The Emperor’s New Zwanze

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A belated post about Zwanze Day 2014, hosted in London this year by The Kernel Brewery on 20 September.

I’m not entirely comfortable with pronouncing the word ‘Zwanze’ – one way sounds too much like Swansea or ‘onesie’ (and I think Zwanze Onesies would be the definitive indicator that we’ve reached ‘peak craft’), and the other way of saying it just sounds like a word for futuristic swans. However you say it, it’s the name given to the day celebrated annually when a unique beer brewed by Cantillon is released and enjoyed at various locations around the world, with all kegs being tapped at 9pm Belgian time, wherever it is in the world it’s being tapped.

This year was the first time I’d attended a Zwanze event. I’d been to limited-release-beer launches before though, so I expected a heaving crush of people swarming around a tiny bar, each with a camera-flashing phone in one hand and a artisanal teku glass sloshing enamel-stripping megabeer in the other. I was especially concerned given how busy The Kernel Brewery bar can be on Saturdays (for the Bermondsey Beer Mile) that it could be chaos.

The reality was a very civilised affair, far more calm than a Saturday day session. This a limited list, after all, of people who had registered by email for a glass of this singular beer. It was a simple and effective system: register by email and receive a flyer on arrival entitling you to a glass of Zwanze, so no worries about it running out whilst you’re queuing.

The story of this year’s Zwanze can be found here. It’s a lovely story, and the beer itself has a very considered yet playful construction that really embodies the mind of its creator. Briefly, it’s a three-year-aged, blended, dry-hopped gueuze, blended with kriek and dry hopped again with Bramling X. Reducing it to a sentence does the beer a injustice though, because the canvas it paints across your palate is so much more than its constituent parts.

The colour alone, a mahogany-rich maroon with carmine edges, thrills the eyes. The sharp aroma of citrus pith, pepper, linseed oiled cricket bats, leather and overripe blackberries is, at first, baffling. You need a taste to complete the puzzle it presents. The first sip is an artillery barrage of harsh, flat, funk, wrapped in juicy, tart luscious raspberries and white grapes, thicken by the thick cut shred of orange peel in marmalade that gets stuck in your teeth. The finish, more of a crescendo really, is a machine-gun bitterness that sprays around the palate and dries everything it touches with lemon pith, apple skin and wood. Oh, and it is sour – sour like the sky is blue – but it was the dryness that really stuck with me, remarkable and utterly brow-furrowing in its assertiveness.

Of course, with every event like this, there is plenty of commentary online, both positive and negative. Almost universally positive from the people there, and a smattering of negativity from those that aren’t. It’s just the usual stuff, from honest jealousy to more bitter sentiments about the Emperor’s New Clothes, and whether the people attending can fairly judge a beer they’ve registered to try and pay a premium for.

I handed over a paltry £3.50 to taste a third of a pint of that incredible beer, from an exquisite glass in great company in one of the greatest breweries in the world. Considering the beer’s story, the process that made it and the experience I had while drinking it, I fail to see how I got anything less than the best value glass of beer in the world for that money.

Still, it’s a common debate in craft beer that goes way beyond Zwanze, which is normally universally loved every year, and it’s a debate that I struggle with. I can’t logically argue with the notion of people enjoying a beer more because they think they should, or because they’ve paid more for it. Equally, it can easily be argued that such limited release or rare beers can genuinely be astonishingly good. I actually laughed aloud with how good Zwanze was. It tripped across my palate, somersaulted into my brain and hit the necessary synapses to release a laugh of delight from my lips (Fou’Foune prompted a similar reaction, but more from my incredulity at just how sherbety and juicy it is).

I grow concerned that with the maturity of our craft beer scene there is also a steady increase in cynicism, not just the healthy kind that keeps you financially solvent, but the kind that closes one’s mind. The beer itself was a stone cold masterpiece. There can be no doubt about that whatsoever.

Whilst it used to worry me that I too was getting all caught up in the moment and not judging these rare and limited release beers as critically as I should, lately I find myself asking a different question: what if the Emperor’s New Clothes are actually, you know, incredible? What if the reason these people can’t see the Emperor’s New Clothes is because they weren’t there to see them?

