Thursday, 31 December 2015

#12EssexBeersofChristmas The Seventh Day

The Twelve Essex Beers of Christmas

On the seventh day it's traditional to rest for most of the year, on the seventh day of Christmas there are swans a-swimming, but as it's also New Year's Eve it's time to reflect on and celebrate the year we're leaving behind, and look forward to the year to come.

I touched on a few of the things that had happened in Essex beerwise over the past twelve months, but I'd like to be a little self-indulgent and touch on my particular highlights of 2015 in my
Essex Golden Pints

I'm sure you're all familiar with the format, and I've had to trim it a little bit to fit the county's output and breweries (for example, there's no Essex brewery canning its beers at the moment), so here are my personal picks.

Best Essex Cask Beer: I've had plenty of great cask beer from Essex brewers this year as I have in previous years, but there's been a few stand-outs for me. Harwich Town's Mostly Mosaic, Red Fox's Little Fox, all of Crouch Vale's cask output (Mosaic in particular) and recently Shalford's Ebenezer Ale have all impressed, however I'm going to give this prize to one beer that I simply couldn't get enough of, so perfectly was it pitched, so my winner here is Billericay Brewing's Chilli Porter. If you had it at their recent beer festival then you'll know why.

Best Essex Keg Beer: We're not overly blessed with locally produced keg beer in Essex, and as I've yet to have Brentwood's offering, which isn't actually available in it's home county, my winner comes from Wibblers and of their range of four the Dengie IPA edges it for me as a very easy drinker.

Best Essex Bottled Beer: There's a few here I could go with. Crouch Vale's Mosaic blew me away, Maldon's Reminder and Essex Strong Pale Ale were a bit special, and George's Balthazar's Feast (which will feature in this series) was .. well you'll have to wait and see. The was however only one winner for me, and even though it's a bit pricey it's a real celebration beer. my Essex bottled beer winner is the wonderful Brentwood Brewing Company's Van Kannor. Go get some.

Best Essex Brewery: There's a couple in the frame for this one. I've been impressed with the beers from Hope, and Mighty Oak, Round Tower, George's, Brentwood, Saffron and Wibblers have been consistently good, however, if we are talking about consistency and pure damn fine drinkability then step forward Crouch Vale, you clever hop loading brewery. Simply superstars.

Best New Brewery: We have two new breweries open in Essex this year and I've only had beer from one beer from one of them, but what (no pun intended) a beer it was. Full of much promise of great no-frills beer brewed beautifully, my winner is Watts & Co. If you see Oli's beer grab yourself a pint and you'll know why.

Best Essex Branding: This was a tough call. I was unsure whether to go with a one-off label, Colchester's Brazilian sprang to mind, or an overall brewery branding. It was the latter that I decided on, but there were three that I batted backwards and forwards thinking about the relative merits of them all. I really like simplistic no-nonsense designs, and Round Tower and Billericay fit that space perfectly, however what I was really looking for was something eye-catching that would draw me towards it in a bar or bottle shop. They've won before but they fit the bill perfectly, with experience in the industry winning through, it's Crouch Vale again.

Essex Pub or Bar of the Year: Now this was difficult. I love pubs. They're great. I've been to so may in Essex this year that I really found it hard to choose between them. The Five Bells in Colne Engaine, where I went for my birthday this year was a real treat, and they couldn't have been friendlier in the White Heart in Stebbing. Should I choose the Bird In The Hand in Halstead where Shaun has a seemingly inexhaustible cellar full of great bottled beer, or the Spread Eagle in Brentwood, which I now call my local? Then there's the Billericay micro-pub, or maybe the Hop Beer Shop in Chelmsford? It was just too difficult. In the end though I really had to make my mind up between two. It was very close. My runner-up therefore is the Alehouse in Chelmsford, home of the SX Bottleshare each month, it's a great pub, but my winner is, and I bet you've guessed it, a pub that I really wish was a lot closer than it is, step forward The Victoria Inn in Colchester. Thank you for some great times and beers this year!

Essex Beer Festival of the Year: Well, I've been a bit slack this year I must confess. I missed, Chelmsford (both Winter and Summer), Chappel (likewise), Billericay, Brentwood, and Rochford as well. In fact I really only went to festivals in pubs or clubs, and very good they were too. Two stand out for me though. Billericay's Christmas Beer Festival was a real showcase of Essex beer, something I'd like to see more of next year, but my winner is the Future Champions Beer Fest at the Victoria Inn. This home brewers festival is a real treat, and one I'd encourage you to get a ticket for next year as you see budding brewers (and some experienced ones) producing some fantastic beer.

Independent Retailer of The Year: I had to go for the place that I get most of my Essex beer from, so the Billericay Micro-pub shop, the Essex beer shop, wins this hands down. If there's an Essex beer you're after and they don't have it, then the Hop Beer Shop in Chelmsford usually does though.

Online Essex Retailer of the Year: Easy-peasy lemon squeezy, it's those fabulous Billericay-based beer sellers Ale By Mail of course.

Best Essex Book or Magazine: I have to declare an interest here as I contribute articles to it, however if you want a good bi-monthly read of what's happening in Essex beer then you could do a lot worse than pick up a copy of the Thirsty Times. It's free too.

Best Essex Podcast: I know I've been on it a lot, but it's the only one to have featured Essex beers and be part recorded in the county, well some on the time anyway. It's the one and only Beer O'Clock Show.

Best Blog: There is a small but growing number of bloggers in Essex, but a few new-comers this year have caught my eye though. Beer In Review is solely beer reviews, but many of them are Essex beers, and Martin Oates, a good friend and Bottleshare stalwart has started a blog that keeps getting better and better. Matt Chinnery's blog, the Half Pint Gentleman is extremely worthy of your time with every post he releases, however my winner (and no it isn't mine) is Mark Watson's Essex Real Ale blog. The longest running dedicated to Essex and Essex area beer, if you live in the county and you haven't checked it out then you really should.

So there you have it, short-ish and certainly not exhaustive, it was lots of fun to do. I hope I haven't put any noses out of joint, but if you disagree with my choices then let me know, along with the reason why you think I'm wrong.

And now for tonight's beer.

The Seventh Day:
Bishop Nick - Feast 4.5%

Bishop Nick's Winter ale was their first Limited Edition seasonal offering pours a lovely chestnut brown with a frothy off-white head that fades quickly and has the aroma of a rich malty fruitcake, it's rather inviting. Smooth and with a good body, it tastes a good degree darker than it smells with burnt raisin flavour dominating initially, bringing a deeply bitter edge to the taste. This leads to more fruitcake flavours, it's rather good, thin but not overly so, and slips down a treat. The finish brings back echoes of more burnt raisin and this fades nicely over a good few minutes, leaving you just enough time to grab one of those mince pies you still have left before you take your next sip. It's almost essential.

You can find out more about Bishop Nick and the Sacred Ales of Essex you can follow this link to their website. You can even order their beer and merchandise there.

Wednesday, 30 December 2015

#12EssexBeersofChristmas The Sixth Day

The Twelve Essex Beers of Christmas

The sixth day of Christmas, geese a-laying and all that, marks the half-way point in this collection of Essex festive fun. It's also the penultimate day of year, and what a year it's been for beer. Better beer available in more places across the country as a whole and even Essex hasn't escaped this trend. We now have seven micro-pubs in Chelmsford, Billericay, Colchester, two in Maldon, Southend and Upminster, with more planned as well as brewery tap rooms in which to taste and take away some good local beer. There have been two new brewery openings as well, in the shape of Moody Goose and Watts and Co. bringing our total to thirty one. Who knows what 2016 will bring?

To this end I have prepared a peculiarly Essex Golden Pints Awards that I'll publish tomorrow. It's just for fun, there are now actual awards however it does highlight who I feel deserves acclaim for brewing or doing something particularly good in Essex beer this year.

Tonight's beer is the first of a trio from one of my favourite Essex breweries, one who have opened one of the micro-pubs I've mentioned above under the surname of the brewery's founder, a brewery that was named after his father. And so, as the year becomes old, it's time to open that bottle.

The Sixth Day:
George's Brewery - Ebenezer Old 4.2%

This seasonal offering from George's is brewed with five malts as well as Phoenix and Centennial hops, and is designed to be as dark as pre-spirit-visited Ebenezer's heart. Of the three the brewery has produced with Christmas in mind it's the one I've not had before so I'm obviously keen to try it.

