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’.

The Week in Beer #0

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Sometimes, it’s hard to generate a whole blog post from the various flotsam and jetsam of beer things that happen. It’s not always enough – not so much a writer’s block as a blogger’s clog – a little cluster of thoughts that lack the electric impulse to become Something To Say. Still, I think that beer is always worthy of note, even if, or especially if, it’s mediocre. This is me having a stab at capturing the stray craft particles, the free radicals of my week, wrapping a big net around them putting a flag in the whole hoppy mess. Here are some beers I’ve had this week and what, if anything, they made me think.

Monday: Dry as a bone, but there was much to be said on Twitter about anger and reactions and beer styles and so on. Another Monday.

Tuesday: I was conveyed unto the Brewed Dog on the Shepherd’s Bush to meet and rejoice with the craft wanker brethren (and sistren). A tasty insult to history was enjoyed in the form of Gloucester Black Simcoe. Also of note: a Rye Bread Sour from Levain Franken that had a quaffable creamy note that made it one of those expensive beers you would drink by the pint with a winning lottery ticket. Also, my curiosity got the better of me, and I tried Hobo Pop, which proves we can now make American Stale Ale as good as them Americans and that. Hobo Plop, more like.

I then proceeded to drink an Amount of Beers Inappopriate for a Tuesday, but stuck to halves and two-thirds and so survived largely unscathed.

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Wednesday: Sixpoint’s cans of Wetherjoy arrived late due to inclement posting attempts. Others posted about them quicker than I, so I didn’t bother to add to the noise. My thoughts on the beers:

The Crisp – slightly too boozy, but largely by the book pils. weird pithiness throughout that gives a sense of Premiumness, but at what cost?

Sweet Action – a fresh, foxy delight of peach, mango and melon. Delightful and juicy. Likely to be cloying in larger amounts, but that exact portion felt heavenly.

Bengali Tiger – an orange pith heavy, grapefruit tart assault on my main face. Refreshingly uncrystally, robust yet accessible.

What does it all mean? Don’t know. Too tired of predicting the future. More interested in the choice of range: for example, why a lager, wheat/pale/cream pale and IPA? Imported European-style US lager in perfect condition to prove a point? Maybe. More likely to be the entry point to all this craft bollocks for your mate who’s with you when you order the pair for £5/6 deal. Hook him in, get him on the Sweet Action, job’s a good’un.

Thursday: BeerBods this week was Moncada Notting Hill Red, an accomplished, American-hopped red ale at 6%. Having had a couple of the brewery’s beers before (Ruby Rye on cask and Blonde in bottle), I was expecting good things, and the Red did not disappoint. Full in jammy and piney aroma, rounded in its nutty sweetness and caramel-soaked orangey, limey hop character, there was a lot to enjoy in this beer. I’ll pursue their other beers with interest.

(Given the thirst for something similar, I opened a bottle of Hardknott Infra Red, only to find it had gone a bit ‘craft’, with a lactic character reminiscent of Rodenbach and much of the hop character and toffee sweetness gone. Not wholly unpleasant, but not the beer on the label. So why did I keep drinking it? It had gone off – I should have immediately poured it away. Truth is, I actually liked what had gone wrong. Truly.)

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Friday: The Gun in the docklands near Canary Wharf celebrated National Pie Week (no, not every week apparently) by offering a Pie and Beer Flight, which was about as close as it gets to my ideal use of a 6 x 12 inch piece of slate. Three mini-pies, each paired to a third of beer. Cockel and smoked fish pie matched to a third of Anspach and Hobday’s The Smoked Brown (a sweet, crispy and smokey boost to the pie); a venison and apple pie matched to Partizan Black IPA (total, lavish decadence); and a figgy fruit turnover-pie with Brew By Numbers Saison Wai-Iti and Lemon (a curiously warming and spicy combination). For £14, it’s achievable and enjoyable proof of thoughtful beer and food matching without being inaccessible or too geeky. Hopefully more to come from this increasingly impressive pub.

On a side note, it was here that I first saw Brewmeister in the wild: their Supersonic IPA was on cask. As I can no longer get away with chiding them without actually tasting their beer, I dutifully ordered a half. Would it be passable? Would it be great? Would it have travelled well, and would a clone of Punk IPA on cask actually be a bad thing? I never found out. Some bastards had drank it all. Ominous. I went for Siren Soundwave instead, of which there was plenty.

