Sunday, 24 August 2014

'An Introduction to Craft Beer' at the Duke's Head, Highgate

Nestled in the picturesque Highgate Village, The Duke's Head is part of a growing set of pubs that is transforming the area into yet another of London's great beer destinations. With ten hand pumps and ten keg lines serving a rotating line up of British beers and ciders from the likes of Brodie's, Magic Rock and Siren there's something here to keep even the most ardent beer enthusiast satisfied. If that's not enough to whet your whistle there's also plenty of bottled beer to drink in or take away, a fantastic selection of wines and spirits plus top notch grub from current kitchen residency The Bell & Brisket. With its deep grey walls, low yet warm lighting and an atmosphere that straddles the line between modern craft bar and old school drinking den it's fast become a favourite place of mine to spend a few hours.

I've teamed up with the folks at The Duke's Head to host an 'Introduction to Craft Beer' evening. Tickets are £20 and are available here: but if you fancy checking out the pub first you can also buy tickets over the bar. 

The evening will consist of a tutored tasting through six different styles of beer each from one of London's innovative and talented young breweries. Keg, cask, bottle and can will all be showcased and food will be provided in the form of salt beef bagel sliders and fries. The evening will kick off at 7pm on Thursday the 25th of September. There are only 20 tickets up for grabs so don't delay if you're thinking about coming (you really should come!)

This isn't just an event for people who are just getting into beer.

If you have the even faintest interest in beer or are on the cusp of spiralling into total geekdom then great. If you've met me then you know I like to talk, a lot. If you haven't then prepare yourself for a frenetic aural bombardment with lots of arm waving. I'll be talking about what I believe to be the origins of 'craft beer', teach you how to taste beer 'like an expert' which I promise isn't as condescending as it sounds and of course most importantly you'll get to taste some amazing beers while hopefully learning something new.

I'm really into beer and I know all this stuff, what's in it for me?

Great! For starters you'll get to taste some really good beer, some you'll know and hopefully some you won't or at least might not have tried yet. The last thing I want this evening to be is a room of people being sat down and talked at. It'll be a small group and I want to get conversations going. Also this is the first time I've hosted a tasting so it's a prime chance to berate and heckle me or merely come down and give a fellow beer geek some moral support. Either way, it'll be loads of fun and the pub is licensed until 1am (although I promise not to keep talking that long). 


On a more personal note when I started writing this beer blog almost three years ago I never expected that I'd get published and be asked to host tastings, it's certainly not the reason why I originally started writing this blog. It turns out that this is something I enjoy doing immensely and would like to do a lot more of. I've made some of my closest friends through beer and this blog and long may it continue. If you're free on the 25th it would be fantastic to see you and I promise you'll get your twenty quids worth.   

Monday, 18 August 2014

Sixpoint Are Doing It For Themselves

I'm not sure how or where it originated but over in the United States they call Bucks Fizz a Mimosa. Replacing the sparkling wine with beer gives you a beer-mosa, a near perfect way to take the harsh edge off the morning after the night before. In Germany they have a similar concept, mixing beer with fruit juice to create a Radler, a sweeter, lower alcohol alternative to a lager or weisse bier. In my hand is a can of Sixpoint Rad, a 3.2% beer blended with grapefruit juice. It's cloudy orange in colour and unsurprisingly smells of grapefruit with an ester-y almost bubblegum like note lingering in the background. I'm not sure if I like it at first but soon my hangover is softened and I begin to feel a bit more capable of taking on the day. In the end I quite enjoy it and could see why other people might too but can't fully envision it taking off in the UK, at least maybe not right at this moment. 

Earlier in the year I wrote a piece about Sixpoint Hi-Res, a limited edition triple IPA from the well known Brooklyn based brewery. I remarked on how I enjoyed the beer but tasted a distinct barley wine character and didn't quite receive the aroma hop battering I had been told to expect. Shortly after I had published the post I was contacted by the owner/founder of Sixpoint Shane Welch who very kindly said that he enjoyed the article but the beer must've been about four months old and past its best. He then went on to offer to send me some freshly canned beers, direct from the brewery. Despite any misgivings you may have about bloggers getting free beer I certainly wasn't going to deny myself the opportunity to try these beers in almost their freshest state. 

