Crap Beer Night

"It was the best of beers, it was the worst of beers... we had Westys before us, we had Carling before us; we were all going directly to craft beer heaven, we were all going the other way to macro swill hell". The Westys can stay in the cellar a little longer. Just how bad can discount beer be? Armed with a sackful of pennies and a forgiving palate, I set about having a Crap Beer Night.

It was Phil at that started me off thinking about this. He'd kindly sent me a box of beer - the Nils Oscar stuff will feature in a special smorgasbord review soon - and there was some stuff in there that made me laugh out loud when I saw it. Jupiler? I remember stag nights in Belgium where we shunned trappist beers so we could drink Jupiler from glasses wider than our heads. Fruli? Isn't that what girls order when they're too plastered to order another bucket of Lambrini? Well, the Jupiler was downed early last week just for the heck of it and - bless it - it wasn't really that bad. Not good; not particularly average. But not the kind of stuff destined to coat your throat in unpleasantness that only taste better when you sick it up (ah, the wonderful taste of lager-carrots with chili sauce).

So, I thought, what's crap beer really like? I drink plenty of average cask stuff and some superb beers, occasionally world-class ones. Even in supermarkets I can find acceptable bottles. Just how bad can macro-beer be?

Thankfully, Phil hadn't sent me too much dodgy stuff apart from the Fruli so I had to go shopping. My village, Spondon, has two mini-market-type shops, but they didn't have too much in the way of crap beer. Well, not in single cans or bottles; Somerfield and Co-op both had four/six packs of some terrifying swill but I wasn't prepared to spend more than a tenner on a range of execrable stuff. That's where our friendly local discount booze shop came to the rescue. Plonkers has a stack-it-high, sell-it-cheap philosophy, anything can be bought in the minimum quantity of one and there was plenty of homogenised crap beer to choose frpm.

Here's the line up, then: from just down the road in Burton, a can of Carling. Carlsberg 'Export' from, er, Northampton. Budweiser, from Satan's weeping arse sores (allegedly). The Fruli, care of Phil. Bottled Greene King IPA (ooh, yum!). A tin of Worthington's Cream Flow. And the hand-grenade-in-a-can version of Guinness. The tester would be to see how far down the glass I could drain the beer before my body repulsed.

I can't believe I'm actually doing this. First up, Carling. It glowed like radioactive piss as it poured. Forming a rocky head, there was a real whiff of scorched plastic and damp cardboard. And, by gum, it was sweet. Not toffee-sugary, just sweetener-gone-mental sweet. The flavour of once-chewed bubblegum, a slighly soapy residue and a mercifully short finish. This was so seriously devoid of malt and hops that calling it 'beer' is, frankly, insulting. I tried to keep taking nips to see if I was missing something, but I had to stop. Vile, vile, vile.

Carlsberg Export next. Now, I remember a time when I used to drink this. It was cold, wet and got me blotto. Then again, I used to eat Goodfellas pizza too. Students can be *so* stupid. Had that fluorescing urine look again; my wife said it looked like 'fizzy wee'. Overwhelmingly sweet aroma with odd bready notes. Not as fantastically emetic as Carling, as it had at least been in the same postcode as a hop. There was something almost acceptable on the back of the palate yet there was that very short finish again, with a slightly tacky sweetness. Alarming how a viscous head could be resurrected by whipping the stuff round in the glass. As it started to warm, the plastic tackyness rose in my throat like Ebola.

Never mind - Budweiser next. This amazed me for being so incredibly pale; I know it's billed as a 'pale lager' but this looked like maiden's water. Total absence of aroma. That nasty artificial sweetness again. If you hold it it your mouth and sloosh it around, it feels like toothpaste, but with a really sickly sweet smack. It's the taste of chewing a plastic toy when you were a toddler; it's almost as if this was engineered to be bad. After two sips, I threw the rest away before I took another photo because I couldn't wait to get rid of it.

The lagers, truth be told, were as bad as I expected them to be. What about the strawberry fruit beer from Belgium, Fruli? Honest opinion? Sticky strawberry laces from the sweet shop. Hazy rose body with strong carbonation. It's an incredibly aggressive strawberry essence aroma, though the nose calms down after a few minutes. Then it has a beery-er feel to it, some sourness fights back across the palate. It starts to cloy towards the end but remains strangely alluring. Actually refreshing. The first beer tonight I've finished.

