Thursday, 2 March 2017

Alltech Craft Brews & Food Festival 2017 - A Sense of Belonging...

For me the Alltech Brews & Food Festival is unmissable and I was lucky enough to wangle a media pass this year. Previously I had thought about applying but felt that it would be deceitful, as I wasn't blogging regularly enough and the honest streak inside of me would make me blush bright red if anyone asked me, 'Hmmm ... So what do you do to receive one of those?' But now my blog posting and interaction is regular if not riveting, and although it now incorporates some beer history to take up my lack-of-travel's slack, at least I'm developing a rhythm and gaining some traction and attraction on social media in general...

I arrived with a few friends a little too early to The Convention Centre in the Dublin Docklands and waited patiently in the atrium as those from Alltech and from the CCD hustled and bustled around getting things ready for the crowds - the event was sold out today. Soon everything was in place and I left the others to sort out their tickets, glasses and passes, and I went up to the media room on the first floor to collect mine ... and that's when I twigged that something was different...

I have never been to a festival before where I felt so much like I really belonged. Of course I have attended many festivals over the years and I've enjoyed them but it always felt like there was a separation between the event itself and those attending it - like a them and us scenario - whereas here and now I felt part of the festival. This is of course down to the attention, friendliness and professionalism on hand, but it's more than that. It's about how those who run an event can be so good at what the do that there's an effortlessness and seamlessness in attending...

Back down in the venue itself I caught up with the others and saw the same sense of 'Being There' in their mannerism, comments and moods. It seemed to me that it was like relaxing into that comfortable old armchair with your warm cardigan on, a good imperial stout in hand, glowing embers in the fire and your favourite music on in the background. Maybe it's an age thing, as with it doesn't come wisdom but does come appreciation of 'Experiences' and not of 'Things' anymore - perhaps that is the wisdom.

You may think I'm gushing too much and the media pass went to my head, and maybe it did! Who knows? But this would not explain the same sense from those around me and those I talked to both behind the stands and in front of them. And this whole feeling made me realise that us Bloggers, Tweeters and Facebookers spend way too much time commenting on and rating the beer and not enough talking about the people, atmosphere and feeling we have at these events or even the elation we feel when we drink a good beer or eat a good meal. We shouldn't rate it we should describe it... but maybe we rate because it easier to quantify something as relatively tangible as a product whereas it's more difficult to rate experiences.

Not to mention the fact that it makes you sound like some kind of lovey-dovey, beardy-weirdy, fruitcake, but hey if the bobble hat fits...

Having said all that, I guess I'd better do a short roundup of some the festival itself, people I talked to and the beers I tried and liked. As is often the case, I avoided some of my favourite breweries that I knew I could pick up easily at bars and bottle shops such as Wicklow Wolf, Rye River, Trouble, Blacks and the rest - sorry folks no offence! Also, the sheer number of beers to be tried in a relatively short period of time combined with some virus-like bug that had infected me - You're welcome, Alltech Saturday Crowd! -  meant that the complicated maths of time divided by beers plus many variables could never work.

With my social skills perked up and on a high, I was drawn to Bridewell Brewery from Clifden by a beer mat that appeared on the barrel/table that we were using as a base. There was a brewery on Bridewell Lane in Carlow in the 1800s so curiosity brought me over to talk to Barbara-Anne and Harry, whose brewery is in the shadow of Clifden's old jail. They brew just one beer - a blond - and don't bottle, so I was glad to have come across them as otherwise I'd have to wait until I was visiting one of the many places it's on tap in their local area.

Their beer is a lovely, dry version of the style, with a subtle, almost smoke-like quality. I liked it alot and felt it would be a great companion for food. Specifically, I could imagine myself sitting in a bar in Clifden drinking this beer with a big bowl of creamy chowder and butter-smothered brown bread, with that sea-side smell in the air as I gaze out across the bay. (Disclaimer: This may not be possible...)

