Sunday, 18 June 2017
A Beer With No Soul?
"... that's why I'm pissed off now, especially by United States customers, they don't give a shit when InBev is buying another company, for them it's the same. No! Goose Island is not a craft beer, come on, that's how they kill the Belgian markets. The Belgian market almost died to that kind of stuff. It was InBev policy for almost thirty years, buying up opponents, now they are doing it worldwide. In Italy, the day they bought Del Borgo I called friends, Manuele in Roma, I called Stockholm, and said "Guys, we have to move!", but we were not ready. But if I have some time this year I hope I can get a group of people to get ready for the next strike. We have to strike back. That's how they destroyed Belgium, buying breweries. As soon as somebody is getting better, buying it. Buying it to do what? Produce the same shit everywhere, so it has no soul."
Jean Hummler of Moeder Lambic in conversation with Breandan Kearney.
The Belgian Smaak Podcast, EP007
It's a warm Monday evening, and I'm in hipster-central Shoreditch for another beer launch. As it's on the way I stop off at BrewDog, meeting Matt Chinnery (the Half-Pint Gentleman) for a beer or two, returning our glasses to the bar before heading a few doors down to where Goose Island has a pop-up bar ready to launch Migration Week in London for the second year in a row. Migration Week, to quote from the promotional blurb, "The Chicago Brewery will be showcasing the wide range of beers in the Goose Island portfolio at a variety of diverse events across London, where beer lovers can embrace the spirit of Chicago in the capital from 12-17 June."
The invite tonight was for the launch of Goose Island's newest beer, Midway, a 4.1% session IPA showcasing American hops.
It's a tasty beer too full of big hop flavour, but not too bitter. There's notes of lime, lemon and orange, a full on sessionable citrus hit perfect for summer drinking. It slid down very easily and had three or four in quick succession, which wasn't actually as quick as you might think given the plastic glasses it was served in, which appear to be almost compulsory at every non-brewery-based event at the moment. A side rant here but, come on, they're not easy to drink from nor are they eco-friendly, and if you're really worried about glass and injury then just make sure you have enough staff that know where the dustpan and brushes are kept.
We had a good night, and the guys at Goose Island were particularly generous with plenty of beer flowing and some very good food and, if you allowed yourself to get carried away by the blues riffs played by the over-loud band, you could almost forget that the whole thing was being bank-rolled by ABInBev.
It's a PR stunt, but nothing new there, that's what these launches are all about. Whether you're a big multi-national or a small local independent, it's all about getting your product out there, getting it talked and written about, creating an interest.
Goose Island do these events really well. I've been to quite a few of them now and they tend to bring out the great and the good in the beer writing community, particularly when the Bourbon County bandwagon rolls into town.
They are a real celebration of Chicago beer culture.
Goose Island Midway is not a Goose Island beer.
You know this, it's an ABInBev beer, and you yawn and switch off. I wouldn't blame you, this has been a broken record since they were bought be ABInBev in 2011, and on the whole it's now accepted that if you choose to buy it then you tend to know what it is. It's what's become known as "crafty" and the examples are endless.
Goose Island Midway isn't a Goose Island beer because it's brewed by Birra del Borgo in Italy. It can't embrace the spirit of Chicago because it has nothing whatsoever to do with Chicago. It is a fraud, a beer pretending to be something it isn't, riding on the reputation of an established, better known brewery that's really just a front for a multi-national. It has no real identity, it's the bastard child of marketing men and brewers, spawned ultimately by those who, for their own reasons, took the big money from The Man. There is no story other than profit, there is no passion, there is no soul.
Goose Island Midway was described to me as a "game changer" by a representative of, get this, ABInBev's Craft Division, (a frightening development) and it is. For the first time that I can recall a really tasty new beer that wasn't a limited edition or one-off, not a dumbed down half-hearted flavour-challenged attempt, has been produced under the guidance of ABInBev. It appears that they are learning, should we be worried?
Referring again to the Breandan Kearney's excellent interview again, it won't be long before they'll be producing the same shit everywhere.
Does anyone know where ABInBev have recently invested a lot of money in a state of the art brewery in London recently?
You can listen to what Jean Hummler of Moeder Lambic has to say on the Belgian Smaak Podcast here, and I'd strongly recommend that you do. All of these podcasts are pure gold if you have any interest in beer, particularly Belgian beer, at all.
Many thanks to Matt Curtis who allowed me to crystalise the ideas for this post by messaging me regarding the beer the day after the event. Thanks mate.
Sunday, 21 May 2017
Historic Coaching Inns of the Great North Road - Roger Protz
I'm a sucker for old inns and I don't mind admitting it. The anticipation of approaching, the resolute beauty of the exterior and, crossing the threshold, the palpable sense of history as I join the ranks of patrons that have enjoyed the hospitality within the self same walls through centuries past.
All human life has frequented inns through the ages, from paupers and beggars to kings and queens, from murderers and thieves to bishops and knights of virtue, itinerant traders, drovers, servants, writers and politicians, each seeking companionship, solace, sustenance, warmth and rest according to their needs. Inns have been court rooms, prisons, breweries, brothels, meeting rooms, places to plot, plan, philosophise and ponder life's mysteries, as well as providing inspiration and material for playwrights, poets and authors. The stories their walls could tell are many and varied, from joyful and jubilant to morbid and melancholy with every emotion inbetween. This is what I find so fascinating about them, this is why I love them and this is the reason I visit them. For me, surprisingly, a good beer is a bonus, and whilst not essential it often means that I spend longer soaking up the atmosphere than I had perhaps intended.
