Saturday 21 December 2013

The 2013 Golden Pint Awards

So here we are again at the end of another year of balls out beer drinking and what a great year for beer drinking it has been. I can't believe it's already been a whole 12 months since I handed out my last golden pint awards but without further ado, here is a list of the best things in beer that I bought, drank and read this year.

·         Best UK Cask Beer
Winner: Oakham Citra
Runners Up: Siren Half Mast QIPA, Brodie's Citra  

Despite my leanings towards bottle and keg I do still love a decent pint of fresh cask beer and nothing has impressed me more this year than Oakham Citra. Sensible ABV, huge flavours of grapefruit and lemon zest with enough body and backbone to hold it all up, I could drink this all day long. Honourable mentions go to Brodie's for their own Citra pale ale and newcomers Siren who I foolishly doubted until I tried their delicious Half Mast session ale.

·         Best UK Keg Beer
Winner: Wild Beer Co Madness IPA
Runners Up: Magic Rock Cannonball, Kernel IPA (Various)

I love Magic Rock Cannonball, I love Thornbridge Halcyon and when kegged Kernel IPA is on form there's few things that are better. However it was the luscious half of Wild Beer Co Madness IPA I had in Soho's The Lyric back in the summer that really knocked me for six. Juicy tropical and citrus fruits are abound and it's that rich, juicy quality that really set this beer apart for me and naturally I marched straight back to the bar and ordered a whole pint afterwards. 

·         Best UK Bottled or Canned Beer
Winner: Beavertown Gamma Ray Pale Ale
Runners Up: Thornbridge Halcyon, Magic Rock High Wire

I was taking part in Craft Beer Co Islington's ill fated beer quiz night when I unknowingly blind tasted Beavertown Gamma Ray for the first time. It had the bitter, pithy hit of fresh Dale's Pale Ale but with that quintessential London-ness that you can taste at the back of your throat that you get from the new wave of bottle conditioned beers produced in this fair city. I thought it was a bottle of Kernel IPA in its pomp, I was wrong and Gamma Ray has been a staple in my fridge ever since.
·         Best Overseas Draught Beer
Winner: Lagunitas Sucks Double IPA
Runners Up: Odell IPA, Boneyard Notorious Triple IPA

It was tough not just giving this to Russian River Pliny the Younger which delicious as it may be is neither accessible or available to most mortals. It was, in fact, a pint of Lagunitas Sucks double IPA that I sank in the Mayor of Old Town that stuck in my mind more than any other pint I had from foreign shores this year. It had that juiciness, that drinkability and that huge level of flavour that makes IPA my favourite style of beer and that's why this one just edged it for me.
·         Best Overseas Bottled or Canned Beer
Winner: Mikkeller Nelson Sauvignon
Runners Up: Russian River Pliny the Elder, New Belgium La Folie

Very few beers make me enunciate profusely after the first sip these days, let alone the first sniff but Mikkeller Nelson Sauvignon is quite simply a magical beer. Through the clever use of Nelson Sauvin hops and bottle refermentation with Brettanomyces this beer takes on a vinous quality that could fool the less educated into thinking this was a sparkling white wine. It's an absolutely delicious beer and if it wasn't for the whopping price tag (expect to pay around 20 quid for a 75cl bottle) it's probably something I would have drank a lot more of this year.

·         Best Collaboration Brew
Winner: Wild Beer Co/Burning Sky/Good George Shnoodlepip
Runner Up: Verboten/The Mayor of Old Town/Total Ales Barrel Aged I'm All Right Jack

If you read the label on a bottle of Shnoodlepip, a collaboration between the UK's Wild Beer Co and Burning Sky and New Zealand's Good George you'd think you'd have in your hands an absolute car-crash of a beer, you'd be wrong. Shnoodlepip combines a 6.5% ABV base beer with pink peppercorns, passion fruit and hibiscus flowers and is then aged in Burgundy barrels. The end result is a delicious, tongue-twistingly complex beverage that pushes the boundaries of what beer can be. A special mention also has to go to the gold medal winning beer 'I'm All Right Jack' that I brewed with Verboten Brewing and The Mayor of Old Town back in February, a rich, delicious and complex beer fully deserving of the accolade it has received.

·         Best Overall Beer
Winner: Wild Beer Co Madness IPA

I could give this award to any of the weird, wonderful and downright hard to get beers I've drank this year but I think the beer that this award goes to should be one that's not just delicious but also accessible and available whenever I want it. Thankfully the bottled version of Wild Beer Co's flagship US-Influenced IPA is as delicious as when I had it on draught and because I want to and can drink it all of the time it quite simply has to be my beer of the year.
·         Best Branding, Pumpclip or Label
Winner: Camden Town Brewery
Runner Up: The Wild Beer Co

Wild Beer Co come close to yet another award from me here with their simple yet gorgeous bottle designs but it's the eye catching graphics from Camden Town Brewery that have run away with this one. Next time you're in Waitrose glance at the beer shelf and I'd wager the first bottles that catch your eye are those rather handsome looking bottles of Hells Lager.
·         Best UK Brewery
Winner: Wild Beer Co
Runners Up: Magic Rock, Thornbridge

Despite not perhaps hitting the same level of consistency as Magic Rock and Thornbridge it's Wild Beer Co that have managed to keep me both entertained and enthralled with their wares this year. From the woody weirdness of Modus Operandi through to the complete bonkers-ness of Ninkasi these guys from Somerset have managed to produce a different beer that impressed me pretty much every month of this year. I doff my cap to the team at Wild Beer, they've truly made me blow both my mind and my load repeatedly over the last 12 months, long may it continue.
·         Best Overseas Brewery
Winner: Firestone Walker
Runners Up: Odell Brewing Co, Brasserie Cantillon

Despite not actually winning any individual awards it's the quality and consistency of the beers from California's Firestone Walker that means they walk away with this prize for the second year running. From the downright drinkability of Pale 31 through to the sheer brilliance that is Wookey Jack black IPA there isn't a beer in their range that doesn't impress and that's BEFORE you even get into their bonkers barrel ageing and blending program. It's no wonder then, that they walked away with the biggest haul of medals at this years GABF.

