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.