Fool’s Gold

Earlier today I tweeted this:

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clickbait.

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

 

 

Great Beer Festivals: GBBF vs LCBF

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In the blue corner: GBBF…

It’s taken me a while to write this post. It has a lot to do with a lack of spare time, but when I have had time, I’ve still struggled with it. I’ve rewritten this post several times over the past week or so, never happy with what I’ve said or the conclusions that I’ve reached. I think it’s actually the pursuit of a conclusion, the need to have something to say and not just report the things I saw/tasted, that has hampered me.

I wanted to directly compare the Great British Beer Festival and the London Craft Beer Festival. The scheduling overlap of putting LCBF right on the closing weekend of GBBF makes it clear: this was what the organisers of the LCBF wanted us all to do. Compare. Contrast. I even saw people on Twitter two weeks earlier asking whether people would pick one, or both. Whilst there was nothing as tangible as an actual competition or rivalry between GBBF and LCBF, there should definitely have been closer examination of what these two festivals represent in the modern beer landscape. At least, that’s what I thought at the time.

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… and in the red corner: LCBF.

The truth is that they can’t be directly compared. With GBBF, we have a firmly established behemoth of the British beer scene, stocking over 800 beers in the enormous and beautifully lit surroundings of Olympia. LCBF is a far trendier, tight-jeaned urban animal, nestling in Hackney’s suntrap/gig venue that is Oval Space.

Comparing attendance figures would be like comparing those of Premier League and Conference football matches, and sheer size is not really the point of a beer festival. It’s the experience and the beer that we actually drink, not see, that we measure beer festivals by. My experiences and the beers I tasted were so vastly different that, again, they defy comparison.

Standard perspective shot of some pumps taken at a just-the-beer-takes-over angle.
Standard perspective shot of some pumps taken at a just-as-the-beer-takes-over angle.

At GBBF’s trade session on Tuesday, I bumped into CAMRGB’s Simon Williams. We were stood by the Bieres Sans Frontieres Bottle Bar (AKA The Globe), which I had sought out expecting to find people I knew there. But the USA cask bar, The Spirit of Enterprise, was on neither side of The Globe, as normal. “I’m looking for my friends, you know, all the Craft Wankers,” I explained to Simon, who pointed me to the other hall, where the USA cask bar was located. Off I went, and indeed I found a veritable Growler of high-quality Craft Wankers propping the place up. My girlfriend remarked “Oh my God, he was right!” There was even a chap with the names of four varieties of wild-fermenting bacteria on his t-shirt. Seriously.

I eventually met with several fine people, and drank a great deal of good beer. But given the hype, the excitement, the brewers and the beers themselves present, few were better than just ‘good’. It almost seemed a cruel joke in a way, that the hugely popular bar of American imported draught beers were a) on cask, and b) all right but rarely incredible. Many remarked that they needed to be served  by keg or bottle to be at their best. Craft wankery? Perhaps. But it was hard to deny the truth in it. There was also the occasional bit of GBBF Weirdness (see below).

The juxtaposition of a Cornish wrestler dressed as Betty Stogs and a hot dog vendor's sign saying 'TRY MY TWENTY INCHER' was almost too much for this correspondent.
The juxtaposition of a Cornish wrestler dressed as Betty Stogs and a hot dog vendor’s sign saying ‘TRY MY TWENTY INCHER’ was almost too much for this correspondent.

On Saturday, the chaotic, barrel-scraping end to GBBF was in full swing by the time I got there. Maybe 60-70% of the beers on most bars had gone, so it was a case of plumping for whatever was selling and looking good. I had a couple of so-so golden ales, then came across a few delights. My focus on Saturday was on British beer. I’d stuck mainly to the USA cask, Belgian/Italian cask and BSF bottle bar on Tuesday, and felt that I ought to  seek the very best British beer I could find. I was hoping to replicate my moment of elation at last year’s GBBF after trying Oakham Green Devil for the first time. I couldn’t find a beer to match it this year, but I came close a few times.

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How many things can you hang above a terrace? Quite a blummin’ lot, mate.

At LCBF meanwhile, I expected a similar situation on a larger scale. Again, I went on a trade/press session, this time on Friday afternoon. Instead, I found that the crowd was more varied than I might expect. Sure, there were a lot of Hackney People, who work in Those Sorts Of Shops and have friends who laugh Very, Very Loudly, but for the most part it was a very relaxed, eclectic crowd. Trade sessions, however, are not always the true litmus test of these things I suppose. I spent most of my time up on the shady terrace, chatting with nice beer people, drinking increasingly excellent beer and feeling far more relaxed than at GBBF. The other outside area, a long sunny balcony, had a slightly too oppressive view for my mood.

