Wednesday, 16 April 2014

The return of the brewery hop-garden

Now this I like – brewery hop-gardens have been an increasingly common sight in the USA, but are rare in the UK. (Although Fuller's a few years ago dry-hopped a cask of Chiswick bitter with hops found growing wild on the brewery premises, and very nice it was too!)

That could be changing though: Hogs Back Brewery has just announced the planting of a 2½ acre traditional hop garden beside its brewery in Farnham, Surrey. It said this is "the start of a larger initiative to link Hogs Back with local raw materials and traditional farming skills," and will make it Britain's biggest brewer-hopgrower.

Rupert Thompson & Bill Biddell toast the new hop-garden
Hogs Back will plant over 2000 hop bines, a combination of the original Farnham White Bine and the newer Cascade variety. Farnham White Bine was the foundation of Farnham’s pre-eminence in hop growing in the 18th and 19th century, when it commanded the highest prices in the UK – at one time as much as 30% more than its Kent neighbours, the brewery said.

However, the last White Bine garden in the area was grubbed up in 1929, a victim of downy mildew and cheaper imported varieties. This new White Bine planting stock has been obtained from the National Hop Collection which is maintained by Wye Hops on behalf of the British Hop Association, and has been grown for Hogs Back by specialist grower Stephen Wright at Inghams Farm, Suffolk.

It helps that the soil at Hogs Back is ideal for hops, being a deep and high quality loam with a light alkaline chalk overlay. The site is gently sloping on the northern lee of the Hogs Back ridge and well exposed to sun with wind protection from traditional poplar planting. The Hogs Back brewing team will plant and grow the hops themselves, albeit with support from Bill and Bridget Biddell of Hampton Estates who grow all the brewery’s Fuggles hops, used in its flagship beer TEA. The Biddells are 4 miles away on the south of the Hogs Back ridge at Puttenham and will help with picking and drying.

Hogs Back said that both White Bine and Cascade will be used in beers that it will launch over the next 12 months, including contract beers for pubcos and a special beer featuring just these varieties. Hogs Back’s Hogstar New English Lager will also use some Cascade from the new hop-garden to replace one of the North American aroma hops currently used late in the boil.

“The Farnham White Bine was developed in the early 1700s by a Mr Peckham-Williams of Badshot Place, Farnham, which we can almost see from the brewery," said Hogs Back chairman Rupert Thompson. "It commanded a high price because of its delicate, distinctive aroma and the care taken in growing, picking and packing by the Farnham growers. Hops are influenced by the soil and micro-climate in which they are grown, and we are really excited to bring a local hop of such importance back to its roots, where it was first developed and from which Mr Golding selected his hops to produce the world renowned Goldings.

"It will be amazing almost 100 years later – as and when the hop bines are mature – to taste the flavours of such an important raw ingredient in our future beers. It will be wonderful to look out from the brewery and see the raw materials we use growing in the next door field – that’s local! That is part of what makes the craft brewing revival so exciting and we hope to build on this initiative with some further interesting innovations."

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Beer and there in East Twickenham

One of the fun things that local CAMRA branches do is to organise monthly pub-crawls, and my branch is no exception. Not only are they good social occasions, but they are a chance to visit areas and pubs that I don't often drink in – they also help the branch keep in touch with what's going on in that area.

Last night it was East Twickenham, an area which seems to have smartened up in recent years, yet where the trade has seen a bit of turmoil with pubs either lost to property developers or under threat – the two can be related of course. I missed the first pub on the list, the Aleksander freehouse (formerly a Young's pub called the Marble Hill), which was unfortunate as I'm told it was offering Oakham Citra and two Thornbridge ales.

Fortunately when I caught up with the other eight or so chaps in the Crown it was pretty much the highlight of the evening. Four ales on, all in excellent condition. A few years ago this was a pretty scruffy pub, but after it was refurbished and reopened last year it's now a delight – comfy, attractive, friendly service, and reputedly the food is good too.

