Tuesday 26 June 2012

Maui Brewing Co.

Sometimes, you look at a business and just say to yourself "what the hell are they thinking?". For example, the Orkney Islands host two breweries. The climate on Orkney must be something special to lure two breweries there, given that they have to import all the ingredients to make the beer, bar the water, which I'm told is plentiful. And then they have to freight the majority of the beer back to the mainland for it to be sold. Mental, I tells ya.

Orkney is about 10 miles off the coast of the Scotland. Maui, one of the islands that makes up the 1500 mile long Hawaiian archipelago, is 750 miles from mainland USA. One has to question why Garrett Marrero decided to found Maui Brewing Co there. I mean, why on earth would you want to live in a blue-oceaned, sun-beaten paradise, making craft beer (in the American sense)? It would be easy to paint the whole thing as some slacker "Aloha, whoah, surf's up dude" idyll, were it not for the fact that you don't make good beer without putting in a lot of hard work. And that hard work is evident in the beer.

The beer that perhaps most people will be initially drawn to, Big Swell IPA, is a really solid IPA - think Odell IPA, in terms of that classy Anglo-American crossover, where malt and hops actually work together to produce a rounded, integrated whole. Slightly more off the wall, but showcasing a local ingredient (at least, I'm assuming they use Hawaiian coconuts rather than importing them from the Maldives, although given the island brewer mentality, nothing would surprise me), is their Coconut Porter, which really does taste faintly of coconut, and is a pretty damn special porter to boot. Smooth, silky and slightly unctuous, with a heap of mocha flavours. Aces.

Not simply off the wall, but actually packing a bag and leaving for a long holiday from any semblance of sense is the Mana Pineapple Wheat. When I tweeted about this beer, someone mentioned that they thought it smelled and tasted like urinal pucks. All I can say is that it doesn't, it tastes like a wheat beer with pineapple in it, which is to say a completely bonkers riot of fruit and spice. I liked it, but I can see why others might not, because it treads the tightrope of being fun, and some people think that anything fun shouldn't be taken seriously. Which is a shame, because we can all use a little fun once in a while.

Monday 18 June 2012

Flat Cap Beers Ted

I'll jump straight to the conclusion, because I'm going to use some words and voice some opinions here that may well spark a lively debate. I really like this beer, it's a classic English pale ale, with plenty of toffee, nuttiness and spicy, pithy bitterness - so much so that it might be said to be a modern take on a traditional style. It's bitter, edgy and pushes the envelope a bit. It's rad-trad, dad, and all the better for it. I don't like the branding one bit, but maybe that's just me. What I also find slightly jarring is the stab at contemporary branding while cocking a snook at traditional imagery. Is it post-ironic? Retro-modernism? I don't know, but I'm not keen.

Let's have a look at the label, shall we? Their tagline is "Flat Cap Beers: Top Notch Craft Beer". Hmm, craft beer. Well, it's beer, and it's been crafted, I suppose. Their take on the c-word is that it means "small scale and not mass produced, independent and created with human skill and care" - Flat Capper Andy Orr explained this to me in an email. Their Twitter feed adds to the debate: "Brewed in the West Country of England & the Czech Republic". Again, hmm. Am I being taken for a ride here? Am I getting the feeling I've been cheated? The other two beers in their core range - a Czech pilsner and a Czech dark lager - are still lagering in the Czech Republic. That makes them authentic continental craft beers, right?

Make no mistake, this is all rather rum. The knee-jerk response to this is that it is All Wrong, And Must Not Be Tolerated, Because, It's, Like, Not Very Craft Really, Is It? That would be too easy though. Think a bit harder. Know any brewers who brew great beer without owning a brewery? Let's call them gypsy brewers, make it sound more romantic. And do you know any craft breweries who, when suddenly faced by a huge surge in demand for their flagship beer, decided to have it contract brewed for them? Sorry to break it to you so harshly, but that's more common than you might think, and done by the most unlikely people. Some unwillingly admit to it when directly asked, others flatly deny it, but it happens. And every now and again, when a beer moves from a small plant to a big plant, with fancy modern gizmos like flow meters and hopniks, it gets better. How craft is that?!

Craft beer, authenticity, transparency - these are Big Ideas, but now I just don't know what to think. Care to help me out?

