Beer By The River

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Left: Lavender Hill honey beer, Right: Battersea Rye.

It’s funny to think of Sambrook’s as an old timer in the ‘new’ London brewing scene, but that’s pretty much what it’s become. Now at the ripe old age of five, it’s spent most of that time quietly claiming the handpulls and hearts of south London, with beers like Wandle and Junction. These stalwart beers (not unlikeable, but perhaps hard to think of as special) have been joined by the likes of Pumphouse Pale Ale and Powerhouse Porter, both acclaimed examples of their respective styles.

On Saturday I was kindly invited by Jo at Sambrook’s to their fifth birthday celebration. ‘Beer By The River’ was a joint venture with the National Trust, held at Morden Hall Park by the river Wandle. A fitting location, yet sadly hampered by damp and drizzly weather that had people hiding in the beer tents for most of the afternoon. The setting was a walled-off part of the park, with a stage provided by the Artful Badger, showing excellently named folk and indie acts such as Toyface and The Hallouminati. Two beer tents were separated by a line of food vendors: Ginger Pig, Dessert Deli and Fish Club. There was also face painting and a few ducks, chicks, rabbits from Deen City Farm (for the benefit of families attending the afternoon session – no adults were quaffing ale with their face painted like a tiger, sadly). The only thing missing was a view of the Wandle itself, which was disappointingly obscured by a brick wall.

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Folie Ordinaire performing on the Artful Badger stage.

Naturally, my main focus was the beer on offer, which you got two 1/2 pint tokens for on arrival. I was pleased to see a couple of Sambrook’s beers I hadn’t tried before: Lavender Hill braggart (honey beer) and Battersea Rye, a seasonal special for autumn. The Rye in particular was lovely: the pepperiness balanced with earthy British hop bitterness and a very indulgent palate of crystal and chocolate malt. It was by no means a Sambrook’s-only festival though. Gadd’s, Five Points, London Brewing Co and Tap East all had cask beers served on gravity behind the bar. My favourites of the day were the three beers from Tap East: Niwot India Red Ale, Smokestack Porter and their outstanding American Pale Ale. Their beers absolutely shone all day long, unlike that pesky sun slacking off behind the clouds. For a ‘small’ range of beers, it was incredibly varied in terms of styles, strengths and flavours.

The food selection was quite varied too, with plenty on offer for meat eaters, but perhaps a bit limited for vegetarians. Having said that, the beer battered halloumi from Fishclub was apparently very good indeed. I plumped for a very enjoyable box of fish and chips (line caught haddock and twice cooked chips, dontcha know, though one nearby Chip Wanker remarked he could taste that they had ‘only been cooked once’). That cost £9.50, though in real terms it was only £4.50 since the entry ticket also gets you a £5 food voucher. The fish and chips went down very nicely with a glass of Five Points Pale Ale, which, whilst seeming a little flat served by gravity, still had an incredible tropical fruit aroma.

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For most of the afternoon, the event was quiet, with sixty or so people plodding about the muddy field. It was a shame, because if the weather had been as willing as the Northern Line (spectacularly free of engineering works for once) it could have had a great atmosphere all day. Originally, the event was set to run as two sessions – 12pm-5pm and 6pm-11pm – but due to the decreased turnout, they instead ran them together. It was a shrewd decision, and the place really came alive just after 6, when the long-haulers decided to stay for ‘just one more’ as a fresh crowd arrived. It was around this time that I decided to cash in my voucher for a 1/3 pint of Sambrook’s 5th birthday celebration beer: their new No 5 Barley Wine. This 8.2% warmer was an impressively (and dangerously) drinkable beer, with banana, malt loaf and sherry notes ending in a curiously dry and moreish finish. Keep your eyes peeled for a bottled version.

