#EBBC13 – What did we learn?

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Attending the European Beer Bloggers Conference this year filled me with excellent beer and information. Well, mostly beer.

As covered in my past posts and on the unofficial Live Blog, it was a wide-ranging event that covered a lot of topics, each resulting in a lot of discussion. As bloggers and beer drinkers, what did we learn from this raucous, information-packed weekend of beer?

I learned that:

  • Edinburgh has interesting and unusual beer taps. Whether they’re the tall, brass examples with horizontally-twisting tap handles, shining chrome arrays of sleek modern taps, or wooden handpulls carved into the shape of bats, this city has some excellent species of beer dispense.
  • We must learn to laugh at ourselves, or everyone else will. “Was this contract brewed? I think I can smell the contract…”
  • “Beer is people.” Not tanks or pipes or ingredients, but the people who make it.
  • Garrett Oliver once took The Ramones bowling. Wow.
  • The people at Stewart Brewing are Good People… who will let you wander around their brewery, manhandle sacks of hops, and shove your face into open fermenting vessels. They even collaborate with Herriot & Watt brewing graduates.
  • Garrett Oliver’s hat is almost as much of a star as he is.
  • In America, there are some crazy new laws about blogging, meaning compulsory disclosures of anything you have been gifted, or you may end up in court!
  • Nobody could agree on the best beer and food matches, and after lengthy discussion, we decided that nobody necessarily should agree, either. The job of Beer Sommeliers, Cicerones, or whatever we choose to become, should be to guide, not instruct.
  • There’s a shortage of wood to age beer in. Beer could change to reflect that, too. If the amount of aged whisky barrels runs out, we could see new beer styles being used for less used barrels like wine, tequila or cognac.
  • We should think about whether we write what we want to write, or what our audience want to read.
  • You should always have a face that people can click on. At least, if you want your articles to more read if they appear in Google searches.
  • BrewDog have social media nailed down to the ground, and we can all use it to our advantage.
  • We are divided in our motives. Whilst some wish to make a living from their writing, others are perfectly happy to blog for the love of blogging. In Europe at least, we are still mainly what the US would call ‘citizen beer bloggers’.
  • A beer aged in a 40 year old sherry cask that last contained a 30 year old Highland Park whisky tastes as good as you’d think it would, especially when its made by Harviestoun.
  • Fraoch is best enjoyed with haggis. The floral, spicy notes of the heather ale blend so neatly and excitingly with the richly seasoned, savoury flavour of haggis that you will swear they were made for each other.
  • Finally, there is a bright, shiny future full of people writing excellent things about excellent beer.

What things did you learn from EBBC13?

#EBBC13 – Day 2 Highlights

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Read the highlights of EBBC Day 1 here.

The second day of the European Beer Bloggers Conference 2013 had a packed agenda, and featured really useful and insightful talks from some of the leading lights of beer writing. There was also the extremely exciting Live Beer Blogging event, which saw some incredible beers being poured. Below is a recap of what happened with some photos from the various sessions. As ever, you can read the in-depth coverage of EBBC13 on the Live Blog written by Sam Parker and I, built by John Read.

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Beer Blogging Around the Globe

The day opened with a panel of beer bloggers from Ireland, Poland, Norway and the USA discussing the challenges of beer blogging in their respective countries. There was really interesting explanations of the various legal difficulties that have recently cropped up in the US, such as disclosing whether samples were sent to you by breweries. This was met with what Craig Heap described as a ‘very British, quiet outrage’. Meanwhile, in Norway, brewers aren’t even allowed to use promotional images on their websites! There was an overall positive feeling to the discussion, as each panellist set out what they were most looking forward to in the future. I covered the panel’s discussion on the live blog here.

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Drinks Writing – When Every Word Counts

Susanna Forbes of DrinkBritain.com gave us some in-depth and detailed advice on improving our writing and our blogs’ effectiveness. There was really great information here, and I understand that Susannah’s presentation will be uploaded to the EBBC website for us all to enjoy. Sam covered Susannah’s talk in detail here on the live blog.

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BrewDog does Social Media

BrewDog’s in-house social media and marketing specialist Sarah Warman, formerly of agency Manifest, gave a really insightful and useful talk on the effective use of social media. We saw BrewDog’s strategy and the social media platforms they use, and Sarah was very good at identifying what works for BrewDog, and what might work for bloggers like us. Some of us even signed up to new platforms there and then! Read my live blog of Sarah’s presentation here.

