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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ICIP’s thirst birthday

It barely seems possible that it’s been almost a whole year since we began our foray into the world of beer blogging.

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ICIP at GBBF, August 2013

Since last August, things have exploded. We’ve clambered into beer cellars. We’ve visited breweries, pubs and two hop farms. We have interviewed no less than three beer sommeliers. We brewed our very own IPA (thanks, Adnams!). We got 500 followers on Twitter and met innumerable fab beery people. We baked with beer, ate beer ice cream and read books about beer. We even found the time to drink some beer, would you believe.

We felt that this auspicious occasion deserved some kind of celebration. And we want you, dear readers, to join us.

On Friday 15th August at around 1900 we will be descending on the best pub in London, The Queen’s Head. We’re working with the landlord to line up some of our favourite beers from over the last year to share with you all – details to follow nearer the time!

We’ve got a Facebook event up and you can also keep an eye on our Facebook and Twitter pages.

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The (other) EU election

Have you ever tried every single beer at a beer festival?

Have you ever tried every single beer at a beer festival and then voted coherently?

Have you ever tried every single beer at a beer festival, voted coherently, tried to go to Jamaica, then watched Jurassic Park, in its entirety, twice?

Earlier this month ICIP and our guest reporter, the outstanding Miranda Heneghan, did.

Now, before you get outraged and blame us for Nigel Farage’s recent smugfest, I should clarify that our voting took place within the safe confines of the British Craft Beer Challenge, five summer days that take the beer festival and shake it up with shots of patriotism.

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Spread over five rounds at London Field’s Brewhouse in Hackney, east London, each date pits the best of British craft beer against the best of the rest – Europe, the USA and the Commonwealth. Punters are issued a frighteningly authentic ballot slip (or ballot slips, in one case of BLATANT ELECTORAL FRAUD that we uncovered using our journalistic skills and the power of drunk) and given the chance to vote for the best GB, best “other” and best overall.

Back in May, GB’s North took on the South with a beer menu that’ll make you prouder than toasting England into the final sixteen (says me on Paddy Power), with Magic Rock’s storming Inhuman Canonball claiming it for the Northerners. Still to look forward to are GB vs the USA on 5 July; GB vs the Commonwealth on 9 August and what promises to be a very Grand Finale on 13 September.

Round two – GB vs Europe on 31 May – couldn’t have picked a better news cycle. Anti-Europe party UKIP’s extraordinary victory in the local elections dominated the Saturday papers the very morning that ICIP stuffed ourselves with porridge (the afternoon drinker’s friend) and ambled over to London Field’s Brewhouse, menu in hand. Caught up in a drunken electoral flashback, would be able to stop ourselves scrawling “ANYONE BUT UKIP” on our ballot papers?

ICIP had made a list of the beers we wanted to try, and ICIP never remembers to make a list, so we were disappointed to discover on arrival that a mistake at the printers led to the distribution of the wrong beer list. Nothing kills your buzz at a brewery like discovering the beers you were most excited about aren’t putting in an appearance, particularly when you deliberately arrive at the start to stop this from happening and, in so doing, MISS THE END OF SATURDAY KITCHEN OMFG.

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But life goes on, and the brewhouse’s chalkboard reassured us that the beers that were available more than justified our missing The Omelette Challenge just this once. We put our feet up on a sunny bench in the yard (London Fields regulars will know what a treat that was) a mere forward-plummet from where staff were honing their made-to-order pizza skills, and opted for thirds (look, mum! Forward-planning!) of Italian beer to start.

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What a mistake.

One mouthful of Toccalmato’s delicious Zona Cesarini, a 6.6 per cent Pale Ale, and we wondered if we might as well pack up and go home. ICIP hit hop heaven with this mix of Japanese, American, Australian and New Zealand varieties, every bit as fruity and floral as you’d expect in a beer exploding with passionfruit, banana and marzipan.

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Brewfist’s Spaceman (7%) revealed more of what the Italians can do, with a mango-y IPA layered with bitter grapefruit. Italian craft beer is really superb at the moment – ICIP has very fond memories of discovering it for the first time in Rome bar Ma Che Siete Venuti A Fà- and the Challenge’s selection showed that off. Birra del Borgo’s Reale Extra Double IPA was also outstanding – Christmas-rich with sweet fruits that reminded ICIP of Chewits (really!)

