A Shot at the Bar: Brewhouse and Kitchen, Bristol

IMAG0250_2

 

When the brilliant Brewhouse & Kitchen Islington opened near Angel station last year, I was embarrassed to learn that there were already successful branches of the brewpub group in Dorchester, Poole and Portsmouth, of which I was completely unaware. My blinkered capital-view had hidden these excellent brewpubs from me, and it gave me a dose of what I call London Guilt. My partner’s family lives in Bristol, so when the latest branch opened there last month, I was determined to check it out on our next visit.

I couldn’t make the launch event sadly, a disappointment all the more crushing for the fact that the man who was the body of Darth Vader (Bristolian bodybuilder David Prowse) was there at the party. Like the other Brewhouse & Kitchen brewpubs, the brewers here take their cues for beers from the city the pub is in. Naturally, a Sith-influenced Papa Darth oatmeal stout is available (‘on the dark side’ jokes abound), alongside Yankee Cabot (named after the Italian explorer who was a citizen of Bristol and after which many landmarks are named), Deception Rye IPA (named for Derren Brown who studied in Bristol and first performed there) and others. All their own beers are brewed onsite in the very visible and pretty brewkit, and as seen in the picture above a decent array of keg and bottled beers are also available.

The beer that really impressed me both on my first and subsequent visits was the 3.9% Hornigold Blonde Ale, the vibrant pint pictured above. Hornigold was the mentor of Bristol’s more famous pirate son: Blackbeard, and the brewers clearly thought his name would look nice on a golden ale. I’d arrived at the bar early afternoon and fancied something fairly light and easy-going, but was blown away by the peach-and-melon sweetness running through Hornigold, sharpened by a juicy grapefruit finish. It was remarkably similar to a great pint of cask Oakham Citra, but maybe 18 months or more ago when Citra was in its best form. Hornigold was a pint upon which I lavished the highest compliment: the same again, please.

 

Brewhouse & Kitchen Bristol, 31-35 Cotham Hill, Clifton, Bristol BS6 6JY

@BKBristol

Dead or Alive: Are single-hopped beers still interesting?

IMAG0346_1

 

One of the textbook rites of passage for the modern, budding beer geek is to buy ‘single-hopped’ beers to find out the flavour and aroma characteristics of specific hop varieties. With each flavour, some increased knowledge or understanding of it is (hopefully) stored subconsciously, and the next time we experience it, it becomes a little easier for the firing synapses to locate the relevant file of previous experience.

A brewery that has truly committed to the single-hopped idea is BrewDog, which recently released its fifth annual IPA is Dead series. The hops selected are chosen based on a combination of public interest (including suggestions from social media) and, mostly, I suspect, brewer curiosity. With new BrewDog bars opening on an almost monthly basis, it’s getting easier each year to pop along to your nearest one on day of release and order a flight of the latest series to try them out. For some, the appeal is simply to taste something they haven’t had before. For homebrewers and committed beer geeks, single-hopped beers represent an opportunity for personal development and gaining valuable experience.

The thing is, most hops, like most people, are normally only very good at one or two things, and not many people can even claim to be that talented. Single-hopped beers require the hop variety in question to be used at multiple points in the process, instead of just where they would normally perform best. Sometimes the ‘truth’ of a hop’s character is blunted or stymied by it being used at every stage in the brewing process. Others, meanwhile, revel in the challenge and reveal incredible depths, clarity  or raw flavoursome power.

IMAG0338_1_1

The latest BrewDog IPA is Dead series sees another eclectic mix of craft beer favourites and up-and-coming new varieties: Mandarina Bavaria (a great potential Bond heroine name), classic US bitter monster Chinook, juicy Oz-German hybrid Ella and modern British hop Pioneer.

Mandarina Bavaria certainly delivers a lot of sweet orange and pithy peel in its aroma. There’s also something stickier and alcoholic like peach schnapps, perhaps revealing the hop’s difficulty in overcoming the beer’s 7.2% abv. I found the Mandarina Bavaria very sweet, but with a tangy lemon sherbet flavour rather than full-on mandarin. The bitterness is sudden and schizophrenic – twisting juicy fruit into a raspingly dry finish reminiscent of Jever. The strength of the beer was much less evident in the flavour, in fact I gulped it down like it was a juicy and bitter pale ale, so here the hop really shined.

Pioneer, a British hop, can have bright lemony flavours and woody, cedary notes when used well. In a 7.2% IPA, the flavours seem to come down quite hard on woodiness, almost piney in the finish, whilst the aroma was somewhere between warm lemon curd and marmalade. It didn’t quite gel with the strength and malt profile of the beer, but certainly taught me in explicit terms what Pioneer tastes like.

IMAG0347_1

Ella, meanwhile, is an Australian variety related to the super-peachy aroma hop Galaxy and the German bittering hop Spalt. Brewers like its flavour-efficiency, as it can be used in moderate amounts to replicate full-bodied continental lagers, or in larger amounts to deliver massive tropical juiciness. As it’s the only hop in the beer, Ella turned the IPA into a dangerously quaffable blend of sharp bitter grapefruit, tart lime and caramelised peaches. The finish is actually my favourite part, leaving just enough of each flavour to make the mouth water for more.

