Sunday 30 September 2012

Beer & Loathing in Fort Collins

When stepping off the plane in Denver International Airport for the fifth time I had a realisation, visiting Colorado was no longer like coming on holiday but like visiting my second home. My Dad has lived in Fort Collins for nearly two and a half years now and this would be the first time I was visiting without either my girlfriend Dianne or my sister Anna in tow. I’ve done most of the sightseeing Northern Colorado has to offer so this week long trip was about three things, good food, great beer and spending some quality time with my old man and thankfully I had all three in spades.

Arriving at my Dads house it was pleasant to see that he had seriously stocked up on beers with his fridge containing bottles from Dogfish Head, Great Divide, Odell, Breckenridge and Oskar Blues to name but a few. He removed a snarler (which I soon learnt is a small growler) from the fridge emblazoned with the logo of Big Beaver Brewing Company who are a small brewery based in Loveland, the next town along from Fort Collins. Big Beaver have made a name for themselves locally with the cheeky double entendres used for naming their beer, it’s not popular with everyone but those that turn their noses up at what is just a little harmless fun are missing out on some seriously great beer. The growler contained Big Woody, a double IPA that had a chewy, sticky malt character and was laden with piney hops that gave a real kick of grapefruit and lemon rind, it was a fantastic beer to start the trip with. Currently the only way to get Big Beaver beer is from their tap room in downtown Loveland, you can either pick up four pint growlers, two pint snarlers or by the pint in mason jars. If you're ever in the area I highly recommend a visit to Big Beaver for a beer and a brat cooked in their own Hefeweizen.

Dad and I spent the remainder of that evening trying a couple more IPAs from the likes of Oskar Blues and Boulder Beer Company but it had been a long journey and I was soon ready to hit the hay.

Thanks to the jet lag I was wide awake early on in the morning, the temptation to start working my way through the fridge of dreams was high but I had a big day (make that a big week) of drinking ahead of me and decided to stick with Mr. Coffee. We headed into Old Town Fort Collins at lunchtime and it felt as though I had never been away, the sun was shining and the beer would soon be flowing. We grabbed lunch at the Tap n Handle, the latest specialist craft beer bar to appear in Fort Collins which opened back in February. The Tap boasts a whopping 74 taps with brews from the US, UK, Germany and Belgium present and correct, it’s not quite as many as the nearby Mayor of Old Town which has 100 but while deciding what to drink the bartender mused that Old Town must have more beer taps within one square mile than anywhere else in the world. She may well be right, and after a bit of a personal crisis (it’s tough choosing between 74 amazing beers) I went for a White Rascal, a witbier from Avery Brewing who are based in nearby Boulder.

The rascal was a lovely, light and quaffable wit, laced with banana and clove esters and had a lovely hit of coriander in the finish, it made a delightful accompaniment to my Philly cheese steak sub which was tasting as good as the beer. Sadly this was the only chance I had to visit the Tap n Handle in what would become a very busy week but next time I’m Stateside I hope to spend a bit longer within it’s warm, friendly walls.

Hop bines are growing at the back of this shot
After a bit of shopping we headed to that most hallowed of places and my Dads favourite local hangout, the tap room at Odell Brewing Co. My Dad spends a lot of time here as he usually chooses to finish a hard week at work supping a fresh pint of IPA with his colleagues so it was a nice surprise for me when I walked in and the guys behind the bar shouted ‘Hey, Matt’s here!’ I instantly felt like an old regular and was soon sat outside in the sunshine watching some live Bluegrass and working my way through a tasting tray of some of the newly released and pilot brews. Highlights from the tray for me were Turkish Rye Wit, an interesting wheat beer which, as the name suggests, also contained rye in the mash, Deconstruction which I can only describe as a superb American Gueuze and The Meddler a newly released beer which is the Odell take on a Flemish style brown ale. It was delicious, tart and surprisingly suppable for it’s 8.9% ABV, unfortunately I seem to have misplaced my tasting notes for this one but it certainly comes highly recommended.

One thing you’ll soon realise if you visit the States at the moment is that brewers and beer geeks alike seem to be obsessed with sour beer styles. There were few tap rooms and bars that didn’t have a range of offerings that had been fermented with Lactobacillus, Brettanomyces or something equally as funky. It’s almost as if some brewers have got bored with attempting to make the strongest, hoppiest beers around and are trying new ways to create insane levels of flavour. Fort Collins heavyweights New Belgium have an almost ridiculous range of sours available at the moment and have recently installed new tanks to make even more, the good news is that their mastery over this style of beer is supreme.

After Dad and I, who had been joined by his girlfriend Terri at this point, had worked our way through the tasters we got straight onto the IPA. My Dad always likes to boast about the one time he tried it straight off the bottling line and just how damn good it was then but this is a beer that’s always on stunning form, one of my all time favourites. Interestingly Odell always have one cask beer on rotation and the current offering was a wet hop beer simply called Fresh Hop Cask, which had been brewed by Matt, one of the Tap Room staff at the brewery using Columbus hops that had been grown at the brewery hand picked by his good self. It was an interesting brew that was dank with oily hop resins, my Dad certainly seemed to be enjoying it and quickly polished off a pint.

