Friday, 13 December 2013 11:28

Honest Brew Smugglers Gold

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Honest Brew SmugglerHonest Brew Smugglers Golds Gold

Bottle, 7.1% ABV

Beer usually tastes better when it's free so I was particularly grateful to the guys at Honest Brew for sending this one my way.

It was perhaps made even tastier by the fact all I had to do to earn it was tell a daft joke on Twitter. Who knew my own inimitable 'comedy' stylings would begin to pay dividends at this late stage?

In all honesty though, this black beauty didn't need any help improving its taste from forces either real or imagined.

It's exactly what I look for in a black IPA - a good balance of rich malt character and bold hops rather than something akin to an IPA loaded with black food colouring.

The 'Smugglers' (which appears to be missing an apostrophe, although I'm not going to go all 'grammar pedant' on them) element apparently comes from the addition of rum to the mix and life experience has taught me that's generally not a bad thing. Well, unless it's 5am in a casino bar in Poland when you've already had six bottles of De Molen Amarillo but that's another story.

It's a wonderfully sinister-looking opaque black with a strong light tan head that leaves big globs of lacing all the way down the glass.

In this clash of the titans, round one is taken by the bold hops, which come through strongest in the aroma. Fresh pine and citrus shine like a beacon, with orange zest and grapefruit catching the attention, but dark chocolate and dull oak throb underneath.

However, the malts make their comeback immediately in the first sip, providing a rich sweetness that coats the tongue with chocolate and demerara sugar.

Roasted malt and charcoal provide a more deviant element before a wave of fresh hop flavours washes through the mouth, grapefruit and blood orange joined by more floral notes.

A slight hint of oak is present in the finish and a mild bitterness takes the edge off a good kick of alcohol heat.

A free lunch might not come without the odd catch but it appears the same does not apply to free beer. I'm open to offers if anyone fancies sending more intoxicating beverages my way.

Thursday, 12 December 2013 12:20

Wild Beer - Shnoodlepip

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Wild Beer ShnoodlepipWild Beer, Good George and Burning Sky - Shnoodlepip

Bottle, 6.5% ABV

Pink beer?

Really? Beer that's... pink?!

But beer is a man's drink is it not? It should be consumed by... well, men. And one thing's for certain, real men do NOT drink the colour pink!

Luckily, attitudes have changed since those delightful Harp ads of the 80s (or have they?) and the kooks at Wild Beer have been at it again, screwing with our perceptions of style, taste and appearance.

This time they had help from New Zealand brewers Good George and British upstarts Burning Sky, creating an astonishingly unique, eccentric brew that got beer geeks everywhere chattering excitedly following its release earlier this year.

Regardless of any troglodytic gender-based colour stereotypes, pink is still a pretty unusual colour for beer. Well, technically it is a kind of hazy blood orange hue but turns a dazzling, luminescent reddish pink in direct sunlight.

But, then, this is a pretty unusual beer.

What exactly is it? Well, for ease of classification, it has frequently been called a sour or wild ale but it defies all traditional style parameters, defining a new category inhabited only by itself.

The truly astounding thing about Shnoodlepip is that it constantly morphs and changes, providing several different types of experience during the time taken to drain a glass.

One sniff reveals layersof contrasting aroma, stewed gooseberry sat on top of white wine vinegar, spiced rhubarb and old leather.

Straight out of the bottle, the fruity flavours are fresh and vivid, starting sweet on the front of the tongue before a wave of light sourness, sharp cranberry and raspberry burrowing into the corners of the mouth.

Despite the beer's flat appearance - an initial bubbly pinkish head disappearing as if by magic - a prickly carbonation works its way across the tongue, emphasising the spiky pink pepper and tart passion fruit soon emerges, leading to an aftertaste loaded with bready malt.

The longer the experience goes on, the more the oakiness grows, providing something akin to the character of a good red wine.

Grape must and astringent tannins become more prominent, while rich, tangy hibiscus throbs in the background and Brett adds its characteristic earthy spice.
We've come a long way since the 80s.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013 12:28

Partizan - 7 Grain Farmhouse Porter

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Partizan 7 Grain Farmhouse PorterPartizan Porter, 7 Grain Farmhouse

Bottle, 5.7% ABV

Partizan appear to have a bit of a thing for the saison.

The Bermondsey brewer have produced so much of the stuff this year that they might be better suited to a crumbling old farmhouse in the Belgian wilds than a railway arch in the urban sprawl of south east London.

The variously-hopped pale versions have been met with differing degrees of enthusiasm and this is another which will likely split opinion. The difference is, this one's dark. As dark as the soul of Christian Bale's Batman.

It practically gushes out of the bottle, fizzing and crackling into the glass to produce a thick, lasting beige head sat atop a jet black liquid, the colour of ink from a fresh printer cartridge.

The fluffy head and deep, glossy colour add up to an incredibly enticing beer, the kind you can imagine pouring yourself a bath of and diving in head first.

It's exactly what you'd expect from a porter until that first whiff starts screwing with your perceptions of reality.

Instead of coffee and chocolate, the dominant aroma is a funky sourness - sharp and cutting with hints of tangy berries and citrus fruit. A little roastiness and burnt cocoa creep through eventually but the saison yeast has definitely got this one.

The malts, however, bide their time and come through a lot stronger in the taste. Immediately you're greeted by sweet caramel, followed by chalky cocoa, roasted malt and grainy, chewy cereal.

But, rather than rich and lasting, the sweetness provided by the malts is clean and swift, cut off by a rush of tartness that's full of sour orchard fruits and red berries.

That tartness morphs into a mild spiciness, with notes of carraway, before coming to a halt in an arid finish that carries a good dose of bitterness.

One of Partizan's better interpretations of the style if you ask me.

