Sunday, 1 March 2015

Discovering the Pennsylvania Swankey - A Return to Verboten Brewing

I first paid a visit to Loveland's Verboten Brewing back in February 2013. I had been invited by owners Josh Grenz and Joe Akers along with Kevin Bolin, manager of Fort Collins' über-beer bar The Mayor of Old Town, to brew an imperial version of a Kentucky Common, an almost forgotten, pre-prohibition beer style. At this point their brewery, tucked away in a small Colorado Front-Range town, was only two months old but they were already managing to fill their tap room with customers. A solid range of core beers with movie inspired names was in part the reason for this, that and the sense of community that's immediately apparent when you step inside the brewery, even before you've ordered a beer. 

The resulting beer, named I'm All Right Jack, a reference in part to Pink Floyd's Money and in part to the acidulated malt we were using to make a 'sour mash,' was mostly aged in rum barrels. It demonstrated the ambitious nature of head brewer Grenz and was only the beginning of several ambitious forays into barrel ageing. The barrel aged version of this beer went on to win gold for its style at the 2013 All Colorado Beer Festival and I finally got to taste it when I returned to the Mountain State later that year. It was like liquidised Christmas pudding in a glass, rich and intense and incredibly accomplished. I was not surprised by the amount of praise it garnered from local drinkers.




Fast forward and it's December 2014, Kevin and I are back at Verboten but the place has changed remarkably. The once seemingly spacious brewery floor is now crammed with more barrels, more fermenters and seemingly endless coils of industrial hosepipe that snakes across its concrete surface. The moustachioed Grenz is zipping around the room like a hummingbird in search of nectar and suddenly he disappears into the cold room only to return with an unlabelled, wax-sealed bottle of beer. It was a bottle of I'm All Right Jack that had been resting, maturing and it became integral to what was to become a heavy drinking brew day. It was remarkable how the beer had matured, all of its complexities becoming more restrained, elegant and integrated. I only wish there was more of it so I could have shared it with the folks back home, for me it really marks Verboten as ones to watch.

The mash was already on when I arrived, we were brewing a beer that was going to be called 'More,' another Pink Floyd reference. Such is his love for the prog rocksters sometimes you can arrive at the Mayor only to find Kevin on stage, jamming out the bass grooves that made Roger Waters a household name. We were brewing another pre-prohibition beer style I had never heard of, a Pennsylvania Swankey. My research unearthed very little information about the origins of this beer style. What I discovered was that the Swankey was a very low alcohol ale, similar to a British mild but instead of hops the beer was flavoured with herbs such as star anise. It was popular with Dutch and German settlers in the early 1900's but the style eventually diminished. I can imagine than an aniseed flavoured beer was very much an acquired taste.
  



This being Verboten though, we were pulling no punches. This was not going to be a historically accurate reproduction, this was going to be an imperial version that would finish at around 9% ABV. Grenz had no plans of stopping there though, nosiree, next door to Verboten is the Dancing Pines distillery who, by chance, had just finished a batch of barrel-aged Absinthe and Josh had gotten hold of the barrel. The idea of ageing a star anise infused beer in an Absinthe barrel is either genius or pure insanity, either way it's sure going to be fun finding out what comes out of that barrel. If one thing's for certain it's that if you're not already a lover of liquorice or aniseed then it's unlikely this will be a beer for you.

The brew day went by in a blur, with bottles being opened and stories being shared. What was clear to me is that Verboten are cruising along like a steam train, becoming ever more ambitious and, rightfully so, more popular in a marketplace where it can be difficult to get noticed. It's surely only a matter of time before a lot more people get excited about their beers and that Verboten are spoken of in the same revered tones as some of the USA's most well-loved breweries. What's also interesting to me is how in two brew days I've witnessed the twisted resurrection of two long forgotten beer styles. How many more historical styles are still out there waiting to be rediscovered and, more importantly, how will modern brewers adapt them into something modern drinkers can appreciate.

A non-barrel aged version of More was released at the start of the year, lucky denizens of Northern Colorado can expect the barrel aged version to hit the taps around June. Photo of the Absinthe barrel courtesy of Frank Curtis (or Dad, as I call him.) 



