Friday 27 August 2010

Budweiser Budvar: The People's Brewery

Having the cream of British bloggerati twittering and blogging from the Czech republic has jogged my memory that in March this year, I went to České Budějovice as a guest of Budvar. There were lots of things that I was looking forward to about the trip, not least tasting the beers fresh from the conditioning tank in the brewery cellars. But what took me by surprise was the passion of the man who has become synonymous with Budvar: Josef Tolar.

Here is a man who has worked at Budvar for 43 years, 24 of those as the brewmaster. During the Velvet revolution in 18989, it was he who was instrumental in ensuring that the brewery remained in state hands, rather than be sold into private ownership. He has seen the brewery blossom under his stewardship, and has now handed his brewer's thermometer over to protegé Adam Broz. In theory, he should be retired by now, but he happily turned out to show us round the brewery. How many times must he have done this? And yet even if this was the 1000th tour he had taken, there was still a sense that he wanted to patiently show us everything, every nuance of the production that made Budvar be Budvar.

The huge sacks of whole-leaf Saaz hops. The exposed run-off trough where the wort was sampled. The ongoing trademark dispute with A-BInBev about the name Budweiser. All of these are integral to the character of the beer, and the spirit of the brewery. Having each of these calmly and thoroughly explained by an icon of brewing was a humbling experience. For the record, the run-off trough helps give the beer a slightly darker colour. I was tempted to ask about hot-side aeration, but (uncharacteristically for me) decided to keep my mouth shut.

For me, the real surprise in the conditioning cellars was the Budvar Dark. To balance the smoky coffee and chocolate notes in the darker beer, it is necessary to use a lot more Saaz hops. This gives a surprisingly American feel to the beer - never mind 'Cascadian dark ale' (gah, how I hate that phrase!), this was a Saazian dark lager. The floral, lemony notes over the top of the chocolate and coffee are an eye-opener, and a character that is sadly greatly reduced in the flash pasteurisation process. But you can still detect it in the bottled beer, and it's worth paying that extra bit of attention to do so.

Budvar Dark wasn't the creation of Josef Tolar, but of another of his protegés, Ales Dvorak. ('Ales' seems like a quite a name for a lager brewer, but it's pronounced 'Alesh'). There was famously something of a heated discussion between Tolar and Dvorak about whether a black lager was a good idea for the brewery. Dvorak won, and the brand is now well-established.

It was a toss-up for Tolar whether to appoint Broz or Dvorak as his successor. In the end, it seems that he opted for the safe pair of hands. Adam Broz has a similarly calm demeanour to his patron, whereas it transpires that Ales (or 'Mad Ales' as he is affectionately known) likes nothing more than driving tanks as an army reservist. And if you look closely at the picture on the left, you can see that he's also the sort of guy who likes to takes his own cutlery (or hunting knife) to a restaurant.

What I love most about Budvar is the unchanging nature of the brewery, the timelessness of the beer, and the unswerving commitment that is shown by the people who make the beer. Some might say that taking two and a half hours over a brewery tour that usually only takes one hour was a bit much. For me, it was an unforgettable pleasure, and a great privilege.

Wednesday 25 August 2010

Now Drinking: Thornbridge Larkspur

I must be bloody mad.

The M62 motorway has a certain notoriety. It is a hideously busy stretch of trans-Pennine tarmac that carries the dubious honour of being the highest motorway in the UK. It is also featured in The KLF's "It's Grim Up North" - "Morecambe, Macclesfield, Lytham St. Annes, Clitheroe, Cleethorpes, the M62 - its grim up north", a list of everything that might be thought to be soul-sucking and lifeless in the north of England, set over a pounding industrial acid techno beat.

Had I planned my visit a bit better, I would have used public transport and taken a long afternoon over this visit to The Grove Inn in Huddersfield. The pub itself is nothing short of sensational, a beer geek's dream, featuring permanent hand pumps from the cream of the new wave of British brewing - Thornbridge, Marble, BrewDog, Dark Star, - alongside a smattering of classics - Timothy Taylor, Burton Bridge, Fullers. In fact, this pub demands a long and leisurely session. Why have I spent a torturous rush-hour driving here for a single pint?