More importantly though this gave me an opportunity to discuss with Shane his plans for Sixpoint and his ongoing business relationship with pub chain J. D. Wetherspoon. The very fact that he had taken the time to read my blog and offered to send me some beer is clear evidence that the UK is a very important part of his plans and that the Wetherspoon relationship is most definitely not some fly-by-night affair. He assured me that things were running smoothly and that their beers had been very well received, he also mentioned that some of their beers may be made available on cask in the not too distant future. There has been a lot of rumour and hearsay flying around about this partnership but for now it seems that all is well. Regardless of your opinion on this you cannot deny that Sixpoint's UK profile has increased massively and we can be confident that their beer will be available over here for a long while to come.

So what of the beer I received? It was nice to see Bengali all dressed up in its updated packaging and it was packed full of the bittersweet tangerine flavour that makes it so damn drinkable. Resin, their double IPA was a borderline religious experience, especially when as fresh as this. The aroma that was expelled from the can itself was dripping with pine sap and mango. It was intense, chewy and practically glued itself to the roof of my mouth but had a bitter finish big enough to strip the palate clean afterwards. The real treat though was The Crisp. A lot can be said for fresh IPA but as I mentioned last week lately I just can't get enough fresh pils down my throat. It's almost too easy to drink and the cascade of grassy, herbal bitterness in the finish is incredibly satisfying.

I'm still not sure if Rad is my thing but what was apparent was that all these beers were dialled in, rock solid and as well presented as they are well made. Let's put that into context. Sixpoint were founded in 2004 in an urban borough of the USA's largest city. In just a decade they've grown to become a brand that is recognised by beer fans globally and has been incredibly successful at integrating itself within its own market and those abroad. Now let's turn our gaze to London, where fledgling breweries are taking that next step, expanding production, moving into export and getting their core recipes so dialled in that they've got beer to rival the best in the world. Sixpoint are a wonderful example of all we have got to look forward to in the UK and living proof that craft beer is neither a bubble or a fad.

Disclaimer: I was sent this beer for free but I don't think that affected my opinion of it. Original photography by Dianne Tanner

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Shouting Lager Helles Pilsner

When I ceased being someone who merely enjoyed beer ever-so-slightly more than your average person and became an irrepressible ale enthusiast I pretty much wrote off lager. Those student days of working my way though as many cans of Heineken as possible on a weekend were over and I was seeking increasingly more potent flavour bombs to satisfy my increasingly jaded palate. This was a mistake.

Over the past few weeks I've had a regular craving for bready, crisp, fresh and bitter lagers. I've also found myself getting a lot more out of them than usual. Camden Hells Lager has become a staple of mine, especially the unfiltered and USA versions. Their new 'Indian Hells' promises to have the light body and drinkability of their core lagers but with a juicy, resinous quality that's usually found in the best US style IPA. The prototype of this; 'Indian Summer' has been one of my go to beers at their brewery tap, it's a crying shame whenever the keg kicks the dust. 

Bermondsey upstarts Fourpure have blown me away with the steady evolution of their Munich inspired pilsner. It has an assertive, grassy, almost herbal bitterness that has begun to satisfy me in the same way as a citrus heavy pale ale. It's taught me that not only heavily dry hopped beers benefit from being drank as fresh as possible. That bitter hit is at its best when the cans are young. Plus it's only £11.70 for a six pack from my local offy making it the cheapest 'craft' beer I've seen from a London producer so far. 

Last month in Dublin I once again got to sample unfiltered Pilsner Urquell poured from a wooden barrel. These barrels are lined with pitch so the beer takes no quality from the wood at all. This is a stunning beer, one of the best I've tried all year and I found myself appreciating it's berry-fruit like quality much more than when I tried it last year. It must be said though that the pomp and circumstance provided by brewmaster Vaclav Berka adds to the quality of the experience. Pilsner Urquell has just been released in a limited edition four pack of cans. Each can has a different design pulled from the Czech brewery's rich archives. They're stunning as is the fresh pils within although I'm certain I detected a (not unpleasant) acetic note from the canned beer. Despite this minor flaw they didn't last me long.

