Monday, 1 February 2016

It was a dark and stormy night

I tell you, it’s getting harder to keep up with the beer scene in this city. On Friday I found myself braving the cold wind and rain – Storm Gertrude had just passed, apparently not causing as much damage as feared – to cram in three different beer launches.

Since summer Grunting Growler (whom I last mentioned here) has been in residence at Peckham’s off-licence shop in Hyndland. Boss Jehad Hatu has paused only slightly to pick up a “Beer Hero” award from the Scottish Bartenders’ Network in October. When I call in there is actually a queue waiting to have growlers filled.

Grunting Growler had its first very own beer for sale – a 4.1% fruity Berliner Weisse entitled “Popping My Cherry”. The beer was brewed with Jehad by Jonathan Hamilton of the Hanging Bat, who has since departed to join Beavertown in London.

It opens with fresh cherry ice-cream flavour and a nice slightly yoghurty, very slightly stomachy acidity. Not nearly sour enough to be a true Berliner but pleasant enough. If it hadn’t been good, though, the other beers on offer were a splendid mix: Camden unfiltered Hells (which still looked reasonably clear), Vocation Pride & Joy for those still obsessed with hops, Almasty milk stout, all of which I’d be happy to drink.

Chris Lewis of Dead End Brew Machine was
coaxed into saying a few words, mostly about
zombie films
On the other side of the university, west end design agency O Street (who are actually in Bank Street, not Otago Street as you might assume) were hosting one of their informal Beer Times events. This particular one was a bit special, as this evening revolved around the beer itself. Award-winning homebrewer Chris Lewis has finally been persuaded – after much coaxing from Hippo Beers boss Derek Hoy and O Street themselves – to launch his first commercial beer, under the name Dead End Brew Machine. It’s going to be a passion fruit IPA, brewed (like so many these days) at Drygate, and should be out by mid-March.

Drinkers who remember Chris as half of the team which created Zombier back in 2012 will already be drooling. Those who are lucky enough to have tasted Chris’s homebrews are even more excited. On the night some sample bottles of prototypes were going around. An IPA was tasty but didn’t stand out from the oceans of very similar beers already on the market. Chris’s house smoked porter, on the other hand, is sensationally good, rich, smooth and rather elegant.

Some very new brewers seem to have a rather high opinion of themselves, and the actual beer is often disappointing. Chris has the opposite problem, in that he is far too modest. Typically he will thrust a glass into your hand, slightly shamefacedly mumbling something like “I made this beer, I don’t know if it’s any good man, what do you think?” Then you taste the beer and it’s like nectar. This is quite endearing, but Dead End Brew Machine may need to adopt a more aggressive approach commercially.

Nearer the city centre, in the State Bar, which recently won the local CAMRA branch’s Glasgow Pub of the Year for the second year in a row, a Fyne Ales tap takeover saw the pub even busier than normal for a Friday night. The reason for the shindig is to launch ticket sales of the brewery’s summer festival, FyneFest (see here and here and here…) After a quiet first couple of years, FyneFest now sells out every year, so I’m not quite sure why the ticket sales still need promotion. Mind you, as one of the brewery staff tells me, when you work on a farm it’s nice to have a night out in the big city once in a while. And they have new beers to sell, so why not?

There are two spanking new beers here: Great Pacific Hop Patch, an oily, sweet IPA, presumably with New World hops as the name implies, with the slight heaviness common to most of Fyne’s stronger beers, and a lychee-fruity and bitter finish. Sunryse Boulevard, with rye and, I am told, Sorachi Ace hops, is lighter-bodied and easier drinking, with slight notes of coconut and cocoa, but these are subordinated to big, crisp, white-bread doorstep toastiness – I confess I have no idea where that comes from. But as usual, it’s the Jarl and Avalanche that the thirsty punters finish off first.

Thursday, 8 October 2015

It’s only rock ’n’ roll but I like it

Head brewer Rich is driving a fork-lift when I arrive. Perhaps this is self-selection bias, but all the brewers I meet in New York are big Anglophiles. At Singlecut Brewsmiths in Astoria, Queens, they are big cask beer fans too, and make a lot of it. They opened in 2012 and have already expanded once. They also have outstanding graphic design and beers with weird names, and it’s the first brewery tap I have seen with a drumkit on a mezzanine level. A large collection of vinyl LPs is behind the bar. The dust and humidity in a working brewery can’t be all that good for them, I muse. But the brewery is music-themed: live music is a big part of the taproom’s draw, and all the tap handles are shaped like guitar necks.