So, to the Greene King IPA. It's too easy to take the piss out of Greede Kerching, either for their bully-boy expansionist agenda or for their mediocre beers. But it's been a long, long tiem since I tried this (love how the bottle actually says 'IPA stands for India Pale Ale'. I-P-A. Write that down. Ask Nursey to sharpen your crayon first...)

This was a 500ml plastic bottle with a metal cap. Dear God. It actually looked rather good; rugged brown body, dazzlingly clear, thin head. Then there was the mouldy porridge aroma. Sludgy malts. Soapy mouthfeel. A beer that was actually physically unpleasant to drink. I tried clicking my heels and hoping that the madness would just go away, but instead it lingered. Like a prawn sandwich hidden in the ceiling space above a bastard manager's office by a phenomenally pissed-off contractor. And not found until after the Christmas holidays. In a perverse way, this ghastly bottle actually makes me want to try the damn stuff on cask, because it can't be *this* bad in a pub?

...Sorry, just realised what I wrote there. Of course it can. And I'm not risking a single sliver of liver to find out if this torporific malt is really the hall mark of GK's, *cough*, 'IPA'.

Time for some light relief - Worthington Creamflow. Er, pardon? Is that meant to sound attractive as a drink? Is Creamflow not something that Ginger Baker used to do when he got wrapped up in his paradiddles? I thought a pipe under pressure had burst when I opened the can, such was the sickening crack and hiss. When the liquid began its incredible surge to the glass, it looked like manky cream with a dull ginger stream topped by a curdling off-white crest. It tasted like a watered-down version of the GK with dirty wet malts followed by floods of plastic-y tangs again. It managed to be thin and soapy at that same time, that thumb-thick head (which didn't dissipate even after twenty minutes of ignoring the ruddy beer) making every mouthful taste like I was drinking out of a condom. Not that I ever have, of course. Hold on, perhaps that's why Carlsberg in my student days always tasted so bad...

Guinness is, then, as good a place as any to put a stop to this madness. Of course, I was greatly appreciative of the can blowing open as soon as I looked at it in a funny way, letting scummy stuff spill out over the kitchen worktop like an over-ambitious expansionist dictatorship. The vilest-pouring beer I've ever seen.

I lived on this stuff through my later student years - OK, not just Guinness, there were chips and kebabs as well. And Thunderbird. And Clan Dew when Spar ran out of Thunderbird. Even now, the black stuff is my fall-back drink at hotels and family gatherings. Once the liquid had stopped looking like a surge of loose stool water, I found some washy malts and a hint of thin coffee hidden within. Malty and creamy on the palate, wholly inoffensive compared to all the others. Fantastically bland. Slough in a glass.

By now, I'd almost lost the will to blog. Yes, most of these beers were crap. In fact, they sullied the good name of crap. I wouldn't even use cans of Carling to pelt Pete Doherty with. I only made it through two drinks; the Guinness may have had a white head and a black body but it was riven gray all the way through. Still drinkable, though not really enjoyable. The real surprise for me was the Fruli. I don't think I could have managed much more than a bottle, but at least it had a ballsy flavour and a hint of elan about it. Perhaps it was unfair to lump it into tonight's tasting just because it's a fruit beer.

The 'epoch of incredulity' has been well and truly tested tonight. If you like beer and end up in pubs/clubs/parties where this kind of macro swill is all that's on offer, Just Say No. Well, just say you're driving. Even if everyone knows you came by taxi.


Fest of fun: Moorgreen

What's the most attractive sight at a country show? Onions the size of a child's head? Horse riders in skin-tight trousers wielding whips? Or the beer tent? When it's a well-run CAMRA bar offering thirty handpumped beers, I'm more smitten by the thought of Jaipur rather than jodhpurs.

The Moorgreen show is an annual event held over the late August bank holiday. It's only a short walk across the fields from where I was brought up, so this year I met up with my Dad for a Sunday ramble over to there.

It was a pleasantly warm day, ideal for wandering around the forty acre site and taking in the attractions on offer. My Dad proved to be a mean shot at the archery and a dab hand at manipulating a JCB. When I wasn't getting my thumb in the way, I quite enjoyed shooting a crossbow. The displays were fun, too; recalcitrant birds of prey, diggers doing things at angles you don't see them reach on the M1 and a tent stuffed with freakish vegetables.

