What the right hand is doing: Left Hand re-launches in the UK

Between Brits brewing American-style beer and Americans brewing British-style beer, it was only a matter of time before Americans started brewing British-style American beer and selling it to Brits and the whole system collapsed in on itself in a multidimensional paradox.

Responsible for this rupture in the beer time continuum is Left Hand, a 25-year-old Colorado-based brewer whose broad range (which includes stouts and “English-style” IPAs and PAs) has gone down a storm in the US. Now, thanks to some ambitious expansion plans, it plans to renew its presence here in the UK.

Interested to see what the other side of the Atlantic thought our brewing-style looked like and determined to write a review that didn’t put “coals” “to” and “Newcastle” in the sentence you might expect, ICIP headed over to LH’s UK launch, at Mother Kelly’s in Bethnal Green, London.

IMG_20140904_192424Surely, we thought as we studied the menu and carefully DID NOT LOOK DOWN AT THE OTHER NON-LH BEERS BECAUSE WE ARE WEAK AND WOULD HAVE ORDERED THEM, having TWO milk stouts called basically the same thing is a bit excessive.

But oh, my beery friends, they were not the same thing at all. For here, at MK’s, ICIP discovered the power of “nitro”.

I have little-to-no grasp of the scientific theory, but in a weird and misshapen nutshell: when you “carbonate” beer with nitrogen, you make it taste creamier, like Guinness. Because nitrogen is largely insoluble in liquid, a higher proportion of nitrogen in beer means you can keep it at high pressure but with less CO2 absorbed, making it feel less fizzy and more creamy and giving it that all-important creamy head. A piece of tap equipment in bars called a restrictor plate forces the beer through tiny holes as its poured to give it a bubbly, carbonated effect and head, with a much smoother mouth feel. Nitro is a big thing in the US – bars and brewers quibble over the proportion of nitrogen to CO2 – although, arguably, it’s something Stout brewers like Guinness have been on top of for years. Making it even more ironic that Guinness was launching its craft-beer style beer on the same night LH launched it’s, er, Guinness-style craft beer.

Anyway! As a loather of excessive carbonation (like, any carbonation, really, because I don’t want nasty stinging bubbles popping all over my lovely hoppy mouth), I think this is brilliant and we should all be early adopters. Left Hand – and this sounds like black freakin’ magic to me – has even invented nitro-bottles, with the added power of something to do with widgets. The whole process (tap and bottled) is shrouded in secrecy. In addition, the beers are truly described as being ON NITRO!, which makes drinking them sound like some kind of exciting new technology for Formula One.

IMG_20140904_192944Crucially, exacting science (a side-by-side comparison facilitated by MK’s lovely staff) revealed an astonishing difference between the nitro- and non-nitro- Milk Stout on offer. Hand on heart, the Nitro tasted like Guinness straight out of a Dublin tap. It was well-balanced, with strong notes of mocha, chocolate and coffee that tasted so natural in the smoother pour. While the non-nitro Milk Stout had nothing to be ashamed of, you’d need some good reasons to opt for it in a market already saturated by chocolate stout, chilli stout, stout-y stout, stoat-y stout, etc.

Meanwhile we had it on good authority from those that know (London’s bestest beeriest Twitterati) that awesome results could be achieved by mixing a half of nitro and a half of non-nitro. Punks.

IMG_20140904_195811While disappointed that we couldn’t get it (or indeed everything else in our lives) “on nitro”, we consoled ourselves with our regular favourite, IPA. LH’s 400 Pound Monkey (an English style IPA!) was totally session-able, a gentle backdrop of US hops giving way to a smooth, easy drink. We were quite surprised to discover the beer was 6.8 per cent – it tasted about 5, and lacked the big, sweet mouthfeel you associate with IPA at that stronger end of the scale.

It’ll be interesting to see how this works out: everything about this IPA is approachable. You could easily drink a pint or three, and it could be a great way into IPA for someone not so keen on hop bombs. But at 7% it might prove a more difficult way out of eg. the pub door after a few pints. LH risk losing the 7%-craft-drinkers market over flavour, and the ale-happy session drinker on strength.

IMG_20140904_194314Stranger Pale Ale was another approachable, quaffable pint. A bit too fizzy for us – but then everything for the rest of our lives will be unless it comes ON NITRO! – it had a British, biscuit-y base that could have come straight from Fullers’ cook books.

Black Jack Porter (6.8%), described as an English style Porter, was a solid, coffee-ish porter, stronger than it tasted but full-bodied and chocolate-y.

Left Hand deserves to do well here, their range a friendly and diverse lot that could slip as easily into your village local as a branch of Craft. It’s really interesting to taste an American take on an English take on an American beer (wait, what?!), and the brewery has done a great job of taking the best of the US and packaging it for a classic British palate.

IMG_20140904_201405But – LH needs to know that British tastes have changed, and beer-fans are as keen as their American cousins for big flavours and innovation. A quick glance at LH’s website reveals some one-offs – like Beer Week Sauce, a kegged Porter brewed with Ethiopian coffee, a Tripel and a limited edition double IPA – that ICIP would love to get our hands on. We hope LH’s expansion will, in time, extend to these special editions.

Meanwhile, ICIP would like to throw our weight behind a new campaign for a nitro pump absolutely everywhere for everything. Our favourite smoked porters and IPAs, sure, but also perhaps sandwiches and lasagnes. If you need us, we’ll be ON NITRO!

