29 November 2010

Guild by association

Thursday last saw the annual awards dinner of the British Guild of Beer Writers. Over the last couple of years I've read enviously of the event's food-and-drink proceedings on other blogs so this year I decided I'd hie myself over to London for the evening and experience it first hand. With, y'know, the outside possibility of a supplementary beer or two somewhere on the peripheries of the occasion. There's an Old Ale Festival on at The White Horse at the same time? Well fancy that...

Less than four hours after leaving home I was pushing the front door of London's newest craft beer specialist The Euston Tap. Located in a tiny kiosk out in front of Euston station, the bar and fridges are well-stocked with carefully chosen delights from Britain, the continent and the US. A row of American-style tap-handles sits atop the numbered cask taps, with blackboards either side proclaiming the contents. So where to start?

Fortunately, Tandleman was on hand for advice, and first up was a half of Fyne Ales Maverick. Worryingly brown, it's actually surprisingly highly hopped -- bitter and crisp, like an understated version of those Black IPAs the cool kids are all drinking these days. Marble's W90 was another recommendation: a fantastic nose of fresh grapefruit and a flavour that's much more about the bitterness than the fruit. Just on the end there's a teeny bit of metal and mustiness but not sufficient to spoil the overall enjoyment of this ever-so-friendly hop monster.

Picking randomly from the keg selection I got a Matuška Raptor, an IPA hailing from the new Czech ale revolution. I don't know what the hops used here were, but they exude a strongly perfumed aroma. The beer underneath is heavy enough to carry it, though, with a strong tannic element. The whole thing reminds me of a beefed-up version of Adnam's Innovation and is quite tasty.

Time was marching on, so one for the road. Oh, is that Thornbridge Alliance just gone on? One of those please. Before the glass of mahogany ale was anywhere near my nose, I knew I wasn't going anywhere for a while. This 11% ABV beer is monstrously sweet and advertises this fact loudly to everyone in its vicinity. Freeze-distill a Belgian dubbel, mix in some Special Brew and throw the whole lot in a madeira barrel for a few months and you get the idea. It's smooth, it's smoky; there are plums and vanilla-roasted chestnuts aplenty. One of those beers where the descriptors keep on coming. Hard work to drink it, but well worthwhile.

With a quick hello to Yan the proprietor and the recently-arrived Jeff Pickthall, I was off to my lodgings and already thinking fond thoughts of dinner. The theme was south-west Indian and the chef Sriram Aylur from Quilon. On arrival there were canapes and some corporate hospitality of the beery sort. I followed Ron Pattinson to the Brains table and started the evening with some Brains Dark -- a velvety chocolate-laced black beer, simple and drinkable, and not distracting from Ron's tales of brewing at Fuller's. A warming and deliciously marmaladey White Shield saw me through to the table where I was reunited with Tandleman and met his missus, the lovely E; Fletch from Real Ale Reviews; blogger and amateur brewer, the exceedingly unchunky Chunk; Mr & Mrs Rabidbarfly and the couple whom my wife refers to as "The Hardknotts", like they're a '70s sitcom.

I won't bore you with a course-by-course account of what we ate and drank, you can click the picture (right) for a look. The food was all excellent and I was surprised at how much I enjoyed Goose Island's 312 wheat beer with the crab cakes. Like a lot of diners, however, I passed on the Blandford Fly. A substitute was grabbed from the tables downstairs: Adnams Tally-Ho, a strong and sticky winter ale of 7.2% ABV. It hits all the right caramel and plum notes and is well worth laying in for the season.

Before dessert there were awards, hosted by last year's top writer Pete Brown, with Mark Dredge taking the tankard for online communication once again -- well done Mark. The more bibliocentric labours of Messrs Avery and Tierney-Jones also garnered silverware for them, with Simon Jenkins of the Yorkshire Evening Post claiming the top gong overall. People began drifting away around midnight and the staff stacked the chairs around me, Zak Avery, Kristy McCready and Tim Hampson in a not-very-subtle GTFO-of-our-function-room sort of way. A final palate-cleansing Budvar stolen from Adrian Tierney-Jones and it was off to bed for me.