Who controls the craft controls the universe.
Who controls the craft controls the universe.

LCBF’s large indoor space was covered on three sides with bars, with beers from Five Points, De Molen, Weird Beard, Beavertown, Magic Rock, Kernel, BrewDog, Alpha State, Partizan, Brodies, Siren, Redemption and more, all served from keg. The conditioning, temperature and quality of all the beers I tasted on Friday was impeccable. Easily the most consistently good quality dispense I’ve experienced at any beer festival in fact. I’ve been served cask beers in better nick on occasion, but far, far more rarely than I would like. Siren’s Limoncello IPA was on top form, as was Partizan’s Camomile Saison and Magic Rock’s Lime Salty Kiss. Each beer I had at LCBF was an absolute delight.

GBBF’s dispense quality varied from bar to bar, beer to beer, but overall was still very impressive. The occasional dud was normally offset by something quite sublime. It was great to taste the Malt Shovel Mild, brewed by Fernandes in Wakefield. Aside from it being a really great mild, I have fond memories of drinking in their brewery tap (the fittingly named Brewery Tap) back in my student days. There was some great weissbiers being served on the German and Czech draught bar, especially the Josef Greif (for which I was given grief for pronouncing it grief when it should be said grife). Though, if I had one regret from Saturday at GBBF, it would be not spending more time at the SIBA bar, where I had a magnificent specimen of Kirkstall Dissolution IPA.

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So, if I can’t compare the two beer festivals directly, and I had a great time at both, what can I say that’s worth saying?

For starters, both festivals are a measure of the health of the beer scene. Whilst we are starting to hear of closures of newer breweries, indicating an imminent plateau, there is also a steady increase in the number of beer festivals that aren’t organised by CAMRA. These may be run by people who just want to make money, they may be run by people who simply want to be the best at it (Craft Beer Rising are probably leading that particular pack). The most important thing is not just that the current beer ‘scene’ in London, such as it is, can  sustain two vastly different beer festivals, but that they can be happily attended by the same people.

It might not be an earth-shattering conclusion, but it’s the only one I can really get behind. We have a vibrant culture of beer that is creating  excellent events and encouraging the brewing of even more excellent beer. So let’s all enjoy it while it’s here.

Buy the shares, take the ride – the BrewDog Punk AGM 2013

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When you invest money, time or effort in something, you expect a return equal to or greater than what you put in. A major criticism of BrewDog’s Equity for Punks shareholder scheme has been that it is not a traditional model where dividends are distributed and shares traded. Some say that BrewDog are taking advantage of their fans’ passion and excitement and taxing them for it. Others might say that what BrewDog do best is bottle the excitement of the people who are passionate about their beer, and use that excitement to create even more of it. Where you stand on this issue depends on how feel about BrewDog as a company, not just a brewer. Their yearly Punk AGMs are becoming an excellent gauge by which to measure not only their success, but their attitude.

Last year’s Punk AGM held at the Aberdeen Exhibition and Conference Centre (AECC) was a riotous, beer-soaked but ultimately flawed event. Where some things, like the beer, music and people, were absolutely spot-on, there were unacceptable organisational errors that threatened to mar the whole experience. This year, attendees from last year’s event would be examining everything closely. The same mistakes would not be tolerated.

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Thankfully, this year’s Punk AGM was undoubtedly a marked improvement in every way. A larger space was used, allowing for a more visible divide in the event’s juxtaposition of beer festival and music festival. A large seated area with a bigger stage was in use in addition to the space used in the AECC last year, and there more tables and chairs in general, allowing for a slightly more relaxed pace early on. A key improvement was the AGM shop. Last year, it brought out the worst in everyone. Poorly managed, understaffed, and no queueing system at all. Imagine the worst nightclub bar you’ve ever queued at. Seven deep at the bar, a handful of staff, and everyone with a long order to place. This year, it was a remarkably well-organised and simple affair. An actual roped-off queuing area, a division of counters to order merchandise and beer from (but only needing to queue once for both), and more staff made the experience a breeze.

