Friday 26 December 2014

Boggle's 2014 In Review (1): Ireland

(As an irregular reader of this blog – you could hardly be a regular reader, given my slapdash approach to updating it – you'll know I don't contribute to The Golden Pints, the end-of-year awards-season reach-around for beer. Instead, I give out Boggle Awards to my favourite London bar and brewery of the year.

As I've been sitting on a bunch of half-written pieces since the early Autumn, I thought I'd preface the Boggles with a review of some of my beery highlights. So, watch out for a few more posts cobbled together from contemporaneous notes over the next few days, then the Big Awards Night around 31st December. Exciting, eh?)

I have a family connection to Ireland. The area where the Counties of Cork and Kerry meet on the Beara Peninsula, a finger of land jutting into the Atlantic, bounded on the south by Bantry Bay and braced by the dramatic mountainscape of the Cork and Kerry Mountains. My late mum was from there and I've had reason to spend a little time there over the past couple of years.

In one of those peculiar synchronicities which tend to happen to me when beer is involved, I was introduced to a character named Paul Maher, boss of an Irish beer importer called Four Corners. He imports Brooklyn into the Republic, and was in London during their week-long Mash Bash in August. Popping into The Rake for an after-work beer one Friday, I stumbled into a Brooklyn event where I met Paul. He was interested in the New London Beer, while I was curious about the state of the Irish craft beer scene. I knew a little from reading The Beer Nut's blog, but wondered, was locally-brewed beer finding a foothold?

Paul pointed me at some places to check out west of Cork City, including a Carry Out off-licence branch in Bantry. I was heading through Bantry on my way to the town of Glengarriff, so figured I could hit the ground running. And then, before my trip, my brother in law had surprised me by sending me a pic from the bar of Casey's Hotel in Glengarriff, who were now selling Galway Hooker in bottles, as well as a couple of beers from Dungarvan Brewing in Waterford. I knew there was a good chance that I'd be able to stay off the Big Six beers during my trip.

I knew where the offy was in Bantry, so headed straight there. Just inside the door, in a chiller, there were a couple of shelves of Cork-brewed beers, alongside Belgian and German bottles. The manager spotted me and we had a brief chat. I wasn't buying any beer just then, but did he know where I could drink some in Bantry? He wasn't sure, being from Skibbereen, but thought that Ma Murphy's might have some. Perfect, I knew where that was, and with an hour to kill, thought I'd belly up to the bar and see what they had.

Ma Murphy's is a traditional sort of pub just off the main square, with a small off-sales section at the front, and the bar separated by swing doors. I bellied up and asked the barmaid what they had. She reeled off a list – 8 Degrees, Mountain Man, 9 White Deer... All from West Cork, some brewed about 20 minutes away, she said. I settled on both beers from Mountain Man; Hairy Goat and Green Bullet.

When I got to Glengarriff, I was greeted with a bottle of Galway Hooker at Casey's, but I was more interested in the Dungarvan Beers. Helvick Gold was a very drinkable blonde ale, but my favourite was Comeragh Challenger, a 3.8% Irish Bitter, which had a beautiful long, astringent bitter finish. I could only manage a couple of bottles at a time, and I drank the hotel bar out of their stock, or I'd have brought some of this home with me.

As it was, I was back at the Carry Out a few days later, to grab up a few bottles. As well as Cork beers, they were stocking decent stuff from breweries outside the county. Then it was back in Ma Murphy's to sample the rest of their range. In five days, I think I drank a Big Six beer once.

The Lads...
The only beers I didn't try while I was in Ireland were from Franciscan Well, the brewery in Cork City. I overlooked the bottles due to lack of space but when I got back to London, Beer Synchronicity kicked in again, and I received an email inviting me to a launch for their beers in the UK. Molson Coors' investment has allowed the brewery to expand, and they are now available here.