·         Best New Brewery Opening 2013
Winner: Weird Beard
Runner Up: Northern Monk

This was an easy one for me to decide as not only was I immediately impressed with the output of West London's Weird Beard but I have seen the beers improve with each and every batch. Little Things That Kill, a hoppy session ale packed with tropical fruit flavours has been a real highlight this year. Yorkshires Northern Monk also deserve an honourable mention especially for the mesmerising Strannik Imperial Stout.
·         Pub/Bar of the Year
Winner: The Mayor of Old Town
Runners Up: North Bar, The Southampton Arms
Wild Beer Co Madness IPA: My beer of 2013

Once again The Mayor walks away with this prize, quite simply it's my favourite place to drink the booze by a country mile. This year was extra special because not only did we celebrate my Dad's 60th there but they also let me get up on stage and play guitar for a bit and that was pretty cool. The Southampton Arms is still my favourite pub in London but only just and how could I not mention the wonderful North Bar of Leeds, a place where it's simply impossible not to have fun.
·         Best New Pub/Bar Opening 2013
Winner: Draft House Charlotte

I'm not sure if the fantastic Draft House on Goodge Street opened this year or last year but it was this year that I discovered it and it's fast becoming one of the best beer destinations in London. As well as a great selection of beers, wines and spirits, charcuterie and larger bites the Draft House has perhaps the warmest welcome out of any of London's modern boozers. Max and his team are doing a fantastic job and with events such as the Sunday Sessions this is going to be a very popular pub next year. 
·         Beer Festival of the Year
Winner: The Great American Beer Festival

I'm not a big lover of beer festivals but the GABF is a once in a lifetime event for a beer geek such as myself and hence I couldn't really give it to anything else. The GABF is a beer festival of a simply mindblowing proportions with an astounding choice of beers, the downside being that you can only get one ounce pours.
·         Supermarket of the Year
Winner: Marks and Spencer

I don't buy a lot of booze from supermarkets as I prefer to shop at specialist retailers with a better selection but I've been impressed with the range that M&S has stocked this year, Oakham Citra IPA being the real highlight.
·         Independent Retailer of the Year
Winner: Oddbins Crouch End

Although not strictly independent my local branch of Oddbins in Crouch End, North London has the welcoming feel of an independent and now at least 25% of the shop space is dedicated to good beer. It has been great to see their beer sales go from strength to strength and putting faith in a lot of fledgling breweries such as Five Points and Pressure Drop has not only paid off for the retailer but also made these beers much easier to get hold of. It's no surprise then that I've bought more beer from these guys than anywhere else this year.
·         Online Retailer of the Year
Winner: Beer Ritz
Despite good beer becoming easier to get in my local area thanks to Oddbins I still like to order a case of the good stuff once a month and its the speedy, good natured service of Beer Ritz that has me going back for more time and time again. No doubt another twelve months of these guys rinsing my bank account on payday are to come.

·         Best Beer Book or Magazine
Winner: Craft Beer World - Mark Dredge

I haven't sat down and read enough books on beer this year but out of those I have it was Mark's book Craft Beer World that provided me with the most enjoyment. It's a format that's been done to death but it's Marks boundless enthusiasm for beer that is apparent in every paragraph that makes this such a good read. When I'm feeling negative about my own writing I like to pick this up and read a few pages and that enthusiasm then infects me and drives me on, so thanks for that Mark. 
·         Best Beer Blog or Website
Winner: Boak and Baileys Beer Blog
Runners Up: Justin Mason - Get Beer Drink Beer, Chris Hall - The Beer Diary

Not only have 'Jessica Boak' and 'Ray Bailey' written some wonderful pieces on the history of beer within the UK this year as well as some really solid reviews but they've also done something that other bloggers haven't and that has been them encouraging fellow beer bloggers to keep on writing. I've seen several blogs fall by the wayside or disappear completely this year but thanks to this pair they've stopped my own blog from suffering the same fate. With regular round ups of the British beer blogging scene and events such as #Beerylongreads which encouraged bloggers to write a lengthy article of more than 2000 words in November they've become perhaps the most important pair of beer writers we currently have in the UK. Almost every golden pints I've read so far has nominated this pair in this category and I can't think of anyone else that deserves this accolade more.

Special mentions go to Justin for his indispensable beers of London series and Chris for the Beer Diary, especially this wonderful piece on Brasserie Cantillon. 
·         Best Beer App
Winner: Untappd
Runner Up: Craft Beer London
Untappd, it's a real Marmite app. I discussed why I find it so useful here and I continue to do so. I also use Craft Beer London regularly which is a result of my love of craft beer and living in London.

·         Simon Johnson Award for Best Beer Twitterer
Winner: @BoakandBailey
Runners up: @HiggsBoson1, @cshallwriter

Twitter seems a very different place without the razor sharp wit of Simon H. Johnson but the way the rest of us rallied round to support his memory was a wonderful thing. Boak and Bailey once again get this award for the way they encourage fellow writers like myself and the UK beer blogging scene is all the richer for it.
·         Best Brewery Website/Social media
Winner: Camden Town Brewery
Runners Up: Beavertown, Magic Rock 

Having great branding and social media is one thing and there are many breweries now doing this well but Camden edge it for me because of that human quality that many businesses using social media lack. Don't be the brand be the person behind the brand, reply to all your messages promptly and keep telling us what you're doing, that's all we really need and Camden do it best.

·         Food and Beer Pairing of the Year
Winner: Williams Brothers Fraoch with Haggis, Neeps and Tatties

I'm coming to the conclusion that this beer and food matching thing is a myth, the fact is that booze and food matching is mostly made up clap-trap. The only thing that really pairs well with booze is more booze and I think deep down we all know that. I did have one revelation this year though and that was at the Beer Bloggers Conference in Edinburgh back in July. The marriage of the heavy, salty haggis with the cleansing, floral Fraoch from Williams Brothers was as surprising as it was delicious. Maybe it's not such clap-trap after all...

