Sunday 20 December 2015

12 Beers of Christmas 2015

As the festive season pulls sharply into focus, thoughts turn once again to Beer O'Clock show's twelve beers of Christmas. This simple idea is all about drinking some decent beer over the Christmas period and using whichever is your preferred social media channel to talk about it, should you wish to. For me, it's as good a reason as any open a few things that have been acquired throughout the year rather than wait for a really special occasion - not that Christmas isn't special of course!

In previous incarnations, I've made the mistake of biting off more than I could chew by picking which beers will be drunk on which days in advance, only to find that I either didn't fancy that day's beer or it was a big boozy bottle with nobody around to share it with. This year, I'm going to go with the flow. I've got some lower ABV beers there to ease in with. Some will be shared and others will be sipped and supped selfishly while pondering Christmas' great question - what else can I eat without leaving this chair? I might even have more than one on a given day then have a (gasp!) day off. 

If you'd like to get involved, head on over to Beer O'Clock show's twitter feed for details. It starts today, 20th December, but is a pretty relaxed affair so go with whatever works for you. Without further ado, here are the beers I've picked out:

  • St. Bernadus Abt 12 (Oak Aged): This was a gift from my good friend Phil Hardy, who came down to visit en-route to a family wedding a few months ago. Phil's had a tough year but one that closes out with him having fulfilled his dream of opening his own beer shop, Otter's Tears. All up, 2015 has been a good year for seeing friends either make the leap into working in beer/brewing full time or make excellent progress towards the same. We'll be raising a glass to Phil and his lovely wife Rachel when this one's cracked open. Congratulations, guys!
  • Fantôme Boo (2012): Dany Prignon's beers are known for being a little bit left of centre. You never quite know what you're going to get. This is a Saison brewed with pumpkin spice, the back story of which is covered here. Indeed, that forum post was right in that I was able to this up at Beer Boutique in Putney, I think at the back end of 2012 but it may have been 2013. The cork looks somewhat 'stressed' so I'll be opening this one outside!
  • Mikkeller Nelson Sauvin (Reisling BA): This one got a shout out in my Golden Pints as the best overseas bottled beer. BrewDog were selling these online for about £20 if I recall. The EFP discount softened the blow but, no matter, the moment I opened one of these earlier this year, I went online and bought a few more in a decadent splurge that I only slightly regretted the next day. Is it beer? I don't care. It's a sublime creation, the aroma of which leaps out of the glass to fill the nostrils with gooseberry and melon. The wine barrel adds a depth of complexity - just enough to make this one to contemplate rather than gulp down, which is entirely possible despite its 9% ABV. I'm looking forward to this immensely!
  • Magic Rock, Bourbon Barrel Bearded Lady (No. 2): Sadly my last bottle of this release (which is a couple of years old now) but all good things must come to an end. This year marked the end of the Huddersfield-based brewery's first home, as they moved to a much larger site closer to the centre of town. Magic Rock have experienced phenomenal growth and richly deserved success since their opening in 2011 - a sentiment I tried to capture both here when I first sampled this release and here when we went up to the launch of their new tap room earlier this year. A transitional year leaves them in a position to grow even more in 2016 and that's certainly worth celebrating. Cheers Rich, Stu, Scott, Joe, Nick, Becky, Dunc+Team and anyone else I've missed - hope you enjoy your well earned Christmas break!
  • The Lost Abbey Gift of the Magi (2014): This was a year in which I went back in time to rediscover some of the Belgian classics I'd enjoyed when first expanding my beery horizons in the late 90s. This beer was one of the first really good modern takes on the golden strong ale style, in my view. It's a beer I've had a few times but one I love to revisit - definitely in the decadent sipper category!
  • Wild Beer Co Put it in Your Pipe: Wild may be better known for their sour, farm house and hoppy beers but they certainly brew some very impressive dark beers too. I picked this one up on release but since then it has, rather shamefully, lurked at the back of the beer shelf gathering dust. I'm sure it'll be no worse for it, however. At 5.5% this is one of the lower ABV beers in this selection but from the description, it sounds like it won't be lacking in flavour. Will 2016 be the year the new-wave of British breweries fall back on beers such as this in order to preserve precious hop stocks?

