Wednesday, 4 February 2015

An Abstrakt Concept

"INTRODUCING THE WORLD'S FIRST CONCEPT BEER BRAND" bellowed the press release announcing the launch of Brewdog's Abstrakt range of beers back at the tail-end of 2009. Promising to be 'MORE ART THAN BEER', the 17 releases on the label to date have been beautifully packaged in 375ml champagne bottles with jet-black corks and cages. The styles have varied from quads to imperial stouts to barley wines, but the ABVs have been high and the adjuncts extensive.

When this tweet went out last month, it attracted the response you would expect. A 'Cookies and Cream Imperial Stout' might be in keeping with the syrupy-sweet, adjunct-heavy beers in the range over the past few years, but as every attention-hungry craft brewery starts boosting their gravities and shovelling crazy flavours and Flumps into their conditioning tanks, the Abstrakt range has started to look less like an arty concept and more like... just another set of big beers.

In addition, up to this point almost every Abstrakt beer has encouraged the hoarder. Huge ABV monsters, released Across the UK, thousands of dusty black demi-bouteilles clog up cupboards as beer enthusiasts avoid opening their numbered collectibles. Beer is there to be drunk though, and up to this point, Abstrakt has served to discourage the consumption of the beers. I think it would be fun to flip that on its head and produce an Absrakt that needs to be consumed urgently.

So - here's my idea for a future Abstrakt. For convenience's sake, let's call it Abstrakt 20.

Abstrakt 20 would be Brewdog's first ever DOGO release - an appropriately canine acronynm meaning Draught-Only-Growler-Only. Instead of paying 9.99 for a low-profile corked-and-caged 375ml champagne bottle from their online shop, their Bottledog bottle shop or their bars, Abstrakt 20 would be a numbered 1 litre swing-top. I could imagine it being covered in a unique piece of artwork from one of their regular artists, such as Craig Fisher or Johanna Basford... or being almost entirely empty, save for a small logo and a bottle number. Whatever works for James Watt and company. What is paramount is that it is empty.

A 1 litre flip-top bottle, yesterday.
The beer destined for the Abstrakt 20 bottles should be time-limited, designed to be drunk at its best. In the spirit of Magic Rock's Un-Human Cannonball or - topically - Russian River's Pliny the Younger, it should be as big a double or triple IPA as can be wrung out of the Ellon brewhouse, with a final gravity coaxed as low as possible and dry-hopped to the point that the centrifuge tries to tender its resignation. Brewdog, for all their air-freighted IPA imports and Love Hops... neon signs, have never attempted to brew the ultimate big IPA, so this would be their chance.

On the day that the beer can be released, the Abstrakt 20 bottle can be taken to one of their bars or shops and filled, at no charge, with the beer. If the owner of the bottle wants to take it home, then so be it; if they want to grab four glasses and split it with their table in the bar, no problem. However, no bottle, no beer - without the Abstrakt 20 bottle, one cannot expect a pour of the beer that goes inside.* If you want to drink the beer, you would either need to get hold of your own bottle, or find somebody who has one and is willing to share. Abstrakt 20 would be either the ultimate social beer - destined to be shared - or the ultimate antisocial beer - open it alone, and you would need to finish it alone to enjoy it at its peak. Either way, it would be more art than beer.

On the front of the bottle are three boxes. When the bottle is filled, the server fills one of the boxes in with an indelible paint marker - they can tick it, draw a smiley face, write their initials, whatever they are in the mood for. Once the owner has enjoyed their three fills, and all boxes have been completed, it cannot be refilled again - and thus their Abstrakt 20 is complete. A unique piece of art, comprising the bottle artwork (or lack thereof) and the three contributions from the people who filled it.

Abstrakt 20. More art than beer. Coming soon?

(* - In reality, I think if a keg had been on for a week, I think it could be opened up to be poured like any other beer rather than simply ditched in the name of 'art'... Brewdog are a business, after all.)

Friday, 2 January 2015

Golden Pints 2014

Here are my Golden Pints for the year. I've dispensed with a couple of categories along the way... for example, I've barely bought a beer in a supermarket, so I'm not best placed to pick a winner.

Best UK Cask Beer - Weird Beard Dark Hopfler. Disclosure out of the way, I spent a few weeks working full time at WB in September. This particular beer dates back to the spring, when Daniel Vane ruled the brewhouse roost and turned a leftover imperial stout mash into a masterclass in marrying the extreme with the sessionable. Just 2.5% but with masses of body, lots of body and huge aroma from a big dry hop, I can't think of a more memorable pint I've had this year.
Honourable mentions: Siren Broken Dream was excellent whenever I had it, and Brew By Numbers, despite being new to cask conditioning their beers, were serving a stellar cask of Coffee Porter at the brewery just before Christmas.

Best UK Keg Beer - I've drunken proportionately more keg this year than any other year, so this is much harder than it has been in the past. Reliable old favourites like Magic Rock Cannonball and Thornbridge Tzara are still fantastic, but the one beer that sticks in my mind is Wild Beer Bibble. A draught-only pale ale, it was memorable for being so reserved. Soft in texture, not overly bitter, but with a clarity and freshness of flavour that so many brewers tend to overlook in favour of the extremes. The most drinkable beer I had this year, and perhaps the only keg beer that I drank pint after pint of in a single night. Honourable mention to the crazy Siren/Evil Twin Even More Jesus BA beers that were put on for the Evil Twin Meet the Brewer in London in January. The coffee version was ridiculously over the top but all the better for it.

