Connor

Connor

Wednesday, 11 January 2017 16:05

Cask beer at a crossroads?

MBW pic - cask filling

Tales of cask beer's demise are greatly exaggerated.

Despite the recent furore in the blogosphere, cask continues to grow. In fact, its share of the market has risen for four of the last five years and its market value has grown by 6.3 per cent over the same period.

The decision by Cloudwater - one of the most prominent names in the modern craft beer scene - to cease production of cask will make little difference to the vast majority of drinkers.

But that doesn't mean this development is insignificant. Even if it has little bearing on the here and now, it may offer an early warning sign for the long-term health of cask beer.

One thing is certain throughout all of this - cask is worth fighting for.

It is a uniquely British phenomenon and utterly integral to the beer-drinking experience in this country. It's romanticised and revered the world over and should be seen as a real point of pride.

Growing up in Manchester, this much was made clear to me from a young age.

I still remember a group of old timers berating me for supping a Stella in a spit-and-sawdust Sale boozer. Next time up at the bar, mithered into submission, I ordered a pint of Holt's Bitter and conceded that my elders did know best - on this occasion at least - and so began a lifetime passion.

However, we should not take it for granted. If cask beer is to continue growing, the industry must take heed of the current debate and not shy away from a number of key questions that have been raised as a result of it.

Two of the more significant questions appear to be:

  • Are brewers being paid a fair price for cask ale?
  • Does cask ale have a problem of perception, particularly among younger drinkers?

 

A fair price

One of the key reasons cited by Cloudwater for dropping cask production - and one mirrored by Buxton when they made the same call in 2015 - is that it simply isn't profitable enough, particularly when compared to keg or small pack.

There are many reasons for this but Cloudwater co-founder Paul Jones put his finger on one of the biggest when he said "traditional price points remain an increasingly compromising norm."

At risk of oversimplifying the matter a touch, this is the idea that price pressure linked to long-standing perceptions of cask beer means its value has been set too low.

We are witnessing a race towards the bottom, where brewers attempt to undercut one another in order to secure their share of an increasingly competitive market. Offers and discounts have become commonplace, often causing beer to be sold at a rate that appears unsustainable in the long term.

Such a situation can be seen as an inevitability in a free market, capitalist economy and once a product's value has been established by the market, it is hard to shift. But the current situation has been exacerbated by unbelievable growth in the number of breweries over recent years, with around 1,900 now fighting to sell into a decreasing number of pubs.

This is an industry where barriers to entry are low. On the one hand this is a major positive, as it means new products can be brought to market without the need for significant investment, but on the other hand it leads to a situation where hundreds of under-capitalised start-ups must fight incredibly hard to provide a sustainable living and achieve growth.

In this context who can really blame individuals for cutting prices in an attempt to gain a foothold in the trade?

It seems likely we will see a levelling out in the industry in the near future, where the number of brewery openings reaches something close to a balance with the number of closures. I would argue that, without significant and rapid growth in market share, it is a necessity given the difficulties many brewers face in even turning a small profit.

But would a reduction in numbers help to significantly relieve price pressure? It certainly wouldn't provide a lasting solution.

The idea that cask beer should be cheap appears to be more ingrained and, although consumer demand has played a role in establishing its value, the pub trade has also done much to suppress prices.

Anecdotally, many brewers attempting to price their products commensurate to the costs of production are met by resistance from publicans who insist on applying a restrictive price ceiling to cask beer, often regardless of style, strength or production methods.

And if local markets aren't tough enough, wholesale is being similarly squeezed. Reported price cuts applied to beer sold to Enterprise pubs through the Society of Independent Brewers (SIBA) Beerflex scheme - which apparently amount to £8 per firkin since November - represent the tip of the iceberg in this respect.

While cask brewers are facing cuts, Heineken, Molson Coors and Diageo all hiked beer prices last year because their size and clout make it a whole lot easier for them to dictate terms to the trade.

Consequently, the issue at hand is much bigger than Cloudwater and not simply a case of a handful of producers attempting to force new conditions on the market because they believe their products warrant it. An increase in the cost of basic ingredients, particularly in the midst of uncertainty over the value of the Pound, is making it harder for small breweries to make required margins on anything other than the most straightforward beers.

This won't cause the death of cask but it could cause the market to become truncated, disposing of higher-end products and placing focus on a more limited pool of styles and production methods. This doesn't bode well for continued evolution and innovation, and it curtails cask beer's ability to stay flexible in adapting to changing tastes.

Could this create a risk that younger drinkers who are less well-versed in the traditions of cask beer will turn increasingly towards modern keg beer, which can provide them with greater choice and 'excitement' wrapped up in a more premium image?

At this point it's impossible to say but such questions are certainly not without foundation.

 

A problem of perception?

Within a free market economy, it isn't sufficient to simply state that brewers should receive a fair price and expect it to become so.

Market forces will largely determine price so, instead, more needs to be done to shape expectations of cask beer within the trade and among consumers.

One of the major problems is that there appears to be a leadership void within the industry.

Stateside, the Brewers Association has put in an incredible amount of effort to promote US craft beer, demonstrating an impressive commitment to education and training, while also campaigning and lobbying on behalf of its members.

Is there anything comparable in the UK? Unfortunately, feedback from brewers about the merits of SIBA appears to have become increasingly negative and there is a belief among many that the organisation does not truly have its finger on the pulse of a rapidly-changing industry.

The Beerflex scheme might help producers to reach a wider audience but it also appears to force them to accept prices that are only sustainable in the long-term if beer is cheap to produce.

As price declines, it is likely choice on the bar will follow the same path in the majority of pubs. Cask is already offered as nothing more than a tickbox exercise by too many venues and this will not change as long as price is valued over quality.

In the circumstances, it's not difficult to see why your average consumer - with limited knowledge of cask beer - might view big lager brands such as Peroni or San Miguel as more premium products. Too often, choosing cask ale is akin to taking a turn on the roulette wheel.

Is there call for the industry to do more focused work with pubs to drill home the value of cask beer and the need for good cellar standards? It certainly seems so.

But better education should be offered to brewers too, as there appears to be a severe lack of structured, technical training on offer.

With barriers to entry in the beer industry so low and training limited, many start-ups are self-taught and quality standards have become more inconsistent as a result. That's before taking into account the chancers and under-qualified opportunists who see low barriers to entry as a chance to make a quick buck. A strong industry body could make some quick gains by proactively providing help and guidance where it is deemed necessary.

On top of this, there is still a serious need for improved consumer education. And although no other organisation has done more to create a sustainable future for cask ale than CAMRA, it should share a degree of culpability here.

Even if there is a focus on beer quality at an organisational level, this doesn't seem to be filtering down to the membership clearly and consistently enough. Too much misinformation is still perpetuated and not enough work done to educate consumers about common beer flaws and what causes them. Without revisiting the beer clarity debate for the millionth time, this remains an area where there is a fatal lack of understanding but it is one of many.

As a result, CAMRA beer festivals too often do not represent the cream of cask beer and regularly provide the consumer with more reason to believe it is nothing more than a cheap, unreliable commodity.

Drawing on personal experience, I remember one occasion where I was warned off a heavily-hopped IPA ("too hazy") and a smoked beer ("you can have it but I'm not giving you your money back") but pointed towards a pale ale that I had previously discovered was loaded with acetaldehyde for no other reason than it was pin-bright and "in great nick". Clearly, such situations only serve to undermine the good work done by CAMRA.

It could also be argued that a discount culture has taken emphasis away from beer quality. I fully understand the need to make beer affordable for all but if too much value is placed on vouchers and reducing the price of a pint, doesn't this shift focus towards volume drinking rather than enjoyment of flavours? If getting pissed is your aim, there are better options than cask beer.

 

Future challenges

I don't want to labour my previous point because, to make it clear, CAMRA is not the enemy here.

But it feels as if we are close to reaching a crucial point for the long-term future of cask beer. In the past, it represented the obvious choice for the more discerning beer drinker but the explosion in keg beer among modern craft brewers could change this, and the situation will become even muddier as the multinationals pour more money into marketing their own 'craft' brands.

Now, we are starting to see the emergence of drinkers who self-identify as 'discerning', yet turn their noses up at cask. At the same time, the majority of new craft beer venues appear to be prioritising keg over cask, while modern, mainstream bars feel are ticking the indie box by devoting a couple of keg fonts to a distributor's craft brands.

The kind of beer-heavy events that target younger demographics - often incorporating independent food, crafts and music - are also focusing on keg. Even Indy Man Beer Con, seen as the flagship event for the UK's modern independent scene has gradually phased out cask over the four years since its inception.

Granted, these are largely middle-class, urban phenomena  but tastes are often forged in the UK's cities before filtering through to the regions. Just take a look at the growth in popularity of grime music among the country's youth for evidence of that.

The situation is far from grave but an adjustment in attitudes may be required to ensure the continued rude health of a British icon. It's a time for open dialogue rather than argument and entrenchment.

 

 

Footnote - a working class drink?

Throughout the current debate about the price of cask beer and its long-term economic viability, a common refrain has been the idea that, as a traditionally working class drink, it should remain affordable to all.

Although well-intentioned, this premise is somewhat flawed.

When brewers and industry figures call for a fair price for cask beer, they are not simply asking for an arbitrary increase across the board, rather a relaxation of the idea that all cask beer should come in beneath a certain price point.

Beer made using more expensive methods and ingredients should naturally cost more but there is nothing to stop products that are made more inexpensively continuing to be sold at low cost. It is the same distinction that is made between premium and basic product ranges in every supermarket across the country.

The idea that cask beer should remain cheap is a sweeping generalisation that ignores more powerful factors at play in society.

Quite simply, LIFE is more expensive and many people can't afford to pay for the absolute basics, let alone cask beer.

The burden of providing society with life's simple pleasures does not hang on the shoulders of hard-working brewers but rather our politicians.

In fact, by forcing brewers to accept less than a fair price, we are doing nothing to address social inequality. Many of those producing cask beer, particularly at the smaller end of the market, earn below the average wage and many would be considered part of society's JAM (just about managing) segment that has become such a popular topic of conversation for the Conservative Party.

In short, the solution to the problem of the poorest within our society being unable to afford basic goods will not be solved through suppression of cask ale prices.

In this sense, Steve’s comment below about beer duty provides food for thought. Britain’s regressive beer duty, which stands significantly higher than any of the other top six brewing nations across the EU, is an example of how the Government has played a leading role in making beer less affordable for all.

Proportionately, this tax hits the poorest in society hardest and means margins across the brewing industry are heavily squeezed. Unfortunately, it’s not something we’re likely to see change any time soon.

Thursday, 15 October 2015 10:54

A golden age for British beer?

Indy Man Beer Con 2015 1

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.

Indy Man Beer Con 2015 3

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.