Finally, Chinook delivered a somewhat predictable hammer-blow. A hop that can be used for bittering or aroma, Chinook is a notably piney and spicy US hop that tends to dominate the finish of any beer it’s used in. It’s a favourite of BrewDog’s so I had a fairly good idea of how it would taste, and I was glad I elected to drink this one last. The bitterness and pronounced pine and woodiness was palate-shifting.

This is the funny thing, though: whilst each of the beers seemed to have markedly different levels of bitterness and hop flavour, all of them were brewed to have 75 IBUs. As any brewer will tell you, that number on the brewsheet is not the same as perceived bitterness in the final beer – the reason why a 45 IBU pale ale can taste less bitter than a 45 IBU pilsner. Brewing each of these beers to 75 IBU isn’t necessarily the best showcase of each hop, and often, individual hops, like people, perform best when partnered with others that have different strengths.

IMAG0350_1_1

Since this was the first time I’ve had all four of the series in bottles at home, so I couldn’t resist flipping the concept on its head. In previous releases, the hops used for IPA is Dead were often so diametrically opposed that it would never occur to many people to try blending them, but this year’s release seemed to have traits that could work in unison. After opening each bottle I poured roughly 100ml into a growler that I kept in the fridge, and after tasting all four I had an equal-parts blend of each beer.

The result was surprising, in that each of the component beers could be tasted and seemed to interact with each other – the resinous spike of Chinook evened out the peachy syrup of Ella, the lemon and orange in Mandarina Bavaria softened the bitter, woody tang of Pioneer – but whilst it broadly worked, it was not in any sense a complete beer. Each beer had used its hop at all addition stages, for bitterness, flavour, aroma and dry hop, so the positives aspects were spread thinly across the palate. What would be more interesting, would be if the IPA is Dead series starred a fifth beer, where the brewers used the hops from the four single-hopped beers in different proportions at different stages to best suit their characteristics. Just as important as learning what hops taste like when working alone, is learning how they can work together. The lessons learned from the flavours of the single hopped versions could be galvanised in the the fifth, when you see how and when they should be used to best effect together. What do you think?

 

Thanks to BrewDog for sending me this year’s IPA is Dead series.

A Shot at the Bar: The Bohemia and London Brewing Co

wpid-imag0182_1.jpg

It’s Wings Wednesday that typically brings me to North Finchley’s The Bohemia pub, the recently refurbished flagship pub from the owners of The Bull in Highgate. The offer of 500g of spicy Buffalo wings (some of the best this side of the Atlantic I’ve been assured) for five pounds is hard to resist. As North London goes, The Bohemia is very north, but more than worth the extra minutes by bus (134, 263, N20, 460, 82) or tube (North Finchley, Woodside Park) when you get there.

The place is wide and deep, lavishly furnished and skilfully halfway between modern and traditional, in proportions more in common with a spacious, town centre pub than anywhere else in London serving La Chouffe and Veltins on tap. Of course, the key difference here is the Bohemia is home to a brewery as well as a well-stocked bar – the London Brewing Co, which also brews at The Bull. Whilst the beers brewed at The Bull are packaged in casks, The Bohemia’s kit generally brews beer for keg.

The brewers have already turned out a wheat beer, stout, rye IPA and session IPA, which are naturally all available at the bar just a few metres away. Currently the most impressive of these are the ‘Stout’, displaying a creamy coffee yet dry, herbal hoppy character I’d most recently enjoyed in O’Hara’s Stout in Dublin, and the ‘Upright’ session IPA, which tasted every bit as good as fresh Founders’ All-Day – orangey, oily, boisterously bitter – but fresher. Brewer Daniel Vane has recently returned to London Brewing Co with plenty of ideas in mind, as recent shots of a brewday for a lychee pale have shown. He’s assured me there’s plenty more in the pipeline, some of which will be available at the forthcoming Northern Line Beer Festival on 22-26 April, which will feature beers from a number of celebrated Northern-Line-based brewers (including the new, Derek Prentice-helmed, Wimbledon Brewery) and will also include beer and book matching from Pete Brown and a beer-paired dinner at The Bull.

What I love most about The Bohemia, even more than the wings (somehow), is that there’s damned good beer there, made just a few steps from the bar. That distance travelled to the pub itself is compressed, folded and shrunk somehow by the difference made by that short distance between the brewhouse and the bar. There’s nothing quite like taking a gulp of daisy-fresh session IPA and being able to see where it was lovingly brought to life.

IMG_20150311_224726

 

Secrets in the attic: A day at Hook Norton Brewery

IMAG0271_1_1

 

The museum section of Hook Norton Brewery has a lot of the antique brewing paraphernalia you might expect: black and white photos of stern-looking workers from a time when smiling for the camera was not allowed; barrels, the usual barrows, bottles (the three Bs); and pieces of defunct brewing equipment large and small, including, interestingly, an old wort cooler. It was beside this old cooler, essentially a tall, corrugated sheet of metal standing in a shallow trough, where friendly and encyclopedic tour guide Monty explained the brewery’s attempts to modernise over the years. The equipment they use now – a far more modern and typical heat exchange system tucked away in a small room on the third floor – dramatically reduces the chance of infection since it’s a sealed unit. The point was made at several points in the hour-long tour that any inconsistency between brews is a bad thing, and quite right too.