The bars were also well-staffed and featured a frequently-changing menu of beers from BrewDog, Anchor, Brodies and Mikkeller. Anchor was woefully underepresented here, but the selection from the other breweries was impressive and varied. The palpable excitement that crackled around the venue as a new beer came on made for a great atmosphere. Stand-out beers included Mikkeller’s Green Gold IPA, Brodies Romanov Empress Stout, and a true innovation: BrewDog’s Hopinator. The Hopinator is effectively a way of infusing an extra dose of hops (or coffee, or cocoa beans, spices etc) on the bar itself at the point of serve. The IPA is Dead Goldings single hop IPA was ‘hopinated’ at dispense with Chinook, and later with Amarillo, both combinations creating sensationally aromatic and delicious IPAs out of the somewhat awkward and unbalanced original beer. Alice Porter also went through it, and at the Aberdeen bar the next day, Cocoa Psycho was put through a Hopinator loaded with Sumatran Coffee. It was incredible. Look out for a Hopinator in your local BrewDog bar soon.

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Another big improvement was engagement with shareholders, from people in BrewDog and other breweries too. Two brewers from Mikkeller attended, and hung out at the bar chatting to anyone who wanted to talk hops. Brewers from BrewDog were naturally also present (in penguin and alligator costumes as I recall), as well as James Watt and Martin Dickie themselves. Martin in particular made a special effort to talk to as many people as he could, and you could see how excited people were to talk with him.

But what about the business? Wasn’t this some kind of AGM? Business was discussed, as you might expect, alongside videos of exploding mainstream lagers, dogs, fireworks and other such things. There were live tastings of the marvellous crowd-sourced recipe beer #Mashtag, an unfiltered version of Fake Lager, and the new IPA-spirit hybrid Watt Dickie. Meanwhile, we were given a sneak peek at Brew Dogs, the TV series James and Martin are making. If  it comes to these shores (it’s currently being made for the Esquire channel in the US), expect a sort of Top Gear (Top Beer?) style programme but with devil-horns hand signs and pornographic close-ups of hops. It will infuriate some, but enthrall others. I say it can only help to raise the profile of good beer and the people who make it.

The company as whole is still growing at a prodigious rate – and is now the fastest growing food and drink company in the UK. More bars are planned in Liverpool, Dundee and the US, and plans are already underway to expand the new brewery (more on that later). The was a recap of events good and bad in the past year, including the infamous Diageo award-fixing shenanigans (which might be the best thing to have happened to BrewDog). There are plans for off-sales bottle shops (Bottle Dog), starting in London, as well as a renewed effort to get the Hackney Brewing Academy underway. The Academy could well be the best thing BrewDog do, as it plays to their strengths: communication, education and enthusiasm.

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The evening’s local bands all had a similar, indie-rock vibe. The excellent Fatherson, who played last year, were the pick of the bunch. The other groups failed to generate the same full-on, festival atmosphere that the likes of Kassidy and BombSKAre achieved last year. Another improvement was the food selection. Instead of one ropey burger truck, a proper catering section was set up, with a variety of curries, pulled pork, burgers, and other hearty foods were served up, each of them a great combination with the powerfully-flavoured beers on tap. It was a fantastic day and night of beer, food and music, made all the better by shrewd organisational improvements.

The next day, shareholders and their guests were invited to the new brewery in Ellon. It’s a place that is so firmly ingrained in my mind from photos posted online that actually being there felt a little unreal. It’s a really exciting place, glittering with Instagrammable steel and graffiti, and full of people smiling and high-fiving each other. Like other aspects of the company, that sentence may have brought you out in hives. For others, myself included, it was a fantastic place that really gives you faith in the people that work at BrewDog.

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The tour group I was in was taken around the brewery by head brewer Stewart Bowman. Stewart, who looks like he has just stepped out of Skyrim, is a lovely, affable, friendly chap. His knowledge and enthusiasm is a real credit to the company, and if he wasn’t so busy making all that fantastic beer, he would be fantastic in a more public-facing role. We were taken through every stage of the brewing process, and were gleefully shown each part of the new brewhouse and every shiny new piece of kit. The key message was how the brewers are now able to do so much more with the new equipment, and most importantly, how much better they can make every pint of beer they make. Faults and inconsistencies with brews were openly acknowledged, and we would then be shown something that had been put in place to resolve it. More than anything, head brewer Stewart seemed, genuinely, visibly chuffed to be able to work in that brewery. He said at the end of the tour how grateful he was to the shareholders for giving him the opportunity to make more beer, and better beer, every working day.

