Friday, 17 October 2014 11:33

Ten things we learned from Indy Man Beer Con

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Indy Man Beer Con 2014 11. Beer folk are good folk

Nothing new there eh? Well, probably not but the sense of camaraderie and bonhomie seemed to reach its peak at Indy Man. No other festival captures the exuberant spirit and collaborative nature of modern British brewing quite like this one.

I've seen the festival's mood dismissed in some quarters as elitist or cliquish but there's a distinct absence of the snobbery and contempt associated with those particular traits.

Given Indy Man's focus is on presenting the best of beer from the sharp end of the craft scene, it would be easy for the festival and its participants to take itself far too seriously. On the contrary, it remains one of the most openly enjoyable, fun events on the beer calendar. Although I went with friends on both days I attended, I spent as much of my time speaking to new acquaintances and other likeminded folk.

My potential would undoubtedly be different if I wasn't an active member of the beer community but even casual drinkers I encountered couldn't help but find themselves absorbed by the carefree ebullience of the event.

It's possible to over-think these things in the search for agendas that don't necessarily exist. Yes, the beer community created a supernova of social media smugness in the days before and during the event but maybe that's just because people were excited rather than seeking recognition or validation.

For once, can we try to see the best rather than assume the worst (and yes, I'm fully aware that's rich coming from me)?

 

2. Thirds are for life not just for festivals

I'll never give up the pint. What kind of self-respecting northerner would I be if I started drinking exclusively smaller measures? I'd be hunted down and driven from Manchester for a start.

The humble pint also has an intangible satisfying quality - the 'ahhh' effect - something which appears to be hard-wired in me, or at least socially conditioned.

That's all well and good when you're drinking bitter, mild or session pale ales but anything significantly stronger and you're entering dangerous territory.

The enforced third measure at Indy Man introduces a different style of drinking, one that made me stop and savour, enjoying the beer for what it was rather than the effect it was having on me.

I'll steer clear of describing it as more 'refined' because it definitely wasn't that and nor would I want it to be. However, it did allow me to sample a huge amount of different styles, flavours and experiences at a leisurely pace that avoided the social pressure of hardcore supping.

Hopefully more pubs and bars will start to expand the range of measures offered because choice can never be a bad thing and helps to broaden the range of experience that can be enjoyed while drinking beer.

 

Indy Man Beer Con 2014 43. Sour is the new black

In previous years, I've possibly been guilty of seeking out the biggest, baddest beers at Indy Man - those high-ABV monsters that lure you in with promises of delight and decadence before smiting you with the most vicious, spiteful curse.

This year I was determined to do things differently and sought out more beers at the lower end of the spectrum, particularly during the Friday afternoon session.
In previous years this would have meant highly-hopped session pales but, this year, I found myself swimming in a sea of sour.

There was Beavertown's Earl Phantom, a lip-smackingly tart lemon ice tea sour brewed as a collaboration with the festival organisers, Kernel's Raspberry London Sour, Evil Twin's Bikini Sour, Mad Hatter's Manchester Tart, Quantum's Berliner Schwarz, Buxton's Red Raspberry Rye and many others still.

Sours are undoubtedly en vogue at the moment but that's not necessarily a bad thing given it's resulted in the revival of styles such as gose, berliner weisse and grätzer, which had previously found only niche markets.

There is a danger breweries will begin to rush to these styles without first perfecting the techniques and there have undoubtedly been a few such beers recently that have delivered a huge, overwhelming sourness and very little else.

But when executed well, they are stunningly accomplished and provide a unique drinking experience that probably falls well outside what would typically be considered as 'beer'.

I've discussed faddishness in beer on this blog previously and it does present certain problems but this clamour for the new and unusual has at least resulted in a much wider range of available beer across the full spectrum. That can't be a bad thing.

 

4. Keg is putting cask in the shade

Without wishing to open this particular can of worms again, it did feel like cask was seen as the poor relation at this year's Indy Man.

This isn't a criticism of the festival organisers as such - in many ways they are probably just responding to demand from the punters and supply from the brewers - but keg was definitely king.

These beers were front and centre at each bar, displayed boldly in the immediate line of sight, while the cask list was usually tacked on at either side, in one case a piece of card attached to a wooden plank.

This resulted in some punters missing some of the stunning cask beers on offer, including Siren and De Molen's excellent Empress Stout at the bargain basement price of £1 for a third.

Personally, I'm not inclined towards any particular form of dispense. I drink more keg but only because the beers I tend to gravitate towards are more suited to this particular form.

In the case of something like Empress, however, I feel it benefitted hugely from being served on cask, the extra body and lower carb accentuating the smooth richness of an indulgent imperial stout.

I might be wrong but there did seem to be more of an even split between cask and keg in previous years and I'd love to see more cask crop up next time round.

 

5. Beer festival food doesn't have to consist of a frozen burger in a bap

I was an avid festival-goer long before Indy Man, as the concept of being able to spend several hours sampling a huge variety of new, rare and exciting beers unsurprisingly appeals.

One thing I had become resigned to as a result of previous experiences was the need to eat the kind of crap I would never dream of making at home or else face the consequences delivered by a lack of sustenance.

The typical choice was a frozen burger slapped on a white bap, neon yellow chicken curry with undercooked rice or a tray of chips that had been left in the fryer five minutes too long.

Whatever way, the outlook wasn't good.

Luckily, Indy Man has refused to follow tradition in this respect and the selection at this year's event was even better than previous years.

Giant, loaded hot dogs, monstrous burgers from Almost Famous, hearty pies, pizza and Indian chaat all stuffed our stomachs. My personal highlight was the fish tacos from Margo and Rita, substantial enough to fill a hole, light enough to sit perfectly alongside a hop-forward pale ale or IPA.

We shouldn't have to tolerate expensive and hastily-assembled slop.

 

Indy Man Beer Con 2014 26. Beer geeks love to mess about in changing rooms

The Edwardian splendour of Victoria Baths is undoubtedly one of the major factors in Indy Man's success.

On the approach, it feels like you're attending a beer festival at Wayne Manor and what's not to like about that?

Inside, the two pools are filled with bars and even the Turkish Baths, adorned with stunning glazed tiles and many of their original fittings, host one brewery (this year it was Beavertown).

But possibly the most enjoyable feature is the individual changing stalls which line the perimeter of the pools - their rusted, cracking blue paint hinting at better times, the red-and-white striped curtains still hanging limply from many of them.

It's hard not to be infected by the magic of such handsome, historically significant surroundings but the stalls, in particular were a magnet for merry beer geeks. So much so that we all became desensitised to the sight of bare-chested men stood proudly behind their doors throughout the weekend. I only hope they kept their trousers on.

 

7. Pub crawl before tea except after IMBC

Best laid plans go to waste - an adage that rings especially true after five hours at a beer festival.

I'm usually a fan of an afternoon start to a pub crawl, as it means you're able to move leisurely from venue to venue before the chaos of the night crowd sets in.

But starting a pub crawl in the late afternoon, immediately after Indy Man and without stopping to intake solids of substantial nutritional value is idiocy of the highest order. Go straight to craft jail, do not pass 'Go', do not collect your third of Zwanze.

So those people who questioned the wisdom of myself and Steve from the Beer O'Clock Show for attempting to arrange a Manchester crawl immediately after the Saturday afternoon session at Indy Man were spot on. It fell apart after the second stop.

