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!