No, I don't mean the beer tent. That was refreshingly free of denim-clad bottlers; instead there was just a whole bunch of people drinking and having a fun time. Mansfield CAMRA put on a fantastic array of largely LocAle beers from thirty brewers such as Amber, Holland, Leadmill and the bar sponsors, Thornbridge. There were several beers here that I hadn't tried before, but Reluctant Scooping decreed that I drank as much Thornbridge as I dared to. Pints of Jaipur and Jaywick were dispatched quickly; I also plumped for Leadmill's Ginger which wasn't quite as refreshingly spicy as I'd hoped. More Jaipur kept my palate sated later on. I didn't try the ciders or perrys, but there was always a bustle at that bar which seemed to suggest they went down well.

It was good to see such a professional set-up; one long bar, all casks on handpump, served just cool enough so only a few were over-lively in the plastic glass. The bar was rightly busy towards late afternoon as a decent pint proved to be the perfect respite from the sunshine. Here's hoping that other CAMRA branches take up this kind of 'outreach' activity and provide bars at other such events


Fest of fun: Peterborough

Peterborough - *the* place in the Midlands for arson action, swathes of eastern European swede slashers itching for a return ticket home (where gas fitting has become more lucrative) and a stupendous amount of beer in a feck-off marquee during the middle of August. But is it quality beer? Are these two feckless raters just putting it on for the camera or did they buy Greede Kerching by mistake? Read on, dear toper...

Now, reluctancy is a core competency for me. And if a scoop is reluctant, it's ever more so if it involves a long-ish rail journey. When I could be in Sheffield instead. But there's a lure to Peterborough; 500+ beers, ciders and perries, a great venue, meeting up with fellow Ratebeerians. And, truth be told, an enjoyable journey. Foresaking the hell of a Leicester change onto the diesel cattle truck that is the Stanstead Airport service, I went round the counties via Nottingham and Grantham to revisit my trip earlier in the year. And, by buying two tickets - Derby-Grantham, Grantham-Peterborough, it cost me £16.30 rather than £25. Here's a Reluctant Scooper tip - if your scooping journey goes via a station you could change at after 0930, run the permutations through the National Rail site - the more you save, the more you get to spend on beer.

So then - Peterborough. Or 'Pity Borrow', if the Guardian is to be believed. I tried to walk past the first pub I saw, a Wetherspoons called the Drapers Arms, but failed spectacularly. And, Chambourcy Nouvelle, it was full of the unemployable, elderly and stinking tickers. You might say they were one and the same. I couldn't possibly comment. A swift half of Elgood's Peterborough Festival Special Ale Special Festival Thing was partaken. Sadly, detailed notes on its proper name or ABV were not taken. Tasty stuff, though.

Plenty of time before the fest opened for some photography. The parish church and market place offered some inspiration, as did the ladies old bogs... and the cathedral is always an attraction for me. So I took lots of piccies of the green by the West Front instead. I dared not go inside the cathedral, as I'd have spent several hours shooting the stained glass. And the painted ceiling. And the fan vaulting... it's indeed a hard knock life to be a keen lensman on a well-lit day in front of one of the world's finest Norman cathedrals. But I had beer to drink.

Off to the big PB fest, then. Down near the river, a quad of marquees, like Worcester BF on steroids. This pic was taken later in the day on exit; with twenty-ish minutes to opening time, the queues were stretching wayyyyyy back down the green stripe. Fortunately, my hyper-organised friends were bagging a head-of-the-queue spot. Mark and Hughie had both endured uncomfortable bus slogs to get here - that'll learn them for living in the arse-end of nowhere. Or Bedford, in Hughie's case. You might say they were one and the same. I couldn't possibly comment.

As we're sad fest types, we had our own glasses and soon secured a table close inside the first tent. By the wine stall. Think; wine = women topers; women topers = tight jeans and low cut tops. Dirty old feckers who ought to know better with our age and marital status? Hell, yeah, but what happens on tour stays on tour... (honest, Mrs H!!) Beers were bought and I was in full-on semi-reluctant scooper mode. Three Ratebeerians, buying halves, can manage a scoop from each glass. Only a sixth of a pint each, but ostensibly enough to get a flavour of the ale.

