Monday, 15 December 2014

At home with the Weird Beards

Trophy shelf!
Rated as the 5th best new brewery of 2013 globally by Ratebeer users, Weird Beard remains a dark horse to many. Based in West London – Hanwell to be accurate – it's away from crafty hotbeds such as Bermondsey or Tottenham, and some might say it's all the better for that. With the tagline “Never knowingly under-hopped” it's one of those breweries whose fans are hard-core, yet many beer lovers may never have tried their beers.

Having first met WB's Gregg and Bryan two or three years ago when they were home-brewers looking to go pro, giving away samples at the Egham beer festival to test the market, the Ratebeer award was little surprise to me. These guys know how to produce striking and interesting, yet very drinkable beers. So we kept in touch, and I was delighted when they finally found a suitable site for their brewery, and even more so when their beers started appearing in my local, the Magpie & Crown.

However, until last Friday I hadn't actually seen the new brewery. Being on an industrial estate next to the canal at the end of a no-through-road, they're not in an area that encourages Bermondsey-style drop-in brewery bars, and for much the same reason they prefer to do their off-sales via local shops. Then I learnt they were having a couple of open days, and given that Hanwell is just a hop and a skip away, I jumped on my bike.

3 of the 10bbl FVs
It's a 10-barrel plant (originally shared with Ellenbergs, who they subsequently bought out), and it's grown from two to four then six 10-barrel fermenters, and they have now even outgrown those. Two more fermenters are waiting to be plumbed in, and these are 20-barrel ones intended to take double-brews of what have become the regular beers – a list that includes Mariana Trench, Black Perle, Kentish Town BearD and Decadence Stout. Gregg says Faceless Spreadsheet Ninja will join the regular roster from January. And as well as acquiring more equipment, they've been taking on staff – they're currently recruiting for another brewer.

Sleeping beer...
As well as several beers in bottles to drink there or take away, they had four delicious beers on tap (keg) for the open days:

Faceless Spreadsheet Ninja is based on German Pilsner but with the addition of flavoursome hops – Citra in this case (it's largely based on an earlier trial brew called Citra Pilsner). It maddens me that German Pils is so samey – all using the same few boring hop varieties, and all just hopped for bitterness and aroma, not flavour. This just shows what Pils can be when brewed with imagination (and flavour!).

Originally brewed in collaboration with Brewdog's Camden bar and described as American Wheat Ale, Kentish Town Beard is what I think of as Hopfenweisse – a Weissbier or Weizen, massively hopped up. It's dank and hopsacky, with bitter orange and herby notes.

Decadence stout is rich, dark and chocolatey, with a fresh hoppy bite. Chewy and dry yet creamy, it slips down oh so easily.

Holy Hoppin' Hell – batch 5 in this case, with Centennial hops – is one of their show-off beers. It's a hop-bomb of a double IPA, brewed the same each time but with different hops, Yes, it's bitter, but think hoppy aromas and flavours – in this case pineapple, plus some pine and mandarin, and what I identified as faint notes of aniseed and thyme.

I'd a good catch-up with Gregg. He tells me that while most is key-kegged or bottled, they are still committed to also offering those beers that suit it in cask. They will only send casks to pubs they know can look after it and serve it on top form though – as well as the M&C, this list includes the Harp in Covent Garden, which he said is now their main cask outlet.

A couple of other snippets of news included that keg Decadence is going into the Craft Beer Company pubs from January, that they're going to experiment with canning a few of the beers, and that the session IPA Little Things that Kill is unfortunately going out of production. Apparently they could ferment it out, package it, deliver it – and then it would start going again. Its effective shelf-life was so short that some batches had unsustainable return rates. Shame.

Anyway, it was great to see how they've grown, and I'm looking forward to opening the two more bottles I brought home with me. Oh, and the hand-made beer truffles! Om nom nom...

Monday, 8 December 2014

Review: Brewbarrel all-in-one homebrew kit

“Dehydrated beer – just add water!” It's a little more complicated than that, but that is pretty much the aim of Brewbarrel, a simple yet innovative homebrew kit from Germany (where it sells as Braufässchen). The innovation is that almost everything takes place in the one vessel – a five-litre minikeg that you also serve the beer from – so there is no need for any cleaning or moving liquids around, and that you can go from kit to drinkable beer in just one week.

Inside the ingredients box
The basic kit contains the keg, a pressure-release bung, instructions, a bottle of malt extract and a little pot of hop extract. This is what brewers call an all-extract kit, meaning there's no need to boil crushed malt and real hops. Real brewers tend to sniff at the lack of flexibility and craft in extract brewing, but it does makes it a lot simpler.

Of course there is also a sachet of yeast – one of the complexities in Brewbarrel's development was finding yeasts that would both work quickly and drop cleanly to the bottom once their work was done. And as well as a choice of golden or dark lagers, wheat beer (Weizen) and pale ale, you can specify additional flavourings, including extra hops. So while I tested a Dunkel with oak chips and honey, a homebrewer friend helped with another Dunkel and an extra-hoppy Weizen.

Fermentation begins
The brew process is simplicity itself. The first job is to get the malt extract into the keg, you then use the malt bottle as a measure for adding hot and cold water. Add the assorted flavourings (the muslin bag of oak chips was a pain to get through the hole, but the rest just pour), the yeast and the bung, and you are pretty much done.

Now you just leave it at room temperature for five days to ferment – or you do, if you don't spot the extra bit in the instructions about inverting the keg for a few moments after the first 24 hours, in order to mix up and revitalise (rouse, in brewer-speak) the yeast. After five days, you put it in the fridge for two more days, this stops fermentation and helps the yeast settle to the bottom.

Sadly, I missed the 24-hour step with my honey-oak Dunkel, so despite a lively initial fermentation, the result after chilling was a fairly weak and sweet malt drink. Fortunately, rousing the yeast and refermenting for another five days or so seemed to do the trick, producing a very lively red-brown beer, malty and a bit sweet, not especially strong and with a dry grassy and faintly herbal bitter finish. I found the honey a bit too much, but some other tasters liked it a lot.

Just a tad lively!
My friend's brews worked well – fermenting the wheat beer at a lower temperature also seemed to bring out extra banana notes. None of the beers was particularly full-bodied or bitter, even with the extra hops, but his were eminently drinkable in a week. With mine, I found that an extra week in the keg after tapping the first couple of pints improved the Dunkel – to my taste, at least. A slight dustiness moderated the sweetness, and allowed notes of dark dried fruit to play with the honey overtones.

In conclusion, Brewbarrel is an easy to use kit that produces decent beer, as long as you can follow instructions of course! 😞 It is a little pricey, with the basic £25 kit equating to around £3 a pint, and the beers are not going to frighten the horses, but it would make a fun gift and a good introduction for a potential homebrewer. It could also be a useful procrastination breaker for anyone suffering from "homebrewer's block" or a dispiriting run of bad brews.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Cork's Franciscan Well lands in London

It's taken a while, but the Irish are coming – and this time they're bringing interesting beer. First we had Guinness reverse the trend of decades and add a significant amount of variety to its range, and now it is the turn of 16 year-old Cork microbrewery Franciscan Well to bring its craft beers across the water.

It's been helped in this by its parent Molson Coors, which bought Franciscan Well about two years ago. The Irish micro is now part of MC's Craft and Cask Beer group, alongside Sharp's of Cornwall and Worthington's. (Interestingly, this group also distributes a bunch of non-MC brands, including Greene King's bestsellers, several Marston's, Thwaites and Hook Norton ales, Fuller's London Pride, a bunch of American bottles, and various Belgians including Duvel/Vedett and Timmermans.)

Just as it was for Sharp's, one of the attractions for Franciscan Well founder Shane Long was the financial muscle that comes from being part of a multinational. In his case, this means access to the finance he needed to grow FW from its original seven-barrel plant to something an order of magnitude bigger, at 30 barrels. And of course it also means access to Coors' distribution channels, which is how three of his beers were launched on the UK market this month.

Initially they will try out in 20 bars around London – “We're in a few select bars to test the market,” Shane said (he also mentioned Edinburgh the last time we spoke). “We are building a bigger brewery now [but] we don't have the capacity yet to supply more.” He added that it also takes time to do the necessary education, training barstaff how to describe and sell the new beers.

The three Franciscan Well beers coming to London are Rebel Red, Chieftain IPA and Shandon Stout – I'd tried them (plus a couple of others) when I was in Dublin earlier this year, but I was lucky enough to taste them again, partnered with food at a sampling session hosted by Molson Coors. We met up in the basement bar at Smith's of Spitalfields, close to one of London's craft beer foci (and coincidentally just a stone's throw from where Guinness's new Porters had their UK launch event).

Des demo's getting the aroma
Our main guide for the evening was beer sommelier Des McCann, FW's chief taster and now Molson Coors' Beer Champion (or more formally, head of training and education) for the UK & Ireland. We started out with the Rebel Red (4.3%), in which I found more depth than I remembered. Des said had they'd had an engineer there all day, trying to get things right, tweaking the Red up to 6.5C and the carbonation down, which opens the flavours out a bit more. It was an intriguing hint that even non-real ales can be improved – or spoiled – by skilled cellarmanship.

He partnered it with a pulled-pork croquette, so melt-in-the-mouth gorgeous that I snagged seconds. It matched beautifully with the malty Rebel Red. With its notes of biscuit and toffee and its soft East Kent Goldings hoppiness, the Red was reminiscent of a malty bitter or perhaps some of the maltier German Altbiers.

Our second beer, Chieftain IPA (5.5%), is one of a new emerging group of mid-Atlantic hybrids. The way Shane now tells it, he asked the regulars at his brewery tap what they didn't like about American IPAs – “too much of a slap across the face” – and also what they didn't like about British IPAs – “too little hop aroma” – and set out to fix those things. “All the things you don't like about the Americans and the British, removed,” he joked.

A fairer way to put it might be to say it combines the attractive elements of both styles – the maltier body of a British Pale Ale plus all those lovely American hop aromas and flavours. The reason I suggest there's a new style of sorts emerging here is that Chieftain reminds me in this respect of several other beers from widely disparate origins, such as Scotland's Deeside Swift and Twickenham's new Tusk keg IPA.

Des partnered Chieftain with a juicy burger, topped with blue cheese, intending this time a contrasting pairing. It worked, but while I enjoyed the IPA's lychee and grapefruit aromas I found it too gassy. Des reckoned that being a bit higher in alcohol it needed the higher carbonation to “pull the body through a bit more.” Well, maybe! Either way, it's a sessionable (just about!) IPA that works well with food.

The final course was another complementary pairing: Shandon Stout (4.2%) with a bijou chocolate & stout cake. While its strength perhaps puts it more in Porter territory, this beer fits the style Shane's aiming for, which is a Cork dry stout, along the lines perhaps of Beamish. There's hints of coffee and cream in there, plus fainter notes of green apples and smoky bacon, and a dry burnt-bitterness. The overall effect was quite mild and some might say watery, reminding me of soft-bodied hybrids such as Schneider's Porter Weisse.

Chatting with the bar's beverage manager on the way out, he said Smith's would have the stout in the Spitalfields branch and both the stout and IPA in the Smithfields branch. His customers, he said, are a mix of same-again types who looks for known brands, and those willing to experiment, so the challenge is to balance the two without alienating either.

And I guess in a way that is also the challenge facing the likes of Franciscan Well, trying to establish a footing in the tremendously brand-dominated Irish market. The main styles are familiar enough, yet subtly different, and at the same time Shane and his team are having fun with a bit of experimentation. For instance, he tells the tale of going drinking one evening with the folks from Jameson's and mentioning ageing beer in whiskey barrels. The following day, “the head of Jameson's was sitting in my bar, saying 'So, what are you going to do?'”

Now, as well as the excellent 7.8% Jameson-aged Shandon Stout that I tasted in Dublin, there is a 6% barrel-aged version of his Purgatory Pale Ale (normally 4.5%). Shane said this is a special for some of the pubs on the Irish Whiskey Trail around Midleton in West Cork – Midleton being where Jameson's is now produced and the home of the Jameson Experience.

Friday, 14 November 2014

How Wetherspoon's could change the face of Irish ale

JDW's Three Tun Tavern, Dublin
I hadn't realised just how big JD Wetherspoon's plans are for the Irish Republic, and just how much it could change the profile of real ale over there, until I caught up with Cork brewer Shane Long yesterday. He does produce cask ale at his Franciscan Well brewery, and he also runs a popular annual Irish cask ale festival with 50+ beers on offer, but most of his production is keg, simply because the Republic doesn't have enough bars with handpumps.

Indeed, he estimates there's probably only 20 pubs in the country serving cask ale right now (though of course there's more in Northern Ireland). However, that number is set to more than double over the next year or three with the arrival of JD Wetherspoon, which plans to spend up to €100 million developing a chain of pubs in the Republic.

The first Wetherspoon's south of the border - it already has numerous pubs in the north - opened in Dublin earlier this year, and a second Dublin (or rather, Dun Laoghaire) Spoons is due to open next month.

Shane expects the company to open at least 20 more around the country though, while the Belfast Telegraph suggests the total could be as high as 30. “They've four sites planned in Cork city alone, one in the centre and three in the suburbs, with the first probably opening next January,” Shane added.

Given that all are likely to have at least some real ale presence, here's hoping that it will be a big fillip to local brewers wanting to do more than just fizzy keg!

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Beer reviews: Deeside Brewery

Deeside Brewery's beers haven't been a common sight here in the south-east of England, although in their home region of Scotland I understand they are getting a fair bit of brand recognition now. That's in part thanks to deals with the likes of Aldi, who seem to be becoming a bit of a retail version of Wetherspoons – sniffed at by the snobs, but capable of both providing an excellent deal for consumers and supporting small brewers (alongside certain of the major regionals of course).

So when Deeside asked if I would like to try their beers I cheerfully accepted, and a little while later a box arrived containing five different bottled beers, all happily intact. They were quite a variety – as you might expect there's a bitter, a pale ale and a stout, but there's also a lager and a California Common, otherwise known as Steam Beer.

I'm going to run through them in alphabetical order, which by chance also happens to be roughly the order in which I preferred them, from least to most!

Craft Lager (4.1% Pale Lager)
Not just a lager but a Craft Lager, whatever that means these days. It poured light amber with a thin head, a little corn and apricot on the nose, herbal bitterness and a faint lemony tang. I'm not a great lager fan and for me this was the weakest of the five, but it was pleasant in a Helles-ish way.

LAF (California Common, 3.9%)
Now this was a curious one. It's a style that has been getting more attention recently – the idea behind both this and Germany's remarkably similar Dampfbier is to use lager yeast at ale temperatures, historically in shallow open fermenters. It poured golden with a fast-settling head and lightly honeyed, faintly herbal aromas. The body was fairly full, with golden fruit, drying bitterness, more herbal notes and touches of honey. It finished bitter-sweet. The herbal notes and dryness are typical of the style, and I think this is one that could easily grow on you.

Macbeth (4.1% Best Bitter)
Now this was one that needed no growing. Brown with a thin head, and aromas of caramel malt and faintly of toasted nuts, it is a tasty example of a classic Best Bitter. Crisp and nicely balanced with a firm dry malty backbone and earthy hops, and hints of spice and bread.

Swift (3.8% American Pale Ale)
More of a Golden Ale really – it's hoppier than the average British Pale Ale, but maltier than some APAs. Whatever, it's a rather nice hybrid! It's amber coloured with a thin head, and light notes of pepper, citrus and toffee on the nose. There's Seville marmalade bitterness and caramel on the palate, and a touch of biscuit in the body.

Talorcan (4.5% Stout)
The ABV is Porter territory rather than Stout, but Talorcan holds up well. It's near-black with a big coarse tan head – it really is quite gassy. (Burp.) it is also pretty complex – there's cocoa and a touch of tobacco on the nose, the body has a dry-creamy texture, with roast malts, cocoa, liquorice, touches of tart plum and old leather, a faint metallic mineral note, and a dry-bitterness. Interesting, and the best of the bunch, once I'd swooshed most of the gas out.

Overall, a decent range. I'll happily choose Macbeth (“the Scottish beer”?) or Talorcan whenever I see them again, and the others are worth trying too, especially as your palate probably differs from mine...

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

International Stout Day 2014

Pretty much everything now seems to have its "International Day of", with Stout being no exception. And this year's is tomorrow....

I'm not entirely sure where Stout Day has popped up from, but as it's one of my favourite beer styles I'm not complaining.

There's even a badge for it (which I've borrowed here) on the beery social network Untappd, if you're a member of that.

However... I just Googled for an International Porter Day, and there isn't one! Bah. So, how about it? Anyone?

Friday, 31 October 2014

The problem with pumpkins

Have you found any decent Hallowe'en beers this year? They've become something of a staple in the UK, and are starting to appear now in other European countries too, even though none of it reaches the heights of obsessiveness that American drinkers must endure.

Part of the problem is the obsession with pumpkins. These American gourds have relatively little flavour of their own, and to bring out any sort of decent flavour out of them you need spices. Ginger is my preference here, but brewers and bakers tend to go for the likes of cloves, nutmeg and cinnamon instead. So what you get is mostly just a spiced beer - a few brewers even admit there's no pumpkin in their Hallowe'en beer, and that where the label says "pumpkin-spiced ale" it is 100% accurate - it is spiced with "pumpkin spices".


One pumpkin beer that's fairly widely available is Wychwood's Pumpking, I've had this year's edition though and it was overwhelmed by burnt caramel flavours and generally unimpressive. The same brewer's version of Night Owl Pumpkin Ale, based on a recipe from US brewery Elysian and brewed for the current Wetherspoon real ale festival, was rather better - at 6% it's also almost double the strength of the distinctly non-kingly 3.8% Pumpking.

(Incidentally, Pumpking was originally 5%, then 4.5% and 4.2%, before dropping to its current poor status last year. And they still have the cheek to describe it as a "rich ruby ale". Shame on you, Wychwood.)

The best so far for not being over-spiced was this year's London Fields Brewery Pumpkin Ale, launched during a Hallowe'en party at the brewery tap in Hackney last night. Another 6%er (last year's edition was 6.6%), it's properly beery as well as being spiced.

Sadly, the same wasn't true of the other ale London Fields launched last night. Called Gyle 666 (presumably because it was their 666th brew - they are currently brewing at least 10 times a week!!), this is a chilli brown ale, but even 6.6% ABV isn't able to save it from being over-sweet, over-chillied and a tad one-dimensional.

Look out for the LFB Pumpkin Ale though - and also the Night Owl, if your local Spoons hasn't sold out already.