Sunday, 26 January 2014

New video and new beer at WEST

Just a couple of titbits of news from WEST brewery today. The brewery has been featured on the website of German broadcaster Deutsche Welle in an article that also quotes Derek from Hippo Beers and Craig Gibson, the author of the Evening Times’ new pubs column – who, if you compare the quotes in the Deutsche Welle article to his Pub Punter pieces, is pretending in his Times columns to be more ignorant of beer than he actually is.

WEST have also produced a new video, beautifully shot by Chris Leslie, which you can see here:


On the beer front, Luke has been hard at work producing two new beers: a sweet, spicy pale wheat bock (there are very few wheat bocks around, even in Germany, and I don’t think I have ever seen a pale one before) and a splendidly quaffable California Common. The bock was produced using a true decoction mash, which I believe is a first for the brewery.

WEST owner Petra is quoted in the Deutsche Welle article as saying that beer drinkers are becoming more adventurous – hopefully this means that Luke will get to make more specialities in the future. Glasgow beer lovers have been badgering WEST for years to brew a proper Rauchbier, so we live in hope.

Saturday, 25 January 2014

Fyne Ales and Stewart slug it out in Edinburgh and Glasgow

Stout lovers, or those who just like a fight, should keep the 6th of February free. That’s when the next round in a series of battles of the brewers takes place simultaneously in Glasgow and Edinburgh.

No actual fisticuffs will be involved, but Glasgow illustrator Tom Holmes has produced a suitably lurid poster in the style of old boxing promotions.

In the blue corner, Stewart Brewing of Edinburgh, cocky after having seen off Harviestoun and Williams Bros in previous episodes of this series.

In the red corner, Fyne Ales of Argyll, whose sideboard full of awards should have them quietly confident about taking on any brewery in Scotland.

Both breweries have made a flavoured stout: Fyne’s is [redacted in the interests of keeping everyone in suspense — see comments] while Stewart are remaining tight-lipped about precisely what has gone into their brew.

Tickets are a fiver here or at the venues – Holyrood 9A in Edinburgh and Inn Deep in Glasgow, which gets you half a pint of each beer and the fuzzy feeling of knowing that the proceeds are going to charidee – Yorkhill hospital in Glasgow and Aberlour in Edinburgh.

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Christmas beers

Yes, it’s mid-January and I’m still writing about Christmas beers. I’m way behind with blogging, so for the foreseeable future you can expect posts about events that took place several months in the past. Get used to it.

There have been jokes for years about Christmas being the time when “amateur drinkers” fill up the pubs, but this year I think the topic has gone mainstream with more noise about it than I can remember hearing before.

I guess people in the industry have realised that people who don’t go to pubs also don’t read beer blogs or follow pubs and breweries on Twitter, so those public channels can safely be used to let off steam about them.

The festive season is also a time when a deluge of fairly ordinary beers with novelty pumpclips appears on the market, masquerading as Christmas specials.

These are not what I think of when I imagine a Christmas beer.

What I hope to find on the bar at Christmas is a dark, strong beer of around 7.5%, rich in treacle and dark fruit notes, full-bodied and oily, and well-bittered so that it never becomes cloying. The kind of beer you stumble into the oak-beamed pub on a snowy Christmas Eve and take a deep draught of, while listening to carols sung quietly, but in four-part harmony, beside the roaring fire.

Now it must be said that I have never actually drunk in such a place, so call me a hopeless romantic if you will and tell me that it never was like that. Nonetheless, it seems like a good idea to me.

But I don’t expect to see it return any time soon, and the reason is that I cannot believe the 4.2% novelty beers and the once-a-year drinkers are unconnected.

When the once-a-year drinker appears in the pub, for once the cask ale is on a level playing field with the mass-marketed megabrands. So the ale brewers try to attract his attention with a silly name or amusing pumpclip (anyone who’s ever worked at a beer festival knows that the silly names sell out fastest), hoping that the bonhomie will encourage him to try a pint of something unfamiliar.

