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Friday, 21 November 2014

Meet the Brewer



As it is only five minutes walk from where I live, I popped along to the Vauxhall Inn last night in order to attend a “Meet the Brewer” evening. The event was organised by local boys, Tonbridge Brewery in order to promote their beers and to help people learn a bit more about all the things which go into the brewing of a good pint.

Tonbridge Brewery was established in March 2010 by Paul Bournazian in an outbuilding adjacent to his home in Capel, just outside Tonbridge. Starting with a 4 BBl plant, the company rapidly expanded and by April 2013 had outgrown its original home. This precipitated a move to new premises in nearby East Peckham, where a 12 BBL plant was installed.

The company’s aim is to produce distinctive, high quality ales at competitive prices and provide a great service to its customers. The beers are predominantly brewed with Kent grown hops and a strain of live yeast that originated from the former Barclay Perkins Brewery in Southwark. Tonbridge Brewery believe that this yeast adds individual character and great condition to its beers, which have established an excellent reputation with Kentish drinker; with over 200 pubs and clubs now supplied.
  
When I arrived at the Vauxhall, Paul and his new brewer Dave had their presentation set up on a couple of tables. All that was needed now were some interested customers. I said hello to Paul, who I have known since he first started out, and was introduced to new boy, Dave. Dave has joined from Old Dairy Brewery, where he was one of a team of brewers who helped create the Old Dairy taste and range. He is now getting stuck into Tonbridge’s range of seven cask beers, and will be working closely with Paul to come up with some new and innovative brews.

Laid out in dishes on the tables were examples of different malts and hops, for people to sample or, in the case of the hops, sniff. The only trouble was apart from me, there wasn't anyone else there to try the ingredients! There were obviously people in the pub, but most of them were either lager drinkers, diners or a combination of the two. Undeterred Paul and Dave decided to wait a while, hoping that a few more people would show up.

I later found out that there was a new pub opening in Tunbridge Wells that night and that most of my fellow CAMRA members were over there. I’ll find out this weekend whether or not the pub was offering free drink! That wasn’t the only factor though not working in Paul’s favour, as whilst the pub had advertised the event, they had neglected to display the start time.

Not a very auspicious start, but I nevertheless spent an interesting evening chatting to Paul and Dave, about brewing, different beers, other brewers plus local pubs and their landlords. There were two Tonbridge beers on sale at the bar; the ever popular 3.8% Copper Nob, plus seasonal dark beer, the 4.2% Ebony Moon. The latter is a rich, dark porter hopped with locally-grown Bramling Cross hops. These impart a blackcurrant taste which perfectly complements the roasted malts used in the beer. I stuck on this excellent dark beer all evening; such was its flavour and quality.

Eventually, just as Paul and Dave were thinking of calling it a night, a couple of drinkers who I’d noticed earlier, sharing a bottle of wine, wandered over to see what the table display was all about. Paul talked them through the different hops (five varieties in total), inviting them to “rub and sniff”. The hops ranged from traditional Fuggles and Goldings, through to aromatic newcomer, Citra. In between were newer varieties such as Challenger and First Gold. One fact which surprised me is that Paul sources his Fuggles from the Alsace region of France, as they are virtually impossible to obtain in this country, due to problems with disease.

He then moved on to malts which form both the body and the colour of the beer, with pale, crystal and chocolate malts for us to try, along with roasted barley. I think the two late-comers left suitably impressed and with their beer knowledge enhanced, but it was just a pity there weren’t a few more punters there to share Paul and Dave’s enthusiasm and passion for brewing.

The Vauxhall Inn, which was the venue for the evening, is an enlarged former coaching inn, right on the edge of Tonbridge, on the old LondonHastings road. Today it forms part of the Chef & Brewer chain, although when I first moved to Tonbridge it was a much smaller, and more basic Whitbread pub. I learned from Paul that the pub is allowed to stock quite a range of different ales, including Tonbridge beers, which are sourced through the SIBA scheme. It was pleasant and relaxing there last night, sitting in front of the log-burner in the surroundings of the heavily-beamed, centuries old bar, and at just under £3.60 a pint, it wasn’t too badly priced for the areas either. I shall be making a return visit; especially if there’s more Ebony Moon on tap!