  • Jester King Black Metal: I first encountered the wild yeast fermented creations of this Texas-based brewery at De Molen's Borefts festival back in 2012. I recall vividly being wowed by a sour stout - perhaps even the first one I'd tried in that style. The programme suggests that was probably Funk Metal rather than this, which I'm guessing may be its bigger sibling given the higher ABV. I'm not sure where I'll fit this one in - you need to be in the mood to tackle 750ml of 10% anything. Perhaps I'll do well to share this one!
  • Moa Sour Blanc (2013): This was picked up from South London's excellent Hop, Burns and Black - Moa being one of several New Zealand breweries they stock. I had the good fortune to visit Moa during our amazing pre-wedding adventure in 2012 and it was one of the few things I actually blogged about on that trip. This beer is brewed in the traditional Belgian Lambic style and fermented with wild yeast in oak barrels. My palate may well need to call upon this one at some point.
  • BrewDog Dog D: The 4th release of the Abstrakt series was much celebrated and we were such huge fans of that beer, to the point we actually crowned our wedding breakfast with a snifter or two. It was a chilli infused stout with such incredible depth. BrewDog eventually saw sense and re-brewed it, opting to use the recipe as a base for an anniversary release (Dog A). This is the fourth incarnation of that (fifth if you count AB:04 itself) but the first to be barrel aged. I've yet to sample it so this bottle will be much enjoyed, I'm sure. I might even share it with my lovely wife. Might.
  • Fuller's Vintage Ale (2010): The last of six bottles I purchased from Waitrose in Wokingham five years ago, on the say-so of Mark Dredge. I recall Mark tweeting about it and first bringing this beer to my attention as until then, I wasn't even aware it existed as an annual release. At the time I was looking for some beers to stash away to see how they changed over time, and this proved to be the perfect one to start the collection with. I drunk the first fresh and have sampled a bottle each year since, so this is another good thing coming to an end. If there's anyone out there thinking of starting a beer 'cellar', you'd do well to grab a few bottles of this year's!
  • Firestone Walker 18th Anniversary Ale: These annual releases are, without fail, exceptional beers. I recall taking the very first one I got my hands on (14th) up to Rick Furzer's Open It Live event in Leeds - I think that was in 2011. It was good enough to silence a whole table of fellow beer geeks (we had a lot of great beer that night, to be fair!) so I've sought it out each year since and have yet to be disappointed. This is last year's release and one I've had previously, so I know I'm in for an absolute treat.
  • De Ranke Père Noël: This is a Christmas favourite that will probably see light of day on the 25th itself. Belgium loves a good Christmas beer. Breweries there seem to mostly find the right balance between too little and too much spice, usually relying on one of their well-honed base beers, building the flavours atop until it just seems to work. I'm also a huge fan of St Bernadus' festive release so that may well get an airing too - after all, t'is the season to be jolly!

Friday 11 December 2015

Golden Pints 2015

Best UK Cask Beer

I'm going local here with Longdog's Lamplight Porter, although (local-ish) Vibrant Forest's Simcoe Pale might've edged it had I managed to find more! Beyond those, Hammerton's N1, Surrey Hills' Collusion and Siren's Love of Work all hit the spot.

Best UK Keg Beer

I can't pick one but here's a list of things I've REALLY enjoyed on keg this year:

Alpha State - Sorachi IPA
Brew By Numbers - Black IPA Enigma 
Cloudwater - IPA (Autumn) & DIPA
Retribution Brewing - Double IPA
Siren - Life's a Peach
Summer Wine - Surfing Monk & Sucker Punch
Thornbridge - Halcyon
Weird Beard - Defacer & Decadence

Best UK Bottled Beer

Siren/B.Nektar Uncle Zester with a honourable mentions to M&S/Adnams Mosaic Pale (a train beer favourite), BrewDog's Born To Die and Weird Beard Sadako Jack Daniel's BA.

