Book review: Craft Beer World by Mark Dredge

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Craft Beer World

Mark Dredge

Dog ‘n’ Bone

pp 208 (hardcover)

Craft Beer World may be billed as ‘a guide to over 350 of the finest beers known to man’, but it isn’t just a ‘beers to drink before you die’ book. Well, it is, but there’s a lot more to it than that. It’s also part introduction to beer, part style-guide, part editorial on what ‘craft beer’ is, and part food and beer guide.

The most refreshing aspect of the book is its pragmatic approach to beer styles and definitions. Instead of irritably correcting us on our misinformed opinion of what exactly porters, milds or IPAs are, Mark Dredge acknowledges that entire categories of beer are based on old ideas and misnomers, and that so much of what is being brewed right now is in a league of its own with few established classics because of how new some styles are. He doesn’t make the entire history of brewing easy to absorb in one sitting (no one can), but he does a stand-up job of making it easier to understand.

More impressively, Mark Dredge also makes a gallant effort to nail down his idea of what ‘craft beer’ is to satisfy English speakers across the world and comes out the other side unscathed. Whilst those of us who know Mark from his excellent blog will know that he is English, the book is written in US English to the sake of broad appeal. This is fine, even if some phrases or spellings jar with his clearly British phrasing and tone. This is Craft Beer World, after all, and a lot of countries get their beer mentioned. Sweden, Brazil, Italy, Spain and Chile are mentioned alongside the more traditional brewing countries, but the bulk of beers covered are from the USA, where Mark sees a land of constant innovation and brash, fearless experimentation.

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The real strength of Craft Beer World is in its variety of content. Forgetting the 350 beers for a second, there is still enough material here to form the basis of a solid beer book in its own right. From the guide to what beer is and how it is made, through to the significance of specific ingredients, it’s an extremely useful guide for a beginner. For those of us who are more well-versed in the subject matter, there is more advanced information like identifying off flavours, which is rarely mentioned in most books of this kind.

Of course, the meat of the book is the descriptions of the aforementioned 350 or so beers. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these are generally accompanied with an image of the bottle or label. Whilst it would have been nice to see more images of the beer itself in the glass, that’s not a task I would wish upon my worst enemy. As Dredge readily admits, he loves great graphic design, and gleefully points out beers that are as important for how good-looking the packaging is as the taste of the liquid inside. There really are some sensational labels, and the book can almost be used a flick-through primer of the current crop of leading beer label artists.

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As ever, Mark knows how to describe beer, not just in conventional tasting vocabulary, but also in a way that draws in laymen and connoisseurs alike. We occasionally get glimpses into fun-filled beer adventures, like him and his friends trying to find the Brooklyn Bridge or simply sampling another incredible round of unusual beers. Some are clearly very treasured, personal memories, and we feel privileged to have them shared with us. There are not as many of these as perhaps I might like, but as infrequent as they are, they do provide a vital context to the enjoyment of the beer being described. It’s an idea that recurs throughout the book: that beer is not just the liquid, but the moment. It’s not so arty-farty as terroir or a sense of time and a place, but something more tangible and personal like a memory (or, better still, a blurry memory) that anyone can understand.

It is also quite apparent that this book could have just as easily been about 350 breweries as 350 beers. When describing any particular beer, Mark can’t help but give us some tips on which other beers from the same brewery we should try, and sometimes this infectious enthusiasm and desire to give you as much information as possible reduces the description of the actual beer to just a line. However, it is this enthusiasm that keeps the book readable, and not just a dry reference tome that you might dip into from time to time. After all, many of us might not read a book like this in the same way we might read a novel. In the case of Craft Beer World, this is exactly what I did. I picked up every day, read about new beers and new breweries and new adventures, and felt like I was travelling along with the author. It’s a testament to Dredge’s skill as a writer, and the book makes it clear that he is a strong and important voice in British beer writing.

Whilst classic beers are acknowledged where necessary, this is a book about the best things in beer right now. The long-term value of this book will be as a time capsule of the best beer being made at the time of writing. This is more than a casual reference or coffee table book. This is a contemporary snapshot of the world’s best craft beer and the excitement that surrounds it, and this is a thing truly worth treasuring.