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Beer52.com Re-visited



Well those good people at Beer52.com have kindly sent me another case of beers to review. Their most recent selection has seen the company cast its net further a field to encompass countries such as Spain, Sweden and even Iceland, as well as places nearer to home, such as France and Germany.  It’s a real mixed case, with some really interesting beers, so without further ado, here are my thoughts on the eight beers.


Oppigårds Bryggeri – Golden Ale 5.2% - an excellent golden ale from Sweden. Pours nice and clear in the glass, with a loose foamy head. Some aroma from the Cascade hops which are added late in the boil, but these are more prevalent in the taste. Overall an excellent, refreshing beer, with a nice dry bitterness offset by the sweet juicy malt. This beer really hits the spot as far as I am concerned, but as I’m thinking of going there next year, I wonder how much a bottle costs in Sweden?

Meduz Blonde 5.0% - a pale, bottle-conditioned beer from the town of Uzès in the south of France. Top-fermented and un-pasteurised, the brewery claim Meduz beers are specially developed by their Brewmaster in the spirit of Belgian beers and those of Northern France.

Pleasant enough, with some notes of citrus and fresh fruit to add interest to the typically northern French style of this beer.

RedWillow Brewery Wreckless Pale Ale 4.8% -   nicely presented, light-amber coloured, pale ale, from Macclesfield-based RedWillow.  Well-balanced with citrus and other fruit aromas from the Amarillo and Citra hops used in the brew, and these find their way into the taste of the beer in the glass.
An excellent beer; bitter but without being over-powering and with just the right balance between the malt and hops.

Belhaven Brewery Scottish Oat Stout 7.0% - deep, dark and intense, according to the label, and the brewery is right. With intense roasted coffee and dark chocolate notes, this complex beer is ideal for enjoying on a cold autumn evening. The mash includes roasted barley, oats, plus three types of malt, to produce a multi-layered, silky-smooth beer, which is very enjoyable.
 
A turn-up for the books here. Belhaven are brewing giant, Greene King’s Scottish subsidiary, better known for their range of easy drinking, Scottish-style pale ales, than this complex and intense beer; but full marks for coming up with this one. Definitely a beer worthy of wider distribution.

Freigeist Bierkultur Abraxxxas 6.0% a surprisingly good modern interpretation of an old German beer style, known as “Lichtenhainer Weiße”, a smoked sour, wheat beer.

Cloudy, as one would expect from a wheat beer, with hints of smokiness lurking behind the tartness. Surprisingly refreshing, with nothing to suggest this is a six percent beer. Brewed by an off-shoot of Cologne’s experimental brewery, Braustelle, whose mission is to “break the chains of industrial brewing by reviving and updating Germany’s unique and historical beer styles.” They’ve certainly succeeded with this one!

Einstök Icelandic Toasted Porter 6.0% - a first for me, a beer from Iceland! The  Einstök Brewery is situated just 60 miles south of the Arctic Circle and uses  what the brewery describe as some of the purest water on earth to brew this beer.

A real winner, as far as I am concerned; jet black in colour, rich, thick and velvety smooth. Roast notes combine with toffee and rich dark chocolate, to make this excellent bottle-conditioned porter dangerously drinkable.

Barcelona Beer Company Cerdos Voladores 6.0% - described as the company’s rowdiest and most likeable craft beer, this amber coloured pale ale, certainly packs in the hops. Bitter, but with plenty of juicy malt to balance, a beer to enjoy with food, or in the company of friends.

It certainly does what it says on the tin; or should that be bottle! I'm off to Barcelona at the end of the month, so I'll be keeping an eye out for this brewery and its beers.

