Toper Talk: Ey Up Mi Duck!

In West Cumbria, pub staff have found a novel way of overcoming any local language difficulties with the Polish populace. A translation card can be brandished and pertinent phrases pointed to; 'The bar is now closed', 'Do you require first aid?', 'Thank you for your custom' etc. As we get the odd misplaced tourist round our way in the Derwent valley, I thought I'd extend the idea fur enny bogger thit goz drinkin rund ear...

The bar is now closed - Avvadenuvv. Boggarovv
We close at... - Thacansuptil leven
Do you require first aid? - Alreet, lad? Wozzup wee ya? Ya badly? Ayyer bin clonked?
If you want to make a complaint, please come back tomorrow and ask for the manager - Dint git mardy wee me, sun. Cumbac tamarra n bellyake aht gaffa
Thank you for your custom - Cheers mi duck!

And if you're in the pub when a weirdy-beardy loses it in front of the landlord;

"Let's be raight. Eh's gorra munk on, tha mardy scrater, coz tha reer gest's gun. Lairy ticker! Hiz doolally-tap!"

- We should be clear about the situation. He's rather moody, the crybaby, because the rare guest beer has run out. The wild beer enthusiast! He is clearly not in full control of his mental faculties!".

With apologies to Richard Scollins and John Titford for this half-arsed attempt, my primary school teacher Miss Whatmouth who steered me away from the affected vulgarities of former pupil D H Lawrence, my junior school teacher Mr Hardman who desperately tried to inculcate the class with this wonderful dialect and my dear old Mum who was absolutely right when she insisted that it was a coat that one kept in the cloakroom, rather than a cowat that wer chucked ont stares...


Fest of fun: Nottingham 2008

With the plug pulled on Nottingham's Victoria Baths, the city's CAMRA festival could have been left in the deep end. Instead, Steve Westby and his merrie volunteers pitched up on the Castle Green for the first Robin Hood beer festival.

More space, more beers, more choice - would the new site hit the bullseye? And with such a range of beers available, could I drink my way to a complete A-Z of British brews in two days?

The city of my birth is fabled in beer circles for hosting a festival that is chock-full of new brews. With a larger, airier venue this year offering even more beers and a historic setting, I took two days away from the day job to make the most of the festival. An early start on Thursday gave me time for some photography down by the canal and a disappointing breakfast at the Cozy Teapot (my old haunt, Bunters Cafe, being closed now. The best breakfast in the country - the Rum Tum - is now just a cherished memory..)

Nottingham Castle is certainly an impressive setting. Although it's more ducal mansion than motte & bailey, there's a palpable sense of history as you wander round the grounds and take in the superb vista over the Trent Valley. I've been visiting here since I was knee-high to a primary school teacher and every visit brings back many happy childhood memories.

Entry was a little odd - buy a wristband on the way into the grounds, then buy tokens and glasses in the marquee. Fair enough, but when I turned up (about 11:30am) I could have wandered straight up to the Castle wristbandless if I hadn't known what to do. Indeed, friends of mine who turned up in the afternoon did exactly that, then had a job to convince staff to sell them tokens and glasses without rolling back downhill for the band.

The huge marquee on the lawn did an admirable job of holding 500+ beers and ciders and many more punters. Even with this much canvas and body heat the beers stayed cool enough as the temperature rose slightly, the festival staff doing a sterling job with the water sprays. Scoopers lined the central aisle, next to two double-sided bars flanked by stalls. I was in and out of the marquee until 6pm on both days and it never felt crammed or cramped.

Most of the time, though, I was out around the grounds. Although the bandstand bars didn't open until early evening, you could take your beer and pitch up on a bench to watch the autumn leaves fall as squirrels bounded around. The defining moment for me though was to be by the castle wall, looking out over the southern shire, drinking some quality English beer whilst the Castle's Union flag snapped in the sharp breeze.

It would be rude of me not to mention food, of course... the baths used to offer cheapish and cheerful council canteen grub, so I was hoping that this larger venue would offer a wider range. Given that punters could wander back into the city for a bite (only a five minute walk to Slab Square), how comprehensive a selection would be on offer? Well, it wasn't bad at all - fish & chips, burgers, 'pork roast' (not a whole hog, sadly, just pre-shredded meat), jacket potatoes etc. But the real highlight was the fresh seafood. Fred Hallam fishmongers of Beeston had a seafood stall inside the marquee that offered a delectable range of fishy bits such as rollmops, prawns and some superb chili anchovies. The real draw, though, were the oysters which could be accompanied by half of Sooty Stout from Nottingham Brewery. Expecting to sell over a thousand of them by the end of the festival, the pairing idea that started off over a beer shared between fishmonger and brewer proved to be a talking point and a real festival treat.

