Sunday, 5 July 2015

Magic Rock - tapping into the future

On 1st July 2015, a couple of weeks after the doors were opened, Magic Rock Brewery held the official launch party for their new tap room and this was an invitation I simply could not pass up. The impressive venue adjoins their vastly expanded new brew house in Birkby, Huddersfield. The brewery itself is entering the final stages of build out, with brewing operations expected to commence in the next few weeks. The tap however is already in full swing and provides a literal window into what will mark a huge step up in capacity once fully operational. 

It was the hottest July day on record and having endured a marathon drive up thanks to the M1 being partially closed, all I could think about on arrival was liquid refreshment of the coldest kind. I just about managed to resist the immediate lure of Andy Annat's fantastic Cracker Jack BBQ and make my way inside to the bar. 

For more photos see The Examiner's article
Moments later, with a cold glass of Cannonball helping to cool my addled brain, a wave of familiarity washed over me - and this was not induced by the sight of the many familiar faces. The feeling of walking from searing heat into a cool bar, the delicious aromas of smoked meat wafting in on the breeze and the hop flavours washing over my palate transported me to somewhere I love to visit and a place that's the source of my most memorable and inspirational beery adventures - San Diego, California. 

Even taking away the uncharacteristic California-like heat of that summer's evening, the bar itself takes a lot from the visual traits of brewery taps of craft beer giants such as Stone and Green Flash and lesser known names such as Societe and Saint Archer. Beyond the industrial feel, the artwork adorning the walls, the sparkle of keg taps under the bright lights, the giant glass windows exposing the source of the beers or the laid back blues music, the Magic Rock Tap just has that certain something - and it obviously runs much deeper than just copycat design and a desire to mimic those arguably seen as craft brewing's finest.

Magic Rock was born out of MD Richard Burhouse's love of the brewing and tap room culture of the west coast and of course inspired by the beer styles those breweries are seen to represent. Sitting in a quiet corner and reflecting later in the evening, I wondered if every day of the four years since their launch at The Grove in June 2011 had somehow been building up to this second, more significant launch - was this the day Magic Rock moved beyond being inspired by that culture and into fully living and breathing it? Into being the source of such inspiration for future breweries? 

Sunday, 24 May 2015

BrewDog Born To Die 04.07.2015

My last post covered something I called the IPA/DIPA "conundrum" - the challenge of brewing those styles consistently, year round, in light of the increasingly hard to come by hops. While Stone and Lagunitas are in a position to overcome that challenge, there a few breweries this side of the pond who can afford that luxury. The one obvious exception is BrewDog, who are rumoured to have very substantial contracts for Simcoe and Nelson Sauvin - hops that feature heavily in their core range, which is being brewed in increasingly larger volumes as they continue expand at an astounding rate.

BrewDog of course already brew a number of IPAs, with flagship brew Punk IPA forming part of their "headliner" core range and the delicious (and personal go-to) Jackhammer being joined by Hardcore IPA in their "amplified" range. They also have an annual series called IPA is Dead that explores hops from around the world by taking the same base beer and using a different single variety in each brew. More recently, their Restorative Beverage for Invalids and Convalescents tackled the pale and dry end of the DIPA spectrum - the opposite end to where I'd put Hardcore IPA, which has a substantial malt body to counter the hops. Restorative was a fantastic brew and perhaps a pre-cursor, or the brewing equivalent of a beta release for their latest take on this style, Born To Die.

Born To Die takes an idea pioneered by Stone's Enjoy By, in that it is labelled and marketed to be enjoyed immediately - as fresh as possible - with a marked date indicating when it will turn into a beery pumpkin, or at least when it will start to decline in terms of freshness. The short shelf-life date is a statement and I believe the first such release in Europe. While it might pose a risk for retailers, that's more than likely offset by demand for such releases being high. Indeed, this is already one of BrewDog's fastest selling beers ever.

