Wednesday 25 January 2017

A tale of Owls, Pussycats, Dodos and micropubs

The micropub revolution has reached West London – Ealing, to be precise, where in a week's time the population should have jumped from zero to two. The first one officially opened last Friday: called The Owl and The Pussycat*, it’s not too far from Northfields tube station, and even better, it has its own brewery.

If you’ve not been to a micropub before, they’re a relatively new phenomenon that was first recognised just over a decade ago, yet they embody ideals that are many centuries older. Typically, it’s a single room – often a former shop – converted into a small pub. The Micropub Association definition adds that it “listens to its customers, mainly serves cask ales, promotes conversation, shuns all forms of electronic entertainment and dabbles in traditional pub snacks.”

Mark, Roger Protz and Paul at the opening
The Owl and The Pussycat fits that to a tee. It’s the brainchild of two ex-teachers, Mark Yarnell and Paul Nock, and it took them almost a year to get it off the ground, what with finding premises and a brewing kit, and persuading the local authority to give them planning permission.

“I was teaching for 24 years, people said we were crazy, but a year later here we are,” says Paul. Fortunately the local support has been tremendous – as the letter-writing campaign that backed their planning application shows, locals have been fascinated by the project. Indeed, when the pair opened briefly before Christmas to test the waters, they were almost drunk dry and had to bring in emergency supplies from a friendly microbrewery.

In the long run they aim to be self-sufficient in beer though, thanks to having their own nanobrewery in the back room, working under the name Marko Paulo. Their UK-made 200-litre brewkit** took London’s tally of breweries to 92, and it allows them to fill five nine-gallon firkins (casks) per brew. Alternatively, they have 40-litre kegs for beers better suited to gas dispense – on my visit that meant an authentic German-style Oktoberfest-Märzen and a West Coast-inspired IPA.

The Marko Paulo Brewery
Rather unusually, they also have smaller casks: 4.5-gallon pins. Mark explains that the use of pins allows them to offer a wider range of beers – they have six handpumps and two keg taps, which could easily be a recipe for tired beer if it took too long for a cask to sell out. “Using pins keeps the beer fresh and let’s us keep variety on,” he says.

“We are brewing twice a week, and are pretty much at capacity now,” adds Paul. They’re limited not just by only having two fermenters – each brew takes about a week to ferment – but by how many filled casks and kegs they can fit in their cold-store.

The plan is to have two core beers, most probably their excellent Coal Porter and a best bitter, plus a rotating range of others. For example, at the opening event, which was kicked of by an entertaining talk on London’s brew history from Good Beer Guide editor and fellow*** beer-writer Roger Protz, we were treated to a mild, two pale ales (one of them ‘single hop and grain’ – I guess that makes for a more entertaining acronym than the more usual ‘single malt and single hop’!) and a hoppy bitter.

Mark says they hope to do collaboration brews with local home-brewers, and perhaps run a home-brew club. And they plan to run beer-and-cheese tastings/pairings with their next-door neighbours Cheddar Deli.

On top of all that, incredibly the local micropub population is about to double. One of the other guests at The Owl and The Pussycat’s official opening was Lucy, who is due to open her own micropub this coming Saturday. It’s called The Dodo and is in Hanwell, just up the road from Northfields. She’s not planning to brew, instead pouring a wide range of mainly London-brewed beers.

*The name comes from the bookshop that formerly occupied the site.
**made by Elite of Swindon, I noticed. 
***he’s been at it a lot longer than me, mind, and a lot more successfully too!

Wednesday 18 January 2017

Going Wild at the Tate

I’ve been following The Wild Beer Co. for some years now, and not just because it’s based in my childhood home of Somerset*, or because it picked up early on those fascinating printed bottles. It’s because it was the first British new-wave craft brewery to specialise in, as the name implies, wild yeasts.

That means bugs like Brettanomyces (Brett to its friends), Pediococcus, Lactobacillus and a number of others. As we’re now discovering, thanks to the diligent work of historians, these were incredibly important right up to the 1800s – Brett in particular was how Stock Ales and vatted Porters were aged. However, while they’re still very important in traditional Belgian brewing, they fell out of favour in most other places, typically with tastes changing to prefer fresher (Mild) beers.

Lemony & sour-sweet: Wild Beer's
The Blend Summer 2016
So I was delighted to hear that the Tate’s tap take-over series would include a meet-the-brewer session with Wild Beer. I wasn’t the only one excited, either – it was pretty full, with a pleasantly varied crowd, as they poured us thirds of four different Wild Beers. (Sadly, the Modus Operandi was off – strange for a sour beer I know, but there really is a difference between wanted and unwanted sournesses!)

As co-founder Andrew Cooper tells it, when in 2012 he and Brett** Ellis started Wild Beer – based on a cheese farm, as it happens – they wanted to explore what wild yeasts could do: “At that time, a lot of people were experimenting with hops, but no one was really experimenting with yeast. We took lessons from Belgium, but also from the whisky and wine worlds – we wanted to make aged beers.”

