A Brief Bashing of the Bunny

Brodie's Brewery window sign.

We can’t claim to have really ‘done’ the Brodie’s Brewery ‘Bunny Basher’ festival, but here are a few observations based on popping in twice over the weekend.

The beer was never less than interesting, and the atmosphere was brilliant. Like the Blue Anchor in Helston, the pub is both a tourist attraction and a local boozer. People are there to drink and have a good time; some do it with Foster’s lager and football, while others sit alone with their third of kegged Belgian-style sour and write code on a laptop. No-one cares what anyone else is doing.

Brodie’s seem to be better at pale beers than dark. Apart from one dry-hopped with Motueka which smelled just a tiny bit too much like freshly-expressed urine, the yellow’n’hoppy ales were all at least good, and most were excellent. (But regular brew Citra at 3.1% is still our favourite.)

Cinnamon still doesn’t work in beer. Is there a market for a patented Beer Ruiner? If so, here’s the recipe: some cinnamon. (Coffee optional.)

We found the much-vaunted Elizabethan Ale (22% ABV) undrinkable. HP Sauce? We didn’t persevere past a couple of sips each, to be fair, and perhaps we need to get in training, c.12% being really the upper limit of our experience with strong beer.

We will certainly try to be in town if/when the Bunny Basher is on next year.

Matt ‘Total Ales’ Curtis’s take on the festival is also worth a read.

Worth the Bus Ride

Tasting flight at the Driftwood Spars beer festival.

This week’s ‘mini beer festival’ at the Driftwood Spars was enough to tempt us into undertaking the two-stage, two-hour schlep from Penzance to St Agnes.

It’s a pub that we like at the best of times: the house beers are rarely less then solid and occasionally excellent, and there’s plenty of whatever it is that makes for real ‘pubbiness’. The festival was just the icing on the cake.

Some of the guest beers were on the main bar, including a couple of interesting keg products, with a further ten or so casks on stillage in the back room. There were no fiddly tokens or raffle tickets — just good old cash. Beer was £3.30 a pint, £1.65 a half, or £1.10 a third, the latter also being available in ‘flights’ of three for £3.30.

By the pint from the main bar, we enjoyed Bolster’s Blood, the house porter, as much this time as ever before — it’s a tasty, old-fashioned-tasting, sessionable black beer. The other Driftwood beers (Dek 10 and Red Mission) were nice enough and, if lacking the big hop aroma so in vogue these days, at least intensely bitter and chewily malty respectively.

Having been disappointed by the few of their bottles we’ve tried, we were glad of the chance to try a Mallinson’s beer on cask. Now we get it: the pale’n’hoppy Simcoe (3.8%) was a dead ringer for an old favourite, Dark Star Hophead, and, if we weren’t in ticking mode, was one we could happily have settled on for the rest of the afternoon.

We didn’t expect to like Harbour Brewing Farmhouse IPA (cask, 7%) — surely, we thought, that is code for ‘an IPA that got infected’ — but, no, it was really very moreish and satisfying. It had an unmistakeable saison (Dupont?) yeast character along with some lemon/lime/lychee hop fruitiness, with something like cheese rind in the far, far background adding a note of challenge.

We didn’t agree with the barman’s suggestion that Tiny Rebel Loki Black IPA (cask, 4.5%) was ‘sublime’, but we did enjoy it. Kind of. Tiny Rebel beers seem to have a very distinctive ‘house character’ which has, in the past, struck as us a bit ‘wrong’, but, in this case, succeeded in convincing us it was ‘quirky’ and interesting. We need to drink more of their beer and give them more thought.

It was another Harbour Brewing beer that won the day for us: Pale Ale (keg, 6%) was like something we’d expect to find in a Brewdog bar. What does that mean? It was bold to the point of brashness, stopping just short of rough — loud but balanced. It was opaque, but by no means yeasty, muddy or murky, with lots of juiciness but no grit. The hops were a weedy, minty and mustardy green salad. We need to drink it another time or two, but it has the potential to make this year’s local list.

Though this wasn’t the time to try them, we also noted that the standard range of bottles seems to have improved: Brooklyn Chocolate Stout, Boon Kriek, Westmalle Tripel, and several other ‘world beer’ classics were knocking about in fridges at the back of the bar.

As we worked our way woozily up the hill from Trevaunance Cove, past the ruined mine workings to the bus stop, we came to two conclusions. First, small festivals with achievable beer lists, held in pubs rather than echoing conference centres, are the best. And, secondly, the Driftwood Spars, even without a festival underway, is one of a handful of pubs we think it’s worth travelling for two hours to reach.

