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.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Cask ale brewing is back in SE1

New breweries continue to appear in London, but one of the more interesting things about the latest start-up – it was due to begin brewing on its new 10-barrel kit this week – is that it is an unashamedly real ale-only brewery in the heart of Crafty Bermondsey.

Yes, the famed Bermondsey Beer Mile, which formerly only produced cask-conditioned beer on rare occasions, now has a regular cask outlet in the shape of Southwark Brewing Co. Based in a railway arch at 57 Druid Street and well within the Borough of Southwark, the brewery is just a few arches up from Anspach & Hobday and Bullfinch Brewing, and is a new westernmost extension to the Beer Mile.

However, while the brewery tap will be open on Fridays and Saturdays, and maybe also Thursdays in the run up to Yule, the main aim is to ride the localism trend and sell LocAles to pubs across the London SE and SW region.

They plan to brew three times a week to start with, so that's a fair bit to sell – as one commentator on Ratebeer asked, have we reached “peak beer” now, with new entrants finding it incrementally harder to sell their wares to a limited pool of free-houses? After all, they may be the brewery most local to SE1, but outside that they're as local as Sambrooks, Truman and even Fullers.

Still, co-founder and brewer Andy Nichol has a finance background – he's formerly a lecturer, but learnt to brew under the tutelage of business partner Peter Jackson, who is an ex-Marstons exec – so he has done his research. Certainly, there's a lot of money gone into the set-up, mostly sourced from friends and family, says Andy, but also with help from government schemes to support investment in small businesses, and the two are being advised by Sean Franklin, the founder of Roosters Brewery who now works as a consultant.

The brewery already has several recipes to its credit – the core brews will be its fruity, hoppy and golden London Pale Ale (LPA) at 4%, and a traditional 4.4% best bitter in the shape of Bermondey Best, but there's also other such as Peter's Stout, a bottled 8.9% Russian Imperial Stout brewed in honour of Peter the Great who visited London in 1698. These were all brewed on its small test kit, however – basically a large homebrew set-up – and the next task for its brewers will be to scale those recipes up to a full-length brew.

Friday, 3 October 2014

Lost London breweries back in action

Last night was the preview of a new London brewpub on Torrens Street, just around the corner from Angel tube station in Islington. Formerly a gastropub called the Arc, it is now the first London base of a growing chain called Brewhouse & Kitchen which already has venues in Portsmouth and Dorchester, and will soon open a fourth in the former Junction pub in Highbury, just up the road from the Angel.

B&K Islington is a big space on the ground floor of a modern building, decorated in an eclectic and only occasionally clich├ęd style: bare brick walls, bookcases, old suitcases turned into picture frames, and huge copper light fittings that bring brewing vessels to mind. And then at the back, there is the brewkit, all wood and steel – and looking awfully familiar.

As well it should, because it's the same brewkit that used to reside in the Botanist on Kew Green and was ripped out by pubco M&B after it bought the Botanist and the other pubs owned by the small Convivial group. Even better, M&B also ripped the brewkit out of the Lamb in Chiswick, and that's being installed in B&K Highbury, so that's two lost breweries returned to the city.

It's a little convoluted, but as I understand it, two of the directors of Convivial – which was London-focused – had also set up B&K as a separate company to develop a similar gastro-brewpub format elsewhere. Since then, B&K has been buying up whatever pub-scale brewing kit it can, ready for new sites as they come along – Islington head brewer Peter Hughes (who is ex-Mighty Oak Brewery) said there's still two or three breweries in storage. Also on-board with B&K is Mark Wainwright, the original head brewer from the Botanist and now in Dorchester, while the former manager of the Botanist is now running B&K Islington.

Anyway, the new brewpub opens to the public next Monday (October 6th). There was a reasonable range of ales on at the preview, albeit a fairly 'safe' one, and only the Spandau B session IPA was actually brewed on site. Peter's done several brews there already, but reckons it can take you a dozen to get used to a new brewkit. For instance, when you move liquid between vessels there's a temperature drop which will affect things such as the attenuation, so you could end up with a thinner but more alcoholic brew than you wanted. While your experience as a brewer lets you make a good guess, only knowing the brewkit well will get it right.

He added that it took him two days just to get the brewkit clean and replace various pumps and seals – M&B had left it idle for months before selling it, and then it was in store. And he talked of plans to exchange beers with B&K Highbury – the six-barrel brewkit going in there is capable of brewing lagers, whereas his 2.5 barrel kit is for ales, so it would make sense.

The beer variety will very likely increase too – Peter is friendly with the brewers at West London's Weird Beard, for example, so he's no stranger to interesting and/or hop-forward craft ales. Fingers crossed... All in all, this is a very promising start, with a lot of investment and an experienced (and very multinational!) team involved, and I look forward to revisiting in a couple of weeks to see how it is going.