When CAMRA sent me this book to review I had a feeling of both anticipation and trepidation. The subject matter had obvious appeal, but I wanted to be taken on a journey of imagination along an ancient road, touching on history enough to peak my curiosity, while also providing just enough of a contemporary review that I'd long to explore these places for myself. A tough ask maybe, but fortunately this, on the whole, is exactly what this book delivers.
Those of you that have read some of the many books that Roger Protz has written will be familiar with his narrative style and he sets the scene and historical context that lead to the rise and demise of the coaching inn, before setting off from London to Edinburgh on a journey that follows the old Great North Road, similar in the most part to the route of the A1/A1M, but taking in the towns and cities that the modern road now bypasses so as not to inconvenience today's road users. The chapters are written in stages so that it isn't a monotonous list of inns, and these are interspersed with jolly asides on subjects relating to coaches, highwaymen (and women), and road builders, as well as providing guidance to other places of interest in the area of each stop. It's clear to see that this was a genuine journey and an enjoyable one at that.
As you would expect in a CAMRA book the beer available in each is mentioned, but this is more in passing rather than a dominating factor, and it's not only real ale that gets a nod, although it is most certainly available in every inn that has an entry here. I would have liked a signpost to other coaching inns in the area that don't carry cask beer but that is purely a personal indulgence and in no way a criticism, it just means that I'll have to do a little background reading if I visit these places so as not to miss out on an historical gem.
I confess to have already visited many of the inns written about here, the Dukes Head in Highgate, the George in Stamford, the Angel and Royal in Grantham and the Olde Starre in York being particular favourites, and am pleased that I feel the same about each as Roger does, finding his insights both interesting and insightful.
If this book has a fault it is that, for me it doesn't go deep enough into the area and history of each place and how it related to the coaching era but this isn't really it's purpose, and that I find some of the picture placement a little confusing as the inn exterior tends to be shown at the end of the piece next to the following entry. What it does provide however is enough of a starting point to pique your curiosity should you have any interest in coaching inns, historical buildings, or are just in search of a beer related diversion.
This isn't the definitive book on the subject, at some 192 pages you would not expect it to be, but it is the ideal book to pack in your glove box or back pack should you wish to set off on a journey of discovery into this country's past and the history of beer and travel.
Historic Coaching Inns of the Great North Road by Roger Protz is published by the Campaign for Real Ale Limited and is available through CAMRA books with a registered retail price of £12.99 although with a little shopping around you should be able to get it cheaper than that. I've already mentioned that this book was sent to me for to review for free, and even though I confessed my love of inns in my opening sentence if it was awful I wouldn't have hesitated in saying so. It's not, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.
Friday, 12 August 2016
The Moral High Ground
Shades of grey
Once upon a time we all knew who the good guys and the bad guys were.
Macro-breweries, Big Beer if you like, were the enemy. Evil empires run by money men, focused on profit, churning out enormous quantities of homogeneous ice-cold beer, irrespective of brand. It didn't really matter what it tasted like as balance sheets were king, maximum profit for minimum cost in the quickest possible time.
The good guys, of course, were the small regional breweries. Guarding their territory, putting quality first, making a superior product at a price point that, although it might be slightly higher than Big Beer, we all were willing to pay.
By buying their beer of these regional or micro-breweries as they were called, championing their cause, we held the moral high ground. We were the consumers raging against the machine. We were the worms that were turning. We prayed for a revolution, a spark that would ignite and spread across the land like a wild fire, sweeping away Big Beer and bringing a new age of beer. A beautifully beery new dawn. We gazed into our pints, imagined this impossible brave new world, let out a sigh and came back to reality.
Now things are different. Beer is booming, and big business as well. Where have those oh-so-clear dividing lines gone? Things that would once have outraged us to the point of getting up out of our chairs and actually doing something about it; brewery closures, selling controlling interests to larger breweries, even Big Beer, now have many of us shrugging, mumbling on social media that we won't drink beer from them again (although by the following week we've forgotten all about it and drink it again), and feel a the warm glow of the self-righteous. I'm as guilty of this as the next drinker.
Forty-odd years ago of course, back in the early days of CAMRA, they organised demonstrations. Proper ones. In November 1973 around 600 members "from as far apart as Northumberland and Kent"(source: What's Brewing - December 1973) protested the closure of the Joules Brewery in Stone, Staffordshire by Bass Charrington by organising a protest march culminating in an orderly rally at the brewery gates where Christopher Hutt, the then CAMRA Chairman and author of the excellent "Death of the English Pub", and Bill Young, the district secretary of the local branch of the Transport and General Worker Union, both gave speeches. The following year there was a similar protest at the Barnsley brewery in South Yorkshire with a turn-out of reportedly twice that number. Although both of these were unsuccessful, both breweries were closed fairly soon afterwards, it showed that, despite a relatively small membership (9,000 by 1974 compared to 181,543 today (source; CAMRA website)) it was able to mobilise members to travel and protest a cause. If you make a direct comparison with the estimated 1,200 that protested against pub closures and the beer duty escalator outside the Houses of Parliament in 2012 then surely it means that its members are, on the whole, less involved, less militant, and couldn't really care less.
This state of apathy is not unique to beer of course it can be seen right across our society, look at the percentage of the electorate who actually watch the news let alone vote, but even though many of us feel we have a strong sense of justice, what our actions say we have is just a general feeling of unease or discomfort, a malaise.
Recently I was invited to a brewery launch party at The Rake by 'French' brewery, Le Brewery. The quote marks around 'French' are there for a reason, because even though the brewery is based in north-western France it was founded by Steve Skew, an Englishmen, and continues to be run from England by, as I discovered on the night, a consortium who had purchased it as an investment when Steve put it up for sale around 18 months ago. I reviewed their Norman Gold in July 2012, and you can read about it here should you so wish.
