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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.

 

 

Craft Beer by Craig Heap and Chris Hall

Craft BeerJust a quick one this, as this ‘Bookazine’ (not sure if I like that word yet…) is out now and seems to be selling fast – so I just wanted to get some thoughts down whilst you have the chance to buy it.

I’ll be honest: I like Chris Hall and Craig Heap. Their blogs are excellent, and I’ve shared more than a few pints with them both. Both The Good Stuff and Great Yorkshire Beer are name-checked in the ‘further reading’ section at the back of the magazine, too. But I hope, dear reader, that you are reading this blog because you trust and put some faith in what I say – which is that Craft Beer: 365 Best Beers in The World is an incredibly entertaining read.

Yep, I like it. Which is a relief because if it would have been poor, I’d have had some explaining to do. Luckily, the duo have created a great primer on the Craft Beer scene that will appeal not only to the people who are just dipping a toe into the murky world of beer, but people with more than a passing interest, such as myself.

Two things stand out for me: firstly, the beers are arranged by season – which is not only tick-friendly (the magazine then becomes handy all year round) but also makes so much sense that you wonder why it’s not more common. Secondly, the balance of the selection is perfect – this isn’t a book for the fickle beer hipster. Bohemia Regent Prezident rubs shoulders with Hardknott Cool Fusion, Cairngorm’s Trade Winds dances opposite Magic Rock’s Clown Juice, St Peter’s Mild buys a pint for Wild’s Scarlet Fever. That’s how it should be; all are connected and all join the dots in the world of beer that we choose to spend so much time in.

The reviews are bright and breezy without coming across like your dad at a disco, and the personalities of both Chris and Craig are evident in every review. There’s a little food, recommend retailers, some light, potted history and some fun little Top 5’s – such as beers to show off with. All the boxes are ticked.

The beer world isn’t without books borne of  partnerships; Tom Sandham & Ben McFarland, Ray Bailey and Jessica Boak, Stephen Beaumont & Tim Webb. The fact that Chris and Craig have taken this chance and produced a fine, modern and – most importantly – accessible – distillation of Craft Beer for such a specific market is really something to admire. Perhaps another partnership is born.

Craft Beer is out now and is published by Future Publishing.

 

Rebel Welsh

IMG_0744I like Tiny Rebel.

Since popping up a little while ago, the gang from Newport have breathed a little fresh air into the Welsh brewing scene, which has it’s fair share of traditional brewers. Welsh beer, like its rugby players, has no shortage of strength, body and character, albeit wrapped up in packages that don’t shy away from what’s gone before. Which is why Tiny Rebel, well, stand out.

For a small outfit, their beers certainly get around. I’ve enjoyed Fubar on the bar in both London, Manchester and Macclesfield, their graffito’d pumpclips standing out amongst the others on the bar. Happily, Beer-Ritz have started stocking them, so I enjoyed a couple of bottles last weekend whilst watching the opening weekend of the NFL. And those that know me know that those beers that accompany my sports viewing generally enjoy a lofty position of being hand-picked for the role.

Full Nelson (4.8% abv) is their ‘Maori Pale Ale’ and, as the names suggests, is packed with Nelson Sauvin hops. A personal favourite of mine, I’m used to seeing ‘Nelson’ being thrown into uber-pale ales, resulting in super-floral aromas and quenchingly dry finishes. What Full Nelson does differently is it puts those hops against a richer Grain bill – and improves as a result. In addition to all those Nelson Sauvin notes that you want – Gooseberry, White Grape, a little Lemon pith – you get a nutty, almost bready underpinning of grain which gives the beer depth and flavour. It’s not an IPA, it’s not a palate-killer – its a well-rounded beer that shows thought and care going into the recipe as a whole, rather than packing as many hops as they can in.  Adnam’s Ghost Ship (predominantly Citra) and Rooster’s Yankee (Cascade) are other examples of this kind of forethought and balance in ‘hoppy’ beers.

