Monday 26 December 2011

A Changing Landscape?

Anybody see that feature in the Grauniad the other day? Based on Paul Moody and Robin Turner's book The Search for the Perfect Pub: Looking for the Moon Under Water (reviewed here by Reluctant Scooper), the authors picked out ten of their favourites for the paper's Food & Drink section.

They included the Jolly Butchers, and a part of their description caught my eye. They wrote:
2010's thoroughly modern spruce-up has seen the Jolly Butchers reborn as one of north London's premier "craft beer" spots, becoming something of a flagbearer for a post-Camra generation of drinkers
I haven't seen a bar described as 'post-Camra' before. Are these new freehouses and small chains 'post-Camra'? It seems to me they attract a mixed clientele, though perhaps a predominantly younger generation of drinkers. Drinkers who like beer but aren't connected to 'tradition' or the battle for cask. Good beer is good beer, regardless of dispense, keg fonts sharing top billing with the beer engines.

Friday 9 December 2011

The Boggle Awards 2011

Last year I shamelessly appropriated and subverted the concept of the worthy, democratic and inclusive 'Golden Pint' awards and made up my own, The Boggle Awards. As a London blogger, I wanted to recognise what I thought were the best brewer, bar, pub and retailer in our capital city. Luckily, over the past couple of years, that sort of thing has developed some meaning with the renaissance of London brewing, and the welcome addition of a lot of beer-centric bars and pubs across the four corners of the city (well, almost).

No sign of this year's Golden Pints yet, so I'm going to go first and name the 2011 Boggle Award winners. This year there are just two. As well as London Brewer, I decided to recognise a single pub or bar, rather than separate them, so there's a single award. And since pretty much the only bottled beers I've had this year were obtained from breweries, I haven't bothered with a retailer award. The only 'fer real' bottle shop I visited this year was Bottle Barn in Santa Rosa, CA.

So, who will be receiving the highly-coveted Boggle Xmas card this time? First, this years Brewer Award.

Another great year for Kernel, with Evin and his team consistently producing top-quality beers, including an amazing saison, the London Brick collaboration beers (number 3 in the series is being brewed next week, hosted at Brodie's). They've been honoured repeatedly, most recently by the British Guild Of Beer Writers.

Camden Town has grown up hugely since the 2010 London Brewers' Showcase. Then, it was a table and a few kegs. As today's Will Hawkes piece in the Independent relates, they expect to have outgrown their current premises within a couple of years. And their beers have come on, as well. I'll be looking out for their new Camden Ink stout.

Tucked away in the far reaches of Tottenham, Redemption have been solid and consistent. Keeping it simple with a compact portfolio of high-quality beers, this year they launched Trinity, a fabulous light mild of 3% which proved to be a bit of a signature beer for the London spring and summer.

All good brewers, all setting high standards with their beers. But this year's Boggle Award London Brewer 2011 is Brodie's. I'm late to their beers, but in 2011 I've had plenty of opportunities to sample a wide range, and I admire their 'no-limits' approach. From the longer experience of Boak & Bailey, it seems 2011 has been the breakthrough year for Jamie and Lizzie, and I've certainly been impressed with their determination to develop consistency across a defined core range of beers. They've taken occasional stick for the beer quality in their pubs, but I know they've worked hard to improve things with new stillages, work on cellar cooling and staff training. Drink the beers elsewhere (I've been supping them at Cask Pub & Kitchen recently) and the quality shines through.

The second award, for London Pub Of The Year, goes to Cask Pub & Kitchen. Honourable Mention last year, and some might argue somewhat overshadowed by the excitement surrounding the opening of Craft Beer Co., still, Cask is the Pub Made Good.

Failing as a Greene King operated premises, closed up, then just over two years ago opened as an independent bar. From a slow start, they've relentlessly promoted good beer from around the world, hosted Meet The Brewer events and, proof that a good pub is a meeting place for the whole community, attracted locals and workers as well as beer geeks. This year, they've developed complementary branding to sister pub Craft Beer Co. and recently I've been pleased to see lots of London beer available.

I believe Cask narrowly lost out to The Southampton Arms for CAMRA London Pub Of The Year with the latter's cider offering being ultimately decisive, so hopefully in some way this award will make up for any disappointment.

Next year I hope to be checking out the progress of Tap East, Craft Beer Co, The Bull @ Highgate and a clutch of other recent openings all helping to put good beer on the London map.

Congratulations to both winners, and here's to a cracking 2012 for London's brewers and pubs. Ho ho ho!

Wednesday 7 December 2011

Piss-Up In Brewery "Disorganised" - Official

Another week, and another seasonal beer release for those legendary respecters of beer, the spoogebeerians, to get into a frenzy over. This time it was the release of Batch 5 of Captain Lawrence's Cuvee de Castleton, along with very limited batches of their latest Barrel Select Series beers. Bottling runs of fewer than 250 for the Barrel Select stuff had the spoogerbeerians vibrating at higher than normal frequency.

Last time there was a release, a drunken punter managed to attract the attention of the local police, prompting brewery owner Scott Vaccaro to email this:
After the last release I was not sure if I would be able to do another at our current location due to a very unhappy land lord and local police. Without going into details as to what happened last time, I would just ask that you all enjoy the bounty of beers that are available for tasting prior to the release responsibly, and remember to keep in control of both your person and your bladder. We will not sell or serve beer at anyone that appears intoxicated
The brewery put a portaloo in their parking lot, and put out one of those numbered ticket dispensers so people could simply rock up, get their ticket for a place in the queue, and then go away. As usual though, the whole thing went wrong. Hoax reports on Beer Advocate about tickets, people turning up in the early hours to get their own tickets, and take handfuls more to trade to later arrivals. Queue-jumping - one notorious hoarder went in three times, buying over 20 bottles with, allegedly, a nod and a wink from Scott Vaccaro; people buying without tickets, other arrivals (one group, supposedly at 2.30am) left completely empty-handed. One guy seemingly had a box of beer stolen from the boot of his car, while another set fire to his trousers by standing too close to a space heater. All that was missing was the Keystone Cops, from the sound of it all.

And, predictably, the fallout on the ticker forums is full of recrimination and bile. Some people excused the queue-jumping and ticket trading because the beer would 'stay in the community', leading to incredulous enquiries about the writer's mental state. One Beer Advocate was moved to comment thus:
This culture of frenzied beer releases and fake advocacy is really wearing thin. "Respect Beer", how about respecting rules and honesty instead instead of cheating, cutting, making it this big insider thing. It's retarded and it's lame that you're bitching about people who point these things out.
So, why do the brewers do it, if they're risking problems from neighbours, landlords and police? Well, I hear that Captain Lawrence took $25,000 in CASH on the day. Very handy. And what about the beer? Well, eBay already has a couple of bottles up, being generously touted at a mere 300% mark-up. These tickers cut their own throats, don't they?

Saturday 19 November 2011

Beware Of Enemy Infiltration?

I like those Shepherd Neame Spitfire ads. Some people don't care for them, but I think that, at their best, they're clever and witty. Yes, I know it was all a long time ago. Anyway...

Saw this in the Cask & Glass in Victoria last week.

Clever and funny. See? The Germans drink lager. Hahahaha. But then I thought about it, and I wondered if it could mean something else.

I mean, Sheps have a reputation as a 'brown beer' brewer, which is becoming shorthand for 'traditional' or 'boring'. Not quite true, but then you'd have to find one of their pubs selling some of their paler seasonal beers to think otherwise. So I pondered, and I'm not sure it's always good to ponder on several pints. But I did, and it came to me that perhaps this could also be a warning to traditional ale lovers.

"Watch yourself" it says, "those new golden hoppy beers say they're just like us. They sound all reasonable and friendly like Michael Caine and Donald Sutherland in The Eagle Has Landed, but before you know it, some of them are cold and fizzy and all the kids are drinking them!"

The New Craft Keg. Beer's fifth column.

Sunday 6 November 2011

An Englishman In New York

Last month when Mark Beerbirrabier was in New York City, he remarked on the availability of cask-dispensed beers in many of the bars he visited. I told him that the single person responsible for this was Alex Hall, ex-pat once-cellarman and now catalyst for getting good brewers to cask their beer, and good bars to sell it. I first introduced him in this blog last year, when I popped along to his annual Glastonwick beer and music fest in Sussex.

Well, it appears the BBC have noticed as well, so as part of their Up All Night programme on Radio 5 Live, presenter Dotun Adebayo had Alex on his show last night for an hour as part of a weekly segment from NYC. Alex talked about how he came to be in New York in the first place, his views on beer, on getting cask beer into the better bars in the city, and the festivals he runs to promote it.