More punters trickled in – still quite a gentle crowd for a joint we normally associate with jam-packed summer Saturdays sweated out to gypsy-swing in one of the brewhouse’s inside bars – and a band struck up. We ate some freshly-made pizzas and wondered why half of Hackney hadn’t shown up.

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We were having such a good time we decided to do what any good beer writer would do in that situation: try every beer at the festival. It’s what would annoy Farage the most, we agreed. So, while we could still write/read/see, we made a plan, and set to it.

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A victim of the mysterious printing accident, we rattled through Germany’s, um, one offering: Paulaner’s Dunkel, a dark wheat beer, which while clean and hazelnut-y felt thin after the Italian flavour-bombs. Fast on to Denmark, then, which regular readers will know Is an ICIP favourite, and offerings from Denmark’s Mikkeller and Tool breweries.

“My tasting notes said ‘nooooooooo’,” of their lambic gueuze collab, Betelgeuze, London Field’s barman tells us. But we rather liked it – Miranda picked out tamarind in the 5.5 per cent brew (tamarind! she can come again!) while Liz settled on sour cherry. It was a good beer to punctuate the super-hopped thirds we had gravitated towards, of which Mikkeler’s Green Gold was a fine example but Tool’s Reparationsbajer left something to be desired.

Team GB fell violently foul of the mysterious printing error, leaving us with a handful of the expected offerings from Arbor, HarbourBrewdog and London Fields themselves – and some notable omissions (where were you, Kernel? Beaverton? Brew by Numbers?). Playing at home, LF triumphed with their new summer brew, a 5 per cent white IPA called Three Weiss Monkeys, which was full-bodied, creamy and banana-y with tasty white chocolate notes, while Arbor’s Double Black IPA shone with coffee, liquorice, pepper and burnt chocolate.

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With the reckless abandon of footballers in the 93rd minute (OH YES I DID) ICIP finished the afternoon with the two strongest beers on offer, which was clearly an excellent idea. Boozey, thick and toffee-y, Brewdog’s 10.5% Barley Wine, Shipwrecker Circus, did for Liz in a blaze of glory; while Miranda took on Belgium’s 9% D’Achouffe IPA, by Houblon Chouffe, and won. There are, as you might expect, very few tasting notes for this last pair that make any sense at all.

The Indian state of Kerala (bear with me) prohibits the sale or consumption of alcohol on election days, as Liz discovered to her immense annoyance while there recently. ICIP can now exclusively confirm that this is entirely unnecessary, for after a mere three goes we be-drunkenly managed to successfully cast our ballot. Science!

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Triumphant and commemorative beer glasses held high, ICIP strolled urbanely home to enjoy a nutritious and home-cooked dinner. The end.

Alternative ending: this happened…

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Then this happened …

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Then we ordered £50-worth of Indian takeaway and watched Jurassic Park twice from beginning to end and passed out. That’s chaos theory.

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We stayed glued to the Challenge’s Facebook page until the results were revealed (sadly, minus a Dimbleby and LSD-esque electoral visualisation WE LOVE YOU BBC ELECTION COVERAGE). Brewfist, quite rightly, won for Team Europe with a delicious Grape IPA brewed with Denmark’s Tool,and London Fields stormed to victory for Team GB with Three Weiss Monkeys. There were two winners overall: Tool’s Hibernate – a toasty wheat beer that tasted a bit like honeydew – and, that home advantage again, London Fields.

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The Brewhouse wasn’t packed the whole time we were there (from noon until about who-knows-but-from-Facebook-we-can-tell-it-was-still-light-o’clock), which is a mystery to us. Without a doubt, and with printing errors factored in, the Challenge showcased some outstanding beers in a fun new format. And we should know, because we tried all of them. Put the last few rounds in your calendar right now; exercise your democratic right to be snobby about beer; and make sure you arrive early. But please leave us the sunny bench.

