Six Beer Links to 01.07.11

In which I post another half-dozen links to items of interest I’ve spotted around the Beerblogosphere since my last Six Beer Links post.

Tasting Notes from the Bury Beer Festival, November 2010 [#bbf10]

I made my way up to Bury Met for this year’s Bury Beer Festival just after five on Friday evening, picked up my £5 worth of beer tokens, paid my £2 pint glass deposit and then headed straight on over to the CAMRA bar.

Steel City Nightmare on Henry Street - click for larger imageI spotted bar-manager Tandleman right away and wandered on down to his section of the bar. He was deep in conversation, so rather than butt straight on in, I had a quick chat to one of his colleagues, who poured me a half of Steel City Brewing Nightmare on Henry Street. I stuck my nose in the glass (one big advantage of having a half in a pint glass is that it allows plenty of room for the vapours to congregate) and was rewarded with a big blast of hops, cut through with a tangerine tang. The flavour of this 5.2% ABV pale ale was excellent; dry and sharp but with just enough malt-sweetness to keep everything nicely in balance. This was my first Steel City beer and on the strength of this one I’ll be keeping an eye out for their other brews in future, definitely.

Sensing a lull in the ongoing conversation, I stuck my nose in and said hello to Tandleman. He in turn introduced me to the other gent, who turned out to be John Clarke, editor of the (rather excellent) Stockport and South Manchester CAMRA branch magazine, Opening Times. And that was that for the rest of the hour or so I was there – I’d made arrangements to meet up with friends in Manchester for food and a mini-crawl around the Northern Quarter so I was watching the clock – as I enjoyed a thoroughly convivial time chatting to messrs Tandleman and Clarke.

Topics of conversation were generally beery, but ranged widely: the desirability of Belgian beers, he best place to drink German ones, the appropriate length of time to cellar a strong bottled ale, the importance of proper conditioning to overall beer quality, the difference between a keg and a cask (the actual container – I’d always been a bit fuzzy on the details), recommended Manchester pubs, the best way to serve Marble Dobber (see next paragraph re: sparklers), the state of the UK beerblogosphere, the rise of the Euston Tap, the pros and cons of Brewdog Paradox, the Stockport Beer Festival (recommended: John will be running the foreign beers stand at next year’s event) and many, many more. I just wish I’d been able to stay longer. Also: that I’d remembered to pick up the copy of the latest edition of Opening Times that I managed to leave on the bar. Never mind, I’ll be sending off a subscription cheque later today.

Tandleman also set up a couple of tasting experiments: the three of us tried the same beers with and without a sparkler. Tandleman’s a big advocate of the device and I’ve always agreed that beer generally tastes better when served through one, but we thought we’d better test the theory a couple of times, just to make sure. We tried one dark beer and one pale and in both cases the aroma was enhanced, the mouth-feel was richer and individual flavour notes more pronounced. John made the point that a sparkler can sometimes transfer the bitter notes from the body to the head, but I suppose if you’re taking mouthfuls of both at once (the difference being that with a sparkler you actually get a head that lasts) then that’s okay. So there you go. (Okay, not quite conclusive proof of the theory, I know, so I’ll continue to do the research when I can and report back with my findings…)

During that hour I sampled another three beers as well (all halves). The first, as highly recommended by Tandleman, was Crown Brewery Samuel Berry’s Pale Ale. Beautifully fresh, this 5.1% ABV pale ale had mixed citrus hop flavours bursting out of it. There was a slight sour-sweet acidity as well, which helped to keep the overall bitterness in check, and a dry finish that was deeply refreshing. I thoroughly enjoyed a bottle of Crown’s 7.0% ABV Unpronounceable IPA earlier this year (although I’ve been too bone idle to write it up yet) and Samuel Berry’s is definitely in the same league. Well worth trying if you see it on draught, especially if you’re a fan of the likes of Marble Lagonda IPA, Hopback Summer Lightning, Hopdaemon Skrimshander, Flying Dog Classic Pale Ale, Little Creatures Pale Ale and the like.

Mallinsons Chocolate StoutNext up I opted for another Tandleman recommendation, although it was one I’d already made a note to try: Mallinsons Chocolate Stout. I love a good chocolate beer, when it’s done right (Marble Chocolate, Meantime Chocolate, Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout and Boggart Chocolat Noir being a few favourite examples) and this one was done just right. A distinct coffee nose gave way to dry, dark chocolate and coffee flavours for a cappuccino finish (Jo would love this one). An easy-drinker at only 4.1%, this would definitely be a great session candidate.

Finally, by now being very definitely in the mood for dark-and-roasty flavours, I went for the Crown Stannington Stout. I’ve been hearing nothing but good things about this one for a while and had clocked it as soon as I’d gotten to the bar: had to be done. At 5% ABV it has a little more kick than the Mallinsons, and a noticeably different flavour-profile. Slightly sweeter, with richer roast-malt flavours, the Stannington had a definite hint of sherry and a silkier mouth-feel as well. Deeply satisfying, the sort of stout I could sup a slow pint of any day of the week.

All the beers shared a couple of things in common: they were in excellent condition, having been beautifully kept and tasted fantastic. That Tandleman bloke? Knows his beer. Knows how to put on a good show (he’s got previous, too). If you hear about a beer festival that he’s either running the bar at or has helped buy the beer for, stick it in your diary and make a point of going.

