Thursday, 12 May 2022

Crowds turn out for Walthamstow brewers

To say that the opening of the Sunday afternoon Blackhorse Beer Mile, alongside Blackhorse Road in Walthamstow, looked a success is putting it mildly. As the afternoon went on, the queues lengthened and the six venues became busier and busier. However, given that I could get a seat everywhere I went, space wasn't the bottleneck - more likely, it was that the taproom bars simply weren't able to keep up with the abnormally high demand. 

And I expect that on future weekends, without the major publicity push that preceded opening day, they probably won't have to. So if you weren't able to go along last Sunday, it should be well worth trying on a future weekend. To help you plan, here's some potted reviews based on the tweets I sent along the way...

The six venues are pretty much in a line north-south, so the first decision for the visitor is where to start: at the one closest to the station or the one furthest away? Aiming to avoid having the longest walk at the start or end of the afternoon, I tried a third route - start in the middle, then go north, and finally head south again. 

My first stop was therefore Exale Brewing, where I've not been before - and what a nice job they've made of an otherwise unprepossessing site. Just the right mix of open and cosy, both inside and out, and a decent amount of cover on this rainy May Day. Good beer menu too, with guests alongside Exale's own beers - I kicked off with their excellent new hazy session IPA, Serendipity. It's light yet full-flavoured, juicy-dry and hoppy, with an almost sherbety spritziness.

Stop no.2 was Wild Card. Again, not one I've visited before, although I have been to their pub not far away. Another fine tap menu featured several 'specials', including a couple of tasty farmhouse Saisons and an Imperial Stout that was seeing a lot of action! 

While I waited for the advertised meet-the-brewers session, I started with Fragile Loyalty, described as a red, juicy, sour wheat beer, which in this context of course means Berliner-style Weisse, not Bavarian! It was properly tangy-sour and brightly fruity, with tons of tangy red berry notes. 

However, as time went by - and as I went for the smooth, funky and tart-sweet True Leaf, which is an Apricot Saison brewed for International Women's Day - the pressure and the queues were ramping. It was clear that the brewers (apart from head brewer Jaega Wise who was busy tidying up and generally supporting the barstaff) were going to be delayed at best.  

So I headed across the road to Hackney Brewery and its High Hill Tap, where the contrast with my last visit six months ago was striking. Again there were still seats available here and there, but it was seriously busy, and having experienced the length of the queue I took care to buy two beers at once. They have the longest tap list of any venue here - there's 20 taps, more or less equally split between Hackney beers and guests. The latter this time included several from Queer Brewing, including their 3rd birthday brew Glitter Veil which turned out to be a worrying drinkable 6% hybrid Hazy West Coast IPA. 

With the benefit of hindsight, and having spotted the bus stop right outside, I wonder if the best tactic for tackling the beer mile mightn't be to hop on a bus at the station and then walk back from here. The risk though is that, having seen the 20 taps at High Hill and the 10 taps across the road at Wild Card, you might not actually bother to go anywhere else... 

I didn't fancy rejoining the lengthening queue though, so opted to walk to stop no.4 which was Beerblefish - only to find an equally long queue, of course. My last visit here was near closing time, and I was pretty much the only customer. This time it was pretty full - although once more, there were still a few seats available after you finally made it to the bar.

Beerblefish is the only actual brewery here serving cask real ale, and its beers have generally improved since it moved into its own space with a proper brewkit. They can still be inconsistent though - in the sense that some are stonkingly good while others are a bit untidy, and so it was with my order. An excellent glass of Edmonton Best Bitter, which is one of their core beers, and a slightly muddled Hoppy Pale no.14, the latest in a series with a changing hop bill.

Beerblefish also has a decent pile of board games, some table games, and there's stuff to read too if you have a quiet moment, including copies of CAMRA's London Drinker magazine!It's almost next door, so I paid a second visit to Exale to try a beer I'd spotted on the menu earlier - Bromelain, a 6.5% Pineapple Gose brewed with Left Handed Giant. At first though the doorman (or gateman?) wouldn't let anyone else in as "we're full", but thankfully as I and a couple of others dithered he got word that it was OK now. A band was setting up for the evening inside so I took my Gose outside to share a table with a family, and yes, it was pretty good. 