Left Hand will be available at Beer Hawk, Whole Foods, Barworks craft bars and more.

-LD

“Mine’s a pint of the Black Stuff.” “You can’t drink a pint of Bovril!”

As the craft beer boom has gained momentum and the number of new breweries has grown seemingly by the hour, many older, more established breweries have attempted to get in on the act by launching their own speciality brews. It’s hard to think of a more iconic brewer than Guinness, so when ICIP heard that they were launching two new beers as part of their new “Brewers Project”, we had to give them a taste.

DSC_0004Established in 1759, Guinness has a long history and is arguably the most recognisable beer brand in the world, sold in 150 countries worldwide and selling a staggering 10 million pints of their trademark stout daily. The brewery has recently begun operating a microbrewery at their St James’s Gate site in Dublin in order to allow brewers to “explore new recipes, reinterpret old ones and colaborate freely to bring exciting beers to life”. These new releases are the first brews to make it into mainstream production, and Guinness has chosen to keep it in the family – both beers are porters, and both have roots in Guinness’s long, rich history.

DSC_0001The branding for the beers reflects this historical theme, with a muted colour scheme and vintage fonts that really stand apart from Guinness’s usual minimalist, much more modern lettering and logo. It’s an attractive conceit; these are gorgeous-looking bottles, both very much with their own character.

DSC_0003The first of the beers, Dublin Porter (3.8%) is based on an entry in the Guinness brewers diary from 1796 and is made to recreate a “working man’s beer”, to be enjoyed after a long day at work. The beer pours without much of a head, and what froth it did generate dissipated quickly. We noticed that it was much lighter in colour than the other beer, and, indeed, original Guinness, almost appearing a deep, ruby red when held up to the light.

We didn’t get much on the nose for this one – maybe just a whisper of that familiar toasty, almost acrid porter aroma. The bottle makes a point of emphasising the smoothness of the beer, which is certainly noticable – but as a result it has quite a thin mouthfeel. The slight malty sweetness gives way to a dry, bitter finish but this does not linger. With the low ABV, one can see that this is very much meant as a session beer.

DSC_0002We were much more keen on the second of the beers, West Indies Porter (6%). This was based on a recipe from 1801 which was designed to travel on long sea voyages to the Caribbean and beyond, with a higher hop content to preserve the product.

The beer had a much bigger and longer lasting head, with more lacing in the glass. We got a lot more coffee and chocolate on the nose and found it a lot more full-bodied, with a rich and chewier mouthfeel. We could taste more of that roasted, toffee-like flavour and were left with a lingering, dry coffee aftertaste. The higher ABV and increased hop usage really pays off here in both aroma and flavour.

Arthur Guinness signed a 9,000 year lease on the Dublin brewery in 1759, and the company is keen to point out that they are only 255 years into their tenancy. They promise further innovation as their new project develops, and we look forward to seeing what they cook up next.

Full disclosure – we were sent samples of these beers.

- PS

Ales of the riverbank

After a frankly sodden Bank Holiday Monday (I am sure I can still detect an unpleasant squelchy quality to my shoes), we were apprehensive about what Mother Nature would hit us with for Beer by the River. Set in the lush leafy surrounds of Morden Hall Park, the second annual celebration of Sambrook’s Brewery’s birthday would be a festival of beer, music and food held next to the very river their flagship ale is named after – the Wandle. We were promised a bouncy castle, hay bale seating and street food. This could either be a balmy summer paradise or a hellish muddy dash as all the revellers tried to pack into one beer tent.

Thankfully, we got lucky, and the sun was shining as we made our way through the park to the event. By the time we arrived the party was already in full swing, with a 1,500-strong crowd enjoying the late summer weather. Families packed out the grass with their picnics, the delicious smell of burgers wafted across the grass and Jo Elms & Sue Ballingall provided the soundtrack from the stage. We wasted no time in getting ourselves near to the beer.

20140830_140422We started off with a clutch of beers by our hosts, Sambrook’s. This was the perfect time to sample their wares as we caught both the tail end of their summer seasonal, Lavender Hill, and the first batch of their autumn beer, Battersea Rye. Both clocking in at 4.5%, these two beers demonstrate the range the brewery is capable of. Lavender Hill is a golden honey ale with a biscuity nose and surprisingly hoppy punch, whereas Battersea Rye pours deep copper, hits you with dried fruit aromas and comes through bready and bitter on the palate. We round out our first trio with tried and tested favourite, Junction (also 4.5%), a bitter with Challenger, Bramling Cross and Goldings hops.

20140830_141102Despite being the hosts of the event, Sambrook’s weren’t the only brewery on offer at the festival. It was interesting to see an eclectic mix of both well-known locals (By The Horns and Hop Stuff from London), further-flung stalwarts (Hogs Back from Surrey, Gadds’ from Kent) and names which were totally new to us (Flack Manor all the way from Hampshire, and Westerham from Kent). So by our second round, we were ready to start mixing things up a bit. We went for a decidedly British selection of bitters: By The Horns’ The Mayor of Garratt (4.3%), Hogs Back’s British Endeavour (4.5%) and Flack Manor’s Flack Catcher (4.4%).

20140830_150018A pint of The Mayor of Garratt comes with a little bit of local history. During the early 18th century people would elect a ‘Mayor of Garratt’ at the same time as the main parliamentary elections in nearby pubs in Earlsfield and Wandsworth. Local characters would stand and give silly speeches as a light-hearted railing against the ruling classes (and an excuse to have a few drinks). By The Horns brewed this very British beer in homage to this tradition, using purely British ingredients, and the beer has the grassy aroma you would expect from home-grown hops.

