Archive for the ‘GBBF’ Category

Solstice Gruit wins my GBBF beer of the year
August 4, 2010


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.

There’s Something about Lists
August 3, 2010

I’ve been up since 5am compiling my list for the Great British Beer Festival.  (Did I say yesterday I wasn’t going for the beer?  I was lying.) I know this list making is an exercise in futility but I can’t help myself.
Have I gone mad or is the GBBF “region” list a complete rewriting of British geography?  If you didn’t know the names of the breweries you liked, it would be impossible to find anything.  Though organizing 700+ beers can’t be easy, and I won’t pretend I could do it better.

I’m keeping my expectations low and realistic, even if I stick to thirds there’s only so much I can drink.

There is the dilemma of starting with what is most palate-friendly, but ironically I’ve found at beer festivals there is always a rush on the higher-alcohol brews.  Perhaps because they are “rarer”– especially if you do most of your drinking in pubs where most beer available is around 4%.  But most of these beers will thrash your palate straight out.

But then there is the labyrinth of the GBBF layout to negotiate.  Sure, you want to start with that light summer ale with elderflower infusion, but where the hell is it?  You get lost and end up drinking some hop bomb which coats your mouth in resins for a good hour.

Here is my list for those who really like that kind of thing.  You know who you are.

  • Adnams Gunhill (a dark mild)
  • American Flatbread Solstice Gruit (a medieval brew, I’ll be drinking it in honor of my new friend and fab writer, Jesse Bullington.)
  • Beartown Ginger Bear– (the gay man in me giggles.)  I like ginger, I like Beartown and I like ginger bears.
  • Buffy’s Norwich Terrier– I’m a fan of Buffy’s– their Old English Rose was one of those palate-defining brews for me.  Though the name isn’t too promising.  I keep thinking wet dog.
  • Islay Nerabus–I’m increasingly curious about Scottish brewers, particularly Hebridean ones.  This beer also has Amarillo hops, my favourite.
  • Mighty Oak Oscar Wild Mild or Sand Bar– I’ve heard great things about this brewery and it’s local if we’re counting food miles.
  • Orkney Raven Ale– I sampled several beers from this brewery while I was in Orkney.  I’ll drink almost anything with “hedgerow” in the tasting notes.
  • St. Austell Prince– I’m a fan of this brewery’s hoppy bitters and am eager to see what they do with a mild.  So often breweries will brew a mild for the GBBF but you never see them in pub rotations.  It’s a shame– this could be a post in itself.
  • Stone Smoked Porter with Vanilla Bean–I feel obligated to list this as it seems the quintessential beer-chaser type beer: rare, distant and complicated, though I’ve yet to have a Stone beer that has blown me away. Maybe this is the one?
  • Stone This Beer Tastes Better on Tap– this is an in-joke about cask ale, right? Right?  If I try it will I be in on the joke?
  • Thornbridge Craven Silk– OK, this is the beer I’m most excited about.  Brewed with fresh-picked Elderflower (see, this is why Cyclops style ratings, where beers are broken down into hue, bitterness and sweetness and nothing else, will never really sell beer.) I am hoping to start with this one.

This year I’m going to pick up some bottles to drink at home, specifically:

  • Great Divide 16th Anniversary Wood Aged Double IPA (increasingly becoming a favourite style of mine)
  • Thornbridge Halcyon– after sneaking a sip of Pete Brown‘s at the Jolly Butcher on my Birthday, I need more of this sunny beer.
  • Thornbridge St. Petersburg– there is a pattern forming here!  This is my favourite beer style and I can’t wait to see what Thornbridge do with it.

I fully expect most of these to be gone or MIA once I get there, but one can  hope.

Saying goodbye to my old local, and hello GBBF
August 2, 2010

Photo of Steve Bolton by philfromdublin on flickr

Is a blog without updates really a blog?  The generous folks at CAMRA seem to think so, and have granted me a pass to the Great British Beer Festival trade session.

I wasn’t really sure I wanted to go, especially after hearing Laura and Dave had to give it a miss this year.  But then I was lucky enough to meet up with Laura this weekend, as she was visiting for the Knit Nation extravaganza.  We ended up at the Market Porter fondling roving and wool Laura had found at the knitting event and drinking halves of Harvey’s Bitter and Deeside Talorcan (a hearty, chocolaty stout with an impressive beige head and just enough bitterness and wood notes to really make it complex).

We then made our way to the Rake which was more than hospitable.  We sampled most of what they had on at the moment, as well as some remarkable bottled ginger beer and the Williams Brothers’ Kelpie which had a warm salinity at the back that was fascinating.  We met Nick who’d just come from the Utobeer stall, fully stocked with De Molen bottles.  We marvelled at their elegant, mysterious labels in true beer fanatic fashion.  Everyone prompted me to get the blog going again, and as you can see they were very persuasive.

The only sad news of the day was seeing the landlord of my old local, the Magpie and Crown, pulling pints at the Rake.  I asked him what the situation was and he told me he’d been forced out due to excessive rents after running the place for 14 years, offering stellar real ales from local breweries and lovely cider as well as the best Thai food I’ve had in London.  This is a common story all over London, another example of greed pushing out places with individual character , history and personal vision.  I never really liked living in greater west London, but the Magpie and Crown was one consolation.  I relished the notion that I could go down the street and never know what I might try, but knowing there would be something that I was perfectly in the mood for, and the music would be good and at the right volume and the punters just strange enough to be interesting.  And, you know, I’d always have the corner seat by the window.  The pub is still there but it won’t be the same without Steve, and I thank him for helping to make the time I lived there much happier, welcoming and full of fantastic beers.

Cartoon over the Hearth of the Magpie and Crown

So now it’s on to forming my beer festival game plan.  Last year I had a list which became useless within minutes as I realized the beers I most wanted to try weren’t there yet or were MIA or were trumped by bigger and better ideas from the beer hounds surrounding me.  Which brings me to the real reason I’m going.  It isn’t really for the beer at all (don’t tell anyone!) but for the fellow beer writers and brewers– where good beer is you find good people, it’s as simple as that.