Ah well, you live and you learn.

 

8. With great power comes great responsibility

This might sound a little worthy and self-important but, as beer lovers, I feel we all have a responsibility to help educate the general public on good beer.

There were a couple of occasions at Indy Man where this was made abundantly clear.

The first incident involved an acquaintance of mine, the other a complete stranger but both times, the person in question found themselves completely over-faced by the selection of beer in offer at one of the bars.

Without trying to be pushy, I offered my assistance, enquired about their tastes and attempted to provide a little bit of information on the available beers and brewers. In the case of my acquaintance, at least, it was appreciated... I think.

But the point is everyone arrives at the bar with different levels of understanding or knowledge and, in the appropriate circumstances well-intentioned advice is appropriate.

In this vein, the pop-up tastings at Indy Man were a good idea. A bell was rung to signal the start of the session, samples were handed out and a brewer chatted passionately about their beer for five minutes or so. It was a good way to bring punters' attention to beers they might not otherwise have tried and to pass on a little background information.

The spread of good beer depends on good advocates and, aside from the breweries themselves, that means us.

 

9. Solitude is bliss

Emma made an excellent point in her blog over at Crema's Beer Odyssey about the charm of Victoria Baths.

Aside from the obvious aesthetic beauty, it's the variety of the venue that makes it so perfect for a beer festival.

If you ever want to escape the crowds, there are a huge number of nooks and crannies you can crawl into to enjoy a moment with your beer.

The terraces overlooking two of the rooms both had adequate and sparsely-populated seating areas, while the outside area was developed further this year to offer an opportunity for fresh air - brave considering the Manchester weather.

Tickets aren't over-sold either so, even at its busiest, Indy Man never feels stifling or claustrophobic.

 

Indy Man Beer Con 2014 310. Organising a piss-up in a swimming pool isn't easy

I find it incredible that, despite the scale and duration of the event, there were very few hiccups throughout the course of the weekend.

A few minor speed bumps were encountered along the way, including a brief fobbing issue on one of the keg bars, but they were dealt with quickly and efficiently.

The organisers didn't stop running from pillar to post all weekend and the volunteers generally combined warmth with know-how. They all deserve great credit for pulling it off.

 

My top five beers from Indy Man

1. Evil Twin Imperial Doughnut Break. Shouldn't work but it just does - rich chocolate, bitter coffee and the sugary, doughy goodness of freshly-baked doughnuts. Delightful!

2. Summer Wine Twiggy IPA. A glorious representation of English hops, the aroma of a blackberry bush combined with full-on flavours of marmalade, damson jam and earthy spice.

3. Toccalmatto Delta Red Disorder. A sherbet bomb, blood orange and grapefruit jumping, cartwheeling and exploding off a hefty caramel base.

4. Beavertown Earl Phantom. A clean, sharp, easy-drinking beauty that threw a lip-smacking punch of lemon, followed it with a sprinkling of lemon and lime zest and rounded it off with earthy, mildly tannic tea.

5. Against the Grain Citra Ass Down. The right beer at the right time, a big, sticky hop hit to offset a previous parade of sours.

Friday, 03 October 2014 11:01

Preview: Indy Man Beer Con 2014

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IMBC recap 1Preview: Indy Man Beer Con

Victoria Baths, Manchester, Thursday October 9 to Sunday October 12

This is Manchester, we do things differently here.

When Tony Wilson uttered those famous words, they were tinged with more than a hint of bias.

The man known as 'Mr Manchester' was prone to outpourings of unbridled civic pride but amid the gushing sentiment is shrouded a piece of acute observation.

Right from the start this city has resolved to plough its own furrow, both through economic necessity and belief in a distinct identity, fuelling a strong aversion to conformity.

This refusal to follow established trends has kept Manchester at the cutting edge of cultural innovation - a thread that has been picked up by Indy Man Beer Con.
Although London's sheer size has facilitated an explosion of bars and breweries that has positioned it at the forefront of the craft scene, Manchester's significance has been cemented by this groundbreaking festival.

The formula is reasonably straightforward - after all, there's only so much you can do with a beer festival - but it's the attention to detail that sets Indy Man apart.

Meticulous planning is applied to the beer list, encompassing both cask and keg, with participants selected according to a ruthless quality standard, ensuring an unrivalled blend of one-offs, wild experiments and consistent quality.

As it enters its third year, there's a growing sense that brewers hold back their best for this four-day celebration in Manchester's magnificent Victoria Baths, casting aside the safety net provided by their core ranges to push the boat out with a number of specials and new brews.

IMBC3After all, isn't that the point of a festival? To sample the kind of beers you might not otherwise get the chance to during the course of a night down the local.

And this year's beer list, which was unveiled today, goes even further than previous years, combining the best of Britain's new and established talent with rare and exciting imports from the likes of Against the Grain, Evil Twin, Loverbeer, Stillwater Artisanal.

"Our success so far has been a combination of a lot of things," says Claudia Asch, festival organiser. "One is the support we have in the brewing community, meaning that breweries from around the UK and now further afield want to be involved and serve their beers.

"We also try to make the event appeal to a diverse crowd, a bit of something for everyone, from the seasoned beer geeks to those just getting excited by great beer. For the beer geeks in particular, our collaborations create a bit of additional interest, bringing unique beers to the event.

"We realise that we have to introduce some new features each year, because now there will be people who have attended the previous years, so expectations continue to push us to be innovative.

" There are so many specials and obviously the collaborations on offer, there really ought to be something for everyone to get really excited about.

"As far as special and really exclusive goes, look no further than Loverbeer. Valter Loverier produces some amazing sour beers — and not very much of it, so we are very, very fortunate he is coming!"

This international element is something that looks set to grow in years to come.

Alongside the new additions, the likes of Brewfist, Toccalmatto and To Øl all return after successful showings in 2013.

"The festival will have a more global feel in years to come," says Claudia. "The brewing world is pretty small, so we're hoping that the good word about IMBC continues to spread to bring some more international brewers to the baths.

"We are over the moon that Brian Strumke (Stillwater) and Adam Watson (Against the Grain) are joining us for the first time this year, along with Jeppe Jarnit-Bjergsø from Evil Twin, and Valter Loverier from Loverbeer."

Another area undergoing continuous expansion is the collaborative effort between the festival organisers and brewers.

This year the team having travelled the length and breadth of the country - and made a quick trip to Italy - to brew an incredible 15 collaborations especially for the festival.

When it comes to rarities, these are as scarce as it gets and previous years' creations have been among the highlights on the beer list, Thornbridge's Otter's Tears, Marble's Farmhouse IPA and Buxton's Tea Saison all sticking in the mind from last year.

Claudia adds, "We're excited about trying all of them! It's going to be a challenge to try them all, but worth a go.

"We hope the spread of beers will satisfy everyone, as there will be a gose, a couple of Berliner weisse, a barley wine, a super hoppy red ale, a huge double IPA and two very different Saisons - and that's not all."

IMBC recap 2

Given the emphasis on experimentation and adventure, there is a risk Indy Man might get pigeon-holed as an event aimed exclusively at the sharp end of the craft scene, limiting its potential appeal to the beer tickers and Untappd obsessives.

The Great British Beer Festival, for example, benefits from an immediately wider reach, largely due to its scale and CAMRA's national profile, but Indy Man's organisers claim to have noticed a growing diversity each year.