Wednesday 13 June 2012

Arbor Ales Aramis

The whole point of a single hop ale is to showcase the character of the hop. It's basically a pale malt canvas onto which the hop character is projected. That description is how Sean Franklin, founder of Rooster's brewery, described the idea, and that's the formula that people follow, with good reason.

Aramis is a relatively new hop, "from the Alsace region of France, a triploid variety developed as a cross between tetraploid Strisselspalt and a male seedling of WGV to create a unique variety with reasonable bittering potential and strong noble aroma characteristics, notably citrus, herbal, fruity and spicy", it says at SimplyHops.co.uk. Fascinating, but what does that really mean?

Arbor Ales Aramis smells like the steampunk future of hops. It's steampunk in the the sense that it's not some immense fruit bomb, some hydroponic citrus monster hop that will make all beers taste the same, but it's a traditional set of flavours that has been amplified somewhat for the modern palate. In this beer, it's a very European-smelling hop, with a real noble Saaz quality, including some of that slightly earthy, dirty, catty character. But at the same time, there's a citrussy lemon edge to it, some faint black pepper spiciness, and a fleeting suggestion of fruitiness mid-palate (peaches? tangerines?) that makes it bang on trend for 2012. At the same time, there's a faintly smoky note that suggest Lapsang Souchong tea, or perhaps the interaction between this and the fruit suggests Earl Grey.

And in this beer, there is plenty of bitterness, so the overall impression is a beguiling package that is simultaneously delicate and assertive. When Mark Dredge, Pete Brown and I brewed Avery Brown Dredge, BrewDog's Martin Dickie tried it and said "I feel like I'm being punished by Saaz, which is something I never thought I'd say". This beer has that same quality, albeit toned down from 11 to, say a 6 or 7 in volume terms, which given ABD's hooligan credentials is perhaps no bad thing.

So, Aramis. An interesting hop, and a very good beer.

NOTE: I buy and sell this beer through the business I own, although I don't think this has influenced my opinion of it

Saturday 9 June 2012

Beer Is A Continuum (or The Bell-Curve of Style vs Consumption)

I wasn't born in a mash tun. I wasn't bottle-fed wort when I was a nipper. I've learned to love beer, the same as everyone else, although I did it back-to-front compared to most. I cut my teeth on real ale, and didn't drink lager for the first 10 years of my drinking career. There are some styles I still struggle with, and although I may acquire a taste for them later in life, being in my 40s makes that unlikely. There are some styles that I've grown bored with - I still LIKE huge barrel-aged beers occasionally, but these form a tiny part of my drinking repertoire these days.

For everyone immersed in the beer world - and readers of this blog are mostly that, rather than casual passing traffic - there is a particular segment of the market that we like to drink. Chris Mair touches on that in this post, so there's no need for me to reiterate it. I agree with his sentiments. And as I'm sure I've said before, there is a tendency for any group centred around a communal interest - food, technology, lifestyle - to assume that they are the peak of sophistication for any given phenomenon. It's called having an opinion, and it's a human trait.

But one thing that I'm really keen to stress is that we're in a niche. If the world of beer is a pint, we're probably no more than the head on it, if that. And at the risk of being branded again as "cheery-beery", someone is drinking all of that other beer and enjoying it. You can take the view that all that beer is being drunk for want of an informed alternative, and in my experience this is true in about half of the cases. Most people don't have the information and experience available to them to make the leap to something difference. That's my experience from 10 years of retailing, and I was unsurprised to see Young Dredge reflecting that in a recent post

OK, I'm rambling a bit. What prompted this train of thought was the comment on my previous blog about Mikkeller Not Just Another Wit being a witbier with "everything turned up to 11". It prompted a response from Jon at Stringers asking if that was what we wanted in a beer.

And my response to that is, of course we do, but that's not the only thing we want. I want all the options to be available to me, all the time. I want anything from a pint of Carling or Carlsberg (I'd guess I only drink those a few times a year) to a monumental barrel-aged barley wine or tart lambic (which, equally, I only drink a few times a year). Those are my outliers which frame the bell curve of my consumption. The existence of those outliers doesn't threaten what's in the middle. And in the style of Boak & Bailey, I've prepared a graph to illustrate that idea: (EDIT: the vertical axis is volume drunk by me)

Witbier - Mikkeller Not Just Another Wit

If there is another brewery (cuckoo, gypsy or otherwise) that better epitomises beer in the 21st century than Mikkeller, I've not heard of it. And I keep my ear pretty close to the ground these days.

