Tuesday 26 June 2012

Odell/Thornbridge Pond Hopper Extra Pale Ale

On Saturday the 16th of June I headed down to what is most certainly one of my favourite bars in London, Cask Pub & Kitchen. The pub was hosting the launch party of a collaborative brew between two of who I personally think are among the best breweries in the world, Odell and Thornbridge. I started drinking beer from these guys way before I decided to start writing about it and in my opinion they keep churning out awesome beer after awesome beer. The brew being launched this evening is called Pond Hopper which is being billed as a ‘Double Extra Pale Ale’ and tonight would be perhaps the only chance I would get to try it on keg. Also in attendance was Doug Odell from Odell brewing along with Caolan and Dom from Thornbridge who gave a little talk about the inception of the beer and also provided geeks like me with the opportunity to meet the brewers.

I’d managed to convince my friends Johnny and Dom to come along for this evening’s ride. Of all my poor friends who’ve had my beer geekery thrust upon them over the last eighteen months these two have been among the most receptive, more fool them. I headed to Cask straight from work and arrived at around seven pm, I saw Johnny in the queue for the bar when I arrived so had him order me an Odell Double Pilsner, one of the other Odell beers that was available on keg this evening. I ordered this beer as I thought it would be a nice refreshing way to begin the session and although it was pleasant enough it was a little too sweet for my tastes and didn’t have enough hop bitterness to fully hide the strong alcohol content.

Apologies for the blurry photo, it's quite a strong beer
It was soon my round, I headed to the bar to order myself some Dunkel Ryzen, a limited edition beer brewed by Odell especially for this evenings proceedings, they were really out to spoil us tonight. As I ordered the beers I turned to my left and realised I was standing next to Doug and it was great to have a brief chat with him. I’ve met him once before on my last trip to Colorado and he was as pleasant and talkative as ever, this is a man who really knows a thing or two about his beer, a genuine legend in the modern craft beer scene. The Dunkel Ryzen was excellent, similar to a dark wheat beer but with a little more sweetness, more body and in true Odell fashion, more hops. I could talk a little more about this beer but tonight it was merely a support act for the main event, Pond Hopper.

By this point Dom (not Dom from Thornbridge, my friend with the same name) had joined us and we had lined our guts with burgers and burritos from the excellent menu at Cask. It was time to order ourselves a Pond Hopper and boy was it worth the wait. If you’ve had Odell IPA then you know what a world beater this beer is, if you’ve had Thornbridge Halcyon then you know just how good Thornbridge beers can taste when they are at the top of their game. If you’re reading this and you’ve not tried either of those two beers then I urge you to seek them out immediately and if you have then imagine the skill and expertise that goes into crafting these beers individually then combine them into one glorious whole and then you’re pretty close to perceiving just how wonderful Pond Hopper is.

Pond Hopper is a transatlantic fusion of American Hops with British Malts but despite being billed as an ‘extra pale ale’ the colour of this beer is closer to being amber which isn’t surprising considering the sheer volume of malt used in this brew. It retains a smallish off white head and the beer produces an aroma of mango, orange peel, lavender and toffee which translates beautifully into your first taste. The delicate mango aromas become a blistering assault of tropical fruit on the palate and then bitter flavours of orange and grapefruit come along to join the party. These bitter flavours are supported on a massive scaffold of malt which bring to mind a huge slab of toasted white bread dipped into a vat of melted caramel. What makes this beer truly wonderful is that all of these big, powerful flavours are beautifully balanced and the 8.9% ABV is barely detectable, don't let my analogy of the malt flavours decieve you, this is definately one for the hop heads. The flavours are definitely closer to what I would associate with Odell beers rather than Thornbridge beers but considering it was made in their brewery using their equipment/water/yeast etc this is not really surprising.

So, with Pond Hopper tasting so damn good it would have been rude not to go back for seconds, or indeed thirds. Johnny, being the gentlemen and bloody thoroughly nice bloke he is bought me a bottle to take home as a birthday present and after all the excitement this beer caused within me Dom brought me half a Magic Rock Rapture to calm me down, good thinking. After the launch was all but over we got itchy feet and after Dom left us Johnny and I headed to Brewdog Camden to carry on our quest towards enlightenment. Somewhere between the Great Divide Yeti and the I Hardcore U I lost both the ability to speak and stand up so probably decided to go home, if only I could remember how I got there.

Pond Hopper is a limited release brew that will likely only be released once and as bottles are starting to appear in shops now I highly recommend you pick one up, you won’t be disappointed.

