Monday, 18 June 2018

Can Tottenham become the new Bermondsey?

There's now at least seven breweries around the Tottenham area of north London, which if I remember rightly is more than there were on the original Bermondsey Beer Mile. So when I heard that the local CAMRA branch there was organising its "4th Annual Tottenham Real Ale Revival Crawl" last Saturday, I was intrigued – was Tottenham becoming the new Bermondsey? And for real ale?!

Well, not quite. For a start, Redemption doesn't have a brewery bar open on Saturdays, and One Mile End doesn't even have room for a brewery taproom, or so I'm told. Still, a five-brewery crawl is not to be sniffed at!

Our designated starting point was Five Miles, which is also the home of Hale Brewing. The brewery is housed in two shipping containers in the yard (left) and uses the former Affinity brewkit, Affinity having upgraded and moved to, yes, Bermondsey. As well as being the brewery tap with four Hale beers on tap, Five Miles is a beer bar in its own right – among the others on tap (below) during on our visit were beers from Magic Rock, Mikkeller (Denmark), Oedipus (Netherlands) and Schremser (Germany).

What there wasn't was any cask ale – or at least, nothing on handpump. This was to be a feature of the whole crawl, although of course some of the draught beers we encountered may very well have been keg-conditioned real ale. You might think this a bit odd for a CAMRA event, but I assure you it's not – not for London CAMRA, anyway. I think we're a pretty open bunch on average – good beer is good beer, although being cask or keg-conditioned generally makes it better still!

Anyhow, the Hale beers I tried – a fruited Berliner Weisse called Tropipisch and a fruity-hoppy pale ale – were pretty decent, and the bar is nice too. It's a little out of the way, mixed in among industrial units some 15 minutes walk from Seven Sisters tube, but that too as we'll see was to be a feature of the afternoon…

Join the crowd

Because it was another 15-20 minutes walk to our next destination, Beavertown, which is also mixed in amongst industrial units. This of course is the keystone brewery for the area, and was correspondingly crowded. It's cards-only at the bar and the queue can be pretty long, but once you get there, then as well as Beavertown's own excellent products there's usually at least a couple of collaboration brews. On our visit they had on tap both the De la Senne collab Brattish, and the stonking 14.5% Heavy Lord quadruple stout brewed with Three Floyds.

It's a nice place with a friendly crowd and great beer, helped by the early afternoon sunshine. I was happy enough though to move away from the throng (left), especially as we were only going around the corner on the same industrial estate – our next destination was Pressure Drop which recently moved in from Hackney (as an aside, it's just agreed to reopen its old brewery site there as a joint taproom with Verdant).

Pressure Drop's unit is less crowded – for now! – and feels more relaxed. Its beer range is well crafted but isn't as envelope-pushing or as broad as Beavertown's. Somewhat stereotypically for craft beer, there were several IPAs available, for instance, including multiple examples of New England IPA. To be fair though, the two NEIPAs I tried were notably different from each other.

A neat move on Pressure Drop's part is that the bottle bar is also where you get your glass deposit refunded, and you get the option of swapping it instead for a bottle – there's several beers here that aren't on the main draught bar.

From here it was on again, with the realisation of just how amazingly many small industrial estates there are in this part of London. That's because I and another chap, having been left behind by the main party, headed in the right direction up what looked like a road, only to discover it was actually the entrance to a small estate – and it was the only entrance. So we ended up having to walk more or less in a complete circle to get out again, and then backtrack to find a parallel proper route. Sigh.

Still, and few twists and turns, and a walk through a rather nice semi-wild green space, and we found ourselves entering yet another nondescript small industrial estate. Luckily I recognised the logo on one of the buildings as that of Brewheadz, our next destination, and yes, there were a couple of long tables outside. Apart from our group, it was pretty quiet – one member of staff and a handful of customers. It's a bit off the beaten track, I fear!

