, it is mouth filling and silky, I think, rather than oily. Sweet and becomes even more so with a drop of water. Golden syrup, light treacle, finishing on a peppery heat, so it doesn’t cloy.

The 18 year-old Limited Reserve is up next. Its subtle, seductive nose reminds me of a Demarera sugar crust. I detect dried pears too. This also has a quite peppery intensity on the palate, which goes over to an intense bag of dried fruits as though a bag of health food shop snacks is rehydrating in your mouth: cranberries, pears, apples. At the time, I said there was heather, but did I mean lavender? Others report oranges or orange zest, as there was in the 12 year-old. Seductive is right: a very special whisky.

And so to the Midleton in the mix. Not Kate or Pippa, but Barry; although it’s Barry Crockett, Midleton’s master distiller that the whiskey is named for, and this is his Legacy, a straight, pure pot still whisky – the style with which Barry Crockett is synonymous, apparently. Well, I admit to ignorance, but I will say, that many of the Irish whiskies I do end up buying for myself are pure pot still. Oh OK, single pot still, then.

The Middleton Barry Crockett Legacy is “full of pineapple chunks”, I say. And then we are off into a Joycean tweeting of tasting and nosing impressions. But with better spelling: sweet, intense, concentrated, syrupy fruit. Light vanilla tones (from high proportion of bourbon casks). Toffee, vanilla fudge, fresh, warming. Someone mentions coconut oil and exotic fruits instead of the pears. Herbal (eucalyptus?), body lotion? I begin to doubt myself. Creamy mouthfeel. Sweet with balancing woody dryness. Some ginger, perhaps pepper nearly like the Jamesons. Spices like a Swedish forest says one @AngelasShare: Juniper pine… The complexity is exciting and it goes on developing.

Finally, the Mystery Dram – or whatever “dram” is in Irish. We are asked to guess its identity, and are given one clue: it’s single pot still (gee, thanks!). It is not nearly as fruity on the nose as the Jamesons, with more Japanese whisky-like aromas. I tweet: earthy with hints of leather and polish. Someone chips in with cigar box, and tobacco.

On the palate it is honeyed malty spicy. A tweet comes across: layers of charred wood, dark chocolate and treacle toffee. I think it is herbal and deep, or rather, more rounded. None of us has any real clue to its identity, so Fintan lets on that it is the Power’s John Lane, which is a pure pot still version of the Powers Gold label. Released in Sweden in 2012.

See what I mean? Praise all round for these Irish gems – even the “ordinary”. Two of the whiskies here: the 18 yo and the Barry Crockett, I love. They are a bit pricier, coming in at around £75/895SEK and €160/1300SEK (when released), but I wonder if there is still a way to go to overcome the “blend” image for malt whisky regulars. The Jameson motto is Sine Metu “without fear”. Perhaps it’s time for some of us to show a bit of boldness. And for Jameson to drop this “smooth” thing…

Thanks to Fintan Collier @Jameson_Grad_SE and also to Colin Campbell @TheScotsdreamer for organisation and inviting me.

Jameson online shop

Jamie Oliver’s lamb shank and beer recipe – tweaked

The story so far

Jamie Oliver discovers beer and food go great together in the kitchen. and tells the French to do something anatomically regrettable with their wine. It’s all part of the Yorkshire episode of his trip around Britain. And having insulted an entire nation, wisely comes up with a proof of his own devising that there is an affinity between food and beer: a Persian-inspired recipe for lamb shanks with Guinness.

The Middle East not being the hotbed of beer recipes it once was, you can guess the Persian part of the influence comes from the non-beer ingredients. In the televised sequence, I think he uses an ale from the Leeds Brewery, but by the time the recipe is posted on the C4 website, the recipe’s name has magically transmuted into “Guinness lamb shanks”.  I’ve had a go myself, and tweaked it a bit. Here’s what I did…

The recipe suggests as an alternative to Guinness “a good dark ale”, which is about as helpful as saying “add some nice red meat here”, but it does give me some room for my own suggestion. Given the inspiration for the dish, I have what I think are some even better suggestions that combine dark fruit flavours and dark-ish ale, and have a couple of ideas for beers to pair with it.