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Becoming a Beer Sommelier

Beer Sommelier Sophie Atherton (whose blog is A FemAle View) hosted a double-edged talk, first discussing what a Beer Sommelier is and how it has benefited her career, and secondly hosting a beer and food matching event. There was a simple yet wonderful selection of charcuterie and cheeses provided by Vintage in Leith, and we were encouraged to find the best beer matches ourselves. The beers were the crisp and fruity Sixpenny IPA, Fuller’s classy Black Cab stout, and a slightly lifeless mini-cask of Adnams Broadside. Many noted that it was hard to find ‘excellent’ matches. However, a really interesting discussion then ensued about how all of our many different opinions prove the subjective nature of food and beer matching. Sam Parker covered the session on the live blog here.

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Live Beer Blogging

Beers from Traquair, Shepherd Neame, Inveralmond, West, Ilkley, Badger, Harviestoun, Innis & Gunn and Birra Toccalmatto were tasted, with bloggers posting and sharing their thoughts live. Sam Parker and I used our live blog to share our thoughts in real time. See the results here.

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Ilkley’s The Mayan (as modelled by Leigh Linley)

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Inveralmond Blackfriar

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Traquair Jacobite Ale

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Badger Roaming Roy Dog

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Harviestoun Ola Dubh 30th Anniversary edition (in 40 year old whisky cask, last containing 30 year old Highland Park)

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Toccalmatto Surfing Hop

Dinner provided by Williams Bros and Fyne Ales

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 Arguably the highlight of the weekend, the final dinner saw Williams Brothers and Fyne Ales go head-to-head at a sumptuous beer and food banquet. This was a non-stop delight. The starte of haggis, neeps and tatties was served with a whisky and peppercorn sauce, with matched sensationally with Williams’ Fraoch Pictish heather ale. The spicyness in both the beer and food met halfway, bridging the savoury haggis, sweet suede and potato with the soft, rounded herbal flavours in the beer. The Sanda Blonde from Fyne was too bright and citrusy to match this meal, but it did serve quite nicely as a palate cleanser or, as Gavin Frost put it, an amuse-bouche.

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The main course was double-whammy of chicken stuffed with black pudding, alongside sea bass and a sweet potato fondant. I wasn’t sure what the sauce was that came with this meal, but it was wonderfully savoury. The chicken was a little dry, but the sea bass was delicious, and went incredibly well with Fyne Ales crisp, hoppy, citric and sweet golden ale Jarl. Williams’ Citra Sitka was also served with the main course, but went best with the sweet potato fondant, where the sweetness in each boosted and the enhanced each other.

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Last but not least, for dessert we were served a traditional Scottish Cranachan, which was basically half a pint of clotted cream with raspberries, heather honey and whisky. Ours didn’t seem to have much of whisky character to it, but there was TONNES of cream, which is good if you like cream. The shortbread biscuits tasted a bit cheap, but it was overall a very indulgent dessert. For this we were served Stravaigin, a collaboration brewed saison/blonde ale from Williams and Stillwater, and Fyne Ales Superior IPA. The Stravaigin was a nice match, cutting through the cream and enhancing the fruitier aspects of the dessert. The Superior IPA didn’t really match at all, being way to overpoweringly hopped. It was just fine on its own as an after-dinner aperitif. As a competition, I think it was a score draw between Williams and Fyne. A great evening.

Afterwards, many bloggers headed back out into Edinburgh, and found themselves in the favourite venue of the weekend – the Hanging Bat (also now known as the Banging Hat). It’s a fantastic bar that any beer (or indeed gin) geek should visit. It was unseasonably hot in there, but I think all who visited the Hanging Bat would agree it captures Edinburgh beer-loving, party-hard spirit perfectly.

Cheers!

Next time in The Beer Diary – What did EBBC13 all mean, and what did we learn about the future of beer blogging in the UK and Europe?

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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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.

No Future – is beer innovation a myth?

The recent Beer Innovation summit received a very mixed reaction from the beer blogging community. At best, it was a valiant effort to establish some joined-up thinking and show appreciation of technological advances. At worst, it was a heavily blinkered back-patting exercise as everyone present congratulated themselves for being such good eggs.

Dave Bailey helped stir up debate on this issue, in an attempt to answer the following: what exactly is innovation in the brewing industry? Is it better quality cans to improve freshness and taste? Is it someone using Brettanomyces yeast and chili and ginger and mystical moonberries in an Imperial Black Saison? Is it creating a product designed to attract new drinkers to beer, which in the process alienates the faithful?

As far as I can tell, the debate simply created more and more questions, so many in fact that I can’t be sure that innovation in beer exists at all. Yes, technological advances can be innovative, but aren’t they simply industrial advances that improve the means of production, not the product? New beers are often old styles mashed together, or ingredients used differently to create the same thing. Where’s the ‘new’?

If I sound disillusioned, it’s because I am. If we are in a beer renaissance, where are our Da Vincis? I’m so, so grateful for all the excellent beer I drink, but is it really the cutting edge? My biggest fear is that someone is about to bring back mead, and that we’re all going to act like it’s a new and exciting thing.

