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: http://www.ticketsource.co.uk/date/122014 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

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Shouting Lager Helles Pilsner

























When I ceased being someone who merely enjoyed beer ever-so-slightly more than your average person and became an irrepressible ale enthusiast I pretty much wrote off lager. Those student days of working my way though as many cans of Heineken as possible on a weekend were over and I was seeking increasingly more potent flavour bombs to satisfy my increasingly jaded palate. This was a mistake.

Over the past few weeks I've had a regular craving for bready, crisp, fresh and bitter lagers. I've also found myself getting a lot more out of them than usual. Camden Hells Lager has become a staple of mine, especially the unfiltered and USA versions. Their new 'Indian Hells' promises to have the light body and drinkability of their core lagers but with a juicy, resinous quality that's usually found in the best US style IPA. The prototype of this; 'Indian Summer' has been one of my go to beers at their brewery tap, it's a crying shame whenever the keg kicks the dust. 

Bermondsey upstarts Fourpure have blown me away with the steady evolution of their Munich inspired pilsner. It has an assertive, grassy, almost herbal bitterness that has begun to satisfy me in the same way as a citrus heavy pale ale. It's taught me that not only heavily dry hopped beers benefit from being drank as fresh as possible. That bitter hit is at its best when the cans are young. Plus it's only £11.70 for a six pack from my local offy making it the cheapest 'craft' beer I've seen from a London producer so far. 

Last month in Dublin I once again got to sample unfiltered Pilsner Urquell poured from a wooden barrel. These barrels are lined with pitch so the beer takes no quality from the wood at all. This is a stunning beer, one of the best I've tried all year and I found myself appreciating it's berry-fruit like quality much more than when I tried it last year. It must be said though that the pomp and circumstance provided by brewmaster Vaclav Berka adds to the quality of the experience. Pilsner Urquell has just been released in a limited edition four pack of cans. Each can has a different design pulled from the Czech brewery's rich archives. They're stunning as is the fresh pils within although I'm certain I detected a (not unpleasant) acetic note from the canned beer. Despite this minor flaw they didn't last me long.

Perhaps it's a reaction to an ever increasing array of similar tasting pale ales. Perhaps its the never ending quest to find a new taste, each better than the last. Either way unlocking the subtle nuances of great lager is immensely enjoyable and I'm looking forward to working my way through a wealth of German and Czech classics and educating myself further. 

Disclosure: Thanks to Mark Dredge and Pilsner Urquell for the cans and thanks to Spiegelau UK for letting me test the very attractive pilsner glass pictured above. Unlike the IPA glass it didn't do enough to enhance my drinking experience to write a blog about it but it certainly looks very nice. Original photography by Dianne Tanner

Sunday, 3 August 2014

Missing the Point


There I was in Crouch End's The Harringay Arms with my friend Peter drinking lukewarm bottles of Harviestoun Schiehallion out of dirty glass tumblers. While the rest of the world lumbered forward in time The Harringay Arms has stayed noticeably static, that's part of its charm though. It's not terribly busy on this sunny Saturday afternoon but in the evening it'll be pumping because it's got vibe.

Disappointed by the choice of beers at our current location Peter and I decide to mosey onwards. The nearest pub happens to be The Devonshire House, a Wetherspoons that when I first moved to the area was an All Bar One. I used to quite like it when it was an All Bar One, it was pretty sterile and always empty but they sold bottles of Sierra Nevada pale ale which I used to enjoy immensely even before I'd put the words 'craft' and 'beer' together. Inevitably it closed down and in went bright lights, soft carpets and cheap wallpaper. Every ounce of soul was sucked out of this buildings interior, it became the pub equivalent of Voldemort. 

