Wednesday 27 February 2013

Lunch with the Mayor and Black Bottle Brewery

Read part one before reading on... if you like.

The Mayor's 100 taps were a sight for sore eyes
So I've arrived in Fort Collins once again and now I have a mere twenty four hours to try and adjust to the time difference before my Dad and I jet off on another beer adventure in Portland, Oregon. As we have an early flight the following morning we decide that taking it easy is the best course of action and so we'll only visit the Mayor for a few lunchtime beers, hit just the one brewery and then have a relaxing evening at his house enjoying a few bottles, too easy.

It's a fantastic feeling returning to my favourite bar, the Mayor of Old Town which feels like my local despite it being over 5000 miles away from where I live. We are welcomed with open arms by bar manager Michelle and owner Kevin and no sooner than we're seated at the bar we are handed a taster of 'Fat Old Sun' a delicious, bitter-sweet double IPA that the Mayor brewed in collaboration with Odell Brewing. I immediately see about thirty or forty beers out of their huge range of 100 draught beers that I've wanted to try for ages and I plump for a Lagunitas Sucks double IPA while my Dad plumps for an Avery Maharajah because we're taking it easy and following one double IPA with another seems like a pretty sensible idea.

The Lagunitas sucks has all the qualities I LOVE about west coast IPA, its huge, rich malty base is smothered with bitter lemon, orange rind and pithy grapefruit, it's a zingy, fruity hop bomb and the best beer I've had from this San Francisco based brewery to date, I can't wait for them to start exporting to the UK later on this year. My Dad and I swap glasses, by contrast the Maharajah has much more malt character, like a pancake covered in maple syrup with a big hit of pine resin on the side, it's another stunner of a beer but I prefer the Lagunitas so we swap back and my Dad pours a little water in his Maharajah which actually subdues the resinous quality and brings out the citrus flavours but is still sacrilege in my mind.

We order some lunch and some more beers, I've only time for one more and the decision is tough as there is so much good stuff on tap. A photographer is snapping away in the background, Michelle tells us he's from Beer Advocate and that she's going to be on the cover of the latest issue of their magazine (which is out now, by the by, but is not available to us lowly Britons) while she serves me my Breckenridge 471 small batch IPA, another double IPA because I'm being sensible. The 471 has a lovely herbal, grassy quality along with hints of lemongrass and pine but I'm left wanting another Lagunitas, a beer that most definitely does not suck and is going to take some beating on this trip I tell's ya.

Before we depart Michelle says she's got a few special bottles she'd like to share with us that evening when she clocks off, how could we refuse, so plans were altered and we decided to return to the Mayor that evening but just for a couple because we're taking it easy, right? We jump in the car and head south down College Avenue to Fort Collins newest brewery, Black Bottle which I believe brings the total City brewery count to a mere twelve. The branding on the outside of the building is strong and enticing and I can already see that the place is still busy with a lunchtime crowd despite it being well past lunchtime. The bar is smart, modern and yet warm and inviting and as we take our seats at the bar I wonder to myself what Black Bottle are doing differently to try and stand out in a town that already has a huge beer scene. 

Enjoying a tasting flight at Black Bottle Brewery
The most obvious difference here is that of the forty taps behind the bar only seven of them are pouring their own beer while the rest of them have a selection of local and not so local American craft beers as well as a few classic Belgian draughts on tap. However tempted I am by those Belgian brews it's against my rules for me to drink them when I'm in the States but this time it was easy to resist their wily charms as I'm here to try Black Bottles beers exclusively and so we order a tasting flight so that we can try all seven of their current draught offerings.

First up is Liquid Metal, an imperial oatmeal stout which is rich with molasses, cane sugar and vanilla flavours backed up by a burnt toast bitterness, it's lovely stuff. The next beer, their 'Hipster' IPA is a solid brew but for me needed a little more fruit on the palate rather than just bitterness to balance it properly but it's tough being a young IPA in a town that brews some of the best old heavyweights around and besides, every beer that afternoon was now being compared to that sublime glass of Lagunitas Sucks... A pleasant enough Belgian Blonde named Social Security followed the IPA but it was their Black IPA, Aviation Cocktail which really took my breath away and was the pick of the Black Bottle beers for me. Delicious pine and grapefruit mingled beautifully with just a hint of burnt toast and the tiniest amount of black treacle creating a near perfect balance between the malt and hops, I could've ordered a whole pint right there and then but we still had three more tasters to work through and they weren't small servings.

Dad and I both really enjoyed I'm Barely Wine Barley Wine but felt that it didn't really fall into the Barley Wine category and was more like a double IPA. Instead of the rich fruit cake and alcohol laden hit I look for in this style we were greeted with a bouquet of floral, grassy hops, perhaps it needs a little longer to mature so that it may reach it's barley wine potential but it was still a great beer. I'll quickly skim over the Holy Shit Double Wit as it just wasn't for me but the final beer in the flight, There goes the Neighbourhood was an excellent take on a Belgian Saison with fresh, grassy hops dancing around with funky yeast esters, delightful stuff.

So the verdict on Black Bottle? Well Fort Collins can proudly add yet another excellent brewery to its portfolio, seriously though where do these excellent North Colorado breweries keep coming from!? I became rather enamoured with their branding whilst supping away so came away with a tee shirt which I can tell you is currently a bit of a nipple chafer but like a good imperial stout, I'm expecting it to mellow with age.

So Dad and I have made it half way through our day of taking it easy, we headed home for a rest and a change before we decided to head out for a bite to eat and then a couple of quiet pints before an early night... but you already know that's not quite how it happened, right?

To beer continued...

Friday 22 February 2013

Back in the Fort

It barely seems like five minutes since I last boarded a plane from Denver International Airport back to my home in London but now I'm sat on an American Airlines flight to Denver (Via Dallas/Forth Worth International or as I now like to call it 'The Third Circle of Hell') attempting to pour a frozen solid can of Newcastle Brown Ale into a plastic cup. I was surprised, not pleasantly surprised but surprised none the less to see Newcastle Brown Ale on an international flight operated by an American airline. I shouldn't be because Americans can't seem to get enough of the stuff but it's an excellent example of how times are a changin' and that people want more than just a tasteless adjunct lager on their long haul flight, even if it is a Newcastle Brown Ale slush puppy which yes, I drank anyway.

Be careful with that glass, Lugene
I was soon at my Dad's place in Fort Collins, Colorado and was pleased to see he had stocked his fridge with a few gems to get my holiday (or vacation, for my American readers) started. A bomber of Stone Cali-Belgique IPA was first up, it's mixture of pithy grapefruit and funky Belgian yeast esters got the party in my mouth started, the bottle didn't last long. While Dad cooked me a t-bone steak the size of a mans forearm I tried a bottle of Odell Brewing's new Imperial Milk Stout 'Lugene' named after the Farmer that takes away the Odell spent grain and feeds it to his cattle. The branding on the bottle, as with all Odell beers, is simply stunning and the beer's pretty good to boot. Delicious notes of cacao nibs, caramel and roasted coffee hide the 8.5% ABV immaculately and I find myself enjoying this a lot more than most milk stouts which are generally too sweet for my tastes.

I like to pair strong tasting red meats such as steak with big, hoppy beers as I find that the bitter, citrus flavours cut through the fat better than a darker beer does so I choked back Lugene and cracked open another Stone bomber, this time their hop monster, Ruination. I've had mixed experiences with Stone beers as some of you may know but both the Cali-Belgique and the Ruination were super fresh and in perfect condition. When I've drank Ruination in the UK sure it's been hoppy but it's not been the bitter palate stripper advertised on the bottle. This time though that Gargoyle on the label might as well have leapt off the bottle and started attacking my mouth with a scouring pad. It was supremely bitter, a proper belter of a hop bomb with massive waves of grapefruit and pine being rained on my palate as if from a B-52 bomber, wonderful. Stone beers have trickled back into the UK this month and sure, I'll try them again, now I've tried them this fresh I'm finally convinced they know what they're doing.

Next up was bed, jet lag and thinking about a day of taking it easy in Fort Collins before flying out to Portland, Oregon and getting my first taste of the Pacific Northwest... but I'm on vacation, in beer paradise Colorado, so how the hell am I going to take it easy?

Venture onward, dear reader...

Friday 8 February 2013

The Yeast of our Problems

I'm sure many of us have been in this situation, you take your bottle of carefully rested bona-fide CRAFT beer from your fridge that you've been looking forward to since a quarter past breakfast. You crack the top and smell those sweet aromas as they creep over the bottles rim and you prepare to delicately pour the golden nectar into your carefully selected beer receptacle but then IT STRIKES. A thick cascade of gloopy, yeast sediment erupts from the depths of the bottle and before you know it the bright beer you were looking forward to is instead a sea of beige and is blighted by a yeasty tang. 

Some bottle conditioned beers, yesterday.
I've seen some people actively pour the yeast sediment into their beer, it's not bad for you, in fact in small amounts it's actually quite good for you but it's not to my personal tastes. The above recently happened to me with a bottle of one of my current favourite local beers, Redchurch Great Eastern IPA and despite the blight I still drank it and it was pleasant enough but I've increasingly found I've preferred IPA, my favourite style of beer, to be bright and clean in order to really appreciate the fusion of malt and hops. This yeast-tastrophy, if you will, got me thinking about bottle conditioned beer, which breweries are choosing to use it and why they are choosing to release their beers in this way.

Recently I was invited on a tour of the Meantime brewery in Greenwich (which I will elaborate on in greater detail in a future post) and one thing brewer Rod Jones said during the tour that really struck a chord which me was that 'Brewers make wort, yeast makes beer.' I agree with him in part, once the yeast is pitched you really are at the mercy of these microbes but it is the brewer that selects the yeast strain and cultivates it from batch to batch keeping it free from infection in order to produce consistent batches of beer. Another thing I found interesting about Meantime brewery is that all of their beers are tank matured for at least four to six weeks before release so that they are allowed to carbonate naturally. The advantage of this is that they do not need to add extra yeast to their bottled beers and as they release all of their draught beers in kegs there is no need to worry about cask conditioning their beer.

There are drawbacks to this method of carbonation, if your beer is lying in tanks for almost two months you can't sell it and for some smaller breweries who are chasing invoices and trying to make ends meet it's simply not financially viable. If beer is cask conditioned or force carbonated it can be sold into the trade almost instantly quickly generating much needed revenue. Another drawback is that modern beer styles that are heavily dry hopped generally need to be made available to the consumer as quickly as possible as those essential hop oils that give the beer it's flavour quickly start to break down and fade away so maturation is not useful in this case. So what to do if you don't want to mature your bottled beer for over a month to get the carbonation right but you don't want to send out flat hop juice? Well beers such as Thornbridge Halcyon are fermented under pressure to generate extra carbonation and very lightly filtered so a tiny amount of yeast still makes it into the bottle and makes sure you have bubbles in your beer, ultimately when served chilled giving you a finished product very similar to something served under Carbon Dioxide from a keg.

This makes a lot of sense to me, if you are selling force carbonated keg beer then surely you would want to package your bottles in the same way as for me the whole point of bottling your produce is to give the home drinker beer that tastes as good as it does when served on draught. So I'm confused when breweries such as The Kernel, who key keg their beer for draught use, choose to bottle condition rather than carbonate the beer while it's still in the brewery. For me, the whole idea behind bottle conditioning is to try and emulate the taste and mouth feel of cask beer, not keg. I attempt to look after the bottle conditioned beers in my stash with the same care a cellarman might look after his casks, bottle conditioned beers aren't quite the same as casks, the sheer volume of the cask is the biggest difference but hopefully you'll see the point I am trying to make. The dangers with bottle conditioned beers are similar to those with a cask, not just the risk of a particularly yeasty pint but I've had a few experiences with bottle conditioned beers that simply haven't conditioned properly and have been as flat as a pancake that's been steamrolled a few times for good measure. Don't get me wrong, I love Kernel beers just as much as the rest of you, I've just spent far too long thinking about how they package them.

Essentially, like with cask, when bottle conditioned beer leaves the brewery it's likely to be not quite ready yet and brewers must just hope that the beer conditions properly before the crown cap is shucked. I can understand why a lot of young breweries need to do this, it means they can sell more beer, quickly and not go bankrupt but I again ask the question if you are making American style beer that you only sell to bars in kegs why are you bottle conditioning and not force carbonating? I want to be able to drink your beautiful beer as soon as I get home from the offy or on the train or in between innings when I'm playing cricket and have just been bowled for a duck, I don't want to wait 24 hours for the bloody yeast to settle!

DISCLAIMER: I don't work in the beer industry, I don't write about beer professionally but I do read a lot of books, drink a lot of beer and have formulated my own opinions. This is not the gospel according to bottle conditioned beers this is just the musings of someone whose ego is inflated enough to warrant actually writing his thoughts down. Many of the beers I love and drink regularly are bottle conditioned and I will continue to drink them all the same but not on the bus home. Ultimately my motives for writing this post are selfish, I hope you don't hold it against me.

Sunday 3 February 2013

London Fields Brewery Black Frost Stout

It gives me great pleasure being able to enjoy and write about beer that is brewed less than 10 miles away from my home in North London. I've already reviewed such local delights as Redchurch Old Ford Export Stout and Rocky Head Pale Ale and now I am turning my attention to another of London's 30 plus beer innovators, Hackney's London Fields Brewery. London Fields Brewery was created in August 2011 by founder Jules Whiteway and is part of a growing collective of craft breweries in the trendy borough of Hackney. Their Hackney Hopster is a real treat of a session beer, full of juicy hops and super quaffable, I always order one when I see it but today I'm going to have a go on their new(ish) stout, Black Frost.

The first thing that strikes me about this bottle of Black Frost Stout is how elegantly packaged it is. When I first saw it in the fridges of my local Oddbins it practically leapt off the shelf and into my open arms. Instead of your bog standard label on a bottle affair, Black Frost is neatly wrapped up in brown paper in a style not dissimilar to the Bacchus fruit beers with an attractive purple sticker holding the whole thing together. I'm assuming that the snowflakes on the label indicate that this is a winter seasonal but I have no other proof to back up this fact so don't hold me to that statement. 

The bottle I've decided to review has been sitting in my cupboard for a few weeks as the first bottle I tried was a little flat and probably needed a little longer in the bottle to generate some extra carbonation. Black Frost pours a rich, dark brown with a little light creeping through the ruby red tinge at the edge of the glass. A small beige head forms atop the thick, dark liquid but this dissipates pretty swiftly, however I still manage to get a small head after giving the glass a good swirl. The aroma is big, bold and packed full of redcurrants, blackberries, molasses and black treacle but these aromas are not alone, there's also a mild note of lactic sourness on the nose, not an unpleasant one but it's definitely there. 

Delving into this beer is a delight, the rich forest fruits and bittersweet black treacle flavours are big and very well balanced but that small hint of lactic sourness doesn't escape me. It's not very prevalent but it was in both bottles I've tried and was definitely there when I also tried it on cask, I'm not sure if it's a mistake or if it's deliberate but I actually think that it's a positive quality in this particular beer. The finish is very dry and the little sour elderberry note at the end leaves you puckering up for more, if this was intentional then I think it's a very clever indeed. As it warms I detect some grassy, earthy hops which leave a pleasant lingering bitterness and despite it still being a little under carbonated it's a delicious and very drinkable beer.

Sadly, when I went back to the shop for more it was gone so it looks likely that it is a seasonal brew but that just means it's something I can look forward to getting my hands on again when this year nears it's end. I'd love to hear any other opinions and experiences you lot have had with this beer, did you notice a mild note of lactic sourness or am I having my tongue pulled by Black Frost?