Filling the Indyman void.

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Certainly the highlight of 2015 for me was the Saturday daytime session at Indyman. So many beery folk to talk to, so many great characters to trade stories with. It’s a place that really makes you feel at home. It’s credit to the friendliness of the industry and the consumers that the cold walls of the Victorian baths become a warm cosy place to be.

But there’s a sadness in me. As much I would love to be there, I simply can’t make it this year. And it’ll kill me to hear about everything going on there and hearing about all the amazing beers being consumed (will this year see a record number of double IPA’s I wonder?!).

The world has a habit of lifting you from low ebbs though. And my wife and I have determined that we’re gonna have a day out on Saturday anyway, and I while away on holiday last week I got a lil message from my favourite bottle shop. That message asked me if I would like to come along to the grand launch of their new tasting room!

Now this is a big deal for Coppers of Gosforth. If you’ve ever been in on a Friday evening or Saturday afternoon you’ll know the beer bunker can be a busy ol place! It’s such a cool place to hang out and chat beer with fellow enthusiasts. And the list of enthusiasts very much includes the staff. They’re all passionate about their beer and well informed too.

The overriding sense with Coppers though is that there is a community around it which they have developed. That’s what will make it a great place to go and hang out in. It’s very much the same embracing atmosphere that will make Indyman a fantastic event again this year.

For me though, I may not be going to Indyman but I feel as if in going to the next best thing.

Can’t wait to see the place!

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Manchester, hype, hype, hype. Manchester, hype, hype, hype.

It’s the one we’ve all been waiting for. The pinnacle of the current scene. Never before have such a blend of ingredients come together to create this! I’m sooo excited, everyone’s full of excitement, we’ve all been talking about this day for weeks, months, ok not quite years but it’s felt like it! Ever since the schedule was drawn up and the media made known what elements were going in the mix, there have been many many folk salivating at the prospect of what’s to come. Well it’s finally here, the big reveal, the grand launch, time for kick off!!!!

Yeah so today’s Manchester Derby is quoted as the most expensive game of football ever assembled. Sky sports have been whipping up a storm for weeks. Guardiola v Mourinho, Imbrahimavic v Guardiola, Manchester city v Manchester United, there is no game with greater sub-text and more narrative than this one. The fact that it’ll probably be a tentative cagey affair that’ll end 0-0 doesn’t matter in the build up.

That’s hype. That’s where a commercial enterprise is taking a product to the masses and building it up to be near nirvana in an effort to sell and attract customers.

In contrast, in a small corner of Manchester tucked away from it all is Cloudwater. Now I have heard a few interviews recently with Paul Jones and in each and every case he’s asked about hype. I can really sense that the term is becoming a real frustration to him.

It’s become such a dirty word in the modern beer scene. But actually, in contrast to the way others promote their products I think beer is the least hyped industry out there!

I had originally wanted to get to the crux of what constitutes hype. Which elements are perceived to be hype and which elements are perceived to be negative traits. But actually, who cares.

My wife said to me that for her where hype is a negative is when the product doesn’t live up to expectation. Oversell and under-deliver. Isn’t that the same in every walk of life. Craft beer isn’t heavily promoted by individual breweries. It’s far more organic than that. And if I’m honest as a consumer I would say Cloudwater are the least likely brewery to under-deliver.

I’m sure there are many breweries who do under-deliver but they ultimately won’t survive as commercial enterprises.

So for me, it’s hype schmype….. Don’t let that word become an albatross.

North East Beer Scene: Almasty Brewing Co

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I’ve spoken many times about wanting to raise awareness about the North East beer scene and this year it’s my mission to raise the profile of the breweries which are creating the fantastic beer scene here on Tyneside. So to kick it off in style, here’s my profile of Almasty Brewing Co, enjoy!

Out of a pretty innocuous lock up, tucked away on an industrial estate, great things are coming…

As you wind your way into Algernon industrial estate, you pass many industrial units all of which have the same uniform, low key facades, very much functional and expressionless, but as you turn the final corner an Almasty lurks. You may not see it yet, but it’s there….