Two clips for the same beer!
From there it was a stiff trot to the Old Anchor. I don't think I'd been in here since it was a Youngs pub – it's been a freehouse for a couple of years now I think. It's also been under threat for longer than that, and now the end is near – for its current incarnation at least, which is probably why only two of its seven handpumps were in use, offering Ringwood Best and Jennings Lakeland Stunner. Barry the publican told us he's leaving at the end of April, and that plans have been submitted to turn almost the entire building into flats and also to build over the garden. The building's frontage is locally-listed however, so the developers say they will keep a tiny bar open there. I don't understand how they will get these plans through when they include no provision for parking, which is already in short supply.

Then it was a stroll down to the Thames and the riverside White Swan. Another freehouse, the pub is raised up from the street and it looked like yesterday had been one of the days when the high tide floods both the road outside and the beer garden. Was this also why it reeked of fish, or was that left over from lunch? Either way, I think there were five ales on, all reportedly in fine condition, including my choice of Flack Catcher, a tasty bitter from a brewery I'd not heard of before, Flack Manor.

That was supposed to be the end of the crawl, but a few of us had been discussing the other changes in the area's pubs, in particular from the cr*ft beer perspective, so we decided to pay a quick visit to the relatively new Ales & Tails cocktail bar and 'craft beer house'. Although they advertise having eight cask ales, only two pump-clips were visible, one each from the Brighton and Hastings breweries, and both sadly tasted slightly sour. Fortunately, they had had just put on a third ale, Clarence & Fredericks' American Pale Ale, and that was excellent – but then I've not had a bad beer yet from this new Croydon-based brewery.

Friday, 14 March 2014

Drink London at London Drinker!

While it's often London's new keg and bottled beer breweries that get the limelight, cask ale microbreweries are on the up as well. So where just a few years ago you'd have been hard pressed to have a real ale festival with more than a dozen interesting London-brewed beers, this year's London Drinker Beer Festival claims that around 50% of its ales are from London.

Indeed, for the second year in a row the festival – which finishes today, so you still have time to get to it if I can get this online quickly – has a whole bar devoted to local beers, or LocAle, as CAMRA calls it.

I managed to try several yesterday, and also met several of the brewers – among them Clarkshaws, Clarence & Fredericks, Five Points, Late Knights and Twickenham – as we had all been invited along for a Trade & Press session during the afternoon break. (LDBF still has a 3-5pm break on its first two days, though not on the Friday – it gives the volunteers a bit of a break during what would otherwise be a very quiet time, plus it lets them do free admission for the lunchtime-only sessions.)

LDBF is 30 years old this year, and proudly bills itself as "the longest running beer festival in London in the same venue" – that's the old Camden Town Hall (now the Camden Centre) on Bidborough Street, opposite St Pancras station. It's a few years since I spent time there – it usually coincides with a big trade show in Germany where I had a regular work gig, so I've often been out of the country.

It's a great festival for trying a wide variety of cask beer. This year had plenty of volunteer staff so I never had to wait very long, and while there were a couple of beers that I didn't like, all those I tried were in good condition or better.

I know some people dislike how crowded LDBF can feel by early evening, but I recall from past years that if you take advantage of the seating in the balcony not only do you get elbow room and a place to sit, but you can also see that the crowds are actually a bit illusory. Sure, there's lots of people standing around, but somehow the shape of the big square main hall makes it look worse at floor level than it is, whereas from above you can see the free space as well.

Saturday, 1 March 2014

An evening of Clouded Minds and Viking Kings

I managed to indulge both my main interests last night - first, a talk at UCL on the impact of 1066 on Scandinavian royal hagiography[1], and then a walk around the corner to the Euston Tap.

The Tap was rammed when I got there, not too surprising I suppose given that it was just before 7pm on a Friday. So I got my first beer and after saying an unexpected hello to a CAMRA colleague who was already there with a mate, I left them to their chat and headed upstairs.