Perhaps it's a reaction to an ever increasing array of similar tasting pale ales. Perhaps its the never ending quest to find a new taste, each better than the last. Either way unlocking the subtle nuances of great lager is immensely enjoyable and I'm looking forward to working my way through a wealth of German and Czech classics and educating myself further. 

Disclosure: Thanks to Mark Dredge and Pilsner Urquell for the cans and thanks to Spiegelau UK for letting me test the very attractive pilsner glass pictured above. Unlike the IPA glass it didn't do enough to enhance my drinking experience to write a blog about it but it certainly looks very nice. Original photography by Dianne Tanner

Sunday, 3 August 2014

Missing the Point

There I was in Crouch End's The Harringay Arms with my friend Peter drinking lukewarm bottles of Harviestoun Schiehallion out of dirty glass tumblers. While the rest of the world lumbered forward in time The Harringay Arms has stayed noticeably static, that's part of its charm though. It's not terribly busy on this sunny Saturday afternoon but in the evening it'll be pumping because it's got vibe.

Disappointed by the choice of beers at our current location Peter and I decide to mosey onwards. The nearest pub happens to be The Devonshire House, a Wetherspoons that when I first moved to the area was an All Bar One. I used to quite like it when it was an All Bar One, it was pretty sterile and always empty but they sold bottles of Sierra Nevada pale ale which I used to enjoy immensely even before I'd put the words 'craft' and 'beer' together. Inevitably it closed down and in went bright lights, soft carpets and cheap wallpaper. Every ounce of soul was sucked out of this buildings interior, it became the pub equivalent of Voldemort. 

Still, we venture inside knowing that if there's nothing decent on draught then we can at least turn to reliable cans of Sixpoint Bengali Tiger. I get as far as the first hand pump when I see it, the familiar 'American Craft Brewers Showcase' attachment that indicates the beer on tap is a collaboration between an English and an American brewer. Occasionally the folks behind J. D. Wetherspoon bring a load of well regarded brewers over from the rest of the world who brew 'versions' of their beers with some of Britains larger brewers such as Adnams or Thwaites. Occasionally a gem appears and people make the extra effort to seek it out. Me? I'd rather the brewers in question were bringing their actual beers over, rather than the often poor imitations that end up on the pumps at Wetherspoons.

I look at the pump clip and my eyes immediately land on the name John Kimmich. I imagine 99.9% of Wetherspoons customers have never heard the name John Kimmich before but I had, and I imagine many of you have. For those that don't know Kimmich owns a brewery in the US state of Vermont called The Alchemist. They've brewed a few different beers since their inception in 2003 but in 2011 Kimmich, after their brewpub was demolished by Hurricane Irene, opened a 15 barrel brewery and canning line for the production of a single beer, Heady Topper. 

Heady Topper is a double IPA, in fact it's a really, really good double IPA that I've had the fortune to try in the past. If it was readily available it's probably the sort of thing I'd have in my fridge all the time. I don't think it's actually any better than something like Kernel Citra or Magic Rock Cannonball but it has a mystique about it that drives people crazy. In November 2013 The Alchemist had to close their brewery to the public because the queues leading to the tap room and shop were causing huge traffic problems. The sleepy town of Waterbury simply didn't have the infrastructure to sustain the chaos. The Alchemist brew 12 batches of Heady Topper a week and are currently expanding so that they can make more. When cans hit stores they sell out in days if not hours. This is in a country that has an immeasurably more advanced craft beer scene than our own with a gargantuan amount of great beer being readily available. Yet despite this hardcore geeks still lose their shit over this one beer. 

Hop perverts in the UK would more than likely happily part with £10 for a can (It sells for about $12 a four-pack over in Vermont.) Hell they'd probably beg, borrow or steal just to taste a thimble-full. So with this in mind why has Kimmich come to the UK and brewed a beer with Adnams to an almost minimal fuss. Well it's not Heady Topper, that's why. That and the lumbering Wetherspoons beast have a mailing list populated with people looking for cheap meal deals and low priced pints. They couldn't give a flying fuck who John Kimmich or The Alchemist is. Can they buy four pints for less than a tenner is a more important fact (you can.)

