Wednesday, 20 September 2017

36 hours in RiNo

Earlier this year I went to a conference in Boulder, Colorado. Much as I like Boulder itself, this meant flying into Denver, and it’s been many years since I explored that city’s beery pleasures. So I arranged to travel out a couple of days early and have most of a weekend in Denver. Rather than stay in the centre or south, where I’d been before, I decided to explore the northern side of town, more specifically the up-and-coming arty area of RiNo, or River North.

Some of 'old' RiNo survives
Five or ten years ago, I don't think there wasn't much reason for most people to visit this part of northern Denver – especially not after dark! Flat, dusty and sun-baked, like much of the south-western US, it was an area of railway sidings, light industrial units and warehouses. There were local residents, but mainly poorer ones.

With time, that included artists and hippies as they were priced out of other areas, and following them came the hipsters and the semi-curse of arty areas everywhere – gentrification. I say semi-curse because while it's driving property prices up and by the look of it pushing industry out, it's pulling in infrastructure investment – I haven't seen so many building sites and roadworks in ages.

Black Shirt: less Moseley, more metal
And of course what infrastructure expansion is complete these days without a craft brewery or brewpub? One RiNo brewer said from almost nothing four years ago, he now has 13 other breweries within a mile, and I can well believe it. There's even more downtown, of course, but that's more like two miles away and they've been there rather longer - since 1988 in the case of Wynkoop, Colorado's first brewpub and craft brewery.

RiNo had the advantage for me of being on the train line from the airport to the main station, so with a bit of planning (and a 3-UK SIM card for free roaming data in case I needed to re-check the map) I could get off a couple of stops early and walk to the room I’d booked through AirBnB.  On my walk I heard cheerful noises and spotted Black Shirt, one of the local brewpubs. So after dropping off my bag, I headed back there.

It’s a friendly place, with modern art for sale on the walls and a crowd that seemed more grunge and arty-local than hipster. The beer was the usual ‘craft’ mixture of styles – a very nice Saison alongside assorted IPAs, a Porter, a Stout and of course something barrel-aged, in this case a sour ale aged in bourbon barrels. Most were rather good, even the inevitable Kölsch, a style that’s everywhere now and has emerged as a gateway beer, not just for lager drinkers exploring ale but for ale brewers looking for an easy way to produce something lagery.

Epic's airy and bright
Waking the following morning, I made coffee and started planning my afternoon. Epic Brewing's tap-room was in the right direction and opened earlier than some of the others, so that was my first target. Walking in, it was clear that a lot of money had been spent here – a theme that was to flow through the afternoon. After a couple of excellent beers chosen from the dozen-plus taps serving the clean and airy bar area, it was time for their first guided brewery tour of the day.

It turns out this isn’t the original Epic – it’s an offshoot of a Utah brewery, which opened a Denver branch in 2013 to get around Utah’s strict alcohol laws. For example, in Colorado you can sell packaged beer direct from the brewery.

Old foeders too
When it opened in an old high-roofed auto workshop, Epic was one of the first in the area; it’s now 50% bigger than its parent and while its brewlength is still a ‘micro’ 20 barrels, they’re brewing 24 hours a day, five days a week, and its array of fermenting vessels (FVs) includes ones holding 120 and 180 barrels. These are for the biggest sellers, needless to say. Having as many as nine brews go into one FV also helps with consistency, as it smooths out batch variation.

Like most micros Epic also does barrel-ageing, but unlike most they have foeders too – tall wooden vessels that tower over the bar area. They do some kegging and bottling, but most of the beer that goes offsite is canned on an automated microcanning line. Sadly, while they do export to a few countries, none of them’s this side of the Atlantic.

By now it was starting to get a whole lot busier, and the food truck had opened for lunch – Colorado might be relatively relaxed about brewing and selling beer, but apparently it’s a pain getting the permits to sell hot food as well. So most brewery taps and brewpubs skirt around it by inviting mobile canteens to park up outside and then allowing patrons to bring their food inside.

Industrial chic at Ratio
It was the same at my next stop, Ratio Beerworks, a brewpub where the Texas BBQ truck served up a paper plate of excellent pulled pork for just a few dollars. Ratio was an odd one otherwise – all the beers were well made and tasty, yet somehow it felt like there wasn’t any great inspiration and it was trying just a bit too hard to be fashionable. Then again, while its ‘industrial chic’ concrete and sheet-steel styling would be pretty drab in another climate, in the Colorado sunshine it worked pretty well. The terrace in particular was cheerful and bustling with groups of friends, most with lunch in mind and several with dogs in tow.

Respite from the heat
Our Mutual Friend was a bit of a shock at first. After the airiness of Epic and the sunny terrace at Ratio, it seemed, well, gloomy! Before long though I came to welcome the cool shade inside what felt almost like someone’s front parlour, albeit a very large one. Beyond the bar, I could see into the space behind where the 7-barrel brewkit lives, and above the bar was an eclectic list of beers – a few of the craft-standards you see almost everywhere now, such as IPA and Saison, but also a Mild, a Winter Warmer (in the Colorado summer?!?) and a Smoked Pumpkin Ale – I assume it was the malt that was smoked, not the pumpkin, but you never know.

The OMF beers were more variable – the Smoked Pumpkin and the Raspberry Sour were excellent, for example, but the Mild was a bit odd – notes of toasted fruit and rye bread don’t say Mild to me. I liked the place though, and would have stayed longer, if not for the jetlag catching up. It was time for a siesta, before the evening part of the crawl…. 

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Five Stages of Craft Beer

Most of the “craft beer revolutions” I’ve seen went through broadly the same stages. They’re not always in exactly the same order, and of course some brewers might jump a step or several steps – and you might notice a small amount of cynicism here – but I reckon you will find them all pretty much anywhere…

1. Discover American Pale Ale and IPA, be amazed by how much flavour it has compared to the industrially-produced and heavily-advertised lowest common denominator swill you’ve been drinking, and copy it verbatim. This is how most craft beer movements start.
1a. Ditto, but with British or Belgian ales.

2. Finally realise that if you’re just going to copy the Americans you probably can’t win – the real thing is better and has economies of scale. Plus it’s increasingly available everywhere, especially as good US breweries sell out to (or ‘partner with’) multinationals who already have strong distribution networks. Your only real advantage is local provenance, so you substitute local ingredients, for example to produce a German IPA or an Italian Saison.

3. Try to come up with a pretentious twist – adding pink peppercorns, say, or ageing in Tequila barrels. Of course, there’s a good chance other small brewers will also think of it, in which case it’ll be passé even before it hits the shelves. Worse, a few of the regional brewers are pretty fast to copy this sort of thing, again with better economies of scale and distribution channels. Still, if you’re the kind who rarely brews the same thing twice you’ll be onto a new fashion by then.

4. Rediscover – or in extreme cases, invent – local beer styles or traditions, then revive them and give them a ‘modern twist’. Sour Altbiers, cloying cherry beers, and souped-up Grodziskies.