And, for what it's worth, those beers glowing in the photo were (l-r): Son of Sid - Muck Cart Mild (bought by Mark). Earthy and lactic. Yard of Ale - First Yard (bough my Mark in my glass even though I wouldn't have scooped this shite). Backyard, more like; had the odour of cobbles relieved on by a dog several hours ago. Leeds Bombay Sunrise (bought by Hughie). Butter. Bombay Butter. Fairy nuff; it got better later after some air was whipped into it.

For me, the story of PB BF was my cross-country odyssey. Denied at Worcester, the list here proffered potential and my Ratebeer wingmen could support me on my mission from sea to shining sea. Well, consecutive counties with a start in Northumberland and a finish down in Cornwall. Fortified by a roast pork cob (NOT a hog roast, you need a pig twirling on a poker through its arse and gob for one of those, not just flabby slices of whatever steaming in a stainless steel hopper), I set off on my journey.

Well, thanks to Mark's excreable choice from Yard of Ale, I needed to backtrack. Up to Northumberland, then, for a Wylam beer. My only known prevous for this brewer was an easy going gold (Gold Tankard). Sadly, this one didn't really hit the spot. Another buttery bugger, diacetyl rampant, though it tasted better than the aroma suggested. Fortunate, really.

North Yorkshire next, and a Reluctant Scoop of a new brewer for me. I'd have been happy to settle for a Brown Cow beer (or do I mean Suddaby's?) but these desperate scoopers went for Redscar's Sands. Brewed on the five barrel plant at the Cleveland Hotel in Redcar, this is one of the beers brewed by licensee Chris Appleby who is attempting to bolster trade by opening a microbrew plant on the premises. Light, itchy, some fruit fights through. It's a dependable beer, the kind that you'd pray for in any hotel. More power to his entrepreneurial elbow.

A skip to West Yorks next for one of Mark's suggestion's, Osset Black Bull Bitter. I enjoyed this, despite my palate wishing to downgrade from a sweeter bitter. The other guys weren't as keen, though I wondered how much this was due to preconceptions of the brewers style. A sort of homecoming for the next beer; Derbyshire had to be represented by Thornbridge, with a festival special on offer too. Karnival was Thornbridge-by-numbers and I didn't care; fat citrics, wincing nettles, baked lemons... of course, I loved it. Hughie was unsure, called it 'predictable', but I'd rather predict this great taste than Reluctantly Scoop a poorer beer.

Westwards again to Staffordshire and Enville, only holding off the Ginger as Hughie was equivocal about not having it. I plumped instead for their White, an OK-ish beer in my book. Often found through the summer at the Smithfield in Derby, it's not an overly wheaty white but still fairly enjoyable.

With only one Warwickshire brewer represented here, the next beer for me had to be from Church End. The very name makes some scoopers salivate and others run for the hills. They produce an inordinate amount of specials, usually off-the-wall flavourings of stock beers (turkish delight, mint and celery seeds have all featured. Though, not necessarily in the same recipe). I went for their festival special, Passport to Peterborough, which was an un-mucked-about-with bitter. Just goes to show that they can brew a solid beer when they leave the mad box of additives unopened.

Because Hughie is a ratings whore and we're sat next to the wine bar, he couldn't resist trying a mead. The Lyme Bay traditional was fantastic, tons of Lockets-like honey with fat burnt butter notes too. It got even better when I poured the rest of Mark's Toloja cider into it.

After that brief break from beer, it was over to Gloucestershire for the next beer and Festival Gold. Sadly, this had drippy hops and a plastic-y feel, like a defrosting freezer. A quick hop across to Wiltshire was called for, offering the chance to try what was, for me, a new Hop Back beer. Groovy Mover was plain, straightforward, strong golden stuff which came as a relief after a few dodgy light 'uns today.

It was around this point that Mark had to go, as he had his epic return bus journey deep into the heart of darkness - sorry, Northamptonshire. Hughie and I soldiered on, with three counties left for me to chalk off. Somerset was next west, allowing me to pick up a beer with a familiar name from an unfamiliar brewery. I can only recall trying one Milk Street beer before (Mermaid) so I tried The Usual - at the Brunswick in Derby, that's the adopted name of Second Brew. This was an inoffensive beer, adequately hopped though rather rough around the edges.

Two counties left, then. Whereas at Worcester there was a wide range of beers form Devon and Cornwall, choice was restricted here. The Devonian representative was on-its-own Otter brewery. Now, given a choice, I'd usually go for another brewer before these. Nothing actually wrong with Otter beer, mind, it's just that to my palate they're simple and safe. But, notter lotter else to choose from so I went for Otter Ale. And you know what? It was super - even that hedgerow sweetness didn't put me off today. Clean malts, dry finish; like the Church End beer, it does the simple things and does them well.

