Monday 18 May 2015





MATT xxx

Friday 10 April 2015

London Beer People #1: Doreen Joy Barber - The Five Points Brewing Co.

Back in August 2014 I penned a long read titled London Beer People. It charted my experience at the events during London Beer City, a week long celebration of beer organised by Beer Writer and Journalist Will Hawkes, which also took in visits to the Great British Beer Festival and the London Craft Beer Festival. In the piece I drew the conclusion that the backbone of the London beer scene was not in fact the beverage we all covet, but the people behind it. I'm not just talking about Brewers here, London's Beer People includes Bar Staff, Distributors, Writers, Van Drivers, Sales People, Marketers and more. There is a myriad group of people behind the curtain, working hard to bring you the best beer they possibly can. In London Beer People I aim to get behind that curtain, see what makes London's Beer People tick and how they come together to make it one of the best beer cities in the world.

I first met Doreen Joy Barber of Hackney's Five Points Brewing Company at an event they held at Craving Coffee in Tottenham. Like many people I meet in the world of Craft Beer, Doreen was fizzing with energy and enthusiasm as she introduced me to the wonderful beers that The Five Points produce. As well as working for a brewery, Doreen also organises the London Brewers Market at Old Spitalfield's an incredibly popular event that bridges the gap between beer enthusiast and casual passer by. Quite simply, she never seems to stop to catch her breath, and so makes a fitting first glimpse at the people who make London's beer culture so very special.

Hi Doreen! Tell us who you work for, a little about them and what you do there.

I work for The Five Points Brewing Company in Hackney, East London. I've been working there since our first commercial brew day on the 9th of March, 2013. Originally, I pretty much did everything but brew - orders, sales, social media, events, communications and whatever else that needed doing. Now that we've added more staff to our team, I now mainly focus on the events and comms side of stuff. 

How did you end up working in the beer industry?

A mix of factors probably contributed to why I now work in beer, the most important of which is that I love to drink it! My employment background saw me work in cafés and pubs that stocked amazing beer on both sides of the Atlantic (I’m from Florida), and I spent (and still spend) quite a bit of time in bars with great beer. 

Additionally, I have a Master’s in Anthropology of Food, and I did my dissertation on CAMRA, which has given me a great insight into the world of ale here in Britain that I don't think many non-Britons have. In fact I get a lot of British folks who ask me what the difference is between ale and lager, for example. Which is cool - you don’t need to be an expert to enjoy good beer, and I like that people are asking questions about what makes beer the way it is. I think this curiosity is great for smaller breweries like us who have a story to tell and brew with the best ingredients we can get our hands on. 

You’re also involved in the London Brewers Market, how did you come to be involved with this project?

Ed Mason, the owner and director of The Five Points, had previous contacts with the Independent Label Market when he used to own an independent record label. These were rediscovered when a friend of a friend suggested to someone at Old Spitalfield's Market the idea of a ‘beer event’ which evolved into what it is now. We love working with the Independent Label Market, and we feel that the two events are very complimentary.

What do you think makes the London Beer Community so special to be involved in?

The independent beer community in Britain as a whole is full of some of the loveliest people you can ever find, and it’s not that much different with folks within the London beery community. We support each other’s efforts - whether it’s loaning another brewery 20kg of hops, collaborating with each other on events or beer, or (my personal favourite) drinking each other’s beer. Most folks are very sociable and are up for a pint and a chat. 

Since working at The Jolly Butchers back in 2011, I've seen the London beer scene really flourish. It’s great to be a part of that with The Five Points and organising the London Brewers' Market. 

Can you describe a particular ‘beer moment’ that made you realise that beer was more than just the fermented sum of its parts?

I don’t really have a beer moment. There’s no “beereka!” but rather a slow burn. Back in Orlando, there’s a place called Redlight Redlight which started out in the upstairs of a bakery, but now the space is in its third incarnation and it’s such a phenomenal place for beer from all over. I went there frequently and would drink a range of beers - at the time I'd frequently drink Belgian beers or Belgian-inspired beers. 

I was also lucky that my local supermarket would stock loads of beer. Not so lucky that one of my ex-boyfriends used to drink all the beer I bought, but it would encourage me to buy different ones to try them out - blueberry wheat beers, hefeweizens, wits and lots of pale ales and IPA's. They tended to be the lighter brews, because of the Florida heat, but I got really into my stouts and porters as well, particularly when I was ordering beer for Stardust Video & Coffee.

Bar The Five Points, which other breweries, London or otherwise, really stand out for you?

Within London, I've been incredibly impressed with what Simon McCabe at One Mile End has been putting out. The White Hart is now sort of my new local, so this could mean trouble! I also really enjoy Pressure Drop's brews and the stuff from the stalwarts at Redemption Brewing Co. Big Chief all the days! Other breweries I really like here in Britain are Fyne Ales, Marble, and RedWillow. I’ve also enjoyed a lot of what I’ve had from Ilkley recently. 

Where is your favourite place to drink and what are you drinking?

My favourite pub to drink in is The Railway Tavern on St Jude Street, in the Mildmay area near Dalston. I've either got a pint of Five Points Pale on cask or Big Chief from Redemption Brewing Co. Although it could be a Railway Porter, depending on the time of year and my mood. 

You're originally from Florida, is there anything you miss about the Florida beer scene that you'd like to see happening here in the UK?