I looked at the website, which showed a range of eight beers and one cider so I was expecting to taste a variety of beer when I arrived and introduced myself to the team from Le Brewery. Sadly I was to be disappointed. Only two beers, Mysterieuse Lady, an elder flower blonde, and Norman Gold, the beer I had previously reviewed, the two least interesting and the lowest in abv were available to try, along with the cider, their re-designed labels still showing an interpretation of the images of the Bayeux Tapestry, but one that had been settled on by a committee of marketing men. Bland and uninteresting. It transpired that these were the bottles that had been sent to supermarkets to try and spark an interest in the brand (not the brewery I noted) to enable them to gain a foothold in the UK market. As I was talking to them a gentleman who introduced himself as someone who had run successful charities before turning his attention to crowd-funding, arrived with a bottle of their beer and took their attention. I didn't stay much longer after that, although my attention was diverted by one of their older, oxidised, but infinitely superior bottle of Harold's Revenge, a 7.6% English Old Ale, that they had found whilst clearing out the cellar of old stock.
After being initially shocked by this blatant marketing exercise I was perhaps even more shocked by my process of rationalising the evening. If I had bought a brewery as an investment without being completely immersed in the culture and lore of beer this would probably be precisely the route I would follow. It's a well trodden path, one that pays off in many industries and seeing that beer is making headlines and reading about the money being handed to breweries by multi-national companies in mergers and take-overs then why wouldn't you want the chance to get on that train when it arose? Does it make them bad people or just shrewd marketeers? I wasn't so sure as I used to be.
I'm sure we all remember the outcry on social media when Camden Town brewery was acquired by AB-InBev in December 2015, the last, and most headline-grabbing, from a UK drinker's point of view, of the takeovers, mergers and purchases of a busy year for such things.
Among the most vocal, Matt Curtis let his disappointment be know when he wrote this post about the situation, although he did conclude that he would just have to come to terms with it.
If you follow his writing you probably already know that last month (July 2016) he published an interview with Jasper Cuppaidge of Camden Town on the Good Beer Hunting website. I urge you to read it as it explains some of the reasons, other than financial, that Jasper says he had for accepting the reported £85million offer from the brewing behemoth, and it makes for interesting reading. Investment in a bigger brewery in Enfield, on the outskirts of London, access to business, beer and brewery knowledge, and expansion into new markets, particularly the US, are all cited as reasons and the argument is convincing. I do notice that Matt doesn't have a closing paragraph on this occasion, preferring to finish instead with a future projection question, leaving you to draw your own conclusion.
So while I continue to buy and enjoy as I'm sure many of you do, Camden Town's beer, the fact that I'm paying my money to AB-InBev is an inconvenient truth that I'd rather not acknowledge. I still wouldn't buy Budweiser, but I did go to an event organised by Goose Island, another AB-InBev acquisition, the day before Craft Beer Rising this year because Bourbon County continues to be an amazing beer.
Perhaps, given what I've experienced, that things have changed. Big Beers isn't all bad and obviously transparent marketing of a product (as opposed to this example highlighted by Pete McKerry) isn't the worst thing in the world after all?
So who has the moral high ground now?
Certainly not me, if I ever did. My halo, such as it was, has slipped and things aren't as black and white as I once perceived them to be. All I'm left with is shades of grey and that bothers me a lot less than I think it should.
Still, there's always a new brewery, a new beer release, an event to attend, or a parcel arriving on my doorstep, that will mean that I don't really have to worry about it for too long.
Tuesday, 12 July 2016
Ferment and Beer52.com
"We want to be the voice of a somewhat fragmented UK beer world and to do that we want to explore beer in an adventurous and fun way" Erin Bottomley, Editor, Ferment magazine. Taken from the editorial in Issue 1.
Just over a month ago I was delighted to discover that a beer orientated magazine had gone overground hit the newsstand, or more specifically WHSmith's. With the exception of CAMRA's "BEER" magazine which I have occasionally seen for sale, I think it was "Beers Of The World", relaunched in 2012, that was the last regular beer magazine available in the UK. Now not only could I buy it for myself, I could tell others about it and, what's more, some of the contributors are people that I'm proud to call my friends.
Of course, Ferment isn't a new magazine. Subscribers to the Beer52.com beer club have been receiving it every month with their beer order, and will continue to do so, but even though I wasn't a member I could now read it for myself.
I devoured every page of course, enjoying some parts more than others (I'll expand on that a little later on), and had seriously considered subscribing judging by the beer that they were sending out (more on that later too), so was surprised and delighted to be contacted by Ben Black from Beer52 asking me if I'd like some beer to review.
I accepted without hesitation, (you can see a disclaimer coming here, can't you?), and the beer arrived around a week later as promised. Unlike the magazine I didn't pay for this (told you so!), and was genuinely excited at the chance to write about the beer I received and relate it to some of the articles in Ferment magazine. This is something I'm assuming that existing subscribers have been doing for some time, but the chance for me to add a new dimension to my beer drinking was something that I simply couldn't pass up.
Trying to match the beer to some of the articles was relatively easy in some instances as you will see, but where I hadn't had the beer before it proved a little more challenging,. I also didn't want to re-write what was already written as the original authors have far more experience and clever wordsmithery than I could ever hope to have.
Realising that this was going to be a little harder than I had at first thought, I reasoned that the best place to start was at the beginning.
"Craft beer is many things to many different people ... Maybe it's time to take a deep breath, sit back, and enjoy the beer."
Beery state of the nation by Pete Brown. Beer Pairing: Lerwick Brewery - Azure.
