Wednesday 14 October 2015

What a Con

Drinking high strength ales in the middle of a Victorian swimming pool doesn’t sound like the safest place to be, does it? Thankfully the water has long been drained and it now makes for a spectacular venue to hold one of the UK’s hottest beer festivals; Indy Man Beer Con (IMBC). Manchester’s beautiful Victoria Baths are elegant and historic, stunning yet robust, sobering but still intoxicating. While there is little doubt that you could hold a beer festival in the middle of a pig farm and most people would still have fun, the location of IMBC plays a huge part in creating an inspiring atmosphere. Whether you are walking in the deep end of a swimming pool or playing hide and seek in one of the changing cubicles, it is impossible to take your eyes off the surroundings.   

Now in its fourth year, it is easy to see why IMBC has grown in success year on year. With the beautiful location comes equally beautifully crafted beers from breweries such as Wylam, Thornbridge, Magic Rock, Beavertown and Cloudwater to name but a few. It was noticeable that the majority of breweries had opted to pack out their bars with higher strength beers. Not something that I had any issue with personally but the inevitable buzz that occurs at all beery events, even to those with the most hollow of legs did arrive a little earlier than normally expected. That’s not to say that the more sessionable beers weren’t available, they were but you did have to keep your eyes peeled for them. 

Here are some of my beery highlights from the festival – 

-         Camden Town Brewery - Aussie Hopped Lager; One of the more sessionable brews. Sweet caramel biscuits meet hop charged punches of peat and fruits.
-         Cloudwater - Sour White Peach Sherry; Exactly as it says, sour peach blended perfectly with sweet, tangy sherry.   
-         Beavertown - Stingy Jack; Pumpkin ales aren’t for everyone but this one might just convert some. Crazy spices, sweet pumpkin and caramel lavished into a deep brown ale.  
-         Thornbridge - Eikenboom; Funky yeast takes this sweet, biscuity dark ale almost all the way to Belgium. 
-         Magic Rock - Dancing Bear Bavarian Extra Pils; This bear really does dance on your tongue. Doughy bread, honey, hay and bursts of citrus with a clean dry finish.       

Another bonus that was on offer was the festival’s very own canning line. This gave you the option of filling a can(s) with whatever beer you wanted and it would be sealed there. This may be a bit gimmicky but I did like having the option of taking away some of the best beers I’d tried on the day that weren’t necessarily for sale in bottle or can from the brewer. Moreover, as the beers were can sealed they lasted much longer than the usual growlers you can sometimes get filled as well as being easier and lighter to transport. When I got around to drinking my cans they tasted as fresh as when I’d had the beers at the festival. A small way of reviving the memories of a fantastic day.    

The day I spent at IMBC felt unfairly brief and fleeting. There was so much to take in, so much architecture to admire, so many interesting people to talk to and of course, so many great beers to try. I can completely understand why numerous people choose to get tickets for multiple sessions over the weekend. I shall be doing the same next year.  

A view from above

Almost exposed by the awesome Matt Curtis (@totalcurtis)

Jasper with the first pour of the Yuzu infused IHL

Hide and seek anyone?

The architectural gem - Victoria Baths

Monday 12 October 2015

Brewing with Big G

Last week I was extremely privileged to be a part of a select few brewers, bloggers, industry insiders and all round beer geeks that were invited along to UBREW to join Brooklyn Brewery’s Brewmaster: Garrett Oliver in brewing a special, small batch of beer while he was on a whistle stop tour of London. The event organised by Brooklyn Brewery was a dream day for any beer nerd. Watching first hand one of the most pinnacle figures in the US craft beer movement work his magic with as much enthusiasm as the first brew he ever made was an enlightenment.

To Garrett’s praise, he had decided not to brew the obvious choice of an American IPA (which I’m sure everyone would have been more than happy with) but instead decided to tilt his trademark straw hat to his surroundings and brew a traditionally inspired English Pale Ale. Furthermore, the ingredients were far from obvious or easily sourced. The brew used Plumage-Archer malt, a malt used in the pale ales brewed in England back at the beginning of the 20th Century and known for its outstanding brewing qualities. An addition of dark crystal malt was also added to add dark fruit and brown sugar flavours as well as an amber depth in the brews colour. The hops used were Canterbury White Bine, a variety of Golding and once considered the best of the English hops when originally grown in Surrey. The hops were so fresh that they had been picked that morning and were not delivered until after the brew had already begun. We all got to smell the hops (as well as add some to the brew) which promise to add deep floral notes. The final addition to the brew was Burton Ale Yeast which promise to add fruit and honey flavours.
This brew should come in at approximately 7% abv and will be dry hopped after fermentation to give it plenty of kick.