Still, we venture inside knowing that if there's nothing decent on draught then we can at least turn to reliable cans of Sixpoint Bengali Tiger. I get as far as the first hand pump when I see it, the familiar 'American Craft Brewers Showcase' attachment that indicates the beer on tap is a collaboration between an English and an American brewer. Occasionally the folks behind J. D. Wetherspoon bring a load of well regarded brewers over from the rest of the world who brew 'versions' of their beers with some of Britains larger brewers such as Adnams or Thwaites. Occasionally a gem appears and people make the extra effort to seek it out. Me? I'd rather the brewers in question were bringing their actual beers over, rather than the often poor imitations that end up on the pumps at Wetherspoons.

I look at the pump clip and my eyes immediately land on the name John Kimmich. I imagine 99.9% of Wetherspoons customers have never heard the name John Kimmich before but I had, and I imagine many of you have. For those that don't know Kimmich owns a brewery in the US state of Vermont called The Alchemist. They've brewed a few different beers since their inception in 2003 but in 2011 Kimmich, after their brewpub was demolished by Hurricane Irene, opened a 15 barrel brewery and canning line for the production of a single beer, Heady Topper. 

Heady Topper is a double IPA, in fact it's a really, really good double IPA that I've had the fortune to try in the past. If it was readily available it's probably the sort of thing I'd have in my fridge all the time. I don't think it's actually any better than something like Kernel Citra or Magic Rock Cannonball but it has a mystique about it that drives people crazy. In November 2013 The Alchemist had to close their brewery to the public because the queues leading to the tap room and shop were causing huge traffic problems. The sleepy town of Waterbury simply didn't have the infrastructure to sustain the chaos. The Alchemist brew 12 batches of Heady Topper a week and are currently expanding so that they can make more. When cans hit stores they sell out in days if not hours. This is in a country that has an immeasurably more advanced craft beer scene than our own with a gargantuan amount of great beer being readily available. Yet despite this hardcore geeks still lose their shit over this one beer. 

Hop perverts in the UK would more than likely happily part with £10 for a can (It sells for about $12 a four-pack over in Vermont.) Hell they'd probably beg, borrow or steal just to taste a thimble-full. So with this in mind why has Kimmich come to the UK and brewed a beer with Adnams to an almost minimal fuss. Well it's not Heady Topper, that's why. That and the lumbering Wetherspoons beast have a mailing list populated with people looking for cheap meal deals and low priced pints. They couldn't give a flying fuck who John Kimmich or The Alchemist is. Can they buy four pints for less than a tenner is a more important fact (you can.)

So Peter and I settle in with our pints of Enraptured, a 5.5% American brown ale that cost £2.35 each. The aroma is a bit like walking through a coniferous forest on a late summers evening when suddenly a masked rogue runs at you and smashes a grapefruit into your face before disappearing, laughing into the distance. It feels chewy and resinous. Globs of sweet malt are covered with chunks of mango, lychee and more grapefruit. It's huge, bitter, slightly astringent and I imagine for your average beer drinker this might be a little bit challenging. It's a crime to see a beer such as this on cask, even though it's in very good condition there's not enough carbon dioxide present to stop it from being a little cloying and it's not cold enough to be refreshing. However it is completely delicious and incredibly accomplished yet here it is languishing in a family orientated hell-hole of a bar where know one really gives two shits about craft beer. 

John Kimmich probably thought it would be great to build a relationship with a British brewer, a really good one at that. Coincidentally one that is also masterfully handling the Lagunitas import operation (despite a minor setback due to the changing of keg sizes) but I'm missing the point here. Why is it worth bringing over one of the most revered brewers in the world to brew a 5.5% brown ale, albeit a very good one and then sell it into a massive pub chain thats modus operandi is to bonk out as much cheap food and beer as possible whilst simultaneously conveying a completed skewed pricing structure that's designed to bury local pubs that simply cannot compete. It makes me sick. Meanwhile, Kimmich is probably over the moon that his beer is being showcased in 'British Pubs'. It's not the beer that we want though John, it's not the beer that we want. 