Ascendancy
Panda Frog Project Ascendancy 7.4% - brewed by the “experimental arm” of Mordue Brewery, and billed as a Belgian Double IPA – Weizen Hybrid, this beer is probably a touch too experimental for my liking!

Pours with virtually no head, and with surprisingly little condition either. This is all the more puzzling, seeing as it is a bottle-conditioned beer Hops are certainly to the fore; both in the aroma and the taste, and there is an underlying tone of fruity sourness. My thoughts are that someone is trying to be just that little bit too clever, and it hasn’t worked; certainly not for me.

It was good to try the beer, and it’s certainly not bad enough to pour away or anything, but one is definitely enough! 

 
With over 16,000 members, Beer52.com is now the world's largest and fastest-growing craft beer community, offering members, each month, a range of different, carefully-selected, small-batch beers from around the world. If you fancy giving the company a try, click on the link here to their website, then enter code BAILEY10. This will get you £10 off your first box, making it £14 instead of £24 for the 8 beers. You will also receive free delivery, plus a copy of the company's new craft beer magazine, 'Ferment'. This 24-page magazine is packed with interesting and informative articles about  craft-beer, as well as containing background information about the beers in your case.

Disclosure: This is the third case of beers I have received from Beer52.com. Like previous reviews I've conducted, this latest one is completely impartial and reflects my true and measured opinions on each of the eight beers sampled.


Sunday, 16 November 2014

Shep's Heritage Beers at Lidl



Discount supermarket, Lidl, have once again come up trumps in the bargain beer stakes. This time it’s two beers from the Shepherd Neame Heritage Range; namely India Pale Ale 6.1% and Double Stout 5.2%. The beers are on sale at just £1.49 each; a saving of 50-60p compared to other supermarkets which stock them.

Not my favourite brewery, of course, but the higher gravities of these two beers, compared to the normal stuff churned out by Sheps, means there’s a lot less chance of the brewery’s rather voracious, house yeast ruining them. (Most Shepherd Neame beers suffer from being too attenuated – fermented right out, leaving virtually no residual sugars, and therefore no body in the finished beer. The result; a thin, very dry and harsh-tasting beer).

I picked up an eight-bottle case of the stout this morning, and am tempted to do the same with a case of the India Pale Ale, before stocks run out. I do sometimes wonder about Sheps and their relationship with Lidl, as the latter often have “one-off” special brews from Sheps on sale by the pallet load. In the main these are beers in the 3.8% bracket, and despite retailing at just 99p a bottle, are not normally worth buying, for reasons stated above.

The two “heritage beers” though are in a different league; reputedly being based on old 19th Century recipes that were recently discovered in the brewery archives. I’m not quite sure how they ended up being discounted in Lidl though, unless the beers have not been selling as well as Shep’s hoped, and they needed to sell them off cheap in order to shift them.

The latter scenario is unlikely though, as the stout at least has plenty of shelf life, with an expiry showing of October 2015. Whatever the reason, if you fancy picking up these beers at a reduced price, then get down to your nearest Lidl.

The illustrations above are pump-clips for the draught versions of these two beers, which are brewed to a lower gravity than their bottled counterparts.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Single-Hop Beers



In a recent post I praised the virtues of “Green-hopped” beer, describing this relatively new phenomenon as one of the most exciting developments of recent years in brewing. Unfortunately green-hopping has been paralleled by a less welcome development, and one which to me seems more of a gimmick than anything else.


I am talking about “single-varietal” hop beers, i.e. beers that are bittered with just one variety of hops, rather than the more usual practice of balancing the flavours by using several. I was reminded of this yesterday, whilst browsing the bottled beers on sale in M&S. To my amazement there were five different single variety hop beers on the shelves; each beer being brewed using a different hop variety and by a different brewer.