Hook Norton Brewery in Oxfordshire
Hook Norton Brewery in Oxfordshire

Just as frowned upon now is the brewery’s one-time reliance on wooden barrels, which naturally caused some undesirable bacterial infections over time and, in Monty’s words, some ‘vinegary pints’ back in the day. Even the stocks of modern aluminium casks have been recently refreshed to ensure the beer inside arrives in the best possible condition. It might seem strange to focus on these two seemingly normal upgrades in history of a brewery, particularly one as traditional as Hook Norton, but the place had some surprising secrets tucked away. The brewery was built in 1849 and is a classic Victorian tower brewery, relying on gravity to feed the ingredients from one stage of the brewing process to the next. Its core beers are Hooky, a bitter, and Old Hooky, its best bitter. It also brews a mild, a double stout and a range a of seasonal ales. It even has a functioning steam engine, which is still occasionally used to operate the grist mill, and once also contributed to boiling the wort in the copper, heating the building and pumping liquor from the well. Shire horses are regularly used to pull a dray of beer to pubs nearby.

IMAG0266_1
The original, wooden-hatched mash tun, and in the background, the newer stainless steel version.

Refurbished versions of original equipment are used in various parts of the brewery, including the aforementioned grist mill, which dates back to 1899, and the mash tun, which has wooden hatches that are still surprisingly efficient at insulating heat. There’s a sense here that the modernising of the equipment at Hook Norton happens when absolutely necessary, and even then, reluctantly. Still, it was with some noticeable embarrassment that Monty showed us the even older method of cooling the wort, on the top floor of the second-highest tower of the brewery. What I saw there took my breath away, and transported me back to a dusty attic in Brussels I’d visited just weeks before. On the brewery’s fourth floor, Hook Norton once used what they referred to as a flat cooler, but is recognisable to anyone who has visited a Belgian brewery as a koelschip.

IMAG0274_1
The now-defunct ‘flat cooler’ on the fourth floor. Note the wooden slatted windows.

At Cantillon, which I’d visited most recently in February, the wooden slatted windows are opened to allow wild yeast and bacteria to inoculate the cooling wort. At Hook Norton, the windows were opened to lower the temperature inside, but this still undoubtedly resulted in infection, and unwanted foreign bodies. Specifically, the rumours among the locals at the time was that bird droppings could be in your pint. The flat cooler was decommissioned in the 1970s, and it’s easy to imagine the brewery at the time struggling to keep up with ever-consistent, box-ticking keg beer that was on the rise at that time. I couldn’t help wonder though if something had been lost, or an opportunity missed in that era.

IMAG0275_1

Whilst the flat cooler is unlikely to ever see action again, wooden barrels could once more be used to contain and dispense Hook Norton’s beer in pubs. Two young chaps on the brewing team have free use of a small ‘pilot brewery’ on the ground floor near the cask racking plant, where they are currently experimenting with producing stronger ales to be served from the wood. It’s likely that these will be old ales or stouts.

After the tour, Monty took us back to the visitor centre bar and we tasted our way through small glasses of five different ales. The biscuity body and leafy bitterness of Hooky is evident in many of the brewery’s other beers, the most noticeably different being Lion, a self-consciously ‘pale and hoppy’ beer for the modern cask drinker and the Hooky Mild, which was slick, cakey but light. Two ‘Brewer’s Selection’ beers, the Double Stout and Flagship English IPA are also kegged in small amounts by contract at Cotswold Brewery but weren’t available at the time. It’s easy to be dismissive of the simple English charms of Hook Norton’s traditional beer styles, but they are good beers made well, and in the spring sunshine of the Oxfordshire countryside, they make perfect sense.

IMAG0276_1

At the Pear Tree Inn just down the road from the brewery, I sat with a pint of Julie’s Jester, a pale ale brewed on Hook Norton’s pilot kit for a long-serving landlady of one of their pubs. Hopped, as the name suggests, using the new UK hop Jester, it was a very summery pint of floral aromas, simple malt flavours and citrus-peel bitterness. I enjoyed it a lot, and it hinted at an open-mindedness to new ideas and flavour profiles. But, sat there in a traditional country pub with its hop garlands above the bar, freshly made baguettes of ham and beer mustard and foaming pints of daisy-fresh cask ale, I couldn’t help but wonder, and imagine, if brewing in this country might have become something quite different if the wooden barrels and koelschips hadn’t been seen as antiquated oddities, but precious, historic and artisanal elements of brewing culture. Now that we have returned to appreciating what they can do, it seems strange we ever gave them up.

IMAG0281_1

A tour of Hook Norton Brewery is £12.50 per person, including a hour-long tour and guided beer tasting. Tours must be arranged in advance.

A Shot at the Bar: The Duck & Rice, Soho

Duck & Rice

A new photo-blog series, taking in the most interesting bars and pubs in London and beyond.

 

Alan Yau (founder of the Wagamama chain and owner of several Michelin Star-awarded restaurants) is one the last people you might expect to get in the pub game. In what is seen as a dramatic departure, the OBE and restaurateur has given equal focus to beer as well as food at his latest venture – a ‘Chinese-influenced gastropub’ in Soho. The area has been worn down by its reputation into a bit of a parody of itself, but in doing so provides a number of unusual and striking venues, of which The Duck & Rice is undoubtedly one. I couldn’t quite place the theme of the decor, but I heard somebody say ‘Park Chinois’. There’s a very Hong-Kong-in-the-Empire kind of aesthetic: lavish colonial decor, striking marble, blues and pearl colours, art deco painted glass, reminiscent of a bar at the edge of the world and full of its riches. It seems decadent, but fairly relaxed.