Happy Talk at the Eden Project

The tent where we gave our talks at the Eden Project.

For a second year running, we were invited to speak at the Eden Project’s harvest food festival.

Quite apart from the fact that it makes us feel all professional and ‘beer writery’, it is an interesting opportunity to get to talk to people who are interested in beer, without necessarily being obsessed.

We tasted St Austell 1913 Stout while discussing the history of porter; and Orval and St Austell Proper Job while talking about India Pale Ale. We chose the two St Austell beers because we know them well and like them, and to avoid any trouble getting sufficient supply; with Orval to add a bit of variety, and to illustrate roughly what an early nineteenth-century IPA might have been like after maturation.

The audiences, were, generally, indifferent to the stout, either because they were Guinness drinkers and found it too different; or because they were Guinness haters who found it too similar. Either way, Guinness’s dominance of what ‘stout’ means to people was underlined.

We expected Orval, which took us a long time to ‘get’, to provoke some disgust and amusement. To our surprise, it was generally very popular, with people noting  a gingery flavour we hadn’t previously picked up. (‘Spicy’ yeast?) A Belgian couple in the audience helped us out by explaining that, back home, Orval is regarded as a Tripel, despite it’s scant resemblance to, say, Westmalle’s.

Proper Job divided the audience. Younger members and a couple of veteran CAMRA members loved it, and especially appreciated its big, flowery aroma. Many others found it too boozy (at 5.5%), and rather over-the-top in its aroma: air-freshener was mentioned.

A useful reality check all round.

1. Why don’t people drink more mild?

With suitable disclaimers (we hadn’t researched this in advance) we answered that we thought it was down to (a) the age and background of beer enthusiasts at the height of the ‘real ale revolution’ in the nineteen-seventies and eighties; (b) a vicious circle of quality and demand, i.e. it was used as a repository for ‘slops’, or was simply bland bitter with caramel colouring; and (c) a vicious circle of availability and demand — no one drinks it, so no one sells it, so no one drinks it.

(How did we do?)

2. If I held a gun to your head, what would you say would be your favourite beer in the world?

First, we asked the gentleman in question to calm down and put his gun away: ‘There’s no need for anybody to get hurt — we can just talk and work this thing out.’

Beer writers must be used to getting asked this but we weren’t ready for it. Fortunately, we were able to refer to our ‘beer of the year’ for last year, but also reflected that, after two weeks in Germany, we came back desperate for a pint of Potion 9 at the Star Inn, so maybe that.

As last year, this was a paying gig, and Eden provided the beers as per our shopping list. Books, hops and malt model’s own.

See You on the Other Side

Lager in the tropics.

We’re going to be away for two weeks, gadding about Germany and France with our Bradshaw and a fistful of Baedekers.

We probably won’t be posting anything here, but we’ll try to keep up our Tweeting and maybe do a little Facebooking.

In the meantime, here are some nuggets to chew on.

  • We’re going to ‘go long‘ again on 30 November. What we write will probably have a Christmas theme. Once again, we’d be delighted if you joined us, like this lot did last week.

Indeed as the big brewers launch ‘badged’ beers to try to create the impression of ‘guests’ and attempt to steal the micros’ clothes with limited edition ales (Whitbread should learn to brew one beer properly before they try to brew a Classic Series reckons Don), competition is not just within the sector, but for the sector.

  • On our return, we’ll be speaking at the Eden Project’s food and drink festival, this time on the subject of historical beer styles and their influence on what’s available on the market right now. We’re writing the script on our hols, so that’s all we know for the moment, except that we’re hoping to use St Austell Proper Job and 1913 Stout in the tasting.
  • And, finally, if you’ve ever wondered what the HELL we look like, you might want to keep an eye on Enormous Face, where a ‘guest post’ is imminent.

The Not so Great British Beer Festival

GBBF 1985 logo.The Campaign for Real Ale’s Great British Beer Festival begins tomorrow (13 August) and is something of an institution in the world of British beer. A quarter of a century ago, though, it was on the ropes.

The nineteen-eighties saw CAMRA in the doldrums. Membership had dropped from the late nineteen-seventies’ high of 30,000 to fewer than 20,000; while membership fees had crept up to cover the shortfall, and to pay for an increasingly well-staffed and expensive bureaucracy.