Monday, 09 December 2013 12:28

Red Willow - Smokeless

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Red Willow SmokelessRed Willow Smokeless

Bottle, 5.7% ABV

Wait, is that you?

It can't be, surely. It's been so long I thought I'd lost you completely.

No... wait, it is you! But where have you been?

Actually, it's alright, you don't have to answer that. Just promise you'll never leave again.

Smokeless and myself go back a few years now. The first time we made acquaintance was, I think, at the now-defunct Altrincham Beer Festival (the glass in the picture is a reminder of this momentous occasion) but it may have been elsewhere, my memory is hazy.

It was the first Red Willow beer I had sampled and one that instantly grabbed my attention, provoking me to explore the rest of the Macclesfield microbrewer's varied range.

The problem was, after an enjoyable introduction, I struggled to regain that initial high.

A box of Smokeless bought for me as a Christmas present by my generous workmates last year turned out to be a disappointment, with most of the bottles pouring flat and lifeless.

A couple more bad experiences and I had almost lost hope until a friend kindly donated a bottle earlier this year on the promise that this batch was different.
It sat in my cupboard for months, trepidation meaning I just couldn't bring myself to open it, but when I did finally pluck up the courage to pop the top, I was really pleasantly surprised.

It slinked smoothly into the glass, a heavy dark brown liquid topped by an off-white head that crackled enthusiastically into life and remained resplendent throughout.

A quick sniff reveals coffee, roasted malt and charcoal - all the kind of dark and dangerous smells that promise a combination of delectation and ruination. You just know your palate will need some serious recovery time.

The bold taste belies the reasonably light body. Smokeless is slick and oily but packs in punnets of dark fruit, with raisins, dates and plums all getting involved up front over a base of smooth caramel.

Sweet treats out of the way, there follows a good dose of roasted malt, a mild barbecue smokiness and a growing chilli heat, which mingle to provide something that verges on peatiness.

Such dominant flavours need moderation and they get it through a well-judged addition of spicy, autumnal hops and a bitter, dry finish.

It's an experience that conjures up festive images of wolfing down mince pies in front of a raging log fire. A perfect one, perhaps, to accompany this year's Christmas pud if you'll forgive my premature reference to December 25.

Friday, 06 December 2013 14:47

Odell - 5 Barrel Pale Ale

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Odell 5 Barrel Pale AleOdell 5 Barrel Pale Ale

Bottle, 5.2%

You know what you're getting with an Odell pale ale.

It's fairly safe to say, by this point, that the Colorado brewers know what they're doing when it comes to this particular variety, having delighted drinkers' tastebuds for years with their hop-forward beers.

Such is the quality and variety of their range that 5 Barrel has become something of a forgotten child - the one that has long since departed for university and, it is assumed, can fend for itself.

It never gets the kind of accolades afforded to St Lupulin and their house IPA, yet would have been viewed as an out-and-out triumph if it had been brewed by a young up-and-comer.

I don't tend to revisit beers again and again because, quite simply, there are too many good ones and too little time but 5 Barrel is one of those I could happily knock back all night. It's not devastatingly strong at 5.2% and provide the hop punch you'd expect from a double without a tongue-lacerating level of bitterness.

It pours virtually picture perfect - golden orange with a thick white head that shows admirable sticking power, particularly given the enthusiasm with which I usually attack it, leaving a web of heavy lacing all the way down the glass.

Unlike many easy-drinking IPAs and pales, the aroma is swamped by pungent resinous notes rather than juicy citrus or tropical fruit, which isn't a bad thing I may add.

It's like sticking your nose into an unmarked paper bag full of boiled sweets where the lemon and orange sherberts you expected have been replaced by scented satins providing big, sticky lumps of floral sweetness. It's a heady, alluring mix.

First sip reveals light caramel, delicate and soothing, but it isn't long before the tap opens, releasing a gush of thick hop juice. You can almost feel the lupulin leave a sticky, stubborn coating as it works its way through the mouth.

But considering the force of this hop assault, you're left waiting in expectation of a bitter finishing kick that never really comes.

Instead it finishes largely soft and sweet, the gentle carbonation helping to smooth its path and make this a proper guzzler of a beer.

Thursday, 05 December 2013 12:50

Bad Seed - India Pale Ale

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Bad Seed India Pale AleBad Seed India Pale Ale 1

Bottle, 7.3% ABV

Hopes were high before I cracked this one open.

Good reports had come in from no less than three trusted sources regarding the quality of Bad Seed's beers, so the Yorkshire brewers had long been on my 'to do' list.

Unfortunately, as is often the case, the reality fell just a little bit short of expectation.

To call it a disappointment would be harsh on what is essentially still a good beer but there does appear to be a few rough edges that could still do with smoothing off.

From an outsider's perspective, Bad Seed seem to be focused on doing the basics well and that's no bad thing. Aside from the IPA, there's a South Pacific pale, a hefeweizen, a saison and a coffee stout and the labelling for each is striking in its clear simplicity. The card tag hung around each bottle requesting feedback is also a nice touch and suggests a brewery genuinely interested in the views and opinions of its customers.

Bad Seed India Pale Ale 2

However, with the IPA at least, you get the feeling this is because they haven't quite arrived at the finished product yet.

It pours hazy amber with a small white head and certainly isn't short on aroma. Chinook's funky citrus is unmistakable but there's also a strong whiff of lemon and some lighter tropical notes come through at the back end.

Initial signs on the taste are promising too. Soft toffee massages the palate, preparing it for a gush of juicy lemon, orange and pine, dashed with a pinch of spice.
So far, so good you might say.

But, unfortunately, it falls apart a little in the finish. Pungent grapefruit segues into a heavily bitter finish, which is punctuated by an abrasive alcohol heat.
It comes as a shock to the system, simply because it's so completely out of character, and is far too harsh and astringent, throwing the beer completely out of balance.