Good to meet up with some friendly faces on both days, too, including my old matey Oliver, Sleepy Mark and his colleagues and a couple of the Thornbridge crew, Alex and Kelly, who were there for the SIBA judging on Thursday (and well happy as Jaipur IPA won the Gold Medal in the Strong Bitter category and Ashford took bronze in Best Bitters).

With Friday bringing a vicious wind, more anchovies and a little early-night music from Amplifiers, I had a fantastic two days. The weather helped, mind - had there been rain, the marquee would have been rammed as there were hundreds outside. Food was good, toilets were plentiful and functioning, atmosphere was a happy one. Though it seems like I've forgot to mention something...

...the beers.

With such a range available, I concocted a subtle Reluctant Scooping plan to score some new breweries, LocAles, old favourites and any eye-catching recipes. Two days, twenty-six beers... so here's my A-Z of Nottingham Beer Festival:

A is for Art Brew. New Dorset-based brewer, their Art Nouveau was a little funky with chewy chutney edges. Plenty of fresh fruit, though, so not too bad overall.

B is for Blue Monkey. Ilkeston outfit that has taken time to experiment before launching their Amber Ale. A clean, literally light ale that was the perfect counterpoint to some of the heavier-handed brews in the room.

C is for Castle Rock. Screech Owl was the SIBA championship-winner here; perfumed with a viscous head, it didn't carry the hoppiness I was expecting for an IPA. Almost seemed imbued with anti-hop, such was the effect on the palate.

D is for Dark Star. Beers from this brewery are always an attraction for me and Golden Gate didn't disappoint; assured hop nose, clean malts, superb fat fruit and a long-lasting juicy finish.

E is for Empire. Ginger Ninja sounded exciting, perhaps a subtle assault on the tastebuds? Instead it was more thin-ger than ninja - a flabby beer with practically no ginger warmth.

F is for Full Mash. I love their dark beers but chose the Cartouche over the sublime chocolateness of Ouija. A mistake - the hint of citrus promised was too subtle and the result was massively underpowered compared to other golden ales I sampled here.

G is for Great Oakley. Looks like I was sold another (non-existent) lemon. Having loved Wagtail at the Brunswick festival a few weeks ago, I was all set to have that again when Gobble promised 'a large smack of hops'. Unless I'd had my hop-palate surgically removed on Thursday night, this was another beer that didn't deliver on the resin front. Average but disappointing given my expectations.

H is for Holland. With Chocolate Clog not appearing until Saturday, I settled for the Hearty Handsome Kimberley Brew. Quoting from the programme; 'a powerful, well hopped IPA'. Guess what - it's only now as I look through my notes that I wonder if the hop fairy stole into the marquee on Wednesday night and had it away on her twinkle-toes with whatever resinous flavours she could find. Was a mite cold on the pour, it did round out to a perfumed golden juice with just a hint of gluey sugar around the edges. Needed a killer hop finish instead of an ebbing malt wash.

I is for Iceni. Oxburgh Hall Plum Stout was my last beer of the Thursday session and what a belter it was. The fruit wasn't overly sweet, the stout robust enough to carry the hedgerow flavours into a drying finish.

J is for Jarrow. Another from my run of ho-hum Friday afternoon beers, Caulker was a rather dull golden with little hop excitement to lift it above average.

K is for Kinver. Penultimate beer of the fest and one of the best, Sweetheart Stout ticked the boxes with its burnished malts and roasty nose. Deserving winner of the SIBA Gold Medal in the Milds, Porters and Stouts category.

L is for Lymestone. This Staffordshire brewery was so new that the beers weren't even listed in the programme. Foundation Stone (see what they did, eh?) was a spritzy, fruity blonde that impressed me and made this brewery one to look out for over the coming months.

M is for Mallard. As a fan of Duckling, I'm always ready to try something new to me from this LocAle brewery. Duckade was a little on the light side, clean and inoffensive, just needed a tad more oomph to prevent the hops and malt cancelling themselves out.

N is for Naylors Craven Kriek sounded intriguing. English brewers seem to struggle with cherry flavours, so would this be any different? Well... it had a fresh, sweetie aroma, certainly cheery cherry rather than sour Morello. A clean fruity beer, certainly too clean for being a kriek, but still interesting nevertheless.

O is for Offas Dyke. The Saaz in Barley Blonde struggled to surface amongst some washy malts. Fairly anonymous.

