Joan from Barcelona-based Blog Birraire is at the helm for this month's Session, seeking opinions on the purpose of beer festivals: "geek gathering or beer dissemination?"
There's no doubt that both are the case in Ireland. The Irish beer festival calendar is becoming quite established now, starting next weekend with the Cask & Winter Ales fest at Franciscan Well and moving through the grand shows of Alltech Brews & Food and the Irish Craft Beer & Cider Festival taking in plenty more intimate gigs along the way. We the geeks know the when and where and show up without fail, especially when the exhibitors have something new to show us. It's good to catch up with fellow drinkers from around the country whom one might not normally meet down the pub.
Yet even at the most specialised and out-of-the-way beer event, the insiders are still very much a minority. I'm always amazed, though I shouldn't be, at the huge numbers of visitors at all sorts of events all through the year who had no awareness of beer beyond the big brands. Here it's the job of the festival to create or boost that awareness, and hopefully carry it out of the refined festival atmosphere and into the shops and pubs to make the newcomers aware that choice exists, if they choose to exercise it. It's a battle which I think is gradually being won. At Septemberfest in 2009 I was massively sceptical about the possibility of any of the thousands of punters continuing to drink independent Irish beer and cider after the big tent in the Phoenix Park came down. Today, thanks to the growth in the number of breweries and their reach, the non-obsessives are more likely to come to a festival with at least some familiarity and can be sent away with their horizons broadened.
But I reckon as well that festivals have a third purpose beyond Joan's two. I've found them to be a great way of learning about any particular country's brewing. And I'm not just talking about the formal national festivals like GBBF or Zythos. Even smaller ones like Borefts or Quartiere In Fermento, in my experience, really help with understanding what's happening with beer in other places. Several other places, in the case of Borefts. Much as I love trawling around pubs and breweries it's nice, just occasionally, to have the local beer scene entirely encapsulated under one roof. Certainly anyone looking for easy access to a broad sweep of Irish beer would do well to come to the RDS in September.
And when I can't go to the festival, the next best thing is for the festival to come to me. Today's beers are all from Brazil and arrived courtesy of a visitor (hi Tiago!). Pleasingly, they cover a range of styles and come from different places along Brazil's extensive Atlantic coast, which is just what I'd choose if I were wandering around a Brazilian beer festival wondering what to have next.
Amazon Red Ale is from Belém in the north, 6% ABV and brewed using priprioca, a local herb. "British school with terroir of the Amazon" is the stated aim. It certainly smells exotic: a pleasant air of cedar and sandalwood. While the heavy use of crystal malt makes it quite sticky with big toffee notes, it remains clean and quite refreshing through the offices of the herb, giving it a peppery incense spiciness. I liked it.
It's down to São Paolo next, for Trem Bão by Blondine brewery. This is intriguingly described as a "session IPA saison", which is a lot to squeeze into a 4% ABV package. To further confuse things it looks and tastes like a witbier: a hazy pale yellow and with lots of sweet lemon candy, though minus the spices. I got a little bit of saison-like zest in the aroma but that's it as far as that claim goes. However, there's nothing to suggest IPA anywhere in the deal, neither bitterness nor hop flavour nor hop aroma. It's still a pleasant and refreshing beer, just think of it as a witbier radler rather than any more serious styles.
We go further south still for the last of the three. Way Beer is based in Pinhais, and this is its Irish Red. I feel a slight twinge of national embarrassment that a brewer all the way down there, below the Tropic of Capricorn, would attempt this most uninspiring of styles. Still, it's 5.8% ABV so at least it's not going to be an accurate rendition. It looks the part, however: properly coppery. There's a sweetness at its heart, with toffee and chocolate coming through in particular. But mostly it tastes oxidised: stale and even a little funky. It's not a great beer and is a good lesson in how big hops can help cover up some shortcomings in the brewing and packaging process, and that without bold flavours there's nowhere for the naughty flavours to hide.
Obviously I'm not going to be making any pronouncements on the state of Brazilian brewing based on these few examples. But it certainly seems to be the case that the drinker isn't stuck for variety. And that's something for the geeks and the neophytes to celebrate.
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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