Golden Pints 2013

golden pints

The year that was 2013 saw ‘craft beer’, whatever the hell it is, become a truly, sort-of mainstream-ish and widely-noticed thing of some kind.

What I mean is, we in the beer blogoshire (hat tip to Boak and Bailey for that infinitely preferable alternative to the cold, corporate-sounding blogosphere) say more than ever before, but we communicate in increasingly fuzzy and inconsistent terms. The year has seen attempts to unify people and ideas, but there have been just as many fractures and splinters within already fractured and splintered groups.

There’s been a collective obsession with measuring What This Is All About, as people try and define Who We Are as drinkers and what beer is, as A Thing. I’ve read loads of blogs and articles this year about things in the present, events that are still unfolding, as if they are already history. Well, they’re not.

I hope 2014 sees a more patient and reflective attitude; less trying to define everything and more trying to understand things.

Many have struggled, even more so than usual, with their choices for this year’s Golden Pints, which has got to be a good sign. I have tasted some fantastic beers this year, many of which rank among the best I’ve ever had. I’ve even been asked to write what I think the best beers in the world actually are, which was of course broader in scope, but still a task laden with similar difficulties.

As with any test of naming the Best Thing You Had of That Type This Year, this feels more a test of memory than anything else. Taste as a sense is (I am told) the one with the strongest links to memory, so this should be easy. It isn’t, though, partly because of the vastly different flavours I’ve bombarded my palate with, but also because of the Inherent Obstacles in beer writing (the memory of a man drinking beer).

As with last year, I’ve tried to focus on what is new to me; beers that have Expanded My Mind in some sense.

Best UK Cask Beer

To ‘doge’ this issue: wow much difficult.

This should be an easy win for Oakham Citra, a beer that has been in almost perfect condition every single time I have tasted it. It’s a sensational pale ale that I will happily order a second or third pint of, and I say that as somebody prone to ordering as many beers in as smaller measurements as possible these days.

That said, even a shoddily kept, limply pulled, warmly-glassed, flatly served pint of cask Beavertown 8 Ball Rye IPA puts all five toes right into the nuts of any other cask beer in the country, including Citra, so there.

Best UK Keg Beer

This is an even messier decision to make. On a good day with no breeze and good-to-firm ground, a pint of BrewDog Dead Pony Club is hard to beat. It has a brightness all the way through its middle, right to the last drops that languish in the very bottom of the glass. Just delightful.

Unfortunately, Dead Pony is simply outclassed by the one-off wonder that was Kiwi Wit, the NZ-hopped version of Camden Town Brewery’s Gentleman’s Wit (thanks to Tandleman for reminding me of this). Only a single keg of that gloriously beer was made, a damned uncommon delight of gooseberries, grapes and citrus. Urgently address its absence from our lives, Camden.

Best UK Bottled or Canned Beer

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It would be remiss of me, given my constant harping on about canned this and canned that, not to award this to a canned beer. Even if I hadn’t been going on about canned beer all the time, I’m pretty sure that Camden Hells Lager in its exceptionally decorated can would have knocked my block off regardless. The freshest, crispest lager with the best possible protection from everything but your ravenous thirst. It’s the definitive version of Hells as far as I’m concerned.

Best Overseas Draught Beer

I spent the last part of my holiday in Belgium this year in the beer Mecca that is Moeder Lambic, and there tasted the sensational IV Saison by Jandrain Jandrenouille. It’s a beer so flavourful and wholesome and perfect that it outshone almost every beer I’d had on the trip, with the exception of…

Best Overseas Bottled or Canned Beer

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I had Cantillon Rose de Gambrinus for the first time this year, at the brewery. No further explanation needed.

Best Collaboration Brew

Another tricky one. Wild Beer Co/Burning Sky/Good George’s Shnoodlepip is about as craft as it gets, and I mean that in a good way. An experimental but totally quaffable beer that is worth every penny and Does Things to your palate/mind.

On the other hand, Weird Beard/Elusive Brewing’s Nelson Saison had a purity and elegance to it that was quite disarming. If you asked which I would like to have four pints of right now, I’d pick the Nelson Saison every time.

Honourable mention goes to BrewDog/Brodie’s Berliner Weisse, which taught my face a new expression: Berliner Weisse Gurner Eyes. A proper gob slapper.

Best Overall Beer

Beavertown 8 Ball. It’s been present at some of my favourite moments of the year, and I think of it often. A total class act.

Best Branding, Pumpclip or Label

I love Beavertown’s branding. All the little details, the boldness, the oddities, it’s cool without really trying too hard, i.e. the definition of cool. Once they (as rumoured) move into canning their beers, they’ll look sensational.

Until then, there’s only one brewery that dominates any shelf its beers go on: Partizan. So, so pretty.