- ED

Green fingers in Greenwich – Meantime establishes hop farm on the meridian

When someone says “hop farm”, it conjures up a certain mental image. Since our trip to the rolling green fields of Worcestershire to visit Stocks Farm in April, we think of acres of posts and wirework stretching away seemingly into infinity while birds chirp in the hedgerows and the Malverns loom in the distance. We do not think of the sound of a construction site, graffiti and the porcupine-like spectre of the O2.

London brewers Meantime have set out to change that.

DSC_0778ICIP has come to the launch event for the new Meantime hop farm, situated on the Greenwich Peninsula. The site is opposite Canary Wharf, behind the O2, and quite literally right on the Meridian Line – a green wooden plank running straight through the planters marks it out. As locations go, it’s pretty iconic.

DSC_0766This new venture has been developed since the success of Meantime’s “Hops in a Box” project last year, which cumulated in the production of 1,000 bottles of Hop City Porter – a beer made with hops grown across London. This year they’ve taken it a step further by setting up the first permanent hop farm in London for over 100 years.

“London is an exciting place to be a brewer right now. The variety of ingredients at our disposal is huge and it allows us to pack flavour into our beer,” says Rich Myers, Marketing Director at Meantime. “I hope that our hop farm will make more of the public aware of that fact. The beer we will create is about championing our Capital’s rich brewing heritage.”

The baby hops aren’t visible right now, buried somewhere under a sea of cheery marigolds, but we’re reliably informed that there are 48 plants growing on the plot. Keeping with the traditional English vibe, they are all Fuggles.

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“As soon as I saw the site, I knew I wanted to be involved,” says Kate Lonergan, Director at Blacheath Windowbox, the landscape company responsible for creating the hop farm. “I immediately saw the theatrical potential. I wanted to make it an installation, a beacon – a fun moment on The Thames path which had it’s own integrity and connection with it’s surroundings. I suppose I saw the possibilities, not the negatives.”

Despite Kate’s enthusiasm, there were some significant challenges to overcome. Firstly, she had never worked with hops before. “I contacted a number of hop specialists to chat about it,” she said. “Luckily hops are perennials and I work with them all the time!” Working alongside the Essentially Hops company from Kent, Kate’s team were able to set up the posts based on a commercial hop pole configuration, on a slightly smaller scale. They were also able to source authentic coir (natural fibre from coconut husks) and hop pegs.

DSC_0774The next challenge was the location. There’s a very good reason that the banks of the Thames are not already teeming with hop farms. “I knew we would have problems with wind due to the site’s proximity to the river, and the massive turbine at the O2 creates a wind vortex,” she explains. “So I suggested the triangular formation so the hops could protect themselves a bit, casting shadow and providing a wind break. I have had water support installed through root refreshers which kick in only when the plants are under stress through lack of surface water.”

The plants will need to be trained clockwise around the strings as they grow and carefully tended over the coming months. Meantime are hoping to harvest around 9lbs of hop buds from the site – enough for a 10 hectolitre batch of beer to be brewed this coming autumn.

Despite all the practical considerations of how to best grow the hops here on the Peninsula, Meantime have also worked hard on the look and feel of the site, to establish this as an “urban oasis”. Keeping a modern, urban vibe, the planters have been decorated with graffiti by the street artist Xenz. Kate says that the brewery weren’t sure about this idea at first, but that everyone has been delighted with the results. “I was so pleased Xenz included bees and butterflies in his design; the site is full of the critters thanks to the marigolds we planted and also the wild blackberries, hollyhocks and poppies growing around here. The marigolds should also hopefully deter pests!”

Nick Miller, Meantime's CEO

Nick Miller, Meantime’s CEO

Builders are hard at work just a few metres away, and it is clear that this is an early addition to what will be a huge regeneration in this area of Greenwich. “We owe a big thank you to Knight Dragon [company investing in the development], who we work with closely on the Peninsula,” says Nick Miller, Meantime’s CEO. “They work very closely with the community in Greenwich; we are the benefactors of that and we are extremely grateful for all their support.”

