Sunday 15 May 2016

Brooklyn Comes To Dalston

Brooklyn Brewery are on the road again, taking their 'Mash' concept out to nine countries. This week, they've been in London, with events like a DIY dinner party, and, over two nights, the 'Beer Mansion'. I hadn't previously visited any of the formal Mash events in London, so this appeared to be a good time to go along and see what an 'immersive' beer experience looked like.

In a Dalston back street, into a courtyard with odd bits of shipping container, a sign perhaps that railway arches are becoming a bit passé. Handed a can of beer at the door, I thought, 'blimey, how will they get 500 people in here?' I wandered over to a chopped-off bit of container, and, seeing a staircase heading down, entered the rabbit-hole...

Moments later, I'm in a building reeking of Williamsburg re-purposing. A former commerial/industrial building with large workrooms which are now 'spaces', replete with reclaimed furniture and knick-knacks, supplemented with a range of props and branding from the brewery. A huge room featured bands and DJs, and finding more stairs, heading up to rooms themed for IPA, food and beer pairing, and, at the top (though not the very top) a space devoted to Brooklyn's barrel-ageing and 'Ghost Bottle' programme. Garrett Oliver is on the roof, apparently, though he did pop over to the barrel bar while I was there...
Miss Gabe Barry, testifyin'...

I spent a lot of the evening here, listening to Miss Gabe Barry, 'Beer Education & Community Adviser', perched Greg Koch-like on a bar top taking listeners through a sensory journey demonstrating the creative process for their aged and special beers. There can be up to 70 Ghost Beers in the mix for consideration as a new addition to the range each year, and these events seem ideal to put a few of them in front of informed and willing tasters.

Peak Hipster?
In other rooms, a chef was giving away food by using punters' hands as plates. After platters, shovels and jars, this felt a bit peak hipster, but quite funny. The bar adjacent had saisons to pair with the pile of salmon and dressing. A dedicated IPA bar featured some stuff I'd not seen before, including the impressive Scorcher IPA, and local brewers were also featured, 40FT, Redchurch and Beavertown among them. Redchurch's version of a gose was available (Pillar Of Salt?) - nicely puckering, but a bit short of flavour. I'm sure it'll get better...

So, thoughts... It struck me that the arrangement of rooms somehow led attendees on a journey through the possibilities of beer. From the can of pale ale everybody picked up at the door, after that it was an invitation to find your own level, from the bottom of the building, and the beers you might be familiar with, up to the top. Like playing levels of a video game.

Defend Beer. Lots of the staff were wearing tee shirts with this legend on the front. I didn't get to the bottom of why, so I'm hoping somebody will enlighten me.

Purpose. A tenner to get in, which got everybody free beer samples and food, popcorn and other stuff, means Brooklyn can't be making much money off the Mansion. But there's enthusiasm and dedication here, so this isn't simply naked promotion of the 'brand', but also a way to show the new and curious beer drinker the possibility of beer.

Brooklyn. There's a confidence in the way they go about their work. It occurred me that they're mature and established enough to never feel pressurised into following trends, so it's unlikely there'll be a cloudy Vermont-yeast IPA coming out of Williamsburg anytime soon.

I came away with a Ghost Bottle (thanks!) and, having asked a lot of questions, with more knocking around the grey matter, which can probably wait until next time. I wonder whether next time Mash takes to the road, other UK cities might get a chance to experience this.

(I bought my own ticket, and was delighted to be offered a bottle to take away.)

Thursday 28 April 2016

Duvel Doubles With Tripel

I guess it's a sign of how far the landscape has been altered, that an acknowledged 'World Classic' beer can be found sitting on the shelves of most of the major supermarket chains, and yet be simultaneously overlooked by those beer drinkers who are in a state of beery perpetual motion, looking for the new shiny. How we can take such beer for granted...

I'm talking about Punk IPA. Just kidding. Of course, I refer to Duvel, the delicious Belgian golden ale brewed by Brouwerij Moortgat, acknowledged as a World Classic by Michael Jackson in his Beer Companion, and yet, apart from Don 'The Demon Brewer' Burgess, not a beer many of my acquaintances go to regularly. A drinkable 8.5% abv, the beer is hopped with Saaz and Styrian Golding, and undergoes a complex fermentation and cold maturation process before being bottled.

