Friday, 16 December 2011

Camden Town & the Bull - New Releases

Things have been very quiet round here for rather a long time so let's get cracking on the New Year's resolutions a bit ahead of schedule. On Tuesday evening I was confonted by something of a fixture clash. Down in the city at the the Craft Beer Co a meet the brewer event featuring Camden Town brewery, including the launch of two new beers, was taking place. Just an hour later, in the more leafy realms of the Ham & High, two new beers from the London Brewing Co beers would be making their debut at the Bull. Being well aware just how easy it is to get "stuck" in the Craft, I was harbouring serious doubts that I would make it to both events but, aided by some prodding and cajoling from friends (to travel with them rather than leave them at the Craft, I'm relieved to say), I managed to do so and I'm glad I did. And I even found time for a last pint or two at the Southampton Arms too.

The first new Camden Town beer I tried at the Craft was Gentleman's Wit, described as a Lemon & Bergamot Wit, apparently utilising lemons covered in Bergamot and roasted for 20 hours. To be honest, I'm not sure what aromas and flavours Bergamot imparts but I do know (OK with a little help from Wikipedia) that it is used in Earl Grey tea and was a major component in the original Eau De Cologne - guess I would need to have been an England rugby player in the 80s to know what that tastes like. The beer certainly did have an aromatic, spicy character and plenty of sharp, citric bite. The appearance was pale and hazy. Very crisp and refreshing on the palate. Tart, with a little sweetness to balance things out. British takes on the Belgian Wit style can be pretty dire but this one hit the spot rather nicely for me.

Next up was Bleeding Hops, a 6.4% IPA, heavily hopped with a whole cocktail of different hop varieties. To be honest, I was a little taken aback by the quite dark tawny colour. Perhaps I wouldn't have been if I had taken the trouble to read the blurb first. There were certainly plenty of juicy resinous hops in evidence. Lots of malty notes too - quite nutty, with some toffee and caramel as well. I assumed these elements, and the relatively dark colour, were due to the use of Crystal malt but Mr Dredge assured me that was not the case and the malty elements are derived from Aromatic malt, which is apparently a Munich type malt, often used in Belgian style beers such as Abbey Dubbels. This was a tasty and quite weighty mouthful but I have to admit it was not entirely to my taste, inhabiting an area somewhere between a paler aromatic IPA and the fuller, roasted feel of a black IPA, with a fair amount of sweetness. I have felt the same about some of the fatter, sweeterCrystal-influenced IPAs I have tried in the USA so it's just a matter of personal preference.

The pick of the bunch for me was Camden Ink, a 4.4% dry stout which had launched a few days earlier. Maybe mounting a major challenge to Guinness is a somewhat distant prospect, but that's the market sector it's clearly aimed at. And it's a far more enjoyable beer for me in every respect. Yes, it's inky black. Yes, it has a creamy head and consistency but it isn't nitro'd to within an inch of it's life, nor was it chilled out of all recognition. On the palate it's dry and smooth but much richer and more flavourful than Guinness, with subtle coffee ground and dark chocolate notes apparent alongside the roasty malt. There's a pleasing bitterness here but it's coming as much from good use of hops as from burnt malt. As you may have guessed, I was rather impressed.

As easily as I could have remained ensconced in the Craft, it was then on to a bus, over the hill and far away to the Bull in Highgate, which I have written about before. This is a truly integrated operation with the tiny brewery (using the name London Brewing Co) squeezed into the kitchen so that the brewer, Steve Grey, literally has to rub shoulders with the chef. He seems to spend a fair amount of time pouring and serving too. A couple of weeks ago Gazza Prescott, hophead supreme from Steel City Brewing, dropped in for a collaboration brew. Given Gazza's leftward leanings and the presence of a certain grave in the nearby cemetery, naming the 4.3% collaboration brew Full Marx was a no-brainer. Knowing Gazza's preferences, I was expecting some pale IBU insanity. However, whilst the beer was indeed very pale in colour, the hopping was relatively restrained (for Gazza) with as much emphasis on flowery, aromatic character as bittering. According to Steve, had Gazza been given an entirely free rein, the beer would have been "too hoppy for Highgate". There was a bit of sulphur and some farmyard/manure notes on the nose. And I mean that in a good way. The mouthfeel was clean and firm. Overall, this was a hoppy, but well-balanced and immensely drinkable brew.

Also on show for the first time was Pi Eyed - well it used the Pi symbol on the pump clip but I don't know how to type that. This was a darkish red, fruity and slightly sweet Wintery number. Some sharp notes in the fruit on the palate provided a balancing and agreeable old ale type character. I found this a satisfying and tasty beer too.

I very much like the Bull as a pub. Unlike a lot of refurbishments, it gets the balance right on many levels. And it's good to see the brewing side of things doing well too.

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Competition for Greene King stirs in Suffolk

Anyone who has been to Bury St Edmunds will know that it is a very handsome town but compromised, as far as the travelling beer enthusiast is concerned, by the overbearing presence of Greene King. Now, I’m not necessarily one of those that regard Greene King beers as particularly poor, although a lot of them are less than exciting, and I would put them in the “must try harder” category. I actually rather enjoyed my brewery tour there a few years ago, and the fresh beers I sampled afterwards in the tasting room. 