I was glad that we stayed late, if only to see the event get the numbers it deserved. I think the ticket cost of 17 quid was a little over the odds for what was there on the day, but if it had been blessed with the glorious sunshine of a week or so earlier, I’m sure people would have paid hand over fist to sit there all afternoon with beer and music. As it was, having several excellent beers and some good food just about took the edge off spending the day in a damp field. I don’t wish to sound harsh though, because I had a lovely day, and look forward to more events like this in the future. Maybe a little bit closer to that lovely river next time…

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Great Beer Festivals: GBBF vs LCBF

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In the blue corner: GBBF…

It’s taken me a while to write this post. It has a lot to do with a lack of spare time, but when I have had time, I’ve still struggled with it. I’ve rewritten this post several times over the past week or so, never happy with what I’ve said or the conclusions that I’ve reached. I think it’s actually the pursuit of a conclusion, the need to have something to say and not just report the things I saw/tasted, that has hampered me.

I wanted to directly compare the Great British Beer Festival and the London Craft Beer Festival. The scheduling overlap of putting LCBF right on the closing weekend of GBBF makes it clear: this was what the organisers of the LCBF wanted us all to do. Compare. Contrast. I even saw people on Twitter two weeks earlier asking whether people would pick one, or both. Whilst there was nothing as tangible as an actual competition or rivalry between GBBF and LCBF, there should definitely have been closer examination of what these two festivals represent in the modern beer landscape. At least, that’s what I thought at the time.

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… and in the red corner: LCBF.

The truth is that they can’t be directly compared. With GBBF, we have a firmly established behemoth of the British beer scene, stocking over 800 beers in the enormous and beautifully lit surroundings of Olympia. LCBF is a far trendier, tight-jeaned urban animal, nestling in Hackney’s suntrap/gig venue that is Oval Space.

Comparing attendance figures would be like comparing those of Premier League and Conference football matches, and sheer size is not really the point of a beer festival. It’s the experience and the beer that we actually drink, not see, that we measure beer festivals by. My experiences and the beers I tasted were so vastly different that, again, they defy comparison.

Standard perspective shot of some pumps taken at a just-the-beer-takes-over angle.
Standard perspective shot of some pumps taken at a just-as-the-beer-takes-over angle.

At GBBF’s trade session on Tuesday, I bumped into CAMRGB’s Simon Williams. We were stood by the Bieres Sans Frontieres Bottle Bar (AKA The Globe), which I had sought out expecting to find people I knew there. But the USA cask bar, The Spirit of Enterprise, was on neither side of The Globe, as normal. “I’m looking for my friends, you know, all the Craft Wankers,” I explained to Simon, who pointed me to the other hall, where the USA cask bar was located. Off I went, and indeed I found a veritable Growler of high-quality Craft Wankers propping the place up. My girlfriend remarked “Oh my God, he was right!” There was even a chap with the names of four varieties of wild-fermenting bacteria on his t-shirt. Seriously.

I eventually met with several fine people, and drank a great deal of good beer. But given the hype, the excitement, the brewers and the beers themselves present, few were better than just ‘good’. It almost seemed a cruel joke in a way, that the hugely popular bar of American imported draught beers were a) on cask, and b) all right but rarely incredible. Many remarked that they needed to be served  by keg or bottle to be at their best. Craft wankery? Perhaps. But it was hard to deny the truth in it. There was also the occasional bit of GBBF Weirdness (see below).

The juxtaposition of a Cornish wrestler dressed as Betty Stogs and a hot dog vendor's sign saying 'TRY MY TWENTY INCHER' was almost too much for this correspondent.
The juxtaposition of a Cornish wrestler dressed as Betty Stogs and a hot dog vendor’s sign saying ‘TRY MY TWENTY INCHER’ was almost too much for this correspondent.

On Saturday, the chaotic, barrel-scraping end to GBBF was in full swing by the time I got there. Maybe 60-70% of the beers on most bars had gone, so it was a case of plumping for whatever was selling and looking good. I had a couple of so-so golden ales, then came across a few delights. My focus on Saturday was on British beer. I’d stuck mainly to the USA cask, Belgian/Italian cask and BSF bottle bar on Tuesday, and felt that I ought to  seek the very best British beer I could find. I was hoping to replicate my moment of elation at last year’s GBBF after trying Oakham Green Devil for the first time. I couldn’t find a beer to match it this year, but I came close a few times.

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How many things can you hang above a terrace? Quite a blummin’ lot, mate.

