Thursday, 19 November 2015
Beer In Essex
"I Don't Think Any Of Us Actually Brew In Our Sheds"
Future Champions Beer Fest 4
The Victoria Inn, Colchester
Beer festivals in pubs can often be hit and miss affairs as far as I am concerned. There are some beers seem to be ubiquitous, and whilst they can be good I'm generally looking for something a little different, a good variety that will hold my attention for a whole afternoon. All too often I'm rather disappointed and after an hour or so I'll cut my losses and head for pastures new.
It's just after midday on a mild but decidedly damp early November afternoon as I get off the train at Colchester station and take the short walk to the Victoria Inn on North Station Road. With every step I take my anticipation grows as I know with absolute certainty that the festival I'm headed to will not have a single beer on its list that I will have had before. I also have a slight sense of apprehension as, despite this being a festival I have been planning to attend since I was first told about it back in March, I won't be drinking a single commercially produced beer.
The Future Champions Beer Festival, otherwise known as the Shed Brewers Festival of which this is the fourth, began as an idea following a meeting of the local home brew club, the Shed Brewers. Sheena and Andy had been given some of the beers to taste and were amazed at how good they were, which got them talking about the possibility of an actual home brew festival. Realising that there would be some legal issues with regard to beer duty, Sheena spoke to a friend of hers who just happened to be an ex-licensing officer, and a suitable solution was found. Planning started in early Spring 2012 and subsequently has done every Spring since, mainly due to the fact that the home brewers don't meet that often. It proved to be a resounding success. This ticket-only festival has grown in popularity and reputation every year since and now sells out weeks in advance, so I was rather intrigued as to what I might find.
Although the doors have only been open for around twenty minutes by the time I arrive there's already a good crowd drinking in the pub itself. Deciding not to head immediately up to the function room where the festival is being held I take a seat at the bar and order a half of Muck Cart Mild from Bedfordshire brewery Son Of Sid. It's toasty flavours are rather pleasing and it's light enough to sharpen my taste buds before I embark on the main event. Sheena and Andy come over for a chat and tell me that they've already had to turn away a couple of disgruntled local 'tickers' who had ignored the fact that would need a ticket to gain entry.
Sheena encourages me to go upstairs and after noting several beers on the bar that I'll be back to try later I make my way up the stairs into the function room above. My £12.00 ticket entitles me to twelve thirds of beer, but there appear to be more than twelve beers available and this is confirmed when I'm handed my programme. With fifteen beers available I realise that I'm going to need some judicious planning and start to read the descriptions provided to enable me to navigate my journey through the afternoon and into the evening.
It has a beautifully carbonated off-white head, and the classic German hefeweizen aroma of
zesty lemon and dry coriander seed backed buoyantly with notes of bubblegum. It is perhaps a little more full-bodied than I anticipate but the deep lemon interspersed with light orange wine gum flavours tell me that I've made the right choice and I savour its long lingering finish before draining my glass in no time at all.
One of the best things about this particular festival is that the brewers themselves are present, and even though they take their turns serving from the assembled stillage they take this opportunity to talk to each other about the beers they have brewed and more importantly, from my perspective at least, are on hand to give impromptu interviews.
I manage to grab a few words with Keith, who has come down from Norwich to enter his beer, and ask him about his brewing and the Shed Brewers.
"I don't think any of us actually brew in our sheds," he tells me, "I've been home brewing for about four years, and I took it up as a way of saving money. I started brewing from kits at first but soon moved on to all-grain brewing with some interesting results in the beginning."
The Weisse beer is a standard beer for him I'm told, and is made using White Labs WLP380 yeast. After chilling the wort to 13 degrees and pitching the yeast before letting it come up to 17 degrees over two to three days. He seems genuinely delighted that I like his beer.
Interestingly, I discover that he grows Cascade hops in his back garden and we talk about his favourite beers styles (US-style Pale Ales and British Oatmeal Stouts for the record) and beer in general for some time. The one question that I have to ask him however is whether he has any aspirations to brew commercially and his response is very definite.
"Absolutely not" he says. "This is just a hobby and I don't really have any interest in taking it to the next level."
Heading back to the bar whilst contemplating my next beer choice I notice that names are being taken for three separate tutored tastings (light and golden ales, dark beers, and speciality beers) a little later on. Realising that this is my opportunity to actively taste all of the beers available today I manage to get my name, as well as that of fellow Essex beer writer Martin Oates who will be joining me later, added to the latter two tasting sessions. This means that I need to focus on the lighter beers at this stage but after a decidedly mixed bag of Blonde and hoppy Golden Ales, generally good but not overly memorable I decide to up my game and go for the strongest beer at the festival, a 7.2% double IPA called HopHopHop.
Brewed with Summit, Centennial and Cascade (three hops you see, hence the name), it's a beautifully sticky and thick dark amber beer that's heavy with lime and pine flavours. Luckily for me the brewer, Jon Wood, is on hand and we move to a convenient table at the back of the room for a brief chat.
Originally from Ipswich but now living in Colchester, Jon works in IT and has been all-grain brewing for around seven years. I ask him whether his job influences his brewing philosophy and what he likes to brew.
"I am a bit of a self-analyst," he confesses, "and I'm always striving to improve. I really like Brewdog beers and they do inspire me, but I really like to experiment. There's no set style that I favour, I like to try everything. This years beer for example is quite a jump from last year when I entered Brown Leaf Bitter, a 4.0% session bitter brewed with East Kent Goldings and Challenger hops that I grew in my garden, but this year I really wanted to do something bigger."
