Thursday, 31 December 2015

The Best Beers of My Travels in 2015

In my Golden Pints I struggled to pick out one favourite non-British draft beer. So, like I did in 2014, I’m picking out a few of the beers I enjoyed most from my travels this year (a few of which were drunk during the research of The Best Beer in the World).

In February I went on a road trip around the Belgian Trappist breweries. Chunk and I stayed at Orval and got really drunk within the monastery grounds, most of which we can blame on the ridiculously delicious Orval Vert. It’s draft Orval, lighter in alcohol, softer in texture, richer in malt, more bitter, more aromatically hopped, and no brettanomyces. A remarkable beer drunk in a remarkable place.

I went to Birrificio Italiano in March specifically to drink fresh Tipopils. It’s long been a favourite beer of mine but to have glasses of bright gold beer with a billowing cloud-like foam was just unbeatable – I love the beer’s bright hop aroma, the challenging dry bitterness (the beer was inspired by Jever plus the addition of a dry hop) and the elegant depth. It’s a special beer.

My dad and I, whilst on a west coast US road trip, drove a 400-mile round-trip to have lunch at Firestone Walker (I drove there and he got the unfortunate job of having to drive us back, while I passed out in the passenger seat…). All the beers were excellent, especially Pivo Pils (ostensibly a copy of Tipopils) but Hammersmith IPA was the one which really stood out to me. A burstingly fresh IPA that I had in a flight to begin and then ordered a pint (hence falling asleep on the journey home…).

On the same road trip: the best thing I smelt in beer this year – and probably any other year past or future – was the hop store at Sierra Nevada. Imagine bales of green leafy hops stacked up like enormous lego bricks all smelling like citrus and forests and tropical fruit. Sierra Nevada Pale Ale in the taproom, served at draft-strength and bottle-strength, was way beyond my already-high expectations for it. I preferred the draft-strength for the way the aroma was like a tiny distillation of their hop room. A beer pilgrimage worth taking.

I love Social Kitchen and Brewery in San Francisco. It’s underrated but really shouldn’t be for how all the beers have a stunning elegance and clean, precise quality to them while still having huge amounts of flavour. Mr Kite’s Pale Ale won gold at GABF a few weeks before I visited and it’s the best English-style Pale Ale I’ve ever tasted. Toasty malts give depth but no weight then the hops are peachy and grassy and subtly spicy in the best of ways.

Who knew that the best dark beer I’d drink in 2015 would be brewed in Seoul? Magpie Brewing’s Porter was a perfect glass of beer. Smooth with chocolatey malts, dry yet a little sweet with toast and milky caramel, a long finish but just the kind of fullness of flavour that marks a great Porter from a good one.

Tokyo was a crazy, amazing place. I wanted to go to find a unique beer culture and apart from small glasses of lager in izakayas with grilled skewers to snack on, I didn’t see it – instead it’s very US-inspired. Baird’s Suruga Bay DIPA was the best thing I drank there. Loads of tangy, citrusy, peachy hop aroma and an easy-going body of malt for a strong beer. I did also really love icy-cold glasses of Asahi in the izakayas. Dry, clean, bitterly refreshing and often poured with a whip of thick white foam.

We wanted to go on a beery boys’ trip, somewhere cheap, easy to get to, with decent beer and something different. We narrowed it down to Vilnius and I’m so glad it did. The farmhouse beers are unlike anything I’ve drunk before (kind of chubby, estery, sometimes buttery, sometimes a little farmy) and there’s a big variety to the brewing there that I really didn’t expect. It wasn’t all deliciously refreshing but it was all fascinating to drink – and it was a whole type of brewing and beer culture that I hadn’t heard of before 2015.

I drank a few pints of Faction Pale Ale this year and it’s a perfect example of the new style of tropical fruit juice hoppy beers that are coming out of the US. I really wish I could drink this beer – or something similar – in the UK.

A stein of Augustiner Edelstoff, served from large wooden barrels, in the Munich sun with Emma was a personal and beer highlight – it’s a favourite lager, so smooth and soft, and I drank it in the sunny Augustiner beer garden. I had this before and after running a half marathon in Tegernsee, south of Munich, where I drank Tegernsee Hell, another glorious lager. And this seems like a pretty good picture to end the year with.