The first beer I try is an English pale ale called Keith, after Keith Richards, I gather. Served on nitro, it’s made with East Kent Goldings, Styrians and Target and tastes very fresh and slightly citric.

It would be wrong to treat Singlecut as a tribute band, as it were. There’s a lot of experimentation here too. Shine on Summer Sour Lagrrr is a sour lager, amazingly enough, which has spent a whole year in a dedicated souring tank. A beer called Kim is a hibiscus sour lager, which is basically a Berliner Weisse grist fermented with a lager yeast and then moved to the souring tank. Why bother with the slow, time-intensive lager fermentation for beers like this, I ask. Just to mix it up a bit, is the reply, and to have a unique twist on things. The technique seems to produce a nice beer, fruity and malty at the same time, though this is oddly reminiscent of Froot Loops cereal. There’s some sour cherryade and yoghurt flavours in there too, a milky salty lassi of a beer.

One wall of the brewery is stacked with wooden casks. These are rum casks rather than the more common bourbon casks. It’s usually a stout that goes into these, but at the moment there’s a rum aged lager, sweetish with only a light rum character – it’s the 14th fill of the cask.

Heavy Boots of Lead, made with 2-row, crystal and Munich, is like a chocolate brownie in a glass. There’s no other way to describe it, that’s what it tastes like, a fantastic beer.

Possibly the finest beer I taste in New York is the super-fresh 19-33 lager. No funny business in this one, just a straight up superbly made pilsner. A hint of sulphur and soft but intense bitterness from Saaz and Hallertauer Blanc hops. This is another one worth carrying across the Atlantic and that’s how I ended up drinking a growler of it in a field at Fyne Ales’ festival back in Scotland. Jay at Flagship was right, New York is lager town.

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Girl, I wanna take you to a cheese bar

New York’s venerable cheese shop, Murray’s Cheese Store in Greenwich Village took a new leap a couple of years ago by opening a cheese bar a few doors down the street.

Not quite a ploughman’s, this is a selection of three cheeses with paired beers. Grimm IPA (which I know nothing about except that it comes from Brooklyn) is citric, perfumey and slightly sweaty; looks like apple juice, light-bodied, medium to bitter finish.

Something that can perhaps only exist in Vermont, Beanery Brewing is a company which sells exclusively coffee beers. Their Beanery IPA, brewed at Smuttynose, has only light coffee flavour but a vanilla-ey, sherberty lightness.

Other Half IPA (not sure exactly which one, as they have tons of IPAs) has tropical fruit and resin. Sorry, no cheese tasting notes except to note that this type of resiny IPA tends to do well against any washed-rind cheese.

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Over the water to the forgotten borough

There is beer everywhere. Waiting in the ferry terminal the kiosk where I buy my morning coffee and bagel has draught Budweiser and Lagunitas IPA.

It’s a pleasant trip over the water to Staten Island, on the incongruously communistic free, municipally-owned ferry, which takes you to and from the heart of global capitalism in Manhattan. While the Staten Island Ferry is one of the iconic journeys in a city stuffed with icons, the island itself is known as “the forgotten borough”.

One of the newest breweries in NYC, and the only one on the island, is Flagship which has just celebrated its first birthday. Its slogan is “Unforgettable beer brewed in the forgotten borough” – but it wasn’t that which caught my attention. In the first instance it was because they brew a couple of British styles: wee heavy and dark mild, which I found intriguing.

Finding the brewery couldn’t be easier: take the train one stop from the ferry terminal and the brewery is across the street. It’s a baking hot day and a whiff of fermenting spent grain across the yard doesn’t put me off.

Brewery boss Jay is kind enough to show me around and let me taste some beers. He’s keen to talk about their lager, which they have just started brewing. Jay was in sales before starting the brewery, so ought to have an idea what will sell. They were very eager to bring a lager to market, because New York is lager town, he tells me. I am reminded again of that Yuengling–Brooklyn lineage (and the more beer I drink here, the more convinced I am that Jay is right).