The Nutshell
I’m not averse to a pint of XX Mild just along the road from the brewery in the welcoming and staunchly traditional Rose & Crown pub, which I had always assumed was owned by Greene King but, if so, is strangely missing from the pub finder feature on their wensite . And squeezing into the delightful and miniscule Nutshell, which has claims on being the smallest pub in the country, for an Abbot or two can be a pleasant, if sometimes rather cosy, experience. But this is Greene King heartland and its beers are just too ubiquitous. Consumer choice has been sadly lacking although, to be fair to Greene King, they do often allow guest beers into their pubs, although the range can be restricted.

The Dove
When I was last in Bury St Edmunds, admittedly a few years ago, competition to Greene King domination was largely restricted to the Old Cannon brewpub. A glance at the 2011 edition of the Good Beer Guide suggests that the Dove, a free house with six handpumps, mainly dispensing brews from independent East Anglian brewers, has more recently entered the fray. And there’s Bartrams brewery based in nearby Rougham, whose bottled beers you can pick up at Barwells store in the town centre, although I can’t remember ever seeing much of their beer in the pubs around town. But that has been about it for challenges to Greene King domination. Even JD Wetherspoon, often a source of some respite in places where a single brewer dominates, doesn’t have a pub within 12 miles.

Brewshed brewery
However, there’s a new kid on the block. On the beer list for Egham beer festival a few weeks ago I noticed two offerings from Brewshed brewery of Bury St Edmunds. A little research revealed that the owners of a small pub group in the town - comprising the Beerhouse, the One Bull and the Cadogan – have installed a brewery at the Beerhouse and its first beers appeared in May of this year. Even without the on-site brewery, the Beerhouse looks to be a worthwhile venue for the beer enthusiast, with eight handpumps, whilst The One Bell stocks the Brewshed beers and a guest or two. Judging from their website, the Cadogan seems less promising to those of beery persuasion, listing just Greene King IPA and Abbot as the ale choices. This may, of course, just be a case of delayed website updating and I would hope to see the Cadogan serving at least the Brewshed beers. When the new 2012 Good Beer Guide arrived through my letterbox, I was pleased to see that both the Beerhouse and the One Bull have made it into the latest edition, although rather surprised that the One Bull entry made no reference to the Brewshed beers. I was also rather surprised to see that the Old Cannon is no longer listed.

As for the Brewshed beers, the first I tried at Egham was Brewshed Best Bitter, a likeable, traditionally-styled, darkish best bitter at 4.3% with some fruity notes on the palate, a decent bitter hop presence and a quite full mouthfeel. Brewshed Pale Ale, at 3.9% was a very respectable and drinkable golden ale with plenty of tart citric hops, a firm bite on the finish and a crisp mouthfeel. 

Understandably slightly cautious choices for their first brews but a solid foundation - the beers are well-made and certainly preferable to Greene King IPA. The Brewshed brewery, and the related pubs are a very welcome addition to the Bury St Edmunds beer scene and I wish them all the best in their efforts. The presence of two brewpubs in a modestly sized town suggests that drinkers there may be eager for a more varied beer diet than Greene King, Greene King and more Greene King, which can only be a good thing. I have also just discovered that a specialist beer shop - Beautiful Beers - opened in Bury St Edmunds earlier this year too. It’s probably time for me to pay another visit.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Project Venus at the Rake

There’s a widely held belief that women don’t drink beer and don’t like beer. It’s no doubt true that more men drink beer than women. But whether that is because fewer women actually enjoy, or would enjoy, beer is more debatable. Perhaps the preferences are more cultural than taste-driven? Certainly, the beer world has come to be viewed largely as a man’s world, a concept that has been reinforced by the distinctly laddish slant to most beer advertising and the outdated perception of pubs as spit and sawdust, male-dominated, drinking dens.

In recent times some of the big beer companies have decided to tap into the female market by promoting beers aimed specifically at women. But they are invariably anchored on the questionable assumption that women and men want different things. That, in order to capture that market, you need to produce something “female friendly”, whatever that may be. That women prefer something, well, girly. So, when Molson Coors announced the launch of their Animée beers, their major innovation was to make one of them pink. No stereotyping there then. The best Carlsberg could manage was Eve, a low ABV, lychee-flavoured concoction made with rice. Although they do also have their “gender-neutral” Copenhagen brand. And, as for Chick Beer – well, even the Facebook and Twitter symbols on their website are pink. These seem to me to be nothing more than dubious marketing wheezes that do nothing to challenge stereotypes and plenty to reinforce them. Maybe it’s just the women I know, but most of them are quite eclectic in the types of beer they enjoy and would regard this nonsense as offensive were it not so laughable.

One initiative that is doing something to tackle stereotypes and raise the profile of women in brewing is Project Venus, a group of female brewers in the UK and Ireland, who are getting together to produce a collaboration brew now and again. Of course, as any fool knows, brewing was not always a man’s world. Long ago it was very much the province of women, although probably more in the nature of a domestic activity than a business venture. Once brewing began to get more industrialised, the role of women declined. Thankfully nowadays there are a fair few women back in brewing and the numbers seem to be on the increase. Project Venus seeks to publicise and encourage that.