From time to time, BrewDog make missteps with their marketing and the language they use. Sometimes, the repetitive messages lose their tongue-in-cheekness and come across as pretentious, or condescending. But James, Martin, and other people in the company occasionally say things in passing that should really be the brewery’s main message. “Investing your money in making beer better” for example, needs to slapped onto the front of every shares prospectus. This year’s AGM really brought that message home. It was good enough to see that they had learned from their mistakes last year, but to hear those words, meet these people, and be given the AGM that every shareholder thoroughly deserved, filled me with pride.

Buy the shares, take the ride. An investment in BrewDog isn’t just financial. It’s buying into a culture, an attitude, and a hope that beer can be incredible and bring out the best in people.

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Great Welsh Beer and Cider Festival 2013

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The Great Welsh Beer and Cider Festival (GWBCF), Cardiff’s annual celebration of all things great in Welsh beer and cider, is a very different beast to the Great British Beer Festival (GBBF). For one thing, it is far more staunchly patriotic. Only a handful of casks came from breweries outside Wales, and even then they were from breweries not far away (like Thornbridge). There was a foreign beer bar, yes, but a much smaller and more focused affair than at GBBF. Another difference was that the foreign beer bar was being run by a local beer retailer, Cardiff’s Bottle Shop, giving it more of a ‘friendly local bar’ kind of atmosphere.

That same atmosphere extended to the festival as a whole. The beer and cider was served from a single, large, U shape of bars, with tables and chairs on either side of the U and stalls scattered elsewhere, which just about conjured the impression of ‘Wales’ Biggest Pub’. The Motorpoint Arena is by no means a picturesque location, but it fulfilled its purpose admirably. Only on Friday night did the place start to feel overpopulated, and even then it created a lively buzz and atmosphere that it failed to recapture the following day, as the best beers ran dry.

One major disappointment was the glassware.  Whilst I appreciate glassware ramps up costs considerably, there was only one available: a half-pint glass with a rather crudely-drawn and distinctly alligator-like dragon on it. Fair enough, you don’t want to be drinking pints all day, but when many of the beers you try are either middling or high-strength, you don’t want to gulp down a whole half-pint of them either. An extra notch for a third measurement, or a multiple-notched pint glass (like at GBBF), would make a big difference, allowing people to drink a wider variety of beers, spend more time and more money in the process. My only other major gripe was the festival’s programme, which was a combination of vague, useless tasting notes (hoppy this, malty that), sad, mournful adverts and jarring references to death, global warming and the Nanny State (seriously). None of us expect a masterpiece, but it was strange enough to distract from the quality of the event overall.

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And what of the beer, anyway? Both my host Craig Heap and myself had hoped to find some unknown, soon-to-be-megastar from the smaller breweries; another Tiny Rebel. The truth was, few breweries could hold a torch to Wales’ new darling brewery, and those that did were old faces. Solid, innovative, yet dependable Otley, alongside Brains and its Craft Brewery range, as well as Celt Experience and Brecon had the biggest presence, and also the best beers on tap. My main highlights were Brains’ Craft Stars and Stripes, a zingy, crisp and zesty wheat beer with US hops; the rare (on cask) Otley O6 Porter, a classy and masterful balance of coffee and chocolate; and Tiny Rebel’s one-off barrel-aged beers, including the outrageously good Kentucky Whiskey cask Urban IPA and the decadent Grand Regal Stout aged in Morgan’s Spiced barrels.

Whilst it was disappointing not to come across great beers from smaller or newer breweries, the brewers of the beers mentioned above are clearly the powerful and exciting face of modern Welsh beer. Tiny Rebel took all three medals in the Champion Beer of Wales competition (with Dirty Stop Out, Fubar and Urban IPA), and arguably with good reason. I personally feel there is a fair amount of cheekiness (or rebelliousness you might say) in entering three different IPAs and a stout in four different categories, but they won fair and square. If CAMRA’s categories allow an IPA to win in the Barley Wine category, then so be it. (see EDIT below: Tiny Rebel’s beers were chosen, not entered)

Rhymney, Purple Moose, Brains, Bullmastiff, Facer’s and Breconshire also took category prizes (Brains’ Rev James perhaps being a surprise winner), but this year was Tiny Rebel’s for the taking. What will be really interesting is next year’s GWBCF. Will the booming Welsh beer scene sustain another new generation of brewers, inspired by the likes of Tiny Rebel? Will Brains Craft Brewery still be going, and what will they have made in another year’s time? Will anyone try (or dare) to open a rival T-shirt shop or jerky stand? I’m looking forward to finding out next year. To your very good health, Wales.

