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.)