Friday, 13 March 2020

WTF is Hard Seltzer?

Asking the important question
“WTF is Hard Seltzer?” asks the wittily-labelled can, before answering its own question: Alcoholic Fizzy Water.

The other thing to know is that it’s also the latest drinks craze to hit the US, where ‘hard’ is a euphemism for alcoholic. It’s so fashionable there that even beer rating site Untappd, which once allowed nothing but beer, cider and mead, now also permits you to list Hard Seltzers (alongside a few other oddities such as alcoholic Kombucha, which is fermented tea).

When first I came across the idea, I assumed it was the latest iteration of what in Britain and much of the rest of the world we call alcopops, and which the Americans of course call hard soda. That’s the likes of WKD and Hooper’s Hooch – sticky concoctions that concealed their alcohol content under a wave of sweetness, and came to be regarded by many as a Bad Thing that encouraged kids to get drunk.

Brick's Raspberry Hard Seltzer
Having at last tried a couple of London-brewed examples though, I can say I was only partly right. There’s a growing number of modern Craft Soda brands designed to be not quite as sweet as the average fizzy pop and more inventive in flavour, and some Hard Seltzers – such as Brick Brewery’s bright red Raspberry Hard Seltzer – are very much in that mould. Still a bit sticky-sweet, and with the 4% ABV well hidden, but properly fruity and tangy. Millennial hard soda, you could say.

However, when I opened the can of 5% “alcoholic aqua” gifted to me by London Fields Brewery at Brew//LDN the other week, it was very different. Yes, there’s dextrose (sugar) on the ingredients list, but that’s highly fermentable as the light and dry texture shows. Then there’s guava puree and red grape skins for flavour and colour – in this case that’s a blush-pink, and a dry and intriguing mix of tropical fruit and wine lees.

What a revelation – and definitely not an alcopop or likely to appeal to kids! Clearly, Hard Seltzer is something a creative brewer can have a bit of fun with. Indeed, London Fields admits in its promo material that its brewers "genuinely had no clue what hard seltzer was suppose to taste like" so they just had a play. Good on them.

My problem is that I've no idea yet which way the majority of Hard Seltzers swing, but given that many flavoured waters are actually sweetened too, I suspect they'll be the same. Sure, for non-beer drinkers the right one can be lighter than cider and a lot more quaffable than wine. I’m still not convinced though that they have a place on a beer website, and at least Ratebeer still agrees with me – for now, anyway.

What do you think – are you willing to give this stuff a try, and does it belong alongside beer and cider?  

Saturday, 29 February 2020

Brew//LDN serves up a worthy beer fashion show

If you thought that maybe the current fashions in craft beer were wearing thin, think again. At least, that’s my takeaway from an afternoon at Brew//LDN, the tradeshow-cum-beer festival at London’s  Old Truman Brewery this week. Almost every brewery stand seemed to feature at least two out of a “dessert beer”, a sour of some sort and a hazy IPA, and sometimes all three.

I suppose the popularity of dessert beers – by which I mean all those rich and dark concoctions from pastry stouts, through milk stouts and Baltic porters, to barrel-aged Imperials and so on – shouldn’t surprise. After all, I don’t expect dessert to go out of fashion either.

Still, it was a bit of a surprise to hear just how fast they can sell. For instance, I stopped by the London Beer Factory bar to hear from brewery rep James that they were down to their very last keg of Gateaublaster, their 11.1% Black Forest Gateau stout. “They’re not core, but people love them,” he said.

Barrel-aged Baltic Porter on cask!
It was a similar story at Fourpure, where I was told that “dessert beers are big business.” They had not one but two on – Into The Woods is a 5.9% ‘festive gingerbread ale’, while Midnight Diner is a 7.5% New York cheesecake stout. Oddly though, I found that while both were almost spot on in aroma terms, the flavours didn’t match up. Oh well.

Roll out the barrel

As already hinted at, another way to get that dessert quality is barrel-aging. This can be a tricky one to get right, ensuring that the barrel complements the beer rather than overwhelming it. One that definitely managed it was Double Agent from Legitimate Industries of Leeds – all its beers have ironic crime-related names. Although it had spent an amazing two years in bourbon barrels and could have been harsh as a result, Double Agent’s heavy body and 10.4% ABV had instead left it mellow and rich, with smooth vanilla and cocoa notes.

Whisky barrel aging also did the job for Good Chemistry Brewing’s Becoming North, which easily qualifies as dessert despite being a ‘mere’ 6% ABV. Its smooth chocolatey texture is a result of the bottom-fermentation, according to brewery co-founder Bob, and while Baltic porters can be overly sweet, in this case the woody warmth keeps that in balance.