The hops used are Sovereign, Citra, Brewers Gold (Hallertau), Cascade and Mosaic. The last named hop is a relative newcomer on the scene, following on from Citra and Cascade, which are citrus-flavoured varieties from North America. The brewers concerned are Elgoods, Oakham, Crouch Vale, Castle Rock and Adnams.

Part of the M&S range of single-hop beers
I remember M & S running a promotion on the first four of these beers some 18 months or so ago. My wife bought me a few to try, and with the exception of the Citra beer, I was singularly unimpressed. I would describe them as “one-dimensional”, which is hardly surprising. The established brewing practice has been, for many decades, to brew using a combination of hops; adding some for bitterness and some for aroma. There will also be several additions throughout the boil, with bittering hops added to the copper at the beginning, and aroma hops towards the end.

Single varietal hop beers fly in the face of decades of brewing wisdom, so bearing in mind that the varieties used will either be strong on bitterness or strong on aroma, is it any wonder the resultant beers lack complexity and appear very “one-dimensional”.

I am surprised that these five beers still form part of the M&S range. One of our larger local brewers, Westerham, had a rolling programme a few years ago of brewing a different single varietal hop beer every month. I have to say I was not overly impressed with the ones I tried, and the fact they have all been quietly dropped from the range suggests the drinking public thought the same way about them.

We only have to look to the wine industry in order to see similar parallels. A decade or so ago Chardonnay was all the range, with the chattering classes raving over wines produced from this particular grape variety. Several years later, attention shifted to Pinot Grigio. As I’m no longer involved in the of-licence trade, and I probably drink as much wine in a year than your average Frenchman drinks in a week, I have no idea as to which grape variety is the current “flavour of the month”.

What I do know is that whilst very good wines can be produced from a single grape variety (white Burgundies spring to mind here), such wines are usually at the top end of the market, where a whole host of other factors, such as climate, soil etc (the famous “terroir”), come into play. When bog standard plonk is produced from just one grape variety, the results are often less impressive, although much less so than with single varietal hop beers.

The question to ask then is “What future, if any, for single varietal hop beers?” Are they just a fad, or are they an important tool when it comes to educating the beer drinking public about the different varieties of hops that are now available, and the effects they have on both aroma and flavour?


Saturday, 8 November 2014

Getting the Juices Flowing



“A Moveable Feast” is the title of a series of observations and impressions written by Ernest Hemingway. Published in 1960, the writings look back at Hemingway’s time in Paris, during the years 1921-1926, when he was a young and virtually unknown writer, living in a cold and draughty top-floor garret with his wife and young son.

Hemingway of course, was not the only literary figure living in Paris at this time; he shared the city with such luminaries as James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Wyndham Lewis and Gertrude Stein. “A Moveable Feast” is a fascinating glimpse into a long vanished world; a world of boozy and leisurely lunches and long café nights, of hanging around in bookstores to escape the cold and windswept streets outside and of writing long into the night. “Une Génération Perdue”"a lost generation", was how this group of writers and artists were often referred to, and it is perhaps no surprise to learn that drink, and often rather a lot of drink, played a significant part in the lives of Hemingway and many of his contemporaries.

It might seem shocking to admit, but like the "lost generation", I find my creative juices are at their most abundant after I have had a drink or two. No more than a couple of glasses of beer, otherwise I start losing focus on what I am trying to say, but I sometimes wonder as to why this might be? Is it because, in moderation, alcohol loosens up people’s inhibitions, or are there other reason? Perhaps the drink just helps people relax more, so their minds are not cluttered up with everyday thoughts. Does it allow them to focus on what they really want to say, rather than having to worry about that un-finished work project, the bills that need  paying or that squeaky garden gate that needs oiling?
 
I’m certain I am not alone in thinking this; neither am I alone in experiencing an upsurge in creativity after a beer or two. Do other Bloggers feel the same, I wonder?

