A little bit of Bohemia in North London

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Bohem Brewery founders: Zdenek Kudr and Petr Skocek (l-r)

When he found the price of beer increasingly too expensive and believed the quality to be deteriorating the answer for one North Londoner was to start brewing his own.

Although living in the north of the capital Petr Skocek is actually a native of Pilsen in the Czech Republic so he is steeped in beer and it is therefore not so surprising that his choice of first style of beer to brew was a Pilsner.

Production of what became Victoria Pilsner (4.2%) officially began in May 2105 when he teamed up with another Czech native Zdenek Kudr and they took on the lease of a tiny retail unit as the base for their brewing venture that they named Bohem Brewery.

Bohem Sparta in The Prince, N22

My recent visit to the brewery was not prompted by Victoria but by the second beer to come on-stream – Sparta (5.4%), so named after the Prague-based football team – which Skocek describes as being rather Dunkel-like or half-lager-esque. It’s certainly a bit of a mongrel, with its unusual combination of Pilsner and Munich malts mixed in with East Kent Goldings and Saaz hops.

It was during a visit to The Prince pub in London’s N22, around the corner from Bohem’s site, when I discovered that Skocek’s unfiltered Sparta delivers a wonderfully chewy, full-bodied flavour that has its bitterness but this is combined with a lovely offset of caramel sweetness. It’s deliciously addictive and whereas bands often have problems with second albums the pair at Bohem have certainly released a winner with their follow up to Victoria.

Apart from The Prince, distribution of Bohem’s beers is pretty limited at the moment – with Alexandra Park FC taking kegs and individual customers buying its 18 pint kegs that maintain the carbonation levels throughout the pour.

This is just as well because the pair are only brewing part-time – twice a week with an output of a modest three barrels. However, bottles are just about to be made available and the big news is that a second retail unit has been taken that will house a tap room, which at only 20 sq m will be run on similar lines to a micro-pub.

“This will move us forward. At the moment it’s just a hobby whereby we start the brew before going to work and then finish it off after work,” he says.

Skocek with modest brew kit

The tap room will be a showcase for Bohem, which Skocek admits has him presently working hard at creating some more beers as the idea is to have six on the go when the tap room opens in a couple of months.

Just off the production line is a rich Oatmeal stout (5.5%) that has a smooth mouth-feel that almost convinces the drinker that it has lactose in the mix. There is also a Belgian blonde beer that is part way through its development with the early iteration having a typical candy sugar characteristic but without that distinct Belgian yeast component. Skocek says it will eventually be dialled up to 7%. Another beer will be a lighter lager with less bitterness than Victoria and a slightly heavier 4.8% ABV.

The tap room will certainly make a big difference because Kudr fully recognises that the way to be profitable as a micro-brewery is to sell as much of your output direct to the customer rather than through third-parties.

Early bottles and Be;gian blonde on trial

“We want our own pubs. It’s the best way for small breweries to operate. For us it is more profitable to sell two kegs direct than it is to sell nearly eight to a pub. There are three-and-a-half times more profits this way,” he says.

Such profitability is absolutely vital of course for the longevity of Bohem, as it is for all start-up breweries, and it will ensure that I can continue to enjoy the delights of Sparta.

Glynn Davis, editor of Beer Insider

 

The Craft Beer Co. remains resolutely committed to cask

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The Craft Beer Co. Clerkenwell groaning with Redemption cask

Cask ale will continue to be an integral part of the offer on the bars of The Craft Beer Co., according to its founder Martin Hayes, who says he is disappointed by those brewers ceasing production of cask and suggests too many decisions in the industry are purely money motivated.

“It saddens me that some pubs have no cask and that brewers are stopping making it. It bothers me a lot. It’s just about the money, with people willing to pay more for keg. But it’s our heritage and the purest form of craft beer. It’s sad how many great breweries are stopping brewing cask ale,” he says.

Whereas craft beer has been an antidote to the large multinational brewers’ output, Hayes suggests that smaller brewers “buying into the idea that craft beer is keg beer is nonsense and simply moves them into the industrial brewers’ area of the market”.

He also points to the situation where customers seem historically wedded to only paying a certain limited amount of money for cask, while willingly paying large premiums for keg, and as a result of this he accuses some brewers of only producing keg because of these greater margins available.

Hayes also believes some craft beer bars are contributing to the current demise-of-cask scenario by only paying low sums for their beer – especially cask. For these specific venues he says they ultimately end up with “lots of cheap beer” on their bars. Serious question marks hang over the quality of the offer.

In contrast, he says: “The Craft Beer Co. has never bought on price. I’m maybe not a typical operator but I never have just bought on price. We only buy on quality. But if I found other people were being charged less then that would be unacceptable.”

“Brewing beer is about love and should not just be about price. I understand why it is happening in the industry but it’s disappointing,” he says, pointing to the fact that at two of his outlets – in Pimlico and Clerkenwell – cask accounts for a healthy 60% of beer sales.

Glynn Davis, editor of Beer Insider

 

New Vintage Ale House pushes beer boundaries in Balham

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It seems that hardly a day goes by when I don’t either visit or hear about a bar, pub, bottle shop or even a cafe that has a beer selection that I would have travelled the length of the country to visit five years ago. The reality is that today we are inundated with quality venues for drinking beer that would have been a dream a handful of years back.