P is for Potbelly. It was Thursday, the wind was whipping the castle walls, the sun was out and so I didn't drink Beijing Black. Instead, I went for Crazy Daze and ended up with one the outstanding beers of the festival. Lemon sherbet tickle in the nose, lusher lemon in the throat, a rasping catch as it goes down before your buds are soon soothed by a sweet, biscuity lemon pie finish. Outstanding.

Q is for Quartz. Heart had a rare quality - a refreshing pale ale with no killer hop, no lingering malt, no alcohol splash and no real need for any of them. A delicate aroma, flowers pinched between fingers, fruit flavours almost appearing as echos... the skill it takes to produce a light ABV ale that still tastes of something is one of English brewing's under-rated talents. Hats off to Quartz for achieving it.

R is for Ramsgate. With ten breweries beginning with R, it was down to whatever the programme descriptions showed as being a little bit different. 'Unique pale crafted with malted rye' caught my eye and Gadd's Rye PA was a joy to drink. Just enough rye to knock the edges off, an itchy fruit nose and a sustained dry finish made this a worthwhile punt. One that I'd have tried again gladly if I hadn't been working through a hitlist. An assured, satisfying brew.

S is for Spire. Slightly odd to be drinking an old ale in the sun, but Winter's Tale was a satisfying, slightly chewy, deeply malty brew with a hint of dusty spice. Good now, possibly phenomenal in front of an open fire.

T is for Thornbridge. Never mind the fact it's sublime, carrying the flavours of some stupendously expensive raspberry fondant chocolates I once had. Never mind that the hops act like a veneer, lifting the flavour and giving a shine to the cocoa and woody notes. Let's keep ordering it and see how many ways it gets pronounced. Car-Tea-Paw. I want a half of Car-Tea-Paw. No, Car-Tea-Paw. Well, actually, its NOT called Catty-po, Cart-Heep-Pow or Katy-Poo. Honest, the brewers told me it's called.... ah, sod it. Give me half of number 344. Yes, the Catty Paws one...

U is for Uncle Stuart's. No idea why a strong ale gets called Norwich Cathedral; perhaps we can look forward to other beers named after local landmarks like Library Mild, Cow Tower Bitter and Novi Sad Friendship Bridge Double Imperial Lambic. Anyway, it was a superb strong beer, ravaging malts across the palate with a submerged fruit salad trying to seep through.

V is for Vale. Gravitas was one of the few blonde citric beers that actually delivered on its promises, robustly fruited, a clear gold beer with scanty-pants lacing, soft mouthfeel and keenly refreshing.

W is for Williams. Eleventy out of ten for this. Deep, deep porter scattered with chocolate malts that taste as if grubbed up by earthy clod-clagged hands. Then there's passing shadows - an uncle's freshly spilt tobacco, the wooden spoon used by my grandmother to stir the treacle, the last mouthful of washy black coffee after finishing a ginger thin. I didn't want this half to end. Best dark beer of the festival.

X is for XB. With no UK breweries beginning with X, Batemans XB would have to suffice. My first beer of the festival and already disappointed that XXXB wasn't on. Never mind - although this took some pulling (as a brewery bar beer it was on handpump) it was a pleasant beer to revisit, sweet and fruity, one of those beers that is all too easy for publicans to mis-handle and kill off the slight flavours.

Y is for Yorkshire Dales. Sold as a 'bock style dark ale', Kisdon Force didn't pack too much bockness for its bucks but was redeemed by a fresh tobacco nose and creeping sweetness.

Z is for Zeit Geist. Brewdog to the rescue, as Zerodegrees beers won't ever be found at this festival. A deep amber-ish brown (dirty amber? Is that too pornstar-ish?) with a mushy malt nose and latent sweetness. Bit like the unfinished breakfast cereal bowl that you find when you get back home from work, bit sour, bit sweet, bit soft. Need to try this again, soon; towards the end I was beginning to enjoy it but still couldn't nail why.

Some average beers, a few non-plussed ones, a couple of exceptional brews. Potbelly Crazy Daze and Williams Midnight Sun were the two standouts for me with nothing to choose between the two overall.

A hearty congratulations to Nottingham CAMRA and the staff of Nottingham Castle for what was, to me, the finest beer festival I've had the privilege of attending. Here's hoping the weather is as kind next October when we do it all over again.

btw - more photos of the festival can be seen over at my Flickr site


Beer Exposed

Let's start with some facts. Beer Exposed was a great exhibition. I met many great Ratebeerians. And some normal people, too. I drank too much, ate too little and left my coat behind. But it was such a pure rollercoaster of great beers and good times. Twelve other things I know for sure, dear toper, so twelve things only will I tell...