It pours a deep dark ruby red with a tight beige head and an aroma that mixes liquorice and grapefruit beautifully. It's got a lively prickle of carbonation that brings in a bitter burnt toast flavour that heralds the arrival of some grapefruit peel citrus and a hint of chocolate, but this is quickly swept away again by that burnt toastiness, dark chocolate caramel and a little liquorice. The finish is warm and toasty too, but it's not a boozy warmth, this comes from the chocolate malty bitterness that fills the mouth with a pleasingly satisfying sensation, the kind you get from finishing a box of your favourite decadent chocolates at Christmas safe in the knowledge that you have another couple put aside for a special occasion.

This is a delicious beer. It's as well balanced as the label claims and not the least bit sickly sweet. I'm sure you'll still be able to find a bottle of this out there, you might even find it on cask, so pick pick one up or have a pint if you do. You'll thank me for it.

To find out more about George's Brewery (and its alter-ego Hop Monster) and their beers just use this link to do so. You'll notice that my name appears on the brewery's home page but I have received no payment nor have I done any work for the brewery, they just happened to like my reviews of beer that I paid for myself. I hope to visit the brewery early in the new year, they have invited me but I've not had a chance to make it there, or to the micro-pub yet. Expect a full report when I do though.

Tuesday, 29 December 2015

#12EssexBeersofChristmas The Fifth Day

The Twelve Essex Beers of Christmas

On the Fifth Day of Christmas my true love sent to me ...

I'm sure you all know the rhyme, and as today is the Fifth Day of Christmas you can probably guess the name of the beer I have for today. Interestingly there were two beers brewed in England this year called "Five Gold Rings" and both of these were brewed in Essex for the festive period.

One of these was brewed at Brentwood Brewery, and featured as their '5th Beer of Christmas' on the 16th December. It was a 5.0% semi-lagered pilsner-style beer but it didn't come in bottles, so I'm afraid that this isn't the beer I've chosen for tonight. Brentwood will of course feature in this Yuletide dozen, but you'll have to wait for another day for that.

For those of you familiar with Essex beer you will have guessed that tonight's beer is ...

The Fifth Day:
Maldon Brewing Company - Five Gold Rings 3.8%

A bottle-conditioned beer (sporting the 'CAMRA says this is real ale' badge on the label) it's described as a "very pale golden ale" which it certainly is, in fact you might even say it looked golden. Brewed with US Nugget hops, it has a honey-sweet mango and peach aroma that dominates here but I'm picking up an awful lot of pale malt underneath as well. It's rather thin and as washed out as the colour of it initially and I'm fooled into thinking that there isn't much to this beer, however some barley sugar notes herald the arrival of the honeyed mango and lychee sweetness, and while this isn't a hugely flavoured beer there's enough here to retain interest. The finish, if anything, is more intense than the main body of the beer and fills the mouth pleasantly with more of the same for some time. It is certainly a beer that I could easily see myself having two or three of on an evening out, or even an afternoon given its low abv, and as it's a seasonal I'll try and test that theory next year if not before.

If you'd like to know more about Maldon Brewing Company (Farmer's Ales) and their beers you can do so by following this link. Alternatively you can visit their micro-pub, the Farmer's Yard at 140 High Street, Maldon. Essex that I wrote a piece about here.

Monday, 28 December 2015

#12EssexBeersofChristmas The Fourth Day

The Twelve Essex Beers of Christmas

It's great to be still off work, although that all changes tomorrow. I fancied another easy day so I'll leave a couple of the things I have planned for a little later on in this celebration of festive Essex beer, but I was looking through some beer related facts today and although it's doesn't have an Essex connection I noticed that today was the birthday of John Molson, the founder of Molson Brewery.

Born in Moulton, Lancashire in 1763, he emigrated to Quebec in Canada when he was 18 years old and set up a brewery, albeit one funded by a Trust from he recently deceased father. His beer was soon in much demand and he became the largest supplier of beer in the Lower Canada region. Using the money he made he was able to diversify into other areas, buying steamships to carry both goods and passengers and even building a grand hotel in Montreal. A prominent member of society he lived to be 72 years of age before succumbing to the cholera epidemic that swept through the region in 1836. The brewery is now a subsidiary of Molson Coors Brewering Company after their merger with the US brewery Coors in 2005, and now own such brands as Mitchells & Butlers, Toby, Worthington, Stones, and Sharp's as well as the controversial Blue Moon witbier, which came under fire for misleading customers its 'fake craft' labelling that omitted that it was made by a division of the larger brewer.

There's no link that I could find between tonight's brewery Molson, Molson Coors, or even Canada, although the Pilgrim Fathers who set sail to the New World aboard the Mayflower met in Billericay prior to sailing and many of their descendants settled in Canada, but this is rather tenuous to say the least.

I'm on firmer ground with the title of the beer as, to those who are familiar with the genre, Black Christmas is a Canadian psychological slasher film made in 1974 starring Margot Kidder (who played the title characters love interest, Lois Lane in the four Superman films between 1978 and 1987), that was remade in 2006 starringno gruesome fate awaits me  a couple of other sci-fi/fantasy actresses Michelle Trachtenberg (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and Katie Cassidy (Arrow).

I'm fairly certain that no gruesome fate awaits me when I open the bottle I have this evening, however you'll excuse me if I'm a little cautious.

The Fourth Day:
Billericay Brewing - Black Christmas 5.0%

Black Christmas is Billericay Brewing's first Festive beer and also their first Black IPA, which is something of a personal victory for me as I have pestered Trevor for both things over the last couple of years. That he has combined both in a single beer makes me very happy indeed. What makes me even happier is how it tastes, but I'm jumping a little ahead of myself here.

Brewed with plenty of Chinook and Cascade hops it pours a deep dark brown with a light billowing cloud-like off-white head and an aroma that combines the grapefruit notes of the hops with the toasty caramel notes beautifully, and one which typifies this style. Smooth, and perhaps a little on the thin side the grapefruit citrus notes spike early filling the mouth with a flood of fruity hoppiness before the dark roasty malts sweep in with some some chocolatey and burnt toast notes building buzzy bitterness at the very edges of the tongue. There's a light smokey element too and it's this that's the main feature of a finish that fades far too quickly for my liking.

It has to be said, and I know many will agree with me, that this is Billericay Brewing's best beer by some way. A winner in the bottle and on cask, which if anything is even better, I'm looking forward to brewing my own variation on this beer with Trevor in the near future if we can arrange it (let's talk soon!) in time for the Chelmsford Winter Beer Festival in February. Look out for it.

Should you wish to find out more about Billericay Brewing and their beer you can find them here on Twitter and normally at although the website appears to be temporarily down at present. You could also visit the Billericay Micro-pub and beer shop next door to the brewery itself for a drink and to pick up some great Essex beer, although it's worth checking the opening times before you do. Maybe I'll see you there.

Sunday, 27 December 2015

#12EssexBeersofChristmas The Third Day

The Twelve Essex Beers of Christmas

If you though yesterday was quiet ...

Actually, after having our visitors go home this morning before going to my parents for lunch this is the first time I've really had to properly relax for about a week. Our house is quieter this evening so there was only one beer that seemed to fit tonight's slot, and it's a beer I've been looking forward to for a few weeks now.

The Third Day:
Saffron Brewery - Silent Night 5.2%

Before I review tonight's beer I need to make a disclaimer, whilst I did pay for this beer I got it at a considerable discount at the brewery and the glass was thrown in for free. I was invited to visit Saffron Brewery towards the end of November with David Ginn of Essex Food. We had a fantastic day, and you can expect a full write-up in the new year, but suffice to say we sampled (read drank) a great deal of beer while chatting to James and Ed about beer and many other things besides.

I was just starting to think seriously about whether it might be possible to feasibly do a running Christmas beer blog using only Essex beers when this bottle set me on the road to achieving that goal.

Silent Night is a Ruby Porter brewed with malted barley and torrefied wheat, which is another name for puffed wheat, the kind that some breakfast cerals including Sugar Puffs are made from, along with English Pioneer and Boadicea hops.

It pours deep ruby red with a thin off-white head with a beautiful toasty chocolate aroma that invites you in. There's lots of delicious chocolate in the taste too, with hints of burnt toast around the edges and even though it's relatively thin the full flavour rounds it out nicely. There's flashes of blackcurrant and black cherry from the hops but these are fleeting and difficult to grasp before that toasty chocolate sweeps back in to take it to a long lingering finish. For me this isn't a beer to conclude an evening, it doesn't quite pack enough punch to do that job but it is certainly heading in the right direction, particularly if there's a slice of chocolate cake or even a chocolate brownie as part of the deal. Give it a try, I think you might like it. Oh, and it's also available on cask.

If you want to find out more about Saffron Brewery and their beer you can do so by following this link to their website. Alternatively you could just wait for my post next year. I advise you to get some of their beer in readiness for that.

