373-377. Manchester Beer Festival: Part I

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So! My first big beer fest of the year and we’re not even out of January. This bodes well for another boozy and varied 12 months. Manchester Beer and Cider Festival is a CAMRA event and certainly one of the biggest I’ve attended. I can class myself as a fairly experienced beer festival goer – I managed to fit in five proper ones last year – and this is probably also the most unique venue, being held in Manchester’s National Cycling Centre. When I say “in” I mean it literally; most of the bars were in the middle of the track where they hosted the Commonwealth Games, and there were plenty of athletes circling the track while we sipped our pints. It was enough to make you fell slightly dizzy and very guilty about being fat and out of shape. Quite an experience.

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On to the beers. There were some 500 to choose from, from all over the UK and abroad, but with a fairly heavy focus on the North West as you might expect. First up was Black Edge’s Blonde, which, in the fine tradition of all my festival experiences, was a bit of a dud. I never start well. Very pale and even more hoppy, it had an oily texture, with little sweetness as you might expect from a blonde, and a strong, dry then very green hopped bitterness. It probably needed to be a bit colder, but even then it was just a very brutal, mono-tone beer.

Dent Station Porter was slightly better fare. Hailing from Cumbria, this fairly thin and fruity black beverage had a pleasant mix of cocoa tang and dark fruit sweetness, with little creaminess or smoke in the finish. Any charcoal flavour was very subtle. Perhaps a little weak and watery but a decent and drinkable drop.

I tried to play it safe with number three, going for Brightside’s Winter Solstice, which was described as a winter ruby. The colour was much more of a dark brown than a true red tinted chestnut, and the flavour was rather nutty, with a toffee malt sweetness. The dry and balanced hop finish blurred with the earlier flavours to leave me thinking of walnuts. I was expecting a bit more fruit if I’m honest, but certainly an interesting tipple.

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Back to the black stuff for number four, with Black Band Porter from Yorkshire Brewery Kirkstall. Brave chaps to adventure this side of the Pennines, this was a proper porter, thick, oily with some subtle dark fruits before a roasted coffee middle and smoky charcoal to finish. A fairly bitter rather than sweet porter, punchy and full-bodied. Nothing special but very drinkable.

Last of the first selection was the brilliantly named Dis Functional Functional IPA from those nutters at Offbeat Brewing. I’ve had their Way Out Wheat before, but this was a rather different proposition. A dark pale beer, it has some gentle caramel sweetness to start before a prolonged, strong and almost spicy hop taste. The mild start belies the (for me) surprisingly pleasant strength of flavour to follow. Quite refreshing if unbalanced, it isn’t so strong that it wouldn’t work as a session ale.

Black Band and DFIPA: three star

Winter Solstice and Dent:two star

Blonde: 1 star

372. Affligem Blonde

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Apologies dear readers for getting so far behind on my beer blogging. It really is important that I try and keep some rhythm, because it’d be so easy to give up on it now the challenge is completed!

Anyway, my next beer is Affligem, a Belgian Abbey Ale, which is the proper name for Trappist inspired beers that can’t qualify as Trappist. There are pretty strict rules on what can be classified as Trappist, and one of them is that monks have to be involved in the process. As Affligem is owned by pan-global giga-brewers Heineken, I think it’s fairly unlikely that any holy blokes are involved. The beer and brewery are named for the town in Belgium from which it originated, but it is currently produced in nearby Opwijk, which is just a brilliant name.

The beer is a blonde, dry and fizzy with plenty of flavour, pouring a full and fluffy head. The taste is almost peppery in places, with a fair amount of crisp hops to match the expected grainy, caramel sweetness. Decent enough stuff that goes down pretty easy despite being over 6%. Then again those Belgians have made an art form of the unexpectedly boozy beverage.

Reviews from the rather fab Manchester Beer and Cider festival – held in the National Cycling Centre no less – will be up soon. This will include a guest post from my chum Charlie Vowden, who is actually a proper journalist and everything. Expect good things!

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371. Jarrow’s Rivet Catcher

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I seem to have slipped into a comfortable rhythm of Wednesday and Saturday postings, which is no bad thing. Will undoubtedly have to mix it up soon however, as I’m visiting the Manchester Ale Festival next week. Very excited.

Until then, another guest ale in our – sadly now former – quizzing pub. Rivet Catcher is a golden ale produced by the Jarrow Brewery, who take great pride in their connection to the town made famous by the long march made by unemployed people from the town in the Great Depression. Many of their beers, including this one, are in some way connected to the ship building industry on which the town so depended. They also feature a beer named Red Ellen, named for the communist Labour Party MP Ellen Wilkinson who served the town before and during the World War and led the Jarrow March.

