Friday, 1 January 2016

Golden Pints 2015

While 2014 & 2015 have offered meagre time for beer exploring, and my wandering beer thirst has had to be contained since my last blog entry due to life events that are likely to take up most of 2016 as well, the desire for adventure and learning about new places and taking my palate on a trip is as strong as ever. I am hoping in 2017 to resume some ‘adventuring’ – to spend Saturdays jumping on a train and visiting York, Bristol, Leeds – to get back to exploring historic pubs, modern bars, and interesting food destinations.

I think I still managed to pack in a fair few new beer samplings in 2015, helped of course by the mad proliferation of “craft” beer bars in London these days – so as well as the ever-expanding London brewery scene (and regular experimentation with new beers & new styles even by the more established London brewers), there has also been a constant flow into the city of beers from all over the UK and the world – including at last a few more ji-biiru reaching these shores, though that is still a largely unexplored import market compared to the amount of craft beer available within Japan.

So this blog and desire for beer & food adventures isn’t dead, merely resting, and I may as well have a stab at rounding up my Golden Pints 2015 and looking ahead hopefully to expeditions to come...
Best UK Cask Beer
I may still be craving a pint or three of @thebathams and getting no nearer to my next dose of it, but there have been some other cask highlights to my year - top of the list is Dark Star American Pale Ale - I was so pleased that Fuller's executed such a sympathetic takeover of The Harp when the owner was ready to retire, and continued to stock this great beer. Fyne Ales cask beers continued to bring me joy when I found them in the Euston Tap or Craft bars. A late mention must also go to Vocation Pride & Joy - found this in Tap East the other night and it was so delicious, and in perfect condition, that we cancelled our plans and stayed for several more. I always feel so pleased there are cask beers out there that still excite me that much!

Best UK Keg Beer

Double Axe from Buxton has been pretty awesome on keg the few times I've come across it this year, so gets my vote. Siren Soundwave and Beavertown Black Betty have continued to be great as well – I think because all of these beers have fierce flavours that stand up to the chilling / less natural conditioning of keg. There have been plenty of pale ales I've tasted on keg this year though that left me distinctly underwhelmed and wondering if a cask version would have given my tastebuds a lot more pleasure.

Best UK Bottled Beer
There'd be no prizes for guessing I'd give this one to the Citra that Oakham ales is producing for M&S – this has been a permanent presence in my drinks cabinet & fridge, a reliable go-to beer. We've taste-tested it several times this year against the own-branded Oakham Citra, and conclude we prefer the M&S version. Fittingly had this as my last beer of 2015.

Best UK Canned Beer

So many good breweries have got into canning this year – I love the format, given that most of my beer purchases have to be carried home in a rucksack, and cans are so portable – in particular I've enjoyed Roosters and Wild Beer Co., but I think Beavertown Black Betty clinches it again as the one I most wanted to open my fridge and see an array of.

Best Overseas Draught Beer
I'm sure I had many good overseas IPAs, sours, saisons, pale ales, Belgian-style and fruit beers this year – but the two that stood out the most for me were the Stone Xocoveza For The Holidays & The New Year that I came across in Ushers in Edinburgh – a really rich, chocolatey stout; and the Lagunitas Mozango (Fusion XXXI) at Euston Tap/Holborn Whippet, which was a great fruity, hoppy mouthful.

Best Overseas Bottled Beer
This would probably go to the two very tasty bottles from Westbrook that I was lucky enough to have a share of at Jackie's birthday party back in May – the Chocolate Coconut Almond Imperial Stout and the Orange Bliss Chocolate Orange Stout.

Best Overseas Canned Beer
Dale's Pale Ale from Oskar Blues continued to impress. Nice to see more cans are making it over here - the Black Heart in Camden continues to be a reliable source. 

