Monday 15 December 2014

At home with the Weird Beards

Trophy shelf!
Rated as the 5th best new brewery of 2013 globally by Ratebeer users, Weird Beard remains a dark horse to many. Based in West London – Hanwell to be accurate – it's away from crafty hotbeds such as Bermondsey or Tottenham, and some might say it's all the better for that. With the tagline “Never knowingly under-hopped” it's one of those breweries whose fans are hard-core, yet many beer lovers may never have tried their beers.

Having first met WB's Gregg and Bryan two or three years ago when they were home-brewers looking to go pro, giving away samples at the Egham beer festival to test the market, the Ratebeer award was little surprise to me. These guys know how to produce striking and interesting, yet very drinkable beers. So we kept in touch, and I was delighted when they finally found a suitable site for their brewery, and even more so when their beers started appearing in my local, the Magpie & Crown.

However, until last Friday I hadn't actually seen the new brewery. Being on an industrial estate next to the canal at the end of a no-through-road, they're not in an area that encourages Bermondsey-style drop-in brewery bars, and for much the same reason they prefer to do their off-sales via local shops. Then I learnt they were having a couple of open days, and given that Hanwell is just a hop and a skip away, I jumped on my bike.

3 of the 10bbl FVs
It's a 10-barrel plant (originally shared with Ellenbergs, who they subsequently bought out), and it's grown from two to four then six 10-barrel fermenters, and they have now even outgrown those. Two more fermenters are waiting to be plumbed in, and these are 20-barrel ones intended to take double-brews of what have become the regular beers – a list that includes Mariana Trench, Black Perle, Kentish Town BearD and Decadence Stout. Gregg says Faceless Spreadsheet Ninja will join the regular roster from January. And as well as acquiring more equipment, they've been taking on staff – they're currently recruiting for another brewer.

Sleeping beer...
As well as several beers in bottles to drink there or take away, they had four delicious beers on tap (keg) for the open days:

Faceless Spreadsheet Ninja is based on German Pilsner but with the addition of flavoursome hops – Citra in this case (it's largely based on an earlier trial brew called Citra Pilsner). It maddens me that German Pils is so samey – all using the same few boring hop varieties, and all just hopped for bitterness and aroma, not flavour. This just shows what Pils can be when brewed with imagination (and flavour!).

Originally brewed in collaboration with Brewdog's Camden bar and described as American Wheat Ale, Kentish Town Beard is what I think of as Hopfenweisse – a Weissbier or Weizen, massively hopped up. It's dank and hopsacky, with bitter orange and herby notes.

Decadence stout is rich, dark and chocolatey, with a fresh hoppy bite. Chewy and dry yet creamy, it slips down oh so easily.

Holy Hoppin' Hell – batch 5 in this case, with Centennial hops – is one of their show-off beers. It's a hop-bomb of a double IPA, brewed the same each time but with different hops, Yes, it's bitter, but think hoppy aromas and flavours – in this case pineapple, plus some pine and mandarin, and what I identified as faint notes of aniseed and thyme.

I'd a good catch-up with Gregg. He tells me that while most is key-kegged or bottled, they are still committed to also offering those beers that suit it in cask. They will only send casks to pubs they know can look after it and serve it on top form though – as well as the M&C, this list includes the Harp in Covent Garden, which he said is now their main cask outlet.

A couple of other snippets of news included that keg Decadence is going into the Craft Beer Company pubs from January, that they're going to experiment with canning a few of the beers, and that the session IPA Little Things that Kill is unfortunately going out of production. Apparently they could ferment it out, package it, deliver it – and then it would start going again. Its effective shelf-life was so short that some batches had unsustainable return rates. Shame.

Anyway, it was great to see how they've grown, and I'm looking forward to opening the two more bottles I brought home with me. Oh, and the hand-made beer truffles! Om nom nom...

Monday 8 December 2014

Review: Brewbarrel all-in-one homebrew kit

“Dehydrated beer – just add water!” It's a little more complicated than that, but that is pretty much the aim of Brewbarrel, a simple yet innovative homebrew kit from Germany (where it sells as Braufässchen). The innovation is that almost everything takes place in the one vessel – a five-litre minikeg that you also serve the beer from – so there is no need for any cleaning or moving liquids around, and that you can go from kit to drinkable beer in just one week.

Inside the ingredients box
The basic kit contains the keg, a pressure-release bung, instructions, a bottle of malt extract and a little pot of hop extract. This is what brewers call an all-extract kit, meaning there's no need to boil crushed malt and real hops. Real brewers tend to sniff at the lack of flexibility and craft in extract brewing, but it does makes it a lot simpler.

Of course there is also a sachet of yeast – one of the complexities in Brewbarrel's development was finding yeasts that would both work quickly and drop cleanly to the bottom once their work was done. And as well as a choice of golden or dark lagers, wheat beer (Weizen) and pale ale, you can specify additional flavourings, including extra hops. So while I tested a Dunkel with oak chips and honey, a homebrewer friend helped with another Dunkel and an extra-hoppy Weizen.

Fermentation begins
The brew process is simplicity itself. The first job is to get the malt extract into the keg, you then use the malt bottle as a measure for adding hot and cold water. Add the assorted flavourings (the muslin bag of oak chips was a pain to get through the hole, but the rest just pour), the yeast and the bung, and you are pretty much done.

Now you just leave it at room temperature for five days to ferment – or you do, if you don't spot the extra bit in the instructions about inverting the keg for a few moments after the first 24 hours, in order to mix up and revitalise (rouse, in brewer-speak) the yeast. After five days, you put it in the fridge for two more days, this stops fermentation and helps the yeast settle to the bottom.

Sadly, I missed the 24-hour step with my honey-oak Dunkel, so despite a lively initial fermentation, the result after chilling was a fairly weak and sweet malt drink. Fortunately, rousing the yeast and refermenting for another five days or so seemed to do the trick, producing a very lively red-brown beer, malty and a bit sweet, not especially strong and with a dry grassy and faintly herbal bitter finish. I found the honey a bit too much, but some other tasters liked it a lot.

Just a tad lively!
My friend's brews worked well – fermenting the wheat beer at a lower temperature also seemed to bring out extra banana notes. None of the beers was particularly full-bodied or bitter, even with the extra hops, but his were eminently drinkable in a week. With mine, I found that an extra week in the keg after tapping the first couple of pints improved the Dunkel – to my taste, at least. A slight dustiness moderated the sweetness, and allowed notes of dark dried fruit to play with the honey overtones.

In conclusion, Brewbarrel is an easy to use kit that produces decent beer, as long as you can follow instructions of course! 😞 It is a little pricey, with the basic £25 kit equating to around £3 a pint, and the beers are not going to frighten the horses, but it would make a fun gift and a good introduction for a potential homebrewer. It could also be a useful procrastination breaker for anyone suffering from "homebrewer's block" or a dispiriting run of bad brews.