Filled with images of mysterious misty forests, Almasty brewery has created a brand around the tag line “ale exploration”. This isn’t human exploration, its nature exploring its own back yard. There is a down to earth, connected to its own habitat, natural and organic development to the Almasty brand. Almasty is an old Russian term for a Big Foot or sasquatch. And this is a powerful beast, who lives in the shadows, perfectly suited to its environment. It’s elusive and mysterious, it’s much talked about but rarely seen. And when it does raise its head, its big news, it captures the public’s interest. It draws in officiandos from all over to come and investigate the sighting. The fascination is only strengthened by the mystery that surrounds it. Hopefully I won’t ruin the allure by telling you alittle bit about our Almasty, the brewery!

imageHere is a brewery which recently celebrated its 2nd birthday, and yet it’s a brewery which has been in the making for far longer than that. The Owner/Head Brewer/Tsar (OK OK I get it, that’s enough of the Russian references) Mark McGarry has a strong track record brewing for some of the region’s best known breweries. Somewhat inevitable that one day he was to take the step to open his own brewery.  Your own brewery allows your own ideas to flourish that bit more and he’s taken the lessons he’s learned from his past and is brewing beers of impeccable quality. There is no core range. There are some pretty consistent styles but they are subtly varied to explore different nuances in the style, which keeps things interesting for the brewer and interesting for the consumer too. His IPA for example is delicious, whichever Mk you try. They each bear the hallmark of Almasty quality and yet the ingredients used will vary from Mk to Mk. The variations are openly noted for all to see, it’s not simply badged up as IPA its MK I, MK II, MK III and so on etc etc so for us consumers we can see the variations and how the beers evolve as Mark works around with them. The other style which I personally particularly enjoy are his stouts.

I have to admit, there has been a recent demand for what I see as American sweet imperial stouts. Thinking of Buxton’s Yellow Belly & Oscar Blues Ten Fidy being two examples of this. I liked these beers, but didn’t love them, experience dominated abit too much by the sweetness for me. My personal preference is the bitter, bold roast coffee, espresso of a stout rather than anything overly sweet. What struck me early on about Almasty is that Mark brews stouts exactly how I like them. I love that in this day and age there are such a broad range of imperial stouts, it’s a reflection of the current market place as a whole.

Mark had an Almasty Brewing Co bar at Indyman last year and I was lucky enough to sample the imperial stout he was serving that day, he also had a cherry version on and both beers were deliciously smooth, deliciously luxurious, with a big bold mouthfeel and well balanced roasted coffee/chocolate notes and it felt very satisfying to drink.

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Recently, I was able to get myself along to Newcastle Beer Festival where the biggest draw for many was the Almasty Bourbon Barrel Aged Imperial Stout. Again, this was delicious, but felt bigger, more rounded and the bourbon in it warmed the cavities of your nose and kept the cold out. Delicious beer. But what I hadn’t appreciated was that this was infact the same beer that I had sampled at Indyman. It was freshly brewed for Indyman with some of it set to one side and barrel aged in various barrels to experiment with different flavours. Fascinating to see how the barrel aging process had changed the beer. It’s not just a case of the beer taking on the flavours from the wooden barrels, the beer itself changes over time too. So its smoother and different flavours come to the fore.

There are further barrel aged versions to come aswell, so keep your eyes peeled for those! Mark is very much an experimenter with beer. He has solid brewing experience and applies quality workmanship to his product, which allows him to experiment with less risk. He is more likely to produce something good when he has a sound knowledge and yoda style foresight to see what each adjustment will do to the ultimate beer. He recently produced an Irn Bru sour for the Newcastle Brewdog bar’s birthday celebrations. And I’m told it was a cracking beer. But a real step away from the norm, there is no norm for Mark, the norm is experimenting with beer and his ability makes each beer appear effortless.

I often get asked to pick out beer for people to try and my golden rule is if you see Almasty, drink Almasty, such is my regard for the beers. At many smaller beer festivals I go to its noticeable that hop forward beers usually served on keg, aren’t always able to translate that quality into a cask offering where there is no chiller. Almasty is one brewery that I know the IPA’s and Pale Ales do translate well. They have an overall quality to them which adapts well. And it’s noticeable that you see a lot of cask Almasty beers around the pubs and clubs.  I have heard a few brewers, most noticeably Buxton Brewery, dropping their cask offering to all but their own tap house. Without getting too drawn into the reasons for that, I think it’s great to see breweries still developing great cask beer. I’m not blinkered enough to say keg is best, while I mainly drink keg I love a good quality cask beer. The trouble is cask beer is prone to being poorly kept which ruins the drinker’s perception of all cask beers and also the perception of the brewery itself. But that’s an argument for another time.

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So what of the beers. With the beers not being widely bottled, I took it upon myself to get out and about into the pubs and clubs of Newcastle and sample the beers on draught.

