Saturday, 29 June 2013

BRÜSTIVAL at Brüpond

Before my recent move between cities, I did my research to find out what breweries might be near my new location, and soon identified three whose beers and hopefully premises I would get to check out – the fourth in the Borough, Brodies, and their brewpub the King William IV, already being well known to me!

Luckily, just around the time I was moving, one of these new breweries advertised they would be having a brewery open day and beer festival – a good chance to pay them a visit, and as luck would have it the spring sunshine was at it's height when the day of Brüstival at Brüpond Brewery arrived.

The brewery itself is a little off the beaten track – a W12 bus from Walthamstow took us through an industrial estate until the driver signalled the last stop and we had to get off, not quite sure of our location – so we followed a guy who looked like he might know where he was going, and soon saw we were in the right place with a crowd of people hanging out in the yard enjoying the sunshine, some Mexican street food sizzling up, and the brewery premises beyond.

Inside were a couple of bar areas – one with casks racked up, the other with more casks and a bottle fridge – so we grabbed a couple of halves from the list and had a wander round while working out what other beers we wanted to try. The brewery is in a decent-sized space which meant customers could walk around easily having a look at the kit, the sacks of malt stacked up, and peer into the hop freezer, while the brewery dog Matilda trotted around sporting a brewery t-shirt and generally enjoying the bustle.

Unfortunately the Brüpond Ain'cho Mum's Porter wasn't available – an Ancho chilli beer I had been keen to try – so we opted for their Tip Top Hop (with Motueka) and The Amber Experiment – a Belgian-style beer, with a geuzey-ness presumably from the yeast. The Tip Top is a beer that seems to split opinion, judging by reactions of those I've sampled it with on other occasions as well as this one – some people love it, for others it's not for them – I'm wondering perhaps if it's the flavour profile of the hop used; I believe the next version of this beer will use Celeia, so I'll be keen to find out how this is received. We also tried the Sweet Bee Honey'd Wheat – despite the name, a vegan beer (like all Brüpond's beers) that doesn't use honey – and this was unusual and soft on the palate, but not too sweet, although quite a different style to Bavarian weiss-style wheats.

Before making our next beer selections, we thought it wise to try out the burritos and tacos being cooked up in the yard by Luchadores, with large pans of simmering tender pork and beef ready to be served up with your choice of salsa (vegetarian options also available, but I was never going to be swayed from the lure of tasty meats). The 'hot' salsa was HOT – making my tongue sting and my eyes twitch – but I must have liked it as I went back for more! We shared a burrito and tacos and felt we'd provided a sufficient 'fond' to commence further beer exploration.

Next on the roster was the Jack of Clubs, a rich ruby ale from Wild Card Brewery. I met the team behind this nascent brewery while supping their beer – William, Andrew and Jaega – and was pleased to hear that although they are currently cuckoo-brewing at Brentwood, this is only a temporary arrangement while they wait for planning permission to go through so they can get their own brewery set up at the Warrant Officer pub on Higham Hill, as their intention is that the brewery will firmly be rooted in Walthamstow. While these plans come to fruition, they are concentrating on producing just the one beer at present, and settled on Jack of Clubs, as this is a recipe they've been honing as homebrewers for the past six years. It's a very malty, traditional bitter, with rich fruity notes and a slight sweetness on the finish, and has been going down well so far in cask and bottle at local pubs and the Warrant Officer itself.

We then got stuck into the two Brodies on cask – the Old Street Pale and the London Fields. Once again, Brodies came up trumps with these super-hoppy pales, with the Old Street being @dave_car's favourite of the day. We also tried the three beers available from another brewery within the Borough – East London Brewing Co. These were the Pale (light and clean on the palate), the Nightwatchman (a reddish bitter), and the Quadrant Oatmeal Stout – this was my favourite of the three, which had a thinner body than expected but a nice creamy flavour and smooth coffee notes on the finish.

The evening was wearing on, and being unsure of the bus timings we opted for a taxi back to the centre of Walthamstow. But I couldn't leave without trying some lovely fruit gin from local producers Mothers' Ruin – the damson was particularly potent and richly flavoured – and to pick up a bottle of Gosnells London Mead. This is a locally-produced mead (brewed and bottled on the Brüpond premises, in fact) – but displaying a new approach to serving mead – at a lower ABV than usual (5.5%, brought to this level presumably by dilution?) and in 330ml bottles – so it's more like a single-serve of beer. I like this innovation, it could bring mead back to being a more widely enjoyed drink and encourage more people to try it. I took this home and tried it a few weeks later, enjoying the light honey flavours, and the crisp carbonation leading to a dry finish.

It was great to be at a festival actually within a brewery premises, meaning you could meet the team behind the beers and have a look at their working area, and the atmosphere was certainly buzzing with lots of local ale fans – good to meet Mr Mustard, Greavsie, Sam and other people we chatted with from various London branches of CAMRA.

