Sunday, 19 October 2014

An Honest Brew

"People." I'm currently sat opposite Andrew Reeve, founder of Honest Brew, looking every bit the Kiwi expat in shorts and jandals and I've just asked him whether it's the brewing or the retail side of his business that's more important to him. "People" he says "People are the most important part of Honest Brew."

Established at the back end of 2012 Honest Brew is made up of two parts; a brewing operation and an online shop. They spent much of their formative months brewing beers with their early adopters and developing their recipes on a Sabco Brew Magic which has simply been dubbed 'Frank'. This is a piece of brewing kit that is literally straight out of a home brewers wet dream and it resides within the Late Knights brewery in Penge. Once Andrew and his crew are happy with a beer its then scaled up to be contract brewed at RSM Solutions in Hartlepool on their 10bbl kit. Andrew's openness about this aspect of his business was a breath of fresh air. It's a pleasantly transparent attitude proves that his company are not just honest in name but also in nature.

"We plan to continue contract brewing and being completely open about it. It gives us the flexibility to try new things, with a great group of people, who are all passionate about brewing good beer." 

The second part of the business is in beer retail which has really come into its own over the last 12 months as they've grown from a pop up shop into a fully fledged online retailer. As well as being able to order your own selection of beers from their website you can order an 'honesty box' and let Honest Brew do the choosing. You simply answer a few simple questions about what kind of flavours you like, select how many beers you want and voila, a box of beer hand picked by the Honest Brew crew arrives at your door. It's a simple idea but it's one that gives them a unique angle as an online beer retailer and adds an extra level of engagement with their customers which is what Andrew is all about. 

As we part ways Andrew passes me a two bottles of their 'Straight Up Pale Ale' which describes itself as being 'fresher than Bel-Air.' The label design is much the same as that of their bright, clean and characterful website. The shade of gold this beer pours is just as easy on the eye and although it does produce a bubbly off white head this soon dissipates to become a mere halo of foam. Putting thoughts of the Fresh Prince and Los Angeles suburbs aside I dive in for a sniff. On the nose are gooseberries, a little lemon rind and just a hint of crushed barley. The flavour is jammy as opposed to being juicy with marmalade and kiwi fruit underpinned by a citrus sharpness that's balanced by a sticky honey note. 

It's not a beer to excite the hop squad but it is exceptionally balanced and easy drinking, it's a great example of a gateway beer. Modern in flavour but dialled down enough to be accessible. It's not trying to be anything its not, in fact it's as honest and transparent as the company that brew it and it'll get more people into good beer which is what it seems to me that Honest Brew are all about. 

People, that word again. Beer is people. It is people that truly define what is craft beer. Andrew shares an attitude that resonates through the young, modern British beer scene. It may well be the case that beer is not going to get any better than it is now (I actually think it will get even better) but the way we're going we've got a bright future ahead of us.   

Although I was given this beer for free I don't think that influenced my opinion of it. 

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Darker Days are Coming

Following the success of my sell out 'Introduction to Craft Beer' tasting last month I've been invited to host another event by my friends at The Duke's Head in Highgate Village. We had a long hard think about what we wanted to do next and one idea that stuck was to present a showcase of dark beers that are ideally suited to the approaching long winter nights. As an added twist we thought that we'd pair each of the beers to a complimentary dish making the evening as much about great food as it is about fantastic beers. It is from these ideas that Darker Days was born...

The concept is simple; four exceptional dark beers, each a different style, paired with a complementary dish. With each course I'll provide a tutored tasting and a speak a little on the beer, its story and why I think it matches so well with the dish it's paired with. The menu looks a little something like this.

Hammerton Pentonville Oyster Stout - paired with oysters and kimchi prepared by the Bell & Brisket

Beavertown Black Betty Black IPA - paired with Bell & Brisket coffee-rubbed ale-braised brisket sliders

Siren Shattered Dream Imperial Stout - paired with Batch Bakery chocolate stout brownies

Trappistes Rochefort 10 - paired with a selection of Truffles Delicatessen cheeses

In addition to this the guys from Hammerton Brewery based down the road in Islington will be along to tell us the story behind their beers. The event kicks off at 7pm with the first course being served at 7.30pm. 