Unfortunately, I missed the first Project Venus beer - Venus Jade, which appeared earlier this year. However, I was on hand at the Rake on Monday night to sample their second creation, Venus Rouge, and met a couple of the protagonists. The beer was made at Oldershaw brewery and the collaborators on this occasion were Kathy Britton of Oldershaw, Sara Barton of Brewsters, Michelle Haydock Kelsall of Offbeat, Sophie De Ronde of Brentwood and Sue Hayward of Waen. The beer is 4.2%, reddish amber in colour, hopped with Chinook, Summit and Cascade. There’s a moderate but assertive grapefruit presence in the aroma, with some floral notes. On the palate there’s a developing citrus character, with orangey/marmalade elements in the forefront, underlaid by a quite chewy, toasty malt backbone. Just a touch of sweetness is offset by a firm bitterness on the finish. Overall it’s a very drinkable pint with plenty of body. So, whilst it’s a beer made by women, it’s by no means a beer aimed just at women – anyone can enjoy this regardless of gender. I know I did. And I’m pleased to report that Kathy Britton assured me the women of Project Venus won’t be getting too pink any time soon.        

Monday, 19 September 2011

Chriso Is (a bit) Unwell

This week I have mostly been drinking ...
Last week should have been a busy one. Monday saw the launch of Windsor & Eton brewery’s Republika, a 4.8% pilsner made using Saaz hops and Czech yeast, at the Rake. Tuesday was the opening of the Tap East bar at Westfield Stratford City, the latest venture (Tap East, not the shopping city that is) from the guys behind Utobeer and the Rake, with an in-house brewery due to come on stream soon. Wednesday was the Quality SE1 Pub Crawl, with guest appearances from Kernel, Innis & Gunn and Sambrooks. Saturday was going to be a bash at London Fields brewery but it seems that was put back to Saturday 24th, unless I got the date wrong in the first place. And that’s without bringing beers festivals at the Sultan in Wimbledon and the Rose & Crown in Walthamstow into the equation. I say should have been because I missed the lot due to an annoyingly persistent snot-ridden bug attack.

I will be trying catch up on these missed opportunities, and to write something about them, before too long but in the meantime you will have to make do with a little piece about something stirring out in Suffolk. However, London Fields brewery will have to wait as next weekend I will be at the Borefts beer festival at De Molen Brouwerij in the Netherlands where Thornbridge, Marble and Kernel breweries will be flying the flag for the UK. Which means I will also miss the first beers from London’s latest brewing venture at the Botanist pub, from whom I received an invite to their launch on Thursday.

Between now and heading for Holland I will be attempting to drink and review a sizeable proportion of the sixteen beers comprising the Sainsburys Great British Beer Hunt, currently all sitting in my fridge. Although I have to acknowledge that The Beer Monkey, and several other, have stolen a march on me on that one. In addition, Monday sees the arrival of the brewsters of Project Venus and Venus Rouge, their latest creation at the Rake. And on Wednesday I hope to get to the Bricklayers Arms for the first day of their Derbyshire beer festival.

Just a few years ago, beer events in London were thin on the ground. Nowadays the scene has burgeoned and there is so much going on that even Londonites who never venture beyond the M25 are bound to miss something sometimes. I try to maintain a calendar of London-ish beery happenings but it is getting tough to keep abreast of every event. The expansion of interest in beer in London is immensely encouraging but also extremely annoying when it’s an unseasonal bug that’s to blame for missing out rather than simply a lack of time.

INFORMATION
Winsdor & Eton Republika is available in bottles from the brewery shop (see brewery website for opening times) and at the Beer Boutique Putney & Noble Green Wines in London. Also available online from Beermerchants. The Rake bar also has bottles at the moment. More to follow when I’ve had a chance to taste the stuff. Look too for another new brew - Conqueror 1075, a stronger version of Windsor & Eton’s excellent Conqueror Black IPA, also available from Beermerchants.

Tap East is a bar located on the lower ground floor of the Westfield Stratford City shopping complex (deep joy), aiming to carry 6 cask beers, 10 keg taps and over 140 bottles in addition to beers from their in-house brewery which are due to debut in October. More to follow when I’ve been there.

The Quality SE1 Pub Crawl is a monthly event taking in some of the best hostelries in, er, SE1 - that means the Market Porter, Rake, Draft House & Dean Swift amongst others. Everybody welcome. The next crawl takes place on Wednesday 19th October.

London Fields is a new microbrewery in Hackney. So far they have made six beers, which were first available at an extended launch party over the bank holiday weekend. The event was so popular they decided to hold another. I have not yet managed to try any of the beers and have no information about outlets. More to follow.

The Sainsburys Great British Beer Hunt is an event at which beers from smaller brewers get a temporary slot on the supermarket’s shelves and the two winners are stocked for an extended period. Reviews to follow.

Borefts Beer Festival is a now annual event hosted by De Molen Brouwerij in the small town of Bodegraven in the Netherlands with choice offerings from hand-picked brewers from around Europe. More to follow.

The Botanist is a pub and restaurant near Kew Gardens which is the latest in a string of new brewers coming on stream in London recently. Additional information on their Facebook and Twitter pages. More to follow.

Project Venus aims to promote women in the UK brewing industry, drawing inspiration from the Pink Boots Society in America. More to follow.