Sloe Walker
I stayed mainly on the cask ales, most of which seemed to fit one of two extremes – either porters and stouts, or London Murky in the New World Pale Ale mould. Which is to say, cloudy[2] golden ales with some underlying sweetness, tropical fruit notes, and lots of hoppy bitterness. All the cask ales were also flying off the bar – 50% of the time I requested a beer, it had run out before I managed to get any.

At the dark extreme, Moor's Sloe Walker – a version of Old Freddy Walker matured with sloes – was excellent. It was rich and complex, with a wonderful blend of flavours, including plummy (sloe), treacle, coffee and liquorice.

Dolce Vita
At the pale extreme, the stand-out ale was a 6.2% New World IPA from a brewery I'd never heard of, Clouded Minds. Called Dolce Vita, it's a cloudy dark gold, with tropical fruit and citrus aromas, touches of orange juice, a green-hoppy spiciness and a firm dry-bitterness. So I looked up the brewery and found its website – just a holding page for now, though – plus its rather more informative Twitter and Facebook pages, discovering in the process that it's a new London micro, which seems to have been brewing commercially for about six months.

People had been coming and going at my shared table all evening, so it was no surprise when a couple of guys took vacant seats and joined me. It was a surprise however when one of them invited me to taste the pint of black beer in his hand. It was an even bigger surprise when he introduced himself as Riccardo, the head brewer at Clouded Minds, and the beer as his Black Pike black IPA, which is rather tasty!

It turns out he's a former home-brewer turning pro, and that Clouded Minds is currently brewing on a one-barrel pilot plant based in Hornsey, North London. There's six beers in the current line-up and most of the production is cask-conditioned ale, though they also bottle the Dolce Vita and Black Pike. He's Italian, hence some of the names of their ales.

So's the Berlin Wall...
The size of the plant only gives them around 140 litres or four nine-gallon firkins per brew, so there is not a lot of their ale about. It seems to be doing very well though, and Riccardo said they will be moving to a larger industrial unit with a bigger brewkit later this year, "maybe by July." He also said a proper website should be up soon.

And while I did have an IPA last night that was better than Dolce Vita, that one was Ridiculously Close To Sanity, a 6.7% keg beer from Danish megastar brewers To Øl – not really a fair comparison! So all in all, Clouded Minds is definitely one to watch.

[1] It's more interesting that it might sound! King Harald Hardrada was the golden boy: wise king, great Viking and battle winner, the man who escaped Constantinople despite the Byzantine Empress's desperate (nudge nudge) attempts to stop him.

By all the norms of early medieval king's-saga-writing, his trip to England in 1066 should have been a walk in the park, yet he got his dead arse handed to him on a plate by King Harold Godwinson. How on earth could this happen?!

The saga writers came up with all sorts of explanations: it was the pagan Norse fate goddesses the Norns, even though Hardrada was a devout Christian (like his sociopathic shit of a half-brother Olaf the Fat, called by some Saint Olaf); it was English sorcerors (boggle!); it was greed leading him to misinterpret his warning dreams; or it was the Trollish landvættir (land spirits) of England. Apparently Scandinavian writers were still trying 150 years later to come to terms with his defeat at Stamford Bridge (three weeks before King Harold was in turn defeated and killed by Duke William of Normandy).

In the Anglophone world we tend to think of 1066 from an English perspective – how it moved England from almost being part of Scandinavia to being part of a wider Western European (Frankish) world, but we have forgotten how the "loss" of England must have impacted the Scandinavian world and psyche. As I said, interesting stuff.

[2] Satirised as London Murky, the current fashion for unfiltered beers doesn't worry me as such, not least because it's been going on in Germany for a decade or more, and it's kind of historical anyway. However, it's almost as if some London brewers are taking the piss by deliberately over-murkying things, which is just silly.

