Sunday 19 May 2013

Magic Rock Un-Human Cannonball

Ladies and Gentlemen, step right up...
It's a Thursday night and I'm standing on the platform at Willesden Junction station waiting what feels like several eternities for a train. I'm excitedly making a journey towards the Craft Beer Co in Angel where Huddersfield's Magic Rock, one of my favourite UK breweries, are launching their brand new triple IPA, Un-Human Cannonball. According to my super useful beer archiving application, known to most as Untappd, in the last twelve months I have drank Magic Rock Cannonball IPA more times than any other beer. Along with Thornbridge Halcyon it's simply one of the best American style India Pale Ales being brewed in the UK right now, in fact I might go as far as to say that although Halcyon is better from the bottle, Cannonball is king when it's on draught.

So what exactly is Un-Human Cannonball then? Magic Rock already brew a double IPA, a treasured beer known as Human Cannonball which is a big, boisterous and beautiful brew, Un-Human takes this concept to the next level. A single batch of Un-Human is going to be brewed once a year using the freshest, new season American hops available. The beer has a very simple malt bill but has enough hop additions throughout each and every stage of the brewing process to make mere mortals weep into their dimpled pint mugs. Another brewery have a similar concept over in the States, they're called Russian River and you might have heard of their own triple IPA, Pliny the Younger, a beer that is as revered as the sacred Ambrosia itself. Having been lucky enough to try Pliny the Younger back in February I was looking forward to seeing if this beer was to be a tribute, a clone, or a beer that proudly and independently stands atop the Yorkshire Dales screaming its Un-Human scream.

Earlier in the day a madness descended upon the beer geeks of Great Britain, it started at 9am when Magic Rock released 90 bottles for sale on their own website, these sold out within half an hour. Other websites soon followed suit, even I succumbed to the hop fever and purchased a triplet of bottles from the ever reliable Beer Ritz who decided to release their allocation at 3pm, again these sold out almost instantly. I sat at my desk and observed the madness which unfolded on twitter, as most things beer inevitably do these days and thought to myself, why all this fuss, it's just beer. The Craft Beer Co opened their doors at 4pm where there was already a queue outside, their meagre allocation of 40 bottles selling out almost instantly.

As I made my way towards Craft I remember briefly standing outside Tortilla thinking that ingesting a taco might strengthen my resolve before drinking lots of very strong beer, but with all the excitement I didn't have much of an appetite so I continued pubwards. The bar was predictably crammed when I arrived around 6.30pm but it wasn't long before I saw a few familiar faces in the throng as I queued for my third of Un-Human. The bar seemed a little under staffed for such an occasion but the people who were behind the bar were working their arses off trying to get everyone served. After about fifteen minutes of waiting I eventually made it to the bar where a whole host of Magic Rock beers were being poured on keg and cask. As well as a third of Un-Human I picked myself up a half of bog-standard Cannonball (which to be honest is about as far from bog standard as beer can get) to use as a control as I feel I know this beer like I do the back of my hand.

Un-Human at the back and regular at the front.
I retreat to the much quieter back room of the pub where I join Chris, Emma, another Chris, Justin, Andrew, Ewan and Ben (but more faces came and went as the evening went on) the beer geek forces were out in full this evening. I excuse myself while I whip out my notepad and get into this beer. Where the regular Cannonball was bright and near-transparent the Un-Human was a heady, hazy auburn-amber with a halo of super sticky foam clinging to the rim of the glass. The aroma was as sweet and sticky as the head with the dominant aroma being pine, and when I say pine we're talking about an entire forests worth, seriously this beer was very piney indeed. There was passion fruit and mango there too but it wasn't particularly easy to to detect at first but with a few vigorous swirls of the glass these aromas soon revealed themselves.

I took a sip of Cannonball before I tried the Un-Human, yep, this was Cannonball alright and it was on rude form indeed. Then I enter the world of the Un-Human and it's surprisingly well balanced. Yes there are huge gobs of pine resin coating slices of mango and acres of grapefruit and mandarin rind but it's all over a clean, relatively sparse malt backbone. Human Cannonball has a robust, sweet and bready malt base but the Un-Human dials this down in favour of letting the hops shine through and shine they do but they don't quite harmoniously break into song. The finish is bitter and astringent for a moment but this sensation doesn't linger and is soon replaced with warming alcohol gliding down the throat, this beer is 12% after all and this is incredibly well hidden until the very end of a sip.

I love it, naturally, but it's not quite perfect. I prefer it to Human Cannonball but it's the regular Cannonball that is the winner on the day for me, despite me not being able to taste it properly after the hop hammering my palate has just received. So how does it compare to Pliny, should I even bother, is there a point? It's just beer after all. Me being me, I do compare it to Pliny and yes there are similarities but the thing that struck me about Pliny is how clearly defined and easy to pick out all the flavours are. Un-Human, although delicious, doesn't quite have this harmonious clarity which is why despite being brilliant it falls short of being perfect.

What is perfect though is the setting, this wonderful pub filled with passionate, friendly people that love beer. Faces come and go around my table for the entire evening and the conversation never stalls. Glasses and bottles are constantly being passed around the table, I enjoy a stunning Venison pie and the merriment doesn't stop until it's time to go home. Although the beer was really, really good, it's the company that is the best thing about the night for me. My beer of the evening? Well it just turned out to be Thornbridge Weizenbock which I could only describe as being flawless so make of that what you will.

Sunday 12 May 2013

Brüpond Tip Top Hop IPA

I'm sure that many of you reading this will have already had a bottle of Brüpond Tip Top Hop IPA as it's readily available from outlets such as Oddbins and it's been on the shelves of my local branch in Crouch End, North London for a couple of months now. I'm also sure that many of you will have had mixed experiences with this beer, I've tried it on several occasions now and I had decided that this simply isn't a beer for me. My opinion was given a reprieve when I met Brüpond owner and head brewer Dave Brassfield at London's Brewing last weekend. My good friend and fellow beer blogger Justin Mason had contacted Dave regarding a dodgy bottle of Tip Top Hop he had come across and so Dave had agreed to meet with us at the festival to put things right. There I was presented with a glass of this beer, baring in mind that I had quite a few jars beforehand I really liked it, it was full of rich citrus fruit bitterness and a plum jam sweetness so I had high hopes for the latest batch of this beer. This bottle was gifted to me by Dave who obviously has massive enthusiasm and love for his brewery, thanks Dave.

Dave grew up in that most righteous of beery States, Colorado but eventually left the mountains behind to go to college in Chicago and it was here that he discovered beer from the likes of Sam Adams through to Dogfish Head. He states on the Brüpond website that his early beer purchases were often driven by price and he was always looking for the most affordable beer that still had some flavour, hence his big love for Sam Adams. Eventually his love of beer brought Dave to the UK and it was here he met with Evin from The Kernel, this meeting spurred Dave on to founding his own brewery which was established in the London Borough of Waltham Forest in 2012. His idea was to create, interesting, unique and flavourful beers that everyone could afford and so Brüpond was born. 

Brüpond Tip Top Hop describes itself as a 'continually hopped IPA' which is a process used by many distinguished brewers such as Dogfish Head when brewing their IPAs. Most beers are hopped at timed intervals throughout the boiling process where the boiling wort has hops added at the beginning of the boil for bitterness and later on for flavour. Tip Top Hop is hopped continuously throughout its boil which in essence should develop a very rounded and complex hop character, I'm not quite sure how long this particular beer is boiled for but I imagine it's around the 60 to 90 minute mark. Another interesting twist is that this brew uses the new Kazbek hop variety from the Czech Republic which is apparently similar to Saaz in flavour but with a much higher alpha acid content and it is those alpha acids that infuse the beer with the flavour of the particular hops being used. Like most modern American style IPAs this beer is also dry-hopped during fermentation to add more aroma to the beer, but is an earthy, herbal hop more suited to pilsners going to cut the mustard in an IPA? There's only one way to find out...

It has to be said that this beer pours an absolutely gorgeous shade of marmalade orange and has a nice, sticky, oh-so slightly off white head that clings to the glass as if it's very existence depended on it. It's bottle conditioned and despite my utmost care a little bit of loose sediment escapes into my glass giving the beer a misty haze but this doesn't put me off, in fact it's as pretty as a picture to look at. The nose is a different story however, I do get a little plum jam and some candied citrus fruit but there's also an underlying scent of vinegar, my first thought is that this beer has taken a turn for the worse but unusually none of that acidic scent transferred onto my palate. The overwhelming flavour this beer produces is that of wet cigarette ash, there is a slight hint of white pepper spiciness and those sweet, jammy flavours are there but they've been bullied right to the back of the playground when they really should be shining at the centre of the stage. I want a big, sweet, freshly baked malt profile to counteract the herbal bitterness but Tip Top Hop doesn't give me one. I'm loathe to pour any beer away and I persevere with this right to the very end and as it warms that fruity sweetness does come to the fore but not ever in the amount that I desire.

So is this a bad beer? Well it's unlikely I'll be buying it again as it's not to my taste and there is so much available that I do like that I'd rather spend my hard earned notes on but Simon from CAMRGB thought it was rather excellent so what gives? It could be that the earthy spiciness produced by the Kazbek hops aren't to my liking as this seems to be the overwhelming difference between this beer and the IPAs which I love that are packed with juicy American hops. It's early days for Brüpond but I still think that they'll manage to carve a niche on to rapidly growing family tree of London brewers. There will be plenty of people out there that like me didn't enjoy this particular beer but as Simon has proven there will probably be plenty of people out there that do and that's a good thing.

Monday 6 May 2013

The London Brewers Alliance Festival 2013

So this is probably where you're expecting to read about how terrible and disorganised the 2013 London Brewers Alliance Festival was. Tales of ridiculously lengthy queue times and overcrowding followed by a rant at how the organisers should be burned at the stake. Well I'm sorry to disappoint the gloombringers and the naysayers but I went to the 2013 London Brewers Alliance Festival and had a fantastic time.

Photo courtesy of Justin from Get Beer Drink Beer
I'm not particularly old or wise but what I have learned is that you have to take life as it comes because you're often powerless to do anything about it. I headed to this beer festival knowing full well that it was a sold out event being held in a relatively small space and that it was the first time the LBA were holding an event of this size so there were bound to be a few teething problems. I spent most part of the afternoon reading about how 'terrible' and 'chaotic' the event was and saw some pretty malicious and in my opinion unnecessary tweets aimed at the festival organisers. Be honest with yourself, is giving these guys, who are working around the clock in an attempt to help you enjoy yourself a hard time really worth it? What have you achieved by doing this? Did you expect a nice relaxing experience at a sold out beer festival? If that was the case you could have set up camp somewhere like the Craft Beer Co in Islington where not only do you not have to pay to get in but you'll probably get hold of much rarer and more exotic beers than you would at this particular festival which is simply celebrating the burgeoning London brewing scene.

So I'll say again; I went to the 2013 London Brewers Alliance Festival and I had a fantastic time, here's how it went down...

I finally arrived at London Fields station after taking a needlessly convoluted route that took me well over an hour (I later discovered I could have got there in less than half of that) so I rocked up to the taproom at London Fields Brewery feeling pretty silly and in there I bumped into Nate who had been at the afternoon session with a bunch of his friends. I was joined by Justin who like me was headed to the evening session, Nate and his mates were complaining about excessive wait times and cramped bars but all still seemed happy and inebriated so it can't have gone completely wrong, nothing was going to deter my blind optimism, I simply had to have a good time. Instead of immediately joining the lengthy queue that had formed outside of the brewery I headed to the bar and got myself a half of the stunning Simcore India Black Ale from London Fields, it was licorice and coffee dancing around with the intense pine sap flavours that only the Simcoe hop can deliver, glorious stuff. We we soon joined by my friend Greg and his party who were joining Justin and I at the evening session and after another drink we went to join the back of the queue.

Waiting a little while before joining the queue was our first masterstroke of the evening as the line was already moving when we joined it and we were thrust inside the festival grounds within 15 minutes of waiting. I had purchased the tasting ticket which at £20 got me a voucher for 9 thirds and a festival glass to drink my beer out of, good value in my opinion. To be honest I think this is the only ticket they should have sold, the £5 ticket while seemingly cheap meant that you ended up paying a lot more for drinks on the day and you had to drink out of plastic beakers and I could see people who had the £5 ticket were clearly disappointed with this. So lesson one, the tasting ticket is clearly the only ticket you needed to sell.

The festival grounds consisted of a small alley with two separate bars, each under a railway arch, they had clearly oversold as there was very little room to manoeuvre and both bars were crowded but we ambled up to the second bar and within about 10 minutes I had in my hand a glass of Redemption Big Chief, a lovely British style IPA with big globs of grapefruit and sweet honey notes, lovely. When I was standing in the queue waiting for my glass of Big Chief I made a decision which potentially polarised my festival experience. I had headed to this festival with the intention of tasting as many beers from London's cutting edge brewers as I possibly could but standing in line for my first beer I just thought, fuck it, to hell with the ticking, let's get drunk and have a good time and so every time I went to the bar I made sure I had my glass filled to the brim. It was a glorious decision. Needless to say, lesson two, you need a bigger venue next year guys.

It was this same decision that led me to my next beer, I've had Redchurch Old Ford Export Stout before, in fact I even reviewed it last year and although I wanted to try some new beers I knew how good this was and besides, I'd never tried it on draught. While drinking this luscious, rich, dark beer which has clearly been atomically dry hopped with simcoe I bumped into the lovely Becky and Jon from Art Brew. Despite it's luscious piney overtones I still consider the Old Ford to be firmly in stout territory but Becky disagreed and said it was a Black IPA. This is the WONDER of beer, glorious, conversation stimulating BEER! Becky, Jon, Justin, Greg and I then joined forces in HAVING A GOOD TIME, it was another solid idea.

Me with the lovely Becky and John from Art Brew.
At some point Justin dissapeared into the ether (the other room) and came back with a clutch of bottles, a full glass of Brupond Tip Top Hop IPA and Dave the owner and head brewer at Brupond. Many people, myself included, have had a bad experience with a lot of Brupond beers and Dave was clearly determined to make amends for this, thrusting a fresh bottle of Tip Top Hop into my hands. The glass of beer I was presented with was certainly a million miles away from the smokey, oxidised beer I'd previously had in bottle and I was ready to give them another chance. Seeing Dave's obvious enthusiasm was encouraging and Brupond may yet make a worthy addition to the London brewing scene.

I admired Becky and Jon's spirit and contemplated this while supping a lovely pint of London Brewing Co Highrise that was zesty and full of fresh citrus but just a little lacking in carbonation. Becky and Jon had been invited to the festival to judge beer but when chaos descended the judging went out the window and although most of the judges abandoned the pandemonium for calmer environments these two stuck it out, determined to have a damn good time and judging from the smiles on the faces and the repeated laughter and merriment they most certainly were. More familiar beer came my way, London Fields Black frost stout which has this lactic sourness going on that I can't get enough of and Hackney Hopster because I know it's good and I want to drink GOOD beer so I did. Jon then produces a pint of Weird Beard Black Perle coffee stout and then proceeds to top up my half finished glass of Black Frost with wonderful results. We didn't care too much what was in our glass by then just that it was GOOD and that it KEPT COMING. The Black Perle was the first ever Weird Beard brew I'd tried, and it was good and so it was that it made me get drunk and there was much rejoicing. 

And so the good beer kept on flowing and so I stopped trying to remember what they all tasted like, The LBA collaboration stout was on furious form but didn't quite reach the heights of the Old Ford Export Stout which was the beer of the festival for me. The Clarence and Fredericks Golden Ale was GOOD as was the Crate IPA but Hackney Hopster was better so I went back for more of that. Beer was running out by this point, most of the taps were covered with little plastic cups indicating that they had expired but unlike some it didn't bother me because my glass was full and I was laughing and my face and hands were covered in mustard and ketchup after inhaling a huge Big Apple hot dog. Lesson Three though, is that next year you most definitely need more beer. 

The crowds thinned towards the end of the evening, I assumed most people started leaving once their supply of beer tokens had run dry. Now there was space to relax and take it easy, the frantic atmosphere at the start of the evening was long gone. I went to get some Weird Beard Mariana Trench but this is definitely not the beer that came out of the tap, instead of big South Pacific hops I had a delicious wheat beer full of Banana and Clove. If I wasn't a beer geek and was a regular punter I would have had no idea if this was the right beer or not, so that's how I approached the situation, I had good beer in my glass which soon went in to my belly so what's the point in giving someone whose been run ragged off their feet for the past four hours a hard time? None, zero, nada, that's what. Lesson four however, you should probably make sure the right beer goes to the right tap next year.

It was nearly time to go, I stood in the middle of the main room with a huge smile on my mustard and ketchup smeared face. Justin then approaches me with a glass that contained the cloudy dregs from the end of a cask that had run out earlier. It was in fact Beavertown Blood Orange IPA, the one beer that I desperately wanted to try but had ran out before I had the chance... but here I was with some in my hand. I barely had two sips but it was predictably glorious, I could have stayed another hour and sank a pint or two but I was barely standing and so shimmied off home, chock full of glee.

Lesson five? Make sure you do it again next year, I'm confident that this festival will bounce back in 2014 and it will be bigger, better and I'll be there drinking GOOD beer with a smile on my face.

Because I was having such a GOOD time I forgot to take any photos, so a HUGE thanks go to Justin from Get Beer Drink Beer for letting me use his.