Saturday, 16 November 2019

Changing your Signature

It's all change at London's Signature Brew following an oversubscribed crowdfunding campaign last year - new brewery and taproom, new logo and cans, and even a few new brews - new to me, at least.

The launch party at the new site is taking place this weekend, and there’s lots of shiny stainless steel on show. Given the brewery's history of collaborating with bands to create one-off beers, of course there's quite a bit of live music too.

There’s already a Signature Taproom in Haggerston, London E8, so the new site’s drinking space is instead called The Brewer’s Bar. For this weekend’s launch there’s also tables and benches in the yard outside and on the open area in the brewery proper - I’m told these will also be out once the Brewer’s Bar is open regularly, which is set to be Friday/Saturday evenings and Saturday/Sunday afternoons. At this time of year, the open areas are a tad chilly, but the bar itself is enclosed and warm!

Inside the bar there’s various mementos on the wall of the brewery’s history and its musical collaborations, from its origins in 2012 when it contract-brewed, to 2015 when they got their own brewkit, which they outgrew within four years.

I had a chat with Chris, one of the assistant brewers, who filled me in on some of the changes. Although the actual ‘brew length’ hasn’t changed massively - the new brewkit is 32hl (20 barrels) where the older was 24hl - the new one is much more modern. In place of a manual two-vessel system, they now have a four-vessel system with lauter tun and whirlpool, so brewing is easier and faster.

Alongside a set of 32hl fermenters, they also now have six 120hl (75 barrel) fermenters for core beers such as Roadie, Backstage IPA and Studio Lager - big enough to get three brews into each. They’re currently brewing three days a week, two or three times a day. One of the advantages of upsizing your brewkit is quite simply that you can produce more beer in a shorter time and with less effort!

The venue is family-friendly, too!
As for the beers, as I discovered when I first met them they’re quality brews. Alongside the regulars I found an excellent 3% hoppy modern bitter - they badge this as a Table Beer, but to my mind it’s more of a Pale Ale ‘light’, a gorgeous Bretted lager (sadly a very limited production run), and a modernist Farmhouse/Saison.

Then there’s the collaboration they did for the recent Brewdog Collabfest, which aims to cram a cream tea, complete with cucumber sandwiches, Earl Grey, scones and raspberry jam, into a hazy IPA. It sounds ghastly, but it’s actually complex and fascinating. They also have a cask containing some of the very last of their original Anthology 10% Imperial Stout, now two years old and tasting quite gorgeous.

Technically the weekend event is ticket-only, but I’m told there should be room for some extra visitors if you’re looking for things to do tomorrow! It’s an easy walk from Blackhorse Road station. Also in the area are the Wild Card brewery, although sadly that’s not open tomorrow, and the intended site of Exale Brewing, which is the new project - again, crowdfunded - from the former Hale Brewing team. Ex-Hale, yeah…

Many thanks to the Signature crew for inviting me over - cheers!

Wednesday, 13 November 2019

Charity beer festival goes London-wide

The popularity of Craft Beer Cares, the volunteer-run Hackney beer festival where all the beer is donated and the profits go to charity,  has struck a chord with the London Brewers Alliance (LBA) and the Society of independent Brewers (SIBA). The three organisations are collaborating to run a new charity festival next February near King’s Cross, called Love Beer London

The aim is to get as many as possible of London’s 100+ breweries taking part and donating keg beer. The proceeds will go to The Benevolent, which is the drinks industry’s own charity, supporting needy current and former employees and their families.

Taking over as festival organiser is Jaega Wise, who is head brewer at LBA member Wild Card Brewery and also an elected SIBA rep. “With Love Beer London we are bringing together all of the best breweries from across London and the South East into one huge new beer festival, serving a broad range of beer styles of the highest quality in an amazing event space just behind King’s Cross station,” she declared.

“It’s the first time that SIBA have partnered with the London Brewers Alliance and we’re hugely excited about the broad range of craft breweries and beer styles that will feature at the festival, so as well as modern hop-forward IPAs and Pale Ales there will be lots of traditional bitters, porters and stronger English ales, as well as speciality and mixed-fermentation beers. It genuinely will have something for everybody.”

The festival will run across five sessions, with the first on the evening of Thursday 13th Feb and the last on the evening of Sat 15th Feb. It’s actually in Barnsbury, but King’s Cross isn’t far.

The one thing that I’m a bit surprised by is that the tickets, at £12 per session, include a glass but no beer tokens – the beer prices are the same, as £2 a half for most and £3 for some, but the Craft Beer Cares tickets included your first £10-worth of beer tokens. Now, I know the latter were a bit too cheap, but jumping straight to GBBF-level pricing seems a tad steep. Then again, maybe it’ll work, even if getting there means hacking out to the vicinity of Pentonville prison!