So there you have it, my beers, breweries and beer people of 2013 in a nutshell. Congratulations to those that won and commiserations to those that didn't make the cut, try a bit harder next year, yeah?


Sunday 15 December 2013

I Don't Like Christmas Beer

It's true, I'll admit it, I don't like Christmas beer. I mean, why take a perfectly good concept and then add frankly bonkers ingredients such as nutmeg and cloves to a beer that was probably more than acceptable before you did. Despite my best advice, a vast majority of the worlds breweries release a strong, spiced, Christmas themed beer at this time of the year so I figured that they must have some appeal and that, to avoid me spouting purely hypocritical nonsense that I would valiantly brave at least three Christmas beers so that when it turns out that I really don't like them that I can accusingly sledge anyone who is foolish enough to actually drink them. So, three Christmas themed beers then, there's no way in hell I could possibly like one of them, is there?

This post was done in collaboration with my good pal Justin, from Get Beer, Drink Beer. His post is both more sensible and more informative, please give it a read.


Shepherd Neame Christmas Ale - 7% ABV

I was bemused when this bottle of beer turned up on my doorstep, 'how did they get my address?' I pondered and then a fear took hold of me. Were they watching me, were they after a taste of my blood? I shut the curtains and gazed at the sickeningly festive red and gold label, hops locked arm in arm with holly, like a pair of colleagues who've nipped to the bogs at the office Christmas party for a bit of a drunken fumble. I peer out the curtains, I'm sure I see a man outside in a filthy overcoat drinking  a bottle of Spitfire, his empty eyes staring back at me. I pour the deep amber liquid into my glass, there is a pleasing ruby red tinge as I hold it up to the light and the lingering foamy head is already starting to lace its container. It smells somewhere between raspberry jam and marmalade with evidence of spicy British hops prickling the back of my throat. This is a con, I think, where are the unnecessarily copious amounts of winter spice, I've been had, this nation of beer drinkers won't stand for this. Those raspberry notes are prevalent when I take my first gulp, with tart fruit alongside demerara sugar. There's a slight vinous edge to this beer that may become more prevalent if this beer had a bit of age on it, the finish is sharp and slightly astringent. This beer lulls you into thinking that it's a Christmas beer but in reality it's a solid strong British bitter. If this Christmas day you desire getting completely trollied on something that has a bit more class and strength than say, Directors or Pedigree, then I would wager you might enjoy this.

If you like the sound of this then why not try... Adnams Broadside, a dependable strong British bitter if ever there was one and one that doesn't need to hide it's strength or deliciousness behind a sparkly seasonal label.


I have a lot of respect for what Oddbins are doing at the moment. They've taken their chances by stocking gear from not long established breweries and this has paid off in spades. The off licence chain has seen a 179% growth in 'craft' beer sales this year and this has been achieved by simply selecting a great range of beer, piling the shelves high with it and keeping those shelves piled high with offerings from more breweries being added regularly. My local Crouch End branch has become my go-to bottle shop and so it seems fitting that this beer, the first in a series that Oddbins will be brewing with their suppliers, was a collaboration between East London Brewing Company (ELB) and Dave Groves, manager of the Crouch End branch. The label is pleasingly simple, instead of
hyped-up Christmas branding it maintains the slick modern-yet-classic look of the other ELB bottles. It's described as a 'winter ale infused with festive spices' I'm beaming at the lack of the C-word and there is a little picture of each spice used in the brew on the opposite side of the label. From this I now know that this contains cinnamon, ginger, cloves, orange peel, nutmeg and vanilla. Oh dear, this really isn't going to be my cup of tea. When I get the bottle home I'm too eager to find out if I like it or not and I rip the cap off and pour out a murky, copper coloured liquid that fails to produce much of a head or much carbonation at all really. There's nothing intrinsically wrong here, it was brewed less than a month ago and needs more time in the bottle to develop some clarity and fizz (Dave has confirmed with me that this beer is now nicely conditioned and ready to drink.) The nose is dominated by cloves with a little bit of nutmeg and cinnamon creeping around the corner and a hint of that orange peel on its shoulders. It tastes pretty much like it smells with those cloves dominating throughout but that lingering, pithy orange note helps balance an almost medicinal quality from the spice. I would have loved a touch more sweetness from this beer, it has a very dry finish and I think a touch more sweetness would have really rounded off the edges. I also think that a year in a decent cellar will work wonders for this beer, all of those big, spicy flavours would be given the chance to mellow and develop so why not buy a case for Christmas and save a few bottles and see how it tastes next year. Oddbins No1 should be available at your local branch now, please let me know what you think if you get to try some yourself.

In all honestly, this isn't my kind of thing but I'm proud of myself for having a fair crack at it. If you are a fan of spiced winter ales then this will probably be right up your street. If you like the sound of this then why not try... Anchor Christmas Ale, the quintessential holiday beer that's brewed to a slightly different recipe every year. This is also a great beer with a few years of age on it.


What better way to finish up a day of Christmas drinking than with a big, strong Belgian and I'm not talking about Jean Claude Van Damme. I'm a huge fan of other Achouffe beers, especially their Houblon Chouffe IPA so I'm eager to get my chops around this one. The labels on the Achouffe beers are from another world (that beautiful piece of no mans land between Belgium and Luxembourg) and another time (the 1970's) and may seem daft but for me this carefree humble charm is part of what makes Chouffe beers so bloody brilliant. This pours a beautiful russet brown and produces a huge, lively head of foam. Although this beer is spiced with thyme and cura├žao it doesn't have an overly herbal aroma or taste, instead it's beautifully balanced with brown sugar mingling with the estery redcurrant flavours produced by the yeast as this beer fermented. Despite it's strength it drinks easy and the almost port-like quality makes this a super after dinner sipper. If you're into pairing I'd say this would work well with a nice piece of Stilton or perhaps a Dr. Who Christmas special. It's not my favourite beer in the Chouffe range but it is a damn good beer, in fact it's so good it would be a shame to only drink it at Christmas so I've gone and bought enough to see me through well into the New Year.