I'll tell you why. I got severely twitchy that a certain beer would run out before I got to try it - there were only 35 casks made this year, and eight of them passed through the possession of Ian, landlord of The Grove. He very generously passed five of these on to Eddie at Gadds brewery - I can only assume he hadn't tried the beer before he agreed to that. The beer is Thornbridge Larkspur (5.2%abv), a pale gold single-hop beer based around the hop variety Citra.

I use the term beer loosely. I know that this is beer, because it came out of a brewery, and is made of water, pale malt, hops and yeast. But no beer has ever tasted like this. The first sniff and mouthful, and I'm transported back to my first ever visit to Leeds, in the early 1990s, and buying fresh samosas and Rubicon mango juice drink at Maumoniat's Asian supermarket on Brudenell Grove. That first ever taste of mango juice, perfumed and almost indecently musky, was a shock to the senses, but a discovery of a pleasure that has stayed with me. In fact, for a while, I cursed the empty years that I lived without Rubicon mango juice, and devoted my life to drinking as much of it as I could.

That's the beauty of great beer - it transports you to another place, or another time, while rooting you to the spot, forcing you to pay attention to what is happening on your palate. Thornbridge Larkspur is a riot of mango juice, passion fruit, musk, a hint of vanilla custard, tangerine, peach, a nameless floral perfume, and a snap of biscuity pale malt husk in the steadily building bitterness of the finish. It's there and then it's gone, intense, but fleeting, demanding you take another sip, when the whole hokey-cokey of exotica starts over again. And again. And again, until the glass is empty.

That's not a beer, that's a love potion.

Monday 23 August 2010

Thornbridge: Bottle-Conditioning for the 21st Century

There's no question that Thornbridge are one of the most exciting breweries in the UK today. While they stop short of actually using hummingbird's tears as an ingredient, they push the envelope both with what they can get out of conventional ingredients, and what they can do with more unconventional ones. They rarely miss the mark.

Thornbridge recently moved over to putting live beer in half-litre bottles. On bottles of Jaipur, it uses the phrase "bottle-conditioned", although this has caused a bit of confusion among consumers - if it's bottle-conditioned, why isn't there any sediment? Being an inquisitive sort, I called Kelly Ryan at Thornbridge. The short answer is that there isn't any visible sediment because they don't re-prime the bottles. The long answer is a bit, well, longer.

When Thornbridge moved over to their new brewery, they had a new level of control available to them. The closed cylindro-conical fermenters meant that they could allow the beer to carbonate naturally under the pressure of its own fermentation. The same fermenters allowed them to take dead yeast out of contact with their still-fermenting beer. Centrifuges meant that they could control how much yeast was left in the finished beer, removing the need for filtration. The conclusion to the long answer is that they don't reprime their bottles because they don't need to. Not only is there enough natural carbonation in the beer, there is also enough yeast left in suspension to keep things ticking over nicely when they bottle it. The fermentation continues slowly, maintaining carbonation and scavenging oxygen.

For my part, I've often thought that bottle-fermentation can actually substantially reduce the character of a beer - it's as though that vigorous secondary fermentation actually scavenges some of the flavour compounds from the beer. Or maybe if the brewery filters the beer before repriming (a very common practice), a lot of the character of the beer is removed, and never gets put back in the second time around.

So what do we make of all this? Is this live beer? Bottle- or brewery-conditioned? Does it even matter to the ordinary drinker? My take on it is that if 21st century brewing and hygiene technology allow this to happen, and the beer tastes better for it, then great.

Either way, what I find really impressive is that Thornbridge have decided to ditch 40,000 Jaipur back labels that say "bottle-conditioned” and replace them with ones that say “May contain sediment”. Not only do they care passionately about the beer, they also care passionately about getting the right message on the label. The devil, as ever, is in the details.

Friday 20 August 2010

Have You Got What It Takes?