Tankovna

The reason I was here of course, was the beer. Pilsner were sponsoring the press launch night, so their beer was flowing freely, but the bar also has an impressive variety of other cask, keg and a (rapidly growing) list of bottled beers from the leading lights of the beer industry. Still, the star on the bar was Tankovna Pilsner Urquell, freshly delivered from Pilsen. The stacked, copper 500 litre tanks greet you like a steampunk bouncer as you enter, and beer was on top-notch form: the almost cask-ale-like mouthfeel, nourishing breadiness and spiky bitterness all present and correct. Whilst upstairs is more restaurant-like, the focus here down in the bar area is just that, the bar, and food is focused on simple Chinese dishes and snacks to match with the beers. Light, crispy batter-coated delights melted sweetly with gulps of Pilsner, like they had known each other for ages. Suddenly, elegant Chinese food and pints of Czech Pilsner felt like the most normal thing in the world, as well as something quite special.

Pilsner

 

The Duck & Rice, 90 Berwick Street, London W1F 0QB.

 

Book Review: Mikkeller’s Book of Beer by Mikkel Borg Bjergso and Pernille Pang

IMAG0218

I have a favourite beer t-shirt (no wait, come back), one I bought from Etsy (no seriously, don’t go). It has a vaguely familiar Californian brewery branding aesthetic and the name of the fictional brewery is ‘OBSCURE – Microbrewery You’ve Never Heard Of’. Anyway, I’m not just bragging about my great t-shirt – looking at it the other day made me realise that there is a new level to the joke. Mikkeller, every part the poster-brewery for experimental and uncompromising brewing oddities, pure beer genius and everything inbetween in modern craft beer, is an obscure brewery that everyone has heard of. Production, even when including the many projects all over the world, is relatively low in total, yet the reach is wide, the legacy large and the shadow long. This is the modern brewery, so what, then, is the modern brewery book?

Just as every beer and brewery has a story to tell, so too do the brewers. That compulsion to write their own history, and that of beer too, has motivated a number of American brewers to pen their own bestselling beer books, and we’re now seeing the trend continue here in Europe. Highly anticipated in the craft beer community, Mikkeller’s Book of Beer is co-written by brewery co-founder Mikkel Borg Bjergso and professional journalist Pernille Pang, who is also Bjergso’s wife.

The first chapters of the book feel personal, and the desire to tell his own story in the book’s clipped translated English (familiar to readers of English versions of Scandinavian fiction) makes for a quick and absorbing read. As with anything of this nature, the reader is wary of the authors editing history to suit their narrative, and there is a perhaps controversial recurring habit of measuring Mikkeller’s success by Ratebeer scores alone. Still, it gives a fascinating insight into the mind of a determined and resourceful man across the book’s clean and crisply-laid-out pages.

Of course, much of his story is well-known, and the book proper begins with a potted version of beer history that concentrates on the fun stuff (and, notably, CAMRA), and a breezy trip through major beer styles. The first major problems arise here: for the experienced beer buff, the reliance on heavily debunked myths of style origins may come as shocking, and the IPA section alone might be enough for some people to give up on the book entirely. Meanwhile, the newcomer may find the short, breathless descriptions to lack depth or imagery to capture the imagination, but then, that’s what all the beautiful photography is for. There are also some clumsy paragraphs and phrases that feel like they’ve been wrung through Google Translate, but generally the book maintains an easy-reading pace throughout.

IMAG0214

The book’s real appeal to existing beer nerds lies in the selection of 25 recipes for Mikkeller beers and 5 recipes for other brewers’ beers. Whilst laying bare the recipes for I Beat yoU, Beer Geek Bacon and Texas Ranger shows an impressive amount of transparency on Bjergso’s part, I suspect most will be even more impressed by the inclusion of recipes for Firestone Walker Wookey Jack, To Ol Goliat and Kernel Imperial Brown Stout.

The guide to starting homebrewing itself is packed with handy tips, but also comes a cropper from the occasional confusing sentence or questionable translation, which, when on the topic of oxygen in the brewing process for example, is pretty worrying. The whole thing feels useful in conjunction with other more trusted books on the subject (How to Brew by John Palmer, for example) but not a true foolproof brewing bible on its own.

Where the language and tone of the first half of the book is aimed at the beginner, the food section fells far more advanced in some ways. However, it does overcomplicate some of beer and food matching’s basic principles, recommending only sweet beers for cheese for example, yet a variety of beers for different kinds of shellfish, which is perhaps more of an indication of its Scandinavian origin than knowledge gaps.

The food recipes included, meanwhile, are almost exclusively high-end, Masterchef-esque constructions of the most expensive ingredients using the most obscure methods. It’s hard to see anyone who is actually capable of these culinary feats relying on such a text as their guide, but it certainly all looks very nice, and that might be both the book’s biggest strength and its main weakness. The gorgeous design and pleasingly simple artwork from Mikkeller label designer Keith Shore makes for an easy read, but not necessarily an engaging one.

Whilst it is pretty to look at, and will provide a valuable source for homebrewers (as just that, a source, not a bible), this is by no means the ‘Ultimate Guide for Beer Lovers’. With its artistically impressive layout, repeated reliance on debunked myths but tempting recipes and insight into the rock-star brewer’s rise to fame, this is perhaps then the beer book that the craft beer generation deserves, but not the one it needs. Mikkeller’s book is a beautiful one, but requires the context of more grounded works. Mosher, Palmer et al have little to fear.

