Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Beer In Essex: Bottling It - Part Two: George's / Hop Monster to Mersea Island


Beer In Essex
Bottling It - Part Two: George's / Hop Monster to Mersea Island

The time has come for me to launch the second part of my journey into the bottled beer available in Essex at the moment. I'm assuming that you're already familiar with the format I'll be taking but if you'd like a reminder, or if you missed it previously, you can catch up with Part One here.

I have already been delighted by the quality and diversity of the beer bottled by Essex brewers as it is far more accomplished and interesting than most of the beer that the majority of the county's pub are able or willing to take, and hope to find some more gems in this instalment. I shall continue alphabetically as before and hope to feature examples from all the breweries that currently bottle their beer, so in this vein the next brewery is George's, or should that be Hop Monster?

If that last sentence caused you some confusion then I should explain that George's Brewery and The Hop Monster are two sides of the same coin, a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde if you will, with George's being the more traditional English ale side of the business whilst Hop Monster is more outward looking face, influenced by and using hops from the US craft beer scene and beyond. Established in 2010 by Mark Mawson in Great Wakering, four miles east of Southend, the brewery is named after Mark's father, George, who introduced him to real ale when he was a teenager the first beer, Freak Show, a 4.2% Golden Ale intensely hopped with Amarillo and Cascade was brewed on 11th May 2011. Beers released under the George's banner display a knight in full armour and have names you might expect, such as Broadsword, an ESB, and Merry Gentleman, an Old Ale, whereas the Hop Monster beers have more ghoulish names, Warlock is their Black IPA, Rochford Banshee their Porter, all featuring the image of an undead character who goes by the name of Hendrix the Hop Monster. Both George's and Hop Monster beers are available in bottles, and although I've yet to find the latter I'm told they're not for the faint hearted, and the brewery has promised me some when I visit soon. I've managed to grab several armfuls of George's bottles however in order to give their beer a thorough appraisal.

I'm starting off this glut of George's with Wallasea Wench (3.6%), the beer with the most questionable name and definitely the least acceptable label art. The story behind it, so the website states, is that the name started as a bit of a joke from the manager of The Wallasea Island Wild Coast Project, Hillary Hunter, and the name stuck. For me that doesn't make it acceptable, wench is after all an archaic word for a prostitute, and although I am fully aware that the brewing industry uses this type of imagery from time to time it really is no longer socially acceptable. I will judge this beer on its merits, that is the purpose of this post, however I believe a reconsideration of the name may be in order. Pouring a light amber with a near-white head, not the golden colour of the beer shown in the glasses on the label, it has crisp caramel and pithy lemon citrus aroma. It's light in body as the abv might suggest with a good level of carbonation, and whereas it is low in bitterness but it most definitely isn't lacking in taste. Smooth to drink, there's a hint of burnt sugar flowing through the hedgerow earthiness provided by the hops. It's very refreshing and not challenging in any way which means its slips down incredibly easily, and that's certainly no bad thing. It is in the finish where the bitterness becomes most apparent, nibbling at the edges of your tongue with just the right amount of dryness to draw you back to the glass to slake your thirst once more. A beer that's equally suited to lazy sunny evenings or cold winter nights huddled round the fire, it is rather fine and I have certainly no issue with it on that score at least.

Wakering Gold (3.8%) is described as a session ale and is brewed year-round using English and American hops. This is a bottle-conditioned beer, and holding it up to the light reveals quite a lot of sediment in suspension towards the bottom, so pour carefully if you wish to avoid a muddy glass. Despite my best efforts mine poured a cloudy golden orange with a thin white head and has a dry pithy citrus aroma, slightly spicy, a smell I associate with the presence of a saison yeast. Deliciously dry over the tongue with flavours of orange peel, tangerine juice, lime zest and crushed coriander seed flood the mouth, centring themselves in the middle of the palate and leading into an arid finish, but one that's absolutely chock-full of all of that lovely citrus bitterness. I confess that this is the first time that I've had this beer, and I'm honest I was expecting a fairly generic Golden Ale rather than a dry punchy Saison-esque beer.  Bottles of this are definitely going to be found regularly in my fridge this summer and I advise that you stock up too. (I have since discovered that Saison yeast was not used in the brewing of this beer, but despite my best efforts I couldn't persuade the brewery to part with any more information).

Inspired by the seafront in Old Leigh, Cockleboats (4.0%) is a session ale brewed with five different malts, some of which are German, and two US hop varieties. Cockle boats are used to harvest cockles, small bivalves similar to clams which, along with winkles and whelks, are a popular seaside snack in many parts of the country, and one of which I am particularly fond. These are small intrepid boats, and many of them set out at the end of May 1940 to rescue the British troops from the beaches at Dunkirk after they were beaten back by the German advance. It has a deep russet hue with a thin off-white head and has a beautiful aroma, full of orange blossom, apricots and raspberries. Quite thin, it slides over the tongue with a fruity bitterness before unleashing, as the aroma promised, a raspberry and apricot caramel with a dab of milk chocolate. It's light and vibrant, bright and moreish heading into the finish, which has more of these same flavours echoing sweetly into a dry long lasting conclusion. This is a simply delicious session beer, one I first tried on cask at The Mayflower in Old Leigh itself, and you can take it from me that there's not many beers better to wash down your fish and chips with in the late winter sunshine than this.

Boats and warfare, whether it be ancient or modern feature on many of the George's Brewery beers but Dreadnought (4.1%) manages to combine both of those. There is also common date that links them as HMS Dreadnought, the most advanced ship in the Royal Navy at the time, was launched on February 10th which is also Head Brewer and Managing Director Mark Mawson's birthday. There were of course many years difference between the two events, the battleship was launched in 1906, but it is certainly worthy of note and worthy of a beer. A thin white head sits atop a beer of a dark amber hue in the glass sending up an aroma of toffee mousse punctuated with dabs of peach juice and grated orange zest. It glides over the tongue with a gentle ripple of carbonation releasing a gentle but sustained fruit salad sweet flavour with hazelnut and fudge cutting through it and building in intensity as I drink and it slowly warms in my hand. The finish is fluffy hazelnut nougat chewy, delicious and comforting, bringing back childhood memories of mini milky way bars sneaked from the fridge and surreptitiously consumed in the shade of the garage on a warm summers day. I like this beer far more at my last sip that I did at my first. The flavours built wonderfully into a chocolatey sweet shop of flavours that I simply adore, and I think you might too.

Inspired by a trip to Iceland, Valhalla (4.2%) is brewed with British hops and described as "as golden as the shields that form the ceiling of Odin's Lair". In truth it's more of a burnished copper colour with a barely-there off white head and a heady wet meadow aroma with an earthy fruitiness featuring over-ripe crab apple, golden raisin and muddy grassy earth. It's bold and bitter up front, almost overwhelmingly so, before a big caramel apple sauce flavour sweeps it away, and while this fades rather quickly it re-emerges in the initial stages of the finish. There's more sharp bitterness, dry and with a grain or two of white pepper throughout the length of this beer, and although it ends drily there's a haunting flavour of Calvados that leaves me licking my lips and craving an apple brandy before bedtime. British hops often get a bit of a bad press, but when they're used this way it's very apparent just how good they are.

Broadsword (4.7%) is, as I mentioned above an ESB, brewed to resemble English ales of old, particularly those common around the end of the Second World War. It is one of George's biggest sellers, and is a beer that I have come across on many occasions up and down the county. This is a chestnut coloured beer with ruby red highlights and a thin beige head, I'm finding more chestnut in the aroma alongside a sugary lactose smell that reminds me of those small milk-bottle sweets that got me through my a-level exams. Surprisingly thin bodied with a good level of bitterness, there's more chestnut in the taste (I'm sensing a theme here) there's a hint of raspberry peeping out from behind it adding a decent level of background fruitiness which is very welcome, and rounds the beer off rather nicely. Slipping into the finish, which is a touch oily on the tongue, that lactose re-emerges but only briefly before a woody caramel, again with a little fruitiness lingers for quite some time. This may well be a taste of old England, although my limited research has been unable to ascertain if it is based on an old recipe but it is a very good beer, and one that you will find particularly pleasing you if like a good honest traditional English bitter as I know many of you do.