Places are very limited and the online allocation of tickets has already sold out! Fear not, there are still a handful of tickets priced at £30 per person behind the bar at the Duke's Head. It promises to be a fantastic evening of great beer, food and chat and I look forward to seeing you there!

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Brewhouse and Kitchen, Islington

Nestled around the corner from Angel Station where North London ends and the City begins lies the newly opened Brewhouse and Kitchen the latest addition to a trio of bar restaurants owned by Simon Bunn and Kris Gumbrell. As the name suggests, Brewhouse features an in house brewery for creating its own exclusive range of cask ales, something Bunn and Grumbrell have had their hand in before when setting up The Lamb and The Botanist brewpubs in Chiswick and Kew respectively. The Brewhouse and Kitchen formula has already been tested with great success in Portsmouth and Dorchester so with little trepidation I headed down to Angel, Islington to see what they can bring to the areas already bustling beer scene.

Although the entrance to Brewhouse and Kitchen is on the secluded Torrens Street the bar is huge and the exterior spills onto City Road. The branding is clear and distinctive and the pub certainly manages to stand out on an already busy street. I'm used to new London beer bars being cramped, crowded spaces but Brewhouse is positively sprawling which will be welcome news to those who enjoy both sitting down and the comfort of their own personal space. From the main entrance the pub extends backwards some distance until you reach the brewery itself at the back of the building which is exposed for all to see. There are plenty of tables with more relaxed bar-like seating near the entrance and the brew kit with mainly restaurant style tables taking up the rest of the room.

It's clear from the moment you walk into the clean, modern and stylish interior that a serious amount of cash has been pumped into this place which is even more impressive when you consider its size and location. I wander up to the bar where there are about six hand pumps for the house beer and about twice as many keg taps pouring the likes of Camden Town and Weird Beard as well as some more established names such as Erdinger. There's a decent, if not incredibly adventurous bottle selection featuring the likes of Brewdog Punk IPA, Anchor Steam and those gimmicky yet popular Mongozo fruit beers which personally put my humours out of balance but many seem to enjoy. There is of course a great selection of wine and spirits too.

I decide it would be rude to drink anything but the house ale to start with an so order a Spandau B which labels itself as a session IPA. Not expecting a great deal I lunge in for a large gulp but before I get to the glass I'm awash in a deep aroma of mango and grapefruit. The flavour is full and juicy with a really satisfying grassy bitterness and a moreishly dry finish. I take a second gulp and quickly follow it with a third, this is seriously good stuff for a brewery that's barely got off its feet. This is a major achievement for head brewer Pete Hughes who's also chairman of the London Amateur Brewers Society. It's plain to see he's got a bright future in brewing ahead of him and another taste of Spandau B reinforces my thought that Brewhouse and Kitchen are lucky to have him. 

I didn't eat much while I was there, a few canapés were being handed around of which all were very tasty bar some overdone chicken wings that disintegrated in my hands when I tried to eat them. I'll return in the near future to give the kitchen aspect of the business a proper inspection. I try a half of Black Swan, another of the Brewhouse's own beers which is rich with flavours of liquorice and figs yet still very drinkable but its the session IPA that has me going back for more.  

I think Brewhouse and Kitchen has a bright future ahead of it but I'm not sure hardcore beer slaves like myself are the target audience. Brewhouse manages to bridge the gap between craft beer and the restaurant going public in a similar fashion to the way Belgo did with Belgian beer when they opened in the mid nineties. It's in a central location, easy to find and less than two minutes walk from an underground station. The vibe is busy, casual and inoffensive so it will be as popular with families as it is with suits and those lining their stomachs before the epic pub crawl that the surrounding area is able to offer. It will be interesting to see how Brewhouse and Kitchen fits into the makeup of the Islington craft beer scene especially when they open the planned second branch just up the road on Upper Street in a few months time. I think I like it though, and I'll be going back again to make sure I do.  

