London’s Brewing 2013

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Saturday was the first time I’ve seen doom-laden ‘Rolling News’ culture collide with beer culture. Twitter on the afternoon of 4th May was a boiling tide of beer lover’s anger. Increasingly frustrated reports were coming from London Fields Brewery, where London’s Brewing, the new beer festival from the London Brewers Alliance (LBA), was being held.

The queues, the people cried, the queues. For a while the event didn’t even open. When it did, and the queuing was over, it was reportedly even worse inside: packed bars where waiting times were said to be 30 minutes or more, and kegs hooked up to wrong taps. Above these alarming and basic errors was a weird sense of hopelessness, as though it wasn’t possible for things to improve and that it was a write-off. People left in droves and demanded refunds. I’ve never heard of anything like this happening at a beer festival.

So imagine me, looking at Twitter on Saturday, with tickets for the session on Sunday. I was a little worried. Assurances were made that a new, extra bar would help ease queuing, and that concerns had been listened to.

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I should make it clear that I had A Good Time at London’s Brewing on Sunday afternoon, and that all the beer I had was well-kept and in good condition. As such, I can only comment in detail on my experience on Sunday afternoon, not what happened in the other sessions. What follows is not a litany of complaints. That would be almost as boring as a 30 minute queue for a beer. What follows should hopefully be fair and constructive. We all want these events to be the best they can be, right?

If we are to accept that London – and the UK at large – is going through a Beer Renaissance, then it is the duty of those who care passionately about beer to call out anything that is simply not good enough. Whilst London’s Brewing had the right ingredients of Good Beer, Good Food, Good People and even, shockingly, Good Weather, it did not have Good Organisation.

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In a recent post about Craft Beer Rising in comparison to CAMRA beer festivals, I said how CAMRA-style festivals will always have their place alongside the more hipster-friendly, foodie events, large and small, that are taking place in increasing numbers. This point was made even more clear to me at London’s Brewing. Say what you will about CAMRA, but their organisational skills for beer festivals are unsurpassed. At London’s Brewing, so many basic things were missing: no prices per third/half/pint on the casks behind the bar, no ABVs on beer menus and price lists, and no indications in the programme of where any beer may or not be found across the three bars. A personal complaint was that nobody knew if I could buy one of the extremely cool green staff t-shirts (I love the Thames river/dimple mug logo), or where to find out. In a venue as small as London Fields Brewery’s event space, crammed under a railway arch, the organisation needs to be as tight as drum to prevent frustration. This was not the case.

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However, as harshly as the event has been judged over the weekend, it was not without merit by any means. As I said above, the beer was great. I had an opportunity to try beers from breweries like Weird Beard, Five Points, Howling Hops and Pressure Drop, which are either so new I haven’t noticed their founding, or in parts of London that I rarely visit. There was great food here. I had a Korean fried chicken burger from Thank Cluck that was simply sublime: that perfect chicken burger combination of crunchy lettuce, juicy thigh meat, crispy coating, hot sauce and cool mayo. A simple, wonderful marvel. Big Apple Hot Dogs, Mexican food vendor Luardos and the Falafel-slingers Hoxton Beach were also present, filling hungry faces and generating greasy chins and sloppy grins. Whilst people complained at the crush of bodies in several areas, just as many were having a good time.

London Fields Brewery has several further beer events coming later this year as part of the British Craft Beer Challenge. These four separate events will pit the best of British beer against foes from USA, Europe and the rest of the world. London Fields will have to look very closely at how to achieve a much more satisfying experience for the capital’s beer lovers, who, after the impression left by London’s Brewing, will be less likely to invite their friends from outside London to what might otherwise be extremely exciting events.

(P.S. and if anyone knows where I can get one of those green t-shirts, let me know!)

(EDIT: Have amended to reflect that the British Craft Beer Challenge is a London Fields Brewery initiative, NOT an LBA event. Thanks to Steve Williams for clarifying this.)