I sampled three beers. Rebel Red, named for the county of Cork; Chieftan, a drinkable Citra-hopped pale ale; and Shandon Stout, a Cork-style dry stout which has an intriguing smoked character. Head brewer Shane Long was coy about how they get this in the beer, despite using no smoked malt. It was more complex than Beamish – the best of the Big Three stouts in my opinion – and had a nice sour character in the finish. Worth a try if you see them here, I'd say.

There's a lot more of Ireland's brewing scene to explore. Their beer organisation,, has a free smartphone app which can guide you to good beer, and I think I'll be making good use of it when I get back there in 2015.

Monday 1 September 2014

The New Boys (4): Orbit Beers London

Another railway arch in Southwark, another brewery start-up. But this one isn't in Bermondsey. Rather, a mile and a half or so south south-west from The Kernel and Brew By Numbers, in untrendy Walworth. In a quiet side street off the busy Walworth Road, tell-tale bags of spent malt signpost the premises of Orbit Beers London.

Operating for just two months, the brewery is the culmination of a familiar, yet quirkily different tale. Owner Rob Middleton, a quarter of a century of office toil under his belt, decided he wanted a change. But brewing wasn't his first stop. He bought a VW camper van he named 'Brian' and travelled. Having read Iain McEwan's book on Scottish distilleries, 'Raw Spirit', he thought he'd like to do the same sort of thing, so he wrote 'The Tea Leaf Paradox (Discovering Beer In TheLand Of Whisky)' about Scottish brewers. What he learned about beer and brewing led him to researching and, finally, setting up the brewery.

The Man Whose Head Expanded
Having found premises, and somebody to build him a shiny new kit, he needed a brewer. Step forward a familiar face to London beer drinkers, 'Super' Mario Canestrelli. I first met him when worked at seminal craft beer bar The Rake, but his travels in beer have taken him to the US and elsewhere, while in London he's worked at Craft Beer Co. and The Cock Tavern, where he spent time as brewer for Howling Hops, the claustrophobic brewhouse in the pub basement.

There's a distinct German influence on the early beers at Orbit, with an Altbier and a Kolsch-style ale already out of the fermenter, and then a Pale Ale, because Rob likes them. I tried the Alt on keg at Craft in Clerkenwell, and thought it a little chewy and sweet for the style, but quite drinkable once the palate is tuned into it. Mario agrees, stating it's a work in progress, inspired by Schumacher Alt. A brewery this young is still getting used to the quirks of their plant, and they've made some infrastructure tweaks as they go along. A larger bore fill pipe for the CLT, and some tuning up to their glycol cooling system. The beers they want to brew present slightly different challenges, too. They need to lager their beers, extending the time from mash-in to racking by 2-3 weeks, and the colder fermentation temperature is what necessitates the cooling system.

The Trio - Da Da Da
 To date, just four gyles have been racked, two of the Pale and one each of the Alt and Kolsch-style. Mario thinks the Pale will need some tuning, but I thought it was very good now. Subtle fruit on the nose, and a nice drying finish that made you want another sip. The Alt was a little less sweet two weeks on and from the bottle, while the Kolsch suggested a little sulphur on the nose beneath spicy esters, and felt very clean in the mouth, with a nice transition from early sweetness to a clean crisp finish. The lads are keen to feature UK-grown hops, which will give the beers a more subtle profile. Don't expect to be hit over the head by some high-alpha aroma hop, at least not right now.

Subtlety and quirkiness extends to the naming of the beers. Music is a big deal to Rob (his marketing strapline is 'Hi-Fidelity Brewing' and the branding suggests vinyl records, and some of the bottle caps feature a 7-inch vinyl spindle - nice. And subtle, what else?) and what links them; Ivo is the Pale Ale, Neu (who were playing in the brewhouse when I visited) the Altbier, and finally Nico, which is named for husky-voiced chanteuse who first found fame with Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground.

Van, van, van auf der autobahn
There's a busines plan that includes a tasting room set-up, and room to expand, and they're busy drumming up business, so there's a good chance you'll see their beers in bottle or on keg around London in the near future. Keep an eye on them, the beer offer is different, well-made and they've got an appealing brand. Maybe they'll brew a Baltic Porter...

