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Reading Between the Wines: a guide to beer festivals and autumnal ales

Aye, the nights are fair drawing in, aren't they?  At this time of year, I tend to find myself opting for darker and more bodied beers, as opposed to the fresher, paler styles I go for in the summer.

Thankfully, there are beer festivals aplenty. A few weeks back, many of you will have had the opportunity to go to the fabulous Paisley Beer Festival(it was postponed from spring, and I was away on holiday - blast!), and this weekend is the 14th Ayrshire Real Ale Festival in Troon. I will not be missing this one!

These are wonderfully informal events. Everyone is there for a drink, and beer knowledge is there aplenty, but it won't be getting rammed down your throat if you don't want it!

If you 'd prefer to try some new ales at your leisure, the Wetherspoons pub chain are running their biannual ale festival from October 16 to 30, in all branches. Their modest but enjoyable 'festivals' see them stock up on some extra ranges of ales and ciders, normally promoting them with discount prices. You can usually buy the 1/3 pints for the price of one pint, which is great for tastings, but the range will never beat proper festivals - these normally range into the hundreds in one room!

So why am I plugging beer festivals again? As is always the case with beer, the range of styles and names used to describe them is mind boggling. For example, I mentioned I like heavy beers at this time of year, but to name just a few of the heavier beer styles, you can get amber ales, red ales, dark ales, porters, stouts, Black IPA, and so on. These are often bywords or shorthand used to quickly indicate the type of beer, so don't tell you much. If you look under the surface, it gets more complicated…

Behind these terms are the same factors that make wine so hard to learn about, such as the ingredients (and varieties thereof - grape varietals for wine, malt and hops for beer) and geographic origin. You see, unlike wine, beer can be made from differing combinations of its constituent natural products, and also unlike wine, production isn't limited solely to a small list of countries with perfect climates. You can make beer basically anywhere.

So, despite wine's reputation as inaccessible and hard to understand, I'd suggest that in the case of beer, the complexities are tenfold. And if you were hoping to learn more about it, your misery will be further compounded by the fact that most beer labels give no indication of the types of malt and hops used in their production (although this is an increasing trend amongst 'craft' beers).

My point is; it's a fool's errand to try and learn the theory first. I reckon your best option is to get yourself to a big festival and indulge in some tasting - like Troon, this weekend! You can take notes or photos for the smartphone generation and try loads of different beers (remember - you can usually try samples for free). Plus, if supplementary info is needed, you can ask all the questions you want at events like these - the folk staffing them are usually total beer boffins!

To get you started, here are a few types of heavier beers, all of which are on the (provisional) list for the Ayrshire Real Ale Festival this weekend in Troon:

 

Cairngorm Black Gold - A deliciously complex stout. Black as night, and filled with a delicious duality of treacly sweetness, and charcoal sharpness. If you don't believe me, this bad boy has won more awards than Daniel-Day Lewis!

Fyne Ales Sublime Stout- A super hopped example of a stout, meaning it has a wonderful balancing bitterness, and a rough-and-ready way about it. They market it as an ale that matures nicely in the bottle, so there could be a fun experiment in there if you are into ageing wines!

Isle of Skye Black Cuillin- A dark ale, as opposed to stout, but still brewed with malted oats, rather than just malted barley (confusing, eh?). It has a lovely smoothness on the tongue, and is surprisingly delicate given its deep ebony and ruby colour.

Harviestoun Old Engine Oil Porter- You probably could start a car with this big heavy gloop! It's funky and natural smelling, and has a nice toffee flavour that's cut through with a big, fiery hoppiness. It's so dense and flavoursome, you'd want to save it for the end of your tasting!

There you have it - I'll see you in Troon!

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