Thursday, 07 November 2013 10:32

Harviestoun - Wild Hop IPA

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Harviestoun Wild HopHarviestoun Wild Hop IPA

Bottle, 5.2% ABV

Scottish brewers Harviestoun boast a wide range of dark beers I can definitely get down with.

A couple of years ago I happened to luck into a free case of Old Engine Oil a week before Christmas. 'Perfect', I thought, 'this will go down well with the family after our turkey dinner'. Unfortunately, I hadn't reckoned for the fact I might drink all 12 in the following two days.

The various versions of Ola Dubh are similarly delicious but I had never really enjoyed any of their lighter beers until I stumbled across this.

To be honest, I didn't really expect to like this much either, particularly after a mate had told me it wasn't much cop. Thankfully, he was wrong.

It pours a lovely deep, golden amber with a decent white head that left pretty lacing all down the side of my pint glass.

The aroma is a decent showcase of different hop characteristics, with lively floral notes, grassiness and earthy spice joined by orange zest and a touch of grapefruit.

Although the mouthfeel is a little thin and the carbonation possibly a touch too high, there's plenty more hoppy goodness in the taste.

First, you're eased in by a welcoming, soft malt - something akin to caramel shortbread - before the hop characteristics really begin to sing. And once they get going, there's a full-on chorus line.

Lemon, blood orange and grapefruit all come through strongly, leading to an astringent, crisp and bitter finish, counterbalanced by a lingering drop of honey.

It might not impress the real hop heads and craft nerds but consider it more as a golden ale than an IPA and it's the kind of beer you could easily drink all night.

Wednesday, 06 November 2013 12:56

Fyne Ales/Wild Beer - Cool as a Cucumber

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Fyne and Wild CucumberFyne and Wild Cool as a Cucumber

Bottle, 2.9% ABV

Drinking this put me in mind of the old Fast Show sketch about Squeezy, Cheezy Peaz. if you have no idea what I'm on about, have a look at the video below this piece.

Granted, that may seem odd to anyone without a window into the workings of my mind. So, by way of an explanation, peas were the one thing that dominated my thoughts while drinking Fyne Ales and Wild Beer's unique collaboration, a saison brewed with cucumber and mint.

Rather than hitting me with cucumber, it made me feel as if I were demolishing a big bowl of minted peas. So think less squeezy, cheezy peaz and more 'minty, beery peas'.

It's not as absurd as the idea of putting mashed-up peas and cheese together in a tube - of course that was intended as a satirical comment on the growing availability of awful processed snacks - but your average consumer might view it in a similar light. 'Minted pea beer?! Yeah right, leave it out mate.'

It's a pretty barmy beer but, then, you'd expect nothing less from anything covered by Wild Beer's mucky fingerprints.

It's full of excitement and desperate to get out of the bottle, fizzing into life once the cap is popped and pouring a light peach colour with a huge, fluffy white head. That head quickly dissipates but the beer continues to crackle with life as a whole host of fascinating, conflicting aromas fill the nostrils.

Fresh mint, green veg and herbal notes of coriander, parsley and sage come up against a light fruitiness, yeasty funk and a tinge of sourness. Nothing you've had before smells quite like this.

The taste is equally complex and unusual, initially full of lush minted peas, coriander, cucumber, grass and pickled gherkins. The mint is strong and incredibly vivid, almost as if you've stuffed a handful of fresh mint leaves in your mouth and begun chewing. As these flavours party on the palate, a pleasant breadiness begins to build, like thick, fresh dough, that continues to lasts long after you've swallowed the stuff.

A slight sourness and peppery warmth follow the vegetal notes, leading to an extremely dry finish, somewhat astringent and full of yeasty funk.

It's not the kind of beer you could drink buckets of but it definitely has its place, particularly among the new generation of low ABV beers. Given the strength, it's extremely light in the body and a little watery but that's to be expected and none of it detracts from the fact it's a beer that just has to be sampled - whether you like beer or not!

Despite its obvious eccentricities, it is neither contrived nor a novelty product. Instead it's a powerful example of natural progression. There's only so far you can go in offsetting the lighter body of a lower ABV beer by using mountains of hops. Fyne and Wild have tackled the dilemma in a totally different way and ended up producing something that's unique, experimental and invigorating.

Yes, there may be the nay-sayers who believe a beer that tastes of minty veg is a step too far and I'll admit I approached it myself with a degree of scepticism. But the use of such interesting ingredients opens up new possibilities for the production and consumption of beer.

Given its vegetal, herbal characteristics, this is made for food. I enjoyed it with a slab of soft goat's cheese - the fresh, herbal flavours of the beer offering an ideal counterpoint to the tart, pungent, creamy cheese - but it could work with a whole host of potential partners. Fyne and Wild may just have struck upon something here.

Oh yeah, one last thing. That video...

Friday, 01 November 2013 16:05

Fear and craft beer in Japan - part two

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Japanese beers 1Strangely, after escaping Tokyo, I began to have more luck on the bottle front.

Two brief stop-offs in Nagoya, either side of a trip out to Gifu, yielded a good stash of hotel beers to ease those tense moments in between the discovery of suitable bars and pubs.

My initial flying visit to Nagoya was scuppered somewhat by a national holiday, which had been rude enough not to announce its presence to me in advance. Autumnal Equinox Day meant I was greeted by a ghost town as I wandered the city streets searching for a bottle shop found using the very helpful Craft Beer Japan app.

Predictably, the shop was closed but I did manage to find a few beers that weren't brewed by one of the big four in the basement of a nearby Mitsukoshi department store. Variety isn't the easiest to come by in Japan so you quickly come to the realisation that the subterranean depths of the country's huge department stores are often your best bet for escaping the death grip of bland, dry lager.

After meandering like a wide-eyed kid through the aisles of weird and wonderful foodstuffs (with a firm emphasis on the wonderful), I happened upon a handful of beers from Nagoya's own Kinshachi Brewery. By far the best of the bunch was the Red Miso Lager (6%), a deep reddish-brown beer made with akamiso or fermented red soybean paste, a Nagoya speciality and source of great local pride.