Observing Garrett’s constant smile as he took pride and joy in his work, it was clear for all to see that this was not just a job or a hobby but his life’s passion. Something that I’m sure many in the room could connect with.  

As if watching the brew take place was not enough, we were also treated to samples of specially selected Ghost Bottles. These are a limited collection of champagne bottled beers brewed by Brooklyn Brewery that rarely see the light of day, let alone make it into circulation. Most have been barrel aged with added ingredients such as cherries. 

Here is a quick run-through of the beers we sampled -

-        Dark Matter; A Brown ale aged in Woodford Reserve Bourbon barrel. The ageing adds huge depth to this rich ale full of dark fruits and roasted malts. Extremely smooth and subtle flavours mislead the senses from the 8% abv.

-        Wild Horse; A 7% Brett aged Porter. This was bursting with dark chocolate, dark/sharp fruits, toffee and bitter coffee. The rich, velvety texture of this proves that Brett doesn’t necessarily mean sour.

-        Bel Air Kettle Sour; A dry hopped sour coming in at 7%. Spicy, tangy, sour and sweet. A lovely combination of tart orange, floral hop and spice.

-        K is for Kriek; A sour aged in Bourbon barrels, this time a mere 10%. Packed full of sweet honey and caramel, bitter orange, sour cherries and boozy Bourbon. An absolute delight and way too easy to drink.

-        Hand & Seal; A 13% Barley Wine aged in Cognac barrels. Vanilla, floral hop and dark fruits are all brought together by the sweet Cognac. Again, way too easy to drink. A Bourbon aged version of this is available to buy which I shall be hunting out.   

A big thank you to Garrett, Rachael and Brooklyn Brewery for arranging this and letting me be a part of it. I cannot wait to try the finished product. 

Thursday 1 October 2015

My New Favourite

A few months back a friend of mine told me he was planning a visit to Stockholm in September to attend their Beer and Whisky Festival. In fact, he’s exact words were ‘it’s the best fucking festival I’ve ever been to’. Seeing as he works for a London brewery and gets to attend numerous beer festivals and events I thought this was quite the statement. Roll on a week or two, in a pub, having a few too many jars for a school night with the same friend and the dangers of having a British Airways app on my phone are exposed. Before I know it, the flights are booked. Around comes September and we’re all on an early flight to Stockholm (beer in hand of course) and the anticipation is growing. 

I have been told by many how beautiful Stockholm is. Unfortunately, I barely got to see any of the city. So good was the festival I was to return every day, spending all afternoon and evening being made to feel like a belonged there.
The festival is primarily made up of craft breweries from around Sweden as well as others from around the globe including distributors representing multiple European, US, New Zealand and Australian craft breweries. Just to round things off there was even a few larger, mainstream brands there although it goes without saying that these stands were far quieter than the others.

Unlike most beer festivals this had more of an exhibition feel to it with each brewery, merchant or distributor having set-up their own stand. These stands were not just some taps attached to a table and a couple of posters thrown up on the surrounding walls. Each stand was in its own right a piece of art. With varying meticulous set-ups from huge wooden bars with cask handles serving the beers to modern tap bars with wall upon wall of fridges containing more beer than you could dream about.

Once we’d had been drawn in by the niftily designed stands the staff knew how to keep us there. Most had staff representing their brewery who wanted to talk to about the beers, the brewery and know what everyone thought. This alone was a breath of fresh air. My beer geekiness could run free. 

As for the most important thing of all; the beer. Overall it was flawless. As I mentioned, there were a few mainstream stands that you could argue bring the overall standard down. But I know their stuff, I know I don’t like it so I simply chose to avoid them. No harm done. Most other people seemed to be doing the same. As for the craft beer on show, it included the likes of New Zealand’s Garage Project, US brewers Brooklyn, Hilliards, Ballast Point and Modern Times, UK brewers Beavertown, London Beer Factory and Marble and Norwegian favourites Amundsen. These alone are enough to keep even the most high demanding beer snob happy. However I think it is important to focus on the fantastic Swedish breweries that were showcasing. Unfortunately in the UK we get very little Swedish beers despite the amazing beer scene they have. I feel lucky to have had my eyes opened to the likes of  Brygghuset Finn, Brutal Brewing, Gotlands Bryggeri, NYA Carnegiebryggeriet and The Swedish Brewing Co to name but a few. With varying takes on just about every style of beer these brewers really flexed the Swedish beer muscle.

One final point that I cannot go without mentioning is that the beers were not the only things catching people’s eyes. We all know the stereotype of Swedes being vastly more attractive than is humanly acceptable. Well, countless stands were using this to their advantage. Whether it be a male or female working on the stand. While three of us were busy making lists of our favourite beers and stands, my forth friend was busy getting neck ache and making note of his favourite staff and stands while phasing the term ‘my new favourite’. Take this information as you please, I don’t want it to take anything away from what is an amazing festival regardless. It simple was very funny chatting to brewers in depth about their beer while overhearing my rather crude friend tell another brewer why he liked the Irish Whisky or San Miguel stand so much. I couldn’t help but laugh.