“A Moveable Feast” is  probably my favourite book from one of my favourite writers. It provides a fascinating glimpse into a world that was a mixture of simple pleasures and decadent delights. A world free from political correctness, health and safety and the Nanny State. A world where people were left to get on and live their lives as they saw fit. In short, not just the world of “the lost generation”, but a lost world altogether.
 

Thursday, 6 November 2014

A Decent Glass at Last!



I’ve been searching for a decent beer “tasting” glass for some time now, unaware that the answer to my quest lay much closer to home than I thought. For years I’ve been using a classic, straight-sided pint glass, courtesy of local brewers, Larkins. It’s great for volume drinking, but as a glass designed to bring out the best in a beer in terms of appearance, aroma, condition and taste, it leaves a lot to be desired.

Leffe presentation set
I knew the answer lay in a “chalice-style” glass, and the obvious place to source one seemed to be Belgium. A work colleague was paying a brief visit to the country back in the summer, so I asked her to look out for a suitable glass for me. To my colleague’s  great credit, seeing as she knows next to nothing about beer, she brought me back a presentation gift box, produced by Leffe which not only has two Leffe branded, chalice-style glasses, but also four different bottles of Leffe beer.  Most UK drinkers will be familiar with two of the bottles; Blond and Bruin, but also included were two other Leffe beers which I hadn’t come across before; Tripel at 8.5% ABV, and Rituel 9˚at 9.0% ABV.
  

I haven’t drunk these potent beers yet, but I look forward to doing so, especially as we’re into November now and the mercury has plummeted. More to the point, as far as this post is concerned, I haven’t tried the glasses either! They are perhaps more goblet than chalice, but have an attractive motif, and would grace any bar, or indeed dining table, but the real reason I haven’t made use of them is their wide bowl shape is not conducive to retaining, or indeed concentrating beer aromas.

Having been a participant in a couple of training sessions for CAMRA Beer Tasting Panel members, I know these things, and I therefore knew exactly the type of glass I was after.

After lots of fruitless scouring through various charity shops; an often over-looked but sometimes surprising source of unusual glasses, I had a look on Amazon; again a useful and surprising market place for branded beer glasses. Most of the glasses produced by the well-known Trappist brewers were featured, along with examples from several lesser known Belgian brewers. In a deliberate attempt to make each one stand out they were all subtly different from each other, with two main styles emerging – either chalice type or thistle shape. What I was really after was something in between the two!

The right glass, at last!
After I had almost given up, salvation came in the form of the lined half-pint “tasting” glasses, produced for use at our recent CAMRA Beer Festival, at the Spa Valley Railway. Tall and slim, with a reasonably sized bowl above the stem, which tapers inwards, and then out again in a thistle style, so as to form a “trap” which concentrates aroma, and maintains condition within the beer. The glass also holds significantly more than half a pint, making it suitable for beers packaged in the increasingly popular 330ml size bottles.

For the tasting and enjoying of speciality beers, especially the stronger ones, this glass is ideal. But for everyday quaffing, I’ll be sticking with my trusty straight-sided pint glass.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

In Praise of Green-Hopped Beer



For the past two years running I’ve written a post or two about Kent Green Hop Beer Fortnight .  For those who haven't been paying attention, Kent Green Hop Beer is beer made with fresh, or green Kentish hops, rather than using hops that have been dried, as is more traditional in brewing. The resulting beers have a characteristic fresh taste because the green hops used contain oils and other aroma compounds that are normally lost when hops are dried. The brewers make sure the hops are as fresh as possible by using them within 12 hours of being picked.

Hops are used as the ‘seasoning’ rather the main ingredient in beer, and impart tanginess, bitterness and aroma. When beers are brewed with green hops, the fact the hops are fresh and un-processed means they are an unknown quantity. This combined with the influence of the weather, and other seasonal factors, on their growing period ensures the flavour of the resultant beer will be different each year. As brewers are normally at pains to ensure their beers taste the same every time, these factors add a variety and interest which would not normally be present.

