I confess to having done a little jumpy-up-and-down dance when Adrian, festival organiser for CAMRA Northern Ireland, asked me to judge the Champion Beer of Belfast at their festival this year. I'm usually at the festival on the Saturday and have often missed the most interesting beers. An excuse to go up on the Thursday was very welcome. To see a CAMRA awards process from the inside was a bonus.
I arrived in a dark and rainy Belfast with just enough time for a swift half in The Bridge House, just a few metres from the festival venue. This is a vast JD Wetherspoon I've never enjoyed visiting before, but CAMRA NI have seen fit to elect it their pub of the year for the last two years so I thought maybe a reappraisal was in order. For a Thursday lunchtime it was surprisingly quiet, mostly office lunchers and a fair few tables of spillover from the festival. All very mature and civilised. My half of Old Empire was pretty good too: peachy with a pleasant sulphurous bite. 93p well spent.
I reported for duty at 2 and met my fellow judges: 8 of us in all. Branch chairman Philip ushered us to the tasting room in one of the Ulster Hall's beautifully renovated salons and led us through the final six beers which had been whittled down by the festival volunteers from all those available. The process was ably assisted by Steve, running with the jugs of beer from bar to judges. The panel were tasked with grading each finalist with marks for appearance, aroma, taste and finish, weighted in favour of the final two criteria.
All tasting was, of course, done blind, with only the broad style designation revealed in advance. And they were a mixed bunch: bitters Peter's Well (Houston) and Pale Beacons (Brecon) were rather insipid, being done no favours at all by being decanted from cask to jug to glass, knocking most of the condition out of them. I had had Blue Monkey's BG Sips high on my hitlist having heard great things about it, but scored it last when it showed up. This golden bitter was almost entirely flavourless and I reckon I'd only go near it on the hottest of days, and only then if it was at lager temperatures with lager levels of carbonation.
The two dark beers claimed joint second prize. Mordue's Newcastle Coffee Porter was definitely in the ha'penny place for me: a thin and rather boring porter with little sign of any coffee at all. There was a bit more substance to Otley Oxymoron: a bitter spicy middle which made up for the waft of cardboard oxidation on the nose. It turns out they've designated this as a black IPA and while I'm not an outright supporter of the thesis that black IPA is simply hoppy porter, this beer presents blind tasted evidence that this may in fact be the case.
The winner left the rest of the crowd for dust: though inauspiciously pale and hazy, Dark Star's American Pale Ale was a symphony in citrus. At 4.7% ABV it's weighty enough not to be too bitter, adding some beautiful sherbet substance to the fruit, and the end result is insanely drinkable and moreish. I can't imagine there was any surprise when Adrian and Philip (on stage, right) announced the result.
The day's work done, it was down to the main hall to see what else was on offer. I made a beeline for the newest Irish beer, of course: Ballyblack stout from the spanking new Ards brewery. It reminds me a lot of the excellent Dungarvan Black Rock: that same roasted dryness tempered by ripe dark fruit and a similar spicy gunpowder tang in the finish. Brewer Charles Ballantine was on hand for a bit of after-sales service and a good natter about the complexities of setting up a brewery in NI. I'm definitely looking forward to more from Ards.
My experience with BG Sips notwithstanding, I hit up the other offering from Blue Monkey next: 99 Red Baboons. This was much darker than I expected: almost black with mere hints of ruby around the edges. It's a very tangy beer, sweet-sour with a sort of baking soda softness. Interesting, but I couldn't say if I liked it or not. Along the same lines but much better was Leeds Midnight Bell. This ruby mild had me thinking of Rodenbach, with an almost puckering sourness, but it made it eminently refreshing and one I could have had a few more of.
Wolf Brewery's Norfolk Lavender Honey is another for the too-odd-to-like bracket: sweet and spicy with a powerful honey aroma and flavour, but very little by way of lavender. It could have done with some floral lightness to balance the sticky honey, I think. Summer Wine Barista Espresso Stout also goes all out with a speciality ingredient, but while Mordue may be wasting good coffee, Summer Wine are laying it on too heavily. The end result is too dry, too roasty and too thin, with the poor condition doing nothing to dispel the impression of a glass of cold coffee. I had higher hopes for Gorlovka, a 6% ABV stout from Acorn and it's a solidly drinkable beer but one which should be doing more at that strength. I could happily neck this, but that's not what it's designed for.
Steve gave me a couple of recommendations of beers I probably would have passed by otherwise, and very good they were too. Bowman Elderado is a summery little number, pale gold and just 3.5% ABV. The not-so-secret weapon is elderflower and it adds an amazing piquancy to it, like a Chinese spice mix. A dry, almost chalky, feel keeps it drinkable and wonderfully thirst quenching. At the opposite end of the scale, there's Elland 1872 Porter: 6.5% ABV and massively chocolatey; sweet but beautifully smooth and to complete the circle, showing that gunpowder finish I enjoyed in the Ballyblack.
This year saw the first time a separate cider bar operated at the festival and I had a couple of halves for the road there. Northern Irish cider is undergoing a well-overdue boom and it's great to see apples from my native Armagh being put to better use than baking.
Final thanks to Adrian, Philip, Steve and all the crew at CAMRA NI. This gem of a festival really is a credit to you all.