Sunday, 23 November 2014

Camden Town Brewery India Hells Lager

When Camden Town Brewery released Indian Summer Lager last year I felt as if I'd found the one beer that, if I had to, I could drink all summer long. So on my regular Friday night pit stops at the brewery bar, some lasting much longer than others, it became my go-to beer. It got to the point where I was audibly annoyed if it wasn't on tap but when it was I would barely consider drinking anything else. I watched it change with each fresh batch, sometimes at a pintable 5.4% and sometimes at a Saturday-ruining 6.4% and this one time it was even liquored back with the now defunct USA Hells (superseded by Camden Pils) but throughout this one thing was very apparent, it kept getting better. 

Then, the staff at Camden started throwing a term around, 'IHL'. At first I didn't know what they were referring to but when they went to the bar they never ordered an Indian Summer, they asked for an IHL, an India Hells Lager. For me, late this summer was when my excitement for this beer started to gather pace. I'd already fallen head over heels with the prototype and the thought of having access to a beer such as this all the time filled me with glee. The first time I held a can of IHL in my hands it wasn't even the finished product, I'd just rocked up to a press night and saw it sitting on a table. I lunged forward and cracked it open there and then. It was warm, I didn't care, it tasted incredible and at the end of that night when my fellow beer writers and other industry bods were wrapped in the warm, fuzzy embrace of alcohol I guiltily shoved as many into my backpack as I could find. The only problem was that I couldn't find very many to take, it had been the most popular beer of the evening.

Fast forward a few months and Camden Town Brewery had gone public with IHL and the wheels of the hype machine had been well and truly set in motion. To celebrate the launch of this beer they had planned a weeks worth of events in the form of a pop up at the Cob Gallery on Royal College Street in the beating heart of Camden Town itself. It might seem pompous, even arrogant to give a beer not just one night of celebration and worship but a whole week but I believe that this is a beer that is fully deserving of the absolute reverence that is being laid upon it. They even decided to call this place 'The Temple of IHL' and described the beer as 'IPA, reborn as Lager.' Importantly this was not an act of either pompousness nor arrogance, this was passion. The crowning peak of months of hard work trying to create the best beer they possibly could.

Eventually it was my turn to pay my respects at the temple. I make my way past a row of burning candles, down some stairs and then into the sepulchre itself. I draw myself up to one of several large buckets full of ice and cans and take an IHL in my hand only this time, this is the finished product, this is crunch time. The can itself is gorgeous with a giant orange IHL emblazoned as clear as day on the front of the can but this is flanked by some of the most wonderful design I've ever seen grace a sheet of aluminium. Most notably present are four British animals, a fox, a stag, a badger and a hare all dressed in robes and worshipping 'The Good Lord Lager.' 

There were no glasses on hand this evening, they weren't needed. Although we were within the temple there was no need to stand on ceremony. I crack the seal and satsuma and pine resin aromas leap from the can very much like the hare pictured on its side might. I take a swig and suddenly I'm awash with flavours of peach, apricot, mango and grapefruit zest which are met by a ringing note of pine sap. Intricate layers of bitterness start to build but suddenly a dank, herbal note sucks the palate dry. What just happened? Where did that crescendo of flavour go? I want more! Well I guess I'll take another sip. Oh, looks like I need another can. Crack. Hiss. Repeat. 

To call a beer a game changer is a bold thing to say in this day and age. This is the age of Pliny and Heady, of Crooked Stave and Hill Farmstead after all. You'd think that hop forward beers could no longer get any better, that they'd reached their evolutionary peak and well, I'd question that you'd be wrong. This beer is brilliant for the same reason beers like Pliny the Elder are brilliant. It's so clean that it positively sparkles and the flavours are in ultra high definition. So detailed and yet you can pick them out of the air like a ninja catches cherry blossom between his index and middle finger. Then there's that dryness, IHL is a lager through and through, completely unfiltered and unpasteurised which gives it a quality it shares with the worlds best pilsners, you just can't seem to stop drinking it. It is unlike other hoppy beers because it doesn't become cloying and overwhelm your palate. 

