Hopping mad at the beer festival

PUBLISHED: 15:34 21 August 2014 | UPDATED: 15:34 21 August 2014

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A beer festival should be a cause for celebration not controversy but drinkers can be a hard lot to please. A dispute arose from the announcement of the winner of the Champion Beer of Britain competition last week -- a traditional copper-coloured bitter from Yorkshire.

The competition is held during the Great British Beer Festival run by the St Albans-based Campaign for Real Ale. But let’s look on the positive side first. The festival, held at Kensington Olympia in London, was a great success. More than 50,000 people attended, the numbers were up on the previous year and a substantial proportion was made up of young people of both sexes.

That ancient media stereotype of the barrel-shaped real ale drinker with a bird’s nest beard and a pension book never was true and should now be well and truly buried. Cask beer is drunk and enjoyed by all age groups and both sexes.

At Olympia they had 900 beers to choose from, including imports from the United States, Czech Republic, Germany and Italy. The festival was a powerful reflection of the beer revolution underway both in this country and throughout the world.

With so much to celebrate, why should some drinkers complain about the winner of the championship? It’s called Boltmaker and comes from the family brewer Timothy Taylor in Keighley, West Yorkshire. It’s best known for its stronger Landlord, often on sale in the St Albans area, but Boltmaker at four per cent is a lower strength and determinedly traditional Yorkshire bitter.

Nowt wrong with that – except the Twittersphere was awash with messages condemning the choice and calling the judges “idiots”. One Twit demanded to know the names of the judges – did he plan to “send the boys round”?

For some beer drinkers, the only tipple they enjoy and wish to force on everyone else is a style imported from the US. It’s known by the inelegant phrase “hop forward beers” and it means they have only a light or even undetectable malt character and pack a massive punch of fruity citrus hops.

But CAMRA beer festivals and competitions don’t ignore such beers. Boltmaker may be a copper-coloured beer but others at Olympia were radically different. The winner of the Golden Ales class in the championship was Peterborough’s Oakham Citra, a beer familiar to readers as it’s often on sale in the Boot and other local pubs.

The name comes from the single American hop used to make it and it positively bursts with the rich grapefruit, peach, melon and tropical fruit aromas and flavours demanded by the hop forward brigade.

In a similar vein, the winner of the Strong Bitter class – Church End Brewery’s Fallen Angel from Nuneaton – is another glowing gold beer using two American hops, Cascade and Chinook. Salopian Brewery in Shrewsbury picked up a gold award for Darwin’s Origin. It was brewed to celebrate Darwin’s connection with Shrewsbury, his birthplace, and -- to stress the world-wide nature of his quest – uses hops from Germany, New Zealand, Slovenia and the US. It’s another pale-coloured beer with a rich and fruity hop character.

The awards for those three beers did not appease the hip-hopsters. They had their eyes firmly set on the overall winner of the championship, which has the temerity to have a pale copper colour and a solid malt base as well plenty of hop character.

But the hop notes come from two English varieties, Fuggles and Goldings, which offer aromas and flavours that are woody, peppery and spicy rather than full of citrus fruit.

Whisper it quietly, but not everyone wants to drink citrus-flavoured beers. It’s rather like being told you can only enjoy New Zealand Sauvignon white wine. I can enjoy one glass of Oakham Citra but I wouldn’t ask for a second.

I happen to like the traditional balance offered by such beers as Taylor’s Boltmaker. I’m not alone: the reason why the likes of Fuller’s London Pride are growing is because a lot of beer drinkers enjoy them. You don’t hear people heading for their local saying, “Oh, what a penance, I have to drink London Pride tonight.” They actually look forward to the experience.

When CAMRA was founded in the early 1970s there were 40 breweries left in Britain and most of them brewed just Mild and Bitter. Now there are more than 1,200 breweries and the choice and diversity is amazing.

Let’s revel in that choice and stop griping.

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