A soft and nutty golden ale, it has some subtle biscuity sweetness but is mostly dominated by first a dry bitterness, before a much greener hop kick in the finish. Fairly thick in texture it’s not exactly a refreshing beer but certainly a pleasant and substantial mouthful.

three star

370. Redchurch’s Bethnal Pale Ale

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It really is genuinely awesome when you try a beer for the first time, expecting something decidedly average, only to discover an instant favourite. This was certainly the case with Bethnal Pale Ale. Spotted in one of my usual pub haunts while attempting a (rock hard) music quiz, I will admit I didn’t hold out much hope as so many of the London pale ales I’ve tried are a disappointment.

Redchurch brewery are based in East London and their slick website and wanky tag lines – “uncompromising modern beers” – would lead you to think they would produce the usual over-hopped craft beers so popular at the moment. Not so. This is wonderfully well balanced, pale, fuzzy and thick on the tongue, a little yeasty with a subtle citrusy zing and a little grainy sweetness before a crisp and refreshing hop bite in the finish that keeps an otherwise sickly beer honest. Really really nice.

five star

369. Tsing Tao

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The only one of the usual range of Asian beers on offer in UK supermarkets that I didn’t try last year, China’s premier export beer is made in Quingdao (Tsing Tao being an alternative anglicisation). The brewery was founded by German immigrants in 1903 and the company is now the second biggest in the massive country.

The beer itself is fairly sweet, almost butterscotchy, with not a great deal of fizz but a fairly thick texture. There’s almost no bitterness or crispness, meaning it’s not exactly refreshing and a bit simple for my liking.

Interestingly this beer is made with rice as well as barley, which in other beers is an indicator that it’s low quality as rice is cheaper. However, in a Chinese beer I imagine that this is just authentic.

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368. Devils Backbone APA

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My first visit to my home town’s (relatively) new Wetherspoons turned up this interesting number from Virginia based brewers Devils Backbone. It forms part of their “craftwork” range, which added to the wide selection of ales starts to explain why JDW is becoming more popular amongst beardy jumper wearing types as well as pissed up students (I’ve been both).

Backbone is a fairly lagery American Pale Ale, which in my book is no bad thing. Fairly sweet and tasty to start, with a biscuity, caramel middle, it has the obligatory hop bitter bite, but manages to be fairly well balanced. Certainly a pleasant potable.

The brewery itself looks pretty interesting; lots of different styles (really lots), including some German, Czech and Irish styles. Best of all, they don’t all look like hop monsters. I’ll have to try and track down a few more.

three star

368. St Peter’s IPA

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I wasn’t fibbing when I said I’d carry on!! So, first up of the new year is St Peters India Pale Ale. A Suffolk brewer enjoyed while I was back home to see friends, you may remember that I’ve had a few of these, and been largely unimpressed.
Fortunately, this proved the best of the bunch so far. Fairly flat, it starts caramel sweet, with a very subtle orange citrus fruitiness, the middle is syrupy before a fairly potent bitter green hop kick, which lasts. It has me snacking my lips a bit but it was not unpleasant.

Decent stuff.

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2014 in review – a year of beer

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I have to admit to being rather proud of myself for sticking with this for a year – and not just drinking 365 beers (which was most of the time a pleasure) but actually writing most of them up. There are at least five that are lost in the mists of my drunkenness or else my phone’s random habit of deleting photos and notes; I still don’t know the name of the rather nice black IPA I had in Halesowen but I’m sure I’ll rediscover it. So, to run through a few highs and lows…

Best Beer of the Year

This is a tough one. Although I only awarded ten 5 Stars all year, it really could be any of them. Bern Stein is genuinely the nicest lager I’ve ever drunk, even better than Staropramen, which is another five star and one of my all time favourites. Amongst the dark ales we had the wonderful Raspberry Imperial Stout from Thornbridge, while the boozy classic Manchester Star is always in contention.

Hogsback’s England’s Glory was a surprise after I disliked their T.E.A, while Hoegaarden was perhaps a less shocking choice as the original Witbeir. Sarah Hughes’ Dark Ruby Mild actually challenges Broadside for my favourite Ruby ale as well, which is saying quite a lot. Broadside will for ever remain a favourite, not just for the taste but also for the memories associated with it. Innis and Gunn’s Canadian Cherrywood finish proved an early runner for best beer, as only my ninth beer of 2014, and probably finishes inside the top three.

