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.

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.

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Beer In Essex: The Victoria Inn, Colchester: The Evolution Of A 'Proper Pub'

Beer In Essex
The Victoria Inn, Colchester: The Evolution Of A 'Proper Pub'

I had arrived in Colchester just in time for lunch and I had a couple of hours to kill before I was expected at The Victoria Inn, so decided to see what else the town had to offer. Andy and Sheena had generously agreed to give me some of their valuable time after the busy lunch session had died down as the would have extra staff to cover so, after having sought advice from local(ish) publican Ed Razzall, I decided to seek out the two newest beer destinations in England's oldest recorded town. 

My first port of call was The Church Street Tavern, which unsurprisingly is in Church Street, a part of Colchester familiar to anyone who has attended either of the two annual CAMRA festivals held in the Arts Centre a few yards further up the road. I was impressed by it's decor of mismatched sofas, tables and easy chairs, although the bar looked rather spartan with its two chrome multi-tap keg founts. They had a fairly decent bottled beer selection however, but I was really after a pint of Essex beer. This is a strictly 'no cask' bar and despite having Adnams and Calvors available I opted for a half of BrewDog's Brixton Porter (just for the sheer hell of it) which I drank in self-concious silence before heading out.

The Three Wise Monkey's on the High Street is a smart, modern craft beer bar with one obvious eye on what's been happening in London, although in truth they're a couple of years behind. This three-floor Tap House and US-style Barbecue Bar, serving up all kinds of slow-cooked, pulled, and smoked meat delights, certainly creates a favourable impression upon entering with it's wall of numbered shiny taps and faintly louche feel, but appearances can be deceptive as I soon found out. 

I had decided, for research purposes and because I was in playful mood, to play the part of the craft beer novice taking ice-cold lager as my starting point, so upon approaching the bar I asked for some guidance in selecting my beer. To be honest there wasn't a lot on the menu to inspire me with much of what was on offer being from that Suffolk brewery of repute, Greene King, so after opining my penchant for pilsner I was steered deftly towards Kona's Long Board. Reasonably satisfied I took my half to a nearby table and settled down to observe my fellow drinkers just as two ladies in their twenties entered and went up to the bar asking for two halves of Stella. On this occasion however the response of the barman was rather different. Rather than introducing them to a beer that might give them something a little bit more taste than they were used to, he instead pointed to the chalked-up list of the wall and walked away saying "What we have is over there". As I downed my frankly lacklustre lager and got up to leave they were ordering a brandy and coke each. Surely an opportunity missed.

Rather dis-satisfied a brisk five minute walk down the North Hill soon found me outside The Victoria Inn, the current East Anglian CAMRA Pub Of The Year, my final destination of the day. 

Opening the door with a modicum of trepidation following my two previous encounters, I stepped inside and instantly felt a wave of relief sweep over me. I gave out a silent whoop of joy as I was delighted to find myself inside a real pub at last. 

The Victoria Inn is in no way pretentious. With its mix of wooden flooring and carpet, tables and chairs arranged for conversation not dining, and just the right amount of bar stalls to pull one up if conversation with one of the knowledgeable staff is what you desire but not so cluttered that getting served is like negotiating an obstacle course. In order approach the central bar and discover what beer is on offer you are drawn around and into the heart of the pub itself, the inner sanctum if you will, and you'll have found yourself having completed a full half circuit of the interior. This means you will probably have made a decision where you'll settle as you order your drink on the way through whether consciously or otherwise, and that's exactly the sort of thing that puts me at ease.

With no sign of either Sheena or Andy, I ordered a half before finding a seat near the bar. I was initially going to plump for Red Fox Brewery's excellent black IPA, Foxymoron (which Google just prompted me to remember I reviewed three years ago) before my eye was drawn to a pump clip bearing the intriguing words 'Test Brew #2'. Asking as to who brewed it, I was informed in an obviously tongue in cheek manner that I wasn't allowed to know, which immediately peaked my curiosity, however my barrage of further questions brought no satisfactory response.

Taking a seat, I pulled out my phone and tweeted where I was and that I was drinking a beer that I wasn't allowed to know about and within seconds heard a voice over my left shoulder enquire, "Beer East Anglia? Justin?" and as if by magic Andy and Sheena had appeared, introduced themselves, shook my hand and sat down opposite me. I immediately started asking about the beer I was drinking, what was it and where did it come from?  Andy replied quite matter of factly, "It's really is no secret, we are just trying to get the perfect Yorkshire style super pale/blonde ale brewed for us locally. We've been working with the Colchester Brewery to achieve this but we're not quite there yet. Nearly but not quite."

With their accents being the biggest clue, it's fairly obvious that Andy and Sheena (the landlord and landlady respectively, a partnership in every sense of the word) are most certainly not from Essex, and as I glanced around the bar their Yorkshire-ness suddenly came into focus. The crisps are from Yorkshire, as are the bottles of Henderson's Relish on the shelves behind the bar (which I had embarrassingly mistaken for Lea and Perrins), but it is the enthusiasm and pride that they speak of the beers of their home county that endears me to them straight away. These beers are obviously favourites and they have built a network of contacts stretching far and wide to enable them to get the very best of what Yorkshire has to offer on the bar for the delectation of their patrons.

They haven't always had it quite so easy however, and they are keen to impress upon me how hard they've work to get this far.

 When they took charge the Victoria Inn late in 2010 it was an unloved closed-up and shabby dive bar with avocado green walls, the kind of place that you would quickly pass by without a second glance, situated halfway between Colchester station and the town. It hadn't been loved by the locals and it's customers, who had mainly travelled there from a little further afield had gradually drifted away following the premature death of the previous landlady's daughter. Although it was in a bit of a state they saw it's potential, and though they weren't particularly looking for a tenancy in the area, they were looking for a pub to call their own but with no ties, particularly as Sheena had just freed herself from a bitter experience with Punch Taverns.

