I started my rounds of the Borefts festival bars on the Friday down at Thornbridge, finding them holding the same position as last year at the foot of one of De Molen's giant shiny fermenting tanks. They were one of the few breweries who had taken on this year's festival challenge: to brew something flavoursome under 3% ABV. A tweaked version of their dark mild was the contribution, dubbed Baby Black Harry. Its wonderful smoothness, says Dom, is down to a generous addition of oats. It's light on the roasted flavours but shows some wonderfully subtle dark fruit. I wanted a pint.
But there are no pints at Borefts so I moved down the line to try Thornbridge's Aussie Summer Ale. I would have said this orange-blonde 5%er is brewed with Simcoe if I hadn't been told what's in it: it has that similar funky, almost cheesy, hop pungency. But it's apparently brewed with new Australian variety Victoria Secret. Quite tasty for a hop named after pants.
The only other Thornbridge I got my mitts on was the Heather Honey Stout. A 10% ABV imperial job, this gives off powerful aromas of floral honey and caramel. Both elements become sharper on tasting, adding a tanginess which mixes well with the understated roast. It took me a while to figure out what it reminded me of, and it's Thornbridge's own Bracia. This is a simplified, more balanced, version: what I really hoped the rather messy Bracia was going to be.
Up at the windmill, The Kernel too were unmoved from their pitch last year. Just four taps on the bar but a considerable line-up of beers to get through. On the pale ale side there was Topaz IPA, a pale cloudy gold colour with a serious weedy nose but tasting quite sharp and medicinal. I wasn't a fan. The NZ Pils was better but similarly medicinal and rather grassy. It also didn't taste anything like a pilsner and the cloudy yellow beer could easily be passed off as a pale ale.
Kernel's Stella Pale Ale was more to my liking: another wan yellow one but this time with a big lemony citrus punch. Almost turning harsh with its hoppiness, but nicely balanced by sherbet notes. The daddy of these was Kernel Strong Pale Ale: an IPA without all the hops, said Evin, given a turn in a Scotch barrel. The result is 10.7% ABV and wonderfully boozy, spicy and warming. Apologies for almost finishing it before putting my glass down to take a photo.
It's the dark side where Kernel really excels, in my estimation at least. Their Imperial Brown Stout was a fine example of why. 10% ABV and brewed to a recipe from 1856 it's mostly black, just showing murky brown around the edges. Brown malt a-go-go, with all the coffee and milk chocolate that that brings with it. On top there's a gorgeous layer of sweet lavender and then a bitter hop bite right on the finish. Smooth, complex, and with little sign of all that alcohol. Beautiful.
And yet, it was neither The Kernel nor Thornbridge who had the best British beers of the festival...
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