Friday 31 October 2014

The problem with pumpkins

Have you found any decent Hallowe'en beers this year? They've become something of a staple in the UK, and are starting to appear now in other European countries too, even though none of it reaches the heights of obsessiveness that American drinkers must endure.

Part of the problem is the obsession with pumpkins. These American gourds have relatively little flavour of their own, and to bring out any sort of decent flavour out of them you need spices. Ginger is my preference here, but brewers and bakers tend to go for the likes of cloves, nutmeg and cinnamon instead. So what you get is mostly just a spiced beer - a few brewers even admit there's no pumpkin in their Hallowe'en beer, and that where the label says "pumpkin-spiced ale" it is 100% accurate - it is spiced with "pumpkin spices".

One pumpkin beer that's fairly widely available is Wychwood's Pumpking, I've had this year's edition though and it was overwhelmed by burnt caramel flavours and generally unimpressive. The same brewer's version of Night Owl Pumpkin Ale, based on a recipe from US brewery Elysian and brewed for the current Wetherspoon real ale festival, was rather better - at 6% it's also almost double the strength of the distinctly non-kingly 3.8% Pumpking.

(Incidentally, Pumpking was originally 5%, then 4.5% and 4.2%, before dropping to its current poor status last year. And they still have the cheek to describe it as a "rich ruby ale". Shame on you, Wychwood.)

The best so far for not being over-spiced was this year's London Fields Brewery Pumpkin Ale, launched during a Hallowe'en party at the brewery tap in Hackney last night. Another 6%er (last year's edition was 6.6%), it's properly beery as well as being spiced.

Sadly, the same wasn't true of the other ale London Fields launched last night. Called Gyle 666 (presumably because it was their 666th brew - they are currently brewing at least 10 times a week!!), this is a chilli brown ale, but even 6.6% ABV isn't able to save it from being over-sweet, over-chillied and a tad one-dimensional.

Look out for the LFB Pumpkin Ale though - and also the Night Owl, if your local Spoons hasn't sold out already.

Thursday 16 October 2014

Cask ale brewing is back in SE1

New breweries continue to appear in London, but one of the more interesting things about the latest start-up – it was due to begin brewing on its new 10-barrel kit this week – is that it is an unashamedly real ale-only brewery in the heart of Crafty Bermondsey.

Yes, the famed Bermondsey Beer Mile, which formerly only produced cask-conditioned beer on rare occasions, now has a regular cask outlet in the shape of Southwark Brewing Co. Based in a railway arch at 57 Druid Street and well within the Borough of Southwark, the brewery is just a few arches up from Anspach & Hobday and Bullfinch Brewing, and is a new westernmost extension to the Beer Mile.

However, while the brewery tap will be open on Fridays and Saturdays, and maybe also Thursdays in the run up to Yule, the main aim is to ride the localism trend and sell LocAles to pubs across the London SE and SW region.

They plan to brew three times a week to start with, so that's a fair bit to sell – as one commentator on Ratebeer asked, have we reached “peak beer” now, with new entrants finding it incrementally harder to sell their wares to a limited pool of free-houses? After all, they may be the brewery most local to SE1, but outside that they're as local as Sambrooks, Truman and even Fullers.

Still, co-founder and brewer Andy Nichol has a finance background – he's formerly a lecturer, but learnt to brew under the tutelage of business partner Peter Jackson, who is an ex-Marstons exec – so he has done his research. Certainly, there's a lot of money gone into the set-up, mostly sourced from friends and family, says Andy, but also with help from government schemes to support investment in small businesses, and the two are being advised by Sean Franklin, the founder of Roosters Brewery who now works as a consultant.

The brewery already has several recipes to its credit – the core brews will be its fruity, hoppy and golden London Pale Ale (LPA) at 4%, and a traditional 4.4% best bitter in the shape of Bermondey Best, but there's also other such as Peter's Stout, a bottled 8.9% Russian Imperial Stout brewed in honour of Peter the Great who visited London in 1698. These were all brewed on its small test kit, however – basically a large homebrew set-up – and the next task for its brewers will be to scale those recipes up to a full-length brew.

Friday 3 October 2014

Lost London breweries back in action

Last night was the preview of a new London brewpub on Torrens Street, just around the corner from Angel tube station in Islington. Formerly a gastropub called the Arc, it is now the first London base of a growing chain called Brewhouse & Kitchen which already has venues in Portsmouth and Dorchester, and will soon open a fourth in the former Junction pub in Highbury, just up the road from the Angel.

B&K Islington is a big space on the ground floor of a modern building, decorated in an eclectic and only occasionally clich├ęd style: bare brick walls, bookcases, old suitcases turned into picture frames, and huge copper light fittings that bring brewing vessels to mind. And then at the back, there is the brewkit, all wood and steel – and looking awfully familiar.

As well it should, because it's the same brewkit that used to reside in the Botanist on Kew Green and was ripped out by pubco M&B after it bought the Botanist and the other pubs owned by the small Convivial group. Even better, M&B also ripped the brewkit out of the Lamb in Chiswick, and that's being installed in B&K Highbury, so that's two lost breweries returned to the city.

It's a little convoluted, but as I understand it, two of the directors of Convivial – which was London-focused – had also set up B&K as a separate company to develop a similar gastro-brewpub format elsewhere. Since then, B&K has been buying up whatever pub-scale brewing kit it can, ready for new sites as they come along – Islington head brewer Peter Hughes (who is ex-Mighty Oak Brewery) said there's still two or three breweries in storage. Also on-board with B&K is Mark Wainwright, the original head brewer from the Botanist and now in Dorchester, while the former manager of the Botanist is now running B&K Islington.

Anyway, the new brewpub opens to the public next Monday (October 6th). There was a reasonable range of ales on at the preview, albeit a fairly 'safe' one, and only the Spandau B session IPA was actually brewed on site. Peter's done several brews there already, but reckons it can take you a dozen to get used to a new brewkit. For instance, when you move liquid between vessels there's a temperature drop which will affect things such as the attenuation, so you could end up with a thinner but more alcoholic brew than you wanted. While your experience as a brewer lets you make a good guess, only knowing the brewkit well will get it right.

He added that it took him two days just to get the brewkit clean and replace various pumps and seals – M&B had left it idle for months before selling it, and then it was in store. And he talked of plans to exchange beers with B&K Highbury – the six-barrel brewkit going in there is capable of brewing lagers, whereas his 2.5 barrel kit is for ales, so it would make sense.

The beer variety will very likely increase too – Peter is friendly with the brewers at West London's Weird Beard, for example, so he's no stranger to interesting and/or hop-forward craft ales. Fingers crossed... All in all, this is a very promising start, with a lot of investment and an experienced (and very multinational!) team involved, and I look forward to revisiting in a couple of weeks to see how it is going.