Have you got the words to be Beer Writer of the Year 2010 and win £1,000?

The British Guild of Beer Writers is giving beer communicators the chance to enter their work in six different categories, with one of the category winners to be named as the Beer Writer of the Year and receive the coveted Michael Jackson Gold Tankard Award.

Michael Jackson (27 March 1942 – 30 August 2007) who was also known as The Beer Hunter, dedicated more than 30 years to discovering, recording and then sharing the world’s finest beers in his many books, articles and TV programmes. He was the first Chairman of the British Guild of Beer Writers.

The competition is open to writers, broadcasters, photographers, poets, illustrators, designers, webmasters and bloggers whose work has broadened the public’s knowledge of beer and pubs. Nominations and entries are being sought for six categories:

Molson Coors’ Award for Best Writing in National Publications - prizes £1,000 & £500

For the very best writing or broadcasting aimed at a general audience, published in the national (and international) press, consumer magazines, books, national television and radio.

Adnams Award for Best Writing in Regional Publications – prizes £1,000 & £500

For the very best writing or broadcasting aimed at a specific local or regional audience, published in local and regional newspapers, magazines, radio, television and CAMRA newsletters.

Wells & Young’s Awards for Best Writing for the Beer and Pub Trade – prizes £1,000 & £500

For the very best writing or broadcasting aimed at the brewing and pub industry, published in trade and company newspapers, newsletters, magazines, reports and websites.

Brains SA Gold Award for Best Online Communication – prizes £1,000 & £500

For the very best use of blogs, websites and social media, whether that be writing or use of other tools such as video or social networking.

Budweiser Budvar John White Travel Bursary – prize £1,000 plus trip to Czech Republic

For the very best travel-themed beer writing (or beer-themed travel writing) or broadcasting. Entries can be from national, local or regional media, books, trade publications or online.

Bishop’s Finger Award for Beer and Food Writing – prize £1,000

For the very best writing or broadcasting on the subject of matching beer with food (an area formerly dominated by wine). Entries can be from national, local or regional media, books, trade publications or online.

How to enter

To enter the British Guild of Beer Writers Annual Awards send four copies (photocopies or printouts from PDFs accepted) of each entry, published or broadcast in the last 12 months up to 30 September 2010 – stating where it has been published. Authors of books need to send four copies of the book.

Website and bloggers entries – please send web address and URLs of the pages you want the judges to read.

Entrants can enter as many categories as they want, but they are limited to a maximum of six entries within each category. Remember, quality is more important than quantity so send one good entry in a category rather than six mediocre ones.

The entry should be accompanied by a letter stating which category or categories are being entered.

Entries should be sent by 8 October to – Beer Writers Competition, c/o Seal Communications Limited, Commercial Street, Birmingham, B1 1RH.

Entrants are asked to nominate which category they would like their work to be entered into but the judges reserve the right to consider work for other categories.

Editors, publishers and other third parties can nominate entrants to the competition.

Entrants do not have to be members of the British Guild of Beer Writers – they just have to communicate about beer or beer culture, new products or the ingredients and brewing of beer.

There is no limitation on the number of categories that an individual may enter.

Entries can only be returned if accompanied with a self-addressed, stamped envelope or packaging.

Guidelines for entrants can be found at

To book a place at the awards dinner – ticket price is £70 per person or £56 for BGBW individual members. For more information booking at the dinner contact Angie Armitage, at or on 01206 752212.

For more information on the British Guild of Beer Writers Awards contact Tim Hampson Tel: 07768 614283 – Email: Blog:

The British Guild of Beer Writers

Wednesday 18 August 2010

Man: The Provider

It's great working as a beer retailer. I always say that it's the best job in the world, apart from the hours and the money.

But one of the main benefits is reaping the fruits of my labours. Over the last three or four years, I've made a real effort to source the best of the best for our customers, and they have appreciated it. In fact, it's led to me discovering a new, unknown brewery, which I hope to be delivering to the good people of Leeds in the next month or so. The beer that really turned my head was a 3.5%abv blonde session beer that had so much flavour packed into it that when I gave to a friend and told them the strength, they said "F*ck off!". But the main thing I thought was: "Leeanne would love this".

