Saturday, 18 June 2016

Shilling the rubes

Glasgow has had a chequered past with regards to brewpubs. There’s a long list of failures through the 1980s and 90s – only the venerable Clockwork survives from those days – but in more recent years things seem to be looking up. Even West, which now appears to be doing very well, had a difficult patch early on when the beer was pretty poor. Even then I hoped they would get through it, because another failure might well have put anyone off the idea of trying it in Glasgow again.

Since then, of course, we have gained Drygate, which has just celebrated its second birthday, and it is already hard to imagine it not being there. Yet when I look at the number of breweries in Glasgow proper, now five, I think there is still room for more. An inspiring thought is that Portland, Oregon has the same population as Glasgow.

The latest addition to the scene is the new Shilling Brewing Co in West Regent St, which bills itself as the first brewpub in the city centre, which I suppose is technically true, with West and Drygate being in the East End and the Clockwork on the south side. The company behind Shilling, Glendola Leisure, is best known for bringing us the Oirish-themed “fun pub” Waxy O’Connor’s, so some beer aficionados were sceptical at first.

Now nobody would call Glendola cutting-edge innovators. What they are good at is identifying a trend and then building well-funded businesses around them, buying in expertise where they need to. And it seems to work: Waxy O’Connor’s is still going strong decades after the fad for Oirish pubs peaked, and Gordon St Coffee is, as far as I am aware, as well regarded as any of the independent coffee places. Companies such as this moving in is a sign of a maturing sector.

The new head brewer at Shilling is Declan McCaffrey, formerly of the Clockwork Brewing Co on the South Side. Declan has made a noticeable improvement in the Clockwork’s beer in the time he’s been there, but having seen the extremely cramped brewhouse, I understand the attraction of brewing on much shinier equipment in the city centre (José Luis Bravo is moving from Arran Brewery to replace Declan at the Clockwork). Former cocktail barman Chris Nicol joins Declan as second brewer.

Oddly enough, the Shilling is not brewing any beers called 80 shilling or similar. The first beers announced are relentlessly modern: Unicorn IPA, a pale ’n’ hoppy effort called The Steamie (in honour of Dorothy Paul, apparently), and Glasgow Red (rather than 80 bob or heavy). I have no objection to this but find it a little odd to then choose such an old-school name. Declan is also bringing his trademark nettle beer, made with locally foraged weeds from Queens Park.

The copper-clad brewery is right behind the bar. From there the beer will be pumped into fermentation tanks in the basement of the building, and when it is ready, back up to the serving tanks mounted high above the bar. Most of the beer is dispensed by gas, but is unfiltered and unpasteurised. Shilling is also going the extra distance by producing and serving some cask-conditioned ale.

I’m not passing any judgement on the beers yet, as they are likely to change: as the brewing kit was only installed in the last week in May, the bar is opening with beer brewed at Drygate (I get a certain feeling of deja vu here, as I remember Drygate themselves having to do exactly the same thing at opening). The red ale is pleasant enough, fudgy with a bitter edge to it; the IPA is deep gold, harshly bitter and watery, the blonde is straw-yellow, harshly bitter and watery. On the other hand, the nettle saison is a pungent, almost overpoweringly fruity 6.2% beast.

I am sure the beers will improve once the brewery is actually in operation – the first real Shilling beers were only brewed in the week after opening. They are already getting the other aspects right – the bar is elegantly designed, with thought obviously going into every detail from the stylish typography of the menus to the rather odd backlit beer taps that for some reason are designed to resemble a spirit safe.

The staff too are friendly, polite and chatty and actually seem to know something about the beer they are selling, which is sadly still something worth mentioning. Even the pricing is not extortionate for the city centre, though it is not really in competition with the bar across the street that offers Tennent’s for £2.

It seems the burger craze is finally receding and being replaced by a pizza craze, for as well as the brewing kit, Shilling also features a pizza oven churning out pizzas for the punters. In these food-led days, what seems remarkable is that there is no food other than the pizzas. The pizza is pretty good too. We shall need to wait and see how the beer shapes up.

Thursday, 21 April 2016

Now this is a festival

For the first time in several years, I went to the Paisley Beer Festival on opening night yesterday as a punter rather than a volunteer, and had a great time.

A few festivals ago the Scottish brewing scene had grown to such an extent that the Scottish bar moved into the bigger hall, swapping places with the English bar. This year this system was also found too much of a constraint and the festival now sprawls over two halls downstairs and two large function rooms upstairs, to say nothing of the hundreds of people standing and sitting in the corridors.

