Tuesday, 23 May 2023

Hungarian Voodoo is a sweet surprise

I was not expecting to meet a Hungarian brewery at Brew//LDN this year, but there it was: the confidently-named First Craft Beer from Budapest, with a bar of its own and a range of brews on tap. They say the name is because when it was founded in 2017 by two brothers, they reckoned it was “the first new wave open-view brewery in Hungary.” Which I guess reminds us that it’s possible to claim pretty much anything if you define your criteria carefully enough. 

Anyway, it seems the beer market in Budapest is pretty big, despite it having a relatively small population. Like so many European craft breweries, First produces international styles, including ‘all the usual suspects' – on tap here were a Pils made in collaboration with a Czech brewer, two IPAs, a Fruit Sour and an unctuous dessert Stout.

Their 5.6% Voodoo IPA (how long before the New Belgium lawyers come calling, I wonder?) was relatively mild, hoppy-bitter and sweet – too sweet for my liking, but as the server explained, Hungary has always been Eurolager country, so drinkers there have quite a sweet tooth. 

Fruit Locker's actually pink, but the lighting
 in the venue is utterly weird so you can't tell!
Lightly fruity and piney, the Triple Flower Power IPA was also pretty sweet, though as it’s a 9% Triple IPA, the alcohol and bitterness helped cut through the sweetness a bit. Fruit Locker. which they describe as an Imperial Pastry Sour, was 9% and rather sweet too. But it was properly tart as well, with sour cherries, tangy currants and a warming booziness adding a good balance, making it for me an unexpectedly pleasing brew.

Apparently, most of the brewery staff are home brewers. They are all able to contribute ideas, too, so the idea for the rich and dark Dessert Storm – another 9%er – came from "one of the guys on the canning line." Fully in the modern pastry stout tradition, it's like Tiramisu in a glass – creamy and sticky-sweet, with notes of coffee and chocolate syrup. The best of the bunch? Maybe, but the Fruit Locker is in there too. 

Thursday, 13 April 2023

London's summer of beer, 2023

We are gearing up for a summer of beer, both here in London and elsewhere. Does London have the most beer festivals of a UK city? I don't know, but it would make sense if it did. 

Beer and industrial chic at Brew//LDN
We kick off – not counting local real ale festivals, that is, like the one I'm typing this at – in four weeks time with Brew//LDN, in its final appearance at Printworks in Rotherhithe* on Friday 5th and Saturday 6th May. Expect rows of small brewery bars and others, often built out of rough wood and/or industrially-styled to match the venue. 

The event begins with a trade session on the Friday afternoon – it's quite a big event for publicans and others to meet new producers of food and drink, then it's open to the public that evening and the following day. 

"The best value day out in London, at the UK's largest and most diverse craft beer festival," the organisers claim, ambitiously but not unreasonably. Tickets are a shade under £30 per session, or £25 each if you buy six – and those prices include the booking fee, for which I applaud the organisers, as I’m fed up with being stung extra for rip-off ‘booking fees’! The ticket includes live DJs and music, but not the beer, which averages a fiver a pint or so, or the street food vendors.  

I've been to Brew//LDN several times, admittedly mostly for the trade session when it’s quieter and the actual brewers are often in attendance. I’ve always enjoyed though: it’s friendly, with a good variety of beer and beer people – and often some discoveries to make. As well as new beers, in the past I’ve also met interesting new mead, spirits and liqueur producers there – that's one of several ways it's diverse. 

Beers in the Fuller's brewery yard 

One I missed when I first published this blog – because although I had been told it was on again for the first time in four years, I didn't have the actual date yet – is the London Brewers Alliance festival, on Saturday 17th June**. Even better, this excellent event is back in the brewery yard at the Fuller's Griffin Brewery, thanks to former Fuller's brewing director John Keeling pulling some strings, I believe! 

