I've always thought that there's a fine line between heaven and hell. Not in a religious sense of course but in how we use those words in our not-so-normal lives. Family can be both, work can be both and life itself can switch from one to the other in the blink of an eye.
Beer festivals - especially big, well planned and well executed ones - can be like that, as the elation you feel when you walk through the doors is quickly tempered by the realisation that your limited time there combined with your poor palate being bombarded by beer means you will never, never be able to taste all the beers you want to.
Call me a pessimist but that makes me sad - in reality some times the glass is half empty and sometimes it's half full but I firmly believe that it's more often a case of the glass being the wrong size. A philosophical discussion for another day perhaps...
The day had started OK, or better than OK in reality. I had won tickets to the festival and had managed to get €5 off the bus fare by signing up to some loyalty scheme they bus company had introduced. Little did they know that my ongoing loyalty would be an issue, as I hated travelling by bus and was only doing so today because Irish Rail had decided to feck up my day by bussing people from Athy to Dublin and back in order to make rail improvements in Hazelhatch, allegedly. This was pointless for me, coming from Carlow, hence my getting a bus all the way there. And so I was up a little in monetary terms but the knowledge that my bladder would be playing chicken with time on the trip back down from Dublin filled me with dread. (Why don't all intercity buses have toilets on them?)
But as I sat at the bar in Brew Dock opposite Busáras - 10 minutes and a packet of ready-salted crisps - after stepping from the bus, with a Beavertown Holy Cowbell in front of me that tasted of dense and sweetish-sooty spiced black cardamom, I decided to put the thoughts of the return journey to the back of my mind. Anyway, I had a plan to be as dehydrated as possible for the return journey in order to avoid the ignominy of peeing into a bottle on the bus. I always place personal embarrassment before my health, I think it might be a man thing...
I also got to sample the excellent Siren Soundwave in Brew Dock - tasting of cat pee on grapefruit in a glass, but in a nice way - before heading down the bright, windy streets of Dublin to the Convention Centre where the festival was being held.
Once inside the venue with an 'Eco' (read plastic) glass and a few vouchers in hand, I wandered about in a daze, and it was then I came to the heaven/hell conclusion once more, that I would not be able to try all the beers here - not even close, even with a couple of friends in tow. So as I sipped on a sour, tart, lemonish, medicinally-cleansing Beavertown Londonerweiss I formulated a plan to only try the beers I probably wouldn't be able to get at any other time or at any other festival. Unfortunately that meant leaving out most of the Irish breweries, as I knew I'd pick up most of their beers during the rest of the year either locally in offies, or on other beer or food related excursions.
My first proper stop was at the stand of the Hungarian outfit Legenda Sörfőzde and I was very impressed by the range on offer. The brewer(?) took his time to explain the beers and although there might have been a little bit of info lost in translation it was clear that there was passion and innovation aplenty in the brewery, not to mention some really tasty beers; Bazooka a smoked rye beer - like liquidised smoky ham with a sweet glaze; Olaszházi Meggysör Kriek - quite dry but with glacé cherries and a little Christmas pudding; Pony amber ale - dryish too with the tropical fruit flavours of five American hops and loads of body; Horror - an alcoholic Belgian TIPA that tasted of lychees and coffee somehow; Brettannia Sour Ale - those sweet cigarettes from my youth and cider vinegar in a strangely pleasant blend. I can only assume that inventive brewing is at the fore in Hungary at the moment. Hopfanatic's Fekete Erdő, a forest fruited porter reinforced this to me when I tried it later, a more subtle but equally good beer from the same country.
Next stop was Brauerei Gusswerk an award winning brewery near Salzburg in Austria brewing organic beers in a wide range of styles. Black Betty tasted of mild but bitter milk chocolate with some sort of a herby after-taste I couldn't place; Die Schwarze Kuh is an imperial stout that tasted like a bitter cocoa brandy if such a drink existed; the wonderfully named Horny Betty came across to me as spiced-up Belgian tripel. All were very nice and I made a mental note to return to get a mixed takeaway pack - but forgot to do so!