Bath Ales and Beerd: Craft Beer in the West Country

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I came across two very different outlets of modern British beer in the West Country at the weekend. One was a highly-evolved descendant of that old, artisanal, hand-prepared chestnut: the gastropub. The other was a very on-trend, hipster-magnetic craft beer and pizza joint that still had a unique character all of its own. Both places are owned by Bath Ales, which owns a handful of pubs in the Southwest, mostly around Bath and Bristol.

Graze Bar, Brewery and Chophouse is, as you might guess from the name, more than just a gastropub. It is the third Graze that Bath Ales has opened, following more traditional-looking outlets in Bristol and Cirencester. The Bath incarnation is part of the newly built foodie-centric Vaults development around Bath Spa train station. Graze is actually on a level with the station’s platforms, but is accessed by stairs or lift from below. Graze is very large, about on a par with Bristol’s Zero Degrees, and the similarities do not end there. Unlike any of Bath Ales’ other pubs, the Graze in Bath has a microbrewery plant in the midst of it. It didn’t seem to be active at the time of my visit.

Aesthetically, however, Graze couldn’t be more different to Zero Degrees. Instead of dazzling chrome, Graze is all about pine, Bath stone, copper, brass and soft leather. The whole place is like a purpose-built pub-showhome, and is quite beautiful. I would suggest checking out that link above to see for yourself. I couldn’t capture it easily on a smartphone camera. Basically, Graze is a long rectangle shape with glass walls on its longest sides and balconies outside them. One side overlooks the city, the other provides a view of the picturesque countryside beside the train station. A shiny island bar lounges in the middle, and everyone looks pretty pleased to be there.

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The food is geared towards fancy cuts of beef, pretty little starters and vibrant seafood. The beer has a upmarket mainstream selection, alongside ales and cider from the parent brewery. I had the market special fish of the day, which was a beautiful smoked haddock kedgeree (£13). I had this with a pint of the Special Pale Ale (Bath SPA – geddit?), and may have found my beer and food match of the year so far. SPA is brewed with lager malt, making for an extremely clean and lively beer with a simple and gorgeous peachy, grapefruit character. The fish melted in the bubbles of the SPA, the smoke was enhanced, then sweetened. The spices in the kedgeree were lifted and boosted by the lightness of the beer and its carbonation. The hops didn’t clash with the heat but became a part of it somehow. It was one of those meals that makes you think: I MUST know how to make this at home. I’ll let you know how I get on.

Graze is a really special place, and an absolute must-visit for beer and food lovers in that part of the West.

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So what of the other side of the Bath Ales estate? Well this is a story in two parts. First, the bar itself. Beerd is a ‘craft beer and pizza’ joint in the studenty, trendy Cotham area of Bristol. Its name, with a very Bristolian sense of humour, may poke fun at the both real ale and craft beer hipsters (the free WiFi password is ‘beardyweirdy’) but that is where the jokes end. This is a cutting edge craft beer bar that provides a cool, credible location to choose between quality cask and keg beer. The stainless steel handpulls (featuring Bath, Black Rock, Penryn among others) are topped with mismatching BMX handlebar grips, whilst the keg beer taps (including Anchor, Wild Beer Co, Palm, Moor) stick out of a giant wooden cask. All right, maybe that’s another joke too. There’s also a solid and ever-changing selection of bottles to rival a BrewDog bar.

The rest of the décor is more mismatched craft beer chic: kitsch plastic chairs alongside metal stools, and formica tables next to old driftwood topped tables. The wallpaper is a very cool pastiche of beer brands, and the whole place has a trendy student vibe that still feels welcoming to all ages. It’s a very Bristol kind of place, friendly and alternative. You can imagine something like it existing there whether there was a beer renaissance going on or not. The food range is slightly more than just pizzas (one nice idea is that you can have any pizza’s toppings as a salad instead), but not a lot more. There’s lots of responsibly sourced vegetables and deli-quality Italian meats.

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I went for an Artichoke, Roasted Pepper and Rocket pizza (about £9), and added some Prosciuttio and Salami because I’m worth it (an extra £2). I ate the first half with Wild Beer Co’s Spellbound, a Brettanomyces yeast golden ale, which wasn’t entirely intentional but it worked better than you’d think. The spicier esters from the lively yeast played along well with peppery rocket and the crispy base. The rest of the pizza was finished with Moor’s Nor’Hop, which was simply sensational. The hops danced with peppers and the rocket, the carbonation melted the crispy base in my mouth, and the sharpness cut the oily, salty meat and cheese to bits. An amazing combination, so delicious that I forgot to take a picture of it until I’d almost finished it.

