Monthly Archives: October 2014

My Craft Beer Calling review

Sat drinking Anarchy Sublime Chaos and it got me thinking…..

Last weekend saw the first holding of Craft Beer Calling.  The event was set up very much like the Boiler Shop Steamer event and as such there was good live music on and a great array of street food to keep the happy punters very happy indeed!  The location was in the Boiler Shop which is an old warehouse on Sussex Street behind the central station and this building represents a very important step forward in the industrial revolution as it was the location where Robert Stephenson built his rocket in 1829 which changed the transport world as they knew it, with rapid expansion of the rail networks following its success. 

I don’t want to make obvious links here but I do think the first holding of this event will probably kick the Craft Beer revolution on further in the North East as there is already a healthy appetite for craft beer but I think it’ll grow all the more as people go to these events as an entry to their Craft Beer voyage of discovery.

I poured over the beer list ahead of the event and selected many beers that I wanted to try over the course of the weekend.  As it turned out there were probably 35-40 beers available at any one time so you had to keep a close eye out for any particular beers that you were hoping for.  One beer that I had read abit about before hand was the keg of xeRRex that Yeastie Boys were sending over.  The brewers themselves will readily admit that this is a beer you’ll either love of loathe.  It’s a big 10% smoky monster of a beer, most of the group I was with couldnt get past the smoky yeast aroma.  This was a beer with bags of flavour and character, delicious.  But beers like that leave you with a dilemma of how do you follow it, but I wasn’t going to let that stop me! 

Its special beers like this which the festival needs.  Initially the organisers will easily attract a crowd of beer drinkers in Newcastle, but attracting the more discerning drinkers from outside the region would be very useful for the city’s tourist industry.  The more unusual beers will put a beer festival on the map.  These weren’t your usual CAMRA festival beers, which is by no way a criticism but this festival had to be a significantly different event to the CAMRA Newcastle Beer Festival.  I suspect the timing was chosen to keep it as far from the CAMRA event as possible for that reason.  It worked, this was an entirely different experience with a very different atmosphere and a very different structure.

The Boiler Shop is a great space, could probably do with a couple more toilets for busier times and the bar did get very busy at times but that apart it worked very well.  There was a very cool tucked away Gin Bar and a brilliant space upstairs where they held the meet the brewer sessions.  There was real beer and food theme too though. The food vendors were all top quality outlets, no cheap burgers here!  That was all brought together by the Beer and Food matching talk that the lovely Melissa Cole gave where she paired beers with the delicious food offerings from Tony Renwick of The Bridge Tavern.  Food pairings were all excellent, and the depth of knowledge from Melissa added real expertise to the talk.  I did feel alittle disgruntled when some at the back of the room were talking throughout the event but I didn’t let it spoil it.  I guess you put people with drink you inevitably get events being abit rough around the edges like that.  Melissa and Tony didn’t seem to mind though.

So anyway, back to the beers.  I wont bore you with a run through every beer I had but there’s a few I want to mention.

Camden’s collaboration with Beavertown, One Hell of a Beaver, was one stand out beer.  It had all the hoppy notes of Beavertown’s Gamma Ray but with the crisp fresh texture of Camden’s Hells lager.  It almost felt like you took a sip of Gamma Ray but swallowed a sip of Hells.  Brilliant beer!  Make more please!

Also worth mentioning was Lagunitas American double IPA Hop Stoopid, which was hops piled on hops piled on hops.  Tremendous!  Also loved Mikkeller/Siren Daydream which is a white stout brewed with coffee, cocoa and vanilla and it had a real boozy warm flavour to warm the cockles.

The regions beers were very well represented, I saw Panda Frog Dart Frog 48 sell out in double quick time (too quick for me to get to try it!), Wylam had their Jakehead in Embryo form (racked direct from FV which was delicious), Tyne Bank’s Heavenly Porter was smooth and rich in bourbon flavours, but the star of the show for me was Anarchy’s keg of 15 month aged national gold award winning Sublime Chaos.  This is a breakfast stout infused with Ethiopian coffee bean from of “natural” type, which means they are dried out on sun terraces!  I love this beer anyway but the aging just saw it mature to a bigger smoother more rounded individual.  The chocolate flavours were more pronounced than normal and the bitterness of the coffee notes kept it perfectly balanced.

