Tuesday, 4 December 2018

The fun and challenges of beer and food matching

It’s been a bit of a feast of beer and food pairings lately, first at the annual dinner of the British Guild of Beer Writers and then at the rather excellent Hero of Maida gastropub in London’s Maida Vale, where UK beer distributor Euroboozer kindly hosted a “beery brunch” for writers. The former focused on British beers, naturally enough, while the latter included Austrian, Belgian and Danish brews – Euroboozer represents Schremser, Steigl, Boon and Mikkeller, among others.

It was fascinating to see how much better some pairings worked than others, but also to be reminded that although there was general agreement, different people of course preferred different pairings.
The rule of thumb with beer and food matching is you either go for complementary flavours or contrasts. For instance, a hoppy IPA can work well with curry, which to me implies complementary, but it can also match cheese, where the bitterness doesn’t so much contrast as cut through the oils.

Interestingly, both menus featured scallops – they’re clearly the shellfish of the moment. In one case, seared scallops were paired with Chalky’s Bite from Sharp’s, in the other the scallops were baked and served alongside Sonnenkönig II, a 9.5% Double Witbier aged in Tequila barrels (left), which comes from the pilot brewery of Austria’s best-known lager brand Steigl.

Both combinations worked very well. The dry tang of Sonnenkönig against the fishy sweetness of the baked scallops, and the spicy maltiness of Chalky’s Bite – a 6.8% herbed strong ale that makes me think of a Belgian Tripel – with the toastier seared scallops. A second fish dish, smoked haddock tartare, was paired with Riesling People, a hazy IPA brewed with grape juice – it’s one of Danish brewer Mikkeller’s takes on the modern beer-wine hybrid style. Again, a lovely beer, almost gin-like in its dryness, but for me it didn’t bring out the flavour of the fish.

Moving on, brunch brought us brioche buns filled with bacon, cheese and egg, paired with Boon Oude Geuze Black Label. This is a stunningly good beer, the driest Geuze that Boon produces, and it did a great job of contrasting with the lightly fatty and salty character of the bacon and cheese. I’ll try to remember Gueze as an option for cheese and charcuterie in the future!

The main course for dinner, roasted Welsh lamb, brought not one but two pairings. The intended one was Fourpure’s smoky-sweet and rich Oatmeal Stout. This is a very fine beer, but somehow the combination of that sweetness with the equally rich meatiness of the lamb didn’t work as well for me as the second beer on the table – Marble’s tropical and resinous Hopoplata. This gorgeous 7.2% West Coast IPA was intended to pair with the vegetarian option, but worked extremely well with the lamb – its hoppy and bitter fruitiness contrasted with the meat, each bringing out the richness of the other.

Back at brunch, the meat course was an amazingly delicious Gascon black pudding with white beans (right), served with Steel Toe Milk Stout from America’s Ska Brewing. This time, the creamy and slightly smoky sweetness worked excellently well, perhaps because of the softer – though equally rich and lovely – flavour and texture of the black pudding.

Time for dessert, and a sticky-toffee pudding paired with OTT, a classic 7% old ale from Hog’s Back. This match did a great job of bringing out the cocoa and fruit cake notes in the beer. We also had on the table a bottle of Greene King’s Heritage Vintage Fine Ale – a rather excellent strong ale brewed with Chevallier heritage barley – so for curiosity’s sake I also tried that with the pudding. Dry-sweet and lightly toasty, it too worked very well, confirming strong ales as a good pudding choice!

While brunch now moved on to a liquid course – a tart and tangy Boon/Mikkeller collaboration where they aged Geuze in white Vermouth foeders – dinner wrapped up with an amazing range of British cheeses, quite simply the best cheeseboard I’ve had in a long time. They were served with another strong ale, this time from the far north – Orkney Brewery’s 10% Dark Island Reserve. With such a variety of cheeses, the aim (according to the tasting notes from fellow writer Jacopo Mazzeo) was to provide a beer complex enough to complement them all. It worked well, although now I can’t help wondering how the cheese would have gone with something like that white Vermouth Gueze or perhaps a strong Farmhouse Saison…

Sunday, 28 October 2018

Nationwide beer festival kicks off with London Brewing Co

The last time I visited London Brewing Co, it was a small brewkit in the corner of the kitchen at the Bull pub in Highgate. Now, it’s a 10 hectolitre microbrewery in its own space*, and it’s been appearing in 40 Nicholson’s pubs up and down the country as the opening act in that pubco’s Autumn 2018 Beer Showcase, which opened last month.