British Endeavour, Hogs Back’s tribute to the Great War centenary, is of special significance to ICIP: we saw the eponymous hop being grown at Stocks Farm during our visit in April this year. Endeavour is a hop developed through a British Hop Association breeding programme, crossing Cascade with a wild English hop. Hop grower Ali Capper promised us it would have blackcurranty, summer fruit aromas, and this beer delivers that in spades. It has raisin and stone fruit on the nose with a warm, caramel maltiness. We’re looking forward to more brewers experimenting with this new hop in future.

Flack Catcher was sweeter than the other two beers in this round, and had a spiced quality that complements the hoppy bitterness. With the citrusy, orange-like aroma it almost felt a little festive.

20140830_141553The festival also posed an opportunity for some keen amateurs to stand alongside the pros. When we arrived we had been given tokens which would be used to vote in the homebrew competition, the victor of which would win the chance to brew a beer for Cask Ale Week with Sambrook’s. Sadly, it appears that south west London prefers buying its beer than brewing its own, as there were only two entries from Kevin Wright and Andrew Barber, who were crowned joint winners after the vote was declared too close to call. By the time we made it to the tasting table our fellow festival-goers had snaffled all the samples, so we can’t comment on this outcome – but we’re looking forward to the launch of the collaborative brew later this month.

Unable to get our hands on the award-winning homebrews, we fought our way back to the bar. We nabbed a Westerham British Bulldog (4.3%) and a Gadds’ She Sells Seashells (4.7%). The British Bulldog was crisp and toasty with hints of toffee and a floral nose from the Goldings and Progress. She Sells was much lighter and more zingy, hitting the schnoz hard with Cascade lemon and pine and delivering on flavour with a lingering dry bitterness. Perfect summer drinking. We also tried a kegged offering from Sambrook’s – Battersea IPA (6.2%). This is a new addition to their line up, only launched in May 2014 and their first foray away from traditional cask ales. Chinook and Citra ramp up the aroma and the hop flavour spike we’ve come to expect from an IPA. It was a shock to be drinking something cold and carbonated after so much real ale, but it was a refreshing interlude.

20140830_162049We decided we needed to stop for food, and after agonising over the burgers and fish and chip van we went for Pizzarova, a family run pizza company run out of the back of a customised Land Rover. The sourdough crust and delicious melty cheese made us weep when we discovered that they are based in FRICKIN’ DORSET. The humanity. If you are lucky enough to live in Dorset, they frequent Sherborne, Bruton and Castle Cary. I am already trying to work out how long the commute to Moorgate would be.

Our pizza break was a good opportunity to kick back and enjoy an impassioned speech by Beer Sommelier Jane Peyton. After reminding us of the health benefits of our favourite tipple (full of B vitamins, potassium and antioxidants!), Jane encouraged any beer philistines to get up to the bar and give the great range of ales a go, especially any women who still mistakenly viewed it as a male drink. “If you don’t like it, try another,” she implored, “and another, and another!” Great advice.

We were flagging after a long day of boozing and starting to lose track of our tokens so we decided to head back to the bar for a final round.

IMG_20140830_165530We tried Sambrook’s kegged version of Battersea Rye, with a slightly higher ABV at 5.8%. Like the IPA, this was launched recently as a toe in the craft waters and contains no less than four different grains – Maris Otter Pale Ale Malt, Malted Rye, Crystal 400 and Chocolate Malt. It is rich and caramel-like with yeasty, bready notes and a spicy, fruity flavour. We were impressed, and tried not to argue over whether it’s better from cask or keg.

We wrapped up with By The Horns’ Diamond Geezer (4.9%) and Hogs Back’s HBB (3.7%). Diamond Geezer is a red ale, sweet and malty with a bitter, floral finish from the American Willamette hops. HBB had a lighter touch with grapefruit aromas and a lingering, acidic bitterness on the palate. The perfect aperitif.

The party looked set to continue on into the evening, the families were beginning to thin out as the evening crowd moved in and the music cranked up. We were fair sloshing with the good stuff by now and were ready to get home and order a curry, so we slipped away past the babbling Wandle into the gloaming, already looking forward to next year’s Beer by the River.

Want more? Check out our tour of Sambrook’s Brewery, our interview with Jane Peyton and coverage of her book launch.

- PS

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Great British Beer Festival 2014 – festival report

I’ll admit it – I am pretty anally retentive. A worrywart. An Order Muppet. I plan everything in advance. I’ve always got a pen. I love to make lists and – more importantly – tick off said lists (mmm).

So, when I was handed my pint glass and programme for this year’s GBBF, and staggered into the barrel-vaulted spectacle that is London Olympia, panic began to set in.

DSC_0219So many beers. So. Many. Beers. The completist in me started nervous twitching as I struggled to accept that no amount of planning or tactics would allow me to drink over 900 different beers, ciders and perries in just five hours.

DSC_0226Luckily, my neuroticism was immediately soothed by Mark Payne, Off-Trade Sales Manager from St Austell, who offered me my first drink of the day at a pleasantly numbing 7.2%. This was Big Job Double IPA, big brother to their popular IPA, Proper Job (clocking in at a more sedate 4.5%). A fantastic burnished caramel colour, this heavy hitter is hopped with Citra and Centennial, and has a lightness which belies its high ABV. Mark told us that they use Cornish Gold malt and attenuate it until nearly all the sugar is gone, allowing those hops to really sing. It’s a good start.

