30 October 2017

Tarnished spoon

Is it me or is the beer selection at the Wetherspoon Real Ale Festivals getting worse, year-on-year? Nothing struck me as of interest from the 30 beers on the advance list for Autumn 2017 and there was a signal that something is definitely awry when I saw that the beer officially judged as the best of the line-up came from the execrable Caledonian Brewery. I didn't get to try it so perhaps I shouldn't be so prejudiced, but still.

Nevertheless I trooped along to The Forty Foot a couple of Saturdays ago, where my nascent disappointment became all the realer with the availability of just two from the line-up. Groh. I began with a half of Zululand Pale Ale, brewed at Wychwood under the supervision of the eponymous South African brewery. It cheered me right up. The orange-amber colour of a classic English bitter, it starts straight away with a superbly fresh tannic bite. There's a hop bitterness behind this, mostly tasting of earthy and English varieties, with a dusting of orangey fruit and an exotic jasmine spice. The dryness clears all of that right off the palate quick smart, and you're ready for another pull. All very jolly, in a serious, traditional and grown-up sort of way.

Farnham White next, from the sturdy, reliable, Hogsback brewery. This is rather plainer fare, a pale amber gold with a slightly lagerish flavour of cereal and honey; mostly quite sweet with a gentle waxy buzz on the end. The key ingredient, says the pumpclip, is the Farnham White Bine hop, and I think this is another example of English brewers being prouder of their local varieties than they really warrant. It's fine, but it doesn't make me want to seek out more of examples of this hop and I don't taste the pepper notes I've been promised.

I did a little better on moving up to The Three Tun Tavern in Blackrock: three festival options. My first half was Liberation Ale, I guess the flagship from Liberation Brewery on Jersey and my first Channel Islands beer. What is that foretaste? An exotic mix of melon and pomegranate making it almost more like a saison than the pale golden ale it actually is. There's a tropical stickiness going on, surprising for 4% ABV, though the finish is quick, leaving just the faintest trace of honeydew. It's odd but I liked it. A full pint was really needed to explore properly, but obviously that's not how these things work. Next!

Next was Autumn Wheat, one of the internationals. This time it's Michigan's Arcadia at the controls of Banks's in Wolverhampton for a 6% ABV pale amber job. Wheat would suggest smoothness, and this definitely delivers on that front. On top there's a pleasing sprinkle of incense and cinnamon. A glance at the official description tells me coriander and orange peel have been added, so I guess it's a witbier of sorts, though it doesn't taste anything like one. Nor does it taste its strength for that matter. I really enjoyed this: spicy, filling, yet surprisingly clean and refreshing. I'm at a loss to compare to anything else I've tasted, but that's not the beer's problem.

Last orders was Old Nutty Hen, and time was I wouldn't have bothered, but I've had good experiences of Greene King's Old Speckled Hen brand extensions -- still trading on the defunct Morland name -- so figured this was worth €1.35 of my money and time. It's a dark garnet colour and extremely caramelly. It's hard to find any complexity beyond that, however: there's a slight bonfire smokiness and, oh!, was I supposed to be finding nuts? If so it's more like the hazelnut syrup that gets squirted into coffee for people who don't like the taste of coffee. There's no real nut character, and not enough proper English beer flavour either. Half way through my half I was finding it sickly and difficult. Morland goes back on the naughty list.

It's hard to judge a thirty-beer line-up from just five of them, and there were more hits than misses in amongst this lot. So yes, I'll be back for the Spring 2018 festival, though hoping for more daring beers.

And just to cover off a final pair from The Forty Foot that weren't part of the festival, Loddon Forbury Lion was one I found during the summer, a 5.5% ABV IPA. It's a clear gold colour and has a pleasingly beery smell, an old-school mix of the biscuit tin and grassy green veg. There's a heavy density about it, which wasn't much use to my thirst that warm July afternoon, and neither was the golden syrup sweetness up front, almost like something you'd find in a super-strength lager. The bitterness only really bites at the very end, a waxy sharpness, while in the middle there's a strange fruity pear drop flavour that immediately makes me think of headaches. I had to remind myself that its ABV is actually quite reasonable. Anyway, it's not quite the golden guzzler I was after on the day.

Bringing us back to the present, Ein Stein by Lymestone Brewery was an interloper at the Autumn festival. I nabbed a cheeky third for the road. Again there's a modest ABV -- 5% here -- but it seems a lot stronger, feeling almost Belgian. It owes its name to the use of Hallertau hops, which certainly puts a twist on the otherwise unambiguously English vibe. I don't know that it's especially German, though. It's a musty sort of flavour: sackcloth and crêpe paper, switching to a more easy going white grape roundness at the end. I had real trouble trying to figure out if I liked it or not, eventually deciding it's OK for a third but I was glad not to have any more to hand.

What have we learned from this lot? Not much. Cask beer at Wetherspoon is still a hit and miss affair, whether there's a festival on or not. At least it's easy on the wallet.