"Judging from last year, where we had groups of people attend to celebrate birthdays and even work dos, we think that the interest in good beer (and cider, for that matter) is spreading," says Claudia.

"Of course there are still a lot of beer geeks, and we'd venture to suggest that all of those with Full Fat tickets, attending all sessions, are certainly beer geeks extraordinaire.

"We certainly hope to cater to tastes of all kinds, from those that only want to drink barrel-aged saisons to those only getting started in their beer journey.

"It's all about discovery and sharing beers."

One factor that bodes well in this respect is Indy Man's progressive nature.

The food offering, including a beer matched meal from Masterchef finalist Jackie Kearney appeals to the foodie with a passing interest in beer, while the range of musical acts and DJs make the more casual drinkers feel at home by alleviating the serious nature of the devoted beer hunting occuring elsewhere.

Then there are a range of talks, debates and tastings that take place on the fringes of the festival, which offer a great opportunity for people to learn more about the beers they are drinking and interact with the people making them.

This year's programme includes a number of exclusive tasting sessions, a discussion around the American craft brewing scene, a seminar on the science of yeast and a homebrewing chat and tasting hosted by yours truly.

But, even without taking into any of this into account, Indy Man offers a fairly unique experience - an event that captures the enthusiastic, inclusive nature of modern brewing without patronising or taking itself too seriously.

And, importantly, the organisers are determined not to rest on their laurels.

"There are always lessons to be learned, to be honest," says Claudia. "We're working hard to respond to suggestions from volunteers, brewers, and punters - we got a lot of useful feedback after both years.

"For instance, most people seemed to rate the joining up of cask and keg bars and were pleased with the food offerings last year. We have a couple of new food traders this year, and are working on more snack options as well.

"There are definitely some new approaches in the works, but we don't want to reveal too much in advance."

A limited number of tickets are still available for Thursday, Friday and Sunday. Visit the Indy Man site for more details.

Friday, 05 September 2014 10:06

My first Belgian - the Session #91

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Chimay BlueThe Session, a.k.a. Beer Blogging Friday, is an opportunity once a month for beer bloggers from around the world to get together and write from their own unique perspective on a single topic. Each month, a different beer blogger hosts the Session, chooses a topic and creates a round-up listing all of the participants. This month, it's the turn of Belgian Smaak, click here for the details.

Those monks have a lot to answer for.

Despite spending the bulk of my younger years trying to escape the clutches of the clergy at a Christian Brothers' grammar school, the Catholic faith ultimately moulded my beliefs while my back was turned.

When I was first told about the Lord's work, I had no idea it could take the form of beer but I suppose God really does move in mysterious ways.

Those Trappist monks and their remarkable creations have left an indelible mark on my adult life, sparking a never-ending quest for ever greater, weirder and more wonderful experiences in beer.

Maybe if they had taught of my first-year R.E. lessons, life would have turned out a lot differently...

Although Belgian beer has only ever constituted around 10 to 20 per cent of my total consumption, it has had a hugely disproportionate impact on my tastes and habits.

It acted as a gateway to enlightenment, the first frontier in my passage from casual drinker to beer geek and that can be attributed to the Trappists.

Growing up in Manchester instilled in me an appreciation of good beer but didn't exactly encourage variety or experimentation.

The traditional family brewers - Holt's, Lees, Robinsons and Hydes - have long loomed large in this city, meaning my diet consisted almost entirely of cask bitter, mild or session pales.

That provided the necessary foundation - an expectation of good, honest, traditionally-brewed beer over mass-produced lager - but things changed drastically when my dad returned from a business trip with three variously-coloured bottles of Chimay.

I wasn't sure what to make of them at first, my first thoughts being 'wow, that's rocket fuel' and 'what's with the dumpy bottles?'

Then I saw the glassware and was stopped in my tracks. The majestic, silver-rimmed chalice appeared to have been transposed from medieval times, its powerful, thick stem and wide bowl fit for a king.

I had to see it in action and, given I don't tend to do things by halves, reached straight for the Blue at 9% ABV.

In my naivety, I was overeager with the pour, creating a glass of around 80% head. But once it had settled down, I was left with a thing of beauty - a deep, rich chestnut-coloured beer topped with a generous, thick, creamy head.

The aroma was unlike anything I'd encountered down my local, although my unrefined sense of smell struggled to pin down the yeast esters, overwhelmed by a mixture of caramel, dried fruit and warming spice.

Each sip danced a merry jig across my palate, light floral notes, clove and nutmeg tickling the tongue in a manner that was almost entirely alien to me. Dried cherry and raisin twisted with oak and caramel settled heavily in the mouth, neatly offset by a subtle bitterness in the finish.

It was an eye-opening experience and one I resolved to explore further.

Initially, this meant cracking open the two remaining bottles of Chimay in quick succession but, ultimately, led to an exploration of the wider Belgian beer scene, that led on to German, American and even a re-evaluation of British beer.

Cantillon Gueuze 100 Lambic Bio

My tastes are not obviously dominated by Belgian beer but the devotion and open-mindedness I apply to seeking out new beer can largely be attributed to that one moment.

Belgian beer also presented something of a final frontier in my experience. Until two years ago, I just didn't get gueuze.

I couldn't understand the face-crumpling sourness, the rough, coarse earthiness or the tight, prickly champagne fizz. None of it seemed to come together in a way that pleased my palate or even one that vaguely resembled my typical understanding of beer.

It was the one style I actively avoided until, inexplicably, I underwent a conversion after receiving a bottle of Boon Oude Geuze in a box of beers given to me as a birthday present.

It seemed ungrateful to pass it on to someone else who might appreciate it more than me, so I sat down on an unusually warm Manchester evening and forced myself to try it.

What started out as a grim endurance test quickly became a eureka moment. Maybe it was the weather or the fact that I'd endured a particularly testing day at work but it felt like a rare indulgence.

The flavours are, at times, jarring and challenging, yet equally intriguing, invigorating and satisfying. Like free jazz for the tastebuds.

There's something enchanting about the way gueuze captures the spirit of time-honoured craftsmanship and the magic of spontaneous fermentation in one neat package. Now, I never tire of regaling friends, family and strangers with stories of Cantillon and the incredible process used to create gueuze.

"They just leave the wort open to the air and it ferments due to the presence of wild yeast. Isn't nature just amazing?!"

Belgian beer has that rare quality of representing the richness of tradition while challenging you to reassess your tastes and beliefs.

It feels as if it's from another time, yet never feels old.

And it's exciting to think there are more 'Chimay moments' yet to be encountered.

Friday, 08 August 2014 07:24

The endless grind of the craft beer hype machine

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Public Enemy Dont Believe the HypeI feel like I've let Public Enemy down.

The first time I listened to seminal album 'It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back' as a defiant teen, stomping around my room, fist in the air, I pledged never to believe the hype.

Ten years on, I sit here racked by guilt that I've let their most fundamental lesson go unheeded.

Hype has become a colossal driving force in 'craft' beer and I've frequently been culpable of submitting hopelessly to its demands.

I've been seduced by wax-dipped wine bottles, clamoured for collaborations and once made a 30-mile round trip to a bottle shop on my lunch hour, just to get my hands on one of a limited 500-bottle run.

There have even been times when I've been scrabbling around for pennies at the end of the month yet still justified spending big on a beer out of fear that I'd somehow be missing out.