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

An Introduction to Craft Beer - Part II

As I make my way up Highgate Hill I stop and consider a slightly dilapidated 'Take Courage' sign on the side of The Old Crown. I was nervous, I hadn't been the days previous to this one but now I was starting to worry that I might let myself down. Under my breath I was rehearsing lines, making sure I remembered my facts and trying to instil a confidence within myself that would be required for the next few hours. 

Tonight I was hosting a sold out beer tasting at the wonderful Duke's Head in Highgate Village. About six months previously the owners had contacted me and arranged a casual meeting over a few beers. I pitched them my ideas which to my delight they went for. Weeks of planning followed by promotion then led to me walking up that hill muttering to myself about beer. The theme of the tasting was an 'Introduction to Craft Beer'. Myself and the team at Duke's had selected six beers, each a different style and included kegged, canned, bottled and cask brews. We'd also arranged for Duke's current kitchen residents The Bell & Brisket to whip up some salt beef sliders, pickles and fries to make sure our guests didn't go hungry. I was confident that I had a lineup that would please both stalwart beer enthusiasts and newcomers alike, all it needed was me to remember these damn facts and deliver them. 

I arrived and the pub was quiet as hoped, we'd picked a Thursday night for this reason. A few guests had beaten me here, some I recognised and some I didn't. I got myself a pint to steady the nerves and it almost worked. I poured over my tasting notes for each of the beers one last time, trying to remember key points that would trigger longer pieces of conversation. Conversation was my key word, I didn't want to spend two hours talking at our guests, I wanted to get people talking about beer. Eventually the remaining attendees started to arrive but so did a lot of other people, the pub was suddenly packed and loud. This didn't deter me, I would just have to speak louder I thought and I like to think that speaking with passion at volume is one of my few talents. I slowly walked up to the head of the crowd, glasses of Hammerton Steam Lager were put in the guests hands, I put my notebook down and began.    

I sought advice from numerous experts who do this sort of thing regularly and I thank them dearly for their help. One piece that stuck in my mind was that I was simply talking about beer and this is something I do all of the time, for fun and I held this with me throughout. It wasn't quite that simple but it was an immense amount of fun. I began by talking about the history of steam beer in America. The snappy, bitter version from Hammerton was a perfect accompaniment to the story of Anchor Brewery and Fritz Maytag. We then moved on to Five Points Pale Ale, served on cask and I enthused about the first uses of Cascade hops and how that began to change peoples perceptions of what beer could taste like. It was safe to say I was in my element. 

By the time I had placed the cans of our next beer, Fourpure Oatmeal Stout on the tables any shred of nerves had disappeared to be replaced with only pure adrenaline. It was interesting to see the reaction of a few guests at beer being served from a can but this was all part of my plan to hopefully dispel any bugbears they might have had about them. People cooed over this beer, many told me it was their favourite of night, a dry and drinkable stout with big flavours of roasted coffee and dark chocolate. This also triggered discussion about dispense methods, all friendly of course and all methods showed their benefits on the night.  

At the start of the evening I had given everyone a menu of the beers we would be serving and encouraged people to make tasting notes as they went along. I made sure with each beer we took in its appearance and aroma as well as its flavour and mouth feel and it was great to see everyone scribbling away as they analysed their beers. After refuelling on bagels we ploughed onwards with a palate cleansing Partizan Lemon and Thyme Saison. This beer divided opinion, I described it as 'a beer you can baste a chicken with'. Some really enjoyed it and a couple screwed their faces at it but then that's the beauty of beer. I also genuinely think it would work as a fantastic marinade for poultry. I spoke fervently about Saison and its origins, the style that people were probably least familiar with but hopefully they were inspired to try a few more afterwards. 