Wednesday 19 November 2014

Cork's Franciscan Well lands in London

It's taken a while, but the Irish are coming – and this time they're bringing interesting beer. First we had Guinness reverse the trend of decades and add a significant amount of variety to its range, and now it is the turn of 16 year-old Cork microbrewery Franciscan Well to bring its craft beers across the water.

It's been helped in this by its parent Molson Coors, which bought Franciscan Well about two years ago. The Irish micro is now part of MC's Craft and Cask Beer group, alongside Sharp's of Cornwall and Worthington's. (Interestingly, this group also distributes a bunch of non-MC brands, including Greene King's bestsellers, several Marston's, Thwaites and Hook Norton ales, Fuller's London Pride, a bunch of American bottles, and various Belgians including Duvel/Vedett and Timmermans.)

Just as it was for Sharp's, one of the attractions for Franciscan Well founder Shane Long was the financial muscle that comes from being part of a multinational. In his case, this means access to the finance he needed to grow FW from its original seven-barrel plant to something an order of magnitude bigger, at 30 barrels. And of course it also means access to Coors' distribution channels, which is how three of his beers were launched on the UK market this month.

Initially they will try out in 20 bars around London – “We're in a few select bars to test the market,” Shane said (he also mentioned Edinburgh the last time we spoke). “We are building a bigger brewery now [but] we don't have the capacity yet to supply more.” He added that it also takes time to do the necessary education, training barstaff how to describe and sell the new beers.

The three Franciscan Well beers coming to London are Rebel Red, Chieftain IPA and Shandon Stout – I'd tried them (plus a couple of others) when I was in Dublin earlier this year, but I was lucky enough to taste them again, partnered with food at a sampling session hosted by Molson Coors. We met up in the basement bar at Smith's of Spitalfields, close to one of London's craft beer foci (and coincidentally just a stone's throw from where Guinness's new Porters had their UK launch event).

Des demo's getting the aroma
Our main guide for the evening was beer sommelier Des McCann, FW's chief taster and now Molson Coors' Beer Champion (or more formally, head of training and education) for the UK & Ireland. We started out with the Rebel Red (4.3%), in which I found more depth than I remembered. Des said had they'd had an engineer there all day, trying to get things right, tweaking the Red up to 6.5C and the carbonation down, which opens the flavours out a bit more. It was an intriguing hint that even non-real ales can be improved – or spoiled – by skilled cellarmanship.

He partnered it with a pulled-pork croquette, so melt-in-the-mouth gorgeous that I snagged seconds. It matched beautifully with the malty Rebel Red. With its notes of biscuit and toffee and its soft East Kent Goldings hoppiness, the Red was reminiscent of a malty bitter or perhaps some of the maltier German Altbiers.

Our second beer, Chieftain IPA (5.5%), is one of a new emerging group of mid-Atlantic hybrids. The way Shane now tells it, he asked the regulars at his brewery tap what they didn't like about American IPAs – “too much of a slap across the face” – and also what they didn't like about British IPAs – “too little hop aroma” – and set out to fix those things. “All the things you don't like about the Americans and the British, removed,” he joked.

A fairer way to put it might be to say it combines the attractive elements of both styles – the maltier body of a British Pale Ale plus all those lovely American hop aromas and flavours. The reason I suggest there's a new style of sorts emerging here is that Chieftain reminds me in this respect of several other beers from widely disparate origins, such as Scotland's Deeside Swift and Twickenham's new Tusk keg IPA.

Des partnered Chieftain with a juicy burger, topped with blue cheese, intending this time a contrasting pairing. It worked, but while I enjoyed the IPA's lychee and grapefruit aromas I found it too gassy. Des reckoned that being a bit higher in alcohol it needed the higher carbonation to “pull the body through a bit more.” Well, maybe! Either way, it's a sessionable (just about!) IPA that works well with food.

The final course was another complementary pairing: Shandon Stout (4.2%) with a bijou chocolate & stout cake. While its strength perhaps puts it more in Porter territory, this beer fits the style Shane's aiming for, which is a Cork dry stout, along the lines perhaps of Beamish. There's hints of coffee and cream in there, plus fainter notes of green apples and smoky bacon, and a dry burnt-bitterness. The overall effect was quite mild and some might say watery, reminding me of soft-bodied hybrids such as Schneider's Porter Weisse.

Chatting with the bar's beverage manager on the way out, he said Smith's would have the stout in the Spitalfields branch and both the stout and IPA in the Smithfields branch. His customers, he said, are a mix of same-again types who looks for known brands, and those willing to experiment, so the challenge is to balance the two without alienating either.

And I guess in a way that is also the challenge facing the likes of Franciscan Well, trying to establish a footing in the tremendously brand-dominated Irish market. The main styles are familiar enough, yet subtly different, and at the same time Shane and his team are having fun with a bit of experimentation. For instance, he tells the tale of going drinking one evening with the folks from Jameson's and mentioning ageing beer in whiskey barrels. The following day, “the head of Jameson's was sitting in my bar, saying 'So, what are you going to do?'”

Now, as well as the excellent 7.8% Jameson-aged Shandon Stout that I tasted in Dublin, there is a 6% barrel-aged version of his Purgatory Pale Ale (normally 4.5%). Shane said this is a special for some of the pubs on the Irish Whiskey Trail around Midleton in West Cork – Midleton being where Jameson's is now produced and the home of the Jameson Experience.

Friday 14 November 2014

How Wetherspoon's could change the face of Irish ale

JDW's Three Tun Tavern, Dublin
I hadn't realised just how big JD Wetherspoon's plans are for the Irish Republic, and just how much it could change the profile of real ale over there, until I caught up with Cork brewer Shane Long yesterday. He does produce cask ale at his Franciscan Well brewery, and he also runs a popular annual Irish cask ale festival with 50+ beers on offer, but most of his production is keg, simply because the Republic doesn't have enough bars with handpumps.

Indeed, he estimates there's probably only 20 pubs in the country serving cask ale right now (though of course there's more in Northern Ireland). However, that number is set to more than double over the next year or three with the arrival of JD Wetherspoon, which plans to spend up to €100 million developing a chain of pubs in the Republic.

The first Wetherspoon's south of the border - it already has numerous pubs in the north - opened in Dublin earlier this year, and a second Dublin (or rather, Dun Laoghaire) Spoons is due to open next month.

Shane expects the company to open at least 20 more around the country though, while the Belfast Telegraph suggests the total could be as high as 30. “They've four sites planned in Cork city alone, one in the centre and three in the suburbs, with the first probably opening next January,” Shane added.

Given that all are likely to have at least some real ale presence, here's hoping that it will be a big fillip to local brewers wanting to do more than just fizzy keg!

Wednesday 12 November 2014

Beer reviews: Deeside Brewery

Deeside Brewery's beers haven't been a common sight here in the south-east of England, although in their home region of Scotland I understand they are getting a fair bit of brand recognition now. That's in part thanks to deals with the likes of Aldi, who seem to be becoming a bit of a retail version of Wetherspoons – sniffed at by the snobs, but capable of both providing an excellent deal for consumers and supporting small brewers (alongside certain of the major regionals of course).