Members were understandably furious, therefore, when the Campaign’s leadership announced that the 1985 GBBF had made a £11,500 loss, and that, as a result, the £7 membership fee would be increased to £9. Geoff Parsons of the St Neots Branch summed up how some members felt with a letter headlined SCRAP THE GBBF! in What’s Brewing, April 1986.

At the annual general meeting the same month, the National Executive faced an angry crowd, and a motion to scrap the Festival was proposed by Dan Kane of Edinburgh: ‘It’s like a juggernaut running on and on. There seems to be no way of stopping it. We could do more worthwhile things with the money.’

The venue, Brighton, was thought by many to be the root of the problem, with Roger Protz calling it a ‘largely derelict one-horse town’ and lobbying for the Festival to return to London. He also proposed that a ‘supreme beer of Britain’ contest be introduced to generate media attention, thus inventing what we now know as the Champion Beer of Britain competition.

Fortunately for fans of GBBF, the 1986 Festival was an enormous success, thus neutralising calls for its abolition.

The Great British Beer Festival is at Olympia, West London, from 13-17 August. Doors open to the public at 5pm on Tuesday. You can also follow it (them?) on Twitter at @gbbf.

St Austell Celtic beer festival

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The now annual Celtic beer festival at St Austell brewery is clearly a major event in the local social calendar. Despite the pouring rain, people were waiting outside in the road river for two or more hours to get in.

Inside were labyrinthine cellars, a music stage and young folk on the pull – a party atmosphere more like a nightclub than a traditional beer festival. We know St Austell can brew, but they can also, most definitely, organise the proverbial P-up in a B.

With 35+ St Austell brews plus around a hundred from other breweries, we could only start to scratch the surface, particularly as we had to traverse the meat market to get to the more interesting ones. We started with our new favourite, 1913 stout. This has already dropped in strength from when we had it last, which is a little disappointing, but was still tasty, and if this change is a precursor to rolling it out to more local pubs as a Guinness-challenger, then we’re in favour.

At the more experimental end, Smoking Barrel was a refreshing Rauchbier; Bad Habit was a superb 8.5% triple; and Hell Up was a very convincing Alt Bier. There were also beers for the sweet-toothed West Country palate – High Maltage was a turbo-charged HSD, whereas 1851 was a sugary, honeyish pale ale.

As you might expect, everything was in perfect condition – probably the best we’ve ever encountered at a beer festival. Korev lager came across really well, even against more exotic competition, which we put down to freshness.

The only way this festival could be improved (for us) would be to have either a quiet room or even better, a quiet day beforehand for beer geeks to taste all the experimental brews. But maybe that would be contrary to the very essence of this celebratory event.

Full disclosure; we received “VIP” access (cringe) to the festival, which got us in for free, and included a few free pints and grub.

European Beer, 1634

Oscar A. Mendelsohn’s Drinking With Pepys (1963) is a compendium of everything Pepys wrote about alcoholic drinks, including beer and ale. As a bonus feature, Mendelsohn also includes a long letter by a contemporary of Pepys, James Howell, to Lord Cliff. Here are our favourite bits.

In this Island the old drink was Ale, noble Ale, than which, as I heard a great Forreign Doctor affirm, that there is no Liquor that more encreaseth the radical Moysture, and preserves the natural Heat, which are the two Pillars that support the Life of Man, but since Beer hath hop’d in amongst us, Ale is thought to be much adulterated, and nothing so good as Sir John Old-Castle, and Smugg the Smith was us’d to drink…

In the Seventeen Provinces hard by, and all by low Germany, Beer is the common natural Drink, and nothing else, so it is in Westfalia, and all the lower Circuit of Saxony, in Denmark, Swethland and Norway; The Prusse has a Beer as yellow as Gold made of wheat, and it inebriates as soon as Sack. In some parts of Germany they use to spice their Beer, which will keep many years; so that at some Weddings there will be a But of Beer drunk out, as old as the Bride.

His source is a 1624 edition of The Familar Letters of James Howells, e-texts of which are available online, though we’re struggling to find this particular letter.

The sound of our own voices

A couple of weeks ago, we got an email out of the blue inviting us to speak at the Eden Project’s food and drink festival. Yesterday, we gave the first of two talks on how beer is made and how to spot the influence of malt, hops and yeast on the taste of beer.

