Monday, 15 June 2015

Fourpure pushes the boat out

The evolution and growth of new London microbrewery Fourpure over the last two or three years has been little short of astonishing. Set up as an avowedly keg-only brewery with a small range of typical 'craft beer' styles to target restaurants and the like, it has rapidly pivoted not only to produce a wider core range but also the regular specials and seasonals loved by an increasingly innovation-hungry market. And while it still doesn't do cask ale, it was one of the first in the country to adopt microcanning technology, scoring a notable win very recently when Marks & Spencer added two Fourpure canned beers to its range.

Why was my Pale Ale leaning?!
When I visited the brewery two months ago, it was a far cry from the near-empty shed I recall from my first visit  back in 2013. What little space wasn't filled with brewing and canning gear was heaving with people, enjoying both the two excellent specials being launched that day, a saisonbiere called French Farmhouse and a coffee-infused pale ale called Morning Moon, and the regular beers.

So when the invitation arrived to the launch of two more new Fourpure beers, I knew I wanted to be there. We weren't at the brewery this time but at Mother Kelly's, a relatively new and very popular (except with real ale stalwarts, as it's keg and bottle-only) bar in increasingly hipster Bethnal Green. It has to be said this is a lot more accessible than the brewery, which is on an industrial site at the far end of the Bermondsey beer mile, invisible and not signposted from the road, so unless you know where you're going you won't find it easily.

The new beers this time were a draught American-style wheat ale called Skyliner, a dry-hopped version of Fourpure's well-regarded (and canned) Pils, and a semi-secret second draught beer, a 3.7% sour ale called Hoptart.

I went for the Hoptart first, finding it refreshing and cleansing, and rather like a hoppier than average Berliner Weisse. Head brewer John Driebergen conceded the latter, adding though that he while was "borrowing Berliner Weisse techniques, I'm not making a Berliner Weisse. Other aspects of it are borrowed from Session IPA, British golden ale, and so on.”

Fourpure's Hoptart
The recipe also needed to fit in with Fourpure's other brews: it was kettle-soured before boiling, so no extra microflora entered the fermentation vessels. This might give a less complex result (my words, based on Ron Pattinson's research and other stuff I've read around Berliner Weisse, not John's) but it keeps the brewery clean!

"Why not do something sessionable that's also sour? Sour beer is only going to grow," John said. "My one worry is that people jump on the sour bandwagon and send beer out that isn't ready and without knowing what microorganisms are still alive in it - those things can live anywhere, including the beer lines."

Moving on, I was expecting Skyliner to resemble the hopped-up Weizens that the Germans call Hopfenweisse, but this lacked all those fruity and spicy Hefeweizen notes. Instead it offered some grass and lemon and a bit of a grainy note, followed by an astringent bitterness that overpowered the rest. Not really my thing!

To my surprise, the star of the three was the dry-hopped Pils. I'm used to Pilsners being samey and/or relatively one-dimensional, so I rarely seek out the style, but this one was right up there with the best of the new-wave German Hopfenstopfer lagers. Pleasant leafy and herbal aromas lead you into a malty and lightly bready body, with grassy and citrus hops and a firm yet balanced crisp bitterness.

Fourpure is now brewing up to eight times a week – it has a 20-barrel kit and eight fermenting vessels – and whatever it brews is already half-sold, John told me. Indeed, where two years ago I marvelled at how much empty space they had, they now need more room.

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Something's brewing in Highbury

London's newest brewpub opened last week. The Brewhouse & Kitchen Highbury is a sibling to the B&K Islington, and it too returns to the city a lost brewery: in this case the brewing kit was formerly in the Lamb in Chiswick.

The Highbury pub was previously The Junction and The Tramshed, and as those names imply it was once the terminus of the Highbury to Aldwych tram line. You would hardly know that now,  though – sure, it is long, but floors have apparently been inserted above and below the current public area. (Check out the iron roof columns, which appear to run through the wooden floor, with no column bases visible.)

On our visit, which was officially a preview for the new format, the pub had just reopened after a six-week refit. The brewkit had not yet been connected up, but it should be up and brewing now in the hands of Pete Hughes who has moved up from B&K Islington. The ales were still flowing for the preview though, Pete having brewed six of the recipes designed for Highbury on his other brewkit, and the kitchen was open too, serving excellent bar snacks.

It's undoubtedly an attractive venue, done up in a sort of industrial chic style, with a long side bar, a decent sized terrace out front, and a more open space inside at the back, in front of the brewkit. Talking of which, I hope Pete has more fermenters somewhere, as I didn't see enough!