Mikkeller specialises in taking a beer style and, like the geeky kid that nobody really wanted to be friends with, but everyone acknowledged was something of a braniac, pulls it apart and studies how it works before reassembling it into a ne plus ultra example of the style. NJAW is a great example of that approach. Belgian witbier, made popular by Hoegaarden Wit in the late 20th century (hey, I was there) is one of those not-beers that relies on things other than malt and hops for its character - namely, wheat and spices. The wheat (wit) lends a roundness to the palate and a slight tartness to the finish, while the spices (coriander and curacao) add a completely different dimension of flavour and aroma.

At a time when everyone is in slavish thrall to hops - myself included - it's great to have something different that is made with a more-is-more "craft beer mentality".I remember visiting Kelso of Brooklyn in 2007and Kelly describing his beer as "like beer, but with more stuff in". So it is with this beer (and most of Mikkeller's output). Everything you want in a witbier - yeasty, spicy orange aroma, soft spritzy mouthfeel, coriander spice-burst finish - is here, but all turned up to 11. It's like Celis Wit on steroids. It's an old Belgian style on a rollercoaster. It is, God help me, an imperial witbier.

NOTE: I buy and sell this beer through the business I own, although I don't think this has influenced my opinion of it

Thursday 7 June 2012

Black IPA - Moor Illusion

Black IPA is such a nonsense. It's a style that makes no sense - a black India pale ale that rests on the beer not displaying too much of the dark malt character that gives it its name. Why bother?

Well, like all of these infernal things that are hard to do right - soufflés, sex, making a decent Cosmopolitan - when it's done right, it's exceptional. The black IPA was first brewed by Greg Noonan at the Vermont Brew Pub in the mid-1990s, and while there is some debate on Twitter as to the first British black IPA, it seems likely that Thornbridge Raven was there first. Although maybe the BrewDog/Stone collaboration Bashah (it stands for Bitter As Sin, Hoppy As Hell, apparently) might have been the first UK-based version, should you allow collabs to be included.

The thing is, although black IPA is one of the styles du jour, it's something that is rarely done right here. Archetypes of the style (Stone Sublimely Self-Righteous and Southern Tier Iniquity are cited most often) manage to combine the balance of smooth, chocolatey dark malt with a huge hop hit in a way that seems totally unforced. Many UK versions seem to go overboard on the bitter dark malt, making a beer with the dry, smoky astringent edge of a stout with a big hop load. Trying one particularly roasty example with Sean Franklin (founder of Roosters) prompted me to comment "It's a tasty beverage, but it's not a black IPA". He grinned, and concurred. Sat with Garrett Oliver in North Bar a few months ago with another local example, he took and swig and said "that's good, but it's not a black IPA". A smooth, chocolatey note is apparently how the darker malt should manifest itself.

Moor Illusion falls slightly between two stools. It is indeed a tasty beer, and having tracked it's evolution over a few batches, it's certainly becoming more hoppy and less maltily bitter, although it still has that vague "hmmm, there's quite a lot of roast flavour here" thing going on. But having a bottle of this to hand on a quiet afternoon recently, newspapers to hand, was a blissful situation. It may not be an archetypal black IPA, but it is a tasty beer.

NOTE: I buy and sell this beer through the business I own, although I don't think this has influenced my opinion of it

Wednesday 6 June 2012

Ilkley Siberia Rhubarb Saison

We bloggers are the rock stars of the craft beer movement. It must be true - BrewDog said it about me, Mark Dredge and Pete Brown when we went to brew Avery, Brown, Dredge. We go on tour, smash preconceptions with an iconoclastic dry-hopped rye mild, and then write a thousand unpunctuated words about it (that was Adrian Tierney-Jones at Arbor Ales, with Ryeteous Mild - I lied about the punctuation). And Melissa Cole didn't bugger about when she went to brew at Ilkley - a rhubarb saison with vanilla, grains of paradise and orange peel. Have at you, convention!