When I started going to CAMRA festivals the beer quality was often variable. I’ve drunk, and served, more pints than I care to think about of terribly flat beer, that I would have handed straight back if I’d been served them in a pub.

Punters should be able to expect to get good beer at a CAMRA festival, run by the people who put themselves up as the guardians of real ale. If CAMRA sell them a flat, warm pint, they will leave thinking that real ale is supposed to be like that, and choose something else to drink instead.

Nowadays, I don’t know what has changed behind the scenes, but the beer seems to be in much better condition and nice and cool.

I don’t scoop much any more. Put some Harveys on the bar and I’m happy. The beer orderer seems to share my taste, with many English classics on the bars – Batham’s, Harvey’s, Sarah Hughes – alongside the new wave from Glasgow’s Up Front or Newcastle Yorkshire’s Brass Castle. I could quite happily have supped far beyond my capacity without even referring to the programme. Mind you, having draught Schlenkerla available tends to do that. In fact, Paisley was so good that, although there is much more to be said, I’m off for another session while it’s on, instead of sitting at home writing any more of this!

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

Hate to piss on your chips, but North Hop is just not worth the money

Having seen the ticket prices for North Hop, a one-day “craft beer, gin, cider festival“ currently beginning a series of events across Scotland, I was inclined at first not to bother with it. You can call me a cheapskate if you want, but I think being £20 out of pocket before you’ve had a single sip of beer is pretty poor value for money.

It’s even significantly more expensive than the highest-priced session at IndyMan, which itself got some stick for being pricey, but at least does offer the spectacular Manchester Victoria Baths as a venue. The Assembly Rooms, despite its expensive refurbishment, is more like a provincial concert hall. After the refurb, hire charges were hiked dramatically, so it’s probably not possible to match the £6 that CAMRA used to charge for a bigger festival in the same venue. I understand that – but three times as much?

Speaking of CAMRA, one of the bugbears at their festivals is often the need to get into the venue several days in advance, so that the cask beer can be delivered and allowed to settle. I am told this is not the case at North Hop, with brewers allowed in at 9am and expected to pour beer at noon. Several brewers, perhaps wisely under the circumstances, chose to bring only keg beer.

It’s a brave brewery that chooses a logo in hot pink, but that certainly makes the new Edinburgh Beer Factory stand out. Their pale lager, Paolozzi, didn’t impress me greatly when I had it in bottle a few months ago, but I’ve been waiting to give the draught version a chance. It’s got a pleasant straw-yellow colour and nice maltiness reminiscent of a nice Bavarian Helles, though not as rich and bready. Not a challenging beer – they tell me that’s not their aim either – and I mentally file it in the category “would happily drink in an airport, or if free”. That’s a little harsh, as it’s certainly better than the Peroni, Menabrea and so on that it’s setting out to compete with.

Right next door, there’s more lager from West, who are celebrating their 10th anniversary this year. Party Pilsner is a tweak on the earlier Feierabend, with Hallertauer Blanc hops and Cascade and Mandarina Bavaria used in the whirlpool. It’s tastier than Paolozzi, but also less clean, with a tad of butter and a slight peanut note that comes from God knows where. Scotland is still definitely lager land, with multiple vendors trying to fill the perceived niche for “craft” lager: hence why every Scottish brewery is craft now. Stewart Brewing also have a new lager, Franz, easier to drink than their earlier Pilsen. I like Franz best of the three.

Drygate have the annoying habit of recycling old beer names for new beers. I was extremely confused to see a limited edition Forelsket on sale, as this is the original name for the beer, part of their core cask range, which is now called Pale Duke. It turns out that it’s a new beer entirely. I hate the smell of dope, but I am rather fond of the American hops that give beer a so-called “dank” aroma which is said to be similar to dope. The new Forelsket is redolent of them. It smells like a tenement landing on West Princes Street on the Sunday morning after a house party.

Forelsket is the work of Drygate brewer Jake Griffin, who has now set up his own brand, Up Front. He’s on his own stand at the opposite end of the hall, having his first ever festival outing with his new beer, Ishmael IPA and Ahab stout. Not all the early customer feedback is positive: one punter asks how strong the beers are, and upon being told they are both 6 per cent, turns and walks away without a word. Jake is phlegmatic about this: “We don’t want to be for everyone,” he says, “we want to stand out from the crowd.”

Soon after I arrive for the afternoon session, some dreary rock band takes the stage and plays at such deafening volume that it’s impossible to order a beer, never mind chat to the exhibitors.