Many breweries thought it appropriate to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the start of the First World War by brewing an anniversary beer, and quite rightly so. George's Brewery were no different, except that they brewed two, donating £5 from every cask of The Fallen, and this beer  Lest... (4.0%) to the Royal British Legion. Brewed using nine different malts, from England, Germany and the USA, as well as a blend of five hops, from the USA, UK, Germany and Slovenia, this promises to be an intriguing beer. It pours a chestnut amber with a creamy off-white head with the aroma of mandarin orange and peach, perhaps a twist of lime, with some tart dry white grape  hovering expectantly at the back. There's a really good level of carbonation and it has quite a full mouthfeel releasing an exploding shell of pineapple, white grape, tart peach over a shallow meandering stream of caramel maltiness. The finish snaps shut rather quickly, almost as if your tasting time was up, but thankfully there's still some delicate dabs of fruity caramel lingering awhile like the fading reverberations of the guns after the armistice. You might be lucky enough to pick up a bottle or two of this as I still occasionally see it around, however the hop character is starting to fade so if you have one then best drink it soon. In three and a half years time it will be the centenary of the guns falling silent, although sadly not for the last time. I hope we see this beer again.

George's website describes Balthazar's Feast (9.0%) as 'a step back into a time when nanny governments did not exist and people could find real beer'. An extra strong Old Ale designed to ward off those winter chills, It takes a while to pour as it throws a huge head beige head, but when it settles it's such a deep dark reddish brown that no light can penetrate it. The aroma is smoky and oaky with some underpinning chocolate and blackberry notes and it slides easily over the tongue with barely a whisper before unleashing its full abv in a shockingly sudden crescendo of flavour. There's a big punch of port wine up front before some bitter chocolate, espresso coffee and liquorice flavours assault you from all sides. A big dab of molasses in the middle of the tongue precludes a wave of bitterness that overwhelms all that went before when it just as suddenly snuffs itself out leaving a smoking gun of wispy burnt sugar and black pepper corn right at the finish keeps your interest as it wends its way to a slow lingering death. These are very different beers from George's/Hopmonster and I've enjoyed all of them immensely. They're certainly not afraid to experiment a little and I feel the range I've chosen are indicative of what this brewery are up to and what they are capable of. Most definitely a brewery to keep your eye on. I have been invited over to the brewery to have a look around and speak to those involved so expect a feature on them here very soon.

This space is reserved for some bottles from the Harwich Town Brewing Company. I travelled up to the brewery, the most north-easterly in Essex, only to unfortunately find it closed. Brewer Paul Mellor has promised me some beer and I plan a return trip to Harwich soon with yet another blog post to follow, so you'll just have to wait until then.

After more than a quarter of a century of home brewing, Phil Evans decided that the time was right to see if his beer would cut it in the commercial world so, in October 2013, he registered the Hope Brewery name. With a tiny quarter barrel plant producing a firkin at a time the first beer, Dark Demon, was jointly launched at the Halloween mini-festival at The Miley in Rochford and at The Welcome Club in Stanford le Hope at the end of his first month of trading. The smallest commercial brewery in Essex (with the possible exception of Watts & Co. in Colchester) brewing is currently limited to four times a week, with additional brews being squeezed in on an ad-hoc basis, but due to the popularity of the beer a new 2.5 barrel plant should hopefully (no pun intended) be online soon. Initially cask only, bottles of the beer have only recently been made available and I have four of them to get through so I'd better open the first one now.

SX Gold (4.2%) is, you probably won't be surprised to hear, a Golden Ale brewed with Marris Otter pale malt, Caramalt and torrified wheat and honey, and hopped with Saaz and Brewers Gold. Although this is far from my favourite style I am rather partial to the Brewers Gold hop, so I'm interested to see how this beer pans out. It pours a beautiful golden amber colour with an off-white head, but my beer had been over-primed and it took around ten minutes to settle with careful pouring, with glass and bottle being filled exclusively with foam at first opening. There was a definite honey aroma when the bottle was opened, but now it has settled this has been replaced with grassy pineapple, grapefruit, freshly cut peach and a twist of lime. Sharply bitter over the tongue, it fills the mouth splendidly but despite a strange space-dust like tingling on the tongue the flavours promised in the aroma are present but subdued, seemingly caught in a sticky, gooey bitterness. The finish is more defined, tasting almost exclusively of dry white grape skin and this is far more pleasant than it actually sounds. I was hoping for that spicy blackcurrant taste that I associate with the Brewers Gold hop, but the grassy Saaz has seemingly distorted it somewhat. This is still eminently drinkable, and I would make a bee-line for this if I ever saw it on cask as I think it would be a real winner.

Going a tad darker we find SX Devil (4.4%). Another beer brewed using Brewers Gold hops, this time in conjunction with Fuggles, and the addition of black and chocolate malts alongside those used in the SX Gold. Unsurprisingly this beer should not be confused with the fan-assisted PC gaming hardware case of the same name that my search engine thought I was enquiring about. It pours a bright tawny amber with a thin beige head covering its surface and has the aroma of a spicy fruit cake, thick with golden sultanas and blackcurrants. This too has a good level of vibrant carbonation and a decent mouthfeel, although it does feel a little heavy when it hits the back of the throat, but it does release loads of that Brewers Gold blackcurrant flavour, dark rich and slightly spicy, and this works really well alongside the earthiness of the Fuggles and a good level of background chocolate from the malt. The finish is smooth and lingering with plenty of that blackcurrant and chocolate, I'd venture milk chocolate here, and resonates beautifully for some time. I have to say that I enjoyed this beer a great deal, in fact I drained the glass more quickly than any beer I've written about in some time, and that should say as much as you need to know. I'll have another just to be sure.

I've only had one Hope Brewery beer on cask and that was their Dark Demon, which if you remember from my initial preamble was the first beer that Hope released commercially. This was rich with chocolate and liquorice and went wonderfully well with the lamb shank I chose to pair it with at my local, The Olde Dog Inn, a pub that's well worth a visit if you're in the area. Despite its similar name however I think that this beer SX Demon (4.4%) may turn out to taste completely different as its list of ingredients appear to be identical to that of the SX Devil I've just finished. Seeing as there's only one way to find out its best that I get that bottle opened. This is a deep chestnut brown beer with ruby red highlights, a creamy beige head and a fruit bread aroma majoring in blackcurrant, liquorice, raisin and cherry with a twist of black pepper, it's a rather alluring smell. Notably thinner than the previous two beers, and smoother over the tongue with a light prickle of carbonation, and as the colour of the Demon is darker than the Devil, so the flavour is darker too. There's a chocolate wafer biscuit malty backbone underpinning a fig and blackcurrant fruitiness leading to a slightly tart and concentrated wine gum flavour with maybe a hint of bitter chocolate playing around the edges. I like this beer, but not quite as much as the other two and even though it's undeniably well-brewed, something that I'm coming to realise is definitely a characteristic of Hope Brewery beers, it's just not quite to my taste. Time to get the last of my quartet out of the fridge.

The final beer is the darkest of them all, at least that's what I would deduce from the name. SX Dark (4.2%) is made with chocolate and dark malts and, from the earliest Untappd check-in I could find, I think was first brewed in July-August 2014. I honestly can't find out anything more about this beer, but I suppose there's only one thing that really matters and that is what it tastes like. Pouring a deep dark brown with the faintest glow of dark amber coming from its depths, all surmounted with a creamy beige head and an aroma that's full of coffee, chocolate, blackcurrant and black cherry, so I'm guessing that the Brewers Gold hop is making an appearance here too. It's rich and luxuriant but reminds me more of a Red Ale than a Stout texture-wise. Raisin, and blackcurrant fruitiness is beautifully balanced by some delicious fruitcake malts that combine to make a quite delicious beer. It dries quite slowly, with all those flavours gently receding until it wraps itself up rather nicely indeed. This, and in fact all the beers I've had from Hope have been very accomplished, and whilst they might not be the most adventurous or ground-breaking you'll taste this year they certainly are tasty and you won't regret seeking these out one bit.