 Indy Man Beer Con 2015 2

Wednesday, 07 October 2015 21:19

Indy Man advent calendar - day seven

Buxton 2

Now in its fourth year, Indy Man Beer Con has established itself as one of the most significant events in the beer calendar, showcasing the best of Britain's modern independent brewing scene. Beer Battered is counting down to this year's event by providing a new blog every day in the week leading up to it. The Indy Man Advent Calendar will provide a series of different perspectives on the festival, from an organiser, a punter, a volunteer, a Mancunian brewery, an overseas brewery, a veteran Indy Man brewery and a newcomer. Previous days: one (Claudia Asch, organiser)two (Mark Welsby, Runaway Brewery)three (Chris Dixon, volunteer)four (Adam Watson, Against the Grain)five (Todd Nicolson, New Zealand Craft Beer Collective), six (Steve Bentall, punter and blogger).

Today's blog, the final one in the series, features Buxton Brewery head brewer Colin Stronge.

 

Why do you think Indy Man has become one of the most talked-about events in the UK beer calendar?

I think it relates to their beginnings. They were really a breath of fresh air for the beer festival scene. When Europe was doing some spectacular festivals, the UK was really dragging it's heels and the vast majority of beer festivals here were still fairly characterless halls with warm, generally fairly poorly-managed beer.

Indy Man reached out to Europe and beyond, something that other beer festivals here often struggled to do with any success or real intent. The first IMBC was truly a kick up the ass for festivals on this island! Their embracing of some of the world's most innovative brewers really helped them establish themselves and continue to help them push new ground in the UK.

 

What have been your personal highlights from previous years?

The variety of spaces afforded by the venue is a real treat. You can always find a comfortable spot to suit any mood, or any beverage, due to the wonderful layout of the building.

 

What's your top tip for someone attending for the first time?

Don't spend too much time in any room! Make sure you see the variety of spaces available and enjoy a beer in each one.

 

What are you most looking forward to this year?

Being there for the whole festival! The last couple of years I have had to come and go due to brewery commitments, so have never been free to immerse myself in the vibe fully and missed some brewers whom I'd have loved to meet and whose beers I would've loved to have tasted. This year I'll avoid that (hopefully).

 

From a brewer's perspective, which other brewers do you tend to look out for at Indy Man?

There are a lot of ace brewers at the festival every year. I'm always delighted to see To Øl beers as they are always mindblowing, with their variations of styles and big, bold flavours. But my favourite to see is nearly always Thornbridge. They provide great variety, a wide range of styles and rarely a grain of malt or leaf of hop out of place. Styles nailed hard!

 

What can we expect from Buxton at this year's event?

We'll have a wide variety of beers on, lots of our collaborations from this year, some specials we've held back especially and some new beers too. Hopefully a little something for everyone.

 

Heading into Indy Man, are you pleased with how the year has gone for Buxton?

It's always really humbling to be invited to these events and asked to showcase our beers. We've had a pretty mad year with expansion, staff changes, collaborations, etc. But we've managed to create some beers that I am really happy with and, thankfully, seem to have been really well received by you guys.

We're always trying to look for new styles and new combinations of flavours and we've managed a lot of that this year. That's one of the best parts of the job!

It's always great to work with other brewers, good fun and a chance to expand your knowledge around the brewhouse. We have been very lucky to work with some of the best in the world this year. I hope the beers we've made together have done them all justice.

 

Tuesday, 06 October 2015 20:44

Indy Man advent calendar - day six

Indy Man Beer Con preview 5

Now in its fourth year, Indy Man Beer Con has established itself as one of the most significant events in the beer calendar, showcasing the best of Britain's modern independent brewing scene. Beer Battered is counting down to this year's event by providing a new blog every day in the week leading up to it. The Indy Man Advent Calendar will provide a series of different perspectives on the festival, from an organiser, a punter, a volunteer, a Mancunian brewery, an overseas brewery, a veteran Indy Man brewery and a newcomer. Previous days: one (Claudia Asch, organiser)two (Mark Welsby, Runaway Brewery)three (Chris Dixon, volunteer)four (Adam Watson, Against the Grain), five (Todd Nicolson, New Zealand Craft Beer Collective).

Today's blog features Indy Man punter and beer blogger Steve Bentall, from the Beer O'Clock Show.

 

From a customer's perspective, why do you think Indy Man Beer Con has become so popular?

For me, it's a mix of things. Location is a lot to do with it, there's something about Victoria Baths' unique environment that makes it special. The range of beer and breweries is impressive and many of the brewers are there as well so you get an opportunity to chat to them and find out more about the stories behind the beer. There's also a certain unknown quality as well that's probably to do with the atmosphere. It's very chilled, relaxed and good-natured.

From the perspective of a blogger, I've also found the organisers to be very approachable and they seem to be doing it for the right reasons. It does seem to be the prime gathering for beer geeks too so you know you will bump into good people.

It's close to being the perfect festival. There wasn't a single thing I didn't like about it last year and there were different options to suit different people. For example, if I wanted music I knew there was a room I could go to, but if I wanted peace and quiet there were also plenty of places where I could find that.

 

A lot of people mention the venue. What was your first reaction upon stepping into the Edwardian swimming baths?

My first reaction was literally, 'wow, this is amazing'. It took me back to my childhood because I remember swimming in baths just like these when I was younger.

It was just perfect and I don't know whether the festival would work as well in any other location so that's a challenge the organisers face in coming years. Do they want to grow the festival? If they do they will need to move and it becomes an entirely different experience. Or do they want to maintain what they are doing now but then risk excluding people?

 

Did you have any criticisms of last year's event?

I really don't know, there wasn't anything where I thought 'they shouldn't have done that'. The balance is just right and the few little changes that they seem to have made for this year all seem to be positive. It looks like they have listened to what people have said and responded to feedback, both good and bad. But I suppose we shall see.

 

What did you make of the criticism from some quarters that the festival exudes an air of snobbery?

I think it's what you make of it but it's quite difficult to make a judgement from the inside. I'm in what many people would consider to be the 'beer geeks' circle who will find people similar to us and maybe stand and analyse the beers a bit. The average Joe might walk past that and think it's a bit snobbish but I don't really get that at all.

The atmosphere at Indy Man is very welcoming and accepting - people are just there for a good time. There was never a single point when the brewers didn't want to talk to us, even those we didn't know. Everyone is happy to enjoy a beer and have a chat.

 

What would be your one tip to help fellow punters make the most of the festival?

Try as many beers as possible and try beers from breweries you have not seen before. The brewery list is 50-strong but maybe half of the beer available you can probably get elsewhere. The other half you can only get at Indy Man Beer Con so it's worth pushing the boat out. Try the collaborations because they are always interesting.

The fact the festival is giving customers the opportunity to buy cans of any beer at the festival is just brilliant as well. They have seen a trend in the market and they have jumped on it. It's a really creative idea and just adds to the experience.

 

Is there anything in particular you're looking forward to at this year's event?

I want to try beers from Wylam Brewery after trying their Jakehead IPA and being really impressed. They seem to be making some great stuff. To be honest, I'm going to take the approach of sticking to new breweries and new beers so the likes of Halcyon and Cannonball can wait! I'm also looking forward to seeing what Galway Bay bring because if they bring their double IPA Of Foam and Fury, I might forget what I just said.

Tuesday, 06 October 2015 06:46

Indy Man advent calendar - day five

Indy Man Beer Con preview 2

Now in its fourth year, Indy Man Beer Con has established itself as one of the most significant events in the beer calendar, showcasing the best of Britain's modern independent brewing scene. Beer Battered is counting down to this year's event by providing a new blog every day in the week leading up to it. The Indy Man Advent Calendar will provide a series of different perspectives on the festival, from an organiser, a punter, a volunteer, a Mancunian brewery, an overseas brewery, a veteran Indy Man brewery and a newcomer. Previous days: one (Claudia Asch, organiser)two (Mark Welsby, Runaway Brewery)three (Chris Dixon, volunteer), four (Adam Watson, Against the Grain).

Today's blog features Todd Nicolson from Indy Man Beer Con newcomers New Zealand Craft Beer Collective, a collection of Kiwi brewers hoping to make a mark on the UK beer scene.

 

What's the background behind the New Zealand Craft Beer Collective and why was it formed? 

It's a collection of five independent breweries who were looking to share resources and help each other with the export and distribution side of things. You've got Renaissance, 8 Wired, Tuatara, Three Boys and Yeastie Boys who all offer something different to one another. Discussions about forming the collective started at the end of last year and we've been in the UK since February -  Craft Beer Rising was our first event in this country.

When we talk about the Collective and what the brewers wanted to achieve, much of it was born out of the fact we had shit beer in New Zealand so a lot of people decided to homebrew instead. There wasn't really that need elsewhere, especially in the UK where there is a strong brewing tradition. So it's created a little incubator in New Zealand because it's such a remote country and we've seen an interesting and varied beer scene grow really quickly.

What you're seeing is some really creative stuff and a really wide range of different approaches. At one end you have Renaissance, who are doing many traditional British styles with a Kiwi twist, but then you have Yeastie Boys making some weird and wonderful stuff. We just want to show people there is some great beer coming out of our country.

 

What made you decide to come to Indy Man Beer Con?

We were delighted to get the invite to Indy Man because it fit perfectly with our plans in this country. Over our first six months in this country, we've worked hard to establish ourselves in London and, because of that, our presence everywhere else has been nil.

But we have always been really keen to get our beer into Manchester and Leeds because both are great beer cities. There's a lot of good stuff going on in London but it's so spread out. But Leeds is more compact and Manchester, in particular, has a strong tradition so the beer scenes in each place have a really strong identity.

When we launched in both of these cities we wanted to go big, so we targeted Leeds International Beer Festival and then Indy Man as launch events for the collective. But the other reason why we were always keen on Indy Man was because so many people had told us it's the one event of the year you can't miss.

 

What can we expect to see from the NZ Craft Beer Collective at the festival?

Well, you won't miss us, that's for sure! We've got a huge banner that we'll bring with us and we treat these events like a party. For us, it's hard to know where the work ends and the play stops but we just want to communicate our enthusiasm for what we do.

We're bringing 45 different beers with us and will have 13 taps operating at any one time, so there will be a big mix available. We're pretty confident of the quality of the beer. If people come to us for a showcase of New Zealand hops, they'll be able to get that but there will also be a number of specials, one-offs and beers you'll never see again.

Yeastie Boys will be bringing the 2014 vintage of their annual specials His and Her Majesty, which change every year. We'll also have some of their Rex Attitude, which is one of the most divisive beers made in New Zealand. It's made with 100 per cent peated malt so is probably the beer equivalent of Laphroaig and it's one of those people should definitely try if they see it on.

We'll have Sauvinova from Tuatara, which is a great showcase of Nelson Sauvin hops. We'll also be bring some special green-hop beer with us, showcasing fresh New Zealand hops. So we'll be the only brewers at the event with green-hop beer.

 

Do you have anything else planned while you're in Manchester for the festival?

We've got a tap takeover at Port Street Beer House the day before the event because we really want to showcase what our brewers produce and get our beer in as many hands a possible.

We're also hoping to do five collaborations with Manchester breweries to tie in with the festival. We've already got two confirmed and want to organise a couple more too. Once we told the brewers that we have plenty of New Zealand hops to use, it didn't seem to be very hard for us to arrange collaborations! Once those beers are ready, in around a month's time, we're hoping to return to Port Street Beer House to launch the collaborations properly but you can expect to see us on the bar in Manchester a lot more in the future.

