Wednesday, 22 June 2011

SRAF: the reckoning

The Scottish Real Ale Festival has now been and gone and everyone else has written up their impressions of it. I thought it was great -- with some reservations.

On the downside, most of the beer was far too warm. This isn’t just a personal preference: physics means that warm beer also goes flat quicker. CAMRA is fighting against the combination of June weather and a less than optimal venue and in this particular case they lost.

The organisers seriously underestimated the number of people who would turn up for the festival. I wasn’t there on Friday but reports described the evening session as “carnage” and the entire festival had to close its doors early on Saturday as there was no beer left, despite emergency deliveries from Stewart Brewing. This is unfortunate, especially for those who could only make it on Saturday, but it shows the astonishing growth in popularity of real ale. The festival is a victim of its own success. And it’s encouraging that the Edinburgh Evening News article is broadly positive and only mentions the beardy sandals stereotype in order to debunk it, since it’s, judging by the attendance on Thursday, just not true any more.

One person complained the beer list was boring. I don’t agree; I think it was more interesting than in previous years. I certainly found enough to keep me busy from the 140+ beers available. Let’s face it, a dozen halves is enough for most of us and there were definitely more than that that I wanted to try.

On to the beers. Burnside is a brewery from Aberdeenshire I hadn’t encountered before. Their Black Katz Mild (3.6%) had a lot of interesting flavours: chocolate, wood, vanilla, substantial bitterness, but was thin-bodied. Belhaven IPA (3.8%) next: better than Greene King’s sorry effort but only just. Fruity, green, too warm, not bitter enough, complete crap. I’m starting to think that Greene King are deliberately making Belhaven’s beers as bad as possible in the hope that nobody will complain when they close the place.

DemonBrew is the new name for the beers brewed at the Gothenburg in Prestonpans. Davie Whyte has taken over the brewing after the sad death of Roddy Beveridge last year. Roddy made a very charcoaly Gothenburg Porter with heaps of roast barley character. Davie’s version is called Demon Black (4.4%) and is more subdued and chocolatey, with a slight acidity.

The beers from Tempest were the ones I was keenest to try. Everyone who’s drunk them raves about them and the couple of pints I’d had previously had been spectacular. Not at all bad for a one-man brewery that’s been going for less than a year. RyePA (5.5%) is very much in the American vein: perfumey, woody and resiny. Very true to style, slightly more sweet and not bitter enough for my palate which is also my complaint about most US examples. I rather prefer Emanation Pale Ale (4.5%), which to me defines “American Bitter”, if such a thing exists. More bitter and quaffable than RyePA, though both are excellent. Best of all though is Elemental Porter (5.1%), superbly balanced with dark, black malt and a touch of smokiness. Tempest actually had six beers on the list but only three were delivered as the brewer apparently didn’t think the others were up to scratch. A praiseworthy attitude.

Tinpot from Bridge of Allan is making some of the most experimental beers in Scotland at the moment. I went for Blueberry Lager (3.7%), but sadly it was dreadful. Foul sulphury lager yeast flavours mix with tart fruit and the result is unpleasant. I should have had Beetroot and Black Pepper Pot instead which was interesting when I had it last year, and people said this batch was excellent too.

Deeside is another north-eastern brewery whose beers never make it to Glasgow. I loved their Talorcan sweet stout (4.5%) at this festival last year and wanted to try it again. Sweet, bitter and roasty all at the same time, I didn’t think it was quite as good as last year, but still very nice.

My next beer was a real stinker and I should have known better than to try it. It was terrible last year but I thought I’d give Orkney Dark Island Reserve (10%) a second chance. It is much acclaimed in the bottle (as it ought to be given it retails for £15 a pop) and it should be something special to see it in cask. Unfortunately it’s far too young, too oaky and just awful. Guys, do yourselves a favour and stop doing this. Or get Harviestoun to show you how to do it better. Whatever.

Stewart Brewing was well represented, as you’d expect from a local brewer. I didn’t get around to tasting their single-hop trial beers, but I did have their 40th Birthday Beer (4.0%), brewed in celebration of both the 40th anniversary of CAMRA and the 40th birthday of brewery boss Steve Stewart. It’s pretty nice, chewy, unchallenging and relaxing and if you think those are bad things in a beer you’re mad.

A legendary Scottish brewer (more legendary in the US than in Scotland it must be said) whose beers are rarely seen in cask is Traquair House. They had sent one beer, Stuart Ale (4.5%). Tasting mostly of toffee on toast, it's too sweet for me. I need to balance it with some hops from the old stalwart Tryst Raj IPA (5.5%). This is suffering from the heat and has a sweet aroma, full-bodied, grainy weetabix-type flavours and a bitter finish. And with that I had to leave.

The final controversy of this controversial festival was the result of the Champion Beer of Scotland award. After SIBA had awarded the top prize to Fyne Ales’ Jarl, a decision understandable to everyone, it was something of a surprise to hear the top three places go to Isle of Skye, Cairngorm and Houston. I don’t think any of the prize-winning beers are bad, but they surely don’t represent the pinnacle of what is being made in Scotland these days. As I’m not particularly interested in awards anyway, I am not especially bothered but it does seem that the selection process could do with an overhaul. Al has some ideas at his new blog that I don’t agree with at all, but I’m happy to leave the discussion to those who care about it. Loads of terrible beers regularly win awards. They mean nothing to me.

On balance though, apart from the heat, this was a good showcase of Scottish brewing. Most of these breweries didn’t exist twenty years ago — hell, a good number of them didn’t exist two years ago. When I recall that when I started drinking real ale we were happy to find Theakston’s XB or Caledonian 70/– on sale in a pub, I’m reminded how far we have come.

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