Best UK Brewery

I think The Kernel have hit – and maintained – a momentum that’s frankly astonishing. Every beer coming out of the new brewery in Bermondsey has been a showstopper. Freshness is key.

Best Overseas Brewery

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Cantillon. My trip to the brewery is etched into my mind permanently.

Best New Brewery Opening 2013

Three different beers in the space of an hour from Burning Sky were enough to convince me they are a new force to be reckoned with. The Saison l’Automne was just fantastic, sensible strength and bursting with flavour. Believe the hype.

Pub/Bar of the Year

Really tough. I’ve been massively impressed with BrewDog Shepherd’s Bush every time I visit, but it’s still early days there. I’m fairly certain it’ll be a contender for my favourite bar this time next year.

Really, there can only be one contender. It’s a pub where I’ve met loads of ace new people this year, and tasted some incredible beers on every visit. If pubs are places where people + beer x location = bliss, then the location in that equation for me this year has been Craft Beer Co Islington.

Best New Pub/Bar Opening 2013

This is quite simple, really. My summer wouldn’t have been the same without Urban Sessions, a great place that had some of the best beers (including Nelson Saison) that I’ve had all year, in a location perfectly suited to the glorious summer we enjoyed. I really hope that something else like it will happen next year.

Beer Festival of the Year

If I have to pick one it would be London’s Brewing.

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I’m not joking.

I’ve been to plenty of beer festivals this year, from the daft and craft to the golden oldies, but London’s Brewing has to be my favourite because it took us all down a peg or two, and I think we needed that.

You need a good, solid fuck-up every now and again, especially in a movement that can occasionally get its head stuck up its arse fairly frequently, just to make it clear just how things really are.

It’s easy to get feverishly excited about the diversity and the variety and the experimentation and just how nice everyone is, but if you can’t organise a piss-up in a brewery, in a very literal sense in this case, you’re not perfect.

Never again etc.

Supermarket of the Year

Waitrose always seems to have just what I want, whenever I need it to, so I can’t ask for much more than that. Still, credit is due to M&S for getting an impressive range of beers in from some of the country’s best breweries. Popping into an M&S Simply Food in a train station for a journey-enhancing bottle or two of Citra IPA is heartwarming experience.

Independent Retailer of the Year

I’ve made an effort to visit Utobeer in Borough Market several times this year, and they’ve just about won the crown from Kris Wines, which has let me down a couple of times with a few past-their-best imports.

Online Retailer of the Year

Don’t use online retailers much, but all my Abstrakt Addict parcels from BrewDog were delivered without issue.

Best Beer Book or Magazine

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Joint winners:

Leigh Linley: Great Yorkshire Beer – every page written with real love for the subject matter. A lovely read.

Mark Dredge: Craft Beer World – the passion and excitement about every beer is representative of the very best aspects of the craft beer scene.

Best Beer Blog or Website

I’m going to cover this in a separate post at some point, so stay tuned.

Best Beer App

Untappd – if only for  the debate it creates about what beer apps should or shouldn’t be like.

Simon Johnson Award for Best Beer Twitterer

Nothing has made me chortle this year as much as Let There Be Tim.

Honourable mentions for Boak and Bailey, for participating as much as analysing this year; Nate Southwood for never, ever changing; and Zak Avery for this tweet alone:

Best Brewery Website/Social media

@BrewDog is still the one to beat, though I love Wild Beer Co’s new website and Camden Town’s is very smart these days.

Food and Beer Pairing of the Year

It’s been said elsewhere, but Fraoch and haggis at EBBC13 was sensational.

BONUS AWARD: The Tin Hat Trophy for Best Effort at Tackling the C-Word

After reading so many earnest, heartfelt pieces about defining ‘Craft’ this year, I found Craig Heap’s What is Craft Bear? and Defining Craft Beer Through the Ages to be the best and most useful contributions to the debate, because they made me laugh and not want to self-harm.

Here’s to next year.

Not that Ace, then?

I have noticed the occasional remark in the past few days disparaging the Japanese trendy lemony-hop, Sorachi Ace.

‘Too much Sorachi Ace…’

‘Ugh, Sorachi Ace in it? No thanks…’

‘Considering it uses Sorachi, I quite liked it…’

It seems it really rubs some people up the wrong way. This is odd to me because, until recently, I had thought it was almost universally loved; a sort of subtle foil to the lupulin fireworks of American hops.

Sorachi Ace was born in 1988, from a pairing of Brewer’s Gold and Saaz, but has only in the past few years found popularity in the UK, presumably in line with the growth in experimental brewing. I’ve noted some people taste Sorachi Ace as an oily, bubblegum-like note, while others drinking the same beer will croon about the similarly subtle, fragrant, citrus and floral notes found in Thai cuisine.

