Sunday, 8 January 2012

10 to Watch for 2012

Last time I wrote about some promising new brewers that I first came across in 2011. This time I'll be highlighting ten more breweries that I think are worth keeping an eye on this year. Some are quite new, others are most definitely not. There won't be any new names for the well-informed. But I'm expecting (OK, in some cases there's an element of hoping too) they will all raise their game and progress to even better things in 2012. As before, the list is in no particular order of merit.

Thwaites is a long-established brewery that many of a more beer-geeky persuasion would regard as a member of the fuddy-duddy old guard, producing boring beers for conservative drinkers. Some might even suggest that they employ uninspired brewers who are incapable of producing anything else. I do not believe that to be the case. I'm sure there are many very skilled brewers working for these medium sized family/regional brewers that could crank out some excellent and adventurous brews given the opportunity. Thwaites has certainly displayed signs of more ambition in its output. First of all there was their Craft beer range of monthly specials that included a cloudy wheat beer and an American style IPA, neither of which I got to try.  Then there was Old Dan, a strong 7.4% ale that I didn't feel quite hit the spot but was certainly a move in the right direction. However, I was really impressed by Tavern Porter, a roasty slightly smoky bottle-conditioned porter with plenty of rich chocolate notes. There have been other encouraging signs within the old guard and I really just singled out Thwaites as indicative of that. I'm hopeful of more progress in the year ahead.

When the Brodie siblings relaunched the old Sweet William brewery, located at William IV pub in Leyton back in 2008, little did I realise that, two years on, they would have produced over a hundred different beers in a bewildering range of styles and strengths - quite a feat in itself. Of course, there are dangers in such an eclectic, some might say scattergun, approach. Let's face it, not every brew is going to be an unqualified masterpiece with so much experimentation afoot. And there have been rumblings that trying to serve too many of their beers at the same time at the William IV has led to quality issues. But, in general terms, I love what Brodies are doing and the way they are doing it. Superior London Porter, one of the first Brodies beers I tried, and one of the relatively few regulars in their range, remains a favourite. A recent distribution deal with Boggart means that Brodies beers are likely to get out and about more.

I was surprised, on checking some details on Windsor & Eton, that they only started brewing in April 2010. They seem to have been around for longer than that. Progress has been measured and considered. They started with two decent, if unspectacular, brews in Guardsman and Knight of the Garter and, for quite a while, made little else. The appearance of Conqueror, a black IPA, signalled a more expansive intent and it quickly became a signature brew. A stronger version - Conqueror 1075 - and Republika, one of the best British lager interpretations I've come across, followed. I don't expect a plethora of new and experimental brews from these guys but I do anticipate further development, in that same measured and considered fashion, in the year ahead.

Another very accomplished brewer that has become something of a stalwart on the London scene in barely two years of existence. I have not tried a beer from these guys that I did not enjoy a lot. Big Chief was one I particularly liked in 2011. Redemption has certainly developed a local market with plenty of success and, of course, the idea of local consumption is certainly one that is gaining traction. But local is, in itself, not enough. Local but not very good and not very interesting doesn't really do it for me. Thankfully, Redemption manages to strike an excellent balance. Having recently had the opportunity to sample some of Andy's small batch home-brews, there could be a lot more interesting and adventurous beers to come. Assuming, of course, Andy is given the leeway to produce them.

Having been in business since 2006, Hopshackle was one of the earlier brewers to start producing beers in a bold, experimental and sometimes challenging vein but doesn't seem to attract the same level of attention as some others of a similar ilk even though the beers are right up there in terms of quality and interest. Many of the beers have a historical basis but there are equally beers that are more modern in outlook. If anyone out there hasn't yet discovered Hopshackle's beers I urge them to do so - I doubt they will be a disappointment. I particularly enjoyed Resination, a full-bodied 7% IPA with bags of  pungent, sticky orange and grapefruit hop character

Arbor first brewed in 2007 and was not averse to producing some strong IPAs, stouts and the like from the outset. But they really seemed to up the pace, and their profile, in 2011. They have a lot of variation, innovation and quality across their range. More of the same in 2012 please. Although maybe not to everyone's taste, their 500 Minute IPA, a 10.7% monster crammed with hop character, was indicative of the willingness to take a walk on the extreme side here. In a less extreme, but still assertive mould, Yakima Valley American IPA more than held it's own alongside some US IPAs from across the pond at the Great British Beer Festival.

