Sunday, 20 September 2015 21:30

What does 'craft beer' really mean?

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Lagunitas bottles

What's in a name?

The survival of an entire industry, apparently.

Two small words have become the source of much celebration, conversation and consternation over recent years, to the point where they are now seen as crucial to safeguarding the future of British independent brewing.

Those words? Craft beer.

Up to this point, the movement for an official craft beer definition in the UK has struggled to gain any real momentum but now appears set to become a major topic for debate over the coming months and maybe even years.

The biggest single factor in this development has been the establishment of the United Craft Brewers (UCB).

Created by a handful of the biggest names from the new wave of British brewers – Beavertown, Brewdog, Camden and Magic Rock – this new industry body is due to meet for the first time this month. To justify its existence, it must quickly provide an answer to the eternal question, 'what constitutes a craft brewery?'

But can this question ever be satisfactorily answered? At the very least, the UCB seems to have set itself a complicated and thankless task.

Advocates for an official definition believe it is a necessary step in protecting modern, independent brewing from cynical exploitation by opportunists. And there's certainly an element of truth in that belief.

There has been a worrying increase in chancers who walk the walk, talk the talk and even have the full range of gaudily-designed cans, yet churn out substandard, inconsistent product.

Others have carefully cultivated the brand and sent out the press release before they've given any consideration to what they're going to brew. Yet more see beer as just another cheap consumable, paying to have it contract-brewed in order to exploit a growing market, but taking little interest in the creative process.

Big brewers too have attempted to profit from a cachet they have done nothing to cultivate and a scene they barely understand by passing off a series of questionable products as 'craft'.

The argument is that establishing a legal definition for craft beer could help to prevent devaluation of a growing industry segment by allowing only qualifying brewers to trade off the language and ethos of 'craft'.

But there's a problem. Although the phrase has become commonly understood through sheer volume of use, its meaning remains almost entirely abstract.

It isn't dependent on the use of particular ingredients and, unlike products such as Parmigiano-Reggiano (Parmesan cheese), it isn't rooted in a defined region.

Nor can it meaningfully be judged by the size of the brewery. In America, the Brewers Association dictates a craft brewer must be 'small', yet the fact Boston Beer Company churned out nearly 5 million hectolitres last year for net revenue of $903 million tends to make a mockery of the situation.

But even if size and independence were used as the two main entry criteria in this country, what about the huge number of cask-focused ale brewers who could equally consider themselves 'craft'?

This has always been one of the biggest problems with any attempt to enforce a definition on these shores. Unlike the US market, where there is a relatively clear division between the craft brewers on one side and the macro lager producers on the other, the UK market contains many different shades of grey. Not to mention years of brewing history that deserves the greatest respect.

Given the lack of useful criteria, I have noticed more than one blogger claim craft beer is about 'flavour' but how can a definition be based on a largely subjective judgment, contingent on an individual's personal experience or palate? And are there not a huge number of non-craft beers that could also be considered full of flavour?

More to the point, the drive to define craft beer tends to shift focus onto external threats, while doing little to address the problems within.

Quality standards, even among many producers who care passionately about what they do, continue to fluctuate wildly. It's perhaps inevitable, given the massive increase in brewery numbers over a relatively short period of time, but there remains a significant skills shortage in the industry which threatens to stunt future growth.

Meanwhile, the price of 'craft' continues to rise, and this combination of increasing cost and uncertain quality could seriously compromise consumer trust, limiting opportunities to appeal to a wider market.

It's hard to see what difference a definition would make in this regard, given 'craft' is essentially a marketing term - and a fairly meaningless one at that.

Take a look at Lagunitas, whose owner Tony Magee repeatedly claimed that 'craft' went much deeper than beer, lending the term a strong anti-establishment tone that ran through all of his company's communications. Then, last week, he sold half of his company to Heineken, the kind of multinational brewer he had spent years railing against.

Such incidences have given rise to greater cynicism towards the term craft beer and caused a number of British microbreweries to reevaluate its usefulness. Several that I have spoken to in recent months are making a conscious decision to step away from it completely.

Frequently, this appears to be an adverse reaction to perceived snobbery associated with the phrase and over-the-top marketing that positions it as an ideological choice rather than a bar call. There is a risk that the language of craft beer is becoming a little too smug and exclusionary, preventing it from appealing to anything other than a predominantly 25 to 35-year-old, middle-class audience. Too often, an 'us against them' scenario has been created where it is pitted against other forms of beer, including Britain's rich real ale scene, rather than being presented as complementary.

As a result, many microbrewers have shunned the 'craft' tag in order to avoid being pigeon-holed.

There's also a sense that many of those at the smaller end of the scale feel they have little in common with those leading the 'craft' charge. After all, the sole trader operating from beneath a railway arch is worlds apart from Brewdog, for example, which is currently in the process of establishing a second brewery in America and boasts bars in Brazil, Japan and Scandinavia. How easily can those differing goals and objectives be aligned by a single organisation?

If the UCB is to succeed it must be careful to ensure its agenda is not dominated by its larger members. If it does that, one way in which it can have a genuine positive impact is by providing representation to an industry segment that appears to be seriously underrepresented, and sharing the expertise of its founders.

A large number of modern brewers believe existing organisations, such as CAMRA and SIBA, are not sufficiently addressing their specific needs, so have been forced to turn elsewhere for help with marketing, distribution and operational issues. An organisation with presence on a national scale could help to address the current skills shortage by providing a strong network of knowledge and support, while also campaigning on behalf of its members.

However, restricting membership to those breweries who consent to the 'craft' label might also limit the organisation's potential reach.

Can't we just agree to call it beer and leave the choice of marketing to the individual?

Friday, 14 August 2015 07:16

Toasting the Mancunian summer

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Fourpure summer beers

By now I'm sure you're aware it's grim oop north.

