Sopfest 2015

The Sopwell Beer & Cider Festival 

I sit at the bar in the Hare & Hounds and watch as a pint is drawn through a beer engine. The pump clip has two pieces of information about the beer: It’s a Saison and it’s dry-hopped. I’ve had it before but it left no particular impression on me. This experience will prove to be very different. Before the swirling magma reaches the top of the glass, I reflect on a similar experience from several years ago: I’d had “14” – a pale ale seeded with a Belgian Saison yeast by the XT brewery from Long Crendon, Buckinghamshire. It was one of the liveliest beers I’ve ever had. That was in the garden of The White Hart Tap just around the corner from where I’m sitting. Drinking has a way of cutting paths through time and memory as it seeps into your consciousness; neural shortcuts through time accessed via ale and osmosis. The former experience of “14” in the garden of the White Hart Tap now resides with me at The Hare & Hounds. Both experiences took place during early Autumn and have now merged into one. As I hold my pint of Erasmus – a dry hopped Saison by the Red Squirrel Brewery near Hemel Hempstead, and after a long period of doubt, I’m about to have my faith in cask Saison restored. In the ledger I keep in my head, this experience gets filed under “S” for Sopwell – the tag for many a happy beer memory. 

I’m getting ahead of myself here. Let me take a few steps back and explain why I’m here (not that I particularly need a reason to be in a pub). For those of you who don’t know St Albans, you’ll not be familiar with Sopwell so come outside with me and enjoy the view from higher ground. The corner of Keyfield Terrace is ideal and only a few seconds’ walk away.

The Sopwell area of St Albans has something increasingly rare and coveted in a modern city – a cluster of local pubs within several connecting roads. Sopwell Lane, Albert Street and Keyfield Terrace connect like prongs on the head of a trident. It’s a beautiful little crawl. Within St Albans, it’s its own little village. There are other crawls down other arteries in this cathedral city but none with the number or the perfect “set” that Sopwell boasts. The streets look little different to how they were 100 years ago. In part this is due to the locality being a conservation area. The buildings generally range from the fifteenth to the nineteenth century. In other words, only from the recent history of St Albans.

We look west down Pageant Road. The Norman tower of St Albans Cathedral looms in the distance through a gorse yellow light. The mechanism in the belfry starts up and the same 8 note refrain that precedes the strikes of Big Ben tolls out across St Alban’s humble tiled rooftops. The barrister and self-proclaimed architect Baron Grimthorpe who designed the bell mechanism in the palace of Westminster funded the restoration of this church. The tower is a turgid orange or a light Lazian pink depending on the weather. The hue comes from the fact it’s made up from Roman tiles from the abandoned settlement of Verulamium and acts as a beacon of impermeability and steadfastness linking three distinct empires over 2000 years. We can see evidence of Roman recycled through Norman from where we stand and hear the sound of Victorian. 

In the beginning it was Verlamium – an iron age oppidum which was later adapted (under new continental management) to the Roman Civitas and later Municipium of Verulamium. It was located under what’s now Verulamium Park. Because it’s not been built on, the archaeology has been preserved. Right under our feet on this corner is where, in 1455 the Duke of York gathered his troops to face King Henry the Sixth in what would turn into the first battle of the War of the Roses. And now in 2015 another landmark has been reached that will live on in the annals of history – a six pub beer and cider festival during the August bank holiday! The beers featured in this festival come from all over Britain but I decided that I’d try and stick as much as possible to local beers. The pubs taking part are The Goat, The White Lion, The Hare & Hounds, The Garibaldi, The White Hart Tap and The Beehive.

Now come back into The Hare & Hounds where we began. Beer festival is also short hand for rain. 
Originally called The Falcon, it dates back to the 17th century. It’s first recorded as a pub in 1748. As The Hare & Hounds, it scores at least 12 in the pub legs game. There is a tale of black goo that flooded through the basement wall from next door. It came from the cellar of the building that originally held the public gallows. The dark matter was allegedly the liquefied remains of dead bodies that had piled up in a trough and it crosses my mind that I’ve never ordered a stout in this pub. Now that’s whetted the appetite, let’s get back to the Saison this article started on:

Red Squirrel Brewery Erasmus (cask via beer engine 4.7%)

Brewed roughly 7 miles from where I drank it.

