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.

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.)