Sunday 30 June 2013

Me and Black Sheep

It's 2002 and I'm nineteen years old, my Dad is driving me to Middlesbrough where I'm to begin a three year stint at the University of Teesside studying Music Technology. During my first year I was to be staying in student halls of residence with five other young lads all studying similar creative degrees. We arrive around mid afternoon and after I collect my keys we head to the house, I'm the second resident to arrive, I know this because the first resident was making some weird and wonderful sounds using a Korg MS-2000 synthesiser (which, incidentally I now own) and once my dad had left I went and joined the creator of those sounds, my new house mate Alex. We chat until the wee hours and he tells me how his dad Paul owns and runs a brewery, I was more interested in quantity rather than quality when it came to beer at this point of my life but the beer geek kindling was gradually being laid inside my mind and so I still found this interesting. After university Alex and I remain good friends and both end up taking ourselves to London but as is often the case with friends our lives take different directions and we gradually drift apart.

Fast forward eleven years, bar the last two months and I'm heading to Willesden, it's the first day of my new job which incidentally is in Music Technology distribution so it seems that finally those mountainous tuition fees are finally paying back their dues. Who should be sat at the desk opposite me but Alex who does the marketing at my new place of employment. Alex soon learns that I've become an active beer enthusiast and one day I arrive at work to find a bottle of his family brewery's latest beer All Creatures sitting on my desk. It describes itself at a 'Yorkshire Pale Ale' and is brewed in tribute to Yorkshire's famous fictional veterinary character, James Herriot. It's brewed with the classic British hop trio of Fuggles, Goldings and Bramling Cross which do their thing over a delicate backdrop provided by Maris Otter malt. Maybe this doesn't sound that appealing to a modern beer enthusiast like yourself, it's certainly not what I would normally look for in a beer these days but put into the right context this beer has its place, more on the beer later though, there's more story to tell first.

You've probably guessed from the title of this post that the surname of my friend Alex is Theakston and that his dad is Paul Theakston who founded Black Sheep Brewery in 1992 after Theakston's was purchased by Scottish & Newcastle (now Heineken UK). Paul sensibly decided to locate the new Black Sheep Brewery right next door to the Theakston's brewery in Masham, North Yorkshire and the first Black Sheep was poured in October 1992 which doesn't seem that long ago really despite it feeling like Black Sheep have been around forever, to me at least. To put this in perspective for my American readers Sierra Nevada Pale Ale had already been in existence for twelve years by the time Black Sheep was first brewed but if you held a glass of each in your hand which would you consider the most contemporary and current? 

The Black Sheep Brewery is still located in it's original Masham facility although now has a greatly expanded brewing capacity and it is now run by Alex's brothers Rob and Jo so this is still very much a family affair. The most exciting news is that they've just installed a 5 barrel pilot plant and plan to brew some more experimental small batch brews, I for one am looking forward to tasting what they come up with. Black Sheep have weathered some pretty tough times for the UK brewing industry and with the new boom in 'craft' (I've really developed a deep loathing for that word as it divides and beer is about bringing people together) beer there is an incredible amount of new competition for more traditional breweries such as Black Sheep. I'm guilty of propagating this myself, if I walked into a bar and saw Black Sheep on cask and say, Magic Rock Cannonball on keg I'd go for the Cannonball each and every time. I still enjoy a sheep on occasion, for nostalgia's sake, in fact I can remember about two weeks into my university career Paul dropping off a slab for us to enjoy over the weekend that most definitely did not last us the weekend...

Anyway, it's funny how life has a way of bringing these things back around and I'm a firm believer that they happen for a reason... so what did I make of All Creatures pale ale? Well I pour it into a pint glass and a sparkling pale gold beer emerges from the bottle and produces a pleasing fluffy white head. On the nose I get blackberries and nettles, aromas which I would usually associate with the classic British hops used in this brew. These aromas follow through nicely onto the palate and there's a little orange marmalade and a very light, bready malt flavour underpinning the whole thing. The finish is my favourite thing about this beer, there is a sudden intense bitterness which is gone in less than a second leaving your palate dry and refreshed and all importantly ready for the next sip. 

I enjoyed this beer, it's the kind of beverage you'd want after a couple of hours spent yomping across the Yorkshire Dales before finally deciding that your legs have had enough and it's time for a pint and a ploughman's. It's not my go to kind of beer but if I wandered into a local North Yorkshire watering whole and had a 'reet thirst on it's probably the sort of thing that I'd be in the mood for. Drinking Black Sheep beers will always generate a certain nostalgia within me and I think it's important for hop obsessives to drink well made, balanced and refreshing beers such as this to remind them that life's not all about massive, over the top flavour, sometimes it's just about a nice pint.

Wednesday 12 June 2013

Leeds Leeds Leeds

Hi there, remember me? It's been a while, sorry I've not been around but for various reasons I've been lacking the fire that drives me to sit down and write of late but here I am back again, grinding out another blog post in a Boycott-esque fashion. I have to admit I was close to packing it in, I was sick of the same old tired debates, passive aggressive snipes, industry politics and above all the abject negativity that seems to permeate the undercurrent of this industry. Above all I'm absolutely sick to death of the term craft beer, it used to be an incredibly useful way of describing beer that exists due to the birth and gradual rise of the North American brewing scene that's now been propagated by big businesses and bastardised by people who don't really understand what it means but thinking about it who really does?  As far as I'm concerned the use of the word craft in the beer industry can get down on its knees and toke on my bell-end, I'm done with it but that's another blog post that I'll probably never write. Why will I never write it? Because I'm done with the negative, I just needed to get this out of my system, that's it, rant over, I apologise for nothing.

Friends of Ham - your Mum would like it there
What is important is getting out there and drinking some of the cold, fizzy wet stuff that I love so much and over the last weekend in May me and Dianne went to visit our friends Lauren and Lee in the fair town of Leeds. Drinkers of Leeds may already be quite well acquainted with this pair, Lauren is the Assistant Manager at Further North and Alfred Bar and Lee is one of the cocktail masters at Wax Bar so this weekend was always going to be about the drink. I love Leeds, outside of London it's probably my favourite city in the UK, the smart, sleek, urban renewal runs perpendicular with a slice of old, industrial Yorkshire and over the last decade or so it's become a real mecca for the next generation of beer lovers thanks to its great selection of modern boozers and bottle shops. 

Dianne had made the journey north the day before so I travelled up solo, it takes a little over two hours to complete the journey from Kings Cross to Leeds and as I didn't take any beers with me for the train I was gasping by the time I arrived. Thankfully it was only a five minute jaunt down New Station Street before I was sat in Friends of Ham with a fruity and refreshing pint of Thornbridge Tzara, an absolutely wonderful Koln style beer that didn't last me a great deal of time. I was soon joined by Lauren and Dianne and we ordered a simply immense platter of meat and cheese which was enjoyed in the clean and polite yet very warm and inviting surroundings of this cute little bar. As I sat and supped on a stunning half of Magic Rock Clown Juice, a funky, grapefruit and mango drenched 'India Wit' I thought to myself that Friends of Ham is a bar you'd bring your Mum to and she'd probably quite like it. 

After a little while we headed off back to Lauren's place to drop off our bags via Gerry's for a few ales to take us into the evening. I plump for a brace from Ilkley, I've been wanting to try the Sibera Rhubarb Saison style beer, brewed in collaboration with beer writer Melissa Cole, for some time and it's a nice enough drop that's for sure. It's probably a little sweet for my tastes, especially after how dry the two beers I've just drank were, I wanted big, tart rhubarb and it doesn't quite deliver what I was expecting but it's nice enough. Lotus IPA is also a pleasant enough brew with stacks of gooseberry and pithy grapefruit rind over a very bready malt profile but it lacks the juicy new world citrus flavours I prefer in my IPA, still I'd drink it again if I ever saw it on cask.

After a fondue dinner the three of us head out on the town and the first destination was to be the newly opened Brewdog bar. When we arrive they are playing thrash metal at simply ear-splitting volume, I'll admit I'm partial to the occasional bit of thrash but this was over the top. I'm not sure if they were using the music to keep a certain type of customer out (it certainly felt like they were) but it seemed to be working because despite it being well past 9pm on a Saturday night it was pretty quiet and we easily bagged ourselves a table. I'm used to my local Brewdog bar in Camden being absolutely rammed to the gills on a Saturday night so it felt strange to be in a half empty pub. What was good was every single beer I had in here, Hello my name is Ingrid is surely the best IPA being produced by Brewdog at the moment with that lovely, fruity yet floral finish provided by the cloudberries really adding something to the stacks of peach and grapefruit flavours. The collaboration Berliner Weisse brewed with Brodie's was nothing short of stunning, not suprising considering it's a sour beer that James Brodie has had a hand in creating. A half of deep, rich Riptide imperial stout brings the session at Brewdog Leeds to a close and I leave feeling like this is a bar that still hasn't quite found it's feet but the service was excellent and the music seemed to improve the more we drank.

Ilkey Siberia - Needs more Rhubarb
Our next destination needs no introduction but I'll introduce it anyway it otherwise you won't know where I am will you, it is of course, North Bar. I love North Bar, I know this because trawling back through my tweets the following morning I see that I tweeted "no bar in London is as cool as North Bar, sucks to be you London" and my sober self agreed with my drunk self implicitly. I saunter up to the bar and I get myself an Orval in honour of the late, great Simon 'Scoop' Johnson, the barmaid tries to have a conversation with me about Orval but the music is pumping and I'm half cut so I can't really hear what she is saying. I smile and nod and pay for my drinks but can't help but feel I've just missed out on having a great chat about what is one of my all time favourite beers, drat. North Bar is a completely different place in the evening, it transforms from a shabby, yet chic must visit joint if you like drinking to a full on uber cool Saturday night party venue for those who like drinking, it has me totally wrapped up in its wonderful atmosphere. I watch as a group of lads roll in and spend a fortune on a round of Jever Pils and tequila shots, a girl stumbles outside and vomits over the window and wait, who is that dapper, bearded gentleman a few tables over, why it's beer writer and entrepreneur Zak Avery! I stroll up and introduce myself to Zak and he gives me a big hug, before he and his party head out to continue his evening and I head back to the bar for a refreshing, zesty pint of Anarchy Citra Star and continue with mine. Young Jim behind the bar tells me he's not keen on this beer but it's the long, refreshing drink I need after the heavier beers that preceded it, good stuff.

Eventually it was time for us to up the ante and head to bother Lee at Wax Bar next door. Wax, like North, is another effortlessly cool bar which has a lively and yet relaxed vibe to it. Lee mixes me up a Wild Turkey whisky sour which is shortly followed by a Margarita and then according to Dianne I "fell out of reality." Thankfully she is a kind and tolerant girlfriend and she guides me back to Lauren and Lees place before force feeding me meat and chips at my request, apparently. Anyway, it goes without saying that Wax Bar is another must visit venue for the discerning drinker in Leeds because after all, life's not all about beer, although Wax have a decent selection of bottles such as Brooklyn Lager and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale available should you decide to shun their excellent cocktails.

I spend the next day attempting to climb back in to the reality I so effortlessly fell out of. A fry up, a wander around the Royal Armouries and a quite frankly stunning flat white from Laynes Espresso help with this task immensely. It's almost time for our train home and I pop into Friends of Ham for a couple of cans to keep me company as well as a slab of the immense Harrogate Blue cheese we had for lunch yesterday. The train glides back south home to London and I sip on a Flying Dog Snake Dog IPA contemplating what a wonderful twenty four hours it has been, thanks for being swell Leeds.

The biggest thanks go to Lauren and Lee for hosting Dianne and I, thanks guys, see you again soon!