Goose Island’s founder Greg Hall stands in the middle of a room with a glass of ale next to him on the table. He’s checking his phone but as soon as we’re introduced he’s on song. We met a couple of years ago at a White Horse dinner, but I don’t think he remembers me, but so what. We’re both here to do a job. On the other hand he makes two of my favourite beers in the world: Goose Island IPA and Bourbon County Stout. ‘They called up and said that they would like us to make Honkers’ Ale,’ he says in response to my stock question about how come he’s involved with Wetherspoons (it’s a quick visit and I have a train in an hour). ‘It’s hopped with Styrian Goldings as per normal and uses Goose Island’s yeast, but it’s 3.9% as opposed to 5% in bottle. The idea was to do an English version of Honkers’ Ale.’ It’s good talking with the man (and I hope to visit his home town in the autumn), but I’ve got another sight in my targets given the time. Big in a rugby shirt, chatting with his father, no doubt recovering from the previous night’s visit to Brecon (and the eponymous brewery’s hospitality) is Richard Chennells from Zululand brewery. A man who looks like he would be happy to scrum down in the front row (I’ve just seen Invictus and remember how I chuckled at the team’s disgust with a crappy beer at the start of the movie — if anyone ever says that beer doesn’t matter show them this scene), he spends his time brewing and also seems to have time to visit every brewery in SA for a book he is working on; if you are heading out to SA this year for the football check him out (or read my forthcoming article in Scoff). Elsewhere Val-Dieu’s elfin brewster chats with Belgian tour expert Podge and I’m sure that there is a brewer guy from Hawaii wandering about as well.
Say what you like about Wetherspoons (and I will when I walk past one at 10am and see the pasty-faced groaners on their third pint of whatever’s their tipple), but they do confound. It’s cheap grog, cream-steam nonsense, lots of coffee, alkies having urgent conversations with each other at 11am, but on the other hand… For the last several years their beer festivals have featured foreign brewery collaborations — these have featured the likes of Stone and Kiwi 1001-ers Epic, while their current one introduces that unknown quantity, South African craft beer to the mix. It might be cask (and I speak as someone whose belief that cask-is-everything is so tempered, specially as I arrived after having lunch with the ever inspirational Alastair Hook over in Greenwich), but it’s still pushing beer to people who think that it begins and ends with the alpha and omega of brown and bitter (or even the sort of gold elves die to bring out of the mines of Leuven). Sadly, I had to leave as the hardened boozers of the Guild — Cole, Brown, Protz, Evans and Dredge — were getting tucked in, but Wetherspoons’ latest beer festival is something I would commend to the nation (but don’t start too early, 11am is respectable enough).