Great British Beer Festival: heads-up for a couple of surprises #GBBF

If you go to the Great British Beer Festival at Earls Court this year, between 6-12 August, you’re in for a big surprise. It’s not there. You will find instead, another hop-filled event: the Olympic basketball (ho-ho…).

This year, GBBF, as it is known, is back at Olympia of the Kensington variety, which I take as one in the eye for the branding goons who decreed that a certain Dutch beer brand giant has sole “pouring” rights in the Olympics, with the idiotic corollary that allusions to “Olympics” or “gold” are forbidden.

Gbbf_2012_logo

There are many reasons to go to the GBBF. Sampling the wares of the biggest, most familiar breweries in Britain has never been one of mine. Until now…

If people want to come and drink Sharp’s Doom Bar, or even Timothy Taylor Landlord, that’s up to them, but it doesn’t float my firkin. This year, one British brewing major has done something quite exciting.

So who is it? Fullers? Nope! Sure, I always look to Fullers for some hard-to-find speciality. Sometimes it’s cask Vintage Ale, this year it’s Brewers Reserve No. 4. Fourth in a, hopefully, ongoing series of barrel-aged versions of the Vintage ale (or close variant). I will be queueing up with the rest of them again to sample the limited amounts of the cask version, later to be released in a limited edition bottling.

No, the news that’s got me all excited comes from Greene King. Yes, you read that right, Greene King. Touted as a once-in-lifetime opportunity, in an unprecedented move, a very, very limited quantity of Greene King 5x will be available to the public. 5x is not a new beer, it’s a 12% ABV “vintage” ale used as part of the blend that goes to make the bottled Suffolk Strong Ale.

5x is never available on its own to the general public. Did I mention that? Can hardly wait to get my sample third of a pint. Watch out, and listen hard for the announcements. There will only be one firkin a day.

One of the main reasons I go to GBBF is the American bar, and the chance to grab some cask versions from some of the best breweries on the planet. It’s hard to give hard-and-fast recommendations because it’s impossible to predict what will be on when. But get there early, especially if you want to stock your cellar with hard-to-find American bottled (and canned) craft beers. They are usually way cheaper than is possible to sell from the online UK specialists.

The Great British Beer Festival has been a great showcase for British beers for decades. It is a great opportunity to hunt down beers you’ve wanted to try, but which never make it to your neck of the woods. The beer list is so vastly, unmanageably huge, that even despite some notable absentees from the list of breweries, planning ahead is vital, so you don’t end up settling for something you don’t really want.

What you need is a hitlist. Although you can see the whole festival beer list here, be warned, it’s a movable feast. Unfortunately, you can only make and store your own hitlist if you are a CAMRA member. A pity that there wasn’t a way of allowing non-members a way of using this facility, but you could always use a pen and paper, if some enterprising person hasn’t invented an app for it.

A pity also, is the absence in this “showcase” of many of the new greats of British brewing. It might seem a churlish of me to mention it, but a GBBF without the likes of Hardknott, Dark Star, Magic Rock, Summer Wine Brewery, The Kernel, Thornbridge, and Windsor & Eton is a major disappointment. I know the selection process arcane, and I hear, political, but I only hope this is not the start of some schism.

Maybe there will be late additions, but if not there will still be plenty to try (Marble, Mallinsons, Arbor, Bristol Beer Factory…)

Links
List of beers
Get your tickets in advance here. It will save you a LOT of time.
Back story on Olympics “pouring rights”:
Boycott called up for Lords as Heineken rule out Hoggard

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 involving 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.

Bbwe11_blessing_dt_small

…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.

Bbwe11_fest_01

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. 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

 

Why you should go to the Great British Beer Festival #gbbf and what to do when you get there.

