My Golden Pints 2016

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

8 Predictions for 2017

As a new year rolls around, it’s time for beer bloggers to dust off their crystal ball and give their take on what to expect in the year ahead. I’ve penned a few quick thoughts on some of the key things I expect we will see in 2017.

Beer Styles

Many talk about which beer styles they expect to see emerge and dominate, which I believe is a fool’s errand. The beauty of the craft beer scene is the variety that breweries continue to deliver. Whether its traditional styles, lagers, low ABV, high ABV, murk bombs, sour beers, barrel aged beers, fruity beers – there exists great examples already available to consumers with many more to come.

One trend we will see is that wood-aged sours, wild, mixed and spontaneous fermentations will get greater attention. Burning Sky have taken delivery of a coolship, thought to be the first in the UK for some time. Beavertown’s Tempus project will no doubt start to see results. Cloudwater, Wild Beer Co and The Kernel have foeders that they will be playing with more and more in 2017 and BrewDog have announced plans to build a separate and segregated sour facility, Overworks, in Ellon, to be headed up by Richard Kilcullen, former head of sour production at American brewery Wicked Weed. Great news for fans of these types of beers.

Tooling Up 

If last year saw breweries scaling up, this year we will see breweries tooling up. Expect your Twitter Instagram feed filled with breweries taking delivery of whirlpools, centrifuges, lactic acid tanks, yeast propagators, canning lines (more on that later). Why? All in the name of improving quality, consistency and efficiency. This is important for the breweries as with all the choice out there, drinker’s tolerance for a beer that is not quite up to snuff is wearing thin.

Festival Fever

Craft beer festivals are mirroring the growth of the breweries they promote – scaling up and tooling up. The traditional craft beer festival catered for beer geeks, bringing together a select number of breweries who usually bring key personnel as well as a selection of core and experimental beers. Like-minded people mill about comparing beers and using it as a chance to catch up. There remains a big place for these types of festivals, but new ones will emerge. More focused festivals on types of beers (think HopCity), regions and breweries, as well as big events targeting mainstream punters offering an experience – something millennials supposedly value above all else.

The festival making the biggest splash is The Beavertown Extravaganza (great to see that word featured here), which promises to be massive, bringing together a huge array of the world best and hippest craft brewers and will also serve at the launch of the 2016 Rainbow Project beers too. But it has caused a splash in that it will clash with the Leeds International Beer Festival. My view is that there is room for all of these festivals. While the craft beer enthusiast will struggle to attend all (maybe 2017 is the year of FOMO management for the craft beer enthusiast), it should hopefully see craft beer expand into a wider audience.

Small Pack

Last year saw a point of inflection in beer buying patterns in the UK with off-trade purchase of beer exceed on-trade purchase of beer for the first time. This clearly translates to a big an opportunity for brewers to focus on packaging in bottles and cans for off trade distribution. We are already seeing some trends emerge for smaller bottles (Thornbridge moved to 330ml from 500ml), bigger cans (Magic Rock have released a number of beautifully designed 500ml cans in late 2016, Cloudwater landed on 440ml cans for their move to canning) and multipacks (BrewDog sell in multipacks and I have recently seen Five Points selling their cans as six packs at OddBins in West Hampstead). And I expect to see this continue in 2017.

Whilst talking of cans, one odd trend is the 360 degree, or topless can, that London Beer Factory are currently using. Unsure how widely this one will spread.

Re-branding (Visual Identity)

In an increasingly competitive market having a distinct visual identity is one way to stand out. We have seen a number of traditional breweries re-branding in 2016 to appeal to younger, craft oriented drinkers. In 2017, I believe we will see a number of craft breweries follow the lead of Redchurch Brewery and review their visual identity. Redchurch launched a new site in Harlow, refreshed their beer recipes and brewing techniques and announced their Urban Farmhouse brewery at their existing site in Bethnal Green. This resulted in a desire for a fresh look to go with it. We’ve already seen Beavertown move away from their original ‘B in a triangle’ and go full skull in 2017. Will BrewDog continue their look as they launch in the US, the Lone Wold distillery and the Overworks sour facility? My money is to expect a new look from them this year.

Merch Alert

2017 will be the year of merchandising. While breweries have dabbled in cheap t-shirts, badges and glassware, this year we will see more focus and quality in the merchandise breweries are willing to put their name to. Some breweries are really well positioned with a brand and visual identify that, if done well, would shine in a range of quality merchandise.

Failures

While many believe that a rising tide lifts all boats, in a competitive market, there will be winners and losers. Sadly we will see some breweries close. I would think this will likely be breweries that don’t have the resources, ability, or passion to continue. Smaller local breweries without; a taproom, strong link to their community, quality beers, ability to scale and social media presence will be most likely at risk. I don’t think we will see any large scale failures however.

Cross-Collaborations

Not in the traditional sense of breweries collaborating with each other, but collaborations across industries. This links to a Three Bullet Friday post I did last December. Think collaborations with coffee roasters, restaurants / chefs, sporting bodies (think local football teams, cycling brands, running clubs etc), music labels / brands / festivals (could we see a beer brewed usual wild yeasts found at Glastonbury?). This helps bring craft beer to a broader audience by looking at where beer drinkers’ interests overlap with other interests and vice versa.

That’s my views, looking forward to hearing some of yours.