Des Mulcahy and Matt Roclawski know how to throw a show. The outstanding venue (Islington's Business Design Centre) was a perfect place to showcase their heady mix of world-class beers, enthusiastic speakers and an easy-going vibe. Des and Matt put together a passionate package that didn't encourage a free-for-all, nor solemn ticking, but let the audience fulfil the exhibition's tenets of 'explore, educate, enlighten'.

Ian Harrison is a jovial beer monster. One of this countries outstanding beer raters and co-founder of the site Pubs & , this guy never stopped smiling and enthusing about beer from the moment I met him in the pub beforehand right up to the last beer we shared. He never bored of first-time Schlenkerla Rauchbier drinkers saying 'wow! it's like smoky bacon crisps!' Wandering around with him as he pushed me towards beers that I wouldn't normally have tried was one of the session's highlight.

Flashy stands = poorer beers. Some stands had little in the way of backdrops, literature and the whole corporate shebang. Brooklyn, Brewdog and Thornbridge all let their beer do the talking - racking the bottles up and chewing the fat with you. To sell dodgy Lithuanian cider, wazzy Chinese lager and the spawn of Suffolk's Beelzebub it seems you needed three layers of slap, nightgowns and a sparkler that produced a glass of froth. Svyturys, Tsingtao and Greene King were proponents of 'style' over substance. Shame on them all.

Meantime is an outstandingly assured brewer. I just love the way Meantime operate - competent across beer styles, unafraid to experiment with flavours, distinctive marketing, assured nationwide presence. Bottles you want to hold, beers you want to savour. IPA, London Porter and Coffee Beer prove to me that their mission to bring the consumer the 'most exciting flavours' is superbly successful. Even more kudos for them to be away in a corner, a simple presence, where the beers were enjoyed with passion.

There's always a surprising beer around the corner. I used to equate Zywiec Brewery with underpeforming lager, so I wouldn't have given their stall a second glance if it hadn't been for Ian mentioning their porter. And what a whopper it was; fresh coffee and chocolate, smooth feel and a drying finish. Great to be blindsided by such a beer, glad to given the opportunity. Explore, educate and enlighten indeed!

Fullers are doing something right. It's all too easy to take the rise out of regional brewers, seemingly spending more on fancy glasses than quality ingredients. But Fullers have a keen eye on the English beer market. London Pride may not be everyone's choice tipple, but the thousands who like it are rewarded by a solid, well-made bitter. I make the journey to my nearest Fullers pub - in Birmingham, their northernmost outpost - to get a couple of sessions on London Porter when it's released as a seasonal special. And as the stand here proved, there's always something interesting lurking in the back catalogue - two versions of Vintage as well as the Gale's Prize Old. Fullers are prepared to keep such niche beers going for an appreciative audience, whilst other regionals rebadge and water down once great brews. I know which approach I prefer.

Thornbridge almost burst with ambition. A low-key presence here for this high-achieving brewer, but Thornbridge marketing manager Alex was more than happy to thrust a Kipling at you and let you know what's going down up at the Hall. How the current bottles are good, but when they get their own bottling plant they'll have top quality bottle-conditioned beers available. Why maturing beers in sherry butts is a natural progression from whisky barrel experimentation. How brewers' competitions bring out the best in each of them. Wet-hopped beers, Belgian-style dubbels, beers with herbs grown in the Hall's garden.... Thornbridge could rest on their well-hopped laurels and spend all day brewing their 40+ award winning Jaipur. But they're prepared to experiment with beers that are indeed 'never ordinary'. It's always a joy to meet up with them, even more so to see 'beer newbies' fall under their Thornbridge spell. Seems we all start with Jaipur and then never want the variety to end.

Eric Wallace knocks out a damn fine milk stout He regaled us with tales of US over-hopping and his reaction to the trend, 400lb Monkey, and then revealed what for me was the black ace up Left Hand Brewery's sleeve; a milk stout that achieved a smooth segue through sweet nutty chocolate notes into a drying creamy finish. Eric said he thought it would appeal to the British drinker and he's absolutely spot on. A beer that deserves distribution wider than its likely to achieve over here.

Ratebeerians are the best beer bods I know . Passionate about the styles they love and the styles they love to hate. Knowledgeable about the craft, art and science of brewing. Never insular to the extent of only breathing malt & hops, though - some of the funniest, warmest, most well-rounded people I know are the ones I've met through . The beers are key to them but not to the exclusion of having a good time. Getting a whole bunch of them together in the same place with great ales is bound to end in fun, sweat and beers. So, to those ratebeer crew that I remember meeting on the day - harrisoni, duff, phil_l, mes_&_sim, thewolf, reakt, magicdave_6 - I salute you.