In a sense, I don't regret any of this as those special one-offs were the source of many a happy moment but I reached a turning point in the past month. And that point was craft cans.

To clarify, I don't have anything against the can itself - it's perfectly pleasant as far as beer receptacles go - but rather the PR onslaught that has surrounded its greater prevalence.

Of course, this has largely been fuelled by brewers and retailers and I don't blame them for that. They're doing their job and doing it well by generating interest, intrigue and, ultimately, sales of their beers.

But every time I log onto Twitter to see a post proclaiming 'Look at this beer, it's in cans' accompanied by a picture of cans containing beer, it makes me want to eat my own head.

The hype machine has gone into overdrive cranking out this sort of stuff on a daily basis and drinkers have happily joined the party, flooding social media with similar pictures of aluminium tins and joyous proclamations of their brilliance.

My intention isn't to piss on their parade, although admittedly I'm about to piss on their parade.

I understand the arguments. Reduced light penetration is a fairly obvious and provable benefit, while claims have also been made about decreased O2 pick-up.

But, to me, it smacks a little of the HD TV obsession.

While the majority of the population seemed to rave about the quality and clarity of the picture, in real terms it added very little to the viewing experience. In some cases the difference was barely noticeable at all and, ultimately, the quality of programming is the single most fundamental factor in the viewer's enjoyment.

When tasting cans side-by-side with bottles, I have genuinely noticed no real difference in terms of quality and consistency. The most consistently outstanding beer I have enjoyed over recent months has been Thornbridge Jaipur, which I can pick up for just over two quid in a nearby supermarket and is produced exclusively in bottles.

I have no issue with more beer being canned in the future but the current craze tends to obscure the fact that it's the quality of the brewer not the quality of the container that has the most effect on the final product.

But it's only one symptom of the hype infecting modern brewing.

People queuing round the block for Heady Topper, Kentucky Breakfast Stout, Pliny the Elder, *insert name of high ABV, over-publicised US beer here* might be a clever marketing stunt on behalf of the breweries but it doesn't do much to improve perception or increase availability of craft beer.

Similarly, the recent UK release of Stone's Enjoy By sent all and sundry scrabbling towards their nearest Brewdog on the day of release. On a personal note, I still haven't tried it and won't be making a special effort to do so because the value it would add to my drinking experience over and above many more widely-available double IPAs is minimal.

Such frenzied fanboyism is a by-product of the marketing machine and causes objectivity to suffer. Drinkers are left feeling as if they can't criticise certain beers or breweries for fear of being cast adrift by the crowd, leaving nothing but constant, overwhelming positivity and platitudes.

Critical thought is crucial to the progression of any art form and we shouldn't feel bad for providing brewers with constructive criticism when they make a misstep as much as we wouldn't when providing a bad review of a film or piece of music.

Call me curmudgeonly but the modern beer scene could actually benefit from a bit more negativity and cynicism or else risk being perpetually dismissed as the realm of rabid geeks - a situation which leaves drinkers open to exploitation in the same way as unquestioning football fans are screwed by the clubs they support.

I'm not advocating torrents of abuse, rather well-reasoned, fair-minded criticism. If you have a good beer tell the world about it and if you have a bad one make a reasonable attempt to explain why.

Bigger breweries and regionals have long been fair game yet there seems to be some unspoken rule which prevents people from saying anything bad about microbreweries, even when it's merited.

British beer is possibly in better health than it's ever been but we'd be daft to think the recent boom hasn't brought with it any fresh challenges and problems.

So please, the next time you see me post gratuitous, fawning tripe on social media, feel free to direct a few stern words in my direction.

UPDATE

After reading the comments on here and getting involved in discussion on Twitter, I felt it might be helpful to clarify my thoughts a bit more.

When attempting to knit together a few different threads as evidence of a greater, over-arching theme, the clarity of the point I was trying to make possibly suffered.

To reiterate, I'm not dead against cans per se and certainly not pointing the finger at the breweries in this country who have decided to start canning their beers. Some good beer is being produced in cans and, of course, that should be a source of pride for those breweries.

It is more the reaction to the arrival of craft cans that I take issue with and the feeling (one I have, at least) that they're being portrayed as some kind of silver bullet.

The can isn't the answer to all of the issues around freshness, aroma and taste - control over brewery processes can have a far greater effect in this area, something which should not be obscured.

There is also a slight sense that cans have been blindly accepted as beneficial without due consideration given to the drawbacks. Of course, they have their positives, including a couple outlined above but other issues, such as the uncertain environmental impact, have barely been discussed.

It's been frequently claimed that cans are greener because they are easier to recycle and lighter to transport, meaning a reduced carbon footprint. However, Steve Saldana from Bexar County Brewery has done a good job of highlighting some of those issues in the comments on this blog and New Belgium have also produced a piece about the sustainability of cans and bottles that is well worth reading (thanks to Mike Bates for bringing that one to my attention).

Given all that, the immediate, enthusiastic advocacy of cans seemed to come on the back of a wave of hype rather than a careful consideration of the benefits . That unquestioning acceptance, sometimes seeming to verge on obsession, appeared indicative of a wider trend in the modern beer scene.

That trend also manifests itself through the clamour for limited-release beers, designed solely to build demand that will never be serviced, which has back-fired on some breweries Stateside if reports of Cigar City's Hunahpu release are to be believed.

Ultimately though, people should enjoy what they want, where they want from whatever vessel they want.*

*Unless it's a can.**

**I'm joking.***

***Or am I?

Tuesday, 29 July 2014 11:44

Recap: Birmingham Beer Bash 2014

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Birmingham Beer Bash 2014 1Where in the world could you possibly buy a beer made with squid ink and miso?

If your answer was Birmingham then top marks but I'm not sure it would have been many people's first guess.

It's true though. Not only does Birmingham have more canals than Venice, at the weekend it could also boast more beers made with squid ink - two at last count.

It's perhaps a perversion too far for the kinky Venetians, yet the kind of unbridled unorthodoxy we've come to expect from the Birmingham Beer Bash.

It's only been in existence two years but already the festival has quickly become synonymous with bonhomie and idiosyncrasy, thanks to the combination of a small, cosy venue, relaxed approach and ambitious beer list.

Last year, Wild Beer's excellent Shnoodlepip - an extraordinary, pink-coloured beer that combined hibiscus, passion fruit and pink peppercorns - was talk of the town, simply because it lay so far beyond most typical conceptions of beer.

At the time, it seemed impossible to imagine a space further out in left field, at least one where the finished product still resembled something worth drinking. Then Bexar County introduced Tinta de Sepia Gose Con Miso (6% ABV, cask) at this year's festival.

This is a gose, the traditional sour and salty German style, which derives its saltiness from miso (fermented soy beans) and squid ink. It shouldn't have worked - a fact highlighted by the baffled, almost pitying look on the bar worker's face when I asked for a third - but it was executed with impressive aplomb.

Birmingham Beer Bash 2014 2Warm, soft saltiness tickles the middle of the tongue before a clean, crisp fruitiness announces itself at the back, the sour crunch of under-ripe, green apples joined by the pop of tart gooseberries.

Strangely enough, this wasn't the only tentacled beer on offer, given Hardknott had also brewed a dark 'pale' ale called Squidy in collaboration with the festival team.

However, the organisers' experimental approach wasn't confined to the weird and wonderful. An equally-intriguing side project saw six breweries recreate recipes fished from the past by respected brewery historian Ron Pattinson especially for the event.