Bristol Beer Factory’s Acer, Toccalmatto Zona Cesarini, Brooklyn Sorachi Ace (a saison) and Duvel Tripel Hop 2013 are all beers that I’ve had recently that use the hop, and I enjoyed them all. A lot. I generally quite like the lemon character that Sorachi Ace imparts to lighter-coloured beers of any strength. Sometimes it’s lemongrass, sometimes it’s lemon zest, or even dill. All shades of lemon, but still very welcome in the beers I’ve tasted it in, either on its own or in balance with other hops.

So why the schism? Is it a hop that can be used particularly unskilfully by brewers trying to ride the trend? Or are some people especially sensitive to Sorachi’s Aceness? I’d like to get a consensus here. Are you a friend or foe of Sorachi Ace?

The Trouble with Cantillon

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Cantillon: please consider bringing back this incredibly cool dragon logo. Far better than that dodgy old fat bloke falling off his chair.

Another post that should have gone up weeks ago and, yet again, I’m in an awkward position.

You see, I’ve read plenty of blogs and articles about Cantillon, each of them gushing over the weirdness, the smell, the gaps in the roof, the barrels, the cobwebs – oh how they love the cobwebs – and all the rest of it. I’ve read them and thought: right, I get it. It’s a special place. Lambic and Gueuze are undoubtedly Very Important Things. The brewery is a lonely bastion of a dying art form, and we must all kneel down at its spontaneous altar and take wild-fermented sacrement. I understand, okay?

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A notorious Craft Wanker wanders the cellars, sucking different ages of lambic from damp patches on barrels.

The awkward thing is, having read all of that, and having thought it was well-meaning but over-enthusiastic, I now find myself having been to Cantillon and agreeing with every single word of it. It actually is a genuinely magical place.

It’s likely you’ve read all of that stuff about Cantillon, too. It’s fairly likely you’ve been there yourself. It is, after all, one of the few places that beer geeks might consider a pilgrimage-worthy destination, and rightly so. So what’s the point of me adding to all that’s been written? I might not be able to offer up a different opinion, but I might be able to persuade those of you who haven’t been to Cantillon to seriously consider a visit.

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Lens flare? Divine intervention? Hard to say once you’ve tasted the contents.

For one thing, during the summer, when the temperature is too high for them to brew, you are basically allowed to wander around the place unsupervised. Pay the nice people at the entrance the paltry sum of €6, and they’ll turn you loose inside after giving you  a machine-gun-speed briefing on the brewery and a leaflet. We ended up wandering in on a bit of the guided tour, but my favourite memories are from the solitary exploration of the place. The deafening quiet enhanced every smell, sight and touch; made every surprised glance a discovery, every surprised intake of breath a gasp. I imagined coming across the brewery in some bleak, post-apocalyptic setting, overgrown with plants like in Logan’s Run, and the whole place being exactly the same.

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I do love a good koelschip.

The whole place is a bit like the obligatory ‘museum’ bit of a larger brewery tour (like when I visited Brouwerij De Halve Maan), except it isn’t a museum, it is the brewery. Gauges and pipes are insulated with scrunched-up paper, vessels are laid open for you to poke your nerdy head into, and that smell pervades everything. It’s one thing being told that the atmosphere of the brewery does the brewing, but in Cantillon it’s a tangible force that you can detect everywhere.

Even the beer you’re given at the end is ridiculously good. Yeah, I admit, that first taste of dusty, sour, mystical, raw lambic required some serious thought. What is this? But as it sits there on your tongue, and tells you its story, you just have to keep tasting it. All those cobwebs and damp, sticky patches on the barrels, the dust, the air, the wood, it’s all in there. And as for the Rose de Gambrinous, well, it’s simply sensational. Once again, Belgium gave me a Beer Moment(tm). Lambic and Gueuze ARE magical and weird and wrong yet so, so right. It’s all about the context, and understanding. When I sat there, drinking those beers under the gaze of that dragon, I felt like I understood What It’s All About.

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A glass of wonderment, calling itself Rose de Gambrinous. 

You see? This blog has turned into just another fawning gushfest.

The trouble with Cantillon is: it’s all true.

Go.

Brouwerij De Halve Maan

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A notorious Craft Wanker loiters outside the brewery, begging for slops.

Walplein 26, 8000 Brugge

“They do a good tour, but be prepared to hear a load of bollocks.”

This was the glowing recommendation given to me by Melissa Cole. Broadly speaking, Melissa is right. On the tour of Brouwerij De Halve Maan, brewers of Bruges Zot and Straffe Hendrick, you will hear a few things that might get your Beer Geek hackles up. There’s also a lot of stuff about the magical medicinal properties of all of the ingredients, which is mostly fun if occasionally presented as fact. These minor quibbles aside, it really is a fantastic tour, and a lovely building to explore.

