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