Four Nations of Beer: Epilogue

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In June, I decided to write about the beer culture in four countries based on my visits to four very different events. The resulting posts (starring the W-Ales Beer Festival, the Bermondsey Beer Mile, BrewDog’s Punk AGM 2014 and the European Beer Bloggers Conference in Dublin) left me with fascinating glimpses into a period of change in each place. Afterwards, I tried to piece it all together. What did it all mean?

 

I went into Four Nations of Beer willingly blind, and wrote four posts with a theme that should have seemed obvious to me from the outset: transition (note those forward-leaning letters, grasping at the future). Whether it was Wales outgrowing its current phase of ‘craft’ growth, London stepping into a more established period, BrewDog maturing while  struggling to shake off the difficulties of growing so quickly, or the rapid and prosperous blooming of Irish craft beer, I saw cities and beer scenes with beer DNA mutating and evolving into something new, and usually something better.

It’s been an exciting series of experiences. Exciting is a word I use too often – but damn it if there isn’t emotional electricity in the beer scene right now. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend doing four countries worth of drinking in a month to anyone, though. Returning to the humdrum of an office day job after the euphoria of Dublin left me listless and frustrated, but it’s certainly educated me a great deal.

Reassuringly, I had similar conversations with people in each of these places, about brewing being artistry rather than manufacturing, and the values of honesty and perseverance. In Dublin, I even heard Dean McGuiness mention these words, and others besides, in what he deemed to be a set of values that Irish craft brewers should adhere to. It feels like the nebulous beginnings to a definition for ‘craft beer’, but nothing so modish or self-serving, more of an aspirational charter maybe. It has to be something that is of benefit to people first, industry second, or we will quickly get into a Some Beers Are More Equal Than Others situation.

With all of that hope came more than a little of The Fear, of losing what we love so much, of reach exceeding grasp and of rogue elements bringing the whole house of cards down upon itself. If a rich, diverse and exciting beer scene across the British Isles is worth fighting for, then it’s worth working for too, to build something that will last. That something doesn’t need to be a crowd-funding initiative, a state of the art brewery, a new word for ‘craft’ or a even a successful, long-running beer festival. It could simply be a beer that becomes an idea, a symbol that lasts the test of time.

My month of beer travel ended in the Mad Bishop and Bear in Paddington station. It was there that I bade farewell to Craig Heap, who was present at the beginning and ending chapters of my tour. If there was any noticeable change in me in the intervening month (presumably a paunch, sallow skin and a thousand yard stare), he didn’t mention it. We sat in a corner at a small table by the bar, occasionally interrupted by the cries and shouts of football fans watching the projector screen. We drank pints of cask beer, pale golden ales of bright, zippy flavours that reminded us of our time in Yorkshire as students, where the real ale microbrewery revolution had preceded its craft cousin by several years.

As comforting as this was, after the chocolate porters, DIPAs and varieties of saisons blasting my palate left, right and diagonally over thirty days, the simple charms of a hand-pulled pale ale disarmed me. I’d become accustomed to picking out the effects of barrel ageing, hopping in different stages of brewing, the blending of styles and so on. The once-obvious mineral, chalky note of Portobello Pale was a flavour with no name at first, and I had to confer with Craig to retrieve the word from my brain.

I felt suddenly uncertain, unstuck like Billy Pilgrim, unsure of myself and everything that had happened to me. The British Isles had done their zymurgical utmost to me. I felt spent, yet energised; pummelled internally, yet externally still thirsty for more. Wild-eyed, baffled, each eyeball moving independently of the other, each half of brain ignorant of its neighbour, I felt adrift. I needed an anchor.

It occurred to me then, glancing at the chalkboard that explained when each cask ale had been put on to serve (more of this sort of thing, please), that only one beer could ground me. I needed a hard factory reset to put me back in the time space continuum.

When Craig placed the pint of ESB in front of me, I could already feel it working on my synapses. My retinas adjusted to the burning amber hue, tightly formed bubbles and total clarity. My olfactory receptors began to recalibrate, detecting the characteristic note of ever-so-slight-oxidation (a soft bit of sherry), warm orange marmalade on toast and a summer hedgerow.

There was no messing about – to sip it would be an unforgiveable injustice – this was deadly serious. It was incredibly important to get the beer inside me and knock the dents out from within like a malty hammer, so in it went. A hearty mouthful of it sat there, poking about, shovelling out biscuits, pepper, toffee, orange pith, making itself at home. Craig perhaps noticed my pupils dilate, colour return to my cheeks, a soft glossiness returning to my coat. Revivification.

