21 October 2016

The cask task

JD Wetherspoon Real Ale Festival: are any words more stirring to the human soul?  Late October means it's time for my annual ritual of cycling out to the South County coast and seeing what's on the pumps in my two locals. I usually stop in Blackrock first but decided to start in Dún Laoghaire this year, to catch the cavernous Forty Foot before it got loud and crowded. As in recent years, English hops was the theme, with every one of the 30 festival beers using nothing but.

An awkward five new ones were on the wickets and I began with three thirds. Banks's Gold Ingot certainly looks the part: a perfect blingy gold colour. Spicy and citrus is promised on the clip but that's a bit of an exaggeration. It is plenty bitter though, the grass and metal of down-home English hops, with East Kent Goldings, First Gold and Flyer being the varieties billed in the programme. A light biscuit malt sits behind this but that's about your lot. The galvanic pencil sharpener metal is the last bit to fade from the palate. It's certainly punchy and invigorating, but very much in an English way, a flavour which precludes modern fripperies like citrus.

Bigger things were expected from the first of the international collaborations, Hop Session, brewed at Everards with Afro-Caribbean Brewing of Cape Town. It's a slightly darker gold than the previous one, though the same 4.3% ABV. There's a little bit of a tropical buzz here, achieved with Bramling Cross, Challenger and Cascade. Not quite pineapple and passionfruit, but definitely something approaching a mango, set against harder grapefruit and spinach. The malt is an afterthought but there's just enough of it to keep the hops buoyant and, if not in balance, at least not harsh. While almost passing for a new world beer, its roots show at the end, however, with an earthy metallic twang.

And thirdly of the thirds, Theakston Vanilla Stout, ratcheting up that ABV to a hulking 4.5%. It tastes like more, though: thick and rich and sweet. A bitter treacle overtone shows the hops working in the background while the main action is a dialectic struggle between sticky vanilla and dry roast. While I enjoyed it, a third was plenty.

The last two weren't actually part of the festival line-up, but that's no reason not to tick the buggers. Next is Blondie by Nottinghamshire's Grafton Brewery. Closer to copper than blonde, by the looks of it. It's sweet and tart, like sour candy with a hint of strawberry shortcake. Summer fruit is definitely what I found in the aroma when I'd sipped down far enough to smell it. An out-of-keeping putty bitterness is where the flavour ends. Not a bad beer overall, and rather more interesting than I was expecting.

We stay in the Midlands for the last round: Sadler's Peaky Blinder black IPA, brewed with today's craft-beer-inclined Brummie gangster in mind. It's fully black and smells powerfully of cabbagewater, molasses and sherbet: a combination which promises complexity, if not actually a good time. And so it is in the flavour. It has a soft effervescence and strong herbal-floral taste that probably looked lovely on paper but ends up tasting like old bathwater. There's an intensity which I'm sure comes from the hops but which doesn't deliver proper hop-like flavours. It's extremely rare for me to be saying that a black IPA needs extra bitterness but I think this one does. I love black IPAs that are sweet and tropical and also enjoy the extremely green and vegetal ones. This takes a third path and I don't really want to follow it.

Time to turn the ship around and make for Blackrock. The Three Tun Tavern had its new Cask Marque cert propped on the bar. Well done to them and, with the system seemingly live in Ireland, I hope some of the non-Wetherspoon cask-serving pubs will take advantage of it.

Another round of thirds, starting with Tring's Warrior Queen, a 4.6% ABV pale ale. Not much of an aroma from this but the flavour is a weird squeaky green bean thing, all sharply tangy with a chalky mineral backdrop. It's very odd. The literature tells me that Fusion is the hop what done it. Use with caution, I guess.

Next it's Epic Brew from Wadworth, a golden ale brewed with Epic hops. It's only 4.5% ABV but very thick and sweet with a floral sort of spice. After a few minutes of trying to place what it reminded me of I came up with honey: it's that specific mix of summer meadow pollen and sticky sugar with an edge of waxy bitterness. It finishes quickly, adding a lager feel. Epic is an overstatement but it's decent stuff, for one at least.

Old Crafty Hen is next, a Greene King brand extension I've seen many times in clear glass bottles and would normally have passed over except the programme mentioned it includes Greene King's near-mythical 5X strong ale in the blend. I'm in. This occupies the madman slot in the Wetherspoon festival line-up: there's always at least one big strong beer, though at just 6.5% ABV OCH is lighter than usual. It's lovely, though: a big juicy tannic raisin thing, soft and sumptuous. I expected building sweetness but it doesn't do that, staying dry and clean all the way down. I'm really surprised at how much I enjoyed it, but the chances of me buying it in a clear bottle are still basically nil.

Right, next set of thirds. Evan Evans Autumn Frenzy. Copper-coloured, with a maple syrup sort of sweetness. The watery finish has this weird savoury mushroom quality making me wonder if they're going for a full-on forest floor leafmold thing. So, OK, it's autumnal, but nobody wants to drink a third of a pint of fungal maple syrup. I think I get what it's trying to be, but there's still a really dull brown bitter at its core, dragging down all the seasonal bells and whistles.

In the middle is Titanic Brewery's SEA ("seriously enigmatic ale" -- if ever a name suggested a batch of something else that went wrong), another brown one, at 5% ABV, and another odd one. The flavour is more muted than Autumn Frenzy, but it's thicker, almost like a gloopy nitrokeg bitter. That mushroom thing is there again but this time there are no brighter notes to lift it off the forest litter. There's a bit of cleansing tannin but it doesn't do enough to keep this beer from being heavy, cloying and difficult.

The day's second and final international collaboration was Braddon Bitter, produced at Wadworth in association with BentSpoke of Canberra. Brown again, and with some nice burnt caramel and a sharp dark fruit thing, all blackberries and sloes. I had to check if Bramling Cross was in the house but turns out it's all Admiral and Cascade. It's pretty dry, sucking moisture off the palate and finishing tight, sharp and astringent. This is another one of those beers I'm really enjoying a third of but more than that would probably get difficult.

OK, enough cask. I'd be lying if I said I hadn't been eyeing up the new Wetherspoon can all afternoon. Treason is an IPA from Windsor & Eton, 5.8% ABV and a hazy orange colour. There's a balanced orange fruit bitterness and a hint of dank in the aroma. It tastes fresh and fruity with distinct overtones of Punk IPA and Bibble. Citrus! Resins! Cool! Acceptance! It is very nice, and top marks to the brewery for putting it together, but it does taste like quite a few other beers to me. It's just as well that quality and flavour trumps individuality every time.

Overall, quite a good festival this year. No stand-outs, but the beers I didn't enjoy were at least interesting. And that, in general, is the best any blogger can hope for. The festival continues until Sunday and I'd imagine that several in the line-up will be around for a while after that.