Tuesday 4 December 2018

The fun and challenges of beer and food matching

It’s been a bit of a feast of beer and food pairings lately, first at the annual dinner of the British Guild of Beer Writers and then at the rather excellent Hero of Maida gastropub in London’s Maida Vale, where UK beer distributor Euroboozer kindly hosted a “beery brunch” for writers. The former focused on British beers, naturally enough, while the latter included Austrian, Belgian and Danish brews – Euroboozer represents Schremser, Steigl, Boon and Mikkeller, among others.

It was fascinating to see how much better some pairings worked than others, but also to be reminded that although there was general agreement, different people of course preferred different pairings.
The rule of thumb with beer and food matching is you either go for complementary flavours or contrasts. For instance, a hoppy IPA can work well with curry, which to me implies complementary, but it can also match cheese, where the bitterness doesn’t so much contrast as cut through the oils.

Interestingly, both menus featured scallops – they’re clearly the shellfish of the moment. In one case, seared scallops were paired with Chalky’s Bite from Sharp’s, in the other the scallops were baked and served alongside Sonnenkönig II, a 9.5% Double Witbier aged in Tequila barrels (left), which comes from the pilot brewery of Austria’s best-known lager brand Steigl.

Both combinations worked very well. The dry tang of Sonnenkönig against the fishy sweetness of the baked scallops, and the spicy maltiness of Chalky’s Bite – a 6.8% herbed strong ale that makes me think of a Belgian Tripel – with the toastier seared scallops. A second fish dish, smoked haddock tartare, was paired with Riesling People, a hazy IPA brewed with grape juice – it’s one of Danish brewer Mikkeller’s takes on the modern beer-wine hybrid style. Again, a lovely beer, almost gin-like in its dryness, but for me it didn’t bring out the flavour of the fish.

Moving on, brunch brought us brioche buns filled with bacon, cheese and egg, paired with Boon Oude Geuze Black Label. This is a stunningly good beer, the driest Geuze that Boon produces, and it did a great job of contrasting with the lightly fatty and salty character of the bacon and cheese. I’ll try to remember Gueze as an option for cheese and charcuterie in the future!

The main course for dinner, roasted Welsh lamb, brought not one but two pairings. The intended one was Fourpure’s smoky-sweet and rich Oatmeal Stout. This is a very fine beer, but somehow the combination of that sweetness with the equally rich meatiness of the lamb didn’t work as well for me as the second beer on the table – Marble’s tropical and resinous Hopoplata. This gorgeous 7.2% West Coast IPA was intended to pair with the vegetarian option, but worked extremely well with the lamb – its hoppy and bitter fruitiness contrasted with the meat, each bringing out the richness of the other.

Back at brunch, the meat course was an amazingly delicious Gascon black pudding with white beans (right), served with Steel Toe Milk Stout from America’s Ska Brewing. This time, the creamy and slightly smoky sweetness worked excellently well, perhaps because of the softer – though equally rich and lovely – flavour and texture of the black pudding.

Time for dessert, and a sticky-toffee pudding paired with OTT, a classic 7% old ale from Hog’s Back. This match did a great job of bringing out the cocoa and fruit cake notes in the beer. We also had on the table a bottle of Greene King’s Heritage Vintage Fine Ale – a rather excellent strong ale brewed with Chevallier heritage barley – so for curiosity’s sake I also tried that with the pudding. Dry-sweet and lightly toasty, it too worked very well, confirming strong ales as a good pudding choice!

While brunch now moved on to a liquid course – a tart and tangy Boon/Mikkeller collaboration where they aged Geuze in white Vermouth foeders – dinner wrapped up with an amazing range of British cheeses, quite simply the best cheeseboard I’ve had in a long time. They were served with another strong ale, this time from the far north – Orkney Brewery’s 10% Dark Island Reserve. With such a variety of cheeses, the aim (according to the tasting notes from fellow writer Jacopo Mazzeo) was to provide a beer complex enough to complement them all. It worked well, although now I can’t help wondering how the cheese would have gone with something like that white Vermouth Gueze or perhaps a strong Farmhouse Saison…

Sunday 28 October 2018

Nationwide beer festival kicks off with London Brewing Co

The last time I visited London Brewing Co, it was a small brewkit in the corner of the kitchen at the Bull pub in Highgate. Now, it’s a 10 hectolitre microbrewery in its own space*, and it’s been appearing in 40 Nicholson’s pubs up and down the country as the opening act in that pubco’s Autumn 2018 Beer Showcase, which opened last month.

St Pancras IPA
“We’ve been brewing non-stop for this,” says LBC boss Senan Sexton. The brewery has produced 12 cask ales for the festival, some are their regulars and others are variants of previous brews, done specially for Nicholson’s.

Normally LBC’s production is 40% to 50% cask ale, rather than 100%, he says, adding that “Cask isn’t the most profitable, but it’s the most important. It’s low-margin for brewers but we’re not too worried as we can scale up and down.”

I met Senan, head brewer Richard, and second brewer George, at the Coal Hole on London’s Strand, where the pub’s staff had arranged a treat for us and a number of their regulars: a beer and food pairing, matching five beers with different dishes. The Coal Hole is a classic Nicholson’s pub, all dark wood and polished brass – very much an updated version of the image that many people will have of the classic English pub.

In fact I wonder if that “modern-traditional” style is why Nicholson’s pubs are so popular with their locals, yet often overlooked by others. Nicholson’s is part of pubco M&B, so sometimes it gets disparaged along with the likes of Punch and Enterprise. In truth though, its pubs are generally rather nice – and more importantly, they keep a very decent pint of real ale (or at least the ones I know do!).

The first beer we try is St Pancras IPA, brewed and named for the 150th anniversary this year of the railway station where barrels of beer arrived from Burton-on-Trent and were stored for onward distribution. It’s a lovely beer – toasty-sweet and malty-dry in what we now tend to think of as the classic English IPA style. It goes very nicely with the fried nibbles presented by the pub, with the caramel malt complementing the caramelisation in the batter.

Senan serves up the brownies
The other beers are just as good, from Admiral of the Red, a red ale that’s spicy and lightly tangy, through 100 Oysters, a dry Stout which is indeed brewed with 100 oysters and is complex and dark, to Gigglemug. The latter is a change of pace – after relatively rich cask ales, Richard wants to show he can do lighter keg beers too – this is a fruity and lightly floral American Pale Ale.

