Thursday, 15 September 2016

Leeds International Beer Festival

Been a while in writing this. I was invited up to Leeds by some good friends ages back and the first time I could actually get along was for the Leeds International Beer Festival. My previous and continuing host provided tickets and a place to stay, because he's great like that, and we left it to percolate a while, this being back in July. Alas, my brain is bad at these things and so the weekend crept up on me somewhat. And then, on the Thursday, my cable that I use to charge my electric car (because I have one) broke and stopped charging the car.

It was fine, I charged at work (with permission) on the Friday and then reasoned that I could charge at the other end. The journey was thus begun on Saturday morning, bright and early, but on the way my car told me I had a puncture. I pulled in, charged and checked the wheel. No sign of any damage. I pumped the tyre a bit, more because I felt I had to do something, and drove on. The light remained resolutely on. I stopped and checked pressures a few more times but no difference. Thus it was that I turned up to Leeds just in time to drop the car off outside my host's house, scaring him with its sleek silence, and jump onto the bus into town. Stressful journey much?

All of which is to serve as prelude. We met our final member of the trio and promptly entered the wonderful world of the Town Hall and the beers on offer. Would you like to know more?

First up was deciding what we would have and the delights on offer were numerous and plenty. It was busy, it was warm, food was cooking merrily and it was around midday. It was quite a tough moment to decide what to drink first, where to start and what was on offer. However, we spotted the Kernel Brewery bar and headed over to it.

I chose the Biere de Saison at 4.8% ABV - a saison, funnily enough, with a nice apple juice hue.
I confess, I've seen bottles from these guys all over the place and read enough reviews by other people to have been really looking forward to it. It had the advantage of being the second weakest ale I'd seen on the initial look around (there was a 2.8% somewhere but not here) and so I naturally leapt to try. Also, a saison, I've not had one of those yet. We stood with different ales near the stage and chewed the fat about beer festivals and the holidays. It was a decent nose, a bit hoppy and on the sour end and a bit sharp. Indeed, exactly as I should like my Bayonet to be when I get round to brewing it. Not much head, not much carbonation and served a little chilled. I don't know that this last point was a good idea. Plenty going on once on the tongue, opened with a soft and swift blast of the malt and then souring hops rolled over like a flood carrying all before it. Water levels rose steadily, villages were vanquished and then it was on to the surprisingly moist aftertaste that was quite lemon-zest and lime juice. Quite the sharp little number and not a bad start but not really what I was looking for at the time. I resolved to dive into something more like IPA next, as they seemed to be featuring heavily. In short, decent, glad I had it, but nothing to write home about.

We travelled downstairs to the strange faux-forest of the European ales section of the event, all with oddly muted coloured lighting and strange shadows. It was less busy here and there were loads of Belgian ales on offer. At first I was going to dive into them like a kid in a sweet shop but then I spotted my quarry: Mikkeller! A brewer often mentioned by people I respect, surely one to try!

Naturally, I picked Lazurite: an IPA at 7.4% ABV brewed by Warpigs! Because I didn't notice that the breweries were sharing a bar.
Hard to really judge the colour or the carbonation in the light but the aroma was promising and full of floral and bittering hops vying for control. This was a hoppy lively little number whose chilling was light enough to wear off by the time our trioka was recreated in the centre of the room. Good floral and full hops opened in a cavalcade of hooves and then were followed by the steady snaking columns of Danish infantry marching to the martial beat of the malt drum. Down the sides of the mouth came the cagey skirmisher units, screening the main column with plenty of bittering hops that worked well with the main body. A blast of gunsmoke, dry and not without a bit of gravelly roughness to it, on the aftertaste and then it was gone, waiting for the next try. It was quite Napoleonic in effect, each wave of taste was very much the same and just grew a little stronger with the repetition. It's a nice IPA and would have settled in nicely to previous trips to Leeds, actually, almost summery. It was a shame to have it in the basement rather than out in the sun but, apart from that, a decent brew. Still didn't quite hit the spot for me, though, and left me waiting for the next adventure.

This came by heading back up the stairs to the American brewers room. Lovely bar here, plenty of video games (of which I did not partake) and I noticed something that made me quite excited!

Here it was time for a Founders Imperial Stout at a mighty 10.5% ABV.
Yes, it smelled divine. Chocolate and coffee swirled around a burnt middle, smelling like something that ought to be a dessert course at a posh restaurant rather than a drink. It had a sort of biscuit coloured head with the kind of white smear running through it that one expects in coloured ice-cream or from milk being added to the top of a cappuccino. This was luxury in a glass and I knew as soon as I saw it that I had chosen correctly. Soft and forgiving on the tongue, thick and creamy malt carrying that roasted flavour that seems like the smell of the coffee shop that used to roast its own beans on Bank Street in Carlisle back in the day. It was rich, it was decadent and it was full. Round and bouncy in the mouth, subtly shot through with chocolate and dark malts doing their business right the way through to the back of the throat where there was a whiskey-like warming element before slipping down and settling on top of the stomach like a proper winter's blanket. Words fail me when I describe this, it was this sort of sensation that I had been looking for in the beers so far and I promptly decided I would come back for a second before the day was out - a rash decision that was not carried through in the end. Which I count as a shame.

