Saturday, 18 August 2018

Drinking the world in London

3.5% is the strongest you can get in a
Swedish supermarket
Late July and early August are busy times for the London beer scene. The proximity of the London Craft Beer Festival (which I hear went very well this year) and the Great British Beer Festival gives bars and pubs around the city reason to hold all sorts of other events in parallel, such as mini festivals, tap-takeovers and meet-the-brewer sessions.

However, late July and August is also when the schools are closed for the summer, which means that many of us are out of town on family holidays. On the plus side, the holidays did enable a bit of beer shopping in foreign parts. Only in Systembolaget (the Swedish state alcohol monopoly shops) and in various German, Danish and Swedish supermarkets, but all of those carry pretty good beer ranges now – I even scored a bottle of the stonkingly good Limfjords Porter in Danish Lidl, of all places – so it was a nice change.

Anyway, it's why I only managed to get to two of those London beer events, or two-and-a-half if you count catching the last couple of hours of the Beer Writers Guild pre-GBBF summer get-together. I missed the speeches and brewery tours at the latter, as it took me that long to get there from Heathrow airport – it was hosted at Heineken's very shiny new Brixton Brewery site in the wilds of Herne Hill. But the company and the food were good, and some of the beer was excellent.

Among the stand-outs were Renegade India Session Ale, from the craft arm of West Berkshire Brewery, and two Americans, namely 2x4, which is Wyoming-based Melvin Brewing's massively hoppy yet smooth and rich Double IPA, and Hardywood's Singel from Virginia. The latter is in the style of a Belgian blond ale, and is lovely and spicy-estery. The name's a silly joke, though. The idea being it's below Dubbel and Tripel, hence 'Singel' – but Belgians don't call them that. It's not even a Dutch/Flemish word – the translation of single would be Enkel.

Next up: Cask goes Continental at GBBF

Saturday, 14 July 2018

Can cask ale avoid retreating into a corner?

I spent a pleasant hour or two last week with the folks from London's Moncada Brewery, formerly of Notting Hill and now of Dollis Hill (near Brent Cross in North London). They were holding a Meet-the-Brewer session at the George IV pub in Chiswick.

It's part of a guest-residency project Fuller's is running in a dozen or so of its flagship pubs with various other members of the London Brewers Alliance. Each month, Fuller's commissions two cask ales from another brewery – as far as I can make out, some are new brews, some are cask versions of existing non-cask beers, and others are regular cask beers. During its month, the brewer is also invited to visit those pubs with some extra beers in bottle or can.

The Moncada team at the George IV
So tonight we had Notting Hill Pale on cask, alongside Verano which is the new name for Moncada's summer ale – Verano is Spanish for summer. Brewers Angelo and Karl had brought along tall cans of two more beers. One was Mandarina Blonde, which is a version of the regular blonde ale single-hopped with, yes, Mandarina Bavaria. The other was a special version of Verano with two main changes – it too features Mandarina Bavaria in its hop blend, and it was fermented with a mixture including New England yeast.

What I didn't expect was that the mandarin notes would be more obvious in the mixed-hop beer than the single-hopped one. It's probably something to do with how the other hops combine to lift the flavours, suggested head brewer Angelo.

Needless to say, the cask beer at the George IV was in great condition, but one of the Moncada team, assistant brewer Karl, mentioned that they're winding back on cask and will produce it only for pre-sale in the future. The problem – despite all those seminars and training projects and cask ale reports and so on – is that too many publicans still can't look after real ale properly, and when they get it wrong it's often the brewer who unfairly gets the blame.

"How they treat our casks…" mused Angelo. "We delivered cask to one place in the morning, that afternoon we got a phone call: 'It's cloudy, I can't sell this!' It needs 48 hours to settle – no, they can't do that."

It's a story anyone in the trade has probably heard several times before, in one form or another. It's why some brewers have abandoned cask altogether, while others have told me they now sell it only to outlets they know and trust. And then there are those who are doing more and more brewery-conditioning of their cask ales – it's not a perfect solution, but it's an understandable one.

What does this all mean for the future of real ale – will it become a niche thing? Should it become a niche thing? Is the future 'fake cask', still real but with little left for the cellar manager to do? Let me know what you think, please.

Friday, 29 June 2018

London Brewers flourish in the midsummer sun

The queue, 2 min after opening
Last Saturday's London Brewers Alliance beer festival, in the brewery yard at Fuller's of Chiswick, was the best beer festival I've been to in a long while. Forty London brewers there – and I mean brewers, as it was a chance to meet the people who make the stuff – from breweries of all sizes and many ages, from recent 200-litre start-ups to well-established London regionals, all pouring their own beers in the hot midsummer sunshine.