Almost every brewery in Kent makes at least one green-hoppedsome make several, and with over 20 breweries in the county that’s a large range of beers! In fact more than 30 were brewed this year, and with each brewer creating their own recipe, they were all different as well.

In order to showcase these beers, and bring them to the attention of the public at large, the Kent breweries have banded together to set up Kent Green Hop Beer Fortnight. This officially begins at the Canterbury Food & Drink Festival; held this year on Friday 26th September 2014. This is the only occasion and location when all (or nearly all!) Kent Green Hop Beers are available in the same place at the same time. Select pubs throughout the county also stock Kent Green Hop Beers throughout the two week period following the festival, ending just before the middle of October.

Of course green-hopped beers aren’t confined to the Garden of England alone; brewers as far distant as Ilkley in Yorkshire have brewed their own versions, as have brewers in the Thames Valley and  those based in England’s other main hop-growing area – the counties of Herefordshire and Worcestershire. It is therefore worth noting that the Teme Valley Brewery, who are based at The Talbot at Knightwick in Worcestershire, run their own Green Hop Beer Festival which is of a size to rival that of the Kent one. This year’s event featured around 35 green-hopped beers sourced mainly, but not exclusively, from local brewers.

So do green-hopped beers taste different to more conventional ones? The short answer is yes, but the difference is perhaps rather more subtle than that between green tea and normal dried tea. Green-hopped beers have a definite resinous taste which is almost certainly due to the abundance of hop oils and other flavouring compounds. These are elements which are either diminished, or lost altogether during the normal drying process. Friends have commented on a distinct mouth-feel to the beer, and I have noticed this too in the form of a slight furriness on the tongue and the roof of my mouth. Whatever the difference, the fact that brewing with green hops can only be done during harvest, creates a very special beer with a truly unique flavour.

.The idea of green-hopped beers has now spread far beyond these shores, with brewers in New Zealand now producing their own version of these beers. A number of American brewers also produce what is known as a “Wet-Hopped Beer”; sometimes referred to as a “Harvest Ale”. As far as I can tell, these are beers brewed using fresh, un-dried hops, so to my mind, at least, they are equivalent to our green-hopped ales.

The very first green-hopped beer, certainly in the modern era, was surprisingly not brewed in a hop-growing area, but was instead conceived by Wadworth of Devizes, in Wiltshire. The company’s Malt & Hops was the original, and some would say, still the best, green- hopped beer. Somewhat surprisingly, the beer has been brewed on an annual basis for the past 22 years; the first batch having been brewed as long ago as 1992! In view of this achievement, the name of the beer has now been changed to The Original Green Hopped Beer.


Wadworth brew this beer in their traditional old Victorian brew-house, which particularly lends itself to the green hop brewing process. The malt used is a pale ale malt with just a hint of crystal, and the main hop used is Earlybird Goldings. Once brewed the beer is stored in casks for a few days to obtain natural conditioning and can be drunk almost immediately the yeast has settled out.

Some might dismiss the whole “green-hopped” thing as just another publicity exercise; with a few people going even further, comparing it to the media circus which surrounded Beaujolais Nouveau, a decade or so ago. However, unlike the marketing of an immature and, at times, rather thin red wine, which incidentally the French thought we were crazy to go chasing after, green-hoped beers are all about the heritage and future of Britain’s hop-growing industry.

This isn't just about grabbing a seasonal product while you can: English hops are in desperate need of a boost. Hop acreage has dropped from a high of 71,189 acres in 1878 to around 2,500 now, and this decline has continued in recent years by the increasing popularity of hops from places like America and New Zealand. The demand for the citrus and tropical fruit flavours imparted by these hops shows no sign of abating, and is side-lining the earthy, floral, hedgerow fruitiness of traditional English varieties. Anything which helps reverse this trend, by encouraging an interest in our home-grown varieties, has to be encouraged and is surely worthy of the support of every English beer drinker.