Anyhow, it’s all in a good cause. To find out more and buy tickets, visit the event website


Thursday, 17 October 2019

Is New York's trendy sour-milk IPA a step too far?

I had evenings free before and after last month’s conference in New York City, which was my chance to try a couple of craft beer bars, one in Manhattan and one on Long Island. Both of course had ‘regular’ brews on, but quite a bit was gimmicky and adjunct-laden or simply fashion-crazed – the latter mainly meaning hugely-hopped hazy IPAs and the like.

The range in Long Island’s Amity Ales was fairly seasonal, with Hofbrau Oktoberfestbier and the first couple of pumpkin spiced beers ahead of Halloween, for example. A couple of hazy IPAs nodded to fashion, as did the sole dark craft beer – a 6.2% Chocolate Peanut Butter Porter from Maryland's DuClaw Brewing, called Sweet Baby Jesus (left), which proved remarkably tasty and drinkable for all that they seemed to have emptied the kitchen cupboard into it.

Also very drinkable was the house Amity Pale Ale, now contract-brewed across town rather than in the pub’s basement. Although described as an American Pale Ale, it is deep brown and much closer in style to an English Bitter, though of course with US hops and an American sensibility (it's 5.5% for example!). It’s a great twist on an old familiar.

Less impressive was my first experience of where New England fashion has taken hazy IPA. Juicy IPA from nearby Montauk was a bit untidy – not so bitter, but with sweet tropical fruit jarring up against aggressive vegetal hoppiness.

Worse was to come a couple of days later, however, when I met Lactose IPA. In a way it should have been expected – I mean, New England IPA as a style already emphasises the fruity-hoppy notes over the bitterness. Then came the trend to make it even fruitier by, er, putting real fruit in. So sweetening it up with milk sugar to complete the transition to hoppy sugary fruit drink was the obvious next step, am I right? Add in the fashion for ‘sour IPAs’ – sour in this context usually meaning just a little bit tart and tangy, rather than bracingly mouth-puckering – and the weirdness is complete.

DIY beer and cheese pairing
This was at Milk & Hops in Manhattan’s Chelsea district, which by chance was having a festival of beers from breweries in Upstate New York – that’s to say, from up north beyond the city suburbs. As the name implies, the bar’s schtick is gourmet cheese and craft beer, although unfortunately the tap takeover meant that the regular pairing plate wasn’t available that night.

Sadly, my first three choices were all drinkable but unimpressive. Obercreek’s Fall Into Place hazy DIPA seemed unbalanced and a bit harsh, and both Mortalis’ Tears of the Goddess and Beer Tree Brew’s Slightly Fuzzy were absurdly over-complicated. The former was a ‘sour IPA’ with lactose, fruit, vanilla and granola(!), and the latter a mango-lime Berliner Weisse, where the lime almost out-tarted the beer.

I could have stopped there – especially there wasn’t much under the equivalent of £10 a UK pint. It was tipping down with rain outside though, so I plugged on – and I was rewarded… Everything else I tried that evening was good-to-excellent, including the cheese plate above! District 96’s dry-sweet, fruity and funky Summer Campaign was, at 7.2%, a fine example of a strong Saison, and Mortalis redeemed itself with Hazel, an excellently complex Imperial Coffee Stout – syrupy sweet yet warming and cocoa-bitter.

The one brewery to really score was Prison City, which is a brewpub just south of Lake Ontario, in a small town which does indeed possess a ‘correctional facility’. Quite a few of their beers have crime-related names, including the duo on the bar that night: In Prison Again (left) and Wham Whams, which is apparently US prison slang for the little goodies inmates can buy from the canteen.

Several also have hop bills that change from batch to batch – this version of In Prison Again, a very nicely balanced 6.7% hazy IPA which almost had an internal glow, was brewed with Galaxy & Waimea. At the other end of the beer spectrum, Wham Whams is their Imperial Stout, this version having been aged in Woodford Reserve bourbon barrels coconut and vanilla, and weighing in at 11%. It was rich and very impressive, if a little cloying on the finish, with so much chocolate and coconut character it was a bit like Bounty bars melted in a heavy dark beer. Lovely sippin’ stuff!

Next it was time to move upstate myself. More on that in a future blog...