I thought about going back the next day to see if it was still on, it really was that good but one glance into the window of that soulless pit was enough to put me off. Judging by how it tasted, it can't have been on for more than a few hours when we drank it. In my imagination it dwindled on the pumps for days while every beautiful molecule of hop oil was slowly being annihilated by oxygen one mote at a time before finally the last sickly-sweet dregs were drained and at only two thirty-five a pint. 

Monday, 28 July 2014

Mother Kelly's, Bethnal Green


























Like beer, a good bar or pub needs good quality ingredients in just the right balance in order to be a success. Good food and drink is arguably the most important of these, great service is of course essential as is cleanliness. No one in their right mind appreciates putting their elbows on sticky tables or holding their nose whilst side-stepping pools of urine on their way to relieve themselves. There's another element though that's far more difficult to achieve. Some pubs have it, some don't and then there are those rare places that have it in spades. I'm talking about vibe.

There are a handful of pubs in the world that have this magical balance of which I speak. Pub vibe is akin to the perfect dry-hopping regime, that injection of unicorn power that makes a beer like Pliny the Elder one of the best in its class. North Bar in Leeds has it as does 't Brugs Beertjes in Bruges and on the other side of the pond I've so far found no better than the Mayor of Old Town in Fort Collins, Colorado. Sadly, in London I've not yet found a place that quite has that essence, that pull that makes me want to empty my wallet and waste my hours descending slowly into drunken bliss, until now that is.



It's easy to get lost in the short distance between the exit of Bethnal Green Underground station and Mother Kelly's Beer and Bottle Shop but once you've located the narrow, cobbled Paradise Row you're only metres away. Soon you're presented with several freshly renovated and for now mostly uninhabited retail spaces beneath a railway arch. There's no huge neon sign (although perhaps there should be) to indicate you've arrived at your destination, just some subtle branding frosted onto the glass of a doorway that's been invitingly flung wide open.

Picnic tables are laid out on a generously sized outdoor space and as you step inside your feet find wooden floorboards which add a softness to the urban surroundings. There are similar tables inside with chairs that look like they've been teleported from a 1970's classroom and right at the front are old oak barrels turned upright and surrounded by tall stools which are ideal for smaller parties. It's not the modest furnishings that your eyes are drawn to though as on your left are 6 huge fridges, gleaming with the multicoloured labels of beers from around the world and on top of these sit the kind of Belgian beer crates you wish you had at home for storing your own stash. 





When you finally reach the bar at the back of the arch you're confronted by 23 minimalist taps. Cask is omitted from the selection which doesn't bother me personally and with at least 19 draught beers and ciders plus what must be a selection of at least 150 different bottles there's definitely something here for everyone, wine and spirit fans included. Even the selection of soft drinks from amongst others London's Square Root is well thought out. The taps are mostly dedicated to British breweries such as Magic Rock, Weird Beard and Siren but you also see some gems from overseas such as Evil Twin Falco IPA and rarities such as Schlenkerla Urbock. The bottles (and cans) available range from locals like Beavertown and Kernel right through to foreign gems from Cantillon, Schneider and Flying Dog, in fact on each of my visits I have struggled to find a genre of beer that has been poorly represented. 

All of this is to be expected in any good pub but it's the little touches that push Mother Kelly's into the premier league. The staff are friendly and knowledgable as should be expected. Each table has a small flower arrangement next to which is a bottle of sparkling water (they carbonate it in house) and a stack of tumblers. Giving customers water without them having to ask for it is something far more pubs that sell very strong beer need to do. There's no kitchen but they still manage to prepare plates of fine cheese, charcuterie and fabulous pork pies. The unisex toilets are not only immaculate but the taps are the same as those behind the bar, a lovely little touch. They're not just a sit in pub either, a hefty discount is available for take out which is just another reason for you to keep going back. 

