A Murky Mile (Four Nations of Beer Part 2)

20140614_124847

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.

20140614_124911

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.

20140614_141105

 

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.

20140614_143058

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’.

Great Beer Festivals: GBBF vs LCBF

2013-08-13 13.50.32
In the blue corner: GBBF…

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

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

2013-08-16 16.38.44
… and in the red corner: LCBF.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2013-08-16 15.55.46
How many things can you hang above a terrace? Quite a blummin’ lot, mate.

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

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

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

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

2013-08-16 15.38.26

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

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

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

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

IMG_20130709_223851

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.

IMG_20130709_224239

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.

Bitter and Twisted at Gourmet Burger Kitchen

IMG_20130703_170824

A beer and a burger. A humble staple of pub menus across the land.

Some have taken that simple pairing of juicy meat and palate-tingling beer and made something exciting of it. Every city has a local champion, but in London, Byron is the king. Their beer menu puts half of the capital’s pubs to shame, never mind the restaurants. It’s a weird sort of anomaly on the graph of good beer in restaurants, sitting out on its own in an area marked ‘burgers and stuff, but not street food’. I think it’s street food and pop-ups that have derailed this otherwise promising trend. Street food vendors would more than likely sell quality beer if they had the license to do so, however, so maybe this is an area where having a roof wins every time.

Before I’d ever heard of Byron, I’d been to Gourmet Burger Kitchen. It was clearly all about the burgers – big ones – and a choice of decadent toppings and sauces. I remember having a hunk of beef quite rare and covered in blue cheese. It was exciting, and delicious, but the beer was just an afterthought. I think I had Budvar.

Now, of course, in a country besieged by new breweries and people interested in what those breweries make, it’s simply not good enough to just have a couple of lagers below the wine list. To GBK’s credit, they do stock their ‘own label’ Organic Pale Ale made by Laverstoke Farm. I haven’t had it, but the thought counts. Alongside that and the standard couple of lagers, a new beer has been welcomed onto the menu: Harviestoun’s Bitter & Twisted.

IMG_20130703_175934

Harviestoun’s Bitter & Twisted is a zesty, likeable blonde beer that suits bottles very well. It has a lemony, citrusy, even peachy hop character that’s kept in balance with some floral Noble hops too. Whilst it’s a pale ale, it reminds me a bit of Sam Adams Boston Lager, in a good way. GBK have about fifty restaurants now, so in Harviestoun they’ve picked a brewer that can handle the distribution demand, and fill the vacancy on their menu for new ‘craft beer’ that people will find interesting but accessible. B&T is a great beer, but it’s not like it’s Racer 5 or anything else on Byron’s beer menu. It being stocked at GBK is still a good thing though of course, because it points toward a more mainstream acceptance of having great beer in high street food outlets.

Wednesday saw the launch of B&T at the GBK in Angel, Islington. It’s a nice place to eat, with interesting lighting, and it uses a soft touch when it comes to hipster décor. The whole restaurant was given over to the invited guestlist between 5.00pm and 6.30pm (a potentially risky move given the place’s proximity to a Vue cinema on Orange Wednesday). Free bottles of B&T were brought to the table, along with sliders/mini-burgers of a few different varieties from the menu. It was a much more informal kind of beer launch than I’m used to. At no point did a Harviestoun person get everyone’s attention and chat about the beer (or it’s pairing potential with burgers), which was a bit of a shame. The only other irritation was that some burgers made to some tables, but not to others. I had a couple of the wild boar burgers, and a couple of the chicken, Camembert and cranberry variety (pictured above), both of which B&T went with excellently. The chicken burger in particular seemed to bring out all the best bits of the beer – a balance of sweet and tart alongside the cranberry, whilst also cutting through the chicken and gooey cheese.

There was also some chips and dips doing the rounds, including hunks of grilled halloumi with a green chilli dip that the B&T paired with very nicely indeed, sitting on top of the chilli on your tongue and gradually turning it sweet.

The event as a whole was fun, but too informal and casual to land any messages about the brand and why it’s there. Other than that, it was a fun evening of food and beer. It also reminded me of what a lovely beer Bitter & Twisted actually is, so in that regard, it was certainly a success. Hopefully, we’ll see more interesting beer listings in GBK and other places like it in the future.

