Thursday, 17 October 2019

Is New York's trendy sour-milk IPA a step too far?

I had evenings free before and after last month’s conference in New York City, which was my chance to try a couple of craft beer bars, one in Manhattan and one on Long Island. Both of course had ‘regular’ brews on, but quite a bit was gimmicky and adjunct-laden or simply fashion-crazed – the latter mainly meaning hugely-hopped hazy IPAs and the like.

The range in Long Island’s Amity Ales was fairly seasonal, with Hofbrau Oktoberfestbier and the first couple of pumpkin spiced beers ahead of Halloween, for example. A couple of hazy IPAs nodded to fashion, as did the sole dark craft beer – a 6.2% Chocolate Peanut Butter Porter from Maryland's DuClaw Brewing, called Sweet Baby Jesus (left), which proved remarkably tasty and drinkable for all that they seemed to have emptied the kitchen cupboard into it.

Also very drinkable was the house Amity Pale Ale, now contract-brewed across town rather than in the pub’s basement. Although described as an American Pale Ale, it is deep brown and much closer in style to an English Bitter, though of course with US hops and an American sensibility (it's 5.5% for example!). It’s a great twist on an old familiar.

Less impressive was my first experience of where New England fashion has taken hazy IPA. Juicy IPA from nearby Montauk was a bit untidy – not so bitter, but with sweet tropical fruit jarring up against aggressive vegetal hoppiness.

Worse was to come a couple of days later, however, when I met Lactose IPA. In a way it should have been expected – I mean, New England IPA as a style already emphasises the fruity-hoppy notes over the bitterness. Then came the trend to make it even fruitier by, er, putting real fruit in. So sweetening it up with milk sugar to complete the transition to hoppy sugary fruit drink was the obvious next step, am I right? Add in the fashion for ‘sour IPAs’ – sour in this context usually meaning just a little bit tart and tangy, rather than bracingly mouth-puckering – and the weirdness is complete.

DIY beer and cheese pairing
This was at Milk & Hops in Manhattan’s Chelsea district, which by chance was having a festival of beers from breweries in Upstate New York – that’s to say, from up north beyond the city suburbs. As the name implies, the bar’s schtick is gourmet cheese and craft beer, although unfortunately the tap takeover meant that the regular pairing plate wasn’t available that night.

Sadly, my first three choices were all drinkable but unimpressive. Obercreek’s Fall Into Place hazy DIPA seemed unbalanced and a bit harsh, and both Mortalis’ Tears of the Goddess and Beer Tree Brew’s Slightly Fuzzy were absurdly over-complicated. The former was a ‘sour IPA’ with lactose, fruit, vanilla and granola(!), and the latter a mango-lime Berliner Weisse, where the lime almost out-tarted the beer.

I could have stopped there – especially there wasn’t much under the equivalent of £10 a UK pint. It was tipping down with rain outside though, so I plugged on – and I was rewarded… Everything else I tried that evening was good-to-excellent, including the cheese plate above! District 96’s dry-sweet, fruity and funky Summer Campaign was, at 7.2%, a fine example of a strong Saison, and Mortalis redeemed itself with Hazel, an excellently complex Imperial Coffee Stout – syrupy sweet yet warming and cocoa-bitter.

The one brewery to really score was Prison City, which is a brewpub just south of Lake Ontario, in a small town which does indeed possess a ‘correctional facility’. Quite a few of their beers have crime-related names, including the duo on the bar that night: In Prison Again (left) and Wham Whams, which is apparently US prison slang for the little goodies inmates can buy from the canteen.

Several also have hop bills that change from batch to batch – this version of In Prison Again, a very nicely balanced 6.7% hazy IPA which almost had an internal glow, was brewed with Galaxy & Waimea. At the other end of the beer spectrum, Wham Whams is their Imperial Stout, this version having been aged in Woodford Reserve bourbon barrels coconut and vanilla, and weighing in at 11%. It was rich and very impressive, if a little cloying on the finish, with so much chocolate and coconut character it was a bit like Bounty bars melted in a heavy dark beer. Lovely sippin’ stuff!

Next it was time to move upstate myself. More on that in a future blog...

Saturday, 21 September 2019

Proper lager in America

Somewhere up there is where Capt Chesney Sullenberger
safely ditched his stricken Airbus in the river 
It was at the pre-conference welcome party on a Manhattan roof terrace overlooking the Hudson river that I realised how much the New York beer scene had changed since I was last there more than half a decade ago. The canned beers on offer were all ones I did not recognise, they mostly came from New England breweries, and they were all good – in some cases very good.

What really impressed me were not the me-too IPAs but the lagers: a couple of Pilsners (Happy Hour from Peak Organic, and Mermaid from Coney Island Brewery), either of which could have come from one of the better breweries in Central Europe. In other words, they were not only well crafted, they were also impressively authentic.