The Bricklayers Arms is a pub in Putney which holds several beer (and also cider) festivals a year, showcasing around a hundred beers from a particular county and invariably including some very rare specimens indeed.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Beer and Food Matching

No, I’m not going to be jumping on the bandwagon of making particular beer and food matching suggestions. I’m just going to offer some observations on how the concept reflects on the way in which beer is perceived by us beery types, by wine drinkers, by critics, by the media and whoever else.  

Susy Atkins' beer & food matching
suggestions
There has been some noise on Twitter about an article written by Susy Atkins in the Telegraph on the subject of matching beer and food. It’s a topic that seems to be cropping up with increasing frequency. A sign perhaps that beer is beginning to escape its flat cap, pie and a pint image and moving into more “respectable” territory, whatever that may mean. Of course, plenty of us beer enthusiasts have known that there’s more to it than swigging pints down the pub for years, even if we often feel more comfortable enjoying our beer in a more lively social setting than in an upmarket restaurant. And there are those beer drinkers who feel that it’s proper place is as a social lubricant in a pub, without too much swirling, sniffing and other analysis. Some would find the thought of discussing food and beer pairing in a fancy restaurant an anathema. For some, even the idea of gastropubs (or whatever we are supposed to call them these days) is repugnant, as the regular drinker can be, or at least feel, marginalised.

The truth is that beer can be enjoyed in a whole range of social settings and at a whole range of quality levels. Despite the efforts of the populist media to convince their readership otherwise, it’s not all kids getting blitzed on the High Street on Saturday night and tramps drinking Special Brew on park benches. Of course, wine has not traditionally been seen as an intoxicant favoured by irresponsible drinkers (unless you count Buckie as wine) but the perception of it has changed massively during the 40 years or so that I’ve been exposed to the joys of booze. Back then, wine was largely seen as the preserve of the well heeled, generally drinking wine from the classic French regions. For the rest of us it was a rarity, consumed mainly at meals on special occasions and on the occasional restaurant visit. And, for the general population, pretty unremarkable, not to mention downright dire, plonk was seen as oh so sophisticated – anyone for a Blue Nun nowadays?. Things have moved on. Good value, everyday drinking wines, often from the New World, are as likely to be consumed on their own as paired with food and the names of many grape varieties have long since entered the common lexicon.  

So, the concept that wine is a drink for many situations and comes at many quality levels (and prices) has gained general acceptance. Although a vague awareness that beer might have a similar versatility is on the increase, progress is slower than I’d like and certainly hasn’t reached the stage of general acceptance. Susy Atkins expressed the view that there's a major push to persuade “us” that beer is just as great a match with food as wine and that beer enthusiasts and bloggers are in the vanguard of the pushers. She may have a point there. She also said “and, you know, they're right to a large degree (even if wine is more versatile)”. Leaving aside the question of how much beer and food pairing research she has actually done, the general view expressed on Twitter was that her piece was a step in the right direction but still carried an air of condescension. And there's no doubt that wine snobbery is still alive and well in certain quarters. Perhaps beer snobbery will become the new wine snobbery?

The fact is that, with a few exceptions, there is a high degree of ignorance about beer in the wine and food world. The majority of better restaurants lavish much attention on their wine list but their beer selection is desultory to say the least, if not entirely absent, and certainly appears no more than an afterthought. Places that wouldn’t dream of serving wine that is no better than cheap plonk to their customers seem happy to offer widely available beers that are poor examples of their style and can be picked up from any local distributor. Guys, Leffe Blonde is not a top-notch example of a Belgian ale. And when the Michelin-starred Quilon restaurant started to display an interest in beer, amidst some ballyhoo, the best they could manage for a Belgian style wheat beer was Blue Moon.

Now, those who know me will be aware that, as well as beer, I’m rather partial to a decent wine or a good whisky and not immune from blathering on about them a bit too. Needless to say, when I visit a restaurant, I’m going to have a few drinks - it’s usually in a social context and having a few drinks is what I generally do socially - and, partly because the beer selection is likely to be piss poor, it’s usually going to be wine. And you know what? Whilst I might make some effort to avoid obvious clashes, food and wine matching is not always something that is at the top of my agenda. For me, the essence of a good restaurant experience is good food, good drink and good company in comfortable surroundings. The drink is integral to the restaurant experience but is not immutably bound to the culinary experience. In fact, I am less than convinced by the concept that synergies between food and drink often produce something that is greater than the sum of the parts. The higher up the quality ladder I go the more I am likely to savour that experience outside a purely social context - although there is joy too in sharing choice creations in the company of friends - and the less I want it adulterated with competing aromas, flavours, textures or whatever. I have a bottle of Chateau Margaux sitting at home waiting for a suitable occasion to be opened and what food I should pair it with when that time comes is not in the forefront of my mind. The same goes for a bottle of Alesmith Barrel Aged Speedway Stout that sits close by.

Of course, whisky doesn’t generally have to cope with the straightjacket of being viewed very much in a culinary context. In these times when drinking alcohol for the sheer enjoyment of it can be represented as “irresponsible”, emphasising the food matching qualities of beer is understandable but I wouldn't like to see it go too far down that route either. Maybe respectability through food matching is an inevitable step along the way to wider appreciation. But the truth is that beer is a supremely versatile drink that can be celebrated in many different guises, in many different social contexts and in many different places. Despite the constant tales of woe about pub closures, more brewers than ever are providing more variation and more opportunities for us to revel in those experiences. We beer enthusiasts have never had it so good and, thankfully, others are starting to catch on too. Long may that continue. Just a little bit faster would be nice.
  