Best UK Bottled or Canned Beer - It's Wild Beer again, with their Beyond Modus. Ostensibly a deluxe version of their flagship Modus Operandi, the extra barreling and blending has turned it into a woody, complex beast that nods to the best of the Flemish classics. The sort of beer that just wasn't being made in the UK just a couple of years ago.
Honourable mention to Burning Sky's Monolith, a dark funky beer which, like Beyond Modus, was novel, complex and very tasty, and the Brewdog's Black Eyed King Imp, which was the first time in years that one of their beers surpassed their rhetoric. Their best brew since AB:04.

Best Overseas Draught Beer - It would be easy to go for one of the crazy limited beers from Copenhagen Beer Celebration here, or for a classic like unfiltered Pilsner Urquell from the wood or Cantillon Fou Foune, which was as great as ever at Borefts and on Zwanze Day. But I'm going for Dieu Du Ciel!'s Moralité, a collaboration with The Alchemist that was probably the juiciest IPA to cross the Atlantic this year. When it was served at their Meet the Brewer event at Brewdog's Clapham bar, it was a rare occasion when a big group of beer geeks were unanimous in agreement on the beer of the night.

Best Overseas Bottled or Canned Beer - Hill Farmstead Vera Mae, which came all the way from Vermont via a beer trade. A beer of incredible subtlety and reserve, but bursting with flavour and zip. Massively drinkable, which is a shame as I'll likely have to travel all the way to Vermont - and get very lucky with my timing - to drink it again. Honourable mention to Blaugies' Saison d'Epautre, which I drank a lot of once I found it for sale in Luxembourg, and to Stone's Enjoy By, which Brewdog air-dropped in to hopheads across the UK in the summer.

Best Collaboration Brew - I guess it has to be DDC Moralité, although Green Flash's collab with Cigar City, their cedar-aged rye wine Candela that was served at CBC, was similarly stellar. I also enjoyed Weird Beard/Elusive's Lord Nelson, as did a lot of people, and the aforementioned Siren/Evil Twin Jesus beers. Beavertown/Naparbier Bone King was quite good too, the Finger series from Siren/To Ol was great, and Shnoodlepip remains undefinably brilliant.

Best Overall Beer - By the tiniest margin, and because I'd love to have a keg or a cask of it at home at all times, it's Wild Beer Bibble.

Best Branding, Pump Clip or Label - Magic Rock is still the most coherent and eye-catching around. I think Josh Smith's work for Weird Beard is great, and I really like the Brewdog rebrand too - at first glance it looks like shit, but on bottles and cans it's a mile better than their tired old wacky branding of the past few years.

Best UK Brewery - Incredibly hard to choose this year, but for their consistently high quality across a range of styles and in every method of dispense, Magic Rock stand out. It could easily have been a number of others: although not mentioned above, I think Buxton have had a stellar year. Thornbridge's relentless consistency is incredible, Siren are knocking out some fantastic beers at the moment, while Wild Beer's dizzy highs make their occasional bum notes entirely forgivable.

Best Overseas Brewery - Brasserie Cantillon are the best overseas brewery.

Bar\Pub of the YearClick for full details

Best Beer Festival - On paper, it should be Copenhagen Beer Celebration, but this year it came very close to disappearing up it's own arse, with too much focus on 'out-there' beers and morning sessions starting at 10am. No-one wants to have to fight through a scrum to drink 15% imperial stout for breakfast. So instead it was a toss up between Borefts, which was typically brilliant this year, and Independent Manchester Beer Convention, which just shades it. Excellent venue, perfectly curated beer list, insightful seminars, pop-up tastings... A few tweaks away from being the definitive British beer festival.

Independent Retailer of the Year - My ideal beer store would be a neighbourhood corner store with good prices, a comprehensive stock of local beers (especially if you have the likes of Arbor and Wild Beer in the region) and bottles of Bracia and Halcyon from Thornbridge. Its shelves would be dotted with limited edition barrel-aged runs from Siren in amongst imports like Stone Ruination and Augustiner Hell. It would have bottles of Cantillon Lou Pepe sitting on the shelf. And, best of all, it would have a golden retriever to greet you on entry and follow you around as you make your selection. It would be Favourite Beers of Cheltenham.

Best Beer Book or Magazine - Boak and Bailey's Beer Britannia. Just a brilliant piece of work from start to finish. With so much going on at the moment, there will probably be scope for a follow-up soon, focusing just on the last decade.

Best Beer Blog - Matt Curtis at Total Ales, whose passion for writing interesting and challenging pieces is only matched by his love for Camden Town Brewery and Chris Hall. Quick mentions for The Evening Brews, the fantastic Good Beer Hunting, the BeerCast for their work in dismantling Brewmeister, and for Boak and Bailey, who enhanced their already strong claim to be the most influential beer bloggers around.

Best Beer App - Fiz. Hahehaheha!

Simon Johnson Award for Best Beery Twitter - Chris Hall, although he almost lost it by selling his old cshallwriter Twitter handle to Russian separatists.

Best Brewery Website - The Wild Beer website is beautiful, and a good match for what they produce.

