The annual Belfast Beer and Cider festival rolled around again (as annual things tend to do) bringing with it an increased, and some may say better than usual, selection of beer for a few days in the superb setting of the Ulster Hall. For the first time ever there were more beers available from the island of Ireland than had been shipped over from Great Britain – a sign if ever there was one of the number of breweries from these parts.
I’ll not make too much of a fuss of some cracker beers that have previously made an appearance at the festival or been otherwise locally available such as Titanic’s Plum Porter, Thornbridge’s Jaipur, Boundary’s Imbongo or Farmageddon’s Mosaic IPA. We all know how tasty they are. Instead let’s focus on some newbies, whether they be new local brews or GB brews just new to the festival.
Starting off with a heavy wee beautiful beastie, a Christmas Special barrel aged imperial from Hillstown. This 9% ABV red has been in a 29 year old whiskey cask for the past 9 months and the result was poured from cask for the first time at the festival. You’re hit with a super malty, rich, dark ale that’s popping with cinnamon, nutmeg, brown sugar and candied orange – if you could pour a Christmas pudding into a glass this is the result. It’s available now in presentation 330ml bottles and I look forward to buying one as soon as possible.
Moving seamlessly from Ahoghill to South Wales now, as you do, and a Hopcraft/Waen collaboration brew – the Christmas Plum Duff version of their popular Waen Snowball. This 7.0% ABV stout oozes fantastic sweet plummy deliciousness on top of the original mild coconut and vanilla essences to create a beer that I couldn’t help but go back for again and again while working at the festival. Small helpings of course, all in the name of quality control and research you understand.
Staying in Wales, it was great to see Newport’s award-winning Tiny Rebel make its Belfast festival debut, supplying Cwtch and Juicy. The latter, a 4.8% ABV golden ale was in superb form, crisp and clear with a slight bitterness but oozing with sumptious fruit such as melon and satsuma. A little fruit salad beer that would taste even better in a beer garden on a warm summer’s day. Remember those?
Speaking of summer, to Portush next and Lacada‘s new rye IPA, Half Hung made its commercial debut at the Ulster Hall event. Initially I was impressed with the tasty crisp and dryness (no, not a cooking oil – I should maybe reword that bit, ah well) coupled a second later with the subtle layer of sweet, dark fruit underneath. At 6.2% ABV it was my favourite rye there with elements of light peppery spice and a wee touch of vanilla.
Now, everyone loves a mild don’t they? No? Anyone? I have to confess it’s one of my least preferable styles but when brewed well it can be a very flavoursome beer, so step forward Brass Castle Brewery’s Hazelnut Mild. This North Yorkshire outfit’s 4.2% ABV offering had a delicious toffee and caramel backbone complemented with the most subtle layer of sweet but woody hazelnut in the background. This one took me by surprise as I expected to be underwhelmed, the fool that I am.
Finally, another swally to annoy the purists and a beer that doesn’t really taste like a beer. Blueberry Classic Bitter from Coach House in Warrington has a great initial dry quality that is superseded by a tangy sweetness from the blueberries. Sometime these types of fruit beers can feel artificial and synthetic but this 5% ABV had a really good vibe about it – real and fresh, bro.
Well done to the festival organisers for adopting some much needed changes this year – no live bands which allowed chillers to be placed onstage. Double win. No one likes a warm beer and the chillers helped keep the cask temperature down, at the same time we’re able to hear ourselves speak. The implementation of the chillers resulted in the bar being operational on three sides only which meant more floor space and therefore increased seating. Superb. And a half hour power cut on Saturday evening added to the ambience of things too. A small negative with the food offering needing serious attention in the future but, hey, the Ulster Hall’s loss is Little Italy pizzeria’s gain. A 10″ Bellissimo please!