IHL tastes like a world class IPA but drinks like a world class lager. This makes it accessible, this is a beer for all and not just a new plaything for flavour seekers who laugh in the face of increasingly bitter beers. This is beer that will demonstrate the incredible flavours of hops without ever being intimidating. IHL is to 2014 what Jaipur and Punk were to 2007. This is the evolution of beer in action and I am choosing to experience it by the case.  

Monday, 17 November 2014

The Naked Beer Co

I take a sip of a beer called Freudian Slip, which simply describes itself as a 'special'. My brain does a backflip and my tongue ties itself into knots as I desperately try and work out what the hell it is that I'm drinking. It poured what seemed to be a pond water shade of dirty brown but when held up to the light it shone a bright crimson. It reeks of toffee apples, burnt brown sugar and over ripe stone fruit and it tastes initially of burnt toffee and then of green apple skins before building to a sweet crescendo of raisins, sultanas and figs. At 6.5% ABV it's somewhere between a barley wine and an old ale, it has a few of what I perceive to be minor faults but I don't really care because although I'm struggling to untangle a mass of chaotic flavours I'm absolutely certain that I like it. 

After spending five years brewing for other people including the Bristol Beer Factory and Ascot Ales, head brewer Rob Thomas decided to set up the Naked Beer Company. The brewery was established in late 2013 in the town of Lancing, Sussex and entered the market this February with a range of three beers available in bottle and cask. Its label copy boldly speaks of nonconformity, breaking the rules and smashing the status quo, a schtick that sounds not dissimilar to that of a young Brewdog. This is no bad thing, the passion with which Brewdog sold itself has pushed their business forward astronomically but that trail was blazed deep and those are some big shoes to try and fill.

The Streaker IPA puzzles me, it's probably the only beer of the three I didn't really get on with. The aroma is of candied orange and toffee with a touch of pithy citrus lingering around the edges. On the palate there's more candied chunks of citrus, stewed plums and a small twist of rhubarb like bitterness. It's also dark brown which all adds up to make me think that this is a flavoursome yet traditional best bitter. It just doesn't sing loud enough with hop bitterness to make me think of an IPA and at 4% ABV its just not strong enough to fit this particular style. 

The trio of Naked offerings is completed by Indecent Exposure, a porter and this is immediately to my liking. It pours a satisfying shade of Pepsi brown and has faint aromas of stone fruit and molasses. The sweetness of the dark malts is balanced by a savoury note that tastes as if a small dash of soy sauce was added to my glass. It's not unpleasant, on the contrary it's drying and in my opinion adds to the drinkability of the beer. Although this may have been a result of autolysis it didn't take anything away from the enjoyment of this beer for me. 

I'm interested to see how the Naked Beer Company progresses and with plans to brew beers such as a peach infused hefeweizen and a pale ale brewed with gorse flowers foraged from the Sussex downs I think they're definitely ones to watch out for. I can see their beers settling in well alongside the likes of Dark Star and Burning Sky on the hand pumps of various South Coast boozers. It does feel though that this is a brewery very much at the start of its journey, still trying to find an identity in a crowded market place. The beers aren't perfect but they are interesting and if they practise what they preach on their labels then they will only go from strength the strength. 

These beers were kindly sent to me by Daniel of the Naked Beer Co for this review. Although they were sent for free I don't think this influenced my opinion of them. 

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Celia Organic Gluten Free Lager

Back in the summer I took a load of Camden Hells Lager and Brewdog Punk IPA to a barbecue to share amongst friends. Sadly, some of my friends couldn't enjoy any of this tasty beer because they're gluten intolerant. I was careful to make sure that not a drop of the beer I brought with me was was wasted but this got me thinking about the limited options for coeliacs that still enjoy a beer. There is a small range of gluten free beers doing the rounds in the UK from the likes of Stringers, St. Peters, Poppyland and even Mikkeller but when I spoke to the same friends about these options the complaint was almost unanimous, most gluten free beers they'd tried were too bitter for their tastes. 

Then I stumbled across Celia Organic Gluten Free Lager. Brewed by Žatecky Pivovar within the walls of Žatec in the Czech Republic, Celia is the real deal, a Czech lager brewed just like any other with local water, barley and Saaz hops. The trick to making this beer suitable for the gluten intolerant is a patented silicone filtration system that claims to almost completely remove all but a trace of gluten while still preserving the great taste of a quality Czech lager. The blurb had me convinced, so when I next headed over to see my friends I picked up an armful on my way there.