Realising that they really needed to get it up and running for Christmas that year, a crucial period if they wanted word to spread, they set about transforming a rather tired and dated bar into the kind of pub that they would want to drink in just a few short weeks, with the firm belief that if they liked it then others would too. In order to attract a wider clientele they installed a solitary hand pump for cask beer ask on a bar that previously had none, although the very first beer they had on was surprisingly from a Lancashire brewery, Thwaites 4.1% golden ale, Wainwright.

Slowly but surely the pub's reputation grew, helped especially by a local CAMRA member who was out searching for pubs to consider for Good Beer Guide inclusion, noticed that it had re-opened and out of curiosity peered through the window. Seeing the solitary hand pump they ventured inside to find out about the new tenants and began talking about beer, particularly 'real ale'. Soon enough the amount of cask beers increased until they numbered the five available today, one of which is always a dark ale, identifiable by it's black hand pump, and all of which are carefully chosen to bring something different to this part of Essex. These are often beers that you would be hard-pressed to find south of Birmingham, I sampled Tickety Brew's fantastic Coffee Anise Porter that afternoon, and as I mentioned before Andy and Sheena have built up a network of contacts, mainly dealing directly with the brewers themselves, with the beers being bought directly to them by various means, although it's not unheard of for them to do the fetching via the boot of their car.

Despite their success they aren't content to rest on their laurels and are always ready to try new things, but they are also not afraid to drop them if they don't work out. The Victoria Inn used to have a quiz night, for example, which initially attracted a reasonable crowd however after a few months interest had waned and now the quiz night is no more.

Today this three storey, Grade II listed seventeenth century building is exactly what they wanted it to be when they first took it over, a proper pub. They don't serve food, aside from pickled eggs, crisps, nuts and pork scratchings, as they believe a pub is a place for conversation, meeting old friends or a place of refuge if you want a bit of piece and quiet while you have a pint and read the paper. A friendly atmosphere pervades, and even though you may have found a quiet corner it might not be too long before you will find yourself engaged in conversation with one of the regulars or staff, and indeed many friendships have been formed in this pub sometimes by the unlikeliest of characters. There is music playing, but it is very much in the background and in fact I was sitting under a speaker for the two hours of so that I was there talking to Sheena and Andy and it didn't intrude on the conversation at all. Live music is very much a feature too, and on a Sunday evening you will nearly always find a jazz, blues or country band or performer playing in the corner, many of whom are return visitors, not only from the UK but from Europe as well.

Although this was my first visit to The Victoria Inn it already has it's own review on the Beer East Anglia website that I am involved with, which was written by my co-conspirator and someone who certainly knows a good pub when he sees one, Ed. Our alternative beer guide has quite specific criteria for inclusion in case you weren't already aware, which includes a cask ale from a local brewery, knowledgeable staff with a passion for beer and either a 'craft' keg beer or a good selection of bottled beer, although preferably both. You will have already gathered that the cask beer is of the highest quality from the CAMRA accolades it has achieved, but in addition to this there is always a good and interesting keg beer available, as well a selection of bottled beer for the discerning. Burning Sky Brewery's strong pale ale, Aurora was featuring on keg on my visit whilst the bottles included those from Founders and Anchor from the US and Westmalle and Bink from Belgium amongst others, as well as bottles from new and up-and-coming British breweries.

There is plenty here to tempt any drinker who wants something a little different and if beer isn't your thing then you might be persuaded by a glass of real cider or perry, they keep around nine different ones, or perhaps a spirit or two, poured from their small but perfect range of whiskies, gins and vodkas. I was treated to a shot of Anchor brewery's Hophead Hop Vodka, pungent and delicious it's every hop-cases dream, and I am reliably informed that it's addition to a hoppy pale ale instantly turns it into an Imperial version of itself, although I declined the offer of finding out on this occasion. Maybe next time.

It would be remiss of me not to mention the beer festival that features annually as these always have a theme, and normally take place over the Spring Bank Holiday weekend in late May or early June and features around thirty different beers. In addition to this they also had a festival for local home brewers, which was difficult to arrange due to duty considerations, although after seeking legal advice they came up with an excellent solution, and they hope to run another this year. I am told that the quality of beer on sale was quite staggering and I'll certainly be looking out for announcements of both of these.

The festivals take place in the beer garden, which is a prime example of the pub's evolution. When the regulars said that they would like some furniture on the patio area, Andy and Sheena agreed on condition that they drank enough beer to finance it. This they did and it is now a comfortable and pleasant place to sit outside and have a drink. There is even a bar within a bar as the covered building at the rear has a feature wall based on a pub of the 1970s. I first encountered pubs in that decade (I was born in 1970) and many of the fixtures and images took me back to places I had long forgotten.

All too soon it was time for me to leave, and whilst I would have loved to have stayed all evening other commitments dragged me away. I had a truly wonderful time at the Victoria Inn and Andy and Sheena could not have been better hosts. It takes me about an hour by car or an hour and a half with the walk to the train station and the journey time from where I live in Essex, but it's a journey that I will certainly be doing again in the very near future. Even though I have some very good pubs in the local vicinity I would travel a long way for the hospitality, friendliness and beer range of the Victoria Inn, and if you are a local then I envy you. It is a pub that has evolved and prospered through the love and hard work of the landlord, landlady and patrons, and this passion and care seems almost tangible in the very air itself. If you asked me what the best pub was in Essex currently then I would probably answer that this was it.


The Victoria Inn is at:
10 North Station Road, Colchester, Essex, CO1 1RB
Telephone: 01206 514510
You can email them at: and their website address is:
They can also be found on twitter at: @victoriainncol and Facebook at: Victoria Inn Colchester
It really is a fantastic pub to visit and I'd recommend that you do so if you get the chance. They do have a jukebox, a forty thousand track Wurlitzer-style one, but no Sky TV, and there is a rather cool genuinely vintage Atari games console standing upright in one corner which might catch your eye as it did mine. As you have read The Victoria Inn is much, much more than your average street corner boozer. I can't wait to go back, so maybe I'll see you in there.