We finished the evening with a pair of absolute belters from The Kernel. I used Chinook Simcoe IPA as a platform to enthuse about my favourite style of beer and as I had been drinking each beer along with the attendees I was suddenly delivering my talk with a tad more gusto. We finished on an Export India Porter that had been ageing away in the Duke's Head cellar for a few months and we couldn't really have ended it any better than that. It was rich and fulfilling, it rounded off an excellent evening of beer. All that was needed at the end was a glass full of Bowmore to bring me down from the ceiling. It almost did the trick. 

My first thought after finishing up was that I immediately wanted to do it again and the good news is, we are. On Wednesday the 26th of November we will be bringing you Darker Days, an evening of dark beers, great food and a few other surprises that shall be revealed soon. Keep 'em peeled. 

Thanks again to the amazing team at The Duke's Head for inviting me to host this evening and being incredible hosts themselves on the night. Photo 2 & 3 were snapped by Duke's General Manager Tom Harrison. 

Sunday, 5 October 2014

The Cult of Zwanze

Chris and I arrive at The Kernel at about ten past seven in the evening. It's not yet busy but already buzzing. A beaming Evin O'Riordian, the Bermondsey brewery's founder excitedly shakes our hands as our names are checked off a list. I've never seen Evin so animated, he's clearly thrilled to be hosting an event that is so well respected in many circles of beer.

We join the short queue for the bar and admire a more than respectable draught list featuring sour beers from some of the UK's finest and a few from Belgium's most respected. We order both a Fou' Foune and a Lou Pepe Kriek from Brasserie Cantillon, the brewery that has caused us to be here in the first place. These beers, both as rare as hens teeth, are good enough to ruin you for most other sour brews. The subtle, sherbert and apricot nuances of Fou' Foune are delectable enough to make a grown man weep with joy and this isn't even this evenings main event. 

We are here for Zwanze (pronounced Svanz-ee) Day and right now beer geeks around the world are waiting, waiting for a taste of this Zwanze, a beer released by Cantillon only once a year. Each year the beer is different, it is Cantillon owner and head brewer Jean-Pierre Van Roy's chance to push the boundaries of his beer as far as they will go. At 9pm Belgium time nominated Zwanze venues across Europe and the United States will tap a single keg of this beer and the Belgian brewery's most ardent fans will stand in line in order to obtain a glass of what will probably be their only opportunity to taste it.  

My first Gueuze was a Cantillon, I jumped in feet first at the deep end. I've now tried countless others but I always come back to Cantillon. It may be too acetic for some but I find this beer and its variants as elegant as they are intense, it simply has no equal within the genre. I first heard mention of Zwanze Day about two years ago but so secretive is this movement, and with the beer in short supply this is almost understandable, I had no idea what it was or which brewery it involved. What I did read were reports of endless queues and disappointment, mostly from the United States where some that had travelled to a Zwanze event had failed to obtain any of that years release.

A year later and Zwanze Day came around again, The Earl of Essex in Islington was Britain's nominated venue. Again it passed me by and I didn't obtain a ticket but I did see more complaints referring to an overcrowded venue that wasn't quite prepared for the throng of zealots that descended upon it. Over the next 12 months I tried more and more Cantillon beers and I too became one of the brewery's acolytes like so many have done before me. There was no way in hell I was going to miss out on this years Zwanze.

So I followed Cantillon's movements religiously and I clung on to every hint of information they released about this years beer like a comfort blanket. When the London venues of The Dove and The Kernel were announced I emailed The Kernel faster than a thunderclap in order to reserve my space. The days ticked down and eventually I was sat there with Chris in The Kernel's tap room. It felt unusual being there at a late hour with the arches of Bermondsey drawing closed but there was an incredible feeling of camaraderie in the room as we were all here for the same very important reason. 

It gradually got busier but not as busy as it can get on a Saturday lunchtime. I watched the clock, trying to time my queuing perfectly so as to minimise my wait and ensure I got my promised third of Zwanze. I drained the last drops of my kriek, another masterclass of a beer with sweet and sour in perfect harmony. I gently lunged my way towards the bar so as not to draw too much attention to myself. I was one of the first there as I had planned it and soon the line lengthened behind me taking over the room. Finally it was my turn, I exchanged three pounds and fifty pence for a wine glass of an effervescent, russet red liquid and I dove in, feet first. 