It would be easy for such a beer to descend into the realms of novelty but it is well-crafted enough to avoid any such accusations, striking a surprisingly good balance between the salty, savoury miso and rich dark malts. The aroma is simply unique, almost like what you'd expect to get if you threw roasted malt, a bar of dark chocolate and miso soup into an oak barrel and mashed it all up with a few raisins, sour cherries and plums.

It sits heavy on the palate, full of the kind of flavours you'd expect from a rich fruitcake - raisins, dates and cherries accompanied by a sweet nuttiness. Some toasted malt comes through just prior to the salty miso, which tastes a little like a hearty bowl of ramen. The finish is warm and ever so slightly astringent, smoothed by another handful of raisins and a few squares of dark chocolate.

Japanese beers 2

My introduction to Kinshachi's beers proved more than a little misleading though. The IPA and Golden Ale were both pleasant, full of fairly typical light citrus and floral hop flavours, but far too inoffensive for my liking. The Mitsuboshi Pale Ale was a bit 'meh' too, watery and fizzy with soft notes of caramel, orange and hay.

Two days in Gifu proved to be similarly barren, only a solitary pint of Erdinger weizen interrupting the tedium of Japanese lager, but my second visit to Nagoya proved a seminal moment (well, for me at least).

Returning to the aforementioned bottle shop recommended by the Craft Beer Japan app, Okadaya, I was greeted by an open door and a fridge full of bottles from Baird, Hitachino Nest, Minoh, Tamamura Honten and Sankt Gallen among others. I felt like a proud father as I carefully wrapped up each bottle and packed them into my rucksack.

Although the 'award-winning' Minoh Stout (5.5%) was a disappointment - too watery and light-bodied despite notes of chocolate, vanilla and roasted malt - the rest more than made up for it. Minoh's W-IPA (9%), an assertive, hop-forward double IPA that tastes of mango, lemon, lime and grapefruit drizzled with honey and caramel, was better if a little unrefined.

However, Baird Beer's Suruga Bay Imperial IPA (7.5%) was exactly what the doctor ordered, reawakening my lapsed beery senses and whipping me into an intense fervour after simply popping the cap. It was impossible to resist the juicy aromas of pineapple, lychee, gooseberry and grapefruit that fizzed out of the bottle and whooshed on the mainline straight to my brain's pleasure receptors.

The first sip unleashed a medley of sherbet fruits, carried on a wave of malty caramel. I'm talking big, bold flavours of pineapple, mango, nectarine, lychee, passion fruit and pink grapefruit with a clean, bitter finish. A reassuring stickiness hangs around in the mouth to provide a constant reminder of the delights you've recently experienced.

Sankt Gallen's Kansha No Nama (5.5%) certainly looked the most impressive of the haul, a minimalist black bottle covered in golden Kanji script, but its contents were not quite as stunning. It's a stout that pours dull black with a small, off-white head and gives off good aromas of roast coffee beans and chocolate but delivers too little in the taste. Fairly light-bodied and slightly over-carbonated, it offers salted liquorice, treacle, roasted malt and a little coffee followed by a light, mouth-tingling spice. Drinkable, if not memorable.

Tadgs Kyoto

Both Hitachino Nest beers hit the mark, particularly the Espresso Stout (7%), which is beautifully smooth and oily, full of sweet toffee, milk chocolate with a well-time black coffee kick. The XH (8%), which is matured in Shochu casks for three months, has received criticism in some quarters for packing too little punch but remains a tasty, well-layered beer. Treacle and salted caramel mingle with rich orange marmalade, yeast, pine and spicy white pepper, rounded off by alcohol freshness and oak in the finish.

Tamamura Honten's Yama-Bushi Saison One (6.5%) was another triumph. It's brewed with sake rice and presented in a stunning wine bottle decorated in a traditional Japanese style, neither of which is surprising given Tamamura Honten started life as a sake brewery in 1805. Pouring a cloudy yellowish straw colour with a generous frothy white head, it has a lovely nose of banana, ripe peach, funky yeast and wild rice.

This is one saison with no shortage of aromatics, all underpinned by malty notes of fresh dough and grainy cereal.  First to hit the palate is a splash of lemon but the tart citrus is well balanced by crisp apple and pear, topped off by sweet, ripe banana. A little sourness creeps in, some spicy hop and a lasting bitterness that accompanies the dry finish.

At the risk of spending all my time drinking in my hotel room, on arrival in Kyoto I made it my mission to seek out some decent drinking dens. Thanks to a couple of recommendations from @tania_nexust and @_aka_hige and the help of my trusty Craft Beer Japan app, I found a couple of gems.

Tadg's is an Irish bar but not in the soul-destroying, 'silly hats and shamrocks' sense of the phrase, more in the sense that it's a bar owned by an Irishman. Tadg McLoughlin clearly has a passion for good beer, one he pairs with a knack for creating hearty, homespun comfort food - the chicken pot pie I gobbled my way through was damn tasty, if a little small.

Even when armed with the address, it isn't particularly easy to find. With space at such a premium in Japan's crowded cities, it's common to discover good restaurants and bars tucked away on the upper floors of many a high-rise building and such is the case with Tadg's. What this does mean is great views over the Higashiyama mountains and the Kamogawa river, which makes the setting even slightly romantic when the candles come out at night.

Although its self-proclaimed title as 'the home of craft beer in Kyoto' might be over-egging the pudding a bit, it does offer a good variety of Ji Bīru and exports on draught and in bottle. They seemed particularly proud of the fact they now have a permanent tap dedicated to Punk IPA.

My aim going in had been to try some Ji Bīru from Kyoto, which had appeared in short supply elsewhere, and the Syuzankaido Amber Ale (5.5%) did the job.  Initially sweet and fruity, with hints of plum jam, damson and an underlying bready malt, it progressed through layers of spicy hop and chestnut while a dull oakiness thudded away in the background. A robust, bitter finish was accompanied by a strong, lasting malty character.

Sake Bar Yoramu 1

However, my favourite drinking experience in Kyoto came in a tiny bar that didn't even serve beer. Sake Bar Yoramu (pictured left) is a fascinating place tucked away on a back street a few blocks south of the Imperial Palace.