Not that many other brewers are represented: Fallen, currently darlings of pale-n-hoppy enthusiasts; Tempest, SixºNorth, Williams, Wooha, and Glasgow’s Drygate and West. I’d have expected to see Harviestoun and Innis & Gunn here, and the absence of Brewdog is unusual, given it’s the kind of PR-led event that’s a perfect match for their PR-led business. Stewart and Windswept are kind of hidden away in the corner. Wooha, by the looks of things are still bottling all their beers. The solitary cider vendor, as far I can see, is Thistly Cross. If you’d turned up hoping for a cider festival, you’d be out of luck and pretty angry, I imagine.

North Hop is nice enough as far as it goes. It’s not a new breed of luxury festivals, as you might surmise from the cost of admission (unless the bales of straw people are expected to sit on are made of gold, perhaps). It isn’t particularly luxurious, it isn’t particularly big, the beers on offer are not particularly rare. The beer I have is par for the course for a festival: some good, some not so good. Prices are acceptable for beer and I did have a very nice scotch egg, which was actually worth the £4 I spent on it.

However, looking at the ecstatic tweets by people who did have a good time and discovered new beers and foodstuffs, I can’t help thinking they must not get out very much. Perhaps that’s the niche of North Hop: bringing a slight tinge of hipsterification to the well-heeled but ignorant Herald-reading middle classes, without requiring them to actually visit the hipster parts of town.

But I just can’t get over the inflated ticket price, which seems unjustifiable when comparable festivals offer much the same for much less money. 

If style is what you’re after, you could certainly have a very nice afternoon drinking excellent beer in some of Edinburgh’s magnificent pubs just for what North Hop charges for admission. Which is what I recommend you do instead. 

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Two whales walk into a bar…

When I wrote about Chris Lewis’ long-awaited commercial beer a few weeks ago, I would have liked to mention another new project too, but it was still under wraps. Now it isn’t: the other half of the Zombier team, Jake Griffin, has now also launched his own beer.

Up Front Brewing is the name of the new project and the name is not an accident: eschewing the trend for crowdfunding, Jake is setting his stall out for organic growth and not being in debt to anyone.

I should mention that I have known Jake for five or six years now, so am not completely unbiased. He is an impressively energetic and driven man – not content with finishing his PhD while working as a brewer at Fyne Ales and then Drygate, he continued to homebrew, filling his Glasgow flat with demijohn after demijohn of experimental beers.

Up Front’s first two beers are an IPA called Ishmael and an American stout called Ahab – a literary reference which is over my head to be quite frank. Both were launched at Inn Deep in Glasgow last Thursday and at the North Hop festival in Edinburgh on Saturday.

Both are 6% and Jake has jumped feet first onto the can bandwagon. The artwork on the cans and font badges is by renowned artist Stanley Donwood, featuring stark black and white imagery.

The beer is brewed at Drygate, where Jake usually spends his days making their Gladeye IPA and Bearface Lager. I imagine choosing a brewery to produce Up Front’s beer must have been a fairly easy decision. If you can contract your brewing out to, well, yourself, why go elsewhere? Jake has a clear advantage over most “cuckoo” brewers in that he gets to work on a familiar kit, as it’s the same one he uses for his day job.

Ishmael is a modern IPA with all that that implies, bitter, pungently hoppy and on the murky side. It seems to have more sophisticated hopping than some, dank and fruity at the same time, yet for me is still missing the touch of magic that makes you want another. However, it’s certainly quite as good as plenty of other IPAs that people rave about, and I expect it will do just fine in the market.

Ahab is a more distinctive beer in its own right. If Jake hadn’t told me it was an American Stout I wouldn’t have categorised it as such; those roasty, dry-hopped things usually just make me think someone has dumped hops in my morning coffee. Ahab has big roastiness and cereal character. I think I can taste oats but forgot to ask whether it contains any. There is a nice thin dark chocolate note, similar but not quite the same as the dry cocoa of Zombier, and as you drink it a distinct black cherry flavour develops, finishing with cake and muesli and Black Forest gateau all at the same time. I might be on the floor after two pints of this but I’d remember it.

Monday, 1 February 2016

It was a dark and stormy night

I tell you, it’s getting harder to keep up with the beer scene in this city. On Friday I found myself braving the cold wind and rain – Storm Gertrude had just passed, apparently not causing as much damage as feared – to cram in three different beer launches.

Since summer Grunting Growler (whom I last mentioned here) has been in residence at Peckham’s off-licence shop in Hyndland. Boss Jehad Hatu has paused only slightly to pick up a “Beer Hero” award from the Scottish Bartenders’ Network in October. When I call in there is actually a queue waiting to have growlers filled.