So when Deeside asked if I would like to try their beers I cheerfully accepted, and a little while later a box arrived containing five different bottled beers, all happily intact. They were quite a variety – as you might expect there's a bitter, a pale ale and a stout, but there's also a lager and a California Common, otherwise known as Steam Beer.

I'm going to run through them in alphabetical order, which by chance also happens to be roughly the order in which I preferred them, from least to most!

Craft Lager (4.1% Pale Lager)
Not just a lager but a Craft Lager, whatever that means these days. It poured light amber with a thin head, a little corn and apricot on the nose, herbal bitterness and a faint lemony tang. I'm not a great lager fan and for me this was the weakest of the five, but it was pleasant in a Helles-ish way.

LAF (California Common, 3.9%)
Now this was a curious one. It's a style that has been getting more attention recently – the idea behind both this and Germany's remarkably similar Dampfbier is to use lager yeast at ale temperatures, historically in shallow open fermenters. It poured golden with a fast-settling head and lightly honeyed, faintly herbal aromas. The body was fairly full, with golden fruit, drying bitterness, more herbal notes and touches of honey. It finished bitter-sweet. The herbal notes and dryness are typical of the style, and I think this is one that could easily grow on you.

Macbeth (4.1% Best Bitter)
Now this was one that needed no growing. Brown with a thin head, and aromas of caramel malt and faintly of toasted nuts, it is a tasty example of a classic Best Bitter. Crisp and nicely balanced with a firm dry malty backbone and earthy hops, and hints of spice and bread.

Swift (3.8% American Pale Ale)
More of a Golden Ale really – it's hoppier than the average British Pale Ale, but maltier than some APAs. Whatever, it's a rather nice hybrid! It's amber coloured with a thin head, and light notes of pepper, citrus and toffee on the nose. There's Seville marmalade bitterness and caramel on the palate, and a touch of biscuit in the body.

Talorcan (4.5% Stout)
The ABV is Porter territory rather than Stout, but Talorcan holds up well. It's near-black with a big coarse tan head – it really is quite gassy. (Burp.) it is also pretty complex – there's cocoa and a touch of tobacco on the nose, the body has a dry-creamy texture, with roast malts, cocoa, liquorice, touches of tart plum and old leather, a faint metallic mineral note, and a dry-bitterness. Interesting, and the best of the bunch, once I'd swooshed most of the gas out.

Overall, a decent range. I'll happily choose Macbeth (“the Scottish beer”?) or Talorcan whenever I see them again, and the others are worth trying too, especially as your palate probably differs from mine...

Wednesday 5 November 2014

International Stout Day 2014

Pretty much everything now seems to have its "International Day of", with Stout being no exception. And this year's is tomorrow....

I'm not entirely sure where Stout Day has popped up from, but as it's one of my favourite beer styles I'm not complaining.

There's even a badge for it (which I've borrowed here) on the beery social network Untappd, if you're a member of that.

However... I just Googled for an International Porter Day, and there isn't one! Bah. So, how about it? Anyone?

Friday 31 October 2014

The problem with pumpkins

Have you found any decent Hallowe'en beers this year? They've become something of a staple in the UK, and are starting to appear now in other European countries too, even though none of it reaches the heights of obsessiveness that American drinkers must endure.

Part of the problem is the obsession with pumpkins. These American gourds have relatively little flavour of their own, and to bring out any sort of decent flavour out of them you need spices. Ginger is my preference here, but brewers and bakers tend to go for the likes of cloves, nutmeg and cinnamon instead. So what you get is mostly just a spiced beer - a few brewers even admit there's no pumpkin in their Hallowe'en beer, and that where the label says "pumpkin-spiced ale" it is 100% accurate - it is spiced with "pumpkin spices".

One pumpkin beer that's fairly widely available is Wychwood's Pumpking, I've had this year's edition though and it was overwhelmed by burnt caramel flavours and generally unimpressive. The same brewer's version of Night Owl Pumpkin Ale, based on a recipe from US brewery Elysian and brewed for the current Wetherspoon real ale festival, was rather better - at 6% it's also almost double the strength of the distinctly non-kingly 3.8% Pumpking.

(Incidentally, Pumpking was originally 5%, then 4.5% and 4.2%, before dropping to its current poor status last year. And they still have the cheek to describe it as a "rich ruby ale". Shame on you, Wychwood.)

The best so far for not being over-spiced was this year's London Fields Brewery Pumpkin Ale, launched during a Hallowe'en party at the brewery tap in Hackney last night. Another 6%er (last year's edition was 6.6%), it's properly beery as well as being spiced.

Sadly, the same wasn't true of the other ale London Fields launched last night. Called Gyle 666 (presumably because it was their 666th brew - they are currently brewing at least 10 times a week!!), this is a chilli brown ale, but even 6.6% ABV isn't able to save it from being over-sweet, over-chillied and a tad one-dimensional.

Look out for the LFB Pumpkin Ale though - and also the Night Owl, if your local Spoons hasn't sold out already.

Thursday 16 October 2014

Cask ale brewing is back in SE1

New breweries continue to appear in London, but one of the more interesting things about the latest start-up – it was due to begin brewing on its new 10-barrel kit this week – is that it is an unashamedly real ale-only brewery in the heart of Crafty Bermondsey.

Yes, the famed Bermondsey Beer Mile, which formerly only produced cask-conditioned beer on rare occasions, now has a regular cask outlet in the shape of Southwark Brewing Co. Based in a railway arch at 57 Druid Street and well within the Borough of Southwark, the brewery is just a few arches up from Anspach & Hobday and Bullfinch Brewing, and is a new westernmost extension to the Beer Mile.

However, while the brewery tap will be open on Fridays and Saturdays, and maybe also Thursdays in the run up to Yule, the main aim is to ride the localism trend and sell LocAles to pubs across the London SE and SW region.

They plan to brew three times a week to start with, so that's a fair bit to sell – as one commentator on Ratebeer asked, have we reached “peak beer” now, with new entrants finding it incrementally harder to sell their wares to a limited pool of free-houses? After all, they may be the brewery most local to SE1, but outside that they're as local as Sambrooks, Truman and even Fullers.

Still, co-founder and brewer Andy Nichol has a finance background – he's formerly a lecturer, but learnt to brew under the tutelage of business partner Peter Jackson, who is an ex-Marstons exec – so he has done his research. Certainly, there's a lot of money gone into the set-up, mostly sourced from friends and family, says Andy, but also with help from government schemes to support investment in small businesses, and the two are being advised by Sean Franklin, the founder of Roosters Brewery who now works as a consultant.