I remember my first trip there, going into Mugs Ale House in Brooklyn, and talking to a regular who told me about a cask beer fest going on that weekend. This was Cask-Head 2, one of Alex's earliest fests hosted by the Brazen Head bar. I never met Alex that weekend, despite spending all of Sunday afternoon and evening sampling the American take on cask, but his fingerprints were all over the better bars around the Five Boroughs, in the form of his 'Gotham Imbiber' beer magazine, and the presence of beer engines in most of the bars I visited. I finally met him at Glastonwick some seven months later.

Alex Hall, not imbibing. Buy this man a pint.
Atilla The Stockbroker is wearing the black shirt and goofy grin.

I've wondered whether the timing was just right for somebody like Alex, a beer devotee with a strong dislike of the corporate and industrial mass market brewers, to pop up in a city getting caught up in the throes of the craft food and drink explosion. The US craft brewery sector had undergone a big shakeout in the mid-90s, but things were on the up in the bigger markets, and younger consumers were drawn to the proposition offered by local produce, artisanally-produced, including beer in casks. Alex pulled a lot of strands together - buying and importing beer engines, speaking to brewers, persuading bar owners to buy and install those beer engines, tapping into that new market to build awareness, helping out with cellarmanship and storage problems - to get cask accepted, and I'm delighted that he's had some recognition, even if it was at 1:30 in the morning. They say Up All Night gets a million listeners, so good publicity for beer if that's the case.

Bringing it all up to date, I think there's a strange symmetry in the growth of cask beer in New York, while London and elsewhere in the UK is seeing our young brewers experimenting with kegging. Alex is back in the UK later this month, I hear, and I wonder if he'll be tempted to sample some of those new kegged beers. If you bump into him, buy him a pint. I think he's earned it.

You can listen to the show (Alex is on from around 35 minutes onwards) here.

Thursday 27 October 2011

One Reason To Buy The Oxford Companion To Beer?

It's been an exciting week for the OCtB, with Garrett Oliver taking exception to comments on Martyn Cornell's blog about the accuracy of several of the entries. Personally, as somebody who can't smell a rat about some of this stuff, I wouldn't be buying it until I feel more confident that the inaccuracies are being addressed in a 2nd edition. My Xmas list has Amber, Gold & Black on it, instead.

Then I saw this...

Incentive? I doubt it. I guess for good or ill, Garrett is forever bound to this project. And I hear there's no truth in the rumour that Horst Dornbusch chipped in for the snazzy cardboard box...

Wednesday 12 October 2011

In The Past...

Do you believe in serendipity?

A month back I decided to start drinking my stash of Fuller's Vintage Ale and compare the original tasting notes to the beer now. I didn't know it, but Fuller's themselves were planning an event where a full vertical tasting of all 15 vintages would take place, and a week after my post, lo, I got an invite.

Thus it was that I joined an assembly at The Griffin Brewery in the Hock Cellars to receive a presentation from Yer Man John Keeling and taste the beers guided by both he and Emma Watts, the trade quality manager at Fuller's. The evening was a big deal, as it's likely the last time that the first 15 vintages will be tasted in one event, due to shortages of some years. The 1998 is especially scarce, I understand.

Being more interested in the atmos and vibe generated, I wasn't aiming on making any rigorous notes of each beer, but luckily Adrian Tierney-Jones has done that job, while Steve Williams offers his thoughts here. However, we kicked off with the just-available 2011 beer and went backwards.

The carnage on our table after trying all 15 beers

The 2011 is big and bold, with in-your-face carbonation forcing huge zesty oranges and almonds (bakewell tart, says ATJ, rightly) into your mouth. Slightly boozy while so young, it wasn't 'hot' or overwhelming. A beer you could drink and enjoy right now. But that wouldn't be the point.

We went through each vintage in clusters of three at a fairly impressive clip. The 2010 had softened and sweetened, showing that 2011 the path it will probably tread over the next 12 months. As the beer went down and the alcohol loosened tongues, there was an astonishing breadth of flavours and characteristics suggested. Blue cheese, fudge, apricot, vanilla, muscat, tobacco, cherries, brandy, figs, chocolate, raisins, Calvados, Cointreau, Marmite... and all the way through, like a sinuous strand of DNA, is that yeast, imparting its own unique character.

My favourite was the 2007. A sweet nose suggested a saison, and in the mouth a curious herbal astringency was present which seemed at odds with the other beers that had bracketed it. It made me think of those Ricola cough sweets, or a saison like Stillwater Stateside. A remarkable beer considering the whole thing had come together with only the house Fuller's yeast and time working away at it. Worth looking a bottle out for re-visiting next year, methinks.

I've observed before that Fuller's don't get the love from the geeks, but consider - in the mid-90's a British family brewer wanted to brew a beer that explored the effects of time way before almost any other brewer in the world was interested. Was there ever any other UK-brewed beer like this? Maybe Thomas Hardy Ale, back in the day. To have retained that commitment speaks volumes about the dedication to exploring the possibilities of beer and brewing science.

If you haven't already tried this beer, do yourself a favour and get hold of a few bottles of the 2011. Drink one now, then have the others in 6 and 12 months. Waitrose usually have it this time of year, and I've seen it in Sainsbury's in some years (last time was 2009, I think). Or you can get it direct from Fuller's. They can also sell you most of the previous year's beers, as well.

Finally, it was a good night to put faces to names. Ron Pattinson, Steve Williams, Mark Dorber, ATJ, Tom Stainer, Rupert Ponsonby - all people I know either online or by reputation, but never met. Young Dredgie was there, as well, so time for the obligatory pap shot of him... Somebody on that table appears to have OCD judging by the tidy parade of bottles. I bet they're all in date order, too...

Thanks to Fuller's for a cracking evening of beer.

Friday 7 October 2011

In The Future...

I popped along to The Crosse Keys, a vast Wetherspoons pub in Gracechurch Street on the edge of the City of London, to have a go at a few of this autumn's Real Ale & Cider Fest beers. This hasn't really been on my radar in the past 18 months or so, but they usually get some interesting beers brewed, and I've enjoyed the practice of bringing overseas brewers in and turning them loose in some of our traditional breweries. Some of the output has been very good.

The Crosse Keys has built a good reputation for high quality and good service, and they usually run a 'Superfest' after the main fest has finished. Punters can have 'flights' of 3 third-pint measures so the keen toper can try several beers without leaving the pub on their knees. So...

There were 24 beers available, and I tried 7, all but one in thirds. They were a mixed bag in terms of quality and condition. The Odell 90 Shilling and the Mordue Red Rye Riwaka were too warm, the Fat Head Yakima Sun was a bit flat, the best of the seven were the Adnams American Style IPA and the Hook Norton Flagship. Temperature has never been a problem here before, but then I'm only in The Crosse Keys once a year. Overall, an average experience.

As I bellied up to the bar and sipped my beers, I noticed that right in front of me there was a Blue Moon tap font. It had condensation running off it, and a big illuminated badge.

Blue Moon is an ostensible 'craft' wheat beer brand owned by MolsonCoors which is very popular in the US and has been pushed here. Barm had an enjoyable piece on it recently. Still, it got me thinking. You know, the beer has a lot of promotional muscle behind it, so I assume they can offer good incentives (within the perceived 'craft/premium' niche, if there is such a thing here yet) to pubcos/licensees, and they support the brand at point of sale and elsewhere. It's a generally unthreatening 'craft beer', but the actual beer wasn't the point. It's 'craft keg' on the bar.

I recalled an email I received a few days previously from a pub in Preston called The Continental, who are plugging their upcoming beer fest. They seem to be popular with their local CAMRA branch, but there was a little sentence at the bottom of their email which came back to me as I looked at that Blue Moon font. It read, "In an exciting new feature, the pub will continue to host a number of UK and world keg beers after the festival." I don't know which beers these will be, or whether they already do well with The New Keg, but it moved my thinking further along...

Coming in the week that the spat between some small brewers and CAMRA over access to beer festivals made Channel 4 News, it made me wonder if there might not be a time in the future when we'll see some UK keg beers turning up on the list for a JDW fest. Right now it's a Real Ale & Cider fest, but could you foresee a time when they are intrigued enough by the New Keg, and the brewers brewing it, to make room for it in their festival? Of course, they have a relationship with CAMRA and all their pubs sell cask, often with variable results from one pub to the next. But perhaps in the future, the quality and consistency of The New Keg will see it elbowing its way on to a JDW bar as part of their showpiece event.

Sunday 2 October 2011

Keep 'Em Peeled...

Where's Shaw Taylor when you need him?