St Pancras IPA
“We’ve been brewing non-stop for this,” says LBC boss Senan Sexton. The brewery has produced 12 cask ales for the festival, some are their regulars and others are variants of previous brews, done specially for Nicholson’s.

Normally LBC’s production is 40% to 50% cask ale, rather than 100%, he says, adding that “Cask isn’t the most profitable, but it’s the most important. It’s low-margin for brewers but we’re not too worried as we can scale up and down.”

I met Senan, head brewer Richard, and second brewer George, at the Coal Hole on London’s Strand, where the pub’s staff had arranged a treat for us and a number of their regulars: a beer and food pairing, matching five beers with different dishes. The Coal Hole is a classic Nicholson’s pub, all dark wood and polished brass – very much an updated version of the image that many people will have of the classic English pub.

In fact I wonder if that “modern-traditional” style is why Nicholson’s pubs are so popular with their locals, yet often overlooked by others. Nicholson’s is part of pubco M&B, so sometimes it gets disparaged along with the likes of Punch and Enterprise. In truth though, its pubs are generally rather nice – and more importantly, they keep a very decent pint of real ale (or at least the ones I know do!).

The first beer we try is St Pancras IPA, brewed and named for the 150th anniversary this year of the railway station where barrels of beer arrived from Burton-on-Trent and were stored for onward distribution. It’s a lovely beer – toasty-sweet and malty-dry in what we now tend to think of as the classic English IPA style. It goes very nicely with the fried nibbles presented by the pub, with the caramel malt complementing the caramelisation in the batter.

Senan serves up the brownies
The other beers are just as good, from Admiral of the Red, a red ale that’s spicy and lightly tangy, through 100 Oysters, a dry Stout which is indeed brewed with 100 oysters and is complex and dark, to Gigglemug. The latter is a change of pace – after relatively rich cask ales, Richard wants to show he can do lighter keg beers too – this is a fruity and lightly floral American Pale Ale.

We finish with a bite of chocolate brownie to accompany Senan’s piece de resistance, Samson’s Riddle. A big and chewy 9.5% Imperial Stout that included black treacle in the brew, it’s been aged in Bourbon barrels before a couple of years of bottle conditioning. It’s good now, and should only improve – if you can find a bottle, that is.

Although technically LBC’s slot in the Nicholson’s Beer Showcase is over, I hear there are still ales available in some of the pubs around the country. It’d be a shame to miss them, but then again there’s plenty more good beer coming up – Siren is next, with a range that includes a number of specials.

*Still in a pub, but now it’s The Bohemia, in North Finchley.

Friday, 5 October 2018

Fuller's micro is a model in many ways

Visitors to Fuller's refurbished brewery shop have known for some time that a new pilot brewery was coming – you can see it behind a glass wall at the back of the shop. It was still under construction when the shop reopened though, and it didn't officially start brewing until quite recently.

Sadly, I missed the official opening, but when I read about it I wondered where the beers brewed there would end up. To find out, I of course looked on Untappd for check-ins and there they were, in the brewery shop. So one lunchtime last week I nipped over there for a look.

As I walked around the shop to see what I could find, I could also see through the glass a brewer, back turned to me, busily shovelling out the mash tun. I spotted several of the beers on the growler bar, available in two-litre takeaways, then looked up to see the brewer waving at me – it was Hayley Marlor (who was, incidentally, co-creator of Matariki, my favourite beer from the first Fuller's & Friends series which is back in the shops), and she invited me in for a look around.

The pilot brewery is built to more or less replicate the large one, so it includes items you'd normally not find in a 16hl/10 barrel microbrewery, such as a Steel's Masher. But it's also been given some features to make it more of a showcase (and incidentally easier to manage) such as a vertical window into the side of the mash tun. This means the brewer can see what's going on under the surface, and is rather unusual, to say the least.

Of course it can't replicate the main brewery exactly. For instance the volumes are lower, so you don't get the same hydrostatic pressures build up in the fermenters, and that changes how the yeast works. But it lets them come close, so as well as testing new ingredients and recipes it will help train new brewers on the main brewery processes.

Hayley said that as well as doing test brews and short-run beers, the brewkit will be used to pilot some of the future Fuller's & Friends collaborations. In particular, that's those with breweries overseas – with the UK collaborations so far, they've done the pilot batch at the partner brewery, then moved to Chiswick for the main production run, but that's rather less practical when the partner is half way around the world.

The idea is that each of Fuller's brewers will have charge of the pilot brewery for a year – Hayley was lucky enough to be the first. She expects to brew once a week to start with, and has already done several brews. Hopefully, as well as the growlers we'll see some casks and bottles available around London and at festivals before too long!