Peak just calls it a Pilsner, but it's
bang-on for a Czech Světlý ležák 11°
They also sparked an interesting discussion with a couple of fellow conference-goers on craft beer’s return to lager. I’d already seen it in the UK and Germany, where it seems to fulfil two roles. One is to have something on tap for those used to lager but who want something better, and the other – especially in Germany – is as a demonstration of the brewer’s skills.

Satisfying the first need by making something lagery is relatively simple. Heck, you even brew a pale ale with lager malt, then cold-condition it for a few weeks and claim it’s Kölsch. But meeting the second need, by doing lager properly, is hard.

Anyway, the same trend’s happening in the US, where for all the hype over craft beer, the vast bulk of what’s actually consumed is still the beery liquid known as Lite Lager. And as one barperson I chatted with told me, it’s a trend worth following: you get a lager drinker in, they try the craft version, and they’re like, “Damn, this stuff is good! Is this what lager is really meant to taste like?!” – and all of a sudden they’re regulars. And they're now open to other beers. Bingo.

Saturday, 17 August 2019

A macrobrew lesson in the middle of the Med

Mahon's magnificent harbour
When we went on holiday last month to Menorca, in the Balearic islands of Spain – it’s the smaller counterpart of Majorca (hence minor/major) – I was curious to see what interesting beers I might find. I’d already had a look on Untappd which suggested there were a couple of breweries on the island, plus a couple of bottle shops, one in each of the main towns.

We were staying near the current capital Port Mahon (Maó in the Catalan dialect used locally), while at the opposite end of the island is the former mediaeval capital of Ciutadella. The switch from one to the other happened in the 1700s when the island was under British control, not Spanish, but it reflected changes in naval technology as much as nationality. The harbour at Ciutadella is closer to the Spanish mainland, but is shallower and far smaller than the magnificent 5km-long Mahon harbour, which was much better positioned and sized to suit an 18th century fleet of battleships tasked with controlling the Western Med. 

Anyway, quite how we missed Birra O’Clock in Mahon/Maó I don’t know – we must have walked almost straight past it. But that was on Sunday afternoon, so maybe it was closed and less noticeable, and anyway I’d have been more focused on keeping the kids from getting lost and/or run over.

So what I drank while there was what I found in the supermarkets. What I didn’t expect, even though technically we weren’t all that far from Spain’s craft beer capital of Barcelona, was that it was almost all macro and crafty macro. Sure there was variety – amber lagers, Märzens, a Hefeweizen and even a few ales of various sorts – but with just a couple of microbrewed exceptions, they were all from Damm, Mahou-San Miguel or Heineken Spain.

As for local brews, it wasn’t until we visited bottle shop Sa Bona Birra on a trip to Ciutadella that we found any, and that was from Sant Climent back near Mahon. Yes, they had beers from Barcelona micros as well, but they had beers from all over the world, as you’d expect in a specialist shop.

Ciutadella
It reminded me just how much of a bubble the beer scene in, say, Barcelona actually is. But it also demonstrated how much the big brewers have invested in crafty brewing to ensure that outlets such as supermarkets have no need to go elsewhere in order to add a dusting of modernity and variety to their beer shelves. (Like washing powder manufacturers, they also grab for shelf space by having secondary brands for their generic beers – pretty poor stuff in the main.)

By chance, a week later I found myself chatting with one of the brewers from Mahou-San Miguel after we’d both spent the day judging in the International Beer Challenge. He confirmed that, as I already knew from elsewhere, it’s all about the extra margin on craft, not the sales volume. And it’s not about doing it on the cheap, either, although he noted that the Mahou Barrica barrel-aged strong lagers (the Bourbon one is rather good, by the way) are deliberately priced low to get shelf space and attention.

And clearly it works, with some of the crafty ones actually being pretty good – San Miguel’s Manila Vienna lager for instance, and Heineken Spain’s Cruzcampo ales (but not its eponymous Eurolagers), although yes, the real independents were on average rather better.

Interestingly, Heineken seems to have recognised the need to separate off its crafty element. It worked with a local hospitality group to set up a brewpub in Malaga called La Fabrica de Cruzcampo where its brewers can get creative. It then brews and bottles some of the results back at HQ for nationwide distribution.

Will this crafty-creative approach be a model we’ll see more of across Europe and elsewhere? I suspect so. The question is, how can real micros and independents respond?

Saturday, 20 July 2019

London's Summer of Beer

There’s a lot for the beer-lover to look forward in London over the summer. I guess it started with last weekend’s Ealing Beer Festival, under the giant oak trees and in the grassy surroundings of Walpole Park – and once again mostly in the sunshine this year. A great selection of cask beers this year, all in good-to-excellent condition.

