Wednesday 23 May 2012

Brewing at the Bull

Paid my first visit to the Bull in Highgate yesterday - as well as being a rather nice pub with great food and beer, it's the home of London Brewing Co., one of the capital's newer breweries and a member of the London Brewers Alliance. I was there to have a beer and a chat with US drinks writer John Holl - he's researching an e-book on the London pub scene, aimed at Americans coming here for this summer's activities.

Before I went over there, someone mentioned to me that he thought the pub had a new brewer, so I did some research via Google and Twitter, made a few connections, and came up with the name Tom Unwin. He seemed familiar, so I dug around online a bit more and sure enough, he'd taken me and some others on a tour of Brodie's Brewery a couple of years back - we'd arrived on a weekend when the Brodies were away and he was a brewing student getting some work experience.

It turns out that not only has he just finished university this summer, he's also only been at London Brewing for a week, so none of his beer's gone on the bar yet. I did get to sample a crisp and hoppy pale ale from the fermenter though, which showed lots of Columbus hops and plenty of promise - I believe that's been casked today, so it should be on a handpump before too long.

The brewery is basically in a corner of the Bull's kitchen and has a 2.5 barrel brewlength, which is a common size for brewpubs, it seems. Currently there are two fermenting vessels in the cellar below, and Tom hopes to add two more so he can go from only brewing twice a week to doing three or four runs. He doesn't actually stoop, by the way, it's just that the ceiling down there is several inches shorter than either him or me!

"I want to do a pale ale and a bitter, both as regular session beers, plus an American Pale Ale and some others," he says. "For example we have a Red Ale and the hoppy Pale Ale in the fermenters at the moment."

With each brew producing just eight firkins, the Bull absorbs pretty much all of London Brewing's output. Indeed, alongside the two house beers (Beer Street Bitter and Boadicea IPA) on the bar were several others - on my visit they included Thornbridge Wild Swan and another Pale Ale from East London Brewing. All those I tried were in excellent condition.

John and I also had a great chat with the Bull's head chef, who is clearly a man passionate about good food, and about good English and British food in particular. His Bourbon-glazed BBQ ribs were superb!

All in all, the Bull's a great pub. I just wish it was closer than an hour away - and that's an hour if you're lucky and there's no delays on the Northern line.

Sunday 20 May 2012

Speed beer tasting

One of the experiments at this weekend's European Beer Bloggers Conference was speed tasting, or speed blogging. The idea was like speed dating: we'd get ten beers brought around, each one by the brewer or someone from the brewery, and then we'd have just five minutes for them to introduce themselves and the beer, and for us to taste and write about it.

It was a bit of a blur – maybe ten was too many beers, or maybe we needed ten minutes with each – but was good fun and it's an exercise that I reckon beer clubs or even beer festivals could easily copy or adapt.

For the brewer it makes you focus on your "elevator pitch", while for the tasters it makes you think fast; the only possible downside is you might find yourself focusing too much on the aroma and the initial flavours, and not enough on the longer body and finish of the beer.

Anyway, here's the beers, plus my notes which were either live-blogged into RateBeer or Untappd, or in some cases simply scribbled into my notebook...

1. Adnams Ghost Ship (4.5%)
Bottle, mid-gold, good Citra dry-hop aroma, dry palate with light biscuity malt, a little pine coming through in the mid-body, dry finish. Not too complex. 14/20

2. Innis & Gunn Scottish Pale Ale (7%)
Bottle. A new version of these by now well-known barrel-aged beers, this one was aged in a Bourbon cask and is currently only on sale in Sweden. It's lightly floral and a bit sweeter than the other I&G beers I've tried. 14/20

3. Leeds Hellfire (5.2%)
Bottle, pale light bitter, citrus nose, quite bitter at first, medium bodied, not complex in flavour. Designed to be drinkable from the bottle as well as a glass. (I suspect I'm not exactly in the target market for this one!) 13/20

4. Camden Town Hells (4.6%)
Bottle. A German-style helles but with the German hops swapped for American ones. Banana & grapefruit nose, like a fruity IPA, cloudy gold and quite gassy – and tasty. (I went back for seconds afterwards!) 14/20

5. Otley Oxymoron (5.5%)
Cask decanted into minikeg. Lots of piney hops on the nose, smoother body than some black IPAs. Six hops used. A little liquorice and treacle in the mouth. burnt bitter and a touch of choc in the finish. Hops overpower the malt somewhat. (I've had better Oxymoron before, but it's also not the best black IPA I've had (that's Windsor & Eton Conqueror 1075, then Thornbridge Raven.) 13/20

6. Marble Brewery/Emelisse Collaboration Earl Grey IPA (6.8%)
Bottle. Steeped with 3kg of tea, plus plus Citra hops. Deep gold and slightly hazy, with a big citrus and pine IPA nose. The body is hoppy at first but then smooths out, with hints of pineapple and a faint tannic tea note coming through in the finish. 15/20

7. Roosters Baby Faced Assassin (6.1%)
Cask & decanted into a jug, deep gold, dank piney nose, nice balance of sweet malt vs hops, hints of peach and mandarin and a little melon, smooth, full bodied. Good stuff. (Apparently this was a single-hop special edition one-off just for this event – that might be cheating a bit, but it was nice!!) 15/20

8. Great Heck Stormin Norman (6.5%)
Cask & decanted into a jug, dark gold/light amber with a coarse but clingy white head, fruity nose with pine hints, but then the body is surprisingly light for the ABV. Rather one-dimensional with an astringent acrid finish. Not very well balanced. 11/20

9. Slaters Top Totty (4%)
Bottle, gold with relatively high carbonation, grassy hops on the nose, crisp and wheaty (there is a portion of wheat in the grist), a little peppery hop, dry, light. Like a lager/ale cross. A nice summery beer. (This one I prefer in cask, though.) 12/20

10. Brains Dark (4.1%)
Bottle. A nice mild but it's better on cask in my experience, even though the bottled version has a higher ABV. It also may have suffered a little from coming to our table after a couple of hop-monsters... 12/20

I'm pretty sure I've got the above in the wrong order, but then I was live blogging in three different places If one of the others on my table posts the list in the right order, I will come back and correct mine. (-:

Saturday 19 May 2012

Stealth beer!