I gulped more of this full-bodied, jumper-wearing, calloused-knuckled ale, re-acclimatising myself to London, back to Earth, back to reality with it. The Matrix contained in its utterly British DNA re-taught me how to stand up straight, take life on the chin, remember my umbrella, and hold the door open for others. That pint of ESB put my head back on, gave it a good twist, and called me a plonker for wearing those bloody white and blue WordPress sunglasses.

Does all this change, evolution, expansion, reinvention actually mean anything if we can’t build something to stand the test of time like a pint of ESB? Sometimes we need a reality check to give us the perspective we need. We need to be able to hold it in our hands, look forward, backward and know our place in the world from it. The challenge is no longer to brew the beer that can’t be replicated, but to brew the beer of the age, that everyone will wish they had brewed first. A beer that in thirty years’ time, someone can taste, and understand, and through that beer look forward and backward with the clarity that only a glass of beer can bring. So go on then, brewers. Brew it.

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’.

Sleeping Dragon (Four Nations of Beer Part 1)

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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 first part looks at Wales, and how the recent W-Ales Beer Festival showed a city entering a beer renaissance.

Whilst it’s not unusual to be in a place where a culture is changing, it’s a strange and interesting thing indeed to be present at the moment when it changes. When I attended the Great Welsh Beer Festival last year, I and many others saw the signs of a sea change in Welsh beer. There had been indications for some time, but the country’s national beer exhibition was the best barometer to measure such a change. The ‘inciting incident’ was when Newport’s decidedly ‘craft’ brewery Tiny Rebel swept the board at the Champion Beer of Wales competition at the festival, claiming gold, silver and bronze with smoked porters and IPAs, beers markedly different to what many other brewers had made.

Whilst this certainly set the scene for a future of serious changes, in the Welsh beer history book of the near future, the W-Ales Beer Festival 2014 will be the event marked as a turning point. Last year’s saw Tiny Rebel make their presence truly felt, change the game and how it is played. A fascinating prologue for certain, a hook into the story proper, but it was this year’s beer festival that saw the first chapter of the future of Welsh craft beer. That isn’t to say that it was by any means triumphant or perfect. There are still organisational niggles (too few food stands, no third-pint markings on glassware, charging for programmes on the first day, fiddly tokens), but the festival itself was still a great event. It was also, again, a fascinating barometer for the Welsh beer scene.

WRU (Welsh Rubgy Union), which owns the Millenium Stadium, charged a hefty price for stands at the festival, a price some were unwilling to pay. On top of that, the stadium’s official alcohol supplier, Heineken, wanted its own stands too. Instead of an integrated approach similar to Craft Beer Rising, where cask and keg beers are served alongside each other, here the method of dispense remained a dividing barrier. CAMRA ran the central island bar of cask taps, whilst those pouring beers on kegs were forced to provide their own stands on the outer edges of the field. It felt disconnected, especially when some brewers had beers pouring both on the CAMRA island and a separate keg bar. It showed that the traditional CAMRA model is no longer the best way to showcase the country’s beers, but also that a piecemeal approach isn’t effective either.

Having said that, the beer on sale at the festival was some of the best I’ve ever had at a beer festival. Every drop was in great condition, well-kept and tasting fresh. The diversity of Welsh beer was no longer in question. Celt’s 614 Années, an 8.5% chocolate rye porter brewed with Brasserie St Germain, was the standout (and knock-you-down) beer of the festival for me, but I also enjoyed the juicy Nelson’s Eye pale ale from Heavy Industry, a fantastic Black IPA from Grey Trees Brewery, the young Handmade Beer Co’s cracking American IPA (which had more than a touch of Torpedo to it), and a pounding Pioneer Double IPA from Zero Degrees, among others. These were all great beers, showing Welsh craft beer to be in rude health and getting better by the year.

As for the festival, whether next year will see a smoother integration of the component parts, or an even more exploded, disparate event in its place, is difficult to know. The festival this year showed that the beer community wants, and needs, something representative of all the great beer being brewed in Wales, but struggled to make a cohesive event out of it. Things will no doubt be very different next year, but how, exactly?

In a matter of weeks, Cardiff’s BrewDog will be open, just down the road from the City Arms, Urban Tap House and Zero Degrees. The city’s Craft Beer District, once a running joke between me and my gracious host Craig Heap (inspired by the ‘Hammock District’ gag in The Simpsons episode You Only Move Twice), will be all but official. Some local dignitary will probably have a bubbly amber stripe painted down the streets to mark it out, and why not? Perhaps this where the answer to the beer festival conundrum lies. Perhaps a beer festival set across Cardiff’s craft beer pubs and bars (not so much a Bermondsey Beer Mile as a Cardiff Beer Square Mile), with each pouring between 12 and 30 keg and cask beers over the course of a weekend, is a better way to represent what Welsh beer has to offer.

In any case, the change to the Welsh beer scene isn’t just coming, it’s already here.