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It isn’t immediately obvious from the exterior that De Halve Maan was an old-fashioned tower brewery. The building above, with its coaching inn-style tunnel, sits in front of a courtyard where a restaurant and gift shop is located. Once you’ve bought your ticket for a very reasonable €7 (including a beer at the end), you simply have to wait until the next tour starts, which is on the hour.

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The tour starts in the shiny, modern brewhouse, where everything is situated on one floor. Everything is clearly labelled for visitors, and the brewing process is briefly explained. Whilst it looks as clean and new as, say, Camden Town Brewery, there is still a reassuring adherence to old-fashioned eccentricity. The control board below, for example, has a delightfully steampunk feel to it. Why have a touchscreen when big, pushable buttons and levers will do the trick? It reminded me a bit of Bertha, the magical factory machine from the kids’ TV show of the same name.

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The real treats are upstairs. As mentioned above, originally De Halve Maan functioned a tower brewery, relying on gravity to propel the liquid through the brewing process. So up, up, up we go, ascending narrow steps and low ceilinged passages into the malting floor. Here there are all kinds of fine-looking brewing artefacts from the brewery’s 150 year history. It’s here on the malting floor you get a more in-depth talk about the value of each specific ingredient in the process.

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The tour guide, whose name I can’t remember, won me over after sizing up a chap who had been asking a lot of questions about what was or wasn’t regulated in Belgian brewing: “You’re German, aren’t you?” Cue laughter from everyone. The talk was a fan and factoid-packed, but could be politely described as being ‘unburdened by the truth’. To some extent you could understand the German guy’s constant questions; he admitted he was a homebrewer. However, I could tell that he was asking questions he knew the answers to, and was really just testing the tour guide, which is far worse in my mind that coming up with a few half-baked facts about the medicinal benefits of beer.

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Anyway, as I said, its the building itself that really makes this tour special. You get to see, or rather walk across, the old koelschip (a broad, shallow, copper vessel where hopped wort would cool down while being exposed to wild yeast and bacteria) on the way to the roof, where you can enjoy a glorious panoramic view of Bruges. Then, climbing down even narrower stairs than before (backwards), you get to see the beautiful old heat exchangers, fermenting vessels and maturation tanks. Tall people beware, you may spend much of the tour in an Igor-like crouch. To the guide’s credit, you will learn a lot of history as well as Beer Facts ™, and there are plenty of stories in the old copper vessels.

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1930’s heat exchangers are pretty.

When the tour is over, you’re guided to the lovely on-site bar, where you’re handed a cool glass of unfiltered Bruges Zot, the brewery’s flagship blonde ale. It’s a fairly common sight in bottles in the UK, and a decent Belgian blonde, but by no means exceptional. The unfiltered version (like most unfiltered versions of anything) is a superior product, with a more pronounced, zestier, citrus finish and a smoother, creamier mouthfeel. I can also recommend the Straffe Hendrik Quadrupel, which, whilst not the usual Trappist quad to find beer geeks fawning over, is a really decent drop – full and syrupy sweet, with a moreish balance of toffee, chocolate and coffee notes.

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If you know a bit about beer and brewing, and have a few people with you who don’t know much at all, then De Halve Maan will give you a very accessible and fun brewery tour. Even if you know a lot, the tour itself is still fun, and any ropey information is completely outweighed by the friendliness of the guide, the beauty of the building, and the delicious beer at the end. €7 well spent.

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#EBBC13 – Day 1 Highlights

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The first day of EBBC13 has been an intensive combination of sampling, absorbing information and talking to some of the world’s best brewers. So far it’s been a fantastic experience, and deeply useful to me as a writer and blogger,

Below are my brief thoughts on the main events of the first day of the conference…

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Keynote Speech (Garrett Oliver)

Garrett Oliver was his customary, affable, genial self. He dispensed anecdotes, philosophy, business advice and stories with ease, though the US craft brewing industry’s biggest star may have been overshadowed by his own hat. You can read a full live blog of Garrett’s speech here.

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Scottish Brewing History (John Martin)

John Martin, of the Scottish Brewing Archive Association, gave a wide-ranging talk on beer in Scotland. Unfortunately, the talk have been a little too wide-ranging, leaping from one topic to the next with barely a breath, but it still provided a massive amount of information to bloggers hungry (or thirsty) for Scottish brewing knowledge. Read Sam Parker’s live blog here.

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Whisky barrel aged beers talk by Stuart Cail (Harviestoun)

Stuart gave a great talk on the fine art of barrel aged beers. Given Harviestoun’s excellent reputation in this area (Old Engine, Ola Dubh, Engineer’s Reserve, all of which we got to sample), Stuart was the ideal host to guide us through the minutiae of this exacting and specialist aspect of craft brewing. Our live blog of Stuart’s talk is here.

