Sunday, 25 January 2015

Tasting the Juicy Banger

I wanted to write an evaluation of the Juicy Banger as having a hand in the creation of this beer has been a fantastic experience for me. I don't, however, really need to as this has already been done ever so eloquently by fellow collaborator Chris Hall and slightly more quixotically in this follow up video by Jonny Garrett of the Craft Beer Channel. Despite already writing a run through of our brew day which also involved Camden Town Brewery's Sofia De Crescentiis and brewer Pete Brown, I still feel the need to wrap things up, for now at least. This also gives me the opportunity to show you some of the photos I took at the launch night and give you my opinion on how this beer turned out. 

Why was brewing this beer such a great experience? Well I've collaborated on brews before but I don't home brew and this was a genuine opportunity to design a beer from the ground up. Each of us had a clear, if perhaps slightly differing, idea of how we wanted this beer to taste and I think the end result was something close to what we had imagined. 

We wanted it to be juicy, that was the whole point but we also wanted a big, drying bitterness, the kind that demands you order a second immediately after you drain the dregs of your first. The beer ended up a little stronger than we had hoped, somewhere closer to 7% ABV (this figure differs depending on who you ask) than our target 6.5%. For me it also turned out a little darker than I had hoped for, we're talking a minuscule amount but it didn't have that similar paleness that characterises other juicy bangers such as Kernel IPA or Pressure Drop Pale Fire. 

The aroma was remarkable, Camden's penchant for brewing clean, well-attenuated beers was evident. This would've been thanks to the extremely hard working house ale yeast. You could pick out the satsuma laden tang of Amarillo, the lemon pith brightness of Centennial and of course, lots of grapefruit. Like, serious grapefruit. The combination of Citra hops and the grapefruit pith and zest had combined to tremendous effect, the aroma was booming. Before kegging Pete had dry hopped the beer with yet more Citra to really get that aroma singing and it was really cranking out the decibels. The aroma was probably my favourite thing about our beer.

On tasting, the first thing I went looking for was that juicy character we were hoping to achieve and thankfully it was there in spades. The malt profile was perhaps a little too forward for my liking. There was a toffee sweetness similar to that found in Ska Brewing Modus Hoperandi (the beer ours drew the most comparisons to on the night) which encroached slightly on the space the juicy flavours had to flex their muscles. I was thankful for that extra malt sweetness by the time the beer reached its finish however. All that grapefruit zest we chucked in at the end of the boil, which still had a lot of pith on it, came to the fore in the form of a big, bitter and slightly astringent finish. 

On reflection, it was a probably a little too astringent and slightly unbalanced but I still found it very enjoyable and most importantly, very drinkable. I would've certainly liked to have a few more glasses of it but the only keg was demolished inside thirty-five minutes. Good going team. It was one of those nights that reminds me what a wonderful place the Camden Town Brewery Bar is to be on a Friday Night. So pretty much like every Friday night I spend there. Getting to drink a beer I helped make and then stand on the bar and shouting about it made it all the sweeter though.

Finally, I'd like to give a massive thanks once again to Pete who in reality, stopped a quartet of enthusiasts from brewing something terrible. So thank you, Pete. Now, when do we get to have a go on the big kit?  

Monday, 19 January 2015

Inside New Belgium's Foeder Forest

It's difficult not to enjoy yourself on a tour of New Belgium Brewery, it's one of the most interesting and entertaining brewery tours you can do. The staff, who become part owners of the Northern Colorado brewery after 12 months of service, speak with an infectious enthusiasm and pour a broad range of both core and speciality beers on your way around. They even let you go down a slide. It's no wonder that tours book up months in advance.

There's a lot see on the tour, the gorgeous Abbey-esque brewhouse, the gargantuan two-thousand hectolitre tanks, filled to the brim with fermenting Fat Tire ale and a bottling line that resembles a giant's Scalextric set are a few highlights. One place inside America's third largest craft brewery though, has a majesty that's unlike anything you'll see on your average tour. A maze of towering, odd-shaped, French oak vessels that sit at the heart of New Belgium's expansive sour beer program. This is the Foeder Forest.

A foeder is a large oak vessel that's traditionally used in winemaking and New Belgium has imported its own tanks from France. They come in a range of sizes and typically hold up to around 200 hectolitres of souring beer. New Belgium now has 64 of these things, that's a lot of sour beer. They often arrive unassembled and once they're in place they have to be rehydrated so that the wood expands to form a seal. Once a foeder is ready for beer it's filled about twenty percent of the way with existing sour beer. This inoculates the wood with New Belgium's existing culture of bacteria and creates the terroir that's vital for its beers to gain the characteristics it desires.