When we're not cowering beneath a leaden sky or sheltering from the persistent drizzle, we're usually complaining about something trivial.

But a strange thing happened over the past week. An unusual golden circle emerged from between the clouds and it suddenly became very warm - apparently this phenomenon is called summer.

So, I took the whippet down to the local park and toasted this strange occurrence with a couple of beers designed especially for the occasion. Given we struggle with the concept of summer, I looked to London for inspiration and found two perfect candidates from Fourpure. How's that for collaboration across the north/south divide?

In the early days, I'll admit I found their beers uninspiring and sometimes bland but I get the feeling they have spent the time since honing recipes and perfecting process - to the point where they are producing some of the most reliable beer in the capital.

There might not be anything remarkable about their range but, equally, they don't ever seem produce the kind of murky, muddy beers that have become a blight on London brewing.

 

Fourpure Dry Hop Pils, 4.7% ABV

The Dry Hop Pils is a great example of what they do well. It's clean, crisp and bright and delivers outstanding clarity of flavour.

On the nose, it's a typical German pils, spicy, grassy Saaz hops launching from a dusty cereal base but the taste provides another dimension.

Although it starts with a hit of floral hops, crispness slices cuts quickly from one corner of the mouth to the other, allowing a grassy, herbal bitterness to emerge. This bitterness is then kept in check by a glow of ripe fruit, peach, apricot and tangerine softening any jagged edges.

A dash of lime juice precedes a bone dry finish containing lingering flavours of orange zest and faint cereal, alongside the returning herbal bitterness.

 

Skyliner Wheat, 4.8% ABV

The Skyliner Wheat is perhaps less sophisticated than the Dry Hop Pils but just screams summer. It's the kind of beer you could happily knock back all afternoon while piling cheap meat on the barbecue and cultivating a lobster tan.

Also unlike the Pils, it doesn't doff its cap to German tradition despite the suggestion in the name, falling into the white IPA category rather than a typical hefeweizen.

The aroma isn't far off stuffing your snout into a bag of Haribo, in that the fruity smells seem unnaturally vivid and sweet, ringing clear as a bell. It starts with potent double act of mango and orange, but waves of peach, passion fruit and orange zest follow, underpinned by creamy cookie dough.

The taste follows suit - smooth, creamy mango and peach slathering the palate like an indulgent fromage frais. But this initial sweet creaminess is counteracted by a dry, airy finish with just a lick of zesty bitterness, helping it to slip down with consummate ease. A stab of sharp lime and liberal helpings of lemon zest are followed by a lasting floral character, sprinkled with pepper.

The balance of fruity and creamy with bitter and dry makes it perfect for those hot days when perpetual thirst takes hold. In fact, I could have summed all this up by saying when the sun's out you'll want to drink this by the bucketload.

Tuesday, 11 August 2015 21:42

Gimmickry: the new arms race in brewing

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Beers barrel ageing

When's a beer not a beer?

When it's a triple dry-hopped pickled onion Monster Munch Berliner weisse aged in crude oil barrels?

The growth of gimmickry is possibly one of the more irritating trends in modern brewing and seems to have evolved into a desperate arms race among certain breweries dead set on staying one up by producing ever more outlandish beers.

This screwball scramble hit a new low last week when a pub in Wellington, New Zealand announced it was launching a specially-brewed stout laced with stag semen.

In the same week came a beer that tactlessly commemorated the death of more than 200,000 people in the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, resulting in a rambling, confused justification from the brewer.

Both moves can easily be dismissed as marketing shock tactics but might also have greater ramifications for the modern brewing industry.

Cheap gimmicks will often deliver short-term buzz but do they also create lasting negative associations in the mind of the average drinker?

If so, there's a real risk of the phrase 'craft beer' being equated with a fly-by-night fad, a novelty act not far removed from dancing dogs on Britain's Got Talent.

Brewers at the smaller end of the market already face significant enough challenges in gaining credibility and earning consumer trust without antics like this undermining their efforts.

But it's also difficult to know where to draw the line. What can be dismissed as a gimmick and what constitutes a worthwhile experiment?

Wild Beer have carved a niche from the use of unusual ingredients and adventurous flavour combinations because their brewing skill keeps them firmly on the right side of credibility.

Similarly, I remember picking up a bottle of Aceto Balsamico from Dutch brewers Emelisse and being pleasantly surprised by how accomplished it was.

The concept was executed with such precision that it became an enjoyable curiosity - if you enjoy drinking balsamic vinegar by the glass, that is.

But when it reaches that point, is it even beer anymore?

It's certainly the kind of thing that can only be enjoyed once in a blue moon and the quest for bigger, bolder, wackier flavours has actually caused me to value simplicity far more.

By this point, I've even started to get a little fed up with strip-your-enamel IPAs and increasingly value beers that invigorate the senses without necessitating a deconstruction of different layers of flavour. Cloudwater's US Hopfenweisse and Fourpure's Dry Hop Pils stand out among recent examples due to their understated excellence, valuing balance and tradition as much as innovation.

Likewise, my favourite new brewery is Manchester's Runaway, which produces a straightforward range encompassing a pale ale, an IPA, an American brown ale and a smoked porter.

These examples suggest standing out from the crowd at all costs isn't a necessary ingredient for success or gaining recognition, even in an incredibly competitive market.

Would independent brewing be better equipped to thrive in the long-term if more newcomers focused on the basics first? And do we have a responsibility to call bullshit when brewers push their luck with cheap gimmicks?

Or should I seek a sense of humour transplant and take these things less seriously?

I'd be interested to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

Cloudwater Session IPA

A quick round-up of some of the more notable beers I drank during July...