Best UK Canned Beer

Not going to name a specific one but the Moor and Vocation ranges are both fantastic. It was also great to see Magic Rock's Cannonball arrive in the shiny format. 

Best Overseas Draught

The Funky Buddha beers that Craft Beer Co brought over were pretty special but I'm going with Cellarmaker's Coffee and Cigarettes, which was a highlight in Copenhagen this year.

Best Overseas Bottled Beer

Mikkeller - Nelson Sauvignon (Reisling BA). Enough to reduce a grown man to tears, but is it beer? I don't care. The moment I tasted it, I went online and bought more.

Best Overseas Canned Beer

The Modern Times beers were all fantastic. Hope to see more of them on these shores next year.

Best Collaboration Brew

Really loved the Hawkshead/Crooked Stave Key Lime Tau, one of this year's Rainbow Project collaborations - all of which I enjoyed, actually. Next year's is shaping up nicely, too.

Best Overall Beer

Siren/B.Nektar Uncle Zester. This was a beer that really grabbed me from the first sip - the sweetness of the honey is married wonderfully to the gentle sourness of the Berliner style base (presumably related to Calypso). Despite being north of 8% ABV, I could easily drink more than one bottle at a sitting - don't try that at home, kids. Part of me is sad there's not much of this masterful creation left but another part (the part which suffers hangovers) will be glad to see the back of it!

Best Branding

The rise in popularity of cans saw some great designs being used but there's a new (as yet, not canning) brewery who just completely nailed capturing everything their brewery is about in their design. That was Kew Brewery.

Best Pump Clip

Weird Beard's Defacer (Keg) - the first to feature their fantastic new foil branding.

Best Bottle Label

Absolutely loved the Mikkeller/Lindemans Spontanbasil screen-printed bottles. It suits the beer perfectly. The beer itself was a fascinating creation that really seemed to polarise opinion!

Best UK Brewery

Buxton have been consistently fantastic all year and seem to be able to work their magic across many different styles. A visit to the tap room in September cemented that and I certainly hope to visit again in 2016.

Best Overseas Brewery

Well I reckon Buxton's good buddies Omnipollo are pretty much brewing some of the most interesting and creative beers in the world right now.

Best New Brewery Opening 2015

It already feels like Cloudwater have been around a while but they only launched this year (and I'm looking forward to sampling their winter range) - keep up the good work! Vocation's beers have been flawlessly good. Up until recently I'd only tried the cans but a recent sample on cask confirmed those cans are no fluke. 

Pub/Bar of the Year

Ooh, this is a tough one but I'm going to plump for the Magic Rock Tap. Transport me there right away, please! I wrote about it here.

Best New Pub/Bar Opening 2015

I suppose that must go to Magic Rock Tap!

Festival of the Year

IMBC - just seems to get better and better each year. Long may it continue.

Supermarket of the Year

Marks and Spencer - great expansion of their range this year and their own-labeled beers have been very well selected.

Independent Retailer of the Year

Spent many a fun Saturday at Bottle Shop, Bermondsey and its been great to watch them grow and grow but I'm giving the nod to the now award-winning (not so) newcomers Hop, Burns & Black. I'm not sure what it is about that place that makes you feel right at home whenever you walk in but whatever it is, the place has it in abundance. Just wish I lived nearer!

Online Retailer of the Year

Yet again, BrewDog got the most of my hard earned in terms of online spend. Their guest beer range and stream of interesting new releases keeps me coming back.

Best Beer Blog or Website

Ed's Beer Blog (very regular posts with fantastic, diverse content) with honourable mentions to Total Ales and Boak & Bailey's Beer Blog.

Simon Johnson Award for Best Beer Twitterer

There can only be one winner here for me and that's @twattybeer (twitter) - David's doodles are always on point and very funny (one of my favourites features below, with permission).