I've said it before, and I'll say it again - saison is the riesling of the beer world. It's a delicious, complex and under-appreciated style that can hit the mark like nothing else. It's also tricky to get right - I'm not sure that I've ever had a cask saison that's been worthy of the name, and even keg saisons seem to lack a certain something. But taking the cap or cork from a bottle of saison, and the eruption of escaping gas, with it's faint aroma of hay, spice and sweet silage on the breeze, seems to bring the beer to life in a way that draught dispense just doesn't. Garrett Oliver talks about the eruption of life force you get when opening a saison, and he's right, not just in the force of the escaping gas, but also the pungent aromas too. It needs all that busy carbonation to lighten the palate and make it taste just so.

I didn't get to try this beer on draught, but I doubt that it could better the bottles. All the classic saison hallmarks are there - brisk carbonation, complex yeasty spiciness, dry finish - and each one of these is accentuated very subtly by the ingredients. The vanilla slightly fills out yeasty palate, the spices lift the aromatics a touch, and the rhubarb adds a slight tartness to the finish. Much as I love hops, it's nice to try a beer that has been made subtly modern without the addition of armfuls of the damn things. Hazy, lovely and moreish. Nice work all concerned.

NOTE: I'll be buying and selling this beer through the business I own, although I don't think this has influenced my opinion of it

Sunday 3 June 2012

EBBC2012 #5 - Tired And Emotional

I think it's fair to say that by the time we got to the end of EBBC2012, everyone was ready for a long sleep and a blood transfusion (well, all except Alessio Leone, who was to spend the Sunday night in various Leeds bars before getting an early flight back to Italy without any sleep at all - now that's hardcore). When I got home and was asked how the weekend was, I surprised myself by hearing myself talking about it while my voice cracked with emotion at some of the things I'd heard over the weekend. Not for the first time that weekend, I actually shed a few embarrassed tears. And here's why.

Having moved over the last decade from working part-time in a good beer shop, to managing an award-winning beer shop, to launching a beer-tasting events company, to being British Beer Writer of the Year 2008, to having a book published, to buying out the company that employed me has been a long and exhausting process. There have also been a bunch of people who have been at my side along the way, and who I see as contemporaries, partners-in-crime, whatever. But if you'll permit me the indulgence, I'd like to share with you two almost eidetic moments from the weekend.

The first was after the speed-blogging event, which itself was a whole heap of fun. I think it's fair to say that Rooster's Baby-Faced Assassin was the beer of the night, just pipping Marble's Earl Grey IPA by a small margin. Tom of Rooster's has very kindly acknowledged my indirect influence in the development of this beer - undeservedly so, as all I did was say "yeah, that might work" as Tom explained the idea behind it. As I chatted to him after the event, he casually mentioned that Doug Odell was coming to brew with them in a couple of weeks, largely on the back of having tried and enjoyed Baby-Faced Assassin. Such was my delight at this news that I couldn't help but get dewy-eyed. I guess I saw a lot of similarities between Tom's journey and mine, from amateur beer enthusiast to someone who was making a living doing something they loved, and having a great time doing it.

The second moment was on the Magic Rock visit, when I was talking to head brewer Stuart Ross. Having just toured the brewery, I thought back to a brew that we'd done a couple of years ago. Stuart is a guy who has learnt his craft and apprenticed under some of the best. And looking round at the American craft brewery he and Richard Burhouse have built in Huddersfield, I couldn't help but have an immense swell of pride for the pay-off for his years of hard work. I slapped him on the shoulder and told him this, and he looked me back in the eye, without blinking, and said "And well done you, for what you've done". That is as close to an emotional outpouring as you're likely to get from a Yorkshireman, and it meant the world.

Although I make a living buying and selling beer, I try and resist the idea that these beers are brands. When I look around the warehouse full of beer, each little bay of beers from a particular brewery isn't just beer, it's a lot of hard work, hopes, aspirations and stories, not just from the brewer, but as I mentioned in the last post, the result of an awful lot of work from an awful lot of people. That's why I get emotional when I think about the industry - it's not just beer, it's peoples' lives and peoples' stories that fill your glasses. If you can join me in that belief, not only will your understanding of the topic deepen, but I also believe your beer will taste all the better for it.

