GBBF Trade Day: Do you know where your beard is?
August 5, 2009

Laura & her knitted beer jumper!

Laura & her knitted beer jumper!

I have concluded that the way to really deal with the Great British Beer Fest is to drink American beers with Irish Craft Brewers.

It is the day after a rollicking beery adventure in extremes, and let it be said I am not hung over.  (I can’t confess to never being hung over because the minute I type this I know my particular superpower will abandon me.)  I skirted the edge of sensibility, starting with a 9% double IPA and continuing with crazy-bold flavors and highly alcoholic brews for six hours before quitting while I was still able to feign a civilized demeanor.  The only giveaway that I was quite squiffy:  I woke this morning in a panic, thinking I’d left my tasting notes under Thom’s bottle of Alaska Smoked Porter.  I was more chagrined that someone might read my absurd ramblings than losing the notes.

After braving the GBBF last year by myself or with non-beery friends, I considered giving it up.  Was it really worth it to be overwhelmed by the dire Exhibition Centre and all those less-than-friendly beery dudes?  No matter what careful planning I made of beer lists, once confronted with the crowded, cavernous space, the experience devolved into a joyless, inebriated wander.  But not this year! The Beer Nut and Bionic Laura had the keen suggestion that I should come on Trade Day, which is the Tuesday before it all kicks off and attendance is limited to media and beer professionals.

I arrived a half hour before the doors opened, thinking I would be one of a few waiting around.  I was amazed to see a massive queue of the UK beer demographic, boomer-aged men, wrapping around the building.  The talk in my point in the queue was of beer– American Beer.  The men behind me were trying to outdo each other with stories of their US beer-tourism and I felt vindicated that American beers dominated my list.

I had printed out a beer list from the CAMRA site, lovingly plotting my tasting sequence based on intensity of hops and alcohol percentage.  All that flew out the window when I arrived at the World Beers section the first 5 of on my list were not on cask yet or were only in bottles.  I went for the Captain Lawrence Reserve Double IPA at 9%.  It was intensely warming with a refreshingly floral nose.  The dominant grapefruit-hop character danced around a hard-candy sweetness.  It immediately went to my head– I was starting in the deep end!

It was then that I saw Mark (who really should have a beer show on Radio 6). His enthusiasm matched my own:  I’m drinking something insane from my homeland!  It’s doing me proud and making my cheeks red! This is going to be so much better than last year!  Mark already had a Father-Christmas satchel of incredible bottles from the US.  Yes!

Then I spy Laura who brought her knitting and has her posse with her, the Irish Craft Brewers.  I find myself sitting next to Thom and Kevin, comparing notes and beer lists and when Boak and Beer Nut show up the party had started in earnest. In the past I’ve had to pour out beers at the GBBF, but not this time.  Everyone around me has such good ideas– every beer I tried was delicious. The other benefit of sitting with a bunch of generous beer geeks is that everyone opened bottles for the table to try and we shared each others’ beers as well.

And it wasn’t just ticking either– Laura and I busted out our knitting and kept our hands busy.  She made me the adorable Beer Jumper in my favourite color green (pictured in the above photo).  At some point during the afternoon that beer jumper was on every bottle we tried, and later it was actually doing some disco moves, too.  And there was Tombola-tomfoolery (Tombolafoolery?): with Sarah winning a false beard.

Dont you wish your Beer Fest was as fun?

Don't you wish your Beer Fest was as fun?

Seriously, though, Sarah could capture a beer in just a few words.  She  had the foresight to buy a bottle of Dogfish Head’s heady Midas Touch for the table.  Based on an ancient Sumerian recipe it was very mead-like, fragrant and earthy.

(At one point the beard ended up on Beer Nut…)

John dons a the Tombola Beard
John dons the Tombola Beard

The other beers I had were:

Crouch Vale Amarillo, an old favourite I had just to add a British mellow in between the intensities.

Alaskan Smoked Porter (Thanks, Thom) which was a synesthetic delight reminding me of an experience I’ve yet to have: eating chocolate smarties on Bonfire Night.

Grain’s Tamarind IPA and Marble’s Ginger (both UK beers), recommended to me by Kevin, one of the Irish Craft Brewers, who didn’t steer me wrong all afternoon.  They were lovely, with the Tamarind being decidedly tannin-y and the Ginger very fresh, juicy and full of spice.

I also tried the Tsarina, which sat beckoning in an old oak cask, its name painted in a contraband-scrawl.  Mark exclaimed, “I don’t know what it is but I want it!” At 11% it was the biggest beer of the afternoon, an imperial porter  (De Molen Tsarina Esra Reserva) coating the glass in a treacle veil with intense chocolate-raisin smoothing out with a bittersweet finish.  It was too rich for me, and even though I couldn’t finish even a third it was still delicious.

