30 October 2017

Tarnished spoon

Is it me or is the beer selection at the Wetherspoon Real Ale Festivals getting worse, year-on-year? Nothing struck me as of interest from the 30 beers on the advance list for Autumn 2017 and there was a signal that something is definitely awry when I saw that the beer officially judged as the best of the line-up came from the execrable Caledonian Brewery. I didn't get to try it so perhaps I shouldn't be so prejudiced, but still.

Nevertheless I trooped along to The Forty Foot a couple of Saturdays ago, where my nascent disappointment became all the realer with the availability of just two from the line-up. Groh. I began with a half of Zululand Pale Ale, brewed at Wychwood under the supervision of the eponymous South African brewery. It cheered me right up. The orange-amber colour of a classic English bitter, it starts straight away with a superbly fresh tannic bite. There's a hop bitterness behind this, mostly tasting of earthy and English varieties, with a dusting of orangey fruit and an exotic jasmine spice. The dryness clears all of that right off the palate quick smart, and you're ready for another pull. All very jolly, in a serious, traditional and grown-up sort of way.

Farnham White next, from the sturdy, reliable, Hogsback brewery. This is rather plainer fare, a pale amber gold with a slightly lagerish flavour of cereal and honey; mostly quite sweet with a gentle waxy buzz on the end. The key ingredient, says the pumpclip, is the Farnham White Bine hop, and I think this is another example of English brewers being prouder of their local varieties than they really warrant. It's fine, but it doesn't make me want to seek out more of examples of this hop and I don't taste the pepper notes I've been promised.

I did a little better on moving up to The Three Tun Tavern in Blackrock: three festival options. My first half was Liberation Ale, I guess the flagship from Liberation Brewery on Jersey and my first Channel Islands beer. What is that foretaste? An exotic mix of melon and pomegranate making it almost more like a saison than the pale golden ale it actually is. There's a tropical stickiness going on, surprising for 4% ABV, though the finish is quick, leaving just the faintest trace of honeydew. It's odd but I liked it. A full pint was really needed to explore properly, but obviously that's not how these things work. Next!

Next was Autumn Wheat, one of the internationals. This time it's Michigan's Arcadia at the controls of Banks's in Wolverhampton for a 6% ABV pale amber job. Wheat would suggest smoothness, and this definitely delivers on that front. On top there's a pleasing sprinkle of incense and cinnamon. A glance at the official description tells me coriander and orange peel have been added, so I guess it's a witbier of sorts, though it doesn't taste anything like one. Nor does it taste its strength for that matter. I really enjoyed this: spicy, filling, yet surprisingly clean and refreshing. I'm at a loss to compare to anything else I've tasted, but that's not the beer's problem.

Last orders was Old Nutty Hen, and time was I wouldn't have bothered, but I've had good experiences of Greene King's Old Speckled Hen brand extensions -- still trading on the defunct Morland name -- so figured this was worth €1.35 of my money and time. It's a dark garnet colour and extremely caramelly. It's hard to find any complexity beyond that, however: there's a slight bonfire smokiness and, oh!, was I supposed to be finding nuts? If so it's more like the hazelnut syrup that gets squirted into coffee for people who don't like the taste of coffee. There's no real nut character, and not enough proper English beer flavour either. Half way through my half I was finding it sickly and difficult. Morland goes back on the naughty list.

It's hard to judge a thirty-beer line-up from just five of them, and there were more hits than misses in amongst this lot. So yes, I'll be back for the Spring 2018 festival, though hoping for more daring beers.