Tuesday, 4 February 2020

Raiding the Midlands for Winter Ales


It’s always fun when I can take part in judging for Champion Beer of Britain at the Great British Beer Festival, held every in London every August, but there’s one thing I always miss: dark beer. Sure, there’s plenty on the festival bars, but the judging for those categories takes place elsewhere and six months earlier.

Instead of GBBF, it’s at what used to be the National Winter Ales Festival but was renamed GBBF Winter a couple of years ago to reflect that it’s not just about winter ales. This travels around the country, spending a couple of years in each venue – which is usually somewhere in the English north or midlands.

So far I’ve been too lazy to schlep up to Derby, Norwich or wherever and pay for (or cadge) somewhere to stay, when there’s lots of good festival at the same time of year right on my doorstep. Yeah, I know – it’s horribly metropolitan of me!

This year though, I’m breaking my GBBF Winter ‘fast’, thanks to the coming together of two factors: first, it’s in Birmingham his year, less than two hours by train from London, and second, an invitation to judge dark beer at last! 

There’s minor snags, like CBoB judging being in the morning, and being self-funded. Which means I’ve either got to go up the night before and find accommodation, pay silly money for a rush-hour train, or get up at 5am for a train at a sensible price. So night-bus into the station it was, and here I am on a train heading for New Street, which I used regularly as a student but haven’t visited now for maybe 20 years.

Anyway, GBBF Winter 2020 opens this afternoon and runs until Saturday 8th Feb, so you still have time to get a ticket and make your way there! It’s at the New Bingley Hall, which is about 30 minutes walk (or a short bus ride) from New Street – I’m planning to walk as I’ve not seen Birmingham for so long.

It’ll be interesting to see how much the place has changed – maybe I will find myself planning to come back for a longer visit next time! And if you are coming to GBBF Winter this afternoon, maybe I’ll see you there. Cheers! 

Thursday, 23 January 2020

Craft beer rises into Brew London

Apologies, but I missed a London winter event off my last post - somehow Brew//LDN 2020 had completely failed to appear on my radar. Was it the tricksy name? The fact that it's taken over from Craft Beer Rising, but without taking over CBR's media list because the CBR founders jumped ship? Who knows!

Anyhow, it's a drinks industry showcase with producers of all sizes and origins booked in, ranging from lots of UK microbreweries to international brands such as Guinness (via its Open Gate brand/subsidiary), Brooklyn and Lagunitas. Obviously a lot of the overseas names will be via their UK distributors - for example, as well as Mikkeller I see other Euroboozer clients such as Steigl, Schremser and To Øl on the list. There's also several drinks other than beer represented.

And although there's macrobrew names involved, the 'LDN' name is not at all unjustified - there's a large chunk of the London microbrewery scene booked in.

The people behind Brew//LDN are the ex-founders of CBR, which explains a lot. For example it's at the Old Truman Brewery on Brick Lane, which was formerly the venue for CBR, and at the same time of year - which this year means Thursday 27th to Saturday 29th February.

The format is remarkably similar too - the Thursday and Friday afternoons are trade sessions while the others are open to the public, with tickets starting at £15 plus fees.

CBR got a lot of stick from some people for the way it mixed genuine independent craft producers with brands owned by multinationals. But while some macrobrewers are guilty of deceptive practices in making their products look like independent craft, and they can use their weight and distribution strength to squeeze the independents out, I always enjoyed CBR when I went along to the trade sessions. It was interesting to see what 'the big boys' were up to - it gave a more comprehensive view of the overall market. Plus of course the big boys have money, which I'm sure helped keep the event afloat!

Brew//LDN will undoubtedly get similar criticism. Plus there's the question of how successfully you can turn what's basically a trade show into a beer festival for the paying public. Especially when there's already a lot of competition in London for events targeting the drinks trade, what with The Pub Show next month, Imbibe Live in June, and several others including trade days at GBBF and elsewhere. It will be very interesting to see how it goes - I'm looking forward to it!

PS. If you're wondering what happened to Craft Beer Rising, as far as I can tell the company running it first got sold to a midsized drinks company, then that company was bought by an even bigger one. After that, the founders jumped ship and the CBR company was closed down. 

Personally, I'd argue that a drinks company has no business buying or running a trade show, but what do I know? The company backing Brew//LDN, Brewbroker, looks a rather better fit as it is more of a beer industry intermediary. 

Thursday, 9 January 2020

London's winter beer scene warms up

A few years ago, the winter beer scene in London was pretty dull. After the Battersea Beer Festival’s final run in February 2014, there was nothing much to break the gloom between early December’s Pig’s Ear festival and March or April, when events like London Beer Week kicked off.

Now, all that’s changed. Perhaps it’s a symptom of just how crowded the craft calendar has become overall, but more festivals and other events are popping up in February and even January. As well as the keg-only Love Beer London charity event which I’ve written about before, the February weekend immediately after will see its cask-only counterpart Cask 2020.

Last year’s Cask 2019 was well organised with good and unusual ales on offer – some of them were normally keg-only but put in cask specially for the event. The one thing many visitors didn’t like was the venue: a set of atmospheric but damp and dripping (yes, really!) railway arches in Bermondsey. So this year it’s moving further south to Peckham, which has apparently gentrified now to the extent of having a Cultural Quarter. Anyway, at £35 a session for all you can drink from around 30 of the country’s best and most interesting brewers, I highly recommend this one.