Add in superb organisation by the Fuller's and LBA team led by John Keeling, who is both LBA chairman and director of brewing at Fuller's, and the LBA's John Cryne, and the day was complete: Plenty of bars (40 of them!) and all of the same size regardless of the brewery, plenty of tables and benches, supplies of drinking water, and of course plenty of portaloos – although quite how they also wangled the gorgeous weather I'm not sure!

It was only after John Keeling briefly stopped by our table, looking a little tired but sounding immensely relieved – "Everything arrived late, but we still opened on time," he declared – that I realised what an achievement this had been. Despite the quiet of a Saturday afternoon and the rustic charm of its old buildings, clad in historic Wisteria, during the week Fuller's is a working industrial site.

That means the festival build can't have started in earnest until after the brewery shut down on Friday afternoon, and after the Friday evening traffic on the Hogarth Roundabout had subsided. Indeed, David Scott of Kew Brewery said on Twitter that he was the first to deliver beer, at around 7pm.

Given that, it's no wonder that the vast majority of the beer was in keg form. Breweries were limited to two keg taps each, although some also brought cans and bottles, and a few – including the hosts – also had cask beer on a stillage in what I think of as the carriage house, opposite the brewery's reception office (it's the building straight ahead in the queue photo above).

I went with the intention simply of enjoying the beer, the sunshine and the company. Somehow though, old instincts were impossible to shake off and I found myself making notes as I chatted with brewers I'd not met before. Here's a few of the snippets I picked up…

Some of my beer-friends hadn't encountered ORA Brewing before, so wanted to find their bar. When eventually we did find it, I realised I'd been intrigued by their Balsamic milk stout before – so I asked for some more! Turns out ORA started as a homebrewery in a garage in Modena, Italy, but moved to London six months ago. They're brewing at UBrew in Bermondsey while they look for their own site.

Pietro said the Balsamic has 8g per litre of Modena barrel-aged balsamic vinegar – he's at pains to point out that this isn't the more acidic vinegar we're used to here, but a thick, sour-sweet and caramelly sauce that goes well with desserts and even ice cream. It explains both some of the creamy chocolate character in the stout and the faint tartness that I noticed when I first had the beer, which made me wonder then if it had been vat-aged.

Jeffersons Brewery I'd read about briefly in London Drinker, and I was curious because even though I'd not seen their beer before, it turns out they're more or less local to me, over the river in Barnes. It's just a 200-litre nanobrewery for now, run by the Jefferies brothers – I talked with George. It was great to hear from him that everything they do is real ale, even the kegs and cans – the Across the Pond session IPA was certainly in good form.

Somewhat unusually – several others I spoke to at the festival mentioned using mobile canners, such as Them That Can – Jeffersongs do their own canning on a small can-seamer (sealer). George had good news and bad – they're upgrading to an eight-barrel plant, but can't find a brewery site anywhere around Barnes. They don't want to go far though – "We will probably end up in Putney or Wandsworth," he said.

There were a few breweries that were completely new to me. One was Neckstamper Brewing, set up two years ago and now producing some fine IPAs – I tried both the Elbow Crooker Session IPA and the Mizzle New England IPA. "It's me all on my own, trying to balance brewing and selling," said brewer Adam Jefferies (yes, another one!). He now has a Saturday taproom open as well – had we known, we could possibly have added it to the other week's brewery crawl. "We're not far up the river walk from Beavertown and Pressure Drop," he said.

Two Tribes is a brewery name I knew, but without any idea where they were from. Turns out it's mostly based in Horsham, where it grew out of King Beer (and before that WJ King) and still has the 25-barrel commercial brewery. However, it also acquired a brewery site in Kings Cross not long ago for its taproom and experimental brews, and this now seems to be its HQ. On tap were Non Binary, a passionfruit Gose, and To The Bone, a Vienna lager, both of which were decent. 

Lastly for now, Spartan Brewery I visited on my last trip to Bermondsey, but at that point it was an almosth-empty railway arch. They've now got their brewkit in, and as brewer Colin proudly told me, "We did our first brew two weeks ago." He was also making a bid for the freshest beer at the festival, as it has only been kegged at 5pm the previous afternoon!

Well, that's all the ones that were new (or mostly new) to me; there were of course about three dozen more, many of whom I also paid a drinking visit to...

Monday, 18 June 2018

Can Tottenham become the new Bermondsey?