At LCBF meanwhile, I expected a similar situation on a larger scale. Again, I went on a trade/press session, this time on Friday afternoon. Instead, I found that the crowd was more varied than I might expect. Sure, there were a lot of Hackney People, who work in Those Sorts Of Shops and have friends who laugh Very, Very Loudly, but for the most part it was a very relaxed, eclectic crowd. Trade sessions, however, are not always the true litmus test of these things I suppose. I spent most of my time up on the shady terrace, chatting with nice beer people, drinking increasingly excellent beer and feeling far more relaxed than at GBBF. The other outside area, a long sunny balcony, had a slightly too oppressive view for my mood.

Who controls the craft controls the universe.
Who controls the craft controls the universe.

LCBF’s large indoor space was covered on three sides with bars, with beers from Five Points, De Molen, Weird Beard, Beavertown, Magic Rock, Kernel, BrewDog, Alpha State, Partizan, Brodies, Siren, Redemption and more, all served from keg. The conditioning, temperature and quality of all the beers I tasted on Friday was impeccable. Easily the most consistently good quality dispense I’ve experienced at any beer festival in fact. I’ve been served cask beers in better nick on occasion, but far, far more rarely than I would like. Siren’s Limoncello IPA was on top form, as was Partizan’s Camomile Saison and Magic Rock’s Lime Salty Kiss. Each beer I had at LCBF was an absolute delight.

GBBF’s dispense quality varied from bar to bar, beer to beer, but overall was still very impressive. The occasional dud was normally offset by something quite sublime. It was great to taste the Malt Shovel Mild, brewed by Fernandes in Wakefield. Aside from it being a really great mild, I have fond memories of drinking in their brewery tap (the fittingly named Brewery Tap) back in my student days. There was some great weissbiers being served on the German and Czech draught bar, especially the Josef Greif (for which I was given grief for pronouncing it grief when it should be said grife). Though, if I had one regret from Saturday at GBBF, it would be not spending more time at the SIBA bar, where I had a magnificent specimen of Kirkstall Dissolution IPA.

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So, if I can’t compare the two beer festivals directly, and I had a great time at both, what can I say that’s worth saying?

For starters, both festivals are a measure of the health of the beer scene. Whilst we are starting to hear of closures of newer breweries, indicating an imminent plateau, there is also a steady increase in the number of beer festivals that aren’t organised by CAMRA. These may be run by people who just want to make money, they may be run by people who simply want to be the best at it (Craft Beer Rising are probably leading that particular pack). The most important thing is not just that the current beer ‘scene’ in London, such as it is, can  sustain two vastly different beer festivals, but that they can be happily attended by the same people.

It might not be an earth-shattering conclusion, but it’s the only one I can really get behind. We have a vibrant culture of beer that is creating  excellent events and encouraging the brewing of even more excellent beer. So let’s all enjoy it while it’s here.

#EBBC13 – What did we learn?

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Attending the European Beer Bloggers Conference this year filled me with excellent beer and information. Well, mostly beer.

As covered in my past posts and on the unofficial Live Blog, it was a wide-ranging event that covered a lot of topics, each resulting in a lot of discussion. As bloggers and beer drinkers, what did we learn from this raucous, information-packed weekend of beer?

I learned that:

