Craft Beer Rising at Whole Foods Market

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The traditional Beer Festival Season is now well and truly upon us. Part of the trend of new ‘craft beer’ oriented events is their desire to do things differently, and be in different places than other beer festivals. The term ‘pop-up’ is often bandied about liberally, when people really mean ‘tent’ or ‘stall’. With respect to Craft Beer Rising, setting up a small pub in the window of Whole Foods in High Street Ken is more than just a stall. From the 7th to the 16th of June, this is exactly what they did. Again, they managed to get all the right people involved. Brewers as different at Harbour, Otley, Beavertown and Hogsback all had their beers stocked in the pop-up pub, with their beers matched to foods from the Whole Foods market at events from Monday to Friday last week. Each night, the brewers themselves would guide paying customers (at £20 a ticket) through six of their beers and foods matched to them by either Melissa Cole or Ben McFarland.

On Wednesday, I attended the evening hosted by Otley Brewing Co, a favourite Welsh brewer of mine who consistently turn out innovative, flavoursome but impressively balanced beers. Melissa Cole (who has brewed a collaboration beer with Otley, in the form of Thai-Bo) had made the beer and food matches, and talked the attendees (some of whom were in the industry, others enthusiasts, or complete novices) through the basics of beer, brewing and food matching. Nick and Lee from Otley were there to talk about the process of making each beer, and the whole event had a very intimate and friendly atmosphere, partly due to the slightly cramped confines of a pop-up pub (see photos).

We were greeted warmly on arrival and handed a glass of Croeso (O2), Otley’s US-hopped golden ale, fresh from the cask. It’s a deeply aromatic beer for its modest strength (4.2%), and was the winner in the Champion Beer of Wales/Golden Ales category last year. The tropical fruit nose converts neatly onto the palate, and makes for an extremely moreish beer, leagues ahead of other far blander golden ales. Whilst this wasn’t paired with anything per say, there was some crunchy, spicy corn on the tables to go with it. A bar snack basic, but still pleasant enough.

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Lined up on the (slightly wobbly) tables were several bottles of five other Otley beers. As we took our seats on cushion-topped metal casks, we were introduced to Nick and Lee, and Melissa introduced the beers one by one with each food accompaniment. First was O1, Otley’s original golden bitter. It was paired with some puff pastry cheese twists: a simple but extremely effective combination. O1 has a surprisingly zesty, lemon-and-orange-pith character to its straightforward sweet-then-bitter profile, which paired very nicely with the pastry to become liquid bread. The cheese was lifted neatly right off the palate, but its flavour remained. Classic and simple.

Next came O9 (formerly known as O-Garden, but has had its name changed after a polite request from you-know-who), which was just as sharp,  citrusy and spicy with cloves as I remember. This was paired with some fish and chips with tartar sauce. Aside from the expected batter-melting quality of the carbonation and clean, fruity finish to every bite, the O9 went quite splendidly with the tartar sauce, with its lemon tartness and spicy clove character adding new depths to the sauce.

Afterwards we had Oxymoron (O10), Otley’s rather aptly-named black IPA. Most black IPAs I’ve tasted are in the 6-7%, but Oxymoron is only 5.5%. However, it was Oxymoron that really hit home to me what Otley’s real strength is as a brewer: balance. All that roast, syrup, citrus and dryness is blended into what I can only describe as a sessionable and extremely balanced palate. If there was ever an accessible black IPA to introduce beer newbies to the style, this is it. Oxymoron was served with a selection of breads, charcuterie and small gherkins. Naturally, it work very nicely, cutting through oily and salty meat and adding smoky sweetness, binding with the bread and sweetening the gherkins.

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The penultimate beer of the night is my favourite Otley beer: their O6 Porter. The bottled version of the beer is not quite as good as it is on cask, but it’s still a rich, chocolatey, espresso-powered beast that, for its 6.6% abv, remains gulpable. This came with some mini-brownies topped with salted caramel. Naturally this enhanced the flavours in both things, but I might have preferred to see the O6 with a rich meat course to see how it faired.

Finally, we tasted Motley Brew, a 7.5% double IPA brewed in collaboration with Glyn Roberts aka Rabid Barfly. Again, for all its intense flavour and high strength, it’s a remarkably balanced beer that never overpowers any section of your palate. You never get bored of its assertive tropical fruit sweetness or dry, piney finish. You just keep enjoying it, over and over again. This was served with some delightfully named Ticklemore cheese and chilli focaccia bread. The cheese was mostly dry and chalky in the middle, but the beer made it sweeter, creamier and saltier, like injecting it with a super-soldier serum. It also went marvellously with the chilli bread, allowing the heat to tingle the taste buds before sweetening the bread and cleansing the palate.

It was a great night, and I’ve heard positive things about the other brewer evenings. Melissa did a great job of concisely conveying lots of information about the beers, brewing, food and anecdotes to an audience of mixed levels of knowledge, and both her and the Otley team fielded plenty of questions. My only criticism would be the size of the venue. Whilst it looked fantastic from the outside (if the glaring, jealous looks of passers by were anything to go by), it was just slightly too cramped and noisy inside. Having said that, it was a well-organised and fun evening of great beer and good food. I can’t really ask for much more than that.

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.