Thursday, 11 February 2016

A-very impressive brewery tour

Part 3 of my Boulder breweries and brewpubs tour back in October last year. Part 2 is here.

A recent reminder that the new brewery site at Avery Brewing Co in Boulder, Colorado, is about to celebrate its first anniversary reminded me that I really ought to get on with writing about my visit there last Autumn.

The building is very impressive – partly because it was designed to be, but also because of the sheer scale and ambition of it. From Avery's cramped former home in a row of industrial units downtown, the plan was to think big. Its new flagship is still on an industrial estate, but this one is set in rolling lawns in the suburbs.

That's a lot of taps
It's not just a brewery, too – as well as a large bar or taproom with dozens of beers on draught, there is an artisanal restaurant and a giftshop selling beers and Avery-branded merchandise. On top of that, the whole thing has been designed with visitors in mind, as well as brewers. There are overhead viewing gantries in the brewhouse, and large glass windows onto many of the other workspaces, such as the barrel-ageing storeroom.

You can wander around by yourself (the visitor areas are separated off from the actual working space of course) or join one of the free daily guided tours – I did the latter. I have to admit I was a bit surprised when our guide reminded us that the brewery was already 21 years old in 2014, when 15-odd years of continued growth meant that they simply had to move somewhere bigger. “Our plan called for $45 million, the bank laughed us out, but we got $28 million,” he said.

The new building opened in February 2015. They decided to move the old brewkit over, which meant no brewing while that happened, plus they installed lots more shiny stainless steel gear. “Our German engineers said our hopback was too large,” laughed our guide. “But we have a 102 IBU* beer – the hopback was not big enough!” Its standard brewlength is now 100 hectolitres, or about 80 barrels, while its biggest fermenters (the outdoor ones you can see in the photo above) hold 800hl each.

They now have 30 different beers on draught at a time, plus many specials and seasonals. They vary from an Imperial (strong) lager that takes 57 days to ferment and mature, through a wide range of IPAs and spiced and fruit beers, to Hog Heaven, the 9.2% double-hopped Barleywine that fired Avery's growth in the late 1990s. Then there's all the barrel-aged (BA) beers: Avery has a huge programme pulling in used barrels from all over – from wineries, whisk(e)y distillers, rum, Madeira, tequila and more.

The BA facility is very impressive, with racks of slumbering barrels and forklifts to move them around. There's no foeders yet – those are the big wooden vats used in producing Belgian Lambics – but this could change!

A lot of blending goes on between BA beers to produce the desired results. Avery is also working on a series of wine-beer hybrids, some using wine yeast to ferment beer. Mostly though it uses the barrels either to flavour beers directly or to create sour and wild ales by adding bacteria and wild yeasts; these then live in the wood and produce fascinating flavours by working on sugars in the beer that normally wouldn't be fermentable.

The centrifuge refuge from above
Talking of which, the brewery has its own quality assurance and yeast propagation labs – indeed, it claims it has one of the best lab facilities anywhere in the world for a brewery of its size, with six microbiologists, chemists and analysts on staff.

On top of that, when I visited they were waiting for their new canning line to arrive. Their existing top-of-the-range microcanning line from Cask of Canada could do 50 to 60 cans a minute, but the new German line can run at over 300 cans a minute when needed. On top of that, there's keg and bottling lines of course, and for filtering beer before packaging there's a big centrifuge – this lives in its own strongroom, in case of accidents!

Like many brewers today, Avery's also working to reduce its environmental footprint. It's working with a neighbour company, New Sky Energy, on carbon dioxide scrubbing technology, with the aim of turning its surplus CO2 – and fermentation produces a lot of this – into useful soda ash. Spent water is treated to regulate its pH, and spent grain goes to local farmers as animal feed – brewers were afraid that the US government's FDA (Food & Drug Administration) would block the latter, but this seems to have been sorted out now.

Back to the bar...
After a fascinating and enjoyable tour, I wrapped up my visit by returning to the Avery taproom for a tasting flight covering a good spread of its products (I'd already has a pint of Old Jube, the winter ale). Oddly, the only one that didn't impress was White Rascal, the Witbier that they make quite a lot of. The others – including Semplice, a farmhouse ale with Lemondrop hops, a passionfruit Witbier called Liliko’i Kepolo, and a SMaSH (single malt, single hop) pale ale with Galaxy hops – more than made up for it though!

