Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Beers out of the West

The CAMRA Bristol Beer Festival 2013

We should probably warn you in advance: this is going to be an epic post - we consumed a LOT of beers.

This was our second beer festival of 2013. Our first was at The Hope (Carshalton) a few weeks back and very good it was too. This one was on a larger scale and required some forethought and planning. First, we co-opted our friends, Neil and Slick, to purchase tickets for the Saturday afternoon session well in advance. Next, some careful travel planning by Emma to select suitably convenient yet not extortionately priced train tickets.

On the (grey, wet, cold) day of the festival we had an early start, same time as we get up for work (6am), to ensure that we arrived at Paddington with enough time for caffeination and consumption of pork products. By the time we pulled into (beautiful sunny, blue-skied) Bristol Temple Meads, there was already a substantial queue building. Evidently the Bristolians like their beer - enough to queue outside the venue for almost two hours, even when they have tickets!

One thing I noticed about the area was the distinct lack of cash machines near the train station; apparently they're all inside the station, just beyond the ticket barriers. Fortunately Emma had thought ahead and taken out enough to cover both of us and we'd already decided to stick to thirds so we could cover as much ground as possible. I know who does all the forward thinking when it comes to beer in this relationship, I'm usually just caught up with thinking about what beers I'm going to try very soon.

The queue finally began to lurch forward and eventually we gained admittance to the Brunel's Old Station where we received our beer guides, £5 worth of beer tokens and a commemorative pint glass. Result! Better value than the GBBF, so well done Bristol & District CAMRA. As you entered the hall proper there was an entire wall given up to the racking containing the casks of delicious beer. So much choice! Where do you start? I plumped for the vertigo Black IPA from Salopian while Ems went for the March of the Penguins by Williams Brothers Brewing Co. The Vertigo was a good choice to start with - hoppy with a subtle malt backbone that drank very easily. However, Em's choice of the March of the Penguins was better - lots of different flavours vying for attention. Malty, fruity, with the delicious scent of Nelson Sauvin hops, this was a bit of a surprise discovery. While enjoying these fine beers, we perused the programme and saw that all the local beers had been grouped together on their own bar. After stocking up on more beer tokens, we navigated our way there.

First up of the local beers was the Southville Hop from Bristol Beer Factory. As the name suggests, an American IPA-style beer that smelt good and tasted better. Bursting full of Cascade, Centennial & Simcoe, and nicely bitter, this was a strong start from the locals. I went straight for another beer involving BBF, this time a collaboration between them and another local brewery, Arbor Ales, which was simply marked as English IPA. For me this was one of the best beers I had all day and it was great find - amber, hazy with a subtle citrus flavour that was just sublime and a surprisingly dry finish that helped round it off. I will be watching out for this one in the future but I suspect that I'll have to travel somewhat further west than London to find it.

Neil and Chris enjoying some fine beers

Ems plumped for Anna's Belgian Ale from Zerodegrees, a hazy amber Belgian-style beer that was drinkable but not all that memorable. Whilst at the local breweries bar, we got chatting to one of the local volunteers who recommended the Spun Gold from Twisted Oak. A delicious beer with honey notes and a subtle bitterness that was very easy to drink.

Next up was the Yakima Valley IPA from Arbor Ales, a beer that we'd seen on a few times at the Euston Tap but had yet to sample. A regret on our part as this is a tasty IPA is full of hop and malt flavour and exceptionally aromatic. Maybe not the best American style IPA we've ever had but a good example of the style. Ems chose the Butcombe Brewery's Old Vic Porter next, which we both really enjoyed. I mean, REALLY enjoyed. Smokey. Tasty. Deliciously rich. One to watch for if you like smoked porters. My next choice was The Summer from Wiper and True, an APA from another local brewery that is very easy to drink. Hoppy, bitter and very tasty. A good beer for cleansing the palate before more powerful beers. Ems chose Sideways from Ashley Down Brewery but it is only memorable for being forgettable. Neither of us had any notes about it nor could we remember it, we could blame the beer for that but it was still pretty early on.

Next on our list was the Resolution IPA from Dawkins which was a half decent IPA but frankly it struggled to compete with some of the hoppier beers at the festival. Perhaps one to give another chance to another time? Ems grabbed a Bees Knees from Great Western Brewing Company, which despite an enticing nose was a little bit of a let down in the mouth. It was drinkable but nothing special given the competition. I had the Mild West from Arbor which was light and dark at the same time. Easy to drink and quite refreshing after some of the more flavoursome beers, while Ems went for the Bar Wars from Blindman's Brewery, an English Brown Ale which had some nice toffee notes and a slight sourness in the finish. An interesting beer but we could think of better beers we've had in the same style.

One of our best choices was the 1872 Porter from Elland Brewery. Now this was a bit of a special beer. Bitter, roasty and full of flavour, it was probably one of the best porters of the festival. I'd watch out for this one if you like your beer dark and rich. Another great dark beer was Anastasia’s Triple Vanilla Imperial Russian Stout by Ascot Ales. This was 'blow-yer-head-off' strong but when slowly sipped it had such a deep and complex flavour. At this stage our taste buds had taken a bit of a hammering and we've marked this one down as one to try when we've not had so many other beers first.