Still, it's not too far off. A few tweaks to the recipe and Bad Seed should be able to develop the cornerstone for a successful range here.

Saturday, 30 November 2013 09:31

Are fads the kiss of death for 'craft' beer?

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Beavertown Uncle Joe KvassTo mark Boak and Bailey's latest 'long reads' initiative, Beer Battered asks whether British microbrewing has been consumed by faddishness.

As a beer geek it's not uncommon to feel like the intruder at the party.

'What do you mean you've brought your own beer? They've got Staropramen in the fridge.'

'It's aged in a barrel? Why doesn't this Brett guy just drink his beer fresh?'

My intention is not to mock but instead to point out that the ways of the devoted beer hunter can often seem quite foreign to virtually everyone else on the planet.

Wild yeast strains, 20% ABV barley wines, IPAs hopped to within an inch of their life, barrel ageing - none of it makes an awful lot of sense to your average drinker.

This point was driven home during a recent visit to Port Street Beer House when a friend decided, against my advice, to order a full pint of Beavertown's Sour Stout. A third of a pint later came the inevitable question: why have they done that?

So it got me thinking, why have they done that?

It seems we've been awash with sours this summer  and this was perhaps just the latest manifestation of that trend. And that trend in itself is perhaps just the latest manifestation in a larger, overarching theme in British microbrewing.

This year it's been sours and barrel-aged beers, last year it was saisons and the year before IPAs. No matter the style, brewers have a tendency to play 'follow the leader' and a degree of faddishness has moulded the offering presented to consumers.

One starts, the others follow and the market is suddenly flooded with endless variations on the basic original style. It has resulted in the revival of numerous lesser-spotted or long-forgotten styles - even the people of Berlin seemed to have lost interest in Berliner Weisse before its 'craft' comeback - some of which might have been better off left in the vaults.

American musician Conway Twitty labelled fads "the kiss of death", adding "once the fad goes away, you go with it." But is this necessarily true and should brewers be concerned about the increased proliferation of trends in style?


Finding its niche

Despite Conway Twitty's advice I would argue fads aren't necessarily a bad thing but, given my friend's reaction, there is a worry that they could alienate the large majority of drinkers. Sours, in particular, are an acquired taste that have a strong tendency to split opinion and cause certain people to revile in disgust.

The 'bulldog chewing a wasp' was a common facial expression at Indy Man Beer Con when sour virgins decided the experience was more akin to sucking on an old lemon than enjoying a good sup.

Conversations overheard in the pub have occasionally described this phenomenon, explaining how it put the 'victim' off the particular brewer's beers permanently. Clearly this is a situation any producer would be keen to avoid and there is a danger of small-batch beer forever being written off as a niche product for beer obsessives.

But what's the alternative? An increased focus on a more limited range of core styles might serve to 'normalise' microbrewed beer a little more but to what end?

After all, much of it is niche and finds its strength in exactly that position. Looking at it from a brewer's perspective, Jay Krause, owner and head brewer at Quantum Brewing in Stockport, would argue fads are an unavoidable result of necessary experimentation.

He says, "Fads do indeed exist, but I don't believe that the industry is being absorbed by them. It's possible to track what's 'hot' at a given moment - IPA in 2011, saison in 2011/2012, sours in 2012/2013 and low ABV in 2013, for example - but I'd be very surprised if any of those styles made up a single brewery's total output.

"I can only really speak from my experience but my main seller is American Light, a low ABV, hoppy pale ale. Big, strange beers sell well to beer geeks but casual drinkers don't really take any notice of those kinds of beers.

"I think what is actually happening is that people - brewers and drinkers - are becoming a little more playful with their habits, be it experimenting with foreign styles, rediscovering the art of soured beer (don't forget that pretty much all beer in the UK at one point would have been riddled with Brettanomyces, especially 'stock' or 'keeping' beers), or reinterpreting ancient styles in a modern fashion.

"But don't forget that everything that is being done has really all been done before, in one form or another. Dogfish Head pioneered the reinterpretation of ancient styles in the 90s; Brendan Dobbin's West Coast Brewery in Manchester played around with single-hop beers, NZ hops, lagers and nitro stouts in a terrible part of Chorlton on Medlock in the 80s; and Harvey's in Lewes still have a cool ship and have been bretting their imperial stouts quietly out of range of beer geeks since God knows when.

"Bottom line is - experimentation is natural and good, as long as the underlying quality of the beer doesn't suffer."


Quantum US SaisonThere's no substitute for quality

Unfortunately, some would argue this is exactly what has happened.

Over the past few years, an incredible range of weird and wonderful one-offs have appeared in bars and bottle shops across the country, as brewers have clamoured to create their own unique takes on certain styles.

Never has choice been so rich and varied, yet it's fair to say some have not been received as positively as others. In a few isolated cases, there has even been a feeling failed experiments have been released regardless of their relative quality, justifying an expensive price tag by flying under the 'craft' banner.

The obsessive nature of your typical beer geek leaves them wide open to exploitation of this nature. Fanaticism and a desire to try - or at least be seen to try - the next big thing tends to interfere with logic when making a decision about whether to part with their hard-earned.

At the same time, small brewers must occasionally be tempted to put out the odd dubious batch, particularly as tight profit margins put them under heavy pressure to minimise waste in order to maximise efficiency.

But this is where the industry must be self-policing in order to establish clear quality standards. The onus is on brewers to ensure each and every brew passes quality control and those who don't will quickly be found out and ostracized.

"It's difficult, when first starting on the beer journey, to have enough knowledge about what actually makes a decent beer," adds Jay. "So it is tempting to start pissing about with barrel ageing, beers with different yeasts and bacteria or foreign styles without actually understanding what makes it a good beer to begin with.