He adds, “We kind of reverse-engineer our beers – we know what flavour we want to end up with, so it’s about flavours and ingredients, not beer styles.”

The attraction of wild yeasts is the complex flavours they can yield. As Andrew says, “A standard yeast might produce 25 flavour compounds, Brett produces 125.”

Part of this is because they can ferment things that regular Saccharomyces beer yeasts cannot, such as complex sugars and carbohydrates. The downside for the brewer is that they are slow-burners, hence their use in beers that are matured in vats or foeders over many months or even years. “Brett will just keep going – in a barrel it’ll even ferment the cellulose in the wood,” Andrew exclaims.

This can cause problems for the brewer, such as if a yeast kicks back into life unexpectedly. For example, both Harvey’s with its initial 1999 brew of Imperial Extra Double Stout and Goose Island with its 2015 Bourbon County Stout suffered from an extra wild fermentation starting months after the beer had been bottled. In Harvey’s case it meant corks being forced out, while for BCS it meant sour notes, “gushing”, and the less-than-popular decision to pasteurise future BCS editions.

Trendy Juice: murky as anything, but
deliciously fruity and resinous
The bigger worry though is if the wild yeasts escape and go where they’re not wanted. Says Andrew, “We understand Brett, we respect it, and we clean a lot! In four years we’ve never had any cross-contamination on the bottling line, it’s three years since we had any on the kegging line.” He adds that they also have two complete sets of hoses for moving beer around, one for sours and one for normies.

Which reminds me that, while three of the beers on show that evening were mostly sours and wilds, Wild Beer also does whole range of slightly more conventional brews: IPAs, stouts and so on – our 4th was their beautifully complex and fruity Trendy Juice IPA.

So although the sours are what started the brewery, Andrew says that those are now down to 20 or so, out of a total range of 35 beers. “Sour beers take a long time and are really expensive to make,” he explains, “so you have to have some beers that you can get out there faster.”

It’s clear that the fear of cross-contamination is always there, however, so with that and the fact that they now brew around ten times a week on their 15-barrel brewkit, it is no surprise that expansion is planned. The aim, he says, is to have two brewkits, one for the big sellers and the other all about barrel-ageing and wild yeast.***

What of the remaining three beers? All were good, but my least favourite was Black & Blue, their collaboration with New Zealand’s 8 Wired for the 2016 International Rainbow Project. It was interesting, especially in its use of peppercorns, bourbon barrels and zero hops, but too sweet for my liking.

Rather better was the 2016 Summer Blend. Inspired by Belgian Gueuze, this sees several of their barrel-aged beers of different ages blended together to produce a fascinating dry-sweet and sour beer, with a mouth-puckering lemony tartness and a complex mix of honey and fruit notes.

The best for me though was the very last keg of their Amuse Gooseberry, a Lambic-styled beer fermented in this case with gooseberries and aged in white wine barrels. Tart and lightly fruity with lemony and berry notes, it was delicious.

An interesting and enjoyable evening then - it certainly broadened my knowledge of wild yeast, and helped me make useful connections between some other stuff I’d already learnt. My thanks to Andrew Cooper for speaking so well and handling all the questions with aplomb and good humour!

*Although the brewery is quite a long way over from where I did my growing-up.
**I'm sure he gets fed up with the nominative determinism jokes.
***Brewdog is doing something similar, incidentally, building a whole separate brewery for its sours.

Friday 6 January 2017

Tapping the Tate

Late last summer I discovered that the Tate Modern – the ex-power station that’s now an art gallery on London’s South Bank – not only has a new extension with a bar in it, but that bar is bidding to become a craft beer destination, with a monthly series of tap take-overs where it hosts modern British brewers.

By Jim Linwood from London - The New Tate Modern Extension - London., CC BY 2.0,
Opened last June, the new extension is called the Switch House and looks like a tapering yet twisted tower. Apparently there was a bit of controversy over the design... The bar, on the ground floor – or at least, on the entrance level, which is not the same thing – is long and sort of L-shaped. It is also not cheap (330ml bottles & cans average £6, the new price-point for up-market venues), so the £10 tickets for the tap take-overs, where you can taste five of a brewery’s beers and also hear the brewer speak, are pretty decent value – especially given that you get a third of a pint of each beer, and the line-up typically includes a rarity or two.

On the downside, I’m told we are not likely to see cask beer at the Terrace Bar any time soon, as the ‘cellar’ is too far away, plus there isn’t enough free space on the bar-back to put a cask there on gravity. There’s two clusters of keg taps though, serving half a dozen beers plus what looks to be a triad of draught house wines, plus fridges with a decent collection of bottles and cans. The latter has a London focus, eg. Fourpure (which also brews the house beer, Switch House Pale Ale), Orbit, Kernel and Partizan.

I was over there a couple of months back for a tap take-over by Wild Beer, which I'll write about once I get my notes sorted out.