Before we headed off for some food I had one more beer, Mountain Standard Double Black IPA which is brewed using 100% Colorado grown hops. I first tasted Mountain Standard last year when my Dad brought a couple of bottles with him when he visited over Christmas and loved it but this time the autumn/winter seasonal had been released just days before my arrival so all of those fresh, piney hops were much more up front than the last time I tried it. Mountain Standard was a real highlight of my trip as was Wild Raven, a barrel aged version fermented with, you’ve guessed it, Lactobacillus and Brettanomyces.

This is what a happy beer geek looks like
We then headed back into Old Town for some food at Jax Fish House, there was a minor moment of panic when I almost wasn’t served alcohol as my ID wasn’t issued by the US Government. Thankfully the Manager soon sorted things out and I enjoyed a delicious pint of Tropic King by Funkwerks, another Fort Collins based brewery that specialise purely in Saison style beers. Long time readers will know that I’ve really discovered my love for Saison since I started writing about beer and as I result I definitely got more out of this beer than the last time I drank it. Tropic King has an almost juicy quality with tropical fruit flavours mingling with the funkiness of a Belgian yeast and it paired beautifully with the pile of peel ‘n eat shrimp and crab burger that I was munching down.

After dinner we decided to head back to the tap room at Odell and why not, they were tapping yet ANOTHER new brew (these guys are unstoppable), this time another wheat beer called Fall Harvest Wit. It tasted a bit muted after all of the flavour bombs I’d been drinking throughout the day and as it was only a Wednesday night we decided to head back home after a couple more beers and continue working our way through the epic fridge of epicness. My first full day in FoCo was complete but I still had another six days of hardcore beverage consumption ahead of me…

Thankfully I got to visit that wonderful tap room at Odell Brewing Co several times on this trip and I’d just like to thank all of the awesome staff that work behind that bar for the warm welcome and the great beer, hope to see y’all again soon!

Monday 17 September 2012

De Struise Brouwers Black Albert Belgian Royal Stout

My name is Matthew Curtis and I have a problem, I have a compulsive urge to spend what some might see as obscene amounts of money on unusual beers whenever I see them. Whenever a savvy beer merchant tweets about new additions to their stock there I am sitting in front of my computer with credit card in hand, floundering my money on liquid delights. Tomorrow I’m off to see my Dad in Colorado for a week and although I’ve already packed my suitcase is half empty and filled with bubble wrap which shall be used to safely smuggle back several transatlantic treats for consumption over the next few weeks.

None more black
In June you may have noticed that I was in Bruges, Belgium and I had the pleasure of visiting the Struise shop and sampling their brews for the very first time. I bought from them as many bottles as I could fit into my regrettably small suitcase and I’ve gradually been working my way through my selection. The trouble I have come across when starting to build a nice collection of rare beers is deciding when to drink them however as I started two weeks of leave from work last Thursday evening there seemed no better time to enjoy something special and so De Struise Black Albert was selected. I paid just under five Euro for my bottle of Black Albert, quite reasonable when you consider it’s a 13% ABV Imperial Stout and it makes me wonder how come similar beers weigh in at much higher prices but that’s another debate for another time so I'll just get straight into this beer.

Although I’d left the beer chilling in my fridge all day I let it warm up for around half an hour before opening the bottle. I generally find huge boozy stouts such as this benefit from being allowed to rise to cellar temperature and as I do not posses a cellar this is how I attempt to get around it. As I open the bottle a wisp of scent escapes and I already get a hint of the huge stewed fruit aromas I am about to experience. Black Albert pours into the glass with an almost tar like consistency and is pitch black, the head is the colour of milk after you’ve left your coco pops in for too long, a rich mocha brown and surprisingly big for such a high alcohol beer.

The nose is like a rich, warm flannel being wrapped around my face as aromas of molasses, stewed figs, liquorice, blackcurrants and raisins soaked in port and brandy envelop my nostrils. Despite its high ABV the beer fizzes away nicely and maintains a surprising amount of foam but I can see no light penetrating the black oubliette of liquid that’s held within my glass.

I take a taste and as you can guess it’s a very big beer but it’s not as scary or intimidating as you might assume. It starts off all warm and sweet with hints of molasses and black treacle coating your palate and then it begins to evolve in your mouth first taking on the flavour of fruit cake with just a hint of bitterness keeping all that sweetness in check. As you swallow the beer continues to transform leaving a huge taste of liquorice and a little bit of tobacco at the back of your tongue leaving you feeling like you’ve just taken a toke on a large, fruity cigar. There’s a tiny bit of alcohol burn as it slips down but much less than you’d expect considering its strength and this goes a long way to show the skill that’s gone into crafting this beer.

