It's a happy coincidence that the Session on summer beer comes just after the Hilden festival. This was my third year attending the event in the brewery yard near Belfast, where summery blondes form a big part of the selection. I may not be a huge fan of the genre, but at least that's the legwork taken out of this Session.
The festival itself got a little bigger this year, with the addition of two teepees in the gardens, hosting comfy seats and live traditional music: respite from the benches and amped-up rock of the main stage area. There was also a homebrew competition (well done Derek; hard luck Níall), an additional al fresco bar, giant games, and all manner of more festive things. It's always a great day out.
My first blonde of the day was by Williams Brothers, the Scottish brewery which seems to be everywhere these days. I'm a massive fan of their Heather Ale Company range (especially Fraoch), but had never tried any of their more mainstream beers. Ceilidh was on offer -- a cask lager with 4.7% ABV. Sadly, it's not very good: very very sweet, with what they claim to be toffee flavours seeming like brown sugar, with lots of unpleasant graininess behind it. I suspect a bit of forced carbonation would liven this up, and make it taste like Barry says it should. Mrs Beer Nut didn't have a great start either, opting for Nethergate's coriander-infused Umbel Ale: an attractive shade of light copper, but really lacking any distinctive flavours, including the coriander. There's a bit of crunchy grain to it, but the rest is thinness and dullness.
Oakham's JHB gave us a bit more taste: a slightly spicy green flavour, like cress, as well as some bubblegum malt, but with Cotleigh Monument we were leaving flavour country once again. By the time we came to the unspeakably tasteless Evan Evans Gold, my wife had coined the term JAGA (Just Another Golden Ale) for the succession of boring blondes that had passed our way.
There were some notable exceptions, however. Cravenbräu from Nethergate offers a lovely balance between the big pale malt body and a hoppy bite at the finish: that's what summer blondes are supposed to do. Even better was Summer Lightning. I quite liked the bottled version of this, but on cask it's simply amazing: lots of zesty citrus, sherbety fruit notes and a generous dusting of spices -- wonderfully refreshing and very moreish.
Of course, summer beer doesn't have to be blonde. Okell's Red went down an absolute treat on Saturday: a simple ale with big malty flavours and all the tasty chewy caramel and toffee you could wish for. I was less impressed with another amber ale: Skinner's Keel Over. This is too watery and the caramel and smoke flavours just don't work hard enough.
And that was all the new beers. I also took the opportunity to find out if Spitfire is as boring on cask as it is from a bottle -- it is -- and had my third go of Timothy Taylor Landlord. For the first time I understand what people see in this beer: it was all bittersweet honey and botanicals and not the harsh monstrosity I'd been given in London previously. I only got a sip of it, though, because it sold out in very short order, unfortunately. My appetite for a proper pint is whetted.
The Irish breweries were well represented. On the downside, Messrs Maguire IPA and Franciscan Well Shandon Stout failed to impress: there's not really much going on in either. Cathedral Quarter on cask was a marked improvement on the bottle -- lots of lovely smooth chocolate flavours. Finally, I bored the hell out of everyone by going on at length about Barney's Brew -- Hilden's wheat beer and an epiphany at last year's festival. It's still sublime: spiced nine ways from Sunday with coriander, cardamom and what I'd swear is chamomile. I've said it before and I'll say it again: this beer needs to get out more.
And there ended another Hilden and another summer. Still, I can't complain: September brings a bit of travel plus the year's second big celebration of Irish beer, this one on my doorstep in Phoenix Park. I've time for plenty more summer beers yet, I'd say.
Westmalle Dubbel - *Origin: Belgium | Date: 2008 | ABV: 7% | On The Beer Nut: October 2007* It's a longtime favourite today. Westmalle Dubbel goes back to the very beginnings...
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