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.