On the twiss in York

I’m not sure what the collective noun would be for a group of beer writers – although there are so many archaic terms relating to brewing that at least one of them might fit (a ‘sparge’ of beer writers?). An alternative would be a ‘twissup’ of beer writers; one of which took place in the fine city of York over the weekend. A Twissup is Twitter-planned meet-up (or p*ss-up, if you prefer) of assorted bloggers who arrive en masse in a startled city to swap stories, put faces to websites, and of course drink plenty of beer. We’re big fans of the York drinking scene here at the BeerCast, so Shovels and myself went down to join in.

The very long day began at noon with a tour of the York Brewery. We’ve done that before, but it’s always interesting to poke around a brewery, and Mick the head brewer was so amusing in his delivery that the tour was highly entertaining. It was bookended by a couple of their products of course, so beforehand we sampled Motueka – which Mick cheerfully said he could never pronounce and had never even tried; and after the tour we tried First Light. Both were what York do best – pale golden session beers, and the frankly delicious Motueka was definitely the pick.

From there, it was through a Narnia-esque hidden passage to the back of Brigantes and a pretty average Brass Monkey Bitter, which had a unusual coppery flavour. Cafe Pivni (Pivo as was) was the next destination – one of our favourite drinking destinations in York, as there’s always something interesting on. Even a large array of BrewDog beers didn’t slow us down as there was plenty more on offer. I say this because of course coming down from Scotland we have many opportunities to sample BrewDog’s beer – but less to try Camden Town’s Camden Pale Ale, which was lovely. Pivni had only last week replaced Sierra Nevada Pale Ale with this British equivalent, and I think others agree with us that it was a great decision, even considering the class of SNPA.

Also at Pivni we caught up with Ann from the Hardknott Brewery – part of Cumbria’s flourishing microbrewery scene. Keen to differentiate themselves from the others, Hardknott concentrate on more unusual brews – as they say “there’s more to beer than just ale”. While we were chatting to Ann about the brewery, she passed round some samples of their 2010 Ӕther Blӕc, a rich and boozy barrel aged imperial stout. We’d actually already got hold of four of their beers for a future podcast, so check back in a few weeks for our Hardknott Brewery Showcase.

After a brief pitstop at the House of the Trembling Madness for a pint of Brooklyn Lager, the next stop was the Rook and Gaskill just outside the city walls. With the ceiling adorned with old pump clips, it reminded me of the Market Porter in Borough, and had a huge range of ales on. By this point we were chatting to members of the York University Real Ale Society and to Gavin Aitchison, beer columnist of the York Press. With several local guides we then launched into an impromptu outer walls pub crawl, scurrying over the road to the Waggon and Horses (which according to Beer in the Evening is 0.0 miles away).

With Gavin having taken everyone under his wing, we had a great couple of darker ales in the Waggon, served by the friendly landlord Paul Marshall. Ascot Penguin Porter and Revolutions Kraftwerk both went down really well, the latter from a music-themed brewery that specialises in dark ales, and only produces beers with abv’s of 3.3, 4.5 and 7.8% to match the old vinyl notations. Kraftwerk was an extremely drinkable brown (or ‘Braun’) ale with a lovely bitter malty finish.

From there, we still had another four pubs to visit, so we headed through to the Phoenix, and then the Slip, the Swan and finally the Golden Ball. York has some fantastic historical pubs in the city centre – such as the classic Blue Bell – but those just outside the walls also have many of the original features, or like the Phoenix have had them restored. We’ll be putting together another edition of our York Pub Guide to take these into account, as they all deserve a visit. As for the beers, Ilkley Mary Jane, Five Towns Vintage 51, Salamander Dr Awkward and Osset Corker rounded off the day in some style.

So that was it for the twissup – twelve hours of drinking and chatting, during which time we managed to get through sixteen beers and ten pubs. Many thanks to Gavin and the lads from the York Real Ale Society for the evening pub tour, and to everyone Shovels and myself chatted to during the course of the day/night. The next twissup is rumoured to be in Edinburgh in October – being the BeerCast’s hometown expect us to be leading the course around several of our local pubs…

First look…BrewDog Abstrakt AB:05

Last night Holyrood 9A saw the Edinburgh launch of BrewDog’s latest in their Abstrakt concept beer range, AB:05 – a 12.5% Belgian-style imperial stout aged on coconut and cacao. BrewDog split opinions – they revel in doing so – but across the beerosphere the Abstrakt series seems to have been met with almost universal praise. Indeed, we recently named the previous release AB:04 as our best British bottled beer. Being a BrewDog launch there were all kinds of other things on at the same time, mostly involving a box of shot glasses and some careful pouring.