Saturday, 21 September 2019

Proper lager in America

Somewhere up there is where Capt Chesney Sullenberger
safely ditched his stricken Airbus in the river 
It was at the pre-conference welcome party on a Manhattan roof terrace overlooking the Hudson river that I realised how much the New York beer scene had changed since I was last there more than half a decade ago. The canned beers on offer were all ones I did not recognise, they mostly came from New England breweries, and they were all good – in some cases very good.

What really impressed me were not the me-too IPAs but the lagers: a couple of Pilsners (Happy Hour from Peak Organic, and Mermaid from Coney Island Brewery), either of which could have come from one of the better breweries in Central Europe. In other words, they were not only well crafted, they were also impressively authentic.

Peak just calls it a Pilsner, but it's
bang-on for a Czech Světlý ležák 11°
They also sparked an interesting discussion with a couple of fellow conference-goers on craft beer’s return to lager. I’d already seen it in the UK and Germany, where it seems to fulfil two roles. One is to have something on tap for those used to lager but who want something better, and the other – especially in Germany – is as a demonstration of the brewer’s skills.

Satisfying the first need by making something lagery is relatively simple. Heck, you even brew a pale ale with lager malt, then cold-condition it for a few weeks and claim it’s Kölsch. But meeting the second need, by doing lager properly, is hard.

Anyway, the same trend’s happening in the US, where for all the hype over craft beer, the vast bulk of what’s actually consumed is still the beery liquid known as Lite Lager. And as one barperson I chatted with told me, it’s a trend worth following: you get a lager drinker in, they try the craft version, and they’re like, “Damn, this stuff is good! Is this what lager is really meant to taste like?!” – and all of a sudden they’re regulars. And they're now open to other beers. Bingo.

Saturday, 17 August 2019

A macrobrew lesson in the middle of the Med

Mahon's magnificent harbour
When we went on holiday last month to Menorca, in the Balearic islands of Spain – it’s the smaller counterpart of Majorca (hence minor/major) – I was curious to see what interesting beers I might find. I’d already had a look on Untappd which suggested there were a couple of breweries on the island, plus a couple of bottle shops, one in each of the main towns.

We were staying near the current capital Port Mahon (Maó in the Catalan dialect used locally), while at the opposite end of the island is the former mediaeval capital of Ciutadella. The switch from one to the other happened in the 1700s when the island was under British control, not Spanish, but it reflected changes in naval technology as much as nationality. The harbour at Ciutadella is closer to the Spanish mainland, but is shallower and far smaller than the magnificent 5km-long Mahon harbour, which was much better positioned and sized to suit an 18th century fleet of battleships tasked with controlling the Western Med. 

Anyway, quite how we missed Birra O’Clock in Mahon/Maó I don’t know – we must have walked almost straight past it. But that was on Sunday afternoon, so maybe it was closed and less noticeable, and anyway I’d have been more focused on keeping the kids from getting lost and/or run over.

So what I drank while there was what I found in the supermarkets. What I didn’t expect, even though technically we weren’t all that far from Spain’s craft beer capital of Barcelona, was that it was almost all macro and crafty macro. Sure there was variety – amber lagers, Märzens, a Hefeweizen and even a few ales of various sorts – but with just a couple of microbrewed exceptions, they were all from Damm, Mahou-San Miguel or Heineken Spain.

As for local brews, it wasn’t until we visited bottle shop Sa Bona Birra on a trip to Ciutadella that we found any, and that was from Sant Climent back near Mahon. Yes, they had beers from Barcelona micros as well, but they had beers from all over the world, as you’d expect in a specialist shop.

Ciutadella
It reminded me just how much of a bubble the beer scene in, say, Barcelona actually is. But it also demonstrated how much the big brewers have invested in crafty brewing to ensure that outlets such as supermarkets have no need to go elsewhere in order to add a dusting of modernity and variety to their beer shelves. (Like washing powder manufacturers, they also grab for shelf space by having secondary brands for their generic beers – pretty poor stuff in the main.)

By chance, a week later I found myself chatting with one of the brewers from Mahou-San Miguel after we’d both spent the day judging in the International Beer Challenge. He confirmed that, as I already knew from elsewhere, it’s all about the extra margin on craft, not the sales volume. And it’s not about doing it on the cheap, either, although he noted that the Mahou Barrica barrel-aged strong lagers (the Bourbon one is rather good, by the way) are deliberately priced low to get shelf space and attention.

And clearly it works, with some of the crafty ones actually being pretty good – San Miguel’s Manila Vienna lager for instance, and Heineken Spain’s Cruzcampo ales (but not its eponymous Eurolagers), although yes, the real independents were on average rather better.