  • Edinburgh has interesting and unusual beer taps. Whether they’re the tall, brass examples with horizontally-twisting tap handles, shining chrome arrays of sleek modern taps, or wooden handpulls carved into the shape of bats, this city has some excellent species of beer dispense.
  • We must learn to laugh at ourselves, or everyone else will. “Was this contract brewed? I think I can smell the contract…”
  • “Beer is people.” Not tanks or pipes or ingredients, but the people who make it.
  • Garrett Oliver once took The Ramones bowling. Wow.
  • The people at Stewart Brewing are Good People… who will let you wander around their brewery, manhandle sacks of hops, and shove your face into open fermenting vessels. They even collaborate with Herriot & Watt brewing graduates.
  • Garrett Oliver’s hat is almost as much of a star as he is.
  • In America, there are some crazy new laws about blogging, meaning compulsory disclosures of anything you have been gifted, or you may end up in court!
  • Nobody could agree on the best beer and food matches, and after lengthy discussion, we decided that nobody necessarily should agree, either. The job of Beer Sommeliers, Cicerones, or whatever we choose to become, should be to guide, not instruct.
  • There’s a shortage of wood to age beer in. Beer could change to reflect that, too. If the amount of aged whisky barrels runs out, we could see new beer styles being used for less used barrels like wine, tequila or cognac.
  • We should think about whether we write what we want to write, or what our audience want to read.
  • You should always have a face that people can click on. At least, if you want your articles to more read if they appear in Google searches.
  • BrewDog have social media nailed down to the ground, and we can all use it to our advantage.
  • We are divided in our motives. Whilst some wish to make a living from their writing, others are perfectly happy to blog for the love of blogging. In Europe at least, we are still mainly what the US would call ‘citizen beer bloggers’.
  • A beer aged in a 40 year old sherry cask that last contained a 30 year old Highland Park whisky tastes as good as you’d think it would, especially when its made by Harviestoun.
  • Fraoch is best enjoyed with haggis. The floral, spicy notes of the heather ale blend so neatly and excitingly with the richly seasoned, savoury flavour of haggis that you will swear they were made for each other.
  • Finally, there is a bright, shiny future full of people writing excellent things about excellent beer.

What things did you learn from EBBC13?

#EBBC13 – Day 2 Highlights

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Read the highlights of EBBC Day 1 here.

The second day of the European Beer Bloggers Conference 2013 had a packed agenda, and featured really useful and insightful talks from some of the leading lights of beer writing. There was also the extremely exciting Live Beer Blogging event, which saw some incredible beers being poured. Below is a recap of what happened with some photos from the various sessions. As ever, you can read the in-depth coverage of EBBC13 on the Live Blog written by Sam Parker and I, built by John Read.

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Beer Blogging Around the Globe

The day opened with a panel of beer bloggers from Ireland, Poland, Norway and the USA discussing the challenges of beer blogging in their respective countries. There was really interesting explanations of the various legal difficulties that have recently cropped up in the US, such as disclosing whether samples were sent to you by breweries. This was met with what Craig Heap described as a ‘very British, quiet outrage’. Meanwhile, in Norway, brewers aren’t even allowed to use promotional images on their websites! There was an overall positive feeling to the discussion, as each panellist set out what they were most looking forward to in the future. I covered the panel’s discussion on the live blog here.

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Drinks Writing – When Every Word Counts

Susanna Forbes of DrinkBritain.com gave us some in-depth and detailed advice on improving our writing and our blogs’ effectiveness. There was really great information here, and I understand that Susannah’s presentation will be uploaded to the EBBC website for us all to enjoy. Sam covered Susannah’s talk in detail here on the live blog.

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BrewDog does Social Media

BrewDog’s in-house social media and marketing specialist Sarah Warman, formerly of agency Manifest, gave a really insightful and useful talk on the effective use of social media. We saw BrewDog’s strategy and the social media platforms they use, and Sarah was very good at identifying what works for BrewDog, and what might work for bloggers like us. Some of us even signed up to new platforms there and then! Read my live blog of Sarah’s presentation here.

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Becoming a Beer Sommelier

Beer Sommelier Sophie Atherton (whose blog is A FemAle View) hosted a double-edged talk, first discussing what a Beer Sommelier is and how it has benefited her career, and secondly hosting a beer and food matching event. There was a simple yet wonderful selection of charcuterie and cheeses provided by Vintage in Leith, and we were encouraged to find the best beer matches ourselves. The beers were the crisp and fruity Sixpenny IPA, Fuller’s classy Black Cab stout, and a slightly lifeless mini-cask of Adnams Broadside. Many noted that it was hard to find ‘excellent’ matches. However, a really interesting discussion then ensued about how all of our many different opinions prove the subjective nature of food and beer matching. Sam Parker covered the session on the live blog here.

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Live Beer Blogging

Beers from Traquair, Shepherd Neame, Inveralmond, West, Ilkley, Badger, Harviestoun, Innis & Gunn and Birra Toccalmatto were tasted, with bloggers posting and sharing their thoughts live. Sam Parker and I used our live blog to share our thoughts in real time. See the results here.