Of course, there’s another side to this – criticism of tickers. For me it comes back to The Seeking, something that, more and more, I’m convinced is a very different mindset to that of ticking. I don’t have a problem with ticking – for the most part it’s merely the search of new beers and what they taste like – but it definitely has a dark side to it: those that turn up, tick, leave; or simply wish to be the Mayor of their favourite beer. All harmless enough of course, but for some tickers, it is the tick that motivates them, not the experience that comes with it.

As I grow as a beer drinker and as a writer, it is that concept to which I try to hold fast, no matter what: seek the experience, not the tick. That way, if the experience is this good, then the Emperor’s new clothes look just fine to me.

A box from Beer52

It’s fair to say that there are quite a few beer mail order services now and not just those from the ‘standard’ retailers, either. Several companies are now providing a ‘selection box’ style approach, which can be helpful to people with an interest in the modern beer scene but unsure where to begin or what to try. Beer52 are just such a company, and I was kindly sent a free box to try.

The deal is: for £24 per month (including delivery), Beer52 will deliver you a box of 8 selected beers. You’ll get a bit of info about each and suggested food matches. You can also use their ‘Beer Shed’ on their website to order more of the beers featured in their boxed selections.

I was interested to try the selection I’d been sent for several reasons. Firstly, several were from Scottish brewers I haven’t tried beers from before. Secondly, whilst most of the stuff was at the pale end of the spectrum, they each seemed to be from breweries with little in common. Lastly, two of the beers (a disproportionately high number when the total is eight) were from the reviled Brewmeister brewery.

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Still, there’s a lot to like about the box’s presentation. I liked the idea of the brief beer and food matching guide on one side of the box. A bit overly simplified (‘Wheat -> Sushi’ might only yield interesting results with witbiers, I think) but still a nice thought. Each box also comes with a little leaflet with some info about each of the beers, which was quite helpful but not all beers had food matches, there were few typos and the Brewmeister copy was just repeated for both beers.

I told myself I would give the Brewmeister beers a fair review – they deserve no more or no less. Ridiculous, error-strewn label copy and paper-thin reputation aside, I gave both beers every chance. There were also some predictable beery gems in the box too, and some quite pleasant surprises.

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Here are my thoughts on the beers:

Deeside Brewery Craft Lager (4.1% ABV) – A very lively, crisp lager with fairly high carbonation. It’s quite lemony, but perhaps overly sweet, with a sharp, herbal bitterness that reminds just a little of a Belgian wit. A good lager but not as great as its ‘premium’ label might imply.

Scottish Borders Brewery Foxy Blonde (3.8% ABV) – Can’t figure out the reason behind the name. Was there a sleazier previous version of the label, or is it a tenuous nod to their “plough-to-pint” (farm-to-fork? glass-to-face?) rural credentials? At any rate, it’s an easy-going, fruity golden ale. A proper citrus zing to the first few gulps and well-conditioned too.

Fyne Ales Sanda Black IPA (5.5% ABV) – A beer I’ve enjoyed before, but rarely seen this far south. Technically impressive and highly accomplished, doing that Fyne trick of astonishing balance regardless of style or ingredients. It’s juicy white grape, gooseberry and lychee on a chocolatey base. Hard to fault.

Whale Ale Co Pale Whale (3.8% ABV) – Very bright, very pale beer but ‘normal’ almost to a fault. It’s mostly good: light, zippy citrus notes and a biscuity malt base, but it just seems a little too thin, perhaps due to a slightly rough, papery finish. Suspect it might be bad bottle, but would definitely try again on cask.

 

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Brouwerij De Molen Pale Ale Citra (4.8% ABV) – It’s been a while since I’ve enjoyed this masterful single hop beer. The balance of grapefruit juiciness and tartness with the carbonation’s prickliness and malty caramel is sublime. It’s one of those beers that conveys a real sense of its careful construction – unmistakeably brilliant brewing.