Pete Brown is one of this country's foremost beer writers. His books and articles have taken both himself and beer around the globe, but in this opening piece he looks at where we are at this moment in time in the UK with respect to what's happening in the rest of the world, specifically the US. Mergers, takeovers, hipsters and IPAs all fall under his gaze, and his conclusion along the lines of don't worry, be happy, and drink the beer, revisiting some old classics alongside the new breed, is sound advice. If you look at history then it's only (almost) business as usual.
The Lerwick Azure. Pale Ale brewed with American Cascade and New Zealand Rakau hops nicely encapsulates much of what has led this particular craft beer revolution. It starts worryingly, bitter, with some pithy citrus notes, but it is it's conclusion, a precise dry finish that lets you know that evrything's going to be alright. A zingy palate awakener leaving you wanting more, much as you'd expect from a magazine's opening gambit. Job done.
"The funny thing is that we love the person who comes into the bar and says 'I don't like beer'. We love being able to change their perception of beer and help them find something that they'll enjoy."
Lunch with Mikkeller by Heather Naismith & Fraser Doherty. Beer Pairing: Mikkeller - Vesterbro Pils
I have to admit to being a bit of a Mikkeller fanboy. If you ask me what my favourite beer of all time was then I'd certainly consider their 10.9% Beer Geek Brunch Weasel and 5.3% Spontanale, both would make it into my top ten, and back in May 2012, when my blog was very much in its early stages, I wrote reviews of twenty-four Mikkeller beers is thirty-one days. I still stand by those reviews, so as you'd expect an interview with the elusive brewer and founder of Mikkeller, Mikkel Borg Bjergso, a man renowned for not giving interviews, is an article that I'd turn straight to and devour, much as the food and atmosphere is devoured by the lucky interviewers who met with him in Copenhagen's famous brewpub, War Pigs. It's a rare insight into the life and ethos of a man with a passion to change peoples perceptions of beer and make the consumer more discerning, a tough task perhaps, but one he shows no signs of easing up on.
Managing to be both juicy and dry at the same time the aroma of peach and mango in the Vesterbro Pils is immediately enticing. Named for the district of Copenhagen that is home to the War Pigs Brewpub, this beer floods the mouth with mango, peach and passion fruit flavours whilst almost instantaneously drying the mouth with a crisp bitterness, preparing you for the next swallow. Perfect with creamy cheese, I had it with a selection which included Manchego and Goat's cheese that I had for my lunch today, it also stood up well to the robust strength of mature Cheddar, and I can imagine it engaging in some light interplay with a cheesecake for dessert, whether it be plain or, and this would be my preferred choice, one with an apricot puree, echoing the exchanges of conversation in the article. This is definitely a 'light lunch' beer, but one that rewards the drinker with some beautifully nuanced touches. A beer as rarely seen outside of Copenhagen as the brewer himself, an exclusive to this Beer52 box, it has that little bit of something extra, something different, that ignites my passion for all things Mikkeller.
"We followed hash-smoked air into the middle of the freetown melee, pausing in a bar with seaside sensibility, a wooden hut filled with crusty, pleasant-faced men with wild beards, big zoots and crinkly smiles."
The Danish Caper by Craig Ballinger. Beer Pairing: To-Ol - Baltic Frontier.
There are two very different ways to explore a brand new city. The first is to prepare an itinerary well in advance, marking the key places you must visit, researching opening times, distances and methods of transport between attractions or, as described here, to go with the flow of the city itself, letting it take you to wherever it wishes, accepting new encounters and embracing their spontaneity. Of course you may have in mind some idea of the places you like to go to, and maybe you have some appointments you need to keep, such as the meeting at To-Ol in this piece, but the freedom to roam with no agenda is both eye-opening and surprisingly both full and light simultaneously.
"...an IPA beaten with Juniper Berries and Sea Buckthorn and trashed with hops" says the label, and using natural ingredients shaped by the skill of the brewer's hand is what makes a really good beer, and this is a really, really good beer. A dry botanical aroma switches to a tart, sweet gin-edged flavour, building and drying suddenly with a fruity nectarine and grapefruit encased pop. Ebbing and flowing like the street-life parade, punchy and fresh, like the day starting easily, rising to a crescendo of activity in the evening before dissolving into nothingness in an instant, this beer is exciting, challenging and rewarding in equal measure.
"In many cases this just forces brewers to use their ingenuity and knowledge to work out ways to make their beers with hops that are more readily available, and, in the process, create some brand new beers for us to try."
In Hop Pursuit by Erin Bottomley. Beer Pairing: CAP Brewery - Don't Break the Oat.
Concerns over hop shortages have been rumbling away in the background for some time now, and it's an issue that affects brewers who want to bring plenty of good quality beer to the market place, and the consumer wanting a consistent well-rounded product packed full of flavour. Heavily hopped Pale Ales and IPAs, DIPAs, and more recently their younger brother Session IPAs, have fuelled the craft beer movement, bringing a glut of new drinkers demanding big bitter palate-bashing bruisers to quench their seemingly never-ending thirst. When the scales of supply and demand become more and more unbalanced then something obviously has to give. But it isn't all doom and gloom, in fact, with a little skill and 'outside-the-box' thinking the future could brighter than ever.
I'll confess that it was the fact that this beer uses solely Bramling Cross hops, a British hop in seemingly plentiful supply, that influenced my decision for this pairing, although on closer inspection of the label I realise that I've actually shared a few beers with one of the brewers, Danko. It's also pays tribute to the British style of brewing so I'm already warming to it before I've taken a sip. A smoky creamy chocolate aroma reminds me of many a bigger beer and I'm a little disappointed that it's thinner over the tongue then I had anticipated. A brief pause, then the flavour hits. More smokiness, more chocolate, this time tempered with a touch of cola nut, a nudge in the direction of coconut, then it washes itself cleanly away leaving behind a cheeky ghost of its former self. It's delicious, and I wish that I had another bottle.
