Sunday, 19 February 2017

Winter Ales Festival

My first ever beer festival was at the Roundhouse around this time last year. It was the Saturday session and it was packed - I was alone and without a guide beyond a friend of mine telling me a few years ago that I should start small and work my way up to the big guns. I got a bit lost, did not enjoy a lot of the pales that I did find, and then went all out on what remained of the stouts. I mean, I can't complain, I got free entry and the time to spend there.

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.
It's not really a good idea, so I am told, to start with something big and heavy but I had made the decision that I was really here to try the stouts and the big and heavy stuff. I shall leave the IPAs and the pales for a time later in the year when there is a bit more heat. Having eaten plenty of bread for breakfast I felt ready for this one. However, it was a bit on the thin side and didn't have too much of an aroma. No bad thing, I mean, there was a definite hit if licorice; and then it was into the taste which was, as expected, a delicate hint of licorice above some pretty solid soft malt but a rougher edge provided by the heavier than expected carbonation. Not much in the way of a head but a decent enough pour and it stayed with it until the end of the third. Nothing huge here and nothing to write home about but a decent enough start to proceedings and a nice lead in to getting some pulled pork on a cob with some chips. I was honestly expecting a bit more in the way of flavour from this one but I thought it would provide a good start and comparison. In short, a decent dark ale if not really what I look for in a stout - put me in mind of some of the black IPAs I've had.

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.
I had it when I was over at 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.
My father had plumbed for a vanilla porter he had his eye on and I thought that this may just have the weight in ABV and chocolate to shift the Millionaire. The chilli chocolate had done some good and following it with a few Chorizo crisps and some mint chocolate had done enough to make me feel as though I could go back to the ales. There was a good start with warmed chocolate on the nose that put me in mind of Montezuma's Chocolate Lager (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.
It had to be done. After the taste of the pale I had to stick with it and I do like the brewery. This was the one that they had on that I hadn't yet tried and so I went for it like a greyhound, well, okay, not that quick or determined, just like I was at a beer festival and I didn't want to be missing out. It held a pretty Pacific hops nose and full of fruit, as one would expect. Not too much on the citrus and the bittering was minimal on the tongue. Still a little soapy on the mouthfeel but that was no bad thing and it managed to cut through the residual chilli from the earlier chocolate. It went well with some Piper crisps picked up in passing and did a decent job of clearing out the glass so that I could be ready for more ales. There were delicate hops in the middle of the taste that gained victory 'gainst the full and powerful malt that provided a good bed for it all despite being such a light pale. By the end of it all there was just a dry and subtle aftertaste, a reminder of a trip taken to the West Coast of the USA if you will, and then there was nothing. Nice ale, but not challenging for the top spot on the day.

Neon Raptor Don't Forget Your Amethyst was next, a stout at a mighty 7% ABV.
One of the volunteers listened carefully to my predicament regarding the Millionaire and, as befits someone in his position, was quick to recommend this little number as a means of breaking the stranglehold of the aforementioned stout. This opened with an aroma that was slightly minty and aniseed but without proper full on blasts of either. There was a rich and roasted smell to it, as though the coffee beans were still there but then, on the tongue, they were ripped away and replaced by... purple? My notes say purple and I remember the sensation. The tasting notes in the booklet proclaimed that this was mint chocolate and ice-cream but I don't know, all I can really describe is purple. It seems like this has been named aptly because if amethyst has a taste I imagine that this stout pretty effectively has it. Also there was the strength - about which there was no denying. It does not obliterate the taste nor does it knock you for six but it does rather blast through as it hits the back of the throat and leave one with a warmer sensation than that with which one began. It was one of the better ones of the day and it does rather challenge the supremacy of the Millionaire - certainly strong enough to blast through finally and lay the ghost to rest. Maybe a hint of licorice on the tail end, difficult to say for sure.

At this point I spotted the Smiling Assassin Pale ale from Flastaff at 5.2% ABV.
This was the ale that, last year, had me buy an actual full pint to finish my trip. So I had to try it again and see just how it stacked up to the other big hitters that I had been having. Instantly did the job by being fruity and strong on the nose, more tropicana than the earlier New World and a little bit on the sweet side. Delectable and smooth on the tongue, so that it felt like it ought to have been much more musty and fulsome than it actually appeared. Still, a nice catch for the day and a worthy successor to the huge amount of stout that I had been putting away. It was juicy and decent around the whole mouth, leaving nothing to waste and no gaps in the taste, so that it ended up being a bit quenching and not a little interesting on a subtle aftertaste. My father was less impressed and, as a bit of convert to the stouts, declared it to be the "bland side of refreshing" which I thought was something of a fair assessment. I'm not sure I could call this 'bland' but I think my father was still on the vanilla porters at this point and I can see that there would be little comparison to be made if that were your choice.

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.
This had a big nose of amarillo and citra, competing for which one could overpower the senses the most and first. It was won, in this case, by neither and simply offered a mellow cloud on which to settle and rest for a moment in a dizzying array of ale to be tried and enjoyed on such a day. I offered it to my father but he was flagging by this point and I think had all the ale he had wanted. I was left to ruminate on the straw finish of the colour and then take a big old swig of the tropical hops that exploded onto the tongue and instantly filled the mouth with flavour. It was bit more citrus and tart than the Smiling Assassin but clear as a bell on flavour and with a lovely rounded and juicy mouthfeel that had me watering and ready for some slap up food. Mind you, I was in a beer festival so mainly it reminded me that IPAs existed and could be had more of. I feel this one lived up to its name as well, much like the Amethyst, with about as much sense to be made of that impression as last time. Certainly one to pick up at the bottle shop if I'm lucky enough to see it there again.

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.

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