The brewery already has several recipes to its credit – the core brews will be its fruity, hoppy and golden London Pale Ale (LPA) at 4%, and a traditional 4.4% best bitter in the shape of Bermondey Best, but there's also other such as Peter's Stout, a bottled 8.9% Russian Imperial Stout brewed in honour of Peter the Great who visited London in 1698. These were all brewed on its small test kit, however – basically a large homebrew set-up – and the next task for its brewers will be to scale those recipes up to a full-length brew.

Friday 3 October 2014

Lost London breweries back in action

Last night was the preview of a new London brewpub on Torrens Street, just around the corner from Angel tube station in Islington. Formerly a gastropub called the Arc, it is now the first London base of a growing chain called Brewhouse & Kitchen which already has venues in Portsmouth and Dorchester, and will soon open a fourth in the former Junction pub in Highbury, just up the road from the Angel.

B&K Islington is a big space on the ground floor of a modern building, decorated in an eclectic and only occasionally clichéd style: bare brick walls, bookcases, old suitcases turned into picture frames, and huge copper light fittings that bring brewing vessels to mind. And then at the back, there is the brewkit, all wood and steel – and looking awfully familiar.

As well it should, because it's the same brewkit that used to reside in the Botanist on Kew Green and was ripped out by pubco M&B after it bought the Botanist and the other pubs owned by the small Convivial group. Even better, M&B also ripped the brewkit out of the Lamb in Chiswick, and that's being installed in B&K Highbury, so that's two lost breweries returned to the city.

It's a little convoluted, but as I understand it, two of the directors of Convivial – which was London-focused – had also set up B&K as a separate company to develop a similar gastro-brewpub format elsewhere. Since then, B&K has been buying up whatever pub-scale brewing kit it can, ready for new sites as they come along – Islington head brewer Peter Hughes (who is ex-Mighty Oak Brewery) said there's still two or three breweries in storage. Also on-board with B&K is Mark Wainwright, the original head brewer from the Botanist and now in Dorchester, while the former manager of the Botanist is now running B&K Islington.

Anyway, the new brewpub opens to the public next Monday (October 6th). There was a reasonable range of ales on at the preview, albeit a fairly 'safe' one, and only the Spandau B session IPA was actually brewed on site. Peter's done several brews there already, but reckons it can take you a dozen to get used to a new brewkit. For instance, when you move liquid between vessels there's a temperature drop which will affect things such as the attenuation, so you could end up with a thinner but more alcoholic brew than you wanted. While your experience as a brewer lets you make a good guess, only knowing the brewkit well will get it right.

He added that it took him two days just to get the brewkit clean and replace various pumps and seals – M&B had left it idle for months before selling it, and then it was in store. And he talked of plans to exchange beers with B&K Highbury – the six-barrel brewkit going in there is capable of brewing lagers, whereas his 2.5 barrel kit is for ales, so it would make sense.

The beer variety will very likely increase too – Peter is friendly with the brewers at West London's Weird Beard, for example, so he's no stranger to interesting and/or hop-forward craft ales. Fingers crossed... All in all, this is a very promising start, with a lot of investment and an experienced (and very multinational!) team involved, and I look forward to revisiting in a couple of weeks to see how it is going.

Thursday 25 September 2014

Cask Ale Week brings 18,000 beers and free pints

Cask Ale Week 2014 starts today, although as it runs until Sunday 5th October I suppose it's really only a week if, like the mad French revolutionaries, you support a decimal week of 10 days.

Anyhoo... There's all sorts of things going on, including free beer, meet-the-brewer sessions, festivals, ale trails and so on. And there 's the launch of this year's Cask Report, which says there's now over 18,000 different beers available in Britain, the majority of which are cask-conditioned or real ale. (It actually says “available each year” but I find that hard to believe as it could imply 70 new beers being added every working day. Although as Britain now has around 1300 breweries, I suppose that is just improbable, not impossible!)

One of the interesting snippets from the report is that publicans are for more stuck in the mud on real ale stereotypes than drinkers are. It says that 43% of publicans agreed with the statement ‘Most cask ale drinkers are middle aged men with beards and sandals’ and 41% agreed with the statement ‘Women don’t like cask ale’, while only a fraction of that number of drinkers agreed.

“These are outdated stereotypes that need to be consigned to the proverbial slop bucket,” said the report's author Pete Brown, “and as the beer revolution and the real savouring of taste continues, no doubt they will be.” It is a worry however, because if publicans believe that sort of nonsense they could harm both the availability and the reputation of real ale. You can read Pete's initial summary of the research behind the report on his blog here.

Oh yes, free beer: one source is the FreeDrinkPubs website. Register on the site and it'll email you a coupon that you can print off. You can only redeem it at participating pubs – mostly pubco pubs selling national brands, but many of them are excellent places to drink.

Another is reportedly the Daily Telegraph this coming Saturday (27th September) which will carry a free pint token, and then there's the likes of pubco TCG (formerly the Tattershall Castle Group), which as well as its former namesake on the Thames also has several dozen other venues around the country. It's running a promo called Proud of our Ale until 9th November; this includes a buy-six-get-one-free offer, which is not quite as generous as the more traditional BOGOF, but every little helps – especially when there's also 20% off for CAMRA members, which I guess equates to buy-five-get-one-free. Can you combine the two for buy-six-get-two-free? No idea, but here's hoping!

Have you seen any more free beer or discount offers? Let me know below. Cheers m'dears...

Friday 12 September 2014

Spoons gets craftier

JD Wetherspoon is rolling out craft keg beers across 200 pubs, with availability due from 1st October. The first two beers on tap will be BrewDog's pretentiously named and pompously launched This.Is.Lager., while the other will be an American-style IPA from well regarded US brewer Devils Backbone, but contract brewed in the UK (so I hear) by Adnams.

Here's the tap badges, aren't they dreadful?

The DB one doesn't even tell you the beer name, never mind its style or strength. Still, I foresee local managers coming up with creative fixes for this.

JDW will also be stocking Lagunitas IPA and Rogue American Amber in bottles, according to its Twitter account - presumably these will be the US-made versions. Apparently the Sixpoint beers are staying around, by the way.

Saturday 6 September 2014

Guinness looks to the past for new Porters

After many months of planning, here we have it: two new Porters from Guinness, both of them “inspired by” historical recipes and aimed, if not at the craft beer bars, then certainly at those pubs and bars who like to carry a varied beer menu. They come from Diageo's relatively new The Brewers Project, set up to enable its brewers “to explore new recipes, reinterpret old ones and collaborate freely”.

The first, Guinness Dublin Porter, is a 3.8% dark beer based on a recipe from 1796, which will surprise those who believed that historical beers tended to be stronger than this. "3.5% to 3.8% would have been typical of working men's Porters at that time," explained Guinness archivist Evelyn Roche, adding that Porter strengths started rising from this sub-4% region coming into the 1800s.

This version was described by its brewer Peter Simpson as “more accessible than Guinness Draught,” and will be available in keg and bottle. It's all-grain, with small amounts of both roasted and raw barley, and hopped with English Goldings. “One of the biggest challenges was interpreting the quantities and units used, and then it was the type of hops used,” Peter explained. “It got to the point where we settled on Goldings which would have been one of the most common types at the time.”