There's now at least seven breweries around the Tottenham area of north London, which if I remember rightly is more than there were on the original Bermondsey Beer Mile. So when I heard that the local CAMRA branch there was organising its "4th Annual Tottenham Real Ale Revival Crawl" last Saturday, I was intrigued – was Tottenham becoming the new Bermondsey? And for real ale?!

Well, not quite. For a start, Redemption doesn't have a brewery bar open on Saturdays, and One Mile End doesn't even have room for a brewery taproom, or so I'm told. Still, a five-brewery crawl is not to be sniffed at!

Our designated starting point was Five Miles, which is also the home of Hale Brewing. The brewery is housed in two shipping containers in the yard (left) and uses the former Affinity brewkit, Affinity having upgraded and moved to, yes, Bermondsey. As well as being the brewery tap with four Hale beers on tap, Five Miles is a beer bar in its own right – among the others on tap (below) during on our visit were beers from Magic Rock, Mikkeller (Denmark), Oedipus (Netherlands) and Schremser (Germany).

What there wasn't was any cask ale – or at least, nothing on handpump. This was to be a feature of the whole crawl, although of course some of the draught beers we encountered may very well have been keg-conditioned real ale. You might think this a bit odd for a CAMRA event, but I assure you it's not – not for London CAMRA, anyway. I think we're a pretty open bunch on average – good beer is good beer, although being cask or keg-conditioned generally makes it better still!

Anyhow, the Hale beers I tried – a fruited Berliner Weisse called Tropipisch and a fruity-hoppy pale ale – were pretty decent, and the bar is nice too. It's a little out of the way, mixed in among industrial units some 15 minutes walk from Seven Sisters tube, but that too as we'll see was to be a feature of the afternoon…

Join the crowd

Because it was another 15-20 minutes walk to our next destination, Beavertown, which is also mixed in amongst industrial units. This of course is the keystone brewery for the area, and was correspondingly crowded. It's cards-only at the bar and the queue can be pretty long, but once you get there, then as well as Beavertown's own excellent products there's usually at least a couple of collaboration brews. On our visit they had on tap both the De la Senne collab Brattish, and the stonking 14.5% Heavy Lord quadruple stout brewed with Three Floyds.

It's a nice place with a friendly crowd and great beer, helped by the early afternoon sunshine. I was happy enough though to move away from the throng (left), especially as we were only going around the corner on the same industrial estate – our next destination was Pressure Drop which recently moved in from Hackney (as an aside, it's just agreed to reopen its old brewery site there as a joint taproom with Verdant).

Pressure Drop's unit is less crowded – for now! – and feels more relaxed. Its beer range is well crafted but isn't as envelope-pushing or as broad as Beavertown's. Somewhat stereotypically for craft beer, there were several IPAs available, for instance, including multiple examples of New England IPA. To be fair though, the two NEIPAs I tried were notably different from each other.

A neat move on Pressure Drop's part is that the bottle bar is also where you get your glass deposit refunded, and you get the option of swapping it instead for a bottle – there's several beers here that aren't on the main draught bar.

From here it was on again, with the realisation of just how amazingly many small industrial estates there are in this part of London. That's because I and another chap, having been left behind by the main party, headed in the right direction up what looked like a road, only to discover it was actually the entrance to a small estate – and it was the only entrance. So we ended up having to walk more or less in a complete circle to get out again, and then backtrack to find a parallel proper route. Sigh.

Still, and few twists and turns, and a walk through a rather nice semi-wild green space, and we found ourselves entering yet another nondescript small industrial estate. Luckily I recognised the logo on one of the buildings as that of Brewheadz, our next destination, and yes, there were a couple of long tables outside. Apart from our group, it was pretty quiet – one member of staff and a handful of customers. It's a bit off the beaten track, I fear!

Brewheadz is operated by Italians, and its beers are eclectic – some classics such as their IPAs and Pales, and a medal-winning Porter, a series of fruited sours and a few outliers such as Attila the Nun, a Tiramisu white stout. I tried tart-sweet Drowning Mango, a slightly thin fruited sour that also has yogurt in(!), although I couldn't detect it, and Pineapple Wannabe, a pina colada porter which worked surprisingly well (left).

What do you mean, you lost the Czech?

Then it was off to the fifth and final destination: the Czech-inspired and operated Bohem Brewery which was having the opening party for its brewery taproom. I was lagging a bit again, and while the others sought a bus I decided to walk there with the aid of Mr Google and his map. The mistake, of course, was in letting the map guide me to where it thought the brewery was, instead of telling it the street address. Once again, I found myself walking a loop around a small, dead-end, industrial estate where everything was closed for the weekend. The brewery probably really was down at the end of it like the map claimed – just on the other side of that three metre high fence.