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Wee Beastie Collection: Harviestoun Thistly Cross Mash Up

Wee Beastie Collection:
Harviestoun Thistly Cross Mash Up

It's time for another look at what's new from the Harviestoun Wee Beastie Collection and this is one that might raise a few eyebrows. As before, I will be linking up with Mark and Steve from the Beer O'Clock Show who will be releasing another special Wee Beastie Podcast to coincide with this post, with neither of us having any idea of what each of us thought of the beers.

The reason this particular release might cause some to think twice before trying a glass of, what I'm sure you'll agree, are three very intriguing beers is twofold. Firstly, as some of you may be aware, Thistly Cross are an award-winning Scottish cider producer, and collaborations between brewers and cider makers are few and far between. Secondly these are strong beers. At around the 11% abv mark these are not beers to be drunk by the gallon, in fact, as with all of the small batch Wee Beastie Collection I have reviewed to date, these are made to be savoured and their flavours explored.

Just before you dismiss the idea as some sort of bizarre beer/cider blend you should be aware that isn't actually any cider in the beer itself. In order to produce a different kind of beer with its own unique character, Harviestoun have brewed an amped-up version of their popular Bitter And Twisted golden ale, one with the volume very definitely turned up to eleven. This was then aged in Thistly Cross cider barrels, which they had previously used to age their own cider primed with Champagne yeast, for six months. Unintentionally and inadvertently a strain of brettanomyces, a yeast that produces large amounts of acetic acid and causes souring, was present in the barrels. This is the wild yeast that is responsible for the sour and tart, although very different, flavour profiles of the Belgian Lambic, Geuze, Oud Bruin and Flanders Red styles, so rather than discard the beer, Harviestoun in their wisdom have decided to present it to us fortunate drinkers.

Not content with that however, a further two batches are available, one matured with Scottish raspberries and the other conditioned with plums. When it comes to tasting these I will be looking out for the presence of the base beer, any taste of barrel-aged cider, as well as any intriguing flavours that the various yeast strains have contributed. I'm rather looking forward to this.

To get a fair representation of the beer itself, I'm going to be starting with what my bottle says is 'The Original', coming in at a whopping 11% abv. I can't remember if I've ever had a golden ale up around this kind of strength before so I'm already keen to get this baby open. It pours a rather uninteresting hazy orange with no head to speak of, which is unsurprising considering its high alcohol content, but the aroma is making me strangely excited as I bring it to my lips. You can tell straight away that this beer has been barrel aged, that characteristic woody-vanilla twang sits right at the top of the nose, but there is also an intriguing apricot and tangerine citrus aroma lurking just underneath, deep, sweet and juicy, that really makes me want to drink it. It's a little harsh over the tongue, and you can certainly feel the alcohol as it lays down a palate coating oily varnish followed immediately by a slightly warm drying quality that I'm attributing to the brettanomyces despite the fact that it wasn't overly prominent on the nose. There's some white pepper heat in the taste and this carried throughout giving the beer a rather unusual, but not unpleasant, savoury edge. After this has faded a little a rich orange syrup flavour emerges, but before I can decide whether or not I like this contrast, which strangely rather reminds me of strawberries with black pepper in the finish, it dries out almost entirely. What is left is reminiscent of the flavour of an orange fruit jelly sweet, a touch sugary and oily but a little juicy too. This is exactly the kind of beer I wanted from the Wee Beastie Collection as it completely different from the previous two I reviewed, but still remarkably complex, and full of taste rather than homogeneous and uninteresting. It won't suit everyone's palate, and I'm still not really sure if it works or not, but it's a beer I want to experience again just to make sure.

After getting this particular release off to a cracking start, I'm moving on to the raspberry matured version which, so my bottle tells me, is a marginally lower 10.5% abv. This also has an orange hue but with a distinctly redder tinge to it, and produces a white fizzy head as well, although this quickly dissipates. The initial aroma is sweetly scented with raspberries, but oddly it doesn't appear to be natural even though I know it is. There's a veneer of alcohol present too, and this is resting gently on top of the muted fruity aroma that I found in the previous beer. This is punchier and tarter than before with a bitter edge but still with that warming dryness that the alcohol is contributing. This is certainly a sour beer but not mouth puckeringly so, rather it has an oily sticky sweetness to it and just a dash of white pepper before the raspberries come through heroically late to remind you what this beer is all about. The finish falls away quickly but leaves behind a twist of black pepper and the ghost of fresh raspberry in it's wake. This is most definitely not a Belgian 'framboise/frambosen' sour beer, the alcohol is far too apparent as is the woodiness from the barrels it was aged in, this is something quite different, something that I've never experienced before and I rather like it.

The third and last of the three is rather interestingly matured with plums and also checks in at the 10.5% abv mark. Pouring a pleasing deep plum red with a good level of carbonation that settles down to a thin off-white head, this has the distinct aroma of just over-ripe plum juice, tart and juicy with a little nudge of alcohol to remind you that this is a beer not to be trifled with. Big and brash, this paints the tongue with a highly concentrated layer of plum, thick and heavy, before planting a glob of fermented birch sap slap bang in the middle of your palate which has a bitter acidity that is unnervingly jarring. There is a fusel alcohol heat in the mix too, which makes me wonder if one or more of the different yeasts present on the plums, in the barrel, the cider or indeed the beer itself has reacted adversely with the fermentation temperature, or maybe it's the combination of all these different yeast strains themselves, but thankfully this blows of rather quickly. What it leaves behind is more blackcurrant that plum, full, tart and rounded, and it's this juicy sweetness, which I can only compare to barely diluted Ribena, that lasts long into the finish. This is a strange beer indeed, the label and aroma interested me greatly but I'm afraid the actual body was a bit too messy and heavy for me to really appreciate it. I think understand what Harviestoun were trying to achieve with this here, but I just don't think they've got it quite right on this occasion.