A recent visit to Balham proved the point as this South London area now has a We Brought Beer store and bar with a terrific selection that can be taken away or drunk on the modestly-sized premises. But what really highlights how far we’ve travelled with beer is the recently opened Vintage Ale House that has been brought to the UK by US-based Goose Island Beer Company.

This is a sizeable advance forward. So much so in fact that its move might be a little too much at this stage in the UK’s burgeoning love affair with beer. At its heart – as the name suggests – is the selection of seven vintage ales that really make this place stand out from other beer-focused establishments.

The prized ales are all housed in 750ml bottles. They range in price from £18 to £23. They are high in alcohol – moving upwards from 6.5% to 9.5%. And they are all ‘wild ales’ – i.e. fermented with wild yeasts – and aged in various wooden barrels.

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This certainly describes a very different proposition to that of most bars in the UK. The idea behind the concept is that people will share the beers and consume them alongside the bar’s American influenced cuisine.

Let’s be clear here, all these beers are terrifically complex and have many different layers and textures. On the menu is Halia – a 7.5% farmhouse ale aged in wine barrels with whole peaches that has a balanced peach sweetness that comes through the Brett. Meanwhile, Gillian has been partially aged in wine barrels to create a 9.5% ale that has strawberry notes wafting through in the finish. And Madame Rose is the Rodenbach-style beer of the grouping with its character derived from ageing on sour Michigan cherries in wine barrels for two years.

To the true beer lover the complex characteristics of these ales absolutely justify the chunky price tags attached to them. But for those people yet to be fully convinced of the full virtues of beer there will definitely need to be some education and guidance given by the team serving in the bar. There are of course other beers on offer but the very modest selection – with only four draught brews and eight in bottles or cans – clearly identifies the vintage ales as the key focus.

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It is also arguable that only having Goose Island beers on tap is limiting the options a little too much for many drinkers. But this is to some extent likely to be an objective of the bar: the idea being that this UK outpost for the US brewer is aiming to give British drinkers a flavour of Goose Island in an environment that the brewery has total control over. It’s certainly a beautiful room for sure, with the high level of service that you’d expect from the Americans.

It is still very early days for this interesting venture, which will undoubtedly go through a number of iterations before it settles down, and finds its place and Balham. It must also be remembered that the metrics of success will undoubtedly be different to other new bars because Goose Island is owned by the rather well-resourced AB-InBev.

Glynn Davis, editor of Beer Insider

 

Around Town with Amateur Drinker

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As this column covers The Christmas Lunch Month, it seems appropriate to dedicate it to the poet Gavin Ewart, the all-time legend of Lunch With The FT: “The combination led to some memorable encounters, most notably a liquid lunch of biblical proportions at the Cafe Royal between Nigel Spacey, a Cambridge don and freelance FT writer, and Gavin Ewart, the 79-year-old poet.

The next day, Spivey received a call from Mrs Ewart, saying that her husband had returned home happier than she had seen him in years, before adding: “The second thing and you are not to feel bad about this, is that he died this morning.”

Onto the beers…Stirbergets, from Gothenburg, have been generating a lot of excitement and rave reviews so it was great to see them at The Bottle Shop. Two IPA’s, the Amazing Haze and the GBG Beer Week special, were stunning, and more than justified the hype.

The same venue saw the official launch, from Burning Sky, of the 2016 Cuvee, the Saison Reserve and their first ever Imperial Stout. It is testimony to the quality of this Sussex brewery that so many of the great and good of the London scene were in attendance and the beers showed why, ably demonstrating their trademark subtlety.

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Goose Island opened their Vintage Ale House in Balham. This is a food-based venture, with a tapas bar vibe, and indeed served an excellent Cubano sandwich, that Jon Favreau would have been proud of.

The draught range was not particularly inspiring, but they have a fantastic cellar of wild, sour bottled beers, most notably Madame Rose (Kriek-esque), and the tart, berry Juliet as well as Lolita (think Framboise). There is much to commend here and it is clearly backed by the parent company’s immense power. However, I think the concept needs tweaking slightly: I don’t think casual diners, used to wine, will be experimental enough to jump into 750ml bottles of sour beer, while the keg offerings need improvement for the serious drinker (are they allowed to take guest beers?).

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The Thinker at the Vintage Ale House

Overall, though, this is a courageous and interesting idea. They clearly want to roll it out and, with a couple of minor changes it would be an excellent addition to any neighbourhood.

Moor are one of my favourite brewers, but as their popularity has deservedly risen, I increasingly find it hard to find their beers on keg in London (I can’t remember when I last saw Old Freddy Walker), and so I was delighted to discover their Tap Takeover of Bermondsey’s Eebria, especially as they were bringing the last keg of JJJ, which I have been searching for a while now.

The beer was delicious, although with a dangerously hidden ABV. They also brought a wonderful spiced porter, but unfortunately your correspondent had rather too much JJJ to be able to adequately note its name [This is the first admittance we’ve heard of Amateur Drinker over-consuming so he must have been bad – Ed

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Source: Beer Guide London

A quick word about Eebria. The staff were passionate and knowledgeable and it is clearly a serious player in the beer world, so why on earth did they serve us with plastic cups?

