Given that I take Wetherspoons as I do all pubs, that is I recognise there is good and bad, I decided to start with one I knew to be good when seeking out the more interesting beers in the current beer festival. So, on day one, off to Rochdale and a very quiet Regal Moon I went.
The customers were mostly retired looking men and a fair number were scanning the pump clips, programme in hand. I wasn't the only temporary ticker there. On the bar were four "must haves" or "required" in tickerspeak. Wild Blue Yonder from Bend Brewing in Oregon, Lead Dog from Yukon Brewing in Canada, Palm Steenbrugge Blond from Belgium and Sinebrychoff Porter from Finland. What a line up.
I'd like to pause here to reflect a little on what JDW has done here. In importing cask versions of beers rarely, if ever, seen on cask and commissioning talented brewers from around the world to make cask versions of either an existing beer as in Synbrychoff Porter, or new beers based on beers they brew at home, they have done something different and highly innovative. Whatever your views of JDW, big brewers have been persuaded by them to open their breweries to these brewing upstarts to allow this to be done. British brewing is rightly criticised for its monochrome conservatism, buthopefully this innovation will inspire them to a little more adventure. It also enhances British pub retailing, showing as it does, some serious imagination. Nor is a premium charged for these beers. In an egalitarian gesture that would bring a tear to Karl Marx's eye (and he liked an hour out, albeit on wine, as I recall), all festival ales are sold at the same price. (£1.59 a pint in this case). It therefore provides an incentive to expand your beery horizons - a true level playing field.
So what of the beer? Well they were all in tip top condition for a start. The Wild Blue Yonder perhaps didn't show enough of its hop profile, but was a satisfying and bitter drink, the Lead Dog was excellent - very dark, full bodied, more bitter than billed and a damn good beer. Also excellent, more so even, was the Sinebrychoff Porter. Jet black, toasty and roasty, with all the coffee, chocolate, liquorice and spiciness described in the programme, it was marvellous, with a hefty alcohol hit being well disguised in a hugely complex and rewarding beer. I felt though that on my sample at least, the Palm Steenbrugge Blond, didn't really suit cask format. While full of condition, it lacked the spritziness that it needed to lift the spiciness up and show the beer at its best.
On the way home, I nipped in to my local JDW for the first time in months, expecting little, but amazingly, three more "required" beers were on tap. This time Epic Pale Ale from New Zealand, Baron's Bush Berry Porter and Flying Dutchman, a wheat beer from the Netherlands. I thought the wheat beer in this case was rather dull and lacked the lift that extraneous CO2 gives this kind of beer. It really is horses for courses. The Bush Berry Porter was fascinating, with its dry porter backbone, very smooth and luscious mouthfeel and insistent, slightly sharp and vinous berry notes giving it a mysterious and satisfying finish. Lastly Epic Pale Ale was sweet in the opening with a less than convincing Cascade finish. It seemed to have no middle really. Single hopped, to this drinker at least, it lacked something and certainly needs trying again to see if I was just unlucky on this tasting.
So I enjoyed JDW's Fest and I will be back again before it ends, though likely in London rather than the North. As always I'll compare and contrast.
PS - A shout out for Elgoods - the only "normal" beer tried. I thought their CXXX, based on an 1878 recipe, was tremendous in showing how to use the classic Fuggles and Goldings combo to great effect.
A bit of a CV. Tandleman is a veteran beer lover, local CAMRA Chairman and activist, beer writer, beer reviewer and pursuer of all things good in beer. He lives in the North West of England and London. Despite his CAMRA membership, he does not limit himself to cask conditioned beer, though he believes that cask conditioning, when done correctly and appropriately, brings a quality to beer that is hard to equal by any other kind of presentation. He is a strong supporter of Northern methods of beer dispense and avidly detests poorly presented beer and dislikes pasteurisation. He regularly visits Germany, has conducted corporate British and German beer tastings for CAMRA at the Great British Beer Festival where he has worked for years on Biere Sans Frontieres and was Deputy Organiser at CAMRA's very successful National Winter Ales Festival in 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012 and at the Manchester Beer and Cider Festival from 2013 to date. He admires good brewers wherever they are and has travelled extensively in pursuit of good beer to drink. He also judges beer at both the International Beer Challenge and the World Beer Awards.
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