Budget brilliance: ICIP reviews Wetherspoons’ International Real Ale Festival

ICIP is coming around to Wetherspoons.

Sure, we’ve gone there for a quiet pint and wound up giving witness accounts of the bar brawls that erupted within feet of our sun-soaked boozing to the Met’s finest. But more recently, we’ve been drawn in by the promise of cut-price Punk IPA and This is Lager, tempted to stay by cans of exclusive (and delicious) Sixpoint.

Now Wetherspoons, possessed as it is of some considerable clout,  has put together a superb international festival. International offerings from Birrificio (Italy), Sixpoint and 10 Barrel (USA) and Brewmoon (NZ) – among many others – sit alongside some 40 beers from UK Brewers (among them Harviestoun, Thwaites, Adnams). The autumnal range focuses on spicey, amber-y, chewy-caramel beers, but has also – in a welcome move – made an effort to showcase beers brewed by women (five international beers and two from the UK).

Read the full list

Not only that, but in a London ‘Spoons a festival pint cost £3.20, a good pound less than one of these beers would cost in our local craft pubs, and you can get three thirds for the same price. Some of the beers are of decent craft strength (around the 6-7% mark), and will still set you back just over a quid for a third, or less than a high street coffee.

But there is a price to pay for this breadth of range, even if it’s not financial. Lows we experienced in our mammoth, four pub tasting session included some dire service, occasionally atmosphere, and a lack of coordination across pubs in an area.

For example: every bar we visited stocked Bath Ales‘ Prophecy, but nowhere could we find the elusive Elysian Night Owl Pumpkin Ale we were so desperate to locate. Arch-rivals Nicholsons told us last year that their pub managers co-ordinate festivals so a locale isn’t saturated with the same beers – if ‘Spoons wants to attract the craft crowd, they’ll have to do the same thing.

line of beersBut all that aside, beer tasting at a Wetherspoons festival is genuinely great fun.

“…you have to engage in a Pokemon-slash-Indiana Jones-style quest as you sprint, increasingly weavily, across quadrants of London”

Unlike a static, course-of-the-weekend festival you’re armed with a mouth-watering tasting list but no guarantee you’ll find any of the beers. There’s no schedule per pub, which means that if there are certain beers you’re desperate to try you have to engage in a Pokemon-slash-Indiana Jones-style quest as you sprint, increasingly weavily, across quadrants of London, dipping into cavernous branches of ‘Spoons as quickly as you dip out again once you realise they haven’t got one of the elusive beers you circled on your tasting notes.

We started at The Crosse Keys on Gracechurch Street, which supposedly has the most taps of any Wetherspoons. A former bank, its roughly canteen-y entrance gives way to a circular bar solid with taps and a gorgeous – if somewhat hotel-receptiony – private lobby behind, where ICIP and our guest taster Miranda sank into some comfortable sofas.

IMG_20141026_150615This is where it got difficult. The taps at The Crosse Keys are all assigned a number, and – v helpfully – the beer list perpetually scrolls across big flatscreen monitors throughout the bar. When you order, you do it takeaway style – a third of 13, 18 and 25, please.

liz wetherspoonBUT: the numbers on the taps do not match the order the ales are listed in Wetherspoons tasting notes. So once you’ve chosen your next drink based on the tasting notes (or the abv, wink wink), you have to sit and watch the scroll-y screen until (if you’re lucky and they have it) the beer you want flashes up. Then you have to very quickly scribble down the number, and then later remember what the hell beer that number referred to.

It goes without saying that this raucous game of beer bingo gets more and more difficult the more you drink. Try doing that across 12 thirds.

We exhausted the circular bar at the Crosse Keys (actually, the scroll-y screen of beer bingo was replaced with an ominous warning that the pub was closing early because of “a gas fault” so we ran for it) without nailing down some ales we were desperate to try, so embarked on a brave mission across the city, taking in Hamilton Hall at Liverpool Street Station, Goodman’s Field in Aldgate and finally The White Swan in Islington, making it through 20 of the beers in total (less than half!)

IMG_20141026_160306Some of the beers were excellent, some mundane; some of the pubs were stunning, others less so. But probably the greatest testament to ‘spoons endeavour is that Miranda and I are now physically incapable of passing one without popping in to see if they’ve got any of that damn elusive pumpkin beer.

There’s bound to be one near you, so if you’ve some spare change, you’re counting pennies until the end of the month or just want something new to drink before a Halloween do, drop in any time before 2 November.

ICIP’s TOP THREE

10 Barrel O.G. IPA, 5% ABV, USA

Honey-coloured, almost lager pale ale with good lacing and a thin head. Citrus and biscuit nose. The light malt leaves loads of room for the citrus-y Australian hops, which render it hoppy but not bitter. Very drinkable.