You'd barely even notice the place in passing, never mind realise what's hidden inside and, given it consists of a nine stools lining a small bar, you wonder how it actually survives as a business. But it's an experience you'd be unable to recreate anywhere else.

Upon taking a seat at the bar, you're greeted  by the quietly-spoken yet charismatic Israeli owner, Yoram, who gives you a quick quiz on your favourite flavours before offering a sampling set of sake to suit your tastes. Forget the hot, characterless stuff served up in Japanese restaurants across the UK, this would give any fine beer or wine a run for its money.

Explaining my penchant for hop-forward IPAs, Yoram selected two particularly outstanding varieties, one which was dry and fruity with a big bitter kick and the other a delightful balance of sweet and sour, full of sharp citrusy notes.

Four samplers later and we were the last people left in the bar, so Yoram even invited me to share a beer from his personal collection, cracking open a bottle of Sankt Gallen's Yokohama XPA (6%), which was full of grapefruit, floral hop character and a strong biscuity malt.

Although deliberately vague about how he ended up selling sake in Kyoto, Yoram is clearly devoted to his work and only too happy to share the benefit of his considerable experience, chatting at length with me about the similarities of the brewing processes in beer and sake.

I could have returned the following night but Hiroshima was calling...

Check back next week for the final part of my Japan series, including two very different taprooms run by Americans in Tokyo.  

Monday, 28 October 2013 17:40

The Alechemist: Pressure Drop

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Pressure Drop 2Hackney brewers Pressure Drop feature in the latest edition of the Alechemist, Beer Battered's regular series of features focused on the people behind the beer.

Two heads are better than one, as the old saying goes.

But what about three? That extra cranium helped to made the mythical Cerberus a thoroughly terrifying beast and it appears to have enhanced the powers of Pressure Drop too.

Granted, the London brewers may not be capable of guarding the gates to the underworld but, in the space of 16 months, they have developed a superb variety of beers marked by their quality and quirkiness.

There is so much to like about the core range, which includes a foraged herb hefeweizen (Wu Gang Chops the Tree), a traditional London porter (Street Porter), a delicious, hop-heavy brown ale (Stokey Brown), a dark and smoky wheat beer (Freimann's Dunkelweiss) and a pale ale brewed with continually-changing hop combinations (Pale Fire).

Rather than representing the work of one man, these unique brews have bloomed from a collaborative effort between the brewery's three founders Ben Freeman, Graham O'Brien and Sam Smith.

There's no division of labour here. All three conceive, devise and create each of Pressure Drop's beers, ensuring the finished product comprises an equal blend of tastes and influences.

"All three of us have a strong input into the beers we make," says Graham, who was previously cellarman at the Euston Tap. "What we've done reflects all our personalities and that makes it better because it's not just one person making all the decisions. It's better to have a filter sometimes.

"We have a good relationship because Sam and I went to school together so we've known each other since we were 12. Then Ben and I met when we were both interning at London Fields and we realised we were both trying to achieve the same thing so it worked out well.

"We all come up with recipes and then we throw ideas in until we reach a point where we're happy. In terms of tasting as well, we are almost always the opposite of each other and then you have to adapt things to get to a point where we're all happy.

There's lots of different things that go into creating a beer, from the beer itself to the name and the labelling, so there are a lot of things that can go wrong. All three of us contribute and we all work together at each stage."

Maybe it's the collaborative approach or maybe it's the willingness to experiment - pushing their own boundaries as well as those of the people drinking their beer - but Pressure Drop has become a rapid success story.

The trio were recently invited to host a 'meet the brewer' event at the illustrious Indy Man Beer Con and demand for their beers is growing even beyond the boundaries of Greater London.

Pressure Drop 1

It's a situation none of the trio could have contemplated when they started brewing in summer 2012 amid the glamorous surroundings of Graham's garden shed in Stoke Newington, using a 50-litre, single-vessel Braumeister kit.

Unsurprisingly, the brewery quickly outgrew its modest surroundings, moving to a nearby industrial unit the following November, but the trusty Braumeister stuck around throughout their early foray into commercial brewing.

This extreme 'micro' approach proved fairly chaotic - involving double brewdays every day of the working week - but proved crucial in helping to foster Pressure Drop's focus on invention and experimentation.

It gave them the necessary freedom to create weird and wonderful concoctions such as their Purple Sweet Potato Ale brewed in collaboration with Masterchef winner Tim Anderson and Pitt the Elder, an elderflower and cherry porter.

Graham says, "We wanted to add our own twist to different styles and using the Braumeister allowed us to do that from the start. It lets you do multi-stage mashing so we thought we must do a wheat beer and that's where Wu Gang originally came from.

"When you're starting out you want to try different things so we were messing around with the mash and the ingredients. Sam's not a big fan of wheat beer either so we tried to do it slightly differently with Wu Gang by adding bay leaves and herbs.

"Then there were other opportunities we were able to take advantage of because of our size that even other small breweries wouldn't have been able to. Paul from Kent Brewery provided us with a new strain of hops, Hop X, that had been developed by Wye Hops who are these mad hop scientists.Pressure Drop 3

"Paul had wanted to brew with this strain but needed somebody with a small kit and that's where we came in. They only had a kilo of this hop so we brewed with it and were really pleased by the results. It was really interesting because it was an English hop developed from an old variety which was full of punchy New World flavours."

That same ethos remains but, at the same time, things have definitely moved on.

In March, the brewery upped sticks to Hackney and set up shop in a larger industrial unit beneath a railway arch, which appears to be the natural habitat of your typical London brewer.

Four months later, they began brewing on a shiny new five-barrel kit, finally putting the old Braumeister into semi-retirement - although it will still be used for the odd experimental brew.

But despite the shift in emphasis, it's the old favourites that still generate the most excitement when the trio contemplate which of their creations has been the biggest success.

"I think the brown is great," says Graham. "When the pale comes out nice it's really good but there's plenty of people doing that kind of stuff. There's not many nice, hoppy brown ales about so that's why Stokey Brown works so well. It's not like every other brewery in London has a similar beer.

"There's a lot to like about Wu Gang Chops the Tree. The concept behind it was trying to come up with something to go with roast chicken. So using the cloviness of a hefeweiss, we added bay leaves to make it like bread sauce.

