Wednesday, 1 June 2022

Is beer better 'from the wood'?

I’d never been to a wood cask beer festival before last week. I was due to be at the third Woodfest organised by the Society for the Preservation of Beers from the Wood (SPBW) back in May 2020, but of course it was cancelled due to you-know-what.

So I was delighted to discover that not only was Woodfest #3 back on for May 2022, but it was at the same venue they planned to use in 2020, namely the Turk’s Head pub in St Margarets, which for me is about three miles from home – the previous two Woodfests were way up in the north of England. Admission was a fiver, but in return most of the beers were under £4 a pint, which is relatively inexpensive for the area.

It’s a nice venue. The bars were in the pub’s function room, which is more like a village hall, complete with a small stage and its own bar – with handpumps, of course. It’s well known locally I believe for hosting a comedy club and other events of that kind, and also opens out onto a large terrace or beer garden which it shares with the pub.

It was rather strange seeing 35 wooden casks racked up on a stillage. You quite often see them in ones and twos, perhaps decorating the back of a bar or even doing duty as plant pots, but rarely serving their intended purpose of serving beer!

The selection was great, ranging from a few sub-4% milds – I enjoyed the Tigertops 3.7% Dark Wheat Mild, with its notes of liquorice and roast malt, and XT’s roasty and bitter 3.1% Pi Black Mild – to a 10.5% Imperial Stout from Trinity, sadly run out by the time I got there. I topped out instead with a boozy and woody 9.7% Barleywine, also from Tigertops, and Cheshire Brewhouse’s excellent 8.2% Gibraltar Porter.

In between were plenty of Bitters, Stouts and Porters, and a few less common ones. Kölsch from the cask – or ‘Kölsch vom Fass’ – is a seasonal regular in Cologne that’s rare in the UK, but here was Orbit’s 4.8% Nico, slightly confusingly labelled as ‘Koln Lager’. Meanwhile another London brewery, Mondo, had casked its 5% London Alt – here labelled simply as ‘Altbier’ – for a significant flavour upgrade on the bottled version I tasted a few years back. This soft and malty-sweet Alt vom Fass, with its drying and grassy bitterness, also put me in mind of the German fashion in recent years for Kellerbier.

Back on the British styles, the stars for me were Harrogate Brewing’s delicious biscuity, fruity and bitter-sweet 5.2% Beeching Axe IPA – oh, and one from the handpumps on the ‘normal’, ie. metal casks, bar: East London Brewing’s rich and boozy 9.5% Imperial Stout.

So who goes to a beer-from-the-wood festival? Well, my local CAMRA branch chairman greeted me from the admissions desk – it turned out that the branch had helped the SPBW organise the event, supplying glasses, wristbands and stuff. There were a few more local CAMRA members I knew around the place too, but most were SPBW members, some of whom had travelled quite a long way to be there. And while there definitely were women and younger men there, I'd say the SPBW demographic is on average somewhat older and less diverse than CAMRA's – though just as friendly, of course. 

And what of the festival’s raison d’être: those wooden casks? I suspect the challenge is that serving from the wood is not the same as barrel-ageing, and I do wonder if all the breweries understood that. Some of the beers I tasted felt overly woody – excessively so in one or two cases. Yet in others, there was a softness or lightness of touch that’s perhaps less evident with modern metal casks.

In short, my answer to “Is beer better from the wood?” is ‘Sometimes, but not always.’ And given that the results are almost always both interesting and drinkable regardless, I’m more than happy to carry on researching the answer!

Tuesday, 24 May 2022

Beer hunting in València

València, like many – or perhaps most – Spanish cities, does have craft beer but it can be hard to find. Most places will offer you Mahou, San Miguel or Alhambra, which are actually all the same company.

Maybe there will be something excitingly foreign, like Guinness or Heineken. They might even have American IPAs from Founders of Michigan – which is less surprising than it might appear as it’s owned by, yes, Grupo Mahou-San Miguel...

But to find Spanish craft beer, and especially local craft beer, you’ll need to look a bit harder. Here’s the places I found on a recent visit to València that are well worth a visit if you’re in town.

Olhöps Craft Beer House is hip, modern and international in that American-inspired but actually very European way. Grey walls, pale wood, mismatched but modern tables and chairs, and a menu of mostly Spanish plus a sprinkling of foreign beers – Croatian, German, quite a few English. Indeed, as I write this I see they have a Northern Monk tap-takeover going on.