IMG_0293Urban IPA (5.5% abv) shows a restrained hand again in terms of alcohol – without sacrificing taste. Another beer leaning towards the Amber hue, the nose fair explodes with tropical fruit and fresh Pineapple and, on the sip, that fruit almost takes the front seat, risingly bitter at first with pithy citrus, before that malt comes crashing back in, sweetening everything up with biscuit and toffee. Perhaps not an IPA for committed hopheads, its balance proves it’s pedigree. It’s a fine IPA, robust enough to throw the gain switch up a notch in  terms of flavour, but sweet enough to warrant a second bottle. Just to be sure, of course.

A quick glance at TR’s core range illustrates balance and nods to tradition, whilst at the same time being quintessentially modern; a couple of IPA’s, a clutch of Pales, and a Smoked Oat Stout. Nothing much inbetween – and that’s quite common with modern breweries, I find.

Tiny Rebel’s star is certainly rising, and I read with interest that they’ve taken over Fire Island, Cardiff’s craft beer bar in stasis (UPDATE – It’s just opened as Urban Tap House – here’s Craig Heap’s initial thoughts on it) – possibly at the expense of further expansion in terms of brewing. A more modest, Welsh version of BrewDog, perhaps? It’s Cardiff’s gain, for sure, and I wish them luck. That little hooligan Bear logo that lounges around their artwork is a charming little guy, and I for one would like to see more of him.

St Austell 1913 Cornish Stout: A Classy Affair

IMG_0010I only enjoyed one stout on St Patrick’s day this year – not that I’m one for that particular ritual – but by god, what a good one it was. It seems St Austell had gone on full offensive and fired a few bottles of these out for review over the week, and opening it brought a broad smile to my face. When you’re talking gifts, it’s not often that the beer you get lives up to expectation.

By all accounts, St Austell unearthed a recipe dating back to 1913 for this stout; launching it at the Beer & Mussel festival in St Merryn. Reading that, as I drunk, only had me salivating – a pint of this with a bowl of plain mussels, some crusty bread….

Anyway, enough of that particular daydream. If I could sum up the 1913 Cornish Stout (5.2% abv) in one word, it would be ‘Classy.‘ A slightly metallic nose, all earth and bark, followed by a juicy, raisin-laced body with hints of smoky malt in the sip. There’s a really interesting, moreish bonfire-toffee note running through the whole thing, too. The beer then blossoms into a sweet, silky and almost milk-chocolate-laced finish. You think it’s finished fairly sweetly until a rising bitterness appears in your throat, reminding you that it is, after all, a Stout. It’s a really interesting beer.

It’s probably one of the best, most well-balanced stouts I’ve tasted – and those of you who know me will (hopefully) know I don’t say those sorts of things just because the beer was free. I’m off to buy some more, and that says it all.

New Horizons: Kernel Table Beer & Duvel Tripel Hop

Kernel tableCall it a cardinal sin, but recently…well, I’ve not been buying Kernel.

I know, I know, it seems like some absurd torture, but I genuinely found myself passing them up in favour of others. It’s nothing to do with them per se, but I just got used to what they were about. Great IPA’s and strong Pale Ales – in particular – were the reason for my Kernel fatigue. I knew what I was going to get; almost tasting the beer before it was poured. Sure, Kernel do what they incredibly, incredibly well, but for me it was either the Stouts and Porter or something else. The Kernel Honeymoon period was over.

At some point last summer, I felt the first twinges of this as I wished for something else. Kernel flavour – but in a less ruinous package. My cries must have traveled further south than I gave them credit for as, not long after, Table Beer arrived. Weighing in at 3.3% abv, it seemed like the ideal package and although it took me a while to, I actively sought it out. I’m glad I did; uber-pale and massively refreshing, it uses a pic’n’mix of new world hops (Topaz, Apollo, Pacific Jade), mixes it with good ol’ Columbus and delivers a session beer of mighty flavour. Apricot conserve on the nose, more stone-fruit peachiness throughout alongside grainy malt, and managing to finish fruity then sharply clean, it’s everything that’s good about Kernel without the alcohol.

Even calling it ‘Table Beer’ seems perfect, stamped onto that now-iconic grocer’s-paper label, hinting a tradition and setting it apart from the term ‘Session Beer’, which is what it is. It’s pitch-perfect and after seeing other people for a while, Kernel and I are an item again.