Insurance broking to brewing is not the most obvious career change but after working at Lloyds of London, Julian Hales decided to apply his organic chemistry studies to a teenage interest in making beer and open the Indian Summer Brewery in 2012. Three cask beers were produced (under the Hop & Soul name), a ruddy amber ale called Red, a Porter, and a black IPA that went by the name of Black On Blonde. Based in Saffron Walden, outlets in the local area were supplied, but it was the bottled beer, Bombay Blonde, a beer specifically designed to go with curry that was the biggest seller, and was to be found in a growing number of Indian restaurants.

It might not have escaped your notice that the above paragraph was written in the past tense as it has come to my attention that the Indian Summer Brewery ceased trading earlier this year. I did consider not reviewing this beer, the Bombay Blonde (4.5%) however it is my understanding that it can still be found accompanying curry around Saffron Walden as well as available in local off licences. It pours a bright golden colour, as you might expect, with a bright white head and a spicy lemon, ginger and honey aroma ably supported by a clean biscuit maltiness. It feels quite thin at first and there isn't a great deal of taste initially either, however this is deceptive as it suddenly becomes seemingly fuller bodied as a wave of grassy citrus flavour, tart satsuma and yellow plum, honeyed biscuit and a squeeze of lemon, fills the mouth completely. This falls away in the finish, but is instantly replaced by a white pepper and orange peel bitterness that buzzes and fizzes around for quite some time. I can actually see the spicy citrus bitterness of this beer working alongside a chicken tikka masala or cutting through the carbohydrates of an aloo gobi very well indeed. I don't know whether the brewery is closed for good or if there has been a temporary set back as this is genuinely an interesting and flavoursome beer, one based on Oakham's JHB I am led to believe. Catch it if you can.

Update: I have heard since writing my review that in fact despite ceasing production on site you will still be able to find Bombay Blonde as it will be contract brewed elsewhere. There will however be no more cask ale.

Established in 2002 by Nigel Farmer as an early retirement project, The Maldon Brewing Co. (also known as Farmer's Ales) is housed in the stable yard of the historic Blue Boar hotel in Maldon. A range of beer from the brewery can be found in the bar, all gravity dispensed and only having travelled across the yard to get there. The beers are popular and change regularly, their names often reflecting their local environment, with historic aeroplanes from Essex squadrons last year and barges moored on the nearby Blackwater estuary being featured currently. They are mainly found on cask however a number of their hand bottled beers can be bought from the brewery itself or off-licences in the Essex area.

As mentioned, all the special beers from Maldon's in 2015 celebrate the barges, some of which continue to operate under the ownership of Topsail charters, the East Coast Sailing Barge Trust and the Thames Sailing Barge Trust. Reminder (3.7%) is one of these and the second of this years series. Built in 1929 in nearby Mistley, and much of her early years were spent bringing barley from the Albert Docks in London to Brooks Maltings in Manningtree, but can now be hired for weekend cruising the East Coast with up to twelve guest being accommodated. This golden ale has a spicy citrus aroma reminding me of crushed coriander seed and tangerine juice which, alongside its slightly hazy lemony gold colour and near white head, makes for a very inviting beer. A good bitter carbonation leads to a lemony tangerine flavour that has more than a nod towards Belgian Witbier as it dries beautifully with a clean white pepper finish. This is a wonderfully refreshing beer, perfect for the summer months, perhaps enjoyed in the summer sunshine on the deck of boat such as this lazily watching the world go by. If you're having a party outdoors then make sure this beer is high on your shopping list, your guest will thank you for it.

The label on the bottle opens with the line "Maldon is unlikely to witness the Aurora Borealis, or Northern lights ...", and while that still hasn't happened, in March this year they could be witnessed as far south as Oxford. Aurora (3.9%) is named after the Aurora (also known as Super Styrian) hop, which was bred in Slovenia in the 1970s (back when it was still part of Yugoslavia) and is a cross between Northern Brewer and a wild native variety. Even though it's name would imply there is a connection with Styrian Goldings (a variant of the Fuggle hop - see below) this is not actually the case, and even though it has some similar aromatic qualities its alpha acid content, which is its source of bitterness, is nearly double that of its namesake. It pours a muddy amber brown (although I suspect that mostly down to me - this is a bottle conditioned beer after all) with a scant off white head and very little carbonation. The aroma is rather toasty at first before revealing some milk chocolate and orange peel and this develops more fully in the taste. Even though this isn't as carbonated as perhaps it should be it doesn't really matter, as the orange zest flavour that lifts it towards the finish. Sadly it doesn't have much of an ending as it peters out rather too quickly, leaving a touch of orangey chocolate that slowly fades away. I do like this beer, but not nearly half as much as the one that preceded it although that shouldn't stop you from seeing if the Aurora hop is more to your liking than it is mine.

Fuggles. The name alone strikes fear into the heart of many a craft beer lover, but should this really be the case? It is after all a truly historic hop, first released in 1875 after being cultivated by a Mr. Richard Fuggle of Kent, it was used for both bittering and aroma before falling out of favour with the introduction of varieties with a higher alpha acid content. It has had a bit of a bad press of late, due in large part to its age in a culture that is constantly embracing the new but also, certainly in some cases because of its use as a token traditional hop in many a 'traditional' bitter. You will have by now guessed that this beer, Born To Be Mild (4.7%) uses the hop exclusively in this seasonal release. First brewed in 2014 it returns this year to coincide with CAMRA's 'Mild In May' campaign and is designed to be "smooth and mature", so let's find out. Pouring a thin rich dark chocolate brown with little carbonation, its wispy creamy beige head actually makes it look rather attractive. It has a rather attractive aroma, rather like a freshly baked chocolate brownie dusted with some faintly minty icing sugar sporting a little lactose edge. As thin as you might expect this to be it does fill the mouth with a slightly oily texture, and whilst it is indeed bitter it errs more toward a burnt toast flavour than the chocolate hit I was expecting. It dries nicely from the centre of the tongue outwards but not quite completely enough leaving that oily wetness around the edges and this is where the chocolate is finally revealed, albeit with a faintly peppery edge initially. Its good but not great, and I doubt there's anything here convince the sniffy anti-Fuggle brigade otherwise.

Plough Monday is traditionally the start of the agricultural year, and falls on the first Monday after Twelfth Night, the last day of Epiphany in the Christian calendar. In Maldon this is celebrated in the traditional East-Anglian manner of singing and dancing with Molly Dancers (all male, half of which are often dressed as women) a type of Morris dancer, parading the white plough, dancing and generally making merry with blackened faces to conceal their identities. They were mainly out of work ploughmen, and the reason their faces were covered in soot, or even Maldon mud, was that if they wished to gain employment at a later date it was sometime best that their true selves were not revealed. Ploughboys (5.0%) is a stout brewed to fortify their dancing as it is itself fortified with a drop or two of Port. Thick, but not overly so, it pours a deep dark Maldon mud brown with a creamy head and a sweet thin red wine and chocolate aroma. A mouth filling tide of prickly carbonation rises with, and leaves behind, a musty boozy port-like chocolate flavour that develops a blackcurrant wine gum flavour as it progresses towards its conclusion, and it this that lingers long and sweetly to the end. I like this beer a lot, an awful lot actually but I would like it more if it wasn't for that yeasty mustiness in the taste. It has the character of beers far stronger and it could, and should rival those as all the elements are there, and more importantly they are there in the correct proportions. Sort that minor problem and I'd buy this by the bucket full.

American-style Pale Ales have been regularly copied by British brewers in recent years, but with some notable exceptions they generally straddle a thin line between an English Pale and the US East Coast version of the style. This mid-Atlantic hybrid is neither one thing nor the other, with US hops substituted for the traditional home grown varieties and, on some occasions, they can be very malt forward rather than emphasising the hop or hops. Having said this however, I must state that this is purely my observation on beers I have had and not a reflection on this bottle as I have yet to open it, and those beers are in no way bad or or any less tasty but I feel that calling them American Pale Ales is a bit of a misnomer. Essex Strong Pale (5.3%) is described as a "development of the classic IPA", brewed with El Dorado hops from the Yakima Valley in Washington State I'm hoping for some of it's big tropical fruit punch character. It pours a beautiful golden amber colour, slightly hazy (probably due to bad pouring again) and with a beautiful bright white head. It has the most gorgeous zesty lemon citrus aroma, with grapefruit, peach and pineapple also in evidence, but there's also a hint of spicy white pepper adding a touch of dryness to the mix as well. Light, with a good prickle of carbonation and refreshingly bitter over the tongue, I'm delighted that my fears have not been realised as I am hit with a wave of tropical fruit, with mango, pineapple and peach juice very much to the fore, with a solid crispbread malt backbone carrying the whole thing along. The hops have been used skilfully and to their fullest effect here as this beer is clean, crisp and beautifully hoppy, in fact everything I would expect from an American Pale Ale. This El Dorado hop is not an intense dank variety, it's light and fruity and if any of you remember BrewDog's use of this in their IPA Is Dead series in 2013 you'll be pleasantly surprised with this beer as I believe this is a far better use of the hop. The finish is dry and lemony, this really is a super beer, one I could drink an awful lot of. Where can I put in a bulk order?

