Sunday, 14 September 2014

The Brewery That Cried Hells

On the 8th of September, to very little fuss, Camden Town Brewery published a piece on their website titled The Home of Hells. It brought to light two things, how important their brand Hells Lager is to them as a company and that how another company, who were not named in the statement, has very recently given their own lager the name Hells. It goes on to tell of how Camden had attempted to contact the other brewery and asked them to change the name of the beer with no success. I tweeted a link to the statement and unknowingly placed myself at the centre of a Twitter shit-storm.

It soon turned out that the unnamed brewery was the Craft Brewing Company, based near Norwich in Norfolk who trade under the name Redwell. Their response painted a very different picture of the incident, accusing Camden Town of using big brewery, bully boy tactics and giving them only 7 days to cease manufacture of their own Hells Lager. A beer that up until a month ago, did not exist. The Craft Brewing Company (who from here on in I shall refer to as Redwell for brevity) then go on to challenge Camden to a 'taste off' with the loser having to drop the name Hells for good. I tweeted the link to this too and thus the shit-storm continued to rage on.

To be perfectly honest, both statements made me cringe. The public domain is never the place for trademark disputes. Camden's statement was well written, but used terms such as 'intellectual property' painting them in the same big brewery colours that Redwell had also done. Terms that will do nothing to endear them to their customers. On the other hand, Redwell's own statement was rushed and contained many mistakes and factual inaccuracies, it had all the hallmarks of a knee jerk reaction. 

I stated on Twitter that neither brewery would win this battle but despite this something inside me would not let go. I simply had to get to the bottom of this come hells or high water. 

I began my research by trying to find out if Hells was in fact a beer style or if it was truly a brand that Camden had created for themselves. In Redwell's statement they write "Hells, for any German, is a generic description for light lager, as is the term helles and hell along with several other similar variations." In German 'hell' or 'helles' simply means 'light' or 'bright'. 'Hells' does not mean either of these things, in German it just means 'hells' and is not used to describe a beer style. 'Hell' and 'helles' are though, as indicated by the German Beer Institute on their website.

What this means is that although 'Helles' and 'Hell' are styles of beer 'Hells' is without question of a doubt a brand. A brand that has been developed and used by Camden Town Brewery for four years. A brand that they are becoming synonymous with. 

After I had decided that Hells was not a term used to describe a style of lager I then went on to look into similar disputes and their outcome. Does anybody remember Brewstar of Morpeth near Newcastle-upon-Tyne? After Brewsters of Lincolnshire asked them to change their name they did so and became the fantastic Anarchy Brew Co. Remember Magic Rock Curious pale ale? Well this is now called Ringmaster after the Chapel Down Brewery, who brew a beer called Curious Brew, asked them to change that name, which they did. What about Thornbridge Raven Black IPA? I asked Thornbridge Brewer Dominic Driscoll what happened here and he told me that the Orkney Brewery, who brew Raven Ale, asked them to change the name. They got together, had a few beers and Raven metamorphosed into Wild Raven.

This is just three examples of British breweries working out branding disputes behind closed doors in a mature and businesslike fashion. On any of these occasions no heels were dragged through the mire and not a drop of blood was shed. 

So why did Camden feel the need to go public with this particular dispute? Well after speaking to the brewery I know that Director of Brewing Alex Troncoso personally tried to contact Redwell on numerous occasions to arrange a meeting to sort this mess out. Eventually when Redwell's answer to their calls was to arrange a winner takes all loser takes nothing taste test, Camden felt they had no choice but to take things to the next level. If Redwell had shown some maturity at this stage it would have never come to this. It should never have come to this. 

The further I delved into this mess the more I began to believe that Camden were in the right and that Redwell were taking advantage of previous mistakes. Camden's dispute with Weird Beard (that also involved BrewDog) made all three breweries look bad but on this occasion the consumers rallied behind Weird Beard and Camden earned the bully-boy reputation that Redwell have used to their advantage on this occasion. In my opinion this is now water under the bridge, mistakes were made but in the end the name of the offending beer was changed. 

Redwell are no stranger to legal disputes themselves having had a wrangling with Red Bull who wrote a letter asking Redwell to change the name of their brewing operation. Redwell took this to the national media with accusations of corporate bullying and Red Bull eventually backed down with Redwell's own profile being raised significantly. I even discussed this with some of the guys from Redwell when I met them at the Craft Beer Rising earlier this year. We had a bit of a laugh about it while I tried their beers which I really enjoyed, especially their Pilsner and India Pale Lager.

I spend a lot of time down at the Camden Town Brewery bar. It's 3 miles from my office and directly on my route home from work. It's my local brewery, it's a very important part of what 'craft beer' is to me and I've been a regular there since it opened in early 2012. I've got to know a lot of the people that work for the brewery through my bar visits and through this blog, I call many of the staff friends. Camden Town's bar encapsulates the spirit of the craft beer scene, it's a fantastic place to buy a drink and spend an evening. If anyone believes that they hold their brand above their beer then I can assure you that you are wrong. The guys at Camden are some of the most passionate, hardworking people in the industry. They are not bullies, they simply care a great deal about something they have spent the past four years building their business on and they have every right to try and protect this. 