For the launch party, the brewery have rolled out the “Half Pint” – a van doubling as a portable bar – and have a BBQ on the go while drinkers sit on hay bales. They are serving up their latest brew, Californian Pale Ale (5.5%), a beer which takes its inspiration from American pale ales while still paying homage to the British styles which in turn influenced these US beers. It is made with both Slovenian Celeila and American Crystal hops, giving it a fruity and fresh nose, and uses East Anglian malt, which lends it a subtle sweet lift to balance the bitterness. The beer is delicious – light and fresh enough for a refreshing summer pint, but with enough flavour and complexity to satisfy our beer geekiness.

DSC_0776As the sun begins to sink behind the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf and the beer continues to flow, it is impossible not to be infected by Meantime’s obvious passion for their latest project. They are clearly hugely proud of their London roots and by their connection to Greenwich.

“This is probably the only hop farm directly on the Meridian,” says Nick. “We’re very proud of that. Our name is Meantime, and we are growing one of the most important raw materials of our beer on the meantime.”

ICIP is hoping to return to the hop farm to report on its progress, but in the meantime (!), you can visit Meantime’s Facebook page to see how the hops are getting on. You can also follow the progress of other keen hop growers across London on the #hopsinabox hashtag on Twitter.

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Pork Choc – Montezuma’s and Hogs Back Brewery launch Chocolate Lager

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Regular ICIP readers will already know that my love of beer is matched by my love of chocolate. I actually have a chocolate cupboard at home (I’m not even joking). Being the chocoholic that I am, I am on the mailing list for Montezuma’s, the Sussex-based chocolatiers, and you can find several of their products in my Special Chocolate Cupboard. So when an email pinged through advertising a collaborative beer with Hogs Back Brewery – a Chocolate Lager – I could barely believe my luck.

Hogs Back Brewery, who you may know for their bitter, T.E.A (Traditional English Ale, 4.2%), have spent 6 months working with Montezuma’s to create this new beer. “For ages I thought there were too many mainstream, unimaginative chocolate/alcohol combinations,” says David Pattinson, Head of Sales at Hogs Back. “Simon and Helen Patterson at Montezuma’s felt the same, so we decided we would create something new and hopefully innovative to take chocolate and alcohol in a different direction. I didn’t have to push them too hard…”

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What immediately surprised us about the beer was the choice of style. We’re used to chocolatey notes in stouts and porters, but not in a lager. “We haven’t ended up quite where we expected – you would intuitively think a dark chocolate beer would be dark – this isn’t, and that makes it quite intriguing,” says Rupert Thompson, owner of the brewery. So what made them decide to go with this flavouring in a lighter beer? “We sat around a table with the Montezuma’s team, and the old beer guys amongst us were wondering which of our dark beers would it be,” says David. “Then they asked why we couldn’t try the lager. We did, were staggered by how well the hop lifts the chocolate. After that, the decision was made and we cracked on with production.”

Apparently chocolate can cause problems when brewing – you can’t add it directly to the beer when you brew because of the fat content. So the brewery infused the beer with Montezuma’s Lordy Lord chocolate – 70% dark choccy with cacao nibs – by maceration and gentle extraction. “Our base beer is our Hogstar Lager, which is infused with the nibs and chocolate from Lordy Lord,” says David. “Exactly when Miles (Chesterman, Head Brewer at Hogs Back) adds the infusion is something he would need to tell you, but I suspect he’d have to kill you first.”

DSC_0794Hogstar is itself a relatively new addition to Hogs Back’s repertoire. Well-known for their traditional range, the 4.5% lager was a bit of a departure from their usual style, and was launched late last year. It is brewed with five different hops to bring out both bitterness and aroma, as well as lager malts, a hint of crystal malt and botanical extracts. It is then matured for over a month, during which time the lager’s flavours deepen and develop. It is unusual for modern commercial lagers to be matured like this, although of course, this is the traditional way that this style was made. It is unpasteurised and the carbonation develops naturally.

The beer pours clear and golden, perhaps a shade darker than you would expect, and the quality of the lager shines through when you taste it. The brewery describes it as ‘a light, fresh, refreshing beer carrying a rich but well balanced chocolate and hop flavour, evident both on the nose and on the palette’. We got huge hits of cocoa on the nose, a sweetness that was reminiscent of soft fruits and berries. Mr Pip likened it to cherry hot chocolate. But underneath that sweetness was that distinctive pilsner hoppy sourness that promised more than a gimicky flavoured beer.

