Sleeping Dragon (Four Nations of Beer Part 1)

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In a series of four features, I will be examining the beer culture in four countries through the lens of a particular event. This first part looks at Wales, and how the recent W-Ales Beer Festival showed a city entering a beer renaissance.

Whilst it’s not unusual to be in a place where a culture is changing, it’s a strange and interesting thing indeed to be present at the moment when it changes. When I attended the Great Welsh Beer Festival last year, I and many others saw the signs of a sea change in Welsh beer. There had been indications for some time, but the country’s national beer exhibition was the best barometer to measure such a change. The ‘inciting incident’ was when Newport’s decidedly ‘craft’ brewery Tiny Rebel swept the board at the Champion Beer of Wales competition at the festival, claiming gold, silver and bronze with smoked porters and IPAs, beers markedly different to what many other brewers had made.

Whilst this certainly set the scene for a future of serious changes, in the Welsh beer history book of the near future, the W-Ales Beer Festival 2014 will be the event marked as a turning point. Last year’s saw Tiny Rebel make their presence truly felt, change the game and how it is played. A fascinating prologue for certain, a hook into the story proper, but it was this year’s beer festival that saw the first chapter of the future of Welsh craft beer. That isn’t to say that it was by any means triumphant or perfect. There are still organisational niggles (too few food stands, no third-pint markings on glassware, charging for programmes on the first day, fiddly tokens), but the festival itself was still a great event. It was also, again, a fascinating barometer for the Welsh beer scene.

WRU (Welsh Rubgy Union), which owns the Millenium Stadium, charged a hefty price for stands at the festival, a price some were unwilling to pay. On top of that, the stadium’s official alcohol supplier, Heineken, wanted its own stands too. Instead of an integrated approach similar to Craft Beer Rising, where cask and keg beers are served alongside each other, here the method of dispense remained a dividing barrier. CAMRA ran the central island bar of cask taps, whilst those pouring beers on kegs were forced to provide their own stands on the outer edges of the field. It felt disconnected, especially when some brewers had beers pouring both on the CAMRA island and a separate keg bar. It showed that the traditional CAMRA model is no longer the best way to showcase the country’s beers, but also that a piecemeal approach isn’t effective either.

Having said that, the beer on sale at the festival was some of the best I’ve ever had at a beer festival. Every drop was in great condition, well-kept and tasting fresh. The diversity of Welsh beer was no longer in question. Celt’s 614 Années, an 8.5% chocolate rye porter brewed with Brasserie St Germain, was the standout (and knock-you-down) beer of the festival for me, but I also enjoyed the juicy Nelson’s Eye pale ale from Heavy Industry, a fantastic Black IPA from Grey Trees Brewery, the young Handmade Beer Co’s cracking American IPA (which had more than a touch of Torpedo to it), and a pounding Pioneer Double IPA from Zero Degrees, among others. These were all great beers, showing Welsh craft beer to be in rude health and getting better by the year.

As for the festival, whether next year will see a smoother integration of the component parts, or an even more exploded, disparate event in its place, is difficult to know. The festival this year showed that the beer community wants, and needs, something representative of all the great beer being brewed in Wales, but struggled to make a cohesive event out of it. Things will no doubt be very different next year, but how, exactly?

In a matter of weeks, Cardiff’s BrewDog will be open, just down the road from the City Arms, Urban Tap House and Zero Degrees. The city’s Craft Beer District, once a running joke between me and my gracious host Craig Heap (inspired by the ‘Hammock District’ gag in The Simpsons episode You Only Move Twice), will be all but official. Some local dignitary will probably have a bubbly amber stripe painted down the streets to mark it out, and why not? Perhaps this where the answer to the beer festival conundrum lies. Perhaps a beer festival set across Cardiff’s craft beer pubs and bars (not so much a Bermondsey Beer Mile as a Cardiff Beer Square Mile), with each pouring between 12 and 30 keg and cask beers over the course of a weekend, is a better way to represent what Welsh beer has to offer.

In any case, the change to the Welsh beer scene isn’t just coming, it’s already here.