My partner Leeanne is one of those rare females who loves beer. OK, I know that they're not really that rare, but as long as I've known her, real ale has been high on her 'to do' list. Early on, the phrase "ooh, they have Bass, a pint of Bass please" made me realise that I'd unearthed a rare treasure, and since then, I've done all I can to keep her interested. One of those things I have to do is Wednesday night beers.

Wednesday night is special, because Leeanne has Thursdays off. Wednesday night is like a private Friday night sneaked into the middle of the week. It's not really a proper Friday night, but because she doesn't drink on school nights, we have a few beers together. Tonight it's been a BrewDog Trashy Blonde and a couple of Odell's St Lupulin.

Lately, Leeanne has developed a preference for a certain style of beer. Pale, well-hopped beers are what she likes, although she will drink Brooklyn Lager and Sierra Nevada without complaint - nay, she will drink them with gusto. If the alcohol goes beyond a certain point, or the colour goes beyond a certain point, they get rejected. There's a very clear interplay of colour, intensity and %abv that she detects quickly and decisively.

This was demonstrated tonight by having a glass of Odell's St Lupulin (6.5%abv) and Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA (6%abv). I offered her the choice of either, and after tasting them both, she wrinkled up her nose at the DFH 60 (sorry Sam). I told her: "It's not as strong as you think - the St Lupulin actually has more alcohol in it". "Then why would I want that? I'll take this one thanks", and retired to her end of the couch with the St Lupulin.

So that's my responsibility as a beer provider. I need to make sure that there is an appropriate beer at any point that it is required. If I was catering for a less discerning palate, it might be a tiresome chore. But having someone who is interested in the variety of flavours, colours and intensities keeps me on my toes, and close to the top of my game.

Sunday 15 August 2010

Jamie's Italian, Leeds.

Look, I know it's not a fashionable opinion, but I like Jamie Oliver's media persona. I think he's a good cook, genuinely curious about food, and has his heart in the right place. So bear with me, there is a beery theme to this post, but it comes a bit further on.

We went out for lunch today, to Jamie's Italian in Leeds, and with a 20 month old nipper in tow, you get used to eating a bit early - say, midday. He likes to have a nap early afternoon, and so we can either (a) eat while he's asleep or (b) lounge around reading the papers while he's asleep. Needless to say, (b) usually wins, and being of Spanish descent, I'm quite militant about taking well-behaved kids to restaurants. We got there just after midday, and we were about the fifth young-childed family into the place. Hey, they have high chairs, so that means they welcome families. Just for the record, a few weeks ago, we went to North Bar while he was asleep in his pushchair. As parents, we know what's appropriate.

Overall, the food was pretty good. There were a few minor blips, and service was a tad slow, but I'd happily go back. The main surprise came when the starters were cleared and we were asked if we wanted more drinks with our main course. I asked what beers they had, and was told "We have Stella and mwahmwahmwah". Not recognising the second, I asked the waitress to repeat what they had. "We have Stella and mwahmwahmwah. Oh, and we also have a bottled real ale". Ignoring what mwahmwahmwah might actually be (I saw it being carried around, but didn't recognise it), I said "Great, I'll have a real ale". I didn't even ask what it was - I was just so delighted that they had some real ale in a bottle that I plumped for it. Well, you have to send the right message, don't you?

I had plenty of time to speculate about what it might be - there was a slightly-too-long fifteen minute gap between starter and main, which with a toddler may as well have been a week. Might it be a celebrity beer brand? A local classic? A modern icon? Surely it wouldn't actually be, like, proper bottle-conditioned beer? But soft! What light through yonder window breaks? It is our waitress, and our beer is.... Cropton Yorkshire Warrior.

