Sunday, 1 April 2012

Exciting Edinburgh

Yesterday I was going to write a blog about two halfwits, whining on about how unfined cask beer by some great breweries will bring the cask market to it's knees because how could anyone possibly tell the difference between a cracking unfined pint and a beer thats in poor condition. I refuse to give them any credence however. If you want to be stupid, do it in your own time.

I then considered writing a blog about CAMRA and there latest refusal to halt their own demise. Then I realised I was delighted by it, so I could just leave it be and enjoy watching them untie the painter and drift off in to the wide ocean of irrelevance.

It then occurred to me that may be I could write something more positive than pointing out the abject stupidity of others, or highlighting the death of an national institution due to it's own incompetence and miserable failings. (seriously, just support ALL British brewing, how could it possibly hurt you).

So I thought about all the beer that has been gradually sourced for the new Fuller Thomson bar in Edinburgh. Fuller Thomson provide a halfway house of micro and macro beers, a rough split of 10 and 10 in most of their bars. I admit to not being a fan of this at first, and just falling short of arguments with the owners as to what the split should be. After trips to Sweden and the US however I will happily hold my hands up and say 'My bad, I was wrong'.

Sadly for the beer geeks and craft lovers, niche beers are still just that, niche. Such a tiny percentage of the market. Those people live in their craft world (I'm one of them) saturated by all our amazing beer chat that we believe that it is actually far bigger than it is. I'm stunned that people are still 'discovering' BrewDog, but they are. There is much work still to do.

However, any one who has been in the Holyrood 9a on a Tuesday night will testify, the Fuller Thomson format works. It really is all things to all people (some staunch cask lovers might suggest that is not the case, but 4 cask lines usually with interesting beers on is pretty good) with an eclectic beer range, and a fantastic food offering in a nice environment. What's not to like.

So the new bar is called The Southern on South Clerk Street and whilst some of the other sites have seen some pretty cool beers in them, like Dark Star Critical Mass, Lovibonds 69, Harvieston Ola Dubh 12 and Moor Somerland Gold on keg the Southern has an opening list that literally relieves itself all over any previous FT beer list.

The intention was not to go overboard on the niche beers. Whoops. This is the list....

Hardknott Vitesse Noir
Brooklyn Socrachi Ace
Lovibonds Lager
Summer Wine Brewing Co. Maelstrom Double IPA
Dark Horse Crooked Tree IPA
Williams Blackball Stout

The Kernel Export Stout
Luckie Ales Dark Mild
Thornbridge Pedro Jimenez aged Bracia
Fyne Ales Jarl

Beer that will be waiting in the wings includes:
Uncommon Brewers Bacon Brown Ale
Six Point Atlantic Antic
Several Rogue beers
Lovibonds 69 and Dirty 69
Summer Wine Diablo, Teleporter and other stuff I can't remember, all on keg.
Highland's new US style IPA
Fyne Ales Davaar Black and Blonde (which will probably make it on on the opening night)
...and lots lots more.

I was told 'Jarl's not new when I showed a friend this list. No it's not, but it is the best sub 4% beer in Scotland (arguably the UK). I think that justifies any inclusion.

Opening night is April 16th (even the builder seemed to think that was OK), it's a Monday, so my advice is you take Tuesday off work. And Wednesday. And Thursday morning.

As for me, I start a new job tomorrow and I'm very much looking forward to it. Some very exciting things happening at Williams Bros, it was too good an opportunity to miss.

Friday, 17 February 2012

The worst beer I've ever had

Name the best beer you've ever had, now. Right, what is it? Still thinking aren't you.

I asked myself the same question a while ago predominantly because I could name the worst beer I'd ever had without hesitation. I didn't need to think about it, I knew it. I could still taste the damn thing.

The worst beer I'd ever had was called Macbeth by a Scottish brewery called Deeside and it was at best undrinkable. It was two years ago and I was in a bar called The Grill in Aberdeen on Union St. I had never had a Deeside beer before but I liked the pump clip and it wasn't Duechars, so I ordered a half. I left 9 10th's of it and all I remember is a hideous sugary liquid that should never have been called beer.

I've had a lot of beer since then. I've had plenty of beer I didn't really like but nothing provided a flavour that instantly transported me back to The Grill. Until last Wednesday.

The offending product this time was called Titan and apparently it is an 'Imperial Stout'. It is brewed by a small Scottish brewery called, erm, Deeside.