Walking feet back on, and it was off to no.5 which was Signature Brew. Every time I go here it's grown some more - yet somehow they still manage to make room for a band to play on a stage in front of the brewkit! The old Brewers Bar taproom was closed, and there's now a bigger Yard Bar out front, along with six tall tanks. At the same time, the quality is as good as ever and the three beers I tried - the new Stylus NEIPA, the revived Black Vinyl tropical stout, and the 2021 release of Anthology, their barrel-aged Imperial stout, this time at 9% - were all excellent. 

Time was ticking though, and I still had one more visit planned. This was to Truman's Social Club, a gigantic industrial unit converted into a huge beer hall - or series of halls - and serving guest beers plus pretty much the full range of cask and keg from Truman's brewery in Hackney Wick. I've walked past it several times but never realised just how big it is inside! 

It was originally meant to house a new brewkit as well, but those plans had to be scaled back due to Covid so this is the one out of the six that is not (yet) actually a brewery. Anyway, the beers were good - a bitter-sweet and wintery cask red ale called Firestarter, and Roller, a very nice fruity-piney and lightly toasty keg IPA.

With that, it was time to hand in my collector card, pick up my commemorative glass and trundle back to the station. Not too far to stagger, thankfully, so finishing at the venue closest to there was probably the right move. 

Would I recommend the Blackhorse Mile as a weekend afternoon out? Absolutely, as future weekends should be less crowded - mind you, come summer you never know. Some places also do food, others had a food van outside. Alternatively, bring a picnic or pick up something at the Co-Op on the way up from the station. Incidentally, Blackhorse Lane is on the Goblin (the Gospel Oak to Barking line) overground as well as the tube, so it's fairly easily accessed from north and west London.

It's also both dog and child-friendly, with the caveat that there's no playgrounds and nothing much else to amuse kids, apart from some places having table games - I watched a group of four young girls playing a fierce game of table football in Truman's! 

Saturday, 30 April 2022

The new Blackhorse Beer Mile opens up this weekend

It’s been 18 months of pandemic since it was originally supposed to open, but Walthamstow’s Blackhorse Beer Mile is launching at last this coming Sunday, 1st May 2022. And the delay has had its compensations, because in the intervening time two more breweries have moved into the area: Beerblefish and Hackney. 

They join the original four venues – that’s the Signature, Exale and Wild Card breweries, and the Truman’s Social Club beer hall – on a very walkable route up from the eponymous Blackhorse Road tube station. 

Will it “rival the Bermondsey Beer Mile”, as its promoters claim? Not on the number of breweries, taprooms and bars, that’s for sure, and Walthamstow’s industrial estates aren’t big on Victorian heritage – but I reckon it’s a significantly fresher route. 

It also involves visiting breweries that aren’t anything like as pressed for space as the denizens of Bermondsey’s railway arches. (Just think how many Bermondsey brewers have moved out – often to places like the Walthamstow industrial estates…)

Anyone, the fun kicks off at noon on Sunday, and we are promised “exclusive beers, live music, street food & brewery tours all day.” Looks good to me! 

Yes, I know it was originally pitched as “Tottenham”, perhaps to capitalise on the nearness of Pressure Drop and Beavertown (until the move to Enfield), but it’s actually E17 not N17, and the two are separated by the River Lea. 

Thursday, 24 March 2022

Big Hello - big box, small ABV...

It may be a big name in non-alcoholic beer these days, but it wasn’t always thus – Big Drop has had to work at it. It did also have the advantage though of getting in early when it comes to specialist NoLo brewers, as opposed to regular brewers who dabble. 

When it launched around five years ago, I think Big Drop was also one of the first to offer a broad range of beer styles. I remember being particularly impressed by its original 0.5% stout, but I’d not tried any Big Drop brews for a few years, so I jumped at the chance when asked if I’d like to try the current core range. 

What arrived was a Big Hello mixed case. Listing at £14, this contains two cans each of Pale Ale, Citra IPA, Milk Stout and Craft Lager, and yes, they – mostly! – show just how far non-alcoholic beer has come. To stay on-trend, they’re all gluten-free as well. 

Starting with Pine Trail pale ale, there’s a splash of citrus and, yes, pine on the nose and then it’s malty and light, yet properly crisp and bitter. The Citrus IPA is hoppier of course, lemony and bitter, and perhaps the star of the show – it’s light-bodied yet full flavoured, just like many alcoholic session IPAs. 

Also good was Galactic Milk Stout – a little bit watery but properly flavoursome, with notes of burnt malts, roast coffee, milky chocolate and a little cola. Again, I’ve certainly had worse alcoholic stouts – and that is absolutely not meant to damn this with faint praise – this is a non-alcoholic stout that can stand up to its alcoholic peers.  