Iris is Cantillon's dry hopped version of their Gueuze. It adds an assertive bitterness to the already potent sourness, it is divine but it is not for the faint hearted. Aged for three years in oak this beer then becomes a Grand Cru. This Iris Grand Cru was then blended with a Kriek in order to complement the base beer and then in a final twist British Bramling Cross hops were used to futher enhance this beers complexity. The beer is called Cuvée Florian, named after Jean-Pierre Van Roy's son to mark his 18th Birthday and it is this years Zwanze.

Immediately on the nose are blackberries and sour cherries along with green apple skins and that barnyard musk that reminds you that this is a Cantillon beer. The nose translates almost perfectly into flavour, fruit and caramel keeping perfect control of acetic sourness. It has the tang of sour cherries but the juiciness of ripe blackberries and this lingers and lingers with a prickle of bitterness making sure that you want more. It is wonderful, it is as close to perfection as you can find in a glass of beer. 

The atmosphere in the room is electric, almost tangible and the verdict on this years Zwanze is unanimous. We have each fallen in love with Cantillon all over again. Soon the glasses of Zwanze are drained and we will have to wait another 12 months to taste Jean Van Roy's next creation but thankfully we weren't quite ruined for other beers. We work our way through the remainder of the beers on tap, smiling, laughing, comparing tasting notes, the people as much of the occasion as the beers themselves. 

Making my way home much later, still elated but significantly worse for wear I think out loud "damn, I wish I had gone to last years Zwanze day after all" to which my friend Claire replies "you didn't miss much, last years tasted like butt."

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Wisdom for Home Brewers

Now before you jump to conclusions I am not about to dispense a load of frankly terrible advice for home brewers. This is in fact a review of a new book co-authored by Ted Bruning and Nigel Sadler entitled Wisdom for Home Brewers. The cover of this neatly presented little hardback promises 500 tips and recipes for those keen to make their own beer. As someone who has been toying with the idea of home brewing on and off for almost as I long as I've been writing this blog I was looking forward to seeing what knowledge I could glean and maybe one day put to use.

I've been promising myself that I'd start home brewing for ages. Somewhere in the attic above my flat is a Muntons brew kit plus a few extras I picked up and two vacuum packaged bags of pelletised American hops that have probably gone stale. After reading Charlie Papizian's excellent The New Complete Joy of Home Brewing I felt enthused, like I could brew anything. The reality is that I spend so much time drinking and writing about beer that putting a day aside to actually make some of it almost too big a commitment. That and the fear of failure, I don't want to dedicate precious time to making something that I don't love, especially when there are some many people that can already do it so much better than I'll ever be able to.

Wisdom starts at the very beginning with essentials such as equipment and sterilisation. Each piece of advice is broken down into a neat bullet point, a format it maintains from cover to cover. Its chapters are divided between methods, techniques and describing the ingredients themselves. It begins with bare bones basics before progressing from using malt extract to all grain brewing. Bruning and Sadler manage to cover brewing a range of styles from lagers to bitters through to new world hopped ales and even wood aged sours. However the writing indicates to me that their hearts lie with brewing traditional British recipes which isn't a negative, just an observation. The final chapter even covers the first steps of making the transition from home to commercial brewing. Literally no stone is left unturned. 

The bullet point format lets me down slightly. Every time you reach a section that you really want to get your teeth into it ends and moves on to the next one. When you're reading one of Papizian's excellent guides you feel like you're having an engaging conversation with one of the most enthusiastic and skillful brewers you've ever met. On this occasion it feels like the authors are instructing you like secondary school teachers and that makes it slightly less enjoyable to read than similar manuals.

