Saturday, 20 December 2014

Creating the Juicy Banger

It's early on a cold, bright December morning and I'm stood on Hackney's Broadway market, a long black from Climpson and Sons clutched in one hand and a bacon sarnie in the other. Here I'm joined by fellow beer writer Chris Hall, Jonny Garrett who produces the Craft Beer Channel and Sofia De Crescentiis of Camden Town Brewery. Today, the four of us are going to brew a beer and we're at the market to buy one of the key ingredients, grapefruit. 

The basic concept for this beer was Sofia's, her 'eureka' beer, as she describes it, was a grapefruit IPA she tried in her native Canada several years ago. The idea for this brew day started as a slightly drunken conversation at The Hop and Berry in Islington, we wanted to brew the kind of beer we love, a tremendously clean-yet-bitter American style IPA but we wanted it to be more than this. Earlier this year Chris ably described the beer style that is defining the evolution of the London beer scene, the Juicy Banger. We wanted this beer to be a combination of the all the things that make IPA our favourite drink, bitter, juicy and bursting with intense fruit flavours but there was one problem; none of us really knew what we were doing.

So, armed with a carrier bag full of grapefruit we headed to Camden Town Brewery where Sofia had kindly arranged for us to brew on their pilot kit for the day. Sensibly, she'd also employed the services of one of its brewers, Pete Brown (no, not that Pete Brown) who was there to act as our guide while still letting us control the concept and direction of the brew. We mingled about in the cold for a while, slurping away on coffee while Pete set up the kit and brought the water or 'liquor' for the mash up to temperature in the hot liquor tank. He then sent us into the main brewhouse to measure out the grain we would soon be mashing in with. We were using predominantly pale barley malt with just a dash of victory malt which would give us a hint of amber colour and a small amount of non-fermentable sugar which should help improve the beers mouthfeel and balance out its bitterness.

Soon it was time to mash in which is probably my favourite part of the brewing process, if only for the fantastic smell produced when hot liquor meets milled grain. Once we'd finished the mash under Pete's watchful eye we retired to the bar to discuss the hop profile we wanted to give this beer. Sofia brought us all a glass of Camden Ink Stout and we made the tough decision of selecting our hop bill. Pete had sensibly steered us in the direction of using Magnum hops for a clean bitterness that didn't have too much of an overall influence on the flavour of the beer. Citra was an obvious choice, what better to use in a grapefruit IPA than a hop that brings with it intense flavours of pithy citrus fruit. We decided on Amarillo for flavour as we felt that the juicy, orange quality it has would compliment the grapefruit nicely. Finally we chose an addition of Centennial for both flavour and aroma, we hoped this would add a grassy, zesty lemon note to our beer.

A large amount of our hops were to be added at the very end of the boil or, to paraphrase The Human Torch, at 'flameout' in order to preserve the maximum amount of flavour and aroma. This is also when we'd be adding our grapefruit zest which we were currently busy removing from the fruit. Using the fruit itself would produce too much tartness in the beer but the zest would add the booming citrus aroma we were seeking. After our zesting session and a spot of lunch it was all hands on deck as it was time to boil our beer. 

Tasting the unfermented wort before the hops are added is a real treat. The rich, sugary solution that will soon be devoured by yeast cells is both delicious and fortitude inducing, especially on a freezing cold outdoor brew day. There was a reason for us being outside though, we'd set the pilot kit up by the bar so that people could wander up and talk to us about what we were doing. It's quite something to visit a bar and drink excellent beer with your friends but to see it being made while you do so is just one of the many reasons why Camden Town's brewery bar is one of my favourite places to have a beer.

The boil progressed without a hitch and I got on with the arduous process of digging out and cleaning the mash tun, while Jonny scrubbed down our fermentation vessel. After an hour of boiling the heat was cut and we added our last addition of Citra, Centennial and the grapefruit zest. The smell at this point was quite remarkable, the hops themselves seemed to fill the air with a dank, green fog and we were enveloped by an explosion of grapefruit zest. After a few more minutes we ran our beer through a heat exchanger to cool it down to a temperature that would keep our yeast happy. We tasted the newly hopped wort, it was zingy, fruity and tooth enamel strippingly bitter. There was plenty of sweetness in there and after Pete had measured the beer in a hydrometer to check its gravity it looked like we were going to have a beer of about 7% ABV on our hands. 