"It can be easy to forget about a brewery like Chimay in a world of increasingly more adventurous and radical breweries."
A Little Respect. A Visit to the Chimay Brewery, Belgium by Matt Curtis. Beer Pairing: Chimay Gold.
One of the most enduring constants since I was legally allowed to drink beer, and probably a little before that, has been my love of Belgian beer. A local off licence stocked bottles of Chimay Blue (Grand Reserve) and Red (Premiere) alongside cans of William Younger's Tartan and Inde Coope's Double Diamond. Exotic, strong and flavoursome, taking four or so bottles to a party guaranteed a good nights drinking and usually a sore head in the morning. Matt Curtis is someone I've known almost since the minute I started writing about beer. We started our blogs around the same time, and have spent quite a few drunken evenings discussing beer and propping up bars, so to discover that he also had an early encounter with the delights produced at the Abbaye de Notre Dame de Scourmont brought a huge smile to my face. This is the tale of Matt's visit to both the abbey and the brewery, a totally absorbing read.
This beer pours a wonderfully golden colour with a head as pure and white as the robes of a Trappist Monk with a subtly understated aroma of lemon and white pepper. Clean tasting,refreshing and with a deliciously full body, its flavour of subdued lemon zest and crushed coriander seeds sublimely across the tongue punctuated with a spicy bitter bite that fades gently away. By far the easiest pairing to make of the five, this beer isn't a brash and boozy as it's bigger brothers but for my taste it is simply divine.
It doesn't end there for Ferment Magazine. I haven't told you about Melissa Cole's Views from the Bar, Mark Dredge's Guide to Pale Lagers or, and this was one of my favourite pieces, Archie McDiarmid's A Beer Drinkers Guide to the Wine List,to name but three, but I'll let you find out about those for yourself. Nor was it the end of the box I was sent; My Pils by To Ol, Nazca by Chilean brewery Rothhammer, Vesterbro Wit by Mikkeller, Red Doe by the fantastic White Hag Brewery in Sligo, Ireland, and Hefe from Edinburgh's Stewart Brewery rounded out the excellent selection. When a selection of beers this mouth wateringly good along with the brilliant writing in Ferment magazine as part of the package then why wouldn't you want to be a part of the Beer52.com experience?
Those wonderful people at Beer52.com have given me an exclusive code to share with you that will give you a whopping £10 off your first order. Simply follow this link to www.beer52.com and enter the coupon code GBDB10 after your payment details and some fantastic beer to drink on its own or as I did, while you read Ferment magazine, will be delivered to your door in a matter of days. The second issue of Ferment magazine came out on the 7th July and focuses on the burgeoning London beer scene, meaning a great new selection of beer from Beer52.com for you to enjoy. A regular subscription will mean you never miss an issue or fantastic beer, some of which are exclusive to Beer52.com. What are you waiting for?
Sunday, 3 July 2016
Beer In Essex:
Visiting Great Wakering
It starts to rain just as my train pulls into Southend Victoria station, the end of the line, the grey sky fittingly echoing a melancholy you can almost taste in this rundown Victorian seaside town. I hurry through through the generic 'every-town' centre and catch the bus to Great Wakering.
The journey takes me just six miles inland but it seems a world away, and the sun breaks briefly through the crowd as I walk past the church and duck pond to Home Farm on whose land George's Brewery resides. I'd written a potted history of the brewery itself in June last year in the second part of my exploration of Essex bottled beer, you can read about it here if you want to, and despite having received an invitation to visit soon afterwards I finally had an opportunity to do so. Incidentally, should you wish to know the full history of the brewery, and the associated Hop Monster brand, then this link will take you to the official version written by owner Mark Mawson.
When I get there Sam (Martyn, George's very capable brewer) is part way through brewing a batch of Checkpoint Charlie, their 4.0% bitter with tangerine, peach and notes, ably assisted by their pony-tailed delivery driver/jack-of-all-trades Steve. Even though they are clearly busy I'm warmly welcomed and handed a box of beer that Sam had organised for me from when I first said I was coming. I'd previously met Sam and his German girlfriend Pia at the Essex Winter Beer Festival in Chelmsford earlier in the year, and my wife, Sarah, and I had spent a good hour or so in their company chatting and drinking quite a lot of beer, not all of it good sadly.
After making a cup of tea and taking a few pictures, I'm commandeered into hop duty and I'm soon up a ladder piling hops into the kettle. This is something I've done before at several breweries but it's the first time I've done this in a kettle where the lid flips up completely, it's certainly easier than pouring them (and mostly missing) into the small opening that I've previously experienced.
George's is a five barrel brewery housed in a converted barn that's thick with cobwebs around the exposed wooden beams, the spiders help keep the flies at bay I'm told, it is after all on a working farm. The brewery equipment came from Eddie Gadd when he upgraded his Ramsgate Brewery in Kent, and he had previously obtained from a Firkin brew pub, and considering its age it's doing rather well, although this does have a decent pedigree. Having a scout around I get a little excited when I find a now unused conditioning tank. Painted white, although it has got a little dirty with age, I see that it still bears the trade marks of Scottish and Newcastle, William Younger's, McEwan's, and Newcastle Brewers. Considering that these companies merged Scottish and Newcastle in 1960 (Younger's and McEwan's had previously merged in 1931) I'd anticipate that this tank is around fifty years old. It would be great to see it in use again.