5. Finally realise that what most people want is what they already know, but that some of them are willing to pay for better quality – or for a version with a better, more fashionable image. For example, many German craft brewers grew up in opposition to fizzy, bright yellow, industrially-produced ‘TV beer’, with murky ales becoming a signifier of rebellious authenticity. It’s ironic then that quite a few of them are now making Craft Pils, or Craft Lagerbier.

Have I missed any stages?

Sunday, 6 August 2017

Fuller's & Friends at the Cask Yard

Pic: Fuller's
By all accounts, “The Cask Yard” at this weekend’s London Craft Beer Festival has been a great success. As last year, it’s presented and anchored by Fuller’s but features others too – not just cask ale from Sierra Nevada (Fuller’s distributes SN beer in the UK) but also the likes of Redemption, Thornbridge and Wimbledon.

It’s quite a change from the first LCBF events when there was cask, but nowhere near as prominently. Given the major part real ale plays in London brewing, a big cask presence is entirely fitting – no, entirely necessary!

It’s also been the first public outing for a project I heard about in confidence a few weeks ago – Fuller’s & Friends. Fuller’s brewers have been working with colleagues from around the country on a new set of collaboration brews. So far we’ve seen four of what I’m told will be six beers:

#1 – Flora & The Griffin, a 7.4% rye ale, collaboration with Thornbridge.

#2 – Rebirth, 6% “the original 1971 ESB reborn”, a collaboration with Moor Beer.

#3 – Big Smoke, a 7% smoked Porter with Hardknott.

#4 – Matariki, a 5.5% New Zealand Saison with Marble.

Two more to come, then – possibly during today’s final LCBF session. Sadly, I’ve neither a ticket nor the time to get over there this afternoon, but I’m hoping and expecting that all will also be on draught at this week’s Great British Beer Festival. My information is they will then be bottled and sold as a package.

Edited Addendum: Sadly I didn't see any of them at GBBF, but there's also visits from Cloudwater and Fourpure mentioned now on Fuller's Twitter feed, so I guess they are the 'missing' two that'll make it six.

More usefully, I've now heard from a second source that the six-pack will be sold exclusively through Waitrose. True or false, my Fuller's friends?

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

London, the Beer City

The 2017 London Beer City programme, or festival, or whatever you want to call it, kicks off tomorrow, with events all over the city for the next 10 days.

The anchor events are of course CAMRA's huge Great British Beer Festival from Tues 8th to Sat 12th. As usual this is mainly British real ale, but with the addition of foreign real ale and bottled beers, plus English wines and ciders.

Before that though, there's the London Craft Beer Festival from Fri 4th to Sun 6th in Shoreditch - this is a smaller event but more focused, with 45 breweries, many of them bringing new brews and serving them themselves.

A new thing this year (at least, I think it's new) is the beer embassies. Hosted at various venues around the city they will show off some of the best beers - both modern and trad - from elsewhere, for example the USA, Germany and Scandinavia. There's also a load of collaborative brews and other new beers around, including a competition where each of London's top beer stores collaborated with a local brewer on a brew.

For the full programme pick up a printed copy (as seen here) from one of the venues, or visit the London Beer City website.

Saturday, 29 July 2017

Island life, island beers

When I was in Amsterdam last summer for the European Beer Writers Conference, we met several of the new wave of brewers reinventing Dutch beer for the 21st century. So it was good this summer to find the supermarket in our seaside holiday town stocking a fairly wide range of local microbrews.

Alongside the local Texels beers, I found beers from Oedipus, Maximus, Jopen, ‘t IJ and many others. Prices were around double the macrobrews though, even the crafty macros like Brand. When I see the latter undercutting the real micros, I’m even more convinced by the argument that the real interest for AB-Inbev and co to buy up craft breweries is to devalue the ‘craft’ label.

Anyway, what’s still taking time to come through is a revived local beer tradition. Dutch beer has long been overshadowed by its Belgian neighbour, and so far I’m only aware of a few brewers – Jopen being the best known example – who have dug down to find and then update old Dutch beer recipes and the like. Most are still producing (some of them very well) the usual ‘international’ styles. (This reminds me that I really should write up my “stages of craft beer” theory…)

We also found one brew-hotel, by which I mean a hotel bar with a microbrewery – or more likely a nanobrewery, given that the 33cl beer bottles (they only had macrobrew beers on tap) were numbered “33 of 128” or similar. That suggests a brew-length of 50 litres or so, which is basically a home-brew system used commercially. An interesting idea.

Called Eiland Brouwers Texel and based at Hotel Tatenhove, there were four beers on offer, but with minor exceptions (a fruity tang in the Witte, say) you’d have been hard pressed to tell them apart. All were darkish amber-brown and bitter, including the Blonde, the Witte and the Pale Ale.

Is making your beers distinct from each other so difficult, or is this one of those philosophical anti-macrobrew things, where the main aim is for your beer to look as unlike clear gold Pilswater as possible?

Saturday, 15 July 2017

All barrel and no trousers?

Barrel-ageing is all the rage – especially in whisky or whiskey barrels, but also wine, rum, tequila and who knows what else. Sometimes though the results can be rather disappointing – the flavour and aroma from the barrel doesn’t so much complement the beer as overpower it. I mean, if I want a drink that tastes and smells of whisky, I’ll have a Single Malt…

But it doesn’t have to be like that, as I was reminded a couple of weeks ago at Imbibe, the trade show for the drinks trade, when I met Marty Kotis, the boss of Pig Pounder Brewery, one of three brewers who’d banded together under the banner of the North Carolina Craft Brewers Guild to take a stand at the show. He was pouring samples not only of his Boar Brown 5% brown ale, but also a tasty barrel-aged version of the same beer which was smooth and vanilla-accented – and had the same 5% ABV, even though it had spent time in Bourbon barrels.

“We blend the barrel-aged beer with fresh beer,” Marty explained, adding that getting the taste right and consistent is extremely important – the brewery is actually a spin-off from his restaurant chain, so he and his team are all somewhat flavour-obsessed!

It reminded me of a time around a decade ago, when I was in the Hock Cellar at Fuller’s Griffin Brewery for a taste training session organised by CAMRA and hosted by brewing director John Keeling and then-head brewer Derek Prentice. Towards the end of the evening, John brought out a pet project of his as a surprise – a sample of some 8.5% Golden Pride that he’d been ageing for months in a Glenmorangie cask.

It was intriguing, but also somewhat harsh and woody – and also very strong, around 12%. John said they were still trying to work out what to do with it and the subject of blending-back came up. Fortunately we also still had a jug of ESB on the table, so with a little bravado I topped up my half-glass of barrel beer with ESB to see how that might work – and the answer was “very nicely indeed!” The fresh beer filled out the body and mellowed the harsher notes, while still leaving the warming spirituousness in place.

When Fuller’s subsequently released John’s various Brewer’s Reserve vintages in bottle, they did the same. It wasn’t just for the flavour, though – John explained that there was also a crime called Grogging, which dates back to the 1800s. (You can read his longer version of the story here.) Not only can there still be a couple of pints of whisky left in an ‘empty’ cask, but some alcohol also seeps into the wood. So unscrupulous types would buy old barrels and slosh water into them to get out and sell the last of the alcohol – without paying tax, hence the offence, and the need to get the original ABV back in order to mollify the Revenue.