Our previous experiences with chocolate-flavoured beers have been pretty bad (Hotel Chocolat, we are looking at you), but Chocolate Lager finally soothed my chocolatey beer nightmares. It tastes nothing like you’d expect after such a rich and sweet nose. The beer has light carbonation and has the crisp, fresh feel that you’d hope for from a lager, with a clean mouthfeel. There is a decent hit of bitterness across the back of the tongue but also a delicate and subtle sweet cocoa aftertaste which complements the bitterness rather than making you feel like you’re swilling a syrupy soft drink. It really is delicious.

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“As projects go, beer and chocolate is probably about as good as it gets!” says Simon Pattinson, co-founder of Montezuma’s. “This is one of the few chocolate lagers in the world and definitely a challenge to perceived wisdom, but give it a go and be prepared to open your mind to a lager that flies in the face of convention!” The interesting pairing could also lend itself to food and beer matching, as Rupert suggests: “Chocolate puddings are notoriously difficult to complement with wines but could work very well if this lager were added to dessert menus”.

Has the success of this collaboration whetted the brewery’s appetite for further chocolatey brews? “I hope we can do something else; reactions to this beer have been so good even at this early stage,” says David. “Personally I fancy having a crack at our Barley Wine (A Over T or Aromas Over Tongham, 9%) to see if we can marry a very complex rich beer with a chocolate and look at tackling something almost like a liqueur.”

The beer is available from the Hogs Back webshop and their brewery shop in Tongham, Surrey. Making the most of the Father’s Day present-buying rush, Montezuma’s is selling the beer on their website as part of nifty gift sets which include the Lordy Lord chocolate. Frankly, the “Happy Father’s Day” labels emblazoned all over these is not deterring us from buying them all for ourselves. Not in the slightest.

Want more beer and chocolate? Check out our coverage of the Dea Latis beer and chocolate matching event, which includes Montezuma’s Peeling Amorous chocolate.

- PS

He ain’t heavy, he’s my brewer

Sometimes the Twitterverse throws you opportunities too good to pass up.

In October 2013, ICIP and the – at the time, very new – Little Brother Brewery started following each other. We said hi, felt a pang of disappointment when we realised they were based over the North Sea in Norway, and made some wistful comment about coming to visit if we were ever feeling flush.

Eight months later, we had booked a Scandinavian jaunt which was going to include a stay in Oslo, Little Brother’s hometown. A few emails later, and we were on for a visit.

littlebro1Founded in mid-2013 by brothers Andrew and Cameron Manson, the brewery has just been granted its production license and is now officially the smallest commercial brewery in Oslo. “I was brewing in uni in Brisbane in the laundry with my brother and some flatmates,” Cameron reminisces. “When I moved to Europe, I got back into brewing. When I first moved to Oslo, my neighbour gave me a bottle of homebrew which really impressed me. So I decided to pick up the hobby again.”

lilbro5The ball is just starting to get rolling for Little Brother. “We got our first order the other day, actually,” Cameron tells us, proudly. “We have three orders now! It’s Oslo beer week next month and we’ll be selling some kegs to the organisers, Grünerløkka Brygghus.” They will also be releasing a bottled beer which will be sold in local pub, Cafe Sara. “We’ll be hand bottling, and we’re using 750ml bottles because you pay a tax per bottle in Norway. You have to pay a recycling company because they are then responsible for cleaning away all the rubbish. So you choose big bottles to get the most out of each one. If you have a container over 4 litres then you don’t pay, so the key kegs are going to be important.” It sounds like a lot of red tape for a small company starting out. “It’s costly and it takes time, but getting the kegs will help a lot. That’ll save time, then we can just do bottles for restaurants.”