It gets even better. Beerd is no longer just the name of the bar, it’s also now the name of Bath Ales’ new microbrewery operation. Two of Beerd’s new beers were available on the bar: Big Small Beer and Dark Hearths. Big Small Beer is a low ABV (2.8%) pale ale with a ferocious hop bill, balancing a light body with thick portions of soft fruit and sharp tropical juice. Dark Hearths is a ‘peated porter’ with an oily body and Schlenkerla-like stickyness to its smoke character. Both were really, really good. More beers are on the way, and those two alone mark Beerd out as a brewery to watch. As far as I can tell, Beerd is brewing in a separate part of Bath Ales’ main brewery. That little microbrewery plant in Graze seems to be a separate project.

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The idea of a ‘perfect pub’ is not a new idea, but exciting beer destinations – those sorts of places that we will happily take awkward, multiple-connection-strewn journeys to find – are certainly a big part of the current beer renaissance. Bath Ales’ approach is exciting. By creating different beer destinations that different people will enjoy, they are embracing the diversity that good beer encourages.

Duke’s Brew and Que

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I had been eager to visit Duke’s Brew & Que, the original home of Beavertown Brewery, for some time. I regularly hear tales of the place’s meaty wonders and beery delights on Twitter, and the verdict is almost unanimously positive. Beer from Beavertown hasn’t disappointed me yet either, so I finally visited on Friday evening and arrived with an enormous thirst and appetite.

If you don’t know about the menu at Duke’s, it’s basically the menu of a BBQ in paradise. Huge ribs of pork and beef, burgers, pulled pork, sliders, steaks, salads *cough* and so on. It was relatively quiet when we arrived at 5:30pm, but got busy very quickly from 6:00pm onwards, and was heaving by 7:00pm. It’s worth noting though, that the staff provided a brisk and excellent service all evening. Once you start seeing the platters of incredible food being served, it’s little wonder they operate a strict booking policy.

The beef ribs, arguably Duke’s signature dish, are about the size of, well, a massive cow’s ribs. Seriously, they are enormous. This time (for I shall return for those behemoth ribs), I picked the burger, with added bacon and Monterey Jack (see picture above). That came to about £15 (though the basic burger is cheaper). My other half chose the pork ribs and a side of fries, which came to about the same price.

I’d heard good things about the burgers at Duke’s and I was not disappointed. The beef patty was juicy, flavoursome and well-seasoned. The bun was glazed and crispy, almost to the point of being dry, but in balance with the incredible relish, gherkins, tomato and cheese (which coated the beef like a gooey blanket), it was all simply sublime. The bacon alone almost had me in tears. It ranks above Dirty Burger and about on a par with Lucky Chip’s Royale with Cheese. But with what could I wash it all down?

It would have been a crime not to try some Beavertown while I was there, and a new blend, Anakin’s Glow Stick (also above), was on tap. Anakin is a bewildering blend of Beavertown’s Smog Rocket smoked porter and their Gamma Ray pale ale, resulting in a unholy bastard amber/brown ale that was as thick as mud and smelled of both beers at the same time. I maintained my cynicism up until the first taste.

It shouldn’t work. It really shouldn’t work, but it does, and then some. The muddled malt bills of the bright, zesty pale ale and dark, roasted, smoky porter intertwine with almost artificial intelligence, balancing across the palate before detonating in a crispy, sharp, bitter and smoky finish that paired magnificently with the beef in the burger. The hops cut through the cheese, the smoke added to the mustard in the relish, and the carbonation wiped the gherkins clean off my palate all in one sip. It was a beer and beef miracle.

If like me, you have regrettably postponed a visit to Duke’s, then I hope the above goes some way to assure you that you need to stop what you are doing and go there right now.

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.

Un-Human Cannonball

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Thursday saw the launch of Magic Rock’s Un-Human Cannonball, a limited release 12% Triple IPA that will only be available once a year (effectively making it the British version of Russian River’s limited edition Pliny the Younger, the US beer geek pin-up Triple IPA).