Grunting Growler had its first very own beer for sale – a 4.1% fruity Berliner Weisse entitled “Popping My Cherry”. The beer was brewed with Jehad by Jonathan Hamilton of the Hanging Bat, who has since departed to join Beavertown in London.

It opens with fresh cherry ice-cream flavour and a nice slightly yoghurty, very slightly stomachy acidity. Not nearly sour enough to be a true Berliner but pleasant enough. If it hadn’t been good, though, the other beers on offer were a splendid mix: Camden unfiltered Hells (which still looked reasonably clear), Vocation Pride & Joy for those still obsessed with hops, Almasty milk stout, all of which I’d be happy to drink.

Chris Lewis of Dead End Brew Machine was
coaxed into saying a few words, mostly about
zombie films
On the other side of the university, west end design agency O Street (who are actually in Bank Street, not Otago Street as you might assume) were hosting one of their informal Beer Times events. This particular one was a bit special, as this evening revolved around the beer itself. Award-winning homebrewer Chris Lewis has finally been persuaded – after much coaxing from Hippo Beers boss Derek Hoy and O Street themselves – to launch his first commercial beer, under the name Dead End Brew Machine. It’s going to be a passion fruit IPA, brewed (like so many these days) at Drygate, and should be out by mid-March.

Drinkers who remember Chris as half of the team which created Zombier back in 2012 will already be drooling. Those who are lucky enough to have tasted Chris’s homebrews are even more excited. On the night some sample bottles of prototypes were going around. An IPA was tasty but didn’t stand out from the oceans of very similar beers already on the market. Chris’s house smoked porter, on the other hand, is sensationally good, rich, smooth and rather elegant.

Some very new brewers seem to have a rather high opinion of themselves, and the actual beer is often disappointing. Chris has the opposite problem, in that he is far too modest. Typically he will thrust a glass into your hand, slightly shamefacedly mumbling something like “I made this beer, I don’t know if it’s any good man, what do you think?” Then you taste the beer and it’s like nectar. This is quite endearing, but Dead End Brew Machine may need to adopt a more aggressive approach commercially.

Nearer the city centre, in the State Bar, which recently won the local CAMRA branch’s Glasgow Pub of the Year for the second year in a row, a Fyne Ales tap takeover saw the pub even busier than normal for a Friday night. The reason for the shindig is to launch ticket sales of the brewery’s summer festival, FyneFest (see here and here and here…) After a quiet first couple of years, FyneFest now sells out every year, so I’m not quite sure why the ticket sales still need promotion. Mind you, as one of the brewery staff tells me, when you work on a farm it’s nice to have a night out in the big city once in a while. And they have new beers to sell, so why not?

There are two spanking new beers here: Great Pacific Hop Patch, an oily, sweet IPA, presumably with New World hops as the name implies, with the slight heaviness common to most of Fyne’s stronger beers, and a lychee-fruity and bitter finish. Sunryse Boulevard, with rye and, I am told, Sorachi Ace hops, is lighter-bodied and easier drinking, with slight notes of coconut and cocoa, but these are subordinated to big, crisp, white-bread doorstep toastiness – I confess I have no idea where that comes from. But as usual, it’s the Jarl and Avalanche that the thirsty punters finish off first.

Thursday, 8 October 2015

It’s only rock ’n’ roll but I like it

Head brewer Rich is driving a fork-lift when I arrive. Perhaps this is self-selection bias, but all the brewers I meet in New York are big Anglophiles. At Singlecut Brewsmiths in Astoria, Queens, they are big cask beer fans too, and make a lot of it. They opened in 2012 and have already expanded once. They also have outstanding graphic design and beers with weird names, and it’s the first brewery tap I have seen with a drumkit on a mezzanine level. A large collection of vinyl LPs is behind the bar. The dust and humidity in a working brewery can’t be all that good for them, I muse. But the brewery is music-themed: live music is a big part of the taproom’s draw, and all the tap handles are shaped like guitar necks.

The first beer I try is an English pale ale called Keith, after Keith Richards, I gather. Served on nitro, it’s made with East Kent Goldings, Styrians and Target and tastes very fresh and slightly citric.

It would be wrong to treat Singlecut as a tribute band, as it were. There’s a lot of experimentation here too. Shine on Summer Sour Lagrrr is a sour lager, amazingly enough, which has spent a whole year in a dedicated souring tank. A beer called Kim is a hibiscus sour lager, which is basically a Berliner Weisse grist fermented with a lager yeast and then moved to the souring tank. Why bother with the slow, time-intensive lager fermentation for beers like this, I ask. Just to mix it up a bit, is the reply, and to have a unique twist on things. The technique seems to produce a nice beer, fruity and malty at the same time, though this is oddly reminiscent of Froot Loops cereal. There’s some sour cherryade and yoghurt flavours in there too, a milky salty lassi of a beer.