Take a bunch of friends, and when you get your festival pint glasses, charge them only a half or even a third full. Share with anyone who doesn’t have a cold. Yes, the Great British Beer Festival (#GBBF) is on this week in Earl’s Court, London, and if you have any interest in beer, you should go. This next couple of short posts are to give a little guidance to the GBBF newbie or ditherer. Let me explain…

Next year, Earl’s Court will be a venue for the Olympics, afterwards, it will be demolished to make way for flats, or a BrewDog craft beer bar, or something else. This venue is practically hallowed ground; I have seen Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan, and Genesis here. I foolishly missed Pink Floyd’s The Wall here. You could have seen Oasis here, too, had you not been in Sweden. For one final week only, starting 2nd August, it will be the home for the biggest pub in the world.

New-gbbf-writing

GBBF is great and intense beer fun. You can come here and beer tick, or have a pint of your favourite with your workmates. Or something in between. There is no right way to do the festival (although there are a couple of wrong ones). Like the best pubs, there is a real mix of people and the demographic is getting noticeably younger. Stuffy, as has been accused by BrewDog? Not a chance.

Speaking of whom, there’s been a bit of BrewHaha (TM) surrounding the appearance and withdrawal of BrewDog at this year’s festival, but hey, that was a good bit of publicity for CAMRA and the messiahs/very naughty boys of British Brewing. Even if you are a staunch supporter of the BrewDog party line, you’ll be missing out if you don’t go, because there is some brilliant beer of all descriptions.

Don’t know where to start? The GBBF website is very helpful, dividing the beers into British Ales, Ciders and Perries, and International Beers. You can browse the list of breweries, get some tips, and compile a list to take with you of stuff you want to try.

Things really are changing in Beer Britain and this is reflected in the list of cutting-edge breweries: Thornbridge, Redemption, Bristol Beer Factory, Brodies, Dark Star, Fyne, Hawkshead, Kernel, Marble, Otley, Williams Bros… All are brewers of modern, innovative, interesting and above all, really delicious beers. And these are just the ones from Britain.

Start making your list, and come back here for some more tips from the list of International Beers.

Book your tickets online here and print them at home.

Cask vs. Keg at The White Horse: The Verdict

The Cask versus Keg Festival at the White Horse, Parson’s Green was set out as a test of beer ideology. Is cask old hat? Can keg ever get “real”? Eight beers, two halves of each: one cask the other keg. Three tasters on the jury, one point for a win. The results are in. Catch up on Part1: Battle Plans are laid, and then read on! there’s nothing to lose but your prejudice.

Let battle commence!
Meantime London Pale Ale 4.3% ABV
What else are you going to call a brewery from Greenwich? Meantime is known for a range of beer styles and embracing keg. What would it’s cask be like? Both beers were low in carbonation, but the attractive toffee and malt in the aroma of the keg version was replaced in the cask version by a sort of rounded funkiness. I thought there might be an appley note. The verdict tipped by the cask being served too warm.
Keg 1, Cask 0.

Magic Rock Highwire 5.5% ABV
The first of several beers on today from this new brewery. In the style of an West Coast American pale ale bitter. Immediately the keg gives up its gorgeous aroma of passion fruit and citrus liveliness. Eventually, the cask catches on released those tropical fruit and delivers has an extra dimension. Is it chewier? rounder? The equaliser!
Keg 1, Cask 1.

Harviestoun Schiehallion  4.8% ABV
Schiehallion is a Scottish lager, but there its similarity to Tennents ends. It is one of the very few cask-conditioned lagers available in the UK. The lager from the keg is more carbonated, and seems more lager-y in appearance. The finish of the keg, is long and creamily malty. Definitely superior we thought, despite the cask pedigree of its brother.
Keg 2, Cask 1.

Magic Rock Curious 3.9% ABV
Curiously, Curious – an English-style pale ale, is darker than the lager. Well, curious for many lager drinkers in the UK, perhaps. The cask is noticeably warmer, but has a dense, attractive head. The aroma, of both is similar: a gentle herbiness. Both have a lemony bitterness, but the taste of the keg is thin by comparison.
Keg 2, Cask 2.

