Monday, 24 December 2012

Golden Pints 2012

With 2012 in the Common Era almost over, I'm finally having a stab at the Golden Pints. This is a set of beery awards instituted by writers Andy Mogg and Mark Dredge; the idea is that anyone who wants to do so can offer their list, Mark then compiles a “best of” listing on his blog – I hope there will be an update to his initial posting here from 10th December!

The list starts with several standard categories, then we're free to add categories of our own as we wish – non-UK writers are invited to substitute their own location for “UK”; as I'm both, I'll add categories for Germany.

Best UK Draught Beer
1. Windsor & Eton Conqueror 1075 – all the Conqueror variants are superb, but I was lucky enough to catch the full-strength one on cask when it's normally only available in bottles. In bottle it's great, in cask and well-kept, it's stunning.
2. Thornbridge Bracia (Pedro Ximénez Aged) – I'm going to be strict here and only vote for beers I drank during 2012. This eliminates some of my favourites as they're seasonal and I wasn't in the country at the right time. This was one where I was in the right place and time – and fortunately had enough cash on me, as it was £12 a pint!
3. Twickenham Entire Butt – I got to try this at the brewery, it's an experiment by brewer Tom Madeiros to try producing an old-style porter by blending aged strong ale with fresh bitter and for me it worked brilliantly. I wasn't sure if I should include it here as it was a one-off, but apparently it has had a limited commercial release so here it is...

Best UK Bottled or Canned Beer
1. The Kernel Export Stout London 1890 – Evin's historical beers are just so complex and wonderful, especially the Stouts.
2. Fullers Vintage Ale 1999 – all the Vintage Ales are great, and usually more so with a few years on them, it so happens that this 13 year-old was the one I enjoyed this year.
I'm tempted to put the Twickenham Entire Butt in here too, as I was gifted a litre in a bottle to take home to Mrs BeerViking, but it's not regularly bottled, so...
3. The Kernel Imperial Brown Stout London 1856.

Best German Draught Beer
This is a tough one, because finding anything other than (boring) Pils or Weizen on draught is tough, except in places with local specialities such as Rauchbier and Braunbier in Bamberg, maybe Märzen in Munich, or Kölsch in Cologne.
1. Klindworths Sauensieker Pale Ale – where most German brewpubs' output is pretty staid, these guys like to have fun. Their take on an English Pale Ale is a bit of a hop-bomb, yet malty and well balanced.
2. Paffgen Kölsch – on tap at the tap. Fresh beer is not always best, but this was one time when it was – well, as fresh as lagered beer can be.
3. Maisels Dampfbier – one of the few darker beers I can get regularly on draught, this Steambeer is a lovely example of a Franconian amber ale.

Best German Bottled or Canned Beer
If I wasn't pulling them out separately, I'd quite possibly not have any German bottled beer in here at all. There's a lot of good German beer and some very good German beer, but I've not found a lot of really really good German beer yet. Some brewers are starting to experiment with different flavours and so on, but quite cautiously so far.
1. Kyritzer Mord und Totschlag – from a North German abbey brewery that's done a number of recreations of medieval dark beers, this one's a smoked black-beer from the 1700s.
2. Weltenburger Kloster Asam Bock – one of the classic Doppelbocks, rich and sweet, yet roasty and burnt.
3. Propeller Nachtflug - that rare beast, a German Imperial Stout, it's rich, dry, roasty and slightly salty (and no, it doesn't have double-headed eagles on the label!).
Andechser and Einbecker would both be in here as absolute classics, along with Störtebeker Stark-Bier, except I'm being even more strict in this section, and listing only beers that were new to me this year.

Best (non German or UK) Draught Beer
1. Emelisse Imperial Russian Stout – as black as sin, and almost as tasty.
2. Southern Tier Choklat – a superb Stout made with cocoa.
3. Evil Twin Yin – UK or not? I'll say not as it's a Danish brew, even though the brewing apparently took place at Brewdog. It's black and thick as liquorice, and as tasty as the best bits of coffee, port, liquorice and treacle toffee, all rolled together.

Best (non German or UK) Bottled or Canned Beer
1. Nøgne Ø Imperial Stout
2. Thisted Limfjords Double Brown Stout
3. Long Trail Brewmaster Series Imperial Porter

I have a sneaking suspicion that my drinking preferences might be showing by now....

Best Overall Beer
W&E Conqueror 1075 – I've been doing some thinking and reading around Black IPA, as well as discussing it with beer historians, and I've come to suspect that it is a genuine historical style, but with the wrong name. Everyone knows the story of IPA, that it was shipped to India for the troops – well, no it wasn't. IPA was shipped to India for the officers and gentry – the troops got Porter. Indeed, Ron Pattinson's research suggests Porter shipments to India were more than double those of IPA – and that Export India Porter was a hopped-up 1800s Porter at around 7-8%. Not far off a Double Black IPA, eh? 

Best UK Brewery
Magic Rock – for consistency, variety and fun. OK, so none of their beers made it into my top three individually, but Magic Rock's average is significantly above almost any other UK brewery working today.

Best German Brewery
Klindworths, I must go and visit them soon!

Best (non German or UK) Brewery
Alvinne, for great beer and also for the Alvinne Craft Beer Festival.

Pub/Bar of the Year
It's a bit of a zoo, but as a bar and for craft keg I still like the Euston Tap. For cask ale and a proper pub experience, it's my London local, the Magpie & Crown in Brentford.

Beer Festival of the Year
Another tough one. It was great to have GBBF back at Olympia this year, and I enjoyed working at the Twickenham beer festival too, but for the variety of both people and beer I think it has to be the Alvinne Craft Beer Festival.

Supermarket of the Year
OK, this is a beer supermarket, but all the branches of Hol'Ab I've used have impressed me. Like most German drinks shops there's crates and crates of boring Pils, but there's usually a whole wall lined with unusual stuff as well, a lot from Franconia and Bavaria-proper but also some others too. Don't expect to find much foreign beer though, unless you're desperate for Guinness or Heineken, or are a gastarbeiter needing Tyskie or Lech for a taste of home.

Independent Retailer of the Year
Bierland in Hamburg, for a great selection of hard-to-find German beers, plus a sprinkling of decent foreign stuff.

Best Beer Blog or Website
1. Shut Up About Barclay Perkins – more beer history than you can shake a stick at, the dry numbers amply counterbalanced by Ron Pattinson's erudition and dry wit.
2. Pete Brown's BeerBlog – great writing.
3. Boak and Bailey – almost always thought-provoking.

Food and Beer Pairing of the Year
The London City of Beer launch at the Red Herring, in particular Fuller's Bengal Lancer with a variety of cheeses. I should try more IPA/cheese pairings.

In 2013 I’d most like to...
Get more beer writing gigs, lead more guided tastings, get to the European Beer Bloggers Conference again, and generally get to more beer events.

Dear gods, I'm already over 1300 words – no wonder this has taken days to research and write... Merry Yule and Frohe Weihnachten, everyone!

Friday, 14 December 2012

My week on the Kölsch

It was the trip to visit friends who live just outside Cologne that gave me the idea. The mothers and children were off to an indoor play-centre on Saturday afternoon, so I decided to take the train into the city and see what I could find...

