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Wetherspoon's Festival Eight
Leaving aside the impressive 40-odd beers from British breweries, a major attraction of each Wetherspoon international real ale festival is the involvement of a number of brewers from other countries.
For the latest event, being staged 24 October–11 November, the pub company invited eight breweries to send representatives to the UK to produce cask-conditioned versions of beers they either already brewed at home or devised especially for the occasion.
As you'd expect, the brewers come from widely differing backgrounds, from breweries big and small, old and new. Brendan Varis, for example, runs, Feral Brewing, in Swan Valley, Western Australia.
He founded the company in 2002 and his first beer was a Belgian-style wheat beer.
It remains Feral's best seller. Spiced and fruit beers number among his favourites but, for the festival, he was both looking to learn and to educate as he set to work at Banks's in Wolverhampton.
The skills of cask conditioning are not common in Australia, so Brendan drew on the expertise of the Banks's team for that side of the exercise. But then he returned the favour by introducing three Australian hops (Galaxy, Topaz and Stella) that he hoped would showcase the distinctive beer flavours and aromas of his native land.
Dzuljeta Armoniene comes from rather a different background and a much larger brewery. She's head brewmaster at Svyturys on the Lithuanian coast.
Back in 1995, Dzuljeta created the company's best-known beer, Ekstra. For the festival, however, she brought with her the recipe for Svyturys's Baltijos.
When brewed at home, it is a red-amber lager, the type of beer that has been produced in this part of the Baltic for centuries. At Shepherd Neame, Dzuljeta needed to reconfigure her beer as an ale, and also come to terms with the historic equipment that is still in use at the Faversham brewery.
West Coast and Eastern Promise
Toshi Ishii runs his own brewing company on the US Pacific island of Guam but previously he worked for three years at Stone Brewing in California, and later spent eight years with a Japanese microbrewery.
That mix of West Coast and eastern promise pretty much sums up the way in which brewers all over the world are collaborating these days. The melting pot of experience and ideas is generating so many great beers as styles and traditions are fused and blended.
Small, slim and quietly spoken, Toshi is a pioneer for great beer in the Far East. He's clearly been inspired by previous brewing experiences in the UK for Wetherspoon as the beer he majors on in Guam is ale in type, rather than the lagers more traditionally associated with that part of the world. At Marston's, this time, he recreated his own Minagof ale.
In Italy, craft beer is on the rise, although the competition there for small brewers lies not so much in global lager brands as in the local wine industry. That's why beers are often packaged in shapely tall bottles and priced close to a decent bottle of red or white. It is in this world that Leonardo Di Vicenzo operates.
Leonardo's brewery, Birra del Borgo, based in a little village outside Rome, draws on international influences but is conscious of the local wine heritage. He's a biochemist by training (a PhD no less) and left behind a career in academia to indulge his passion for making classy beers.
For Wetherspoon, brewing at Everards in Leicester, he focused on something easy-drinking, a golden ale zipped up with a little orange zest.
There was a nice symmetry in Patrick Hendrikse and Bart Obertop from Dutch brewery Ij crossing the North Sea to Batemans in Lincolnshire, as both breweries are built alongside windmills. Similarities ended there, however.
Batemans is as traditionally British as it comes, a respected purveyor of cask ales. Ij is young and experimental, tapping into the preference in the Netherlands for stronger beers.
Bock, in particular, is a prized style there. There's even a festival dedicated to it every autumn in Amsterdam and this is the type of beer they worked on for Wetherspoon.
The North American input is always among the most anticipated at a Wetherspoon festival and this time around there were three important contributors.
Adam Avery, who founded Avery Brewing in Boulder, Colorado, in 1993, says he's committed to producing eccentric ales and lagers that defy established styles and categories. A glance down his roster of beers confirms this is true. How does a barrel-aged pumpkin ale sound?
His 3 Point 5 Session Ale for the festival showed real courage, working with Adnams to create the sort of quaffing beer we British excel in, rather than the high-powered craft beers seen widely in the USA these days.
Will Meyers is brewmaster at Cambridge Brewing in Massachusetts. A brew restaurant in a refurbished mill, Cambridge places a strong emphasis on pairing beer with food and is not afraid to push envelopes.
This year, for instance, they created a summer barley wine, aged in former wine casks. Sour beers, such as the Kriek du Cambridge, have also turned heads.
Twenty years with Cambridge means that Will had plenty of knowledge to impart to his hosts, Wadworth, when he introduced the recipe for Heather Ale, a Great American Beer Festival gold-medal beer, to the UK.
Completing the transatlantic contingent was Chemistry graduate Dave Gokiert. As head brewer at Tree Brewing in British Columbia, he has won awards for beers in a variety of styles, from blonde lager to beer aged in whiskey barrels.
The beer he developed at Caledonian in Edinburgh was an amber ale, based on the original beer with which Tree Brewing made its name in Canada.
For Dave and all the other international brewers, it's taken quite a commitment to bring their beers to Britain. If you have a Wetherspoon pub near you, it'll be worth popping in during the Festival and enjoying their efforts.