Black Isle Red Kite 4.2% ABV
It’s from Scotland but it’s not an island, I learned last year. Lovely reddish colour in both, with nutty chestnut aromas in the cask with a lovely fruitiness. The cask has a lovely fruitiness but the keg has a gorgeous mothfeel: soft and round. A score-draw.
Keg 2.5, Cask 2.5.

Thornbridge Jaipur 5.9% ABV
At this point burgers became involved because it has become impossible to resist the barbecue aromas wafting in from the green. This powerful, hoppy India Pale Ale should be just the job. The crisp hoppiness with a backbone of light malt matches the burgers brilliantly. A close one this, but the keg has slightly more fizz and it just suits the burgers, and so wins the day.
Keg 3.5, Cask 2.5

Black Isle Porter 4.6% ABV
Back to the Highlands again. The cask knocks the socks off the keg here, with its chocolatey smoothness. Here, for once, the keg seems as artificial as its detractors claim. The roasted malt flavours go brilliantly with what’s left of the heavily loaded burgers.
Keg 3.5, Cask 3.5

Magic Rock Cannonball 7.4% ABV
This is a mighty ale in both cask and keg, styled as a “hop bomb” IPA. Both versions are really good: gorgeous fruity lemony sweetness. The keg is lighter and more sherbety, while the cask is full of depth and round. At the time, I tweeted the cask had a “fruity happiness”. The auto-correcter on my phone got the better of me, but this time the cask got the better of the keg.

Final Score and verdict
Keg 3.5, Cask 4.5

Hardly a crushing victory for cask. Are we surprised either way? That “proper” keg is good? Only one cask was vastly superior: the Black Isle Porter, and only one keg was way better than its cask counterpart: the Meantime London Pale Ale.

So, what of the supposition that some styles more suited to one or other dispense? The two Magic Rock American-style beers which you might have expected to be keg-favoured were great in cask, but honestly, there wasn’t much in it. Lighter, ales seem to work better as cask, with the caveat that the sample was very small; we skipped over the Fullers Chiswick, and got into the Otley, which was only on as cask. We deserve reprimands.

If there is any clear verdict on the basis of one session: the “enemy” is not keg. If there is an enemy it is pasteurisation and strangulation filtering that rips the character out of a beer. And, serving beers at the right temperature makes a difference.

You could argue that I’ve come away confirming what I already knew, but at least I have some hard(ish) evidence to back my view up.

I suspect the battle will rage on.

Breweries

Meantime Brewery
Magic Rock Brewing
Harviestoun Brewery
Black Isle Brewery
Thornbridge

And not forgetting, this was another brilliant beer event from The White Horse.

Cask vs. Keg festival at The White Horse: Battle plans are laid

“Haven’t you got any ordinary beer?” said the man standing next to me at the bar at the White Horse.

His request for a beer had started out in quite a normal fashion, not to say mundane: “A pint of Harviestoun Bitter and Twisted,” had been the opening gambit. Innocent enough.

To which, the response from behind the bar was, “Cask or Keg?”
“Sorry?” he said with genuine surprise.
“Do you want the cask version of the Bitter and Twisted, or keg?,” while this contained more words, it clearly did not produce a deeper understanding in the customer.
“Whatever is quickest and cheapest.”

Our man was standing right next to the keg fonts, but I’d seen the prices on the chalk board.
I was no longer paying attention to my place in the queue to be served. She served a pint of the keg, and said, “Five pounds and sixty-five pence, please.”

“Sorry?” For the second time.
“Well, I did a quick cost/benefit analysis based on your “quick-and-cheap” request, and since I was standing next to the keg, I thought the downside of the extra 50p would be outweighed by the extra time it would take waiting for the cask tap to be free.”
“Oh, thanks. I appreciate your effort.”

Although everything else in the reported dialog happened, in reality, there was no “cost/benefit” exchange, and our thirsty, and increasingly indignant punter merely came out with, “£5.65 for a pint?!” and the line that opens this post. He was in the wrong place for “ordinary” beer, even if I did have sympathy for his reaction.

