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Friday, 6 January 2017

Beers and Breweries to Drink in 2017

Rather than write a Golden Pints post, here’s are the breweries and beers that will be at the top of my list this year.

These days I tend to value good beer over new beer and there’s a small number of breweries that I more often than not go to. I’m not going to waste your time talking about how much I like Kernel or Brew by Numbers and so on. People know about them already. So, putting that comfort blanket to one side, here are some things to look out for that you might not have considered:

Gun Brewery

Operating out of East Sussex, Gun Brewery have a tight core range with slick branding. Their Milk Stout is banging. I picked up some of their stuff in Brighton last summer and was really impressed. More recently I had the pleasure of their Sorachi Ace hopped DIPA - a quintessential West Coast IPA with as good an expression of the Sorachi Ace hop as you’ll find.

I’ll be picking up their special releases whenever I see them and I’ll buy their milk stout whenever it crosses my path.

Thornbridge Lukas

Nobody will be surprised to hear plaudits for Thornbridge. They’ve been at the top of the craft pile in the UK for years now with good reason. Their Lukas Helles is something else though. I’d argue it’s more in the style of a German Pilsner than a Munich Helles because the hop profile is huge - not in bitterness terms, but in aroma and flavour terms. It just positively bursts forward with this elegant, sophisticated noble hop profile that few other brewers of lager manage to achieve. It’s surgically clean, it’s crisp and endlessly drinkable. If you don’t get lager, get a bottle of this. It sounds like the hyperbole of a contrarian, but you can keep you haze and your juice … I’d rather drink this.

Verdant Brewing Co.

Lots of people with opinions I respect are saying good things about Verdant Brewing Co. from Falmouth in Cornwall. I picked up their core range cans a month or so back and I wasn’t hugely impressed. They were decent but not without issues - I got oxidised notes and the suggestion of ageing hops. On tasting their more recent IPA and DIPA however, I could see signs of where they’re heading. I think they’re a brewery to watch for sure. It feels like the pieces of the puzzle are there and that they won’t take long to come together.

Elusive Brewing

Andy Parker of Elusive Brewing is about as nice a bloke as you’ll ever meet. He also gets huge respect from me for doing the seemingly obvious: he learnt how to brew beer well before opening a brewery. I went along to a tap takeover he did shortly after opening his brewery and every beer that night was excellent. How many new breweries take over a bar like the The Old Fountain and put an excellent beer on every tap? As many as have brewers that learn how to brew before opening a brewery, that’s how many.

I’ve picked up bottles since and been less impressed with the way they were packaged - some over carbonation issues - but if I see his beer this year, I’ll be buying it.

Cloudwater IPA

As good as the DIPAs from Cloudwater Brew Co. are, the IPAs are better. I’m basing this solely on the IPA Mosaic Exp 431 that they released at the end of 2016. That’s how good it was. Whilst DIPA v10 made all the noise, the IPA quietly blew it out of the water.

Wild Horse Brewing Company

Llandudno based Wild Horse Brewing Company brought their range of beer to London for an event at the Eebria Taproom last year. I wasn’t aware of this until I accidentally found myself there that Saturday afternoon. I ordered my first beer with zero expectation and left having drunk through an excellent range of really well put together beer. Blonde: good. Pale ale: good. Porter: really good. Even the pumpkin beer was worthy of a second glass.

Deya Brewing Company

An Instagram feed straight out of New England. 500ml cans with wrap-around labels. Hazy, pale, hop-forward beer. Deya Brewing Company had every right to be all style and no substance when I eventually got to try their Steady Rolling Man last year, but they weren’t. A little brewery from Cheltenham, that was barely a year old at the time, produced one of the best examples of the emergent New England IPA style that I tasted all year. I cannot wait to get hold of more of their stuff.

So there you have it. Some less obvious things to look out for in 2017. What are your top tips for the new year?