And so, dydh da, Kernow. Twelve beers had brought me across the country and the last of England was to be Skinners Cornish Blonde. Truth be told, it's a bit of an -ish beer, wheat-ish, wet spice-ish, lemon-ish... the flavour fluctuates from mild sweat to spritzer lemon to soft bread rolls. Probably more enjoyable by the pint, by the sea. One day, perhaps...

Some good beers, then, with plenty of average ones. Which I find encouraging - I try to impress on fellow raters and real ale bods that average beer is something to be cherished. Because if we didn't have plenty of average beer, we wouldn't have the occasional excellent ones. And we woudn't have dire stuff like Greene King IPA to take the piss out of. Though, if you take the piss out of it, they'd be nothing left. (That line was brought to you by the Haddonsman Campaign for Recycling Crap Beer Jokes).

My fave from the cross-country yomp? Thornbridge Karnival, of course... but Church End Passport to Peterborough ran it a surprisingly close second.

Lots more beers were imbibed through the day. Some standouts included Son of Sam's Muck Cart Mild, Purple Moose Tryfan and Ascot Anastasias Stout. Beer of the day, though, had to be the bottle from Hopshackle - Restoration was a bold Belgian-style strong beer with just bags of spiced alcohol, leather, pepper, chocolate... the flavours list seems endless the more I think about it.

The journey home through rolling fields and fens gave me time to reflect on the fest. It was a relaxed do, securing a seat close to the entrance helped so we didn't feel hemmed in. Plenty of room around the marquees (at least there was during the day), room outside too albeit not as inviting as Worcester. The food was good - though a proper hog roast would have gone down better. I should have had something from the ever-excellent Charters BBQ! Toilets were odd, all rather beaten and battered. And the beer.... there were some really tasty ones but a fair few that were bland or bordering on poor condition. I enjoyed the day - it's always good to meet up with some Ratebeer guys - but on reflection I'd rather be at Worcester. Consistently good beer, an easy-going vibe and great bottled cider won the day for me.

But some things remain the same - watching blue skies fly by on the journey back and a pint of White Feather in the Brunswick before setting off home. No matter how far I've travelled, how many beers I've had, there's always room for one more. Looking back through the programme as I supped that last pint, I decided that I probably won't be going back to Peterborough next year. And so the cycle continues; I go to PB, enjoy some good beers, endure more average ones and throw a few dire halves, make the long journey home, decide to give PB a miss the next year, do that and then go back the year after, enjoy six good beers.....

If you're at the festival in 2010, I'll be the one sat near the wine bar wondering out aloud if I missed anything decent the year before.


Meet the Brewer: Thornbridge

Of all the brewers I'd like to meet and share a beer with, Thornbridge are top of the list. When I saw that they would be hosting a 'Meet the Brewer' event at the Waggon & Horses in nearby Alfreton, I persuaded my wife that we really ought to go out for a meal that night, perhaps at a pub where we haven't ate before, just for a change...

The pub itself is a Spoons, one I'd been in a few years ago when I leapfrogged my way up from Derby to Chesterfield on one of my bus-driven rambles. It's a smart looking place, one of those store conversions that makes for a deep pub with several areas for drinking and dining. The food was surprisingly good; I'm used to Spoons breakfasts where you don't mind piles of gunk (that's why you buy them, to fortify you for a day's heavy drinking). 'Proper' meals at Spoons I've had less exposure to, but my mixed grill was cooked how I ordered it and just enough of it. Bec's lamb burger - her favourite Spoons meal - was tasty, too.

Anyoldhow, enough about the grub. With tasting sessions planned for the evening, the bar had a healthy compliment of Thornbridge beers on, though the Jaipur ran out before the session had even started. When you're charging 1.60-ish for beers this good, I'm not surprised it flies out - Jaipur sells out quickly everywhere anyway. I was forced into buying a pint of Kipling in the meanwhile - hard knock life, eh?

The guys turned up and it was good to finally meet Alex Buchanan, the brewery's marketing manager. We'd traded emails through this week on a variety of topics, and it was interesting to see that he'd done his research and identified me as haddonsman on! He said that the brewers were keen followers of the site and once had a 20/20 Jaipur rating pinned to the wall of the brewery.

