Thursday, 6 August 2015

The Story of Elusive Brewing

I almost don't know where to start with this but I'll have a stab at it. Let's go with 1990, being with a group of mates in the former Fox & Horn in Mortimer, near Reading, and ordering a pint of Flower's Best Bitter - having to face a grilling about being old enough before being handed that first, delicious pint. We used to chase them with the occasional Whisky Mac but that's not the point here. The point is, it was a long time ago that I first discovered beer. 

Down the years I've been through phases of drinking mass-produced lager and even developed a mild obsession with French wine, but ale has always been my main concern. Around the same time, we discovered £1 ferry crossings and the delights of Calais. Amidst the trollies full of £9 cases of Foster's, we'd throw the odd bottle of crazy Belgian beer such as Duvel. At 9% ABV, it was a novelty. We'd challenge each other to chug bottles. I had no idea that this was one of the world's finest examples of a style I'd yet to appreciate. I had no idea of style at all, to be honest.

I moved to California in 1998 and I recall discovering Sierra Nevada Pale Ale (WHOA, BITTER!!) in our local bar and starting to find my feet by learning the difference between a lager and an ale during a tour of Anchor Brewery. Missing British beer also led to my first home brewing exploits - a couple of ex-pats trying to reproduce Best Bitter in a Californian garage that averaged around 28 degrees, even in winter. We cracked it open on Superbowl Sunday in 1999 - it was bloody terrible, but we suffered through a few pints before resigning ourselves to cans of Coors Light and Bud.

Moving back to the UK, my interest in beer switched to Belgian styles and continued to develop. Discovering the Dovetail in Clerkenwell in the early 2000s really opened my eyes and inspired many trips to Belgium to hunt down the beers I was enjoying at the source. 

Fast forward a few years - I think my real 'craft' beer epiphany came when I joined twitter in 2009 and started to network with and learn from others. I soon discovered Beer Merchants and they were tweeting about beers from a brewer called Mikkeller. It would be easy to write that the rest, as they say, is history - but it wasn't as straightforward as that. I had a love-hate thing with the entire case that I'd eagerly ordered, but it had roused my interest in a way that I'd never thought possible. Jane, my girlfriend (now wife) had gone travelling and I had far too much time on my hands. I set about exploring beer and developing the love side of those first interactions with Mikkeller's and others' beers. It went from there to watching the UK scene develop. The endless variety on offer at the Cask in Pimlico, being rained upon outside the new Kernel Brewery while dissecting the flavours that this hop and that hop brought to each beer - this was slowly developing into an obsession.

I don't know what brought me back to home brewing. I was certainly inspired by David Bishop's blog amongst others, such as Adrian Chapman's. Kenny Hannah (@ObadiahPoundage) introduced me to Gregg Irwin (@dredpenguin) in August 2011. It was the pre-GBBF Kernel tap takeover at Cask Pimlico (Kenny writes about the event here), a night on which I'd also affirm my love of Saison. We'd go on to become good friends, but let's come back to that. That night, Gregg certainly planted some seeds as he talked about the beers he'd created at home and his aspirations to brew commercially. I don't think I've ever said this to him in person, but Gregg was, and remains, a huge inspiration to me personally.

When Jane returned from her travels, I proposed, and she accepted! In early 2012, I'd finally assembled enough kit to brew a beer at home. The first brew day took me about 12 hours from end to end and was supposed to be a clone of Green Flash's West Coast IPA. The blog post I wrote on that brew day details a series of very amateur errors but I recall being spurred on by all the comments and feedback offering advice on how to avoid those errors and improve my process. 

The day after the beer was bottled, Jane and me boarded a plane for Singapore. Our jobs in IT, while enabling us financially to afford a few months off, were a source of stress and long hours. In the year we were to marry, we'd decided to blow some of our savings on a big trip before blowing the rest on our wedding. My obsession with beer had reached borderline insanity. I had all the breweries and bars of note in New Zealand plotted on a map and had every intention of visiting them all.  Thankfully common sense prevailed and we managed to balance the beauty of NZ with the beer - just about. Our time in San Diego towards the end of the trip however was pretty much entirely spent in breweries!

On our return, Gregg (after we'd met up again to share some home brews) encouraged me to enter a competition that London Amateur Brewers were organising - it would be a great way to receive feedback and guidance on my first brews. The West Coast IPA was duly entered along with a Saison I'd created with some hops I'd picked up in New Zealand - Nelson Sauvin. The Saison scored well but was apparently entered into the wrong category (I found the BJCP style guidelines confusing so just guessed, incorrectly figuring they'd sort it out for me) but the IPA, despite being around five months old by this point, scooped a bronze medal. That rosette sits proudly on our mantelpiece to this day. I think that evening was a turning point for me, arriving home to open the last bottle of that first brew in celebration. Other people had enjoyed beers that I'd produced on the electric hob in the kitchen and fermented in the dining room. How could that be?