Neil and Ems enjoying the Coniston No. 9

Bouncing on to yet another strong beer, we had to have the Coniston Brewing No. 9 Barleywine. The Gold Medal winner at the 2012 GBBF and one that we'd sampled at that same event. It's funny how flavour triggers memories and this immediately took me back to standing in the queue for the No. 9 in Kensington Olympia last year, waiting for the bar to start serving it, salivating in anticipation. No queue this year for it so we were straight in there. Alcoholic, subtle and complex - all at the same time. One of our favourite beers and it reminded us of how much we'd like to be able to have one or two bottles of it in the beer cupboard at home. Just for emergencies, you know? We're not the type to double up on the same beer at a festival but for this one we just had to. Thank you, Coniston, for brewing such an awesome beer. You've even got a paragraph to yourselves for that.

Where do you go next after the No. 9? We tried the Bottle Wreck Porter from Hammerpot, which was malty and roasty. A deep, dark beer that soothed the palate with its subtlety. The other beer was Nightmare from Nick Stafford's Hambleton Ales, which was spicy and had a bit of hop flavour but which also lacked a bit of depth. This beer is promising but it could do better.

With time running out, we had to make a decision on the last couple of beers we could squeeze in. The J-DAM from Ordnance City and Hopback's Thaiphoon got picked for the penultimate round. The latter was a refreshing pale gold beer with a beautiful fragrant nose of lemongrass and coriander (be nice to try with Asian food actually). Reading back our notes from the day made it clear that the beer had definitely started to go to our heads by this point, despite our drinking thirds. On my notes for the J-DAM, it read "Perfect for dealing with Taliban. Smashing their ridiculous extremist ideals with hops and bitterness. Boom.". Perhaps it is but we'll never know. We finished with Bitter Kiwi from Bristol Beer Factory and a sentimental farewell to the Old Vic Porter for Emma. The Bitter Kiwi was a showcase of the best of NZ hops, fantastically hoppy with tropical flavours that sang on the palate. Definitely a good beer to finish on.
The venue empties, but we linger on

All in all, a great day out in Bristol. We had some good beers, some average beers but also some great beers. Taking the Coniston No. 9 out of the running because we'd had it before, our beers of the festival were the English IPA by Bristol Beer Factory/Arbor Ales (Chris) and the Old Vic Porter by Butcombe Brewery (Ems). Both worthy of watching out for. So that's it...

...or is it? Well, no. We had some time to kill in Bristol before catching our train back to London. We all jumped into a taxi and headed to the new Brewdog bar. We'd visited the Glasgow one fairly recently but we've yet to attempt either of the London bars. Sorry, Brewdog, your London bars are in the wrong places, infested with hipsters and tourists. Open one in Central or somewhere less wanky and we're there. But we digress.

Brewdog Bristol had a good choice on so we plumped for the Green Gold from Mikkeller and the Libertine Black Ale from Brewdog. The Green Gold was fantastic, full of flavour, balanced bitterness and alcohol. Another winner from Mikkeller. We agreed that we need to go to Copenhagen soon to visit their bar, even if it is full of trendies. The Libertine was all right but we've had better Black IPAs elsewhere, which isn't like Brewdog. Next up was Magic Rock's Dark Arts and the IPA Is Dead Amarillo from Brewdog. As always, the Dark Arts was delicious - smoooooth, malty, alcoholic and simply fantastic. It still remains one of our favourite stouts. Ever. The IPA Is Dead was a much stronger beer from Brewdog than the Libertine - deliciously hoppy.
The view from Brewdog Bristol

We took a little diversion for some food - down the road to Start The Bus, a trendy bar full of people straight out of The Only Way is Bristol. Godawful beer selection so we had a couple of Sierra Nevada Pale Ales. Still a good example of a decent American Pale Ale but we wished that there was better choice. After lining our stomachs, we headed back to Brewdog for a couple more quick beers before the train. We tried the Libertine again (to make sure) and the Vagabond Pilsner. After having something to eat, the Libertine seemed to come into its own - smokey and slightly raisiny, we thought it deserves another chance. Maybe with tasty BBQ meat next time? The Vagabond was a discovery. A delicious rounded lager packed with hop flavour. We have to take our hats off to Brewdog for this one. Well done, chaps, well done.

One last beer of the day was the Adam Henson's Rare Breed by Butcombe Brewery, 'enjoyed' in the pub at the station. It had been on during the festival but we didn't get round to having it. It was a bit meh to be honest which was a shame given the quality of the Old Vic Porter that we'd had earlier from the same brewer. Just lacking in any flavours that stood out. If we just forget about Rare Breed then we ended on a high with the Brewdog beers.

On to the train for the short (!) trip back to London that took over two hours so it was well after midnight before we got home. Still a good day was had and thanks again to Neil and Slick for organising tickets and keeping us company. We've marked some of the local breweries that we had excellent beers from, so hopefully we'll get to see them on tap sometime in London soon. Though maybe not a bad thing to visit Bristol again soon...

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