Sainsbury’s Great British Beer Hunt 2013

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For the third year running, the Sainsbury’s Great British Beer Hunt seeks to find the best beers from participating British brewers and give national distribution deals to the ones that sell best.

Members of the public and trade attend one of four regional events in April and May. The winning beers from each event are given immediate regional distribution (or go into an in-store competition – I know, it’s a bit confusing) and the top three beers from each region then compete in the final in London later this year. A champion and a runner-up are selected from the twelve finalists, both winning a six-month national distribution deal, bragging rights, and – presumably – a massive sales spike.

I attended the selection event for the East region at Vinopolis in London last weekend. It was the first time I have taken part in the Hunt, and I was impressed with the selection of beers. However, it is worth noting that this is a very different kind of competition to other beer competitions or awards. This is all about retail, production and distribution. This is not necessarily the Best Beer in Britain, but rather the Best Beer Made by Brewers Capable of Producing Enough Beer to Serve Every Sainsbury’s Store.

In the selection for the East Region, famous and popular brewers like Oakham, Meantime, St Peter’s and Bateman’s rub shoulders with smaller,  less well-known brewers like Ridgeway, Ole Slewfoot and City of Cambridge. The most striking thing about this is that the increasing number of highly-regarded small London brewers were classed out of the competition by economies of scale. Nevertheless, there were some great beers to try, and it was nice to taste some British beers from outside of London for a change.

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The way the judging worked was thus: each of us had a look at the beers available (all served from bottles of course, some bottle-conditioned and some not), chose eight we wanted to judge, collected them on a tray like some kind of incredible buffet, and selected our four favourites. We then numbered these from 1st to 4th place and submitted our voting card.

You’ll have to excuse my lack of info, here. Whilst I knew the beers were broadly listed by strength (not, to many beer geek’s disapproval, by colour AND strength), the strengths weren’t actually listed on the voting cards. Anyway, here are the transcripts of some beer-splotched tasting notes from my notepad to give you an idea of the beers in the competition:

1. City of Cambridge – Robert Oppenheimer

Underpowered marmalade pale ale. Dry finish, bit of astrigency, pleasant but not a thriller.

2. Ole Slewfoot – Dragon Hall Saison

Appley, sweet/sour biere de garde flavour and texture. Not bad but lacks life. May be due to being poured from a jug, not fresh bottle.

3. Hastings – Pale Ale

Okay fruity pale ale. Needs one or two more different hops to perk it up and provide roundness. Occupies the centre of a lager/pale ale Venn diagram.

4. Oakham – Scarlet Macaw

Lively Yakima-hopped red ale. Bursting with grapefruit, lychee and toffee. A real treat.

5. Bateman’s – Black Pepper Ale

Sweet, biscuity and malt-driven. Weirdly, not peppery enough, despite containing floating bits of black pepper.

6. Compass Brewery – Torp

A raisiny, boozy, pear droppy, biere de garde/ESB superbeer. Loads of character, fruit, punch and finish. Needs pork, stat.

7. Bateman’s – B Bok

Rich, caramel soaked doppelbock. Bitter, sharp, and oozing with class.

8. Ridgeway – Querkus

Oak aged, whisky malt smoked porter. Rounded, smoky and rich, yet smooth enough not to overpower. Perfect for beef.

You’ll probably be able to tell which ones I chose, but I won’t say just in case it breaks the Ancient Law on Supermarket Beer Competition Ballots and I’m banned from ever attending one again.

I’m very interested in seeing what makes it through to the next stage. Will the curious choose the weirder stuff, and will that be enough to displace the likes of Meantime and Bateman’s? A couple of pale ales and bitters will almost certainly make it through, but I hope something weird makes it to the store stage.