It’s a mandarin hued slightly foggy beer with a tight elastic white head. It has a fruit salad aroma – particularly clementines & tinned peaches. It’s utterly alive and zings in three dimensions on the palate. It lands on the tongue quietly but then ruptures in sensation. There’s an image I can’t get out of my mind – it’s of an inflatable dinghy expanding into life as it’s thrown overboard. There’s a violent hiss from the gas canisters as they collectively exhale and explode the bright yellow shape into being. Only cask ale in perfect condition can achieve this sensation. It bounces off the roof of the mouth – nectarines, mango and hibiscus – even a hint of cider apples. This is proof that cask conditioning can handle and even improve a style like Saison. As the pint nears the end, there’s also a calming pillowy wheat dimension.

St Albans boasts a commendable brewing portfolio. The Farmers Boy – home of The Verulam Brewery – has been a brewpub since 1996. The brewery is also used for AleCraft – beers by the same brewer sold on and off the premises. It’s also a cuckoo brewery for The Private Brewery of Bob and That Little Place – a restaurant in Harpenden. The Verulam Arms (no connection to the Verulam Brewery) is also now brewing on site (on my most recent visit they had a mushroom stout!). The White Hart Tap is brewing too. The Kings Arms is looking to do something similar at the start of next year. It won’t be the last pub to do so.

There are the 3 Brewers of St Albans located just outside the city as well as Hedgerow Brewing who would like to start up commercially but for the time being, are keeping it as a hobby. Within reach – hiking distance – are the Pope’s Yard Brewery, Haresfoot Brewery, Red Squirrel Brewery, Farr Brewery, Mix Brewery and Radlett Brewery. These are just the ones at the time of writing. 

A hop (non brewable), skip and a jump away from The Hare & Hounds is the ancient White Lion possibly representing the geographical nucleus – the central cortex of the crawl. It’s rotating twelve casks on stillage. It’s a Punch Tavern pub currently being looked after by The White Hart Tap (another Punch pub close to its own back garden) as it looks for permanent tenants. The White Lion’s sloping beer garden virtually leads up to the front door of The Garibaldi. The Beehive isn’t usually included in the Sopwell crawl but is just a few metres uphill from the White Hart Tap sitting on the edge of London Road. For the festival it’s including an outside bar but not deviating from its regular beer engine selection. The Goat has a bit of breathing room around it down the other end of Sopwell Lane.

The Garibaldi on Albert Street dates back to 1869 and is currently one of two Fullers pubs in the city. I went in and found a beer brewed by the 3 Brewers of St Albans. They have three permanent beers on in pubs across the town: Classic English Ale, Golden English Ale and Special English Ale. I asked the 3 Brewers about the spice mentioned on the Sopfest pump clip and it seems it’s there for the power of suggestion only. All flavours in this superb ale are down to the four standard ingredients of beer.

The Sopwell Special (cask via beer engine 4.3%)

Brewed roughly 4 miles from where I drank it.

It’s a conker coloured ale with a tight vanilla foam and screams of Autumn. The first taste is quite sour & barky. It’s utterly earthy like a handful of soil & leaf litter. There’s an almost balsamic note on the palate. I taste sour plums, cola bottles and even the bitter iron tang from fried liver. Red & dark fruit dissolves on the tongue. This beer could only have come out of Britain by which I mean I associate all the preceding notes with the tastes British hops, barley and yeast provide. There’s a lingering sensation of having chewed liquorice wood and my tongue slithers out to wet my lips and I rue the end of the pint.

Within 20 metres is The White Hart Tap. It’s known locally as the Tap. It was the pub on the cover of The Good Beer Guide 2013 and after squaring it with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, is now brewing and selling its own beer. Its beers show a courageous canter up and down the beer spectrum. One in particular stood out and I was able to enjoy it a couple of times.