I miss Redlight Redlight, which is a great place to drink if you’re in Orlando! Shout-out to Stardust as well with its two big beer fridges. I also miss how commonplace it would be to get decent beer, particularly in restaurants, cafés and bars. I remember last year being stuck in a random bar, complete with busted jukebox that played music way too loudly while a crazy Florida storm raged outside. The beer on draught featured a lot of the bigger names of the American microbrewing scene. It didn’t bill itself as a craft beer bar - it was just a bar. Likewise the supermarket would have a stupidly good range of beers. Good beer was just everywhere, particularly regional brewers such as Cigar City.

I hope, eventually, good beer will be more normalised as breweries grow and proliferate here in the UK, so even if you rock up to a gig or go to a random restaurant, there’ll be something you want to drink on the bar or in the fridge. Right now we aren't there yet, but hopefully we will be soon. I hate going to a gig and having no choice outside of Fosters or Becks. 

Sunday 5 April 2015

British Breweries And The Brewers Association of North America

Could some of our young, well-loved British craft breweries be on the verge of joining the Brewers Association of North America? Perhaps more importantly, should they?

Sat in the newly renovated and refreshed Horseshoe in Hampstead, North London, I was captivated by Chris Lennert of Colorado's iconic Left Hand Brewing as he spoke to the room with confidence and experience. Before him, we had listened to the evening's co-hosts, Logan Plant of Beavertown and Jasper Cuppaidge of Camden Town Brewery, tell us a little of their brewing history and about their beers. However, these two tall poppies are barely five years old, despite their successes they are infants in terms of the wider industry. Although they've seen rapid growth they both still have long journeys ahead of them if they are to achieve something remotely similar to Left Hand.

Left Hand Brewing have always gone against the grain. Back in the 90's, when all and sundry around them were brewing increasingly more potent India Pale Ale, they built their brand on the back of a stout. A brew that's now pretty iconic as far as beers of the craft revolution go. Lennert tells the gathered crowd of the Longmont brewery's twenty-two year history, of gruelling legal battles and trademark disputes, of hard graft and obstacles overcome. Left Hand's success wasn't just handed to them on a plate, they made it happen themselves. 

When the topic of Lennert's address changes to that of the Brewers Association of North America I detect a change in his tone. It's an increased note of seriousness mixed with real sincerity, as he talks about an organisation for which his passion is obvious. The Brewers Association is an industry run trade body that has more than 44000 members from over 2500 of North America's 3000 plus breweries, as well as incorporating the American Homebrewers Association. Its purpose is simply to protect and promote American craft brewers with the biggest beneficiary being the people that choose to drink its members beers. They run, amongst other things, the Great American Beer Festival, the Craft Brewers Conference and the bi-annual World Beer Cup. They provide education both technical and financial, tools that help both young and established businesses, including legal advice, as well as significantly increasing both the awareness and knowledge of craft beer on a consumer level. Put simply, there's no other trade body in the industry quite like it. 

After his speech, Lennert makes sure to sit at every table and introduce himself to every guest dining at The Horseshoe this evening. When he finally reaches my table he continues to speak with passion about the work the Brewers Association does and shoves some literature into my hand, as he does with everyone else before the conversation is over. I'm puzzled as to why a trade body based in the United States is so eager to push its message onto drinkers from the United Kingdom but after a little observation and some careful thought it begins to come clear.

I watch Lennert speak to Plant and Cuppaidge as the guests begin to depart and the night draws to its close. He continues with the same sense of seriousness, bordering on urgency, whilst the two owners of successful yet fledgling British breweries look on with apparent reverence. Could these two breweries, who arguably exist in part because of the work the Brewers Association has done, be on the verge of becoming some of their newest members? What benefit could joining a trade body operating in another country possibly bring to their businesses?

Both Camden and Beavertown have export operations that have been key to their growth. Countries such as Sweden, Australia and for Beavertown, even the US, have provided key export markets. The Great American Beer Festival, unlike its British counterpart only serves American beer, it is the Great American Beer Festival after all. It's also a festival that sees 49000 attendees and last year sold out its ticket allocation in just 32 minutes. If there's one festival that any brewery looking to crack the North American market, the largest in craft beer, wants to be seen at then surely it's this one. It's just one of a myriad of reasons why joining would make sense, that plus a deep well of experience and support that no other trade body is able to provide. Quite simply, the existence of the Brewers Association has been and will continue to be one of the reasons beer has become as widely successful as it has.

One of their actions though, stands out for me from all others. In a sea of fierce debate and indecision, in order to protect its members and help them grow, the Brewers Association defined craft beer. It's not perfect and you may not agree with it but it exists and not one other trade body has had the stones to do the same. If Britain's various trade bodies can't work together to make this decision, then I would say the Brewers Association is the organisation that the industry really needs. With their combined ability to help businesses new and existing grow and to both educate and excite consumers, I also think it's the organisation we all want. 

Sunday 29 March 2015

Turning Water Into Gold - Northern Alchemy, Newcastle upon Tyne

Look closely at the label on a bottle of beer from Newcastle upon Tyne's Northern Alchemy. In the top right hand corner you'll see a little arrow within a circle that's pointing North East. It's pointing to a city that's referred to as the 'capital of craft' by its locals. It's no wonder that they're brimming with such enthusiasm, Tyneside and the surrounding area is teeming with talented young brewers and a plethora of excellent bars and bottle shops. Operations such as Anarchy, Almasty and Tyne Bank join Northern Alchemy in an impressive role call of forward thinking craft breweries. Bars and eateries such as The Free Trade Inn, The Cumberland Arms and Bierrex are providing exciting spaces with which to drink their beer in.