"However, in short - I don't think there's much reassessing that needs doing. The breweries that are making crazy beers are the same breweries that are making delicious pale ales, milds, IPAs and dark beers. It's all good - as long as the quality is there. There's no excuse for releasing ropey beer."


A matter of opinion

To my mind, there are few breweries who could genuinely be accused of putting out substandard product.

Although I found Kernel's red wine barrel-aged London Sour pretty much undrinkable, there were plenty of people out there who loved the stuff. Similarly, Beavertown's Uncle Joe Russian Kvass got some appalling reviews but, questionable name aside, I enjoyed it.

As with anything of this nature, it is highly subjective. One man's disaster is another's delight and neither of the aforementioned breweries could exactly be accused of deliberately releasing poor-quality product.

In fact, quite the opposite. That pair have been responsible for some of the best British beer of the last five years and therein lies the crux of the matter - when attempting to continually push the envelope there will be plenty of Marmite moments and the odd failed experiment but these innovators are also responsible for many of the best examples of core styles too.

From a retailer's point of view, Scott Davies of independent Manchester bottle shop Beermoth, doesn't believe this has adversely impacted upon sales.

He says, "We have a lot of consumers who show enthusiasm for new products, especially the more experimental or rare ones. Filling this demand is fairly easy for most UK 'craft' breweries as they are generally small-scale, flexible operations.

"At the moment it's fair to say that there are beers being released that would have benefited from more time in development. There is financial temptation in that a one-off batch will be sold to bars, pubs and off-licenses before the reviews appear on-line but it isn't sustainable for long.

"To me, drinking the odd average/weird-in-a-bad-way beer is preferable compared to a lack of experimentation.  So, there is a built-in balance between quality control, meeting demand and incentives for pushing the boundaries.

"The alternative to accepting a few faltering efforts would be a conservative approach where we draw the line of what's acceptable in brewing and that never seems to end well."


Jimi HendrixA case of beer imitating art

It's difficult to disagree and music offers a good point of reference for this debate.

Without Jimi Hendrix, for example, modern music simply would not be the same. A wildly innovative and adventurous guitarist, Hendrix continually pushed the boundaries to the point where he redefined what was possible and acceptable.

But, while creating a radical and important new rock aesthetic, Hendrix also produced his fair share of 'loose' performances and suffered through plenty of bad reviews. Ditto Miles Davis or John Coltrane. When exploring the limits of what's possible, you will end up falling over the edge now and then.

All of this is acceptable as long as the motivation remains sound. None of those performers ever set out to deliver a deliberately substandard performance and, likewise, no brewer should release an obviously unfinished product. Early experiments can be conducted away from the public eye before recipes and concepts are perfected.

So, although there are certain experiments in style that perhaps shouldn't be repeated for one reason or another, they are the necessary by-product of a scenario where brewers are encouraged to step outside of their own comfort zone. Without it you don't get Magic Rock's Salty Kiss, Siren's Half Mast or virtually any Mikkeller beer and that would be a tragedy.

Quibbles over the appropriateness of a given style, as opposed to the actual quality of the product, remain largely subjective but those that work will naturally find longevity while others fade into obscurity.

Rather than representing laziness or a cynical marketing ploy, the faddishness evolves naturally from this situation. The seed of an idea starts with one brewer before taking root with a hundred more.

Such is the sense of collaboration and camaraderie in British microbrewing that it becomes easy for a wave of excitement to engulf all and sundry - and before you know it, everyone is providing their own unique take on a certain style. It's simply natural progression in an industry where the exchange of ideas and advice between so-called competitors has become commonplace.

Sure, some beers are painfully 'craft' but most are created with good intentions and if you're not keen on kvass, there's plenty more out there to tickle your fancy. 

Now, who's taking bets on 2014's style of choice?

Friday, 22 November 2013 08:08

The Alechemist: Colin Stronge, Buxton Brewery

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Buxton 9Colin Stronge, head brewer at Buxton Brewery, stars in the latest edition of the Alechemist, Beer Battered's regular series of features focused on the people behind the beer.

Buxton has become a byword for quality in British microbrewing.

Cask or keg, pale or dark - none of it matters. The brewery's beers are almost universally revered thanks to an impressive melding of tradition and innovation.

Stunning 6.8% IPA Axe Edge, in particular, has assumed near legendary status. In fact, check the beer geek's dictionary and you'll find:

Axe Edge (æks edʒ) adj. Dangerously drinkable to the point where all perceptions of reality become distorted beyond recognition and grown adults are left hugging the kerb wondering why something that tastes so good can be so bad.

Given the above, the head brewer's job represented something of a double-edged sword (or axe, if you will) for experienced copper monkey Colin Stronge.

On the one hand, why wouldn't you want to have a hand in creating some of Britain's best loved beers? On the other, heavy is the head that wears the crown - screw up and you risk the wrath of seasoned drinkers the world over.

"To be honest, I was really nervous," admits Colin. "I loved their beers and didn't want to sully their reputation, though I thought at the same time that reputation meant I had an existing audience for the beers I wanted to make.

"I had been a massive admirer of their beers for a couple of years and had gone so far as to name Axe Edge my beer of the year the year before.

"The power of expectation was both wonderful and terrifying."

Buxton 1It's not even as if he was wet behind the ears, having spent nine years at Marble in Manchester and another two at Black Isle in Scotland. But, such was the reputation cultivated by previous head brewer James Kemp it might have intimidated St Arnold of Soissons himself.

Six months later, Colin is revelling in the role.

Standards such as Axe Edge, Imperial Black, American pale ale Gold and session pale Moor Top are tasting as good as ever and have been supplemented by a host of exciting new arrivals.

Wolfscote Black Sour is a mouth-puckering mash-up of roast malt and tart berries, Jacob's Ladder a hoppy little bugger at just 2.8%, and Axe Edge NZ startlingly even more drinkable than its evil elder brother.