What's in a brand? Well, quite a lot for some people – and it's not always positive. I can't think how else can you explain the trend among brewers towards beers that don't have their real names on – instead they either have a stealth brand, or in some cases no brand at all.

So yesterday when I came across some rather nice new-to-me beers at the European Beer Bloggers Conference – a fruity golden ale called Sunbeam, and a couple of single-hop beers, one using Polish Marynka and the other English Sovereign – I was intrigued because it wasn't obvious who brewed them. They were on the table of conference sponsor Marston's, but the Marston's guys only referred to them coming from Wolverhampton – eventually I spotted "Banks's" on the clip, but in tiny, tiny print.

I'm no branding expert, but it did make me think some more about the subject – especially as I saw something similar a few weeks ago, when I spotted an unfamiliar pumpclip in a Greene King pub. Of course GK uses several sub-brands, some for breweries it has bought and closed – eg. Morlands, Ridleys. Ruddles – and some simply to differentiate, such as Westgate, but this clip simply gave the beer's name (The Sorcerer) with no indication at all of its origin.

Stealth beer first caught my attention several years ago at the huge Coors – or fellow conference sponsor MolsonCoors, as it now is – brewery in Golden, Colorado. In the brewery tap were glass trophy cases, and also in there was a bottle of a beer I'd never seen before: Blue Moon. Just to look at the label I'd never have known it was a Coors product. I could only guess that the aim was to reach the kind of drinkers who avoid the mega-brewers.

It was also around that time that Anheuser-Busch – now AB-InBev – bought a slice of RedHook Brewery. Talking to AB people I realised that their motive was similar to Blue Moon's: if you're going to lose market share to craft beer, it's much better to lose it to your own craft beer. AB-InBev now owns several other craft breweries and sub-brands, of course.

I guess the lesson is that not everything that looks new and independent actually is. On the other hand, it's also that the old names are perfectly capable of doing something new and wonderful, as with the Banks's project, which is to explore hops by brewing twelve identical beers, one a month, and flavouring each with a single different hop variety.

What do you think – should Banks's and Greene King use (one of) their own brands, or would that create the wrong kind of expectations?

Seriously beery

Is MolsonCoors - which is the lead sponsor of this week's European Beer Bloggers Conference - serious about craft beer? It certainly looks that way. As well as its US witbeer Blue Moon, its suggested dinner beers included bottle-conditioned Worthington White Shield and Red Shield, and both bottled and cask-conditioned Honey Spice no.3 ale from Sharp's.
Also on the menu from Sharp's was its 10% Quadrupel Ale - made according to head brewer Stuart Howe with four hops, four malts, four yeasts and four fermentations. This was complex stuff, with a hoppy, musty wine-barrel aroma turning more syrupy in the mouth, with grapes and a hint of chocolate coming through. Somewhat odder was Stuart's Turbo Yeast IV, a 22% monster that as far as I could gather is a mix of non-alcoholic beer and a distilled spirit. It's more like a slightly soured treacley port, and will not be to everyone's taste...

Friday 11 May 2012

Bacteria found alive in 200-year-old beer

In 2010, divers exploring a Napoleonic-era wreck off the Åland islands, a Finnish (but autonomous, and Swedish-speaking) archipelago in the mid-Baltic, discovered bottles of champagne and beer that were still sealed and appeared intact. Some of the champagne was auctioned for charitable causes - raising €54,000 for just two bottles! - and a couple of the beer bottles were sent to Finland's VTT Technical Research Centre for analysis.

Some early results were released a year ago, including the discovery of dead yeast cells and live lactic acid bacteria, so what's the news now? Well, according to this week's VTT press release, they've finally published their results properly, including identification of the four lactic acid bacteria species and what appeared to be dead cells of brewer's yeast and a lambic yeast. It adds:

Both bottles contained beautiful pale golden liquids, identified as beer by the presence of malt sugars, aromatic compounds and hops typical of the beverage. Chemical analyses showed that the beer could originally have featured hints of rose, almond and cloves. However, the beers in the bottles examined had not stood the test of time well.

The pale golden colour indicates that the beers were made from unroasted malt. The burned flavour suggests that heating at the mashing stage was not under control. It is possible, though, that a smoky flavour in beer was appreciated at the time. The beers were probably made from grain – barley or wheat or a combination of the two. Hops, of a variety typical of a couple of centuries ago, had been added before boiling the wort. 

The analyses also appear to show they were two different beers - one with some characteristics typical of wheat beer and the other much hoppier than the first, and with different bacterial compositions. A presentation given by VTT on the findings is available as a PDF here.

They're going to sell some more of the champagne next month. The next step will presumably be to try recreating the beers - the Åland government is funding the research in a sort of PR exercise for the islands.