The brewery still isn’t the day job for Cameron, who manages a bar at an upmarket Oslo hotel. “I plan the roster so that I can work in the brewery. It’s hard work, but now we’re getting a few orders in, and we’ve got our license in place, it’s working out.” With interest in the brewery picking up, he is hopeful that he may be able to focus more on Little Brother as time goes on: “maybe in a year’s time I can even think about this being a full time thing.”

lilbro3Despite coming from London, home of very expensive craft beer, we’re still reeling from the prices of beer in Norway. “Ah, sure, it’s pricey, but then wages are pretty high here as well. If people weren’t profitable they couldn’t make a good business – everything’s costly, but then again, I think minimum wage is about 140NOK (c. £14).” We’re stunned by this – we’re pretty sure the minimum wage is about half that in the UK. No wonder we’re finding everything more expensive in Scandinavia. The other issue is where the beer can be sold. You can only buy beer up to 4.7% in shops (and at limited times). Any alcoholic drinks over this percentage are sold exclusively at the government-owned Vinmonopolet. “I’m going to brew this wheat beer to about 4.6% so I can try to get it into the supermarket,” says Cameron. “I’d go higher if I could, but then it would never make it into the shops. The IPA will never make it into a supermarket!”

Despite the costs and the bureaucracy, craft beer seems to be booming here, maybe even more so than back home. “Apparently there’s a new brewery opening every month in Norway,” Cameron agrees. “Even the homebrew shops have expanded massively since I started out. The one I go to has gone from two to thirty employees in two years.” On our trip, we saw a huge range of styles available – everything from European pilsners through to a Cassis Tripel that nearly finished us off (thanks, Nøgne ø). Is there a particular style that sets Norwegian hearts racing? “Definitely IPA. The first beer that we’re going to release is an IPA; we’re playing it safe there. I think the core range will be the IPA and a wheat beer.”

lilbro4But Little Brother clearly won’t be content to stick with the basics. “I’m trying the wheat beer four ways; the same grain bill, brewed with local honey and then with a different yeast for each one. I’ll dry hop with a couple of different varieties of hops. In one I’m going to try adding the dried skins of coffee beans. It doesn’t really taste like coffee, it’s more of a tea flavour. So I’m gonna add that with the dry hops and leave it for seven days.” And Cameron has other plans up his sleeve. “I’m also going to do an imperial coffee stout – I’ll coarse grind the Mexican coffee I’m using, then bag it and then just stick it in like dry hops. This will be mashed at a high temperature and there will be lots of residual sugar, then I’ll referment it with champagne yeast in the bottle so it’ll have a sweetness and a malt backbone that’ll handle the acidity. The coffee has dark berry flavours, so it’ll go well with the chocolate and coffee flavours from the beer.”

lilbro1So where does Cameron get his inspiration for such creative brewing? “I do surf the net a lot. If I like a beer I’ll look for some sort of clone recipe to try and find out what hop or yeast is used. I try a lot of different beers too; lately I’ve been trying single hop ales because you really get the profile of the hops without having to brew with each one, and really understand flavours.” Cameron’s passion for brewing is obvious. “I always remember the first time I tried beer was in the pub with my dad, and I hated it. I thought: ‘I’ll never like beer’. Now I realise that it was just shit beer, and I still don’t like it now!” It seems unlikely that a young adult growing up in Norway would have the same problem. We’re staggered by the choice here.

Despite the brewery still being very much in its infancy, Little Brother has big plans for the future. “Right now we’re looking at getting some funding to get some large equipment – we want two conical fermenters, a palette of kegs and a palette of bottles so we can really start operating. What we’d love to aim at a beer cafe, similar to what Mikkeller has done. We’re going to do a beer club here at the brewery as well, hopefully. We’ll get fridges, and we already have a hop-back so we can serve beers through the fresh hops.” And what of worldwide domination? “Well, my brother is back home. He’s an architect and photographer and he does all of our design and the website. In the distant future we’d like to open up down there. Craft beer is becoming bigger there now too.”

littlebro2It’s been exciting to witness the birth of a new brewery which is already doing some really innovative and exciting things with their beer after just a few months, and with such great plans for the future. We can’t wait to see what Little Brother come up with now they have their production license – we can only hope they’re prepared to ship overseas!

Want more? You can read more about our boozy trip around Denmark and Norway.