Mk 7 IPA

Here is the flagship IPA range in all its glory. Almasty is a brewery as dedicated to cask as it is to kegged beer. I had this from cask in the Free Trade Inn and it’s an incredible beer. It leaves you with that feel good aura like you’ve just given blood. Order a pint, prepare for the big bold hop assault and follow it with some sweet biscuit malts to balance it all out. Delicious!

APA Classic American pale ale.

At 5% this packs a punch, delicious piney grapefruit and sweet mangos all blended together wonderfully. This is a real refreshing, sessionable beer. In a time when there are a million pale ales on the market its difficult to stand out, but this genuinely does. That’s testament to the quality of the beer, the quality of the brewer and the quality of the full package.

Bourbon Barrel Aged Imperial Stout

imageMark was incredibly kind to provide us with some bottles of this to review on the Beer O’Clock Show and what a beer!  Here is a beast of a beer. I think it’s the hedonist in me that has a love of good quality high abv beers. I’m not a lover of abv for abv sake, the art of a high abv beer is usually to mask the alcohol burn. However, when you barrel age a beer in bourbon barrels you kinda want that bourbon to be prominent in the flavour or else the type of barrel used becomes irrelevant. I also see with all beers that setting is key. For me an imperial stout is the perfect nightcap. I like a big thick boozy imperial stout and to sit and slowly sup infront of an open fire.

Almasty is a key brewery to watch out for. Seriously high level of expertise employed here and the more Mark experiments the greater his beers will become. And to reiterate, if you see Almasty, you should drink Almasty. You can thank me later.

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Wylam Brewery: Palace of Arts

 

wylam tap narrowAfter months of eager anticipation, the doors of Wylam’s new premises flew open last weekend.  For those that don’t know, the brewery has itself a new home close to the heart of the city namely The Palace of Arts in Exhibition Park.  The setting is a fascinating location.  For while it is literally a 5 minute walk from Northumberland Street, the heart of the city’s shopping area, the setting is incredibly tranquil and will make for a brilliant spot to enjoy the sunshine and of course the freshest beer, in beautiful surroundings.  I was fortunate enough to be invited along to the launch party to have a good neb round the place.

The history of this building is fascinating and I couldn’t resist a blog post covering what I’d learned of the site.

IMG_3175It’s impossible to do this building justice without first considering the site.  Location, location, location as the old mantra goes and for me this is a cracking spot.  As a city, Newcastle is rightly proud to have what are known as the moors, basically large areas of green green grazing land on which the freemen of the city are entitled to keep their cattle (I kid you not).  These are often referred to as the cities lungs as they provide the perfect antidote to the man-made emissions on the roads.  The moor area in Newcastle is split into two areas (the Town moor and Nuns moor) by the central motorway, but the total size is larger than Hyde Park and Hampstead Heath put together at 1,000 acres.

IMG_3203.JPGTucked into the corner of the moor is an area called Exhibition Park.  The park was developed for the 1929 North East Coast Exhibition. However after many years of steady decline, it has recently undergone a major £3.2m restoration project.  The park includes a central lake, a Victorian bandstand, tennis courts, a basketball court, children’s playgrounds, two bowling greens and, right next to the Palace of Arts, is the home of The Tyneside Society of Model and Experimental Engineers (TSMEE), who operate a miniature steam railway.

The North East Coast Exhibition was the brainchild of Sir Arthur William Lambert (great name!).  Born in 1876, he attended the city’s Royal Grammar School, becoming a local councillor in the city in 1910.  He went on to serve with the Northumberland Fusiliers during the First World War and in 1919 he was awarded the Military Cross for his services.  Away from his military services, he was a director at Townsend & Co, which was a company set up by his grandmother which specialised in china and glass.  They were suppliers of decorative plates depicting images from the North East Coast Exhibition, created by the now very collectible Mailing Company.  One such design included a picture of Sir Arthur Lambert himself.  He was Lord Mayor of Newcastle on two occasions, the second of which covered the time that the North East Coast Exhibition ran.  He was knighted in 1930 for his work with the exhibition.

IMG_3183.JPGThe aim of the North East Coast Exhibition was to showcase the strength of north east industry, in particular the regions engineering abilities and to promote the skilled workforce, thus attracting other employers to the area, whilst also generating further orders for the already established businesses in the region.  This was a time of impending recession and the leaders in the city wanted to do all they could to lessen the impact of the recession on the region.

