Thursday 24 April 2014

News snippets

A few bits of news gathered at and around the KGH event included that Twickenham Fine Ales brewer Stuart Medcalf (left) has revived the original recipe for Sundancer golden bitter. As a result it's back to the crisp, aromatic and lightly astringent beer that won a silver medal at the 2007 GBBF. Excellent! Twickenham is also now brewing a 'house beer' for Kew Gardens – this is on sale in the shops there and I'll try to get a bottle soon.

Also in bottle now are the soured beers that Twickenham's former brewmaster Tom Madeiros (now at Quercus in Devon, incidentally) brewed in collaboration with Belgium's Alvinne and De Struise breweries. These have been ageing in barrels for two years and have been bottled both straight and as a blend to smooth out the sourness and add depth.

With all its specials and six seasonal ales a year, Sharp's is now brewing a lot more than just Doom Bar, which has reportedly become the UK's no.1 cask ale. Formerly 95% of Sharp's volume, Doom Bar is now 85% - but of course overall production is up over 50% too, so that's still a lot more Doom Bar. The next best sellers for the brewers from Rock are Cornish Coaster, Sharp's Own and Sharp's Special. Oh, and there's a new American Pale Ale called Sharp's Atlantic due out in a couple of months.

While talking to David of Kew Brewery about his search for a brewkit, he mentioned that M&B has indeed sold the Botanist brewery, although not to him. Coming past the Botanist later on, I saw that the brewkit has now gone.

More to come...

Kew's mini-beerex hits the spot

Went to a great Meet the Brewers session at the Kew Gardens Hotel last night – and yes, that's brewers in the plural. OK, not everyone presenting was an actual person-who-brews, but there were several of those present, including Dave from East London Brewery (ELB), Stuart from Twickenham, one of the Sambrooks brewers, and David who currently assists at Weird Beard but was there to showcase trial beers for his projected Kew Brewery.

Several other breweries were ably represented by their local sales folk, including Hogs Back, Meantime, Truman's, Sharp's and Greene King, the latter two showcasing their craft ranges, including GK's Belhaven beers. Some were pouring bottled beers, others had brought their draught beers in minicasks or flagons.

Some of the memorable beers included what I'm told was a barrel-aged version of Hogs Back's A over T (Aromas over Tongham) 9% barleywine, all winey and herbal-bitter with a raisiny sweetness, Sharp's Honey Spice IPA – more pale ale than IPA, albeit at 6.5%, but crisp with hints of orange and with the honey-spice subtly restrained, and Belhaven's 7% Scottish Oat Stout, dry-sweet with treacle, coffee and chocolate notes.

On top of all that, the KGH itself had an extra bar in the corner allowing it to offer a varied selection of well over a dozen cask ales plus several cask ciders – and this extra bar is staying around for a few more days. That's because the mini-beerex was the kick-off event for its beer and cider festival which runs until Sunday 27th, and promises 100 different ales over the five days, with three-thirds 'tasting bats' available as well as pints.

The KGH is just a short walk from Kew Gardens rail & tube station and is worth a visit – even more so while this festival is on. If you're in the area for beer, there is also Fuller's Tap on the Line by the station, and check out the Good Wine Shop in Kew village for an interesting selection of London-brewed and American/international bottled craft beers.

Monday 21 April 2014

Talking casks and kegs, with By The Horns

By The Horns was one of the first of the "new wave" of London breweries to commit itself to cask ale, while many of its approximate contemporaries took the (in many ways) cheaper and less complex path of kegging. So when the opportunity arose last week to visit the three-year-old brewery with a CAMRA group, I was eager to see how it has evolved, especially since it too is now kegging...

Clearly, the overall quality of its ale has not declined since its Diamond Geezer won beer of the festival at my local Twickenham Beer Festival in 2012, and the range has expanded. The most obvious change though is the brewery tap - when last I was there, probably two years ago now, founders Alex Bull and Chris Mills simply put some casks on gravity alongside the brewkit, plus some bottles and glasses on a table, and they opened to the public one Saturday a month, if that. 

They have now moved all the fermenting vessels - and they are up to five of these - into a second industrial unit nearby. That has freed up space to put in a proper bar, done in the modern 'recycled wooden chic' style, along with four hand-pumps, half a dozen keg taps and a couple of small fridges. There's even a few tables and stools, a table-football game, and not one but two loos! The five-barrel brewkit is now behind Perspex, and they are open six days a week for off-sales (bottles), with the bar open Thursday-Saturday.

Head brewer Alex says that while some 85% of their business is still cask, there are many places that want to offer a locally-made craft beer but which only have keg lines. So they are also using 30-litre Keykegs and Ecofass kegs - the former are disposable while latter are reusable.

Both types are in effect a giant bag-inna-box, with the beer in a plastic bag inside the keg. Alex explains that although they are physically kegs, the beer is still pretty much 'real' - it is not carbonated or served under pressure; instead it is brewery-conditioned and primed as you would for bottling, and forced out by compressed air injected between keg and bag. "Beer definitely can condition - undergo a secondary fermentation - in a keg," he adds.

