While we in the south wait for Mr Wetherspoon to hook up his beer engines and plug in the microwave in south county Dublin, it was festival time in the UK. So, at Steve's suggestion, I gandered up to Belfast on Saturday to see what was on offer.
Afternoon trade at The Bridge House was brisk and a steadfast effort had been put in to get a good selection of the special edition beers on, though not the full fifty, alas. Ten of these were produced in conjunction with US breweries, of which five were available on the day.
Top of my to-try list was Sgt Pepper, brewed at Everard's by the brewmaster of Cambridge Brewing in Massachusetts. I do like a bit of pepper in a beer, or even loads of pepper, and this 4.2% ABV golden ale delivered admirably. Everything that's great about brewing with peppercorns is here: the jolt of spicy heat to begin, the old fashioned dusty top-of-the-pepperpot white pepper piquancy, and then the earthier and oilier taste of freshly crushed black pepper. While the spicing is not overdone, the beer underneath doesn't have much to say, just a little hint of lagery golden syrup. Overall an interesting and sessionable offering.
Second on my hitlist was Supremely Self-Conscious Black Ale, created by Mitch Steele of Stone at Adnams. I had been led to believe by advance reviews that it wasn't all that, but it is all that, and a fair bit more. The aroma makes it clear from the outset that a lot of US hops have gone in here: big old grapefruit and pine resin welcome the drinker in. On first sip there's a massive, burning bitter hit which subsides mercifully quickly, fading down to grapefruit pith and then settling on friendlier mango and pineapple. There's just a bit of coffee representing the dark side of the profile -- the programme describes the roast character as "subdued" and I think it certainly has been. It's only 5% ABV but tastes and feels much stronger, being weighty like a big stout and depositing a lingering resin on the lips. Possibly not a great choice for second beer, but it had been on since the previous day and was due to run out soon, though in the event there was still one pint left for me to claim a few hours later before the train home -- the best £2.29 I've spend on beer this year.
Avatar Jasmine IPA brewed by Elysian had some good press and I thought it was quite decent. I found it hard to believe it was 6.3% ABV when it presents as a fairly standard, decent bitter. The jasmine imparts a light floral quality but doesn't dominate the more normal subtle English bitter qualities. 21st Amendment's offering, brewed at Wychwood and called American Bitter Red, was also good though understated. A vivid red colour, and very tannic, almost to the point of astringency. I liked it, however, finding it clean and refreshing. What I couldn't find was any parallel to its ancestor, 21st Amendment's own Bitter American pale ale.
Of the non-collaborations, the most striking was Bateman's Hazelnut Brownie. This was 6.3% ABV and really did taste like drinking a slice of chocolate cake, complete with bready sponge and dense chocolate cream filling. The thing is, nobody does want to drink a slice of chocolate cake: it's sickly, cloying and overpoweringly flavoured. I had this early on in the session and it ended up being more of a palate hog than the super-hopped Stone beer. Along similar lines but nowhere near as extreme was Titanic Cappuccino, two words rarely seen in proximity. This appears to be Titanic Brewery's standard stout with coffee added. It's simple and light, the coffee is little more than a lacing, accentuating the dry stout qualities. I liked it.
Two bitters to finish on: Cora by JW Lees was so-so: a red-gold colour with some nice biscuit sweetness and a thirst-encouraging dryness but somewhat watery at its core. St Peter's Extra was better: 4.4% ABV and again quite straightforward but with a lightly nutty flavour and just a little bit more of a hop kick than usual.
Suddenly it was 4pm so Steve and I set off to visit a couple of other pubs. Top of my list was The Hudson where the groundfloor bar was surprisingly busy for a Saturday afternoon. Nothing new to try here, but a swift half of Dead Pony Club went down very nicely.
After that it was back to The Bridge House for a final few, and the train home. A big thanks to Steve for putting the whole thing together. It was great meeting Barry who runs The Bridge House, Owen from Hilden, Paul and the gang from NI CAMRA and especially Alex, soon to be Belfast's newest, and possibly first, microbrewer.
And with a bit of luck I won't have to travel as far to try the beers at next year's festival.
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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