Monday, 25 August 2014

August Is All That I Know...

August would usually be busy enough for beer drinkers with GBBF, and the London Craft Scene generating some synergy off that by organising the nascent London Beer City week. This year, we've also had the big news that Binnie Walsh has sold The Harp to Fuller's. A former Boggle Award winner (and also a Camra National Pub Of The Year), I hear promises have been made about the running and offer at the pub, though some regulars I spoke to are a little trepidatious about creeping corporatism. I'd hope not – after all, Fuller's would be killing a golden goose by making The Harp just another Fuller's pub. But can a pubco in the business sense of the term be as nimble about managing their beer range, and bringing in new stuff? Binnie and her team dealt direct with breweries, which kept the bar looking interesting. Fuller's have put Pride and Gales Seafarer on the bar, and that's all, so far. We'll see, and I understand Camra's 'London Drinker' will have a big feature in their next issue.

This Bank Holiday has been a decent weekend for beer. Meantime hosted their third Brewfest at the Old Naval College, and Brew By Numbers held another Sunday event at the brewery.

Meantime seems to be honing the offer at Brewfest. More of the beer is draught, which keeps the queues moving, and the beers available are a bit less scatter-gun. This go-round,they had plenty of Brooklyn beers alongside Founders, Rogue and Flying Dog from the US, I assume because of the recent big Brooklyn presence in London for their Big Mash Bash Week, or whatever it was called. I chanced on an event at The Rake earlier in the month, leading to an excellent evening of tasting and banter. Their exclusively-imported Konrad Czech beer was on, and I missed Schoenram Dunkel again. From the UK, as well as Dark Star, Thornbridge and Beavertown, they had some Redwell stuff. I've been seeing them in London a lot, and I quite like what they do with hops.

Meantime craftily (see what I did there?) slipped in some specials of their own – Old Naval College porter, 8% but carrying its weight easily and without any booziness. This is the latest batch of the first beer they brewed at the ONC. They've also brewed Botanical Beer, a collaboration with Chase Distillery. Ginger, cinnamon, botanicals and, I was informed, vodka. I don't always care for this type of fusion – bergamot in beer is just wrong, for instance, but the adjuncts weren't overwhelming, and it makes a change from brewers working with distilleries just to acquire barrels to age beer in. Botanical poured hazy, had a lively mouthfeel and was refreshing in the Sunday sunshine. A bar manager wondered whether it might stand mulling...

Beer-branded cyclewear. Don't tell the anti-fun brigade
I made it to BBNo for their Sunday event. They've just taken delivery of branded glassware, for which the imbiber pays £3. The money is refundable upon return of the glass, or you can take it home. The brewery suffered a lot of glass theft early on, and this is a good way to incentivise punters to return the glass, or they'll be out of pocket. New fermenters have been installed, and the brewery is creaking a bit at the seams – there's talk of another space for storage, which will help. I bumped into Andy 'Partizan' Smith and histeam, who is also thinking about expanding into another arch. Happily, it also seems that the infamous 'Bermondsey Beer Mile' is now history. A harmless attempt by Anspach & Hobday to brand the chain of breweries starting out by Southwark Park and ending in Druid Street, this had the unfortunate consequence of sucking in large groups of lads who thought it was some kind of pub crawl. The Kernel and BBNo had to change their opening hours to discourage the 'eight pints of your strongest beer' crowd, and things seem to be quieting down now.

For me, this next bit is the biggest news of the month, and it's not about London. Matt and Karen Wickham, the management team of The Evening Star in Brighton, have ended their 16-year association with the pub and Dark Star, and are heading west as I write, to take over The Colston Yard in Bristol, a Butcombe pub. I've known the Wickhamses for a decade, and they're an extraordinarily well-travelled pair of publicans. I've been on beery adventures with them on both coasts of the US, and the Evening Star was always an oasis of quality beer before the rest of Brighton caught on. In some ways, they ran a craft beer bar before we had craft beer. Beloved of their local Camra branch (though apparently the Kevin/Craft schism in Sussex caught them in its crossfire more recently), there were always interesting beers in the fridge, well-kept Dark Star casks and a top range of guests. They'll be a tough act to follow at The Star, and I wish their successors well.