Next, we made the mistake of visiting the USA cask beers bar. I say “mistake”, because once we’d checked out the list of available brews, there was a serious danger that we would never leave, and we’d only been at the festival about fifteen minutes.

Surrounded by a huge throng of beer fans, this bar was perhaps one of the most popular of the festival, and for good reason. The sheer variety of beers on offer was outstanding – everything from a 4% wheat to a whopping 9.3% Imperial IPA – and we started off with a Franklin’s Psychedelic Smokehouse (5.3%), a smoked, sour ale. It poured light with a seriously smoky nose, like getting a delicious faceful of BBQ and bacon, but then shocked the palate with a light, zinging acidity.

DSC_0241Next we went for something at the other end of the scale – a dark, rich Left Hand Milk Stout (6%). We’re usually sceptical of milk stouts because we’re frankly evangelical about Bristol Beer Factory’s take on the style. But this impressed us mightily. Hopped with Magnum and US Goldings, this stout was incredibly smooth and seemed to stealth its way down your gullet, leaving a strong, cocoa-nib bitterness behind. Dreamy.

Promising ourselves “one for the road” before we headed off to… uh… the other 21 bars, we went for a Buckland Brewery Ginger Pale Ale (5%), brewed with macerated ginger. A deep coppery colour, this promised a lot on the nose but didn’t quite deliver on taste, although we got a pleasant ginger tingle lingering at the back of the throat.

We did finally tear ourselves away from the delights of the good old US of A… here are some of our other festival highlights.

DSC_0250I was confronted with an offer I couldn’t refuse when I spotted Kissingate Brewery’s Black Cherry Mild (4.3%). I had initially made fun of this beer in my GBBF preview post, saying that it was the kind of gimmicky fruit concoction I would select when already inebriated, only to find that it was rubbish. I then found out that it had won numerous awards, and, having tried it, I now see that I should eat not only my words but also my notebook, pen and GBBF souvenir pint glass. It was delicious – smelled like a bowl of fresh cherries but had no cloying sweetness, just a rich, smooth mouthfeel and a really nice dry finish. Just goes to show that no matter how much beer you try, there will always be something to surprise you!

DSC_0256When we fancied something lighter, we were drawn to a beer by Jo C’s Norfolk Brewery – Norfolk Kiwi (3.8%). The brewery was established by Jo Coubrough and this beer is a tribute to her husband Chris, a native New Zealander. It uses locally-grown Maris Otter and a mixture of British and New Zealand hops, giving a tropical, zesty punch despite the modest ABV. Refreshing and extremely quaffable.

DSC_0268We couldn’t pass up on an offering from Bristol Beer Factory. We first discovered this gem of a brewery on a cottage break to the West Country in 2011, when we popped into a beer festival at The Tobacco Factory. This was when we fell in love with their Milk Stout in particular, but their other beers have never disappointed and we hadn’t had the opportunity to try the 3.8% Nova pale ale before. This beer has a light malt base (Maris Otter, CaraPils and wheat malt) providing a perfect, subtle backdrop for the hops, coming through zesty and fresh with a grapefruit tang.

DSC_0262It was nostalgia that initially encouraged us to give Exe Valley Brewery’s Winter Glow (6%) a try – Mr Pip and I are Exeter University alumni. This is a traditional old ale, and usually the brewery’s winter seasonal. While we weren’t entirely sure why it had showed up at a beer festival in the middle of August, we enjoyed the rich, dried fruit and malty nose and the dry bitterness after the 6% punch. Hope that we spot it around once the nights draw in a bit to enjoy it in its proper environment!

After a pork roll to soak it all up and much wandering, sampling and poring over our programme, we decide to visit to the cider and perry bar, which we often end up neglecting. Since our trip to Stocks Farm earlier in the year and being introduced to the wonders of cider, we felt we needed to at least try a couple.

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We begin with an offering from Lancashire, Dove Syke Cider’s Ribble Valley Gold. This comes in at 6.5% and is described as “medium dry” on CAMRA’s scale. It is delicious – no cloying sweetness, but not too acidic either. Encouraged, we persevere with a taste of Oliver’s Yarlington Mill (also 6.5%), which had a little more sweetness than the Ribble Valley but not to the point of excess – it still had a good level of dryness to round out the flavour. We enjoyed chatting to one of the CAMRA volunteers (complete with pirate hat) on the cider bar about the different varieties on offer and were very grateful for his recommendations and tasters. Cider is still a bit of an undiscovered country for us but we’re certainly going to continue our exploration of it in future!

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We have to fight through the crowds to get near enough to hear the announcement of the Champion Beers of Britain competition. With eight categories as well as an overall “Supreme Champion”, there are too many winners to list here, but special ICIP claps on the back must go to our friends at Oakham Ales who took Gold in the Golden Ales category as well as Silver in the Supreme Champion contest for Citra (4.2%), and also the guys at Sambrook’s who took joint Bronze in the Bitters category for Wandle (3.8%).