JUST IN: The LBA festival has been postponed "Due to circumstances beyond our control"  – it's now booked for Saturday 16th September. I'm rather disappointed because I was looking forward to it not for Kingy's birthday, but as an early Fathers Day treat! 

The 2018 LBA festival
A change this time is they're switching from a single six-hour afternoon session to separately ticketed afternoon and evening sessions. Hopefully this will even out the numbers  – in 2018, the last time I was able to get along, the entrance queue really built up as the afternoon wore on. It's more breweries too, up to 50 from 40 last time, all LBA members and each offering two draught beers at a time, mostly keg but I expect some bright cask beer, and a few bottles and cans as well. Tickets aren't cheap at £40 per session, or £75 for the day, but that does include all your beer samples for four hours per session, and the inevitable souvenir glass. See you there?

The next biggie is of course the Great British Beer Festival, once again at London’s Olympia and this year running from Tuesday 1st August to Saturday 5th. There’s publicity for this all over the web (and Facebook) so I probably don’t need to go into detail, except to say hundreds of real ales plus some “real keg” and the foreign beer bars. Lovely!

August is London beer month

Immediately after that – so if you’re planning a trip to London, make it that fortnight – is London Craft Beer Festival with four sessions across Friday 11th and Saturday 12th August at Tobacco Dock in Wapping. It’s brought to you by the folks from We Are Beer, who also run the Manchester and Bristol craft beer festivals. 

Woodfest casks
Tickets are a shade over £60 for most sessions. That looks steep, but this is a US-style all-inclusive event, so the ticket includes your beers as well as admission, music and a glass (though not of course food or anything else). It’s mainly keg beers from the UK and abroad, but there’s also a Cask Yard, and this year they’re also planning a focus on the new Blackhorse Mile breweries of Walthamstow. I’m looking forward to it, having not been for several years

A late entry onto this festival list isn't huge, but it is a 'national event', technically at least! It's the 4th National Woodfest of the Society for the Preservation of Beers from the Wood (SPBW). with more than 30 beers not just in casks, but in wooden casks. Last year I enjoyed the 3rd Woodfest, which was held in Twickenham. This year it's actually just outside London, in Egham, but it's still only a shortish train ride out. 

Undoubtedly there will be more – I know there’s various fringe events planned for the first two weeks of August, for example, and then there's all the CAMRA local festivals such as Ealing, but I think that will do for now. Cheers! 

*This is the former Harmsworth printing factory, which printed newspapers until 2012, then became a music and events location, and is now sadly due for demolition so the owners, British Land, can build offices instead. Yes, more offices, of which London already appears to have a surplus. I really despise property companies sometimes – no, most of the time. 

 **My diary tells me this is also the King's birthday, but while it would make a great birthday outing for you or me, I fear his security would eff it up for the rest of us! 

Monday, 10 April 2023

Can craft mead break into the big time?

Where next for mead? Or perhaps it’s more important to start with “What is mead, and what should it be?” 

I don't just mean what's it made from – I suspect many people know it's got honey in – but thinking about what defines it, and how varied it is. Because if your idea of mead is just that super-sweet syrupy stuff you see in some souvenir shops, then it's time to think again. 

Authentic, local and sustainable values

“The general mead story is a very compelling one around sustainability, authenticity and localism – we are very interested in sustainability, we’re supporting bees and all pollinators* with 10p donation per pint,” said the eponymous Tom Gosnell (left), speaking at a ‘meadia briefing’ ahead of last month’s British Mead Festival at the Gosnells mead taproom in London’s Bermondsey.  

“It has opened up a lot more in the last 10 years, but there’s still a lack of knowledge,” he added, with some people wondering if it will be 'like drinking honey.'

“The average consumer may not understand what mead means at all,” agreed James Lambert, MD of the other big UK producer, Lyme Bay Winery, which makes mead alongside grape and fruit wines. “We are seeing demonstrable consumer demand, with growth in excess of 10% year-on-year, there’s demand here and abroad, we’re seeing more searches on our website,” he added. 

