Craft Beer Rising at Whole Foods Market

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The traditional Beer Festival Season is now well and truly upon us. Part of the trend of new ‘craft beer’ oriented events is their desire to do things differently, and be in different places than other beer festivals. The term ‘pop-up’ is often bandied about liberally, when people really mean ‘tent’ or ‘stall’. With respect to Craft Beer Rising, setting up a small pub in the window of Whole Foods in High Street Ken is more than just a stall. From the 7th to the 16th of June, this is exactly what they did. Again, they managed to get all the right people involved. Brewers as different at Harbour, Otley, Beavertown and Hogsback all had their beers stocked in the pop-up pub, with their beers matched to foods from the Whole Foods market at events from Monday to Friday last week. Each night, the brewers themselves would guide paying customers (at £20 a ticket) through six of their beers and foods matched to them by either Melissa Cole or Ben McFarland.

On Wednesday, I attended the evening hosted by Otley Brewing Co, a favourite Welsh brewer of mine who consistently turn out innovative, flavoursome but impressively balanced beers. Melissa Cole (who has brewed a collaboration beer with Otley, in the form of Thai-Bo) had made the beer and food matches, and talked the attendees (some of whom were in the industry, others enthusiasts, or complete novices) through the basics of beer, brewing and food matching. Nick and Lee from Otley were there to talk about the process of making each beer, and the whole event had a very intimate and friendly atmosphere, partly due to the slightly cramped confines of a pop-up pub (see photos).

We were greeted warmly on arrival and handed a glass of Croeso (O2), Otley’s US-hopped golden ale, fresh from the cask. It’s a deeply aromatic beer for its modest strength (4.2%), and was the winner in the Champion Beer of Wales/Golden Ales category last year. The tropical fruit nose converts neatly onto the palate, and makes for an extremely moreish beer, leagues ahead of other far blander golden ales. Whilst this wasn’t paired with anything per say, there was some crunchy, spicy corn on the tables to go with it. A bar snack basic, but still pleasant enough.

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Lined up on the (slightly wobbly) tables were several bottles of five other Otley beers. As we took our seats on cushion-topped metal casks, we were introduced to Nick and Lee, and Melissa introduced the beers one by one with each food accompaniment. First was O1, Otley’s original golden bitter. It was paired with some puff pastry cheese twists: a simple but extremely effective combination. O1 has a surprisingly zesty, lemon-and-orange-pith character to its straightforward sweet-then-bitter profile, which paired very nicely with the pastry to become liquid bread. The cheese was lifted neatly right off the palate, but its flavour remained. Classic and simple.

Next came O9 (formerly known as O-Garden, but has had its name changed after a polite request from you-know-who), which was just as sharp,  citrusy and spicy with cloves as I remember. This was paired with some fish and chips with tartar sauce. Aside from the expected batter-melting quality of the carbonation and clean, fruity finish to every bite, the O9 went quite splendidly with the tartar sauce, with its lemon tartness and spicy clove character adding new depths to the sauce.

Afterwards we had Oxymoron (O10), Otley’s rather aptly-named black IPA. Most black IPAs I’ve tasted are in the 6-7%, but Oxymoron is only 5.5%. However, it was Oxymoron that really hit home to me what Otley’s real strength is as a brewer: balance. All that roast, syrup, citrus and dryness is blended into what I can only describe as a sessionable and extremely balanced palate. If there was ever an accessible black IPA to introduce beer newbies to the style, this is it. Oxymoron was served with a selection of breads, charcuterie and small gherkins. Naturally, it work very nicely, cutting through oily and salty meat and adding smoky sweetness, binding with the bread and sweetening the gherkins.

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The penultimate beer of the night is my favourite Otley beer: their O6 Porter. The bottled version of the beer is not quite as good as it is on cask, but it’s still a rich, chocolatey, espresso-powered beast that, for its 6.6% abv, remains gulpable. This came with some mini-brownies topped with salted caramel. Naturally this enhanced the flavours in both things, but I might have preferred to see the O6 with a rich meat course to see how it faired.

Finally, we tasted Motley Brew, a 7.5% double IPA brewed in collaboration with Glyn Roberts aka Rabid Barfly. Again, for all its intense flavour and high strength, it’s a remarkably balanced beer that never overpowers any section of your palate. You never get bored of its assertive tropical fruit sweetness or dry, piney finish. You just keep enjoying it, over and over again. This was served with some delightfully named Ticklemore cheese and chilli focaccia bread. The cheese was mostly dry and chalky in the middle, but the beer made it sweeter, creamier and saltier, like injecting it with a super-soldier serum. It also went marvellously with the chilli bread, allowing the heat to tingle the taste buds before sweetening the bread and cleansing the palate.