Brewheadz is operated by Italians, and its beers are eclectic – some classics such as their IPAs and Pales, and a medal-winning Porter, a series of fruited sours and a few outliers such as Attila the Nun, a Tiramisu white stout. I tried tart-sweet Drowning Mango, a slightly thin fruited sour that also has yogurt in(!), although I couldn't detect it, and Pineapple Wannabe, a pina colada porter which worked surprisingly well (left).

What do you mean, you lost the Czech?

Then it was off to the fifth and final destination: the Czech-inspired and operated Bohem Brewery which was having the opening party for its brewery taproom. I was lagging a bit again, and while the others sought a bus I decided to walk there with the aid of Mr Google and his map. The mistake, of course, was in letting the map guide me to where it thought the brewery was, instead of telling it the street address. Once again, I found myself walking a loop around a small, dead-end, industrial estate where everything was closed for the weekend. The brewery probably really was down at the end of it like the map claimed – just on the other side of that three metre high fence.

Still, I got there eventually. I subsequently learnt that although it looks to be in the middle of nowhere, on a dusty estate decorated with rotting old cars, this will change. It is very close both to the Redemption and One Mile End breweries, and to the site of the new Tottenham Hotspur soccer stadium. Indeed, I hear that there is a proposal for the three to open a joint brewery tap on match days, using the Bohem building as the others are more limited on space.

As promised, the Bohem beers are all Czech-inspired, with the possible exception of Druid (right), which began as a dry Stout before being converted to bottom-fermentation and becoming a sort of Baltic Stout-cum-Schwarzbier. I liked it a lot, but others weren't so sure, it being too burnt and ashy for them.

This being the final stop, and with the opening party being very much in full 'flow', we managed to get through every beer on the menu at least twice. Other than the Druid, my favourite was Vasco,  the 7.4% Double IPL – smooth, caramel-fruity and dry-bitter – followed by honey lager Henry, hopped-up Thor and amber lager Sparta. The 'only' two that didn't impress me were Victoria the session Pils, which lacked depth, and the Raleigh rauchbier which lacked, well, rauch!

All in all, a very pleasant way to spend an afternoon, and many thanks to Ian MacLaren of North London CAMRA for planning it. And it certainly wasn't his fault that getting home afterwards was a whole other adventure in itself, involving night buses and the night-tube – that was more to do with the magic never-emptying beer glass which meant I'd stayed slightly longer at Bohem than I'd expected to. Oops.

Monday, 11 June 2018

Fuller's brewery shop is much refreshed

When Fuller's brewery shop closed a few weeks ago for refurbishment, I wondered what it might open as. Would they go full-on craft beer store, with beers from their friends and so on, or would it just be a paint-job and some new furniture? So when I saw on Twitter that it was reopening today, I jumped on my bike to have a look.
It doesn't look that different from the outside at first - it's been a sunny day, so the inside looks a bit gloomy. However, if you peer closely you can make out the first change - it has expanded inside to the right of the main entrance, into the space behind the old door labelled The General Store.

This space is the new wine shop, looking much expanded and also housing both the glassware and souvenirs.

Behind the doors at the back is a space fitted with a boardroom-type large table and a big screen. Its curved wooden walls are to put you in mind of yes, a Tun Room, as it says on the doors, and it is a meeting venue that'll be available for hire.

At the front by the windows, there's a fridge with assorted beer-infused food items, from cheese and sausages to sticky toffee pudding!

Back in the main space, almost the whole of one wall is now bottle and can fridges. The desk at the left (where there's also a blackboard for events listings - key ones to watch out for are the London Brewers Alliance beer festival in the brewery yard on Saturday 23rd June, and the Fuller's brewery open day on Saturday 2nd September) is the meeting point for brewery tours.

In the fridges, it's mainly products from the Fuller's family, so that includes some Dark Star bottles, Cornish Orchards ciders, plus some of the others that Fuller's distributes - that's bottles from Sierra Nevada and Chimay. Being able to sell these all in cooled form will please many, I'm sure.