Brüpond are holding several more themed festival events (details here) at their premises over the summer – with the next one being an American Independence-day event, on Saturday 6th July from midday, bringing together beers produced by American brewers at English breweries – as the founder of Brüpond, David Brassfield (known as “Brass”) is originally from Colorado. This will feature ales from Moor Beer, Bexar, Wild Beer Co., Lovibonds and others, as well as the existing range and a couple of new beers from Brüpond. There will also be pulled pork, chocolate beer brownies, and something tasty for vegetarians provided by Queenies, who have run various pop-up food events at the Rose and Crown in Walthamstow. This looks to be a good day out with a range of beer styles represented – so hopefully see you there!

Thursday, 27 June 2013

(Beery) Things I will Miss About Birmingham

So now it's a reality, I have moved away from my “second home” where I'd lived for most of my drinking life, and taken up in pastures new. I can't deny it's a wrench to leave somewhere I'd become firmly rooted to, and where I'd been a participant in the beer and food scene for so long, watching it develop and change, and eventually blossom into an ever-increasing array of great pubs, independent restaurants and food producers; seeing a community grow up both online and in person to move the city “Forward!” - Birmingham's motto!

Of course, there are plenty of non-foody/drinky things I'm going to pine for too – the Brutalist but firmly for-the-people architecture of John Madin; the vibrant suburbs of Harborne, Stirchley, Kings Heath, Moseley; the beauty of Bournville in the spring; leafy canals and lofty buildings; spaces with 'hidden' history where nightlcubs, factories and cinemas used to be; the secret parts of the city that are imbued with personal meaning.

But this is a blog primarily about food & ale, not melancholic psychogeographical contemplation, so here are the top 10 beery(ish) things that make me sad to be leaving:

The Bartons Arms – my number one pub hangout in Brum, that I came to consider my “local”, even though it took two bus journeys right across the city to get there from home. But the Bartons has held a special place in my heart since Oakham took it over and invested heavily to bring it back to it's former glory – with it's amazingly beautiful historic interior of etched glass and Minton tiles, serving good value Thai food and those quaffable Oakham ales. I've seen different landlords and bar managers come and go here, but they each brought character and a warm welcome, and ensured 'regular's corner' remained a fixture where I could always find a friendly face any time I visited. When Oakham introduced the Citra hop to these shores, my cross-town visits increased further, and I never stopped appreciating what a great pub we were lucky to be able to visit regularly. Visits here helped me through sad times and to celebrate many good times, and it's always felt like a 'home from home', so it seemed fitting to have one of my last pub outings in Brum to the recent beer festival here with a bunch of chums.  I hope it continues to excel in being all that a pub should be.

The Electric Cinema – some time back, myself and a friend worked hard to get Purity beer and the Electric linked up via Twitter, so we could have a decent and local ale to drink while basking in its comfy sofas. The Electric was my haunt when it was more of a run-down, underfunded, shabby porno-chic hangout, but I loved seeing interesting Arthouse double-bills there, while sitting on the worn seats and enjoying some 50p homemade cake and coffee. Now it's been brought back to life with a retro feel under the steady hand of 'local boy done good' Tom Lawes and it's the only place I want to go to see films, while supping on a Pure Ubu or movie-themed cocktail.

Stirchley Wines and Cotteridge Wines – two amazing bottle shops that were a short bus or cycle ride from my home, whose range just kept getting better and better over the years and through the hard work of their owners. I'll doubt I'll ever again be so close to not one but two “Aladdin's Caves” of beery joy and friendly proprietors. I've talked more about their delights in my recent blog post here.

Great Western Arcade – again a great destination for Brum foodies, with Anderson & Hill (great Italian deli, also sells local bottled ales) and Loki Wine (a wine merchant where you can sample the wares before buying, with a smart seating area up above) facing each other, an artisan bread maker at one end, and the Whisky Shop there too (selling some whisky cask aged beer like Harviestoun's Ola Dubh). It also hosts Hollingsworth's for your cigar and tobacco needs, an old-fashioned sweetie shop, a refined chocolatier, and Druckers patisserie. If more specialist food or drink retailers move in, this has the potential to be the most exciting shopping street in the city – perhaps this is where a city centre craft beer shop should be appearing!

Festive Frankfurt Market – for the Hogan's Cider Bar

Some Brum-dwellers hated the crowds and hustle this caused in the city each November and December, but I loved it for the multitude of yummy stuff it brought within easy reach – and also because weissbier is a favoured drink in our household. But best of all was the Hogan's Cider Bar – quality draught cider and perry, hot spiced, vintage bottled – and Allen Hogan always willing to dispense some cider knowledge while we hung out with cidery chums from Leicester and further afield.