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Highgate calling – The Bull & London Brewing Co

Highgate is not an area I visit too frequently and the Bull - not to be confused with the Bull & Last, a distinctly gastroesque joint down the hill on Highgate Road - is not a pub that had ever generated a blip on my radar before. Until, that is, news came my way that Dan Fox, previously manager at the White Horse in Parsons Green had taken over the reins and an in-house brewery was planned. From what I can gather the Bull had latterly been a gastropub, which closed a while back and had since been squatted.

The new venture opened its doors a couple of weeks back but the first beers from the brewery were not ready in time for that and their launch date was announced as 6 September. So it was that yesterday found me marching up to the top of the hill (I lie – I took the bus), and part way down again, to the Bull. The exterior looked spick and span with some tables and parasols on the raised patio out front. Inside was clean and uncluttered with bare boards and a cool, but not sterile, contemporary feel. Upstairs, two more interconnected, spacious rooms continued the theme. Having eaten before going out, I did not try the food, which looked to have an American slant – the menu included such items as sliders, fish tacos and pulled pork.

But, enough of all that, what of the beer? There were five handpumps (or was it four, I forget) on the bar, a number of  “craft” kegs and a solid bottled beer list. Beers from Odell, Fyne Ales, Kirkstall, Oakham, Offbeat and Thornbridge, amongst others, have already been through the taps. When I arrived the handpumps included their own Beer Street and a house beer made by Redemption.  I don’t know whether the latter will be a permanent feature or was just a stopgap until their own beers came on stream. Before long a firkin of their second beer, Nervous Energy, was tapped by Steve, the brewer, and generous free samples dispensed. Nervous Energy then joined the other beers on handpump on the bar. I meant to have a longer chat to Steve but I never got round to it so I don't know his brewing background. What I do know is that he was previously with Dan as cellarman at the White Horse.

Somewhat surprisingly, given the proliferation of new breweries in recent times, the Bull has managed to bag the name London Brewing Co, which must be something of a coup in itself. The Beer Street was a 4.0% amber, traditionally styled bitter with plenty of robust, earthy bitterness and a firm, slightly minerally mouthfeel. Straightforward and pleasantly drinkable although the backing malts perhaps felt a little raw. The Nervous Energy was a 4.8% golden American Pale Ale using Cascade and US Brewers Gold hops, also with plenty of bitterness, a spicy edge, that firm minerally mouthfeel again and a twist of grapefruit on the finish. The gravity-dispensed sample was a touch short of condition but hand pumped version was more lively, although a touch more aroma hopping would not have gone amiss. As the first beers out of the brew house, these are no doubt, to some extent, something of a work-in-progress but are a decent, solid foundation.

Clearly, given the location and the background, the Bull has the potential to become “Sloaney North” but the OK-yah element was not too much in evidence yesterday. This was a very enjoyable and convivial first visit and I wish Dan, Steve & the rest of the team all the best for the future. I’m sure I’ll be back before too long. 

INFORMATION
Location:
13 North Hill, Highgate, London N6 4AB
Transport:
Highgate tube or various buses
Website:
Email:
dan@londonbrewing.com
Telephone:
0208 341 0510
Facebook:
Twitter:
Twitter (brewer):

Friday, 26 August 2011

Egham Summer Beer Festival 2011 - Roundup

Well, that’s Egham Beer Festival over until the next time. As usual, it was thoroughly enjoyable festival despite inclement weather on the two days I visited. I managed to get most of the beers that I wanted to try and only missed out on a few, mainly because they had not come on by the time I left on Saturday night. I’m pleased to say that, although there were a few that were not entirely to my personal taste, the beers were nearly all of a extremely high standard with no real duffers, covered a wide range of styles and in were generally in very good shape – something that can be difficult to achieve at a beer festival. So many thanks, once again, to Bob Inman and the team for their sterling work. The next festival commences on Thursday 3rd November and runs until Sunday 6th. Unfortunately, I will only be able to visit on the first day because I will be heading for Lewes, and it’s bonfire celebrations, for the weekend. Before I move on from Egham, I’ve not been able to resist picking out some particular favourites so a list of my “awards” (no they aren’t worth anything) follows: -


DARK BEERS


Winner
Ascot Last of the Blue Devils Imperial Stout (Cherry)