Whilst we're on the subject of hop lunacy, these guys are at the top of the tree. Gazza and Dave do not have their own brewery and both hold down full time jobs. But they manage to find the time to brew beers that they like at Little Ale Cart brewery and elsewhere. And what they like is invariably uncompromisingly, some might say insanely, hoppy, usually pretty pale in colour but with is the odd stout or porter from time to time. Decadent & Desperate, a 120 IBU "C" hop showcase particularly took my fancy. These guys never make the same brew twice and, if you really want to experience a vitriolic tirade, just suggest they use more crystal malt. I don't expect too much to change here (unless, of course, they decide to go full time) but I would like to see more of their beers finding their way out of their Sheffield heartland.

The Sadler family commenced brewing at the Windsor Castle pub in 1900 but the last pint flowed from the brewery in 1927. Until, that is, a subsequent generation of the Sadler family re-opened the brewery in 2004. But Sadlers would not have been a name that featured prominently on many of the geekier beer geeks' must try lists. However, their aptly named Hop Bomb, which I supped at the Great British Beer Festival was right up there with the efforts of any of the better known hop loving brewers in terms of impact and depth of flavour. It was one of the few beers at the festival that made a big enough impression on me to go back for a second. And it's a reminder, if any was needed, that it's not just the usual suspects that can produce beers such as this and make a damn fine job of it. More please.

In a beer scene where use of the word "solid" can convey a sense of damning with faint praise, Grain is a brewery to which I can apply the term in a wholly appreciative manner. Sure, there are some fairly mainstream beers in the range, but there's a fair amount of adventure and ambition too. Execution is generally first-rate and quality across the board is high. These guys deserve more attention. Their Porter was a particularly fine example, in a fairly traditional style and an excellent illustration that a beer does not necessarily need bells, whistles and the kitchen sink to make a big impression. The Plough in Norwich, which is operated by the brewery, is a very convivial spot in which to sample their wares.

And finally. If I had an award for most improved brewer of the year, Buxton would certainly be well in the frame. They started brewing in a not particularly attention-grabbing, and somewhat confusing (beers were first produced at Leek brewery, they then took over and moved into the premises of Wild Walker, then produced beers under both Wild Walker and Buxton names foe a while) fashion, but really started to deliver the goods in impressive style in 2011. Axe Edge, Black Rocks and Tsar would all be on my shortlist for beers of the year. And, as far as traditionally styled session bitters are concerned, Buxton Bitter is in the top flight. Things are already great here, but I'm confident they can only get better.

Inevitably with a list such as this, as soon as I'd finished typing I found myself thinking of other brewers I felt I perhaps should have included. So much so that it almost became a "20 to follow" article. But I had to draw the line somewhere and the UK beer scene is so vibrant these days that there are bound to be worthy candidates that get left out. So, many thanks to all the brewers that have provided me with so much enjoyment over the last year, often for so little reward. I raise my glass to all of you.


beersiveknown said...

I've heard of them all but tried very few! I went to Brodies in 2009 GBBF staff visit. Except I forgot where it was

chriso said...

Must be tough living in Northern Ireland!

beersiveknown said...

Alright, don't rub it in! Haven't done too badly!

Dan Brown said...

Loved Sadlers Hop Bomb and Arbor Double Trouble. One day (one day) I will manage to try some Brodies.

chriso said...

Dan: Brodies are now being distributed by Boggart so there's a greater chance they will find their way to places outside London

Dave Wood said...

Windsor & Eton's Conquerer 1075 is genuinely delicious and fulfilling... give it a try!

Unknown said...

Good to see a nod for Hopshackle there. If Resination were brewed by Brewdog or Thornbridge, it'd be talked about non-stop.