Friday 23 November 2012

The Empire Strikes Back

You’ve probably never heard of a hop variety called Jester and until last Wednesday night neither had I. Sadly, British hop farming is currently in decline due to our palates craving the zesty, resinous flavours of new world hops from Austraila, New Zealand and the United States. Many British mouths seem to have got a bit bored with the earthy and dare I say ‘twiggy’ taste of hop varieties such as Fuggles and East Kent Goldings. I confess, I am one of these people, I much prefer the rich hit of citrus and pine on the tongue found in new world hops to the earthy, bramble-like flavours found in our native British hops.

We used THIS MANY hops
Thanks to my good beery friend Justin and Tom from Liberty beer I was invited to the launch of a brand new beer brewed exclusively with Jester, a new British hop variety that allegedly packs a similar burst of flavour to new world hops. The Empire Stikes Back is a 5.7% ABV single hop IPA which has been brewed by the Moor Beer Company who have been heavily involved with the breeding of this new hop along with hop merchants Charles Faram & Co and Liberty beer who distribute Moor Beer around the UK.

I headed down to the Earl of Essex in Islington on Wednesday evening and met Justin inside the pub which was already crowded with brewers, hop growers, beer writers and bloggers alike. I was immediately introduced to beer writer Sophie Atherton who was rubbing a handful of Jester in between her palms and I got to take a whiff before I tasted the beer. The dank, hemp-like scent immediately reminded me of the first time I ever smelt Columbus hops as did the fruity pineapple and grapefruit aromas. What made it different to Columbus was that signature earthyness that I associate with British hops but it was unlike any British hop I had ever smelt before.

Before we had our first taste of The Empire Strikes Back, Moor Head Brewer Justin Hawke along with one of the hop development team at Charles Faram gave a brief talk about how this hop and in turn this new IPA came into being. We were then handed samples of the cask version, Moor are passionate about creating unfined (unfiltered) beers and so the pale gold liquid had a little haziness to it. Unfined beer to me means one thing, more flavour and so I’m all for beers being made this way. On the nose I got gooseberries, rhubarb and a buttery, biscuit aroma from the malts. On cask The Empire Strikes Back tasted like a rich British fruit salad of rhubarb, blackberries and redcurrants, it was bigger and fruitier than any British hop I had ever tasted but it still tasted quintessentially British. There was an earthy, herbal quality underpinning the fruit and the malt, I mused on what might be the cause of this, the acidity of Kentish soil? The pH of the water supply used to irrigate the crop? Either way it tasted quite unlike any hop I had tasted before.

On keg the aroma was much more pronounced, the extra carbonation forcing those aroma molecules out of the glass and this really helped the pineapple qualities I had smelt in the raw hop leap out. Sadly the keg version didn’t quite stand up to it’s cask brother, the bitterness levels were ramped up to the max and that lovely biscuity malt quality was lost to a massive wash of pineapple and grapefruit. As it warmed in my hand it became less cloying and more pleasant. I thought to myself that although this beer in both of its forms was delicious and I enjoyed it immensely, Jester will really come into it’s own when combined with other hops. Surely the aim in breeding this new variety is not to dominate the world hop market but to make sure British hop growing stands arm in arm with it’s American and Antipodean cousins. I await with baited breath to see how our talented new wave of British craft brewers will utilise this interesting new hop.

As a side note it was fantastic to meet so many of the wonderful and supportive people I’ve come to know on Twitter this past year, I look forward to seeing all of you at the CAMRGB Twissup on the 15th of December!

Friday 16 November 2012

Hoppin’ Frog D.O.R.I.S. The Destroyer Imperial Stout

November the 8th brought us International Stout Day and although I had already planned to drink the bottle of Redchurch Old Ford Export Stout that was nestled in my fridge before I realised the date I honestly admit I decided to crack this special bottle open because of it. Back in September you may recall that I visited my Dad at his home in Fort Collins, Colorado and brought a suitcase full of beers back to London with me. I’ve now smashed my way through the lot and one of the last bottles in this epic collection was this beast from the talented brewers at Ohio’s Hoppin’ Frog Brewery, D.O.R.I.S. the Destroyer or Double Oatmeal Russian Imperial Stout if you're getting technical.

In drinking this, I’m tasting only my second ever beer from Hoppin’ Frog (the first being Hoppin’ to Heaven IPA which I had on draft at the Craft Beer Co) so it’s an exciting occasion let me tell you. Although these beers are available over here in the UK I’ve always been a little put off by the price. Their beers do come in 22 ounce bombers and are usually very strong, this beer for example weighs in at 10.5% ABV but you can often get two or three very good bottles for the price of one of these so in the past I’ve left them alone. I didn’t need to worry about that on this occasion though as I half-inched this bottle from my Dad’s fridge, thanks for the beer Dad.

