I was in early to the Belfast Beer & Cider Festival on Saturday. When newer arrivals appeared and squinted inquisitively at the beer list I gave them one unequivocal recommendation: Dark Star Hophead. Yes, perhaps it's not a beer to start a sampling session with -- partly because of the intense flavour, and partly because it makes other pale bitters seem hopelessly inadequate -- but it's not one to be missed, and I was surprised it hadn't already sold out. Shame on you, beer philistines of Belfast. And thanks.
The aroma starts Hophead as it means to go on: fresh, green hops, like sticking one's nose into a bag of Cascade. On tasting it combines with the malt and there's a little of the sherbet character I enjoy in the likes of Goose Island IPA or, closer to home, Meantime Pale Ale. But it's no American wannabe: there's a considerable English floral character here, and a dry, not-quite-metallic, finish. Certainly it isn't a beer of balance, but that matters not one jot to its supreme drinkability.
Hophead is probably my beer of the festival, but one of the dark beers really left a lasting impression too: Old Slug from the RCH brewery down Somerset way. This porter really goes to show how amazing the simplest black beer can be when served naturally, putting me strongly in mind of my experience drinking Porterhouse Plain directly from the conditioning tanks. The nose is rich, freshly ground coffee in spades, and the flavour too is sweet and coffee-like, sitting on a silky-smooth creamy body. That particular combination of knee-weakening aroma, flavour and texture is something I only seem to get from cask-conditioned stouts and porters, like O'Hara's at Hilden during the summer and Druid's in Cork at Easter. We need something of this sort in regular production south of the border. I can't imagine anyone with half a brain going back to nitro stout after their first mouthful.
It's very easy to have a go at CAMRA. I was particularly scornful of their "CAMRA supports choice" banner in Belfast, given their prime directive limiting choice to beers produced and served in a manner of their own choosing. But I have to admire the Northern Irish branch's determination to pull off an event like this in a market environment which is almost as hostile to decent beer as the one where I live. Of course, being able to ship the beers over from Britain without trouble from the exciseman helps enormously in assembling the line-up. I guess I'll have to keep petitioning the southern breweries if I'm ever to get my pint of cask stout down the local.