We finish with a bite of chocolate brownie to accompany Senan’s piece de resistance, Samson’s Riddle. A big and chewy 9.5% Imperial Stout that included black treacle in the brew, it’s been aged in Bourbon barrels before a couple of years of bottle conditioning. It’s good now, and should only improve – if you can find a bottle, that is.

Although technically LBC’s slot in the Nicholson’s Beer Showcase is over, I hear there are still ales available in some of the pubs around the country. It’d be a shame to miss them, but then again there’s plenty more good beer coming up – Siren is next, with a range that includes a number of specials.

*Still in a pub, but now it’s The Bohemia, in North Finchley.

Friday 5 October 2018

Fuller's micro is a model in many ways

Visitors to Fuller's refurbished brewery shop have known for some time that a new pilot brewery was coming – you can see it behind a glass wall at the back of the shop. It was still under construction when the shop reopened though, and it didn't officially start brewing until quite recently.

Sadly, I missed the official opening, but when I read about it I wondered where the beers brewed there would end up. To find out, I of course looked on Untappd for check-ins and there they were, in the brewery shop. So one lunchtime last week I nipped over there for a look.

As I walked around the shop to see what I could find, I could also see through the glass a brewer, back turned to me, busily shovelling out the mash tun. I spotted several of the beers on the growler bar, available in two-litre takeaways, then looked up to see the brewer waving at me – it was Hayley Marlor (who was, incidentally, co-creator of Matariki, my favourite beer from the first Fuller's & Friends series which is back in the shops), and she invited me in for a look around.

The pilot brewery is built to more or less replicate the large one, so it includes items you'd normally not find in a 16hl/10 barrel microbrewery, such as a Steel's Masher. But it's also been given some features to make it more of a showcase (and incidentally easier to manage) such as a vertical window into the side of the mash tun. This means the brewer can see what's going on under the surface, and is rather unusual, to say the least.

Of course it can't replicate the main brewery exactly. For instance the volumes are lower, so you don't get the same hydrostatic pressures build up in the fermenters, and that changes how the yeast works. But it lets them come close, so as well as testing new ingredients and recipes it will help train new brewers on the main brewery processes.

Hayley said that as well as doing test brews and short-run beers, the brewkit will be used to pilot some of the future Fuller's & Friends collaborations. In particular, that's those with breweries overseas – with the UK collaborations so far, they've done the pilot batch at the partner brewery, then moved to Chiswick for the main production run, but that's rather less practical when the partner is half way around the world.

The idea is that each of Fuller's brewers will have charge of the pilot brewery for a year – Hayley was lucky enough to be the first. She expects to brew once a week to start with, and has already done several brews. Hopefully, as well as the growlers we'll see some casks and bottles available around London and at festivals before too long!

Thursday 20 September 2018

What's so special about £12.50?

London's beer scene is kicking into gear again, with two excellent events coming up on consecutive weekends. They are quite different though – the only things they have in common are beer and a ticket price of £12.50, and the latter similarity puzzles me more than perhaps it ought to! Is this going to be the "new norm" for festivals – I guess it's equivalent to three beers at central London rates – or is there something else about this number that I've missed?

First up is Goose Island's LDN Block Party this coming Saturday 22nd at The Oval in Bethnal Green. Sadly it’s sold out already, but there’s a few people selling spares on the event’s Facebook page. If you do have a ticket (and note that they cover admission but not your beer and food), you should be in for a good time – I went last year when it was at a venue near Old Street, and it was excellent. Good bands on stage, with bars and foodstalls nearby, or if you wanted a change of ambience there were other bars indoors.

Last year these included the Alpine-themed Blocktoberfest bar where they launched their Spaten-brewed Keller Märzen, another pouring many of the variations on Bourbon County Stout, some of them rather rare, and House of Funk, a bar specialising in Goose Island’s many sours and wild ales. The evening’s more music-focused, with indie band The Vaccines headlining this year, but if you go earlier – it runs from 3pm to 11pm – there’s other activities going on. Last year there was a guided cheese & beer pairing in the wilds & sours bar, for example.

Yes, I know Goose Island is macro-owned these days, but it’s hung on to at least some of its indie soul – and let’s face it, without AB-Inbev’s money behind it, we in the UK probably wouldn’t be enjoying nearly as many of its excellent beers now.

Anyway, where was I? Oh yes, £12.50 is also the cost of a ticket to Craft Beer Cares in Hackney on Saturday 29th and Sunday 30th. It’s a very different event from the Block Party – the beer’s more independent, there’s no live music that I’m aware of, it’s all for charity – and perhaps most importantly of all, your ticket includes your first beer tokens!

There's also several contributing breweries to add to the list I mentioned last time, including Five Points, Lervig and Whiplash, and there's still tickets available. So if you’re in town and haven’t booked one yet, get over there and get one – or if you're a bit more of a glutton, get one for each of the three sessions... I wonder if there's anyone who'll do that! All being well, I'll see you there on the Sunday afternoon (yes, change of plan).

Thursday 23 August 2018

Charity beer fest Craft Beer Cares is back

Last year's festival
There's a bunch of beery things coming up in London over the next few weeks, but the one I think I'm looking forward to most is Craft Beer Cares – I've already bought my ticket. This beer festival run for charity was a really good event last year – excellent beer, all donated by the brewers, plus side-events such as a beer raffle with great prizes.

This year's edition takes place at London Fields Brewery in Hackney – or rather, at the brewery's event space around the corner on Mentmore Place E8. They're expecting beer from more than 20 breweries, and proceeds from the event (which raised more than £6000 last year) will be donated to London-based anti violence charity Art Against Knives.

“We have the fortune to be able to build on our first event with a bigger venue, more beer, and more sessions, to be more accessible and hopefully raise even more money for charity this year,” said Gautam Bhatnagar, the event's founder. “We couldn’t do it without the kindness and donations of the breweries involved, the volunteers and the logistical help of many distributors in the industry.”

Craft Beer Cares will run three sessions, from 11am-5pm and 6pm-12am on Saturday 29th, and 12pm-6pm on Sunday 30th. Tickets are £12.50 per session, which includes a festival glass and tokens for four half-pints – you can of course buy more tokens on site.