While Flagship are already selling everything they produce, it’s only been recently that they have been able to tie up tanks for the required fermentation and conditioning time for a lager. On tasting it, it’s smashing. The best way I can describe it is to tell you to imagine if Brooklyn Lager had all European hops instead of Cascade. It’s a creamy, amber lager with satisfying bitterness and a herbal noble hop aroma.

Pale Ale is the beer which sells most in the other boroughs of New York City and the first to be bottled. This is, I think, the very first batch off the new packaging line – the bottles have no labels yet. It’s a tasty beer with maybe a slightly rough bitterness to it, made with seven types of C-hops and Mosaic. In addition to the up-front hoppiness, it’s chewy and biscuity. No murk here either.

Obviously I have to taste the Wee Heavy: a very heavy roast barley and hop bitterness, chewy too and drinkable enough for the 8% abv to get you into trouble. Not much like any Scottish wee heavy I’ve tried, but a tasty beer nonetheless.

It’s so hot waiting for the train back that I’m tempted to break into my six-pack. By the time I return to South Ferry it’s definitely time for a beer. The Fraunces Tavern is a tourist attraction in its own right, having been headquarters for various pre- and post-revolutionary organisations in the 18th century. Trying to get a small glass of the 6.8% Ommegang Fleur de Houblon, though, is futile – it’s only sold in pints. I have to chuckle to myself, remembering that most British pubs would probably do the opposite and insist on only serving a beer of that strength in halves. The beer is spicy and citrussy with that musty bitterness that comes from hopping up a wheat beer.

I saw a lot more cask beer in New York than I was expecting to, but didn’t get to drink much. In the case of the Fraunces Tavern, I really want to try the Bronx Pale Ale from the cask, but it’s not on. Just as well as a second pint at 6.3%, in this heat, would not be the best idea.

I find more cask at the well-known Ginger Man bar: KelSo Pale Ale, which has a high bitterness and splendidly flowery, geranium-like hop aroma.

I read a lot of curmudgeonly complaints about American cask beer. The main issue traditionalists have with it is the practice that American brewers have developed of adding not just hops, but fruit, chocolate, cake and other additional flavourings to the cask. Indeed, sometimes it seems that “cask” in the US means, in one sense, the same as “craft” in Britain: an opportunity to add a load of weird stuff to your beer post-fermentation.

I don’t see why US cask beer should have to be a carbon copy of British cask beer, though, and the other cask beer the Ginger Man serves up has, if anything, the opposite issue. It is almost too much like an English beer. More English-tasting than a lot of English beer, Sly Fox Chester County Bitter  has minty bitterness and creme brulee sweetness, like an old-school country bitter from Wadworth’s or somewhere. While I am sure the temperature is within the approved range, New York in summer is quite a bit hotter than most places in Britain ever get, and I don’t think the beer would be hurt by being a bit colder.

Sunday, 4 October 2015

Brew York, Brew York, what a wonderful town

New York is weird for the first-time visitor. Because it’s so familiar from films and TV shows, it feels quite surreal to actually be there. I keep expecting to look out of the window and see Spider-Man fighting Dr Octopus on the flat roof of one of these Manhattan office blocks.

Arriving on a Sunday afternoon, my first beer in a random bar is Brooklyn Lager. I have never been impressed by this beer in the UK, where it’s usually old, poorly served and extortionately priced. Here, it’s still extortionately priced, like everything in New York, but it tastes much fresher with a solid hop flavour. Yuengling Lager, which I order because it’s a legendary brand that I’m never likely to see at home, is frankly disappointing – but I realise there’s a sort of continuity here; these brown, proletarian Yankee lagers.

There’s much more beer-wise to New York – much more to Brooklyn, in fact, than Brooklyn Brewery. Rather like London, the city is experiencing mushroom-like growth in small breweries, brewing a diverse range of styles.

Transmitter is the first brewery we make it to – “always well received” is the delightfully corny slogan. Transmitter is so small that it has neither a bar, nor draught beer, nor a customer toilet. You can only taste small samples and buy bottles to take away. We try them all, of course. As is usual in such places, what’s available depends very much on what’s been packaged recently and what is sold out.