Best Collaboration
Some people have commented in their Golden Pints that they're not that fussed about collaborations – but I love them – I like the idea that brewers have healthy respect for their peers and make friends across the industry; it might be cliched but it gives me a warm feeling that two breweries I respect have corresponded and come up with a cool beer idea or recipe then had a fun day hanging out to create it, and as a result perhaps introduce their name to new customers who are familiar with their co-collaborators. I really enjoyed the Weird Brodmance from Weird Beard/Brodies – looking forward to the whisky-cask aged version of the same when I come across some!

Best Overall Beer
No change from my last Golden Pints, for it's reliable and sustaining properties throughout 2015 - M&S Citra.

Best Pumpclip or Label
Siren's always look pretty and distinctive, and I love the evolving artwork on To Øl bottles.

Best UK Brewery
My drinking may have been mostly London-centric this year, but the regional established producers continue to impress. A bit hard to pick just one brewery overall out of the many new and established great breweries out there at the minute – I guess I'd have to say Oakham at a pinch cause I drank way more Citra than anything else this year!

Best Overseas Brewery
I don't feel I've had enough experience in overseas beers this year – it's either been reliable stalwarts like Odell & Sierra Nevada, or one-off speciality brews found occasionally from the likes of Cigar City or Lost Abbey. So, no particular overall winner here for me.

Best New Brewery opening 2015
I'd give this to Mad Hatter as they've produced some amazing and inventive stuff that sounds like it shouldn't work but does, but as they opened in 2014, instead I'll say that Cloudwater look like they're shaping up to be pretty exciting!

Pub/Bar of the Year
I haven't been able to venture much outside Central London this year, so I'd have to give this a three-way toss-up between Bartons Arms, which I got to visit again in July and always love; Craft in Covent Garden where I've spent most of my beer money this year; and the Red Lion in Leytonstone from the Antic Group, which made me very happy in the summer, discovering they stocked Odell IPA in bottles!

Best New Pub/Bar opening 2015
Again my lack of being able to travel means I have few to choose from – I know there have been great openings up and down the country that I hope to get to someday like the Cotteridge Wines Tasting Room and the Magic Rock Tap – but closer to home there are two new openings I'm hoping to frequent a lot in 2016. They may not have the widest beer selection, but they look like comfortable places to spend an afternoon or evening – the relaunched Scottish Stores in Kings Cross, and the Resting Hare right by Euston. Spit/Fire in Edinburgh also impressed with it's décor, atmosphere and beer selection.

Beer Festival of the Year
Birmingham Beer Bash without a doubt – great venue, great selection of beers, events and foods, and great people – both those running the event, and the many friendly faces amongst the guests. One of the highlights of my year!

Best city for beer in the UK

London is pretty mad for beer these days – I think I still prefer Edinburgh on the whole (possibly my perception is that Edi is more compact, has more actual 'pubs' where you can get a seat, and has more reliably good-condition cask beer available), but there is such a booming scene in London now with new bars & breweries opening every month, that you couldn't get bored here.

Supermarket of the Year
Royal Mile
M&S, obvs.

Independent Retailer of the Year
Royal Mile Whiskies in Bloomsbury, and Kris Wines in Finsbury Park, have provided most of
my take-home bottle purchases this year.

Online Retailer of the Year
Don't think I ordered any online beer this year so will have to skip this one, and best get ordering for 2016!

Best Beer Book or Magazine
Have enjoyed Original Gravity when I've seen it out and about – nice to have something easy to read and covering a wide range of beery subjects.

Best Beer Blog or Website
@BoakandBailey  posts are always such an enjoyable read – their writing style flows really well, and is always informative & thought-provoking.

Best Beer App
Untappd – I gave RateBeer a go for a bit but I find I'm often in need of speed when recording impressions of a beer so Untappd is very easy to use on that front – plus I like the ability to share a check-in on Twitter if I want to let other people know a particularly good beer can be found somewhere, and appreciate it when others do this also.