 

Sunday, 04 October 2015 19:00

Indy Man advent calendar - day four

Indy Man Beer Con preview 4

Now in its fourth year, Indy Man Beer Con has established itself as one of the most significant events in the beer calendar, showcasing the best of Britain's modern independent brewing scene. Beer Battered is counting down to this year's event by providing a new blog every day in the week leading up to it. The Indy Man Advent Calendar will provide a series of different perspectives on the festival, from an organiser, a punter, a volunteer, a Mancunian brewery, an overseas brewery, a veteran Indy Man brewery and a newcomer. Previous days: one (Claudia Asch, organiser)two (Mark Welsby, Runaway Brewery)three (Chris Dixon, volunteer).

Today's blog gains the perspective of Adam Watson, co-owner and brewer at American craft brewery Against the Grain, who return to Indy Man this year following a successful debut in 2014.

 

How does Indy Man Beer Con compare to festivals in America?

IMBC was actually pretty similar to many of the better Stateside festivals. The big difference for me was that most of the brewers there are not available stateside, so nearly every beer I tried was a beer I had never had before. In the States I have usually already tried most of the beers available at a festival.

Additionally, cask is pretty rare in the States. Most festivals have none and those that do tend to have one small area for it.

 

What are your personal reflections on Indy Man Beer Con following your visit last year?

I'm going to have to summarize here because there was quite a lot. The festival itself was fantastic and the venue is one of the most interesting venues I have ever seen a beer festival take place in. The aesthetics were beautiful and the plethora of different rooms allowed lots of distinct experiences. The array of beers available was also very cool.

All the brewers and drinkers I spoke with were really excited about the whole thing, so it was nice to be in such a positive atmosphere. I would also be remiss if I didn't mention the collaborative brew we did with Northern Monk while I was over there - those guys are awesome.

 

Were there any particular highlights from last year's festival?

One of my favorite parts of the festival was the cellar sampling. Twice I was given the opportunity to lead a smaller tasting in the hallways downstairs and I really enjoyed those. The chance to pair up with another brewer and to share some details about a particular beer was extremely exciting for me.

I also really liked all the opportunities surrounding the festival itself. I spent a good deal of time at Port Street Beer House and wandering about Manchester with the other top notch brewers that came to IMBC. The meet the brewer event at Beermoth was fantastic as well.

 

What can we expect from Against the Grain at this year's festival?

Unfortunately I will not be in attendance this year but two of my business partners, Sam and Jerry, will be making it out there. They will also be doing collaborations with Magic Rock and Beermoth while there. Keep an eye out, they may weird your world up.

 

Are you keen to develop more of a presence in the UK market?

Absolutely. We have increased our production volume significantly in the last few months and we are still figuring out which markets should be getting our additional liquid. Hopefully we can start growing our presence in the UK.

 

What do you make of the state of independent brewing in the UK?

With the relatively small sample size I have, I'm not sure I am qualified to answer this but I'll take a crack anyway. It seems like there is a lot of innovation and growth among small brewers in the UK. I have always found it interesting to watch the differences in growing a craft scene in a country where there was little pre-existing beer culture (USA) versus a country where there is a strong traditional beer culture (UK).

Perhaps because of the strong traditional culture in the UK, it took you guys longer to get in a groove on craft brewing but things seem to be humming along nicely now.

The barrier to entry in the US is a lot higher because alcohol is such a highly regulated industry. We have to play by a lot of rules that don't apply in the UK. It looks like you guys are taking full advantage of your relatively low barrier to entry and churning out some impressive smaller brewers who are pushing the envelope of innovation in really interesting ways.

Sunday, 04 October 2015 09:10

Indy Man advent calendar - day three

Indy Man Beer Con preview 3

Now in its fourth year, Indy Man Beer Con has established itself as one of the most significant events in the beer calendar, showcasing the best of Britain's modern independent brewing scene. Beer Battered is counting down to this year's event by providing a new blog every day in the week leading up to it. The Indy Man Advent Calendar will provide a series of different perspectives on the festival, from an organiser, a punter, a volunteer, a Mancunian brewery, an overseas brewery, a veteran Indy Man brewery and a newcomer. Previous days: one (Claudia Asch)two (Mark Welsby, Runaway Brewery).

Today's blog asks Chris Dixon, a regular volunteer and co-organiser of Birmingham Beer Bash, for his thoughts on the festival.

 

Why do you think Indy Man Beer Con has become so popular, so quickly?

Indy Man is clearly the leader in the 'craft beer' revolution of beer festivals. They've chucked out a lot of crap CAMRA event pathos and replaced it with vibrancy, effervescence and downright fabulous ideas.

 

You volunteer at a lot of different festivals but what makes Indy Man Beer Con different from others?

From a volunteer perspective, there's much more of an element of camaraderie over the whole group than at most other festivals. The interaction between volunteers, brewers and Indy Man staff is pretty much perfect.

 

What have been your highlights from previous years?

My highlight is always 'who's the new kid on the block that's going to get the Turkish Baths?' Last year's Beavertown party is going to be hard to top. This year my money's on New Zealand Beer Collective, by the way.

 

What are you most looking forward to this year?

I'll be honest, I haven't really looked at the brewery and beer list yet because I'm working most of the event - as normal! I guess I'd say the revamped cask spots, if pressed. There is the promise of super rare beers just in cask, which is really appealing because cask is still my first love.

 

What's your best tip for someone attending for the first time?

Have a look around. Soak in the atmosphere then go and find out which brewers are serving you. It really is the biggest highlight for the casual observer. Ignore the beer list and go and talk to these guys instead. They'll find your perfect beer, I promise. My first year I managed to blag a spot serving with Kjetl from Nøgne Ø and he was awesome!

 

Given you're a regular festival volunteer, what motivates you to do it?

Two main reasons. Firstly, you learn a heck of a lot. Even those old-fashioned guys at CAMRA have taught me shedloads of things. My job is nothing to do with beer so it's a completely different experience. Lifting stuff, fixing broken equipment or lashing together fixes for the unexpected - I've learnt this in spades.

Secondly, you meet so many absolutely amazing people. From brewers to landlords, from bloggers to people that genuinely just love beer. And then it takes over your life. As a single guy, with few overheads and a decent job, it's pretty much the perfect pastime.

 

What is the one thing you would ask of punters that would make volunteers' lives that much easier?

Just to remember that we are just that. Volunteers. We don't know everything but give us a chance and we'll sort you out.

Saturday, 03 October 2015 07:31

Indy Man advent calendar - day two

Runaway Brewery 4

Now in its fourth year, Indy Man Beer Con has established itself as one of the most significant events in the beer calendar, showcasing the best of Britain's modern independent brewing scene. Beer Battered is counting down to this year's event by providing a new blog every day in the week leading up to it. The Indy Man Advent Calendar will provide a series of different perspectives on the festival, from an organiser, a punter, a volunteer, a Mancunian brewery, an overseas brewery, a veteran Indy Man brewery and a newcomer. Previous days: one (Claudia Asch, organiser).

Today's blog asks Mark Welsby, head brewer from Manchester brewery Runaway, for his thoughts on their hometown festival.

 

Why do you think IMBC has become such a highlight in the UK beer calendar?

In a nutshell, Indy Man seems to capture everything that's progressive and exciting about the UK beer scene right now, rams it into one of the most beautiful buildings in the country and fills it with people who are passionate about beer. What's not to like? In my view it has totally redefined the idea of a beer festival and people love it for that.

 

Being a Manchester brewery, does it represent a particular source of pride when you are invited to participate?

Of course. I remember sitting in the Ladies pool at IMBC in 2013 when our little brewery was still in planning stages. We were looking at the calibre of the breweries involved and laughing with friends about how, one day, we might get invited. That possibility seemed such a long way off, I can tell you. So to have been invited this year is a source of great pride for us. We're really looking forward to it.

 

What have been your highlights from previous years?

The choice of beers on rotation is fantastic. Unlike a lot of other festivals, every session offers something new to try, which is great. I always enjoy a wander around the baths because its such a great interior and I have been found sitting up in the old spectator area just drinking it in once or twice. I really enjoyed meeting Bruno from Toccalmatto last year too and it's great that you can meet the brewers serving their own beer.

 

What's your best tip for someone attending for the first time?

Listen out for impromptu tastings and meet the brewer pop up events. These are a good opportunity to ask questions, try beer for free and learn more about the story behind a beer or brewery. (Listen out for a bell, which usually signifies the start of one of these events. But be quick, places are limited. Ed.)

 

What are you most looking forward to this year?

Working at the festival on Saturday and Sunday will be good - being behind the bar for a change is something we really enjoy. Its a great way to get instant feedback on our beer and there's nothing quite like seeing somebody enjoy the fruits of your labour. I hope we can put a smile of one or two faces.

 

What makes IMBC different from other festivals?

As a drinker - the quality of the breweries showcasing their less mainstream beers and the beer rotation across sessions so that every session feels like a different festival from a beer perspective. The venue and food are great too, so it's hard to think of somewhere better.

As I said earlier, I think of IMBC as the prototype for the modern beer festivals. It feels very relevant and it really captures the spirit of the beer scene right now. It really feels authentic, collaborative and independent, and the beer on show represents some of the most diverse, exciting and innovative out there, from some of the best breweries in the UK and beyond.

 

What can we expect from Runaway at this year's IMBC?

What? Apart from highly unprofessional bar service? Well, we'll be launching our new double IPA and will serve that alongside a couple of very limited edition collaborations we've done with Indy Man Brew House, Pig and Porter and Crisp Maltings.

We've saved a couple of specials that people may not have had chance to try over the summer too, so hopefully there'll be a few new things to folks to try. We've also let Chorlton Brewing Co loose on our IPA, so fascinated to see how it turns out.

Thursday, 01 October 2015 16:26

Indy Man advent calendar - day one

 IMBC recap 1

Now in its fourth year, Indy Man Beer Con has established itself as one of the most significant events in the beer calendar, showcasing the best of Britain's modern independent brewing scene. Beer Battered is counting down to this year's event by providing a new blog every day in the week leading up to it. The Indy Man Advent Calendar will provide a series of different perspectives on the festival, from an organiser, a punter, a volunteer, a Mancunian brewery, an overseas brewery, a veteran Indy Man brewery and a newcomer. Today's blog focuses on organiser Claudia Asch...

 

Without wanting to blow your own trumpet, you must be pleased with how well IMBC has fared so far. What do you think has been the secret to your success?

We've always worked hard to be inclusive, to have something for everyone happening at IMBC that will make it memorable and make people want to return year on year. We love beer geeks, of course, and there will always be plenty for them at IMBC, such as the Tilquin tasting this year and some other surprises from Beermoth. But we also want to people just to have a great time in the splendour that is Victoria Baths, surrounded by great food and snacks, and excellent beer.

We try to go back to the drawing board each year and reinvent IMBC a little bit, and we think that that shows in the breweries that we choose, the food, the snacks, the talks and tastings, and the decor and set-up. It's about building beery (or cidery) memories that will bring people back year on year.