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EDIT: James B (@Jamesbwxm) has helpfully clarified that brewers do not submit their own beers for judging for the Champion Beer of Wales. In fact, he can only recollect one time when this has been the case (for the inaugural Champion Beer of North Wales this year). Finalists are selected from festival winners and tasting panels over the year.

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.

London’s Brewing 2013

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Saturday was the first time I’ve seen doom-laden ‘Rolling News’ culture collide with beer culture. Twitter on the afternoon of 4th May was a boiling tide of beer lover’s anger. Increasingly frustrated reports were coming from London Fields Brewery, where London’s Brewing, the new beer festival from the London Brewers Alliance (LBA), was being held.

The queues, the people cried, the queues. For a while the event didn’t even open. When it did, and the queuing was over, it was reportedly even worse inside: packed bars where waiting times were said to be 30 minutes or more, and kegs hooked up to wrong taps. Above these alarming and basic errors was a weird sense of hopelessness, as though it wasn’t possible for things to improve and that it was a write-off. People left in droves and demanded refunds. I’ve never heard of anything like this happening at a beer festival.

So imagine me, looking at Twitter on Saturday, with tickets for the session on Sunday. I was a little worried. Assurances were made that a new, extra bar would help ease queuing, and that concerns had been listened to.

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I should make it clear that I had A Good Time at London’s Brewing on Sunday afternoon, and that all the beer I had was well-kept and in good condition. As such, I can only comment in detail on my experience on Sunday afternoon, not what happened in the other sessions. What follows is not a litany of complaints. That would be almost as boring as a 30 minute queue for a beer. What follows should hopefully be fair and constructive. We all want these events to be the best they can be, right?

If we are to accept that London – and the UK at large – is going through a Beer Renaissance, then it is the duty of those who care passionately about beer to call out anything that is simply not good enough. Whilst London’s Brewing had the right ingredients of Good Beer, Good Food, Good People and even, shockingly, Good Weather, it did not have Good Organisation.

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In a recent post about Craft Beer Rising in comparison to CAMRA beer festivals, I said how CAMRA-style festivals will always have their place alongside the more hipster-friendly, foodie events, large and small, that are taking place in increasing numbers. This point was made even more clear to me at London’s Brewing. Say what you will about CAMRA, but their organisational skills for beer festivals are unsurpassed. At London’s Brewing, so many basic things were missing: no prices per third/half/pint on the casks behind the bar, no ABVs on beer menus and price lists, and no indications in the programme of where any beer may or not be found across the three bars. A personal complaint was that nobody knew if I could buy one of the extremely cool green staff t-shirts (I love the Thames river/dimple mug logo), or where to find out. In a venue as small as London Fields Brewery’s event space, crammed under a railway arch, the organisation needs to be as tight as drum to prevent frustration. This was not the case.

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However, as harshly as the event has been judged over the weekend, it was not without merit by any means. As I said above, the beer was great. I had an opportunity to try beers from breweries like Weird Beard, Five Points, Howling Hops and Pressure Drop, which are either so new I haven’t noticed their founding, or in parts of London that I rarely visit. There was great food here. I had a Korean fried chicken burger from Thank Cluck that was simply sublime: that perfect chicken burger combination of crunchy lettuce, juicy thigh meat, crispy coating, hot sauce and cool mayo. A simple, wonderful marvel. Big Apple Hot Dogs, Mexican food vendor Luardos and the Falafel-slingers Hoxton Beach were also present, filling hungry faces and generating greasy chins and sloppy grins. Whilst people complained at the crush of bodies in several areas, just as many were having a good time.

London Fields Brewery has several further beer events coming later this year as part of the British Craft Beer Challenge. These four separate events will pit the best of British beer against foes from USA, Europe and the rest of the world. London Fields will have to look very closely at how to achieve a much more satisfying experience for the capital’s beer lovers, who, after the impression left by London’s Brewing, will be less likely to invite their friends from outside London to what might otherwise be extremely exciting events.

(P.S. and if anyone knows where I can get one of those green t-shirts, let me know!)