Tuesday 19 June 2012

A Brief Stop in North Bar

Last week saw me leave London behind for a couple of days and journey up north to the fair city of Leeds. I had been invited to a guitar trade show and as the company I was visiting had offered to pay for my train tickets and put me up in a swanky hotel it would have been rude of me to refuse their offer. After convincing my Boss that it would be worthwhile for me to leave the confines of my desk behind and let sales reps ply me with food and booze I then set about making other plans. I made sure when booking my return train that I would have just enough time to sink a few swift halves in one of Leeds' excellent bars and after many excellent suggestions of where to visit on Twitter I decided that I’d settle in North Bar for a few beers before I returned to the big smoke.

They REALLY love beer at North Bar
Yorkshire has become something of a hub for craft brewing in the UK with brewers such as Magic Rock, Mallinsons and Summer Wine all calling the County home and Leeds seems to be the epicentre with it’s plethora of excellent bars and bottle shops. It’s no surprise that Leeds was chosen as the host city for this years European Beer Bloggers Conference which after reading the many blogs that followed I was sorely disappointed to have missed but have pledged to get there next year wherever it may be.

I arrived in Leeds city centre in the early afternoon and bolted down Briggate like a desert explorer who hadn’t seen water for several days. When I arrived in North Bar I was pleasantly surprised with what I found, a modern style establishment that wasn’t too polished which I immediately felt comfortable in. The d├ęcor and layout reminded me of the Colorado beer bars where I first discovered how great beer could really taste and the large array of tap handles drew me in towards the bar. My friend Lauren who works at Further North, a sister establishment to North Bar, was waiting for me when I arrived and introduced me to the duty manager Jim. It took me less than a second to decide what I wanted to drink, as soon as I saw the hazy green glow of the Magic Rock Cannonball IPA logo I had to have one. ‘This is the freshest Cannonball you’ll have ever tasted’ said Jim ‘they dropped this keg off 20 minutes ago!’ As Jim was pouring out my half I noticed he had already poured himself a pint, excellent to see that quality control is important in this establishment.

The price was a pleasant surprise; I paid £2.50 for my half which is roughly a pound cheaper than when I’ve had it on tap in London. The imported beers were roughly the same price as you'd pay in London which wasn’t a surprise considering they've travelled roughly the same distance. After the Cannonball which was quite frankly AMAZING I moved on to the Buxton Imperial Black which was on cask. I had only tried this beer for the very first time a week beforehand and was suitably impressed with it’s dark, bitter charms but was actually surprised to see it on cask rather than keg (I shouldn't have been as Jim informed me that Buxton don't keg any of their beers.) I genuinely think a flavour forward, high ABV beer such as this would benefit from a little extra carbonation to help the flavours burst on to the palate and without this it tasted more like a strong porter with a little extra hopping rather than what I would class as a black IPA. A true black IPA, for me, should be a beer that befuddles the senses and defies expectations and while Imperial Black wasn’t on this occasion it was a thoroughly enjoyable drop but I definitely preferred the bottle I had the week beforehand.

One of three cellars within North Bar
Shortly after my second drink Lauren had to shoot off to work but I still had an hour to kill before I made my way to the train station so I threw caution to the wind and ordered myself a half of Stone Old Guardian Barley Wine. I’ve not had much luck with Stone beers recently as more regular readers will have seen but as far as barley wines go it was just about as perfect as they come. Huge slabs of candied fruits, orange pith combined with chewy toffee and a hint of burnt sugar, it was absolutely marvellous. At 11% ABV it was perhaps not the best choice of beverage for four thirty in the afternoon but who cares, it was DELICIOUS and that alcohol was barely undetectable through the waves of pithy flavour that it produced.

North Bar was starting to fill up with post work drinkers and regulars and the bars atmosphere was getting more welcoming and warming the drunker I got the busier the bar got. I had been chatting away to a chap at the bar for a while and couldn’t help thinking I’d seen his face somewhere before, turns out it was Rob, editor of Hopzine and it was a great pleasure talking to someone who obviously knows a hell of a lot more about beer than I do! If you have time and you haven't done so already be sure to check out some of his excellent video reviews.

When ordering the Old Guardian I had assumed it would have lasted me until it was time to leave, sadly this was not the case. I’m not quite sure how but I seemed to rinse the glass of its contents in an inexplicably short length of time. The advantage of this was that it meant that I had time to squeeze in another half of Cannonball which was beyond superb. Although it’s been around for only just over a year I’ve drank quite a bit of Cannonball, it’s my favourite beer in Magic Rocks range but I swear that it tasted even better than before. If there were any kinks that they were trying to iron out then they’ve definitely succeeded.

So, North Bar, a stunning little gem of a bar tucked away in the heart of Leeds City Centre, a visit is definitely worth an hour or four of your time.

Monday 11 June 2012

When is an IPA not an IPA?

