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Cockermouth Beer Festival 2011

It seems that there is no time of year when a beer festival is not being held. Looking through the listings in What’s Brewing details enough beer festivals to fill every weekend of the year. Even early December, dismal and dank, has enough festivals to keep the dedicated drinker happy. The Cockermouth Beer Festival was held from Thursday 1st December to Saturday 3rd December 2011. Cockermouth is a pretty market town in the county of Cumberland, and the administrative area of Cumbria. It’s a major population centre in the midst of the sparsely inhabited area between the Lake District and the Scottish border.

The festival was held in the Kirkgate Centre on Kirkgate, and attractive street of early 18th century cottages, one of which Lady A and myself rented with a couple of friends for the festival. Being only a hundred yards from the festival has obvious advantages. Our friends had been to the Cockermouth Festival before, and pre-warned us that seating was limited and we would need to get there soon after the doors opened if we were to have any chance of sitting down. We duly arrived at the door of the Kirkgate Centre at 7 o’clock, and managed to secure a table.

The downstairs bar

The Kirkgate Centre has two main halls, one upstairs and one downstairs. For this first session, we sat in the downstairs hall, away from the deafeningly loud live music that blights so many beer festivals these days. The beers were arranged alphabetically, and downstairs had A-G (the bar upstairs was longer, being arranged along the hall instead of across it.) Breweries represented were Abbeydale, Barngates, Blackbeck, Coniston, Cotleigh, Cumbrian Legendary Ales, Dent, Derwent, Ennerdale, Foxfield and Geltsdale. The hall filled up very quickly, and I soon saw the wisdom of getting in early. It became quite a scrum to reach the bar.

We went upstairs for the Saturday afternoon session, getting in just on 12 o’clock. The bar upstairs continued from G to Y, dispensing beers from  Great Gable, Hardknott, Hawkshead, Hesket Newmarket, Jennings, Keswick, Kirkby Lonsdale, Madcap, Marston, Newman, Salopian, Strands, Stringer, Tirril, Titanic, Ulverston, Watermill and Yates Breweries. It was damned cold in the upstairs bar that afternoon, but it kept the beer in good condition. I can say that none of the beers I had at either session was out of condition.

The upstairs bar

Top beers for me from this festival were: Foxfield Encounter, a 4% bitter (I assume), with a thoroughly modern taste – smooth, slightly creamy and with a nice hint of biscuit. Another Foxfield brew – Stout, at 4.4% offered treacle, dark coffee and small traces of smoke. Hardknott Code Black, a 5.6% dark ale was an intensely hoppy mouthful with strong citrus notes and a devilishly bitter finish. Yates Best Cellar, a red-coloured beer, stronger than it tastes at 5.5% had a good, smooth mouthfeel with distinct toffee and fruit flavours.

Honourable mentions can be given to Blackbeck Carnival Kiss, Blackbeck Dolly’s Trick Shot and Stringer’s Stout No. 2.

The festival was well arranged and organised. All beers were dispensed through handpumps, and as I mentioned before, were in good condition. The staff were all helpful and ethusiastic.

If I may level one criticism at the festival, it would be that the beer list was a tad too ‘safe’. Most beers were in the 3.5 – 4.7% bracket, with only four breaking the 5% barrier. These were Hardknott Code Black (perhaps the most pleasingly different of all the beers I sampled), Jennings Snecklifter (a Jennings stalwart, always a favourite), Madcap Smoked Madness (at 6.9% by far the strongest beer on offer) and Yates’s Best Cellar (again, already mentioned as amongst my festival winners). There were lots of beers that tasted very samey. The majority of beers on offer were middle-of-the-road bitters and goldens. For example, when I came to read my tasting notes for the two Blackbeck beers, I found them to be almost identical. I enjoyed them both, but would have been happier if there had been something to distinguish them. Quite a few of my notes contain the words ‘dull’ or ‘uninteresting’. I want more from a beer festival, I want to taste new and exciting beers.

Although I understand that the festival was not a CAMRA one, but was organised by the local Round Table, and therefore raising money for charity was the main objective, I think there was room for a few more adventurous choices.

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Posted by on 9 December, 2011 in Beer Festivals, Cask Ale

 

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Three Bottle Conditioned Ales from Bitter End

Three bottle conditioned ales from Bitter End

The Bitter End brewery was opened in 1995 at the Bitter End pub on Kirkgate in Cockermouth, where they proudly proclaimed that it was Cumbria’s smallest brewery. The pub remains, but the brewery has now moved to an industrial unit half a mile or so away on the other side of the river Derwent.

I bought three bottles of Bitter End ale from a supermarket in Windermere; Lakeland Bitter, Lakeland IPA and Lakeland Golden. The names may not seem very inspired, but I’ll come back to that. The bottles are simply but attractively labelled in a uniform format, each label proclaims Bitter End’s motto – ‘Beer without compromise’ and also with the warning ‘Not to be confused with bland, tasteless mass-produced beers’. With both statements noted, I poured my first glass.

The Lakeland Bitter is mid orange in colour, more romantic observers than me would probably call it amber. At 3.8%, it’s clearly intended to be a session ale, and is very fine indeed. Exceptionally smooth, slightly nutty with hints of citrus, there is a nice bitter finish with just the tiniest hint of dry earth at the very end. All the beers tasted in this session were made with Maris Otter, Pale and Crystal malt. The bitter also has Chocolate malt, presumably to add depth of colour and a rounder flavour typical of a good bitter ale. There is just a single hop variety in this beer, First Gold, giving the whole a real taste of a high quality traditional bitter.

Lakeland IPA is the strongest of the three beers tasted at 5.5%. This is a good alcohol level for a traditional IPA, many more recent versions of which have reduced the alcoholic content considerably away from the original specification of IPAs. It’s a bright, mid yellow in colour, and on the first taste provides a mouthful of hoppy flavours, Simcoe, First Gold and Cascade hops being used in the brew. The hop flavours never descend into unpleasant bitterness, however. This is an excellent IPA, and I’d be happy to drink it at any time.

Lakeland Golden has the same three malts as the other beers tasted, but has three hop varieties – Challenger, Chinook and Cascade. This gives the beer a slightly lighter taste than the Lakeland Bitter, despite its stronger ABV of 4.3%, and a pleasing hoppy finish. Lakeland Golden is perhaps the least interesting of the three Bitter End beers tasted, but is still a rewarding and enjoyable beer.

These beers were all bottle conditioned, resulting in lively, lightly sparkling ales, each with a small amount of throw in the bottom of the bottle. As I had kept the bottles carefully, and upright at all times, the sediment had settled and adhered to the bottle bottom, so there was no cloudiness in the glass.

I enjoyed my foray into Bitter End beers, and whilst I was drinking, I thought about the plain but eye-catching labels and the rather dull names. It occurred to me that what Bitter End is doing is providing no-nonsense (to steal a marketing phrase from a vastly inferior product) products that ‘do exactly what they say’ on the bottle. They don’t seem to have been distracted by thinking up ludicrous names for their beer, nor by designing complicated cartoony labels. It’s not about that. It’s about the beer. It is beer without compromise, and these beers are certainly not to be confused with bland, tasteless mass-produced beers.

Bitter End – a name to watch.

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Posted by on 3 June, 2011 in Bottled Beer

 

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