08 September 2015

Firkin Americans

It had been five years since I last graced the Great British Beer Festival, back when it was still in the hangar-like space of Earls Court. It has returned to the more modest venue of Olympia now and, while it's not exactly what you'd call cosy, the glass-and-ironwork vaults do make it a more pleasant space in which to spend a day drinking beer. And spend the day we did: getting in at noon just as the volunteers took their places behind the bars, and staying to around 8pm. For most of the day I was camped by the American bar, sampling what they had to offer.

One of the few beers on my must-drink hitlist for the day was Black Butte from Oregon's Deschutes. It's 5.2% ABV and an opaque black, showing just brownish at the edges. The flavour is pretty straightforward, I was a little surprised to find: mostly chocolate, though also some subtle spices and flowers, particularly as it warms. It's enjoyable drinking but I think for some reason I was expecting something more special. But that's my fault, not the beer's.

And since they're only £4 a bottle, I may as well follow that with Obsidian, the Deschutes stout. It's not that much of a trade-up, at 6.4% ABV, and it hits a lot of the same flavour points as its sibling. The chocolate becomes a stronger, bitterer, cocoa and there's a hopped-up addition of liquorice and green leafy vegetables, sending it in the direction of export-style stout but not quite making it all the way there. This is another quality beer but not really one to cross an ocean and a continent for.

We'll stick with Deschutes, however, as we move on to the cask American IPAs. Pine Drops was the one they had, a 6.5%-er. It's paler than most, and arrived slightly hazy, though not so much that it affected the taste. The aroma is mildly resinous and the flavour pushes a light and spritzy pine spice without any weight or oiliness. It's a lovely beer and fun to drink, but terrible value for the strength: knock two or three per cent off and we'll talk.

Presence IPA
And this turned into a bit of a theme with this set. Presence IPA (left) by Martha's Exchange in New Hampshire, for example, had this fantastic fresh-squeezed orange juice thing going on. Yes, there was a little too much toffee, and the citrus juuust tipped over into acid burn territory, but mostly it was fun and fruity and downable, but an unreasonable 5.8% ABV.

Santiam's Stonehenge IPA was fruitier still: bigger zest, but also a mandarin sweetness with added giggly sherbet effervensence. There's no trace of crystal malt caramel in the flavour, or the clear gold colour. While it's from Oregon, the name would suggest it's hinting at some kind of English heritage. But 6.3% ABV?! This is another lovely beer but far, far too strong for what it does. While I'd love to drink a pint of it, I'm aware I'd need to set aside a bit of time for that.

Drumroll for the worst offender... Poca Hoptas by Virginia's Centre of the Universe Brewing. 6.8% ABV to contend with here, so no excuse for the rather watery grapefruit aroma. There is a bit of malt heft, of the candy-chew-sweet variety, but it's mostly about the bursting citrus fireworks. All perfectly fun and drinkable until you remember the ABV.

Howling Gale
For something a bit more classically beefy there's Howling Gale by Fair Winds Brewing, also based in Virginia. Heading towards amber in colour, 7.2% ABV, lots of caramel heat and heady hop spices: I was so pleased by its orthodoxy I almost forgot I don't really like this style of beer. But if you do, this is a well-made one.

One beer did change my mind a little, and perhaps I was more tolerant of its 7.9% ABV and warming boozy smoothness because I had it late in the day. It was Double Sickle by Tractor Brewing out of New Mexico. It still retains that now-familiar juiciness, but adds a more serious bitter acidity, as well as the aforementioned warmth. It was a good one to sip thoughtfully while considering my last few beers of the evening.

Stone Pale Ale 2.0
And one last pale ale before moving on to other styles. I waited eagerly for the tapping of Stone Pale Ale 2.0. The GBBF was where I first discovered the joy of Stone's various pale ales, so it felt kind of appropriate to mark my return with the San Diego brewery's revision of an old recipe. And it was the sad disappointment of the day. I think at least some of that may be down to dispense: it arrived a forlorn murky orange colour and with a nasty yeast buzz covering what I think is a pithy jaffa flavour beneath. There was none of the bright fresh hops I found in the other US pale ales, and certainly none of the signature Stone balance. I think I'll need to give this one another go. Still, it's strange that it turned out wonky when every other beer I had on the day was in perfect condition.

Marble Imperial Red
Two strong American beers to go out on. Colossal One is yet another from Virginia (was there a theme?) and is made by Port City Brewing. It's a 10% ABV imperial stout aged in Cabernet Franc barrels. The base beer has all the silky chocolate liqueur sweetness and vapours of a mature strong stout served on gravity, and then the barrel adds an almost mulled-wine-like fruit spice to it. It's a lovely effect and not one I've encountered before. More imperial stouts in red wine barrels, please.

Marble Imperial Red was my actual last beer of the festival, from the New Mexico Marble, not the Manchester one. It's 9% ABV and was served headless, smelling of rich soft caramel and dark chocolate. There's a smoky element too, thick sappy resins and some red fruit as well: raspberries and cherries. A real black forest gateau of a beer and an indication that it's worth going all-in for heavy and dark when formulating an imperial red.

So those are the Americans. Tomorrow we'll go back to the start for some actual Great British beers, some fellow Europeans, and find out what happened after we left the festival (spoiler: more beer).


  1. Deschutes's Black Butte and Obsidian were indeed great examples of rich, chocolatey porter and roasty, bracing export stout. Back about 15 years ago, before the brewery shifted from bottle conditioning and limited distribution to national distribution with slightly dumbed-down recipes for their standard beers and the introduction of extreme beers. So, yeah, you're right on with them. Competent.

    Pity to hear that Santiam, a relatively new brewpub in Salem Oregon, sent such a strong beer. I visited the place in June and found a range of 5 or 6 properly conditioned real ales on, but yes, all ratcheted up to American "craft" beer strengths. But they were good. And the boss was sympathetic to the idea of proper session beer, but said that his punters simply don't grasp paying for low-ABV beer, regardless of how rich in flavour it is.

    I'd only stopped in there because I'd heard it was one of a handful of places in Oregon doing proper real ale. And I was driving by.

    I will never grasp the intense love so many have for Stone. But then I'm an ex-Oregonian, not a Californian.

    1. Thanks for the background, Nick. All I can say about Stone is I've generally found their beer at the GBBF to be really really enjoyable to drink.

    2. Beer Nut, I'm going to tell tales on Erlanger Nick. He's not from Oregon, he's from Minnesota, but he fibs on blogs cos he think Oregon's cooler. Like Obama - he needs to produce his birth certificate.

      Your post reassures me that I'm not missing anything by giving American beers the swerve. The abvs are just too high for what they deliver.