The proof, of course, is in the tasting and as someone who has really acquired the taste for great lager over the past few months I was really looking forward to putting it to the test. It pours a pale shade of gold with a pleasing, tight white head and has a gentle aroma of honey and crushed barley with a little freshly cut grass thrown in there for good measure. On the palate there's a nice bit of honey sweetness up front but this is soon met by a snappy, herbal bite and finishes quickly with a drying bitterness. I found myself wanting it to taste thin, wanting it be a little bit different in some way or other but no, this is a robust, clean and tasty Czech beer that sits up there with some of the best I've had. In fact I'd wager that you'd struggle to tell this apart from a lager that isn't gluten free. 

The best thing, of course, was that my gluten intolerant friends liked it too. This is a top drawer everyday lager for everyone, and as it's vegan too I really mean everyone. 

I picked these bottles up from my local Oddbins for £2.65 each. If you like the sound of this then you'll also be pleased to know that the founders of Celia also run a gluten free restaurant called Vozars which can be found in Brixton Village. 

Saturday, 8 November 2014

Evolution Not Revolution

The silhouette of Dogfish Head founder, Sam Calagione stands before me addressing a packed out Duke's Brew and Que. I've admired the Delaware brewery since my first taste of their 60 minute IPA a few years ago and for the first time in a long while I'm drinking this beer again. It doesn't pack the hop hit that I remember experiencing the first time I tried it but my palate has changed a lot since that first taste. While my tastes may have changed my level of respect for Dogfish Head has not. They have changed the way the game is played since they came along back in 1995. They changed it with malt and hop behemoths such as 90 minute IPA and beer/mead/wine hybrids such as Midas Touch. The room laughs in unison as Sam remarks about the first time he sold cases of a sour beer that his customers then sent back to the brewery, as they thought it was infected. As a brewery Dogfish Head have often been imitated but never emulated. 

It's hard to imagine that the London of five years ago didn't have The Kernel, or a single Brewdog bar or even The Euston Tap. Sure we had The Rake but for a north Londoner like myself it was hardly worth the trek on a Friday night when you could barely squeeze through the door into the tiny and often overcrowded bar. London's incredible beer scene now feels so natural, almost like it has always been this good. I genuinely find it difficult to remember what my beer drinking life was like before Beavertown Gamma Ray. 

Brewdog have a huge amount to answer for of course, they rode in on the backs of mechanised steel horses baying for a beer revolution and, well, they got one. It could be argued that many breweries from all over the world inspired Britain's craft beer revolution but Brewdog, they were the ones who took the scene by the throat and threatened it to change or have its lights punched out. This approach is now often imitated by both younger and established breweries who are deeply entrenched within the trail that Brewdog blazed. It's cute that many brewers feel they need to continue to push this message of change, this battle call for revolution but as I sit eating my crab mac and cheese paired exquisitely with Beavertown Earl Phantom, a lemon and Earl Grey tea Berliner Weisse, it feels like the revolution has already been won. 

We have reached a point where you can buy Punk IPA in Tesco, Lagunitas and Sixpoint imports sit proudly in the fridges of 900 plus Wetherspoon pubs and Britain's best breweries such a Beavertown, Buxton and the original revolutionaries Brewdog are creating some of the best beer in the world. Even the legendary Sam Calagione seemed shocked at just how far we have come and how fast. Now we are creating new legends of our own. If 2014 is the year craft beer went mainstream in the United Kingdom then where do we go next? Over the next few years we will continue to see new breweries spring forth and some will fall by the wayside but our best will need to kick on and continue to grow, just as Dogfish Head have done before them in the United States. 

North London's Beavertown are one of a handful of young British breweries that have what it takes to take up this mantle and push on. It's hard to imagine that just four years ago they were brewing on a four barrel kit in the kitchen of their sister restaurant Duke's Brew and Que, especially when standing next to the eight mammoth sixty barrel tanks in their new facility. Their core beers are tightly dialled in, their seasonal releases are rarely short of brilliant and most importantly they're getting more and more people excited about beer, including those who previously had very little interest in it.