So, what's it like? As it pours into the glass, the first observation is it's super pale with a colour similar to a lager. The grist is made up of Extra Pale, Pale and Maris Otter - no specialty malts. That's where the similarity to lager ends, though. On the nose I find the melon and citrus notes of Mosaic dominating with some mango and 'cattiness' lurking behind. On the palate, it's all about the hop flavour. With no discernible malt body to counter, the bitterness has been kept relatively low (or at least that was my perception) which allows the flavours to shine through. More melon and tropical fruits come to the fore before the rasping dry finish kicks in, the effect of which makes this a beer that's hard to put down despite its weighty 8.5% ABV. This release is hopped with Simcoe, Amarillo, Citra and Mosaic, which play together very well even though the Mosaic and Citra perhaps shine through the most. I'm not sure if BrewDog will rotate the hops with each release - as Stone does with Enjoy By - but even if they don't, the recipe as it stands makes for a fantastic beer and one I will certainly go back to again and again.

Disclosure: This bottle (and glass) were sent to me by BrewDog but I don't think that affected my opinion of the beer. I'm also an EFP shareholder.

Monday, 4 May 2015

The IPA/DIPA Conundrum

In the past I've written about the perils of coveting those wonderful US hop bomb IPAs/DIPAs, only to be disappointed when the product arrives here 3 months old, already on the decline in terms of quality. Since that post around a year ago, we've seen changes in the industry. Changes that perhaps both cement and counter some of the points I made in that previous post.

What happens when a top U.S. Craft Brewery teams up with a European counterpart to bring that 3 months down to 10 days, with a product that remains chilled from conditioning tank to tap, arriving here in consistently good condition? It becomes disruptive, that's what. Why? That word: consistency.

Photo: epicbeer on flickr
What happens when a second top US Craft Brewery (partly) crowd-funds* the opening of a European operation ~1/9th of the distance from these shores than their current base with that same buying power and brewing prowess? We'll find out next year but my guess is it'll be equally as disruptive.

Compared to the likes of Lagunitas and Stone, most UK brewers are probably fighting for scraps when it comes to US hop selection. Fighting not just on volume and variety but far more importantly on quality. Imagine what the brewers in that 'top' list spend on hops each year. Enough to hand-pick their most contracted varieties on a farm by farm basis every harvest? Yes, I'd wager but you can be sure they are at least purchasing at the very top end in terms of quality and at the quantities they need to maintain production. That's what their buying power brings them. 

That's not to say brewers here can't make superb US hopped IPAs/DIPAs - we've already seen some - just that it's going to be relatively harder to achieve that year round with a consistently good product brewed at a scale to rival what their US counterparts can supply to the UK. That's why Lagunitas are gaining such traction through imports in my view. Their IPA gets here fresh, is consistently good and available all the time, plus at the volumes they're bringing in they can price it competitively. 

This is not a level playing field. It's an open market and money talks.

* A tandleman style footnote here to add that, in my view, the crowd funding had nothing to do with money and everything to do with ensuring that venture will be nothing short of a resounding success in terms of marketing. Well played, Stone.

Sunday, 19 April 2015

Cherry Cola Imperial Milk Stout

The idea for this recipe came about during my last trip stateside. We were browsing in the Ballast Point home brew shop in San Diego when I spotted these little bottles of concentrated flavour extracts. They're supposed to be used a bit like Soda Stream concentrates but you can also make alcoholic drinks with them. I grabbed a few - Cherry, Root Beer and Cola - with designs on making separate Cherry Cola and Root Beer brews, incorporating those bold flavours into sweet, dark beers.

An opportunity to brew the former arose when friend, fellow home brewer and jolly nice chap Andrew Hobbs came to stay over on the weekend of the Siren Maiden launch party. We'd decided on brewing something together on the Sunday morning and having put this idea to Andrew in advance, we exchanged a few thoughts on it and settled on a recipe. 

The aim was to brew something big but sweet - it needed to be part of the overall makeup of the finished beer but not overpower the cherry and cola flavours. A lactose-laden milk stout seemed an obvious way to go so a grist was designed around that with the aim of keeping the colour on the very dark brown rather than black side to reflect the colour of cola. Brown and lactose sugars were added towards the end of the boil, bringing the OG up to a respectable 1.098. We wanted to keep the FG on the high side and the generous lactose addition helped achieve a final gravity of 1.030, making this around 8.9% ABV. The beer before flavouring tasted nice and sweet as intended, with just a subtle hint of roast and chocolate flavours. The colour was also pleasingly cola-like. The photo here shows the beer once the flavourings were dosed in and the cherry one has contributed a slightly reddish-brown hue. The finished article has the almost almond-like aroma of the real thing with the flavours being cherry up front before the cola and lactose sweetness washes through, all against a backdrop of subdued roasted malt and chocolate - a decent outcome overall and a brew that's dangerously drinkable for something with such a high ABV.