However, they don’t want to be responsible for the neophyte supping a few pints of a 7% beer and ending up upside down behind the Christmas tree. The obvious solution is to render the Christmas special, well, not that special.

It is a sad situation, but what can we do about it?

There are some nice Christmas beers about. Williams Bros Nollaig, made with fir trees, became an instant classic when it was released a couple of years ago, and now I look forward to it every year.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

My Golden Pints 2013

Once again it’s the end of the year round-up from my perspective. As everyone else has already pointed out, it’s been a fantastic year for beer.

Best UK Cask Beer: Harveys Sussex Best

1. Harveys Sussex Best

I can’t believe I didn’t like my first pint of this several years ago. I’m fortunate to have been able to visit London several times during 2013; every time there were new breweries and new beers to try, but every time I managed to fit in at least one pint of this. One mouthful is flinty, mineral water; the next fruity yeast esters; then sweet malt and after that a delicious, subtle bitterness that finishes with relish. Delightfully complex.

2. Alechemy X-366 Burst. The trendiest new hop at the time of its appearance, this Experimental 366 hop had as yet no name, and seemed to combine the flavours of English hops with those of the New World. Alechemy did their usual pale ’n’ hoppy magic with it and the result is a spectacular beer.

3. Rune from Fyne Ales was an excellent summer pint.

4. Tryst Chocolate Porter saw Tryst departing their pale ’n’ hoppy comfort zone to produce an incredibly deep and richly chocolately beer – even if sources close to the brewery did dismiss it as “lassies’ beer” when asked about it.

I’ve also had extraordinarily good pints from Great Heck, and from Loch Lomond – their 60/– confounded my hypothesis that the style was becoming extinct, and Haakon juniper ale was tasty once I’d figured out what the spice was.

Best UK Keg Beer: Camden Town 7 Hop Lager

The emperor being confirmed as a habitual naturist, I now only buy keg if a) I have no choice, or b) the beer in question is one from a sound, proven brewery that I really want to drink. The emotions on tasting generally range from “crushing disappointment on facing another glass of fizzy hop-flavoured water” to “good, but not £7 a pint good.” Nonetheless I have had some very decent keg this year:

1. Camden Town 7 Hop Lager. How Camden get such amazing fresh malt character in their lagers I have no idea.
2. Inveralmond Sunburst. Another very good Czech-style světlý ležák.
3. Alechemy Stereotype Lager. A beer that tastes very much like Anchor Steam to me. Not a bad thing; it seems its robust bitterness and restrained, austere malt is precisely what makes it moreish.

Best UK Bottled or Canned Beer: Tempest Old Parochial

Most of what I drink is session-strength or slightly stronger. There are relatively few occasions when I want a higher-gravity brew. But this year I have encountered quite a few very good strong bottled beers – at least, what would once have been classed as strong beers. They don’t seem quite as potent these days with the easy availability of 15% monsters.

1. Tempest Old Parochial – being tight-fisted, I wouldn’t normally buy a beer that’s £6 a bottle. This one was genuinely worth it. Luscious and sweet with restrained caramel, smoky notes and a dry woody finish.
2. Harveys Elizabethan Ale – this was an unexpected stunner, exactly what I look for in an old-school strong ale, leather and tobacco, crisp, sweet, rich and bitter all at the same time.
3. Tryst Double IPA – pungent, intense resin, just perfect.

Best Overseas Draught Beer: Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier Märzen

My favourite beer in the world is Schlenkerla Märzen. I like it because underneath the smoke it’s a world class lager in its own right. This year I got to drink it at the source in Bamberg again after far too long a time, and it was as wonderful as ever. So that has to be my award this time.

Ballast Point Sculpin IPA at GBBF was utterly gorgeous too.

Best Overseas Bottled or Canned Beer: Horal Oude Geuze Mega Blend
Sounds like a gimmick – a blend from six or seven top lambic producers. Opaque as peach juice; fruit, apple skin, cheesey bacteria, wine, slight vomity notes. Medium-high acid, unusually high bitterness on the finish. Much nicer that it sounds from my notes, I’m glad I got to taste this this year.