Runner Up
Canterbury Street Light Porter

Runner Up
Sherfield Village Pioneer Stout

Highly commended
Betjeman Sebastopol

Highly commended
Rectory Mild Pilgrimage

Honourable mention
Old Forge Old Ted




PALE BEERS


Winner
Wayland's Sixpenny Rushmore Gold

Runner up
Westerham Hop Rocket American Pale Ale

Runner up
Ascot Single Hop Apollo

Highly commended
Black Cat Hopsmack

Highly commended
Complete Pig Hallacre Gold

Highly commended
Byatts Phoenix Gold

Highly commended
Kent Club Cascade

Honourable mention
Ascot Single Hop Sorachi Ace

Honourable mention
Bingham Outer Space Hoppy IPA

Honourable mention
Canterbury Haka

Honourable mention
Devilfish That Gold Devil

Honourable mention
Brewshed Pale Ale




BITTERS


Winner
Rectory Rector's Celebration

Runner Up
Halfpenny Anniversary Ale

Honourable mention
Black Cat Original

Honourable mention
Brewshed Best Bitter

Honourable mention
Devilfish Devil Best

Honourable mention
Longdog Brindle Bitter




SPECIALITY / OTHER


Winner
Surrey Hills Greensand IPA

Runner Up
Byatt's Urban Red

Highly commended
Sherfield Village Solo Quintessential

Highly commended
Old Dairy Heiferweizen

Highly commended
Westerham Bohemian Rhapsody

Honourable mention
Ascot Red IPA

Honourable mention
Havant The 7 Pointer

Honourable mention
Loddon In Yer Face American IPA

Honourable mention
Canterbury Summer Wheat

You can find my full reviews for all these beers at RateBeer. Or, if you want to see a compendium of my (briefer) reviews of all the beers I tried at the festival, not just my top picks, head to Egham Beer Festival Summer 2011 – Tasting notes & Reviews

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Going down to Liverpool - A big pub guide

A while back, in A tale of two cities - and farewell to the Everyman, I was singing the praises of Liverpool as a beer-drinking city. Tandleman and Eating Isn’t Cheating have also been talking about Liverpool pubs recently. There’s plenty of top notch beer to be had and many of the pubs are quite simply fantastic. And, to assist anyone planning a beer-oriented trip to Liverpool, I have put together a rather hefty pub guide, including maps and routes. It’s really too big to post in its entirety here but you can find it at Chrisobeer’s Liverpool Pub Guide - don't worry about the safety of the link, it just takes you to a pdf on my Google Docs page. One thing. As I found out, it is impossible to do the city's pubs justice in a single day. You'll need a couple of days to make the most of it, which sounds to me like an ideal weekend break, although you might need another break to recover. So, a return trip is beckoning me strongly. Just for research purposes to fill a few gaps in the guide you understand. But I expect I’ll have a rather fine time as well.

Friday, 19 August 2011

And now for something completely different – Egham Beer Festival

Egham played a prominent part in British history as the location of Runnymede where (probably), in 1215, a reluctant King John sealed the Magna Carta. In more recent times AliG, the most famous son of Egham’s near neighbour Staines, declared the Wimpy bar on Egham High Street to be part of his turf. I may be doing Egham a disservice but, if much has happened in Egham in the intervening eight hundred years or so, it has passed me by. But three times a year, for the last few years, I’ve made the journey out to the quiet suburban town, and through it’s quiet suburban streets (if the Wimpy bar exists I’ve never noticed it) to a rather nondescript blocky building that goes by the name of Egham United Services Club. It’s a journey that has been made by large numbers of other discerning beer enthusiasts too. For, within that community Egham and it’s United Services Club have acquired a burgeoning reputation. That reputation is, as you might have guessed, based on the superlative beer festival hosted there.

After the gargantuan Great British Beer Festival in the cavernous Earls Court, Egham beer festival is indeed something completely different – intimate, modest and low-key. But the list of British beers that Bob Inman, Ian Davey and the rest of the EUSC team put together is anything but low-key. The number of beers is not huge compared to the hundreds on offer at GBBF – 70 or so is the norm – but what it lacks in quantity, it more than makes up for in quality. Where the British selection at GBBF is regarded by many as somewhat pedestrian, Egham’s is adventurous in the extreme. And some of the beers are rather extreme too. Not to mention the new, the novel and the obscure. For this reason, Egham has become a magnet for scoopers from far and wide. Even the most hardened of tickers will find plenty of new stuff. Of course it’s not that tough to disregard the quality and simply order beers that nobody, even the most seasoned ticker, has ever heard of, but the Egham guys have a happy knack getting in the good stuff and it’s certainly not just a ticker-fest. It was at Egham for instance that I first had the opportunity to try two British brewed Belgian-style tripels alongside each other – something that I would have considered quite unbelievable just a few years ago. 

So, yesterday, I found myself joining a procession of familiar faces from Egham station to the EUSC for the Summer 2011 festival. At GBBF, out of the 500 or so UK cask beers there were just about 100 that were new to me and less than half that number that I was really looking forward to trying. At Egham yesterday the list of 70 beers contained nearly 60 that I had not encountered before and I wanted to try them all. I managed to get through 26 of them yesterday before my grip on sobriety began to loosen and I decided it was time for home. They included beers from 9 breweries I had never come across before and, whilst there were a fair number of “brown bitters”, I also sampled milds, porters, stouts, imperial stouts, German & Belgian style wheat beers, strong IPAs, zesty golden ales making generous use of US hop varieties and more. It would be unfair to single out particular beers (although my reviews will be appearing on Ratebeer in due course), a high proportion of which were excellent and nearly all of them were interesting – something I would be hard pressed, in all honesty, to say about the UK beer selection at GBBF.

Whilst I’m feeling a little fragile today, I will be back for more tomorrow. If you have not been to Egham beer festival before, I would urge you to give it a try. The festival is open until chucking out time on Sunday. If you can’t make it this time, the Autumn festival, to be held from the 3rd to the 6th of November should be a date for the diary.  