Cloudwater Session IPA, 4.8% ABV

It might be a part of their Spring range but this is a decent summer sipper. Clean, crisp and dry, it delivers on both taste and refreshment, all at a reasonably modest 4.8% ABV.

First off, you take a punch in the nose from aromas of peach, tinned mango and zingy lime, topped off with a sprinkling of coriander and orange zest. There's more peach and almost creamy, tinned mango in the taste followed by spicy pepper, grass and a finish full of fresh orange peel.

If I have one criticism it's that it becomes a bit too limp and watery after the initial fruity burst, causing a somewhat disappointing finish after such a promising start. In that sense - and if you're into your clichés - you might call it a beer of two halves. Still, a good easy-drinker regardless.

 

First Chop Joe, 3.5% ABV

Maybe I'm just a bit stuck in my ways but I was incredibly dubious about a coffee IPA. Stouts? Yes. Porters? Of course. Pale ales? Hmmm...

Unfortunately, this didn't do enough to change my mind.

The nose is loaded with strong, freshly-ground coffee, complimented by a touch of caramel and cream and a faint background aroma of musty citrus.

A glob of caramel lands on the tongue alongside a touch of juicy tangerine but the fruit quickly scarpers when the coffee arrives, roast beans leading into a mouthful of cold coffee dotted with light orange zest.

The finish is dry, dusty and smoky - a bit like the time I shoved a handful of coffee beans in my mouth as a teenager, aiming to show off but just showing myself up. It probably does what it intended to do but just isn't my bag.

 

Kernel Citra, 7.2% ABV

It's easy to take Kernel for granted. They've been a constant on the British beer scene for so long - maintaining their tried and tested formula with little fanfare and even fewer gimmicks - that I sometimes forget they're still their.

This was a timely reminder. A beer that's every bit as good as I remember it and even verges on the iconic.

Popping the cap shoots a tropical fruit grenade up your nostrils, exploding in bursts of orange, passion fruit and mango so vivid they more closely resemble concentrate than fresh fruit. Underneath lurks dank, resinous pine.

A glob of marmalade sweetness is the first thing to land on the palate but is a brief placeholder for another parade of tropical fruit. Pineapple and passion fruit resonate with incredible clarity, while orange sherbet fizzes and tingles and resinous hops deliver a peppery buzz.

Juiciness lingers into the finish, which combines a jab of grapefruit zest bitterness with tickling floral notes.

 

Quantum Neil Delemongrasse Saison

Quantum Neil Delemongrasse Saison, 4.2% ABV

Apparently named after Neil deGrasse Tyson, an American astrophysicist who wrote the book Death by Black Hole. Ironically, that was the fate suffered by this beer, which was quickly poured down my throat.

The incredibly dry, crisp body makes it extremely drinkable but despite that, it remains a bit of an odd duck. I was expected to be seduced by the fragrant perfume of lemongrass but was instead assaulted by punchy spice, a mixture of cloves, black pepper and TCP.

The taste has just a touch of tartness and the sweet lemon you'd associate with sucking on a lemon drop. But that's obliterated by an arid dryness, sprinkled with hot pepper and topped with a pinch of chopped lemongrass.

It's unusual in that it feels more savoury than tart or sweet, highlighted by the almost phenolic spice that hangs in the aftertaste like the last guest at a house party who just refuses to leave.

 

Siren Bones of a Sailor Part III, 9.5% ABV

More indulgent than a bubble bath where the bubbles are champagne. Even more indulgent than a Greggs sausage and bean melt. No? Just me then?

This is an imperial porter aged in Pedro Ximenez barrels with raspberries, cacao nibs and vanilla that is every bit as good as it sounds. It also drinks far too easily - it was gone in about half the time I usually devote to comparable imperial porters or stouts.

The aroma is a thick, intoxicating mix of just-baked chocolate brownie, peppery Argentinean Malbec, sour cherries soaked in brandy and dry leathery notes.

I expected something equally dense and viscous in the mouth but was pleasantly surprised by the comparatively airy body coupled with an initial burst of tart raspberry soaring above a base of bitter dark chocolate. Almost simultaneously, it's tart, dry and earthy - coffee, sherry and cherry compote stirred in a pot and sprinkled with pepper.

It finishes with a mouth-stripping, vinous astringency that might have been slightly unpleasant were it not for the faint pulse of raspberry and dark chocolate, refusing to fade away completely.

A proper late night treat.

Es tiempo de brillar

Sinking into the spongy, shabby couch in Manchester Airport's Terminal 1, while supping on my second pint of well-kept cask Jaipur, I took a second to reflect on the state of British beer.

Just a few years previous, in this very same spot, a pint of San Miguel would have been considered a treat but now, I was left rubbing my eyes in disbelief at an offering that also included Marble Manchester Bitter and Salopian Oracle.

The industry is still frequently beset by hand-wringing and debate but we can at least be thankful for the rich choice available even in some of the most unlikely places.

As these thoughts flitted through my mind, I was immediately engulfed by a buzz of excitement about the new delights I might expect to find during my three-week honeymoon in Argentina.

The problem is, when peering at the world from within the craft beer bubble, it's easy to forget such choice isn't a given. A steadying drink was high on the list of priorities after a somewhat shambolic start to our once-in-a-lifetime trip but, no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn't get no satisfaction.

Emerging from 23 hours of travel utterly bedraggled, bog-eyed and muzzy-headed, we were unapologetically informed our connecting flight to El Calafate had been cancelled due to a transport strike, while my wife's case had been lost somewhere in Europe.

Realising there's far worse places to be stranded than Buenos Aires, we quickly found alternative accommodation and went in search of good food and drink. But, to my horror, the first three places we stumbled into - even in the vibrant, cosmopolitan district of Palermo Soho - served nothing but Quilmes.