Add to that a series of stunning one-offs, including Stronge Extra Stout - a deviant dark monster full of bold malt character - and To Øl collaboration Sky Mountain Sour, which is about as sessionable as a sour can be - an invigorating avalanche of grapefruit, gooseberry, lime and peach complemented by soft spice and bready malt.

And, rest assured, this is just the start.

"We've got lots to come," says Colin. "We've been working on some oak aged saisons, a lambic that I have wanted to make for years is finally underway and the Rain Shadow stout, which will be around 16%, is something that we have been working on that should see the light of day late this year or early next.

"There will also be lots of other sours and stouts, a triple IPA, lots of new hop experiments, a Belgian series and lots of things that we have been working out. It's all very exciting stuff.

"We all use our taste buds as our guide at the brewery. We brew the vast majority of our beers based on what we would next like to drink."

Another to look out for is Big Dump, an imperial oatmeal stout aged with Brett in red wine barrels, created in collaboration with Dutch brewers Rooie Dop and Oersoep. I was lucky enough to snatch a sample before it was sent to its oaky hibernation and it already tasted awesome - rich and indulgent even without the extra layers added by the barrels and Brett.

The sheer diversity of these creations is undoubtedly a reflection of Colin's personality.Buxton 3

Since his arrival in the Peak District, a carefree element appears to have been added to Buxton's consistent brilliance. Beyond maintaining standards across the core range, the attitude seems to be 'fuck it, let's try it' - five words which will put joy in the hearts of any discerning drinker.

The nature of the set-up has helped in this respect. Buxton is currently making the transition to a larger 20-barrel operation around the corner from its current home, which will even use water from a purpose-drilled bore hole, but Colin hopes to keep the old kit (five-barrel mash and 10-barrel copper) for continued experiments.

All of this has proved extremely liberating following two years at Black Isle. Although this spell in the Scottish Highlands holds many fond memories and resulted in some excellent beer, Colin quickly realised the focus on higher production volume - inevitable on a 30-barrel kit - wasn't for him.

He says, "I enjoyed my time at Black Isle and it was definitely a worthwhile experience! It was a great chance to see how a bigger operation works and to try a hand at a more production-based brewing approach. But it also made me realise the things that I did and didn't want to do in brewing.

"I missed the freedom of a smaller kit and the opportunity to try real one-off brewing. I knew not long into my residency that I wanted to be back at a more hands-on-brewery and to spend more time actually brewing, writing recipes, playing with hops and the like."

But good beer hasn't always been an obsession.

In fact, Colin admits to something of a dirty past. Unsurprisingly for someone who grew up in Monaghan, Ireland, it involved copious amounts of a certain black beverage.

He says, "To be honest, I haven't always been interested in good beer. When I was younger I thought that a pint of Heineken was an exotic treat and beer was more social lubricant rather than an obsession.

"Every night out started with a pint of Guinness and usually ended up on the spirits. It was when I fell into my first brewing job that I discovered a love for beer that grew into a life-changing fascination as time went on.

"I actually started out studying architecture in Liverpool. When I dropped out of my degree I was working in the Brewery, a brew-pub in Liverpool, when the brewer there decided to leave.

"Being the member of staff with the most time on my hands, my old boss asked if I would consider learning to brew for them. I needed the cash so decided to give it a go.

Buxton 5

"I would love to claim it was love at first brew but I was feckless and young and had bad knees, which I thought were being aggravated by the carrying, lifting and general chug of the job.

"I really enjoyed it and was fascinated by the process and methods, but thought at that stage that it wasn't for me. I decided to go back to university and had always enjoyed writing so chose journalism and sociology as my new learning path."

It was at this time he landed on the doorstep at respected Manchester microbrewery Marble.

On the lookout for part-time work, Colin inadvertently made the crucial decision that forged his future career path.

"Whilst back at university I needed income," he says. "When I dropped into the Marble Arch pub one day they had signs up advertising for bar staff as they had just had a little bit of a clear out.

"I started working in the bar there and got chatting to the brewers. It was interesting for me to see the differences in the kit there and the one I had used in Liverpool, and also how the processes varied.

"Not long after I started, they asked if I could cover a holiday for the assistant brewer, washing casks, racking and the like. I jumped at the chance because it was a bit more interesting than serving customers and stocking shelves!

"Once this had begun they asked me to do a shift a week to allow them to up production and this steadily increased from one to two days, soon three a week. Then when I finished my degree - the very day in fact - I had a phone call from James there, saying Phil (the former assistant brewer) had given his notice in and asking if I would be interested in going full time.

"I had no immediate options and thought it would be a good stop-gap until I decided what I was to do next. But I fell in love with what we were doing and the growing brewing scene that was emerging around us. We had a great little team at that point too and was really enjoying working there and the beers we were making."

They were exciting times at Marble, working as part of a dynamic team that also featured current Thornbridge production manager Dominic Driscoll, and played a significant role in shaping Colin's outlook.

"There are a few moments that stand out," he reflects. "Whilst I was there we came up with some great recipes. In 2009 we birthed the second version of Decadence and the Special 2009, a barley wine-style beer.

"For my money, at the time, they were two of the most interesting, if not best, beers I had been involved in making and that I had tasted at the time. They were quite special in presentation terms as well, both presented in screen-printed 750ml bottles, corked, caged and wax sealed, which I think was a UK first.

"Myself and Dom had visited the first Borefts Festival at De Molen that year and had loved the look of their bottles and the storage ageing it allowed. Somewhat ironically these beers helped us land a spot at the following year's Borefts festival which was another of my favourite times at the brewery."

Buxton 4

It has all amounted to an unexpected yet exciting journey for the man from Monaghan.

Given the sheer weight and variety of his experience, what advice would he have for the next crop of up-and-coming young brewmasters?