The weak spot for me was the Uptime Craft Lager, although this does seem to be one of their popular brews. It certainly wasn’t bad, and it does have hops present, but it was a tad worty on the nose and reminded me a bit too much of the watery non-alcoholic lagers of old. Sorry!! And maybe it’s just me – I’m not a huge lager fan at the best of times, Franconian Kellerbiers excepted of course. 

The Big Hello pack would be a great option to have on hand at a party, say, to cater for drivers and those who just need a break from the full-fat stuff, but who’d still like to have a choice – and of course it's a good way to experience a range of non-alcoholic beers. Once you've done that, there’s plenty of other nice ones to try – for dark beer, I also recommend Drop Bear’s Bonfire Stout, say, and for lager you can’t really go wrong with Lucky Saint.  

Sunday, 6 March 2022

Remembering Armand Debelder

Armand gave me this bottle of his Oude Geuze Golden Blend (12/03/2014 bottling, 7.5%) in 2015, when I visited the old 3Fonteinen brewery as part of a group of beer writers. He was a fantastic host, a generous and social man who showed us all around and indulged our many questions about Lambik and Geuze, and of course about his and his family's brewing and blending work. 

I've been saving it ever since for a special occasion, and today, sadly, is that occasion. He retired from the brewery in 2019 after he was diagnosed with cancer, and despite the best treatments over the following years, he passed away last night, aged 70.  

Announcing the news today, his team said, "When you read this, open a good bottle and raise your glass to Armand and look forward to Life. Armand wouldn't have wanted it any other way." So that's what I'm doing. 

The beer's a bright golden-brown and sparkling, with a fast-settling foam and a tart lemony nose with hints of cheese and cider. It's tart-sour and lightly earthy, more lemon and apple notes, almost sticky on the finish. A little funk re-emerges as the chill lifts, alongside a faint hint of honey. Lovely. 

RIP Armand. I'm sorry the pandemic and all meant I didn't get to see your new Lambik-O-droom yet. Maybe this year!

Armand De Belder, raconteur...

...and generous host

Sunday, 30 January 2022

The unlicenced off-licence

Continuing my theme of finishing off Dryanuary, last week's tasting at the Club Soda pop-up shop* was an interesting experience - and also a reminder of just how mixed-up AF attitudes can be. It has the feel of an off-licence, with wine, beer and spirits sections, yet contains almost no alcohol, the drinks being between 0.0% and 0.5% ABV. 

Just as the shop resembles an off-licence but isn't one, the drinks trade people I met there described some of the odd things that arise when assumptions about "beer" collide with not actually being alcoholic. 

For one, it was a big bonus - at least, it is in his company's US market. One of the legacies of Prohibition is that brewers can't normally sell direct to the public outside their taprooms, but must instead go through distributors. However well this was intended, it has become hugely distorting - in some cases, small brewers with their own bars downtown have to sell their beer to a distributor, then buy it back at an inflated price! 

When you add in the fact that some of those distributors are now under the control of big brewing groups, you can see how distorting this can be. Yet this being the outwardly puritanical USA, and with this system favouring the big brewers, getting rid of these rules is very hard.

But if you brew AF beer, those rules don't apply. Johnny, who reps in the UK for Connecticut's Athletic Brewing Co, explained that during lockdown, Athletic was able to sell by post where many others weren't. Similarly, US retailers are not allowed to import alcohol themselves, but must work through distributors, but AF products aren't restricted in the same way, so AF bottle shops can more readily offer a global range. 

Others had tales of opposite problems. For example, one of the Lucky Saint reps noted that Amazon still demands proof of ID/age when delivering AF beer. In fact, Amazon came up in discussion a number of times as a company that has difficulty recognising that AF beer is not actually an age-gated product. There's also problems with some social media platforms auto-deleting AF beer posts, presumably because their algorithms are too stupid to do more than go, "Mmm, beeeeer!" like some braindead robot Homer Simpson. 

And there's possible problems with UK regulations, with elements within the government trying to move towards a ban on 0.5% beers being labelled alcohol-free - even though several soft drinks can also contain up to 0.5% but will still be able to carry their AF label. 

There's even the suggestion that AF beers should have age limits and carry the "don't drink alcohol in pregnancy" warning! I fear this could well be the pernicious influence of the nannies, neo-prohibitionists and killjoys of the anti-alcohol fake charities. 