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Ilkley’s The Mayan (as modelled by Leigh Linley)

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Inveralmond Blackfriar

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Traquair Jacobite Ale

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Badger Roaming Roy Dog

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Harviestoun Ola Dubh 30th Anniversary edition (in 40 year old whisky cask, last containing 30 year old Highland Park)

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Toccalmatto Surfing Hop

Dinner provided by Williams Bros and Fyne Ales

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 Arguably the highlight of the weekend, the final dinner saw Williams Brothers and Fyne Ales go head-to-head at a sumptuous beer and food banquet. This was a non-stop delight. The starte of haggis, neeps and tatties was served with a whisky and peppercorn sauce, with matched sensationally with Williams’ Fraoch Pictish heather ale. The spicyness in both the beer and food met halfway, bridging the savoury haggis, sweet suede and potato with the soft, rounded herbal flavours in the beer. The Sanda Blonde from Fyne was too bright and citrusy to match this meal, but it did serve quite nicely as a palate cleanser or, as Gavin Frost put it, an amuse-bouche.

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The main course was double-whammy of chicken stuffed with black pudding, alongside sea bass and a sweet potato fondant. I wasn’t sure what the sauce was that came with this meal, but it was wonderfully savoury. The chicken was a little dry, but the sea bass was delicious, and went incredibly well with Fyne Ales crisp, hoppy, citric and sweet golden ale Jarl. Williams’ Citra Sitka was also served with the main course, but went best with the sweet potato fondant, where the sweetness in each boosted and the enhanced each other.

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Last but not least, for dessert we were served a traditional Scottish Cranachan, which was basically half a pint of clotted cream with raspberries, heather honey and whisky. Ours didn’t seem to have much of whisky character to it, but there was TONNES of cream, which is good if you like cream. The shortbread biscuits tasted a bit cheap, but it was overall a very indulgent dessert. For this we were served Stravaigin, a collaboration brewed saison/blonde ale from Williams and Stillwater, and Fyne Ales Superior IPA. The Stravaigin was a nice match, cutting through the cream and enhancing the fruitier aspects of the dessert. The Superior IPA didn’t really match at all, being way to overpoweringly hopped. It was just fine on its own as an after-dinner aperitif. As a competition, I think it was a score draw between Williams and Fyne. A great evening.

Afterwards, many bloggers headed back out into Edinburgh, and found themselves in the favourite venue of the weekend – the Hanging Bat (also now known as the Banging Hat). It’s a fantastic bar that any beer (or indeed gin) geek should visit. It was unseasonably hot in there, but I think all who visited the Hanging Bat would agree it captures Edinburgh beer-loving, party-hard spirit perfectly.

Cheers!

Next time in The Beer Diary – What did EBBC13 all mean, and what did we learn about the future of beer blogging in the UK and Europe?

#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.

European Beer Bloggers Conference 2013

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Just a brief post to say I’ll be at the European Beer Bloggers Conference in Edinburgh from tomorrow until Sunday.

This year’s EBBC will be my first, and I’m really looking forward to the variety of beers, breweries, people and events that will be at this year’s conference.

If you’re attending, drop me a tweet at @cshallwriter and @TheBeerDiary and say hello. If not, I’ll be posting updates on my blog and Twitter about all the interesting goings on.

I’ll also be testing out a new Live Blogging platform over the course of the conference, cooked up by John Read of Pint at Night. You can check it out by visiting http://ebbc13.pintatnight.com, which will hopefully have a few live blogs from myself and Sam Parker, aka Lord of The Beers. If technological gremlins scupper the entire endeavour, then it (probably) wasn’t my fault.

Cheers!

Urban Sessions – This Year’s Feel Good Hit of the Summer

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It was one of those blistering, unbeatable weekends of sun. Weather that we can expect to continue for a while. Weather that demands you search for a beer. Not just any beer. Only the best will do.

What do you do?

Get out to Hackney Wick. Take a cool Overground train (when it bothers to show up) out east and emerge onto the baking hot platform like you’ve just landed in Spain. Wander up a road for five minutes. Spy a sinister, 1930’s public baths bleached pale grey by the sun. Beer Here, says a sign. Dive in.