That’s all for now. Saturday and Sunday will be spent in York and Leeds, hopefully warranting a gushing blogpost in due course.

Golden Pints 2013

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The year that was 2013 saw ‘craft beer’, whatever the hell it is, become a truly, sort-of mainstream-ish and widely-noticed thing of some kind.

What I mean is, we in the beer blogoshire (hat tip to Boak and Bailey for that infinitely preferable alternative to the cold, corporate-sounding blogosphere) say more than ever before, but we communicate in increasingly fuzzy and inconsistent terms. The year has seen attempts to unify people and ideas, but there have been just as many fractures and splinters within already fractured and splintered groups.

There’s been a collective obsession with measuring What This Is All About, as people try and define Who We Are as drinkers and what beer is, as A Thing. I’ve read loads of blogs and articles this year about things in the present, events that are still unfolding, as if they are already history. Well, they’re not.

I hope 2014 sees a more patient and reflective attitude; less trying to define everything and more trying to understand things.

Many have struggled, even more so than usual, with their choices for this year’s Golden Pints, which has got to be a good sign. I have tasted some fantastic beers this year, many of which rank among the best I’ve ever had. I’ve even been asked to write what I think the best beers in the world actually are, which was of course broader in scope, but still a task laden with similar difficulties.

As with any test of naming the Best Thing You Had of That Type This Year, this feels more a test of memory than anything else. Taste as a sense is (I am told) the one with the strongest links to memory, so this should be easy. It isn’t, though, partly because of the vastly different flavours I’ve bombarded my palate with, but also because of the Inherent Obstacles in beer writing (the memory of a man drinking beer).

As with last year, I’ve tried to focus on what is new to me; beers that have Expanded My Mind in some sense.

Best UK Cask Beer

To ‘doge’ this issue: wow much difficult.

This should be an easy win for Oakham Citra, a beer that has been in almost perfect condition every single time I have tasted it. It’s a sensational pale ale that I will happily order a second or third pint of, and I say that as somebody prone to ordering as many beers in as smaller measurements as possible these days.

That said, even a shoddily kept, limply pulled, warmly-glassed, flatly served pint of cask Beavertown 8 Ball Rye IPA puts all five toes right into the nuts of any other cask beer in the country, including Citra, so there.

Best UK Keg Beer

This is an even messier decision to make. On a good day with no breeze and good-to-firm ground, a pint of BrewDog Dead Pony Club is hard to beat. It has a brightness all the way through its middle, right to the last drops that languish in the very bottom of the glass. Just delightful.

Unfortunately, Dead Pony is simply outclassed by the one-off wonder that was Kiwi Wit, the NZ-hopped version of Camden Town Brewery’s Gentleman’s Wit (thanks to Tandleman for reminding me of this). Only a single keg of that gloriously beer was made, a damned uncommon delight of gooseberries, grapes and citrus. Urgently address its absence from our lives, Camden.

Best UK Bottled or Canned Beer

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It would be remiss of me, given my constant harping on about canned this and canned that, not to award this to a canned beer. Even if I hadn’t been going on about canned beer all the time, I’m pretty sure that Camden Hells Lager in its exceptionally decorated can would have knocked my block off regardless. The freshest, crispest lager with the best possible protection from everything but your ravenous thirst. It’s the definitive version of Hells as far as I’m concerned.

Best Overseas Draught Beer

I spent the last part of my holiday in Belgium this year in the beer Mecca that is Moeder Lambic, and there tasted the sensational IV Saison by Jandrain Jandrenouille. It’s a beer so flavourful and wholesome and perfect that it outshone almost every beer I’d had on the trip, with the exception of…

Best Overseas Bottled or Canned Beer

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I had Cantillon Rose de Gambrinus for the first time this year, at the brewery. No further explanation needed.

Best Collaboration Brew

Another tricky one. Wild Beer Co/Burning Sky/Good George’s Shnoodlepip is about as craft as it gets, and I mean that in a good way. An experimental but totally quaffable beer that is worth every penny and Does Things to your palate/mind.

On the other hand, Weird Beard/Elusive Brewing’s Nelson Saison had a purity and elegance to it that was quite disarming. If you asked which I would like to have four pints of right now, I’d pick the Nelson Saison every time.

Honourable mention goes to BrewDog/Brodie’s Berliner Weisse, which taught my face a new expression: Berliner Weisse Gurner Eyes. A proper gob slapper.