Rediscovering Anspach and Hobday

IMG_20150312_205248

In the past year, the Bermondsey Beer Mile has quickly and perhaps undeservedly became one of the country’s foremost beer ‘things’. From early on, there was a sense that this self-made beer blowout stretched across a handful of breweries in southeast London couldn’t quite sustain itself. The queues, the walking (or artistic usage of multiple Uber discount codes) and occasionally sub-par beer put many people off after a few tries. But then, don’t all ‘legendary’ pub crawls suffer from the same problems?

Some problems were more specific. One major casualty from my own mixed experiences of the Beer Mile was my enjoyment of beer from Anspach & Hobday. Despite enjoying their beer in bottles and whenever I saw it at a Craft Beer Co pub, I had on more than one occasion tasted beer from the brewery that lacked finesse, and on one occasion, patience. Back then, I worried that the brewery was engaging in a demanding weekly event beyond its grasp, and not always being able to provide beer in the best condition it could be.

Last week, Justin Mason and I were invited by Bottle & Bean to take part in its first live beer tasting video for its subscribers, which featured the first monthly resident brewery, none other than Anspach & Hobday. Part of me was looking forward to seeing what Paul and Jack had been making since I’d last visited the brewery, but I retained a little hesitation from my past disappointment. From the first sip of beer I tasted, I was reassured. I ate my words, or rather, drank them.

With each beer I tried, from their oldest and most practiced like the Smoked Brown and Table Porter, to newer recipes like the Stout Porter and Pale Ale, I was deeply and fully impressed. The Pale Ale was, to use an adjective I find myself using more frequently and tellingly, ‘Kernel good’, its light and faintly biscuity malt body a simple and well-built stage for a floral and rounded hop character that delivered juicy lime and kiwi flavours cleanly. It is undoubtedly a Juicy Banger.

The Smoked Brown, always A&H’s most unique and trusted beer, has improved further still, and is easily one of London’s, and the UK’s, most accomplished malt-forward ales. The smoky character is delicate but persistent in every drop, adding depth and dimension to a rounded, mouth-coating caramel body and a simple yet resinous hoppy bitterness. I was surprised to learn from Paul that the Smoked Brown requires more hops in the boil than any other beer they make, but the balance that this achieves is genuinely fantastic.

Both the Table Porter and Stout Porter showed the brewery’s key strengths in different ways – the Table version demonstrating an ability to extract the absolute utmost of flavour, whilst the Stout variety showed a real skill in nailing the balance necessary to make great strong beers truly great.

IMAG0187

These technically accomplished core beers aside, it was the samples of other more limited beers served at the brewery taproom that made me eager to return. A sour ale, in truth the ‘control version’ of a beer due to be completed in a number of different ways, was made with a sour mash instead of inoculating the beer in its fermentation stage (to reduce the risk of infecting other batches) and on its own had the vibrant, sharp and uncompromising sour bite I love. The limited edition White Coffee Milk Stout, a deep burnished golden colour and ripe with vanilla and coconut aromas, was just a tart citrus ingredient away from being a creamy, whipped syllabub cocktail. The oily sweetness and lactose-rich body wasn’t entirely my sort of thing, perhaps best enjoyed by those with a sweet tooth, but damn good nonetheless.

The final beer we tried made me chuckle with delight just from smelling it, a Galaxy Saison conceived by Dylan, a newer member of the brewing team. The glorious peach and papaya aroma had a crackle of black pepper running through it. The flavour developed from sweet, sugary guava and watermelon into a fascinating mid-palate note of strawberries covered in black pepper, ending with a spicy astrigency. The ABV was fairly restrained (for a modern saison) at 5.2%, but provided all the oomph the beer needed. The flavours were blinding.

You might not need any persuading that Anspach & Hobday are making great beers, but if you do need persuading, please do take my word for it. Maybe though, like me, you have a had a different bad experience with a beer that has affected, consciously or unconsciously, your willingness to try beers from that brewer again. As simple and as basic a lesson it might be, it remains one worth re-learning. If people deserve a second chance, then undoubtedly so do beers.

The Distance: Growing Apart

IMG_20141019_154833

 

As you might remember, in the summer I had a bit of a holiday romance with a double IPA by Galway Bay Brewery called Of Foam and Fury. Generous foaming halves of the stuff – a robust 8.5% abv and Ireland’s first commercially-brewed DIPA – seared into my mind, heart and to some extent liver just how far and fast the Irish craft beer scene was growing. It’s an incredibly accomplished beer, made all the more special by discovering it without any pre-attached knowledge or bias.

Towards the end of last year, I had the chance to try it again. I managed to get hold of another bottle thanks to Connor Murphy, who is annoyingly good at both beer writing and beer brewing, and extremely generous to boot. What a guy, honestly. As luck would have it, the equally generous Phill Elliott, freshly returned from a no-holds-barred trip around America and its breweries, offered me (in the most casual way) if I might like one of the bottles of Pliny the Elder he had brought back with him? Well, gosh, I dare say I rather would, actually.

It all came together so perfectly: the chance to put Of Foam and Fury to what many believe is the ultimate test of a DIPA – a direct comparison to one of the style’s most superlative examples. I love Of Foam and Fury, but part of me knew that enjoyment was rooted in rose-tinted memory of a beery holiday with friends. Surely, a side-by-side taste test with Pliny would settle the matter. How wrong I was.