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Pilsner Urquell Dinner

We were also treated to a very exciting dinner in the Edinburgh Council Chambers from Pilsner Urquell, who laid on several wooden casks of unfiltered pilsner for our delectation. Head brewer Vasclav hammered each cask himself, and poured foaming handled mugs of pilsner for all to wash down delicious meals of beef, salmon and dessert of strawberry shortbread. A grand meal in opulent settings, enhanced by the exquisite unfiltered lager.

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Stewart Brewing

The evening was capped off by a marvellous visit to Stewart Brewing, a forward thinking beer operation on the outskirts of Edinburgh, where bloggers were treated to collaboration beers between the brewery and Herriot and Watt students in the form of Natural Selection Brewing Co. The Darwin saison (featuring the Hop Beard Darwin logo as tattooed below) was bold and defined by its Belgian yeast. A favourite of several bloggers was the Radical Road Triple Hop IPA, which was absolutely bursting with clean, sharp, tropical fruit. As a growing brewer, it was great to be able to see the various stages of Stewart Brewing’s development, and the different brewing equipment they have used and evolved with. A great night had by all.

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Read the highlights of EBBC Day 2 here.

Buy the shares, take the ride – the BrewDog Punk AGM 2013

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When you invest money, time or effort in something, you expect a return equal to or greater than what you put in. A major criticism of BrewDog’s Equity for Punks shareholder scheme has been that it is not a traditional model where dividends are distributed and shares traded. Some say that BrewDog are taking advantage of their fans’ passion and excitement and taxing them for it. Others might say that what BrewDog do best is bottle the excitement of the people who are passionate about their beer, and use that excitement to create even more of it. Where you stand on this issue depends on how feel about BrewDog as a company, not just a brewer. Their yearly Punk AGMs are becoming an excellent gauge by which to measure not only their success, but their attitude.

Last year’s Punk AGM held at the Aberdeen Exhibition and Conference Centre (AECC) was a riotous, beer-soaked but ultimately flawed event. Where some things, like the beer, music and people, were absolutely spot-on, there were unacceptable organisational errors that threatened to mar the whole experience. This year, attendees from last year’s event would be examining everything closely. The same mistakes would not be tolerated.

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Thankfully, this year’s Punk AGM was undoubtedly a marked improvement in every way. A larger space was used, allowing for a more visible divide in the event’s juxtaposition of beer festival and music festival. A large seated area with a bigger stage was in use in addition to the space used in the AECC last year, and there more tables and chairs in general, allowing for a slightly more relaxed pace early on. A key improvement was the AGM shop. Last year, it brought out the worst in everyone. Poorly managed, understaffed, and no queueing system at all. Imagine the worst nightclub bar you’ve ever queued at. Seven deep at the bar, a handful of staff, and everyone with a long order to place. This year, it was a remarkably well-organised and simple affair. An actual roped-off queuing area, a division of counters to order merchandise and beer from (but only needing to queue once for both), and more staff made the experience a breeze.

The bars were also well-staffed and featured a frequently-changing menu of beers from BrewDog, Anchor, Brodies and Mikkeller. Anchor was woefully underepresented here, but the selection from the other breweries was impressive and varied. The palpable excitement that crackled around the venue as a new beer came on made for a great atmosphere. Stand-out beers included Mikkeller’s Green Gold IPA, Brodies Romanov Empress Stout, and a true innovation: BrewDog’s Hopinator. The Hopinator is effectively a way of infusing an extra dose of hops (or coffee, or cocoa beans, spices etc) on the bar itself at the point of serve. The IPA is Dead Goldings single hop IPA was ‘hopinated’ at dispense with Chinook, and later with Amarillo, both combinations creating sensationally aromatic and delicious IPAs out of the somewhat awkward and unbalanced original beer. Alice Porter also went through it, and at the Aberdeen bar the next day, Cocoa Psycho was put through a Hopinator loaded with Sumatran Coffee. It was incredible. Look out for a Hopinator in your local BrewDog bar soon.

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Another big improvement was engagement with shareholders, from people in BrewDog and other breweries too. Two brewers from Mikkeller attended, and hung out at the bar chatting to anyone who wanted to talk hops. Brewers from BrewDog were naturally also present (in penguin and alligator costumes as I recall), as well as James Watt and Martin Dickie themselves. Martin in particular made a special effort to talk to as many people as he could, and you could see how excited people were to talk with him.