It was a long, exhausting and extremely enjoyable day, even despite the fact that at one point Sofia set her coat on fire (brew safe, kids) and now it was time to retire to the bar and reward ourselves for our efforts. Our yeast was pitched and the FV was sealed, once it's finished fermenting it'll get dry-hopped with more Citra and Centennial to really get the aroma singing. We've brewed enough for about two kegs worth of beer and we'll be attempting to drink the lot at the tapping party on January the 9th. It's open to everyone so please join us at the Camden Town Brewery bar to taste the Juicy Banger, in all its glory. 

Thanks to Sofia, Pete and all the guys at Camden Town Brewery for letting us come and play with their kit. Below is a video Jonny shot of our brew day, please excuse his silliness.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Oddbins Count Three Four

It's refreshing that off licence chain Oddbins has not only embraced craft beer but also totally gets it. It's the fastest growing part of their business and with ambitious expansion plans already in the pipeline the retailer is going to put a lot more great beer into peoples hands. Their active involvement in beer doesn't stop there though, last Christmas they collaborated on a Christmas beer called 'Oddbins No. 1' with the East London Brewery. In the summer they brewed again, this time with Compass Brewery of Oxfordshire to produce a smoked Kölsch which I really enjoyed. Both were fine examples of how a business more known for its wine is keeping pace with the rapidly moving world of beer.

Recently Oddbins have been collaborating again, not once but twice, producing a pair of India pale ales. Oddbins No. 3 is a joint effort with Livingston's Alechemy whose beers are a common site in the chains Scottish stores. It pours a deep, coffee brown with a faint ruby red tinge emanating from around the edge of the glass. The nose is a simple combination of tart raspberries and liquorice, both of which shine through on the palate. The finish reminds me of the taste of burnt coffee grounds and the lingering bitterness is ever so slightly astringent. This is a true black IPA and a decent one at that, there are better being brewed in the UK such as Thornbridge's Wild Raven or Beavertown's Black Betty but neither sit at this more sessionable 5% ABV. It's a good beer but probably not one that I'd personally go back to.

The next collaboration, imaginatively titled Oddbins No. 4 is a white IPA brewed at the Moncada Brewery in West London. A white IPA is part India pale ale and part wheat beer, in this case a Belgian style wit. This pale gold beer has a subtle nose of banana and bubblegum. On the palate these delicate, ester led flavours are followed by a sharp, pithy lemon bitterness that lingers at the back of the throat and is pleasingly drying. This beer is resolutely crying out for a beautifully cooked fillet of sea bass and creamed parsnips. It's the best of the two and I'd quite happily drink this again.

I was very kindly sent these beers for free but I don't think that this has influenced my opinion of them. Both beers are available now from your local Oddbins.   

Sunday, 14 December 2014

Hop Burns and Black, Peckham

Nestled by Goose Green in Peckham Rye along the East Dulwich road lies Hop Burns and Black, London's latest specialist beer seller. Kiwi ex-pats Jen Ferguson and Glenn Williams know and love their beer but they also have a serious penchant for hot sauce and great tunes. It was via this trifecta of passions that Hop Burns and Black was born. 

The walls of this modest retail space are lined with shelves stacked high with beer both local and from much further afield. Peckham is ably represented by its own Brick Brewery, just half a mile away from the store. Its range extends to beers from as far afield as Jen and Glenn's native New Zealand, with hard-to-find brews from the likes of Tuatara and Yeastie Boys. There's plenty of familiar favourites such as Fourpure, Thornbridge and Buxton here too as well as a good selection of American imports from Sierra Nevada and Flying Dog, to name just a few. There's also plenty of fridge space packed with more beer as well as cider and wine and tucked away at the back of the store is an admirable selection of German and Belgian brews. If that wasn't enough there's also a counter-pressure growler, sorry, flagon filler offering three rotating draught beers to take away. It's quite possible you'll leave with much more beer than you actually intended to buy.

The layout is not dissimilar to BrewDog's Bottledog which opened on Gray's Inn Road earlier this year. The vibe is more relaxed though, with a turntable spinning out groove laden tunes and a laid back attitude to sampling. You could quite easily spend much longer here than you normally would in a bottle shop. If that's not enough to convince you to hang around then the scotch eggs from Pig and Hay will more than likely change your mind, especially when slathered in one of the many hot sauces on offer. Spice heads like myself will be pleased to know that there's a whole shelf of Sriracha, in case you're running low, as well as plenty more sauces you've never heard of waiting to singe your tastebuds. The 'black' refers to vinyl and if you've still money in your wallet by the end of your trip then there's a stack of records to finger through at your leisure. 