It might be in the long shadow cast by cities such as Manchester, Edinburgh and of course London but Newcastle is a city that should be on every beer lovers radar. Its breweries are doing all they can to bring it off the sidelines and Northern Alchemy are doing it in a way that's quite like no other brewery in the UK - from a brewhouse that lives in a converted 30-foot shipping container. Lovingly monikered 'The Lab', the container sits just behind The Cumberland Arms in the Ouseburn area of Newcastle. Here, Northern Alchemy craft what they describe as 'flavour led crafty beer' with increasingly interesting adjuncts adding their own personal spin to each style of beer they produce.

This passion to create flavour forward beer is evident in a collaboration brew with their neighbouring pub. It's an oatmeal pale ale, oatmeal being one way of increasing a beers protein content and improving mouthfeel and head retention. A traditional hop profile is complemented with mango, lime and cracked black pepper, flavours you'd expect from new world hops but in this case, Northern Alchemy aren't asking you to interpret hop flavours, instead using real-world adjuncts. It works in the aroma, you can smell the chunks of ripe mango flesh and zingy lime juice. It's exceedingly bitter as you'd expect but it's also borderline astringent with a prickle in the finish from the black pepper. I think I just prefer hops. 

I didn't get on with the dark chocolate and mint milk stout. The aroma reminded me of Fry's Peppermint Creams but I found the flavour to be sadly lacking. The idea of a chocolate and mint stout really appeals to me, in fact I'm very keen on Ska Brewing's own Vernal Menthe stout but I didn't get the intensity of flavour I was expecting. I wanted big, bitter dark chocolate and lush peppermint but it was all a bit mute and the chocolate gave the beer an almost grainy texture. 

On the other hand the Pineapple and Passionfruit Sour, brewed with Newcastle's own Andrew 'Sheriff' Mitchell was really enjoyable. It reminded me of the Berliner Weisse styles attempted by Brodie's and The Kernel. It had a damp cereal quality which I get in a lot of low ABV sour mash beers but this was backed up by juicy notes from the tropical fruit adjuncts. My only complaint with this beer was that I wanted a more intense acidity, a greater sourness and much more fruit. Still, this is a good start and I can only see Northern Alchemy improving on this style.

The final beer I tasted put a big smile on my face. It was another oatmeal pale, only this time infused with navel orange zest and Burundi Rugabo coffee. The nose had rounded coffee notes with a hint of pithy orange creeping around the edges. The flavours are blink and you'll miss them quick, a snapshot of intense coffee bean and zesty orange juice flavours that almost immediately leads into a clean, dry finish. It left me wanting more, so I immediately took another sip, then another and soon it was gone. I would have liked these flavours to be fuller, longer lasting and more rounded out but of the four beers this one was the one that made me wish I had a six pack in the fridge. I think we'll see a lot more pale beers infused with coffee over the coming months and Northern Alchemy, along with Weird Beard's Out of Office Coffee IPA, may have set an early benchmark.

Although I found this selection to be a little hit and miss it did greatly increase my curiosity and interest in the growing Newcastle upon Tyne beer scene. It's evident that Northern Alchemy are still learning their craft but they don't appear to be afraid of taking risks and this will undoubtedly get them noticed. I for one look forward to seeing how this North Eastern brewery develop over the coming months. 

Thanks to Gary, Gill and Northern Alchemy for the beers. 

Monday 16 March 2015

A Moment - Being In The Pub

I'm not sure when it happened, but at some point over the last twelve months my relationship with beer and more importantly, pubs, shifted ever so slightly. It used to be always about the beer, perhaps the seeking of a story and, most importantly, being with friends. The pub itself was simply a pinprick on a map that I'd relocate to in order to engage in the activity I'm the most fond of. I can always say I'm happy when I'm in the warm embrace of a pub, be it alone or with others and, being honest with myself, I find it hard to say that about a lot of other places. As I stopped constantly trying to find something new and comforting, the same two things instead found me. I began to realise that what made me so happy was being in the pub itself. It didn't matter if it was the sleek, curved underbelly of a railway arch or the soft, low lit, wooden interior of a Victorian terrace, just being there, in that moment filled me with utter contentment. I now long for the next moment I get to sit in the pub and talk for hours or simply watch the world go by. Right now, for me, nothing beats being in the pub.

The above photograph was taken in The Fat Cat, Norwich, January 2015. I drank half an Elgood's Coolship with two very good friends.  

Saturday 14 March 2015

Five Breweries Not To Be Overlooked At The London Brewers Market

This post was originally published on the London Brewers Market website which you can read here.

The London Brewers Market returns to the Old Spitalfields Market on Saturday the 28th of March and with it a host of London's brightest and best breweries. There'll be gallons of what is some of the very best beer being brewed in the capital right now, to both drink in the market itself and to take home to enjoy later on. With almost eighty breweries in the city, creating beer from the traditional to the innovative, it can be difficult to know what to try next. As a result much of our attention is focused on a handful of larger and more successful breweries simply because their presence is more widely felt. Here, I've chosen a handful of breweries, some new and some with a couple of years already under their belts, that are not to be missed at the Market this March. 