The King’s Arms played a small part in Bierre del Ducato’s Rivelazioni Acide event, offering Frambozschella, a raspberry sour and Beersel Morning, a blend of Ducatos Saison and 18-month old Beersel Lambic. Northern Monk also brought down exceptional one-off beers for a Tap Takeover. I loved the blueberry black IPA, particularly as it is a style that I often find disappointing.

However, the list was unbalanced, particularly for a Wednesday night, as the other 5 beers consisted of 3 DIPA (the best was Double Heathan) and 2 imperial porters from their Patrons Project range (I preferred the coffee 1.01 to the smoked honey 2.01).

And finally, 2 days after they had received the most coveted and prestigious award of all (http://beerinsider.com/amateur-drinker-awards-for-2016/), the pub celebrated 2016 by putting on a fantastic list for New Year’s Eve: Modern Times Fruitlands, Alpine Duet IPA, Cloudwater’s V10 DIPA and Brooklyn Black Ops Imperial Stout were 4 amongst equals.

The Old Fountain invited Beerbliotek (Not Guilty an OJ IPA, and Eternal Darkness, an imperial stout their best) to take over the blackboards, before ending the month with a lovely Xmas Charity Event.

The list of brewers donating beer was a Who’s Who of London, whilst the Raffle saw prizes of fabulous wines, whiskeys and a signed Lionel Messi shirt. I won a bottle of women’s perfume. Interestingly, there has been a clear rise in more discerning beer drinkers, as they desperately need to order more of the stemmed half-pint glasses.

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More of these glasses please.

December saw the launch of Affinity, which has a great pedigree and started brightly. However, going forward, let’s hope they spend more time on brewing and less on naming beers from sixth form politics, especially, as they are now small business owners, and so are part of the class, that the politician that their Red IPA commemorates, despises.

Brewdog Clerkenwell entertained Magic Rock (mainly old favourites, but good to try the Wayniac collaboration with Cigar City for the first time), on the same day as the bi-annual London Brewers’ market event at Spitalfields. A couple of weeks later it was good to see the location acknowledged as the Ten Dollar Shake and Brimful Of Masha were included in their Birthday Bash.

Finally, I hope 2017 brings everyone the beer of their dreams…

Reporting from the front-line – Amateur Drinker manages to get along to all the beer things you’d like to but couldn’t because you’re not committed enough

Pioneering Zero Degrees retains its relevancy

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Zero Degrees: still shining bright

Way back in 2000 was around the time I recall visiting Zero Degrees brewery in Blackheath, on the edge of London, after its creation by some pioneering nuts. It was only recently that I made a (seriously belated) return visit.

So much water has passed through the mash tun since then that the scene today is almost unrecognisable to the brewing wasteland back then. There has been a renaissance in brewing in London and Zero Degrees should not be forgotten about in the story. Its beers were among the first decent keg ales around.

They helped give keg beer a good name – much to the chagrin of CAMRA – for the first time in living memory. It was a delight to sample versions of Continental-style beers – Pilsners, wheat beers, red ales, lagers etcetera – that could only really be found overseas.

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Returning to the scene of my early tasting of ‘decent keg’ that I’d enjoyed so much all those years back was both enjoyable and odd in equal measures. The former because the beers in the main remain enjoyable and the latter because so much has changed around Zero Degrees. The reality is that it is inevitably playing catch-up to some extent as the young brewing upstarts now set the pace.

The brew house aspect of Zero Degrees looks rather similar to my first visit (as much as my memory holds up that is) but the rest of the room is very different, with its mish-mash of elements that are rather like a Jackson Pollock creation in 3D.

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The core beers are certainly reminiscent of the early days with a Pilsner, Pale Ale, Wheat Ale, and a Black Lager all present. A nod to the present scene can be seen with the Mango beer, which is refreshing I have to admit, but the fact it contains mango concentrate lets it down.

What does excite though is the #FirstSips initiative that has been recently introduced. This involves speciality beers – that are produced by each of the four Zero Degrees outlets (Blackheath, Bristol, Cardiff and Reading) each month – being distributed between each other.

Each month four new brews are introduced (that run to 1,000 litres each) and which are available until the batch runs out. On my return visit (in November) Marzen Oktoberfest had run out but Amber Lager, IPL, Belgian Pale and Marietto’s Dunkel were still featured as the #FirstSips beers on offer.

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By running such an initiative the Zero Degrees brewpub is very much following the trend among small brewers to produce a constant stream of new beers, while also adhering to the need for a bar to offer a great variety of beers, and in addition it is also highlighting that 17 years on the pioneering operator still remains relevant and can on its day pump out some beers as good as the rest of them.

Glynn Davis, editor of Beer Insider

 

Amateur Drinker – Awards for 2016

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A few thoughts on 2016 as the year comes to a close…

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Best Pub:

King’s Arms, E2

After checking my previous blogs, this category did not prove as hard as I anticipated. Possibly because its location is slightly off the beaten track, but no pub has made more effort this year.

The big headlines come from the Tap Takeovers and a year which starts with Rodenbach and finished with Arizona Wild oozes quality, but where they have really stood out has been the standard of their every-day lists.

They are always well-balanced but consistently there are unexpected gems: Three Floyd’s/Amager Artic Sunstone, Pohjala Mutant Disco and Green Flash Tangerine Souls Style IPA, the only keg of Cloudwater Sevilla Sour at the beginning of the year and many, many other delights.