EBBC2012 #4 - The Hop Man Cometh

I quite like things that challenge the taken-for-granted. I like that sensation of learning things that make you realise that you don't really know as much as you thought you did. I like the way that when I was in my 20s, I though I knew it all; when I was in my 30s, I realised that I didn't know as much as I thought I did; and now I'm in my 40s, I think that by the time I hit my 50s, I might have a decent working knowledge of most things that interest me. I just hope I'm still able to use that information creatively.

Some things that I've learnt about beer over the last few years; it's hard to say exactly what makes a great brewer; making good beer is much more about yeast management and cleaning than it is about malt and hops; just because everyone else says something is great doesn't mean that you will actually enjoy it; the trail of talent goes a lot further up the line than you think.

This last point was brought home listening to Paul Corbett, MD of Charles Farham Hop Merchants, talking about the state of the global hop industry. When you get into beer, it's usually just about the liquid in your glass and your relationship with it. As you develop that interest, you might broaden your horizons to take in the place you bought the beer, or the person who sold it to you. You might then go beyond that and get interested in brewers and breweries, and for many people, that's as far as the interest goes. What was clear, listening to Paul Corbett talk, was that an awful lot of the new wave of British brewing wouldn't be happening without the interaction between brewers, himself, and the hop growers making the new generation of hops that are driving the revolution.

I'll be honest, although it had occurred to me that there was any intermediary between the hop growers and brewers, I didn't really think about the level of influence there was. But it's hard to ignore when Paul casually dropped into his presentation that (for example) New Zealand hop varieties Riwaka and Motueka were originally named Saaz D and Saaz B respectively, until he suggested that perhaps they might look for a more New Zealand-specific name if they were to export them to Europe (presumably muttering "they already have Saaz there, numbnuts" under his breath). And it's him (and others like him) who are gently exerting pressure on producers of licenced brand hops (Ahtanum, Amarillo, Citra, Palisade, Simcoe, Warrior etc) to grow enough to meet demand.

So there we have it - from glass, to vendor, to brewer, to ingredients supplier, to ingredients grower, beer is intimately associated with the fortunes of a lot more people than one might think. And this idea is the starting point for my next post - Tired And Emotional -  the last that I'll be posting about EBBC2012.

Saturday 2 June 2012

EBBC2012 #3 - Who Are We Talking To? And How? And Who's Listening?

I was quite surprised by how much I enjoyed the tech and social media sessions at EBBC2012. I thought I had a pretty good handle on stuff, but it turns out that I was only about half as good as I thought I was. The reason for this is that although I've fiddled about with all sorts of social media (YouTube, Blogger, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, and briefly Tumblr, Google+ and Klout), I don't really pay any attention to who is listening and responding to what I say, beyond comments on this blog, Twitter followers, and Facebook feedback.

I still don't know how I feel about this. On one hand, I'm pretty happy with what I do via social media. It's a great network of like-minded and interested individuals, and as I said in the session that I co-hosted, it was having a body of work online that enabled a publisher to find me and commission me to write "500 Beers". Clearly I was doing something right, and crucially, that commission happened just before I was made Beer Writer of the Year 2008 by The British Guild of Beer Writers. I'm sure the award reassured them that taken a flyer on the right person, but they had approached me solely on the basis of my online persona. I'm sure that having video available to them helped to round this out a bit, but ultimately, having a social media portfolio is vital if you want to Take It To The Next Level (as the session with Mark, Marv and me was called).

I was also interested by the idea that you might want to alter your voice and respond to feedback from readers to write content that they were more interested in, points raised in part by Sophie Atherton and Adrian Tierney-Jones. I disagree with this - I say write your own thing, just make sure that spelling and grammar are correct. Very little good ever came by committee, or by trying to mimic someone else. But that's just my opinion. And anyway, Adrian was being somewhat disingenuous - his blog is his Gonzo, Joycean, Proustian outlet. Having read a few draft pages of a book that he's currently writing, it's obvious that he's one of the greats, with a unique voice that is the summation of years of self-taught journalism and, most crucially, of a life lived in (and through) words and literary structure.