Orbit BeersSouth London's Orbit bounced onto the scene in 2014 with a range of beers inspired by both music and travel. You can always guarantee that a great record is spinning in this brewery when its beers are being created. The beers span from the traditional to the modern, both the Neu Altbier and Nico Kölsch are extremely accomplished recreations of classic German styles. These beers are subtle and nuanced with a depth of flavour that makes them both incredibly drinkable. On the other hand, Ivo is a pale ale that favours juicy, citrus forward, new world hop varieties and has more than a nod towards the modern pale ales of the United States. As well as these dialled in core brews look out for Orbit's specials such as Leaf, a smoked Alt. I expect big things from this brewery in 2015.

One Mile EndOrbit aren't the only new brewery on the scene worth shouting about. One Mile End are already making waves with the forward thinking brews that emerge from beneath its brewpub, The White Hart in Whitechapel. As well as American influenced beers such as the jammy, hop packed Snakecharmer IPA this brewery is already bowling people over with a range of whisky barrel aged stouts and porters. Another beer to watch out for is its farmhouse pilsner, an unusual fusion of two styles that somehow just clicks. Make sure you visit these guys early, as their specials are certain to sell out fast.

Brixton BreweryThe first thing you'll notice about Brixton Brewery are the eye-catching labels that are as vibrant as Brixton itself. You may also notice that each of this brewery's beers take their names from some of the South London borough's landmarks. You've got Effra Ale, a traditional amber ale named after the River Effra that flows beneath Brixton's concrete and the pithy, grapefruit-tinged Electric IPA named after the famous street that sits just behind the station. One Brixton beer not to be missed is the zingy Atlantic Pale Ale which uses both North American and Australian hop varieties to produce a beer that's packed with flavours of lemon and mango.

Redchurch BreweryWhen it comes to bold, envelope pushing beers in London you might first think of The Kernel, Partizan or perhaps even Brodie's but one name that also deserves the same high praise is Bethnal Green's Redchurch Brewery. Take for instance its Old Ford Export Stout, it's as dark as midnight and packed with huge aromas of liquorice, pine resin and grapefruit zest. In my opinion it's one of the best beers the city of London has to offer its beer drinking public and is one of several brilliant beers this brewery has to offer. Another beer not to miss is the dank and resinous Great Eastern IPA that actually coats your mouth with hoppy goodness as you drink it. If you're lucky you may even get to try its new Wild Isolation sour, a beer that was the result of a happy accident and will have you heading back to the bar for more.

Rocky Head BreweryIt's hard to believe that the Rocky Head Brewery has been brewing its American inspired beers since 2012 and that they haven't made more of an impact in this time. Despite this, they seem happy with their lot and those that know these beers know just how good they are. Just ask anyone who has tried its eponymous Pale Ale, packed with flavours of citrus and tropical fruit, you're certain receive almost universal praise. You'll be doing yourself an injustice if you don't head to their stand at the London Brewers Market, make sure you seek out their Imitera IPA, you won't be disappointed. 

There are of course plenty of other fantastic breweries appearing at the London Brewer's Market but if you're seeking something new, different, or a little bit special then you'll surely find it at the stands of these five fantastic breweries. Do yourself a favour and head down to the Old Spitalfields Market on March the 28th and make sure you take an extra big bag to bring plenty of the city's best beer back home with you.

All photography by Dianne Tanner

Sunday 8 March 2015

Brewdog Alice Porter - Unravelling The Enigma

Every time my gaze meets the new branding that now adorns bottles and cans from BrewDog I fall deeper in love with the design. It's so very un-beer like, which is what makes it so good, it stands apart from every bottle flanking it on the shelf. With an almost Global Hypercolour look to the two tone label that fades from purple to red, the freshly re-released Alice Porter is a real looker, and that's even before you've poured it into a glass. 

With the label copy BrewDog have tried to convince us that this beer is "profoundly puzzling... cryptic and enigmatic" when in reality I have found it to be anything but. Alice Porter is a beer with a story and it's a story worth telling and if BrewDog aren't going to, then I will. It all starts back in 2010 when Matt Gorecki, then manager of the quite wonderful North Bar in Leeds, headed to the old and now defunct BrewDog brewery in Fraserburgh. This wasn't just any old trip to a brewery, Gorecki was heading north on his stag do for a trip that would combine brewing, camping and a lot of drinking. The resulting beer, a 6.2% ABV Baltic Porter that featured Bramling Cross and Sorachi Ace hops, as well as vanilla pods in the boil, was named after Gorecki's bride to be, Alice Porter.

The original fifteen hectolitre batch was made as a one off for North Bar but it proved to be so popular that it soon became a winter seasonal. It featured in bottle, keg and back then even on cask, I can imagine that was really something. Then something genuinely puzzling happened, BrewDog stopped making Alice Porter, instead replacing it with Brixton Porter, a beer I found to be inferior to its predecessor. The thing with Brixton Porter is that it is a nice beer, but 'nice' isn't BrewDog. This is a brewery that is truly dedicated to pushing the envelope when it comes to flavour and for me Brixton Porter fell well short of the mark.

I'm delighted to see the return of Alice Porter, especially dressed up in its new livery and part of a new range of alternating, seasonal beers. It's changed quite a bit since it was first brewed in 2010, the strength has been dialled down to 5.2% ABV, the Bramling Cross and vanilla pods are gone but the Sorachi Ace remains, joined by the Magnum and First Gold varieties. The malt bill features four different types of malted barley, including Carafa which would indicate to me that, although they're looking for a dark colour they want to avoid strong roasted or burnt flavours. The grist also includes flaked oats and torrified wheat, adding fullness to this beers mouthfeel.