It's when I saw several people who I respect and also call friends announce that they would be boycotting Camden Town beers because they are 'bullies' that I was incensed to dig deeper. After both of the statements had been released I tried to remain impartial but after much deliberation I now firmly believe that Camden are being taken advantage of and that Redwell are in the wrong. 

As a craft brewery, Redwell have a responsibility to educate and inform their customers. Stating that 'Hells' is a generic description used by Germans to describe light lager is a falsehood and just a little research on my part proved this. It is an easy enough mistake to make so I will gift Redwell the benefit of the doubt and believe that this is indeed a mistake. I know from speaking to several people at Camden including senior staff that Redwell were asked several times to change the name of their beer. They refused and I believe that they are playing on Camden's past spat with Weird Beard in an effort to besmirch their name. 

Craft brewing is a professional and mature young industry and this kind of behaviour has no place in it. Redwell are both misinforming and misleading their own customers at the cost of the credibility of one of our country's best breweries and this is simply not acceptable. 

As a consumer, as a customer, as someone who is passionate about beer I ask you Redwell to please see sense and change the name of your beer. Let's put this behind us, move on and concentrate on making great beer for people to enjoy.

To quote my friend and fellow beer writer Chris Hall 'Camden Hells Lager is their lifeblood'. It is everything they stand for and have worked for since their inception in 2010. Taste it side by side with a Tegernseer Hell, a highly regarded authentic Bavarian Helles and tell me that it's not an incredibly accomplished beer. Taste their new India Hells Lager which launches in cans next month and tell me its not a game changer. Most importantly please join me for a beer at the brewery bar next Friday evening, the 19th of September and experience The Home of Hells for yourself. I challenge you not to have a good time. 

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

The Hop and Berry, Islington

The area around Islington's Upper Street in North London has long been known for its restaurant culture. It makes perfect sense that it would become one of the hubs for the city's thriving craft beer scene. From the popular Craft Beer Company on White Lion Street to the trendy Earl of Essex just behind Essex Road it almost seems like this spot is becoming over saturated with quality pubs but try and squeeze into any one of the many crowded drinking dens of Islington on a Friday night and you'll soon realise that there's a need for more. Hell even those scamps at BrewDog are rumoured to be opening their first restaurant on Essex Road very soon, a clear sign of how vital good beer in this area has become.

Enter The Hop and Berry, formerly The Barnsbury, on the quiet Liverpool Road parallel to Upper Street. The brainchild of former Euston Tap manager Tony Lennon, The Hop has come up with a unique way of standing out from the sea of nearby competition, it only stocks beer from London breweries. With almost 70 breweries operating in the capital and more on their way this makes perfect sense. Especially when the quality of beer coming from the likes of Brodie's, Pressure Drop and Weird Beard, to name but a few, is so high. 

Stepping inside the spacious interior the horseshoe shaped bar is home to six hand pulls and behind it are twelve keg lines. While the cask beers are clearly marked with pump clips the keg beers are simply numbered but a quick glance to my left reveals what's on draught. The nicest touch about this list is that beside every beer is the distance in miles the brewery lies from the pub. No pub on the list was from more than 15 miles away with many much closer and there was something both reassuring and satisfying about this. My half of the always excellent Pressure Drop Pale Fire certainly had both of these qualities. Craftophiles will be pleased to know that as well as pints, third and two-third measures are available.  

Tony tells me that he eventually wants to stock a wine and spirit offering that rivals the locality of his beer and while he may not be able to source these from London itself there will certainly be some quality British produce gracing the shelves. Food is of the gastropub variety with roast dinners served on a Sunday, something that people bored of the endless supply of burgers and pizzas will find appealing. I didn't eat much bar a few bar snacks on this occasion but I'll be returning to investigate once the kitchen is in full swing. 

There's plenty of room in here and I get the feeling that this is the kind of pub that people will come to when they want to avoid the nearby hustle and bustle and grab a table with friends while enjoying good food and great drink. There's even a beer garden which is something many London beer bars are sorely lacking. It's also very handily placed for the start of a pub crawl that weaves its way through the Angel. Although still a bit too new with the smell of fresh paint lingering in the air I'm positive that with time The Hop and Berry will make yet another excellent addition to the Islington beer scene.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Five from Deeside

Sandwiched in between the Cairngorms and the city of Aberdeen lies Royal Deeside, home to Balmoral Castle and some of the most stunningly beautiful countryside in the British Isles. It was here in 2005 that the Deeside Brewery was established and they recently got in touch to see if I'd like to try their range of ales and lagers.

I dive straight in to the bottle of LAF a steam beer inspired by the warm fermented lagers that originated during the California gold rush. I have a minor personal issue with the way the word Californian has been used on the label, the word 'style' should probably be squeezed onto the bottle somewhere for clarity. It's vibrant gold in colour and the nose gives very little away, just a touch of the cereal like malt character which follows through in the taste. It's rounded and full bodied in the mouth which is true to the style. There are hints of honey sweetness and grassy bitterness and the dominant flavour is like chewing crushed barley. It's well made and I like it.