Looking up local brewpubs on RateBeer gave me the start: there were several listed and mapped, none of them especially near the Hauptbahnhof, but hey, it was a nice day for a walk. My first target was Päffgen which was a lovely old place but a bit confusing. The entrance corridor is also the busy service area supplying the waiters from the kitchen, so for a moment you wonder if you've accidentally gone in the wrong door.  

I'd read that you may need to share a table, but when I tried to do just that in the salon, the waiter told me all the tables there were booked (for a group, I think he said). Fortunately the glassed-over yard at the back had plenty of room, and it didn't take too long to get the waiter's attention and order - what else? There isn't anything! - a Päffgen Kölsch. 

Kölsch is a top-fermented (obergärig in German) and warm-fermented (15-20C, versus 5-9C for bottom-fermenting) style, like British ales - though with its own ingredient list, of course. The other difference is that, after fermentation, Kölsch is lagered, ie. matured in tanks in a cold cellar before casking. 

And despite my cold, it was gorgeous - gold with a white head, a light aroma of hops and cereal, fruity and crisp, with peachy malt notes and a well balanced hoppy bitterness. So I wasn't too upset when I discovered another local custom, which is that the waiters tour around with a special tray called a Kranz, this has holes to hold the 20cl cylindrical Stange glasses that the beer's traditionally served in. The Kranz is loaded up with full glasses, and when they see an empty glass they simply replace it with a full one and add a pencil mark to your beermat...  

Next on my route was Hellers but to my considerable surprise it was closed! I later discovered it doesn't open until 5pm, which might make a certain sense on weekdays, but not on a Saturday, surely? 

So with dusk falling and my legs getting just a tad tired, it was back towards the station and my third target, Malzmühle (Malt-mill), the home of Mühlen Kölsch. By now it was nearly 4pm on a Saturday in December, with the Christmas market in full swing not far away, so it was already very busy - and still getting busier...

Again, it didn't take too long to catch a waiter's attention, and the next time a Kranz passed by it delivered me a Stange. This too was good - a nice balance of hops and malt, with a dry and hoppy finish. Not quite as good as the Pfaffen perhaps, but certainly good enough to stay for a second!

Waiting for my lift when I got off the train, I had an idea: there was a supermarket over the road, and given its location near Cologne it was bound to stock Kölsch. (The German beer market is rather local - a shop near Cologne might have five or six Kölsches, whereas one outside that area might have none or maybe Früh, which seems to be the most widely distributed.) Sure enough, it had a couple I'd not seen before - and then when my wonderful wife turned up with the car, she'd been shopping too and found me four more I'd not tried before!
So I was able to spend the following week or so tasting different Kölsch beers - and it was an interesting experience. Kölsch has a certain legendary status among beer-buffs as one of the few remaining old German ale styles - those beers that survived the 19th century onslaught of bottom-fermented lager and then the 19th-20th century massacre perpetrated by Pilsner.

Yes, many Germans don't seem to realise it, but German Pilsner is barely a century old. Ancient brewing tradition? Yeah, right - pull the other one... 

Anyway, some of these were rather nice - the Peters especially, plus the Gaffel and the Richmodis (not surprisingly, as it's also a Gaffel brand - brewery closures and consolidations happened here too). But while the other three were OK, I might as well have been drinking Pils - I found little that was distinctively Kölsch about them. 

It's almost as if the breweries had said, "Well, we've got this traditional name that everyone's very proud of, but Pils is the big seller. Why don't we knock all the flavour out and Pilsify it, then the Pils drinkers might buy it." So sad, it really is - and how lucky I was to start this particular set with one of the best!

PS. Via a helpful comment (below) I subsequently learnt that Kölsch brewing had pretty much died out by WW2, and was only revived by a concerted effort in the 1950s. Most, if not all, of the local breweries had gone over to the likes of Pils and Weizen by that time, which would explain the character of modern Kölsch. 

Certainly, medieval Kölsch would have been significantly different from the modern version - it would not have been crystal-clear and golden, for a start. There's a load of Kölsch history on the Kölner Brauerei Verband website (all in German, mind you!), I've had a dig through but I can't yet find any descriptions of medieval Kölsch bar a reference to "good brown beer" or somesuch. 

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Is that craft beer - or merely crafty beer?

It's good to see a statement today from the US Brewers Association (BA) standing up for its definition of craft beer, and against deceptive practices by the big brewers such as setting up crafty sub-brands - even though the big brewers are BA members and are important to its funding.

In particular, the BA makes it clear that if a craft brewery - which it defines as one producing less than 6m barrels a year* - is more than 25% owned by a big brewer then it no longer qualifies as 'craft'. That means Goose Island is no longer officially 'craft', nor are Mendocino Brewing or Old Dominion, say. Imitation craft brands such as MillerCoors' Blue Moon are also excluded of course - there's a full non-craft list online here (PDF).

The statement goes on to say that the problem is not that the big brewers are trying to capitalise on the success of craft beer - hey, that's business - but that they are doing it covertly and unfairly.

The BA explains: "It's important to remember that if a large brewer has a controlling share of a smaller producing brewery, the brewer is, by definition, not craft.

"However, many non-standard, non-light 'crafty' beers found in the marketplace today are not labeled as products of large breweries. So when someone is drinking a Blue Moon Belgian Wheat Beer, they often believe that it's from a craft brewer, since there is no clear indication that it's made by SABMiller. The same goes for Shock Top, a brand that is 100 percent owned by Anheuser-Bush InBev, and several others that are owned by a multinational brewing and beverage company.

"The large, multinational brewers appear to be deliberately attempting to blur the lines between their crafty, craft-like beers and true craft beers from today's small and independent brewers. We call for transparency in brand ownership and for information to be clearly presented in a way that allows beer drinkers to make an informed choice about who brewed the beer they are drinking.

"And for those passionate beer lovers out there, we ask that you take the time to familiarize yourself with who is brewing the beer you are drinking. Is it a product of a small and independent brewer? Or is it from a crafty large brewer, seeking to capitalize on the mounting success of small and independent craft brewers?"

Strong stuff, eh?

*This is a very US-centric definition, as I noted in an earlier post here!

Friday, 7 December 2012

Cold and fizzy: how to kill craft beer in one easy lesson

Reading about fellow beer blogger Ed's visit to the Meantime Old Brewery in Greenwich, I was first amused and then saddened to learn that “the keg stout was cold, thin and fizzy.

He added: “What do people see in craft keg? I suspect to do it right you need to make a totally over the top imbalanced beer and then knock enough flavour out of it by kegging to make it drinkable.”

It amused me because I suspect this is what happens if you get people who are used to handling mega-brew chilled crud and ask them to look after craft keg. All the marketing, and all the drinkers who know no better, tell them if it's keg it's meant to be cold and fizzy.

And it saddened me because it's almost exactly my experience of American craft beer about 10 years ago, and I hoped we'd learnt something in the meantime. Back then I was being served beer that was too cold and too fizzy, presumably so it wouldn't frighten off the average American drinker. I learnt that the trick was to stir some of the gas out and let it come up a few degrees to release the flavour. It needed patience though, and it should not have been necessary.

Part of the problem seemed to be a kind of vicious circle – it was as if the craft brewers were making their beers really punchy so they'd stand a chance of surviving the chilling and fizzing, so the bars chilled them ever harder to keep a lid on that scary flavour – scary to anyone used to Lite Lager, anyhow.

