Wednesday, 20 September 2017

36 hours in RiNo

Earlier this year I went to a conference in Boulder, Colorado. Much as I like Boulder itself, this meant flying into Denver, and it’s been many years since I explored that city’s beery pleasures. So I arranged to travel out a couple of days early and have most of a weekend in Denver. Rather than stay in the centre or south, where I’d been before, I decided to explore the northern side of town, more specifically the up-and-coming arty area of RiNo, or River North.

Some of 'old' RiNo survives
Five or ten years ago, I don't think there wasn't much reason for most people to visit this part of northern Denver – especially not after dark! Flat, dusty and sun-baked, like much of the south-western US, it was an area of railway sidings, light industrial units and warehouses. There were local residents, but mainly poorer ones.

With time, that included artists and hippies as they were priced out of other areas, and following them came the hipsters and the semi-curse of arty areas everywhere – gentrification. I say semi-curse because while it's driving property prices up and by the look of it pushing industry out, it's pulling in infrastructure investment – I haven't seen so many building sites and roadworks in ages.

Black Shirt: less Moseley, more metal
And of course what infrastructure expansion is complete these days without a craft brewery or brewpub? One RiNo brewer said from almost nothing four years ago, he now has 13 other breweries within a mile, and I can well believe it. There's even more downtown, of course, but that's more like two miles away and they've been there rather longer - since 1988 in the case of Wynkoop, Colorado's first brewpub and craft brewery.

RiNo had the advantage for me of being on the train line from the airport to the main station, so with a bit of planning (and a 3-UK SIM card for free roaming data in case I needed to re-check the map) I could get off a couple of stops early and walk to the room I’d booked through AirBnB.  On my walk I heard cheerful noises and spotted Black Shirt, one of the local brewpubs. So after dropping off my bag, I headed back there.

It’s a friendly place, with modern art for sale on the walls and a crowd that seemed more grunge and arty-local than hipster. The beer was the usual ‘craft’ mixture of styles – a very nice Saison alongside assorted IPAs, a Porter, a Stout and of course something barrel-aged, in this case a sour ale aged in bourbon barrels. Most were rather good, even the inevitable Kölsch, a style that’s everywhere now and has emerged as a gateway beer, not just for lager drinkers exploring ale but for ale brewers looking for an easy way to produce something lagery.

Epic's airy and bright
Waking the following morning, I made coffee and started planning my afternoon. Epic Brewing's tap-room was in the right direction and opened earlier than some of the others, so that was my first target. Walking in, it was clear that a lot of money had been spent here – a theme that was to flow through the afternoon. After a couple of excellent beers chosen from the dozen-plus taps serving the clean and airy bar area, it was time for their first guided brewery tour of the day.

It turns out this isn’t the original Epic – it’s an offshoot of a Utah brewery, which opened a Denver branch in 2013 to get around Utah’s strict alcohol laws. For example, in Colorado you can sell packaged beer direct from the brewery.

Old foeders too
When it opened in an old high-roofed auto workshop, Epic was one of the first in the area; it’s now 50% bigger than its parent and while its brewlength is still a ‘micro’ 20 barrels, they’re brewing 24 hours a day, five days a week, and its array of fermenting vessels (FVs) includes ones holding 120 and 180 barrels. These are for the biggest sellers, needless to say. Having as many as nine brews go into one FV also helps with consistency, as it smooths out batch variation.

Like most micros Epic also does barrel-ageing, but unlike most they have foeders too – tall wooden vessels that tower over the bar area. They do some kegging and bottling, but most of the beer that goes offsite is canned on an automated microcanning line. Sadly, while they do export to a few countries, none of them’s this side of the Atlantic.

By now it was starting to get a whole lot busier, and the food truck had opened for lunch – Colorado might be relatively relaxed about brewing and selling beer, but apparently it’s a pain getting the permits to sell hot food as well. So most brewery taps and brewpubs skirt around it by inviting mobile canteens to park up outside and then allowing patrons to bring their food inside.

Industrial chic at Ratio
It was the same at my next stop, Ratio Beerworks, a brewpub where the Texas BBQ truck served up a paper plate of excellent pulled pork for just a few dollars. Ratio was an odd one otherwise – all the beers were well made and tasty, yet somehow it felt like there wasn’t any great inspiration and it was trying just a bit too hard to be fashionable. Then again, while its ‘industrial chic’ concrete and sheet-steel styling would be pretty drab in another climate, in the Colorado sunshine it worked pretty well. The terrace in particular was cheerful and bustling with groups of friends, most with lunch in mind and several with dogs in tow.

