Category Archives: beer reviews

A Power Trio from Brixton Brewery: The Kindness of Strangers

BB-Electric-Label-AW02PDFI’ve only visited Brixton once.

But when I think of that visit – in a dour, rainy 2003 Autumn, I think of one thing; the kindness of strangers. I was there to see one of my favourite (at the time) musicians – Ben Harper, the Californian master of proto-slide guitar, he who navigates his deep, rumbling Weissenborn slide guitar through oceans of blues, folk, reggae and rock before landing on your shore in a heady, intoxicating mix. I’d been a fan for a while, and when the chance came to see him and his band – the Innocent Criminals – at the legendary Brixton Academy, it was too good an opportunity to pass up.

So we (my girlfriend and I – later to become my wife) travelled down with a gang of mates and spent the weekend in London, taking in some sights and – if I remember correctly – eating some fantastic noodles in Greenwich. Anyway, gig time arrived and we – us gang of awed northerners – arrived in the cavernous space of Brixton Academy.

After a support band that suffers every support band’s worst nightmare – to be ultimately forgotten – Ben Harper and his troupe of revivalists took to the baroque stage, hitting us with hit after hit after hit…and Louise couldn’t see any of it. She’s is only just five feet tall, you see. She’s petite. This leads to a clear line of sight being something hard to come by at a gig, even on Brixton Academy’s gently sloping floor.

Still, she’s a veteran of gigs by this point -, and used to it by now. Tip-toes are the order of the day, mixed with a near-constant jockeying for position in the assembled throng. Yet at this gig, something odd happened. A chap in front of us turned around, recognised Louise’s’ predicament and…well, made way.

Not only did he sit down, he encouraged his friends to. His friends asked their friends… and soon, we had a space in front of us – ensuring a great view of the stage and the band. People around us asked if ‘we were ok’ and ‘if we could see‘. It was something I’ve never seen since and doubt I will again. Now, I don’t want to cast aspersions on the average fan of Ben Harper, but it’s fair to say there was a lot of Red Stripe consumed and even more pre-gig smoking going on. But still – intoxicants aside –  when I think of Brixton, I think of these awesome people and what was one of the best gigs I’ve ever been to. Not so much the great band, more the night. The people of Brixton – and beyond, I dare say, made it. It was a night when faith was restored in humanity, and we talk about it still.

…and it’s that that I think of when I spy these bottles – amongst others – sitting on the shelves of Sourced Market this week. A warm glow of recognition nudges my hand and so I buy them, hoping upon hope that they’ll won’t let me down.

I’m glad to say they don’t. It’s easy sometimes to dismiss the look of craft – much like the oft-cited pornography argument – but when the odd outfit creeps through that celebrates provenance and links into the community like Brixton have done, it makes you realise that there’s still great work happening in the capital. The labels ‘pop’ with vibrant screams of colour, the names of the beers celebrate Brixton’s multicultural history and tie them to the postcode. In a time of seemingly identikit London brewers, Brixton rise above the din for this writer. They seem a little more considered, a little more thoughtful.

securedownloadStill, the proof is in the tasting; Electric Avenue IPA (6.5% abv) offers that familiar, modern IPA punch in spades; thick, chewy mouthfeel, amber in the glass, and plenty of sweet fruit – mango chutney, perhaps – in the nose, finished off with a surprisingly clean, almost herbal (grassy, minty) bitterness at the finish. The hops in the aroma are pungent, and the beer disappears way too quickly accompanied by a punchy, spikily hot Pepperoni Pizza. High praise, indeed. 

Atlantic APA (5.4% abv) may boast Simcoe and Citra hops but I mis-diagnose the presence of Nelson Sauvin (before reading the label), such is the fresh, green grape and gooseberry notes in the aroma. Golden, refreshing despite being quite sweet, this pale ale is a beer I could drink a lot of. This bottle suffered from a touch of oxidisation, but no worry – this only became apparent toward the end of the glass and I would buy Atlantic APA again in a heartbeat. Vibrant, cool and light.

Windrush Stout (5% abv) was the real winner, though. I chilled it for an hour or so prior to drinking – purely due to the heat outside – yet I was still presented with an aroma of burnt malt, malt loaf and blackcurrant; the body remained light and incredibly fruity. I kept expecting a little vanilla to pop up but it never did – just waves of red fruit, a whisper of woodiness, and a long, clean bitterness. As the beer warmed, a little bready yeast note came into play, just to fill things out. Named after the ship that brought the first waves of West Indian immigrants to London, Windrush is a seriously good beer.