Transmitter’s speciality is what the Americans call “farmhouse ales”, which is more than slightly ironic, as it’s in an industrial building between the Pulaski road bridge and a railway yard, which does have a certain gritty romanticism to it, but is about as far from a farmhouse as it’s possible to get. But damn if the beer isn’t good. A grapefruit witbier tasted, well, like a witbier with extra grapefruit, and New York Saison is seriously drinkable.

Given time, I would have happily spent an afternoon supping a few bottles of New York Saison, but the bar is higher: I need to choose which one is worth schlepping back across the Atlantic. F4, a “Brett Farmhouse Ale” brewed with three strains of Brettanomyces hits the spot: tasty, funky and complex.

If we’d had more time, I would have done this differently. We end up travelling all the way across Brooklyn to the next beer. Transmitter is practically in Queens while the next brewery, is at the opposite end, right down in the south-west at Red Hook. But Sunday opening times being what they are, we have no choice.

Other Half  is the hot brewery in New York right now. Their occasional releases of super-fresh cans – canned on Friday, sold on Saturday – provoke the kind of madness that leads people to queue up hours in advance for their IPAs. We arrive the day after one of these releases. Predictably, there are no cans left.

It’s just before closing time and we have time to squeeze in just one beer each.

Green Diamonds (9.1%) with Amarillo and Galaxy hops is sweet, oily and well balanced, with long sustained bitterness. Very pleasant with slight sweaty, yoghurty notes.

Equinox IPA (7%) has a big “dank” or marijuana-like aroma, all the better for the somewhat lower alcohol content, making it light-bodied and very drinkable. There’s a bit of fruit salad sweeties too. Quite dry so never gets cloying. It reminds me a little of one of Adnams’ single-hop pales, and I am forced to think how good it would be as a cask beer.

Both beers are good, yet neither are really in the category “I must seek this beer out again”. They have only a slight haze, no murk here. I do like the tap-room a lot – it is very small and very nice, done out in that hipster paint (guaranteed to flake off after three months). Despite the hipsters it doesn’t feel like it’s trying too hard, as UK bars often do.

Though the beer has little in common with Transmitter’s, Other Half’s location also adds fashionable urban grit to its appeal. The brewery and tap-room are opposite a drive-thru McDonald’s and underneath a freeway, which I guess is the New York equivalent of London’s railway arches.

Back in Manhattan for dinner – it takes half an hour longer than anticipated to get back on the subway – Heartland Brewery is a small chain of former brewpubs. It still feels very much like the type of brewpub you can read about in Michael Jackson’s books, food- and family-oriented.

A few years ago Heartland decided for reasons of efficiency and consistency to consolidate all their brewing in one place and downgrade the pubs to outlets for their beer. The facility, now named Greenpoint Beer Works, now produces all the beer for the restaurants. Heartland’s head brewer Kelly Taylor wanted his own range of beer, but rather than leave, he chose to contract the brewing out – to himself. So his KelSo beers are now also made there.

I only get to try one Heartland beer because we’re just in for dinner, not beer ticking. Although there are more exotic options available, I choose the beer in the “classic American Pilsner” style, which, according to legend, is what American lagers were like before Prohibition. This style combines substantial bitterness with a large dose of maize in the mash, which supposedly helped German immigrant brewers to clarify beers made with dodgy American barley in the late 19th century.

I think I prefer my lagers all-malt, but I wanted to try this as there isn’t really anything like it in Europe. There are maize-laden lagers in Belgium and Italy, of course, but they do not have the hop bitterness that this does, whereas the hoppy German and Czech lagers are all-malt.

I’ve noticed that the American brewers tend to brew a fair number of what they call “classic styles” – your Dunkel lager, ESB and so on. More so than the fashionable UK brewers. Don’t dismiss Heartland as conservative though: brewers from Other Half and Flagship worked here before moving on.

It’s fascinating to trace the generations through New York’s breweries: the brand that contract-brewed until there was money to build a facility (Brooklyn); the chain of pubs with a slightly dated feel (Heartland); the hipsters making tiny amounts of beer under bridges (Transmitter, Other Half, Big Alice). What they all seem to have in common is a connection with the city they’re in. It’s an exciting time to drink in New York.