DSC_0287The results of the Supreme Champion contest were announced by Bruce Dickinson of rock band Iron Maiden – an avowed real ale fan who has brewed his own successful beer with Robinson’s Brewery – Trooper (4.7%). The announcement of first place in this year’s competition – Timothy Taylor’s Boltmaker (4%) – is met with some consternation by the crowd. “Did he just say Timmy Taylor’s?” someone asks behind us, while the chap to our right goes with a more forceful “Timothy Taylor’s? Fuck off!” As the crowd disperses, we hear another festival-goer commenting to a friend “it’s average at best”. It’s obviously a controversial decision. We haven’t tried Boltmaker so we can’t comment, but we’ll be keeping our eyes open for it in future to see what we think.

DSC_0243The atmosphere at the festival was characteristically jolly, and although the gender ratio is still way, way off (still the only place in the universe with no queue in the ladies’ toilet!), we spotted plenty of women enjoying their beer and there was thankfully no sign of the sexist poster seller that so disappointed us last year. We did slightly question the choice of the “circus” theme (lots of strongmen etc vs scantily-clad female acrobats strewn across the branding) which still made it all feel a bit masculine… but let’s face it, I look frickin’ distinguished with a moustache.

Overall then – a great day with some top notch beers. It was fantastic to see such a broad range of different styles and countries represented, and there really was something for everyone. There are up and down sides to attending on Trade Day – the entire programme is still available, for example, but you don’t get the added fun of talks and signings by the pros or live music. But that wasn’t going to spoil our day.

Being the pernickety fusspot I am, I am already looking ahead to next year and working out my tactics. If I attended for all five days of the festival next time, that’s just… 180 beers a day… which is just… er… 60 pints, if I drink thirds…

I’ll get back to you next August.

- PS

You can read our review of last year’s festival here, and also take a look at our investigation into women’s attitudes towards beer and festivals here. Check out more pictures from the event on our Facebook page.

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From little acorns… the unstoppable rise of Oakham Ales

According to CAMRA, there are now 52 breweries in London compared to 44 last year and 23 the year before that. With so much beer being brewed in the capital right now, we’re spoilt for choice, and sometimes it’s easy to overlook the exciting stuff happening elsewhere across our fair land.

So ICIP is delighted to meet with Oakham Ales, an innovative brewery from Cambridgeshire, to remind us that there is much, much more to discover beyond the mysterious force field of the M25.

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“I’ve been with Oakham for just over nine years, and it has changed so much in that time,” says Nigel Wattam, Commercial Manager at the brewery. “Back then, there were nine or ten of us and we did everything; we racked the beers, we delivered, everything. We’re up to 40 people now.”

Originally established in Oakham, Rutland, in 1993, the company moved to Peterborough in 1998 and opened a new brewery in 2006. Currently, Oakham is churning out a staggering 6.5m pints a year. There is increasing international demand for their beer, and they now export to countries as far flung as New Zealand and Hong Kong. “It’s been in Australia, it was in a shop a couple of blocks away from the White House, it even went to Brazil before the World Cup! So it’s popping up all over. I lose touch where it’s going to be honest!” says Nigel. “I was chatting to our friends from Arbor Brewery,” chimes in Nick Jones, National Accounts Sales Manager, “And they’d been talking to distributors in Rome. They said: ‘I saw a fucking Green Devil lorry driving around Rome, what’s going on?!’”

But the brewery is still hugely popular on its home turf in the UK, managing to walk the tightrope between traditional ale fans and the more recent beer geek boomers. It’s rare to find a brewery showing up in Greene King pubs and winning awards at CAMRA’s GBBF but also on offer at a pump takeover at The Craft Beer Co.

“The one constant as the brewery has grown is that the quality has stayed the same,” says Nigel. “Everyone will have some problems with cask ale, but the ethos has always been you’ll always get the flavour, we’ll always use loads of hops and the quality has to be right. If it’s not right, it’ll just sit there and it won’t go out.”

“Consistency is the key,” agrees Darren Moore, manager of Oaka in Kennington, one of the brewery’s pubs (on which more later). “I’ve never had a bad cask from Oakham. That says everything about the brewery. Some other breweries… sometimes their beer is amazing, and sometimes it’s awful. The customer won’t understand that; consistency is so important.”

“You only have to supply a few bad lines and the landlord will lose confidence in you,” Nigel nods. “Even I was surprised about the number of things we check on. By the time we rack it and get it in the barrel, it should be as perfect as we can get it. Sure, it occasionally gets a bit hot in someone’s cellar, but there shouldn’t be anything else that goes wrong with it. And that is why we get so few returns.” This seems to be the crux of Oakham’s success. “We’ve got some great relationships with some big players in the free trade that other producers would love to have, but we’ve got the reputation in some places where they daren’t take the beer off the bar. They shift so much in a week and the quality is there… as long as we don’t do anything mental, it’s there as long as the landlord is!”

Oakademy_of_Excellence_Logo1Recognising the importance of their relationship with their suppliers, Oakham have started up the ‘Oakacademy of Excellence’, a suppliers club. “It’s been going a little over 5 years now and anyone who stocks our beers permanently can join the Oakademy,” explains Nigel. “We make some special beers that only they can get hold of, we do glassware for them, the sales guys visit them regularly, and we have an annual event where we invite them down and have a few beers and a bite to eat. They get support for their loyalty.”

“Unlike some other breweries, we still have people on the road,” says Nick. “It’s still a face-to-face industry with us, and publicans like that. It’s not an email business.”

“For people like me, having those two or three extra beers draws people in. People look forward to them,” Darren agrees.

We are yet to touch on Oakham’s frontrunner… Citra.