Duvel Trip HopDuvel falls into a similar category without the expectation of new flavours as there’s always only been one, if you know what I mean. Supremely versatile and still a benchmark for the style, Duvel is one of those ‘store-cupboard standby’ beers, to use an unflattering term. Somehow it seems right for there only to be one beer, so well-brewed it is.

This year, however, I get my hands on my first Tripel Hop (9.5%abv), and again, it manages to confound expectation and almost redefine my long-set opinion. Instead of the usual silky, smooth body and rich, pear notes that I’m used to, Tripel Hop is light – almost spritzy – and loaded with fresh, cutting Lime and Grapefruit aroma, courtesy of the judicious use of Citra hops in it. That familiar Belgian funk loiters in the background, reminding you you’re drinking something new yet rooted in tradition, and – if you close your eyes – you can taste the brewers flexing their muscles.  God knows where the alcohol is hidden, too.

Familiar and yet entirely alien to me, it left me with a smile on my face and – alongside the Table Beer – with a new-found respect for the brewer.

Saltaire’s Stateside IPA

034Yet another cracker from Saltaire that launched to little fanfare, and yet deserves much more. When it comes to Saltaire’s bottles – compared to what they have on cask – it’s a limited offering. Blonde and Triple Chocoholic dominate the shelves; and so they should. Both are tasty and incredibly, incredibly popular  – especially round these parts.

But, as with the Hazelnut Porter and Cascade, Stateside IPA is a class act, and a beer I hope to see more of. Wearing the stars and stripes on its sleeve, it manages to remain resolutely trans-Atlantic and mix the best of UK and US IPA leanings. A not-shy 6% abv and amber in the glass, it’s all juicy Seville Marmalade on the nose, with an even deeper fruitiness on the sip – think Dundee cake and earthy spice. Mid – sip it switches round, getting thinner, crisper and with a pronounced bite that will satisfy the US IPA freaks out there.

It’s big, warming, smooth and sweet and, simply , a great beer. I’ve not tried it on cask (if it’s available on cask), but Stateside has quickly shot up there with New World Red and South Island Pale as must-drink Saltaire beers.

Ps: Despite only launching Gold on Keg a few months ago, it picked up a Gold at the recent International Brewing Awards. No mean feat, and entirely deserved. Well done, Saltaire, well done.

Salopian’s Darwinian Delights

DSCF4160Deep in the Shropshire countryside, on a transplanted kit originally used by Snowdonia Brewery, Salopian are quietly going about daily business; brewing beers of quiet glory.

It’s always a pleasure to drink beers from a brewery who are comfortable in their own skin; brewing beers that appeal to everyone, without bells or whistles. Flavour, you feel, is king in Shropshire.  Salopian have been around for some time now (they appeared in 1995) and produce a range of beers that have never let me down; they are often the first name I look for when attending beer festivals. These two bottles are no example to that rule.

Shropshire Gold is one I’m familiar with; a zippy golden ale with masses of lime and lemon rind on the finish and a body of smooth sweetness. The beer is clean, refreshing and everything you want in a light (3.8% abv) session ale. It holds its own against other personal favourites in this style such as Hopback’s Summer Lightning, Ossett’s Yorkshire Blonde and Hawkshead’s Lakeland Gold.

DSCF4162Darwin’s Origin is – frankly – brilliant. Very much a ‘cult’ beer – in so much as that not a lot of people talk about it, yet everyone seems to rate it – it has endless capacity to surprise. Weighing in at only 4.3% abv, it manages to pull off that trick that Oakham do so well – brewing lighter beers that are jam-packed with flavour.

Darwin does it all with grace; copper-coloured and full of sweet fruit on the nose – Seville orange marmalade , mango, strawberry. After marveling at the aroma for a while, you finally taste it and are immediately rewarded with light, shortcake sweetness which transforms mid-gulp into high, dry grapefruit and pine needle at the end.

I should have got more of these, I rue. An entirely modern beer wrapped in a plaintive, traditional jacket, you wonder if  Darwin’s Origin is being overlooked by those seeking more modernity from their branding and ethos. More fool them. If you’ve not tried this beer, then rectify that immediately.

Both beers are available at Best of British Beer – whose details are on my ‘retailers’ page.