Respite from the heat
Our Mutual Friend was a bit of a shock at first. After the airiness of Epic and the sunny terrace at Ratio, it seemed, well, gloomy! Before long though I came to welcome the cool shade inside what felt almost like someone’s front parlour, albeit a very large one. Beyond the bar, I could see into the space behind where the 7-barrel brewkit lives, and above the bar was an eclectic list of beers – a few of the craft-standards you see almost everywhere now, such as IPA and Saison, but also a Mild, a Winter Warmer (in the Colorado summer?!?) and a Smoked Pumpkin Ale – I assume it was the malt that was smoked, not the pumpkin, but you never know.

The OMF beers were more variable – the Smoked Pumpkin and the Raspberry Sour were excellent, for example, but the Mild was a bit odd – notes of toasted fruit and rye bread don’t say Mild to me. I liked the place though, and would have stayed longer, if not for the jetlag catching up. It was time for a siesta, before the evening part of the crawl…. 

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Five Stages of Craft Beer

Most of the “craft beer revolutions” I’ve seen went through broadly the same stages. They’re not always in exactly the same order, and of course some brewers might jump a step or several steps – and you might notice a small amount of cynicism here – but I reckon you will find them all pretty much anywhere…

1. Discover American Pale Ale and IPA, be amazed by how much flavour it has compared to the industrially-produced and heavily-advertised lowest common denominator swill you’ve been drinking, and copy it verbatim. This is how most craft beer movements start.
1a. Ditto, but with British or Belgian ales.

2. Finally realise that if you’re just going to copy the Americans you probably can’t win – the real thing is better and has economies of scale. Plus it’s increasingly available everywhere, especially as good US breweries sell out to (or ‘partner with’) multinationals who already have strong distribution networks. Your only real advantage is local provenance, so you substitute local ingredients, for example to produce a German IPA or an Italian Saison.

3. Try to come up with a pretentious twist – adding pink peppercorns, say, or ageing in Tequila barrels. Of course, there’s a good chance other small brewers will also think of it, in which case it’ll be passé even before it hits the shelves. Worse, a few of the regional brewers are pretty fast to copy this sort of thing, again with better economies of scale and distribution channels. Still, if you’re the kind who rarely brews the same thing twice you’ll be onto a new fashion by then.

4. Rediscover – or in extreme cases, invent – local beer styles or traditions, then revive them and give them a ‘modern twist’. Sour Altbiers, cloying cherry beers, and souped-up Grodziskies.

5. Finally realise that what most people want is what they already know, but that some of them are willing to pay for better quality – or for a version with a better, more fashionable image. For example, many German craft brewers grew up in opposition to fizzy, bright yellow, industrially-produced ‘TV beer’, with murky ales becoming a signifier of rebellious authenticity. It’s ironic then that quite a few of them are now making Craft Pils, or Craft Lagerbier.

Have I missed any stages?

Sunday, 6 August 2017

Fuller's & Friends at the Cask Yard

Pic: Fuller's
By all accounts, “The Cask Yard” at this weekend’s London Craft Beer Festival has been a great success. As last year, it’s presented and anchored by Fuller’s but features others too – not just cask ale from Sierra Nevada (Fuller’s distributes SN beer in the UK) but also the likes of Redemption, Thornbridge and Wimbledon.

It’s quite a change from the first LCBF events when there was cask, but nowhere near as prominently. Given the major part real ale plays in London brewing, a big cask presence is entirely fitting – no, entirely necessary!

It’s also been the first public outing for a project I heard about in confidence a few weeks ago – Fuller’s & Friends. Fuller’s brewers have been working with colleagues from around the country on a new set of collaboration brews. So far we’ve seen four of what I’m told will be six beers:

#1 – Flora & The Griffin, a 7.4% rye ale, collaboration with Thornbridge.

#2 – Rebirth, 6% “the original 1971 ESB reborn”, a collaboration with Moor Beer.

#3 – Big Smoke, a 7% smoked Porter with Hardknott.

#4 – Matariki, a 5.5% New Zealand Saison with Marble.

Two more to come, then – possibly during today’s final LCBF session. Sadly, I’ve neither a ticket nor the time to get over there this afternoon, but I’m hoping and expecting that all will also be on draught at this week’s Great British Beer Festival. My information is they will then be bottled and sold as a package.