The beers we tried were good, although a couple seemed a bit thin and might benefit from a little more development. I'm sure this will sort out with time and more brews. As elsewhere, the beer names are locally themed, several for the nearby Highbury football ground but others for historic local residents.

Best of the lot for me were the Illustrator Black IPA, named for Charles Dickens' illustrator, who was local, and the No.19 Brown Porter, named for the nearby bus route, but the Goalscorer Session IPA also scored well.

As well as eight handpumps there's a bunch of keg fonts, currently mostly for foreign non-micro lagers as far as I could see, but I know they plan to brew lagers on-site too. B&K also carries a decent range of bottled beers. I used to live just up the road a few decades ago, and my, how the area has changed. But if I lived there still, I could well imagine this place being one of my top locals.

As a bit of background, the B&K story is an interesting one: the company was formed by Simon Bunn and Kris Gumbrell, two of the directors of Convivial, a small pubco which ran several London pubs, including two gastro-brewpubs, most notably the Botanist on Kew Green which pioneered the format under its then manager Mark Wainwright.

While Convivial sold out to M&B, which promptly ripped out the breweries, Kris, Simon and Mark had other ideas: they wanted to take the gastro-brewpub concept and grow it outside London. They now have half a dozen sites around southern England, with the most recent being Bristol (where I believe Mark is now brewing) and Highbury. I hope this will shows a triumph of long-term vision over short-term expedience and greed; time will tell.

Will there be more in London? Simon was a little pessimistic when I asked: "Brewpubs are the future, but it's hard to get good sites at a reasonable price in London, which is why we've done more expansion on the South Coast," he said, adding that the next planned openings are two sites in the Bournemouth area.

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

American drinkers take up a British interpretation of American craft beer

If you've been in a Marston's pub* lately, you may well have seen a keg font offering a rather nice American-style Pale Ale from Shipyard Brewing Co of Portland, Maine, in the US. You might even have thought it was an American import, but it's not – it is brewed by Marston's to a recipe that Shipyard devised specifically to suit British tastes.

And in a coals to Newcastle twist, that same beer is now being brewed by Shipyard too in the US – a British version of an American beer style, brewed for the American market.

The tale, as told to me by Marston's brewmaster Simon Yates (apologies to him for any bits I've misremembered!), started in the 1980s with brewer Alan Pugsley working at Peter Austin's Ringwood Brewery, now owned of course by Marston's. Alan moved to the US to build breweries, and then in 1994 opened his own – Shipyard. Hankering after the British ales he'd helped brew, he asked to brew one of them under licence for the US market, namely Ringwood's Old Thumper. In return came Ringwood's Boondoggle summer ale, "originally brewed at Shipyard while visiting," says Simon.

Fast forward a few years to 2012, and the relationship between Shipyard and Ringwood/Marston's continues, with Alan visiting to brew a guest cask beer at Ringwood, called Shipyard Independence Pale Ale. It had a big citrus nose, and was dry-hopped with Chinook, Cascade, Columbus and Centennial, all of them American.

This was pretty popular as a guest, and it had become obvious that there's a good market for American-style Pale Ales and IPAs in the UK, so Simon and the Marston's crew asked Alan to help them create a suitable keg beer too. "The Pale Ale was a mash-up between Shipyard and Marston's," explains Simon. They tweaked Independence and did test brews, one was chosen, and it launched on keg as Shipyard American Pale Ale in May 2013, still with those same four American C-hops.

The Shipyard guys never planned to brew it in the US – the recipe was created for Britain. But then session beers (which for the US means about 4.5% alcohol or less!) took off there, so they took the Marston's recipe and brewed it themselves. It launched there last year, and is now causing confusion right across the beer ticking world, with drinkers unable to work out which one they're drinking. What jolly fun, eh?

*Or even some Wetherspoons - I saw it last week in the White Swan, Highbury Corner. 

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Bloody grapefruit beers!

A passing reference by The Beer Nut to a Polish grapefruit-Weizen Radler reminded me that this is also one of the fastest growing beer-mixes in Germany. The best-known, and probably the best-seller, is almost certainly Schöfferhofer Grapefruit, but pretty much every larger brewery now seems to do a grapefruit Radler – and yes, they all call it grapefruit rather than the older German name, pampelmuse.

Initially they were all 2.5% ABV mixes with Weizen/Weissbier, but now mixes with blond lagers are appearing too, as are 0% mixes made with non-alcoholic Weizen. And while they may be flat and watery with little noticeable beer character (hello Schöfferhofer!), I don't usually find them as offensively sweet as traditional lemonade Radlers and shandies can be.