For three beers with the same base, these have turned out very differently indeed. If I had to pick just one it would have to be the raspberry matured offering however, if you'd like a second opinion then why not head over to the Beer O'Clock Show website and listen to their podcast, or download it from iTunes and tune in at your leisure. If you'd like the chance to experience these beers for yourselves, talk to the people that make them, or just chat about beer with the guys from the Beer O'Clock Show and myself, then why not buy a ticket to the Wee Beastie Collection event at The Elgin in London on the 19th of March. We hope to see you there.

Thursday, 5 March 2015

Beer In Essex: Billericay Brewing: Looking To The Future

Beer In Essex
Billericay Brewing: Looking To The Future

I don't like working on a Saturday, but as I'm contractually obliged to do so I can't really avoid it, but fortunately it's a short day and it's not long before I'm locking the door behind me and wishing my colleagues a good weekend before hoisting my bag over my shoulder and setting off up the high street. Turning left before I get to Waitrose, I follow the road round to Chapel Street and enter the shop-cum-micropub next door to Billericay Brewing and find Trevor clearing the glasses from one of the tables as four satisfied drinkers say their goodbyes. He looks up as I walk towards the counter and smiles, "Hello," he says, "would you like a beer?".

I first met Trevor Jeffrey, the owner and brewer of Billericay Brewing in the December of 2012, although I had been following his progress since the website went live earlier that year. He had just received the first batch of bottles of his inaugural beer, Mayflower Gold, and he invited me into his home to open a few of them as we talked about and tasted it. This had been brewed with the help of the Pitfield/Dominion brewer, Canadian Andy Skene at his brewery near Moreton in Essex, as Trevor was, at this point, a brewer without a brewery. By the time I came to write up my impressions of the beer however he had found some premises and although it would be another year or so before he was actually brewing on site, Billericay Brewing was well and truly in business.

Even though it was called the home of Billericay Brewing from the outset, in truth it was little more than the home of the Essex Beer Shop, with Trevor selling bottled beers from all over the county as well as some from London and Belgium, and there were mutterings that it wasn't really a brewery as there was no equipment and no brewing going on there. This of course all changed when the kit finally arrived and in March 2014 brewing finally got under way.

It would be fair to say that it hasn't been all plain sailing. There were teething problems as you might expect with early bottles having some problems with their seals and the beer being overly yeasty, but Trevor has listened to the feedback and his brewing has improved, so that over the last few months his beers have become fully rounded, clean tasting and full of flavour. As a consequence of this they are selling almost as quickly as he is brewing them, and for the few hours that I was there a steady stream of customers were bottles and sampling the beer directly from the casks that he has on stillage in the micropub and shop he opened next door to the brewery in December last year.

To date he has brewed a total of nine beers:
Mayflower Gold a US-influenced Pale Ale with spicy citrus notes.
A Mild With No Name, full of dark coffee and roast meat juice caramel notes.
Billericay Dickie, a light amber ale brewed with a nod to the Ian Dury and the Blockheads song of the same name, and the first beer exclusively brewed at the Chapel Street brewery.
Billericay Blonde, a golden ale with grapefruit and marmalade flavours that leap out of the glass.
Chapel Street Porter, with hints of chocolate and a little smokiness.
Billericay Zeppelin, originally called Dead Zeppelin, an easy drinking amber ale with a good caramel and biscuity malt character.
Festival Beer, a golden ale brewed for Billericay's Summerfest in 2014.
Rhythm Stick, the second of the 'Ian Dury' series, and the beer I'm drinking as I write this part of the post,
Mild Bill, a mild ale brewed with extra chocolate malt giving it a lovely rounded flavour.

Having done all this when just under a year ago he didn't have a fully working kit is rather impressive, but as Trevor gets up to serve some more thirsty customers I turn over the page of my notebook and write the heading, 'So what's next?' When he returns to the table after a minute or so I put this question to him.
"I thought you might ask me that," he answers, "and I've jotted a few things down. I'll just go and get it."

He has already told me that he has what he will be calling the 'Mayflower 2015' in the fermenter. This is a slightly amped-up version of the Mayflower Gold that will settle out at around the 7-7.5% abv mark, and he hopes to make an annual beer. Brewed with Pilgrim and Willamette, this version will be dry-hopped with Cascade, the first time that he has dry-hopped any beer, and he also plans to use a different hop for this in successive editions, in a similar vein to Duvel's annual Tripel Hop. This should be available around the end of March, and I will be making a special trip to the brewery to see how this comes out.

When Trevor comes back he is brandishing a piece of paper full of ideas and hastily scribbled musings, and considering what I have written about Essex beer recently and how, let's say safe, he current beer range is, there is much in there that lifts my spirits. I won't go into too much detail now but what you might expect to see from his small 4.5 BBL plant but I will give you a sneak peak into what he is planning.

First up is a US-hopped Spring ale, Norsey Gold, which will be almost immediately followed by a dry-hopped ESB, Clever Trevor, nicely dovetailing the 'Ian Dury Series' and the name of the brewer himself. Also in the pipeline is a lighter smoked beer, possibly using malt smoked at the local Hanningfield Smokehouse and locally grown malt and hops, as well as a Black IPA. Modestly prevents me from saying who suggested the latter beer, and who might be brewing it, but hopefully it's one that can be sorted out in the not-too-distant future if Trevor and I can get our heads together. In addition to this you'll be wanting to look out for Christmas Blockhead, around December, a festive barley-wine, but maybe I'm getting ahead of myself a bit here.