White Hart Tap Strong Dark Ale (cask via gravity 8.9%)

Brewed exactly 0 miles from where I drank it.

The liquid is impregnably black with a mocca wraith haunting the surface. It has a dark berry & black chocolate aroma. It reminds me of chomping on Kirsch chocolate liqueur sticks. The alcohol and the dryness dance around each other singing ring a roses. This last observation might give you an idea the booze is having on the drinker. The taste is of dark Battenberg and Black cherry Schwartzwald cake. It has a silky malt mouthfeel and a Pumpernickel malt dimension. I recall being bleary eyed and telling Steve the landlord that it was the beer of the festival. The high ABV had generated its own warmth. I hoped it was au revoir to the ale rather than goodbye but when I next came with a mate, it had gone.

I pass the Hare & Hounds on Sopwell Lane again as well as The White Lion and make my way to The Goat. It was built in the 1500s and was first recorded as a pub in 1587. It had huge stables and was possibly the oldest brothel in St Albans. Another building on the opposite side of the road at the junction of Holywell Hill was also a coaching inn – clear evidence of St Albans’ vital connection with London. It was the first stop out of and the last stop into London in horse miles. 

The garden of the Goat isn’t a grass lawn like the other pubs in the area but an enclosed courtyard. It has an Italianate feel to it as though vines should be training along trellises. In summer it can be a place of remarkable quietude only broken by the shrill cries of careering swifts in the blue vault. Apart from its usual line up on the beer engines, a rack of beer boxes has been acquired and I’m fortunate to be introduced to the Paradigm Brewery from Sarrat near Rickmansworth. Their imagery uses a bowler hatted Rene Magritte figure with a hop cone instead of an apple obscuring his face. 

Paradigm Brewery Loose Head (gravity via beer box 5.1%)

Brewed roughly 8 miles from where I drank it.

It’s an auburn coloured (actually it was probably auburn coloured – darkness was encroaching as I wrote these notes) ale with a bright white hop oil meniscus. You can tell it’s a British IPA as you get malt on the nose rather than a fruit salad bouquet. It tastes burnt like an overdone teacake. There’s ginger malt loaf on the palate and Demerera sugar. The sensation that really won’t leave me alone is of having a crumpet with butter melting into the pock marks and feeling the heat from it. I can sense wood shavings, petroleum jelly and oil tins. It’s like being in a metal working room. I pause and wonder which of my senses are actually conveying these notes. It aggregates at the back of the tongue and roof of the mouth rather than in the olfactory bulb. It’s quite cloying & gritty.
Adrian Tierney Jones recently made it into Pseud’s Corner in Private Eye for comparing the character of traditional IPAs vs new IPAs and I completely see what he means. This beer was like the sweat of industry and the oil that lubricates it. Paradigm Brewery uses hops from Kent, malt from Suffolk and yeast from Nottingham. The green Opal Fruit hit redolent of many modern IPAs (or the Gaugin factor) – though I adore it – is completely absent here.

These are my highlights from Sopfest 2015 – a dry hopped Saison, a strong dark ale, a traditional British IPA and a traditional English bitter. Half were traditional but none of them were typical. Some honourable mentions should also go to Moongazing by Tring Brewery, Sunstar from Buntingford Brewery, 13 by XT Brewing, Gangster by Oakham Ales and Best Bitter by The White Hart Tap. I hope the Sopfest becomes a permanent fixture.

In case you’re wondering about the name, Sopwell is from the Sopwell Nunnery. It dated from the twelfth century and was dissolved in the reformation. Sir Richard Lee built on top of the site using the original masonry in the sixteenth century (the ruins of Lee House is the image at the top of the article). The name Sopwell probably derived from the nuns sopping their bread in the holy well and tending to the pilgrims visiting the remains of St Alban. Neither Sir Lee’s nor the nuns’ nor Saint Alban’s beer preferences are known.

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