Friday, 12 September 2014

Spoons gets craftier

JD Wetherspoon is rolling out craft keg beers across 200 pubs, with availability due from 1st October. The first two beers on tap will be BrewDog's pretentiously named and pompously launched This.Is.Lager., while the other will be an American-style IPA from well regarded US brewer Devils Backbone, but contract brewed in the UK (so I hear) by Adnams.

Here's the tap badges, aren't they dreadful?


The DB one doesn't even tell you the beer name, never mind its style or strength. Still, I foresee local managers coming up with creative fixes for this.

JDW will also be stocking Lagunitas IPA and Rogue American Amber in bottles, according to its Twitter account - presumably these will be the US-made versions. Apparently the Sixpoint beers are staying around, by the way.

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Guinness looks to the past for new Porters


After many months of planning, here we have it: two new Porters from Guinness, both of them “inspired by” historical recipes and aimed, if not at the craft beer bars, then certainly at those pubs and bars who like to carry a varied beer menu. They come from Diageo's relatively new The Brewers Project, set up to enable its brewers “to explore new recipes, reinterpret old ones and collaborate freely”.

The first, Guinness Dublin Porter, is a 3.8% dark beer based on a recipe from 1796 – Guinness archivist Evelyn Roche said that the original would have been typical of the working men's sub-4% thirst quenchers of the late 1700s. This version was described by its brewer Peter Simpson as “more accessible than Guinness Draught,” and will be available in keg and bottle.

It's all-grain, with small amounts of both roasted and raw barley, and hopped with English Goldings. “One of the biggest challenges was interpreting the quantities and units used, and then it was the type of hops used,” Peter explained. “It got to the point where we settled on Goldings which would have been one of the most common types at the time.”

I found it a pleasant Porter, if a bit watery. There's a touch of coffee on the nose, then caramel, hints of roast chocolate and a light bitterness. It's not so different from the many other Porters at around this strength, including several supermarket own-brands, but of course they don't have the Guinness name on the label.

Available in bottles only and at 6%, Guinness West Indies Porter is based on a recipe from 1801 which Evelyn said was the precursor to Foreign Extra Stout. It's dry-bitter with notes of coffee, liquorice, a touch of old leather, and maybe a hint of nuttiness. By comparison, FES is drier, a little more bitter and has sourish notes – the latter deliberately concocted these days, in a special bacterial souring plant within St James's Gate.

Sadly for the Guinness folk, who had planned a surprise launch at a secret venue in hipster Spitalfields, their embargo was broken by Morrisons which had the new beers on its shelves the day before the official launch. I suspect that Words Have Been Had....

Peter Simpson and the new/old Porters
The Porters are the first commercial fruit from the pilot brewery at St James's Gate. This has both an automated one hectolitre (100 litre) brewkit and a manual 10hl plant similar to what you'd find in many microbreweries. Peter explained that the pilot brewery is used for several things besides developing new beers – brewing the winners of the Diageo annual staff beer-creation competition, testing ingredients for flavour stability, trying out new processes and so on.

However, he stressed that they are not specials or one-offs – they are now permanent members of the Guinness range, and have graduated to being brewed several hundred hectolitres at a time in the vast and brand-new Brewhouse no.4 at St James's Gate.

And he says Diageo is not jumping on the craft bandwagon – rather, this is an attempt to widen the Guinness range in a market that increasingly seeks variety. As he explained, “I think craft has enabled us, in that it really is a revolution in taste, and we're bringing Guinness back to what it used to be.”

So what of the beers? Sure, the tickers and completists will hunt them down, if they haven't been to Morrisons already. For the rest of us, they add a more modern take on Porter – and yes, Guinness is hoping to win another foot of supermarket shelf space in the three-for-a-fiver 'premium beers' rack, where it has only been represented by FES. They are well made and presented, and certainly worth trying for anyone who likes dark beers (as I do).

As a beer aficionado though, I can't help sensing a missed opportunity. It's fascinating – Guinness is full of wonderfully skilled brewers who are passionate about what they do. They have first-rate gear to work with and massive resources in terms of sourcing ingredients and so on, yet the finished product almost always has an ever so slight feel of dumbed-downness about it. It's as if it gets filtered through the Diageo bureaucracy, and in the process made just a bit safer, just a bit more average.

The one exception I can think of is the 8% ABV Guinness Special Export, which as I understand it is produced not to the specifications of Diageo but to those of its Belgian distributor John Martin. There might be a clue there.

Still, as one of the Guinness staff said, these are the first two of what they hope will be a bigger range. Perhaps if they see success in the market the Diageo high-ups will relax a little and trust their brewers, allowing future brews to push the envelope a bit more. It is a challenge though – Peter mentioned that his team's been experimenting with barrel-ageing beers, including a Special Export aged in a rum barrel that came out at 13% and was “absolutely delicious!” The problem of course is translating such things to the sort of volumes that Guinness needs to operate at. 