I found it a pleasant Porter, if a bit watery. There's a touch of coffee on the nose, then caramel, hints of roast chocolate and a light bitterness. It's not so different from the many other Porters at around this strength, including several supermarket own-brands, but of course they don't have the Guinness name on the label.

Available in bottles only and at 6%, Guinness West Indies Porter is based on a recipe from 1801 which Evelyn said was the precursor to Foreign Extra Stout. It's dry-bitter with notes of coffee, liquorice, a touch of old leather, and maybe a hint of nuttiness. By comparison, FES is drier, a little more bitter and has sourish notes – the latter deliberately concocted these days, in a special bacterial souring plant within St James's Gate.

Sadly for the Guinness folk, who had planned a surprise launch at a secret venue in hipster Spitalfields, their embargo was broken by Morrisons which had the new beers on its shelves the day before the official launch. I suspect that Words Have Been Had....

Peter Simpson and the new/old Porters
The Porters are the first commercial fruit from the pilot brewery at St James's Gate. This has both an automated one hectolitre (100 litre) brewkit and a manual 10hl plant similar to what you'd find in many microbreweries. Peter explained that the pilot brewery is used for several things besides developing new beers – brewing the winners of the Diageo annual staff beer-creation competition, testing ingredients for flavour stability, trying out new processes and so on.

However, he stressed that they are not specials or one-offs – they are now permanent members of the Guinness range, and have graduated to being brewed several hundred hectolitres at a time in the vast and brand-new Brewhouse no.4 at St James's Gate.

And he says Diageo is not jumping on the craft bandwagon – rather, this is an attempt to widen the Guinness range in a market that increasingly seeks variety. As he explained, “I think craft has enabled us, in that it really is a revolution in taste, and we're bringing Guinness back to what it used to be.”

So what of the beers? Sure, the tickers and completists will hunt them down, if they haven't been to Morrisons already. For the rest of us, they add a more modern take on Porter – and yes, Guinness is hoping to win another foot of supermarket shelf space in the three-for-a-fiver 'premium beers' rack, where it has only been represented by FES. They are well made and presented – though not bottle-conditioned – and certainly worth trying for anyone who likes dark beers (as I do).

As a beer aficionado though, I can't help sensing a missed opportunity. It's fascinating – Guinness is full of wonderfully skilled brewers who are passionate about what they do. They have first-rate gear to work with and massive resources in terms of sourcing ingredients and so on, yet the finished product almost always has an ever so slight feel of dumbed-downness about it. It's as if it gets filtered through the Diageo bureaucracy, and in the process made just a bit safer, just a bit more average.

The one exception I can think of is the 8% ABV Guinness Special Export, which as I understand it is produced not to the specifications of Diageo but to those of its Belgian distributor John Martin. There might be a clue there.

Still, as one of the Guinness staff said, these are the first two of what they hope will be a bigger range. Perhaps if they see success in the market the Diageo high-ups will relax a little and trust their brewers, allowing future brews to push the envelope a bit more. It is a challenge though – Peter mentioned that his team's been experimenting with barrel-ageing beers, including a Special Export aged in a rum barrel that came out at 13% and was “absolutely delicious!” The problem of course is translating such things to the sort of volumes that Guinness needs to operate at. 

Thursday 4 September 2014

London Fields Eastside Saison

The latest in London Fields Brewery's occasional Bootlegger series is a 5.5% Saison, and what a nice example of the style it is. It's also cask-conditioned and on handpump, which makes it all the more refreshing and genuine - I mentioned this to LFB head brewer Fabio Israel (I'll post a longer interview with him here as soon as I get the time) and he agreed that it's more "farmhouse" than the fizzy versions you'll find in the craft bars.

Just to prove the point, the taproom also had the Saison on keg, but that version was lacklustre and ordinary, all fizz and no knickers you might say (but probably wouldn't!).

So anyway, the cask version is a deep gold and the first impression is almost a Dortmunder Export, malty and faintly sweet, before that funky farmhouse Saison note sweeps in, accompanied by a dry and lightly peppery bitterness. There's also ginger and grains of paradise (another gingery spice) in there, contributing a spiciness most evident in the aftertaste.

Saison is still fashionable in the UK, although some might argue it has already jumped the shark in the US, to be supplanted by the likes of Farmhouse IPA (essentially an even hoppier Saison). Meanwhile in places such as Germany it is only just taking off. I had my first two German Saisons (and one of those was actually brewed in Belgium) earlier this year. A spiced cask version makes it a bit more interesting and is to be applauded - look out for it!

(Disclaimer: I'm sat in the brewery taproom ahead of tonight's public launch for the beer, and have a glass of cask Eastside Saison in front of me...)

Saturday 30 August 2014

Fuller's open day

Hooves bigger than my head!
Many thanks to the Fuller's team and all their friends and helpers for an excellent open day at the Griffin Brewery today. The small Vikings enjoyed their horse-drawn dray (well, wagon) ride, plus the barbeque, the cake stall, the face-painting and the tombola. Oh ,and the fire engine!

As I had to drive them there, I partook only gently of the outdoor bar, which offered keg Frontier, Cornish cider and cask Pride for the equivalent of £1 a pint*, but there was a fuller (ho ho) range on in the Hock Cellar, including Fuller's Summer Ale and Gale's Beachcomber next to each other on the bar.

Also in the cellar was an opportunity to taste some of the bottled beers, a tombola, and a "decorate your own mini-cask with stickers" corner for the kids. Sadly, the mini-cask the boy decorated and brought home was empty...

*I say "the equivalent" as the currency for most of this was bottletops. You could buy a bag of 10 for a fiver (they're new and unused ones so don't go rooting round to see if you have any used ones in the bin!) then 'spend' them on the bars and stalls.

If I understood rightly, all the income from selling them goes to one of three local charities, depending on the type of tops you chose to buy, with the goods actually being donated. A nice touch, and a lot better than simply giving things away.

Wednesday 20 August 2014

Stout 'n' Sour

Normally I'm a big fan of sour beers such as Berliner Weisse, Gose and Gueuze. It does help though if they are brewed to be that way. Tonight's example - a Baltic Night stout from Oxfordshire's Compass Brewery, which I picked up in the local Oddbins - is a bit more challenging, as while it has a tartness on the nose and a pronounced sour character, I can't believe it is meant to be like that.

Indeed, the brewer's original description referred to "a well balanced roasted bitterness as well as a hoppy aroma." It added that "The high percentage of roasted barley that we use to create it also gives it a lovely hint of coffee and a long dry moreish cocoa finish."

The cocoa and roast coffee are definitely there, but so is an intrusive sourness, and it's not the Brettanomyces sourness one might expect in an aged stout, but more the lactic sourness of Berliner Weisse. Turning to Ratebeer I see I'm not alone - several other recent reviews refer to a sourness or a lactic tang.