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

“Craft beer” crumbling

I didn’t go to Craft Beer Rising at Drygate last year because I have no interest in craft beer. How can you be interested in something that doesn’t exist?

I’d found CBR rather irritating in advance, because it was, at the time, at the forefront of “craft beer” hype in the media, along with journalists who smelled the promise of a lucrative stream of articles misinforming the masses.

I went this year. I’ve changed my tune on Craft Beer Rising. I now think it’s great. But possibly not for the reasons they hope.

I like it because it’s so transparently opportunistic and cynical. Not for them the tedious discussions of what “craft“ means. They’re only interested in one criterion: “Have you got £1200 for a stall?”

This allows all manner of brewers to take part who are otherwise sneered at by “craft” enthusiasts: Caledonian, Greene King and the like. Even the hated Tennents/C&C are there, in the shape of Heverlee, their Belgian lager brand.

This in turn devalues the c-word, making it more and more obvious to all that it’s a marketing term, as meaningless as “premium lager” or “world beer”. This is an excellent development. Once it’s completed we can all get back to actually talking about beer and what it tastes like.

What of the very small brewers who balk at ponying up the reduced-rate £700? It might put most of them off, but then “craft” has never been about them. It’s always been a label for industrial breweries to distinguish themselves from rather larger industrial breweries with better quality control. Nearly every actual microbrewer I speak to thinks it’s nonsense. Observe who shouts the loudest about “craft beer”. It’s not the people who brew in railway arches, it’s the people with PR agencies.

Speaking of PR agencies, it must be awful for Brewdog. They’ve been placed right next to the supposedly “faux-craft” Meantime, and just three stands away from the presumably even faux-er Blue Moon, in a venue, Drygate, that James Watt once pompously declared was “exactly the sort of thing that should not be allowed to call itself craft”. In line with the purported principles of their United Craft Brewers club, to defend the term from being hijacked by bigger operators, by rights they should be boycotting this event and denouncing it loudly. On the other hand, there’s a shitload of money to be made here, which any brewer can tell you is more important than principles or consistency.

It is, though, mildly interesting to observe who’s here and who isn’t. Stewart of Edinburgh. Harviestoun. Belhaven/Greene King. Brewdog. Meantime. Inveralmond. Heverlee. Blue Moon. Budweiser Budvar. Thistly Cross cider. Oakham. Hardknott. Beer52 the online retailer. Caledonian. Dent. McEwans/Charles Wells. Lerwick. Wooha. Dunns wholesalers. Thornbridge. Nobody would call this the cutting edge of fashion. But it does represent a strata of producers ready to fill the retail space that the interminable “craft” hype has helped create. It doesn’t matter really that, actually, hardly any of them are the small brewers that “craft beer” ideologues pretend it is all about.

I was complaining that I wanted to be talking about beer, right? Let’s get on. My first drink is from Dent, a brewery from Cumbria which I am slightly surprised to see here; it has always struck me as a typical country brewery happy with serving its local market. The beer is unsurprising: Aviator, 4% bitter, but splendidly fresh-tasting. Another beer, Kamikaze, has unfortunately been attacked by diacetyl beetles.

On the other side of the room is Hardknott, also from Cumbria but in a way the polar opposite of Dent; much newer and with aspirations from the start not to be limited to the local market. They’ve brought along Intergalactic Space Hopper, which brewer Dave thinks may be the hoppiest beer at the festival. He could be right. Although Dave says there is only a small bittering charge, the beer has a big, clean, aspirin-like bitterness. It’s quite fun but gets heavy going after a while.

At Harviestoun, new beers are on offer. While they have flown the pale’n’hoppy flag longer than almost anyone else in Scotland, only now have they produced a beer actually called IPA. It’s resinous with English hops and has a bit of caramel, tasting slightly heavy.
For the tickers, there’s a raspberry imperial stout at 10.5% which may resurface at some point in the future.

Belhaven are masters of producing beers that you can’t actually buy anywhere. What intrigues me about this stall are the bottles of Wee Heavy. I’ve never seen this beer in a pub in twenty years of drinking in Scotland, and assumed it was all exported, but I am assured they sell it here. In the Belhaven pubs, perhaps? Well, no, because it’s down to the managers what they order. Isn’t the point of having tied pubs so that you have a guaranteed outlet for your grog?