They say that beer people are good people, and I'm not sure if that's always true (In fact I know it's not!) but these people certainly come across as good people, I hope they do well!

On the Sullivan's stand I caught up with Alan, who I had met previously in their taproom in Kilkenny. Their flagship beer is Maltings Red Ale and he promised more brews were on the way when I complained that their barley wine was currently missing from their portfolio! I did get a sample taste of the export version of their red, a lot of which is destined for Buffalo, New York seemingly! At 5% it's a more marketable product in the US than the domestic 4% version and had pretty much the same malt-forward flavours of its little brother, but was perhaps a little bolder.

Sullivan's are gathering an interesting and hugely experienced team around them, they are doing some pretty heavy marketing at the moment and have big plans for the future. They are the cheese to the chalk of Bridewell Brewery in one way but by the same token they also come across as good people. And they are relatively local to me so I have the same interest in them as I have in 12 Acres, O'Hara's and Costellos, and I like what they all produce so I'll be keeping a close eye on them in the future.

(And yes I do promote 'local' as long as it's good local, too many people promote local produce just because it is a buzz word at the moment ... I think you all know my feelings on this from previous posts.)

Irish Beers
While wandering around the festival I did try a fair few other Irish beers, although not as many as I would have liked. I was helped by the fact that those with me didn't mind sharing their beers and running the risk of getting whatever virus was afflicting me.

My favourites in no particular order were the pre-oak-aged Special Brew from Wicklow Brewery, this was the unbarreled version of their 12:12:16 beer from last Christmas and tasted of satsumas and caramel digestives biscuits; Independent Brewing Company's Coconut Porter and wonderfully labelled(!) Connemara Bock, the former tasting of Macaroon bars and the latter of orange Miwadi with a fizz of lemon sherbert ... and was somewhat unbock-like but delicious; Kinnegar's Olan's Tart, a collaboration with Dan Kelly's Cider had a sweetish brown sugar meets Granny Smith quality that I liked, although the similar collaboration between The White Hag and MacIvor's CiderSilver Branch Apple Sour - with its dryer and sourer palate cleansing effect might have shaded it for me; then another White Hag collaboration, with Kinnegar this time, was The Hare and The Hag, a nitro coffee stout that was pretty phenomenal, although a taste I had of White Hag's good old Black Boar confirmed that it is still one of my favourite beers; 8 Degrees Bandit sang to me and had more smoke than I remember, it was pretty special; Lough Gill Brewery's MacNutty brown ale was a gorgeous velvety version of one of my favourite beer styles with that macadamia nut aftertaste.

These are not all those I tasted but they were certainly the ones I prefered, although I admittedly missed a few crackers from what I heard and saw on social media later.

(Having said that a couple of recommendations for one particular beer left me wondering what all the fuss was about when I tried it!)

Imported Beers
Next up is the imported beer category, again I only got to try a tiny fraction of them.

There was a lot of talk about Stone's Farking Wheaton w00tstout when the festival opening on Thursday, so I was very surprised to see it still on tap on Saturday afternoon. It was only being served as sample size given its strength and rarity I guess. The smell assaults your nose like good mustard and then you get a coffee liqueur taste with a lingering alcohol heat, I could imagine it becoming quite sickly in quantity so I was kind of glad it was only a small measure. Beside it was Stone's Imperial Saison, a beer style I had never tried before and this one certainly packs a punch of hibiscus flower tea wavering towards cheap perfume, especially given it's 9.4% abv! I actually quite liked this one but I can imagine many would hate it, although again the sample size was perhaps enough today - but I'll keep an eye out for it. My taste buds are still not convinced that Stone are worth their hype but then again Xocoveza was my favourite beer over last Christmas so I'll sit uncomfortably on the fence for now.