Brodie's had their brewery van stolen a few days back. It was loaded with some draught beer and almost 100 cases of their new Black IPA. Over 1,000 unlabelled 500ml bottles went west. I tried one of the bottles still in captivity, and it'll be a lost classic, assuming the van and beer don't turn up. I don't suppose the thieves knew or cared what was in the van, but if you're offered any bottles or cases of unlabelled dark beer, bear in mind it might be Brodie's. I assume the thieving bastards will try and sell the casks/kegs for scrap.

On the other side of the world (sort of), Russian River are gearing up for their annual Breast Cancer Month campaign, Hopped Up For The Cure, with raffles and schwag and events and beer. They've brewed 'Framboise For A Cure' again this year, but it won't be released on a single day. To combat the tickers, traders and hoarders, they'll release a number of cases a day to their brewpub, with sales limited to 2 per person per day. They've raised the price to $20 a bottle, with all proceeds going to a local Breast Cancer project.

So far one or two people on Beer Advocate are seeking to trade the beer before it's even launched tomorrow. It will be interesting to see if the brewpub in Santa Rosa gets mobbed over the next 2 weeks. Natalie says
As our family and friends of the brewery, I just need to ask you 2 favors: 1. Please enjoy this beer with friends and family or give it as a gift to someone you love! 2. Please help us monitor illegal sales of it and if/when you see someone doing it (i.e. Ebay), turn them in and/or contact the seller directly. Thank you for your help and supporting a great cause!
Evenin' All!

Tuesday 27 September 2011

In A Bunker Somewhere In St Albans...

Simon over at Reluctant Scooper has already posted this, and it's been linked all over Twitter, but it's so funny I offer no apology for linking to it as well...

A thought occurred to me as I watched. And that is, shouldn't CAMRA overdub Kevin Valentine's address to the last Members' Weekend with some of Der Fuhrer's Nuremburg speeches, by way of reciprocation?

Friday 23 September 2011

Boggle Goes Retail: Tap East

The new Utobeer premises in Westfield Stratford City has been open for a couple of weeks, so I figured it was time to check out the trip and the place. I've been enjoying Rabid Barfly Glyn Roberts' intense dislike of the bar's environs with schadenfreude aforethought, and knew that the place isn't finished yet.

So, door-to-door, Kennington to the entrance to the shopping centre, took about 25 minutes. Very nice. I'd scanned the map of the place on the Westfield website and located Tap East, at the far end from the Underground. Not so nice. Now I know why George Romero made those zombie films in shopping malls. People with two speeds, breeders, kibitzers, gawpers, hawkers, canvassers, old'uns, brats... Gaaaahhhh!! It took a good few minutes and at no point did I see the end of the place as it curves to the left, and I was starting to feel like that surveyor in The Castle. And the shops seemed... different. There's a Greggs, but suddenly the sausage rolls and pasties seemed... you know, aspirational. There's a big Krispy Kreme donut concession on the concourse, but this one sells tins you can put your donuts in. Very lifestyle, I may have to invest in one. For my watercress sandwiches. Obviously.

I eventually reached something called the Great Eastern Market, down a little slope in the floor by the last set of escalators and then everything becomes marketplacey. Turn right, and tucked at the end is Tap East. This part of Stratford City doesn't seem to get so much footfall - people seemed to head back up the other side of the human river by the escalators. I suppose that might worry the businesses in there, but it was a relief to be able to get out of that tide of shoppers and into a little haven of calm.

The bar has a large open front like all the units at this end of the shopping centre. One side is all glazed with a door letting on to the square opposite Stratford International Terminal. A false wall with a tiled alcove has been built at the back, with fridges in front and a temporary bar, courtesy of Otley Brewing. Seating is a mix of those high tables and stools you see in a lot of pubs nowadays, and a nice soft seating area with a low table and a nice full-height display unit with books and breweriana on.

There's a huge boarded-off space where the cold room and brewhouse are being prepared, and it'll be a few weeks before all of the work is finished. I'm looking forward to seeing what kind of beers Eddie Baines is planning to brew here. I was hoping to turn up at the bar and announce myself as Kevin The Local Brewery Inspector, come to ensure the beer was in cask and brown enough, but Joe from The Rake is based there, so no jolly japes this time. Feel free to use this one once the brewery is open.

So, a couple of beers then back into the seething mass. It's a nice space which felt chilled and calm. Beers from Otley and Thornbridge, and a couple of temporary keg taps are supplemented by two big fridges of bottles. Once the brewery is up and running, the permanent bar is in and all the taps are in place, it'll be a cracking addition to the list of good bars to drink beer in London.

Sunday 11 September 2011

Fullers Vintage Ale

"It's good."

So sayeth Fullers brewmaster John Keeling in response to a tweet about the 2000 Fullers Vintage Ale. I've been hanging on to a few different vintages of these beers, and thought I ought to get cracking on them. A vertical would leave me hospitalised, so I'm aiming to work through them over the coming weeks. I attended the Vintage Ale tasting John did at LoveBeer@Borough a couple of years back, and I recall his description of the changes the beer undergoes over time. As I remember it, he compared it to a sine wave.

I'm partial to the odd pint of Fullers, but my pint of choice isn't London Pride. I like Chiswick, and, when I can find it, the cask London Porter is lovely during the winter. However, this whole bottle-conditioned range of beers is most intriguing. Vintage has been produced for almost 15 years, but Fullers seem to get overlooked by the crafterati at large in favour of big and hyped imported beers. I'm usually as guilty as any other beer geek, but in this case it'd be nice to see Fullers get some love.

For me, I've also been sitting on some Brewers Reserve No. 1, and still need to get myself acquainted with these Past Masters beers. Nothing wrong with a regional brewer experimenting with this sort of thing, and I think I'm correct is saying Fullers have been pathfinders in getting English brewers sorted with HMRC on the matter of using spirits containers in their brewing without being reclassified as distillers.

So, to the 2000 Vintage Ale. The bottle I had was labelled for the US market, so there's no ABV. It's described on the box as 'mellow and golden', and the Fullers website tasting notes reveal it was an organic beer, brewed with Champion Optic malt and Target hops. I should be looking for a 'fresh hop aroma with notes of honey and toffee, leading to a slightly sweeter taste and burnt, bitter aftertaste'. After 11 years, what's changed?

The colour, to begin with. Sorry for the crap pic, but you can see the beer is a rich deep ruby hue. It was bright with some tiny bubbles persisting. It sustained a caramel coloured head for as long as it was in the glass.

On the nose, hops had been replaced with a gentle aroma of peaches, and the presence of Fullers' signature zesty orange from the yeast. The body was thick and satisfying, and mouthfeel was zingy and bright, like a big spoonful of a good marmalade which gave way to a long and slightly bitter and warming finish.

The beer hadn't gone boozy over time, though it was a sipper. There was something I thought might be metallic in the finish, but it wasn't there all the way through the beer, and in the end I decided it was simply some finishing bitterness.

Very nice beer to linger over with my feet up for a while. Later vintages for tasting are the 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2009. I'll summarise all of those in a single post once I get to the end, using the tasting notes. One thing, though, Fullers. An update of the tasting notes to indicate how each year is drinking would be useful.

Thursday 8 September 2011

'Beer's Black Market'

The estimable Washington Post has shone its investigative light on the sordid secondary market for spooge beer. Read the whole thing here. Woodward and Bernstein would be proud.

Of course, readers of my own estimable (?) e-organ would have picked up on this dark and unseemly activity in posts past. The Post's article is interesting in including views from such tickerific brewers as Lost Abbey, The Bruery and Stone. Greg Koch offers an interesting view, which I tend to agree with, that it isn't necessarily drinkability that drives this market, it's rarity. Hence RRBC's Framboise For The Cure going at $400 a bottle, and not a penny of that profit finding its way to the charity intended to benefit from its sale. Yet, if RRBC had offered it at double its original $12 price, they'd have been slaughtered by the same tickers for hyping the price.

I've been monstered for criticising the beer fanboy websites which offer trading forums driving some of this secondary market. Many of their members believe that it would all stop if these brewers bucked their ideas up and geared up to meet all demand. It doesn't seem to occur to them that not all brewers are in it for reasons other than global market domination. They simply can't accept they might miss a beer, and move on. I've been there and, trust me, it's not a happy place.

It will be interesting to see how ebay responds to this. Will they stop sales of 'collectible containers' (wink wink)? Police the listings looking for newly-released beers? I imagine their present ambivalence is partly driven by the easy money they rake off from this spooge. I expect the traders will find other ways to knock their spooge out - I believe Craigslist is used for this market, including to recruit mules for people who can't get to launch events. I'll be watching the reaction to this with interest...