Honourable mentions to my local, The Old Fountain in EC1 and to The Duke’s Head, Highgate. Both deliver great beer, but are also rooted in their community.

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Rainbow Project top brew – Adambier

Best Event:

Beavertown Tempus (for tasting) and Rainbow Project (for partying)

The easiest category by far, as it neatly sums up the major trend of 2016 and also shows how a near-perfect response when things do not go as smoothly as we would wish.The ever-rising popularity of craft beer leading to logistic issues was first highlighted in the over-crowding that marred Beavertown’s 4th birthday/valentine’s bash.

However, their reaction was outstanding: The Tempus events were excellent on a smaller scale but the first big party was absolutely faultless: Ticketed at a meaningful price, with staggered start-times and free-pure beer led to no queues and a fantastic party.

Honourable mention to Matt Curtis who always organises passionate and idiosyncratic evenings (Burn’s night, Darker Days three matching stouts to Ghanian street-food and a celebration of 1980’s  electronic music are as different as it gets) and to the Kernel’s horizontal tasting using six different version of their single-hop pale ale each brewed using an identical recipe, but with the single hop changing each time.

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Source: CAMRGB

Most Improved UK Brewer:

Four Pure

Although it’s great that London now has 80+ brewers, I have long felt that the hierarchy has been too stable at various levels behind the obvious big two. Finally, that changed in the summer as Four Pure made a spectacular advance, announced by two superb beers, Shapeshifter, the best British APA I’ve yet had, and JuiceBox, a Citrus IPA that brought many new converts into the craft beer world during the summer.  We now need at least two or three others to make a similar leap in 2017.

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Best Improvement to a Friday Night:

The Bottle Shop opening every week

Any round-up of the London scene must include The Bottle Shop and the decision to open every Friday was especially welcome given the queues that now exist on the B******* B*** M***.

From the UK, Scandinavia or the US, there were too many great tap takeovers to mention here but I’m sure anyone reading this enjoyed at least one of them.

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Zwanze 2016 on the right

Beer of the Year

An almost impossible category given the variety of styles, circumstances that they are drunk in, and whether it is festival beer where you want something different or a regular beer where you want reliability. A few to mention (and the list would doubtless be different in a week’s time). In no particular order:

Rodenbach’s gorgeous Caractere Rouge

Obviously, the Kernel’s London Damson Sour and the raspberry version of their imperial brown stout

Hawkshead/Crooked Stave Key Lime Tau

Magic Rock Grand Mariner bearded lady imperial stout.

Beavertown Double Chin, Notorious, and any Tempus

Sori Delirious

Omnipollo Mud Pecan Stout and Bianca Mango Lassi Gose soft serve, especially as the latter was topped with a soft serve ice cream at a very sunny LCBF

Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier Märzen, a glorious smoked beer from Brauerei Heller in Bamberg, Bavaria at GBBF

Zwanze 2016, an exquisite Framboise

Firestone Walker aged imperial stouts, the glorious vanilla, coconut and mocha Velvet Merkin and the El Diablo espresso Parabajava.

Modern times City Of The Sun IPA

Anagram Blueberry Cheesecake, an imperial stout that was a stunning aromatic and decadent dessert beer

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Brewery of the Year:

 Modern Times

The best West Coast IPA of the year was City Of the Sun whilst the Fruitlands sour series are continually innovative and excellent.

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Brexit beer mats: you can’t read them? Good.

Disappointment of the Year:

Nothing can match the personal devastation late on Xmas eve as Derek Carr broke his fibula and effectively destroyed the Raider’s Super Bowl dreams. But in the context of beer the disappointment of the year was the attempt to mix beer and politics. We saw childish beer mats in a well-known pub-chain and tweets from an excellent Northern brewer worrying about the effects of a fall in sterling on their exports (sic)!

 

2017 resolution:

To be able to drink a beer that Andrew Morgan (MD of The Bottle Shop) hasn’t yet tried. Unfortunately, I am more likely to climb Everest, star in a Hollywood blockbuster and take over as Apple CEO (concurrently).

2017 wish list:

When I visited Warsaw, every bar had their tap-lists live and updated in real time on the internet. Indeed in a couple of cases they also included information about how long the beer had been on for.
It is ludicrous that London, a far richer city that derives a significant portion of its wealth from technology, be it in Silicon Roundabout (surely one of the after-work drinkers could do it in lieu for the Old Fountain!) or City dealing rooms, can’t do the same.

Finally, I wish everyone a great 2017 and apologies for any worthy winner that I have forgotten in a drunken haze!

Reporting from the front-line – Amateur Drinker manages to get along to all the beer things you’d like to but couldn’t because you’re not committed enough.

Around Town with Amateur Drinker

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After my observation last month regarding stouts it is gratifying to report that a fantastic event was recently dedicated to the style at the Duke’s Head in Highgate and two wonderful examples of barrel-aged stouts were released by Beavertown.

‘Darker Days’ was the third annual celebration of that colour of beer that Matthew Curtis has hosted at the Duke’s Head as winter approaches. This year beers from Five Points and Brew By Numbers were matched to Ghanaian cooking from Chale-Let’s Eat, who were the pub’s November monthly kitchen pop-up rotation.

Among the innovative pairings were: Beef Azi Desi, a glorious spicy stew of steak, peanuts and okra, with Brew By Numbers excellent 08/02 imperial stout; chocolate brownie with Five Points Railway porter; and cheese with BBNo 14/03 Tripel Ella Belgian Triple.