Where's the Innovation in the UK Brewing Industry?

I read a very interesting post over on Tandleman‘s Beer Blog earlier today and it sparked off a train of thought that ended with the question in this post’s title.

Tandleman was commenting on an interview with James Watt, Head of Stuff at BrewDog, posted by US-based craft beer ‘zine TheFullPint.com. Tandleman picked up on Watt’s comments about CAMRA and the impact of the campaign on innovation in brewing, to whit: “I blame CAMRA for single-handedly holding back innovation in British brewing by focusing too much emphasis on too few beer styles” and made the point that BrewDog and CAMRA a) have never really gotten on all that well and b) aren’t actually preaching to the same choirs, with CAMRA members being mainly pub-going, cask-ale drinkers, whereas BrewDog are primarily a bottled-beer focused brewery. Although there have been an increasing number of sightings of cask BrewDog in the wild in recent months, if the beerblogosphere is to be believed.

Tandleman then finds himself in agreement with James Watt, when he in turn says: “Going back to innovation, British brewers by and large are the most staid and conservative bunch you could ever meet – with of course, honourable exceptions” and it’s this point that’s got me thinking: who are the leading examples of Tandleman’s honourable exception? When it comes to the UK brewing industry, in whose hallowed mash tuns and fermentation vessels does the genuine spirit of innovation reside?

In my own (still novice) opinion, some good suggestions might be:

BrewDogBrewDog – The media darlings / demons of the UK brewing industry are obvious contenders for the ‘most innovative’ label. With the likes of their strongest-beer-in-Britain Tokyo* Imperial Stout (second edition), smoked Paradox Stout (in various whisky-cask finishes, including Rake Raspberry), insanely uber-hopped How to Disappear Completely Imperial Mild (and the frankly rather poor piss-take that is Nanny State), their Dogma (formerly ‘Speedball’) poppy-guarana brew, numerous takes on historic IPA-styles including Hardcore IPA, Punk IPA, Chaos Theory and the limited editions Atlantic IPA and Zephyr, as well as many more, they’re surely the last brewer in Britain you could accuse of churning out boring session bitters.

ThornbridgeThornbridge – Whilst not so attention-hungry as BrewDog, Thornbridge have been steadily and confidently pushing the quality-innovation curve in new and interesting directions and have been garnering praise, accolades and awards at an impressive rate as a result. I haven’t tried anywhere near as many Thornbridge brews as I’d like to, but multi award-winning Jaipur, Halcyon and Ashford (a session-strength bitter but one that’s far from dull or ordinary) were all excellent, and I’m desperate to get my hands (and taste buds) on some of their Bracia stout. But then – playing devil’s advocate for a moment – hasn’t the majority of Thornbridge’s quite considerable brewing talent actually been imported from overseas? New Zealand, Italy, places like that? So although Thornbridge are clearly one of the best brewers in Britain, bar none, can they truly be said to be ‘British’ innovators, if their knowledge and passion comes from abroad?

Marble BeersMarble – One of Manchester’s very finest, with some superb beers in their roster, from their Pint and JP Best session beers through to the tonsil-tingling Big Ginger, sublime Chocolate and punch-packing Dobber. But then again… can they be considered a truly innovative brewer? Marble brew a wide range of superb beers that I’d happily drink all evening, any evening, but aren’t they mainly variations on existing, classic beer styles: IPA, stout, pale ale, best bitter?

Outstanding BeersOutstanding – One of my favourite local breweries, based up the road in Bury who once again produce some truly stellar brews – Outstanding Stout has to be one of my very favourite session stouts and the like of their Pushing Out (an excellent IPA in all but name) and Outstanding Blonde are truly excellent as well – but once again, does brewing high-quality versions of common beer styles count as being innovative per se or would Outstanding have to go further than that to be considered true innovators?

All of which raises another couple of questions: firstly, what does constitute ‘innovation’, anyhow? Is it enough to call yourself ‘innovative’ if you brew a beer that stands head-and-shoulders above similar examples of the style, or do you have to really push the weird ingredient / unusual flavour envelope? In which case, does Badger’s River Cottage Stinger (brewed with Dorset stinging nettles) count as an innovative beer? Or Sharps Chalky’s Bite, a strong, Belgian-style beer that’s delicately flavoured with wild English fennel? Or Fraoch Scottish Heather Ale from Williams Bros? What about Innis & Gunn Rum Cask oak-aged? Or Boggart Hole Clough’s Rum Porter? Does chucking in another, strongly-flavoured spirit, or maturing in a liquor cask count as ‘innovative’ or is it just, again, a case of varying an established theme?

And is it actually important to be an innovator? Or is a traditional approach to brewing, coupled with a passion for maximising quality, a more sure key to long-term success?

Me, I’m something of a self-confessed variety-junkie, always on the look-out for the more interesting, extreme beers, but I’m genuinely interested to hear what everyone else thinks. So, I’d like to throw the following questions open to the floor:

  1. How important is ‘innovation’ to you as a beer drinker? In general – bearing in mind that this is always going to be a subjective, mood-related question – would you rather try something new and interesting, stick to an old favourite, or a new version of a preferred style?
  2. What exactly constitutes ‘innovation’ in brewing anyway? What does a brewer have to do to qualify as ‘innovative’ in your book?
  3. Which UK brewers or breweries do you think are the most innovative and why?

Answers on a comment-shaped postcard, if you please: