Wednesday, 11 April 2018

West Cork's new meadery offers a modern take on an ancient tradition

If your idea of Irish mead is that rich and smooth, but tooth-crackingly sweet Bunratty stuff, you could be in for not one but two pleasant surprises. The first, Kinsale Atlantic Dry, is a light, crisp and flavoursome honey-wine – dry, yet still a little soft on the palate.

The second, Wild Red Mead, is a gorgeous red Melomel (fruited mead) which while still distinctly honey-toned, also carries the berry notes of rich red wines. When we met at last month's Irish drinks event at the London embassy, its creator Denis Dempsey (left) explained that where the Dry is fermented with 300kg of honey per batch, the Red replaces just 40kg of the honey with an astonishing 400kg of Irish blackcurrants and cherries – hence those lovely fruity Cabernet notes.

"Even sweet blackcurrants are only 14% sugar," he said, as we compared notes on mead-making. With my own redcurrant Melomel, I found that the dryness from swapping half a pound of honey for a pound of fruit (so 2:1 rather than 10:1, on my far smaller batches) accentuated the tangy currant flavours, but he's aiming for a richer, rounder result – and he hits that target most excellently.

Although his meads are made in Kinsale in West Cork – "an amazing foodie place," as Denis put it – and the fruit is Irish, the honey is Spanish because Ireland simply doesn't produce enough to be cost-effective. The mead retails at €22 (around £20) a bottle as it is.

The amazing thing, given how very good the meads are, is that he and his wife Kate only set up Kinsale Mead Co last year. Denis said their research included visiting a number of meaderies in the US – there are dozens of them there, making a huge variety of drinks. They also did test brews and tried different yeasts (they mostly use a white wine yeast now) before launching in Ireland last September.

We talked a little more about mead-making techniques, before Denis added a piece of advice for mead consumption: "It works well in cocktails, too," he said. Now there's an intriguing thought!

Wednesday, 4 April 2018

Moor Beer opens up on the Bermondsey Beer Mile

Moor Beer's new Vaults and Taproom in London's Bermondsey is now officially open – it's actually been open for several weeks, but perhaps that was unofficial opening! Anyway, Friday last week saw various writers and other people from the beer business come to meet brewer Justin Hawke, sample his beers, take a look around his new venture, and if they chose, stay on for Arrogant Sour London, a festival of yes, sour beers from Italy that Justin was hosting that evening.

Located in the inevitable railway arch, the Moor Taproom is just a few doors (or arches) up from Brew by Numbers and The Kernel, and is on the other side of the viaduct from Anspach & Hobday, UBrew and BottleShop – yes, it's the latest addition to the Bermondsey Beer Mile. Indeed, one of the first people I saw on arriving was Kernel owner Evin O'Riordain, chatting with Draft House head of beer Alex Stevenson while making a neighbourly visit.

Justin (centre) opens Arrogant Sour London
As the name implies, this isn't going to house a brewery – that's staying put in Bristol, where Moor's original taproom is. But as well as a bar, it is also Moor's distribution hub for the London area and its new barrel-store – Justin explained that they've totally run out of space in Bristol, so it makes sense to move his barrel-ageing work to London, even at four times the rent.

Moor is committed to both cask and keg beers, and both feature on the bar here – six casks on a gravity stillage visible behind the bar, plus a dozen keg taps. On our visit the cask ales ranged from 3.8% Revival pale ale, to the stunningly good 7.3% Luke Sloewalker, which is Moor's Old Freddy Walker* strong ale, aged on Justin's hand-picked local sloes. The kegs featured several more Star Wars-inspired names, including Return of the Empire IPA, Dark Alliance stout, and a wonderful 8% Double New England IPA called Rey of Light.

It all backs up what I discovered a few weeks ago – that the Bermondsey beer scene is undergoing growth and a welcome revival. Hopefully, this time it won't get swamped by stag parties and inadequate toilet facilities!

*This multi-award-winning ale and the slogan "Drink Moor Beer" are all that's left of the brewery's former incarnation on a farm in North Somerset. 

The art of whiskey is more in ageing and blending than distilling

Whiskey blender Louise McGuane at work
I'd not heard the term 'whiskey bonding' until last week, at the third of the Irish Embassy's annual presentations of 'craft drinks' from Ireland, when I tasted a new whiskey called JJ Corry The Gael, from a producer called Chapel Gate.

When I met new-wave Irish craft whiskey producers before – yes, there's 'craft' everything these days – I discovered that while some were building distilleries, they were also buying ready-distilled spirit in from elsewhere and ageing and blending it for sale.

For many – including two excellent examples I'd tasted earlier that evening, namely Boann Distillery's bourbon and sherry-aged The Whistler, and Writer's Tears from Walsh Whiskey – this is so they can get their brand to market and have some money coming in while they get their distillery up and running.