If you like the sound of this then why not try... Delirium Christmas, there is a raft of Christmas beers available from the Belgian breweries and like us in the UK they think it's perfectly acceptable to throw in any old spice and spruce up the label this time of year but I do have a soft spot for that little Pink Elephant in his little Santa hat. Just look at him, he's having an absolute whale of a time.

So there you go, I've had a crack at Christmas beer and low and behold I actually discovered one I quite enjoyed. In all honestly I'll probably be snuggling up on the big day with a case of Beavertown Gamma Ray a bottle of sherry, probably an Amontillado and a bottle of Laphroaig Quarter Cask because I'll get bored if I just drink beer all day. Merry Christmas to all of you, my readers, you utterly beautiful bastards.

Thanks to Oddbins and Shepherd Neame for letting me have some of their beer to drink and write about. Thanks to Beer Ritz for sending me a bottle of N'Ice Chouffe in exchange for money.

Sunday 1 December 2013

Doing it Right (The 2013 Great American Beer Festival)

It's been almost two months since I was in Colorado for my Dad's 60th birthday celebrations but it feels like this was much longer ago. We celebrated for a whole week and part of the celebrations included a trip to the 2013 Great American Beer Festival (GABF) at the Denver Convention Centre. This was a pretty big deal for me, visiting the GABF was very much a 'bucket list' event as far as I was concerned and I was determined not to make a complete hash of it as I did earlier this year at the Great British Beer Festival (GBBF). In order to achieve this I almost religiously avoided beer lists, maps or information of any sort, this had to be a take-it-as-it-comes experience, maximum enjoyment was my primary objective, the beer was secondary to this.

The One Ounce Plastic Beaker in all it's Glory
We started the day early, my Dad had booked a limo which would take our party of ten on the hour long journey from Fort Collins to Denver. Unfortunately on the day the limo was out of action and so we were given a free upgrade to a 'party bus'. The black minibus that pulled up outside the house was decked all in black with nearly opaque windows, it looked like some sort of gangland drug bus. Inside it was all rope lights and mirrored ceilings, it even had a dance floor in the corner which I immediately felt the urge to test out, it was 10.30 in the morning. 

As we pulled away we cracked open a couple of bottles of Champagne, mimosas were the starter of choice but we soon ran out of orange juice and had to drink it neat, bummer. As we drove south down interstate 25 I admired the front range of the Rocky Mountains with the majestic Long's Peak jutting out of the horizon , I thought about how I could stare at those majestic peaks for days on end. Soon the party bus dropped us of on Larimer Street and our party bundled into the Market for some really strong coffee, we had a long day ahead of us, we were going to need it. 

Not all of our group was here for the beer and so at this point we went our separate ways, I was here for the beer though and my group made our way down towards River North brewery. The crowd that was both inside and spilling outside of this cosy tap room was a selection of brewers and beer geeks, all in town for the festival with their GABF lanyards proudly hanging around their necks. We got a taster of pretty much everything they had on tap, sure it was all well made but nothing here really caught my attention. All the beers were fermented with either Belgian or German yeast strains and the ester rich brews lacked a bit of definition with the Unified Theory Oak Aged Imperial Wit being the highlight of an average bunch.

We then moseyed on towards Breckenridge Brewery on Blake Street, a huge brewpub style affair housed in a converted warehouse in what seemed to be a former industrial district. In a twist of fate they were showing England's 4-1 dismantling of Montenegro and the American crowd smiled with bemusement every time my Dad and I stood up to cheer each England goal as it slid in. A tasty pulled pork roll and fries is washed down with a Breckenridge Lucky U IPA, another decent enough beer but again, nothing to write home about. There's then a moment of mild panic, what wouldn't a day like today be without just a hint of it. Dad is meeting a business associate who has our last couple of tickets, but the queue is already starting to snake around the convention centre. We join the line just after five pm but the throng of people soon grows and starts to lap the building. This is immense, this makes our own British festival look like a meagre village fete, the sheer volume of people being herded into this huge building is incredible, the electric atmosphere is tangible.

I've never had to queue to get in to the GBBF before so having to wait over half an hour to get into the GABF felt unusual. If we hadn't have joined the queue when we did we'd have been waiting well over an hour. There were people in fancy dress, stupid hats, they don't even have hat day here, people just embrace the fun and frivolity for the duration of the festival. I lacked the frivolity of fancy dress but I wasn't going to let this stop me from having a day of top fun. We finally get to the doors, my ticket and ID is checked three, maybe four times but eventually I get wristbanded and get given a small, clear, conical plastic cup with a line marking out the one ounce point about a third of the way up the glass. It seems that due to so many glasses being dropped in previous years that a switch to plastic was what common sense dictated must happen.

My ticket cost $100.00 (about £60.00 at the time) which may seem steep but unlike a British Beer festival you don't pay for a single drop of beer once inside. Your ticket gets you in to a session that lasts around five hours and once you're in it's down to you to make sure you get your monies worth. Some punters instantly make a bee-line for the rare, exciting, well regarded or downright crazy beers, predictably breweries such as Dogfish Head, Cigar City and Russian River have long queues forming at their stands from the outset. I made myself a promise before coming to GABF and that was that I wouldn't queue for any beer as there are plenty of breweries here without a line waiting for new brilliant/terrible/mediocre beer to be discovered. This was all part of my long term plan to have fun, it was a good idea.

One thing that's always baffled me about the GBBF is the haphazard way breweries are strewn around the seemingly randomly arranged festival hall. There is none of this at the GABF, the hall is organised into regions such as the Northwest, East Coast etc and then within these sections breweries are arranged by State and then by a letter and number. If you really wanted to make a dash for a taste of Pliny the Elder then K33 was where the action was. A big fat programme and map is included with your ticket but if paper's not your bag then there's also a free app you can download to give you the down-low. As you walk in you're immediately presented with the Colorado section, the beaming faces of proud Colorado brewers smiling at you, wanting you to come and taste their beer and that's what I did. In fact so desperate was I for a warm arm of familiarity to ease me in to the next five hours of drinking I headed straight to the Odell Brewing stand and had an ounce of their new Fernet Porter, an imperial porter aged, as the name suggests, in Fernet Barrels. It's decent, more than decent, really quite good actually. I look around the gargantuan hall, people everywhere, hundreds of breweries pouring beer for free, this is awesome.