Thursday, 24 December 2015

Golden Pints 2015

Best UK Cask Beer: St Austell Big Job
At GBBF, surrounded by 700 other beers, I just wanted glass after glass of Big Job. I find it difficult to pick any runner-ups as my drinking has become almost exclusively kegged beer (mostly because of where I drink rather than preference), though a couple stand out: Truman’s Yule Star was a little surprise of a star anise-infused stout, while Hammerton’s Pentonville and Five Points Pale Ale have been excellent when I’ve had them.

Best UK Keg Beer: Vocation Life and Death
Soft and fleshy and fruity and just really damn good – it’s brilliant to see a new brewing coming out with beers this tasty from the beginning. Runners-up include: Kernel Pale Ale Mosaic, BrewDog’s Milk Stout and Candy Kaiser.

Best UK Bottled Beer: BrewDog Born To Die
Both batches of this beer have been sensational. It’s a perfect Double IPA that’s as good as any brewed in the world. I had it on draft as well and that was also excellent.

Best UK Canned Beer: Camden IHL
It’s consistently great and rarely absent from my fridge – I love it for its bright, juicy aroma and the clean, subtle body of malt. BrewDog’s Black King Imp impressed massively and Vocation’s Pride and Joy is a wonderful pale ale.

Best Overseas Draught Beer: Birrificio Italiano Tipopils (and nine others…)
This is the hardest category for me. I’ve drunk in 10 countries this year and had some unforgettable experiences (which you can read about in The Best Beer in the World…). Instead of picking one, I’ll take a top 10 which deserves it’s own post, though the long list is Orval Vert, Birrificio Italiano Tipopils (probably the best of the year), Firestone Walker Hammersmith IPA (and Pivo Pils), Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Social’s Mr Kite’s Pale Ale, Magpie Brewing’s Porter, Baird’s Suruga Bay DIPA, Lithuanian Farmhouse Ale (all of them), Faction Pale Ale and Augustiner Edelstoff.

Best Overseas Bottled or Canned Beer: Westvleteren Blond
Three similar-ish beers immediately come to mind: Westvleteren Blond, Omer and Duvel. The Westvleteren Blond I drank at the monastery cafĂ© was so good that I (almost) didn’t care about drinking the 8 or 12; Omer is like drinking a delicious cloud; and Duvel is Duvel. The Westvleteren Blond was the big delightful surprise of the bottled beer year.

Best Overall Beer: BrewDog Born to Die
The best beer I’ve drunk this year.

Best UK Brewery: BrewDog
I wrote these choices a week ago and I almost rewrote this answer yesterday in reaction to BrewDog’s megalomaniacal and sanctimonious response to Camden Town Brewery, et al. It was inevitable that they’d remove the beer from their bars given the precedence they’ve already set but there are good and bad ways to do things and this is a bad way. 

However, from a purely liquid point of view, BrewDog have been very impressive this year and I’ve drunk a lot of their beer, many of them standing out as being especially memorable. To make Kandy Kaiser, a straight-up Altbier, and nail the style isn’t something I expected from them but it was excellent for being so traditional in taste. The Milk Stout is a luscious treat that I know I’ll be drinking more of. Black King Imp is an extraordinary stout and Born To Die just rocks.

Cloudwater are the exciting new brewery that almost got my brewery of the year. I always look for their next seasonal range – I love their hoppy wheat beers and their great lagers and I have a whole box of their beers to drink over Christmas. Brew By Numbers take third place for being constantly very good and interesting – the Tripel is a favourite.

Best Overseas Brewery: Social Kitchen and Brewery
Consistently excellent beers that you can pretty much only drink in the brewpub. Mr Kite’s Pale Ale is the best English-style pale ale I’ve ever had – worthy of the gold it won at GABF. I’ve been to the brewery twice this year and wish I could drink there far more often. There’s great IPA, subtle Saisons, really interesting barrel-aged beers, hopped-up lagers, and more.

Best New Brewery Opening: Cloudwater and Vocation
Two breweries share this one. When I see beers from Cloudwater and Vocation it’s hard for me to order anything else because both are brewing exactly the kinds of beers that I want to drink.

Best Branding (Pumpclip, Can or Label): Cloudwater
The labels are sexy. In particular their DIPA has a beautiful label worthy of a brilliant beer. I also like how they use different artists each season – that’s cool.

UK Pub/Bar of the Year: Mother Kelly’s
I live 10 minutes up the road and have drunk there more than anywhere else this year. I like that there’s always a really broad range of interesting beers plus loads of bottles.