This was a massive event which ran from 14 May 1929 and closed with a huge firework display on 26 October 1929.  In that time the exhibition attracted 4,373,138 people and still remains the largest event ever held in the city.  Several buildings within the park were built to house the exhibitions themselves, the Palace of Arts being the only one which remains.  My memories of the building are of it being the Military Vehicle Museum.  My visits were only when I was very young, but distinctly remember my Uncle taking me along to see all the various tanks and troop carriers on display.  But that was many many years ago and my memory of the building itself are very vague.

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In 1929 there was a large wide highly decorated bridge which spanned the lake outside giving pedestrians a direct route to its front steps.  With that bridge no longer there, the building does sit quite nicely on the edge of a lake, which having been cleaned up is now home to Swans and other wildlife.  All the other buildings were built of sheet asbestos.  The Palace of Engineering showcased classic north east industries, such as ship building, mining and railway engineering.  The Palace of Industries, included exhibits on tin can manufacturing, printing presses and carpet weaving. In addition there was an Artisan’s pavilion, a women’s pavilion, a pavilion for the Empire Marketing Board, an amusement park, an African village, a huge chicken incubator (which housed enough chickens to lay 800 eggs a day) and a Festival Hall which could accommodate nearly 1,500 people and an open air stadium which could accommodate up to 20,000 people.  This was an event with an average daily attendance of 30,000.  The final day was attended by some 120,000 people. 

The Palace of Arts was built to house works loaned to the exhibition from a great many Lords, Dukes and other renowned art collectors at the time.  It is now a Grade 2 listed building and actually the glorious nature of the building is incorporated into the description on the National Heritage list for England, here’s what they have to say about it:

IMG_3249“Steel framed with concrete cladding. Single storey. 15 bays by 19 bays. The main façade has a projecting central portico with 10 base-less and capital-less square fluted columns, raised on a 7 step base, with a 3 step flat parapet which continues around the whole building. Either side are 3 bay blind wings with 3 blind windows each. The building is surmounted by a central octagonal cupola, topped by a shallow octagonal dome. The side facades are articulated with 20 base-less and capital-less fluted pilasters. Interior has a central domed space and linking galleries all round, divided by wooden panelled walls with Art Deco style doorways between.”

Granted some of the wording is very much functional descriptors of the buildings features, but step back from all the individual features and they all come together as a whole to make for an incredibly fascinating building.  It’s far from delicate, it’s one of the first buildings in the UK to be built from reinforced concrete, but then why should it be delicate.  It was built to house an exhibition which was a show of strength for the region, the building was intended to be impressive in stature and its contents all the more so.  However, the star of the show is the central octagonal cupola, which is a stunning space which will be the main events hall, with a stage at one end, bars at the other and decorated with Wylam’s own barrel aging project on display for all to see, just incase you forget for a minute that you are infact in a brewery.  Its architectural features like this which make the use of such buildings so desirable.  Wylam could have quite easily moved to a purpose built building somewhere, which would probably be effectively a large warehouse, so it’s incredibly refreshing to see a brewery adapting an underused building to bring another offering to enhance the Newcastle beer scene.

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I also find it incredibly appropriate that in 1929 this building was used to attract visitors from all over the country to come and see what great things were going on in the North East.  Roll the clock forward to 2016 and once again, this building could become a real symbol of the booming beer scene here in Newcastle.

Wylam themselves have moved quickly to make the building more than just a home for the brewery & more than just another taproom.  There is a very active number of events planned.  There are already several musical performances lined up, but for me most significant are the Brewers markets.  The first such event taking place on 10th/11th June will feature North East breweries Allendale Brewery, Almasty Brewing Co, Box Social Brewery, Cameron’s Brewery, Three Kings and special guests from out of the region, Northern Monk.  Now to me that is a pretty impressive line-up of top quality breweries from the region.  It’s great to see that Wylam aren’t simply all about themselves, they’re really driving a collective community with events like that.  They have the fantastic platform and for them to share it with other North East breweries is incredibly forward thinking.  Let’s face it, one brewery alone may draw a large volume of people to visit the city.  However, a fully developed and exciting beer culture across the city will make it far easier for every aspect of the beer community on Tyneside to flourish.  A rising tide lifts all boats as the saying goes.

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Currently in the planning/development stage are taprooms for Northern Alchemy and Tyne Bank Brewery which will soon become reality and further enhance the offerings on Tyneside.  The beer scene here is really going to take off in 2016 and I can’t wait to see where it ends up.  One things for certain, by the end of the year we’ll be placed firmly on the craft beer map.