So Peter and I settle in with our pints of Enraptured, a 5.5% American brown ale that cost £2.35 each. The aroma is a bit like walking through a coniferous forest on a late summers evening when suddenly a masked rogue runs at you and smashes a grapefruit into your face before disappearing, laughing into the distance. It feels chewy and resinous. Globs of sweet malt are covered with chunks of mango, lychee and more grapefruit. It's huge, bitter, slightly astringent and I imagine for your average beer drinker this might be a little bit challenging. It's a crime to see a beer such as this on cask, even though it's in very good condition there's not enough carbon dioxide present to stop it from being a little cloying and it's not cold enough to be refreshing. However it is completely delicious and incredibly accomplished yet here it is languishing in a family orientated hell-hole of a bar where know one really gives two shits about craft beer. 

John Kimmich probably thought it would be great to build a relationship with a British brewer, a really good one at that. Coincidentally one that is also masterfully handling the Lagunitas import operation (despite a minor setback due to the changing of keg sizes) but I'm missing the point here. Why is it worth bringing over one of the most revered brewers in the world to brew a 5.5% brown ale, albeit a very good one and then sell it into a massive pub chain thats modus operandi is to bonk out as much cheap food and beer as possible whilst simultaneously conveying a completed skewed pricing structure that's designed to bury local pubs that simply cannot compete. It makes me sick. Meanwhile, Kimmich is probably over the moon that his beer is being showcased in 'British Pubs'. It's not the beer that we want though John, it's not the beer that we want. 

I thought about going back the next day to see if it was still on, it really was that good but one glance into the window of that soulless pit was enough to put me off. Judging by how it tasted, it can't have been on for more than a few hours when we drank it. In my imagination it dwindled on the pumps for days while every beautiful molecule of hop oil was slowly being annihilated by oxygen one mote at a time before finally the last sickly-sweet dregs were drained and at only two thirty-five a pint. 

Monday, 28 July 2014

Mother Kelly's, Bethnal Green

Like beer, a good bar or pub needs good quality ingredients in just the right balance in order to be a success. Good food and drink is arguably the most important of these, great service is of course essential as is cleanliness. No one in their right mind appreciates putting their elbows on sticky tables or holding their nose whilst side-stepping pools of urine on their way to relieve themselves. There's another element though that's far more difficult to achieve. Some pubs have it, some don't and then there are those rare places that have it in spades. I'm talking about vibe.

There are a handful of pubs in the world that have this magical balance of which I speak. Pub vibe is akin to the perfect dry-hopping regime, that injection of unicorn power that makes a beer like Pliny the Elder one of the best in its class. North Bar in Leeds has it as does 't Brugs Beertjes in Bruges and on the other side of the pond I've so far found no better than the Mayor of Old Town in Fort Collins, Colorado. Sadly, in London I've not yet found a place that quite has that essence, that pull that makes me want to empty my wallet and waste my hours descending slowly into drunken bliss, until now that is.

It's easy to get lost in the short distance between the exit of Bethnal Green Underground station and Mother Kelly's Beer and Bottle Shop but once you've located the narrow, cobbled Paradise Row you're only metres away. Soon you're presented with several freshly renovated and for now mostly uninhabited retail spaces beneath a railway arch. There's no huge neon sign (although perhaps there should be) to indicate you've arrived at your destination, just some subtle branding frosted onto the glass of a doorway that's been invitingly flung wide open.

Picnic tables are laid out on a generously sized outdoor space and as you step inside your feet find wooden floorboards which add a softness to the urban surroundings. There are similar tables inside with chairs that look like they've been teleported from a 1970's classroom and right at the front are old oak barrels turned upright and surrounded by tall stools which are ideal for smaller parties. It's not the modest furnishings that your eyes are drawn to though as on your left are 6 huge fridges, gleaming with the multicoloured labels of beers from around the world and on top of these sit the kind of Belgian beer crates you wish you had at home for storing your own stash. 

When you finally reach the bar at the back of the arch you're confronted by 23 minimalist taps. Cask is omitted from the selection which doesn't bother me personally and with at least 19 draught beers and ciders plus what must be a selection of at least 150 different bottles there's definitely something here for everyone, wine and spirit fans included. Even the selection of soft drinks from amongst others London's Square Root is well thought out. The taps are mostly dedicated to British breweries such as Magic Rock, Weird Beard and Siren but you also see some gems from overseas such as Evil Twin Falco IPA and rarities such as Schlenkerla Urbock. The bottles (and cans) available range from locals like Beavertown and Kernel right through to foreign gems from Cantillon, Schneider and Flying Dog, in fact on each of my visits I have struggled to find a genre of beer that has been poorly represented. 

