Rediscovering Anspach and Hobday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Murky Mile (Four Nations of Beer Part 2)

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In a series of four features, I will be examining the beer culture in four countries through the lens of a particular event. This second part looks at the all-new craft beer institution that is the Bermondsey Beer Mile and just how varied and mature the London beer scene has become. Read Part 1, featuring the W-Ales Beer Festival, here.

The Bermondsey Beer Mile is so craft it hurts. Five microbreweries, ranging from the fresh-faced Anspach and Hobday to the more established like Brew By Numbers and Partizan to the already legendary like The Kernel, are dotted along a line (easily over a mile if we’re being pedantic, especially if you travel in an irregular fashion) in east London. I joke to people that in the future, archaeologists will incorrectly reason that railways were built to connect all the capital’s breweries. In Bermondsey, you would be forgiven for thinking just that.

No sooner had ‘The Mile’ become A Thing than people were complaining about how busy it was at every brewery. Beer geeks could be seen plotting innovative strategies of ‘tackling’ the Mile on Twitter, trying to outwit the hordes and be front of the line for a fresh 2/3rds at each brewery. The reality is that it is a bit difficult to do it in a straightforward way, but I think that for some people that’s part of the fun.

So what’s the appeal? Well, generally speaking, the Bermondsey Beer Mile offers some of the best beer in London, at relatively low cost (£3 for 2/3rds of a pint, unless otherwise indicated) and the opportunity to drink as fresh as is feasibly possible. When done in a mob group of fellow wankers seasoned beer enthusiasts, it can make for a wonderful day. Also, naturally, it gives one a rather profound insight into how ‘craft’ is doing in London right now, so on 14th June I made the journey to Bermondsey and did the mile with some excellent drinking partners.

In Brew By Numbers, where our Mile began, we have a brewery rapidly graduating into that ‘2011-2012 Kernel’ sort of phase, where almost everything they do is brand new and quite exemplary. I love the branding, but the actual numbering system is a bit annoying to me still (who asks for the number at the bar and not the beer ‘s name?). After an exhilaratingly crisp and juicy Motueka and Lime Saison, I ask for a Session IPA Mosaic and, like my fellow Milers, am simply blown away by it. The aroma is a spectacular bouquet of tropical fruits that comfortably makes the case for ‘fresh is best’. The beer’s palate is like an electric conduit of lime, orange and mango jacked right into your tongue, ripe with pith and bitterness. The vibe at BBNo is very laid-back, with a very simple layout of benches outside that encouraged a sociable drinking atmosphere. Given how great their beers are tasting at the moment, they may need to work out how accommodate far greater numbers of people.

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Meanwhile, at The Kernel, now closing early (at 2pm) due to its arch-busting popularity, we are greeted by nothing less than a fort of iconic brown paper-clad bottles. The last time I was inside The Kernel, it was a cave of pallets, bottles, boxes and just stuff. Now it seems sharper, more organised, not corporate but certainly a professional appearance honed by a growing legion of fans and regular custom. One cavernous arch is given over entirely to customers, seated or otherwise. Some fantastic beers were on draught, including the collaboration with Camden Town Brewery, Gentleman’s Agreement, a barrel-aged blend of Camden Gentleman’s Wit and Kernel London Sour. It’s a truly stunning beer, its apple-skin and sharply sour edges injected with lemon and grapefruit juiciness and rounded by tannic, oaky notes. It’s a technical marvel – enormously flavoursome and complex for a beer at 4.3% abv.

There is a very promising trend in blending and barrel-aging at the moment, something that really shows a maturation (no pun intended) of the British beer scene. Sure, we still love to throw hops at beers like there’s no tomorrow, but we’re also experimenting in esoteric methods and using real skill to – and I mean this as a verb – craft beer. I expect to see more of this in the next year, as the more accomplished new breweries each seek to up their game in this area.

After The Kernel came Partizan, which was tricky to find. It required traversing an active (and very noisy) building site and following an extremely ‘craft’ hand drawn cardboard sign. There were more cardboard signs inside, at the tiny bar in front of Partizan (formerly The Kernel’s) brewkit. The beers on offer included some delectable-looking saisons and IPAs. Another trend I’ve noticed of late is beers infused with different types of tea, and I’ve enjoyed pretty much every one I’ve had. The one on offer at Partizan, an Iced Tea Saison, was too tempting to resist, especially at its sensible strength of 3.9% abv. Unfortunately, it was just a bit too thin, with not enough tea flavour to justify its name. When I think of the best tea-infused beers I’ve had, they tended to be bigger bodied styles – IPAs and porters, so perhaps a different approach to the saison recipe is needed as well as using more tea. Still, it was further evidence that the more established breweries on the Mile are Thinking In New Ways. Partizan are great brewery and I’ve no doubt that, with their track record, they’ll master this style in no time.

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At the next stop, Fourpure, tucked away in an industrial estate at the other end of The Mile, we have a glimpse of the future, or at least an alternate version of the present. This is an example of The American Way: a shiny new brewery with towers of brightly-coloured cans, a brewery tap bar slinging schooners of the freshest draught beer and, naturally, a ping pong table next to the canning line. The friendly bubbling of beery conversation around long tables is occasionally punctuated by a ping pong ball bouncing off a piece of brewing equipment or a tower of hollow aluminium cans. Special mention must also be given to the pulled pork sausage rolls available at the bar, which were nothing short of majestic. It’s a warm and welcoming place, but then it has to be, given that it’s the furthest flung of the Bermondsey Mile breweries.

