Friday, 7 March 2014

Sixpoint Brewery - From There To Here In Seven Years

Here's a snap from my visit to Sixpoint Brewery in 2007. The mists of time and parenthood have managed to separate this image from its notes, so I've no idea who this enthusiastic gentleman is. I remember that he was mashing in when we arrived, stirring the mash with the paddle. He preferred doing it this way - it kept him in touch with the mash. And of course, he got to pour sweat into it too - hey, don't worry, it's going to be boiled for an hour. What I love about this photo is that it's already in the Sixpoint colour scheme.

Fast forward seven years, and what should arrive in the post but a brace and a half of cans from Sixpoint. I have to admit to a flash of jealousy; a couple of years ago, I got in touch with Sixpoint hoping to buy beer off them, and while the exchange of emails went well, the trail went cold after I was handed off to another member of the team. After a series of humiliating answerphone messages ("Hi, we exchanged a lot of emails and then you stopped replying. Hello? Helloooo?"), I gave it up as a bad job.

So JW Wetherspoons are now selling Sixpoint beers in cans - I know, WT and indeed F. They are part of their new craft range, and from what I can see, are going to be alarmingly reasonably priced. The Crisp is a pilsner-style lager, pale, hop-hazy and falls broadly into what me termed the "lawnmower deluxe" category. Clean, well-made, and the grassy bitterness kept me tantalisingly on the edge of a Proustian experience - what DID that beer remind me of? I will never know.

Sweet Action is described in Wetherspoon's press release as "part pale ale, part wheat, part cream ale", which of course reminds me (and you too, I'm sure) of Doctor Octagon's track "Half Shark-Alligator Half Man", and allows me to post this completely gratuitous shot of me with Kool Keith (aka Dr Octagon) when the Ultramagnetic MCs perfomed at Leeds' superb Brudenell Social Club last year. And like that gig, Sweet Action doesn't quite satisfy, coming across somehow as slightly ersatz - a bit sweet, a bit flabby, a bit "gimme fifty bucks and I'll take my headscarf off".

Bengali Tiger is a beer I've tried before - in fact, it features in my now out of print first book (if I keep saying "first", it implies a second can't be too far behind). Here's what I said about it then: "There is a crunchy hop aroma to this copper-gold IPA, but unlike a lot of 'me too' IPAs, there is also a good malt presence. The citrus zest and toffee carries through to the palate where, although the hops become more prominent, the malt still plays a supporting role". It's a good job I went to the trouble of digging that out, because my initial impression was that it had perhaps lost a bit of hop character in transit, but that tasting note chimes exactly with my recent experience of it.

So, well done Wetherspoons for doing this. In the nicest possible way, this is the tipping point where American craft beer has gone mainstream in the UK. I've read that these are retailing in 'Spoons for £2.89 each, or two for a fiver - that's a completely barking price that suggests 'Spoons are making very little per unit, but are shifting large volumes of it, and probably haven't gone for any carbon-offsetting on the deal. The beers are fundamentally decent, they look cool, and according to the press release, will be served in a world beer glass. If it was up to me, they'd be served as-is and crushed on the forehead when emptied.

Monday, 24 February 2014

One Person's Bric-a-brac Is Another Person's Treasure

A long drive from Leeds to Salisbury to visit the family, and a meal out to celebrate three generations of birthdays at a rural pub, yielded an unexpected collection of old bottles, not tucked away in a glass case, but out on the shelf in a corridor on the way to the toilets.

Some of them were just old, but some of them were old and interesting. Actually, that's not quite correct - they were all old and interesting to me, but I suspect that I might be in a minority on that.

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Golden Pints 2013

It's that time again! The time of year when I struggle to find the time and energy to write anything creative, and so fall back on the crutch of populating a list in order to give my online persona some semblance of animation!

·         Best UK Cask Beer
This year I've given up any pretence of drinking widely and variedly (as espoused in my first, and to date only, book 500 Beers, now sadly out of print), and have just abandoned myself to a year-long lupulin clusterfuck. I've been banged senseless by hops this year, and have loved every minute of it. It's of course impossible to pick out a single beer that best sums up my total hopslaggery, but highlights are the nigh-on peerless Magic Rock High Wire (still a mile better on cask than on keg) and the ruiner of men and women everywhere, Oakham Green Devil.