Steve O'Clock being thorough
For the past six or so years, Moortgat has produced an annual variant of Duvel. Called Tripel Hop, the beer has a third hop added at two stages, and the abv is pushed slightly higher, to 9.5%. Thus it was that I was invited to pop along to the Burlington Arms where the upstairs bar had been taken over by Man About Beer Rupert Ponsonby and his R&R Drinkers colleagues, to host a vertical tasting of the different versions of Tripel Hop. Being the nation is currently in election frenzy, the assembly was asked to sample each version, and vote at the Duvel Polling Station. A not unpleasant task, no need to hold your nose before making your mark here.

The idea is that, through a series of tastings worldwide, drinkers, writers, influencers and hangers-on like me will vote and the winning version will be brought into production in 2017. So, in the pleasant company of Steve from the Beer O'Clock Show, Half Pint Gent Matt Chinnery, Jezza P, 1970s Boy Justin Mason, Martin Oates and Mark Dredge, I set to.

This is what I call rigour...
I won't reproduce my tasting notes. I didn't go through the beers in order, even though each bottle had helpful numbering on the label. In release order, the versions contained Amarillo, Citra, Sorachi Ace, Mosaic, Equinox and, for this year, an experimental hop from the Yakima Valley simply known as HBC 291.

I hadn't had a bottle of Duvel in years - I think the last time was around 2004, in the Duke of York pub in Borough, so I went to my local supermarket to pick one up and refresh my gustatory memory. I still got peardrops and a little pepperiness, but I hadn't remembered the dryness of the finish. Useful.

Boggle At The Ballot Box
(pic by Justin Mason)
My order of tasting was 4, 1, 3, 2, 5, 6, but I thought I knew what I was looking for. The hop would need to be able to stand up to all that alcohol, and complement the characteristics of the original. My top three, after revisiting a couple of the beers to confirm - I'm nothing if not rigorous when asked to participate in something so important - were Mosaic, Sorachi Ace and Equinox. The Mosaic and Sorachi were immediately recognisable, but didn't overpower the beer. I thought the Citra was a bit overwhelmed, and the Amarillo made the finish too bitter. The results of this event were declared yesterday, and the consolidated order was: Mosaic, Citra, HBC 291 (somebody name it soon!), Equinox, Sorachi Ace and finally, Amarillo.

It'd be interesting to track preferences in different Duvel markets, and I look forward to the final result. Beer Merchants have packs of the different beers available right now. Thanks to R&R for the invite, and also for putting a World Classic beer I'd taken for granted back in front of me.

Friday 25 March 2016

My Friend Matthew... (Or, On The Tasting Of Wicked Weed Beers)

Herbert Hoover During His Cat Period
Matthew is a college professor based these days in North Carolina. I know him, like I know most of my US friends, through the World of Beer. Matthew has a few eccentricities. His cat has his own Facebook page (we're friends), and once in a while, I'll receive an enigmatic postcard from the US. It will usually feature some historical person, their face carefully obscured by a sticker of a cat's head. Lovingly and carefully cropped and mounted on the postcard. I offer exhibit one...

I think I've worked out why. Matthew is based not far from Wicked Weed Brewing, in Asheville, NC. Founded in 2009, they're one of the growing number of US producers of sour beers. And they come highly-regarded by beery friends Stateside. So, I headed to The Bottle Shop in Bermondsey to sample some of them.

There's a range of nine, including farmhouse ales, a gose-style, sours and, intriguingly, a pumpkin ale. Most of the beers were bottled during the autumn of 2015, so are still quite young. A couple - the Serenity and Horti-Glory - I thought could stand a while longer in the bottle to let the brett character develop a little more. The Tropic Most Gose has passion fruit added, but, behind a tannic nose, it was barely noticeable. The coriander was similarly understated, and the beer finished long and refreshing with gentle saltiness.

I don't like pumpkin beers - I don't get the point of them, and if it wasn't for cinnamon and nutmeg, they'd be tasteless. So the Xibalba Imperial, which weighed in at 8.2%, and has cocoa nibs and ancho, serrano and habanero chillis added, was interesting. It was complex, with a little chilli slap on the roof of my mouth, and some heat at the back of the throat in the finish. There was chocolate and a little coffee roastiness on the palate, all in all quite complex and easily the best pumpkin ale I've tried.