All of this is to be expected in any good pub but it's the little touches that push Mother Kelly's into the premier league. The staff are friendly and knowledgable as should be expected. Each table has a small flower arrangement next to which is a bottle of sparkling water (they carbonate it in house) and a stack of tumblers. Giving customers water without them having to ask for it is something far more pubs that sell very strong beer need to do. There's no kitchen but they still manage to prepare plates of fine cheese, charcuterie and fabulous pork pies. The unisex toilets are not only immaculate but the taps are the same as those behind the bar, a lovely little touch. They're not just a sit in pub either, a hefty discount is available for take out which is just another reason for you to keep going back. 

I've visited Mother Kelly's in the daytime when it's quiet and lazy and in the evening when it's lively and energetic and I love it when it's in both of these states. The bright graffitied mural of a New York street on the wall opposite the fridges almost evokes the feel of the Brooklyn craft beer scene and with London's East End being similar in vibe to the New York borough this feels appropriate. On my most recent visit I ordered a bottle of Cantillon Iris, the fresh hopped version of their Gueuze and asked for four glasses. When the server disappeared into the back and returned with four branded Cantillon tumblers I was taken back, this represented that x factor that makes this pub a truly excellent place to be. Long may it continue to be just so.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Beavertown Go Large

I've followed the progress of Beavertown Brewery since they first started churning beers out of Dukes Brew and Que on a 4BBL kit back in 2011. I remember the first time I tasted Gamma Ray, I liked it, I knew right away they'd be an important addition to the UK brewing scene. It wasn't until a few months later when I blind tasted a more dialled in batch of the same beer at the Craft Beer Company's ill fated pub quiz that it really clicked. It buzzed with rich, pithy, juicy grapefruit and I wrote 'Kernel Citra IPA' on my answer sheet. It was the start of a pretty tight relationship. 

As I wander half lost around the back streets behind Tottenham Hale station a small quiver of excitement suddenly runs through me. I hear music, smell food frying and see a small crowd gathered outside a warehouse with its doorway flung wide open. I join friends at a picnic table just outside the entrance. The sun is attempting to shine as hard as it can through a few rainclouds but people don't take notice of those. Instead they sup schooners of sours, pale ales and imperial coffee stout. They stuff their face with pulled pork, burgers and falafel. Some play 'cornhole' a game which simply involves throwing small beanbag through a hole from distance which isn't as easy as it sounds. All while owner/brewmaster/brand ambassador Logan Plant hops around, simultaneously entertaining the needs of his customers and his young son.

I wander inside, slip past a monolithic wall of yet to be filled cans, wolf down a slider and join a small queue at the bar which sits opposite a row of gleaming fermentation vessels. Ten beers covering a gamut of styles to keep any beer lover happy are being poured. These beers, including my favourite Gamma Ray are being sold for near half of what I've seen them go for in London's most popular beer destinations. Some people opt for thirds, a few upgrade to halves but most seem content with British craft beer's new poster boy measure the two-thirder. Many also grab cans to take home so that they can continue their drinking experience elsewhere long after that big front door closes. A Lemon Phantom Berliner Weisse sets me up, it's as tart and refreshing as a can of cloudy lemonade but with an extra smack to the chops.

I've written about Beavertown and their beers many times but I never seem to get bored of doing so. I feel like I know them inside out and yet in some respects I feel like I know them hardly at all. The first piece I wrote for 100 Best Breweries was about them and despite it being published as recently as March it's already well out of date. Gone are the days of brewing in a cramped Hackney restaurant and a slightly less cramped Hackney warehouse. This 30BBL brewery is the next step, a surefire sign that British 'craft beer' has evolved, this is phase two, now it's time to get serious. 