But what about the business? Wasn’t this some kind of AGM? Business was discussed, as you might expect, alongside videos of exploding mainstream lagers, dogs, fireworks and other such things. There were live tastings of the marvellous crowd-sourced recipe beer #Mashtag, an unfiltered version of Fake Lager, and the new IPA-spirit hybrid Watt Dickie. Meanwhile, we were given a sneak peek at Brew Dogs, the TV series James and Martin are making. If  it comes to these shores (it’s currently being made for the Esquire channel in the US), expect a sort of Top Gear (Top Beer?) style programme but with devil-horns hand signs and pornographic close-ups of hops. It will infuriate some, but enthrall others. I say it can only help to raise the profile of good beer and the people who make it.

The company as whole is still growing at a prodigious rate – and is now the fastest growing food and drink company in the UK. More bars are planned in Liverpool, Dundee and the US, and plans are already underway to expand the new brewery (more on that later). The was a recap of events good and bad in the past year, including the infamous Diageo award-fixing shenanigans (which might be the best thing to have happened to BrewDog). There are plans for off-sales bottle shops (Bottle Dog), starting in London, as well as a renewed effort to get the Hackney Brewing Academy underway. The Academy could well be the best thing BrewDog do, as it plays to their strengths: communication, education and enthusiasm.

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The evening’s local bands all had a similar, indie-rock vibe. The excellent Fatherson, who played last year, were the pick of the bunch. The other groups failed to generate the same full-on, festival atmosphere that the likes of Kassidy and BombSKAre achieved last year. Another improvement was the food selection. Instead of one ropey burger truck, a proper catering section was set up, with a variety of curries, pulled pork, burgers, and other hearty foods were served up, each of them a great combination with the powerfully-flavoured beers on tap. It was a fantastic day and night of beer, food and music, made all the better by shrewd organisational improvements.

The next day, shareholders and their guests were invited to the new brewery in Ellon. It’s a place that is so firmly ingrained in my mind from photos posted online that actually being there felt a little unreal. It’s a really exciting place, glittering with Instagrammable steel and graffiti, and full of people smiling and high-fiving each other. Like other aspects of the company, that sentence may have brought you out in hives. For others, myself included, it was a fantastic place that really gives you faith in the people that work at BrewDog.

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The tour group I was in was taken around the brewery by head brewer Stewart Bowman. Stewart, who looks like he has just stepped out of Skyrim, is a lovely, affable, friendly chap. His knowledge and enthusiasm is a real credit to the company, and if he wasn’t so busy making all that fantastic beer, he would be fantastic in a more public-facing role. We were taken through every stage of the brewing process, and were gleefully shown each part of the new brewhouse and every shiny new piece of kit. The key message was how the brewers are now able to do so much more with the new equipment, and most importantly, how much better they can make every pint of beer they make. Faults and inconsistencies with brews were openly acknowledged, and we would then be shown something that had been put in place to resolve it. More than anything, head brewer Stewart seemed, genuinely, visibly chuffed to be able to work in that brewery. He said at the end of the tour how grateful he was to the shareholders for giving him the opportunity to make more beer, and better beer, every working day.

From time to time, BrewDog make missteps with their marketing and the language they use. Sometimes, the repetitive messages lose their tongue-in-cheekness and come across as pretentious, or condescending. But James, Martin, and other people in the company occasionally say things in passing that should really be the brewery’s main message. “Investing your money in making beer better” for example, needs to slapped onto the front of every shares prospectus. This year’s AGM really brought that message home. It was good enough to see that they had learned from their mistakes last year, but to hear those words, meet these people, and be given the AGM that every shareholder thoroughly deserved, filled me with pride.

Buy the shares, take the ride. An investment in BrewDog isn’t just financial. It’s buying into a culture, an attitude, and a hope that beer can be incredible and bring out the best in people.

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Coming Soon: Camden Versus Odell

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Now here’s a thing for the style purists: a quite literal mash-up of Camden Hells Lager and Odell Cutthroat Porter into a 7% black monster. Black Lager Porter? Blagorter? Anyway, this hybrid madness was being brewed at Camden Town Brewery on Friday. I went down for the afternoon, and whatever it is they’re brewing, it smelled pretty amazing. Doug Odell himself was in the building, and might be the nicest brewer anyone has ever met. Some American craft brewers come across as suspiciously PR-slick or boisterously brash. Doug has the persona of a kindly uncle, happy to crack open a beer and talk shop with people he’s barely known five minutes.

Anyway, for those of you still trying to get your head around the Blagorter concept (and I include myself in that group), you can get a first taste of the finished beer at the end of June. After all, it is partly a lager, so it needs a good six weeks in tank to mature properly. Given how excellent both Odell and Camden’s beer are, I suspect that this will be something very special, and will sell out very quickly.