This is Urban Sessions. It’s a project that has transformed what is for all intents and purposes a community centre into a circus of beer, music, people and fun. Wandering, sunblind, into a suddenly dark space, I find myself tripping down stairs and emerging into a school-gym-sized space ringed with taps, kegs and casks. Scaffolding, bits of amusement park rides and Captain Pugwash adorn the few spaces not taken up with beer. Chalkboards proclaim magic words, booze and brewery names. Then, just like magic, some nice man appears and guides you to glass of cold beer: Magic Rock Simpleton, the 2.6% abv solution to a problem I only just realised I had.

A few gulps of this zesty, lightweight yet full-flavoured elixir and I can see properly again. ‘Oh look,’ I think, peering to one side of the room. ‘Belgium. And over there, the USA. And, Italy?’ This is no by-the-book selection of beers on offer, and rightly so, given that Melissa Cole is Urban Sessions ‘Benevolent Beer Dictator’. A constantly changing selection of 500 beverages will grace the bars at Urban Sessions over its three-month residency, with rotating range of 60 beers available at any one time. Over the summer, there will be live brewing sessions, meet the brewer events, live gigs and more. Considering this was the soft launch (plenty was still being constructed, but the majestic frame and skeleton of this wonderful beast was quite clearly in place), there was still an Untappd-busting range of beers on tap.

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Highlights included Flying Dog’s 4.2% and perfectly titled Easy IPA, Birra Toccalmatto’s super fresh and super juicy Re Hop pale ale, Weird Beard & Elusive’s Nelson Sauvin Saison, and Magic Rock’s new, pink grapefruit version of Salty Kiss, which is an absolute showstopper: sweet, sour, crisp, bitter, but grapefruit through and through. A summer blockbuster that demands another performance. But there’s tonnes more beer to try, and excellent staff to introduce you to them all. Credit must go to Melissa for getting these recruits whipped into shape. Everyone I spoke to was bright, knowledgeable, friendly and falling over themselves to get me tasters of anything.

If the indoor space impresses you, you’ll be blown away by the enormous outdoor area. Fields of seating, sand from all of your best holiday memories and soon, lots of belly-filling street food slingers to keep that beer company. As it was, there were some great people to drink with, names from Twitter that I’ve finally put handshakes to, and the happy, tipsy chatter of a group of people having a week’s worth of great beer and sunshine in one afternoon. A personal highlight was Norwich’s own Nate Southwood demanding that Stone ‘brew some shorts’. Every man can dream.

Urban Sessions is not just another place where there’s beer, food, music and people. Even in its incomplete state, Urban Sessions felt like something made with love, like the kind of place we all talk about opening in our rose-tinted bar-opening fantasies. Beer of all kinds to satisfy anyone, and if that isn’t enough, loads of high quality cider, spirits and cocktails too. Urban Sessions launches properly on Thursday 11th July, and from what I’ve seen, it’s set to take to be the most talked-about beer event in London this summer. I’ll see you there.

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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Craft Beer Rising at Whole Foods Market

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The traditional Beer Festival Season is now well and truly upon us. Part of the trend of new ‘craft beer’ oriented events is their desire to do things differently, and be in different places than other beer festivals. The term ‘pop-up’ is often bandied about liberally, when people really mean ‘tent’ or ‘stall’. With respect to Craft Beer Rising, setting up a small pub in the window of Whole Foods in High Street Ken is more than just a stall. From the 7th to the 16th of June, this is exactly what they did. Again, they managed to get all the right people involved. Brewers as different at Harbour, Otley, Beavertown and Hogsback all had their beers stocked in the pop-up pub, with their beers matched to foods from the Whole Foods market at events from Monday to Friday last week. Each night, the brewers themselves would guide paying customers (at £20 a ticket) through six of their beers and foods matched to them by either Melissa Cole or Ben McFarland.