Here is the original Jaimie recipe.

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The Persian slant in the recipe is in the dark fruit in the cooking sauce, which includes raisins and thick-cut marmalade, and a finishing mint oil and spring onion garnish. The marmalade immediately suggested to me Fullers – more specifically Fuller’s 1845, a big, copper-coloured bottle-conditioned ale bursting with Fullers house style old English marmalade tang and rich, cakey flavours.

At the end of cooking, to finish the sauce, I added a good slug of Fuller’s London Porter; Guinness will do fine, especially if you can find a bottle of Export Stout. I picked up this trick from a Keith Floyd recipe for chicken in beer – and it does add an extra depth to the sauce.

Jamie’s recipe forbids any substitution for the mint oil and spring onion garnish, which is intended to give a refreshing lift to the final dish. However, Waitrose seemed only willing to sell me half a hundredweight of mint, so I made a fresh oregano oil instead. It adds a sharp lightness to the finished dish, and I think, goes better with the beer. Everybody’s tried mint and lamb, anyway.

To accompany? More Fuller’s 1845 would do nicely, but an extra Jamie-type tweak would be Fuller’s Vintage (8.5.%) Also available from Waitrose, if they haven’t replaced it to make room for more fresh mint. As a contrast, Fullers Discovery (4.2%), which is made with a proportion of wheat, would give a refreshingly zesty and slightly floral contrast.

Links
My post on Jaimie’s Channel 4 programme, in which Jamie discovers the joys of cooking with beer and sticks it to the French.

Jamie’s Great Britain Episode 2

http://www.channel4.com/programmes/jamies-great-britain/4od#3251660

Jamie Oliver’s Persian-inspired Guinness and lamb shank recipe.

Fuller’s beers

Lambshank Redemption blog (got to my headline before me…)

Jamie Oliver’s Great Britain highlights beer and food together

“The French can stick their wine up their arse”, says Jamie Oliver. Wow! what could have caused this outburst in Episode 2 of the Channel 4 series Jamie’s Great Britain? Would you believe because he tasted a recipe for mussels in which beer was used instead of wine? Of course you would, but let’s see what led to Jamie’s road to Damascus experience. 

After I had a bit of a moan about Observer readers voting for bars with bergamot vodka cocktails, I was delighted to hear from @newviv that beer features in an episode from Jamie Oliver’s latest Chanel 4 series. If, in the Observer’s UK they would rather have Hanky Panky (cocktails) in a Soho bar, it’s great to know that there’s a place for beer in Jamie’s Great Britain.

“Jaime travels to Yorkshire to sample Yorkshire pudding and ale”, runs the blurb on the Channel 4 website. And if that conjures up an image of the dreaded cliché of flat caps and whippets, then you haven’t reckoned with the trademark Oliver twists. 15 minutes into the show, there’s a short bit in a pub involving said delicacy, and then he is off to the up-and-coming Leeds Brewery, a city micro not five years old.

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Jamie Oliver at Leeds Brewery’s flagship pub The Midnight Bell

Mention of Yorkshire brewing legend Timothy Taylor and cricket “guru” Geoff Boycott get us rolling and then Jamie and his crew take us on a short tour of Leeds Brewery and on to one of their pubs. The cooks there are “re-inventing pub grub using different beers in whatever they can make”. We are told: “At least half of the dishes on the menu are cooked with some style of beer. “Everywhere where wine would go, we try and put beer instead.” For example, bacon and black pudding in a salad with a dressing made from an ale reduction.

Jamie says, “As with wine, beer can offer a totally different flavour to food depending on how it’s used and where the hops come from”. The cooks here use hops from America, Eastern Europe and “Good-old Blighty”. Jamie learns that English hops are “more mellow”, American are “more in-your-face and light” (I think he said), and the Eastern European hops are “perfumed”.