Saturday, 29 November 2014

How the West Was Won

Thursday 30th October 2014 is unseasonably warm.  West London’s Shepherds Bush Common is bathed in sunshine and filled with children playing football in the early evening, defying the overdue changing of the seasons. Aside from a handful of scalpers touting for business outside the Empire ahead of the evening’s concert, it’s a largely tranquil scene – or as tranquil as the main transport artery of London’s west ever gets. However, on the south-west corner of the common, condensation is building on a plate-glass window. The tables outside are all full and inside, it is heaving. Every chair at every table is filled, while every route from door to bar is occupied with drinkers. The bar is three-deep but moving quickly – yet despite the bar being rammed full, I can see one of the staff patiently offering the booth next to me table service, explaining why their two samples of IPA are slightly different, and if it’s not to their taste, perhaps they’d like to try…

When Brewdog opened its Shepherds Bush bar in November 2013, it was a considerable risk. The venue itself was an unorthodox choice, huge by comparison with the Scottish brewery’s other bars, and a long way from the crucible for London’s beer boom in the East. Their other forays into London had been in small units (Camden), a takeover of an existing beer bar (Shoreditch) and in trendy areas noted for their nightlife (both of the above). Ahead of its launch, it seemed like an ambition too far, even for a company known for its audacity. On launch night, one guest privately told me that they would be surprised if it were operating in the same guise in 12 months’ time. They need not have worried. This weekend, as the bar celebrates its first birthday, it is not only still pouring beer, but is on course to turn over well in excess of a million pounds in its first year of trading.


The steady decline of the pubs of Shepherds Bush was as constant as it was depressing. The construction of the giant Westfield shopping complex nearby had revitalised a sagging and unfashionable area of the city, but this was not being felt in the on trade. Outsiders flocked to W12 for retail therapy and Wahaca, but nearby pubs like the Goldhawk and Duke of Edinburgh were failing and closing (in both cases, earmarked for apartments). The nearby Stinging Nettle became a Costa Coffee. Shepherds Bush was somewhere that required a good reason to visit – a gig at the Empire, a film at the Westfield – rather than a casual leisure destination. Pubs and bars were for other areas.

In the context, it is easy to understand why The Melrose was failing. A boxy, uncomfortable corner site, lined with glass, it seemed an unusual place to hold open-mic sessions around an upright piano. For years, it had been the Vesbar, all frosted glass, tube lighting and extensive cocktail lists. However, as business dwindled, by 2012 it was refurbished as the Vandella, a somewhat confused ‘entertainment destination’ that introduced a stage and suggested ‘you might get comedy, you might get drama, you might get music’. By the summer of 2013, Fullers had run out of ideas and sought to dispose of it.

The unloved 'entertainment destination' The Vandella (picture c/o Ewan at London Pubology)


Dean Pugh was woken by his mobile phone. A veteran of cult Leeds alehouse Mr Foley’s, he joined Brewdog to become General Manager of their new Manchester bar, where he had been working until closing the night before. On the other end of the phone was James Watt, Brewdog’s self-styled captain, with a proposition – the chance to run the biggest Brewdog bar yet. “At the time I was starting to think about what else I could do in the beer world outside of bar management”, Dean explains, “but the opportunity to run one of our biggest sites, with 40 taps and in London was too good to turn down.”

At the time, the Manchester bar, set in a double-height unit in the redeveloped Deansgate, was the biggest that Brewdog operated, but nowhere near as big as the Shepherds Bush site. “It was huge!” Dean says of his first visit, but he could shared the vision for the bar. “It seemed like a really great site with… massive potential if we got off to a good start.” Although almost suburban compared to the Manchester bar’s central location, he was pretty positive about the bar’s prospects. Although he freely admits that Shepherds Bush was “a bit lacking in good beer bars”, that was part of the attraction. “I think that was more appealing to BrewDog, to help kick start a change in the area.”


By autumn of 2013, the fit-out of the bar had begun in earnest. The design of the bar saw a tweaking of the core Brewdog bar aesthetic – stripped back and industrial, with bare brick and exposed lighting, but the confrontational branding, with slogans and logos frosted onto the windows, was dispensed with. To start with, a lower-case ‘brewdog’ sign above the door was the only branding on show. Diner-style booths were installed alongside the reclaimed tables and stools. Pinball machines and vintage arcade machines were brought in, with a nod to New York’s Barcades.

Most striking of all, a cinema-style backlit beer menu was put in behind the bar, stretching the entire length of the wall – no logos or pump clips, just the names of the beers. And there were a lot of them. The promised ’40 taps of awesome’, in typically understated Brewdog parlance, were delivered. “It was quite a big step”, Dean explains. “I think before that maybe 24 or 26 was the biggest range we had in one site”.

With construction underway, attention was turned to putting together the rest of the team. Jen Macfarlane, the Cornish assistant manager of the Camden bar, was coaxed into moving west to assist with the opening. She remembers feeling enthusiastic about the opportunity. “It was really different and super exciting – it felt like the start of something new.” Walls were stripped back, tables were assembled into pillars, toilets were installed. Barbecue chefs were sought to realise the Texas Joes’ food menu. Most importantly of all, an advert went out on the Brewdog website for bar staff.


Lyndsey Browe does not instantly come across as a punk, a libertine or especially uncompromising. However, when she moved across the Irish Sea in the middle of last year, she quickly became aware of Brewdog. “When I moved to London last year I really became aware of the craft beer scene here and just how many places were making and serving awesome beer”, she explains. “I'd had a few Brewdog beers before back in Ireland and when I saw they had their own bars I was keen to apply. As luck would have it, the newest bar at Shepherd's Bush was opening soon and I got to be part of the opening team.”