Edited Addendum: Sadly I didn't see any of them at GBBF, but there's also visits from Cloudwater and Fourpure mentioned now on Fuller's Twitter feed, so I guess they are the 'missing' two that'll make it six.

More usefully, I've now heard from a second source that the six-pack will be sold exclusively through Waitrose. True or false, my Fuller's friends?

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

London, the Beer City

The 2017 London Beer City programme, or festival, or whatever you want to call it, kicks off tomorrow, with events all over the city for the next 10 days.

The anchor events are of course CAMRA's huge Great British Beer Festival from Tues 8th to Sat 12th. As usual this is mainly British real ale, but with the addition of foreign real ale and bottled beers, plus English wines and ciders.

Before that though, there's the London Craft Beer Festival from Fri 4th to Sun 6th in Shoreditch - this is a smaller event but more focused, with 45 breweries, many of them bringing new brews and serving them themselves.

A new thing this year (at least, I think it's new) is the beer embassies. Hosted at various venues around the city they will show off some of the best beers - both modern and trad - from elsewhere, for example the USA, Germany and Scandinavia. There's also a load of collaborative brews and other new beers around, including a competition where each of London's top beer stores collaborated with a local brewer on a brew.

For the full programme pick up a printed copy (as seen here) from one of the venues, or visit the London Beer City website.

Saturday, 29 July 2017

Island life, island beers


When I was in Amsterdam last summer for the European Beer Writers Conference, we met several of the new wave of brewers reinventing Dutch beer for the 21st century. So it was good this summer to find the supermarket in our seaside holiday town stocking a fairly wide range of local microbrews.

Alongside the local Texels beers, I found beers from Oedipus, Maximus, Jopen, ‘t IJ and many others. Prices were around double the macrobrews though, even the crafty macros like Brand. When I see the latter undercutting the real micros, I’m even more convinced by the argument that the real interest for AB-Inbev and co to buy up craft breweries is to devalue the ‘craft’ label.

Anyway, what’s still taking time to come through is a revived local beer tradition. Dutch beer has long been overshadowed by its Belgian neighbour, and so far I’m only aware of a few brewers – Jopen being the best known example – who have dug down to find and then update old Dutch beer recipes and the like. Most are still producing (some of them very well) the usual ‘international’ styles. (This reminds me that I really should write up my “stages of craft beer” theory…)

We also found one brew-hotel, by which I mean a hotel bar with a microbrewery – or more likely a nanobrewery, given that the 33cl beer bottles (they only had macrobrew beers on tap) were numbered “33 of 128” or similar. That suggests a brew-length of 50 litres or so, which is basically a home-brew system used commercially. An interesting idea.

Called Eiland Brouwers Texel and based at Hotel Tatenhove, there were four beers on offer, but with minor exceptions (a fruity tang in the Witte, say) you’d have been hard pressed to tell them apart. All were darkish amber-brown and bitter, including the Blonde, the Witte and the Pale Ale.

Is making your beers distinct from each other so difficult, or is this one of those philosophical anti-macrobrew things, where the main aim is for your beer to look as unlike clear gold Pilswater as possible?

Saturday, 15 July 2017

All barrel and no trousers?

Barrel-ageing is all the rage – especially in whisky or whiskey barrels, but also wine, rum, tequila and who knows what else. Sometimes though the results can be rather disappointing – the flavour and aroma from the barrel doesn’t so much complement the beer as overpower it. I mean, if I want a drink that tastes and smells of whisky, I’ll have a Single Malt…

But it doesn’t have to be like that, as I was reminded a couple of weeks ago at Imbibe, the trade show for the drinks trade, when I met Marty Kotis, the boss of Pig Pounder Brewery, one of three brewers who’d banded together under the banner of the North Carolina Craft Brewers Guild to take a stand at the show. He was pouring samples not only of his Boar Brown 5% brown ale, but also a tasty barrel-aged version of the same beer which was smooth and vanilla-accented – and had the same 5% ABV, even though it had spent time in Bourbon barrels.

“We blend the barrel-aged beer with fresh beer,” Marty explained, adding that getting the taste right and consistent is extremely important – the brewery is actually a spin-off from his restaurant chain, so he and his team are all somewhat flavour-obsessed!

