In a month where the term “beer festival” was defined by an all-out joyous event held at Manchester’s Victoria Baths, it’s ironic that Wetherspoons launched their bi-annual beer festival in October. As per, we had 50 beers to hunt down, with the added bonus this time of one fifth of them coming from American brewers, rarely seen on these shores, making the journey here to brew especially for this occasion.
I can openly admit that this festival is normally something I care little for. Whilst the concept and beer list sometimes intrigue me, I do not find myself fancying a visit to a McSpoons any more than I did prior to the festival, when bars and pubs in all their surrounding areas usually offer much better quality.
This year I was weak. Not only was I weak, I was a craft beer geek. Despite the involvement of American brewers becoming a regular feature, this year’s focus on them, with ten coming over to brew especially for a Wetherspoons Festival, proved too hard to resist. I found myself excited at some of the names I’d longed to see on these isles. 21st Amendment. Terrapin. Elysian. We geeks feast on these transatlantic names, like pubescent teenage boys discovering Taylor Swift and Katy Perry for the first time after believing that Adele and Beth Ditto were what all females looked like. We wipe the condensation from our eyes exclaiming in orgasmic tones “the Americans do everything better than us.”
Yes, this time Wetherspoons had gone that extra mile, unfortunately this is an extra mile akin to a taxi driver pulling up an extra mile from your house and believing it’s your destination. You went further than was necessary and came out with no tip and an unsatisfied customer.
I tried to find enjoyment from this event. I visited four different Wetherspoons in a week; something even my parents (who spend their holidays doing a tour of as many as they can find) would be proud of. Unsurprisingly to me, I wasn't enamoured by any of them.
Despite being a festival, Wetherspoons will not commit its cask line pumps to the event. A couple of pubs, as I’ve heard was very much the norm, only devoted five of the ten cask lines to the festival. Ruddles County, Abbott Ale and whatever other constant muck still took over 50% of the available lines to greatly reduce the range offered. Even the Waterhouse in Manchester, which has its own house beer brewed by Quantum as well as Phoenix’s Wobbly Bob as constants, retained the regulars rather than go all out. Only the Cherry Tree in Huddersfield, which had 8 lines devoted to the festival, seemed to be making an effort.
The plus side was that all the Wetherspoons I visited had at least one of the American beers on at a time; most had two. I’m sure they were aware of the allure to more committed ale drinkers and they kept up to demand. The problem then was always going to lie in the beer itself.
My very first festival beer was an American one; the Harpoon Brewery IPA brewed at Bank’s. In truth it wasn’t particularly bad, though the slight hop zing to the ale seemed to vanish around 40% down the glass to retain a generic cask beer flavour (you may cringe at that description, but I’ll bet you understand it.) This was at the Society Rooms in Stalybridge and it was my next American beer here that really set the tone for the festival.
American Bitter Red, brewed by 21st Amendment Brewery at Wychwood, was being put on cask as I was planning on leaving but I said I would wait as I wanted to try it so much. 21st Amendment are a brewery that Untappd seems to recommend to be me every other beer I drink. They rate them and I hoped I would too. I am only impressed by the way Wychwood’s own malts have “harmoniously” counteracted such powerful hop flavours, such as Centennial and Amarillo, to produce Hobgoblin. At first I thought my judgement was clouded, but there can be no doubt. This beer was a Hobgoblin replica. In a blind taste test I would find no differences. Finally, thanks to Wetherspoons, I can say I’ve had a beer by 21st Amendment Brewery, if ever I’m asked, and what will I reply? That they brew America’s version of Hobgoblin? That is the only reference point I currently have.
The disappointment didn’t stop there. Abita’s Restoration Pale was poor. Ballast Point’s Even Keel may as well have said Burton Bitter on the pump clip. Terrapin’s Tree Hugger, which was so highly recommended, only succeeded in turning a German-Alt style beer into a traditional best bitter.
The only highlight from the seven American brews I tried was the one I actually wanted to be poor. Whilst I have no personal vendetta with Adnams, the way others approach their brewery on social media makes me slightly resentful towards them and I really wanted their housing of Stone’s Supremely Self Conscious Black Ale to bomb. Unfortunately, it was incredibly delicious, powerful yet smooth, zesty yet malty and perfectly balanced. A single triumph from seven much anticipated ales for me.
Outside of these ten collaborations, the rest of the festival was just as forgettable. Some dire beers were scarcely saved by the welcome mediocrity of Brewster’s Aromatic Porter and Titanic’s Cappuccino. These were beers that were satisfactory to drink but not much to excite.
I blame myself. I allowed myself the excitement and pre-judgement. I was the one who expected this festival to be enjoyable despite years of disappointment. I permitted myself this craft beer phenomenon to expect anything imported from the U.S.A to be astonishing and pioneering, before I’d even tasted it. I was only ever going to be disheartened and let down .I’d prejudged before noting that these were replicas, recipe changes and, above all, intended to be sessionable versions of others beers. I very rarely have an excellent, session strength American beer. Next festival time I promise to leave the amateurish geekery at bay, even if they create collaboration beers with Clown Shoes, Beer Valley and High Water Brewing Co. Wetherspoons is a very different drinking world.