06 August 2009

Stone are nice

Thanks to Aer Lingus rescheduling my flight it was 1.30 by the time I got to the Great British Beer Festival on Tuesday, and the trade session was well under way. My fellow Irish Craft Brewer members had established Camp Ireland near Bières Sans Frontières and had already lured Ally (An American Alewife In London) into their midst. By the time I arrived, Knit Along With Bionic Laura was already in full swing.

I don't know if it was just because there was no Lost Abbey or Dogfish Head on cask, but I got the impression that the beer list was rather less geek-intensive compared to last year. Topping my hitlist were the beers from Stone: a brewery that has built itself a reputation of being hoppier-than-thou in a most immodest fashion. Barry had given a couple of them a bit of a pasting recently so I was dying to find out what the truth of the matter was. First up was Levitation, a pale ale with an uncharacteristic 4.4% ABV. The aroma is pungently hoppy, but the flavour is actually quite balanced, with a gentle sherbety character on a smooth body. This combination of big hops and big body made it extra hard to believe how low in alcohol it was: this beer does a very convincing impression of an 8% west coast thumper.

Next up was Stone IPA, the only one that Barry also tried and the only one he enjoyed. I enjoyed it too. It lures you in with quite a cute and fluffy hop aroma and after the first sip I was waiting for the bang of acid harshness. But it never came: it continues on this easy-going fruity note and it's only on burping (is there a more connoisseury word for this?) that the raw bitterness comes out. I was charmed.

Last of this lot was bottled Ruination, a beer which makes massive claims on the label about how much of a hop-monster it is. (Actually, I just looked, and "massive hop monster" really is the brewery's preferred description.) It's a clear pale yellow and at 7.7% ABV is inching toward palate-pounder territory. It certainly has quite a big chewy body with toffee malty undertones, but once again the hops sitting on top are quite balanced and not in the least bit harsh or difficult. In fact, I'm not even sure I'd go so far as to describe this 100+ IBU beer as "bitter". Fruity and hoppy yes, but bitter I dunno. It was the last beer I had before hitting the road so it is perfectly possible my palate was utterly shot to hell by then, but the point is I loved this beer and will be looking out for it, and other Stones, when I can.

Stone claim to be the demons of American craft brewing, but they're pussycats really, and all the better for it.

Only one other beer was a non-negotiable must-have: Schlenkerla Urbock. I've been looking forward to this since I first tried the Märzen. "It tastes a lot like Schlenkerla" said Boak, tasting it blind. And she's right, it does, which is why it's brilliant. Identical hamminess and just a slightly heavier body to it. With Märzen on weeknights, this is the Schlenkerla for Friday evening. In my Bamburg fantasy anyway.

When I went along to the bookstore to gawk at the captive Pete Brown which CAMRA had on display there, he told me I should wean myself off Schlenkerla. He even wrote it in my copy of Hops & Glory (great book; you should read it), suggesting Worthington's White Shield as an alternative. I've never had this oh-so-English IPA so, after leaving Pete to be taunted by his captors some more, Thom and I hit the bottled beer bar. Again, this could be palate-fatigue, but I found White Shield to be very much a malt-driven ale: rich and full and warming. The bitterness is a sideshow to this and the whole experience had me wondering how suitable it would be in a hot climate as opposed to beside a log fire in the depths of winter. I think I'll have to come back to White Shield, if I ever see it again. Pete seems determined to ensure we all will.

I don't have much else to say on the pale ale front: Moor's Revival, courtesy of Boak, was a bit thin and worty despite having a pleasant aroma. I was little more impressed with Thornbridge Kipling. The promised Pacific hops are there, lending a tasty grapefruit character, but not enough: my overall impression was of a grainy porridgey beer lacking in body, hoppy oomph and warming malts. It got better further down the glass but it just didn't hit the spot for me. My pontifications on Thornbridge being Britain's most over-rated brewery garnered incredulous looks, but I'll say it again here regardless. Flame away.

I was later leaving than I intended, sprinting out of Earls Court at 6.40. The usual drill at Heathrow: checking if my flight was on time; being annoyed that it was; then, with a whole half-hour to take-off, sprinting up to Wetherspoons to see if there's anything on that takes my fancy. I threw down a half of Bath Spa, finding the blonde a bit dry and musty, before dashing (nonchalantly, of course) through security and flopping into my seat with just enough time to throw a disappointed look at the final boarding passenger behind me, whom I'd elbowed out of my way at the gate.

I'll cover the darker beers tomorrow, but for the moment just a big wave to all the Internet beer folks I met, and especially to those like Barm and Woolpack Dave with whom I didn't take the time to have a proper chat. Another time, in more conducive surroundings, I hope.

And to those whose ear I bent probably a bit too much over the course of the afternoon, I can only apologise. I had travelled to London for some erudite and thought-provoking conversation on the finer points of the contemporary beer scene in Britain and beyond. You can judge for yourself how that went:
See you next year!


  1. Did I see you having a sneaky dark knight from whitewater? What did you think of it.

    I should also warn you of the existence of "Senior Nutella Cerveza" a mexican man that bears a striking resemblance to a more hirsuite you. Rumour has it that if you should ever meet you have to fight to the death.

