This year things are a little different. The National Winter Ales Festival has moved to Norwich and is later in the year, I have been to two other beer festivals and have an inkling that I prefer the stouts and the milds and the porters so I know what I'm going in and looking for. Also, my Dad had agreed to join me on this one. So it was that I went down to the lunchtime session at Derby Winter Ales Festival on Thursday and made myself entirely too tipsy to be writing that up for the evening.
It was a good time and I had plenty of decent heavy stout action, would you like to know more?
I was early. I had intended to meet my father and then head off for some lunch before hitting the festival but I got into Derby with an hour spare and then hung around the railway station until I was practically champing at the bit. On discovering that there was a cashpoint in the place I convinced my father that we should go straight in and get food from the burger bar there. This was a good plan and I managed to get my first ale in rather quickly and before we had food. Nice.
Ashover Licorice was first, being a 5% ABV stout.
Wild Beer Co. Millionaire, 4.7% ABV stout.
I knew what I was getting into here having had it before (and the more powerful Billionaire) and knew that I was running a bit of a risk. But my father had started on the blondes and I was trying to convince him that stouts were the better choice after he was reminiscing about the Murphy's from his youth (now seen in Tesco, they are still going). So it was that I brought out the big guns and tried the stout slayer that is Millionaire. Luxurious chocolate on a milk stout bed that just slips down like a well-made hot chocolate with a fiery hit of alcohol. It has a caramel feeling with a roasted malt and sweet nose dissolving into a soft and thick stout bed on the tongue so that you can fall back onto the over-stuffed mattress, pull up the plump duvet of solid milk stout and almost fall asleep. It's a big taste with lots to comfort and lots to enjoy, being relatively uncomplicated and leaving a big impression on the aftertaste. It's a dessert, not even a dessert beer, just a dessert. Imagine this with lashings of whipped cream and something that has a shortbread base covered in caramel and barely solid Belgian chocolate dusted with yet more darker chocolate that has been just slightly warmed up before serving so that it isn't melted but it might be at any moment. This has just the effect I was looking for, my father liked it, but also what I feared: how do you follow it?
Totally Brewed Papa Jangle's Voodoo Stout, at 4.5% ABV was a stout I remembered.
Matlock Bath in the summer where it pretty much conquered everything with its coffee depth and chocolate malt. If anything was going to be able to follow the mighty Millionaire it was going to be this! Or so I thought. This suffered a huge amount from following Millionaire and no amount of chilli chocolate would shift the sensation that this was just too thin and almost bland. I really like this stout normally and had made something of a beeline to check if it were on and available, but it just couldn't muster the power or the taste to really dislodge the impression of what it was following. There was still coffee in the nose and opening the taste, there was still a deep and dark chocolate malt bittered by actual chocolate and the warming sensation of roasted coffee on the back of the throat but it was all something of a cheap sideshow in comparison to the soft roundness of the Millionaire and I was left feeling a little disappointed and sad that I had ruined this rather excellent stout by not having it in the right order. I did rather feel that I should have waited and had this first on my way in to set a better scene. However, I hadn't.
James and Kirkman Triple Chocolate Stout at 5.6% ABV was next.
click here) that did rather set me up in the right direction. I was looking forward to it, especially as this had legs and looked like the sort of thickness that I like in my heavy stouts. Sure enough there was a second chocolate on the tongue from the malt, a harsher and drier chocolate that had a strong edge lent by the high ABV and was supported by a good amount of activity in the fizz. However, there was no third chocolate. The aftertaste seemed to dissipate and leave a fairly weak impression. The taste itself didn't develop either, opening with the chocolate and the malt and a bit of fizz and then moving through into more of the same. There wasn't a great deal of depth, it again came out feeling a little thin, and once again was found wanting in the wake of Millionaire. I really ought to have had that later!
At this point I tasted some Lemongrass and Ginger from Leatherbritches being a pale ale at 3.8%. It was soapy and cleansing and just what I needed to finally shift the feeling left by Millionaire. Had I had more time I would have come back for some of this, but it's always a danger at a beer festival to not have a full third.
