01 December 2017

Let's party

Session logoThis month's Session, hosted by Portland's Brian Yaeger, is on the subject of festivals and catches me just at the end of writing about a big one. Brian asks us to "write about how you would design your dream beer festival" and that's a tall order. I've been to a lot of beer festivals this year, covering every format from a few casks in the back yard of a small pub to large marquees to hangar-sized event halls; indoor, outdoor; tokens, cash, flat rate; local and international; minimal new ticks and impossible to know where to start. And I have enjoyed them all. Yes I'm a ticker primarily: I go to festivals with the aim of tasting lots of unfamiliar beers, but I also experience genuine relief when there aren't any more and I can put the notebook away and relax into a pint.

For that reason, I think my ideal festival is one that changes format and venue every year. It has no abiding theme, no set way of operating. Sometimes there's food, music, talks, and sometimes there isn't. But what it does provide, consistently, is information. You know what breweries will be there, what beers they're bringing, the price of admission, the serving sizes and the seating arrangements. I call it the No Surprises Festival and if you don't like the plans for this year, come next year instead.

Back to the real world, and wrapping up the final handful of Swedish beers at the Stockholm Beer & Whisky Festival 2017. New England-style IPA hasn't really featured thus far, but of course it was available. Beer Monkey had one they called Fuzzy Gorilla, and yes it's fuzzy: an appropriate hazy yellow-orange. It pretty much drops the ball after this point, however. The aroma is full of phenolic solvents, and so is the flavour. The hops are perceptible behind this, showing caraway and a little softer honeydew, but the dreadful infection shouts loudly over the top of that and it's pretty grim drinking.

Next it's Ella, a brown ale from Roslags Näsby, to the north of Stockholm. The first surprise was how dark it was; almost black, with an aroma of very bitter liquorice. Its flavour is stout-like, based around a wholesome and uncomplex roasted cereal flavour. More typical coffee and caramel sweetness arrives after this and balances it nicely. It doesn't deliver what I look for in a brown ale but rebadge it as a porter and you'd have a winner.

A barrel-aged barley wine next: the operatically-titled Valkyrians Välkomst by Gotlands. A Sauternes cask did the business here, and the end result is infused with a sweet, almost mead-like, perfume. That includes the sharp beeswax and the sickly honey too, unfortunately. A hard bitterness arrives in the finish, but too late to provide balance. I found this hard going, overall. It's a big 11% ABV and I think a lighter and cleaner beer would have complemented the wine barrel's contribution better than one which was already strong and sweet.

I couldn't have left without trying at least one beer from Ocean. The brewer here has an Irish connection having previously worked at Messrs Maguire in Dublin, and indeed Ocean beers were briefly available there. My choice was Arbetarporter, a 9%-er but tasting even stronger with tonnes of concentrated boozy chocolate. It's smooth and sweet, warming and filling, and perfectly pitched as the worker's reward.

And an imperial stout to take us out the door: Whiteout by Mohawk Brewing. Nine malts, honey and cane sugar have gone into this, bringing it to 9.7% ABV. I had to double check if it, too, was barrel aged because I get a kick of fortified wine from it, as well as a herbal bitter liqueur element, like Fernet Stock. A little bit of chocolate sits in parallel with this and helps balance the severity, while the dry finish means none of it lingers on the palate. It's a challenging beer, but worth acquiring a taste for.

Just time to finish off the hotel room stash now. Black Soil is a black IPA from Sigtuna, a big 7.5% ABV with an enticing Turkish delight aroma. The flavour doesn't really follow through on this eastern promise, offering not much more than some dry roast. Let it warm up and there's a hint of rosewater and a waft of smoke, but nothing spectacular, and certainly no proper IPA hopping. This really needs more of everything, except maybe alcohol.

Finally the heavy metal stylings of Dark Skull by Electric Nurse, the sort of beer that sounds like it should have an elaborate gatefold sleeve. "Imperial coconut stout" says the label but oddly I got far more of a coffee flavour from it. I'm guessing the coconut was roasted, and hence the effect. The bitterness is understandably low and I quite like the way the dark malts are given centre stage without making the beer too sweet, while the coconut doesn't turn it into a gimmicky novelty beer. It's a more serious and considered recipe than the branding might imply.

And that was it for Stockholm. It just remains for me to thank BrewDog for sending me over, and especially Grace and Beth who did the logistics work. The perfect beer festival? Probably not, but it's definitely its own thing with a unique personality and perhaps that's the important bit.

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