- PS

Skål! – our boozy Nordic saga (part two)

If you missed part one, which focusses on our boozy experiences in Denmark, read it here!schous

Beer pretty much slapped us in the face from the moment we got to Oslo, with excellent beer almost literally within grabbing distance: from our hotel window we could see the remains of the Schous Brewery just over the road. Founded in 1800 and closed down in 1981, this is still home to the Schouskjelleren Mikrobryggeri in an atmospheric cellar under what’s left of the old premises. After nearly having a heart-attack at the price of beer in Norway (even higher than in Denmark, as if it was possible), we tucked into a Joca Blonde (5.5%) and a “Female of the Species” Single Hop Nelson (5.1%), both delicious. It was interesting to see what was popular with beer fans over the North Sea, and we were surprised to see a couple of beers by ICIP favourite Thornbridge as well as Brewdog on the blackboard behind the bar.

Our next beer experience came courtesy of a random Twitter exchange from back in October 2013, when ICIP and Little Brother Brewery started following each other. At the time, we weren’t expecting to ever get the chance to visit them, so when we found out we’d be in town just a few weeks after they got their production license, making them the smallest commercial brewery in Oslo, everything fell neatly into place.

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We were welcomed to the microbrewery by co-owner Cameron Manson (the eponymous little brother – big bro Andrew is based in Brisbane, where they hope to expand to in the future). We don’t want to spoil too much, because we’re planning on dedicating a whole post to our trip to Little Brother, but it was clear from chatting to Cameron that the Oslo beer scene is flourishing just as much as it is back home in London, with new microbreweries popping up and plenty of experimentation: “Apparently there’s a new brewery opening every month in Norway,” he told us. “Even the homebrew shops have expanded massively since I started out.”

After our tour of the brewery we took the opportunity to ask for some local advice, and Cameron gamely drew us up a list of bars to sniff out for good beer. Fortuitously, one of them was very close to our hotel (what an excellent choice of accommodation this was turning out to be!). This was Cafe Sara, a pub full of trendy young things, friendly staff, some interesting offerings on the taps and a well-stocked beer fridge. It ended up being a messy night.

The damage:

Single Sara – Christianssand Brygghus and Cafe Sara collab (5.7%)
Pensjonisten – Bryggerhuset Veholt (5.8%)
Odin’s Tipple – Haandbryggeriet (11%)
Osen Lager – Tonga Gardsøl (6%)
Cassis Trippel – Nøgne Ø (9.5%)
Humlekanon – Haandbryggeriet (7.5%)

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We’re not entirely sure how we got home.

We tried to lay off a bit for the next couple of days (visiting whole galleries of Edvard Munch is quite harrowing enough in itself without being hungover as well, thanks), but still managed a trip to another of Cameron’s recommendations: Smelteverket.

Situated in artisan food court Mathallen (think modern Nordic Borough Market and you’re getting warm), Smelteverket boasts “Norway’s longest bar”, with no less than twenty windows looking out over the Akerselva river. They also stock a range of Norwegian beers on tap and in bottles, and we had a try of a couple of beers by local brewery Grünerløkka (Løkka/crow White IPA, 6%, and Thorvalds Red Batch #17, 5.1%) and Haandbryggeriet (American Pale, 4.5%). We were very happy nursing these beauties until it was time to jet off to our final Scandi destination: we were Bergen-bound.

bryggenBergen is an absurdly beautiful place. As we stepped off the bus into Bryggen, we could hardly believe our eyes. The town is nestled between seven hills and seven fjords, and the busy harbour is lined with colourful, higgledy-piggledy wooden buildings.

Being that much further North than we’re used to, it was still light pretty far into the evening, which made the temptation to sit outside a bar with a beer and a blanket even more powerful. So we could hardly believe it when we realised that there was a very swish, very new-looking craft beer bar at the end of the road from our hotel.

7fjellWe were sold the moment we walked through the door at Una Bryggeri & Kjøkken, which was so new the builders were still drilling and hammering upstairs, and I had to use the men’s loo because the women’s wasn’t plumbed in yet. This trendy bar will be brewing its own stuff very soon, but in the meantime, we tucked into a Porter by Voss Bryggeri (7%) and a Walkendorff Amber Ale (6%) by the very local 7 Fjell Bryggeri.