The launch was at Craft Beer Co in Islington, where I was pleased to find Matt Curtis of Total Ales (who photobombed my picture above so excellently), Justin Mason of Get Beer Drink Beer and met various other lovely beery people for the first time, including Chris and Emma of Crema Brewery. The pub was rammed, and their bottles of Un-Human Cannonball had already sold out hours ago. Therefore, it was our simple duty to drink as much of the keg version as was available.

I rate Cannonball and Human Cannonball as two of the best IPAs being made in the UK, and Human Cannonball was my UK draught beer of the year. I’m an enormous fan of Magic Rock’s beers, and this was why I couldn’t help but be disappointed by Un-Human.

Before I’m chased by hopheads and beaten into a fine grist, I should explain that I would still give it 4 stars out of 5. It has an enormous body, even bigger flavours, and still drinks like a 5-6% IPA. No mean feat, and a delicious beer to boot. But given it’s heritage, that’s simply not good enough.

The original Cannonball is 7.4%, floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee. It is a finely-honed, explosively tasty IPA. Human Cannonball is a 9% powerhouse of toffee, tropical fruit, pith and pine, but is so damn classy, so outrageously clear, defined and crystal-like in its clarity, that its strength is merely an aspect of its flavour and not the dominating characteristic. It’s a masterpiece.

Un-Human Cannonball couldn’t have been more different. It poured like a glass of brassy, hoppy mud. Not surprising really, given that Magic Rock’s description reads like hop pornography: “We used a mountain of Centennial, Citra & Columbus whole hops in the hop back and then the most dry hopping we’ve ever attempted, with 4 monster additions of Amarillo, Centennial, Simcoe, Citra and Chinook in cold conditioning.” That’ll give it a fair old hop haze, then.

The aroma was very similar to Human Cannonball (which, along with regular Cannonball, was also available on draught that night to help with a comparison), with lots of toffee, booze, pine and tropical fruit. Each sip was a shot of citrusy hops injected straight into your tongue, covered with a sticky toffee bandage and buried in flaming, brandy-soaked hop cones. After the smoke clears, a pine forest, a cannabis factory and a mango farm grow out of your tongue. It all felt so violent, intense and lacking refinement.

So what? Isn’t that the point, you ask? Isn’t this supposed to be a ludicrous, barely palateable hop bomb of insane proportions? Maybe, but I have come to expect better from Magic Rock. How can the 9% double IPA be sublime and then the 12% version be ridiculous? Perhaps a bridge too far. I’d be interested in reading how the bottles turn out, and if they have a little more clarity after a month or two in people’s cupboards.

That said, I had to have another measure just to be thoroughly sure. After all, to me it’s still a four-star beer. I also tasted some marvellous beers from Pizza Port, and practically inhaled a pork and venison pie with the help of the outstanding original Cannonball. There may even have been an ill-advised but completely delicious bottle of Cigar City Guava Grove involved. It was a great evening, and made just as good by the people as by all the excellent beer. I can also testify to feeling positively Un-Human the following day.

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Sainsbury’s Great British Beer Hunt 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. City of Cambridge – Robert Oppenheimer

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

2. Ole Slewfoot – Dragon Hall Saison

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

3. Hastings – Pale Ale

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

4. Oakham – Scarlet Macaw

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

5. Bateman’s – Black Pepper Ale

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

6. Compass Brewery – Torp

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

7. Bateman’s – B Bok

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

8. Ridgeway – Querkus

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

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

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

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

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

A year of beer: my Golden Pints 2012

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New year, new blog, so why am I looking back on the past 12 months? Well, it’s been one hell of a year for beer. The UK is teeming with even more new breweries, producing even more exciting beer to satisfy the most demanding of beer geeks. New pubs and bars are springing up to satisfy the growing demand for ‘craft beer’, even though nobody is entirely sure what it it is. Whatever it is, it has certainly been very good. Here are my favourites of the last year.

Best UK Draught Beer

1st – Magic Rock Human Cannonball (keg): A consistently excellent beer that is far, far, too delicious and drinkable to be 9.2%

2nd – Adnams Ghost Ship (cask): The hype about this beer made me skeptical, but after three consecutive pints I couldn’t think of a better cask beer I’d had this year.

3rd – St Austell Ruby Jack (cask): a red ale made with rye malt and buckets of hops, this is a rich, tasty beer that demands just one more pint.