"People like it too. You talk about gateway beers and that's probably it for us. People who don't think they like beer try that and love it. It's light beer, it's light colour, light alcohol and it's quite herbal."

"It was the first successful beer we did," adds Sam. "It was the first one we did where we've kept the recipe the same. Although it was only our fifth ever brew, we were just really happy with the way it turned out.

"The name usually gets a reaction too! We get people calling it Wu-Tang quite a lot. It's not unusual to get a phone call from someone asking if they can get a case of the Wu-Tang. 'You can but I think you might have come to the wrong place!'"

So, what about that name? It's fair to say it has been responsible for a number of confused looks and puzzled conversations.

Pressure Drop 4"It's the one name we've all completely agreed on," says Graham. "It's an ancient Chinese proverb, which is similar to the Greek myth of Sisyphus about the endless task.

"We've depicted the story on our new bottle labels. Basically, Wu Gang angers the gods so they send him to the moon to chop a self-healing bay laurel tree, which keeps growing back no matter how much he chops it."

Looking to the future, it appears likely there will be more beers in the Wu Gang mould.

A series of beers have been created with local celebrity Jon the Poacher, using flowers, herbs and roots foraged from Hackney Marshes, and this dedication to sourcing quality ingredients forms a central part of Pressure Drop's ethos.

Graham says, "I've live in Stoke Newington, which is an area where people have been worried about what they eat for years. Whether it's organic or local, they're keen on provenance.

"But what I've always found unusual is that they never applied this way of thinking to the beer they drink and instead just drank whatever their local had on the bar. A few years ago, I thought that was going to change so we tried to embrace the shift.

"So far we've done a few foraged beers with foraged ingredients and we'd definitely like to do more. One of the best we have done was the dandelion and burdock porter. We were really pleased with how it tasted and with the concept because dandelion and burdock was a temperance drink so would have almost been used as a replacement for porter.

"In the past, we've done really limited batches of these beers but hopefully more people will be able to try them as we produce more.

"A happy consequence of brewing on a bigger scale is that we're starting to drink a lot more of our own stuff too because there's a lot more of it around. It's a rare thing to be able to sit down and enjoy your own beer."

Currently, bottles are your best chance of finding Pressure Drop's beer, with cask and keg still only made to order. Bars, pubs and bottle shops around London remain the primary focus but their beers can be found further north at Cotteridge Wines in Birmingham; Font, Port Street Beer House and Beermoth in Manchester; Friends of Ham in Leeds and Coppers 8 till 8 in Newcastle.

 

Thursday, 24 October 2013 21:16

Leather satchels and burnt cardboard

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boot beer appleAs far as I'm concerned, Ratebeer is akin to the Daily Mail.

I don't read it regularly - and very much doubt I ever will - but now and then, for a few cheap laughs, I'll log on to trawl through the user comments.

The problem is, what starts as a light-hearted pursuit of shits and giggles quickly causes the blood pressure to rise a few notches and eventually degenerates into a full-blown rant.

I'm not lumping every Ratebeer user into the same pot here but there are a select few who really do excel in talking utter guff.

In all honesty, I'm guilty of it myself quite a lot of the time. My tasting notes can often come across as pompous, over-elaborate or downright nonsensical but I draw the line at using comparisons of things I have NEVER ACTUALLY TASTED.

Consider the following:

- Leather satchel

- The dregs of an ashtray mixed with vodka

- An old boot full of apples and beer

- Burnt cardboard dunked in bourbon

These are all genuine extracts from Ratebeer reviews, used to describe the effect a beer had on the author's palate.

Now, unless you're Stevo of Jackass fame, I highly doubt you've ever actually tasted any of the above. And if you have, I'd seriously consider consulting a nutritionist to highlight where you might be going wrong when it comes to shaping a healthy, balanced diet.

Forgive me if I'm wrong, but I thought tasting notes were supposed to act as a guide for people who have yet to sample a given beer and are seeking guidance on whether they should try it in the future.

As such, these reviews should aim to provide examples of sensory experiences the reader can relate to, rather than abstract concepts that are too clever by half. The latter will only serve to baffle and alienate new drinkers, furthering the 'us and them' perception that divides those who demand high standards in the beer they drink and those who are more inclined to drink whatever is available.

More worryingly, if we're all talking about aged leather jackets smothered in caramel and stewed in whisky, the general public are more likely to give credence to the words of this man:

Monday, 21 October 2013 13:07

Fear and craft beer in Japan

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IMAG0356Japan is a country renowned for its culinary capability.

The delicious simplicity of yakitori, peerless precision of sushi and delicate artistry of kaiseki are all testament to a proud tradition of gastronomic excellence.

Inherent to this approach is a deep understanding of the necessity for combining quality, seasonal ingredients with well-studied execution - yet this understanding hasn't always found its way into Japanese brewing.

The big four of Asahi, Kirin, Sapporo, Suntory still loom large. Peruse the beer selection in any convenience store or supermarket and you'll soon find the selection basically boils down to endless variations on the same mass-produced lager. Your average Japanese drinker has a real penchant for crisp, malt-forward beers devoid of anything but the slightest hint of hops. I suppose that's the reason for the reason for the 'fear' in the title.

But the times they are a-changin' and 'craft beer' has increasingly become a buzzphrase in the Land of the Rising Sun. My recent trip to Japan revealed a surprising proliferation of self-procliamed craft beer bars, brewpubs and microbreweries.

This movement isn't as prominent as in the UK but, particularly in the bigger cities, it does seem to have caused a minor fracture to appear in the hegemony of the big boys. It's not yet significant enough to constitute a major threat to the status quo but the availability and popularity of Ji Bīru (the Japanese phrase for microbrewed beer, literally translated as 'local beer') continues to grow.

IMAG0412At the very least, the discerning drinker will never have to make do with Asahi Super Dry again.

The roots of the microbrewing boom can be traced back to the mid 90s, when the government relaxed the oppressive tax laws governing breweries. Previously, only those operations producing two million litres a year qualified for a brewing licence but this was reduced to 60,000 litres in 1994, opening the door to a new influx of smaller breweries.