The 1929 Russell XXX (cask) brewed by Sarah Hughes was a fruity, spicy showcase for the oft-maligned Goldings hop but the pick of the bunch was Ashover's 1910 Fullers Porter (cask), beautifully smooth, full of coffee and roasted malt yet eminently drinkable.

There were a host of further highlights too.

Buxton Ace Edge (6.8%, keg) - a version of the revered Axe Edge hopped with Sorachi Ace - understandably attracted lots of attention but was still overshadowed by Cheshire Brewhouse's Sorachi Ace (5.8%, cask). An alluring light golden beer, it was clean and sessionable but still jammed full of the divisive hop's eccentricities, bright lemon and peach sitting alongside flavours verging on bubblegum and oak.

Beavertown's Convicts of the Road (5%, keg) (or at least, this is what I assume it was, given it was listed only as 'elderflower saison') was a perfect summer refresher, tart and lightly perfumed with a bone-dry finish, and Celt Rebirth's Rhubeer (5%, cask) a hugely-satsifying, fruity sour with a beguiling funky rhubarb nose.

Birmingham Beer Bash 2014 4It was also pleasing to see Rodenbach Grand Cru (6%, keg) on the international bar, a beer I can never walk past without ordering at least one. However, my choice of accompaniment - a big, juicy bacon cheeseburger from the Original Patty Men - probably doesn't feature in the big book of beer and food pairings.

Freedom's Barrel-Aged Pilsner (5%, keg) was a more unexpected treat, as I'm generally not sold on shoving pilsner in whisky barrels. This, however, is an accomplished pils that's subtle on the oak and nicely rounded in body with a crisp, palate-cleansing finish.

The festival itself both thrived and suffered at the hands of Birmingham's tropical climate. Permanent sunshine allowed the venue at the Bond Company to really come into its own, delighted punters lazing and chatting by the side of the canal right until the death.

On the flip side, however, the indoor areas were stiflingly hot and keg pours became a little slow and foamy in certain cases. But the patience and friendliness of the volunteers and brewers meant these issues never seriously infringed on enjoyment of the event, enthusiastically discussing the beers and indulging in good-natured chatter to keep everyone in good spirits.

On a personal note, I was disappointed to miss out on the fringe events, which included talks from brewers, beer writers and experts, but feedback from other punters suggested they had been well-received.

Disappointment doesn't last long though when you're faced by such a bold and varied beer list. The festival ended for me with Siren's Odyssey 001 (12.4%, cask), the most indulgent and decadent of cask beers - a blend of wine, bourbon and brandy barrel-aged vesrions of imperial stout Even More Jesus with the brewery's standard red ale Liquid Mistress.

Sipping on the street as I waited for my taxi, I was treated to a swirling mix of rich chocolate mousse, brandy, tart red berries and smooth mocha. The alcohol warmed but never burned, thanks to a soft, almost marshmallowy sweetness, although the satisfying throb of brandy and rum accompanied me all the way home.

Not a bad way to spend a Saturday night.

Thursday, 24 July 2014 13:28

Brouwerij 't IJ and De Molen Double IPA

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De Molen t IJ Double IPABrouwerij 't IJ and De Molen Double IPA

Bottle from Beer Hawk, 9% ABV

When preparing a trip to Amsterdam for later this year, both these breweries were added to the list of essentials.

De Molen's reputation speaks for itself, while Brouwerij 't IJ (pronounced 'ut eye' I have been reliably informed by a real-life Dutchman) has been quietly producing quality beers in Amsterdam since 1985. For those of you unfamiliar with the latter, their standard IPA and Struis barleywine are a good introduction.

Fulfilling the Dutch cliché, both breweries are also famous for featuring windmills. Whether the staff are forced to wear clogs has, as yet, been unconfirmed.

Returning to the more important issue of the beer at hand, it was exciting to discover the Netherlands' two best breweries had joined forces, particularly in the form of an uncompromising imperial IPA.

However, this eagerness was almost engulfed by a cloying sweetness that initially threatened to overcome my palate.

Still, I gave it time and I'm glad I did because it's definitely a grower.

Once the palate became accustomed to the heavy flavours and big body, more of the complexities began to reveal themselves. It's not a citrus or tropical hop bomb but rather a double IPA that demands a glacial pace, its flavours revealing themselves carefully rather than announcing their arrival amid a huge fanfare.

Heavy caramel dominates the aroma and this sugariness follows through into fruity notes reminiscent of Fruit Salads, those penny sweets that glue the teeth together and make the jaw ache with their stubborn chewiness.

The near-synthetic notes of pineapple, passion fruit and orange are rounded off by a drop of vanilla essence.

That aforementioned cloying sweetness is all too evident in the first sip and takes some getting used to but balances comes as the palate adapts and the beer warms.

Unsurprisingly, caramel asserts itself strongly in the first sip, possibly only outdone by the taste of jelly sweets. Now we're not talking Haribo here but the somehow less trashy fruit jellies from your childhood that coated the tongue with a sticky syrup of indistinguishable fruit flavours.

Notes of pineapple, tangerine, passion fruit and strawberry offer a thick, sticky, near-synthetic taste but depth is provided by a growing floral perfume, hanging like incense in the back of the mouth.

Slick honey soothes into a dry finish that threatens to pack a pithy punch until the rough bitterness is met head on by the enduring malt sweetness, the two eventually reaching a cordial truce.

It's not without its flaws but it remains a beer worthy of your attention.

Friday, 18 July 2014 09:45

The Alechemist: Rob Lovatt, Thornbridge

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Rob Lovatt Thornbridge Head BrewerIn an industry so often defined by division, Thornbridge is a rare unifying force.

Whether its cask or keg, micro or macro, traditional or experimental, the desire for distinction and compartmentalisation is a common theme in beer.

Ironically, by single-mindedly ploughing its own furrow, Thornbridge has managed to skip nimbly between the various camps.

True, the Bakewell brewery is most frequently lumped in with the 'craft' crowd but despite an evident bent towards innovation, they remain sticklers for tradition.

Honest, straightforward cask beers and faithful interpretations of age-old styles sit comfortably alongside American-influenced creations and the odd left-field curveball in an eclectic range. The single thread that holds it all together is an all-consuming obsession with quality.

Taking objectivity out of the question, the talented brewing team - led by head brewer Rob Lovatt and a hand-picked team of experienced assistants - are determined to make the best beer possible by meticulously attending to every detail of the brewing process.

"Quality assurance is absolutely key to everything we do and our intention is simply to keep making great beer," says Rob.

"What's great for us is the fact our growth is really organic and I think that's down to the fact we take a lot of care over what we produce. We can't make enough of the stuff at the moment and we're not having to discount to get sales so we're just going to carry on growing but at a manageable rate where we don't have to compromise the quality of the beer.

"Although it's important to make new beers to keep the interest going, we're going to keep making our core beers and look to improve all the time. In that sense, my own scientific background has helped. But the biggest help was working with Scottish Courage and other big breweries and applying their QA systems to the beer we make."

Thornbridge's melding of old and new should perhaps come as no surprise considering the brewery's origins.

Thornbridge Brewery 4

It all started in 2005 in a quaint yet cramped outbuilding on the grounds of Thornbridge Hall - its weary, weather-worn exterior and cracked, peeling paintwork now seemingly incongruous with the majestic, shining stainless steel of the current brewhouse on an industrial estate outside Bakewell.

