A morning haze is usually the sign of a good night before so the Birmingham Beer Bash must have been one hell of a night.
I went there not knowing quite what to expect - just knowing the event was in the safe hands of a passionate organising team committed to showcasing the best of beer. First impressions were good.
The Bond Company comprises a group of attractive, refurbished Victorian warehouses sat alongside the canal in Digbeth.
After passing through the grand entrance gates, you take a toddle down the cobbles towards a large covered courtyard, which housed the festival's culinary delights. Take a left and you ended up at the international bar, take a right and you stumbled upon the main beer room that housed a collection of cask and keg.
Given the grandeur of the surroundings, I felt like I was wandering into a beery version of Willy Wonka's fantastical factory, ready to swim in lakes of double IPA and soar inside giant lager bubbles. Now that would've made a great movie!
Initially, the main room seemed a little small and I must confess to a brief panic that there wouldn't be enough beer to satisfy my eternal thirst. But those worries quickly dissipated because while it was small, the Beer Bash was perfectly formed.
What the Birmingham Beer Bash lacked in scale, it made up for in intimacy and bonhomie. All manner of people mingled in the various rooms and many of the brewers were on hand to discuss the inspiration behind the beverages being sampled.
Beer seems to be a bloody powerful unifier but then maybe the effects of beer played a sizeable part in attendees' willingness to indulge in good-natured chatter.
And despite initial fears about the size of the selection, I still came away feeling I hadn't tried everything I wanted to - proof that quality trumps quantity every time.
So to the beers. Ending the night with a 12.5% Imperial Stout from Howling Hops means my memory isn't quite what it should be but I'll do my best to recap the good and bad of everything I tried.
First up was Magic Rock Salty Kiss, the Huddersfield brewers' take on a traditional German gose (made in collaboration with Kissmeyer Beer) and one I've been desperate to try since first hearing about it a few months back. It was the perfect starter for 10, a great beer for both enlivening the old palate and refreshing my arid throat. A mouthful of sharp, zesty fruit - with elements of gooseberry, lemon and grapefruit - combines with earthy yeast and a pleasant salty finish to make an excellent beer. It's tart, juicy and boldly different - an experience similar to my first taste of salted caramel and one I hope to repeat.
Mind suitably blown, I followed this with another Magic Rock beer. After all, why change a winning formula? This time I opted for Magic Rock The Juggler, a collaboration with the always intriguing Danish gypsy brewer To Øl. For one reason or another, the saison is the current bière du jour, so every man and his dog has been desperate to join the party. Consequently there's a huge clamour to be noticed and, despite being a solid beer, this doesn't really do enough to stand out from the crowd. It poured with a huge frothy beige head, which offered stark contrast to the ominous murky brown colour of the liquid. The aroma combines the farmyard with dark fruit and the flavour is rich raisins and cherries, slight sweet caramel, bitter hop and smoke. There's a generous dose of spicy, earthy yeast and a dry, lightly sour finish.
The next beer was a contender for my favourite of the night, Siren Limoncello IPA. Put aside for one second all thoughts of the disgusting, neon yellow goop served up in a shotglass after every meal at a bad Italian restaurant. Limoncello can be a tart, zesty delight when done properly and this beer attempts to emulate that - a task it fulfils stunningly well. The nose offers a surprising whoosh of freshly-sliced lemon and this carries over into the tasting, which is an invigorating treat of energetic, zingy citrus. It leaps and bounds across the palate like a mouthful of fizzy sherbet and was clearly hopped to within an inch of its life because Sorachi Ace and Citra have left their own indelible fingerprints all over this.
At this stage I was picking up pace quite nicely so made a beeline for a beer I had wanted to make absolutely sure I tried at the festival, the Weird Beard and Northern Monk collaboration Bad Habit. It was expertly served to me by he of the Weird Beard, Gregg Irwin, and went down an absolute treat. This hazy amber brew smells strongly of yeasties and grassy hops and offers an interesting take on the classic Abbey Tripel. Spicy phenols and Belgian yeast are the most powerful influences on the tastebuds but dark berries, citrusy orange (from the Cascade hops) and sweet candi sugar are also present. It finishes reasonably dry with just enough bitterness to give it an excellent balance. As far as debuts go, this was up there with Wayne Rooney smashing a hat-trick past Fenerbahce for my beloved Manchester United.
This is when the tasting notes started to become a little bit more concise, which I can only put down to my rush to imbibe as many wonderful beers as possible (or something like that anyway). Art Brew Anarchist Party Bitter is another I was very keen to try, so was left a little disappointed by the serve, which was slightly flat and lazy-looking out of the cask. It's still a beer well worth trying though and a unique take on the humble bitter that sticks two fingers up to the establishment. Leathery malt, caramel, toffee and smooth liquorice supply the body and sweetness before Nelson Sauvin does its usual job by slashing through those flavours with its noble sword of sharp bitterness.
Three IPAs were up next, the best of which was Tiny Rebel Hadouken IPA, a beer I should've tried long before this festival. It's a real triumph from the Newport-based brewery, so much so that I felt like Dragon Punching the air in celebration. Reminiscent of excellent American IPAs such as Ska's Modus Hoperandi, it shoots an exploding fireball of bitter, resinous hops straight down your throat. The powerful grapefruit and pine are well balanced by caramel malt, making this an extremely drinkable IPA.
Mikkeller 20 is another good take on the style, making use of more floral hop characteristics with the balance tipping a little more towards sweet than bitter. Biscuity malt and rich honey are quite prominent but so too are grassy, floral hops, orange and mango. There's a slight earthiness too and although it does finish with some bitterness, it remains quite sticky.
The Buxton and To Øl collaboration Carnage was, unfortunately, a touch disappointing but perhaps only because I expected far too much from a shared effort by two of my favourite brewers. They played it pretty much straight down the line with this one, creating an IPA which doesn't break the mould but still leaves enough to admire. It's piled with hoppy flavours, particularly orange zest, peach and pine, has a slight bready malt and finishes extremely dry and bitter. I'm looking forward to trying their other collaboration Sky Mountain Sour much more.
With time running out, my penultimate beer was Wild Beer Modus Operandi, one I've had before from the bottle. I enjoy the unpredictability of this beer, created by the decision to both age it in oak barrels and ferment using wild yeast. The result is an ever-changing beer but one that never fails to get you smiling. A parade of dark fruits includes raisin, rich plum, grape and cherry and it takes on a rich, deep port-like character thanks to its hibernation in the oak barrels. Smokiness and funky Brett give it another dimension and there's also a slight sourness just to confuse the palate further.
And now to the aforementioned Howling Hops Russian Imperial Stout, admittedly not a particularly wise choice as the final beer of the night. But, even though it did lead to me temporarily misplacing my marbles, I don't regret trying it. Fermented with saison yeast it is an unusual beer full of rich berry flavours rather than the chocolate and coffee notes found in so many stouts. It was a bit like an indulgent Christmas pud - sticky sweet and heavy with late-arriving alcohol heat - so the spiciness added by the yeast worked well. Maybe next time I'll have this a little earlier though so it's easier to break down the complex flavours!
In terms of my beer of the festival, I'm going to sit on the fence and call a tie between Weird Beard and Northern Monk's Bad Habit and Siren's Limoncello IPA. Really (and you might want to grab the sick bag for this one), the winner was the great British beer-loving public. The organisers proved sufficiently that this should become a regular feature on the festival calendar.
Images courtesy of Francis Clarke, francisclarke.co.uk