Hop Burns and Black will provide a further injection of passion, enthusiasm and great beer into a rapidly developing South London beer scene. Jen and Glenn have plenty of plans for the space so keep your eye out for tastings and other events in the near future. Those that live north of the river shouldn't be put off by the location, it's easily accessible via a bus from Peckham Rye or Brixton stations or short walk from East Dulwich. It's also only a few doors down from the excellent Flying Pig so there's another excuse for you if you're considering the journey south, I can certainly assure you it's worth it.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

A Christmas Book Pile

Recently, I've been sent a few books that I've been asked to review. While for the most part I've enjoyed reading them I felt that none of them were aimed directly at beer lovers like myself and so, by proxy, none of you that enjoy reading this blog. Then it hit me, these books would be ideal for beer geeks, like ourselves, seeking gifts for friends and family on the fringes of booze. If, like me, you'll be forcing your love of the drink on those around you over the holiday season then these might make for ideal stocking stuffers. 

Drink London from Euan Ferguson is an immaculately presented guide to London's best bars and it's compact enough to fit comfortably in the front pocket of your Kånken. It journeys from cocktail speakeasies to wine bars and dedicates a healthy portion of its pages to beer houses, both in the 'traditional' and 'craft' sense. It even goes so far as to include some of the best brewery tap rooms. The real highlight though is the wonderful photography throughout which really ties this book together.

Together, drink writers Tom Sandham and Ben McFarland form the Thinking Drinkers which is also the title of their latest book. Thinking Drinkers describes itself as 'the enlightened imbibers guide to alcohol' when in truth, those rare imbibers that have genuinely found enlightenment will find little between these pages that they don't already know. This is another list book that veers off onto the next subject before the one they're discussing really gets interesting. What I did like was as well as covering more fashionable drinks such as beer, whisky and gin it also goes into tequila, rum and even sherry but again only really scratches the surface of each subject. The humour is quite 'laddish' and it think this would appeal to the younger drinker who is just discovering what they like. It's also the first and only book I've seen that juxtaposes Pliny the Elder next to Chiswick Bitter, quite the achievement in itself.

Finally we have Artisan Drinks from seasoned food writer Lindy Wildsmith. There's only a fleeting mention of beer here where Wildsmith recreates a Woodforde's recipe but other than a few pages on home brewing that's it for the ale. Artisan Drinks is a nice collection of recipes for both interesting sounding alcoholic and *gasp* soft drinks for people who have a lot more time on their hands than the rest of us. Someone who spends a lot of time in the kitchen or throws a lot of parties and get-togethers would probably enjoy attempting to recreate many of these recipes. A special mention must go to the excellent photography from Kevin Summers which really brings the recipes in this coffee table style hardback to life.  

So there we have it, if you're short on gift ideas for the booze-curious this Christmas, you could do a lot worse than taking a look at these three books. If, however, you are looking for something wholly focused on beer for someone who is just getting into it then I'd highly recommend the excellent Let Me Tell You About Beer by Melissa Cole. For the beer history buff in your life you will do no better than the award winning Brew Britannia by Jessica Boak and Ray Bailey and for the craft beer enthusiast why not check out Craft Beer World by Mark Dredge. 

These books were sent to me by the publishers to review although I don't think that this has influenced my opinion of them. They're all available now but before you jump on Amazon why not pop down to your local independent bookseller first.  

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Winter Brew Fest

I arrive early at Winter Brew Fest, so early in fact that I'm made to wait outside for ten minutes before they open the doors. As I sit there, waiting for the Sunday afternoon session of this new beer festival to open I sit and take in my surroundings. It's a cool, crisp afternoon a few yards from the resting Old Street, food traders are setting up for the day and I'm wishing I'd stopped for that coffee I'd considered on the way here. I'm not left wishing for long though because I'm soon inside, glass and tokens in hand and I'm chatting away to Weird Beard's Natasha Wolf. 

She pours me an Out of Office coffee IPA, a beer that I had tried just as it had been bottled a few weeks ago and one that I already know that I like. What was remarkable was how the intense and slightly green around the edges hop profile I had detected weeks beforehand had now mellowed and let the rounded, bitter, citric acid quality of the coffee shine through. It's both a very tasty and accomplished beer that deserves high praise indeed but the fact that it was brewed by my friends Andrew and Chris makes this beer even more special. I'm glad I didn't stop for that coffee on the way here, after this I certainly didn't need it.

Winter Brew Fest is one of several new wave beer festivals that are steadily increasing in number, such as Manchester's IndyManBeerCon and The London Craft Beer Festival, albeit on a slightly smaller scale. It follows the premise that the brewers sell the festival their beer and then man their stands themselves. Beer is bought with tokens that are part of the £27.50 ticket price, which gets you a glass and twelve thirds of beer. For me this was plenty to be getting on with during the five hour session especially as each brewer was happy to dole out tasters and many of the beers were well over the 7% mark. There was a small smattering of breweries present, maybe 15 or 16 and mostly from within London. Both cask and keg beer was well represented as was draught cider and alcoholic ginger beer. Along with a well chosen set of food traders there was a little something here for everyone.