One wall of the brewery is stacked with wooden casks. These are rum casks rather than the more common bourbon casks. It’s usually a stout that goes into these, but at the moment there’s a rum aged lager, sweetish with only a light rum character – it’s the 14th fill of the cask.

Heavy Boots of Lead, made with 2-row, crystal and Munich, is like a chocolate brownie in a glass. There’s no other way to describe it, that’s what it tastes like, a fantastic beer.

Possibly the finest beer I taste in New York is the super-fresh 19-33 lager. No funny business in this one, just a straight up superbly made pilsner. A hint of sulphur and soft but intense bitterness from Saaz and Hallertauer Blanc hops. This is another one worth carrying across the Atlantic and that’s how I ended up drinking a growler of it in a field at Fyne Ales’ festival back in Scotland. Jay at Flagship was right, New York is lager town.

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Girl, I wanna take you to a cheese bar

New York’s venerable cheese shop, Murray’s Cheese Store in Greenwich Village took a new leap a couple of years ago by opening a cheese bar a few doors down the street.

Not quite a ploughman’s, this is a selection of three cheeses with paired beers. Grimm IPA (which I know nothing about except that it comes from Brooklyn) is citric, perfumey and slightly sweaty; looks like apple juice, light-bodied, medium to bitter finish.

Something that can perhaps only exist in Vermont, Beanery Brewing is a company which sells exclusively coffee beers. Their Beanery IPA, brewed at Smuttynose, has only light coffee flavour but a vanilla-ey, sherberty lightness.

Other Half IPA (not sure exactly which one, as they have tons of IPAs) has tropical fruit and resin. Sorry, no cheese tasting notes except to note that this type of resiny IPA tends to do well against any washed-rind cheese.

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Over the water to the forgotten borough

There is beer everywhere. Waiting in the ferry terminal the kiosk where I buy my morning coffee and bagel has draught Budweiser and Lagunitas IPA.

It’s a pleasant trip over the water to Staten Island, on the incongruously communistic free, municipally-owned ferry, which takes you to and from the heart of global capitalism in Manhattan. While the Staten Island Ferry is one of the iconic journeys in a city stuffed with icons, the island itself is known as “the forgotten borough”.

One of the newest breweries in NYC, and the only one on the island, is Flagship which has just celebrated its first birthday. Its slogan is “Unforgettable beer brewed in the forgotten borough” – but it wasn’t that which caught my attention. In the first instance it was because they brew a couple of British styles: wee heavy and dark mild, which I found intriguing.

Finding the brewery couldn’t be easier: take the train one stop from the ferry terminal and the brewery is across the street. It’s a baking hot day and a whiff of fermenting spent grain across the yard doesn’t put me off.

Brewery boss Jay is kind enough to show me around and let me taste some beers. He’s keen to talk about their lager, which they have just started brewing. Jay was in sales before starting the brewery, so ought to have an idea what will sell. They were very eager to bring a lager to market, because New York is lager town, he tells me. I am reminded again of that Yuengling–Brooklyn lineage (and the more beer I drink here, the more convinced I am that Jay is right).

While Flagship are already selling everything they produce, it’s only been recently that they have been able to tie up tanks for the required fermentation and conditioning time for a lager. On tasting it, it’s smashing. The best way I can describe it is to tell you to imagine if Brooklyn Lager had all European hops instead of Cascade. It’s a creamy, amber lager with satisfying bitterness and a herbal noble hop aroma.

Pale Ale is the beer which sells most in the other boroughs of New York City and the first to be bottled. This is, I think, the very first batch off the new packaging line – the bottles have no labels yet. It’s a tasty beer with maybe a slightly rough bitterness to it, made with seven types of C-hops and Mosaic. In addition to the up-front hoppiness, it’s chewy and biscuity. No murk here either.

Obviously I have to taste the Wee Heavy: a very heavy roast barley and hop bitterness, chewy too and drinkable enough for the 8% abv to get you into trouble. Not much like any Scottish wee heavy I’ve tried, but a tasty beer nonetheless.

It’s so hot waiting for the train back that I’m tempted to break into my six-pack. By the time I return to South Ferry it’s definitely time for a beer. The Fraunces Tavern is a tourist attraction in its own right, having been headquarters for various pre- and post-revolutionary organisations in the 18th century. Trying to get a small glass of the 6.8% Ommegang Fleur de Houblon, though, is futile – it’s only sold in pints. I have to chuckle to myself, remembering that most British pubs would probably do the opposite and insist on only serving a beer of that strength in halves. The beer is spicy and citrussy with that musty bitterness that comes from hopping up a wheat beer.