Thursday, 4 September 2014

London Fields Eastside Saison

The latest in London Fields Brewery's occasional Bootlegger series is a 5.5% Saison, and what a nice example of the style it is. It's also cask-conditioned and on handpump, which makes it all the more refreshing and genuine - I mentioned this to LFB head brewer Fabio Israel (I'll post a longer interview with him here as soon as I get the time) and he agreed that it's more "farmhouse" than the fizzy versions you'll find in the craft bars.

Just to prove the point, the taproom also had the Saison on keg, but that version was lacklustre and ordinary, all fizz and no knickers you might say (but probably wouldn't!).

So anyway, the cask version is a deep gold and the first impression is almost a Dortmunder Export, malty and faintly sweet, before that funky farmhouse Saison note sweeps in, accompanied by a dry and lightly peppery bitterness. There's also ginger and grains of paradise (another gingery spice) in there, contributing a spiciness most evident in the aftertaste.

Saison is still fashionable in the UK, although some might argue it has already jumped the shark in the US, to be supplanted by the likes of Farmhouse IPA (essentially an even hoppier Saison). Meanwhile in places such as Germany it is only just taking off. I had my first two German Saisons (and one of those was actually brewed in Belgium) earlier this year. A spiced cask version makes it a bit more interesting and is to be applauded - look out for it!

(Disclaimer: I'm sat in the brewery taproom ahead of tonight's public launch for the beer, and have a glass of cask Eastside Saison in front of me...)

Saturday, 30 August 2014

Fuller's open day

Hooves bigger than my head!
Many thanks to the Fuller's team and all their friends and helpers for an excellent open day at the Griffin Brewery today. The small Vikings enjoyed their horse-drawn dray (well, wagon) ride, plus the barbeque, the cake stall, the face-painting and the tombola. Oh ,and the fire engine!

As I had to drive them there, I partook only gently of the outdoor bar, which offered keg Frontier, Cornish cider and cask Pride for the equivalent of £1 a pint*, but there was a fuller (ho ho) range on in the Hock Cellar, including Fuller's Summer Ale and Gale's Beachcomber next to each other on the bar.

Also in the cellar was an opportunity to taste some of the bottled beers, a tombola, and a "decorate your own mini-cask with stickers" corner for the kids. Sadly, the mini-cask the boy decorated and brought home was empty...


*I say "the equivalent" as the currency for most of this was bottletops. You could buy a bag of 10 for a fiver (they're new and unused ones so don't go rooting round to see if you have any used ones in the bin!) then 'spend' them on the bars and stalls.

If I understood rightly, all the income from selling them goes to one of three local charities, depending on the type of tops you chose to buy, with the goods actually being donated. A nice touch, and a lot better than simply giving things away.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Stout 'n' Sour

Normally I'm a big fan of sour beers such as Berliner Weisse, Gose and Gueuze. It does help though if they are brewed to be that way. Tonight's example - a Baltic Night stout from Oxfordshire's Compass Brewery, which I picked up in the local Oddbins - is a bit more challenging, as while it has a tartness on the nose and a pronounced sour character, I can't believe it is meant to be like that.

Indeed, the brewer's original description referred to "a well balanced roasted bitterness as well as a hoppy aroma." It added that "The high percentage of roasted barley that we use to create it also gives it a lovely hint of coffee and a long dry moreish cocoa finish."

The cocoa and roast coffee are definitely there, but so is an intrusive sourness, and it's not the Brettanomyces sourness one might expect in an aged stout, but more the lactic sourness of Berliner Weisse. Turning to Ratebeer I see I'm not alone - several other recent reviews refer to a sourness or a lactic tang.


I'm trying to enjoy it anyway. I like sours as I said, and stout is a favourite of mine too, so I'm trying to tell myself this might be what you'd get if you tried crossing two styles, as Schneider Weisse did with its latest Tap X, Porter Weisse. It's kind of growing on me, but only kind of!

Interestingly, I see Compass does make at least one beer as a seasonal that is meant to be sour.

Incidentally, there was an earlier omen that not all was well here. When we talk about cracking a bottle open, we don't usually mean it literally. But tonight it's exactly what I did - the bottle rim came away with the cap! I poured the beer anyway, but through a tea-strainer. And I suspect the bottle-opener rather than the bottle - it's one I rarely use, grabbed since my once-trusty Swiss Army Knife has gone AWOL.

Have any readers had similar strange hybrid beery experiences? (Or seen my Swiss Army Knife?!?)

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Cool times at the London Craft Beer Festival

So that's the second London Craft Beer Festival – and what a nice event it is! I was there on the Friday for the second session, but at the time of writing there were still tickets available for the Saturday night and Sunday sessions.

Ours was an afternoon session, so there was no music – apparently it really livened up in the evening with bands playing. I'm not upset to have missed that because it would have made it a lot harder to chat with fellow drinkers and the folk from the breweries. Indeed, there was a lot of serendipitious chatting going on, the “What have you got there? What's been good so far? Have you heard the Test Match score?” sort of thing.