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Best UK Bottled or Canned Beer

1st – Oakham Ales Green Devil IPA (bottle): The absolute showstopper of 2012. I first tasted it at GBBF, where it absolutely blew me away. The bottled version is even crisper, fresher and juicier. The best IPA being made in Britain.

2nd – Moor Revival: Stunningly refreshing, bursting with clean, hoppy flavours and only 4%. Shaming to so many beers that are stronger and taste of so much less.

3rd – Fuller’s Black Cab Stout: It might not be 18% and infused with ginger, arctic berries and uranium, but this is the best bottle of stout I’ve had this year. Magic Rock Dark Arts is superior on cask, however.

Best Overseas Draught Beer

1st – Mikkeller Texas Ranger: This chipotle-infused porter is classic Mikkeller – ambitious and cocksure, with enormous flavours precariously balanced by madness or design. Genuinely spicy and very moreish.

2nd – Flying Dog Wildeman Farmhouse IPA: If a trend develops for this delicious hybrid of saison and IPA, I will ride said trend to my destruction. The freshness of a saison coupled with the juicy bursts of citrus from American hops makes for something very special indeed.

3rd – Köstritzer Schwarzbier: A gorgeously crispy, none-more-black lager with loads of bittersweet roasted barley. Served in a towering Irish-Coffee-style handled glass, in the Carpenters Arms in Shoreditch.

Best Overseas Bottled or Canned Beer

1st – Kona Brewing Co Koko Brown Ale (bottle): Normally, including coconut in something ensures I will avoid it or hate it, but this sublimely balanced and delicious brown ale is sheer quality, through and through. I discovered it in Kris Wines and found myself praying it would still be in stock every time I returned.

2nd – Rogue Brewing Co Dry Hopped St Rogue Red Ale (bottle): Hoppy red ale to the power of ten; a sort of star-spangled 5am Saint/Rapture style red ale that deserves its swagger.

3rd – Mikkeller 19 (bottle): boasting 19 hops, this was undoubtedly Mikkeller’s ‘Spruce Goose’, and proved that the line between genius and insanity is a fine one indeed.
Best Overall Beer

Green Devil IPA – A genuinely astonishing beer that needs your immediate attention.

Best Pumpclip or Label

1st – BrewDog and Flying Dog’s International Arms Race labels. I simply can’t choose between Ralph Steadman’s Gonzo Dogfight or Joanna Basford’s beautiful Battle Owl.

2nd – Camden Town Brewery’s rebranding is bold, stylish and makes fun of style purists. Very cool.

3rd – Magic Rock Brewing Co. Seriously, just look at them.

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Best UK Brewery

There are simply far too many to choose from now, and almost every microbrewery in Britain has done something worthy of note this year. Having said that, three that have been consistently incredible this year are Magic Rock, Thornbridge and The Kernel. None of them have made a beer that wasn’t amazing.
Best Overseas Brewery

Mikkeller. You just can’t stop him.

Pub/Bar of the Year

I’ve been to so many amazing pubs and bars this year that, in choosing the best, I have to think hard about the times I’ve had there, not just the beers. Again and again, I keep recalling wonderful afternoons, evenings and nights spent in BrewDog Camden, where I am always welcomed warmly by the staff, and drink wave after wave of marvellous beers.

BrewDog seem to attract more hate with each passing month, but in the bar stakes, they are truly inspirational. They have the best staff, hands down, and every moment spent there is a pleasure.

St Austell Brewery and the Celtic Beer Festival 2012

Beer Festival of the Year

The Celtic Beer Festival at St Austell Brewery. As I blogged recently, this is an excellent and much livelier alternative to your average beer festival. Over 150 beers, focusing on Cornish, Welsh, Scottish beer, but with plenty more from around the UK and across the world, all served in the St Austell Brewery cellars with live music, lively crowds and a great atmosphere.

GBBF at Olympia was admittedly much better this year, and BrewDog’s Punk AGM was more beer festival than anything else, but the Celtic Beer Festival had a rowdy charm that really blew me away. I can’t wait to go back.

Supermarket of the Year

I live not too far from a decent-sized Waitrose, and they have really impressed me with their selection. They regularly have deals on different bottles too. There was a week or two when Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Torpedo and Goose Island IPA was on offer, and there was much rejoicing.