There is a mussel dish in which Leeds Pale ale, with its Eastern European hops, is used where white wine would traditionally be, in a version of moules mariniere. It is at this point that Jamie informs the French about vino-rectal insertion. Even I wouldn’t go that far – and certainly not on camera, but Jamie does, and in one sentence brings a credibility to the beer-with-food cause that a thousand emails to Saturday Kitchen never could.

Cut to the pub table to show some finished dishes: sausages with beer, the salad with beer dressing, and beer and onion soup – all served (and I hope, paired) with beer. That might not appear radical at first, but in any normal pub, the dishes would be made with red onion gravy, wine vinegar dressing, and perhaps cider for the soup. By not being too wacky, this pub wins people over by demonstrating beer’s easy affinity with food in recognisable combinations.

Jamie concludes the piece by demonstrating a Persian-inspired dish of lamb shanks that includes beer. I’ve made it myself, so come back and hear how I got on.

Jamie Oliver makes a point of his being brought up in a pub, and it’s good to know cavolo nero and porcini haven’t caused him to forsake the hop and the malt. And if the popping sounds you hear in kitchens across the land take on a slightly different character, you know cooks are taking to heart (if not rectum) Jamie’s instruction.

Thanks to Sam Moss at Leeds Brewery for use of the photo.

Links
Jamie’s Great Britain Episode 2, About 15 minutes in.

Leeds Brewery’s flagship pub The Midnigt Bell

Leeds Brewery

Black Friday: A cause for celebration at The Euston Tap! @EustonTap

Friday November 4th was Black Friday – at least according to the craft beer bar The Euston Tap. They were playing black songs: Black Hole Sun, Back to Black, Back in Black, Paint it Black… The blackboard was full of black beers: Hardknott Code Black, Kernel Double Black, Matuska Black Rocket… That’s a blacklist to celebrate.

What could be the cause for celebration? Goth Night? Impending meltdown of the Euro? No! it was in fact, the eve Euston Tap’s first birthday. Crikey, a year already! Or perhaps: How can it be only a year? It seems like so much has happened.

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“Can I have that poured with the sparkler?”

A year ago, in my post on the opening of the Euston Tap, I said I wanted it to be more than a beer geeks’ bar:
“I’m hoping The Euston Tap has the clout and capacity to light the blue touchpaper [for the craft beer movement in London]. It does look like the great use of a landmark building, but is it the landmark for craft beer in the UK I’m hoping for? “

In the twelve months since then, as well as putting on beer fan events such as the BrewDog IPA is Dead launch, it has shown itself to be a pub with its aim on a wider audience. Its situation right next to Euston station means it is ideal for a drop-in; a great waiting room, whether you’re Neil Morrissey, or a group of Arsenal fans bored on a Saturday afternoon when snow postpones the match.

Of course, its offering is led by the great range of exciting beers of all styles from all over the craft beer world, on cask, in keg, and in bottle. But there’s no disdain in pouring a glass of Sauvignon Blanc, or serving three office lads Jack and Coke (although Johnnie Walker Black Label would have been apt tonight). And if anyone is looking for their usual national brand, knowledgeable staff point them towards suitable alternatives. And I don’t mean another bar.

For me, the success is measured in how well it draws in a wider drinking audience. As Adrian Tierney-Jones puts it in his excellent new book Great British Pubs, “[At the Euston Tap] beer continues to find new and exciting ways to engage with the drinking public.” Tonight, that part of the public is exposed to almost an entire bar of beer drinkers with glasses of deeply black beer that isn’t Guinness – and some of which is lager. Maybe some will be curious.

Many Happy Returns!