Simon Johnson Award for Best Beer Twitterer

Boak and Bailey again, for sharing lots of info and useful stuff and leading my beery thoughts in various directions this year.

Best Online Brewery Presence
Five Points Brewery takes this – for regularly engaging with drinkers and beer fans on social media and spreading the word about events and ace pubs.

Food and Beer Pairing of the Year

The delicious and varied take on fish & chips from Hook in Camden, paired with an English IPA or Belgian pale from their beer list.

In 2016 I’d most like to...
Get to a city outside of London to explore more pubs, and find a bottle of Cloudwater DIPA!

Cheers to all!

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Golden Pints 2013

2013 has been a year of change and upheaval for me personally, and as a result I've had to take a step back from beer exploring and appreciation, and from blogging about it too. But that doesn't mean I haven't been taking advantage of any opportunity that arose to continue learning about beer, talk about beer, and drink good beer - and to unfortunately encounter some not-so-good beer along the way as well.

So in the hope that 2014 will allow me to write about it sometimes too, I've made a stab at rounding up my 2013 "Golden Pints" - it will be interesting for me to see how this pans out, as for the first half of the year I was still firmly routed in the Birmingham beer scene, but now I am in the quite different beery landscape of London.

Best UK Cask Beer 
I've struggled a bit with UK draught beer since the move to London - I seem to be constantly hopeful I will find something 'pintable' - i.e. a great-tasting beer, in perfect condition & temperature, flavoursome but not overpowering - one that you taste, and then know you will enjoy by the pint, good enough to make you rearrange your plans to stay in that pub for another couple. But I've been regularly disappointed during pub visits - sometimes it's the beer selection, with the beers themselves not seeming that great; sometimes it may be down to the chosen dispense method not suiting the beer as well as another might; and sometimes it's the condition they're served in. But sometimes you strike gold and find one that seems to consistently hit the spot, wherever you've come across it. This year, @Darkstarbrewco Green Hopped IPA was the one that did it for me.

Best UK Keg Beer
Easy - Beavertown Black Betty.

Best UK Bottled or Canned Beer
My access to great UK bottled beer has taken a huge nosedive since moving away from Brum, and the excellent beer emporiums of @StirchleyWines and @CotteridgeWines - I've had to resort to more supermarket beer shopping, and the bottled beer that has kept me going with it's consistent loveliness is the Oakham-produced Marks & Spencer Citra, so it gets my overall vote. I've still managed to try some new UK bottles when out and about, and two that really impressed were Weird Beard's Fade To Black, and Arbour Ales Down Deeperer. Wish they were in my beer cupboard right now!

Best Overseas Draught Beer
Probably Ska Modus Hoperandi - as I seemed to come across this on draught a few times this year, and it always delivered.

Best Overseas Bottled or Canned Beer
Too difficult to choose just one for this category, so it's a three-way split between Weihenstephaner Kristallweiss, Rochefort 10, and Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA - was very lucky to have a bottle of the latter given to me by @HillstersBrew and it brought back lots of memories of drinking it on draught in NYC.

Best Collaboration
The Fyne Ales / Wild Beer Co. "Cool as a Cucumber" - I really felt this was something outstanding and different when I was lucky enough to find some on draught in London.

Celt artwork
Best Overall Beer
The beer which has sustained me the most this year - M&S Citra.

Best Pumpclip or Label
I really like the Celt Experience branding and labels - with the artwork on 'Barbarians Beverage' being my favourite.

Best UK Brewery
Very difficult to pick a favourite, as there are well-established breweries who are turning out consistently good beer but still having time for experimentation, and new breweries coming along all the time. Of the 'new crop' of breweries, those that innovate and experiment with a range of styles while turning out very desirable beer - though I didn't get to drink much of their output this year - it's Magic Rock.  For being solidly good at what they do, year in, year out - and for beer that I have craved throughout 2013 since moving 100 miles away from it - Bathams!