First up we tackled one of BrewDog’s latest decisions – and unlike Abstrakt it’s one that hasn’t won everyone over. Their flagship Punk IPA had a change of recipe and was lowered in abv from 6.0% to 5.4%. Also recently launched in cans at 5.6% (which is the version bloggers seem to find unusual), there has been much discussion over the possible reasons for the change. A refreshed outlook for their most important beer? Or modifying a recipe to cut down on inconsistency?

The last couple of bottles of old Punk I had were incredibly biting, so much so that it really put me off. Trying the new version – on keg of course, rather than bottled – it was noticeably different. Gone is that bitter astingency at the back, instead there’s a softer fruit finish with a touch of sweetness. The bitterness is still there, but the whole thing feels a lot more balanced. I don’t think many people would notice the drop in strength – and I’ve yet to try the canned version – but the new keg Punk is much nicer.

Then it was out with the shot glasses on onto ‘IPA is Dead’. Four base 7.5% India Pale Ales, each one hopped and then double dry hopped with a single variety – Bramling Cross, Citra, Nelson Sauvin or Sorachi Ace. The differences the specific hops impart are really quite striking – from the sparky grapefruit of Citra (very much the hop du jour), to the vinous Nelson Sauvin. I won’t go into more detail here, as next week we’ll be releasing a special BeerCast of the IPA is Dead series – so stay tuned for that.

The main event was of course the launch of AB:05 – pictured in grainy cameraphone glory above. In truth, 05 is even more black than the picture makes it look – it sucks light from the room in a menacing fashion. Thick and viscous and with almost no head from the keg, the aromas are pretty weighty, as you’d expect. Dark chocolate and booze, a touch of smoke – not much coconut on the nose. Or the taste really, I struggled to pick out the coconut at all. At first it’s bitter, then the sweetness appears and leads into a smoky aftertaste with a really long finish. Hints of mocha coffee and rum as well – it’s complex stuff indeed.

BrewDog Official Website

Battersea Beer Festival

The twenty-first Battersea Beer Festival was held last week, and as the stars had aligned to put me in London for work, I decided to wander along to check it out. The aptly named Grand Hall of Battersea Arts Centre hosted the event, which even on a random Thursday afternoon was remarkably well attended. Coming down from Scotland, the lineup was full of breweries that had never crossed my path before – so pretty much everything I sampled was going to be new. After finding a free seat by one of the side doors, it was time to get into the action.

1. Studland Bay Wrecked (4.5%)
Isle of Purbeck Brewery, Dorset
The name of this beer caught my eye, and as I knew nothing about the producer, it was first into my pint glass. The Isle of Purbeck brewery are a micro based at the historic Bankes Arms in Dorset, which dates back to 1549. Overlooking Studland Bay just north of Swanage, the pub must have witnessed plenty of shipwrecks over the years, and the name of their amber ale reflects this. It came almost totally flat, and poured a brownish red colour. Sweet, slightly toffee aromas competed with some malt and general bitterness. Caramel dominated on the palate with a thin middle, leading to a bitter aftertaste. A nice enough beer, but one that maybe needed a bit more oomph to set it off.

2. Cascade Pale Ale (4.8%)
Saltaire Brewery, West Yorkshire
I have heard of Shipley’s Saltaire Brewery – although only through watching the Oz Clarke and Hugh Dennis programme on BBC2. Being something of the hop fan a beer called Cascade Pale Ale just shouted at me to be sampled, so it was my second of the afternoon. I’m extremely glad it was, as it was fantastic. Golden yellow with really nice classic Cascade aromas – it was pretty big on the citrus for a sub 5% beer. Smooth and sweet, lovely orange citrus fruit on the palate, a very impressive beer indeed.