I'm trying to enjoy it anyway. I like sours as I said, and stout is a favourite of mine too, so I'm trying to tell myself this might be what you'd get if you tried crossing two styles, as Schneider Weisse did with its latest Tap X, Porter Weisse. It's kind of growing on me, but only kind of!

Interestingly, I see Compass does make at least one beer as a seasonal that is meant to be sour.

Incidentally, there was an earlier omen that not all was well here. When we talk about cracking a bottle open, we don't usually mean it literally. But tonight it's exactly what I did - the bottle rim came away with the cap! I poured the beer anyway, but through a tea-strainer. And I suspect the bottle-opener rather than the bottle - it's one I rarely use, grabbed since my once-trusty Swiss Army Knife has gone AWOL.

Have any readers had similar strange hybrid beery experiences? (Or seen my Swiss Army Knife?!?)

Saturday 16 August 2014

Cool times at the London Craft Beer Festival

So that's the second London Craft Beer Festival – and what a nice event it is! I was there on the Friday for the second session, but at the time of writing there were still tickets available for the Saturday night and Sunday sessions.

Ours was an afternoon session, so there was no music – apparently it really livened up in the evening with bands playing. I'm not upset to have missed that because it would have made it a lot harder to chat with fellow drinkers and the folk from the breweries. Indeed, there was a lot of serendipitious chatting going on, the “What have you got there? What's been good so far? Have you heard the Test Match score?” sort of thing.

Needless to say, there were lots of interesting beers, plus a few experiments that didn't really work! It's done on an all-inclusive tasting approach, where your £35 ticket covers as many 90ml (one-sixth of a pint, 3.3oz) tastings as you want, plus you get four tokens for third-pint pours – although there was so much to sample that I only got around to using one of my tokens.  If you've been to the Great American Beer Festival, say, or more recently the Copenhagen Beer Celebration, you'll recognise the model.

It also wasn't too crowded – I don't think it was a total sell-out, but you wouldn't want it much fuller than this. That made for short waits at the bar and a more relaxed atmosphere to chat. One of the fascinating things about beer is that there is always something more to learn. No matter how much I've already learnt and can explain to others, every time I talk to people in the business I learn something new – and so it was yesterday, with techie discussions on how to condition beer, side-effects of sour mashing, and the like.

Oh, and while it was promoted as a beer festival for London, and a lot of the brewers present are from London (eg. Kernel, Partizan, Brew By Numbers, Pressure Drop, Redchurch), several are not, including two from the US and three from Belgium.

On the other hand, LCBF was not an unalloyed success. In particular, the cask ale – this bar featured the likes of Redemption, Burning Sky, Kirkstall and Sierra Nevada (the latter sent over in the same consignment that they send to GBBF) – was too warm by a few degrees, making it somewhat lifeless. I wasn't the only one who noticed, and one of the other visitors told me that as we left, staff were trying to sort it out.

Lack of experience handling casks? Perhaps, and I'd suggest that the organisers call round the cellar managers who do the local CAMRA beer festivals for help – except that one penalty of running your festival at the same time as GBBF is that they will all be busy there this week! I'm sure it will be fixed for next year, anyway.

Scenic Bethnal Green
I do wonder too about the ticket price - £35 seems quite a big hurdle to jump, but maybe that's just me, as you could easily pay that much for a night out in town. Plus, maybe it allows the organisers to keep attendance at a comfortable level. It certainly doesn't have the oppressive zoo-like feel of GBBF, and felt more relaxed than many local CAMRA festivals.

I guess if you sampled every beer there and used all your extra tokens, you could get maybe ten or a dozen pints down you (and there were several in excess of 10% ABV), which in theory makes it excellent value. I'm not sure I know many people who could manage 60-70 drinks in five hours though. Not aficionados who want to enjoy what they're drinking, anyhow... (I only managed 20-ish, but then I was also trying to interview people and take notes.)

All in all then, will I go again next year? Here's hoping!

Disclaimer: I got a discounted ticket at the "friends and press" price (Friday afternoon trade session only), hence my musings about the £35 full price.

Thursday 14 August 2014

Drink beer, talk (non)sense

There is a bit of nonsense – and to be fair, a bit of sense – being talked this week about craft beer and real ale, as if the two were somehow mutually exclusive. CAMRA, we are told, is out of touch and needs to change the Great British Beer Festival – which is currently focused on cask-and bottle-conditioned beers – to include the new kegged craft beers that are stealing all the headlines.

Yet I look around GBBF and I see craft beer everywhere. Some of it is 'traditional craft' – breweries that have been in business for decades or centuries, making finely-crafted ales the way our forefathers did (and all that jazz). Some is old brewers learning new ways – there is a Brains Craft Brewery bar, for instance, offering four or five of its newest craft ales. And others are new-wave craft – Hardknott has beers here, as do Burning Sky, Arbor, Ilkley and lots more.

At the same time, the London Craft Beer Festival opened today – I'll be along there tomorrow, I hope. It's promising draught and bottled beer from two-dozen breweries, mostly from the UK and the rest of Europe, plus two from the USA.

The only thing that divides the two is the method of dispense. CAMRA favours cask-conditioning, and with good reason – plenty of the modern craft brewers also put (some of) their beer in casks because they know that, properly treated, it can be a superb way to develop the flavours and carbonation over time.

Most keg beer on the other hand – though not all, because some can and does condition in the keg – is intended to be drunk the way it leaves the brewery. That is not a bad thing at all, although it can be limiting.

Yes, CAMRA has its Puritans, but I'd bet that most members here at GBBF will drink anything that's well made and flavoursome. And they won't care whether it comes out of a handpump or not (just as well really, because most other CAMRA beer festivals serve their beers by gravity, straight from a tap on the cask).

The odd thing is that craft keg has its Puritans too. They regard cask conditioning and especially handpumps as signs of 'old men's ale', stuff to be revolted against – just as CAMRA revolted against the fizzy, homogenised and often tasteless keg beers of the 1970s. On Twitter, they complain that this year's Champion Beer of Britain, Timothy Taylor's Boltmaker, is a boring bland brown bitter instead of a hop-forward tastebomb.

It's funny really. Plus ça change, and all that. Sometimes you need subtlety rather than obviousness, and sometimes you ought to wonder why some of those US craft brewers you idolise are so intrigued by cask ale – to the extent that they will do collaborations with JD Wetherspoon in order to brew a properly cask-conditioned ale, based on traditional craft methods, and then see it get a national release served in ale-led pubs on handpump.

Sometimes you really do have to say, "A pint please" and get on with it.

Tuesday 12 August 2014

GBBF 2014

The 2014 Great British Beer Festival is well underway. The trade session opened a few hours ago, and the first real public session (although if you buy a season ticket, it also covers the trade session) starts this evening. This year's Champion Beer of Britain will be announced in a few minutes...

