Why do we think it's still acceptable to take the piss out of the Welsh in a way that's no longer acceptable with any other nation?But I love Wales. I mean, just look at it:
OK, I'll admit they talk a bit funny, and maybe we don't have the same sense of them being a nation that we do with the Scots and Irish, who both fought more robustly to avoid being absorbed by England than their south-westerly Celtic cousins. 'England and Wales' is still often said on one breath even in this devolutionary age where Scotland has regained a considerable measure of national pride and identity.
The fact that The Beer Widow is a closet Taff has a lot to do with that (you'd never guess to hear her talk, unless you make her really mad and really drunk at the same time) but I hope to divide my time between South Wales and London to an increasing extent. It's stunning scenery in the valleys, the kind you drink in. The pubs around Abergavenny are some of the best I've ever been to, delivering the quality you'd expect from a gastropub with none of the pretension. And the Abergavenny Food Festival is one of the culinary highlights of my year.
I did two talks/tutored tastings at last year's festival. I got a kick out of the fact that they both sold out a month or so in advance, when tickets for other events were still available on the day. OK, so one of those was an audience with Michael Winner so it's not fair to compare, but still.
One of my events was a tasting of locally brewed beers. Four years ago, when I was commissioned by the Mail on Sunday to do a piece on micros across Britain, I had trouble finding many breweries in Wales to talk about. I had Breconshire Brewery, and that was pretty much it. There's no such problem now.
As with any region of the country, when I was selecting beers for the tasting I found several that were so bad I had to pour down the sink, but the good ones were sublime.
Otley is one of the most exciting breweries in the country. Founder and brewer Nick Otley shares the vision of peers like Dark Star and Thornbridge, always asking 'What If...', always giving trad beer styles a new and unique twist, and his branding is arguably the best in small-scale British brewing:
At the tasting we had O-Garden - yes, a Belgian-style wheat beer - and Columb-O, a 4% golden ale for which Nick bought up the entire UK supply of Columbus hops to create one of those peachy, zingy beers that makes you a bit giddy when you first taste it. At the end of the tasting we had to clear out so the next talk could set up, and we were dawdling, going "Hang on, I think there's just a bit more left in the pin," desperate not to leave any behind.
Otley also runs a mail order business supplying other Welsh beers, and he very kindly gave me a few other beers for the event.
Purple Moose is probably the most celebrated Welsh brewery right now, at least in terms of awards. I found their beers to be expertly made, nothing wrong with them at all, but I should have tasted them before the Otley beers. Nice pale ales, crisp and flavoursome, and maybe it was unfair of me to expect more than that, but with the hype and the funky name and branding, I kind of did.
Kingstone is a farmhouse brewery in Tintern who'd caught my attention the year before with 1503 - an ale based on a recipe from that year. Unfortunately I've had one or two dodgy bottles recently from shops, but on the day it didn't disappoint - dark and carmelly, with that lovely sweet spot where hops and malt meet and synthesise in a rich fruitiness. (Kingstone also helped out the following day after Fedex played a game of football with the Jaipur intended for my IPA tasting, donating the festival stock of their IPA). They've got a fantastic and intriguing bottled range, nothing too wacky but very solid.
Breconshire kind of dominates the Welsh brewing scene now. Head Brewer Buster Grant is a striking figure, tall with a Victorian-size beard and often sporting a kilt. His beers are subtle - they make you work a bit before revealing their strengths, but it's well worth the effort. He takes classic styles and tweaks them a little - a best bitter that's paler than a golden ale (Cribyn, 4.5%), an old ale that has sherry notes and ages nicely despite being only 5% (Rambler's Ruin), and a stunning stout made with peated malt that delivers the flavour profile of a whisky aged beer without pinning you to the ground and punching you repeatedly in the face with it (Night Beacon, 4.5%). These are beers that knock politely and ask if they can come in, before revealing themselves to be more than you first took them for.
My one big regret at the Festival was that I didn't feature anything from the Tudor Brewery. This is a new operation in the heart of Abergavenny, a brew pub in the Kings Arms, a delightful, ancient pub with rooms and food that punches above its weight. When the brewery opened I tried to like the beers. I tried so hard. But they simply weren't very good, so I didn't put them into the tasting. And then, afterwards, I found out they had a new brewer who'd had a bit of help and completely turned them around. If you see Skirrid, Sugarloaf and Blorenge - named after the mountains that overlook Abergavenny - please give them a go. They're well worth it, especially the slightly spiced toffee warmth of the Sugarloaf.
Apart from it being St David's Day, and the fact that it's easy to overlook Welsh beers, and that have been meaning to write about Abergavenny for months, the other reason for posting this today is that there's a Welsh Beer Festival on down at the Rake this week. We went down yesterday, attending a tasting of Breconshire beers by Buster - including the excellent Rambler's Ruin and Night Beacon.
Then we shared a couple of pints with Nick Otley, who talked us through O Rosie (blonde ale brewed with rosemary ) and Motley Brew, the full-on IPA brewed with Glyn from the Rake. It's a beer that stops you in your tracks and makes you see the wisdom of ordering halves. It's pretty much Glyn's favourite beer. I mean, it would be, but after doing it as a one off, there is now talk of it being made a permanent Otley beer and rightly so.
If you're anywhere near London the Welshfest worth checking out - the decking area is full of racked beers, I reckon there's over 20 on in total.
So, Wales then. The country is about the same size as Belgium. And while chances of it competing with the continental surrealists in beer terms remain remote, in beer - as in so much else these days - when you start to scratch the surface, it has a burgeoning beer culture all of its own - a distinctively Welsh beer culture.