I hadn't tried this previously, and to be honest, I don't mind it. It's an ordinary brown beer par excellence. In fact, an OBB deluxe - it had a lovely full-bodied nutty character that I really enjoyed. But crucially, it didn't do anything for the food we were eating. And I'm not sure it would have done anything for any of the dishes on the menu. And I'm not sure which part of the restaurant's demographic it was aimed at. In short, it was a great gesture at putting a locally-sourced quality product on the menu, but one that fell a bit short of actually delivering. For my money, a better bet might have been one of the low %abv golden ales from Ilkley Brewery - beers that are both accessible to the real ale fans, and would also compliment almost any food you care to name.

But still, it was great to find someone in a chain restaurant saying the words "bottled real ale". File under: "the revolution continues"

Saturday 14 August 2010

Toccalmatto Zona Cesarini IPA

Many, many years ago, in a previous lifestyle, in a previous life, someone offered me a line of cocaine. I declined, on the basis that I didn't want to put anything into my brain whose only purpose was to convince me that I was having a good time - I wanted to get that feeling by actually having a good time. I was told that I was talking crap, and I remember very vividly their reply - "If your brain tells you you're having a good time, then you're having a good time". I didn't agree with that then, and I don't agree with that now.

I'm not quite sure why Toccalmatto Zona Cesarini IPA (6.6%abv) reminds me so vividly of that exchange. Maybe it's because in over two decades of drinking beer and taking it seriously, I've never met a beer that made me stop and pay attention quite so much to what was happening on my palate in order to enjoy it.

I bought this bottle from the Bieres Sans Frontieres at GBBF, and opened it at the bar and shared it firstly with Sylvia Kopp and an Italian volunteer. They were quite polite about it, but I wasn't initially convinced - it seemed quite dry, perfumed and slightly tannic - that slightly dry-tongued, gum-gripping sensation you get from strong tea. I was a bit nonplussed - £6.50 for a large bottle, and it didn't conform to what I was expecting. But I know better than to dismiss a beer at first taste - maybe it needed a bit of time to relax and recover from its time spent in a bottle.

I meandered off, looking for someone to share it with, seeking further opinion, and didn't have to look far. I found a table containing, among others, The Beer Nut and Impy Malting. They both seemed to enjoy it, but by now, I was getting a bit frustrated. It wasn't that this was a bad beer, but you had to concentrate very hard on the flavours and sensations to get the most out of it. Finding myself at a table, I made some notes:

"Copper-bronze, big aroma, dry and spicy, oak/vanilla? Very fine carbonation, dry, astringent, almost tannic on the palate. Dry and spicy finish. Very elegant, fine grapefruit and jasmine/Earl Grey note. Oddly dry finish. Incredibly fine, but could be dismissed as not very good if you don't pay attention. Although I am paying attention, and I'm still not sure".

I don't think that every beer should be one-dimensional and easily understood, but I just wasn't getting it - there was something interesting here, but I had to pay so much attention to it that it was an intellectual exercise rather than having a taste of beer. It felt as though to get any enjoyment out of this beer, I had to tell my brain that I was enjoying it, rather than just enjoying it (you see, that wasn't just a gratuitous reference to cocaine at the start of this piece - it had a point).

There are quite few styles of beer that need to be studied before they can really be enjoyed - lambic is a category that springs to mind easily. In fact, I'd suggest that at some point in our lives, we all force down that first taste of beer. Some of us never get the taste, and some become fascinated. There probably aren't any beers that you can give to a novice beer drinker and they'll happily adopt it as their new favourite - they are all learned, adult pleasures. And I'm more than willing to give anything a go, but with this beer, I felt like I had to draw the line at convincing myself I was enjoying a beer.

So after that slightly long and rambling tale, the question that emerges is: If you have to think too hard about whether a beer is any good, is it any good? Should every beer be a stab at an examplar for a style? Or can we tolerate and even enjoy the odd sideways look at a style?

[FOOTNOTE: I'm aware that I'm breaking Rule #3 by not going back for a second bottle to verify my opinion. I almost wish I had - but only almost.]