£5.65 is expensive for pint in a pub, even in Parsons Green, London, but as the bar person explained, this was a festival, and there were was no charge for entrance. There was no “ordinary” beer and this was no ordinary festival. This was The Cask vs. Keg festival.

There is a lot of talk about contentious subjects in the beer world. You might have read my report on the Twitter flash-mobbing of Saturday Kitchen in relation to getting food and beer on TV. More contentious by far, in the UK at least, is whether good beer can be served from a keg.

Here, at the White Horse, was a chance to try cask versions of a beer next to their keg counterparts, Instead of just declaring “two legs good” in the modern way, or sticking to the dogmatism of the old, we had the opportunity to find out who was right; the craft beer “revolutionaries” or the faction of CAMRA that says only cask deserves support, by which they mean so-called real ale. Unmissable, surely.

So where was everybody? I mean, it was a pretty full pub, and the green outside was chock-full (even if there was a lot of Pimms being drunk). By “everybody” I mean people who really need to test their own beliefs in this Cask vs. Keg thing. Maybe they went on other days in the weekend, or came in after I left, but in my experience, the sort of people who get invited to these sort of events usually arrive early. Ah, they could have come early. However, I haven’t seen anything written. Maybe I should look harder.

So what’s the festival all about? Maybe I should explain briefly why a festival called “Cask vs. Keg” should arise in the first place. (Beer “Bloggerati“, look away now!). Let’s start by saying (again) that without the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), this blog would probably be about whisky, wine, and food, as beer as an interesting drink would probably have shuffled off this mortal coil in 1974. Back then, kegged beer was the “enemy”; it was pasteurised, filtered, and pumped full of and dispensed with CO2. A dead parrot.

These days, the techniques in kegging beer have moved on, thanks largely to the craft beer movement in the US. Beers of all styles (not just ales) can be put into kegs without pasteurisation and with minimal or no filtration, so they contain living yeast. They can also be served using compressed air. As I understand it, this equates to what CAMRA calls “real”. Anyone who has tasted beers from Flying Dog or Stone presented like this knows that Polly most definitely has voom.

Well, that’s OK then, surely everyone is happy, no? Not everybody, but a lot of people are happy. Cask beers have a cachet in the US and certain parts of Northern Europe and people in the UK are catching on to a whole New World of beer styles. Sure, they can be a bit cooler and are generally more carbonated (as they don’t lose CO2 when the cask is breached), but some some believe certain beer styles are more suited to the new keg methods.

Unfortunately, there is intransigence on both sides. I find the standpoint, “CAMRA and real ale. Epic. Fail” just as tedious as “What’s the matter lagerboy? Frightened of tasting something?” Which is why the White Horse was such a draw for me; a chance to do an A/B comparison of a range of different styles of beers, each available in cask and keg.

In Part 2, find out what we tasted and what the verdict was.

Backstory

One of the first Nightjar posts: Cask jousts with keg at Hampton Court Jazz and Beer Festival.

Beer “Bloggerati” refers to a remark made at a CAMRA AGM by an official in reference to supposedly troublesome beer bloggers who didn’t toe the CAMRA party line. These influential beer writers of a certain disposition would have no reason to read my explanation of the cask vs. keg debate origins, even if they did read this blog.

The “lagerboy” reference is a quote from an advertising campaign by Wychwood Brewery for their Hobgoblin ale.

What is “real ale”?

The White Horse, Parsons Green, London.

Copenhagen Beer Festival 2011: Micros and More in the Giant’s Den

“So, the festival glasses?” I asked. “Are they just behind that stack of whisky tumblers? What do you mean those are the festival glasses?” A voice in my head pipes up. It is late great jazz club owner Ronnie Scott intoning “You’re not here to enjoy yourselves!” It dissipates, the krone dropped; we are here to sample. It was 2009 and my intro to the Copenhagen Beer Festival had me smitten. I knew I would be back. Hope they still have poletts.