The conversation flows and so does the beer, and all too soon it's time for me to leave. For a man who appears to be quite unassuming when you meet him he becomes passionate and alive when he talks about his beer and it's obvious that it's something he cares deeply about. My job is taking me away from Billericay, and I'll miss being able to drop in on Trevor on a whim for a swift half and a chat. I will be back from time to time to see what he is up to, and I'm wish him well. He always welcomes visitors, particularly if they have a love of beer so why not call in and see him if you're passing, or make a special trip if you're not. I guarantee you won't be disappointed.


The Billericay Brewing Company can be found at 54 Chapel Street, Billericay, Essex, and the Essex Beer Shop and Micropub next door are open every day except Monday. Opening times vary, and may be extended soon, so you might want to check out the websitetwitter or Facebook for more information. Alternatively you can ring on: 01277 500121 particularly if you want to order some beer or participate in one of the 'Brewer For A Day' experiences on offer. Maybe I'll see you there.

Sunday, 1 March 2015

An Introduction To Beer In Essex

An Introduction To Beer In Essex 

The beer landscape of Essex is a complex one. Pulled in different directions, fiercely proud but sometimes easily led, the history of brewing and drinking in the county is long and often turbulent. Cheek by jowl with London to the South West, at its Northern edge it looks expectantly towards Cambridge to the West and Ipswich to the East, whilst the Eastern coastline has been viewed hungrily by invaders and traders from the Low Countries.

The county town, Chelmsford, granted city status as recently as 2012 and still its only city was once home to more than seven breweries with the largest, Gray and Sons (Chelmsford) Ltd still owning 50 public houses and involved in beer distribution although sadly no longer brewing. Colchester to the East, known by the Romans as Camulodunum, has a claim to being Britain's oldest town as the first known reference to any settlement in the country appears in Pliny the Elder's (someone who has a much sought after beer named after him) Historia Naturalis in 77 AD. The Roman civilisation's love for wine is well known, however there is much evidence that they also brewed beer, and even though there is a possibility that they brewed beer in Essex this is pure speculation.

Essex is a predominantly rural county, with much of the land given over to agriculture, with wheat, barley and turnips being the major crops, and much of the wealth of local parishes was derived from wool trade and weaving. There are records of hop growing in the county as far back as the mid-sixteenth century, and this rose steadily with hops being cultivated in isolated areas although this was not unique to Essex as by 1700 there were twenty-five counties in England and Wales growing them for brewing.

With the coming of the industrial revolution Essex was well placed to provide for the growing population in the capital and the outlying areas, and whilst industry itself did come to the county this was mainly limited to the South, particularly along the Thames. This increased populace also required beer and lots of it, facilitating the establishment of bigger breweries more able to service this need rather than the local brewpubs, or more accurately inns with an attached brewery, and as a consequence the acreage given over to hops expanded too. In fact, there were just under 650 acres of hops being cultivated in the county by the late-eighteenth century, although this was pinnacle of growth as by 1834 there were only 207 acres turned over to them as Kent to the South, with a climate more suitable to production, became established as the main provider for the large breweries in London.

The original boundary of the county was much larger than it is today, with its South Western corner reaching along the Thames right up to the City of London and the county of Middlesex, an area now referred to as East London, including other areas incorporated into Greater London with it's establishment in 1965. This swallowed up the towns of Barking, Dagenham, Ilford, Chingford, Woodford and Romford, and it is the latter of these in which was the largest brewery the county has known was founded, one which would leave a legacy of beer that continues into the present day.

In 1708, the Star Inn and brewery was established in South Street, Romford close to the River Rom by Mr George Cardon. It wasn't until 1799 however, when this moderately successful establishment was purchased by a Mr Edward Ind with a Mr Grosvenor, that it's would really become a place of some significance in the history of brewing, not just that of Essex but the whole country too. Seventeen years into their partnership Mr John Smith took Mr Grosvenor's place, but soon after he left to form his own brewery in west London with a Mr Fuller, taking with him the Star's Head Brewer, a certain Mr Turner.

 The Eastern Counties Railway built its station close to the brewery in 1839, and this was to prove significant in the growth of the Romford brewery, and certainly influenced the decision of Mr C. E. Coope to join the firm in 1845 with its name changing to Inde, Coope and Company, shortly afterwards. The access to the railway network enabled the brewery to expand quickly and the beer was soon distributed throughout throughout the county, with a wagon hoist being built from the brewery's own railway sidings in 1853, although this was soon replaced by an incline, finally culminating in the purchase of a steam locomotive in 1872.

So successful was the brewery that Ind Coope Limited, as it was by this time, had already bought a half built brewery (in 1856) in Burton-on-Trent in Staffordshire, adjacent to that of Messrs. Allsopp and Sons Limited, just as it became the centre of brewing in England and arguably the world, due to the properties of the local water.

The late nineteenth century saw the company at the height of it's powers, but by 1910 it had got into financial difficulties, before merging with its close rivals, Samuel Allsop and Sons Ltd, in 1934. The Romford site still continued in production although its emphasis had shifted and a new bottling plant was built on the old cask storage area in 1961, the year it became part of Allied Breweries. The final change of name was in 1980 when a new company was formed, and the Romford Brewery Company was slowly wound down, switching to keg-only production, which included such brands as Skol, Lowenbrau and John Bull Bitter, before it was finally closed in 1992. The site is now part of The Brewery shopping centre, with only the old tasting room and one of the coppers, (as well as the name) left to ever show it was there.

At one point nearly every major town, and even some of the smaller ones, had their own brewery, or indeed a place of brewing of some size or another up until as least the early twentieth century, although it was the bigger breweries that managed to survive the longest before they were bought by larger concerns and closed, or closed of their own accord with the national breweries struggle for dominance in the middle of the twentieth century. Signs of these breweries can still be found if you know where to look, for example The Brewery Tap pub where I live in Brentwood was once the actual brewery tap of Fielder's Brewery before it closed in 1923.