  2. I should point out that I also want to try more Stone beers, particulalry the Pale Ale again, as I reckon there was something wrong with the draft one I got in San Diego. But yeah, that IPA is good. Would love to see what you think of Arrogant Bastard.

    I'd love to try the Worthington's White Shield, particularly as I'm flying through Hops and Glory this week. After a few beers it feels like I'm a character in the book, every time Pete talks about Barry, particularly the weight :oP

  3. I said dark beers tomorrow, DB. But yeah: Whitewater Knight Porter was very good.

    Stone Pale Ale was on the BSF list but not available on Tuesday afternoon, unfortunately. On the other hand, I wasn't expecting to get any Ruination and am very glad I did.

  4. I didn't manage to get any Ruination in the end. I did love Stone's IPA. I hope we can get them in Ireland soon.

    Oh good, someone else agrees with Kev and I. Kev shared some Thornbridge Kipling with me and we were both unimpressed thinking it was thin and needed some more hops. We couldn't figure out what all the fuss was about.

    Great article about a fun fun day.

  5. Anonymous10:12 am

    It was a fantastic time, even if I do look really serious and grumpy in the picture! I have had Ruination from the cask and it was insane, completely coating my mouth in hop resins and it was all I could taste for the rest of the day. Not really an experience I want to repeat. It's all such a blur...the Ruination everyone was drinking fromt the table was from the bottle, right?

  6. Yeah, it was bottled, and probably all the better for the extra fizz.

    Same goes for the Galway Hooker that Kev gave me to try: third time I've had it on cask and it's still too thin and lacking in zest compared with the keg version.

    Maybe all Thornbridge need is a bit of extraneous CO2...

  7. Ruination was the beer that confirmed me as a hophead and it's now become the IPA that I judge all others by, which is kind of silly, I know, but there's something about the juiciness that just gets me!

    I really like White Shield. It is malty and not massively bitter but it's a great bottled beer.

    As for Thornbridge... A pint of Jaipur from the cask in the Coach and Horses is beer perfection (I've had it perfectly other places too!). Amazing stuff.

  8. A glass of Jaipur from the cask at the European Beer Festival was unpleasantly acidic mouth-burning hop juice. It's one of those beers, like Landlord, than I'm going to keep trying because everyone likes it except me.

    Nice meeting you on Tuesday, btw.

  9. Great article. It was a fun day. Stone certianly know what to do with hops. I really enjoyed Levitation, but their IPA just blew me away. The raw freshness of the hops was astounding. It was akin to stuffing your nose into a bag of hops. something I do everytime I brew, and surprisingly it's legal)

  10. The Bloody Tan9:50 pm

    Just back from a brilliant GBBF session with just a couple of observations.
    I took your advice and hit the Stone late on and the Ruination was probably my second favourite of the 20-odd beers I tasted.A hop-bomb firing blanks on the ABV front but a superb beer.
    But what hit me most is just how many people were drinking golden ales. I tried half a dozen and without exception they were poor attempts at band-waggoning the brilliance of Summer Lightning.
    Golden ale has become the cooking lager of the real ale scene.
    The last beer I tried was the absolute worst and that was Rudgate Ruby Mild - bizarrely voted the champion beer at this year's festival.It was head-shakingly dull. There was a huge queue for it and I've never seen so many people so disappointed after tasting it.
    Unlike my favourite 2009 GBBF beer - the Timothy Taylor Golden Best. Now that is a proper mild. Only 3.6% ABV but with a hint of fruit and strong maltiness. I had 3 pints of the stuff and was stil tasting it hours later.
    The pork pies were good too !

  11. didn't like the ruination at all, found it to be just wrong, no balance to it and i love hoppy beers would much rather brewdogs punk ipa to it.

    the kipling was rather useless it did get better in the glass the first sip though was awful a bit of a citrus hit on top of a very weak watery beer - crouch vale's amarillo was a million times better.

    i had my first ever timothy taylor landlord on cask, amazing beer absolutely delicious, had planned on going back for a pint of it to finish off the day but it never happened, wish i'd tried the golden best as well, had enjoyed it previously in bottles but it's a totally different beer on cask. ally had said she'd had lots of bad pints of it in london but i reckon if you can get it served and kept well it's a top drop.

  12. Golden ale has become the cooking lager of the real ale scene.
    I know what you mean. There are some great ones out there, but so many are just dreadfully boring. Still, seeing people drinking them is no worse than the experience in an English pub where most people are on Carling or Guinness.

    Derek, yeah, I'd say I just haven't met the right pint of Landlord. Some day I will get to The Gunmaker's to have one under laboratory conditions. You're wrong about Ruination, though. Wrong wrongity wrong wrong wrong.

  13. Tanster9:54 am

    And finally ... the bizarrest sight of all at GBBF.
    There were around 460 beers from around the world on offer - yet there were still people propping up the permanent bar inside Earls Court drinking pints of Carling Ice.
    This after paying six quid to get into a beer fesival.
    You couldn't make it up.

  14. I know! That bar was abandoned last year, but was doing a remarkable amount of trade on Tuesday. Bizarre.

  15. The people at that bar are those landlords that don't drink real ale, serve one dull best bitter in poor condition, and are always complaining that business is bad in their pubs.

  16. I am a big fan of your site and Stone Brewing Co. beers. I cannot wait to try the Stone Smoked Porter that I have. Your site and writing are fantastic . . . cheers to you!