Having trawled the interwebs extensively, I'm pretty sure that this 2009 piece that I wrote about Wales for Beers of the World magazine (RIP) isn't available anywhere. I thought I'd post this as (a) it's St David's Day today, and (b) Brain's have very kindly sent me a few SA Gold, and I haven't got time to even drink one today, let alone write anything meaningful about it. Much to my chagrin, I STILL haven't had a chance to try Brain's Dark on smoothflow, although I'm going to Cardiff at Easter and am going to do my damnedest to do so then. Any tips on where to make that particular tick will be gratefully received.
From the end of the article, I've trimmed off a (pretty exhaustive) list of breweries and their choicest beer, so I'm not trying to claim this piece as a definitive article, just a report of a mad two-day scramble from one end of the country to the other.
So, drink Welsh beer, eat Welsh lamb, and 'iechyd da' to the whole Welsh brewing community.
Tom Jones, coal mining, sheep, leeks, male voice choirs, daffodils, rugby and hard-to-pronounce place names. There, that's all of the clichés out of the way in the first sentence, so now we can move on and talk about the beer.
I didn't realise it at the time, but my overall impressions of the Welsh brewing industry were set very early on in my visit. As I was being shown around the Breconshire Brewery by brewer Justin “Buster” Grant, he pointed to a chap washing out kegs. “That's Clive – he's the company secretary” said Buster. “Industrious chap, turning his hand to anything” I thought. It was a thought that reoccurred with surprising frequency over the following couple of days.
Buster Grant barely looks old enough to have legally attended the Great British Beer Festival in 1992, but he did, and it clearly had an influence on him. A decade later, Breconshire's Golden Valley made its first appearance there. Six years further on, the pale golden beer is still one of their best sellers. It uses only British ingredients, something that Buster is passionate about, but not as passionate as the idea of using locally sourced Welsh malt and hops. “Welsh hops are still a few years away, but I hope we'll get there” he says. It certainly won't be at the expense of quality, though.
Moving quickly from the sublime to the ridiculous, Buster takes me through to the storeroom and shows me two comically huge whisky casks, each holding many firkins of Ysbrid y Ddraig (“Spirit of the Dragon”). It's all due to be casked, although after seeing my imploring expression, Buster says that “some” might get bottled. If its final packaging is a reflection of the rest of the range (90% casked, 10% bottled), there should be some Welsh cask-aged beer available in bottles soon.
If you've ever tried any beer from family-run Otley Brewery at Pontypridd, you'll have had an impression about it even before the beer was poured. Their sleek, modern branding, based on the initial letter of the family name, is a clear statement of intent. Nick Otley explains: “We were determined from day one to be different, we wanted to appeal to a different market”. It's an approach that has served them well, but all the branding in the world would be wasted on a sub-standard product. But with awards given to them on a seemingly monthly basis since their founding in 2005, form and function are clearly in happy harmony. Add to that their recent first batch of exports (to Copenhagen, on the back of their presence on the British stand at the 2008 European Beer Festival, as covered in these pages last year), and it becomes clear that the Otleys have their sights set high.
In the cramped brewhouse, brewer Charlie Otley is up against a logistical problem. He literally can't brew enough beer. Even without seeking new outlets, and having turned down several supermarket contracts (“They devalue a craft product” says Nick), they can only meet existing orders and supply their own pubs. And it was to one of their pubs, The Bunch of Grapes, that Nick excitedly directed me, to sample their newest beer, Colomb-O. Pungent with the peach and citrus aroma of Columbus hops, this barrel is dry hopped, adding a forceful elegance to the golden beer. It will be a hit, if they ever find time and space to brew it in quantity.
Space isn't a problem for the Rhymney Brewery – in fact, space-age might be a better description. In a brewery equipped with gadgets that most small breweries wouldn't even dream of (a Canadian low-volume canning machine, a Japanese malt-mill with stone rollers – they mill their own malt here), father and son team Steve and Marc Evans produce a small portfolio of beers, including the Champion Beer of Wales 2008, the nutty, fruity, smoky Rhymney Dark. Steve explains that when they founded the brewery in 2003, they wanted to “create a commercially successful brewery based on quality and consistency”. If that sounds more pragmatic than romantic, you only need look at the success of Rhymney Dark, and the fact that they handle the bottling for a few other breweries, to see that their heart is in the right place.
You can't talk about beer in Wales without mentioning Felinfoel, Wales's oldest brewery, founded in 1878. And you can't mention Felinfoel without mentioning that it was the first European brewery to put beer in cans in 1936, pipped at the post for a global first by American brewery Krueger, who did the same a couple of years earlier. Of course, this is a bit of a red herring (rather than a red dragon), and the real interest is what Felinfoel is brewing these days. Their Double Dragon ale (a flavour-packed ruddy-brown ale with a notably nutty, toasted quality) is labelled as “The National Ale of Wales”. On the basis of their iconic red dragon logo and bilingual labels, I feel ill-equipped to argue.
But one brewery who might dispute that claim is Brain's of Cardiff. The name of Brain's is tightly bound up with its home city. Not just bound up, in fact, but also painted on, screwed to and generally leaping into one's eyeline at every opportunity. As a result of over 125 years of residence, the name of Brain's is painted on railway bridges, embroidered onto rugby shirts, and found fluttering on flags all over the city. All of this would be intensely irritating if it was a global brand of lager, but the close association of the city and the brewery somehow feels right.