I made some wonderful new discoveries, Gipsy Hill Brewery were selling well made, pintable beers. Islington's Hammerton Brewery have really hit the ground running and as I supped their pithy, citrus led N7 Pale Ale I continued to be impressed. One new brewery that really left their mark on me was One Mile End of The White Hart brewpub in Whitechapel. Their salvation pale ale was being served on both keg and cask and was tasting great on both although I found the cool, carbonation of the keg pour enhanced the juicy, bitter quality of its hops. I followed this with their Imperial Stout, a huge beer laden with flavours of liquorice, coffee and chocolate. On this evidence I strongly feel that One Mile End are ones to watch in 2015.

While I was delighted to see some of London's fledgling breweries already making some great beers what pleased me greatly was how some of our more established brewers have really kicked on. I kept going back to Weird Beard, their juicy, resinous, Mariana Trench was rich with flavours of tropical fruit yet so, so drinkable and their decadence stout was, well, full bodied, decadent and downright delicious. Similarly the beers from Redchurch, who I feel are often overlooked by a few, were on simply stunning form. I was given a timely reminder that the borderline black IPA, Hoxton Stout is one of my favourite beers in this class and that I need to stock up. 

I left the relaxing Sunday session with a smile on my face and a stagger in my step. I'd had more than enough great beer to make an afternoon of it and were it not for the fact that Monday morning lurked around the corner I'd have carried on late into the evening. The BL_NK venue was well chosen but I really wish I'd taken the opportunity to visit one of the Friday or Saturday night sessions as I think with the addition of live music and a party atmosphere the place would have really jumped into life. It's great to see smaller, more intimate festivals like this popping up and I'd like to see more. I'll most certainly be heading to Winter Brew Fest's summer incarnation when it comes around next year.

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

An Honesty Box

Recently, I penned a profile piece on the lovely Honest Brew and subsequently was asked if I would like to test drive their 'Honesty Box' service. The premise is simple, you give the guys at Honest Brew a little information about your particular tastes in beer via their attractive and easy to use website and voila, a few days later a tailor made box of beer arrives at your doorstep. 

First you choose how many beers you'd like Honest Brew to send you a month with cases of 9, 12 and 18 bottles available. Then you tell them what colour beers you prefer with the options being either pale, amber or dark. I chose all three because I love beers from all colours of the beery spectrum. Finally you get to tell Honest Brew what flavours you like with the choices being; light and crisp, citrusy and fruity, roasted or chocolatewild and interesting, malty and toffee, or earthy and spicy. It was tempting to select all of these but to make sure I put the service through its paces properly I omitted the last two from my selection. You're then given the opportunity to let Honest Brew know if there are any specific beers from their range that you would like to try but wanting to be completely surprised I also left this blank.

Once I had hit the submit button I then camped out on my doorstep excitedly until the delivery person arrived a few days later with my box of beer. I was a little disappointed that the case wasn't hand delivered by Honest Frank himself but then I remembered that Frank is in fact a mannequin and I would have been petrified if a plastic man arrived at my doorstep holding a box of beer. (I'd still grab the beer off him before legging it though.) 

The selection of beer that arrived was varied and well thought out, highlights included The Wild Beer Co's tasty, natively fermented Somerset Wild, the pithy, chewy and citrusy Redchurch Great Eastern IPA and Odell Loose Leaf session ale. With Honest Brew being a London-centric business it was no surprise that most of the selection came from breweries within the city itself but it was pleasing to get some beers from further afield, especially in the case of the Odell.

I would liked to have seen a few more beers from outside of London. Honest Brew's current range of available beers, which you can shop for on their site without having to go via the honesty box route, is considerate, with some real gems in there but still a little lacking compared to other online retailers. Despite this I was certainly very happy with the selection I received and really enjoyed picking out flavour profiles and then seeing what turned up on my doorstep. There are a number of subscription services now available to beer lovers but it's nice to see Honest Brew thinking outside of the box, so to speak. A crowded marketplace needs fresh ideas like these to stay interesting and relevant, just like Honest Brew themselves.

If you like the sound of this and want to give it a go yourself then you can use the code TOTALLYHONEST at the checkout and get a whole £10 off your first case. If, subsequently you decide not to continue with your subscription then you can cancel at any time. 