Opposite that is, to some surprise given that the Mawson's Arms is just a few doors away, is a bar, featuring four handpumps and several keg taps! There's no glasses though, and you can't drink here - it's just for filling growlers. There's even a special machine to flush the growler (which is basically a large screwtop bottle) and if keg, to add a bit of pressure after filling.

Here's Paul, the general manager, demonstrating the filler (right). Apparently the new shop is going to be the centrepiece of Experience the Works, the new Fuller's "visitor experience".

A word on the growlers - these reusable take-away flasks are an idea that's hugely popular in the US, which may be why the Fuller's ones are the somewhat unusual size of a tad over 3.5 pints. Sharp readers will have guessed that's because they are actually half a US gallon. Anyway, an empty growler is £12 and then fills and refills are in the vicinity of £8, depending on the beer.

But it's at the back of the shop, past the bar, that you can see the pièce de résistance: Fuller's long-anticipated pilot brewery, all gleaming steel - and yes, fitters in fluorescent waistcoats, as by the look of it, it's not quite finished yet...
As you might expect, the plan is to use this both for trial brews and for short-run and special release beers - there's already at least one Twitter thread asking for suggestions. I know the brewers are very much looking forward to getting their hands on the new brewkit - and I'm looking forward to getting my hands on the results!

Monday, 4 June 2018

A Goose on the Thames

2018 is Goose Island's 30th anniversary, and last week, Fuller's – which was a major inspiration in the Chicago brewery's founding – threw its young cousin a birthday party in London. Pride of place went to the 30th Anniversary Ale, a 5.9% collaboration brew based on Fuller's original ESB recipe, but with modern and experimental US hop varieties.

It's a beer that's been available in the US since early May, but not here – kegs were brought over specially for the party at The Hydrant, a Fuller's pub named for its location next to the Monument to the Great Fire of London. Also getting a relatively rare draught outing there was Fuller's 2017 Vintage Ale in cask, so I'm afraid my first question for Goose Island president and general manager Ken Stout was: how come the Anniversary Ale isn't in cask too?

"We do quite a few cask beers, but the only place we serve them is in our own brewery tap," he said. He explained that it's the same problem so many British craft brewers have with cask beer – you're totally reliant on the skills, or lack of them, of the pub cellar manager.
The Anniversary Ale, very nice with a sossie!

I'd just come from a CAMRA meeting where those who couldn't get to the recent AGM (where votes were taken on adjusting CAMRA's aims to widen its campaigning remit and educational coverage) could hear and discuss reports from delegates who were there. So Ken and I went on to talk about why there's still this perceived divide between cask and keg – he's a big fan of British cask ale.

He loves classic Bavarian beer too, so we also talked about what's going on with German craft beer (with almost everyone now making Pale Ale and/or IPA, German and even Bavarian PA/IPA have emerged as genuine substyles, but the aficionados and beergeeks have moved on to Porters and Stouts, preferably barrel-aged Imperial ones…); about Franconian Ungespundet which is Germany's equivalent of cask-conditioning; and about Goose's collaboration with fellow AB-InBev property Spaten last year. The resulting Keller-Märzen was served at the Goose Island London Block Party last September, and like the party it was excellent.

It got me thinking: here's two macro-owned breweries, but they're still making great beer, and they seem to be getting nothing but help and support from their owners. Is this, and not the dumbing-down that many assume will follow when you 'sell out to big beer', the real threat from macrobrewers buying into craft? That the result will be too good – or at least, plenty good enough – and too well resourced for others to compete? I'm going to have to think (and write) some more about this…

Ken also introduced me to Andrew Walton, the newly appointed head brewer for Goose's Shoreditch brewpub, which is due to open in September – there's already brewpubs in Toronto, Seoul and Shanghai, as well as the original one in Chicago of course, and we're next. Andrew is from Canada, but has spent the last couple of years brewing in London, at Fourpure.

Samples of Belgian-brewed Midway are air-freighted back to Chicago so they can be tasted for consistency with the US version. If there's one thing companies like AB-InBev understand and can help their craft brewers with, it's expertise in quality and consistency management. Interesting times, eh?