Jump-cut to May 2011, a changed flight, altered venue, and here I was again: Copengagen, the third stop on my journey Around theYear in Beer Festivals. The venue is Tap 1 Exhibition Hall at (sharp intake of breath) the Carlsberg Brewery?! Shurely shome mishtake, as Lord Gnome of Private Eye magazine might have it. Is this not some kind of sell-out? No! This must be one of the least sold-out beer festivals there is. Apart from in the sense of ticket sales. 

Cph_sample_glass_med

The festival sample glass and holder with the festival programme.

It does make some kind of sense holding a beer enthusiasts’ festival at the home of a giant industrial brewer. At least Carlsberg has their own micro: Jacobsen, with their own stand at the festival. They make some varied and pretty tasty beers. And it’s variety that makes the Copenhagen festival.  The festival organisers are the Danske Ølentusiaster (Danish Beer Enthusiasts) Association; by enthusiasts for enthusiasts.  In its own way, Carlsberg has its place in spreading the word of the craft beer revolution.

If we are not exactly rejoicing to see the biggest brewery is here, then it is thrilling to see some of the two-man, five-barrel operations – not to forget the breweries where women take a central role, such as at Wintercoat, where Disa Fink with her husband Nils Thomsen comprise the workforce at this English-inspired brewery near Aarhus. Some might look down their pint glasses at handpumps dispensing non-cask ale, but they did have two genuine cask-conditioned beers: the Cockney Imperial Stout at 8% ABV and the Wintercoat Old Ale. Both were great, and the Old Ale, even if the programme notes said it wasn’t fully matured, already tasted delicious.

There was at least one other old ale to be had, also in cask form: Gales Prize Old Ale, imported by the One Pint specialist importers of British, Belgian, US, German, Czech and that other legendary brewing nation, India. Even though we are here to celebrate and sample Danish craft beer, it’s hard to resist the Prize Old Ale, so hard to find in the UK. It was the best I’ve tried: a complex meld of sweet, bitter and sour, satisfying and refreshing. Well worth a polett.

A what, sorry? You said that before? A polett (or possibly polet) is a token in Danish, and you get ten as part of the price of entry (200 kr) along with your sample glass. The deal is, you swap a token for a sample, which is usually 10 cl, but there is a line for 5 cl for very strong beers. It’s a very sensible system – I’ve seen similar at some CAMRA festivals – it saves all that rummaging around for change while juggling your glass and festival programme.

You might think 10 krone (about £1.20) for 10 cl of beer is steep, but the Danish craft beer scene is inspired by the US, so there are some big beers. The likes of Amager, Croocked Moon (sic), Hornbeer, NØrrebro, Kissmeyer, and of course, Mikkeller parade their 8.5% Rye Porters, their Extreme Imperial IPAs at 9%, and their Black Hole Barrel Aged Imperial Stout series – at gone 13%.

And on the more usual side of the ABV tracks, you get American-style style variety: dry-single-hopped Bitters, Doppelbocks, Red Rye IPAs, Coffee Porters, Saisons, Bieres de Garde, as well as IPAs sporting the new hops on the block from the Pacific, such as Citra and Nelson Sauvin.

Even if the website’s list of “exhibitors” is a couple of scrolls long, it still feels like a manageable festival; the enthusiasts know what enthusiasts want. The feel is like a local festival. There are plenty of guests from foreign climes too; it is more than local beer for local people. The Dogs are here: BrewDog and Flying Dog, there’s Italian beer brewed to rival wine for its food matching capabilities, and some Swedish micros – after all, Sweden is a short train journey across the Öresund bridge.

Of course it would be impossible to try everything you came for, even by sharing 10 cl samples. So the sensible thing is to come along more than once. In fact, why don’t you come back for Part 2, for more on those foreigners, pump-action shotgun, smuggled contraband, how to avoid Mikkeller and nearly not get home.