I enjoyed all these over a gorgeously balmy early summer evening  – accompanied by  a few Ben Harper CD’s and fair amount of reminiscing, of course. That’s beer at its best, if you ask me.

 

 

Slow Burn

IMG_0745Perhaps unsurprisingly for someone who likes to waffle – especially when carried away with a subject I’m passionate about – I find getting to the point sometimes difficult. The phrase ‘Good things come to those who wait‘ may have been cleverly co-opted by the big stout men few years ago but it’s a tenet I like to live by. I generally find it to work out, too.

I can signpost lots of events in my life through TV Shows – I’m as interesting in TV writing as I am books. The little box in the corner of the room needn’t be the devil – although that entirely depends on your viewing taste, I guess. I’ve my parents and grandmother to thank for my affectation towards Forteana, and I’ll watch most things with a hint of the supernatural about it, or stories wrapped in darkness. First came shows like  The Twilight Zone, Eerie Indiana and Dr Who; later The X – Files, Millennium and the daddy of them all, Twin Peaks. TV shows – good ones – offer slow-burn and involvement on a level that film can’t. Not better, per se – but different. You have to live your lives with these people; especially if you tune in week on week as opposed to binge-watching.

True Detective is my latest obsession. If you’ve not seen it, it centres around a murder case investigated by two Louisiana state detectives in the Nineties that has repercussions on their lives as they grow older. Carrying more than a whiff of the occult and and a fist-full of menace throughout, it’s involving stuff and a show that improves if watched at night. It’s finished now, but I can’t recommend it enough. But it’s not a show that you can dive in and out of; you have to be present… be involved.

IMG_0819The same is true of two beers I purposefully chose to enjoy whilst watching it over the last few weeks. First up, a mutant brother to an old favorite; Big Job by St Austell. Taking the already  potent Proper Job and throwing in even more hops and strength, Big Job is a beast; weighing in at 7.2% abv yet remains fairly light in touch. The aroma competes with any of the US-inspired IPA’s out there, all tropical fruit and soft red fruit but with that candied-peel sweetness that Proper Job has as a little reminder of its familial roots. The finish could be a little longer, granted – it does make an exit quite cleanly (which isn’t particularly desirable for an IPA), but the latent strength ripples underneath it all, waiting to catch you out.

Staying in the south, Adnam’s Jack Brand Innovation  (6.7%abv) was a Silver award winner in 2013’s Stockholm Beer Festival. Pouring burnished gold, the nose transports you to the countryside ; all meadows, wildflowers and malt floor. It’s the malt bill that leads the charge here; a thick, generous body of ginger biscuit and gentle, warming spice. Add a little marmalade to that  – and a finish that’s only fleetingly sweet before drying right out with a resinous citrus – and you’ve got a beer you don’t want to rush, lest you miss some of its charms.

Much like the best television.

 

 

 

 

 

Magic Rock & LA’s Farmhouse IPA

IMG_1596There’s something about the term Farmhouse that just gets me. True, I am a hopeless romantic, easily swayed by such terms – especially when it comes to beer and food. Label something rustic, homely or plain old-fashioned and I’m yours. I’m an old-fashioned soul, a Luddite, in fact. Which is why, dear reader, I picked up this bottle of Farmhouse IPA. I’m glad I did.

As the backstory on the website goes, Stuart Ross headed to the wilds of Stavanger ( I have no idea if it’s wild, by the way, it just sounds like it should be. My only previous knowledge of Stavanger is when Leeds United play pre-season games there – we have a voracious Norwegian following) to brew with locals Lervig Aktiebrygerri.  The result was this Farmhouse IPA; a typically fresh IPA dosed with Belgian and Brettanomyces yeasts.

Fast – forward a few months and I’m sitting in my garden – wholly unexpectedly – under blue skies and unseasonably warm weather, drinking it. It’s a corker – and the aroma alone elicits groans of pleasure; pale gold in colour, all lemon sherbert sweets, forest floor and that hard-to-describe in writing Bretty note. Barnyard. In a good way. Earthy. On the sip there’s champagne-like effervescence, bubbles carrying more pithy citrus and sweet, honeyed notes all the way through the sip.