Monday 11 August 2014

London Beer City

So, London Beer City starts this week. When I first read about it, I was a bit narked, mainly because there was no mention at all of the real reason why so many beer fans come to London in early August: CAMRA's Great British Beer Festival, which opens tomorrow at Olympia. Instead, it was promoting the new London Craft Beer Festival, which seemed determined to compete head-on with the GBBF.

What made it more galling was that it was CAMRA that ran the first London City of Beer promotion in 2012. (I assume this is why the latest version is 'Beer City' not the more usual City of Beer – and as a disclaimer, I did a bit of work helping write and edit the LCoB guidebook.)

In the weeks since, I have mellowed a lot, and am now very much looking forward to attending as many LBC events as I can, from GBBF and LCBF onwards.

To be honest, while LCoB did cover more than just real ale, and while there were associated events and tastings, and the tourist agencies were on-board, it was not as broadly-based as it should have been. Part of this came from its focus specifically on visitors to London. And while it wasn't the doing of CAMRA's Puritan regiments – LCoB was mostly the work of CAMRA's urban liberals such as myself – there is inevitably a real ale focus to everything CAMRA does. Even the vital pub preservation work it does is driven by the fact that the pub is the main outlet for real ale.

It has also helped a lot that London Beer City now recognises and mentions GBBF (“the world's greatest cask ale event”), and has developed a distinctive identity of its own, as a celebration of London beer and of London's brewing renaissance, and pulling in support from the London Brewers Alliance.

So I'm looking forward to it – and I'm especially looking forward to the London Craft Beer Festival, as well as to GBBF. There is definitely room for both in a city this big and diverse! LCBF is a lot smaller for a start – just 24 breweries from the UK, the rest of Europe and the US – but the beers should be rather different from the GBBF range.

PS. A word to the LBC team – London's a big place. It's great to have links to venue maps in the schedule, but what could be more useful is an overall map showing where all the events are, so we can see what's local, which ones could be done together, etc. There could even be one for each day...

Sunday 10 August 2014

When is a beer not a beer?

Earlier this year, Hamburg's Ratsherrn Brewery commissioned a new 4hl pilot brewery with the aim of expanding its ale range, under the stewardship of brewmaster Ian Pyle, who trained in Bavaria and the US. I recently tasted one of its fruits – Belgisches Wit, a Belgian Witbier flavoured with coriander, orange peel and camomile blossom.

It's only when you look closely that you realise there is something strikingly absent from the label: the word Bier. Instead it is a Brauspezialität, a Speciality Brew, with 'Witbier' appearing only in the fine print – Ian says this was actually a mistake, as it could make the label illegal.

Yes, this is a non-beer.

It feels almost Orwellian. Thanks to the modern-day version of a medieval law enacted to create a cartel for the megabrewers of the day, the presence of herbs means this cannot be called beer in Germany, unless the brewery goes through an appeal process to obtain an exemption.

(These exemptions are possible and I believe the modern law is more relaxed than the old one, especially for top-fermented beers, but I guess that it is too expensive and time-consuming for a one-off or low-volume product. For example, it took 10 years and a court case for Neuzeller Kloster to win the right to put Bier on the label of its historic sweetened Schwarzbier.)

The Belgisches Wit itself is very nice – lightly floral and spicy, over a refreshing fruity yet dry body. Apparently it has a good chance of graduating from the microbrewery to volume production on Ratsherrn's main 50hl plant.

Friday 1 August 2014

A hoppy weekend in Lower Saxony

We're in Germany on holiday, and last week I spotted an article in the local free newspaper* mentioning that nearby microbrewery Sommerbecker Dachs was having a family-friendly** summer festival for its fifth birthday. So on Saturday afternoon we headed out of town to the tiny village of Sommerbeck.

When the boy and I walked in, 30 minutes after the nominal 3pm opening time, we could only see two other visitors and the staff were still setting up the tills. He jumped onto the (free) bouncy-castle and I went for a beer.... I hadn't tried the Dachs Pils before – it proved to be a Landbier Pils in the northern style, so slightly hazy with a yeasty note, and with lots of bitterness but very little actual hop flavour. Not really my thing, in other words.

Once the girls arrived and we got a table, things picked up. The boy got his face painted (also free) and played on the slackline/tightropey thing, the baby was passed around and much admired, we were assumed to be local because, well, everyone else was, and my choices of beer improved. The Märzen was darker than the last time I tried it – more orange-brown than gold, with nutty and toffee notes and a touch of orange marmalade, while the Schwatt – their version of a Schwarzbier – was creamier and more Stouty than I remember.

Also interesting was the Hopfenstopfer – basically a hopped-up Helles or Pils that actually tastes and smells of hops, and in particular of hops other than the usual grassy German and Czech types. I think it translates as hop plunger or hop tamper, and to me it signifies that the brewer wants to do something a bit crafty, but doesn't want to "go foreign" with a Pale Ale or IPA. It was a nice example anyhow, with citrus and melon aromas and a spicy, tropical fruit accented body.

Also on tap, slightly unusually for the time of year, was the Dachs Bock. (Dachs – as in Dachshund – means badger, and the brewery mascot is indeed a stuffed badger.) Dark mahogany in colour, it had a malty nose with sultanas and cocoa notes, then a spicy-bitter body with touches of toffee, dried fruit and orange marmalade. Rather like a stronger version of the Märzen, and pretty tasty, hiding its 7.5% ABV well.

Then on Sunday we had planned a visit to Klindworths, easily the best brewpub I've found in northern Germany. Yet it's one that's not much known outside, in part because they don't sell their beer anywhere else – apart from a few beer festivals and parties where you might find their Beer Bus, an old VW camper converted into a mobile two-tap bar.

Things nearly went awry when the rest of the tribe announced that they wanted to go swimming first, but fortunately I remembered there's a Freibad, or open-air swimming pool, almost next door to the pub. So we were lightly sunned and watered by the time we sat down in the beer garden – and started batting away the flies while we waited for our dinner....

On tap were the Landbier Pils – a far better example of a flavoursome bitter lager than the Dachs one – plus the Weizen, the Keiler German brown bitter, the Pale Ale and the IPA. I went first for the Pale Ale, as I already knew it to be excellent and I thought going for the 6.7% IPA on an empty tummy might not be wise. It did not disappoint – refreshingly dry-bitter, with loads of hops and a malty body. Brewer Niko calls it his interpretation of British Pale Ale; I'd say it is as hoppy as an American Pale Ale, but fuller bodied than the average APA.

Then it was time for the IPA – the only one of his regular or seasonal beers that I'd not tried yet. It's a chunky and thoroughly moreish IPA in the American vein, full of hops and with a warming alcohol bite, yet malty enough to not be overpowering. Even at 6.7%, it's balanced enough to go back for seconds, which I duly did.

Thankfully I wasn't the one driving back – one of the challenges of Klindworths is that it is awkward to get to unless you're already in the area (there's a campsite by the Freibad, and the pub does B&B). There are buses from Buxtehude, but the service is not very frequent and it stops running quite early too. I'd have gone there a lot more often otherwise!