·         Best UK Keg Beer
Most of the UK keg beer I've drunk this has merely served to confirm my hunch that by eliminating cara-malt from their IPAs, British brewers are making beers that don't have enough residual sweetness to carry a keg serve. I should also point out that this has only just occurred to me, so you can file that under "reactionary bullshit", although I like the sound of it anyway. Beers that have confounded this theory are few and far between, although they include beer drunk at The Kernel brewery (worth it just to see the horrified look on MagicRockStu's face as Keykegs were used to serve beer that was brewed mere meters away - surely some serving tanks might be in order, Lord O'Riordan?). Magic Rock Cannonball, one of the UK's best beers, served to me by Ryan Witter, one of the UK's best brewers, at IndyManBeerCon, one of the UK's best beer festivals, was also understandably a high point. A late highlight last weekend was also Alpha State Orange Zest Farmhouse IPA.

·         Best UK Bottled or Canned Beer
I mean, what the fuck? What sort of question is that? Why is this so hard for me to answer? I guess because as a bottled beer wholesaler, I seen an awful lot of bottled beer this year, and by that I really mean AN AWFUL LOT OF BOTTLED BEER. I really can't single out highlights, but beers that have come home with me more frequently than others are: Bristol Beer Factory Independence, Kernel IPA and Pale Ale, Oakham Citra, Roosters High Tea / Outlaw Mad Hatter, any of the Salopian small-bottle series (hell, any of their beers, full stop). One beer does stick out though, for being proof that you can still filter and bottle a beer and make it taste amazing, and that beer is Kirkstall Dissolution IPA. I'm not sure if it really qualifies, as from what I gather, it's not really a souped-up version of the cask version, rather a watered-down version of Kirkstall Generous George, but hey, ask a stupid question, get a stupid answer.

·         Best Overseas Draught Beer
I don't get out much, and when I do, I like to drink British beer, so if anyone can say that they've seen me enjoying an overseas draught beer this year, please do let me know

·         Best Overseas Bottled or Canned Beer
I really enjoyed Firestone Walker Wookie Jack, purchased at the GBBF this year, and as we import BrewFist, having Spaceman within arm's reach at all times is a bit of a bonus. Also, Kern River Citra Double IPA that MagicRockStu shared with me earlier this year was a bit like having Citra-infused hallucinogens blown up your nose by a Yanomani shaman and an intense, short-lasting Citra-based trip. Or was that last year? That's the thing about hallucinogens - it's so hard to keep track of time.

·         Best Collaboration Brew
Wild Beer Co / Good George / Burning Sky Shnoodlepip was pretty fucking epic.

·         Best Overall Beer
Oh please. "If you could only drink one beer for the rest of your life, what would it it be?" Piss. Off.

·         Best Branding, Pumpclip or Label
I really liked those enormous chrome wicket bar fonts that, oh who used it now, who was it, oh sorry, no that was just the Citra trip wearing off. Whose bottles look best lined up alongside each other? Red Willow, stupid.

·         Best UK Brewery
The Kernel are in a pretty good place right now, with Magic Rock pursuing a different furrow, but making equally great beers.

·         Best Overseas Brewery
I like what BrewFist are up to, but I am biased

·         Best New Brewery Opening 2013
No idea. [Human beard-mountain Ryan Witter informs me that Siren, where he is head brewer, opened for business this year, and they have made some pretty special beers too]

·         Pub/Bar of the Year
Pubs and bars are essentially outmoded concepts, and the sooner we lose the last of them and get to drown our empty selves, the better. But I have had some fun times at Friends of Ham this year.

·         Best New Pub/Bar Opening 2013

·         Beer Festival of the Year
This is such a bogus category. How do you judge that? "Where have you been that had a lot beer that was all served in perfect condition by people you wanted to chat to for hours? Err, nowhere, thanks. It may as well be "Best Night Out You've Had This Year". Pass

·         Supermarket of the Year
They're all rubbish, although my local Morrisson's usually has Duvel for a couple of quid, so that's OK.

·         Independent Retailer of the Year
BeerRitz, duh.

·         Online Retailer of the Year, duh

·         Best Beer Book or Magazine
I haven't read much this year. Although I would just use this opportunity to bemoan the total dearth of coverage in the mainstream media food and drink columns about the revolution that is happening in beer currently. I had an exchange with a prominent food writer this year that summed up nicely the blinkered attitude that the broadsheets have towards beer. I sent an invite to this person for the 25th Anniversary do of the British Guild of Beer Writers, only to receive a an email back explaining that they didn't really like beer. This just doesn't compute with me - how can someone so well-placed, eloquent and versed in matters of taste and flavour say something so utterly bollock-brained? If they said to their editor that they didn't like cheese, or wouldn't eat lamb, they'd be thrown off their column/pedestal/velvet cushion. I offered to send them a mixed case of beer that would help them change their mind - this didn't even warrant a reply. If the British Guild of Beer Writers' Writer of the Year 2008 and owner of a beer mail-order/wholesale company can't give away a case of beer to a food writer, then something is seriously fucked-up.


