Fool’s Gold

Earlier today I tweeted this:

 

 

The article, by Tony Naylor on the Guardian’s Word of Mouth Blog, makes the case that limited edition beers are leading a trend of rising prices in the world of craft beer.

When I tweeted the link to it, I had scanned the piece and decided it made some good points. I didn’t like that it started out with its conclusion fully-formed, instead of reaching it by the end, though. Having said that, I enjoyed Naylor’s recent piece about crap pubs, and I think he touches on ideas and issues that matter to the nerdier among us, whilst also remaining accessible to normal, not-embarrassingly-excited-at-the-sight-of-foreign-keg-beer-they-haven’t-had-before sort of people. Beer being expensive? Sadfaces all round, right?

Naylor brushes aside quite a lot of important context (the cost of US/NZ hops, the real cost of maturing beer, duty on strength, retailer/pub prices, regional factors) and picks up, with jerking, twisting motions of angry, red hot pliers, the facts that support his argument. ‘These one-off beers are made by newer breweries, taking advantage of the rising interest in proper beer, and even by the oldies who want to look cool too. They’re all in on this big scam. Why aren’t they brewing proper cheap beer for the Honest Common Man of Noble, Simple Graft? Anyway, I keep buying them’ (slight paraphrasing).

When I tweeted the link, I described it as ‘well-reasoned and thought-provoking’. I said ‘well-reasoned’ because I sympathised with the sentiment of it, and thought he made his case well, despite not agreeing with it all. As for thought-provoking, well, here I am blogging about it. Not just it though, the reaction to it.

I read the article a couple more times over the course of the afternoon, certain that there was Something There I should be thinking about in greater detail. The thoughts never fully germinated. As I re-read it, I enjoyed it less and less, seeing a slightly greasy shine to it. I noticed other people on Twitter reacting to it angrily, seeing Naylor as someone who has flagrantly ignored a host of factors affecting the price of beer.

I even saw people get into rather shirty exchanges about ‘research’ and the importance of knowing what you are talking about. It’s all rather obvious to me now, of course, with 20/20 hindsight. This is what it was all for.

Clickbait.

Is this the price of fame for craft beer in the UK – the ignominy of the national press’ websites drawing our clicks with half-baked pieces that are worse than regular blogs? Sadfaces all round.

 

 

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?

Yes We Can: Part Deux

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After a period of intense, blog-abandoningly-busy writing, I am back in the saddle.

On Saturday, I attended the Hells Can Party at Camden Town Brewery, where their Hells Lager was launched in cans, at last. I say ‘at last’ because it feels like a long time since I first spied Camden’s small canning plant, and I had hoped to spend the summer with a few crates of Hells, or even USA Hells, in cans. Unfortunately, it took a lot of time (and as I am led to believe, extremely hard work) to get the Hells cans launched. Some noted the oddness of launching a canned lager this close to winter, but when it’s this good, I say why the Hells not?

Camden Town’s bold, sharp branding is perfectly suited for cans, and their artist Mr Bingo has really outdone himself on the Hells can design. A straight adaptation of the Hells Lager bottle label would have been more than enough to impress anyone, but the intensely and eccentrically detailed madness oozing from the Hells can label is something glorious to behold. Packaging aside, the beer inside is the same world-beating, ever-refreshing and fantastic-tasting lager. Once I’d poured it into a half pint mug, I must have finished it in about four or five incredible gulps, a few of which washed down a wonderful pulled pork bun from the lovely man at Prairie Fire BBQ. By eck, even the flipping Mayor (of Camden, sorry Boris fans) showed up.

Anyway, I’ve written about my feelings on cans before, but in a nutshell (for those of you who don’t like being told to click on links when you’re right in the bloody middle of reading something), I think they are the future for packaged Good Beer. Bottles will be seen as premium and special; and bottle-conditioned beers will be treated with even more reverence as a result. Fresh, hoppy beers, however, especially those that have travelled some distance, almost always benefit from the total protection that a can provides.

What’s needed is a few other small UK breweries to take the plunge and get canning. It really needs to suit their image and branding, too. The Kernel, for example, would never can their beer and I wouldn’t want them to. There are some brewers however, whose branding and beers would be fantastic in canned form. Here’s my wishlist:

1. Magic Rock Brewing – Tell me – go on, just try – that Magic Rock’s madcap labels wouldn’t look sensational on a shiny can, especially the metallic ‘shiny football sticker’ labels given to their more limited beers. As for the freshness of those hoppy monsters, well, just imagine cracking open a can of Human Cannonball or Magic 8 Ball and let me know when you’ve finished drooling.

2. Tiny Rebel  Brewing Co – A brewery that’s going from strength to strength, Tiny Rebel are just the kind of brewer to embrace canned craft beer. Their labels could even make the cans look like the spray paint used by their hoodlum teddy bear mascot. Just the thought of beers like Hadouken and Full Nelson tasting brewery-fresh already has me all excited.

3. Oakham Ales – There’s something about Oakham’s beer labels that already reminds me of cans, as they often use a bright, rectangular image that could fit onto one just so. I’d love to be able to come home to a fridge full of cheeky, hop-faced cans of Citra, or, be still my beating heart, Green Devil IPA.

4. Beavertown Brewery – Beavertown’s bottled beers are almost always bottle-conditioned as far as I can tell, but if they could pull off can-friendly versions of Black Betty, Gamma Ray and 8 Ball, I think their branding would look even cooler than it already does on their bottles. Imagine cans of Beavertown at your next barbecue – surely a dream come true.

5. Meantime Brewing Co – It’s surprising in many ways that this old stalwart (over ten years old, people, that’s ancient) of the London brewing scene hasn’t dabbled in cans. They have the quality, consistency and capacity. Cans might not somehow suit the brewery’s schizophrenic mix of innovation and tradition, but really, they should.

I think the main issues, as is always the case with canning, is whether the brewers have the capacity and demand. BrewDog famously outsourced the brewing and canning of Punk IPA cans to Thwaites, but following the building of their new brewery, have taken canning of their beers back home.

Given that a brewer based under a railway arch (admittedly that goes for a lot of London brewers) can pull this off, surely plenty more can, too. What do you think? Is there a brewer in the UK who should be canning their beer and they aren’t? Or is it all a Craft Wanker fly-by-night flight of fancy, best left to them bloody Americans and that? Perhaps, but as Craig Heap notes, the UK has a tradition of canned beer innovation. Let me know what you think in the comments.

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!

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.)