Thursday, 20 September 2018

What's so special about £12.50?

London's beer scene is kicking into gear again, with two excellent events coming up on consecutive weekends. They are quite different though – the only things they have in common are beer and a ticket price of £12.50, and the latter similarity puzzles me more than perhaps it ought to! Is this going to be the "new norm" for festivals – I guess it's equivalent to three beers at central London rates – or is there something else about this number that I've missed?

First up is Goose Island's LDN Block Party this coming Saturday 22nd at The Oval in Bethnal Green. Sadly it’s sold out already, but there’s a few people selling spares on the event’s Facebook page. If you do have a ticket (and note that they cover admission but not your beer and food), you should be in for a good time – I went last year when it was at a venue near Old Street, and it was excellent. Good bands on stage, with bars and foodstalls nearby, or if you wanted a change of ambience there were other bars indoors.

Last year these included the Alpine-themed Blocktoberfest bar where they launched their Spaten-brewed Keller Märzen, another pouring many of the variations on Bourbon County Stout, some of them rather rare, and House of Funk, a bar specialising in Goose Island’s many sours and wild ales. The evening’s more music-focused, with indie band The Vaccines headlining this year, but if you go earlier – it runs from 3pm to 11pm – there’s other activities going on. Last year there was a guided cheese & beer pairing in the wilds & sours bar, for example.

Yes, I know Goose Island is macro-owned these days, but it’s hung on to at least some of its indie soul – and let’s face it, without AB-Inbev’s money behind it, we in the UK probably wouldn’t be enjoying nearly as many of its excellent beers now.

Anyway, where was I? Oh yes, £12.50 is also the cost of a ticket to Craft Beer Cares in Hackney on Saturday 29th and Sunday 30th. It’s a very different event from the Block Party – the beer’s more independent, there’s no live music that I’m aware of, it’s all for charity – and perhaps most importantly of all, your ticket includes your first beer tokens!

There's also several contributing breweries to add to the list I mentioned last time, including Five Points, Lervig and Whiplash, and there's still tickets available. So if you’re in town and haven’t booked one yet, get over there and get one – or if you're a bit more of a glutton, get one for each of the three sessions... I wonder if there's anyone who'll do that! All being well, I'll see you there on the Sunday afternoon (yes, change of plan).

Thursday, 23 August 2018

Charity beer fest Craft Beer Cares is back

Last year's festival
There's a bunch of beery things coming up in London over the next few weeks, but the one I think I'm looking forward to most is Craft Beer Cares – I've already bought my ticket. This beer festival run for charity was a really good event last year – excellent beer, all donated by the brewers, plus side-events such as a beer raffle with great prizes.

This year's edition takes place at London Fields Brewery in Hackney – or rather, at the brewery's event space around the corner on Mentmore Place E8. They're expecting beer from more than 20 breweries, and proceeds from the event (which raised more than £6000 last year) will be donated to London-based anti violence charity Art Against Knives.

“We have the fortune to be able to build on our first event with a bigger venue, more beer, and more sessions, to be more accessible and hopefully raise even more money for charity this year,” said Gautam Bhatnagar, the event's founder. “We couldn’t do it without the kindness and donations of the breweries involved, the volunteers and the logistical help of many distributors in the industry.”

Craft Beer Cares will run three sessions, from 11am-5pm and 6pm-12am on Saturday 29th, and 12pm-6pm on Sunday 30th. Tickets are £12.50 per session, which includes a festival glass and tokens for four half-pints – you can of course buy more tokens on site.

The breweries due to take part in Craft Beer Cares 2018 include:
Brew By Numbers
Dry and Bitter
Gipsy Hill
London Fields
Magic Rock
Modern Times
Northern Monk
NZ Beer Collective
Weird Beard
Yeastie Boys

There's more to be confirmed, say the organisers. Based on last year's event, we can expect maybe eight or ten beers to be available on draught at any one time, plus others in bottle or can, and new kegs coming on tap as others run out.

Tickets for Craft Beer Cares are available via Eventbrite.

Tuesday, 21 August 2018

Franconia comes to London

As I mentioned a few days ago, there were several other beer events run alongside GBBF and London Craft Beer Festival. I'm not quite sure whether this is trying to take advantage of the fact that there will be extra beer fans in the capital, or whether it's just an obvious time to hold events. Anyway, one such was Franken Fest, a celebration of beer from Franconia (or Franken) beer hosted at the Moor Beer Taproom in London's Bermondsey over the same weekend as GBBF (which also featured several Franconian beers).