(To make it worse, the US was just then getting interested in cask ale, and some brewers simply tried casking their existing beers and serving at 10-12C. I remember a pint in Denver that was barely drinkable – powerful flavours that worked well in keg at 5-6C, say, were not at all pleasant when served “warm and flat” by US standards.)

I really really want the world-wide craft beer revolution to work, but for that to happen the trade needs to understand that this isn't the easy-care keg crud that had CAMRA up in arms in the 70s, and which the big lager brands are still punting out. Just like real ale, craft keg needs care – perhaps not quite as much, but it still has to be at the right temperature and in good condition.

Have you had a crap pint of craft beer lately? If you have, what do you think was wrong with it – and did it leave you willing to have another try?

Sunday, 25 November 2012

What does Winter Beer mean to you?

Winter and Weihnachtsbiers, part two: When you think of Christmas and beer, what comes to mind – something rich and dark, or something golden and perhaps even a bit flowery?
When last I looked at German Weihnachtbiers and Winterbocks, they were definitely in the former camp, but to my surprise there are other brewers who fall into the latter. One such is Kulmbacher Mönchshof, which is part of the German Brau Holding International group. Its standard beers – Pils, Bayerisch Hell – are well-made but fairly typical; where it redeems itself for me is with its excellent Kellerbier, an amber-coloured brew resembling a lagered bitter ale.
So when I found Mönchshof Weihnachts Bier, I didn't expect it it would turn out to be a golden Märzen, especially when there's already a Mönchshof Festbier to fill that slot. Sure, as Märzens go it is rather nice – lightly hoppy and peachy, with some underlying spice notes – but it doesn't say Weihnacht to me...
Mönchshof is not alone in this. Carlsberg is touting the bizarre concept of a Tuborg Weihnachts Pilsener (I'd like to try a bottle, having seen from Ratebeer that it's not a Pilsener but a Vienna, but so far I've only seen it on sale in six-packs) and then there's Oettinger's Winterbier, which is very nice with pleasing green hop and toffee-nutty notes, but is more of an amber lager – perhaps even another Festbier, given its 5.6% strength.
Incidentally, quite a few people are snarky about Oettinger because it sells its beer so cheaply – typically €0.50 (40p) for a half-litre – and operates big industrial breweries, all of which has made it the largest beer producer in Germany. On the other hand, it is still locally owned and operates a very efficient single-tier business – it is famous for not advertising and for cutting out the distribution channel.
Anyway, it has not one but two seasonals, the other being a Bock. Weighing in at 6.7%, Oettinger Bock is dark amber with a malty and slightly raisiny nose, and a nice balance of grainy sweetness, bitterness and roasty malt. Yup, that'll do nicely for a cold winter evening. 
Also nice stuff, though at twice the price, is Altenmünster Winterbier Dunkel. Packaged in Altenmünster's trademark decoratively-moulded 500ml flip-top bottles, it balances the typical toffee-ish Dunkel flavours with the spicy hoppy bitterness that's familiar from the various (and somewhat samey) Altenmünster blonds.
And in any case, Oettinger beer is cheap but not the cheapest. The discount supermarket chains all sell six-packs of beer in plastic screw-top 500ml bottles, often priced at just €1.50 a pack, or 50 cents a litre. It's so cheap that the 25 cent deposit per plastic bottle doubles the cost of your purchase...

By the by, the German word that these shops use a lot is "billig", which seems to have more of a sense of "inexpensive" than "cheap". And while no-one wants to be thought of as cheap, everyone loves a bargain. That means everyone shops at Aldi, Lidl, Penny and the others, albeit sometimes in addition to one of the more up-market chains.

Anyway (again), usually it's just the normal boring German choice of Pils or Weizen, but our local Penny Markt now also has Adelskronen Winterbier, at €1.99 for six plastic bottles. This is a winter Dunkel brewed specially for Penny by Fankfurter Brauhaus – that's Frankfurt an der Oder by the way, right on the (modern) Polish border, not the better known financial centre down south – and it is rather good. It's a proper roasty Dunkel, with nutty plummy hints and a dryish body.

Both are certainly better than Carlsberg's other seasonal attempt, which is Holsten Stark. The best thing about this 7% Dunkel Doppelbock is the cool can design, which takes the usual Holsten horseman logo and recasts it in black, silver and gunmetal-grey. The dominant flavour is burnt sugar, there's a bit of roastiness, and the alcohol cuts the sweetness a bit, but overall it is not terribly good.

Last but not least, and showing that the multinationals – in this case AB-Inbev – can produce something decent, is Hasseröder Fürstenbräu Granat, or Princely-brew Garnet. Claimed to be in the style of an 1899 Royal Festbier, which means it'd be based on an amber Vienna lager, rather than the Johnny-come-lately golden Pilsner-alike versions, it's roasty and quaffable, with hints of toast and marmalade.

I'm sure there more: I'll keep looking, and drinking! In the meantime, what's the best winter beer – German or otherwise – that you've had so far this season?

Friday, 16 November 2012

Glühbier? Eek!

"Biermix mit Holunder" - that's beer flavoured with elderberries, justified by claiming it's for mulling. I'm afraid I didn't buy this...

This, on the other hand, I did buy. From the same brewery, it is a German Baltic Stout - Stark and Stout in this context meaning the same thing, ie. "Strong".

I've been looking for this again since finding a four-pack in a random Getränkemarkt one snowy day about two years ago, and discovering that it was 7.5% of roasty dark-brown beery loveliness. I'm looking forward to cracking one (or two!) open later tonight.

Saturday, 3 November 2012

Winter beer, winter cheer

It's that time of year when North German beer gets a flavoursome and chewy boost – yes, as the nights draw in and the mercury plummets, we get ready for warming Winterbocks and Weihnachtsbiers. Of course there are other tasty Bocks produced year-round, but these malty, brown, and often roasty, nutty and/or spicy brews are much more seasonal in character – think of them as a dark step on from the lighter Märzens of autumn.
I didn't think to save a Flensburger bottle...
First to reach the shops this year – around here, at least – were two breweries from right up north , towards the Danish border: Dithmarscher and Flensburger. Both of them produce excellent Dunkels so I was looking forward to their Winterbocks. 
Both of them class as Doppelbocks, weighing in at 6.8% and 7% respectively. Dithmarscher's Urbock (=original bock) is chestnut brown with a little malt and a faint tang of orange on the nose. A little sweet at first, you then find hints of orange and apricot and it finishes with typically German herby-peppery hops and some burnt caramel. The burnt caramel is a bit of a theme with these beers. It's there in the 2012 edition of Flensburger Winterbock too, along with fruity malt aromas that feed through into a nutty body with a good alcohol bite, burnt caramel, and some peppery hops on the finish. 
I also briefly met a third example of the style at the Hamburger Craft Beer Day - Ricklinger Weihnachtsbock. Rather darker, this dark 7%-er brought hints of treacle and roast malt, with peppery notes. 
The next ones I spotted on the shelves were not one but two examples from Einbecker – a 5.3% Weihnachtsbier and a 7.5% Winter-Bock. The well-crafted amber Weihnachtsbier appears to be new this year but is typical of that style, being fairly dry and toasty, with burnt-bitter notes and some grassy hops layered over something resembling a Vienna amber lager. This year's Winter-Bock is vinous and slightly syrupy sweet, but the sweetness is well balanced with notes of burnt raisins and barley, some dryish hops and a good alcohol bite. 
Turning from the oldest to the youngest, Hamburg's Astra brand – now owned by Carlsberg and used as the trendy face of Holsten – has a 5.9% winter beer just out called Arschkalt. This literally translates to Arse-cold, which I guess is a bit like British breweries calling their winter ales Brass Monkey or somesuch. 
The label is designed to look like it's been torn off and a new logo scratched in. Fortunately, the contents mostly live up to this arty conceit – the dark amber beer has a nice balance of hops and caramelly burnt biscuit, with toasted fruit just about detectable in the background. There's no great complexity there, but it's pretty quaffable. Just don't do what the marketing idiots suggest and drink it chilled, because then it merely tastes thin and burnt. 
As you may guess from the above, there is a fair degree of similarity in all these beers, as if the brewers have been given a style guide and told to stick with it. I guess that means at least you know roughly what to expect when buying – and fortunately there is still a little room for individualism. 
The best of the bunch? For me it's the Einbecker Winter-Bock, though the Flensburger runs it close. Incidentally, Einbeck (which is not far from Hannover) is regarded as the origin of Bock. According to legend, its strong dark ale became especially popular in medieval times at the royal court down south in Munich, where the local accent turned its name into first Ein Bock (=a billy goat) and then just Bock. The Bavarian brewers then copied the style and shifted it over to bottom fermentation; even the northern examples are now bottom fermented lagers rather than top fermented ales.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Shine on you Diamond Geezer