Saturday, 26 December 2015

#12EssexBeersofChristmas The Second Day

The Twelve Essex Beers of Christmas

It's Boxing Day, the feast of St Stephen, where cold meat and pickles are the order of the day in many households. Another groaning table full of food to be consumed, and what better to wash it all down that a glass or two, or more, of locally brewed beer.

Traditionally slower-paced, the second day of Christmas is more of a recovery day after the mad-panic and over-indulgence of the day before. There's no slacking when it comes to writing a blog post, particularly when you know there's a further ten days of writing ahead. So, as we sit back and take it easy, there's one man in a bright red suit who's earned a rest more than most of us, and I think he deserves a beer.

The Second Day - Boxing Day:
Wibblers Brewery - Santas Night Off 4.2%

Before I open this beer, please note that I have re-produced the name of this beer exactly as it is written on the bottle label, with no apostrophe between the second a and the s of Santas. That's how it's shown on the bottle, or indeed pump clip for that matter so that's how I'll show it here. Speaking of the pump clip, if you have seen this beer on the bar at all, you'll notice it matches the image shown on the label, relaxing in an armchair with a cup of something steaming hot, a spiced beer perhaps. This is preferable to the previous clip which showed a cartoon of the big man sporting sun glasses and a salacious grin leaving an adult store with a blow-up reindeer under his arm. It's time we confined that kind of imagery to the dustbin of Christmases past.

It pours a deep chestnut red-brown with tight off-white head and an aroma of warm malty brown bread. The initial taste is all malt up front, with caramel and chocolate notes drawing aside like the stage curtain at a church hall pantomime to reveal some chewy earthy raisin and woody hops that bring a crescendo of bitterness that fades slowly, resonating long into the finish.

Two things struck me as is drunk it. My first thought was that it wasn't very Christmassy. There's no real element here that points to this being festive in any way. The second was that it slipped down very quickly indeed. In fact if I were in a pub with a group of friends talking all sorts of nonsense as we are all sure to do at this time of year, the beer would compliment the conversation perfectly. It's just at that level where it tastes good without being overly remarkable and you could leave the pub after a few relatively less the worse for wear. Exactly the kind of beer you want at Christmas when you catch up with the old crowd.

If you want to read more about Wibblers Brewery and their beers you can do so by following this link. All being well they should be moving to a new site in 2016 with their own taproom / micro-pub as well.
For all the latest Essex beer news follow @BeerInEssex

Friday, 25 December 2015

#12EssexBeersofChristmas The First Day

The Twelve Essex Beers of Christmas 

It's Christmas Day!

I hope that you've been good boys and girls this year and Father Christmas brought you lots of lovely presents. Maybe you got some beer from a friend or relative, maybe you're drinking it now while you're reading this.

This is the third year that the Beer O'Clock Show have run their #12BeersofXmas and although they start on the 20th of December, I like to start on the traditional first day of Christmas, Christmas Day, and run all the way through to Twelfth Night. You can follow them on Twitter and Instagram by simply searching for the #12BeersofXmas hashtag.

I had an idea that I wanted to do solely beers produced in Essex this time, and Chrsitmas/Winter themed or related beers at that. I have to say that that it wasn't easy to find twelve different bottles and it was a close run thing whether I would be able to source them all. Fortunately some breweries produce more than one, and with the help of the Billericay Brewing Micro-pub shop, the Hop Beer Shop in Chelmsford, Cellers off-licence in Billericay, and the Brentwood Brewing Company, I was able to complete the task.

These won't be long posts, but perhaps some may be a little longer than others, but I'm hoping that they will be just enough to give you insight into some of the seasonal offerings from Essex brewers this year. If I can find twelve different Essex Christmas beers next year I'll do this again, so I'll throw the gauntlet down now and allow you brewers time to get your thinking caps on and come up something a little bit special for when this season rolls around again. That is twelve months away however, and this is now. so without further ado here is the first of my #12EssexBeersofChristmas .

The First Day - Christmas Day:
Crouch Vale - Santa's Revenge 5.0%

This was one of the beers that I was keenest to get this year, not least because that where I found it I would also find bottles of Crouch Vale's fantastic Sorachi Ace single-hopped beer. I was hoping for a Christmas cracker to kick off my twelve days and this doesn't disappoint.

It has a malty caramel grapefruit aroma that leads straight into a taste that mirrors it perfectly. With enough body to capture all that flavour, there's a beautiful fruitcake element to it that makes it an easy pairing with a mince pie or a slice of Christmas pudding, as the bottle label suggests, or a Boxing Day treat with the cold meat and pickles, as its fruity grapefruit notes linger long into the finish. Brewed with pale and cara malts and ("outrageously expensive" it says) US Amarillo hops, it's well worth seeking out if you can find some.

Merry Christmas to you all!

If you would like to know more about Crouch Vale Brewery and their beers then you can follow this link to their website.
The 'Essex - Season's Greetings' image is taken from a Christmas card produced for Essex County Cricket Club by Heritage Leisure Designs Ltd.

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Beer In Essex "I don't think any of us actually brew in our sheds" The Future Champions Beer Fest 4

Beer In Essex
"I Don't Think Any Of Us Actually Brew In Our Sheds"
Future Champions Beer Fest 4
The Victoria Inn, Colchester

Beer festivals in pubs can often be hit and miss affairs as far as I am concerned. There are some beers seem to be ubiquitous, and whilst they can be good I'm generally looking for something a little different, a good variety that will hold my attention for a whole afternoon. All too often I'm rather disappointed and after an hour or so I'll cut my losses and head for pastures new.

It's just after midday on a mild but decidedly damp early November afternoon as I get off the train at Colchester station and take the short walk to the Victoria Inn on North Station Road. With every step I take my anticipation grows as I know with absolute certainty that the festival I'm headed to will not have a single beer on its list that I will have had before. I also have a slight sense of apprehension as, despite this being a festival I have been planning to attend since I was first told about it back in March, I won't be drinking a single commercially produced beer.

The Future Champions Beer Festival, otherwise known as the Shed Brewers Festival of which this is the fourth, began as an idea following a meeting of the local home brew club, the Shed Brewers. Sheena and Andy had been given some of the beers to taste and were amazed at how good they were, which got them talking about the possibility of an actual home brew festival. Realising that there would be some legal issues with regard to beer duty, Sheena spoke to a friend of hers who just happened to be an ex-licensing officer, and a suitable solution was found. Planning started in early Spring 2012 and subsequently has done every Spring since, mainly due to the fact that the home brewers don't meet that often. It proved to be a resounding success. This ticket-only festival has grown in popularity and reputation every year since and now sells out weeks in advance, so I was rather intrigued as to what I might find.

Although the doors have only been open for around twenty minutes by the time I arrive there's already a good crowd drinking in the pub itself. Deciding not to head immediately up to the function room where the festival is being held I take a seat at the bar and order a half of Muck Cart Mild from Bedfordshire brewery Son Of Sid. It's toasty flavours are rather pleasing and it's light enough to sharpen my taste buds before I embark on the main event. Sheena and Andy come over for a chat and tell me that they've already had to turn away a couple of disgruntled local 'tickers' who had ignored the fact that would need a ticket to gain entry.

Sheena encourages me to go upstairs and after noting several beers on the bar that I'll be back to try later I make my way up the stairs into the function room above. My £12.00 ticket entitles me to twelve thirds of beer, but there appear to be more than twelve beers available and this is confirmed when I'm handed my programme. With fifteen beers available I realise that I'm going to need some judicious planning and start to read the descriptions provided to enable me to navigate my journey through the afternoon and into the evening.

With any sustained drinking bout common sense says that you drink the lower abv. beers first, leaving the heavy-weights until a little later on, but I'm intrigued by the 5.5% Idle (Weisse) brewed by Keith Bailey so even though it's mid-range strength-wise on the list I decide, on balance, that it won't cause me too much damage later on and head straight for it.

It has a beautifully carbonated off-white head, and the classic German hefeweizen aroma of
zesty lemon and dry coriander seed backed buoyantly with notes of bubblegum. It is perhaps a little more full-bodied than I anticipate but the deep lemon interspersed with light orange wine gum flavours tell me that I've made the right choice and I savour its long lingering finish before draining my glass in no time at all.

One of the best things about this particular festival is that the brewers themselves are present, and even though they take their turns serving from the assembled stillage they take this opportunity to talk to each other about the beers they have brewed and more importantly, from my perspective at least, are on hand to give impromptu interviews.