(By the way, anybody interested in a 2005 Dark Lord?)

Wednesday 31 August 2011

How Not To Grow Your Business, pt. 94

Say you were looking to diversify your pub's offer. Say you approach a supplier to get some new beers on the bar. Would you do it this way..?

Hi we own a pub here in XXXXXXXX, and would like to know who's Dick you need to suck to get a fucking keg of your beer.

I can confirm this was not the work of our own beloved Rabid Bar Fly. I also imagine Dredgie will be tutting over the poor grammar. I am reasonably confident that the pub won't be getting any beer from that supplier.

Monday 22 August 2011

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back?

An interesting weekend for coverage of beer.

Friday evening's BBC1 'One Show' featured a piece by food critic Jay Rayner on microbrewing. He focused on the traditional role of women in brewing, so took a trip to Brodie's to chat with Lizzie and sample some beers. he also took some of the Brodie's bottles to some unsuspecting ladies in Essex, generally getting a positive response. (His piece starts at about 18 minutes)

Now, I don't get a lot of traffic, but I'm certain Jay must be reading, or at least noticed my last post (here, but don't click if strong swearwords offend) on a gathering of brewsters at Brodies. Good job he didn't take any of the beer from that gathering to the Ladies Wot Lunch in Chigwell, eh?

His piece was followed by a bit of beer and food matching with the show hosts and guest Jane Seymour. Jay let things down a bit by protesting he preferred wine with food, labelling online enthusiasts 'beer obsessives' (they exist, but it's a bit unfair to broadbrush the online beer community that way) and then describing Chris Evans' Jaipur as 'Indian Pale Ale'. Still, a very good piece.


Then, we have these new shelf talkers Tesco are using in-store to promote beer, in particular their 'fuller flavoured lagers'. Young Dredgie picked up on them and also the puff piece in yesterday's online Observer to plug them.

I popped into my local Tesco this morning. Sure enough, there's several of these cards covering a range of 'styles', including the offending lager one featuring SNPA and an Innis & Gunn bottle of something. Their merchandising is a bit odd, with no signposts indicating where 'Beer' is in-store, just one for 'Lager', but then a large featured facing for World Speciality Beers. No Goose Island IPA or Brooklyn lager on the shelves, more of the shelf talkers and a mixed bag of beers. Personally, it's about what I'd expect from a bigger supermarket, and certainly there's more effort than in the past to mix the offer up at this store.

Then we come onto the piece online. It's got a byline, but I wonder if it hasn't just been recycled from some press release. From the headline suggesting brewers, having 'cashed in' on real ale (which brewers? How?), are now turning to 'lager', the hopeless paragraph containing a potted American brewing 'history' claiming that craft brewers owe their success to Prohibition (if Horst Dornbusch had written this, Ron Pattinson would be all over him), and the inexcusable confusing of ales as lagers (even setting out the full name of SNPA - a beer Tesco has listed for some years now, by the way - surely a clue in the name, lads?). And poor Iain Loe of Camra may have to wear a paper bag on his head for a few days after being quoted in this rubbish.

Over the years beer lovers have had to become used to second-rate coverage of beer in our quality print media. But this really is scraping the bottom of the barrel. A good start to the weekend had the gloss taken off by lazy PR puffery masquerading as news.


Friday 5 August 2011

Brewstered In Leyton

WARNING: before you read any more, please note that I have included the full name of a new beer, and it might be offensive to you. If you object to use of strong swearwords, click away now. Thanks.

To Brodies on this inaugural International IPA Day to record a gathering of brewsters. I'm not sure if it's a first in London, but I think it's the first time that a gathering of all-female London brewers have been at the controls. If I'm wrong, somebody will tell me. There's a couple of LABers, one Barleys Angel, some curious newcomers.

Meet the 'family': Lucia, Hazel, Jeanette, Laura, Jonny and Karen, with Charles Manson at the back;
2nd pic, the same but with Lizzie Brodie (holding Alexandra)

The small brewhouse is packed to bursting. I'm met at the door by Stig (@TheHappyBat) who has devised the recipe using five different malts and three different hops. She has synthesised various smoked beer recipes, ruling out the more extreme ingredients (liquid smoke? Don't they use that in barbeques?) to come up with a beer with the working title of Absolute Cunt.

Lizzie Brodie is in charge, backed up by brewery team Eric Lanouilh and Jon Queally, looking even more like Charlie Manson in his sopping wet Brodies hoodie. Mashing in is sort of taking place as I arrive, with a huge quicksand of chocolate malt and wheat sitting on top of the mash while Eric purposefully works it over with a shovel in the style of Kirk Douglas fighting the giant octopus in 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. Yarr!

Looking on, @MrsBeeryMatt, @shoozographer, @hackneyhaz, @lucia_murphy, @JonnyBright and the unTwittered Jeanette from Lebanon all realise that the sun is over the yardarm on this wet August day, so while the mash is resting it's into the William IV for a livener. I'm on the Brodstar. It could do with a bit of carbonation from the cask (I hear there is/was some keg), but the hopping is lovely - full of fruit with a nice finishing citrus kick. My pint is gone in a few minutes.

Stig has to leave, so the rest troop back to the brewhouse after a while to help with the sparge and runoff. First hops are chucked into the copper (Hercules?) as the wort transfer starts. With so many hop monkeys, the shitload of Chinook hops are readied in record time. I've said before that I enjoy the 'no-limits' approach Jamie takes, and Lizzie is the same, it seems. There's as much malt here as you'd find in some batches double the brewlength, and in some cases, five or more times the hopping. Later on, the transfer to the FV will be described as 'like treacle'.

Jeanette, Laura and Karen are today's hop monkeys;
Karen covered in Chinook stickiness

Eric is watching the runoff so it's back to the pub. Lizzie and Jamie are generous hosts, and Lizzie has laid on a cracking buffet lunch. I'm working my way through Hackney Red IPA and Brodies IPA to support #IPAday, then it's on the bottled lager.

Over lunch I'm pondering the attraction of good beer. Sure, social lubricant and all that, but to give up time to stand in a tiny brewhouse stirring the equivalent of a hundred thousand bowls of Ready Brek for 10 minutes or getting your hands sticky with hops is different to meeting your mates for a pint. Hazel and Jonny, who discover they have the Forest of Dean in common while chatting - scary when you consider that it's also Demon Brewer Don Burgess's stamping ground; Laura, a Glaswegian with 'a Napoleon complex and a Kodak Brownie'; Lucia, formerly behind the bar at the Jolly Butchers and now homebrewing. All ages, all backgrounds, all here. I might have met all these people in one of our better London bars, but it's the brewers that are proving to be the tie that binds. This new wave of London brewers seem happy to let nosy buggers wander round or get their hands dirty. The next wave of London brewing will be cutting their teeth on the beer that Brodies, or Kernel or Redemption are brewing while they were in the brewery.

Trick of the light?: Queally is disturbed by the new batch of Hackney Red; Maddy, Karen and Laura aren't...

By the time I'm ready to leave, our brewsters are working in shifts on Lizzie's daughter's colouring book, and plans for a big birthday bash at the pub are being firmed up. Absolute Cunt should be making its debut during the Brodie's Birthday Bonanza fest at the King William IV during first weekend in September.

Thursday 4 August 2011

That There International IPA Day

I remember my first trip to the US. In 2002 I headed for San Francisco, with plans to see Las Vegas, San Diego and Los Angeles. I had no idea what kind of beer I might find, but I knew there was a scene brewing there.

I did my travelling, visiting several brewpubs in a few cities, and for the first time, drank beers that were mental with hops. Hops that British brewers didn't seem to use. Cascade, Amarillo, Centennial... Brewpubs in Vegas casinos, restaurants in San Francisco, bars in San Diego. Walk around a bit, be a tourist and these places eventually revealed themselves to me. No interwebs, no insider info.

And when I got home, I can remember waking up in the middle of the night, having DREAMED those big West Coast IPAs. The hops haunted me, gave me some kind of synaesthetic wake-up call that stayed with me and stays with me now.

There was a year or two when it all got unimportant. Then I drank Great Divide Titan at The Rake, and I fell in love with those big IPAs all over again. Moving a few years on, the British beer scene has watched and adapted, and now in London, I can drink Brodies or Kernel, their interpretations of those superbly hoppy IPAs impress and delight me. Hops prevail and our own brewers have caught the wave.