It’s another great beer from De Struise Brouwers and I particularly like the way that they’ve described it as a ‘Belgian Royal Stout’ as opposed to an Imperial Stout because like all their beers although it’s undoubtedly different from classic Belgian brews it has taken all of their qualities and pushed them to their limits. It’s almost like they’ve taken one of my favourite beers, Rochefort 10 and added a slug of port into the mix and as a result it lacks a little of the elegance that you would find in those classic beers. Still this is not one to be missed and if you find yourself sat in front of your computer with your credit card when these are available then definitely stick one in your basket.

Sunday 2 September 2012

The Old Coffee House, Soho

This week I had to pursue an activity that most men like myself dread, I had to head into town to go clothes shopping. Next month I have the pleasure of attending a couple of weddings and I required a new shirt and some new shoes. I tried to do the sensible thing and order the damned things online but eventually realised that I needed to try them on and so I jumped on the Victoria line and headed into the belly of the beast, or Oxford Street as it is more commonly known.

The thing about Oxford Street is that it’s exactly the same as every other High Street in the United Kingdom so naturally visitors from outside of London feel comfortable there and so are attracted to the safe high street brands like flies to shit. I was sensible, I didn’t try and rush and force myself past the droves of tourists, I paced myself, elegantly ducking in and out of people and after a short while I had acquired the items I required.

The Sarson's Oude Gueuze didn't compare to the Hackney Red
As chance would have it I finished my shopping around lunch time and as I was in the area I thought I would pay a brief visit to The Old Coffee House which lies in Soho to the south of the nightmarish Oxford Street. The Old Coffee house is part of a small clutch of pubs owned by the Brodie family, the very same Brodie family that brew Brodie’s Fabulous Beers in Leyton and as they have already won my heart with brews such as Dalston Black IPA I was desperate to sample a wider range from their portfolio.

As I turn off Regent Street and duck down Kingly Street I breathe a sigh of relief as I leave the crowds behind, after a short walk I turn onto Beak Street and soon see the pub standing before me. From the outside The Old Coffee House looks to be as unassuming as any other central London boozer, a small sign states that their own micro brewed beers are served within but there is no Brodie’s imagery to indicate the delights on tap to be found inside. I saunter up to the bar and next to a small keg font offering commonly seen beers such as Amstel and Guinness is a huge line of hand pumps each with a different Brodie’s cask beer on offer plus another keg font which had five of the stronger Brodie’s beers available, these were the beers I was raring to get my teeth into.

I order a Hoxton Special IPA and as luck would have it the keg blows as soon as the Barman starts the pour, however the array of Brodie’s Beers on offer is quite simply stunning and I decide on a Hackney Red IPA within seconds. As my beer is being poured I quickly peruse a menu, the food on offer is traditional old school pub grub, don’t expect any gastropub nonsense here with choices ranging from ham, egg and chips to fish and chips, in fact I think everything on the menu comes with chips. At only four pounds and seventy five pence I couldn’t turn my nose up at a quarter pounder (and chips) and with my total order costing less than seven quid I had to stop and check I was actually in a Central London pub, the prices are very reasonable indeed.

It was a Friday afternoon so the pub contained a mix of regular barflys, Londoners who had bunked off work early for a beer and a few families grabbing a bite to eat. The atmosphere was relaxed, a total contrast to the busy streets only metres away. At one end of the pub Sky Sports news was excitedly hammering out the latest football transfer deadline day deals and at the other the third one day international between England and South Africa was on display, I chose the cricket and sat down to enjoy my beer.

I was blown away with the freshness of the Hackney Red IPA, thick, resinous pine and grapefruit grabbed me by the tongue and wouldn’t let go. I would have seriously considered it as one of the best beers I’ve tried all year but for some reason it was almost but not completely flat and as such didn’t retain any head and didn’t have quite enough zing to help those flavours mingle. It still contained a stunning amount of flavour though and as I enjoyed my bargain burger and watched England skittle the Proteas I couldn’t have been happier.

After I’d finished my meal I thought I’d stay for one more beer and watch a bit more cricket, I decided on the very confidently named Awesomestow IPA and was happy to see more bubbles and a nice tight off white head form on this beer as it was poured. It was delicious, lively flavours of lemon and lychee combining with biscuity malts, it takes a lot of balls to describe a beer as both fabulous and awesome but Brodie’s confidence is well placed in Awesomestow IPA, it’s another knockout beer. I had one small problem, the resinous Hackney IPA had screwed my palate and I could still feel the bitterness clinging to the roof of my mouth before I had taken my first sip of my second beer but it still tasted, well… Awesome.

I could have sat in The Old Coffee House and whiled away my entire afternoon but my sensible side thought better of it. I left the pub with a big smile on my face and rejoined the throng of bodies as I made my way back towards the Underground. I was more than pleasantly surprised by the Old Coffee House, with it’s amazing array of beers and old worldly charm, I’ll be back with friends soon one evening to check out it’s livelier side and I would highly recommend it as one of the best watering holes in the West End. Brodie’s continue to impress, could they be the cream of the constantly expanding and evolving London brewing crop?