"Brew what you want to drink and enjoy it," he says. "The bad ones and the mistakes will help you to get better. If you have access to a local brewer then let them try and use their knowledge to help you.

"But the main thing is that you enjoy it!"

And what's not to enjoy if the view from your workplace is anything like that on the right?

To find out more about Buxton and keep tabs on any new beers which are on their way, visit the brewery website here.

Friday, 15 November 2013 11:48

The Alechemist: Greg Hobbs, Five Points Brewing Co

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Five Points 1Greg Hobbs, head brewer at Hackney's Five Points Brewing Co, features in the latest edition of the Alechemist, Beer Battered's regular series of features focused on the people behind the beer.

It's all happening in Hackney.

Maybe it's something in the water but the East London borough is fast becoming the 21st century's Burton.

Nowhere has the recent microbrewing boom been more startling, with five breweries setting up permanent homes within the area - seven if you count Beavertown and Crate, which are both based in Hackney Wick.

Hackney has become a hive of experimentation and collaboration - the latter perhaps being one of the most important factors in the success of these nascent businesses.

The borough's brewers have almost formed a family unit, shunning any sense of competition to share advice, equipment, ingredients and even warehouse space.

On the surface it seems Howling Hops is the precocious younger sibling, still a little rough round the edges but destined for greatness, while Pressure Drop is the adventurous elder, sensible and grounded yet determined to explore unchartered territory and try new things.

If that's true, then Five Points is the fastidious middle child, a quiet achiever who performs consistently well with the minimum amount of fuss and bother.

The brewery produces only three beers - Five Points Pale, Railway Porter and Hook Island Red - so there's nothing fancy about what they do but an incredible amount of work has gone into creating a core range head brewer Greg Hobbs is finally proud of.

"We wanted to go with a core range of three beers to ensure we could guarantee the quality of them and then trial new things on our smaller kit," he says. "But I think we will be tweaking recipes forever though because ingredients are always changing and we find that we are always striving to make the beer better.

"At the moment, we're really happy with what we've got but we will add to the range as and when we have the time to commit to trials and developing new recipes. We want to be sure we can get the supply of hops too because we don't want to be in a situation where we can't maintain standards for a specific beer.

"The beer I'm happiest with is the porter. It's the recipe that's changed the least and we only brewed it once on the small kit before moving it into production. We were really happy with it because it has loads of chocolate and coffee aromas and a good mouthfeel but is still quite light and is a drinkable ABV."

Five Points 4

It's hard to disagree. At 4.8%, the Railway Porter is verging on sessionable yet still packed full of flavour - smooth and oily with notes of toffee, liquorice, milky coffee and roasted cocoa beans.

Yet the Pale gives it a good run for its money. Another guzzler at just 4.4%, it is hopped with Amarillo, Centennial and Citra, so packs a juicy punch of orange, lime, grapefruit and peach underpinned by a soft caramel sweetness.

The Hook Island Red, meanwhile, is not one for the faint-hearted. A 6% rye beer where punchy pine and grapefruit do battle with spicy, bready rye in a fight to the death to discover which flavour will emerge dominant.

As a trio, they're pretty impressive, especially given they have only existed in their current guise since August. Before then, drinkers may have spotted Five Points' 'trial brew' bottles, designed to give Greg the time to perfect each recipe while remaining honest to those drinking the beer.

These trial brews featured basic labels (pictured above), which simply stated the beer style, hops used and ABV.

Greg says, "We put out the trial brews because we wanted to be very open and honest about what we were doing in the early stages and get feedback from the people drinking the beer.

"We developed all our recipes on a 100-litre kit but it's not just as simple as multiplying the recipe when you move it to the bigger operation. You have to take into account all sorts of things like more efficient mash times and a more efficient kettle for bitterness.

"We just wanted to be open about the fact we were going to have to keep tweaking recipes and once we were happy, we said 'OK, these are our beers'.

"Like I said, we will always keep tweaking the recipes because there are so many variables but we're at a stage now where we're happy with what we've got."

Five Points 3From humble beginnings on the 100-litre kit (pictured right), Greg now operates a 10-barrel set-up and has recently taken delivery of four new fermenters, which have doubled the brewery's capacity.

In fact, he remains amazed he found a way into professional brewing at all, his career evolving from a similarly modest start.

Greg met fellow Five Points co-founder Ed Mason while working at his pub, the Duke of Wellington in Dalston, and made inroads into the brewing industry following a staff visit to the East London Brewing Company.

A year later, the pair joined forces again when Ed, who also owns Whitelock's Ale House in Leeds and The Deramore Arms in York, informed him he was on the lookout for a head brewer.

"Ed runs a few pubs, one of which is the Duke of Wellington and I worked there as assistant manager for about two-and-a-half years and as chef for about six months," recalls Greg.

"We went on a work day out to visit a few local breweries to get a feel for the beers we were selling. One of those was East London Brewing, where I got chatting to the owner and eventually arranged to go down for a brew day.

"At the time I wasn't really thinking about a career change but was more just interested to see what it was all about. I ended up going down about once a month and they said, if I wanted it, there was a part-time position going.

"I jumped at the opportunity and that part-time job soon became full-time. I was there for a year in the end as assistant brewer, delivery driver and whatever else needed doing. It was me who ran the day-to-day operation, which was amazing because I learned so much and Stu (brewery owner Stuart Lascelles) taught me everything he knows.

"I caught up with Ed soon after and found out he was looking for a head brewer, then officially joined the company in January. I then went on the advanced brewing course at Brewlab in Sunderland, which was really good because, up to that point, I'd taught myself and learned from Stu but never really had any formal training.

"I knew most of what was being taught already but it was nice to be able to ask questions of people who have been in the industry for a long time and check I was doing things right. I'm also doing the distance course in distilling and brewing at Heriot-Watt but I've got to admit it's been difficult finding the time given how busy we've been at the brewery.