Alice Porter pours a cola-tinged shade of dark brown, the pleasingly fluffy head is just about off white and gives off light aromas of ripe figs with just a hint of molasses creeping in around the edges. In terms of flavour it seems to me that this beer has stayed true to it's Baltic roots, it feels full on the palate but drinks easy with notes of fig jam mingling with black treacle and an unusual lemon zest note from the Sorachi Ace. The finish is spicy, prickly and bitter at first but as the beer warms a little more sweetness creeps through rounding any sharp edges out. 

This is the beer I'd rather have seen join BrewDog's core lineup instead of the rather ordinary Brixton Porter. It tastes excellent and slides elegantly into BrewDog's ever-evolving range of beers during the late winter months. I could actually see Alice Porter fitting into BrewDog's core range and being brewed year round, and it would be even better to see it dispensed under nitrogen in its bars. One thing I don't see is the alleged "enigmatic dark alchemy" that supposedly surrounds this beer. This is one beer that doesn't need dressing up in spiel, it's good enough to sell on taste alone but this is most certainly a beer with a story that deserves to be told. Who knows, maybe now that Matt Gorecki is involved with the brand new Zapata Brewery, perhaps a vanilla infused, Sorachi Ace and Bramling Cross led porter will be on the cards once again.

Disclaimer: I was sent these beers to review by BrewDog and I'm an Equity for Punks shareholder but I don't think either of these things affected my opinion of this beer.

Sunday 1 March 2015

Discovering the Pennsylvania Swankey - A Return to Verboten Brewing

I first paid a visit to Loveland's Verboten Brewing back in February 2013. I had been invited by owners Josh Grenz and Joe Akers along with Kevin Bolin, manager of Fort Collins' über-beer bar The Mayor of Old Town, to brew an imperial version of a Kentucky Common, an almost forgotten, pre-prohibition beer style. At this point their brewery, tucked away in a small Colorado Front-Range town, was only two months old but they were already managing to fill their tap room with customers. A solid range of core beers with movie inspired names was in part the reason for this, that and the sense of community that's immediately apparent when you step inside the brewery, even before you've ordered a beer. 

The resulting beer, named I'm All Right Jack, a reference in part to Pink Floyd's Money and in part to the acidulated malt we were using to make a 'sour mash,' was mostly aged in rum barrels. It demonstrated the ambitious nature of head brewer Grenz and was only the beginning of several ambitious forays into barrel ageing. The barrel aged version of this beer went on to win gold for its style at the 2013 All Colorado Beer Festival and I finally got to taste it when I returned to the Mountain State later that year. It was like liquidised Christmas pudding in a glass, rich and intense and incredibly accomplished. I was not surprised by the amount of praise it garnered from local drinkers.

Fast forward and it's December 2014, Kevin and I are back at Verboten but the place has changed remarkably. The once seemingly spacious brewery floor is now crammed with more barrels, more fermenters and seemingly endless coils of industrial hosepipe that snakes across its concrete surface. The moustachioed Grenz is zipping around the room like a hummingbird in search of nectar and suddenly he disappears into the cold room only to return with an unlabelled, wax-sealed bottle of beer. It was a bottle of I'm All Right Jack that had been resting, maturing and it became integral to what was to become a heavy drinking brew day. It was remarkable how the beer had matured, all of its complexities becoming more restrained, elegant and integrated. I only wish there was more of it so I could have shared it with the folks back home, for me it really marks Verboten as ones to watch.

The mash was already on when I arrived, we were brewing a beer that was going to be called 'More,' another Pink Floyd reference. Such is his love for the prog rocksters sometimes you can arrive at the Mayor only to find Kevin on stage, jamming out the bass grooves that made Roger Waters a household name. We were brewing another pre-prohibition beer style I had never heard of, a Pennsylvania Swankey. My research unearthed very little information about the origins of this beer style. What I discovered was that the Swankey was a very low alcohol ale, similar to a British mild but instead of hops the beer was flavoured with herbs such as star anise. It was popular with Dutch and German settlers in the early 1900's but the style eventually diminished. I can imagine than an aniseed flavoured beer was very much an acquired taste.

This being Verboten though, we were pulling no punches. This was not going to be a historically accurate reproduction, this was going to be an imperial version that would finish at around 9% ABV. Grenz had no plans of stopping there though, nosiree, next door to Verboten is the Dancing Pines distillery who, by chance, had just finished a batch of barrel-aged Absinthe and Josh had gotten hold of the barrel. The idea of ageing a star anise infused beer in an Absinthe barrel is either genius or pure insanity, either way it's sure going to be fun finding out what comes out of that barrel. If one thing's for certain it's that if you're not already a lover of liquorice or aniseed then it's unlikely this will be a beer for you.

The brew day went by in a blur, with bottles being opened and stories being shared. What was clear to me is that Verboten are cruising along like a steam train, becoming ever more ambitious and, rightfully so, more popular in a marketplace where it can be difficult to get noticed. It's surely only a matter of time before a lot more people get excited about their beers and that Verboten are spoken of in the same revered tones as some of the USA's most well-loved breweries. What's also interesting to me is how in two brew days I've witnessed the twisted resurrection of two long forgotten beer styles. How many more historical styles are still out there waiting to be rediscovered and, more importantly, how will modern brewers adapt them into something modern drinkers can appreciate.

