Wednesday, 31 July 2013

BBB - Birmingham's Beer Scene Comes Of Age

After making a move to London earlier this year, it was great to be returning to my “home city” of Birmingham on Friday 26 July in very auspicious circumstances – to attend the Birmingham Beer Bash, after many months of building anticipation! I had been looking forward very much to a great event where I would get to pick and choose from a wide selection of interesting beers and catch up with lots of Brummie chums – and I hoped above all that things went smoothly for the organising team, a group of Birmingham's beery best – who had gone out on a limb to bring a momentous festival to our city. I was not disappointed!

Having attended IndyMan last year, I knew there was a new standard in place for beer festivals, just as there has been a new wave of breweries sweeping the land. IndyMan broke free of the constraints faced by CAMRA festivals, being backed by commercial beer enterprises and a different financing structure; looking to be staffed mostly by brewers and associates able to sell and serve their own products; and offering the best of cask, keg and bottle dispense – but also, crucially, in a really interesting venue that offered lots of scope for different festival areas and events.

Birmingham Beer Bash (or BBB – hence “bCubed” as it is also known) had a similar but quite simple agenda – to bring amazing beer to the city, whatever it's dispense. It was a huge bugbear of mine while living there that we seemed to be lagging behind other (smaller) English cities massively, in that we had no “craft” beer bars – i.e. those offering exciting keg beers as well as a strong range of the cream of UK cask and bottle offerings, and international beauties appearing too. In the year before I left, things were definitely on the up – first The Victoria started to offer bottles from Kernel, Partizan, Arbor, Summer Wine, cans from Ska Brewing, and an improved draught offering with Hardknott, Thornbridge and others; then Brewdog Birmingham opened, at last bringing some keg lines to the city (along with their trademark 'punk' attitude :-); and then the Craven Arms was revitalised by Chris and Sharon Sherratt, with a great ever-changing cask range and bottles in the fridge from De Molen and Cantillon.

But before this, some local beer chums had met for a 'twissup' and expressed their concerns that good beer just wasn't reaching Birmingham in the way it was flowing into other cities – and somehow, they all took a leap of faith together, and decided they could take matters into their own hands and change Birmingham's beer scene to the one they wanted to see – at least for one summer weekend!

12 months later – and their dreams came true. I have to admit I was anxious for the team – having run beer festivals myself I knew of the pitfalls, nervousness, and the 101 things that can go slightly off-plan – but even more so if you're not backed cashflow-wise by a large consumer lobbying group, there is no precedent for this type of event in the city, and your biggest question is “if we build it, will they come?” - well, I hope from the time the doors opened on Friday morning, their fears were allayed and they could start to enjoy the adrenaline buzz!

I attended for two sessions – the Friday evening and Saturday daytime – and it was a wonderful feeling to be walking down through the backstreets of Digbeth (a part-arty regeneration/part-Victorian industrial area of Brum – think Hackney Wick, but Digbeth got there first!) on a scorching summer day, knowing lots of friendly faces and interesting beers awaited us. I say “interesting” rather than “awesome”- as I felt the point of the varied beer list was to showcase a wide range of styles and new beers, not just the familiarly great and good – to push people outside their comfort zone a bit.