But Thornbridge somehow makes the two contrasting methods work in unison - literally as well as figuratively, given the 10 BBL kit at the Hall is still used for brewing smaller batches and trials.

This clash of worlds is also prevalent in the branding, which features the statue of Flora from the Italian garden at Thornbridge Hall against a variety of bold and colourful backdrops. But most important is its influence on the beer.

Over the past year, the brewery has produced a European series focused on classic styles from across the continent, including Bavarian pilsner, weizenbock, Berliner weisse and saison among others. Each was created using modern methods but in a studied manner that paid respect to time-tested methods of production.

Rob says, "I am without a doubt a stickler for brewing beers to style. It's an ethos I try and encourage here at Thornbridge and I know our brewers buy into it, including the younger guys. You need to analyse the classic styles and understand why they were brewed that way in the first place.

"Take a Bavarian wheat beer for example. What is it about that beer that makes it special? It's the esters and the phenolics from the yeast during the primary fermentation which makes the beer, that's why the bitterness is down around 12 EBUs to allow the yeast to shine. So why do people feel it's necessary to 'hop the shit out of it' with American hops?

"The Bayern pilsner we produced was fermented at 9C and lagered for ten weeks. We even transferred the wort to flotation tank. All these procedures made sure the beer was super-clean and delicate.

"There does seem to be a trend to dry hop these beers in tank, again often with US hops. For me though, this seems pointless and just masks the delicate and the soft nature of the style."

Thornbridge Brewery 1

That kind of attention to detail manifests itself in every facet of Thornbridge's brewing process and it is here where the lines between small and large become blurred.

The on-site lab and semi-automated system, which allows almost every part of the process to be controlled using a piece of software in the relative comfort of the office, fit more obviously into a vast production brewery than alongside the copper and elbow grease of your average micro.

But Rob's own background is intertwined with this strategy. Trained as a microbiologist, he gained experience working with several large commercial breweries and spent 10 years with London's Meantime before arriving in the Peak District four years ago.

"I studied microbiology and then started from the bottom at Meantime in 2000, right at the start of the craft boom," he says. "I didn't do microbiology with a view to getting into brewing but I had always had an interest in brewing.

"When I was growing up a lot of regional breweries were closing but now we are the new regionals with a different mindset and different people involved. It used to be a bit of an old boys' club but now it's become quite fashionable and there are a lot younger people getting involved which means there is a different portfolio of beers coming out.

"When there is such an explosion of new breweries, quality can suffer due to a net loss in experience but we're just focused on ourselves and doing everything we can to remove the margin for error.

"For example, the lab allows you to know exactly where you are with the beers in terms of bitterness, colour and other elements, rather than relying on a brewer's organoleptic perception.

"If we have an issue with any of the parameters the lab tests flag them up before packaging so we can address the issues and prevent it happening again. Essentially it allows us to be very consistent, keep our oxygen low and make sure the packaged products are microbiologically clean.

Thornbridge Brewery 5

"The automation takes human error out of the equation and allows the brewers to concentrate on other tasks. That's not to say we still don't watch the process but it gives us a greater degree of control."

Producing 30,000hl a year, Thornbridge is already classed as a regional brewer but further expansion is expected to commence within the next six months, with a view to growing production steadily to 60,000hl.

Yet it still retains the aesthetic of an innovative, adventurous microbrewery, a tone established from day one when young brewers Stefano Cossi and Martin Dickie, who went on to co-found BrewDog, were handed the reins and tasked with bringing a fresh approach to classic British styles.

The brewers' personalities shine in the beer Thornbridge produces and successes such as imperial black IPA Valravn and the Imperial Raspberry Stout highlight their ability to make bold statements.

More recently, the 'craft' dial was cranked up to 11 for an experimental range that included a parma violet porter, a mint chocolate stout and a peanut butter brown ale, the latter working particularly well.

Then there's a collaborative project with Brooklyn brewmaster Garrett Oliver that involved the inoculation of bourbon barrels full of Duvel-esque Belgian strong ale with cider lees.

"It's a big project for us and will involve a lot of work but you can't turn down the chance to work with Garrett Oliver," adds Rob. "It will be similar to our barrel-aged sour beer but all the sourness will come from the bacteria from the apples. It should be quite a novel product."

Thornbridge Brewery 3

However, the biggest challenge remains in doing Thornbridge's core beers justice.

The brewery has become synonymous with Jaipur, its best-selling beer and a genuine modern British classic, but the likes of Wild Swan, Kipling, Chiron and Halcyon are also universally-admired.

For a short spell, it became a common refrain among drinkers that Jaipur was 'not what it was' but Rob insists that's the result of changing palates rather than changing quality.

He says, "I think other beers have got hoppier along the way. Palates have realigned over time and that's why people started to question whether Jaipur had declined but it's simply not true.

"I spoke to a well-known US craft brewer the other day and they said they were looking to make their flagship beer more hoppy because the aroma is not as strong as other American beers. That's why people say things like 'it's not what it was'. Looking at our own operation, we're going to get our hopback upgraded in the next expansion so we can improve on the aroma.

"But there are also a number of other things we have done to ensure quality and consistency. When I first started here I realised that we were mashing all our beers at the same temperature and the cask versions of beers like Jaipur were feeling a bit flabby in the mouth.

"Usually Jaipur mashes in at 69C but we now mash the cask version at 68, which will be adjusted by 0.5C each day depending on the level of malt modification.

"We've also got our own malt mill and have worked really hard to find the right malt for our beers. It was essential to get the right profile."

But as much as Thornbridge continues to make improvements to process, learning lessons from the big boys, Rob insists the brewery will never develop a production-line mentality.

Thornbridge Brewery 2

In a similar vein to many of the bigger American craft breweries, Thornbridge invest heavily in staff development, giving young people the opportunity to master the brewing trade.

"It's about the people as much as it is the beer so we're not going to be going onto 24-hour shifts or anything like that," adds Rob.

"It's important that we look after our staff and create a good working environment. Small things are important like providing a quality sound system so the guys can listen to music while they work. We don't ever want the guys to stop believing in what they're doing because then the beer will suffer."

In a sense, Thornbridge's own journey encapsulates the wider evolution of British brewing.

The first step was bridging the gap between proud Old World tradition and outlandish New World ideas, one that has been mirrored in the creative output of many among the recent wave of new microbreweries.

The second was ensuring those new creations consistently reached the consumer at their very best, a consideration that will become ever more important if the new breed are to become an established presence on an already-crowded scene.

Friday, 11 July 2014 11:57

Event focus: Birmingham Beer Bash

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Beer Bash 1Birmingham Beer Bash, Thursday July 24 to Saturday July 26

Buy tickets

Birmingham Beer Bash was the biggest surprise of the 2013 beer calendar.

It's not that we ever doubted the ability of Britain's second city to host a top-class modern festival, just that we didn't expect so much, so soon.

Last year's bash seemed to emerge from nowhere - springing from discussions held by a handful of Brum-based beer geeks on Twitter - to become one of the most outwardly enjoyable, well organised events around.

The atmosphere at times verged on giddy. Rarely have I seen a room so buoyant, bubbling with energy for the entire duration of the Saturday evening session, as old friends, acquaintances and strangers alike indulged in excited chatter.

It was small but perfectly formed. The beer list spanned cask and keg, new and old, British and European, all set against the rugged, industrial beauty of the Bond Company in Digbeth.

