Solstice Gruit wins my GBBF beer of the year

It was another whirlwind GBBF Trade Day. As I stood in the queue, which was much shorter on the Non-CAMRA member side, I felt a bit exposed, lost amid a sea of serious Beer Blokes. What was I doing there? I thought to myself. And then the two men in front of me from Oxford asked me, “Why did you come alone?”

I didn’t say “I always drink alone.” Maybe I should have quoted Homer Simpson, “Does God count as a person?” But I just explained, “I am meeting people inside.” And I hoped it was true.

I stealthily sat at the Irish Craft Brewer Table waiting for The Beer Nut to arrive, drinking the first beer on my list, Thornbridge Craven Silk.  It was the second best beer of the day, a perfect summer ale with a strong hop character immediately apparent, giving way to a white grape and floral middle that accumulated with drinking the stuff.  I had a third and wished I’d had a pint.  It was a lovely sunny color with a lacy head, and perfect study in balancing the delicate and the bold in a light mouthfeel.

The Beer Nut and Ms. Beer Nut arrived and the party started  in earnest because the rest of the Irish Brew Crew had come with them, including two Americans.  Maybe I’m homesick, or maybe these guys were just awesome, but it was great to bond about American beers with other expats.

My next beer was the Stone Smoked Porter with Vanilla Bean– The Beer Nut thought it a bit to synthetic, and I saw what he meant.  The hops seemed to give the profound vanilla a weird two-dimensionality.  The smoke was lost on me.  I felt guilty about liking the stuff.  It was a vanilla-fairy beer which twinkled along the palate, reminding me of a cereal I ate as a child, something with a prize inside.

But by this time I was eying Beer Nut’s rather girly looking beer, a cloudy aubergine-colored lambic from De Molen which he described as a farmyard where all the lambs are only fed raspberries.  How could I resist?  It was in one of those mysterious-looking De Molen casks (you can see them in the video above) which looks just enough like contraband to make you feel like you are getting away with something drinking it.  It was indeed the fruit-dream farm beer The Beer Nut had described, and yet there was something dark there as well, a leather note and a bit of tobacco.  If I were to extend the metaphor to incorporate these elements that farmyard would be more akin to the Torture Garden. But in a good way.

The next beer on my agenda was something that made me think of Jesse Bullington, a medievalist who has written a remarkable novel called The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart. I had the happy chance to hang with him and talk beer last month and I thought it was the kind of beer he would dig.  It t urns out it was the most remarkable beer I’ve had this year.

Quote from the American Flatbread Philosophy

I had never heard of the brewery before, but I’m fascinated by brewing history, particularly pre-hopping styles.  This quote from the American Flatbread website could describe their Solstic Gruit.  It was a gentle beer with a mead-like character.  Often with honey or mead one can taste the ghost of the flower, what the bees used in the brew, and this beer had a similar twice-removed esther. It was also quite herby and peppered, similar to Froach but with nose that had a bit of ceremonial incense about it.  Seductive!  In my tipsy delight I see I have scrawled in the margins of my tasting notes, “PUT ON THE WOODEN CLOGS!”

The only downside to the gruit was I knew nothing could follow it.  But I did try.  Beartown Ginger was a thin, dry ginger tea which I couldn’t finish.  And next up was the Saint Austell Black Prince which had a mineral tang that predominated and lingered distractedly, like blood in the mouth. Ms. Beer Nut described it, “like licking rocks.” It was swiftly abandoned.

I was on the cusp of feeling a bit morose and hopeless– would I wander around the entire airplane hanger of beer that is the GBBF tasting one unpleasant thing after another?  There were suggestions from the table but the last two beers had made me feel a bit queasy, a bit put off beer altogether.  Thinking back I should have had some really un-beery beer like another lambic, but instead I opted for the perfectly fine Left Hand Black Jack Porter.

Richie suggested I should just have the beer I really liked.  It’s what I really wanted, anyway. And honestly, when will I ever see it again?  As I got some more I sang its praises to Tandleman who was sceptical, but that’s his MO. Secretly I’d like to think that he stayed on the weird medieval herb beer all night without telling anyone!  And then I told Zak about it, though he’d already tried it and wasn’t so keen.  I basically talked about it to anyone who would listen.