Naturally, there were some beers that I missed out on but that just makes me keen to go back again next year.  If the organisers could move it to a different month to Indyman that’d be very much appreciated!  Just to keep the missus happy.

Some minor points to note, I thought it would have been useful to have the cask offerings displayed on the barrels behind the bar at a higher level so you could see what was on when the bar was busy. And it did get busy, the bar area was often packed but we’re British we’re used to queuing.  I thought the bingo card beer tokens seemed abit naff but worked none the less. I think given that they’re my only criticisms I have to say it was a good event.  There was certainly plenty people there enjoying it! 

To my mind this festival was a big deal for Newcastle and the North East.  As I’ve said before the region deserves it to celebrate the great craft beers that we are producing (I say we, I’m mainly consuming them but you know what I mean).   So in that respect I think it put down a good marker for future years. I’d like to see it grow and expand although I’m not sure you’d want more people there or more beers so perhaps attracting different breweries to the event would take it forward.  I’ll leave that for the organisers to sort out though, cos they did a cracking job this year!  Well done!

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Craft Beer Calling

Sat at home and drinking Mordue’s Panda Frog project Ascendancy got me thinking….

Last night was my chance to scour the beer list for the coming Craft Beer Calling. First and foremost I have to say that the beer list on offer is by far the most impressive list we’ve ever had at a festival in Newcastle. As I’m sure many of you did, I sat with a pen and put a little tick next to the beers that tempted me. There was some known first class beers that I really want to have such as Buxton Axe Edge, Anarchy Citra Star and Kernel Pale Ale Citra. Trouble is that the unusual ‘get it while you can’ beer list is mind-blowingly good.   From first read, Buxton Double Axe, Siren Tickle Monster, Siren/Mikkeller Daydream, Lagunitas Maximus, Weird Beard Holy Hoppin’ Hell, Yeastie Boys xeRRex…. I could go on. I won’t though because the more I list the more I realise that these are all pretty serious beers. There’s not one of them with a sensible abv! Oh dear….

Fortunately, I realise that these beers wont all be available all of the time so it’ll be a case of seeing which ones are on for any particular session and seeking them out. Hurrah for the weekend pass! And hurrah for the beer soaking fat hippo burgers that I suspect I’ll live off all weekend. I’ll also seek out the lower abv beers, Almasty cherry sour, Beavertown Earl Phantom

What I’m also hoping is that the beer festival organisers have had the foresight to learn from Indyman and make water available for those who want to drink responsibly. I’m very interested to see how the public take to this festival, it has the potential to be a huge boost for the craft beer scene in the North East and a high profile festival like this should attract beer lovers to the city from further afield which in turn raises the profile of the local breweries. So this is a big deal for the local beery economy. With this being the first holding of this event, I’m keen to see it work out and establish itself firmly on the beery calendar.

There’s a group of us going along tonight to see what’s what and I intend getting myself along for the Beavertown meet the brewer session s I’m a big big fan of their beers and also their brand. The meet the brewer sessions add a hell of a lot to the event for me. I’m a beer geek who loves hearing all about the beers and the breweries and every single detail. Fanatical is the word and I know I’m not the only one. It really does enhance your enjoyment of drinking the beers when you have the story behind them. It’s the beery equivalent of the way xfactor sell the public the personal stories of the contestants ‘journey’, people often end up voting for the more interesting people rather than the best singer. Same goes with beer, if you hear an interesting back story to a beer, I for one am more likely to try it.

Then Saturday afternoon, we have the pleasure of welcoming the queen of beers in the UK, Melissa Cole to Tyneside. She’s doing a talk on beer and food matching with Tony Renwick, the head chef from Newcastle’s first brewpub The Bridge Tavern. I know the food there is fantastic as it’s become a regular haunt for any works lunches as it’s a short walk from the office. I very much look forward to hearing Melissa’s insight into all things beer and food matching, it’s not to be missed.