Sour, not 'just a bit tangy'!

Tart and tangy currant Gose
As to the sours, there’s been way too many naff ‘fruited sours’ in the shops that’re basically just sweetish beery fruit juice. So I was pleased to find several here that were actually sour or tart – not as mouth-puckering as a Lambic or Flemish Red, say, but tart enough to be interesting. The first I tried was Blackcurrant Brine Springs, a fruited Gose – I normally find these fit that ‘naff’ category extremely well, but this one was a revelation. Coming from Redditch’s Lab Culture Brewing – yet another brewery new to me – it even uses local salt (from Droitwich, one of several historic English Spa towns). The key is that there’s enough of that and the tart currants for their flavours to shine through unsweetened.

The second I’ll mention isn’t actually a sour – it’s a raspberry Witbier. It comes from another newcomer, Möbru, which has taken over this and other fruited Witbiers from Elgood’s (who now brew them for Möbru). The nice thing is it’s not over-sweetened, allowing the tartness of the berries to complement the tang of the beer. 

And what of the hazy IPAs? I’d a few of these in Germany last week, where some modern craft brewers make almost nothing else, and there’s no sign they’re going away in the UK either – though fewer and fewer people seem to be using the ‘New England IPA’ label now. But while some are delicious, others are just fruity hop soup – and a few have been harsh, with unpleasantly clashing textures and flavours.

Mantis passionfruit IPA
Thankfully, none of today’s fell into the latter group – for example, there was passionfruit IPA Mantis, from new gypsy brewers Flowerhorn, which was deeply herbal and dank thanks to its mix of Mosaic and the new Strata hop, and lightly tart from the fruit. And then there was Kveik Your Eyes Peeled, from Dundee’s 71 Brewing, was estery, tart-dry and funky-sweet, no doubt thanks to the use of orange zest alongside the eponymous farmhouse yeast – though hey guys, it’s Kveik, not ‘kviek’, and Kveik means yeast so you don’t write ‘Kveik yeast’.

Ageing hops in hazy IPAs

Talking to various brewer folk both here and in Germany, it seems there’s a few keys to getting these bigly-hoppy hazy beers right. One is the right hops and brewkit, but perhaps more important is the way the hops age. Straight from the fermenter they can be dank and fresh for a couple of days, but then there’s a period of at least a week and maybe longer when they roughen, before smoothing out again. It’s all most odd, and I welcome any clarifications or additional info from those in the know!

Anyway, it was a good afternoon out with an amazing range of beers (plus some ciders and other drinks) from all over the country and around the world. Yes, there’s big brewers there too, but as equals – it’s not ‘their event’. There’s still two Saturday sessions to go, and you have tickets – Eventbrite seems to think “this event has ended” for some reason – you’re in luck.

Tuesday, 4 February 2020

Raiding the Midlands for Winter Ales


It’s always fun when I can take part in judging for Champion Beer of Britain at the Great British Beer Festival, held every in London every August, but there’s one thing I always miss: dark beer. Sure, there’s plenty on the festival bars, but the judging for those categories takes place elsewhere and six months earlier.

Instead of GBBF, it’s at what used to be the National Winter Ales Festival but was renamed GBBF Winter a couple of years ago to reflect that it’s not just about winter ales. This travels around the country, spending a couple of years in each venue – which is usually somewhere in the English north or midlands.

So far I’ve been too lazy to schlep up to Derby, Norwich or wherever and pay for (or cadge) somewhere to stay, when there’s lots of good festival at the same time of year right on my doorstep. Yeah, I know – it’s horribly metropolitan of me!

This year though, I’m breaking my GBBF Winter ‘fast’, thanks to the coming together of two factors: first, it’s in Birmingham his year, less than two hours by train from London, and second, an invitation to judge dark beer at last! 

There’s minor snags, like CBoB judging being in the morning, and being self-funded. Which means I’ve either got to go up the night before and find accommodation, pay silly money for a rush-hour train, or get up at 5am for a train at a sensible price. So night-bus into the station it was, and here I am on a train heading for New Street, which I used regularly as a student but haven’t visited now for maybe 20 years.

Anyway, GBBF Winter 2020 opens this afternoon and runs until Saturday 8th Feb, so you still have time to get a ticket and make your way there! It’s at the New Bingley Hall, which is about 30 minutes walk (or a short bus ride) from New Street – I’m planning to walk as I’ve not seen Birmingham for so long.

