Finally getting decent beer in Belfast

I've been a bit lax with posting recently and this blog is perhaps a month past when it should have been posted, better late than never they say! A lot going on beer wise in NI at the mo, hopefully do a few posts in coming weeks to catch up a bit, not least on new breweries and beer venues in our capital.

Perhaps helped by the appearance of some craft-styled breweries in the North and the resurgence of good beer on the island of Ireland as a whole Belfast will host a new beer festival this Spring bank holiday (May 22nd-23rd). Set 6months apart and serving mostly from keg and bottle this will be a completely different affair to the November CAMRA cask festival held in the Ulster hall.

The listed and atmospheric Titanic Drawing Offices
ABVFest (for that is its name) has been organised by four disparate beer enthusiasts who have come together to bring decent beer to our shores.
Darren met Felicia at a beer tasting event at the National last year and she began to distribute his (Pokertree) beers through her business (Prohibition NI). Whilst they both love the Ulster Hall festival it doesn't reflect where good beer is in Ireland right now and wanted to run an event focussing on quality of beer, regardless of format where a group of enthusiasts could come together and enjoy beers in a more relaxed environment. When Boundary's Matt and Michael came along it turned out they were planning a festival on similar lines; so four people came together with the idea of putting on something a bit different in Belfast, modelled on the likes of Indy Man beer con. This is not least reflected in the choice of venue, wrangled somehow by Matt and Michael is the use of the formerly bustling now decrepit Titanic Drawing Offices. The festival will be the final event there before it becomes a boutique hotel. Of course this does mean if the event is successful they'll need a new venue next year, which is all part of the ethos says Darren!

All four are from different backgrounds and each contributed their own take on what they want from a festival, it really will be a reflection on four people's tastes. Michael's creative eye (he's a photographer by trade) has helped design the style of the festival and as the only non-beer-trade organiser he acts as a proxy for all 1200 attendees to ensure the festival caters for the geeks as well as the brewers!

A Boundary and Galway Collab Brewday
Photo courtesy of Tom Delaney
Each session will be fairly small with 400 people, allowing for conviviality rather than hubbub sometimes seenthe attendees reading like a who's who of the best our islands (and the worldwide brewing community) have to offer. Felicia's extensive list of contacts and good will built among brewers in the few short years Prohibition has been operating has resulted in an astonishing array of beers, the like of which have never before been seen on our shores including a number of festival specials and one-offs (currently held tightly underwraps) plus the official launch of newest Belfast brewery Boundary with their AGM being held on Saturday morning. It will also serve as a showcase for Northern Ireland brewers; all were invited and most were excited to attend, though Darren was at pains to stress that this is not "The Good Food show NI for beer" its a celebration of beer first and foremost, with of course a chance for enthusiasts to put the faces to the brewsters and brewers whose wares they so enjoy. Felicia said "we wanted to create an experience and not just a drinking session,  a festival that could allow people to taste some of the best beers that are available." In that respect ABV will be completely different to anything seen in Northern Ireland to date

And there will be a number of those purveyors of beers present at the event, behind the bar chatting all things beer, ably assisted by a posse of volunteers (including yours truly; who has volunteered to manage a bar for all three sessions). Most of these beers will be served on keg, 40 at one time across two bars, supplemented by a fistful of bottles. A lot will be a single keg only, meaning you'll have to make do with what's on during your session, but working out what's on is all part of the fun! There will also be some ciders for those of the fermented apple beverage persuasion and of course with decent drink must come decent food and a number of proper street food trucks will be in attendance.

Michael said "We've planned a festival that we know we'd love ourselves and I can't wait to enjoy it." He's particularly looking forward to a few "dark beasts" with more details to be released in the coming weeks @ABVFest.Felicia is also looking forward to seeing others getting pleasure from the beers, finding out "how fun and interesting beer can be, trying beers they have maybe never tried before and having a bit of craic." This sharing aspect will be cultured by some special tastings on the day.