I have a soft spot for Thornbridge because the brew Wild Raven, another of my all time favourite beers, so when I spotted their two taps I decided to try both offerings. Carlota is a 7% mexican stout but I couldn't pick up any chili in it. I did get a rich dark chocolate quality and a not unpleasant chalkiness. I will try a bottle of it on a cleaner palate if I come across it, as it certainly sounded like my kind of beer. Valravn is presumably the big brother to Wild Raven and has many of the same tropical hop with a dash of sweet cocoa mix - but intensified as you'd expect. It's an 8.8% abv beer and seems to me to be a brutish bully to Raven's subtler charms - although my infatuation with it's little sister may have clouded my judgement so it's another to try again at some stage.

I also tried Brewdog's Blitz Strawberry & Vanilla Berliner Weisse - and that's exactly what it tasted like...

Barcelona Beer Company
One stand that intrigued me was Barcelona Beer Company. I was interested to find out what the Spanish craft beer scene was like, as I would be heading to Valencia on a weeks holiday during the summer and wondered what my options would be beer-wise in Spain generally.

I chatted with Viet who deals with exports and he filled me in on the beers as I sampled my way through them. (He nearly ended up in my 'People' section above but I didn't get a photo of him and we didn't chat too much as he was quite busy. Plus I felt his range deserved a separate piece!)

La Bella Lola is a Blonde with a nicely spiced cardamom flavour and a dry finish; Nicotto is a 'Japanese Style Beer' that I very much enjoyed, probably because of the subtle coconut and lemon meringue flavour that was coming from the use of Sorachi Ace; Piquenbauer is a wheat beer a dash of ginger cutting through the cloves, not my favourite style but good for hot climates I'd imagine; last was my favourite, La NiƱa Barbuda a brown ale with a taste of milk chocolate and liquorice, with a tiny hint of bitterness in the tale end. Brown ales have really become my favourite style at the moment...

Barcelona Beer Company are exporting to a good few countries in Europe and beyond, and I'm sure they'll make it down the road to Valencia!

I must admit that my mind wasn't really on the food at the festival. Strangely for me my appetite seemed to have gone AWOL, but when the Brisket Klaxon™ went off in my head after looking at the sign over the Smokin' Bones stand I decided I'd better eat. It was perfect ... gorgeously smoky and tender served on a bun with just a little mayo-mustard. (I can never understand how people think they can give an honest review and rating for a beer after having a load of mustard and onions on a garlic sausage or red hot chilli chicken! By all means eat what you want, but don't pretend it doesn't mess up your palate for the rest of the day.)

I was luck to try some of the fantastic raclette with gherkins and baby spuds from The Ploughman's Daughter too, and vowed to go for some of my own later - then promptly forgot!

I can't comment too much on the rest of the food but I didn't hear many complaints, apart from maybe a few who thought the prices versus portions were a little steep...

Well what can I say that I haven't already? Not a lot...

For me Alltech's festival leads the way in how a festival should be run. They are the benchmark that others need to measure against ... and its not just about its size, location, entertainment, quality, organizational skills and the people, it's about that sense of inclusion that cocoons you while you're there.

And thats what Alltech brought to the party more than any other festival - a feeling of belonging...

I have been accused in the past of only promoting beers, food, events and places that I like - of course I do! But purely for selfish reasons, as the better a bar does - for example - with craft beer then the more they will stock, and therefore the better selection for me. Any major negative comments I have I generally pass directly to those involved, providing its fact of course and not just my opinion or taste.

And I'll happily promote this festival - among others - for similar selfish reasons...

But for the love of god, change those bloody glasses!


Visited 25th February 2017

As we were getting the bus home we popped into Brew Dock to use the jacks and a grab a quick beer. We were lucky to find both Farami from Whiplash/Otterbank Brewing and Unto The Breach from Yellowbelly/Hope Brewing on tap, two collaborations that I'd hope to pick up and they didn't disappoint.

The place was buzzing and after a rather embarrassing, 'I'm your biggest fan!' moment when I spotted Galway Bay's Andy behind the bar, we ran for our bus and headed out of the city back to the hinterland.

I slept much of the way home.

(Apologies Andy, if you ever read this.)

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