The bitterness lasts and lasts, reminding you of its hoppy credentials – although it tastes nowhere near its 6% abv billing; the package is almost ethereal in weight. All in all, Magic Rock and Lervig Aktiebrygerri should be proud of what they’ve done here. It sounds simple, to dose up an IPA with Brett or other funky yeasts – but as we know, to pull it off well is another matter entirely. I wish I’d have bought a couple to lay down and compare in a little while , in fact.  If you see it about, fill your boots – spring is only around the corner, and this is when this Nordic beauty will really come into her own.

Smoke

IMG_1381 - CopyAt last. A Sunday with not only the sun, but a little warmth, too. No rain. Praise the lord, if you’re into that sort of thing.

The blue sky lifts my mood instantly and the garden gets a thoughtful springtime inspection. The grass will need cutting soon. Some seed needs to be sown into the areas where Wilson’s claws have ripped it up as we play with the tennis ball. The shed roof’s ripped felt, peeled off by January’s malevolent winds, will need to be tacked back down. Piles of cut branches, browning slowly, will need to be hauled into the rusting burner soon to be turned into ash and smoke. Perhaps it’s my mind, but I can smell other people nearby lighting those little bonfires already.

Smoke.

The sun and sky contradict the contents of my beer store. Strong, dark, stout, sweet and smoky beers dominate; the pale ales that I love mostly consumed in pubs and bars over winter. Powerful, muscular, viscous beers with depths that require dark evenings to appreciate, taking a slow, diving-bell descent to the bottom of the glass, are most of what I have.

I do have one interloper to call upon however, in the familiar shape of Schlenkerla Helles. As I drink, smooth, sweet malt gives way to that wisp of unmistakably mellow beechwood smoke. Tender bitterness – only enough to refresh – and a gently crisp finish bring a smile to the lips. My Franconian friend, deeply complex yet cheerily golden in disposition, is perfect for the afternoon and hopefully, a symbolic end to the dreadful winter behind us.

 

 

Easing Back with Kirkstall’s Dissolution Extra IPA

Kirkstall IPAWell, I’m back after a *lovely* hiatus. Despite spending the last few weeks lounging around the Italian Lakes, eating way too much food and drinking far too amazing wine, I do find myself looking forward to a decent beer when I get back home. Getting my mitts on this beer in particular –  Kirkstall’s Dissolution Extra IPA (6% abv) – was high on my agenda when I strode into BeerRitz last weekend.

Why? Pure, honest to goodness anticipation, that’s why. We’re used to being made to wait for limited editions, one-offs, collaborations, but simply having the first bottle from a brewery that I’ve watched grow into such an integral part of my own beer scene is just as exciting – if not more. To cap it off, we get a new (ish) beer – a slightly stronger version of the already-deceptively-strong Dissolution IPA.  It’s been released to almost no fanfare; so I’m here to put that right.

Extra IPA ramps up the abv by a percent, yet remains incredibly focused for an IPA. There’s real depth to it; and the condition of the bottle was immaculate. Pouring Amber-Gold, the aroma is subtle; stone fruit, a touch of blackcurrant, and loads of zesty Orange marmalade all vying for attention as you inhale. It’s the taste where the magic happens, however – it’s incredibly light at first, all bready grain and rich cereal. As it dries, all that fruit jumps in, a prelude to a long, long rasping bitterness that not only slaps your palate into shape, but reminds you of the abv and the style you’re currently (immensely) enjoying.

Warming alcohol makes an appearance as you gear up for another gulp. All in all, you’ve got a beer of distinct grace and brawn; qualities that all IPA should possess. The flavour profile is perfectly British, and Kirkstall have set off on their bottling journey with an incredibly impressive beer.  Buy it.

 

UK IPA Rules, OK?

IPA. No other style (with exception of anything shoved in an oak barrel for 6 months) sets the mouth of the beer-geek frothing like a good, ridiculously hopped IPA. Yet, whilst preparing my ‘beers of the year’ post, I find myself most impressed with IPA’s from good ol’ Blighty.

I picked up a can of Ska Brewing’s Modus Hoperandi (6.8%abv) when the weather was warmer, and took a break from mowing the lawn to sit on my newly-shorn grass and revitalise. Modus smashed me around the jaw instead; caramel-bodied-muscle and pine-needle sinews flexing in the can, a powerful bitterness that starts the minute it hits your lips and tracks right down your throat, and a nose that contains all the grapefruit-pith and lemon-peel that you’d want. Refreshing? Chilled, yes…but half an hour later I found myself wanting another beer as my mouth was so dry. I didn’t reach for a Modus.