Five Points 2

"I had always been interested in brewing but never really thought it was something you could break into. It was one of the those opportunities where I really landed on my feet."

Each of the team has bought into the Five Points ethos, believing strongly in the emphasis on community which is inherent in the company name.Greg and Ed have now been joined by Doreen Joy Barber, who handles much of the sales and marketing, and Nick Elliott, who was appointed assistant brewer earlier this month.

This extends beyond even the help provided to neighbouring breweries. Five Points runs an apprenticeship scheme for 18 to 24-year-olds in Hackney, sources energy from renewable sources and reinvests five per cent of profits into local charities and community projects.

It is an approach which heavily informed Greg's formative years.

He says, "I grew up in France between the ages of 10 and 16 and the beer culture is very different over there too. There's a bit of a scene growing there now but really it's still all about the wine.

"They are extremely passionate about wine and you can go and see local producers to find out what they are doing. My parents used to take me and I loved that kind of approach.

"Now it's a big part of what we do. I have always liked beer across the board but what really appealed to me was being able to go into different places and try something interesting, new and local. It's great to see this new wave of craft breweries but I have a lot of respect from the traditional ales as well, which is what I grew up on.

"We do tend to go down to local pubs and try our beer 'in the field' so to speak, which is important because it tastes different to what we sample here, particularly on cask. It's also great to see local pubs serving your beer and it's a real source of pride for us."

Although Five Points' beer was initially designed for bottle and keg, a proportion is also regularly set aside for cask. But when it comes to preference in the method of dispense, Greg believes the whole debate is something of a misnomer.

He says, "When we set up we always envisioned our product in keg and bottle because we thought it would suit it better but we want to do cask as well. We want demand to dictate what we create.

Five Points 5

"It's a silly debate. Sometimes I want a keg beer because I want something cool and refreshing and other times I want something less carbonated with more delicate aromas.

"Our red beer definitely prefers being served on keg. It works on cask as well but it can sometimes be a bit too sticky, especially if the bar isn't turning it over quickly enough.

"That's the problem with some of this new wave of bars where they want to serve cask but they don't really understand it. They need to know how much they're going to sell rather than attempting to merely stock a huge range which might result in some being neglected.

"A lot of new beers overwhelm your senses so easily, particularly those from America. It is an amazing experience but can leave you a bit spoiled as well. As much as I enjoy those beers, I do like a pint of bitter now and then as well."

With demand for Five Points beers continually growing, it is unlikely to be long before the range is expanded further.

Greg intends to conduct a new series of trial brews on the 100-litre kit in order to experiment with different styles and develop new recipes but, before then, the brewery has a special Christmas surprise for fans of its Railway Porter.

Greg says, "We've got a special coming out this Christmas. With our porter, we put Brettanomyces in 20 of the casks and have aged them for three months in our cold store.

"The strain of Brett we got from our yeast supplier, who also supplies our house yeast, gives good cherry pie flavours so it should be perfect for Christmas. It already smells amazing and we can't wait to let other people try it."


Friday, 08 November 2013 12:47

Fear and craft beer in Japan - part three

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baird beersThe third and final part of Beer Battered's adventures in the Land of the Rising Sun.

Kyoto proved extremely difficult to leave, such is the allure of the place.

Its tremendous sense of history and richness of culture, coupled with a modern pragmatism, make it the kind of city with which it's easy to form an emotional bond.

To soften the blow of my departure, I treated myself to a couple of Ji Bīru from the department store underneath the main train station, both from Kinshi Masamune.

Strangely, given Kyoto's own rich cultural heritage, both beers were based on traditional German recipes - one a schwarz, the other a Kölsch - and although they were far from terrible, they did confirm a previously-concocted theory. If your microbrewed beer has a bottlecap like that below, it's unlikely to be particularly thrilling.

These caps are pretty common across the board but, in my experience, tended to point to a corporate-owned microbrewery playing largely to type rather than a wildly innovative upstart. Look at Hitachino Nest's iconic owl as an example of how bottlecaps should be done.

Our next stop, Hiroshima, appeared to be light on any kind of microbrewed beer, however, regardless of the bottletop. This despite a clear European influence throughout large parts of the city's culinary and cultural experience.

Perhaps it's a result of the warmer weather and proximity to the coast but cafe culture appears to have taken off here more so than anywhere else. The prevalence of Italian and Spanish eateries, quirky coffee shops and street dining came as a bit of a shock, particularly given the destruction dealt to Hiroshima by the West in years gone by

bottle cap v2

Aside from an American-style diner with a fridge full of Black Isle, the only place I stumbled on where beer was more than an afterthought was a little pub tucked away on a side street near our ryokan.

Spotting a row of BrewDog bottles lined up in the window out of the corner of my eye, I darted across the street and headed straight into Beer Pub Phi's to see what else was on offer. Imagine Cheers set in Japan, with the equivalent of Norm and Cliff propping up the bar, each bizarrely with a bottle of St Peter's Pale Ale, swapping jokes and stories with anyone who would listen.

Despite a disappointing lack of Ji Bīru, the larger than life owner did boast a huge range of imports, although most required a second mortgage prior to consumption. My bottle of Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA came in at 1,900 Yen (around £13), which caused the tight-fisted Mancunian inside me to immediately slap the beer geek around the face.

After that, it was back to Tokyo and onwards towards the best beery experiences of my trip.

I have previously mentioned the indelible fingerprints America has left all over the modern Japanese beer scene and nowhere is this more evident than in the success of Bryan Baird and Scott Brimmer. Both are American expats now living in Japan and both have set up successful microbreweries, generating a huge buzz among seasoned drinkers thanks to an impressive variety of high-quality beers.