The breweries due to take part in Craft Beer Cares 2018 include:
Brew By Numbers
Dry and Bitter
Gipsy Hill
London Fields
Magic Rock
Modern Times
Northern Monk
NZ Beer Collective
Weird Beard
Yeastie Boys

There's more to be confirmed, say the organisers. Based on last year's event, we can expect maybe eight or ten beers to be available on draught at any one time, plus others in bottle or can, and new kegs coming on tap as others run out.

Tickets for Craft Beer Cares are available via Eventbrite.

Tuesday 21 August 2018

Franconia comes to London

As I mentioned a few days ago, there were several other beer events run alongside GBBF and London Craft Beer Festival. I'm not quite sure whether this is trying to take advantage of the fact that there will be extra beer fans in the capital, or whether it's just an obvious time to hold events. Anyway, one such was Franken Fest, a celebration of beer from Franconia (or Franken) beer hosted at the Moor Beer Taproom in London's Bermondsey over the same weekend as GBBF (which also featured several Franconian beers).

Although the two largest cities in Franconia – which is today part of Bavaria, but very much has its own identity – are Nürnberg (Nuremberg) and Würzburg, the most famous from a beer perspective is of course Bamberg, the reputed home of Rauchbier. Yet while Rauchbier's had quite a renaissance across Germany and abroad in recent years, it's not the most 'typical' Franconian beer at all – that would be Kellerbier.

This malty unfiltered amber beer, which is lagered but can be top- or bottom-fermented, is at its best when served straight from the cask in the region's beer gardens. These are in turn known as Kellers, perhaps because so many are right outside the eponymous cellars where the beer is lagered. And the attraction of Moor's Franken Fest was the promise not just of Franconian beers, but that they'd be served from the cask.

Discovering on arrival that they were charging £5 admission almost put me off going in. OK, you got a Bierkrug (pottery beer mug) for that, but it was non-refundable and I have more than enough glassware and stuff! I'm pretty sure they miscalculated here – I relented and paid up, but over the course of the next two or three hours I saw several groups of drinkers enter then leave again, muttering, when they found out the cost. And certainly they didn't sell out of beer – there were still Kellerbiers on sale there a week later, to judge from the check-ins on Untappd. 

Be that as it may, the beer was excellent. Due to limited space on the festival 'bar', they only had three cask Kellerbiers available at a time; when one was empty, it was replaced by something different. Two or three more were available on keg on the main bar, alongside a full range of Moor's own beer, including a couple of new releases. By chance, two of the three on offer when I arrived were ones I've drunk at their respective breweries in Bamberg – Mahr's aU ("ah-oo") and Spezial Lager Rauch. So I went for the third, which was Mönchsambacher Export, and it was gorgeous – dry-bitter over a rich and full malty-sweet body.

Amber Ale in a Krug? sure, why not!
Sadly, some of those I'd hoped to try (eg. the Schammelsdorfer and the Griess) weren't on while I was there, but the Goldener Löwe (Först) Altfränkisches Lagerbier and Thuisbrunner Elch-Bräu Dunkel were both good, as was Gänstaller's reworked Kellerbier Traditionell. In a gap while I waited for the Fränkisch beers to rotate onto something new, I also had a try of Zero Brew – not a non-alcoholic as the name implies, but Moor's new 6% American Amber Ale, all malty and toasty, with notes of pine and orange. Very different from the Franconians, but equally lovely.

And that was it – pausing only to sell my krug to a new arrival for a quid, I left, filled with good beer and a strong desire to revisit Franconia.

Sunday 19 August 2018

Cask goes Continental at GBBF

The trade session at GBBF, the day after the guild get-together, was preceded by a morning judging golden ales for Champion Beer of Britain. The tasting is all done "blind", but we find out later what we judged, so I can tell you that Salopian's Oracle was totally justified as the gold medal winner for the category! In the main halls downstairs afterwards, the beers were in good condition, better than in some previous years. Some were a little 'green' but this was the very first session, and from what I hear they improved just as you'd expect as the week went on.

The big 'gap' was the American cask-conditioned beers, which had been delayed arriving. Fortunately the organisers were able to fill the hole left on the bar using something that was new this year – cask-conditioned Dutch and Belgian beers! I hear that arranging these was a logistical challenge, as casks had to be sent over there for the brewers to fill, and then collected and brought back, but I'm glad they did it as some of the results were great. (By the by, I've seen old British-style bellied metal casks on show in Dutch breweries, so I assume they must have used them once upon a time.)

I only tried a few of these, but two in particular were very memorable – the dry-hopped Beluga 10% Imperial Stout from De Kromme Haring, burnt yet smooth and hugely flavoursome, and Brouwerij 't Verzet's Oud Bruin, a massively sour and tart Flanders Old Brown.

Of the British ales tasted, Lymm's Dam Strong Ale was lovely – malty, estery and earthy-bitter, and tasting rather lighter than its claimed 7.2%! As I said, the others I tried were maybe a bit too green, with the exception of some from the Thornbridge bar, most notably their creamy-dry and hoppy Green Mountain Session IPA (keykeg-conditioned, rather than cask) and the rich and weirdly tasty Salted Caramel Lucaria Porter (right).

Oh, and I also at last got to meet Ben Palmer, who writes about his experiences of being an Englishman training as a brewer in Germany on his blog Hop & Schwein. We'd chatted online – shared interests! – but not actually met before. 

Next: Franconia comes to London

Saturday 18 August 2018

Drinking the world from London

3.5% is the strongest you can get in a
Swedish supermarket
Late July and early August are busy times for the London beer scene. The proximity of the London Craft Beer Festival (which I hear went very well this year) and the Great British Beer Festival gives bars and pubs around the city reason to hold all sorts of other events in parallel, such as mini festivals, tap-takeovers and meet-the-brewer sessions.

However, late July and August is also when the schools are closed for the summer, which means that many of us are out of town on family holidays. On the plus side, the holidays did enable a bit of beer shopping in foreign parts. Only in Systembolaget (the Swedish state alcohol monopoly shops) and in various German, Danish and Swedish supermarkets, but all of those carry pretty good beer ranges now – I even scored a bottle of the stonkingly good Limfjords Porter in Danish Lidl, of all places – so it was a nice change.