I spent a day with them last summer in Bristol, a city with a buzzing beer scene, and I've known for a while that they were interested in moving on. While I'll be spending less time in Brighton from now on, I'm looking forward to Mine Hosts (and yours) showing me around Bristol again, and I'll be keen to see how they deliver their vision of a new type of pub for Butcombe. Good luck to them both.

And that's it for now.

Disclaimer: Meantime gave me a freebie ticket for Brewfest. Thanks to them. I bought my spiffy beer glass from BBNo.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

We Are BeerBox

(It's been months since I wrote about Beer. 2014 has had the same sort of ups and downs as 2013 did. Some of what will turn up here was drafted contemporaneously earlier this year, and there are some themes I might run at. And there's Frank Sidebottom. So, fingers crossed, time and inclination to commit more to cyberpaper...)

To Greenwich for the launch of Meantime's new pop-up venture, the Beerbox. Though I tend to be conspicuous by my absence from the blogosphere, Meantime still pop the odd invite my way, for which, much thanks.

Anyway, I'd been chatting to a Meantime insider a couple of weeks earlier about pubs and been told that, more or less, Meantime would stick with The Union on Royal Hill and the Old Brewery at the Naval College in Historic Greenwich. Rather than permanent sites, temporary pubs and bars would be the way ahead. And lo, it has come to pass.

Up top, We Are Scientists. Underneath, They Are Meantime
An email from their PR invited me to the Greenwich Peninsula, hard by the O2, for the launch of their new bar, BeerBox. A converted shipping container yards from North Greenwich underground, with a performance or terrace space on top. For the launch, they'd lined up We Are Scientists to play on the roof of the bar, and their set was underway as my mate Steve and I rocked up. I'm not familiar with The New Pop (though a lot of it sounds to these aged lugholes, sort of like the Old Pop), but they twanged their thang most pleasingly while we got on with sampling beer. This year's Fool's Gold Citra-hopped pilsner was first, lovely and refreshing on a warm, still London August evening. Steve, currently working at Drake's Brewing in San Leandro, CA, took time to sign the wall in the bar, leaving a cool sticker which added a dramatic splash of red to the persistent monochrome of the wall. Meantime have brewed a special beer for the venue called Peninsula Pale, which I recall was nicely balanced, and I have some memory of blackcurrants for some reason.

The bar will be here for three days a week for the next three years.

Brandino Forges An Impromptu Alliance
It got me thinking about Meantime's strategy here. I'm sensing a pattern, and when I mentioned this to a Meantime worker, the notion drew a knowing smile. Last year, they played with pop-up venues at places like Shoreditch Boxpark. That container motif at BeerBox might not be an accident. During the late May Bank Holiday, I was at their early summer Brew Fest at the Old Brewery. The weather dampened what was a promising fest, but again, it seemed Meantime had learned from their 2013 venture into fests at the Old Brewery. The offer was tweaked for this one, and when I asked whether that was because the 2013 Fest had cost Meantime money, that was denied though an observation was offered that the company had learned a lot about how to put a fest together.

Meantime have expanded capacity at the brewery, keeping them at the heart of Greenwich for a while longer yet, and they've plans to develop the visitor centre and brewery shop. They've developed their own hop fields close by the brewery, and they continue to offer some interesting beers. In a week when young London blogger Matt Curtis appears to have opened a Pandora's Box with this, I find myself more convinced that they'll never get a fair hearing from the geek end of the New London Beer Scene, but there are plenty of younger beer drinkers, and beer drinkers who want to try something different but not too extreme, who will give them a go.

Steve and I were guests of Meantime for this launch. Well, Steve wasn't exactly, I was able to blag him a ticket.

Friday, 20 December 2013

Boggle Awards 2013

As we're at the circle-jerk end of 2013, it's time to reflect on the Year In Beer. Per tradition, I don't bother with the Golden Pints, instead bestowing The Boggle Award on beers, brewers and bars I've thought were best through the year.