Collaboration produces world-beating beers.
Smaller producers and respected brewers seem to be almost falling over themselves to get into the mash tun together. Perhaps it's borne out of homebrewing, where the community is open, helpful and respectful of the advice offered and received. I'm familiar with some of the English collaborations involving Garret Oliver, Brooklyn's brewmaster (such as Kelham Island's awesome Smoked Porter). So it was an unexpected pleasure to sample an interesting collaboration between him and the Schneider brewer Hans-Peter Drexler. Brooklyner-Schneider Hopfen-Weisse was brewed on the Brooklyn plant using Schneider yeast. A feisty dry-hopped weizen, this was the the beer that persuaded Ian to get his notebook out and start rating. I'll add a full review to Bottled Up sometime soon (I brought two bottles back with me) but suffice to say it was a stunning sherbert fizz of a beer. And the perfect example of what brewers (and friends) are capable of when they knock their noggins together.

Brewdog have a beer for all seasons. I love Brewdog. I've even forgiven Martin Richie for leaving Thornbridge. Because they brew, without doubt, the best quality, no-compromise beers in Scotland. Punk IPA has been my picnic bottle of this soggy summer. And Paradox will be warming my cockles by the fire all through the winter. It was the first time I'd met James and the first time I'd tried Smokehead (their bourbon-barrel matured Paradox); both were intriguing and beguiling, one was smokey and one is a fan of cookie dough... this was a stand that us ratebeerians gravitated to, always a great beer and a good banter to be had. And, guys.... you've got a Paradox matured in a 1968 Islay cask? I'm 40 this year and have been looking for a suitable drink to celebrate with....

and, last but by no means first ...

Phil Lowry is an alien from the Planet Beer. He can't be human. This guy is beer personified. He serves the stuff, drinks the stuff, brews and buys and sells the stuff. Publican-turned-retailer, qualified lecturer, beer sommelier, keen brewer, writer and photographer... makes you sick, eh? At Beer Exposed, he was literally showing the scars of his exploits from where his latest brew had exploded in his face whilst in production. Does he stop? Nah, he's behind the bar, pouring and talking and - every now and then - magicking up a bottle of something special. Mikkeller Beer Geek Breakfast, Struise Black Albert, aged Liefmans... Phil's homebrew... although I was too busy drinking Fruli and getting lost in the limpid blue eyes of the lady next to me to take many notes. (And, Mrs H, if you're reading this, yes I *do* prefer your auburn eyes to anyone else's in the whole widest world :-)

Phil travels widely for his beer, meets the makers and shakers, and - in a world of fat tickers and braying wannabe's - can talk the talk and walk the walk without sounding arrogant. The beermerchants stand was the place to be, outstanding beers and a great mix of beer faces old and new. Phil's enthusiasm was contagious and generosity legendary. Many thanks to him for the invite and for the chance, for a few hours, to be part of an event that has redefined how beer can be presented to a willing and enthusiastic audience.

Beer Exposed has proven that there is a market for intelligent, informed events in the beer sphere. A million miles away from the vast festival halls crammed with sweaty yobs, the easy-going atmosphere of relaxed drinkers having a good time - one driven by the beers but never dictated to by them - firmly exposed the myth that beer events are no more than swill sessions for weirdy-beardies. More of the same next year, please... this country's drinkers deserve more events like Beer Exposed.

PS - all photos by me which is why they're a bit shaky. Slideshow and more pics available (though, sadly, not the one of Duff receiving double nipple action from Ang and Tom) on my Flickr site.

PPS - huge thanks to Ray Alcock, concierge at the Business Design Centre, for mailing me my coat back for free. Now, that's what I call service!!!


Fest of fun: Melton Mowbray

There's a certain something about a beer festival in a converted cowshed. Especially one with chandeliers. Ale is only one of the draws to Melton Mowbray - chutney, cheese and pork pies feature highly on the hit-list. Throw in my first visit to an eco-pub and the chance to get my teeth into Comrade Brian's tomatoes and there's all the ingredients of a fest of fun.

An early arrival into Melton gave my the chance to stock up on necessary provisions. Knowing the others would bring at least one pie from Dickinson & Morris I decided to call into Thompson's on the Market Place to get one made by Bailey and Sons of Upper Broughton. Unusually for a pork pie, it's sold by weight rather than size. Then, plenty of cheeses from Melton Cheeseboard plus some chutney from Ye Olde Porkie Pieee Shoppee. Real ale chutney, of course.

A hearty breakfast was needed, so that gave me the veneer-thin excuse for visiting the town's Wetherspoons. The Kettleby Cross has strong eco credentials with a wind turbine, rainwater recycling and solar panels. An interesting looking building inside and out with plenty of glass in the sides, low slung ceilings with ruby red lighting and, away from the yummy-mummies coffee morning, a raised area at the back. This offered an eclectic mix of huge bookshelves hosting a flatscreen TV, carpet segueing to wooden boards and flagstones, an assortment of tables and chairs and an open log fire with sofas around it.

