To the rear of the Alban Arena in St Albans is an unremarkable grey service road called Civic Close. Dull though it both looks and sounds, it sees all the inner workings and is the strike plate, first point of contact and drop zone to every St Albans Beer & Cider Festival. Gears grind from the lorries and vans making repeated assaults as they disgorge their cargoes. Multicoloured casks are unloaded – precious pupae lovingly borne to the nursing galleries inside. On the floor of the Arena, furniture disappears under trapdoors to make way as racking’s erected and flooring’s proofed. From the back of one of the shuttles, wooden shapes are carried in. Some are dragged, others pinwheel and glide above the drones’ heads. The shapes congregate and interlock to form the bars themselves.
This article isn’t so much about the Saint Albans Beer & Cider Festival but The Herts Bar – the native bud unfolding at its head. Nobody seems to remember which year spawned a specific Hertfordshire beer bar but the general consensus is about eight to ten years ago. This festival isn’t the oldest in Hertfordshire but is by far the biggest. The Herts Bar used to occupy a corner of the Stage Bar. Now both flank each other equal in size.
I want to roundup the nine beers at the festival that I think sum up brewing in Hertfordshire today. Though the beginnings and current headquarters of CAMRA are from here, it’s a county not particularly associated with brewing in the national consciousness. The bud hasn’t yet blossomed to the extent that Norfolk’s, Derbyshire’s or West Yorkshire’s has and it’s overwhelmed by the London brewing scene right under it. The nine ales are not necessarily my favourites but each has a specific link to Hertfordshire whether it’s historical, based on the ingredients, or down to culture or innovation. I include with each entry some of my own biased tasting notes.
McMullen’s – Country Bitter (4.3 ABV)
McMullen’s Brewery is an icon and a relic – the sole surviving brewer in Hertfordshire from the Victorian age – 1827. It’s also the only beer to have been included in all 20 St Albans Beer and Cider Festivals. As a session bitter, the ingredients couldn’t be more British – barley from East Anglia as well as whole leaf Goldings, Bramling Cross and Fuggles hops. It was first brewed in 1964 and the rough ingredients haven’t changed since. In a way, knocking back a glass of this is like supping the past. It’s noticeably different to the more aggressive and alpha acidic beers currently around. This fact will be further evidenced by many of the ensuing beers in the list.
The liquid is of a glowing clementine. It has a really earthy leaf litter mulch aroma – an association I make with many traditional English ales. It’s fruity too. It’s as malty as it is orangy – like a tangerine milkshake. The citrus sweetness clings to the top of the palate. Something is missing compared with more contemporary beers – the dryness and bitterness. I enjoy it but its sweetness dominates. It’s important to drink beers from breweries like McMullens to understand how taste has changed over the past few decades.
Tring – Death or Glory (7.2 ABV)
This strong ale/barley wine was originally brewed on 25th October to commemorate the charge of the light brigade. Whichever beer style one might call it, it does the rounds across the beer engines of Hertfordshire and is a local hero. It features Styrian and Challenger hops and Maris Otter, Crystal and Chocolate malt. Heavy ABV beers have started to become legion over the past few years but originally brewed in the 1990’s, this beer predates them. There are only a handful of long running cask barley wines across Britain and this is Hertfordshire’s. From experience, though it gets drunk mostly in halves, the cask usually empties quicker than the session beers around it.
This ale has both the colour and nose of a rich brandy soaked Xmas cake. It doesn’t so much glide across the tongue as trample it into submission. The aftermath of a single sip lasts considerable time. Like the pluck of a cord, fruity spirit esters resonate. There are notes of cherries and treacle and ginger. A Jamaican ginger loaf would be as apt an analogy as a Xmas cake.
It’s rich and sticky yet bitterness haunts the head long after the glass is drained.
Verulam – Farmer’s Delight (3.9 ABV)
The Verulam Brewery is about 300 hundred metres from the St Albans Arena in the Farmer’s Boy Public House on London Road. Beer has been brewed there since 1996. A wall inside the pub hosts a display of CAMRA awards the many house beers have won over the years. The Farmers Boy is the oldest brewpub in Hertfordshire still going which is why it’s significant. There are now three and soon to be four brewpubs in St Albans alone. Kevin Yelland – the head brewer – is quite heavily hop-oriented and has been using New World hops well ahead of most national brewers. Farmer’s Delight (the old saying chimes with the pub’s name) is regularly on and a flagship beer for The Verulam Brewery.