#IPAday is a superb way to catch the wave around the world. One day to capture a global experience spanning years and continents. Why not. I've been drinking variations on the theme all day, and I'm going to pop a Kernal Citra IPA open once this is posted. Job done. For today. I won't be reporting on my IPA drinking tomorrow but it'll be there next week, next month and next year.

Monday 1 August 2011

One Summer Morning In Bermondsey...

To the Kernel to rack off my 50th birthday beer, where I find the arch interior undergoing some minor demolition and Dominic Driscoll from Thornbridge watching wort recycle. These two events are unrelated.

worty saison; Dom watches a sci-fi nightmare come true

Dom is down for GBBF, but takes the opportunity to pop in with some saison yeast for Evin, so a new beer codenamed 'Saison De Dom' is about to be run off into the copper. I am there to help out with the bottling of the beer Evin has been putting together for me. It's a raspberry porter using some of his superb Export India Porter as the base beer. The beer has been sitting on a bed of lightly mashed working-class raspberries for a month.

I chat with Dom, asking if he misses the hands-on small-scale experience now he's playing with a 30-bbl computer-controlled plant. He says not, though as he doesn't have a hop monkey to sort out the additions while he sits on the bridge and pushes buttons, he still gets up close and personal with his ingredients.

As my beer is brought out and made ready for bottling, Charles Faram and one of his team arrive. They're also down for GBBF, and are popping into a couple of South London customers to talk hops and other things. Evin produces some of his latest Citra-hopped IPA. I've been drinking this, and reckon it's the best Citra he's done so far. Just the beer for a warm morning.

boggle's birthday beer - soon, my pet, soon...

A sample of my beer is drawn and measured with a hygrometer. It's tart. Very tart. I'd wondered if the residual yeast in Evin's porter would be able to cope with the fermentables in the raspberries, and it turns out there's probably still quite a bit to attenuate out. We agree that a few bottles with different levels of priming and reseeding should be incubated to ensure either the beer doesn't remain flat (it's a bit listless right now), or become 'bottle bombs'. Hopefully we'll know by the end of the week, so I should have the bottles in good time for the Big Day.

How do you get a bottle? Rather than receive birthday presents, I'm aiming to give them away. If I see you and know you, you'll get one (while stocks last, though I don't think I know that many people...) But, here's a chance to WIN WIN WIN! Study the first picture above and tell me who you think that is with their backside hanging out of the Kernel's copper. First correct answer will get a bottle.Link

Friday 29 July 2011

Grim Up North London?

I don't usually get to range very far afield during my weekly beer trips. Time constraints and things like opening times (blimmin' Jolly Butchers) mean some interesting pubs and bars are just slightly out of reach. However, I was pulled like a magnet to The Southampton Arms in Kentish Town on the promise of Brodie's Mental Hop Bastard, and beers from Magic Rock.

I hadn't been to Kentish Town in just over 30 years. Back then it was New Order's second London gig at the Forum Ballroom (now the hmvforum apparently) that got me this far north, these days it'd probably only be beers. I strolled up Highgate Road to the pub from the tube station, getting in at just after 1pm. It seems to be in a rather bohemian part of the neighbourhood, with lots of characters walking past the huge plain glass window. A good pub for people watching, probably. Seating is mostly old pews, which does give the main seating area a bit of a furniture depository feel, but not uncomfortable. The pub doesn't get the afternoon sun, so the interior was cool, the chilled atmos helped along by the old heepy choons coming off the record player.

As promised, Mental Hop Bastard was waiting for me, 6% of pale golden hoppy loveliness. One day, Jamie Brodie will write a book about his brewing days, and this will surely be the title. I could have sat in and drank several more, but I was busy formulating the next stop on my trip around the wrong side of the river.

I dived into a pint of Magic Rock Dark Arts. Another 6% job, big toffee coloured head, big clash of roasty chocolate and hops in the mouth. I was getting very mellow and contemplating just stopping, but got off my backside and headed back down the hill to the station. I liked this place a lot - friendly, lots of good local beer and a simple proposition I can get my head around - Ale, Cider and Meat.

Five stops south on the Northern Line is Old Street, closest station to The Old Fountain, another place I know of, but have never visited. The place was emptying at the end of lunchtime, with an obviously regular clientele heading back to work, and a few others settling in for a bit of afternoon supping.

I had a pint of Crouch Vale Yakima, a bit underwhelming, and scrutinised the fridges, which were packed with a good range of Kernel bottles, and some Oakham and Brodie's offerings. I'm intrigued with the way Brodie's bottled beers turn out. I've had a few now, and they've all been excellent in a way that makes their draught counterparts seem like different beers. The London Porter is good on cask but sensational in the bottle, for instance. The Fountain had Seven Hop IPA - the colour seemed much darker than on draught, and some of the huge hopping had given way, leaving a big balanced beer with a lovely mouthfeel and nice drying finish. I wrestled with stopping for more, or making one last pitstop.

Three more stops and I'm back in the secure embrace of Sarf Lahndan, heading to The Rake. The bar was full of casks for the event Glyn is setting up to run alongside GBBF. He'd previously given me some clues about the beers (I'm sure he said he has something special up his sleeve), but I'd had a few beers by then - you'll have to watch the Rake Twitter feed for more details.

A quick half of Anchor Porter and a chat with some beery acquaintances, and then home. I perused the latest Cockney Kevin missive on the way, learning both my North London stops have received local Camra branch pub of the year awards, with Cask Pub & Kitchen making it a hat-trick. I guess the new wave of beer bars and free houses selling lots of delicious local beers will continue to give the tied and chain pubs a run for their money when it comes to awards. Hopefully it'll encourage the big boys to buck their ideas up when it comes to beer offer.

Two new pubs for me, both quite different and both now firmly on the Boggle radar. Now, if only we could get The Jolly Butchers to sort out Thursday lunchtime opening...

Tuesday 19 July 2011

Poor Doggies, Bad Carma & A Man Called Goliath...

The Beer Interwebz are alight with the reaction to the news today that BrewDog's proposed Brewery Bar at this year's GBBF has fallen through.

It would appear that a revised final payment deadline for the pitch was approaching, and meantime BrewDog and GBBF organisers, led by Marc 'Goliath' Holmes, were still negotiating over the size of containers and the dispense. The BrewDog blog has the full chronology set out by James, while the comments contain responses to some of the points by Marc Holmes.

It seems that BD were prepared to concede that they could not have their beer in 30 litre 'key kegs' (lined kegs which mean the beer does not come into contact with any 'extraneous gas'), instead 'reluctantly agreeing' to supply beer in 18 gallon casks.

What does seem to be a matter of confusion is the revised deadline for the final payment. BrewDog says they had 'til last Friday per an email from Marc, but the plug was pulled the day before. This hasn't been rebutted convincingly by Marc and Camra. Cue uproar with the Brewdoggies spitting venom over Marc and some Camra stooge called Graeme Gander, and a general monstering of Camra.

A couple of points occur: I believe the Camra Technical Advisory people are now looking at Key kegs, and that some will be set up on the staff bar at GBBF as part of a trial. Further, some of the Czech beers on GBBF are apparently being supplied in key kegs. BrewDog said they were told there would be a lab at Earl's Court . Sounds odd, but perhaps they're monitoring this trial anyway. Marc says it's the container size (BrewDog wanted to use 30 litre kegs, not 50's, before Camra allegedly moved the requirement to kilderkins).

But, Marc says BrewDog was too late. It does sound odd that there was a dialogue all the way along the process which seems to have lapsed right at the point BrewDog were paying their final fees. Indeed, if what BrewDog says is correct, Camra might have pulled the plug ahead of the deadline.

I don't suppose it will be the end of the world for a business that thrives on conflict and tension in order to generate publicity, but it does seem to put Camra on the spot. You would forgive the latter for being cagey about BrewDog given their previous in supplying Camra fests, and they may even be in the right on a technicality, but it does seem a bit fogeyish and prissy to have agreed a deadline extension to a few weeks before the event, then pulled the plug. I wouldn't know if there were people heading to GBBF this year just for the BrewDog bar, but it did signal that Camra's GBBF Committee at least, were keeping an open mind about building a relationship with a brash and outspoken brewery.

Tom Stainer, editor of Camra's What's Brewing and Beer magazine, has tweeted to caution about knee-jerk reactions to this story, but it does seem that Camra need to get their side out quickly and credibly, or take a slagging off.

Wednesday 13 July 2011

Arrogant Bastard?

This is Greg Koch, CEO of Stone Brewing, pictured, I am informed, at the National Homebrewers Conference in San Diego last month. And yes, that face on his tee shirt is, erm, Greg Koch.