It might seem arrogant to host a five course dinner and charge seventy-five pounds per head for the pleasure of experiencing it but the sold out restaurant in front of me says otherwise. Each course is thoroughly delicious, immaculately presented and the beer pairings perfectly thought out. People cooed over the beetroot infused scotch egg with hollandaise and bacon dust matched with Beavertown's new blackberry Gose. The rich panna cotta with Courage imperial stout was a treat but it was the trio of beef rib, brisket and pork rib with silky smooth Smog Rocket porter from the cask that impressed me most of all. 

We all listen to Sam speak with open ears and open hearts. Beavertown owner and founder Logan Plant works the room and engages with his customers expertly, as he always does. We're even treated to a few words from Wells and Young's Christopher Reid, whose pride of having a relationship with Dogfish Head is apparent. Many may not have been won over by their disappointing collaboration, DNA but at the very least they've listened and have now changed the recipe. They are trying to make it better and openly admitted that it's not really a beer aimed at the ardent beer lover. We learned of the beer that Dogfish Head and Beavertown collaborated on earlier that day, a botanical infused Londonerweisse that also involved the talents of the three month old East London Liquor Company. The beer should be ready and available in a couple of weeks time but some is destined for barrels and won't see the light of day for a good while yet.

It may have left me drunkenly fumbling in the dark for my indigestion tablets, nine beers and five generous plates of food will do that to the best of us, but this evening was nothing short of exceptional. This represented more than just a meeting of minds, more than just a business finding new ways to reach its customers and satisfy and entertain them. This was a nod to both British and American brewing tradition and to its bright future. This was a brewery, not even five years old, pushing forward, kicking on and transforming into something better. The time for revolution is over, now is the time for evolution, not revolution. 

Disclosure: I was invited to this evening as a guest of Beavertown but I don't think that influenced my opinion of it. 

Sunday, 2 November 2014

There's A Beer For That

I'm standing in a crowded bar on the 28th floor of Millbank Tower in Pimlico and I'm surrounded by people in suits. This has made me uncomfortable, I'm very much a jeans and trainers kinda guy and I find it difficult to associate people clad in suits with the beer industry. Perhaps I'm partially blinded by my craft beer blinkers and cautiously optimistic perspective. I'm handed a shot glass filled with Fuller's Vintage Ale which has been meticulously paired with a cheese pastry twist. It's not exactly the most inspiring combination but thankfully I'm not here for a culinary experience, I'm here as a member of the press to witness the relaunch of the much maligned Let There Be Beer campaign. 

But first, a little transparency on my part. I first got in contact with Frank, the PR agency behind the campaign, several months ago. They had tweeted a picture of some 'his and hers' beer glasses and while the 'his' glass contained beer the 'her' glass appeared to contain something resembling Ribena. I'm sure there was no real intention to offend but it did. I decided to take it upon myself to email them and tell them why this wasn't good enough and that they had a responsibility as beer communicators to offer something better. It got me on their press list at any rate. 

Fast forward a couple of months and I'm at the European Beer Bloggers Conference in Dublin enjoying some lunch and lashings of unfiltered Pilsner Urquell. Myself, Chris Hall and Craig Heap are approached by representatives from Frank PR and are quizzed about what we thought was wrong with their existing campaign. In our inebriated state we probably gave them far too much free information and they were recording our conversation (we had agreed for them to do this). At the end of our chat they hand us a USB stick each that contains a few details about the next stages of their campaign but it's all pretty run of the mill stuff with no mention of a grander plan. 

It's now August and I'm on my way to the trade session at the Great British Beer Festival. I'd agreed to meet with the same two reps from Frank PR for a morning coffee and a chat about their future plans. Against my better judgement I thought it might be worthwhile to give Let There Be Beer another chance. They used me as a sounding board for a few of their ideas but ultimately I tell them that I wouldn't be interested in working with them unless I saw some genuine change in their practices. I was not paid nor did I ask for payment, to be honest the conversation never got that far and I didn't feel that it was a terribly worthwhile avenue to pursue as a writer.

They tell me a big change is coming but I had no idea what this was going to involve at this stage. I had little to do with them after this meeting bar a brief exchange about a poorly constructed infographic they put together for Cask Ale Week. Once again I felt incensed to contact them about the misinformation in the graphic, they took it offline and then invited me to the press launch that I am now attending.