Favourite beer was the Amorous dry-hopped sour. Aged for up to 10 months in red wine barrels, and dry-hopped (don't know what hops, though), this had picked up some character during the ageing, but it was dry, a little tart and I thought an excellent representation of a lambic sour. The Oblivion, a sour red, was also lovely.

Pete Brissenden was driving, but this was not a tutored tasting, more a chance to get together and share thoughts on some excellent beers. The Bottle Shop are looking to run more events like this, and they could become very popular. I'm still working out my thinking on events (see last exciting episode) but I'm wondering whether this is a natural part of the maturing of London's beer scene. Drinkers might not have been ready for something like this in 2010, but now there's a large and still-growing pool of open-minded and enthusiastic beer lovers, for whom this type of event is tailor-made.

Now to get tuned up for Brodie's Bunny Basher...

(Boggle paid for his own ticket. I trust my beery acquaintances across the pond, and they were right. If you start to receive postcards with cats superimposed, then you'll know why...)

Monday 21 March 2016

The Growth Of Events

While diligently working through The Rake's beer list at last weekend's Thank Goodness, No Guinness! Irish Craft Beer Fest, I started thinking about events. I'm not sure if it's me, or if it's A Thing, but I seem to be seeing more and more Meet the Brewer, tap takeover and tasting events in a growing number of venues.

Of course, venues like The Rake and The Bottle Shop in Bermondsey have always run reasonably regular programmes, and craft-focused venues like the Craft Beer Co. and Brewdog have always been somewhere to find events. It could be that I wasn't really taking notice of what was going on, but it feels like right now, there are two or three events a week popping up and as well as local brewers, some of the best of the young brewers from around the country are bringing their beers to London. For some of the bigger brewers like Beavertown, I can see it's a useful way to get their new or seasonal beers in front of their fans when they can't get to the taproom, but I wonder whether it means a younger or smaller brewer doesn't get a chance.

There does seem to be a gap which nobody is filling (not least the LBA), and that's an event which showcases new and younger brewers. I spoke to a couple of bar owners who said they took a lot of calls each day from local brewers wanting to get their beers on the bar, and they don't have time to devote to properly checking the beer out. Seems to me they need a regular-ish trade event with half-a-dozen brewers who can meet the trade for a couple of hours. Maybe food for thought. The lads I spoke to thought it was a good idea.

There's a network growing up and young people on the periphery of the industry with lots of ideas, and it doesn't take Nostradamus to see that eventually there will be an end-to-end events network catering to a wide range of demand, from launches and tap takeovers of local and other beers, to packages for pubs and bars who are keen on adding craft to their offer and want to engage their patrons. I've had more than one conversation with a beer enthusiast who wants to get into bars to host talks and tastings. 

I've even been helping one of them. Step forward Alexis 'Big Al' Morgan, beer Everyman and brewery tour guide at Meantime. A chance meeting in December has led to my acting as wingman for an offshoot which sees the Big Man aiming to take his memorable presence into venues, where he'll take them though matching beer and curry, or the History of London Brewing, or some other ideas under development.

He'll be doing his History of London Brewing tasting and talk at The Arbitrager in Throgmorton Street, on April 5th from 6.30pm. If The Arbitrager is bigger than The Rake, then it isn't by much, and they've been developing a very nice London-centric beer offer across their eight taps. 

The talk covers the history of porter, IPA, imperial stout, pale ale and bitter, and for £20, attendees will get third-pint samples of each style of beer and an insight into why London was the worlds' greatest brewing city for 100 years, all related in Al's inimitable style.

If you're interested, call in at The Arbitrager, call on 020 7374 6887 or email at Places are limited, so don't delay.

It occurred to me that it might be worthwhile doing a fortnightly summary of London beer events, with a feature on one or two which look interesting of offbeat. If you've got something planned you want to publicise, drop me an email or leave a comment, and I'll follow it up.