St Andrews Brewing Co India Pale Ale (5% ABV) – A lively pour of vibrant autumnal red-hued amber beer with a big, aromatic head. There’s lots of orange peel, a bit of lime, pepper and pine in that aroma, which translates onto the palate with a full, punchy bitterness. It gave me favourable impressions of Anchor Liberty and White Shield, and I really like the label.

Brewmeister Black Hawk (5% ABV) – Reddish brown ‘dunkel’. Hugely over-carbonated. The aroma is burnt sugar, toast and faint coffee, but very thin. The palate is very crispy in mouthfeel, very sugary, some faint coffee, acrid charcoal notes, a peppery roughness to the finish which is sharp and yet somehow flat. A catalogue of errors that never really comes together, and is unpleasant after a few gulps.

Brewmeister 10 (10.1% ABV) – This ‘nuclear-charged bock’ is more like super-charged Doom Bar. Bocks are admittedly on the sweet side, but there’s almost no bite, dryness or bitterness. Again, quite highly carbonated. Noticeably absent is a hint of the beer’s 10.1% abv (a worrying trend). Too fizzy, rather clumsy and not a glass I could get to the bottom of.

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I’ve been assured that Brewmeister’s beers won’t be featured by Beer52 again – apparently the deal with them was signed long before the recent revelations. Most of the other beers in the box were good, a few were fantastic and several were from brewers I haven’t had beers from before, which is kind of the point really.

I think Beer52’s offer is well-suited for people dipping their toe into the world of good beer. It’s a good place to start before ‘graduating’ or supplementing the subscription with one from a more specialist beer retailer, perhaps.

The great thing is that there are now a range of subscription-type services to suit you. If you prefer the community aspect and more in-depth knowledge and discussion of good beer, BeerBods might be more for you. If you’ve got specific tastes and want stuff as fresh as it gets, Eebria might be more up your alley. Or, if you already know your way around beer but want a bit of guidance, the curated boxes from the likes of BeerHawk might be more for you. But, if you like a ‘lucky dip’ approach that’s relatively cheap and you enjoy surprises, Beer52’s offer is pretty tempting (especially if you redeem the promotional code below).

Reader offer: You can get £10 off your first Beer52 box if you order using the promotional code ‘CRAFTY10’.

Disclosure: I was sent the box from Beer52 for free.

Traditionally Modern

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The new Pilsner Urquell cans coming soon to the UK

 

Breweries with an illustrious heritage often struggle to shake off the fusty, traditional image that grates with modern artistic design. In an effort to stay modern and relevant, any attempt  at a violent rebrand is usually clumsy, and often ends up sacrificing what people liked about the brewery’s image in the first place. It’s refreshing then, to see the beautiful labels of the new canned version of Pilsner Urquell that should be arriving on these shores in the next couple of months.

As you can see from the image above, these aren’t just any labels. In a nod to the brewer’s rich history, Urquell are selling their new cans in four packs, with each can bearing a different, limited edition label, based on four different designs from the brewery’s archives (my favourites are the two on the left). It’s slightly reminiscent of the arty labels that Becks had commissioned a while back, yet in Pilsner’s case I think this really keeps true to the brewery’s history and branding without pandering to fashion.

They look really, really good, especially in the rather *craft* cardboard sleeve, and the beer inside tastes on a par with draught Pilsner Urquell in terms of freshness and mouthfeel. They should be hitting shelves in the UK in time for summer.

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In more Pilsner packaging news, Urquell will be selling bottled Pilsner entirely in brown glass in the very near future (EDIT: likely to arrive in the UK next year), and there are plans for more of their Tankovna (brewery-fresh, unpasteurised pilsner tanks) to be installed in pubs both inside and outside of London. I’ll be discussing the Tankovna version of Pilsner in a future blogpost, but rest assured, it’s damn good stuff. Like the freshest pilsner you’ve ever tasted, with the smooth, quaffable mouthfeel of cask ale.

The brewery has also sent some wooden casks of the unfiltered version of Pilsner (enjoyed by the attendees to EBBC13 last year) to several pubs around London this week. There’s info about where you can find some today or tomorrow on this page of their website (has an age checking thing).