“But within that, the biggest challenge – the one we’re struggling with – is the gatekeepers. Who do you talk to?” He explained that with restaurants, supermarkets and so on, there’s category buyers for wine, cider and beer, but there’s no one responsible for mead. 

But standards and definitions are currently missing

James Lambert
Another problem is definitions, the two meadmakers agreed. You can’t define it by strength, for example – Lyme Bay’s meads are rich honey wines of 10% to 14.5%, while most Gosnells mead is much lighter, at around 4%, and of course they’re aimed at rather different audiences. James said Lyme Bay sells a lot of bottles through garden centres and the like, and is the sole supplier to English Heritage, whereas it’s not unusual now to see Gosnells flagship Wildflower Mead on tap in pubs and brewery taprooms. 

And at the moment, in the UK it’s not even required to be made from at least 50% honey – although most craft meaderies use 100% honey, and James said Lyme Bay’s is about 55%, some of what’s sold as mead is mostly made from other ingredients such as grape wine or sugar, with honey added more as a flavouring than a fermentable. 

There’s a good reason for that, of course, which is price. “Honey is expensive, and there’s not enough of it in the UK, so we use honeys from elsewhere in Europe and especially from Mexico,” James said – apparently the Yucatan is famous for its honey. 

One way around this is to make session meads, as Gosnells does, but even at less than one-third the ABV of the heavy honey wines, they’re 100% honey so still not cheap to make. Tom noted though that where Lyme Bay pays duty at wine-rate, “the 8.5% tax-break [due in August 2023] will help us, we’ll also be able to take advantage of the draught relief.”

Seeking a sweet future

“What’s the future of mead?” asked James. “The challenge is to get consumers to understand what it is first, only then can we start to differentiate. Chilled and neat in a wine glass, or slightly warmer, we’re starting to see traction in cocktails too. Our sweeter style lends itself well to that.”

Tom agreed. “We give pubs simple cocktail recipes that are easy to make behind the bar,” he said. “It keeps the mead tap busy.”

Looking further ahead, if the UK follows the US, as it has for craft beer, we may well see quite a few more meaderies. When I first encountered American craft mead almost 20 years ago, at a presentation in Denver alongside the Great American Beer Festival, there were perhaps 30 producers present. “Now there’s maybe 1000 in the US,” says Tom. “There’s a lot of session mead – their session mead is more like 7% though!”

And with mead – unlike most wine – offering many of the same positives as beer and cider, such as craft, authenticity and localism, it’s going to be an increasingly attractive option for bars and consumers alike. That’s sweet news for the mead-makers, as long as they can work out how to make it pay. 

*This is a reference to recent news reports that, with so many more people taking up beekeeping during the pandemic, there is a risk of honeybee overpopulation. The problem is that honeybees are far from the only pollinators around – there's also various other bee species, moths, etc – but they are very efficient, so the danger is that they'll outcompete the others and cause species declines.

Friday, 17 February 2023

And sometimes I drink wine, too...

Tre Bicchieri 2022
People do talk about beer having a ‘terroir’ – that sense of place that hints at where it was brewed, and which sometimes seems to make it taste better there – but it’s a term more often associated with fine wine. And with good reason – wine’s differentiation is arguably very much dependent on its home region.

Not only are there many local grape varieties, but the same variety – Syrah/Shiraz, say – can differ greatly depending on where it’s grown, just like English-grown Cascade hops taste different to US-grown Cascade. Plus, fine wine is in many ways a simpler drink to produce than beer, with fewer ingredients and fewer steps in the process, so it makes sense that the result might express the primary ingredient – grapes – much more clearly. 

And thankfully, as long as you’re not a wine snob, you can enjoy wine one day, beer the next, and maybe whisky the day after. Indeed, I suspect most ‘beer snobs’ are actually just quality-focused – they won’t drink crap beer, but they don’t drink crap wine either!