These events are a triumph and the only reason not to recommend them unreservedly in future would be a purely Machiavellian desire not to miss out on tickets!

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As a beer consumer, the recent explosion of craft options in supermarkets has been very welcome, especially as we are being gouged by Sterling’s recent depreciation, and this month saw Tesco announce that it now sells 30 different brands at each of its 400 Express outlets, all cold-stored.

Moreover, I was recently pleasantly surprised by the offerings in M&S in Moorgate, which included Lervig Hoppy Joe red ale, and IPA’s from Northern Monk and Stone Berlin, which even 3-5 years ago would have been a pretty good haul in even the most specialist of outlets.

To stay with the supermarkets, but slightly digressing from beer, the epicurean disaster of the month came at Waitrose, Barbican, which has been refurbished for a trial project. This consists of ripping out the continental-style Ham and Cheese counter and halving the fresh meat and fish equivalents. This has been at the cost of losing many lines of proper food and having them replaced by sub-standard nasty take-away items that would not be out of place in a particularly depressing airport terminal. This is an act of ‘strategic development’ self-harm straight out of the scripts of Twenty Twelve or W1A.

The third Beavertown Tempus event was in partnership with BarrelWorks, Firestone Walker’s famous barrel-aging division. It started with a tutored tasting of 10 matured beers, five from each, along with very generous portions of high quality ham and cheese. The two outstanding beers were barrel-aged imperial stouts, the glorious vanilla, coconut and mocha Velvet Merkin (and, long story, but yes, it is named after…) and the El Diablo espresso Parabajava.

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Afterwards there was a Q&A session with Jeffers Richardson, a true craft beer veteran who currently runs BarrelWorks, and Logan and Jenn from Beavertown. This was entertaining and enlightening, doubtless helped by lavish offerings of cans of the brewery’s core range!

In an interview with Hop Review, Logan revealed that Spurs are aiming for a “pop up food bar” with “local food from the area” at their new stadium and have approached Beavertown with the aim of having craft as approximately “20% of the beer” .This is fairly common in the US (although bizarrely the range is relatively commercial at the Qualcomm stadium, despite it being in San Diego, which is perhaps why the voters recently rejected the plan to fund a  new stadium!) and would be great here. But I doubt the Met will be pleased if Power of the Voodoo is served by the pint!

It would, however, be fair to say I was a little disappointed by Club Tropigama, their 1000th brew. A fruity Gamma Ray, it wasn’t dreadful, but I was expecting a lot more.

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Goose Island Bourbon County Stout

 Black Friday saw a faintly ludicrous promotion in which 100 bottles of Goose Island Bourbon County Stout went on sale at Clapton Craft, in its only UK release. By all accounts the beer is apparently still superb, and in general it is an excellent local store, but this had the footprints of the brewery’s corporate owner, AB InBev’s PR department all over it, and indeed articles appeared in at least Time Out, The Independent, and even the Daily Mirror.

Sending over just 100 bottles, and then crucially pricing them below market, is purely to create an artificial sense of scarcity and then media-friendly pictures of queues round the block. It is just silly and ultimately leads to a black market. Moreover, you do not see people annually camping outside Chateau Latour overnight: instead the market clears, at a price which fluctuates.

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No queues for this big boy

The Kings Arms, E2, has been superb recently with some excellent normal lists (Three Floyd’s/Amager Artic Sunstone, Pohjala Mutant Disco and Green Flash Tangerine Souls Style IPA a small sample). And two tap takeovers – with Ska fairly low-key, although it was good to finally try the Modus Mandarina IPA, albeit in a can. Arizona Wilderness was sensational. The funky and refreshing Tart Sunshine, Integrity Blues IPA (a collaboration with the band Jimmy Eat World!), the Peloncilo brown Porter with dates and cinnamon, and finally the dessert of toffee/hazelnut chocolate Muck Elbow English Mild.

It was sad to hear that Quantum were shutting down, as, the founder, Jay Krause wants to concentrate on brewing rather than all the admin involved in running a business, and so will be joining Cloudwater in that role. We didn’t get many of their beers down in London due to production capacity, although I have fond memories of the very early days of The BottleShop (Laura, no mezzanine and only two lines!) when bottles of the very fiery, chilli Stockport Sour were Marmite-esque in their ability to divide opinion!

BrewDog’s CollabFest is an annual event where each of their branches teams up with a local brewery to create and brew a beer of their design, which produced 27 different beers. Clearly this leads to a great deal of variation in both style and quality, but that is what a festival should be about. The clear stand-out winner was Shepherd’s Bush/Siren, whose Ten Dollar Shake IPA was an outstanding tropical fruit smoothie IPA, which I sincerely hope becomes a part of their core range.

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BBNO Beer Pong

Honourable mention, although I will doubtless be accused of home-town bias, goes to Brimful Of Masha, an autumnal red ale made by Affinity/Elusive and Clerkenwell.

Draft House, Old Street, held a Brew By Numbers Beer Pong-based event which was great fun and during which the Pale was very murky but tasted far better than it looked.

(For the record – the BBNO team received a real pasting at Beer Pong by Amateur drinker and yours truly – Ed.)