Coming away from what was one of the best weekends of the year for me, I can honestly say this festival is ‘my new favourite’. For anyone attending the second weekend, enjoy! For everyone that is not, why not?? Get yourselves there, this year, next year, the year after. Just get there.

Below are a few local favourites brews I discovered over the weekend –

·        Swedish Brewing Company; Sixies & Sevens Pale Lager.
Not every beer has to blow your head off with hops for it to be good. This lager subtly uses 5 different hops to give a well-balanced, sessionable beer that has enough tropical fruits going on to make you go back for more.  
·        NYA Carnegiebryggeriet; Kellerbier. Honey gives this a unique sweetness on the herbal/grass hop base to create a fantastic session beer.
·        Brygghuset Finn; Brown Ale. An award winner combing roasted malts, nuts, fudge and chocolate. It shouldn’t be easy to drink but it is.
·        Gotlands Bryggeri; Bulldog Double IPA. As tough as the names suggests. Intense tropical fruits, pine and caramel throughout. These guys have a host of IPAs that are all outstanding but this one just about edged it for me.

Monday 17 August 2015

How Does CAMGB Sound?

Last week saw London breweries, industry insiders and good beer drinkers unite for London Beer City, a celebration of great beer across the city. The week-long celebration included daily events held at breweries, bars and pubs such as food and beer matching evenings, beer talks, brewing collaborations, t-shirt printing and bottle label designing. However, the undoubted star attractions were the two beer festivals: The Great British Beer Festival (GBBF) held at London Olympia and London Craft Beer Festival (LCBF) held at Oval Space. GBBF, now in its 38th year is the world’s largest cask ale festival, showcasing over 900 beers predominantly cask ales from around the British Isles but also from around the globe including German and Czech lagers and bottled beers from Belgian and the US amongst others. Now into its 3rd year LCBF is (in some respect) the polar opposite to GBBF, serving up an array of what we know as ‘craft beer’ from 19 UK craft breweries as well as European brewers such as Edge Brewing from Spain, Omnipollo from Sweden and US craft kings Stone Brewing and Founders. Being a ‘craft beer’ festival almost all beers are served from keg with Redemption Brewery serving cask being the only exception (Okay, Stone did have a few bottles of barrel aged beers too).

Before I give any opinion I may have on either festival it is worth me mentioning that I am a CAMRA member, have been for years, I drink cask beer on a regular basis and it was very much the route I took into drinking good beers before there was any craft beer revolution. I also drink more than my fair share of keg beers and of course bottled beers when at home. For me it is about the quality of the beer itself more than how it is served. Some beers are better on cask whereas others are better keg. Some are even better from the bottle or can. I believe you have to trust the brewer to do his/her job and serve the beer how he/she would want it enjoyed.

Starting with GBBF, I went along to the trade session on Tuesday. I have been to many CAMRA organised festivals in the past but this was actually my time attending GBBF. I had always been put off by stories of the beers running out come the weekend sessions so hoped by being there on the Tuesday I wouldn’t have any issue of beers running out. Divided by location, the vast array of beers on offer can be very overwhelming. Due to the intense heat on that day I opted to start with some refreshing German lagers. I had been told very good tales of how good some of the lagers on offer are and I was not disappointed. So good was my first that I had to go back for a second and then a third. Despite the temperature increasing inside the vast building, it was time to put the wide variety of cask ales to the test. This was a CAMRA festival after all. This is where my issues began. Wanting to try some beers that are not widely available in my local pubs I began by trying some ales from Yorkshire, the midlands and Cornwall. While the taste of these beers was mostly pleasant each was served warm and flat. Concerned that maybe it was just the UK beers that had an issue I then tried a US beer on cask. Again, very tasty beer but again warm and almost completely flat. In one last attempt to save the day I went for a fairly local beer that is very highly regarded and I have enjoyed many times in local pubs. This was the worst beer of the day. Warm, flat and tasting of almost nothing but paper. This was also confirmed by the friend I was with who just happens to be a brewer from a very well established London brewery. Enough was enough, it was now time to send the beer back. When explaining that the beer was dead, warm and completely flat the response was ‘well this is English beer, its meant to be warm and flat’. Unbelievable. I don’t like to make presumptions but the look I was given is the look I’ve been given so many times before by elder beer drinkers that implies ‘you youngsters couldn’t possible know anything about beer, now take your silly haircut somewhere else’. Most of the service I had had up to this point in the day had been quite rude and unhelpful but this shocked me. The misconception that cask ales are warm and flat would only be fueled when it is served in this way. By this time I had now given up on the cask and was more than happy to pay £10+ for a bottle for imported US IPA. This experience really bothered me though. If I was having this struggle than surely everyone else was too? Those coming from all around the country and from abroad to experience good beer. From what I had seen and tasted this was not an example of that.