A non-barrel aged version of More was released at the start of the year, lucky denizens of Northern Colorado can expect the barrel aged version to hit the taps around June. Photo of the Absinthe barrel courtesy of Frank Curtis (or Dad, as I call him.) 

Friday 27 February 2015

Beavertown pit Cask Vs. Keg at The Dukes Head, Highgate

Following on from two sold-out events, I'm continuing my residency at Highgate’s The Duke’s Head to bring you a cask vs. keg event with a difference. North London’s Beavertown Brewery has quickly established itself on the British beer scene since opening in 2011 but this reputation has been built on the back of exceptional keg and canned beers. Few now remember the brewery’s humble beginnings, where founder Logan Plant used to try and clone the legendary Bathams Bitter on a six-barrel brew kit in the kitchen of his restaurant, Duke’s Brew and Que

Beavertown’s modern, flavour forward beers are seldom seen on cask these days but all this is set to change at The Duke’s Head at 7.00pm on Friday the 20th of March. Three of Beavertown’s best known beers; Gamma Ray Pale Ale, Black Betty Black IPA and the highly sought after Bloody ‘Ell Blood Orange IPA will feature on both cask and keg in a no holds barred fight to the death. Only the best dispense method will emerge victorious, the other beaten and bloodied.

On arrival you will receive a glass of Sacred ‘Hop Shot’, a 40% ‘reverse engineered beer’ from the Highgate based micro-distillery that’s sure to get you the mood for blood. Your host for the evening (that's me) will then guide you on a tutored tasting, with a half-pint of each beer from both methods of dispense being provided. Logan and the team from Beavertown will be on hand to talk about the history of each beer before you, the public, gets to vote, in secret, which dispense method you think best suits which beer. If that wasn’t enough to get you excited, current Duke’s Head kitchen residents Tiberi will be serving up a three courses of Catalonian style tapas, matched perfectly with each beer.  

This is not your typical, sit down, civilized beer event, this is war. Two dispense methods enter, only one leaves. In addition, The Duke’s Head has been granted a 3am license for this event as it’s guaranteed to be one hell of a party. There may well be other surprises in store on the night and I might wear a sparkly jacket, here's hoping I'll see you there.

Tickets are priced at £40 each and are available from Ticketsource here:

Wednesday 25 February 2015

Inside The Beer Vault's Lock Box

The rise of the drink-at-home beer subscription service seems unrelenting since the quite wonderful BeerBods arrived on the scene in 2012. Since then a whole range of different subscription services have sprung up, such as the engaging yet off-kilter Honest Brew and the passionate BelgiBeer, who are determined to make a living by showing people the craftier side of Belgian brewing. The latest player to arrive on the scene is Bristol based The Beer Vault who are attempting to differentiate themselves from competitors by suppling their customers with bottles from the bleeding edge of craft beer. 

The Beer Vault offer two different services. The first, their 'Lock Box' is what they describe as their "standard beer box... but nothing's standard about it". The other option is a limited, one in, one out members club called the Vault Reserve which is aimed directly at the collector/enthusiast. When the Vault Reserve service first began, The Beer Vault boldly sent their subscribers bottles of the revered Westvleteren 12, immediately laying their credentials on the line. As there are only 50 spaces for Vault Reserve members I can't imagine it'll be long before they're fully subscribed, providing they can keep the bar this high of course.

I was sent an example of a Lock Box, which contains eight beers, shipped monthly at a cost of £30 each time, including delivery charges. The thing that most impressed me about the beers that arrived was that I had personally bought all of them before, either from a bottle shop or in a bar. I like to imagine I'm a man of taste so clearly the people behind The Beer Vault must be too. There was Beavertown's Neck Oil, Fourpure's overlooked Pale Ale, the clever Iced Tea Saison from Bermondsey's Partizan and the sublime Black Perle coffee milk stout from Weird Beard, to name but a few. My only negative comment would be that this box was incredibly London-centric with only two of the beers, Wild Beer Co's Scarlet Fever and the wonderful New World Saison from Buxton, being born outside of the capital.

Putting this to one side, this is still an absolutely cracking set of beers that would keep any ardent beer lover happy, although I doubt I could make a selection this good last me an entire month. I think the real trick for The Beer Vault is to be able to continue to source beers of the highest quality month after month and keeping it interesting for their subscribers. After chatting to the guys behind the business I could quickly tell they were as passionate and enthusiastic about beer as I am. As a result I have every confidence that they'll manage their expectations comfortably.

I was sent these beers for free but I don't think that influenced my opinion of them. If you fancy trying out the beer vault for yourself then they're currently offering 25% off your first Lock Box.   

Sunday 22 February 2015

Show Us Your Local - The Duke's Head, Highgate

I've often mentioned Highgate's The Duke's Head in the context of the events that I've hosted there. What I haven't mentioned enough, is what a fantastic pub it really is and why I'm so often drawn back to its cosy surroundings. It may not be the closest decent pub to me but it is the best, which makes the twenty minute walk there (and the half an hour walk back) more than worth the while. 