Then Saturday night I’m going along with a friend, fully intending to just focus on sampling the beers. The lad I’m going with is predominantly a lager drinker but when I sent him the beer list and pointed out the Camden beers he mentioned that he’d had Rivet Catcher before. I see this as an opening to getting him to sample some great fresh beers in an attempt to get him drinking better beer. However, I won’t lead him down the 10%+ abv route just yet! I don’t want to scare him off on his first visit to a beer festival.

Sunday afternoon sees the North East brewery panel Q&A session. This is what I want to hear. I’m a loyal supporter of our local breweries, and rightly proud of the beers they produce so I’ll be very interested to hear of their plans for the future and where they see the beer industry heading. It’s a booming period for beers and whilst we all realise it can’t keep expanding the way it has there is no suggestion that craft beers are going anywhere anytime soon. Not if we keep drinking it!

If you’re not going to Craft Beer Calling, get yourselves to Free Trade Inn/Bacchus Sour fest or the Brewdog Collabfest where there are more than enough beers on to not feel like you’re missing out.

All in all this is a weekend that I’ve been looking forward to since it was first announced. So if you’re going, enjoy the festival and if you see me wandering round say hello.

Breaking down the barriers

Friday sees the start of Craft Beer Calling and drinking Thornbridge Halcccccyyyooonnn got me thinking….

Craft Beer Calling is a massive event for Newcastle.  We can be quite an insular market place at times.  The usual craft w*nkers do their best to raise the profile of non-local beers but the local beers always prove to be the most popular.  I think a big part of that is history, we’ve had local breweries for many many years who have dominated the local market, as mentioned previously most of the pubs around the area were Scottish & Newcastle pubs not too long ago.  But also, a big driver for that is that the new array of local breweries are producing some top quality beers.

But I do think the image of Craft beers has the potential to be too trendy, I hate trendy, I think my lanky frame in ill-fitting jeans never allowed me to really be trendy and I’ve held a grudge ever since.  I like to think I know my onions when it comes to beer, I’ve drank plenty of it and explored most beer styles over the years, but I recently walked into a new bar in Newcastle for the first time and was alittle taken aback by the row of bearded trend setters sitting with their backs to me between me and the bar.  The thing is I’m sure these lads were very friendly and I’ve nothing against beards (I’d grow one myself if I had the patience) but there is a danger that the craft beer scene can become so bespoke it disappears up its own backside and alienates newcomers to the scene.  The recent ‘Elitist’ discussion is an acknowledgement of that.  Breweries themselves are the polar opposite to it, never have I spoken to so many open friendly down to earth people in an industry.  I think conveying that to the market is very important.  The essence of the brewery isn’t always represented by the ethos in the bars.

I guess there’s a few grades to craft beer. Grade 1) relax and refresh, the pale ales and light IPA’s that are a staple of most pubs and don’t look out of place in a country pub alongside the carvery on a sunday.  Grade 2) Moderate craftw*nkery: These are beers that will be in short runs but vary only slightly from the norm, so say it’ll be a beer with a fresh new variety of hops, or a stout with a less common ingredient (Thornbridge Baize Mint Choc Stout springs to mind, not a standard beer but a short step from a standard beer style) Grade 3) Craftw*nkery Defcom 2: These are the creative, innovative beer styles and ideas that are as bonkers and mental as its possible to be.  You just don’t get these in your local, these can be so extreme that beyond a few kegs for festivals or the more abstract craftw*nker bars, they’re mainly reaching their audience in bottled form.  But that’s slowly changing with more and more pubs opening on Tyneside that want to serve varied beers and not just different breweries takes on similar styles.

I had a discussion with a few friends about Craft Beer Calling, which for me is like a Nirvana event and to have it in my own backyard is tremendous.  But imagine a world where you didn’t read every beer blog that’s written, where you didn’t get the latest emailed newsletter from each and every brewery you ever heard of and you solely relied on what you were used to in your local.  Now remind yourself that Im talking about normal people, and not us lot!  Most people will go to craft beer calling and will have heard of their local brewery and will naturally think, yes heard of them, know their beer is good, I’ll try one of theirs.  Even more obtuse beer picking rationale, is where people will plum for a beer based on a name they can relate to, so anything which sounds local will be a suitable choice.  Breweries like Tyne Bank, Wylam, Allendale, Durham all attract more of these normal folk because of that. These people probably have never heard of the less common breweries and risk missing out on some brilliant beers because of it.