Beer judging underway
Perhaps to show that any style can work in cask, my absolute stand-out there this year was a cask Belgian Saison – but then, the original farmhouse Saisons would have been cask, so why not? Called Go With a Smile, it was a collaboration between two small Kentish brewers, Boutilliers and Iron Pier. By coincidence, my second favourite was also Belgian – but not just in style this time. One of the two kegs on the foreign beer bar, it was De la Senne’s Jambe de Bois, an 8%er billed as the most bitter Tripel in Belgium. Lovely!

I wasn’t just there for the drinking, mind you – I was helping judge CAMRA London’s Champion Beer of London, along with assorted luminaries from the world of brewing and beer writing. For the record, the overall winners were:

Gold:  Five Points Railway Porter
Silver: Tap East’s East End Mild
Bronze: Wimbledon XXXK Vintage Ale

This weekend, there's still a few tickets left for tonight and tomorrow at Craft Beer Cares, which was the subject of my previous post, then in two weeks time on Saturday 3rd August there’s an open-day at the Weird Beard brewery in Hanwell, after which we dive into the week of the Great British Beer Festival at Olympia (August 6th-10th). That kicks off with the judging of Champion Beer of Britain on the morning before the Tuesday trade session.

The 2018 LBA festival in Fuller's sunny courtyard
Overlapping with GBBF this year, which I guess ought to make it easier for some people to get to both, is London Craft Beer Festival (9th-11th August). It’s back at the Tobacco Dock event space this year, and when last I looked there were still tickets left for all sessions. It’s typically £50 for each five-hour session, but unlike GBBF where most sessions are £11 but you buy beer separately, the LCBF ticket includes all your beer. Then again, your GBBF ticket covers twice as long, at ten hours.

And last for now, but not least, the London Brewers Alliance has announced the date of its 2019 summer beer festival: Saturday 14th September. Hosted in the courtyard and carriage house at Fuller’s Griffin Brewery in Chiswick, this is another all-inclusive event. Tickets are £35-ish including fees, and you can expect to find more that 50 of the capital’s brewers, each pouring at least two or three of their beers.

Wednesday, 17 July 2019

Charity beer fest returns for a 3rd year

Last year's event was very enjoyable
Craft Beer Cares, the festival where all beer is donated and all profits go to charity, is back for a third year. It's this coming weekend, Fri/Sat/Sun, at the London Fields Brewery event space in a set of railway arches just off the eponymous park in Hackney.

The sessions will run from 6-11pm Friday 19th, 12-5pm and 6-11pm Saturday 20th, and 12-5pm Sunday 21st July. Apparently there's still tickets available for all three days - they're only eleven quid (inc. booking fees), which gets you a festival glass and enough tokens for five halves or thereabouts. You can buy more tokens of course, and I assume there will also be food and merch for sale as in past years.

This year all the profits - that's £10 from every ticket since pretty much everything is donated, including the volunteer servers - will go to Hackney Winter Night Shelter. This is a charity that provides food and shelter for homeless people during the coldest months of the year. Last year, the festival raised over £10,000 for the London-based anti-violence charity Art Against Knives.

More than 30 breweries, representing some seven different countries, have so far offered beer for Craft Beer Cares 2019. They include:

Beatnikz Republic
Big Drop
Brew By Numbers
BrewDog
Brixton Brewery
Brooklyn Brewery
Canopy
Cloudwater
Collective Arts
Dry & Bitter
East London Brewery
Fierce Beer
Fourpure
Gipsy Hill
Hale Brewing
The Kernel
Lervig
London Fields
Lost & Grounded
Magic Rock
Mikkeller
Mondo
NZ Beer Collective
Partizan
Siren
Solvay Society
Stone Brewing
Toast Ales
Verdant
Weird Beard
Whiplash
Wylam
and Yeastie Boys
with more to be confirmed.

We already have our tickets for the Sunday - see you there?

Sunday, 14 July 2019

The beers we almost forgot

If you’re running a craft beer bar or specialist real ale pub that caters to aficionados, it’s relatively simple – in concept at least, though less so in execution! You offer a range of styles, rotating as often as you can manage, always with something new and/or weird – and also with a known-brand but unusual lager for your less adventurous visitors, or the non-aficionado friends and other halves.

But what about venues where craft beer isn’t the main or only offering, such as restaurants, cafés or ‘regular’ pubs. The constant chasing after fashion and novelty is a never-ending game. Constant novelty, but it’s a business model that’s tough to scale and make reliable. Even those brewers famed for their frequent special releases usually try to build up a solid baseline of regular beers as well, just like craft bars needs that regular tap for those customers who ‘just want a beer’.