The results are in, and the Beer of the Festival for the 2012 Twickenham Beer Festival is a nearly local brew: Diamond Geezer, from Wimbledon-based microbrewery By The Horns.

I'm really pleased, because it's a lovely beer - a full bodied, fruity and malty 4.9% red ale. I've had it before in bottle, and it was excellent on draught at the festival so I recommended it quite a bit to visitors who were unsure what to try next.

As it happens, the brewery's managing director Chris Mills dropped into the festival on the Thursday evening. It took me a few moments, but I recognised him from meeting at the brewery at a couple of their excellent monthly Saturday afternoon Open Brewery events earlier this year. We had a bit of a chat and I complimented the Geezer; sadly though he has no immediate plans to repeat the 6.4% 'double' version, Diamond Geezers, which I thought was even better.

I don't know if I'll be in London in time for the presentation at the brewery, but I hope so!

Friday, 19 October 2012

Back on the ale...

Last Friday I had my first real ale in two months, this week I am having a bit more of it, as I'm at the Twickenham Beer Festival. If you've never been deprived of something like this, you don't realise what you've got or how lucky you are!

Anyway, we're open today and tomorrow until 10:30pm, and we have a great beer list and a great team of volunteers, so if you're in the area do please come over. One caveat is we don't have a foreign & bottled beer bar this year due to the council limiting the number of people we can have in the hall - sorry about that.

There's some lovely dark beers on the list - last year's festival champion Hammerpot Bottle Wreck Porter is back an in superb form, I also liked the Binghams Doodle Stout - and some lovely bitters and golden ales.

There's a few that are new to me, such as Windsor & Eton Canberra, which is on my list for this afternoon, Southport's tasty Cyclone, the Botanist's spicy Pumpkin Ale, which is a different version from last year and has been selling really well, three ales from new micro XT, and Mauldon's Octoberfest, which is a remarkable blend of a classic Märzen and a real ale. And of course some old favourites - Purple Moose Snowdonia, W&E Conqueror, Dark Star Hophead and more.

Monday, 24 September 2012

Hamburger Craft Beer Day 2012

And my thanks to the wag on RateBeer who was hoping that this would combine his two favourite things – beer and hamburgers... In reality it was a beer festival organised by the Ratsherrn Brewery in Hamburg, and featuring its own beer plus those of friends both inside and outside Germany. For non-Hamburgers, Ratsherrn is an old brewery name locally – it translates as Alderman or Councillor – but this is a brand-new incarnation, its first full brew being in April this year.

It is based in the old Schanzen-Höfen wholesale meat market buildings, which are currently being refurbished to attract a variety of entrepreneurs and other commercial tenants. There's still builders fencing around and quite a bit of rough unpaved ground, plus the decorative trees are still wrapped in protective sacking, but enough's been done for there to be a usable courtyard, and that's where the festival was.

It wasn't just beer, either – as well as very tasty sausages, the beer fest was tied in with the city-wide Reeperbahn Festival, so there was a stage with an international line-up of musicians, playing 30-minutes sessions pretty much every hour. Roric especially enjoyed the bands – you can see him looking fascinated in this Youtube video...

Seven breweries took part, four from northern Germany plus Aarhus Bryghus from Denmark, Boston Beer Co (=Sam Adams) from the US, and Maisel & Friends, which is a craft beer spin-off from the Maisel's Weisse family brewery in Bayreuth, Bavaria. Most were serving from bottles, the main exceptions being Ratsherrn which had all four of its beers on tap, the other Hamburg City micro Blockbräu with two taps, and Klindworths which had its Landbier-Bus along – a twin-tap bar fitted into a VW campervan/microbus. Everything was one euro for a 100ml taste for a euro or €3 for a 300ml glass (about half a UK pint).

Some of the beers were quite excellent. The longest beer lists were presented by Aarhus, whose 6% Klosterbryg was sort of an Abbey-Dubbel-meets-IPA and was excellent, and Ricklinger Landbrauerei. I've mentioned the latter's dark beers here, but its Rauchbier was also nice and its herbal Porsebier was well made although odd – a bit like drinking a good Helles bombed with a Jagermeister.

The Sam Adams beers were good too. Alongside its Boston Lager and Fat Jack – the current seasonal pumpkin beer – it had its very tasty Whitewater IPA and one that wasn't in the programme: an interpretation of traditional Finnish Sahti called Norse Legend. (I don't think the Finns are actually Norse, but maybe Sam knows better!) This was rather intriguing – malty and dark, yet with earthy farmyard notes, kind of like a cross between an Old Ale and a Saison.

The Klindworths beer-bus
The star of the festival for me though was the Pale Ale from Klindworths, a country brewpub which celebrates its Landbier – this is more a marketing term than a style, rather like “traditional country ale” for a British brewery – yet is not afraid to give it a big punch, and indeed to blend in elements from other related traditions. The Pale Ale is a gorgeous bitter in the modern style – a big hoppy bite, peachy malt bursting out, and a long sharp and refreshing dry-bitter finish.

All in all, a great day out. Everyone was having fun and in a good mood. Yes, we were in an open yard and there was a brief rainstorm, but once it stopped – and even before we'd brushed ourselves down – members of staff came around offering rolls of paper towel to dry benches and tables. The only disappointment is having to wait until next year for Hamburger Craft Beer Day no.2!

Yes, there really is Porter and Stout in Germany

A little while back, an article on Ron Pattinson's blog about 19th century British investors in German breweries sparked a brief discussion in the comments section about a growing interest among German brewers in Porter and Stout. There's not a lot of it made yet and it's tough to find – but it does exist, some of it is rather good, and at Saturday's craft beer festival in Hamburg (of which, more later) I found a few more examples.

Two were from Ricklinger Landbrauerei, specifically a Stout and a Porter. I can't help feeling they may have misunderstood though – Stout means strong, and in this context is shorthand for Stout Porter, yet their Porter is 7.5% alcohol while their Stout is merely 5%!