 

Given the huge number of breweries now operating in the UK, how do you go about choosing which are invited to participate?

In a nutshell, it's getting harder each year. We are always spoilt for choice and it's a balancing act, we want our good friends to come back, but we also want the opportunity to showcase some newcomers that we think are hitting above their weight already. Manchester's brewing landscape has changed quite a bit in the last year, and the same goes for all over the country.

A lot of names and breweries are circulated in our initial meetings, then we see who is actually up for it, particularly breweries from overseas. Then we suddenly find ourselves with a list of 50 breweries. Therefore, changing some breweries after three sessions gives us chance to showcase more.

 

What expectations do you place on the breweries in terms of the beer that is offered for the festival?

We encourage beer launches and specials. That is partially the idea behind us collaborating with breweries to bring some new beers to IMBC. Many breweries keep some specials tucked away for us or do a slightly different version of a beer for IMBC.

For some, it can be a bit of a test run. Thinking back to last year, Beavertown's Earl Phantom - a lemon, iced tea sour brewed in collaboration with IMBC - has been a big success for them, so much so they have rebrewed it and even canned it. We're quite proud of that.

Two years ago, Buxton brought a tea saison in cask that still gets talked about and in our first year, Brian Dickson - now head brewer at Northern Monk - used a Randall to add even more chillis to a chocolate chilli stout. People still remember how that kept getting hotter and hotter! Generally, people remember these beers and they know where they drank them.

 

Obviously there are always areas that can be improved. What changes have you made this year as a direct result of lessons learned from last year?

Oh boy, where to start? People asked about a separate bar for the collaboration beers last year so they will be on the Portable Street Beer House in room two this year. Those beers will be available throughout IMBC and we're hoping people really enjoy them — so much that there will be six packs and individual cans of the collabs for sale!

People also felt that cask wasn't visible, so we've gone back to our roots, like in the first year and have a dedicated cask bar in room two that will showcase lots of cask specials. All the food will be outside this year, mainly to reduce the food fog in room two that was a bit of a problem, and it has freed us up for more bars.

 

Cask did seem to be put in the shade a little at last year's festival, which was my biggest gripe. Was there any reason for this?

Perhaps we didn't really ensure that the cask offering was interesting enough last year but it's a difficult thing to gauge. Speaking to other festivals, there does seem to be a trend, however, that punters will try and go for more keg beers at an event than, say, if they spend an evening at the pub.

Now that we have a dedicated cask bar again, we hope that visitors will be able to find it easily and also recognise that there are some beers on there that they may never see again. As always, we'll ensure that the beer has been properly stillaged and is ready to go when we open on Thursday.

 

What is your top tip to help punters make the most out of the festival?

Crikey! Be experimental, be willing to try beer styles you've not tried before and try a brewery you've not tried before. The brewers will be on the bars, so pick their brains.

Go with the flow, explore the lovely Victoria Baths, be sure to eat what our lovely food vendors have on offer and hopefully, you'll have an amazing time.

 

Is there anything in particular we should look out for this year?

The brethren from Northern Monk are going to transform the Turkish Baths into a mini-abbey. David Walker from Firestone Walker will be at IMBC on Saturday and Sunday, so make a beeline for their bar in the Green Room if you want to meet him. He'll also be doing a talk on Firestone Walker and the California beer scene on Saturday night.

Then there are cans! We believe we're the first beer festival to have a takeaway canning service available. There will also be demos on off-flavours on Thursday and Friday from FlavorActiv, and much, much more.

Thursday, 01 October 2015 11:15

Brewer focus: Mark Welsby, Runaway Brewery

Runaway Brewery 5

The unglamourous life of the lone brewer is a far cry from the white-collar world of big business.

Slick suits are traded in for workwear speckled with caustic burns. A modern office fashioned from sparkling glass and steel is scrapped in favour of a dingy industrial unit clad in corrugated metal.

And the buzz of a busy office is swapped for the rumbling groan of trains passing overhead.

Given the obvious differences, the route from corporate cog to solitary labourer might not appear to represent an obvious career path but it was exactly this contrast that appealed to Mark Welsby of Runaway Brewery. After 15 years working as a environmental engineer, he had reached breaking point and saw brewing as the perfect escape route.

Joining forces with long-time friend Darren Clayson, he took a huge leap of faith and bought Bespoke Brewing's old five-barrel kit to fit inside an industrial unit beneath a railway arch in Manchester's Green Quarter. Eighteen months later, Runaway has developed a reputation as one of the most reliable new breweries in Manchester.

"Darren had sold his business and I was miserable as sin in my job," says Mark. "We had both spent most of our lives working in corporate environments, which we hated, so we reached a point where we thought 'if we don't do something now, we're going to look back and think we've missed the opportunity'.

"Darren is a beer obsessive and CAMRA member, and I love the whole pub culture so starting a brewery really appealed to us both. The business environment in brewing is also relatively supportive because the industry is very collaborative and there are lots of microbreweries who help each other out. So it was a chance to move from a very competitive, corporate environment to the opposite of that, which was attractive.

"I just find the whole brewing process very satisfying and there's something tangible at the end. I used to do consultancy and there was nothing tangible about that. Actually having a product which you're proud of is a big change for me and it makes your efforts seem much more worthwhile.

"It was a life decision as much as a beer decision. I could say I loved beer so much that I had to open a brewery but it wasn't about that. It was more that I wanted to improve my life.

"I knew I wasn't motivated by money because, in my previous role, the more successful I got, the more miserable I got. Brewing gave us the chance to leave everything we hated about our previous jobs, so we came upon the name Runaway because we were both escaping our past lives."

Runaway Brewery 1

Runaway Brewery 3

Unfortunately, this contrast between old career and new was also the source of Runaway's biggest challenge.

Without any previous brewing experience, the pair faced an incredibly steep learning curve before even being able to put any beer out to the public.

However, by absorbing crucial lessons from more experienced brewers and being careful not to overstretch themselves, they have largely managed to avoid any costly missteps.

"It has been a really big learning process," admits Mark. "Darren still lives down in Northamptonshire so he largely helps me with things like spreadsheets and accounts, while I do the brewing.

"We started out by doing a brew course at York Brewery with David Smith and I was also keen to gain experience by visiting other, well-established brewers in the area.

"I'm really precious about our output and constantly looking at ways I can refine our processes - as much as anything, it's a case of survival. When you're running a small business like this you have to be really careful not to let standards drop.

"People only see our beer on tap maybe once or twice a month, so if that experience isn't a good one then it's game over. The damage to your reputation would be huge, so it's really important to monitor yeast counts and keep tweaking recipes.

"I'm working very hard to ensure quality standards don't drop and so far we've been OK. But, as a result of this, one thing that has taken a back seat is the experimental side of brewing. I'm too focused on honing our quality to start thinking about what new styles we can create."

Runaway Brewery 4

This is reflected in a no-frills core range, which could never be considered groundbreaking but, equally, never seems to disappoint.

Year-round regulars comprise a Pale Ale, an IPA, an American Brown and a Smoked Porter, supplemented by a handful of seasonal specials, including a Summer Saison, Märzen Lager, Rye IPA and soon a Double IPA.

The two pales from the core range, in particular, offer persuasive lessons in simplicity - clean, well-balanced and popping with flavours of citrus and tropical fruit, which are vivid but never crude or overpowering.

Aside from concerns over consistency, this approach also hints at an intertwining of tradition and modernity. Runaway's beer is clearly influenced by the recent American craft scene, while also attempting to capture the straightforward drinkability of the old school English session ale.

Mark says, "Flavour and consistency must be in balance. I just want my beer to be better, not necessarily more exciting. We're not doing stupidly exciting beers because we don't want to do styles where there could be a huge variance in quality. But I'm content with that because, although our beer is never going to change the world, I hope it's beer that people will go back to.

"We've had good feedback to suggest a lot of people who wouldn't usually drink ale drink our beer and that's what I see it as. It's gateway beer and I want to appeal to everyone, not just people who sit round sniffing schooners and describing how it made them feel.

"I also don't want to just dive in and do experiments because I don't have the experience. If I plan to do more experimental stuff, the best way to do it would be as a collaboration with someone else where I can learn from them.

"I love sours and gose, for example, but I don't just want to do them because other people are. I'll only do it if we actually have something to add to the categories."

Runaway Brewery 2

One area where Runaway shows a clear bias towards a more modern approach is in choice of dispense.

Virtually the brewery's entire output is packaged in keg and bottle, with only the occasional special being produced for cask.

Although this is a practical decision rather than an ideological one, Mark is keen to change attitudes towards keg beer, particularly among long-time real ale drinkers.

A motion was passed at this year's Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) annual general meeting, which called for a labelling scheme to identify 'key keg' beer that conforms with CAMRA criteria for real ale. This effectively paved the way for beer stored in key kegs - a one-way container that uses air pressure to dispense the beer without exposing it to extraneous CO2 - to be classified as real ale and Mark believes this is a huge step in the right direction.

"We had to make some very pragmatic decisions at the outset, like deciding not to brew cask ale," adds Mark. "Washing, cleaning, chasing round after casks and the investment needed to get enough casks at the start were things we decided we didn't need to do.

"So we were forced down the keg route. We only use key kegs, which was our compromise position because it allows us to condition in the vessel, but I believe it's as much real ale as real ale.

"I'm not down on CAMRA but I did find the general attitude of some of their members towards breweries producing something that's slightly colder and slightly fizzier difficult to understand.

"It wasn't so much that they didn't recognise it but that, at one point, they seemed to be actively against it, which is a bit much when you consider what I'm doing is virtually the same as what every microbrewery has done for the last 30 years.

"Ultimately, I want as many people as possible to enjoy our beer rather than appealing to just one specific audience - whether that's people who drink craft beer or people who drink real ale. It's all just beer in the end and hopefully we can continue to change a few people's minds."

Runaway Brewery 7

Runaway Brewery 6

Sunday, 20 September 2015 21:30

What does 'craft beer' really mean?

Lagunitas bottles

What's in a name?

The survival of an entire industry, apparently.

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

Those words? Craft beer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 14 August 2015 07:16

Toasting the Mancunian summer

Fourpure summer beers

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Fourpure Dry Hop Pils, 4.7% ABV

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

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

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

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

 

Skyliner Wheat, 4.8% ABV

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 11 August 2015 21:42

Gimmickry: the new arms race in brewing

Beers barrel ageing

When's a beer not a beer?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cloudwater Session IPA

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

Cloudwater Session IPA, 4.8% ABV

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

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

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

 

First Chop Joe, 3.5% ABV

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

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

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

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

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

 

Kernel Citra, 7.2% ABV

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

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

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

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

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

 

Quantum Neil Delemongrasse Saison

Quantum Neil Delemongrasse Saison, 4.2% ABV

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

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

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

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

 

Siren Bones of a Sailor Part III, 9.5% ABV

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

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

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

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

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

A proper late night treat.

Es tiempo de brillar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Palermo sign 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And it didn't disappoint.

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

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

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

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

La Carniceria

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Turns out I was wrong.