 

IMG_20141116_145444

 

Sticky with orange and caramel, boosted by a muscular, oily bitterness the the edges of its ripe fruitiness edges in sharp lime pith, Of Foam and Fury has more in common with BrewDog Hardcore IPA than Pliny. Galway Bay’s DIPA was all very much as I remembered it, still fresh and bright and quite boisterous in its condition and flavour. One taste transported me back to the Black Sheep pub in Dublin, surrounded by friends old and new. A truly brilliant beer.

So what of Pliny the Elder? For starters it’s a far paler, pinier and crisply bitter beer. Here, the hop character is more defined by mandarin, mango and lemon from the Amarillo and Centennial hops, its bitterness more assertive and sharper. It’s certainly a more accomplished double IPA – earning its famous ‘pint-ability’ with an outrageously clean flavour profile and almost soft mouthfeel – but despite all of that technical brilliance, I didn’t enjoy it as much as Of Foam and Fury.

Wait, what? The beer is better in execution but the lesser of the two? Yes and no. There is of course a glorious juiciness in both, but for me the beer that had the fullest and most complete flavour profile on the day was Of Foam and Fury. Of course, the first question you might ask is how old was the Pliny? Five weeks from bottling. Not ideal perhaps, but more than acceptable for appreciating its world-famous hop character. I think that perhaps the stresses of travel took some toll on the beer, and of course it won’t taste as good as the beer fresh from the brewery, but I feel fairly certain I got a fair impression of it.

 

IMG_20141116_144017

 

So if I got to taste the two beers side-by-side (a pleasure in itself) and was fairly happy with the outcome, why do I think the test was a failure? It wasn’t that, alongside a fresher, younger upstart, Pliny couldn’t live up to its colossal reputation. It wasn’t because Pliny isn’t a great beer, because it really is. It’s because, in a way, I did both beers a disservice by forcing them to compete. That’s why it has taken me so long to finish a blog post about it. The results told me what the beers tasted like, and which one I ultimately preferred at that moment in time, but that was it. I knew there was something to be learned but I couldn’t see it straight away.

It recently became clear to me. The desire to test the beers alongside each other was not because I wanted to enjoy them both, it was because I wanted to pit them against each other. It’s something that’s increasingly prevalent in the craft beer industry – the need to brew the new ‘ultimate’ version of something, and for drinkers to become judges, to try a selection of the same style alongside each other to find The Best, not to enjoy them on their own merits.

This desire to brew the next big thing is rooted in competition and ambition, to beat what’s come before, but that desire to brew ‘the next Pliny’ and similar sentiments isn’t helping us brew better beers – it’s holding us back. Of Foam and Fury clearly took in a number of influences, and wasn’t really a direct clone of anything I’ve had before. However, there have been plenty of occasions where a beer I’ve had clearly was trying to clone something else.

We’re in an age now where the beers that defined the best in craft beer in the past decade, Pliny being chief among them, are no longer at the cutting edge. On this side of the Atlantic, our craft beer industry is frequently guilty of attempting to copy in some respect something from the States. I think our beer scene needs to keep doing what it does best – integrate ideas and traditions but relentlessly innovate and look beyond. We need to pioneer new styles, or bin them if they don’t help us make better beers. We need to measure the distance between where we are now and where we were before, and increase it, not shorten it.

Golden Pints 2014

Golden Pints 2014

Crikey. It’s been a bit of a year, hasn’t it? Time to beat ourselves to death again over what were the best beers of the year. Having already done my Golden Posts, I thought I would have sufficiently limbered up the beer memory section of my brain, but alas, no, Golden Pints gets harder every year. This is obviously brilliant though, so let’s crack on.

 

BEST UK CASK BEER

Jarl.

Jarl. Jarl. Jarl.

Jarl.

Fyne Ales Jarl.

Jarl is a stunning beer in any format, but it also shows just how great a dispense method cask can be. It’s all about what the beer gains from it in terms of body and finish, and it makes most other pale ales seem embarrassingly one-dimensional.

Runner up: Magic Rock High Wire, Adnams Ghost Ship.

 

BEST UK KEG BEER

I’ve been hugely impressed by the consistency, conditioning, and clarity of flavour of Beavertown Gamma Ray this year. Foaming out of the glass, its gorgeous flavours in stunning high-definition and in perfect nick. Every. Single. Time. It’s no coincidence – it’s hard work and it’s paying off big time.

Runners up: Pressue Drop Pale Fire, Camden Town Brewery Pils, Brew By Numbers Berlinerweisse Lime

 

BEST UK BOTTLED/CANNED BEER

2014 really was the year of the #can, and among the leading pack of Beavertown, Fourpure and BrewDog, a late runner emerged in the form of Camden Town’s IHL. It’s simply the best lager being made in the UK, and one of the best-tasting beers in the UK overall. Whilst to many it might seem like ‘just another hoppy beer’, the technical accomplishment of this bright, detailed and glorious beer should not be underestimated.

Runner up: BrewDog Dead Pony Club

 

BEST OVERSEAS DRAUGHT

I tried some amazing Czech beer when I visited Prague earlier this year, but missed out on a trip to Pivovar Kout due to having to fly home early. I was overjoyed to see some of its beers launched at Mother Kelly’s last month and after one taste of the Kout 12˚ Unfiltered, there was no doubt left in my mind. Quite possibly the fullest, richest and yet most balanced lager beer in the world. Sensational.

