Monday 23 April 2012

Weird Beard Brewing Company

Bold, fresh branding
The London brewing scene is booming at the moment and The Rake Bar's annual London beer week festival provided a great opportunity to showcase some of what the likes of Kernel (incidentally, the backdrop to this blog is a photo of their shiny new brewery), Fuller's, Winsdor & Eton and Redemption are producing. It also provided a platform for some startup breweries to get in on the action and a stormy Sunday afternoon was the perfect excuse to sit in The Rake's cosy bar and sample some beer from the upcoming Weird Beard Brewing Company (@weirdbeard_brew).  Weird Beard is not yet a commercial brewery but their operation is starting to shape up nicely with premises secured and brewing plans being drawn up.

Bryan Spooner and Gregg Irwin
The brewery is the brain child of Director and Brewer Gregg Irwin (@dredpenguin) and Brewer Bryan Spooner (@weirdbeardbryan), both established home brewers who were delighted to take home awards from the London and South East Craft Beer Festival back in November 2011 (see Gregg's blog post for details). Encouraged by the feedback their beers were getting and the support from London Amateur Brewers, they decided to take the bold step of starting a commercial brewery, as wittily explained on their blog. The journey to where they are today has not been an easy one. Weird Beard will be sharing a space and equipment with Ellenberg's Brewery, another start up. Their initial planned location, under a railway arch between South Harrow and Rayners Lane, fell victim to TfL red tape and undue delays with securing a lease. Not wanting to waste any more time chasing their tails, the two breweries sought out a new location and recently secured an industrial unit beside the Grand Union Canal in Hanwell. They hope to be in within a month or so and from there will acquire either used or new equipment and start the process of building it out (any breweries out there who are looking to sell used vessels, please get in touch with Gregg - they're looking to build a 10BBL plant). They're tentatively aiming to be fully up and running by September.

So, what about the beer!? Gregg and Bryan brought along three beers to sample. A single-hop pale ale brewed with the Junga hop (from Poland). Sunshine Saison and Fade To Black, a Cascadian dark ale or black IPA if you prefer. All three were met with approval by those gathered in the bar. The Junga hop pale ale had a delightful nose filled with sweet marmalade notes. It was conditioned perfectly with a refreshing carbonation fizzing orange flavours over the tongue leading to a subtle bitter finish. The Saison had a nose dominated by the French saison yeast with a hint of lemon and peppery spice from the Pacific Jade hops. Again, a lively carbonation washed it around the mouth where there was more lemon to be found. This was really refreshing and my sample glass was empty within a couple of minutes - very enjoyable. The last beer and the one most of those present seemed to like the most was the Black IPA. The dry hopping was exquisite and really inviting with a combination of Sorachi, Citra and Amarillo providing lovely citrus aroma. The taste was one of more citrus, especially grapefruit and lemon underpinned by the coffee notes of the dark malts. The finish was long and bitter. This was a very good beer indeed and one I hope makes it to their core range.

Gregg explained some of the challenges of ramping up from brewing in his shed to full commercial scale. The New Zealand hops (especially Nelson Sauvin) they want for some of their core beers are in short supply with orders being taken months in advance. He hopes they can secure a few kilos and has committed a fair chunk of their budget to a large order. However, their orders understandably sit behind those of established customers. Until Weird Beard finds out what their allocation is, the plans for the initial range of beers can't be finalised and they're expecting to have to tweak and adjust recipes based on what's available to them when they start brewing.

Gregg signs the famous 'wall of brewers' at The Rake
Bryan adds his signature, just below that of Garret Oliver!
The rest of the afternoon was spent sharing and talking about some of great beer The Rake has to offer and I was glad I took time out to go and meet team Weird Beard. Their passion for good beer and brewing is one they love to share over a beer or two. They'll certainly make a positive impact to the London brewing scene and if the beers sampled on that wet Sunday afternoon are anything to go by, will be one to watch with interest.

Friday 20 April 2012

Alvinne Brewery (Picobrouwerij Alvinne)

The highlight of a recent flying visit to Belgium was an afternoon in the company of the great brewing minds at Alvinne. Situated in the small town of Moen, some 6 miles South East of Kortrijk in the Flemish West Flanders region, Alvinne is the brainchild of former home brewers Glenn Castelein and Davy Spiessens. Operations started in late 2004, in a garden shed. However, the brewery has come a long way since then and a year after Marc De Keukeleire joined forces with the founders in 2010, Alvinne moved to its current home in a converted industrial unit. The new brewery opened in 2011 once conversion work was complete and equipment moved into place. The conversion work was significant and included installation of a loft style tasting room. Alvinne holds a craft beer festival (ACBF) to which only the cream of the small craft breweries are invited each year. This year's festival was held at the new brewery to much acclaim from those who attended. The British scene was represented this year by Brodies, Redemption, Brew Wharf, Thornbridge, Twickenham, Marble and Hawkshead. 