It also had the sheer bad luck of being drunk on the same day as Oakham’s Green Devil (6%abv), a beer that, since then. I’ve tried to get my hands on as often as possible. If I could somehow rig a pipe from Peterbrough to my kitchen to make this my ‘house beer’, then I would. Green Devil is a masterpiece.

It’s beauty lies in its drinkability; the whole package is balanced beautifully. The hop profile is married perfectly with sugars, and the dryness that one wants – demands – of an IPA – comes and goes with elegance and grace. A burnished golden hue, the nose is full of Peaches, Pineapple and sweet Strawberry notes, who stick around into the sip, adding a friend in high, lip-smacking Pink Grapefruit/Lime bitterness along the way. The body is robust and ever-so-slightly warming, letting you know that as much as it may want you to think it is, Green Devil is not really a ‘session’ beer.

Put it alongside beers such as Kernel’s Topaz and SCANNERS collaboration with Brodies, Hardknott’s English Experiment, Wold Top’s excellent Scarbrough Fair IPA and consistently classy efforts from the likes of Magic Rock and Red Willow, UK IPA seems to be in a healthy state; and I hope that beer-buyers are looking at that before reaching for expensive imports.

Beer of the Year? Perhaps. Let’s see what the rest of the year brings. They’ve got a high bar to reach.

>Thornbridge and Dark Star’s Coalition Old Ale

Brewed in 2009, Coalition Old Ale (7%abv) is the result of a collaboration between the Thornbridge and Mark Tranter from the ever-excellent Dark Star . I first tried this beer a few months back, at one of our fabled bottle-swaps, courtesy of those kind chaps Andy and James of SummerWine Brewery. As I sat and tasted mine, I was very aware of how I’d probably need another chance to try it to really form an opinion of it; I certainly wasn’t expecting the kind of beer that it actually is. Not sure why, I just expected something darker, smokier, and stronger in alcohol.

Luckily, Hopzine Rob and Baron Orm rushed to my aid, and I managed to get my hands on another bottle – and I’m glad I did. Coalition Old Ale is an exercise in subtlety; a real class act. Firstly, there’s that colour – hazy Amber, bright and…well, vibrant. Not the look of a beer dormant since 2009. The lasting, substantial head is the only giveaway to the age; slightly tobacco-hued, not quite white. The taste is softly sweet, with only the slightest hint of resinous wood (pine?) floating around underneath.
There’s a little spice – Cinnamon, perhaps – and then comes along those flavours you’d more typically associate with ‘Old Ales’; some raisin, some bitter cherry, a hint of almond. The finish ramps up the bitterness, and the beer ends up with a really satisfying Orange note, drying the palate and making it a surprisingly moreish beer. The alcohol is only gently warming, and Coalition is well worth seeking out if you can. A beer to be sipped and savoured, for sure.

>Lightside/DarkSide: St Austell Proper Job & Proper Black

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It’s taken me a while to post this up; I just had to wait to do a side-by-side comparison when a brewer makes a light and dark version of the same beer. St Austell, that Cornish bedrock of the eponymous Tribute, have always had a few secret weapons up their sleeve; Admiral’s Ale is a fantastically complex drop, and you’ll find a secret fan club for Proper Job.

What makes Proper Job (5.5%abv) a little special is the fact that it’s almost unashamedly non-commercial; a truly English IPA that manages to be both tasty and assertive enough to satisfy traditionalists and hop-heads alike. There’s smooth, wheaty malt, sure, but over the top there’s a marmalade-heavy juiciness; and on top of that richness comes zingy grapefruit notes both in the aroma and the taste. The bitterness is, as the label states for a change, powerful, and supremely rising in it’s assertiveness. This is not a crowd-pleaser; Proper Job manages to tread that line between mainstream and ‘different’ very well indeed.