It’ll be interesting to see how much the place has changed – maybe I will find myself planning to come back for a longer visit next time! And if you are coming to GBBF Winter this afternoon, maybe I’ll see you there. Cheers! 

Thursday, 23 January 2020

Craft beer rises into Brew London

Apologies, but I missed a London winter event off my last post - somehow Brew//LDN 2020 had completely failed to appear on my radar. Was it the tricksy name? The fact that it's taken over from Craft Beer Rising, but without taking over CBR's media list because the CBR founders jumped ship? Who knows!

Anyhow, it's a drinks industry showcase with producers of all sizes and origins booked in, ranging from lots of UK microbreweries to international brands such as Guinness (via its Open Gate brand/subsidiary), Brooklyn and Lagunitas. Obviously a lot of the overseas names will be via their UK distributors - for example, as well as Mikkeller I see other Euroboozer clients such as Steigl, Schremser and To Øl on the list. There's also several drinks other than beer represented.

And although there's macrobrew names involved, the 'LDN' name is not at all unjustified - there's a large chunk of the London microbrewery scene booked in.

The people behind Brew//LDN are the ex-founders of CBR, which explains a lot. For example it's at the Old Truman Brewery on Brick Lane, which was formerly the venue for CBR, and at the same time of year - which this year means Thursday 27th to Saturday 29th February.

The format is remarkably similar too - the Thursday and Friday afternoons are trade sessions while the others are open to the public, with tickets starting at £15 plus fees.

CBR got a lot of stick from some people for the way it mixed genuine independent craft producers with brands owned by multinationals. But while some macrobrewers are guilty of deceptive practices in making their products look like independent craft, and they can use their weight and distribution strength to squeeze the independents out, I always enjoyed CBR when I went along to the trade sessions. It was interesting to see what 'the big boys' were up to - it gave a more comprehensive view of the overall market. Plus of course the big boys have money, which I'm sure helped keep the event afloat!

Brew//LDN will undoubtedly get similar criticism. Plus there's the question of how successfully you can turn what's basically a trade show into a beer festival for the paying public. Especially when there's already a lot of competition in London for events targeting the drinks trade, what with The Pub Show next month, Imbibe Live in June, and several others including trade days at GBBF and elsewhere. It will be very interesting to see how it goes - I'm looking forward to it!

PS. If you're wondering what happened to Craft Beer Rising, as far as I can tell the company running it first got sold to a midsized drinks company, then that company was bought by an even bigger one. After that, the founders jumped ship and the CBR company was closed down. 

Personally, I'd argue that a drinks company has no business buying or running a trade show, but what do I know? The company backing Brew//LDN, Brewbroker, looks a rather better fit as it is more of a beer industry intermediary. 

Thursday, 9 January 2020

London's winter beer scene warms up

A few years ago, the winter beer scene in London was pretty dull. After the Battersea Beer Festival’s final run in February 2014, there was nothing much to break the gloom between early December’s Pig’s Ear festival and March or April, when events like London Beer Week kicked off.

Now, all that’s changed. Perhaps it’s a symptom of just how crowded the craft calendar has become overall, but more festivals and other events are popping up in February and even January. As well as the keg-only Love Beer London charity event which I’ve written about before, the February weekend immediately after will see its cask-only counterpart Cask 2020.

Last year’s Cask 2019 was well organised with good and unusual ales on offer – some of them were normally keg-only but put in cask specially for the event. The one thing many visitors didn’t like was the venue: a set of atmospheric but damp and dripping (yes, really!) railway arches in Bermondsey. So this year it’s moving further south to Peckham, which has apparently gentrified now to the extent of having a Cultural Quarter. Anyway, at £35 a session for all you can drink from around 30 of the country’s best and most interesting brewers, I highly recommend this one.

And now it turns out we don’t even have to wait until February, as there’s January events popping up. The most worthy, and one I’m looking forward to, is another charity event – this time an ad-hoc one to raise funds towards the dreadful Australian bushfire crisis. Called Help A Mate, it’s on Saturday 25th January (with horrible irony, or perhaps Aussie black humour, this is also Burns Night) at Pressure Drop’s brewery in Tottenham. Several other breweries have already donated beers for the event, and there’s also going to be a raffle with an impressive list of donated prizes.

Saturday, 16 November 2019

Changing your Signature

It's all change at London's Signature Brew following an oversubscribed crowdfunding campaign last year - new brewery and taproom, new logo and cans, and even a few new brews - new to me, at least.

The launch party at the new site is taking place this weekend, and there’s lots of shiny stainless steel on show. Given the brewery's history of collaborating with bands to create one-off beers, of course there's quite a bit of live music too.