Great Welsh Beer and Cider Festival 2013

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The Great Welsh Beer and Cider Festival (GWBCF), Cardiff’s annual celebration of all things great in Welsh beer and cider, is a very different beast to the Great British Beer Festival (GBBF). For one thing, it is far more staunchly patriotic. Only a handful of casks came from breweries outside Wales, and even then they were from breweries not far away (like Thornbridge). There was a foreign beer bar, yes, but a much smaller and more focused affair than at GBBF. Another difference was that the foreign beer bar was being run by a local beer retailer, Cardiff’s Bottle Shop, giving it more of a ‘friendly local bar’ kind of atmosphere.

That same atmosphere extended to the festival as a whole. The beer and cider was served from a single, large, U shape of bars, with tables and chairs on either side of the U and stalls scattered elsewhere, which just about conjured the impression of ‘Wales’ Biggest Pub’. The Motorpoint Arena is by no means a picturesque location, but it fulfilled its purpose admirably. Only on Friday night did the place start to feel overpopulated, and even then it created a lively buzz and atmosphere that it failed to recapture the following day, as the best beers ran dry.

One major disappointment was the glassware.  Whilst I appreciate glassware ramps up costs considerably, there was only one available: a half-pint glass with a rather crudely-drawn and distinctly alligator-like dragon on it. Fair enough, you don’t want to be drinking pints all day, but when many of the beers you try are either middling or high-strength, you don’t want to gulp down a whole half-pint of them either. An extra notch for a third measurement, or a multiple-notched pint glass (like at GBBF), would make a big difference, allowing people to drink a wider variety of beers, spend more time and more money in the process. My only other major gripe was the festival’s programme, which was a combination of vague, useless tasting notes (hoppy this, malty that), sad, mournful adverts and jarring references to death, global warming and the Nanny State (seriously). None of us expect a masterpiece, but it was strange enough to distract from the quality of the event overall.

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And what of the beer, anyway? Both my host Craig Heap and myself had hoped to find some unknown, soon-to-be-megastar from the smaller breweries; another Tiny Rebel. The truth was, few breweries could hold a torch to Wales’ new darling brewery, and those that did were old faces. Solid, innovative, yet dependable Otley, alongside Brains and its Craft Brewery range, as well as Celt Experience and Brecon had the biggest presence, and also the best beers on tap. My main highlights were Brains’ Craft Stars and Stripes, a zingy, crisp and zesty wheat beer with US hops; the rare (on cask) Otley O6 Porter, a classy and masterful balance of coffee and chocolate; and Tiny Rebel’s one-off barrel-aged beers, including the outrageously good Kentucky Whiskey cask Urban IPA and the decadent Grand Regal Stout aged in Morgan’s Spiced barrels.

Whilst it was disappointing not to come across great beers from smaller or newer breweries, the brewers of the beers mentioned above are clearly the powerful and exciting face of modern Welsh beer. Tiny Rebel took all three medals in the Champion Beer of Wales competition (with Dirty Stop Out, Fubar and Urban IPA), and arguably with good reason. I personally feel there is a fair amount of cheekiness (or rebelliousness you might say) in entering three different IPAs and a stout in four different categories, but they won fair and square. If CAMRA’s categories allow an IPA to win in the Barley Wine category, then so be it. (see EDIT below: Tiny Rebel’s beers were chosen, not entered)

Rhymney, Purple Moose, Brains, Bullmastiff, Facer’s and Breconshire also took category prizes (Brains’ Rev James perhaps being a surprise winner), but this year was Tiny Rebel’s for the taking. What will be really interesting is next year’s GWBCF. Will the booming Welsh beer scene sustain another new generation of brewers, inspired by the likes of Tiny Rebel? Will Brains Craft Brewery still be going, and what will they have made in another year’s time? Will anyone try (or dare) to open a rival T-shirt shop or jerky stand? I’m looking forward to finding out next year. To your very good health, Wales.

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EDIT: James B (@Jamesbwxm) has helpfully clarified that brewers do not submit their own beers for judging for the Champion Beer of Wales. In fact, he can only recollect one time when this has been the case (for the inaugural Champion Beer of North Wales this year). Finalists are selected from festival winners and tasting panels over the year.