Visiting Alvinne brewery has become something of a pilgrimage for lovers of the Flemish sour style and as we set off from Bruges, having visited the Struise shop there earlier in the day (recommended), the torrential rain made the drive interesting.  Finding the place is a bit of a challenge and we circled round Moen before realising the sat nav was throwing us a curve ball. As we approached, we knew we'd finally found it when we spotted the Oak barrels outside. Pulling up in front of the building, the "Morpheus Yeast Inside" banner confirmed this.

Banner on brewery wall indicating good things within
Walking through the door and up some steps we found ourselves in the beer shop. This stocks a small but perfectly formed range of craft beer from around the globe. One section is dedicated to Alvinne's beers but the other three carry beers from the likes of Thornbridge, Struise, Hair of the Dog and many other world class breweries. 

Alvinne bottle selection in their shop
Glenn was there to greet us and showed us to the tasting room upstairs where Davy was sat at the bar. We handed over the loot we'd brought from Brodies, Kernel and Redemption (Thomas from Fermenting Ramblings had collected these from their respective brewers earlier in the week, all keen to spread some beery love to the guys at Alvinne) and soon found ourselves with a beer in-hand from one of the keg lines at the bar.  

Looking over the balcony of the tasting loft

As I sipped and savoured this (a Morpheus Tripel) and peered over the balcony across the brewery, it hit me why ratebeer users had voted Alvinne the Best Brewery to Visit in 2011. Quite simply, this is a wonderful place to while away an afternoon and drink and stock up on world class beer. I made a vow right there and then to come back for the next ACBF.

View past the tanks to a newly assembled barrel rack
Over the next couple of hours, Glenn generously poured some 10 or so beers, taking us first through the Morpheus range, Undressed (a beer they mostly use for blending), then onto some of the sour oak aged beers Alvinne is famous for. As I was driving, I could only sip these (before passing the rest to Thomas - he wasn't going to let a drop hit the sink) but the quality of all of them was second to none and it was great sampling these while  having the opportunity to discuss them with the brewers. The highlights were probably the samples of batch 1 (now a year old and perfectly balanced) and 2 (just been bottled) of Beer Geek Wedding in London City, a sour ale brewed to celebrate the wedding of Mes and Sim. The first batch saw Morpheus Dark aged in a Glenrothes whisky barrel blended 70/30 with Kerasus 2010. A year in bottle has seen it lose some of the characteristics the barrel imparted on it but it has developed into a deliciously balanced example of the classic Flemish brown ale style. The second batch is the same blend but aged in French Monbazillac wine barrels. Both were fantastic. Below is the collective view of reviews on ratebeer for the first batch.

As we tasted, Glenn explained the challenges of producing high quality barrel aged sour beers. Each barrel imparts a unique and sometimes very different quality and the skill is in blending to create the final product they desire, often working through many different blends before getting it just right. There's no doubt they have this down to a fine art. 

Before leaving for Calais, we had time to stock up on some Alvinne bottles and a couple of other rarities including their last couple of bottles of the sought after Hair of the Dog AdamIf you get the opportunity to visit Alvinne, either for the festival or just on its own merit, I thoroughly recommend doing so. It was educational, fun and involved sampling and buying some world class beers in the company of top brewers. What's not to love!?

Sunday 8 April 2012

Hogs Back Brewery

One of my favourite local runs is an out and back 20 miler along the North Downs Way from Farnham to Guildford and back. The route follows that of the A31, known locally as the Hogs Back as it straddles a long ridge of the same name. The road also provides fantastic views of surrounding area.

Hogs Back Brewery, founded in 1992 by Martin Zillwood-Hunt and Anthony Stanton-Precious, sits just off the A31 in Tongham. It's a very traditional brewery that prides itself on producing a consistently good core lineup alongside some varied seasonal brews. Their first brew was T.E.A. (Traditional English Ale) which is widely available both locally and further afield. It remains their flagship beer and one they're very proud of. T.E.A. has won numerous awards, including "Best Bitter in Britain", all of which are proudly displayed at the brewery.

The main brewery building
The main brewery building is a converted barn which now has two stories. It has been extended to both sides and additional buildings have been added as the brewery has grown throughout its 20 year history. The brewery started out with 4BBL capacity but has been expanded over time to its current 40BBL capacity. Brewster Mo and her team brew five days per week, producing in excess of 50K pints at full capacity. The brewery is fully self-contained with the only offsite activity being bottling, as they simply don't have the space to bottle on site.

We were booked on to the 6:30pm tour and arriving a few minutes early gave us a few minutes to look round their fantastic beer shop. As CAMRGB's Simon noted when he visited, this is a real treat. 