There’s already a Signature Taproom in Haggerston, London E8, so the new site’s drinking space is instead called The Brewer’s Bar. For this weekend’s launch there’s also tables and benches in the yard outside and on the open area in the brewery proper - I’m told these will also be out once the Brewer’s Bar is open regularly, which is set to be Friday/Saturday evenings and Saturday/Sunday afternoons. At this time of year, the open areas are a tad chilly, but the bar itself is enclosed and warm!

Inside the bar there’s various mementos on the wall of the brewery’s history and its musical collaborations, from its origins in 2012 when it contract-brewed, to 2015 when they got their own brewkit, which they outgrew within four years.

I had a chat with Chris, one of the assistant brewers, who filled me in on some of the changes. Although the actual ‘brew length’ hasn’t changed massively - the new brewkit is 32hl (20 barrels) where the older was 24hl - the new one is much more modern. In place of a manual two-vessel system, they now have a four-vessel system with lauter tun and whirlpool, so brewing is easier and faster.

Alongside a set of 32hl fermenters, they also now have six 120hl (75 barrel) fermenters for core beers such as Roadie, Backstage IPA and Studio Lager - big enough to get three brews into each. They’re currently brewing three days a week, two or three times a day. One of the advantages of upsizing your brewkit is quite simply that you can produce more beer in a shorter time and with less effort!

The venue is family-friendly, too!
As for the beers, as I discovered when I first met them they’re quality brews. Alongside the regulars I found an excellent 3% hoppy modern bitter - they badge this as a Table Beer, but to my mind it’s more of a Pale Ale ‘light’, a gorgeous Bretted lager (sadly a very limited production run), and a modernist Farmhouse/Saison.

Then there’s the collaboration they did for the recent Brewdog Collabfest, which aims to cram a cream tea, complete with cucumber sandwiches, Earl Grey, scones and raspberry jam, into a hazy IPA. It sounds ghastly, but it’s actually complex and fascinating. They also have a cask containing some of the very last of their original Anthology 10% Imperial Stout, now two years old and tasting quite gorgeous.

Technically the weekend event is ticket-only, but I’m told there should be room for some extra visitors if you’re looking for things to do tomorrow! It’s an easy walk from Blackhorse Road station. Also in the area are the Wild Card brewery, although sadly that’s not open tomorrow, and the intended site of Exale Brewing, which is the new project - again, crowdfunded - from the former Hale Brewing team. Ex-Hale, yeah…

Many thanks to the Signature crew for inviting me over - cheers!

Wednesday, 13 November 2019

Charity beer festival goes London-wide

The popularity of Craft Beer Cares, the volunteer-run Hackney beer festival where all the beer is donated and the profits go to charity,  has struck a chord with the London Brewers Alliance (LBA) and the Society of independent Brewers (SIBA). The three organisations are collaborating to run a new charity festival next February near King’s Cross, called Love Beer London

The aim is to get as many as possible of London’s 100+ breweries taking part and donating keg beer. The proceeds will go to The Benevolent, which is the drinks industry’s own charity, supporting needy current and former employees and their families.

Taking over as festival organiser is Jaega Wise, who is head brewer at LBA member Wild Card Brewery and also an elected SIBA rep. “With Love Beer London we are bringing together all of the best breweries from across London and the South East into one huge new beer festival, serving a broad range of beer styles of the highest quality in an amazing event space just behind King’s Cross station,” she declared.

“It’s the first time that SIBA have partnered with the London Brewers Alliance and we’re hugely excited about the broad range of craft breweries and beer styles that will feature at the festival, so as well as modern hop-forward IPAs and Pale Ales there will be lots of traditional bitters, porters and stronger English ales, as well as speciality and mixed-fermentation beers. It genuinely will have something for everybody.”

The festival will run across five sessions, with the first on the evening of Thursday 13th Feb and the last on the evening of Sat 15th Feb. It’s actually in Barnsbury, but King’s Cross isn’t far.

The one thing that I’m a bit surprised by is that the tickets, at £12 per session, include a glass but no beer tokens – the beer prices are the same, as £2 a half for most and £3 for some, but the Craft Beer Cares tickets included your first £10-worth of beer tokens. Now, I know the latter were a bit too cheap, but jumping straight to GBBF-level pricing seems a tad steep. Then again, maybe it’ll work, even if getting there means hacking out to the vicinity of Pentonville prison!

Anyhow, it’s all in a good cause. To find out more and buy tickets, visit the event website.