However, to complicate matters further, it is still illegal to home brew any drink higher than 1% ABV, which doesn't exactly facilitate the growth of a strong grassroots movement. Consequently, many of the 200 small breweries in existence today are, in fact, corporate-funded ventures churning out passable beer to traditional German or English recipes.

This faddishness has even infected the brewing goliaths and, shamefully, my own Japanese beer journey started in Asahi's own brewpub on the banks of the Sumidagawa River.

I'll put it down to a combination of jet lag and unfamiliarity but as we stumbled back to our Asakusa hotel after a thoroughly exhausting first day, this was the only place I could find that might serve me intoxicating liquor.

It's an odd four-storey building next door to the company's imposing Philippe Starck-designed headquarters - topped by the infamous 'golden turd'- and incorporates a cafe, beer hall, restaurant boasting food and beer pairings, and whisky bar.

They are at great pains to point out that beer is actually brewed on site, with a mass of gaudy copper sat behind the bar (seen left) and a series of shiny fermentation vessels on display behind a viewing window near the toilets, but perhaps it'd be better to keep that particular fact a bit quieter. The three brews on offer did little to invigorate my fast-fading body and mind.

Best of a pretty bad bunch was the Sumidagawa Weizen, which was drinkable without offering much in the way of fruity esters, save for faint background notes of banana. The watery Sumidagawa Stout merely hinted at the presence of coffee and roasted malt and the Asakusa Ale, bizarrely served in Kwak's iconic glassware, was oversweet and lacking in body, a bit like weak orange squash.

After such an abject start it could only get better. Luckily, Tokyo offered plenty of opportunities to make amends.

The city has become something of a beer geek's paradise, with a huge variety of brewpubs and beer bars dotted across its vast expanse, offering the kind of choice that cannot fail to induce crippling indecision.

But rather than showcasing a unique Japanese take on the humble watering hole, most of these venues have taken their cultural lead from the West. America, in particular, has left its unmistakable fingerprints all over the Tokyo bar scene, yet there is also a distinct European presence aside from the typical Guinness-serving, shamrock-smattered shame dungeons.

IMAG0493The city boasts three branches of Belgium's famous Delirium Cafe and I even discovered the anomalous presence of a Franziskaner bar on the top floor of the posh Marunouchi Building near the Imperial Palace.

Popeye, however, falls into the former category and wouldn't seem at all out of place if you moved it brick-by-brick across the Pacific. Widely regarded as one of the finest pubs in Japan, never mind Tokyo, it boasts more than 70 draught lines consisting of largely native brews infiltrated by the odd offering from the likes of Rogue, Stone and Great Divide.

The prices are pretty eye-watering at upwards of £4 for a 200ml serving but it's well worth a visit as long as you time it right. Unfortunately, we didn't!

After watching the sumo wrestling at nearby Ryōgoku Kokugikan, we tottered up to Popeye slap bang in the middle of Saturday night happy hour. With punters packed tighter than a sumo wrestler in hotpants, the best the staff could offer us was a place on the pavement and a makeshift table that seemed to resemble a set of bathroom shelves from Ikea (pictured right).

Undeterred, I finally got my first taste of Ji Bīru on Japanese soil in the shape of some good, old-fashioned 'real ale'. The CAMRA boys would be proud.

Unfortunately, the Yona Yona Pale Ale from Yo-ho Brewing (5.5%), which appears to be a staple of the craft beer scene in Japan, fell a little short of expectations. Although it provided wonderful tropical aromas of pineapple, lychee and mango, it failed to properly deliver on flavour. Sticky, chewy hops delivered a soft fruitiness but, overall, it just felt a little too sweet and unambitious, lacking the presence of enough contrasting bitterness.

The Hidatakayama Weizen (5%) was an improvement though, offering a timely reminder what really good beer can taste like, especially in the wake of Asahi's underwhelming attempt at the same style. It was slightly quirky interpretation that flooded the palate with a burst of intense esters, bold notes of banana, passion fruit, lemon and orange. Following this fruity wave was a touch of clove in there too and a further layer of herbal flavour, primarily coriander, which gave it a bit more zing than your typical hefeweizen.

At that point, my tasting session was cut short. The more it became clear we were unlikely to progress from the pavement, the quicker my girlfriend's patience waned. The arrival of a group of obnoxious Americans determined to drink nothing other than US beers proved to be the final straw, so I left feeling I hadn't made the most of my visit to Popeye.

Disappointing as that was, the rest of my Japanese adventure proved far more fruitful. Keep your eyes peeled for part two coming soon.

Thursday, 17 October 2013 13:06

Recap: Indy Man Beer Con

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IMBC recap 1No sign of second-year syndrome here.

It seemed unthinkable that Indy Man Beer Con would surpass the success of its inaugural outing but, somehow, it did exactly that.

There can no longer be any ambiguity. It is simply the most significant event in the British beer calendar, particularly for those wishing to gain an insight into the bright, bold future promised by the nascent microbrewing scene. 

Sod the Great British Beer Festival. Quality beer and bonhomie trump sheer quantity every time and IMBC strikes a better balance between variety and intimacy, coupling a selection that starred plenty of rarities and one-offs with the kind of atmosphere you'd find down your local boozer.

Throw in the splendiferous surroundings of Victoria Baths and the event becomes a veritable Willy Wonka's factory devoted to the art of experimentation and perfection in beer.

Step inside the grand Edwardian building and enter a world where good beer is the norm, acting as a unifying passion rather than a divisive issue. Cask, keg, bottle, none of it really matters. Snort the bloody stuff if you'd like as long as you enjoy yourself.

IMBC recap 2It's this kind of attitude that makes IMBC such a joy. I've already mentioned elsewehere on this blog the important role the people play in its success but it can't be overstated.

The sense of inclusion and warmth is almost tangible. Organisers, volunteers, brewers, beer geeks and the rest mingle together to share a drink, an anecdote, a joke or a drunken moment. There's something so much more personal about the event than other beer festivals.

By and large, the beer didn't disappoint either, although it was one area which aroused a slight quibble.

In comparison to last year the selection did seem a little less varied, particularly in terms of the brewers in attendance, but, ironically, this may have been a result of the festival of getting bigger.