Above the door that leads to the Foeder Forest are the words 'Cache la Foeder' which references the Cache la Poudre River that flows through the town of Fort Collins. Stepping through those doors is akin to Alice stepping through the looking glass. You're transported to a world of wood, the home of billions of microscopic organisms that quietly go about their business of souring beer. The terroir within each barrel almost seems to seep out of every pore. There's a magic happening here and it's as infectious as the beer loving bacteria within those tanks.

A stroll around the tanks reveals some of New Belgium’s idiosyncrasies. There are ex-bourbon casks, which get to become the new homes for foeder beers that are tasting particularly exceptional. The walls of the warehouse that houses the Foeder Forest has been turned into a climbing wall, which only further demonstrates that New Belgium is a brewery that likes to play as hard as it works. This is arguably the largest sour beer program in the United States but its size only serves to add to the feeling of wonderment being within it brings.

The beer at the core of New Belgium's sour range is La Folie, a Flanders inspired sour red ale that tastes like Rodenbach Grand Cru on steroids. This is no surprise, New Belgium's brewmaster Peter Bouckaert hails from Belgium and cut his teeth creating beer at Rodenbach. Like the aforementioned Grand Cru, La Folie is a blend of a 3-year and 1-year old base beer, affectionately referred to as 'Oscar' by the brewery. Before blending, beer is pulled from numerous foeders and carefully selected by master blender Lauren Salazar who ensures the quality and consistency in each batch. La Folie masterfully combines notes of raisin and cranberry, which sit on a base of intense lactic sourness. With time in the bottle this beer will gradually become more integrated and its flavours will mellow.

Another of New Belgium’s sour beers, the dry hopped Le Terroir is named in homage of the habitat that contributes to the creation of these beers. Pouring much more pale than La Folie, this beer has intense flavours of sour lemon, elderflower and a pine like bitterness that is once again followed by a pleasingly intense sourness that is characteristic of the beers that emerge from the Foeder Forest. It's exceptional and I don't feel that I'm exaggerating when I say that Le Terroir is comparable to the immaculate beers produced in Brussels by Brasserie Cantillon.

The trouble is, New Belgium is often maligned by the beer geek crowd, partly because of their size and partly because they're better known for producing accessible beers such as Ranger IPA and the ubiquitous Fat Tire. Thanks to the gradual expansion of its sour program new Belgium are now able to produce once limited beers such as La Folie year round. Does their accessibility and production scale make these beers any less wonderful? Of course not but I fear that the beer geek penchant for chasing the rarest, most exclusive beers means that they might be missing out on the wonderful products from this brewery. There's little doubt that New Belgium are producing some of the most accomplished sour beers in the world and thankfully on a scale that means you won't feel guilty about buying it by the case.

Friday, 9 January 2015

The Fall of Goose Island

I'm sat at the bar of Denver's famous Falling Rock Tap House, a foaming pint of Stone's Go-To IPA in my right hand. It single handedly proves to me, with its juicy notes of mango and pineapple, that those revered West Coast breweries can brew sessionable beers that taste as good as those that are twice its strength. My Dad is sat next to me, sipping on a Lost Abbey Devotion and has engaged the barman in light conversation. He asks him if the bar stocks any Goose Island beers now that they're brewed within the State of Colorado.

                                        "I won't have any of that mass-produced shit in my bar" 

When I discovered that Chicago's Goose Island brewery were having its core beers, 312 Wheat, Honkers Ale and IPA brewed at the Anheuser-Busch facility in Fort Collins, Colorado I was eager to give them a try. Goose Island IPA was a very important beer for me. When I first discovered the explosive taste of North American hops it was one of the more easily obtainable imports. It was always in the fridge at Jack's, my local off licence and it soon became a staple in mine. Remarkably, I still have the tasting notes for this beer, from one of the rare occasions when I actually remembered to write them down. They read; chewy caramel and toffee-like malt backbone holding up huge notes of mango and pineapple with a dry, bitter finish.