I saw a lot more cask beer in New York than I was expecting to, but didn’t get to drink much. In the case of the Fraunces Tavern, I really want to try the Bronx Pale Ale from the cask, but it’s not on. Just as well as a second pint at 6.3%, in this heat, would not be the best idea.

I find more cask at the well-known Ginger Man bar: KelSo Pale Ale, which has a high bitterness and splendidly flowery, geranium-like hop aroma.

I read a lot of curmudgeonly complaints about American cask beer. The main issue traditionalists have with it is the practice that American brewers have developed of adding not just hops, but fruit, chocolate, cake and other additional flavourings to the cask. Indeed, sometimes it seems that “cask” in the US means, in one sense, the same as “craft” in Britain: an opportunity to add a load of weird stuff to your beer post-fermentation.

I don’t see why US cask beer should have to be a carbon copy of British cask beer, though, and the other cask beer the Ginger Man serves up has, if anything, the opposite issue. It is almost too much like an English beer. More English-tasting than a lot of English beer, Sly Fox Chester County Bitter  has minty bitterness and creme brulee sweetness, like an old-school country bitter from Wadworth’s or somewhere. While I am sure the temperature is within the approved range, New York in summer is quite a bit hotter than most places in Britain ever get, and I don’t think the beer would be hurt by being a bit colder.

Sunday, 4 October 2015

Brew York, Brew York, what a wonderful town

New York is weird for the first-time visitor. Because it’s so familiar from films and TV shows, it feels quite surreal to actually be there. I keep expecting to look out of the window and see Spider-Man fighting Dr Octopus on the flat roof of one of these Manhattan office blocks.

Arriving on a Sunday afternoon, my first beer in a random bar is Brooklyn Lager. I have never been impressed by this beer in the UK, where it’s usually old, poorly served and extortionately priced. Here, it’s still extortionately priced, like everything in New York, but it tastes much fresher with a solid hop flavour. Yuengling Lager, which I order because it’s a legendary brand that I’m never likely to see at home, is frankly disappointing – but I realise there’s a sort of continuity here; these brown, proletarian Yankee lagers.

There’s much more beer-wise to New York – much more to Brooklyn, in fact, than Brooklyn Brewery. Rather like London, the city is experiencing mushroom-like growth in small breweries, brewing a diverse range of styles.

Transmitter is the first brewery we make it to – “always well received” is the delightfully corny slogan. Transmitter is so small that it has neither a bar, nor draught beer, nor a customer toilet. You can only taste small samples and buy bottles to take away. We try them all, of course. As is usual in such places, what’s available depends very much on what’s been packaged recently and what is sold out.

Transmitter’s speciality is what the Americans call “farmhouse ales”, which is more than slightly ironic, as it’s in an industrial building between the Pulaski road bridge and a railway yard, which does have a certain gritty romanticism to it, but is about as far from a farmhouse as it’s possible to get. But damn if the beer isn’t good. A grapefruit witbier tasted, well, like a witbier with extra grapefruit, and New York Saison is seriously drinkable.

Given time, I would have happily spent an afternoon supping a few bottles of New York Saison, but the bar is higher: I need to choose which one is worth schlepping back across the Atlantic. F4, a “Brett Farmhouse Ale” brewed with three strains of Brettanomyces hits the spot: tasty, funky and complex.

If we’d had more time, I would have done this differently. We end up travelling all the way across Brooklyn to the next beer. Transmitter is practically in Queens while the next brewery, is at the opposite end, right down in the south-west at Red Hook. But Sunday opening times being what they are, we have no choice.

Other Half  is the hot brewery in New York right now. Their occasional releases of super-fresh cans – canned on Friday, sold on Saturday – provoke the kind of madness that leads people to queue up hours in advance for their IPAs. We arrive the day after one of these releases. Predictably, there are no cans left.

It’s just before closing time and we have time to squeeze in just one beer each.

Green Diamonds (9.1%) with Amarillo and Galaxy hops is sweet, oily and well balanced, with long sustained bitterness. Very pleasant with slight sweaty, yoghurty notes.

Equinox IPA (7%) has a big “dank” or marijuana-like aroma, all the better for the somewhat lower alcohol content, making it light-bodied and very drinkable. There’s a bit of fruit salad sweeties too. Quite dry so never gets cloying. It reminds me a little of one of Adnams’ single-hop pales, and I am forced to think how good it would be as a cask beer.