It was a great night, and I’ve heard positive things about the other brewer evenings. Melissa did a great job of concisely conveying lots of information about the beers, brewing, food and anecdotes to an audience of mixed levels of knowledge, and both her and the Otley team fielded plenty of questions. My only criticism would be the size of the venue. Whilst it looked fantastic from the outside (if the glaring, jealous looks of passers by were anything to go by), it was just slightly too cramped and noisy inside. Having said that, it was a well-organised and fun evening of great beer and good food. I can’t really ask for much more than that.

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.

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.)

#BrooklynFeast


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

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

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

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

There Will Be Black and Smokey BBQ Wings from Street Kitchen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Craft Knight Rises

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fuller’s Griffin Brewery Tour

Fuller's Griffin Brewery
Fuller’s Griffin Brewery

I was kindly invited by Adam Driver at Fuller’s to pay a visit on Monday, and was treated to a full tour of the Griffin Brewery in Chiswick. It was the day before my birthday, and I couldn’t think of a better way to spend it. Despite the efforts of a smattering of frozen water crystals (or ‘SNOW CHAOS’ as it is known on Fleet Street), I made it to Chiswick in good time, and enjoyed a swift half of Jack Frost at the Mawson Arms pub attached to the brewery. Jack Frost is Fuller’s winter seasonal ale, and uses Crystal malt and blackberry essence to deliver a sweet, nourishing warmth. It was just what I needed to warm my bones after a cold journey.

Old equipment is still a (non-functioning) part of the Griffin Brewery.
Old equipment is still a (non-functioning) part of the Griffin Brewery.

At 12pm the gathered tour-goers were met by Alison, one of Fuller’s excellent tour guides. In traditional brewery tour style, we were shown the brewing process from start to finish. Other brewery tours I’ve done have been at microbreweries, so it was interesting and different to explore a much larger brewery (over 20 tonnes of malt is used every brew day at Fuller’s, and each of the massive boiling coppers can hold 90,000 pints). Even more interesting was how the brewery has visibly expanded over time. Rather than being a massive, purpose-built facility, the Griffin Brewery is rather like London itself in the way it has filled out, expanded, filled out again and so on. Every available area of space has a mash tun, copper or two fermenting vessels stacked into it. The 31 FVs are layered in an enormous beer-tastic Rubik’s cube formation that you get to walk through and in-between.

60% of Fuller's beers are sold in cask, the remaining 40% in kegs or bottles.
60% of Fuller’s beers are sold in cask, the remaining 40% in kegs or bottles.

All bottling, kegging and casking of Fuller’s beers is done at the Griffin Brewery, so aside from seeing the equipment used in the actual brewing process, we also got to see the packaging lines. The kegging line in particular was a treat, because there was a massive robotic arm called Les lifting three kegs at a time. Les was apparently a former Chief Engineer. I meant to ask if he actually became Les the robot in some kind of Robocop-style incident but I forgot. Other anthropomorphised pieces of equipment include coppers called Big Brian, Dave and Little Brian.

Local robot Les, hard at work on the kegging line.
Local robot Les, hard at work on the kegging line.

The tour itself lasts a good hour, and is topped off with a visit to the Hock Cellar for a few samples of Fuller’s beers. At the time of my visit, there were also a few beers from Gale’s (who were recently taken over by Fuller’s). I tried London Pride, Chiswick Bitter, Gale’s HSB and Bengal Lancer, and each had that extra special brewery-fresh taste. The Hock Cellar is chock full of brewery and beer-related antiquities, and you can easily spend another half an hour wandering around and pointing at things.

Phwoar etc.
Phwoar etc.

And what trip to a brewery would be complete without a trip to the Brewery Shop? I couldn’t resist a big, bulbous, brandy-snifter-esque Fuller’s Vintage glass, and was kindly gifted bottles of the 2005 Vintage, Past Master’s Double Stout and Past Master’s Burton Extra, which I will review soon for Rum and Reviews.

The Hock Cellar is a treasure trove of brewery artifacts and has its own bar.
The Hock Cellar is a treasure trove of brewery artifacts and has its own bar.

A tour of the Fuller’s Griffin Brewery normally costs a very reasonable £10 (or £12 on the day) per person. Fuller’s Fine Ale Club members only pay £8. More details can be found here. Have you done the Fuller’s brewery tour? What did you think? What’s the best brewery tour you have been on, and what makes a good one?

A year of beer: my Golden Pints 2012

golden pints

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.

Green_Devil_IPA_in_bottle

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.

logo_the_kernel

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.

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.