Urban Sessions – This Year’s Feel Good Hit of the Summer

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It was one of those blistering, unbeatable weekends of sun. Weather that we can expect to continue for a while. Weather that demands you search for a beer. Not just any beer. Only the best will do.

What do you do?

Get out to Hackney Wick. Take a cool Overground train (when it bothers to show up) out east and emerge onto the baking hot platform like you’ve just landed in Spain. Wander up a road for five minutes. Spy a sinister, 1930’s public baths bleached pale grey by the sun. Beer Here, says a sign. Dive in.

This is Urban Sessions. It’s a project that has transformed what is for all intents and purposes a community centre into a circus of beer, music, people and fun. Wandering, sunblind, into a suddenly dark space, I find myself tripping down stairs and emerging into a school-gym-sized space ringed with taps, kegs and casks. Scaffolding, bits of amusement park rides and Captain Pugwash adorn the few spaces not taken up with beer. Chalkboards proclaim magic words, booze and brewery names. Then, just like magic, some nice man appears and guides you to glass of cold beer: Magic Rock Simpleton, the 2.6% abv solution to a problem I only just realised I had.

A few gulps of this zesty, lightweight yet full-flavoured elixir and I can see properly again. ‘Oh look,’ I think, peering to one side of the room. ‘Belgium. And over there, the USA. And, Italy?’ This is no by-the-book selection of beers on offer, and rightly so, given that Melissa Cole is Urban Sessions ‘Benevolent Beer Dictator’. A constantly changing selection of 500 beverages will grace the bars at Urban Sessions over its three-month residency, with rotating range of 60 beers available at any one time. Over the summer, there will be live brewing sessions, meet the brewer events, live gigs and more. Considering this was the soft launch (plenty was still being constructed, but the majestic frame and skeleton of this wonderful beast was quite clearly in place), there was still an Untappd-busting range of beers on tap.

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Highlights included Flying Dog’s 4.2% and perfectly titled Easy IPA, Birra Toccalmatto’s super fresh and super juicy Re Hop pale ale, Weird Beard & Elusive’s Nelson Sauvin Saison, and Magic Rock’s new, pink grapefruit version of Salty Kiss, which is an absolute showstopper: sweet, sour, crisp, bitter, but grapefruit through and through. A summer blockbuster that demands another performance. But there’s tonnes more beer to try, and excellent staff to introduce you to them all. Credit must go to Melissa for getting these recruits whipped into shape. Everyone I spoke to was bright, knowledgeable, friendly and falling over themselves to get me tasters of anything.

If the indoor space impresses you, you’ll be blown away by the enormous outdoor area. Fields of seating, sand from all of your best holiday memories and soon, lots of belly-filling street food slingers to keep that beer company. As it was, there were some great people to drink with, names from Twitter that I’ve finally put handshakes to, and the happy, tipsy chatter of a group of people having a week’s worth of great beer and sunshine in one afternoon. A personal highlight was Norwich’s own Nate Southwood demanding that Stone ‘brew some shorts’. Every man can dream.

Urban Sessions is not just another place where there’s beer, food, music and people. Even in its incomplete state, Urban Sessions felt like something made with love, like the kind of place we all talk about opening in our rose-tinted bar-opening fantasies. Beer of all kinds to satisfy anyone, and if that isn’t enough, loads of high quality cider, spirits and cocktails too. Urban Sessions launches properly on Thursday 11th July, and from what I’ve seen, it’s set to take to be the most talked-about beer event in London this summer. I’ll see you there.

Craft Beer Rising at Whole Foods Market

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.)

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.

Down Escalator

HURRAY!

What was once thought nigh on impossible has finally come true. The beer duty escalator, established by Labour Chancellor Alastair Darling to increase the duty on beer two per cent above inflation every year, will be scrapped. This is largely thanks to tireless campaigning from across the beer industry, from bodies like CAMRA, brewers, MPs and trade bodies like the British Beer and Pub Association. The Government has finally recognised that the escalator was doing more harm than good, and it will shortly be taken out behind the Treasury and shot until it is dead.

Most would agree that a battle has been won, but not the war. Already, the success of the campaign to scrap the escalator has prompted calls for reductions to VAT for pubs, people are starting the see the merit of consumer, trade and political bodies working together to achieve common goals, but before we get ahead of ourselves, can we think of anything negative to say? Anybody? Perhaps each of us could have a little dig at someone before we all get too cheerful? I mean, this is an achievement, don’t get me wrong. After all, not only is the beer duty escalator finished, but there will also be a CUT in duty of 1p per pint. Fantastic.

But… erm… oh come on! We haven’t all come this far just to stop whinging, jabbing and moaning at each other. That craft keg vs cask ale argument has been fun, but we need something NEW to get embarrassingly, self-destructively furious about. Here we go. Here it comes…

WHO DESERVES THE CREDIT FOR SCRAPPING THE BEER DUTY ESCALATOR?

Aah. That’s better. I can feel the whining irritation rising, the impotent, pointless fury building. Look, you see, CAMRA deserve the credit because they got the petition to over the 100,000 signatures necessary to have the issue debated in Parliament.

YOU WHAT? But, but, Hobgoblin (Marston’s) started the petition in the first place, so THEY deserve the credit.

DON’T BE CRAZY! The British Beer and Pub Association have harangued and campaigned and lobbied against this since before the blasted escalator even came into being! THEY deserve all the credit.

ARE YOU OFF YOUR BLOODY NUT!? The Sun newspaper got the issue truly recognised at a national level and got everyone talking, not all these industry types. It woz the Sun wot won it!

Hang on, though. Some might argue that because of the efforts of all of these people it actually became a reality. Some might say that this is a true, solid, perfect example of how consumer organisations like CAMRA can remain relevant; how politicians will listen if you unite, fight together, and fight hard; how getting the media on our side is how to win; how there is hope for this beleaguered industry yet!

Cor blimey, can you imagine? What nearly happened there was – my word, I can barely comprehend it – what we nearly had there, was a variety of people across the industry almost realising that together, when they each do what they do best, they can tackle the Government and make it think differently and act differently.

Wow.

Thank goodness we’re all back to bitching, frothing and bickering like normal, eh?

For a few hours there, it almost felt like change in the air. Thank heavens we all put a stop to that.

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.

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.

Fuller’s Griffin Brewery Tour

Fuller's Griffin Brewery
Fuller’s Griffin Brewery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Phwoar etc.
Phwoar etc.

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

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

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

St Austell Brewery and the Celtic Beer Festival 2012

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