Our group assembled somewhere on the border of the Colorado and Texas sections, it quickly became clear to me that our large group each wanted to take the festival at a different pace and travel to different sections. Before we did anything else we went to see our friends from Verboten Brewery who I had brewed a beer with some six months before that they had entered into the GABF competition. There we met with Joe from Verboten who was himself having a great time drinking in not just great beer but an amazing experience for a fledgling brewery, they didn't win at the GABF but regular readers will know that a gold medal deservedly came their way just a few weeks later. 

The GABF is Gargantuan in Scale
We then tried to move towards the Northwest section as my good friends Mike and Laurie who live in Walla Walla, Washington wanted me to try some Ninkasi and Hopworks beers that I missed out on due to suffering from the flu when I was in the actual Northwest earlier this year. Somewhere in between Idaho and Oregon our group got lost and separated and I was left with my old friend and former band mate Dom Green who had travelled with his girlfriend Emmy to help me play some music at my Dads birthday party that week. For me this was incredibly significant because the first time I went to the GBBF, before I started this blog, before beer kind of took over part of my life I was there with Dom. We got hammered that Friday evening at Earls Court and here we were together in Denver, thousands of miles from home, about to do it all again. Despite losing the rest of my group, I had the best possible company and Dom and I set about exploring our surroundings.

The atmosphere was similar to GBBF, with laughter and merriment echoing off the walls, people would cheer when someone dropped their plastic beaker despite it not shattering into a thousand pieces (although later on it turned out that if you dropped them enough times they would eventually shatter which would produce an even bigger cheer.) Despite the epic crowd there was enough space to manoeuvre, until you hit a queue for a trendy brewery that you had to work your way around. There was a wedding chapel for beer geeks to take their vows and get married on the spot should they wish (I'm not convinced it was legally binding), Oskar Blues had taken the liberty of not only providing can medallions for one and all but also sponsoring a silent disco should you feel the urge to get your groove on. There were numerous food stands serving hot dogs, turkey legs, pulled pork and pizzas all for around $8.00 (£5.00) for a massive serving of pretty decent scran.

Eventually Dom and I did give in and join a queue but not for beer, we lined up so we could taste the excellent cheeses presented by the American Cheese Society. While we waited I kept dashing off to get our beakers refilled but eventually we were pushed past the rope and into some kind of cheese pit. The cheese presented by the American Cheese Society was good, really good and the fact each of the seven or eight offerings was paired with a beer was a nice touch. At the end of the tasting a member of the ACS that could see we were clearly thrilled with their produce said 'I bet you've never tasted anything like that' to which I replied 'I'm from Europe and I can buy stuff like this in the supermarket but good effort mate!" I was sure that my response went down well and on we continued towards reaching beer fuelled oblivion.

I could now quite easily descend into a list of every beer I tried that evening, I managed to record almost 40 of the samples that I remembered I drank but I was desperate not to let my beer-geekery ruin my experience so may have missed a few. I could tell you that Fat Head's Head Hunter IPA was a pithy, citrus delight, that Ninkasi Tricerahops was good but not as good as I remembered it being, that Shmatlz He'Brew Funky Jewbilation (sic) was bigged up to be the best blended barrel aged beer since sliced Cantillon but just tasted like balsamic vinegar. I could tell you that Grand Teton Pursuit of Hoppiness was a bitter delight, a true ode to hops, that at one point I craved the familiarity of New Belgium's delicious sweet and sour wonder La Folie so I went and got myself some. That Burton Snatch might be the best Stone beer I've tried by a country mile and that 21st Amendment Hell or High Watermelon might just be THE most refreshing beer, nay BEVERAGE that I've ever tasted. I could even tell you that Bell's Kalamazoo IPA was close to perfection as far as American IPA goes but simply listing beers like that, it's no fun, so I won't bore you with the details, ok?

I will tell you this though, I randomly walked up to a stand occupied by a brewery called Boneyard who are based in Bend, Oregon and I tasted their Notorious Triple IPA. Words could not describe the pine and citrus flavour bomb that this beer packed, it was Pliny the Younger by any other name but here there was no queue, no line, no fevered beer geeks clamouring for a taste. The poor folks at Boneyard were not currently the brewery du jour so despite Russian River selling out of Pliny within an hour these guys still didn't manage to sell out of this intricately constructed hop led beauty of a beer by the end of the session. I didn't mind, I went back to have some more on three more occasions, I could have tried their other beers but I didn't, I wanted more of this one. I told them how good I thought it was and they smiled back red faced and gleeful. They didn't care that they didn't sell out because they knew that those that did knew they were on to something good.

I'll also tell you that being a British dude at an American Beer festival does on occasion have its advantages. More than once I'd order my beer and the server would respond by yelling, BRITISH GUY DOUBLE POUR and I would respond by hamming up and saying 'that's awfully nice of you, thank you so kindly' which they seemed to appreciate. It's not easy to get drunk by drinking one ounce pours but I like to feel I had a really good crack at it. In the latter stages of the evening I even decided, somewhat foolishly, to let my British sense of humour run riot. I recall walking up to the Flying Dog stand and barking 'I DEMAND TO HAVE THE TRUTH' and then when all I got in response was a glazed over stare I politely asked 'erm, can I please try some of your new double IPA, the truth?' Later still I was standing in a frustratingly long line for the restroom (the toilet to you and me, I didn't want a rest, I wanted to take a piss but there I was waiting for a rest) and I murmured to the guys around me, who appeared to be a part of some kind of college fraternity 'So, umm, what beer are we queueing for here? It must be a pretty special beer with a line this long!" 

My gag received no laughter, just dumbstruck stares from these American jocks that flanked us in every direction. I attempted in vain to salvage the situation 'hey I guess this is the queue for Coors Light, right?' It didn't work, Dom looked at me with embarrassment in his eyes and shook his head slowly from side to side. The funny thing was that all of the major, corporate breweries had stands too, Miller, Coors, Bud, they were all here and they were happily giving away as many ounces of free beer as any other brewery. The only thing that wasn't there was beer from outside the USA, there was no 'Bieres Sans Frontieres'  to be discovered here, this was all American and proud of it. This made me sad, there's so much great beer to be discovered from all over the globe but I guess this is the Great AMERICAN Beer festival, so why should there be any beer from other countries? In my opinion, this is where CAMRA (despite not allowing kegged beer from any breweries other than German and Czech ones) are doing a much better job but on the other hand, would us British beer lovers spend more time discovering European beer if there was no American produce at the GBBF?

My Dad and I at the GABF
As the night drew to a close I was getting pretty sick of beer, my palate was jaded and I didn't know what to try next. Our group reconvened at the Munton's Maltings homebrew stand where my Dad's associate who works for Munton's was busy chatting away. This chap had thought ahead, he approaches me and whispers in my ear 'Islay or Speyside' to which I reply 'Islay of course' and he disappears under a table with my beaker and returns having filled it nearly to the brim with Laphroaig. He then whispered 'don't tell anyone I gave you this, if this gets out, we're fucked.' His secret was safe with me and that glass of uber-peaty Scotch strengthened my resolve, there was still time to try more beer and try more beer I did. The last beer I had was a Chocolate Oak Aged Yeti from Great Divide whose brewhouse is just down the road from the convention centre and ending the night with that complex, delicious beer just felt right. Only I didn't finish the night on that beer, I marched back to the Boneyard stand and had some more Notorious, that was the best beer I tried at the festival after all.

As we made our way to the exit we bumped into a very merry Josh, the other half of Verboten Brewery and my friend Michelle, formerly of the Mayor of Old Town who had been pouring beer at one of the stands. Hugs and well wishes were exchanged but sadly it was time to leave, it had been a truly wonderful experience but damn, it's difficult to get drunk on one ounce pours. Despite this I left my first GABF knowing that I had given it everything I had and I most definitely had a lot of fun.

Thursday 7 November 2013

Going for Gold

Thankfully, although the title may be a little off putting, this piece has nothing to do with Shed Seven. Cast your minds back to the cold, dark month of February, my Dad and I were driving through the snow towards the town of Loveland, Colorado. Our friends Kevin and Michelle from that most righteous of bars The Mayor of Old Town had arranged a brewday at the recently established Verboten brewing. Once there we met with the owners and brewers Josh and Joe and I got stuck in to what would be my first experience of assisting with a commercial brew.

Of course by 'assisting' I mean taking photos, trying everything on tap at least twice and generally getting in the way. The style we were brewing was a new one to me too, a Kentucky common ale is apparently something similar to what we in the UK might refer to as a cream ale and today we would be brewing a pumped up, imperial version. I won't bore you with details of the brewday, you can bore yourself by reading all about it here!

Xmas pud in a glass
Sadly I never got to try the original version of 'I'm All Right Jack' as it came to be known but thankfully Josh and Joe had the sense to age half of what we brewed in a rum barrel for 6 months and so when I returned to Colorado this October I finally got to try this beer. I was sat outside the Mayor of Old Town in glorious sunshine and I stared into the glass of opaque, deep brown liquid which seemed to obliterate all traces of light that dared cross it's path. The nose gave away a few secrets, there was certainly rum there, brown sugar and black treacle too and perhaps even a little funk that was hidden inside the grain of that barrel. It was all chocolate, figs, sultanas and stewed fruit wrapped up in rich malt loaf with a gob full of booze which helped balance out the long sweet finish. I think my Dad's description of 'Christmas pudding in a glass' really hit the nail on the head. It was, quite frankly, superb and strong evidence that Verboten are a brewery that are really going to go places.

At a whopping 12% ABV it probably wasn't the most ideal beer for a Monday lunchtime but the Mayor had been selling this beer like crazy and I wasn't going to let the chance to try something I'd had a (tiny) hand in creating pass me by. I managed to briefly catch up with Josh and Joe when I visited the Great American Beer Festival a few days later, they had entered the beer into the competition but sadly it came away from this prestigious event empty handed. 

However this weekend I'm All Right Jack walked away from the All Colorado Beer Festival with a GOLD MEDAL in the Strong Beers and Ales category! I want to wish Josh, Joe and everyone at Verboten my heartfelt congratulations for deservedly picking up this award. It's a fantastic beer and I'm also thankful to Michelle and Kevin for inviting me along to have a small hand in its creation and making some great new friends in the process.

Verboten are brewing some stunning beers at the moment, their double IPA 'The Poser' was one of the best beers I had on my last trip back in October and if you're in the Fort Collins/Loveland area you would be doing yourself a serious injustice if you didn't head to their taproom and try out some of their brews. Just make sure you tell them I sent you.

Sunday 20 October 2013

Blue Fucking Moon

Earlier this week James Watt of Brewdog posted a blog on his brewery's website outlining his opinion on how Europe needs a solid, legal definition on what constitutes a 'Craft Brewery' and I agree with many of his points (word of warning, don't watch the video unless you want to vomit your adult beverage over your computer.) The article is worth a read and if you put aside the FREEDOM and REVOLUTION bullshit which to be honest is there in refreshingly small amounts then it actually make a lot of sense. In the United States the Brewers Association have clear guidelines on what constitutes a craft brewery and this brings a much needed asset to their industry, unity

Imagine, if you will, no more pointless arguments about what defines craft beer, SIBA, CAMRA and my own beloved CAMRGB in complete agreement about what actually constitutes that damned prefix. Independent Breweries, regardless of the styles they brew and the methods they use to dispense their beers will be in the same ballpark. Black Sheep next to Buxton, Thwaites next to Thornbridge, Fullers next to The Kernel... If we adopted the same principles as our American cousins it could bring the independent arm of British brewing together and in turn make it stronger. At the moment some people treat the brewing industry like they are separate, splintered industries but this isn't the case, there isn't a brewing and a craft brewing industry, this is the drinks industry. Feel free to badmouth the huge corporations who are seemingly only in it for the money but ultimately even the smallest outfits who do it for the love of beer have to make ends meet at the end of the day.

Sadly, I feel that the UK brewing industry is so old and segregated that it will never happen, at least not during this generation. It's a rapidly changing part of our economy that's incredibly difficult to keep up with, I can't imagine what it will be like in 5, 10 or even 20 years but craft beer is here to stay, that's for certain.

I do however have one major argument with James' post, why the brazen attack on Blue Moon? Sure, it's not a great beer and it's a Coors product that's manufactured to turn as great a profit as possible but it isn't the reason we need a solid definition of craft beer in Europe. Blue Moon was invented in a Micro Brewery (that's what we used to call Craft Breweries back in the day), a Micro Brewery just like the ones that produce so many of the beers we love. The day Keith Villa, a real human man, went into work at the Sandlot Brewery inside Denver's Coors Field one day in 1995 and conceived Belly Slide Belgian Wit he probably had no idea that it would become a global, mass-marketed product. Sure enough, Belly Slide Belgian Wit massively outsold every other beer the Sandlot were brewing at the time and it went on to become the iconoclastic wheat beer we seemingly either loathe or feel completely indifferent about today.

The Sandlot is still there selling it's range of European style pilsners and whatnot, and with the form of the Colorado Rockies it's not surprising that their fans are in need of a few cold beers during a game. In fact The Sandlot just won the 'Best Large Brewery' award at this years Great American Beer Festival, it's not a large brewery, it's actually quite small but it's a part of the same company as a very, very big brewery so that means that it doesn't brew craft beer. I wonder what Sandlot brewmaster Tom Hall, another real human man, would have to say about that? 

The other reason it's pointless to attack brands such as Blue Moon is that eight out of ten people that drink it couldn't give a flying fuck what craft beer is. Those are the folks with the slice of orange floating in their beer, getting on with their lives, potentially even enjoying their short time on this mortal coil. One of the other two is staring at that piece of orange, wondering why it's there. He/She usually orders a pint of say, Estrella or maybe a Doom Bar if they're feeling adventurous but that advert at the bus stop has stuck in their head and here they are drinking a witbier, not a very good witbier but still an actual witbier. Maybe they'll really like it, maybe they'll start a grand voyage of beery discovery. Who knows what they'll try next, Camden Gentleman's Wit? Pressure Drop Wallbanger? If this beer inspires one in ten people to expand their horizons then surely that's a good thing? Hell, if it inspires one in a hundred it's a good thing.

And what of the other person in the ten? Well that's someone like me, maybe it even is me, a craft wanker. 'All of the ales on offer in this pub are twiggy and boring, I know, I'll drink Blue Moon, maybe I'll drink seven pints of it and wash it down with a bellyful of Laphroaig afterwards. Maybe I'll spend some time getting acquainted with a toilet bowl later because I got absolutely hammered.' Maybe this DID happen to me. Was it because I was drinking Blue Fucking Moon? Was it bollocks.

Corporate brewing is not the enemy of craft brewing, it's all part of the same massive industry. If Brewdog put an iota of the energy they focus on hatemongering against brands such as Blue Moon into making fucking amazing beer then I'd wager they'd make a lot more fucking amazing beer. How many people have discovered craft beer via Blue Moon? How many people will now discover it via Goose Island IPA? That's now an AB-InBev mass marketed product brewed at the Budweiser Plant in Fort Collins, Colorado after all. That means it's definitely not craft beer despite them calling it so, but it's still damn tasty, right?

Let's define craft brewing in the UK, lets make it a thing, a real, actual thing. Whether a brewery chooses to associate themselves with it, use it in their marketing or not, that's totally up to them but for the good of the growth of this crazy industry, lets do it. Let's not victimise beer that lest we forget is still brewed by real, actual people who might love their jobs and be proud of what they do. Sure they might go home and drink craft beer after a day of brewing Bud or Miller or whatever but they're still crafting beer whatever you want to call it.

Tuesday 1 October 2013


A short while ago I wrote about fledgling Yorkshire brewery Northern Monk's inaugural brew New World IPA which I enjoyed but it lacked the bold, juicy citrus blast I look for in my IPA. Despite my slight misgivings the kind folks at Northern Monk saw fit to send me a bottle of their sophomore beer, Strannik which is an Imperial Stout that weighs in at a decent 9% ABV.

In my first post about this brewery I enthused about how I had enjoyed watching avid home brewer David Bishop's transition to the world of the professional zymurgist. However I recently learned that due to family and work commitments (David was working a full time job and brewing on the side) he's decided to call it a day for now. I know all too well that life, more often than not, gets in the way of ambition and although I'm sorry to see that this has happened I'm sure that David will make that step again when he is good and ready. Before he called it a day though, David managed to give Northern Monk one last gift in the shape of this quite remarkable stout.

The label is the first thing that excites me, it's a beautiful piece of design in elegant black and silver, it's classy and enticing. The dark brown liquid slides into my glass with some viscosity and produces a tight, tan hued head of foam. The edges of the glass produce a slight ruby tinge as I hold it up to the light, there's not much on the nose, perhaps a bit of molasses and a touch of freshly ground coffee. That's where the subtleties of this beer end because this is a flavour bomb that's waiting to explode. It starts with a spoonful of demerara sugar and this is joined by some molasses. It then rapidly develops a freshly ground coffee bitterness and some meaty umami as if there's a dash of soy sauce in there. This tri-force of flavour is beautifully balanced, nothing is out of place, it's not too sweet, not too bitter and certainly not heavy handed with the soy. This is no mean feat as these flavours are HUGE, this is a really big beer but it's never overbearing, it's a perfect late evening/early morning sipper. 

As it slides down it leaves a trace of warming alcohol in the back of my throat and an aftertaste that's slightly reminiscent of tobacco which a hint of leather. This brings with it that vital note of dryness that leaves you wanting for more and I do want more so despite it's high strength I find myself emptying my glass much faster than I had anticipated. New World IPA felt like a work in progress, like this was a brewery that was yet to find its feat. Strannik has its head screwed on and its feet planted firmly on the ground, seek it out if you can.

Thanks to the guys at Northern Monk Brew Co for this bottle.

Sunday 22 September 2013

Just Beer

My name is Matthew Curtis and I have a problem. I regularly buy and horde far more beer than I can physically drink and I am often overtly precious about some of the bottles in my collection. I often question myself, why am I like this? Not just with beer but with several different genres of booze. I often have to have strong words with myself, booze is created to be drank, simple as, there is no need for ceremony or occasion, it's just a drink so why am I so often over protective of my stash? I always like to keep some bottles of Cantillon gueuze in stock, it's one of my favourite beers and it's the perfect aperitif on a Sunday afternoon before a big feed. At upwards of a fiver for a 375 millilitre bottle it's not cheap for a beer but when you think about how it's made, barrel aged in different batches for between one and three years and then skillfully blended and primed for refermentation in the bottle, it's creation is no mean feat. At the end of the day is something that takes so long and such a degree of skill to make still just a beer? Of course this is, that's why I like to crack open one a week, if this was wine it would be three times the price so it's best just enjoy it while you've got it, right?

Firestone Walker Parabola. Just beer?
Recently I've had a few beers that I thought were more than simply just beer, they've transcended their beginnings of hops, malt, water and yeast and metamorphosed into something different, more elegant and more spectacular. At this years European Beer Bloggers Conference I was handed a glass of 10th Anniversary Samuel Adams Utopias. Now Utopias starts life just like many other beers with grain and water and noble hops but instead of an ale yeast a strain normally reserved for Champagne is employed and in order to ramp up the alcohol content to a massive 29% maple syrup is added to the brew. The beer is then separated and aged for varying degrees of time in a variety of bourbon, port, cognac and sherry barrels before being recombined to create the finished article. The syrupy, bronze liquid loams around the glass, notes of sherry and oak leap out and stick to your nostrils. The taste is a surprise to me, I was expecting a car crash of unbalanced flavours but what I get is a little oak, a little honey, ripe figs and a whole heap of well refined port like flavours. Surprisingly the whole thing is underpinned by a slight effervescence which serves as the only reminder that this is or was at some point just beer and it's this that lifts it up to being a brilliant drink. This is not beer any longer though, this is something else, it's not port or sherry because no grapes were involved, it's not eau-de-vie because no fruit was involved and calling it 'fortified beer' doesn't sum up the grandeur that this beverage manages to conjure. Is it worth $250 a bottle though? You could get a stupendous bottle of whisky for the same amount of money and I know which I'd rather have in my drinks cabinet.

Earlier that very weekend I was in The Hanging Bat on Lothian Road and they had tapped one of only two kegs in existence of this years Magic Rock Bourbon Barrel Beaded Lady. This year Magic Rock have taken their superb imperial brown stout and aged it in Wild Turkey Barrels for ten months. Wild Turkey has always been a favourite of mine but it's a monster of a bourbon so I feared that the Bearded Lady would have been blasted into oblivion by this powerful beverage. This was not the case though, I may have been three sheets (plus a couple more, perhaps) to the wind when I took a sip but I was overwhelmed by how mellow and how smooth this initially intimidating stout was. I had nothing to fear, the vanilla rich bourbon notes intermingled perfectly with the flavours of rich roasted coffee and molasses from the beer. This vinous beer slid down the throat like liquid velvet, not a note was out of place and every flavour was in perfect harmony, it was quite simply wonderful. It straddled the line between beer and something else entirely, this was special no doubt but was it just beer and should it be treated as something different, more special? Or should I just open another bottle this afternoon just for the hell of it, it's just beer after all...

This August bank holiday weekend I was away with friends and on the last night of our stay I brought out the most prized bottle of beer in my collection, a 2012 Firestone Walker Parabola another mighty whisky barrel aged imperial stout. The fact that I'm even referring to the vintage of this bottle as if it was a wine is surely evidence to suggest that like the Bourbon Barrel Bearded lady this is more than just beer. It cost me fifteen dollars but I imagine if I kept it long enough I could sell it on for much more but that's not why I bought it, the sole purpose of it's existence is to get inside my belly so sod stashing it it away for aeons to come. There were ten of us present that evening, only one other person, my friend Dom was interested in giving it a taste. The others were tucking into a bottle of 2008 Sandeman LBV Port, I was disappointed by this (not by the Port, that's very good), I wanted to see peoples reactions as they tasted what is regarded as one of the best beers in the world. To them though, this was just one of my 'weird beers' and they were probably wishing that I'd just shut up and drink the damn thing. No matter, this meant there would be more of this special brew for my own consumption. Where the Magic Rock slid eleganty around the glass Parabola sat their like a quantum singularity, absorbing any light in its path. I stared into the oubliette and massive notes of booze and charred oak wrapped their tendrils around me. This 'beer' has been in wood for twelve months and boy can you tell with ridiculous amounts of oak in the finish, the bourbon notes are massive and overwhelming at first, it's a challenge to wrap your brain around the sheer ferocity of this beer. However a few sips in a you realise that this is a lion that is willing to be tamed if you have the courage. Despite being from the same genre of beer as the Magic Rock this is an entirely different creature and the fine line between beer and something else becomes even more blurred. 

If I'm drinking beer, do I want to be challenged? Surely that defeats the object of drinking alcohol, it's a relaxant not a stimulant after all. Thinking back to my first taste of Cantillon Gueuze, that was a challenge but now it's an utter joy. Sadly it's unlikely I'll ever get to taste that particular vintage of Parabola again but if I did would it make that moment, that spectacular drunken brawl less special? I've asked myself more questions than I've answered but I think the answer is that it doesn't matter what you decide to call it or what you take from your experience of drinking it, what matters is that whatever's in your glass is always good.