*These still report stuff and are widely read, unlike the UK equivalents which are almost all run now by bread-heads too stupid to realise that if they cut or de-skill all the running costs, ie. journalists, no one reads the result and they lose all the advertising revenue that they're so greedy for.

**One of the things I miss in Britain is that very few beer festivals seem genuinely family-friendly.

Tuesday 29 July 2014

Avenir Ladencafé

Good heavens, Luneburg now has a craft beer café! Avenir Laden & Café also sells cold-brewed coffee, organic wine and deli stuff, second-hand books and so on, and is just off the main shopping area on Katzen-Strasse, not far from the market square.

It's very much "in the mould" – bare floors, jam-jars as glasses, furniture upcycled from crates and so on. The beer is mostly modern German craft and crafty brews – eg. Crew Republic, Ratsherrn, Kehrweider, the Brewers & Union beers which are nominally South African but are brewed for Europe by Arcobräu in Bavaria (or so I understand), plus one that's new to me – Hamburg-based Von Freude.

There are a few English examples – I've noticed than when German beer fans turn to British beer, it is often for the darker ones, and here it's Fuller's London Porter and Sam Smith's Oatmeal Stout. You can't go too far wrong with those two!

It's also the first place I've found Mumme on sale – a legendary rich, sweet and relatively low-alcohol ale that's possibly the only German beer mentioned by Shakespeare. This particular rare survival is Segelschiff Braunschweiger Mumme: this turned into a non-alcoholic malt drink over the centuries, but a few years ago a 5.2% ABV version was reintroduced as a special edition. There's a bottle now in my bag, and I'm looking forward to trying it....

Thursday 24 July 2014

West Coast IPA - English launch tour

Green Flash head brewer Chuck Silva is in England right now to launch the European brewed West Coast IPA. The brewery's UK distributor The Bottle Shop has set up a tour for him to visit outlets around the country – and no, I've no idea why they have no dates in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland.

The remaining dates for this tour are:

Thursday 24th July - Leeds
6.30pm: North Bar - 24 New Briggate, Leeds, West Yorkshire, LS1 6NU

Friday 25th July - Sheffield
3pm: Beer Central - Outlet MS3, The Moor Market. Sheffield, S1 4PF
5pm: Shakespeare’s Pub - 146-148 Gibraltar St, Sheffield, S Yorks, S3 8UB

Saturday 26th July - Liverpool
3pm: The 23 Club/The Clove Hitch, 23 Hope Street Liverpool, L1 9BQ

Thursday 31st July – London
5pm: Harrild & Sons - 26 Farringdon St, London, EC4A 4AB
7pm: Earl Of Essex - 25 Danbury St, London, N1 8LE
9pm: Kings Arms - 11A Buckfast St, London, E2 6EY

Friday 1st August – London
7pm: BrewDog Shepherds Bush - 15-19 Goldhawk Road, London, W12 8QQ

Saturday 2nd August – London (Beer for Brunch Event)
Midday: BrewDog Shoreditch - 51-55 Bethnal Green Rd, London, E1 6LA

Sunday 3rd August – Cambridge
2pm: The Pint Shop - 10 Peas Hill, Cambridge, CB2 3PN

Annoyingly, the entire tour takes place while I'm out of the country. Bah!!

San Diego invades Europe

American craft brewers are waking up to European opportunities. Oh sure, they've been exporting here for years, but this week has seen not one but two super-hoppy San Diego brewers announce that they will actually brew in Europe.

Stone's site in Berlin
The biggest news was Stone Brewing, well known for the likes of Arrogant Bastard Ale. There's been rumours about Stone opening a European brewery for a few years now, with at least one redundant old English brewery fingered as a possible location, but the reality has turned out quite different: Stone is building a brewery and pub/beer garden in Berlin!

First to the draw however was Green Flash, which is already co-brewing its iconic West Coast IPA in 240-hl batches at St Feuillien in Belgium. It's claimed that this is not just a licence deal, like the one that saw Shepherd Neame brew imitation Sam Adams, but a 'production partnership', whatever that exactly means.

“We’ve been pursuing European distribution of West Coast IPA for some time, however the obvious challenges in delivering fresh IPA to the region have been a huge roadblock,” said GF co-founder Mike Hinkley. “After testing various export scenarios on a small scale, it became apparent that the quality of our IPA when transported to Europe was not ideal and cost-prohibitive for consumers. We were not satisfied with the customer experience and felt we had to come up with a better solution.”

St Feuillien is already noted for its hoppy beers and has done collaboration beers with Green Flash in the past, so the two teams already know each other well. GF's brewmaster Chuck Silva has spent a fair portion of the last year in Belgium, working on getting the flavour profile just right – the one difference between the US and Belgian versions is that the latter will be bottle-conditioned “to protect beer quality in areas of Europe where unrefrigerated conditions may be unavoidable.” I can see this version becoming a hot item with US beer aficionados....

Meanwhile, Stone's plans are considerably more ambitious, and involve an initial investment of $25 million, plus an Indiegogo crowd-funding campaign to raise more. The company is leasing a massive 7000m2 of space in three refurbished buildings that were built in the 1900s as part of a gasworks – they had to be expensively decontaminated as part of the refurbishment process. Due to open in late 2015 or early 2016, the buildings will house a 70-barrel brewery, a shop, an event space and a farm-to-table restaurant – Stone is keen on the slow food movement.

There will also be an 'American-style beer garden', though quite how that differs from a German-style beer garden I don't know, especially when so much about US beer is derived from Germany. Many of the earliest American brewers were German immigrants, from Anheuser and Busch onwards, and while Stone is pretty eclectic, some US breweries still focus on German-derived beer styles rather than British or Belgian, say.

“Once open, we will bring Germany and the rest of Europe a taste of our craft beer vision, and look forward to sharing the unique beers that we have spent the last 18 years brewing,” declared Stone CEO and co-founder Greg Koch (another German surname, of course).

Yet while some of the US media has taken a nationalist 'young upstarts teaching the oldies how to do it' line, ignoring – or more likely, ignorant of – the fact that many German and other European brewers are already aboard the craft beer bandwagon, Koch was more modest.

“We have no attitude that we are coming to save anybody or conquer anybody,” he said in an interview. He acknowledged that there is already a craft beer movement challenging the German brewing giants, and added, “We are coming to add our shoulder, to help push that boulder up the hill.”

So why Berlin and Belgium? I can think of several reasons, an obvious one is they are in the Eurozone, which simplifies your exporting to the rest of the EU. Another is they both have strong beer heritages, which should make it easier to find both staff and customers, and of course they have good English language skills.

The last thing is that, unlike the UK where there is already a strong craft brewing industry (both new-wave and traditional), the beer revolution has only recently kicked off on the mainland. Sure, there's lots of micro and nano brewers, and many of the old brewers are trying to adjust and produce crafty sidelines, but the market is still growing, with plenty of opportunity.