Palermo sign 2

Eventually, after some energetic discussion, my wife convinced me a glass of Malbec would be a better accompaniment for my braised pork shoulder anyway, somehow managing to bypass all my hardwired behavioural patterns with the skill of a master computer hacker, and this dance became a common theme of our trip.

Quilmes did the job on the warmer days, offering clean, crisp refreshment - even if it's a touch too sweet for my palate - but the usual routine would proceed as follows: I complain about the beer selection; I order a soft drink out of spite; my wife convinces me to try her wine; I realise my stubborn stance is only harming myself.

However, the lack of great beer was a curiosity, particularly in Palermo, which feels a little like a reimagining of Shoreditch, only where lush greenery intertwines with the streetside graffiti and tables litter the well-trodden pavements.

I put this strange situation to one young Porteño (Spanish for port people and the preferred label for Buenos Aires natives), who reasoned that the weather was the deciding factor, especially when comparing the Argentinean craft beer scene with the thriving one in neighbouring Brazil.

His reasoning was that the slightly colder climate is more conducive to sipping red wine or Fernet and Coke - a fairly unappealing mix of bitter, liquorice-flavoured mouthwash and mass-produced sugary pop - alongside huge plates of barbecued meat. Brazil's blazing sun, however, calls for beer, no matter the occasion.

Regardless of the reasoning, Argentineans just don't seem that fussed about finding good beer and the only places that serve the craft variant with any regularity are those restaurants that might be viewed as verging on stereotypically hipster.

A great example is Burger Joint, which serves up the Pale Ale and Scottish Red from Siete Colores alongside disgustingly indulgent, delicious food.

Despite its dingy appearance - a dim light barely illuminating the battered furniture and scrawled graffiti creeping across the tired walls - the mass of excited revellers spilling uncontrollably onto the street provided a more accurate indicator for what to expect.

And it didn't disappoint.

Although neither of the beers on offer is going to change the world, the dry, refreshing Pale Ale, which combined light tangerine with a delicate floral perfume, was ideal for washing down a juicy, pink burger loaded with bacon, cheddar and barbecue sauce. It was among the best burgers I have tried - full stop - but, unfortunately, the Scottish Red wasn't on the same level, notes of almond and bitter, roast chocolate almost imperceptible in a watery affair.

It was a similar story with another local brewery, Broeders, whose beers could be found in a smattering of places. In that case, the IPA was the best of the bunch, offering pleasant orange and grapefruit but lacking any of the oomph of its British and American counterparts.

The best beer I experienced in Buenos Aires was the Cork Brewing IPA that accompanied an obscenely good ribeye steak, jacket potato and plump sweetbreads in the recently-opened eatery La Carneceria. Punchy mango, resin and a super-dry, zesty finish provided a great counterpoint to the dense, smoky steak and peppery charcoal crust.

Food is unnaturally good wherever you go in Argentina, so finding a restaurant that also takes pride in its beer is a truly beautiful thing.

La Carniceria

Still, the closest I came to a proper beer experience was via a chance encounter.

Strolling the streets on our final night in Buenos Aires, we stumbled into Antares, which is the rarest of things in an otherwise amazing city - a bar that not only focuses on beer but brews its own.

The gleaming copper conditioning tanks lining the wall behind the bar told me everything I needed to know and within seconds a flight of four different varieties had landed in front of me.

Originating from Mar del Plata, Antares has been brewing since 1998 and I was surprised to find their Palermo outlet was one of four branches in Buenos Aires alone, with a number of others dotted across the country. Although the bulk of their beer is produced at the central brewery, apparently every outlet also brews its own, the on-site brewer being given licence to add their own individual flourishes.

It's a neat concept and certainly seems to have created a demand for craft beer, or cerveza artesenal as its known locally, because a buzz of bonhomie soon developed around us, the air full of animated chatter as scores of punters took their places.

By 10pm - still early in Argentinean terms - door staff were already turning away disappointed drinkers and putting the more determined on an hour-long waiting list for a table.

In the greater context, its popularity might seem strange but, on the other hand, it's understandable, given the lack of plentiful alternatives offering comparable choice.

The garish copper tanks, sprawling bar lined with stools and long, uniform rows of tables suggest a strong American influence - an amalgamation of Californian tap room and urbane, big city sensibilities.

Unfortunately, the beer doesn't quite meet US standards. The bitter, zesty IPA was a highlight, laced with orange and grapefruit, finished off with a touch of sticky resin and marmalade. The crisp, drinkable porter also did its job, mixing dark chocolate and a touch of raisin and blackcurrant with the bitterness of toasted nuts.

But the failings of the barleywine and imperial stout highlighted the greater failings of the Argentinean beer scene - neither delivering on the expected richness and complexity of the styles, instead feeling flat and uninspired, possibly due to the need to cater to a wider market still lacking in maturity.

After leaving Buenos Aires, it seemed my time was up. If I'd struggled finding great beer in a heaving, cosmopolitan metropolis, what chance did I stand elsewhere?

Turns out I was wrong.

Our next stop, San Carlos de Bariloche, was an oddity. Situated near the border with Chile in the shadow of the Andes, it stretches along the shore of Nahuel Huapi, a stunning glacial lake that looks like a flawless piece of sheet glass glittering beneath a gentle sun.

Bariloche lake

But this breathtaking natural beauty is juxtaposed against bizarre mimicry of Alpine kitsch. A bombardment of varnished wooden lodges, ornately carved gables and chocolate shops make the city itself feel like a Hollywood recreation of a Swiss mountain hamlet.

None of it feels real and is completely at odds with the raw, unharnessed power of the natural surroundings.

This rehashing of European culture carries through into the food and drink too. Bariloche is the one place in Argentina where wine takes a back seat in the bars, in the restaurants and in everyday life.

The multitude of brewpubs in the area are regularly full of locals meeting friends, gathering with family or breaking up the bus journey home by popping in for a pint.

