Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Fyne Fest still rinsing it

Yes, I take this same picture every year
In the four years since it started, Fyne Ales’ brewery festival has become something of a brewers’ jamboree. As well as sourcing guest beers from other breweries, it attracts their staff too, who are as keen as anyone to spend a weekend camping and drinking beer in the hills.

Arriving on Friday, the first thing is to dump bags in the brewery tap and get a pint. It’s not a long walk from the bus stop, but it’s a warm day and I’m carrying a tent. Who needs an excuse anyway – it’s a beer festival! Rune is a perfect thirst-quencher at 3.5%. The idea was to drink this while putting up our tents, but there doesn’t seem to be any rush, and so by the time we head out into the field we’re already onto a pint of Jarl. Wandering at will around the farm with a beer in your hand is a wonderful thing.

In the beer marquee itself, the first beer is the recent collaboration with Wild Beer Co – Fyne/Wild Cool As A Cucumber, which is a mint and cucumber beer. Almost everyone I speak to hates it. I am not sure at first either, but I drink quite a bit of it over the weekend. It’s only 2.9%, so if the weather on Saturday had been better, I’d have been absolutely tanning it, and I suspect a lot of others would too. There doesn’t seem to be much mint, so the cucumber flavour dominates and there is a subtle lactic tang. Bizarrely, the cask version tastes slightly saltier.

Festival toilets are legendary for their filth. As a general rule of thumb, after 4pm on the first day it’s every man for himself, and God help you if you’ve failed to bring your own Andrex. Special credit must go to FyneFest for the success in keeping the array of portaloos usable throughout the festival; just as well considering the effects on visitors of huge amounts of beer. A friend claims to have seen the MD of Fyne Ales personally replenishing toilet rolls at 10.30pm. Bravo!

The downside of having a festival in a remote Scottish field: no wi-fi and only intermittent mobile reception – which means no Untappd! Beer geeks shudder with horror at the thought, but it doesn’t seem to be stopping anyone having a good time. I’m so busy chatting that I barely have time to write in a notebook, never mind go on the internet. 

That’s a roundabout way of saying I only have a vague idea of what I was doing between teatime and snoozing under the pelting rain.
Not just any old burgers. Burgers “in a roll!”
What ever will they think of next?

Every year there’s a new beer released at the festival. This time it’s called Freya and it resembles several of the other newer beers in that it’s heavier and thicker-bodied than before. With my dinner I go back to a favourite – Highlander, the brewery’s oldest beer and one that always surprises me anew.

Certainly one of the most talked about beers is De Molen’s Raad & Daad. It’s a rather pleasant cider vinegar that nobody can actually drink.

Cromarty Atlantic Drift, Thornbridge Hopton, Kernel Amarillo are all pleasant halves that somehow disappear too quickly.

As the first evening wears on, the music gets louder and by the time Edinburgh ska group Bombskare take the stage there are quite a few brewers happily skanking in the marquee. At least one well-known brewer was in a state where the bar staff should, strictly speaking, have stopped serving (To learn the name of this brewer, send £20 in a plain brown envelope to the address above…) 

It’s getting cold so I end the evening on Zombier and Superior IPA before collapsing into my tent just as the persistent rain starts battering on the roof.

FyneFest Collab Brew from Rob Sterowski on Vimeo.

The next morning, perhaps unsurprisingly, only a few brewers have made it for the agreed 10am mash-in time. They are following a Fyne invitation to make a semi-spontaneous collaboration brew. By quarter past a perfunctory discussion has taken place and they’ve agreed on the grain bill – many sacks of pale, a sack of Carafa (roast malt, de-husked to be less roasty), some wheat, some rye malt and a bit of crystal and Belgian biscuit malt. Tasting the biscuit malt, it really does smell and taste like digestives. Matt from Hawkshead and Jake of Fyne get on with loading up the grist case.

Once that’s done, more have arrived downstairs: Janine from Ashover, Benji from Elixir, Dom from Thornbridge, Colin from Buxton, Gordon from Siren, Stuart from Magic Rock, Lewis from Alechemy. With everyone gathered round the mash tun and hot liquor flowing into it, Jake opens the grist case to let the crushed malt flow down; “This is the best bit of brewing, this,” he grins as the brewhouse fills with the smell of malty goodness.

While the mash is converting, I go off for breakfast. When I get back, the assembled stars of British brewing have produced a stuck mash. Ah well. Nothing a bit of underletting won’t solve. The first cask has already been sold for Hawkshead’s festival, and that’s before anyone knows what the hops are going to be. Chinook, Sterling and Perle are chosen for that.

As the lowly blogger, I was expecting to have to dig out the mash tun, but Colin and Dom split the job between them, like old times at Marble. I get the rather less arduous task of throwing in the late hops. Not complaining.

Why are we standing around in a brewery when there’s beer to be drunk outside?

In the tent it’s back on to Thornbridge Hopton, as I remember it being good the previous night. Alechemy Citra Burst and Thornbridge Lumford are really rather good too. The beer that makes the biggest impression is Harbour East India Porter, a dry, biscuity beer with rich sweetness. I don’t know exactly why; it just has a complexity that seems lacking in many otherwise nice beers.

Another surprise is Siren Limoncello IPA. 9% and made with real lemons, it doesn’t sound like my kind of thing, but someone offers me a taste and it’s pretty good.

Red Willow Fathomless, an oyster stout, sadly doesn’t go as well with the Loch Fyne oysters as I was hoping, but was nice enough. The second day draws to a close with another old favourite: Bristol Beer Factory Milk Stout, and the stunning Fyne Bell Rock 'n' Hop.

Cask Jarl, in the sun, fifteen metres from where it’s made
Drink carefully, and you can wake up on a sunny Sunday morning and enjoy delicious cold beer in the morning sunshine, when the fools who have over-indulged are staggering around clutching their heads. We sit behind the brewery with Jarl before trudging back to rather sadly strike camp. The tent-taking-down beer I have chosen, Marble Pint, is disappointing: flat and buttery.

Fortunately there’s time for a last pint of Rune before the bus back to Glasgow. It is chilled, sweet, bitter and perfect. I’m halfway to the bus stop, still drinking it, before I realise I have left my tent lying outside the brewery tap. While retrieving it, it seems only prudent to get another pint. I mean, what if the bus is late and I die of thirst?

Sunday, 2 June 2013

The pub with no beer

It should now be widely known that British pubs are in a deep crisis. The cause of this is not the beer duty escalator or the smoking ban – it is that their owners are waging war against them.

Many people still think pubs are owned by breweries. In reality huge numbers of pubs are owned by pub companies or “pubcos”, which are essentially property developers. These rent or lease the pubs to tenants who are then obliged to buy their beer from the pubco at inflated prices – up to 60% above the market price.

In the past the biggest pubcos borrowed heavily against the value of their pubs in order to buy more pubs. They now find themselves up to their ears in debt and desperate to pay it off at the expense of their tenants. As a result tenants find themselves faced with ever-increasing rent demands and extortionate beer prices. It’s no wonder that so many pubs are closing.

There is an alternative to struggling along until the pubco finally drives you into bankruptcy. The Black Lion in Kilburn has chosen an unusual form of resistance: they have stopped selling draught beer entirely.

Last night they threw a “draught wake” with the last keg, and from today will concentrate on wine, spirits and organic bottled beers.

It’s hard to think of a more spectacular indication of the damage the pubcos are doing to our pubs.

Find out about the campaign for pubco reform at fairdealforyourlocal.com.

There is really only one headline for this story, but I am given to understand the Black Lion will not be as miserable a place as the pub in the song.