She may be softly spoken, but Lyndsey is typical of the servers that staff Brewdog’s bars. Although new to the beer scene in general – her experience was limited to “some local brewery open days”, she was enthusiastic about learning more and beer and brewing in general. Finding the right staff was absolutely crucial, Dean believes. “Myself and Martin must have done close to a hundred interviews to get a team of ten guys together and that paid off for us big time.”

Opening night pouring (Lyndsey not pictured) (pic c/o Brewdog)

With so much variety on the bar at any time, Lyndsey and the rest of the team were put through an intensive course in zythophilia. “Initially, we had a day long crash course in beer to get us all up to speed - learning the basics of the brewing process and styles and testing out the Brewdog beers we would be encountering in the first few weeks.” By the time the bar was ready to receive its first customers, each member of the serving staff was able to identify and describe different styles of beer, and to make recommendations from the tap list. Even the staff themselves were surprised by the level of training, as Browe remembers. “I remember just before we opened, us all sitting on kegs in the cellar doing some blind tasting and realising we had actually learned a load in the short time we'd been at it.”

The occasional hiccup aside – blank faces when asking for a new beer that has only just been tapped, or asking for a description of something especially avant garde (Wild Beer’s rainbow collaboration with Toccalmatto, Indigo Child, was memorably difficult for the servers to describe) – the training system seems to be working. “It's been an on-going thing. We have weekly meetings to cover styles, beer history and, of course, lots of tasting and that’s never really stopped.”


The low-key Brewdog Shepherds Bush (picture c/o Brewdog)

The shutter went up for the first time on Wednesday 27th November, and Brewdog Shepherds Bush was open, in a fashion. The official opening was planned for the 29th, with an invite-only launch night on the 28th, but in line with usual bar policy, the doors were opened early for a soft, trial run. There is an air of controlled chaos – there are not enough letters for the beer board, so Dean is laying out A4 beer menus on each table. Jen is rushing around checking every detail. The company’s social media expert Sarah is sat in a booth tapping away on a laptop, finishing off the details for the launch nights. Behind the bar, the team serve their first beers.

The bar has a slightly unfinished feel to it, which is perhaps the intention. It feels enormous – when empty, it feels every square centimetre of its near 240 square metres. It also doesn’t feel very Brewdog – Martin, the manager of the bars division, is still applying the Brewdog shield decals to the keg fonts, but apart from that, there are no logos on the premises aside from on the glasses and bottles. It is, in truth, slightly chilly and unwelcoming. The staff behind the bar are nervous to start with. I ask for a BA Dark Arts, the red-wine-barrel aged version of Magic Rock’s ‘surreal stout’. The server pauses, hesitates, checks with me again, then pours.

I ask about the beer, expecting to hear something vague about it being ‘a dark beer, like Guinness’. Instead, I hear about the original beer, the brewery, the type of barrels, Brettanomyces. I am both pleasantly surprised and slightly confused. The beer, by the way, was fantastic.


The investment in staff goes some way to explaining why, for a London bar, the staff turnover at Shepherds Bush has been minimal – only three members of staff have left the business in the past year. Some have moved on to senior positions in other bars, including Macfarlane, who returned to Camden as General Manager. Dean points to the training – and Brewdog’s recent decision to offer the Living Wage to all employees – as the key to it. “They really do look after us well. 
It all helps us keep our team together and benefits the company overall in the long run.”

The impressive knowledge on show behind the bar goes some way to explaining the bar’s success. From the one-off customer’s point of view, a knowledgeable server who can describe every product on a packed bar inspires the confidence to try something new or to explore beyond what they would regard as their comfort zone. Lyndsey agrees. “More often than not people are willing to at least try something new, since we don't offer any commercial beers that might be their 'go to’. Give a quick rundown of Brewdog and offer some tasters and most people are intrigued enough to want to try something new.”
For the repeat visitor – and I regarded myself as one while I lived in the area – that confidence builds into a trust relationship that can define the best servers, where recommendations can be made based on experience of what people have enjoyed before. It is something that I have seen in action in beer bars in the US, where newly tapped beers are proferred to regulars with excitement, and I like it.


In their book Brew Britannia, Boak and Bailey refer to the notion of the specialist beer as a permanent ‘beer festival’, and nowhere is this illustrated more clearly than a typical beer board at BDSB. What is most striking about the tap list on any given day is how well the balance is struck between different styles, Brewdog beers and interesting guests, old favourites and the unfamiliar. Dean clearly relishes being the curator of his own festival every day. “If there are some new and interesting things coming out, I'm free to go out and buy it for the bar.” As a result, the boards often feature interesting one-offs (Brodies’ Port-like 22% barley wine Elizabethan, for example) or the debut of fledgling breweries just starting out - I can recall trying a beer from Gloucester Brewery in Shepherd’s Bush long before I’d seen it on sale out in Gloucestershire itself. "I've always tried to have the UK beers I've sourced reflect that [variety]. We'll always have things like Gamma Ray or Cannonball show up every month or two because they are fantastic beers, but we also want to bring in new beers from breweries we've heard good things about, or special releases from brewers we already know make great beers."

However, managing such a huge range of taps brings with it its own challenges. Kegs of barley wine don’t tend to kick as regularly as, say, Punk IPA. “I've got a plan for the cellar that is our ideal line up, which should ensure that we have a varied range to cover all tastes”, Pugh explains. 31 of the taps are divided up into styles – nine for IPA, six for stouts, three for sour beers, and so on, with at least one of each of those dedicated to a Brewdog beer. The remaining nine taps are then free for the staff to balance the list up at their own discretion, either to offer a limited edition from Brewdog or something interesting from outside.