Greg recently received the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur Award for San Diego, and will go forward as a finalist in their national competition. Accepting the award, Greg said,
Receiving this award is a true honor. I’m proud to accept it on behalf of the intense—yet rewarding—work that my business partner Steve Wagner and I have put in over the past 15 years to help unite people who have exquisite taste with craft beers that have the same.

Proud, determined, aspirational. Makes the heart soar. A bit like Bono. A true Mission Statement for the craft beer movement.

Here's another pic...

The picture on the presentation screen appears to be God as envisioned by Terry Gilliam for Monty Python & The Holy Grail. I think those people in the surplices are Stonies (like Moonies) ready for Stonestown, where Kool-aid will not be on the menu. We've had cult beers. Now we have the world's first Beer Cult.

Only kidding. However...

The point of all this is that we know that BrewDog take a great deal of inspiration from Stone in the marketing and promotion of their business. Therefore, I'm offering a prize for the first person to send me photographic evidence of either James Watt or Martin Dickie wearing tee shirts adorned with their own fizzogs. They're at The Rake this evening (flogging shares, I imagine...), so take your camera and be ready. I'll give the first person to send me the goods a bottle of decent beer. Or a beermat. Or something. BrewDog management and staff are encouraged to enter. Especially James and Martin.

Tuesday 12 July 2011

Uh Oh!

From last Friday's South London Press...

Leaving aside the 'real ales' bit (I assume outsider shorthand for small-scale production artisanal beers) and whether you think Kernel actually has a 'signature' beer (I don't), my immediate thought was what posting this would do for the old Rabid Big-Head's ego. As you might know, he co-created the Black IPA with Evin O'Riordain.

Despite the SLP being his local paper, I don't suppose he saw this, so really there's only one way to find out...

Monday 20 June 2011

Noisome Brew?

The postie brought me a nice surprise this morning, a cheque for a tenner from The Kevins. I'd resigned my membership, and they were nice enough to agree to refund me part of my subscription. Thus ends 12 years.

To celebrate, I popped open a bottle of Brodie's Grand Cru, an 8.8% Belgian style ale which, coincidentally, is another beer wot I helped to brew. As a guest brewery monkey, Jamie Brodie gifted me a couple of bottles during the Bunny Basher fest at the end of April.

At the time it was brewed, What's Brewing was published bearing Roger Protz's op-ed labelling beer writers and bloggers as 'noisome'. So, for a while, this beer was Noisome Cru. Note the pump clip pic has been modified to protect the innocent.

So, the beer. I detected some peppery notes on the nose, and a little bit of bubblegum. It's about 35% wheat malt, so mouthfeel is very smooth. It's quite complex, with cedar joining the pepper and some candy sweetness in the mouth, giving way to a long dry hoppy finish with some warming alcohol at the back of the throat. The beer was beautifully carbonated, which helped to clarify the flavours in it. Considering the strength, I found it quite easy-drinking.

I've had a few Brodie's beers in bottles now, and they've all been top drawer. And I had a nice afternoon at the William The IV last week, where it struck me that I could get wankered on decent beer for less than a tenner, if I wanted. And it's made me reflect on a recent blog entry by US beer writer Andy Crouch, where he proposes that the 'good old days' of the US scene are happening now, before widespread distribution of popular beers ends as brewers hit capacity walls and re-trench closer to home; how this will open up markets for good quality local beers to fill the gap. He calls it The Great Beer Retreat. Local beer rules.

Of course, we don't necessarily have the same logistical issues in the UK though Hardknott Dave has provided invaluable evidence about the costs to small brewers of getting beers to receptive markets when there's trouble getting local listings, but generally, the days when London was satisfying the palates of more discerning beer drinkers by having to suck in the best of what the UK could offer seems like a distant memory these days. Lately, we're having the best of both...

Saturday 18 June 2011

Biggus Brickus

So, as usual, I missed the Jolly Butchers launch of the latest London collab beer, 'Big Brick', this past Tuesday. One day one of our so-called 'progressive' beer bars will figure out the benefits of a breakfast launch and I'll be able to attend.

The beer is a souped-up version of the 'London Brick' rye beer brewed at Redemption by a cabal of London's (and Sussex's) finest including Mark Tranter from Dark Star, Evin O'Riordan from Kernel, Phil Lowry, Matt & Karen Wickham from the Evening Star in Brighton (honorary cockneys these days), and of course the Andys.

If you're a regular reader (I must have one), you'll recall I was present at part of the birth - actually, given how long it took, more like the contractions. This version was brewed at Kernel, the craft beer progenitors being augmented by Emma Cole from the Jolly Butchers, Julia Stig of the LAB and yours truly. I weighed some hops and adjusted the sparging flow. If you enjoy the subtle bittering, that's partly down to me. Probably.

The sense of emptiness I experienced at missing the launch was diminished by the knowledge that the bottles would be on sale at the brewery today, so I made my way along nice and early to get some.

I had a bottle of the original London Brick in the 'cellar' so I decided to try the beers side-by-side. The new version is 8.9% and, like most of Kernel's stronger beers, isn't boozy or 'hot' despite the high alcohol.

I think the Biggus Brickus hadn't had time to settle properly, so it poured with a haze that made it appear much darker. After a while though, it cleared a bit and appeared to be the same colour, literally brick-red thanks to the copious amounts of rye in the mash. (Edit: I think there's some carafa in there, as well)

London Brick feels superbly clean in the mouth. There's the spiciness from the rye and bright, hoppy bitterness in the finish. But it feels thin in the mouth compared to the newer beer, which is viscous, providing a heady and luxurious mouthfeel. The newer beer is also, to me, much better balanced. The assertive hoppiness in London Brick is tempered by the high alcohol in Big Brick.

Having tried them side-by-side, I did get a nice mellow buzz on. It's easy to forget that the newer beer is almost 9%, and that its smaller sibling is over 6%. I preferred the Big Brick, but there isn't a loser when both beers in a tasting are from Kernel.

I heard that somebody on BeerAdvocate considered Kernel to be a bit of a 'one-trick pony'. Nonsense. With a saison in the pipeline, and a 10% 100th gyle brew single-hopped with Centennial (what else?) also imminent, they continue to explore the possibilities of different hops in different styles of beer. And I'll keep drinking those beers.

Wednesday 1 June 2011

Boggle Goes West: Russian River etc.

Take a look at the pic above. One of these is from a Sonoma County winery, the other is from Russian River. Which is which?

As mentioned in an earlier post, local provenance is big here. Sonoma is one of the largest agriculturally-active counties in the US, but the most obvious activity is wine-making, with around 300 wineries producing in a dozen American Viticultural Areas. But beer is here, too, with Moonlight, Bear Republic and Lagunitas well-known alongside Russian River, who take wine barrels for ageing of their highly-regarded sour beers from local wineries. Evidence of this part of California's past links to be beer can be found from the tasting rooms of the Russian Hill winery, where three hop kilns sit amidst the rows of vines.

My mate Rap, as well as being an oenophile, loves his beer, and he's friends with Natalie & Vinnie at RRBC, so it's off to sunday brunch then a quick look around the production brewery.

Vinnie Cilurzo, King Of Beers; wine at Bottle Barn - they spelt my name wrong; is THIS Sid Boggle?

I visited the production brewery in late 2008, and it's changed a lot since then. There's extra fermenters in the main part of the brewhouse, while the separate area for the sour beers has an extra tank too. Huge pallet racks line the walls near the loading area, and cages define the interior much more than a few years back. They've taken extra space to set up climate-controlled barrel and bottle storage, as well.

We get to look inside the Aladdin's cave of the vintage bottle store, and there's some planning for the future. A beautifully-appointed tasting room is being created, with all the timber for shelves and the bar coming from a salvaged wine tun. That future requires some change to Californian law, so nothing will happen anytime soon, according to Vinnie, but they want to be prepared.Aladdin's Cave; funky kegs - look away Kevin...; hullo, hullo...

Soon we're heading back to the Bay Area, dodging heavy rain showers which freshen the air and leave it full of eucalyptus as we drive past small groves of the trees. A quick stop at Marin Brewing for a so-so pint of Mt. Tam Pale Ale (too sweet), then back to Oakland where Mr & Mrs Snake join us for a vertical tasting of RRBC Supplication. Batch 1 is past it now, says Vinnie, so we have 2,3, 4 and 6 to sample. The latter two are fermented slightly differently to earlier vintages, and are a bit too young to be developing any funky notes, but the 2 and 3 are full-on. Fantastic in the mouth, still retaining their sour cherry fruit notes. Supremely drinkable. I wonder whether the beers would experience the sort of 'sine wave' John Keeling at Fuller's sometimes describes to demonstrate how his Vintage Ale changes from year to year...