I’ll be the first to admit the title of this post is slightly misleading because what I’ve been thinking about over the last few weeks is how several of the beers I’ve drank recently should have been classed as an IPA but they haven’t mentioned those three immortal little letters on their label. With modern craft IPA being such a beer du jour it should make sense that in order to sell more of your beer you should print those three letters in a giant font on your label in order to suck in hop perverts like myself. Not all brewers are in it for the money (although it’s surely a motivational aspect of your chosen career) but it seems to be absolutely essential for craft breweries to include a well hopped IPA in their resume.

Plenty of room on this label for three more letters
Take, just as an example, New Belgium in the USA. They specialise in producing modern and very Americanised takes on classic Belgian styles of beer but one of their best sellers is Ranger which is an incredibly well hopped IPA. Now correct me if I’m wrong but last time I checked those funky Belgian monks weren’t chucking armfuls of Cascade and Chinook into their mash tuns. Unsurprisingly Ranger sells very well, it’s a fantastic beer and no doubt some of the revenue this beer generates funds their more experimental brews such as Biere de Mars and La Folie.

The modern style of IPA, heavily dry-hopped with lashings of American hops is without question my favourite style of beer, I could drink it all day long and quite often do. After drinking the two beers I’m going to look at during the course of this blog my mind cogs started whirring, they definitely had all the qualities of a solid IPA but they don’t play on this fact in order to shift more units. Perhaps their brewmasters do not consider these beers to be IPAs, maybe they are off-kilter or perhaps something else entirely? When you think about it, when does pale ale become India pale ale? Surely this is indicated by an ABV of at least 5.5% or above (if it’s not been watered down of course) and has been well hopped to ‘survive its journey across the ocean’. Of course much of the IPA we drink today hasn’t been brewed to survive an arduous ocean journey, we just like the way it tastes, so why the hell do we still label it with the word India when that doesn’t really have a great deal of association with this beer in it’s modern form. Of course it would be incredibly bold and very wrong of me to dismiss centuries of brewing history with one swing of a stick but have you ever though just how relevent the IPA tag really is in modern brewing?

Of course it says IPA so that beer lovers like us can find the beers WE want to drink, for me those three little letters simply indicate that this might just be another great beer waiting to be discovered. The first of the two beers I’m going to devour during the course of this article fails to mention this anywhere obvious on it’s simple yet incredibly effective label and that beer is Marble Dobber. It was down to the recommendation of others that I discovered the Marble brewery who unlike many of their fellow Northern Craft Brewers seem to shun mass social networking and their website gives very little information away. If you Google any Marble beer you are met not with a well designed and thoughtful website but instead with a plethora of blogs that almost unanimously sing their praise and it is because of us, the bloggers that Marble have gained such a stalwart reputation.

The first couple of Marble beers I had were very enjoyable, I really like their Lagonda IPA and their Chocolate Stout is one of my favourite examples of that style but it was when I finally got hold of my first bottle of Dobber that Marble gained a special place in my heart. I’m sure many of you reading this (in the UK at least) will have tried and loved Dobber, it leaps out of the bottle lively as anything, smacks you round the face with huge chunks of pineapple, heaving great slabs of mango and hides almost all but a smidgen of booze which lingers in the back of your throat as you swallow. In a decades time we will still be drinking this beer with hushed reverence, it’s a beautifully British example of a modern craft IPA, or is it? For me it most definitely is, it has all the hallmarks that make craft IPAs great, huge hops on a massive malt backbone perfectly balanced and dangerously drinkable. Would it be even more popular if the minimalist pea-green label said Dobber IPA?

That little red bastard owl stole my wallet
I am a man of simple mind, I am easily taken in when a selection of cool ‘n’ kooky new beers shimmy into town and this was most definitely the case when Hitachino Nest beers arrived in the UK. I immediately fell in love with that little owl and had to procure some of their beers, if I was quick enough I could maybe blog about them before anyone else and how cool would that be! When I did finally get hold of some I thought of how silly I had been and decided, like with most of the beer I drink to just enjoy it, by myself, in the comfort of my own home. I often wonder if the Internet really needs to know of each and every beer I consume complete with ‘arty’ photo taken on Instagram. I know some of you like it, and I love seeing what other people are drinking but I can’t help but feel that many of my non-beery mates are simply baffled by this activity. So sometimes I don’t tell the Internet what I’m drinking, but that’s not because I don’t love you all very much, it’s because it still sometimes feels a little bit silly.

So I wasn’t going to blog about the quite frankly excellent beers from Hitachino Nest but I felt that their Nipponia was quite suited to this post, in fact it probably inspired it. This well malted and well hopped brew uses the Kaneki Golden barley malt and the now world renowned Sorachi Ace hop. Nipponia is simply described on its label as ‘ale’ and weighs in at a reasonable 6.5% ABV but are we in IPA territory? Well if American breweries can use all American ingredients and describe a beer as an IPA and if British breweries can use all British ingredients and describe a beer as an IPA then why can’t the Japanese?