Dean's 'ideal' tap plan for the Shepherds Bush bar

With such a wide range available, concepts that seemed like gimmicks in other Brewdog bars come into their own. For example, the idea of buying a ‘flight’ – four one-third glasses of draught beer – from the dozen or so taps in the Camden bar meant that they were aimed more at the beer novice who had yet to try any of Brewdog’s core beers, and could tick off Punk, 5am and Libertine all in one go. In Shepherds Bush, however, one can now pit two or three top examples of the same style against each other at the same time – the aforementioned Cannonball and Gamma Ray can be contrasted with, say, Jackhammer and Punk IPA. For hardened craft geeks, this is utopia.

The lack of cask is, of course, taken as given in a Brewdog bar. It seems clear that the company’s keg-only policy is unlikely to change in the near future, based on James Watt’s consistency on the subject. At least with 40 keg taps pouring away and so much variety of style across the bar, the absence of cask-conditioned beer is less keenly felt than it might otherwise have been.


Her face caked in greasepaint, the mime makes her way from table to table. We watch as she approaches a group that have just arrived. Saying nothing, she mimes taking a slug of beer from a pint glass, and points at the board. Once their initial confusion subsides, between them and their silent server, they decide on four pints of Punk IPA. The mime disappears and returns with their drinks, wordlessly charges their debit card, and moves on.

It is the 31st of May, and Magic Rock have been invited to take over the Shepherds Bush taps. Dean was here into the early hours of the morning decking the bar out with bunting and balloons to look like a big top, and it looks like a particularly spoiled child’s vision of a circus party. On the bar, no fewer than 25 beers from the Yorkshire brewery are being served, and brewer Stuart Ross is on hand to introduce them. There is the sought-after edition of their Bearded Lady imperial stout that has spent time in Pedro Ximenez barrels, luscious and thick with molasses flavour. Core favourites High Wire and Cannonball are on fine form. However, what catches the eye are the staff – like the aforementioned mime, they have all taken the circus theme and run with it.

Behind the bar, Jen marches up and down in a head-to-toe lion costume. Dean patrols the floor dressed, inevitably, as the ringmaster. A strongman in leopard-print toga prepares a beer cocktail; a pint of Rapture is being poured by a bearded ‘lady’ in an evening gown. The uninitiated, the tourists and the casual drinkers approach the bar with a mixture of bafflement and amusement; they leave clutching glasses of Magic Rock’s brews.

The Brewdog Circus (picture c/o @lambicqueen)


On that unseasonably warm Thursday evening in October, it seems hard to believe that anyone could have doubted the success of the bar when it was first opened. Whereas on that opening night, it had seemed cavernous, an echo chamber in waiting, it had in fact simply been an empty stage waiting for the thirsty cast to arrive. During the summer months, when the World Cup enticed drinkers to more sports-oriented bars (Brewdog does not screen sport, or anything else, in its bars), there were some nervous, empty weekdays, but as the nights draw in, business is booming again in the West. Jen is clear on why the bar has been so successful: “It’s the team. They're such a great bunch, and Dean is awesome at bringing out the best in them.” Word of mouth has played a part too – I can recall several occasions where a returning customer has brought a friend and wants to recommend the beer that they were themselves recommended by someone on their last visit. Lyndsey agrees: “I think word spread pretty quickly that we're a good place to visit… lots of people tell me they were in the area for a gig or a play nearby and we were recommended by friends.
Dean is confident about building on the success of the first year. “At the moment we are really pushing the overall customer experience and looking at how it can be improved, particularly with table service.” One of his high points of the year was during the city’s beer week, London Beer City, in August, when he and James Watt held a sold-out tasting session, running through a selection of British beers, including many from guest breweries, not just Brewdog. “I really enjoyed getting him out of his comfort zone slightly and doing a beer tasting a different way.”

That outlook seems to sum up the BDSB approach – doing things in a slightly different way. Brewdog will, in many people’s eyes, always be the confrontational, explicit beer company, easily characterised as self-interested, inward-looking, protectionist… The bar in Shepherds Bush has gone a long way towards putting those characterisations to bed – a gentler kind of Brewdog. It is one that West London has lapped up. As Dean puts it, “Our aim is to… ensure that everyone that walks through the door has a positive experience, and hopefully learns something new about beer.”


It is Monday evening, and it is a quiet autumn night at Brewdog Shepherds Bush. There is no gig tonight at the Empire, and no football at nearby Loftus Road. There are a few groups of friends and drinkers in tonight, but it’s largely peaceful. Around one table, though, there are dozens of glasses and bottles waiting to be opened. Lyndsey is sat amongst them, out of uniform for the evening. She and the rest of the table are not working tonight, but in a way, they are. At the head of the table, the first bottle, from Bermondsey’s Brew by Numbers, is opened. “So,” he says, “tonight we are tasting saisons…” as a ripple of enthusiasm reverberates around the table.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

It Happened

It happened. It might not have occurred in exactly the way I'm about to describe, and certainly not all at the same time or in the same place, but it happened. Of that, I am positive. It happened on a weekday evening, in one of any number of pubs, but let's say it was up on White Lion Street, for the sake of argument.

