Praise be! After two years of being dwarfed in the enormous shed that is the King's Hall and one year with no devotion whatsoever, Ninkasi returned to the Ulster Hall last week, sternly overseeing CAMRA NI's beer festival. There was much on the list of interest: Clanconnel's new McGrath's Irish Black which walked off with the festival's top prize; a barrel-aged Clotworthy Dobbin; reigning Champion Beer of Britain Castle Rock Harvest Pale; and Blue Monkey's BG Sips. But by the time the missus and I rolled up at noon on Saturday all of these were gone. I'm sure I'll catch up with them another time.
What remained was a clear field of several dozen new beers, with the fallback option of a few old favourites. Time to get started.
Dark beers dominated my selections, and I began with another new Irish one: Scullion's Plain Stout from Hilden. It's dark brown in colour with the most fantastic sweet chocolate aroma, following with a surprisingly clean and dry roasted flavour, finishing on some sour damson notes. A lovely balancing act. Mrs Beer Nut, meanwhile, opted for Highland's Dark Munro. She wasn't keen but I enjoyed it: shading towards ruby, it smells of chocolate-coated strawberries, the forward-facing hops adding a surprising fruity flavour to the dark malts as well as a long finish.
Keeping it celtic, Isle of Skye's Black Cuillan was wonderful: full and sweet and salty; and while I'm often suspicious of fake-Irish beers, Jarrow's McConnell's Irish Stout was right on the money, lip-smackingly crisp with overtones of chilli and chocolate.
On the other side of Newcastle from Jarrow is the Wylam Brewery at Heddon on the Wall. Haugh Porter was their offering in Belfast, and this is one that Mrs Beer Nut preferred more than I did, to the point where my scribbled note about it being quite sour was taken off me and a paen about coffee and peat flavours was written in alongside. Your mileage may vary.
And of course there are going to be a few disasters among the beers. Booby prize of the day goes to Frog Island's Croak and Stagger. I could have forgiven it the clunking name if it didn't tasted like a mix of Dairy Milk and vinegar, but it did. Less bad was Hung, Drawn 'n' Portered by North Cotswold: there was nothing technically wrong with it, but the heady boozy dark malt nose promised more than it delivered, the beer itself having little complexity beyond a tarry heaviness. Beijing Black did something similar: dark fruits and woody phenols in the aroma, then nasty metallic flavours afterwards. Not enjoyable.
I was glad to see Bateman's well represented, and to have the opportunity of enjoying their Dark Mild. It's a slightly sharp and fruity version of the style, with a tang of plums and blackberries ascendant over the dark chocolate, but maintaining equilibrium beautifully. The same brewery's Salem Porter was my highlight of the day: massively sticky and sweet with bags of creamy toffee and burnt coffee. It could have done with a bit more condition to liven it up, but as a gut-coating winter warmer it was perfect.
Finally for the black fellas, I was also much enamoured of Three Castles Knights Porter. A toned-down affair compared to Bateman's Salem; simple and dry with an intriguing waft of sulphur in amongst the roastiness. It's incredibly smooth though, adding a kiss of citric hops on the finish. I could have stuck with it all evening, but there was more beer of different colours to try. I'll get to them tomorrow.