In addition to growing hops in his garden he also grows Bacchus grapes which he uses to make his own wine. This variety gives lower yields in the UK but has an acidic Sauvignon Blanc quality, and I ask if he's ever considered combining the two and brewing a beer with grapes or wood chips soaked in wine.
"I hadn't," he laughs, "but it's certainly something I'd consider."
"Maybe next year?" I ask him.
He smiles but won't commit. "Maybe" he replies.
One of the things I like about the Victoria Inn is that I always feel welcome there. Despite not knowing anyone apart from Sheena and Andy. who are busy with the bar and barbecue downstairs, I have no trouble finding people to talk about the beer, some of whom have been going to this festival since its inception. Everyone tells me that this is the best yet but there are a few beers that are dividing opinion.
There is a nineteenth century style brown Porter brewed with Oak-cured amber malt called "Smoke on the Porter" which is a little too much for some whilst others, myself included, are drawn to its smokey chocolate caramel flavours. This is the lowest abv. beer available, at 3.8% and I later discover that the brewer, Ashley Carr, was in hospital at the time. I wish him a speedy recovery.
Braggot is not a style that you come across often and certainly not one that I'm overly familiar with although Uncle Zester, Siren's collaboration with Michigan meadery B.Nektar is currently front runner for my beer of the year, so I'm expecting good things from the two featuring today.
The first, Old Bag, is brewed with both honey and apples but without hops and it is these flavours that are evident throughout. It's quite dry but without being overly sweet and I rather enjoy it. Less to my taste however is Beowulf, brewed with local honey from hives sited near Colchester Zoo as well as Northern Brewer and Fuggles hops before being aged for two months. There's something about it that I find a touch stale, although that is purely my opinion and the brewer, Dave Souch, is certainly experienced. He tells me that he's brewing for just over six years and that his 8.5% Vanilla Bourbon Imperial Porter, which ticks quite of few of my 'that's a beer I really want to try' boxes, was the beer of the festival last year.
It's Dave's girlfriend, Claire Barrett a teacher from Colchester, who is the brewer of what is possibly my beer of the festival. Her Salamander, a chocolate chilli stout brewed with home grown chillis, is a slow-burner of a beer that grows in flavour and warmth as you drink it and I'm amazed to discover that it's her first all grain beer.
"I really like chilli chocolate and wasn't aware of any beer being brewed with those flavours, so I thought I would research chocolate stouts and chilli beers and give it a go. Of course since I've brewed it I've come across two others but I'm quite pleased with it."
I asked her what made her take the plunge and start brewing.
"I've come along to the last two Future Champions festivals with Dave," she replies, "and thought that if I was going to be part of this then I really needed to brew a beer of my own."
As I finish speaking to Claire it's time for the first of the two tasting sessions I've signed up for. Martin has arrived by this time and I go downstairs to say hello to him, his girlfriend Michelle and their friends before we take our seats ready to taste the dark beers. These are led by Andy Gill, a SIBA judge and accredited wine judge and he encourages us to say which flavours we are finding as well as guiding us the through the styles. Some of the brewers are also on hand to add comment and insight as well as hear how their beers are received and I notice that Claire is emotionally moved by the universal praise her beer receives.
There's a couple more dark beers that stand out for me at this session as well. Colin Miller's Cherry Porter (Special) is brewed with vodka-steeped cherries, and has a smooth cherry stone and chocolate taste that develops wonderfully as it warms in the glass. Similarly benefiting from a little warmth is Simon Baker's Madagascan Vanilla Oatmeal Stout which tastes like a deliciously creamy vanilla toffee yoghurt.
I manage to grab Simon, another home brewer who works in IT, for a few words after the tasting and ask him about his brewing.
"It's something that I've been doing for around four years," he says, "and I've entered beers in this festival for the last three. I was inspired to brew after reading Dave Line's 'Brew Your Own Beer' book, and I entered a black IPA brewed with Simcoe and Citra my first year, and a Porter called Mr Shifter in the second.
For this beer I soaked two Madagascan vanilla pods in Jim Beam to kill off any nasties that might be present before making an English Oatmeal Stout and putting them into the boil with Fuggle and Citra hops".
He plans to brew a 6.8% black IPA for himself for Christmas and wouldn't mind a collaboration with either Mighty Oak or Maldon Brewing (Farmers) in Maldon if that could be arranged.
The Speciality Beer tasting session enables me to complete the full list and after I check my tasting notes for each of the beers I head back upstairs to fill out my card by re-visiting some of my favourites and chatting with Dan, whom I know from the Hop Beer Shop micropub in Chelmsford and who is an SXBottleshare regular.
Evening is turning into night as I leave the Victoria Inn and head for home, although not before I gulp down a swift half of Crouch Vale's Conkeror to help me on my way.
The Future Champions beer festival has exceeded my expectations, and any concerns I had about the quality of the beer and the skill of the brewers are far from my slightly blurry thoughts. I'll definitely be back next year, the atmosphere alone was worth the price of the ticket. Perhaps I'll see you there.
If you fancy trying your hand at brewing, you can contact your local Craft Brewing Association using this link.
Alternatively you can email the Victoria Inn at: firstname.lastname@example.org who I'm sure will be able to point you in the right direction.
If you've enjoyed this write up and want to read a report on this years festival from a different perspective I would urge you to read Martin Oates blog post which you'll also find interesting.