There will have been a row of handpumps, each offering something slightly different, including one, none or fewer from the most reliable names in British brewing. Perhaps there was a Jaipur or a Wild Swan from Thornbridge; a Hophead or American Pale from Dark Star. Alongside, I have no doubt that there will have been something from a newer name - perhaps something interesting from Liverpool Organic, or maybe even one of the earlier sightings of Siren's core beers. On a weekday evening, I will have had to wait to be served. The condition of the beers being pulled will have been observed and, in all likelihood, been found to be excellent, at least to the eye.

My gaze wanders, though, to the keg fonts. To the promise of something new. To the rarity that probably shouldn't be on a bar in central London. To the exciting new beer from Wild Beer in Somerset. To the unfamiliar import from Scandinavia. To the novelty from the US. To the hop bombs from SE21. To the styles that I know for certain weren't being served here 5 years ago, and who knows when they'll be gone again?

There is an anxiety in the choice that I face at the bar on that weekday evening. I may never see some of those beers on the keg fonts again. This might be the only keg of that beer that ever sees this bar. I may never have another opportunity to taste that beer. I can order that pint of Hophead or Jaipur from hundreds of bars up and down the country, albeit perhaps without certainty about the perfection of the condition, so...

I will have been served at that point, with all my avenues still open to me in my mind. I will have only intended to come for two, perhaps three beers. The decision will have been made based on a simple calculation - what would I rather forego? The pint of Jaipur or Hophead? Or the promise of the undiscovered countries in a glass? 


The memory of what certainly happened, but which may not have occurred exactly as described, comes to me as I watch the sun set, a long way away from London. There is no cask beer, waiting to be ordered. There are no familiar names on the bar nearby, and their condition is irrelevant. There are only the same names of the same beers, above identikit bars and restaurants, in the same colours. The beers aren't bad, as such, but...

Part of me wants to dismiss it as a touch of homesickness. However, the truth is that the fraction of a portion of a memory tells me what I already knew - that I perhaps didn't realise quite what it was to have that choice in front of me; that today's drinker in London is privileged in a way that, due to the pace of change in the past few years, they may not fully realise until part of that choice is gone.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

The Post-Craft Revolution

Boak and Bailey's thoughts on where beer is heading in a 'post-craft' world spurred me to put down some disjointed ideas on the subject.

Jaipur - Ten years young in 2014
Considering a brief history of UK craft over the past decade, there have been a number of bold steps along the march of the 'craft beer revolution'. Thornbridge can't have been sure that a 5.6% IPA would have worked on a grand scale in 2004. Brewdog were probably flying a kite when they tried selling Punk IPA to Tesco. Kernel's offering of 7% dry-hopped IPAs and export stout was probably not the safest bet when they opened. Those breweries weren't necessarily innovating - in Kernel's case, the exact opposite - but they were slowly stretching out the drinker's tolerance of styles, flavours and ABVs.

The creation of that tolerance is what has led us to 2014's 'Year of Craft' - Sixpoint cans in Wetherspoons, big breweries running campaigns with the word 'craft' shoe-horned uncomfortably into the copy, and a brewery under every railway arch in the SE postcode. So what now?

Clarity - overrated or essential?
The boldness of those breweries back in the last decade was in pushing the envelope of IBU count and ABV, which is an inherently limited exercise. (Despite often being characterised as juvenile, Brewdog had the sense to abandoning the facile eisbocking). They moved in the direction that they did because they wanted to create beers that they wanted to drink, and in doing so have popularised those beers with a wider audience.

If the 'craft revolution' was about prioritising flavour and aroma at the expense of appearance and, well, expense, perhaps the most successful brewers of the post-craft revolution will be those that can address the latter without sacrificing the former, and do it consistently. Some breweries are heading that way anyway.

I was intrigued to hear from Andy Parker that Fourpure, one of the newest breweries in London, have set beer clarity as one of their most important principles. (I have yet to try any of their beer, but although their Pils is reportedly excellent, what I have heard of the rest of the range has not been great - so perhaps some work needed there.)

The Armoury - seen here before it went down the drain
Further up the food chain, when Brewdog's lavish new brewery initially struggled to turn out two batches of Punk that were alike, they lost a lot of credibility. However, by the end of last year, the consistency was back - Jackhammer, in particular, is recognisable (and superb) from batch to batch. They even stunned everyone and dumped a batch of beer that had been trailed extensively on their blog (The Armoury, a dry-hopped black lager) when it failed a QA test - something that they perhaps should have done with all that dodgy Punk in 2012... I think it's a sign that standards are important to the brewery now in a way that they clearly weren't a couple of years ago.

As 'craft' infiltrates Wetherspoons and the High St, expectations surrounding quality will rise accordingly. Uncarbonated batches, oxygen-riddled IPAs and gushing saisons are a surefire way to send the curious drinker back to their comfortable macrobrew. Post-craft needs to be defined by an ability to match the consistency of big beer. Big regionals like Thornbridge and Adnams, with their impressive brewplants, can manage it - the challenge for the small start-up breweries will be how that can be achieved through good process rather than through investment in equipment.

Friday, 20 December 2013

Golden Pints 2013

So here are my Golden Pints 2013... so it turns out that I did a lot of drinking over the past 12 months, and these were the most memorable moments (and Birmingham Beer Bash):

  • Best UK Cask Beer - Start with the toughest category... memorable cask moments of 2013: Siren's Whiskey Sour in a Barrel at LCBF, served with ice, a slice and a cherry was as far from Boring Brown Beer as anything I've tasted from a cask and was incredible. Sticking with Siren, all their cask imperial stouts have been awesome Oakham's Green Devil was again superb, the Ashover Rauchbier at IMBC hit just the right spot, Weird Beard's Black Perle was stellar at Ealing Beer Festival, ... and speaking of WB, I loved our LAB\Weird Beard collaboration Hive Mind on cask too. I thought Siren's Oi! Zeus! was glorious in Copenhagen, even if the other guys I went with weren't quite so sure (was that a collab? It was good, anyway.) 