Best Overseas Brewery
I've been able to try a fair few overseas beers this year from excursions around London's "craft" bars, but this has also led to some disappointments as well as delights. So again I'm going to choose something reliable - the brewery that turns out my favourite ever Belgian beer - Abbaye Notre-Dame de Saint-Remy de Rochefort.

Best New Brewery opening 2013
Really enjoying much of what I've had from Weird Beard - looking forward to more!

Pub/Bar of the Year
A bit of a late entry to the list of places I go to seek out good beer - but over the past couple of months I've had some great visits to The Black Heart in Camden - I've always found plenty of interest on each visit, on cask, keg or bottle, and it's been great to drink beers from @AlechemyBrewCo, Sierra Nevada, @FyneAles and others while listening to Dead Kennedys, Fugazi, and a plethora of alternative sounds. I also really loved the food from Kimchi Cult, who were in residence in the Black Heart kitchen until December - so I hope they can source new food providers for 2014 who are just as amazing!

Best New Pub/Bar opening 2013
It's hard to believe the Craven Arms in Birmingham has been re-opened less than a year - it very quickly became the Friday night beer Twitterati haunt of choice, and I'm sure it will continue to go from strength to strength under the keen stewardship of Chris and Sharon.

Beer Festival of the Year
With all the upheavals of the year, I didn't get the opportunity to visit many festivals, but I have no doubt that if I had, I would still be voting for the Birmingham Beer Bash - amazing to see such a fantastic event in my 'home' city (even though I'd just departed from Brumland at that point!) and I wrote about how amazing it all was in this blogpost.

Best city for beer in the UK
Edinburgh - I didn't get to visit there this year, but I have kept an ear to the ground and had regular reports from chums in residence, and definitely think I would find the biggest and best selection of beers there.

Supermarket of the Year
Waitrose still has the best beer selection on it's shelves - can't argue with Oakham Citra and Thornbridge Kipling!

Royal Mile Whiskies

Independent Retailer of the Year
Since the move of cities I've struggled to find shops I can easily get to, with an interesting and well-priced beer selection - so I was really pleased when I visited Royal Mile Whiskies in Bloomsbury and found they had a whole fridge of exciting Scottish beers - I'll be back!
Online Retailer of the Year
@AlesByMail really went the extra mile for me this year, finding a way to deliver beer to my door during the evening, when I could be in to receive it - very grateful to them for this!

Best Beer Book or Magazine
Haven't had much time to read through my beer books this year, and have quite a backlog waiting for more settled times so I can dive into them with a pint in hand - but I'm currently reading "The Search for the Perfect Pub: Looking for the Moon Under Water" and it's an enjoyable read, though does seem to have an anti-smoking-ban bias! 

Best Beer Blog or Website
Same as in 2012 - @BoakandBailey is where it's at!

Best Beer App
Untappd - I use it every time I have a beer, to record my impressions, keep note of what new beers I've had, and to look up what other people have thought of a beer when faced with a long list of ones I haven't had before and time is too short to work through them all!

Simon Johnson Award for Best Beer Twitterer
The beery Twitterverse is much, much poorer for the very sad and shocking passing of @simonhjohnson - he brought laughter, silliness, enthusiasm and insight and was an all-round great chap to have met. He extended a friendly welcome and encouragement when I first joined Twitter and contributed so much to the sense of an online beer community. He's missed by everyone, but his spirit lives on in the support expressed to @BecEmerald by everyone he engaged with online, even if they hadn't actually got to meet him IRL. I don't think I could give this award to anyone other than Simon.

Best Online Brewery Presence
I don't think I had much call to visit brewery sites in 2013; of those I visited, Celt Experience
have quite a nice looking site.

Food and Beer Pairing of the Year
Belgian stout and oyster beignets. It's simple, and it works.

In 2013 I’d most like to...
Find a reliable source of "pintable" beer in London - I miss you, Barton's Arms!!

Sláinte, and a good year of beer to all!

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!

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!