Although I was asked to try out the Honesty Box service for free I don't think this influenced my opinion of it. Original photography by Dianne Tanner. The photograph shows all the beers I got in my case except the Redchurch IPA because I already drank that one. 

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Camden Town Brewery India Hells Lager

When Camden Town Brewery released Indian Summer Lager last year I felt as if I'd found the one beer that, if I had to, I could drink all summer long. So on my regular Friday night pit stops at the brewery bar, some lasting much longer than others, it became my go-to beer. It got to the point where I was audibly annoyed if it wasn't on tap but when it was I would barely consider drinking anything else. I watched it change with each fresh batch, sometimes at a pintable 5.4% and sometimes at a Saturday-ruining 6.4% and this one time it was even liquored back with the now defunct USA Hells (superseded by Camden Pils) but throughout this one thing was very apparent, it kept getting better. 

Then, the staff at Camden started throwing a term around, 'IHL'. At first I didn't know what they were referring to but when they went to the bar they never ordered an Indian Summer, they asked for an IHL, an India Hells Lager. For me, late this summer was when my excitement for this beer started to gather pace. I'd already fallen head over heels with the prototype and the thought of having access to a beer such as this all the time filled me with glee. The first time I held a can of IHL in my hands it wasn't even the finished product, I'd just rocked up to a press night and saw it sitting on a table. I lunged forward and cracked it open there and then. It was warm, I didn't care, it tasted incredible and at the end of that night when my fellow beer writers and other industry bods were wrapped in the warm, fuzzy embrace of alcohol I guiltily shoved as many into my backpack as I could find. The only problem was that I couldn't find very many to take, it had been the most popular beer of the evening.

Fast forward a few months and Camden Town Brewery had gone public with IHL and the wheels of the hype machine had been well and truly set in motion. To celebrate the launch of this beer they had planned a weeks worth of events in the form of a pop up at the Cob Gallery on Royal College Street in the beating heart of Camden Town itself. It might seem pompous, even arrogant to give a beer not just one night of celebration and worship but a whole week but I believe that this is a beer that is fully deserving of the absolute reverence that is being laid upon it. They even decided to call this place 'The Temple of IHL' and described the beer as 'IPA, reborn as Lager.' Importantly this was not an act of either pompousness nor arrogance, this was passion. The crowning peak of months of hard work trying to create the best beer they possibly could.

Eventually it was my turn to pay my respects at the temple. I make my way past a row of burning candles, down some stairs and then into the sepulchre itself. I draw myself up to one of several large buckets full of ice and cans and take an IHL in my hand only this time, this is the finished product, this is crunch time. The can itself is gorgeous with a giant orange IHL emblazoned as clear as day on the front of the can but this is flanked by some of the most wonderful design I've ever seen grace a sheet of aluminium. Most notably present are four British animals, a fox, a stag, a badger and a hare all dressed in robes and worshipping 'The Good Lord Lager.' 

There were no glasses on hand this evening, they weren't needed. Although we were within the temple there was no need to stand on ceremony. I crack the seal and satsuma and pine resin aromas leap from the can very much like the hare pictured on its side might. I take a swig and suddenly I'm awash with flavours of peach, apricot, mango and grapefruit zest which are met by a ringing note of pine sap. Intricate layers of bitterness start to build but suddenly a dank, herbal note sucks the palate dry. What just happened? Where did that crescendo of flavour go? I want more! Well I guess I'll take another sip. Oh, looks like I need another can. Crack. Hiss. Repeat. 

To call a beer a game changer is a bold thing to say in this day and age. This is the age of Pliny and Heady, of Crooked Stave and Hill Farmstead after all. You'd think that hop forward beers could no longer get any better, that they'd reached their evolutionary peak and well, I'd question that you'd be wrong. This beer is brilliant for the same reason beers like Pliny the Elder are brilliant. It's so clean that it positively sparkles and the flavours are in ultra high definition. So detailed and yet you can pick them out of the air like a ninja catches cherry blossom between his index and middle finger. Then there's that dryness, IHL is a lager through and through, completely unfiltered and unpasteurised which gives it a quality it shares with the worlds best pilsners, you just can't seem to stop drinking it. It is unlike other hoppy beers because it doesn't become cloying and overwhelm your palate. 

IHL tastes like a world class IPA but drinks like a world class lager. This makes it accessible, this is a beer for all and not just a new plaything for flavour seekers who laugh in the face of increasingly bitter beers. This is beer that will demonstrate the incredible flavours of hops without ever being intimidating. IHL is to 2014 what Jaipur and Punk were to 2007. This is the evolution of beer in action and I am choosing to experience it by the case.