Are we currently experiencing a golden age for British beer?
It's a question that cropped up constantly during last week's Indy Man Beer Con, even forming the basis of a lively panel debate on the opening night.
And so intoxicating is the air of excitement and exuberance that surrounds the festival, it would have been easy to answer 'yes' without a moment's thought.
The resplendent beauty of Manchester's Victoria Baths and unbridled enthusiasm of the brewing community infect the brain with a potent strain of optimism that tends to overwhelm all else.
Such is the sense of carefree ebullience, at times it feels as if the world has stopped. As if nothing exists outside the warm, cosy bubble of beer and bonhomie - or, at least, nothing else matters.
But putting all that aside and applying a more level head to the question at hand, 'golden age' is overstating the situation somewhat.
It would be naive to suggest the modern British beer scene isn't completely free from flaws. The issues of price and quality standards have been covered at length elsewhere but one other challenge evident at Indy Man is the difficulty in extending the appeal of good beer beyond the white middle class - although price has been a driving factor here too.
Despite this, it is still an excellent era for drinkers and two beers at Indy Man, in particular, reaffirmed my belief in this.
Buxton Ice Cream Pale and Cloudwater Guji Sidamo coffee lager aren't typical benchmark beers but both highlight how modern, independent brewers have enriched the industry by introducing new approaches to supplement long-standing tradition.
Neither of these beers would have been commercially-produced 20 years ago - and many would still write them off as gimmicks now - but the accomplished nature in which these unique concepts were executed demonstrates the power of creativity and innovation.
It's not beer as we know it but the flavour combinations work so well, it becomes impossible to deny such experiments have a place in the beer-drinking experience.
And this is where the industry has benefited hugely in recent years.
I consider myself lucky to be able to pay less than £3 for a decent pint of bitter or mild in my local but also to find a wider range of cask at a number of more adventurous pubs in the area. I'm lucky to have easy access to a huge selection of modern styles produced by British micros but also to find the odd experiment that will push my palate outside of its comfort zone.
Not every experience will be a positive one and there's still much work to be done before the term 'golden age' applies, but the consumer is presented with greater choice than ever before.
Indy Man Beer Con highlights the advancements that have been made - and will continue to be made - as a result of the recent brewing boom, adding new layers to this country's already-rich tradition.
BrewDog Born to Die 04.07.2015, 8.5% ABV
Myself and BrewDog enjoy what might best be described as an uneasy relationship.
At their worst, their antics bring me out in hives. The incessant agitation, ham-fisted hoopla and silly stunts - all of it might make good PR but so often feels totally unnecessary.
Yet when they let the beer do the talking, as is the case with Dead Pony Club, I'm left utterly captivated by their epicurean oratory.
Born To Die has a foot in each camp. It's definitely a neat marketing trick, modelled on Stone's Enjoy By IPA, but is also executed with the kind of skill only harnessed by a master of their craft.
That inherent BrewDog-ness is stamped all over it - a distinctive, punchy character that runs through all their pales.
In the aroma, it's a big smack of tropical fruit jellied sweets, a smell that seems artificial - only in the sense it feels far too vivid, too vibrant to be natural.
That aroma of jellied pineapple and passion fruit hangs heavily in the background, while pungent pine punches through the nostrils and orange zest slashes with the sharpness of a cutthroat razor.
The beer is wonderfully clear and golden, dazzling like a chunk of quartz when it catches the light, and this clarity carries through into the taste. Despite being 8.5% ABV, Born To Die is stunningly clean, crisp and dry, drinking like a beer of half its strength and delivering a satisfying "ahhh" with every gulp.
Rather than relying on caramel to provide sweetness, it instead draws it from juicy tropical fruits - pineapple cubes, green mango and the tang of passion fruit, buzzing with energetic piquancy.
Before long an arid dryness plants itself on the palate, punctuated by biting orange pith, pine and the kind of bitterness that might come from chewing a good handful of parsley.
This finish reignites a thirst previously quenched, while a little residual mango provides a tantalising reminder of the juicy satisfaction supplied in that initial hit.
You can't give it any greater praise than it leaves you feeling like you've never had your fill. It's one of the most easily enjoyable IPAs in recent memory and a beer that doesn't disappoint, even in this era of the ever-increasing lupulin threshold.
But, at the back of my mind, there's still that nagging thought that it's good marketing first and good beer second.
The promotional blurb claimed Born To Die prefers 'to check out in its prime and flavoursome best, rather than to live an induced, bland and tasteless life.' So, is that mundane existence the inevitable destiny of any beer without an expiration date? And, by extension, shouldn't Dead Pony Club, Punk IPA or Jackhammer also be born to die?
I know I'm being slightly facetious but it does raise a few questions, possibly more around supply chain and retail standards than about BrewDog themselves.
If all IPAs are supposed to be enjoyed like Born To Die, then shouldn't breweries be doing more to ensure the beer reaches the consumer within the required time period or else pull back on the amount of hop-forward pales they produce?
Freshness is one of the big advantages British-produced beer has over imports from the US and elsewhere, so it frustrating to find so many beers still reaching the consumer in less than optimum condition.
It would be refreshing if brewers gave greater prominence to the suggested 'drink by' date for their products and, more pressingly, retailers paid heed to their own responsibilities within this process.
Until that happens, at least Born To Die takes its place among the better examples of what can be done.
In Manchester, we like to do things at our own pace.
A new brewery has opened every three minutes for the past five years in London (*this figure may be statistically inaccurate) but only now has Manchester decided to hop on the bandwagon.
Maybe we didn't want to seem too keen - after all, it would have been proper sad to rush straight in after those Cockney hipsters - maybe we wanted to arrive fashionably late, or maybe we just couldn't be arsed, in true Mancunian fashion.
No matter the whats and wherefores, a string of new breweries have either opened or announced their intention to open over the past year.
Possibly the best of the bunch is Runaway.
There's nothing especially unique or innovative about the beers this city centre brewery is churning out but there is a strong sense of reliability running throughout their range.
And this kind of consistency goes a long way in a market that has become characterised by wild inconsistency and untamed experimentation.
It's not that there's anything at all wrong with craft brewers raising a middle finger to convention, it's just that sometimes I want to know exactly what I'm getting.
That doesn't mean Runaway's beers are bland or middle of the road, just that each one seems to be an accomplished interpretation of the intended style.
Runaway IPA, 5.5%
The IPA, in particular, has the potential to be Manchester's Gamma Ray - that faithful fridge-filler which never fails to offer easy refreshment without making any compromises on taste.
It bursts with aroma and taste, zinging the senses with a killer combination of citrus, sweet tropical fruit and floral perfume.
As you dip your nose into the glass for the first time, you're dragged in deeper by welcoming smells of soft, ripe peach and passion fruit before experiencing a slightly surprising tickle of floral blossom. Grapefruit and orange zest round off the nose, hinting at the supreme refreshment to follow.
And that refreshment hits like a wake-up call from a bucket of water to the face.
It starts with the pop of pink grapefruit and lime, so vivid you'd swear you were bursting ripe, juicy segments between the teeth one-by-one. There follows a burst of effervescent sweetness, reminiscent of the moment you've sucked your way to the centre of a lemon sherbet, before it fades to leave the fragrant tropical flavour of lychee, alongside pine and floral hops.
It finishes with the metallic twang of watermelon Jolly Ranchers and a dry finish characterised by a light, pithy bitterness and the zing of orange and grapefruit peel. All of that is underpinned by a grainy, airy cereal base that makes this less hefty than a lot of IPAs and perhaps more easily enjoyable as a result.
Runaway Pale Ale 4.7%
The pale isn't quite as distinctive as the IPA but is tasty enough, yet unchallenging enough, to be guzzled by the bucket-load without having to decipher every single taste that hits the palate. On which note, I can supply the bucket if Runaway are happy to provide the beer.
In the nose, flashes of tinned pineapple and mango are soon overtaken by a rush of fresh pink grapefruit and yellow grapefruit rind.
The first mouthful provides a rush of grapefruit juice that leaves you licking the insides of your mouth like a dog that's gorged itself on sticky malt loaf.
Light caramel provides the glue that holds everything together as tart citrus makes way for pine and a firm zesty bitterness, combining tangerine and grapefruit peel. The finish is so clean and crisp it leaves you dreaming of summer days that will never come amid the persistent rain of beautiful Mancunia.
Runaway American Brown Ale, 5.7%
The American Brown Ale retains the easy drinkability of Runaway's two pales and offers a welcome take on a style.
As you'd expect, there's a good malt presence but not one that runs roughshod over all the other flavours, allowing the beer to stay fairly fresh and airy.
Sherbet orange and zest are prominent on the nose, jumping above a general waft of brown toast, pine and the odd twang of roast cacao nibs.
Juicy orange and grapefruit lend tartness to the taste without any of the usual accompanying bitterness, playing alongside more earthy flavours and firm, nutty malt.
Although it starts reasonably dry, it becomes even drier in the lead up to the finish, brown toast, bitter chocolate and light charcoal only accentuating that arid, ashy mouthfeel.
Grapefruit and pine rear their heads again in the finish to leave a pleasant mix of contrasting flavours to linger in the aftertaste.
There's definitely something to be said for steady reliability and Runaway are making that case well.