Up to now I have not given the names of the beers that I was drinking as I do not believe the poor quality was down to the beer itself but simply how it was being stored and served. However, I must say that the Fullers bar was the only exception of the day (for me at least). While they may not have been perfect nor as good as the pint I get served at my local Fullers pub, they were at least served below room temperature and lightly carbonated. So what was the issue with all these beers? Had I managed to find the only 8 or so beers amongst the hundreds that were being badly served? While the (Olympia) building is an impressive sight, with its glass roof it was extremely hot inside. No doubt attempting to keep the beers chilled in this heat is a struggle but this is the largest cask ale festival in the world…surely more effort needs to be made?

Come Friday and I was attending the trade day of LCBF. This was my second year attending and after the disappointment of GBBF I was extremely excited for this and overall it did not disappoint. The organisers had made the good decision of ditching the beer tokens of previous years and opting for unlimited 90ml pours of any beer you wanted. While there were times when you would have preferred a larger pour than this to really get stuck in and there was times when the beers were so good that the 90ml seemed to only last a few seconds leading you to return to a stand for a top-up before you had a chance to update you Untappd, I personally like this set-up. It is a great opportunity to try as many different beers as is possible in 5 hours. Overall the quality of the beers on offer was brilliant. Almost all being keg beers they were being served perfectly chilled and carbonated. For the style of beers on offer it worked perfectly. Redemption Brewery was the exception to this, serving cask beer. Unlike earlier in the week their beers were not flat, tasteless nor warm. CAMRA take note. In addition to the flawless beers on offer, the staff working each stand were friendly, informative and served the beer with a smile on their face. Dare I say it, they seemed to be enjoying themselves! Everyone that I spoke to was happy to discuss the beers, brewery, the event itself and even recommend beers to try from other breweries. Isn’t this what the beer community should be like?

LCBF is still a small beer festival in comparison to the likes of GBBF but they seemed to have laid good foundations. As it expands it would be great to see more cask on offer. Maybe the likes of Five Points Brewing Co and Sambrooks Brewery hosting stands that offer both keg and cask beers? We can but dream. With this may come more mid-strength, milder beers. As one notable style missing from the beers on offer (and in the craft beer scene in general…sometimes) is that. As I have mentioned those diehard CAMRA folk that exclude the new wave of craft beer drinkers it is only right to recognise that maybe the reverse is happening to the smaller extend too. It is important to remember that there are those who have been drinking beers since before many of us were in diapers. Many of these enjoy a smooth bitter or a light pale rather than the hopped forward, astronomical ABV beers that dominate the beer scene now. Some craft beer wankers need to remember that great tasting beers isn’t something that only happened in the last few years.  

Comparing these two festivals may not be a fair comparison. One is a huge, committee run festival with an even bigger legacy. The other is the new guy just trying to get himself heard.  Both represent the growing popularity of good beer which is a great thing. But they also demonstrate the division that is within the beer community. Why are CAMRA happy to showcase lagers from Germany and Czech Rep served on keg but not those brewed on home soil? Why do they have Belgian and U.S. stands with bottled beers but not one bottle from breweries less than one mile down the road? What is CAMRA’s issue with ‘craft beer’? Moreover, they are even happy for certain large brewers to be present that definitely do not make good quality ale *cough-Green King-cough*. It is understandable that when CAMRA was founded any beer on tap tended to be watery swirl and for a decent pint you had to opt for real ale and they wanted to protect this, hence their name. But times have changed. Some of the most exciting, flavourful beers are coming out of kegs. This takes nothing away from cask beers. There will always be a place for cask beers (when served correctly) and I for one will remain a member of CAMRA in support of what they continue to do for it.         

In the same respect, the craft beer community would do well to remember that not everybody wants their heads blown off by hops. Some just want an easy drinking yet flavourful experience.

Earlier this year we saw the birth of the Brewers Association. With this I hope comes the blurring of the line between ‘Craft’ and ‘CAMRA’. If beer is going to be defined surely it should only be on whether it is good or bad? Beer should unite people not divide them. CAMRA saved good beer is Britain, helped inspire the US craft beer scene which in turn inspired the UK craft beer scene. There would not be this craft beer revolution without CAMRA. Roll on the day when we see all beer styles at GBBF. But as the wise man Roger Protz once said ‘CAMRA is like a big oil tanker. It takes a long time to turn it around’. Change will take time. Is it time for Campaign for Great Beer?