Back To The Future With Hardknott
When I look back a few years to the time when smaller, independent (yes, go on then – craft breweries) were really starting to gather steam, I invariably think of Hardknott. Dave Bailey (Brewer, Doer, Force Majeure) whose enthusiasm for the subject inspired and enraged people in equal measure, was someone who seemed to pop up everywhere; be it personally draying beer to far off places like London and Edinburgh, or making sure that his voice was heard in any debate both personally or online. Hardknott were pushing against the tide, pulling others into their circle and collaborating left, right and centre. His blog provided a useful and interesting view from behind the bar and inside the mash tun at a time when everything seemed so fresh and exciting. Battle lines were being drawn.
It helped that Hardknott’s beers backed up the rhetoric; bold, flavoursome beers that forced you to take notice. Beers that seemed perfectly brewed for both the kitchen (something that’s ingrained in the Hardkott ethos) and the bar. Sure, Hardknott seemed to suffer a little from the same ailments that many small breweries hit once an initial wave has broken on the beach – slightly inconsistent bottles, the odd flavour changes with cask beers as they find their feet, but that’s only to be expected.
I last spoke to Dave at the Leeds International Beer Festival last year – where I spent much of the afternoon glugging his excellent English Experiment IPA. We had a very brief hello at Indy Man the month after. We caught up, laughed, and that was that. I hadn’t tried any Hardknott beer since.
Why? I think, looking back as I write this, Hardknott ‘graduated.’ In my mind, Hardknott’s beers stopped shouting at me and grabbing my collar, urging me to look their way across a bar that’s even more crowded than it was in 2010 – but this time, it’s not just a range of 4% ‘Pale and Hoppy’ beers beckoning me; it’s a bar full of …well, beers like theirs. I know (and can rely on) Hardknott – so I can move onto something else. After all, there’s so much damn choice.
They say absence makes the heart grow fonder, and when I was faced with new bottles on a beer shop recently, I made sure to pick some up. It was like reacquainting myself with an old friend; in fact, that was exactly what it was. Whilst the beer world followed Hardknott’s (amongst others, of course) lead, Hardknott have quietly expanded, rebranded (in an excellent fashion, helped along by Lemon Top Creative, bagged a decent spot in Booth’s and – to use a wanky business term – grown muscle. Much like the rebrand, the trio of Hardknott bottles I enjoyed were lean and trim; rough edges smoothed out and honed, hungry for action – the way a football manager would want players to return after a summer break.
First up, Continuum (4% abv) – which, at first sip, recalls early SNPA without the alcohol. Golden, yet served in a small enough bottle to instinctively make you reach for the tulip as opposed to the pint glass. it’s packed with flavour; pine sap and blackcurrant on the nose, an undertow of creamy malt and a more sappy, bitterly rising. It’s Hardknott’s session beer, apparently – in terms of alcohol, I’ll take that, but it’s still a shot to the tastebuds, without being too tiring.
Infra Red ups the ante with a 6% abv punch, and still has all the swagger that made it such a hit when it first appeared in pubs and bars in what seems like decades ago now. Ruddy of hue and redolent both in the nose and body of Raisin and brown sugar, there’s plenty of Orange pith streaking through it, whooping and hollering, to cut through all that malt give the beer a drying finish. Another beer that’s way too easy to drink. If Theakston were starting up now, this may be what Old Peculier would taste like.
Azimuth (5.8%abv) finishes the session. Borne out of a desire to brew something similar to Infra Red (ie an IPA), but without the malt profile, Azimuth is, simply, a wonderful beer. Peachy-golden in colour, the nose has plenty of stone-fruit, apricot jam and boiled sweet notes jumping out at you, and the beer itself manages a sly trick of tasting sweet (with more boiled sweet and jam) first, then bitter (Grapefruit and Mango), then turning sweet again at the end of the sip. The end result is a beer that I can only really sum up in one word: Juicy. It’s a juicy IPA. There you go.
With casual food suggestions on the label, these three bottles were an absolute pleasure to get to know again. Hardknott have quietly upped their game and more than hold their own – and it’s a wonderful thing to see a modern brewery progress and grow in such a natural way. Well done Dave, Ann and Graeme (not to forget Alex Routledge) – it’s a pleasure to meet you again.