Brewing, as you probably already know, involves an awful lot of involved and often frantic work followed by extended periods of waiting, and I use one of these to spend some time with Sam, talking about him and beer in general. He's easy to talk to and generous with his his time, and I start by asking about his background, both beer and non-beer related and how he came to be brewing at George's.
"I was born in 1993, and grew up in Rochford (Essex, around six miles west of Great Wakering). My earliest memory of beer and pubs in general was going to The Chequers in Canewdon (once owned by TV chef Jamie Oliver's uncles and closed in 2010) with my grandparents as a teenager. It was a great pub but sadly no longer there."
"My original plan was to be an actor, I'd trained as one at college and was going to go to drama school to continue my studies to BA level. Unfortunately I was unsuccessful at the auditions and had to wait until the following years entries to try again. Having an unplanned gap year to fill I got a job as the Guest Services Manager at a local activity centre, and this proved to be a big turning point in my life. It was during this time that I met my partner, Pia, and started dabbling with home brew."
"I stayed at the activity centre for three years, but decided that I really needed a new challenge, so I quit my job and used the money that I'd originally set aside for a new car to move to Munich in Germany and stay with Pia. I took German lessons, ate great food, drank great beer, and spent lots of time researching the things that really interested me. I even applied for either MI5 or MI6 at one stage, I can't remember which, but it was during this period that I realised that brewing was the path that I really wanted to follow."
"My last month in Germany was filled with brewing related research. I crammed my brain with as much information about the brewing process as I could and applied for an apprenticeship at Partizan Brewery in Bermondsey, London. On my return to England I went for an interview with Andy (Smith, Partizan Brewery founder and brewer) but it didn't work out, so I decided to look a little closer to home to see what I could find. I contacted Mark at George's and we met for a chat. He clearly saw something in me that he liked as he invited me for a brew day trial, and the rest, as they say, is history."
"I've been here for about eighteen months now, starting as the assistant initially but I'm now the only brewer with an assistant of my own who I'm now training. My first recipe, Checkpoint Charlie, a batch of which we are brewing today, is now part of our core range, and my latest, Huell Melon is also going well. I'm still saving for that new car though!"
I'm sure he'll get that car soon if he continues along these lines, both beers are very good indeed.
Huell Melon is a German hop, and as he spent some time in Germany I ask him whether there's any German influence in the beer that he brews, or if there's anything due along those lines.
"Of course", he replies, "but I can draw inspiration from anywhere I go. I went to Berlin for my birthday last year, and it was touring the city that I got the inspiration and the name for Checkpoint Charlie. I like the beers I make to have a personal connection as I think it makes it a more enjoyable experience for the drinker when each beer tells them a little about the person who made it."
Leading on from this then, is there a beer that you'd love to brew but haven't yet had to chance to?
"I'd love to do a Weiss Bier, a proper traditional Bavarian one, and I love drinking Hopf when I'm in Munich. In fact I love that beer so much we have it on most of the time at Mawson's (George's micropub in Southend), it proves popular too. Wheat beers are a style that I feel are a little under-appreciated in England, and when a brewery brews one over here it tends to be an American-style hoppy version or a Belgian Wit.
So are there any beers from a UK brewery that you'd wish you'd brewed yourself?
"Easy one, it has to be Dark Star's Espresso Stout. I absolutely love that beer, and in my opinion it's exactly how a stout should be. I can't believe that it's not permanently available on cask."
Any other beers you look out for?
"Anything that is new or different to be honest. I'm really interested in finding new flavours and different takes on a style, whatever it may be."
That's a feeling I know well, and I'm sure many of you do too., so lastly I ask him about what's next for George's, which direction are they going in?
"Over the next year we plan on putting our Hopmonster Freakshow beers and maybe Wakering Gold into KeyKeg. We'll also have two strong ales being released later this year; Gaspar's Star which we've used an Abbey Ale yeast in, and Nebuchadnezzar which has a Saison yeast. We're hoping that our bottles may soon be available from an online retailer."
"The Huell Melon is selling incredibly well, the first cask was sent to Mawson's and sold out in under four hours, and I've been told it's gone down well in other pubs as well. I really want to see George's Brewery continue to grow and I'm sure that it will."
I'm sure that it will too.
Owner Mark arrives at this point, and I have a brief chat with him before I leave. I have a beer tasting for another Essex brewery to attend that evening, but I want to head to Mawson's before that as I've never been before.
Just missing the bus, I have to wait twenty minutes for the next one, but find that Mawson's was worth the wait. I settle down with a half of Brew By Numbers fantastic 05|15 (Citra & Azacca) on keg just as Sam arrives. Having finished for the day he has decided to join me, getting me a half of Gerorge's excellent Columbus before I have to go. His generosity doesn't stop there either and he drives me into Southend, close to where the tasting is being held. I feel thoroughly spoilt.
George's Brewery beers are available in a wide range of pubs all over Essex, usually as guest beers, and you can find the bottles in many places as well. I have to say that I prefer them on cask, and even though the bottles are very good they have recently switched where they are being bottled and I've had some issues with yeast in suspension in some of the early ones. I'm sure this problem will be ironed out by now however.
Should you want to know more about the brewery and their range, and to be honest why wouldn't you, then you can follow this link to their website: www.georgesbrewery.com where you'll also find a link to my reviews.
I had a fantastic day at George's Brewery, and I hope to catch up with them again soon. Should you want to try there beers then you'll get a chance to do so at the Chelmsford Summer Beer Festival that starts this Tuesday, 5th July 2016 at Admirals Park, Chelmsford and runs until Saturday 10th July. A link to the website, beer list and events can be found right here. See you there.