It's the country's undoubted 'cerveza artesenal' capital but still seems several steps behind the scene in the UK.

Unsurprisingly, a lot of the beer on offer in Bariloche is Central European in style - nobody in the city will ever be found wanting for a pilsner, kolsch or weizen - but several of the hallmarks of modern craft beer are also becoming increasingly apparent.

Berlina is an interesting case in point.

Despite being run by a German-trained brewmaster, their core range is an all-ale affair - an IPA, a Golden Ale and a Foreign Stout. All of them can be found in bottle throughout the surrounding area but pale in comparison to the keg versions available in the brewery's tap room.

Located on the main shore road leading from the city towards the beautiful Llao Llao peninsula, it's one of the best places in the area for a relaxed drink. The blend of heavy beams, battered furniture, distressed wood and wrought ironwork give it the feel of a forest outpost in the German wilds but the sound of traffic whizzing past provides a reminder you're not far from civilisation.

Taking a quiet table in the corner, I was quickly furnished with a never-ending bowl of monkey nuts and an IPA by the friendly staff. It's one of those places where the pause button is pressed the minute you walk through the door - the fast pace of life brought to a crashing halt by a sense of warmth and ease.

Hours could disappear down a black hole, helped by the beer of course.

The Foreign Stout is the pick of the bunch. Served on nitro, it's smooth and velvety, packing plenty of bitter dark chocolate, alongside a slight mineral tang and a helping of dried fruit, rounded off by a dry finish full of roasted malt, cereal and cacao.

Although the IPA won't blow any socks off, it is an incredibly easy drinker, with more of the session pale about it than a big, bold US IPA. Tart grapefruit and red orange are softened by a dab of caramel before a forceful floral character and grapefruit rind blossom in the dry, bitter finish.

My visit was only cut short when a somewhat curt phone call from my long-suffering wife reminded me of an impending dinner reservation.

Berlina beer

At the opposite end of the spectrum is Manush - even though it too looks more than a little like a German cottage.

Slap bang in the centre of the city, it's a hive of activity, a swarm of tourists and locals descending upon it nightly as they fight for one of the sought-after tables or attempt to squeeze themselves into the last space at the bar.

Luckily, we had planned ahead and were quickly whisked past the chaotic bar area and up a narrow staircase towards a spot at the back of the lively upstairs dining room, the sights quickly flooded with the sights and sounds of general merriness.

Billed as a gastropub, Manush offers the best combination of beer and food in the city and doesn't make any effort to downplay that fact. The menu is creative and varied, offering everything from meat boards and pizzas to grilled trout with beurre noisette, and most dishes are listed alongside a suggested beer pairing.

It's an approach that many English outlets could learn from, the intrinsic link between food and drink too often underestimated or just plain ignored on these shores.

When in Rome it's only right to respect the pairings, although I was a bit wary of putting curried lamb rib with the Milk Stout - it's not a duo I would have automatically lumped together.

My wife's coupling of the Pilsner alongside confit chicken with a honey mustard sauce was more straight down the line and did exactly what you'd expect, the crisp, lemony pils complimenting the flavours in the sauce, while countering its creaminess.

Meanwhile, my own reservations proved to be unfounded. The sweet, smooth stout meshed seamlessly with the mild curry sauce, creating layers of rich flavour before roasted coffee beans swooped in a dry finish to wash that weight off the palate.

The entire experience was a refreshing one, not only in the context of a country still getting to grips with craft beer but more generally too, indicative of the wider appeal of matching good food with good beer.

Perhaps it stems from Argentina's acute awareness of the power a carefully-selected drink possesses in enhancing the food it accompanies.

During our later travels through Mendoza - a lush landscape dominated by vines as far as the eye can see - a large number of restaurants made it more attractive to order wine by the glass in order to encourage diners to choose an appropriate one for each course.

Instead of forcing customers to buy by the bottle, they permanently had one eye on overall experience, always mindful of the mutually beneficial relationship between food and drink.

After a whirlwind week of Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Tempranillo and countless delicious blends, it was almost enough to transform a hardened beer geek into an urbane wine buff. Almost.

Before jetting back home, on a sweltering final day in Buenos Aires, I made time for one final pint of Quilmes. And as I gulped down the cold, fizzy liquid like a dog at a water fountain, I realised why defection would never be an option.

Regardless of the relative quality, it is what beer does - and what it means - that makes it utterly irresistible. The ease of enjoyment and instant thirst-quenching effect of even fairly bland industrial lager is enough to envelop you in a rapidly-unfurling veil of contentment.

And looking around the bar at clusters of happy folk chattering incessantly, its role as social adhesive - even in a wine-loving country - was as clear as the water in Bariloche's glittering lakes.

Us Brits should be grateful there's barely a better place in the world to partake in a pint than our own unique land.

Republica de la Boca

La Boca

Thursday, 25 June 2015 21:37

A scran and a scoop: Dale's Pale Ale and pork tacos

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Dales Pale Ale and pork tacosFood (scran) and beer (a scoop) are two of life's greatest pleasures and together they're greater than the sum of their parts. This series of blogs charts my adventures in beer and food matching.

This episode sees pork tacos matched with Dale's Pale Ale from Colorado brewery Oskar Blues.

Tacos are a Friday night favourite in my household.

Bizarrely straddling the line between disgustingly indulgent and reassuringly healthy, they simultaneously satisfy the craving for stodge while soothing any anxiety induced by the healthy conscience.

In my mind, at least, the junk food connection stems from shameful trips to Taco Bell while on holiday in the States but homemade tacos don't have to heap on the calories. Throw lettuce, tomato, avocado, onion and coriander on top of your meat and that's your five-a-day taken care of.

On a more serious note, tacos aren't simply disposable fast food and it's this versatility that makes them the perfect partner for beer, fitting a variety of flavour pairings.