Friday, 1 June 2018

The rarity that is draught unblended Lambic

Well, I was wrong last week – this weekend's Ales Tales Belgian beer festival does indeed feature Lambic beer on draught. It's an unblended Lambic from Belgoo Beer, a 10 year-old brewery which five years ago moved to the Senne Valley, part of the only area where you can legally use the Lambic name.

And as brewer Jo Van Aert gently reminded me, there's not many breweries that serve an actual Lambic – although there's a dozen or so producing traditional Lambic beer, most blend it into Gueuze or referment it with cherries as Kriek. (There's also several varieties of those for sale at Ales Tales on the bottled beer stand.)

Jo added that while he does export his regular beers, which include a Saison and several Belgian Blonds, "We only sell our Lambic – a blend of one and two year-old beers – in Belgium as we can't produce enough for export."

He confirmed that, despite its sour beers being highly fashionable world-wide, they are still a very regional taste in Belgium itself. "We do see a lot of fancy restaurants picking up Lambics though, because you can do some very interesting food pairings with them."

Belgoo's Lambic is fermented in 400 litre barrels, which Jo said "gives enough contact with the wood, it's a good balance." The resulting 5% beer is tart with notes of lemon juice, dry-sweet and lightly spritzy, and cleanly refreshing. 

The one drawback to adding Lambic to a 'regular' range of beers is of course that you can't mix the two. Belgoo has to have two completely separate brewing and packaging lines, with the minor consolation that Lambic is OK with a simpler bottling line. As Jo said, "A little bit of oxygen can ruin normal beer, but not Lambic!"

The public sessions will be busier!
If you want to sample it – and around 75 other gorgeous brews – Ales Tales has afternoon and evening sessions tomorrow (Saturday 2nd), and there's still tickets available. It's a nice straightforward festival – simply decorated bars, most with four beers on tap, and mostly staffed by the breweries themselves, so you can learn more if you want to.  

Sunday, 27 May 2018

Ales Tales beer fest brings Belgium to London

Whether you subscribe to the belief that Belgian beer is something unique, or the one that it represents a window into an almost-vanished tradition that once dominated much of northern Europe, or perhaps the more esoteric one that it's heavily influenced by exported British beers of the 18th (or was it 19th?) centuries, there's no denying its variety and quality.

Which makes it all the more disappointing that so little of it – in the grand scheme of things – makes it across the Channel, and much of what does travel comes from the Belgian subsidiaries of multinational brewing empires. That's not to say the latter beers are all bad – far from it! Some are quite excellent – just that you rarely get to see beers from smaller, more local producers. Not only may they lack the production capacity, they lack the distribution muscle of the megabrewers.

Which is why I’m looking forward to the Ales Tales beer festival of Belgian beer (and food) in London’s Hackney next weekend. I’ve not been since it was an off-shoot of London Craft Beer Festival, back in 2014 I think it was. I remember walking in and thinking, “Ooh, I didn’t know they were here – and oh look, I’ve not seen their beer in ages!”

And even though I spent several days in summer 2015 touring Belgian craft breweries old and new, there’s still lots on this year’s list that I either don’t know, or am looking forward to reconnecting with.

In total they’re expecting 70 beers from 20 breweries at Ales Tales, ranging from classic Trappist brewer Westmalle through new twists on the classics from the likes of Fort Lapin and Dochter van de Korenaar, to modern craft idols such as Alvinne and Brasserie de la Senne (the full list is below). We are also promised Belgian food pairings, including fries (no doubt with mayo available) and cheese – although I fear these are probably not included in the ticket price!

The one gap is that I can't see a single Lambic producer on the brewery list! I know a couple of the participating brewers have experimented with Lambic in the past, but I don't think any produce it regularly. Without that, the organisers' claim to provide "the full Belgian experience" is just nonsense, so I really hope I've missed something – maybe there will be a bottle bar or somesuch.