After the voting, we were encouraged to go through to the Meet the Brewer area, where you could bend the ear of most of the brewers whose beers you had just tasted, and taste some more if you wished. Oakham, Ole Slewfoot, St Peter’s and Bateman’s all made a great effort, and in fact everyone was very chatty and more than happy to talk at length about beer recipes and where else to find their range. All in all, a great little event, and one that I will look forward to next year. Now then, I just need to get onto that judging panel in the final…

(It’s taken me a week to get this post up, which is pretty poor for a blogger. It’s like I’m blogging via carrier pigeon in war-torn early 20th century Europe. The truth is that I’ve been busy drinking beer, which means there will be a flurry of posts in the next few days to make up for the drought. Huzzah etc.)

#BrooklynFeast


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Who could have predicted this week’s Winter 2.0? Some know-it-all meteorologist no doubt, but us common folk have been left with our gobs smacked and our flabbers gasted. The worryingly chilly weather was the unfortunate setting for Tuesday evening’s #BrooklynFeast, an event heralding the return of Street Feast London, whose events were hugely popular last summer.

#BrooklynFeast was organised by Brooklyn Brewery and beer importers James Clay, bringing together the brewery’s beers and the capital’s burgeoning street food scene in a perfect hipster storm of Instagrammable wonderment. Top street food vendors including Bowler, Big Apple Hot Dogs, Rainbo and Bleecker St Burgers set up in a car park off Dalston Lane, which was transformed into an ersatz street of trendy gluttony.

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The bar at #BrooklynFeast (don’t worry, I’ll stop hashtagging it now) was stocked with eight of Brooklyn’s beers, each matched to a dish from one of the food vendors. The pairing menu below, featuring rarer brews such as Blast!, Pennant ’55 and the ominous There Will Be Black, was varied, well thought out and extremely appetising.

Below are a couple of the food and beer pairings that I tried:

There Will Be Black and Smokey BBQ Wings from Street Kitchen

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These wings had a thick, crunchy batter and were dripping in a decadently thick BBQ sauce that was so delicious it could have easily started its own religion overnight. Like all great wings, just as you bit into one, the meat fell away and you were left holding a bone in your greasy fingers, grinning like a fool.

There Will Be Black is a 7.5% Black IPA (or Imperial Black Ale or Hoppy Stout…) that marries the rich, luxuriant body of the brewery’s seminal Black Chocolate Stout with a ferocious hop cannonade of Williamette, Pacific Gem and Motueka hops. It is an outstanding beer, rich yet with a silky body and palate-tingling hop finish. It supercharged the BBQ sauce on the wings, making everything sweeter, stronger and thicker, before scouring your palate clean with hops so you can do it all over again. A really exciting food and beer pairing.

Brooklyn Pennant ’55 Ale and Big Apple Hot Dogs’ “Dog of Phwoar”

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Big Apple Hot Dogs were a big hit on the night, and had an enormous queue late into the evening. This is with good reason: these are the best hot dogs I’ve ever tasted. Forget slimy, slippery pig product tubes, these are the real deal. Gourmet, genuine frankfurters of pork, beef or pork-beef-blend. The excellently named Dog of Phwoar is a limited edition, spicy beef concoction that is best described as being like chorizo, but beef.

Brooklyn’s ’55 Pennant Ale, named after the ’55 New York Dodgers world championship-winning team, is an English-style pale ale with New World hoppy muscles. It’s a great all-rounder, offering crystal malt sweetness, dry, lager-like refreshment and fresh, hoppy bite. It met the spicy beef head on, but instead of fighting for dominance, they grabbed each other and danced across my palate. The beer softened the peppery blows of the beef without reducing the flavour, and cleaned the salt from my palate to boot. Not as exciting as the BBQ wings and TWBB, but a much simpler, straightforward match that worked just as well.

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It was an exciting event with a lively crowd and a great atmosphere. I can hardly hold the weather against it, but it did make a big difference to how long people were willing to sit or stand outside, heaters or not. My only other complaint would be the number of people. The event encouraged people to try out smaller amounts of different foods and beers and keep coming back for more. This is a great idea, but the event had slightly too many people for it work smoothly. If they had set a slightly lower capacity, or had two sessions (one in the afternoon for trade, for example), the queues would have been shorter and people would have been more inclined to stay longer and try more of what was on offer.