Rooster's High Tea, 6.2% ABV
Bottle from the House of Trembling Madness, York
I spend the majority of my working week knocking back cups of tea and the majority of my weekend chucking beer down my throat.
Dark and strong tends to be my modus operandi in both cases and I'm rarely the first up to get the drinks in for everyone else.
But despite any similarities, it's always been a case of never the twain shall meet.
Tea is a pick me up at that time of the day when it's impossible to countenance a beer, while beer is for every other occasion.
At least that was the status quo until Rooster's threw everything into disarray by doing something stupid like putting tea into beer. And green tea at that. The type of tea people only drink because they're told it's good for them, right?
Bizarrely, it works a treat, blowing away my initial cynicism with its first jasmine-scented gust, the soft, sweet floral aroma knitting well with grapefruit, orange rind and damson.
The slick, oily body is firm enough to ensure the different flavours remain balanced, yet soft enough to allow the delicate perfumes to sing.
An initial, light sweetness of meadow honey accentuates notes of juicy tangerine until jasmine and rose emerge, skipping playfully across the palate. These floral notes probably come from the fact it wasn't any old tea they threw into the beer but rather jasmine green tea from the renowned Taylors of Harrogate.
Assertove orange and grapefruit rind bully their way into the equation before a wash of tart lemon paves the way for an astringent finish laced with the tannic bitterness of green tea.
In terms of showcasing the flavours of the tea, it does a better job than Marble's Earl Grey IPA without overdoing the experiment. A pint of char anyone?
Magic Rock and Lervig Farmhouse IPA, 6% ABV
Bottle from the Liquor Shop, Whitefield
Orval is irreplaceable.
It's a classic, an institution, a monumental beer that looms majestically large above the large majority of others.
But it's also 83 years old and isn't it reasonable to expect your granddad to replace the flat cap, cardigan and brown corduroys with a set of new threads at some point?
Even the most revered and celebrated works of Shakespeare can stand an update now and then, so perhaps nothing is sacred. Just ask Baz Luhrmann.
OK, bad example. Maybe Orval doesn't need modernising but without even trying to do so, Magic Rock and Lervig appear to have created a beer that feels very much like a contemporary take on this classic.
It's similarly complex yet drinkable, unfussy yet indulgent and builds on the key elements that make Orval stand out - hop character and Brett conditioning.
Where it differs is that it's heavily informed by modern methods and appears to be an IPA at core, using heaps of Citra and Centennial hops to achieve the desired flavour profile.
But, although it's called a Farmhouse IPA, much like Orval it doesn't slot neatly into a strict style definition. It's neither IPA nor saison, it just is what it is.
The Brettanomyces yeast lands an extra dimension on top of the hop-forward IPA base that makes it feel somehow timeless - an element that will only be accentuated if given time to age.
It's a hazy, light golden beer with an aroma that reminded me of childhood Saturdays spent on a football field, segments of juicy half-time orange combining with the kind of fruit jellies I'd get from the tuck shop in a white paper bag to soften the disappointment of inevitable defeat.
These notes pop out of the glass followed by a clean breeze of clove, white pepper and rough earthiness.
It's light and airy in the mouth, aided by a thin, lively carbonation that really helps to bring out the best in the different flavours.
The initial fruitiness lands like a slap to the face, causing you to stop instantly and take notice. Sharp orange and grapefruit skewer the palate, leaving a tingling tartness on the side of the tongue.
A clean, zesty bitterness arrives quickly, accentuating the crisp flavours and travels nimbly across the palate, as if carried on the back of a firm spring breeze.
In the middle of the tongue, tinned mango and tamarind momentarily add a sweeter touch before the door is slammed shut by a swiftly descending dryness.
Spice tangles with pithy bitterness throughout the long finish, which leaves you perpetually wanting - no, needing - more.
It's not Orval but I like it. A lot.
Bottle from the brewery, 8% ABV
It's clear why Thornbridge has been one of the front-runners in the British beer boom.
The Bakewell brewery has successfully combined innovation and consistency with a healthy respect for tradition in a sublime marriage few others could even contemplate.
As much as I'm wowed by bold, brassy, boundary-pushing beers - and Thornbridge has produced its fair share - it is the flair for unerring execution of historical styles that has recently set them apart from the crowd.
The likes of Double Scotch, Bayern and now Otto all doff their cap to their brewing forefathers but somehow feel fresh and contemporary - a dichotomy that is difficult to achieve.
Otto, the youngest of the litter, is a weizen doppelbock made in the Bavarian tradition and a match for any other in the category. Yes, even Schneider Weisse Aventinus...
It pours a heavy, murky, deep brown colour, a bit like water dredged from the depths of the Manchester Ship Canal.
Granted, that might not sound particularly appealing but, in this case, the coarse appearance is a strangely reassuring indicator of big, robust flavours - especially when topped by such a pretty, creamy beige head.
Immediately upon pouring, aroma bursts out of the bottle, lively bubblegum and banana shooting straight up the nose. Closer examination also reveals a creamy, banana milkshake-style character and a pinch of nutmeg, while a spicy, clove heat tingles around the edges.
A little Dr Pepper flows underneath, occasionally punctured by the irregular throb of white bread, and each inhalation reveals new layers.
The taste reflects this complexity, although it's a complexity that's honest, accessible and uncomplicated, subtle yet blunt.
An initial ooze of treacle toffee is punctuated by dashes of sweet liquorice before a flash of slightly tart cherry and plum adds a fresh, fruity counterpoint.
Then the yeast esters kick in and boy, do they kick! After overripe banana has been rubbed firmly across the middle of the tongue, a blast of aniseed and clove melds fragrant, sweet and spicy.
These esters persist through the finish, where they're joined by a sharp metallic flavour - perhaps the only unwanted aspect of this beer - and a wash of root beer.
Once these notes have cleared, bread and biscuit hang in the aftertaste, bringing a high-powered ride to a soft, comforting end.
Quantum & Elixir Brew Co Elixium
Bottle from the Liquor Shop, Whitefield, 5.9% ABV
I'll own up now. When I jumped on the Twitter bandwagon to support Elixir Brew Co in their recent trademark tussle with Everards, I hadn't even tried their beer.
For all I knew, I could've been supporting a producer of brown, twiggy blandness or murky, bitter foulness. How did I know their beer was worth saving?
Ultimately, we were all motivated by the desire to see a small business survive in the face of heavy-handed corporate tactics from a larger organisation, regardless of anything else. It's just a happy coincidence that Elixir does indeed appear to produce excellent beer too.
My first experience of the Scottish nano - a collaboration with the ever-reliable Quantum Brewing Company - came just days after it had all kicked off online and far exceeded any expectations I might have harboured.
Elixium is a smoked porter with a twist, namely that the hops, rather than the malt, provide the smokiness.
Now, I've discussed the possibility of smoked hops in the past but only when a 'chilled out' friend of mine regaled me with excited chatter about their similarity to a particular illegal plant.
What I don't recall is coming across a beer where one of the hop additions has been wood-smoked prior to use.
In this case, they have been smoked with Beechwood and added at the dry hop stage, giving this beer a lovely clean, soft smokiness that doesn't overwhelm the other flavours.
I'd had a bottle of Beavertown's Smog Rocket - possibly Britain's most lauded modern smoked porter - just a week prior and Elixium easily matched up. In fact, I'd say it is better, such is the cleanness and clarity of the different flavours, distinct yet still dovetailing perfectly.
It pours black as night with a thick, murky brown head. A truly menacing dark destroyer that weaves together an intoxicating mix of complementary and conflicting aromas.
Rich malt initially hangs heavy in the nose, chocolate, coffee and roasted malt combining richness with a crisp bitterness.
This, in itself, would be enough but you're taken by surprise when a hoppy, citrus breeze drifts through before fresh tobacco leaf and smoked cheese tickle lightly at the tail-end.
The taste combines similar elements and remains extremely well-defined and balanced throughout.
It's bitter and slightly tannic throughout, with notes of chalky, dark chocolate particularly well pronounced at first and a good amount of roasted malt thrown in too.
These flavours aren't allowed to linger too long before a superb citrus tang swipes straight across the palate, momentarily cleaning it before a glob of melted dark chocolate slowly settles in the mouth.
The smoke comes through late, a light tickle of heated wood chips drifting through the back of the mouth to leave a peppery buzz and a dry, bitter finish.
Celt Ogham Willow
Bottle from Beer Hawk, 8.8% ABV
Celt seems to have come out of nowhere.
Although the brewery has been in operation since 2007, I hadn't even set eyes on any of their beers before receiving a bottle of Bronze in my Beer Hawk beer club last year.
That tasty bitter piqued my interest but the lack of ready suppliers up north meant I had to wait several months before expanding my knowledge of this intriguing Welsh brewery.
When I finally got hold of a bottle of Ogham Willow I didn't know what to expect and it damn near blew my head clean off.
This is a beast of a beer. A big, hefty IPA that simply does not fuck around.
It delivers all the flavours you'd expect from the style and then goes one step further, offering the richness, complexity and opulence of a barley wine.
As such, its uniqueness is its main strength, making this an experience you won't quickly forget.
