Friday, 16 October 2015

Wetherspoons International Real Ale Festival Autumn 2015

Yes it is that time of year again.  In the past I have spent two weeks going to my local Spoons drinking mediocre beer and writing about it.  Well sod that.  I've decided that life really is too short to waste time on the crappy things in life.  In the past six months I have really enjoyed going to some fabulous pubs along the south coast and drinking some top class beers.  For that reason alone I will not be trying to pack in as many of the 50 beers Spoons are offering this time around.  This lunchtime I did go to the Dolphin & Anchor in Chichester and picked up the beer list.  For a start they only had three festival beers for sale.  One was by Greene King and one was by Wadworths so I opted for a pint of the Exmoor Gold Export (5.5% ABV).  After buying the pint (which  took a ridiculous amount of time) I tried to find a table as my wife was due to join me.  The tables that were not taken were full of debris from departed diners.  It really was a squalid environment in which to sit down for a pint.  I moved some plates onto another table that was equally plate-laden and sat down.  The pint was pretty dreadful.  By the time my wife had arrived I had sunk half of it and I told her I was ready to leave.  Exmoor Gold is a decent pint but this was malty, sweet and sickly.  Looking through the festival list you get the usual international brewers visiting some of the worst breweries in the UK where they try in vain to recreate their beers.  You also get the usual UK brewers creating one-offs exclusively for Spoons.  This presumably means a beer they can produce cheaply enough for Spoons to flog at their low price.  There are one or two beers I wouldn't mind trying as is often the case but the chance of finding them on without popping in every day is slim.

In the past I have been pretty neutral about Spoons.  They can be useful in towns that have a poor selection of pubs.  However, when I got to thinking about it, the only Spoons I regularly go in is the Hatters in Bognor Regis.  Is it any better or worse than any other Spoons?  Probably not.  But it is the only pub in Bognor where you can get a decent pint.  Go along the coast to Worthing, Brighton or Portsmouth and they serve no purpose at all because these places are awash with excellent pubs where you can sit and enjoy a pint in pleasant surroundings.  In fact I have never been in any of the Spoons in these places and that's my point really.  It is interesting that Tim Martin constantly rants about the tax advantages that supermarkets have because sitting in a Spoons is about as pleasant as a trip to Lidl so perhaps they should be treated the same.  The difference though is that you go to a supermarket for the sole purpose of buying what you want to enjoy at home and so buying things at the cheapest possible price makes sense.  If Spoons want to compete with that they really should make their pubs more inviting but I would rather drink at home than sit in one of their pubs.

This has become a bit of a rant against Spoons and that wasn't really the intention.  They are what they are and some people like them and that's fine.  I don't and I can't change that.  We're all different and we all like different things.  What I really wanted to say was how my outlook on life has changed in the past year.  There are some things I no longer want to put up with and Spoons is one of these things.  Believe it or not there are still plenty of excellent pubs around.  Warm inviting places where the landlord will serve you a pint that has been looked after rather than having to wait in line to be served by someone who knows nothing about what they are selling.  Where you don't have to clear away dirty dishes to sit down at a table that is still filthy once you have removed the unwanted items yourself.  Where they don't advertise the world's biggest real ale festival which in reality consists of three different beers on launch day.              

That's it then for my review of this particular beer festival.  Go and enjoy these fifty beers if you wish but I will go to other pubs and find better beer,  It won't be difficult.


Friday, 9 October 2015

America Part Two - Vermont

How did Vermont compare to the excellent beer I found in New Hampshire?  We only had four days in Vermont but we were staying at a hotel with a brewery, the Trapp Family Lodge.  That was a good start.  However, good things happened before we even got to the hotel.  As we drove through Morrisville we just had to stop at the Rock Art Brewery.

Located in a modern building on the main road through Morrisville the inside bar area had plenty of their beers on tap and the shop had lots of goodies to take away.  Rock Art was founded in 1997 so have been around for quite awhile so it is surprising I had never tried their beers before on previous visits to the Stowe area.  

There was time for a couple of small samples.  Both were tremendous hoppy affairs.  The Citra IPA (6.0% ABV) was part of their single hop series and just about edged it as my favourite beer of the entire holiday.  Their Limited Access double IPA (8.0% ABV) wasn't far behind.  In addition, I took a bottle of Belvedere Big IPA, another double IPA at 8.0% ABV, away with me.  At 80 IBU this beer is insanely hopped and I absolutely loved it of course.     

We were staying at the Trapp Family Lodge, a sort of 'Sound of Music' theme park with pictures of the von Trapps everywhere in an imitation of an Austrian lodge set beautifully within the Green Mountains with stunning views.  There is even a lonely goat-herd up on the hillside.  Johannes von Trapp is the youngest of Georg and Maria von Trapp's children and he had a vision of a brewery dedicated to brewing Austrian style lagers.  The von Trapp Brewery began brewing in 2010 and earlier this year they opened a new 40,000 sq ft brewery capable of producing 50,000 barrels pa.