There are few nicer places to spend a grey day than the Mediterranean biome at Eden and it was there, surrounded by fragrant citrus trees, that we did our turn. We used St Austell HSD to demonstrate ‘maltiness’; a German wheat beer to demonstrate the impact of yeast; and Oakham Green Devil IPA to illustrate the power of hops. We also passed around dried hops for rubbing and sniffing and pale malt for nibbling.

It was great fun for us, not least because it gave us the chance to talk about beer with people who aren’t as obsessed with it as we are. (Not yet, anyway.) We had fretted over whether our talk was too basic or even patronising but it seems not. Members of the audience:

  • gasped in amazement at the aroma of the wheat beer, as if we’d performed a magic trick
  • gasped a bit more, and laughed in joy, as they smelled and tasted Green Devil
  • asked us whether dark beers were stronger than light ones, as they’d always believed
  • were entranced by dried hops, coming up for seconds — “they smell like Jamaica, if you know what I mean, nudge, wink, say no more”.

We’re doing the talk again next Saturday and can’t wait. There is a bit more work to do, though, as we need to come up with a good answer to the question which left us scratching our heads: “How come there are hundreds of new breweries but fewer and fewer pubs?”

Those who are in the Cornwall on their hols and like Sharp’s beers might be interested to know that, for the duration of the festival, Eden are also offering what looked like the full cask range, available in tasting ‘flights’. They also have the full bottled range, and we can personally vouch for the excellence of Sharp’s Belgian-style Honey Triple and Quadruple Ale.

This was a paying gig. The beers were bought by the Eden Project from our shortlist. We haven’t been given free samples of any of the beers we used; but we didn’t pay for the Oakham Green Devil that knocked our socks off the other week, which was donated by the landlord of the Star Inn from his personal stash.

New Variant Spingo

The sign of the Blue Anchor pub and brewery, Helston, Cornwall.

The Blue Anchor in Helston has been brewing for several hundred years. Its Spingo ales are a Cornish tradition, available in only a handful of select pubs, and something of an acquired taste.

Generally, they play to a West Country palate — sweet, brown and not too ‘light’ (hoppy). One of their range, in fact, is ‘Bragget’, with no hops at all and a good slug of honey.

Their brewer, though, has begun to feel the urge to experiment, hence Flora Daze. At 4%, it’s the weakest beer on offer; it’s also the lightest in colour, by far the hoppiest, and being launched ahead of the summer arrival of ‘foreigners’.

By the standards of many other UK breweries, it is not a remarkable beer, being similar to Harvey’s session-strength IPA or Fuller’s Chiswick, but it was certainly generating conversation amongst the chaps spoofing at the bar in the Blue Anchor: “It tastes… like a pint with a slice of lemon in it.”; “I’ll be sticking to Middle.”

As far as we could tell, they were only drinking at all because the first few pints were free. Not everyone is drawn towards the new, and the point at which a beer seems ‘extreme’ is culturally defined.

We really liked Flora Daze and hope it does well this summer, though we know that brewers have to make cask ales that will sell. The Blue Anchor Beer Festival runs until Sunday 1 April.

Beasts of Bodmin and the Price of a Pint

The heritage railway ran beer festival visitors from Bodmin Parkway into town.
The heritage railway ran beer festival visitors from Bodmin Parkway into town.

Unlike at most beer festivals, we found room to breathe at Bodmin. There were no queues for anything and we had little trouble getting a seat. This, of course, probably means that it was fatally undersubscribed, but we won’t worry about that for now.

Working our way through the beastly strong Burton Ale candidates on the menu, pondering the “West Country Ale” as a separate useful descriptor for certain types of sweet, strong brown beer, we became aware that the chaps at the other end of the table wanted our attention.

“Do you know where the local Wetherspoon’s is?”

We didn’t, but we ended up chatting to them for a while, and very nice they were too — veterans of Exeter CAMRA with the bulging, twenty year old tickers’ notebooks to prove it. Once we’d compared notes (literal in their case) on the beers at the festival, the conversation turned to Exeter. As we’d struggled to find a good pint there, we decided to pump them for information.

We were interested to note, however, that their comments went something like this: “The Old Red Lion — now, that’s a nice pub, £2.90 a pint, about four handpumps.” For them, the average price of a pint was a key piece of information, and they had an estimate for every pub in Exeter.

When they asked us about Penzance, we had no specific idea of the price of a pint in any pub. Are we odd?

We enjoyed St Austell Big Job ‘double IPA’, Driftwood Spars Alfie’s Revenge, Spingo Special, as well as beers from Coastal and the Penzance Brewing Company.