Then I suddenly realised – grapefruit is also one of the aromas and flavours that's often associated with craft beer, to the extent that those who don't like modern citrus-hoppy pale ales and the like tend to disparage them as “bloody grapefruit beers”.

OK, in this case the grapefruit character is from the hops, usually (but not exclusively) US ones such as Cascade or Chinook, and the flavours are more grapefruit bitterness than sweetness. But the parallels are there.

And sure, you can see it with other citrus fruit too – lemon is a long-standing one of course, and I recently greatly enjoyed Beavertown's Bloody 'Ell, which is an IPA with blood oranges in the boil – but grapefruit is the one that's taken off with both the aficionados and the mass market.

So what is it about the characters of beer and grapefruit that make them go together so bizarrely well?!

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

A sideways-statewise look at American craft beer

Just a quickie, as I'm snowed under with (paid!) writing work this week/month. It's American Craft Beer Week, and the organisers have produced this occasionally amusing, occasionally weird infographic marking each US state's contribution to craft beer.

Click on the link above to open the interactive version, or click here to see or download a PDF version.

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Two things BrewDog's not short of: ambition and excellent beer

With BrewDog's trademark hyperbole it was trailed as “something f**king spectacular”, but to many people the news that the Scottish Brewery has kicked off a fourth round of its Equity for Punks crowd-funding scheme will look more like evolution than revolution.

What's different though is the scale and ambition: the company is this time aiming to raise £25 million, more than five times what it raised in its last investment round – and way more than the £2.5 million that Camden Town Brewery raised in its recent crowd-funding campaign. It may even be the biggest independent crowd-funding scheme in the world.

And by crowd-funding it circumvents the restrictions it fears would come with venture capital or a stockmarket listing. “It's so we can continue making beer that's stupidly expensive to make, so we can continue making beer that's hopped to hell,” said co-founder James Watt at the project's launch in BrewDog Shepherds Bush, to cheers from existing EFP investors.

Some of the investment will go to expand brewing capacity. Work is about to begin on a £3 million brewery that will quadruple production volumes, and BrewDog has identified the site it wants for its US brewery, in Columbus, Ohio.

Then there is the sour beer project. At the moment, all the beers go through Ellon, either the main brewery or the 10hl pilot brewery that replaced the old Fraserburgh site (they kept the latter open for a while after opening Ellon in order to have somewhere to do small-batch beers. It proved too awkward working on two sites though, so it was replaced by a new pilot plant at Ellon). Clearly it's not ideal having sours and non-sours sharing a brewkit, so the answer is a new sour beer facility with its own brewkit.

Also on the wish-list is a distillery. Although the super-strong beers such as End of History and Sink the Bismarck were technically freeze-distilled, I understand they were declared as beers – like Eisbocks, I suppose. A proper distillery will allow them to produce whiskies, gins and the like – there's already other British brewers doing this of course, most notably Adnams. “We could distil Jack Hammer and add botanicals for gin,” said James. “It's easier to get distilling licences now than it used to be, it's still not easy though!”

And new BrewDog bars are on the way, both in the UK (including a new flagship in London's Soho and a mega-bar/restaurant in Glasgow) and abroad. There's almost 30 already, with a dozen or so more on the way. As to the latter, if you look at the company's map, there's bars in northern Europe and in Spain and Italy, but nothing in between, and that will change. Among those due to open later this year are BrewDog Brussels and BrewDog Berlin – the latter has been rumoured locally for some time now, but the story was that they were having difficulty finding a suitable site. They've found a site (Ackerstrasse 28, in Mitte) so it's now a licensing issue.

The company also would like to open a craft beer hotel in Ellon, not least to service the many visitors to the brewery. I'm not convinced James will get his semi-serious wish of having Punk IPA on tap in every bedroom, but you never know.

On the surface, the shares look like a good bet. Brewdog claims to be Britain’s fastest-growing food and drinks brand, opening 27 bars worldwide since 2010, exporting to 55 countries and employing more than 360 staff, which is about 358 more than in 2007. It just announced its sixth consecutive year of record growth, having increased its annual turnover by 64% to over £29.6 million in 2014, compared with £18 million in 2013. It expects turnover to exceed £50 million this year.

However, rather than pay a dividend, it rewards shareholders with discounts and invitations to its AGM – which as far as I can tell from past reports is basically a big party in a brewery. Given that you need to invest a minimum of £95 (that gets you two shares), and that to get the maximum shareholder discount of 10% in bars and 20% online you have to invest quite a bit more, you're going to have to buy a few thousand quid's worth of BrewDog products to get a return on your investment. (Fans don't find that difficult, of course, and some early shareholders have already covered their investment this way.)

