Category Archives: Beer of the Year

Brewery of the Year, 2014 – Magic Rock

Huddersfield’s Magic Rock have been putting out consistently highly-regarded beers ever since they started out in the Spring of 2011. That particular debut was the 7.4% IPA Cannonball, and was brewed on a kit they hadn’t performed any test brews on, lit by a boiler that had been commissioned only the day before. The resourcefulness clearly started right from the first day. After launching at the Grove at the end of June in that year (the first cask of Curious selling out in half an hour), within two days they had brewed the first batch of Human Cannonball, and within another month, won their first award. Magic Rock really came flying out of the traps – and have been on that upward trajectory ever since. 2012 saw the release of Bourbon-Barrel Bearded Lady, Clown Juice (surely their most under-rated beer to date), and the arrival of a bottling line. Last year, the twin juggernauts of Salty Kiss and Unhuman Cannonball were unleashed.

Yet, despite all these achievements, 2014 is the year when Magic Rock took that next step.

It’s because of what they’ve experienced, more than anything. The fact is, that early success led them to reach capacity almost within that same year, and many of the beers listed above were brewed in a site that they had outgrown – particularly with the arrival of the bottling line. Founder Richard Burhouse and head brewer Stuart Ross refuse to have their beers bottled off-site, as they know they can’t guarantee the quality, so everything is done in house. That’s a commendable attitude – but it requires the money, and (just as importantly) an adequately-sized house in which to operate. Right back at the start of the year, it looked as if Magic Rock were moments away from striking a deal that was sorely needed – a 16,000 square foot brewhouse and taproom, in a site near Huddersfield station.

Agonisingly, at almost the eleventh hour, the prospective landlords raised hitherto unheard of concerns about the tasting room. Following three weeks of negotiations, and after no change in outlook, Richard reluctantly pulled out of the deal. With architects and solicitor’s fees paid, and a new 50HL brewkit ordered and on the way, they suddenly had nowhere to go and nowhere to put it. To make matters worse, when the kit did eventually arrive into the UK, apparently illegal immigrants were discovered hiding amongst the shipment, and the entire lot was impounded. This is more than just simple frustration at a two-week delay in a new fermentor arriving – I’m not sure I can begin to imagine what it must have been like for Richard and the team, as these events played out.

Amazingly, as the same time as all this has been going on, Magic Rock have also produced stunning beers like Pith Head, Magic Spanner, Slapstick and Villainous (just a fantastic Vienna IPA). In April they won a World Beer Cup Gold medal for Salty Kiss – the only UK brewery to win the highest level of award this time around. They were also invited to take part in the Copenhagen Beer Celebration, What’s Brewing in Stavanger, and the Shelton Bros festival in San Diego. Most recently of all, their collaborations with Siren and Beavertown (Rule of Thirds) and Evil Twin (Pogonophobia) have ended the year on a high for many.

When thinking about the Brewery of the Year, it’s about more than just the beer. It’s a prerequisite, of course, but for a producer to stand out above the other breweries who are at the very, very top of their game at the moment (such as Siren, who were extremely close to getting the nod; and last year’s winner Buxton, putting out better and better beer). But to produce beer of the quality and imagination that they have done over the last twelve months, and to do all that against a backdrop of such upheaval, is something else. To put it in their circus parlance; for spinning that many plates without letting any fall, my brewery of the year for 2014 is Magic Rock.

Oh, and their year did eventually end on a high.

This is my last blog post before Christmas – I’ll be back just before the new year with my selections for Chris Hall’s Golden Posts, celebrating the best of beer blogging. Until then, many thanks to everyone for reading the BeerCast this year, particularly those who commented on the posts, or followed me on Twitter or Facebook. It’s been another fantastic year for British brewing, making it a pleasure to write about. Until the Golden Posts, have a very happy and beer-filled Christmas! Cheers!