3. Natterjack (4.3%)
Southport Brewery, Lancashire
Being a proud Lancastrian, beers from the red rose county always draw me towards them, and one named after one of our rarest amphibians was the next beer I went for. The brewery started in 2004 in the seaside town of Southport – about 20miles from where I was born. The sandy dunes of the Central Lancashire riviera provide plenty of habitat for toads, and Natterjack is a slightly thin but eminently drinkable bitter. The tasting notes in the programme said ‘fruit notes and hint of coffee’ – there was a bitter astringency at the end, but that was about it.

4. Anastasia’s Exile Stout (5.0%)
Ascot Ales, Surrey
On to darker things, with a couple of stouts to finish. Ascot is within ‘LocAle’ distance of Battersea according to the programme guide – thirty miles or so as the crow flies. Their Exile Stout began as a seasonal, but has been fitted in to their regular lineup due to it’s popularity. I can see why, as it was pretty interesting. Dark, roasty aromas carried into the taste, which finished on bitter coffee and a touch of ash at the end.

5. Sargeant Pepper’s Stout (5.5%)
Spire Brewery, Derbyshire
The highlight of BeerCast #38 back in August 2009 was the black and green peppercorn infused Route des Épices from exclamation-happy Quebec brewpub Dieu du Ciel! It’s been a while, but finding another pepper beer at the Battersea festival was something of a surprise. Hailing from Chesterfield rather than Montreal, Spire add freshly ground black pepper to a Maris Otter and Chocolate malt stout. It’s not quite as thick and creamy as the Canadian, but the peppery kick to the finish is fantastic, it really tingles the back of the throat. A great way to end the festival.

BeerCast #58 – The Long Americans

BeerCast 58, and on this particular podcast we deal with some extremely lengthily-titled Americans. Shovels went on a pre-Christmas sun trip to Florida, and as we’re never off-duty brought back a selection of strong American craft beers for us to review – not to mention the receipts for a $130 round trip to get them. We open up the show with Sierra Nevada Southern Hemisphere Harvest 2010 (6.7%), before moving up the west coast to Oregon for Rogue Dry Hopped St. Rogue Red Ale (5.2%) – a malty red ale to balance the pale-heavy podcast. Next beer up is Hoppin’ Frog Hoppin’ to Heaven IPA (6.8%) from Akron in Ohio, before we finish on the strongest of the night – Southern Tier UnEarthly Imperial IPA (11.0%). Will his expensive beer run have been worth it? Joining Shovels are Grooben, Richard, and MrB.

1. Southern Hemisphere Harvest 2010
Sierra Nevada Brewing Co, Chico, California.
22oz US glass bottle

On the 5th of November 1980, the Sierra Nevada brewery produced the first batch of their now-famous Pale Ale. Founded just the year before in Chico by ex-homebrewer Ken Grossman, they have gone on to become one of the largest and highest rated breweries in America. We wouldn’t be any kind of beer website not to feature plenty of SN output – we sampled their Porter in BeerCast #21 and their Estate 2009 in BeerCast #50 – the autumnal version of the beer we sample tonight. Fresh hops from New Zealand are freighted to California for a spring Harvest ale from the Southern Hemisphere.

What They Say
“Robust hop character presents an intriguing floral-citrus aroma leading to layers of fresh-hop spiciness. Enjoy!” [Official Website]

What We Say
Richard – Has a vinous, winey character and I think it’s very very nice 9
Shovels – I shouldn’t compare to the Harvest, but I just prefer that
MrB – SN grow hops, so why ship them from NZ? Is there that striking a difference? I’m loving the beer but I’m not getting the point
Grooben – Tough to distinguish from the other, I’m not complaining 8

2. Dry Hopped St. Rogue Red Ale
Rogue Ales, Newport, Oregon.
22oz US glass bottle

Rogue began life in the Oregon city of Ashland in 1988. A group of college friends decided to make the familiar jump from homebrewing into something more serious – it must have helped that one of them was also an accountant. After less than a year in Ashland they relocated to larger premises in coastal Newport, and have since gone from strength to strength, having produced over sixty beers, and won countless awards. Fond of long names, we sampled their Morimoto Black Obi Soba Ale in BeerCast #53, and this time we get to grips with their dry hopped red ale, St Rogue.