I then move on to Swift an American influenced pale ale. There is a hint of grapefruit aroma coming from the pleasantly hued amber liquid. One worry is that the head dissipates quickly taking with the last shreds of that aroma. That cereal like character is on the palate again with a little bit of pithy citrus but not nearly enough for it to be true to style. I find it a little ordinary and worry that it will struggle against other beers in this class. 

Macbeth is a by the numbers Scotch ale. It pours a pleasing shade of copper but again like the Swift it fails to produce a head. As a result there's not much of an aroma but the taste is nice enough. It reminds me of those chewy, teeth-rotting bars of highland toffee I used to buy from the school tuck shop with my pocket money. The tiniest hint of bitterness helps dry out that sweetness but it's lacking any real depth of character. I imagine it would be more enjoyable if served from a well looked after cask.

The final 500ml bottle in the case contains Talorcan, a milk stout. It's a nice deep brown but once again it fails to retain its head making it look like a glass of flat Coca-Cola. It does at least manage to produce an aroma reminiscent of ground coffee and milk chocolate. The taste is initially offset by a harsh carbonation which improves as it warms up but eventually it loses all carbonation as a result of me trying to get the temperature up. There are notes of chocolate and coffee with a lactic element adding a creaminess but it just feels like its lacking a little something. Again, as with the Macbeth I conclude that this beer would fare better on cask.

There is one more beer in the range, Craft Brewed Lager which comes in a 330ml bottle no doubt to appeal to the casual lager drinker. Quite why this bottle insists that its craft brewed while the others don't is beyond me but I try not to let it bother me and merrily plod on. This one pours a shade of pale straw with a pleasingly fluffy white head. There are hints of cut grass on the nose along with that cereal quality which I've decided I like quite a lot. This is much more like it, crackers, lemon pith and a dry, grassy bitterness make this a well rounded and drinkable beer. It's my favourite of the bunch with the LAF steam beer a close second. 

Despite obvious issues with conditioning causing a few of these beers to lose their heads they do for the most part seem pretty well made. However there's very little between them. They're all quite samey, there's less than a 0.8% difference between the ABV's of all five beers and the dominant flavours are very similar. For me they just don't do enough to stand out and while I imagine they'll sell through in the immediately local area they will struggle further afield. Still, there's a couple of decent beers in this bunch that I'd happily drink again if I saw them but I probably wouldn't go out of my way to seek them out. 

Although I was sent these samples for free I don't think that influenced my opinion of them. Original photography by Dianne Tanner

Friday, 5 September 2014

My First Belgian

When I was in my late teens the beer fridge in our home had pretty much an open-access policy. My Dad was keen that I educated myself on the effects of drink in house rather than unsupervised in a park with the cheapest booze my friends and I could lay our hands on. Of course that did happen, it was as much a drinking rite of passage as sipping my first pint of real ale or first modern American style IPA.

Various beers graced that fridge, mostly the now much derided macro lagers such as Grolsch or Becks but back then I enjoyed them. At seventeen my palate wasn't quite ready or able to decipher the myriad flavours that different beer styles offered. However there was definitely an early fascination in beer, the collection of beer mats and assorted empty bottles in my bedroom was as indicative of my future habits as it was a teenage attempt at impressing my peers. 

I remember quite clearly when Dad brought some bottles of Duvel home from the supermarket. He really played on its high ABV to get me excited and I recall him saying 'be careful when you pour it as it's really lively!' Pour it into a glass? This was surely madness but this stunted, stubby bottle didn't really work all that well as a drinking vessel and so I did opted for the official Duvel glassware which we just happened to have in the cupboard. Typically, no matter how carefully I poured I ended up with an ice cream mountain of foam and very little beer. After a few impatient minutes I did eventually transfer an adequate amount of beer from the bottle to the glass and I had my first ever taste of Belgian beer.

It was sweet, cloying and alcoholic. There was more going on in that glass than a seventeen year old was prepared for but I was not going to be defeated in front of my father. Besides this was 8.5% and I thought that was really cool. I remember enjoying it or at least saying I did but I'll be honest in saying that back then I really didn't understand it. Still this sparked an early curiosty in Belgian beers, particularly Abbey and Trappist beers. I remember enjoying Chimay Rouge the very first time I tried it and in my early twenties I'd drink Leffe while my mates drank Stella in an effort to impress them. I don't think it really worked. 

It's almost fifteen years since I took my first sip of Duvel. When I first discovered the modern, hop-forward beers that drove my beer love into the realms of pure fanaticism it took a back seat. In my arrogance I didn't have time for this beer any more. It took one sip from a glass of Duvel in a Bruges cafe to draw me back in only this was different. I'd learned how to taste beer now and so the experience was completely different. Delicate effervescence dancing on the tongue unlocking hints of sweetness and a light, almost bread like body that mingled with berry fruit flavoured yeast esters. Duvel is the champagne of beers, it is one of the best beers on the planet. 