This year is a bit different, and my radar hasn't necessarily been targeted at beer. Still, I did get to try some some notable new stuff. I'll start with brewers. It seems much longer than 11 months ago that Brew By Numbers were getting attention. I blogged about them as part of my short 'New Boys' series. They were scaling up in the early summer, but various let-downs meant they're only just now brewing on a commercial scale. They've had their tasting room at 79 Enid Street in Bermondsey, open a while, and the beer has been very good, but I imagine they'll want to get 2013 out of the way and get cracking on getting their beer out to a wider audience.

A shout out, too, for Alpha State, Jon Queally's start-up. Much of his output is going to Scandinavia, but the odd keg of stuff finds its way onto the London scene - The Old Fountain will usually have some if he's selling. His fondness for mental hopping rates is legendary around the scene, as is his willingness to take on beer styles and mutate them with same - witness his doppelbock hopped with Sorachi Ace. His recent smoked Belgian ale was very good, and I hope more of his beer is on bars here, if only to tempt drinkers out of their comfort zones.

My brewery of the year, maybe controversially, is Meantime. Not so much for their regular beers, but for the small-batch kegs and bottles I've been able to try. I blogged about their pilsners in the summer, and I've also been able to try some of their 'Brewer's Collection' 750ml cork-and-caged bottles. The 2013 Cali-Belgian IPA was sublime, while the recent Imperial Pilsner, also hopped with Sorachi Ace, was offbeat yet drinkable. The recent Hop City Porter, hopped with 'crowdsourced' hops grown around the City, also drew favourable comments from my informal tasting panel (I should say Meantime gave me these bottles). As well as the beer, they showed they can put on a show with their World Beer Fest in the early summer. Coming soon after the clusterfuck that was London's Brewing, it was reassuring to be able to head down to the Old Brewery, drink some excellent beer,eat some good food and chill out in the early summer sunshine, and all for twelve notes.

For bars, I really haven't been to many new places this year. I did get to spend some unplanned time at the splendid Cock Tavern in Hackney. It became Twitter Central on the first Saturday in May as the London's Brewing fiasco unfolded before the horrified yet fascinated gaze of the UK Craft Beer Scene.I wouldn't have said it was a Blitz Spirit, but the gallows humour made the time spent there well worth while, and the Howling Hops beer they make in the basement soothed quite a few furrowed brows.

I've been to a few pubs in Woodbridge (near Ipswich) on a few occasions this year. It's been quite a reality check to see what happens away from big conurbations. Woodbridge is more or less in the middle of Adnams and Greene King territory, so their beers and pubs tend to dominate. There are a couple of free houses in the area, but the pattern tends to be food-led with events, and then some guest beers, usually from around East Anglia. It's nice, but after a few days I start to miss hoppy golden beers, and tastes around those parts are too traditional for there to be a market just yet, although The Cherry Tree, an Adnams house, has a new management team who ran a beer fest with beers from further afield including Dark Star, and they were trying to open locals up to new experiences by, for example, having Kostritzer on as a regular beer. Worthy, and I'll be checking them out for progress over the ho-ho-holidays.

I'm giving a special award this year for street food. Working close to hipster Shoreditch, there's a different vibe and a greater range of crafty food outlets. Fridays for me have been eagerly anticipated since I discovered the Big Apple Hot Dog stall near Shoreditch Fire Station on Old Street. Fantastic sausage, simple but really well-made, good value and great with beer. They do good business on Friday lunchtimes (I'm off for mine after this is finished), and the sausage is starting to find its way into a range of venues such as independent cinemas, pubs and bars, and even restaurants, I hear. The stall has a loyalty card scheme, which I think is innovative, and the owner has ambitious plans for his franks. They've been as far afield as Leeds and at the fabulous pit barbecue joint in Bristol, Grillstock. Keep an eye out for them.

Resolutions for 2014? To start home-brewing. I was talking about BBNo. They've had former Craft bar manager and brewer Steve Gray working with them recently, and he's also the guv'nor of Massive Brewery. This is an innovative full-mash home brew kit in a box, which he sells online for about a hundred quid. I tried some pale ale a punter had brewed on the kit the other week, and it was clean, with a good body and quite drinkable. Maybe some dry-hopping would have rounded it out. I mean to get myself kitted out and have a go.

So that's this year's Boggle Awards. Here's a final seasonal wish for my reader(s), dedicated to Rabid Bar Fly Glyn Roberts...