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

Bariloche lake

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

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

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

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

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

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

Berlina is an interesting case in point.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Berlina beer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Republica de la Boca

La Boca

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

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

Tacos are a Friday night favourite in my household.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 16 June 2015 11:57

BrewDog Born to Die 04.07.2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MCR Brew ExpoMCR Brew Expo, May 23 to 24

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MCR Brew Expo collaboration brew team

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 16 May 2015 10:25

Manchester's brewing worlds collide

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Green Quarter collab brew 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 26 March 2015 13:05

The pride of Manchester: Runaway Brewery

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

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

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

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

Possibly the best of the bunch is Runaway.

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

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

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

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

 

Runaway IPA, 5.5%

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

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

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

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

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

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

Runaway Pale Ale 4.7%

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

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

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

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

 

Runaway American Brown Ale

Runaway American Brown Ale, 5.7%

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

2. Thirds are for life not just for festivals

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

4. Keg is putting cask in the shade

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Whatever way, the outlook wasn't good.

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

7. Pub crawl before tea except after IMBC

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

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

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

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

Ah well, you live and you learn.

 

8. With great power comes great responsibility

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

9. Solitude is bliss

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

My top five beers from Indy Man

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 03 October 2014 11:01

Preview: Indy Man Beer Con 2014

IMBC recap 1Preview: Indy Man Beer Con

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

This is Manchester, we do things differently here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMBC recap 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 05 September 2014 10:06

My first Belgian - the Session #91

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

Those monks have a lot to answer for.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cantillon Gueuze 100 Lambic Bio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

UPDATE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*Unless it's a can.**

**I'm joking.***

***Or am I?

Tuesday, 29 July 2014 11:44

Recap: Birmingham Beer Bash 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There were a host of further highlights too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not a bad way to spend a Saturday night.

Thursday, 24 July 2014 13:28

Brouwerij 't IJ and De Molen Double IPA

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

Bottle from Beer Hawk, 9% ABV

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thornbridge Brewery 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thornbridge Brewery 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thornbridge Brewery 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thornbridge Brewery 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thornbridge Brewery 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 11 July 2014 11:57

Event focus: Birmingham Beer Bash

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

Buy tickets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Birmingham Beer Bash 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Birmingham Beer Bash 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let's hope this year paints a similar picture.

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

Marble epitomises Manchester.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marble Brewery 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marble Brewery 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marble Brewery 3

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

There is plenty more to come too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jacks Abby Jabby Brau

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

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

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

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

Pipeworks Reaper vs Unicorn

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 24 June 2014 11:19

The Font, Manchester

Font Manchester 6The Font, Manchester

0161 236 0944

Website

Font is a Manchester mainstay - a constant in a bar scene that has continually morphed and evolved around it over the past 15 years.

It's become part of the furniture without pandering to trends or letting itself become defined by a particular crowd or style.

Personally, I've frequented Font since my days as a degenerate student, when a good pint was the one glass of Kronenbourg that didn't have a fag dimp in it.

Back then, the appeal was the games console in the corner that allowed me to continue my Pro Evo marathon even after I'd been forced to leave the house.

Font Manchester 5

Luckily, I've matured since then and so has Font, even if deep down neither of us have changed all that much.

In the case of Font, the games console is gone and the beer selection has expanded to include four ever-changing cask lines and four guest keg lines, alongside their regulars and a superb bottle selection from around the world.

On top of that, there's a huge range of cocktails that don't require you to take out a second mortgage and the food is straightforward but satisfying and very reasonably priced. The burgers, in particular, are good for filling a hole at the start of a night out and will set you back just £7, which includes a portion of fries.

But the most appealing thing about Font is its lack of pretension.

It's not quite a dive bar but it's rough and ready, sparse yet welcoming, consequently attracting a varied array of punters.

It's a place where you'd be equally happy whiling away the afternoon hours with a paper and a pint of session cask as you would sampling a few bottles of 10% ABV barleywine at the height of a big night out.

Font Manchester 4

It's also become a crucial point on any Mancunian 'craft crawl', providing a handy link between the ever increasing wonders of the Northern Quarter and the student haunts of Oxford Road or the old-school beer destinations of Knott Bar and Cask.

Not that it isn't a destination in its own right. This is usually the best place in town to find Moor's outstanding beers on draught and a good bet for bottles of Partizan, Kernel and Weird Beard.

Hopefully it'll still be somewhere to rely on another 15 years from now.

Monday, 23 June 2014 11:47

Port Brewing Older Viscosity

Port Brewing Older ViscosityPort Brewing Older Viscosity, 12% ABV

Bottle from Beers of Europe

This is the equivalent of a generous shot of single malt - to be served with a fine Cuban cigar in front of a roaring fire, sat in a huge leather Chesterfield.

It's the kind of drink to be sipped and savoured over the course of an evening, eventually inducing a kind of warm paralysis that renders you useless yet deliriously relaxed.

When drinking this kind of beer, you can't help but wonder how so much complexity and depth of flavour can be squeezed from essentially four ingredients.

But then, that's probably Port Brewing Co's forte. The Californian brewery, which essentially evolved from the Pizza Port brewpub chain, is renowned for its bold and imaginative beer, particularly through its Belgian-inspired spin-off Lost Abbey.

Prior to popping the cork on this beauty, I had only been able to get my hands on their Lost Abbey creations, their Brett-spiked Saint's Devotion being a particularly memorable treat.

Port treads a more typically craft path, boasting a number of hop-forward IPAs, a few German-inspired efforts and a couple of imperial stouts but that doesn't make their efforts any less impressive.

Well, particularly on this evidence. Older Viscosity is a bourbon barrel-aged beast that ticks all the right boxes.

The aroma is heavy and intoxicating, coating the nostrils with rich fruitcake smothered in brandy, treacle pudding, vanilla and sweet milk chocolate heated until it has collapsed into a delicious ooze. A bourbon burn comes through at the tail end, oak and alcohol singing the nose hairs.

Unsurprisingly, it's thick, sticky and viscous in the mouth, yet oily enough to smooth its passage across the tongue, aided by a soft, smooth carbonation.
Instant thoughts upon the first sip are of chocolate fudge cake, punctuated by intermittent twangs of bitter black coffee.

Chocolate evolves into moist fruit cake, stuffed full of dried cherries and raisins, sweetened by a dash of vanilla essence.

The flavours begin to sharpen as a chalky cocoa bitterness arrives and the burn of bourbon and oak heats the throat, while a numbing Szechuan pepper buzz lingers in the aftertaste.

Stubborn espresso also sticks around, mixing with molasses and demerara sugar to create a bittersweet finale.

For an hour, I felt every bit the refined gent. The kind of chap who dresses entirely in tweed and enjoys the finer things in life. That bloke who doesn't have a care in the world, bar the contents of his snifter.

Then I finished the last swig of Older Viscosity and realised I was just a half-cut Manc, albeit one who was at peace with the world.

Wednesday, 18 June 2014 11:14

Rooster's High Tea

Roosters High TeaRooster'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?

Tuesday, 20 May 2014 11:14

Magic Rock x Lervig Farmhouse IPA

Magic Rock Lervig Farmhouse IPAMagic 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.

Thursday, 15 May 2014 11:54

Wiper and True Amber Ale (Red Orange)

Wiper and True Amber Ale Red OrangeWiper and True Amber Ale (Red Orange), 5.1% ABV

Bottle from the Liquor Shop, Whitefield

People are often puzzled why I spend so much time discussing, drinking and thinking about beer.

General consensus seems to be that a simple drink shouldn't have so much bearing on life in general.

But beer is more than just beverage.

Given our senses are capable of provoking a powerful emotional response, the best beers can transport us to different times and places - in the mind, at least.

An otherwise dull night on the sofa can be transformed into a flood of memories, dreams and fairytales when a beer is at hand, especially by the time you've sunk several.

My first taste of Wiper and True was a perfect example of this phenomenon and the new Bristol brewery has quickly demonstrated an impressive understanding of the drinking experience by creating a well-judged concept and absolutely nailing the execution.

The first sniff and sip of this instantly whisked me to a lush Italian orange grove, helping me to believe, for just one minute, that I was basking in the Mediterranean sun rather than soaking in the Manchester rain.

It pours a heavy, burnt amber, the colour of a deep, foreboding sunset across a clear night sky, with a persistent off-white head that hangs on to the bitter end.

The aroma is wonderfully dank, fuzzy orange, the sweetness of tangerine and sharpness of zest mingling above a heavy bed of pine and grass.

In the mouth, light caramel and dusty cereal provide the base, which is non-obtrusive but still firm enough to allow the other flavours to sing.

A squeeze of tangy, tart blood orange washes over the front of the tongue, providing a soft juiciness that quickly becomes more sweet and compact, like biting into segments of tangerine and satsuma.

Earthy, rustic flavours of pine and hay build alongside a pithy bitterness before a zesty flourish bursts through the dry finish, leaving a cluster of prickling peppery spice.

The flavours are so vivid and expressive that it's impossible not to let your mind wander and, even now, I can still see the over-burdened orange trees, lush greenery and rugged mountainous scenery.

I'm expecting every Wiper and True beer to help me realise a similar level of transcendence.

Wednesday, 14 May 2014 10:38

A weird beard means weird beer

Weird Beard Dark HopflerWeird Beard Dark Hopfler, 2.5% ABV

Something Something Dark Side, 9% ABV

Bottles from the Liquor Shop, Whitefield

When your name's weird and your beard's weird, there's a fair chance your beers will be too.

But when I say weird, I mean it in the nicest possible sense of the word. Boldly unique rather than unnervingly creepy.

This pair are two dark beers that don't really taste like typical dark beers. In fact, it's very difficult to put your finger on what the hell either of them actually are - an ambiguity captured perfectly in the name of Something Something Dark Side.

Forget neatly boxed stouts and porters that play by the rules, these two are rabble rousers that clearly favour anarchy over structure and style guidelines.

To underline this point, Dark Hopfler is billed as the 'bastard son' of Weird Beard's Sadako imperial stout, a bizarre small beer created from its daddy's second runnings. It's ostensibly a dark milk ale - with lactose added to accentuate the various flavours -  but why put a label on something created without regard for the usual 'rules'.

It looks like a glass of black coffee, dense and dark, although capped with a soft, fluffy brown head.

The aroma is pretty unusual, a real shock to the system, with skunky citrus hops slashing in from one side and bitter roasted malt from the other. Those hops are vivid too, full of orange, pine, grass, nettle and light, playful floral notes.

Given the prominence of hops in the aroma, there's another surprise when malt instantly announces itself on the palate, the astringent bitterness of roasted malt and burnt toast standing alongside chalky cocoa and black coffee.

But a tug of war then commences between these flavours and those pesky hops, which are equal parts earthy, tart and tangy, blackcurrant tangled among wild flowers and herbs.

The lactose addition smoothes off any rough edges, preventing the bitterness from taking control and helping to extend the fruity sweetness into the finish.

Grass and nettle emerge as the palate dries but charcoal builds as the arid finish really sets in and cocoa throbs strongly while a peppery spice tingles. It's a beer that really has to be tasted to be believed and an early contender for my beer of the year.

Weird Beard Something Something Dark Side

Something Something Dark Side is similarly schizophrenic, stuck somewhere between and indulgent black IPA and an imperial stout that went a bit crazy with the hops.