Thanks to Mark Dredge for getting me an advance four-pack of these cans. Yet more evidence, if more evidence were needed, that 2014 will see the Summer of Cans.

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The Week in Beer #0

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Sometimes, it’s hard to generate a whole blog post from the various flotsam and jetsam of beer things that happen. It’s not always enough – not so much a writer’s block as a blogger’s clog – a little cluster of thoughts that lack the electric impulse to become Something To Say. Still, I think that beer is always worthy of note, even if, or especially if, it’s mediocre. This is me having a stab at capturing the stray craft particles, the free radicals of my week, wrapping a big net around them putting a flag in the whole hoppy mess. Here are some beers I’ve had this week and what, if anything, they made me think.

Monday: Dry as a bone, but there was much to be said on Twitter about anger and reactions and beer styles and so on. Another Monday.

Tuesday: I was conveyed unto the Brewed Dog on the Shepherd’s Bush to meet and rejoice with the craft wanker brethren (and sistren). A tasty insult to history was enjoyed in the form of Gloucester Black Simcoe. Also of note: a Rye Bread Sour from Levain Franken that had a quaffable creamy note that made it one of those expensive beers you would drink by the pint with a winning lottery ticket. Also, my curiosity got the better of me, and I tried Hobo Pop, which proves we can now make American Stale Ale as good as them Americans and that. Hobo Plop, more like.

I then proceeded to drink an Amount of Beers Inappopriate for a Tuesday, but stuck to halves and two-thirds and so survived largely unscathed.

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Wednesday: Sixpoint’s cans of Wetherjoy arrived late due to inclement posting attempts. Others posted about them quicker than I, so I didn’t bother to add to the noise. My thoughts on the beers:

The Crisp – slightly too boozy, but largely by the book pils. weird pithiness throughout that gives a sense of Premiumness, but at what cost?

Sweet Action – a fresh, foxy delight of peach, mango and melon. Delightful and juicy. Likely to be cloying in larger amounts, but that exact portion felt heavenly.

Bengali Tiger – an orange pith heavy, grapefruit tart assault on my main face. Refreshingly uncrystally, robust yet accessible.

What does it all mean? Don’t know. Too tired of predicting the future. More interested in the choice of range: for example, why a lager, wheat/pale/cream pale and IPA? Imported European-style US lager in perfect condition to prove a point? Maybe. More likely to be the entry point to all this craft bollocks for your mate who’s with you when you order the pair for £5/6 deal. Hook him in, get him on the Sweet Action, job’s a good’un.

Thursday: BeerBods this week was Moncada Notting Hill Red, an accomplished, American-hopped red ale at 6%. Having had a couple of the brewery’s beers before (Ruby Rye on cask and Blonde in bottle), I was expecting good things, and the Red did not disappoint. Full in jammy and piney aroma, rounded in its nutty sweetness and caramel-soaked orangey, limey hop character, there was a lot to enjoy in this beer. I’ll pursue their other beers with interest.

(Given the thirst for something similar, I opened a bottle of Hardknott Infra Red, only to find it had gone a bit ‘craft’, with a lactic character reminiscent of Rodenbach and much of the hop character and toffee sweetness gone. Not wholly unpleasant, but not the beer on the label. So why did I keep drinking it? It had gone off – I should have immediately poured it away. Truth is, I actually liked what had gone wrong. Truly.)

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Friday: The Gun in the docklands near Canary Wharf celebrated National Pie Week (no, not every week apparently) by offering a Pie and Beer Flight, which was about as close as it gets to my ideal use of a 6 x 12 inch piece of slate. Three mini-pies, each paired to a third of beer. Cockel and smoked fish pie matched to a third of Anspach and Hobday’s The Smoked Brown (a sweet, crispy and smokey boost to the pie); a venison and apple pie matched to Partizan Black IPA (total, lavish decadence); and a figgy fruit turnover-pie with Brew By Numbers Saison Wai-Iti and Lemon (a curiously warming and spicy combination). For £14, it’s achievable and enjoyable proof of thoughtful beer and food matching without being inaccessible or too geeky. Hopefully more to come from this increasingly impressive pub.