500citraUnless you’ve been living under a rock for the last few years, it’s highly unlikely that you wouldn’t recognise the cheeky little anthropomorphized hop flower grinning out from the Oakham Ales Citra label. Two-time Gold winner of the International Beer Challenge, this fruity, hoppy 4.2% APA has taken the beer world by storm.

“Our biggest Citra stockist is The Wellington in Birmingham,” says Nigel. “They will do close to 900 pints a week on one pump!” But the beer is not just popular in pubs. “In the last 18 months to two years, the bottles have actually gone potty. And Citra is the biggest by some way – it’s over 50% of our bottle sales.”

Demonstrating its wide appeal, Bottled Citra is sold in Waitrose and Tesco supermarkets, as well as a variation of the recipe (at a slightly more potent 4.9%) being available in Marks and Spencer where it is rebranded under the store’s own label.

“It’s crazy that one beer should make a brewery so famous, especially in London,” says Darren. “The brewery just smells of Citra,” agrees Nick. “When I open an M&S bottle at home I just think ‘ah, that’s my work!’ because it’s just that distinctive smell.”

“Every year our Head Brewer, John Bryan, goes over to American and he’ll taste and smell the hops in person,” says Nigel. “Each field is different and he’ll choose the best for us. You could have 20 fields of Citra hops and he’ll pick the two that are best. John thinks that the US hops are the best in the world; that’s why he uses them.”

Because of the all-encompassing fame of Citra, we’re shocked to hear that it’s not the brewery’s biggest seller overall. “JHB (Jeffrey Hudson Bitter, 3.8%) is the biggest cask sale,” says Nick. “Bishop’s Farewell (4.6%) actually edges second on cask.”

With a hophead Head Brewer, Oakham’s core range of beers lean towards a particular flavour profile. “People say ‘why don’t you make a brown beer?’, and I say, if you’re a carrot farmer, don’t grow potatoes,” says Nick. “Our identity is pale ales.” But this doesn’t mean that their range is limited. “We have the Black Hole Porter (5.5%) on all year round, and we have Hawse Buckler (5.6%) which is another dark beer,” says Nigel. “Alongside the four seasonal we have four aged or vintage beers which are usually available all year round, as well as an Oakademy special. Then we’re normally got something wheedled away on what we call the compost heap, which has been there a while. Like the Black Baron (8.8%), which is fantastic.”

DSC_0199“I think at the moment we have 12 available, I think at Chelmsford Beer Festival three weeks ago we had 15 on,” recalls Nick. We’re shocked – is it difficult to juggle producing that many beers? “It’s not as difficult as it would appear because six of them would be aged beers which can be brewed, put in a cold room and then released any time we want,” he explains. “So we’ve got the five core beers brewed at least weekly, then the Oakademy beers every month, the seasonal beers every quarter, then four quarterly specials – they’re supposed to run on to each other but they don’t because they keep selling out! – and then the aged and vintaged.” We’re tantalised by the sound of Oakham’s vintage range. “The aged beers can sit in the cold room for one, two, three years… they just develop another level,” says Nick. “I’ve had 3 year old Atilla (7.5%) that tasted absolutely fantastic,” reminisces Nigel.

Producing these highly-hopped beers comes at a price – hops don’t come cheap. “Even though it’s a bit more expensive, we’re pretty sure if someone has one pint of our beer, they’ll come back and have another one, which is what you want people to do!” says Nigel. In the capital, we’re not shocked to pay £6 for a pint of craft beer. But is it harder to convince drinkers up in their homeland of Cambridgeshire, for example, to pay more? “From my point of view, I sell my beer for a £1 more than it sells in Peterborough, but that’s because I have more to pay out,” says Darren. “It’s not the price of a cask! I’m from Yorkshire and I wouldn’t dream of spending more than £3 on a pint there! Whereas in London I’ll pay £7 for a pint of Kernel IPA because I know how much it costs them to brew it. It’s understanding it, and people understand that things cost more here.”

“Price can be an issue with some outlets,” says Nigel. “We do have to stick to our guns sometimes and say we know it’s a bit pricier, but it’s a quality product. We think that when you put it on the bar, you’ll sell it; you won’t have leftovers you’ll have to throw away. You try and strike a balance. Hopefully you’ll have a guy that’ll come back the next night to drink it again because he knows you’ve got it on.”

“Make the same cash margin and see what happens,” is Nick’s challenge. “The people who stock our beers regularly and successfully will say, ‘no problem, JHB £3.20, some other bollocks at £3, and JHB still sells more’. And people come back and drink it again. There’s a commercial argument there that people support.”

Not content with producing a range of popular and delicious beers, the brewery also partakes in a spot of beer and food pairing. When you think of sitting down to a Thai, Chinese or Japanese meal, what drink do you immediately associate with it? A bitter green tea? The fruity acidity of sake? Perhaps a cold lager-style beer like Chang or Asahi?

How about a pint of ale? Not too sure? Think again.

DSC_0195The Oaka Group – a sister company to Oakham Ales – operates five venues uniquely specialising in pairing their beers with contemporary dishes from the Far East. The brainchild of founders Patcharee Shaweewan and Paul Hook, the chain features three venues in Peterborough, one in Birmingham, and, as of 2013, one in London.

On ICIP’s first visit to Pan-Asian restaurant Oaka, we were initially bemused at the sight of hand pumps on the bar, but were quickly converted. Heavily favouring the citrussy, piney zing of American hops, Oakham Ales’ range is an excellent match for the oriental menu. The bitter, hoppy ales cut through hotter, chilli-based dishes, but the freshness of those US hops also complement the invigorating Asian flavours of lemongrass, coriander, lime and ginger. This successful blend of east and west is a characteristically individual move by a brand who excel in pushing the envelope.