Links
Copenhagen Beer Festival website
(in English) with Exhibitors list (Danish)
Wintercoat Bryggeriet (English)
One Pint Importers range of imported bottled beers

Previously on Around the Year in Beer Festivals…

Copenhagen Beer Festival 2011 preview. Warning: Contains Marmite

Forgive me, any Marmite-loving readers, but I am flouting all calls to boycotts, and will be visiting the Copenhagen Beer Festival on Friday, as planned. In case you didn’t know, the Danish government has banned the sale of Marmite in Denmark because it has added vitamins and minerals. As much as I love Marmite, I am not going to miss this festival in some half-baked idea for a protest.

Along with the Stockholm Beer and Whisky Festival, this is a real jewel of a fest; I was there two years ago, and have been planning to be at the 2011 event ever since I failed to get to the 2009 version. It’s one of my planned “Round the year in beer festivals” tour, the previous one seeming long ago and far away in the darkest depths of Greater Manchester and the just as Great British Winter Ales festival.

Marmite_twibbon

Denmark is world-famous for Carlsberg, and like most places dominated by a single giant brewery, was a virtual monoculture of standard international lager. In recent years, Denmark, has sprouted a brilliant micro-brewery and craft beer scene, led by Mikkeller, with international reputations growing for the likes of Amager Bryghus, Norrebro Bryghus, and Hornbeer

All of the above and 100 or so others will be there too, with five or six Swedish micros, BrewDog from Scotland, Three Floyds from the US, and…. Carlsberg.

I don’t have time to prepare a t-shirt in protest, so I’ve done the next best thing: a “Marmite for Everyone”  twibbon on my Twitter icon (See pic). I may yet turn into a Marmite soldier.

Get your Marmite twibbon here: http://twibbon.com/join/Marmite-for-everyone

Get your Marmite vs. Little Mermaid pic here: Facebook fan page

Get your Copenhagen Beer Festival list here: http://www.ale.dk/index.php?id=3039

Searching for a New Order at the Manchester Winter Ales Festival

There ought to be an extra factor in the equation that defines where in the calendar “Blue Monday” falls: the distance in miles you are you away from a winter beer festival. January is bad enough as it is, but what makes it worse for me is the envy I feel towards those lucky enough to live near a festival of winter beers. Finally, I’ve done something about the problem that January gives me every year: I’ve broken my winter beer festival duck at the National Winter Ales Festival in Manchester, the third stop on my journey Around the Year in Beer Festivals.

Winter was made for strong, dark beers; not the other way around. Only, it’s not always easy to find them. What you need is a festival. As my epiphany in Stockholm showed me, I think the point of a beer festival is to sample, to taste something new. The sampling aspect is near necessity if the majority of the beers you want to try are stronger than 5.5% ABV.

When I was planning my year’s tour of beer festivals, the UK’s National Winter Ales Festival (NWAF) filled a sizeable gap between Woking in November and Copenhagen in May. Winter and Christmas beers seem to be more part of the culture of countries in the rest of Northern Europe, so how would Manchester fare? Could it be part of the change to beer culture in the UK that I’m looking for? Are we embracing greater diversity in our beer styles?


Winter ales and more
There’s no doubt that the NWAF showcases winter ales, but it’s not exclusively the winter warmer style throughout. In fact, the beer list has a wide representation of ales that could conceivably turn up at any time of the year. I was disappointed by that at first, but the reality is, you could do all four sessions of the festival and not come anywhere near exhausting the winter stuff. Even If dark-and-strong’s not your thing, you could just stick to the impressive range of non-seasonal beers local to the North West of England.

And that’s just where I started, with Hawkshead Red. I’ve heard a lot about this brewery from the Lake District, and good though the Red was, with its malt-dominated flavour (you can guess the colour), it wasn’t what I’d come for. But the winter ales weren’t at the standard bars; if you wanted a beer entered in competition (for best winter ale), you had to go to the Competition Bar. Confused me at first, but the organisers got this right; it meant you only needed to visit one bar to satisfy your winter ale craving.

