Thanks to Aer Lingus rescheduling my flight it was 1.30 by the time I got to the Great British Beer Festival on Tuesday, and the trade session was well under way. My fellow Irish Craft Brewer members had established Camp Ireland near Bières Sans Frontières and had already lured Ally (An American Alewife In London) into their midst. By the time I arrived, Knit Along With Bionic Laura was already in full swing.
I don't know if it was just because there was no Lost Abbey or Dogfish Head on cask, but I got the impression that the beer list was rather less geek-intensive compared to last year. Topping my hitlist were the beers from Stone: a brewery that has built itself a reputation of being hoppier-than-thou in a most immodest fashion. Barry had given a couple of them a bit of a pasting recently so I was dying to find out what the truth of the matter was. First up was Levitation, a pale ale with an uncharacteristic 4.4% ABV. The aroma is pungently hoppy, but the flavour is actually quite balanced, with a gentle sherbety character on a smooth body. This combination of big hops and big body made it extra hard to believe how low in alcohol it was: this beer does a very convincing impression of an 8% west coast thumper.
Next up was Stone IPA, the only one that Barry also tried and the only one he enjoyed. I enjoyed it too. It lures you in with quite a cute and fluffy hop aroma and after the first sip I was waiting for the bang of acid harshness. But it never came: it continues on this easy-going fruity note and it's only on burping (is there a more connoisseury word for this?) that the raw bitterness comes out. I was charmed.
Last of this lot was bottled Ruination, a beer which makes massive claims on the label about how much of a hop-monster it is. (Actually, I just looked, and "massive hop monster" really is the brewery's preferred description.) It's a clear pale yellow and at 7.7% ABV is inching toward palate-pounder territory. It certainly has quite a big chewy body with toffee malty undertones, but once again the hops sitting on top are quite balanced and not in the least bit harsh or difficult. In fact, I'm not even sure I'd go so far as to describe this 100+ IBU beer as "bitter". Fruity and hoppy yes, but bitter I dunno. It was the last beer I had before hitting the road so it is perfectly possible my palate was utterly shot to hell by then, but the point is I loved this beer and will be looking out for it, and other Stones, when I can.
Stone claim to be the demons of American craft brewing, but they're pussycats really, and all the better for it.
Only one other beer was a non-negotiable must-have: Schlenkerla Urbock. I've been looking forward to this since I first tried the Märzen. "It tastes a lot like Schlenkerla" said Boak, tasting it blind. And she's right, it does, which is why it's brilliant. Identical hamminess and just a slightly heavier body to it. With Märzen on weeknights, this is the Schlenkerla for Friday evening. In my Bamburg fantasy anyway.
When I went along to the bookstore to gawk at the captive Pete Brown which CAMRA had on display there, he told me I should wean myself off Schlenkerla. He even wrote it in my copy of Hops & Glory (great book; you should read it), suggesting Worthington's White Shield as an alternative. I've never had this oh-so-English IPA so, after leaving Pete to be taunted by his captors some more, Thom and I hit the bottled beer bar. Again, this could be palate-fatigue, but I found White Shield to be very much a malt-driven ale: rich and full and warming. The bitterness is a sideshow to this and the whole experience had me wondering how suitable it would be in a hot climate as opposed to beside a log fire in the depths of winter. I think I'll have to come back to White Shield, if I ever see it again. Pete seems determined to ensure we all will.
I don't have much else to say on the pale ale front: Moor's Revival, courtesy of Boak, was a bit thin and worty despite having a pleasant aroma. I was little more impressed with Thornbridge Kipling. The promised Pacific hops are there, lending a tasty grapefruit character, but not enough: my overall impression was of a grainy porridgey beer lacking in body, hoppy oomph and warming malts. It got better further down the glass but it just didn't hit the spot for me. My pontifications on Thornbridge being Britain's most over-rated brewery garnered incredulous looks, but I'll say it again here regardless. Flame away.
I was later leaving than I intended, sprinting out of Earls Court at 6.40. The usual drill at Heathrow: checking if my flight was on time; being annoyed that it was; then, with a whole half-hour to take-off, sprinting up to Wetherspoons to see if there's anything on that takes my fancy. I threw down a half of Bath Spa, finding the blonde a bit dry and musty, before dashing (nonchalantly, of course) through security and flopping into my seat with just enough time to throw a disappointed look at the final boarding passenger behind me, whom I'd elbowed out of my way at the gate.
I'll cover the darker beers tomorrow, but for the moment just a big wave to all the Internet beer folks I met, and especially to those like Barm and Woolpack Dave with whom I didn't take the time to have a proper chat. Another time, in more conducive surroundings, I hope.
And to those whose ear I bent probably a bit too much over the course of the afternoon, I can only apologise. I had travelled to London for some erudite and thought-provoking conversation on the finer points of the contemporary beer scene in Britain and beyond. You can judge for yourself how that went:
See you next year!