Their problem is that you can't legally sell your own whiskey until it's three years old, so you need something to sell in the meantime. (This is also one reason for the upsurge in craft vodka and gin, by the way, as they are things you can sell un-aged.)

Chapel Gate currently has no plans to distill its own spirit, however. Instead, founder Louise McGuane talks of reviving whiskey bonding, which she describes as a 19th century tradition where wholesalers and even pubs would buy in whiskey and age it 'in bond', which is to say without tax paid. Like them, she buys in various old barrels and the spirit to fill them with, or even ready-filled barrels.

Once the whiskey is aged – and the main flavours of whiskey all come from the barrels – she combines the many different flavours to create her preferred blend. The result is lighter in colour than the others I tried, lightly fragrant, fruity and smoky, and perhaps a little drier too.

As soon as I heard the story (there's a fuller version here), I recognised it: it is also the story of Scotch blending, and it is how well-known names such as Chivas Regal and Famous Grouse originated. The big difference is that in those cases the same company now owns both the blend(er) and the contributing distilleries.

Friday, 23 March 2018

It's fresh-hopped Budvar:Strong day

A tank of the regular stuff in the background
It's fresh-hopped Budvar day today, with the London launch of the Czech Bud's once-a-year Imperial Lager. At least, the hops – Czech Saaz, naturally – were fresh when they were harvested last year, before the 7.5% beer went into the lager tanks for its four months of maturation…

"This our brewers' show-beer, the pinnacle of the brewer's art," says Josh Nesfield, Budvar's UK marketing manager, handing me a glass of it. "It's a celebration of our beer – we'd use fresh hops all year if we could, but we can't."

Surprisingly, given his enthusiasm – here's a man who clearly enjoys his work – this is only the sixth year of this beer's production, and that's not long when your brewery has 123 years of history. The temptation to chase fashions must be strong, and Budvar also released an unfiltered lager about four years ago, which was just after the fashion for unfiltered and cloudy Kellerbiers kicked off across Germany and it neighbours.

Still, unfiltered Kellerbiers were far from new, even then – they're Central European staples, it's just that they were eclipsed in the public mind by golden Pilsners and Helles beers. So it's not exactly a sign of Budvar's brewers aren't going full-on Craft. "We will never chase a trend – we will never do a grapefruit lager," Josh laughs.

And indeed, while Budvar's Fresh Hopped Imperial Lager has a definite modern twist, it still places well within the traditions of Czech brewing, which of course have considerable overlap with their German and Austrian neighbours. You could see it perhaps as a Bohemian take on Maibock – rich and bready-malty, with soft and corny diacetyl notes that might be faults elsewhere but are entirely appropriate here, plus fresh and sharp bitterness and bright nose-pleasing hoppy aromas.

Whatever you call it and however you analyse it, it's a lovely beer, and perhaps one that's almost enhanced by only being available once a year.

The Budvar brewery is currently somewhat space-constrained, but Josh says that is changing – they are expanding the brewery which should give them the opportunity to "collaborate with other brewers who share our values." He wouldn't name names, but said he's already in touch with several British brewers. And given that Budvar already has a UK distribution channel, he's looking at bringing in beers from small Czech breweries too. It's interesting times indeed for Czech beer.

Sunday, 18 March 2018

It’s not about cask vs keg, it’s about the beer

We need a more nuanced approach to "cask vs keg", an end to the keg rip-offs, and a wider recognition that in beer packaging, limiting your options is generally a bad idea... 

One of the things I learnt, talking to brewers at both the final London Drinker last week and Craft Beer Rising before that, is that some continue to talk down cask ale. Somewhat sadly, for a cask-focused festival, even one of the prize-winning brewers at London Drinker confessed to me that his brewery is doing less cask. What was perhaps more interesting was that his reasons were more nuanced. Rather than the wild generalisation we’ve heard before that "Cask is too cheap", his argument was that cask is too cheap for many of the beers he wants to make.

Because the thing is, cask is not too cheap, nor is it impossible to build a viable business model on it. For many of the brewers I’ve discussed it with, the reverse is true: cask can be the cheapest way into the market. Pubs already have the necessary hand-pumps and are well-used now to the idea of guest and seasonal beers, cask deliveries and collections can help maintain customer relationships, and you have those less tangible promotional benefits of tradition, ‘LocAle’ and ‘NaturAle’.

Sure, it needs investment in infrastructure – a cask-washer, for instance, and the casks themselves, while reusable, are not cheap – but so does keg, and that’s typically more expensive. And yes, Keykegs (and cans, for that matter) are recyclable, but aren’t we supposed to be reducing the use of one-way plastics and making more use of reusable containers?