Ripe plum, cherry and cranberry burst in the aroma but the strength soon becomes apparent through a whiff of rum and demerara sugar, while the faint hint of grass and freshly-cut onion also hangs in the background.

Toffee and liquorice drop an instant sweetness on the front of the tongue but this is cut by sharp, tart fruit - a clash of citrus and dark berries - which slowly morph into a sticky resinous character.

The finish is an intriguing mix of sweet and salty, coconut seeming to tussle with the tang of Worcester sauce before ending dry and bittersweet, those hops still buzzing throughout the mouth.

Both beers might be something of an acquired taste but highlight exactly where Weird Beard's strengths lie. Technical excellence aligned with playfulness and an experimental edge means every beer the brewery releases is on my wanted list.

Thursday, 08 May 2014 10:23

Ich bin ein Berliner Pilsner

Berliner Kindl Weisse grunBeer Battered takes a trip round the bars and pubs of Berlin and finds out brewpubs are flavour of the month.

Beer is a serious business wherever you go in Germany.

Within an hour of arriving in Berlin, this much was made abundantly clear.

While checking in at our hotel, the obliging receptionist asked whether we'd done much research into potential activities for our time in the city.

"Well, he's memorised every bar where you can buy good beer," quipped my better half, quick as a flash.

But the sarcasm dripping from this statement appeared to pass the receptionist by. Instead, his face collapsed into a crumpled look of utter bemusement before a guttural chuckle escaped his mouth, equal parts mocking and pitying.

Eventually he composed himself enough to ask the all-important question. "Why would you need to search for good beer in Berlin? It's everywhere."

And he was right... to an extent.

Berlin doesn't have the same bacchanalian reputation or tradition as Munich, Cologne or Bamberg but the average quality of bog-standard beer is still markedly better than any city in Britain.

Germans tend to be conservative in their tastes but proud of what their country produces, so bars serving mass-market global brands are the exception rather the rule. That's not to say German beer is necessarily better than English ale, just that there are far fewer drinking dens serving nothing but swill.

That said, many of the most widely available beer brands in Berlin - Berliner Kindl, Schultheiss, Potsdamer, Radeberger, Schöfferhofer and Märkischer Landmann - are still owned by the huge Oetker Group, best known in this country for crap frozen pizza.

Prater Berlin exterior

Of those brands, Berliner Pilsner is ubiquitous but fairly palatable despite being a little too sweet for my own taste. It's an extremely pale yellow pils that's full of sweet malt and lemony hop up front, followed by more floral, grassy notes as it dries and an aftertaste loaded with cereal and biscuit.

Meanwhile, the Berliner Kindl Weisse bears little resemblance to the more recent 'craft' iterations of the style and is usually served as either rot (red) or grün (green), depending on the syrup you decide to mix it with.

It doesn't really matter which you choose because the end result is the same - a sickly sweet, luminous cocktail that masks much of the taste from the base beer. You're best having it without as far as I'm concerned.

Although Berlin lacks the diversity and innovation of the current British scene, there's a refreshing 'no bullshit' approach to beer and a relaxed attitude towards drinking and enjoying it. Whatever bar you visit, you'll never have to 'settle' for a watery pint of Foster's, as the base level is generally higher.

Equally, you won't have to endure any discussions about the definition of craft or the extent to which the postmodern pale ale has successfully subverted the traditional, linear beer narrative.

Marcus Brau pils

This attitude is epitomised by the old guard of established pubs and beer halls dotted around the city, targeted towards locals and tourists in equal measure.

Prater is one of the best in this category, a famed beer garden on Kastanienallee in Prenzlauer Berg that can trace its origins back to the mid-19th century.

Unfortunately, it being a late mid-April evening when we visited, the garden itself was reserved for only the most hardened revellers. A solitary table of lively locals did their best to stave off the night with glasses of pils and excited chatter, while the darkness slowly closed in around them.

We found refuge in the adjacent restaurant, which felt a little like the waiting room in a Victorian train station - all dark wood panelling, arched windows and wall lighting that glowed unnaturally without altering the state of perpetual twilight.

The wooden tables and chairs groaned incessantly about the problems of old age, each nick, scratch and scuff recounting a happy moment from a golden past that had long since escaped them. However, it's easy to imagine this is the kind of furniture that looked distressed the minute it left the workshop.

Families, friends and solitary souls chattered, chomped and chugged, lending a palpable buzz to the warm, friendly atmosphere.

We ordered a couple of plates of food - standard, hearty German fare that was grey but satisfying - and indulged in several of the house brews to slake a gargantuan thirst cultivated during a day walking Berlin's captivating streets.

Although not brewed on site - and, in fact, created by the aforementioned Berliner Kindl brewery - neither the pilsner nor the schwarz failed to hit the spot.

The pale golden pils cut across the palate with a fresh lemony bitterness and crisp carbonation, leading to a dry finish draped with lingering cereal sweetness.

In comparison to that quick blast of refreshment, the schwarz offered warm comfort, easing me further into my battered old chair until my slouched shoulders reached the bottom of the back support.

Rye bread, treacle and liquorice welcome you in and a dash of lemon perks up the senses before molasses and brown toast settle on the back of the tongue, the robust body providing a reassuring, lasting weight in the mouth.

Zum Nussbaum Berlin exterior

Another must-visit is the unassuming Sophie'n Eck, which wraps itself around the corner of the junction between Grosse Hamburger Strasse and Sophienstrasse near Hackescher Markt.

It appears more Parisian bistro from the outside, with ample outdoor seating for the warmer months, but is very much German watering hole on the inside, the walls adorned with old beer enamels and the small bar decked in wood and brass.

Open until 1am Sunday to Thursday and 2am on Fridays and Saturdays, it's the perfect place for a quiet, late-night drink, particularly given the warm welcome that awaits.

The atmosphere is amicable and cozy, the staff genuine and obliging. One wag behind the bar even watched us play a variety of games with the two sad-looking beermats on our table before wandering over with a huge grin on his face to slap down a further 30.

I enjoyed a decent pint of Schlösser Alt and a couple of refreshing glasses of Jever, which always slips down far too easily, while bottles of Störtebeker were also on offer.

You can enjoy your beer with a slice of history at Zum Nußbaum in the Nikolaiviertel (pictured above left), a recreation of what was once one of Berlin's oldest pubs.

Marcus Brau BerlinPreviously located in Fischerinsel, it was destroyed during the Second World War before being rebuilt, complete with the walnut tree it was named after (Nußbaum meaning walnut in German), by the GDR in 1987.

Consequently, it feels a bit like stepping onto a film set where nothing is quite real but it's a quaint old school German tavern serving hearty food alongside a solid, yet limited, beer selection.

My sausage, mash and sauerkraut was washed down with a Märkischer Landmann Schwarz that proved surprisingly enjoyable given its mixed reputation - dry and ashy, offering caramel, nut and a light fruitiness up front, followed by brown toast, mild roast and a sweet aftertaste of biscuit and bread.

However, moving beyond the tourist traps and more typical drinking dens, what is most interesting about Berin's beer scene is the sudden proliferation of brewpubs.

A number have popped up all over the city, providing an alternative to the typical mainstream offerings, although they do tend to play it safe by sticking to traditional styles.

The majority produce a house pils, a dunkel or schwarz and a weizen if you're lucky but slightly limited choice doesn't detract from appreciation of the quality on offer.

Hops & Barley was a nightmare to find but worth the effort, tucked away behind a fairly plain, grey shop front in Friedrichshain with its small brew kit sat proudly alongside the bar inside.

The pilsner was the pick of the bunch here, smooth in the mouth, cereal malt puncuated by a squeeze of lemon and a pithy bitterness.

Heidenpeters Thirsty Lady

Clean esters of spice, bubblegum and banana shine in the weizen and there is even a cider on offer - an oddity in Germany - tart, sweet and crisp, like a fresh Granny Smith straight from the fridge.

Similarly small and humble was Marcus Bräu, sandwiched between Alexanderplatz and Hackescher Markt in a very convenient central location.

This place won the prize for tiniest kit (pictured above right), the brewer's version of Where's Wally only being solved when I peered over the bar on my way out to see a mash tun and boiler built into the counter on the back wall.

Just two beers were on offer here, a pilsener and a dunkel - and the dunkel was off.

Still, the hazy, unfiltered pils was superb, its initial wash of tart, lemony sweetness wiped clear by a crisp, dry finish permeated with herbal bitterness. The food on offer was decent too, a huge pork knuckle served with bread, sauerkraut and a beer coming in at just over a tenner.

But the pick of the bunch was Heidenpeters Brewpub (pictured below right), situated a brisk 20-minute walk from the East Side Gallery in artsy Kreuzberg.

Continuing the theme of diminutive, almost deliberately difficult-to-find bars, this place was obscured in a dark corner of Markt Halle Neun, an über-trendy foodies' market that was proudly advertising an upcoming visit from everyone's favourite culinary campaigner Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall.

Heidenpeters stands out in Berlin as one of the few microbreweries prepared to think outside the box and the brewery's beer range seems more closely aligned with the UK craft scene than home traditions.

Three beers were on offer during my visit, the best being Thirsty Lady, a refreshing 4.9% ABV pale ale that bathes the palate in juicy grapefruit, peach and faint tropical fruit before the cutting, dry finish leaves a tingling, zesty bitterness.

This was accompanied by a slice of delicious spinach and ricotta quiche from one of the neighbouring food stalls, each run by local, independent producers, in an unexpected lunchtime treat.

The Brown Ale was excellent too, its initial resinous hop bite rounded off by smooth dark chocolate with burnt toffee and toast running throughout. The perfect beverage to wash down a chunky slice of chocolate ginger cake.

My whirlwind Berlin beer tour ended with a trip to Brauhaus Mitte, with its gaudy copper taking pride of place in the middle of the large bar.

Heidenpeters Brewpub

Unfortunately, the beers weren't quite as impressive as the kit and this centrally-located bar felt like it was catering more for tourists than for beer lovers, inhabiting the more commercial end of the scale.

There will undoubtedly be many more like this as tourism - and brewing - continue to flourish in Berlin but there is a sense they will be seriously outweighed by the number of exciting new brewpubs and watering holes.

Although the city lacks the track record of others, it shows a willingness - through bars like the excellent Meisterstück with its range that encompasses the best of Germany, America and Belgium - to embrace the cutting edge.

Quality and variety can only improve further in the years to come.

Buxton Imperial BlackBuxton Imperial Black

Bottle from Buxton Tap House, 7.5% ABV

The pale ale demands huge respect in Buxton.

After all, the estimable Axe Edge - the destroyer of many a brave drinker - looms large in these parts, casting a menacing shadow far and wide.

Even those able to escape Axe Edge's clutches will likely succumb to the powers of Moor Top, SPA, Jaw Gate or Wyoming Sheep Ranch. If anyone knows how to make a devastatingly good pale, it's Buxton Brewery.

But what of the dark side? Is it altogether more bleak over there?

Seemingly not. Even though you could be forgiven for thinking pales were Buxton's speciality, this supernatural ability to create dangerously addictive beer stretches across the board.