There was a good selection of local beers (Grainstore and Oldershaw); my Grainstore Steaming Billy was superb with clean fruits, thick collared head and liquid malts lined with tropical fruits. A fantastic farmhouse breakfast was eagerly devoured. The staff were always on the go, cleaning tables, shifting dirty crockery, jumping behind the bar if it was busy - a refreshing change from a number of JDWs that I visit.

As I was taking photos of St. Mary's church, I was hollered at by some grumpy old men. Cycling John and Comrade Brian had arrived with another old mucker in tow, Smiley Ray, who I hadn't seen since the winter festival at Burton. We all stopped off at the farmer's market (as thirsty men can never have enough pork pie and cheeses) and had a laugh around the 'antiques fair' looking for a chutney spoon. Which I don't think actually exists, but it kept us occupied until opening time. Though it has to be said, the antiques were more car-boot. In fact, they were more like something that an old labrador had deposited in the car boot. Indeed, I'd have called it an 'old-crap' sale, except that to do so would sully the good name of old crap.

Into the market shed, then. Melton Mowbray CAMRA had created an odd atmosphere. Punters just wandered in, eventually finding the stall on the far wall who took your money for tokens and a glass - with no full refund available on either. That bugged us all. As did the notices stating that 'only food bought here can be eaten here'. Our bags were bulging with the stuff and we'd never come across this edict at Melton before. We took up in a toper trap in the far corner - praying that the geriatric jazz band wouldn't pitch up close by like the year before - and prepared to eat our cheeses by stealth if necessary.

With no list available (another irritation) it required a wander up and down the line to find a starting beer. Hopshackle had been mightily impressive for me this year, so I didn't hesitate in taking a half of their Caskadia. It was a wonderfully light gold drop with floral aromas and flavours. So good, in fact, that I had to have another. The lager bar was my next port of call, Poachers Hare Repie was a little on the hazy side with a bit of overbite to it. A swift trip was made back to Hopshackle for their Historic Porter, which was much more flavoursome, a stout porter if ever there was one.

As we're into dark beer territory, it was time for the cheeses. The Ribblesdale Blue was a goat's cheese, not usually my kind of taste but this was just goaty enough and balanced out by a herby edge.
Lincolnshire Poacher was great, an old favourite, hard enough to take the real ale chutney. More Hopshackle beer was needed, their Historic Ruby Mild (one of my standout beers from the Smithfest earlier in the year) proving to be rugged and fruity enough to complement the cheeses perfectly. The Belvoir Oatmeal Stout felt a little thin by comparison; it still had some good deep bramble fruits and an oaty base but lacked the weight to make it a real hitter in this style. And it would have been rude not to knock off a pork pie at this stage, so our first D&M was unwrapped, given tomato eyes and then scoffed.

The Bailey and Sons pork pie then was soon dispatched too alongside the last of Brian's tomatoes. I preferred the firm crust of this to the D&M we'd had earlier. A Gorwydd Caerphilly was next, crumbling with just a hint of cream. Brewdog The Physics proved to a definitive bitter at this stage, its clean malty notes working well with the cheeses. The Hereford Hop, could have done with a sharper beer as a companion; creamy again with a sharp hop crack in the rind. Apple notes, lovely consistency as it crumbled into a biting, nipping finish

I couldn't now resist some Hopshackle Double Momentum, especially with all beers priced the same regardless of ABV. This seven per cent monster was a little hazy (and, to be fair, was marked as being such on the cask end) but it still had that raw warmth that built up across the palate. There was only really one cheese that we could finish on, Long Clawson Stilton. This was really, really creamy - almost off-puttingly so. Difficult to control, but the effort was rewarded by a real smack of feisty blue rot on your tongue.

I thought I'd round off the session with a perry or two - Two Trees Perry from Gwynt Y Draig did the trick with its intensely soft feel, tripping sweetness and hard sugar rush nose. So good I had another glass, much to the general mocking of my fellow topers.

No fest trip is complete without a swift half in a local pub. The Anne of Cleves looks good from the outside, is properly olde worlde on the inside and even better out in the beer garden. With the late afternoon sun warming the walls, under the shadow of the parish church, it's a garden where I could happily while away a few hours. I realised we were all drinking Brunswick White Feather, mu usual tipple when I return to the said brewpub back in Derby. The beer was considerably more expensive here yet, dare I say it, in better condition than the last few times I've tried it at source.

