Four Nations of Beer

I'll be needing one of these this month.
I could do with a HopJet this month…

June, June, June. How intent you seem on slaying me.

I’ve a fair few things lined up this month, all of which I’ve been really looking forward to, but it only occurred to me the other day that these events are not just in different cities, but different countries too (ooh get me). I’m not boasting – far from it; it’s probably going to put me in a horizontal state for most of July – but I have been pondering just what I should write about it.

For example, I’ve just spent the weekend in Cardiff, attending the W-Ales Beer Festival at the Millennium Stadium and revisiting some of the city’s excellent pubs. Each time I return to Cardiff, its beer scene has grown exponentially, and this year’s beer festival was markedly different to last year’s at the Motorpoint Arena. Craig Heap and I used to joke about the city’s Craft Beer District, but it’s now very much a reality.

This coming weekend I’ll be doing at least some of the Bermondsey Beer Mile before visiting the new Beavertown Brewery site in Tottenham Hale, a brewery which has truly ‘graduated’ to the big leagues. Of course, I already live in London, but I think this weekend will help to crystallise a lot of my thoughts about what’s happening here.

The weekend after that, I’m in Aberdeen for BrewDog’s shareholder AGM, a now-permanent fixture in my calendar that marries beer, music and BrewDog’s ‘culture’ increasingly neatly. With Greg Koch of Stone Brewing Co visiting, ever more bands on the line-up and the certainty of new beers and madcap schemes, it’s sure to be a blast of a weekend. BrewDog are of course far from being all that’s happening in Scotland’s beer scene, but the AGM has been an interesting indicator of which way the wind is blowing.

I’ll end the month in Dublin for the European Beer Bloggers Conference. I’ve already written about how much I’m looking forward to this, but it’s worth restating that Ireland’s craft beer scene is mostly a mystery to me, so I can’t wait to get amongst the new beers, breweries and pubs that are driving the change there.

Quite a month then, and the fact that each event is in a different country presents me with a rare opportunity. I’ve decided to use each event as a way of examining that country’s beer scene in whatever way I can. It’s not going to be perfect, or wholly representative, but through the lenses that each of these places provides I hope to discover and share what’s happening in beer right now.

Too much is written about this booming beer scene in the past tense (post-craft etc). For people to understand this undeniably important time, I’m going to do my damnedest to record as much information of relevance as I can. There’s amazing things happening everywhere, and it’s our duty to experience as much of it as we can.

This project might help me make The Beer Diary the blog that it should be. Worst case scenario, there will be lots of details of my drunken exploits on the internet.

 

(PS. It’d obviously be great if I had time to do Belfast too. That would really help round this out/truly destroy me.)

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.