This is a shame, because the Wee Heavy is excellent – rich and sticky with huge flavours of raisins, raisins and more raisins. If they wanted to, Greene King and Belhaven could  run pubs with a killer range of beers: XX Mild, Abbot Reserve, Twisted Thistle, Wee Heavy, Strong Suffolk. Probably a bit conservative for today’s market, but hell I’d drink there.

At the Oakham stall, Green Devil on keg is a good example of why cask beer is better. It’s somehow sweeter than the cask version and tastes “closed”, without any unfolding of its flavour. Good luck to anyone trying to sell this at crafty prices, when the superior cask version is flowing out elsewhere in the city at £3 a pint.

Budweiser Budvar has a stand, so I guess that means craft breweries can be state-owned too. There’s a tankové pale lager on draught. I have to try that, but I can’t say it tastes any better than the bottled version. Try this too, says the bloke. Unlike other Czech dark lagers I’ve tried (which often deliver the rich maltiness that German dunkel beers promise), the flavour of Budvar Dark is mostly roast malt and liquorice. I’m not too impressed by anything here, but then I’ve always preferred Pilsner Urquell anyway.

I was wrong earlier. Tennent’s are here too. Although their stall has been banished inside, where a lonely-looking rep is giving out samples of Tennent’s Whisky Beer. This seems to have gained more whisky flavour than it had when it was launched.

My permanent quest for decent lager leads me back to Thornbridge’s stand, where the magnificent greenish-yellow Bayern pilsner is being poured. Now this is what it’s all about. A beautiful beer with soft carbonation and gentle bitterness – possibly in the top three British lagers I’ve drunk this year. For a moment the idea crosses my mind that they could send all the other breweries home and just serve Thornbridge Bayern all weekend. In litres.

I liked Inveralmond Sunburst lager previously, but it doesn’t stand up well against Bayern. Too biscuity, inappropriately fruity and badly poured. Of the many lager brands on show, only Thornbridge seem to have bothered teaching people how to pour the stuff.

Once I got there, I liked Craft Beer Rising much more than I was expecting to. A friend was complaining about the lack of “real” craft brewers and about the non-craftiness of some of the brewers who did turn up. I kind of liked it for precisely the same reason. It lets us see which “craft mavericks” are charlatans; whose premium lager is all piss and wind; and which mass-market accountant-led brewery still has a decent beer or two lurking in its portfolio.

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Funding success for new breweriana exhibition

Brass bushing from a wooden cask
Brewing Heritage Scotland, a new community interest company set up to create a permanent collection of Scottish breweriana, is on course to open its first exhibition.

The company was created by members of the Scottish Brewing Archive Association to find a home for the three-dimensional artifacts such as beer cans, keg fonts, promotional items, ashtrays etc. which have been donated to the Scottish Brewing Archive but cannot be usefully held at the archive’s base at Glasgow University.

BHS has now succeeded in winning funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund in order to transform its collection into an exhibition telling the story of Scottish brewing. The first exhibition is to be at the Central Library, George IV Bridge, Edinburgh, from 1 to 31 October inclusive.

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Heverlee pops up and pops out the new beers

You know, I’m starting to think that C&C, owners of Tennent’s and Magner’s, actually know what they’re doing in the beer market.

They’ve quietly (and not so quietly) been diversifying their product range for the last couple of years. There’s Tennent’s for the lads of course. Drygate for the experimenters and beer geeks, Heverlee to compete with Stella Artois, and most recently Menabrea to compete with Peroni and Moretti. All these appear as separate brands to the consumer, but enable C&C to serve diverse market segments without cross-contamination.

This is quite important, as a large part of the appeal of the premium brands is that consumers believe (in their own minds at least) that they are trading up to a superior product. The big red T has a peculiarly polarising effect on consumers. For selling standard lager it’s a big plus; but I’ve pondered before why it seems to be toxic for anything else.

It can also be amusing: I saw one drinker on Twitter telling Tennent’s in no uncertain terms to go to hell, as he now liked Heverlee better. I was slightly tempted to tell him that Tennent’s and Heverlee were the same company, but why be so cruel?