Having expanded from two days to four, breweries were spread a little more thinly across the full duration of the event, making the nightly beer lists seem slightly less diverse. The organisers certainly wouldn't do any harm by adding a few more different breweries next time round.

But, that said, I didn't leave the event unsatisfied, squeezing 25 new beers into my two nights and finding some real crackers. In no particular order, the stand-outs included:

Thornbridge Raspberry Imperial Stout (10%). An indulgent impy stout that packs in plenty of fresh, tart, raspberry sharpness, coming through clear as a bell. Although surprisingly light bodied, it also delivers bags of roasted malt, rich dark chocolate, liquorice and sweet dark fruits. Right up my street.

Brodies Only Human (12.2%). A shogun assassin of a beer at 12.2%. You wouldn't even hear this creeping up on you before it delivers the telling blow that takes your head clean off. An unbelievably gluggable triple IPA despite the intensity of flavours, assaulting you with a barrage of caramel, pine, orange, pineapple and mango, chock full of sticky, chewy hops.

Marble Farmhouse IPA (7.4%). Another brewed specifically for the event and a really enjoyable, easy drinker thanks to fresh, soft lemon flavours, earthy yeast and a palate-cleansing, dry finish.IMBC3

Summer Wine Calico Jack rum barrel-aged (10.9%). A real boozy treat that has been aged in Appleton Estate barrels. A powerful imperial stout full of big, rich flavours including rum, demerara sugar, vanilla, treacle, liquorice and oak with a warming alcohol heat and mouth-numbing spiciness.

To Øl Reparationsbajer (5.8%). Although designed to be the perfect beer for drinking on a hangover, I can imagine it's also pretty good at inducing a hangover. Extremely moreish APA matching a touch of light honey and a good dose of biscuity malt with loads of tropical, citrus hops.

Birra del Borgo Genziana (6.2%). A deliciously delicate beer brewed with gentian apparently, which, for culinary ogres like myself, is a bitter flowering plant. Initially sweet and fruity, it develops into a fresh, grassy beer with hints of coriander and parsley accompanied by spicy yeast and doughy malt.

More generally, it was great to see the Italian microbrewing scene had such a strong presence at the festival. The explosion of microbrewed beer in Italy has been one of the more intriguing stories of recent years, so it was pleasing that British drinkers got the chance to try Birra Del Borgo, Brewfist, Toccalmatto and Birrificio Italiano on cask and keg.

Buxton Tea Saison (6.3%). A collaboration with the event's organisers and a wonderfully balanced fruity beer, which combined earthy, peppery yeast with excellent sweet and sour flavours of cranberries and cherries. Neither element was allowed to outshine the other and it worked perfectly.

Alpha State Smoked Belgian Pale (5%). Another superbly balanced beer that found a happy medium between smoke and hops, starting out a light woody, smoky bacon before giving way to sharp citrus hops and finishing dry as a bone.

Lovibonds Sour Grapes (4.6%). An invigorating sour beer that delivers a mouth-puckering splash of sourness full of lemon and wine, followed by wheat and thick doughy, biscuity notes that offer the ideal counterpoint.

There were others too but I won't bore you any longer. Next year is already in the diary.

Friday, 11 October 2013 10:47

Opening thoughts from Indy Man Beer Con

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IMBC1It's the morning after the night before. So how was it for you?

Indy Man Beer Con kicked off last night, riding an incredible wave of positivity into its second year of existence.

The sentiment across social media and among those I had spoken to was one of unbridled excitement. It really was difficult to find a cynical viewpoint anywhere, such was the success of the inaugural event.

So what's changed?

Well, primarily more rooms and live music. Last year, the beers were split among three rooms at the iconic Victoria Baths (the sports hall, gala pool and the Turkish baths) but this time round a further pool has been opened to house a performance space and keg bar (pictured below).

Food and cask can still be found in the main sports hall, while Magic Rock have replaced Brewdog as resident brewers in the Turkish Baths - a vast improvement if you ask me.

The nature of the venue immediately adds an inescapable allure to the festival. The grand pools, glazed tilework, rusted changing stalls and stained glass windows all hint at a proud past and make it seem less venue and more place of worship - a fitting setting for beer geeks to bow at the altar of Britain's best and brightest.

IMBC2

Victoria Baths is such a dazzling piece of Mancunian history, it seems somewhat poignant that it is able to play host to such a landmark event. There really couldn't be a better setting for the festival.

So, to the beers and if there's one minor criticism, it's that there does seem to be a bit less variety than last year. On first glance, there appeared to be more beers but fewer brewers, possibly because the selection has been sprinkled across the entire four days of the event.

But to bemoan the variety is akin to complaining about the lack of an umbrella while stood indoors. You're pretty well covered anyway.

Much of my focus was on trying one-off beers and rarities, so I started with Quantum's Imperial Treacle Stout, a collaborative brew designed specifically for the festival. At 9.1%, it was the perfect way to ease myself into the evening - start as you mean to go on and all that - and a pretty solid beer with strong notes of bitter treacle toffee and smoke, although it could've maybe stood to be a bit more full-bodied.

The Buxton Tea Saison (6.3%) was the best of the special collaborative brews I tried, a wonderfully balanced fruity beer, which combined earthy yeast with excellent sweet and sour flavours of cranberries and cherries.

The Roosters Huckleberry IPA (6.9%) was well worth a try too, a well-rounded IPA that filled the mouth with the taste of rich, juicy berries and delivered a well-judged dose of hops.

My favourite beer, however, had to be Alpha State's Smoked Belgian Pale (5%). I'm a huge fan of smoked beers anyway (if you've got a connect for Schlenkerla's Eiche Doppelbock, hook me up) and this struck a great balance between the different flavours, starting out a light smoky bacon before giving way to sharp citrus hops and finishing dry as a bone. I've not had a beer from Alpha State that I've disliked yet.

Lovibonds' Sour Grapes was another I'd heartily recommend with an invigorating, mouth-puckering splash of sourness full of lemon and wine, followed by a thick doughy, biscuity taste that offers the ideal counterpoint.