27 October 2017

A mile in my booze

What to do in London the day after the Beavertown Extravaganza? I wasn't going back for the Saturday session but had booked a late flight anyway, confident that I'd figure something out. Months later, sitting down to try and decide what exactly that was, I noticed on a map that my lodgings were just along the street from the FourPure brewery. I had inadvertently booked myself a bed on the Bermondsey Beer Mile, so that was that question answered.

The Mile wasn't yet a thing the last time I was in this part of London way back in 2013: only The Kernel and Partizan had bars open. Several more have joined in since, though The Kernel now only sells beer to take away. I was conveniently located at the bottom of the Beer Mile and it would have made total sense to start at FourPure and work northwards, catching a Tube train from Bermondsey station at the end. Less conveniently, checkout was at 10am and FourPure doesn't serve until 11 so I decided to make things difficult for myself and begin at the first brewery to open: Anspach & Hobday, near the northern end. After a sunny meander through the neighbourhood I arrived at 10.30, just as the shutters were going up.

I had heard that the Bermondsey Beer Mile had become quite self-aware and was more about professionally-run bars than simple taprooms these days, but the reality was that things still felt more charmingly improvised than I was led to believe. Anspach & Hobday is tiny, a handful of tables crammed in next to the tanks, and a miniature bar serving eight keg beers from the underback, plus one cask beer engine. Where else to start but with The Porter?

I'm guessing they're going for old London authenticity with this one, because it's a bold 6.7% ABV. The first sip revealed it to be rich and smoky, like a fine cigar. Behind the smoke there's an impressive balancing act of silky chocolate and dry coffeeish roast, the latter of which lasts longest in the finish. There's just enough creaminess to prevent it turning acrid, as well as a mild floral quality as well. Beautifully put together, all in all: the platonic ideal of London porter.

Loral 'n' Oats cream ale had a tough job following that. It's a pale and hazy yellow colour with a fresh lemon aroma and a different sort of creamy texture to the porter. The flavour is where it falters, however. The lemon is present, but it's faint and somewhat artificial-tasting, like a scented handwipe. There's lots of dry corn husk as well. It's perfectly refreshing and inoffensive, just not terribly interesting.

Brewery two was Brew By Numbers, and this was a little swish: the newly decorated taproom still poky, but fitted out conscientiously. One could definitely imagine spending a bit of time here. Somewhat missing the point of a brewery crawl, I ordered a guest beer: Fool For You, a 6.5% ABV saison brewed by Cloudwater in collaboration with forthcoming Norfolk brewer Duration. It's a murky dun colour and lacks a head. The texture is very heavy, a little unpleasantly so. Honeydew melon dominates the flavour, with some light peppering and then thick viscous banana esters. As this sort of saison goes, it's not the worst of them, but half way through I was already thinking I should have ordered something from the house.

That's what I did next: 05|25, an IPA with Citra and experimental hop HBC 431. It arrived looking like a half pint of pastis: yellow with a tint of green. The aroma was gorgeous, an achingly fresh mix of peaches with garlic, which sounds wrong but was beautiful. And the flavour followed through faithfully on that promise. A dense New England texture and low bitterness helps bring the juiciness out, starting on a limeade note, flashing past the raw garlic and finishing long on delicious plump and sweet peaches. There isn't a trace of harshness anywhere and, despite the appearance, no yeast interference in the flavour. Definitely one of the best modern murky IPAs I've tasted.

I packed up and started to move on except... what's this? Another Brew By Numbers taproom? Two arches down the shutters were up and a rather less swish bar was in operation. Apparently this is the original tap room and the plan is for the new one to replace it. I thought I'd better give it a proper inspection before it disappeared.

From the line-up I chose 08|06, an oatmeal stout, and drank it outside in the sunshine. It's another winner: silky and sumptuous, tasting primarily of milk chocolate with an assertive green-leaf bitterness to balance it. It does a great job of being at once richly malt driven while also very hoppy without being too loud or brash about either. And all of it is delivered at a session-friendly 5.5% ABV. Nice.

It wasn't far to Partizan, still in the same space as in 2013 but now with a permanent bar installed and some added outdoor seating. The afternoon was well underway at this stage and it was standing room only across the board. I opted for the Citra Pale Ale from the small selection on the pegboard. It's a suitably murky yellow colour with an ABV of 4.5%. Savoury herbs and heavy dankness make it taste quite serious and worthy, though the tone is lightened by an unexpected hit of summer fruit: rich and sweet strawberry and raspberry. It was still a touch rough for my tastes and would have benefited from a little more polish.

I chanced a second beer because I liked the look of one: Partizan Cherry Stout, something of a beast at 7.2% ABV. It's unctuous and heavy, though strangely doesn't really taste of cherries: I'd have thought a stout like this would be the ideal platform for them, but the fruit gets lost in a very bitter and slightly autolytic mix of not-quite-right stout flavours. Well it was worth a gamble. I wasn't going to push my luck any further here and continued on my way.

Almost back where I started, then, to FourPure: the biggest and busiest of the Bermondsey set. The long bar had a dazzling array of beers on offer, the selection promoted via large video screens. A slightly raucous mid-afternoon crowd were guzzling them with gusto. I found some leaning space on the bar and ordered...