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Ridleys return to the Compasses, Littley Green

Most of my posts up to now have had something of a valedictory tone. By way of balance, this one is more of a “welcome back”. A few weeks ago, at Chelmsford beer festival I noticed some beers from the Compasses brewery, which I had never encountered before. A little bit of research revealed it is based at the Compasses Inn at Littley Green in rural Essex.

Now, I am familiar with the Compasses, although have not visited in many a long year. It was the brewery tap for Ridleys, which had operated a classic Victorian tower brewery under family control since 1841 in an equally rural setting at Hartford End, just a couple of miles away from the pub.

That is until 2005, when the brewery and Ridleys’ 70 odd pubs were acquired by Greene King. At this point in any Greene King acquisition story it is customary for the term “rapacious predator” to be applied but, in this case, things are not quite so straightforward as it seems that Ridleys had put themselves up for sale. Whether Ridleys was unviable in the longer term or it was a case of the family cashing in is beyond the scope of this piece but it seems to me inevitable that, at some point, most of the established family brewers will either go bust or the owners will decide to sell out. After the takeover things proceeded in the usual fashion. The brewery was promptly closed and stripped out, some of the Ridleys beers were dumped and a few were retained, brewed by Greene King in Bury St Edmunds.

Six years on the brewery still stands empty, redevelopment having, as usual been bogged down by planning wrangles, although it seems that a proposal for a housing development retaining part of the original structure is now in the offing

As for the Compasses, it operated for a few (presumably unsuccessful) years as part of the Greene King estate, followed by the customary attempt to sell it as a private house. Until, finally, it was sold to Joss Ridley, a direct relative of the original Ridley brewing family, who has reinvigorated the pub and decided to get back into the brewing business. I’m not sure whether he intends to install a brewery at the Compasses but, for the time being, the beers are brewed at Felstar brewery, just a few miles down the road. Their first beers appeared in May of this year. Fittingly, they are brewed by Joss’ brother Nelion. I wish them all the best in their endeavours.

There were three Compasses beers on the list at the Chelmsford festival – Gold, Special and Bitter. Unfortunately, the Gold was nowhere to be seen on either of my visits. The Special was a sweetish, fruity best bitter with caramel and nutty notes, perfectly well executed but not entirely to my personal taste – I’m just not that keen on that type of beer. The Bitter was a traditionally styled bitter, pleasantly drinkable although the malts seemed a little raw and toffeeish – probably still something of a work in progress. But it is invariably preferable to try the beers on their own turf than in, often less than perfect, beer festival conditions so it’s perfect excuse for an excursion into the Essex countryside to sup some fresh beers and sample the famous huffers (look it up).

A good opportunity would be this weekend, August 19-21, when there is a beer festival (with lots of other attractions too) at the Compasses. Unfortunately I am otherwise engaged so my return to the Compasses will have to wait a little bit longer.  

Friday, 12 August 2011

Earls Court - A goodbye to all that

Phew, that was a heavy couple of weeks. A week of pub touring with my friend Pat from Finland to start and the RateBeer European Summer Gathering to finish. With four days at the Great British Beer Festival sandwiched in between. The last GBBF at Earls Court. Next year Earls Court is being used for the Olympic volleyball and GBBF moves to Olympia. After the Olympics, Earls Court will be flattened to make way for a new housing development. Which raises the question of a longer-term home for GBBF.

Olympia is without doubt a more aesthetically pleasing venue but it’s smaller than Earls Court. And anyone who has been at the GBBF during the busy Thursday and Friday evening sessions will know how crowded even Earls Court can get. But Earls Court is probably the best London venue that’s available, at least in terms of what CAMRA wants GBBF to be. Sure it’s a horrible, soulless concrete bunker with no natural light. And it has a nasty echoing boom when there’s a band playing. But it can pack the punters in and has an easily accessible London location, which I think are key priorities as far as CAMRA is concerned.

The fact is that GBBF can’t be all things to all people. Those who already appreciate beers that are not mainstream mega-commercial products (see how I avoided using the terms “craft beer” or “real ale” there) generally find it flawed for one reason or another. The geeks find the UK beer range too conservative to tickle their taste buds and tend to gravitate towards the foreign beers. The scoopers find insufficient new stuff on the UK list and many steer clear of foreign muck. Some of the more mainstream CAMRA types regard it as overcrowded and overpriced. But GBBF is not squarely aimed at existing beer enthusiasts. It is a shop window hoping to attract the gaze of those who are normally more at home supping Stella, or Guinness, or Magners, or even a chilled Pinot Grigio. Take a look around at the composition of the crowd and you will see a lot of tourists, and office parties, and groups of lads on the piss, and groups of girls on the piss, and those who are simply curious and have a free evening so pop in to see what it’s all about. It’s all very jolly, and all very good natured and CAMRA hopes that those people will be inspired to change their drinking preferences. Sure it sometimes leaves us diehards wanting something rather more adventurous in beer terms but, hey, I have a cracking time anyway.