Thursday 12 August 2010

Mikkeller-BrewDog I Hardcore You

Here's how you get the best out of Mikkeller-BrewDog's I Hardcore You:

1. Buy a case (or any number of bottles, but after tasting it, you're going to wish you'd bought a case)

2. Go into the garden and dig a really deep hole. Make it as deep as you can be bothered to dig, and then dig a couple of feet more. This step is very important.

3. Take two bottles of I Hardcore You from your case, then put the rest in the bottom of the hole you've just dug and fill it in.

4. Open a bottle of I Hardcore You, and drink it, marvelling at the toasted red-amber colour, the nose so redolent of sweet toffeeish malt and pungent, almost mentholated hops that it takes your breath away. Be washed away on the crescendo of caramel and pine needles in the finish. Find yourself at the end of it all too quickly.

5. Repeat step 4

6. Attempt to repeat step 4, but realise you have buried the rest of the I Hardcore You a little deeper than you can normally be bothered to dig. Concede that, given the ruinously drinkable nature of I Hardcore You, it's probably for the best that you can't access the rest of the case.

Seriously, this blend of Hardcore IPA and Mikkeller I Beat You, despite being 9.5%abv, is one of the most compellingly drinkable beers I've had in a long time. As ever, there is a bit of hype that goes along with it - BrewDog claim on their blog that "As far as we are aware this is the first collaboration of this type anywhere in the world. The first time a collaboration beer has been made by blending beers from the respective brewers together". Without even thinking too hard about it, I thought of De Struise-De Molen 'Black Damnation' and Birra del Borgo-Cantillon 'Duchessic' (OK, the second one is a bit obscure). I'm sure you can think of others.

But even without the hype, this is one seriously exciting beer. Resistance is useless.

TRANSPARENCY STATEMENT: BrewDog sent me four bottles of this, and a T-shirt. The T-shirt is quite fly, although wearing it, I do feel like a 40 year old man in a 25 year-old's clothes.

Monday 9 August 2010

Now Drinking: Hardknott Infra Red

I'm not really sure how to introduce this blog. I should probably declare that Dave and I are both serving committee members for the British Guild of Beer Writers. I was chairman of the judges when Dave was runner-up in the New Media category of the Guild's 2009 awards. All this sounds like an excuse - it's not, it's just so you know how the land lies.

Infra Red (6.5%abv) is an English ale that wears it's American influence proudly on its sleeve. It's incredibly full bodied and, although I'm quite casual about it in the video, there's a bit of me that think if I was served this blind, I might mistake it for an American ale - something by Deschutes, maybe, which is no faint praise, given their tally at the World Beer Awards.

As always, the video tells half the story - you'll notice that I suddenly get sidetracked by the history of Anglo-American brewing influence. I suppose I could be a bit more professional about these videos, but I quite like the spontenaeity of pressing the shutter button and starting to talk. I honestly never quite know what's going to come out, and I quite like that. I don't think I've ever gone back and started again. But I digress.

Infra Red is a wonderfully full-bodied beer, stuffed full of pithy citrus flavours overlaying a text-book crystal malt core - think burnt sugar and toffee with a smear of grapefruit and orange marmalade, and you're getting close. It's a big beer, but very drinkable. In fact, that last time I saw Dave was at the Great British Beer Festival - it was about ten minutes after midday, and he was already getting stuck into the big, cask-conditioned American IPAs. "I've got a bit of a weakness for strong beer", he admitted. I couldn't argue - I was looking for somewhere to pour away my third of a pint of Hopshackle Hop & Spicy, a ginger beer that had ambushed me by coming from a brewery known for it's robustly hoppy English ales. Despite my tick list of new-wave British session beers (pale, hoppy - call them mid-Atlantic pale ales if you like), I was sorely tempted to join him on the American IPA bandwagon.

So, Infra Red. A great first foray into bottled beer. Full bodied, displaying a classically English approach to balance, but an American sensibility with respect to intensity. And, most wonderfully of all, when you talk to the brewer, you get the sense that they brewed a beer that they wanted to drink, rather than one that they thought would sell best.

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.