Best New Pub/Bar Opening: Howling Hops Tank Bar
Great concept, cool space and all backed up with excellent beer (I think their Pils is especially good and the Pale Ales are great). 

Best Restaurant for Beer and Food: Bundobust
I still dream about their vada pav and everything else I ate in there was excellent. Add to that a great range of beers and it’s the top food and beer spot I went to this year.

Beer Festival of the Year: Oktoberfest
I’ve been to very few festivals but I did go to Oktoberfest for the first time and it was amazing. Far better than I expected and something everyone who loves beer should experience.

Supermarket of the Year: M&S
I rarely buy beer from the supermarket anymore, preferring a few beer shops nearer to mine, but the M&S range is excellent. Tesco is my go-to for my fridge-fillers: Duvel and Pilsner Urquell.

Independent Retailer of the Year: Caps and Taps
I met Phill Elliott when I worked at Camden Town Brewery. The main memory I have is of him studying for an exam, books and notes spread across the table with a beer by his side. Clearly the beer ended up being more important and a few years later Caps and Taps appeared a short walk from the brewery. It’s a great shop.

Online Retailer of the Year: Beermerchants
When I buy bottles online then it’s usually to buy Belgian beer and Beermerchants is where I go for that.

Best Beer Book or Magazine: The Beer Bible
Jeff Alworth’s The Beer Bible is the book that I’ll return to again and again and use as a first resource when I want to check something or learn something new. I think it should be the new reference book of choice for beer.

Best Beer Blog or Website: All About Beer
All About Beer consistently has excellent content on their blog. I also really like Joe Stange’s regular stuff for DRAFT and go to Good Beer Hunting for the best long-form writing.

Best Brewery Content: Goose Island Grit and Grain
Watch the Grit & Grain series of videos that weave together the story of Goose Island’s Bourbon County Stout. It’s the best use of video storytelling that I’ve seen from a brewery.

Simon Johnson Award for Best Beer Twitterer: Matt Curtis
Curtis knows what’s going on in beer, he has his own approach and opinion to things, he gets excited about great beer and pubs, but more important than these things is that he’s actually doing good stuff offline – he’s not just talking about beer to the empty spaces of the internet, he’s talking to real people in real life. The tweets are all backed up with an excellent blog and great images.

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Camden Town Brewery and AB InBev

This one was the biggest surprise. Shock, even. Shit, I said aloud at my desk. Wow. Fuck. Meantime was expected. Lagunitas was unexpected. Ballast Point was unprecedented (one billion dollars…). Firestone Walker was interesting. There have been others, too – 10 Barrel, Elysian, Golden Road, Four Peaks ­– but as I don’t have a personal link to any of those breweries, it was just news. Camden Town Brewery becoming a ‘wholly owned subsidiary’ of AB InBev is not just news to me and it’s the first significant brewery buy-out that I’ve felt an emotional connection towards.

I worked at Camden Town Brewery for two years and I had a small role while they took big steps forward. One best mate had his wedding reception there, another had his stag do there. I've met some great friends there and made some great memories there. Hells and IHL are the beers I drink more frequently than any others. I still drink at the brewery regularly, where telling mates ‘I’ll meet you at the brewery’ only means one place. Camden is not just a brewery to me.

So a day after the announcement that they’ve sold to AB InBev, I’m trying to figure out how I feel about it while also considering both sides of the story in an attempt to dispel a lot of the misinformed nonsense that’s being spoken online.

Camden has always been an ambitious brewery. In 2010, when London had fewer than 10 breweries, they opened with an automated 20HL BrauKon kit focused on making great lager. That wasn’t the usual British brewery opening. They grew steadily then rapidly – going from a few brews a week to over 60,000HL annually in five years – gaining success beyond expectation. They ran with that success, they grew into it, with it, and they made the most of it, to the point where they couldn’t maintain the growth in their limiting railway arch location. They’ve been looking for a new brewery and location for a long time now and that move was always going to happen. The question was just how it was going to happen. Crowdfunding, we thought as of not very long ago, was the answer.