And now it turns out we don’t even have to wait until February, as there’s January events popping up. The most worthy, and one I’m looking forward to, is another charity event – this time an ad-hoc one to raise funds towards the dreadful Australian bushfire crisis. Called Help A Mate, it’s on Saturday 25th January (with horrible irony, or perhaps Aussie black humour, this is also Burns Night) at Pressure Drop’s brewery in Tottenham. Several other breweries have already donated beers for the event, and there’s also going to be a raffle with an impressive list of donated prizes.

Saturday, 16 November 2019

Changing your Signature

It's all change at London's Signature Brew following an oversubscribed crowdfunding campaign last year - new brewery and taproom, new logo and cans, and even a few new brews - new to me, at least.

The launch party at the new site is taking place this weekend, and there’s lots of shiny stainless steel on show. Given the brewery's history of collaborating with bands to create one-off beers, of course there's quite a bit of live music too.

There’s already a Signature Taproom in Haggerston, London E8, so the new site’s drinking space is instead called The Brewer’s Bar. For this weekend’s launch there’s also tables and benches in the yard outside and on the open area in the brewery proper - I’m told these will also be out once the Brewer’s Bar is open regularly, which is set to be Friday/Saturday evenings and Saturday/Sunday afternoons. At this time of year, the open areas are a tad chilly, but the bar itself is enclosed and warm!

Inside the bar there’s various mementos on the wall of the brewery’s history and its musical collaborations, from its origins in 2012 when it contract-brewed, to 2015 when they got their own brewkit, which they outgrew within four years.

I had a chat with Chris, one of the assistant brewers, who filled me in on some of the changes. Although the actual ‘brew length’ hasn’t changed massively - the new brewkit is 32hl (20 barrels) where the older was 24hl - the new one is much more modern. In place of a manual two-vessel system, they now have a four-vessel system with lauter tun and whirlpool, so brewing is easier and faster.

Alongside a set of 32hl fermenters, they also now have six 120hl (75 barrel) fermenters for core beers such as Roadie, Backstage IPA and Studio Lager - big enough to get three brews into each. They’re currently brewing three days a week, two or three times a day. One of the advantages of upsizing your brewkit is quite simply that you can produce more beer in a shorter time and with less effort!

The venue is family-friendly, too!
As for the beers, as I discovered when I first met them they’re quality brews. Alongside the regulars I found an excellent 3% hoppy modern bitter - they badge this as a Table Beer, but to my mind it’s more of a Pale Ale ‘light’, a gorgeous Bretted lager (sadly a very limited production run), and a modernist Farmhouse/Saison.

Then there’s the collaboration they did for the recent Brewdog Collabfest, which aims to cram a cream tea, complete with cucumber sandwiches, Earl Grey, scones and raspberry jam, into a hazy IPA. It sounds ghastly, but it’s actually complex and fascinating. They also have a cask containing some of the very last of their original Anthology 10% Imperial Stout, now two years old and tasting quite gorgeous.

Technically the weekend event is ticket-only, but I’m told there should be room for some extra visitors if you’re looking for things to do tomorrow! It’s an easy walk from Blackhorse Road station. Also in the area are the Wild Card brewery, although sadly that’s not open tomorrow, and the intended site of Exale Brewing, which is the new project - again, crowdfunded - from the former Hale Brewing team. Ex-Hale, yeah…

Many thanks to the Signature crew for inviting me over - cheers!

Wednesday, 13 November 2019

Charity beer festival goes London-wide

The popularity of Craft Beer Cares, the volunteer-run Hackney beer festival where all the beer is donated and the profits go to charity,  has struck a chord with the London Brewers Alliance (LBA) and the Society of independent Brewers (SIBA). The three organisations are collaborating to run a new charity festival next February near King’s Cross, called Love Beer London

The aim is to get as many as possible of London’s 100+ breweries taking part and donating keg beer. The proceeds will go to The Benevolent, which is the drinks industry’s own charity, supporting needy current and former employees and their families.

Taking over as festival organiser is Jaega Wise, who is head brewer at LBA member Wild Card Brewery and also an elected SIBA rep. “With Love Beer London we are bringing together all of the best breweries from across London and the South East into one huge new beer festival, serving a broad range of beer styles of the highest quality in an amazing event space just behind King’s Cross station,” she declared.

“It’s the first time that SIBA have partnered with the London Brewers Alliance and we’re hugely excited about the broad range of craft breweries and beer styles that will feature at the festival, so as well as modern hop-forward IPAs and Pale Ales there will be lots of traditional bitters, porters and stronger English ales, as well as speciality and mixed-fermentation beers. It genuinely will have something for everybody.”

The festival will run across five sessions, with the first on the evening of Thursday 13th Feb and the last on the evening of Sat 15th Feb. It’s actually in Barnsbury, but King’s Cross isn’t far.

The one thing that I’m a bit surprised by is that the tickets, at £12 per session, include a glass but no beer tokens – the beer prices are the same, as £2 a half for most and £3 for some, but the Craft Beer Cares tickets included your first £10-worth of beer tokens. Now, I know the latter were a bit too cheap, but jumping straight to GBBF-level pricing seems a tad steep. Then again, maybe it’ll work, even if getting there means hacking out to the vicinity of Pentonville prison!

Anyhow, it’s all in a good cause. To find out more and buy tickets, visit the event website.

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.