Clear golden with a tight white head, it gives off strong, skunky aromas of resin, pine and citrus, with a thick vein of caramel running through the middle. More layers are revealed the longer you inhale, sticky pineapple boiled sweets, apricot and dull notes of cedar and oak hanging heavily at the back of the nose.
The taste is led by thick toffee, which oozes slowly across the palate to create a solid base for the assertive hop flavours that follow.
A quick squeeze of lemon cuts through the sweetness but juicy citrus mutates into bold, resinous hops that are so chewy and glutinous you'd swear there were bits stuck between your teeth. Simultaneously, herbs, mango and pink grapefruit skip lightly across the tongue before the domineering finish begins to set in.
The sweetness of vanilla and honey segues into a powerful, pithy bitterness, while the chest and throat are warmed by a growing alcohol heat.
It's an indulgence worthy of your complete, undivided attention. So light some candles, dim the lights and put on some Barry White, you're going to be there for a while.
Keg at The Font, Chorlton, 6% ABV
This stuff might not give you wings but have a few and you'll feel like you're flying.
It's an uplifting IPA that lands a hefty hop punch without once falling off balance or letting its drinkability suffer.
As such, it's not necessarily unique but a strong, enjoyable representation of the style and one I would have no problem returning to time and again.
Before I could appreciate it, however, I was forced to fight off the strong urge to drop a shot of Jagermeister in the glass. My subconscious also seemed to suggest mixing the beer with a double vodka, which was more than a little odd but perhaps just stemmed from confusion about what I had ordered.
Once this minor crisis had been averted, frisky, fresh aromas of grapefruit, orange and mango greeted me as I lifted the glass towards my mouth. A hint of pine also crept through, all underpinned by assertive cereal malt.
Soft toffee holds the taste together, flowing steadily beneath a series of refreshing hop bursts, pink grapefruit and navel orange providing a tart, juicy sweetness.
Resin and pine also loiter, swirling with the toffee to form a thick, sticky mixture, until biting orange rind swipes clean the heavier flavours.
The finish is bittersweet, combining pithy bitterness and lingering notes of citric juiciness with toffee and the background throb of biscuity malt to maintain an easy-drinking balance right until the end.
It's fair to say, I'm glad a certain energy drink manufacturer failed in its nefarious plot to have this beer banished from the face of the earth.
Rumour also has it Redwell recently struck a distribution deal to send more of their beer up north, so it will be interesting to see what the rest of their range has to offer.
Bad Seed & Northern Monk Salted Lemon Wit
Bottle from the Liquor Shop, Whitefield, 7.4% ABV
This is one of those beers I hate to love.
Once the monthly beer ration has been acquired, sorted and catalogued, the allocated funds completely exhausted, there's always one special that threatens to push me into the red. Not to mention pushing me into a downward spiral of debate and discord with my long-suffering partner.
Once Raj at Whitefield's beer tardis, the Liquor Shop, told me about this collaboration from Bad Seed and Northern Monk, my fragile will power was instantly eroded.
The need to experience a salted lemon wit just seemed far more pressing than the need to balance the books.
And, to be honest, financial instability has never tasted so good. Plus, it paired beautifully with the Super Noodle butties I was forced to eat seven days straight.
It's just such an easy beer to drink. Totally unique yet outwardly enjoyable, soft and agreeable rather than dense and complicated.
All of this is expressed through its appearance, an inviting, slightly hazy golden amber liquid topped by a fluffy, persistent white head.
The aroma is dominated by a heavy cloud of fresh dough and buttered brioche, which hangs tantalisingly in the nostrils, followed by fragrant lemongrass and topped with a sprinkling of salt.
The taste combines sweet, salty and doughy with the aplomb of a chocolate-covered pretzel. Your brain's telling you it shouldn't work but your tastebuds are telling you something entirely different.
Upfront breadiness fades to leave a mouthful of sweet, juicy candied lemon peel. After chewing on this for a couple of seconds, sweet becomes tart and the salt adds a prickly edge.
That breadiness continues to throb away, however, notes of cookie dough, ginger snaps and spice building into a long, dry finished that finds terrific balance between sweet and salty.
Well worth the money, whatever the consequences, and another feather in the cap for both Bad Seed and Northern Monk. These Yorkshire rascals are ones to keep an eye on in the coming years.
The brewing boom continues to resonate across Britain, its force producing an unstoppable wave of positivity and promise.
New breweries are popping up on a weekly basis and 'craft' has infiltrated the mainstream consciousness - so much so that it's even become a prominent fixture in Wetherspoons.
Between 2011 and 2013, 502 microbreweries opened for business compared to just 248 during the previous three-year period, a trend that has raised genuine hope for a seismic shift in the market akin to that which has taken place in America.
This brewing fervour is matched only by the clamour for new and exciting beers from a passionate tribe of devotees, each of them desperate to try the next big thing in order to participate in the shared experience.
This perfect storm has resulted in a greater selection and variety of beer than ever before, yet the overall effect on the industry is a lot more difficult to quantify.
Diversity and choice are undoubtedly positives but it's also important to bear in mind the old adage 'quality not quantity'.
With so many nascent breweries now in operation, it's fair to say there's been a net decrease in experience throughout the brewing trade and, given the appeal of craft, there has been an increase in those keen to cash in on demand.
That's not to say the boom has been bad for beer but the current state of flux has caused quality to waver over the last couple of years.
Consequently, a new, negative vocabulary has begun to penetrate the positivity, with phrases such as 'London murky' encapsulating the perceived lack of quality control practised by some new breweries.
On the one hand, this could be seen as damaging to the reputation of small-batch beer in the wider market but, on the other, it could be viewed as an unavoidable side-effect of a huge growth in choice.
Either way, the industry as a whole must concern itself with how best to maintain recent success.
"Whether the recent boom has been a good or a bad thing for the industry depends on which perspective you look at it," says Rob Lovatt, brewmaster at Thornbridge, which has grown to become one of the biggest craft breweries in the UK since its establishment in 2005.
"It’s been good for the overall brewing industry as I think it’s shaken up the market somewhat. Beer is definitely making a revival in the UK as it did in the US. When you take a look across the pond and see the market share craft brewers have taken from big brewers, then it makes everyone up their game.
"In the last few years, regional brewers like Brains and Adnams have started to produce more interesting, American-style craft beer, which can only mean better quality and choice for the customer.
"But we need to recognise how far behind the curve we are in terms of quality when compared to the craft brewers in the States. I don't think, on the whole, the quality of craft beer in the UK is as good as it could be.
"Poor quality beer isn't good for the consumer or the industry. However, given time and investment in equipment and skill sets then things will improve. There must have been a period in the US when the craft beer wasn’t as good as it is today."
The struggle to make ends meet
Yet investment isn't always easy to come by and this has perhaps been the biggest reason why certain products have hit the market before they were ready to face public scrutiny.
Given the tight margins faced by those at the nano end of the industry, there is intense pressure not to waste a drop. Even if an experiment doesn't quite go to plan, the beer might have to go to market simply to cover costs.
It is also difficult to justify investment in equipment designed to improve brewery processes, such as bottling lines, meaning many newcomers are forced to get by using only rudimentary equipment. In the circumstances, do we need to accept that more smaller operations will mean more mistakes?
Sam Smith, one third of Pressure Drop Brewing, is well aware of the difficulties faced at this end of the spectrum. The Hackney brewery has graduated from a 50-litre, single-vessel Braumeister kit to five-barrel brewery in less than two years and was named 10th best new brewery in the world in RateBeer's 2013 awards.
Although quality has evidently not been an issue for Pressure Drop, Sam believes the occasional flaw is a price worth paying for the ability to regularly discover exciting new beer.
He says, "On balance, the brewery boom has been good for the industry. All it means for beer drinkers is more choice.
"While I appreciate that quality can vary, the fact remains that nobody is forced to buy or drink anything they don’t like. People who like lambic beers are free to drink those, people who like Heineken are free to drink that, people who want a different beer every time are able to experiment as much as they please.
"For a start, most new breweries are producing tiny quantities of beer in relative terms. Also, quality is subjective and is up to the individual to decide.
"Personally I would prefer to take my chances and come across the odd flaw in beers I drink, while stumbling on great beers from time to time, than to drink the same things all the time and be assured of perfect consistency. But each to their own."
A downside to improved choice?
It's impossible to argue that the growth in choice has been a bad thing for the discerning drinker but what about the potential damage to consumer confidence caused by below-par beers?
The issue becomes more complicated when it is considered the general public will be far less understanding than enthusiasts when it comes to flawed beer and lasting impressions of an entire industry could be formed on the basis of one bad experience.
Whatever criticisms are thrown at the big brewers, they are nothing if not consistent and consumers will keep returning to their products because, in the main, they know exactly what they are getting.
The same can be said of many traditional family brewers. Timothy Taylor, for example, produces a core range of five beers that rarely slip below expected standards, providing a positive example for the new breed of microbreweries of what can be achieved on a smaller scale.
Quality is key if small-batch beer is to continue stealing market share from the mainstream brands in order to expand availability and variety in a sustainable manner.
America leads the way in that respect - where craft beer is predicted to represent 15% of the entire beer market by 2020 - but Rob believes upstart British brewers would be better served focusing less on their Stateside cousins and paying more heed to native traditions, particularly in terms of dispense.