The next morning was cold and clear and started with the full English. A bit of Christmas shopping around Covent Garden was punctuated by staring in pub windows for anything interesting on tap. A clip in The White Lion caught my eye: current Champion Beer of Britain Castle Rock Harvest Pale Ale. I nipped in for a swift pre-noon half. It's a brilliant golden hue, served beautifully clear in wonderful condition. Worry from a slightly soapy nose was short-lived, overwhelmed by a delicious sherbet lemon bittersweet flavour. It's light and fantastically refreshing. Best beer in Britain? Yeah, maybe.

The penultimate leg of my journey had me striking westward to the well-heeled neighbourhood of Parson's Green and the legendary White Horse Inn. A mecca for beer lovers at any time, last weekend the enormous rangy boozer was hosting an Old Ale festival with 40-odd old ales, strong ales, barley wines and imperial stouts on handpump around the various bars, plus stillage in the back room. I had about two hours to get stuck in, in the company once more of the Hardknotts, Glyn from The Rake and Jeff Pickthall. When you find yourself curtly dismissing taps dispensing Yeti, Gonzo and cask Fuller's London Porter, the phrase is "spoiled for choice".

Harvey's were well represented and are one of my consistently favourite English breweries. With such a range of rarities on tap it was possibly gauche of me to opt for their common-or-garden Sussex Old Ale, but I'm glad I did. This murky dark red beer is deliciously sinkable, offering up delicate spices and exotic sandalwood as it goes. The description of Bonfire Boy as "smoky" gave it instant appeal, and it came with the Rabidbarfly seal of approval, so I went straight for it. Smoke, yes, but also lots of sticky sweetness and a biting bitterness at the end: a lot like drinking a toffee apple. Harvey's Imperial Stout wasn't my first of the day, but it was a big surprise: it's shockingly sweet and fruity like rancid strawberries or raspberry balsamic vinegar. Dave identified a lambic woodiness to it, but I still don't know if this is how it's supposed to taste. I did get used to it, and quite enjoyed it after a bit. It was just... odd.

I only had a sip from Dave's Meantime Russian Imperial Stout and wasn't impressed. It was aged in rum casks, quite possibly before the rum was taken out as the flavour is all rum and no beer. But at least it had character, which is more than can be said for the dry, astringent, but otherwise dull Sharp's Massive or the watery and vaguely tannic Otley Not So Old Ale.

Champion beer of the day for me was probably Thornbridge's Murmansk Baltic porter. At first sip it's dry with bags of dark roasted grains but underneath there's a lovely treacley alcoholic warmth, with the green hops bringing up the rear and providing a beautifully rounded finish. Delish.

Before saying my goodbyes and heading for Heathrow, there was the opportunity to taste Pit Stop's The Hop which was being passed around by some friendly beer geeks who had brought it in. This 8% ABV IPA from Oxfordshire lays claim to the dubious title of world's bitterest beer, lab-certified at 323 IBUs. It's a cloudy pale orange, rather flat, and as immensely pithy and oily as you might expect. As a shot, it's quite an interesting experience, but it's not something anyone sane will want to sit over a glass of.

And so to the airport. Usual drill: up to the Skylark where there was plenty of interest on tap but only time for one. I chose Mr G's, brewed at Everard's by Ian Ramsey of Auckland brewery Galbraith's. It's a simple and tasty brown ale with substantial malt heft for something of only 3.7% ABV and a rich chocolate heart. Then on the far side of security I stuck my nose in to The Tin Goose, delighted to see they've improved the draught beer selection quite a bit, though not enough to make me choose anything other than my usual: a deliciously crisp pint of Adnam's Bitter, followed by a sprint for the gate.

And that's me done with England for, oh, about four weeks until I'm back for Christmas in Hertfordshire. It was great catching up with so many of the UK beer folk, and especially great to meet some new ones. It looks to me like the Guild is fulfilling its social remit perfectly -- special thanks to the organisers and sponsors for putting it all together.