I manage to grab a few words with Keith, who has come down from Norwich to enter his beer, and ask him about his brewing and the Shed Brewers.
"I don't think any of us actually brew in our sheds," he tells me, "I've been home brewing for about four years, and I took it up as a way of saving money. I started brewing from kits at first but soon moved on to all-grain brewing with some interesting results in the beginning."
The Weisse beer is a standard beer for him I'm told, and is made using White Labs WLP380 yeast. After chilling the wort to 13 degrees and pitching the yeast before letting it come up to 17 degrees over two to three days. He seems genuinely delighted that I like his beer.
Interestingly, I discover that he grows Cascade hops in his back garden and we talk about his favourite beers styles (US-style Pale Ales and British Oatmeal Stouts for the record) and beer in general for some time. The one question that I have to ask him however is whether he has any aspirations to brew commercially and his response is very definite.
"Absolutely not" he says. "This is just a hobby and I don't really have any interest in taking it to the next level."

Heading back to the bar whilst contemplating my next beer choice I notice that names are being taken for three separate tutored tastings (light and golden ales, dark beers, and speciality beers) a little later on. Realising that this is my opportunity to actively taste all of the beers available today I manage to get my name, as well as that of fellow Essex beer writer Martin Oates who will be joining me later, added to the latter two tasting sessions. This means that I need to focus on the lighter beers at this stage but after a decidedly mixed bag of Blonde and hoppy Golden Ales, generally good but not overly memorable I decide to up my game and go for the strongest beer at the festival, a 7.2% double IPA called HopHopHop.

Brewed with Summit, Centennial and Cascade (three hops you see, hence the name), it's a beautifully sticky and thick dark amber beer that's heavy with lime and pine flavours. Luckily for me the brewer, Jon Wood, is on hand and we move to a convenient table at the back of the room for a brief chat.

Originally from Ipswich but now living in Colchester, Jon works in IT and has been all-grain brewing for around seven years. I ask him whether his job influences his brewing philosophy and what he likes to brew.
"I am a bit of a self-analyst," he confesses, "and I'm always striving to improve. I really like Brewdog beers and they do inspire me, but I really like to experiment. There's no set style that I favour, I like to try everything. This years beer for example is quite a jump from last year when I entered Brown Leaf Bitter, a 4.0% session bitter brewed with East Kent Goldings and Challenger hops that I grew in my garden, but this year I really wanted to do something bigger."
In addition to growing hops in his garden he also grows Bacchus grapes which he uses to make his own wine. This variety gives lower yields in the UK but has an acidic Sauvignon Blanc quality, and I ask if he's ever considered combining the two and brewing a beer with grapes or wood chips soaked in wine.
"I hadn't," he laughs, "but it's certainly something I'd consider."
"Maybe next year?" I ask him.
He smiles but won't commit. "Maybe" he replies.

One of the things I like about the Victoria Inn is that I always feel welcome there. Despite not knowing anyone apart from Sheena and Andy. who are busy with the bar and barbecue downstairs, I have no trouble finding people to talk about the beer, some of whom have been going to this festival since its inception. Everyone tells me that this is the best yet but there are a few beers that are dividing opinion.

There is a nineteenth century style brown Porter brewed with Oak-cured amber malt called "Smoke on the Porter" which is a little too much for some whilst others, myself included, are drawn to its smokey chocolate caramel flavours. This is the lowest abv. beer available, at 3.8% and I later discover that the brewer, Ashley Carr, was in hospital at the time. I wish him a speedy recovery.

Braggot is not a style that you come across often and certainly not one that I'm overly familiar with although Uncle Zester, Siren's collaboration with Michigan meadery B.Nektar is currently front runner for my beer of the year, so I'm expecting good things from the two featuring today.

The first, Old Bag, is brewed with both honey and apples but without hops and it is these flavours that are evident throughout. It's quite dry but without being overly sweet and I rather enjoy it. Less to my taste however is Beowulf, brewed with local honey from hives sited near Colchester Zoo as well as Northern Brewer and Fuggles hops before being aged for two months. There's something about it that I find a touch stale, although that is purely my opinion and the brewer, Dave Souch, is certainly experienced. He tells me that he's brewing for just over six years and that his 8.5% Vanilla Bourbon Imperial Porter, which ticks quite of few of my 'that's a beer I really want to try' boxes, was the beer of the festival last year.

It's Dave's girlfriend, Claire Barrett a teacher from Colchester, who is the brewer of what is possibly my beer of the festival. Her Salamander, a chocolate chilli stout brewed with home grown chillis, is a slow-burner of a beer that grows in flavour and warmth as you drink it and I'm amazed to discover that it's her first all grain beer.
"I really like chilli chocolate and wasn't aware of any beer being brewed with those flavours, so I thought I would research chocolate stouts and chilli beers and give it a go. Of course since I've brewed it I've come across two others but I'm quite pleased with it."
I asked her what made her take the plunge and start brewing.
"I've come along to the last two Future Champions festivals with Dave," she replies, "and thought that if I was going to be part of this then I really needed to brew a beer of my own."

As I finish speaking to Claire it's time for the first of the two tasting sessions I've signed up for. Martin has arrived by this time and I go downstairs to say hello to him, his girlfriend Michelle and their friends before we take our seats ready to taste the dark beers. These are led by Andy Gill, a SIBA judge and accredited wine judge and he encourages us to say which flavours we are finding as well as guiding us the through the styles. Some of the brewers are also on hand to add comment and insight as well as hear how their beers are received and I notice that Claire is emotionally moved by the universal praise her beer receives.

There's a couple more dark beers that stand out for me at this session as well. Colin Miller's Cherry Porter (Special) is brewed with vodka-steeped cherries, and has a smooth cherry stone and chocolate taste that develops wonderfully as it warms in the glass. Similarly benefiting from a little warmth is Simon Baker's Madagascan Vanilla Oatmeal Stout which tastes like a deliciously creamy vanilla toffee yoghurt.

I manage to grab Simon, another home brewer who works in IT, for a few words after the tasting and ask him about his brewing.
"It's something that I've been doing for around four years," he says, "and I've entered beers in this festival for the last three. I was inspired to brew after reading Dave Line's 'Brew Your Own Beer' book, and I entered a black IPA brewed with Simcoe and Citra my first year, and a Porter called Mr Shifter in the second.
For this beer I soaked two Madagascan vanilla pods in Jim Beam to kill off any nasties that might be present before making an English Oatmeal Stout and putting them into the boil with Fuggle and Citra hops".
He plans to brew a 6.8% black IPA for himself for Christmas and wouldn't mind a collaboration with either Mighty Oak or Maldon Brewing (Farmers) in Maldon if that could be arranged.

The Speciality Beer tasting session enables me to complete the full list and after I check my tasting notes for each of the beers I head back upstairs to fill out my card by re-visiting some of my favourites and chatting with Dan, whom I know from the Hop Beer Shop micropub in Chelmsford and who is an SXBottleshare regular.

Evening is turning into night as I leave the Victoria Inn and head for home, although not before I gulp down a swift half of Crouch Vale's Conkeror to help me on my way.

The Future Champions beer festival has exceeded my expectations, and any concerns I had about the quality of the beer and the skill of the brewers are far from my slightly blurry thoughts. I'll definitely be back next year, the atmosphere alone was worth the price of the ticket. Perhaps I'll see you there.

If you fancy trying your hand at brewing, you can contact your local Craft Brewing Association using this link.
Alternatively you can email the Victoria Inn at: who I'm sure will be able to point you in the right direction.
If you've enjoyed this write up and want to read a report on this years festival from a different perspective I would urge you to read Martin Oates blog post which you'll also find interesting.

Saturday, 17 October 2015

A Commitment To Beer: An afternoon with Marks & Spencer

A Commitment To Beer
An afternoon with Marks & Spencer

It's a quarter to one and I'm sitting in the Mad Bishop and Bear pub in Paddington station killing time. I've been here for the past twenty minutes nursing a pint of frankly average Ruck & Roll from St. Austell Brewery, observing the South African rugby supporters at the bar and occasionally checking and re-checking the route to Marks and Spencer's Head Office in North Wharf Road just around the corner. I down what's left of my beer, pull on my coat and head out into subdued hustle and bustle of a mainline railway station on a damp Wednesday afternoon.

Ten minutes later I'm heading up the steps into the nerve centre of one of the UK's most recognisable and respected brands. Founded in Leeds in 1884 by Michael Marks and Thomas Spencer, its name is a byword for quality and service, and although it has had a hard time in recent years it seems to have ridden the storm well, restructuring the business and concentrating on what it does well. Being quick to spot an opportunity, over the last few years Marks and Spencer have considerably expanded the range of beer that they offer. They have responded to the growing craft beer market by re-inventing and re-invigorating their own range to an impressive degree, so much so that they have earned two successive 'Retailer Of The Year' awards (2014 and 2015) at the International Beer Awards.