If you're in the area, they're having an anniversary party next Tuesday, February 16th. I wish I could be there!

*International Bittering Units – a seriously bitter IPA might hit 65 or 75 IBU. 

Apologies to our excellent tour guide, whose name has totally vanished from my notes! :(

Thursday, 4 February 2016

An Australian take on hops

The infographic below was sent over by Australian online beer shop Beer Cartel - it's mostly about the role of hops and other flavourings in beer, but as well as a useful list of herbs there's an interesting list of current Australian hop varieties. Click it to see it full-size.

I'd heard of several of these (eg. Ella, Topaz, Vic Secret) before, but some of the others are new to me. It's great to know there's a new hop industry growing up, especially as there are supply shortages projected for the northern hemisphere this year.

You can find the original on the Beer Cartel site here. Cheers, guys!

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

When beer weeks are like buses

Photo: Craft Beer Rising
Typical! You wait months for a London beer week, then two come along at once… First up is DrinkUp.London's London Beer Week 2016 on 22nd-28th February. This is hubbed at the Old Truman Brewery on Brick Lane in the East End. Here you can buy £10 wristbands which get you access to special beers at 100 bars around the city – you still have to buy the beer, mind!

Then on the Friday and Saturday of that week (Feb 26-27th) comes the week's anchor event: Craft Beer Rising London, also at the Old Truman Brewery. There's over 150 British and overseas breweries due to take part with 600ish beers, plus this year they're adding a cider zone called 'Lost in Cyderspace' and rooms for mead, rum and whisky. CBRL tickets are £15 to £20 per six-hour session; this covers your glass, programme and musical entertainment, but not the beer – it's cash bars.

Then today comes notice of this year's London Beer City week and its anchor event, the London Craft Beer Festival, on August 12-14th in Bethnal Green. This is an altogether more bijou (and comfy) event, with 26 breweries taking part last year (this year's brewery list is due out in April), but it also works rather differently.

LCBF tickets are twice the price of CBR (currently £35ish per five-hour session) but they include unlimited tasters of all the beers, as well as music, glass and programme. I suppose it all comes down to whether you think 50-100 beers is enough to try or you'd prefer a choice of 600, plus whether you think you can drink £20-worth in five hours….

The one thing that raised a smile here was the LCBF assertion that “Once again we'll be the central part of the London Beer City week in August.” I presume the organisers are once again glossing over the fact that their event clashes with an ever-so-slightly larger one just across town. But hey, the Great British Beer Festival only has a mere 1000-ish beers, ciders and perries to choose from.

Then again, GBBF probably won't feature too many keg Double IPAs, Pink Peppercorn Saisons and the like. Plus I suspect the GBBF organisers don't really feel the need to link up with the crafterati of London Beer City!

Whatever, GBBF is on at Olympia from August 9th-13th, day tickets are £9/£11 (members/non-members) or £24/£29 for a season ticket – the latter usefully includes the Tuesday afternoon trade session that's not otherwise open to the general public.

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Win a brewery

If it's happened before, I've not heard of it - a kindly engineering company has donated a complete 100-litre brewery (they call it a microbrewery, I'd call it a nanobrewery) to be raffled for charity.

The donor is Elite Stainless Fabrications of Swindon, which makes brewing kit of all shapes and sizes, and the charity is Swindon Women's Aid which despite the name says it provides support to all victims of domestic abuse, regardless of gender or orientation.

Tickets are £5 each and can be bought online or by phone - I've bought mine. I'm not sure where I'll put my brewery, but it looks like a nice piece of kit!

Friday, 15 January 2016

Tasting at Twickenham

Yesterday's visit to Twickenham Fine Ales was a very welcome chance to catch up with one of my four excellent local breweries (the others are Weird Beard, the new Kew Brewery and of course Fuller's). The weather was pretty chilly – both outside the brewery and inside! – but the welcome from head brewer Stuart Medcalf, managing director Steve Brown and their colleagues was as warm as ever.

They had prepared a couple of treats for our small group – a CAMRA delegation mostly from the London tasting panel, which helps write tasting notes for the Good Beer Guide and elsewhere. The first was the very last cask of their 2015 Small Batch Stout series, which proved such a hit last December. They produced 200 firkins of this beer in total, 50 in each of four different flavours, and Stuart said they were sold out before they'd even been brewed, with many pubs buying sets of all four.

