Saturday 29 February 2020

Brew//LDN serves up a worthy beer fashion show

If you thought that maybe the current fashions in craft beer were wearing thin, think again. At least, that’s my takeaway from an afternoon at Brew//LDN, the tradeshow-cum-beer festival at London’s  Old Truman Brewery this week. Almost every brewery stand seemed to feature at least two out of a “dessert beer”, a sour of some sort and a hazy IPA, and sometimes all three.

I suppose the popularity of dessert beers – by which I mean all those rich and dark concoctions from pastry stouts, through milk stouts and Baltic porters, to barrel-aged Imperials and so on – shouldn’t surprise. After all, I don’t expect dessert to go out of fashion either.

Still, it was a bit of a surprise to hear just how fast they can sell. For instance, I stopped by the London Beer Factory bar to hear from brewery rep James that they were down to their very last keg of Gateaublaster, their 11.1% Black Forest Gateau stout. “They’re not core, but people love them,” he said.

Barrel-aged Baltic Porter on cask!
It was a similar story at Fourpure, where I was told that “dessert beers are big business.” They had not one but two on – Into The Woods is a 5.9% ‘festive gingerbread ale’, while Midnight Diner is a 7.5% New York cheesecake stout. Oddly though, I found that while both were almost spot on in aroma terms, the flavours didn’t match up. Oh well.

Roll out the barrel

As already hinted at, another way to get that dessert quality is barrel-aging. This can be a tricky one to get right, ensuring that the barrel complements the beer rather than overwhelming it. One that definitely managed it was Double Agent from Legitimate Industries of Leeds – all its beers have ironic crime-related names. Although it had spent an amazing two years in bourbon barrels and could have been harsh as a result, Double Agent’s heavy body and 10.4% ABV had instead left it mellow and rich, with smooth vanilla and cocoa notes.

Whisky barrel aging also did the job for Good Chemistry Brewing’s Becoming North, which easily qualifies as dessert despite being a ‘mere’ 6% ABV. Its smooth chocolatey texture is a result of the bottom-fermentation, according to brewery co-founder Bob, and while Baltic porters can be overly sweet, in this case the woody warmth keeps that in balance.

Sour, not 'just a bit tangy'!

Tart and tangy currant Gose
As to the sours, there’s been way too many naff ‘fruited sours’ in the shops that’re basically just sweetish beery fruit juice. So I was pleased to find several here that were actually sour or tart – not as mouth-puckering as a Lambic or Flemish Red, say, but tart enough to be interesting. The first I tried was Blackcurrant Brine Springs, a fruited Gose – I normally find these fit that ‘naff’ category extremely well, but this one was a revelation. Coming from Redditch’s Lab Culture Brewing – yet another brewery new to me – it even uses local salt (from Droitwich, one of several historic English Spa towns). The key is that there’s enough of that and the tart currants for their flavours to shine through unsweetened.

The second I’ll mention isn’t actually a sour – it’s a raspberry Witbier. It comes from another newcomer, Möbru, which has taken over this and other fruited Witbiers from Elgood’s (who now brew them for Möbru). The nice thing is it’s not over-sweetened, allowing the tartness of the berries to complement the tang of the beer. 

And what of the hazy IPAs? I’d a few of these in Germany last week, where some modern craft brewers make almost nothing else, and there’s no sign they’re going away in the UK either – though fewer and fewer people seem to be using the ‘New England IPA’ label now. But while some are delicious, others are just fruity hop soup – and a few have been harsh, with unpleasantly clashing textures and flavours.

Mantis passionfruit IPA
Thankfully, none of today’s fell into the latter group – for example, there was passionfruit IPA Mantis, from new gypsy brewers Flowerhorn, which was deeply herbal and dank thanks to its mix of Mosaic and the new Strata hop, and lightly tart from the fruit. And then there was Kveik Your Eyes Peeled, from Dundee’s 71 Brewing, was estery, tart-dry and funky-sweet, no doubt thanks to the use of orange zest alongside the eponymous farmhouse yeast – though hey guys, it’s Kveik, not ‘kviek’, and Kveik means yeast so you don’t write ‘Kveik yeast’.

Ageing hops in hazy IPAs

Talking to various brewer folk both here and in Germany, it seems there’s a few keys to getting these bigly-hoppy hazy beers right. One is the right hops and brewkit, but perhaps more important is the way the hops age. Straight from the fermenter they can be dank and fresh for a couple of days, but then there’s a period of at least a week and maybe longer when they roughen, before smoothing out again. It’s all most odd, and I welcome any clarifications or additional info from those in the know!

Anyway, it was a good afternoon out with an amazing range of beers (plus some ciders and other drinks) from all over the country and around the world. Yes, there’s big brewers there too, but as equals – it’s not ‘their event’. There’s still two Saturday sessions to go, and you have tickets – Eventbrite seems to think “this event has ended” for some reason – you’re in luck.

Tuesday 4 February 2020

Raiding the Midlands for Winter Ales

It’s always fun when I can take part in judging for Champion Beer of Britain at the Great British Beer Festival, held every in London every August, but there’s one thing I always miss: dark beer. Sure, there’s plenty on the festival bars, but the judging for those categories takes place elsewhere and six months earlier.

Instead of GBBF, it’s at what used to be the National Winter Ales Festival but was renamed GBBF Winter a couple of years ago to reflect that it’s not just about winter ales. This travels around the country, spending a couple of years in each venue – which is usually somewhere in the English north or midlands.

So far I’ve been too lazy to schlep up to Derby, Norwich or wherever and pay for (or cadge) somewhere to stay, when there’s lots of good festival at the same time of year right on my doorstep. Yeah, I know – it’s horribly metropolitan of me!

This year though, I’m breaking my GBBF Winter ‘fast’, thanks to the coming together of two factors: first, it’s in Birmingham his year, less than two hours by train from London, and second, an invitation to judge dark beer at last! 

There’s minor snags, like CBoB judging being in the morning, and being self-funded. Which means I’ve either got to go up the night before and find accommodation, pay silly money for a rush-hour train, or get up at 5am for a train at a sensible price. So night-bus into the station it was, and here I am on a train heading for New Street, which I used regularly as a student but haven’t visited now for maybe 20 years.

Anyway, GBBF Winter 2020 opens this afternoon and runs until Saturday 8th Feb, so you still have time to get a ticket and make your way there! It’s at the New Bingley Hall, which is about 30 minutes walk (or a short bus ride) from New Street – I’m planning to walk as I’ve not seen Birmingham for so long.

It’ll be interesting to see how much the place has changed – maybe I will find myself planning to come back for a longer visit next time! And if you are coming to GBBF Winter this afternoon, maybe I’ll see you there. Cheers!