Anyway, it's why I only managed to get to two of those London beer events, or two-and-a-half if you count catching the last couple of hours of the Beer Writers Guild pre-GBBF summer get-together. I missed the speeches and brewery tours at the latter, as it took me that long to get there from Heathrow airport – it was hosted at Heineken's very shiny new Brixton Brewery site in the wilds of Herne Hill. But the company and the food were good, and some of the beer was excellent.

Among the stand-outs were Renegade India Session Ale, from the craft arm of West Berkshire Brewery, and two Americans, namely 2x4, which is Wyoming-based Melvin Brewing's massively hoppy yet smooth and rich Double IPA, and Hardywood's Singel from Virginia. The latter is in the style of a Belgian blond ale, and is lovely and spicy-estery. The name's a silly joke, though. The idea being it's below Dubbel and Tripel, hence 'Singel' – but Belgians don't call them that. It's not even a Dutch/Flemish word – the translation of single would be Enkel.

Next up: Cask goes Continental at GBBF

Saturday 14 July 2018

Can cask ale avoid retreating into a corner?

I spent a pleasant hour or two last week with the folks from London's Moncada Brewery, formerly of Notting Hill and now of Dollis Hill (near Brent Cross in North London). They were holding a Meet-the-Brewer session at the George IV pub in Chiswick.

It's part of a guest-residency project Fuller's is running in a dozen or so of its flagship pubs with various other members of the London Brewers Alliance. Each month, Fuller's commissions two cask ales from another brewery – as far as I can make out, some are new brews, some are cask versions of existing non-cask beers, and others are regular cask beers. During its month, the brewer is also invited to visit those pubs with some extra beers in bottle or can.

The Moncada team at the George IV
So tonight we had Notting Hill Pale on cask, alongside Verano which is the new name for Moncada's summer ale – Verano is Spanish for summer. Brewers Angelo and Karl had brought along tall cans of two more beers. One was Mandarina Blonde, which is a version of the regular blonde ale single-hopped with, yes, Mandarina Bavaria. The other was a special version of Verano with two main changes – it too features Mandarina Bavaria in its hop blend, and it was fermented with a mixture including New England yeast.

What I didn't expect was that the mandarin notes would be more obvious in the mixed-hop beer than the single-hopped one. It's probably something to do with how the other hops combine to lift the flavours, suggested head brewer Angelo.

Needless to say, the cask beer at the George IV was in great condition, but one of the Moncada team, assistant brewer Karl, mentioned that they're winding back on cask and will produce it only for pre-sale in the future. The problem – despite all those seminars and training projects and cask ale reports and so on – is that too many publicans still can't look after real ale properly, and when they get it wrong it's often the brewer who unfairly gets the blame.

"How they treat our casks…" mused Angelo. "We delivered cask to one place in the morning, that afternoon we got a phone call: 'It's cloudy, I can't sell this!' It needs 48 hours to settle – no, they can't do that."

It's a story anyone in the trade has probably heard several times before, in one form or another. It's why some brewers have abandoned cask altogether, while others have told me they now sell it only to outlets they know and trust. And then there are those who are doing more and more brewery-conditioning of their cask ales – it's not a perfect solution, but it's an understandable one.

What does this all mean for the future of real ale – will it become a niche thing? Should it become a niche thing? Is the future 'fake cask', still real but with little left for the cellar manager to do? Let me know what you think, please.

Friday 29 June 2018

London Brewers flourish in the midsummer sun

The queue, 2 min after opening
Last Saturday's London Brewers Alliance beer festival, in the brewery yard at Fuller's of Chiswick, was the best beer festival I've been to in a long while. Forty London brewers there – and I mean brewers, as it was a chance to meet the people who make the stuff – from breweries of all sizes and many ages, from recent 200-litre start-ups to well-established London regionals, all pouring their own beers in the hot midsummer sunshine.

Add in superb organisation by the Fuller's and LBA team led by John Keeling, who is both LBA chairman and director of brewing at Fuller's, and the LBA's John Cryne, and the day was complete: Plenty of bars (40 of them!) and all of the same size regardless of the brewery, plenty of tables and benches, supplies of drinking water, and of course plenty of portaloos – although quite how they also wangled the gorgeous weather I'm not sure!

It was only after John Keeling briefly stopped by our table, looking a little tired but sounding immensely relieved – "Everything arrived late, but we still opened on time," he declared – that I realised what an achievement this had been. Despite the quiet of a Saturday afternoon and the rustic charm of its old buildings, clad in historic Wisteria, during the week Fuller's is a working industrial site.

That means the festival build can't have started in earnest until after the brewery shut down on Friday afternoon, and after the Friday evening traffic on the Hogarth Roundabout had subsided. Indeed, David Scott of Kew Brewery said on Twitter that he was the first to deliver beer, at around 7pm.

Given that, it's no wonder that the vast majority of the beer was in keg form. Breweries were limited to two keg taps each, although some also brought cans and bottles, and a few – including the hosts – also had cask beer on a stillage in what I think of as the carriage house, opposite the brewery's reception office (it's the building straight ahead in the queue photo above).

I went with the intention simply of enjoying the beer, the sunshine and the company. Somehow though, old instincts were impossible to shake off and I found myself making notes as I chatted with brewers I'd not met before. Here's a few of the snippets I picked up…

Some of my beer-friends hadn't encountered ORA Brewing before, so wanted to find their bar. When eventually we did find it, I realised I'd been intrigued by their Balsamic milk stout before – so I asked for some more! Turns out ORA started as a homebrewery in a garage in Modena, Italy, but moved to London six months ago. They're brewing at UBrew in Bermondsey while they look for their own site.

Pietro said the Balsamic has 8g per litre of Modena barrel-aged balsamic vinegar – he's at pains to point out that this isn't the more acidic vinegar we're used to here, but a thick, sour-sweet and caramelly sauce that goes well with desserts and even ice cream. It explains both some of the creamy chocolate character in the stout and the faint tartness that I noticed when I first had the beer, which made me wonder then if it had been vat-aged.

Jeffersons Brewery I'd read about briefly in London Drinker, and I was curious because even though I'd not seen their beer before, it turns out they're more or less local to me, over the river in Barnes. It's just a 200-litre nanobrewery for now, run by the Jefferies brothers – I talked with George. It was great to hear from him that everything they do is real ale, even the kegs and cans – the Across the Pond session IPA was certainly in good form.

