As usual, the tail-end of November means it's up to the Ulster Hall for CAMRA Northern Ireland's annual festival. Even though this is just the third year in the refurbished venue, it's already very familiar: a four-sided bar in the middle of the floor with an impressive stillage arrangement looming up behind it. Generally it takes me a couple of laps before I decide on where to start, the choice made extra difficult by the fact that I'm normally there on the last day and the most anticipated casks tend to have been long drunk dry.
Luckily I had CAMRA volunteer Paul -- himself as much a part of the festival scenery as the scaffolding -- on hand to give me my first steer: Otley Creoso. 4.2% ABV and a very sickly shade of yellow, it didn't look too promising, but all doubts faded on tasting. This is a big, assertive beer with a serious lemony citric punch up front yet backed by some smoother bubblegum to keep it balanced. My other half didn't hit it so lucky first time out, opting for McMullen IPA. Alas this brown offering is a hot marker-pennish mess, with any hopping buried under the weight of alcohols, despite it being just 4.8% ABV.
Trying my best to eschew the many dark beers at this early phase, my next was Yeovil Stargazer, chosen because it won some award or other, according to the pumpclip: it's good to have a bit of direction when all the high profile stuff is gone. It's a mid-amber colour and hits that sherbetty tannic note that I find in the best thirst quenchers, with just some mild fruity raisin notes for complexity. After that the ironically-named Hopback Heracles, their answer to the UK government's invitation to brew beer at 2.8% ABV. It wasn't much cop as a golden ale, being very dry and grainy and lacking any decent hop character. Perhaps a fear of unbalancing the result meant a light hand on the hopsack but it could definitely have done with a few more cones in the kettle.
One beer I had noticed in advance and was delighted to see still available was Stewart's Edinburgh No. 3. Not that I'd ever heard of the beer, or even the brewery, but I'm always up for an historical recreation to bring out my inner Ron. Although at a piddling 4.3% ABV it's definitely a clone from the late-20th century, compared to the rather more robust versions from the 1860s and 1870s. Ron mentions parallels between Younger's No. 3 and Burton ales and that's quite apparent from this: dark ruby with some smoky treacle and ripe figs: all that's good about deep red beers generally. All that's missing for the full Burton is a stack more booze and perhaps more aggressive hopping, but as a winter session ale this is ideal, and not too filling either.
To the properly dark beers, then, and Phoenix's Monkeytown Mild to begin. It's dark ruby rather than full black and does the things decent mild is supposed to do: nice roast, plenty of nuttiness, but nothing too extreme. The same can be said for Purple Moose's Dark Side Of The Moose: this one's a notch or two sweeter though retains sufficient roast dryness for balance and drinkability.
Herself had long since got stuck into the porters. Oakleaf Piston was a good pick, tasting quite a bit heavier than its 4.6% ABV suggests, with some seriously chewy, greasy esters tempered by sharp rhubarb tartness. Uncompromising and not for the weak of palate. As the name suggests, Milestone's Harry Porter was a bit more friendly. It's light and effervescent making for a great thirst quencher while some light red fruit stops it from being boring.
Meanwhile I was going the full Edwin, starting with Edwin's Ruby Porter by Great Western -- ruby by name but utterly black and dry as burnt toast by nature -- and finishing on Banks & Taylor's Edwin Taylor's Extra Stout -- another massively dry one but this time with substantial rich roasted grain flavours and a full stouty texture.
As is becoming traditional for me at this stage, a few ciders finished things off. It was great to see local brand Tempted? easily holding its own against more established competition from England and Wales on the cider bar.
There was just time for a swift one before the train home and we dragged Reuben along with us to The Crown. It's still beautiful; it still has awful service and gets uncomfortably full of amateur drinkers; but new management has meant the beer offer has taken a turn for the interesting. Where once were three routine Whitewater beers on cask there was now a choice of one from Whitewater, one from Hilden, the St Austell-brewed Nicholson's Pale Ale (for it is now part of that chain) and a complete stranger to me: Black Pearl from the Wooden Hand Brewery of Truro in Cornwall. It's another from the Heavy, Rich and Bitter school of stout and after an afternoon and evening of tippling and sipping, drinking an entire pint felt like going to big school. Maybe it's the maritime branding but I swear I got a briney hint from this, almost like the seaweed flavours in some Islay whiskies. Like I say, I'd had a few at this point.
And that's Belfast done for another year. Congratulations to Adrian and his organisation team at CAMRA Northern Ireland, and a special round of applause for the concerted effort at getting more than a few south-of-the-border casks onto the bar. I hope the locals appreciated them as much as we do down here. It certainly looked that way on the day.