I’m unashamedly drinking this decadent bottle all by myself and I’m starting off with it at fridge temperature so I can see how the flavours evolve and develop as this beer gradually warms to room temperature. Before I start talking about this beer I just want to have a quick word about Hoppin’ Frogs labels, I mean, a lot of effort clearly goes into the masterful production of the beer so would it hurt if the same amount of effort went into the design of the label? Both of the beers I’ve had from this brewery have as been as elegant as they have delicious so I’d love to see the same level of elegance on the side of their bottles, anyway, on with the tasting…

D.O.R.I.S. pours as black as a bottomless oubliette, a tiny milk chocolate head forms but it is soon pulled back into the infinite darkness and if you stare too hard at this beer I fear you too may be pulled into the abyss. The aroma is of licorice, molasses and soy sauce, there is a meaty umami underpinning the sweeter flavours and there's also hints of burnt, smoky oak and peat. To taste it’s not as full bodied as I was expecting, the high level of alcohol strips away some of it’s form but doesn’t detract from the overall enjoyment you experience when drinking this beer. The bittersweet flavours of dark chocolate, black treacle, licorice and coffee are the first to arrive at the party, the late comers have brought with them a platter of teriyaki coated meats and some fine cigars which leave a tobacco like note lingering along with a rush of warming of alcohol as it slides down your throat.

The alcohol becomes more noticeable as this beer reaches room temperature as do small hints of rich fruitcake flavours which add to the overall richness of this beer. It’s a little too big for it’s boots to be well balanced but on the whole it’s a wonderful beer packed with some seriously dense flavours. I only wish that I had shared this bottle rather than gluttonously keeping it to myself, it’s a big bottle that’s definitely made for sharing. Towards the end of the bottle I decided that it might pair nicely with a good bourbon and so I poured myself a nip of Wild Turkey Rye. The sweet, vanilla flavours of the bourbon merged beautifully with the meaty flavours in the stout and I actually thought it enhanced the already complex qualities of this beer.

All in all, a pretty fabulous drop but once again, I wish I’d shared it amongst friends. If you’re feeling flush can you lend me a tenner and you want to try this for yourself then you can usually find Hoppin’ Frog beers in stock at Beers of Europe but don’t expect to get much change out of £13.00 for your bottle of D.O.R.I.S. Money well spent if you ask me.

Friday 9 November 2012

Redchurch Brewery Old Ford Export Stout

I’ve been harping on about some great American beers in my last couple of blog posts and so I’m really happy to be able to turn my attention to some excellent local beer at last. It’s all well and good talking about really great beers but for me the review is wasted unless you can actually get out their and experience the said beer for yourself. Fair enough quite a few of you reading this are in America and you can get hold of some of the super beers I’ve been writing about recently pretty easily but today’s beer, Redchurch Old Ford Export Stout is brewed in Bethnal Green, East London which is less than 10 miles away from where I’m currently sat. That means that I can implore anyone in the UK to go and get hold of some fantastic Redchurch beer after they’ve read this post, I promise that you will not be disappointed.

I came across Redchurch beers earlier this year quite by accident, I like to think that I’m pretty clued up on my local beer scene but up until a few months ago this new brewery had passed me by. I had actually popped into my local branch of Oddbins to pick up some beer from another East London Brewery, London Fields when I spied the simple yet eye catching designs of the Redchurch labels. I left with the London Fields beers I had intended to purchase, but also bought some Redchurch Great Eastern IPA and Hoxton Stout. I was taken aback with the complexity and deliciousness of these beers, here was a brewer making huge, flavourful beers within spitting distance of my flat that I can pick up in my local off licence, ladies and gentlemen THIS is what craft beer is all about. Before I continue you should take the time to read my friend Justin’s excellent article on Hoxton Stout vs Magic Rock Dark Arts Stout here.

A couple of months ago I noticed that my local branch of Oddbins, which has wholeheartedly embraced the London craft beer scene and is stocking beers from the likes of The Kernel, By The Horns and London Fields just to name a few was hosting a meet the brewer with the guys from Redchurch. Despite at this point having tried all of their core range still I couldn’t resist heading down and asking head brewer Gary a few questions about his operation and besides there was free beer, who can turn that down. Gary was showcasing a new beer this evening, Old Ford Export Stout which at the time I enjoyed so much I asked if I could by some but the store hadn’t taken on any stock yet so I couldn’t! Disaster was averted as Gary kindly gifted me with a bottle and the bottle shop didn’t lose out as I left with another brace of Great Eastern IPA and Hoxton Stout which have become staples in my household. Thanks again for the bottle Gary, I hope this review does this beer the justice it deserves.

By coincidence the day I decided to open this bottle was ‘International Stout Day’ but this didn’t influence my decision to drink this bottle on this particular day as I had planned to drink it last night anyway, the fates had aligned it seems. Old Ford Export Stout pours an impenetrable Bovril brown and thanks to it’s bottle conditioning produces a lively mocha hued head that’s at least 3 fingers thick but soon calms down to leave just around half a finger of foam. The first thing you notice in the aroma are huge waves of manuka honey and molasses and this is followed by hits of coffee and dark chocolate. Buried deep within the aroma is a hint of pine and almost a lavender scented floral note that gives you a clue to the massive amount dry hopping this beer has received.