That's the final part of this series. Not enough days, too much beer for somebody who only drinks for a few hours a week, and the joy of enjoying good beer with good company. Let's do this again, soon.

Sunday 29 May 2011

Chief Kevin Monsters Bloggerati

Language is funny.

The current chair of the Campaign For Real Kevins decided to use his platform at the recent Kevin AGM to label beer bloggers a 'threat', as if by our sometimes inane scribblings, we might create a favourable climate for the Rise Of Keg and undo 40 years of Kevin activism.

Previously, Roger Protz, a senior Kevin who has a wider reputation in the world of beer thanks to his books and other writings, had declared himself dumbfounded by being asked about the Kevins' position on the new wave of keg beers being brewed in the UK. He called writers and bloggers 'noisome'. All good stuff, ladling on the pejoratives to marginalise those of us with an interest in beer strong enough to want to write about it.

The whole thing has developed a life of its own. Some bloggers are understandably upset about the comments from the platform of the Head Kevin, seemingly offered to his beardy, sandal-wearing activist base to give them an Aunt Sally to shy at should the matter come before them in the future. Some defend the Kevin position - if you aren't a Kevin, put up or shut up. If you are, have your say.

Here's the thing to me, though. The Kevin's don't own beer. I don't know if the Top Man said what he did to galvanise his people, kill any sniff of future debate or make bloggers the Aunt Sally. The Kevins are a Broad Church, insiders will say, there's room for all sorts of opinions. Well, so is the bloggerati - from properly published authors and writers to the enthusiastic amateur who writes a blog to work out their beery thing. And bloggers don't own beer either. We're all beer enthusiasts comfortable with different outlooks and beer experiences to drive our enthusiasm.

Cask beer isn't going anywhere, and that's fine by me. Like Martyn Cornell, some of my best beery moments have been around a pint of British cask. But I'm open-minded enough to want to explore other beer cultures and countries, to be interested in what our new wave of brewers are up to. It isn't some butterfly instinct that attracts me to new and shiny things. It's the reality that we're living in a New World of beer, some of it hundreds or thousands of miles away, some of it on the doorstep. Why would I restrict myself to a single form of dispense? It would be like poking an eye out.

The homogenised beer culture is dead and buried, its ashes scattered all over the Interwebs. Brewers talk, brewers travel and collaborate. The scene is exciting and dynamic, isn't it understandable that members of an organisation like The Kevins would want to see that recognised? Even Roger Protz has displayed a less strident view of global beer and brewing when there's been a pound note in it, as you will note from his 1994 tome 'The Ultimate Encyclopaedia Of Beer'. He positively gushes about Stella Artois, for instance.

Anyway, they won't do it. They've drawn a line in the sand and touched up the bullseye on their 'enemies'. My membership card will be in the post to S'Norbanzzzzz on Tuesday and they can refund the balance of my subscription. I assume freebie tickets to GBBF for bloggers will be out of the question this year, as well...

Boggle Goes West: Santa Rosa

After watching Man City win the FA Cup, and full of coffee jitters and beans on toast, Rap and I head out for a visit to Santa Rosa, home to my favourite US brewer, Russian River. There's a hint of rain as we head over the Richmond Bridge into Marin County. We aren't going the direct route up Highway 101, instead we've got a couple of stops to make, which is a good job given the condition of my bladder.

First stop is the spa resort town of Calistoga. Sitting at the top of the Napa Valley, this place is famous for its hot springs and mud baths, though it also has a history as a mining town. It has a long main street and walkable downtown, and we're heading into it for a pint at the Calistoga Inn, a hotel and restaurant with a brewery. I have their English Porter, a pleasant interpretation of a classic London porter with some liquorice detectable. Rap is on the seasonal Oatmeal Stout. There are some early diners and a few other people at the bar, but it feels nicely chilled out, and its a good way to start the trip.

Our next call is at Ridge Winery. I don't do wine. Culturally, socio-economically, I don't understand it. Coming from a country whose wine tradition was, until recently, Concorde 'British' wine (read all about it here), and whose earliest wine experiences were drinking something called EEC 'tafelwein', I've never felt it was 'my' drink. But, Rap is an oenophile, he knows these Sonoma County producers and can converse knowledgeably on all aspects of wine production, terroir, vintage development and all that.

That's all over my head, but I can see how much easier wine is to come to when you're surrounded by it. It's as if the wine culture which has grown in these valleys is absorbed by osmosis. Or maybe wine isn't seen as shorthand for some kind of lifestyle choice. Maybe these people don't drink wine to make a statement. Whatever.

Ridge Winery are having their Spring Release Celebration at their Lytton Springs Estate. There are half a dozen reds being tasted including their exclusive Monte Bello. As Monty Python once noted, "this is not a wine for drinking. This is a wine for laying down and avoiding." Or something like that. The 2007 will set you back $145. I'm into some Syrah, which is warming, a little spicy and full of plums.

Looking at rows of vines stretching out along the undulating landscape, a scene repeated all over Sonoma County as you drive about, sipping wine, is all too mellow. It's beautiful country, all right. And this a county full of producers - food, wine, beer - and they all talk and share. More on that later...

We make our way over to Bear Republic in Healdsburg, where I become Code Name: O'Boggle. I'm sipping the house pilsner while sitting next to a couple from Chicago on their 20th anniversary surprise trip and we get talking, like you do. As usual, I get the accent thing. The guy can't work it out so I tell him I'm Irish. He's delighted, as his background is also Irish. They're going to a big Irish pub in Santa Rosa, maybe we'll see them later...

We head over that way ourselves, and our first stop in a pub called the Toad In The Hole. Very US interpretation of English, very quirky. It's a quick pint and then on to Flavor.

The weather has turned and it's now raining, but the place is packed with family groups and people out for a good Saturday night. Flavor is a bistro whose proposition is local provenance. It's also where you can get half a dozen Moonlight beers on tap, so we settle in at the bar for a pint. Later, we come back to eat. I take on a pizza and lose. Half of it winds up being my breakfast on Sunday, thanks to a microwave oven in the hotel room.

In between Flavor, we hit Russian River. It's packed. A popular band is playing, it's been the Boonville Festival weekend. We find a space at the end of the bar and sup a couple of Eruditions. This is a saison fermented with a yeast strain from Thiriez in France. There's no herbiage added as an adjunct and the result is a clean-drinking golden ale. We put a couple of those away before heading back to Flavor for some dinner. On the morrow, we are to meet with Natalie and Vinnie Cilurzo...

Thursday 26 May 2011

Boggle Goes West: Oakland & The East Bay 2

As you'll have read earlier, Oakland has some very nice places to drink. This post deals with some other fine bars elsewhere in the East Bay, but first, I need to discuss food.

I'm no gourmand, much less a gourmet. I do like good food, and these days I'm usually much more aware of things like provenance and production, but my tastes are pretty basic. When I'm travelling, a decent breakfast and access to fresh fruit and milk, usually keeps me going. If I need to top up, the local pub grub or street food will do the trick.

Quite a lot of the street food in California is Hispanic. For some years, I've been interested in the idea of this, but trying to explain the UK experience to a local causes loud guffaws. We have to start somewhere with any new cuisine (anybody else remember Birds Eye frozen pizza in the 70's?), but try and describe an Old El Paso taco kit to somebody who has access to a dozen decent Mexican eateries 10 minutes from home and watch the disbelief give way to hysteria.

Last trip out, I'd shout excitedly as we passed a Taco Bell, until everybody was fed up. So, this trip was the one where I'd move on from the concept of the Taco and actually eat that mofo. First night in, Rap and I head up to Rockridge (cue Hedley Lamarr impressions off Blazing Saddles). Beer later, first we're going into the Cactus Taqueria. I had a couple of soft tacos carnitas (pork) with some mango juice to wash them down. These are a bit of challenge for somebody who grew up thinking a taco shell is basically a giant dorito. The food is simple but nourishing and, concept realised, it was time for a beer.

Up the block is Barclays Pub & Restaurant. This place is packed with Giants fans watching a game on TV. On the right of the bar, there's a dartboard and some kind of match on. The bar has a decent sized beer garden through which you walk to go in. We get seats at the bar and aim for Blind Pig. They serve beer in UK 20oz pints, and there's enough for one pint before the keg kicks. I sip it and start to zone out a bit as the day catches up with me so it's just the one pint and back home to bed. ZZZzzzzzzzzzz...

