I know it’s peculiar that I am only now, on the 27th of January, getting around to publishing my Golden Pints for 2016, even more peculiar that it’s after I have already posted my predictions for 2017. Nevertheless here they are.
A few caveats from me. Firstly I don’t get out as much as I used to. I have two young kids under the age of 4, which any parent will know is a handful. It has a way limited your spare time. Not that I would have it any other way mind you. The other is that I don’t really drink cask beer, as noted in a previous point of mine, which again limits my exposure to certain beers and breweries (but I am working on that). As a result, my list of Golden Pints might look a tad shorter than others you may have read.
Regardless, I think it’s a perfect opportunity to shine a light on the good things people are doing to make my experience as a beer drinker more enjoyable and as a result this post is unapologetically positive.
Best New Brewery: Elusive Brewing & Lost and Grounded
Like any craft beer enthusiast, trying new beers from new breweries is par for the course. Keeping up with all the new breweries is always difficult given the explosion of new breweries in the UK. This competition makes it a challenge for those opening a brewery to cut through that noise and make an impression.
In launching a brewery there is lots of decisions to be made; business model, branding and visual identify, beers, premises etc. and lots of red tape to cut through; licensing, tax, regulations etc. Increasingly breweries are looking to share insights about their decisions and experiences of their launching brewery before they have even brewed a beer. I can see the merit; engaging your audience, setting the tone for your brand, vision and identity. My joint winners for the award – Elusive Brewing and Lost and Grounded – both shared a lot about this before they even brewed a beer. Not that they were first time brewers by any stretch.
Elusive Brewing has made a running start to their first year. Founder and one-man-brewery, Andy Parker, collected a swag of homebrewing awards before ‘going pro’ and he has continued that winning streak, picking up six best of festival awards in his first year. Andy has a number of collaborations under his belt including Aztec Challenge, a smoked chilli porter with Hop Burns and Black. Andy produces beers in cask, keg and bottle. Keep an eye out for his unique retro, 8-bit computer game inspired visual identity in your bottle shop. And to top it off Andy is an all-round top bloke, sometimes referred to as ‘the nicest man in beer’. I’m sure reading this will make Andy wince.
In contrast to Elusive, Lost and Grounded started with a scale probably unseen in recent times, they are similar in size to Magic Rock, with plenty of room for expansion. Lost and Grounded was founded by former Little Creatures and Camden Town brewer Alex Troncoso and his partner Annie Clements. In one of their very open posts, Alex and Annie explain they have put all their life savings into the venture plus are backed by Made by HAND, the four original founders of Little Creatures, an Australian craft brewery sold to Kirin in 2012.
With a narrow but focused core range, this soon expanded on the back of a number of collaborations with other breweries including Cloudwater and Burning Sky. I’ve written a little about their beers on a previous post but to summarise they are characterised by smoothness of mouthfeel, subtle but distinct flavours and above all else an approachable drinkability. But it’s their open and humble approach and willingness to engage that has won me over.
Most Improved Brewery: Redchurch Brewery
I must admit I have a soft spot for Redchurch as it was the first craft brewery I really took an interest in (see a previous post of mine on this). Consistently producing quality beers is the benchmark that every craft brewery strives for. Unfortunately every Redchurch beer I had wasn’t reaching that consistent quality benchmark. However, 2016 was a breakthrough year. They picked up some talent and experience in James Rylance; successfully smashed their £200k crowdfunding target raising just under £500k; established a new brewery in Harlow, Essex; set about improving their brewing recipes and practice; after experimenting with a few different beers they formalised their Urban Farmhouse brewery at their existing site in Bethnal Green and to top this off launched a new branding and visual identity to wrap all of these changes around to set a fresh, new direction.
Their core range of beers are all dialled in and true to style. At their party on Saturday 10th of September 2016, I sat in their taproom and sampled each and every one of them alongside a large number of other enthusiastic London drinkers. The standouts were the Shoreditch Blonde, now brewed with saison yeast, the Great Eastern IPA, as good a West Coast style IPA you’ll find in a core range, and the Old Ford Export Stout. The taproom itself is small and cosy sitting in a mezzanine above the brewery and worth a visit if you’re in Bethnal Green area.
Best Brewery: Beavertown
Like many Londoners, I drink a lot of Beavertown beers. They are readily available, there’s great variety in their core range and importantly, quality and consistency. Add to that the seasonals such as Bloody ‘El and Quelle, the frequent collaborations and the Tempus Project and they are brewing a variety of beer that would suit anyone’s tastes.
They put on great events too – whether it’s their birthday events (notwithstanding the issues around overcrowding this year), Rainbow Project or special one off events, they always entertain, engage and educate.