Aside from the beers, a large part of Indy Man's appeal comes from the chance to rub shoulders with the people who brew the beers and all of last night's talks and seminars seemed to go down a storm.

I attended the dry-hopping seminar hosted by Simply Hops, which showcased three examples of dry-hopping on the same base beer, all brewed by Liverpool's excellent Mad Hatter.

IMBC4

It perfectly highlighted the importance of later hop additions in imparting flavour and aroma and the wild variations in hop flavours while highlighting just how many variables can alter the taste of the beer you drink.
 
One of Indy Man's greatest strengths is the people. It manages to bring together a huge number of passionate individuals all keen to exchange knowledge, ideas and opinion, creating a warming sense of bonhomie and camaraderie throughout all the rooms.
 
To top it all off, the food is great too. Get a fish taco from Margo & Rita and I offer my own personal guarantee you won't regret it.
 
Unfortunately, I made the mistake of not buying a weekend ticket but I will, at least, be back on Saturday night. Feel free to say hello if you fancy remonstrating with me about something I've written on this blog. I may even give you a bottle of my questionable homebrew. 
Wednesday, 18 September 2013 21:49

Event focus: Indy Man Beer Con

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Indy Man Beer ConManchester, so much to answer for.

Love him or loathe him, Morrissey was right.

They do things differently here - for better or for worse - and it has always been a great source of civic pride.

After all, this was the city that gave birth to the industrial revolution in the late 19th century and sparked a cultural shift at the end of the 20th century that transformed British music and fashion.

It seems fitting then that the burgeoning beer revolution should draw a significant dose of impetus and energy from within the boundaries of our great city.

Granted, London acts as the permanent centre of the scene, due to a phenomenal proliferation of pubs, bars and brewers, but Manchester was responsible for one of the movement's seminal moments.

Indy Man Beer Con almost acted as a rallying call, bringing the industry together last year for an innovative gathering that provided the blueprint for the modern beer festival.

This was cask, keg and food coming together in perfect harmony against the stunning backdrop of Victoria Baths. It might have been slightly surreal drinking beer while stood in an empty Victorian swimming pool – or inside one of the many cubicle changing rooms lining the perimeter – but somehow it was perfect.

Indy Man combined wild innovation with brewing tradition, delighting the beer geeks and sparking new interest in those who had stumbled along looking for a good time.

This year's event promises to be even better, running from Thursday, October 10 to Sunday, October 13 and boasting a star-studded line-up of brewers that includes local heroes, national powerhouses and foreign rarities.

The roster of events promises to be just as good, featuring 'meet the brewer' spots with Red Willow, Wild Beer, Howling Hops and Pressure Drop, live music and a beer and food-matched meal hosted by Masterchef 2011 winner Tim Anderson.

Indy Man Beer Con

Then there are the beers brewed specifically for the event. Last year, Quantum's blood orange tea pale ale was among a handful of never-before-seen specialities to excite the palates of those in attendance and this year's selection promises to be even stronger. "We've brewed five collaborations with Quantum, Buxton, Marble, Roosters, and Thornbridge for this year's IMBC," says co-organiser Claudia Asch. "We're really pleased with those beers and think that sets us apart.

"Some of those beers will appear in cask, some in keg, which is great, because the goal is to champion beer, in its manifold formats. But beyond that, lots of brewers have been pushing the boat out and have experimented, so we're chuffed by the response.

"We don't want to give away too much, but we think it's safe to say that IMBC ought to delight Untappd users, Ratebeerians, and non-beer geeks alike."

One of the more intriguing elements of this year's festival may be the Italian influence. The country's microbrewery explosion has resulted in the emergence of some truly superb beers and Toccalmatto, Birra del Borgo, Brewfist, and Birrificio Italiano will all be in attendance to display their wares. A must if you are still unfamiliar with what each has to offer – their beers covering the entire gamut from updated classics to experimental oddities.

And there is yet more to be announced.

"We are just finalising some more events and will have those up shortly," adds Claudia. "The support for IMBC has been amazing, and we're definitely on notice to make this year's experience build on last year.

"Our goal is to give visitors a varied and exciting experience, to dazzle taste buds, as well offer those who want to learn more about who and what is behind making beer the chance to do so. We're excited, and can't wait to welcome people back to the baths!"

Monday, 16 September 2013 21:09

The Alechemist: Jay Krause, Quantum Brewing

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Quantum Brewing owner and brewer Jay KrauseBeer Battered introduces The Alechemist, a regular series of features focused on the people behind the beer. First up is Quantum Brewing owner and brewer Jay Krause.

The route from home to commercial brewing is a path well trodden.

Recent history is littered with examples of top-ranked amateurs who have successfully turned pro, from Sierra Nevada and Dogfish Head to the Kernel and Weird Beard.

The industry is fairly unique in that sense - after all, you wouldn't pursue a career in medicine by practising on friends and family using tips gleaned from well-thumbed textbooks - but it does seem logical to apply the skills honed through years of painstaking practice on a larger scale.

This is particularly true given many home-brewed beers are better than the vast majority of their commercial counterparts. After all, wouldn't you rather drink a small-batch stout made with care and attention than a bland pint of Guinness?

In Jay Krause's case the answer was 'yes', so he went DIY in a bid to satisfy his beer habit. Initially, he was more than happy merely serving his own needs but a string of successful creations meant the demand from friends, family and fellow beer lovers only continued to grow. Eventually, this feedback convinced Jay to quit his day job at a nursery and turn his hobby into a full-time pursuit.

The result was Quantum Brewing.

"The motivation to begin with was money," says Jay. "I didn't have any money so I needed a good source of decent beer. Beyond that it was getting some nice words off people with the homebrew. It was good to hear people were enjoying it and that I was making something they wanted to drink.

"I had flirted with the idea of setting up a brewery for a while before seriously thinking about doing it. I was working in a nursery at the time so when I got the opportunity I just decided to go for it.

"Thankfully I started out just before the massive microbrewing boom so it was quite lucky in that sense. I couldn't have asked for better timing really."

Quantum brewery mash tun

That timing was the result of chance as much as anything else. The former Shaw's Brewery was placed on the market and, spotting his chance, Jay purchased it, moving the operation from Dukinfield to a modest industrial unit in Stockport in April 2011.