In 2007 Duvel Moortgat first brewed Tripel Hop to keep with the trend of increasingly hoppy beer. Every spring they release a new batch, dry hopped with a different variety each year, this years is Mosaic and I love it so much I bought a case. There aren't many beers that drive me to this sort of dedication. Personally I like to think that as I've changed and grown as a beer drinker, Duvel has too but in reality it's been smashing it out of the Abbey since 1871.

The Session, a.k.a. Beer Blogging Friday, is an opportunity once a month for beer bloggers from around the world to get together and write from their own unique perspective on a single topic. Each month, a different beer blogger hosts the Session, chooses a topic and creates a round-up listing all of the participants, along with a short pithy critique of each entry. This months Session is hosted by Elisa and 
Breandán from Belgian Smaak

Saturday, 30 August 2014

London Beer People

The train shakes slightly, just enough to wake me from my doze. I grasp at the half eaten prawn mayonnaise sandwich in front of me and gingerly take a bite, I am very hungover. I had spent the previous day on a stag do in Cardiff which involved a trip to the Tiny Rebel Brewery and the discovery of the Welsh capital's young, blooming craft beer scene of which Tiny Rebel are at the beating heart. I was heading back to my home in London which might have had a couple of years head start on Cardiff in the craft beer stakes but it feels like the UK is definitely reaching some sort of 'craft equilibrium' with vibrant, exciting scenes popping up wherever they're welcome.

Attending the stag weekend meant that I had missed the first two days of London Beer City, a nine day celebration of London's incredible beer culture organised by beer writer Will Hawkes. A remarkable amount of events were somehow crammed into a week that was bookended by CAMRA's Great British Beer Festival (GBBF) and a new alternative event, the London Craft Beer Festival (LCBF). I put plans in place to absorb as much of the week as possible. Tickets were purchased and a little time off work was booked, I just had to shape up, both physically and mentally. Right now I was a total wreck. After I'd been home a couple of hours I managed to crack open a can of Beavertown's fridge staple pale ale Gamma Ray to remind my body that we would and could still do this. My body merely shook its fist at me, it wasn't happy about this at all.

Monday brought with it that damp sense of melancholy that a heavy weekend on the booze often brings. Or maybe that was because I'd forced myself to walk a mile in the rain to the train station in order to try and sweat some of the alcohol out of my system before I arrived at work. The clock ticked down slowly, despite my physical condition I was excited to jump back into the beer scene once more. Monday night brought the British Guild of Beer Writers annual GBBF warm up event. This was kind of weird, I've been a member of the guild for about eight months. I joined to connect with people in the industry and in a vain effort to try and get my writing in front of more people. Being in a room full of writers you admire and respect and have done so for a while is a little overwhelming. Well, it was for me at least but then you meet them and speak to them and realise that they have the same fiery passion for beer flowing through their veins as you do and suddenly you feel like you're in a very good place.

There was a lot of good beer here, much more than I expected. Rare unlabelled 'Ghost Bottles' from Brooklyn Brewery containing beer that tasted like pineapple juice blended with champagne, varying vintages of Boon Kriek Mariage Parfait, various cans from Terrapin in Athens, Georgia and err... Wells Bombardier on cask. There's nothing wrong with that of course, I'm being facetious as per usual. Literally every type of beer drinker was catered for but what alarmed me (but shouldn't have) was the rate at which the throng of beer writers tucked into it. The Guild certainly knows how to throw a party.

Late in the evening I absent mindedly stuck my hand into the nearest ice bucket to grab another drink after being disappointed that we'd already drank all of the Boon Kriek. I look at the twelve ounce bottle in my hand and slowly read the label. Founders Kentucky Breakfast Stout it said, I paused for a moment, blinked and then looked again. Yep this was KBS all right, a beer that I'd wanted to try for years just popped into my hand from out of nowhere. Seconds later I was pouring the bottle vigorously into a wine glass and quickly opened a second and poured my partner in crime Chris Hall a glass too. It was a pure delight, chocolate and coffee tied up in an immaculate bourbon flavoured bow all perfectly balanced and in total harmony. It was quite simply one of the best beers I've ever tasted. I reached into the ice bucket once more hoping I could find another bottle to squirrel into my bag and take home but sadly it too had been rinsed by the beer writers, and rightly so. This didn't stop me from making a circle of the room and forcing the contents in front of anyone else I could. Even Tandleman liked it and he doesn't like whisky. 

The event begins to die down and Chris and I decide to retreat to the Euston Tap where we reconvene with Maggie from the Beer Hawk who was also at the Guild shindig. For London Beer City the Tap were hosting a Czech takeover with vaguely familiar names like Matuška and Bernard gracing the chalk boards. Tap Manager Tom Clay recommends a Svatý Norbert IPA from Strahov. It's an incredibly bitter beast with a grapefruit flavour thats more distinctive than even some of the best American pale ales I've tried. There's something distinctively Czech about it though and it's the malt character shining through that made this beers country of origin undeniable. We then dive into a plethora of beers from Matuška ranging from a by the numbers (and absolutely brilliant) unfiltered pilsner through to another intensely bitter and accomplished American style IPA that's fittingly called Raptor.