So, blending-back. Why don’t more brewers do this? Perhaps they do, but they prefer not to talk about it. Anyone seen it done elsewhere?

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

The brewers reinventing alcohol-free beer

Most low-alcohol or non-alcoholic beers tend to be thinnish attempts at lager, or in Germany maybe Hefeweizen. Some of the better ones are just about tolerable, but others have a weird soapy note (hello Beck’s Blue). Then there’s Brewdog’s Nanny State, which ain’t bad at all, but you really need a bit more alcohol to carry that much hoppiness. So it’s a bit of a surprise to realise that I’ve drunk not one but three non-alcoholic ales in the last week, and all were remarkably palatable!

Without certainly looks the part
St Peter’s actually sent me a couple of bottles of their alcohol-free St Peter's Without a few weeks back, ahead of its national roll-out next month (August). However, I didn’t think to try it until I found myself wanting a beer on a sunny afternoon when I also needed to drive the kids somewhere…

Having mostly just seen non-alcoholic lagers before, both in the UK and Germany, the first surprise was how dark it poured and the second was how toasty it smelled. It had body too – not heavy, but not thin either. If you’ve ever tried a malt drink or malt beer, it’s like a roasty one of those, but with a light peppery bitterness – and thankfully without their sometimes-gross sweetness.

Instead it is more dry-sweet, with burnt caramel and malty wort notes. A little unusual but very drinkable. It’s the result, says the brewery, of “a complex proprietary process involving both attenuated fermentation and the stripping out of residual alcohol” – if I’ve understood rightly, that means they ferment it as low-alcohol and then remove what little alcohol there is.

Nirvana's Steve Dass
Then at the Imbibe drinks trade fair last week, I was introduced to Leyton-based Nirvana Brewery, one of two recent start-ups I know of that specialise in low and non-alcoholic beers. Co-founder Steve Dass explained that they started as home-brewers, and learnt from scratch how to brew non-alcoholic beers. Now they’ve acquired a normal 10 barrel brewkit and gone commercial, not just with an alcohol-free Pale Ale called Tantra but also an alcohol-free ‘Stout’ called Kosmic.

“We’re trying to put a bit of body in – a bit of malt. Too many non-alcoholic beers are a bit thin, even the good German lagers,” Steve agreed.  He said they’ve also done some work on 0.5% and 1% beers, but “we won’t go higher.” As far as the brewing process he was cagey, saying only that they use different yeasts and malts from most brewers.

Both his beers were quite light bodied, yet carried their flavour well. Tantra was very malty on the nose with lots of Ovaltiney notes, in the body the maltiness was dry-sweet and it’s lightly hoppy. Kosmic definitely looked the part – near-black with a beige crema – and while it’s too light to really be called a Stout, it had pleasing notes of treacle tart and raisins.

Is it a coincidence, I wonder, that the other low-alcohol start-up in London, Big Drop Brewing, also started with a Pale Ale and a Stout? I’ve not tried these 0.5% beers yet, but I will when I get the chance. In the meantime, I now know that there are decent low or alcohol-free options out there, not just sickly sodas and malt drinks, or weedy 0.5% lagers!

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

UK brewery numbers may be declining again

That's the implication from the 2017 volume of The Brewery Manual, which aimed to survey all the working brewers in the UK.

Its researchers reckon there were 1544 "commercially operational national, regional and craft/micro brewers" in the UK last year. Of these, the vast majority - 1505 of them - were smaller producers that brewed less than 30,000 hectolitres (18,330 barrels).

They add that 60 breweries started operations during 2016. That's way down on the 100+ numbers recorded in each of the previous five years.

At the same time, there were 58 breweries that ceased operations and a few more that are still in business but are no longer brewing, which means that the total of working breweries has actually gone down since 2015.

Some observers have argued for a while now that the rapid growth in microbrewing was not sustainable, and that a period of 'rationalisation and consolidation' was on the way. Brewery Manual publisher Larry Nelson agreed, suggesting that "it could be the start of a slow contraction in brewery numbers.

"After years of rapid expansion in numbers the industry has been due for a correction," he continued. "The early numbers for 2017 openings suggest that this may be the start of a slowdown in new brewery growth.

"That isn’t necessarily a bad thing for craft. When the American craft brewing industry underwent a contraction in numbers at the end of the 1990s, demand for craft beer continued to rise year-on-year."

Monday, 19 June 2017

Ale on a train, or getting RATted…

The invitation to take a trip on the Watercress Line’s Real Ale Train – the RAT of the headline – came out of the blue. I know there’s a bit of an overlap between real ale fans and lovers of railways, but every time I’ve come across a beer festival held in association with a heritage rail line, the beer part was literally station-ary. So the idea of the bar being aboard the RAT was intriguing!
Welcome to Platform 3 in... when, exactly?
It’s over an hour from Clapham Junction to Alton, where the Watercress Line – or to give it it’s proper name, the Mid-Hants Railway – starts. Arriving on Platform 1 on a modern SouthWestTrains sliding door conveyance, we were a bit confused. There were no steam engines or whatever in sight, yet even the SWT platform felt slightly unusual, with its metalwork painted not in modern dark blues but in dark green and cream. Even its ticket office was a – very welcome! – return to the past, with wooden floors and readily accessible, airy and clean loos. 

It was clearly SWT-only though and it took a few moments more to work out that we needed to find Platform 3. Sadly this is accessed not by the attractively ancient (and closed) footbridge nearby, but by a shiny modern one further down the platform. Still, coming down the steps the time-shift was complete, with staff in proper uniforms with waistcoats and peaked caps, doors marked “Station Master”, and posters from the 1950s and beyond. No train though, and no tickets* waiting for us – we’re early, thanks to SWT’s hourly-only service from London, so we’re recommended the Railway Arms just up the road, which happens to be the brewery tap of award-winning local brewer Triple fff. Nice pub!

Returning half an hour later, we were introduced to Sue 'the boss', which seemed to mean in reality that she did a bit of pretty much everything! We later saw her helping load the galley, working behind the bar, helping clean the train, etc... Sue explained the RAT schedule: “We make two round trips, though the hot food makes one and a half because it gets off at Alresford,” she laughed. Alresford is the other end of the Watercress Line, some 10 miles away. 

10 minutes to departure and the queue for the bar already reached halfway down the next carriage. They're a mixed crew - beer buffs, young couples on a night out, what looked like a 50-something birthday party, and an awful lot of people who looked very familiar from the Railway Arms... 

The beer was all bright filtered with no sediment of course, despite being in normal real-ale firkins, otherwise it wouldn't survive the journey. It's why we saw something you'd never see at a CAMRA festival - a barman literally upending a cask to squeeze the last half-pint out. If there is a criticism it's that there's no cooling for the beer on the stillage - which is the bar, of course. In hot weather, as during our trip, the result is occasionally beer that's just a little too warm. Then again, the casks turn over remarkably fast, and the fresh ones are cool from the storeroom. Plus it’s only £2 a pint, with the first pint included in your £15 RAT ticket, so really there’s no complaint!