Overall impression, then. Well, it wasn't the most welcoming of festivals, given the restrictions on the glass/token return and the lack of a beer list ( until the poorly-typed rush job that arrived half way through). I know CAMRA festivals are essentially amateur productions but where's the good practice gleaned from other fests? To be fair, though, the beers were in decent condition overall and had a good balance of familiar local stuff and interesting choices from further afield. The Hopshackle beers were great with Historic Porter probably being my beer of the day.

For the sheer joy of a pork pie, cheese and chutney session inside a cowshed, it's worth the tortuous rail journey on a tin-can crammed with Stanstead passengers. The best fest trips have to be about more than just the beer - Melton delivered a memorable day in the way that only a busy little market town could manage.


Ramblings: All Along The Derwent

Too cloudy to go take photos of trees in leaf fall. Too boggered to go see the Astons race round Donington. If in doubt, I hit the emergency-bus button and go for a troll up the Derwent Valley - there has to be a few regular beers and more than a few irregular locals to paint a smile back on my cracked facia.

I'm not feeling in great spirits today. I can't even be bothered to go get a hot breakfast cob from anywhere - and when I say anywhere I'm including Greggs. I was looking forward to a clear but blowy day, something to backlight the falling leaves and let me yomp through the countryside with camera on hip whilst enjoying the light and shadow. Instead, it's murkier than a pinty of poorly pulled shit bitter.

Only one remedy - road trip. Up the Derwent for me, deciding that a day of average beer has to be better than a day of overcastness. So let's take Reluctant Scooping to the max and go for those beers that my local pubs are (sometimes) famed for. First stop is the Holly Bush at Makeney. This is a tourist wet dream and pure Sunday-lunch-tribe fodder, but it has its saving graces. Namely, a cracking pint of Farmers (in this case, Brown Cow), some superbly crumbly pork pies and a snug that has two tables, no children and the feeling that generations of grumpty bastards have supped bitter and spilt bile here. It's magical.

A short drop downhill lands you into the King William IV. Different kettle here; no Sunday lunch = no customers. There is food at times, but today the emphasis is on drinking. I choose the Tim Taylors Landlord, never a beer I'd usually plump for ahead of a guest but TTL at the KW4 has a tale to tell. Well, one told to me by Cycling John on out last visit here. Back in the sixties, he used to cycle out here after work for a round trip of about sixteen miles - just to drink Landlord, as at the time it was the only pub near Derby that served it. I'm glad to report it's still in damn fine fettle, a beer sweeter than my palate may be used to but a cracking bitter nevertheless. A lovely pub, too; eclectic furniture, hops strung round the beamed ceiling and a genuine warm welcome. And as if by magic, Cycling John turned up for a swift half or three as he, er, cycled past. I stayed so we could sample the Oakham Bishop's Farewell as well, rude not to etc. The state of which was simple enough to state; well-conditioned, well hopped, well tasty.

Back onto the back seat of the bus for the quick squirt up to Belper. There are several fun things about Belper; the Nailers, George's Tradition and Liquid Treasures. More about the middle 'un later. The Nailers were playing away and Liquid was shut, but I was able to entertain myself with a trip up the hill to the Cross Keys. A Batemans pub - I know that name makes some people run screaming - redeemed by the simple fact that Colin keeps a pint of XXXB that is phenomenally good. Tyrrels crisps, too. And no music, as everyone on a Sunday lunchtime is too busy drinking to spend money on the jukebox. This is an unfussed pub that has a clear dividing line. Bar billiards in the lounge, pool in the bar. Chalk yer cue and choose yer door. The beers are sparking on either side.

George's Tradition beckoned, for a homemade fishcake that had the strangely attractive taste of fresh snuff and peppered haddock. The bus home took me past the Flowerpot, so it would be rude not to call in and have a pint of.... well, in this case, Marble Lagona IPA (just.... mmwwwwwaaa!) And the day proved that an average Sunday downing average bitters can be anything but average.


Bottled Up: Hawkshead Damson

On one of his recent trips to the Lake District, a friend of mine brought me back a bottle of Hawkshead beer from the brewery shop. Not any old beer, mind; their famed Damson Stout, promising to offer oatmeal laced with Westmorland damsons. With the weather turning a chill today, I was eager to crack open a dark beer and this seemed to fit the bill perfectly

The bottle poured a ruddy mahogany and gave an immediate whiff of dusty fruit. A scant mocha head subsided to leave a fading beige lacing down the glass. Holding up to the nose, there was a gently aggressive aroma - some sharp souring fruit mellowed by a dry woody note.