Could this vial hold a clue?
I'm most looking forward to trying the Boundary Beers on draught (including some of those aforementioned collaborations)* and meeting a lot of those people who help keep our beer community lubricated plus of course catching up with old friends from around the UK. And for the team behind the festival its all a bit overwhelming but of course very exciting, "it's amazing how many hundreds of people have been so quick to buy tickets and support our efforts to do something different". The Friday, Saturday evening and weekend passes had already sold out one month before hand; so you'll need to act fast to get one of the last tickets for a Saturday lunchtime session (12-5)  and the final Saturday day session tickets sold out shortly afterwards. There is a waiting list, so try your luck on the website, hope to see you there!

*I'll hopefully bring you an update of these as soon as I hear about them!


First collaborations

A comment on using ingredients for no real reason
from the excellent (sadly defunct) Trouble Brewing

A mark of a maturing beer scene is brewers reaching out to each other to collaborate on a brew together. Some commentators dismiss this as a cynical attempt to generate beer sales (often at a premium) without necessarily bringing anything new to the table; often characterised by bunging ingredients in with no real thought about the process. Whilst this is sometimes the case I don't see an issue with trying to make more money from selling a beer; its up to the consumer to decide whether or not to part with their cash. In my opinion, when done well a collaboration can create a beer better than the sum of its parts, or with a difference to a breweries usual output.

Collaborations have only just begun to emerge on the island of Ireland, with Carlow collaborating with Pinta on a stout (Lublin to Dublin) and Eight Degrees with By The Horns on a Belgian white (Horn8's nest) last year. They were both amongst my top-rated beers last year and show that Ireland's beer scene is beginning to coming of age. There was also a limited collaboration special (North & South of the River) between Donegal and Inishmacsaint for the Wild Atlantic Way festival last year (missed it, unfortunately). However there were no intra-country collaborations to be found - until now that is.

Yes, Gordy from the aforementioned Inishmacsaint teamed up with the redoubtable Darren from Pokertree after meeting at the very beer festival Gordy's other collaboration was released. They decided to produce a Christmas beer together, christened Crann, a "Saints & Sinners" collaboration. Being rural breweries in Fermanagh and Tyrone respectively they wanted to reflect their environment and the historic practices of foraging for ingredients (of which Gordy already has some form, having previously produced a bog myrtle beer).
Crann is Irish for tree, which fit in well with the planned use of spruce tips, a trip to the local An Creagan bog also yielded wild cranberries, which added a double-meaning to the name. Rounded out with raisins (not local obviously!) and a Belgian yeast resulted in a 6.6% biere de garde. Brewed on Darren's kit in Carrickmore (its a bigger set-up) and released in 750ml bottles to add an element of theatre to a beer designed for the Christmas dinner table.

I thought I'd missed the boat on this however as it was released before Christmas. Luckily when I was in Belfast earlier this month The Vineyard had just received a second shipment; so was able to snag a bottle for sampling. 

As you can see it pours an attractive pale amber with a fluffy beige head. On the nose are the typical spicey yeast esters you'd expect from a Belgian yeast, alongside a herbal, slightly tart nose. Medium body with creamy wheat spices, its very soft and easy drinking. Flavour wise its fruity, peppery, touch of banana ester, tart citric light finish with long esters. It's very much redolent of a German weissebier, with additional herb/spice complexities and very much enjoyed. I wasn't overly able to taste the influence of the fruit though it probably added to the overal complexity. It did remind me somewhat of William's Brothers excellent Nollaig, though of course with more emphasis on spice than hops. There may still be bottles available from the usual suspects if you're quick (there's only 1500 bottles!)