  • In the end, it comes down to the one pint of cask I remember above all others: Summer Wine Oregon at the Well and Bucket in Shoreditch. As I said, these awards are all about moments in time - and on a muggy, thundery day in a crowded bar, it was served at the perfect temperature,  in perfect condition, and was stunningly refreshing.

  • Best UK Keg Beer - Honourable mentions to Thornbridge Tzara for being consistently drinkably great, Beavertown Gamma Ray for similar reasons and Siren Broken Dream for being everything I want in a coffee stout... but the best for me was Weird Beard Little Things That Kill Batch 3 - it took them a few batches to nail it, but the 3.4% iteration of LTTK was knockout. 

  • Best UK Bottled or Canned Beer - Wild Beer Ninkasi, for being both way out there and incredibly accessible for non-geeks. I could easily have picked their Modus Operandi or Shnoodlepip too. Partizan's Christmas Stout was pretty special too, which had a perfectly judged blend of spice, cherry tartness, a hint of funk and lots of roast.

  • Best Overseas Draught Beer - To Øl Black Malts and Body Salts at LCBF and Indy Man was patently ridiculous (double black coffee IPA), proper craft wanker, but also proper tasty, as was their I've Seen Bigger Than Yours raspberry and orange barley wine (which I heard an American guy at Borefts describe as a 'real panty-dropper'... you can decide if that's a good thing or a bad thing).
  • Other top beers... Dieu du Ciel!'s Aphrodisiaque and Péché Mortel were both a real treat at their recent Brewdog tap takeover... Three Floyds Vanilla Bean Dark Lord was pretty good in Copenhagen (albeit probably not worth having to basically scrum down with a lot of big bearded Scandis to get at), and Pizza Port Bacon and Eggs at their Craft tap takeover was coffee overload in the best way possible.

  • Best Overseas Bottled or Canned Beer - Hill Farmstead Anna honey saison. There is no way that I can do justice to how good this was - just the right levels of everything, from acidity (sharp but soft, way short of a lambic) to funk (textural but short of a full-on plough into the barnyard) to sweetness (very slight but perceptible) to carbonation. Nearly perfect.

  • Best Collaboration Brew - Wild Beer\Burning Sky\Good George Shnoodlepip. Absolutely crazy beer - passion fruit, hibiscus and pink peppercorn saison with Brett sounds like something @TheCraftWanker would come up with, but it just works. So good that I drank four in quick succession at Birmingham Beer Bash, contributing to a 4pm 'bedtime'. 

  • Best Overall Beer - Any of the above, on any given day, could be the best overall beer.

  • Best Branding, Pumpclip or Label - Weird Beard - Josh has done a great job on their branding.

  • Best UK Brewery - Thornbridge - Despite producing some of the most dependable and available regular beers around, as well as fantastic one-offs and seasonals, Thornbridge don't seem to get the recognition that they deserve online. Perhaps it's their ubiquity that makes people overlook them - you can get find a pub with Jaipur on pretty much anywhere, from America to Estonia to... Stroud, but in all of those places, you know that it will be worth ordering. Their German series of beers have been a triumph, the Imperial Raspberry Stout at Borefts was a stand-out in a crowded, crazy festival, and even crazy craft shit like Baize worked. In short, they don't have any bad beers.

  • Best Overseas BreweryTo Øl - All their beers were just a load of fun to drink, and they were really nice guys at LCBF and IMBC.

  • Best New Brewery Opening 2013 - Split decision here between Siren and Weird Beard. They both started off a bit slowly - I wasn't wowed by Siren's core beers, Broken Dream aside, and it took Weird Beard a while to dial everything in, but by the back end of the summer they both really hit their stride.

  • Pub/Bar of the Year - A month ago, it would have been Craft Islington, the homeliest of the Craft bars and their events have been great this year. However, the new BrewDog Shepherds Bush has 40 taps, is closer to my house, has great staff, isn't full of Brewdog's usual wall-to-wall branding and it has pinball tables. So it wins.

  • Best New Pub/Bar Opening 2013 - Brewdog Shepherds Bush.

  • Beer Festival of the Year - Copenhagen Beer Celebration and associated days of drinking around it. If you've never been, go. Go for the beers at the festival. Go for the chance to go to the Mikkeller bars. Go for the seminars (Chad Yakobsen of Crooked Stave talking about brettanomyces was superb). Go for the chance to meet some brewing heroes. Go for the hot dogs, even. But make sure you go.

  • Of the UK fests, IMBC was superb again, Birmingham Beer Bash was great (or the hour or so of it that I can remember was great) and London Craft Beer Festival at Hackney Oval was a surprising success, despite the deafening music.

  • Supermarket of the Year - I don't really buy beer in supermarkets... but let's say Waitrose.

  • Independent Retailer of the Year - Favourite Beers, Cheltenham - friendly, wide selection, well priced, and it has a shop dog called Ruby. 

  • Online Retailer of the Year - Brewdog - despite the outrageous mark-up that they put on the Founders beers earlier in the year, they have had some amazing guest beers in lately, and their service is next to flawless.

  • Best Beer Book or Magazine - I thought Future's Homebrew bookazine was very creditable, if only for all those clone recipes.