Both were pretty good – I was expecting the Porter to be a sweet Baltic type, but it was closer to a dry English style, with Doppelbock-like dark fruit and a little bit of smokiness, while the Stout was treacley and bitter, and reminiscent of a Black IPA or Export India Porter. If it were me, I'd rename the Stout as Porter, and the Porter as an Imperial Stout!

The third I've not opened yet – it's a bottle of Propeller Nachtflug (=Night Flight), a 9.1% Imperial Stout brewed in North Rhine-Westfalia, which is east of Cologne. I'm looking forward to it...

(This is the first of several articles planned from the recent Hamburger Craft Beer Day.)

PS. I'm aware of a few others, eg. Stortebeker has a Baltic-style (ie. sweet) Hanse Porter plus a Stark Bier that's pretty much an Imperial Stout, Bergquell does some well-dodgy fruited Porters, and there's a couple from iconoclastic brewers such as Eric Toft of Schönram.

Are there any more that I've missed – and which are worth hunting out? 

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Just cos it's in a tent, does it have to be camp?

pic by @bryan_gb
It's Oktoberfest season here in Germany – and yes, it is still September here too, it's called Oktoberfest because it ends in October. All over the country, what might once I suppose have been harvest festivals have become local imitations of the Munich original, complete with Bavarian beer, blue and white bunting, and of course silly hats.

Lüneburg's version is quite early, small and short – just four days, finishing yesterday (when the Munich one doesn't open until the 22nd), and only one giant beer tent. Presumably the tent will now be taken down and moved somewhere a bit bigger for another Oktoberfest next weekend.

It's not just the beer tent though – there's also assorted fun-fair stalls and children's fairground rides, places to buy various kinds of hot and cold food, and there are lots of other outdoor bars. Fittingly, most of the other beer on sale was northern, with Duckstein (now owned by Carlsberg, and I believe brewed at the Holsten site in Hamburg) the most prominent. Also around were Holsten and Lüneburger Pilsners (both also from Carlsberg/Hamburg), and AB-InBev's Diebels Alt, though by the look of it the latter was only available as an “Alt Bowle” which is a beer cocktail or punch, complete with chunks of fruit.

When we finally reached the big tent late on Sunday afternoon, a pair of entertainers were banging out versions of 60s/70s Country classics – Sweet Caroline, Country Road, that sort of thing – to a small but reasonably appreciative crowd. After they went off stage things got a little odd, when a rather fey chap who appeared to be a member of the audience took the mike and started singing. His voice was good, not great, but it was abundantly clear that he knew how to use a stage.

Anyway, we were about to finish our beers – Löwenbräu Oktoberfest, which was competent; the alternative was Franziskaner weiss, and both are now AB-InBev properties – and head home for something with a bit more depth of flavour, when I spotted that the menu also listed the weekend's entertainment, and Sunday night was a "Travestie Show", ie. a drag cabaret...

pic by @PsycheDK
I've seen some strange things at beer festivals, but this pretty much takes the biscuit. The highlights, if one can call them that, were a rather tubby transvestite doing fart jokes while impersonating Benny Hill's impersonation of Nana Mouskouri(!), and a much slimmer and very glam colleague (seen here – I'm pretty sure this was the fey chap from earlier) dancing with one of the lads from the big macho table in the middle. Laddie didn't seem to need much persuading, mind you.

My Danish friends and I observed that it was all extremely odd – and very German. “Very Bavarian, more like,” sniffed a local.

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Why Germany needs a beer consumers group

My post last week, suggesting that German beer had become samey and was increasingly being made to a lower budget, stirred up a lot of comment, quite a bit of it along the lines of “Oh, you just need to go to Bamberg/Cologne/my local/etc.”

Perhaps I should have qualified my comment and said “mainstream German beer is suffering”, but the warning that I was trying to send covers the good stuff too. The warning is that if German consumers don't look beyond their locals and favourites and their cosy assumptions of greatness, the multinationals will grab more and more. Then they will gradually do what multinationals always do, which is to dumb things down for the sake of profit and dominate via marketing not quality.

I certainly wasn't trying to say there are no good beers in Germany – there are lots (just as there were still real ales in Britain in 1971). Most are only available on draught in their home region, as is typically the case with Kölsch and Alt for example, although if you are lucky you will also find some of them in bottles further afield. There are also lots of local breweries and brewpubs – and many thanks to Renate for pointing me at Die Freien Brauer, which for British readers is a society for independent family brewers, rather like Britain's SIBA, and then again to this article from Der Spiegel, about new microbreweries in Berlin (only in German – but Google Translate makes a decent fist of it).

There are welcome signs too that some of the regionals and the newer breweries are trying to differentiate themselves – offering their Pils cloudy and unfiltered (a form of Kellerbier) say, or adding a dark Pils, or reinventing older styles such as Zwickl and dark lager. Some have added extra seasonals as well, such as Maibock or Frühlingsbock (Easter bock), and a few have revived once-extinct styles such as Gose sour ale, in Leipzig.

German beer as a whole has been left behind though, and certainly isn't the best in the world now, if it ever was. Quite often, what a regional brewery or a brewpub produces is the regulation Pils and/or Weizen, plus maybe one or two others. And even that isn't what most people drink, especially outside Bavaria – that's the produce of the big boys, the Oettingers, Krombachers and Bitburgers, the mass-produced, crisp yet one-dimensional beers. The entire membership of the DFB brews less beer than Oettinger, for example.

And it's the “little green bottles from Prussia” slagged off by the author of this article from Süddeutsche Zeitung (again, in German – and GIYF). He also slates the sameyness of the big beers, along with brewery ties and marketing that limit choice on the bar, and the lack of imagination that leads to beer being drunk to get drunk rather than for enjoyment.

All this is why Germany needs a beer consumers group – to educate people about how wonderful German beer can be if it's made right, and support those brewers that are doing it right. Sure, the newspapers will do a bit of this every once in a while, but a consumers group can take it to the next level.

The other reason why Germany needs a beer consumers group is to ensure that the government doesn't just hear the voices of the big brewing businesses. Sure, organisations such as Die Freien Brauer can do some of this, but they could do a lot more with the backing of a genuine grassroots consumer group.

So, how about it – what needs doing, and who ought to be doing it?

Monday, 3 September 2012

Been shopping? No... I've been shopping.

We've got beer-loving visitors coming over next weekend, so I thought I'd quickly stock up on quaffables. Nothing too special yet, as the nearest specialist beer shop's some way away in Hamburg. Just the interesting stuff they keep tucked away at the back of the Getränkemärkte, hidden behind the serried rows of Pils and Radler. Here's a list:

Andechser Doppelbock Dunkel - the 4th best beer in Germany according to Ratebeer users, and the best according to me.
Mönchshof Kellerbier - slightly cloudy, malty and delicious, a classic German bitter (to my mind, anyhow).
Einbecker Ur-Bock Dunkel - the original bock from the home of the style, Einbeck. Malty, chewy and lightly bitter.
Flensburger Dunkel and Dithmarscher Dunkel - two classic north German dunkels. Roasty and malty with a bit of burnt bitterness.
Oettinger Schwartzbier - a pleasant roasty black beer with fruitcakey notes, and absurdly cheap at 45 cents a bottle.

I'll try to get to the bigger Getränkemärkte on the other side of town later in the week, to see if there's anything more unusual there.

Monday, 27 August 2012

Meanwhile in German beer, it's 1971 all over again...