Best Brewery Website/Social Media

That would be BrewDog, again. Great engagement and solid, fresh content. Honourable mention to Leith's Pilot Beer (twitter) - their sense of humour is second to none.

Image copyright @twattybeer

Tuesday 8 December 2015

Using beer ratings as market research

I've been working a lot lately on firming up the first 10 beers I plan to brew at Elusive, drawing from what is quite a large collection of recipes. This got me thinking about market research and ascertaining how well these beers might be received. Although that's not necessarily an indicator of potential sales, I figured it might provide useful input into developing an overall strategy. In an increasingly crowded market, simply starting up and hoping for the best is a risky approach. There's no longer a 'build it and they will come' road to market. Whilst you might shift your first few batches out of curiosity, if they aren't well received at point of sale, it'll get tougher from there.

Like many beer drinkers, I use Untappd (when I remember!) to record the beers I've drunk and give a rating. Personally, it's mostly used as an aide memoire but others like the gamification aspect of collecting badges and the other social features it provides. Untappd is a great source of data, although compared to sites such as ratebeer, the data is perhaps less 'clean' given the comparative lack of moderation - for example, if the first drinker of a specific new beer adds it in the wrong style category, it may never get changed. With that in mind, the analysis here should not be considered useful for anything more than satisfying my curiosity! There were some other boundaries I set when analysing this data:

  • A style would be discounted if there were fewer than five beers listed
  • Data would not be 'cleaned' at all
  • Since Untappd breaks down by country, I'd focus just on England
  • Overseas rates of English beers would be included (don't know how to exclude them)

Before we get into the data and findings, it's useful to have a read of Untappd's explanation how scores are determined. The first thing I looked at was the top rated breweries. This is readily available in the user interface:

There are a couple of standouts (for me) here - the first being Hanlons and the second being Samuel Smith's. Hanlons used to brew the much sought after Thomas Hardy's ale. A quick look at their ratings shows this is a common and inevitably highly rated check in, mostly from overseas. Is this driven by scarcity? Possibly. Sam Smith's stands out because of the huge number of ratings. Again, this appears to be due to a strong overseas influence. On to the top 15 rated beers overall, we see a pattern starting to emerge:

If we discount our Sam Smith's outlier, these are mostly strong beers. There's not a huge delta in the number of ratings (relative to the outlier) but the average ABV is just under 10%. This got me thinking about skew by style. That is, if you look at the top rated beers by style, how much variance is there in the average. The graph below (click to expand) shows that skew. It was created by taking the top 5 beers in each style and averaging the scores, then comparing that to the overall average across them all, which was a score of 3.70.

Here we can see a very positive skew towards the 'big' Stouts and IPAs, as reflected in the overall highest rated beers. In analysing the data to create the above graph, I noticed that in some cases there was also a large(r) delta within the styles too. That is, the top rated beer by style was varying degrees higher than the average of the top 5. Those were often the least popular styles (e.g. Cream Ale) but in some cases were also popular, suggesting an 'opportunity' to score relatively well (because of the positive skew) compared to brewing a beer with a lower overall average across the top beers in style. I can't think of a way to show this graphically but these styles stand out as 'opportunity' styles:
  • Imperial Stout
  • Milk Stout
  • Strong Ale (English)
  • Porter (English)
  • Mild (English)
  • Red Ale (American Amber/Red/Imperial)
At the other end of the scale, these styles could be considered 'opportunity' styles for other reasons, because they skew lower but have variance within the style, suggesting that attaining a high score relative to other beers in the style might be easier compared to the other end of the scale:
  • Chilli Beer
  • Bock
  • California Common
Finally, looking at all of the included styles and counting which breweries had the most number of top rated beers, we see that London's Kernel Brewery stands out by having the top rated beer across 9 different styles.

Does this make for useful market research to a would be brewery? Possibly not, but at least it satisfied my aim of dragging this blog back to where it started - with pretty graphs!