Shiny New World next, a 3.7% ABV Pale.
Neon Raptor Don't Forget Your Amethyst was next, a stout at a mighty 7% ABV.
At this point I spotted the Smiling Assassin Pale ale from Flastaff at 5.2% ABV.
I went for the Tiny Rebel Beat Box, an APA at 4.5% ABV that I had seen in my local bottle shop and not picked up.
I then saw my father off at the train station, for he had had enough and wanted to get back early for his own tea. This was a fair point and I inadvertently smuggled my ale out of the festival - a fact I only discovered when using it to prove that I had already paid my entrance fee. The staff were lovely about it when they realised how mortified I was at having done it in the first place!
Now it was a return to the Neon Raptor for a Predator's Reward Dark IPA at 7.2% ABV.
This was to be the biggest hitter of the day and opened with an aroma that spoke in loud volume of a fruit-filled grove on the edge of the tropics, think the sort of orange and zesty kind of smell without the bitterness and sour edge of lemons or limes or of citrus in general. It wasn't as warm and inviting as the sort of thing from mangoes and passionfruit but nor was it cold and temperate. By this point in proceedings, however, I was aware that my senses were being somewhat dulled by my tasting and so I jumped straight into the taste of this one. The decent copper colour, with a slight haze, gave orange on the tongue, as defined by the smell, that gave way to a welcome juice feeling, all thick and freshly squeezed, leading to a moist middle and a wet aftertaste with that barest hint of citrus on the back of the throat. For being the biggest hitter of the day it didn't really have the effect of knocking me out nor of feeling as though it was the biggest hitter. For that reason I was happy to label this as the most dangerous brew that I had tried so far - the sort that would lure you in with promise of being lovely and then beat you up afterward with the sheer power of the ABV.
Which finally left me with Thornbridge and their Lucaria ice-cream Dark ale at 6% ABV.
I had eyed this up earlier with my father and decided that I would like to try it but then got all confused and missed it in the hurry to get him to the train on time earlier. Now, after asking around and trying a host of other ales but finding nothing that was up my street, I recalled it and got myself a third without trying first. Indeed, that boast of being ice cream was rapidly delivered upon on the nose and then into the taste. Imagine the congealed mess of melted ice-cream and you get some of the feel of this slipping into the mouth, awash with hints of other flavours, like that not-vanilla vanilla flavour from the cones I can remember having in summer in Blackpool as the heat of the midday sun melted it. I'm not a fan of melted ice-cream but I have to confess that this was nice and that I was very appreciative of the taste. Despite being slightly cloying in places the alcohol gave it a decent punch and the ability to blast through the occasional dam that it created. I'd go so far as to suggest that this was a bit more marshmallow on the mouthfeel, without the sweetness, just the sensation of it. You can jump into this one without injury and then the vanilla comes into its own toward the back of the taste to hang around like an old friend on the aftertaste. This was a decent ale and played well at the tail end of my cast.
I did try some of the chilli ales on offer, reminded of the Five Alarm by Siren at the Leeds Beer Festival, but none of them really came close to hitting the mark I set for them and so none of them became proper experiences to write notes about. I did try a Sloe-infused ale and was taken by the idea but not enough to try a full third despite the depth to it. Leaving a couple of pales that were as expected from Shiny and an Altbier from Derby Brewing Company that was nice enough but, again, not worth having a full third.
All in all, I enjoyed the day and it was nice to do most of it with my father as company. I hope I didn't get too ranty. I know that when I have a few ales I get a bit ranty. My winner was, surprisingly, the Amethyst by Neon Raptor as it totally managed to smash the Millionaire (which would come second). I think my final recommendation would be the Lucaria, of which I would have had more if I too had not had to go home for tea and with the idea of getting a watch - which I singularly failed to do until yesterday, but still. In short: I enjoyed seeking out stouts and starting out as I meant to go on. I didn't study the lists in advance and I'm glad I cased out a few brews first before diving in. Be warned on the Millionaire, though, it's bloody lovely.