Here, many of us partook of another Session IPA, though Fourpure’s example was a subtler and smoother beast designed to be enjoyed by the six-pack. Still, it was refreshingly crisp and had some nicely nuanced depths to its hop character, though it’s certainly not the fireworks of the Session IPA Mosaic we had at Brew By Numbers earlier that day. There’s certainly a lot of ‘Session IPA’ going about in London now, which is a very American take on something we already do quite well – fresh, bright hoppy pale ales. I don’t have a problem with the name exactly, and it doesn’t matter what we, and I mean beer geeks, think of the name. Ultimately, if consumers as a whole find it useful, it will stick around, just like so many beer style names in the past.

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My Mile ended somewhat inauspiciously at the opposite end from Fourpure, in the arch shared by Bullfinch and Anspach & Hobday, a brewery of which I am rather fond. I hold A&H’s Smoked Brown, Table Porter and IPA in high regard, particularly for a such a new brewery. Whenever I have had their beers from the bottle or at a Craft Beer Co, they’ve been sublime. Their Smoked Tea Porter, a recent collaboration with Melissa Cole, hit all the right notes and was impressively balanced – one of the best tea-infused beers I’ve ever had. Unfortunately, this particular visit saw some fellow Milers given some below-average beers that seemed not entirely ready to serve, and there was one glass of The Pale which took London Murky to its extreme. The beer was everything that unfined beer critics would just love to be served: an opaque liquid the colour of a manilla envelope that couldn’t have finished fermenting. The beer was exchanged but not taken off sale. Concerns were raised with the brewers and were duly noted, but it was still a low point on which to end the Mile.

There’s a lot of spite and anger about unfined and unfiltered beer at the moment, much of it directed at new brewers, some of whom are even accused of deliberately ‘murky’-ing their beer to be ‘cool’. The fact is that many of these newer brewers simply do not have the technology to stop their beers being as hazy (and I mean hazy, not murky) as they are, and many are often trying to meet exceedingly high demand for their beers. However, there is no excuse for charging money for a beer that should simply not be served, and this was one of those instances. This time A&H fell short, but I have no doubt that on another visit, I’ll have a great beer from them. It’s just a matter of being more patient with their beers, and being absolutely certain they are ready for sale. They can only lose out by trying to serve beer that will harm their reputation, just in an effort to be part of The Mile’s buzz.

You might think that this all adds up to a very mixed review of The Mile, and you’d be right. As a measure of where craft beer in London is right now, the Bermondsey Beer Mile is perhaps more indicative of the ‘bleeding edge’ – barrel-aged blends, tea-infused saisons, session IPAs and gleaming canning lines – but it’s an edge that cuts both ways.  The fact is, The Bermondsey Beer Mile, this dazzling rainbow of London craft beer in its many forms, approaches, intentions and futures, is a murky beast indeed. The Mile needs time and a stronger sense of cohesion to become the finely-honed showcase of the best beer in London. A nice start might be a collaboration brew from the five breweries involved. I hope that over the summer the Mile is shaped into something we can proud of. As it is right now, I’m willing to be patient. Great beer deserves patience and London deserves great beer.

In the next part of Four Nations of Beer, I review the controlled chaos of BrewDog’s shareholder AGM 2014, and see if Scotland’s squeakiest wheel brightest burning light is still at the front of the ‘craft beer revolution’.

Four Nations of Beer

I'll be needing one of these this month.
I could do with a HopJet this month…

June, June, June. How intent you seem on slaying me.

I’ve a fair few things lined up this month, all of which I’ve been really looking forward to, but it only occurred to me the other day that these events are not just in different cities, but different countries too (ooh get me). I’m not boasting – far from it; it’s probably going to put me in a horizontal state for most of July – but I have been pondering just what I should write about it.

For example, I’ve just spent the weekend in Cardiff, attending the W-Ales Beer Festival at the Millennium Stadium and revisiting some of the city’s excellent pubs. Each time I return to Cardiff, its beer scene has grown exponentially, and this year’s beer festival was markedly different to last year’s at the Motorpoint Arena. Craig Heap and I used to joke about the city’s Craft Beer District, but it’s now very much a reality.

This coming weekend I’ll be doing at least some of the Bermondsey Beer Mile before visiting the new Beavertown Brewery site in Tottenham Hale, a brewery which has truly ‘graduated’ to the big leagues. Of course, I already live in London, but I think this weekend will help to crystallise a lot of my thoughts about what’s happening here.

The weekend after that, I’m in Aberdeen for BrewDog’s shareholder AGM, a now-permanent fixture in my calendar that marries beer, music and BrewDog’s ‘culture’ increasingly neatly. With Greg Koch of Stone Brewing Co visiting, ever more bands on the line-up and the certainty of new beers and madcap schemes, it’s sure to be a blast of a weekend. BrewDog are of course far from being all that’s happening in Scotland’s beer scene, but the AGM has been an interesting indicator of which way the wind is blowing.

I’ll end the month in Dublin for the European Beer Bloggers Conference. I’ve already written about how much I’m looking forward to this, but it’s worth restating that Ireland’s craft beer scene is mostly a mystery to me, so I can’t wait to get amongst the new beers, breweries and pubs that are driving the change there.

Quite a month then, and the fact that each event is in a different country presents me with a rare opportunity. I’ve decided to use each event as a way of examining that country’s beer scene in whatever way I can. It’s not going to be perfect, or wholly representative, but through the lenses that each of these places provides I hope to discover and share what’s happening in beer right now.

Too much is written about this booming beer scene in the past tense (post-craft etc). For people to understand this undeniably important time, I’m going to do my damnedest to record as much information of relevance as I can. There’s amazing things happening everywhere, and it’s our duty to experience as much of it as we can.

This project might help me make The Beer Diary the blog that it should be. Worst case scenario, there will be lots of details of my drunken exploits on the internet.

 

(PS. It’d obviously be great if I had time to do Belfast too. That would really help round this out/truly destroy me.)