I first paid a visit to the Anheuser-Busch facility in Fort Collins when I helped my Dad move to the Northern Colorado town back in the summer of 2010. The immense, brutalist structure was visible from my bedroom window in the house he used to rent. The tour was quite something, after visits to the Odell and New Belgium breweries in town the difference in scale was quite remarkable. Like Goose Island themselves in 2011, Busch had recently been taken over by Belgian industry giants InBev and at the end of the tour I was offered a taster of Stella Artois. The guy pouring my beer lent towards me and spoke; "You Brits won't like anything we've got on tap here, head to Odell's in town, that's where I drink." I'm pretty sure that's exactly what we did. 

On hearing that the tasting rooms at Busch's Fort Collins facility had been relaunched as a German style 'Biergarten' I was even more curious to pay a return visit. So, unwittingly, I dragged my family along to the Anheuser Busch Biergarten with the promise of beer and bratwurst. We arrive at the small, office style building opposite the sprawling brewhouse and on asking for directions are ushered into the same room where I was offered a taster of Stella almost five years ago. The large tasting room had been given a lick of paint and the word 'Biergarten' had been printed on several of the walls. They'd even stuck in a few long, Munich style communal beer tables but it's still the same old Busch tasting room I remember from a few years ago. We take a seat, ask for a menu and I order a pint of Goose Island IPA. 

After some deliberation from the staff, who I've asked to confirm that the beer is in fact brewed in house, the tap room manager comes over and confirms this. I eye the pint glass carefully, a shrunken, British style nonic with Goose Islands smart, eye catching new branding present on the side. I'd really been looking forward to this, a true classic American IPA, one that turned me on to the style, brewed with all the precision and experience that the mighty AB-InBev could provide. I position my nose above the beer to get a whiff of those fruity aromas but all I get is the faint whiff of yeast esters. 

Yes, yeast esters, the last thing you'd expect to detect in the aroma of an American Style IPA which, traditionally uses a yeast that produces little detectable flavour in order to let the malt and hops shine. They're detectable on the palate too, only faintly but still there. Gone is the chewy, toffee malt flavour that balanced the bitter flavours, instead replaced by a cereal-like character. There is none of the juicy tropical fruit I remember tasting, just a wave of nearly characterless bitterness. "It tastes like a dumbed-down, mass produced version of an American IPA" remarks my Dad. Like the majority of the time, he's not wrong.

I'm aware that tastes change and palates evolve. I fully accept that I am a victim of lupulin threshold shift but I refuse to believe that my palate isn't good enough to detect a change this drastic. This is the beer labelled as Goose Island IPA that's being distributed to the entirety of the west of the United States but it's not the Goose Island IPA I remember. The good news for drinkers in the UK is that the bottles imported here via Greene King aren't brewed in Fort Collins, they're brewed in Baldwinsville, New York, if that's any consolation. There's more good news too, the 312 Wheat tastes as good as I've ever tasted it, zesty and popping with lemon notes, backed up by a dry body with subtle hits of, you've guessed it, yeast esters. It's still a superb American twist on a classic wheat beer that I can see becoming as popular as Shock Top or Blue Moon.   

I'm still a huge fan of Goose Island, without them I simply wouldn't have been able to get my hop fix a few years ago and I'll never forget them for that. I finish my IPA and order a pair of Goose Island's Chicago brewed Belgian inspired ales, Matilda and Sofie. Both are exceptional, crisp and dry, with a massive depth of character despite being so subtle. I still sought out a bottle of this years Bourbon County Brand Stout to bring home with me, of course I did, it's one of the best examples of its style in the world. I had to bring it back though, as we won't be getting any more in the UK for a while, not now that Greene King have reduced the range they're importing to just Honkers Ale, IPA and 312 Wheat. 
There is no doubting that AB-InBev have treated Goose Island well. The rebrand is slick, the upscaling of their core range has allowed them to significantly expand their barrel ageing program and they're reaching more people than ever before. The thing is, if fundamentally important beers such as Goose Island IPA are treated with this apparent irreverence then this once respected Chicago brewery will soon become irrelevant, to lovers of great beer at least. 

Monday, 5 January 2015

That Brewery You Like Is Going Out Of Style

That brewery you like is going out of style
Scraping together pennies for a very last gyle.

That brewery you like is going out of style
Couldn't afford the rent on the Bermondsey Beer Mile.

That brewery you like is going out of style
Selling out to the man, all the geeks spit bile.

That brewery you like is going out of style
Hold on, here's a Kickstarter, we'll be around for a while.