What They Say
“Reddish copper in color, a roasty malt flavor with a hoppy sprucy finish.” [Official Website]

What We Say
Grooben – It’s not strong, but has a beautiful rounded maltiness
MrB – I wish there was a bit more sparkle to it, but it’s amazing
Shovels – Subtle and mild, I really love the aroma
Richard – I like that sweet maltiness that doesn’t take over

3. Hoppin’ to Heaven IPA
Hoppin’ Frog Brewery, Akron, Ohio.
22oz US glass bottle

Continuing our theme, Hoppin’ Frog were founded in 2006 by another ex-homebrewer, Fred Karm. After brewing his own back in the 90’s, he worked for Akron area microbrewpub Thirsty Dog, until they ceased production in 2005. Spotting an opportunity, Fred bought the brewing gear and set up on his own. Having been nicknamed ‘the frog’ because of his mastery of hops, he named the new venture Hoppin’ Frog. Within two years, Fred had to expand to premises three times the size to keep up with demand.

What They Say
“A classic, robust American IPA with a spicy, assertive citrusy American hop character balanced with a full-bodied, rich malt taste.” [Official Website]

What We Say
MrB – Hoppy, sweet and sparkly – almost Belgian-esque
Richard – Love that hop flavour, really effervescent on the palate
Shovels – There’s a narrow intensity that’s really nice 8
Grooben – Sweet with big floaty chunks, love the frog 8

4. UnEarthly Imperial IPA
Southern Tier Brewing Co, Lakewood, New York.
22oz US glass bottle

The far south-western pointy corner of New York State is known as the Southern Tier – and back in 2002 Phineas DeMink and Allen ‘Skip’ Yahn decided to bring brewing back to the tier. Their two early flagships were a pilsner and a mild, but things really took off for them with the release of an IPA. They produce a staggering array of Imperials – an imperial extra pale ale, imperial red ale, imperial black ale, imperial hefeweizen, oak-aged imperial IPA, imperial oatmeal stout, imperial pumpkin ale, imperial lager, and an imperial crème brulee milk stout. Tonight we sample their imperial IPA UnEarthly, the abv of which varies depending on the batch – ours charges in at 11%.

What They Say
“An Uninhibited Infusion of Hops. We continue our commitment to innovation with our most aggressive offering yet. Unearthly is a manifestation of the brewers crafts, skilfully balancing art and the forces of nature to produce a divine liquid.” [Official Website]

What We Say
MrB – It moves slower than water – I don’t like sweet things in the slightest but the hops are just enough 8
Richard – It’s like drinking pineapple hop treacle
Shovels – It’s harder core than Hardcore IPA, that’s for sure 7
Grooben – Struggling with this one, it’s just too syrupy everywhere

– (clockwise from top left) Grooben, MrB, Shovels, Richard

BeerCast panel verdict
Sierra Nevada Southern Hemisphere Harvest 2010 34/40
Rogue St Rogue Dry Hopped Red Ale 34/40
Hoppin’ Frog Hoppin’ to Heaven IPA 33½/40
Southern Tier UnEarthly Imperial IPA 28/40

  • Listen to the episode here: BeerCast #58 – The Long Americans
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  • Please keep those comments and emails coming in, and check back in a couple of weeks for our next podcast – a showcase special featuring Warwickshire’s Purity Brewery. Stay tuned…

    What does craft beer mean to you?

    Following this post by Mark Dredge, today has seen a series of interesting discussions on whether the American-born term ‘craft beer’ has any meaning in the UK. Mark argues that it could have a place in the British beer terminology if enough people adopt it – but as the comments on his post show, there are plenty of people who feel the term is pretty pointless. The key difference here is the history the term has in the States – and the controversy it has generated there recently.

    The Brewers Association are the trade body for small US breweries, and were originally established in 1942 to fight for issues that affected small producers – such as getting the tin needed to make bottle caps. Their big victory came in 1976 when they secured tax relief for their members – brewers who released under two million barrels a year would get a tax differential on the first 60,000. To decide who could qualify for this, the Brewers Association laid down a definition.

    Not only did the brewer have to produce less than 2m barrels per year, to gain the ‘Craft’ tag they had to be ‘independent’ – less than 25% ownership of the brewery by non-brewers, and also ‘traditional’ – they were required to have an all-malt flagship, or over 50% total production volume containing malt or “enhancing adjuncts rather than adjuncts that lighten flavour” – I think we can all think of a few brands that would fall foul of that rule.