Thursday, 23 June 2016
The Geese and Fountain
Scotch Eggs and Peacocks
If you want to find out where the best pubs are then you can do a lot worse than ask a local brewer, and if that brewer or more appropriately brewster in this case, is as well respected as Sara Barton then you'd do well to heed their advice.
Planning an overnight stay in Grantham with the aim of visiting both The Angel & Royal, where King John, that most villainous of English monarchs once held court, and The Beehive, the pub with the living sign, I found a hotel online that just so happened to be a stones throw from Brewsters Brewery. After sending an inquisitive tweet about the best place to find their beer we were invited to the brewery itself and spent a good couple of hours there drinking beer and chatting with Sara and Sean. Discussing the best places to eat and drink locally they recommended The Geese and Fountain on the main road between Grantham and Melton Mowbray as the best place to have lunch the following day, particularly after discovering we were headed that way (the historic Anne of Cleves pub was another on my list of places to visit and the famous pork pies an obvious draw). They thought we'd be as suitably impressed as they were, and they'd had their daughters birthday party there not that long ago so having our children along with us wouldn't be a problem either.
After a slight detour to Newark which included a visit to the impeccably stocked Real Ale Store lunchtime beckoned. Heading back down the A1 to the same junction we'd encountered it earlier that morning, a six mile drive along the A607 brought us to the front door of The Geese and Fountain.
When I arrive at a pub to find a sign stating "Over 100 beers in bottles and cans" my pulse tends to quicken ever so slightly, and I have to confess to hurrying across the threshold so see what was within leaving my family to organise themselves in the car park. This is a tactic I regularly employ, ostensibly to enquire if children are permitted but in reality it's so that I can take in the beer selection and plan my route along it. This was definitely the case on this occasion, and such were the riches arranged before me I took rather longer than usual to re-emerge and give them the all-clear.
Opting for a half of Hopcraft Brewery's Killing Joke, a smooth Jester hop accented Pale Ale from Wales, I remarked on the fact that there were several other Welsh beers available on both cask and keg. Nick Holden, the landlord, explained that they were just finishing a Welsh beer festival and handed me a list of the fourteen beers and cider that he had featured during the week. I had already noticed that they still had Waen Brewery's sublime Lemon Drizzle on keg and made a mental note to have a half of that before I left.
Food was required but as we'd had an extensive full English at the hotel buffet a few hours before we chose scotch eggs and pork pies from the lighter pub food menu, and when they arrived we immediately knew we had made the right choice. The scotch eggs were freshly cooked and wonderfully warm, crisp on the outside with meat that was perfectly savoury and a bright yellow yolk that was exactly the right balance between firm and runny. These had featured, we were told with a justifiable degree of pride, in a Telegraph article on the Britain's best pub snacks written by Adrian Tierney-Jones someone who, as beer geeks and readers of the Telegraph will already be aware, has impressive credentials in both beer and pub grub. You can read the full article here and if you compare Adrian's picture with mine then it might be argued that they're possibly even better now. The pork pies, from a single producer, was chosen from a single supplier in Melton Mowbray after a full tasting of all available locally and selected because it hit the right peppery notes.
Suitably impressed in and sated in all departments I approached Nick for a few words while my wife and children, having finished eating, picked one of the board games to play.
He was more than happy to talk and show me around the pub whilst another member of staff covered for him behind the bar, so I started by asking him about the Geese and Fountain, how long it had been here and how he came to be running it.
"It wasn't always called the Geese and Fountain," he told me, "that's the name we gave it when we re-opened it in August 2015 after it closed in 2012. Before that it was called the Peacock Inn and you can still see that name picked out in black tiles on an outbuilding in the car park. The peacock appears on the coat of arms of the Duke of Rutland who owns the land around here, and all the pubs on his estate shared the same name. It was originally two cottages, not a pub at all we think, however there are records showing it as coaching inn dating back to the eighteenth century. It had been a Whitbread's pub at some point too, and behind our sign on the front door there still is a large Whitbread sign, but I don't think that any other breweries have owned it."
"I took over the pub with my partner Kate Ahrens as we both felt that this was an exiting time to be in the trade. We are both former health care workers and although I'd previously worked in the industry, at the Magnesia Bank in North Shields and running a vegetarian restaurant in Lewisham, London, I hadn't been behind a bar in twenty years, and Kate had never worked in the trade at all."
With the background established I was keen to press Nick about how he felt about what was happening with regard to beer both nationally and locally and in particular presenting it alongside food of such quality.
"There's been a renewed interest in beer and brewing recently and it's the real ale and craft beer cross over that excites me the most. We're lucky that we have so many good local breweries practically right on our doorstep and while the Vale of Belvoir has a great reputation as a food destination it hasn't, in the past, done enough to promote local beers as the perfect accompaniment to local food. You'd find so many places selling excellent local meats, Melton Mowbray pork pies, Stilton cheese and locally farmed vegetables and fruit but having pretty standard wine and beer offerings that bypassed the local producers in favour of more mainstream brands."
"When we're travelling we always like to experience the produce of the whichever area we are in at the time, and we really wanted to establish the Geese and Fountain as a pub that offers the best in local food and drink. This underlies our commitment to local ales, lagers and ciders as well as local spirit producers, Burleigh's gin is produced in Loughborough and Two Birds produce a range of flavoured vodkas and some unique gins in Market Harborough, and we're always adding more to our range."