We'd noticed a vast tipi on the way in and it had a big queue. As we emerged from the US beer room and back into the light that queue had died down, we decided to check it out before heading back into the main room.

My host pointed out a chilli infused ale, it would have been rude not to try it. Siren Craft Brew offered us Five Alarm, a red chilli ale at 7.4% ABV (from a keg) and we took it.
It smelled much like any dark IPA actually, despite being a red ale, and was pretty unremarkable. Good hops, nice malt, a tang of something else, I assumed the chilli, but a pretty serviceable and standard dark IPA sort of feeling. Once on the tongue it seemed a bit weak on the hop opening, but passable enough, giving way to a standard but smooth mal- oh dear life, here's the chilli! It was spicy and hot, like too much paprika, and then it blotted out everything else, before fading slightly against the sloshing of that malt toward the back of the throat. Another burst of those hops, changed in the fire to something else, the tangs and bitterings suddenly sharper and more pronounced so that they were somehow more interesting and clever. Then the chilli was back, dominating the aftertaste and beating down the door to the next taste. Each time they were beaten back by the malt and the hops and each time reasserted their control on the back of the throat. This ought to have been a gimmick, a stunt, but I can really see this working as a standard ale and I'd still come back. It almost shouldn't have worked but they'd really worked hard on that balance and the overall effect was really quite special and drinkable. It would work well for eating meat but also as a sort of special guest on an evening with friends. I'd have more than one of these if it weren't a work night and a third measure did leave me wanting more.

However, it was now lunch time and so time to choose something to have with whatever we chose to eat, still unclear at this stage. I was close enough to the Brewdog bar to decide on them, though my colleagues went for Pressure Drop.

At the recommendation of my host I went for Brewdog's Ace of Citra, an IPA at 4.5% ABV, seemed like the right sort of strength and hue for a burger.
This was a proper pale colour and smelt hoppy as one would imagine. The clear and distinctive aroma of the single hopped citra filling the air around it with a bit of a head and plenty of supporting malt. The bubbles did the job of delivering variation through yeast, spearing up through the pleasant citra haze so that this didn't get too settled and same-y but it is a measure of how my palate has changed that this became mere background to quite a nice pork and beef burger. This was a sort of background ale that was actually a really good choice with food, it didn't muscle its way in where it wasn't wanted and nor did it fade so completely as to be a pointless accoutrement to the meal, instead it stayed in the shadows and spilled out between tastes and gobbling down a burger to allow me to enjoy the sunshine and the food and feel of the place. All in all, not a bad ale and certainly no hollow note but not the sort of ale that had me planning where next to acquire it either. I should point out that the picture is more chaotic than the lunch was. None of that was our stuff, it was just the only place to rest the glass to take my picture. With that, it was clearly time to move on, finish our lunch and get back stuck in.

We headed to try the New Zealand ales on offer because the sunlight was really rather lovely and it seemed a shame to head back inside without enjoying it a while. A bit of a queue had developed here, probably a good sign, but it moved quickly enough and we got what we wanted and then congregated looking out over the Headrow.

This was one of the ones I didn't record the name of, but it would appear to have been West Coast Red IPA by Three Boys Brewery at 6% ABV, being a red IPA, funnily enough!
Good deep red to this in the light, catching the sun nicely, though a lack of space to sit or tables necessitating my hand to appear in shot, and not much in the way of carbonation. This looked and tasted like the sort of creamy flatness one gets on handpulls in the pub, not a bad thing but not something I deliberately seek in an IPA. I think I prefer my IPAs to be a bit bonkers and lively, throwing down head and bubbles like the afterparty section of an early '90s rave. Lacking dungarees or even the hint of something by The Shamen, this ale was a decent follow up to the Ace of Citra in that it had a bit more hop character about it, but it was also not really what I was here for. It matched the weather well and I suspect would play well in my garden with company round as a build up to the main meal. Eminently sessionable, and dangerously so at 6%! Certainly it passed the time but the fact that I had to drink up quickly as my host finished a second pint and my fellow colleague finished a second half suggested that this was not really my cup of tea to be honest, we decided to head back in doors and split up for the final few trials - noting the advancing time and the fact that we were after a curry before the day was through.