Friday, 27 February 2015

Beavertown pit Cask Vs. Keg at The Dukes Head, Highgate



Following on from two sold-out events, I'm continuing my residency at Highgate’s The Duke’s Head to bring you a cask vs. keg event with a difference. North London’s Beavertown Brewery has quickly established itself on the British beer scene since opening in 2011 but this reputation has been built on the back of exceptional keg and canned beers. Few now remember the brewery’s humble beginnings, where founder Logan Plant used to try and clone the legendary Bathams Bitter on a six-barrel brew kit in the kitchen of his restaurant, Duke’s Brew and Que

Beavertown’s modern, flavour forward beers are seldom seen on cask these days but all this is set to change at The Duke’s Head at 7.00pm on Friday the 20th of March. Three of Beavertown’s best known beers; Gamma Ray Pale Ale, Black Betty Black IPA and the highly sought after Bloody ‘Ell Blood Orange IPA will feature on both cask and keg in a no holds barred fight to the death. Only the best dispense method will emerge victorious, the other beaten and bloodied.

On arrival you will receive a glass of Sacred ‘Hop Shot’, a 40% ‘reverse engineered beer’ from the Highgate based micro-distillery that’s sure to get you the mood for blood. Your host for the evening (that's me) will then guide you on a tutored tasting, with a half-pint of each beer from both methods of dispense being provided. Logan and the team from Beavertown will be on hand to talk about the history of each beer before you, the public, gets to vote, in secret, which dispense method you think best suits which beer. If that wasn’t enough to get you excited, current Duke’s Head kitchen residents Tiberi will be serving up a three courses of Catalonian style tapas, matched perfectly with each beer.  

This is not your typical, sit down, civilized beer event, this is war. Two dispense methods enter, only one leaves. In addition, The Duke’s Head has been granted a 3am license for this event as it’s guaranteed to be one hell of a party. There may well be other surprises in store on the night and I might wear a sparkly jacket, here's hoping I'll see you there.

Tickets are priced at £40 each and are available from Ticketsource here: https://www.ticketsource.co.uk/date/152598





Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Inside The Beer Vault's Lock Box

The rise of the drink-at-home beer subscription service seems unrelenting since the quite wonderful BeerBods arrived on the scene in 2012. Since then a whole range of different subscription services have sprung up, such as the engaging yet off-kilter Honest Brew and the passionate BelgiBeer, who are determined to make a living by showing people the craftier side of Belgian brewing. The latest player to arrive on the scene is Bristol based The Beer Vault who are attempting to differentiate themselves from competitors by suppling their customers with bottles from the bleeding edge of craft beer. 

The Beer Vault offer two different services. The first, their 'Lock Box' is what they describe as their "standard beer box... but nothing's standard about it". The other option is a limited, one in, one out members club called the Vault Reserve which is aimed directly at the collector/enthusiast. When the Vault Reserve service first began, The Beer Vault boldly sent their subscribers bottles of the revered Westvleteren 12, immediately laying their credentials on the line. As there are only 50 spaces for Vault Reserve members I can't imagine it'll be long before they're fully subscribed, providing they can keep the bar this high of course.

I was sent an example of a Lock Box, which contains eight beers, shipped monthly at a cost of £30 each time, including delivery charges. The thing that most impressed me about the beers that arrived was that I had personally bought all of them before, either from a bottle shop or in a bar. I like to imagine I'm a man of taste so clearly the people behind The Beer Vault must be too. There was Beavertown's Neck Oil, Fourpure's overlooked Pale Ale, the clever Iced Tea Saison from Bermondsey's Partizan and the sublime Black Perle coffee milk stout from Weird Beard, to name but a few. My only negative comment would be that this box was incredibly London-centric with only two of the beers, Wild Beer Co's Scarlet Fever and the wonderful New World Saison from Buxton, being born outside of the capital.

Putting this to one side, this is still an absolutely cracking set of beers that would keep any ardent beer lover happy, although I doubt I could make a selection this good last me an entire month. I think the real trick for The Beer Vault is to be able to continue to source beers of the highest quality month after month and keeping it interesting for their subscribers. After chatting to the guys behind the business I could quickly tell they were as passionate and enthusiastic about beer as I am. As a result I have every confidence that they'll manage their expectations comfortably.

I was sent these beers for free but I don't think that influenced my opinion of them. If you fancy trying out the beer vault for yourself then they're currently offering 25% off your first Lock Box.   