Best New Beers of 2014…the best of the rest


Last week, as is traditional for the second week of December, the BeerCast was turned over to the newcomers – the six best new British beers of 2014. They were, in my eyes (in order of release):-

Brew By Numbers Saison 01|08 Wai-iti and Lemon
Harbour Chocolate and Vanilla Imperial Stout
Brass Castle Heretic
Siren/Cigar City Caribbean Chocolate Cake
Weird Beard/Elusive Brew Lord Nelson
Buxton/Omnipollo Yellow Belly

Of course, with twelve months of full-on beer drinking under the (expanding) belt, there were plenty more that could have made the list. As we move into the final blog-posting week before Christmas, it’s time to look back at the rest of the great new British beers that were tried this year, and run down some of the ones that were just as outstanding as the six mentioned last week.

First off, I need to address the elephant in the room. Pictured above, the spellbinding Buxton Double Axe. The beer of the summer, it dominated social media and ratings websites as the sun was making its last fleeting appearance (at least in Scotland) of the year. In any other twelve-month period, it would have made the top six. However, the Yellow Belly was so staggering, that went in instead, and as I operate a firm one-entry-per-brewery policy – aka the ‘Kernel Rule’ – there was no place for Double Axe. Other than my fridge, of course.

The other brewery with second entries that nearly made it – and third entries – is Siren for Tickle Monster and 7 Seas IPA; the latter released near the beginning of the year but made it all the way through as the best Black IPA I had in 2014. As for Tickle Monster – hell, it’s entirely plausible to write a six beer best-of post and only feature Siren, what with the Finger and Toe series of beers. As with Yellow Belly though, there was just something extra special about the Caribbean Chocolate Cake that lifted it above that very high Berkshire parapet.

Other beers that really stick out in the memory from 2014; Cromarty’s fantastic Kowabunga (and not just because of the serve) – a #juicybanger before its time. Other expressive beers that worked beyond their looks were Pilot and Elixir’s truly luminous Sumac Me Feel Like a Natural Saison, and Howling Hops’ 7% Cola-esque Belgian dubbel. Elsewhere, pretty much the first beer I had in 2014 stood out – Wild Beer’s Belgian Peppercorn, which fired a beautifully spiky blend of seasoned warmth into a fairly awful January afternoon.

Aside from those first two, there were other great Scottish beers this year – I really enjoyed Harviestoun’s Orach Slie (when, hands up, I really didn’t think I would). Glenfarclas-aged lager was a revelation. Further afield, Beavertown’s Earl Phantom was pipped by the jaw-dropping Celt/Melissa Cole Cell Rebirth:Silk Road 01 as the beer of IndyMan, and Almasty Export Brown was the outstanding beer of the raft of new breweries to open in 2014. Finally (for this list is getting very long), another wonderful beer I had was in the much-maligned Spoons at the Foot of the Walk in Leith – Adnams/Sixpoint Make it Rain. The cask beer of the year.

Again, as with last year the overall winners of the new beers of the year were largely unusual – a Caribbean stout, a lemon saison, a peanut butter and biscuit imperial stout. I’ve been wondering recently if this is now the beer I go for – the weird and wonderful. But it really isn’t, it’s just that these beers are all so fascinating, and have been thought about from such an early stage, as to be totally rewarding. And that’s what makes them – and the British brewing industry – truly special.

With that, there’s only a few more posts to come this year – my Golden Pints, and the newcomer Golden Posts, both on the run up to the New Year – but first, at the end of this week, my brewery of the year. Who will follow the shoes of Fyne Ales (2012) and Buxton (2013) – what do you think? And were there any beers that you tried this year that should have been in the above list? Let me know in the comments…

Best new beers of 2014…Buxton/Omnipollo Yellow Belly


So, the final beer in the six-parter best-of list for 2014 is another collaboration; a peanut butter and biscuit imperial stout. Not a beer style that I ever thought I would write about, but there you go – once again it proves how creatively planned, perfectly executed beers even in styles we don’t expect can still surprise us…

Yellow Belly (11.0%)
Buxton Brewery, Derbyshire (with Omnipollo)
(keg, bottle, September)

Aroma, let’s face it, is the lesser entity when it comes to beer. Flavour is where it’s at, and often – unless you are making a discerning effort to quantify the specifics of a beer – there’s barely a cursory sniff given of the glass at all. It’s almost like the automatic checking-the-milk process you go through midway through making a cup of tea (or is it just me that does that?). Get the beer, quick nose, check everything’s alright, and then you can raise the glass to the lips and begin to actually enjoy it.