However, my winner is a highly unoriginal choice, but I hope at least for the right reasons. I’m of course talking about Timothy Taylor’s Landlord. There is a reason this particular beverage has won Champion Beer of Britain more times than any other, and I think it is particularly impressive that I’m choosing a Pale Ale when I so clearly prefer dark ales on the whole. Landlord wins not just for tasting amazing, but also showing how a pale ale should be done, at a time when the style is so fashionable. I’ve moaned a good few times about the lack of balance in many modern pale ales, with hops dominating everything, but Landlord manages to be the best of both worlds. It is also the perfect gateway ale – I know of a couple of people who’ve been converted to the world of ales thanks to this beer.

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Worst Beer of the Year

While Best Beer was a close run thing, my worst beer of the year was decided back in April when I first sipped it. I still had over 200 beers to drink and I knew this would win and I knew why.

I’ve dished out plenty of 1 Star ratings this year, perhaps because I’m a harsh critic or more likely because there’s a lot of shit beer out there! Some truly awful lagers, pales and porters have passed my lips, despised for a wide range of reasons. Honourable mentions should certainly be made for Phantom Sour, which was unfathomably tart, and Mann’s Brown Ale, which is just depressing to drink. I actually failed to finish either of those beers.

However, Brew XI had it stitched up right from the get go. Not because it is unspeakably foul, but because it is so utterly pointless. It tastes of nothing and inspires nothing while also managing to taste just bad enough that you don’t want to drink it again. This may have once been a beer that was cared about, but has it now been passed from brewer to brewer, the name changing hands while the beer itself continues to decline in standard and popularity. I genuinely have no idea why they continue to make it, other than for the sake of posterity. If this was ever a decent beer, it is well past its sell by date.

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What next? 

My year is done, and I’m a little bit relieved – it will be nice to be able to go back to drinking my favourites more than once, and finding beers I like and having two or three pints rather than just the one. However, this year has also instilled a desire to try lots of new beers when I get the chance!

Much like last year, I received loads of great beery Christmas presents, amongst which was this rather excellent book from my lovely girlfriend Kirsty. I’ve already had a good few in here but there are also several beer styles I’d never even seen before (salt beer anyone?), giving me plenty to explore over the coming years!

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So, I won’t be doing another 365 next year, but I will keep updating the blog with new discoveries and working my way towards a 1001 beers and beyond. My first beer festival of 2015 is already in the diary, and I hope some of my friends can join me for a few more and perhaps write a few more guest blog posts!

Happy New Year!

365. Adnams’ Explorer

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So here we are. I’ve made it. 365 beers in 364 days in fact! I thought I should end on one of my favourites. Adnams Explorer doesn’t quite beat out Broadside for my favourite of their beers but it is rather excellent. It’s a blonde beer, caramel sweet with some subtle citrusy fruity flavours, with a long, dry and refreshing bitter finish in the end. This is a great beer to be enjoyed in the hot weather, perhaps on the beach, in Southwold. Really scrummy.

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I am a little wary that I may have messed things up and double counted somewhere along the way, so for good measure, here’s 366 and 367! Lighthouse is an Adnams I’ve never had; rather a boring golden ale, fizzy and watery with a fair amount of tongue smacking hoppy bitterness at the end.

Gunhill is a dark amber beer, quite thin but with some pleasant sweet toffee flavours, with a warm dry hop finish. It feels rather like a subtle version of Broadside, less powerful and therefore less impressive, but a decent enough drink.

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LH: two star

GH: three star

363 & 364. Newcastle Brown Ale and Marston’s Double Drop

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After referencing it in a number of other posts I thought it was only right I actually included Newcastle Brown Ale at some point this year. I’m not a fan of traditional brown ales; not all beers of that colour but rather the subset of mild and uninteresting ones which should really have died out about 30 years ago. So poor ol’ Newkie Brown didn’t start from a strong position.

It seems my doubts were misplaced – you can see why Newcastle Brown remains popular, because it actually has some flavour! A mix of dried fruits and slightly peculiar dry hoppiness is quite moreish, with a yeasty, citrusy after-taste that lingers on the tongue. I’m sure it makes a great session beer, and was pleasantly refreshing served cold, and worked equally well at room temperature, when the fruity flavours were more distinct.

Sorry NBA, I should have tried you earlier.

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My penultimate beer this year is a lovely Christmas present from my colleague Rebecca – very much appreciated – and is another from Marston’s, a brewery I’ve had on the blog a fair few times. The beer is named for the brewing method, which involves transferring part brewed beer (known as wort) from one upper container to a lower one, filtering out excess yeast that has already settled and aerating the beer in the process.

The beer itself has some citrus tang and some caramel sweetness before quite a lager like dry hopped finish. It has plenty of fizz and a quite a crisp bitterness that lasts a long time. Pleasant enough, but rather unremarkable. I’m given to understand that you’re mean to get “butterscotch” flavours from this brewing method but that doesn’t appear to be the case here.

DD: two star

NBA: three star

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