When I saw that the brewery who had made the worst beer I'd ever had had produced an Imperial Stout (on balance probably my favourite style of beer) I was intrigued. I'd avoided Deeside beers since that first experience but this I had to try. I waited several days for it to come on, and armed with some friends we pottered down. I was genuinely excited. I was excited because an Imperial Stout, whilst not being the easiest style to totally nail is a pretty difficult style to make a complete and utter balls of. How good or bad could it possibly be, it's a big stout! You don't see too many on cask in these parts and at 9% I had visions of Highland's Orkney Porter. I thought I knew what to expect, I was wrong.

Disappointed doesn't come close. It isn't an Imperial Stout, it's sort of ruby red in colour. It had that same repulsive sugary flavour that dominated the Macbeth. No chocolate notes, no roasted bitterness, no viscosity, no depth. Just a fairly thin mess of sugar. It smelt and tasted of burnt strawberries. It was, as one of my friends commented, revolting.

I feel a little bad because may be Deeside make some great beers and I've just been really unlucky. My overwhelming feeling however is that a beer like that should never find it's way in to anyone's bar. The brewer must have tasted it so I can only surmise that one of two things happened. 1. Christ it's bad but we need to sell it, or 2. Christ that's good, let's get selling. I'm not sure which is more worrying.

It has provided myself and my 3 friends with an experience we will never forget. It is by far the worst 'beer' I have ever tasted.

In the interest of balance we shared a Marble Decadence about half an hour later. Divine!

Sunday, 12 February 2012

The ignorance and arrogance of the luddites

I've just had a long chat with a good mate regarding unfined beer. He owns a brewery, one of the best and most progressive of the UK micro-breweries in fact and together we waxed lyrical about the accentuated flavours of unfined beer compared to the fined stuff.

We didn't say that beer was 'better' unfined, we just said the flavours were bigger and the mouth feel fuller. Unfined beer is definitely very different to fined beer in terms of taste, flavour, mouth feel and obviously appearance.

One tweet I read today from a CAMRA stalwart was 'unfined beer is an acting clever fad which brings nothing by way of flavour, confuses people and IS for geeks'. Apparently this person knows about beer, which I found quite surprising.

Firstly unfined beer is not a 'fad' in the same way that CAMRA will become very disappointed when they realise that craft keg isn't a fad either. CAMRA will cotton on to this at the same time they realise they have been irrelevant to the current fast moving UK micro scene for a quite some time.

Secondly unfined beer tastes VERY different to fined beer, it gives the beer a much bigger flavour. To say it does nothing in terms of flavour is very wrong. It's not your opinion, it's wrong. It is factually incorrect.

Thirdly, unfined beer does NOT confuse people (nor does unfiltered keg beer either, just to point that out). We have been doing taste tests in the Stockbridge Tap and the staff have been giving the customers all the information they need, including leaving samples of each beer in front of the taps to allow them to see the difference. They explain the differing aspects of the beer, then they allow the customer to taste the beer. The results? The unfined beer has been WAY more popular. If your customers are confused you're giving them no information, and that's the fault of the staff and the venue, not the brewer. That said, if you're a brewer wanting to trial something different, pick the right pub and publican.

Fourthly, unfined beer is NOT for geeks. It's for anyone interested in seeing what the difference between fined and unfined beer is. The beer world is changing and more people than CAMRA would like to hear about are genuinely interested in where their beer comes from, what it's made from and why it's different from another beer. CAMRA can disgree with that all they like, but I sell contemporary beer all day everyday for a living, and I know I'm right. I see daily changes in our industry.

The production of unfined beer is about nothing other than choice, something it seems CAMRA are keen to stamp out. The whole 'craft' movement (I dislike the term, but it provides a useful reference point so I'll use it for this) is based around choice, education, passion, diversity and most importantly great beer in as many formats as possible to anyone who is interested. We're not interested in dictating to drinkers, we simply give them a choice. Why? Because WE want a choice too. WE want to drink great beer and sometimes we want it cold and carbonated, sometimes unfined, sometimes filtered, sometimes not.

CAMRA advocate few if any of those things and actively try to bash forward thinking breweries down. As another tweet said 'There you go ****, all you need to do is educate your customers, or just give them what they want'. That's indicative of the CAMRA attitude, they think they can prescribe what drinkers want, without ever asking them. CAMRA say that beer should be clear and CAMRA say beer needs to be sessionable, and CAMRA say blah blah blah. CAMRA are nothing more than a self serving organisation more interested in their own pointless awards and stuffy predilections than actually asking the beer drinker what they would like.