 The other brewery of significance in the history of beer is Essex is that of T.D. Ridley and Sons, which established in 1842 in Hartford End, 8 miles North of Chelmsford, by the descendants of Nicholas Ridley, an outspoken Protestant Bishop and one of the Oxford Martyrs who were burnt at the stake as part of the persecution of Anglicans under Mary I. The brewery had a considerable presence in the county, they were known as 'The Essex Brewer', with beers such as Bishops Ale, Old Bob and latterly, Rumpus, being regular fixtures in pubs throughout Essex and further afield. Originally started of the site of an old watermill, by the 1970s it had an estate of around 65 tied houses, and this inevitably caught the eye of larger breweries, most notably that of Greene King across the county border in Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk as they sought to establish a strong foothold up and down the country. In August 2005, it bought the brewery and the site with the full co-operation of the Chairman, another Nicholas Ridley, who gained the position of Executive Chairman of Greene King, and despite initial assurances that it would continue to brew, production soon ceased and the brewery was dismantled. This isn't quite the end of the story however as in 2011, Nelion Ridley, the son of the last Chairman, set up his own brewery, Bishop Nick, just outside nearby Braintree (the Ridley name is still owned by Greene King) and so the legacy continues.

The oldest brewery that is still brewing in the county was, it may surprise you to know, was founded as recently as 1981. Crouch Vale Brewery was set up by two beer enthusiasts, Colin Bocking and Rob Walster, in South Woodham Ferrers, and takes its name from the nearby River Crouch. With a capacity of around 5000 barrels per annum, they rose to national prominence when Brewers Gold, their flagship ale accounting for just over half of their production, won the title of CAMRA's Champion Beer of Britain in both 2005 and 2006. They have four regular beers alongside this; Blackwater Mild, Essex Boys Bitter, Yakima Gold and Amarillo, as well as the occasional short runs and seasonals, many of which are hopped with single varieties. Their beers are widely available in Essex and the outlying counties and their bottles are carried in some major supermarkets.

Another winner of CAMRA's Champion Beer Of Britain can also be found in Essex. When Mighty Oak won the accolade in 2011 with Oscar Wilde Mild it was the first time that a Mild Ale had won the competition, and put a strain of the the small brewery, originally formed on an industrial estate in Brentwood before moving to Maldon, with demand far exceeding supply. It is still a popular beer and is a regular guest in many of the county's pubs, and often sells out quickly at local beer festivals.

There are currently 29 breweries in Essex. They are: Billericay Brewing, Bishop Nick, Brentwood, Brightlingsea, Colchester, Crouch Vale, Deverell's, Dominion/Pitfield, Famous Railway Tavern, Felstar, Georges/Hop Monster, Hart Of Stebbing, Harwich Town, Highwood (Can Do Beers), Hope, Indian Summer, Maldon (Farmers), Mersea Island, Mighty Oak, Mr Majolica's, Nethergate, Red Fox, Round Tower, Saffron, Shalford, Sticklegs, Vens, Wibblers, and Witham. All of which are dedicated to the production of cask, or real ale if you prefer, and the counties pubs are very much dominated by this method of dispense, although there are signs that things are beginning to change.

Wibblers Brewery for example have a craft keg lager, Odyssey, brewed with East Anglian malt and Czech hops, and properly lagered for 4 to 6 weeks (and bottled as Essex Blonde), and have recently developed Dengie IPA exclusively to be sold as a keg beer, and these have been picked up by a few outlets locally to much acclaim. They have also bottled two stronger beers, Wobbly Croc a barley wine, and Wobbly Mouse, both at 12% abv and in very limited supply, as well a Dengie Sour, a beer brewed in the Lambic style.

This trend of discovery and experimentation, influenced in part by what is happening in London currently, is starting to spread to some other breweries in Essex, and having taken the time to talk to a couple of the brewers in the county about what they are planning for 2015 and beyond I have quite a degree of optimism and excitement about what will be available in the not too distant future.

All change, however small, is resisted however. The regions CAMRA magazines (of which there are three) are full of splutter and outrage when mentioning the likes of BrewDog, with Tap room describing Meantime's recent Thames Hop IPA brewed with hops grown on the banks of the Thames as 'a fizzy bottled beer'. Andy Skene of the Dominion/Pitfield Brewery has noted that whilst he can sell his unfined beer in London, there is a huge resistance to it from Essex pubs, and in a recent conversation with Trevor Jeffrey from Billericay Brewing he admitted his frustration at pubs not wanting dark beers and only asking for his lighter brews, despite his darker ones selling out quickly at beer festivals. In fact it was the dis-enchantment comments and attitudes such as these, as well as the standard of local beer that was available to me that prompted me to write and publish An Open Letter To Essex Brewers And Breweries back in January of this year, although I now realise this is as much, if not mainly down to the pubs in the county rather than the brewers themselves.

This isn't to say that all pubs in the county are the same, and although it might be a little self-aggrandising, this was the main reason that Ed Razzall and I started Beer East Anglia (which will be expanding soon), enabling us to highlight and celebrate those pubs that are daring to think differently.

Over the next year I plan to champion Essex beer, Essex breweries, Essex brewers, Essex pubs and maybe even Essex drinkers, talking to those involved and reviewing what is happening in the county right now. I am proud to say that I am from Essex, I was born in Barking and currently live in Brentwood, and this is despite the frivolous and ridiculous way the county is portrayed on television and in the national press, although I will admit that much of this is self inflicted. I hope that you will come with me on my journey, or at least look in from time to time, and hopefully you will get a better idea of what beer in Essex is really all about.

Sources, Bibliography and Further Reading:
The Romance Of Essex Inns: Glyn H Morgan, Essex Brewers: Ian P Peaty, A Pub Crawl Around Essex: Graham Dover, Titbits And Tales Of Essex Inns: Mavis Sipple, History Through Essex Public House Signs: Keith Lovell, Hidden Inns Of East Anglia (2002 and 2005), Alka-Seltzer Guide To The Pubs Of Essex, The CAMRA Regional Inventory For East Anglia, Real Ale in Essex (1977), Real Ale In Essex 79/80, 8th Essex Beer Guide, 9th Essex Beer Guide, CAMRA's Good Beer Guide 2015, plus various Essex brewery websites.