The future. Actually, this would be pretty cool. Unethical, but cool.

I was recently at an excellent beer tasting session at Wilton’s Music Hall, presented by Adnams‘ head brewer Fergus Fitzgerald. Fergus made a unusually frank comparison at the very beginning: like wine, brewers seek to make a liquid from fermented sugars. The key words here, ‘like wine’. are rarely spoken by brewers, either because they cannot confidently compare their beers with wines, or because they see their beers as superior to wine, for one or several of many valid reasons. Fergus wasn’t trying to dredge up the old argument of beer vs wine in food terms. He was simply making a very valid and important point: think of the craft of wine-making in the same way as brewing. With this precedent firmly established, those gathered in the upstairs bar at Wilton’s were expertly guided through the core range of Adnams’ beers, and were generously introduced to a handful of oddities and one-offs, each stronger than the last (one of which, a Belgian yeast-driven Double IPA, was actually called Innovation).

This made me think that the ‘innovation’ we seek in beer should in fact be an innovation in thinking. The biggest change that will have the biggest effect on the brewing industry is changing the way it is perceived. Example: canned beer. Instead of making better cans, far more canned beer would be sold by changing the way we think about it. “Good beer in a can is good beer,” Fergus pointed out. “Crap cans of beer have crap beer in them.”

I think, like BrewDog say in their hopaganda, that the beer industry in the UK is sick. However, I think it’s a sickness that has symptoms undetectable to the subjects infected with it. We all think that the beer industry needs new, exciting things, but what we really need is new, exciting thinking. If you have the faintest idea what I mean (I barely do), please let me know in the comments.

Craft By Design

The Beer House in Waterloo station.

A guy walks up to me and asks ‘What’s Punk?’. So I kick over a garbage can and say ‘That’s punk!’. So he kicks over the garbage can and says ‘That’s Punk?’, and I say ‘No that’s trendy! – Billie Joe Armstrong

A clumsy comparison, you’re already thinking, but bear with me. Whatever ‘craft’ beer is, it is generally agreed that whilst it’s hard to define, you know it when you see it. The same applies to modern ‘craft’ beer bars and pubs. They can be very traditional looking, like the Southampton Arms. They can be bare-brick-and-granite hipster magnets like BrewDog Camden. Whatever the decor or the theme might be, you know it when you see it. Admittedly, this is normally because there are 40 taps crammed onto the bar, but the point stands.

There’s an increasing number high-end beer venues in the UK, especially in London. They stand apart from well-established real ale havens that have ten or more ales on, even though they might share the same patrons. They are identifiably ‘a thing’ as popular vernacular would term it (‘Oh, is this a thing now?’ ‘Yes, definitely a thing’). So we have not only a boom in specialist beer, but also in specialist beer outlets.

As Boak and Bailey recently blogged, there are a number of signs when a boom is about to peak, and ultimately, decline. The most damning and certain sign is when the niche thing in question is adopted whole-heartedly, and replicated perfectly, by larger, wealthier, mainstream competitors. Have we already reached that point with craft beer? Definitely. It’s been happening in the USA for years, as the recent ‘Craft vs Crafty’ debate has proven. Even in the UK, bigger brewers are starting to place value in ale brands that only a few years ago were seen as dead weight. So what about the outlets – the places where we all drink and experience this wonderful beer?

Will mainstream pub companies attempt to replicate the success of BrewDog’s bars?

I recently found myself with half an hour to kill in Waterloo station, and happened across the promising-sounding Beer House, which also has branches in Charing Cross and Paddington. After descending a couple of flights of stairs, I found myself in a well-appointed, pubby sort of bar that was quite large but still definitely part of a train station. The wood panelling, leather-cushioned benches, chalkboard beer menus and random spray of manufactured ‘vintage’ art all said ‘modern pub’. The beer selection was spread across several chilled T-bar fonts and four different handpulls. The chilled fonts had a couple of token mainstream lagers, but most were beers like Erdinger Dunkelweisse, BrewDog 5am Saint, and Flying Dog Doggie Style. The food menu boasted deals on classic Americana; hot dogs, burgers etc. alongside pubbier fare. Prices were Train Station x London + Craft, but this was to be expected.

Given all of that, it still had all the necessary ingredients to make a pub that I would like. So what perturbed me about this place? It was the way they were put together: a case of the Uncanny Valley, where advanced robotics creates something disturbing because it is close-to-but-not-quite human, applied to a pub. Here was a venue owned and operated by SSP, Compass, or one of the other catering companies that run the franchises in train stations, but created to mimic our modern idea of a high-end beer venue. There was a palpable synthetic quality to everything, not helped by the fact it was in a generic, train station unit. The deliberate way in which ‘fun’ was injected into the chalkboard writing, the barmaid’s look of confusion when I asked for one of the heavily-advertised paddles of tasting thirds, the fact that the staff were clearly from one of those Pumpkin Cafes; these all created little glitches in the Matrix until I found myself questioning everything about it. It’s hard to explain myself without sounding like a weird pedant, but that’s what it was like. That sudden certainty that everything has been deliberately chosen to replicate something you like, that if you punch a hole in the wall you might see a lab of men in white coats ticking boxes of clipboards.