The real pricing problem is more subtle, and it’s to do with how popularity and availability affects expectations of price. You can make cask ale pretty cheaply indeed, if what you’re making is relatively lightly-hopped brown bitter, using mostly English hops. What you can’t do is make a full flavoured and hop-forward craft beer at the same price, not least because the ingredients are so much more expensive. Prices I’ve heard for modern New World hop varieties can be three to four times those of English hops, for example, and something like a New England IPA uses way more hops than a Bitter does. 

Then again, the same is true of keg beer – the average Eurolager or German industrial Pils is also cheap to produce, compared to the properly-flavoursome craft equivalents. (Bigger production volumes help here too, of course.)

So, expecting to pay £3-ish for cask real ale is reasonable, as long as what you want is subtle, flavoursome bitter, an English mild or pale ale, maybe a decent Porter. And to be quite honest these are the beers that can be utterly sublime in cask when well-kept, but can equally well be one-dimensional when kegged.

On the other hand, expecting a Double IPA, a triple-hopped American Pale, or a Belgian Quadrupel of any decent quality for £3-ish in cask or keg is just taking the proverbial. And in many (though not all) cases, such high-powered beers will benefit from the lift that an appropriate degree of extra carbonation in keg can bring.

So no craft brewer should be talking cask down like it’s something that’s holding them back, or moaning that it’s "too cheap". If you can cost-justify the recipe at £3/pint, casking it can both show your skill and produce a better end-product. On the other hand, if the recipe won’t be viable at £3/pint, then by all means keg it at £5/pint.

But don’t pretend there is any inherent extra value for the consumer in kegging. Sure, there is value for the bar – they get a product that can stay on sale longer, which enables them to charge more while they wait for it to sell, instead of pricing it to sell promptly. That might be OK for slow-selling niche beers, but charging £1 more for the keg version of a cask beer is merely an ecologically damaging rip-off.

And no one should disparage ‘twiggy brown bitter’. Some drinkers prefer subtlety, properly done, to in-yer-face flavour. And many of us like both, depending on our mood, our budget, the occasion or venue, or whatever. 

Wednesday, 7 March 2018

Chop and change at Craft Beer Rising

At last year’s Craft Beer Rising, and in the run up to this year’s edition of the show, most of the conversations I had with brewers and others in the trade centred around how it had become largely a trade and show-off event. No one expected to sell anywhere near enough beer to recoup the costs of being there – a serious four-figure sum for most of them – so they were there to promote their brands, network with others in the business, discuss work opportunities, and so on. Or in several cases, they were not going to be there, because they didn't feel the need for those things.

As Pete Hughes, head brewer for the Brewhouse & Kitchen group, told me last year, “We’re here to build awareness and to participate, we don’t think of this as a money-making event. If you’re already at maximum [production] capacity you’re here for fun or to make contacts.” Sure enough, when I met Pete this year he was enjoying the event, but just as a trade visitor, leaving the awareness-generation to those in more of it.

Bellfield, a newer brewer
And what a lot of them there were – from small first-time exhibitors, through local brewers trying to break into Craft or out of their local region, to well-known brands ensuring that they stay that way.

Which makes it a little surprising that the organisers had apparently reined back the availability of tickets for the trade session – or they had done in the run-up, anyhow. When I turned up with all my paperwork ready as instructed*, no one actually looked at it and there were no queues or checks beyond a spoken “Got an invitation, yeah? Alright.” Upstairs, the halls were surprisingly quiet, so perhaps they overdid the restrictions!

My initial aim was to work out where the talks were being held later that afternoon, as I wanted to attend Goose Island’s class on beer & cheese pairing. This gave me a destination for a leisurely meander route through the halls, spotting sights of interest along the way.

One of the first was Mad Squirrel, a name I already knew as the crafty brand of Hemel Hempstead’s Red Squirrel Brewing – except that it turns out that the craft side has staged a takeover and the whole brewery now operates under the Mad name, with keg the majority of production.  (They still brew their cask ales though, which have quite a loyal following around the Herts/Bucks area.)

Operations and marketing manager Tim confirmed what many people have suspected: with the craft revolution and the number of new brewers competing for space on the bar, it’s not enough just to brew great beer any more. “Competition is massive for the free trade,” he said. “Branding is increasingly the thing. We wanted to do more hop-forward and contemporary beers, but the branding was holding back sales – buyers were looking at our Double IPA and saying, ‘you’re not going to be good at that.’”

On the other hand, Tim also highlighted a welcome result of all this, which is the return to vertical integration, where the brewer is also the retailer. Mad Squirrel now has five outlets around the Chilterns (including the brewery tap), which Tim characterises as half bottleshop, half bar. Indeed, where five years ago Red Squirrel employed seven staff, the company now has around 50, two thirds of them on the retail side.

