Sunday, 5 February 2017

Tonbridge Juddians Winter Beer Festival 2017

This weekend, our local rugby team, Tonbridge Juddians held their annual Winter Beer Festival. The event coincided with the start of the Six Nation’s Rugby Competition, so on Friday evening I headed down to TJ’s clubhouse, to check out what was going on.

I managed to avoid the rain that was being dumped on the country by “Storm Doris”, and after a brisk walk through the town, I arrived at the clubhouse just after 8pm. The festival was ticking over nicely, with just the right amount of people present to make for a comfortable experience. After picking up my £10 starter pack (souvenir glass, plus tokens) I headed straight for the bar, having already decided on what would be my first beer of the evening.

The beer in question was Hawkshead Windermere Pale 3.5%; a refreshing pale ale, which is full of hop character. I have drunk this beer before, so it was good to renew my acquaintance with it; especially as it had travelled such a long way.

The majority of the other beers were from sources much closer to home, with Sussex surprisingly taking the lead here. Strangely there was only one Kentish brewery represented (Pig & Porter), but I suspect this was because the organisers were looking for beers which are not normally available in the Tonbridge area.

With the first drink in my hand I set off to locate the contingent from my local CAMRA Branch, whom I knew would be there, thanks to a regular stream of WhatsApp messages. I soon found my friends sitting around a table, close to the clubhouse bar. Some of them had been here since opening time at 5pm.

I spent the rest of the evening chatting to both them and the festival organiser, Gary and Chris, who selected and sourced the beers. Chris said that, as I suspected, he was after something different but had tried to provide as interesting a mix of beers as possible. With Magic Rock from Buxton, Black Jack from Manchester and the aforementioned Hawkshead from the Lake District, Chris had certainly pulled this off.

In total there were 24 beers available, all priced at one token per half-pint regardless of strength; other festival organisers, including our own Spa Valley Railway event, please take note and copy! There were also six ciders, sourced from Devon, Glamorgan, Herefordshire and Somerset.

There were no Kentish ciders, or indeed other local ciders in the selection. I don't know whether or not this was deliberate, but the cider bar manager explained to me the difference between ciders made in the Eastern Counties; where the tradition is to use of culinary and dessert apples, as opposed to the "bitter-sweet" apples favoured by West Country cider producers. It is claimed that the latter type of apples produce a drink which is better balanced and with a greater depth of flavour, but not being that much of a cider connoisseur I don't know how true this is.

As well as the above mentioned people, I also bumped into a couple of near neighbours; hardly surprising considering the popularity of this annual festival. As well as the beers from Magic Rock and Hawkshead, I also enjoyed offerings from Sussex brewers, Burning Sky, 360°, Downlands and Gun. The latter, somewhat controversially, do not fine their beers, meaning they are naturally hazy; although by virtue of being un-fined they are also suitable for vegans.

I got chatting to a festival-goer about this issue. The individual concerned is an experienced home-brewer, of many years standing. He confirmed, what I have long known, that all beers will eventually clear on their own accord, but because of the need for beers to clear quickly in normal trade situations, finings are essential. He also agreed with me that suspended yeast can impart an unpleasant harshness to the beer, which would not be present if the beer was bright.

The home-brewer went on to say that specialist beer outlets apart, producers of un-fined beer would struggle to sell their beers in the vast majority of the traditional pub-trade. A handful of beer writers have argued to the contrary. For example, writer and blogger Matthew Curtis has claimed, on his Total Ales site that “exceptionally hazy pale ales”, which are “turbid to the point of resembling a glass of milk”, are the way forward. He states it is the mouth-feel, derived from the protein, yeast and hop compounds, which make up the haze, which makes these beers stand out.

The people who are driving this are, of course, the Americans; the same people who brought us "Black IPA's". We are getting somewhat off topic here, as things which might appeal to American beer geeks are, realistically, never going to become mainstream; and a good job too, as a haze in a beer can be used as an excuse to cover a multitude of sins.
Back to the real world, and TJ’s Festival. It was a good all-round event and although I only spent the one evening there, I enjoyed myself immensely. The beer of the festival, for me, was definitely Burning Sky Porter which, despite weighing in at just 4.8% ABV, packed in bundles of flavour. It was so good that I broke my usual beer festival practice of not drinking the same beer twice in a session!

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