Friday, 28 February 2014

Craft beer hits Munich

It may have been a beer festival in Munich, but Braukunst Live! was about as far from the near-monoculture of Oktoberfest as it is possible to get. Instead of a choice of Festbier, Festbier and maybe an alkoholfrei for the drivers, there was everything from new twists on Bavarian classics, such as Hofbrau's double-hopped Hallodri Märzen, through local versions of stout and IPA, to some of the best and most interesting modern beers from countries such as the US, Denmark and Italy.

All of this was gathered together in a huge tramshed, now home to the Munich MVG public transport museum. All the small exhibits had been stored away at the far end of the shed, but some were presumably just too big to move easily, so here and there the brewery bars backed onto old tramcars, and at one point we found temporary seating on some kind of iron railway chassis thingy – though I don't know exactly what it was, not least because the explanatory signboards had also been stashed away.

As traditional as they come
The exhibitors were an interesting mixture: the new, often American-inspired, craft brewers from all over Germany were there in force, along with their friends from places such as Denmark and Italy, but so too were some of the big Munich breweries and quite a lot of very traditional brewers from around Bavaria, the rest of Germany, and Austria. There were also several beer distributors, and a stand from the US Brewers Association hosting 20 or so top US craft brewers. This being Germany, there were also oddities such as a smoking room run by a cigar importer.

As a country long accustomed to relative blandness rediscovers its interest in flavoursome beer, the craft beer concept is gathering traction in Germany. However, just as in Britain, where the older real ale breweries stress their craft credentials, the traditional German brewers are craftsmen too. So there's the same dichotomy between the new brewers for whom 'craft' is all about innovation and pushing boundaries in the American style, and the old-school brewers who see craft skills as the thing that differentiates them from the giant fizz factories.

"I also home-brew and sometimes I do those [new craft] styles," said Karl-Heinz Silichner, the brewmaster at 125-year-old AuerBräu Rosenheim, where he produces 13 different regular beers. He added: "Many people think the only art is craft beer, but it's not so. German-style beer, or Bavarian-style, is an art too. People don't just like craft beers, many people want normal beers too."

At the moment, the 'new craft' brewers in Germany face two big challenges. The first is that a few too many of the new, innovative brewers betray a lack of finesse. Braukunst Live! highlighted this by making their beers available alongside those of their more experienced Danish and American counterparts. Yes, there were some gems on the German side (Schoppe Bräu's Black Flag Imperial stout and Schlossbrauerei Au's Grätzer, for example), but there were also some that seemed muddied or confused – triumphs of enthusiasm over quality, or so it seemed.

BraufactuM's Weizen IPA
But they will learn – if they get the chance, that is. Because the second threat is that, just as in the US and the UK, big industrial brewers are trying to muscle in by creating or buying craft brands of their own – and at the same time, trying to equate craft beer with premium pricing. The boldest of these is undoubtedly the Oetker Group's BrauFactuM subsidiary, which does some pretty solid beers that sell for anything up to €15 for a 750ml bottle. By comparison, Gebr. Maisel's craft brand Maisel & Friends sells 750ml bottles for €4 or €5, and regular German bottled beer is maybe €1 a half-litre.

Still, the microbrewers are confident. "The industrial brewers try to copy us but they can't do it – I think they won't buy the same quality of ingredients, and they do the beer in two weeks, we take four," declared BrauKunstKeller's Oksana Himburg. "If you stay small, don't spend too much on marketing and keep costs low, it can work," agreed Thorsten Schoppe of Schoppe Bräu.

Well, here's to that! The two big take-aways from Braukunst Live! for me were just how much real curiosity there is now about interesting beer in the legendarily conservative state of Bavaria, and how many of the traditional brewers are dabbling in 'new craft' alongside their regular lines. Yes, some are obviously finding it hard not to be cautious, but others are applying their years of brewing experience rather well – a solid dry stout from Austria's Schlossbräu, the aforementioned Au Grätzer, and Schneider's Tap X Porter Weisse all spring to mind.