So what were my highlights?
  • The Venue – I thought this was pretty amazing – buildings originally part of Birmingham's canal and industrial heritage, providing lots of interesting spaces that could be used in different ways for the event, such as the seminar room with the International and Junction bars, the courtyard with it's canal-side setting providing a food court, and the larger cask, keg and bottle area. I don't know what the arrangements for food might have been had it rained the whole time, but it looked like there was enough space to go round, with numbers just right – no crowding, no queueing for ages for bar service or loos, and plenty of space to mill about, but enough punters for a buzzing atmosphere on both sessions I attended.
  • The food – so great to be reunited with the artisan food from local producers Loaf and Squisito – we feasted on meatballs with great bread and salads (good choice for a hot summer evening), Italian-style sausages made with fennel and local beer from Tunnel Brewery, and then tried some Pop-up Dosa – this divided opinions as some weren't keen on the textures of some of the different dosa condiments, but I loved every element of it and felt it was another good food option for the weather.
  • The people – the sheer amount of amazing people there – exhibiting brewers and associates (great to see @HardKnottDave, @HardknottAnne and @HopcraftGazza again, and meet @dredpenguin from Weird Beard); so good to catch up with Birmingham chums I hadn't seen since I moved; beer bloggers who had travelled from up and down the country to be there; the beery Twitterati out in force (great to see the glamourous @BeerBeauty again, and too many other people to list!); and of course the amazing BBB team of lovely, lovely people (you all know who you are!) who were always ready to greet you with a big grin and a hug, regardless of how busy and knackered they must have been feeling!
  • The fringe events – I was super-excited about these, getting to listen to a great talk on hops from Paul Corbett of Charles Faram Hop Merchants, all about malts (and what he considers to be beer ingredient perversions) from Dom of Thornbridge, and another great session run by Dom on how to identify the types of chemical faults to be found in 'bad' beer, which certainly made you thirsty for a 'good' beer by the end of it but with a keener sense of what may be going on in your glass.
  • The beer choice – so many beers, so many styles, so many breweries; bottle, keg and cask – with around 130 beers & ciders being featured on draught over the 2 days, and many more in bottle from @Stirchleywines, there was something for every taste – I did my best to try as many as possible, but special mention must go to Hardknott Rhetoric II, which we went back for many refills of; Arbor Ales / Moor Beer Double Dark Alliance; Sadlers Ales Dr Hardwicke's DIPA; Compass Berry – but really, too many to mention.
And the downsides?
  • The beer choice! – even enlisting the help of a 'beer buddy' to help me try as much of a range as possible by sharing their choices with me, still wasn't enough to get me round all of the beers I wanted to try in the space of two sessions – never mind the beers I'd earmarked in the programme but didn't happen to be on during the times I visited. But I think that's the mark of a good beer list – to leave you wanting more – even though making the choices as my last session drew to a close was agonizing!
  • Missing out on a burger – I had been really pleased to hear the Original Patty Men would be serving all day on Saturday; I'd tasted their burgery delights before at Digbeth Diner, and was muchly looking forward to munching on this again; but sadly they were so popular that they had run out by 2pm, just as I was about to go fetch my lunch from them – I gave them a friendly telling off for depriving me of meaty goodness, but satisfied myself with another dosing of Squisitodeli's lovely sausages.
  • The waiting – altogether such a great festival that delivered above my already high expectations – must we really wait another year for it to happen again? (Please, let it happen again!)

It was a very rewarding experience all round – and made me quite emotional for the team, to think how great they must feel to know they had pulled it off, hundreds of people enjoyed themselves, gallons of good beer was consumed, much beer learning went on, friendships were formed and cemented, and certainly from my point of view as a punter, everything seemed to run smoothly on the surface – and who knows what interesting projects, sharing of knowledge, and collaborations are now fermenting away as ideas in the minds of the many brewers who met up during the event! I salute all who organised the festival, the sponsors who made it possible, and everyone who turned up and made it all pretty amazing. Viva Birmingham Beer Bash, the city's beer scene has now come of age!

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Sadlers Ales at the Windsor Castle Brewery

The Windsor Castle brewery - where Sadlers Ales are produced - is based in Lye, a Midlands town along the route between Birmingham and Stourbridge. I had first come across their Jack's Pale Ale being served at Inn on the Green (Acocks Green, B'ham) several years ago, but it is in recent years that their beers have gained more prominence, with award-winning established recipes alongside new and hoppy beers emerging. So when earlier this year I organised a Number9 #Twissup, that would take us by Number 9 bus from the centre of Birmingham to the door of the brewery, it was a great opportunity to see inside the brewhouse, try their range of ales, and have a good chat about hops with their head brewer, Chris Sadler.