Tre Bicchieri 2019
All of which is why, as well craft beer festivals, I love events such as the Tre Bicchieri Tour, an Italian wine fair which visits London annually. It brings an array of hyper-local wines and wineries, each with experts to help the visitor understand what’s going on in their glass, whether it’s specifics such as growing by the coast or on volcanic soil, the unusual local grape varieties, or the broader differences between regions, from Sicily to Trentino and from Apulia to Piedmont, via Tuscany, Abruzzo and all points between. 

So I am looking forward to this year’s edition which takes place next Thursday (23rd February 2023) at the Royal Horticultural Halls in London’s Westminster. Primarily an afternoon trade and press event run by the Italian Chamber of Commerce in the UK to promote the exhibitors, the doors also open to wine-lovers from 5-7pm. It's free to get in, you do need to register though – there’s a link for that here

Thursday, 24 November 2022

At the intersection of Pilsner, Punk and Pig's ears

It's the Pig's Ear beer festival in Hackney next week. I'm looking forward to it even more than usual this year, because if all goes according to plan, it’ll see a rare outing for cask beers from Walthamstow’s Signature Brew – and an even rarer UK one for cask beers from America's famed Dogfish Head. And they’ll be the same beers...

At least, that was one of the stories I heard when I was over at Signature last month for an event billed as “The intertwined history of punk rock and craft beer”. 

I have to confess that, when I first saw that headline, I didn’t get it. I was around in 1977, and I’m pretty damn sure there weren’t any punks necking single-hop pale ales and kettle sours – and there definitely wasn’t any Punk IPA!

Sams M (left) and C (right)
But the invitation also included the opportunity to meet craft beer legend Sam Calagione, the co-founder of Dogfish Head, and taste both his famous IPAs and the first of two beers he’s collaborated on with Signature co-founder Sam McGregor.

That first collaboration is an updated version of a beer Dogfish brewed several years ago called Piercing Pils. This playful take on the Central European classic – Dogfish styles it a Czech Pils, but it has definite Germanic notes – features both pear juice and pear tea alongside the noble hops. The pear juice adds both fermentable sugars, a fruity flavour and an intriguing, faintly Belgian estery note, while the tea melds with and builds the spicy character of the hops. 

It’s a very nice and very well-made beer – but why add flavours to a classic like Pils? “Since the craft beer revolution, brewers have been putting all sorts of crazy stuff into ales, but usually not lagers,” laughed Sam C. “With lager, there’s nothing to hide behind, so not too often do people fuck with lager – but we do!”

That ‘nowhere to hide faults’ aspect is why some modern ale brewers make lager, to show they really can brew, but as Sam M pointed out, that’s not relevant here. “The kit here [at the Walthamstow brewery] is already set up for lager,” he explained. “A lot of the work we did here was to bring our Studio Lager in-house.”

Beer and band punks on stage together
That work also included both a reverse-osmosis filter to get the right water quality for the beer being brewed – they even use it to replicate Colorado water for their American IPA – and a centrifuge for the finished beer so they don’t have to pasteurise or filter it. 

But with all this industry going on, where’s the punk angle? To discuss it, the two Sams were joined on the Signature brewhouse stage by Matt Reynolds of modern hardcore punk duo Haggard Cat, and Jon Langford of 1970s punk band The Mekons – roadies had been busy all afternoon setting up the stage for the two bands to play later that evening.

For all four of them, it’s a shared concept – a rejection of the mainstream and a determination to do your own thing. As Langford explained, while 1970s London punk was very shock-orientated, the north-east punk scene that The Mekons came out of was very different. “We thought it was all about you make your own entertainment, for us in The Mekons it was all do-it-yourself,” he said. 

Sam C said that American craft brewing, fired up by President Jimmy Carter’s 1978 legalisation of homebrewing, was driven by a similar rejection of the mainstream. “The homebrewing movement was a punk movement,” he declared. Dogfish Head may have been founded in 1995 – Calagione calls it “a second-generation craft brewery” – but it still started out as him and two friends brewing in a kitchen.