Somewhat unusually – several others I spoke to at the festival mentioned using mobile canners, such as Them That Can – Jeffersongs do their own canning on a small can-seamer (sealer). George had good news and bad – they're upgrading to an eight-barrel plant, but can't find a brewery site anywhere around Barnes. They don't want to go far though – "We will probably end up in Putney or Wandsworth," he said.

There were a few breweries that were completely new to me. One was Neckstamper Brewing, set up two years ago and now producing some fine IPAs – I tried both the Elbow Crooker Session IPA and the Mizzle New England IPA. "It's me all on my own, trying to balance brewing and selling," said brewer Adam Jefferies (yes, another one!). He now has a Saturday taproom open as well – had we known, we could possibly have added it to the other week's brewery crawl. "We're not far up the river walk from Beavertown and Pressure Drop," he said.

Two Tribes is a brewery name I knew, but without any idea where they were from. Turns out it's mostly based in Horsham, where it grew out of King Beer (and before that WJ King) and still has the 25-barrel commercial brewery. However, it also acquired a brewery site in Kings Cross not long ago for its taproom and experimental brews, and this now seems to be its HQ. On tap were Non Binary, a passionfruit Gose, and To The Bone, a Vienna lager, both of which were decent. 

Lastly for now, Spartan Brewery I visited on my last trip to Bermondsey, but at that point it was an almosth-empty railway arch. They've now got their brewkit in, and as brewer Colin proudly told me, "We did our first brew two weeks ago." He was also making a bid for the freshest beer at the festival, as it has only been kegged at 5pm the previous afternoon!

Well, that's all the ones that were new (or mostly new) to me; there were of course about three dozen more, many of whom I also paid a drinking visit to...

Monday 18 June 2018

Can Tottenham become the new Bermondsey?

There's now at least seven breweries around the Tottenham area of north London, which if I remember rightly is more than there were on the original Bermondsey Beer Mile. So when I heard that the local CAMRA branch there was organising its "4th Annual Tottenham Real Ale Revival Crawl" last Saturday, I was intrigued – was Tottenham becoming the new Bermondsey? And for real ale?!

Well, not quite. For a start, Redemption doesn't have a brewery bar open on Saturdays, and One Mile End doesn't even have room for a brewery taproom, or so I'm told. Still, a five-brewery crawl is not to be sniffed at!

Our designated starting point was Five Miles, which is also the home of Hale Brewing. The brewery is housed in two shipping containers in the yard (left) and uses the former Affinity brewkit, Affinity having upgraded and moved to, yes, Bermondsey. As well as being the brewery tap with four Hale beers on tap, Five Miles is a beer bar in its own right – among the others on tap (below) during on our visit were beers from Magic Rock, Mikkeller (Denmark), Oedipus (Netherlands) and Schremser (Germany).

What there wasn't was any cask ale – or at least, nothing on handpump. This was to be a feature of the whole crawl, although of course some of the draught beers we encountered may very well have been keg-conditioned real ale. You might think this a bit odd for a CAMRA event, but I assure you it's not – not for London CAMRA, anyway. I think we're a pretty open bunch on average – good beer is good beer, although being cask or keg-conditioned generally makes it better still!

Anyhow, the Hale beers I tried – a fruited Berliner Weisse called Tropipisch and a fruity-hoppy pale ale – were pretty decent, and the bar is nice too. It's a little out of the way, mixed in among industrial units some 15 minutes walk from Seven Sisters tube, but that too as we'll see was to be a feature of the afternoon…

Join the crowd

Because it was another 15-20 minutes walk to our next destination, Beavertown, which is also mixed in amongst industrial units. This of course is the keystone brewery for the area, and was correspondingly crowded. It's cards-only at the bar and the queue can be pretty long, but once you get there, then as well as Beavertown's own excellent products there's usually at least a couple of collaboration brews. On our visit they had on tap both the De la Senne collab Brattish, and the stonking 14.5% Heavy Lord quadruple stout brewed with Three Floyds.

It's a nice place with a friendly crowd and great beer, helped by the early afternoon sunshine. I was happy enough though to move away from the throng (left), especially as we were only going around the corner on the same industrial estate – our next destination was Pressure Drop which recently moved in from Hackney (as an aside, it's just agreed to reopen its old brewery site there as a joint taproom with Verdant).

Pressure Drop's unit is less crowded – for now! – and feels more relaxed. Its beer range is well crafted but isn't as envelope-pushing or as broad as Beavertown's. Somewhat stereotypically for craft beer, there were several IPAs available, for instance, including multiple examples of New England IPA. To be fair though, the two NEIPAs I tried were notably different from each other.

A neat move on Pressure Drop's part is that the bottle bar is also where you get your glass deposit refunded, and you get the option of swapping it instead for a bottle – there's several beers here that aren't on the main draught bar.

From here it was on again, with the realisation of just how amazingly many small industrial estates there are in this part of London. That's because I and another chap, having been left behind by the main party, headed in the right direction up what looked like a road, only to discover it was actually the entrance to a small estate – and it was the only entrance. So we ended up having to walk more or less in a complete circle to get out again, and then backtrack to find a parallel proper route. Sigh.

Still, and few twists and turns, and a walk through a rather nice semi-wild green space, and we found ourselves entering yet another nondescript small industrial estate. Luckily I recognised the logo on one of the buildings as that of Brewheadz, our next destination, and yes, there were a couple of long tables outside. Apart from our group, it was pretty quiet – one member of staff and a handful of customers. It's a bit off the beaten track, I fear!

Brewheadz is operated by Italians, and its beers are eclectic – some classics such as their IPAs and Pales, and a medal-winning Porter, a series of fruited sours and a few outliers such as Attila the Nun, a Tiramisu white stout. I tried tart-sweet Drowning Mango, a slightly thin fruited sour that also has yogurt in(!), although I couldn't detect it, and Pineapple Wannabe, a pina colada porter which worked surprisingly well (left).

What do you mean, you lost the Czech?

Then it was off to the fifth and final destination: the Czech-inspired and operated Bohem Brewery which was having the opening party for its brewery taproom. I was lagging a bit again, and while the others sought a bus I decided to walk there with the aid of Mr Google and his map. The mistake, of course, was in letting the map guide me to where it thought the brewery was, instead of telling it the street address. Once again, I found myself walking a loop around a small, dead-end, industrial estate where everything was closed for the weekend. The brewery probably really was down at the end of it like the map claimed – just on the other side of that three metre high fence.