Un-Human Cannonball

IMG_20130516_184237

Thursday saw the launch of Magic Rock’s Un-Human Cannonball, a limited release 12% Triple IPA that will only be available once a year (effectively making it the British version of Russian River’s limited edition Pliny the Younger, the US beer geek pin-up Triple IPA).

The launch was at Craft Beer Co in Islington, where I was pleased to find Matt Curtis of Total Ales (who photobombed my picture above so excellently), Justin Mason of Get Beer Drink Beer and met various other lovely beery people for the first time, including Chris and Emma of Crema Brewery. The pub was rammed, and their bottles of Un-Human Cannonball had already sold out hours ago. Therefore, it was our simple duty to drink as much of the keg version as was available.

I rate Cannonball and Human Cannonball as two of the best IPAs being made in the UK, and Human Cannonball was my UK draught beer of the year. I’m an enormous fan of Magic Rock’s beers, and this was why I couldn’t help but be disappointed by Un-Human.

Before I’m chased by hopheads and beaten into a fine grist, I should explain that I would still give it 4 stars out of 5. It has an enormous body, even bigger flavours, and still drinks like a 5-6% IPA. No mean feat, and a delicious beer to boot. But given it’s heritage, that’s simply not good enough.

The original Cannonball is 7.4%, floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee. It is a finely-honed, explosively tasty IPA. Human Cannonball is a 9% powerhouse of toffee, tropical fruit, pith and pine, but is so damn classy, so outrageously clear, defined and crystal-like in its clarity, that its strength is merely an aspect of its flavour and not the dominating characteristic. It’s a masterpiece.

Un-Human Cannonball couldn’t have been more different. It poured like a glass of brassy, hoppy mud. Not surprising really, given that Magic Rock’s description reads like hop pornography: “We used a mountain of Centennial, Citra & Columbus whole hops in the hop back and then the most dry hopping we’ve ever attempted, with 4 monster additions of Amarillo, Centennial, Simcoe, Citra and Chinook in cold conditioning.” That’ll give it a fair old hop haze, then.

The aroma was very similar to Human Cannonball (which, along with regular Cannonball, was also available on draught that night to help with a comparison), with lots of toffee, booze, pine and tropical fruit. Each sip was a shot of citrusy hops injected straight into your tongue, covered with a sticky toffee bandage and buried in flaming, brandy-soaked hop cones. After the smoke clears, a pine forest, a cannabis factory and a mango farm grow out of your tongue. It all felt so violent, intense and lacking refinement.

So what? Isn’t that the point, you ask? Isn’t this supposed to be a ludicrous, barely palateable hop bomb of insane proportions? Maybe, but I have come to expect better from Magic Rock. How can the 9% double IPA be sublime and then the 12% version be ridiculous? Perhaps a bridge too far. I’d be interested in reading how the bottles turn out, and if they have a little more clarity after a month or two in people’s cupboards.

That said, I had to have another measure just to be thoroughly sure. After all, to me it’s still a four-star beer. I also tasted some marvellous beers from Pizza Port, and practically inhaled a pork and venison pie with the help of the outstanding original Cannonball. There may even have been an ill-advised but completely delicious bottle of Cigar City Guava Grove involved. It was a great evening, and made just as good by the people as by all the excellent beer. I can also testify to feeling positively Un-Human the following day.

IMG_20130516_211720

London’s Brewing 2013

IMG_20130506_162940

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.

IMG_20130505_162736

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.

IMG_20130505_161557

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.

IMG_20130505_161730

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

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

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

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

Sainsbury’s Great British Beer Hunt 2013

IMG_20130504_131046

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

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

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

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

IMG_20130504_135412

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

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

1. City of Cambridge – Robert Oppenheimer

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

2. Ole Slewfoot – Dragon Hall Saison

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

3. Hastings – Pale Ale

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

4. Oakham – Scarlet Macaw

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

5. Bateman’s – Black Pepper Ale

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

6. Compass Brewery – Torp

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

7. Bateman’s – B Bok

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

8. Ridgeway – Querkus

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

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

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

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

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

#BrooklynFeast


2013-03-12 18.25.51

Who could have predicted this week’s Winter 2.0? Some know-it-all meteorologist no doubt, but us common folk have been left with our gobs smacked and our flabbers gasted. The worryingly chilly weather was the unfortunate setting for Tuesday evening’s #BrooklynFeast, an event heralding the return of Street Feast London, whose events were hugely popular last summer.

