Wednesday, 9 March 2016

Hate to piss on your chips, but North Hop is just not worth the money

Having seen the ticket prices for North Hop, a one-day “craft beer, gin, cider festival“ currently beginning a series of events across Scotland, I was inclined at first not to bother with it. You can call me a cheapskate if you want, but I think being £20 out of pocket before you’ve had a single sip of beer is pretty poor value for money.

It’s even significantly more expensive than the highest-priced session at IndyMan, which itself got some stick for being pricey, but at least does offer the spectacular Manchester Victoria Baths as a venue. The Assembly Rooms, despite its expensive refurbishment, is more like a provincial concert hall. After the refurb, hire charges were hiked dramatically, so it’s probably not possible to match the £6 that CAMRA used to charge for a bigger festival in the same venue. I understand that – but three times as much?

Speaking of CAMRA, one of the bugbears at their festivals is often the need to get into the venue several days in advance, so that the cask beer can be delivered and allowed to settle. I am told this is not the case at North Hop, with brewers allowed in at 9am and expected to pour beer at noon. Several brewers, perhaps wisely under the circumstances, chose to bring only keg beer.

It’s a brave brewery that chooses a logo in hot pink, but that certainly makes the new Edinburgh Beer Factory stand out. Their pale lager, Paolozzi, didn’t impress me greatly when I had it in bottle a few months ago, but I’ve been waiting to give the draught version a chance. It’s got a pleasant straw-yellow colour and nice maltiness reminiscent of a nice Bavarian Helles, though not as rich and bready. Not a challenging beer – they tell me that’s not their aim either – and I mentally file it in the category “would happily drink in an airport, or if free”. That’s a little harsh, as it’s certainly better than the Peroni, Menabrea and so on that it’s setting out to compete with.

Right next door, there’s more lager from West, who are celebrating their 10th anniversary this year. Party Pilsner is a tweak on the earlier Feierabend, with Hallertauer Blanc hops and Cascade and Mandarina Bavaria used in the whirlpool. It’s tastier than Paolozzi, but also less clean, with a tad of butter and a slight peanut note that comes from God knows where. Scotland is still definitely lager land, with multiple vendors trying to fill the perceived niche for “craft” lager: hence why every Scottish brewery is craft now. Stewart Brewing also have a new lager, Franz, easier to drink than their earlier Pilsen. I like Franz best of the three.

Drygate have the annoying habit of recycling old beer names for new beers. I was extremely confused to see a limited edition Forelsket on sale, as this is the original name for the beer, part of their core cask range, which is now called Pale Duke. It turns out that it’s a new beer entirely. I hate the smell of dope, but I am rather fond of the American hops that give beer a so-called “dank” aroma which is said to be similar to dope. The new Forelsket is redolent of them. It smells like a tenement landing on West Princes Street on the Sunday morning after a house party.

Forelsket is the work of Drygate brewer Jake Griffin, who has now set up his own brand, Up Front. He’s on his own stand at the opposite end of the hall, having his first ever festival outing with his new beer, Ishmael IPA and Ahab stout. Not all the early customer feedback is positive: one punter asks how strong the beers are, and upon being told they are both 6 per cent, turns and walks away without a word. Jake is phlegmatic about this: “We don’t want to be for everyone,” he says, “we want to stand out from the crowd.”

Soon after I arrive for the afternoon session, some dreary rock band takes the stage and plays at such deafening volume that it’s impossible to order a beer, never mind chat to the exhibitors.

Not that many other brewers are represented: Fallen, currently darlings of pale-n-hoppy enthusiasts; Tempest, SixºNorth, Williams, Wooha, and Glasgow’s Drygate and West. I’d have expected to see Harviestoun and Innis & Gunn here, and the absence of Brewdog is unusual, given it’s the kind of PR-led event that’s a perfect match for their PR-led business. Stewart and Windswept are kind of hidden away in the corner. Wooha, by the looks of things are still bottling all their beers. The solitary cider vendor, as far I can see, is Thistly Cross. If you’d turned up hoping for a cider festival, you’d be out of luck and pretty angry, I imagine.

North Hop is nice enough as far as it goes. It’s not a new breed of luxury festivals, as you might surmise from the cost of admission (unless the bales of straw people are expected to sit on are made of gold, perhaps). It isn’t particularly luxurious, it isn’t particularly big, the beers on offer are not particularly rare. The beer I have is par for the course for a festival: some good, some not so good. Prices are acceptable for beer and I did have a very nice scotch egg, which was actually worth the £4 I spent on it.

However, looking at the ecstatic tweets by people who did have a good time and discovered new beers and foodstuffs, I can’t help thinking they must not get out very much. Perhaps that’s the niche of North Hop: bringing a slight tinge of hipsterification to the well-heeled but ignorant Herald-reading middle classes, without requiring them to actually visit the hipster parts of town.

But I just can’t get over the inflated ticket price, which seems unjustifiable when comparable festivals offer much the same for much less money. 

If style is what you’re after, you could certainly have a very nice afternoon drinking excellent beer in some of Edinburgh’s magnificent pubs just for what North Hop charges for admission. Which is what I recommend you do instead. 

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Two whales walk into a bar…

When I wrote about Chris Lewis’ long-awaited commercial beer a few weeks ago, I would have liked to mention another new project too, but it was still under wraps. Now it isn’t: the other half of the Zombier team, Jake Griffin, has now also launched his own beer.

Up Front Brewing is the name of the new project and the name is not an accident: eschewing the trend for crowdfunding, Jake is setting his stall out for organic growth and not being in debt to anyone.

I should mention that I have known Jake for five or six years now, so am not completely unbiased. He is an impressively energetic and driven man – not content with finishing his PhD while working as a brewer at Fyne Ales and then Drygate, he continued to homebrew, filling his Glasgow flat with demijohn after demijohn of experimental beers.

Up Front’s first two beers are an IPA called Ishmael and an American stout called Ahab – a literary reference which is over my head to be quite frank. Both were launched at Inn Deep in Glasgow last Thursday and at the North Hop festival in Edinburgh on Saturday.

Both are 6% and Jake has jumped feet first onto the can bandwagon. The artwork on the cans and font badges is by renowned artist Stanley Donwood, featuring stark black and white imagery.

The beer is brewed at Drygate, where Jake usually spends his days making their Gladeye IPA and Bearface Lager. I imagine choosing a brewery to produce Up Front’s beer must have been a fairly easy decision. If you can contract your brewing out to, well, yourself, why go elsewhere? Jake has a clear advantage over most “cuckoo” brewers in that he gets to work on a familiar kit, as it’s the same one he uses for his day job.

Ishmael is a modern IPA with all that that implies, bitter, pungently hoppy and on the murky side. It seems to have more sophisticated hopping than some, dank and fruity at the same time, yet for me is still missing the touch of magic that makes you want another. However, it’s certainly quite as good as plenty of other IPAs that people rave about, and I expect it will do just fine in the market.

Ahab is a more distinctive beer in its own right. If Jake hadn’t told me it was an American Stout I wouldn’t have categorised it as such; those roasty, dry-hopped things usually just make me think someone has dumped hops in my morning coffee. Ahab has big roastiness and cereal character. I think I can taste oats but forgot to ask whether it contains any. There is a nice thin dark chocolate note, similar but not quite the same as the dry cocoa of Zombier, and as you drink it a distinct black cherry flavour develops, finishing with cake and muesli and Black Forest gateau all at the same time. I might be on the floor after two pints of this but I’d remember it.