Sunday, 22 February 2015

Show Us Your Local - The Duke's Head, Highgate

I've often mentioned Highgate's The Duke's Head in the context of the events that I've hosted there. What I haven't mentioned enough, is what a fantastic pub it really is and why I'm so often drawn back to its cosy surroundings. It may not be the closest decent pub to me but it is the best, which makes the twenty minute walk there (and the half an hour walk back) more than worth the while. 

I fell for the pub on my first visit, after a brisk spring walk with friends through the nearby Queen's Wood. Ten gleaming handpulls, two of which are dedicated to cider, are lined up neatly on the bar like soldiers standing to attention. You'll always see something good on the pumps, be it from local breweries such as Siren and Weird Beard or from those further afield such as Bristol's Moor or Yorkshire's Magic Rock. The pubs manager, Tom runs the cellar like a finely oiled machine so you can always count on your pint being cool and in top condition. It's no wonder that The Duke's Head is currently CAMRA's North London pub of the season. 

Mounted on the wall behind the bar are ten taps, pouring keg beers such as the pub's house lager, Hammerton Islington Steam and you can always count on a pint of Beavertown Gamma Ray being available. You'll occasionally find more adventurous beers pouring from the wall. Recent guests have included Wild Goose Chase, a gooseberry saison from The Wild Beer Company and the absolutely stunning India Pale Ale Nelson Sauvin from Bermondsey's The Kernel. It's striking the balance between solid, reliable, great quality keg and cask ales and slightly more adventurous beers that get enthusiasts excited, that makes this pubs beer offering one of the best in town.





It's not just great beer that makes The Duke's Head tick though. Your gaze won't escape the glowing neon above the Sacred gin bar which serves cocktails using spirits from the Highgate based micro-distillery. Nor will it escape the well chosen range of whiskies, tequilas and wines lined up on the shelves and the cans from Beavertown and Fourpure packed into the fridges. You won't go hungry either, as the rotating, monthly kitchen residency from top street food vendors means that there's always something new and exciting on the menu. Recent occupants have included The Bell & Brisket, Rotli Crew and The Beefsteaks. 

Good food and drink isn't enough in itself to make a pub great though, neither is great music, friendly, efficient staff and a host of unique special events, all of which this pub has in spades. There's one thing that can't be stocked or hired or trained that makes the best pubs truly stand out, vibe. The walls of The Duke's Head are practically dripping with the stuff, creating the perfect atmosphere whatever situation you find yourself in when you're there. It could be a quiet Sunday lunchtime pint, it could be a watching a football match on the television with your mates, it could be a lively Friday night with a DJ spinning great tunes. Whatever the situation, The Duke's Head captures it perfectly. It welcomes you in, invites you to stay a little longer than you intended and before you know it you're sat around a table doing shots at 2am and hoping that you never have to leave. 

Few pubs have the magic but The Duke's Head has it in spades, that's why it's my local.


This post is my contribution to Jamie Oliver's Drinks Tube's fantastic 'Show Us Your Local' initiative. You can read and watch lots of other great tributes to other great locals by following the hashtag #ShowUsYourLocal

I'm running two event's at The Duke's Head in March. On the 4th of March it's our monthly bottle club with special guests Fourpure, email bottleclub@thedukesheadhighgate.co.uk to get involved. Then, on the 20th of March we're welcoming Beavertown brewery for a special cask vs. keg event which will feature lots of great food and drink as well as a tutored tasting with a difference from myself and a chance to meet the guys from the brewery. Tickets are £40 and can be purchased from Ticketsource here: https://www.ticketsource.co.uk/date/152598


Sunday, 15 February 2015

Finding The Source - Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project, Denver, Colorado

I first encountered Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project when owner and founder Chad Yakobson was brewing his Belgian influenced, wood aged sour ales at Funkwerks in Fort Collins, Colorado. I remember enjoying them at a time when I was just beginning to get my head around the complexities of sour beers and the influences that yeasts such as Brettanomyces and bacteria such as Lactobacillus can have on the flavour of a beer. Shortly after that visit to Funkwerks back in 2011, Yakobson relocated Crooked Stave to Denver and quickly became a cult figure in brewing circles. As time progressed my own love for sour beer grew immeasurably and I now relish every opportunity I get to drink this revered brewery's beer.

