Wednesday 20 January 2016

Win a brewery

If it's happened before, I've not heard of it - a kindly engineering company has donated a complete 100-litre brewery (they call it a microbrewery, I'd call it a nanobrewery) to be raffled for charity.

The donor is Elite Stainless Fabrications of Swindon, which makes brewing kit of all shapes and sizes, and the charity is Swindon Women's Aid which despite the name says it provides support to all victims of domestic abuse, regardless of gender or orientation.

Tickets are £5 each and can be bought online or by phone - I've bought mine. I'm not sure where I'll put my brewery, but it looks like a nice piece of kit!

Friday 15 January 2016

Tasting at Twickenham

Yesterday's visit to Twickenham Fine Ales was a very welcome chance to catch up with one of my four excellent local breweries (the others are Weird Beard, the new Kew Brewery and of course Fuller's). The weather was pretty chilly – both outside the brewery and inside! – but the welcome from head brewer Stuart Medcalf, managing director Steve Brown and their colleagues was as warm as ever.

They had prepared a couple of treats for our small group – a CAMRA delegation mostly from the London tasting panel, which helps write tasting notes for the Good Beer Guide and elsewhere. The first was the very last cask of their 2015 Small Batch Stout series, which proved such a hit last December. They produced 200 firkins of this beer in total, 50 in each of four different flavours, and Stuart said they were sold out before they'd even been brewed, with many pubs buying sets of all four.

The lone survivor is the Sour Cherry & Chocolate variant (left). It's delicious – almost a dry stout and full of roastiness, yet also with lots of dark cocoa notes and a faint underlying sweetness. None of us could detect more than a vague hint of sour cherries though! If you'd like to try it, it should still be on sale from the brewery this coming weekend, either for takeaways or when the bar's open on Sunday lunchtime ahead of the rugby.

The small batch series was in addition to Twickenham's four regular ales, four seasonals, twelve monthly cask specials – Stuart noted that the latter sell out every time, often on the day they're released – and its sole keg beer, Tusk IPA. Steve said they will brew the stouts again this year, probably keeping two of the flavours and asking their customers to suggest two new ones, just as they did last year. They're also looking at doing extra monthly specials to meet demand, and at brewing more strong beers, mainly for bottling and in 330ml bottles rather than the 500s they currently use.

This ties in with the team's desire to update Twickenham's profile within the beer market. The problem is that while it was in the microbrewery vanguard 10 years ago – if I remember rightly, there was a time in the Noughties when it was the second largest cask ale brewery in London – more recently it has “kind of got left behind,” as Steve put it. So now they are looking at what to do next. As Steve added, “Everything's up for discussion – products, packaging, the lot.”

Busy! The 50-barrel FV is at the back
In the meantime, we caught up on existing developments. There's new hardware, in the shape of an automated cask racking line, plus a 50-barrel fermenter alongside the 25s so they can double-brew the most popular beers. There's two new assistant brewers, and there's the main reason for our visit, which is a switch to using their own wet yeast instead of commercial dried yeast.

While wet yeast does require extra care and management, and must be renewed from the yeast bank every three months, the fact that the rest of the time they can harvest and re-use it means that it is much cheaper than dried. More importantly to the brewers though, it has improved the beer's clarity and brought out the flavours of the ingredients. “Our beers were clear before, but they shine now,” enthused Dave, Stuart's deputy. I think he's right.

Stuart also discussed several other ingredient changes. Interestingly, when it's just had its 50th anniversary, they've stopped using Maris Otter barley and switched to the increasingly popular Flagon variety which he says gives better extract levels (i.e. more fermentable sugars). Some of the beer recipes have been tweaked too, and they've changed some of the hop varieties. In particular, they're making quite a bit of use of Progress and Pioneer hops – I especially liked the subtle bitter-orange and peach notes they gave to our other special treat, which was a saved-up cask of Winter Warmer, their monthly special for December.