On Friday we're all meeting up - Rap, Mr & Mrs Snake, Tef and I - and aiming to hit a few places around Berkeley and Rockridge. Berkeley was a hotbed of student activism at the height of domestic opposition to the Vietnam War in the 60s but the campus these days is much more moderate. You know you're in a university town, though. We're heading to Triple Rock Brewing, a brewpub which has been operating since 1985. We plot up on the roof terrace and munch on some appetizers washed down by some house brew. They have a seasonal programme and support local homebrewers, and also host a cask fest. Mr Snake helped out at this year's, and told me that many US brewers don't 'get' cask. Overly yeasty or under-conditioned casks were not uncommon.

We have to meet Tef, so head back over to Rockridge. We end up getting there on the same BART train, so all head towards Barclays to drink some Blind Pig. Rockridge, though part of Oakland, has a pleasing township vibe, and tonight it's some kind of open house musical thing, so bars, cafes and restaurants all have some kind of live music on offer, and whole families are out dining and enjoying the early summer atmos. Most of the musicians are playing jazz, including a quartet of spotty high-school kids. Tragic really, to be playing this self-indulgent rubbish so young, I find myself hoping they grow out of it soon - maybe get some piercings and body art, raid their parents' record collections and find some Dead Kennedys or similar. Anyway, I try and tune the laid-back choons out.

Barclays are even busier tonight, so we hide by the dartboard. Worse, they still don't have any Pig, though there are two fresh kegs tantalisingly close to us. We hang about drinking draught Negro Modelo, the dark stablemate to Corona, but it's all a bit unsatisfying. Unable to get a table (Waitress: "table for 5, party name of Jackson?" Tef (for it is he): "Yes, we're the Jackson 5..."), we head off to a restaurant called Hudson's.

This place looks very swanky inside, and again, we can't get a table. There's seating outside though, so hardy souls that we are, we block the pavement as the air cools. They have local beers on, so I'm into Linden Street Burning Oak black lager. We spend an hour or so shooting the shit, eating and taking the piss out of the impending End Of The World (Harold Camping is based in Oakland, and his 'church' paid for huge electronic billboards with countdown timers on around the Bay Area). An excellent evening.

On Sunday, after Rap and I get back from Sonoma and a trip to Russian River, we meet with Mr & Mrs Snake and head off for more authentic Mexican food, at El Huarache Azteca in Fruitvale. The neighbourhood has a 'barrio' feel I've encountered in places like Echo Park in Los Angeles, and this restaurant has a good reputation. A huge mural covers all the internal walls, some locals are in watching the Mexican Primera Division, while one corner is given over to what looks like a small sweetshop.

We're drinking Negro Modelo out of the bottle, and it's a different beer to the one we had on Friday, lots more chocolate and roastiness. It's still served with a slice of lime in the neck, though. I get behind a huge plate of Alambres, three types of meat with peppers and onions, melted cheese on a bed of tortilla. Meat frenzy and it's excellent.

Heading back to Rap's, we drive by Lake Merritt, a huge man-made body of water which looks beautiful at night. Lake Chalet, a sister restaurant to the Beach Chalet on Ocean Beach in San Francisco, is all lit up, sitting right on the water. They don't brew here, so I didn't bother to check it out.

That's all from the East Bay. Coming up, the trip to Sonoma and Russian River...

Monday 23 May 2011

Boggle Goes West: San Francisco

I love this city. Really, I do. It was the first place I headed when I started to visit the US. I loved the compactness, I loved the Bay, the green spaces and the buzz around the place. Heading to a bank one morning, I stood at an intersection as a tanned Californian couple passed me in a convertible and waved to me. Waved. Nobody waves at you while driving in London unless you're being pulled over for eating a kit-kat at traffic lights.

In 2008, I left regretting my all too brief time in the city. That year, we headed up to Sonoma County and I didn't have the days left to reacquaint myself with the place. This time, I promised myself, I'd do better...

Off the plane and out of the airport in record time, within an hour I'm meeting Mr & Mrs Snake at Rosamunde's in the Mission. If you've been to Toronado, chances are you've eaten sausage from the shop next door. That's the original shop. This place wasn't here last time I visited, but it's a fusion of both things, beer and sausage, and I wanted to see it.

It's a few steps from the 24th St & Mission BART station, opposite a taqueria called Chavo's (tee hee). My first beer on this trip is RRBC Blind Pig, washing down some lovely Nurnburger wurst. I meant to get back here for a proper exploration later in the trip. I didn't make it.

Next day, I was checking out Marin Brewing. The Giants were at home and the ballpark was emptying by the time I got back to the Ferry Building. I made my way to Toronado up on Haight St (& Fillmore), but so had a horde of fans, so I stopped in for a couple of beers (both Moonlight, one Death & Taxes, the other Twist Of Fate), but the crowd was being swelled by the after-work drinkers, so I made my way back towards Market St.

I was intending to visit 21st Amendment, a brewpub in SoMA not far from the ballpark. Local intelligence had warned me away, a new brewer of 6 months seemingly not having got to grips with the house beers so that it was a bit of a crapshoot drinking them. Instead, I headed for the Thirsty Bear on Howard St (between 2nd & 3rd) near SF MOMA.

Before I knew about good beer bars on my early trips to the US, I usually headed for brewpubs, and I spent quite a bit of time here in 2003. Back then, I quite enjoyed their ESB and Kozlov Stout, though the beers tended to be poured extremely cold. One of us has changed a lot in the intervening years - the beers were a bit underwhelming and the place was heaving with conventioneers from the Moscone Center across the street. I like the space a lot, that hadn't changed, but I guess I've moved on from brewpub house beers.

On Friday, a tweet informed me that Magnolia on Haight and Masonic was 'launching' Hanssens unblended lambic at 1pm. I like this place a lot, so thought I'd pop along, have some lunch and see how the launch went. Before that, I went to the Cartoon Art Museum on Mission between 2nd & 3rd. They had a Berkeley Breathed restrospective AND a behind-the-scenes look at Warner Bros' Looney Tunes, so I spent a happy hour wandering around chuckling at Bloom County and Outland, and laughing like a drain at the Daffy Duck cartoons on a loop.

So, lunch. The beers at Magnolia show a strong British influence, and there's usually a selection of cask-conditioned versions available. A beer called Landlady had been recommended, an interpretation of Timothy Taylors' Landlord. Sadly, the cask version only managed to remind me of how bad Landlord can be without proper care. This was loaded with diacetyl. I struggled manfully through 3/4 of my pint before admitting defeat. The house kolsch was just what I needed after that (pic, that's the buttery Landlady in the background). The food here is usually very good, and the bacon & eggs were spectacular. Belly pork slices on a bed of scrambled eggs, all set on top of an English muffin, in maple syrup.

Before I ate, the lambic was 'launched'. No fanfare, somebody poured a few tasters for the staff, pronounced it OK, and that was it. I wondered if the place would be besieged by local Hatebeerians or BAs, but there was no discernible geek presence (unless you count me). I had it in my mind that Hanssens were a lambic blender, not a brewer, but I could be wrong. This stuff was young, completely still, a deep amber and hazy, and very tart. A bloke next to me at the bar was curious, so I gave him a sip. He nodded and didn't pull a face, but steered clear of ordering one for himself. For me it had that same effect all lambics have on me, which is to mellow into the beer so it feels like time has stopped. I leaned back in my seat and savoured every drop. Even Lovibonds Sour Grapes can transport me. Lovely.

So, that was SF for me this trip. Despite best intentions and a quick visit back on my last day to buy souvenirs down on Pier 39, I'd managed just the best part of a day and a half in the city. Impressions? Market St between Powell and Civic Center looked much more rundown that I remembered, with lots of empty stores and a lot more street people around. Travelling around on public transport recently got joined up with the introduction of the Clipper Card, which can be used on all the MUNI services, BART, Golden Gate Transportation and in the East Bay. Tourists can use the cards if they buy them as 'cash', and you can get them and top them up at Walgreens or at stations.

Places I missed this time? For the benefit of Max at Pub Diaries:
Alembic along Haight St near the Panhandle between Cole & Shrader is a place you can go to admire mixology in action and also sip good beer;
Monk's Kettle (on 16th St in the Mission District) has a bit of a hipster vibe but they have a good selection of local beers;
City Beer (Folsom between 7th & 8th) for your retail needs and to kick back with something interesting;
Rogue Bar (on Union near Washington Sq) is a place I've never been. I crossed it off the list as the local talk was that beer condition is frequently poor;
Public House at AT&T Park (the ballpark) on Willie Mays Plaza. I had to choose between the East Bay and here on Friday evening, and wanted to check out more places in Berkeley and Rockridge. This place comes highly recommended, however.

I hope I don't have to wait another two and a half years before my next visit...