Monday 22 October 2012

The World Atlas of Beer

Two books I return to again and again are The World Guide to Beer and Beer Companion, both by Michael Jackson. Comprehensive in scope and lyrical in style, they are classics and also still relevant now. But the world-reaching beer books needed updating to show how much and how fast beer continues to evolve.

Enter Stephen Beaumont and Tim Webb with The World Atlas of Beer. It’s a sumptuous snapshot of the world of beer as it is today, taking the work of Michael Jackson and flinging it forward. It’s kept the history, the classic styles and beers, the photos of pouring a perfect pils, tables to help you pair beer and food better, the focus on different countries and close looks at important styles, and then the Atlas gives new insights into how beer is changing and how things are right now.

I like what Beaumont and Webb have done. They achieve a completeness of information by being concise, informative and current, their style is direct and simple by using a similar breezily informative tone that Jackson employed so wonderful, it’s an omniscient approach that’s carefully selected and the information they give us is delivered in a way which makes it easy to understand but it’s also truth-worthy and authoritative.

The joy of the book is in the way it looks, the maps, the beautiful photos – it’s a travel book as much as a ‘drink me’ book – as well as the actual information on the page which is insightful and interesting. Perhaps more than anything else, it makes me want to know more and while I want more on the pages in front of me (just more pages, more words, more beers), it also works like a gentle nudge out into the world where I can find these things out for myself: it gives a sip which you can chase and turn into a gulp.  

One thing that feels evident is that this is the first of many evolutions of the Atlas. This one modernises what Michael Jackson wasn’t able to modernise himself. The next, I imagine, will jump it forward and put more attention on newer beer styles alongside classics – for example, biere de garde gets a spread but IPA, America’s most popular craft beer style, does not. Beer is always changing and evolving and the words written about it always need to be updated alongside the liquid – the Atlas has the ability to be that book which is always ‘current’.

The World Atlas of Beer is a reverential development of Michael Jackson’s books but it also does more than merely polishing up Jackson’s work – like reading The World Guide to Beer and then Beer Companion, the Atlas moves beer seamlessly forward with a new look at world beer. Everyone who likes beer should buy it

Thursday 18 October 2012

GABF versus GBBF


That’s my pencil scratching off a beer-thing that I’ve wanted to do for years: the Great American Beer Festival.

Held in Denver, Colorado, every year, it’s an outrageously big celebration of American brewing. In 2012 the festival numbers were record-breaking: 578breweries pouring 2,700 beers to 49,000 attendees. I was there judging the competition which was also record-breaking: 4,338 beers submitted by 666 breweries and tasted by 185 judges across 84 style categories.

But what’s GABF like compared to GBBF?

GABF runs four four-hour-ish sessions. GBBF runs for five days, 12-10pm.

GABF tickets are $65 a session (there’s a members only session at $55) while GBBF are £10; GABF’s cost includes all the beer you’ll drink whereas you pay for each beer at GBBF.

Measures at GBBF are one-third-pint, half-pint and pint. GABF is a 1oz pour. This is an interesting one as I thought that a 1oz pour would suck, but it doesn’t. Sure, there’s no time to sit back and relax by sipping on a half, but it gives the opportunity to taste a lot of beer and 1oz isn’t really that small when you’re there and doing it. Plus, if you like the beer you can just order another one and another until satisfied. And if you don’t like it then there’s only a mouthful to drink or dump – at GBBF I’ve had many beers which I’ve bought and then dumped because they aren’t what I wanted.

It’s worth lingering on this point because it’s important. I liked being able to taste 50, 70, 100 beers, or whatever it was, in four hours. And it is about tasting, not drinking (though it’s very possible to get very drunk if you go hard). With so many beers being poured, most of which I’d never had or even heard of, I wanted to drink as many as possible, jumping from IPA to pilsner to saison to stout to sour beer to whatever was on the next table. But there is a downside to this: the whole thing feels frantic as if there’s a rush to get the next beer and the next – there’s a casual, sit-down-and-enjoy-it feel to GBBF while GABF feels like a race.

I like the layout of GABF: it’s broken down geographically but then each brewery has their own space, compared to the large regional bars at GBBF (which require cartography lessons to navigate). Brewers can pour their own beers at GABF, which is great, though Andy Crouch would like to see more brewers there and I’d agree. This also means that breweries can put things out on their bars – beer info, POS stuff, whatever. I think brewers pouring their own beer at GBBF would be a great thing, as would more information about the beers we’re drinking, though this would involve a complete change in how things are done (similar to what was achieved at the awesome Independent Manchester Beer Convention).

This layout also creates a situation where drinkers line-up for specific breweries. Over the four sessions, a handful of breweries consistently had lines of people waiting to try their beer – Dogfish Head, Cigar City, Russian River, Crooked Stave. I have never seen a line at GBBF waiting to try the beer from one brewery, instead it becomes a big bundle at the bar as drinkers gun for the Champion Beer of Britain or some geek treat on the foreign bar. The queuing was actually a good thing, I reckon – there’s a buzz that comes with that.

