Tag Archives: Newcastle craft beer

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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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