Today is Marks and Spencer's Autumn Beer Tasting 2015.

In order to showcase their range of fifty-three different beers including their most recent seasonal releases, they have invited a select group of beer writers along to sample the whole lot, the first time that they have done so. This strikes me as quite a brave thing to do, and displays an assured confidence in their selection that they are willing to open themselves to potential criticism in their own front (tasting) room from such as Melissa Cole, Jane Peyton and Christine Cryne, whose pedigree is renowned and opinions are highly respected. There is an obvious publicity benefit to be gained from a positive reception however, and this is why we have been invited to enter the inner sanctum.

I'm met in reception by Natasha Redcliffe from Westbury Communications Ltd, an independent food and drink PR agency, who have organised this event, given my visitors badge and taken up one floor to meet the team from M&S responsible for putting this range together.

Entering a rather sterile room I am confronted by a long line of bottles stretching nearly its whole length, and most of its width as well. Although I am the first to arrive I notice that all of the bottles have already been opened, and there appears to be some furious quality testing going on with some slurping and spittoon spitting being undertaken by the three people moving down the line from various points. I haven't been to a wine tasting for more than ten years, and I suddenly find the alien absurdity of this happening at a beer tasting both confusing and amusing in equal measure. Perhaps its snobbery, but one of the great pleasures of beer is that it tastes all the way down, with some flavours revealing themselves after the swallow, and to see it treated in this way makes me feel a little uneasy.

I put my feelings aside as they put their glasses down and introduce themselves as; Jenny Rea: Product Developer - juice, soft drinks, beer, cider, spirits and alcoholic drinks, Richard Applegate; Technologist - beers, ciders, spirits and chilled juice, and Joe Homeyard; Buyer - beers, ciders, spirits and chilled juice.

These are clearly people that know their business and know their market, and after I introduce myself I waste no time to start asking them about the range itself.

Richard takes me over to the assembled bottles, and explains the way they have been grouped for us today and displayed in their stores in order to appeal to different buyers.

"The brown labelled bottles" he says indicating the first twelve, "are our craft beer range. Designed to appeal to those who want something more from their beer, they have more unusual flavours and concentrate on quality ingredients. They are something special, something different. Next we have the eight single hopped beers also with their own distinctive labelling, followed by the British Regional range, some traditional styles with some newer beers, and finally our Belgian beers."

It's an impressive selection, and it is at this point that I'm handed a glass and told to help myself, but the Essex boy in me comes to the fore and I ask why they no longer feature Brewers Gold, brewed by Essex brewery Crouch Vale, in the their single hopped range.

"We took the decision to take that out as it simply wasn't selling as well as the others", Richard replies, which immediately leads me to my next question.

"So what does sell well?" I enquire

"Interestingly," he responds "the beers that we find sell the best are those that feature lighthouses on the labels. So we have the Cornish IPA (brewed by St Austell, whose rugby themed beer I had earlier but this is much better) and those Adnams beers in the Southwold range that also feature one."

He is at a loss as to explain why this is so, and when I express my admiration for the label artwork he points out something to me that I hadn't previously noticed.

"If you look closely at the artwork on our label art you may spot some unifying themes. For example," he say picking up the 9 Hop Kent Pale Ale bottle, "you'll notice that there are bottles hidden within the label artwork on the bottles themselves, and similarly hop cones feature on many too. You can also find beer glasses of all shapes hidden there. Our design team had a lot of discussion about this, and we believe it adds something a little extra to the buying and drinking experience, something that you might not have immediately expected."

Another thing you might spot on the label is the 'Made With British Hops' badge.

"It's something we are particularly proud of," Joe says, entering into the conversation at this point, "and we have redesigned the label to emphasise this more. We have particularly requested that British hops are used with some beers, and we're keen on supporting British hop producers."

"We also have beer and food pairings on each bottle," says Rob, picking up the nearest bottle and pointing to the 'A perfect match for ...' section on the back, "it's something we're keen on developing."

I'm interested as to whether there are any plans to group beers with foods in any stores or train staff in suggesting beer and food matches.

"Not at this stage, all though we have considered it. Obviously it is important for us to train and up-skill our staff where we can but we've no plans to introduce this in-store at present. We have heard that some stores have organised trips to their local breweries, but only get to hear of these later on. This is something we encourage, and our only misgiving is that we don't get invited along."

"What about growler fills in branches?" I ask.

"No." comes the firm reply.

One thing that I have wondered about, particularly with regard to beers like the Citra single hop beer brewed by Oakham, is whether they are just the breweries usual beers re-badged and bottle for M&S. I had read only that week on some social media circles speculation about whether the new black IPA 'Black' was the same beer as Purity's own 'Saddle Black'. I want to know whether this is the case.

"We do use those beers as a guide, but the beers produced for us are variations on the breweries own beers. It could be that we've asked them to bring out a certain character to emphasise a certain aspect of the beer, or for the abv to be reduced, but mainly we just ask for something just a little different. Our Warwickshire Amber Ale for example, is based on Purity's UBU. It's a beer we really liked and asked if they would do a beer like it for us and they were more than happy to oblige."

The bottling, I discover, is all done by three specific companies trusted by Marks and Spencer's for all of their drinks, not just for beer. The breweries have their specially commissioned brews collected and taken away to be bottled and labelled separately so that they can maintain quality and consistency.

I'm keen to find out about the beer that they carry from breweries such as Siren, Buxton and Fourpure and where they fit in to the range, and whether they plan to carry more from them. Are they actively seeking out new breweries and beers to put on their shelves?

"That isn't the case at all." Rob says. "The beers fit gaps in our existing range. They attract customers into our stores as they are from breweries they recognise, have read about and are keen to try, or simply look distinctly different from our in-house range."

"Should we expect to see sour beers on the shelves soon?" I enquire.

"It's something we've looked at" Rob confesses,"in fact we have discussed it this week, but we feel that we're not ready to put sour beers on the shelves just yet. We do constantly review our range, however, and take note of new styles and breweries that are doing something different, so maybe at some time in the future, who knows?"

Other beer writers have started to arrive and I realise that I have taken up plenty of our host's time, and there's plenty of beer to be drunk here, some of which I haven't had before, and so it's those I head to first.

I pour myself a glass of the new Salted Caramel Porter. Rob had mentioned that this was a beer that they had particularly asked Meantime to develop for them and that they were rather pleased with it, and whilst I find it drinkable, it's a bit thin and sweet for me however and I don't really get any salted caramel flavours from it. Much more to my taste is the the Smoked Ruby Ale brewed by Adnams. Based on the brewery's own 1659 Smoked Ruby Beer, made with cherry-wood smoked malt, it goes particularly well with duck or game, and I remember enjoying its original incarnation with an excellent venison pate one evening.

The Warwickshire Amber Ale that Rob mentioned earlier also impresses me, as does the Sovereign single hop offering.

Finding much less favour with all of us is the Welsh Golden Ale brewed by Brains. It is the only beer that comes in a clear glass bottle, and despite having been kept out of the light prior to today's tasting, just by sniffing the bottle that nasty slightly musty off-flavour associated with a light-struck beer is very apparent. Tasting confirms this to be the case, and we all leave it well alone.

It is at this point that I have a notion that I will possibly never have the opportunity to taste the whole of Marks and Spencer's in-house beer range in one place again, so I set myself the challenge of achieving this before I leave. Thankfully a block of M&S's superb three-year old matured cheddar, Cornish Cruncher has appeared and this is hastily devoured by all present, the fat helping to ward off some of the effects of the alcohol.

I eventually manage it about a quarter to five. Drinking thirds, probably a little less, of mostly tasty relatively low alcohol beer over nearly four hours is, as you might expect, not really a chore. With plenty of good conversation, Martyn Cornell, Bryan Betts (the beer viking), Glynn Davis and two guys from Brewdog who didn't have the letter 'y' in their first names as far as I recall, had joined us, but it was time for me to go.

I pulled on my coat and grabbed my bag, said my goodbyes and thanked them before making my way down in the lift with and walking to the station for company.

Sitting on the train I reflected on an afternoon of good beer, and not only that good beer that can be found in Marks and Spencer's stores up and down the country. Not every branch can carry the full range of course, shelf space prevents that unfortunately I was told, but the range and choice of styles is really quite mind-boggling compared to what you would have found on those same shelves three or so years ago. Times really have changed.

We had of course been invited to help promote the range, with the hope that we would write about it and talk about it to a wider audience, in fact it actually surprises me how few beer drinkers and brewers I speak to realise what can be found there. More importantly, to me at any rate, it shows the commitment that M&S have made to beer. Long may it continue.