Another amusing and nonsensical arguement I read was that unfined beer was an excuse for breweries to refuse to take back ullages. I can't remember the last time I had a call asking for beer to be uplifted, our beer is made properly and goes out in the condition any good publican would expect. Every so often you have a production issue, it happens and it's more likely to happen to a small brewer. That's the way of things. However, we're not going to make rubbish beer and then just say it's unfined, how would that benefit us as a producer?  Moreover  we're proud of our beers, and our directors, sales team and head brewer have more passion than to use a cynical ploy to try to punt out sub standard beer. If that is your experience of breweries as a publican, stop using those breweries and use breweries with more integrity.

I despair of CAMRA, the only negative comments about this unfined beer movement have been from CAMRA luddites. I'll tell you all now, you mean absolutely nothing to the majority of breweries who are leading the charge for new and exciting beers. The wild growth of our niche industry is testament to that. You can spout your arrogant ignorant propoganda all you like, but great beer talks a lot louder than an out of touch brigade of irrelevant dinosaurs who just can't accept that their fight is over, the battle is won and the war has moved on. The industry doesn't need CAMRA anymore, we don't care what you say or what you think. We're not interested in your rhetoric.

There is a new animal in our bars these days, an informed, intelligent new wave of interested beer drinker. A drinker who wants new experiences, wants to be amazed, educated, enthralled and engaged. We'll cater for them, because we share the same philosophy.

CAMRA can continue to give them 'what they want' without ever asking them.

Saturday, 14 January 2012

Breweries to watch out for in 2012

I've been reading a lot of blogs lately regarding the 'breweries to look out for in 2012' and I suppose it all depends on who you are and what you want from a brewery as to who you should be paying attention to.
A lot of them seem to be local specific, which makes sense if you're concentrating on microbreweries.

These are the breweries I will be looking at with interest this year, the breweries that I expect to do exciting things, grow or divert from their current tune and beat a new rhythm. A lot of them are established breweries, but breweries don't have to be new for them to be interesting.

1. The Kernel

Best brewery in the UK? I think so, and I think they are by a considerable distance. I'm not interested in the arguements about brewing one off beers and core ranges, volume producing etc. When I open a beer and it makes me sing on the inside I tend to think the brewer has done a good job. The Kernel beers do this more than any other brewery, so for me they are hands down the UK's beer producer.
This year will be an interesting time for The Kernel. A new kit is going in (Evin tweeted this morning a picture of it arriving) vastly increasing the capacity, I believe to 20bbl. For me this makes the Wizard of Druid St (I might have bastardised a nickname there, but I heard someone saying that or something similar) and his team the guys to watch.
More kit, more capacity, more staff, more beer, more distribution, more more more. More of this I can cope with.

Will the new kit and the volume affect quality and impact of the beers? Having met Evin a few times I think it is fair to say that he is not a man in a rush. I have no fear, only rabid excitment.

2. Highland Brewing Co.

In my opinion Rob Hill is the best brewer in Scotland. If you want your beer to be in exactly the condition you expect it to be in, when you expect it to be in that condition and you want your beer to be faultless then Rob is your man. The fact that Highland win almost every Scottish beer award they enter every year with virtually the same beers, is testament to the fact that if you're after cask ale the rest are still quite a way behind (Fyne Ales aside).
The beer market is beginning to change however, and Rob's son Lewis is champing at the bit to do some new things. They recently announced a new 9% Imperial Stout (not sure how that will differ from the Imperial Porter, but I'm sure time will tell) and having had a few chats with Lewis recently I'm quite excited by what is to come.

3. Brodies

Sometime in 2011 James Brodie took on a new recruit, Jonathon Queally. Jonathon is a stalwart of the London craft beer consumption scene and if I recall correctly, is addicted to Mikkeller. It appears Jonathon brews with the same passion and nihilistic enthusiasm that he drinks with. The brewery are apparently solely responsible for the worlds exciting hop shortage, which is a phrase that I like hearing. The Dalston Black IPA was a triumph and the collaboration with the Kernel 'Stella for Breakfast' was one of my beers of 2011. Expect great things.

4. Hardknott

This is based on one beer, Vitesse Noir. The Hardknott branding is a bit too 'BrewDog' and the beers thus far have left me not cold, but only lukewarm. Sort of fake style over limited substance. Vitesse Noir is an exceptional beer. I drank my first one with a friend and had a reaction I've never had from a beer before, silence. For a good 5 seconds neither of us said a word. If you can get that response you can make great beer and Hardknott is a small company clearly finding it's feet. On that basis I'll be watching closely and will happily try the rest of the range again.
The move to key keg products would probably benefit the majority of the beers due to the style. (Go on cask boys, have a crack at that statement).