Both beers are good, yet neither are really in the category “I must seek this beer out again”. They have only a slight haze, no murk here. I do like the tap-room a lot – it is very small and very nice, done out in that hipster paint (guaranteed to flake off after three months). Despite the hipsters it doesn’t feel like it’s trying too hard, as UK bars often do.

Though the beer has little in common with Transmitter’s, Other Half’s location also adds fashionable urban grit to its appeal. The brewery and tap-room are opposite a drive-thru McDonald’s and underneath a freeway, which I guess is the New York equivalent of London’s railway arches.

Back in Manhattan for dinner – it takes half an hour longer than anticipated to get back on the subway – Heartland Brewery is a small chain of former brewpubs. It still feels very much like the type of brewpub you can read about in Michael Jackson’s books, food- and family-oriented.

A few years ago Heartland decided for reasons of efficiency and consistency to consolidate all their brewing in one place and downgrade the pubs to outlets for their beer. The facility, now named Greenpoint Beer Works, now produces all the beer for the restaurants. Heartland’s head brewer Kelly Taylor wanted his own range of beer, but rather than leave, he chose to contract the brewing out – to himself. So his KelSo beers are now also made there.

I only get to try one Heartland beer because we’re just in for dinner, not beer ticking. Although there are more exotic options available, I choose the beer in the “classic American Pilsner” style, which, according to legend, is what American lagers were like before Prohibition. This style combines substantial bitterness with a large dose of maize in the mash, which supposedly helped German immigrant brewers to clarify beers made with dodgy American barley in the late 19th century.

I think I prefer my lagers all-malt, but I wanted to try this as there isn’t really anything like it in Europe. There are maize-laden lagers in Belgium and Italy, of course, but they do not have the hop bitterness that this does, whereas the hoppy German and Czech lagers are all-malt.

I’ve noticed that the American brewers tend to brew a fair number of what they call “classic styles” – your Dunkel lager, ESB and so on. More so than the fashionable UK brewers. Don’t dismiss Heartland as conservative though: brewers from Other Half and Flagship worked here before moving on.

It’s fascinating to trace the generations through New York’s breweries: the brand that contract-brewed until there was money to build a facility (Brooklyn); the chain of pubs with a slightly dated feel (Heartland); the hipsters making tiny amounts of beer under bridges (Transmitter, Other Half, Big Alice). What they all seem to have in common is a connection with the city they’re in. It’s an exciting time to drink in New York.

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

“Craft beer” crumbling

I didn’t go to Craft Beer Rising at Drygate last year because I have no interest in craft beer. How can you be interested in something that doesn’t exist?

I’d found CBR rather irritating in advance, because it was, at the time, at the forefront of “craft beer” hype in the media, along with journalists who smelled the promise of a lucrative stream of articles misinforming the masses.

I went this year. I’ve changed my tune on Craft Beer Rising. I now think it’s great. But possibly not for the reasons they hope.

I like it because it’s so transparently opportunistic and cynical. Not for them the tedious discussions of what “craft“ means. They’re only interested in one criterion: “Have you got £1200 for a stall?”

This allows all manner of brewers to take part who are otherwise sneered at by “craft” enthusiasts: Caledonian, Greene King and the like. Even the hated Tennents/C&C are there, in the shape of Heverlee, their Belgian lager brand.

This in turn devalues the c-word, making it more and more obvious to all that it’s a marketing term, as meaningless as “premium lager” or “world beer”. This is an excellent development. Once it’s completed we can all get back to actually talking about beer and what it tastes like.

What of the very small brewers who balk at ponying up the reduced-rate £700? It might put most of them off, but then “craft” has never been about them. It’s always been a label for industrial breweries to distinguish themselves from rather larger industrial breweries with better quality control. Nearly every actual microbrewer I speak to thinks it’s nonsense. Observe who shouts the loudest about “craft beer”. It’s not the people who brew in railway arches, it’s the people with PR agencies.

Speaking of PR agencies, it must be awful for Brewdog. They’ve been placed right next to the supposedly “faux-craft” Meantime, and just three stands away from the presumably even faux-er Blue Moon, in a venue, Drygate, that James Watt once pompously declared was “exactly the sort of thing that should not be allowed to call itself craft”. In line with the purported principles of their United Craft Brewers club, to defend the term from being hijacked by bigger operators, by rights they should be boycotting this event and denouncing it loudly. On the other hand, there’s a shitload of money to be made here, which any brewer can tell you is more important than principles or consistency.

