It is long overdue for me to write a few words here as I have been living in England for the last 8 months. As much of an excuse as that sounds, I've been diligently busy trying new European beers every weekend in the UK and EU and I even joined the local Cambridgeshire chapter of CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ales) which promotes the culture and enjoyment of English cask conditioned ales ( if the term is new you can learn more about ...Real Ales here.. - http://www.camra.org.uk/aboutale)
Over the last 8 months, I have come to learn that some of the English surprisingly are somewhat more reserved in their selection of styles of beer than their American microbrew-maniac cousins. A lot of the English pub goers I've raised a pint with are simply happy to drink what their fathers drank and/or what their "local" pours. Beer loyalty abroad is much more than the Bud vs. Coors stereotype that mistakenly shrouds American beer lovers (interestingly, Budweiser seems to be quite popular over here and I have yet to go to a UK pub that doesn’t offer Bud or Corona in a bottle from behind the bar).
Specifically, there is a prevalent fear of what I've heard being called "beer with bits". That is, beer with any natural sediment. Often you'll find the vast majority of "tap" beer here is seen as untrustworthy if it’s not "clear". There are notable exceptions such as Guinness and some other darker and unique beers but being a bit of a megahop-head and home brewer myself, I've had a really hard time finding anything I would consider akin to an American micro IPA or a wonderfully cloudy German hefeweizen.
That said, CAMRA is doing an amazing job of promoting "Real Ales" and the variety in the cask beer market is excellent and somewhat overwhelming (I just wish the pubs would pull out the Heineken and Carling taps and put more Real Ales behind the bar).
Which brings me to the beer tasting part of the story.. Last weekend I attended the Bury St Edmunds Real Ale Festival and I diligently tried as many beers as was rational for a man who had to find his way back to the train station eventually (There were 87 types on "gravity taps" at this regional festival alone). The following Real Ales were on the list with my abbreviated notes to follow just in case you are lucky enough to cross the path with one of these..
Greene King - (Bury St. Edmunds) - "Ale Fresco" 4.3 ABV - - Subtle drama in this one - Green King is one of the larger "micro" breweries in this region of England and I'm not a huge fan of their work to date, but I keep trying. I found a likeable citrus character in this beer and was intrigued by their use of Centennial Hops. A good starter beer for the day.
Fox Brewery - (Heacham) - "Grizzly" 4.8 ABV - Best beer of the day - Florally aromatic, a sweet and strong hop aroma and an insanely long lasting CRISP finish. I could drink this all day just for the lingering perfect aftertaste it left in my mouth.
Greene King - (Bury St. Edmunds) - "Yardbird" 4.0 ABV - - The brewer said this one was inspired by jazz legend Charlie "Bird" Parker so I had to try it. I'm left wanting more from this beer and feeling like this pint was inspired more by Rick Astley than by anything else.
Ole Slewfoot Brewery - (Norwich) - "Fox on the Run" - 4.8 ABV - - My NUTTY buddy! - Intense hazelnut aroma, a dry malty hold on the palate. I almost want it to be bolder but I can't put it down. Closes with a light quick finish making you want more.
Wolf Brewery - (Norfolk) - "Sirius Dog Star" - 4.4 ABV - - Beer built to sit accompany "roast-beast" - Smoky malted nose. Dark velvety tobacco and raisin. Chocolate toffee finish. I had to take a break and go order a steak and ale pie after this one..
[Back from delicious meat pie land and feeling a good beer-high] I decide to go for a local "cider" of which many are represented at these festivals but I've never been a major connoisseur. Still a little buzz will often get me into places I don't normally go and today was no exception so I bellied up to the cider casks and asked for the boldest cider they had. I was poured TWO pints by a man glad to introduce me to his world.. One a "Bourbon cider" registering at a whopping 8.0 ABV and the other a "Whisky cider" at 6.5. Both were indeed unique and filled with more character than I had imagined. Of the two, the whisky cider was the knockout punch being aged in charred oak whisky barrels and having a DEEP smoky character that bounced off and then melded with the crisp apple bite like spandex on a hoochie. ((I may have just become a cider fan..))
Shortts Farm Brewery - (Thorndon Eye) - Skiffle" - 4.5 ABV - - Cherry nose and hints of caramel - Sour but in a crisp tart way. Unlike any beer I have ever tasted. It felt like an "old world beer" you would drink in the forest after a hunt with your faithful hound at your feet by the campfire. I wish I'd had time to go back for a 2nd pour but alas, I have a cider induced sense that my gyros are getting "tumbled", I'm actively imagining new faithful "forest pets" and I know I have a train to catch so I decide put my notes in my pocket and save my liver for the next festival in Cambridge in 2 weeks.
I know the Rules of Engagement mention something about "tunes" but I was busy asking the brewers questions about their beer and really wanted to listen so I'll mention that on the train ride down to the fest, I got a chance to listen to Pink Floyds "The Final Cut" (83). This is a controversial album to some degree having been almost entirely the brainchild of Roger Waters but it in my mind is a masterpiece of lyrical genius and emotion. Interestingly, it is the only album that has never been "toured" by Pink Floyd as it was composed at a tumultuous time in the bands history and David Gilmour was less than pleased with the effort on the whole. Still Gilmour’s mastery shines brilliantly when it surfaces and his skill at "less is more" guitar work is truly amazing to hear in some of these tracks. Try listening and imagining what other "stunt" guitarists would have done with these songs and I think you'll understand how impressive and goosebumpishly effective the minimal palate he paints with is here.
I'm always torn between "The Gunners Dream" and the title track as the soul-crusher standouts on the album. Both are gut-wrenchingly honest descents into the psyche of post-war WW-II Britain (Waters lost his father in the war) and the album as a whole is a stark portrait of England and wartime... Waters claimed later to dislike his vocals on the album, but I find the rawness endearing to the subject matter. I know I stand in a small crowd to say it's the bands greatest work but I've always been okay with standing in a small crowd. If you're a Floyd fan and haven't taken the time to get to know this album, put on a pair of headphones (it was recorded using an experimental 3D "holophonic" technology that makes its textural depth amazing), pour a beer with or without "bits" and dream the darkness that is "the Gunners Dream".
All said, Thanks for reading. I think you can imagine how lucky I feel to be able to get to go out to these local events to lovingly sample small batch British craft beer. For those that get a chance to visit Her Majesty's Isla Bonita, make sure you ask the local pub you're in what "Real Ales" or local cask pours they have before you let them pour you a generic clear beer.. and whatever you do, don't drink the Corona and Bud behind the bar. They think we ACTUALLY like that stuff.. =] , and Australians drink Fosters.. yeah, right.
Cheers my friends!