For many, it’s clearly more of a party on a train. For others it’s a mobile pub, and exploring up towards the loco I even found a folk music jam session underway. As the journey proceeded, and as special trays with holes for the plastic glasses to sit in streamed from the bar – you can also buy your own RAT-engraved glass tankard for a fiver – it did get a bit noisy. But it’s all very good-natured – cheerful voices and the occasional burst of singing. 

Plus while the light lasted, there’s the beautiful Hampshire scenery, the lovely 'step back in time' stations decorated with flowers, topiary and then, finally, yes – parked steam engines, lots of steam engines! (Our train was hauled by a heritage diesel, but most RATs are steam.) There's also shunters, a crane-train, and lots more.

It being two round-trips, there’s three short loo (and for some, ciggy) breaks at the end-stops while they move the loco to the other end. I noticed some people left halfway through when we were back at Alton – heading back to the pub perhaps. 

For those with staying power, the ales continued to turn over – the featured breweries that night were both from Hampshire, namely Longdog and Red Cat, but we’re also treated to a couple of other brews, such as a one-off single-hopped pale ale from Tillingbourne. The food is decent pub grub – chilli, korma, burgers – and while it’s served in take-away boxes, not on china with polished silverware, it’s reasonably priced and the cheerful volunteer staff have more than enough to clear up already!

Alternative engines are available
All in all, it was the best Friday evening we’d spent in a while (the RAT runs a few times a month, on Friday and Saturday evenings). A pub on a train with good beer and constantly changing scenery, what more could you want? And thankfully you’re back at Alton just in time to get the last train up to London – a cooler and quieter journey, but one that is, sadly, rather less fun. 

*Do you need a disclaimer? The railway kindly supplied our RAT tickets, but we covered our own transport from London, plus all our food, almost all our beer, and our own babysitter. Phew. 

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Step aside Care Bears, it's time for Care Beers!

Slightly short notice, but there's a new craft beer festival coming up next month in London, and it's all for charity, with the beer donated by kind brewers from London, the rest of the UK, and beyond. Here's the details, as passed on by fellow beer-blogger Matt Curtis:

A brand new beer festival arrives in London this July and all of its profits will be donated to charity. Craft Beer Cares will be taking place on Saturday 1st and Sunday 2nd of July at Brew Club in Clapton, East London with proceeds being donated to The Newman Holiday Trust and Mind, The Mental Health Charity.

Beer has been donated to the festival by some of the most exciting breweries in the UK and beyond, including: The Kernel, The Five Points Brewing Co, Pressure Drop, Partizan, Brew By Numbers, Anspach & Hobday, Weird Beard, East London Brewery, Beavertown, One Mile End, Elusive Brewing, Siren Craft Brew, Cloudwater, Northern Monk, Wylam, Founders, Yeastie Boys, Hackney Brewery, Gipsy Hill and Magic Rock. In addition to this the festivals organisers promise that they have a few surprises up their sleeves for those lucky enough to grab a ticket.  

Speaking in anticipation of the event, lead festival organiser Gautam Bhatnagar had the following to say:

“We’ve been inspired by movements such as #CookForSyria and smaller events such as #BoozersWithoutBorders and wanted to play whatever role we could in organising something to help those in need. Our aim for this year’s event is primarily to raise funds for the charities Mind and The Newman Holiday Trust, and to scale up on previous efforts by asking for donations from the wider brewing industry.

“It’s been a really heart-warming experience seeing the many people involved in the craft beer community and their willingness to donate time, advice, energy, and - of course - the beer!  We’ve had a great response from everyone we’ve asked and that comes as little surprise to many of us given how wonderful the people in the beer industry are.”

Karen Bolton, Community Fundraising Manager for Mind, added: ““We’d like to say a huge thank you to Craft Beer Cares for choosing to support Mind through their first beer festival. Every penny raised will fund Mind’s vital work including the Mind Infoline, our advice services and the campaigning Mind does to secure a better deal for the one in four of us who experience a mental health problem every year.”

Tickets for the event cost just £14.40 (including booking fee) and includes a glass plus 7 beer tokens – with additional tokens available for purchase once inside the venue. The event will take place at Brew Club, Unit 9, 38-40 Upper Clapton Road, London, E5 8BQ

Tickets for the Saturday July 1st evening session can be purchased here and tickets for the Sunday July 2nd afternoon session can be purchased here

The festival's open from 6pm to 11.30pm on the Saturday, and from noon to 5.30pm on the Sunday. I don't know the venue, but it's in the Old Tram Depot near Clapton BR station. It's up the road from the Round Chapel which hosts the CAMRA Pig's Ear beer festival in December, if you know that. 

Monday, 5 June 2017

Fuller's Unfiltered bid for craft keg

When I first heard about the launch of London Pride Unfiltered at Craft Beer Rising earlier this year, my first thought was, oh-ho, a hazy rebranding for the craft generation. But could Fuller’s make the idea work, or would it be like an embarrassing parent trying to be hip? And was it just a rebrand, or a genuinely new beer?

I had all those questions in mind when I got the chance for a brief chat with Fuller’s head brewer Georgina Young – over a couple of glasses of Pride Unfiltered, naturally!

First, a bit of background – I’ve seen this sort of relaunch several times before, especially in Germany, where the marketeers have done a great job persuading the average Josef that all beer is yellow, fizzy and clear as a bell. The industrial Pils that you see advertised everywhere, in other words.

But for the Craft Bier pioneers a few years ago, this heavily-marketed industrial Pils was the enemy, and the easiest way to state your non-industrial credentials was to make cloudy beer instead. Cue lots of murky unfiltered Pale Ales, IPAs and others.

The German industrial brewers seem to have caught up much faster than the UK ones, with Naturtrüb (unfiltered and cloudy) Kellerbiers and others widely available there for a couple of years now. (Amusingly, many of the German craft brewers have now swung the other way, producing clear as a bell dry-hopped Pilsners and the like.)

The first thing George pointed out was that Pride Unfiltered is hazy, not murky or cloudy. More significantly perhaps, it needs to be reliably hazy – consistency is absolutely essential for a brewer such as Fuller’s.

“It’s really hard to get this level of haze just right,” she said, adding that “The haze is not yeast, it’s protein – quite fine.” She also stressed that while the basic recipe “is pretty much the same” as regular Pride, including Northdown and Challenger aroma hops, there are changes. Most notably that Unfiltered is also dry-hopped with Target.

Not too surprisingly, Unfiltered is very like regular Pride, but is drier and less malty-fruity, although that will in part be due to the lower serving temperature. There’s earthy and spicy hops on the nose, then it’s lightly fruity and dry.

And it seems to be doing well – on a recent visit to a Fuller’s pub which had Pride Unfiltered on tap alongside a couple of guest keg pale ales, the barmaid said it was pretty popular. The notable thing is it’s definitely not aimed at the keg Pride drinker, and indeed the Fuller’s folk say there’s no plans to replace keg with Unfiltered.

George also had some news about the Fuller’s beer range continuing to expand. “We’ll do eight new beers this year, four of them cask, plus Unfiltered of course,” she said. “We also have seasonal cask and keg beers and then monthly specials.”