Runners up: Firestone Walker Double Jack, Lagunitas Lil’ Sumpin’, Troubadour Magma

 

BEST OVERSEAS BOTTLED/CANNED

The reaction to Galway Bay’s Of Foam and Fury double IPA from visitors to Dublin for EBBC14 was unanimous – this is truly an incredible beer that stands up to the very best from the US and the UK, and sums up in so many ways the heart and ambition in the Irish craft beer scene.

Runners up: Westbrook Gose, Oskar Blues Deviant Dale’s IPA,

 

BEST COLLABORATION BREW

The ingenious blend of Camden Town Gentleman’s Wit and The Kernel London Sour is a great achievement in its own right, but the ageing of that blend in a burgundy barrel took the resulting beer to a whole new level. Camden Town/The Kernel Gentleman’s Agreement was easily one of the most memorable beers I’ve tasted this year, with a stunning complexity that punched well its modest strength of 4% abv.

Runner up: Beavertown/ELLC Londonerweisse

 

BEST OVERALL BEER

I don’t want to choose, I really don’t, but one beer  has impressed me more than any other this year and it’s Camden Town IHL. What an incredible piece of work.

 

BEST BRANDING, PUMPCLIP OR LABEL

It’s a very crowded field these days, and too tricky to choose one from so many, so here are my favourites of the year and why:

– Pressure Drop for Nanban Kanpai and Ballwanger

– Beavertown for Gamma Ray and Bone King

– Camden Town for IHL and Hells cans

– BrewDog for their rebrand, which grows on me day by day, and especially for how Jackhammer and Zeitgeist now look.

 

BEST UK BREWERY

It’s nigh on impossible to pick just one anymore. The only criteria I could really use this year was whether any one brewery is as good or better than the brewery I gave this to last year – The Kernel. I think only one brewery in the UK has really nailed every single beer they sell, no matter the container, the style or the packaging, and that’s Beavertown. It’s been an amazing year for them. They’ve advanced themselves enormously, but also the craft beer scene as a whole with some amazing events and incredible collaborations.

Runners up: The Kernel, Thornbridge, BrewDog, Magic Rock, Camden Town, Weird Beard, Buxton

 

BEST OVERSEAS BREWERY

Dieu Du Ciel! is probably the only brewery that can get away with having an exclamation mark in its name, and that oomph is locked into every one of its beers. I was blown away by Moralité and the sheer breadth of beers they brought over for tap takeovers in BrewDog bars this year. Incredible stuff and a brewery I want to see more of.

Runners up: Firestone Walker, Cantillon.

 

BEST NEW BREWERY OPENING 2014

The beers knocked out by Connor on his first try with the new kit at the Dragonfly in Acton told me me this was a brewer who knows what he is doing. Hitting the ground running with well-rounded examples of best bitter, American pale ale, dry stout and hefeweizen in one the best-looking pubs in the capital is a strong start, and I’m looking forward to seeing how they grow in 2015. Special mention for Runaway Brewery whose IPA and American Brown both really impressed me this year.

Runners up: Runaway Brewery.

 

PUB/BAR OF THE YEAR

It has the best staff, amazing customer service, a new and improved food menu and not just the range (“40 taps of awesome”) but also the management to make every one of those taps count. Every time I’ve been to BrewDog Shepherd’s Bush I’ve felt like a valued customer and left full of great, great beer.

Runners up: Mother Kelly’s, Hop and Berry, North Bar.

 

BEST NEW PUB/BAR OPENING 2014

From the moment it opened, Mother Kelly’s has been making all the right moves. Fully refrigerated beer selection to enjoy there or take away, an ever-rotating selection of great draught beers and simple, well-chosen sharing boards in an area that’s fast becoming a microcosm of great independent bars of all kinds.

Runners up: Dragonfly Acton, Hop and Berry. 

 

BEER FESTIVAL OF THE YEAR

I loved Leeds International Beer Festival this year, but when I finally went to the Independent Manchester Beer Convention this year for the first time, I saw where the DNA came from. IMBC is the most influential change to British beer festivals since CAMRA, and it’s right that more people emulate its formula that brings great beer to great people in a great location. It’s brilliantly organised, and the hard work behind it shows in the smiles on the faces of the attendees.

Runners up: London Craft Beer Festival, Leeds International Beer Festival.

 

SUPERMARKET OF THE YEAR

Waitrose would have taken this again, but M&S clinched it at the very last minute by being the first UK supermarket to sell six-packs of bottles of craft beer (Lagunitas IPA). It doesn’t sound much but it’s a huge step-change for supermarket retail in the UK. Waitrose and Tesco will follow.

Runner up: Waitrose

 

INDEPENDENT RETAILER OF THE YEAR

A tough category as the choice gets better every year, but my winner is Sourced Market in St Pancras. The selection is great, the prices decent, the option to drink on the premises very welcome, but I’m always stunned to see just how fresh the beer is (Kernel pale ales bottled yesterday you say?) and the newest beers in London are always well-represented. Special mention for newcomer Hop Burns and Black, who, whilst very far away from me, have an amazing selection that demands regular return visits.

Runners up: Hop Burns & Black.