On a side note, it was here that I first saw Brewmeister in the wild: their Supersonic IPA was on cask. As I can no longer get away with chiding them without actually tasting their beer, I dutifully ordered a half. Would it be passable? Would it be great? Would it have travelled well, and would a clone of Punk IPA on cask actually be a bad thing? I never found out. Some bastards had drank it all. Ominous. I went for Siren Soundwave instead, of which there was plenty.

That’s all for now. Saturday and Sunday will be spent in York and Leeds, hopefully warranting a gushing blogpost in due course.

Golden Pints 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best UK Cask Beer

To ‘doge’ this issue: wow much difficult.

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

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

Best UK Keg Beer

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

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

Best UK Bottled or Canned Beer

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

Best Overseas Draught Beer

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

Best Overseas Bottled or Canned Beer

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

Best Collaboration Brew

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

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

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

Best Overall Beer

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

Best Branding, Pumpclip or Label

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

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

Best UK Brewery

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

Best Overseas Brewery

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

Best New Brewery Opening 2013

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

Pub/Bar of the Year

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

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

Best New Pub/Bar Opening 2013

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

Beer Festival of the Year

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

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I’m not joking.

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

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

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

Never again etc.

Supermarket of the Year

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

Independent Retailer of the Year

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

Online Retailer of the Year

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

Best Beer Book or Magazine

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Joint winners:

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

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

Best Beer Blog or Website

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

Best Beer App

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

Simon Johnson Award for Best Beer Twitterer

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

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

Best Brewery Website/Social media

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

Food and Beer Pairing of the Year

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

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

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

Here’s to next year.

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.

Bitter and Twisted at Gourmet Burger Kitchen

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A beer and a burger. A humble staple of pub menus across the land.

Some have taken that simple pairing of juicy meat and palate-tingling beer and made something exciting of it. Every city has a local champion, but in London, Byron is the king. Their beer menu puts half of the capital’s pubs to shame, never mind the restaurants. It’s a weird sort of anomaly on the graph of good beer in restaurants, sitting out on its own in an area marked ‘burgers and stuff, but not street food’. I think it’s street food and pop-ups that have derailed this otherwise promising trend. Street food vendors would more than likely sell quality beer if they had the license to do so, however, so maybe this is an area where having a roof wins every time.

Before I’d ever heard of Byron, I’d been to Gourmet Burger Kitchen. It was clearly all about the burgers – big ones – and a choice of decadent toppings and sauces. I remember having a hunk of beef quite rare and covered in blue cheese. It was exciting, and delicious, but the beer was just an afterthought. I think I had Budvar.

Now, of course, in a country besieged by new breweries and people interested in what those breweries make, it’s simply not good enough to just have a couple of lagers below the wine list. To GBK’s credit, they do stock their ‘own label’ Organic Pale Ale made by Laverstoke Farm. I haven’t had it, but the thought counts. Alongside that and the standard couple of lagers, a new beer has been welcomed onto the menu: Harviestoun’s Bitter & Twisted.

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Harviestoun’s Bitter & Twisted is a zesty, likeable blonde beer that suits bottles very well. It has a lemony, citrusy, even peachy hop character that’s kept in balance with some floral Noble hops too. Whilst it’s a pale ale, it reminds me a bit of Sam Adams Boston Lager, in a good way. GBK have about fifty restaurants now, so in Harviestoun they’ve picked a brewer that can handle the distribution demand, and fill the vacancy on their menu for new ‘craft beer’ that people will find interesting but accessible. B&T is a great beer, but it’s not like it’s Racer 5 or anything else on Byron’s beer menu. It being stocked at GBK is still a good thing though of course, because it points toward a more mainstream acceptance of having great beer in high street food outlets.