I'd spotted my quarry on the way in and tried to convince my fellows to try something, but then abandoned the attempt to just dive into the Dirty Stop Out from Tiny Rebel that I've been after for so long. A smoked oat stout at 5% ABV and, again, from a keg.
This tasted just as I had imagined it would, big and creamy with some carbonation and a thin but persistent biscuit head atop a deep and cool blackness of an ale. Cloying almost, but in a coddling way, and a viscous flow across the mouth that left you in no doubt of the power of the brew. Indeed, this was one of the least strong brews of the day and yet it was one of the most satisfying and just delivered the power and depth that I was crying out for. It had a roasted edge to the cool and smooth malt, a fiery burn had been delivered but now that was gone and smothered in wave after satisfying wave of deep and dark stout to capture and keep the happy mood. I liked this one, it was the sort of stout that fitted a summer evening, after the conversation and the food but before the inky darkness of night, the stars are visible, a breeze cools the heat of the day and the oaty stout calmly calls you to relax and sit down and let the world run off. Bliss. Not quite as satisfying as the Founders Imperial Stout but enough to make me sigh in pleasure.

Time was running out now, so it was a dash to Wylam to get a third of Club of Slaughters Imperial Stout at 8.8% ABV.
This was a pleasant surprise. It was the smell that first told me that this would have that coffee like malt atop enough of a milk chocolate vibe to make me think of Mocha again, but this was somehow richer and more immediate. It made me long for my local so that I could just sit back by the door, kick out my feet and luxuriate in it - so that I could finish it languidly and slowly and then have another before slowly wending my way back home. It was the taste of the end of a long day of work, the consistency of sleep and power of a decent coffee to keep you going. Best suited to deep end-of-day conversations rather than rattling off events and ideas, the sort of slow and deep ale that allows you to collate the brainstormed ideas into a workable whole to be tackled in the morning and that allows you to reflect on just how bloomin' brilliant stouts actually are. They'd done quite a job here, maintaining a high enough ABV to make it a big hitter but without killing off the very subtle malts they had combined to give it some oomph. This was a worthy find and actually survived being immediately associated with the Dirty Stop Out, which is no mean feat. I would have happily had more of this and would seek out a bottle to age because I reckon this would be heaven after a year. Maybe not my favourite, but it wasn't far off! My colleagues did not agree and felt it a bit strong and heavy for a beer festival, I think they don't know what they're missing. Besides, it was a weaker option than some of the pales they were on!

The final trial of the day, before we were politely but firmly told to leave, was Alechemy Brewing's Bring Out The Imp, an Imperial Stout at 10.5% ABV.
This had been aged for three years in casks that had previously held Cotes de Rhone wine and so had that element of cabernet sauvignon that I recall from the days when I drank plonk because that's what people did in my job. It had a biscuity element that reminds me of the kind of brandy snap people use from supermarkets or in restaurants that are so posh they think you won't notice they've used Tesco's finest to make your over-priced dessert with. Not an unpleasant connotation, by the way, but the best one I can make. Very little head to this one and even less in the way of carbonation but nor was it the viscous blanket of a stout that so marked the Founders or the Wylam. It lacked the earthy charm and marsh-like depth of the Dirty Stop Out too and, instead, made up for that in the wild power of the ABV. Despite being on a par with the Founders it tasted much stronger and much richer too, but in a different way. If that was a cake with lashings of cream and chocolate, this was more the brandy and burnt ice-cream of something made with one of those mini-flame-throwers by some high ranking chef who knows too much chemistry. It had a thinness in the mouth that was not unsurprising having seen it in the glass but would have been if you were told you were about to have an imperial stout and were blindfolded. It is an impressive brew and I am glad that I tried it because that wine cask aging does alter what the stout actually does, I think this may be why it's so much thinner come to think of it. And the warming snap on the back of the throat that carries into the aftertaste is probably from that treatment too. It was good, a good note on which to end.

From there it was time to leave and I met an old friend from Leeds and had a brief catch up before we went off toward the curry house that has become something of a tradition between us, marking the old haunting ground of where we used to go out as a Department back in the day. On the way I was somewhat harangued by a former student who refused to give their name but claimed I was the bane of their life, but in a positive way? I looked them up at home and realised I'd taught them for less than half a year so I really must have made an impression - not sure if that's an entirely good thing. No matter. The curry was good but need not detain us here, because after that we passed the oddly new looking carpark where the police station had been and hit the Shuffleboards, the newest of the two Brewdog pubs in Leeds.