With brewer Kelly Ryan not well, it was down to head honcho Stefano Cossi to step into the breach and talk us through some of the beers he brews. He looked knackered, to be frank - as he'd been brewing since six that morning, with Kelly off sick and another brewer on holiday, I'm not surprised. But he was still ever enthusiastic and attentive, even to the degree of not wanting some of the sample hops to be handed around as they were past their best and not representative of 'Thornbridge' quality.

Over the next hour or so, a couple of dozen of us were treated to samples of Wild Swan, Lord Marples, Ashford and Kipling, with Stef explaining which various hops and malts were used and Alex giving us an insight into how the beers got their names. I had a chat with Stef about the 'English hopped' Jaipur, wondering whether this was a reaction to increased hop prices. 'It was for a laugh!', he insisted, replacing the familiar hops with significantly higher amounts of English varieties such as Target and Pioneer to try and replicate that distinctive Jaipur flavour. It almost works, as Stef concurred, but it needs a few more tweaks (if that's possible given the nature of the UK hops) to attain that keen nose and finish.

Hop prices are becoming an issue, though - Stef was looking at a threefold cost increase for some hops that Thornbridge rely on. When they have such a keen feel for experimentation, here's hoping that such shifts in outlay don't jeapordise any future projects.

The crowd were appreciative of the beers and of Alex and Stef's enthusiasm and our appetites were whetted by the news of new brews. I'll certainly be on the lookout for the Alliance aged in sherry casks and eagerly awaiting their new bottling plant if it leads to bottle-conditioned Kipling. There's only so much of it that I can bring back from beer festivals in carry-out containers, so I suppose I'll have to give in one day and buy a mini-cask for what would be a memorable weekend of Nelson Sauvin imbibation!

So, all in all, a great evening that offered superb beers and the chance to meet two guys who are genuinely excited and proud of what they do. Top marks to the Waggon & Horses, too, for restoring my faith in Spoons evening food and hosting such an interesting event. And brownie points to the enthusiastic barman who was ceaseless in trying to tempt customers into trying Thornbridge beers for the first time, even if his description of Kipling as ' Stella, only cheaper!' probably isn't a strapline that Alex will be using in the future!


Fest of fun: Worcester

With last year's festival lost to the floods, it was a welcome return to Worcester for me. The combination of fine beers, superb bottled ciders and a spot in the shade of the huge marquee makes it one of my few 'must-attend' CAMRA festivals of 2008.

Another attraction of this fest is that it's a relatively easy trip down on the train, with a mercifully short change at the gloomy Birmingham New Street. Though, to be fair, there's impressive plans afoot to improve the place - and as you can see, even Derby's getting new canopies and (dare I say it) lifts as well as stairs (the 20th century finally arrives at Derby just a few years late...)

I let the ticker hoardes surge their way down to the fest as the train pulled into Foregate Street station, it seemed a shame to come all this way and not see any more of the town than a beer tent. After a short riverside walk, though, the call of the mild (etc) was too strong and I set off over a decidely boggy racecourse to reach the main marquee.

The fest has a good setup; one large marquee with a central bar, another to the rear to accommodate the live music, another off to the side for the cider and perry bar. Plenty of room outside, too, with food stands off to the right and loos away to the left. The muddy patches tended to be at the marquee entrance points; staff were working hard all day to lay wood chippings and boards to make these high-traffic areas less gloopy. Mind you, not a great deal that they could do about the smell of that mud; the train home that I got stank like a diarrectic cattle truck. Or was that just the natural 'eau de odour of ticker' ;-)

Of course, I had a cunning plan that - being a Reluctant Scooper - wasn't related to simply scoring new breweries and/or new brews. No, my masterplan was to work my way from the north-east to the south-west of England, daisy-chaining the counties together with a beer from eleven counties from Northumberland to Cornwall. Sadly, this plan (like countless festival plans before it) went base over apex at the first beer hurdle with the lack of the promised Northumberland beer from Allendale.

I decided then to start in the south-west and work my way up-country until the novelty wore off. Which was almost as soon as I started - plumping for a brewery scoop, I tried Blue Anchor's Spingo Middle and soon wished I hadn't bothered. It wasn't bad.... just really plain, a rough-at-the-edges bitter which failed to deliver any of the promised fruity aroma, peppery notes, nutty palate or complex bittersweet as promised in the programme.