It's easy to think of these locally sourcing specialist retailers as being solely the preserve of larger cities, especially when beer is part of the equation, but this obviously isn't the case. We had decided to visit The Geese and Fountain purely on Sara's recommendation, it didn't feature in any books or online guides I'd read when we'd been planning our visit and, believe me, I'm rather meticulous, not wanting to miss out on any hidden treasures, and yet here I was in a talking to the landlord of a pub that was making my heart sing. I realised that I was sporting a huge grin as I ordered that half of Lemon Drizzle I'd promised myself so, not wishing to make myself appear a gushing loon I adjusted my expression and asked Nick about the change of name and the pubs unique sign.
"Whilst we were of course aware of the historic name of the pub we wanted something that reflected the village of Croxton Kerrial itself. If you follow the road down the hill you'll find that there is indeed a fountain and a pond with geese on it. It seemed a natural fit."
"The sign above the main entrance, a little tableau of geese and the model fountain was put together by Adam Mills who is a plumber and kitchen/bathroom fitter. He lives in the house opposite the pub, a large part of which he built himself, and he decided to build us a model of a fountain, or water spout, when his mum turned up at his house one day with some metal geese she'd bought at a garden centre. We're rather pleased with it."
As well they should be, it's a striking feature, one that would make you stop on your travels to view on its own and, as you'd stopped anyway, head inside for curiosities sake.
I freely admit that I could have happily spent the rest of the day in The Geese and Fountain, and had we not had to be home that evening we could well have stayed, there are six Bed and Breakfast rooms available and plans afoot for more development, using an old skittle alley as function room and community cinema, and setting up an allotment gardening area, but at the moment they're quite rightly focusing on getting the basics right.
There is much more I could tell you but it's more fun to let you discover it for yourself (see if you can find the clues as to which football team Nick supports, for example) and you'll find that all the staff are friendly and happy to chat.
So, if you're heading either up or down the A1 as I know many of you do, I'd encourage you to break your journey at Grantham and head along the A607 to The Geese and Fountain. Whether lunchtime or evening, perhaps for an overnight stay, you might find yourself having a rather longer visit than you'd planned. You can thank me later.
You'll find The Geese and Fountain at:
1 School Lane, Croxton Kerrial, Grantham, NG32 1QR
Telephone: 01476 870350
On Facebook at: The Geese and Fountain
And on Twitter at: @Geese_Fountain
Tuesday, 24 May 2016
Whatever Happened to
The Local Guides?
Whatever happened to local beer and pub guides? Those local CAMRA pub guides. Slim of width and back pocket friendly, handy (sometimes fold-out) map enclosed. Visiting a strange town never seemed quite so strange with a trusty guide firmly in hand.
When planning a trip for business or pleasure they were, for me at least, an essential purchase to ensure that however bad the accommodation, terrible the food, and inclement the British weather I could always find good beer close by. Relying on an army of enthusiasts sent out to visit every pub in their county, they contain the name address, telephone number, opening times, brief description and, because these were CAMRA guides, the real ale (or not) that could be found there.
The opening pages are often simply an introduction to the guide and a list of the (incredibly few) local breweries contained within the county's borders whilst others have more lengthy prose, providing an insight into the issues of the day. Frightening headlines such as "Nitrokeg - the new threat?", "New Keg. New Threat.", "Pubs in Peril", and "Coming Soon ... The £2 Pint" seem as relevant to the Campaign now as the ever were, although if you consider that the last one is from the 1992 edition of Avon Ale, a county that no longer exists, then perhaps we're not as badly off as What's Brewing's letters page might have you believe. There are some lighter and more informative articles too. The Real Ale Drinkers Guide To Kent Pubs (1993) includes one on Pub Games In Kent and Hop Research At Wye (college, the home of the worlds oldest hop research department, a Derbyshire guide (of which more below) has one on Fly-fishing, and The North London Pub Guide (1995) has a handy guide to night bus routes in the North London area.
Most counties had several editions with a new updated versions every three to five years on average some, Essex for example stretching to nine, the last of which was published in 1997. I don't recall seeing any reviewed in What's Brewing's book section any later than the turn of the century, although there may have been one or two, but most county's final editions were published long before this. For a recent excursion I ordered the latest Derbyshire edition I could find from an online store and even though I expected it to be out of date I didn't quite expect it to be nearly a quarter of a century old.
I know this is the digital age where guide books are something archaic. Many cities have applications that can be downloaded (Craft Beer London for example is excellent), enabling you to pin-point your position and find the nearest pub or bar, or even plan your route to your destination of choice but, for me at least, a smart phone in one hand and pub guide in the other is a beer explorers delight.
There are of course some more modern guides, good guides that will take you to the best bars and pubs in key European cities, and I can certainly recommend the Cogan&Mater published "...In 80 Beers" guides if you're visiting the cities covered as I have used them myself on several occasions. I've put some of my favourites in the picture below, a mixed bag but all worthy of investment if you're visiting the areas covered.
Inevitably some cities have lots of guide books, constantly updated. London and York in particular have a glut of 'best of' books that will tell you where to find a pub or bar to suit any whim or persuasion. Good those these are I do have a hankering for the return of those Angus McGill Evening Standard London Pub Guides of the 1990s, their mixture of wit and information meant they were the only guide books I have read through from cover to cover on more than one occasion, and I still look through them now and again.
I have asked myself whether I'm just being nostalgic, looking not-very-far back at a time when mobile phones were actually phones and not the gateway to everything and everywhere they are today but the more I think about it then the more I'd like to see the return of the local guide. While I appreciate that things move faster these days, with new breweries and venues on a seemingly daily basis, it's the successful ones that thrive and grow, staying the course year on year. The Good Beer Guide is limited by space and it's championing of real ale, surely there is a need for these guides now, directing visitors to the best places today and serving as reference guide for the next generation of drinkers and further generations to come who might look back and wonder what all the fuss was about.