The lone survivor is the Sour Cherry & Chocolate variant (left). It's delicious – almost a dry stout and full of roastiness, yet also with lots of dark cocoa notes and a faint underlying sweetness. None of us could detect more than a vague hint of sour cherries though! If you'd like to try it, it should still be on sale from the brewery this coming weekend, either for takeaways or when the bar's open on Sunday lunchtime ahead of the rugby.

The small batch series was in addition to Twickenham's four regular ales, four seasonals, twelve monthly cask specials – Stuart noted that the latter sell out every time, often on the day they're released – and its sole keg beer, Tusk IPA. Steve said they will brew the stouts again this year, probably keeping two of the flavours and asking their customers to suggest two new ones, just as they did last year. They're also looking at doing extra monthly specials to meet demand, and at brewing more strong beers, mainly for bottling and in 330ml bottles rather than the 500s they currently use.

This ties in with the team's desire to update Twickenham's profile within the beer market. The problem is that while it was in the microbrewery vanguard 10 years ago – if I remember rightly, there was a time in the Noughties when it was the second largest cask ale brewery in London – more recently it has “kind of got left behind,” as Steve put it. So now they are looking at what to do next. As Steve added, “Everything's up for discussion – products, packaging, the lot.”

Busy! The 50-barrel FV is at the back
In the meantime, we caught up on existing developments. There's new hardware, in the shape of an automated cask racking line, plus a 50-barrel fermenter alongside the 25s so they can double-brew the most popular beers. There's two new assistant brewers, and there's the main reason for our visit, which is a switch to using their own wet yeast instead of commercial dried yeast.

While wet yeast does require extra care and management, and must be renewed from the yeast bank every three months, the fact that the rest of the time they can harvest and re-use it means that it is much cheaper than dried. More importantly to the brewers though, it has improved the beer's clarity and brought out the flavours of the ingredients. “Our beers were clear before, but they shine now,” enthused Dave, Stuart's deputy. I think he's right.

Stuart also discussed several other ingredient changes. Interestingly, when it's just had its 50th anniversary, they've stopped using Maris Otter barley and switched to the increasingly popular Flagon variety which he says gives better extract levels (i.e. more fermentable sugars). Some of the beer recipes have been tweaked too, and they've changed some of the hop varieties. In particular, they're making quite a bit of use of Progress and Pioneer hops – I especially liked the subtle bitter-orange and peach notes they gave to our other special treat, which was a saved-up cask of Winter Warmer, their monthly special for December.

Sadly the Hill 60 and Oud Bruin are long gone
I was surprised though to see that the Winter Warmer – which originally had the very appropriate name of Strong & Dark – is now amber coloured rather than dark brown. Dave explained that, in part to cut confusion with their December-February seasonal Winter Cheer, which is both dark and very lightly spiced, Winter Warmer has been reformulated as an Extra Special Bitter. The result is still 5.2% but now balances a very firm bitterness with a smooth dry-sweet and lightly orange-caramel body.

It was really good to see the brewery busy and taste the beers again, and I do hope they can boost their market image – not least so that I get the chance to buy their beers more often, especially the monthlies and one-offs. (Yes, given the nature of the visit yesterday's tastings were complimentary, but most of the time I do buy my own beer!)

Monday, 4 January 2016

My Golden Pints for 2015

Just the first half of these for now, I'm afraid - I will try to catch up with the rest soon, although I know I'm already a little late! What with family visiting over the winterval, plus quite a few work deadlines impending, I've not had a lot of time for blogging, I'm afraid.

    Best UK Cask Beer
Oakham Hawse Buckler – it's been around a few years but I only caught up with it in 2015, when I had it a couple of times in different places, and it was excellent both times. It's a very hoppy (as you'd expect from Oakham), roasty-winey dark ale, verging on a Black IPA or Export Stout.

    Best UK Keg Beer

The Kernel India Pale Ale Amarillo – there's so many Kernel IPA variants, but this one was the best so far. The thing I like about these IPAs in general is they're pretty full-bodied, and in this one the hops added aromas of pineapple and orange, followed by more fruit on the palate along with hints of wintergreen and rosemary. Delicious.

My runner-up – and it was very close – was Brew By Numbers 100/4 Baltic Porter – Sherry. Again, this was part of a set, where the same beer was aged in five different barrels, and having tried all five this emerged as my favourite, perhaps because it was just barrelly enough without being like actually drinking sherry – just touches of dried fruit, dusty caramel and a light herbiness to enhance the lovely flavours of the base beer.