I enjoyed a Paquita Brown from local brewery Tyris – they call it Brown Ale but to me it’s closer to a Brown IPA, with its toasty malt and orange notes and firm bitterness. Next came a hazy IPA from a brewery I’d not heard of before: Freddo Fox, from up the coast in Barcelona. Called Born to be Perfect, it’s a great twist on the style – pulpy fruit, delicately herbed and a delightfully light finish. Lastly, and to remind myself that not all Russians are orcs, Echo Passage from Moscow’s Zagovor Brewery was a juicy-dry and boozy Double NEIPA.

They have a second venue, Olhöps Craft Beer Lab, not far away. I didn’t get the chance to visit but it looks to have a similar range with mostly Spanish and English beers. Another time!

I mentioned Cerveza Tyris above, and a couple of days later I found myself near their taproom in the old city, Tyris on Tap. It’s an example of European cool and modern – lightly distressed wood and metal furniture, a swirling mural of the brewing process on the wall, and with a full kitchen out the back. Seven Tyris beers were indeed on tap, including their core brews and a couple of seasonals.

Spanish brewers trying to be Craft with a capital C can be a bit heavy-handed on the bittering hops, and so it was with the Tyris Märzen, nicely toasty and very drinkable, but for me it’s rather too bitter for the style. Rather better was Au Yeah!, an American IPA that’s part of their core range – it’s honeyed and smoothly bitter-sweet, and altogether well assembled and balanced.

Around the corner from there is a very different venue: The Market Craft Beer, which put me in mind of a hybrid between a Dutch cafe-bar and a British pub. All aged dark wood, bare floorboards, and an eclectic mix of cans, taps and memorabilia. Mostly Spanish beers on tap, plus one Croatian and Weihenstephaner Vitus which, as a 7.7% Weizenbock, I’ve never seen on tap before.

Prices are a little higher here, but there’s several stronger brews too. I kicked off though with God Save the Session IPA, from Madrid’s La Quince. Assertively hoppy, drying and light, it does what it says on the tin… Next was a Spanish interpretation of a British style for a change, instead of an American one: a modern ESB called Pint of Guv’ from Navarre’s Naparbier.

I liked this, with its toasty-dryness balancing the sweet malts – a Fuller’s ESB devotee might not go for it, but it reminded me of some of the collaboration ESBs Fuller’s has done, such as with Moor. I finished off here with Sant Rock from another local Valencian brewery, Castelló Beer Factory. This is supposed to be a Belgian Dubbel, but once again seemed a bit too bitter – still, it was estery and smooth, boozy and sweet, so everything else was in place.

One thing I noticed with a lot of places in València is their narrow frontage. They usually go back a long way, so they’re bigger than they look, but from the outside you can easily miss them, and so it was with my last bar here, the grandly-named Buena Onda Gastro Bar & Craft Beer. This is actually a friendly and slightly cheezy mock beach bar, and again it goes way back from the small front bar next to the kitchen – so far back that it reaches the street behind, where there’s a few tables and chairs set out.

There’s just three taps, serving only local beers, but several fridges hold a selection of Spanish, UK and other beers in cans and bottles, all at fairly reasonable prices too. You can look in the fridges or at the empty cans on the bar, but there’s no printed beer list – “I am the beer list!” says the waitress, and she’s right, being both helpful and knowledgeable.

After an extremely enjoyable India Imperial Porter – think chocolate, liquorice, coffee, lots of tropical fruity hops and 8% ABV – from DouGall’s of Calabria on the way back to the metro one night, I liked the place so much I went back for a second visit. Incidently, and as the name implies, DouGall’s is one of the many craft breweries around the world founded by British or American immigrants, in this case an English guy who started his drinking career about 3 miles from me, down the road in Richmond on Thames. (I’m also a bit annoyed to discover only now that they were having a meet-the-brewer elsewhere in Valencia when I was there!)

The following visit, I started with another one claiming to be a Märzen, this time from Drunken Bros in Bilbao. What I failed to spot was that it was 7.5%, and when I opened what was the fullest can I’ve ever seen, sure enough it was more like a bittered-up Bock (also a little worty and oxidised, unfortunately). It reminded me though that Märzen – tolerably authentic Märzen, that is – is well known in Spain, as several of the big breweries make one.

Anyway, after that it was time to check out the taps, as our hostess had just put on a White IPA from local brewery Cervezas Antiga (left). I really enjoyed this – spicy, lightly fruity, juicy-dry and bitter, it put me in mind of a Witbier crossed with a hazy IPA, which I suppose is what you could very reasonably expect from a White IPA! Time then to finish with something dark and warming, and staying with Antiga I chose a bottle of their delicious 9 Grados (9%) Russian Imperial Stout. Rich and warming, with notes of chocolate and toasted treacle under a firm hoppy bitterness, this was just the thing for a nightcap.

There were a couple of other places I'd have liked to try, but didn't have the time. Maybe when I'm back in town there in a few weeks from now!

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.