Everything about the facility Beavertown have dubbed 'Big Beaver' makes me think of the North American brewery explosion that happened the late 80's and early 90's. Now world renowned breweries such as Lagunitas, Deschutes and Bear Republic have expanded again and again to keep up with a demand that just keeps getting bigger. Lagunitas now runs two immense breweries that cast a long shadow over an operation such as Beavertown and yet even they struggle to keep up with the worlds ever increasing thirst for good beer. As I sit with my two-thirder of twisted, tart, refreshing sour beer I feel as if I'm within a mature, established environment even though they've barely been here two months. In fact I feel almost as if I'm back in Colorado, a place I regularly long to be. Except, now I don't have to travel 5000 miles, I just have to take the number 41 bus five miles down the road.

Beavertown Brewery is located at Lockwood Industrial Park, Mill Mead Road, Tottenham Hale, London, N17 9QP. The tap room is open every Saturday from 11am-5pm. 

Sunday, 20 July 2014

The Spiegelau IPA Glass

These days I spend a lot of time at home working my way through an ever increasing collection of stouts, pale ales and sour beers potent enough to clean an engine with. Despite having a sizeable stash of great bottles I don't really have the glassware to back it up. It's a hotchpotch collection of freebies, festival glasses and the occasional pint glass which somehow found its way into my home after a particularly heavy evening. 

I decided it was time to bring my collection of glassware to the same level as my beer so set about doing a little research to find out what are the best quality beer glasses out there. I was already well aware of Spiegelau and their parent company Riedel, not only for their distinctive and easily identifiable glasses but because in the wine trade they're pretty much the de facto brand for professionals. After deciding that these probably were the best glasses I could find I got in touch with the folks at Spiegelau and they kindly sent me their IPA, lager, wheat beer and brand new stout glass to try out. I've spent the last few weeks sampling various beers in each of the glasses and comparing them to a plethora of other options and over the next couple of weeks I'll be putting each of the four glasses I was sent up for review.

I've decided to start with Spiegelau's most recognisable glass as it's designed to enhance the drinking experience of my favourite kind of beer, India Pale Ale. Designed in collaboration with Dogfish Head and Sierra Nevada Brewing the IPA glass was the winner out of several designs that were chosen via secret vote after trials held by both breweries. It combines an unusual ridged stem which helps promote carbonation with a more conventional 'tulip' shaped bowl which should help enhance aroma, a crucial part of the modern IPA experience. I was sent an unbranded glass but in the USA you can buy them with the branding of either Sierra Nevada or Dogfish Head emblazoned on the side. It's interesting to note that the branded versions also have laser etchings on the base of the glass in order to promote carbonation but the unbranded versions don't.

Let's be perfectly honest here, it's not the most attractive of receptacles. In my opinion it looks like a deviant sex toy from outer space. Still if you can get past that then there are definitely some benefits to using this glass over a conventional one. Like all Spiegelau glassware it's super thin, despite it being reinforced it feels like an over-zealous squeeze would result in it being crushed in your bloody fist. It's much stronger than you think although I'd be a bit cautious offering one to heavy handed houseguests. They are thin for a reason though, this should help maintain a consistent temperature although a negative is that your hand is always in contact with a part of the glass that contains beer and this warms it up faster. This is one advantage of using a stemmed glass for beer that tastes better when it's a bit colder.

I tried several beers in the glass but for this review I chose a beer I know inside out, a relatively fresh bottle of Thornbridge's exquisite Halcyon imperial IPA. When I first reviewed Halcyon almost two years ago I described it as a 'fruity, zingy, bitter beer' and the aroma as 'gigantic with notes of grapefruit, pine and lemon zest.' This was once again most certainly true but the IPA glass literally throws the aroma at you like a Jimmy Anderson in-ducker, you simply can't avoid it and you have to play. 

In comparison with other glasses I found the aroma to be more pronounced in the IPA glass every time. Ultimately the taste of the beer should be the same in every glass but when drinking a world class IPA such as Halcyon taking in a big whiff of that booming aroma really enhances the drinking experience and it's for this reason I'm convinced. They're not cheap though, the best price seemingly about £17.50 for a pair on Amazon although that might be a small price to pay if you're as mad about your IPA as I am. If you can get over the appearance and the thin build then I recommend giving this a go.

Disclaimer: Although this glass was sent to me for free I don't think that affected my opinion of it. Original photography by Dianne Tanner.