Burnished amber in a glass
He added that even now, after he sold his brewery to Sam Adams – yes, yet another Sam! – for which he inevitably got a lot of ‘sell-out’ criticism, it’s all still far from mainstream. “When we merged with Sam Adams, our ‘monstrous combination’ represented two percent of the US beer market,” he said. “In the US, 9000 craft breweries share just 14% of the market.”

So, a Punk Pear Pils then? Well, maybe – it’ll certainly have the guardians of the Einheitsgebot (the Law of Sameness) shaking their heads. And according to Signature Brew’s other co-founder Tom Bott, it’s not the only thing that Sam C and the Dogfish crew were in town for – the week after we spoke, they were due back at the brewery to start work on a collaboration Porter, to be brewed with Vietnamese pepper and maple syrup!

And that's where it got extra-interesting. Tom said they also plan to cask some of both the Porter and the Piercing Pils. Signature started doing cask beers about a year ago – initially just versions of its Roadie and Backstage IPAs – but only for sale through two handpumps in the  brewery taproom. Now, Tom said they’re also “thinking to let some casks out further afield,” with Pig’s Ear a likely early recipient. 

Not just a Punk Pear Pils, then, but a Cask Punk Pear Pils. Now that’s my kind of DIY entertainment… See you at Pig's Ear! 

Saturday, 29 October 2022

How Gosnells helped make mead both fashionable and sessionable

Mead is fashionable again. Better than that, it’s commercial and very nearly mainstream, and a large part of the credit for that – at least in Britain – goes to Tim Gosnell and his meadery Gosnells of London. 

He’s had several goes at creating a retail space of his own. There was the room above a restaurant in Peckham, there was the ‘mead garden’ of tables, benches and recycled wood dividers and planters set up on the concrete outside his industrial estate meadery – it was quite cute, actually, in a modern craft-biergarten kind of way. 

And now there is the first mead bar on the famed Bermondsey Beer Mile, taking over the 72 Enid Street arch, between Moor Beer and Cloudwater. It’s a simple set-up – tables, chairs and benches fill the deep archway plus some space on the roadside, then there’s a bar at the back with storage behind.  

The commercialisation of mead has been helped by the fact that, while what’s on the bar here is recognisably similar, Gosnells core range is not the sweet, almost liqueur-like honey wine meads sold in tourist shops and medieval markets, whose strength can be in the high teens or even the low 20s. Some of these honey wines were actually sweet grape wine flavoured with honey.

Inside the Enid St arch

Session meads

Instead, Gosnells is mostly session or ‘short mead’, a light version weighing in at 5% ABV or less*. As well as making it more approachable in a market where ready-mixed cocktails and hard seltzers are typically 4% or 5%, it also makes it more cost-effective to produce. Honey is normally the only sugar source for fermentation here and it’s not a cheap ingredient, so a 15% mead is a lot more expensive to make than a 4% one. In addition, a 15% or 18% mead can take a lot longer to ferment and finish. 

Of course, while the production process is very similar to beer, minus the mashing and boiling, it does have to change a bit, as I learned when chatting in the mead garden a few months back with Gosnells head brewer Will Grubelnik. “We pasteurise it to stop the fermentation early,” he explained. That’s because if they didn’t stop the fermentation early, the yeast could simply eat all the sugar leaving a bone-dry liquid. 

Control over the fermentation as well as the type of honey and any other ingredients used also helps bring out flavour, despite the lower ABV. “Honey is almost 99% sugar and water, with a very little protein and some other flavour compounds,” Will added. 

Head brewer Will at the old 'mead-garden'
“Stopping early allows you to collect some mid-fermentation products. Even though we’re 100% honey we’re able to show people a huge range of flavour profiles so there’s something to appeal to everyone, even if they’re scared of mead or don’t like honey!”  