Interestingly, Heineken seems to have recognised the need to separate off its crafty element. It worked with a local hospitality group to set up a brewpub in Malaga called La Fabrica de Cruzcampo where its brewers can get creative. It then brews and bottles some of the results back at HQ for nationwide distribution.

Will this crafty-creative approach be a model we’ll see more of across Europe and elsewhere? I suspect so. The question is, how can real micros and independents respond?

Saturday, 20 July 2019

London's Summer of Beer

There’s a lot for the beer-lover to look forward in London over the summer. I guess it started with last weekend’s Ealing Beer Festival, under the giant oak trees and in the grassy surroundings of Walpole Park – and once again mostly in the sunshine this year. A great selection of cask beers this year, all in good-to-excellent condition.

Beer judging underway
Perhaps to show that any style can work in cask, my absolute stand-out there this year was a cask Belgian Saison – but then, the original farmhouse Saisons would have been cask, so why not? Called Go With a Smile, it was a collaboration between two small Kentish brewers, Boutilliers and Iron Pier. By coincidence, my second favourite was also Belgian – but not just in style this time. One of the two kegs on the foreign beer bar, it was De la Senne’s Jambe de Bois, an 8%er billed as the most bitter Tripel in Belgium. Lovely!

I wasn’t just there for the drinking, mind you – I was helping judge CAMRA London’s Champion Beer of London, along with assorted luminaries from the world of brewing and beer writing. For the record, the overall winners were:

Gold:  Five Points Railway Porter
Silver: Tap East’s East End Mild
Bronze: Wimbledon XXXK Vintage Ale

This weekend, there's still a few tickets left for tonight and tomorrow at Craft Beer Cares, which was the subject of my previous post, then in two weeks time on Saturday 3rd August there’s an open-day at the Weird Beard brewery in Hanwell, after which we dive into the week of the Great British Beer Festival at Olympia (August 6th-10th). That kicks off with the judging of Champion Beer of Britain on the morning before the Tuesday trade session.

The 2018 LBA festival in Fuller's sunny courtyard
Overlapping with GBBF this year, which I guess ought to make it easier for some people to get to both, is London Craft Beer Festival (9th-11th August). It’s back at the Tobacco Dock event space this year, and when last I looked there were still tickets left for all sessions. It’s typically £50 for each five-hour session, but unlike GBBF where most sessions are £11 but you buy beer separately, the LCBF ticket includes all your beer. Then again, your GBBF ticket covers twice as long, at ten hours.

And last for now, but not least, the London Brewers Alliance has announced the date of its 2019 summer beer festival: Saturday 14th September. Hosted in the courtyard and carriage house at Fuller’s Griffin Brewery in Chiswick, this is another all-inclusive event. Tickets are £35-ish including fees, and you can expect to find more that 50 of the capital’s brewers, each pouring at least two or three of their beers.

Wednesday, 17 July 2019

Charity beer fest returns for a 3rd year

Last year's event was very enjoyable
Craft Beer Cares, the festival where all beer is donated and all profits go to charity, is back for a third year. It's this coming weekend, Fri/Sat/Sun, at the London Fields Brewery event space in a set of railway arches just off the eponymous park in Hackney.

The sessions will run from 6-11pm Friday 19th, 12-5pm and 6-11pm Saturday 20th, and 12-5pm Sunday 21st July. Apparently there's still tickets available for all three days - they're only eleven quid (inc. booking fees), which gets you a festival glass and enough tokens for five halves or thereabouts. You can buy more tokens of course, and I assume there will also be food and merch for sale as in past years.

This year all the profits - that's £10 from every ticket since pretty much everything is donated, including the volunteer servers - will go to Hackney Winter Night Shelter. This is a charity that provides food and shelter for homeless people during the coldest months of the year. Last year, the festival raised over £10,000 for the London-based anti-violence charity Art Against Knives.

More than 30 breweries, representing some seven different countries, have so far offered beer for Craft Beer Cares 2019. They include:

Beatnikz Republic
Big Drop
Brew By Numbers
BrewDog
Brixton Brewery
Brooklyn Brewery
Canopy
Cloudwater
Collective Arts
Dry & Bitter
East London Brewery
Fierce Beer
Fourpure
Gipsy Hill
Hale Brewing
The Kernel
Lervig
London Fields
Lost & Grounded
Magic Rock
Mikkeller
Mondo
NZ Beer Collective
Partizan
Siren
Solvay Society
Stone Brewing
Toast Ales
Verdant
Weird Beard
Whiplash
Wylam
and Yeastie Boys
with more to be confirmed.

We already have our tickets for the Sunday - see you there?