Arbor/Harbour : 1B

Harbor colabIn a tenuous link to the last post, I tasted Harbour’s collaboration with Arbor (that gets confusing after a while…), 1B. Clocking in at 7.4% abv, it’s not one to be trifled with. The label proclaiming it to be a Belgian Brown Ale, conceived during Arbor’s ‘Freestyle Fridays’, where essentially they take a day off and brew what they want.

More on that later. 1B is slightly Dubbel-esque inasmuch as it’s big, brown and boozy – although the formula has been distilled down to the bare bones of the style. There’s brown sugar, raisin and some banana on the nose, and that overall profile carries onto the taste – which is smooth, sweet and rich. Some alcohol heat makes an appearance at the end, which brings the abv into sharp relief -but overall it’s a fun, boozy beer. Seek it out if that’s your thing but be quick.

Bristol-based Arbor have been brewing since 2007 by all accounts, but I was only made aware of them early last year; their quirky range of largely single-hopped beers recalling a southern Mallinson’s to my Yorkshire eyes. They seem to work with what’s available and, the occasional underconditioned bottle aside, make good, solid beer with excellent hop presence. Looking back , they’ve collaborated with other local breweries and generally had fun.

065I spent a weekend drinking an armful of Arbor’s beers last spring, but never got around to reviewing them, despite me taking the obligatory picture (that happens all the time, let me tell you!).

Given the variance that the range has there’s almost no point now – the beers simply won’t be around.  Aramis, Full of Beans (A smoky, smooth dark mild with coffee), Brigadier Bitter and Olympic – themed Black IPA 2012 were all guzzled with varying results, but Yakima Valley IPA was wonderful – and the one I’ve picked up every time I’ve seen it since. Sweet, amber and full of boiled-sweet body and a wonderfully floral/grapefruity nose makes it incredibly familiar and satisfying. If you’re going to choose one Arbor Ale to seek out, make it this one.

Arbor are currently undergoing a rebrand, and they are certainly one UK brewery that I think will come out on the other side of that stronger for the effort. The potential is there; and with a business (which is what a brewery is, let’s not forget) that’s half the battle. One to monitor.

Unwinding with Windsor & Eton

023 (2)I was drinking in Leeds ages ago (getting on for early Summer last year) when I first came across Windsor & Eton. It was one of those moments of beer serendipity that I like to collect so much; discussing in one pub how I had ‘heard good things about them, but not tried them’, only to come across a refreshingly fruity pint of Knight of the Garter in the next. Thank you, Ninkasi.

Interest piqued, I picked more up as the year went on, and present my findings here. Republika (4.0%abv) really is a top-drawer lager; initially brewed with the input of Tomas Mikulica of Pivovarski Dvur. Perhaps a little darker in colour than one would expect, it packs a lot of flavour into the glass – a creamy, distinctly biscuity foundation in the body topped off with a fresh, grassy, flinty nose and a snappily crisp finish. I’ve enjoyed Republika perhaps the most since the initial taste, finding it popping up at tastings and dinners as ‘the lager offering’ – and rightly so. Good stuff.

020Where to start with Conqueror 1075? The steroid-taking older brother of Conqueror, 1075 is one of the best black IPA’s I’ve had the pleasure of tasting. It’s a gift that just keeps giving, new nuances and aspects hitting you each time you sip, or indeed from bottle to bottle. Weighing in at 7.4%abv, it pours jet-black and unleashes aromas of Cedar, Pine and deep woodsmoke as your pour, giving the nose an immensely deep, satisfying nature. The beer itself drinks way too easy, mostly due to an elegantly refined, smooth mouthfeel that takes those woody notes and cleans them up around the edges with more pine and an odd-yet-brilliant fruitness that reminds me, oddly, of parma violets. With more front that Kate Middleton on a french holiday, a touch of alcohol heat pops up at the bitter end, and you’ll be kicking yourself for only buying one when you finish the glass. I was, anyway.