I tasted two of the Mad Squirrel beers on tap. Kodiak was very pleasant, but odd – described as a American Brown but more of a dark amber, and hoppy like an American Pale, with little of the malty toastiness one tends to expect in a brown ale.  The other, Ascension, was a gorgeous Farmhouse Ale, strong in the Belgian Saison vein at 6%, and richly hoppy thanks to an unusual extra dose of hops in the mash, alongside the usual boil hops and dry-hopping. Sort of a Saison/New England IPA hybrid.

Further along, I spotted Edinburgh’s Bellfield Brewery, which is one of several gluten-free brewers that have emerged lately. Having spoken to a number of others in this area recently, including Autumn Brewing Co who I met at PubShow18, I will write more about gluten-free beer soon.

Next to catch my eye was the Marston’s nano-brewery DE14, which is where the brewers from the big Burton brewery get to experiment and try out new ideas – and also where they host local homebrew clubs and the like. The latter is where Morgan Silk, their lovely New England IPA, came from – it is named after its creator and was originally his response to a challenge set to the homebrewers to create a beer using breakfast cereal – I’m told his prototype had Special K in it! That had to be swapped for equivalent base ingredients for rebrewing on DE14’s two-barrel brewkit, but the result remains juicy, creamy and spicy-fruity.

Most DE14 brews aren’t widely sold – they might go into the brewery taproom, a few local bars, and local beer festivals, say. But at CBR I also got to see cans of the first two DE14 brews to graduate to full commercial production: End Point, described as ‘a modern take on the historic Burton IPA’, and Flight Suit, which is a pale ale with both Mandarina Bavaria hops and orange peel for added citrusness. Needless to say, these are brewed on the main brewery, which can brew up to 500 barrels at a time with a minimum run of 60 barrels (hence the desire for a smaller experimental brewkit).

This was about when I spotted the talks room – more on that later!

*With no press registration offered for the trade session, I had originally decided I wouldn’t be going this year. However, I was chatting with Hannah, one of Goose Island’s UK PR team, about their plans for the event. She knew of a writer who had a ticket via Goose Island but couldn’t now attend, so at the last minute I was able to substitute for him – thanks Hannah, and thanks Goose Island! Sad to say though, the restrictions on trade ticketing were such that even Hannah and her colleagues couldn’t attend, despite their work on promoting the event. Most strange. 

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

The Bermondsey Beer Mile is flourishing again

A couple of years ago, I came to the conclusion that the Bermondsey Beer Mile had lost its appeal. It had jumped the shark, a victim of its own success. The Kernel had closed its drinking area, and the other brewery taps were often overwhelmed – some, like Partizan, had a bar but little seating space.

What a difference those two years have made. OK, even on a freezing day in February, respected and well known places such as Brew By Numbers and Anspach & Hobday still get busy, and Eebria – one of the newer bars – was so rammed I didn't even bother trying to get served. Apart from that, and despite the many groups of people strolling from venue to venue, it mostly felt comfortable.

Fourpure, now times two
The overall story is expansion – existing breweries moving and growing, new ones moving in, more beer retailers, and so on. At the eastern end, Fourpure has taken over into the industrial unit next door. This has added a lot of production and workspace for them, but has also allowed the taproom to expand, with more seating space and a new bar. They also now have a proper spacious indoor toilet block, which highlights just how shamefully dismal are the loos in pretty much every other local brewery and bar.

Heading west, Partizan’s move to a new and much bigger site, with both indoor and outdoor seating, was long overdue. Being an industrial building, the taproom might be a bit overly echoey and noisy for some, but it has much more space and a bigger bar (right) with guest taps too – when I visited, there were several Kernel beers on.

The move also freed up two railway arches on Almond Road, making room for not one but two new breweries. Well, one isn’t totally new – the highly experimental Affinity Brew Co moved down from Tottenham. And the other, Spartan Brewery, isn’t totally a brewery as it doesn’t yet have its brewkit in (they’re brewing up the road at Ubrew for now).

To make it even better, while the other breweries on the Mile – with the notable exception of Southwark – are keg-focused for their draught beers, both these new ones plan to package a significant proportion in cask. Sadly, neither had cask on when I visited, although Spartan co-founder Colin Brooks said he’d like cask to eventually become the majority of their production, and they’ll have casks at London Drinker Beer Festival next month.

Meanwhile, Affinity (left) is organising a weekend Bermondsey cask beer festival for April 7th-8th. Co-hosted by Partizan, this will feature 30 breweries from up and down the country, each brewery supplying two different casks, one for Saturday and the other for Sunday. Tickets are available online and cost a fiver for each day – that covers a glass, a programme and your first half, then it's a fiver a pint. And no, I don't know if there's a refund on Sunday if you still have your glass from Saturday!