He says, "It’s what these guys are striving to produce that's the issue. Cask beer really suits breweries on a budget, as the packaging is easy and the beer is drunk extremely fresh.
"However, does the new breed of craft brewers want to make cask beer? No, they see it as boring, old school and unhip. They want to copy the Americans and make IPA, saisons, wheat beers etcetera but, unfortunately, there are limitations when trying to produce beers like this on a budget, particularly in the format they want to package the beer in.
"Often it would be better to stick to cask beer or key kegs. Work on getting the right yeast count, the CO2 level, think about the styles that suit keg dispense and, if they must bottle, make sure the customer gets it as fresh as possible.
"Oxygen is the enemy of beer, it's imperative after the initial aeration of wort that its ingress is limited as much as possible, particularly during packaging. Decent bottling machines, capable of packaging beer with a low oxygen count, aren't cheap.
"You only have to look at the guys who are producing the best beer in the States like Lagunitas, Brooklyn, Oscar Blues, Russian River, Sierra, Firestone - they will all be packaging their beer on Krones or KHS fillers and have their DO2 levels down well below 50ppb.
"Many of the smaller, new breweries in the UK will be bottling beer by hand. This will invariably result in massively high oxygen levels and the beer will literally fall apart in weeks."
Dedicated followers of fashion
There is also a suggestion many new breweries are too fad-driven when it comes to recipe development.
In recent years, the market has been awash with saisons, yet it could be claimed that few have done justice to the style by paying respect to its history. As such, the criticism is that some brewers have attempted to jump straight into experimentation without first mastering their trade.
This is clearly an issue for the credibility of small-batch beer but the likes of Pressure Drop and fellow newcomers Siren Craft have shown how consistency can be successfully meshed with innovation to ensure quality doesn't suffer.
In Pressure Drop's case, their core range includes a pale ale, American-style IPA, a brown ale and a traditional London porter. This is supplemented by two beers that showcase the brewers' personalities a little more - a foraged herb hefeweisse and a smoked dunkelweiss, each perfected through extensive testing on a smaller kit tailor-made for that particular style.
Sam believes Pressure Drop are far from unique, however, and argues that the majority of new brewers are driven by similarly good intentions.
He says, "Most brewers I know are striving all the time to make the best beer they can and most of the people coming into this business are doing it because they want to make great beer.
"Beer drinkers are free to be as discerning as they like, or not. As a beer drinker myself I don’t have a problem with lack of quality – there are plenty of beers around that I like and plenty that I love. The beers I don’t like, I don’t buy.
"I think there is plenty of room for more growth in small-batch beer. The market share is still tiny. None of us can predict the future, but I always think the best way to judge how things are going is to take a look around.
"Is the number of people buying local or micro-brewed beer growing, or declining? Likewise are the sales of micro-breweries growing or declining? How are large corporations responding? From what I see day-to-day this is still something that is growing – how much, no one can say."
Education the key to progression
This kind of passion is abundantly clear in the words and actions of many upstart breweries but, at the same time, there must be a happy medium to be found between rapid expansion and maintenance of quality standards.
Perhaps the onus is on the industry itself to become more self-policing, for more experienced brewers to work with newcomers in a bid to lift overall standards and improve the reputation of small-batch beer in relation to mainstream brands.
Perhaps, also, responsibility lies with bloggers, writers and journalists - myself included - to be more critical where necessary and improve their own skills to ensure they can properly identify off-flavours such as yeast bite, diacetyl and acetaldehyde.
Ultimately, education is crucial both within the industry and the wider consumer sphere if current momentum is to be maintained in the long-term.
And in that sense, the responsibility lies with all of us to ensure proper understanding of this thing we love.
Anchor Christmas Ale 2013
Ilkley Mary Christmas
Like delving in the January bargain bins for cheap Christmas tat, here's a late round-up of two leftover festive ales.
It was a story of one I expected to like, one I didn't and two that confounded initial expectations.
I've explained elsewhere on this blog that I'm not a fan of Christmas beers. In fact, I think they're generally shite.
There's just something about throwing a load of spices into one of the standard range and giving it a 'funny' festive name that doesn't sit right with me.
So Ilkley's Mary Christmas didn't seem to stand a chance - the name being a play on best-selling pale ale Mary Jane.
Anchor's Christmas Ale, on the other hand, is marked by restrained branding and a proud history, having been produced as a seasonal special for the past 39 years.
Each year, the recipe changes, so you never know what you're getting. This year, I'd rather have maintained that sense of mystery.
It poured dark brown, verging on black, with a reddish mahogany tint running through it and a big, off-white head that left gentle lacing around the glass.
Strong aromas weren't immediately present but after sticking my nose into the glass, I knew I was in for a slightly odd experience.
It mixes a dizzying number of aromas and flavours, not all of which are entirely pleasant and not all of which you'd necessarily put together.
The nose is overwhelmingly sweet and herbal, like what you'd expect from tipping all the green-topped jars from the spice rack over a pot of brandy-soaked raisins and cherries.
Strangely, I also picked up a clear scent of bubblegum, which yielded to a late waft of coca-cola punctuated by a smidgeon of chalky chocolate and cinnamon.
Upon taking my first mouthful, all I could think was 'sarsaparilla'. Now, if you've ever been to one of those Victorian recreation museums or an East End pie and mash shop (both are a window into a past time, after all), you might know what I mean.
There's a reason sarsaparilla's popularity didn't endure much past the 19th century and that's because nobody wants to drink a soft drink that tastes like a sickly sweet mix of liquorice, herbs and cough syrup.
There was simply no recovering from this bad start. The sarsaparilla morphed into root beer and cola with a pinch of cinnamon and nutmeg but none of these flavours could calm my angry tastebuds.
The heavy sweetness faded but failed to mellow, instead swinging to the opposite extreme and producing an unpleasantly astringent finish dotted with black pepper.
Light notes of dried cherry and blueberry emerged late on but, by that time, it was far too late. I can only hope the 2014 version represents a return to form.
Mary Christmas, on the other hand, proved to be something of a dark horse.
Few beers genuinely surprise me these days, so it was great to be caught off-guard by something that shattered all preconceptions and allowed me to taste with a completely clear mind.
Pouring a dazzlingly clear, golden amber with a short-lived foamy head, it quickly fills the air with a strong blend of Christmas smells.
Cinnamon buns, brandy butter, demerara sugar, nutmeg and ginger snaps - it's like a list of favourite things from the Sound of Music.
Despite these heavy, often overpowering flavours, the beer is fairly light in body but it actually works as a benefit in this instance, ensuring it slips down easily rather than sticking in the throat.
Refreshing lemon and crisp grass come as a pleasant surprise, cleaning the palate for the arrival of nutmeg, cinnamon and ginger biscuits. Rum and raisin joins the party fashionably late, sticking around throughout a dry, bittersweet finish.
I knew my mum was right when she told me I should never judge a book by its cover.
Keg at Old Court House, Buxton, 5% ABV
What can you say about Thornbidge that hasn't already been said?
Stalwarts of British microbrewing, perennial award-winners and drinkers' favourites - their reputation for excellence has long been established, to the point where this review might be regarded as somewhat futile.
Particularly impressive is the ability to constantly innovate while simultaneously showing respect and deference to the origins and traditions of the art. That and the sheer unerring consistency of their beers, whether bottled or draught .
Put simply, whenever you spend money on a product bearing the Thornbridge logo, you're virtually guaranteed it'll be a sound investment.
So, the point of this review is less to provide another judgement and more to shine the spotlight on an unsung hero.
Jaipur and Kipling are often the names that roll off the tongue, particularly among casual drinkers, whenever Thornbidge is mentioned and Halcyon too has cultivated a fearsome reputation.
In such assertive company, it's easy to get shunted into the background and, while well-loved, Chiron isn't as loudly heralded.
Clean, fresh and thirst-quenching, it is eminently sessionable, even at a reasonably potent 5% ABV, making it one of my 'go-to' drinks during Britain's notoriously long, hot summers. But no matter what time of the year you drink it, it's just so openly enjoyable.
There's no pomp or pretence, just pleasure. The pleasure that comes from an uncomplicated, well-constructed guzzler of a beer that offers the perfect counterpoint to many of the more challenging hop monsters we're inundated with these days.
I was given a timely reminder of this fact at the Old Court House in Buxton, a cosy little pub next door to the Buxton Brewery Tap House that now carries a solid range of Thornbridge beers, making it well worth a visit after you've finished gorging yourself on Axe Edge.
During my recent visit, Bavarian pilsner Bayern was on excellent form but Chiron remained the clear stand-out.
As usual, its looks matched its taste - the crystal-clear golden liquid topped by a neat, frothy white head, which sticks around right till the death.
Floral and citrus notes intertwine in the nose to create a sensation not dissimilar to a lungful of fresh country breeze. Lemongrass, grapefruit and orange zest forge a clear path through the sinuses, while fuzzy peach and summer flowers tickle lightly.
Unsurprisingly for a Thornbridge beer, the malting is spot on, honey biscuit and fluffy brioche providing a springboard for the hops to hit impressive heights.