It turns out that good beer is not at all hard to find in Bergen. We stumbled across Pingvinen (“Penguin”) in the sleepy backstreets, where we nearly collapsed under the weight of probably the freshest and most delicious prawn smørbrød in the world and glasses of Lervig Aktiebryggeri Hoppy Joe (4.7%). We also enjoyed a quiet drink in the quirky Kafe Kippers, set in an old sardine canning factory, where we tried Waldemars Mikrobryggeri Hveteøl (4.7%) and a Vossa Pale Ale (6%) by Voss.

But the real highlight of our trip was yet to come.

You can’t visit Bergen without going on some sort of excursion out into the nearby fjords. We had planned ahead and were booked into a day-long trip which would – hopefully – give us a taste of the incredible scenery Norway has to offer.

vergenWe would begin with one of the most scenic rail journeys in the world: from Bergen to Myrdal, in the mountains, where we would board the Flåmsbana. This special railway is the steepest standard gauge railway in Europe, and has been running since 1940. This would take us down from the snowy mountains and into the tiny village of Flåm, nestled at the end of the Aurlandsfjorden. There we would board a boat for an epic five and a half hour boat ride through the Sognefjord and back to Bergen.

While this was the cause for much excitement, we were not anticipating beer to play a part of this day. Unless we dropped back into Una after we got back, of course.

jumperAfter about 200 photos and much gawping, we arrived in Flåm. Just to  emphasise this: Flåm is tiny. Dwarfed by the comically huge cruise ships that park up in the fjord, it basically offers a few hotels, a slightly tired museum, a couple of sad cafes and several shops selling Scandinavian knitwear.

Oh, and a mind-blowing microbrewery and pub.

We thought we were hallucinating when we saw a sign for the “Ægir Brewery and Pub”, and definitely started to question our senses as we rounded the corner to see the Viking-esque wooden building, complete with dragons carved on the roof.

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My friends, it was a practically spiritual experience.

aegir6Inside, away from the chilly mountain air was a 9-metre floor-to-ceiling open fireplace with pelt-covered seating around it. The seats were made of roughly hewn tree stumps. The tap handles were made from antlers.

aegir2 aegir4

I wanted to weep for joy. I began to curse the fact that I only had a hour and a half before I had to board a STUPID boat to go on a STUPID INCREDIBLE ONCE-IN-A-LIFETIME FJORD TOUR.

Founded in 2007 by Norwegian Aud Melås and American brewer Evan Lewis, the brewery has been steadily expanding over the last few years and has also opened a distillery. They won Norwegian Brewpub of the Year three years on the trot, and we’re not surprised.

aegir5We stayed as long as we physically could without missing our boat, sampling the following:

Ævenue (6% saison)
Sumbel Porter (4.7%)
Ægir IPA (6.5%)
Rallar Amber Ale (4.5%)

The range of beers on offer was fantastic – the brewery’s website lists styles as diverse as barley wine, Scotch ale, bock and blonde amongst its regular, year-round selection.

We found ourselves lured to the bottle shop even though we knew full well that our cases were already stuffed with Nørrebro bottles from Denmark. “I’ll just leave some clothes behind”, I insisted, clanking my way down the gangplank and onto the boat.

Sadly, all good things must come to an end. Checked out of our hotel, our Lonely Planets exhausted, and with just a couple of hours to go before we had to catch the bus to the airport, we bedded down back at Una. We finished our trip with 7 Fjell’s Svartediket Black IPA (7%) and a We Love Wheat Collaboration between Lervig and Nøgne Ø (7.9%). I reflected, as I supped my delicious, wallet-destroying Norwegian beer, that we were ending our holiday by doing exactly what we hadn’t really anticipated doing at the start of the trip – just kicking back with a couple of beers.

dutyfreeInspecting our boozy swag on our return to London (yes, we did buy more delicious beer in duty free), I marvelled at how beer had shaped our holiday, and how it had accented every high point. From our chance meeting with Arizona Wilderness in Mikkeller Bar and the mindblowing tasting menu at Nørrebro, through to the tour of Little Brother and our Ægir epiphany in Flåm, it truly had been a boozy Nordic saga; a real adventure.

The Scandinavian countries are often touted as the happiest in the world. Having checked out the beer, we think we understand why. Skål!

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- PS