Cardiff Brewfest Review: Oh Hoppy Day

Pharrell could have achieved the same effect with a beer and a hotdog rather than a giant stupid hat.
Pharrell could have achieved the same effect with a beer and a hotdog rather than a giant stupid hat.

Happiness. It’s an elusive thing.

There’s no sure fire way to achieve it despite what the scientists may say. Tequila works for some; for The Beatles it was a warm gun. But I’m a simple man. I just need a great beer in one hand and some top notch grub in the other.

All of which probably explains why I spent most of the inaugural Cardiff Brewfest grinning like a Cheshire Cat speedballing catnip and MDMA.

Cardiff’s first full-size craft beer festival exploded into life at Depot last weekend down on Dumballs Road – a wind-blown desolate corner of town populated by ramshackle warehouses and disused factory units.

It’s the kind of area where Cardiff’s supervillain community would situate its lairs if we had one. If you didn’t know for a fact that Depot was there you’d be forgiven for thinking the whole thing was a Hostel-style trap designed to lure unsuspecting hipsters to their doom.

But Depot is very real, and once you’re in through the Bates Motel style reception area to the massive, bonkers warehouse space, it’s a magic little (big?) venue.

Start singing the Rihanna song and I'll glass you.
Insert crap Rihanna joke here.

From the grinning hot dog graffiti out back to the semi-submerged hatchback, scrap wood tree and rainbow brolly canopy, you’d have to try hard not to smile when you get your first glimpse of the place, even in daylight.

He's disturbingly happy for someone about to be devoured alive.
He’s disturbingly happy for someone about to be devoured alive.

But enough about the backdrop –  what about the booze?

The (Un)Usual Suspects

The line up was like a who’s who of my favourite brewers – Tiny Rebel, Pipes, Crafty Devil, Beavertown, Siren – never have so many people responsible for shortening my lifespan in an enjoyable fashion been gathered together in the same room.

The beer selection was, quite frankly, mindblowing, running a boozy gamut from tongue frazzling sours to smooth-as-a-baby’s-bum porters.

Festivals like this can be a real eye opener, highlighting just how much innovation is happening in craft breweries, from tiny Men in Sheds operations to the big players.

Bats ponders his first sip of Uncle Zester.
Bats ponders his first sip of Uncle Zester.

People I’d previously thought of as playing it safe, like Caerphilly’s Celt, have in fact been tinkering with all kinds of bonkers brews – see their Lammas Harvest Gooseberry Berliner; a bit much for me on its own, but paired with a bit of blue cheese it becomes liquid chutney. Which in retrospect, doesn’t sound half as nice as it tastes. Their ‘Shapeshifter’ range has some treats too, with some seriously weird but tasty morphing flavours.

Then there’s Siren’s utterly unhinged 8.5% Uncle Zester.

It’s like a 1960s Batman fight in beer form – BAM! Face-puckering sourness to start… POW! Now it’s gone a bit sweet… WHAM! It’s alcoholic sour cherry cola bottles (credit to @5teveJ for pointing that last one out). Easily one of the top beers of the weekend.

IPA A-OK

But for all the alchemy and mad science, my heart will always belong to an arse-kickingly hoppy Pale Ale, and there was an embarrassment of riches on offer in that department.

I won't pretend I was in a fit state to remember which beers these were.
I won’t pretend I was in a fit state to remember which beers these were.

Aberdare’s finest Grey Trees deserve a mention here; I’d tried their excellent Afghan Pale Ale before at The Lansdowne, but their Mosaic Pale Ale was something even more special delivering bags of that perfect tongue-clenching citrussy IPA bite. Extra points to Grey Trees founder Ray Davies too, for looking like a cross between Jason Statham and Drax from Guardians of the Galaxy, only harder and Welsher.

Canton new-ish kids on the block Crafty Devil did the ‘diff proud too, with the spicy bitterness of One Hop Wonder, ever so slightly changed from the last time I tasted it, but definitely better – and I loved it before.