Wednesday saw the launch of B&T at the GBK in Angel, Islington. It’s a nice place to eat, with interesting lighting, and it uses a soft touch when it comes to hipster décor. The whole restaurant was given over to the invited guestlist between 5.00pm and 6.30pm (a potentially risky move given the place’s proximity to a Vue cinema on Orange Wednesday). Free bottles of B&T were brought to the table, along with sliders/mini-burgers of a few different varieties from the menu. It was a much more informal kind of beer launch than I’m used to. At no point did a Harviestoun person get everyone’s attention and chat about the beer (or it’s pairing potential with burgers), which was a bit of a shame. The only other irritation was that some burgers made to some tables, but not to others. I had a couple of the wild boar burgers, and a couple of the chicken, Camembert and cranberry variety (pictured above), both of which B&T went with excellently. The chicken burger in particular seemed to bring out all the best bits of the beer – a balance of sweet and tart alongside the cranberry, whilst also cutting through the chicken and gooey cheese.

There was also some chips and dips doing the rounds, including hunks of grilled halloumi with a green chilli dip that the B&T paired with very nicely indeed, sitting on top of the chilli on your tongue and gradually turning it sweet.

The event as a whole was fun, but too informal and casual to land any messages about the brand and why it’s there. Other than that, it was a fun evening of food and beer. It also reminded me of what a lovely beer Bitter & Twisted actually is, so in that regard, it was certainly a success. Hopefully, we’ll see more interesting beer listings in GBK and other places like it in the future.

Camden Versus Odell Baltic Porter

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Porter is a beer style that makes even the most knowledgeable beer experts a little nervous. Many a beer blogger has had to fumble together a paragraph that kind-of-but-not-entirely explains how, if at all, porter is different from stout. I’m not going to do so here. We’ve all got lives to live. I’ve tried before, but others have done it better. That’s what makes Baltic Porter so special. It has discernable characteristics that set it apart. What started out as an export-strength porter for sale in the Baltic states in the 18th century, became so well-loved it was adopted by them. By the mid-19th century, it was being made with cold-fermenting ale yeast or lager yeast, transforming it into something quite different.

Fast forward to May 17th 2013. Odell brewmaster and all-round lovely gent Doug Odell is brewing a collaborative beer with Camden Town Brewery. The audacious aim is a violent, schizophrenic fusion of Odell’s seminal Cutthroat Porter and Camden Town’s award winning Hells Lager. The result: Camden Versus Odell, a Baltic porter at 7% abv. I remember being baffled by the facing off of lager and porter, but after thinking about what a Baltic porter really is, it actually makes perfect sense. Cutthroat is full-bodied but incredibly balanced beer that glides silkily across the palate, and is even-handed in its dispensing of cocoa and coffee. Hells, meanwhile, is the clean, classy everyman of the booming London beer scene. Easy to like and hard to hate, it just shines with quality, depth, bite and refreshment. All things considered, it’s a grand heritage.

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On June 27th, Camden Versus Odell was launched at Camden Town Brewery where it was brewed. Head brewer Alex Troncoso was present to talk about the beer (most of which came across as a rather adorable enthusiasm for being able to brew with Doug Odell). My anticipation for this beer had grown since that day back in May when the brewery was filled with the smell of what should be a cracking beer. Assembling such a Frankenstein’s monster should be easy, right? Cutthroat’s body and flavour with Hells’ clarity, balance and quaffability. What could go wrong?

Normally such a paragraph break would suggest that ‘well, actually, a whole goddamn lot can go wrong’. Thankfully, this is not the case. Camden Versus Odell is an accomplished, technically impressive and delicious Baltic porter. It wears its 7% abv strength not like a burden, but rather like an ostentatious crown befitting a Czar. The difference that a lager yeast and long (six week) maturation can have on a porter is quite remarkable. It arrives on your tongue in a forthright and unashamedly loud fashion. Quick, cold, carbonated bursts of coffee and cocoa that at first seem sharp and overly bitter melt into something soft and silky, ending with a crisp, roasty bite. The consensus of other drinkers I spoke to was that it was a sublimely balanced beer, and never tiring in its flavour or strength.

As the beer warms in the glass, there’s more to enjoy. Toffee sauce and chocolate chunks (like a tub of half-melted Ben & Jerry’s ice cream) pile up on the tongue, but just as the mouthfeel becomes thick, the crisp, dry finish cuts everything down, leaving you gasping for every sip. A 7% abv beer needs to be special in order to be this drinkable, and Camden Versus Odell is just such a beer. Fans of strong porter and black lager should seek it out while it’s still available, and if this beer is anything to go by, future releases from Camden’s ‘Versus Range’ will be unmissable.