The size of GABF kept on surprising me: it’s huge (just look at the map). Overwhelmingly big, in fact. But at the same time that’s good – it shows the sheer, exciting scale of American craft beer.

Olympia is a nicer place to drink than the Denver Convention Centre.

The beers: 2,700 beers at GABF and around 500 beers at GBBF. When I go to GBBF I spend most of my time at the foreign beer bar. Imagine that multiplied by about 300 and that’s what GABF was like for me. It’s not fair to compare the volume (500 is, after all, more than I could manage over five days anyway), but the range is more relevant to compare: there was simply more variety at GABF – you name it and it was there.

Like at GBBF, at GABF some breweries can choose to take up bigger bars. This gives them more presence, means they can pour more beer and can put more personality into it. At GBBF we get regional breweries and sometimes they excite and surprise with what they pour – this year at GBBF Twaites had a couple of crackers, Fuller’s had the superlative Fuller’s Reserve, Greene King poured 5X. At GABF it was bigger breweries who took these corner plots but still ones which most drinkers want to get to: Odell, Oskar Blues, Dogfish Head, New Belgium, Bear Republic, Anchor, Sierra Nevada...

Food at GBBF is normal stomach-fillers like pies, pasties and burgers, plus the wonderful pork scratchings. I expected good food at GABF but I didn’t see it: pizza was pretty much all you got.

Pretzel necklaces. These are a curiosity. For three days I saw people walking around with a necklace of pretzels hanging on their chest. I’d seen photos of these before and assumed there’d be a stall inside selling them. There isn’t. This surely means that all those thousands of pretzel chains were homemade. How the hell did that craze start?!

Photo from here
The dropped-glass cheer. I figured this was a unique British element of GBBF: the chime of broken glass which sends a wave of cheers through the huge hall. This is not unique to GBBF and it also happens at GABF. Both are funny in their own ways: at GBBF a glass costs £3 so the butter-fingered drinker has to go and buy another one at the expense of three more pounds and the laughter of their mates; at GABF three of the four sessions use plastic glasses which, when dropped, bump around like a rugby ball and bounce in all sorts of different directions as their owner scrambles to catch it while everyone around them cheers. 

Award-winning beers. At GBBF there’s always a hush as the Champion Beer of Britain is announced, this is often followed by some ‘what the fucks’ which is then followed by people casually, but at great speed, heading to find that beer and drink it. After the awards are announced at GABF (which this year happened on Saturday morning before the final two sessions), lines increase to try and find medal-winning beers while brewers walk around with medals hanging proudly from their necks. One interesting distinction is that it feels like the medal winners at GABF are celebrated whereas GBBF winners are denigrated (unless you know the brewery and love the beer). I definitely think there’s a lot of work needed on the competition side of things in Britain with more transparency and information about how these things are decided, perhaps creating a bigger GABF-style competition.

Atmospheres at both are similar. Huge halls of drinkers create their own backing track of humming conversation. At GABF there’s also karaoke and a silent disco sponsored by Oskar Blues – can you imagine if GBBF had a silent disco? I’d love to see that!

There was a much younger demographic at GABF.

And then there’s one final thing: the stuff which happens outside of the festival. Things start on the Monday of GABF and lead around until the Saturday it finishes. Every day there are breakfasts, lunches, evening events and after-parties; there’s beer launches and rare beer tastings; paired beer dinners; you name it, it happens. Plus, all of the many bars and breweries in town are open and packed with drinkers. What’s impressive is that the 49,000 attendees pump $7 million dollars into Denver over the duration of GABF and that’s outside of seven-figure ticket sales. At GBBF there’s so much focus on the festival itself that nothing happens outside of it. Perhaps it’s the fact that drinkers at GBBF can stay all day, I don’t know, but it’d be brilliant if London could embrace the festival and turn it into a city-wide event that can bring in visitors for an extended stay.

I love both festivals and if you love beer and haven’t been to GABF then you must try and go sometime; if you haven’t been to GBBF then you should go to that.

Wednesday 17 October 2012

The Interlude Explained

It’s been quiet around here, ain’t it? No posts in July or September and this is only the ninth post since the end of April. Considering I’ve averaged over 170 posts a year in the last three years, that’s pretty slack. I’ve not just sacked the blog off, I’ve been pretty busy and in that time I’ve been to Chicago, San Diego, Brussels, Copenhagen, Greece, northern Italy and Denver (plus Leeds, Manchester and lots of time in London), my little sister got married, I’ve written a few freelance beer pieces, I’ve moved house, I’ve changed my working life (less time in the brewery, more at home trying to earn cash from writing) and I’ve written a beer book.