I'm curious – do you think of German beer as aspirational, or worthy of emulation? Or is Germany merely one of the places you go to when you feel like drinking a properly-made lager?

It's funny how things come together every now and then. Just recently I was chatting (on Twitter – O tempora o mores!) with Old Worthy brewer Nick Ravenhall about my experience of beer here in Germany, and in particular how little variety there is. More on that later – I've a fairly long article in the process of drafting – but his comment that it sounded “maybe like the UK 20 years ago” made me think.

I didn't reply straight away though, as I was wondering if 20 was the right number. Then today along came a blog post from Boak & Bailey in which they quote the April 1972 edition of the British consumer magazine Which? on keg beer:

“…none smelled very strongly in the glass — none was either unpleasant or very pleasant. As far as taste went, the overwhelming impression of our tasters was that none of the keg bitters had any very characteristic taste… we also carried out a standard laboratory test for hop-bitterness. These results confirmed how similar the keg beers were.”

It immediately reminded me of another article earlier this year, reporting on a German TV programme which openly said the unsayable: that German beer has become samey, is made to a (low) budget, and has been outclassed by the rest of the world.

Looks rather similar, doesn't it? So perhaps I was right to pause and reflect – and maybe the correct number was 40 years, not 20.

Of course in Britain what changed things was the appearance in 1971 of CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale, a single-issue pressure group which in its first decade was described as the “most successful consumer campaign in Europe”. These days it may have its foibles, but its influence has been world-wide – including the USA – and I'm absolutely certain that without CAMRA we not have the variety of beer that we have today.

Can something similar happen in Germany, 40 years on? One of the biggest oddities in European beer for me is the fact that Germany, almost alone among great beer-producing nations and unlike most of its neighbours, does not have an equivalent of CAMRA. Check the membership list of the European Beer Consumers' Union if you don't believe me.

So it might look as if the time is absolutely right for a German “Campaign for Interesting Beer”; sadly though I fear it is not quite that simple, for a bunch of reasons that I plan to return to in another article.

In the meantime though I welcome your thoughts, dear reader. German beer: worthy, or dull?

Friday, 10 August 2012

US brewing goes from strength to strength

There's more brewers in the USA now than at any time since 1887, according to figures put out by the US Brewers Association earlier this week. The total now stands at 2,126 breweries – that's up from a low of just 89 in the late 1970s, ignoring the nominal figure of zero during Prohibition of course!

The Brewers Association (BA), which is the trade group for small and independent brewers in the US, also tracks breweries in planning: it says there's 1,252 more breweries in the works, up from 725 this time last year. Beer sales were up in the first half of this year too, by 14% in dollar terms and 12% in revenues – yes, that means prices went up too...

“Beer-passionate Americans are opening breweries at a rate faster than at any time since the day Prohibition ended for the beverage of moderation,” said BA director Paul Gatza. “There is nearly a new brewery opening for every day of the year, benefiting beer lovers and communities in every area across the country.”

He added that 97% of those operating US brewers are 'craft breweries', although the BA's definition of craft might look a little odd to UK eyes. It says an American craft brewer is “small, independent, and traditional” - but by small it means an annual production of less than 6 million barrels, which is about 7 million hectolitres.

That's a heck of a lot! By comparison, the bigger UK regional breweries brew less than half a million barrels a year, even allowing for the slight difference between UK and US sizes, and in 2009 the entire membership of SIBA brewed less than 2m hl. Really this definition just serves to exclude the likes of AB-Inbev and MillerCoors – the latter's megabrewery in Golden CO alone can brew 23m barrels a year.

Still, it's all good news for lover of good beer, as Paul Gatka noted. “Generally, most craft brewers are continuing to see strong growth in production, sales, brewing capacity and employment, which is to be celebrated during challenged times for many of today’s small businesses,” He said. “Plus it’s a fact that beer drinkers are responding to the quality and diversity created by small American brewing companies. India pale ales, seasonal beers, Belgian-inspired ales and a range of specialty beers are just a few of the beer styles that are growing rapidly.”

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

It's stout Jim, but not as we know it: Durham White Stout

White Stout is the ultimate beer in our "White Range". While the word "stout" has come to mean a dark beer, the original meaning was strong and true. Before the porter brewers commandeered the word to mean a stout, or strong, porter, it referred to any strong beer. We have rehabilitated and improved the genre. White Stout is a very pale, full bodied, strong beer. American Columbus hops are used throughout to give massive floral and resinous character. At a strength of 7.2% this is a true stout. Indeed, few modern stouts of any colour are true to the word for strong.

A golden ale of considerable strength and matching hoppiness, this is quite a beer. It even feels heavy in the hand, as it yields up aromas of peachy malt and citrussy hops, before becoming simultaneously floral, dry-malty and bitter in the mouth, and then leaving you with a moreish peppery-bitter finish. It's all rather nice and disturbingly drinkable for 7.2%...

But what is it? Beer aficionados seem confused and unimpressed by the brewery's explanation, as copied above. Untappd users have instead unilaterally declared it to be an Imperial Pale Ale, while Ratebeerians listed it as an English strong ale. Enter it for one of the American beer competitions, with their rigid style guides, and they'd probably have kittens.

Yes, “stout” originally just meant strong, but in the beer world was it commonly used for anything other than Porter?

Back at Olympia

Given that GBBF moved to Earls Court a few years ago because it had out-grown Olympia, some people were nonplussed by the move back this year. OK, it was forced this year by Earls Court being used for some sports fest, but the question was how would it cope?

Extremely well, is the answer! Olympia's Grand Hall has been expanded in the intervening years, so the exhibition floor now extends quite a long way beyond the south-western end of the arched roof. Here's a pic showing what I mean - there, past the balcony of the main hall, you can see not one, but two new floor spaces.

Both these spaces are in use - most notably the Bieres Sans Frontieres foreign beer bar has been split in three, with the German & Czech beers given a generous space of their own upstairs (although as I noted elsewhere, this might more accurately be called the Bavarian & Budvar Bar, as I could see very little from the rest of Germany (or indeed Czechia) apart from Jever, Früh Kölsch and a couple of Alts).

Also in use is the balcony. Some of it is needed for CAMRA backstage stuff, but more than half is given over to seating for visitors, as is quite a large part of that south-western extension to the hall, on both levels - this pic shows the upstairs area. One of the perennial complaints about GBBF at Olympia in the old days was the (perceived) shortage of tables; no-one can honestly try that one this week.

There's some cracking ales around, too. Give me Olympia and proper beer, rather than the Olympics and boring Dutch fizz, any day...

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

The new champion: Coniston no.9 Barley Wine

Well, no-one can complain that this year's Champion Beer of Britain is too golden, or yet another mild! Coniston no.9 Barley Wine is an 8.5% chewy and warming hunk of a beer - not exactly a monster, but at the very least a large furry beast. It's also the strongest beer ever to win CBoB.

The award, announced just an hour or so back on-stage at the Great British Beer Festival by Roger Protz, went to Coniston Brewery's no.9 Barley Wine, an 8.5% beer so exclusive that it doesn't even feature in the brewery's promo leaflets.
David Smith, a jug of no.9, & the CBoB shield

Once the beer's creator, David Smith, had recovered his composure a little, I asked him about its background and how it fits with the brewery's other products. He said Coniston's beers have been getting stronger, from its start with a 3.6% bitter.