Piquant lemon and grapefruit mingle with apricot and peach, while sherbet fizzes on the tongue, ultimately giving way to the developing presence of tangerine zest and a crisp, bitter finish. That bitterness is far from overpowering, however, helped along by lingering floral hops, subtle yet aromatic in the aftertaste.
I've occasionally heard critics complain that Chiron lacks complexity. If that's true then I'm more than happy to forfeit complexity for something this damn drinkable.
Burning Sky Saison à la Provision
Keg, 6.5% ABV
Burning Sky Devil's Rest
Keg, 7% ABV
Both at Red Willow, Macclesfield
And you're just a dreamer if you don't realize
And the sooner you do will be the better for you
Then we'll all be happy, and we'll all be wise
And all bow down to the burning sky
Now, I can't be completely sure but I don't think Paul Weller had beer on his mind when he wrote those particular lyrics.
In fact, I'm pretty sure the 'burning sky' in the old Jam classic was more of a malevolent presence than a force for good down the pub.
But, given the unbridled excitement that greeted Burning Sky's recent arrival, the final two lines quoted above appear particularly prophetic.
Its establishment marked the return of a well-known and well-respected face in British beer, Mark Tranter, the former head brewer at well-established Sussex brewery Dark Star.
But this new venture represents something of a departure from his previous role. The commitment to a strong cask core remains - Devil's Rest joined by pales Plateau and Aurora at the heart of the brewery's range - but has been supplemented by a focus on innovation through adherence to tradition.
It's an intriguing paradox but by drawing on long-standing Belgian methods, Burning Sky could create a variety of fresh and interesting new British beers.
Barrel-ageing, wild yeast cultures and blending will be key to this, as will the saison, a style that has been done to death over the past two years.
A common complaint is that many of these saisons have not exactly been faithful to the origins, more IPAs fermented using saison yeast than faithful representations of the style.
But any saison fatigue I might have been suffering was quickly washed away by my first gulp of the Saison à la Provision. It does exactly what this beer was supposed to do when it was first conceived by the farmers of Wallonia by combining taste with the refreshment of an arctic waterfall.
After undergoing primary fermentation with saison yeast, it's spiked with Lactobacillus and Brettanomyces during secondary to create a delightful depth of aroma and flavour.
Pouring cloudy peach with a small white head, it immediately releases smells of the barnyard, hay, earthy funk and firm spice filling the nostrils. Sharp lemon lingers in the background without ever cutting through the other aromas and, oddly, there's even the merest hint of banana milkshake.
The taste is sweet and soft at first, like a spoonful of caramel swirled in a huge pot of stewed apple, but quickly begins to firm up.
A squirt of lemon and sprinkle of orange zest tangles with firm red apple and young peach, while a tanginess tickles the corners of the mouth. Clove and spice build in the lead-up to the finish, which is long and arid, with just a slight tingling sourness sticking around throughout.
Devil's Rest might sit on more well-established ground as a 7% IPA but it shows similar promise and felt like a real decadent treat.
Deep and hazy burnt orange in colour and topped by a thin white halo, it exuded thick aromas of pine, passion fruit, lychee and tangerine, with caramel and heavy cedar hanging in the back of the nostrils.
The taste is lush sticky caramel and sherbet followed by a huge rush of powerful hops that seem to shoot on a main line to the pleasure receptors in the brain.
Big resinous notes pound away while delicate spice, pineapple, passion fruit and lime fizz in the foreground and a maturing malt character provides a solid nutty backbone.
It finishes bitter yet pleasantly piquant; dry yet leaving the slightest sticky residue in the mouth. It ticks most of the boxes for a big IPA, although I'm not sure how well it will translate to cask.
Regardless, both beers suggest Burning Sky will have some treats in store during 2014.
Bottle, 5.4% ABV
Of all the beers on my #12BeersOfXmas list, this had possibly the most personal resonance.
It was a recent find in a local off-licence and caught the eye because it came from a brewery that claimed to be based in Didsbury, the place I currently call home.
Now, if you know Didsbury, you'd know it's an unlikely place for a brewery.
Rents round here are sky high and there isn't exactly an abundance of vacant industrial units. It's the epitome of aspirational commuter belt Manchester.
As it turns out, Geipel is headquartered in Didsbury yet brews in Gellioedd, Wales, specialising in traditional lager.
Unfortunately, my first experience of their amber lager Zoigl was less than favourable.
Both the aroma and flavour were dominated by acetaldehyde.
It smelled strongly of bruised granny smith apples and tasted of the same, joined by redcurrants and a touch of nutty dark malt.
It was clearly not an accurate representation of how this beer should taste and I strongly hope it was a one-off.
Everything else I've seen seems to suggest Geipel is a slick, well-resourced operation and it would be quite refreshing to find a new brewery that specialises in strict adherence to a limited range of traditional styles.
Celt Ogham Ash
Bottle, 10.5% ABV
On the second day of Christmas, my true love brought to me...
Well, she brought me an entire delivery of Swedish flat-pack furniture so, by extension, five whole hours of swearing, shouting, assembling, dismantling, hammering and screwing (no, not that kind you dirty so and so).
After all that, I was ready to turn to the hard stuff (I warned you once already, get your mind out of the gutter).
Luckily, Celt's Ogham Ash was on hand to calm those frayed nerves. At 10.5% ABV, this Imperial Russian Porter would bring serenity to a Tasmanian devil and represents a seriously self-indulgent treat.
Black as a panther, opaque and glossy with a huge tan head, it has the dark, destructive appearance of a proper porter. You know, the type of menacing beer that coldly stares you down and threatens to cause some serious damage.
The nose is amazingly lush but perhaps not what you would expect. Rather than coffee and chocolate, you're instantly overcome by spicy hops and ripe fruit notes, as if a basket of fresh plums, cherries, blackberries and herbs had been thrust in front of your face.
Once that intial surprise passes, notes of toffee, vanilla and charcoal begin to grow and cocoa emerges from the background to play a more prominent role. The finish is port-like, as the significant alcohol presence makes its presence felt, spreading a fresh heat through the sinuses.
Befitting the appearance and aroma, it's beautifully thick and oily, coating the mouth and lips with a delicious, sticky residue.
The malts are in charge from the start, thick treacle toffee and liquorice forming a harmonious union with fruity flavours of raisin, dried cherry and damson, while chalky dark chocolate sits politely in the background.
Briefly the hops jump into the foreground, candied orange with stimulating spice providing an interesting counterpart to the rich and heavy malt flavours.
But they fade again in the finish, allowing roasted malt, bitter chocolate and coffee to leave a lasting impression in the dry, vinous finish.
If you're looking to an antidote to the drudgery of flat-pack furniture construction, this might be what you're after.
Siren Craft Brew Limoncello IPA
Bottle, 9.1% ABV
My first taste of Siren Craft's Limoncello IPA is one I'll never forget.
Coming during this year's excellent Birmingham Beer Bash, it provided the most memorable moment of an equally memorable event - a thrilling shot of adrenaline that kicked off an incredible evening of food, drink and revelry.
It also doubled as my formal introduction to Siren's entire range of beers and confirmed everything I'd heard about bold brewer Ryan Witter-Merithew.
Daring, outlandish and wonderfully idiosyncratic, it encapsulated the radically inventive approach of an accomplished craftsman unbridled by traditional creative boundaries.
As far as introductions go, this was less stuffy handshake and more aggressive chest bump followed by flying high-five - not everyone's going to like it but at least it doesn't feel the need to follow the crowd.
Forget, for one minute, the painful mental images of luminescent yellow goop served in bad Italian restaurants usually conjured by the word 'limoncello'.
Better representations of the zesty, refreshing sipping liqueur can be a delight and this beer is an impressive tribute to the unique Italian creation.
What's even more impressive is the amount it has improved since the first tasting. In the five months since Birmingham Beer Bash, I've had two more bottles of Limoncello IPA - originally brewed in collaboration with Mikkeller and Hill Farmstead - and each was better than the last.
Pouring a murky golden orange with a miniscule white head, its appearance probably belies the rest of the experience.
Inhale and a whoosh of fresh lemon zest and juice shoots straight up the nose, clearing out the sinuses with its cutting, clean citrus edge. Skunky, herbal notes come from the Citra and Sorachi Ace, which have clearly been added by the bucketload, and there's some biscuity malt lurking underneath.
The taste is equally invigorating, juicy lemon exploding in several bursts across the palate - at times tart, bitter and sweet.
But none of these distinctive different flavours are allowed to run riot. The sourness from the lemon juice finds its counterbalance in the sweetness from the lactose and some coconut from the Sorachi even creeps through, creating a flavour reminiscent of lemon cheesecake.
A pleasant acidity finds its home in the corners of the mouth, causing a kind of sour smile that continues throughout the tangy, tart finish.
It's an utterly bizarre, brilliant beer.
Honest Brew Smugglers 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.
Partizan 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.
Red 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.
Bad Seed India Pale Ale
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.
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.
Colin 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."
It'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.
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.
"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."
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.
Harviestoun 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.
Fyne 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...
Kernel and Brodie's Scanner Darkly Black IPA
Keg at Common, Manchester, 6.9% ABV
These two names, together on one label were enough to get the juices flowing.
I'm a big fan of both, so together expected them to be capable of ruling the world - at least the world as defined by the confines of my beer-obsessed brain.