Farmer’s Delight is a slightly hazy pineapple golden with a soft white rocky head and an orange pith aroma. There’s the sweetness and spritziness of lemon flesh and some of the sweetness of lemon curd verging on custard. The carbonation’s strong. It ends with a fruity aftertaste.
Buntingford – 50 Summers (4 ABV)
Beer is considerably more than just the sum of its ingredients but if you mentioned Maris Otter barley to a brewer they’d know it’s regarded as one of the finest brewing barleys in the world. Buntingford Brewery is based in Royston in north Hertfordshire but it’s only a stone’s throw away from the Cambridgeshire fields where Maris Otter was first cultivated in 1966 (the year of another England first!) and for that reason it’s included here. A maris otter 2015 festival was recently held in Norwich. 50 UK brewers made a special beer and this was Buntingford’s.
It’s a gorgeous light conker in colour – the most beautiful hued ale in this article in my opinion. It has an aroma like red berries or redcurrant – sweet but tart. The taste isn’t strong at first but is amplified at the back of the gullet when you swallow. There’s a cereal crop taste too, an orange fruit locket aftertaste with a touch of lemon barley.
The Foragers – Wild Mushroom Stout (5 ABV)
Sticking with the theme of regional produce, this is a beer with a very special fifth ingredient: deceiving boletes (Suillellus Queletii). These mushrooms have a red/brown cap and yellow stalk. When the flesh is cut, the juice turns blue as it hits the air! Fortunately for us, we’re in safe hands as The Foragers are experts at what their title implies. Plus I made sure I watched somebody else drink a half first – they survived. The deceivers were picked within a mile from The Verulam Arms – home pub of The Foragers and therefore within two miles of the cask on stillage at the Herts Bar.
It’s completely matt black with a fine beige/mauve head of bubbles. I assume the intriguing colour’s from the blueness of the fungal blood. There’s a salty note to the aroma and a sweetness that’s difficult to nail down – maybe demerera sugar in black coffee. It also reminds me of the seaweed note you get with the nori sheets used to wrap sushi rice in. The liquid itself is quite sticky and forces you to lick your lips. This exceptional tipple really benefits from being rolled around the tongue.
The platform that the Herts and Stage Bars occupy is the most exalted floorspace in the Arena. You ascend stairs to reach them, resisting the urge to genuflect when you get to the top. Leaning against the railing with a glass of fresh ale in hand, you look down at the Main Bar on the main floor and all the teeming peasants thereon. This year, the venue hosted a record 9 separate bars. As well as the Herts, Stage, Main and Cider & Perry, there is also the Oakham Bar in the gods, The 3 Brewers of St Albans Bar on the main floor, The XT Bar in the courtyard, the bottle conditioned bar in the foyer and the Foreign Beer Bar and Brewers Union Bar in the basement.
Though it didn’t make this list (and I missed it as one cask ended before the other could come on), Bishops Stortford Brewery’s Stortford Citra won beer of the festival for Hertfordshire. Citra is a hop from the Yakima Valley area of Washington now ubiquitous in British beer. It’s renowned for its grapefruit/piney bouquet and further reflects how our native palate has evolved. This fashion is not just with pale ales either. What were sweeter, maltier porters and stouts are also being subjected to hop intensity though there weren’t many black IPAs billed at this festival. Across breweries and bars nationally though, they’re becoming part of the core range.
Red Squirrel – London Porter (5 ABV)
This is a beer I see on cask right across Hertfordshire and into London. The Red Squirrel Brewery – originally from Hertford but now from Potton End near Hemel Hempstead – has won many awards for its beers but this session porter has won the most which is why I include it. It may have won more awards than any other Hertfordshire beer and in my opinion is one of the best examples of its style.