"This is more in the vein of Gold Label, or perhaps Sam Smith's Strong Golden," he added. "It is quite light for a barley wine, but nicely balanced, with enough malt and not over-hopped."

 It is only brewed once a year at present, in the autumn, though they are looking at adding a second brew in spring. This could explain why it won overall gold here, but not at the Winter Ales Festival back in January - it is now almost a year old, and the maturity definitely shows through in its rich and winey character.

The only drawback to adding a second brew is the length of time it needs, David said. It needs nine days to ferment, and they sometimes need to re-pitch it with fresh yeast halfway through to renew the fermentation.

He added that, as well as helping to revive a historic style of beer, Coniston also uses a trick familiar to brewers from a century ago, which is to add some freshly fermented ale - in this case the 1998 Champion Beer of Britain, Coniston Bluebird - to each cask to enliven it again for its cask conditioning.

The beer itself? I picked up syrup, smoke and treacle on the nose, it's got touches of seaside and a syrupy, faintly oily body, then a dry finish with burnt marmalade and a well balanced hoppy bitterness.A worthy winner.

Friday, 3 August 2012

BeerViking at GBBF

I will be at the Great British Beer Festival next week, in search of stories, writing work and beer, mostly in that order! On Tuesday I'm taking part in the Champion Beer of Britain judging, then after that I plan to do some blogging and news writing from the festival floor.

Of course, thanks to the ongoing economic disaster that is the Olympics, GBBF has been displaced from Earls Court back to its former home at Olympia. I can't say I'm too sorry – Earls Court was bigger, sure, but it's a horribly noisy space with ghastly orange sodium lighting. And given all the news reports that London is all-but deserted, thanks to people fleeing the corporate and political ego-fest that is Stratford 2012, Olympia ought to be big enough...

Actually, that's an important point to make – if you've been thinking about coming to GBBF, but were put off by fears of transport chaos and rip-off pricing, think again. Many of the hotels and other businesses that thought they could whack up their prices for the summer are having to hastily retract, and there's some considerable bargains on offer as they desperately try to pull in customers. And as far as transport's concerned, we ought to be OK as we're on the west side of town, away from avoid-at-all-cost hotspots such as London Bridge.

See you there....

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Peat and honey: Old Worthy Scottish Pale Ale

It's not often that I get a bottle of ale in the post – and while I'm here in Germany it will probably be even less common! So it was a very pleasant surprise to receive a carefully-wrapped bottle of Old Worthy Scottish Pale Ale just before we left London.

It's all part of a promotion for a new brewer on the Isle of Skye, although until it gets its own kit set up, Old Worthy Brewing Co. is contract brewing on the 20-barrel plant at the Isle of Skye Brewery. The bottle was a gift from Nick Ravenhall, who set up Old Worthy to create a distinctively Scottish beer, made with a portion of peated malt as whisky is – but not trying to go down the barrel-aged route. It's also the only beer Old Worthy will offer, at least for now.

Scotland has a great brewing heritage – back in Victorian times it was a big source of Pale Ale for the India trade (IPA, in other words – which also makes this my IPAday post!), albeit mostly from Alloa on the east coast, not Skye on the west. And whisky starts its life as ale, although it is not hopped. Old Worthy, which claims to take its name from the “old worthies” who worked at the distilleries, adds both hops and a touch of honey.

The beer pours a medium-gold colour with a big foamy white head, and yes, there's the honey and a little smoke on the nose, along with a touch of biscuity malt – Maris Otter is the variety used – and a faint note of dry hay from the hops. In the mouth, there's more malt and honey, juicy to begin with but rapidly turning drier, the hops then come through more strongly in a dry and faintly spicy aftertaste. The smokiness comes through again at the finish, but it's quite restrained, and all in all Nick's achieved a very nice balance here. My only reservation is that my sample was a bit gassier than I like.

Nick's also been promoting Old Worthy to craft beer fans in the Nordic countries – in fact by the look of it it's gone on general sale there about a week earlier than its UK retail launch, which is due next week. (I'm hoping that means it'll be at the Great British Beer Festival, like me...)

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

A tasty slice of tart: Hardknott's Æther Blæc 2011 Sigma

Inspired among others by Belgian classics such as Lambic, Gueuze and Rodenbach, and more recently by experimental American craft brewers, there is a barrel-aged and sour beer revolution underway. It won't be on everyone's radar - or to everyone's taste - but if you enjoy drinking something a bit different then it is definitely something to look into.

This example, from Cumbria's Hardknott Brewery which has been building itself an outstanding reputation for powerful, flavoursome ales, came to me as a very kind leaving gift when we were moving from London to northern Germany last month. Now we're mostly unpacked, I thought it was about time for something a bit different from the Pilsener, Weizen and Dunkel that pretty much sums up the local beer culture here.

Listed as a 7.8% Imperial Stout, this particular batch of Æther Blæc spent six months maturing in a 1982 Inchgower malt whisky cask - I had bottle 520 of 540. The result is fascinating - a black beer with a coffee crema that's not sour as such, but it has a light fruity tartness on both the nose and in the mouth. Also on the nose are vanilla, peach, treacle toffee and wood, all of which are to be expected from the barrel.

Then in the mouth there is an initial dry lemony tartness, followed by a touch of roast coffee and a sort of tart peach note with hints of strawberry and plain chocolate. Finally, the finish brings the treacle toffee and lemon flavours back, before sliding into an unusual dry smoky fruit character.

Perhaps it’s not ’style’ for an Imperial Stout, but it’s delicious and fascinating stuff. Interestingly, for me it comes across more as sour than barrel-aged, although it's clear that the former derives from the latter. In contrast, many other barrel-aged beers, especially branded ones such as Innis & Gunn, are more about getting wood flavours into an otherwise regular (ie. non-sour!) beer.

Perhaps tart beer won't be to your liking - but perhaps it will, if you give it a chance. Belgian Lambics already have a keen following, while in the US so many drinkers have acquired the taste that brewing giant Molson Coors has allocated a chunk of its giant facility in Golden, Colorado to producing sour and barrel-aged beers. Who knows, maybe its UK operation Sharp's, which is already doing Belgian-inspired Tripels & Quadrupels, might follow suit.

Saturday, 23 June 2012

Winding down

As blogging tools go, the Blogger Android app is not impressing me. It's crashed several times, usually as I was trying to post. Add the fact that I was also trying to chat to people, and I've not got much posted today!

It's been a good day otherwise, though. From the Draft House we moved to the Rake, then Brew Wharf, then got a bus up to Holborn and walked to the Craft Beer Co, then took the tube to Euston Square for the Euston Tap. We've had cask ales and keg beers, from 3% to 11%, from pale gold to deep black, and almost all have been excellent. Several people said how much they'd enjoyed discovering new pubs, and there was lots of fruitful discussion of what constitutes good beer.

A Crafty Crawl

10:55 - The train is pulling into London Bridge station and I'm not late yet! I still have to walk over to Tower Bridge though - we're meeting in the Pommelers Rest

for brunch, then strolling up to the Draft House Tower Bridge for the main start at noon. I'll try live-blogging as I go, but can't guarantee how long I'll manage!

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Deep in the Surrey Hills

We took a bank holiday trip down to Denbies Wine Estate just outside Dorking yesterday, to give Mini-Viking his first look at where Mummy and Daddy got married. Needless to say, unlike our wedding day, it tipped down with bank holiday rain which made the planned vineyard walk highly impractical. Still, he enjoyed running around inside, and also watching the land-train drive off on a vineyard tour.