I fell for the pub on my first visit, after a brisk spring walk with friends through the nearby Queen's Wood. Ten gleaming handpulls, two of which are dedicated to cider, are lined up neatly on the bar like soldiers standing to attention. You'll always see something good on the pumps, be it from local breweries such as Siren and Weird Beard or from those further afield such as Bristol's Moor or Yorkshire's Magic Rock. The pubs manager, Tom runs the cellar like a finely oiled machine so you can always count on your pint being cool and in top condition. It's no wonder that The Duke's Head is currently CAMRA's North London pub of the season. 

Mounted on the wall behind the bar are ten taps, pouring keg beers such as the pub's house lager, Hammerton Islington Steam and you can always count on a pint of Beavertown Gamma Ray being available. You'll occasionally find more adventurous beers pouring from the wall. Recent guests have included Wild Goose Chase, a gooseberry saison from The Wild Beer Company and the absolutely stunning India Pale Ale Nelson Sauvin from Bermondsey's The Kernel. It's striking the balance between solid, reliable, great quality keg and cask ales and slightly more adventurous beers that get enthusiasts excited, that makes this pubs beer offering one of the best in town.

It's not just great beer that makes The Duke's Head tick though. Your gaze won't escape the glowing neon above the Sacred gin bar which serves cocktails using spirits from the Highgate based micro-distillery. Nor will it escape the well chosen range of whiskies, tequilas and wines lined up on the shelves and the cans from Beavertown and Fourpure packed into the fridges. You won't go hungry either, as the rotating, monthly kitchen residency from top street food vendors means that there's always something new and exciting on the menu. Recent occupants have included The Bell & Brisket, Rotli Crew and The Beefsteaks. 

Good food and drink isn't enough in itself to make a pub great though, neither is great music, friendly, efficient staff and a host of unique special events, all of which this pub has in spades. There's one thing that can't be stocked or hired or trained that makes the best pubs truly stand out, vibe. The walls of The Duke's Head are practically dripping with the stuff, creating the perfect atmosphere whatever situation you find yourself in when you're there. It could be a quiet Sunday lunchtime pint, it could be a watching a football match on the television with your mates, it could be a lively Friday night with a DJ spinning great tunes. Whatever the situation, The Duke's Head captures it perfectly. It welcomes you in, invites you to stay a little longer than you intended and before you know it you're sat around a table doing shots at 2am and hoping that you never have to leave. 

Few pubs have the magic but The Duke's Head has it in spades, that's why it's my local.

This post is my contribution to Jamie Oliver's Drinks Tube's fantastic 'Show Us Your Local' initiative. You can read and watch lots of other great tributes to other great locals by following the hashtag #ShowUsYourLocal

I'm running two event's at The Duke's Head in March. On the 4th of March it's our monthly bottle club with special guests Fourpure, email to get involved. Then, on the 20th of March we're welcoming Beavertown brewery for a special cask vs. keg event which will feature lots of great food and drink as well as a tutored tasting with a difference from myself and a chance to meet the guys from the brewery. Tickets are £40 and can be purchased from Ticketsource here:

Sunday 15 February 2015

Finding The Source - Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project, Denver, Colorado

I first encountered Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project when owner and founder Chad Yakobson was brewing his Belgian influenced, wood aged sour ales at Funkwerks in Fort Collins, Colorado. I remember enjoying them at a time when I was just beginning to get my head around the complexities of sour beers and the influences that yeasts such as Brettanomyces and bacteria such as Lactobacillus can have on the flavour of a beer. Shortly after that visit to Funkwerks back in 2011, Yakobson relocated Crooked Stave to Denver and quickly became a cult figure in brewing circles. As time progressed my own love for sour beer grew immeasurably and I now relish every opportunity I get to drink this revered brewery's beer.

Just a few blocks from Coors Field, home of the Colorado Rockies baseball team, is The Source, a former foundry built in the 1880's that now houses a modern, artisanal market. With its industrial surroundings The Source wouldn't look out of place if it was transported over 4000 miles to East London. The outlets it houses are similar in nature to many of East London's too. Among the stores are some smart looking restaurants, a butchers, a deli, a liquor store and tucked away at the back of the building is the tap room that Crooked Stave now calls home. 

The bar is immediately recognisable as being Crooked Stave's, with the idyllic farmyard scenes found on its labels painted on the wall behind the taps. However, I found myself a little confused when I stepped up to the bar. All the photos I had seen of the tap room showed a mass of brewing kit, waiting to be commissioned and stacks of barrels full of ageing beer, or still waiting to be filled but this was nowhere to be seen. It turns out that although The Source had originally been the intended home for Crooked Stave's brewing operation, a dispute over the water supply with the building's owners had seen that this wasn't going to happen, at least for the moment. 

Regardless of this I was now immersed in my element, with a flight of intensely flavoured sour beers laid out before me. Beers like St. Bretta, a Brettanomyces heavy saison that's flavoured with a different citrus fruit each season, Petit Sour, a Berliner Weisse with both apricot and pomegranate versions currently pouring and Sentience, a wild Belgian style quad. Even picking three Crooked Stave beers at random like this demonstrates the weird and wonderful ideas floating around in Yakobsen's head. I settle on the Autumn incarnation of St. Bretta that's infused with blood oranges to start. While I enjoy the electric, citrus tang of this incredibly accomplished beer my Dad, who along with my Sister is accompanying me on this visit, screws his face up to the point of almost spitting it out.