Independent Retailer of the Year

It simply has to be the small but mighty Kris Wines. This bewilderingly well-stocked off-license is normally populated by men in their thirties, peering in studious wonder at the incredible range of beer from around the world on offer here (“Oh look,” you say turning to your left, “there’s all of Belgium”). The owner Kris is a friendly chap too, and always happy to help you find your looking for.

Online Retailer of the Year

I haven’t really used online beer retail that much this year. Having Theatre of Wine and Kris Wines relatively close to where I live means I do most of my browsing in a shop rather than online.

Whilst BrewDog have improved over the last year, I can’t in all honesty say they are amazing.

I’m going to have to abstain from this one.

Best Beer Book or Magazine

My winner would have to be Des de Moor’s London Beer and Pub Guide, which has served me very well this year, getting me out to the parts of London I wouldn’t normally explore, and has lots of history as a bonus.

I’ve also just started reading Tim Webb and Stephen Beaumont’s World Atlas of Beer, which is excellent and incredibly detailed.

Shakespeare’s Local by Pete Brown was also a great read, especially for social history buffs.

Best Beer Blog or Website

This has to be a tie between the regularly mouth-watering The Good Stuff and the grey-cell-stimulating Boak & Bailey.

I should also give an honourable mention for Pumpclip Parade, for fighting the good fight.

Best Beer Twitterer

Far too many to choose from, so I’ll simply do a Twitter-style #ff for @MelissaCole, @BroadfordBrewer and @CAMRGB, who regularly fill my timelines with beery fun and are all Good Eggs.

Also for my good colleagues @RumAndReviews – @estebansemtex, @Matt_RnR, @Stevecrotty, @generallucifer, @ruariotoole and @craigheap.

Brewdog-Logo1

Best Online Brewery Presence

BrewDog are still putting everyone else to shame. Every brewer should have a very different online presence certainly, but BrewDog’s is simply better. They blog regularly, use Twitter to actually engage with drinkers (instead of just retweeting praise *shudder*), and their employees are passionate envoys of beer geekdom.

Food and Beer Pairing of the Year

Nothing too gastronomic or abstract – just a traditional Belgian beef carbonadde flamande I made at home in the slow cooker, with the beer marinaded in Chimay Red overnight. Naturally, another bottle or two of Chimay Red were used to wash it down. So simple, but so, so tasty.

In 2013 I’d most like to…

Visit more breweries, meet more beer tweeters in real life and drink a lot more beer from Belgium and Italy.

Open category – Worst Beer PR Email of The Year

Let’s face it, there have been a lot of contenders this year. For me, it has to be the misguided but enthusiastic efforts of the people doing PR for St Stephanus, who proudly and breathlessly lauded its completely unique selling point: that it undergoes a secondary fermentation in the bottle. Whoops.

New Year, New Blog…

The Beer Diary

What’s the big idea, eh? Upping sticks from Blogger, moving over here to WordPress and changing the name? Yes, the time has come to leave behind the insufferably wacky quirks of Blogger for something that actually behaves itself.

The Beer Diary will have a broader focus than the sporadic moaning of my previous blog. I’m going to delve more into the things that get me excited: beer history, beer and food, where to drink and what to drink.

I’ll also post my own verdict on 2012’s Golden Pints in a couple of days. It has been a rather good for beer, after all.

So stick around, and you might read something you like.

Keep thinking and drinking.

Chris.