Very slowly I realise that it's late, I'm drunk, again and I have a big day at the GBBF ahead of me. I ignore this and drink some more beer before Chris eventually pulls me out of my hole and sends me home, something he managed to do at exactly the right time for most of the week. Damn those Czech beers were great though, that's yet another beer scene that's definitely worthy of some serious exploration.

Tuesday dawns and I gradually manage to make my way from my bed to the kitchen. An extra scoop of coffee goes into the Aeropress and I pray the extra caffeine will lend me the resolve I need to get through this day intact. I'd never been to trade day at the Great British Beer Festival before but this time I'd been granted a press pass and I intended to try and make the most of the privilege. I arrive at the Olympia early and already flagging nip inside a nearby branch of Costa Coffee for a sub standard but desperately required flat white. With little else to do I join the already lengthening queue. A parade of circus folk including clowns, stilt walkers and the like pace up and down, shouting, trying to get the crowd in the mood but my gut feeling tells me people just want to get inside and start getting pissed. Personally I just want this damn clown to leave me alone. I see a few people I know as I wait for the line to start moving, eventually I'm joined by Simon Williams, founder of the Campaign for Really Good Beer (CAMRGB) and his friend Chris. This was an early indicator that today would be more about friends than beer. 

We stand there, resplendent in our CAMRGB t-shirts and I think for the moment if by this I am trying to make a statement. I'm not a member of CAMRA but I'm not against their hard work over the decades either. I had hoped that by wearing that t-shirt I might have found myself having some interesting conversations with CAMRA members but none of them seemed to either notice or care. 

Eventually the queue starts shuffling along and as I reach the end of it I notice the press entrance and realise that I needn't have stood in line at all. I flash my press pass, get handed a half pint glass and bundle of press releases that had already been emailed to me days ago before being shoved (not literally) into the already bustling Kensington Olympia. It turns out the trade session, although well represented by those in the trade is pretty much the same as any other session with plenty of regular punters getting tickets from contacts in the industry. I do a quick orbit of the Olympia to get my bearings and thankfully it seems that most of the stands are in the same place as last year and they've sensibly moved the US bottle bar next door to the US cask bar which is where myself and most of my friends set up base camp for the day.

Traditionally I like to start GBBF with a glass of draught Lambic from the Belgian bar so I shuffle along only to find out that none of the draught lines on this bar had been hooked up yet. Disappointed I then move to the adjacent German and Czech bar only to be told by a dejected looking Tandleman that none of their keg lines were hooked up either. Yes, keg lines, it still baffles me that at this great festival of cask beer that the German and Czech bars are always allowed to present their beer on keg as the brewers intend it to be served but this rule is not allowed to be applied to any other brewer. Raising any issue about it though is about as useful as throwing punches at the air in a dark, empty room. Besides as I would discover later in the week this doesn't matter and the key to GBBF, for me at least, is to forget everything I know and simply try and enjoy myself.

So I went and got myself a tip top half of Crouch Vale Brewers Gold, its classic pale malt notes and a gentle gnaw of grassy, bitter British hops getting my palate calibrated for a battering. I didn't get through as many beers as I would've liked although I certainly had a good few. Habit made sure I spent most of my time hovering around the American bar. Left Hand's Milk Stout worked incredibly well on cask and Lagunitas Maximus double IPA was tasting sublime. It was hands down my beer of the festival but couldn't help thinking that it lacked condition, an argument for it to be served on keg but this didn't seem to matter too much at the time. The best British beer I drank was Marble Dobber but the Manchester brewery's flagship IPA is rarely anything other than a sheer delight. Once the German bar was up and running I managed to enjoy a Tegernsee Hell as did anyone who crossed the path of Thornbridge's Dom Driscoll who insisted they tried it whilst he stood rooted to the spot drinking pint after pint of the stuff. A true hero amongst ordinary men.

Plenty of other beers were drank but they drifted into an ether of conversation. The magic of the trade session is that it puts an incredible amount of acquaintances together in a very big room. I try to speak to as many people as possible, to make new friends whilst spending as much time as I could with my existing ones. In the end it was all a bit overwhelming and as I zoned out into a state of hyperactivity my man Chris Hall pulled me out of the maelstrom and put me on the train home. What a day it had been though, the beer trade sure is home to a lot of wonderful folk. Folk that like to get drunk.

Having said that and now I've had time to process both this years and last years festival I'm pretty sure I don't get as much enjoyment out of GBBF as I hope to. CAMRA were keen to advertise this years GBBF as 'London's Biggest Pub' but that's not what I want from this kind of event. I want a sense of occasion, a vibrant carnival atmosphere. I can go to an amazing pub whenever I want. GBBF needs to evolve and find a way to offer its customers more. Perhaps they could achieve this by only serving British cask beer, it is the Great British Beer Festival after all. At this moment I'm not sure if I'd go again.

