Thursday, 20 September 2018

What's so special about £12.50?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 23 August 2018

Charity beer fest Craft Beer Cares is back

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tickets for Craft Beer Cares are available via Eventbrite.

Tuesday, 21 August 2018

Franconia comes to London

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 19 August 2018

Cask goes Continental at GBBF

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

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

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

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

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

Next: Franconia comes to London

Saturday, 18 August 2018

Drinking the world from 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...