They’re also increasing the range they distribute from other breweries, with Sierra Nevada the most prominent example. One of Fuller’s sales team noted that “We brought over 14 Sierra Nevada seasonals last year, this year there’s six definites plus maybe two or three more. This year’s list include Otra Vez, Sidecar and Tropical Torpedo.” Yet more reasons to visit the bigger Fuller’s pubs – although I don’t expect to see these in my local.

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

The rise and rise of canned craft

"Why is everything in cans these days?" mused my friend Richard, examining his tin of Five Points Pils. "Funny you should ask that," I replied, "I'm in the process of writing an article about it, as a follow-up to one I wrote for an engineering magazine a couple of years ago..."

Back then, micro-canning was something of a technical novelty, which is why I wrote about it for an engineering readership. A Canadian company, the slightly confusingly named Cask Brewing Systems, had realised that conventional drinks canning machines, which were giant multi-million dollar investments flooded internally with carbon dioxide to keep out harmful oxygen, could be significantly simplified and also reduced in size. In fact, they made them so small and simple that hobby brewers could use one at the homebrew club to can their own beer, one can at a time – a concept that's re-emerged recently as the crowler, a non-reusable version of the growler take-away beer flask that's actually a large can.

Avant-garde US breweries had loved the slightly subversive idea of a mini-canning machine for craft beer, and the first few UK brewers were following suit. There were sceptics, of course – often classically-trained brewers who couldn’t believe a machine that simple could avoid oxidising their beer. However, my own background in engineering told me that what the machine makers were saying made sense.

Printed can – smooth edges, and
you can often see the ink spread
Putting a label on the problem
The big challenge at that point was labelling. The ideal is a printed can, which is what the supermarkets, soft drinks companies and bigger breweries use, but these require a long print run to justify the cost of setting up the printing machine. The last I heard, the minimum print run was 100,000 cans, and to get the best price you needed to order half a million of a given design!

People were experimenting with alternatives such as sticky labels, but unlike glass bottles, empty cans have very little structural strength, so rolling a label on risks denting or even crushing them. Some had even tried printing directly onto the cans using inkjet-type printers, but in the main they were focused on canning those beers that could justify buying 100,000 printed cans.

Sticky label, overlapped
Fast-forward two years and beer cans have become high art – a smooth canvas for the artist and designer, and a signifier of craft, not cheap supermarket booze. And a lot of that is because the labelling problems have been licked, meaning you can now use your micro-canning line as it was intended: to put a single brew into just a few thousand cans, even when that brew is a one-off.

Well, mostly licked. I spoke to Metalman co-founder Gráinne Walsh at the Irish Embassy’s craft event earlier this year – when I interviewed for that 2015 story, they canned one beer regularly, now it’s four, all in printed cans. On top of that, they can several of their seasonal beers, all using sticky labels on plain cans.

Bottle-type sticky label
Like me, she has an engineering background so she understands the issues and the complications: “Labelling cans before filling would be best, but that would break the integrity of the [manufacturer’s sterile] seal on the can,” she says. “So we label afterwards – but that means we have to dry them first.”

So there’s swings and roundabouts, but sticky labels definitely seem the most popular method. I’ve spotted at least two types so far – sheet plastic ones that wrap all the way round, and ones that look more like plasticised paper and wrap with a gap, like on most bottles. Both are fairly easy to spot, though some of the plastic wrap-arounds feel like printing if you’re not thinking about it.

Shrink wrap – spot the edge
on the bottom collar
There is a second popular method though, which is essentially to shrink-wrap the can with a printed plastic label. This feels great and can be quite hard to spot at first, as it’s so smooth and it lacks the tell-tale label edges. Once you look though, you’ll almost always feel the edge of the wrap on the collars of the can.

I have also come across cans that I think were spray-printed, perhaps even after filling, but of course I couldn’t find one when collecting samples for this! The ones I saw felt slightly rough, as if they’d been spray-painted with a fast-drying enamel. I’ll keep looking…

I said above that the big problem for micro-canning two or three years ago was labelling – well, it was, but it wasn’t the only one. The other was overcoming an initial impression that it was ‘cheap and cheerful’ and lacked quality – that yes it was canning, but it wasn’t real canning.

Crowler demo at
Craft Beer Rising
The thing is, not only is micro-canning gear cheap enough for even a small to middling brewery to be able to afford its own canning line, you don’t even have to buy it – it’s so compact that there are companies that have portable micro-canning lines. You get your beer ready, in a specified capacity and condition, they turn up with a truck or large van containing the equipment and a stack of empties, and some hours later they leave you with pallets full of sealed cans.

Climbing the learning curve
Of course, with anything like this there’s a learning curve, both for the canners and for the brewers they work with. So while the UK’s mobile canners do a great job today, brewers tell me that wasn’t always the case when they started up. I heard reports three years ago of lagers with oxidation problems and a stout where one can in three was infected, for example. Reading between the lines though, I suspect the brewers involved were as responsible as the canners, mainly because they didn’t (yet) know how to present their beer properly.

However, while those quality worries are no longer valid, some of the suspicion of low-tech canning remains – and that, combined with the subversive popularity of canned craft beer, has brought the big boys in. Just like the macrobrewers starting up or buying craft beer brands, the big machinery companies based in Germany, Italy and yes, China, who supplied those multi-million dollar canning lines are now targeting smaller-scale customers. As they bring out cheaper and smaller versions of their high-tech canneries, the micro-canners are pushing upmarket with lines that are faster and much more sophisticated than their original semi-manual lines.

And the cans themselves are evolving. As well as the crowlers, there’s now rip-top types where the whole lid comes away to leave you a metal drinking cup. Can’t say I like the idea – I've tried two, and find you lose both the look of the beer and much of the aroma, and those are important parts of the drinking experience.

But it all says – as did my visit to a Morrisons supermarket today, with craft beer cans from all over – that canned craft is not only here to stay, but is increasingly the norm.

Sorry it's been a while, but I've been rather busy! Hopefully this makes up for it a bit...

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Spot the difference

Two bottles, different shapes but more or less the same labels. A change of bottle supplier, perhaps? No, a change of brewer - Lidl UK has moved production of its Hatherwood Craft Beer Co own-brand from the Marston's group to Shepherd Neame. I don't know why, but I assume Sheps offered a better deal.

All the names and descriptions are the same though, and presumably so are the recipes. But how could they be the same beer, when production has moved to a new brewer? Even more so in this case, when it's also moved right from one end of the country to the other - Purple Panther was brewed at Jennings in Cumbria, and Sheps is in Kent.

Fortunately, one of my local Lidls still had a few examples of the old version on the shelf alongside the new, so I grabbed a couple of bottles of the Porter (as I've enjoyed it in the past) with a comparative tasting in mind.

It took a couple of weeks before an opportunity and a couple of willing assistants came along. Without them seeing, I poured samples into six numbered glasses and gave each of them two of one version and one of the other: the initial challenge was simply to pick the odd one out.