Chris explained that the Windsor Castle brewery was originally founded in Oldbury by his great-grandfather, but that brewing operations ceased in 1927 – these were resurrected in Lye by Chris' father John in 2004. They have developed their portfolio since that time, and now have around 8 regular beers, and several seasonals and specials appearing. The Windsor Castle also serves as the Sadlers' taphouse, and is renowned for it's food offering as well – but it was the array of 10 cask Sadlers ales along the bar that immediately caught our eye and lifted our spirits when we entered. The bar staff explained they don't usually feature a guest as the house beers are so popular and turnover is quick, and there are usually seasonal brews to form a counterpoint to the core range, giving drinkers a wide choice of styles and strengths to choose from. They also have bottled versions of some of these beers in the fridges.

After making our initial purchases to start checking out the ales available, we met Chris in the bar area; he took us through to the brewery's hop store, and talked us through their current range. There are several traditional styles covered, such as Red House, a 4% Black Country mild, and Worcester Sorcerer, a 4.3% Best Bitter. Their Mud City Stout (6.6%), with cocoa and vanilla richly complementing a blend of dark malts and oats, is multi-award winning, and an immensely flavoured beer whether from cask or bottle; and the JPA (Jack's Pale Ale) is a very sessionable 3.8%, which has recently had it's recipe tweaked to make it a 100% Citra-hopped beer. This tasted fantastic on cask and came out on top as my beer of the day, despite the many other lovely beers we tried during the Twissup. 

Chris explained that as he has now taken over the Head Brewer duties from his father, it has given him the opportunity to 'play around with hops' a lot more and develop new recipes and specials, such as their Hop Bomb – available in 330ml bottles as well as on draught, this caused quite a stir in the Midlands beer scene when it appeared, with the 5% abv providing a good base to carry through the Amarillo and Citra hop flavours and aromas. It was great to see such a range of exciting hops in the storeroom, and we easily spent the best part of an hour discussing characteristics and uses, as our party had two professional and at least two homebrewers who were all eager to talk with Chris about alpha acid values and aroma characteristics, and how crop variations in different years give rise to recipe changes and adjustments.

But back to the beer – and we heard about two recent beers that Chris has been working on – the Dr Hardwicke's Double IPA, which is continuously hopped throughout it's 85-minute boil and comes out a hefty 8.5%, and an Imperial Stout, which was still in development but Chris seemed pretty excited about already and described as 'something special'! We were able to have a taste of the latest batch of Dr Hardwicke's to be brewed – just about to go into the conditioning tanks – and this certainly had a lot of hop bite and full body even as an unfinished beer that still has to receive it's dry-hopping, so I'm looking forward to tasting this when it's finally ready.

We spent a while longer having a look round the 10-barrel brewery and the cask store, where sacks of used grain from the mashing process were stacked up ready for a local farmer to take away, and returned casks awaited cleaning and refilling with ales to be sent out again, before returning to the bar to work our way through the rest of the range and pick up some bottles to take home. I tried their delicious crisp Red IPA and also Basilisk, a bitter with some slightly sweet notes but a clean finish, and took home bottles of the Mud City, Hop Bomb, and Mellow Yellow, a pale ale with a hint of honey.

It was great to see a truly family-run brewery (Chris's sister also runs the taphouse and restaurant side of things) that is still keen to create new recipes and experiment with different hops coming to market, and it certainly marks them out as the most progressive brewery in the Birmingham area to my mind, and the only one bringing truly well-rounded but sparkily hoppy ales to Midlands punters.

And if you are yet to discover their beers, and like the sound of their hop-experimentation and special recipes, you can find some at the upcoming Birmingham Beer Bash festival on Friday 26th and Saturday 27th July 2013; there are rumours there may be some Imperial Stout available in bottles, and on draught will feature the hefty Dr Hardwicke's Double IPA, and 'Lion Hart', their 4.2% July seasonal beer – which is described as a blood orange ale brewed with juicy American hops and fresh pineapple – sounds perfect for a summer festival!