My obsession with home brewing snapped into overdrive on joining the fantastic London Amateur Brewers club soon afterwards. I wanted to drink and learn about everything I could lay my hands on. I wanted to brew every style I read about and tasted yet also kept going back to old recipes to refine and improve them. By the time The Craft Beer Co launched their National Home Brewing Awards in late 2013, I'd produced a few beers I was happy with and was growing in confidence. I certainly had my eye on that prize and spent about 3 months brewing most weekends to produce a range of beers to enter. Fast forward to February 2014 and what remains one of the proudest nights of my life thus far - "And the winner is...". The first person to congratulate me was Gregg, whom by now had partnered up with fellow home brewing obsessive Bryan Spooner to create Weird Beard Brewing - a brewery that was named amongst Ratebeer's best new breweries in the world after a phenomenal first year.

In terms of my own learning, it wasn't just about home brewing. I could list many UK breweries who'd generously indulged me in answering question after question during visits, or when I'd cornered them at meet the brewer events - helping to satisfy my growing curiosity around commercial brewing. Visiting Magic Rock for the first time in 2012 during the Beer Bloggers Conference in Leeds, the same weekend I'd first visited Summer Wine, was memorable. Seeing James Farran's home brew kit still stashed away in the brewery and hearing the story of how he, with Andy Baker, had started Summer Wine was fascinating to me, as was hearing Richard Burhouse talk about his own discovery of US beer and the story behind how he came to start Magic Rock, hiring Stuart Ross as head brewer to recreate those hoppy styles he enjoyed drinking. 

I was starting to detect a cross-over between commercial and home brewing. At the risk of over generalising, commercial brewers were just like the home brewers I'd met but with bigger kit, and much more at stake of course! - just as eager to learn and passionate about what they did. I don't think you ever stop learning as a brewer, commercial or otherwise, which is perhaps why I've never met a commercial brewer who sees what they do as just 'a job'. I wanted to be part of it like nothing else. As I'd learn later, it's a tough, physically demanding job so you certainly need to have a passion for it to power you through.

Gregg was a fan of the Nelson Saison and when I decided to start down the long path of setting up my own brewery, Weird Beard gave me a leg up by releasing it commercially as a collaboration. My friend Ceri Jones created some branding based on the 8-bit video games I enjoyed playing as a kid, as a logo was required for the packaging and having no idea where to take it, reverted back to my misspent youth. We launched Nelson Saison at Phil Hardy's Twissup in Macclesfield in 2013 - another proud moment for me but not as proud as, on my 40th birthday, having a barman tell me the story of that beer as he filled my glass - "this was originally a home brew, you know, but Weird Beard liked it so much they decided to brew it". The recipe would later be totally redesigned and released as Lord Nelson at the second Birmingham Beer Bash in July 2014. Weird Beard and me were both pretty proud of that beer. Further commercial brews would follow with Dark Star releasing American Red - the recipe that won the Craft Beer Co competition, Hogs Back inviting me to collaborate on a beer for GBBF 2014 and Siren Craft Brew giving me a huge leg up by inviting me to collaborate on Dinner For One, which developed into a series of releases each bearing the Elusive Brewing name.

Starting a brewery can certainly be frustrating. My personal 'adventure' would see me fail to secure three separate premises over the period of a year before finally agreeing terms on a unit in Basingstoke. The last of the premises that fell through happened very late in the process, meaning the 5BBL kit I'd ordered to coincide with it had to be moth-balled for a few months. The suppliers, Elite Stainless Fabrications in Swindon, have been fantastic in that regard, allowing me to take up valuable warehouse space by storing it. The day I'm finally able to take delivery can't come soon enough. To that end, with lease signing imminent and in light of previous delays, plus my day job giving me increasingly less free time, I've decided to focus full time on working towards that day and gave notice to my employer this morning. Being naturally risk-averse has definitely held me back but I have to do this now, or I'll forever regret it.

What happens to Elusive Brewing next is anyone's guess but I'm ready to find out. In years of supporting the brewing scene in the UK I've made plenty of friends and been offered lots of reciprocal support and advice in getting started, both technical and operational - underlining what a helpful and collaborative industry this is at its core. It might be clich├ęd to say I'll be aiming to make the best beer I possibly can but that really is my only focus, and I'm not afraid to take up some of those offers of help in order to do so! I'm also very mindful of the incredible growth seen in the past few years and am taking this as both a warning and encouragement - there's no room for mediocrity and there's definitely a squeeze coming, if it hasn't started already.

I'll be documenting the process of getting started, as much as time allows, so stay tuned for more posts on this subject. Despite the first brew day probably still being a couple of months away, I'm already nervous about it - but also ridiculously excited about what lies ahead.

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.