Sunday 6 December 2015

Hereford Beer House

Herefordshire is perhaps a county better known for hop farms and cider than beer. If anything, attempting to redress that balance by opening a destination bar in Hereford itself seems to have spurred partners Jonny Bright and Amélie Varin on to doing something beyond the norm. They've spared no expense in creating what they believe to be the UK's first bar-based glass fronted cold room, enabling them to store and display all stock at a freshness-preserving 4 degrees celcius. This kind of setup is commonplace in the USA, where even most supermarkets store all beer on chilled display shelves, but the UK is a long way off being able to support getting beer from conditioning tank to glass at optimal temperatures.

Hereford Beer House is more than just a beer bar, however. The beer offering is supported by plenty of local cider, cheese & charcuterie, coffee & tea and even home brewing ingredients - aiming to create a welcoming and accommodating choice rather than all-out hard sell on beer. In addition to the bar itself, Bright (formerly of BrewDog, Brodie's and Weird Beard) and Varin have created After The Harvest, a cuckoo brewing company aimed at bringing both fresh and wild beer directly to their customers. The connection of the bar to their beers has proved popular, with the first batch being the biggest seller so far on the taps.

Selling a diverse, high-end beer selection to those just discovering 'craft' beer is not without its challenges of course, and in order to inspire that discovery, the bottles are very keenly priced and sharing is encouraged. 

In the hour or so I was there, custom ranged from those very familiar with the offering to curious passers-by. The couple certainly have a challenge on their hands in the months ahead but its one they're relishing, and their offering is perfectly poised to help them in their aim of bringing great beer to Bright's home town.

Wednesday 4 November 2015

Pallet Watch - Cloudwater Brew Co

The first in this new series of blog posts comes to you live from The Free Trade Inn, Newcastle upon Tyne. Manchester's Cloudwater Brew Co, very much a new kid on the block in the skilled art of pallet assembly, sent this effort up to the north east in advance of their much anticipated Double IPA launch this coming Saturday.  

We're not sure which route it took but suspect it might've travelled east along the M62 before taking the A1 northbound.

A shockingly dry day in Newcastle

Its assembly, to the layman at least, appears to be tight. A tricky mix of e-casks, slimline key kegs and boxes has been handled well with the choice of a standard pallet proving a wise one. The pallet is strapped, wrapped and clearly marked.

Pallet building expert Denis Johnstone (Brewery Manager, Buxton Brewery) was called in to cast his critical eye over proceedings. After an amount of chin scratching and sucking of air through teeth, he surmised: "decent skills, let down by clear stretch wrap and not banding both ways. 7/10"

A solid score, it must be said. Can anyone score better? Will Cloudwater take this feedback on board and up their game? Stay tuned to find out!

Monday 19 October 2015

A peek inside Keighley's Wishbone Brewery

Wishbone was a project a long time in planning but what felt like, to an outside observer at least, an astonishingly short time in execution considering the amount of work involved. Adrian (Ade) and Emma Chapman worked many evenings and weekends turning a former and mostly derelict textile mill in Keighley, Yorkshire into the makings of a modern 10BBL brewhouse and tap room. It's a huge space at some 9000 square feet split over two floors but that, perhaps, is a statement of intent as the couple look to make their mark on Yorkshire's already vibrant brewing scene.

Ade is no stranger to that scene having worked for over five years as a brewer at the nearby Saltaire brewery. He left with the full blessing and support of his former employer and is already making his own strides into the market with casks of the first gyle having left the new brewery in mid-September. His former boss, Tony, made sure he was among the first to sample that inaugural brew when the very first cask hit the taps at local micro-pub the Cap and Collar.

From the outside the building, you'd never guess what lies within, to the point I'd driven round the block twice before trusting google maps enough to park up and walk in. The building has an old brick front and a large shared entrance - wide enough to reverse a lorry or two into. Walking through into the main section of the ground floor and down past the newly installed cold room, a work-in-progress bar and the enclosed office space, I arrived at the brew house to the rear to find Emma preparing orders for delivery that afternoon and Ade racking the third gyle into some very colourful plastic casks.