(EDIT: Have amended to reflect that the British Craft Beer Challenge is a London Fields Brewery initiative, NOT an LBA event. Thanks to Steve Williams for clarifying this.)

Sainsbury’s Great British Beer Hunt 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. City of Cambridge – Robert Oppenheimer

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

2. Ole Slewfoot – Dragon Hall Saison

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

3. Hastings – Pale Ale

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

4. Oakham – Scarlet Macaw

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

5. Bateman’s – Black Pepper Ale

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

6. Compass Brewery – Torp

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

7. Bateman’s – B Bok

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

8. Ridgeway – Querkus

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

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

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

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

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

Camden Town Brewery USA Hells Party

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The Beer of The Summer.

A beer as legendary as the Holy Grail. The beer that turns a sunny day into a glorious, shiny summer day.

I tasted such a beer last year: USA Hells Unfiltered Lager from Camden Town Brewery. Its release heralded the opening of the brewery’s on-site bar, and began their tradition of hosting street food vendors and serving cool, brewery-fresh beer in classy surroundings. I thought the beer was sensational, a truly innovative fusion of clean, crisp lager and American hop razzmatazz. Then, one day, the limited run of USA Hells was no more.

I have, from time to time, heralded other beers as contenders to the crown. BrewDog’s Dead Pony Club and Kernel’s recent Saison both have what it takes, but neither compared to the crisp, schizophrenic perfection of Camden’s lager supercharged with Cascade, Centennial, Columbus, Citra and Simcoe. I was therefore understandably frantic with glee at hearing of its return. On Saturday, Camden relaunched USA Hells at the brewery bar with the help of local meatslingers Dogfather, Big Dirty Burger and O.X.. The weather varied between cloudy and mild, and wet and wild, but as ever the atmosphere at the brewery was great. A lively crowd of beer seekers mixed with local families and friends just hanging out at the brewery.

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The beer itself was just as fantastic as I remembered: at once creamy, sharp, zesty, floral, clean, smooth and sweet. But what food to pair it with? I had the Boss Hog from Dogfather Diner, which was quite frankly the best hot dog I have ever eaten. A beef frankfurter with chorizo, jalapeños, cheese, streaky bacon, marinara sauce… There are probably other things too, but I couldn’t look at the thing any longer without eating it. As a pairing, the USA Hells was excellent at stepping in to clean my palate and wipe away any heat or salt, so each delicious mouthful of the Boss Hog was as amazing as the first.

My advice to anyone in London is to get to the brewery sharpish to taste the draught and buy some bottles to save for a sunny day. Better still, you can now buy 2-pint and 4-pint “growlers” (I prefer Gentleman’s Beer Conveyance). The large ‘Senior’ model is £5 and a 4 pint fill costs £10. At that kind of price, you’d be a fool not to go back every week!

USA Hells is back. Long live the king.

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One Hell of A Hammer

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Cold. Eyes scrunched into the wind, fists punched into pockets, jaw clenched into face, walking at a forward-slash angle, mouth sneered in defiance. Cold.

There are those that were prepared. Soviet greatcoats, gloves like chinchillas, hats stolen from Buckingham Palace guardsmen, boots like tanks. Then, the Unready: flimsy suit jackets with lapels upturned, scarves wrapped forlornly around heads, trousers flapping around legs like sails.

‘There’s only one thing for it,’ each of these people realise in crystal-like moments of clarity.

Hot. Barely-absorbed suntan lotion running down your face in rivers of sweat. The lenses of your sunglasses hot enough to cook an egg on. Praying in thanks to your ancestors and whoever invented flexi-time. Lighting the signal fires of supermarket briquettes. Pulling out Those Shorts and That Shirt from the wardrobe. Hot.

‘There’s only one thing for it,’ each of these people realise in crystal-like moments of clarity.

Despair. The failed interview, the lost job, the lost friend, the failed relationship. Slaps on the back, squeezes of the shoulder, hugs, encouraging smiles, muttered curses and small words. ‘There’s only one thing for it…’

Elation. Jubilant, exuberant, exalting, life-affirming joy. The nailed interview, the new job, the big win, the big three-oh, the perfect day, The One. Fist pumping, jumping, happy swear words and ear-to-ear grins. ‘There’s only one thing for it…’

Nothing on telly.

That new place.

Heard they have new beers.

Film doesn’t start for an hour.

Long wait before next train.

When all you have is a hammer, all your problems look like nails, so the old saying goes.

But it’s one hell of a hammer.