019

W&E are known for getting behind the Royal connotations of their name, which could turn some of the more fervent amongst you off – but do so at your peril. Windsor Knot, a 4.5% beer brewed to celebrate the marriage of William and Kate, is so much more than a novelty beer. In fact, it’s now one of their regulars, and rightly so. This amber beer is a great example of US and UK tastes coming together; massively sweet belgian-candy notes in the body, rounded out with more subtle fruit sweetness (think raisin and almond cake) and a high, bitter finish with plenty of pithy citrus rind that dries as it fades, leaving you wanting another before you’ve even swallowed.

It reminded me of super-fresh Sierra Nevada Pale Ale (a beer that I’ve found recently has gone right ‘off a cliff’ in terms of flavour) – all sweetness and hops, smooth and moreish. It’s crying out for a plate of quick-sauteed Prawns with Garlic, or some slices of sweet, smoky Chorizo. A bold, tasty beer that you shouldn’t miss out on if you haven’t caught it yet.

Finally, two ‘Jubilee’ beers. Hitting up the empirical connection, Treetops (4.4%abv), named after a safari lodge frequented by the Queen, just missed the mark for me. A stout with ‘Yams, Millet, and Sorghum’ to bring the African connection in, Treetops was just not to my taste. Very sweet, with a rough, grainy, burnt coffee nose that reminded me of the Greek coffee I drink on holiday, the body has plenty of milk chocolate swirling around but there’s an inherent graininess that I can’t escape. You know Hershey’s chocolate? Like that, to my taste. An interesting beer if you like your stouts, however.

IMG_3424Kohinoor (5%abv) is named after one of the Queen’s diamonds and comes across as a cousin to Windsor Knot; those same boiled-sweet and fruit jelly flavours abound in the body, and it’s topped off with a nose of Seville marmalade and slightly herbal, grassy notes. The whole package is lovely; tasty, full of flavour and incredibly light for the abv. I’ll be seeking this out in cask, where it enjoys a slightly lower abv.

Overall, W&E are the kind of brewery that make me want to live nearer to them to drink more of their wares; a brewery quietly going about their business with little fanfare. Reviving brewing in Windsor (according to their site, the last brewery there was Burge’s in the ’30’s.) it’s sleek, elegantly refined brewing that has a massive hit rate within their core range.

A Delivery from The Old Dairy

074New Beer’s Resolutions; what are yours? Mine is simply to drink from regions I’m not too familiar with; and I’m not talking about globally – i’m talking about the UK. It occurred to me just before Christmas that there were whole regions in the UK that I generally had little awareness of, from pubs to beer. I probably knew more about certain parts of the US, which is disgusting, really.

So, online we go to buy more beer, I guess. The first brewery to pop up on my radar was The Old Dairy – about as bucolic-sounding as you can get. Brewed by Ed Wray (who also blogs regularly at Eds Beer Site), the labels catch the eye with a trio of leaning, slightly drunk-looking cows and has beers named with word ‘Top’ after them – something readers of a certain age who remember daily milk deliveries at dawn will crack a little smile at.

I first tasted Fresh Hop in Autumn last year, a pleasant surprise in a box of mixed beer I was bought as a present. As the name suggests, it certainly is about the hops here; that sharp, bold, brassy Kentish hop profile giving the beer a sharp finish. The beer only weighed in at 4% abv but left you in no doubt in the flavour stakes; that boldness carries onto the body which abounded with cereals and biscuit.  Crisp, clean and well-balanced, it’s a supremely refreshing pint.

IMG_3429Flipping the style guide over, I opted for a bottle of Silver Top (love these names), a Cream Stout. If a brewery called The Old Dairy can’t nail a ‘Cream Stout’ then they need to pack up and go home; but Ed won’t need to get the suitcase out yet. Enjoyed as the temperatures dipped and over the course of a massively entertaining cup game betwixt Bradford and Aston Villa, it certainly hit the spot. The condition was excellent; the brimming pint glass topped off with a frothy, tan head that invited you to stick your face in and drink deep. Chocolate buttons and smooth, sweet roasted malt dominate the body, and, as the sip goes on, a welcome wave of bubbles lifts it all up into a subtly crisp finish, stopping this sweet stout being cloying and finishing it off cleanly instead.

I enjoyed both beers immensely, and will be getting my hands on the rest of The Old Dairy’s range as the year goes on. Good work, guys.

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