Best Collaboration Brew: Fyne/Wild Cool as a Cucumber

They are fun for the brewers, of course. The resulting collaboration brews are, in my experience, usually less than the sum of their parts. The exception was Fyne/Wild Cool as a Cucumber. I still haven’t quite decided whether I liked it or not, but it was definitely interesting.

Best Overall Beer

It seems odd quoting these words in a best-of post, yet they are so true. In lieu of an actual award for The Kernel, a quote from Evin: “There is too much beauty in the world to limit oneself to favourites.
Best Branding, Pumpclip or Label: Five Points

In a year in which the standard of graphic design has – at last – risen dramatically, there are a number of deserving candidates. I expect that Partizan’s unique illustrated labels will get a fair few awards.

I really like the stark typographic labels for Five Points in London. The nineteenth-century grotesque type gives it a real “London” feel – at least, it does to me.

Also worthy of a mention: I haven’t found any of their beer to my taste yet, but Wild Beer Co have beautiful, elegant bottles. In a similar vein up north, SixºNorth do as well.

Best UK Brewery: Alechemy

Cromarty have the edge on consistency, and if I liked coffee beers or hoppy reds they would have been in with a chance. In a world of over-hyped beers, their AKA IPA really was as good as everyone said it was. But Livingston-based Alechemy’s beers match my taste better, and looking back at my Untappd checkins, they have been my first choice when I’ve seen them in pubs this year. They make splendidly bitter, hoppy beers – Rhapsody was a low-strength summer favourite.

As well as the pale and hoppy stuff, they also came out with one of the most wow-making beers of the year, Monumental, a strong ale aged in Octomore casks (for those not interested in whisky, Octomore is something of an attempt to make the peatiest whisky in existence, some eight times peatier than Laphroaig). The result was an amazing combination of smoke and oak.

Best Overseas Brewery: no award
I haven’t drunk enough foreign beer this year to say!

Best New Brewery Opening 2013: Kirkstall/Windswept/Five Points

Choosing one would be a disservice to all the new breweries I didn’t get to try. Not that that’s going to stop me.

I don’t think Kirkstall Brewery are new at all, but they were new to me when their beer turned up at the Paisley Beer Festival. Both their beers were in superb nick and ridiculously quaffable and I went to sample it several times between pulling pints for other people.

I had mixed experiences with Windswept beers, but the two I had at the SIBA Scotland festival in November were very good, fully justifying their coming from nowhere to win two golds on the day.

Of the new London breweries, Five Points have been worth repeat purchases. The Pale Ale wonderfully fresh, the porter rich and chocolately.

Pub/Bar of the Year: The State and Blackfriars (joint winners)
Blackfriars has combined top-notch cellarmanship with the latest fancy-dan bottles from London, and run some beer-related events which were great fun. The State became a regular outlet for the acclaimed Oakham beers. The quality of beer at both these two establishments has been so high this year that there’s no getting a beer mat between them.

Best New Pub/Bar Opening 2013: The Halt Bar
This is a tricky one because it should have been won by Maclays Inns’ new bar Munro’s (or munro's as they insist on writing it) on Great Western Road. It’s the only beer-oriented new bar of any significance this year, and they have invested a lot of money in it (their other new opening in Glasgow, The Hope, doesn’t sell any cask and is therefore not to be taken seriously as a beer venue – even if it weren’t obvious anyway that the focus there is on selling wine and cocktails to twenty-something office workers).

Interesting fact: because it sometimes has beers from the Maclay-owned Clockwork brewery on the south side, Munro’s is occasionally the only place in town where you can drink all three Glasgow-brewed lagers in the same pub – Clockwork, Tennent’s and WEST.

Internally, it’s a great improvement on the dumpy Captain’s Rest pub that was here before, though music fans mourn the loss of the downstairs venue. Beer-wise there are often kegs from the likes of Magic Rock, The Kernel and Redchurch. The cask range, well, it encourages hardened cask drinkers like me to drink the keg. And they have put on regular meet the brewer events and host meetings of the university homebrew society.