Euston Tap website

Euston Taps beer list” for 5/5/11

Buy Great British Pubs by Adrian Tierney-Jones

Britain’s Best Bars “revealed” in OFM Awards 2011

TV cook Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall emerges Daniel Craig-like from the surf with what looks like a substantial sea bass. It’s the cover of the Observer Food Monthly magazine and beneath his lean, fish-policy-fighting-machine body is the banner “OFM Awards 2011, Starring Hugh’s Fish Fight Heston’s Dinner & Britain’s Best Bars.”
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Surely, a national Sunday newspaper as clued-in as The Observer would recognise the turning tide of craft beer and give its awards for Best Place to Drink to one or more of the modern beer emporia – The Cask and Kitchen, Craft, North Bar, or Sheffield Tap.

As much as I applaud Hugh’s campaign against the appalling waste resulting from the absurd European rules stipulating that over-quota fish be thrown back dead into the sea rather than landed, it was the bit about bars that caused me to skip through the mag as if to the football reports.

And the winner is… Mark’s Bar in Soho. A cocktail bar. What startling innovations find their home there? What revolution-in-drinks are they at the forefront of? Pine gin, lemon verbena, and chipotle vodka, it would seem. Also, building tower fountains of champagne glasses. All the winning London bars are cocktail bars.

“FFS”, I thought. It’s OK, I can say that in a polite blog because the presenter on BBC Radio 4’s highly-respectable Today programme said it live on air. And “WTF”. It’s like The Rake never happened. I hereby unveil a new text message expletive abbreviation for your delectation: OFM. Thanks, Observer!

Perhaps these skewed, misinformed results are the fault of London-centric journos, but no, these awards are from readers’ recommendations. Pubs do figure in the regional winners; there is even mention of a local brew: Alscot Ale (from Warwickshire Beer Co.), but otherwise, beer seems of little importance. One winning pub’s recommendation included “has free wi-fi”. Even ‘Spoons has that.

The conclusion cannot be escaped: Despite overspill of punters outside the Craft Beer Co pub on Leather Lane, the craft beer revolution has not happened. Or at least, not for Observer readers. And whisky? not a dram. Make way for Hanky Panky cocktails and bergamot vodka.

In the Scheme Of Things, the OFM Best Bars awards don’t much matter, but it’s a good indicator of public opinion, or perhaps just that Southern Observer readers like cocktails. Now, I don’t mind a good cocktail bar or two, but isn’t it time a few were thrown back? Dead or alive.

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall video about the Fish Fight campaign

Brussels Beer Weekend 2011: A religious experience?

We are late for church. I admit, it’s not my usual warm-up to a beer festival, but this is Belgium, and there is beer to be blessed to mark the start of Brussels Beer Weekend 2011. I am with fellow members of the British Guild of Beer Writers, and we are about to have a religious experience involving beer.

It’s a pity to be late, but you can’t rush lunch in Belgium can you? Especially one  that itself has divine inspiration in the form of Trappist beer Rochefort. Despite our tardiness, I manage to grab a good pew on the aisle. Ahead of me, in front of the altar, an oak cask stands, flanked by an eight-piece choir, dignitaries of the cloth and the malt, including presumably, a bishop, whose job today is to bless the beer at Gudula Cathedral, during the celebration of Saint Arnould: patron saint of brewers.

Somebody in a Delirium Tremens beer t-shirt leans into the aisle in front of me to take a photo as holy water is sprinkled on the cask. A photo opportunity I dare not miss. I don’t much care for this beer’s name, but I quite like that all my attempted shots are marred by camera shake.

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…And this was before I’d been to the festival

Looking around me, there are beer-sloganed t-shirts everywhere; not surprising as the service is primarily for the brewing industry. As well as the t-shirts, there are business suits adorned with sashes, and gents and ladies in medieval finery. I suspect these are members of the Guild of Brewers. They are all sporting rather splendid buttonholes fashioned from hops and barley.