Deep and meaningful as it brands itself – it’s pitch black with the edges ceding a deep crimson to the light. The aroma reminds me of burnt barbecued red meat and black chocolate powder. Jimmy open a tin of cocoa powder and the cloud is intoxicating like this. It has good carbonation and dives headfirst into the dark malts. It’s got a comforting rich mouthfeel. As you down it, you get sweet coffee dregs with a brown sugar cube stewed in. Smoky dry finish.
Haresfoot – Wild Boy Exotic Pale Ale (3.7 ABV)
Haresfoot Brewery in Berkhamsted only started up last year. I have to remind myself of this fact as it feels like it’s been around for decades. Its location, sitting on the Grand Union Canal, just seems like a longstanding fixture in the local landscape. Its branding – the stylised hares – are both archaic and contemporary. As one of its first brews, the following beer shows again how things are changing. The hops are New Zealand Wakatu and Waimea. The exotic is quickly becoming the common but is far from becoming the mundane.
It’s blood orange on the eye with a cereal/Readybrek aroma. The initial taste is very mild and mentally I search for it but then it rises, blinking in the sunlight. I get both sweet tangerines and acrid grapefruit. This beer tingles on the tongue a bit like sherbert. The aroma morphs from cereal to lemons. There’s also a levity to this beer like tonic water.
Pope’s Yard – Luminaire (3.9 ABV)
Every so often a brewery emerges with a statement of intent. In 2011/2012, Pope’s Yard Brewery came on the scene with 330ml bottles of beer made for raising the profile of beer. Some beers are for laying down (or in beer terms, standing up) to drink at a later date like fine wines. Some are experimental such as Lapsang Souchong Porter and some are “amplified” beers such as Whisky Cask Dark Ale. It has also made a green hop beer with hops grown in its native Watford. This commitment to passion and regionality is why it deserves to be included. Admittedly it’s oblique as this is from cask rather than bottle but the reason for inclusion still stands.
It’s ever so slightly hazy and corn yellow on the eye. It has quite a sharp lemon aroma with a slightly balsamic edge. On the palate it’s sweet like Victorian lemonade but with a tart melon rind note. All the flavour is front of shop – little malt dimension slips over the back of the gullet. It’s like dawn breaking over a lake and ends on a lemon flesh bitterness.
Tring – Pale Four (4.6 ABV)
There’s a reason I put this beer at the end: It’s to bookend The Country Bitter at the start and illustrate again how tastes in drinking have changed. American Simcoe, Citra and Amarillo hops and Australian Galaxy hops were used in this brew. We’ve become so used to the fruit basket aroma and taste that modern and ostensibly New World hops provide that it requires a special beer to raise the bar even further. British brewing used to be the science of balancing mutually restrained flavours but is becoming the art of balancing the primary coloured, garish and extrovert. This ale also won the gold award for SIBA East small pack premium bitters & pale ales.
The ale is glowing golden with a light white froth. I inhale and get an image of a kitchen knife cleaving a pineapple. It’s specifically the inner surface of fresh fruit exposed to the air. There are glistening tinned apricots and peaches steeped in their juices. The hop flavours are so assertive there’s an almost spirit edge to the taste like juniper berries in gin. The beer is levity and light but rugged strength too. Unlike many heavily hopped ales, the malt isn’t left out. It carries the beer and safeguards taste against acid burn. It has the tangiest possible oxidised fruit aftertaste.
It was only two years ago at the 18th St Albans Beer & Cider Festival that the cider and perry stall that used to be at the end of the stage bar was rudely ejected as the Herts Bar flexed its muscles at the other end. The Cider & Perry stall (including delicious native produce) landed in an exposed position on the main floor at the mercy of the throng. The Herts Bar continually widens, pushing “foreign” beers from places as far flung as Bedfordshire and Essex to the edge. It seems to me that the day is fast approaching when it will shoulder them out too. There were over 20 Hertfordshire breweries represented here this year and the majority of them – Pope’s Yard, Radlett, New River, White Hart Tap, The Foragers, Haresfoot, Farr Brew, Bishops Stortford, Paradigm, Private Brewery of Bob, Broxbourne, Mix and the 3 Brewers of St Albans – all postdate 2011! This entire elevated shelf will soon only host ales from Hertfordshire and I say bring it on.