Speaking of special things in the pipeline, soon we will be able to enjoy Camden Town Brewery beer in cans. That’s right, more quality canned beer for the UK, which is great news. Mark Dredge was kind enough to do some tours of the brewery on Friday, showing off new bits and pieces, including a compact canning line. Camden Hells in cans will hopefully be a reality by June, with USA Hells also in the running for being canned. I think the Camden branding will look fantastic on a can, and I’m thirsty just thinking about the prospect of a summer involving cans of USA Hells…

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Back in the brewery bar, there was even more excellent beer available than usual. Odell IPA, Lugene milk chocolate stout, Myrcenary Double IPA, 5 Barrel Pale Ale and more besides were in the fridges, whilst a keg of Odell’s Friek sour was put on tap against Camden’s own King Crimson. Friek is a sensational wild ale that is both raspberry tart and strawberry sweet. King Crimson meanwhile had a sublime, wine-like texture, and a rich, smooth body of red fruit and sourness that made it far easier to drink than it had any right to be.

After ordering another mind-bendingly delicious Boss Hogg from the Dogfather stand outside (I don’t have a problem, okay?), I thought it would be rude not to try a couple of other Odell beers. The Five Barrel Pale Ale washed the hot dog down nicely, working almost like liquid Turkish Delight to sooth the heat and enhance the sweetness of relish and spice. After that, the exquisite Myrcenary IPA, named for its recipe designed to include the highest amounts of bitterness compound Myrcene, cleansed my palate with its indulgent, oily-slick combination of pine and pith. It also has a fantastic label – one of my all-time favourites – depicting some kind of Olde Timey hop robber making his getaway on a motorcycle with sidecar.

I also got some bottles to take home: a bottle of the Lugene milk chocolate stout and the tasty-looking Red Ale. And, naturally, I filled my Gentleman’s Beer Conveyance with USA Hells. I’ll put up reviews of those bottled beers later in the week.

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Fuller’s Griffin Brewery Tour

Fuller's Griffin Brewery
Fuller’s Griffin Brewery

I was kindly invited by Adam Driver at Fuller’s to pay a visit on Monday, and was treated to a full tour of the Griffin Brewery in Chiswick. It was the day before my birthday, and I couldn’t think of a better way to spend it. Despite the efforts of a smattering of frozen water crystals (or ‘SNOW CHAOS’ as it is known on Fleet Street), I made it to Chiswick in good time, and enjoyed a swift half of Jack Frost at the Mawson Arms pub attached to the brewery. Jack Frost is Fuller’s winter seasonal ale, and uses Crystal malt and blackberry essence to deliver a sweet, nourishing warmth. It was just what I needed to warm my bones after a cold journey.

Old equipment is still a (non-functioning) part of the Griffin Brewery.
Old equipment is still a (non-functioning) part of the Griffin Brewery.

At 12pm the gathered tour-goers were met by Alison, one of Fuller’s excellent tour guides. In traditional brewery tour style, we were shown the brewing process from start to finish. Other brewery tours I’ve done have been at microbreweries, so it was interesting and different to explore a much larger brewery (over 20 tonnes of malt is used every brew day at Fuller’s, and each of the massive boiling coppers can hold 90,000 pints). Even more interesting was how the brewery has visibly expanded over time. Rather than being a massive, purpose-built facility, the Griffin Brewery is rather like London itself in the way it has filled out, expanded, filled out again and so on. Every available area of space has a mash tun, copper or two fermenting vessels stacked into it. The 31 FVs are layered in an enormous beer-tastic Rubik’s cube formation that you get to walk through and in-between.

60% of Fuller's beers are sold in cask, the remaining 40% in kegs or bottles.
60% of Fuller’s beers are sold in cask, the remaining 40% in kegs or bottles.

All bottling, kegging and casking of Fuller’s beers is done at the Griffin Brewery, so aside from seeing the equipment used in the actual brewing process, we also got to see the packaging lines. The kegging line in particular was a treat, because there was a massive robotic arm called Les lifting three kegs at a time. Les was apparently a former Chief Engineer. I meant to ask if he actually became Les the robot in some kind of Robocop-style incident but I forgot. Other anthropomorphised pieces of equipment include coppers called Big Brian, Dave and Little Brian.

Local robot Les, hard at work on the kegging line.
Local robot Les, hard at work on the kegging line.

The tour itself lasts a good hour, and is topped off with a visit to the Hock Cellar for a few samples of Fuller’s beers. At the time of my visit, there were also a few beers from Gale’s (who were recently taken over by Fuller’s). I tried London Pride, Chiswick Bitter, Gale’s HSB and Bengal Lancer, and each had that extra special brewery-fresh taste. The Hock Cellar is chock full of brewery and beer-related antiquities, and you can easily spend another half an hour wandering around and pointing at things.

Phwoar etc.
Phwoar etc.

And what trip to a brewery would be complete without a trip to the Brewery Shop? I couldn’t resist a big, bulbous, brandy-snifter-esque Fuller’s Vintage glass, and was kindly gifted bottles of the 2005 Vintage, Past Master’s Double Stout and Past Master’s Burton Extra, which I will review soon for Rum and Reviews.