But aroma is such an important characteristic, and this particular beer had, quite simply, the best aroma of any I tried in 2014. Born out of the Rainbow Collaboration project – the annual pairing of UK and overseas breweries themed around one of the seven colours – Yellow Belly took the allotted hue to a very different place. Having had every Rainbow beer ever, the ones that tend to stand out are those where the brewers involved think a little laterally – and in this case, it was so lateral as to be pretty much perpendicular.

For Yellow as inspiration, the guys from Buxton and Omnipollo worked around the idea of cowardice – a particular point of note at the moment in the latter’s native Sweden (for full justification of the idea, read this post on Buxton’s website). Dressing the beer up in a KKK wrapper unnerved some people – but it was commentary, not a stunt. And the beer? From the first sniff, the most incredible peanut and biscuit aroma ever – I can only think of a single beer in the world with a better initial aroma – Southern Tier Creme Brulee Imperial Milk Stout.

To play further on the theme of hiding and striking behind a cloak of anonymity, Yellow Belly – a peanut butter and biscuit stout – contained neither peanuts, butter nor biscuits. But they were all there on the taste. Just an amazing feat – the finish was more akin to a Toffifee liqueur, or a blend of Lion bars and alcoholic chocolate milk. Actually, forget Southern Tier’s beer – this was better.

So, that’s it for the fifth running of the traditional end of year best-of list. As ever, at the start of next week I’ll be writing about the beers that so nearly made it into the top half-dozen, as there were plenty more great new beers on the scene than the ones highlighted so far. Following that, at the end of the week it’s the big one – the BeerCast’s Brewery of the Year…

Best new beers of 2014…Weird Beard/Elusive Brew Lord Nelson

LordNelson1The penultimate listing in my best new British beers of 2014 was a farmhouse saison that was recommended to me when chancing the shelves of one of my local bottle shops. I knew of the brewer(s) – but had no idea they had collaborated. And goodness me if that wasn’t the recommendation of the year.

Lord Nelson (6.8%)
Weird Beard, London in collaboration with Elusive Brew.
(keg/bottle, August)

Andy Parker knows his way around a brewery – even if he doesn’t actually have one of his own (yet). The 2014 Craft Beer Co Homebrewer of the year, Andy is – not only a seriously nice bloke – but pretty much the only homebrewer who I would think, when in a bottle shop, “Oh, he was in on this? That’s enough for me”. To put that in context, there are several professional ‘gypsy’ brewers about whom I wouldn’t make that distinction.

It’s one of the things that makes brewing such a great industry – it has that gateway of homebrew that gives people a chance to hone their skills, on their own terms, if they harbour aspirations of eventually taking it further one day. It’s not the only industry with that initial stage, of course – behind every head chef, there will be a background of dedicated practice and application at home. But how many talented amateur chefs get to cook in professional kitchens, collaborating on dishes that go out to the public?

Andy joined forces with the ever-excellent Weird Beard brewery to make Lord Nelson. The first thing that struck me about it was the fantastic 8-bit artwork on the label – but the beer inside is even more stunning. ‘Featuring insanely judiciously applied Nelson Sauvin’ – it had lots of that sharp gooseberry, zesty citrus rind on both aroma and flavour, before an extremely long finish, that was delightfully oily and very, very pithy. This was simply a brilliant beer, perfectly balanced, and the ultimate example of what application – both professional and amateur – can lead to.

There’s still one more to come in the best new British beers of 2014; the most stunning collaboration I have had for many a year. Check back tomorrow to find out what that is. As for Lord Nelson – another person who loved it was Rob from – on the first taste, the only comment he could muster was simply ‘Man alive…’.

Best new beers of 2014…Siren Caribbean Chocolate Cake


The next in the lineup of best new British beers of 2014 (in order of release) was the result of a collaboration between one of the UK’s most consistently brilliant breweries and a Florida outfit that beer fans here go crazy for. (and yes, Florida isn’t in Britain, but the beer was made here…)

Caribbean Chocolate Cake (7.4%)
Siren Craft Brew, Berkshire (with Cigar City)
(keg/bottle, April)

Described as the ‘ultimate anti-recession blockbuster’, this beer was a true collaboration piece, in that both breweries sat down with a blank sheet of paper and let imaginations run riot. That’s the best thing about these kinds of meetings; the results of “Well, why can’t we do this” conversations have been some of the standout beers I can ever remember drinking. These flipboard-chats can also be the most risky though, of course, as those imaginations can lead to places that beer should never really end up. However, when you have Ryan Witter-Merithew and Wayne Wambles standing by the water cooler, you know that particular conversation will have a very interesting outcome indeed.