The choir bursts into a hymn familiar from childhood. All things Bright and Beautiful. Can it be? Perhaps with different words in Belgium. “All things bright, unpasteurised, all trippels great and small…” They would sing in my ideal version of the service. But no, they sing it straight, after which, everyone troops out of the cathedral, to the accompaniment of Widor’s Tocatta. The congregation follows the procession down for the opening of the beer festival itself at La Grande Place.

That’s enough beer blessing; I want to know what it tastes like
We join the throng a few hours later. Brussels Grande Place or Grote Markt, is surrounded by magnificent, ornate Gothic buildings of various trade guilds; including the Brewers Guild. With all the ceremony, pipers, drummers, costumes, beer glasses the size of cement mixers, and the blessed barrel carried aloft, sedan chair like, it feels like we are interlopers at the Gormenghast Beer Festival.

 

Not only is the beer blessed today, but late summer sunshine blesses us with its presence, which is just as well, as the beer festival is outdoors. In the centre of La Grande Place, separated from the world only be some low, temporary metal fences, we crowd around the centrally-situated island of brewery bars.

Dearly beloved: we are sardined here together to celebrate beer
The festival area is jam-packed. All the brewing luminaries from the cathedral seem to be present, as well as locals and tourists. There’s no festival glass; instead you have a yellow token that you swap for a loan of the glass at whichever stand you are, and you hand over one or more pre-paid bottle tops to get your sample of beer. Given the Belgian beer tradition of mulitplicity of branded glasses, it makes sense, and works well, once you get the hang of it.

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Brussels or Gormenghast Beer Festival?

And if there were ever a festival for sampling rather than ordering pints, this is it. Although there are the pilsner types and the occasional ale of what we might call standard strength in the UK, the festival lived up to the perceived tradition that Belgian Beer Is Strong. But, as I learnt later in the weekend, this is not as long a tradition as we are led to believe.

 

I’d made a mental list of beers to try, but in the opening day crush, plans were abandoned to practicality. It was just easier to find a spot that allowed access to an interesting bar or two without having to mount an expedition, with a search party in readiness to retrieve lost souls. Still, this is the Brussels Beer Weekend, and there would be plenty of time to come back.

 

Our hosts for the weekend have chosen The Dominican as our hotel. Appropriately, the sound of monks greets me as I open the door to my room. It’s only pre-recorded voices programmed to play from the TV, but given the day’s proceedings, it wouldn’t have surprised me if there had been actual monks come to pour me a nightcap of a holy quadruple. Dona nobis pacem and goodnight.

 

Links
See more photos from the weekend on Maltjerry’s Flickr

Brussels Beer Weekend Festival participants
Excerpt from BBC’s adaptation of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast books
The British Guild of Beer Writers
Our hosts: the Belgian Tourist Board’s Festival site, to whom, many thanks!

Around the year in Beer Festivals: a conclusion, a beginning

To paraphrase Frank Zappa: Without beer to decorate it, time is just a bunch of boring production deadlines or dates by which bills must be paid. A good beer festival, then, one that celebrates the diversity of great beer, should be there to decorate the calendar.  It is a highlight in the year where we can be grateful that we have lives that afford us time to spend with friends of all political persuasions and viewpoints and celebrate a common passion. But why stick at one highlight?

I have travelled around the last twelve months with the aim of seeing how beer is celebrated. I’ve called this blog trip: “Around the Year in Beer Festivals”, and it’s seen postings from Woking in South East England and points north, up to Stockholm. If you’ve followed the trip, this is the final post of that journey. If this is your first visit, you can follow the see the whole journey unfold on the page Around the Year in Beer Festivals, as it happens.

As I sat down to write up the final festival of the year, the Great British Beer Festival, news came through that Croydon was burning. The Tottenham Riots became the London Riots, and writing about a big beer party seemed trivial. And for most of us, beer is trivial. If you don’t make your living from selling it or making it, beer is merely an accompaniment to daily life, a social spice, a beverage to go with whatever you are eating, watching, or listening to.