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Wee Beastie Is Loose !

Wee Beastie Is Loose !

Those of you who were fortunate enough to attend the recent Craft Beer Rising festival at the Old Truman Brewery in London's Brick Lane may have noticed a bit of a buzz around the Harviestoun Brewery stand as they officially launched their Wee Beastie Collection. They had a range of beers available over the weekend, and on the Thursday afternoon when I was there were the  juicy US-hop stuffed Turnpike IPA, and 'Raspy' Engine, their Old Engine Oil Engineers Reserve steeped in Scottish raspberries were going down a storm. If you got to try either of them then you'll already know what a treat they are, and this is just the beginning.

Harviestoun Brewery began life on a farm in Dollar Glen in the east of Scotland in 1986. Ken Brooker, a former wooden prototype model builder for the Ford Motor Company in Dagenham whose change of position, investigating warranty claims, had forced him to move north of the border. A keen home brewer, Ken had been hosting regular tasting sessions of his beers for a few years, and it was the success of these that prompted him to change career direction completely and start a brewery.

Initially there was only one beer, Harviestoun Real Ale, but as word spread and demand increased so its portfolio grew to include amongst others, the award winning Schiehallion lager which was first brewed in 1994.

Head brewer Stuart Cail joined Harviestoun from Vaux in 1995, and the introduction of beers such as Bitter and Twisted and Old Engine Oil really put the brewery on the map, so much so that the a change of premises was needed and in 2004 Haviestoun moved to its present location.

It was the arrival of the Ola Dubh core range, Old Engine Oil aged for six months in barrels that previously housed Highland Park Single Malt Scotch Whisky for 12, 16, and 18 years respectively, which caused the biggest stir when it was released in 2007. Rich and complex these are beers to be sipped, savoured, explored and enjoyed, and these have been joined with limited editions drawn from 30 and 40 year old barrels, as well as a batch from Highland Park casks from 1991.

The Wee Beastie Collection is Harviestoun's next adventure in beer experimentation, and one you really won't want to miss. Consisting of a series of exciting small batch cask conditioned beer releases issued at irregular intervals, although a small number of bottles may be available, the brewery plans to take your taste buds to new levels of enjoyment.

I have been lucky enough to be asked to write a few words about the beers, and in conjunction with The Beer O'Clock Show who are doing their own exclusive Wee Beastie podcast, I will be sampling some cheeky sneak previews of what's going to be coming our way.

First up is a 9.0% Barley Wine that has been lovingly decanted from the cask for my delectation. Pouring the colour of burnished bronze with a thin but beautifully creamy off-white head with the aroma of a stewed apple and sultana crumble with a helping of double cream leading to some lighter citrus peel notes, this is a very inviting beer. Quite light over the tongue and with a good prickle of carbonation it initially hits you full on with some big bread pudding flavours with lots of cakey maltiness, and raisins and sultanas too. This mellows quite nicely as it warms with some tangerine and melon flavours taking you into a smooth finish with some hints of toffee and candied peel but no notion of its condsiderable alcohol content. This is a deliciously drinkable beer, in fact it's astonishingly good, full of flavour and so intriguingly complex that it led me down a different avenue when I thought I had it pegged. I couldn't have asked for more than that.

The Old Engine Oil Engineers Reserve is normally produced in 9.0% bottles for the US market, but this has been ramped up to 10.5% for its UK Wee Beastie release. This pours such a deep dark brown that you would almost say it was black, topped with a thin beige head and a seriously heady aroma of rich boozy chocolate you realise quite quickly that this is a beer not to be taken taken lightly. There are some background liquorice and dark fruit notes but its the dark alcoholic chocolate that demands all of your attention. Slick and thick, there is the merest fleeting sensation of carbonation but the bitter chocolate and a supporting toasty flavours let out a deep throaty roar as they hit your tongue. This builds and bursts in the mouth leaving a wonderful chocolate coating behind, slightly bitter and with a touch of black cherry and plum, although this is buried quite deeply and tails off rather sharply into a slightly oily finish. This is a big beer, big in alcohol and big in flavour, and even if it is very much all up front I was rather grateful that the finish wasn't quite so complex as it gave me a brief respite from its full on chocolate attack.

I absolutely love both these beers but of course you don't have to take my word for it, so why not head over to the Beer O'Clock Show website using this link to find out what they thought about them too. I should as a matter of course disclose that these beers were sent to me by Harviestoun to review, and I will be highlighting much more from their Wee Beastie Collection as the year progresses. I very much hope that will join me on this journey and get to taste these exceptionally good beers when you find them. I'd love to here your point of view, and I'm sure the brewery would too, although if your having trouble finding them they are hosting an event in London on the 19th March where you may get the opportunity to do so, or possibly one or two surprises. Come along and find out.

Sunday, 8 February 2015

The First Essex Bottle Share

The First Essex Bottle Share

It was cold and my bus was late. Stamping impatiently on the ground I peered up the high street, straining to spot the illuminated number on the bus coming towards me out of the darkness. Thankfully it was the bus I wanted and I got on, paid the driver and found a vacant double seat, placing my bag with its precious and delicately wrapped contents carefully beside me.

The cargo in question was a bottle. Nothing remarkable in that you may think, but this was the first time that this bottle had travelled more than a couple of yards for nearly six years. I was undecided as to whether or not to set my bag on the floor instead, running through the possible scenarios as to the likely outcome if the bus were to brake suddenly I settled on a loose half-cradling grip and let me gaze drift out of the window as I thought about what the evening ahead would bring. I imagined other soles travelling to the venue for the nights meeting full of anticipation, each with their own bottle, braving the wintry weather heading towards an event that none of us had experienced before, for tonight, on a freezing Tuesday in February we were all making our way to the Ale House in Chelmsford for the first Essex Bottle Share.