The brew house itself is bright and spacious, with a row of conical fermenters running perpendicular to the liquor tanks, mash tun and kettle. As Ade walked me round the building, we chatted about about many things, from the trials and tribulations of obtaining the conicals from China to some of the minor tweaks he's had to apply to the brew house to address niggles unearthed during the few first brews. 

Ade's home brewing blog Probably Due to Network Congestion documents well over 100 recipes, from the very simple to extreme craft! I've referred to this blog on many occasions when first attempting a new style or tweaking an existing recipe. In his own words, however, Wishbone's core range "is mostly made to have wide appeal without offending anyone’s tastes". That said, the beers I sampled at the brewery were all very flavoursome and, as you'd expect given their brewing pedigree, well made. My personal highlight was the 3.8% American Pale Ale, Bandit, which very much reminded me of Dark Star's Hop Head in flavour and aroma. I'm sure, in time, some of the recipes from those extensive home brewing archives will be put to use either as seasonal brews or as part of a future adjustment of the core range. In the mean time, their initial offering is certain to do well given the quality and diversity of styles covered.

Wishbone will soon have a tap room onsite, initially on the ground floor next to the brew house before, perhaps, expanding upstairs to take advantage of the extensive space available. Being close to the train station and several large businesses, I suspect this might be a popular destination for post-work refreshment once open.

As Ade showed me out, he told me the story of how his Dad used to have a small workshop in that very same large entrance area many years ago. The family connection to the site helped cement the decision to take the ambitious project on and I'm sure that call will pay dividends as Wishbone continues to establish itself both locally and further afield.

Tuesday 22 September 2015

The Rise of the Rock Star Brewer

I'm not sure where I first heard the term "Rock Star" used in reference to a brewer but the phrase has certainly been around a while, as this seven year old post over on Stonch confirms. It was almost certainly conjured up by an over-zealous marketing department, even if the example referenced above wasn't the first occurrence. 

Recent events got me thinking about the increasing popularity of 'craft' beer and the evolution of beer culture in here in the UK. In the US, people queuing for hours on end or paying many hundreds of dollars to join exclusive clubs in order to obtain the latest limited releases from revered brewers or breweries is not uncommon. In most cases, the demand for such beers is driven not by the brewery selling them but by consumers who've rated and raved about them online. I'm sure there are exceptions, however.

This becomes self fuelling -  in order to meet this demand as fairly as possible, breweries resort to ticketed events or online-only sales, the latter of which seems to have naturally extended into online 'clubs' where you an pay an annual fee up front to secure the loot. The club approach is the one I find hardest to reconcile personally. In some cases, you're agreeing to buy beer which may not have even been brewed yet. Beer which could be mediocre or worse. Are we as 'craft' beer consumers at the point where we buy into the idea of a beer, or splash out blindly based solely on "Rock Star" reputations or because we simply must have this new release in case it's as good as that much heralded and coveted batch from 3 years ago - the one that's impossible to find now but was basically the Best. Beer. Ever?

I don't think we're at that point yet here in the UK. Yes, there have been instances where demand for beer has far outstripped supply, leading to online scrambles, imploding websites and the inevitability that many therefore miss out. However, I can't recall any examples where that has been down to a brewery over-marketing a product. 

I recently had the opportunity to discuss this with two brewers who've experienced online scrambles for their own brews. I'll share their thoughts in a future post but it quickly became clear to me that the concept of being a "Rock Star" was not one they were comfortable with or could even comprehend. In both cases their only concern was that the beer meets the expectations of those who'd joined the rush to secure those coveted bottles.