Skinners brewery from Truro were forcing the craic with their marching band headed by a “Queen” in bad drag.  huzzah. They thundered through the echoing space like an invading army, and whenever anyone broke a glass the place erupted in hollers as if someone had invented fire.  The strange grey space of the Earl’s Court Exhibition Centre is no place to get squiffy. I’ve said it before, but there is a moment in the afternoon when the ugly labyrinth just seems to ambush you.

That happened before I had a chance to go up to any of the bars and get the bottles I was hoping to take home. Some in my party were not allowed to take bottled beers from the bar, but Tandleman assured me this was not the case. All the same, I didn’t press my luck.  The American bars were so much more crowded than the others, and the layout so confusing– impossible to browse without consulting the maps and program.   So I will just have to wonder about the Great Divide 16th Anniversary IPA and the Thornbridge Saint Petersburg and hope that I can get my mitts on a bottle or two elsewhere.

And then I sat down and savoured my third, listening to the conversations around me, talking to the American blokes about what it’s like to be here.  And I was happy.  Sure, the company was great, but I was really, really happy.  I thought, why is that, when really the GBBF is so often like work– a bit scary, a bit overwhelming, always grim.  But I’ve come every year in hopes that I’ll find that elusive thing, that thing every beer-obsessive has felt at one time– beer joy.  Last year it was the Allagash Interlude and this year, I found it again in the Solstice Gruit.  Thank you, lovely brewers at American Flatbread for making it worth it.

12 Responses

  1. I loved the Solstice Gruit, my favourite US beer of the day by a country mile.

    And if you ever make it Derbyshire way, I’ll make sure there will be a bottle of St Petersburg with your name on it.

    • The gruit was really outstanding, wasn’t it? I think the bottle of St. Petersburg is definitely motivating! I might be passing through that way in a couple of weeks– I will let you know. I look forward to reading your take on the GBBF.

  2. What a super day! Shame we had to go just as they were getting on to the single hopped comparisons. Enjoyed chatting to you and now enjoying reading your blog! here’s that barrel project I was telling you about and also Cheers, Richie

    • Hi Richie, thanks for finding me on here! It’s a pity I missed the hop round table, as it would have been educational! I’m looking forward to checking out your blog, also.

  3. I cannot wait until tomorrow to go to my first GBBF. Thanks for the tip on Solstice. Definitely on the list of beers to try.

    • Good luck, Shey! I look forward to hearing your take on the GBBF.

  4. I know what you mean about the strange grey space… it really is a peculiar place to spend long periods of time in. And yes, the noise is part of what makes it exhausting, not just the intermittent shouting/etc but also the constant echoing background noise.

    Yesterday (Wednesday) was the first day I’ve actually managed to make it to the end of a GBBF day (though we did leave slightly before chucking-out time in order to avoid station congestion). I think I’ll definitely be going on Wednesdays rather than Thursdays from now on.

    • Hi Kake, I know what you mean about the din– I guess they have music on sometimes but I’ve always missed that. It is a most un-festive festival, really.

      Were there any beers that stood out for you this year?

  5. The gruit didn’t do it for me. I also find beer history, and in particular unhopped ales, fascinating. But the taste is never as good as stuff with hops in.

  6. Thanks, Impy! We thought you were pretty awesome, too. And thanks for turning me on to the Gruit, something I might not have tried otherwise. Levitation with Simcoe was still the pick of the festival for me, though.
    Loving the blog; catchya next time!
    – R

  7. Impy, you have a staggering way with colour in your prose. I love the fruit-dream farm beer reference. Wish I’d made it to Trade day at GBBF this year, but alas, being northern ruled it out for me.

    Continued adventures to you and yours. Keep shouting from the rooftops and viva la real ale revolution!

    • Hi Dave, thanks for the kind words! Although I feel lucky to be able to get to the GBBF easily, I’m convinced that local beer fests are much more pleasant and fun, even if they don’t have that impressive line up of American beers. Viva la Real Ale!

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