To prove that particular point, Imperial Black and Stronge Extra Stout are two of the best in their respective categories currently being brewed in Britain.

The former represented a turning point in my own personal appreciation of the black IPA, destroying any initial cynicism surrounding the necessity of the style.

Some might call it a paradox and others an 'insult to history' but, in this form, it's also a phenomenally enjoyable beer.

It has the looks of a catalogue model, appearing almost too perfect with its jet black body and big, frothy light brown head. There's no Photoshop needed to get this one ready for promotional shots.

The smell is even better. A thick, intoxicating mix of pine, grapefruit, orange and old school lemon sherbets quickly rising from the glass, providing the kind of hit hop junkies crave. Roasted malt and faint chocolate hang steadily in the background, allowing the hops to do their thing.

All that promise is then emphatically fulfilled in the taste.

The soft, silky liquid slinks across the tongue, leaving an initial residue of treacle and liquorice.

Quickly, the hop bombs explode, bags of orange, lemon and grapefruit causing a wash of freshness that leaves the sides of the tongue tingling. Pine resin and a light woodiness are less well pronounced yet still linger throughout.

Chocolate provides a calming influence, rounding off the flavours and bringing a smoothness to the back of the mouth before the bitterness hits.

This bitterness is a mix of fuzzy, resinous hops and clear, assertive roasted malt but it's the malt that lasts longest, holding on throughout the dry, slightly astringent finish.

The result is an impressively harmonious balance between big hops and bold malt, neither left to run riot or the slightest bit restrained.

 

Buxton Stronge Extra StoutBuxton Stronge Extra Stout

Bottle from Buxton Tap House, 7.4% ABV

The Stronge Extra Stout is a different story entirely.

Originally brewed to mark Colin Stronge's appointment as head brewer last year, it's a brawny malt monster that throws its huge arms around you and attempts to engulf you in rich, heavy flavours of coffee, chocolate, toffee and dark fruit. All the good stuff, basically.

The aroma is dense and luxuriant - a thick fog of treacle toffee, espresso, burnt cocoa beans and charcoal, which is briefly perforated by a waft of sweet plum and raisin.

It's viscous, full-bodied and lightly carbonated, meaning it crawls slowly across the tongue, leaving a sticky residue as it goes.

Initially, the taste is full of coffee - in a manner similar to knocking back a swift, intense shot of espresso in a Milanese street-side cafe before getting on with the rest of your day or, at least, getting on with the rest of your beer.

Toffee and liquorice add a sweetness beneath before a drying wave of dark chocolate moves through, leaving a chalky bitterness to hang around the edges of the palate.

A touch of tartness is added by plum and damson but the mouth is dried once more by a finish full of roasted malt and dull oak.

It's the kind of stout which walks up to you, punches you in the face and walks out, happy in the knowledge you won't enjoy another beer all night. Not one to start a session with, more a late-night indulgence to be enjoyed while reclining in a comfy chair, with slippers on and lights down low.

Friday, 04 April 2014 13:50

Thornbridge Otto

Thornbridge OttoThornbridge Otto

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.

Friday, 28 March 2014 11:39

The supermarket ale trail

Supermarket trolleyI'm a sucker for a bargain.

I suppose we all are to a certain extent. It's just that I'm the kind of no-mark who goes trawling the reduced aisle at the end of the day looking for beef mince that's 50p cheaper because it's turned a bit grey.

So, the 'craft' revolution hasn't been an entirely good thing for me.

As a consequence of increased interest in beer, particularly small-batch beer, the inevitable has happened. Prices have risen rapidly to reflect the significant growth in demand, making beer geekery an increasingly expensive hobby.

It's not unusual for someone to walk into a bottle shop, spend £30 of their hard-earned in a flash and walk out with less than five bottles. You could bath in Carling for that price, although I'm not entirely sure you'd want to.

There is an element of price reflecting the product. The craft boom has created a growing clamour for ever bigger and bolder beers and this will inevitably impact upon the bottom line.

IPAs are hopped to within an inch of their life, imperial stouts loaded with different malts and aged in whiskey barrels, and saisons peppered with various adjuncts.

All this comes at a cost. Ingredients are expensive, particularly for micros who are unable to benefit from greater economies of scale, so the eventual price tag must reflect the greater investment.

In the main, people will be happy to pay a premium when it's justified by the quality of the product but there is an increasing sense that a minority of bars and retailers are charging more simply because they can.

Value is becoming a bigger concern for the discerning drinker but where best to find it?

One of the most obvious options is to supplement those special purchases with 'everyday' bottles from the supermarket. Another happy consequence of the recent boom has been an increased focus on regional and microbrewed beer among the nation's retailers, so it's starting to become easier to find good beer in mainstream stores.

Personally I much prefer to buy local, but shopping in the supermarkets might also help to alleviate the availability issues suffered by those without access to a well-stocked bottle shop or off-licence.

But which of them offers the best options? And which offers the best value?

The upcoming series of blogs will look at the selection offered by each of the major players and attempt to provide a guide for where best to browse the aisles. I'll then offer a comparison against the best of my local independent bottle shops to give a rough idea of what's on offer elsewhere too.

I must caveat this by warning the recommendations will inevitably be moulded by my own tastes, although I'll try to remain as objective as possible and welcome feedback from readers.

The samples presented will also be dictated by the availability in my local supermarkets but I will attempt to remedy this by choosing the biggest of each branch, hopefully ensuring the best possible selection.

The supermarkets/shops I will look at are:

Aldi
Asda
Booths
Co-operative Food
Marks and Spencer
Morrisons
Sainsbury's
Tesco
Waitrose

In each, I will round-up the selection, recommend a top five and price up an average shopping basket, which will contain one IPA, one pale or session ale, one stout or porter, one bitter, one lager and one continental style (this broad category has been included due to the difficulty finding certain styles in some of these supermarkets and could include anything from hefeweizen to saison).

All in the name of research, as I'm sure you understand.

Thursday, 27 March 2014 12:40

Marston's Revisionist range

Marstons Revisionist rangeMarston's Revisionist range

Oh dear, that word again.

That most divisive and least descriptive of adjectives, which has nevertheless become common parlance in the world of beer.

Of course, I'm talking about 'craft'.

Made popular in America - where a wave of new microbreweries identified a pressing need to distinguish their products from those of the dominant lager breweries in an uneducated market - it has since embarked on a programme of world domination.

In fairly loose terms, it's intended to describe beer made in small batches, where a commitment to quality, proper process and, perhaps, innovation are all central to the producer's ethos.

Does Marston's Revisionist range fit these criteria? It could probably be argued that it does, yet use of the word 'craft' on the bottles still feels jarring.

The difficulty in this country is that, unlike America, we have a strong, unbroken brewing tradition spanning hundreds of centuries.

In the States, a whole host of long-standing breweries were wiped out by Prohibition but here, there are a number of traditional brewers who may, at one point or another, have justifiably claimed to be craft.

Marston's fall into that category - even if the company is now a plc and the largest producer of cask ale in the world - but their use of the word still seems like a cynical attempt to cash in on a market trend.

The fact the Revisionist range has been produced exclusively for Tesco appears to support that argument.

But, all that aside, this development could still be viewed positively as a chance to introduce a range of bold, modern styles to the masses at an affordable price (four for £6 at the time of writing). Craft lite, if you will.

The range includes a dry-hopped lager, a US rye beer, a Pacific red ale, a saison, a steam beer, a wheat beer and a black IPA, most of which will be fairly unfamiliar to your average supermarket drinker.

Each includes a description of the process surrounding its creation from the viewpoint of the respective brewmaster and a prominent neck label boasts of the strains it is dry-hopped with.

Choosing a beer based on the hops used is another concept that will likely be foreign to your typical supermarket drinker, so allowing these new customers to understand the flavours provided by different varieties should be a good thing.

The problem is, however, the 'craft lite' tag fits these beers so well, they aren't exactly a powerful - or, indeed, accurate - showcase for the styles they're supposed to represent.

 

Marstons Revisionist RyeRye Pale Ale, 4.3% ABV

The rye ale is a microcosm of this problem.

I got pretty excited about the prospect of buying a rye beer hopped with Citra and Amarillo from my local supermarket for just £1.50 but quickly realised the error of my ways.

Instead of rye's peppery spice or brassy citrus from the hops, I was greeted by an aroma and taste that seemed strangely familiar, yet utterly incongruous.

I sniffed and sipped until it finally hit me. "It's... no, it can't be... no, it is... it's Pedigree."

That might be a slight exaggeration but I do reckon I would have been able to identify the brewery in a blind tasting.

The aroma is almost non-existent, nuttiness masking a slight whiff of orange hidden well underneath, and the taste isn't much better.

The merest hint of spice, a touch of almond and vague orange notes hanging in the finish are all obscured by the domineering nutty, caramel malt. It's dry, astringent and fairly unpleasant, deserving to be poured down the drain simply for getting the style so wrong.

Where was the Citra? Where was the Amarillo? Why did I fool myself into expecting different?

 

Red Ale, 4.2% ABVMarstons Revisionist Red

The red ale was similarly underwhelming, if not as outwardly undrinkable.

Malt once more dominates the aroma, this time a heavy biscuity cloud threatening to drown out the citrus notes that face a desperate struggle for survival.

There is, at least, more joy to be found in the taste, which leads off with thick caramel that gradually morphs into a ever-so-slightly sticky, resinous hop character.

A musty, blueberry-like fruitiness mingles with nutty malt until a squeeze of tangerine adds a much-needed dose of fresh juiciness.

This develops into a sharp zestiness that runs throughout a mildly bitter finish, with lingering biscuity notes hanging in the background.

But the vivid citrus and tropical fruit flavours you might expect from New World hops are nowhere to be seen, causing me to lose interest by the time I'd sunk half a pint.

It's fairly inoffensive but, at the same time, pretty hard going.

 

Marstons Revisionist LagerLager, 5% ABV

The two beers I expected to enjoy the least were the two that confounded expectations, starting with the lager, which has been dry-hopped with Admiral and Bodicea.

Unsurprisingly, it pales in comparison to some of the better British lagers produced in recent years, Thornbridge's Bayern being a particularly good example.

But it's clean and drinkable, packing in plenty more flavour than your typical supermarket shelf-fillers.

The aroma is fresh and bright, lemon, orange and light floral notes skipping across a solid grain base.

It's a similar story in the taste, a glob of orange marmalade rolling quickly across the front of the tongue and elderflower tingling delicately before it cuts crisp across the palate.

The dry finish delivers a dose of zesty bitterness and leaves a pleasant, biscuity aftertaste hanging in the back of the mouth.

It's unspectacular and did seem to take on a unappealing acetaldehyde, green apple taste the warmer it got but remains a solid option for a reasonably cheap mainstream lager.

 

Saison, 5% ABVMarstons Revisionist Saison

The saison was the other that exceeded my admittedly low expectations and proved to be the most enjoyable of the bunch I tried.

Still, it suffers from the same problem as the rest in that it's far too meek and mild, like a saison at about 60% strength rather than a typical showcase of the style.

