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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.

Ageing Beer

What do we know about the ageing of beer?

Born unsure of itself in a spiky body, all knobbly knees and disobedient limbs; angles of rough bitterness and awkward disparity. Discrete sweetness and bitterness, torn apart by an empty mid-palate, kept at bay by angrily-hot alcohol.

A middle-aged calm where there’s nothing to prove, no reason to shout and nobody to impress. Flavours integrated and harmonious, points and spikes weathered blunt to bring equality and balance.

A peak, a fall, an irreversible slide into old age. Ghostly flavours of youth, masked by the wrinkles of sherry, oxidation and dried fruits.

Or so they say.

Then I meet Dorian Gray, the oak-aged double IPA. A beer style full of volatile hop aroma and flavour, eager to be drunk young and in its prime; yet a beer clearly blessed with eternal life for the fact that, at 2 years, it still tastes vibrant and youthful and like it was kissed by the grassy, citrusy lips of dry-hop but yesterday.

Or a bottle of Rosé de Gambrinus, with its fuel tank full of residual sugar, yeast and relentless microbes. Clearly in it for the long haul; brewed for the patient among us with time and dedication enough to build a cellar of vintages. Yet at mere weeks in the bottle, it’s a revelation. Bright, bold, vibrant fruit flavours like none I’ve tasted in a beer before; backed by bright, assertive sourness that makes improvement with time seem impossible.

Beer that breaks the rules.

Bottles of Brewdog Tokyo* and Rogue XS Stout. Juggernauts, powerhouses both. Beers with enough alcohol content to fend off the years like David Beckham. Yet at 18 months, the bottles I encounter taste tired and burnt-out, already well past their best, like they’d given all they could and were heading to the 27 club.

Beers that break the rules.

What do we know about ageing beer? The consensus says that if it’s bottle-conditioned and strong, then it’s fit for the cellar. But, whilst that might be true a lot of the time, there are clearly exceptions to the rules. Beer will change with time, whether or not that’s a change for the best, well that’s something I’ll be thinking about more closely in future.

What's your approach to a beer cellar? Drink it all now, or save some for later?

Pictures from here and here.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Scottish Hampers Competition - The Winner!

The lucky winner of the Scottish Hampers competition I ran a while back is ...

Drum roll ...

Louder ...

Ok, ok, it's Rob Castle. Congratulations Rob, enjoy the beer!

Well done everybody else, you all managed to get the answer right ...

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

In My Fermenter: Ultra Stout

What do Mikkeller Black, Three Floyds Dark Lord and Brewdog Black Tokyo Horizon have in common? They’re all Imperial stouts; plus a bit.

'Black' claims to be the strongest beer in Scandinavia. It’s 17.5% ABV, its fermentation is finished with Champagne yeast and it’s brewed with dark cassonade sugar. 'Black Tokyo Horizon' trails behind at only 17.2% ABV - 17.2! - it brings together the brewing minds behind Brewdog, Mikkeller and Nogne O in a three-way collaboration. And then 'Dark Lord', a beer so sought after you have to buy a ticket to be given the right to then buy a bottle. At 15% ABV you’d be forgiven for calling it an over-achiever in this company, it’s brewed with coffee beans and vanilla and it’s only sold on one day of the year.

All of these beers are in excess of what we’d now call an Imperial Stout. They feature massive amounts of alcohol and have huge residual sweetness. They have dense, thick mouthfeel and low carbonation. They’re like the ports and the sherries of the beer world, best drunk in small measures after a meal or in place of dessert. Ladies and Gentlemen .... the Ultra Stout.


So here comes the homebrew attempt. This recipe has worked well in the past, the beer tasting good but for the fact it finished very dry and the bitterness was slightly too big. So taking that recipe, I’ve decided to back off on the bittering hops and mash slightly warmer to leave a sweeter finish. I want the coffee flavour to be less pronounced and more integrated, so I’ve changed things up there too. Finally, I also want less roast flavour and more chocolate, so working with the grains I had at the time, I’ve cut down the roast barley and chocolate malt and gone with more moderately kilned grains: Munich, Crystal and some Special B.