We're ushered into an adjacent room, Chris is with me once again and he sensibly decides to take notes while I just sit there, drink beer and develop increasingly deepening feelings of cynicism. Soon the presentation starts with a brief overview of Let There Be Beer and what it 'achieved' over the 18 months since its inception. Then they unveil what it is that they've been working away on these last few months, the newly rebranded campaign; There's a Beer for That brought to you by the newly formed Britain's Beer Alliance. 

There were elements of Let There Be Beer that I kind of liked, it looked relatively modern, fresh and in the right hands probably could've done some real good. Now all that hard work has been boiled down into something that has all the gravitas of a Mitchell and Webb parody. Say it out loud, go on, say it with a big beaming grin, why not stick your thumbs up and crack a wink in the mirror while you're at it. It's ridiculous and what's even more ridiculous is that they've spent ten million pounds on this new campaign. Chris and I look at each other in horror and we haven't even gotten to the worst part yet. 

With a hundred thousand pounds you could renovate a pub, start up your own brewery, or if you've already started one you could leave the days of hand bottling behind and buy a canning line. For me, ten million pounds is a ridiculous sum of money to spend on a project like this, but not for the multinationals behind it.  

They then give us the premier of their brand new TV advert that will air for the first time tonight in the ad break during Downton Abbey. It's directed by the genuinely brilliant Michael Winterbottom who is responsible for, amongst other things, 24 Hour Party People and The Trip. He'd never done an advert before but apparently he really loves beer so he decided to do this one, also he probably got a decent wad of that ten mil. By now most of you have probably seen it and I'll agree that it's kind of nice. The twee music offset with some Yorkshire poetry cutting between shots of people just really enjoying themselves and most of them are having a beer. Immaculately presented, full to the brim, stemmed glasses of beer. Doesn't it just make you want to get in the car, drive down to the supermarket and load up with as many slabs as possible?

Where are the brewers? The publicans? The draymen? Where's the story? It's forgettable and throwaway but hey, it might shift a few thousand extra cases of Stella down the supermarkets this week because of course, people have just been forgetting to buy beer all this time, haven't they? 

The crowd which includes members from SIBA and CAMRA clap and cheer a project funded by multinational brewing corporations and designed by suit clad executives so that they can carry on meeting their sales targets. I'm left feeling cheated and angry, especially after witnessing the 30 second sped up and cut down version of the commercial which almost obliterates the message they are attempting to convey. Pete Brown then takes the stage and explains his involvement with this project and how he has helped with the rebrand. He seems to really believe that this can get more people into beer, good on him. I'm still skeptical. After Pete's speech we're then treated to details of the next stages of the campaign.

The thought is that people who watch the advert will then want to engage with the campaign through social media. That's exactly how these things work right? You watch an advert when you're tired and malleable on Sunday evening and then when you're bored out of your mind on Monday morning, sick of clicking the refresh button on your preferred social network over and over you need something else to pass the time. Hey, I know! Let's give those beer guys a follow because beer is good because it gets you drunk! Top engagement, ten million pounds well spent right there. 

Essentially the campaign will continue to spout the same level of consumer driven bullshit, talking at those who choose to engage rather than to them. This is the polished turd your mother warned you about. All on a website that looks like a carbon copy of the wonderful Good Beer Hunting (which will be launched in a few days time.) Good news, they've paid established beer experts to make their level of communication 'better' but how long can they sustain this for? How long will people continue to pay attention? 

The main focus of 'There's a Beer for That' is on food and beer matching and they've even developed a twitter algorithm that, and I quote, is 'designed to feel human' that will pick a beer match for you if you tell it what you're having for dinner. That's right, just tweet 'roast chicken' and use the hashtag #beermatch (at the time of publication this hasn't gone live) and presto, you now know exactly what to drink with your chicken. Heavens forbid you just go on twitter and just ask a real beer expert who does this kind of thing for a living, no way, there's a bot for that!

So that's There's a Beer for That. More of the same that Let There Be Beer oh so dutifully provided but a lick of battleship grey paint has been smeared liberally over the existing ocean grey finish. You're probably still wondering why all this has got me so worked up and well, as much as I dislike the idea of this campaign it's the concept and my perceived aim of Britain's Beer Alliance that has had me spitting hellfire. 