Three Bullet Tuesday – January 17

Cask confessions, Meantime and Finding comfort in the UK craft scene

  • Cask confessions: Now that Pete Brown has made cask confessions de riguer, I have one of my own. I’m a caskophobe. Ok, maybe that’s a little strong – it’s not that I hate cask beer but as a preference it sits below keg, bottle, can…I guess it’s at the bottom of the list. Let me try and defend that stance. I didn’t grow up in the UK but rather the warmer climes of the anitpodes. Growing up in Australia, cold, carbonated keg beer is king and rightly so given the hot and humid conditions. Unlike in other parts of the world, it would be hard to argue that cask is revered by the Australian beer drinker – it’s perhaps seen as a British eccentricity and even derided as warm, flat beer. I’ve enjoyed reading the tsunami of content is response to Cloudwater’s announcement; in some corners reinforcing my own views and in others places educating me on what cask beer is all about. One irony I see in all this, at least in my own perception, is that as a (non-cask) craft beer drinker you tolerate the occasional bad beer from a small producer yet we frown at the poor quality of cask beer. But questions remain for me, so rather than remain ignorant, I am keen to learn more about cask beer to help me understand why it is held in such esteem by some – any ‘cask guides’ welcome!

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Note: Pete McKerry has kept track of a lot of responses to Cloudwater’s blog post on his own blog, check it out. I particular enjoyed this post from Siren Craft Brewery and another from Conor Murphy.

  • Meantime: the Greenwich-based brewery took time out of being handed around by corporate owners to announce it was teaming up with well-funded, well-connected Silicon Valley start-up 23andMe.com to produce Meantime Bespoke, a new service that offers beer matching your DNA to our taste preferences. In an online post on their website this is explained as ‘assess hereditary variations in your oral taste receptors to reveal genetic variants that could explain personal preferences to ward specific flavour profiles’. Or in other terms, use science to tell you what you probably already know – your taste preference. All for the princely sum of £25,000 for an easily transportable 2,000 pints. The proclaimed benefit of all this? ‘Unprecedented bragging rights with your mates’. Good luck to them. But this is taking the concept of using your body parts as ingredients one step further than before. Australian brewery 7 cent made headlines with a beer brewed with yeast captured from belly button fluff for the 2016 GABS festival. Oregon’s Rogue Ale’s who brewed a beer using yeast cultivated from the beard of Brewmaster John Maier. I did try one of these beers not that long along, and while it was a decent enough beer, it was a little funkier than you would want from a beer of this nature. I would hate to spend my spare £25k to find out my DNA is farmhouse funk.

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  • Finding comfort in the UK craft scene: anyone who follows my twitter feed (@bushcraftbeer) would have seen that I was in Australia recently on holiday. The weather was great as was spending time with friends and family. Some of the beer was great too. My highlight was the Moo Brewery Pilsner. While it was great to try some new drops, the prevalence of 4-5% ABV Summer Ales, Pacific Ales and Pale Ales, many of which are brewed by ‘craft brands’ of larger breweries, left me wanting more. What I didn’t expect is that it left me really appreciating what we have here in the UK all the more.

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Episode 11- Evin O’Riordain

The Kernel Brewery sits at the heart of the Bermondsey beer community alongside a number of other producers including cheese makers, bakers, butchers, coffee roasters and honey makers. Evin O’Riordain, the founder of The Kernel, has not only built a great brewery but a sense of community amongst these local producers.

I sat down with Evin over a few of their amazing beers to hear his story and came away with a better understanding of the philosophy of the man behind The Kernel.

Episode 10 – Tom Palmer

Welcome to Episode 10, with Tom Palmer from Mondo Brewing Company.

One of things I love about doing this podcast is hearing the story of how people got into beer. I am lucky to sit down and talk, usually over a few beers, about how people began their beer journey. For some it’s a pub idea that they just run with. For others its more considered. They make a conscious, deliberate decision to do it differently, exactly the way they want to do it.

Tom and Todd at Mondo Brewing Company took the considered approach. Two Americans, they ended up in London for personal reasons, started working together in a brewery and began talking about how they would it differently.

This is the story of Mondo Brewing Company as told by Tom.

Episode 9 – Sam McGregor

Welcome to Episode 9 with Sam McGregor, Co-Founder of Signature Brew.

Beer and music are a great match. But they aren’t often presented well together – why is the beer always terrible at gigs and festivals?

This was a question that Sam was trying to answer when exploring the concept of their brewery. We explored this and more in a very candid chat.

Sam was honest, philosophical, engaging and not afraid to give his opinion, which makes for a great conversation. Listen in.

Episode 8 – Matt Curtis

Matt Curtis is a thinker, an obsessive, and envelop pusher. He’s also one of the best and busiest beer writers in the country. Whether its commissions in magazines, beer events or more impressively the fact he was handpicked by Michael Kiser to be the UK storyteller for Good Beer Hunting.

Matt is also a talker and in our time we covered a lot –his days in a band, the story behind why he’s known as Total Curtis, his journey to beer writing, his take on CAMRA and the opportunities and challenges for the industry.

I also found out about what he’s really interested – an emphasis on modern beer culture in the UK in addition to the beer itself. In that respect Matt is one of the thought leaders in the UK beer scene.

Enjoy.