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Murky but very good

Craft Beer Company, Covent Garden, invited Siren for Halloween. Alongside all their old favourites, three was also a special festive version of Chocolate Cake and the Maiden 2015 barley wine on cask, the aforementioned Ten Dollar Shake, although on a ludicrous mark-up (possibly because it was a BrewDog collab??), and Attack on the Bounty a wonderfully subtle coconut black IPA in collaboration with Northern Monk, although I wasn’t a fan of the V.I.P.A., a Vimto inspired pale ale they had brewed for Indy Man Beer Con.

As always, many notable evenings at The BottleShop: Omnipollo (standout beers the Mazarin oatmeal pale ale and, with Dugges, Anagram Blueberry Cheesecake, an imperial stout that was a stunning aromatic and decadent dessert beer), Mikkeller (SpontanFramboos Lambic, Green Gold IPA  and BooGoop an excellent barley wine, brewed with Three Floyds), California (Alpine Duet IPA and two from the consistently sensational  Modern Times the Fruitlands Blood Orange & Hibiscus Gose and Fortunate Islands, a grapefruit wheat beer) and last, but not least the De Molen, which was slightly different in that it was a formal sit-down tasting session with some of their special beers from the Borefts Beer Festival)

And finally, as December marks the arrival of the ‘one month a year’ drinking crowd cluttering up our watering holes, let’s hope they remember that a “Pub is for Life, not just for Christmas”.

Reporting from the front-line – Amateur Drinker manages to get along to all the beer things you’d like to but couldn’t because you’re not committed enough

 

Bulmers getting to the core of craft

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The impact of craft beer on the overall ale market has had the people at The Bulmers Cider Company taking a close look at how this could similarly play out in the cider category. What exactly can be learnt from the rise and rise of craft beer?

Their broad conclusion is that there won’t be that much direct correlation between the two categories. Emma Sherwood-Smith, director of cider at Bulmers, says there is a much greater link between cider and wine rather than cider and craft beer. The focus for the company is not to therefore focus on pushing urban style ciders that ape the look and aesthetic of craft beer – that undoubtedly has its beating progressive heart in more metropolitan areas such as London’s Hackney.

“Artisanal cider is much closer to wine. Think Hereford, Somerset and Kent for apples and cider. It’s very much an English democratic thing. The urban thing doesn’t work,” she says.

There is no doubt that the growing appetite for artisanal products is impacting the cider market. To this end the company is investigating how it can better link back to its heritage (Bulmers was set up in 1887) as it develops products that reinforce provenance. And this might sound rather surprising – it is putting a greater focus on apples.

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But then it really is only in recent years that the beer industry has put the spotlight on specific hops, which have now become an integral component of how many people choose and buy beer. Helped massively by the fact the hop gives a good idea of the beer’s style and how it should taste.

But rather than going down this varietal route with cider there will be more of a focus at Bulmers on specific orchards. It has a big advantage in this department because it has long-standing relationships with many apple growers – that collectively own around 8,000 acres of orchards. When combined with Bulmers’ own 2,000 acres of orchards, the total production this year will hit 130,000 tonnes of apples.

These are processed at the company’s sizeable Ledbury plant, which operates 24 hours per day, seven days a week over the course of the 12 weeks of the apple picking season, which ends in mid/late November.

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Typically a whole variety of apples will be processed at the same time at  the plant to produce the rich concentrate that will be used as the base for the final alcoholic product once the fermentation process has done its magic. But this year for the first time the company had a short spell at the start of the season to only process Katy apples and keep the concentrate separate and utilise it for a varietal cider.

However, more interesting is its focus on specific orchards whereby it is seeking to replicate the mix of apples grown by a certain producer in a batch of cider. Under the Orchard Pioneers branding the first drinks off the production line in this experiment – which will be available in February – are Kier’s Cloudy Apple and Sarah’s Red Apple. They have both been produced through  close collaboration with the orchard’s owners.

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What Bulmers is unable to do at present is use the specific apples from a single grower to create small batch ciders. But this could be on the cards because – just like with the larger brewers – it has created a pilot plant named ‘Percy’ that will be the Willy Wonka component of the organisation where small scale experimentation can take place.

Sensibly there is no defined commercial imperative from this modest plant but Sherwood-Smith is very excited about the prospect and the opportunities that it could present. Even if it is just excitement that Percy produces within the company then it will undoubtedly have some value. But clearly it should enable Bulmers to much more effectively bring the provenance of its raw materials into play, which really is arguably what ‘craft’ is all about.

Glynn Davis, editor of Beer Insider

 

Spa town-based Buxton Brewery punches well above its weight

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Geoff Quinn, Denis Johnstone and Colin Stronge

To say it punches above its weight is an understatement. It employs only eight people, who produce a very modest 3,800 hectolitres of beer per year, but these brews are recognised globally as some of the best in the world.

We are talking about the gem that is Buxton Brewery. If ever there was a brewery that is below the radar then this Derbyshire-based outfit is it. It has the honour of being in the top 100 breweries in the world, according to RateBeer, with output like Axe Edge, and Imperial Black scoring highly among the world’s drinkers.

Geoff Quinn is founder and owner, Colin Stronge is the brewer, and Denis Johnstone manages the ship, which is a triumvirate of interesting, talented and pleasingly understated individuals. Maybe it was their friendly demeanour, the lovely countryside around the brewery, or the warm tap room that won me over when I made a recent visit to Buxton. Either way, I found a wonderful set-up.