A graduate of the American Brewers' Guild brewing science and engineering programme, Bryan initially arrived in Japan to help train native brewers on how to use their shiny new equipment but instead ended up establishing Baird Brewing with his wife Sayuri in 2000. From their brewery in Numazu, they have grown to establish four successful taprooms in the Tokyo area and have begun to export worldwide, with some of their beer beginning to find its way to English shores. Catch it when you can!

baird tapWe visited their Harajuku taproom (pictured right), which offered the entire range of Baird standards and a handful of seasonal specialities, along with a range of simple but tasty Japanese izakaya-style food. Still feeling peckish after a less than satisfying meal earlier in the evening, we ordered a plate of gyoza  dumplings and two types of yakitori skewers to go with our beer sampler set, which wasn't bad value by Japanese standards at 1000 Yen (around £7) for three 140ml glasses.

Knowing my girlfriend has a much lower tolerance for in-your-face, hop-forward beers than myself, we initially opted for a combination of the Numazu Lager, the Wheat King Ale and the Single-Take Session Ale, all of which neatly balanced the salty food.

Surprisingly, given my usual lager apathy, the Numazu Lager (5%) was my favourite of the trio, an amber coloured Vienna-style beer, which combines sweet, bready malt with a variety of fruity hop aromas and flavours. There's a touch of soapiness but what really surprises is the amount of tropical fruit that comes through, mango, pineapple and lychee adding to the undercurrent of lemon and grapefruit.

The Single-Take (4.7%) was fairly average, a hoppy golden ale fermented with Belgian yeast, where citrus and straw mingled with yeasty spice leading to a dry, slightly tart finish. Meanwhile, the Wheat King (4.2%) is a refreshing, gluggable wheat ale, creamy and doughy with a light touch of zesty lemon and an even lighter touch of clove. In fact, the esters weren't quite powerful enough for my own taste so I actually preferred the Wheat King Wit (4%), which had a similar citrus character well complemented by a wave of spice and a dry finish full of soft butter shortbread.

However, the true pleasures were to be found on the small, yet perfectly-formed, list of seasonal specials. Destination Ale (5.5%) is a beautiful golden peach-coloured ale made with sumomo, or Japanese sweet plums. The fruit is far from overpowering though, providing soft aromas of stone fruit in the nose and an immediate sweet zing on the palate. Tangy plum skin and lime add to the tartness but firm biscuity malt restores balance before a dry finish speckled with a tingling sweetness.

The Wabi-Sabi Pale Ale (6.5%) was another fascinating brew with plenty of native character, a Japanese take on the humble IPA made with whole-leaf green tea and wasabi. It starts sweet, like a teaspoon of golden honey, but quickly develops into a hoppy collaboration, elements of earth and citrus joining forces over a background of leafy, bitter tea. The wasabi kicks later on, providing a fresh heat that fades as the dry, bitter finish gathers momentum, a touch of sourness lingering at the back of the tongue.

Given the quality and quirkiness of the beer, coupled with an easy, relaxed atmosphere, it's not hard to see why Baird's taprooms have prospered. The other American abroad, Scott Brimmer, might operate amid more humble surroundings but appears set for similar success.

brimmer brewingScott started life as a brewer at Sierra Nevada, having worked his way up from pot washer in the American craft beer goliath's own taproom. After marrying a Japanese exchange student, he headed across the Pacific and set up Brimmer Brewing in Kawasaki in 2011 following a spell working for native brewers Gotemba Kogen.

His Tokyo tap, Brimmer Beer Box in Omotesando (pictured left), is... well... a box. It's a strange, two-level pop-up with a small bar on the ground floor and a tiny outdoor seating area on the level above. But drinking in a box has never been so enjoyable. Trust me.

There are only four beers on tap, Brimmer's Golden Ale, Pale Ale, Porter and a seasonal special, but each are available for the knockdown price of 500 Yen (£4) for what appeared to be a 400ml glass - that's nothing short of a minor miracle in Tokyo.

The Pale Ale (5.5%) was a proper easy-drinking pale with plenty of caramel malt and grapefruit but my highlight was the Imperial Red Ale (6.5%) - that classic balance of sweet, roasted malt and punchy hops being something I can never resist. This delivers on taste big time,  an early blast of grapefruit and pine underpinned by caramel before the rest of the malt character is let loose, toffee, chestnut and brown bread coming through strongly. That citrusy zing never fades, however, and it finishes with a superb spicy bitterness.

My final few days in Tokyo couldn't pass without picking up a few choice beers for the journey home, so I ventured to the Tanakaya bottle shop in Mejiro. This underground bunker of beery brilliance has a stunning selection of imports from around the world and a good handful of Ji Bīru supplemented by shelves of sake, shochu and assorted spirits.

The owner wasn't overly confident in his English but still managed to recommend a truly outstanding sake from the Kinoshita Brewery, ironically brewed by an Englishman, Philip Harper. Sweet yet tart, fruity and dry, it put me in the mind of a good New Zealand Marlborough white wine.

I also picked up a bottle of Shiga Kogen IPA (6%), which is something of a staple in the Japanese craft beer scene - a well-balanced IPA with juicy flavours of orange, lime and grapefruit, causing a bitter finish and a lingering sweetness.

The Daisen G Gougin (6.5%) is more of a traditional Belgian-style ale packed full of yeasty funk and fruity esters, like a Pink Lady apple, fresh from the ground, dotted with cloves and drizzled with honey.

The sheer variety of Ji Bīru was perhaps what surprised me the most. Given the microbrewing industry is still in its formative years, I expected a fairly formulaic offering across the board but was instead confronted by a more mature scene, unafraid to experiment and add splashes of native cultural flair.

You still have to be pretty committed to find good, microbrewed beer outside the major cities but demand appears to be growing and it shouldn't be long before the rest of the world is able to appreciate some of the treats on offer in Japan.