The aroma is dominated by the expected yeast esters, although they're particularly soft, faint banana and clove mingling with candied orange while fresh dough hovers in the background.

After taking a sip, a drizzling of herbal honey coats the front of the tongue and there's a squeeze of tart citrus fruit before light notes of banana and spice begin to come through.

A soft peppery buzz tickles the tongue but its spread is halted by the dry finish, which contains a lingering citrus bitterness and a throbbing bready sweetness.

It becomes too sweet throughout the course of a whole 500ml bottle but at least gives casual drinkers an introduction to a style which is underrepresented on supermarket shelves.

Ultimately, I wouldn't make an effort to drink any of the Revisionist range regularly and I doubt I'll even buy them again.

I'd be delighted if the range helped to wean drinkers away from bland lager towards the new wave of microbrewed British beer but I just can't escape the thought this is more cynical ploy than genuine attempt to educate.

As a side note, I'd recommend leaving these beers to warm slightly before drinking, as the already muted flavours are even more subdued when drunk straight from the fridge.

Tuesday, 25 March 2014 13:10

Quantum & Elixir Brew Co Elixium

Quantum Elixir ElixiumQuantum & 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.

Friday, 21 March 2014 13:36

Cantillon Gueuze 100% Lambic Bio

Cantillon Gueuze 100 Lambic BioCantillon Gueuze 100% Lambic Bio

Bottle from Beer Hawk, 5% ABV

The first time I tried gueuze, I hated it.

Couldn't understand the face-crumpling sourness, the rough, coarse earthiness or the tight, prickly champagne fizz.

None of it seemed to come together in a way that pleased my palate or even one that vaguely resembled my typical understanding of beer.

Call me uncultured or ignorant if you like but it was an experience akin to my first ever pint, when I'd sat choking down a pint of Guinness as a young teen because, basically, that's what I was supposed to do.

I mean, what kind of Mancunian Irishman would I be if I didn't throw copious amounts of the black stuff down my neck? And what kind of beer geek would I be if I didn't sip my way through a bottle of gueuze while nodding with smug satisfaction?

Although I recovered from that unsure start to appreciate the complexity, subtlety and uniqueness inherent in gueuze, it is still difficult to articulate exactly what makes it so good.

I've tried explaining its appeal but people usually switch off somewhere between vinegar and barnyard funk. Most of them probably think the latter is a song from James Brown's country and western phase.

Words just don't do it justice because, on paper at least, the different flavours don't seem to mix particularly well. Or belong in a drink at all for that matter.

For me, enlightenment came in the form of a bottle of Boon Oude Geuze on a summer's day. Perhaps it was the haze of an unusually warm Manchester evening or the fact I'd endured a particularly testing day at work but, suddenly, it felt like a rare indulgence.

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

My preferences have since developed further and few breweries encapsulate the essence of gueuze quite like Cantillon.

Each bottle feels somehow historic, as if they've managed to capture the spirit of time-honoured craftsmanship and the magic of spontaneous fermentation in one neat package.

It isn't a polished production-line beer, rather a wild, living, evolving product that's always full of surprises.

Upon popping the cork, aromas of crisp apple and young apricot escape the bottle and pouring reveals further layers of white wine vinegar, hay and earthy funk. There's a tantalising hint of Calvados lurking somewhere in there too, carried by a breeze of alcohol freshness.

The taste is deliciously tart and sweet at first, soured apples causing the mouth to water in an explosion of juicy excitement.

Lip-smacking lemon juice washes across the palate before notes of vinegar and oak slowly but surely assert themselves, growing and multiplying alongside a strong astringency.

As the mouth loses moisture, earthiness and grass come to the fore, accompanied by a phenolic character that's almost medicinal in its nature, reminiscent of homemade root beer.

The taste of vinegar lasts throughout a never-ending, arid finish, which also combines lemon zest with a fresh vinous character and a beautiful, warm breadiness that leaves a sweet must in the back of the mouth.

There's simply nothing like it.

Thursday, 20 March 2014 12:01

Celt Ogham Willow

Celt Ogham WillowCelt 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.

Friday, 14 March 2014 09:55

Redwell India Pale Ale

Redwell IPARedwell IPA

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.

Wednesday, 12 March 2014 12:13

Bad Seed & Northern Monk Salted Lemon Wit

Bad Seed Northern Monk Salted Lemon WitBad 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.

Pint of beerThe 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."

 

Old brewing kit 2The 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."

 

timothy taylor landlordA 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."

 

Pressure Drop bottlesDedicated 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.

Wednesday, 05 March 2014 12:43

Augustiner Edelstoff

Augustiner EdelstoffAugustiner Edelstoff

Bottle from the Beer Hawk, 5.6% ABV

I'm not a big lager drinker. Never have been. More of a skinny stout drinker if you must insist on assigning labels.

It's not that I actively dislike lager, more that I never bother to seek it out and very rarely choose it over other styles.

All of this can probably be traced back to my first proper drinking experience. Having purchased an incredibly unconvincing fake ID from a company advertising in the back pages of FHM, I headed down to my local offy and bought 24 cans of Stella - that being the obvious choice for an uninitiated drinker to ease themselves into a whole new world of wonders.

Splitting these with two friends, I proceeded to drink my entire share and spent the following day throwing up gallons of malty bile.

Consequently, that sparked my move to bitter and mild, although I dressed this up as the choice of a mature drinker rather than a fool who had scared himself off drinking anything higher than 4.5% ABV.

Given that history, it's perhaps unsurprising I developed a slight aversion to lager but there are certain forces in this world powerful enough to break even the most deep-set prejudice. For me, that force was Augustiner Edelstoff.

Given a bottle of this by a friend many years ago, it became the first lager I could stomach more than one pint of after my earlier 'experience'.

The aroma's not much to get excited about - musty grain, sweet malt and a light grassiness doing little to properly arouse the senses - but it's just so damn drinkable.

Sweeter, stronger and fruitier than Augustiner's standard Helles, it is also prettier to look at, sparkly clear golden liquid topped by a tight, frothy white head.
It is clean, sharp and dry, an initial strong, biscuity malt mellowing to leave behind a lasting breadiness. There's a lovely splash of citrus and just enough grassy hop, contributing to a bittersweet finish.

Malt dominates the aftertaste, filling the mouth with a pleasant bready flavour, but it's also clean enough to be seriously refreshing.

The kind of beer you'd be happy to knock back after a hard day at work and one that should soften the heart of even the most devoted anti-lager activist.

Tuesday, 04 March 2014 12:11

Fourpure IPA and Oatmeal Stout

Fourpure IPAFourpure IPA, 6.5% ABV

Fourpure Oatmeal Stout, 5.1% ABV

Bottle from the Liquor Shop, Prestwich

You can't move for breweries in Bermondsey these days.

Kernel, Partizan and Brew By Numbers have all successfully strolled the well-trodden path that's now being followed by Fourpure.

However, based on this initial evidence, the youngest of the bunch still hasn't hit its stride as it attempts to keep up with the neighbours.

Set up by brothers Dan and Tom Lowe late last year, Fourpure boasts an attractively-branded core range inspired by the team's travels around the world.

The IPA is influenced by Oregon - that hop head's paradise where the streets are lined with lupulin - yet wasn't able to deliver a high enough dosage of dank, resinous hops to calm my rampant craving.

They're in there somewhere, I'm sure of it. They were just far too muted for the style.

It's a shame because this beer certainly looked the part, pouring a deep, brownish amber that's dazzlingly clear and topped by just a slither of off-white foam.

The aroma completely escaped the clutches of those hop overlords Cascade, Centennial and Chinook, instead providing a faint whiff of malt, chestnut, cedar and marzipan.

And instead of sticking tongue to the roof of the mouth like a dog eating toffee, it feels too light bodied on first sip.

It's initially crisp and slightly watery, although the malt character quickly builds, providing a base of toffee, chestnut and crunchy biscuit.

The hops arrive late to the party but only deliver a light coating of sticky pine and spruce without any of the chewiness. All too soon, they're gone, replaced by a dry finish that holds a light bitterness and crisp grassiness.

Freshness appears to be the major problem. As with any microbrewed IPA, it is essential the brewer ensures the product will be consumed by the customer as fresh as it needs to be but the weak hop character suggests that wasn't the case here.

The London-inspired Oatmeal Stout was better but still failed to properly capture my imagination. It did all the right things but didn't do any of them with quite enough oomph for my liking.

A burnt edge of roasted malt dominates the aroma, with smooth milk chocolate and coffee mingling underneath and the odd whiff of tobacco occasionally grasping for attention.

So far, so good yet the taste never quite gets where it wants to go, no matter how hard it tries.

Over-caramelised sugar and wholemeal toast meld in a pleasing combination of sweet, bitter and grainy flavours before tobacco, dark chocolate and black coffee begin to creep across the palate.

But the body is too light to carry the different elements and there's not enough of the creaminess you'd expect from a proper indulgent oatmeal stout.

The late onset of earthy, spicy, almost resinous hops is a neat counterpoint to the dominant malt character but the finish lacks richness to round off the bitterness.

Both beers have characteristics I really enjoyed, there was just a feeling that neither is quite there yet.

Friday, 28 February 2014 14:58

Moor Hoppiness

OurBeersHoppinessMoor Hoppiness

Keg at Font, Chorlton, 6.7% ABV

Is this the UK's best IPA?

If it's not, I challenge you to find one that's consistently better.

Axe Edge is ruinously brilliant too and Cannonball ranks among my favourite beers in any style but Hoppiness is the one I keep coming back to.

I'm not usually one for drinking the same beer time and time again, partly because I get bored easily but mainly because my limited funds are best invested in exploring the vast swathes of beers I still haven't tried yet.

But, from the first time I tried a bottle of Hoppiness, I knew this would be no fleeting love affair, no meaningless flirtation on a boozy night out. Three years later we're still going strong, even if we don't see anywhere near enough of each other.

When our paths do cross, time stops. Nothing else really seems to matter when you've got Hoppiness in your hand and your stomach, so you can imagine how happy it's made me to see it pop up semi-regularly in Chorlton's excellent Font Bar.

Moor Hoppiness

It pours an almost luminescent golden orange, which is clouded by that reassuring Moor haze. There's been a lot of chatter about clear beer of late but a translucent glass of Hoppiness would be as off-putting as a can of pop without any fizz - in this case the haze is synonymous with taste.

The aroma immediately sparks vivid memories of the little, white paper bags I would pick up from the corner shop as a kid, full of pineapple cubes and toffee bonbons. It's thick and heavy, delivering waves of grapefruit and passion fruit after the initial sweetness, followed by a waft of pine.

Each of these elements follows through into the taste, measured with unerring precision to ensure tremendous balance throughout.

Sweet caramel rolls across the front of the tongue before clusters of fuzzy tropical fruit explode in sequence, pineapple, passion fruit and mango letting you know you're onto a very good thing.

Lively sherbet tickles the tongue until the bold citrus of grapefruit and blood orange slices right across the palate, leading to a dry finish that's full of pithy bitterness and lingering notes of resin.

It's at the kind of strength that allows it to be both drinkable and full in the mouth. In short, it's bloody incredible.

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