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FEB/MAR 2005 | COLUMN | BEAUMONT

A Rare Bit Of Wales
By Stephen Beaumont

For a child of about seven or eight, the young lad I encountered on the banks of the estuary in Conwy, Wales, was unusually aware of his surroundings. Casting a glance at my slack-jawed visage as he passed by on his bicycle, he hit his brakes and smiled up at me. "Pretty amazin', innit?" he inquired. "Ya," I dumbly replied, "pretty amazin'."

What we were discussing was Conwy Castle, a landmark, 13th-century fortress that utterly dominates the town, and which at that precise moment was backlit by the waning rays of a spectacular sunset. In truth, the special effects were hardly needed; while the sun shone for the entirety of the daylight hours I spent in Conwy, there was and remains no question in my mind that the castle would look no less "amazin'" viewed through torrents of rain or walls of sleet. More uncomfortable, perhaps, but almost certainly as breathtaking.

For me, at least, part of the appeal of Conwy Castle and its more than three-quarters of a mile of intact walls — all built by the British monarch Edward I as part of an "Iron Ring" of castles meant to contain, rather than protect, the Celts who populated Wales — is that its grandeur was entirely unexpected. Having done my research in advance, I knew that there was a castle in Conwy — hell, I was staying at the Castle Hotel! — but like so many travelers for whom the United Kingdom stretches only between the hop fields of Kent and the distilleries of the Scottish Highlands, I was utterly ignorant of its magnificence and majesty.

Then again, as I was to learn repeatedly over the course of the following seven days, when you're a tourist in Wales, "surprised" is pretty much a constant state of being.

Conwy, in the far north of the country and really only a short hop from Liverpool, was my first stop in Wales. From its dramatic beauty, I drove through the verdant hills of Snowdonia, passed the coastal resorts of Cardigan Bay, experienced the pastoral Brecon Beacons National Park, and ended my voyage at the unabashedly modern redevelopment of Cardiff Bay. Along the route, I encountered such fascinating bits and pieces of Welsh arcania as Hay-on-Wye, the self-proclaimed "used bookstore capital of the world"; a wonderful B&B gastropub, the Felin Fach Griffin, stuck in the middle of nowhere; and a 6,000-year-old burial chamber incredibly topped by a 40-ton capstone and marked only by a small sign in the middle of a sheep meadow, invisible from the passing road.

Of course, I also had a few drinks along the way.

The first impressive ale I sampled in Wales was from the Conwy Brewery, a less than one year old operation located on the town's outskirts. To its great credit, the charming and lively pub at the Castle Hotel pours two of the fledgling brewery's three ales, both on cask, including the deep ruby-brown Celebration Ale, a substantial and chocolaty beer that caught my attention with a richness belying its 4.2% alcohol. If this was what a new brewery in Wales could do, I was looking forward to further exploring the country's cask-conditioned wares.

And by exploring, I mean discovering. Although I have been a semiregular at the Great British Beer Festival for many a year, I must admit to having only a passing familiarity with Welsh beers. Part of this is due to a lack of Welsh focus in my tastings, but the majority of the blame must rest on the shoulders of CAMRA, organizers of the GBBF, whose range of Welsh breweries presented at Britain's biggest beer festival is nothing short of appalling. Of the more than 200 breweries represented at the 2004 GBBF, a mere half-dozen hailed from Wales, including the regional juggernaut, Brains, and the youthful Breconshire, the latter of which was included not at the "Wales and West" bar, but at the Wetherspoon-sponsored "Bar Nouveau."

As it happened, I did try the Bar Nouveau's Breconshire Golden Valley and was more then pleased by its honeyed apricot start and herbaceous body. So when handed the opportunity to stop by the "brewery tap," the Old Boar's Head in Brecon, I grabbed it and enjoyed not just a second pint of the Golden Valley, but also the ale's bigger brother, the 4.7% alcohol, slightly raisiny Red Dragon, an auburn-hued ale with earthy bitterness supporting notes of plummy fruit and complex malt.

Venturing farther south from Brecon, I decided to pay heed to the maxim that man does not live by ale alone, and I booked a visit to another new producer of beverage alcohol, the Welsh Whisky Company, makers of Penderyn Single Malt Welsh Whisky, and the first whisky distillery to operate in that country for more than a century.

The story behind the distillery is similar to that behind so many such start-ups, namely that a bunch of friends were sitting around the pub — these stories always seem to take place in bars, oddly enough — bemoaning the lack of local whisky, when one of them suggested that they do something about it.

A short while later, the group secured their site in the small town of Penderyn and contracted Dr. David Faraday to design for them a unique "super still" that distills in a single process, thus eliminating the need for a second, "low wines" still. Roughly three and a half years later, on St. David's Day, March 1, 2004, the first bottle of Penderyn Whisky was sold.

I was amazed that such a youthful spirit could have such an elegant, refined flavour. The secret, I was told, lies in the fact that the distillate emerges from the still at over 180 proof, an unusually high degree of purity. From this level, it is reduced with the distillery's own well water to 63% alcohol and aged in oak casks that previously held Evan Williams bourbon and Jack Daniel's whiskey, yielding a floral, caramelly and relatively light-bodied spirit which, unlike most Scottish whiskies, is to my taste best sampled at cask strength, uncut by even the finest of waters.

My final beverage stop in Wales was the Llanerch Vineyard — yes, Vineyard, as in wine-producing property. This bucolic refuge located just outside Cardiff is one of a small but growing family of U.K. wineries, and while they likely won't be making French, Californian or even Argentinean winemakers sweat anytime soon, I truly enjoyed the general quality of their Cariad line of white wines, in particular the pale pink and the unfortunately monikered Cariad Blush, with its strawberry-ish start, firm and slightly off-dry, fruity character and softly herbal finish.

Ordinarily, it would have surprised me mightily to find a winery in the suburban outskirts of the Welsh capital, if, indeed, the collection of impossibly narrow laneways masquerading as two-way roads we traveled could be considered the ’burbs. But at this stage of the trip, I had reached the point where little, if anything, Welsh would have surprised me. Instead, I was just happily enchanted by the entire country.

CBN Associate Editor Stephen Beaumont brings his passionate and unapologetic opinions to the Internet each and every month at WorldofBeer.com. His most recent book is The Great Canadian Beer Guide, Second Edition (McArthur & Company, 2001).

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