NB: I have put pictures of Marks & Spencer's bottle labels old and current throughout this post. Have fun, as I did, spotting those bottles, hops and glasses.

Thursday, 15 October 2015

We're SWEssex CAMRA And We Do What We Like! A Brush With My Local Branch

We're SWEssex CAMRA And We Do What We Like!
A Brush With My Local Branch

I am not by nature a person who is prone to rant, in fact if you read my posts on a regular basis then you'll know that I try to find the positive in everything I do. I have on occasion been critical of certain beers that breweries have produced, particularly in my own county of Essex, but I have always tried to offer a balanced argument with words of encouragement and praise where I think it is due.

I am passionate about the beer scene in Essex. For too long I feel we have been introspective, trying not to offend anyone, churning out the same formulaic brown beers and golden ales, all the while keeping those abvs. down. The local drinkers that embraced CAMRA in the late seventies and early eighties when it was a genuine force for change still see themselves as the core of the organisation. Cask beer was, and still is, their fight, and they fought hard to keep it. Admittedly there were many brewery casualties along the way; Gray and Sons ceased brewing in Chelmsford in 1974, Ind Coope became the Romford Brewing Company in 1980 and switched to keg-only production before being closed completely in 1992, and of the Ridleys Brewery in Hartford End was sold to Greene King and closed in 2005, but we now boast thirty-one active breweries, with the majority of these less than ten years old.

You could argue that there has never been a better time to drink beer in Essex. Some brewers have decided to be adventurous and brew beers that embrace the new traditions and the growth in the craft beer market across the world, but it has on the whole been a tentative 'toe-in-the-water' experimentation rather than a total immersion and seeing where the current takes them. All of the larger Essex breweries without exception have a brown bitter, a golden ale and an India Pale Ale in the English style as part of their core range. I'm not saying that there is anything wrong with this but I think I have found a fundamental problem, a cause and effect that has meant that we haven't developed in quite the same way as breweries in other counties.

In the early days of CAMRA when campaigning was at its most furious the lack of good beer available to the drinker in the county was shockingly poor. In the late nineteen-eighties, when I first discovered what a fantastic drink cask ale was, Greene King IPA, Abbot Ale, Courage Best Bitter, Courage Directors, and Ruddles County, were beers that were revered. You just have to look through local beer guides at the time to realise that this was mostly all there was. I used to travel miles to drink beers from Suffolk's Maldon brewery, and a visit to London meant delights from Young's or Fullers.

By this time, of course, CAMRA as an organisation was in its late teens, and for many of the original local branch members this was all that they could find to drink, their palates were used to it, it was what they truly loved. They still, and they still have that passion, but time has moved on. CAMRA is now over forty years old, it's middle aged, and many of those original campaigners have retired, or are very close to doing so. With retirement brings more free time, more time to socialise and drink the beer that they love. They've earned it after all. They know each other well, they are comrades in arms, a social club of drinking companions. They know their stuff. They support local breweries, well they say they do at any rate. Always happy to offer an opinion. They are the drinkers. "Please us" they say, "and we'll publish a favourable review in our local magazine. CAMRA is a national concern, the biggest consumer organisation in Europe, it'll be good publicity for you." In short, we know best.

My own experience with my local CAMRA branch, South West Essex, has been limited to say the least. Despite being a CAMRA member in the region for a quarter of a century I've never been invited to attend a meeting or a social event, in fact all I've ever received through the post from them has been an invitation to help staff the 'Grays Beer Festival' although I haven't even had one of those for the last five years or so. Maybe they got the hint.

I'd heard stories about this particular group, and have on occasion viewed them from afar at local beer festivals. One pub, which for obvious reasons I won't be naming, supposedly lost its Good Beer Guide listing after refusing them a room to have a meeting on a particularly busy Saturday evening. It's now back in the guide, and I am told that they actively courted the branch to this end, although on a recent visit I found the beer quality to be the poorest I have known it to be in more than ten years.

Recently however, I have thought that I really should get to know them, to really find out what makes them tick. My reasoning being that to truly understand beer in Essex I should really speak to and drink with the people who have seen it evolve over the longest time. So, when I discovered that they would be meeting at the Spread Eagle in Brentwood last night, a pub not far from me, and that Trevor Jeffrey, the brewer at Billericay Brewing and a good friend of mine would be in attendance, then I decided that if I was going to meet some of then then I wouldn't get a better opportunity to do so.

The Spread Eagle in Brentwood, my destination, has undergone something of a transformation in recent months. Owned by Punch Taverns, it was once well known in the area for drug dealing and under-age drinking. This summer however it has had a change of tenancy, and Jack, the new landlord has brought good beer and most importantly a good old-fashioned home-from-home pub feeling back to the place. It's quickly become my local. I both live and work nearby,and it just so happens to be directly on my route home. I'll be posting a proper review of the The Spread Eagle in due course, suffice to say that it has become my port in a storm or a place where I feel I can unwind amongst friends.

Trevor had told me he had arranged to meet them there just after eight o'clock, the plan being that they'd stay for about an hour before moving on to the local Wetherspoon's in the High Street. I can time the walk from my house almost down to the second, I do it every day, so I walked through the door right on cue at five past the hour.

Normally I can walk straight in and be served, but I was forced to stop in the narrow doorway and plan my route with care. Arrayed in from of me, two deep and taking up the full length of the bar were the local CAMRA branch. As I paused for a second, I was bundled in the back and almost knocked sideways by a large gentleman who was greeted by those closest and asked what he would like to drink. Thankfully there were plenty of staff on, they were expected after all, and I took my pint of Rooster's Yankee to a suitable viewing area, content to observe and wait for Trevor, who had yet to arrive.

One of the things that I particularly like about The Spread Eagle, something that sets it apart from the rest of the pubs in Brentwood, is that Jack prefers the dimpled pint mug, and serves his beer in them by choice. The CAMRA crew had clearly just been served, and these mugs were being passed out amongst the fifteen or so members, when to my surprise they started to be passed back across the bar to a chorus of grumbling voices. Curious as to what had occurred I took an interest in why this was the case. I hoped it wasn't the beer quality, and it wasn't, it was purely the glass that was at fault. To a person, both men and women were among their number, they had all required that their pints were poured into straight and Nonic glasses. This was something that I've never seen before and I couldn't really understand why. Two of the men who were closest to me, one of which suffered from terrible halitosis on receiving their drinks exclaimed "That's more like it, a traditional glass, it makes the beer taste so much better." Now, I'm currently reading Martyn Cornell's latest book, Strange Tales Of Ale, and I had just finished the chapter that shows that the dimpled mug was introduced by Ravenhead in 1934, a full ten years before the introduction of the Nonic glass. Be that as it may, it strikes me as a very odd thing to do.

Several members were moaning loudly about the lack of tables, and how they really wanted to sit down. This was a little strange as there were several free tables, but they were not near the bar and a couple of them were in different parts of the pub meaning they couldn't stay together as a group. I suspect that it was because of this a couple who had been enjoying a drink before they were surrounded, got up to leave, whereby the chairs were almost dragged from under them before they had barely gathered up their things.

I looked across as they departed and saw that Trevor had made his way in. Now, considering that he is a local brewer and he was wearing a brewery sweatshirt, and these aren't available to buy, not a single one of their number acknowledged his arrival or uttered one word to him as he made his way through them to talk to me. Of all the events of the evening this was the one that I found most surprising. In fact all the time I was there did one of them approach him. On one occasion he pointed out to me some of them that he knew by name, and though they undoubtedly heard him at least one of then consciously turned their back to him as their name was mentioned.

Before he had arrived I had, with no shame, let my British Guild Of Beer Writers membership card be very obvious in my wallet when I had paid for my beer. I noticed that the two men next to me had seen it, they nudged each other and nodded towards it, but I was still met with a shield-wall of broad South West Essex backs.

I had only allowed myself an hour to meet them, I wanted to get home before my children went to bed, but I came to realise that Iwasn't going to get the opportunity to introduce myself on this occasion either than to wade in and do so. I paused for a moment before considering not to do so. Did I really want to be associated with such a group behaving in such a boorish and ill-considered arrogant manner?

The high point of the night came just before I left when Trevor presented both myself and Jack with a bottle of his latest beer, Clever Trevor, for us to try at a later date, and I put on my coat and worked my way through the crowd and went outside.

As I walked away clutching my beery prize, a had a pang of regret that I'd left Trevor to the mercy of those people for the rest of the evening. I don't know if they ever spoke to him, I don't know if he even stayed, but I did feel that I had had a lucky escape.

