Sunday, 8 August 2010

Castle Rock Harvest Pale Ale

One of the more unusual things about this year's Champion Beer of Britain, crowned at the CAMRA-organised Great British Beer Festival in London this week, is that it's available at my local supermarket. Not just that, but it's on special offer - four bottles for £5.50, a bargain for any decent beer, let alone a Champion Beer of Britain.

I've sampled a few bottles over the last couple of days, and it's a perfectly decent beer. In bottle, I have to say that it's not wildly exciting. I didn't get to try any at the GBBF, and haven't tried it on cask anywhere else, but as we all know, there can be considerable disparity between cask and bottle versions of the same beer. One of the beauties of English cask ale is drinkability - no other style of beer packs so much flavour into such a low %abv beer.

They day after Harvest Pale was announced as CBOB, there was a a tweet from James Watt at BrewDog noting that it only rated a 3.02 on - you can see some of the tweets that were exchanged here. As Mitchel Adams suggests, that was a bit of a mean tweet, but that was James' opinion, and he's entitled to express it. But equally, it sort of misses the point. That's also the rating for the bottled version - as you can see from one of the tweets there, that cask version merits a 3.35. But please don't take my bandying these scores around as my endorsement of any rating system - please read on.

CAMRA have a set of objectives and an agenda to their judging, which is totally different to Perhaps oddly, the CBOB doesn't even have to be the best beer at the festival - the way beers make their way to the final is by being nominated by regional CAMRA groups, so it's perfectly possible that there will be good beers at the festival that haven't even been put forward for the CBOB competition. For what it's worth, I thought Fyne Ales' Jarl (4%abv) was a cracking pint (well, a cracking third in my place), but it wasn't in the running. Equally, a lot of the highest-rated beers on are of a particular style - in fact, 17 of the top 20 are imperial stouts. Great, awesome, mighty beers, but unlikely candidates for a CBOB award.

The point that I'm labouring here, I guess, is that we probably do need all of the different competitions and ratings sites that are available. As long as you understand the system behind the rating, then it's useful to have all that information available to you. If you truly believe that there is only one way to rate a beer, then good for you, but personally, I don't. It can be sessionable, it can be mighty, it can be ephemeral, but it can't be (and doesn't need to be) all three to be good. If you want to see how many people have rated a beer as "the best beer in the world, ever", head over to the Oxford Bottled Beer Database and use the search term 'bbitwe' in the search box on the homepage. I've had quite a lot of the beers on that list, and on the right day, with a bit of goodwill, they are pretty decent. Well, maybe not Bavaria 8.6, but I do have a soft spot for Amstel, fresh-brewed in it's home country and served on a hot day.

So, Castle Rock Harvest Pale Ale rocked CAMRA's world this year. My ale of the GBBF was Fyne Ales Jarl. And the bottle of BrewDog/Mikkeller I Hardcore You I've just drunk has to be one of the best IPAs I've tried in a long time.

The beauty of being a beer-lover is that all of the above can be true.


  1. I tried the Harvest Pale yesterday and it was perfectly decent and it's a beer I'd order again if I saw it - I'd also grab a few bottles for the fridge as it's a good summer guzzler.

    I agree with you - Fyne Jarl was the best UK beer I drank at the festival, although Kipling was up there too.

  2. Hmmm. I'm struggling to see any use for a rating system so skewed that 17 out of its top 20 are imperial stouts. That just reinforces the stereotype that Reatbeer is for anally-retentive beer nerds. No offence to any Ratebeer fans out there.

    As for HPA, it is highly regarded amongst cask drinkers and is a popular winning choice. It fits in well with the general CBOB criteria of a sessionable, thirst quencher. Particularly after the blip of last year which had many scratching thier heads.

    The Fyne was good-but then I've found all their beers to be so.

  3. Ive never tried it on cask but i've never wanted to after i really didn't enjoy the bottle, if i had to pick 3 brit beers from GBBF they would be Jarl, Revival, Hopton.

    also completley agree about the I hardcore u, had a bottle last night, was great stuff.

  4. Mark - I'm basing my opinion on bottles, and I thought it OK, but on the day I had better beers. I'd certainly plump for it on cask, should I see it.

    Tyson - and that's my point exactly - you need to know what the criteria for judging are before the rating is of any use at all. Although of course for the GBBF, it's down to who shows best on the day, hence Rudgate winning last year (a great beer, I think)

    Andy - I'm the opposite - now I feel I should hunt it out and try it on cask!

  5. Harvest Pale from the cask is a mighty fine session beer which stands up well to some much stronger stuff. I just hope that winning CBOB won't mean the beer gets toned back and becomes boring as has happened with so many previous winners.

  6. I've not 'baron rated' this bottled ale yet even though I've seen it on the shelf in my local Morrisons for many months,although the impression is that the bottle is a shadow of the cask it might be one I'll pick up & 'baron rate' soon...

  7. I could easily be wrong about this, but I seem to remember hearing that CBOB has a level of regional (blind?) tastings? So it goes something like this: a list of eligible beers in each region is circulated to, and scored by branches - these scores are totalled at regional level which gives the shortlists for regional tastings - "winners" of which go to the national blind tastings. So you'd hope it's a bit more robust than it would be simply relying on nominations.