5. Hawkshead

Owned by a very straight talking former journalist (Alex Brodie) with beers brewed by a man who has clearly become one with his brewkit (Matt Clarke) Hawkshead are in prime position to become a byword for quality in regional brewing. They aren't that big yet, but their beers are of the quality that they could become that way ober the next few years.
The core range is of the Highland/Fyne Ales level of quality and you'd be hard pushed to find a better session beer in the UK than Windermere Pale Ale. They already keg a lager, so expect to see more keg products as Matt starts to get more creative. The 2011 Brodies Reserve was an excellent dalliance in to whisky aging.

6. Moor

Justin Hawkes Somerset brewery is now a 20bbl craft beer haven with beers going all over the UK through the Mitchell and Butler cask ale network. Few cask clips make me go 'Ohhh' but when I see a Moor one, I do get a little bit giddy. My first experience of Moor was through some bottles kindly sent to me by Rich Burhouse and from that point I've been a massive fan. JJJ IPA is a stonker of a beer, although anything over 7.5% will now be for export only, thanks to the UK Government's tax on people with taste.
Moor produce kegged beer, they produce unfined cask beer and they are coming to a pub near you.... if you're lucky.

7. Camden Town Brewery.

The desire for growth at Camden is almost BrewDogesque. The man at the helm seemingly has money to burn and a very definite idea of where his brand is heading, up. The appointment of Mark Dredge at a time where social media plays such an important part in the growth of small breweries is a savvy one and if you head to the brewery you'll be able to hear Mark saying things like 'I'm not allowed to touch that' whenever he is near brewing equipment. I empathise wholeheartedly.
However, since his start date there has seemingly been a slight and positive shift in image as 'Camden Ink' is testament to. Speaking to the brewing team you get the feeling that increased capacity is going to allow them to come out of their collective shells and start brewing beers outside the core range. What they can produce remains to be seen, but they are collecting a team who on paper can really produce the goods, and Camden Ink is an excellent beer to start the revolution.

8. Summer Wine Brewery

Mad mad mad mad mad mad mad mad mad mad mad people. From the bizzare beer names (wait for the new one, it's completely bonkers) to the unrivalled desire to innovate. Whether it's beer or equipment you get the impression there is almost nothing these two can't design or make between them. Still small, still working on a kit held together with bungy straps SWB manage to produce a ludicrous number of beers. I am sure that brewery is some sort of TARDIS.
This is a brewery still finding their feet, but with a very definite goal. A brewer who is now nailing consistency helps and James seems to be on it these days. Small breweries need time to grow. I would hang my hat on SWB producing the most exciting beer of 2012.

9. Buxton

I'll confess to knowing the square route of knacker all about this brewery, but the beers I've had so far hold enough to make me think this is a brewery on the up. The Black Rocks I had on cask was awesome and the Axe Edge is a cracking double IPA. Former Thornbridge brewer James Kemp is at the helm, and when you look at where some past Thornbridge employees have ended up (BrewDog, Epic) you can justifiably have high hopes.The branding is a little way off, but small breweries have to start somewhere. Getting the beers right is key, they seem to have done that.

10. Black Isle Brewing Co.

I considered leaving us out of this because I didn't want this blog to become semi advertorial. I then considered what would I do as some one impartial. I'd put us in, and much higher up too.
The aquisition of Colin Stronge from Marble has had unforseen results and it's pretty evident to everyone I speak to about this coming year that I am stupidly excited. You don't have to like every beer your brewery produces, but you do have to believe in every beer you produce. If you think one of your beers isn't up to scratch, you have to change it. We had some good beers and some great beers. We also had a couple of shockers that for reasons we couldn't explain sold really well. Colin has gone about the slowly slowly catchy monkey business of make subtle changes with each brew to gradually tweak the beers. There is only one we are not happy with now, and that's the next change to be made.
We have one cracking distribution deal in place with Adnams and hopefully another with a very well known purveyor of craft beer coming soon. The brand and beers are evolving.

So they are my 10 breweries to watch in 2012. I have absolutely no doubt I'm wrong. There are plenty of other breweries I will be watching such as Magic Rock, Thornbridge, BrewDog, Fyne Ales, Tempest etc. It's an exciting time.