My final Maldon Brewing Co. beer, Wrecked (7.0%) is their version of a German Bock style lager, and is one of the series of Buoy Beers they produce. Brewed with Tettnanger and Saaz hops, this isn't the strongest beer in regular production, that is the 7.4% The Wallet a strong Golden Ale and another of the Buoy Beers, but I felt that this one was unusual enough for a mention. Pouring a dark brown amber colour with a creamy white head, this beer has a deliciously sweet burnt sugar aroma with perhaps a hint of cinnamon it really is very inviting and certainly characteristic of the style. Smooth over the tongue, the carbonation prickles the roof of the mouth but with a very low level of bitterness. The flavour mirrors the aroma with more of that burnt sugar sweetness, but there's a molasses and fig edge to it too that is very moreish, dangerously so considering its high abv. Unsurprisingly the finish is remarkably similar too, and even though this undoubtedly a sweet beer it isn't cloyingly so and is incredibly drinkable. Overall this has been quite a mixed bag from Maldon's, and although there wasn't a bad beer among them if have to say that the first beer and the last three rose quite comfortably above the others. This is a brewery that clearly knows how to brew good beer and isn't afraid to try something different, and for those two reasons alone they should definitely be worthy of your consideration.

The last brewery in this part of the journey is the Mersea Island Brewery situated on Mersea Island on the Blackwater Estuary connected to the mainland via a causeway that floods at high tide called The Strood, and is some nine miles south-east of Colchester. Founded in 2005 as a natural diversification project on the established Mersea Island Vineyard, it is a family owned business with cask versions of there beers featuring at local pubs and beer festivals while the bottles are available from the brewery itself, selected off licences and East of England Co-Operative stores in the north Essex area.

I have three beers to choose from here, so will start of with the weakest first and see how things go. Island Yo Boy (3.9%) is described as a golden session beer, similar to an old fashioned Light Ale, it is brewed with East Anglian malt, Marris Otter and Crystal Malt in this instance, with four hops; Fuggles, Challenger, Phoenix and Cascade, providing the flavour and bitterness. All bottles are bottle conditioned, as are nearly all of the bottles in this part of the guide, and as are the vast majority of the bottles produced by Essex breweries in general. It pours the colour of golden syrup with a tight, billowing near-white head, and has the aroma of fizzy lemon and grapefruit sweets, juicy and sharp, so much so that a big sniff will make your eyes water and your nose buzz. There's also the faintest smell of grains of paradise and a back beat that reminds me of the the aroma of the Nelson Sauvin hop, fresh and vibrant. It skitters across the tongue with a rush of fizzy carbonation, bringing with it a clean, if subdued, watered-down satsuma fruitiness that's slightly sticky as it dries before it settles down into a pleasant pithy finish that's not overly bitter but stays for some time on the tip of the tongue. This is a lovely beer, with the aroma most definitely the star, but it will keep you going back for more time and again until it's all gone. Then you'll want another, just as I do now.

Island Gold (4.5%) is made using lager malt and hops, and is brewed as a lager alternative that's ideal for barbecues and summer parties, or so it says on the website. Pouring a honeyed golden amber and sporting a decent white head there wasn't much initial aroma, however I suspect I had served it a little too cold for as it warms slightly it develops a spicy, grassy, honey character akin to that of a Belgian Golden Ale. It fills the mouth with a zesty peppery carbonation full of honey and orange peel, and its dry as well, beautifully so with a crisp malt snap, and surprisingly different from the description that wasn't really giving much away. Expanding like a bubble, before bursting and fading the flavour lingers like a soapy echo, this really is astonishingly good. Two out of two so far for Mersea Island isn't bad at all, both very refreshing and refreshingly different with the last beer having the aroma take your breath away and this one filling the mouth with its golden goodness, it's time to find out what the third and final beer has in store.

The final beer of the trio, and the final beer of this part of the series promises a very different animal. Island Skippers (4.8%) is brewed with Fuggles hops and five different malts, so I'm expecting a very malt forward beer. The most traditional of the three, it is described as a Best Bitter, a once popular style but now often frowned upon as being stuck in the past. Sliding gracefully out of the bottle, this tawny coloured beer with ruby red highlights throws a creamy beige head and has a crisp, fresh aroma full of peppery salad leaves and raspberries with the faintest hint of liquorice. Like the beers before it, it fills the mouth with a dry bitter carbonation before the fruity, malty flavour slides in to take its place with some dabs of raspberry juice and damson. These are swallowed up by the dry bitterness that fades quickly, but leaves haunting echoes of chewy damson in its wake. This is another very drinkable beer, and in contrast to my initial thoughts it is remarkably similar in character to the other two, and I'm impressed that this brewery's beers have a similar feel to them, almost a terroir, but this makes much more sense when you consider that they are brewed in a vineyard by a family used to producing wine.

So ends the second part of my Essex beer journey, not quite as diverse as the first part but not far off. If I consider this particular selection as a whole then the words flavour and character spring immediately to mind. I hope that I've shown that Essex breweries have an awful lot more to offer than you might have thought, and I assure you there's plenty more to come.

I hope that you can find some of these beers, and urge you to try them if you ever come across them. I'd love to hear your thoughts of these, or indeed any beer from Essex, or in fact your opinion on the state of beer in Essex at the moment. You can leave a message in the comments section of this post, or find me on twitter at @1970sBoy Either way I'd be delighted to hear from you.

Monday, 4 May 2015

Beer In Essex: "I Want This To Be A Beer Destination" Essex Brewery Company


Beer In Essex
"I Want This To Be A Beer Destination"
Essex Brewery Company

Within half an hour of arriving at the Essex Brewery Company, Ian Chisholm, the straight-talking owner and brewer was outlining the plans he has for the site, and he has big plans indeed. Although still very much in the early stages, when this fifty-five year old ex-market trader and duck egg farmer talks about the future for his brewery and the outlying land then it suddenly starts to become clear that not only does he have the tools at his disposal, he also has the drive and ability to actually pull it off.

If you search for the Essex Brewery Company on the internet, as I did when Ian contacted me with an invitation to come and have a look around, you won't find a lot of information out there.
"This is deliberate," he tells me "I want to launch with a bang, to hit the ground running, come out of nowhere and take people by surprise". We are standing in what will be the brewery shop, surrounded by bottles, crates, hops (from Charles Faram), sacks of malt and wood, a lot of wood. Ian's son is welding in the corner of this two-storey building, and the upper floor will eventually be an on-site apartment so that he keep an eye on things. When you plan to have more than three thousand bottles of real ale from breweries from all over the country then having your security literally living with the stock seems sensible option.

I had been picked up by Ian at Blackmore, six and a half miles north of Brentwood, and a ten minute drive had taken me to Norton Field Farm. Whereas you won't find a lot about the brewery on your browser, the farm itself throws up a whole set of results regarding the giving away of his stock of ducks due to a legal dispute with the supplier. I ask him if this was the reason he decided to switch to brewing but I'm told that it was always a plan just that this legal altercation, which is still going through the courts, made the decision a whole lot easier

The brewery itself is exclusively a bottle-only affair, and whereas Ian has feels no immediate need to put his beer into casks and see his pump clips on bar tops he realises that this may have to happen some day in order to promote the brand.