But there was one beer that surprised me.  It lingered in my mind so that I woke up up craving it– the Allagash Interlude, an experimental ale brewed with Belgian yeast and fermented in oak wine barrels. At first it sounded like there is just too much going on.  I’d ruled it out, having had bad experiences with American beers using Belgian yeast, but after tasting Laura’s I had to have some. Complex fruits and animal scents with an addictive tartness, a demanding puzzle that remained refreshing to the last.  I’ve contemplated going back today in hopes it would still be on, braving the whole thing alone.  That’s how good it was.

If I go back, maybe I could even win myself a mustache in the tombola and my perfect GBBF would be complete.

EDIT: I stand corrected on two counts: it was actually Dave’s Alaska Smoked Porter that I was bogarting.  And Pete Brown was the first to suggest I get myself to the Trade Day.  Thanks, guys.

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Extreme Beering
July 5, 2009

usa

When Mr. Malting and I moved across the pond, one of the first things we noticed was the difference in advertising.  In the UK there was a clear absence of images of SUVs driving over small cars on the motorway or dudes chugging yellow soda while snowboarding down a mountain.  In the UK, it’s all fey turtles carrying cans of cola on their backs and Vashti Bunyan singing about her Hebridean cow while hawking a phone plan.

After this weekend’s American Beer Festival at the White Horse in Parson’s Green, one could say that there is a similarly cartoonish contrast in beer.  Many British beers may ask you to be attuned to subtleties all the while courting you with a mild buzz.  American beers are flashy, with big hop-bling and alcohol percentages that will have you arm wrestling strangers before the night is up.

hopdevil_200Forget your 2.5% milds, your quaffable bitters…this weekend’s festival was beer tasting as an extreme sport. Boak had the brilliant idea to meet up at the festival in the afternoon, beating the inevitable evening crowd. I made it there first and chose to start with Victory Hop Devil, a beer I’d never tried before, but I’ve always thought the little hope creature was cute.  Palate pandaemonium!  Was I wise to start with this?  Was my palate f*cked now?  After a few sips of the warming stuff, served in a very nice brandy-shaped half pint, I stopped worrying and just embraced the intensity.

I’d almost finished when both Boak and Pete joined me. If you are going to be tackling these extremes, these are the drinking buddies you want–engaging and passionate about beer, the kind of folks who will sympathize when your half of Hop Wallop goes barn-yardy on you.  We decided we couldn’t detect the oak in the “blind taste test” between the two Arrogant Bastards on offer.  Both were tastier than AB’s I’ve had in the US.  I read that some of the beers had been extra-dry-hopped for the journey. Many were also served American-cold which, while not fridge-cold, is a few degrees colder than what in the UK is cellar temperature (which can vary wildly but sometimes is room temperature).  It might be heresy in some beer circles, but in the summer I like beer to be cold.  Really cold.

Johnny_Cask

Why can't British breweries learn a bit of marketing from the US micros?

Next, Pete suggested we try the fabled Dogfish Head 75 Minute IPA, a mixture of IPAs that have been re-fermented in their special “Johnny Cask” with maple syrup, yeast and even more hops.  It was by far my favourite of the evening with loads of tropical fruits and big hops balancing it out. In typical US fashion, the alcohol % is not advertised on the gorgeous pump clip (or anywhere else where the beer is profiled on the web…)

Sometimes alcohol percentages seem like an absurd obsession in the UK (see the controversy over Brew Dog’s 12% Tokyo).  Whereas in the US many brew pubs will serve pints of 6%+ offerings without blinking.  Indeed, the first time I had an Arrogant Bastard (that sentence sounds bad…) the place didn’t serve halves and yet most of the beers on their menu were upwards of 6%.  What would the Daily Mail say?

Luckily, the White Horse does halves, but as the sun came out and the the post-work crowd showed up, I wished they did thirds.  There were so many beers I wouldn’t be able to try because I was already getting goofy.  At one point Pete asked me if I could still taste anything!  Like a boxer you just retire to your corner, drink some water, strategize and get back into things…

Boak went to get us halves of Meantime’s London Porter. Brewer Alistair Hook playfully “[threw] down the gauntlet to the American brewers by giving drinkers a comparative taste of an extremely traditional beer, a six-month old porter vatted in the original London brewing style…”  Indeed, much of what seems new in the US is actually a reinvention of something quite old, and good American brewers know this.  Likewise, exciting UK brewers like Meantime and Brew Dog are having a beery dialogue with the US and this friendly sparring just means better beer for both sides of the pond.

I believe the London porter was Boak’s favourite; she declared it “liquid tiramisu.”  It was indeed deliciously deep– a contrast in sweet, seductive darkness next to the Dogfish Head IPA which had a sun-in-splendor brightness.  At 9.? % it was the thing that made my liver cry uncle.

But, Alastair…you haven’t won yet!  I am considering returning for another round today.