Still, I got there eventually. I subsequently learnt that although it looks to be in the middle of nowhere, on a dusty estate decorated with rotting old cars, this will change. It is very close both to the Redemption and One Mile End breweries, and to the site of the new Tottenham Hotspur soccer stadium. Indeed, I hear that there is a proposal for the three to open a joint brewery tap on match days, using the Bohem building as the others are more limited on space.

As promised, the Bohem beers are all Czech-inspired, with the possible exception of Druid (right), which began as a dry Stout before being converted to bottom-fermentation and becoming a sort of Baltic Stout-cum-Schwarzbier. I liked it a lot, but others weren't so sure, it being too burnt and ashy for them.

This being the final stop, and with the opening party being very much in full 'flow', we managed to get through every beer on the menu at least twice. Other than the Druid, my favourite was Vasco,  the 7.4% Double IPL – smooth, caramel-fruity and dry-bitter – followed by honey lager Henry, hopped-up Thor and amber lager Sparta. The 'only' two that didn't impress me were Victoria the session Pils, which lacked depth, and the Raleigh rauchbier which lacked, well, rauch!

All in all, a very pleasant way to spend an afternoon, and many thanks to Ian MacLaren of North London CAMRA for planning it. And it certainly wasn't his fault that getting home afterwards was a whole other adventure in itself, involving night buses and the night-tube – that was more to do with the magic never-emptying beer glass which meant I'd stayed slightly longer at Bohem than I'd expected to. Oops.

Monday 11 June 2018

Fuller's brewery shop is much refreshed

When Fuller's brewery shop closed a few weeks ago for refurbishment, I wondered what it might open as. Would they go full-on craft beer store, with beers from their friends and so on, or would it just be a paint-job and some new furniture? So when I saw on Twitter that it was reopening today, I jumped on my bike to have a look.
It doesn't look that different from the outside at first - it's been a sunny day, so the inside looks a bit gloomy. However, if you peer closely you can make out the first change - it has expanded inside to the right of the main entrance, into the space behind the old door labelled The General Store.

This space is the new wine shop, looking much expanded and also housing both the glassware and souvenirs.

Behind the doors at the back is a space fitted with a boardroom-type large table and a big screen. Its curved wooden walls are to put you in mind of yes, a Tun Room, as it says on the doors, and it is a meeting venue that'll be available for hire.

At the front by the windows, there's a fridge with assorted beer-infused food items, from cheese and sausages to sticky toffee pudding!

Back in the main space, almost the whole of one wall is now bottle and can fridges. The desk at the left (where there's also a blackboard for events listings - key ones to watch out for are the London Brewers Alliance beer festival in the brewery yard on Saturday 23rd June, and the Fuller's brewery open day on Saturday 2nd September) is the meeting point for brewery tours.

In the fridges, it's mainly products from the Fuller's family, so that includes some Dark Star bottles, Cornish Orchards ciders, plus some of the others that Fuller's distributes - that's bottles from Sierra Nevada and Chimay. Being able to sell these all in cooled form will please many, I'm sure.

Opposite that is, to some surprise given that the Mawson's Arms is just a few doors away, is a bar, featuring four handpumps and several keg taps! There's no glasses though, and you can't drink here - it's just for filling growlers. There's even a special machine to flush the growler (which is basically a large screwtop bottle) and if keg, to add a bit of pressure after filling.

Here's Paul, the general manager, demonstrating the filler (right). Apparently the new shop is going to be the centrepiece of Experience the Works, the new Fuller's "visitor experience".

A word on the growlers - these reusable take-away flasks are an idea that's hugely popular in the US, which may be why the Fuller's ones are the somewhat unusual size of a tad over 3.5 pints. Sharp readers will have guessed that's because they are actually half a US gallon. Anyway, an empty growler is £12 and then fills and refills are in the vicinity of £8, depending on the beer.

But it's at the back of the shop, past the bar, that you can see the pièce de résistance: Fuller's long-anticipated pilot brewery, all gleaming steel - and yes, fitters in fluorescent waistcoats, as by the look of it, it's not quite finished yet...
As you might expect, the plan is to use this both for trial brews and for short-run and special release beers - there's already at least one Twitter thread asking for suggestions. I know the brewers are very much looking forward to getting their hands on the new brewkit - and I'm looking forward to getting my hands on the results!

Monday 4 June 2018

A Goose on the Thames

2018 is Goose Island's 30th anniversary, and last week, Fuller's – which was a major inspiration in the Chicago brewery's founding – threw its young cousin a birthday party in London. Pride of place went to the 30th Anniversary Ale, a 5.9% collaboration brew based on Fuller's original ESB recipe, but with modern and experimental US hop varieties.

It's a beer that's been available in the US since early May, but not here – kegs were brought over specially for the party at The Hydrant, a Fuller's pub named for its location next to the Monument to the Great Fire of London. Also getting a relatively rare draught outing there was Fuller's 2017 Vintage Ale in cask, so I'm afraid my first question for Goose Island president and general manager Ken Stout was: how come the Anniversary Ale isn't in cask too?

"We do quite a few cask beers, but the only place we serve them is in our own brewery tap," he said. He explained that it's the same problem so many British craft brewers have with cask beer – you're totally reliant on the skills, or lack of them, of the pub cellar manager.
The Anniversary Ale, very nice with a sossie!

I'd just come from a CAMRA meeting where those who couldn't get to the recent AGM (where votes were taken on adjusting CAMRA's aims to widen its campaigning remit and educational coverage) could hear and discuss reports from delegates who were there. So Ken and I went on to talk about why there's still this perceived divide between cask and keg – he's a big fan of British cask ale.

He loves classic Bavarian beer too, so we also talked about what's going on with German craft beer (with almost everyone now making Pale Ale and/or IPA, German and even Bavarian PA/IPA have emerged as genuine substyles, but the aficionados and beergeeks have moved on to Porters and Stouts, preferably barrel-aged Imperial ones…); about Franconian Ungespundet which is Germany's equivalent of cask-conditioning; and about Goose's collaboration with fellow AB-InBev property Spaten last year. The resulting Keller-Märzen was served at the Goose Island London Block Party last September, and like the party it was excellent.