For example, Gosnells has produced a dry-hopped mead – not bitter but light and dry with a hoppy crispness, a mead brewed with Belgian Saison yeast, and several fruited, flowered or spiced meads, traditionally known as melomels and metheglins. There’s even a lightly soured mead, to ride the recent trend for sour drinks, and a series of postcode meads made with – and expressing the character of – honey from that specific area. 

Bringing out the honey's individual character

“With mead you can be as free as you want or as concise as you want,” Will says. “For example, I might want to focus on the honey and how that changes over time. With the postcode mead I want to educate people, so I take a hive each from East and West London and from Hereford and the Kentish coast. I ferment the four honeys the same way to show first how the taste varies, and second, that urban honey is not ‘dirty’!”

He also produces some specials at wine-strength, which as I mentioned take a lot more honey. Where he uses perhaps 85kg or 90kg of honey per 1000 litres for the regular meads, these take 370kg per 1000. (By comparison, my homebrew meads used between 2kg and 3kg per 10 litres, depending how dry I wanted them.)  

Mead is sometimes claimed to be the world’s oldest alcoholic drink. That may or may not be true – wine has a long history, and very early beer-like drinks seem to have combined several sugar sources, including honey alongside fruit and grains – but it’s undeniable that mead carries a certain mystique. The Mead of Poetry in Norse mythology, for example, or the mead of the ancient Greek Golden Age. 

And some of Will’s superb specials would definitely fit well in that legendary category! For example, at the meadery I was lucky enough to sample a smooth and warming 13% mead matured in a plum sake barrel, and a rich and toasty Bouchet mead made with 50% caramelised honey.  

Sadly, you are unlikely to find those two at the Bermondsey bar – they were very limited runs. But there are eight taps of other draught meads, which when I visited included one at wine strength and another constructed to taste like a Mojito. It certainly all makes for a refreshing change from beer. 

*Session meads are still very much in the historical tradition, where we also find short mead and local honey-based but session-strength specialities such as Estonian M├Ádu, Finnish Sima and Russian Medovukha. Again, it reminds us that honey has always been a fairly expensive commodity, so a 5% mead would have been half the price of a 10% one. 

Wednesday, 21 September 2022

Drinking up a memory of Bass Cape Hill

Acquired at some memorabilia sale a few years back, this bottle’s been at the back of my fridge pretty much ever since. Until today I pulled it out – and suddenly realised that I was quite possibly involved, albeit peripherally, in what was brewed to celebrate. 

Some 35 years ago, I was invited to visit Cape Hill Brewery in Birmingham. Originally the HQ of Mitchells & Butler, or M&B as it was known in its brewing days, by the time I visited it was part of the Bass empire, and had just undergone a substantial refit. 

That refit included a new computer control system running on a pair of DEC VAX minicomputers, which was the reason for my visit as I was deputy editor of DEC User Magazine at the time. This system allowed them pretty much to program the brewery to brew what they wanted, batch by batch, whether that be Brew XI, Stones Bitter, M&B Mild or whatever. These days you can buy a home-brew machine that does the same and fits on your kitchen work-top, but this was sophisticated stuff back then. 

When Bass bailed out of brewing in 2000 the Cape Hill Brewery was sold, first to Interbrew and then to Coors, who closed it in 2002, just months after they’d bought it. It was demolished in 2005/2006 and housing built on the site. 

Fast forward to today though, and here’s a bottle of Cape Hill Brewery Celebration Strong Mild Ale from June 1987, and yes, it’s still drinkable and fairly pleasant! The cap was still tight, perhaps thanks to the foil cover, and while the beer has only a slight fizz, it’s also only slightly oxidised for its age. 

It’s dark and malty with a touch of gravy – that’s the oxidation – and a little sweet. There’s a slight hop character and not much bitterness, but then this is a Midlands mild, and it’s a little thin. No information on the ABV – the label just says it was brewed to O.G. 1055° – but given the sweetness I’d guess at maybe 5%. 

Anyhow, that's my glass of history for today.