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Disclaimer: I was invited to the launch of this beer at Camden Town Brewery, where half-pint measures of the beer were free from 7pm until 8pm. Needless to say, I had a few. My growler fill was paid for.

Odell Red Ale and Lugene Chocolate Milk Stout

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American-style red ales are possibly my favourite style at the moment. The rich, complex malt bill, often heavy in caramel, roasted and spicy notes, matched with the pith, pine and tropical fruit of hops is an irresistible combination. Odell’s Red Ale claims, or at least its label does, to have taken a new approach to American red ales. This is hard to agree with. It is still a fantastic beer, just not something terribly new or exciting.

The one thing this beer does impress with is its colour. I’ve never seen a red ale this red. It glows like a traffic light, but instead of in scarlet, it does so in a rich, warming, burnished autumnal red. It’s almost as pretty as the label on the bottle, which, let’s face it, is very easy on the eye. Odell’s Red Ale, whilst boasting of ferocious dry hopping, is more of a study in malt, and this is evident from the aroma alone. Imagine a plate piled high with golden syrup cookies, with golden syrup poured over them, then set alight and sprinkled with chocolate shavings and vanilla. It’s an amazing aroma that brings a nostalgic half-smile to your face without you realising. You know, that time we set fire to those cookies. What a day. Anyway, what I’m trying to say here is that it has a complex, biscuity and syrupy nose.

If you can bring yourself to stop smelling it for a second, you’ll find these aromas carry through pretty cleanly to the palate. Which is odd. Normally, a red ale is a heady muddle of flavours, but Odell’s has a clarity which is quite astounding. Those much-talked-of dry hops do make an appearance, adding piney, resinous stickiness to what is already red treacle in a glass, but not really providing the ‘kick’ that the goat-adorned label promises to provide. It’s certainly a dry finish, but the mouthfeel of the beer is so thick and oily that it really demands a firecracker hop barrage to even it out.

There’s too much I like about Odell Red Ale to say that I’m disappointed by it, but I’m not as happy with it as I thought I would be.

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As all the other beers I’ve had of Odell’s have been hop-dominant, it seems weird to have two malt-driven beasts in a row. Nevertheless, I was excited to try their Lugene Chocolate Milk Stout, if, again, only because its label is so goddamn exquisite. Heaven knows how they managed to make a hairy old cow’s mush eating chocolate look so damn appealing.

Lugene pours like flat cola; it’s one of those strong stouts that seems lively with a brown head of foam, but disappears in seconds, leaving you with a glass of thin crude oil. The aroma is dominated by the beer’s strength, a rambunctious 8.5%. Beyond the alcoholic, medicinal note, there isn’t much in the way of chocolate on the nose. There’s some, sure, but not as much as I would expect a ‘chocolate milk stout’ to have. There’s a bit of instant coffee and cocoa powder, but it all feels a little lacklustre.

Not great omens for the taste, you might think, and you’d be right. What starts out warming, prickly sweet and cocoa-bitter, turns flat and limp quite quickly. You go back for more, but it never quite delivers. What Lugene is, bizarrely, is a session 8.5% chocolate stout. The alcohol, so present in the nose, is just a slightly medicinal aftertaste. The barely noticeable chocolate has perked up somewhat, but is ironically hampered by the overall sweetness of the beer. Whether this is due to the amount of unfermented lactose (this is still a milk stout after all) left in the finished product, or just a clumsy imbalance of flavours, is beyond my own detection.

What I do know is that I have somehow found the two least impressive Odell beers I have ever tasted. I didn’t intend to write a blog post deriding one of my favourite American breweries, but here we are. I have had four or five absolutely stunning beers from Odell, and have just tasted two that have really left me underwhelmed. Do you agree? Have I just had a bad batch or have you had similar experiences with Odell beers? Let me know in the comments.

Coming Soon: Camden Versus Odell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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