And they did it. The two were remarkably close, yet subtly different - and it wasn't even age. Assuming I read the bottles rightly, the Jennings version was bottled in January and the Sheps one in February. When I  tasted them myself, the Jennings one seemed ever so slightly more dry and burnt, while the newer version was just a little softer and its cocoa note a tiny bit more pronounced.

An interesting exercise, and a lesson in just how hard it is to move a beer from one brewery to another without changing it, no matter the work and expertise that goes into taste-matching.

(And no, Young's beers from Bedford are good beers, but they still don't taste the same as they did from Wandsworth, damn the asset-strippers' eyes!)

Thursday, 23 March 2017

Sharp’s tricks the senses

Last week I went on a virtual holiday, courtesy of Sharp’s Brewery who billed it as an In-flight Beer Experience. We didn’t fly very far – in fact we didn’t move at all – but there was indeed beer along the way. The most interesting part, though, was that it physically demonstrated a bunch of things that even trained beer-tasters normally only talk about.

Sam pours the beers
The venue was the same one used for the beer & food matching session that Sharp’s did for last year’s London Beer Week. Which is to say it’s a long-wheelbase van fitted inside with a tiny lobby leading to a long and narrow bar. A single bench facing the bar provides seating for six but it’s a tight fit – if you’re the first one in, don’t expect to get out in a hurry...

Our barman, Sharp’s beer sommelier Sam, fed us three beers in turn, asking us to say what we thought. They seemed pretty different but he then revealed they were all Pilsners – and two of them were the same beer, Sharp’s Cornish Pils! He had used a wide mix of sensory inputs to trick our senses into perceiving them differently – the sound of the seaside for one of them, subtly adding grapefruit aroma into the air for another, and the mood lighting kept changing colour.

It was really well done. I was aware of the coloured mood lighting, but only because it made it so hard to judge the colours of the beers. I didn't spot the smells, and being unable to go back and re-taste beer #1 later, as you would do when judging, made it impossible to compensate for how each successive drink coloured your whole palate.

Orange essence over dry ice...
At the end, and after explaining some of what had happened, he poured us a last drink – a cocktail of a splash of a gin sour in some more Pils. Initially there was just a tart lemony-herbal edge to the drink, but then he poured a liquid containing orange oils over some dry ice (!) to flood the space with aroma. Now the drink tasted more citrusy, and even orangey.

So what was the lesson? Well, when you learn to taste and judge beer, one of the things you’re warned about – but rarely experience so clearly in reality – is that your sense of taste can be affected by all sorts of external factors such as background smells, lighting, even the seating, as well as by spicy food or what you were drinking before – and just before starting the experiment a friend had passed me a neat Glenfiddich, aged in an IPA barrel...  No wonder the first Pils had tasted so light!

We also got to try Sharp’s excellent Camel Valley Pilsner, which is a collaboration with Cornwall’s largest vineyard, Camel Valley. It’s the regular Pils refermented with Champagne yeast in the classic Methode Champenoise, and it’s lovely, with a thicker body, an orange note, and a hint of farmhouse ale, the refermentation also pushes the ABV up by 1%. The first batch is almost gone, but I was glad to hear there’s a second, much larger one, on the way!

If you ever get the chance to go on one of these Sharp’s tasting events, I’d highly recommend it. They are not all the same – they change the themes around and have multiple beer sommeliers hosting them, so even if you’re offered the In-flight Experience it will most likely be different to mine.

Friday, 17 March 2017

Going 'craft Irish' for St Patrick's Day

It's St Patrick's Day today, and while I don't especially approve of either cruelty to snakes, or evangelism, it seems an appropriate opportunity to write about Irish beer – and especially about the Irish beer that doesn't come from a huge and shiny brewery near the banks of the Liffey.

And yet, when I was invited to this year's Spirit of Sharing showcase of crafted Irish drinks at the Republic's embassy in London, the thing that struck me was that this time the brewers were just a small minority – just three of them*, far outnumbered by producers of spirits. It felt like a big change from last year, when microbreweries were the dominant presence.

Metal cans from Metalman
Interestingly, although the breweries taking part were outnumbered they had pride of place, being the first things visitors saw as they entered the event. I was delighted to see Metalman Brewing there – it’s one of Ireland’s oldest new-wave micros, having celebrated its sixth anniversary in production earlier this month – and to finally get a chance to chat in person with brewer and co-founder Gráinne Walsh. We’d spoken on the phone a couple of years ago when I was writing about microcanning, which Metalman was also the first in Ireland to adopt.

From one core product in cans back then – the pale ale that’s still its flagship – Metalman has now expanded to four core beers plus a range of seasonals, and thanks to ‘can’tinued innovation (which I plan to write more about soon) they are all canned. The other core lines are an amber IPA, a spiced wheat lager, and believe it or not, a smoked chili Porter! “It’s the slowest of the four, so we only brew it once a month,” admits Gráinne, “but yes, it’s core – we’re brave!”

Part of this expansion is down to a bigger brewkit, which they finally got up and running about 18 months ago. The problem for Irish craft brewers, and the reason some are looking to the export market, is that the growth in domestic demand isn’t keeping up with the growth in supply – and there are still new contract brands and new breweries setting up, says Gráinne. That’s not too bad for her company – she notes that they didn’t expand the brewhouse so that they could scale their production linearly, instead it was because they were having to brew way too often and inefficiently on the old kit.

As well as the pale ale, she’d brought along their spiced wheat lager Equinox, which is a tasty refreshing brew, dry-sweet with lightly citrus notes, plus two of the current seasonals, Ginger and Sgt Pepper. Ginger does what it says on the tin – a warming ginger note over a slightly dusty blond ale – while Sgt Pepper is a lightly funky farmhouse Saison with well judged notes of sage and white pepper.

Kinnegar's Libby Carton
The other two brewers both describe themselves as making farmhouse beers, although Donegal’s Kinnegar Brewing is in the process of expanding from its current farm-based 10hl kit to a new 35hl brewhouse located in the nearby town. Kinnegar’s Libby Carton had a very impressive array of bottles in front of her: all seven of their core beers, plus four of the specials that she and her other half, American brewer Rick, do “when we have the time and capacity.”

Black Rye IPA is a new one on me
Their bottled beers are all unfiltered, unpasteurised and naturally carbonated, although Libby says they’re not bottle-conditioned as such. “We do have draught lines as well,” she adds, “but it’s difficult because you have to keep that line supplied – with the same beer, too! We’re lucky in a way that we started with packaged beer.” Of those I tried, the regulars were all good, as long as you don’t mind a slight haze. The standouts were all from the specials range, though, especially the peppery and spicy-fruity Swingletree, which is a strong Saison, a rich foreign stout called Flying Saucer, and my personal favourite, Black Bucket, a beautifully complex black rye IPA.

Although they’re waiting for the new brewhouse for their main export push, which will feature 330ml bottles replacing the current 500mls, you can find Kinnegar beers on tap all over the UK this weekend as they’re St Patrick’s Day guests in the Brewdog bars, the Rake, the Tate Modern bar, and several others – see their blog for a list.