Still, I got there eventually. I subsequently learnt that although it looks to be in the middle of nowhere, on a dusty estate decorated with rotting old cars, this will change. It is very close both to the Redemption and One Mile End breweries, and to the site of the new Tottenham Hotspur soccer stadium. Indeed, I hear that there is a proposal for the three to open a joint brewery tap on match days, using the Bohem building as the others are more limited on space.

As promised, the Bohem beers are all Czech-inspired, with the possible exception of Druid (right), which began as a dry Stout before being converted to bottom-fermentation and becoming a sort of Baltic Stout-cum-Schwarzbier. I liked it a lot, but others weren't so sure, it being too burnt and ashy for them.

This being the final stop, and with the opening party being very much in full 'flow', we managed to get through every beer on the menu at least twice. Other than the Druid, my favourite was Vasco,  the 7.4% Double IPL – smooth, caramel-fruity and dry-bitter – followed by honey lager Henry, hopped-up Thor and amber lager Sparta. The 'only' two that didn't impress me were Victoria the session Pils, which lacked depth, and the Raleigh rauchbier which lacked, well, rauch!

All in all, a very pleasant way to spend an afternoon, and many thanks to Ian MacLaren of North London CAMRA for planning it. And it certainly wasn't his fault that getting home afterwards was a whole other adventure in itself, involving night buses and the night-tube – that was more to do with the magic never-emptying beer glass which meant I'd stayed slightly longer at Bohem than I'd expected to. Oops.
🤣

Monday, 11 June 2018

Fuller's brewery shop is much refreshed

When Fuller's brewery shop closed a few weeks ago for refurbishment, I wondered what it might open as. Would they go full-on craft beer store, with beers from their friends and so on, or would it just be a paint-job and some new furniture? So when I saw on Twitter that it was reopening today, I jumped on my bike to have a look.
It doesn't look that different from the outside at first - it's been a sunny day, so the inside looks a bit gloomy. However, if you peer closely you can make out the first change - it has expanded inside to the right of the main entrance, into the space behind the old door labelled The General Store.

This space is the new wine shop, looking much expanded and also housing both the glassware and souvenirs.

Behind the doors at the back is a space fitted with a boardroom-type large table and a big screen. Its curved wooden walls are to put you in mind of yes, a Tun Room, as it says on the doors, and it is a meeting venue that'll be available for hire.

At the front by the windows, there's a fridge with assorted beer-infused food items, from cheese and sausages to sticky toffee pudding!

Back in the main space, almost the whole of one wall is now bottle and can fridges. The desk at the left (where there's also a blackboard for events listings - key ones to watch out for are the London Brewers Alliance beer festival in the brewery yard on Saturday 23rd June, and the Fuller's brewery open day on Saturday 2nd September) is the meeting point for brewery tours.

In the fridges, it's mainly products from the Fuller's family, so that includes some Dark Star bottles, Cornish Orchards ciders, plus some of the others that Fuller's distributes - that's bottles from Sierra Nevada and Chimay. Being able to sell these all in cooled form will please many, I'm sure.

Opposite that is, to some surprise given that the Mawson's Arms is just a few doors away, is a bar, featuring four handpumps and several keg taps! There's no glasses though, and you can't drink here - it's just for filling growlers. There's even a special machine to flush the growler (which is basically a large screwtop bottle) and if keg, to add a bit of pressure after filling.

Here's Paul, the general manager, demonstrating the filler (right). Apparently the new shop is going to be the centrepiece of Experience the Works, the new Fuller's "visitor experience".

A word on the growlers - these reusable take-away flasks are an idea that's hugely popular in the US, which may be why the Fuller's ones are the somewhat unusual size of a tad over 3.5 pints. Sharp readers will have guessed that's because they are actually half a US gallon. Anyway, an empty growler is £12 and then fills and refills are in the vicinity of £8, depending on the beer.

But it's at the back of the shop, past the bar, that you can see the pièce de résistance: Fuller's long-anticipated pilot brewery, all gleaming steel - and yes, fitters in fluorescent waistcoats, as by the look of it, it's not quite finished yet...
As you might expect, the plan is to use this both for trial brews and for short-run and special release beers - there's already at least one Twitter thread asking for suggestions. I know the brewers are very much looking forward to getting their hands on the new brewkit - and I'm looking forward to getting my hands on the results!