The beer book is the big one. I had a four month deadline to write 80,000 words. It ended up taking almost five months of me getting up at 5am every day and working a few hours every evening. It was damn hard work, especially working full time for most of it. The book is done now and with designers. It’ll be out in spring next year. Given all the research and all the travel, I’ve got lots of things to write about and it’s time to catch up on all of them.

To get it rolling, here’s one memorable beer from each of the places I’ve been to this year. It comes five days after this blog should've celebrated its fourth birthday, which I forgot. That kind of shows you, along with the above, that it's been a busy, strange kind of year...

Chicago. Intelligensia Coffee. Not a beer, obviously. We drank a lot of good beer but the coffee was the thing I remember more. We even got a tour around the roastery as it’s next door to Goose Island’s brewery. The coffee is in Dark Lord. We went to Dark Lord Day. Dark Lord (Day) sucks. Gumballhead by Three Floyds does not suck. It’s awesome.

San Diego. Stone Ruination IPA at the brewery. It was the beer which made me love IPAs and getting it fresh was brilliant.

Brussels. Cantillon Lambic, obviously. It was my second visit to the brewery and if it was my 102nd then I still think I’d be as excited about being there and drinking the lambic.

Copenhagen. Bourbon-barrel-aged Westvleteren 12. Seriously. Struise brought this along as a secret special and it was insane.

Leeds. Beer Bloggers Conference. Unfiltered Pilsner Urquell, drunk with friends, while laughing harder than I’ve laughed in a long time.

London. I’ve spent most of my time in London at Camden Town Brewery. Rude Boy, the 6.8% American-hopped lager, is dangerous by the stein but I can’t help slamming pints of it.

Greece. Cold Mythos, obviously. Sitting on the beach, at sundown, eating fresh fish.

Northern Italy. Birrificio Italiano Tipopils on tap. It might be my favourite beer in the whole world.

Manchester. Lovibonds Sour Grapes. Jeff finally let some leave the brewery but if I was him then I’d just be sitting in there drinking it all myself. WOW it’s good.

Denver. The second and then the last beer I drank was Pliny the Elder. I still can’t resist ordering it when I see it. Honorary mention, because it’s fresh in my mind, is Crooked Stave’s Oculus. Crooked Stave is incredible. Denver is getting a third beer: I judged a few categories at GABF and one of them was Barrel-Aged Strong Beer. There was an old ale (aged in wine barrels or bourbon, I can’t remember) in there that was simply spectacular and I have no idea what it was. 

Kent Green-Hopped Beer

For the first time this year I went to a hop farm during the harvest. The gardens are overflowing with bright green hops while speeding tractors carry piled-high loads of hops to be processed by huge, clunking old machines, filling the air with the dozy, fresh, spicy and grassy aromas. To see the scale and speed of it, to hold a handful of plump, soft hops, to pick them from the bine yourself and rip them open to rub the sticky oil on your fingers, to have your senses flooded by the unique aromas, to see how one variety looks different to another, to be surrounded by the thing which makes you love the taste of beer... it’s evocative and extraordinary and anyone who loves beer has to go to a hop farm when they are harvesting – it gives you a whole new appreciation of where beer’s most amazing flavours come from.

Having lived in Kent my whole life (where almost half of Britain’s hops are now grown), I’ve always had a close link to hops without ever really knowing. There’s the Hop Farm, but I never went there on a school trip; there’s oast houses across the county, the white tips high in the air, but I thought they were just fancy farm houses; those fields with tall trellises which smelt spicy on hots day as we drove through the countryside was just the smell of being outside.

Hops are brilliant and I love them, but British hops are on a bit of a downer at the moment and need some cheering on. One great way of doing this is with green hopped beers. As a beer-loving Man of Kent, the Kent Green Hop Fortnight, which saw 20 breweries make at least one green-hopped beer with fresh Kent hops, made the Invicta horse inside me kick with excitement.

Most hops are dried before they reach the brewhouse. Green-hopped beers are different: picked fresh from the bine, hops go from field to kettle as fast as possible in order to capture the maximum amount of oils into the brew. These volatile oils, many of which are lost to the drying process, give a delicate, fresh cut grassiness, floral and stone fruit flavour different to anything you’ll find in a dried hop. Only brewable during the harvest, these are the ultimate seasonal beer where local hop farms and breweries come together – they also require the brewery to be bold and brave with their hop additions, often needing 10-times the weight of wet to dry.

What makes green-hopped beers great is that they somehow capture an essence of the hop garden, a flavour of the countryside, of freshness, evocative of sticky green fingers and grass stains on your knees. Getting 20 of Kent’s breweries together has also highlighted the hop growing in the county as well as showing off the variety of beers brewed in the south east. It also gives a big backslap to British hops in general. That can only be a good thing and while all of the 2012 beers have been drunk, I’m already looking forward to 2013’s harvest when hopefully all of Kent’s breweries will brew again and so will others around the country, really showing off the brilliant hops grown in Britain.