What makes the brewery so special is that despite its limited resources it pushes out an incredible 40 new beers per year, on top of its core half dozen-ish brews. Johnstone and Stronge agree that the likes of Axe Edge could make up 80% of total output but that this would simply be a bit boring.

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Colin Stronge and Denis Johnstone

“Most brewers do 60/70% of their totals with one beer. Beavertown has Gamma Ray and BrewDog has Punk IPA but we’re not happy repeating things. We enjoy trying new beers,” says Johnstone.

To produce such a large number of brews is more typical of a gypsy brewer – such as Mikkeller, Omnipollo and To ØL – who have the benefit of not having any brewery infrastructure so they can have their beers brewed by a number of different breweries.

This brings me to another interesting point about Buxton Brewery. It produces beers for both Omnipollo and To ØL. This is certainly some achievement because both these two outfits are keen on pushing the boundaries. In Buxton (and especially brewer Stronge) it has a perfect collaborator and the two parties work very closely together on creating real ground-breaking beers.

One notable brew is Yellow Belly, which was initially produced with Omnipollo for the Rainbow Project two years ago and was the stand-out beer of the show that year. It has gone on to spawn some equally outstanding variants including Yellow Belly Sundae. A recent rare cask of this beer sold out in 30 minutes at Manchester’s Port Street Beer House.

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On my visit to Buxton Brewery two people (from the team of eight plus the odd helper) were wrapping bottles of Yellow Belly in its distinctive white paper cover, which is indicative of just how labour-intensive much of the work is at the brewery. Beyond the bottling line much of what takes place is very hands-on.

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This adds to the effort it takes to produce so many – often very complex beers – on what is also a very small site. “Our malt store is only so big and planning is very difficult as we’re now buying our hops three years ahead [on contract] for the likes of Citra and Amarillo. And then we’ve got our beers for Omnipollo to schedule in and they really want to produce their most extreme beers with us,” says Stronge.

There is also a modest amount of barrel-ageing taking place with 100 wooden barrels scattered around the site “taking up [valuable] real estate” says Johnstone, who adds that again this is time-consuming activity but one with which they clearly want to be involved.

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“There are all sorts of flavour possibilities. People think we over-charge for these beers but there is a risk with them so effectively we’re charging danger money. And they are hand-bottled, and bottle conditioned. They take three-times more man-days to produce,” explains Johnstone.

While acknowledging the hard work and effort involved, there is no doubt that the three key characters at Buxton would not have it any other way. Their spirit of adventure very much personifies the finer aspects of brewing at the smaller end of the scale.

Whereas many large organisations become constrained by delivering on set margins in order to satisfy shareholder demands Buxton is, in contrast, a gloriously free beast (to the great credit of Quinn) where Stronge and Johnstone can work their magic and deliver a constant stream of wonderfully inventive beers.

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Tasting at Buxton Tap House

While they might fly under the radar in the UK they have certainly caught the attention of discerning beer drinkers around the world and for the past three years as much as 50% of the output have been shipped out to 20-plus countries with Italy, Spain, Ireland and Sweden keen buyers of Buxton’s beers.

Buxton Brewery manages to be the oddest of beasts in being quintessentially British in terms of its low-key modesty and self-deprecation while its outlook is global and its inspiration is very much derived from activities way beyond these shores.

Glynn Davis, editor, Beer Insider

 

 

Around Town with Amateur Drinker

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A taste of Rainbow Project 2016

It was entirely appropriate that in a period in which the County Championship triumphantly returned to its rightful home in North London, Middlesex’s finest brewery put on a performance that would have done Angus Fraser just as proud.

[Middlesex county no longer exists and Yorkshire is the rightful home of County Championship – ed]

It was Beavertown rather than the Home of Cricket that hosted the Rainbow Project. This event began in 2013 with seven UK brewers, each producing a beer based on a randomly assigned colour of the rainbow. It then became an international project with each UK participant being randomly matched with a continental counterpart in 2014 and a trans-Atlantic one the following year. In 2016 that honour went to New Zealand.

Beavertown again hosted one of the parties to show off the results. While 2014 was quiet, 2015 saw worrying signs of over-crowding that were to explode at Beavertown’s Valentine birthday-bash. Everyone makes mistakes, but it is how you deal with them that matters, and Beavertown’s response since that ill-fated day has been outstanding.

The organisation was absolutely faultless. The event was ticketed, with limited numbers at a meaningful price, and used staggered start-times. The beers (34 festival brews and the core range) were all free-pure, and following the sage advice of WC Fields, there were no dogs or children. This meant there were no queues, either for the drinks or the toilets.

The beers were superb: From the official collaborations, Partisan/Prairie Real Time, a kaffir lime, lemongrass and grapefruit saison, Magic Rock/Fork & Brewer Upside Down, a tangy Witbeir and Hawkshead/ Yeastie Boys Kai Moana gose were the pick of the bunch.

From the ‘normal’, which they most certainly were not, I enjoyed Fork and Brewers’ 1st ever export, the Sourbet, a raspberry and lemon Berliner, the refreshing Hawkshead earl grey and Seville sour, Parrot Dog’s Flora Forget Me Not and Bitterbitch IPA’s, the Superb Garage Project Pernicious Weed DIPA, the Wild Beer Bee Brush a lemon, verbena and grapefruit saison, the Liberty Sauvignon Bomb, a sensational pale ale and last, but not least,  the 2015 (the beer changes every year) Yeastie Boys His (red oat ale) and Her(blood red beetroot ale  Majesty.