    Best UK Bottled Beer
Twickenham Hill 60 – blended in the best Belgian traditions by combining soured dark ale that had been so long in the barrel that it was very hard to drink straight with fresh strong Mild to lighten it and give it zing. The result was complex and refreshingly drinkable for a sour, with hints of sour cherry, burnt treacle and an earthy bitterness.

    Best UK Canned Beer
Beavertown Holy Cowbell India Stout – that rich piney hop nose with roasty black treacle and a touch of smoke just blew me away.

    Best Overseas Draught

Evil Twin I Love You With My Stout – another midnight-black beer, its heavy body, with notes of coffee, liquorice, pine and grapefruit, was almost too much but thankfully managed to stay on the “Wow, utterly amazing!” side of the border.

My runner-up was an Italian farmhouse ale – Toccalmatto's Tabula Rasa. It's a complex and multilayered brew, with aromas of lemon, white grapes and a little floral perfume and horsey funk.

    Best Overseas Bottled Beer

3 Fonteinen Oude Geuze – back in the summer, I toured the Lambic region immediately after the European Beer Bloggers Conference in Brussels, and amazing beer this was one of the real stand-outs of the trip. Lemon-sour and with faint strawberry notes, its initial sweetness immediately turns to a complex dry and lightly earthy bitter-sourness.

Runner-up was Ratsherrn's Wintertiet. Brewed on the Hamburg brewery's micro kit as one of last winter's specials, it masterfully showed how to create a complex and flavoursome winter ale without chucking the whole damn spice cabinet in there. Rich and drily soupy, it offered notes of treacle toffee, bitter orange, liquorice, christmas cake, dried figs and a light earthy bitterness. Delicious.

    Best Overseas Canned Beer

St Feuillien Saison – canned for the US market, I think, it combines the peppery hoppiness of many farmhouse ales with toast, bread, spice and fruit notes that almost remind one of an Ur-weisse. Well within the Saison boundaries, yet with a very tasty twist.

    Best collaboration brew
Adnams / Magic Rock The Herbalist – another Saison, again with those characteristic spicy, earthy and hoppy notes, but this time also with hints of tangerine and pineapple on a fruity, dry-sweet and herby-bitter body. Oh, and it was properly cask-conditioned, like the original Saisons would have been. 

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

A reminder that hops don't equal bitterness

Many beer lovers know that hops and bitterness aren't the same thing – you can get bitterness from several other sources, including herbs and roasted grain, and hops are also important for flavour and aroma – but it seems others don't realise this.

Two things brought this to mind recently: first, the claim by US brewery Dogfish Head to have brewed “the hoppiest beer ever documented” when what they meant was the most bitter, and then quite unexpectedly a bottle of Guinness's pitch at the craft lager market, Hop House 13. The latter was developed by Guinness's pilot brewers at The Brewers Project, like the Dublin Porter, West Indies Porter and Golden Ale before it, and like them it has of course migrated to the main brewery for mass production.

Hop House 13 arrived as a freebie from Guinness's PR company, along with a suitably-branded glass and even an engraved wooden beermat – there is nothing subtle about the branding here! Named after a storeroom at the St James's Gate brewery in Dublin, Hop House 13 has been on limited release for a little while (I'd seen a few mentions from Irish beer bloggers, for instance) but apparently they're now preparing a big push for it.

So what's it like, and why the hops & bitterness references? Well, it's hoppy – the underlying beer is a typical malty-sweet Eurolager with notes of sweetcorn, but there's a rich hoppy-herbal layer of flavour over the top, with hints of peach, lemon and hay, and that resinous quality you get from a sack of dried hops. What there isn't is anything much in the way of bitterness.

It's pretty good, and rather better than the average Eurolager, but to my palate it seems a bit two-dimensional, as if they've taken a regular beer and layered a swathe of flavour onto it. And after a bit of pondering, I reckon that it shows how the big brewers are targeting craft – in this case, with a flavoured-up beer that is clearly not your average macro lager, yet isn't going to frighten the horses.

So while I've had far better hoppy lagers – for example, Trainings Lager from Hannover's Mashsee Brewery, or India Pale Lager from Redwell in Norwich – I can still see Hop House 13 doing pretty well.