With the beer about to be the first 'field-pour' of the day, an announcement came over the p.a. to say that a TV crew were about to start filming in the rear marquee. James May and Oz Clarke were making a series about brewing beer (perhaps James' riposte to Oz's wine antics?) and the judging of their labours was taking place here today! This was an unexpected extra, so I mooched off to take some photos of a) James May looking perturbed and b) Oz Clarke looking constipated

I won't give the result away here; suffice to say, the more adventurous-sounding beer won the day. The judges said both beers really needed more conditioning, so another four to six weeks might have made all the difference to the result, methinks. Insults were traded for the cameras, allegations of hop theft, kitchen shenanigans and hosiery-wearing were all par for the course if you've seen this pair in action before.

After that diversion, I really needed a decent beer. Sticking with the general scooping direction, I decided to keep the faith and go for a Devonian beer. Not too reluctantly, I went for something by Red Rock; I'd tried beers from the likes of South Hams before and been fairly underwhelmed.

A half of Dark Ness was bought, a spot in the shade outside was secured and I found myself enjoying a dark beer on a sunny day. And, boy, was it good - superbly smooth, deep dark chocolate malts, faint hoppiness in the nose, halo thin head and a sustained dry finish. So good that I took two long sips, balanced the grass precariously on the grass and a pasisng spider knocked it over. That's my excuse, anyway. Ho hum - almost tempted to buy another one, but my scooping today is a little less reluctant than usual.

Tucker time next. I like to get some authentic local food at a beer festival and here was no exception. Cooked by the team from a local pub (The Walter De Cantelupe), I enjoyed a substantial tray of... paella. They run paella nights at the pub and when it's this good I can see why. Plenty of chicken, chorizo and prawns in there as well as a couple of mussels.

The food was certainly more impressive than my next beer. Initially recorded in my notes as 'something beginning with A.... based on Exmoor beer?', a detailed inspection reveled it to be Adkin's Alfred's Golden. Very loosely based on Exmoor Gold, apparently. Very loosely based on beer, actually - I'm all for a light golden ale, but this stuff bordered on being coloured water, such was the lack of any substantive malt and hop presence.

With the thought of a geographical-based scooping session diminishing rapidly, I thought I'd stuff the idea into a cocked hat and go continental instead. Not on the initial list was a draught beer, confusingly billed as 'Browerij de Ryck Girardin Krieklambik'. I'm hoping it's the latter part they got right, for this was a subtle so-so fruity beer with a sour bite snagging late on in the flavour. Never as harsh as lesser lambics, this was actually quite easy going on the funky front and was potentially quaffable by the pint.

Time for more beers at random. Next up, one of my favourite brewers, Pictish. Their seasonal beer Corn Dolly had a lovely fruit-smoothie feel with plenty of wet malts in the nose and a balanced palate. A lively pourer as well, just like the Green Bullet sampled in Newark earlier this year.

That made me crave for hops, so the logical step was to Dark Star Hophead Extra. Like a mosquito in training, this bites yet fades before the job is fully done. Perhaps I've spoilt my palate with too much Mikkeller All Others Pale over the last few days (more on that beer in Bottled Up soon). Only later did I get that lingering hop lick.

I thought I ought to try a Worcester beer whilst I'm here so I reluctantly scooped a new brewery for me, Blue Bear. Now in a summery mood, I went for the 5% pils, Uproar. Well, it's lager-y... crisp yet creamy, wafts of perfumed Saaz, simple bittered finish. Now learning back against the marquee, the wind was buffeting the sides and punching me in the back like a recalcitrant nephew when you're trying to sleep off a boozy lunch on the beach.

I'd toyed with the idea of buying a shooting stick earlier, but decided against it as the inherent danger of spiking it through my foot after a few beers was too great. And of not being able to retain my balance on it. And of having to carry it around. And of looking like a complete tool if I did finally manage to perch on it. And not being anatomically suited to squeezing my Hugh Jarse onto a wafter thin piece of leather. As Martin Clunes once said about uncomfortable sports cars, 'it had Recaro seats, but I don't have a Recaro arse'.