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Rainbow Project – Red

Finally, a couple of non-Rainbow collaborations: Magic Rock/ Gigantic Special Relationship, a deconstructed Manhattan, and the 8-wired/ Modern Times Halfway to Whangarei a sharp, almost sour refreshing saison.

Overall this was a fantastic, perfectly organised, and enjoyable event for both geeks and those new to the scene. This was undoubtedly the beer party of the year so far.

I spent a weekend in Warsaw for a wedding (unfortunately missing Omnipollo at The BottleShop!) and surprised absolutely nobody by taking the opportunity to check out their beer scene. Whilst the local Polish brews in general needed a little more work, the bars were of a surprisingly high quality with friendly and passionate staff.

Kufle i Kapsle (where I had Nomada Papaya Crush, an excellent Catalan DIPA), and Jabeerwocky were two minutes apart on Nowogrodzka, whilst at Hoppiness I tried Pracownia Piwa’s Huncwot IPA, which was comfortably the best local beer. I even popped into BrewDog Warsaw as they advertised online that they had the Four Pure Shapeshifter IPA.

This was the outstanding feature: all of the bars listed above had their tap-lists live and updated in real time on the internet. Indeed, in a couple of cases they also included information about how long the beer had been on. London is light-years behind and really needs to copy this as it is not expensive or difficult to do but is massively helpful for the customer.

Such is the pace of change in the scene that Zwanze Day feels like an historical institution, although it only began in 2008. The concept of pouring the beer at an identical time globally should really be in “Timekeepers” (Simon Garfield’s recent book on how the world became obsessed with time). The Zwanze 2016 itself was an exquisite Framboise: 82/18 raspberry/blueberry with just the right smidgen of added vanilla.

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Zwanze on the right

We only got a third but Cantillon also provided the apricot Fou’Foune and the Cuvee Saint Gilloise, Burning Sky the Anniversaire Saison, whilst the Kernel’s Pale Ale was a nice palate cleanser and regular readers will know I love the damson London Sour!

Unscientifically it seems to be that across all of the pub/bars I visit, there are proportionally less and less stout/porters on the lists. Asking about this, in a couple of different venues, I received the very rational response that the beers don’t sell as well, so they stock less.

In some ways, the decline is purely mathematical in response to the rise of other styles: IPA is the flagship of craft, DIPA is the height of fashion in 2016 for UK breweries and it is wonderful for the scene that more and more people are trying new styles, such as sours, and also that experimental/wacky/festival beers are being produced for us to drink (and me to write about!).

But I hope that drinkers and brewers don’t neglect stouts too much though, as there is a reason they are such a part of our drinking heritage. Although maybe it’s just the weather and beers will soon get as dark as the evenings outside!

A seamless change at The Bottle Shop as Sabrina returned to Canada to be replaced by Edd, and unsurprisingly the quality of events remained exceptional. I missed the aforementioned Omnipollo but heard good reports. There were two American tap takeovers, with the second, fortuitously scheduled on the same Friday for which I had bought Indy Man tickets, but was unable to attend due to unforeseen work commitments!

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Mike Hess Grapefruit IPA at The Bottle Shop

Given the US’s undoubted lead in IPA’s that style was the most notable, specifically the Alpine Duet, Black Market Aftermath, Mike Hess Grapefruit Solis and the Green Flash Tangerine Soul Style IPA,Black Market – Aftermath IPA whilst on a separate visit, I loved the Buxton/Omnipollo Lemon Meringue Ice Cream Pie.

Beavertown launched a new core beer, the Lupuloid IPA. This has had mixed reviews (drinkable, but maybe lacking a bit of a punch), and it isn’t even close to being the best British IPA (now that’s an entirely separate question we could spend hours on) but I think that if they do genuinely roll this out in the volume, and with the marketing, of their other core beers, it may prove a small step in bringing more drinkers further into the scene, just as Gamma Ray introduced them to it.

The autumn Craft Beer Co.’s Clapham 100 came around again. Like a comfortable shoe, this was as it always is: it amuses me that not only do you see the same faces at the event every time, but they occupy exactly the same tables! To be fair, it is clearly doing something right to inspire such loyalty.

Again as usual, I thought the keg offerings were more interesting: The Fierce Beer Cranachan Killer tasted just as creamy and raspberry as the Scottish dessert should, the Weird Beard Something Something Darkside, a marvellous black DIPA, Evil Twin Soft Dookie keg, an imperial stout, (which I preferred to the Hopping Frog Rum Barrel Aged B.O.R.I.S.), the Jolly Pumpkin Maracaibo Especial , a spicy, citrusy  Belgian ale, the Panhead Supercharger APA and ultimately two from Westbrook: their sensational Key Lime Pie Gose and the Mexican Cupcake, which had a decent chilli kick and carried a great deal of flavour for the low ABV (just 4.2%).

Finally, some fantastic news for me personally as I managed to get a full Season Ticket for next May’s Copenhagen Beer Celebration. Expect to hear all about it in due course.

Reporting from the front-line – Amateur Drinker manages to get along to all the beer things you’d like to but couldn’t.