Craft beer calling states that the breweries are from three groups, local, national and international.  It’s a testament to the strength of brewing in the north east that the local section is incredibly strong.  From the long established Mordue brewery and their craft Panda Frog beers, to the brand spanking new breweries such as Almasty brewery founded by a lad who has brewed beer at a high level for many years who is now starting his own venture.  The North East is now a competitive market and that competition is driving up standards like never before.

But even once you plum for a brewery you recognise, you then have to navigate the different styles of beer.  Many beers now state the type of hop that’s in them, if you don’t know hops does this information just serve to confuse matters?  I’ve heard people deciding based on the abv just trying to avoid the super strong beers that they fear most!  The real shame here is that I know that at Craft Beer Calling all the breweries will be mad keen to talk to people about their beers and to get people the type of beer that they will enjoy.  I would encourage anyone attending these festivals by asking questions.  Ive never heard anyone laughed at for not knowing everything about a beer before they get there.  Treat the festival as a learning experience and you’ll enjoy it so much more.  In fact apply that to drinking in the local too, or drinking anywhere if I’m honest.  

I think its important, for the breweries to continue to grow, that the outlets for them are as open and welcoming as possible.  Good bar staff can make a huge difference.  You want people to feel able to ask questions without being scoffed at.  Let’s not make people rush their choice of beer and plum for that distinctly average pint of standard beer that they’ve had a million times before just because they don’t know how to pronounce ‘Ola Dubh’.  There’s several points in life where people rush when they feel out of place, entering a church for the first time is one of them, any nervousness just hastens you to choose a seat and get on with it.  Entering a new bar can provoke the same reaction, get a beer and get a seat, but that skips past the fun of discussing the beers and selecting which one to have.

So lets not make this an intimidating scene.  The terms and descriptions and attention to detail can serve to confuse a newcomer and put them off.  But we all started drinking somewhere and each and every one of us can help new blood acclimatise to this environment.  Be welcoming at all times, be helpful without showing off (no one’s impressed), be a guide for your charge and you will have a true convert soon enough.  Oh and to all those going, enjoy Craft Beer Calling and ask as many questions as you like!

Craft…..

I was talking to a friend the other day about a new craft beer bar and drinking Almasty Brewery’s Cherry Sour got me thinking….

Anyone remember the days where you heard the word ‘craft’ and it meant crepe paper, pipecleaners and green spatula’s for spreading glue? (OK so Im harking back to my school days but Im not that old!).

This is one of the things I love about the English language.  Words don’t stand still, even words that look totally innocuous can change their image in the blink of an eye.  Take the word ‘hop’.  That was playground activity not too long ago in my mind, however, its rapidly becoming a word which means to me at least ‘come this way son, its the promised land’. 

But getting back to Craft, and in particular the ‘what is craft beer debate’.  Lets look at craft breweries, these breweries were microbreweries when I was growing up.  I first became aware of the use of ‘craft’ being in relation to American microbreweries and actually the word microbrewery never really did the UK brewers justice.  This isn’t dull mass produced beer in small batches, this is innovation and experimentation.  The craft label is far more articulate about what it is that they do and how they do it.  I’ve certainly never known such creativity applied to beer and long may that continue. 

Beer has been a massive part of Tyneside’s history, my first memories of going to St James’ to watch Newcastle (inevitably losing) are dominated by the smell of the Scottish & Newcastle Brewery sited over the road, right in the heart of the city, and we all drank our fair share of Dog as we were growing up (or Newkie Brown for those south of yorkshire) and sticking to the carpets in the Bigg Market was a right of passage for a young Geordie drinker (I once stuck to the carpet next to Ant of Ant & Dec fame, or was it Dec?  Who knows), but the choice of beer back then was lager or bitter.  You walked into a pub and ordered a pint of lager or a pint of bitter, basically a beer style rather than a brand/beer by name simply because there wasn’t the choice.  Most bars were brewery owned so pretty much every bar in Newcastle had a blue star over the door, so you knew what beers were on before you walked in. 