Last but far from least was Brehon Brewhouse – Seamus McMahon reckons he is the only dairy farmer in the country who also has a brewery on his farm. He says he’s into brewing partly to boost the local economy – the brewery employs five people and uses locally grown malt too, while the waste can go for animal feed. “We’ve doubled the size of the brewery since we set up in 2014, and will double again this year,” he says, adding that he’s in 50 pubs around the area as well as several supermarket groups.

He has a fairly typical range for an Irish micro – a blonde ale, a red, an IPA and slightly unusually, both a porter and a stout, though he didn’t have the porter with him. The ones I tried were all good examples of their styles, with the Ulster Black Oatmeal Stout standing out as very pleasant and quaffable. What’s an Ulster beer doing at the Irish Embassy, you ask? Well, the historical Ulster is nine counties, only six of which are now part of the UK. Both Brehon and Kinnegar are therefore technically Ulster breweries, even though they’re in the Republic.

As I said, it was however spirits that dominated – mostly whiskey of course, but also poitín (aka potcheen, which is basically unaged whiskey), plus 'craft' vodka and gin. Irish whiskey’s presence you’d understand – it’s reportedly the fastest growing spirit in the world – but vodka and gin? Not only are they currently hip, especially gin, but they don't need time, unlike Irish whiskey which by law must be matured at least three years before it can be sold. So if you are starting a distillery, white spirits are good to get you going while you wait for your whiskey to come of age.

One change from last year was that more of the spirits producers seemed to actually be distilling now, although as most only set up their stills within the last two years, few had their own whiskey yet. Instead, they typically get started by buying already-aged whiskey in bulk, then ageing it some more and blending it for resale.

The other was just how many new faces there were. Most of the participants – and all the breweries – were new from last year. This may be deliberate by the organisers at Bord Bia (the Irish Food Board), as the event's role is as a venue for producers who're not yet exporting to the UK. All in all, an excellent event by Bord Bia: my thanks go to them, and of course to the ambassador Dan Mulhall, for being such good hosts.

*Well, three and a half – Dingle Distillery, which was there with its whiskeys, is an offshoot of the Porterhouse brewery and pub group, so it had some Porterhouse bottles on its embassy table. This is also why the London Porterhouse this week was advertising a Dingle whiskey tasting.

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Truman's gets all Kölschy

Tank lager for all to see
The invitation to the launch by Truman’s Brewery of a new ‘tank lager’ didn’t really grab my attention at first. After all, I’m not entirely persuaded that these tank beers are a Good Thing. Brewers claim it keeps the beer fresher, among other things, but there’s a bit of me that sees it as just a dressed-up version of the practice much-derided in the 1960s and 70s where keg beer was tankered to the pub, pumped in via a hose, and served from a large tank in the cellar – although in the modern versions the tank is made a feature of the bar, rather than being hidden away.

What piqued my curiosity was noticing that Truman’s RAW Lager was described as Kölsch-style, meaning it is top or warm-fermented like an ale, before being cold-matured as a Lagerbier*. (It was also described as unfiltered, meaning it’s not a Kölsch but a Wiess/Wieß, an even rarer style that’s made a minor comeback during the current German craft beer revolution – but that’s another story!)

The Kölsch aspect rang bells because it’s far from the only example I’ve come across lately. At the extremes, last year I met some new Irish craft brewers who had a Kölsch-style as the lager-equivalent in their range, usually alongside an Irish Red, a pale ale and the inevitable stout. I even heard of some North American beer-geek bars having four or five different Kölsches on tap at the same time.

Just a few years ago, Kölsch was one of those legendary things: not only was it a lagered ale but it was a Beer from the Old Days (in theory, at least**) that you could pretty much only get in its birthplace of Cologne – bar a few one-offs. I recall the now-defunct West London brewery Grand Union doing one in 2004, for example.

So how come Kölsch-style beers – done properly, I hope! – now seem to be pretty much everywhere? Part of it, especially inside Germany, is the realisation that while the name is protected – it's one of the few that has Europe-wide legal protection, not just protection within Germany like Berliner Weisse – the style is not. Indeed, the real historical Kölsch (as opposed to the modern version) would probably have had close cousins across a wide region. So now for example you can drink Bönnsch from nearby Bonn, a bit further south there's Trilsch from Trier, and most recently Bölsch from a jokey Berlin brewpub.

But it's also the realisation that for an ale brewer, it's a much easier step than going all the way to bottom-fermented lagers. It's also significantly cheaper, as Howling Hops head brewer Tim O’Rourke explained a few months ago while I tasted his cask-conditioned Kölsch-style beer, in both natural and smoked-tea variants. He’s done proper Pilsners too, but they tied up chilled tanks for many weeks while the beer fermented out and then matured. Kölsch could be done in half the time, which is superb when you’re short on space and you need lager to sell, not expensive ingredients locked up in storage for weeks on end.

The big brewers have known this for rather longer. Indeed, there’s been hard-to-confirm tales for many years that some of the major UK lager brands are top-fermented before lagering. One of the few to confirm this is Fuller’s brewing director John Keeling, whose Frontier lager is a top-fermented beer.

Enough about the wider world of Kölsch though: what of Truman’s RAW Lager? Firstly, no, I don’t know why it’s RAW in capitals. But there it was, I’d guess 500 litres of it, in a gleaming copper cylinder hanging above the bar of The Eagle, a newly-reopened (and Truman’s-affiliated) gastropub in Ladbroke Grove, which I hope to write more about later.

This glass is too big for authentic Kölsch!
Truman’s head of marketing Jasper Hossack confirmed the time element: “Our previous lager brews only went to a few selected customers – mostly old Truman's pubs, as it happens, We had to keep a small footprint with them because while ale takes a week [to ferment], lager takes up to a month.” He noted that the brewery is also installing three new 120-barrel fermenting vessels – their brewkit is 40-barrels so they’ll have to brew three times to fill each one, but with the longer overall process for RAW that’s not a problem.

He added that while a brewer can work around faults in an ale, “With lager there’s nothing to hide behind. You have to be so on-it, make sure it’s conditioned properly and so on. The tanker also takes a step out of the process as there’s no filling kegs.”

The first sips of RAW are tasty, refreshing and authentic: lightly hoppy, with dry-grassy and peppery noble hop notes over slightly sweet golden malt. Order a pint though, and further down the glass it changes. It becomes sweeter and yes, there’s a hint of a generic Brit-brewed Eurolager.

I guess this is why in Cologne’s pubs, Kölsch is only ever served in 20cl ‘Stange’ glasses – it needs to be drunk fresh, so as you finish one Stange the waiter quickly replaces it. Maybe Truman’s should consider investing in some branded Stanges lined for third-pint measures – that’s 19cl, so close enough, and it’d make a neat talking point!

*One of the problems with beer terminology is that ale and lager are not opposites – the terms refer to different parts of the brewing process. So you can lager a top-fermented ale, as the Kölsch and Alt brewers do, and I guess you could equally well sell a bottom-fermented beer without lagering it (does anyone ever do this? I’ve a suspicion it’s what at least some of the reinvented Zwickls and Kellerbiers amount to). 