Then, as rioting and looting spread, Twitter, Facebook, and blogs came alive with opinions as to why they had started, what lay behind them, and what should be done about the people and communities involved. A complete spectrum of opinions, in fact. “friends” that I’d made through a combination of beer and social media turned out to have wildly differing politics. Who’d have thought… Just because we agreed on single varietal double IPAs or approved of the use of kegged craft beer, there was no guarantee for a homogeny of views on Solutions.

Then I realised: everything is covered in beer – much like Wetherspoons on a Saturday night. .

Of course, what Zappa actually said in that quote about time was  “Without music to decorate it…”. Truth be told, Uncle Frank was not a fan of beer – or any mood-altering substance other than tobacco, but he is famously attributed with saying that in order to be a proper country, it needed to have its own beer. I think that should be changed to “a country needs to have its own beer festival”.

A new beer festival year starts with the 20th Stockholm Festival. Maybe this year I’ll finally make it to the Great American Beer Festival, or a Belgian Christmas beer festival. I’ll report back – riots or not.

For the complete story, see the page:
Around the Year in Beer Festivals

 

 

 

 

Around the year in beer festivals. Final stop: Great British Beer Festival. All change?

And so, my journey Around the Year in Beer Festivals that began in September 2010 in Stockholm, comes to a conclusion in London. The final stop on my trip is the Great British Beer Festival. And what was that conclusion? Well, as far as the GBBF goes, it was mostly Great and it was mostly British.

Mostly great? It’s not quite right to say there is something rotten in the state of Denmark, but Marcellus (who spoke those words in Hamlet) might be forgiven for reporting that he has detected some off flavours. However, GBBF is a real celebration of beer from the UK and abroad, and that’s what these Around the Year… posts are about. I will save the investigative stuff for another day.

As was widely publicised in the run-up to the festival, there was a falling out between a certain Scottish brewery and CAMRA, the organisers of GBBF. This Brewhaha ™ was not resolved and so BrewDog – whom we are almost obliged by law to describe as “maverick brewers” – did not have their Brewery Bar. This did not lead to mass protest or boycott, but did lead to some funny hats.

Thursday is (silly) hat day. I’m not mad about the hatters, would a “posh” festival do the same? Oh, yes, I almost forgot: Ascot. What is it about silly hats that so attracts the British? I don’t know. Back to the beer…

You could spend the entire week at this British festival and not touch a drop of beer from these islands. The Bières Sans Frontières (BSF) bars mean you can get your hands on cask and bottled beers from Alaska to New Zealand, taking in Italy and Japan, as well as the more expected Belgian and German beers. Around the World in one beer festival perhaps.

Some of my favourite beers were the American cask-conditioned ales. The Sierra Nevada Torpedo Extra IPA at 7.2% ABV was terrific, and best sampled as a third of a pint, so it wouldn’t have a chance to live up to its name. At the same strength was the Wet Mountain IPA from Il Vicino. a peak experience at this festival, maybe. I lured some of my “traditional British” friends into tasting some, without giving away the what, where from or how much. They were enamoured until, even when I revealed its secrets. It felt like a victory.

Britain produced some big hitters too – it’s not all boring brown session beers, here. Thornbridge Raven, at 6.6% was remarkable and in the oxymoronically named beer style “black IPA”. Sorachi Ace hops, if I’m not mistaken. Subtly showing its odd aromas of Play Doh and rotten mandarins. Doesn’t sound good, I know, but these notes had to be coaxed out; malt is integrated with hops and you’re left with a beer of great complexity.

Titanic’s Nine Tenths Below was a point under 6%. It was my first IPA on the day nominated as IPA day (but not by the festival). Full of flavour from the malt as well as the hops, and some estery bubble-gum aromas reminiscent of a Bavarian wheat beer.