It is the very definition of a microbrewery - a neat five-barrel plant in a small lock-up, hidden among MOT centres, workshops and a flooring superstore on a compact industrial estate. You wouldn't even know there was a brewery there if it wasn't for the alluring smell and the sacks of malt sat outside.

But from these humble surroundings have emerged a series of consistently excellent beers, making Quantum one of the most talked-about young breweries in Greater Manchester and a respected member of the wider beer community. Collaborations with Marble, Brodie's and current Buxton head brewer Colin Stronge provide an indication of the regard in which Jay is held by his peers.

All this despite being a one-man band in the truest sense of the term. He is head brewer, accountant, sales rep, delivery man and cleaner, solely responsible for every success and failure experienced by the fledgling business.

"I'm doing about 10 barrels a week at the moment and that's on the cusp of being completely chaotic," laughs Jay. "It's all about juggling time because I have about 15 things on the go at once. You'd think it'd have a positive effect on my fitness because there's a lot of heavy work but there's also a lot of free beer so it cancels it out!

"At the moment, I've not got a big problem selling whatever I produce but if I upped the volume significantly, I might find it difficult, especially on my own.

"I still think the demand for good, microbrewed beer is on the way up and there's still a lot of room for a lot more little brewers, brewpubs and things like that. There just needs to be more places doing good beer and relaxing the beer tie. Pubcos are the difficulty we face. People want to have different beers on but they can't because they're not allowed to."

The difficulty generating demand in a market still dominated by the pubcos has resulted in an admirable spirit of cooperation among breweries who might otherwise have viewed each other as the competition.

With microbrewed beer still accounting for a tiny proportion of overall sales, communal efforts have been focused on attempting to snatch bar space from the bigger breweries. It is a situation which has proved vital in helping small start-ups like Quantum to thrive.

Jay says, "Often, I take inspiration for my beers from other brewers. In that sense we all help each other out. We don't look at each other as the competition so if someone comes to me to ask me how I bottle or what recipe I used for a particular beer, I'll tell them because it's no secret.

"There's not really any competition because, as a whole, we've got such a small share of the market. The only competition is from pubcos so we'll all work together to push it forward. If someone needs hops or malt, someone else will help them out. Everyone just loves beer so they're all pretty obliging."

Ironically though, Jay's own taste and drinking habits were moulded, at least initially, in a tied pub.

Manchester's proliferation of large, family-run breweries means many a young Mancunian has spent their formative years supping a musty pint of cask bitter in a community boozer. Growing up in Urmston, a small suburb south west of the city centre, Jay inevitably ended up doing exactly that.

But in his case - as with so many others - that pint acted as a gateway drink, weaning him off cheap lager and ultimately leading towards a wider world of wonders.

Quantum Brewing Ginger Stout keg

He says, "I've always drunk real ale - whatever that is - because I grew up in Urmston and we had a Holt's pub at the end of the road. So because of that, I've always drunk mild and bitter.

"I went through a bleak few years when I just drank lager, when I wasn't bothered about what I was having, but then I moved to London in 2006 and we had the Bree Louise in Euston. I used to drink in there and they had loads of different beers on, so it was like 'oh OK'.

"When I moved back up, the Magnet in Stockport opened and I started homebrewing fairly soon after that. Then it snowballed. There's plenty of good beer in Stockport so we're spoilt and I've become intolerant of poor quality. In fact, it's not even poor quality, it's just stuff I don't like!

"What I drink depends on the mood and depends on the day. It's never just as simple as drinking pale ales in the summer because I sometimes love to have a good stout in summer. I'll drink all sorts, pretty much anything, although I don't really like Belgian witbiers."

This ever-changing taste heavily informs Jay's approach to brewing.

Quantum doesn't have a core range and although there are certain beers which are produced semi-regularly - the Pale and American Amber being a couple of the more prominent examples - no two batches will ever be the same as the recipes and ingredients are constantly being tweaked. There is a heavy emphasis on sourcing the highest-quality ingredients, so the hops used in a particular beer may change depending on the relative success or failure of the most recent harvest.

Beers are produced in small runs and experimentation is very much the order of the day. Jay has produced barley wines, imperial stouts, saisons and a single-hop series including Aramis, Super Alpha, Triskel and Europa. There was also a pale ale made with blood orange tea that got a lot of beer geeks very excited at last year's Indy Man Beer Con.
 
"The process starts with inspiration," says Jay. "I get inspiration from everywhere, whether it's fellow brewers, reading about beers, seeing something on TV or going through the hop lists. I speak to (hop merchants) Charles Faram regularly to see what's new and what's coming out and see if there are any exclusives I can use.

"Then it'll go from there to a point where I ask myself 'would I want to drink that?' If the answer's no then I'm just not going to make it.

Quantum brewery 3

"I've not really got a core range as such but there's a few beers I'll do time and time again. But they always change anyway so you'll never get the same beer twice.

"Especially at this level, there's a lot of market for constantly changing beers. I don't really want to drink the same thing eight or nine times so my beers reflect that.

"I do the single hop IPA series purely because it lets me figure out what the hop does in all parts of the process. It helps the consumer to understand the flavours as well. If you have a single hop beer, you get a better understanding of what the hop's like and what it contributes."

With Quantum selling everything it produces, expansion appears to be next on the agenda.

Currently, Jay's beers are only readily available in the Manchester area and, until very recently, would only be frequently found on cask in a select handful of venues.

But there are positive signs that may change, as bottles and, to a lesser extent, kegs have been popping up with increased regularity.  Recent highlights have included the Barleywine USA, CCC IPA and Small Beer, so if you can get your grubby little mits on any of those I would highly recommend it.

"I'm not planning too far ahead but I would just like to expand and get more fermenters," adds Jay. "I'm hoping to open a tap in the brewery at some point as well but it's part of a long list that doesn't ever seem to go down!

"In terms of the beers, I want to do more sour beers and barrel-aged beers. I've got a starter going for a sour at the moment, which is six months in, so we'll see what it's like. It may be disgusting!"

That seems unlikely, considering the unerring quality of Quantum's output.