I am available for both written and broadcast commissions.

·         Best Beer Blog or Website
I haven't read much print this year, but I continue to enjoy the non-linear relationship with narrative that Adrian Tierney-Jones has on his blog, and John The Beer Nut is always worth a look. And Matt Curtis at Total Ales reminds me of me when I was younger, which probably also means that he masturbates too much.

·         Best Beer App
Don't use any. Fuck you, Will Hawkes.

·         Simon Johnson Award for Best Beer Twitterer
Chris Hall and Craig Heap are pretty entertaining. As are Ben McFarland and Tom Sandham

·         Best Brewery Website/Social media
Don't know, care less.

·         Food and Beer Pairing of the Year
A late entry, but the Alpha State Orange Zest Farmhouse IPA and fionocchina (or whatever the fucking fennel salami is called at Friends of Ham) was a belter.

Here endeth the lesson.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Stewart Brewing "First World Problems"

First World Problems. They surround us. I'm a blogger, I'm a writer, I'm a beer wholesaler, I'm a beer retailer, I'm not supposed to do this because, boo hoo, I've got too much invested to write anything impartial. Poor me, poor me, pour me another.

The press release comes on a scratty bit of paper, and tells the now familiar story of the victory in a home brew competition being put into production. It's basically the X-Factor of beer - figure out what people like, then sell it back to them. It mentions 80 IBUs. It mentions the 6 hop varieties, without naming one of them. It's not a great bit of PR. That's a first world problem right there.

The label is pretty cool, all cross-hatched graphic novel font and Lichtenstein half-tone comic strip frames. It makes me immediately suspicious. But the beer - oh God, the beer.

I've no idea what the exemplar for Belgian IPA is, or where the style originates, but this immediately reminds me of Flying Dog Raging Bitch. It's not all about the flavour, although that's a big part of it. There's a character to this beer that's almost a texture, an interplay between a spiciness, a minerality, and a faint suggestion of sunshine and crushed aspirin that I associate with a surfeit of Amarillo hops. There's a flat, wet stone quality to the beer, ending like a licked pebble on the beach, but in a good way, a slightly savoury, celery-salt snap in the finish, like a really fresh pilsner.

And the aroma is nuanced to be a tightrope walk between an IPA and a Belgian triple. What strain of yeast has wrought these remarkable effects? A kind of hyper-refined IPA that plays on bitterness, cleanness, a bruised fruitiness.

I've run out of Belgian IPA. Another First World Problem, if you please.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

What BeerRitz Did Next.

It's been quite a year for the many-tentacled beast covered by the obligatory punning name that is BeerRitz. At least, I think it's a pun - what the hell does BeerRitz even mean? Is it a clash between everyday - beer - and high-falutin' - The Ritz? Is it meant to allude to the chi-chi Mediterranean resort of Biarritz? I've no idea.

Anyway, as I say, it's been quite a year for BeerRitz. Not only has it had a major refurb (lovingly documented by 'Ritz stalwart Ghost Drinker), but we also made the shortlist for the Observer Food Monthly 2013 Awards in the online category (we're right at the bottom of the page). I guess this is technically for the webshop, but we know that a lot of our loyal customers at the walk-in bricks-and-mortar shop in Headingley also voted for us, so thanks to everyone who took the time to vote.

To round off a mammoth year, we've today just had a visit from the roving judge for the Drinks Retailing Awards (basically, the Oscars of drinks retailing, if you can imagine such a thing). We're delighted to announce that we've been shortlisted as a finalist in the Independent Beer Retailing category, along with the incumbent champions Real Ale in Twickenham and Stirchley Wines & Spirits in Birmingham.

Looking through the trophy cabinet, it's interesting to note that we won this very same award back in 2003, and so there would be a very pleasing symmetry to win it again a decade later. Like all significant events, it's hard not to look back and see what has changed in that time. The main thing really is the breweries that have sprung up since then, who we now have close relationships with: Bristol Beer Factory (2004), Thornbridge (2005), Hardknott (2005), BrewDog (2007), Arbor Ales (2007), Buxton (2009), Ilkley (2009), Kernel (2009), Magic Rock (2011), Beavertown (2012) - anyway, you get the general gist of what I'm saying.

The awards are given out at an absurdly decadent event in early February 2014 (like, bottles of whisky on the table decadent) at The Dorchester Hotel in that there London, and in true awards ceremony style, nobody finds out what the results are until the envelope is opened. Watch this space for more info around the time, and thanks again for all of your support over the years. LOVE YOU XXX

(The picture is of me on the morning after the night before, in 2004. And no, I didn't steal the robe)

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Grayson Perry On Craft Beer

Image for Beating the Bounds
I caught the first of Grayson Perry's Reith Lectures on craft beer this week. They're broadcast on BBC Radio 4 (link), and the first lecture was largely to do with how we actually define craft beer.