Wednesday 4 August 2010

The Physical Impossibility of Drunkenness In The Mind of Someone at a Beer Festival*

The thing about beer festivals generally, and the GBBF by extrapolation, is that there is only so much beer that you can drink. I don't mean that there is a limit on the number of beers you can taste, but ultimately, there is a finite number of units of alcohol you can take on board before you think "I'm hot, tired, and want to go home". In short, before you get too drunk for it to be fun any more.

This was admirably demonstrated to me very early on - my first beer, in fact. Hopshackle Hop and Spicy (4.5%abv) was the only beer from them that was on cask. Fulsome praise from the Reluctant Scooper made me think that anything by them would be fun. Sadly, Hop and Spicy was a dark brown ginger beer - a bit thick, muddy, and definitely not what I wanted as my first GBBF beer. I had a sip, and realising that this was taking up valuable units that might otherwise be expended on things that were more in my target drinking zone, asked the doughty volunteer barstaff to dispose of it.

Fyne Jarl (4%abv) proved to be exactly what I was after. My notebook says "Brilliant gold, lively, with persistent lacing. Softly spicy Saaz-like lemony aroma, soft on palate, with persistent pithy bitterness in the finish. Great" Wonderful beer, in great condition. Inveralmond Ossian (4.1%abv) was of a similar style, but "caramel, honey and vanilla on the nose. More honey in the swallow. Finishes with snappy biscuity malt. Nice". At this point, I lost patience with the layout of the British bars - breweries are listed alphabetically according to county of location, with no map of the bars in the festival programme [edit - I'm totally wrong about this - see Ed's comment below] - and hit Bieres Sans Frontieres.

Toccalmatto Zona Cesarini IPA (6.6%abv) will get a blog post all of its own in the next few days. Mindful of a time-specific invite, I joined a happy few in front of the Fuller's bar, and was led away to a tasting of Fuller's Vintage and Brewer's Reserve beers. I've blogged about Fuller's before, but this tasting served to demonstrate what Fuller's do well (produce classic English ales that are suitable for ageing), and cemented John Keeling's place as the brewer that consistently delivers, both in terms of beer and of entertainment. The picture of him and Derek Prentice I've used here is intentionally misleading - they are great company, and don't hate each other as much as the photo implies. And the pretend leaking of their heritage porter project was a nice bit of theatre - to summarise, Fuller's will be releasing a traditional porter later this year, from an 1891 recipe, that's a blend of stock (aged) and running (fresh) ales. If my notes are to be believed, they will also be using porter that has been aged in casks that have previously held Brewer's Reserve.

But (perhaps sadly), one can't spend the whole day at GBBF in an anteroom being fed rare beers. Plunging back into the fray, my notes tell a tale of a man reaching the end of his capacity. Beck Brau Zoigl (5.8%abv) was possibly my beer of the festival. As I mentioned earlier, there are only so many units of alcohol that you can take on board, and I remember having three thirds of a pint of this. My notes say "yeasty, unfiltered liveliness, full of vanilla grain character, splendidly bitter finish".

Looking at my notes, and from memory, I also had a few American beers from cask, including Oskar Blues Pale Ale (6.5%abv) and Ballast Point Big Eye IPA (7%abv). Ballast Point was full of marmalade and tangerines, and in my opinion, needed to be chilled and force carbonated to show at its best. Oskar Blues was surprisingly good from cask, although from memory, it was better from can when I last tried it (in New York, 2007, with Cajun food).

Finally, a couple of beers that I only had sips of. American Flatbread Solstice Gruit (5.4%abv, beer of the festival for Impy Malting) was an interesting unhoppped curiosity - the way herbs had been deployed in place of hops reminded me of the Stone - Victory - Dogfish Head collaboration Saison du BUFF - eccentric and intriguing, but not necessarily something that I'd drink a lot of. The only other beer that was noteworthy (and not in a good way) was the dry-hopped Revelation Cat lambic, a beer that not only missed that mark in terms of flavour, but also had the texture of liquid that had been retrieved from a saloon bar spittoon.

*with apologies to Damien Hirst