Belgian hops, in the rain...
Still, the tickets look good value, even though the cheapest are now £42 (the £35 early-bird ones are sold out). In the modern vein, they’re inclusive tickets that give you a five-hour session to drink as much or as little as you can manage. The main sessions are the evening of Friday 1st June, then the afternoon and evening of Saturday 2nd. There’s also a trade session on the Friday afternoon which I hope to report from – and which presumably means we can expect to see these breweries here again, if they can get distribution arranged.

With LCBF having now moved off elsewhere, Ales Tales has even taken over its 2014 venue – which although called Oval Space is rather confusingly nowhere near The Oval.  Instead it’s just off Hackney Road near Cambridge Heath railway station.

Here’s what the festival’s press release has to say:

Ales Tales is the brainchild of two Belgians, Nicolas Tondeur and Sayuri Kasajima, it was created after the duo were unable to find their favourite Belgian beers in the local pubs and supermarkets of London.

Discussing the return of Ales Tales, creator Nicolas Tondeur adds: “We are thrilled to bring the festival back this summer, with new beers to taste, new breweries to discover and talk to. We can’t wait to show Londoners how vibrant the beer scene in Belgium is.”

Undoubtedly set to be one of London’s best curated beer events of the summer, Ales Tales is open to everyone from beer enthusiasts, curious novices and anyone interested in a fantastic day out with a friendly atmosphere.

And here's the brewery list:

New for 2018:
De Ranke
Brouwerij ‘t Verzet
No Science
Brasserie de l’Ermitage
De Plukker

Returning Breweries:
Brasserie de la Senne
Fort Lapin
Hof ten Dormaal
‘t hofBrouwerijke
Brasserie des Legendes
Brasserie de Cazeau
Brasserie de Bastogne
Siphon Brewing
Solvay Society
De Dochter van de Korenaar 

Monday, 21 May 2018

Trebles all round for music-themed Signature

When I first came across Signature Brew, with its music industry-themed beers, I confess I thought it was a gimmick. I assumed it was another of those generic "Rock Pale Ale" type beers, contract-brewed and labelled with the name of a venue or a music promoter. And indeed, it did indeed start out by doing  collaborations with bands I'd never heard of, creating beers that were nomad-brewed at places such as Titanic and London Fields, and which never appeared anywhere I went drinking or beer-shopping.

It wasn't long before I realised my mistake. As time went by, I encountered more and more of their beers on sale – some were even cask-conditioned, glory be!! In the process, I discovered that they were accomplished core brews that were branded for Signature itself, not for a band.

Four regulars, plus 'special guests'
They all still had music-themed names though – it turns out Signature's founders come from the music industry, hence the brewery's tagline (hey, everybody has to have a tagline these days…) of "Brewing with Music."

Then this year, two things happened on the exact same day in March: first, the news came that Signature had won the 2018 Brewery Business of the Year award from the Society of Independent Brewers, and second, I encountered Anthology, their stunning 10% Imperial Stout, on draught at the London Drinker Beer Festival. I realised that this was now a real brewery, with real brewers – and with real ambitions!

So when the brewery's publicity chap got in touch with news that they were launching a 9.4% Triple IPA called Treble, and would I like a sample, I was intrigued. Well, OK, there may have also been elements of "Are bears Catholic?" and "Does the Pope...?"

When the beer arrived, he'd kindly added a few more samples, including one of Anthology. Perhaps to cock a snook at the beery establishment and the neo-Puritans, while the regular Signature Brews are now in 330ml cans, the specials are in 440ml 'extended editions' – yes, almost half a litre of Triple IPA goodness!

And very, very good it was, too. Treble's an almost glowing amber-brown, with a fine head and aromas of pine resin, touches of onion skin and toasted orange, and a hint of mango. At first it's rich and malty-sweet on the palate with dark marmalade notes, then drying resinous hoppiness and alcohol slide in. The bitterness is there, but pretty moderate in context. Lovely! (If you'd like some, it looks like it's still available, despite its 'special guest' status, as there's still check-ins popping up on Untappd.)