The share price also values the company at around 10 times its turnover and 100 times its annual profit, which is pretty expensive by stockmarket norms. (And BrewDog got into trouble with the UK Listing Authority, part of the Financial Conduct Authority, by mistakenly claiming that UKLA had “accredited” the scheme, whereas in fact it had merely approved the investment prospectus.)

But to many Punk investors, all that misses the point. They believe in the company, they wear BrewDog shirts and hats, they cheer at meetings when James and Martin speak, and of course they enjoy its beer – as well they should, because despite (or perhaps because of) all that expansion, it remains excellent.

Pilot brew 008, aka Whisky Sour
At the Equity for Punks IV launch, we were offered what co-founder Martin Dickie called a “deconstructed Whisky Sour cocktail”. He explained that it started as a lactic-soured barley wine, “so it's massively sour, a tiny batch, brewed with a good bit of crystal malt for that marshmallow sweetness.” It was then laced with lemon juice, lime juice, vanilla pods and “a tiny bit of cinnamon” before being aged on toasted oak chips. The murky amber-coloured result was bizarre yet delicious  – sour and tart, but with hints of wine and oaky vanilla.

Also excellent at the launch were BrewDog's seasonal Alice Porter, a version of its Paradox Imperial Stout aged in Compass Box whisky barrels which came out at 15%, and Shipwrecker Circus, a barley wine brewed in collaboration with US brewer Oskar Blues. The regular beers remain good too, such as 5am, Jack Hammer, and of course Punk IPA. You see the latter all over the place now, but that hasn't stopped it being a fine beer.

So where next for BrewDog's beers? More variety for sure – James noted that one advantage of EFP and craft beer's growth in general is that “it's easier to sell new small [product] lines, because the audience is already there.” And he dangled a tantalising hint that the company might even consider a return to the cask ale market that it loudly abandoned several years ago, now that craft cask is fashionable again. As he mused, “When we stopped doing cask, the beer market was very different from today.” Interesting times indeed.

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

What brings foreign brewers to work for Wetherspoons?

Earlier this year, craft brewers from around the world flew home after a week's brewing at some of Britain's oldest and most traditional real ale breweries. Last month, the fruits of their - unpaid! - handiwork went on sale at 950+ pubs around the country, as part of JD Wetherspoon's spring real ale festival.

And this was only the latest of several such collaborations, albeit one of the largest, with ten collaboration beers on offer this time. So what is it that attracts these successful brewers - all of them highly regarded at home, whether that's the USA, Australia, Spain or even Brazil – to come to the UK and brew cask ale for Wetherspoons? Especially when, while they get their travel paid for, they're otherwise working for free – it's a real busman's holiday.

Celebration time for the international guests at the Crosse Keys
Luckily, I had the chance to chat with many of those involved, both from abroad and their UK hosts, at a meet-the-brewers event hosted by Wetherspoons at its grand Crosse Keys pub in the City of London. For almost all the visitors, it was the opportunity to do something new and rather different, not least because many of them don't have any experience of brewing cask-conditioned beer.

“We do bottled-conditioning and kegs – cask beer is totally unknown in South Africa, it's a whole new experience,” said Brian Stewart of Shongweni Brewery, who brewed a cask version of his Durban Pale Ale at Batemans. “Some of the American brewers have gone back and started doing cask themselves. Others want UK exposure for possible future exports,” added Dave Aucutt of East-West Ales, who is the beer manager for Wetherspoons' real ale festivals (and is also the Dave pictured on the JDW Real Ale website).

Capacity counts

Then there are the volumes involved. To feature in a Wetherspoon's national festival, you need to be able to brew maybe 200 barrels of your beer. The guest brewers will typically have modern 10 or 20 barrel brewkits of their own, in gleaming stainless steel, so it is quite a thrill to come to a centuries-old family brewery with a capacity of maybe ten times that – and that leads on to the historical angle.

“It's a blast for them, brewing on older and more traditional plants,” said Simon Yates, assistant head brewer at Marston's. “It's the experience of doing something different, seeing a different brewery – we brewed with Hook Norton,” agreed Dave Edney of Australia's Mountain Goat Brewery, adding that you can't get much more historic than Hooky's Victorian tower brewery.

And of course there is Britain's world-class ale heritage more generally, which is way too easy for us Brits to forget, what with all the excitement over craft beers and so on. The fact is that all these brewers look to the British ale tradition for inspiration for at least some of their craft beers. For example, although Brian Stewart said that with South Africa being so hot, the main market is for “easy-drinking beers to watch cricket by”, and that he also brews German and American-inspired beers, his flagship Pale Ale is inspired by IPA dropped off at the Cape by ships on their way to India.

