Wetherspoons fascinates me as a chain. It’s a car crash of the really, really good and the irredeemably shit – there’s nothing just ‘alright’ or ‘not bad’ about it. Someone in the press recently commented that the chain has replaced the working man’s club, which I suppose is true in a functional sense, though it lacks the charm and the sense of belonging and ownership of the old WMCs that were still around when I was growing up. A group of beer aficionados recently told me they didn’t consider Wetherspoons to be pubs, but retail outlets: they don’t have real landlords, there’s no personality behind the bar and no individual character to your local branch. Well, there is – they make a point of making each branch reflect the local area and history – but it’s decoration rather than something in the soul of the pub.
And yet, a higher percentage of Wetherspoons outlets have been accredited with Cask Marque status than any other pub group, there’s always a range of decent real ales and while they may not be kept in as good condition as a top real ale pub, they’re always drinkable.
“International real ale?”
Yup, as well as nearly fifty beers from around the UK, and a selection of international speciality beers, there are cask-conditined beers from countries you wouldn’t expect.
I went to the launch of the festival on Thursday and met Mitch Steele and Steve Wagner from Stone, who packed a bag of Centennial and Simcoe hops and came to Kent to brew Stone California Double IPA at the Shepherd Neame brewery.
Mitch said it was a privilege to brew at the brewery, and obviously enjoyed matching North American vision and invention with English brewing tradition.
The resulting beer is utterly beguiling: the hoppy punch that you only really taste in North America, countered by the smoothness and depth exclusive to cask-conditioned ale.
It slipped down distressingly easily. After a couple of minutes I noticed I’d sunk half a pint, and casually asked Mitch what strength the beer was. “Well, we had to compromise,” replied the man I suddenly remembered was responsible for beers such as Arrogant Bastard and Ruination, “so it came in just over 7 per cent.”
Not a lunchtime pint then. But this, together with the cask-conditioned Tokyo Black from Japan’s Yo-Ho brewery, brewed a few weeks ago up at Marston’s, makes it worth enduring any number of mad shouting old men to grab a pint.
The festival is on until April 14th – I can’t see the Stone IPA lasting that long.