That said, it was a great combination of food and beer in a friendly environment, and hopefully Street Feast will organise more events like this with local London brewers. Their ‘takeover’ at Camden Town Brewery last year was a fantastic collaboration, and Brooklyn Feast did an excellent job of bringing food and beer matching to the people in a cool, accessible format. More of this sort of thing, I say.

The Craft Knight Rises

Craft Beer Rising at the Old Truman Brewery – a sign of things to come?

The modern British beer landscape is rich, exciting and diverse. Traditional CAMRA-organised events, with rows of tilted casks and hi-vis-jacketed stewards are no longer the norm. We now have a variety of species of beer festivals. There are those put on by individual pubs (like last year’s CAMRGB takeover at The Lamb on Holloway Road), where a special selection of beers are brought in for a weekend. There are painfully trendy, street food-oriented outdoor events, like this week’s #BrooklynFeast in Dalston (where else?), which are pre-hashtagged for your social media convenience. There are also events that try to do a little bit of everything.

Just a couple of weeks earlier, Craft Beer Rising took the beer blogosphere by storm and established itself as the new must-visit event of the British beer calendar. It couldn’t have been more different to the London Drinker Beer and Cider Festival, or the Great British Beer Festival (GBBF), CAMRA’s yearly beer bash. Fewer beers may have been on offer, but there was a wider variety. Cask, keg and bottled beers were present from breweries all over the UK and the world. The trend for street food was both acknowledged and catered for. Real ale, craft keg and much more were all included as part of the same experience, and the crowd was just as varied, in both age and gender.

I wrote about Craft Beer Rising recently in Rum & Reviews, and I must admit I got rather excited about how it represented what I thought beer festivals should be all about. Before I went to the London Drinker event, I thought to myself, ‘Ha! Let’s this how this measures up!’ thinking that it would seem pale in comparison to Craft Beer Rising.

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The CAMRA London Drinker Beer & Cider Festival. Proof that traditional beer festivals are still popular.

However, north London’s CAMRA beer festival is still going strong. The London Drinker event last week, in its regular home of the Camden Centre near Kings Cross, still had a big draw. Beer bloggers, beer tickers, old timers, young whippersnappers and brewers great and small made up a large portion of those attending. This was a CAMRA event though, and while women were more than welcome, many did not seem to feel welcome enough to actually attend.

The beer was served to much higher standard than I remembered, though the London bar seemed to have the lion’s share of the best beers. The main bar seemed to be 70% golden ale, and didn’t have nearly as many people drinking at it with ‘bloody hell that’s good’ faces. Unfortunately, the food offering was pretty basic, and shared space with the foreign beer bar. Some real treats were hidden away here though, particularly the mini-casks of Schlenkerla Marzen (liquid smoked bacon) and other German beers.

It wasn’t as much fun as Craft Beer Rising, but I can’t say that CBR was better either, as much as I would like to. These are two completely different events, and I expect #BrooklynFeast on Tuesday to be just as different again. I would be wrong to rank the UK’s beer festivals by how ‘good’ they are. Beer festivals are very subjective, individual experiences that appeal to tastes and personal preferences. The Celtic Beer Festival is completely different to GBBF, just as Wandsworth Beer Festival is to London Drinker, and just as the BrewDog AGM is to Craft Beer Rising. If CBR seems to be the better event, it might be because it adopts positive features from each of the above, and tries to do a bit of everything, and does it well. If this is a trend is on the rise (sorry), then I welcome it. We all get the beer festivals we deserve.

The fact is that each of these events is just as important. Each of them demonstrate the thrilling diversity of the British beer landscape, and we should recognise that each and every one is something to be proud of.

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.