For a veteran Bitter and Twisted attendee, there’s something comforting about that moment you step through Maitland Gaol’s hallowed entry, reach into the “Ivan Wallat”, and buy a fistful of beer tokens. And, outside of a sperm bank, there’s no more joyous circumstance to be in need of a small plastic cup.
Once the tokens and drinking vessel have joined the inventory, you’re suddenly transformed into a beer connoisseur, fully equipped with the knowledge to make confident remarks like, “Hmm, yeah, you can really taste the Galaxy hops”, or “There’s a distinct layer of whitish foam on this one”, or “this cider has a hint of apple”, or “this one’s quite brown for a stout”, or “not bad for an APA”, or “that’s lovely carbonation”, or “haven’t seen a finish this creamy since my honeymoon”.
Saturday, the first leg of this two-day indulgence, is mired with gloomy skies and the kind of annoying rain that’s tantamount to being repeatedly shat on by a pigeon. It’s borderline poncho weather and I decide to cross the border. Suitably Gladwrapped and sealed for freshness, I scope out this year’s tap menagerie.
Murray’s, now an old faithful on the boutique beer scene, have brought their delicious “Fred” IPA. With aromas of tropical fruit, pine and citrus, it’s a punchy brew, but is surprisingly easy to drink. They’ve also tapped a sneaky 10 per center simply called “Barley Beer”, which is as brown as a flood-laden Hunter River but also rather flavorsome. And even though it’s becoming increasingly ubiquitous, it’d be rude not to have a go of their East Coast Lager, a true sessioner.
Despite the rain, everyone’s in relatively jovial spirits, and rockers The Vanns are doing their bit to lift the mood. A handful of tastings later and the inimitable Mia Dyson is on stage, accompanied by bass and drums. It’s great to have her back on Australian soil, have relocated to Los Angeles. New tunes like ‘Gambling’ slot in amongst the fan favourites, and Dyson brings the house down with a Tom Petty tribute – a Danny Glover of ‘I Won’t Back Down’. Overall Dyson’s set is a full-flavoured fusion of blues and rock, delivered in an undeniably classic Australian style.
Some of the more high brow beer tasters subscribe to the age-old theory that “eating is cheating”, but when the stomach rumbles I stop by Smokin’ Hot and Saucy’s stall for a beef brisket sandwich and beef rib plate. Damn good. I guess this is my way of groovin’ the moo.
South Australia’s Hobo Brewing have an entire cell block to themselves and offer up some easy drinkin’ tinnies. This is a good place to take shelter from the rain and the cans are plentiful. “The Overlander”, a mid-strength IPA, is decidedly refreshing, and the high hop content is balanced with some notes of vanilla and peach. “The Journey Ale”, or “Session Ale”, is just as the name suggests. Clove and honey flavours, alongside Australian pale Belgium wheat and Galaxy hops, add up to an inoffensive brew that is sure to find its way into bottle shops around Australia. Keep an eye out for it.
Rock pigs The Delta Riggs bring Saturday’s proceedings to a close, with the beer service having been stopped a frustrating 15 minutes early at the command of local police. Even though prematurely ceasing beer service and forcing people to drink faster to use up their non-refundable beer tokens is the antithesis of quality RSA, the call is made.
Sunday’s weather doesn’t start out well. Water drizzles over us in a manner similar to Greek salad dressing over a, err, Greek salad. But, thankfully, the skies remain overcast but reasonably unrainy.
Caitlin Harnett’s voice is a robust, golden elixir and the singer-songwriter opens Sunday’s musical proceedings with full backing band (collectively known as Caitlin Harnett Band). The Sydney artist’s has a full-bodied country rock flavour compared to the atmospheric folk notes of her 2014 record The River Runs North. It’s an engaging, easy drinkin’ set that holds the polite attention of sober early drinkers. If Harnett appears in a bar near you, I recommend pulling up a stool and imbibing these sweet sounds.
Nomad’s seawater gose, the “Freshie Salt & Pepper”, steals the show again this year. Made with seawater and Tasmanian pepper berry, this incredibly delicious drop is worthy of return samples. Even though it’s made with seawater, the salt flavour is very subtle. Some punters take up Nomad’s suggestion to mix the Freshie with fruit juice, but it’s damn fine on its own. Let’s hope Nomad can find some stockists in Newcastle. If you own a pub, get some Freshie tinnies in your fridge.
IronBark Hill is another winner and warrants repeated samplings – the Hunter-based brewer definitely makes some impressive beers. Their “American Pale Ale” is sublime – smooth and ever-so-easy to drink. As the name suggests, the hops are American and, like Murray’s aforementioned Fred, there’s notes of citrus, pine and tropical fruits. Damn tasty.
IronBark Hill’s sinful “Dark Forest Stout” is brewed in the style of a dry Irish stout, and uses real cherries and dark chocolate in its recipe. These flavours are subtle on the back end but definitely make their presence felt. The perfect beer to have with dessert.
When the stomach rumbles it’s time to tackle one of Gourmet BBQ’s epic American cheese burgers – a simple recipe delivered with aplomb. It’s juicy, that’s for sure, and is nicely washed down by… more beer. It would be rude not to.
Prancing Pony, a brewer from the Adelaide Hills, have found a lot of new fans with a quartet of beers: Hopwork Orange, Sunshine Ale, India Red Ale and the Pagan Empire IPA. Given its punny name, Hopwork Orange is the first to pass my lips and it’s superb. Prancing Pony pride themselves on “long flavour”, striving to make brews that will gallop over the taste buds. Hopwork features tangerine flavours, plus a slight hit of honey melon, mango and pine. If you spot it on tap at one of its many Newcastle stockists, definitely try a schooner or two.
Prancing Pony’s India Red Ale also has tongues talking and the kegs cop repeated pours. At 7.9%, it’s one of the brews at Bitter and Twisted that you have to keep an eye on. Brewed in the style of an “American Imperial Double Red Ale”, it’s dark and a little fruity. Check it out.
Sunday’s chilled festivities are brought to a close by pop supremos Architecture in Helsinki. The Melbourne five-piece has been a little quiet of late, but they’re quick to remind us just how damn catchy and wildly infectious their catalogue can be. A cover of The Cure’s ‘Close to Me’ fits snugly into a set that includes ‘Hold Music’, ‘Contact High’, ‘That Beep’ and ever-popular closer ‘Heart It Races’.
Architecture in Helsinki have to momentarily stop their set while security kicks out a few dropkicks who decide to start a brew-ha-ha. But their set otherwise achieves a refreshing and creamy finish, with distinct notes of pop hooks and electro-inspired beats. Let’s hope there’s more kegs on the way.
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