Saturday, 16 August 2014

The Great British Beer Festival 2014: A Journey from Mauritius to Somerset

Thursday: Mauritius
Straight off an overnight flight from Mauritius to Heathrow. Through passport control, baggage collection, the wait for a cab, the entry queue at the Great British Beer Festival at Kensington Olympia. The unmemorable £7-a-pint taste of the paradise island's Phoenix Beer six thousand miles behind me.

But the biggest and best queue of all? The one to buy a half of Timothy Taylor's Boltmaker, the Champion Beer of Britain 2014. Twice in ten minutes I was asked by bewildered festival-goers what I was waiting for in that line stretching into infinity.

Turns out I was waiting for a taste of West Yorkshire. A taste of the River Worth flowing, careering, dashing through Bronte country on its way to somewhere else like the rest of us. A taste of Wuthering Heights, windswept moors and cobbled Haworth. A taste of the tiny Keighley newsroom of the Bradford Telegraph & Argus where I reported on local triumphs and tragedies a lifetime ago. A taste of Hovis adverts and derelict mills. A taste shared with the most beautiful girl on the Keighley News. A taste of the beginning of a love story that has lasted more than a quarter of a century. A taste that has produced two new vibrant lives, lived far away from the soothing, depressing, exhilarating Yorkshire Dales.

It's a taste worth savouring. A welcome win for Taylor's fifteen years after the last triumph for their magnificent Landlord. Champion.

A handful of handpumps away is another instagram of the past. Goose Eye Bitter, also from Keighley, this one tasting of plate-sized Yorkshire puddings at the Old White Lion Hotel in Haworth, the 300-year-old coaching inn providing four-star accommodation to the discerning visitor in 14 en suite rooms. And also, unexpectedly, a hint of liquorice.

Next, head over the Pennines via Todmorden to rolling, flat-plained Cheshire and Redwillow's sensational Directionless from Macclesfield. A silky, silver medal taste of the 71 mills that made the market town prosperous in the 19th century. A huge and delicious taste of the days when I reported on the Silkmen of Macclesfield Town FC for the Stockport Messenger. It was 1987, the year Postman Peter Wragg's non-Leaguers gatecrashed the third round of the FA Cup with wins over Rotherham and Carlisle before exiting at ugly, miserable Port Vale.

Not much seems to happen in nearby Stoke these days but they still remember Captain Edward Smith, the local man who steered the Titanic to disaster in 1912. So much so that the city's best brewery is named after his ill-fated ship. Titanic, brewers of the best Plum Porter in the land, has steered All Aboard bitter down the M6 to the festival. This is the taste of Terry Conroy and Stoke City's League Cup win over Chelsea in 1972. Bittersweet, well-rounded, spicey. It was all going so well until he hit that iceberg.

Next, I'll have a Fallen Angel, please, the fabulously hoppy gold medal Strong Bitters winner from Church End in Nuneaton. The beer clip shows a near-naked blonde angel sipping from a beer bottle, looking you straight in the eye like a distant relation of topless Lady Godiva horsing around in nearby Coventry in the 11th century. It tastes of Keith Curle's winner for Manchester City against Coventry at Highfield Road in 1992, completing a rousing comeback from 2-0 down at half-time.

Before you urgently flee this part of the Midlands, try Blue Monkey's Ape Ale from Giltbrook. As strong, lovely and complex as the border between Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire, where closed coalfields give way to the glowering Pennines. A silver medal hangs proudly around this simian's neck.

All change at Crewe for a half of Offbeat's Way Out Wheat, which is cloudy and wheaty and can give you hiccups after a £7 lamb curry if you're not careful, but fully deserves its Specialty Beer silver medal. It tastes of early morning Saturday train journeys from London to Manchester.

Southwards again to the Midlands proper, home of the white heat of technology and Purity's Mad Goose, the big-hearted, wood-panelled flavour of the Balham Bowls Club in south London where it's a regular, welcome guest and a worthy Best Bitter bronze medal winner.

Look sharp, here comes Essex. Mighty Oak's Captain Bob is officially the second best bitter in the land. It's out of Maldon near Chelmsford, named after a Welsh-looking sheepdog, but tastes more like the New Zealand hops that luxuriate within. Perhaps worth a stop next time you're racing to the north Norfolk coast for a pint of Woodforde's Wherry at The Albatros.

Not many London medal winners this year, despite 52 breweries now mashing it up in the capital, but here is proof that the south can do proper beer when it puts its softy hands to it: Sambrook's Wandle Ale is the joint bronze Bitter winner. Named after the half-forgotten river that gushes and gurgles into the tidal Thames near Wandsworth Bridge. I jog over the Wandle next to the council rubbish tip most weekends, wishing I was drinking its namesake at the Princess Victoria round the corner in Shepherd's Bush. It tastes of caramelly rehydration sessions after half-marathon training sessions.
Friday: Olympia
I would have loved to revisit the special taste of Flowerpots Bitter, brewed in a village seven miles east of Winchester, the joint bronze medallist in the Bitters category, but there was none left. That's the taste of sunny Hampshire forever linked with old friends, an old school house, a country dream that died and a shaggy dog story set in a beer-garden campsite one summer night long ago.

So onwards with a heavy heart to deepest, darkest Devon, home of Dark & Light Milds silver medal winner Branscombe Vale, supplying quality brews to East Devon, West Dorset and West Somerset. It tastes of nothing, bland and boring after all that earlier excitement. Maybe that's what you need after such a neck-aching, heartbreaking journey towards the moors.

Final destination - the heart of rural Somerset and Cottage's Golden Arrow, a pale ale named after the luxury steam train that linked London with Dover for passengers heading to Paris from 1926 to 1972. The beer won a silver medal in 1997. It tastes of Ian Botham, Viv Richards and Eddie Shoestring.

The taste of Britain.

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