When it come to the beer itself he's not afraid to experiment either. The first bottle he opens for me to try has yet to be named, but the aim was to get as close to a chocolate orange as they could. It's brewed with cocoa powder and marmalade, and whilst I only get chocolate up front after a few minutes of drinking it the orange flavour emerges and carries it onward to a pleasing citrus finish. This was followed by a lychee wheat beer which had a classic lemony wheat beer flavour cut through with the sweet grape-like flavour of lychee. In fact he has brewed a whole host of wheat beers, and in addition to the lychee that I had there are mango, morello cherry, lemon, lime, strawberry, white peach, a plain wheat, and a fruity mixed berry version that I tried a little later on.

As we drink we talk about how he started to brew, initially employing Brendan Moore of Norfolk's Iceni Brewery on a consultancy basis before deciding to forge his own path. Changing tack, Ian takes me outside and points to the land stretching down to a boundary around four hundred metres away.
"This" he tells me, "is where I'm going build my beer destination."

The plans are certainly ambitious. Not content with an indoor brewery, he wants to have an outdoor brewery too with demonstrations of 'hot-rock' brewing on a semi-covered outdoor area also able to stage barbecues and beer festivals. Indoor beer festivals are also a possibility with enough space in one of the outbuildings for hosting in the colder months, or to deal with the vagaries of the English weather. If that wasn't enough he plans facilities for camping, a potential accommodation block and even a children's playground. A local connection to fairground ride owners opens up other avenues of entertainment for young and old alike.

We move back inside and open another bottle of beer, this time it's the APA brewed with US hops, although Ian is at a loss as to which ones when I enquire. It's smooth and moderately bitter with those tropical fruit flavours I've come to associate with the style present, but disappointingly muted. Wild & Green is the next beer opened, and the first brewed under the Essex Brewery Company name. Despite being around eight months old it's clean and fresh tasting with loads of grassy hop character, a real winner.

Glancing at my watch I realise that I've been there just over three hours and I have another beer-related appointment, interviewing Steve Hindy the co-founder of Brooklyn Brewery and Logan Plant founder of Beavertown Brewery, in a few hours time and need to make a move. Before I leave however, Ian wants to show me one thing more. Taking me to an adjacent building he unscrews the lid of a fermenter, dips in a measuring jug and pours a golden liquid into my cup. This is his lager, and although it's still a touch raw and not yet primed for carbonation in the bottle, the flavours are all there, slightly spicy and fruity with a dry finish, and promises to be something rather special.

On the bus back to Brentwood I reflect on what Ian has told me, and although he is under no illusions that there may be a few hiccups along the way he is determined to make them a reality, and he has certainly impressed me. The first stage, the beer shop, should be open towards the end of June and I'll be back soon to see how things have progressed. Time will of course tell, but we could well have a purpose-built beer destination in the heart of the Essex countryside in the very near future. Remember where you heard it first.

Sunday, 26 April 2015

Beer In Essex: An Open Letter To All Who Work In And Run Essex Pubs


Beer In Essex
An Open Letter To All Who Work In And Run Essex Pubs

Dear Essex pub owners, landlords, landladies, tenants and staff,

Firstly please excuse the unwieldy headline. I realise that it is a bit of a mouthful however I wanted this post to be inclusive and know that running a successful business is a team effort. I have never run a pub or a brewery for that matter and I don't profess to be an expert on such things, but I have been a active pub-goer for more than a quarter of a century. If I come across as pompous or patronising then that is certainly not my intention either. I have no wish to tell you how to run your business, that is certainly your affair, but if you have a passion for great beer I would ask that you at least consider what I have to say. Many of you are already doing a fantastic job promoting the beer that Essex has to offer and if I can help raise it's profile as well as that of its pubs and hard working staff even a little then I achieved what I set out to do.

I'd like to hope that you'd agree with my reason for writing this as I would like to see Essex pubs leading the way in offering drinkers from all over the country somewhere that they would chose to go for excellent beer and awesome hospitality.

I also am not naive to think that I have a quick fix, and I know that many of you already run highly successful pubs that delight drinkers week in week out with a fantastic choice of beer and aren't afraid of trying new things in order to attract a diverse clientele. I know this won't be possible for everyone, indeed there may only be a small minority who have it within their power to act upon any of the things that I mention here, but if it makes you think, starts a discussion or provokes a response then, in the long run, I believe that will be no bad thing.

Before I continue I'd like you to read or in some cases re-read this Open Letter To Essex Brewers And Breweries that I wrote back in January of this year. It did provoke a reaction and it is as a direct result of the feedback I received that has prompted me to expand on what were my initial thoughts in a new year and is partly my motivation behind writig this post today.

I'd also like to add, and I believe that this clarification is important, that I am not trying to start a rift between Essex pubs and Essex breweries, quite the opposite in fact as I am convinced that co-operation and conversation between both parties is the way forward for both parties. My original post raised issues that I hadn't previously considered and I hope that this will do the same. There are two sides to every coin and it is necessary to let all parties have their say in order to evaluate and make an informed decision. This is the next stage in my attempt to do so and is a reaction to my observations up to this point.

I'm not going to pull any punches here and I'll jump straight in and talk about beer choice. I'm not necessarily talking about a range of beer from all over the UK, or from all over the world, fantastic as that would be from a personal point of view but having a range of styles and strengths, whether they be on cask. keg or in bottles and even cans makes my heart sing wherever I find it. By choice I don't mean mass-produced lager or cask ale from the big pub-swallowing supermarket staples as it is my opinion that part of the reason that pubs have been losing drinkers is that they can get the same beer more cheaply and in bulk when they do their weekly shop. Conversely I have heard drinkers opt for a beer that they bought 'just for a change' in an off-licence or in the craft beer section of their supermarket because they like it, and if you have just had a large intake of breath when you read the 'C' word, that is craft beer, and you have switched off then I urge you to take a trip to your local Marks and Spencer and look at the range of beer they have on offer. The variety of styles available should give you some idea of what people are buying, and they all without exception have one thing in common, they all taste of something.

There are hundreds of new breweries up and down the country producing some amazing beer, and there number is growing all the time. We have twenty-nine breweries in Essex yet I often find it difficult to get local beer in many of the pubs in the county and it is almost impossible to do so outside of it. Are we giving our brewers a chance?

When I wrote the letter to the brewers one recurring response was that they would actually like to brew different styles and experiment with different ingredients but they were hesitant to do so as pubs simply weren't buying them. There is a proliferation of Golden Ales, so I am told, as some pubs simply won't buy brewers darker beers. I realise that you need to provide what the drinker wants, and you might reason that if they are drinking these beers then that what they must want. There is a saying often repeated that states that if you always do what you have always done then you always get what you always have got, the result will always be the same. If you want the same customers drinking the same beer year in year out then that's absolutely fine, but those customers won't be around forever. Are you willing to take a chance?

Change is difficult, but if you take the time to prepare then it makes any transitional period a lot easier. If you want to take the plunge then I'm sure that you will have the support of the brewers and breweries every step of the way.

All of the best pubs I have been in, and this is without exception have knowledgeable staff. If you are going to sell a product, I believe you should know it inside out. Take the time to find out and give the drinker an enhanced drinking experience. Simple things make a lot of difference. Who brews it? Where are they from? What's the abv? What style is it? and most importantly, What does it taste like?
To me these are the minimum requirements I expect as a committed pub user. Brewers will be more than happy to provide this information I have found, and much more besides. Once you get a taste for this kind of insight then it can be hard to resist. I love to go into pubs that give me that little bit more when asked, This may include things like the hops and malts used, the flavour profile and what I might be able to pick out when I drink it, how bitter it is, and what foods it might go with. I'd also like you to recommend me a beer when I order my food, and if you prepare your meals on the premises are any of your dishes made with beer. I know that wine is often more profitable by the glass however beer is far more versatile and has a much wider range of flavours and can compliment far more food types. Why not have a menu that varies depending on the beer you have available, putting the beer pairings next to the dishes themselves? This is obviously where having a reasonably large selection of beer available really pays dividends and carrying a range of bottles will help no end.

Raising the profile of Essex beer, Essex breweries and Essex pubs is important to me and if you read some of my other posts I'm sure you will see that this comes across. I have lived in Essex all my life and feel passionately about this county and all it has to offer, and having drunk some great beer in some great places I often feel the sense of tradition and home-from-home comfort that only Essex pubs can offer. We need to celebrate this more often, embrace our heritage.