The latest episode in the promotion of Heverlee – and definitely one of the less quiet ones, where the PR machine has been revved up substantially – is the establishment of a “pop-up” bar in Glasgow’s Tontine Lane. This lane was sealed off to the public without explanation three years ago, and has now been opened for the bar – not “opened for the first time” as parroted by ignorant bloggers and journalists. We are promised Witte and two “secret” new Heverlee beers too.

The new beers turned out to be what might have been predicted – got the lager, got the wit, what else can we have? Yes, they are the classic double act of a blonde and a brune, as found on the menu of just about every Belgian cafe.

There is no information given about where the three new beers are brewed, so I’m going to assume that they, like the lager, are made at Brouwerij Martens in Bocholt. The bar promises to offer a line-up of other Belgian specialities, but there was no sign of these. It would be interesting to try Martens’ own Pils and Wit to see how different they are.

While Heverlee Witte has been popping up around Glasgow all summer, I hadn’t run into it yet, so it was nice to have a chance to try it (I’ll try any beer once). It’s noticeable that in the UK at least, witbier has become a style of beer that corporate breweries rather than small ones push. I guess it’s easy-drinking and therefore mass-market-friendly. There’s Hoegaarden, Blue Moon, Vedett and the rather odd but nice Flying Dutchman cask wit that Caledonian brewed with Henk Oexman as a nod to the Heineken mothership. Now Heverlee Witte joins them. It’s light-bodied, very heavily spiced with coriander and quite drinkable, certainly less bland than Hoegaarden.

Filament lightbulbs and incongruous bicycles
The lager is still a slightly better take on Belgian pils: decent hop character and surprisingly high bitterness for what it is. The pouring of it seems a quite crucial factor though: a subsequent glass just tastes of nasty metallic CO2. The bar staff faithfully skim the foam off the top of the glass with a wet knife, Low Countries-style. They do it for the blonde and brune as well as the lager. I’m not sure I like the effect this has on them, giving the head a smooth, plasticky sheen reminiscent of old-fashioned keg heavy.

The blonde (6.1%) is full-bodied but bland, with just a few yeasty notes to add interest and a crisp, candy edge which is pleasant enough.

Heverlee Bruin is my favourite of the four: Treacle toffee, a little umami, slight note of soy sauce, rich smooth caramel. At 7.1% a nice warming beer for these cold, rainy July evenings in Glasgow.

The bar itself is the a former workshop or loading bay of one of these old industrial buildings that stand around in Glasgow, unused and neglected even in the high-rent Merchant City district. The back court is an impressive edifice of white glazed brickwork, and houses Douglas Gordon’s artwork Empire – along with a genuine relic, the neon sign which once hung outside the Mitre Bar a few streets away.

It’s enlightening too to observe how easily the pop-up aesthetic has gone mainstream and been commodified. All the cliches are in place: glazed tiles; beer list written on the same tiles with a marker pen; painted pallets with flowers; cutlery in baked bean tins; and of course those bloody Edison light bulbs – the most inefficient bulbs in existence.

A nice touch is having the signs for the toilets in Flemish and French.

My portion of mussels and chips costs £12 – well, mussels are pricey and it is a generous portion. They are cooked in a tasty, slightly under-seasoned broth with onion and parsley and, allegedly, white wine. An achievement in itself, considering the temporary kitchen here is built of chipboard. There are several other mussel dishes on the menu, and I’m surely not the only one disappointed that in a beer-centric place like this, having the mussels cooked in gueuze is not among them.

I like the space and will be back. It’s a creditable offering and the beers are decent and workmanlike – certainly somewhat tastier than the brands they’re competing with in the UK market. Due to the location, if you feel like extending your Belgian fantasy, you can just nip along the street to Blackfriars afterwards and have some of their bottled lambic.

“Heverlee at Tontine” is open until 2 August. 

Friday, 26 June 2015

I drank bitter all night

I didn't intend to go to the Glasgow Real Ale Festival and spend all night drinking bitter from old-fashioned family breweries. I really didn't.

But as soon as I got into the hall and saw that there were five Harvey’s beers on sale my fate was more or late sealed. I love Harvey's and it's so rarely seen up here that I will take any chance I get to drink it, even though in principle I approve of the fact that it's hardly ever distributed far from its home turf.