Just a few blocks from Coors Field, home of the Colorado Rockies baseball team, is The Source, a former foundry built in the 1880's that now houses a modern, artisanal market. With its industrial surroundings The Source wouldn't look out of place if it was transported over 4000 miles to East London. The outlets it houses are similar in nature to many of East London's too. Among the stores are some smart looking restaurants, a butchers, a deli, a liquor store and tucked away at the back of the building is the tap room that Crooked Stave now calls home. 

The bar is immediately recognisable as being Crooked Stave's, with the idyllic farmyard scenes found on its labels painted on the wall behind the taps. However, I found myself a little confused when I stepped up to the bar. All the photos I had seen of the tap room showed a mass of brewing kit, waiting to be commissioned and stacks of barrels full of ageing beer, or still waiting to be filled but this was nowhere to be seen. It turns out that although The Source had originally been the intended home for Crooked Stave's brewing operation, a dispute over the water supply with the building's owners had seen that this wasn't going to happen, at least for the moment. 




Regardless of this I was now immersed in my element, with a flight of intensely flavoured sour beers laid out before me. Beers like St. Bretta, a Brettanomyces heavy saison that's flavoured with a different citrus fruit each season, Petit Sour, a Berliner Weisse with both apricot and pomegranate versions currently pouring and Sentience, a wild Belgian style quad. Even picking three Crooked Stave beers at random like this demonstrates the weird and wonderful ideas floating around in Yakobsen's head. I settle on the Autumn incarnation of St. Bretta that's infused with blood oranges to start. While I enjoy the electric, citrus tang of this incredibly accomplished beer my Dad, who along with my Sister is accompanying me on this visit, screws his face up to the point of almost spitting it out.

As I work my way through the entirety of the draught offerings I watch my Dad's features contort with each mouthful. They say that you should have three sips of a sour beer before you give up on it, by my Dad's seventh or eighth I was beginning to admire his stamina, or was he perhaps just a glutton for punishment? I guess sour beers really are not for everyone. My sister seemed to enjoy them though and I most certainly was but not as much as I expected to. When I've managed to get hold of bottles of Crooked Stave's St. Bretta or the stunning Vieille provision saison in the past, they have been exactly that, stunning. Here in the tap room I found many of the beers to be overly sharp and intensely sour.

There were some brilliant beers on offer, the Batch 100 truly was an exceptional beer that when sipped, felt like a thousand, tiny, lemon flavoured pin pricks, acupuncture for the palate. Nightmare on Brett was far from a nightmare, but this bourbon barrel aged dark sour was as complex as it was challenging. It was more of a guttural experience than it was an enjoyable one. In the end it was the simple, plain old Vieille that remained my favourite because it was a beer I would drink often, if I could, but even this tasted somewhat spikier than I remember.










Crooked Stave brew incredible beers that will continue to impress even the most hardcore sour beer lovers for years to come but I actually don't think they suit being served fresh or on draught. Give a bottle of Vieille just six months in a dark cupboard or, if you're lucky enough, a cool cellar and it will mellow, integrate and open up. These are beers that benefit patience and I dare say that some of the wackier creations would benefit greatly from even longer periods of ageing. It's a shame that we're so desperate to drink all these wonderful creations as soon as they're available, rather than when they're actually ready. I look forward to drinking the few bottles I brought back with me in a year or so's time. 

Despite this I'd still have a visit to The Source high on my list of things to do in Denver. It's handy for Downtown and not too far away from other interesting breweries such as Black Shirt, River North and Breckenridge. The food here is great, the bottle shop has an interesting selection of beers you'll want to bring home with you and when it comes down to it, the Crooked Stave tap room is a cool place to grab a beer. It's a shame that they're not brewing in house as originally intended, at least not yet, but it seems that contract brewing at the nearby Epic Brewing Company is working well for Yakobson and his always interesting, sometimes bonkers range of brews. I'm hoping that next time I pay The Source a visit that it's filled with steam and the heady smell of wet grain.

The Source can be found at 3350 Brighton Boulevard, Denver, Colorado and is open from 8am until 11pm, seven days a week. 


Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Presenting: Bottle Club - At The Duke's Head, Highgate

On Wednesday the 4th of February a small group of beer enthusiasts gathered at The Duke's Head in Highgate Village to share a lot of very good beer. Previously I've run two sold out events at The Duke's, they were an absolute blast and there's more to come (more on this in a moment) but between the pub's Manager, Tom and myself we decided on doing something a little more intimate. 