Monday, 4 June 2018

A Goose on the Thames

2018 is Goose Island's 30th anniversary, and last week, Fuller's – which was a major inspiration in the Chicago brewery's founding – threw its young cousin a birthday party in London. Pride of place went to the 30th Anniversary Ale, a 5.9% collaboration brew based on Fuller's original ESB recipe, but with modern and experimental US hop varieties.

It's a beer that's been available in the US since early May, but not here – kegs were brought over specially for the party at The Hydrant, a Fuller's pub named for its location next to the Monument to the Great Fire of London. Also getting a relatively rare draught outing there was Fuller's 2017 Vintage Ale in cask, so I'm afraid my first question for Goose Island president and general manager Ken Stout was: how come the Anniversary Ale isn't in cask too?

"We do quite a few cask beers, but the only place we serve them is in our own brewery tap," he said. He explained that it's the same problem so many British craft brewers have with cask beer – you're totally reliant on the skills, or lack of them, of the pub cellar manager.
The Anniversary Ale, very nice with a sossie!

I'd just come from a CAMRA meeting where those who couldn't get to the recent AGM (where votes were taken on adjusting CAMRA's aims to widen its campaigning remit and educational coverage) could hear and discuss reports from delegates who were there. So Ken and I went on to talk about why there's still this perceived divide between cask and keg – he's a big fan of British cask ale.

He loves classic Bavarian beer too, so we also talked about what's going on with German craft beer (with almost everyone now making Pale Ale and/or IPA, German and even Bavarian PA/IPA have emerged as genuine substyles, but the aficionados and beergeeks have moved on to Porters and Stouts, preferably barrel-aged Imperial ones…); about Franconian Ungespundet which is Germany's equivalent of cask-conditioning; and about Goose's collaboration with fellow AB-InBev property Spaten last year. The resulting Keller-Märzen was served at the Goose Island London Block Party last September, and like the party it was excellent.

It got me thinking: here's two macro-owned breweries, but they're still making great beer, and they seem to be getting nothing but help and support from their owners. Is this, and not the dumbing-down that many assume will follow when you 'sell out to big beer', the real threat from macrobrewers buying into craft? That the result will be too good – or at least, plenty good enough – and too well resourced for others to compete? I'm going to have to think (and write) some more about this…

Ken also introduced me to Andrew Walton, the newly appointed head brewer for Goose's Shoreditch brewpub, which is due to open in September – there's already brewpubs in Toronto, Seoul and Shanghai, as well as the original one in Chicago of course, and we're next. Andrew is from Canada, but has spent the last couple of years brewing in London, at Fourpure.

Samples of Belgian-brewed Midway are air-freighted back to Chicago so they can be tasted for consistency with the US version. If there's one thing companies like AB-InBev understand and can help their craft brewers with, it's expertise in quality and consistency management. Interesting times, eh?

Friday, 1 June 2018

The rarity that is draught unblended Lambic

Well, I was wrong last week – this weekend's Ales Tales Belgian beer festival does indeed feature Lambic beer on draught. It's an unblended Lambic from Belgoo Beer, a 10 year-old brewery which five years ago moved to the Senne Valley, part of the only area where you can legally use the Lambic name.

And as brewer Jo Van Aert gently reminded me, there's not many breweries that serve an actual Lambic – although there's a dozen or so producing traditional Lambic beer, most blend it into Gueuze or referment it with cherries as Kriek. (There's also several varieties of those for sale at Ales Tales on the bottled beer stand.)

Jo added that while he does export his regular beers, which include a Saison and several Belgian Blonds, "We only sell our Lambic – a blend of one and two year-old beers – in Belgium as we can't produce enough for export."

He confirmed that, despite its sour beers being highly fashionable world-wide, they are still a very regional taste in Belgium itself. "We do see a lot of fancy restaurants picking up Lambics though, because you can do some very interesting food pairings with them."

Belgoo's Lambic is fermented in 400 litre barrels, which Jo said "gives enough contact with the wood, it's a good balance." The resulting 5% beer is tart with notes of lemon juice, dry-sweet and lightly spritzy, and cleanly refreshing. 

The one drawback to adding Lambic to a 'regular' range of beers is of course that you can't mix the two. Belgoo has to have two completely separate brewing and packaging lines, with the minor consolation that Lambic is OK with a simpler bottling line. As Jo said, "A little bit of oxygen can ruin normal beer, but not Lambic!"

The public sessions will be busier!
If you want to sample it – and around 75 other gorgeous brews – Ales Tales has afternoon and evening sessions tomorrow (Saturday 2nd), and there's still tickets available. It's a nice straightforward festival – simply decorated bars, most with four beers on tap, and mostly staffed by the breweries themselves, so you can learn more if you want to.