St Austell Brewery and the Celtic Beer Festival 2012

The Celtic Beer Festival’s Top Bar in full swing.
There is a firm connection in my mind between beer and rain. Why? It’s hard to say. It may be something as subconscious as the association with water. It could be more abstract; that these are two things the British are world-beaters at. I think it’s most likely to be memory association. There have been many occasions when, in pouring rain, I have sought sanctuary in a pub. Watching the rain bucket it down whilst sat in the cosy warmth of the pub with a pint is a memory almost all of us can recall if asked.
My time in Cornwall last weekend provided ample opportunities for this. We may moan a lot about the weather, but it is with perfectly good reason. As I write, the South West of England is still, literally, awash with reports of floods and torrential rain. The effect on the roads, public transport and the rail networks has been predictably nightmarish, despite it seeming to occur on a yearly basis now. It was here that I came a cropper.
I was visiting St Austell Brewery with the British Guild of Beer Writers, with the chance to tour the brewery with Head Brewer Roger Ryman and attend the Celtic Beer Festival at the Brewery the next day. Due to all manner of boring travel-related nonsense that is not worth describing, I missed the brewery tour and was in a rather sour mood by the time I got to our hotel in Truro. However, there was still a marvellous beer and food dinner to be enjoyed at the Pandora Inn that evening, where I got to meet and chat with two of the lads (Rob Orton and Adam Lumb) from St Austell’s microbrewery plant. As so many brewers are doing now, St Austell are using a sort of pilot testing plant to brew one-off beers with the intention of finding long-term new core beers. The menu that evening matched five new beers from the microbrewery with five courses of local cuisine. The Ruby Jack Rye – a stunningly rich, smooth and well-conditioned red rye ale – was my personal favourite. Others, like the Smoking Barrel Rauchbier and Bad Habit Abbey Style Tripel, were also excellent.
The excellent Beer and Food matching menu at the Pandora Inn on Friday night.
The 14th annual Celtic Beer Festival took place the next day, and was held in the cavernous cellars and tunnels that form what were the old storerooms. Over 150 beers were on offer and more than 30 of those were from St Austell itself, including beers that the microbrewery have been working on. Whilst wishing to avoid that particular cliché about arranging drinking occasions within brewing premises, I can categorically state that St Austell run an absolute belter of a beer festival. The atmosphere, with a noticeably younger crowd than many beer festivals I’ve been to, was as lively and occasionally as rowdy as any night out. Several levels of storerooms made for low-ceilinged, noisy drinking halls, and one had a stage with live bands playing. Everyone I saw that day had a smile on their face. The atmosphere was amazing, and all the more remarkable considering the amount of time that many people had been waiting outside in the rain for over an hour to get in.
The Bottom Bar was constantly packed with people enjoying live music and good beer.
More importantly, there is the matter of the beer available. I had been expecting a mix of Cornish, Welsh and Scottish beers, but the selection was far wider. Obscure American imports such as SKA brewing Pinstripe Red, Sierra Nevada Kolsch and Stone Levitation IPA were available alongside tamer fare like the brewery’s own Tribute, Proper Job and Trelawny. All the beer I tasted, no matter its origin, tasted fresh and excellently kept. It really is some of the best beer I’ve tasted at a beer festival, and it was a wide variety of cask and keg. I will share my short, festival-friendly (read ‘scribbled on programme’) reviews in next week’s Rum and Reviews Magazine, though I will give special mention at this point to Bodmin’s own Harbour Brewing Co and their delectably decadent Chocolate Stout. Easily the equal of Brooklyn’s Black Chocolate Stout in terms of flavour, this 9% beast is so light-footed you could swear it was half the strength. The rich, indulgent chocolate flavour is reassuring evidence of a large amount of highest-quality chocolate malt. It really is sensational. St Austell’s range of Abbey-style beers, including the aforementioned Bad Habit, are also fantastic.
Finally, I would like to pay tribute (oh, come on) to Head Brewer Roger Ryman himself. When he wasn’t serving behind one of the festival’s many bars downstairs, he would be upstairs, happily having his ear chewed off by bloggers and fans of the brewery all day long. Cheers to Roger and the brewery for organising such a fantastic beer festival.