... Roadside Picnic, a FourPure collaboration with Chapter Brewing in Cheshire, and indeed brewed on their kit. "Celery sour" were the words that sucked me in, and what I got was a clear glassful of basically Berliner weisse with a huge dose of dry yet juicy celery. It's simple and fun, enjoyable as a novelty but there's an unmistakably well-made beer as its base. Nothing not to like here, unless you're some sort of twisted celery dodger.

FourPure has built its reputation, with me anyway, on its lagers, so I wasn't going to pass up the opportunity to drink one at source. Indy Lager it was: a 4.4% ABV helles. Sadly I must have picked the wrong one because this wasn't good at all: far too dry and with a suspicious smoky flavour. "Zest and spice", says the official blurb, but there was no sign of either on the day, for whatever reason.

Noticing I still had loads of time before I went on my way, I grabbed a quick glass of Deucebox double IPA, on the grounds that it tends to be very expensive back home and I probably wouldn't risk it. It's worth risking: this has a gorgeously juicy citric aroma and then a full-on dankness at the front of the flavour, splitting right down the middle into garlic and jaffa, so something for everyone. The modest 8.3% ABV really helps with the drinkability, letting the hops shine without any boozy interference.

Time was starting to run short, but not so short that I couldn't squeeze in one more brewery. I hadn't heard of Southwark Brewing Company before I started planning this excursion, but they're right there, at the north-western extreme of the mile, and not too far from my exit point at Bermondsey Tube. The small taproom was packed as the day's service was coming to an end: the shutters come down at 6pm on a Saturday, which suited my schedule but I still needed to make this quick.

Porter first, and Potters' Fields, a simple and easy-going one: 4% ABV, lightly chocolatey but with a substantial body. Only a slight hint of dirty earthy putty puts a damper on what's otherwise a no-nonsense quality quaffer.

I switched to keg for last orders, getting Big Bear IPA, in an American style, a hazy dark orange colour and 5.7% ABV. I got a fierce whack of acetone off this, combining with the fruity hops to create and odd, yet not unpleasant, Jolly Ranchers effect. It's missing the proper level of bitterness and I'm not sure I'd want to drink a lot of it, but it gave me something to ponder as I made my way back to Heathrow.

There, I had been following a recommendation from the lovely Pauline to try the fish and chips at The Perfectionist's Café in Terminal 2. This I duly did, and enjoyed it, and to go with it from the very limited beer list: Route 1 session IPA all the way from Dover, Delaware courtesy of Fordham Brewing. 4.5% ABV is stronger than a typical session IPA on this side of the Atlantic, but light for an American one, I think, so it's extra surprising that this feels much weightier than the strength would suggest. There's a decently thick base of caramel and toffee and it carries a massive lemon-and-lime hopped foretaste. Subtle it ain't, and I'm not at all sure how sessionable it really would be, but as an accompaniment to the food it worked very well indeed.

And that's the end of my London jolly. It may not be the last word in trendy beering any more, but the Bermondsey Beer Mile is still well worth an afternoon of your time.

25 October 2017

One busy beaver

Part two of my look at the Beavertown Extravaganza which happened in London last month. I mentioned on Monday that the festival was spread over three-and-a-bit halls. The "bit" was a darkened corridor space which was dedicated to the Rainbow Project. This is a series of seven collaborative beers produced at UK breweries with input from foreign ones, a bit like that thing JD Wetherspoon does a couple of times a year, but far more expensive.

They had only just been released so obviously there was a queue. I took the time to try two of them. First up, in the "Red" slot, Amanecer Mexicano by Magic Rock and Casita Cervecería of Vermont. This is a gose with added chilli, lime and lots of other traditional mole ingredients. It's a clear bright red colour and tastes soft and sweet, with a kind of cherry sherbet flavour. The tartness helps prevent it tasting too much like candy, and this builds as it goes along. Despite the multiplicity of additions it remains clean, refreshing and easy drinking, even if the ABV seems a little high at 5.8%. I wasn't wowed but did find it quite enjoyable.

There was a bit of a buzz around the "Green" beer as well: Mojito by Hawkshead and Modern Times. Described as a "tart IPA", it's a sickly yellow colour and tastes almost exclusively of mint. Mojitos have their place, but this had far too much mojito and not nearly enough beer. There was barely any sourness and absolutely no discernible hop flavour. It's a very disappointing novelty, and probably what I deserve for listening to the hype. Both breweries usually turn out great beers too.

Doing something vaguely similar but much better was Wylam with Bliss 322k, a white IPA. There's a lovely juicy lemony aroma from this greenish-yellow job, and the flavour pushes forward coriander first and then a light and refreshing bitterness. This is tasty and fun, and also surprisingly easy going despite being 6.8% ABV. The best feature is something entirely missing: an absence of the soapiness that so often plagues the style.

The other English brewery playing with fruit and sourness was Thornbridge, pouring Abacaxi when I dropped by their bar. It's a sour beer at 6% ABV with pineapple and, like the Mojito, is dominated by the non-beery addition. There's a very mild tartness but really it just tastes of pineapple juice and almost nothing else. That's a little more forgivable when the brewery isn't calling it an IPA, perhaps, but I still couldn't see the point of it.