Beavertown at the Bottle Shop

So, “Competition time!” was the headline.

I was sat scrolling through Facebook with Dionne the other night when I spotted a post by ‘Cheers’ magazine (the excellent magazine covering events and happenings in the local beer community, well worth a read and you can usually pick it up for free in many of the better pubs in the city). They were running a competition to win 2 tickets for the 7 course Beavertown dinner at the Bottle Shop Newcastle. All you had to do was email the name of the brewery who featured on the front cover of this month’s magazine. Naturally I already knew the answer, but for those that didn’t (and there’s a handy hint here), Cheers always have the front cover of the latest magazine as their profile picture…. So I quickly emailed them with my answer: Tyne Bank Brewery and crossed my fingers. Dionne spotted what I was doing and wanted to have a go herself, so I told her what she had to do and she sent a similar email. Lo and behold, less than 24 hrs later Dionne rang me to tell me that she’d won and luckily enough she wanted me to go with her! Hurrah!

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So baby sitter eventually arranged we set off for the Bottle Shop keen to get stuck into the menu dishes. Dionne and I have always shared a love of good food. We could really bore folk around us with our discussions of each and every element of any interesting dishes we are having. So it was brilliant for us both to be able to go along (yes and bore those around us with our thoughts on the food and the beer…), but actually in a scenario like this, where the tables are laid out in long rows with benches either side it almost encourages people to talk to each other. Some folk hate that but personally I love it. Always good to meet new people especially when the topic of conversation is good food and good beer!

Dionne asked me, as we were in the taxi to the venue, how much Beavertown would be involved. I said that I suspected the Bottle Shop would simply have a load of Beavertown beers on, but no one from the brewery itself would be involved. How wrong I was. There were two representatives from Beavertown present, one from the marketing/sales side of things, the other was one of the brewing team. Both got in the talking and introducing the beers and gave us a run down of the breweries history etc, very informative, very passionate about what they do, was great to see. And at the end they stuck around to talk to us all and thank us for coming along, it was an absolute pleasure!

So here’s the low down on the 7 courses and their accompanying beers.

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1st Course: Honey glazed chicken wings, ham hock Terrine, mango & watercress – Gamma Ray 5.4%
Beautiful start to the dinner, and by this point I was famished…. The dish was hearty and incredibly flavoursome. Chicken was at its best, juicy and tender meat with bones removed, that lovely honey glazed edges where the flavour intensifies. Ham hock terrine was thick and packed with salty ham flavours which the Gamma Ray cut through beautifully. The mango obviously complimented the juicy flavours in the Amarillo hops of the beer. Gamma is a stella pale ale and this dish worked a treat with it.

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2nd Course: Soused mackerel, poached pear, celery root, gooseberry, gem and walnut – Pearvert Phantom 4.8%
Another triumph. The Pear Phantom is a sour beer taken to the comfortable edges of sour, so refreshingly accessible. The Pear was a pronounced flavour in the beer but with the gooseberry it zinged at your tastebuds and felt crisp. The mackerel was rich and oily, but with the complimenting fruit the overall effect was cleansing. The walnut provided a meaty quality to the dish, rounding the flavour combos off perfectly.

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3rd Course: King scallop, blood orange cured collar bacon, kale, lemon thyme jus – St Clements Phantom 4.8%
Kale’s a funny thing, I imagine there are those who hate it, but in this context it was delicious. For me kale is that smooth texture that set the back drop for the delicious buttery scallop and that awesome cured bacon. The bacon was full of flavour but not salty in the slightest. Again, the phantom was there to cut through the buttery scallop flavour and the oranges and lemons worked a treat with the cured bacon.

 

 

image4th Course: Soy braised featherblade of beef, sirloin steak, stout onions, truffle mash, asparagus, baby carrots – Mr Hyde 13.7%
Before we even got the tickets for the evening, this was the dish I was most looking forward to. I’m a huge fan of imperial stouts and a huge fan of beef. Now as it was explained to us, they brewed a fairly pale malt wort and then mixed it with a dark sweet wort brewed separately in the original 600l kit from Dukes (which is now their pilot kit). The result was an incredibly high gravity wort that the yeast was applied to. I bet those enzymes thought all their Christmases had come at once! Clearly at 13.7% this is a big ferment for a beer, but the thick texture and the sweetness come from a high level of unfermented sugars that are left in the resulting beer. Delicious! But Usually such a bold sweet beer would be paired with a desert, some kind of chocolate or coffee flavoured affair. But here they went to build up the flavours of the dish. The sirloin married beautifully with the stout onions, which I would guess were sautéed. The featherblade of beef was just delicious though, rich and bold and never overpowered by the stout. It was an absolute delight, every inch the match I was hoping for.