Sunday, 9 February 2014

140 years on, Batemans rebrands as “Craft with heritage”

Batemans is one of those breweries I'm aware of as an old family firm, producing good quality ales in traditional English styles, with the occasional collaboration or other surprise. I don't pigeonhole it with the new craft micros though, so I was intrigued when I got an invitation to their 140th birthday party and the launch of what looked to be a crafty new branding.

It turns out there has been a lot more going on in Wainfleet than I'd realised: as well as all their seasonals and specials (Rosey Nosey is a favourite of mine), there's now a series of English Strong Ales infused with coffee, chocolate, Amaretto and such like, sold under the new Bohemian Brews brand, and another series constructed to taste like biscuits – the example at the launch was the Chocolate Biscuit Beer winter seasonal, and if like many people you think this beer tastes like chocolate digestives, well that's exactly what it's meant to do.

Even odder is the Black Pepper Ale, which isn't actually brewed with pepper, instead you get a bottle of ale (a 5.1% version of XXXB, I understand) plus a Batemans-branded sachet of pepper with instructions on how to add it. Then there's English BBock, Batemans' top-fermented interpretation of the North German (not just Bavarian!) classic, and so on...

The brewery has made other, more subtle, changes too. A big one is adding storage capacity so they can extend the ale maturation period from five to nine days. Stuart Bateman explained that the idea is to ensure drinkers don't get 'green' beer that isn't properly ready yet: “Our beer drops bright very quickly, but we don't want licensees selling it just because it's bright,” he said. “Not everyone will cellar-condition for four, five or six days now – if I was running my own pub I'd do it for 10 days! – so we have taken it on for them.”

Introducing the new beers – there's also Black & White, which is an uprated 3.6% version of the former 3% Dark Mild – Stuart was keen to stress how much Batemans is already doing in terms of variety and innovation. Having been quite surprised when I saw just how many beers it has listed on Ratebeer and Untappd (at least seventy!), I'm inclined to agree.

Stuart Bateman
“We want to prove you can be a craft brewer with tradition, with heritage since 1874,” he declared, in a direct reference to one of the problems the 'craft beer movement' has here, i.e. that while the term makes sense in America, where 'craft' pretty much equals 'innovative and new', in Europe we still have plenty of brewers who fit all the dictionary definitions of 'craft', yet are centuries-old.

He added that Batemans last rebranded in 1979, so it's not like they've rushed into it, and that it's all been done in-house – or perhaps I should say in-windmill, since the iconic mill is still there, albeit in a cleaner, more stylish form.

“The days of just brewing fairly standard pale ale style beers, all fairly similar in flavour, but with slight colour variations, called ‘funny’ names and often with ‘funny’ pictures on the pump clips, bearing little relevance to the beer style or flavour, are gone,” he continued. “We want our customers to see our new branding and know exactly what we stand for as brewers – craft brewers since 1874 – and from the beer names and pump clips, to know exactly what the flavour characteristics of any of our beers are: 'it does what it says on the tin'.”

So what are the beers like? To some they might seem well OTT – the Orange Barley beer smells rather like Fanta and tastes like a mix of Fanta and a fine and spicy Rye beer, you can taste the hazelnuts and chocolate in the Hazelnut Brownie beer, and the Amaretto Mocha beer is full of almond and coffee. Yet they all seem to work, and achieve a pretty decent level of integration. Sure, for some people a 330ml bottle will be plenty, but others are already happy to drink them in pints – and it turns out that black pepper is an intriguing match for XXXB.

Not too surprisingly, Stuart energetically denied that they are in any way gimmicks. He cited the awards they've already won – first prizes in both the 2013 Sainsbury's Beer Hunt for Batemans Mocha, and in the 2014 one for BBock, a win for cask Hazelnut Brownie in the JD Wetherspoon Autumn Beer Festival, and now first place for cask Mocha Amaretto at the CAMRA Manchester Beer Festival. He pointed out too that if you are trying to get new people interested in beer – which he is – then you need to allow for a certain sweetness of palate. And it has to be said that on the evidence of the quite excellent XXXB on cask at the party, and of other excellent cask and bottled beers such as the Salem Porter and Dark Lord, there is no sign that the new stuff will detract in any way from Batemans commitment to fine traditional ales.