So, the weather's lovely. Families are having picnics, kids are missing frisbees thrown by over-enthusiastic fathers. I want to tell the woman sitting a little way away from me that a white bra with that black top doesn't really work. And the same to her friend, who's wearing a pale blue bra with a black top. Perhaps it's not blue, perhaps it's gray. Perhaps she washes her smalls with the rest of her gloomy goth clothing. Perhaps I ought to go and get a drink and stop staring at women's over-the-shoulder-boulder-holders...

Ah. feck. It MUST be cider time. I was going to resist the draught stuff and just take a few bottle home, but the weather's placid and I'm feeling like a mellow fellow. I've more than a liking for Burrow Hill - I shall be taking a bottle of their superlative sparkling Stoke Red home with me - and I don't see their stuff on draught too often so I was practically forced to endure a half of their dry cider. Can I use the word superb too many times? This was.... ah, you can guess. I could say it was better than snorting coke off a Playboy model's breasts and then finding last week's winning lottery ticket between her thighs. But it wasn't *that* good - it was only cider ;-)

Though it was so good that I went to the bogs (unisex, clean, no queues), was eager to get back to the bar and buy more, left my glass in there, realising that just after a lady went in and locked the door. So, I waited patiently at a distance that hopefully didn't worry her husband into thinking I was a stalker.

With glass retrieved, perry was obtained (Olivers Blakeney Red) and I took up residence outside against the marquee again. Now, I'm usually easily annoyed by kids doing what kids do - chattering, running about... breathing in the same room as me. But it's hard to be a curmudgeon when you can remember being on your holidays and doing the same things - standing on your football, getting bored playing frisbee and wandering off, knocking a drink over and blaming it on your sister...

Anyoldhow, that perry. It's got a light lemon in body, carries a creeping sweetness, never a harsh edge, always holding a light yet keen pear flavour. I could drink this all day, but that way unconsciousness in a pool of pear vomit lies.

So instead I had, er, Orchard Blakeney Red perry. A plain pear flavour with a hint of spiciness, although that could have been from the airborne feculence in the tent. Slugs of raw pear penetrate later with a throaty, latent sweetness unexpected.

The last drink of the day at a fest isn't really the best time to have a cider that isn't on the programme list. My extensive notes reveal it to be made by Allen Robert, 7%, but I can find precious little info about them. I just wrote 'fruity'; those superlative perrys had exhausted my adjectives.

That left one last task - buy some ciders and perrys to take home. No own-bottling here like a trolley-wielding ticker, Worcester fest has the best range of bottles on sale that I've ever seen. I picked up a bottle of Orchard cider with a whisky finish, some from Brook Apple farm (a producer I hadn't heard of before), an Olivers sparkling perry and the sublime sparkling Stoke Red from Burrow Hill which my wife and I will have instead of champagne on our wedding anniversary.

A truly excellent festival, this. The weather was kind and, truth be told, made a huge difference. Crowds inside would have churned up more of that foul-smelling mud and made the day far less fun than it was. The drinks were in good condition, even if some of them were a little bland. The paella was great, though I didn't see much in the way of sarnies and lighter bites. Loos were clean and queue-free whilst I was there. But it was the atmosphere that made it, not a gloomy room full of overly-serious tickers, more of a real 'festival' vibe where the drink was an important part of the day but (perhaps perversely) not the be-all and end-all.


Bottled up: Grain Harvest Moon

And here's the first in a new series. I like having the odd bottle or three knocking around the house, so I thought it would be fun to share it out (in a virtual sense).

First up, from a recent trip to Norfolk, is Grain Harvest Moon, described by the brewer as 'a strong and hoppy golden pale ale". I picked up this bottle from The Real Ale Shop on Branthill Farm, Wells, where they grow the barley that features in many of the beers that they sell (including this).

The beer poured with a tall, rocky off white head and had a distinctly sharp, hoppy nose. It looked lighter than the photo shows (haven't quite mastered this beer-photo-lighting malarkey). Though it ends up looking flat, it has an itching feel to it that carries a pine note tempered with slight grapefruit. The aftertaste is that of grapefruit ten seconds after eating the last slice, with the flavour lingering then re-appearing every time you lick your lips.

I don't get the bubblegum that Garrat gets in his ratebeer review but I'll concur on that resinous feel and superb dryness. Good looking label, too; it's a Charles Rennie Mackintosh that this picture doesn't really do justice to. So, a good strong pale ale which, on cask, might rival some of my favourite IPAs like Thornbridge Jaipur. The next time I'm in Norfolk, I'll look out for more of this.