Sadly the Hill 60 and Oud Bruin are long gone
I was surprised though to see that the Winter Warmer – which originally had the very appropriate name of Strong & Dark – is now amber coloured rather than dark brown. Dave explained that, in part to cut confusion with their December-February seasonal Winter Cheer, which is both dark and very lightly spiced, Winter Warmer has been reformulated as an Extra Special Bitter. The result is still 5.2% but now balances a very firm bitterness with a smooth dry-sweet and lightly orange-caramel body.

It was really good to see the brewery busy and taste the beers again, and I do hope they can boost their market image – not least so that I get the chance to buy their beers more often, especially the monthlies and one-offs. (Yes, given the nature of the visit yesterday's tastings were complimentary, but most of the time I do buy my own beer!)

Monday 4 January 2016

My Golden Pints for 2015

Just the first half of these for now, I'm afraid - I will try to catch up with the rest soon, although I know I'm already a little late! What with family visiting over the winterval, plus quite a few work deadlines impending, I've not had a lot of time for blogging, I'm afraid.

    Best UK Cask Beer
Oakham Hawse Buckler – it's been around a few years but I only caught up with it in 2015, when I had it a couple of times in different places, and it was excellent both times. It's a very hoppy (as you'd expect from Oakham), roasty-winey dark ale, verging on a Black IPA or Export Stout.

    Best UK Keg Beer

The Kernel India Pale Ale Amarillo – there's so many Kernel IPA variants, but this one was the best so far. The thing I like about these IPAs in general is they're pretty full-bodied, and in this one the hops added aromas of pineapple and orange, followed by more fruit on the palate along with hints of wintergreen and rosemary. Delicious.

My runner-up – and it was very close – was Brew By Numbers 100/4 Baltic Porter – Sherry. Again, this was part of a set, where the same beer was aged in five different barrels, and having tried all five this emerged as my favourite, perhaps because it was just barrelly enough without being like actually drinking sherry – just touches of dried fruit, dusty caramel and a light herbiness to enhance the lovely flavours of the base beer.

    Best UK Bottled Beer
Twickenham Hill 60 – blended in the best Belgian traditions by combining soured dark ale that had been so long in the barrel that it was very hard to drink straight with fresh strong Mild to lighten it and give it zing. The result was complex and refreshingly drinkable for a sour, with hints of sour cherry, burnt treacle and an earthy bitterness.

    Best UK Canned Beer
Beavertown Holy Cowbell India Stout – that rich piney hop nose with roasty black treacle and a touch of smoke just blew me away.

    Best Overseas Draught

Evil Twin I Love You With My Stout – another midnight-black beer, its heavy body, with notes of coffee, liquorice, pine and grapefruit, was almost too much but thankfully managed to stay on the “Wow, utterly amazing!” side of the border.

My runner-up was an Italian farmhouse ale – Toccalmatto's Tabula Rasa. It's a complex and multilayered brew, with aromas of lemon, white grapes and a little floral perfume and horsey funk.

    Best Overseas Bottled Beer

3 Fonteinen Oude Geuze – back in the summer, I toured the Lambic region immediately after the European Beer Bloggers Conference in Brussels, and amazing beer this was one of the real stand-outs of the trip. Lemon-sour and with faint strawberry notes, its initial sweetness immediately turns to a complex dry and lightly earthy bitter-sourness.

Runner-up was Ratsherrn's Wintertiet. Brewed on the Hamburg brewery's micro kit as one of last winter's specials, it masterfully showed how to create a complex and flavoursome winter ale without chucking the whole damn spice cabinet in there. Rich and drily soupy, it offered notes of treacle toffee, bitter orange, liquorice, christmas cake, dried figs and a light earthy bitterness. Delicious.

    Best Overseas Canned Beer

St Feuillien Saison – canned for the US market, I think, it combines the peppery hoppiness of many farmhouse ales with toast, bread, spice and fruit notes that almost remind one of an Ur-weisse. Well within the Saison boundaries, yet with a very tasty twist.

    Best collaboration brew
Adnams / Magic Rock The Herbalist – another Saison, again with those characteristic spicy, earthy and hoppy notes, but this time also with hints of tangerine and pineapple on a fruity, dry-sweet and herby-bitter body. Oh, and it was properly cask-conditioned, like the original Saisons would have been.