Yes We Can


It’s been a hell of a couple of weeks for me, and I imagine, for many of you too. The Olympics of course, plus some outrageously hot weather, the Great British Beer Festival, and all sorts of warm-weather based shenanigans to empty your wallet for. My GBBF coverage will find its way to Rum and Reviews Magazine shortly, but I thought I would share another recent and significant beer experience.
Having finally joined the British Guild of Beer Writers(mainly to further my own ambitions, but also because I have always wanted to be part of a Guild), I was invited to a pre-GBBF event at the marvellous Porterhouse in Covent Garden (reviewed by The Gentleman Drinker here) to try out a wide selection of American craft beer in *DUN DUN DUNNNN* cans. The beer was excellent, and it got me thinking about beer’s relationship with aluminium, and what the future could hold.
The humble can of beer has served us all tirelessly without complaint for decades, and yet, it has a serious image problem. We don’t see the can for what it is, we see it for what it isn’t.
“I said where’s the BEER aisle not the insipid, corporate, industrial…” James Watt  hated going to Tesco.
The 440ml or 500ml can is the default beer SKU in the ever-growing off-trade, and pallets of them dominate aisles of supermarkets across the land. However, despite its ubiquity, or perhaps because of it, people don’t see cans of beer as quality items. There is always a perceived cheapness to them. The industry has come a long way from having tinny-tasting tinnies, but the association somehow lingers on. Bottled beer has perceived class, quality and tradition. Then of course there is bottle-conditioned beer, one of beer’s most important expressions. Secondary fermentation creates fuller flavours, natural carbonation and opens up the wonderful world of aged beer. Even CAMRA will occasionally reach down from Olympus and deign to label bottle-conditioned ale with their logo, designating ‘properness’.
How are cans going to compete with that? In the UK’s current beer renaissance, how can the humble can share space with Kernel, BrewDog and Mikkeller in the hearts of beer geeks? Well, BrewDog have already bought into canning their beer, not in a big way, but both Punk IPA and 77 Lager are available. Surely, I hear you cry, that was just BrewDog doing one of their ‘clever ideas’ wasn’t it? Were we supposed to take them seriously?
Not a joke.
Well, BrewDog were simply emulating the American craft beer scene that they so desperately want to recreate here in the UK. American microbreweries (or rather, what they would call microbreweries) have been pioneering the idea of quality beer in cans for years, and I think it could be the way forward in the UK too.
Why? Well, for one thing there’s the benefits to the brewer. Cans are cheaper, easier to produce, and easier to store and deliver. That could theoretically mean that smaller brewers find it easier to get their beer to more pubs and shops.  
There is also the fact that consumers would enjoy a lower price for their beer, and that it’s easier for them to carry home too. More importantly, they could carry home more of it. As we all know, beer in cans gets colder quicker than beer in glass bottles, and there is absolutely no risk of UV light damage or ‘skunking’. Aluminium cans are arguably easier to recycle, and they are generally more practical and functional than glass bottles. As an example, recall how many times you have had to have sadface-inducing mainstream keg lager in a plastic cup at gigs and festivals because they can’t sell decent bottles of beer? Now imagine being at a gig or festival, strolling up to the bar and seeing some of these beauties:
 As I mentioned earlier, I was lucky enough to sample a selection of canned American craft beer recently, and on the basis of what I tasted, an aluminium-coated future does not frighten me in the least.
I got to taste everything from the big-hitting mainstays like Sierra Nevada to smaller, kookier outfits such as 21stAmendment, Maui Brewing and Caldera. Of course, in American there’s no such thing as small, but these producers give us an idea of how smaller brewers have bought into the idea of canned craft beer, and they’re doing it well.
Something slightly random but important that stuck with me afterwards is that cans have the better ‘opening noise’ than bottles. That sharp percussive crack and hiss flicks a switch in your brain that gets your mouth watering. What’s that about? 
As you can see above, with a change in packaging comes a change in labelling. With cans, the label ismost of the packaging, and most canned US craft beers have really eye-catching labels. There’s garish, gaudy colour schemes that remind you of vintage 60’s music festival posters, star-spangled red-white-and-blue palettes, or stark contrasting colour schemes with stencilled lettering and surreal art. They’re striking, they capture the eccentricity of the beer and its brewers, and most of all, they look good.
  
Sometimes they look a little too good. A few, including Caldera IPA (above) resemble some kind of tropical fruit drink more than a strong beer.
It all comes back to quality. If the quality of the beer can be assured, then eventually beer connoisseurs will be won over. It doesn’t mean an end to bottles by any means. Rather, bottled beer, and bottle-conditioned beer in particular, will become even more special, even more rare and even more desirable. Cans will become the ‘norm’; beer of good quality to be enjoyed without fuss. Bottles will become valued possessions, encouraging more people to age their beer, and encouraging brewers to create beers that are designed to be aged.
Imagine a world where this could be even more amazing than it already is.
Ultimately, true beer nerds connoisseurs will pour the beer into a glass before drinking it, whatever the original vessel. The quality is not an issue – the beer tastes really, really good. The packaging is sharp and exciting, and I think it moves beer away from hefty, masculine pints and big bottles. I think cans make unusual beer like Coconut Porter, Black IPA and the like more accessible and less exclusive.
What do you think? Can you see yourself drinking beers like those above? Is this inevitable, and what place will cask ale and bottle-conditioned beer have in such a future? I’d like to know your thoughts.