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5th Course: Palate cleanser – Negroni cocktail with a Bloody Ell mixer
After supping such a big beer, we were given this course as a palate cleanser, to reset our tastebuds back from the bold. The Negroni cocktail is very dry, very boozy, in contrast Bloody Ell is crisp light and refreshing but with the straw right to the bottom of the glass you effectively got the cocktail first and the Bloody Ell to wash it down, exactly as the compare told us.

 

 

6th Course: Twice baked cheshire cheese soufflé, pecan and radish salad, sesame seeds – 8 Ball 6.2%
8 Ball is a firm favourite of mine. Just in so much that its always been a very different style of IPA from what was the norm when I first had it. There’s a spicy edge to it from the rye which means its not so reliant on simply juicy hops, but that spicy edge is married to southern hemisphere hops which compliment it perfectly. So that spicy edge worked really well with the not overly strong cheese in the soufflé.

image7th Course: Dark chocolate & porter fondant, peanut and banana chip granola, banana ice cream – Smog rocket 5.4%
The fondant deserts here were set in a sea of dark chocolate sauce which was awesome. Very rich and actually that worked best with the accompanying beer. Smog rocket has always had a sticky edge in my mind and it felt like drinking treacle in beer form alongside this dish. The fondant pudding was rich but light, the ice cream was incredibly creamy but the peanut and banana granola just provided a lovely crunch to the occasion.

 

This was the first time I’ve eaten at The Bottle Shop but I was genuinely taken aback by the quality of the food served. This isn’t just fancy pub grub, its carefully thought out cuisine with talent and flair well beyond what you’d expect. The Bottle Shop is always worth a look. They get some of the country’s best beers in and have a regularly changing line up. For me it feels alittle bit out the way tucked away in a very nice square at the far end of town to where I work, hence why I rarely get over there. However, evenings like this will always be a draw for me now. This was absolutely brilliant.

Dionne is still very much discovering beer and I think this was great for her to try new styles. She loves sour beers so the two phantoms were just about perfect beers in her mind. But what I was interested to see was what she made of the 13.7% scotch aged imperial stout, a very different kettle of fish! However, she loved it. The match to the food helped a lot but I think she will develop more a more of an interest in a broader range of beers. So much so she’s now considering joining me at Indyman this year which would be brilliant!

For me the star of the show was that Mr Hyde scotch aged imperial stout, in its own right it’s a tremendous quality beer. Texture is pure luxury, flavours are smoothly melted together and it just oozes class. Similarly the dish it was served with had tremendous depth to the flavours, rich and delightful. It was an utterly delicious pairing.

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Beavertown are a great brewery, one I always keep an eye out for. So I was keen to speak to the brewer and ask more about the Tempest project, their barrel aging program. He gave me a few different ideas of whats to come in the near future and I have to say I’m very excited by what I heard. I suspect these will become highly sought after beers in 2016. But you’ll all have to form an orderly cue behind me!

The Bottle Shop seem to regularly organise these dinners with different breweries, so if you’re undecided about going let me tell you, you simply must go.

Many thanks to Cheers magazine for the tickets. We couldn’t have enjoyed it more!

Dog, my starting point.

Ok I know many of you will scoff at the post, but it’s something that I’ve been itching to write about ever since I started blogging. It’s not a craft beer subject, it’s not an area which is going to develop the craft beer industry in any way shape or form.

So why am I writing this piece? This is an article looking at the impact of Newcastle Brown Ale. Primarily its impact on me and my upbringing, but also the wider market here in the north east. Put simply it’s the beer which had most influence on me growing up.

Newcastle Brown Ale was probably the most iconic beer brand on Tyneside during my formative years.

Scottish and Newcastle brewery had very close ties to Newcastle United during the Sir John Hall/Freddie Shepherd era meaning the brand was everywhere at a time when the club were very high profile (for the right reasons…).

Picture the scene, its 1999 and I’m in sixth form.  NUFC were due to play Arsenal in the cup final. In the build up to the final there was black and white everywhere around the city as a show of support. Pubs decorated, buses decorated, even the street lamps on Gallowgate had black and white flags on them.  For my part, I had my car covered with flags, scarfs out the windows, Gazza figure (which was really a cookie jar) sat on one side of the back shelf, but the other side of the back shelf was home to an inflatable brown ale bottle. The brand was synonymous with the club at that time. I remember driving up to school thinking I was the bees knees but I must have looked a right plank….

From the first time I started drinking in the pubs and clubs around the city Newcastle Brown Ale was my drink of choice. The club affiliation aside, most significantly, I was raised by a man who appreciates a proper beer, as a result I was made aware of the better quality of a real beer over the gassy lagers which were on offer at the time. Basically that meant that I was brought up drinking anything but the gassy lager they served in these bars, so when it came to the non-beer focussed pubs and clubs in the Bigg Market, which in those days meant sticking to the carpets in most pubs, the beer on offer was either the cheap draft John Smiths, and we all believed that the beer out of those taps was watered down… (I’ve no idea if it was or not, but when young you believe anything don’t you!?). So the choice was bottles out the fridge. I usually went for a bottle of Dog. Dog being Brown Ale. Why Dog? It’s called Dog as a reference to someone telling his wife that he was going to walk the dog and nipping to the pub for a pint instead, it’s a real old fashioned Geordie flat cap and whippet image isn’t it. This was part of an old advertising campaign for the beer and the reference has stuck ever since.

Another story I was repeatedly told in my youth was that there was a ward in the Royal Victoria Infirmary here in Newcastle, known as the Brown Ale ward, which was full of people who had suffered the effects of consuming too much Brown Ale. Having spoken to a few nurses and hospital porters who worked in the RVI over the years, I understand that while there were a lot of casualties in the hospital with various injuries as a result of drunkenness, there wasn’t ever a specific ward dedicated to them. The A&E department is incredibly busy every Friday and Saturday night as a result of the over-enthusiastic revelry going on in the city centre. That hasn’t changed, and sadly I suspect it’ll stay that way too. It’s not all simply because of Brown Ale, but as one of the major beers sold in the city it has had an influence.  Brown Ale’s reputation was based entirely on its being the high profile local beer of higher than average abv.

This is a very old beer. First conceived in 1924 when Newcastle Breweries Ltd noted the growth in the bottled beer market, the beer was developed to target that market. It was eventually launched with an advert appearing in the Newcastle Daily Journal on 25 April 1927.

Two men had been charged with developing the beer were the company’s chief chemist Archie Jones and assistant brewer Lieutenant Colonel James Herbert Porter. The latter is the man who gets most of the credit, he was promoted to head brewer soon after its launch and Newcastle Brown Ale went on to be a huge success story for the brewery.

What’s interesting for me though is how the beer has changed from its original format. The earliest reference I can find to this beer are labels from 1928, which list the beer as being brewed to 6.21% abv. Now just imagine how different the beer must have been. To me that abv tells me that it’s likely that the original grain bill was greater than it is today, and so too you would imagine was the quantity of hops used. Imagine if that original recipe was launched into the current market, how would it fare alongside the other modern brown ales being brewed? I’m a fan of examples such as Railway Brewery’s Brown Ale which is a really tasty beer. Not heavily hopped as some modern alternative brown ales are, but feels more traditional but yet current as a valid craft beer. Would the original beer have been considered valid against the craft beer yardstick? Probably not, but it’s an interesting thought.

Sadly over the years the beer has become a brand rather than a beer of distinction. The market for it in the US has grown well beyond the demand here on Tyneside. The recipe has subtly changed over the years to be lower in abv and its colour is the result of colourings rather than being a reflection of the grains from which it originated. It’s this colouring that has recently changed due to health scares with bad publicity in the US.

Here’s where the real motives appear isn’t it. The image of a brown ale is more important to the brewery than brewing a genuine brown ale to style guide standards. It’s now a falsified beer which is squeezed into the iconic bottles that have become such a proud tradition. Of course the brewery lost its independence many many years ago and is now in the hands of Heineken who aren’t concerned about the integrity of the beer.

It’s funny though, I grew up with this beer being the beer I went for as it had more flavour and better texture than generic gassy lagers. What I didn’t realise at the time is that this beer was an illusion and in reality it was as manipulated as the lagers I chose to avoid. What is good to acknowledge though, is that we are now in a position to understand that. I now know what good brewing practice is and have a passion for naturally brewed beers. I now find Newcastle Brown Ale very difficult to drink. My tastes have moved on and my understanding ruins the experience for me. However, I still keep the limited edition bottles I collected over those early years. I still have the scarves and flags just incase we get back to a major final. Sadly Gazza had to go the distance after a nasty fracture….