It is, though, mildly interesting to observe who’s here and who isn’t. Stewart of Edinburgh. Harviestoun. Belhaven/Greene King. Brewdog. Meantime. Inveralmond. Heverlee. Blue Moon. Budweiser Budvar. Thistly Cross cider. Oakham. Hardknott. Beer52 the online retailer. Caledonian. Dent. McEwans/Charles Wells. Lerwick. Wooha. Dunns wholesalers. Thornbridge. Nobody would call this the cutting edge of fashion. But it does represent a strata of producers ready to fill the retail space that the interminable “craft” hype has helped create. It doesn’t matter really that, actually, hardly any of them are the small brewers that “craft beer” ideologues pretend it is all about.

I was complaining that I wanted to be talking about beer, right? Let’s get on. My first drink is from Dent, a brewery from Cumbria which I am slightly surprised to see here; it has always struck me as a typical country brewery happy with serving its local market. The beer is unsurprising: Aviator, 4% bitter, but splendidly fresh-tasting. Another beer, Kamikaze, has unfortunately been attacked by diacetyl beetles.

On the other side of the room is Hardknott, also from Cumbria but in a way the polar opposite of Dent; much newer and with aspirations from the start not to be limited to the local market. They’ve brought along Intergalactic Space Hopper, which brewer Dave thinks may be the hoppiest beer at the festival. He could be right. Although Dave says there is only a small bittering charge, the beer has a big, clean, aspirin-like bitterness. It’s quite fun but gets heavy going after a while.

At Harviestoun, new beers are on offer. While they have flown the pale’n’hoppy flag longer than almost anyone else in Scotland, only now have they produced a beer actually called IPA. It’s resinous with English hops and has a bit of caramel, tasting slightly heavy.
For the tickers, there’s a raspberry imperial stout at 10.5% which may resurface at some point in the future.

Belhaven are masters of producing beers that you can’t actually buy anywhere. What intrigues me about this stall are the bottles of Wee Heavy. I’ve never seen this beer in a pub in twenty years of drinking in Scotland, and assumed it was all exported, but I am assured they sell it here. In the Belhaven pubs, perhaps? Well, no, because it’s down to the managers what they order. Isn’t the point of having tied pubs so that you have a guaranteed outlet for your grog?

This is a shame, because the Wee Heavy is excellent – rich and sticky with huge flavours of raisins, raisins and more raisins. If they wanted to, Greene King and Belhaven could  run pubs with a killer range of beers: XX Mild, Abbot Reserve, Twisted Thistle, Wee Heavy, Strong Suffolk. Probably a bit conservative for today’s market, but hell I’d drink there.

At the Oakham stall, Green Devil on keg is a good example of why cask beer is better. It’s somehow sweeter than the cask version and tastes “closed”, without any unfolding of its flavour. Good luck to anyone trying to sell this at crafty prices, when the superior cask version is flowing out elsewhere in the city at £3 a pint.

Budweiser Budvar has a stand, so I guess that means craft breweries can be state-owned too. There’s a tankové pale lager on draught. I have to try that, but I can’t say it tastes any better than the bottled version. Try this too, says the bloke. Unlike other Czech dark lagers I’ve tried (which often deliver the rich maltiness that German dunkel beers promise), the flavour of Budvar Dark is mostly roast malt and liquorice. I’m not too impressed by anything here, but then I’ve always preferred Pilsner Urquell anyway.

I was wrong earlier. Tennent’s are here too. Although their stall has been banished inside, where a lonely-looking rep is giving out samples of Tennent’s Whisky Beer. This seems to have gained more whisky flavour than it had when it was launched.

My permanent quest for decent lager leads me back to Thornbridge’s stand, where the magnificent greenish-yellow Bayern pilsner is being poured. Now this is what it’s all about. A beautiful beer with soft carbonation and gentle bitterness – possibly in the top three British lagers I’ve drunk this year. For a moment the idea crosses my mind that they could send all the other breweries home and just serve Thornbridge Bayern all weekend. In litres.

I liked Inveralmond Sunburst lager previously, but it doesn’t stand up well against Bayern. Too biscuity, inappropriately fruity and badly poured. Of the many lager brands on show, only Thornbridge seem to have bothered teaching people how to pour the stuff.

Once I got there, I liked Craft Beer Rising much more than I was expecting to. A friend was complaining about the lack of “real” craft brewers and about the non-craftiness of some of the brewers who did turn up. I kind of liked it for precisely the same reason. It lets us see which “craft mavericks” are charlatans; whose premium lager is all piss and wind; and which mass-market accountant-led brewery still has a decent beer or two lurking in its portfolio.