Different tacos call for different styles. Fish might work well with a delicate, yet fragrant saison, while spicy beef can easily find a friend in smoked porter. Pork, on the other hand, tends to need a hop-forward pale ale to cut through the higher fat content of the meat and offer a neat counterpoint to any spice additions.

Bearing that in mind, a can of Dale's Pale Ale is a fitting bedfellow for this Jamie Oliver recipe. It's a clean, refreshing APA that combines sweetness and body with bright, crisp citrus and an arid finish - making it a particularly good match for the recipe, which is a favourite of mine thanks to the extra zing added by apple and lime. The spicy black beans too add an extra dimension, creating complimentary layers of texture and flavour - crunch and creaminess, spice and spritz.

Initially, caramel and tangerine notes from the beer compliment the apple and citric lime in the salad, melding to create a juicy tang in the mouth. This stabs straight through the heavy presence of the spicy black beans, clearing a path for tingling, resinous pine to briefly accentuate the smoked paprika, cumin and fennel from the tacos.

But all of those flavours are quickly swept to the side by pithy orange and grapefruit, leaving nothing but a light, zesty bitterness and cleaning the palate in preparation for the next mouthful.

Dale's Pale Ale works so well because it's robust enough to hold its own against the more powerful flavours, yet delicate enough that it doesn't obliterate the fresh piquancy of the salad. A dry finish is essential with a dish of this type too or else heavy flavours will refuse to budge and you'll soon feel like you've reached capacity.

Another experiment with a very different beer also provided interesting results, if not a perfect match. Beavertown's Holy Cowbell is an india stout/black IPA/heavily-hopped porter/insert your own style label here, equal parts bold hop character and strong, dark malts.

The early signs are promising, earthy cocoa beans embracing the smoky paprika in a satisfying slow dance across the palate but, unfortunately, bitter dark chocolate and charcoal tend to obscure the other flavours.

A dash of tart blackcurrant does mingle happily with the apple, coriander and lime, however, and a bone dry finish loaded with orange zest does an admirable job of cleansing the palate. It's just a shame those roasted malt flavours jar a little too much.

For the time being, I'll stick with the Dale's.

Tuesday, 16 June 2015 11:57

BrewDog Born to Die 04.07.2015

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Brewdog Born To DieBrewDog Born to Die 04.07.2015, 8.5% ABV

Myself and BrewDog enjoy what might best be described as an uneasy relationship.

At their worst, their antics bring me out in hives. The incessant agitation, ham-fisted hoopla and silly stunts - all of it might make good PR but so often feels totally unnecessary.

Yet when they let the beer do the talking, as is the case with Dead Pony Club, I'm left utterly captivated by their epicurean oratory.

Born To Die has a foot in each camp. It's definitely a neat marketing trick, modelled on Stone's Enjoy By IPA, but is also executed with the kind of skill only harnessed by a master of their craft.

That inherent BrewDog-ness is stamped all over it - a distinctive, punchy character that runs through all their pales.

In the aroma, it's a big smack of tropical fruit jellied sweets, a smell that seems artificial - only in the sense it feels far too vivid, too vibrant to be natural.

That aroma of jellied pineapple and passion fruit hangs heavily in the background, while pungent pine punches through the nostrils and orange zest slashes with the sharpness of a cutthroat razor.

The beer is wonderfully clear and golden, dazzling like a chunk of quartz when it catches the light, and this clarity carries through into the taste. Despite being 8.5% ABV, Born To Die is stunningly clean, crisp and dry, drinking like a beer of half its strength and delivering a satisfying "ahhh" with every gulp.

Rather than relying on caramel to provide sweetness, it instead draws it from juicy tropical fruits - pineapple cubes, green mango and the tang of passion fruit, buzzing with energetic piquancy.

Before long an arid dryness plants itself on the palate, punctuated by biting orange pith, pine and the kind of bitterness that might come from chewing a good handful of parsley.

This finish reignites a thirst previously quenched, while a little residual mango provides a tantalising reminder of the juicy satisfaction supplied in that initial hit.

You can't give it any greater praise than it leaves you feeling like you've never had your fill. It's one of the most easily enjoyable IPAs in recent memory and a beer that doesn't disappoint, even in this era of the ever-increasing lupulin threshold.

But, at the back of my mind, there's still that nagging thought that it's good marketing first and good beer second.

The promotional blurb claimed Born To Die prefers 'to check out in its prime and flavoursome best, rather than to live an induced, bland and tasteless life.' So, is that mundane existence the inevitable destiny of any beer without an expiration date? And, by extension, shouldn't Dead Pony Club, Punk IPA or Jackhammer also be born to die?

I know I'm being slightly facetious but it does raise a few questions, possibly more around supply chain and retail standards than about BrewDog themselves.

If all IPAs are supposed to be enjoyed like Born To Die, then shouldn't breweries be doing more to ensure the beer reaches the consumer within the required time period or else pull back on the amount of hop-forward pales they produce?

Freshness is one of the big advantages British-produced beer has over imports from the US and elsewhere, so it frustrating to find so many beers still reaching the consumer in less than optimum condition.

It would be refreshing if brewers gave greater prominence to the suggested 'drink by' date for their products and, more pressingly, retailers paid heed to their own responsibilities within this process.

Until that happens, at least Born To Die takes its place among the better examples of what can be done.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015 15:35

MCR Brew Expo aims to build Mancunian pride

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MCR Brew ExpoMCR Brew Expo, May 23 to 24

In five years time, it's entirely feasible we'll look back on MCR Brew Expo as a seminal moment in Manchester's beer scene.

The event itself is significant enough, representing the city's first collaborative showcase of modern microbrew, organised entirely by those who make it.