Adnams 1659 Smoked Ruby Beer (4.7% ABV)

Pours a rich, dark ruby with a thin head. Chocolate and biscuit on the nose. Then smoke! In gusts! Wood, ash, nuts. Good long mouthfeel: the smoke dominates, but enjoyably so. “It’s like there’s a peat fire in my mouth”, said Miranda.

Wicked weedWicked Weed Freak of Nature (7.5% ABV) USA:

WHOAH. Very unusual beer, this. Sour and grassy, with tobacco notes and a hint of gooseberries. Incredibly smooth mouthfeel and lingering savoury and somewhat soapy taste, it is surprisingly and inexplicably moreish.

MIRANDA’S TOP TIPS

Brewster’s Brewers Dozen (5.5% ABV):

Very sweet on the nose – smells like candyfloss and toffee apple. Fresh tasting, with hits of lime and coriander. Good amber colour – very nice to drink.

Bath Prophecy (3.9% ABV): This is a nice light pale ale with a lot of flavours going on – on first sip you get a hit of sweet Murray Mints, followed by a nice clean pine finish.

Banks beerBank’s Botanical Beer (4.2% ABV):

This unusual beer has a very floral and perfumey aroma. There are herby notes and it has a nice mouth feel – quite soft with a hint of mango. Strong lemony finish. Very tasty. This beer has added flavours from  “Gruit”, a herb and spice blend commonly used in medieval times when ale was brewed without hops.

BEST OF THE REST

Batemans Colonel’s Whiskers, 4.3%

Somewhere between a mild and a stout, this pours a thick, impenetrable pint with a slightly off white head. Molasses and black treacle, good mouthfeel.

Moorhouse’s Black Cat Reserve, 4.6%

Pitch black. Thin off white head. On the nose nutty, roasted, smokey. Gentle first mouthful, good thick mouthfeel, winds up a bit thin but then hits you with late, palette-obliterating liquorice.

Arundel Autumn breeze, 4.6%

Red ale, very dark, notes of biscuit, honey, amber. Tastes of caramel, burnt toffee and creamy dark chocolate.

Brouwerij’t ij isa, 4.6%, Netherlands

Very light Belgian-style, with burnt piney resinous nose. Caramel, light mouthfeel, medium body

Marston's Oyster stoutMarston’s Oyster Stout, 4.1%

Has a peaty aroma and tastes mildly of coffee – quite bitter. Very dark beer with no head. Tastes creamier than it looks with mild fizz. Easy to drink but a bit bland – probably wouldn’t drink a whole pint of this.

White Horse Camarillo, 4.5%
Sweet and spicy yet light – good for a summers day and yet warming enough for a winter pint. Strong grapefruit finish. Clear with small head. Thoroughly enjoyable, slightly wheaty beer.

Ian Ramsay’s Village Elder, 3.8%, NZ

Initial aromatic hit of Parma violets and geranium, this is a well balanced beer, creamy and biscuit to star with a touch of burnt toffee that lingers. Lovely to drink. 

Heather HoneyWadsworth Heather and Honey, 5.0%

Good golden colour – quite clear. Has grassy undertones in flavour and aroma of freshly cut grass. Subtle sweetness shines through from the honey as well as slightly floral hint.

Brew Moon Antipodean Ale, 4.0%, NZ

Strong hoppy, flavour and citrusy aroma. Starts off with sweetness before leaving an unusual after taste of black tea – this is quite pleasant and cuts through the initial sweetness.

Two Birds Golden Ale, 4.4%, Australia

This ale doesn’t offer much in the way of aroma – subtle flavours of green apple and melon come through – a little bland but pleasant all the same. Good golden colour.

Abbaye Du Val-Dieu Abbaye Blonde, 6.0%, Belgium 

This is a nice, slightly cloudy pale beer. Slightly watery but fresh taste, with hint of coriander and slight sweetness of honey. Strong herby-camomile nose.

Birraficio Lambrate Ligera, 4.8%, Italy

Nice clear amber beer. Good head and lacing. Tropical nose – hints of pineapple followed by apple and sweetness of almond. Quite nice and dry.

Wetherspoons 17-day festival runs until the end of Sunday 2 November. ‘Spoons gave us vouchers to use during this tasting, but as ever, our review is completely objective.

– ED

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One thought on “Budget brilliance: ICIP reviews Wetherspoons’ International Real Ale Festival

  1. Pingback: I’m alright, Jack: ICIP’s favourite pumpkin beers for Halloween | It Comes In Pints?

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