Saturday 12 September 2015

Little Beer, Big Heart

Earlier this year I found myself at a local beer festival, one very cold Friday night in January. The organisers had done an excellent job buying in mostly local ale with a flirtatious sprinkling of exotic ales that weren't from round 'ere. For what it's worth, I consider 'local' to be breweries broadly within the scalene triangle that you could draw on a map to join Basingstoke, Reading and Guildford. There is actually a good number of breweries within this triangle, ranging in size from positively micro up to those with their own hop farm. I haven't counted them but I'd guess at more than 10, yet probably a lot less than 20.

So, with only somethingteen breweries in our modest triangle, when a new brewery appears on the scene I'm always keen to sample their beers. I'll also try to pop along if I can to say hello and have a nose around the brewery, trying (and usually failing) to avoid making a nuisance of myself.

Little Beer Co was born in 2013. I recall reading in the local press about how they were actively involving the local community in what they were doing, probably around the time they were moving to new, bigger premises with bigger kit in mid-2014. I also had a look at their rather lovely website and sighed wistfully as I read their manifesto, which struck a bit of a chord with me, as did their list of beers which is certainly more diverse than the local on-trade typically goes for, with several of them designed for keg only.

The first time I saw their beer in the wild was at a different local festival in late 2014. It was Little Rosy, their Raspberry Wheat beer. Now, wheat beer for me is a something I like to drink in the summer, preferably cold and enjoyed in a pub garden (I'm a sucker for a chunky pint glass of Hoegaarden, which I find pairs wonderfully with warm summer evenings). However, this was a strip-lit sports hall and the beer was poured from gravity, probably a good bit warmer than cellar temperature let alone anything near that of chilled keg dispense. I noted it was slightly sulphuric and astringent. I didn't enjoy it but made a mental note to try it again, hopefully from a cold bottle or keg line.

The festival in January afforded me my second nibble of Little Beer Co's range. This time it was Little Vienna, described as a biscuit-coloured Vienna lager that breaks the style rulebook by using Nelson Sauvin hops. Mmmm, Nelson. A hop I pretty much obsess over. Anything mentioning Nelson in a festival program usually has me sampling it at some point during proceedings. I ordered a half (gravity again in this case) and poked my nose in, hoping for a whiff of that gooseberry-like aroma I so love. However, green apple was all I got. A reluctant taste found mostly the same and my tasting notes say only "Green apples from nose to finish". Acetaldehyde is sometimes intentionally present at a low level in lagers, with Budweiser being an example of that - but in this case, I wondered if it was maybe just my palate being shot and playing tricks on me - it was pretty late on. Or perhaps this just wasn't the best way to serve this beer and it had suffered miserably as a result. The only point of reference I could recall for the style was Sam Adams and that's generally served from keg too. I typed my notes into Untappd (noting when and where I'd had the beer, as I always do if I'm not happy with it in case the brewery is reading comments), and moved on to something else.

The next morning I was surprised to find a DM from @LittleBeerCo in my inbox. A connection I have on Untappd (Richard Newberry) works part-time for the brewery and had pointed the owner and brewer, Jim Taylor, to my comments and twitter account. Shortly afterwards I had a chat with Jim on the phone. It was a straightforward and honest exchange. I described what I'd experienced and he explained what the beer is intended to taste and smell like, stating that Nelson is used late on and that he too is a fan of the distinctive aroma it delivers - one that he also uses elsewhere in more hop-forward styles in their range. He invited me to pop along to the brewery to give Little Vienna a second chance and offered to show me round. Jim seemed to genuinely care that I'd not enjoyed his beer at its best and wanted to put that right.

I took me far too long to eventually visit the brewery in Guildford, but a Saturday afternoon drive back from Gatwick via the A3 presented an ideal opportunity to drop in. Jim was busy transferring a beer when I arrived but pointed me towards the brewery shop at the far end of the building. On the shelf I found both Little Rosy and Little Vienna (£2.80 each) so I grabbed those and browsed through the rest of the range. By the time Jim appeared again to take payment, I'd grabbed another four (different) bottles and a delicious looking loaf of bread, baked locally using Little Beer Co beer in place of water in the dough.