Fortunately the rain was little hindrance to visiting the new home of Surrey Hills Brewery, around the back of the winery in former storage sheds. The brewery moved here last year after being snowed once too many at its former countryside home, deep in the eponymous hills.
The move also allowed an upgrade from the former 17 barrel plant to a 30 barrel one (copper and mash tun pictured above), enabling them to get ahead of demand at last. There's five fermenting vessels (below), although brewery boss Ross explained that they can't use them fully due to a slightly unusual method of production – after fermentation, the beer is racked off into a second fermenter for two days. He said this isn't really long enough to count as conditioning, but it means that the yeast is more evenly distributed throughout the brew, giving a better result and more even cask conditioning – I guess it kind of homogenises the beer.
The brewery is open to visitors Monday to Wednesday from 10am-3pm, and Thursday to Saturday from 10am-5pm.On tap yesterday were the two regular beers, Ranmore Ale and Shere Drop, plus the current seasonal, the deliciously hoppy Greensand IPA. They sell the Shere Drop in bottles, and also all their current beers in plastic jugs containing multiples of a quart – we can confirm that a quart of Shere Drop disappears surprisingly quickly!

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Brewing at the Bull

Paid my first visit to the Bull in Highgate yesterday - as well as being a rather nice pub with great food and beer, it's the home of London Brewing Co., one of the capital's newer breweries and a member of the London Brewers Alliance. I was there to have a beer and a chat with US drinks writer John Holl - he's researching an e-book on the London pub scene, aimed at Americans coming here for this summer's activities.

Before I went over there, someone mentioned to me that he thought the pub had a new brewer, so I did some research via Google and Twitter, made a few connections, and came up with the name Tom Unwin. He seemed familiar, so I dug around online a bit more and sure enough, he'd taken me and some others on a tour of Brodie's Brewery a couple of years back - we'd arrived on a weekend when the Brodies were away and he was a brewing student getting some work experience.

It turns out that not only has he just finished university this summer, he's also only been at London Brewing for a week, so none of his beer's gone on the bar yet. I did get to sample a crisp and hoppy pale ale from the fermenter though, which showed lots of Columbus hops and plenty of promise - I believe that's been casked today, so it should be on a handpump before too long.

The brewery is basically in a corner of the Bull's kitchen and has a 2.5 barrel brewlength, which is a common size for brewpubs, it seems. Currently there are two fermenting vessels in the cellar below, and Tom hopes to add two more so he can go from only brewing twice a week to doing three or four runs. He doesn't actually stoop, by the way, it's just that the ceiling down there is several inches shorter than either him or me!

"I want to do a pale ale and a bitter, both as regular session beers, plus an American Pale Ale and some others," he says. "For example we have a Red Ale and the hoppy Pale Ale in the fermenters at the moment."

With each brew producing just eight firkins, the Bull absorbs pretty much all of London Brewing's output. Indeed, alongside the two house beers (Beer Street Bitter and Boadicea IPA) on the bar were several others - on my visit they included Thornbridge Wild Swan and another Pale Ale from East London Brewing. All those I tried were in excellent condition.

John and I also had a great chat with the Bull's head chef, who is clearly a man passionate about good food, and about good English and British food in particular. His Bourbon-glazed BBQ ribs were superb!

All in all, the Bull's a great pub. I just wish it was closer than an hour away - and that's an hour if you're lucky and there's no delays on the Northern line.

Sunday, 20 May 2012

Speed beer tasting

One of the experiments at this weekend's European Beer Bloggers Conference was speed tasting, or speed blogging. The idea was like speed dating: we'd get ten beers brought around, each one by the brewer or someone from the brewery, and then we'd have just five minutes for them to introduce themselves and the beer, and for us to taste and write about it.

It was a bit of a blur – maybe ten was too many beers, or maybe we needed ten minutes with each – but was good fun and it's an exercise that I reckon beer clubs or even beer festivals could easily copy or adapt.

For the brewer it makes you focus on your "elevator pitch", while for the tasters it makes you think fast; the only possible downside is you might find yourself focusing too much on the aroma and the initial flavours, and not enough on the longer body and finish of the beer.

Anyway, here's the beers, plus my notes which were either live-blogged into RateBeer or Untappd, or in some cases simply scribbled into my notebook...

1. Adnams Ghost Ship (4.5%)
Bottle, mid-gold, good Citra dry-hop aroma, dry palate with light biscuity malt, a little pine coming through in the mid-body, dry finish. Not too complex. 14/20

2. Innis & Gunn Scottish Pale Ale (7%)
Bottle. A new version of these by now well-known barrel-aged beers, this one was aged in a Bourbon cask and is currently only on sale in Sweden. It's lightly floral and a bit sweeter than the other I&G beers I've tried. 14/20

3. Leeds Hellfire (5.2%)
Bottle, pale light bitter, citrus nose, quite bitter at first, medium bodied, not complex in flavour. Designed to be drinkable from the bottle as well as a glass. (I suspect I'm not exactly in the target market for this one!) 13/20

4. Camden Town Hells (4.6%)
Bottle. A German-style helles but with the German hops swapped for American ones. Banana & grapefruit nose, like a fruity IPA, cloudy gold and quite gassy – and tasty. (I went back for seconds afterwards!) 14/20

5. Otley Oxymoron (5.5%)
Cask decanted into minikeg. Lots of piney hops on the nose, smoother body than some black IPAs. Six hops used. A little liquorice and treacle in the mouth. burnt bitter and a touch of choc in the finish. Hops overpower the malt somewhat. (I've had better Oxymoron before, but it's also not the best black IPA I've had (that's Windsor & Eton Conqueror 1075, then Thornbridge Raven.) 13/20

6. Marble Brewery/Emelisse Collaboration Earl Grey IPA (6.8%)
Bottle. Steeped with 3kg of tea, plus plus Citra hops. Deep gold and slightly hazy, with a big citrus and pine IPA nose. The body is hoppy at first but then smooths out, with hints of pineapple and a faint tannic tea note coming through in the finish. 15/20

7. Roosters Baby Faced Assassin (6.1%)
Cask & decanted into a jug, deep gold, dank piney nose, nice balance of sweet malt vs hops, hints of peach and mandarin and a little melon, smooth, full bodied. Good stuff. (Apparently this was a single-hop special edition one-off just for this event – that might be cheating a bit, but it was nice!!) 15/20

8. Great Heck Stormin Norman (6.5%)
Cask & decanted into a jug, dark gold/light amber with a coarse but clingy white head, fruity nose with pine hints, but then the body is surprisingly light for the ABV. Rather one-dimensional with an astringent acrid finish. Not very well balanced. 11/20

9. Slaters Top Totty (4%)
Bottle, gold with relatively high carbonation, grassy hops on the nose, crisp and wheaty (there is a portion of wheat in the grist), a little peppery hop, dry, light. Like a lager/ale cross. A nice summery beer. (This one I prefer in cask, though.) 12/20

10. Brains Dark (4.1%)
Bottle. A nice mild but it's better on cask in my experience, even though the bottled version has a higher ABV. It also may have suffered a little from coming to our table after a couple of hop-monsters... 12/20

I'm pretty sure I've got the above in the wrong order, but then I was live blogging in three different places If one of the others on my table posts the list in the right order, I will come back and correct mine. (-: