Monday 29 September 2014

What is this Guinness?

There are few beer drinkers more singularly loyal to a brand than Guinness drinkers. They were practically born with a pint of the black stuff in their hands and there it shall remain until the day they leave us. The thought of drinking a rival brand of stout such as Beamish or Murphy's, or anything else for that matter, is simply amoral to them. As long as Guinness exists there will always be those that chose to drink little, if nothing else.

I visited the Guinness production plant in St. James Gate, Dublin earlier this year and marvelled at the extreme size of the place whilst they plied us with endless hospitality. There I met some of the production brewers and while I was well aware that they had no doubt been told to be on their best behaviour I still remarked that they shared the same passion and enthusiasm as any 'craft' brewer I've ever met. That evening we were given samples of a new pilot brew called 'Night Porter' and to be honest, I rather enjoyed it. Hints of drinking chocolate and molasses rasped at the tongue, this was decent stuff.

Fast forward a couple of months and Guinness have just announced the launch of two new porters that are alleged to be based on historic recipes. First up the 3.8% Dublin Porter, resplendent in a sky blue label with an elegant design that gives a wink, nod and tip of the hat to their 18th century branding. It pours Coca-Cola brown with a fluffy white head that doesn't hang around. There's little aroma to speak of so I lunge straight in for a taste. Subtle notes of slightly burnt toast and instant coffee instantly remind me of regular old Guinness. Not draught but the proper stuff my Grandma used to give me half a glass of with my sandwich as I sat on her lawn in the summer holidays of my youth. It's not different enough to regular Guinness to impress me but it's quaffable and it will certainly satisfy the brands zealots. This begs the question, if they can be convinced to drink this, what else might they be tempted to try?

They might well start with West Indies Porter. I'm in love with the label of this 6% ABV beer. Something about the combination of the typeface, that certain shade of yellow and the shield it's assembled on has my mind doing cartwheels. It pours a darker shade of brown than the Dublin Porter and it also manages to produce a respectable nose of cane sugar and sultanas. While not luxurious it does have a depth that I find satisfying. Sugared Turkish coffee plays around with the taste of figs, it's sweet but dry enough to make me want to take another sip. It has more than just a hint of Foreign Extra about it. While there are many beers in this class that are head and shoulders above this in terms of depth and volume of flavour I still enjoyed it and would drink it again. 

These aren't game changers, in fact they're a long way from it but they're not bad beers and they are distinctively Guinness like in flavour. They will win over the Guinness die hards and the supermarket ale suppers quite easily, especially as the immense volume in which these beers are produced makes them considerably cheaper than their 'craft' counterparts. But what of that Guinness drinker that's dared to try something different despite staying on brand? Perhaps that bottle of Fuller's London Porter that they've always skipped on the shelf will now be seen in a completely different light.

These beers will do nothing to take back those that have already discovered how good beer can be with just a little searching. They will however do a lot to open the minds of those that have already made their minds up. As a result this could backfire on the marketing board at Diageo that conceptualised these beers. I can't see these beers still being around in five years time so enjoy them while you can because as far as I'm concerned they're not all that bad and good value for money.

Both bottles were sent to me by Guinness to review but I don't think this influenced my opinion of them. Original photography by Dianne Tanner

Thursday 18 September 2014

Pour Hard Or Go Home

I have a bond with Colorado that runs deeper than beer but it was the beer that created the bond. Ever since my first taste of Odell IPA, a beer that years ago changed my perception of what beer could taste like I have held brews from the Centennial State in the highest regard.

One day my travels took me to the town of Longmont about half an hours drive north of Denver. As with most of the front range towns there's a handful of microbreweries and brewpubs here but on this trip there were two I was desperate to visit. First there was Oskar Blues, its vast tin shed facility home to the roaring canning line that helped them to eventually become an international success. Their beers are never understated, they are towering pillars of hop and malt designed to push your palate as far as it can go. It's easy to see why they are so well loved.

Less than two miles away lies the self stated 'world headquarters' of Left Hand brewing. That's about as extravagant as they get. Stepping through the front door reveals a small, understated tap room that in some minute way recalls a cosy British bar but for the most part it's typically Coloradoan. Just like this tap room, Left Hand's beers are often soft spoken, accessible but still brimming with flavour. Their core beer, Milk Stout is perhaps one of the best beers in its class, especially the nitro version. It may sound arrogant for them to call it 'America's Stout' but from where I'm sitting that's a good call. It says a lot about a brewery that have, in the midst of a State obsessed with ever more bitter IPA and more complex sours, have built their foundations on a 6% milk stout.

I first tried Milk Stout before I'd been to Colorado at London's Bloomsbury Bowling Lanes. Even before I became a fully fledged beer enthusiast I was always trying new beers out of curiosity. Back then it didn't leave much of a mark on me but years later once it was no longer available I suddenly yearned for it's sweet, milk chocolate nuances. 

When I found out that Left Hand were planning to relaunch in the UK I was overjoyed. When I found out that they would be launching at one of my favourite bars, Mother Kelly's in Bethnal Green, I couldn't have been happier. So on a late summers evening I made my way east and soon had a cold glass of Milk Stout in front of me. It was everything I remembered but more, it took me back to Colorado but it felt that this time it would be staying for good. This somehow felt comforting. They'd brought more too, Stranger Pale Ale, reminiscent of some of the best traditional British pale ales but in high definition. 400 Pound Monkey which again has that jammy, traditional flavour you wouldn't expect from an American beer but is undeniably American. Clean, crisp Polestar Pilsner, another revolutionary amongst hundreds in the modern rebirth of lager. 

There's an argument that we don't need imported beer in the UK, that the strength of our own brewing scene is so strong that it simply doesn't need bolstering. While this may in part be true it's essential that beer drinkers taste and experience as much as possible from wherever they can so that this grand renaissance can continue. Each Left Hand beer is a lesson in balance, consistency and restraint. Welcome back Left Hand, you deserve to be here. My fridge will be well stocked with Milk Stout for the foreseeable future. 

Tuesday 16 September 2014

Stout, Stout, Let It All Out

There's something undeniably instinctive about reaching for particular beers at certain times of the year. I try not to let the changing seasons influence my drinking habits but something about the tinge of autumn in the air already has me reaching for darker beers. 

I was recently sent a bottle of Meantime Brewing's new limited release, a 7.5% ABV Imperial Stout called Black Russian. It arrived in an elegantly designed black cardboard sleeve with a smart, Champagne style 750ml bottle stuffed inside. On a recent tour of their brewing facility in Greenwich, South London, brewer Rod Jones told me that Meantime owner and founder Alastair Hook didn't think that the UK market was ready for these limited release beers. They tend to be bigger in flavour and more unusual in style than their core output and most of it is exported to the US. The little that remains in the UK is more often than not exclusive to their brewery shop. 

The timing of this beers arrival couldn't have been more perfect. I was currently undertaking the rigorous testing of the new Spiegelau stout glass and Black Russian was an ideal candidate for my research. Co-designed by Oregon's Rogue Ales and Left Hand Brewing of Longmont, Colorado the Speigelau stout glass joins their growing range of premium beer glassware. A recent road test of their IPA glass found that it boosted aroma and enhanced the drinking experience so I was curious to see what the stout glass brought to the party. It's similar in stature to the IPA glass with a thin, tapered base that balloons out into a larger bowl shape. Unlike the IPA glass the base is free of the ridges that made its predecessor so visually recognisable and the upper bowl section is much larger with a wider brim.

In all honesty it looks to me more like an ornamental vase than it does a beer glass but I'm sure fans of the IPA glass will appreciate its unique shape. I went through a variety of porters and stouts from bog standard sub 5%-ers right up to monolithic barrel aged behemoths that poured oubliette black. It's quite a big glass and as a result I personally found that the bigger the beer the more it was lost in the vessel. A brandy snifter seems to work much better with thick, intense, flavour laden beers.

In all honesty I'm not sure I experienced any benefit when using the stout glass but the extremely thin structure seems to help maintain carbonation and thus aroma, it's also quite enjoyable to drink out of. This glass is clearly designed with beers such as Left Hand's Milk Stout in mind and I feel it will only appeal to more zealous beer fans. Interestingly enough the IPA glass has the same effect on any highly aromatic beer be it stout, IPA or whatever, seemingly enhancing this particular property.

Black Russian though, that beer was something else. I've been quick to write off Meantime in the past partly as they don't produce a lot of beers in the styles I like and partly because as a proto-beer geek I automatically wrote off anything that wasn't an out and out hop assault. I pop the cork and already a touch of dark chocolate aroma is creeping into my nose holes. This is much more pronounced once it's in the glass with the deep, dark brown beer also showing a raspberry note, a hint of alcohol and something I can't quite put my finger on. 

The flavour is big, robust and hard edged. Boozy notes of roasted coffee, rich dark chocolate and bitter cocoa jostle on the tongue. The finish is bitter, really bitter and there's a green flavour that's connected to the aroma that I was struggling to place. Then it hit me, pine resin, the unmistakable taste of North American c-hops. This beer was deep inside Black IPA territory and incredibly drinkable despite its bold flavours and strength. It was a surprise, an incredibly pleasant one at that but I simply cannot understand why this wasn't a major UK release. It could've been one of this years real success stories. 

Disclosure: I was sent the beer and the glass to review by Meantime and Spiegelau respectively and I thank them for this. I don't think this influenced my opinion of either. Original photography by Dianne Tanner.  

Sunday 14 September 2014

The Brewery That Cried Hells

On the 8th of September, to very little fuss, Camden Town Brewery published a piece on their website titled The Home of Hells. It brought to light two things, how important their brand Hells Lager is to them as a company and that how another company, who were not named in the statement, has very recently given their own lager the name Hells. It goes on to tell of how Camden had attempted to contact the other brewery and asked them to change the name of the beer with no success. I tweeted a link to the statement and unknowingly placed myself at the centre of a Twitter shit-storm.

It soon turned out that the unnamed brewery was the Craft Brewing Company, based near Norwich in Norfolk who trade under the name Redwell. Their response painted a very different picture of the incident, accusing Camden Town of using big brewery, bully boy tactics and giving them only 7 days to cease manufacture of their own Hells Lager. A beer that up until a month ago, did not exist. The Craft Brewing Company (who from here on in I shall refer to as Redwell for brevity) then go on to challenge Camden to a 'taste off' with the loser having to drop the name Hells for good. I tweeted the link to this too and thus the shit-storm continued to rage on.

To be perfectly honest, both statements made me cringe. The public domain is never the place for trademark disputes. Camden's statement was well written, but used terms such as 'intellectual property' painting them in the same big brewery colours that Redwell had also done. Terms that will do nothing to endear them to their customers. On the other hand, Redwell's own statement was rushed and contained many mistakes and factual inaccuracies, it had all the hallmarks of a knee jerk reaction. 

I stated on Twitter that neither brewery would win this battle but despite this something inside me would not let go. I simply had to get to the bottom of this come hells or high water. 

I began my research by trying to find out if Hells was in fact a beer style or if it was truly a brand that Camden had created for themselves. In Redwell's statement they write "Hells, for any German, is a generic description for light lager, as is the term helles and hell along with several other similar variations." In German 'hell' or 'helles' simply means 'light' or 'bright'. 'Hells' does not mean either of these things, in German it just means 'hells' and is not used to describe a beer style. 'Hell' and 'helles' are though, as indicated by the German Beer Institute on their website.

What this means is that although 'Helles' and 'Hell' are styles of beer 'Hells' is without question of a doubt a brand. A brand that has been developed and used by Camden Town Brewery for four years. A brand that they are becoming synonymous with. 

After I had decided that Hells was not a term used to describe a style of lager I then went on to look into similar disputes and their outcome. Does anybody remember Brewstar of Morpeth near Newcastle-upon-Tyne? After Brewsters of Lincolnshire asked them to change their name they did so and became the fantastic Anarchy Brew Co. Remember Magic Rock Curious pale ale? Well this is now called Ringmaster after the Chapel Down Brewery, who brew a beer called Curious Brew, asked them to change that name, which they did. What about Thornbridge Raven Black IPA? I asked Thornbridge Brewer Dominic Driscoll what happened here and he told me that the Orkney Brewery, who brew Raven Ale, asked them to change the name. They got together, had a few beers and Raven metamorphosed into Wild Raven.

This is just three examples of British breweries working out branding disputes behind closed doors in a mature and businesslike fashion. On any of these occasions no heels were dragged through the mire and not a drop of blood was shed. 

So why did Camden feel the need to go public with this particular dispute? Well after speaking to the brewery I know that Director of Brewing Alex Troncoso personally tried to contact Redwell on numerous occasions to arrange a meeting to sort this mess out. Eventually when Redwell's answer to their calls was to arrange a winner takes all loser takes nothing taste test, Camden felt they had no choice but to take things to the next level. If Redwell had shown some maturity at this stage it would have never come to this. It should never have come to this. 

The further I delved into this mess the more I began to believe that Camden were in the right and that Redwell were taking advantage of previous mistakes. Camden's dispute with Weird Beard (that also involved BrewDog) made all three breweries look bad but on this occasion the consumers rallied behind Weird Beard and Camden earned the bully-boy reputation that Redwell have used to their advantage on this occasion. In my opinion this is now water under the bridge, mistakes were made but in the end the name of the offending beer was changed. 

Redwell are no stranger to legal disputes themselves having had a wrangling with Red Bull who wrote a letter asking Redwell to change the name of their brewing operation. Redwell took this to the national media with accusations of corporate bullying and Red Bull eventually backed down with Redwell's own profile being raised significantly. I even discussed this with some of the guys from Redwell when I met them at the Craft Beer Rising earlier this year. We had a bit of a laugh about it while I tried their beers which I really enjoyed, especially their Pilsner and India Pale Lager.

I spend a lot of time down at the Camden Town Brewery bar. It's 3 miles from my office and directly on my route home from work. It's my local brewery, it's a very important part of what 'craft beer' is to me and I've been a regular there since it opened in early 2012. I've got to know a lot of the people that work for the brewery through my bar visits and through this blog, I call many of the staff friends. Camden Town's bar encapsulates the spirit of the craft beer scene, it's a fantastic place to buy a drink and spend an evening. If anyone believes that they hold their brand above their beer then I can assure you that you are wrong. The guys at Camden are some of the most passionate, hardworking people in the industry. They are not bullies, they simply care a great deal about something they have spent the past four years building their business on and they have every right to try and protect this. 

It's when I saw several people who I respect and also call friends announce that they would be boycotting Camden Town beers because they are 'bullies' that I was incensed to dig deeper. After both of the statements had been released I tried to remain impartial but after much deliberation I now firmly believe that Camden are being taken advantage of and that Redwell are in the wrong. 

As a craft brewery, Redwell have a responsibility to educate and inform their customers. Stating that 'Hells' is a generic description used by Germans to describe light lager is a falsehood and just a little research on my part proved this. It is an easy enough mistake to make so I will gift Redwell the benefit of the doubt and believe that this is indeed a mistake. I know from speaking to several people at Camden including senior staff that Redwell were asked several times to change the name of their beer. They refused and I believe that they are playing on Camden's past spat with Weird Beard in an effort to besmirch their name. 

Craft brewing is a professional and mature young industry and this kind of behaviour has no place in it. Redwell are both misinforming and misleading their own customers at the cost of the credibility of one of our country's best breweries and this is simply not acceptable. 

As a consumer, as a customer, as someone who is passionate about beer I ask you Redwell to please see sense and change the name of your beer. Let's put this behind us, move on and concentrate on making great beer for people to enjoy.

To quote my friend and fellow beer writer Chris Hall 'Camden Hells Lager is their lifeblood'. It is everything they stand for and have worked for since their inception in 2010. Taste it side by side with a Tegernseer Hell, a highly regarded authentic Bavarian Helles and tell me that it's not an incredibly accomplished beer. Taste their new India Hells Lager which launches in cans next month and tell me its not a game changer. Most importantly please join me for a beer at the brewery bar next Friday evening, the 19th of September and experience The Home of Hells for yourself. I challenge you not to have a good time. 

Tuesday 9 September 2014

The Hop and Berry, Islington

The area around Islington's Upper Street in North London has long been known for its restaurant culture. It makes perfect sense that it would become one of the hubs for the city's thriving craft beer scene. From the popular Craft Beer Company on White Lion Street to the trendy Earl of Essex just behind Essex Road it almost seems like this spot is becoming over saturated with quality pubs but try and squeeze into any one of the many crowded drinking dens of Islington on a Friday night and you'll soon realise that there's a need for more. Hell even those scamps at BrewDog are rumoured to be opening their first restaurant on Essex Road very soon, a clear sign of how vital good beer in this area has become.

Enter The Hop and Berry, formerly The Barnsbury, on the quiet Liverpool Road parallel to Upper Street. The brainchild of former Euston Tap manager Tony Lennon, The Hop has come up with a unique way of standing out from the sea of nearby competition, it only stocks beer from London breweries. With almost 70 breweries operating in the capital and more on their way this makes perfect sense. Especially when the quality of beer coming from the likes of Brodie's, Pressure Drop and Weird Beard, to name but a few, is so high. 

Stepping inside the spacious interior the horseshoe shaped bar is home to six hand pulls and behind it are twelve keg lines. While the cask beers are clearly marked with pump clips the keg beers are simply numbered but a quick glance to my left reveals what's on draught. The nicest touch about this list is that beside every beer is the distance in miles the brewery lies from the pub. No pub on the list was from more than 15 miles away with many much closer and there was something both reassuring and satisfying about this. My half of the always excellent Pressure Drop Pale Fire certainly had both of these qualities. Craftophiles will be pleased to know that as well as pints, third and two-third measures are available.  

Tony tells me that he eventually wants to stock a wine and spirit offering that rivals the locality of his beer and while he may not be able to source these from London itself there will certainly be some quality British produce gracing the shelves. Food is of the gastropub variety with roast dinners served on a Sunday, something that people bored of the endless supply of burgers and pizzas will find appealing. I didn't eat much bar a few bar snacks on this occasion but I'll be returning to investigate once the kitchen is in full swing. 

There's plenty of room in here and I get the feeling that this is the kind of pub that people will come to when they want to avoid the nearby hustle and bustle and grab a table with friends while enjoying good food and great drink. There's even a beer garden which is something many London beer bars are sorely lacking. It's also very handily placed for the start of a pub crawl that weaves its way through the Angel. Although still a bit too new with the smell of fresh paint lingering in the air I'm positive that with time The Hop and Berry will make yet another excellent addition to the Islington beer scene.

Sunday 7 September 2014

Five from Deeside

Sandwiched in between the Cairngorms and the city of Aberdeen lies Royal Deeside, home to Balmoral Castle and some of the most stunningly beautiful countryside in the British Isles. It was here in 2005 that the Deeside Brewery was established and they recently got in touch to see if I'd like to try their range of ales and lagers.

I dive straight in to the bottle of LAF a steam beer inspired by the warm fermented lagers that originated during the California gold rush. I have a minor personal issue with the way the word Californian has been used on the label, the word 'style' should probably be squeezed onto the bottle somewhere for clarity. It's vibrant gold in colour and the nose gives very little away, just a touch of the cereal like malt character which follows through in the taste. It's rounded and full bodied in the mouth which is true to the style. There are hints of honey sweetness and grassy bitterness and the dominant flavour is like chewing crushed barley. It's well made and I like it.

I then move on to Swift an American influenced pale ale. There is a hint of grapefruit aroma coming from the pleasantly hued amber liquid. One worry is that the head dissipates quickly taking with the last shreds of that aroma. That cereal like character is on the palate again with a little bit of pithy citrus but not nearly enough for it to be true to style. I find it a little ordinary and worry that it will struggle against other beers in this class. 

Macbeth is a by the numbers Scotch ale. It pours a pleasing shade of copper but again like the Swift it fails to produce a head. As a result there's not much of an aroma but the taste is nice enough. It reminds me of those chewy, teeth-rotting bars of highland toffee I used to buy from the school tuck shop with my pocket money. The tiniest hint of bitterness helps dry out that sweetness but it's lacking any real depth of character. I imagine it would be more enjoyable if served from a well looked after cask.

The final 500ml bottle in the case contains Talorcan, a milk stout. It's a nice deep brown but once again it fails to retain its head making it look like a glass of flat Coca-Cola. It does at least manage to produce an aroma reminiscent of ground coffee and milk chocolate. The taste is initially offset by a harsh carbonation which improves as it warms up but eventually it loses all carbonation as a result of me trying to get the temperature up. There are notes of chocolate and coffee with a lactic element adding a creaminess but it just feels like its lacking a little something. Again, as with the Macbeth I conclude that this beer would fare better on cask.

There is one more beer in the range, Craft Brewed Lager which comes in a 330ml bottle no doubt to appeal to the casual lager drinker. Quite why this bottle insists that its craft brewed while the others don't is beyond me but I try not to let it bother me and merrily plod on. This one pours a shade of pale straw with a pleasingly fluffy white head. There are hints of cut grass on the nose along with that cereal quality which I've decided I like quite a lot. This is much more like it, crackers, lemon pith and a dry, grassy bitterness make this a well rounded and drinkable beer. It's my favourite of the bunch with the LAF steam beer a close second. 

Despite obvious issues with conditioning causing a few of these beers to lose their heads they do for the most part seem pretty well made. However there's very little between them. They're all quite samey, there's less than a 0.8% difference between the ABV's of all five beers and the dominant flavours are very similar. For me they just don't do enough to stand out and while I imagine they'll sell through in the immediately local area they will struggle further afield. Still, there's a couple of decent beers in this bunch that I'd happily drink again if I saw them but I probably wouldn't go out of my way to seek them out. 

Although I was sent these samples for free I don't think that influenced my opinion of them. Original photography by Dianne Tanner

Friday 5 September 2014

My First Belgian

When I was in my late teens the beer fridge in our home had pretty much an open-access policy. My Dad was keen that I educated myself on the effects of drink in house rather than unsupervised in a park with the cheapest booze my friends and I could lay our hands on. Of course that did happen, it was as much a drinking rite of passage as sipping my first pint of real ale or first modern American style IPA.

Various beers graced that fridge, mostly the now much derided macro lagers such as Grolsch or Becks but back then I enjoyed them. At seventeen my palate wasn't quite ready or able to decipher the myriad flavours that different beer styles offered. However there was definitely an early fascination in beer, the collection of beer mats and assorted empty bottles in my bedroom was as indicative of my future habits as it was a teenage attempt at impressing my peers. 

I remember quite clearly when Dad brought some bottles of Duvel home from the supermarket. He really played on its high ABV to get me excited and I recall him saying 'be careful when you pour it as it's really lively!' Pour it into a glass? This was surely madness but this stunted, stubby bottle didn't really work all that well as a drinking vessel and so I did opt for the official Duvel glassware which we just happened to have in the cupboard. Typically, no matter how carefully I poured I ended up with an ice cream mountain of foam and very little beer. After a few impatient minutes I did eventually transfer an adequate amount of beer from the bottle to the glass and I had my first ever taste of Belgian beer.

It was sweet, cloying and alcoholic. There was more going on in that glass than a seventeen year old was prepared for but I was not going to be defeated in front of my father. Besides this was 8.5% and I thought that was really cool. I remember enjoying it or at least saying I did but I'll be honest in saying that back then I really didn't understand it. Still this sparked an early curiosty in Belgian beers, particularly Abbey and Trappist beers. I remember enjoying Chimay Rouge the very first time I tried it and in my early twenties I'd drink Leffe while my mates drank Stella in an effort to impress them. I don't think it really worked. 

It's almost fifteen years since I took my first sip of Duvel. When I first discovered the modern, hop-forward beers that drove my beer love into the realms of pure fanaticism it took a back seat. In my arrogance I didn't have time for this beer any more. It took one sip from a glass of Duvel in a Bruges cafe to draw me back in only this was different. I'd learned how to taste beer now and so the experience was completely different. Delicate effervescence dancing on the tongue unlocking hints of sweetness and a light, almost bread like body that mingled with berry fruit flavoured yeast esters. Duvel is the champagne of beers, it is one of the best beers on the planet. 

In 2007 Duvel Moortgat first brewed Tripel Hop to keep with the trend of increasingly hoppy beer. Every spring they release a new batch, dry hopped with a different variety each year, this years is Mosaic and I love it so much I bought a case. There aren't many beers that drive me to this sort of dedication. Personally I like to think that as I've changed and grown as a beer drinker, Duvel has too but in reality it's been smashing it out of the Abbey since 1871.

The Session, a.k.a. Beer Blogging Friday, is an opportunity once a month for beer bloggers from around the world to get together and write from their own unique perspective on a single topic. Each month, a different beer blogger hosts the Session, chooses a topic and creates a round-up listing all of the participants, along with a short pithy critique of each entry. This months Session is hosted by Elisa and 
Breand├ín from Belgian Smaak