It was fun collaborating with a fellow home brewer, exchanging ideas and techniques and of course sampling a few previous brews along the way. Andrew also brought along the most vital of brew day ingredients - fabulous smoked bacon he'd picked up from Borough Market. He's welcome back anytime!

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Dinner for One

New year, new beginnings as the saying goes. For Siren, the start of 2015 sees them coming up on their second birthday. They have quite the party planned on Saturday March 7th which will mark the release of their second anniversary brew - Maiden 2014 - the name indicating the year this batch was brewed before being aged for a year in various different barrels. Anticipation is starting to build and the release even has an artistic teaser trailer, produced by Third Lens Films. I remember writing something similar about Magic Rock a while back but to me it seems odd to think that Siren are still less than two years old. They've certainly established themselves very quickly and have expanded rapidly, turning out batch after batch of their great core lineup alongside some fantastic specials and notable collaborations with big names such as Mikkeller, Hill Farmstead and Prairie Artisinal Ales among others. As they prepare to enter their third year of operation, I'm personally excited to see where things go next for Siren.

As for my own new beginnings, I'm pleased to report that potential premises for Elusive Brewing - my own soon-to-be micro brewery - have been identified (in Farnborough, Hampshire) and I'm currently working with the local council to ensure my plans fall within the current use class before signing the lease. Anyone who has set up a brewery, no matter how large or small, will be able to relate to the length of time it has taken to get things off the ground and while that has been disappointing, that disappointment was more than offset with the success of Lord Nelson - last summer's collaboration with Weird Beard - and in 2015, I hope to build on that to produce brews of the same quality on my own kit. In the mean time, look out for more collaboration brews and also the upcoming release of American Red, the beer that won last year's National Home Brewing Awards competition. That's being brewed this coming Monday and will debut at this year's award ceremony on Saturday 31st January.

While I'm on the subject of collaboration brews, what of the title of this post!? Well that's the name of a beer I collaborated with Siren on recently, which is due to hit the pumps in the next few weeks. This will be the third beer to be released bearing the Elusive Brewing name and it came about in short order as Head Brewer Ryan spotted a gap in their brewing schedule between Christmas and New Year and got in touch to see if I fancied collaborating on something new ("let me think for a second... OH HELL YEAH!"). 

The recipe was constructed after visiting the brewery - literally about an hour later - to look at the ingredients they had to hand. The aim was to brew something around the 4% ABV mark and we'd be brewing it the very next day, New Year's Eve. Ryan noted they had a lot of Vienna malt in stock and fancied brewing something with a high percentage of the grist made up from that. Vienna malt gives a lovely toasty biscuit-like flavour and aroma when used in high quantities. The hop store was full of various American hops but it was the newly arrived German hops that caught my eye - and nose! After some discussion, we settled on a recipe - a Vienna Pale Ale with all German hops - which are known for being more subtle than their American relatives. The beer has fermented out and is being dry hopped with a lot more of those same hops. The varieties used are 'new breed' rather than traditional and are bursting with lovely fruity aromas.  The beer is being racked next week and will be available soon afterwards in cask and a very limited amount of keg. Please contact Siren if you're interested in stocking it, but be quick as there's not much to go round.

So, why the name? Well there's a prize* at stake for the first person to post a comment below with the correct guess as to its origin. The clues are above so get thinking (or googling)!

* This won't be beer, at least not this beer since none is being bottled. Must be over 18. Judge's decision is final!

Saturday, 3 January 2015

Can you taste the contract?

An article published in the Wall Street Journal yesterday re-ignited an ongoing debate in Belgium about the legitimacy of contract brewing, which had previously come to a head when Brasserie de la Senne's Yvan de Baetes penned this open letter on behalf of a number of Belgian breweries. The letter raises concerns that "Belgian beer, supposedly one of the last of our national treasures, is in great danger. A number of businesses, which seem to have purely commercial interests, are placing its reputation in serious jeopardy".  It expands by highlighting the rise in "fake brewers" who "sell beers they have not themselves produced". 