Nine breweries in total will throw their doors open in a bid to reveal the richness of talent and diversity lurking within the city's railway arches and industrial units, away from the public glare.

But, beyond the confines of the weekend, MCR Brew Expo looks set to leave an enduring legacy - one that will ensure Manchester provides fertile ground for further brewing growth.

"Collaborative working is the key to all of this," says Paul Jones, co-founder of Cloudwater Brew Co, who have taken a leading role in organising the Expo.

"We all came together initially to organise an event but have ended up forging long-term relationships that go much further. On a basic level, that might mean sharing malt and hops but it also means exchanging advice, sharing lessons that have been learned or just providing one another with someone to talk to because we know how it feels.

"This isn't just about nine disparate businesses coming together to make a bit of money. It's about creating a unified scene and we've already come together to discuss how we might work together on distribution, marketing and a number of other issues.

"Prior to organising the Expo, some of the breweries involved felt as if they were a little bit isolated but now we have developed a sense of community and camaraderie. Hopefully that comes across during the Expo."

When Jones talks, it's hard not to be swept up in a wave of enthusiasm.

As a beer lover first and foremost, he appears genuinely excited about the opportunities that abound for all those involved, rather than retaining a narrow focus on Cloudwater's own success.

The Expo roster also features Manchester stalwarts Marble and is rounded off by a strong selection of the city's best young breweries, which includes Alphabet, Blackjack, First Chop, Privateer, Runaway, Squawk and Track.

It would be easy for them to view each other with suspicion, particularly given the increasingly fierce fight for bar space and the tight margins that exist at the lower end of the industry.

Instead, the primary challenge is seen as expanding the prevalence of Mancunian beer in bars and pubs across the country. And, in that sense, the main competition lies across the water.

Jones says, "It would be wrong of us to think of each other as 'the competition' because that's simply not the case. Because of the current pressure on the market, we're in competition with quality and it's up to us all to make sure we're producing a consistently good product.

"The breweries in Manchester all produce different products that appeal to different people. In the Piccadilly area, Privateer are focused on making a good pint, Track are making some great cask pales, Squawk are focused on good keg beer and Chorlton are set up for sours.

"If we start focusing on competition then we are not thinking about richness of consumer experience and that's when we begin to lose ground.

"We are trying to compete against US imports to show people they can get beer from their own city that is just as good but much fresher because it hasn't had to travel.

"If we make gains to improve the production of beer in Manchester that's great for us. We want to make people proud of what their city produces and give them an incentive to invest in local breweries."

The hand of friendship has even been extended across the generation gap. One of the city's oldest family brewers, Joseph Holt, participated in a special collaborative brew especially for the Expo, creating the Green Quarter IPA in alliance with Marble, Blackjack and Runaway.

MCR Brew Expo collaboration brew team

It is a rare occurrence of Manchester's distinct ale scenes finding common purpose and a fitting example of the barriers that have been broken down in the process of planning this inaugural event.

Given the sizeable strides made in a small space of time, Jones' thoughts have already turned to the possibilities for extending the festivities further in the years to come.

He says, "We all have an appetite to see how far we can take this and I'm pretty confident this won't be the only Expo event this year.

"Beer festivals tend to be run by bar owners, which isn't necessarily a bad thing because we love the bar owners who sell good beer and work to promote it.

"But this is different because it's run by the brewers themselves so it gives a fresh perspective and provides the public with a feel for the thinking behind the beer they drink.

"We all enjoy the Bermondsey Beer Mile but feel it perhaps doesn't go far enough in providing people with the full brewery experience. The Expo is an open brewery event, which is exactly what we wanted it to be. Being inside a brewery is a sensory experience and we want people to enjoy that and take it all in.

"Most of us are underground, working under railway arches, so we often go unnoticed but when people see what we do, I believe the enthusiasm is catching.

"We want to generate a buzz round this so people see Manchester as a destination for good beer."

For more information or to buy tickets, visit the MCR Brew Expo website.

Saturday, 16 May 2015 10:25

Manchester's brewing worlds collide

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Green Quarter collab brew 2What is the consequence when two worlds collide?

A 5.5% IPA made with a blend of English and American hops, apparently.

At least, that was the outcome when three distinct generations of Manchester brewers came together earlier this week.

It's rare that a traditional family brewer should cross paths with one of the modern movement's young upstarts - and even rarer they should brew together - which makes this experiment all the more intriguing.

Joseph Holt represented Manchester's old guard at the special brewday, Marble flew the flag for the first generation of modern 'craft' breweries, while Blackjack and Runaway signified the new wave of bold micros.

All four breweries are based in Manchester's Green Quarter - an area to the north of the city centre and south of Cheetham Hill - and the idea for collaboration emerged as a result of the upcoming MCR Brew Expo.

One commemorative brew had already been created for the event by the nine organising new school brewers but, in the spirit of true collaboration, the three from the Green Quarter believed it only right they extend the hand of friendship to their vaunted neighbours.

Mark Welsby, head brewer at Runaway said: "We had been talking about a Green Quarter brew for a while but it dawned on me that, if we were going to do a collaboration, why wouldn't we invite Holt's?

"They're established and have the tradition around here so it would seem wrong to leave them out. We thought it would be a nice way to introduce ourselves, as much as anything else.

"Although MCR Brew Expo is about celebrating the growth of the scene in this city, we thought it was important to celebrate Manchester's heritage too."

Although the idea seemed slightly pie in the sky at first, it very quickly gathered momentum.

"We had already done an Expo beer but none of the big brewers got invited to that, which I thought was a shame," said Matt Howgate, head brewer for Marble, who hosted the brew.

"I knew Phil (Parkinson, head brewer at Joseph Holt) because I'd met him at a couple of IBD dinners and we've also visited Holt's before and they were very welcoming with us.