In light of this, perhaps the sheer weight of expectation became too much. Perhaps the whole isn't always equal to the sum of its parts.
Either way, this was a beer that disappointed me. Not that it's a bad beer as such, just that it failed to excite my senses as much as the collaboration had aroused my interest.
I think it suffers from the same syndrome that has beset many a black IPA, in that it doesn't really do anything that an IPA wouldn't. If it smells like an IPA and tastes like an IPA, it's an IPA, right? Yet it's black - and therein lies another problem. Is a black 'pale' ale not an oxymoron?
Consequently, few black IPAs have really wowed me. Maybe that's more of a reflection on my own stubborn views than an indictment of the beers themselves but I expect a dark beer to pleasure my palate with rich, robust malt flavours. Unfortunately, they just don't come through strong enough in Scanner Darkly.
It pours a deep, muddy brown with a proud, lasting tan head and gives off strong aromas of juicy orange and pineapple, with just a whiff of roasted malt lingering underneath.
Yet that hint of malt is completely overwhelmed in the taste by the punchy hop flavours, a combination of piquant pineapple, passion fruit and orange, zesty grapefruit and bitter resinous notes.
A pleasant light caramel sweetness does manage to steal the slightest bit of limelight from those strong hop characteristics but doesn't do anywhere near enough to merit a starring role.
Still, Scanner Darkly remains a really drinkable beer and that's where the problem lies - criticism does start to seem a little futile when the beer in question is better than a large number of its contemporaries. But it's just not a dark beer dammit!
Northern Monk New World IPA
Like when Amerigo Vespucci and chums set off to discover what became known as the new world, maybe the ship has sailed here.
This review would have been better published a month prior because, rather than talking about the opening of new frontiers, I'm left to focus on the end of one particular adventure. What I'm trying to say, rather clumsily I may add, is that Northern Monk is no more - at least not in its original incarnation.
Initially set up as a joint venture by Russell Bisset and award-winning homebrewer David Bishop, otherwise known by his online alias Broadford Brewer, the gypsy brewers enjoyed a whirlwind start to life marked by the production of three critically-acclaimed beers within a few short months.
Unfortunately, this success came at a price, with David announcing last week that the demands of a day job and family life meant he would be reluctantly leaving the brotherhood.
Northern Monk will continue on with a new hand at the tiller - and hopefully similar levels of prosperity - but their opening beery trinity will now stand as a testament to a potent partnership that ended all too soon.
The New World IPA was the first of these three - Strannik Imperial Stout and Weird Beard collab Bad Habit being the others - and a beer well worth getting your hands on.
It pours a luminescent golden orange, shining bright like a beacon yet clear as a bell with a thin white head that sits delicately on top, screaming 'drink me'.
As the name might hint, it's a beer that's all about the hops, a heady mix of American, Antipodean and English melding a variety of distinct, yet complimentary, aromas and flavours. The nose is jammed full of juicy fruits, lemon, orange, pineapple and passion fruit all desperately trying to attract your attention.
There's plenty of balance on the palate, however, a soft, sweet blob of caramel easing the path towards an outburst of hoppy goodness. Lush mango and passion fruit start the party but are soon followed by sharp lime, orange zest and a touch of earthy spice, leading to a bitter grapefruit finish.
It's incredibly drinkable, even at 6.2% so it's a shame David won't be able to provide us with a steady supply of the stuff. We can only hope Nothern Monk's new chapter follows suit.
Jonny Heyes, owner of Manchester's Port Street Beer House, features in the first of Beer Battered's Propping up the Bar series, focusing on the people behind our favourite watering holes.
Port Street Beer House has been credited with sparking a sea change in Mancunian drinking habits.
Although our fair city harbours a long, proud tradition for brewing and imbibing, the unassuming Northern Quarter watering hole has significantly upped the stakes.
Over the past three years, it has brought some of the world's best beers and brewers to Manchester, introducing casual drinkers to the kind of rarities previously available to only the most devoted beer hunter.
Before Port Street opened its doors in 2010, no other bars had dared to be quite so adventurous in the range and variety of their beer offerings. Since then, a host of venues have followed its lead by drastically expanding their 'craft' offerings.
It speaks volumes when you suddenly begin stumbling across cans of Modus Hoperandi on a night out or when bottles of Schlenkerla Rauchbier magically appear in previously uninspired beer fridges.
Yet one man, Port Street's owner Jonny Heyes, takes a more humble view of the bar's impact.
"It hasn't really been difficult finding an audience in Manchester," he says. "I think we're standing on the shoulders of giants with Marble around the corner, Knott Fringe and plenty of others.
"They've been paving the way for many years, so we wanted to make sure we had an offering which brought something different to the mix and didn't just replicate what was already there. For example, we didn't stock any Marble beers for the first year or so, our view being that if you want Marble no-one's going to do it better than them.
"The motivation for setting up Port Street was a mixture of doing something I was really interested in, as well as feeling that there was a real groundswell of new stuff happening in the beer world and a growing demand for somewhere to access it."
Before branching out with Port Street, Jonny successfully cut his teeth at quirky Edge Street drinking den Common, now a cornerstone of Northern Quarter nightlife.
Initial attempts to expand the beer selection were tentative, limited by a lack of space and ready supply.
But, motivated by a pre-existing passion for good beer, Jonny and his team slowly but surely built on their offering, their experience acting as a helpful barometer to gauge the demand for a bar in the Port Street mould.
Having gained encouragement from the initial response, it was then just a case of finding the right premises - no mean feat when it is also essential to escape pubco and brewery ties.
"We'd always wanted to have a selection of great beer but always struggled for space," says Jonny. "We used to have Marble beers in bottles and I used to love Lagonda IPA... Still do.
"Then eventually, we got a bigger cellar at Common and finally had room to put in a stillage and serve some great cask ale, along with finding some new suppliers for never before seen - to our eyes - American craft beer. It was kind of useful before opening Port Street because it gave us a chance to gauge the demand.
"But there wasn't really anything in particular that convinced us to open Port Street, we just found a premises that we thought would be perfect for it.
"We wouldn't have the business we have today if we were tied so that was vital really. But it's pretty frightening seeing the bills roll in for a cellar fit-out and all those bits that a brewery would cover."
In the years since, a dizzying list of beers have crossed the bar at Port Street, providing the geeks among us with the right tools to help scratch that persistent itch. After all, this was the bar that gave me my first taste of draft Mikkeller and Toccalmatto and got me hooked on Kernel's Double Citra.
Consequently, picking a favourite has become an impossible task.
"There's too many to possibly pick one," admits Jonny. "My top three from the recent weeks is MacFannybaw by Against the Grain, First Frontier by Tø Øl and we've just had some great beers delivered by Cromarty which I love, AKA IPA a particular favourite."
And when it comes to favourite moments, the simple pleasures still seem to hold most sway.
Jonny says, "There have been lots, to be honest, but some of the events we've done have been great and we've been graced by some real greats of the brewing world, like Garrett Oliver, Matt Brophy and Bruno from Toccalmatto.
"But more than that I like just sitting in the corner quietly nursing a pint watching people having a nice time."
However, despite Port Street's obvious impact, Jonny still believes Manchester has some catching up to do, particularly when compared to the capital.
The emergence of Blackjack and Quantum, among others, has helped to contribute to a healthier, more varied brewing scene but the city still lacks the sheer concentration of microbreweries that can now be found in London. In Hackney alone, there are six or seven within spitting distance of one another and yet more seem to emerge every month.
"I'd like to see some more little breweries popping up," says Jonny. "If you look at the growth of new breweries in London at the moment we are lagging behind somewhat. Saying that, there's quite a few popped up recently, 6 'o' Clock being one and Mad Hatter from Liverpool too.
"There's maybe some room for bars still but I'd be tempted to say it's more a case of existing bars absorbing a greater craft beer range into their existing operation. It's pretty straight forward to do.
"I think it's very telling that not many new bars are opening without a hand pull and some craft beers in the fridge."
A situation that cannot fail to delight the average Mancunian beer lover.
Maybe I should have left it at 'just the one'.
After just the five single-hopped beers, coming on the back of two post-work beverages, my first CAMRGB Twitter event became a little bit cloudy by closing time at around midnight.
Having never participated in one of these evenings before, I hadn't quite known what to expect when signing up for #JustTheOne and was excited to see how it might pan out.
But, never one to do things by half, I offered to host the bloody thing as well.
I had approached Simon Williams of CAMRGB a while back with the idea of setting up a night of single-hop beers, designed to get people talking about different hop varieties by going back to the basics.
It can often be difficult to differentiate the characteristics of different hops when they're asked to play nicely alongside several other varieties, so a bit of one-on-one time can help drinkers to better understand their own tastes, as well as the ingredients that make up their beers. From that conversation, #JustTheOne was born and an enjoyable night it was too.
No matter how many or how few were online at any given time, it was great to indulge in a bit of pub chatter from the comfort of your own home. Beyond discussing tasting notes, it was just good to share light-hearted conversation and the odd joke with light-minded folk, while enjoying outstanding beers. There's no way I could have indulged in such a selection in any of my local boozers.
So, to the beers. First up was a highly-anticipated specimen from Mikkeller.