On Wednesday, I attended the evening hosted by Otley Brewing Co, a favourite Welsh brewer of mine who consistently turn out innovative, flavoursome but impressively balanced beers. Melissa Cole (who has brewed a collaboration beer with Otley, in the form of Thai-Bo) had made the beer and food matches, and talked the attendees (some of whom were in the industry, others enthusiasts, or complete novices) through the basics of beer, brewing and food matching. Nick and Lee from Otley were there to talk about the process of making each beer, and the whole event had a very intimate and friendly atmosphere, partly due to the slightly cramped confines of a pop-up pub (see photos).

We were greeted warmly on arrival and handed a glass of Croeso (O2), Otley’s US-hopped golden ale, fresh from the cask. It’s a deeply aromatic beer for its modest strength (4.2%), and was the winner in the Champion Beer of Wales/Golden Ales category last year. The tropical fruit nose converts neatly onto the palate, and makes for an extremely moreish beer, leagues ahead of other far blander golden ales. Whilst this wasn’t paired with anything per say, there was some crunchy, spicy corn on the tables to go with it. A bar snack basic, but still pleasant enough.

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Lined up on the (slightly wobbly) tables were several bottles of five other Otley beers. As we took our seats on cushion-topped metal casks, we were introduced to Nick and Lee, and Melissa introduced the beers one by one with each food accompaniment. First was O1, Otley’s original golden bitter. It was paired with some puff pastry cheese twists: a simple but extremely effective combination. O1 has a surprisingly zesty, lemon-and-orange-pith character to its straightforward sweet-then-bitter profile, which paired very nicely with the pastry to become liquid bread. The cheese was lifted neatly right off the palate, but its flavour remained. Classic and simple.

Next came O9 (formerly known as O-Garden, but has had its name changed after a polite request from you-know-who), which was just as sharp,  citrusy and spicy with cloves as I remember. This was paired with some fish and chips with tartar sauce. Aside from the expected batter-melting quality of the carbonation and clean, fruity finish to every bite, the O9 went quite splendidly with the tartar sauce, with its lemon tartness and spicy clove character adding new depths to the sauce.

Afterwards we had Oxymoron (O10), Otley’s rather aptly-named black IPA. Most black IPAs I’ve tasted are in the 6-7%, but Oxymoron is only 5.5%. However, it was Oxymoron that really hit home to me what Otley’s real strength is as a brewer: balance. All that roast, syrup, citrus and dryness is blended into what I can only describe as a sessionable and extremely balanced palate. If there was ever an accessible black IPA to introduce beer newbies to the style, this is it. Oxymoron was served with a selection of breads, charcuterie and small gherkins. Naturally, it work very nicely, cutting through oily and salty meat and adding smoky sweetness, binding with the bread and sweetening the gherkins.

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The penultimate beer of the night is my favourite Otley beer: their O6 Porter. The bottled version of the beer is not quite as good as it is on cask, but it’s still a rich, chocolatey, espresso-powered beast that, for its 6.6% abv, remains gulpable. This came with some mini-brownies topped with salted caramel. Naturally this enhanced the flavours in both things, but I might have preferred to see the O6 with a rich meat course to see how it faired.

Finally, we tasted Motley Brew, a 7.5% double IPA brewed in collaboration with Glyn Roberts aka Rabid Barfly. Again, for all its intense flavour and high strength, it’s a remarkably balanced beer that never overpowers any section of your palate. You never get bored of its assertive tropical fruit sweetness or dry, piney finish. You just keep enjoying it, over and over again. This was served with some delightfully named Ticklemore cheese and chilli focaccia bread. The cheese was mostly dry and chalky in the middle, but the beer made it sweeter, creamier and saltier, like injecting it with a super-soldier serum. It also went marvellously with the chilli bread, allowing the heat to tingle the taste buds before sweetening the bread and cleansing the palate.

It was a great night, and I’ve heard positive things about the other brewer evenings. Melissa did a great job of concisely conveying lots of information about the beers, brewing, food and anecdotes to an audience of mixed levels of knowledge, and both her and the Otley team fielded plenty of questions. My only criticism would be the size of the venue. Whilst it looked fantastic from the outside (if the glaring, jealous looks of passers by were anything to go by), it was just slightly too cramped and noisy inside. Having said that, it was a well-organised and fun evening of great beer and good food. I can’t really ask for much more than that.