Best Overall Beer

Beavertown 8 Ball. It’s been present at some of my favourite moments of the year, and I think of it often. A total class act.

Best Branding, Pumpclip or Label

I love Beavertown’s branding. All the little details, the boldness, the oddities, it’s cool without really trying too hard, i.e. the definition of cool. Once they (as rumoured) move into canning their beers, they’ll look sensational.

Until then, there’s only one brewery that dominates any shelf its beers go on: Partizan. So, so pretty.

Best UK Brewery

I think The Kernel have hit – and maintained – a momentum that’s frankly astonishing. Every beer coming out of the new brewery in Bermondsey has been a showstopper. Freshness is key.

Best Overseas Brewery

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Cantillon. My trip to the brewery is etched into my mind permanently.

Best New Brewery Opening 2013

Three different beers in the space of an hour from Burning Sky were enough to convince me they are a new force to be reckoned with. The Saison l’Automne was just fantastic, sensible strength and bursting with flavour. Believe the hype.

Pub/Bar of the Year

Really tough. I’ve been massively impressed with BrewDog Shepherd’s Bush every time I visit, but it’s still early days there. I’m fairly certain it’ll be a contender for my favourite bar this time next year.

Really, there can only be one contender. It’s a pub where I’ve met loads of ace new people this year, and tasted some incredible beers on every visit. If pubs are places where people + beer x location = bliss, then the location in that equation for me this year has been Craft Beer Co Islington.

Best New Pub/Bar Opening 2013

This is quite simple, really. My summer wouldn’t have been the same without Urban Sessions, a great place that had some of the best beers (including Nelson Saison) that I’ve had all year, in a location perfectly suited to the glorious summer we enjoyed. I really hope that something else like it will happen next year.

Beer Festival of the Year

If I have to pick one it would be London’s Brewing.

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I’m not joking.

I’ve been to plenty of beer festivals this year, from the daft and craft to the golden oldies, but London’s Brewing has to be my favourite because it took us all down a peg or two, and I think we needed that.

You need a good, solid fuck-up every now and again, especially in a movement that can occasionally get its head stuck up its arse fairly frequently, just to make it clear just how things really are.

It’s easy to get feverishly excited about the diversity and the variety and the experimentation and just how nice everyone is, but if you can’t organise a piss-up in a brewery, in a very literal sense in this case, you’re not perfect.

Never again etc.

Supermarket of the Year

Waitrose always seems to have just what I want, whenever I need it to, so I can’t ask for much more than that. Still, credit is due to M&S for getting an impressive range of beers in from some of the country’s best breweries. Popping into an M&S Simply Food in a train station for a journey-enhancing bottle or two of Citra IPA is heartwarming experience.

Independent Retailer of the Year

I’ve made an effort to visit Utobeer in Borough Market several times this year, and they’ve just about won the crown from Kris Wines, which has let me down a couple of times with a few past-their-best imports.

Online Retailer of the Year

Don’t use online retailers much, but all my Abstrakt Addict parcels from BrewDog were delivered without issue.

Best Beer Book or Magazine

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Joint winners:

Leigh Linley: Great Yorkshire Beer – every page written with real love for the subject matter. A lovely read.

Mark Dredge: Craft Beer World – the passion and excitement about every beer is representative of the very best aspects of the craft beer scene.

Best Beer Blog or Website

I’m going to cover this in a separate post at some point, so stay tuned.

Best Beer App

Untappd – if only for  the debate it creates about what beer apps should or shouldn’t be like.

Simon Johnson Award for Best Beer Twitterer

Nothing has made me chortle this year as much as Let There Be Tim.

Honourable mentions for Boak and Bailey, for participating as much as analysing this year; Nate Southwood for never, ever changing; and Zak Avery for this tweet alone:

Best Brewery Website/Social media

@BrewDog is still the one to beat, though I love Wild Beer Co’s new website and Camden Town’s is very smart these days.

Food and Beer Pairing of the Year

It’s been said elsewhere, but Fraoch and haggis at EBBC13 was sensational.

BONUS AWARD: The Tin Hat Trophy for Best Effort at Tackling the C-Word

After reading so many earnest, heartfelt pieces about defining ‘Craft’ this year, I found Craig Heap’s What is Craft Bear? and Defining Craft Beer Through the Ages to be the best and most useful contributions to the debate, because they made me laugh and not want to self-harm.

Here’s to next year.