I know from speaking to Essex brewers that they feel the same way. It may be their business, but their motives for starting out are often that they wanted to brew something better than what was available around them at the time. They have worked on their recipes, brewing and re-brewing many times until they were satisfied that what they were producing was fit for the market place.

I have mentioned before that if you ask for information from the people that brew the beer, really brew it rather than flick a switch in a factory somewhere, then in my experience they are always happy to provide it, but have you considered inviting them into your pub?

Meet The Brewer evenings are a great way to find out about the beer that your local brewer is making and a great way for them to engage with people drinking it. Having a selection of beers available ensures that all who want to can get a taste of what's on offer with the chance to buy more directly from you, and you can find out what particular beers your customers want. I have been to many such events up and down the country and have found them both engaging and invaluable, finding out about the brewing process, a bit about the brewer/brewery and why each beer was brewed. This has deepened my love of beer and enriched my drinking experience as my understanding has deepened and my sense of taste developed.

If this sounds a step too far then why not organise a beer tasting or invite someone in to lead one for you. I'm sure your local CAMRA group could offer a recommendation if you needed some help and many of the country's leading beer writers would be happy to travel out to you, particularly as many are based in London.

Beer festivals are always good way of attracting more people to your pub, especially during the summer months if you have an outside area, however I have noticed recently many of the same beers appearing each year. When considering what beers you might want to have it might be a good idea to have a look at what others have had on and chose something a little different. I have been put off from attending a couple recently as I didn't see a single beer that I couldn't find regularly or that I had tasted at a festival in the previous few months. I want to find something different, something that I haven't had before, experience a new taste, a new style or even a twist on an old one. If you are reluctant to experiment with change in your day to day running then this is the perfect way to do so with minimal impact. Listen to what the drinkers are saying, ask them questions about their beer and take note of their answers. Don't always assume that what sells well in the pub (because you always have it on) will sell well at your festival either. In conversations with certain brewers I have found that they have to brew lighter coloured and lower abv beers as that is all pubs will take but when they have the greater freedom that a festival offers then it is often the darker and slightly stronger beers that sell out first.

In my conclusion to the letter to brewers and breweries I challenged them to think differently and think better and I offer that same challenge to you. As before I realise that this won't happen overnight, these things take time but with the co-operation all concerned we can make Essex a county that people think of whenever great pubs and great beer are mentioned.

This post is a continuation of my exploration into Essex beer culture and is part of a bigger project called Beer East Anglia that you may want to take a look at.

If you wish to contact me about any of the things I have mentioned then I welcome your comments, whether directly on this blog, on twitter at @1970sBoy, or by email by looking up my listing on the British Guild Of Beer Writers website. I really believe that we can make a big difference by working together and improve the quality and choice of beer available to us all. I really would like to hear your thoughts so that I can expand on those in a future post.

You may not agree with me, and might well want to tell me to get lost and mind my own business, but you don't have to look too far afield to notice that things have changed when it comes to beer in this country and that they will continue to change for some time to come. Let's make it a change for the better.

With much respect, appreciation and the very best of wishes,

Justin Mason

Sunday, 19 April 2015

Beer In Essex: Bottling It - Part One: Billericay to Felstar


Beer In Essex
Bottling It - Part One: Billericay to Felstar

I thought long and hard before embarking on this journey, unsure as to whether I would start it at all. Beer reviews can often be mind-numbingly boring with descriptions and tasting notes ad infinitum of beers that you've already had or aren't remotely interested in. If you're not into those, and I wouldn't honestly blame you, then it's probably best that you stop reading and look elsewhere as I'm afraid that this is the route that I'm going to take here although I do have my reasons for doing so.

Firstly I am innately curious. Most of the beers I have gathered together are not only new to me, some of them will be new to many drinkers in Essex being recently released or only available in certain areas and some are from the newest breweries in the county. Not all breweries are covered as plenty don't bottle their beer at all and I haven't been able to obtain every single beer from the ones that I will be featuring but I have tried to cover as wide a range as I can, searching for the best that Essex has to offer without dwelling on the standard or more well known offerings.

Secondly, I am treating this exploration into the bottled beers of Essex almost as a right of passage. The inclination to do this has been nagging at me for some time, gnawing at my soul until I eventually gave in and followed my heart. It's something that I feel I need to do in order to be able to continue my Essex beer odyssey, almost as if it were an obstacle I need to overcome or I can go no farther. I won't be doing it in all in one go however but I need to launch it now and see where it carries me.

Finally, well almost, I want to present a partial snapshot of some of the bottled beer available in Essex right now, with some notable exceptions, trying to discover if it's worth buying (although I appreciate that this is subjective) and hoping that I'll discover a real gem or two along the way. If you are at all familiar with the post that set me on this path, An Open Letter To Essex Brewers And Breweries, you will already be aware of my frustrations. I plan to write a follow-up post shortly as I have seen another side to the story in the wake of  its publication, but I won't get ahead of myself at this point as its time to open my first bottle and get started.

I have decided to proceed alphabetically by brewery as it appeals to my sense of order and seems to me to be the logical thing to do. It should also give a degree of navigation should the reader wish to dip in and out of these posts at leisure or highlight a particular beer at a later date. The first Essex brewery alphabetically is therefore Billericay Brewing, so that is where I will begin.

I have already featured Billericay Brewing twice in the past so if you would like to find out the story of this brewery then you may wish to read this post followed by this one, which will give you a good idea of how they got to the point where they are at now. Because of this I shall only be featuring a single beer of theirs on this occasion, Rhythm Stick (4.8%) which the label describes as a 'rich hoppy amber ale made with American and British hops', and one which I confess I haven't tried before. Pouring a hazy amber, the aroma is predominantly one of biscuity maltiness with an undercurrent of plum and nectarine struggling to break through. It's quite bitter with some fruity caramel but again it's the malts that dominate adding a veneer of wholemeal biscuit that's a touch woody in places and I feel that I'm not really getting the hoppiness that I was promised in the description. It's pleasant to drink, inoffensive and unobtrusive, but that's not really what I was looking for although I appreciate that many will be and this certainly is a fine beer. In my opinion the best beer from this brewery is the deliciously chocolatey Chapel Street Porter, although the Mild Bill was tasting very good recently, given an extra boost from a generous helping of chocolate malt, so those two would probably be my choice. Trevor has started to experiment with dry hopping and plans to feature some different beer styles, so watch out for much more from Billericay brewing in the near future.

Even though the Bishop Nick is a relative newcomer it has a legacy that stretches back 160 years. It's founder, Nelion Ridley, is the son of the last chairman of Ridleys Brewery, the largest in Essex when it was sold to Greene King in 2005, which was then promptly closed. The new brewery site is some 10 miles from the old Hartford End brewery and is situated Braintree, once the centre of hop cultivation in the county. Bishop Nick have a portfolio of three core beers with eleven occasional and seasonal specials. I was able to obtain their 1555 (4.3%) which is named after the year that Nicholas Ridley, the original Bishop Nick and a direct ancestor of Nelion was burnt at the stake in Oxford for heresy on the orders of 'Bloody Mary'. It pours a gorgeous reddish-brown, a tawny colour you might say, with a thin white head and has the aroma of fizzy cherry pip sweets and orange zest. It's smooth and juicy with a flash of papaya with a hint of cherry, and it's rather delicious despite a rather thin body detracting slightly from the experience. There's a little toffee caramel in the finish that's quite subdued and on the whole this is very clean tasting and rather delightful. This is a very accomplished beer, one that bears the hallmark of a family steeped in brewing history and is certainly well worth seeking out.

Moving closer to home, in fact not very far from where I live and work is Calcott Hall Farm, the new location of the Brentwood Brewing Company who have been brewing commercially since 2006. They were formed after a conversation in a pub when David Holmes and Roland Kannor decided they would set out to brew better beer than had been drinking, and with Sophie de Ronde joining them as their head brewer in 2008 they certainly did, with their beer winning awards at local festivals as well as national acclaim from SIBA. A change of premises in 2013, and a change of head brewer in 2014 saw Sophie leaving to be replaced by Roland's son Ethan, who from what I gather is working on some new beers of his own design. As they are practically on my doorstep and as I haven't featured them since I brewed at their old brewery back in 2012, I popped over to see them and grabbed some of their more interesting beers to review.