 

ONLINE RETAILER OF THE YEAR

I rarely order online, but I’m going to give this one to BeerBods (disclosure: I’ve done a couple of write-ups for them) because they’re doing great work in getting people interested in trying and talking about new beers. I also like their new ‘collections’ of mixed beer cases they’ve started to offer. They are fighting the good fight the right way, and the number of people emulating what they do shows just how right they are.

Runner up: Ales by Mail

 

BEST BEER BOOK OR MAGAZINE

The long awaited modern history book for beer geeks, Boak and Bailey’s Brew Britannia, was as great as we had all hoped. It’s not just a great read, it’s also important and right that we have finally have an objective text covering the rebirth of British beer. The authors tireless research and insightful conclusions are both fascinating and, by the end, hugely reassuring. It’s a real triumph.

 

BEST BEER BLOG OR WEBSITE

For the stories, the breathlessly excited tasting notes, the pictures, the bravery to tackle divisive issues with passion and the composure to respond to criticism with unflappable calm, my winner is Total Ales by Matt Curtis. I work closely with Matt and we’re good friends, but his blog is still the one that makes me think ‘Shit, I’d better write something bloody good next time’.

Runners up: Get Beer Drink Beer by Justin Mason, The BeerCast by Richard Taylor, Boak and Bailey’s Beer Blog.

 

BEST BEER APP

Fiz provided a fun and cheerful escape from dreary commutes for good little while, but nothing connects me to beer, beer people and beer places more or better than Twitter. It’s easily become the most useful, adjustable and accurate lens through which I view the world of beer.

Runners up: Fiz, Craft Beer London.

 

SIMON JOHNSON AWARD FOR BEST BEER TWITTERER

David Bishop (@broadfordbrewer) says what we’re all thinking, or at least, what many of us would be thinking if we were as funny as him. His #twattybeerdoodles have become finger-on-the-pulse political cartoons for the world of beer, and his high-quality dad jokes take the edge of even the most ferocious hangover.  He’s a lovely bloke too, annoyingly.

Runners up: @totalcurtis, @boakandbailey.

 

BEST BREWERY WEBSITE/SOCIAL MEDIA

When it comes to online and social media interaction, no brewery comes close to BrewDog, but Beavertown and Camden Town have both upped their game and are themselves quite far ahead of everyone else.

Runners up: Beavertown, Camden Town

 

Salopian

2014-09-14 14.54.59

I’m extremely late to the party on the appreciation of Salopian Brewery’s beers. So late in fact, that when reading up about them as research for this post, I came across Mark Dredge’s post about how late to the party he was, over a year ago.

In which case, I might be saying a lot of things that a lot of you already know. Perhaps not, though. Perhaps Salopian have been on your radar for a fairly long time too, and the opportunities to try their beers have been few and far between, if at all.

It was GBBF that finally got me a taste of Salopian’s beers, though not initially in the normal way. Darwin’s Origin, their best bitter, won Silver in the Champion Beer of Britain competition, and Hop Twister, Lemon Dream and Shropshire Gold were also available, unprecedented (in my short memory of GBBF) for a brewery without its own bar. Unprecedented perhaps, but telling. In reply to someone else’s  tweet about how good their beers tasted, I said that I’d missed out on them on Tuesday’s trade session, and assumed that by my return on Saturday, they would be gone, as most of the award winners tend to be.

I was then contacted by Jake at Salopian, who kindly offered to send me some beers to try, as, in his words, he’s keen for people to see what they can do. As it happened, I did manage to get a taste of Hop Twister at GBBF’s Saturday session, and I was duly impressed. Pithy, tangy citrus and juicy too, on a light and crispy body reminiscent of Jaipur or Kipling, with conditioning many of the beers around it at GBBF sadly lacked.

When the box from Salopian arrived, I was stunned by the range of beers being produced. Aside from the, shall we say, more conventionally labelled core beers like Oracle and Darwin’s Origin, a squadron of minimalist, silver printed bottles made up the numbers. Names like ‘Kashmir, ‘Kinetic’, ‘Automaton’ and ‘Black Ops’ spoke of several shades of IPAs, noting the hops used but little else about them. I would have preferred a little more blurb, if only a few words to say the intended style or twist on it, but the sense of mystery certainly did make me want to open them.

Automaton, a 7% IPA hopped with the unlikely odd couple pairing of Citra and Saaz, was like a magic trick. Pulped grapefruit and mango soak the palate one second, then disappears with a peppery dryness the very next. That juiciness I seek in hoppy pale ales was present in every one of Salopian’s pale ales and IPAs, even the black ones. I was impressed perhaps most of all though by the simple elegance of core pale ale Oracle, which had a glorious peach and melon flavour to it, in a 4% pale ale whose label couldn’t look more traditional. If you’re lucky enough to find these beers near you, do not hesitate.

It got me thinking about how we judge beers not just by flavour, appearance and if it lives up to its reputation, but also by whether we were surprised by it. Some of the beers and breweries that have impressed me the most have been one that completely wrong-footed me. The fact that Salopian’s beers are less easily available  in London contributes to this somewhat, but I don’t think they should remain this elusive. Far from it. I want as many people as possible to be disarmed by the simple brilliance of their beers. I count Salopian in the most important category of breweries: those that simply are a craft brewery, without needing to say so.

Do you have a favourite brewery that aren’t that far away and yet you hardly ever seem to see their beers where you live?

These beers were sent to me by Salopian out of generosity, not in exchange for a blog post, which was written purely on the strength (or rather the quality) of the beers.