It got me thinking: here's two macro-owned breweries, but they're still making great beer, and they seem to be getting nothing but help and support from their owners. Is this, and not the dumbing-down that many assume will follow when you 'sell out to big beer', the real threat from macrobrewers buying into craft? That the result will be too good – or at least, plenty good enough – and too well resourced for others to compete? I'm going to have to think (and write) some more about this…

Ken also introduced me to Andrew Walton, the newly appointed head brewer for Goose's Shoreditch brewpub, which is due to open in September – there's already brewpubs in Toronto, Seoul and Shanghai, as well as the original one in Chicago of course, and we're next. Andrew is from Canada, but has spent the last couple of years brewing in London, at Fourpure.

Samples of Belgian-brewed Midway are air-freighted back to Chicago so they can be tasted for consistency with the US version. If there's one thing companies like AB-InBev understand and can help their craft brewers with, it's expertise in quality and consistency management. Interesting times, eh?

Friday 1 June 2018

The rarity that is draught unblended Lambic

Well, I was wrong last week – this weekend's Ales Tales Belgian beer festival does indeed feature Lambic beer on draught. It's an unblended Lambic from Belgoo Beer, a 10 year-old brewery which five years ago moved to the Senne Valley, part of the only area where you can legally use the Lambic name.

And as brewer Jo Van Aert gently reminded me, there's not many breweries that serve an actual Lambic – although there's a dozen or so producing traditional Lambic beer, most blend it into Gueuze or referment it with cherries as Kriek. (There's also several varieties of those for sale at Ales Tales on the bottled beer stand.)

Jo added that while he does export his regular beers, which include a Saison and several Belgian Blonds, "We only sell our Lambic – a blend of one and two year-old beers – in Belgium as we can't produce enough for export."

He confirmed that, despite its sour beers being highly fashionable world-wide, they are still a very regional taste in Belgium itself. "We do see a lot of fancy restaurants picking up Lambics though, because you can do some very interesting food pairings with them."

Belgoo's Lambic is fermented in 400 litre barrels, which Jo said "gives enough contact with the wood, it's a good balance." The resulting 5% beer is tart with notes of lemon juice, dry-sweet and lightly spritzy, and cleanly refreshing. 

The one drawback to adding Lambic to a 'regular' range of beers is of course that you can't mix the two. Belgoo has to have two completely separate brewing and packaging lines, with the minor consolation that Lambic is OK with a simpler bottling line. As Jo said, "A little bit of oxygen can ruin normal beer, but not Lambic!"

The public sessions will be busier!
If you want to sample it – and around 75 other gorgeous brews – Ales Tales has afternoon and evening sessions tomorrow (Saturday 2nd), and there's still tickets available. It's a nice straightforward festival – simply decorated bars, most with four beers on tap, and mostly staffed by the breweries themselves, so you can learn more if you want to.  

Sunday 27 May 2018

Ales Tales beer fest brings Belgium to London

Whether you subscribe to the belief that Belgian beer is something unique, or the one that it represents a window into an almost-vanished tradition that once dominated much of northern Europe, or perhaps the more esoteric one that it's heavily influenced by exported British beers of the 18th (or was it 19th?) centuries, there's no denying its variety and quality.

Which makes it all the more disappointing that so little of it – in the grand scheme of things – makes it across the Channel, and much of what does travel comes from the Belgian subsidiaries of multinational brewing empires. That's not to say the latter beers are all bad – far from it! Some are quite excellent – just that you rarely get to see beers from smaller, more local producers. Not only may they lack the production capacity, they lack the distribution muscle of the megabrewers.

Which is why I’m looking forward to the Ales Tales beer festival of Belgian beer (and food) in London’s Hackney next weekend. I’ve not been since it was an off-shoot of London Craft Beer Festival, back in 2014 I think it was. I remember walking in and thinking, “Ooh, I didn’t know they were here – and oh look, I’ve not seen their beer in ages!”

And even though I spent several days in summer 2015 touring Belgian craft breweries old and new, there’s still lots on this year’s list that I either don’t know, or am looking forward to reconnecting with.

In total they’re expecting 70 beers from 20 breweries at Ales Tales, ranging from classic Trappist brewer Westmalle through new twists on the classics from the likes of Fort Lapin and Dochter van de Korenaar, to modern craft idols such as Alvinne and Brasserie de la Senne (the full list is below). We are also promised Belgian food pairings, including fries (no doubt with mayo available) and cheese – although I fear these are probably not included in the ticket price!

The one gap is that I can't see a single Lambic producer on the brewery list! I know a couple of the participating brewers have experimented with Lambic in the past, but I don't think any produce it regularly. Without that, the organisers' claim to provide "the full Belgian experience" is just nonsense, so I really hope I've missed something – maybe there will be a bottle bar or somesuch.

Belgian hops, in the rain...
Still, the tickets look good value, even though the cheapest are now £42 (the £35 early-bird ones are sold out). In the modern vein, they’re inclusive tickets that give you a five-hour session to drink as much or as little as you can manage. The main sessions are the evening of Friday 1st June, then the afternoon and evening of Saturday 2nd. There’s also a trade session on the Friday afternoon which I hope to report from – and which presumably means we can expect to see these breweries here again, if they can get distribution arranged.

With LCBF having now moved off elsewhere, Ales Tales has even taken over its 2014 venue – which although called Oval Space is rather confusingly nowhere near The Oval.  Instead it’s just off Hackney Road near Cambridge Heath railway station.

Here’s what the festival’s press release has to say:

Ales Tales is the brainchild of two Belgians, Nicolas Tondeur and Sayuri Kasajima, it was created after the duo were unable to find their favourite Belgian beers in the local pubs and supermarkets of London.

Discussing the return of Ales Tales, creator Nicolas Tondeur adds: “We are thrilled to bring the festival back this summer, with new beers to taste, new breweries to discover and talk to. We can’t wait to show Londoners how vibrant the beer scene in Belgium is.”

Undoubtedly set to be one of London’s best curated beer events of the summer, Ales Tales is open to everyone from beer enthusiasts, curious novices and anyone interested in a fantastic day out with a friendly atmosphere.