Great Welsh Beer and Cider Festival 2013

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The Great Welsh Beer and Cider Festival (GWBCF), Cardiff’s annual celebration of all things great in Welsh beer and cider, is a very different beast to the Great British Beer Festival (GBBF). For one thing, it is far more staunchly patriotic. Only a handful of casks came from breweries outside Wales, and even then they were from breweries not far away (like Thornbridge). There was a foreign beer bar, yes, but a much smaller and more focused affair than at GBBF. Another difference was that the foreign beer bar was being run by a local beer retailer, Cardiff’s Bottle Shop, giving it more of a ‘friendly local bar’ kind of atmosphere.

That same atmosphere extended to the festival as a whole. The beer and cider was served from a single, large, U shape of bars, with tables and chairs on either side of the U and stalls scattered elsewhere, which just about conjured the impression of ‘Wales’ Biggest Pub’. The Motorpoint Arena is by no means a picturesque location, but it fulfilled its purpose admirably. Only on Friday night did the place start to feel overpopulated, and even then it created a lively buzz and atmosphere that it failed to recapture the following day, as the best beers ran dry.

One major disappointment was the glassware.  Whilst I appreciate glassware ramps up costs considerably, there was only one available: a half-pint glass with a rather crudely-drawn and distinctly alligator-like dragon on it. Fair enough, you don’t want to be drinking pints all day, but when many of the beers you try are either middling or high-strength, you don’t want to gulp down a whole half-pint of them either. An extra notch for a third measurement, or a multiple-notched pint glass (like at GBBF), would make a big difference, allowing people to drink a wider variety of beers, spend more time and more money in the process. My only other major gripe was the festival’s programme, which was a combination of vague, useless tasting notes (hoppy this, malty that), sad, mournful adverts and jarring references to death, global warming and the Nanny State (seriously). None of us expect a masterpiece, but it was strange enough to distract from the quality of the event overall.

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And what of the beer, anyway? Both my host Craig Heap and myself had hoped to find some unknown, soon-to-be-megastar from the smaller breweries; another Tiny Rebel. The truth was, few breweries could hold a torch to Wales’ new darling brewery, and those that did were old faces. Solid, innovative, yet dependable Otley, alongside Brains and its Craft Brewery range, as well as Celt Experience and Brecon had the biggest presence, and also the best beers on tap. My main highlights were Brains’ Craft Stars and Stripes, a zingy, crisp and zesty wheat beer with US hops; the rare (on cask) Otley O6 Porter, a classy and masterful balance of coffee and chocolate; and Tiny Rebel’s one-off barrel-aged beers, including the outrageously good Kentucky Whiskey cask Urban IPA and the decadent Grand Regal Stout aged in Morgan’s Spiced barrels.

Whilst it was disappointing not to come across great beers from smaller or newer breweries, the brewers of the beers mentioned above are clearly the powerful and exciting face of modern Welsh beer. Tiny Rebel took all three medals in the Champion Beer of Wales competition (with Dirty Stop Out, Fubar and Urban IPA), and arguably with good reason. I personally feel there is a fair amount of cheekiness (or rebelliousness you might say) in entering three different IPAs and a stout in four different categories, but they won fair and square. If CAMRA’s categories allow an IPA to win in the Barley Wine category, then so be it. (see EDIT below: Tiny Rebel’s beers were chosen, not entered)

Rhymney, Purple Moose, Brains, Bullmastiff, Facer’s and Breconshire also took category prizes (Brains’ Rev James perhaps being a surprise winner), but this year was Tiny Rebel’s for the taking. What will be really interesting is next year’s GWBCF. Will the booming Welsh beer scene sustain another new generation of brewers, inspired by the likes of Tiny Rebel? Will Brains Craft Brewery still be going, and what will they have made in another year’s time? Will anyone try (or dare) to open a rival T-shirt shop or jerky stand? I’m looking forward to finding out next year. To your very good health, Wales.

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EDIT: James B (@Jamesbwxm) has helpfully clarified that brewers do not submit their own beers for judging for the Champion Beer of Wales. In fact, he can only recollect one time when this has been the case (for the inaugural Champion Beer of North Wales this year). Finalists are selected from festival winners and tasting panels over the year.