So, I wish a very happy 140th birthday to Batemans – thank you for all the great beers, and I look forward to drinking plenty more!

Monday, 27 January 2014

The Truman show

Anyone who has lived around London will probably recognise the name Truman. It still decorates pubs all over the city, the legacy of Truman's Brewery, one of the great 19th century London brewing companies – and for a short while in the late 1800s, the largest brewer in the world.

Truman's was one of the victims of the British brewery mergers of the 1960s and 70s, murdered by Grand Met following a vicious battle with Watney's. Its huge brewery on Brick Lane closed in 1989, and although many of the buildings survive they now house all sorts of start-up businesses and shops.

But in 2010, the name was revived, bought from Scottish & Newcastle (which had been left holding the parcel when the merger music stopped) by two Londoners who wanted to bring it back to the East End. When I read last year that they were building a 40-barrel plant in Hackney Wick – for a start-up, when the norm is more like 10 barrels! – it would have seemed like extreme hubris if they hadn't spent the intervening years proving the market by brewing and selling beer, first brewing at Nethergate and then when its capacity was insufficient, at Everards.

And when the Kew Gardens Hotel just 10 minutes away held a meet-the-brewer evening with Truman's, I jumped at the chance. Sadly, the brewer himself couldn't make it, even though Kew Gardens is just a single train ride of 50 minutes from Hackney Wick (wimp!). Fortunately his substitute, the brewery's on-trade sales boss Paul Ramsay, was well able to talk about the brewery and its plans – and he had plenty of beer with him...

Truman's Runner is the new – sorry, re-established – brewery's flagship, but Paul says they are going straight into offering a range of three regular beers, with four seasonals, plus occasional one-offs as well. A classic 4% brown bitter, Runner was on tap alongside Swift, a clean, crisp and well-balanced 3.9% golden ale with Cascade and Saaz hops. The third regular will be Eyrie, the recipe for which isn't final yet, but the plan is for a best bitter of around 4.5%.

The current seasonal was on tap too – Emperor, with a penguin logo, is a brown ale – American Brown Ale style, says the brewery, but I'm not sure it's hoppy enough for that – featuring the original Truman's yeast plus Cascade and Aramis hops, the latter being a French variety that's new to me and I suspect to most people here. It's very nice – fruity, with hints of coffee and a little chocolate. Confusingly though, while the recipe is new, the name isn't, as Truman's did a bitter called Emperor two years ago – this is not the same beer!

Holding the banner for the occasionals was Truman's Original Porter. Made from a mostly brown malt grist in the old style London Porter, this is chocolately yet quite light bodied despite its 4.6%, and was sadly the least impressive of the beers on offer.

Paul had also brought along some Truman's London Keeper 1880 Double Export Stout, a limited edition of 2000 bottles priced at £17.50 each. Every bottle is sealed with ivory wax and bears a hand-printed, hand-signed and numbered label from a specialist craft printer also in the East End. A publicity stunt to help publicise the new brewery, where this was the very first brew on the new brewkit? Absolutely, but not just a stunt – the 8% beer is based on two recipes in the Truman's archive, and is hugely rich with umami dryness, cocoa and treacle notes, and an earthy bitterness. Somehow reminiscent of a Dunkel Doppelbock, it should indeed improve with keeping. 

An interesting aside was that Paul said the Truman's seasonals will all be 4.2% ABV. This is to make it easier for SIBA to list them as pubco guest beers – they will appear as a single entry, and the publican will get whichever one is current. I heard the same story from the guys at Twickenham Fine Ales a couple of months back (their seasonals are 4.4%), so I suspect we will notice a lot more of this tactic.

All in all, Truman's is a great addition to the London brewing scene, and has already done a good job of getting its beers embedded on bars and its name back in the pubic eye. It's certainly one I'll be happy to see on a bar in the future.