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.