But perhaps the interior is too new for me, perhaps the clientele is too sophisticated. Or it’s the feeling that the beer is something tacked on because “craft beer” happens to be fashionable at the moment. Munro’s could learn a lot from other food-oriented openings, such as the new wave burger bars or the Squid & Whale just along the road, which manage to offer good food and good beer without being pretentious about it.

As often as not I prefer to walk down the next street to the Halt Bar. This is not a new pub by any means; it’s been trading at least since the 1960s – but it is under new management so I’m bending the rules a bit for it. It’s been saved from the threat of being turned into an anodyne style bar and that’s something I am very happy about; even if the cask beer is expensive and a bit dull, though well-kept. At least the dreaded Doom Bar has apparently been ditched, and there is a well-stocked fridge with interesting bottles. It’s just a more pleasant place to sit and have a pint.

Beer Festival of the Year: SIBA Scotland

I had a great time at the Paisley Beer Festival this year. I think it benefited from being later in the year; the casks were in better condition and it attracted a lot of students curious about this “beer” stuff. The South Side Beer Festival broke new ground in stamping out a brand new festival in a new part of the city. Most novel was the SIBA Scotland festival, also held on the south side. Although attendance was poor, the punters who did turn up seemed to like it, and there was live Wurlitzer music!

Supermarket of the Year: No award

No award as I hardly ever buy beer in supermarkets.

Independent Retailer of the Year: Hippo

This has to go to Hippo Beers. There are other shops with less out-of-the-way locations. The more recently opened Valhalla’s Goat is backed by Williams Bros and offers a staggering (for Glasgow) selection. But Hippo has the edge: In the last few months they’ve had their own “Augustine IPA” brewed, hosted a live brewing session in the shop and during Glasgow Beer Week organised daily beer and burger pairings with Burger Meats Bun, the hot new burger joint in the city centre. Quite simply, Hippo do more with less. 
Online Retailer of the Year: No award

I don’t buy beer online so no award.

Best Beer Book or Magazine: Craft Beer World

The only new beer book I’ve read this year is Mark Dredge’s Craft Beer World. I have bought a few other books, but not actually got around to reading them … this is more a “must do better” for myself than an award, really … it is a good book though!

Best Beer Blog or Website: Walking and Crawling

Adam of Walking and Crawling won this last year, I think. He continues to explore the unfashionable beer regions of Scotland, visiting places that nobody else does and writing about beers and breweries that nobody else does. To me that’s more valuable than yet another blog celebrating the arrival of the latest trendy beer.

Runner-up is Wee Beefy who does much the same thing in and around Sheffield.

Best Beer App: Untappd

Untappd as it’s the only one I use, though its US-centricity drives me up the wall. It was certainly very useful when working out my beery highlights of the year for this post.

The last time I looked at CAMRA’s WhatPub? the display on a mobile phone was horrible, but I believe this has been improved since its public launch, so checking it out again is on my list of New Year’s resolutions.

Simon Johnson Award for Best Beer Twitterer: ThornbridgeDom

Once again @ThornbridgeDom has made me laugh the most.

Best Brewery Website/Social media: No award

The most successful are surely those who just let the brewers tweet. Least successful, those who do generic tweets a la “It’s Friday! Who’s having a refreshing $BRAND tonight?”

Positively annoying are those where it’s evident that someone comes into the office on Monday morning, sits down at a computer and starts retweeting every mention of their brand over the weekend.

Food and Beer Pairing of the Year

The straightforward one first: Italian Pizza Van’s  fresh pizza at the SIBA Scotland festival went down a treat with whatever it was I found myself drinking at the end.

The wanky one: Cantillon Gueuze with Appleby Cheshire – a challenging match, but I think a good one. I say challenging because not everyone is going to like the result: the cheese emphasises the acidity of the beer rather than counteracting it, and the cheese gets a bit gritty, but the combination certainly does enhance the flavour of each.