Old Ford is wonderfully smooth and full in the mouth and isn’t at all cloying or overbearing, there is just the right amount of carbonation to keep this beer drinkable and moreish. The flavours are huge, nothing about this beer is understated bar the bottles elegantly designed label, it starts with freshly brewed espresso followed by butterscotch infused dark chocolate. These rich, sweet flavours eventually make way for a huge wash of pine needle bitterness that adds a dry, refreshing edge to this already complex beer. None of these flavours manage to overpower the others, it’s a masterfully crafted brew and considering these guys have only been brewing commercially for just over year makes it all the more impressive.

I don’t want to sound biased but this is genuinely one of the best beers I’ve drank this year, it’s also one of the finest examples of this style I have ever had, it is a truly wonderful beverage. When it comes to London craft breweries people love to go on about the excellent brews from The Kernel, Brodies and Camden Town but Redchurch have a core range of beers that not only rivals their local brethren but also the rest of the brewing world. I can’t wait to see what the future has in store for this fledgling brewery but as the beer is this good I can only imagine that it’s going to be a very bright one indeed.

Monday 5 November 2012

Avery Brewing Co. Hog Heaven

I’m not much of a winter person, I prefer to bask in the sun in a gecko like fashion whilst sipping on chilled IPA and generally not doing very much other than absorbing a combination of alcohol and vitamin D into my system. The great thing though about the onset of colder weather is that for some reason all those strong, rich barleywines and imperial stouts that you’ve had squirrelled away suddenly seem to taste better. Since I started blogging back at the beginning of this year I’ve started to become a bit of a beer hoarder, I’ve even got a couple of bottles I’m purposefully ageing to see what the results will be but I still find it difficult to keep my cellar well stocked. Beer, you see, is brewed for the sole purpose of drinking and I still feel a little weird having all these nice bottles tucked away and not actually drinking them and sometimes a fancy bottle just begs to be opened.

I might share this beer... and pigs might fly
I purchased this bottle of Avery Brewing Co Hog Heaven, a ‘dry hopped barleywine style ale’ during this Septembers visit to Colorado and as much as I fancied stashing it away there’s always the danger that those delicate hop oils will dissipate and I won’t taste the beer as the brewer had intended it to taste. So, last Friday after a cold, wet and miserable journey back from work I decided to get into this behemoth of a beer but would it be heaven sent or would it be banished to hells fiery furnaces, er… down the sink.

I know the beers in Avery Brewing’s core range quite well, I’ve enjoyed their IPA several times in the past and really liked their White Rascal witbier on a hot Colorado afternoon this September. The brewery was founded in 1993 in Boulder, Colorado and has developed a reputation in the States thanks to their expansive range of experimental and barrel aged beers such as the complex Reverend Belgian Style Quadrupel and the absolutely fearsome Mephistopheles imperial stout. Hog Heaven weighs in at hefty 9.2% ABV and a whopping 104 IBUs, interestingly only a single variety of hop is used in both the boil and for dry hopping and that hop is the powerfully bitter and twisted Columbus. This beer is brewed all year round but like all Avery beers it’s sadly not available in the UK, I picked this 22oz bottle up in Wilburs Total Beverage, Fort Collins, Colorado for $7.99 (about five pounds.)

Before opening up this beer I pause to take a look at the gloriously well designed label which is a real treat for the eyes, the top of the bottle is given a touch of extra class too with the addition of some silver coloured foil emblazoned with a large red ‘A’ for Avery. I’m hoping as much pride has gone into the design of the beer as has the design of it’s receptacle. The burnished copper liquid doesn’t do so much as pour but ooze out of the bottle like a sticky, runny honey. This deep, auburn coloured beer is quite lively on the pour and produces a large beige head that quickly reduces down leaving a halo of off white foam around the edge of the glass. 

The aroma is breathtaking, an expansive melange of fragrances pummels your nasal passages. There are stewed apples and blackberries, bitter orange marmalade, earthy pine cones, burnt sugar, toffee apples and Calvados notes all present on the nose and you’re left wondering how all these elements are going to manage to combine into something whole. In fact they do so beautifully, starting with an earthy, piney bitterness which develops into a wedge of sharp pink grapefruit dipped in caramel, the flavours are exceptionally well balanced. However this beer is heavy and sticky in your mouth and it almost feels like you’ve eaten a spoonful of Lyle’s Golden Syrup as cloying flavours of burnt sugar and grapefruit bitterness cling to your palate. The benefit of this is that it gives Hog Heaven an exceptionally long and lingering finish that almost seems to go on for hours at a time, it tastes fantastic but it’s thicker than your average glass of Shiraz and as such can be a little overbearing.

Ultimately this was a very enjoyable beer for me, it’s that richness that separates a beer like this from something like an American style double IPA. I spent plenty of time enjoying this large bottle all to myself like the selfish bastard that I am and delighted as new flavours of lemon, sage and treacle developed as the temperature of this beer gradually increased. It’s a beer I’d recommend for sharing when it’s late in the evening or serving with your cheese course after a particularly large roast dinner. It’s a beautifully crafted beer that’s as rich and intense as it is complex and it comes with my heartiest of recommendations.