Before I get a string of comments stating that not all CAMRA branches are like this, that you do things differently where you are, and that this is surely an isolated incident, I fully appreciate that this may be the case. However what I would say to you is that should not happen at all. There wasn't a single person in the pub who didn't know that this was a CAMRA group, and I don't think that it could be said that any of them enjoyed their presence. How is it that you can promote a drink by de-camping and making a general nuisance and obstruction of yourselves wherever you see fit?

Maybe I'm missing a point somewhere down the line, but if I am then will someone please tell me what it is?

If this rot has set in, and I can't believe that South West Essex is the only branch in the country that are guilty of this type of behaviour then CAMRA is surely doomed. Excluding people at a grass-roots level, creating an elite clique and having your own in-jokes and foibles will hasten your demise not expand your active membership in the long term.

I really hope that isn't the case. Recent motions at the AGM prove that there is flesh blood coming through and opinions are beginning to change. As I arrived home and put my beer in the fridge I wondered if it might be too little too late.

Sunday, 27 September 2015

Beer In Essex: Cask Ale, Competition And White Elephants - An Afternoon With Brentwood Brewery

Beer In Essex
Cask Ale, Competition And White Elephants
An Afternoon With Brentwood Brewing Company

It's a bright sunny afternoon when I set out to walk the three miles across Brentwood from my house to Calcott Hall Farm, the home of the Brentwood Brewing Company, and walking up the drive I notice that the field to my right is full of ripe pumpkins ready to be picked. Halloween may be a month or so away but I've already heard that the pumpkin beers have started appearing in the stores across the Atlantic, with the season for these seemingly getting earlier and earlier Stateside. I'm not generally a fan of these beers as I find them too heavily spiced with ginger and cinnamon for my palate, and wonder if the brewery I'm visiting will find a use for them.

I ring the bell and am let in to wait in the brewery's tap room, although I barely have time to settle down into the inviting studded red leather sofa before Roland, the breweries co-founder and owner, appears and immediately offers me a beer. There is a question that I need to get out of my head, so I have to ask him about the pumpkins I spotted, and whether any will be making their way into the brew kettle any time soon.

"Definitely not!" is the resounding response, and whilst on balance I'm rather pleased, there is a small part of me that can't help but feel that it could just be an opportunity wasted.

The main reason for my visit is to follow up on a discussion I had with Roland a few weeks before about his taste in beer and preference for cask over keg. I wanted to get to the root of this preference, as he freely admitted that there were some keg beers he enjoyed, but none that he found truly satisfying. After visiting the SIBA BeerX in Sheffield earlier in the year for example, he tried plenty of keg beer but needed to finish on cask at the end of the day.

"I think it's simply the taste, " he states very matter-of-factly, "it suits my palate more. Cask beer has a certain character, particularly the bitterness, that I don't find in other beer."

"Do you have a favourite cask beer?" I ask.

"My own," he says without hesitation, "that is Brentwood brewery beer. Basically, when it comes down to it I'm tight, and I think, and I know this isn't actually right, that I'm putting money back into my own pocket."

I'm guessing that this is something that most brewers and brewery owners do, and it certainly makes good sense to be seen to drink the beer that you produce as a positive endorsement of its quality. I do however push him to give me another brewery's beers he would drink instead of his, a brewery whose beer he admires perhaps?

He replies with just one word. "Harvey's".

We discuss beer and breweries, both local at national, at some length as I'm poured another beer and Roland is particularly keen to stress how much small breweries are being squeezed.

"Head brewers in general earn around £15000 to £18000 a year at the moment which isn't great considering the work that they do. In order to make good money from brewing a pint of cask ale needs to be around the £5 a pint region, and taking a penny off a pint in duty doesn't help breweries at all. Drinkers then expect it to come off the price of their pint, and they are really only interested in that price being low, in fact they expect it, but the cost of production and materials continues to rise. We're stuck in the middle, being squeezed more and more."

This kind of open, frank and candid attitude is something that I've experienced in all my dealings with Brentwood Brewing and Roland in particular. It's refreshing to hear somebody speak in this way at a brewery in Essex and I ask him about dealings with the other breweries in the county. I am interested to know if they ever meet up and swap ideas or talk through their problems.

"Not really to be honest," he says, "other than at the occasional beer festival or SIBA (Society of Independent Brewers) meetings, and even then the area we are in, (SIBA Eastern, encompassing Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Essex, Hertfordshire, Lincolnshire, Norfolk, North Lincolnshire, Peterborough, and Suffolk) is so large that it almost makes it impossible."

Considering it's nearly 200 miles from the top to the bottom, and the roads being such that it would take over three hours of driving from a brewery like Brentwood in the south to Tom Wood's in the north, time and other constraints make it rather impractical. Apparently, Brendan Moore of Norfolk's Iceni Brewery, and representative to SIBA for the region has tried to organise more local regional meetings of brewers from three or so counties, but these have come to nothing due to poor communication, something I find hard to comprehend in the modern age.

I can of course see that breweries in different parts of the country have different problems and concerns, both logistically and with regards to their marketplace, but what about on a county level? Surely Essex brewers talk to each other about the problems that they face when if and when they meet, sharing ideas and asking for advice of particular problems they are having?

Somewhat surprisingly and rather unfortunately this is not the case. The brewers and indeed the owners, only talk in general terms if and when they do meet, I am told, and are generally quite guarded. I'm curious as to why this would be, as it would seem to make more sense and be more beneficial to help each other out. Apparently not, and when I ask why this is I am given a one word answer. Competition.

This makes no sense to me, and noting my confusion Roland is obliged to expand on his reason.

"We are concerned that any idea that we have will be copied, and in todays market it's all about having an edge and being one step ahead. That is the main reason we don't really talk to each other, that and time constraints, but we're really worried about our ideas being copied by the big boys, the big countrywide brewers."

This is quite a statement, and whilst it makes sense on one level it is quite difficult for me to process when I look at it from an outsiders viewpoint. In my experience, certainly at local level, brewers are very keen to tell you what they're up to next. It is after all good publicity to let prospective customers know what to look out for as I creates a sense of anticipation and raises the profile of the brewery in the minds of the consumer.

I ask about collaborations with other breweries in the county or even further afield, and both Roland and his son Ethan, Brentwood's head brewer who has now joined us, agree that they would consider the possibility although they have no plans at present, nor have they had any approaches as yet. Personally I see this as a great way for a brewery share ideas and techniques, and breweries that have done so have grown from strength to strength, so hopefully there will be some scope to do so.

At this point Roland is needed to attend to a customer who has come to pick up several polypins of beer for his daughter's wedding that weekend, so I take the opportunity to follow Ethan into the brewery itself, the first time I've actually seen it up close since they moved to the current site in 2013.

The set up is very similar to that which I remember from when I spent a Brewery Experience day with them back in 2012, the subject of my second ever blog post, at their previous home just up the road from the White Horse in Coxtie Green, a pub still referred to as the Brentwood Brewery Tap.

The new site has a tap room of its own that is open at weekends for beer to be purchased to drink or on the premises or to be taken away, along with a range of brewery merchandise.

There's plenty of room for expansion here however. Currently a 20 BBL brewery, with brewing taking place 2-3 times per week, Ethan shows me the space in which he hopes to install a further two fermenting vessels which will greatly increase capacity and give him a little more room to experiment under the Elephant School brand, as he has plenty of ideas of his own.

I'm interested to discover that Brentwood actually brews a beer that is kegged, Wapping Hoppy 4.0% with the tag-line "The Home of Hoppy" which it supplies to the new home of English Hockey, the Lee Valley Hockey and Tennis Centre, just up the road to the Olympic Stadium in Stratford. They also supply cask beers, Wapping Gold and Wapping Cape, which are simply existing Brentwood Brewery beers re-badged.

I ask Ethan what we should expect from Brentwood in the next couple of months, thinking that he may not wish to give too much away, however he is keen to tell me of his upcoming plans.

"We'll be brewing Spooky Moon again soon," he tells me, "our Autumn seasonal, to tie in with Halloween coming up, and I plan to brew a few special one-off beers under the Elephant School label, the first of which will be a White Mild."

I'm familiar with White Stouts, pale beers with the body and flavour of a stout that plays with your mind when you drink it, similar to a Black IPA in a way, but in reverse of course. A White Mild is however a new thing on me and I ask Ethan how he proposes to brew it.

"I haven't quite figured that out yet," he states with a huge grin on his face, "however we haven't used the elephant name in any of our brews so far, and White Elephant would be perfect for that."

I have to agree.

