I was lucky enough to be invited along to the blind tasting and judging session of Champion Beers for the 35th Peterborough Beer Festival yesterday. Considering that this beer festival has over 350 beers available it was anyone’s guess which beers would make it through to the short list for us lot to try. On Tuesday evening, when the festival opened, visitors were asked to rate which beers they liked the best, and their votes, along with recommendations from the cellar team, determined the beers that would make it to our tasting session.
At 11 am Steve Williams, the Pubs Officer, took us all through to the tasting room. There were about 20 of us tasters who’d made it to the festival on the Embankment at this early hour to drink beer. There were CAMRA members, beer festival staff, brewery folk, journalists, and knowedgeable judges. Upon entering the room I immediately spotted the jugs of beers on the top table, beers of all different colours and varieties. We spread ourselves out over 4 tables; I was sat with Karl Simpson (from Peterborough CAMRA), Mel who knows his ales and has worked with several CAMRA branches, and Mike and Maxine from the British Brewing Playing Card Society who have judged at the PBF for the past 3 years.
We were each handed a sheet of paper; ours had Milds written at the top followed by numbers 1 through to 5, and next to each there was a column for Notes and Score. Table 1 and 2 had the milds sheet; Tables 3 and 4 had bitters. I was slightly envious; I wanted the bitters! We wouldn’t be tasting all categories, but would be splitting them between tables.
Steve Saldana, the Membership Secretary and Texan who brewed the lovely Lonestar TPA last year with Hopshackle (read about it on my post about last year’s PBF), gave an introductory speech about what to look for in a beer – appearance, aroma, flavour – that we should swallow and not spit, that we should mark out of 10. He then told us to have fun. Well, OK Steve, if you insist…! Let the tasting commence!
We were handed a jug of deep brown liquid, this was mild no. 1. Milds are not my favourite beer style, but I figured that starting off with the weaker beers was the best way to do it – we had 22 to get through altogether. I held the glass up to the light to see the colour, swished it around to release the aromas, took a few deep sniffs, then took a swig. This one was pleasant enough, what I’d expect from a mild really; quite a pleasant nutty flavour, lots of caramel, and roast malt flavours. We all got scoring, talking amongst ourselves about what we had identified in that beer, and our jug was removed by Steve W. and replaced with the next one.
Mild no. 2 was a shock. Milds are generally weak and easy drinking; this one blew my head off. It was boozy, syrupy, full bodied, with treacle flavours mixed with chocolate – it warmed me up as it went down. All of us around the table thought it was a strong ‘un. I was interested to find out what it was. Would we find out later?
Unwanted dregs of beer from our glasses went into the bucket next to me (it was next to me as my fellow judges kept pouring me far too much beer to taste (‘I’ll end up a heap on the floor!’) and I ended up pouring it away). My plan was to take it easy – we had a lot to get through, and I was planning on attending the evening session later on. Oh, how sensible.
After 4 milds we had a short break, had a few nibbles on cheese and crackers and a few slugs of water, then moved onto the Strong Bitters. This was a bit more like it! The first beer was golden, and had a massive hop aroma, with resinous hop flavours mixed with peach and passion fruit. Absolutely lovely. ‘I MUST find out what this beer is later!’ I declared. The second was beautiful, as was the third, and fourth (particularly so), fifth and sixth. It was hard to just drink a small amount of these lovely fruity strong golden beers, but I managed with sheer will and determination. I rated beer no. 1 and 4 as the best of that round, but it was close – they were all fantastic.
The next session was Speciality beers. We had 6 to try – and it was quite obvious from just looking at some of them what sort of beers they were – a ginger beer, a dark berry beer, a wheat beer. One rum porter was particularly potent. The dark berry beer (blackberries, we established immediately upon smelling and tasting) and the last beer, a dark smooth beer with lots of chocolate flavours, were my favourites.
The last round was Stouts and Porters - I was hoping we’d get this category. I enjoyed 4 out of the 6 tasted, with the other two just too ‘figgy’ tasting for me, but Mel and Maxine loved them. The first one we all agreed was a Black IPA, loads of aroma hops but roasted malt flavours – an interesting beer.
Then at 2pm the judging was over – except from choosing the overall Champion Beer of the festival. One person per table was nominated to do the final judging – we nominated Maxine. She moved to another table with the nominees from the other tables, and the rest of us piled into the staff bar for more beer and lunch. Karl also took me on a quick tour of the venue, which has reverted back to its original horseshoe layout, with two parallel marquees lined with bars and pub games interlinked by a music tent for the live acts. Outside there were food stalls and fairground rides, and a pleasant outdoor seating area with chairs and tables on the grass.
Around 3pm we saw that a notice had mysteriously appeared on the wall of the staff bar – nobody saw how or when – and everyone rushed over to take a look; the Champion Beer list had arrived! The overall winner was…. Salopian Blackwater Rat Race. In second place was Fyne Ales Rune, and in third place, Adnams Tally Ho! I was desperate to know which beers I had tried – were any of mine the champion beers?
Steve Williams appeared and we nabbed him to see if he knew which beers were the ones we had tasted; the anticipation was getting too much, we needed to know. He nodded. Phew. He got out his notes (apologising for the roughness of them, covered in scribbles, but just about legible) and we pored over them to see if any of ours were winners. None of the champion beers had come from our categories – the first two were bitters, and the third a barley wine. However, I was pleased to see that one of my favourite strong bitters was winner in that category – Flowerpots IPA, and it just so happened to be the Champion Beer of 2011. The one equally as good was Dark Star Revelation, a great beer but not a winner unfortunately. I spotted that the Black IPA we enjoyed was Otley Oxymoron, a lovely beer – although it didn’t win anything. The really strong mild we tasted won the Milds – Sarah Hughes Ruby Mild. And the winner of the Speciality beer was Brass Castle Bad Kitty – the chocolate one that I loved – with the blackberry beer in second place, being Mauldons Blackberry Porter.
So that was that, the beer had been tasted and judged, and the champions announced. And a lot of fun it was too. All there was left to do was attend the evening session.
Me and @pintsandpubs (who’d been drinking there all afternoon) stayed for a couple of hours, sitting in the sun, then the rain, and then the sun again; we ate donuts, and tried more beers – this time I knew what I was getting! Oakham Carioca, was good, the festival special with peach and grassy notes with an unusual underlying flavour, which I later discovered was due to the gurana berries. (The Oakham bar is decked out in exotic colours, Rio carnival-esque, and looks very pretty). I tried the champion beer, Salopian Blackwater Rat Race, very light with floral hop flavours. Bristol Beer Factory West Coast Red was a pleasant amber beer with hoppy aroma and fruity flavours. I finished off with a Magic Rock Curious, with beautiful mango and passion fruit hops and zesty flavours – this was possibly the nicest of the evening; very easy drinking. Whereas @pintsandpubs finished off with a Parish Baz’s Bonce Blower, a syrupy black liquorice beer at 12%. Not so easy drinking, I discovered.
This morning I was interviewed on BBC Peterborough Breakfast Show about the tasting session yesterday and beer in general. I hid the fact that I had a slight hangover quite well, I think. Luckily it was a telephone interview, so they couldn’t see how I looked….
The Peterborough Champion Beer Tasting was great fun and I’m pleased to have been invited to take part. Happy drinking everyone, and thanks to Peterborough CAMRA for putting on yet another fantastic beer festival!