It's something to watch out for, anyhow - and it's going to be counter-productive if, like the AF drinks business, you want people to carry on drinking nice drinks but to drink less alcohol in the process. As Club Soda's Laura (right) pointed out, the bigger market share held by AF beer in countries such as Germany and Spain "didn’t happen by accident – all the relevant organisations there aligned on [supporting and promoting] it."

*Open until the end of February 2022. 

Saturday, 29 January 2022

Say hello to better alcohol-free beer

Dryanuary is nearly over for another year, thank goodness*, but the low-alcohol and alcohol-free (AF) beer business continues to grow both in volume and quality. It’s also shifted focus, as I recently learnt from meeting several AF brewery reps at a tasting session organised by the Beer Writers Guild earlier this month. 

The biggest change, according to Laura Willoughby, who runs the Club Soda pop-up AF shop where the tasting was hosted, is simply the range available. AF used to mean just lager or Weizen, but now there's ales, stouts, porters, even sours. More broadly there's also wines and drinks that mimic some of the character of gins and even whiskies. As she pointed out, "There's enough variety now for a whole off-licence, and if we'd had room we probably could have got another ten brands in!"

From a technical perspective, the biggest AF innovation is quite simply the dispense method – it used to be you’d only ever see AF beers in bottles or cans, but it’s increasingly common now to find them on tap. For example Heineken has a special tap for its 0.0% lager, Brewdog has been making a big feature of its AF products and last year ran what it claimed was the world’s first alcohol-free beer bar, and new brand Lucky Saint now has its 0.5% unfiltered lager on draught in hundreds of venues UK-wide.

Freshness is a challenge

Why has it taken so long to get AF beers on tap? Well, there are challenges, said Lucky Saint’s Jimmy Adams: “The first thing is the line has to be cleaner – we have our own technician now to help with that. The second is the length of time it sits on the bar – we really need a keg sold in a week for freshness and quality.”

He added that the latter is a particular problem when a bar first offers AF beer on draught, as it can take four to six weeks before customers realise it’s there and start to order it regularly. Get past that though, and things can pick up. 

“We find we’re doing 10% of the house lager [volume] in some bars,” he said. “The operator needs to understand they’re not going to sell six kegs of it a week, but at the same time, 55 pints of alcohol-free is going to be more profitable for them than 55 pints of house lager.” 

“People who normally drink alcohol are more fussy over their AF choice,” added Laura. “Drivers for example often like to have one regular beer, then switch to AF. Sometimes it’s the AF drinker in the group who dictates where the group goes, because of the good AF choices.” 

Brewdog rep Ben agreed on the potential for draught AF sales. “It can be 10% [of volume], or up to 16% or 17% in some bars,” he said. “Plus, people stay longer with AF and they spend more.”

Battling the nannies

Draught Elvis AF in a take-away can

Think what you want of Brewdog’s top management and its company culture, but the brewery has invested a lot in its AF ranges since the debut of Nanny State. That was originally launched at 1.1% ABV as a retort to the frankly idiotic attempt by the nannies of the Portman Group in 2009 to ban its 18.2% Tokyo* Imperial Stout.

However, Nanny State quickly acquired fans before being relaunched at 0.5%, the legal max for being labelled non-alcoholic. Fast forward a few years, and Brewdog has an entire stable of AF beers available both canned and on draught. It recently added one more, in the shape of Elvis AF, and Ben had samples for us. Sadly, while it was pleasant enough drinking, it’s almost completely unlike Elvis Juice – sure, there’s fruit and beery notes in there, but they’re way too indistinct.

Back on the innovations front, I was surprised to discover that, despite all the work on low-alcohol yeasts and the like, there’s still brewers dealcoholising. Although in the case of Lucky Saint, its Bavarian brewers clearly know what they are doing. They use vacuum distillation then blend regular beer back in to add a little body and return the beer to 0.5%.

This also seems to be the kind of technique that’s allowed the big brewers to offer 0.0% beers – check on Ratebeer or Untappd and there’s a whole raft of these now. It’s not a cheap technology to get into, by all accounts, but if you want to sell in some parts of the world it’s your best bet.  

*I’m not a fan of the whole Dryanuary schtick, as – in normal years, at least – it hits pubs and bars when they can least afford it, in the post-Xmas lull. Maybe with more and better AF options it could be less of an issue, but that’s a big ‘maybe’.