And, what a flavour. An assured natural sourness, whilst those oats bring a substantial dry feel to the back of the throat as those damsons vie for attention. The fruit is almost rotting on your lips, a tang that rivals some of the established Belgian fruit beers.

With a drying finish coated in a damson varnish, this was a superb beer. This makes one of my favourite beers, Burton Bridge Damson Porter, seem tame by comparison. My only regret is that I haven't sampled it on cask - if you get the chance, let me know how it was. I won't be too jealous. Honest.

(Thanks to Cycling John for the bottle)


Toper Talk: And The Winner Is...

In this new weekly column, Toper Talk delves into the shenanigans surrounding 'best beer' awards. Castle Rock, as seen here, were rightly proud to have Screech Owl crowned as the SIBA Midlands Supreme Champion beer. But should one-offs like this be allowed to win regional championships? What about American festivals where brewers pay to enter a competition? And does the plethora of awards end up devaluing the truly great beers that deserve praise and recognition. Read on, dear toper....

I was at Nottingham beer festival last week and was surprised to see that Screech Owl had won the Midlands round of the SIBA championship. Surprised as I didn't think it was that great - good, but not award-winning. Other drinkers were surprised, though, that a monthly special had been allowed into the competition. As it happens, Castle Rock have announced plans to re-brew the beer following its success. But what if it won in the national awards and no-one was able to buy it? Would it be fair to generate demand for a beer no longer readily available? Or would the award-winning status spur the brewer back into production, given the clear commercial potential that the award would confer?

Some fellow brewers were dischuffed, too. One grumbled to me that he could have 'ramped up' a recipe and produce a one-off to attract the judges' palates. But this sounds like a case of sour hops - many brewers entered seasonal beers alongside their regular fayre. And if you exclude a beer only brewed for a month, what about those only brewed for 4-6 weeks? Or for the summer? Or those only brewed with fresh seasonal ingredients?

Perhaps it's a case of Castle Rock playing a canny game - again. I recall a certain one-off beer of theirs called 'Trammy Dodger' that won the same award back in 2004 - with its success leading to it becoming a regular brew, Harvest Pale. What better way to test the market that entering a new beer into competition and gauging the reaction, both critical and commercial?

Fair play to Castle Rock and Screech Owl. Not my favourite in the Strong Bitter section (Potbelly's Crazy Daze would have taken my vote) but I see nothing wrong with a monthly special winning in a blind tasting. At least the eight categories had some clarity. Most dark beers seemed to be lumped together and bitters were split into four groups according to strength. CAMRA add a few more categories in to split up the black stuff and give golden ales a home of their own. But some competitions seem to keen on awarding medals to almost every man with a mash tub and a half-arsed style.

The recent Great American Beer Festival had a competition split into 75 beer categories. I'll have to type that again, as I still don't believe what I've just written. Seventy-five. Six categories of stout, not including those judged in the coffee, strong or barrel-aged sections. CAMRA manage with, er, one category. And that's shared with porter. Which is practically the same style anyway...

And it gets worse. It's pay to play at GABF. Some smaller brewers don't stump up the green for the 'privilege' of taking part, as the expense of 'competing' wouldn't make business sense, even if they won a medal. They probably don't have the dollars to enter the World Beer Cup either. Billed as a competition to "celebrate the art and science of brewing by recognizing outstanding achievement", they certainly recognise the $160 entry fee per beer that they charge, plus the cost of air freighting up to twelve bottles. But with an eye-watering 91 categories awarding gold, silver and bronze, there's plenty of medals available.

At least it's only the beer that's being judged. The International Beer Challenge, for 'packaged' beers, awards 40% of its marks on the packaging. The Best of British Beer award honours only those beers sold in Cask Marque pubs. And don't get me started on the Beautiful Beer awards which seem more concerned with flogging a plaque to licencees than awarding the beers.

Too many awards, driven by commercial concerns rather than beer quality, devalue the hard work of the best brewers. If price is a barrier to entry, competitions lay themselves open to criticism that fatter bankrolls could lead to more gongs. All this makes the huffing about 'allowing' beers in the UK to be judged seem rather quaint.

I've never paid a jot towards the likes of the World Beer Cup. In truth, I'm not even bothered by who wins what at CAMRA level. It certainly doesn't sway my opinion at the bar when I see 'Champion Beer' tags wrapped around a pump clip (too many of those fluff on about gongs long since won). Awards? I'd scrap the lot of them and let the drinking public make up their own minds.

Yes, I am a beer judge. At every festival and every bar I visit - every consumer is. I'm paying to play and that's fine by me. It could be a special mix, an established brew or a rocking-horse-shit-rare bottle. I drink my beer and make my choice. And the winners are shoved only down my throat and no-one elses.