We were able to try half a dozen ales, in all three dispense forms. Stiff Upper Lip, a bitter golden ale, was on cask, as was a new release called Ol Blue Eyes CInaTRA - this is brewed with Citra hops as the name implies, and is in the modern pale ale vein, with tropical fruit notes to complement the citrus bitterness.

On keg, we tasted Bobby on the Wheat - I was a little reluctant as I'd not found this especially interesting in the past, but it turned out that while the name's the same, this is actually a new recipe. Now at 4% ABV, it's a dry-hopped wheat ale, sort of like a hopped-up Hefeweizen Leicht. It has a refreshing hoppiness and a lightly spicy body. Alex says he's pleased with the new version: "The extra carbonation lifts it a bit, and the dry hopping works better."

And from bottles we tried Gift of the Gab, Lambeth Walk, Mayor of Garratt and Hopslinger. The former is a coffee milk stout - Alex says it starts as just a milk stout, made with British Pioneer and First Gold hops, and is then aged on oak and freshly ground coffee for two weeks. As well as some chocolate malt, I spotted some roast barley in there too - the latter is what gives Guinness and some other stouts that burnt-bitter edge. The result is delicious, anyway!

Lambeth Walk is a rich caramelly beer with hints of cocoa and toffee. It's sold as a London Porter, which I'd tend to go along with, but one or two in our party felt it was closer to Old Ale in style. Hmm! Mayor of Garratt is a toffeeish and faintly nutty London-style bitter, and last but not least, Hopslinger is Alex's interpretation of an American IPA, with plenty of dry hoppy bitterness plus touches of toasted orange and tropical fruit. 

All in all, it was a very enjoyable couple of hours and it provided a good catch-up, both on By The Horns specifically and on the state of craft ale in London more generally. Thanks again, Alex!

Wednesday 16 April 2014

The return of the brewery hop-garden

Now this I like – brewery hop-gardens have been an increasingly common sight in the USA, but are rare in the UK. (Although Fuller's a few years ago dry-hopped a cask of Chiswick bitter with hops found growing wild on the brewery premises, and very nice it was too!)

That could be changing though: Hogs Back Brewery has just announced the planting of a 2½ acre traditional hop garden beside its brewery in Farnham, Surrey. It said this is "the start of a larger initiative to link Hogs Back with local raw materials and traditional farming skills," and will make it Britain's biggest brewer-hopgrower.

Rupert Thompson & Bill Biddell toast the new hop-garden
Hogs Back will plant over 2000 hop bines, a combination of the original Farnham White Bine and the newer Cascade variety. Farnham White Bine was the foundation of Farnham’s pre-eminence in hop growing in the 18th and 19th century, when it commanded the highest prices in the UK – at one time as much as 30% more than its Kent neighbours, the brewery said.

However, the last White Bine garden in the area was grubbed up in 1929, a victim of downy mildew and cheaper imported varieties. This new White Bine planting stock has been obtained from the National Hop Collection which is maintained by Wye Hops on behalf of the British Hop Association, and has been grown for Hogs Back by specialist grower Stephen Wright at Inghams Farm, Suffolk.

It helps that the soil at Hogs Back is ideal for hops, being a deep and high quality loam with a light alkaline chalk overlay. The site is gently sloping on the northern lee of the Hogs Back ridge and well exposed to sun with wind protection from traditional poplar planting. The Hogs Back brewing team will plant and grow the hops themselves, albeit with support from Bill and Bridget Biddell of Hampton Estates who grow all the brewery’s Fuggles hops, used in its flagship beer TEA. The Biddells are 4 miles away on the south of the Hogs Back ridge at Puttenham and will help with picking and drying.

Hogs Back said that both White Bine and Cascade will be used in beers that it will launch over the next 12 months, including contract beers for pubcos and a special beer featuring just these varieties. Hogs Back’s Hogstar New English Lager will also use some Cascade from the new hop-garden to replace one of the North American aroma hops currently used late in the boil.

“The Farnham White Bine was developed in the early 1700s by a Mr Peckham-Williams of Badshot Place, Farnham, which we can almost see from the brewery," said Hogs Back chairman Rupert Thompson. "It commanded a high price because of its delicate, distinctive aroma and the care taken in growing, picking and packing by the Farnham growers. Hops are influenced by the soil and micro-climate in which they are grown, and we are really excited to bring a local hop of such importance back to its roots, where it was first developed and from which Mr Golding selected his hops to produce the world renowned Goldings.

"It will be amazing almost 100 years later – as and when the hop bines are mature – to taste the flavours of such an important raw ingredient in our future beers. It will be wonderful to look out from the brewery and see the raw materials we use growing in the next door field – that’s local! That is part of what makes the craft brewing revival so exciting and we hope to build on this initiative with some further interesting innovations."