The fantastic brewery shop
The shop stocks over 300 beers from around the world, with a strong UK emphasis. Of course, the shop also stocks the whole range of Hogs Back bottles (as seasonal availability allows) along with merchandise and other local produce including award winning sausages from A. Turner and Sons of Aldershot, who won recognition at british sausage week for sausages made with Hogs Back ales. I've visited this shop a few times and invariably end up spending a fortune there. This time I was restrained however and picked up a Bristol Beer Factory Milk Stout and a Mallinsons Hopped, both priced very reasonably.

The tour started promptly in the viewing gallery (the area behind the open green double doors in the photo above) which adjoins the shop and Noel, our guide, started by telling us about the history of the local area and its role in brewing, including the history of Farnham Maltings which these days, very fittingly, is home to the annual Farnham Beerex, the longest established beer festival in the UK. The local area, which back then was mostly farm land, was a large producer of hops. Sadly, only one local producer remains. The Hampton Estate in nearby Puttenham (also the half-way point of my run) has some 14 acres of hop gardens, used to grow the Fuggles variety, a mainstay of traditional British beer styles. Hogs Back sources its Fuggles hops solely from this local supplier, less than three miles away. The brewery also uses the Goldings variety in its brews, although these are sourced from other parts of the South including Suffolk and Kent. 

Noel also talked us through the malt they use and offered us a chance to taste these (including pale, crystal and chocolate varieties) before offering us a chance to touch, feel and smell the two hop varieties as he talked about them, encouraging us to get the oil on our fingers as we tasted the first beer of the day.

The tour includes plenty of opportunity to taste the fruits of the brewery's labour and first up was HBB (Hogs Back Bitter), a 3.7% session ale. There's no scrimping on sample sizes here. Four large jugs were on hand and half pint glasses offered to fill and refill as you wished. HBB certainly hit the spot. A backbone of biscuity malt is balanced with lovely citrus hop notes which last through to the finish. The beer was refreshing and unchallenging, as you'd expect from an easy-drinking session ales. My lager drinking Dad, who accompanied me on the tour, later declared this to be his favourite of the evening and we both refilled as Noel went on to explain the brewery's range of beers. Hogs Back makes in excess of 16 different beers throughout the year, not including one off specials such as RoyalT.E.A brewed for last year's royal wedding (look out for MajestT.E.A being released in May to commemorate the Queen's 60th Jubilee).

The kettle and HLT from the viewing gallery
The mash tun and hopper used for adding malt from upstairs

Tour guide Noel
The tour took us down (this is the area behind the lower green double doors in the top photograph) onto the brewery floor and Noel carefully explained the process of heating liquor in the HLT, adding malt, mashing in and boiling, pointing out how the wort was transferred to the kettle and a heat exchanger used for cooling. 

Each brew day lasts around 10 hours and starts bright and early at 6am, so the brewing team were long gone before we arrived with everything dug out, washed down and cleaned ready for the next day's brew.

Our guide was also keen to point out the physical nature of the work, which had apparently surprised a few of their would-be brewery assistants down the years!

The next beer was offered on the brewery floor. This was the seasonal Spring Ale. A straightforward 4.0% session ale with earthy and light malt on the nose. I got some citrus fruit and grass notes from this before the long bitter finish. 

The tour then left the main building and moved into the adjacent block which houses the fermenting vessels, conditioning tanks and cellar. We started out in a meeting room that overlooked the fermenting vessels (below), one of which was bubbling away nicely. Noel explained that Hogs Back sourced its yeast from Hook Norton brewery in Oxfordshire. This was one of a few tried while developing the recipe for T.E.A.

Fermenting Vessels
Conditioning Tanks
As Noel explained the process of fermenting beer from the meeting room, I was struck by the number of awards and certificates that adorned every wall, including several 'champion beer' accolades. Hogs Back is not a brewery known for experimenting with wild yeast strains, US or antipodean hop varieties or barrel ageing but what it does, it clearly does very well and the recognition it has received is there for all to see.

The third beer of the evening was offered before we descended down stairs to the conditioning room. This was the brewery's flagship beer, T.E.A. at 4.2%. This is a beer I've drunk many pints of down the years. It has a bit of a following locally and is widely available both on cask and in bottle form.  

The sample we were offered was (perhaps understandably) fresh and perfectly conditioned. The pour is an amber colour and the nose one of dark fruits, grass and maybe a hint of cola. It may have been the conditioning but for the first time, I got some sweet fruit (blackberry-like) on the palate before the familiar caramel, grassy hops and dusting of spice. This is a beer in the classic English ale style and one I could (and have) drink a good few pints of.  Regular readers will know I do love a good word cloud and below is a mash up of the 30 most recent ratebeer reviews of T.E.A. to give feel for the words most often used to describe it.