The card reader was one of those fancy iPad connected ones and my details popping up on the screen saved me from an awkward introduction. True to his word, Jim took time out to show me round the operation. It's a 10BBL setup in pretty spacious surroundings. The beer being transferred was destined to be kegged the following day, so we got talking about their approach to cleaning and filling kegs and particularly the conditioning process. Little Beer Co packages in cask, keg and bottle onsite with cask or keg generally being selected based on what suits the style best.

Little Rosy
On arriving home, I cut some doorstep slices off the lovely fresh loaf and swapped the last of the Cornish Cruncher in the fridge with the two bottles I was so curious to try again. The strong bite of extra-mature cheddar was the perfect match for the slightly sweet, crusty bread and the sandwich was polished off long before the bottles had chilled down. 

A couple of hours later, Little Rosy was opened with a satisfying hiss and a wisp of smoke. It poured a light copper colour with a soft red hue and delivered a fluffy white pillow of foam as the glass filled. The nose is nuanced with sweet malts being nudged politely aside by wild raspberries as the aroma develops. The mouth feel is champagne spritz, which washes the crisp flavours around satisfyingly before the gentle, tart finish cleans everything up leaving you wanting for more. I enjoyed this beer in the garden and found the experience refreshing and rewarding - a far cry from that delivered by the beer festival at which I'd first tried it.

Little Vienna poured a similar pale copper colour with a thin off-white head. There was no sign of the green apple I'd experienced last time around. The aroma is a mix of brown bread as it's being toasted and a distant fruitiness that I couldn't quite put my finger on. Not the full on Nelson gooseberry and white wine grape you'd expect if this had been hopped like an IPA, but of course it isn't an IPA, it's a Vienna Lager which is primarily a malt-led style. The flavour has a lovely toasty malt character with just a hint of that Nelson hop profile, which combined deliver supreme drinkability. As the glass emptied I found myself wishing I'd drunk it alongside my hastily assembled cheese sandwich earlier.

I'd learned something here as both a drinker and wannabe brewer. As a drinker, don't be afraid to give beers or breweries a second chance, especially if you suspect the first experience was of a beer served far from its best. I've been guilty in the past of hastily writing things off, quite possibly to my loss with hindsight. Do give honest feedback however, but be constructive rather than dismissive. As a brewer, don't be afraid to engage customers who perhaps had a bad experience. A couple of minutes spent here or there can go a long way towards connecting you with those who buy your products and what could be more satisfying than having a previously unhappy customer not only vowing to come back for more but wholeheartedly recommending others do the same?

Monday 31 August 2015

The Influence of Michael Jackson

In his forward to the sixth edition of Great Beers of Belgium, Charlie Papazian says that Michael Jackson "helped transform every beer drinker's perspective" and goes on to say that "his passion and self professed love affair with Belgian beers succeeded in inspiring unparalleled innovation among American brewers". Jackson may have inspired many American brewers but it was made very clear during this year's European Beer Blogger's conference how much he inspired and helped drive the success of Belgian brewers too. 

Armand Debelder - 3 Fonteinen
Albert De Brabandere told the story of how their Petrus Aged Pale came to be - as a result of Jackson demanding, when sampling it directly from the foudre, that consumers be given the chance to try a beer that was originally only brewed for blending. The brewery eventually conceded and packaged a third of a foudre for sale in the United States as part of Jackson's internet beer club in 2001. So well was it received, that it eventually became a core beer.

Armand Debelder talked fondly of Jackson as he passionately recalled the backstory of 3 Fonteinen, highlighting how Jackson's promotion of the traditional Lambic style around the world helped create the demand that drove his business forward to success. Debelder has a picture of them together on the side of the brewery shop and holds Jackson in such high regard that he joked that the town of Beersel should erect a statue of him in the town square.

Our visit to 3 Fonteinen on 30th August 2015 coincided with the 8th anniversary of Jackson's passing. His influence on the success of Belgian beer clearly remains strong and his writing continues to inspire professional beer writers and amateur bloggers alike.

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 clichéd 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?