Beer festivals are strongly entwined within the memories of my youth. I still go to the Margate Winter Gardens’ ‘Thanet Beer Festival,’ with a uniformity that can be likened only to obsessive compulsion. The uncomfortable, red, fuzzy chairs, the close atmosphere and crap yet good pub bands are an enduring memory of my Kentish adolescence. The Ealing beer festival of this year though different was nonetheless enjoyable. Within the settings of an affluent, countryside-esque, London green, the event was open air, a long beer tent along one end and scattered plastic chairs dotted with red Fullers umbrellas to protect the average sandle-footed punter from the rain of the English summer. Glorious stuff that it is at this time of year, I stayed out in it with a choice of around 200 real ales as company.
So, kicking off proceedings is the slightly lower ABV stuff. ‘Taiphoon,’ by Hopback Brewery in Salisbury (4.2%) was a little bit weak on the nose yet had enough fruitiness from the first to last taste to carry it through (a slightly glib analysis, I know but sometimes that’s all that can be said).
Then there was the ‘Tewdrick’s Tipple,’ by Kingstone (3.8%) from Tintern in Monmouthshire which regrettably again lacked something in the scent. There was a fruity berriness though that matched the summery setting, so all good on that front.
In the same vain was the ‘Cumberland Ale,’ (4.0%) by Jennings of Cockermouth that possessed the smell and taste of both honey and malt whiskey that was at the same time, kind of basic. Worth a drop, but you won’t be racing back for another.
There was a couple of very notable lower ABV ones on show this evening. The ‘Blond Witch,’ (4.5%) by Moorhouse from Burnley was sensationally good. A light, pale in colour and body, this magnificent beer had a musky fruit smell that was curiously reminiscent of green tea yet bizarrely, then gave way to a lovely strawberry taste, compressed and intense like the manufactured yet delightful flavour of an old fashioned boiled sweet or ‘Campino,’ all resolved beautifully with a light-hearted bitterness.
Alongside this was ‘Oscar Wilde Mild,’ (3.7%) by Mighty Oak of Maldon, Essex. Strong, dull and malty, there was a coffee residue musk (more mocha than espresso) that retained a saccharine nature. It was smooth in consistency with a level of liquorice sour.
The infamous breweries of Belgium are often seen as the zenith of beer inventiveness. It is for this reason that fruit beers are often seen as their reserve and solely within their expertise. Fruit beer from Flandres consistently translates well in the medium of keg or bottle, the flavour of the fruit creating a boozy intensity that is compressed and concentrated. Little though is covered on the combination of British cask ale and fruit. If done well, it results in a truly innovative combination in which the fruit and ingenuity of the medium combine beautifully. This was best recognised this evening by the sheer contribution of Coach House brewery from Warrington, Cheshire, producing as they did, several fruit ales that were uniformly 5.0% (so you know how much you’re drinking) and uniformly pleasant also.
We started off with the seemingly popular passion fruit variety, which had a subtle scent of the fruit in scent but could possibly have used a bit more ‘oomph!!!’ This aside though, there was a delightful desert-like fruitiness that can be attributed as much from the hops as much as it could by the tropical fruit itself.
Split opinions next with Coach House’s coconut beer. Many smelt cheap Malibu and bad pinocoladas, me, not so much. It grew on me. The coconut as expected was prominent in the first smell. This, though gave way to an almost baked rice pudding smell, a rice pudding though, that is pronounced ‘arroz con lecce,’ or ‘crema catalana.’ It was a lovely marriage between the Caribbean and traditional British cask that resolved itself with a tropical yet subtle nuttiness.
Another from the same brewery was the cherry beer. Again, a traditional Belgian flavouring to beer, this was no kriek, rather than a cherry bakewell, lacking only a slick of cream and a cup of Darjeeling on a charming middle-England day. Really nice.
So, diverting from Coach House, were a couple of other fruit niceties. Firstly, the ‘Fruit Bat,’ (4.5%) from B&T Brewery in Shefford, Bedfordshire that possessed a delightful Chanel fruit perfume that gave me a blast from the past of seaside resort ice-cream parlours which to this day I still love by the way.
Equally delicious was the hazy ‘Raspberry Wheat,’ (5.6%) by Milestone Brewery in Newark, Nottinghamshire that was light amber in colour. There was a strong scent of the fruit nose-wise and this was mirrored in the first taste. The savouriness of the other ingredients then enters, yet the fruit stays with a jam-like taste, something that can incidentally be said for all the fruit beers on offer this evening. There is enough of the taste of beer to prevent these from being too sickly.
I.P.As to me are vital to the English summer experience, as vital I would say as Al Fresco dining and ‘jumpers for goalposts,’ down the park. It was for this reason then, that we sampled a couple of the ones on offer. The Raj I.P.A (5.5%) from Tryst Brewery of Falkirk possessed an apricot taste with citrus notes of orange and lemon. The fruitiness and boozy quality earns it’s I.P.A status yet this is not to detract from it’s un-arguably palette-cleansing qualities, even if there is that lingering bitterness.
Windsor & Eton brewery have a rich tradition in creating very traditional, very hoppy British ales, so it was a pleasure to see their less-than-traditional ‘Kohinoor I.P.A,’ on offer. A unique blend of hops, invents something that is altogether zesty yet possessing also, elements of cardamom, mint and lemongrass, truly harmonious yet with those flavours being so prominent, it is truly embracing of the title ‘India Pale Ale.’
As the evening reached its end, the skies started to darken, following suite then, we switched to some of the darker coloured beers. Firstly then was the ‘Zig-Zag Stout’ (4.5%) by Milk Street brewery of Frome, Somerset. There was a lingering smell of spent Espresso cups that had been since filled with a drop of after dinner liquor such was the fermented coffee smokiness that emanated from the glass. This was reciprocated with the first taste that when knocked around the taste buds, possessed a sour-mash taste of boozy bourbon, a very pleasant glass of beer indeed, and considering the relatively low ABV, one that I would go back for.
Next up was Outstanding Brewery’s (of Bury) ‘Stout’ (5.5%) that was resolutely full-bodied in consistency and colour. So dark it was that the fingers on the other side of the glass could not be seen. A pint of bread though it was not. Velvety and smooth, it possessed the vanilla chocolate taste of a stout that had been well treated with good malt.
Finally then, my personal star of the show. TSA (Traditional Scottish Ales) of Stirling have created a truly swashbuckling ‘Double Espresso Stout,’ (4.5%) and good lord, it is potent. Whereas most beers will allow you the option of smelling them in your own time, this seductive lass does no such thing. The equivalent of a curry so spicy that you can hear it before you can see it, the espresso stout even when on the other side of the table grabs your nostrils in a vice-like grip, and it is a remarkable smell. Although the coffee is prominent, it can be likened more closely to a strong cappuccino such is the strength of the cocoa that is existent. This naturally follows through with the taste, albeit with added elements of hazelnut and caramel that is reminiscent of a well-made gypsy tart (something I have grown to love since my school canteen memories of the stuff). This confectionary flavour though, does not get carried away, the levels of sourness being sufficient in stopping it from tasting like some bad Tokai wine. Again, like many other of the beers on the slightly sweeter side, there was enough of a savoury nature present that can ensure that you’ll be able to manage a pint of the stuff, if not perhaps more.
I had never been to the Ealing Beer Festival before and instantly decided that I would return. I looked back at the scattered chairs, now jauntily-placed parasols and persistent stewards ushering us towards the exit and remembered just how good we are in this country at doing these types of festival. I had not seen a glum face all evening…well, there’s a good reason for that.