I've chose Ale Mary (4.3%) first of all as rather unusually it was brewed in association with the Shenfield Operatic Society on the occasion of their production of the musical Sister Act. Many brewers have brewed many beers for many reasons over the years, so brewing one to celebrate a four show production at the Queens Theatre in Hornchurch seems as good a reason as any. I am initially attracted by the words 'heavily hopped with Cascade' on the label but physically shiver upon reading 'golden ale' as a description as I have made no secret of my antipathy towards this style. It pours a wonderfully clear golden colour with a thin white head, exactly as you might expect, and it does have that lovely grapefruit peel and spicy citrus character associated with the Cascade hop.There's a nice bitter bite and prickle of carbonation as it rolls over the tongue with a water biscuit maltiness lightly touched with grapefruit citrus and this takes this clean-tasting beer through to the finish. If you like golden ales then you certainly won't go wrong here, and the speed with which I drank this beer certainly bears testament to its finesse.

When it came to choosing the beers that I was going to feature from Brentwood there was always one beer that simply had to be on my list as it's a beer that I associate with the brewery above all others and possibly my favourite beer from the brewery. Chockwork Orange (6.5%) is indeed a chocolatey beer and it really is brewed with oranges, and I was once promised a polypin of it if I ever managed to drink the equivalent of a barrel of the stuff. Sadly the brewer that set me that challenge has since moved on which is a bit of a shame as I must have been getting close by now. It pours a jet black with an off-white head, and is surprisingly thin but its aroma is very distinctive with its dark chocolate, molasses and bitter orange peel scent. There's more bitter chocolate, slightly figgy with a little orange zest in the taste and it's very drinkable given its high abv. Despite feeling quite thin it has plenty of flavour, and it's flavour that builds the more you drink it but not overpoweringly so, and compels you to go back for more and more. I like this beer a lot and I'd drink it again and again without question but it doesn't excite me quite the way it used to. I need to see if some of the most recent offerings give me the buzz that this one used to.

The Special Reserve (7.0%) was brewed in a small batch in 2013 and released in a grand total of 100 bottles towards the end of 2014. Some of the initial releases came with a little red Father Christmas hat on top of the 275ml bottles but I've that, in the brewery shop at least, they now have a Brentwood Brewing Company label tied to the label around their necks. It is described as having the richness of an Old Ale with the depth and smoothness of an Imperial Stout, and despite the low numbers bottled it is still available locally as perhaps the high abv and slightly higher price point putting off some customers. Pouring a deep rich dark brown with a thin but sustained cream-coloured head with a wonderful aroma packed full of blackberries, redcurrants and cranberries laid over a thin coffee and chocolate base. It's thinner over the tongue than I was expecting and has a decent level of carbonation leading to a jammy chocolate taste, and if you can imagine an apricot and blackcurrant jam tart on a chocolatey pastry base then you wouldn't be too far off. The finish has more of the same, slightly more concentrated if anything, it's lip-smackingly tart and fruity, I like this a lot. As it wasn't difficult to get hold of I confess that I have purchased quite a few bottles of this and I'm rather glad that I did as I suspect that this bottle-conditioned beer will develop nicely for a few more years to come. This is definitely the kind of beer that I would like to see more of in the future and I'd like to see Brentwood release more of these experimental batches in smaller bottles as if they are of this quality then I'll certainly be snapping them up.

I have to confess that I thought long and hard before finally deciding to include this beer in the line up. However, bearing in mind that this is an exploration into Essex beer, that I am trying to find something outstanding amongst the mundane, then on balance I reasoned that this beer had to go in. You may think that Strawberry 'N' Lime (4.0%) is a very rare thing indeed, an Essex fruit beer, except that it isn't, at least not from Brentwood. They commonly brew with local produce, with a Chestnut Stout made with chestnuts from nearby South Weald Park, and Plumberry, a beer brewed using locally grown plums and blackberries. Reading back through my beer notes I noticed that they also brewed a beer called Strawberry Blonde last year and I remember that I rather liked it. Having your brewery on a farm, especially one that has its own farm shop clearly has its advantages. Pouring a hazy straw colour with a shockingly white head it smells faintly of those sugary biscuits heart-shaped that come with a small splodge of jam in the middle that I remember from childhood holidays to France. There's a citrus twist in there too, but if pushed I'd have it pegged as sour orange rather than lime. It is delightfully bubbly as it hits the tongue, delivering a sweet fruit-cocktail of flavours featuring strawberry, peach and lime, but these aren't at all muddled but distinctive and pleasingly refreshing. There is the faintest notion of artificiality about the taste but this is fleeting as you are drinking it, emerging once again in the ragged finish that has some touches of astringency. This isn't a sophisticated beer but it is rather good and I can see it going down rather well at barbecues this summer. It's not at all what I was expecting and beers like this make me smile and realise that I really shouldn't judge a book by its cover, or indeed a beer by its label.

Despite this being a local beer and one that I felt that I had to include I admit that its high price tag made me swallow hard before I bought it. At £29.99 a bottle, Van Kannor (7.7%) was commissioned by Roland to celebrate the birth of his first grandchild, the name being the full and proper one however, one that hadn't been used since the outbreak of the Second World War. A limited run of 1000 bottles, it is triple fermented with beer, wine and Champagne yeast, hand riddled and turned, it comes in a corked and caged 750ml bottle so I'm expecting something a bit special. It pours a beautiful golden colour with lots of spritzy carbonation just as you might expect, and has a wonderfully tart and fruity peach aroma with a hint of allspice in the background. Smooth as silk over the tongue, this bites at the top of the palate first of all releasing a honeyed peach juice flavour coupled with a white pepper and coriander seed spiciness that fills the mouth with a pleasingly warm sensation. This is a superb beer, the finish isn't overpowering it's subtle and refined, and where the flavour fades quickly it lingers for a long time. This is an extremely balanced piece of brewing by Sophie de Ronde and was the last beer she brewed for Brentwood, and I would say that it's one of the best beers currently available in Essex. It is expensive, but if you're looking for a local beer for a special occasion then you should look no further than this.

The Colchester Brewery Limited are currently in their fourth year of production, although the three founders Tom Knox, Roger Clark and Andy Bone have all had previous experience as head brewer, sales director and MD respectively at Nethergate's Growler brewery. They brew using the double drop method where primary fermentation takes place in one vessel before being 'dropped' under gravity to a secondary fermenter below with the aim of producing a cleaner, less infection-prone beer. They have a range of bottled beer, but I've only chosen one, the Brazilian (4.6%) coffee and vanilla porter brewed, as you might expect, using Brazilian coffee and fresh vanilla pods and sporting a label that cheekily resembles that of a well coffee shop chain that originated in the US city of Seattle. It pours a deep dark brown, very like a black coffee with a creamy head crowning it, however it is the aroma that draws me in with its seductive sugary white chocolate and vanilla scent that reminds me very much of a particular milk stout, but I can't for the life of me remember which one. An initial hit of milk chocolate is swept away by a wonderfully creamy vanilla flavour before the coffee rises to prominence to create an incredibly delicious melange of tastes and sensations in the mouth. This fades ever so slowly to leave an oily sugary cream taste that has me licking my lips with delight. This is simply the best porter/floater-coffee mash-up you could possibly imagine, rich and self-indulgent and I would happily drink one of these following dessert, or maybe even instead of it.

The oldest brewery in the county is probably the one that most people bring to mind when thinking about Essex beer. This is due in no small part to the fact that its flagship beer won CAMRA's Champion Beer of Britain accolade two years in a row. Formed in 1981 by beer enthusiasts Colin Bocking and Rob Walster (although Rob is no longer involved with the business) Crouch Vale Brewery are known for their clean, crisp beers, particularly their range of single hop beers made using some of the newest varieties. I have chosen three of their beers to review here with the main factor being availability, however with the exception of the first beer you might come across a completely different selection. All are worthy of your time and money.