As I work my way through the entirety of the draught offerings I watch my Dad's features contort with each mouthful. They say that you should have three sips of a sour beer before you give up on it, by my Dad's seventh or eighth I was beginning to admire his stamina, or was he perhaps just a glutton for punishment? I guess sour beers really are not for everyone. My sister seemed to enjoy them though and I most certainly was but not as much as I expected to. When I've managed to get hold of bottles of Crooked Stave's St. Bretta or the stunning Vieille provision saison in the past, they have been exactly that, stunning. Here in the tap room I found many of the beers to be overly sharp and intensely sour.

There were some brilliant beers on offer, the Batch 100 truly was an exceptional beer that when sipped, felt like a thousand, tiny, lemon flavoured pin pricks, acupuncture for the palate. Nightmare on Brett was far from a nightmare, but this bourbon barrel aged dark sour was as complex as it was challenging. It was more of a guttural experience than it was an enjoyable one. In the end it was the simple, plain old Vieille that remained my favourite because it was a beer I would drink often, if I could, but even this tasted somewhat spikier than I remember.

Crooked Stave brew incredible beers that will continue to impress even the most hardcore sour beer lovers for years to come but I actually don't think they suit being served fresh or on draught. Give a bottle of Vieille just six months in a dark cupboard or, if you're lucky enough, a cool cellar and it will mellow, integrate and open up. These are beers that benefit patience and I dare say that some of the wackier creations would benefit greatly from even longer periods of ageing. It's a shame that we're so desperate to drink all these wonderful creations as soon as they're available, rather than when they're actually ready. I look forward to drinking the few bottles I brought back with me in a year or so's time. 

Despite this I'd still have a visit to The Source high on my list of things to do in Denver. It's handy for Downtown and not too far away from other interesting breweries such as Black Shirt, River North and Breckenridge. The food here is great, the bottle shop has an interesting selection of beers you'll want to bring home with you and when it comes down to it, the Crooked Stave tap room is a cool place to grab a beer. It's a shame that they're not brewing in house as originally intended, at least not yet, but it seems that contract brewing at the nearby Epic Brewing Company is working well for Yakobson and his always interesting, sometimes bonkers range of brews. I'm hoping that next time I pay The Source a visit that it's filled with steam and the heady smell of wet grain.

The Source can be found at 3350 Brighton Boulevard, Denver, Colorado and is open from 8am until 11pm, seven days a week. 

Tuesday 10 February 2015

Presenting: Bottle Club - At The Duke's Head, Highgate

On Wednesday the 4th of February a small group of beer enthusiasts gathered at The Duke's Head in Highgate Village to share a lot of very good beer. Previously I've run two sold out events at The Duke's, they were an absolute blast and there's more to come (more on this in a moment) but between the pub's Manager, Tom and myself we decided on doing something a little more intimate. 

We wanted to get together a group of people who loved beer as much as we did and to share beers that might not necessarily be available at the pub itself. We decided to keep the group to a size of ten, plus the two of us but we also wanted to create something that we could run monthly, that would stay fresh and interesting for those that choose to attend regularly. We sold ten tickets for the event at ten pounds each but the entirety of the ticket fee was to be spent on a selection of bottles curated by Tom and I. Guests were also welcome to bring bottles from their own collection, so there was certainly no fear of anyone going thirsty.

The two of us met at Mother Kelly's in Bethnal Green one evening and dropped our cash on some of the best bottles they had in stock. We left with IPA, sours, stouts, gose, Belgian style quads and even a barrel-aged rauchbier. We were pretty confident with what we had in store for our guests but when they turned up with their Flanders reds, more sours and even some hallowed Westvleteren 8 we knew we were in for a great night. 

We whizzed through the beers, conversation becoming louder and more excited in time with each bottle being opened. Some even ordered pints to keep them going in between bottles, something to really gulp on between small sips of the beers being passed around. It was a genuine pleasure to try beers from Liverpool's Mad Hatter and Manchester's Chorlton Brewing Company for the very first time. I was mesmerised by the immaculate Cuvée De Ranke with its sour, lemony notes twisting my tongue and the Barrel Aged Old Rasputin from California's North Coast was up there with the best bourbon barrel-aged stouts I have ever tasted. It didn't stop there though, more bottles came out and when the bottles were empty we hit the taps for pint after pint of Beavertown Gamma Ray. Then we got into the Sacred Hop Shots, a 'reversed engineered beer' that's basically hop gin. It all went dark after that.

It was incredible - I urge you to get involved with the next one - it's going to be bigger and better. We're keeping the same sized, cosy group of ten but we're pleased to welcome special guests Fourpure Brewing Co. who will also be slinging a few of their great canned beers into the mix. This isn't going to be so much a meet the brewer as more of a sit down and get drunk with a brewer, so to speak. We're hoping to get more brewers and other special stuff like this happening as the months go on. 

Our next Bottle Club will be held on Wednesday the 4th of March and the ticket link will only be sent out to members of the mailing list. Please email if you'd like to take part. We're making this a ticketed event in order to keep the size of the group small, if we get enough interest then we will hopefully look at a way of accommodating a larger group in the future. As this is a ticketed event we are unable to accommodate walk-ins, we just want to make sure there is enough beer to go around.

I'm also very excited to announce that The Duke's Head, myself and a very, very cool brewery have been working hard on preparing for our next event. Put Friday the 20th of March in your diaries right now because this is going to be one beer event you will not want to miss. For updates follow Duke's (@DukesHighgate) and myself (@totalcurtis) on twitter as we will be revealing more details very soon.

Here's hoping we'll see you at Bottle Club in the not too distant future!