During our stay I sampled all four beers that were available.  They are not the styles I go crazy for except for the Dunkel.  The Bohemian Pilsner (5.4% ABV) was pretty decent but the Vienna Style Lager (5.2% ABV) was more flavoursome.  The Oktoberfest (5.6% ABV) was better than the Sam Adams version but still not to my taste.  Best of the crop by far was the Dunkel (5.7% ABV), pictured below.  It's a beer style I particularly enjoy and this beer was full bodied and malty without being heavy and sweet.  Very smooth with quite a crisp bitterness in the finish balancing out the smooth chocolatey character from the malt.

Let's take a closer look at Vermont because in brewing terms it is quite amazing.  From the late 1800s there were no breweries in Vermont.  Vermont passed their own prohibition laws way before the rest of the USA beginning in the mid 1800s.  Brewing did continue for a while but the beer was sold out of state.  Vermont was also a big hop growing area too at this time with production peaking in 1860 but following on from prohibition and the decline in the number of breweries production fell to virtually nothing by 1910.  Much of this is documented in a rather excellent book I picked up out there called Vermont Beer - History of a Brewing Revolution by Kurt Staudter & Adam Krakowski which I read once I got home.   

The guy who can probably be credited with the resurgence in brewing within Vermont was Greg Noonan.  In 1988, after three years of lobbying the Vermont legislature, he opened the first brewpub in Burlington, Vermont, called simply the Vermont Pub & Brewery (although the first brewery to appear in the state was Catamount in 1987).  This is a place I have visited a few times previously so I did not go in there this time.  Greg has also been cited with brewing the first black IPA (in 1994) so we have a lot to thank him for.

By 2010 Vermont had 26 breweries and since then I think Vermont can boast the most number of breweries per head of population within the United States.  With a population of just over 600,000 it can now boast 41 breweries making it one brewery for approximately every 15,000 people.  Compare that to the UK with one brewery for approximately every 45,000 people and you can see why beer lovers flock to Vermont.  

The Trapp Family Lodge is quite close to Waterbury.  Famous for being the home to Ben & Jerrys they are now proclaiming the town to be the craft beer capital of the world.  Quite a boast.  How can they make such a claim you may well ask.  

Let's begin with the Craft Beer Cellar.  This was one amazing shop with cans and bottles from all over the world in addition to beer on tap to take away in growlers of 32 or 64 oz.  The prices would make anyone in the UK drool too.  I had to drink whatever I bought in the last two days of my holiday so I was ultra conservative but the beer I bought only cost me the equivalent of £8.  In the UK this would have been double.  Perhaps this explains why it was two guys from Vermont who founded Alcoholics Anonymous in 1935.  They certainly would not be recommending you visit Waterbury.  I could actually have spent hundreds of dollars in this place.     

Across the road from the Beer Cellar was the Prohibition Pig brewpub.  Round the corner there is the Blackback Pub & Flyshop.  This crazy place has 25 world-class beers on tap and you can also buy your fly-fishing equipment here too.  Then there is the Reservoir Restaurant & Tap Room with 38 beers on tap.  I spotted another one across the road from the Blackback pub advertising 20 beers on tap.  It's all here.  Added to the fact that Waterbury is an idyllic sleepy town located in such amazing countryside within a state that is larger than Wales but with fewer people than Leeds you can see why I love Waterbury more than any other place on earth.  

And I still haven't mentioned the jewel in Waterbury's crown.  Heady Topper.  The Alchemist Pub & Brewery was one of the best brewpubs in the state so I am told.  In August 2011 Hurricane Irene hit Vermont.  It destroyed the Alchemist among many other homes, businesses, roads and bridges.  However, John & Jennifer Kimmich had already begun building the Alchemist Cannery, a 15 barrel brewery and canning line and this opened shortly after the closure of the brewpub.  They only produce the one beer (Heady Topper).  Demand is such that they brew twelve 15 barrel batches a week and in most places it sells out within hours of arrival.  The Beer Cellar was certainly devoid of it when I visited but I was determined to find it.  I looked at the list of places supposedly stocking it and a restaurant we really wanted to try was listed.  Success.  This beer has become legendary it seems.  It is a double IPA (8.0% ABV) packed with hops as you would expect.  On Untappd it has been rated over 80,000 times and the average rating comes out at 4.67/5.  Blimey I'd better not say anything bad about it then.  I can't.  It was everything I expected.    

As a footnote to the Alchemist story their old brewpub has been restored and is now home to the aforementioned and pictured Prohibition Pig (opposite the Beer Cellar).  Everything is so close together in Waterbury you could literally stumble just a few hundred yards and find over 100 magnificent beers on tap along the way.  If you want a beer trip then go to Waterbury.  I had to keep reminding myself that I was on a family holiday and not a beer trip but I did keep picking up great little beers wherever I could and the Heady Topper was a major find.