    So far, so good. The number of defined craft breweries rocketed from 8 in 1980 to over 1,600 in 2010. But last year the success of one of those producers caused a big problem for the Brewers Association. The Boston Beer Company – brewers of Sam Adams – one of the pioneers of the US craft brewing movement, announced their annual output was going to exceed 2m barrels. That would put them out of the definitions, and into the Macro producers. Without their enormous sales, the Brewers Association’s figures would take a big hit.

    So they simply changed the definition. In January they amended their code to read a craft brewery is one that produces less than 6 million barrels a year. The Boston Beer Company are therefore still classed as craft brewers. Beer writers questioned the moving of the goalposts – but the Brewers Association are a lobbying group, and the Sam Adams figures are too large to pass up. So although the Boston Beer Company probably don’t need the support of the Brewers Association anymore, they are too valuable an asset to let go.

    When the American system has to be amended in this way – and I can totally see why they would want to do so, to keep one of their largest members – it does slightly undermine the craft message. All beers are crafted – some more than others, obviously – but when the organisation that created the term has to fudge the definitions, the limitations become apparent for all to see.

    If ‘craft beer’ is a term that is becoming increasingly confused in the USA, it is being increasingly used over here. But in the UK it has no real meaning – unless we apply it to producers who qualify for Small Brewer’s Relief and the lowest level of Progressive Beer Duty – but that would rule out BrewDog and Adnams, two producers who use the term on a regular basis.

    Beer writers and bloggers in the UK may be using the phrase more, but with no real historical background to the term here, ‘craft beer’ might be on a hiding to nothing. Earlier today I visited Evin O’Riordain at the Kernel Brewery – who could be a poster boy for British Craft Brewing, but with no defined ideals of what it means over here, it will take a long time before it enters general use. Looking at the problems the Brewers Association are having in the States, that might actually be a good thing.

    Mitchell Krause Showcase

    We’ve written before about ‘cuckoo’ brewers – those who have to use the facilities of others to get their brewing done. Whilst it may be an unfortunate term, it’s a necessary option in the current climate, where the outlay on a bespoke facility is simply too expensive for many. It has become a useful stepping stone from the experienced homebrewing stage to the local artisan brewery. Hepworth’s in Horsham brew for all kinds of labels other than their own (such as Ridgeway and Coniston), and also since 2009 they have brewed for Mitchell Krause, who are based a long way from Sussex in Workington, Cumbria.

    As with many ‘contractees’ the company is run by just one man – Graeme Mitchell, who for many years worked for Whitbread and Carlsberg. Turning his back on the mass-produced side of things, he combined his surname with that of his German-born mother and formed Mitchell Krause. You can tell he spent a number of years in the business, as rather than produce a range of session ales and Cumbrian bitters, Graeme decided to go down the more interesting (and commercial) route and put out a series of global beer styles – a Bavarian hefeweizen, a Czech pilsner, and an American Pale Ale.

    Mitchell Krause Czech Pilsner No 1 (4.2%)
    All of Graeme’s beers are faithful reproductions of the classic styles – his pilsner uses the spicy Saaz hops you’d expect. It certainly looks the part – an extremely clear golden pour, but there’s not much carbonation – only a thin lacing and little rising through the beer. Aromas are slightly floral and a bit fruity, on the palate it’s bitter with a touch of biscuit before the earthy pilsner flavours come through. The finish is a touch thin and soapy maybe, but as pilsners go, MKCPNo1 is a decent example.

    Mitchell Krause American Pale Ale No 2 (3.8%)
    Next up, an American Pale Ale – a 3.8% American Pale Ale at that. This one contains Target, Cascade and Willamette hops – and the nose certainly reveals the presence of the second of those. Fruity citrus aromas, very typical APA scents come from the hazy golden pour. Unfortunately, this is the highlight – on tasting there’s almost nothing going on. A mild hoppy start washes away very quickly without the punch of alcohol to back it up, and the whole thing finishes in a disappointing watery thinness.

    Mitchell Krause Bavarian Hefe Weiss No 3 (5.0%)
    The third offering is the pick of the bunch, however – possibly no co-incidence that it also has the highest abv. As with the others, it has a nice aroma – the typical sweet, banana, yeasty notes are really inviting. These all come through on the palate as well, together with a touch of pear and clove. With the yeast following into the finish it’s quite sweet, but never cloying – a great example of a weiss.

    Mitchell Krause website