Jo and I planned our visit to this year’s Great Northern Beer Festival with military precision. Friday 29th booked off work? Check. Early finish on Thursday 28th? Check. Trip to Tampopo to fill up on nasi goreng (one of the best stomach-lining beer-soak dishes known to man, bar none)? Check and double-check. Which meant that come 7.00 p.m. we were ready to hit the bar.
On the way in the door we paid our £2 deposit for a half-pint pot (a proper, Northern style half-pint pot, with a line to mark the half and enough room it he top for a decent head) and grabbed a programme. A cornucopia of Northern delights revealed itself, but which of the many fabulous-sounding beers in its pages were going to be available on the night? There was only one way to find out.
I wasn’t sure quite how the Palace Hotel would work as a venue, but it turned out to be an excellent one: I had no idea there was a cavernous function room in the basement, complete with a suitably temperature-controlled cellar / bar at the back, which the SIBA folks had put to good use as a beer store in the week leading up to the event.
The main room was busy, with a healthy hum of cheerfully beery conversation, but it wasn’t horrendously packed by any means. We headed over to the bar, which took up most of one side of the huge room. I didn’t do a full count, but there must have been 30 or 40 beers on offer at a time, an impressive selection by anyone’s standards. But it’s been scientifically proven that human beings have great trouble making a decision when presented with more than 7 (+/- 2) options, so we narrowed it down a bit: focusing on the first quarter of the bar, we plunged on in and made our initial selection.
Jo started with Hexhamshire Blackhall English Stout, which was a lovely, almost opaque black and big on coffee tones, with a very dry after-taste. I went for the interesting-sounding Old Mill Yorkshire Porter, but I think something had gone wrong somewhere; either the person who served me poured from the wrong tap, or there was still some water in the pipes, or Old Mill have a bit of an odd idea of what a porter should taste like. Whatever the reason, the stuff I got was chestnut-brown, thin to the point of wateriness and almost tasteless. An unfortunate way to start the evening and I was quick to head back to the bar for a second attempt.
I opted for Great Heck Dark Force Treason Stout. Very dark, smoky flavours dominated, with plenty of liquorice, damsons and just a hint of charcoal. Just the sort of big flavours I look for in a hefty stout and a 5.4% ABV that gave it a pleasantly warming alcohol kick as well. Much, much better.
Next up: Prospect Dragon Ale for Jo, which turned out to be a well-balanced, tasty golden ale packed with root ginger. Jo’s a big fan of alcoholic ginger beers (I’ve been nagging her to do a comparison piece for me for ages) and she really enjoyed this one. I’d wandered further along the bar and had spotted Allgates Mad Monk, a 7.1% Imperial porter, which had won the SIBA strong ale award earlier in the day, and I just couldn’t resist. It was delicious. Lot of big, chewy, sugary flavours: toffee, brown sugar and molasses, all present and correct. I thoroughly enjoyed this one and would happily have sat and slowly supped a pint over the course of an hour or so.
After the Mad Monk I thought I ought to calm things down a bit so I went for a Coach House Gunpowder Mild. At 3.8% I was hoping for a refreshing, light, but tasty beer and that’s exactly what I got: slightly sweet with a fruity flavour. Very nice indeed.
After that I decided it was high time I tried the SIBA Supreme Champion beer for the year: Elland 1872 Porter (which was also named CAMRA Winter Beer of Britain back in January). Now this was what I expected from a porter: lovely dark, roast-malt flavours with a decent hop-bite; well-balanced and not too dry, with hints of both chocolate and coffee merging to mocha perfection. Quite delicious and definitely a worthy supreme champ.
By this stage of the evening we’d met up with a friend and a mutual acquaintance or two, so the company was as convivial as the beer was good. By now I’d moved on to Stringers Mutiny. Described in the brochure simply as ‘Large Stout’, this 9.0% ABV monster was a lovely, nearly opaque black in tone and was packed with big, sweet flavours: toffee, booze-soaked dry fruit, rich fruit cake and more than a drop of coffee liqueur or dark rum. Another delicious beer, thoroughly enjoyable.
Jo had sent also me back to the bar for something she hadn’t tried yet and I happened to spot a new addition to the range, one which we’d noted and asterisked in the programme earlier: Hawkshead Damson and Vanilla Stout. Not too strong at 4.5% ABV but packing the most incredible aroma of fresh damsons, with a huge, fruity-sweet flavour rippling through the smooth, roast malts, this one made a big impression in a very short space of time. Jo said afterwards that a half was probably enough though; flavours that intense could’ve been a bit much if they’d lasted to the end of a pint, she reckoned. But definitely one to try if you see it anywhere, especially if, like me, you’ve long-harboured a sneaking distrust of the whole fruit beer oeuvre. This one might help to kick-start the process of changing your mind.
At this point, they called last orders and I reckoned I was okay for one more, so I nipped back to the bar. I was sorely tempted by a repeat of Mad Monk, 1872 Porter or Mutiny, but I decided to play it a little safer and opted for an Allendale Winter Dunkel. I’ve been interested in trying more German lager styles since reading about them in Great American Craft Beer. The Winter Dunkel was light and refreshing with a good balance of fruitiness and roast malts. It was a pleasant end to the session, but I think I’d have appreciated it a bit more if I hadn’t tried the three big, boozy beers right before.
In conclusion: Jo and I had a fantastic time and between us sampled plenty of excellent beers. We didn’t make the return trip on the Friday or Saturday so there were probably a fair few equally excellent ones that we missed out on, but we felt we’d definitely gotten our money’s worth. We’d only been to a one proper beer festival before now – the first Altrincham Bottle & Cask back in 2009 – and this one was a definite step up. Huge congratulations to Bar Manager Tandleman and his stalwart crew of willing and extremely able volunteer servers on an extremely smoothly-run operation. If more beer festivals could guarantee the same sort of high-quality delivery, speedy service and excellent range as this one then we’d definitely make the effort to go to more of them.