My post GBBF head was not as bad as I was expecting although I was feeling a kind of weariness that I could almost reach out and grab hold of. It was now Wednesday, the halfway house, hump day and I had tickets to a tasting with actual beer legend Melissa Cole at BrewDog Shepherds Bush. I could almost hear the clock grinding down the seconds as it approached five thirty but eventually it did and I made the short journey from my office on Scrubs Lane to one of Brewdog's best bars. I arrive early so once again opt to calibrate my tastebuds, this time with the Scottish brewery's most in form beer, Dead Pony pale ale. 

While I wait I take the opportunity to try Buxton Brewery Ace Edge, a twist on their flagship Axe Edge IPA that uses the unusual, savoury tasting Sorachi Ace hop. I like Sorachi Ace, in fact the 2013 incarnation of Duvel's Tripel Hop made this hop sing and cemented it as one of my favourites. Still there was something about this beer that left me swaying on the fence. Axe Edge is one of the best draught beers I've drank this year but Ace was rough around the edges, it lacked refinement and balance. Sure it was a massive hit of lemongrass and sage, the kind only this unusual hop can provide but it was almost too much. There was a time when I liked 'too much' from my beer but now more often than not its balance that sends me back to the bar for more.

There was a twist to Melissa's tasting this evening, sure we would be trying some tasty beers but these would be interspersed with glasses of Carlsberg spiked with horrid flavours. Melissa was giving a tutorial on off flavours in beer, I had paid money to be reminded what butyric acid smells and tastes like, well done me. Of course what I had paid for was for Melissa to impart her expert knowledge and this was well worth it. She is, as you probably already know, a true pro and her technical knowledge was both impressive and very well explained. With her guidance almost everyone present managed to identify all of the off flavours correctly which thankfully included myself. The night concluded with friends arriving from another day at GBBF down the road and I was once again drinking myself into an hole but, you've guessed it, my man Hall was right there to pull me out again. Honestly, I'd probably be dead now if it wasn't for that guy.

Thursday was dark, the steady build up of toxicity in my system had reached its peak and my body demanded a rest. I decided to take a fallow day pausing only from this to participate in my weekly Beerbods twitter tasting. I was thankful of the rest but I'm glad I dipped my toe, my failing body needed a reminder that the London Beer City had not yet drawn to its inevitable conclusion.

The four pound pint of Gamma Ray. It exists, I've seen it, I've tasted it. It tasted good. I've paid as much as six pounds and fifty pence for a pint of my go-to beer but here at the vibrant and atmospheric Camden Town Brewery Bar it was just four pounds. I drank as much of it as I could before the keg kicked and when it did well it didn't matter because there was Camden's excellent Indian Summer lager bringing up the rearguard. 

Today Beavertown and Camden had joined forces on a brew called 'One Hells of a Beaver' the brew team were mashing in the second batch when I arrived and Camden owner Jasper Cuppaidge and head Brewer Alex Troncoso were relaxing after brewing the first batch with Beavertown founder Logan Plant. In a twist the label for the beer would be designed live that evening by each breweries in house graphic designer. All you had to do was shout at them what you wanted them to draw. An increasingly less sober gang of attendees gradually yelled out more and more ridiculous ideas for the design. At one point in the evening I accosted Logan and shouted "DRAW A SHARK BUT A CRAFT SHARK BECAUSE THEY DIE IF THEY STOP DRINKING CRAFT BEER." I left a bemused looking brewer in my wake as I headed back to the bar. 

Before I descended once again into the realms of the inebriated I managed to catch up with a very happy looking Will Hawkes. He was tangibly buzzing with delight at how successful the week had been. When I asked him if he planned to do it all again next year he seemed to think so and that it would be even bigger and better especially with time for added planning and some experience under his belt. What he really wanted was a rest and I can't say I blamed him, he probably felt worse than I did and I was knackered. Still, caught up in the energy of one of my favourite drinking spots in London I proceeded to have a very good time as I always do when I come here.

Due to circumstances created by the amount of drinking that occurred the previous evening, Saturday required another rest of sorts. Scattered, occasional drinking, just to keep me ticking over. Sunday was London Craft Beer Festival day. This event, in only its second year takes place at the Oval Space in Bethnal Green. I travelled there with my friend Peter who takes the opposite approach to Chris when I get stuck in my drunk hole. His approach is to carry on pouring beer into the hole and then, once the victim is submerged he seals you in and leaves you to your fate, before climbing into his own hole and repeating the act on himself. Today was going to be a good day.

I was feeling relatively bright and breezy all things considered, I had taken in what I felt was a good amount of the camaraderie that London Beer City brought with it and this festival would round things off nicely. We trained it east with cans of Gamma Ray in our hands and were caught in a downpour as we exited Bethnal Green station. There was no other thing for it, we darted for nearby Mother Kelly's. There I had the second North American beer of the week that had managed to not only knock my socks off but also take some of the skin on my feet with them as they flew off. The beer was Westbrook Gose, a salty, sour delight that tasted almost like doing a tequila slammer but ignoring the shot of tequila and sucking the slice of lemon right after you've licked the salt.