Although the two largest cities in Franconia – which is today part of Bavaria, but very much has its own identity – are Nürnberg (Nuremberg) and Würzburg, the most famous from a beer perspective is of course Bamberg, the reputed home of Rauchbier. Yet while Rauchbier's had quite a renaissance across Germany and abroad in recent years, it's not the most 'typical' Franconian beer at all – that would be Kellerbier.

This malty unfiltered amber beer, which is lagered but can be top- or bottom-fermented, is at its best when served straight from the cask in the region's beer gardens. These are in turn known as Kellers, perhaps because so many are right outside the eponymous cellars where the beer is lagered. And the attraction of Moor's Franken Fest was the promise not just of Franconian beers, but that they'd be served from the cask.

Discovering on arrival that they were charging £5 admission almost put me off going in. OK, you got a Bierkrug (pottery beer mug) for that, but it was non-refundable and I have more than enough glassware and stuff! I'm pretty sure they miscalculated here – I relented and paid up, but over the course of the next two or three hours I saw several groups of drinkers enter then leave again, muttering, when they found out the cost. And certainly they didn't sell out of beer – there were still Kellerbiers on sale there a week later, to judge from the check-ins on Untappd. 

Be that as it may, the beer was excellent. Due to limited space on the festival 'bar', they only had three cask Kellerbiers available at a time; when one was empty, it was replaced by something different. Two or three more were available on keg on the main bar, alongside a full range of Moor's own beer, including a couple of new releases. By chance, two of the three on offer when I arrived were ones I've drunk at their respective breweries in Bamberg – Mahr's aU ("ah-oo") and Spezial Lager Rauch. So I went for the third, which was Mönchsambacher Export, and it was gorgeous – dry-bitter over a rich and full malty-sweet body.

Amber Ale in a Krug? sure, why not!
Sadly, some of those I'd hoped to try (eg. the Schammelsdorfer and the Griess) weren't on while I was there, but the Goldener Löwe (Först) Altfränkisches Lagerbier and Thuisbrunner Elch-Bräu Dunkel were both good, as was Gänstaller's reworked Kellerbier Traditionell. In a gap while I waited for the Fränkisch beers to rotate onto something new, I also had a try of Zero Brew – not a non-alcoholic as the name implies, but Moor's new 6% American Amber Ale, all malty and toasty, with notes of pine and orange. Very different from the Franconians, but equally lovely.

And that was it – pausing only to sell my krug to a new arrival for a quid, I left, filled with good beer and a strong desire to revisit Franconia.

Sunday, 19 August 2018

Cask goes Continental at GBBF

The trade session at GBBF, the day after the guild get-together, was preceded by a morning judging golden ales for Champion Beer of Britain. The tasting is all done "blind", but we find out later what we judged, so I can tell you that Salopian's Oracle was totally justified as the gold medal winner for the category! In the main halls downstairs afterwards, the beers were in good condition, better than in some previous years. Some were a little 'green' but this was the very first session, and from what I hear they improved just as you'd expect as the week went on.

The big 'gap' was the American cask-conditioned beers, which had been delayed arriving. Fortunately the organisers were able to fill the hole left on the bar using something that was new this year – cask-conditioned Dutch and Belgian beers! I hear that arranging these was a logistical challenge, as casks had to be sent over there for the brewers to fill, and then collected and brought back, but I'm glad they did it as some of the results were great. (By the by, I've seen old British-style bellied metal casks on show in Dutch breweries, so I assume they must have used them once upon a time.)

I only tried a few of these, but two in particular were very memorable – the dry-hopped Beluga 10% Imperial Stout from De Kromme Haring, burnt yet smooth and hugely flavoursome, and Brouwerij 't Verzet's Oud Bruin, a massively sour and tart Flanders Old Brown.

Of the British ales tasted, Lymm's Dam Strong Ale was lovely – malty, estery and earthy-bitter, and tasting rather lighter than its claimed 7.2%! As I said, the others I tried were maybe a bit too green, with the exception of some from the Thornbridge bar, most notably their creamy-dry and hoppy Green Mountain Session IPA (keykeg-conditioned, rather than cask) and the rich and weirdly tasty Salted Caramel Lucaria Porter (right).

Oh, and I also at last got to meet Ben Palmer, who writes about his experiences of being an Englishman training as a brewer in Germany on his blog Hop & Schwein. We'd chatted online – shared interests! – but not actually met before. 

Next: Franconia comes to London