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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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.

ICIP enjoying GBBF

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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