Pale Malt - 55.6%
Rolled Oats - 15.0%
Chocolate Malt (500 EBC) - 9.0%
Munich Malt - 7.5%
Carapils - 5.0%
Special B - 3.5%
Roast Barley - 2.4%
Pale Crystal - 2.0%

15g Simcoe (12.2% alpha), 13g Centennial (11.0% alpha) and 10g Amarillo (6.9% alpha) at 45 minutes from flame out. 6g Amarillo (6.9% alpha) at 35 minutes from flame out.

French press coffee made with 720ml wort and 75g Nicaraguan Tres Pueblos, and 3/4 teaspoon vanilla bean paste added at 1 minute from flame out.

Pre-boil gravity: 1.069. Mash temperature: 68c. Mash time: 60 minutes. Boil time: 105 minutes. IBUs: 75. Original gravity: 1.119.

I pitched lots of rehydrated US05 yeast after aerating the cooled wort really well. If I somehow manage to get 70% attenuation, the beer will finish around 1.035 and will be about 11% alcohol. US05 is reportedly good up to 12% ...

I want this beer to be sweet and dense, I want it to pour with a caramel head and an oil-like body. I want subtle coffee, liquorice and brown sugar, some alcohol warmth and a gentle prickle of carbonation.

Friday, 25 May 2012

IPA is Dead & Adding Hops to Beer

I’ll tell you what I love about Brewdog - hops. The hop flavour they manage to tear from those little green cones and force into their beer.

Hopping is a funny thing. On the face of it, it’s simple. You want more hop flavour and aroma in your beer, you add more hops. Right? Simple. Add hops early in the boil to extract bitterness and late in the boil to impart flavour and aroma. Easy. So why is it then that so many breweries fail to achieve this? Why is it that so many beers have a hundredweight of hop pellet thrown at them but don’t have good hop flavour?

Despite what the derisory best bitter diehard is quick to tell you, it isn’t easy to make a good hop-forward beer. It’s easy to throw handfuls of hop into wort, but what you’ll likely end up with is a beer that tastes vegetal, bitter to the point of astringent, tannic, leafy and grassy.

Back to Brewdog. Brewdog manage to use hops in a way that captures the essence of a particular hop variety. In their Punk IPA you can clearly taste lychee and tropical fruit from the Nelson Sauvin, you can get citrus peel and pith from the Chinook’s they use too. In Hardcore IPA they won World Beer Cup Gold by capturing the intense citrus of Centennial and teaming it with the resinous, piney dankness of Simcoe and Columbus. Maybe it’s the Scottish water their beer is made with, maybe it’s the combination of the sheer amount of hops they use and how they add them. Whatever it is, Brewdog are hop masters; a mastery that shouldn’t be underplayed.


The IPA is Dead series is a master class in hopping. Four beers built on the same base recipe, each one showcasing a different hop variety. It’s a series that isn’t appreciated enough; irrespective of how well each beer works as a finished product, they’re all brilliantly crafted expressions of a single, chosen ingredient.

The second instalment in the series features a variety called Motueka from New Zealand, Australian Galaxy, a classic English variety in Challenger and a new, experimental US variety named HBC.

Challenger: Immediately English. The malt is allowed to come through in notes of gentle caramel; balanced by a woody, bracken-like, bramble hop flavour. Damp moss and earth. Alcohol warmth with a near-brandy quality to it. No citrus in sight.

HBC: Now we’re closer to regular New-World-IPA country. Rindy, zesty, limey, peach and pepper. I’d believe you if you told me this hop was closely related to Citra. Grapefruit too. The malt morphs into a candy sweetness.

Galaxy: Keeping it real, citrus style. A step further towards the American IPAs I’m used to. Lots of citrus pith and grapefruit. Piney. Resinous. Delicious.

Motueka: Hard work in the best way - something that makes you think, something that demands your attention. Lemon mousse and mint. That cool feeling after you brush your teeth - menthol. Lime and something else tropical - maybe even coconut.

A brilliant four-pack of beer. I loved the HBC for its straight-up citrus and I’d order the Motueka again purely for how interesting it is. If you see them, give them a try.