The Victoria – I first visited this pub when it was a dingy bar, more than a little run down, but providing useful meetups for the LGBT scene courtesy of the two ladies who ran it. But after a period of dereliction, it was taken over by the budding Birmingham indie pubco of Bitters N Twisted, and embodied everything I'd want in a 'night out' pub – music erring on the rock and indie side and cask beer in cutely decorated surroundings. In the past year they've upped their game on the beer side too, and now scene stars like Red Willow, Hardknott, and Thornbridge often make an appearance on the pumps; they were also the first pub in the city to start stocking the type of bottles a beer geek would make a beeline for – Partizan, Arbor, Kernel, Tiny Rebel, with some great soul food to go with it.

Craven Arms – this may be Birmingham's newest ale pub, but from the minute it opened I knew I would be missing it when I left, because it's run by two lovely people – Chris and Sharon – who are dedicated to good beer, and it's got a lovely 'proper pub' feel to it. With Chris striving to bring in the most interesting ales, around 9 ciders and perrys, and bottles of Cantillon and De Molen for a very reasonable fee, it became my Friday evening hangout of choice, especially as Chris's music policy seems to cover just about every indie and alternative band I'd want to hear!

Past drinking spots – now closed, The Foundry and the original Edwards Number 8 – I never drank anything 'decent' in here – it was all bottled Pils and K cider – in the days before I discovered real ale, though I don't think the Ansells keg bitter would have done much to help me down the path if I'd tried it – but these were places where I spent a huge amount of time and helped me feel rooted to Birmingham, and interested in the history of its pub, brewery and nightlife scene, so I'll mourn their passing from my regular thoughts as I won't be looking out of a city centre office window being reminded of them every day.

Black Country bittersBathams and Holdens, I'm looking at you – with anguish, knowing that even though I don't get to see you on draught that often in the middle of Birmingham, I'm going to see you even less now I'm 100 miles away from the Black Country. This is painful to contemplate as these were already beers I got cravings for when they were practically on my doorstep – what torture to maybe only get a drop of these on cask about once a year from now on! I'd love to see these breweries feature even occasionally in London, but it's also perversely pleasing to think that this kind of bitter is still a regional treat, for those who can make it back to the industrial heartlands.

Lastly, but very definitely not least, the beery people I have met over the years – from becoming active in the local branch of CAMRA when I first joined, volunteering initially to run the cider bar at the beer festival and increase the range of cider in the city, and eventually organising the beer festival itself, and the many great people I have met via CAMRA or 'down the Anchor' over the years who I now count as good friends; to more recent friendships formed with Twitter as the medium, getting to meet a fantastic bunch of great folks – I'm going to miss them all like hell and hope that somehow I'll still see a fair bit of them if I get to make trips 'back home', at beer festivals round the country, and if they come to beer geek gatherings in London. At the very least, I hope a large swathe of them will be at the Birmingham Beer Bash festival in July, so we can catch up over some of the most amazing beer Birmingham will have seen!

There are many more things about my adopted Brum homelands that I'll miss with a passion, but in the spirit of Beer and Food Adventuring, I know the flipside is that there are also many things to explore and discover around my new home – so I'll take Birmingham's motto with me as I go - “Forward!”

Sunday, 23 June 2013

Three Amazing Local Offies

Now that I have come to leave Brum, as a parting shot I wanted to pay tribute to something unique in the beer scene that the city has to offer – three amazing local offies within roughly a square mile of each other – or more correctly, a triangle – around the Stirchley and Selly Oak/Bournbrook areas of South-West Birmingham. To find one 'local' (i.e. non-city centre) off licence stocking something a beer geek would consider interesting is rare enough, but to have three within walking distance of each other is pretty special. And now I've moved to other parts of the land where a decent bottle shop is nowhere to be found, I keenly miss the ability to walk in somewhere and spend a good while browsing what's new on the shelves, have a chat with knowledgeable owners on what's upcoming on the beer scene, and leave with arms groaning with great purchases and a shopping list for 'next time' already forming in my head. So if you get the chance to visit Birmingham and have the time for a short bus or train ride to the suburbs, make sure you take a large bag and an even larger budget, and get yourself to one of these gems:

Stirchley Wines & Spirits – 1535 Pershore Road, B30 2JH
When I first moved to Birmingham, at the time more of a cider and wine drinker than ales (there being no real ale to be found in my previous Belfast haunts at the time to educate me), Stirchley Wines was the only place where 'interesting' beers could be found, signalled by the pink elephant of the Delirium Tremens sign outside the shop. Since then, Krishan and his father have worked to bring a constantly-updating selection of beers to Birmingham's thirsty punters, and the breadth of choice has skyrocketed in recent years. You will find a great selection of Belgian stalwarts – including Rochefort, Rodenbach, Cantillon, De Struise - and stars of the US scene such as Flying Dog, Uinta, Stone, Weyerbacher, Anderson Valley. You'll also find a great range from Nogne O, Brewfist, Elav, and other emerging craft scenes, and the full list of Oktoberfest biers in season. Up and coming UK breweries are also well represented, in particular a good range from Kernel, Hardknott, Thornbridge, Brewdog, Beavertown, Bristol Beer Factory and many more. And the local brewers get a look-in too, so it's a good source to find some Wye Valley, Purity, Beowulf, Titanic, Church End and Sadlers, among others. Not to mention the Japanese craft beers recently arrived from Hitachino Nest, a fair amount of bottled cider, and occasionally a 'beer bread' produced by local artisan baker @loafonline.