After a quick stop at Tuatara to try their pleasant Ardennes blonde ale and a gorgeously full bodied Bertinchamps next door it was time for food.
I've always had a fondness for pies with beer so I Skoffed a pulled pork pie, which was very tasty but perhaps was a little heavy on the tomato sauce for my palate, also I would have preferred mash to salad, but then again I'd rarely be happy...
Somewhere to sit apart from the floor would have been nice too but I can appreciate that seating would take up too much space and would require extra staff with cattle prods to keep people moving. Perhaps more tables to stand at might be the answer...
Appetites sorted and eager for a palate cleanser we spotted Rye River's stand close by and decided to have a look. Sitting among their usual brands were a row of chalk written signs over taps. My notes failed me here but I can remember that the low alcohol Berliner Weisse was excellent, the Brown Ale - a much underbrewed style - tasted sublime, and the double IPA was ridiculously smooth and drinkable. I get the feeling they brewed these to prove to a few people that yes they can brew tricky beers if need be but that their core focus was beer for the masses. For whatever reason, I hope they brew these again as they are certainly beers I would buy.... hopefully they were testing the market for a premium brand to add to their stable.
Next we found Lagunitas, Thornbridge and Founders all lurking together on one of the side walls and had to pay our dues. Lagunitas Cappuccino Stout was exactly as it sounded - only better - and as we talked to the guy behind the tap I happened to mention Thornbridge Jaipur X and how I had hoped it would be here. Suddenly a bottle was produced, opened and shared with us! It was fantastic with a heavy hit of alcohol balanced with toasted orange peel and a lovely dry finish.
After a coffee/water/toilet break (ever mindful of my dehydration plan for the bus) and a sit down in the atrium we went seeked out Black's Model T stout, which was deliciously smooth with the usual-for-stout coffee and chocolate taste and Hi-Viz, which zinged the taste buds with grape-and-other-fruit bitterness.
At this point my notes were getting sketchy and my palate tired. Ever mindful of the bus journey home, I knew I was nearing my limit so headed for one of the breweries we had been tipped off about earlier.
Freigeist Bierkultur seem to be a bit of an enigma, even as I try to research them now I keep coming up with dead ends and a Facebook page that states; 'Freigeist is the experimental offshoot of Cologne's revolutionary small brewery, Braustelle. Here we strive to break the chains of industrial brewing by reviving and updating, Germany's unique, historical beer styles.'
No matter as their beer itself does the talking and Geisterzug Rhubarb Gose has a lot to say. It's a savoury rhubarb, spicy, herby, sourish glorious beer. A complex beauty that just might have edged it to my favourite beer of the festival, or at least made it into the top 3. This was followed by a smoked Alt beer whose name I never noted, but I wrote the words ' Bitter, Fruit, Smoke' in my notebook. It was superb too if not as memorable as the Rhubarb Gose, which is more a testament to the former's quality that the latter's shortcomings. Inwardly I cursed not coming here earlier to try more of the range and vowed to try and find them in this country.
I finished the festival with a Beavertown Moose Fang that tasted bitter and coal-like but in a good way, and said good bye to Alltech and a few new found friends, both liquid and flesh. We made our way back towards Brew Dock for a perhaps-unwise last beer before the bus and I couldn't help but feel that this was the best beer festival I had ever been to to date. It was so well run, the selection of breweries and beer was phenomenal, but more than that it was that edge of professionalism as soon as you walk in the door that makes a festival like this something special. Most importantly I really enjoyed it, which is the key thing really of course, or all the rest counts for nothing!
Perhaps they'll do two a year? How about a winter and a summer festival Alltech?
One of my favourite Irish stouts Galway Brewing Buried at Sea wasn't on in Brew Dock so I had the Stormy Port porter instead, and after a last minute toilet dash we boarded the bus for home.
By the way, my fears for the journey home were unfounded, I slept most of the way, dreaming of Rhubarb Gose...
(Thanks to John K. for heaven/hell title.)