I was lucky enough to pick up two samples from their single-hop series during a recent trip to Cotteridge Wines, allowing me to finally satisfy my intrigue about the experiment.
Mikkeller brewed 18 different 6.8% ABV single-hop beers in the same week, using malt from the same batches, the same yeast and the same fermentation temperatures. The aim, of course, was to showcase the unique properties of each hop so it couldn't have been a better fit for #JustTheOne.
Of the two, I plumped for the Amarillo first, as it is has long been one of my favourite aroma hops. Surprisingly, it pours a murky burnt orange colour – almost brown in certain light – with a thick dirty orange head that quickly dissipates to leave just the slightest layer of bubbles sat tentatively atop the beer.
As expected, the aromas are beautifully pungent, encompassing peach, pineapple, orange zest and some light resinous notes. But the hop really starts to sing in the tasting, taking the characteristics up another notch. Delicate mandarin orange and pine get to work before powerful pink grapefruit comes charging through, demolishing all in its way.
It's sharp and mouth-puckeringly bitter but is prevented from having things all its own way by an undercurrent of biscuity malt. A crisp finish and lasting bitterness that burrows into the corners of your mouth round off the invigorating experience.
After that high-octane start, I was simply unable to keep up the pace, so eased off a little with Mallinsons Citra at 3.9% ABV.
Citra remains one of my favourite hops, largely because of the profound effect Oakham Citra has had on my drinking life, and this was a solid representation of it. Huddersfield brewers Mallinsons have created a vast range of single-hop beers, most of them at sessionable strength, so they're always a good bet when looking to learn more about different varieties.
The Citra pours extremely lively, a glittering pot of pale gold with a thick, lasting white head that leaves a strong lacing all the way down the glass.
Perhaps surprisingly, given the hop, the aromas don't knock you out but it is slightly skunky, with a good squeeze, a handful of dry grass, some mango and a strong soapiness.
There's more mango in the flavour, some freshly-picked gooseberry and a touch of grapefruit but its the floral, grassy notes that actually dominate, making this extremely fresh, clean and drinkable.
The light malt struggles to get a proper look in but that doesn't detract from its drinkability, a crisp, dry and bitter finish providing that 'ahhh' moment. I couldn't help but think more could have been done with the hop but it works as a light session ale.
Quick 'breather' taken, it was back to the strong stuff with Brew Dog Dana at 6.7% ABV. This comes from the Scottish punks' IPA is Dead series, which set out with a similar aim to Mikkeller's single-hop saga by using exactly the same amount of hops in the boil and the dry hop, on top of the same malt base.
In all honestly, I went into this with low hopes. The series as a whole had failed to impress me, having already tried the underwhelming Waimea, Goldings and El Dorado variants, and friends had warned Dana was the worst of the bunch.
But, despite my trepidation, I actually enjoyed this.
It's far from a typical IPA as it lacks the big, juicy fruit aromas and flavours you might associate with modern incarnations of the style. In fact, it's a bit of an odd duck.
It smells like a field of wildflowers, floral and grassy, but with hints of pine and just the slightest bit of orange trying to sneak through.
The first sip kind of takes you by surprise. Instead of possessing the clean, punchy hop flavours usually associated with a Brew Dog IPA, this is spicy and sticky – almost as if lupulin is clogging every pore across the tongue.
If parma violets were made as boiled sweets rather than chalky tablets, I imagine this is what they'd taste like and although that might sound slightly unappealing, I enjoyed it. A good dose of caramel malt adds to the rounded sweetness, preventing the sneaking bitterness from making more than a brief cameo right at the death.
Following that, I cracked open the second of my two Mikkeller beers, this time their Simcoe, 6.8% ABV. As much as I'm a fan of Amarillo, I think this one trumped it, acting as a fabulous showcase for Simcoe's strengths.
It pours an cloudy copper colour with a big white head, full of huge bubbles, that rapidly sinks to leave a lasting halo at the top of the glass.
Clean aromas of lemon, grapefruit and pine whoosh immediately up the nose, at once juicy and sherberty, vivid and fresh. Pine too comes through, as well as a slightly yeasty smell.
Despite the dominant citrus in the nose, everything is in balance on the palate. The caramel malt comes through much stronger than in the Amarillo variant, giving this a backbone of iron that complements the hop flavours well. Lemon, blood orange, grapefruit and pineapple all explode in successive bursts, continually changing the character of the beer as it slides across the tongue.
Without a doubt, the best of the night.
By this point, three strong beers had taken their toll, so my night cap came in the form of Black Isle's Yellowhammer, a 4.1% ABV golden ale hopped with Cascade.
It pours an attractive clear straw colour with a frothy head that shrinks to leave a thin layer of foam that lasts as long as the beer itself.
The nose contains lemon, grass and floral notes carried on a fresh breeze, with just a hint of candy sugar.
Before drinking, a quick glance at Rate Beer – which is never recommended – showed up a host of unfavourable reviews for this effort from the Scottish brewers. 'Dull' was a word that seemed to crop up frequently, with a number of reviewers complaining about the presence of diacetyl.
Maybe I'm missing something but I don't understand what all the fuss is about. Take it for what it is, a crisp, drinkable golden session ale and this is a really good beer.
The hops ring clear as a bell, with heaps of sharp lemon joined by orange, grass and a spoonful of marmalade once it reaches the back of the tongue. It's light-bodied but contains just enough cookie dough malt and a fuzzy, sherbert sensation in the aftertaste.
Some great beers were enjoyed elsewhere too and I was particularly jealous of the Weird Beard barrel-aged Chinook enjoyed by the guys at Honest Brew.
Already looking forward to the next event.
Quantum CCC IPA
Bottle, 8.1% ABV
Where have we leapt to this time? And what is this bold new era?
OK, so I'm not quite Dr Sam Beckett but it does appear that we have entered an exciting age where bottles of Quantum's beers freely roam the earth, finding their way into more outlets than ever before. Forget the leap home, I'm quite happy to stay here for the foreseeable.
Readers from God's country - Manchester to the uninitiated - may already be familiar with the beers produced by this excellent microbrewery but hopefully we are entering a time when the rest of you can share in the enjoyment.
Brewer Jay Krause operates as a one-man band out of an unassuming industrial unit in Stockport, meaning regular availability of his beers has been limited to a handful of venues in the Greater Manchester area. But all signs point to wider reach in the near future and, believe me, that can only be a good thing.
The CCC IPA is one of my recent favourites produced by Quantum, although the Barleywine USA is also an absolute belter (review to follow very soon).
It pours a cloudy, burnt orange with a lively, thick white head that retreats rapidly back towards the liquid yet leaves a thin lacing clinging tentatively to the sides of the glass.
Typically for 'C' hops (Citra, Centennial and Columbus in case you were wondering), the aromas are pungent, led racing out of the glass by eager grapefruit. Pine and musty tropical notes follow closely behind but inhale really deeply and you can almost sense the heavy haze of a Grateful Dead gig, if you catch my drift.
The carbonation is firm and lasting but the mouthfeel is smooth as silk, sliding away far too easily for an 8.1% ABV beast. Beers this drinkable play a nasty game of rope-a-dope and before you know it, you're lay sparko on the canvas.
Accompanying this drinkability, there is still plenty of punch to delight the hopheads. Unsurprisingly there's more grapefruit, joined by sherbet lemon, a pinch of pineapple and sticky, orangey boiled sweets. But the more you drink, the more the resinous, spicy hop flavours come to the fore, particularly pine and sage.
It finishes with a lasting bitterness that latches on to the back of the tongue, refusing to let go until you take another gulp - and why wouldn't you when it tastes this good.
If you're interested to find out more about Quantum, keep 'em peeled for the first in my series of regular brewer features, featuring the man himself, Mr Jay Krause.
Meanwhile, for any Quantum Leap fans out there, I'll leave you with this:
Pressure Drop/Howling Hops Wallflower
Bottle, 5.7% ABV
The minute I saw this on the shelf at Manchester's Beermoth, two thoughts began meandering through my mind:
1. An elderflower wit? This has the potential to be bloody awful.
2. Pressure Drop AND Howling Hops? I'll curse myself if I don't at least try it.
Subterranean brewers Howling Hops have had an impressive start to life since emerging from the depths beneath Hackney's Old Cock Tavern last year, producing an extensive array of different styles and flavours.
Meanwhile neighbours Pressure Drop, located under a railway arch just round the corner, have developed some seriously tasty beers with a small-scale operation.
Together, they form an intriguing duo and one I couldn't ignore.
This beer is a variation on Pressure Drop's own Wallbanger, a fairly typical Belgian wit, which is admittedly not a style I usually go out of my way to sample but I maintained a completely open mind (not easy for an over-opinionated so-and-so).
Wallflower is brewed with foraged elderflowers and aromatic additions of orange peel, coriander and chamomile flowers so it's name seems a bit of a misnomer. With so much going on, it's not a beer that's backward in coming forward.
That said, the nose is far from overpowering, with the elderflower occasionally elbowing its way past notes of hay, grass and doughy wheat, with the odd bit of mandarin orange thrown in for good measure.
It's easy to overdo the elderflower in experimental brews of this kind but rather than chucking up a sickly wave of sweet, perfumed effervescence, Wallflower offers a crisp, herbal grassiness.