There is no need to restrict yourself to Waterbury of course.  About twenty minutes away along the interstate is Burlington, a vibrant university town (and largest town in Vermont), where you can start at the legendary Vermont Pub & Brewery.  Also within Burlington you can visit the Magic Hat Brewing Company, Switchback Brewing Company, Simple Roots Brewing Company, Infinity Brewing, Zero Gravity Craft Brewery as well as numerous bars as you would expect in a university town.  I did get to visit a bizarre but wonderful place called the Growler Garage.

Growler Garage is a beer geeks paradise.  This is a genuine beer filling station.  There is a tasting bar and once you find the beer for you they can fill a growler (64oz) or howler (32oz) with it for you to take home.  Bizarrely they also had a table tennis table in the centre of the bar area alongside numerous other amusements.  As well as the 21 beers on tap there is also an abundance of bottles to try too.  I could have spent all day in here but then I would had to have been carried out.

OK I think I have established that when it comes to beer Vermont is simply heaven.  I have certainly never been anywhere that compares to it.  What about the quality though.  I have already mentioned Heady Topper and the beers of Rock Art which I found impossible to beat.  What else did I find to enjoy in my short time here?  My first selection of cans I found included beers from some of my favourite Vermont brewers from previous trips.

Magic Hat #9 is not your usual hopfest.  It is a fruity pale ale with notes of peach and orange making it quite sweet and with a low bitterness.  I had a cask version of this at the original brewery many years ago.

The Take 5 Session IPA (4.3% ABV) from Harpoon was a perfectly acceptable session beer that had a more bitter hop character.  A perfectly acceptable session strength beer.  Harpoon are a large brewer with breweries in both Boston and in Windsor, Vermont.  They took advantage of the struggles at Catamount.  In the mid 1990s Catamount invested in a new brewery but sales flattened off and they ended up going bust in 1999.  Harpoon, based in Boston, were looking to expand and with a state-of-the-art brewery with a skilled local workforce sitting idle in Vermont they bought the brewery and the rights to the Catamount brand at a fire sale price ($1 million).  This was a fraction of the cost it would have been to have expanded their Boston site.  
The Long Trail India Pale Ale (6.0% ABV) was hoppier still and at just under $2 this can was exceptional value for what was a very decent IPA.  Long Trail have been around since 1989 and I visited Long Trail's rather excellent brewery taproom at Bridgewater Corners about ten years ago so it was reassuring to see their beers are still excellent.   

Finally, a much more modern American IPA was the Conehead (5.8% ABV) from Zero Gravity Brewing.  Zero Gravity is a brewpub in Burlington that also makes awesome pizzas I am told.  This beer was stunningly good too.  A real hopfest.  I must visit and try their pizzas next time.     

My purchases from the Beer Cellar in Waterbury went down just as well.  The Shed IPA (6.0% ABV) was very citrusy with plenty of grapefruit notes giving it a very deep dry bitterness which I also enjoy.  The Shed brewpub was located near to Stowe when I visited it years ago but has since relocated to Middlebury which has been home to Otter Creek Brewing for many years.  Otter Creek began brewing in 1991 and in 2002 were purchased by Wolaver's, also of Middlebury.  The brewing names are kept separate and the two Otter Creek beers I enjoyed here were Backseat Berner, a 7.0% ABV American IPA and Overgrown, a 5.5% ABV American Pale Ale.  The Backseat Berner was the hoppier of the two but the Overgrown has the more citrusy hop flavours.  Both of these beers were fantastic.    

It wasn't all about hops and Vermont though.  I did buy one out-of-state beer, the Hipster Ale (5.5% ABV) from Evil Twin.  I didn't actually enjoy this beer though.  It didn't seem to have a great deal of flavour.  Perhaps my taste buds had been overloaded with hops too much but this one did not compare with any of the great Vermont beers I was enjoying.  

Finally, a big break from the hops came with the Maple Breakfast Stout (6.8% ABV) from 14th Star Brewing Company (named as Vermont were the 14th state to join the union in 1791).  Steve Gagner was serving in Afghanistan in 2010 when he dreamed of quitting the army and opening a brewery back home.  That dream has been realised and he is already moving to bigger premises.  This beer was smoky initially.  Coffee notes in the middle and a sweet maple finish.  It was a perfect contrast to the hopfest I was enjoying. 

The final beer I enjoyed was something quite different from the massively hopped beers I'd been drinking in abundance.  The Switchback Extra Pale Ale (5.0% ABV) is a more balanced ale with plenty of malt character to complement the fruity and aromatic hops.  Switchback began brewing in 2002 and all of their beers are unfiltered.       

So there you have  it.  Vermont is a unique state when it comes to beer.  If anyone wants a trip to sample some world class beers in an environment that is relaxing, peaceful and stunningly beautiful then look no further.  Just make sure you give yourself plenty of time though because you will need it as there is a lot to discover.