There really is no better place to start than with their flagship beer Brewers Gold (4.0%) which accounts for around fifty percent of their output. It's hard to believe that this beer is fifteen years old, a summer seasonal that made the jump to the permanent range due to customer demand, and it can be found regularly on cask in some of the better pubs in the county. It pours a bright golden colour, just as its name suggests, with a tight white head and an unmistakable grapefruit aroma this really is a wonderful beer. It's whole grapefruit as well, juicy flesh, pith, peel and all, slightly spicy and sugary sweet, and despite its carbonation it is soft and gentle as it purrs over the tongue. Grapefruit and blackcurrant flavours rise to prominence, juicy and dry at the same time and with the faintest touch of honey sweetness just for good measure. The finish is a little oily with some grapefruit peel notes that make you feel like you've just finished sucking on a grapefruit flavoured wine gum, if such a thing existed, and this lasts for quite some time. This is a fantastic beer when found on top form, pass it up at your peril.

Amarillo (5.0%) is another single hop varietal beer, brewed using the hop of the same name. The hop's name is a registered trademark of Virgil Gamache Farms Inc. and was discovered in one of their hop yards in Washington State, USA. Tolerant to the most common hop diseases, it is used for both flavouring and bittering purposes. It pours a very similar colour to the Brewers Gold, if not identical, but as soon as you bring it to your lips the aroma immediately tells you that this is a very different beer. It has the scent of orange peel, lime zest as well a malty biscuit tang about it, and it is pleasantly rough and bitter over the tongue. An initial flavour of flapjack on the tongue is quickly replaced with a burst of zesty orange juice although this is not a juicy beer, carrying with it a hint of dry grapefruit citrus and a twist of lime. The finish is quite understated at first, a little wishy-washy even before an oily orange peel flavour emerges an then, right at the end, the grapefruit comes bouncing back. It is no surprise that this is such a popular beer as it is very easy to drink, all the flavours particularly distinctive and blend together effortlessly, and this is why I like it too.

The last beer I am reviewing from Crouch Vale on this occasion is their Anchor Street Porter (4.9%) but I seem to have come across some conflicting information when looking up its availability. I picked this up rather easily locally and many of my usual Crouch Vale stockists had plenty of bottles, and although I see it is listed as a year-round beer I notice that the Beer Advocate website says that it is retired and no longer in production. Trying to establish the truth I contacted the brewery directly with this question, and they responded that it is indeed retired, albeit with occasional re-union tours. The beer itself is described as a classic Porter made using roasted barley and chocolate malt to bring different flavour elements as well as colour, and Pioneer hops for both flavour and bitterness. It pours a deep dark brown with some ruby red highlights and a tight creamy off-white head. The aroma is a little spicy with nutmeg and clove and their is a definite smoky edge to its blackcurrant fruitiness. Bitter and a touch tart over the tongue, blackcurrant flavour slides in and this brings with it some dark cherry and chocolate for good measure, this really is a very satisfying beer. The finish is where that almost festive spiciness present in the aroma asserts itself, and tied together with some dark fruit and a hint of chocolate it has a wonderful complexity to it. This is a beer that punches well above its weight, performing a seductive dance on the tongue it is very good indeed.

The Essex Brewery Company is a new brewery about which I know very little information. Their website is still under construction and there are barely any mentions of them on the internet at all. What I do know however is that it is run by a chap called Ian and that from the address I have found then they would appear to brew on the same site as the Pitfield/Dominion brewery. Thankfully I have been invited over to visit them soon so expect s full report to be forthcoming in a later post (which you can read here).

The only beer I have to taste from them is their Grumpy Old Men (4.6%), bottle-conditioned, and one that is designed, so the label states, to help you 'relax, mellow and enjoy'. It pours a deep amber/tawny colour, throwing a dense off-white head upon pouring. The aroma is a curious mixture of chestnut, grapefruit peel and lime zest but there's also a cream soda/lemon sorbet element that is really rather enticing. Rough and rather bitter carbonation leads to woody raspberry and blackcurrant flavour laid over a crunchy Bourbon crumb, but there's a slightly savoury meaty caramel taste that it is a little at odds with the sweetness and is seemingly stopping it being as good as it might be. The finish is dry with more chestnut flavour and a little astringency that gradually expands before expiring in a surprisingly jammy raspberry conclusion. The more this beer warms the better it becomes. The bitterness and astringency fades somewhat, and although still present it allows that fruitiness to emerge a little more from the shadows. I'm looking forward to seeing what else the Essex Brewery Company are up to, and who they actually are. Expect a full report here in a few weeks.

Should you ever pay a visit to the Felstar Brewery, and I strongly advise that you do if you are in the area, then be sure that you don't disturb the rather aggressive geese as you make your way smart wooden shed with its self-satisfied chicken logo that is the brewery shop. Started in 2001 by two Italian brothers Marcello (known as Franco) and Guiseppe (known as Paolo) Davanzo at the Felstar Vineyard, the oldest commercial vineyard in East Anglia, their ambition to produce great beer was fueled by their discovery of, and passion for real ale. Their bottles, which can be very limited in number, are available from the brewery shop as well as selected local off licences. Take no notice of the opening times on their website, it hasn't been updated for many years as I found to my cost when I drove there to pick up some beer for this review only to find it closed. Fortunately I have been carefully storing a couple of bottles of their stronger beers for the last six years or so, and this is the perfect opportunity to see if they have stood the test of time and hopefully show that Essex brewers can produce beers that are robust enough for cellaring.

I shall start with the Felstar Triple (9.2%) whose label only displays the name, which I am assuming denotes the style, as well as the ingredients: malted barley, molasses, hops, wheat and finings. This bottle has a 'Best Before End' date of November 2012, so I am anxious and a little apprehensive as I open it. Pouring a glossy jet black with a surprising amount of carbonation considering its age it has the most amazing aroma, full of chocolate, sherry, molasses, vanilla and woody notes, with half a twist of black pepper just for good measure. A touch prickly over the tongue before smoothing out gently, it throws up such an array of deliciously rich flavours at you that it is extremely hard to pick a solitary element out and hold on to it at first sip. Delving a little deeper I find fig, date, blackberry, black pepper, dark cocoa-rich chocolate, a twist of lemon zest and lots and lots of sticky black molasses. The finish dries out wonderfully with some dusty oak notes leaving a great big splodge of gooey fig and raisin puree right in the middle of my tongue and this stays for an absolute age, allowing me to chew it over at my leisure. This really has aged astonishingly well and I feel that I have been fortunate enough to catch it at its peak. I gather that the abv may have been reduced to 7.0% for later editions but if you ever come across this version again then put it away for a few years, and if you are lucky enough to have this particular bottling then now would seem a very good time to drink it.

As it is just past Easter as I write this a beer called Festive Ale (9.2%) might not seem the most appropriate to be drinking now, but Christmas beer or not, and this was brewed for Christmas in 2009 I believe, I'm searching for the best that Essex has to offer so any beer is fair game. It pours a deepdark brown with a thin beige head, but it is the aroma that grabs my attention straight away. It's like a vintage port that's been laced with Belgian chocolate, a seductive musty black magic that draws me to it but one which comes with a warning says it's no slouch in the alcohol stakes. An initial prickle of carbonation is followed by a smooth rich fruitiness that tastes like chocolate blackberries on steroids but surprisingly with an aqueous gap before it roars back to life with some shocking almond and raspberry highlights. The finish is slightly dusty at first but this leads into a wonderful chocolate raspberry aftertaste that it hard to beat, but it's one that doesn't last as long as I would have liked. This does have one advantage however as it makes me go back the glass to experience that rush of flavours all over again. This really is a very special beer, full of fruit and chocolate and alcohol, it's also another beer that has kept astonishingly well and has developed into a monster. From an admittedly very small sample, but with one hundred percent success rate I would guess that the higher abv Felstar beers age exceptionally well, so if you're looking for an Essex brewery whose beers you want to cellar then you won't go too far wrong here.

Here ends the first part of my beer bottle journey. I have plenty more breweries to explore in future posts with plenty of bottles in hand, and I'm excited to conclude that if this selection is anything to go by then I will have a lot more great beer to get through. I hope that I have proved that Essex brewers are brewing great beer even though it may not appear so from some of the offerings that show up in the county's pubs and bars. Essex brewers are being creative, and if you'd like to find out more about them and their beer then I'm very sure they would be more than happy to respond to your enquiries.

Happy exploring, and if you come across something that you think I might be interested in then please let me know. You can find me on twitter at @1970sBoy or leave a comment in the section below. Either way you'll be sure of a reply.