There are also plans afoot for a winter release of a barrel-aged Chockwork Orange, their dark Old Ale-style beer brewed with oranges, possibly in nip bottles, a special tasting event, or even a combination of both. Whatever they choose to do it will certainly be something that you won't want to miss out on, so keep an eye on the brewery website for any information on this or indeed any other release.

Four hours have passed since I arrived in seemingly no time at all, but as I'm getting ready to leave the heavens open so I head back to the tap room where I'm poured another beer and we continue the conversation.

Plans for a possible micropub in Brentwood are mentioned (something I've discussed with three separate and completely unconnected parties in the last few weeks), as well as ideas for beers, both new and maybe the revival of a few of the older styles, but as these are still ideas at this stage I will leave them there.

All too soon the sun reappears and bidding farewell to Ethan, Roland and the rest of brewery team I head back to my home on the other side of town. Both of them independently offer me a lift but I refuse, preferring to reflect on a good afternoon and time well spent amongst local people with a real passion for what they do and a genuine love of good beer.

It's turning into a beautiful early-Autumn evening and I realise that I quite fancy another beer.

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

It's 'Cheers For Charity' On A Big Beery Night

Forget Coffee ...
It's 'Cheers For Charity' On A #BigBeeryNight

Cancer. It affects us all. Whether directly or indirectly we have all experienced the effects of the loss of a loved one ourselves or seen those close to us lose someone dear to them.

It claimed my Mother-in-law five years ago.

To see such a strong woman with so much life in her and so much love to give laid low in the space of a week after a protracted two year battle was devastating, not only to our family, but to the great many friends she had made and those whose lives she had touched.

In her final week, as she gradually wasted away seemingly before our eyes we, and particularly my wife and sister-in-law, were comforted, supported and advised by Macmillan Nurses. They weren't requested, we didn't need to apply for them, but they simply introduced themselves and provided their help and knowledge when and where it was needed. They even organised, in the space of two days, a place in a hospice for my Mother-in-law, as she was determined not to die in hospital, although in the end she passed to quickly for this to happen. The help didn't stop there either, and they made sure that we knew that they were there for us whenever we needed them.

Gwen, my Mother-in-law, loved life and was one of those people who saw the good in all things. She also liked a beer or two. She was never a big drinker, she always drank halves, but she loved good tasty beer, 'a proper 'bitter' bitter', as she would say. She always made sure that there was good beer in the house for whenever I would visit, and would take great delight in finding a bottle of something that I hadn't had before.

These are the things I remember, along with the good times and the laughter, so when my good friend Steve from the Beer O'Clock Show, who himself had lost his Mother, Father, and Mother-in-law to the disease, was wanting to do something for Macmillan, and that it involved beer, I immediately said I would help.

What started as a conversation he had with beer blogger Phil Hardy on Twitter has grown, in the space of just a few days, into a Big Beery Night that will take place on Friday 25th September.

Many of you will of course be aware that Friday 25th is the day that Macmillan coffee mornings will be taking place all over the country, and while coffee is a great drink, I'm sure you would agree that it's not quite as good as beer.

Here's how you can take part:

Instead of abstinence however, on the Big Beery Night you are positively encouraged to drink and donate as you do you so. The idea behind it is simple, on the evening of the 25th September buy yourself a pint, grab a bottle of something amazing, or get your growler filled and drink it. Take a picture of what you're drinking and post it to Twitter using the hashtag #BigBeeryNight. All that then remains for you to do is to pay for your beer a second time in a manner of speaking, by donating the same amount to this Just Giving page that has been set up especially to receive your donation.

You can do this as many times as you like; beer, photo, post, donate,  over and over again if you wish. The target has been set at a modest £1000, but seeing as there's a little while to go and considering the amount has already been raised it looks as though that will be smashed.

Just how much is raised is really up to all of us. You can drink as little or as much as you like, and at if at least the cost of one of those beers is donated you will have been part of the #BigBeeryNight

If that wasn't enough, there will also be a Twitter auction on the night, with more and more beery prizes, experiences and even artwork being donated every day, you'd be wise to keep an eye on the Beer O'Clock Show Twitter feed for all the details.

It promises to be a fantastic evening, one that everyone who likes beer and wants to do something to help support a wonderful course can get behind and be proud to do so. Gwen would most definitely have approved. In fact she would probably have set up a Twitter account just so she could join in.

So get your beers ready, and start making plans for the #BigBeeryNight on Friday 25th September.

I'll see you there.

If you would like to read what others have written about this event you can do so here:
From the Beer O'Clock Show website
From Phil Hardy's site - Beersay
From the BeerViking
From Rach Smith's - Look At Brew

Monday, 14 September 2015

Beer In Essex - Review: Farmers Yard, Maldon

Beer In Essex - Review
Farmers Yard, Maldon

The micropub as a recognised entity is barely ten years old, a consequence of the 2003 Licensing Act becoming law in 2005 and enabling small premises to obtain the right to sell alcohol, and whilst they were initially few and far between, the last five years has seen an explosion in their number up and down the country.

There are over 125 such premises now in existence, premises that were once shops, offices or off-licenses, all given a new lease of life in a straight-forward no-nonsense and often very often cramped environment with no food or entertainment, united by the philosophy of 'Keep It Small, Keep It Simple'.

The Farmers Yard is the third micropub to open in Essex, The Hop Beer Shop and the Billericay Brewery Micropub being the other two, and like the latter is run by a brewery, with this one belonging to The Maldon Brewing Company.

I am fortunate enough to be able to attend many events where brewers are present, and indeed count a number of them as friends, however for the majority of drinkers contact with the people that actually brewed the beer in there glass is a rare thing indeed. There are certain beer festivals where this is possible, although often only on certain days, and the occasions of brewer-drinker interaction are generally seldom. We are fortunate in Essex that you can often converse with the brewer on a fairly regular basis, whether it be Ian from the Essex Brewery Company at a farmers market, Roland and Ethan from Brentwood Brewery when they open on a Saturday, or Trevor from Billericay Brewing at his brewery or micropub, and now Nigel and his son Mike in Maldon, you can go and share a beer with the very person who enabled it to be in your hand in the first place.

Situated at the lower end of the High Street, the Farmers Yard has a relatively plain shop-front, its green-on-white signage would be easy to miss, although it was drawing quite a crowd when I ventured inside on Saturday afternoon. Admittedly it had only been open a week and still could be considered a bit of a novelty from the locals but there was a real buzz about the place, with plenty of conversation and laughter, and I had to weave my way between the tables and drinkers in order to get to Nigel and order a drink. I opted for a half of one of Maldon's newest beers Ella, brewed unsurprisingly with Ella hops, and tasting very good indeed.

There's no bar here, only an open doorway with a till tucked away, with the beer served by gravity dispense straight from the cask on stillage in the back room, something that is a common feature of many micropubs. Whilst he was gone I took the opportunity to have a proper look around at the layout and my fellow drinkers.

Three high wooden tables surrounded by stools take up much of the space, and these were all occupied by what would be fair to say was an older crowd, and I mean no disrespect by saying that many of them fitted the oft-pilloried CAMRA activist stereotype. I had noticed that there were a number of beers available, not all from the Maldon Brewing Co. but other Essex brewers too, as well as local cider and wine by the glass. Occupying the whole of the wall opposite the door is a wooden shelving unit full of bottles of the latest Maldon brewery beers, and I purchased some bottles to take home with me, including a few of the strong Golden Ale, Xylonite, which I have earmarked to feature in the upcoming Beer O'Clock Show 'Essex Showcase' podcast.

I wasn't able to stay for too long on this visit , I had a pressing engagement elsewhere, so after a brief chat with Nigel (whose surname is Farmer, hence the name of the pub) I was on my way. I'll be back again soon for a pint or two, with plenty of time to sit and chat when I'm need to pick up some more of their bottled beer, and I'm confident it will be just as busy then as it will more than likely be on another Saturday afternoon.

There will be a second micropub opening on nearby soon, as Mighty Oak, the other brewery in Maldon have had permission to convert the vacant Pink Rose cafe at the other end of the High Street, and I'm looking forward to being able to visit and drink in both. Fresh beer, straight from two breweries to your glass in the same town served by the people who make it was recently the exclusive domain of the newer breed of city breweries. To be able to do have a similar experience in one Essex town was once the stuff of dreams, but by the end of the year this will be very much reality, one we can all drink to.

The Farmers Yard can is at:
140 High Street, Maldon, Essex CM9 5BX
Opening times:
Monday to Friday 11.00am to 2.00pm and 5.00pm to 9.00pm
Saturday 11.00am to 9.00pm
Sunday 12.00pm to 9.00pm