I fundamentally disagree with the basic working of principles of both CAMRA and Ratebeer, and yet I always have a great time at the Ratebeer table at CAMRA festivals. The observation that drinking good beer with other people who really enjoy drinking good beer is far more important than any organised rule-bound consumer group is too obvious to even bother making.
And so it was that I was back at the East London & City Pig's Ear festival in Hackney on Wednesday night, where the Ratebeer table was exactly where I left it a year ago, though the faces had changed a little. Still, the chat was great and the recommendations were invaluable.
Having been drinking pale beers in Leyton and then braved the cold on my way back to Hackney, I was in the mood for something dark and warming. Bottlebrook Smoked Porter jumped out at me just after I'd picked up my glass (nobody else wanted the dinky stemmed half-pint: I rather liked it) and it certainly had all the full-bodied warmth I was after, with a nice balance of dark fruit against the porter dryness. However, I found it hard to detect any smoky elements to the flavour -- a lightweight compared to, say, Station Porter, but it got me off to a good start.
The buzz around the table was all about BrewDog Coffee Stout, and though I thought it still a little early for a 9%er, the thought of missing it was enough to twist my arm. My first impression was of a deceptively easy going strong, sweet stout. But there's a lot going on here as well: citric hops are never far away, but their bitterness is complemented by the coffee notes and never allowed dominate the dark treacleish stout character. Superbly balanced.
I wasn't planning to try Riptide -- the other BrewDog beer on cask that evening -- not having been a huge fan of it from the bottle. But Simone was fairly forthright in her advice, and I'm glad I changed my mind. This is so much more complex from the cask, possessed of a sharp acidic spiciness in its incredibly full body. Further confirmation of my theory that black beers are where you really get your money's worth with cask. The only other Scottish beer I went for was Kracker, a spiced amber ale by Kelburn. Smooth, easy-drinking, but not in the same league as BrewDog at all.
I tended to stick with darker beers from the English selection. Crouch Vale's Blackwater Mild was pretty much a textbook example to my inexperienced palate. You get a sudden sour fruitiness up front, redolent of plums in particular. This keeps going until it's overtaken right on the end by black roasty flavours, finishing dry. One of those simple-yet-complex tasty beers. I wish I could say the same about Old Ale 1066 by Goacher's of Kent -- I want a richness and warmth in my old ales that this just wasn't giving me.
Evidentally, I wasn't the only one sticking to the dark brews since, by the end of the night, the milds, porters and stouts were few and far between. One of the last left was Waterloo, a porter by Boggart. It's a tasty one with just a little phenolic unpleasantness in what is otherwise a sweet full-bodied beer offering subtle hints of chocolate.
In between these dark warmers I chanced a couple of paler, but equally warming, continental beers. More about them, and a day spent in London with no new beers at all, in the next post.