Well, I'm twisting his words slightly. He was actually talking about art, but really all the arguments he deploys are equally applicable to craft beer. How do you define it, what it is, what it isn't, and who gets to make those decisions. Who gets to buy and consume it. Really, it's interesting, you should listen to it, just substitute the word "beer" every time you hear the word "art"

That's the good bit of the post over. The rest is about beer/craft beer and quality control.

I still think that craft beer is "a thing", but I'm still not sure that it's anything to do with beer. At IndyManBeerCon last year, I was part of the panel that James also sat on, the panel he mentions in the opening paragraph here. It's my recollection that we did actually talk about what craft beer was. Being the contrarian, I talked about craft beer in terms of what it wasn't (link here), and how the whole movement was about trying to define oneself in opposition to the mainstream. Hey, I'm a failed academic. Maybe it was a bit fine-grained, but James very kindly told us all that we'd missed the point, and showboated about Blue Moon for 10 minutes. Sheesh, if that's not defining yourself as the other, I don't know what is.

IndyMan is the dream of craft beer made flesh. I can't pretend that I get to many beer festivals, or even many beer bars these days, but IndyMan has a special place in my heart. It is everything that is great about Britain rolled into one. Britain has a reputation for being an early adopter, which might explain the endless reinvention and global domination of (for example) fashion and pop music. Couple that with a celebration of history, and a long weekend of craft beer in the crumbling splendour of a Victorian swimming baths couldn't be any more British.

I do wonder, though, if an idea as brilliantly conceived and expertly executed as IndyMan is almost done a disservice by some beer (craft beer, by definition, I guess).

At the Great British Beer Festival this year, I set myself a challenge: no beer that I'd drunk before, and a decent selection of stab-in-the-dark beers that I knew nothing about as a way of trying to gauge a cross-section of the market. It wasn't an entirely enjoyable experience, with dull, poorly conceived and/or badly made (or all three) beers easily found, and mostly from brewers that would, by any definition put forward, be classed as craft brewers.

While I didn't set any such criteria at IndyMan, I was surprised to experience a similar set of disappointments. Phenolic, astringent golden ales. Beer that smelled of freshly mashed grain. Beers that had a peculiar quality that I could only describe as "the opposite of drinkability". This isn't peculiar to IndyMan, or to craft beer, but there are a group of breweries who have quality control nailed, and rarely disappoint. They get my money every time. The others, not so much.

And what of the drinkers? One brewer reported to me having had a conversation with a craft beer enthusiast who was loving the butterscotch edge in their beer. It turned out to be diacetyl, although the drinker had never heard of it, and was adamant that they were enjoying it. Fair enough, for that drinker it was more important to be drinking craft beer than to be understanding it. For me, it's the other way around, but like I said earlier, I'm a failed academic.

Is quality control important? I think it's the one major challenge that faces beer, craft or otherwise. It's the elephant in the room. Having a trade body to "protect" craft beer (whatever that means - I think really it means a brewer-funded body to promote themselves, in the way that the Brewer's Association does in the US) is secondary to some way of ensuring that when people do eventually try beer (craft or not), it's a positive experience.

Put it another way: I'm not interested in your credentials if you've paid for them. Let the beer do the talking for you. It's part of the reason that I've worked in this industry for so long, because I genuinely believe that tasty, well-made beer is a life-enhancing experience, in the same way that good food is.

But that's just me - failed academic, beautiful dreamer.

Saturday, 12 October 2013

Stewart Brewing Yoga Chef

Like the changing seasons, my tastes change periodically. One of this year's surprises has been my reaction to stout. After months and months of pale hoppy beers, smoky stouts have assumed an oddly acrid, unpleasant edge. Doubly so coffee stouts, with their characteristic "touch of ashtray" notes. Lord knows when I will revisit that style.

So my heart sank a little bit when I held up this bottle of Stewart Brewing Yoga Chef to try and get a sense of what I might be in for. Dark beer, humph, and humph again. It sat rejected on my desk for a few days. Then, sod it, the weather changed, and suddenly, so did I.

Yoga Chef pours very dark brown, with ruddy highlights, and a quickly dissipating head. Soft, autumnal aromas, ripe fruit, a hint of undergrowth. Slightly sweet on the palate, though light-bodied, finishing with an impression of berries and crushed leaves. Very new world, but somehow traditional at the same time. New wave mild?

A really good, interesting autumnal beer, from a brewery who have consistently impressed me this year.

(Stewart Brewing sent me this bottle for review)