Fullers were not to be outdone. It’s become something of a tradition for them to launch a special edition beer at the GBBF. There’s usually only one cask per day, and it’s highly sought-after,  leading to long queues. This year the Brewers Reserve No. 3 was the draw. Matured for  800 days in barrels that had previously held whisky from the Scottish Lowland distillery Auchentoshan. Lots of Christmassy cake spices and rum, surprisingly. Can’t quite forgive them for decorating their stand with a huge image of Top Gear’s James May.

Half the other point of GBBF is finding new (to you) beers from your own country. Some very promising brews from Oldershaw, Brewsters, and Brodies, whose Amarilla was a tropical hoppy delight, but I would love to have tried their Superior London Porter. I also wish a few more Brits would be a little more daring with style. If a Czech brewery can do an American style IPA… (Klasterni Svaty Norbert IPA, by the way.)

As well as my final stop this 12-month, it was also the final stop at Earl’s Court for the Great British Beer Festival. Next year, this will be an Olympic venue. With a touch of irony, GBBF will return to Kensington Olympia. Then it’s all change.. I will still champion it, wherever it is, at the same time looking to right those off flavours. Next year will be even better.

Come back for the Conclusion…

Around the Year in Beer Festivals links

The idea is formed and the journey begins.

Stockholm Beer and Whisky Festival September 2010

Woking Beer Festival: The Return of the Native. November 2010

CAMRA Winter Ales festival, Manchester, January 2011

Copenhagen Beer Festival, May 2011

Born in the USA. Why you should go on two days to the Great British Beer Festival #GBBF

Today sees the opening of the 2011 Great British Beer Festival (#GBBF). Earlier I wrote why you should go to this remarkable festival, whether you’re a seasoned festival goer, a newbie, a ditherer, or a disappointed BrewDog fan.  Actually, you should go on two days because there are just too many good beers for one session.

From the 2nd to the 6th of August, Earl’s Court, becomes the centre of the beer universe, with over 1000 beers available. Or perhaps that should be “center”, because London is being invaded by some great American beer. And what’s more, you get to taste them in cask form.

Things have changed in the last few years; hardly anybody bats an eyelid when you say that the USA is the most exciting brewing nation on the planet. The so-called craft beer revolution has been going a couple of decades in the US. Microbreweries in brewing nations the world over – with the possible exception of Germany and the Czech Republic – take their inspiration if not lead from North America.

But there is one area where the US still looks to Britain: cask ale. Craft beers in the US are largely delivered from the keg, and even if we’ve long since settled the argument that “proper” keg is every bit as “real” as the ales that CAMRA champions, the cask is an irresistible draw for many of the star names in US brewing from Brooklyn to San Diego. This week is your chance to find out what they make of it.

North American breweries often produce a much wider range of beer styles in general than their British equivalents: lagers of all hues, bocks, saisons, what beers, and so on. But this week is about styles that suit the cask, so you’ll find ales, porters and stouts – all with the distinctive American touch: lots of big-flavours, shed-loads of fragrant, citrussy, piney hops, and higher ABVs than we are used to in Blighty.

If you’re new to the US scene, you might want to sample beers from breweries you might stand a chance of finding in bottles in UK supermarkets or beer retailers: Flying Dog, Rogue, Brooklyn Brewery… Or take a couple of recommendations from Stan Hieronymus of the Appellation Beer blog: Red Ale (6.2% ABV) by the Marble Brewery (from New Mexico, as opposed to the one from Manchester), or perhaps Vanilla Bean Mal Pais Stout (7% ABV) from Le Cumbre (also New Mexico).

Me, I’ll be heading straight to Bar W2 – The Blackwell Bar, because the American beers sell out fast. I’ve got my eye on Lagunitas Censored Ale (6.9% ABV). Their IPA was my first beer last year and it almost ruined my festival it was so good. I’ll save the Great British stuff for Day 2.

Find these and other beers from Germany, Holland, Italy, Denmark, New Zealand… at the Bières Sans Frontières bar: http://gbbf.camra.org.uk/foreignbeers