Its portfolio of beers reflects its evolution. Brains Dark was the brewery's most popular beer, until the 1980s. It's neither really a mild nor a stout, but a delicious dry, dark bitter. It has now been eclipsed by Brain's SA, the beer of Welsh rugby, a soft, rounded sweetish beer with a faintly toffeeish centre. The newest addition to the fold, SA Gold, is a beer that somehow has a pronounced hop character, but without much accompanying bitterness. Head brewer Bill Dobson feels it fits in well with the traditional preference for beers with a low bitterness: “The Welsh palate doesn't like overly hopped beers, they prefer easy, quaffable session beers”.
The northern and southern parts of Wales are very different. Welsh as a first language is more common in the north, perhaps as factor of being further from the capital and its fancy affectation of adopting English as a first language, or perhaps as a way of maintaining a distinct identity from the influx of English from the industrial north west.
Although it's a country of two halves, Wales isn't very big, but it does take a long time to drive from bottom to top. For the weary traveller on a beer journey, there is salvation between the Brecon Beacons and Snowdonia. In Llanwrtyd Wells, the Neuadd Arms Hotel is popular with walkers, climbers and mountain bikers. It has a certain sort of endearingly lived-in character that is the antithesis of modern boutique hotel style. The food is simple and hearty, the countryside is a rugged paradise, and the Heart of Wales brewery is in a converted stable out the back. It's hard to believe that self-taught brewer Lindsay Ketteringham has only been brewing for about two and a half years, and has learned on the job, with just one trial brew as his guide. “I learned from my mistakes – a lot of beer had to go down the drain initially” he says ruefully. The mistakes were worth making, as the beers he brews now are delicious, and perilously drinkable.
Should you decide to get an early night there and break camp early for the jaunt to north Wales, you could do worse than head straight for Porthmadog. There are many reasons to head there – the Welsh Highland Heritage railway, the Italianate village of Portmeirion nearby – but if you're in a beery mood (and I'll bet you are), then tucked away on a back street near the railway station is the Purple Moose brewery. Unusually, the brewery has a kerbside presence, with a walk-in shop in front of the brewery. From this sleepy backstreet location, brewer Lawrence Washington has steadily garnered a string of awards, producing clean, crisp ales in the modern style. “I would definitely say that I've been influenced by the new-wave of Scottish craft brewing” he says.
Heading north, an easy stopping off point, with a campsite and its own station on the Welsh Highland Railway, is the Snowdonia Park Brewpub at Waunfaur. Owner and brewer Carmen Pierce has the enthusiasm and energy of a zealous convert to brewing and to real ale. In her own words, she “used to be a lager lout, but now I love it”. Initially daunted by finding herself in charge of a pub, kitchen, campsite and brewery, she met the challenge head-on and, as another self-taught brewer, has come to love what she once found intimidating. Standing proudly in the tiny brewhouse, she says of her journey from rookie to brewer: “I used to come out here and cry, but now I know we can do it, and I want everyone to know”. Delicious fresh ales at the bar (and sampled straight from the cellar) suggest that this fighting talk will end in a victory dance.
Press on to the north coast, and there are two breweries within a few minutes of each other. Jonathan Hughes, owner and brewer of the bucolic Great Orme Brewery at Conwy, is a happy refugee from the world of management consultancy. Brewing in a converted barn on his family's farm, he loves the authenticity, honesty and transparency of brewing beer, “80% of which is sold within thirty minutes of the brewery, and I'm quite keen to maintain that. Local is important”. This interest in local produce is echoed by Gwynne Thomas at Conwy Brewery, who says “North Wales has had nothing that they can call their own for ages. Now, even relatively conservative drinkers are making the switch to locally produced cask ales”.
On the face of it (and this article only lightly scratches that face), it might seem as though there are a lot of breweries in Wales, all competing for a slice of the same market. However, as with the brewing industry the world over, the only rivalry that exists is a friendly one. In fact, so friendly is the rivalry that the brewers have set up a trade body to better promote their interests. The Association of Welsh Independent Brewers exists to try and enhance awareness of the resurgence of Welsh real ale brewing.
For a country that isn't really known for its brewing tradition, other than the grip that smoothflow beer has on south Wales, there is as much quality and variety to be found here as anywhere else in the British Isles. It would be hard to pick out exactly what makes Welsh beer so good, but many of the brewers claim that the quality and abundance of fresh water running off the Brecon Beacons and Snowdonia was a big factor. I think that there is a lot of truth in this statement, albeit in a slightly oblique way.
For me, what makes Welsh beer so good is the spirit of the people who make it – they'd rather point to the quality of the water than the quality of the workmanship behind the beer. Everyone I spoke to, whether trained brewer or amateur turned professional, had a real entrepreneurial flair, and didn't let a lack of knowledge or experience stop the starting a brewery. It's truly an industry driven by passion for great beer. This dogged enthusiasm has seen a recent flourishing of the Welsh craft beer scene, to the point where high quality Welsh real ale seems set to become the new cliché – something everyone involved in it will no doubt be modestly bemused by.