21 October 2013

Hey JD

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.

The wooden spoon for the collaborations goes to Ninkasi Cream Ale, produced at Caledonian in Edinburgh. I wasn't expecting much, it being a cream ale and all, but I got even less: the water from a can of sweetcorn, bolstering my opinion that cream ale is not a style that needs to be resurrected in craft form, not even ironically.

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.

We did no more than stick our heads in to The Crown, but it was also very busy and there was nothing of interest on draught. Steve's real target was Bittles where there was rumoured to be a cask from Ards Brewery but we'd just missed it. Plenty of Ards bottles, though. I went for the house beer -- Bittles -- labelled as a "Citra Autumn Ale". It's 5.1% ABV and bottle conditioned, pouring a cloudy orange. It shows off the herbal, slightly medicinal side of Citra, with lots of grass and eucalyptus. Steve opted for the dark Rockin' Goose, 4.4% ABV and a murky shade of garnet. Stylewise I'd be calling it a brown ale: there's lots of lovely caramel and chocolate and just a dusting of citrus hops: simple, fun and very drinkable. The inevitable pale ale is called Pig Island and is a pale orange, and cloudy again. There's an odd mix of new and old world hop flavours here, with tangy mandarins at the front, turning to more waxy English hop notes in the finish. It would benefit from being a bit cleaner: a well stillaged cask of this would be great, I reckon. From the bottle it's like a decent quality homebrew: enjoyable, but with room for improvement.

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.

18 comments:

  1. it was a great day and seemed to pass far too swiftly! Was good to catch the CAMRA crowd post-crawl, wasn't sure we'd cross paths

    BTW: Eoin should be Owen

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  2. A typo Beer Nut? ;-)

    Been wanting to try the Stone since I heard they were brewing at Adnams. The Ninkasi sounds nasty, but lets not write off Cream Ale altogether. They can be great - take Sweet Action by Sixpoint for example.

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    1. Yeah, I forgot you're not allowed spelling mistakes on the Internet. I expect my blogging licence to be revoked forthwith.

      I will reserve judgement on NuCream Ale, but it just seems stupid to me, like doing craft American Light Lager (which I know one brewery actually does). What does the style have going for it?

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  3. I think it's the whole bittersweet thing combined with a lager-like drinkability. Sixpoint Sweet Action for example is just a perfectly balanced beer with an ever so slight perceived creaminess which I suspect comes from a combination of the sweetness combined with the wheat giving smoothness to the body. I also enjoyed AleSmiths Cream Ale and the one brewed by Brew Wharf in London recently.

    Cream Ale is definitely distinct from Light Lager in my opinion. It's closer to a steam beer or California common.

    But perhaps just taking my limited experience of the style into consideration is a little blinkered. Another persons mileage may vary.

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    1. I'm not saying it's the same style; I'm saying it's a shitty style developed for the express purpose of creating cheap tasteless beer in big factories. The Caledonian/Ninkasi one was really no different from the awful Genesee original.

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  4. Thomas Carroll12:40 pm

    At first glance I thought that Rockin' Goose was a bottle of the King of Beers. :/

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    1. You're not the only one! I don't think it's deliberate, though. The label layout for their four regular beers is the same but with different background colours, and the red one one just turned out like... that.

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  5. Ninkasi is the only one of the US collaboration brews we've been able to try so far. They seem, via a circuitous route, to have created a sweetish, bland nineteen-nineties-style 'summer ale'.

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    1. There is not enough written on the subject of convergent evolution in beer styles. At this stage we must be able to knock a few off by merging them.

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  6. Cream Ales can be good is all I'm saying. I think you just haven't tasted any good ones yet BN.

    I tasted a lot of shit lager before I tasted a good one. But no-one would dare write that style off!

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    1. Fair point. Though I'll give you notice now that I'll probably regard any good cream ale as being miles off the style spec.

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    2. haha fair enough.

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  7. Glad you agree with two of my assessments - the Cream Ale and the SSCBA. I had the hazelnut brownie stuff in Chester on Thursday and thought it wonderful in a weird way. It really did what it said on the tin.

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    1. Yeah, I can sort of see it being fun when one is in the mood. I wasn't in the mood. It's the first ever Bateman's beer I didn't enjoy.

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    2. Bateman's Mocha is pretty terrible.

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    3. I have a bottle in the fridge. I've been slightly scared of it since Saturday.

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  8. PS. I meant to add that I'm not surprised about Cora. I think it fair to say it hasn't caught the imagination locally here in J W Lees Land.

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