Needless to say, there were lots of interesting beers, plus a few experiments that didn't really work! It's done on an all-inclusive tasting approach, where your £35 ticket covers as many 90ml (one-sixth of a pint, 3.3oz) tastings as you want, plus you get four tokens for third-pint pours – although there was so much to sample that I only got around to using one of my tokens.  If you've been to the Great American Beer Festival, say, or more recently the Copenhagen Beer Celebration, you'll recognise the model.

It also wasn't too crowded – I don't think it was a total sell-out, but you wouldn't want it much fuller than this. That made for short waits at the bar and a more relaxed atmosphere to chat. One of the fascinating things about beer is that there is always something more to learn. No matter how much I've already learnt and can explain to others, every time I talk to people in the business I learn something new – and so it was yesterday, with techie discussions on how to condition beer, side-effects of sour mashing, and the like.

Oh, and while it was promoted as a beer festival for London, and a lot of the brewers present are from London (eg. Kernel, Partizan, Brew By Numbers, Pressure Drop, Redchurch), several are not, including two from the US and three from Belgium.

On the other hand, LCBF was not an unalloyed success. In particular, the cask ale – this bar featured the likes of Redemption, Burning Sky, Kirkstall and Sierra Nevada (the latter sent over in the same consignment that they send to GBBF) – was too warm by a few degrees, making it somewhat lifeless. I wasn't the only one who noticed, and one of the other visitors told me that as we left, staff were trying to sort it out.

Lack of experience handling casks? Perhaps, and I'd suggest that the organisers call round the cellar managers who do the local CAMRA beer festivals for help – except that one penalty of running your festival at the same time as GBBF is that they will all be busy there this week! I'm sure it will be fixed for next year, anyway.

Scenic Bethnal Green
I do wonder too about the ticket price - £35 seems quite a big hurdle to jump, but maybe that's just me, as you could easily pay that much for a night out in town. Plus, maybe it allows the organisers to keep attendance at a comfortable level. It certainly doesn't have the oppressive zoo-like feel of GBBF, and felt more relaxed than many local CAMRA festivals.

I guess if you sampled every beer there and used all your extra tokens, you could get maybe ten or a dozen pints down you (and there were several in excess of 10% ABV), which in theory makes it excellent value. I'm not sure I know many people who could manage 60-70 drinks in five hours though. Not aficionados who want to enjoy what they're drinking, anyhow... (I only managed 20-ish, but then I was also trying to interview people and take notes.)

All in all then, will I go again next year? Here's hoping!

Disclaimer: I got a discounted ticket at the "friends and press" price (Friday afternoon trade session only), hence my musings about the £35 full price.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Drink beer, talk (non)sense

There is a bit of nonsense – and to be fair, a bit of sense – being talked this week about craft beer and real ale, as if the two were somehow mutually exclusive. CAMRA, we are told, is out of touch and needs to change the Great British Beer Festival – which is currently focused on cask-and bottle-conditioned beers – to include the new kegged craft beers that are stealing all the headlines.

Yet I look around GBBF and I see craft beer everywhere. Some of it is 'traditional craft' – breweries that have been in business for decades or centuries, making finely-crafted ales the way our forefathers did (and all that jazz). Some is old brewers learning new ways – there is a Brains Craft Brewery bar, for instance, offering four or five of its newest craft ales. And others are new-wave craft – Hardknott has beers here, as do Burning Sky, Arbor, Ilkley and lots more.

At the same time, the London Craft Beer Festival opened today – I'll be along there tomorrow, I hope. It's promising draught and bottled beer from two-dozen breweries, mostly from the UK and the rest of Europe, plus two from the USA.

The only thing that divides the two is the method of dispense. CAMRA favours cask-conditioning, and with good reason – plenty of the modern craft brewers also put (some of) their beer in casks because they know that, properly treated, it can be a superb way to develop the flavours and carbonation over time.

Most keg beer on the other hand – though not all, because some can and does condition in the keg – is intended to be drunk the way it leaves the brewery. That is not a bad thing at all, although it can be limiting.

Yes, CAMRA has its Puritans, but I'd bet that most members here at GBBF will drink anything that's well made and flavoursome. And they won't care whether it comes out of a handpump or not (just as well really, because most other CAMRA beer festivals serve their beers by gravity, straight from a tap on the cask).

The odd thing is that craft keg has its Puritans too. They regard cask conditioning and especially handpumps as signs of 'old men's ale', stuff to be revolted against – just as CAMRA revolted against the fizzy, homogenised and often tasteless keg beers of the 1970s. On Twitter, they complain that this year's Champion Beer of Britain, Timothy Taylor's Boltmaker, is a boring bland brown bitter instead of a hop-forward tastebomb.

It's funny really. Plus ├ža change, and all that. Sometimes you need subtlety rather than obviousness, and sometimes you ought to wonder why some of those US craft brewers you idolise are so intrigued by cask ale – to the extent that they will do collaborations with JD Wetherspoon in order to brew a properly cask-conditioned ale, based on traditional craft methods, and then see it get a national release served in ale-led pubs on handpump.

Sometimes you really do have to say, "A pint please" and get on with it.