It's beer with dessert on the Session this month and I'm going to cheat by writing about beer as dessert instead. I'm not very sweet-toothed when it comes to food, but give me a big treacley beer and I'm far happier than any amount of chocolate could make me.
So it was that when I reached the Great British Beer Festival on Tuesday, the first beer I went looking for was Bartram's Cherry Stout. I like stout; I like cherry beers; and a combination of the two sounds like a perfect dessert substitute. My homebrewing friend Fergal made a magnificent cherry stout a while back -- tart and roasty, like hot cherry pie -- and I was was hoping for more along these lines. I was disappointed: the Bartram's was very bitter in a dry stout sort of way, and the sweet cherry flavours didn't stand a chance against it. A shame, and a waste of good fruit. So what next?
Dave had bought our table a bottle of Alaskan Smoked Porter (and Laura had put a jumper on it) and this was much more to my taste: big and creamy with the smoke just spicing it up a bit rather than smothering the more orthodox porter flavours. It was definitely a cut above Smuttynose's supposedly Robust Porter, which I found to be rather light on dark roasted flavours and letting the hops do all the work. I don't mind a bit of hop bitterness in a big imperial stout, but in a lighter porter they just spoil it. That said, Portsmouth's Milk Coffee Stout was more green-tasting than milky or coffeeish, but I liked it as an unchallenging sort of after dinner quaffer.
Of course, imperial stouts are where it's at when it comes to digestifs and I'm a big fan of those kinds of beers which can substitute for port, Irish Coffee, or both. Top of the heap at GBBF 2009 was De Molen Tsarina Esra: every bit as good as last year. This year it was joined by another of Menno's Big Barrels: Bloed, Zweet & Tranen, aged in a Bruichladdich cask, if that means anything to you. It's one woody woody beer, creating the sensation of chewing a mahagony sideboard. There's a touch of bretty sourness in it as well, making it extra difficult. Far too tough drinking for a beer that's a mere 8.1% ABV. A much better proposition was White Shield Czar's Imperial Stout. After the Dutch wood-monster this was easy-going and understated with a light nutty complexity in amongst the sweet and creamy flavours. There are phenols -- the curse of imperial stouts -- floating in the background, but they don't come forward and spoil the party. Instead it has all the roastiness and booziness you'd want but with no major stickiness or hoppiness. The best beer made by Coors that I've had? Yes, quite possibly. The real phenol-bomb came with Cambridge's YouEnjoyMyStout which was getting rave reviews from the Ratebeerians and won CAMRA's American cask beer of the festival but just tasted like an explosion in the felt-tip marker factory to me.
Like I say, I'm all for big and meaty stouts, but sometimes a light and tasty pint of plain is what's required after a meal, and that holds true even when the meal comes from the Cornish pasty stall in a paper bag. To this end, my top finds were Spectrum's Black Buffle (selected by Thom because the badge features a cat similar to his blog's eponymous black one), which exhibits a lovely balance between the dry roasted barley and sweet chocolate malt; and Whitewater's Knight Porter: full-bodied, super-creamy and packed with sumptuous yet unfussy sweet chocolate and coffee flavours. If the brewery's new Belfast Black stout is anything like this, it's one to look forward to. For the full after-dinner coffee effect, however, it had to be Dark Star's Espresso Stout. The coffee element in this is actually quite light and understated: it's stout all the way through and pretty tasty in a light and quaffable way.
Yes, there was plenty by way of desserts to be had at the GBBF this year, but the best post-prandial wasn't a dark beer at all. I award that honour to the Dogfish Head brewery's recreation of a Turkish beer recipe that's even better than Efes Pils: Midas Touch. Honey is given the reins in this beer that's very nearly a mead. The white muscat grapes add a full fruitiness and they both sit on a heavy body that resembles nothing so much as a sticky dessert wine but with enough of a sparkle to keep it palate-cleansing and refreshing. If there's a criticism it's that it's maybe a leetle too sweet, inclining towards saccharine. But I can't stay mad at a beer that, for a few brief seconds, took me out of the big ugly west London shed and off to a rocky outcrop overlooking the azure Mediterranean on a balmy summer's evening. I'd have this again.
And that wraps up the 2009 Great British Beer Festival and the August Session: just the kick-off for this busy beery month. The OghamBrew guys have asked me to be a judge once more at their home brewing festival next week, and the wonderful Hilden festival is upon us once more on the weekend of the 29th.
The dessert was just for starters.