With wide-reaching appeal and a good eye for development, Oakham’s growth looks set to continue. They’ve recently acquired a wine division (Bellwether), and began producing a cider in conjunction with Hogan’s last year (Oaple, 5.8% and made with apples from ICIP’s friends at Stocks Farm!). Earlier this week, Citra walked away with two awards at GBBF (Gold in the Golden Ale category and Silver in the Supreme Champion competition), proving its popularity with real ale drinkers. With the success of Green Devil on keg, they will only admit to “looking at” something in the lager or black IPA line, but whatever they come up with, we will certainly look forward to it with high expectations.

- PS

ICIP revs up for GBBF 2014

It doesn’t seem possible that it’s almost time for another CAMRA Great British Beer Festival. Last year’s event marked our first foray into the murky world of beer blogging, and we kicked off the ICIP project with an investigation into where women fitted into this real ale lark, and what women at the festival thought about beer.

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GBBF 2013

This year, returning as a seasoned Beer Blogger (my press pass says so and everything), I’ll be hitting up the trade session. The massive benefit of this is that ALL the beers will be available and nothing will have run out (until at least halfway through said trade session, I imagine). With this in mind, I’ve been perusing the beer list with quite some excitement.

Young's LogI’m having a bit of a real ale love-in right now. This was partly borne out of necessity – living on the fringes of south London, us Wimbledon-ites are somewhat excluded from the craft beer boom that seems to be invading the rest of the capital. We have the great By The Horns half a mile away, and The Antelope over in Tooting, but beyond that, there’s not much craftiness about. What we have in abundance, however, are Young’s pubs.

While we can occasionally hunt down an offering from the likes of Meantime or even Rocky Head at these pubs, generally it’s traditional ale all the way, often Wells and Young’s own brews. These tend to be the classics – Young’s Bitter (3.7%), Special (4.5%), London Gold (4%).

Maybe it was the effect of sitting on the edge of Wimbledon Common in the sun on a lazy Sunday at the Crooked Billet. Maybe I had been to too many craft beer bars and festivals and drunk one too many kegged 7% hoppy IPAs. But I started to remember how much I enjoyed lower ABV ales. I started to feel a twinge of disappointment if I walked into a pub dominated by keg lines. I even passed over keg and opted for Orchard Pig cider if I spotted it on occasion.

With a newfound passion for real ale, it appears that GBBF couldn’t come at a better time for me.

the_great_british_beer_festival_2014The beer list this year is dizzying, with over 900 ales, ciders and perries. As well as a healthy list of British offerings, there are also beers from countries as diverse as Japan, Sweden, Sri Lanka, not to mention the inevitable swathe of American, German and Czech brews (many of which will be kegged or bottled).

When presented with such a huge array of options at a festival, there is always the temptation to go for beers with unusual tasting notes and breweries you haven’t heard of. Sometimes this can end in disaster, but often you can find some real gems (the downside being that it may not be until the following year that you encounter the brewery again if they’re not local).

There’s the added pressure, as the event runs on, of estimating your beer saturation limit. How many tasters and halves can you get through without falling over? I remember an ex-colleague going to the 2010 GBBF and boasting he got through 38 halves (this figure is unsubstantiated), but that’s sadly not an option for little old me. Is it worth passing up on that tantalising half of Thornbridge Jaipur so you can try the potentially dodgy beer from Lincolnshire which proports to have a toffee-pumpkin-mocha-oak chip-cobwebby horse blanket aroma? And how will you live with yourself if you don’t try it to find out?! That’s not to mention the ciders and perries – often neglected in favour of the beers.

1150547_1389865414573752_639728861_oSkimming the list, I have to admit to being ignorant of the vast majority of the breweries represented. The odd name leaps out- Fyne Ales, Brewsters, Camerons – along with the big daddies such as Fullers and Greene King. But for the most part, I’ll be flying blind, with only the programme tasting notes to guide me.

I’m sure that after a few halves I’ll inevitably do something stupid (there’s a Black Cherry Mild* – that could very well be it). But, sometimes, that feels like it’s all part of the adventure of exploring new beers. It’s about learning what you like, what you don’t like, and having a bloody good time.

-PS

*I have just looked this up and have seen that it’s won bucketloads of awards. So maybe I should be less judgemental about my hypothetical inebriated beer choices.

Summer Brew Fest 2014

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There are more breweries in London these days than there are terrifying statue-mimes in Covent Garden. Statistically speaking, if you’re not busily home-brewing your own smoky tribute to the Capital’s gaslit past, your neighbours, Tube driver, takeaway delivery lady or Evening Standard pusher probably is.

DSC_0010So it made sense to get everyone together in a car park in London Fields (where else?) and condense London’s micro-brewing macrocosm into … er … a microcosm again. Arranged in a circle around Space Studios, right next door to London Fields Brewery‘s own brewery tap, the first inaugural Summer Brew Fest – which showcased London brewers – epitomised the city’s drinking scene: super-friendly, more street food than you could fit into a cul-de-sac, and on the staggering side of pricey. Full disclosure – ICIP didn’t pay for two of our three tickets, which cost £30 each + booking fee for an afternoon session and included 15 beer tokens (at a third each, that’s roughly five pints).