After the rain had subsided we finally made it to Oval Space. We handed over our tickets, grabbed our tokens and glass before heading inside. This was the final session at LCBF and I was worried briefly when the first stand I visited, Camden Town Brewery only had their flagship Hells Lager left on draught. Still this worked as an ideal palate hard reset before I delved into a plethora of great beer. At LCBF you can have as many tasters at each bar as you like. Each brewery has its own bar staffed by its own employees who were more than happy to answer my questions or simply chat for a bit. The ticket price of £35 included five tokens which could be exchanged for a larger pour but in my case these were useless. The tasters were poured to a line on the glass and they were very generous indeed. I didn't use a single one of my tokens and managed to try more than double the amount of beers I tried at GBBF. This was much more my sort of thing.

It wasn't just an out an out keg lovers festival either, there were plenty of cask beers on offer too although I did feel that the organisers didn't do a good enough job of publishing this or how the tasters worked well enough. What is apparent is that although this is a young festival the organisers are learning quickly and as I supped the sublime Magic Rock Bourbon Barrel Bearded Lady I mused that this might quickly outgrow its comfortable surroundings. That would be a shame though as the Oval Space is a great space indeed especially with its long outdoor balcony being bathed in the afternoon sun. LCBF had much more of a festival atmosphere than GBBF, it was exactly what I wanted it to be.

As a bonus there was a little Belgian section over the road being run by the Flanders Tourist board. Here there were some fantastic Belgian beers, several of which I had never tried before and they were handing out some incredible Trappist cheese from Westmalle too. It was practically empty when Peter and I headed over there but apparently there had been a bit of a party in here at last nights session. One treat, for me at least, was seeing someone take their first sip of Duvel and falling in love with it, remarking that they'd seen it so many times before but never thought to try it. The engagement between the people on either side of the bar was a different standard to what I experienced at GBBF. Of course, this is due to the volunteers at GBBF having to deal with a massively higher volume of customers but maybe this is a sign that smaller, more intimate beer festivals are a much better way of helping people to experience beer. Perhaps CAMRA can learn something from this especially if they are to remain a vital part of British beer culture. 

When Peter and I get back to North London we duck in to one more pub and have, perhaps unnecessarily, pints of Lagunitas IPA. Our conversation had tipped over into the realms of existentialism, no doubt because we were both half cut but one thing we agreed on was that it had been a fantastic day. 


London has needed a week like London Beer City for some time or at least I've thought so but perhaps only now is it just about ready for it. It seems that almost every week these days brings beer events, meet the brewers and tutored tastings, hell I'm even doing my own but to condense that spirit into a week, that was essential. We, the hardcore, the ever-loving beer lovers have blinkered vision, blinded by our zeal for our favourite beverage. What London beer city did was create an environment that made beer more accessible to everyone else. I watched onlookers, stragglers and casual passers by not only stop and look what was going on but wander in and start a beer journey of their very own. Beer is becoming more inclusive and it needs to continue to do so. London Beer City deftly managed to avoid marginalising anyone and produced an event to cater for everyone. It will only go on to become bigger and better in years to come.

Some incredible brews hit London's taps that week but the beer only managed to finish in second place as it was the cities people who were the real winners. Brewers, Volunteers, Festival Goers, bystanders, passers by and anyone else who paid an iota of attention to what was going on in London that week is what made it so great. You can have all of the best beer in the world at your disposal but without people to drink and talk and laugh and enjoy themselves its all worthless. It's less London Beer City and more London Beer People.

Sunday, 24 August 2014

'An Introduction to Craft Beer' at the Duke's Head, Highgate


Nestled in the picturesque Highgate Village, The Duke's Head is part of a growing set of pubs that is transforming the area into yet another of London's great beer destinations. With ten hand pumps and ten keg lines serving a rotating line up of British beers and ciders from the likes of Brodie's, Magic Rock and Siren there's something here to keep even the most ardent beer enthusiast satisfied. If that's not enough to whet your whistle there's also plenty of bottled beer to drink in or take away, a fantastic selection of wines and spirits plus top notch grub from current kitchen residency The Bell & Brisket. With its deep grey walls, low yet warm lighting and an atmosphere that straddles the line between modern craft bar and old school drinking den it's fast become a favourite place of mine to spend a few hours.

I've teamed up with the folks at The Duke's Head to host an 'Introduction to Craft Beer' evening. Tickets are £20 and are available here: but if you fancy checking out the pub first you can also buy tickets over the bar. 

The evening will consist of a tutored tasting through six different styles of beer each from one of London's innovative and talented young breweries. Keg, cask, bottle and can will all be showcased and food will be provided in the form of salt beef bagel sliders and fries. The evening will kick off at 7pm on Thursday the 25th of September. There are only 20 tickets up for grabs so don't delay if you're thinking about coming (you really should come!)