Sunday, 1 January 2017

Gun Brewery Sorachi Ace DIPA

Pop your head inside the craft beer bubble and find a trend more popular than the New England IPA. Hop-forward, pale beers dominated by New World hop varieties that deliver tropical fruit notes in preference to citrus. Low bitterness, full mouthfeel and, of course, lots of haze.

Misinformed detractors might call them the hallmark of a brewer incapable of making bright beer.

Supporters may have already forgotten, or perhaps don’t remember, that their way was paved by the West Coast IPA for a reason.

I’m into soft mouthfeel, juicy hops and low bitterness; but I also still enjoy assertively bitter, dry, clean beers that are packed full of citrusy qualities from those now not-so-new New World hop varieties.

All of this brings me neatly to Sorachi Ace DIPA from Gun Brewery. In a year that’s seen breweries trying to make hazier and hazier, juicer and juicer New England style IPA, Gun have stood out to me for making something far more classic than contemporary.

It’s a beer that’s quintessentially West Coast for me. Golden without the qualities of crystal malt, brilliantly clear, faultlessly clean fermentation, bone dry and assertively bitter. The malt gives a crackery profile that’s just enough to stay interesting without getting in the way - it's a canvas for hops to be painted over. And then come those hops: a huge, clear, precise expression of Sorachi Ace without ever becoming vegetal, leafy, oniony or dank. It’s like all the best bits were pulled out of the cone and the shit was left behind. It’s dill, lemon balm and pulpy coconut. Love it or hate it, West Coast hop or not, it’s exactly Sorachi Ace.

Nice one Gun, this is great beer.

Thursday, 17 March 2016

Red Squirrel Brewing Co - BJCP Scoresheets

I’m currently waiting to hear the results of the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) exam I sat at the end of last year. Whilst studying for it, I found that frequent practice attempts at scoring beers was really useful. Red Squirrel were kind enough to send me a few of their beers, so here are my thoughts in rough BJCP format.

Mad Squirrel American Pale Ale

Appearance: Flame, amber in colour. A white head of tight bubbles with medium to good retention. Medium high carbonation. Very slight haze. 2 out of 3.

Aroma: Little to no contribution from malt or yeast. Medium to strong aroma of American hops giving orange, tangerine and pine notes. Perhaps some vegetal character that could come from prolonged exposure to dry hops - distracts slightly and gives an impression of overripe or mouldy fruit. 9 out of 12.

Flavour: American hop aroma comes through into the flavour giving medium to strong notes of tangerine, mandarin and pine. Medium to low dankness. Medium contribution from malt giving notes of graininess and toast - I associate this as typical of British base malts. Dry bitter finish with the balance being towards a medium-high bitterness. Bitterness works well in the context of the overall flavour. British malt character isn’t typical of the style but works well. 17 out of 20.

Mouthfeel: Medium to high carbonation - on the high side for the style. Medium to thin body which is accentuated by the dryness of the beer and the carbonation. 3 out of 5.

Overall Impression: A very enjoyable beer with great drinkability. An excellent example of the style. Great balance throughout all components of the beer. Newer American-brewed examples of the style have less malt character and more body. Vegetal character in the aroma distracts from overall drinking experience and the British malt character is out of style. Would buy again if I saw it on a shelf. 7 out of 10.

Overall Score: 38 out of 50.

BJCP scoring guide:
Outstanding (45 - 50): World-class example of style.
Excellent (38 - 44): Exemplifies style well, requires minor fine-tuning.
Very Good (30 - 37): Generally within style parameters, some minor flaws.
Good (21 - 29): Misses the mark on style and/or minor flaws.
Fair (14 - 20): Off flavours /aromas or major style deficiencies. Unpleasant.
Problematic (00 - 13): Major off flavours and aromas dominate. Hard to drink.

Black Squirrel Black Lager

Appearance: Jet black, ruby around the edges. Tan coloured head of large bubbles that quickly dissipates. 2 out of 3.

Aroma: Medium contribution from darker malts giving subtle notes of coffee and roast. No contribution from hops. Some cooked corn aroma that could be due to DMS - distracts from the overall aroma and is not to style. 6 out of 12.