  • Best Beer Blog or Website - The Evening Brews - cheery-beery or otherwise, they've been consistently interesting throughout the year, and their Brewmaster features in particular are excellent. Honourable mentions to the little-known Bertus Brewery blog and his quest to 'clone' famous IPAs; and to Boak and Bailey for striking just the right balance between dry history, tongue-in-cheek silliness and old-fashioned enthusiasm for quality beer.

  • Best Beer App - Untappd - especially now that you can turn off the auto-tweeting of badges.

  • Simon Johnson Award for Best Beer Twitterer - RIP Scoop. @cshallwriter in all his forms is excellent value for his 140 characters. Quick mention to @ThornbridgeDom for tweeting lots of great brewing advice and  to @NateDawg27 and his filthy fucking mouth.

  • Best Brewery Website/Social media - I like the new Wild Beer site.

  • Food and Beer Pairing of the Year - I can't really think of anything aside from Chris and Emma's pulled pork brioche buns with our Brett IPA at their Christmas bottle share... I think the eight of us managed to eat and drink enough of those two together to satisfy scores of people. Yum!
  • Wednesday, 23 January 2013

    Garden Herb Saison

    I've drunk some fantastic saisons in the last year - Ilkley/Melissa Cole's rhubarb-and-vanilla Siberia, Bristol Beer Factory's zingy Saison, Wild Beer's trifecta of Epic, Bliss and Ninkasi, homebrewer Andy Parker's Nelson Saison and its bastard son the Pomegranate Saison... It's a fashionable style at the moment, and lots of people are brewing great versions of it.

    I had a largely unsuccessful attempt at a saison several months ago - my main problem was that I was worried about it drying out too much and put some cara-pils in the grain bill, completely missing the point of the style. The WLP565 yeast that I used took it down to 1.010, which is not too bad considering, and the final beer was still fairly drinkable - but it wasn't quite right. After trying yet another fantastic saison - Stone/Dogfish/Victory's sublime herb-flavoured Saison du BUFF - just before Christmas, I was inspired to have another go at brewing one, if only to stop me spending so much money on them outside the house.

    First of all, I decided to use WLP566 instead of 565, which is a very similar strain but anecdotally is easier to attenuate without a lot of hassle. I made up a two-litre starter 48 hours ahead to make sure I had lots of nice, healthy yeast. Secondly, I wanted to keep the grain bill very simple - 5.5kg of grain, 90% pilsner malt, 10% wheat malt. In practice, I didn't have enough of either for that, so I topped up the pilsner with regular pale and subbed the wheat for 500g of spelt malt that I bought a while back on the grounds that it was a bit of a novelty. I've never used it before, but seeing as it's very similar to wheat, I thought I'd give it a try in this.

    For hops, I went the all-Nelson approach that worked so well in Andy Parker's saison, but to give it a bit of a twist, I also wanted to steal the mixed garden herbs idea from Saison du BUFF, which uses parsley, white sage, rosemary and lemon thyme at the whirlpool stage for aroma. I took the proportions from Stone's blog (although as I don't have weighing scales that are accurate to fractions of a gram, there was a lot of guesswork involved), and replaced the white sage and lemon thyme with regular garden sage and thyme, as I didn't have those to hand.

    Here was the recipe for my New Year's Eve Brew - Garden Herb Saison:

    3kg Pilsner Malt
    2kg Pale Malt (Crisp)
    500g Spelt Malt

    Single infusion mash at 67C for 90 mins

    Boil - 90 minutes
    12g Nelson Sauvin at 90 mins
    10g Irish Moss at 15 mins
    38g Nelson Sauvin at 0 mins
    Herb bag containing 7g fresh parsley, 3g rosemary, 3g thyme and a few sage leaves at 0 mins

    Yeast - WLP566 (2l starter, made 48 hours ahead)

    Notes: I wasn't sure how to treat the spelt malt, so just used it as I would wheat malt in a simple single infusion mash, which I think had an impact on efficiency.  23 litres of very pale sweet wort collected - I've managed to lose the pre-boil gravity figure but I think it was 1.050.

    This was the third brew I've done on my relatively new Brupaks boiler, which I bought to replace the leaky Electrim mashing bin in my all-electric setup (although I still use the mashing bin as an HLT). It's a picky bugger though, and it kept switching itself off just short of boiling point. I think there's an issue with the thermostat but I need to investigate further. After a frustrating 10 mins of watching the thermometer hover around the 91C mark, I gave up and transferred the wort carefully into the old Electrim boiler and used that instead.

    I put the finishing hops and the herbs into a hop bag so that I could fish them out as soon as the wort was almost at pitching temperature. The last few degrees of cooling and the dead-slow run off from the Electrim bin can take over an hour sometimes, and I didn't want to overdo the herbs - by the time it was down to about 25C, the herb aroma was pretty pungent, so out they came. SG was measured at 1.058 - below the 1.064 BeerTools predicted, but acceptable. Fermentation started at ambient temperature - a fairly constant 16C in the utility room - and when it began to slow down after 7 days, I ramped it up to 22C gradually using a combination of a heatpad and towels. It took a while but after 20 days, it was down to 1.008 and ready to rack to secondary.

    It's currently sitting in secondary with some more Nelson Sauvin as dry hops to try and balance off the strong herb aroma, but I'm pretty happy with it so far. It should be ready for bottling in a few days, and I'll blog about how the finished beer turns out once they've conditioned.