And so it proved. Caribbean Chocolate Cake is a ‘tropical stout’ that involved a technique Siren had never done before (but which is a staple of Cigar City); instead of ageing the beer in wood, wood was introduced to the beer, in the form of Cyprus (chips or staves, I’m not sure). The anti-recession tag was down to the fact it was also brewed with a number of experimental hop varieties, and specially-imported Dominican cacao nibs. Lactose was also added, to give the final beer a richness, and to really complement all the other smooth flavours. I remember picking up a bottle at the Edinburgh BrewDog bar and being instantly, and hugely, impressed. The word ‘interesting’ doesn’t do it justice.

Ryan’s beers always have a huge amount going on – it’s something you just come to expect. Last year’s Limoncello IPA produced with Mikkeller and Hill Farmstead narrowly missed going on the 2013 list, being one of the more memorable beers of that particular drinking year. Caribbean Chocolate Cake smashed pretty much everything else asunder this time around, though. It was stunning; one of those beers where every sip gives you a different flavour – and that is the true mark of a collaboration where absolutely nothing is left on the flipchart.

The fifth selection (out of six) of the best new British beers of 2014 will be revealed tomorrow; an amazing beer produced with one of the UK’s most talented homebrewers. Head back then to discover what that particular beer was. Ryan and Wayne then turned another page on the notepad and produced a special, one-off version of Caribbean Chocolate Cake with added Jerk spices for the Craft Beer Co’s Craft 100 festival

Best New Beers of 2014…Brass Castle Heretic


We’re now halfway through the fifth annual running of the best new British beers of the year feature, with this, the third pick. So far, we’ve had a lemon-heavy London saison and a smooth, full-on Cornish imperial stout. Next up, we move back from the wilds of the South-West to North Yorkshire, and find the best Belgian beer I had all year.

Heretic (6.4%)
Brass Castle Brewery, Malton, North Yorkshire
(keg, March)

As beer writers, bloggers or whatever, we often stand there, trying to think what something tastes like. The entire taste, rather than the sum of its parts. Sure, we purse the lips and tap the pen, and think about coconut or burnt toast or whatever, but there’s often a far more simple, instantly-recognisable analogy that springs to mind. Except, it usually springs into the mind of someone else, and you jot down ‘malty and hoppy’ and squint once again at the beer board. At the end of March, I was at Beertown Malton with lips pursed and pen tapping, rocked back in my stance by a complete unknown – Heretic from local brewery Brass Castle.

It was my second or third choice of the afternoon, after an eventful dash across the market square to evade (unsuccessfully) a ferocious downpour, and it was truly fascinating. But how to summarise? Well, a 6.4% saffron-infused Belgian-style Golden Ale, served on keg in a town hall with a thunderously parping brass band. And then I get home, write my half-arsed blog post, and read this fantastic one from Leigh Linley, who – from a mere half sip – pulled ‘Yorkshire’s Duvel’ from the back of his mind. Just a perfect description – the most brilliantly apt comparison I read all year. Brass Castle Heretic is Yorkshire’s Duvel.

It was – as you can imagine from that – a real treat in an event laden with them. Sweet, spicy and tingling, it pretty much ticked all of the boxes usually pinned next to ‘Belgian flavours’, and the rich, almost musty finish from the saffron was really, really something. I love beers like this – things that you take a punt on purely because you know the brewery, but then after the beer has finished (or within half a sip, for some), it makes you take stock of that which you thought you knew all along. Brass Castle – always a good brewery in my mind – putting out a beer like this? The single-most impressive find of the year, no question.

Check back tomorrow for the next in the series of best new British beers of 2014, selection number four – a darker beer that hinted at tropical climes. Find out then what beer it is. Beertown Malton will return in March 2015, from the 19th to the 21st – if you’re in the North Yorks area, it would be a great drinking trip, with or without Heretic. Hopefully with, though…