He added that he learnt a huge amount from working with Batemans head brewer Martin Cullimore. “Martin is like a walking encyclopædia on brewing and the technology,” he said. “I will take back a lot of understanding of the technology – he's a very good mentor.”

And what of working with Wetherspoons? After all, while many British beer fans love 'Spoons' for its championing of craft real ale (and now of craft beer in general) at affordable prices – it planned to sell three million pints over the 17 days of its real ale festival – others regard it with horror. To them it's a beery McDonald's, a corporate monster undercutting 'real pubs'.

Clearer vision

Perhaps with the clearer vision that comes from not being so close to the topic, the visitors I spoke with were uniformly enthusiastic. “You get an email saying 'Come to Britain and brew one of your ales to be sold in 950 pubs'! How could you resist that? Sure, there's US pub chains, but it's not the same,” said Tyler Brown, who brewed a version of his Barley Brown's ESA at Marston's.

He added that while exploring Britain he discovered just how varied Wetherspoons can be. “In Edinburgh we went to the Alexander Graham Bell and then to the Standing Order. They're the same company and they have the same menus, but they have an entirely different clientèle.”

The host brewers were enthusiastic about Spoons too, though for different reasons. “You don't make a lot of profit [selling to Wetherspoons], but it does make one and it helps with your volumes, which reduces your overall malt bill and so on,” said Martin Cullimore. It's also great for the visibility of both your brewery and your beer, added Adnams brewer and quality manager Belinda Jennings.

And they were just as enthusiastic about the overseas collaborations as their visitors were. “The first thing is it's enjoyable doing something a bit different,” said Simon Yates. “A lot [of the guests] are not formally trained brewers, what's great is their enthusiasm and passion – it's very invigorating,” added Martin Cullimore.

In addition, while the guests may learn about cask conditioning and brewing in volume, the hosts learn too. “They're often more adventurous with ingredients, for example we might never have thought of using pink peppercorns,” said Belinda Jennings. She added that they could even rebrew some of their collaborations themselves – with the guest's permission of course.

Collaboration or copy?

Talking of which. are they collaboration brews or are they really just cask versions of the guest's original beer? “Sometimes the aim is to recreate the original as closely as possible, for example when we did Harpoon IPA,” said Simon Yates. “Others are interpretations, maybe they're not as strong as at home so they're better suited to pints rather than 12oz measures, such as the Devils Backbone American IPA we brew at Banks's.”

The festival included St Patrick's Day
Much of the time though, it's effectively a new beer – even more so in this festival, because the overarching theme was that all 50 festival beers would be brewed using only British-grown hops (which in practice meant English hops, because so little is grown in Wales and Scotland). Apparently there's now 27 or 28 different hops grown in Britain, ranging from established varieties such as Fuggles and Goldings to newer ones like Archer, Boadicea and Jester, and even English-grown Cascade. The festival beers featured 24 of them, as not all could be sourced in sufficient quantities.

“The beer will be different – it's our existing recipe, but the water is different, the hops are different, and of course cask conditioning is not the same as brewery conditioning,” confirmed Brian Stewart. This also lead Dave Edney to articulate the one big regret shared by the guest brewers, who were already heading home several weeks before the festival ales would be ready to sell. “It's a pity we can't taste the beer – it's a different yeast and water so it won't be the same,” he said.

As mentioned, one of the reasons for pairing the guests with experienced cask ale brewers is to help them brew their recipes in this new-to-them way. Unfortunately, while this concept usually works well – sometimes startlingly well, as with the more recent Caledonian-brewed Nøgne Ø Asian Pale Ale, or the Adnams/Rogue Brutal IPA earlier this year – I'm not sure that it meshed with the spring festival's theme of British hops. Of the international brewers' beers I tried, a couple were pretty good but most were only so-so.

I think that the problem was they were being asked to use unfamiliar ingredients as well as different processes. So where normally the host brewer can help adapt their recipe as needed, this time they were in effect creating a new recipe. Plus there was no time for test brews, so if neither the host nor the guest had brewed a similar combination before, then it's all educated guesswork.

But all in all, it's a brilliant idea. The brewers get to share ideas and expertise, drinkers get some new and hopefully top-notch cask beers, and horizons are broadened all round. That to me is a very large part of what modern (craft, if you like) brewing is all about, and I thoroughly applaud Wetherspoons for supporting and encouraging it.