Is this the future? Should I have a problem with it? There wasn’t anything in particular about that place that I disliked, but I worry about the long-term consequences. We are used to paying higher prices for beer that costs more to make, by people that have higher overheads and smaller workforces. If more mainstream chains of craft beer bars spring up, will smaller chains of outlets get priced out of the game? Will brewers that cannot provide the quantities (that born-again bigger brewers  of ‘craft beer’ can) face decline and eventual closure? Am I making too much of this? I certainly hope so.

A year of beer: my Golden Pints 2012

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

Best UK Draught Beer

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

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

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

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Best UK Bottled or Canned Beer

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

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

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

Best Overseas Draught Beer

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

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

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

Best Overseas Bottled or Canned Beer

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

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

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

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

Best Pumpclip or Label

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

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

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

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Best UK Brewery

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

Mikkeller. You just can’t stop him.

Pub/Bar of the Year

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

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

St Austell Brewery and the Celtic Beer Festival 2012

Beer Festival of the Year

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

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

Supermarket of the Year

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

Independent Retailer of the Year

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

Online Retailer of the Year

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

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

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

Best Beer Book or Magazine

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

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

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

Best Beer Blog or Website

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

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

Best Beer Twitterer

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

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

Brewdog-Logo1

Best Online Brewery Presence

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

Food and Beer Pairing of the Year

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

In 2013 I’d most like to…

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

Open category – Worst Beer PR Email of The Year

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

Dog Eat Dog World

Copyright Ralph Steadman

Collaborations in the brewing world, especially between microbreweries, have become part of the loving, warm-hearted soul of this industry. It’s a curious thing really, for businesses in the food and beverage industry to collaborate in this way. We might expect it of celebrity chefs, or niche, independent delis and producers, but it hardly occurs elsewhere in food and drink.

In the arts, you can’t move for collaborations between musicians, artists and authors. Sometimes, beer and art cross over. Rapper Professor Green launched his own beer (brewed by Titanic) called Professor Green’s Remedy, and Beck’s have been using artfully-inspired labels created by artists and bands for a few years now. Even Elbow have released a ‘build a rocket boys!’ beer with the helps of Robinsons.

It’s a question that is barely worth asking, really. Why beer? Beer promotes collaboration because it’s one of the great social levellers, the great equaliser between ages, cultures and ideologies that promotes understanding and friendship (although, past a certain point, some people become progressively less understandable and friendly).

Sharing, caring and so on are all very well and good, but how about a little competition to spice things up?

Copyright Johanna Basford

On Monday, I attended the climactic final part of the recent International Arms Race between BrewDog and Flying Dog to create a winning Zero IBU IPA using no hops. It was a fascinating concept, and one that was wisely chosen. After all, instructing two hop-loving breweries to create a superior IPA would simply result in each producing a nuclear-hopped, scorched-earth-bitterness monster, which either could easily do any day of the week. Specifying that no hops could be used levelled the playing field and instead encouraged innovation. After agreeing on a set list of ingredients used to create spicy bitterness instead of hops (including bay leaves, ginger, rosemary and all sorts of herbs and spices), each brewer went off to create very different beers.

I will review each of them properly in a future issue of Rum and Reviews Magazine (once I have received some bottled versions), but the beers couldn’t have been more different, and the event held at BrewDog Camden was a great evening of beery nerdiness. It may have been a ‘Combative Collaboration’ and a competitive one, but both brewers gained from it, and had a lot of fun doing it. The competitive element intrigued me, because we are so used to the likes of Mikkeller simply co-authoring something with every brewery under the sun. Bloggers, writers, anyone can get involved, and that’s great. However, I think the competitive element adds something exciting. It encourages creativity and pushing boundaries, and I think a lot could be done in this regard with food.

Imagine, instead of trying to make the best Beer X, why not try to make the best beer to go with Food X?

The ultimate steak, BBQ or burger beer. The ultimate curry beer. The ultimate dessert beer. A famous chef could define and create the exact dish that the beer must match to, and then brewers could be invited to compete for the accolade of having the best beer to go with it. It’s something that drinkers and bloggers give their opinion on all the time (“for me, if I’m having a curry, I absolutely must have a … to go with it,”) and it would force brewers to put their pride on the line, instead of just idly suggesting an easy food match on the back of the bottle.

What do you think? Are collaborations a Good Thing? Would you like to see more competitions? I’d like to know your thoughts.

Yes We Can


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