The traffic was light, unusually so, and I arrived at the bus station in good time and gingerly weaved my way between the throbbing diesel-choked behemoths before making my way into the the pub. Walking past the bar I noted that a large table had been set aside for us and in fact two of my companions for evening, Steve and Martin, were already sat there with pints in front of them and chatting in a faintly conspiratorial way. Shaking each by the hand and setting down my bag on the bench opposite them I went and bought myself a drink before making myself comfortable. It was going to be a long night.

Gradually more people arrived, Tom, Clayton, Ed, Shaun and Rob, and with each arrival another bottle, and sometimes two, was added to the growing collection on the table. The conversation started to flow as did the pre-meeting drinks, with introductions being made, faces being put to to names on twitter and bottles were examined provoking speculation at what they would reveal.

Drinks were hastily finished as we collectively decided to get started on the job in hand. Two trays of eight glasses, half containing water, had seemingly magically appeared on the table matching our number, and from the depths of his bag Clayton produced a sheet for tasting notes for us to write down our thoughts on the beers. None of us knew in advance the number who be seated around the table that night, but with eight chairs, eight glasses and eight spaces on the sheet of tasting notes it seemed almost pre-ordained.

We settled on a rough order of opening with the Jehanne, Thornbridge's 7.4% Biere de Garde that Shaun had brought opening the proceedings. This had a good level of carbonation but was felt to be too sweet by many of us and comparisons were made to Belgian brown ales as well as Belgian dubbels. 

Rinsing our glasses, the next beer was the first of a trio of Stone beers, the Stochasticity Project Master Of Disguise at 9.7% brought by Clayton, proclaiming itself to be an Imperial Golden Stout brewed with cocoa and coffee beans. It was a beer that I had drunk just a few days before, one that Ed stated was a physical impossibility and this was proven to be the case as it tasted more like a coffee IPA than anything else, a slightly oily finish the only real clue as to what the brewers were trying to achieve.

We needed something to excite our palates and Rob came to the rescue with a bottle of Toccalmatto's 6.6% Zona Cesarini, an IPA bursting with apricots, papaya and pineapple with a dry finish, and our glasses were quickly drained ready for the next beer.

Steve had brought along a couple of bottle of the Buxton/Arizona Wilderness collaboration Dragon Tips. This was much anticipated by those assembled, an 8.9% maple, bacon and chipotle stout, and describing itself as dry bacon'd rather than dry hopped. Despite some smokiness in both aroma and taste, and chipotle flavour, but not heat, this was a beer that couldn't really decide what it wanted to be. We couldn't really pick out much of any of each element save a little soy sauce. which made us wonder what they were doing there in the first place. So, slightly disappointed, we moved on to something we all knew to be a very sure bet.Cantillon's Rose De Gambrinus (5.0%) is a simply sublime beer. a raspberry lambic of subtlety and grace. Martin had brought this beer, and it was one that he had been wanting to open for some time. It wasn't greeted with joy and smiles by everybody however, proving too sour and tart for some palates, so while we sipped on this and with three bottles left we took a break and reflected on the beers that we had already tasted.The first of the 'home straight' trio was was Stone's 5.9% Chocolate and Orange Smoked Porter from Tom. Underwhelming and, according to my notes, bitterly disappointing this exhibited none of the qualities you would expect from its name it was possibly the worst beer that I have ever had from Stone, not bad just bland.

Ed had brought along a bottle without a label which caused much discussion when it was first produced but was confirmed as the Imperial version of Tap East's Coffee In The Morning after a brief consultation with the brewer. James Wilson is no longer at Tap East but he had brought it to Ed's pub, The Swan in Stratford St Mary, when he had visited towards the end of last summer and this 8.6% rarity had sat in the cellar waiting for its time to shine. It had a lovely mellow coffee flavour, a good alcohol kick and a nice fruity finish, it was simply delightful.

The last beer of the bottle share was the one I had bought, one I had kept for a special moment and its time had now come. This was Stone's Imperial Russian Stout Limited 2009 Release, at 10.5% the strongest of the evening. It flowed into the glass with the consistency of thick engine oil and the aroma of dark chocolate, raisins and Pedro Ximenez sherry. The taste was like the smoothest chocolate imaginable with hints of raisin and vanilla and an astoundingly long finish. I was relieved that it had aged so well, in fact it had aged outrageously well, and I was pleased to be able to share it in such company.

As the last of the stout was drained from the glasses the bottle share was officially over but we were in no mood to finish the evening. Thankfully the Ale House has an excellent beer range on both cask and keg as well as a good selection of bottles so we carried on drinking, talking and generally putting the world to rights until I glanced at my watch and realised somewhat reluctantly that it was time to go home.

I caught my train and walked back from the station in high spirits. Whether this was the effect of the alcohol or the cold February air I wasn't quite sure, however what I was absolutely sure of was that I would be back next month to do it all over again. The first Essex Bottle Share had been a fantastic evening, a happy band of drinkers united in a love of beer, enjoying each others company, indulging in a shared passion. March can't come soon enough.


If you live in Essex and would like to be part of the next Essex Bottle Share then you would be more than welcome. Our next session is on Tuesday 3rd March for a 7.00pm start at the Ale House in Chelmsford and every first Tuesday of the month thereafter. We have our own website which contains some general information and you can find us on twitter at @SXbottleshare 

The Essex bottle share is owned by its participants and we have no need for hierarchy or snobbishness, just a love of good beer and a willingness to join in and have a good time in the process. If you think that this is something that you'd like to be part of then please don't hesitate to let us know, we would be more than happy to see you next time.

I'd like to thank Steve and Clayton for organising the venue, everyone at the Ale House for being so kind and putting up with us, and thank you again to Clayton for sorting out the tasting note sheets and designing the logo. Great job guys, see you at the next one!