It was pretty busy, given that there was a fully functioning ale festival just down the road, and had plenty of choice. I decided to go for a DIPA by the name of Hardcore DIPA at 9.2% ABV, even managing to get it in as a third so as not to break my routine.
I will admit that I was definitely feeling the fact that I had been on an ale adventure by this point in the evening but I had also acquired three extra festival glasses (two of which were about to be smashed by a rather sozzled fellow) and so was feeling that I could get away with this one. One of the stronger ales of the day it was also one of the more hoppy, reminiscent of the Lazurite way back at the beginning. A deep burnished hue with elements of clear copper where it caught the light and a definite lively head marked this as the sort of IPA that I would get along with well. I was not disappointed, grapefruit and tropical fruits marked the hop bouquet and opened up with a fusillade once on the tongue, buoyed up by strong carbonation that kept those hops riding above the low tide of malt that left small breakers along the shoreline and prevented the overall feel from ever getting too thin or close to the pales that just weren't doing it for me on this day for some reason. Good big hops at the end of the taste too, remaining floral and not giving on to the temptation to overpower you with bitterness and citrus flavours. That said, there was a powerful sourness as I kept at this and that massive head rapidly retreats to mere skein. It was a dangerous ale as it acted as though you could session it but the 9.2% meant it would take its toll by hook or by crook if you did. This was probably the best rounded non-stout that I tried and would have stood me having a half in retrospect but a third was enough for me to feel that I had done it some justice. After the drunken smashing of my glasses, which was a shame, it was decided that we ought to make another traditional move and hit the oldest pub in Leeds before one of us had to get the train home.

Of course I refer to Whitelock's where I was pleased to find Hophead by Dark Star Brewing Co. weighing in at a rather light 3.8% ABV.
Indeed, after the weight of the stouts and the massive DIPA I'd just had it felt nice to get a half in of something that wasn't as strong and that was a bit lighter overall. Being a golden, it did exactly what I wanted it to do and, after my June and July of golden ales on hot days, it also served the purpose I believe goldens were created for: cooling off at the end of a warm day. The smell was reassuringly familiar, having had this on a couple of bar crawls around Ilson, and did the job of fading into the background whilst the light and summery hops did the job of cleansing the palate, washing away the thick stouts and the strong IPAs with something that was a bit more liquid, a bit thinner but not in a bad way and watery enough to make the mouth feel a little less cloyed and weighed down. I never would have thought it, but a golden makes for a good end of festival ale because it does do all of these things and prevents the build up of cotton mouth than can come when one has imbibed rather a few ales. Okay, I was having thirds and this was my first half, but I reserve the right to award the accolade for palate cleanser to golden ales. It was slightly chilled but standing outside soon had it warmed to the room temperature that I prefer as a fully-paid-up beer heathen. All in all this provided the perfect backdrop to good conversation and to wave off my friend to his train, allowing my host and I to make our way to the next and final bar, and thus ale, of the day.

This was taken at Tappd, a pub we had visited the last time I was up in Leeds, and I plumbed for a Chocolate Coffee Porter whose name and brewer I sadly left unrecorded, it was about that time of the evening and I was now well aware of the fact I'd put away 11 thirds (and some of those were quite generous).
The disappointment at my inability to record the day, mainly down to leaving my pad and pen in the kitchen when I set off that morning, aside: this was a very good choice for me and fitted what I was wanting from the day. The porter style meant that it wasn't heavy after the Hophead had done the job of clearing away the detritus. The darkness of the malt and the heaviness of the coffee on the nose carried through into the melange of the mouth and meant that the thin consistency was never too much so. Coffee dominated the opening, catching you unawares and delivering the kind of taste that fools you into thinking caffeine is present, it thus kept me going and stopped me falling into my usual silent stupor by this point in proceedings, as well as allowing me to keep conversation with my host rather than zoning out - another unfortunate habit of mine. That coffee rolls over into a thick and creamy malt that doesn't translate into a creamy thick feeling - a thin liquid with that quality? They've done a good job here and the chocolate shines through before both fade to allow a burnt bitterness to finish it off and leave you with a smoky reminder of the quality in the aftertaste. This was the sort of ale that was very suited to what we doing - discussing things and finishing conversation before heading home in a warm central city location.

Thus it was that we departed, caught a bus and then plugged in the car to charge before checking the puncture warning (still on) and then going to bed. I should point out that the morning brought no puncture warning (and it's not been on since) and the car charging was just fine to get me home without any trouble. I can also heartily recommend the Meadowhall charging station as a place to meet and chat with decent and friendly people.

Best ale of the day, for me, was probably the Founders Imperial Stout, in case it wasn't obvious, because it was just so delectable and full of adventure and taste. You could slice it and have it as pudding and I like that quality in a stout. Second was Wylam with their Club of Slaughters, another imperial stout, that was so soft and smooth that I could have curled up and fallen asleep in it. Both being very much dessert ales or the sort of ale one has to savour without having more than a single pint at the end of a week. Third place goes to Five Alarm from Siren because it was so mad as a concept and they pulled it off. I would definitely have and enjoy that one again!

My thanks, of course, to my excellent colleagues, without whom I would not have had the chance to tank up on stouts, and with hope that this time I can tempt them down to my end to sample some of the pubs and ales that one can find in Derbyshire!

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