Jasper Cuppaidge is the brewery – its heart and personality – and as long as he’s running it then I don’t think the essential ethos of Camden will be affected. His new bosses may have other ideas but I don’t think that Camden's outlook is going to change just yet – certainly not in a way that the casual drinker will notice – and there are many potential benefits for drinkers: investment in a great new brewery to ensure they brew all their beers in London (some draft beer is brewed in Belgium) and brew more of it; a new brewery frees up capacity in the current arches for more limited edition beers (something I’ve always wanted more of from Camden); more investment could mean more bars and will certainly mean a significant tap room at the new brewery; they can now benefit from the distribution networks that a global company has; they also benefit from the global network of brewing intelligence and resources (AB InBev is not some monolithic dumb-fuck talking chequebook, it employs some of the smartest minds in the industry – while we’re here, we can’t use the abused, out-dated and Atlantic-traveling collective memory of 1970s and 1980s America, where big beer tried to crush small beer, to tell us what to think now. Beer has changed too much for this to be relevant).

AB InBev are not going to take Hells and turn it into Bud Light. It’s absurd for anyone to even think that. Global breweries aren’t buying local ones to shut them down or cheapen their brands. They know that the perpetual growth of local, small-scale beer is reducing Big Beer's market share and the way they can still compete is to take ownership of successful smaller breweries. It’s against their interest to do anything other than make the beer more available and better (by funding new breweries, by investing in better quality control and labs and everything else that helps to give good, consistent beer). They’ve bought Camden Town because they value (with a lot of zeros) what it’s achieved; they can’t devalue that by making changes and instead they're going to increase the brewery's worth by turning it into a far bigger and better thing.

The big brewing companies also employ some of the best technical brewers in the world. While they might not work in wellies and wet overalls, they are smart beer makers who can produce very consistent beer within tight parameters and to a very large scale, problem-solving situations with considerable potential consequences. The reality in small-scale brewing is that a lot of people are amateurs who have learnt on the job and there’s only so far that ‘passion’ can take you towards producing quality beers. A major issue facing the growth of beer is poor quality: how many beers have you had this year which have diacetyl or unwanted esters or astringent bitterness or too much yeast or any other brewing fault that could be eliminated. AB InBev don’t brew bad beers – they might not make beers that you find delicious and might not make beers as flavoursome as your favourite IPA, but they are not bad tasting in the same way that a lot of craft beers are.

I do have concerns. It's likely going to be harder to make decisions and who knows what expectations the new boss has. Big beer companies can be aggressive in their buying and selling tactics, meaning a overall negative towards smaller breweries. And closer to home they've built a brilliant fan base in and around Camden and Kentish Town, even being partly responsible for the regeneration of the area they're in, and I hope that those drinkers don't look elsewhere for their local beers. 

I support Camden Town like I support my favourite football team. I follow what they do with vested interest, I cheer them on, I drink the new beers, I go to the events, I care about what happens to them and I have an emotional connection to the beer and brewery. I am bummed and shocked to see the change. This was always a potential thing that may happen, though I didn’t expect it to happen yet. Especially not after the crowd-funding. And that’s where a backlash will come: over 2,000 people invested in Camden Town (I was one of them) and now they’ve done something different – that’s going to lose some trust. But to continue the football analogy: when someone takes over your club and brings the megabucks then it can be a good thing. Hopefully.

What’s frustrating is the reaction of others. People assuming the beer will be cheapened, people knee-jerking ridiculous ill-informed responses, people taking the beers off tap, all while BrewDog try to mobilise their masses to buy into their fervent independence (how they turned Camden Town’s news into a story about them is incredible). The heart of Camden Town Brewery hasn’t changed, the beer hasn’t changed, the same people still work hard every day to brew it and sell it, the difference now is that the ownership has changed – we just have to hope that the new owners intend to make it better.

Camden Town deserve congratulations for what they have done in just five years. I’m sure there were other options but the directors decided this was the best one for the business – and I trust that the directors considered all the implications and do genuinely believe that this is the best thing for Camden Town Brewery right now and for the future. 

There will be other breweries facing the same questions that Camden Town have had to in the last few days and weeks (what’s the right thing to do? Is there a right price for us? Who is right to work with?) and they will come up with different responses. We will see the beer environment change in the next few years. Some of it will challenge what we think and there will be surprises, even shocks, and it’ll ultimately come down to individual drinkers to make decisions about what beers they spend their money on.

I’ve had Camden Town beer as an ever-present in my fridge for the last four years – right now there’s an IHL, a couple of Hells Raisers and a Beer 2015 in there. The beers are going to stay in my fridge for as long as they taste great.