We wandered down to the conditioning and cask filling room as Noel explained the use of Isinglass in the tanks to bring clarity to the beer.

The final stop on the tour was the cellar, which was full of freshly brewed T.E.A. destined for a few local pubs I recognised from the labels on the casks and a few further afield.

Like many breweries, Hogs Back has faced problems keeping track of their casks and lost a good few down the years, but they were apparently able to recover quite a few from a recently closed mass producer nearby!

After the tour, we returned back to the shop (as all good tours do) where we were offered our final beer of the evening - Hop Garden Gold, which has recently been rebranded slightly to shorten the name to HOP on the pump clip. At 4.8% this was the strongest of the evening and the one that sparked the most debate as we tasted it. 

This was a golden coloured ale with a nose of pineapple, orange and distant malt biscuit notes. I found the taste to be one of malty sweetness with hints of honey and banana. This sweetness continued into the finish with a slight bitterness in coming right at the end. All four of the beers we sampled were most enjoyable but the standout for me was T.E.A. as although I'd had it many times before, it had never tasted as good as it did right there at the brewery.

A pint of HOP
The tour was very enjoyable even for Dad, who isn't an ale drinker. Our guide was entertaining and passionate about the brewery and their beers. If you're ever in the area it's certainly worth booking on to one of the tours (evenings and weekends - check the website for details) or stopping by the fantastic shop to pick up some bottles. You certainly won't be disappointed with the huge range on offer if you've only time for the latter.

We had an hour to kill before our ride home was to arrive, so we headed down to the nearby White Hart in Tongham village. The pub always has two or three Hogs Back beers on, in this case T.E.A. and HOP. 

A big thanks to Regional Sales Manager Dominic Ronane for booking us on to the tour.

Sunday 1 April 2012

A night of Imperial Stouts #impoff

After the success of the huge virtual tasting evening that was Durham Brewery's White Stout Event, the great minds of those involved collectively started planning the next event.  The idea started with a tongue in cheek proclamation from Durham Brewery's Elly that their Temptation Imperial Stout was a tough act to beat. A small amount of banter later and impoff was born - an imperial stout fight to the death to be played out on twitter. The idea was to get as many people drinking and tweeting about imperial stout as possible. 

Before getting to the main event at the weekend, a small virtual gathering sampled Summer Wine Brewery's KopiKat Imperial Coffee Vanilla Stout on the night of Monday 26th March. I like nothing more than tasting a great beer with friends and sharing opinions on it, discussing the flavours, aromas and finish. To do so online is fun as we found during the White Stout event. I thought it would be fun to compare the brewery's description of it with the views of the tweeting collective. Here's the brewery's tasting notes (these don't appear on the bottle - Summer Wine prefer drinkers to form their own opinion): 

"The coffee infusion on this beer is immense, dark roast bitterness & a healthy kick of hops prepare your palate for a big, sumptuous sweet creamy mouthfeel that rolls into a what can only be described as a long swirling smooth chocolate coffee vanilla marshmallow melt."

Comparing that to a mash-up of the words (creating using wordle) tweeters used to describe it while tasting finds broad agreement, although no mention of the creamy mouthfeel. I wonder if we'll ever see a word cloud on the side of a bottle? 

Moving on to the main event, the beery collective of twitter embraced it fully. The graph below shows that there were 897 tweets sent in the 8 days between March 25th and April 1st, the bulk of which were sent on the evening of March 31st.

Drilling down into the 31st by hour (the time is UTC, so an hour off from BST) we can see that these peaked in the 8-9pm timeframe:

With 122 people sending tweets, the reach was quite staggering. The below graph (from tweetreach) shows how many people received tweets tagged with #impoff and how many tweets they received:

In total, 34,264 unique twitter users had tweets hit their timeline. Tweetreach allows us to look at 'impressions' by user and below shows the top 12 contributors based on the number of impressions (tweets multiplied by the number of followers they have):

We can also look at the tweets that received the most retweets:

So, what were people tweeting about? The below takes the tweets sent between 7pm and midnight on the 31st March and mashes them into a word cloud:

From this we can derive that the most tweeted about beers were Durham's Temptation, Magic Rock's Bearded Lady and Thornbridge St Petersburg. I sampled the former myself and I must say it's a great example of the style. My initial description was of dark chocolate covered boozy liquorice allsorts with a sniff of parma violets. It was that kind of night. The Port Brewing Old Viscosity and Southern Tier Mokah that followed it (fortunately I was sharing!) certainly made for a very full on evening.

The impoff event was certainly a success and events like this help cement the importance of social media in brewing and most importantly, drinking and sharing great beer. Cheers!