Monday 25 August 2014

August Is All That I Know...

August would usually be busy enough for beer drinkers with GBBF, and the London Craft Scene generating some synergy off that by organising the nascent London Beer City week. This year, we've also had the big news that Binnie Walsh has sold The Harp to Fuller's. A former Boggle Award winner (and also a Camra National Pub Of The Year), I hear promises have been made about the running and offer at the pub, though some regulars I spoke to are a little trepidatious about creeping corporatism. I'd hope not – after all, Fuller's would be killing a golden goose by making The Harp just another Fuller's pub. But can a pubco in the business sense of the term be as nimble about managing their beer range, and bringing in new stuff? Binnie and her team dealt direct with breweries, which kept the bar looking interesting. Fuller's have put Pride and Gales Seafarer on the bar, and that's all, so far. We'll see, and I understand Camra's 'London Drinker' will have a big feature in their next issue.

This Bank Holiday has been a decent weekend for beer. Meantime hosted their third Brewfest at the Old Naval College, and Brew By Numbers held another Sunday event at the brewery.

Meantime seems to be honing the offer at Brewfest. More of the beer is draught, which keeps the queues moving, and the beers available are a bit less scatter-gun. This go-round,they had plenty of Brooklyn beers alongside Founders, Rogue and Flying Dog from the US, I assume because of the recent big Brooklyn presence in London for their Big Mash Bash Week, or whatever it was called. I chanced on an event at The Rake earlier in the month, leading to an excellent evening of tasting and banter. Their exclusively-imported Konrad Czech beer was on, and I missed Schoenram Dunkel again. From the UK, as well as Dark Star, Thornbridge and Beavertown, they had some Redwell stuff. I've been seeing them in London a lot, and I quite like what they do with hops.

Meantime craftily (see what I did there?) slipped in some specials of their own – Old Naval College porter, 8% but carrying its weight easily and without any booziness. This is the latest batch of the first beer they brewed at the ONC. They've also brewed Botanical Beer, a collaboration with Chase Distillery. Ginger, cinnamon, botanicals and, I was informed, vodka. I don't always care for this type of fusion – bergamot in beer is just wrong, for instance, but the adjuncts weren't overwhelming, and it makes a change from brewers working with distilleries just to acquire barrels to age beer in. Botanical poured hazy, had a lively mouthfeel and was refreshing in the Sunday sunshine. A bar manager wondered whether it might stand mulling...

Beer-branded cyclewear. Don't tell the anti-fun brigade
I made it to BBNo for their Sunday event. They've just taken delivery of branded glassware, for which the imbiber pays £3. The money is refundable upon return of the glass, or you can take it home. The brewery suffered a lot of glass theft early on, and this is a good way to incentivise punters to return the glass, or they'll be out of pocket. New fermenters have been installed, and the brewery is creaking a bit at the seams – there's talk of another space for storage, which will help. I bumped into Andy 'Partizan' Smith and histeam, who is also thinking about expanding into another arch. Happily, it also seems that the infamous 'Bermondsey Beer Mile' is now history. A harmless attempt by Anspach & Hobday to brand the chain of breweries starting out by Southwark Park and ending in Druid Street, this had the unfortunate consequence of sucking in large groups of lads who thought it was some kind of pub crawl. The Kernel and BBNo had to change their opening hours to discourage the 'eight pints of your strongest beer' crowd, and things seem to be quieting down now.

For me, this next bit is the biggest news of the month, and it's not about London. Matt and Karen Wickham, the management team of The Evening Star in Brighton, have ended their 16-year association with the pub and Dark Star, and are heading west as I write, to take over The Colston Yard in Bristol, a Butcombe pub. I've known the Wickhamses for a decade, and they're an extraordinarily well-travelled pair of publicans. I've been on beery adventures with them on both coasts of the US, and the Evening Star was always an oasis of quality beer before the rest of Brighton caught on. In some ways, they ran a craft beer bar before we had craft beer. Beloved of their local Camra branch (though apparently the Kevin/Craft schism in Sussex caught them in its crossfire more recently), there were always interesting beers in the fridge, well-kept Dark Star casks and a top range of guests. They'll be a tough act to follow at The Star, and I wish their successors well.

