Celt beers are hard to wrap your head around.
When I first came across them they seemed so mild mannered. Take Golden Age – a sensible, grown-up, fairly old-school pale ale, mostly sold in sensible grown up places like the Wales Millennium Centre’s Bar One.
But it turns out this is just their Dr Jekyll side; there’s a slavering wild-eyed Mr Hyde waiting just around the corner. And he wants to get you pissed.
Just look at their Shapeshifter range; a bizarre bunch of beers that taste like about 150 different things at once, from black chilli IPAs to multi-fruit saisons, all wrapped up in artwork that wouldn’t look out of place on Marilyn Manson’s living room wall.
Even their ostensibly less scary core range takes no prisoners, aside from a few of the more chilled out entries like Bleddyn, Ceridwen and Silures. With a line-up that takes in smoked rye IPAs, chocolate orange porters and gooseberry sours, there’s no doubt Celt make some deeply odd beers. One of my personal favourites is the disconcertingly named Horse Cranium – a chocolate lime porter that does exactly what it says on the tin yet inexplicably tastes great.
People are strange
With all this weirdness in mind, I didn’t really know what to expect when I turned up at the Celt Fire Festival.
The brewery’s annual shindig is loosely based on the ancient Celtic Imbolc festival, where our ancestors would strip naked, paint themselves blue and howl at the moon before copulating vigorously next to a massive bonfire made of English rugby shirts. Or something. I’m not a historian. Suffice to say it’s a good excuse to sink a few beers.
I had my suspicions that I’d be set upon by cloaked druids upon arrival and burned in a giant wicker man – this was Caerphilly after all – but I was pleasantly surprised to be greeted by an impressively well organised piss up at a brewery, which I’m sure is a bit more challenging than popular belief would have it.
It’s a pretty familiar set-up for anyone used to venues like Depot – a tried and tested Hipster Warehouse Pop-Up Party™, with oodles of craft beer, streetfood vendors and men in beanie hats with beards.
Truth be told aside from a bit of fire poi juggling there was a disappointing lack of actual flames, mostly due to the timely and very soggy intervention of Storm John, or Paul, or Ringo, or whoever, but between the beer, mead, gin and live music, it didn’t put too much of a crimp in the evening.
The God of Hell Fire
And the torrential February rain definitely doesn’t faze Celt boss Tom Newman, a man who once broke in to Tintern Abbey to secretly bury some yeast on holy ground, presumably in an effort to summon Hellboy onto the Earthly plane.
When I see him taking part in a ‘live brew’ – essentially a bunch of beer makers having a jam session – he’s got a definite air of the Dr Frankensteins about him, stalking around the tuns plugging in hoses, attaching electrodes and throwing giant switches while laughing maniacally. Ok, I exaggerate a bit, but it’s great to see a Welsh brewery doing things a bit differently, and with obvious passion.
If Brewdog is punk (let’s not get into that right now), then Celt is mental, acid-fuelled 70s prog rock, going off on bizarre esoteric noodlings that don’t always work, but that are invariably original. They’re resolutely ‘not for everyone’, but that’s not a bad thing.
And while Celt’s wilder beers can be a bit much for me on their own, they do work better with something to bounce off, especially if there’s cheese involved. Thankfully, someone had the foresight to invite Dusty Knuckle pizza along.
Little pizza heaven
I don’t consider myself an expert on anything (look at me for god’s sake) but I’ve eaten a whole lot of pizza over the last 33 years.
One of the best I’ve tasted was at a place called Grimaldi’s in Brooklyn – arguably New York’s finest and apparently one of Sinatra’s favourites – he used to get their pizzas flown out to him in Vegas, or so the story goes.
We had to work a bit harder for a taste than ol’ blue eyes though – after schlepping across the bridge inhaling a lifetime’s worth of exhaust fumes in half an hour and a good forty minutes traipsing around a not-particularly-salubrious looking neighborhood, we eventually spotted a snaking queue pouring out of a tiny little shopfront.
We waited in it for an hour and a half in sub-zero December temperatures that would have sent a polar bear home to put some thermals on. But good god, it was worth it. When we finally got through the door, all that stress and effort was repaid instantly – the pizza was just orgasmically good; perfect, light, airy bases, topped with tomato sauce as rich and thick as an old English aristocrat, all smothered in creamy mozzarella. Heaven in dough form.
Dusty Knuckle’s pizza is better than that.
Seriously. And you don’t have to go half way around the world for it – if you’ve been to a pop-up in Cardiff you probably already know them. When you write about food it’s a bit reckless to say something’s the best you’ve ever eaten, but Dusty Knuckle’s pizza absolutely bloody nails it.
Dough my god
I tried two of their pizzas on the night; helpfully, they’d paired their menu up with a few of Celt’s creations, so punters could try the best of both worlds.
Pizza number one was a bit controversial. I’ve got no problem with what people do behind closed doors, but I’ve always thought that putting seafood on pizza in public is at best distasteful and at worst obscene, unless we’re just talking about a couple of anchovies. At least that’s what I used to think. Then Dusty Knuckle went and put smoked salmon on a pizza, and now I don’t know who I am anymore.
To be more precise they put salmon, mozarella, capers, jalapenos and lemon creme fraiche on a pizza. And it really, really worked. The hot and tangy mix of chilli and citrus was matched brilliantly with the sour blackcurrant of Celt’s Blood Moon, blowing away any cobwebs left intact by the quintessentially Welsh weather.
Pizza number two of the night – blue goats cheese, roasted grape and walnut – was like a Christmas cheeseboard, all moreish silky smoothness broken up with gooey sweetness, with the beer selection, the Hallstat Deity saison, standing in for chutney.
After a couple too many tongue-twistingly named and ABV’d brews, I felt the need to confess my undying love for Dusty Knuckle’s pizza to the nice lady running their stall, and she asked me what exactly I liked so much about their pizza.
What I wanted to say, but probably didn’t manage to articulate (I blame the Wiper and True Quintet), is that it’s hard to pick just one thing.
It’s not just the base, which is as light and crisp as anything I’ve tried, or their toppings which are well thought out and made with great quality ingredients. It’s not even that they seem like such bloody nice people – they’re invariably happy to chat, even with the slightly inebriated, and genuinely passionate about what they do. They just have the whole package – taste, quality and personality.
That last element in particular sums up what I enjoyed most about the night; it’s a little festival with a big personality, with vendors like the Bristolian Ginger Beard Preserves and Llanelli’s Charcutier Ltd more than happy to chew the proverbial fat, whether about their products, their facial hair or their mam’s market stall.
That’s what makes events like this work – they’re not just about great food and drink, they’re about the people. Celt Fire Festival gets that, and that’s why I’ll be back next year.