The choice of beer these days is tremendous.  We regularly go into the fantastic Bridge Tavern on work nights out.  Here’s a recently opened pub with its own brewing kit.  The expert brewer there produces beers of any guise, for example I recently had a rhubarb and custard gueze, brewed on the premises, which was bloody incredible!  One of those beers that you can still remember the taste weeks later, it was that good.  But the choice is amazing, its brilliant being able to choose from a broad spectrum of beers and you can even try a range of them by ordering a flight (4 thirds for a fiver, bargain!).  It works because there’s always something available to suit any palette. But its incredible that these unusual beers are commercially viable.  At the end of the day those brewing a barrel of beer have to be confident that the effort put in wont be poured down the drain if the punters don’t buy it.  Almasty Brewery has only been open a matter months and theyre producing beers like a cherry sour.  As brilliant a beer as it is, it wouldnt have stood a chance if it was produced 10 years ago.

So what does craft mean to me?  I have heard people (some CAMRA members) say that it just means kegged beer but that couldn’t be further from the truth.  Ask yourself, why has the term come into being?  Surely its only used because not all of the good quality beer that’s produced in this country falls into the ‘real ale’ category. So instead of analysing the words used, just open up and enjoy the variety, cos that’s craft.

Speciality beers.

With the latest IndyManBeerCon only hours away, I was listening to the @BeerOClockShow interview with Claudia from the Indyman team about the collaboration beers that were being brewed for the event and drinking the Ilkley Brewery/Melissa Cole collab Siberia got me thinking…..

Every beer festival I’ve ever attended has had new beers at the event, many are special one off beers.  The CAMRA Newcastle Beer festival holds a competition each year where many local brewers launch new beers to compete for champion beer, which is highly covetted.  The winning beer is usually the first to sell out.  Beer festivals up and down the country have become a hot bed of collaboration beers and one off beers that are highly unlikely to be repeated.  I think this is a great driver for innovation in the industry and the development of the whole craft beer movement (which only exists thanks to that innovation).  These beers tend to push boundaries and take brewers outside their comfort zones into experimental horizons.  It also helps an annual festival if its not simply serving up the same beers year on year, no matter how great those beers are variety is the spice of life!

The one thing that nags at my mind here though is a tweet by @MagicRockRich, which simply said “Hate how tickers try a beer once when its new, then move on to the next, drives me up the wall.  So much of brewing is perfecting recipes”.  Whilst this was aimed at those drinkers who drink to get their untapped badges and unique check ins, I also see that the message here is that beers evolve.  Take Magic Rock’s own Unhuman Cannonball as a classic example of this.  The 2014 version was distinctly different to the 2013 version, and all those little subtle changes were driven by the brewer perfecting his recipe/technique and each and every time he brews that beer it will edge closer to the beer that the brewer wants it to be.  No beer will ever be at its best the first time its brewed.  Did people prefer the 2014 version or the 2013?  I suspect the brewer feels the 2014 version is the better beer (‘better’ being closer to the beer that he wants it to be).  And I’ve no doubt it will evolve again, the 2015 version will be different, the differences may be even more subtle but there will be differences. 

The most important ingredient, the one you won’t see listed in any recipe book, is the brewers experience, and in a period where many breweries are only a handful of years old, 12 months between annual releases represents a huge increase in experience for the brewer.  Apply that growing experience to the regularly brewed beers such as standard Cannonball (asif that beer could ever be called standard!) and you can see how a great beer at inception, has become the truly world class IPA that we have today. There are a great number of examples of this, I highlight the Magic Rock beers simply to tie in with Rich’s comments but all breweries are the same, they are all improving through learning, and are learning through brewing, and are still brewing through the success of their previous batches of beers, which are ever improving!  Win = win = win = win.

So enjoy the new beers with their innovative freshness, but also take time to enjoy and appreciate the maturity of the former ‘new’ beers.  They may well just be approaching their prime!