This isn't just an event for people who are just getting into beer.

If you have the even faintest interest in beer or are on the cusp of spiralling into total geekdom then great. If you've met me then you know I like to talk, a lot. If you haven't then prepare yourself for a frenetic aural bombardment with lots of arm waving. I'll be talking about what I believe to be the origins of 'craft beer', teach you how to taste beer 'like an expert' which I promise isn't as condescending as it sounds and of course most importantly you'll get to taste some amazing beers while hopefully learning something new.

I'm really into beer and I know all this stuff, what's in it for me?

Great! For starters you'll get to taste some really good beer, some you'll know and hopefully some you won't or at least might not have tried yet. The last thing I want this evening to be is a room of people being sat down and talked at. It'll be a small group and I want to get conversations going. Also this is the first time I've hosted a tasting so it's a prime chance to berate and heckle me or merely come down and give a fellow beer geek some moral support. Either way, it'll be loads of fun and the pub is licensed until 1am (although I promise not to keep talking that long). 


On a more personal note when I started writing this beer blog almost three years ago I never expected that I'd get published and be asked to host tastings, it's certainly not the reason why I originally started writing this blog. It turns out that this is something I enjoy doing immensely and would like to do a lot more of. I've made some of my closest friends through beer and this blog and long may it continue. If you're free on the 25th it would be fantastic to see you and I promise you'll get your twenty quids worth.   

Monday, 18 August 2014

Sixpoint Are Doing It For Themselves

I'm not sure how or where it originated but over in the United States they call Bucks Fizz a Mimosa. Replacing the sparkling wine with beer gives you a beer-mosa, a near perfect way to take the harsh edge off the morning after the night before. In Germany they have a similar concept, mixing beer with fruit juice to create a Radler, a sweeter, lower alcohol alternative to a lager or weisse bier. In my hand is a can of Sixpoint Rad, a 3.2% beer blended with grapefruit juice. It's cloudy orange in colour and unsurprisingly smells of grapefruit with an ester-y almost bubblegum like note lingering in the background. I'm not sure if I like it at first but soon my hangover is softened and I begin to feel a bit more capable of taking on the day. In the end I quite enjoy it and could see why other people might too but can't fully envision it taking off in the UK, at least maybe not right at this moment. 

Earlier in the year I wrote a piece about Sixpoint Hi-Res, a limited edition triple IPA from the well known Brooklyn based brewery. I remarked on how I enjoyed the beer but tasted a distinct barley wine character and didn't quite receive the aroma hop battering I had been told to expect. Shortly after I had published the post I was contacted by the owner/founder of Sixpoint Shane Welch who very kindly said that he enjoyed the article but the beer must've been about four months old and past its best. He then went on to offer to send me some freshly canned beers, direct from the brewery. Despite any misgivings you may have about bloggers getting free beer I certainly wasn't going to deny myself the opportunity to try these beers in almost their freshest state. 

More importantly though this gave me an opportunity to discuss with Shane his plans for Sixpoint and his ongoing business relationship with pub chain J. D. Wetherspoon. The very fact that he had taken the time to read my blog and offered to send me some beer is clear evidence that the UK is a very important part of his plans and that the Wetherspoon relationship is most definitely not some fly-by-night affair. He assured me that things were running smoothly and that their beers had been very well received, he also mentioned that some of their beers may be made available on cask in the not too distant future. There has been a lot of rumour and hearsay flying around about this partnership but for now it seems that all is well. Regardless of your opinion on this you cannot deny that Sixpoint's UK profile has increased massively and we can be confident that their beer will be available over here for a long while to come.

So what of the beer I received? It was nice to see Bengali all dressed up in its updated packaging and it was packed full of the bittersweet tangerine flavour that makes it so damn drinkable. Resin, their double IPA was a borderline religious experience, especially when as fresh as this. The aroma that was expelled from the can itself was dripping with pine sap and mango. It was intense, chewy and practically glued itself to the roof of my mouth but had a bitter finish big enough to strip the palate clean afterwards. The real treat though was The Crisp. A lot can be said for fresh IPA but as I mentioned last week lately I just can't get enough fresh pils down my throat. It's almost too easy to drink and the cascade of grassy, herbal bitterness in the finish is incredibly satisfying.

I'm still not sure if Rad is my thing but what was apparent was that all these beers were dialled in, rock solid and as well presented as they are well made. Let's put that into context. Sixpoint were founded in 2004 in an urban borough of the USA's largest city. In just a decade they've grown to become a brand that is recognised by beer fans globally and has been incredibly successful at integrating itself within its own market and those abroad. Now let's turn our gaze to London, where fledgling breweries are taking that next step, expanding production, moving into export and getting their core recipes so dialled in that they've got beer to rival the best in the world. Sixpoint are a wonderful example of all we have got to look forward to in the UK and living proof that craft beer is neither a bubble or a fad.

Disclaimer: I was sent this beer for free but I don't think that affected my opinion of it. Original photography by Dianne Tanner