Thursday 10 March 2016

The Spirit Of Sharing

(It's been 15 months since I last wrote this blog. The waning enthusiasm I was feeling through 2014 finally pushed me into inertia and, although there were some good beery things happening in 2015, I couldn't be arsed to write about them. So far this year, though, I've felt more excited about the beer scene than at any point since early 2014, so I've sharpened a pencil and resurrected the blog. The last thing I wrote about in 2014 was Irish craft beer, and it's the topic of my first post of 2016)

I am summoned to the Irish Embassy in London. Have they decided I'm too plastic, I ponder? No, nothing like that, the Embassy is hosting the Irish Food Board (Bord Bia) event 'Spirit of Sharing', and I've been invited.

The event showcases 20 drinks producers across whiskey, gin, liqueurs, poitín and, of course, beer. The UK is a huge market for this sector, with sales last year of over £280m (€365m) and growth of around 10%. The Food Board are keen to drive this growth further, and presumably this is part of an ongoing programme to connect producers with new markets.

Brewers made up a quarter of the producers, and represented the established - Carlow and Galway Hooker - and the new - Wicklow Wolf, White Hag and Clever Man.

White Hag were voted best new Irish brewer by Ratebeer, and half a dozen of their beers will be featured at The Rake's 'Thank Goodness, No Guinness!' fest over 17th to 20th March. They'll have 36 beers from ten breweries, and I think I'm correct in saying this is the first UK event to profile so many Irish brewers.

Are there still wolves in Ireland?
Quincey from Wicklow Wolf
Wicklow Wolf are a newish 10bbl operation based in Bray, who are already building a new brewhouse twice the size a few miles away. They have around 3 acres of hopfields, growing several varieties including Chinook, Cascade, Bramling Cross and Perle. Their all-Perle porter is excellent. They are keen participants in the local 'Locavore' movement, brewing a fresh-hop beer annually using locally-grown barley.

Malcolm Molloy, a Clever Man
Clever Man are the youngest of the participants, running for just a year, and with a nice line in branding and a solid core range of four beers, including a turf-smoked stout and a tasty American Pale Ale. Galway Hooker had four beers, and Carlow three. Both admitted that the newer brewers had compelled them to think about their ranges. Carlow mentioned they were looking at producing sours, and that was a recurring theme. Wicklow Wolf are aiming to retain the original brewhouse to make sours and look at barrel-ageing, while White Hag are already doing both.

Their Beann Gulban Heather Sour ale is a nicely tart gruit, which had lovely mouthfeel and a gently tart finish. They also showed off Black Boar, which is their Oatmeal Imperial Stout aged in (of all things for an Irish brewer) Scotch whisky barrels. Justin Mason, also in attendance, thought it was a bit 'hot', while I felt the whisky was a bit overpowering. I think we both felt it could do with more time in the bottle.
Caskmates. Unlikely but true...

My palate tends to protest when I drink spirits, but Jameson had something that needed to be tried. As they related it, a conversation at the bar at Franciscan Well in Cork City between Shane Long, FW's head brewer, and the head distiller from Jameson, led to barrels the brewer had used to age a stout, being returned to the distillery, where they filled them with whiskey, The whiskey picked up chocolate and butterscotch and, on a very long finish, I also got Seville oranges. Most of the batch has seemingly gone Stateside, but it's stocked in some UK on-trade outlets.

Finally, poitín. I'd had this twice in my life. Teeling makes one, and though they had a bottle on their stand, the little teases didn't open it. Bán Poitín from Skibbereen in West Cork were there as well, though, and I had my third experience. Made from malted barley, potatoes and some molasses, this stuff is fierce. It bit at the back of my mouth and burned all the way down. It's become popular as a base in cocktails, and Charlie McCarthy of All About The Cocktail was doing a brisk trade at his bar using it.

So, no Ferrero Rocher, although Ambassador Dan Mulhall introduced the event and was a voluble and approachable host. Still, there were some excellent Irish chocolates and some leftovers...

Time will tell whether this event and others like it, represent a breakout for Irish craft. While it's remarkable that a country with a population less than half that of London's can support over 80 breweries, the scene is growing up fast and it's natural for many of those brewers to want to try their luck in other beer markets. If you, and you're curious and in/near London, get along to The Rake for their event. I'll be looking forward to re-acquainting myself with White Hag, and catching up with 8 Degrees and Black's of Kinsale.

Thanks to Bord Bia and Charlie McCarthy for the invite