The elderflower tastes fresh and delicate rather than sticky, a characteristic that is only enhanced by the aromatics - none of which are particularly prominent but add depth and a clean, floral property.
There's a touch of spicy yeast and cream soda, probably emphasised by the lively carbonation.
Not a beer I could drink by the bucketload but a worthwhile experiment all the same.
Bristol Beer Factory Acer
Cask at The Grain Barge, Bristol, 3.8% ABV
Up to this point, I'd heard a lot about Bristol Beer Factory without ever trying one of their beers.
Shameful, I know, but limited funds and time have curtailed travel this year so the ready availability of bottle, cask or keg up north has been one of the major factors moulding my drinking habits.
You could call me parochial I suppose - and there is an element of the inward-gazing Manc about me - but life begins to get in the way when you hit 30!
Luckily, a recent trip to Bristol gave me the ideal chance to broaden my horizons. I suggested to my girlfriend we take a walk around the harbour area and... oh, shock horror, look what we've stumbled upon, Bristol Beer Factory's impressive Grain Barge pub.
'I had no idea that was there darling but... well, it'd be rude not to.'
As far as first experiences of a beer go, this was as close to perfect as I was going to get. A beautiful sunny, summer day relaxing on the water, staring out onto Bristol's iconic harbourside and the SS Great Britain.
So I grabbed a cask pint of Acer, their low alcohol, pale session ale and slumped into a couch by the window. It turned out to be a decent accompaniment.
An attractive looking pale peach beer with a thick, lasting pearl head, it emitted smells of the summer, dominated by grassy hops but also bringing floral and citrus qualities.
The taste isn't groundbreaking but more than does its job as a session ale. As expected from the Sorachi Ace hop, there is a rush of citrus, mainly orange zest and grapefruit, making way to a clean floral hoppiness, accompanied by just enough light malt to ensure the hops don't run completely amok.
It finishes extremely crisp and dry, making it a good thirst quencher and providing that 'ahhh' factor, which is a necessity in any beer professing to be a session ale. It reminded me a bit of Hawkshead's Windermere Pale in this respect.
Overall, a solid start to my experience of Bristol Beer Factory and one that has piqued my interest in trying more. Luckily, there are already two bottles ready and waiting in the kitchen cupboard!
Bottle, 4.6% ABV
Oakham Ales have a lot to answer for.
As a devoted fan of the attention-grabbing Citra hop, I could reasonably cite the Peterborough brewers as the driving force behind my regular ruination.
I'm not sure they particularly have anything against me. The path to catastrophe isn't laid out with any forethought of malice but Oakham were the first brewery in the UK to use Citra back in 2009, laying the groundwork for all manner of lip-smackingly addictive brews to follow.
Citra's complex fruit profile can often mask dangerous levels of alcohol, leading me to be deceived by all manner of pale ales and IPAs on various occasions with dangerous results.
Luckily, Oakham's guilt can be slightly assuaged by the fact their own variant of the single-hop Citra is a very drinkable 4.6%. With bottles of this recently cropping up in B&M Bargains, of all places, there's no excuse not to indulge in gallons of the stuff.
The bottle's label doesn't exactly betray the joys within. I've never really been a fan of Oakham's weird hop-faced cartoon characters but I suppose they're distinctive at least. There's really no mistaking what beer you're about to receive when that bugger is staring back at you from the pump clip on the bar.
Looking beyond the branding, this is an outstanding beer and one of my favourites to waken up the palate at the end of another long week at work.
It pours straw coloured with a small white head, leaving thin, sticky lacing all the way down the glass. Although the aroma isn't as powerful as you might expect, there are hints of citrus, hay and, to a lesser extent, tropical fruits.
Yet the taste packs serious punch, hitting you with a heady combination of sweety, zesty fruit and causing your tongue to tingle with excitement. Sharp lemon, gooseberry, pineapple and grapefruit all rear their heads (although not quite like Oakham's Captain Citra) at various stages of the experience, building up to a strong, satisfying bitter finish.
It's easy to overuse Citra - and many breweries have been guilty of that - so it's all the more impressive that this manages to harness so many different flavours without giving way to the overwhelming pissyness the hop frequently provides.
Oakham may have contributed to my downfall but, for that, I congratulate them.
Partizan Pale Ale Wakatu
Bottle, 5% ABV
Of all the new breweries who have popped up around London in the past couple of years - and they have been multiplying like rampant yeast cells - Partizan has been producing some of the most drinkable stuff.
Often there's nothing too fancy about their beers, the majority being variously hopped IPAs and pale ales, but they're just so damn enjoyable. The kind of beers you could pour down your neck for a whole evening without a care in the world.
The Wakatu variant of their pale ale is no different. It's everything you'd expect from this New Zealand hop, which seems to have enjoyed something of a revival in recent times after originally deriving from the Hallertau Aroma strain.
In fact, I'll be using Wakatu in my very own first brew, so that must be a sign of the esteemed company it is now keeping.
Anyway, back to the programme. This pours an attractive, slightly cloudy, golden peach and kicks out aromas of vibrant tropical fruit and lemongrass.
There are hints of tropical fruit in the taste as well but this is where the citrus notes really begin to take over. Grapefruit is dominant but still quite delicate, nowehere near as pronounced as in beers brewed with fellow New Zealand hop Nelson Sauvin.
Pine and zingy lime come through as well and there's just enough malt to hold it all together. It finishes dry and moderately bitter, making it very easy to put back in volume.
It's not one of Partizan's better beers (there will be more of them to come in subsequent reviews) but it's another really enjoyable effort, certainly as I look outside to see the British summer has finally arrived.
Kernel Double Citra
Keg at Common, Manchester, 9.7% ABV
It's scary how little this drinks its strength.
I'm not talking haunted house scary either, more 'night flashing before my eyes' kind of scary. One minute, you're casually sipping this delightful beverage and the next you're lay in a ditch, wearing drag and cuddling up to an inflatable sheep.
Granted, this seems to be a theme with me. Not the drag and inflatable sheep - I'd like to make that much abundantly clear - but the fact I quite regularly put back a beer faster than the Human Torch lights a cigarette only to be floored when a mate tells me it weighs in at close to 10%.
Maybe it's the Irish blood but, then again, maybe that's a crass generalisation.
Anyway, back on topic, this is surprisingly easy drinking at a potent 9.7% and it would be easy to knock back two or three in quick succession.
It shouldn't have been too much of a surprise because all the early signs had pointed in that direction. I mean, just look at it! A beautiful, cloudy, golden peach colour and thick, pearly white head make this immediately inviting.
A lively floral, citrus hop aroma only adds to the allure - making you feel as if you are witness to some kind of beery strip tease as new wonders are revealed bit by tantalising bit.
Luckily the taste proves to be the ultimate revelation, as lemon, lychee, mango, passionfruit and pineapple all combine to explode in the mouth, zinging and fizzing off the palate like a mouthful of sherbet. It's thick, creamy and resinous with a perfectly-judged dose of bready malt providing a well-rounded flavour.
The finish may not be as bitter and dry as your typical double IPA but that's a bonus in this instance, allowing the juicy hops to take over and create a truly indulgent beer.
Kernel never usually disappoint but the keg incarnation of their Double Citra, in particular, stands out as one of the best I've tasted in 2013.
Red Willow Witless I, lemongrass wheat beer
Bottle, 3.9% ABV
Red Willow Witless II, mango wheat beer
Bottle, 4.8% ABV
I approached this pair with equal degrees of excitement and trepidation.
I'm a big fan of Red Willow brewer Toby McKenzie's frequent experiments but the only other mango beer I've tried was a foul, watery brew that attacked your palate with a near vomit-inducing sweetness.
Witless II, however, is an entirely different kettle of fish.
A wheat beer brewed using mango puree, it strikes the right balance between sweet, sharp and buttery to become the perfect accompaniment for a lazy Saturday afternoon in the sun. Forget the cider slush puppies - I've never understood the appeal of cheap, sugary rubbish loaded with enough ice to house 20 eskimos - and stock your fridge with this if the British weather deigns us worthy enough to enjoy enough sun for the odd summer barbecue.
This beer is one of those hallowed few that can easily straddle the line between craft and mainstream appeal. Even my girlfriend liked it and that's saying something, considering her usual reaction to the beers I drink is something akin to a dog eating a piece of lime. Have a butcher's below if you're not sure what that looks like:
Witless II is not at all sickly because the delicate sweetness of the mango is well matched by the ensuing sharpness of the hop. It goes down pleasantly smooth and creamy before finishing with strong, biscuity malt.
It's predecessor in this range of experimental wheat beers is just as good. Witless I is brewed with lemongrass, a fact that is impossible to miss after catching a first whiff of it.
The lemon flavour is delicate and sweet rather than bitter, faintly reminiscent of the lemon sherberts that were a pick 'n' mix mainstay in years gone by. That flavour soon gives way to banana-tinged wheat before leaving an enjoyable malt finish lingering in the mouth, almost like buttered shortbread or ginger biscuits.
At 3.9% it would also be ideal for a long, summer session. More so than many of its German equivalents.
Apparently there are two more beers to come in the Witless range, including a smoked version and a 'big hoppy number'. On this evidence they will be well worth looking out for.