Proper Black (6%abv) arrived to very little fanfare when the world was going crazy for Black IPA; and again, there’s a great balance here. Tasting the two side-by-side almost makes me want the same beer but different colours (even the label is a negative version of the original), but Proper Black manages to be even more assertive, if you ask me. Black as night, the body of the beer is massively different to it’s lighter sister. Massive roasted notes, milk chocolate, drying coffee (Latte? Espresso?) give the beer a full yet rounded body; and all those bitter-end-of-the-scale flavours give PB a dry, dry finish. To counter this, the hop profile seems almost twice a big as PJ; Grapefruit upon Grapefruit upon Orange pith. Big, Brash and Powerful; Proper Black is one beer not to be messed with.
Whilst we are on the Black IPA channel, Buxton’s wonderful Black Rocks is on at North Bar this weekend, alongside Moor Top, Kinder Sunset and the awesome Axe Edge IPA. Put this alongside Proper Job and you’ve got a very different prospect: BR is much, much fruitier; tropical fruits, Lychee and Strawberry dominate, and the body of the beer is light enough to lift those up but roasty enough to make sure you know it’s a dark beer. Fruity, Smooth and with a real depth, Black Rocks is one of the most balanced, drinkable BIPA’s I’ve tried.

>Thwaites Indus IPA

> Thwaites continue on their journey with new beers and styles with Indus IPA(4.6%abv). Named after a ship that very well may have journeyed eastwards whilst Daniel Thwaites was alive, Indus may not satisfy fans of US-Style Hop-Bomb IPA’s, but there’s plenty to recommend.

Brassy Amber in colour, it’s a vibrant, well-conditioned bottle. The nose, as you’d expect, is Citrus-led but with Orange or Tangerine being the dominant note. That softness continues into the sip; a well-rounded toffee sweetness that is stopped from being slightly too sweet by another bitter Orange/Lemon sharpness hit at the end; a full, sweet finish rather than drying.
Thwaites’ beers are usually well-made and solid; Indus IPA is another beer that hits that mark, and is definitely worth a look.
Apologies for the stock picture. Strangely – and it’s something I have never done before – I deleted the original picture before use. Must be getting old.

>Crack Out The Pales!

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I’ve been decorating during the last few weeks; a truly, truly heinous job that I genuinely loathe. Even worse is when the sun decides to come out as it has done in the last few weeks. The only thing that gets me through evenings of painting ceilings and glossing skirting is the thought of a throat-cooling Pale Ale chilling in the fridge to revive a flagging soul. Here’s the pick of a bunch that I’ve been enjoying.

First up, Theakston’s Lightfoot. Named after a Brewery in Masham that the family took over in 1919 (rather than Gordon), Lightfoot (4.1%abv) is sunshine in a bottle. Straw in colour and pleasingly smooth due to a good dollop of wheat in the Grain Bill, this Blonde has cereal and digestive biscuits in the body before mellowing out to a sweet, lemon-tinged finish. Lightfoot is stupidly easy drinking and a welcome departure for Theakston’s. It’s good to see one of Yorkshire’s larger breweries bringing out new wares (it should start appearing on bars fairly soon, I am told) and I start the vote now for Lightfoot to remain a permanent brew. Try it.

Plumbing similar furrows is Wye Valley’s HPA (Hereford Pale Ale). At 4%abv this is even easier-going that the Theakston’s, and uses only Styrian Goldings. Lemon sherbert and a touch of tangerine round off the nose, but the body is as light as a feather. I really rued not saving this one for some Calamari or Barbecued Chicken – this is a perfect pale for subtle, sunshiny foods.

Titanic’s Iceberg (4.1%abv) is advertised as a Wheat beer; although as with the other two, it’s not Wheat as you’d expect. Pale Ale with a hefty touch of Wheat is much more accurate, but what sets Iceberg apart is the hoppiness – it’s a bitter beer, no doubt about it. A smooth, vaguely almond-laced body just rises and rises with citrussy bitterness that gives it a long finish. It actually seems a great deal more aggressive than it’s draught counterpart – but that could just be me. Clear glass being used in bottles is not something I like to see, though.

It’s not all bottled action, though. Last week I got to try a good few of Liverpool Organic’s beers. Again, perfect for this time of year, Rakau displayed a clean, firm body and a sweet, graperfuit/melon finish. Shipwreck IPA (6.5%abv) was golden in colour, with a lasting head, and masses of sweet malt in the body which offset the generous hop attack at the end of the sip – slightly peppery, slightly spicy, then finishing off with the familiar tropical fruit flavours. I really enjoyed this, and highly recommend it.
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