I arrived late at this month’s Imbibe Live trade show at Olympia, but just in time to catch Mitch Adams’ final talk and tasting, “Back to the Future”. In it, he encouraged retailers in particular to forget modern beer trends and fashions for a moment, and instead pay attention to some of the beers – and perhaps more significantly, beer styles – that have dropped off the headlines, but still deserve some love.

In particular, he highlighted Helles & Vienna (golden & amber) Lagers, Hefeweizen, Golden Ale, West Coast IPA, and Tripel. I might quibble with one or two of his exemplars – Stiegl Gold isn’t my favourite Helles, I’m afraid – but others were excellent choices. Erdinger Weisse for instance, and Ska’s Modus Hoperandi for classic American IPA, while I'd say Brooklyn Lager is the best Vienna Lager in volume production. 

He’s got a very good point here, although as implied earlier I have no fears for lager. We’re seeing more and more craft lagers – it does seem to be lager that most ‘just-a-beer’ drinkers go for. So you make your craft lager a bit more malty and flavoursome than the big brands, easy drinking but nothing too scary, nothing too different…

The crafty (re)birth of lager

Even in Germany, where the craft beer movement grew up in large part in opposition to the industrialisation of beer, you can see this happening. German industrial Pils is yellow, fizzy, light-bodied and remarkably samey. Craft beer therefore set out to be the opposite – it’s at least hazy if not downright murky, amber-brown or even darker, malty, and comparatively heavy with aroma and flavour.

While that trend’s not gone away, more and more modern microbrewers are now producing a Pils or a Helles too. It’s partly that they have customers who want novelty, but familiar novelty, and partly the realisation that making a really good lager is hard. So if you want to show your skills as a brewer, it’s one way to do it.

Choose your guests

But while offering a regular craft lager for the ‘just-a-beer’ customers works for the specialist beer venue, what about the reverse – a ‘regular’ catering for aficionados? Maybe it should be a guest Vienna, or a blond lager and a West Coast IPA. And it can’t hurt to have bottles of a reliable Weizen and Tripel (or Dubbel) in the fridge.

What do you think – are we worrying too much? Does this happen already? Or is there still too much focus on fashion?

Saturday, 29 June 2019

Jubel gets crafty with the lager-top

Maybe you already saw Jubel’s attractive bright-yet-minimalist labels on the shelves in Sainsbury’s, but like me, you weren’t convinced by the idea of sweetened, fruit-flavoured beer. Flavoured beer is quite traditional though in some ways and places, so I was pleased when one of my local pubs announced a meet-the-brewer visit from Jubel Beer.

We had two varieties to taste, Alpine which is peach-flavoured, and Urban which has elderflower syrup added. They had just launched a third, Grapefruit, but it hadn’t reached London yet. I tried the Urban first and was pleasantly surprised. Yes, it’s sweet – much too sweet for my liking – but the elderflower adds an intriguing grape-like note, with the result ending up like a cross between lager and a sweet white wine.

Alpine is less subtle, with in-your-face fruitiness and the rather light base-beer almost lost in the background. “Craft beer is all the thing now, but it’s too hoppy for some,” noted Jubel rep Adam, which I’m afraid I translated as ‘This is beer for people who don’t actually like beer, but still want to be seen drinking it.’

Life is peachy

Adam passes the beers round
Everything has to have an origin story these days, it seems, and as Adam explained, this one involves two students on a skiing holiday in the French Alps and encountering Demi Pêche, which is the local variant of a lager-top – beer with a dash of peach syrup.

He says they came back to London and, after graduation, initially tried renting brewing capacity and making something similar using peaches in the brew. That didn’t work well though, so they decided to make their own peach syrup. They added this to a contract-brewed gluten-free lager – one of the two founders is Coeliac, says Adam – and sold the result in bottles. (There’s also a YouTube version of this story.)

So why was I meeting Adam, who’s actually on the sales side, covering London and the South East, rather than one of the founders? That was down to their need for more production capacity and money for expansion, both of which came from picking up the whole operation and moving it to Cornwall, landing in Penryn, near Falmouth. This is just 20-odd miles from St Austell Brewery, and it helped them get a grant from the EU’s European Regional Development Fund, one of whose aims is to boost the economies of places like Cornwall.

Just a taste...
A launch across the south-west of England followed, and then a listing with Fuller’s (we were talking in The George IV, a big yet cosy Fuller’s pub in Chiswick). And then late last year came the big one – a nationwide launch in 600 Sainsbury’s shops.

Should you buy some? Well, if you or your friends are sweet-toothed and enjoy drinks such as the mixes of beer and fruit juice* produced on the Continent – and especially if they are Coeliac too – then give them a go. The elderflower one could also be interesting for anyone who like sweet white wines and wants to try something a bit different.

*Note that these are fruit-flavoured drinks but they are not ‘fruit beers’, as the fruit is not there during the brewing or fermentation. They are closer to shandies, or what the Germans more practically call a Biermix.