It reminded me of a time around a decade ago, when I was in the Hock Cellar at Fuller’s Griffin Brewery for a taste training session organised by CAMRA and hosted by brewing director John Keeling and then-head brewer Derek Prentice. Towards the end of the evening, John brought out a pet project of his as a surprise – a sample of some 8.5% Golden Pride that he’d been ageing for months in a Glenmorangie cask.

It was intriguing, but also somewhat harsh and woody – and also very strong, around 12%. John said they were still trying to work out what to do with it and the subject of blending-back came up. Fortunately we also still had a jug of ESB on the table, so with a little bravado I topped up my half-glass of barrel beer with ESB to see how that might work – and the answer was “very nicely indeed!” The fresh beer filled out the body and mellowed the harsher notes, while still leaving the warming spirituousness in place.

When Fuller’s subsequently released John’s various Brewer’s Reserve vintages in bottle, they did the same. It wasn’t just for the flavour, though – John explained that there was also a crime called Grogging, which dates back to the 1800s. (You can read his longer version of the story here.) Not only can there still be a couple of pints of whisky left in an ‘empty’ cask, but some alcohol also seeps into the wood. So unscrupulous types would buy old barrels and slosh water into them to get out and sell the last of the alcohol – without paying tax, hence the offence, and the need to get the original ABV back in order to mollify the Revenue.

So, blending-back. Why don’t more brewers do this? Perhaps they do, but they prefer not to talk about it. Anyone seen it done elsewhere?

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

The brewers reinventing alcohol-free beer

Most low-alcohol or non-alcoholic beers tend to be thinnish attempts at lager, or in Germany maybe Hefeweizen. Some of the better ones are just about tolerable, but others have a weird soapy note (hello Beck’s Blue). Then there’s Brewdog’s Nanny State, which ain’t bad at all, but you really need a bit more alcohol to carry that much hoppiness. So it’s a bit of a surprise to realise that I’ve drunk not one but three non-alcoholic ales in the last week, and all were remarkably palatable!

Without certainly looks the part
St Peter’s actually sent me a couple of bottles of their alcohol-free St Peter's Without a few weeks back, ahead of its national roll-out next month (August). However, I didn’t think to try it until I found myself wanting a beer on a sunny afternoon when I also needed to drive the kids somewhere…

Having mostly just seen non-alcoholic lagers before, both in the UK and Germany, the first surprise was how dark it poured and the second was how toasty it smelled. It had body too – not heavy, but not thin either. If you’ve ever tried a malt drink or malt beer, it’s like a roasty one of those, but with a light peppery bitterness – and thankfully without their sometimes-gross sweetness.

Instead it is more dry-sweet, with burnt caramel and malty wort notes. A little unusual but very drinkable. It’s the result, says the brewery, of “a complex proprietary process involving both attenuated fermentation and the stripping out of residual alcohol” – if I’ve understood rightly, that means they ferment it as low-alcohol and then remove what little alcohol there is.

Nirvana's Steve Dass
Then at the Imbibe drinks trade fair last week, I was introduced to Leyton-based Nirvana Brewery, one of two recent start-ups I know of that specialise in low and non-alcoholic beers. Co-founder Steve Dass explained that they started as home-brewers, and learnt from scratch how to brew non-alcoholic beers. Now they’ve acquired a normal 10 barrel brewkit and gone commercial, not just with an alcohol-free Pale Ale called Tantra but also an alcohol-free ‘Stout’ called Kosmic.

“We’re trying to put a bit of body in – a bit of malt. Too many non-alcoholic beers are a bit thin, even the good German lagers,” Steve agreed.  He said they’ve also done some work on 0.5% and 1% beers, but “we won’t go higher.” As far as the brewing process he was cagey, saying only that they use different yeasts and malts from most brewers.

Both his beers were quite light bodied, yet carried their flavour well. Tantra was very malty on the nose with lots of Ovaltiney notes, in the body the maltiness was dry-sweet and it’s lightly hoppy. Kosmic definitely looked the part – near-black with a beige crema – and while it’s too light to really be called a Stout, it had pleasing notes of treacle tart and raisins.

Is it a coincidence, I wonder, that the other low-alcohol start-up in London, Big Drop Brewing, also started with a Pale Ale and a Stout? I’ve not tried these 0.5% beers yet, but I will when I get the chance. In the meantime, I now know that there are decent low or alcohol-free options out there, not just sickly sodas and malt drinks, or weedy 0.5% lagers!