The concerns of this group seem to be two fold. Firstly, contract brewing is not a legitimate form of brewing and its very existence is threatening their business and secondly, consumers are being misled about the origins of these contract brewed beers.

On the second point, I share that concern. We've seen it here in the UK too, with new 'breweries' popping up offering the market the latest and greatest thing in beer against a back drop of occasionally misleading shiny marketing. For me, transparency is key here and I would support any legislation that means the origins of these products must be displayed on the packaging and marketing material. In most cases, I don't see any intent to deceive however and savvy consumers will always ask those difficult questions when there's a suspected lack of transparency.

#twattybeerdoodle copyright @broadfordbrewer

The first point is one I think they'll have to get over. Contract brewing isn't going away. If someone comes along with a great recipe and pays a brewery to produce the beer (completely transparently) and that product ends up being better and selling more than a 'legitimate' beer, well, good luck to them. As long as they're not deceiving the consumer as to the origin, I've no issue with that. Contract brewers have issues of their own to think about, not least logistics, product margins and pricing.

It's a free market and the consumer will ultimately decide what they want to drink, hopefully when presented with a transparent, fairly packaged product. Beyond that, resting on centuries of tradition or kicking up a fuss to call the legitimacy of contract brewing into question isn't going to maintain your market share; innovation is. Whether that's innovation in the product or marketing of that product, it's up to you to protect your business against this threat.

Friday, 19 December 2014

12 Beers of Christmas

Those good folks Mark and Steve of the Beer O'Clock Show are bringing back their much celebrated, often copied but never surpassed 12 beers of Christmas for another turn this year. Christmas is a great time for drinking beer. Well, all year round is a great time for drinking beer but Christmas always feels a bit special. A chance to reflect on the year that's been and look forward to the coming new year, or perhaps just an excuse to open a special bottle you've been saving.

The concept of 12 Beers of Christmas is a simple one - open a beer every day from the 20th December to New Year's Eve and drink it. What could be simpler? If you like, you can tweet, blog, instagram or whatever the cool kids are doing these days (see the post linked about for details) but the main thing is to enjoy that beer - you've earned it! So, on to the beers. 

For whatever reason, I missed out on all the excitement of this year's Rainbow Project, an initiative that sees some of the best breweries out there come together and get creative. This year was the second running of this great idea, organised by Ryan Witter of Siren Craft Brew. The kind folks are Siren put a mixed case of theses sought after beers aside for me and I reckon it makes perfect sense to drink all seven one day after the next, to give them the full attention they deserve, so:

  • Day 1 – Saturday 20 December – Siren and De Molen (Violet): Empress Stout 8.5% - Imperial Stout
  • Day 2 – Sunday 21 December – Buxton and Omnipollo (Yellow): Yellow Belly - Peanut Butter and Biscuit Imperial Stout
  • Day 3 – Monday 22 December – Magic Rock and Evil Twin (Red): Pogonophobia - Dry Hopped Flanders Red
  • Day 4 – Tuesday 23 December – Partizan and Mikkeller (Blue): Cognac BA Quadrupel 
  • Day 5 – Christmas Eve – Beavertown and Naparbier (Orange): The Sun Also Rises - Sherry BA Saison
  • Day 6 – Christmas Day – Wild Beer and Toccalmatto (Indigo): Indigo Child - Sour
  • Day 7 – Boxing Day – Hawkshead and Lervig (Green): Green Juniper and Hemp DIPA

From here, I'm going to pick off some bottles I've been saving for a rainy day:

  • Day 8 – Saturday 27 December – AleSmith Barrel Aged Speedway Stout
  • Day 9 – Sunday 28 December – Lost Abbey Cuvee de Tomme
  • Day 10 – Monday 29 December – Russian River/Sierra Nevada Brux
  • Day 11 – Tuesday 30 December – Magic Rock Bourbon Barrel Bearded Lady
  • Day 12 – New Year’s Eve – BrewDog AB:04: Cacao/Chilli Imperial Stout