#BrooklynFeast was organised by Brooklyn Brewery and beer importers James Clay, bringing together the brewery’s beers and the capital’s burgeoning street food scene in a perfect hipster storm of Instagrammable wonderment. Top street food vendors including Bowler, Big Apple Hot Dogs, Rainbo and Bleecker St Burgers set up in a car park off Dalston Lane, which was transformed into an ersatz street of trendy gluttony.

2013-03-12 19.33.36

The bar at #BrooklynFeast (don’t worry, I’ll stop hashtagging it now) was stocked with eight of Brooklyn’s beers, each matched to a dish from one of the food vendors. The pairing menu below, featuring rarer brews such as Blast!, Pennant ’55 and the ominous There Will Be Black, was varied, well thought out and extremely appetising.

Below are a couple of the food and beer pairings that I tried:

There Will Be Black and Smokey BBQ Wings from Street Kitchen

2013-03-12 18.53.04

These wings had a thick, crunchy batter and were dripping in a decadently thick BBQ sauce that was so delicious it could have easily started its own religion overnight. Like all great wings, just as you bit into one, the meat fell away and you were left holding a bone in your greasy fingers, grinning like a fool.

There Will Be Black is a 7.5% Black IPA (or Imperial Black Ale or Hoppy Stout…) that marries the rich, luxuriant body of the brewery’s seminal Black Chocolate Stout with a ferocious hop cannonade of Williamette, Pacific Gem and Motueka hops. It is an outstanding beer, rich yet with a silky body and palate-tingling hop finish. It supercharged the BBQ sauce on the wings, making everything sweeter, stronger and thicker, before scouring your palate clean with hops so you can do it all over again. A really exciting food and beer pairing.

Brooklyn Pennant ’55 Ale and Big Apple Hot Dogs’ “Dog of Phwoar”

2013-03-12 19.56.53

Big Apple Hot Dogs were a big hit on the night, and had an enormous queue late into the evening. This is with good reason: these are the best hot dogs I’ve ever tasted. Forget slimy, slippery pig product tubes, these are the real deal. Gourmet, genuine frankfurters of pork, beef or pork-beef-blend. The excellently named Dog of Phwoar is a limited edition, spicy beef concoction that is best described as being like chorizo, but beef.

Brooklyn’s ’55 Pennant Ale, named after the ’55 New York Dodgers world championship-winning team, is an English-style pale ale with New World hoppy muscles. It’s a great all-rounder, offering crystal malt sweetness, dry, lager-like refreshment and fresh, hoppy bite. It met the spicy beef head on, but instead of fighting for dominance, they grabbed each other and danced across my palate. The beer softened the peppery blows of the beef without reducing the flavour, and cleaned the salt from my palate to boot. Not as exciting as the BBQ wings and TWBB, but a much simpler, straightforward match that worked just as well.

2013-03-12 19.11.22

It was an exciting event with a lively crowd and a great atmosphere. I can hardly hold the weather against it, but it did make a big difference to how long people were willing to sit or stand outside, heaters or not. My only other complaint would be the number of people. The event encouraged people to try out smaller amounts of different foods and beers and keep coming back for more. This is a great idea, but the event had slightly too many people for it work smoothly. If they had set a slightly lower capacity, or had two sessions (one in the afternoon for trade, for example), the queues would have been shorter and people would have been more inclined to stay longer and try more of what was on offer.

That said, it was a great combination of food and beer in a friendly environment, and hopefully Street Feast will organise more events like this with local London brewers. Their ‘takeover’ at Camden Town Brewery last year was a fantastic collaboration, and Brooklyn Feast did an excellent job of bringing food and beer matching to the people in a cool, accessible format. More of this sort of thing, I say.

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.

2013-03-07 17.19.35
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.