All of which leads me to the conclusion that, despite its shortcomings, Earls Court is a very suitable venue for GBBF in its current format and with its current priorities. So when I walked out of an Earls Court GBBF for the last time last Friday it was without doubt something of a bittersweet leave-taking. Will Olympia be up to the task of reclaiming the permanent home spot when attendance is well up on what is used to be? I guess we’ll have a better idea this time next year. Some people have been suggesting that other changes should be considered. Such as moving GBBF out of London to somewhere like the NEC near Birmingham. Or accepting that it will have to be housed in a smaller venue and limit attendance. Those are certainly possibilities that are worth considering but GBBF would surely become a significantly different beast to what it is today. The demographic of those attending would certainly change. My experience of a number of CAMRA festivals, and festivals in the United States, where numbers are limited suggests that the more casual visitors would be replaced by those who are prepared to go through a few hoops to secure tickets. And moving GBBF outside London would certainly attract fewer “casuals”. So there are lot of issues to consider. Hopefully those in the CAMRA hierarchy will be giving serious thought to what they want GBBF to be and how best to achieve that.

In the meantime, Earls Court – so long and thanks for all the good times and good people I’ve rubbed shoulders with there. And hopefully I’ll see plenty more of them in the future wherever GBBF ends up and however it evolves..  

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Who Knows Where The Time Goes?

It seems I underestimated the demands of blogging. Clearly, since I haven't managed to post anything for nearly a month, it's not so easy after all. It's not the writing that's the problem, it's finding the time to do it. Of course, the busier I am, the harder it is to find the time. And believe me, I've been busy. After returning from Liverpool it was off to Belgium for a few days, then Cardiff for the Great Welsh Beer festival, then the wedding of the year (no, not that one), then a meet the brewer with Alex from Revelation Cat, then the Craft Beer Co opening. This week it's Ealing Beer Festival, next week it's Chelmsford Beer Festival. Then we're nearly into GBBF season. So it goes on. Occasionally, there's a bit of real life to fit in too.

So, as far as blogging goes, the end of term report is a resounding "must try harder". We'll see.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

A tale of two cities - and farewell to the Everyman

OK, looks like my piece on Denmark will have to wait yet again. Last weekend saw me just outside Manchester on family duties but, on Monday, I managed to sneak off into the city centre to meet up with ReluctantScooper and Tandleman for a jaunt round a few of the choicer spots, starting at the Marble Arch. I won’t bang on about the boring details but suffice it to say there’s no finer way to spend an afternoon than sinking a few good (and occasionally not so good) beers in convivial company. Those of you who have been following the CAMRA real ale vs “craft keg” storyline will know that Tandleman is firmly on the real ale side of the fence. I tend, albeit with no great conviction, towards a broader church. But chewing the fat with fellow enthusiasts brought it home to me that we are essentially a pretty like-minded bunch and our differences are comparatively trivial. After all, we all want more good beer don’t we? Even if we have trouble defining what exactly that is and even if it doesn’t have a formal organisation to promote it.

On Tuesday I moved on to Liverpool, where I spent my university years in the 70s and had barely revisited since. So I set about hitting a few of my old favourites, not to mention a gaggle of places that either didn’t exist or bypassed my radar way back when. What struck me was how little many of the pubs had changed. Rigby’s, the Lion, the Hole In The Wall (still has the cellar upstairs apparently), the White Star, the Roscoe Head, Ye Cracke, the Philharmonic and Peter Kavanagh’s (it was called the Grapes in the old days and is now in the "Georgian Quarter" apparently) were still much as I remembered them. Except that the beer is way better now than it was then. Great boozers all. And great boozers is what Liverpool does really well. Sure, a few of them have made a nod in the direction of food. And you do often get the opportunity to booze in unspoiled, idiosyncratic and often ridiculously opulent surroundings. But, at heart, they are still boozers through and through. And long may it continue. I must remember not to leave it another 30 years before visiting again.

Sadly, even if it is not strictly a boozer, one place that will not continue as it is much longer is the Everyman Bistro. This Liverpool institution, located in the basement of the eponymous theatre, will close it’s doors for the last time in July as the building is to be demolished and rebuilt. I don’t remember it being a particularly inspiring beer venue in my day but it has certainly been a Good Beer Guide stalwart since the 80s. What you did get was cheap bistro-style food in a bohemian, artsy atmosphere where it was possible to rub shoulders with the likes of Roger McGough, Adrian Henri and Brian Patten. Ideal first date territory, at student-friendly cost, obviously. If you didn’t have the money for the food, you’d wander down the road to O’Connor’s Tavern (now some sort of fancy dress emporium) for a drink and blather on about how Ginsberg described it as the "the centre of theconsciousness of the human universe". That sometimes worked too. Not as often though. Or, if you were flush, maybe the new-fangled Kirklands Wine Bar (now the Fly In The Loaf pub). Like CAMRA, the Everyman Bistro reaches it’s 40th birthday this year. What a shame it will be it’s last. Whilst there will be a bar/restaurant of some description in the new Everyman when it reopens in 2013 (supposedly), the founders of the Bistro, who are still in charge all these years on, have decided to call it a day and I very much doubt that any replacement will be able to come close to recreating the vibe of the original. Which, like many of the pubs I visited, was much as I remembered it too

Tomorrow, I’ll be heading to Belgium for a long weekend to mark the demise of another venerable original – De Gans in Huise, a classic Belgian country pub which will close its doors for good shortly. I’m reliably informed that there’s still plenty of vintage lambic in the cellar so I’m sure a splendid, if possibly rather sentimental, time will be had.

So it looks like Denmark will have to wait again. I’ll probably have forgotten what I intended to write when I finally get round to it.