We wanted to get together a group of people who loved beer as much as we did and to share beers that might not necessarily be available at the pub itself. We decided to keep the group to a size of ten, plus the two of us but we also wanted to create something that we could run monthly, that would stay fresh and interesting for those that choose to attend regularly. We sold ten tickets for the event at ten pounds each but the entirety of the ticket fee was to be spent on a selection of bottles curated by Tom and I. Guests were also welcome to bring bottles from their own collection, so there was certainly no fear of anyone going thirsty.

The two of us met at Mother Kelly's in Bethnal Green one evening and dropped our cash on some of the best bottles they had in stock. We left with IPA, sours, stouts, gose, Belgian style quads and even a barrel-aged rauchbier. We were pretty confident with what we had in store for our guests but when they turned up with their Flanders reds, more sours and even some hallowed Westvleteren 8 we knew we were in for a great night. 



We whizzed through the beers, conversation becoming louder and more excited in time with each bottle being opened. Some even ordered pints to keep them going in between bottles, something to really gulp on between small sips of the beers being passed around. It was a genuine pleasure to try beers from Liverpool's Mad Hatter and Manchester's Chorlton Brewing Company for the very first time. I was mesmerised by the immaculate Cuvée De Ranke with its sour, lemony notes twisting my tongue and the Barrel Aged Old Rasputin from California's North Coast was up there with the best bourbon barrel-aged stouts I have ever tasted. It didn't stop there though, more bottles came out and when the bottles were empty we hit the taps for pint after pint of Beavertown Gamma Ray. Then we got into the Sacred Hop Shots, a 'reversed engineered beer' that's basically hop gin. It all went dark after that.

It was incredible - I urge you to get involved with the next one - it's going to be bigger and better. We're keeping the same sized, cosy group of ten but we're pleased to welcome special guests Fourpure Brewing Co. who will also be slinging a few of their great canned beers into the mix. This isn't going to be so much a meet the brewer as more of a sit down and get drunk with a brewer, so to speak. We're hoping to get more brewers and other special stuff like this happening as the months go on. 



Our next Bottle Club will be held on Wednesday the 4th of March and the ticket link will only be sent out to members of the mailing list. Please email bottleclub@thedukesheadhighgate.co.uk if you'd like to take part. We're making this a ticketed event in order to keep the size of the group small, if we get enough interest then we will hopefully look at a way of accommodating a larger group in the future. As this is a ticketed event we are unable to accommodate walk-ins, we just want to make sure there is enough beer to go around.

I'm also very excited to announce that The Duke's Head, myself and a very, very cool brewery have been working hard on preparing for our next event. Put Friday the 20th of March in your diaries right now because this is going to be one beer event you will not want to miss. For updates follow Duke's (@DukesHighgate) and myself (@totalcurtis) on twitter as we will be revealing more details very soon.

Here's hoping we'll see you at Bottle Club in the not too distant future!


Thursday, 5 February 2015

A Moment in Falling Rock Tap House


It's minus fifteen degrees celsius outside and a torrential blizzard is blowing wildly. Somehow I've convinced my Dad to make the hour-long drive from Fort Collins into downtown Denver and we've set ourselves up at the bar in the Falling Rock Tap House, away from the cold. I sink a pint of Stone's Go-To IPA in what seems like minutes. It's all mango and pineapple, a delight, but I've already got my eye on the tap handle that reads 'Pliny the Elder.' 

"You had several pints of Pliny yesterday, try something new." My Dad urges me to break out of my comfort zone and I settle for a pint of Epic's Escape to Colorado. It's gorgeous, a hazy golden glow neatly wraps itself around the kind of grapefruit and pine resin nuances that make India Pale Ale my favourite style of beer. It's not Pliny though, nothing else is. 

My Dad locks himself in conversation the barman who, completely without any hint of irony, is clad in a Sam Smith's t-shirt. For some reason I don't think he's ever been to Tadcaster. He regales us with tales about the evils of big beer, about how he'll never stock Goose Island again for as long as he lives. A young man walks up to the bar and asks "What good IPA's are you pouring?" Without pausing the barman immediately switches his attention from my Dad to the young man. "I don't even like hoppy beer but we've got Pliny, is that good enough for ya?"