In Logan Plant, they have a front man than any brewery would kill for – driven, articulate, and passionate. He sets the tone from the top and is creating a great team of people and importantly a great culture. I’ve often said that Beavertown are more punk than Brewdog. Not that being punk is an aspirational position or benchmark to aspire too, but there is a relatable authenticity to Beavertown. They are my brewery of the year for all of these reasons.
Best Beer: Barrel Aged Caribbean Chocolate Cake, Siren Craft Brew x Cigar City
This was both the easiest decision and the hardest decision. As you go through the year you mentally catalogue which beers really stand out and this was the first beer my reflexes naturally responded to when thinking about my beer of the year. But when challenged I questioned the criteria upon which I was making my assessment.
Five Points Pale Ale is a great beer across keg, bottle, can and cask (albeit I only had one pint of Five Points Pale on cask), fragrant and flavoursome. Beavertown’s Gamma Ray continues to delight as does their seasonal farmhouse pale, Quelle. Cloudwater DIPA v3 was a stand out as was their Citra IPA. Brew by Numbers range of saisons including their 01|06 Motueka and Lime and BrewDog’s Albino Squid Assassin also made a strong impression.
Regardless the Barrel Aged Caribbean Chocolate Cake stood above all of these. Labelled as a Topical Stout aged in Bourbon Barrels and brewed in collaboration with Cigar City Brewing, it weighs in at a big 8.4% ABV. Lucky for me there appears to be a never ending supply at Oddbins West Hampstead where for £6 you can get your hands on this rare beast. It’s got big dark chocolate and coffee flavours, a fruity sweetness and hints of oak, vanilla and tobacco. It must be said I am also a fan of any beer with cacao nibs on the ingredients list. So many flavours blended and balanced so well together. I can only imagine the faces of the brewers at Siren when they cracked open the barrels after 12 months to find this treat of a beer. Thanks for making such a cracking beer, cheers.
Best Pub: Dukes Head, Highgate
On my first visit to the Duke’s Head I mistakenly turned up at Duke’s Brew and Que. Having agreed to catch up with Matt Curtis at the Dukes, I got my wires crossed and headed to Dalston rather than Highgate. Eventually I arrived late and we settled down to a few beers.
The Dukes Head is smaller than I imagined. One long, relatively narrow rectangular room with a bar covering half of one side. It has character and importantly great beer. Whether its keg or cask, cans or bottles they have a rotating beer list that would satisfy even the most discerning of beer drinkers. They do have food but run a rotating roster of street food vendors who take up a short term residency inside the pubs kitchen. They have great, knowledgeable attentive staff and put on some memorable events, hosted by passionate beer writer Matt Curtis. The relationship the Dukes Head have with Matt has me convinced that every pub worth its salt needs a resident beer writer / blogger / beer evangelist to do what Matt does for the Dukes Head.
But the credit is not Matt’s alone. Mars is the curator of the beer list and build the menu based on her own likes – it’s clear that she has impeccable taste – and Tom is the manager overseeing all this. It’s a little off the beaten track (take the Northern Line to Archway and then the 143, 210, or 271 bus or take the short but steep walk up the hill to Highgate) but well worth a visit.
Best Online Retailer: BeerBods
It’s difficult to describe BeerBods as an online retailer as they are more of an inclusive beer club for the advancement of the appreciation of beer. That is their value proposition, their differentiator and it’s difficult for competitors to copy because they will lack the passion and drive of Matt, Gordon and team. I’m heading into my third year of being a BeerBodder and it’s great to see them go from strength to strength.
In addition to their weekly beers, I look out for their ‘Ones to Watch’ box which includes a curated selection of beers from new breweries (due out in coming weeks) and other selected boxes throughout the year. I’ve got my hands of one of their BeerBodsPlus box, a concept they are playing around with, which delivers a slightly more exotic selection of beers at a higher price point. It will be interesting to see where they take that proposition as in my view, there is a market for a more exclusive type of beer club. They also do a range of BeerBods for Business services if you are interested too.
Back to what they do best; each week for just £3 there is a beer, the story behind it and an interaction on social media about it with your fellow BeerBodders. One caveat – you might not like all the beers – but you will learn something and might pick up a few pointers from what others think of it. It has spawned its own customer created content: Steve and Rolands Beer Podcast reviews the beer each week, and Si Bullock creates a Spotify playlist for each beer each week, a Strava Running and Cycling club and I’m sure there is others I have missed.
It’s helped me on my beer journey to discover new beers and breweries. I have also got family and friends to sign up too and recommended it to countless people. If you are interested be sure to use my referral code YRHXQS for a little discount!
And that’s all the Golden Pints I have to award for 2016. I am looking forward to being dazzled and amazed by what 2017 brings.
Note: thanks to Clayton Chisholm (@clayfiish) for permission to the use the artwork