The Hock Cellar is a treasure trove of brewery artifacts and has its own bar.
The Hock Cellar is a treasure trove of brewery artifacts and has its own bar.

A tour of the Fuller’s Griffin Brewery normally costs a very reasonable £10 (or £12 on the day) per person. Fuller’s Fine Ale Club members only pay £8. More details can be found here. Have you done the Fuller’s brewery tour? What did you think? What’s the best brewery tour you have been on, and what makes a good one?

St Austell Brewery and the Celtic Beer Festival 2012

The Celtic Beer Festival’s Top Bar in full swing.
There is a firm connection in my mind between beer and rain. Why? It’s hard to say. It may be something as subconscious as the association with water. It could be more abstract; that these are two things the British are world-beaters at. I think it’s most likely to be memory association. There have been many occasions when, in pouring rain, I have sought sanctuary in a pub. Watching the rain bucket it down whilst sat in the cosy warmth of the pub with a pint is a memory almost all of us can recall if asked.
My time in Cornwall last weekend provided ample opportunities for this. We may moan a lot about the weather, but it is with perfectly good reason. As I write, the South West of England is still, literally, awash with reports of floods and torrential rain. The effect on the roads, public transport and the rail networks has been predictably nightmarish, despite it seeming to occur on a yearly basis now. It was here that I came a cropper.
I was visiting St Austell Brewery with the British Guild of Beer Writers, with the chance to tour the brewery with Head Brewer Roger Ryman and attend the Celtic Beer Festival at the Brewery the next day. Due to all manner of boring travel-related nonsense that is not worth describing, I missed the brewery tour and was in a rather sour mood by the time I got to our hotel in Truro. However, there was still a marvellous beer and food dinner to be enjoyed at the Pandora Inn that evening, where I got to meet and chat with two of the lads (Rob Orton and Adam Lumb) from St Austell’s microbrewery plant. As so many brewers are doing now, St Austell are using a sort of pilot testing plant to brew one-off beers with the intention of finding long-term new core beers. The menu that evening matched five new beers from the microbrewery with five courses of local cuisine. The Ruby Jack Rye – a stunningly rich, smooth and well-conditioned red rye ale – was my personal favourite. Others, like the Smoking Barrel Rauchbier and Bad Habit Abbey Style Tripel, were also excellent.
The excellent Beer and Food matching menu at the Pandora Inn on Friday night.
The 14th annual Celtic Beer Festival took place the next day, and was held in the cavernous cellars and tunnels that form what were the old storerooms. Over 150 beers were on offer and more than 30 of those were from St Austell itself, including beers that the microbrewery have been working on. Whilst wishing to avoid that particular cliché about arranging drinking occasions within brewing premises, I can categorically state that St Austell run an absolute belter of a beer festival. The atmosphere, with a noticeably younger crowd than many beer festivals I’ve been to, was as lively and occasionally as rowdy as any night out. Several levels of storerooms made for low-ceilinged, noisy drinking halls, and one had a stage with live bands playing. Everyone I saw that day had a smile on their face. The atmosphere was amazing, and all the more remarkable considering the amount of time that many people had been waiting outside in the rain for over an hour to get in.
The Bottom Bar was constantly packed with people enjoying live music and good beer.
More importantly, there is the matter of the beer available. I had been expecting a mix of Cornish, Welsh and Scottish beers, but the selection was far wider. Obscure American imports such as SKA brewing Pinstripe Red, Sierra Nevada Kolsch and Stone Levitation IPA were available alongside tamer fare like the brewery’s own Tribute, Proper Job and Trelawny. All the beer I tasted, no matter its origin, tasted fresh and excellently kept. It really is some of the best beer I’ve tasted at a beer festival, and it was a wide variety of cask and keg. I will share my short, festival-friendly (read ‘scribbled on programme’) reviews in next week’s Rum and Reviews Magazine, though I will give special mention at this point to Bodmin’s own Harbour Brewing Co and their delectably decadent Chocolate Stout. Easily the equal of Brooklyn’s Black Chocolate Stout in terms of flavour, this 9% beast is so light-footed you could swear it was half the strength. The rich, indulgent chocolate flavour is reassuring evidence of a large amount of highest-quality chocolate malt. It really is sensational. St Austell’s range of Abbey-style beers, including the aforementioned Bad Habit, are also fantastic.
Finally, I would like to pay tribute (oh, come on) to Head Brewer Roger Ryman himself. When he wasn’t serving behind one of the festival’s many bars downstairs, he would be upstairs, happily having his ear chewed off by bloggers and fans of the brewery all day long. Cheers to Roger and the brewery for organising such a fantastic beer festival.