I spent a day with them last summer in Bristol, a city with a buzzing beer scene, and I've known for a while that they were interested in moving on. While I'll be spending less time in Brighton from now on, I'm looking forward to Mine Hosts (and yours) showing me around Bristol again, and I'll be keen to see how they deliver their vision of a new type of pub for Butcombe. Good luck to them both.

And that's it for now.

Disclaimer: Meantime gave me a freebie ticket for Brewfest. Thanks to them. I bought my spiffy beer glass from BBNo.

Thursday 14 August 2014

We Are BeerBox

(It's been months since I wrote about Beer. 2014 has had the same sort of ups and downs as 2013 did. Some of what will turn up here was drafted contemporaneously earlier this year, and there are some themes I might run at. And there's Frank Sidebottom. So, fingers crossed, time and inclination to commit more to cyberpaper...)

To Greenwich for the launch of Meantime's new pop-up venture, the Beerbox. Though I tend to be conspicuous by my absence from the blogosphere, Meantime still pop the odd invite my way, for which, much thanks.

Anyway, I'd been chatting to a Meantime insider a couple of weeks earlier about pubs and been told that, more or less, Meantime would stick with The Union on Royal Hill and the Old Brewery at the Naval College in Historic Greenwich. Rather than permanent sites, temporary pubs and bars would be the way ahead. And lo, it has come to pass.

Up top, We Are Scientists. Underneath, They Are Meantime
An email from their PR invited me to the Greenwich Peninsula, hard by the O2, for the launch of their new bar, BeerBox. A converted shipping container yards from North Greenwich underground, with a performance or terrace space on top. For the launch, they'd lined up We Are Scientists to play on the roof of the bar, and their set was underway as my mate Steve and I rocked up. I'm not familiar with The New Pop (though a lot of it sounds to these aged lugholes, sort of like the Old Pop), but they twanged their thang most pleasingly while we got on with sampling beer. This year's Fool's Gold Citra-hopped pilsner was first, lovely and refreshing on a warm, still London August evening. Steve, currently working at Drake's Brewing in San Leandro, CA, took time to sign the wall in the bar, leaving a cool sticker which added a dramatic splash of red to the persistent monochrome of the wall. Meantime have brewed a special beer for the venue called Peninsula Pale, which I recall was nicely balanced, and I have some memory of blackcurrants for some reason.

The bar will be here for three days a week for the next three years.

Brandino Forges An Impromptu Alliance
It got me thinking about Meantime's strategy here. I'm sensing a pattern, and when I mentioned this to a Meantime worker, the notion drew a knowing smile. Last year, they played with pop-up venues at places like Shoreditch Boxpark. That container motif at BeerBox might not be an accident. During the late May Bank Holiday, I was at their early summer Brew Fest at the Old Brewery. The weather dampened what was a promising fest, but again, it seemed Meantime had learned from their 2013 venture into fests at the Old Brewery. The offer was tweaked for this one, and when I asked whether that was because the 2013 Fest had cost Meantime money, that was denied though an observation was offered that the company had learned a lot about how to put a fest together.

Meantime have expanded capacity at the brewery, keeping them at the heart of Greenwich for a while longer yet, and they've plans to develop the visitor centre and brewery shop. They've developed their own hop fields close by the brewery, and they continue to offer some interesting beers. In a week when young London blogger Matt Curtis appears to have opened a Pandora's Box with this, I find myself more convinced that they'll never get a fair hearing from the geek end of the New London Beer Scene, but there are plenty of younger beer drinkers, and beer drinkers who want to try something different but not too extreme, who will give them a go.

Steve and I were guests of Meantime for this launch. Well, Steve wasn't exactly, I was able to blag him a ticket.