Another highlight of last year's event was seeing brewers serving their own beer, putting in the hard hours on the various bars and enthusiastically engaging with drinkers, answering questions and offering insight.

Its success was such that even the organisers themselves were taken aback.

"I think that's safe to say we were surprised," says co-organiser Dan Brown."Initially there was scepticism from some quarters - but to be fair we were a completely unknown quantity.

"In the run up to the event we were really heartened by the support we received from so many people. We were just crossing our fingers that all of our hard work would translate into an event which left the punters feeling delighted.

"Throughout the first day I was totally wired on adrenaline and nervous energy, but I remember by the end of the second session taking a minute to check the comments on our Tweetwall. Seeing such a cavalcade of happy responses was an incredible feeling.

"At that point I almost became an emotional gibbering wreck. David (Shipman, the director of the fest) said that same thing - all of a sudden he realised what a positive impact we'd had.

"The feedback in the months afterwards has continued to be great. People were calling us one of the country's best beer festivals and that is fantastic."

This year's bash clearly has big shoes to fill but, far from resting on their laurels, the team are keen to apply the lessons learned from their first attempt.

Dan says, "Lots of things were learned during our set-up period last year, mainly about how much time gets eaten up dealing with unforeseen problems. This year we have that experience of anticipating issues, so we'll be able to plan our time more strictly in the week beforehand.

Birmingham Beer Bash 3

"We've increased our food options to cater for all you hungry burger fans and built in a load of exciting Fringe events because they were a real hit last year.

"The thing we've mainly tried to learn from last year was what worked, so that we can repeat that success. People told us that they loved the laid back nature of the event and the chance to try so many different styles of beer - so those looking for more of the same need not worry."

It's also fair to say the boat has been pushed out even further this year.

The beer list has been expanded in terms of both quantity and imagination, meaning more offerings in the mould of Wild Beer's barmy Shnoodlepip, which proved such a huge hit last year.

An intriguing project has been undertaken in association with brewery historian Ron Pattinson where six breweries recreate classic recipes from Britain's brewing past.

There will even be a dedicated sours bar, which will provide manna from heaven for those of the lambic persuasion.

Dan says, "This year we've tried to bring in some hot new brewers who are about to hit the big time, people like Sacre Brew and Twisted Barrel - new local breweries doing tastings on the fringe - and the likes of Axiom, Atom, Bad Seed, Burning Sky and Mad Hatter on the main bars.

"We also wanted to get people like Celt Experience, Lovibonds and Quantum, more established but most definitely interesting brewers who are making their bCubed debuts.

"Finally, we wanted to bring back brewers who a) produce great beer and b) loved talking to our punters last year, so we were delighted when names such as Weird Beard, Thornbridge, Wild Beer and many more said they would love to come back.

"It was a sign that we were doing something right, that this year lots of brewers approached us, rather than vice versa. We can only mention a few here of course, there are just so many."

Birmingham Beer Bash 2

In addition to the beer, fine dining sessions on Friday and Saturday evenings will allow punters to enjoy a five-course menu designed by chef Nathan Eades alongside beers from Wild Beer and Compass.

Two 'Siren Sliders' events - on Thursday evening and Saturday afternoon - will see burgers from the Original Patty Men paired with beers from Siren Craft Brew.

But there will also be plenty of alternatives on offer in the courtyard at the Bond Company, where attendees can make the most of the attractive canal-side setting, weather permitting.

"We loved the Bond Co - its open air segments, canalside location and variety of spaces," adds Dan.

"Fresh air is important at a summer beer event, as is the chance to wander around the different bars and this venue ticks all those boxes.

"We really loved being in Digbeth, which is a cool, urban, arty sort of place. It's a city centre location but has its own distinct personality.

"One of my favourite images from last year was people lounging around the outdoor parts of the venue, chatting excitedly and watching the sun set."

Let's hope this year paints a similar picture.

Friday, 04 July 2014 10:55

The Alechemist: Matthew Howgate, Marble Brewery

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Matthew Howgate head brewer Marble BreweryMatt Howgate, head brewer at Marble Brewery, features in the latest edition of the Alechemist, Beer Battered's regular series focused on the people behind the beer.

Marble epitomises Manchester.

From its inception, the brewery has done a stunning job of capturing the city's unique ethos in the form of its favourite drink - the honest pint.

Forget the 'mad fer it' slogans or swaggering affectations. Marble's beers pay respect to time-honoured Mancunian tradition by intertwining fierce civic pride with a creative verve that consistently challenges accepted knowledge.

From humble beginnings beneath the 125-year-old Marble Arch pub, the brewery became universally revered, a shining symbol for the progressive element of the city's brewing scene.

In that context, it seems a little strange that the future of this Manchester institution has been entrusted to a Yorkshireman.

But newly-appointed head brewer Matt Howgate comes with his own proud history. Born and raised in Tadcaster - a small Yorkshire town with as many breweries as primary schools - it was inevitable brewing would be in the blood, particularly as his dad was a drayman for Samuel Smith and his mum worked for Bass.

And while Matt is keen to make his own mark on Marble, he also remains respectful of the approach that was crucial to earlier success.

"When this opportunity came up, it was one I had to go for," he says. "Given the brewery's reputation and history, it's an exciting chance to get involved in something really successful.

"Despite the reputation, it didn't really feel daunting, more just exciting. The previous brewer, James Campbell, created some fantastic recipes for beers that are well loved, so there is a lot to work with.

"I have my own ideas and I'd be foolish not to make my own mark. It would also be fairly boring if I didn't come here and look at what I might be able to add to the beer and processes.

"At first, we just wanted to get the efficiency right, make some changes to processes and then we've got ideas on what we want to do. It was just a case of getting everything settled first."

Marble Brewery 2

Matt took charge at Marble in March after spending the previous two years as production manager at AB InBev's Samlesbury brewery and started out working at Molson Coors in his hometown.

A three-year spell at Leeds Brewery was sandwiched in between and, although it's perhaps not the typical path of the modern 'craft' brewer, Matt believes the experience stands him in good stead.

The commitment to quality control learned at much larger operations has proved particularly useful in finding ways to improve an already-impressive range of beers.

Marble has undergone a tough transition period more recently, having lost such talent as Dominic Driscoll (now at Thornbridge), Colin Stronge (now at Buxton) and James Campbell but there is a sense of clear vision regarding what must change in order to regain forward momentum.

He says, "I spent two years with InBev and it was really hard work. It wasn't what I knew as brewing but I learned a lot from the experience.

"I'd spent the previous three years with Leeds Brewery so I was really looking forward to getting closer to the actual brewing again and really getting involved.

"The beers being produced at AB InBev weren't necessarily the kind of beers I love but the attention to detail was pretty impressive.

"That's what I learned from it. That commitment to ensuring consistency in the flavour of the beer was incredible and we are trying to implement some of the same practices here on a smaller scale.

"Marble has always been renowned for producing interesting hop-forward beers but other breweries have maybe caught up with us now in that respect. So we're aiming to make the beers cleaner than they have ever been before, so we can let that hop character shine through.

"One of the things they were really good at, even before I started here, is the amount that's recorded. We've got a really tight control on everything and we're going way over and above in that sense.