Half-price, seven-token entry set you back £15, while on the day legend had it you could grab a ticket for a tenner, which included three beer tokens. Now, even in London ten pounds is a lot to spend on a pint, and thirty pounds is steep for an afternoon’s drinking, particularly when other venues (Craft, for example, was holding a birthday party in Clerkenwell) were hosting free gigs just round the corner.

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But to Summer Brew Fest’s credit this was one of the very few times that the all-inclusive label stuck. ICIP’s trio of drinkers couldn’t get through all 45 of our beer tokens and – as regular readers will be aware – we’re extremely good at getting through beer tokens. From a punter’s POV this was an extremely well-run festival: our nicely branded third-glass literally overfloweth(ed) with tokens; there was an attractive beer list with tasting notes and some genuinely handy guidance for beer-tasting; there were kegs of water in the middle of the beer circuit where you could rinse your glass between sessions. Crucially, of course, there was beer, brought together from across the 32 (thanks, Google!) boroughs of London.

DSC_0015We ran straight into our friends from Bear Hug Brewing – who we met for the first time at Craft Beer Rising, when they – and their beer – were literally just days old. Coincidentally we had the inside skinny on their social calendar because North London is a small place and everyone goes to the same parties, so managed to wheedle our way into trying their delicious Spirit Pale Ale (5.2%) as well as revisiting their lovely Hibernation White IPA (5.6%).

DSC_0030A shuffle to the left and a conceptual bound over the river we discovered newbies Hammerton Brewery who, it turns out, brew a stone’s throw from Liz in Islington, not that she’d throw stones at a nice brewery. Their Islington Lager (4.7%) – light and hoppy – managed to very briefly turn her away from the double IPAs on offer, while N7 (5.2%) – their light, session-able pale ale made a great summer drink.

As ICIP casually drank our way around London without risk of getting stuck on the Northern line, experts from London Field’s homebrew course ran live masterclasses in brewing from a stand on the periphery of the beer circle. ICIP didn’t attend because we had a job to do, viz, try all the beers, and we know all about brewing thanks to Adnams, but from the excitable crowd it sounded like these innovative “Beer Geek” sessions provided added bang for your buck.

DSC_0054It was great to see some breweries from south of the river, an area taking its time to catch up with the beer boom in the north east of London. Onwards, then, to Rocky Head Brewery, who brew in Southfields, whose delicious blonde pale ale Zen was a real find – called Zen because it sits perfectly in the middle of their range, it packed more of a punch than its 4.8% per cent suggested.

DSC_0049It is always a pleasure to catch up with Pip and Mr Pip’s local brewery, By The Horns, based in Tooting. They were showcasing their kegged Hopslinger IPA (5.9%) as well as touting some tantalising bottles of a couple of their new brews – Bastard Brag Black IPA (7.4%) and Sour to the People (4.8%).

Pip, suffering from IPA fatigue, made a beeline to Hackney Brewery‘s retro stand, complete with ceramic pump handles, for a glug of their outstanding Best Bitter (4.4%). Liz, meanwhile, found her beer of the festival in their Mosaic TNT (4.4%), a great showcase for a great hop.

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Via a much-needed darker beer from pizza-masters Crate, ICIP finally moved onto the ciders, to which we are quickly becoming converted. Throwing caution to the wind we fell upon Thistly Cross and tried their Ginger Cider (4%), Elderflower Cider (4%), Original Cider (7.2%!) and the jaw-droppingly jam-laden Strawberry Cider (4%), which is made with more fresh strawberries than our overnight oats (ICIP: as on-trend with our breakfasts as we are with our beer).

London, you did great. We came away from the festival proud that there are more breweries in stumbling distance of our respective lairs than there are Tesco Metros. The absence of some of London’s really big hitters – Kernel, say, and Beavertown, who really could have fallen straight into the festival if they headed the right way from Duke’s Brew and Que – gave some smaller brewers a chance to shine. But we were faced with the perennial London issue: at what point will our city become saturated with hop-bomb IPAs? Competition is a good thing – it means that creative brewers can come out with Cucumber and Juniper Saison, for example – but it also means that beer drinkers like Pip eventually get to the point in beer festivals when they swear blind that if they see one more IPA they’re going to look as mournful as this mournful-looking dog.

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Then there’s the cost. With beer festival tickets now hitting 90s-era Glastonbury prices (the upcoming London Craft Beer Festival will set you back £35 and GBBF is £26 for the whole festival), will there come a point when punters decide they could just as easily have a nice sit down in one of London’s great craft pubs or spend a day out at a brewery tap, instead of tying themselves into a boozey half-marathon, a race against time to neck as many thirds as possible before being turfed out for the evening session?

Summer Brew Fest solved this conundrum by being winningly friendly and unashamedly geeky, bringing together beer-lovers from both sides of the bar. ICIP, towards the end of our visit, had to plead with the breweries’ uber-keen beer evangelists not to fill our glasses to overflowing, lest we plummeted into the dregs buckets before we make it to the novelty Indian snacks van. The homebrew courses were a great addition. We came away, yes, with tastebuds joyously subdued by hops and the gently giddiness of women who’ve spent happy hours drinking 7% grog, but also with the sense that London, its myriad brewers, landlords, bloggers and other vested interests, has to figure out how to balance its alcoholic ecosystem before it collapses in on itself, and all that’s left is some delicious-tasting foam.

Check out more of our pics from the event on our Facebook page.

-ED

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