Flavour: Medium contribution from darker malts gives notes of burnt coffee, burnt toast and brown bread crust. Clean fermentation with minimal contribution to flavour. No hop flavour. Lacks the malt complexity that you find in the best examples of the style. Low bitterness is in balance with the dry finish. The cooked corn / vegetal aroma doesn’t come through into the flavour. 10 out of 20.

Mouthfeel: Medium to thin body.  Medium carbonation. No warmth or apparent alcohol. Best examples have more body without feeling thick or heavy. 3 out of 5.

Overall Impression: A pleasant beer that’s cleanly fermented with no major faults. Lacks the malt complexity that the best examples of the style have. Cooked corn / vegetal notes in the aroma are off-putting. 7 out of 10.

Overall Score: 28 out of 50.
Good (21 - 29): Misses the mark on style and/or minor flaws.

Redtail Citra

Appearance: Brilliantly clear. Small white head that immediately disappears. Colour is straw with hints of blush pink, rose gold. 2 out of 3.

Aroma: No contribution from fermentation. Low contribution from malt giving notes of boiled sweets. Strong contribution from US hops giving notes of ripe mango, fleshy apricot and peach. Aroma from the hops is perhaps a little one-dimensional if being hyper-critical. 8 out of 12.

Flavour: US hop aroma comes through into the flavour to give strong notes of ripe mango, fleshy peach and apricot. Malt character is minimal - reminiscent of British base malts, notes of digestive biscuits and boiled sweets. No fermentation character. Bitterness is medium low - reserved and nicely in balance. 14 out of 20.

Mouthfeel: Very thin bodied. A bit gutless. Has this been harshly filtered? Feels like the soul has been ripped out of it. Carbonation is medium high, perhaps too high for the style. Carbonation perhaps responsible for accentuating the thin body. 2 out of 5.

Overall Impression: Good but soulless. All the component parts are there, it just doesn’t quite come together to form a cohesive whole. Great use of hops and some excellent hop aroma and flavour present in the beer. I would definitely order this beer again and I enjoyed drinking it; it just lacks in some areas. If this was a 3.5% beer you’d forgive the lack of body, but it’s 4.6%. The thin body and high carbonation come together to give the feel (almost) of a soda / fizzy drink. 6 out of 10.

Overall Score: 32 out of 50.
Very Good (30 - 37): Generally within style parameters, some minor flaws.

Look out for these and give them a try if you see them. Much better than I was expecting. Impressed.

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Beavertown Skull King

What: Skull King Double IPA.

Who: Beavertown, London.

Where: An absolutely beautiful can, bought at the brilliant Mother Kelly's. Although, if you haven't got one by now, it's probably too late - at this point it's a one-off and in very short supply.

Why: Because the fermentation profile is clean as a whistle and the bitterness is really well balanced. The alcohol, despite there being a lot of it, is really well integrated. The hop profile has lots of pine sap and over-ripe fruit; tangerines and pineapples if you go looking for them.

Why not: Because the hops taste old; vegetal like damp leaves and cheesy like blue cheese. There's too much malt character and it gets in the way of the hops; it comes through like boiled sweets and caramel. The body is fat, thick and chubby; giving the beer a muddy feel and taking away its elegance.

How could it be improved? (Wow, the arrogance!) I'd love to see it filtered gently, fined or lagered before dry hopping. I'd like less character from the (possibly crystal) malt. I think a thinner body and less malt character would allow the hops to come through in a more pronounced way. I'd like to see it made with fresher hops.

Friday, 4 January 2013

Golden Pints 2012

I tend to drink a lot of beer over Christmas, so I wanted to wait until the New Year before I posted this. If you're wondering what the Golden Pints are, have a look at this.

Best UK Draught Beer
Brewdog Dead Pony Club. How many breweries make sub-four-percent beer that has body and mouthfeel and brilliant hop flavour? Not enough. Not enough, because it’s bloody difficult to get right. If someone offered to replace my tap water with Brewdog Dead Pony Club, I’d ask for advice on how to get the other-half to agree to it. Brilliant, brilliant beer. A style that American craft beer drinkers are desperate for, but that nobody is doing better than us.

(Kernel’s Table Beer was memorable for the same reasons).

Best UK Bottled or Canned Beer
Beavertown Black Betty. The most memorable beers I drink are often those that are opened without expectation. Never more true than when I de-capped a bottle of this black IPA. Excellent balance of malt and hop flavour, enough dark malt character to prove a point whilst never becoming too much. Expectation for future Beavertown beers is now through the roof.

Best Overseas Draught Beer
Gahh, whatever! Too difficult! Taras Boulba in its native Brussels is always exceptional; it’s the first thing I order if I’m lucky enough to find myself at Moeder Lambic. I drank Goose Island at the brewery this year and it was faultless. Whether at home or abroad, a lot of the best draught beer I’ve consumed this year has one thing in common - it was drunk at, or very near to, the place it was made. For that reason, I’m going with Three Floyds Gumballhead. A pint of Gumballhead, gulped down in the brewery car park, whilst the madness of Dark Lord Day unfolded around me. Hard to beat.

Best Overseas Bottled or Canned Beer
Three Floyds Dark Lord. Wonderfully ridiculous. Perfectly over the top. Associated with good times and smashed bottles.

Best Overall Beer
I’ll go Gumballhead, but ask me tomorrow and I’ll probably say something completely different.

Best Label / Pumpclip
Camden Town have done amazing things with their branding this year. Their bottles and clips look sophisticated and grown-up but cool and on-trend at the same time. When I see a bottle of Camden beer, I want to drink it. That’s the highest praise I think you can give.

Best UK Brewery
I think we widened the gap in 2012. Those breweries that were already good, got better. Magic Rock, Buxton, Kernel, Gadds’ and so on. Whilst those that aren’t so good, haven’t really improved. I think Brodies need a shout out here - I’m a sucker for their creativity and willingness to try things out. Really only Thornbridge can be given this title though. Who else is brewing beer as diverse and consistent as they are? Nobody.

Best Overseas Brewery
Last year I wrote this: “The Cantillon brewery is one-of-a-kind. I could happily spend every Saturday morning there, watching American tourists recoil at their first taste of lambic and drinking some of the best beer in the entire world”. Nothing’s changed. I tried my best to put the magic of Cantillon in to words this year. I failed. I was always going to fail. If you like beer, go.

Pub/Bar of the Year
Any of the micro pubs that are spreading across East Kent like they think they’re Tesco Express. Four Candles, The Why Not, Bake & Alehouse. A pint of fresh local cask ale, a locally made pork pie, crisps cut from potatoes grown two miles away. All in a room the size of your lounge. What more do you want? I’d say go out of your way to visit one, but it would defeat the entire point.

Online Retailer of the Year
You might be lucky enough to find equivalent service to Beermerchants.com, but you won’t find better.

In 2013 I’d most like to...
We’ve championed the opening of new breweries in London for a couple of years now. I want to see an improvement in quality. Don’t open a brewery if you don’t know how to make beer. I don’t care that a pub has beer from ten London breweries if all ten of those suck.

It’s probably about time I repeated myself about this too. I’d love to see better use of hops from London breweries in 2013.

I also plan on blogging it a bit more again.

Open Award: Go-To Brewery ...

Kernel. By a mile. I probably drink twice as much of their beer as I do from any other brewery.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Second Runnings Sour

This will never work.

‘Sparging’ is the act of rinsing grain with hot water to remove as much of its natural sugar as you can. It’s standard brewing practice and fits neatly between things you might’ve heard called ‘mashing’ and ‘boiling’.

Sparging takes time. It’s an effective way to use malted barley, but it takes time. When the total cost of the malt in your batch of beer is less than a fiver, it makes sense to forget the sparging and just take the hit on efficiency. At least to me it does. I never sparge.

Well, almost never.

The product of a sparge (kinda) is the second runnings - water sweetened by the sugar that’s rinsed off the malted barley in the mash. What if you take this solution, add a pinch or two of old hops, pasteurise it by heating almost to the point of boiling, cool, rack into a fermenter and then pitch the dregs from a bottle of commercial sour beer?

Here’s how it looked after a couple of days:

My second runnings were taken from a batch of IPA. That’s a grist of pale malt, pale crystal malt, carapils and Munich malt. The hops were some ancient East Kent Goldings that I’ve had knocking about forever. The commercial sour beer was Cantillon Rose de Gamrbrinus.

Thou shalt henceforth be known as: "The Afterthought".

Why will this never work?

Friday, 31 August 2012

Brouwerij Cantillon - Brussels, Belgium

Past the grubby, grease-flecked windows of Eastern European takeaways; a carpet of carrier bag shifts gently in the wind; flanks of chain fence keep derelict land from busy hands, opposite an imposing, solid door that stands firm like armour against the outside world.

Through intimidation the armour protects its threshold; no sign welcomes me, no instruction validates my inadequate, hollow knock. Silence answers me like a test. Swallow hard and hope you’re right.

Relief hurries me inside; a crackle of conversation warms the air, people graze about the room like cattle; my insecurity forgotten like those carrier bags. In a corner sit three Japanese teenagers. Organised and upright, they fight to conceal their discomfort. They look upon an open bottle as though about to perform an autopsy; none dare move, none dare pour. Their stand-off is watched by a pair of Scandinavian men from across the room. They wear thick leather boots with heavy soles that surrender shards of dried-out mud to the already dusty floor. Glasses appear as thimbles in their immense hands; their beards hang long and wild, God-like fashion from the catwalk of Mount Olympus.

A troupe of excited Americans make their way toward the machinery at the back of the room. I pause and catch my breath: a lungful of damp, heavy air - flavoured by the growth that persists across the room’s neglected walls. Following them past rows of unlabelled bottles, a sign catches my eye that reads “Cantillon C’est Bon”.

Outside stands the city of Brussels, where man manufactures coffee cups that warn of hot contents and people outlaw straight bananas. Here, here the spider makes its happy home alongside raw ingredients and fermenting beer. Cogs with viscous teeth spin centimetres from my face and boiling liquid erupts onto the floor around my feet. I’m standing inside the belly of an anachronism; a sanctuary from change, where the power of man is secondary to the will of nature.

It’s here that the Van Roy family have been making their unique beer for a century. Soured by the hands of bacteria and time, in old wooden barrels; beer that nobody wanted to drink, but that the brewery refused to let die. Gueuze and lambic with its citric complexity, its dry finish and its sour bite. Kriek and framboise, where the lush, ripe sweetness of local fruit is tempered by lactic acidity. Beers that are the same now as they were decades ago; brewed with the same tools, by the same process. Beers flavoured not by modern hop varieties or imported yeast, but by the indigenous airborne life that has forever made Brussels its home.

I float from room to room as the brewery tour passes me by. A young bloke scribbles endlessly into a scruffy little notepad whilst others take photos of themselves in front of sacks of malt. They see their surroundings in black and white; they listen to this story with the sound on mute. It occurs to me that Cantillon isn’t a brewery where beer is made, it’s a brewery that makes beer. The mash tun and the kettle like arms and legs, marching to a familiar old tune, the brewer like a brain, capable of balancing a hundred variables with a single instruction. But the heart and soul of this brewery is less tangible, it lies in every fibre of every wooden rafter, in every brick, in every tile, and in every single cell that inhabits these four walls. Only these brewers can make Cantillon wort, and only this brewery can make Cantillon beer.

The beer-lover is incomplete without a visit here. When the Van Roys welcome you into their brewery, they introduce you to their oldest family member. A great-grandparent with open arms and secrets innumerable; whose stories of life will leave you enchanted, full, overflowing with a sense of magic and wonder.

You can read more about Cantillon here. It's a short walk from the central train station and easily reachable by Eurostar.