**Modern Kölsch is largely a 20th century creation, developed to compete with Pilsner, Helles and Export lagers – remember here that the Bavarian Einheitsgebot [Law of Sameness] wasn't imposed on Northern Germany until the very early 1900s. Indeed, in the years of devastation following WW2 the Cologne brewers were rebuilding themselves as Pils brewers, before the founders of the Kölsch-Konvention persuaded them of the value of tradition.

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Beery times in old London town

We’ve a beery few weeks in London right now. Last week was Craft Beer Rising, where I had a great time discussing the state of the industry with various of the excellent brewers there – more about that in what’s planned to be a series of future blog posts.

Then next week is North London CAMRA’s London Drinker Beer Festival, and the week after that is DrinkUp.London’s London Beer Week*. The latter, which runs from Monday 13th ot Sunday 19th March, seems to have split up with Craft Beer Rising – last year CBR was the anchor event for LBW, but this year they’re separate events. Oh, and earlier in February was the trade show Pub17 which I didn’t get to this year, but by all accounts it’s developing more and more of a craft beer flavour.

London Drinker is going to be interesting this year, as for the first time it will feature only London real ales – the last couple of years it’s had a London bar, but at least half the beers were from elsewhere in the country. Now, with almost 100 breweries active in the capital it can showcase the best beer it has to offer, whether in cask, keg, bottle or potentially can. There is even going to be a Champion Beer of London competition.

Meanwhile, London Beer Week has moved this year from Brick Lane’s Old Truman Brewery (where Craft Beer Rising has just taken place) to Hackney’s Oval Space (the venue for last year’s London Craft Beer Festival, but that’s moving to Shoreditch this year). As well as brewery-run events, DrinkUp.London is running its own three-day festival at Oval Space, called the Beer Edit. Confused yet?

I’m looking forward to the Beer Edit, albeit with some guarded scepticism! That’s because there’s no beer list for it yet that I’ve seen, just mentions of some of the “brands” taking part – and so far they’re all big ones from outside London, but then this is a week of beer in London, not necessarily of London.

Sharp’s and Guinness are headlining again, both of them put on a good show last year and look set to repeat that this year. Sharp’s will again have a full range of beers including a couple of specials, plus a beer and food matching experience, while Guinness will once more feature unusual beers from its Open Gate Brewery, which is the former pilot brewery at Dublin’s St James’ Gate now operating as an experimental craft brewpub. Beyond that we’re promised Czech Staropramen (a MolsonCoors brand, like Sharp’s) and Pabst Blue Ribbon, which is an American lager that was for a while ‘ironically cool’.

Some of the other London Beer Week events look both more local and rather excellent. For example, the rickshaw beer tours which take you to three different London breweries or taprooms, with a beer at each. They’re sponsored by Jameson’s, which is promoting its whiskey aged in stout barrels (if I remember rightly, this is Franciscan Well Shandon Stout – the brewery then takes Jameson whiskey barrels and ages beer in them!), so they’re only £10 per person.

There’s also a Courage-themed walking tour which visits both the site of the legendary brewery near Tower Bridge, and the new Southwark Brewery which is producing special Courage SE1 cask ales. And there’s a bunch of bars doing LBW specials such as beer cocktails – see the Beer Week website for details.

All in all it’s a great time for beer in London, as befits what was once – and may yet be again – the greatest brewing city in the world. Have fun!

*not to be confused with London Beer City week in August, which is when London Craft Beer Festival and the Great British Beer Festival take place. 

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

A few days in Beercelona

Although last week's trip to Barcelona was a family holiday and nothing to do with beer, somehow I did manage to involve a little bit of the latter... Indeed, along with a brief business trip there last autumn, I've now been to three of the city's new beer destinations: BierCab, Chivuo's and BlackLab.

Anyone familiar with the Barcelona (and indeed Catalonia and Spain more generally) of 10 to 20 years ago will be startled by the very idea of a 'beer destination' there – Spanish beer was basically Eurolager, plus a few seasonal oddities, such as strong lagers pitched as Bock or Märzen. But like so many other countries, Spain has had a craft beer revolution, and the results are sometimes extremely good.

See yourself on the big screen...
I liked BierCab – it's a friendly craft beer bar with 30-odd taps, pouring a 50/50 mix of local and international beers. It's also the first place I'd been in which had huge screens above the bar showing all their recent beer check-ins on Twitter and Untappd. Seeing my own mugshot scroll past after checking in a beer was a bit disconcerting!

Chivuo's was rather different but equally likeable – enough for a second visit, this time with Mrs BeerViking (it helped here that it was only a short walk from where we were staying). It's rather more hipster, which on the plus side means a menu of jolly decent 'slow street food' – that's burgers, pulled-pork and the like – and on the minus side means beer served in bloody jam jars*, complete with the screw thread for a lid! But no, there were no lids on offer for take-aways, only flip-top growlers.

Nipping out for a jar?
Only eight taps here, but all the draught beers are either from the Barcelona area or not far away, as are three of the four bottled offerings -- the single exception was Schneider TAP1. The local beers were a well-curated and well-kept selection, including IPAs, pale ales, Helles, stout and brown ale.

That list should give a clue as to the big challenge facing local craft brewers here, which is how do they do something distinctive and different? They have no local beer styles to work with, so really it's all just variations on the US 'craft standards' plus styles from the big beer traditions, which means Britain, Belgium, Germany, and perhaps Ireland.

A visit to the BlackLab brewpub – for no obvious reason, its logo is a black labrador wearing glasses – to meet local beer blogger Joan (yes, as in Miro: it’s the Catalan form of John), confirmed it. On offer were a couple of IPAs, an American Pale Ale, a Porter, a fruited Berliner Weisse and more. All were well-made and tasty (their flagship IPA, called Claudia, was particularly good) but I got a distinct sense of brewing-by-numbers, as if someone had told the brewer, “We need one of this style, one of that, two of those, and then pick a couple more from the book.”

BlackLab was quite a change from the other two. It’s down by the posh harbour alongside other ‘destination nightspots’, quite a bit more spacious inside and with a good-sized terrace area too. The beer prices are a bit posher as well, but not too bad. The one fly in the ointment was the crappy free Wi-Fi which, even after requiring me to register, timed me out after two hours with no option to renew.

Catching up with Joan, after we met a few times at other events (most notably the Beer Writers & Bloggers Conferences), was great. So was most of the beer I had while I was in Barcelona – even some of the cheap macro stuff I picked up for under a Euro. As in other countries, there’s also the welcome first signs of beers with a local twist, whether that’s a Saison with orange, Porter aged in a Rioja barrel, or simply a toasty strong lager that works far better as a beer for a sunny terrace than you’d even imagine it might.

Moritz Epidor: toasty
lager on the prom
I barely scratched the surface of Barcelona’s new beer culture. There’s many more bars and brewery taprooms to visit, there’s the Barcelona Beer Challenge, and next week there is the Barcelona Beer Festival, which Joan helps organise. It’s definitely one of Europe’s top new beer destinations.

*The Chivuo’s jars weren’t lined, but I’d guess they were about 330ml which made the beers €10 a litre, or about £5 a pint – and it’s the same price regardless of strength. Pricing in BierCab and BlackLab varied by beer and was higher overall, but not a lot.