He also sent news of the latest band collaboration brew – yes, they're still doing them, this one is a Grapefruit Sour created with London alt-pop outfit Banfi. I love both good sours and grapefruit, but sadly couldn't make it to the launch event.

If you're in London over the coming late May bank holiday weekend though, you can catch up with Signature Brew at Mason & Company in Hackney Wick. There's a Signature tap-takeover all weekend with seven beers on, and on the Friday night there's also a tutored tasting of five beers – that last bit is ticketed and will cost you £11.37 (weird price, but it includes a booking fee). By chance, I noticed that the place currently has that Grapefruit Sour on tap. Hmm...

Friday, 18 May 2018

Gluten-free beer tasting

To follow my blog on how gluten-free beers are made, I enlisted some selfless volunteers to help me taste several examples to see how they compared to standard beers. One was a coeliac who for several years has had little beer, apart from the occasional gluten-free light lager.

We started with a trio of barley-based beers. The first two say they use low-gluten barley and a brewing process that further minimises gluten, while the latter doesn't say how it's de-glutenised, which means it's probably Brewer's Clarex.

Bellfield Bohemian Pilsner: A golden beer with a very slight head and light aromas of dry hay, biscuit, a little sweetcorn – making it pretty close to style. The body did seem to me to be a little thin for a Czech-style Pils, but beyond that it is malty and dry-sweet, with light dry bitterness. It's a nice example of a lager, and was well liked by our coeliac taster.

Bellfield Lawless Village IPA: It's orange-brown and toasty, with touches of Seville orange and caramel, a note of grapefruit pith and a hint of lemon on the finish. Don't expect American hops or bitterness – this is a nice classic British-style IPA that you wouldn't know was gluten-free – and indeed, why should you?

Glebe Farm Wellington Bomber: Described as a Porter, it seemed more in the Brown Ale vein to me. It has aromas of toast, cocoa and a little cola, then the body was a little watery, with roasted malt, palate-drying cocoa, and a sweet, burnt sugar note. We found it a bit confused and thin; however, I suspect our bottle – bought from a farm shop – had suffered a bit of oxidation in storage.

We followed with a trio of non-barley beers, brewed instead from malted rice and other grains, including millet and quinoa. All are from Autumn Ales, and like the Bellfield beers were kindly donated by the brewer.

Alt Brew No.01: Labelled as a Bavarian-style Pilsner, it's light-bodied – certainly a lot lighter than the average Eurolager, and maybe even a bit thin. I don't think it's bitter enough for Bavarian Pils, but it went down well with the other tasters, who agreed it made a nice summer drink.

Alt Brew No.02: A Golden Ale, it pours a bright amber-brown with a lasting head. The nose is hoppy-fresh with a hint of citrus. Then there's crisp bitterness and lightly sweet, with a toasted edge and a slight astringency. This a nice zesty beer, and was the only one liked by all our tasters.

Alt Brew No.03: Brewing a dark and roasty Stout without barley is a challenge, but Autumn has come pretty close with this dark brown brew. It's a little thin compared to many other Stouts, and was too 'burnt' for some of our tasters, but for dark beer fans there's a light milky sweetness in the midbody, plus notes of bitter chocolate before an ashy-burnt finish.

Overall, even though these are such different beer styles, I think some conclusions are fair. As a regular drinker of all sorts, my favourite was the excellent Lawless IPA, while the Pilsners seemed not quite authentic. However, the latter were popular with the tasters who hadn't drunk much ale in recent years, but who still appreciated something better than Eurolager.

The one we all agreed on liking was the Alt Brew No.02. Yes, it's that classic golden ale crossover beer – well put together, and appealing to ale and lager drinkers alike.

Ultimately though, the most amazing thing is that while Autumn Brewing and Bellfield Brewery are special, in that they brew only gluten-free beer and don't rely on Clarex, this was just a sample of what's available now in terms of gluten-free beer. So whether you're a super-sensitive coeliac or simply have an intuition you're gluten-intolerant, at least now you can enjoy a decent beer. Cheers to that!