So, after a quick grand tour to scope the breweries arranged around the hall from A for “Amber Ales” to Y for “Yorkshire Dales”, the Competition Bar became irresistible. Brodie’s Prime is Hawkshead’s entry. It’s in the winter warmer style, medium bodied and fruity with a hint of roasted malt. Thankfully, the Mwnci Nell from Bragdy’r Nant, failed to live up to its printed tasting note of “fish”, but the Port O Call from Bank Top did indeed turn out to have a hint of port. Really quite Christmassy, without being over-spiced and gimmicky.

I’ve championed Thornbridge before and was drawn to the cask St. Petersburg imperial stout. A favourite of mine from 2010 in the bottle, what would the cask version offer? At 7.7%, it is satisfyingly warming, but it has the body and the roasted flavours to balance. Definitely one of those “what winter is made for” beers. As was Thwaites OBJ. Rich, fruity and sweet almost to the point of a barley wine, but without quite the strength. There aren’t many beers like this, and it’s good to see one of the traditional Northern breweries (they are from Blackburn) keeping up the interest alongside the micros.

A predictable demographic or are we missing a trick?
The festival is a success, no doubt. It’s hard to fault, and yet something is bothering me. It’s not the venue, which is pleasant enough and big enough for the occasion. It’s not the beers; the large range of interesting beers includes a “foreign” beer bar boasting beers in the winter styles of their respective countries.

There’s something very different about the NWAF compared to its summer equivalent, the Great British Beer Festival (GBBF) held in August in London. And it only hits me when my festival companion introduces me to a friend, who opens by quoting Captain Beefheart. Of course, I get the  reference – Dave has set me up. And I’ve been thinking music references all day, all associated with Manchester: from Joy Division and New Order, to the Smiths and Oasis. Surely I could come up with a more modern Manchester band or musical icon. But I couldn’t, and it didn’t look like there were many other festival goers who could either.

Now, I suppose a Friday afternoon is not the best session to assess whether the younger population of Greater Manchester has completely deserted the dark side of the beer world. I just wonder if there is an image problem with dark beer. I’ve noticed a marked decrease in average age at the GBBF as well as a lurch towards blond and golden ales. Are the two perhaps related? If you look at the photo, there are some under 40s, but not many. Please, somebody who went to any of the evening sessions, set me straight, if you can.

In trying to make ales look more like (ordinary) lagers in order to entice a new generation, are brewers merely exchanging one style monoculture for another? Mild ales are already on the endangered species list, what needs to be done to stop winter ales joining them?

Given the opportunity, when people are introduced to the darker beers; whether from the forward-looking micros like Thornbridge (St. Petersburg) and Marble (Chocolate), or even some established bigger players like Fullers (London Porter), they often really like them. And my experience from the south of Argentina to the north of Sweden, is young people go for the dark stuff in a big way.

Obviously, we are at a festival that celebrates the diversity of beer styles, especially if you include the dunkels, the smoked trippels and bocks of the foreign beer list. The list of winter ale styles in competition shares the diversity, even if you might argue about defining styles:

  • Old Ales and Strong Milds
  • Porters
  • Stouts
  • Barley Wines

The existence of new micros, brewing such delights as the fantastic Superior Damson Stout from Liverpool’s Wapping, alongside Robinson’s promoting its established favourite Old Tom, is very pleasing. But I wish more UK breweries would be a bit more exciting with their winter beers; most are lagging behind the lead of the US, where craft breweries who boast a broad range of styles. Be braver! Sure, have a flagship beer, but promote the range, forget the bland marketing of promoting The Brand – it’s old hat. 

CAMRA organises the National Winter Ales Festival, and should take credit for it. I would certainly go again and take more friends. And even if I happened to attend The Antiques Roadshow session, I hope both CAMRA and the breweries build on the success by encouraging even more of a younger crowd to attend – It’s certainly a good antidote to Blue Monday.

Links and references:
The list of Winter Ales competition winners in all categories.
The (somewhat clunky) National Winter Ales website.
Blue Monday explained in Wikipedia.