"So I thought this was the perfect time to do a beer with them, especially because the MCR Brew Expo is being split by geography - the Piccadilly brewers and then us in the Green Quarter.

"I wasn't confident Phil would do it but when I approached him, he was really keen. It doesn't matter whether you're a big brewer or a small brewer, it's the type of industry where most people are happy to share secrets."

The resulting beer, named Green Quarter, will be available in cask and keg and the recipe was developed with a nod to Manchester's brewing history.

Green Quarter collab brew 1

Its hopping schedule mirrors the timeline for when each of the collaborating brewers was established. Joseph Holt chose the bittering hop, traditional English variety Goldings, while Marble and Blackjack selected Amarillo and Summit respectively to go in at the back end of the boil.

Runaway will then add Mosaic to the fermenter, in greater volume than the dry hop for each of Marble's existing hop-forward beers, Dobber, Earl Grey and Lagonda.

For Phil Parkinson of Holt's, it represents a significant departure from the usual routine but one he would be happy to repeat.

He said: "I've been at Holt's for seven months so it's definitely the first collaboration of this kind we've done in that time.

"It's great to be invited. Everyone's got an opinion on it on what craft beer is but, to us, it's craft beer as long as care has gone into it and we would consider that we fall under that.

"There's a lot of people that would disagree but it's nice to be invited to be a part of this, so we can say 'we're all craft'.

"There is room for both, particularly because we both serve different markets. Hopefully this won't be the last time we do something like this."

Green Quarter will debut at next weekend's MCR Brew Expo, which runs on Saturday, May 23 and Sunday, May 24 at venues across the city. Visit the MCR Brew Expo website for more information.

Thursday, 26 March 2015 13:05

The pride of Manchester: Runaway Brewery

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Runaway IPAIn Manchester, we like to do things at our own pace.

A new brewery has opened every three minutes for the past five years in London (*this figure may be statistically inaccurate) but only now has Manchester decided to hop on the bandwagon.

Maybe we didn't want to seem too keen - after all, it would have been proper sad to rush straight in after those Cockney hipsters - maybe we wanted to arrive fashionably late, or maybe we just couldn't be arsed, in true Mancunian fashion.

No matter the whats and wherefores, a string of new breweries have either opened or announced their intention to open over the past year.

Possibly the best of the bunch is Runaway.

There's nothing especially unique or innovative about the beers this city centre brewery is churning out but there is a strong sense of reliability running throughout their range.

And this kind of consistency goes a long way in a market that has become characterised by wild inconsistency and untamed experimentation.

It's not that there's anything at all wrong with craft brewers raising a middle finger to convention, it's just that sometimes I want to know exactly what I'm getting.

That doesn't mean Runaway's beers are bland or middle of the road, just that each one seems to be an accomplished interpretation of the intended style.

 

Runaway IPA, 5.5%

The IPA, in particular, has the potential to be Manchester's Gamma Ray - that faithful fridge-filler which never fails to offer easy refreshment without making any compromises on taste.

It bursts with aroma and taste, zinging the senses with a killer combination of citrus, sweet tropical fruit and floral perfume.

As you dip your nose into the glass for the first time, you're dragged in deeper by welcoming smells of soft, ripe peach and passion fruit before experiencing a slightly surprising tickle of floral blossom. Grapefruit and orange zest round off the nose, hinting at the supreme refreshment to follow.

And that refreshment hits like a wake-up call from a bucket of water to the face.

It starts with the pop of pink grapefruit and lime, so vivid you'd swear you were bursting ripe, juicy segments between the teeth one-by-one. There follows a burst of effervescent sweetness, reminiscent of the moment you've sucked your way to the centre of a lemon sherbet, before it fades to leave the fragrant tropical flavour of lychee, alongside pine and floral hops.

It finishes with the metallic twang of watermelon Jolly Ranchers and a dry finish characterised by a light, pithy bitterness and the zing of orange and grapefruit peel. All of that is underpinned by a grainy, airy cereal base that makes this less hefty than a lot of IPAs and perhaps more easily enjoyable as a result.

Runaway Pale Ale 4.7%

The pale isn't quite as distinctive as the IPA but is tasty enough, yet unchallenging enough, to be guzzled by the bucket-load without having to decipher every single taste that hits the palate. On which note, I can supply the bucket if Runaway are happy to provide the beer.

In the nose, flashes of tinned pineapple and mango are soon overtaken by a rush of fresh pink grapefruit and yellow grapefruit rind.

The first mouthful provides a rush of grapefruit juice that leaves you licking the insides of your mouth like a dog that's gorged itself on sticky malt loaf.

Light caramel provides the glue that holds everything together as tart citrus makes way for pine and a firm zesty bitterness, combining tangerine and grapefruit peel. The finish is so clean and crisp it leaves you dreaming of summer days that will never come amid the persistent rain of beautiful Mancunia.

 

Runaway American Brown Ale

Runaway American Brown Ale, 5.7%

The American Brown Ale retains the easy drinkability of Runaway's two pales and offers a welcome take on a style.

As you'd expect, there's a good malt presence but not one that runs roughshod over all the other flavours, allowing the beer to stay fairly fresh and airy.

Sherbet orange and zest are prominent on the nose, jumping above a general waft of brown toast, pine and the odd twang of roast cacao nibs.

Juicy orange and grapefruit lend tartness to the taste without any of the usual accompanying bitterness, playing alongside more earthy flavours and firm, nutty malt.
Although it starts reasonably dry, it becomes even drier in the lead up to the finish, brown toast, bitter chocolate and light charcoal only accentuating that arid, ashy mouthfeel.

Grapefruit and pine rear their heads again in the finish to leave a pleasant mix of contrasting flavours to linger in the aftertaste.

There's definitely something to be said for steady reliability and Runaway are making that case well.