    Another point, if you have a look at ratebeer, (I haven't done any serious stats on this, but...) it seems to me that some national characteristics are demonstrated. US raters seemingly happy to give very high scores to their favourites, while northern Europe seems rather more conservative. I wonder if exporting to (say) Denmark, rather than to the US would tend to hold the average down rather. At the same time, ratings (particularly stateside?) seem to follow ABV rather closely. For that matter, the number of cask beers that are rated (poorly) at UK festivals with comments about poor condition rather undermines the value of the whole thing if you think about it.

  8. when I first read James's comment on twitter I thought he was taking the piss out of ratebeer and camra at the same time and that his comment wasn't aimed at the beer at all, but you could read it in different ways.

    I don't thing you can judge Bottled/Bottle conditioned, Keg or cask beer together.
    different competitions have different serving methods, Camra have cask and Bottle Conditioned both are judged separately and are treated differently. Ratebeer judges every serving method as one rating (for my beers at least). the Beer World Cup took entry's only in bottled form and is the only one of the three to not award an overall winner. How can you judge an overall winner from different styles of beer? camra usually pick a session beer. Ratebeer has all the strong ones at the top. I don't thing either of these beer judging/rating systems is ever going to please everyone and they both have there good and bad points. Its all on the day really and could have been a different result with a different tasting panel. maybe they should do that one year, have two different groups tasting the some beers and see how the results differ. I hope my ramblings made sense.

    castle rock will probably change there bottle labels so that they mention the cbob win but they will have to word it something like this 'Champion beer of Britain 2010 in its cask form'.

    I haven't tried Harvest Pale in bottles but I will if I get the chance, I often prefer weaker beers kegged or from cask though so I'll not be in rush.

  9. One of the major things I always have to explain to people when i'm getting them to try new beers is the disparity between bottled and cask versions - it can sometimes be massive, and the Harvest Pale's a good example. It's much better on Cask, I feel. Surely if you put your rating on a site from a cask beer - you have to take into account condition? It's almost like a third of the points would probably come from how it's been served and the condition, rather than actual taste? One of the reasons I don't really follow them too much.

  10. ChrisM - I hope not either. Reading up about them over the last few days, it seems that Castle Rock have a new brewery and plenty of capacity to play with, so one would hope the same beer would be produced, just in bigger quantity.

    Baron - it's a CBOB - that's gotta be a big hitter!

    StringersBeer - you're right in your description of the knockout rounds (if I can call them that), and I was glossing over the details for brevity (or brewvity, as I just amusingly mis-typed). One thing that surprised me when I judged last year was the number of beers that were oddly-placed for their style, something alluded to by Phil Mellows in this post, which mirrors my experience last year. One of the things that I like about CAMRA is that it's very much an organisation run from the inside, by its members, but sometimes that 'enthusiastic amateur' spirit can work against it (not a criticism, just an observation).

    Stu - I totally agree with you - all these different groups have different criteria, and as long as you understand that, then they can be useful. But comparing a rating from two different scales is meaningless - it's like complaining that your peaches don't taste like apples.

    Leigh - I think that's part of the beauty of cask beer - it's such a fragile thing, and there are so many things that can go wrong with it, that when you get a perfect pint of a great beer, it's like the planets all lining up. And like you, I don't really follow rating sites for advice - I look for personal recommendations, and follow people like you!

  11. Crap. I managed to delete long and considered responses to these comments, so forgive me while I paraphrase:

    Chris - I hear that Castle Rock have a new brewery with loads of capacity to fill, so one would hope that the volume will increase with no loss of quality.

    Baron O - it's a supermarket CBoB - that should take it to the top of your list!

    StringersBeer - yes, you're right, I was glossing over the intricacies of the selection process. But that's sort of indicative of any organisation that is, to a large extent, run remotely by its members - there will always be some odd decisions, and CAMRA isn't exempt from that.

    Stuart - you're quite right, it doesn't make any sense to compare two different rating scales and expect to come away with meaningful information.

    Leigh - and that's what makes cask ale such a frustrating beast - it's one of the most delicate methods of dispense that sometimes I think it's a miracle if you ever get a good pint. But fortunately, there are enough conscientious landlords that this isn't such a rare event as to make you give up on the whole notion - and that's what makes cask ale unique.

  12. I had it emailed to me if you'd like to repost it exactly? :p

    And actually my only experience with the bottled version was a good one, but just left me wanting a few pints of the cask stuff.

  13. The tweets seem to be gone. I think there is alot of worth to ratebeer but you have to take it for what it is which is an increadibly unscientific public survey. As such it is alway skewed by the sort of punters that use it, and the sort of beers they choose to rate. A competition which uses judges and criteria is always going to give different results to ratebeer.

    I have judged at competitions which do have overall winners and at ones which do not.
    I think it is probibly preferable to not have an over all winner but rather have catergory winners. Having one champion focuses on that one beer and that one style, having a range of winners focuses on beer in its diversity. The media however love being able to report on one champion.

  14. Chris - just reassure me that I more or less got the spirit of the original?

    Kieran - I think you're right - the various global competitions that have category winners but no supreme champion seem to share the glory out a bit more.


Sorry about the word verification - the blog was getting spammed to bits.