USP – a long-standing institution which now also has two draught keg taps dispensing deliciousness from the likes of Magic Rock, Harbor, Thornbridge, Mikkeller and others, to take away (smart-looking containers provided). And as well as getting involved in lots of community projects and pushing forward the beer festival scene in Birmingham (check out @birminghamcubed happening in July), Krishan will enthusiastically talk your ear off about beers of all kinds if you let him!

Cotteridge Wines – 1825 Pershore Road, B30 3DN
Within a couple of years, the team of Jaz and Kal have managed to turn this local grocer and off licence into a beer nut's heaven – with what I believe to be the widest selection of craft beer available in the city. They were keen to engage with the growing beery community in Brum, asking for advice and suggestions on what to stock, what breweries you'd recommend, and offering trade lists to see if there were particular beers you were after. A few years ago, it was great to be offered a list of all German beers currently available to them, and be asked to 'take my pick' on what I'd want to buy next time we were in the shop – and the German range is still pretty amazing to see. Since then, they've made personal connections with many breweries up and down the country, leading to a recent collaboration brew with Brodies (called Bish's APA, to thank @the_bish for his help I believe), which should be hitting the market in coming weeks – if not already sold out in advance to the online beer geek community! On their groaning shelves, you'll find beers you're familiar with, beers you've heard of but not had the chance to try, and rarities and new releases you didn't even know you were desperate to drink yet! And if they aren't stocking it, chances are they can source it for you, so don't be afraid to ask. Last time I visited, there was a huge amount of choice, but in particular large ranges from Mallinsons, Arbor, Williams Bros, Fyne Ales (including one of my favourite beers, Jarl), Ska in cans, Maui, To Ol, Buxton, Red Willow, Evil Twin, Brodies, Odell, De Molen – and an absolutely jaw-dropping selection from Mikkeller.

USP – always something new and unusual 'just in', with competitive pricing and an ability to track down that 'rare' beer you might have been seeking (provided it's still being produced of course!) and ensure it's reserved for you to pick up. And soon – their own beer brewed with Brodies – perhaps more collaborations will be in the pipeline?

Wine Stop – 75 Raddlebarn Road, B29 7DA
Now this off licence is less 'beery' than the above two, and is in the studentville areas around Birmingham university, but is definitely worth seeking out. The proprietor, Hardeep, is a complete whisky (and whiskey) freak – it's clearly his passion and hobby as well as his business – and there are over 100 different whiskies available here with Hardeep happy to spend time talking you through several of them, working out what kind of thing you might like or explaining the characteristics of new whiskies he has acquired. He has even had a whisky produced for him by renowned distillery Caol Isla – named 'The Whisky Thieves', this is available from the shop in reasonably priced limited edition bottles, and has a spicy, peppery note, that smooths to a slightly sweet finish. It's very easy drinking but with enough complexity there to be interesting, and we've already restocked on a second bottle as a memento of Birmingham's great drinking scene. Hardeep will be happy to recommend several different bottles given your preferences and price range, but I'd also advise you look at his Indian and Japanese whisky offerings as I don't believe this selection can be bettered anywhere in Brum. On the beer side, although the selection may appear small, there is certainly enough of interest – they stock the legendary Bathams Bitter, alongside some Thornbridge, Cairngorm, Sam Smith's, Otley, Hook Norton, and Wye Valley, and other English and Scottish breweries, and a couple of different versions of Harviestoun's Ola Dubh, a rich whisky-cask aged dark beer (great with dark chocolate!).

USP – a whisky and whiskey selection that can't be beaten (plus Bathams in bottles!), and knowledge dispensed by a friendly proprietor as obsessed with the whisky scene as you may be with the beer scene, and happy to spend a while sharing his spirit recommendations or discussing beer while you browse the shelves. And the only “Birmingham” whisky – The Whisky Thieves – definitely worth picking up!

So although I write this smitten with a wry bitterness that these three amazing local offies are no longer local to me, I also feel immensely proud and delighted that Birmingham can offer such an amazing choice and service to beer and spirit fans – whether aficionados or newbies, they will find friendly faces happy to advise and converse in any of these three establishments, who are all moving the scene forward in their own unique ways. Visit, and enjoy!