Darren seems particularly pleased with how well the beers sold, given the typically conservative palate of the province and fully intends to rebrew the beer for next Christmas. Darren and Gordy fully intend to team up for further collaborative efforts later this year (Crann did have a #1 on the label after all!), and, though he refused to be pinned down on specifics, gorse, elderflower and cherries have all been mooted. These are likely to be in 500ml bottles as people may be less willing to stump up the cash for a big bottle when not for a specific occasion. As Darren and Gordy both enjoy Belgian ales and with such a wide range of examples to draw from they're all likely to be Belgian inspired. In fact there should be something new mashed in on Monday...
Darren has also recently collaborated with Marble in Little Barney to celebrate the newest addition to his family; there may be a few bottles left in circulation. They have since been joined in the list of collaboration-friendly brewers by Boundary who recently collaborated on a sour ale with Galway Bay. There are also a number of collaborations happening south of the border, but that's a story for another day, I look forward to tracking down and trying them all!

What are your thoughts on collaborations within the beer community and are there any you have particularly enjoyed?

*For those who didn't work it out the Saint refers to Inishmacsaint and Sinners to the story behind Pokertree


Around Belgium in 50 beers

Its already late April and I haven't yet posted about this year's annual beer blogging event, renamed this year to better reflect the participants as "The Beer Bloggers and Writers Conference". Slots are filling up nicely but there's still time to register to join us on August Bank holiday weekend. This years conference will be in Belgium (if you hadn't guessed from the title), more specifically Brussels and the organisers seem to have gone all out in organising an agenda befitting of an event in its fifth year.

Diepensteyn Castle, now owned by Palm
For the first time in the European conference history there will be an optional pre-conference excursion taking in three breweries (and a castle!) including première Saison proponents Dupont, fruit and lambic beer purveyors Lindemans and the oldest brewery in Wallonia Dubuissons. All this and meals plus transport for only 20Euro (so about fifteen quid for us Brits!)

The above excursion and conference proper this year are sponsored by Belgian Family Brewers so expect to sample beers from brewers Bosteels through Verhaege via De Konninck and St Bernard, there will be a veritable smorgasbord of beers to choose from.  There's also a tantalising hint of a big announcement with a press conference to be hosted on day two discussing a new direction for the family brewers. Could this be a move to protect more traditional styles from overseas interference as with Gueuzes or could it perhaps be railing against contract brewers and providers thereof? We'll have to wait and see but it will certainly be interesting.

Interior at BelgaQueen
I'm really looking forward to the talk on sour beers by Petrus and the history of Belgian brewing - how does it tie in with our perception in the UK? There are also the usual conference events including obligatory wordpress session, tales from the shires as we get a round-up of the state of blogging around the Globe and the ever-popular brewery speed-dating. We're spoiled for food this year too as alongside the usual Pilsner Urquel Feast we have an evening meal in Belga Queen which looks like it could be a highlight as well as lunch provided on both days, all for the measly sum of 120Euro!

The grand entrance hall to marivaux
The conference venue looks fantastic in the converted cinema that is Hotel Marivaux and there's an exceptional conference rate of 95Euro for a double room (helped by the fact Brussels is quieter in the summer). To get to Brussels you can fly directly or via Amsterdam or Paris. There's also the more relaxed method of Eurostar, which may be a better bet if you're planning on bringing bottles back!

Foeders at Rodenbach
The fun doesn't end there though as there are three* post-conference excursionsorganised by Visit Flanders. There's a one-day trip for wild ale fans around the Pajottenland including to my first Gueuzerie visit Boon as well as the lambic museum and beer festival. The second option is a trip to Leuven (now extended to two days) with visits to small microbreweries like De Triest and global behemoths like Stella Artois. The third option (which myself and Daisy are choosing) takes in the hop fields of Poperinge, six breweries over two days including crazy experimenteers de struisse, Saint Sixtus Trappist Abbey (producers of long-time World Number One Beer on Ratebeer (currently #2!) Westvleteren XII) and Flemish Red experts Rodenbach plus a  day pottering about Bruges including the Beer Museum. Crazily all of these trips are also 20Euro per person including overnight stays!
choice of not one, not two but

I can definitely recommend attending, all in for five days pretty much full board and transport once you get to Brussels with basically unlimited beer  you're looking at about £300 per person . Can't really beat that anywhere in the UK, let alone in one of the most expensive cities in the world so what are you waiting for? Hope to see you there!

*Though you've missed out on one of the two day-excursions already