The sweet yet dry and austere flavour of Harvey's is common across all the beers I sample from the proper 3.5% IPA to the stronger, sweeter Thomas Paine.

A new brewery in Great Yarmouth, Lacons, seems to draw on brewing heritage for inspiration too – it is named after a defunct former brewery in the town. Head brewer is Wil Wood, formerly of Fyne Ales, which is probably why the festival organisers have chosen to stock the beers. On tasting them the Wood signature of a clean, satisfying hop edge is immediately apparent. I've wanted to try these since Wil left Fyne, and I was not disappointed. The glorious 8% Audit Ale is rich and luscious with fresh orangey notes rather than the shrivelled raisin flavours found in other barley wines. A substantial resiny hop bitterness balances it out.

But it’s so luscious that a half is enough. I am greedy and try to cram in a second at closing time, and it's too much.

Theres wood of a different nature further down the bar. Theakston Old Peculier is by all accounts not the beer it once was. I only have it because it comes from a wooden cask. You can really taste the wood, notwithstanding Ron’s research suggesting that you shouldn’t be able to. It doesn’t save the beer though, which tastes of treacley water that's had some pencils in it.

You'd think that people wouldn't come to a beer festival to drink beers as common as Timothy Taylor Boltmaker, but they do. Well, I do. This mousy, unchallenging beer is subtly addictive and massively drinkable.
If Old Peculier has lost its mojo, on the other hand, I am reasonably sure that Timothy Taylor’s and Harvey’s beers have not changed much. There’s surely a reason these old-school breweries are so revered. So I spent my evening mostly drinking those. Not a bad choice, and there's always tomorrow. The G-RAF is on until Saturday.

Thursday, 18 June 2015

Iain Turnbull

A while back I went to a brewer’s funeral. Iain Turnbull was a man I hardly knew at all—in fact I only ever met him twice; but he made such an impression on me that I had to go.

Iain was the type who would, and did, do things like request a Welsh-language census form while living in Stornoway, just for the fun of being wilfully vexatious. He worked at Courage before moving to Brains in Wales, took a break from brewing for some years and returned to work in microbreweries when they started to appear in Scotland. He was involved in the re-establishment of brewing in the once-famous brewing town of Prestonpans, and was one of the group who set up Restalrig and then Fisherrow breweries in Edinburgh, but the sudden death of their managing director David Murray hit the latter business hard and it closed a year later.

Iain was a believer in the adage “If you want something doing properly, do it yourself,” and had elected to conduct his own funeral service from beyond the grave, via a pre-recorded CD. It was something of a surprise to suddenly once again hear his light, melodious voice that had never quite fitted his beardy exterior. Before the service I had been told a rather indiscreet anecdote about Iain by an old friend of his, but Iain himself managed to outdo this by some margin. It was certainly one of the more eccentric funerals I have attended: the coffin arrived in a brewery van carrying three empty casks on its roof in the departed’s honour, and once we left the chapel to the strains of “Oh I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside” we were taken to the highly-regarded Staggs pub in nearby Musselburgh, where Iain’s funeral beer was on tap.

When I first met Iain he had already been diagnosed with terminal cancer and had been featured in the press as the brewer who’s brewed his last beer with the proceeds going towards a cancer charity. This extremely strong and sweet beer had been in cask for three years since it was brewed. Iain had actually brewed his “last” beer several times, having neglected to die when the doctors had predicted he would. The last time I saw him a few years ago he was still working, consulting on some brewery project or other down south.

For a terminally ill man, I had thought Iain showed remarkable devotion to the cause of beer when he made the not inconsequential journey from his home in Stornoway to central Scotland to work at CAMRA beer festivals. But at the funeral one of his daughters mentioned that he had later undertaken even more arduous trips to South Wales to visit them — by public transport, mind you.

I meant to get in touch with Iain and interview him for this blog, and now it’s too late. The breweries he worked at, Restalrig and Fisherrow, are in danger of being forgotten, because they didn’t survive, coming in a rather odd period when the likes of Tryst and Fyne Ales were being set up but the explosion of new breweries of recent years hadn’t started yet.

There’s a much better tribute to Iain than I could write here, and some history of Fisherrow, in the form of its archived website over here.