The reason I wanted to cover this beer was for me at least, it gives context. This is where I started my beer journey. This is the beer that set me on the path to where I am now. I may no longer go looking for this beer but it helped define my tastes and thought processes. You learn from every beer you try, and those beers you used to drink all help you get to where you are today.

For those who have stuck with me this far, thank you for your patience. Normal craft beer service will now be resumed…..

Starting with nice cold can of #CCCAAANNNNNNOOONNNBBBAAALLLLLL #Klaxon

The perception of a Beer Geek

There are those out there who are all over the latest developments in craft beer. There are also a great many others out there who aren’t….

I do wonder what these people think is my thing. When all people know of you is that you’re ‘into beer’, that becomes your entire persona in their minds. A relative bought me a Budweiser gift pack one year as she knew I was “into beer”. You can’t fault the logic, I like beer, so she bought me beer. However, would you buy a wine connoisseur a bottle of blue nun? Obviously it’s the thought that counts and I know she made the effort to get me something she thought would appeal to me. But what’s interesting here for me at least is what people perceive that I’m ‘into’, when they hear that I’m ‘into beer’.

For those of you reading this, you probably have a far more educated knowledge of the sort of beer that I am interested in, aswell as an understanding of most of the terms and language used in conversations about it. But to those who can’t see and hear from the other side of the curtain, what do they envisage?

Firstly, I imagine they perceive large quantities being consumed. Fair enough on that one, I probably do drink more than average. I’m conscious that it doesn’t become excessive but I do have a session drink every now and again.

Next up is the biggest mis-conception for me, stereotype one. Many people simply see it as being into real ale and therefore envisage all the stuffy stereotypes that the 1970’s CAMRA member would have attributed to him. It’s a perception that hasn’t moved on a great deal from that time to be honest. The perception is that I drink beer from those big handpulls attached to the bar and not the gassy stuff out the raised outlets either side of the handpulls with the humorous clips and funny names. I probably go to what they refer to as the ‘old man bars’, most likely attired in scruffy jeans and a ‘Lager is for wimps’ T-shirt, slightly, no heavily faded as it was originally acquired in the 70’s in exchange for the correctly branded bottle caps….

But that’s as far as their thinking goes, they don’t see any further than that and to be honest they don’t need to.

So taking the above rather satirical perception, how far is the reality from that? I don’t drink in what I perceive to be old man bars, although no bars are off limits in my mind. I like pubs with character but I like stylish environments with interesting features. I like pubs filled with interesting people and that mix should be diverse and not limited to one particular stereotype. As for beer, well I am a fan of cask but in most instances I much prefer keg, which come out of those taps raised up at the end of the bar rather than the handpulls in the middle. I wear what I believe is fashionable attire for a man of my age. I’m no funky hipster but I like to think I aim at the smarter end of the smart casual barometer.

From where I stand the difference between stereotype one and the reality above are significant, its two very different people. But I’m up close and personal with this, I can clearly see the differences from where I stand. However, for those who don’t stand so close the edges of the two things blur and maybe they are so far from the craft beer bubble that the two scenario’s blur into being the ones single thing.

I went to Uni in Leeds and I remember when I was down there that there were those who would often refer to people from Sunderland as Geordies, based entirely on hearing their accents and having no other knowledge of their provenance. But to me I was amazed that they thought the Sunderland accent was the same as a Geordie accent, when I was so used to knowing how different words were pronounced in an entirely different way by Wearsiders when compared with Tynesiders.

This perception of craft beer is exactly the same thing. To a great many people there is no craft beer bubble, it’s all just beer and the social scene hasn’t changed a lot, other than faces being different and names being different, but people going out to pubs and clubs on a Friday and Saturday night is no different at all and that’s all they see. Hence why there is no qualms whatsoever in buying me a Budweiser gift pack as a Christmas pressie.

Why does this matter? Well in the most part it doesn’t, but consider how do we reach out to new consumers? The starting place has to be to understand the viewpoint of those you’re looking to attract and as the industry grows it appears all the more on potential new consumers horizons, the next stage is to draw them closer to the industry with intelligent marketing and good sustainable practices. And the closer they get the more they’ll see the finer details and the distinctions and hopefully the colourful world of craft beer will spark their beery imagination.

Which leaves one question still to answer…..

I know you’re all wondering but the Budweiser gift pack contained branded bottle of said lager, branded glass for said lager to go into and branded peanuts to eat while drinking said lager. So that’s beer and food matching? It’s almost craft!?!