Nipponia pours a very pale gold colour and produces a nice creamy head that leaves a ring of foam around the edge of the glass. It has a pungent nose of jasmine, melon and elderflower with just a hint of caramel and has some lively carbonation going on in the glass. For me the Sorachi Ace hop provides a very herbal almost medicinal flavour which is very much present in this beer but there are also hints of lemongrass and lychee with the malt tasting of rice cakes that have been dipped  brown sugar. The finish is bone dry, the beer is wonderfully refreshing and despite the slightly medicinal taste I was left begging for another sip. It’s a quintessentially Japanese take on a style of beer that is dominated by brews from the US and the UK (not forgetting a certain Danish Gypsy brewer of course) but once again I ask the question, is this beer an IPA?

If this beer wanted to be an IPA and it wore that badge proudly on its label then I would accept it as an IPA but Nipponia refuses to be labelled as such, standing it’s own ground despite sharing so many similarities with the style. Is IPA a deserving genre of beer of its own or is it merely a label that has been bastardised by breweries with huge marketing departments and then lovingly adopted by the craft beer scene as the sign of a truly great beer. Realistically it doesn’t really matter how a brewery wants to label its beer, as long as they are brewing good shit then I’ll continue to throw money at it and drink into the night with reckless abandon.

Sunday 3 June 2012

Bear Republic Racer 5 IPA

Recently I reviewed Stone IPA, a beer that is revered by many but sadly the particular bottle I had fell short of my lofty expectations. It’s now time to turn my attention to another very highly regarded beer of the same genre, the elusive Bear Republic Racer 5. I say elusive because Racer 5 isn’t a beer that’s readily available in the UK, I was lucky enough to grab a couple of bottles last month when Ales by Mail had some in stock along with a selection of other transatlantic treats for my beer cupboard. I’ve been lucky enough to have tried Racer 5 on tap whilst on a couple of my visits to the US and I loved it each and every time but this will be the first time I’ve tasted it from the bottle and the first time I’ve sat down and spent some time analysing what makes it one of my favourite beers in this style.

Follow the Bear
Back when this blog was in its early infancy I wrote an article about how I thought that with the rise of the UK craft beer scene that many US brewers would cease their export operations, instead choosing to invest in their home market as this would prove to be much more lucrative. With a few months more experience under my belt I can say that for the most part I was wrong, in fact I would say that superb US craft beer is getting easier to find on these shores with each passing month. Thanks to a network of great online beer vendors such as the aforementioned Ales by Mail, Beer Ritz and My Brewery Tap along with savvy importers such as James Clay the supply of American craft beer is positively booming. Of course the popular stuff sells out fast but there is such a wide range available that if you miss out on your first choice then there are plenty of other options available to appease your taste buds.

Some breweries are taking it a step further with Sam Adams Boston Lager now being brewed under license in the UK by Shepard Neame. I can see the argument for not drinking beer that has been brewed under license, beer enthusiasts want to drink it from the source as it was originally intended. However imagine if Bear Republic started brewing Racer 5 in the UK and a trusted craft brewer was given the recipe. The beer might not be from the point of origin but if it tastes just as good you surely wouldn't complain about paying £4.00 for a pint instead of having to fork out £3.00 for a half. Considering how much some people moan about the price of imported craft beer this can surely only be a good thing.

I think that we’ll see a handful of the larger American Craft Breweries set up UK based operations over the next few years but for now we’ll have to be content with paying through the nose for imported bottles and kegs. In my opinion, when the beer is as good as the one I’m about to review it’s totally worth every penny.

Racer 5 pours with a lovely straw coloured, golden tinged hue and produces a nice off-white head that doesn’t linger but leaves a few bubbles around the edge of the glass that produces some nice lacing as you sup. The aroma is of melon and freshly mowed grass with notes of mango creeping in as you delve deeper. The bottle I’m drinking is wonderfully fresh as it’s lively and well carbonated with all of those hop flavours in the aroma coming through on to the palate. The mouth feel is smooth and hop resins coat the back of my mouth as it gently slips down. This IPA produces a wonderful mango and grapefruit bitterness with just a hint of sweetness from the malt. The finish is crisp and dry but that hint of resin just helps the bitterness linger long enough to last until you take your next sip.

As far as American style IPAs go this is not one of the most in your face, it’s not an out and out hop bomb. It’s got heaps of flavour but is never overwhelming and is incredibly refreshing and very drinkable. Racer 5 is a beer you can enjoy on it’s own after a long day or as a great accompaniment to food, it’s versatility is one of it’s great strengths. It’s definitely one of the best IPAs I’ve tried and would be a regular in my fridge if it was more readily available on these shores, if you do see some I highly recommend you give it a try, I guarantee you’ll go back for seconds.