Add to this classics like Beavertown’s Gamma Ray and Siren’s more conventional but no less awesome Soundwave (featuring possibly the most gorgeous artwork ever to grace a beer bottle) and you’ve got the best collection of craft beer Cardiff has ever seen outside of the legendary Discount Supermarket bottle shop.

The problem with all that beer of course, is it invariably leads to a colossal case of the munchies. Thankfully, Brewfest had that covered too.

Top dog

Pepperoni porn from Penarths' Pizza Pronto
Pepperoni porn from Penarths’ Pizza Pronto…

I’ve had some great grub at The Depot, especially back in the Streetfood Cardiff days when Hangfire Smokehouse, Chuck’s and the hugely underrated El Salsa ruled the roost.

Obviously Brewfest’s focus wasn’t street food – but if anything that made the quality of the offerings from the modest sprinkling of foodies on hand all the more impressive.

Highlights included Spaniard Gourmet, who managed to get more flavour out of a single piece of chicken in their paella than all 20,000 branches of KFC put together, and Pizza Pronto, with their punch-packed pepperoni (I chickened out of trying their ham and balsamic peach pizza I’m ashamed to say – next time).

Probably the only hot dog in the world hefty enough to beat a man to death with.
Probably the only hot dog in the world hefty enough to beat a man to death with.

But the star of the show for me had to be Drunken Sailor. These guys are relatively new, with about only half a dozen appearances under their belt, but good god they know their dogs.

Drunken Sailor is run by @cleanplateblog and @thegrillbarrel, a pair of veteran Cardiff food and drink bloggers who put a whippersnapper like me to shame, not least because they can walk it as well as talk it. And they produce absolutely world-class gourmet hot dogs.

If your mouth isn't watering you're dead, or a vegetarian.
If your mouth isn’t watering you’re dead, or a vegetarian.

I went for the obscenely large Dudek – a Polish style pork frankfurter with lots of paprika and pepper – before adding every conceivable topping – streetcart onions, drunken slaw and pickles, plus ketchup and mustard. In other words, hot dog heaven.

The only flaw with a Drunken Sailor dog is that they’re dangerously messy to eat; I spent about 5 minutes sizing up  angles of attack snooker player style, before ending up with a face like a Spanish flag after my first bite. Bring plenty of napkins and leave your dignity at home.

Almost as a reminder that Brewfest is all about the beer, Drunken Sailor have also worked with Swansea’s Boss Brewing (who had some cracking tipples on offer in their own right) to produce Up She Rises. This gorgeous caramel-y red ale  is not a 1000 miles away from Brewdog’s crowd pleasing 5AM Red, and makes a hot dog with onions sing like Freddie Mercury after one too many Babychams.

Altogether now

A good beer festival can make you feel all warm and fuzzy. Then a bit spinny. Then sick.
A good beer festival can make you feel all warm and fuzzy. Then a bit spinny. Then sick.

I’ve always thought that what really makes a festival like this is not the venue, or even the food and beer on offer; it’s the people.

Not just the crowd it attracts – which in this case was encouragingly diverse, from gnarly old CAMRA types in Hobgoblin tshirts to sleeve-tattooed hipster girls in spray on jeans – but the people pulling the pints, and manning the grills.

And just as at the Pipes Micro Beer Festival earlier this year, the one thing that really struck me was the sheer friendliness and approachability of the vendors.

I almost hate to call them that; half the time they weren’t ‘vending’ anything; they were happy to talk beer (and rugby), swap recommendations and generally shoot the breeze, regardless of whether your glass was full or empty.

There was no petty rivalry or upselling for a better profit margin; just a load of people who love beer under one roof, enjoying a drink or two and each other’s company. While getting absolutely shitfaced, in many cases. If that’s not the definition of heaven then I don’t want to go.

How was Cardiff Brewfest for you? Hophead heaven or hipster hellhole? Let me know in the comments or on Twitter @fuudblog.

As ever, all good photos by @scruffyDuke, crap ones by me.

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