But I digress (hey, this is my space to do so). While you can use social media to create a showcase for your talents, content is still king. I'm still not convinced that being popular on social media is the same as being respected, despite what Klout might say. It's probably apposite to conclude on one of my favourite maxims - you can't polish a turd, but you can roll it in glitter. But who wants to be a glitter-covered turd?

EBBC2012 #2 - The Circle-Jerk Of Influence

One of the themes that re-occurred throughout EBBC2012 was that of influence. It's taken for granted that as bloggers, we have the potential to influence opinion. As a result of this, and moving up the food chain, it's logical then that interested parties might seek to influence bloggers. The ethics of this was a topic that ran through many of the discussions over the weekend, from the obvious (should bloggers take freebies?) to the slightly more considered (how can I take freebies and retain some integrity?). As Allan Wright of conference organisers Zephyr Adventures pointed out (to slightly uncomfortable silence), we'd all accepted Molson Coors' offer of sponsorship when we turned up - nobody refused to take the cheque on principle (although whether The Ormskirk Baron was actually able to cash his cheque, given it was made out to "The Ormskirk Baron", is still unclear)

The question of influence is also applicable to the question of why we actually blog. We all believe we have something worth saying (as Tandleman sums up with customary pithiness here), but the question of who we are saying it to, and why, is perhaps still unclear. This was brought into sharp focus after the Q&A session that Mark, Marverine and I held, when Allan Wright (again) asked "has anyone ever emailed a brewery to let them know that you've written something about them?" More uncomfortable silence. Don't the Americans have a splendidly pragmatic approach to stuff? The coup-de-grace of "then why are you doing what you do?" hung in the air, unasked and unanswered.

But of course, a few beers makes everything OK. The incredibly lavish dining event (merely calling it dinner would be selling it a bit short) that Pilsner Urquell hosted on the second evening was a chance for everyone to sample their superb unfiltered pilsner, served straight from the wood. We were also well-fed, dressed in PU polo shirts, kidnapped and transported to another venue, and FORCED to drink more unfiltered pilsner under the supervision of The Thirsty Brewmaster. I found myself leaving early that evening - I wish that I could say it was down to some sort of principle, but the events of the evening meant that I just needed the sort of solitary relaxation time that you only get in a hotel room on your own.

We need to take it as read that blogging is about influence. As bloggers, we want to influence people, and because of this, people want to influence us. But how these things happen, and to what end, is perhaps still a bit uncertain.

Friday 1 June 2012

EBBC2012 #1 - Beer and Beer Blogging Is A Very Broad Church

Yes, I know, it's been a couple of weeks since EBBF2012, but having been away on a Cruzcampo and seafood bender, I just wanted to add a bit of analysis. This is just the first in an as yet undetermined number of posts.

The opening session from Pelle Stridh, Ludmil Fotev and Jan Menken was perhaps not what everyone expected - at least, it certainly acted as an eye-opener for me. I thought that it reflected the way that beer was a cultural currency that united different strands of thought, and acted as a way for people to express their differences while realising their similarities. So the three presenters had very different perspectives on beer blogging, but beer was theme that united them. Pelle was perhaps the most conventional, with his stated agenda of trying to educate people to drink "better" (problematic word) beer. Jan's personal slant was attending beer events on public transport - trains, mainly - which I guess fitted in nicely with his jaunt to Leeds. Ludmil's slightly more freeform approach - perhaps enhanced by Google's translate facility acting as a filter on his blog - was brought back to earth with a bump as his presentation made it clear that Bulgaria is a market that even BrewDog has yet to properly penetrate. You can only blog on what's readily available to you - indeed, perhaps this sort of blogging is more "authentic" (another problematic word) than the trophy-bagging style of blogging (and I'm as guilty as anyone of that particular vice).

The key point that I took away from this session was that beer blogging is a broad church, and that what I enjoy most about blogging personally, and a lot of the blogs that I read, is that sometimes the best blog posts aren't directly about beer, but are a stepping-off point for discussions about other things. And conversely, the things that feed forward to the produce the product that unites us (beer, duh) aren't as simple as you might think. Often it's not just about ingredients and process - it's about the stories behind those things that bring the topic to life. I'll touch on that idea in a couple of upcoming posts, tentatively entitled "The Hop Man  Cometh" and "Tired And Emotional".