Marble Brewery 1

"But another thing we've really picked up on since I started is the yeast. Previously we were pitching at 25C and fermenting at up to 28C and it was resulting in really high esters, which can sometimes add to the beer but we wanted to tone it down.

"We've started pitching at 18C and fermenting at 20C because we want all these hop flavours to shine through and we're not going to get that with a warm fermentation."

A quick turnaround helps too. The typical brewing process takes around eight days, meaning the beers will reach drinkers as fresh as possible, ensuring the hop character remains bright and vivid.

This can be a challenge on a 12 BBL kit, with the brewery staff working flat-out to ensure they service demand for favourites such as Manchester Bitter, Pint and Dobber.

But recent changes are starting to bear fruit and seem particularly evident in the Lagonda IPA. Samples of this classic American-style pale have practically erupted with flavours of grapefruit, orange zest and dried apricot, springing energetically from the light malt base and aided by a crisp, dry finish.

"The beers are as clean as I've tasted them and we're pleased with them," says Matt. "In terms of my favourite, it depends what sort of mood I'm in but I do like Manchester Bitter.

"We're trying to make it as sessionable as possible so we've toned it back a bit now. It had become a bit confused so we've tried to make it as clean as possible and added that dry bitterness so it's a standard session beer with that extra something to it.

"We're very proud of the Dobber at the moment and we've made progress with the Ginger. It got hammered in some reviews for not being gingery enough so we're continually upping the ginger levels."

The hop bills for each beer have also come under close scrutiny.

Although the traditional approach is to start at the beginning of the boil and add hops in chronological order to achieve a desired level of bitterness, Marble have flipped the process on its head.

All hops are now added at flame-out (when the heat is turned off on the brew kettle) and left to stand in the hot wort rather than being transferred immediately to a fermenting vessel. Any extra bitterness needed is provided by a small addition at the start of the boil.

"For bittering we use a small charge of a bittering hop and a hop stand," explains Matt. "The last hops aren't boiled, we just put them in and let them stand in the wort after flame out, so our only additions are at the start and the end.

Marble Brewery 3

"We work backwards for our bittering, so we calculate what we want from our aroma hops, say a 50/50 blend of Cascade and Galaxy at a particular number of grams per litre. "We work out how many IBUs that will give us and then adjust the bittering hop accordingly. For bittering, we have started using hops like Hercules, which will impart a nice, clean bitterness, letting the aroma hops do their job in terms of flavour."

There is plenty more to come too.

Matt has overseen the production of four new beers in his short time at the brewery, most notably the English IPA - a robust yet drinkable IPA hopped with an English quartet of Target, Goldings, Admiral and Cascade - but is quietly planning many more.

A couple of collaborations with former Buxton and Thornbridge brewer James Kemp are also in the works, one a New Zealand pale ale, the other involving imperial stout, barrels and wild yeast.

Meanwhile, the brewery is undergoing a redesign, with new bottles (pictured above left) due soon that give a nod to Manchester's industrial heritage and to the blunt, no-frills candour of its inhabitants.

The only thing they have to worry about is servicing rising demand for their beers.

"We could do with a bigger brewery I suppose," laughs Matt. "But every brewer would say that."

Wednesday, 02 July 2014 10:30

American Beer Festival at Port Street Beer House

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Port Street Beer House American Beer FestivalPort Street Beer House American Beer Festival, July 1to July 6 2014

Port Street Beer House kicked off its annual American Beer Festival in typically emphatic fashion with a showcase of some fabulously weird and wonderful bottles from across the pond.

Under weird file Reaper vs Unicorn, a barmy rye barleywine from Pipeworks with a label resembling something from My Little Pony: The Acid Years.

Under wonderful... Well, you could file Reaper vs Unicorn there too but Jolly Pumpkin's Madrugada Obscura and Knee Deep's Hoptologist DIPA also etched themselves into the memory.

It was all par for the course in an evening hosted by Manchester's resident American beer expert Jeremy Stull, co-owner of the excellent Beermoth bottle shop situated a short stumble from Port Street in the city's Northern Quarter.

Missouri native Jeremy's passion shone dazzlingly bright during a whirlwind two hours of tasting and insight into the people and stories behind some of the best US bottles from the fridges at Port Street. There was even a special 'extra' thrown in from his own personal collection.

Such bottle share events are a great way for both the initiated and uninitated to share the experience and cost of beers that might usually be reserved for only the most special of special occasions. And, given each had been selected by Jeremy himself, the standard was consistenly high.

Jacks Abby Jabby Brau

The journey started with Jabby Brau from Jack's Abby (4.5% ABV), a 'session' lager that I'd already sampled following a previous visit to Beermoth thanks to a recommendation from Jeremy. A superbly clean and crisp 'session' lager, it combines a squeeze of citrus fruit with a perfectly-judged dose of zesty bitterness and sweet biscuit, perfect for an atypically warm Manchester evening.

Stillwater's Stateside Saison (6.8% ABV) manages to neatly straddle old and new, delivering the funky, spicy aromas and flavours of a typical Belgian saison alongside a burst of citrus and light tropical fruit from US and New Zealand Hops. A stab of lemon rind bitterness and long, dry finish make it another one that's gone all too quickly.

Shallow Grave from Heretic, the brewery set up by legendary homebrewer and blogger Jamil Zainasheff, is a wonderfully rounded 7% ABV porter. Smooth as silk, it's full of toffee, chocolate and milky coffee punctured by a pleasing jab of tartness - it's as dark and drinkable as a porter should be.

The Hoptologist double IPA from Knee Deep (9% ABV) was typically American, packing in 102 IBUs and assaulting the senses with huge notes of pine, citrus and tropical fruits. The aroma filled the room as soon as the first bottle was opened and the taste matched expectations, aromatic resin, tangerine, orange zest and a huge pithy bitter punch softened by rich, soothing caramel.

Pipeworks Reaper vs Unicorn

That brings us to the aforementioned Reaper vs Unicorn (10% ABV). Its label apparently tells the story of a unicorn being killed by the grim reaper only to rise from the dead and kill the reaper, told through the medium of a Grateful Dead album cover.

The beer itself is somewhat less chaotic, albeit unashamedly bold and brassy, the tidal wave of rye spiciness working surprisingly well alongside the numerous layers of malt and assertive hops.

However, Madrugada Obscura from Jolly Pumpkin (8.1% ABV) was my pick of the bunch, a barrel-aged sour stout that combines malty flavours of charcoal, coffee and chalky chocolate with an indulgent vinous character. The finish is wonderfully juicy and tart, somewhat similar to a mouthful of black fruit gums, brimming with sour cherries and grapes.

Jeremy also kindly shared a bottle from his own personal collection, snaffled on a recent trip to his home country, Saison de Lis from Perennial (5% ABV). A saison brewed using chamomile flowers, it boasts an unusual nose of cinnamon-dusted apple strudel and a more floral taste with elements of spice, apricot and fresh dough.

And, as quickly as that, a short blog post detailing the start of Port Street's American Beer Festival becomes a 700-word feature. Apologies for my lack of brevity but it felt only right to do justice to Jeremy and these otustanding beers, all well worth a try if you get the chance.

Port Street's American Beer Festival continues until Sunday, July 6 and will showcase a number of draught rarities from old favourites Brooklyn, Anchor, Sierra Nevada, Odell, Flying Dog, Founders, Victory, Ska and Westbrook, as well as Heretic, North Coast, Ruhstaller, Uncommon and Stillwater. Get on it.