Sales of alcohol, not just beer, are on a slow, gradual decline. Generally, people are drinking less be it because of financial restraints, choosing a lifestyle they perceive to be healthier or just drinking less but drinking better. It's the better that the people behind this campaign are worried about, craft beer is bucking the industry trend and growing at an exponential rate. Beavertown have expanded three times in four years, Magic Rock sell out gyles of Cannonball months in advance, Brewdog are one of the fastest growing businesses in the UK and in the USA the Great American Beer Festival sells out thousands of tickets priced at 100 dollars a pop in minutes. Craft beer hasn't just got its foot in the door to the mainstream, it's already in the room throwing a party and it brought beer. So why do we need There's a Beer for That? Well, multinational corporations really don't like it when small businesses infringe on their market share.   

So who are the major players behind Britain's Beer Alliance? Well you've got Carlsberg (Denmark), AB-InBev (USA/Belgium), Heineken (The Netherlands), SAB Miller (South Africa/USA) and Molson Coors (Canada/USA) and these are exactly the kind of guys you'd expect to invest ten million pounds just for the good of the beer industry right? RIGHT? Joining them are The British Beer and Pub Association, SIBA, The Beer Academy, Fuller's, Shepherd Neame, Enterprise Inns, Cask Marque, The Institute of Brewing and Distilling, EverardsRobinson's, Liberation Group, Thwaites, Budvar, Daleside and It's Better Down the Pub. 

I'm sad to see certain names on that list, I'd like think they're strong enough to trade on their own merit without needing to trade off the back of a generalised campaign such as this. That's what There's a Beer for That is to me. It's a reaction from the global beer corporations who simply don't know what to do about the rising threat of craft beer, they've tried copying it but got figured out so instead they've just tried to lump all beer into one category and say 'hey we don't care what you drink, just so long as it's beer!' Instead it's about finding new ways to meet their targets and keep their shareholders happy. 

I'm well aware that as a beer enthusiast I see things very differently from the majority that this campaign is targeted at. Unfortunately I think this will largely pass the people they oh-so-dearly hope to engage with by as the twang of a ukulele is drowned out by the hiss of a boiling kettle. It would be fantastic to get more and more people into beer and as a rule people are getting more interested in food and drink in general but this is not the way to grab their attention. I've tried being the beer evangelist, the guy who questions his friend who prefers a light lager over a pale ale and it just doesn't work. If people want to find out more about beer and you communicate about it well then they will seek you out when they want to know more. People are happy with their cup of tea or bottle of Blossom Hill or gin and tonic and I say if they're happy then leave them to it. I fail to see this campaign getting enough people into beer to make the investment financially viable. 

What would the reaction be if a similar campaign was run for pies, gin or chocolate? Would people suddenly down their pints and rush out to the shops for a bottle of Gordon's? Imagine if that money was used on a campaign to get people down to their local or drink British beer, something with a genuine focus rather than something so generalised and vague. There's a Beer for That is a sign that the big guys don't know what to do about craft beer so instead of trying to beat them they're attempting to piggyback on that success. In six months time it will, with any luck, have largely have been forgotten about bar a pre-programmed twitter robot still spouting out nonsense pairings to people who've hijacked the hashtag and the suits will have to go back to the drawing board and work out what they're going to spend their next ten million pounds on.  


Here's a selection of other bloggers making their opinions known on the Beer for That campaign:

Chris Hall makes similar points in his post 'Designed to be Human' which also features an excellent response from Pete Brown in the comments sections which is followed by a similarly excellent response from Chris. It's the way I wish Pete had approached this from the off. 

Ruari O'Toole takes an in depth look at the Beer for That commercial and a look at advertising alcohol on television in general.

Craig Heap also takes a look at the advert and draws parrells with a similar campaign from McDonald's.

Pete Brissenden doesn't like Downton Abbey and compares his dislike of the period drama to his dislike of the advert.

Suzy Aldridge takes a more balanced look at the advert and the Beer for That campaign in general.

Ed Wray doesn't know what all the fuss is about when the advert isn't even aimed at ardent beer lovers.

Boak & Bailey take a typically measured look at the commercial and decide that they don't hate it.