Despite this I still found it highly informative and gleaned some brewing knowledge that I hadn't before. Their advice on water treatment was something I hadn't even considered as a home brewer, for example. I think this book will mostly appeal to people who are completely new to home brewing and brewers that are just about ready to move on to all grain brews. The recipes certainly seemed to be aimed more closely at the novice rather than the expert. Experienced home brewers may find some use for it but much of it should already be common knowledge to them. They may find the final chapter helpful for the step that may come after that however. 

My final criticism is than other than the odd cartoon there is almost nothing to break up the relentless plod of bullet points. It would have been nice to see some photographs of equipment and some diagrams but the text is resolute. Despite this it would still make the list of recommended reading if a friend of mine decided to turn their hand to brewing their own beer. 

Wisdom for Home Brewers by Ted Bruning and Nigel Sadler is published by Apple Press and available now. This copy was sent to me free for review purposes but I don't think that influenced my opinion of it. Original photography by Dianne Tanner

Monday, 29 September 2014

What is this Guinness?

There are few beer drinkers more singularly loyal to a brand than Guinness drinkers. They were practically born with a pint of the black stuff in their hands and there it shall remain until the day they leave us. The thought of drinking a rival brand of stout such as Beamish or Murphy's, or anything else for that matter, is simply amoral to them. As long as Guinness exists there will always be those that chose to drink little, if nothing else.

I visited the Guinness production plant in St. James Gate, Dublin earlier this year and marvelled at the extreme size of the place whilst they plied us with endless hospitality. There I met some of the production brewers and while I was well aware that they had no doubt been told to be on their best behaviour I still remarked that they shared the same passion and enthusiasm as any 'craft' brewer I've ever met. That evening we were given samples of a new pilot brew called 'Night Porter' and to be honest, I rather enjoyed it. Hints of drinking chocolate and molasses rasped at the tongue, this was decent stuff.

Fast forward a couple of months and Guinness have just announced the launch of two new porters that are alleged to be based on historic recipes. First up the 3.8% Dublin Porter, resplendent in a sky blue label with an elegant design that gives a wink, nod and tip of the hat to their 18th century branding. It pours Coca-Cola brown with a fluffy white head that doesn't hang around. There's little aroma to speak of so I lunge straight in for a taste. Subtle notes of slightly burnt toast and instant coffee instantly remind me of regular old Guinness. Not draught but the proper stuff my Grandma used to give me half a glass of with my sandwich as I sat on her lawn in the summer holidays of my youth. It's not different enough to regular Guinness to impress me but it's quaffable and it will certainly satisfy the brands zealots. This begs the question, if they can be convinced to drink this, what else might they be tempted to try?

They might well start with West Indies Porter. I'm in love with the label of this 6% ABV beer. Something about the combination of the typeface, that certain shade of yellow and the shield it's assembled on has my mind doing cartwheels. It pours a darker shade of brown than the Dublin Porter and it also manages to produce a respectable nose of cane sugar and sultanas. While not luxurious it does have a depth that I find satisfying. Sugared Turkish coffee plays around with the taste of figs, it's sweet but dry enough to make me want to take another sip. It has more than just a hint of Foreign Extra about it. While there are many beers in this class that are head and shoulders above this in terms of depth and volume of flavour I still enjoyed it and would drink it again. 

These aren't game changers, in fact they're a long way from it but they're not bad beers and they are distinctively Guinness like in flavour. They will win over the Guinness die hards and the supermarket ale suppers quite easily, especially as the immense volume in which these beers are produced makes them considerably cheaper than their 'craft' counterparts. But what of that Guinness drinker that's dared to try something different despite staying on brand? Perhaps that bottle of Fuller's London Porter that they've always skipped on the shelf will now be seen in a completely different light.

These beers will do nothing to take back those that have already discovered how good beer can be with just a little searching. They will however do a lot to open the minds of those that have already made their minds up. As a result this could backfire on the marketing board at Diageo that conceptualised these beers. I can't see these beers still being around in five years time so enjoy them while you can because as far as I'm concerned they're not all that bad and good value for money.

Both bottles were sent to me by Guinness to review but I don't think this influenced my opinion of them. Original photography by Dianne Tanner