I've visited Mother Kelly's in the daytime when it's quiet and lazy and in the evening when it's lively and energetic and I love it when it's in both of these states. The bright graffitied mural of a New York street on the wall opposite the fridges almost evokes the feel of the Brooklyn craft beer scene and with London's East End being similar in vibe to the New York borough this feels appropriate. On my most recent visit I ordered a bottle of Cantillon Iris, the fresh hopped version of their Gueuze and asked for four glasses. When the server disappeared into the back and returned with four branded Cantillon tumblers I was taken back, this represented that x factor that makes this pub a truly excellent place to be. Long may it continue to be just so.


Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Beavertown Go Large


I've followed the progress of Beavertown Brewery since they first started churning beers out of Dukes Brew and Que on a 4BBL kit back in 2011. I remember the first time I tasted Gamma Ray, I liked it, I knew right away they'd be an important addition to the UK brewing scene. It wasn't until a few months later when I blind tasted a more dialled in batch of the same beer at the Craft Beer Company's ill fated pub quiz that it really clicked. It buzzed with rich, pithy, juicy grapefruit and I wrote 'Kernel Citra IPA' on my answer sheet. It was the start of a pretty tight relationship. 

As I wander half lost around the back streets behind Tottenham Hale station a small quiver of excitement suddenly runs through me. I hear music, smell food frying and see a small crowd gathered outside a warehouse with its doorway flung wide open. I join friends at a picnic table just outside the entrance. The sun is attempting to shine as hard as it can through a few rainclouds but people don't take notice of those. Instead they sup schooners of sours, pale ales and imperial coffee stout. They stuff their face with pulled pork, burgers and falafel. Some play 'cornhole' a game which simply involves throwing small beanbag through a hole from distance which isn't as easy as it sounds. All while owner/brewmaster/brand ambassador Logan Plant hops around, simultaneously entertaining the needs of his customers and his young son.



I wander inside, slip past a monolithic wall of yet to be filled cans, wolf down a slider and join a small queue at the bar which sits opposite a row of gleaming fermentation vessels. Ten beers covering a gamut of styles to keep any beer lover happy are being poured. These beers, including my favourite Gamma Ray are being sold for near half of what I've seen them go for in London's most popular beer destinations. Some people opt for thirds, a few upgrade to halves but most seem content with British craft beer's new poster boy measure the two-thirder. Many also grab cans to take home so that they can continue their drinking experience elsewhere long after that big front door closes. A Lemon Phantom Berliner Weisse sets me up, it's as tart and refreshing as a can of cloudy lemonade but with an extra smack to the chops.



I've written about Beavertown and their beers many times but I never seem to get bored of doing so. I feel like I know them inside out and yet in some respects I feel like I know them hardly at all. The first piece I wrote for 100 Best Breweries was about them and despite it being published as recently as March it's already well out of date. Gone are the days of brewing in a cramped Hackney restaurant and a slightly less cramped Hackney warehouse. This 30BBL brewery is the next step, a surefire sign that British 'craft beer' has evolved, this is phase two, now it's time to get serious. 



Everything about the facility Beavertown have dubbed 'Big Beaver' makes me think of the North American brewery explosion that happened the late 80's and early 90's. Now world renowned breweries such as Lagunitas, Deschutes and Bear Republic have expanded again and again to keep up with a demand that just keeps getting bigger. Lagunitas now runs two immense breweries that cast a long shadow over an operation such as Beavertown and yet even they struggle to keep up with the worlds ever increasing thirst for good beer. As I sit with my two-thirder of twisted, tart, refreshing sour beer I feel as if I'm within a mature, established environment even though they've barely been here two months. In fact I feel almost as if I'm back in Colorado, a place I regularly long to be. Except, now I don't have to travel 5000 miles, I just have to take the number 41 bus five miles down the road.

Beavertown Brewery is located at Lockwood Industrial Park, Mill Mead Road, Tottenham Hale, London, N17 9QP. The tap room is open every Saturday from 11am-5pm.