And here's the brewery list:

New for 2018:
De Ranke
Brouwerij ‘t Verzet
No Science
Brasserie de l’Ermitage
De Plukker

Returning Breweries:
Brasserie de la Senne
Fort Lapin
Hof ten Dormaal
‘t hofBrouwerijke
Brasserie des Legendes
Brasserie de Cazeau
Brasserie de Bastogne
Siphon Brewing
Solvay Society
De Dochter van de Korenaar 

Monday 21 May 2018

Trebles all round for music-themed Signature

When I first came across Signature Brew, with its music industry-themed beers, I confess I thought it was a gimmick. I assumed it was another of those generic "Rock Pale Ale" type beers, contract-brewed and labelled with the name of a venue or a music promoter. And indeed, it did indeed start out by doing  collaborations with bands I'd never heard of, creating beers that were nomad-brewed at places such as Titanic and London Fields, and which never appeared anywhere I went drinking or beer-shopping.

It wasn't long before I realised my mistake. As time went by, I encountered more and more of their beers on sale – some were even cask-conditioned, glory be!! In the process, I discovered that they were accomplished core brews that were branded for Signature itself, not for a band.

Four regulars, plus 'special guests'
They all still had music-themed names though – it turns out Signature's founders come from the music industry, hence the brewery's tagline (hey, everybody has to have a tagline these days…) of "Brewing with Music."

Then this year, two things happened on the exact same day in March: first, the news came that Signature had won the 2018 Brewery Business of the Year award from the Society of Independent Brewers, and second, I encountered Anthology, their stunning 10% Imperial Stout, on draught at the London Drinker Beer Festival. I realised that this was now a real brewery, with real brewers – and with real ambitions!

So when the brewery's publicity chap got in touch with news that they were launching a 9.4% Triple IPA called Treble, and would I like a sample, I was intrigued. Well, OK, there may have also been elements of "Are bears Catholic?" and "Does the Pope...?"

When the beer arrived, he'd kindly added a few more samples, including one of Anthology. Perhaps to cock a snook at the beery establishment and the neo-Puritans, while the regular Signature Brews are now in 330ml cans, the specials are in 440ml 'extended editions' – yes, almost half a litre of Triple IPA goodness!

And very, very good it was, too. Treble's an almost glowing amber-brown, with a fine head and aromas of pine resin, touches of onion skin and toasted orange, and a hint of mango. At first it's rich and malty-sweet on the palate with dark marmalade notes, then drying resinous hoppiness and alcohol slide in. The bitterness is there, but pretty moderate in context. Lovely! (If you'd like some, it looks like it's still available, despite its 'special guest' status, as there's still check-ins popping up on Untappd.)

He also sent news of the latest band collaboration brew – yes, they're still doing them, this one is a Grapefruit Sour created with London alt-pop outfit Banfi. I love both good sours and grapefruit, but sadly couldn't make it to the launch event.

If you're in London over the coming late May bank holiday weekend though, you can catch up with Signature Brew at Mason & Company in Hackney Wick. There's a Signature tap-takeover all weekend with seven beers on, and on the Friday night there's also a tutored tasting of five beers – that last bit is ticketed and will cost you £11.37 (weird price, but it includes a booking fee). By chance, I noticed that the place currently has that Grapefruit Sour on tap. Hmm...

Friday 18 May 2018

Gluten-free beer tasting

To follow my blog on how gluten-free beers are made, I enlisted some selfless volunteers to help me taste several examples to see how they compared to standard beers. One was a coeliac who for several years has had little beer, apart from the occasional gluten-free light lager.

We started with a trio of barley-based beers. The first two say they use low-gluten barley and a brewing process that further minimises gluten, while the latter doesn't say how it's de-glutenised, which means it's probably Brewer's Clarex.

Bellfield Bohemian Pilsner: A golden beer with a very slight head and light aromas of dry hay, biscuit, a little sweetcorn – making it pretty close to style. The body did seem to me to be a little thin for a Czech-style Pils, but beyond that it is malty and dry-sweet, with light dry bitterness. It's a nice example of a lager, and was well liked by our coeliac taster.

Bellfield Lawless Village IPA: It's orange-brown and toasty, with touches of Seville orange and caramel, a note of grapefruit pith and a hint of lemon on the finish. Don't expect American hops or bitterness – this is a nice classic British-style IPA that you wouldn't know was gluten-free – and indeed, why should you?

Glebe Farm Wellington Bomber: Described as a Porter, it seemed more in the Brown Ale vein to me. It has aromas of toast, cocoa and a little cola, then the body was a little watery, with roasted malt, palate-drying cocoa, and a sweet, burnt sugar note. We found it a bit confused and thin; however, I suspect our bottle – bought from a farm shop – had suffered a bit of oxidation in storage.

We followed with a trio of non-barley beers, brewed instead from malted rice and other grains, including millet and quinoa. All are from Autumn Ales, and like the Bellfield beers were kindly donated by the brewer.

Alt Brew No.01: Labelled as a Bavarian-style Pilsner, it's light-bodied – certainly a lot lighter than the average Eurolager, and maybe even a bit thin. I don't think it's bitter enough for Bavarian Pils, but it went down well with the other tasters, who agreed it made a nice summer drink.

Alt Brew No.02: A Golden Ale, it pours a bright amber-brown with a lasting head. The nose is hoppy-fresh with a hint of citrus. Then there's crisp bitterness and lightly sweet, with a toasted edge and a slight astringency. This a nice zesty beer, and was the only one liked by all our tasters.

Alt Brew No.03: Brewing a dark and roasty Stout without barley is a challenge, but Autumn has come pretty close with this dark brown brew. It's a little thin compared to many other Stouts, and was too 'burnt' for some of our tasters, but for dark beer fans there's a light milky sweetness in the midbody, plus notes of bitter chocolate before an ashy-burnt finish.

Overall, even though these are such different beer styles, I think some conclusions are fair. As a regular drinker of all sorts, my favourite was the excellent Lawless IPA, while the Pilsners seemed not quite authentic. However, the latter were popular with the tasters who hadn't drunk much ale in recent years, but who still appreciated something better than Eurolager.

The one we all agreed on liking was the Alt Brew No.02. Yes, it's that classic golden ale crossover beer – well put together, and appealing to ale and lager drinkers alike.

Ultimately though, the most amazing thing is that while Autumn Brewing and Bellfield Brewery are special, in that they brew only gluten-free beer and don't rely on Clarex, this was just a sample of what's available now in terms of gluten-free beer. So whether you're a super-sensitive coeliac or simply have an intuition you're gluten-intolerant, at least now you can enjoy a decent beer. Cheers to that!