Sunday, 9 November 2014

Beers Of London Series 78. Camden Town Brewery - IHL

Beers Of London Series
78. Camden Town Brewery - India Hells Lager 6.2%

The Beers Of London series is back on my blog after a six month hiatus. In that time I've done a little travelling, written on a few beery subjects, help get Beer East Anglia up and running, and tasted some fantastic beer. The beer scene in the capital has expanded at an incredible rate from when I started this series back in April 2013, London currently has seventy-five (yes, that is indeed 75) active breweries (source: A London Beer And Pub Guide). Since I started this series a few that I have featured have closed for good, one has relocated to York, and at least one is on a temporary break, but who knows how many more there will be this time next year?

I remember that around twelve months ago people were talking about it reaching a 'critical mass' and there were grumblings from some quarters about this being a 'fad' with the pessimists warning that: "This bubble's going to burst in 3/6/12/24* months (*delete as applicable), you mark my words."

Thankfully, this hasn't happened and if anything the momentum has grown. Craft beer is almost mainstream with more bars opening in London all the time to service the needs of those literally thirsting for the next beer/brewery/collaboration/limited release to appear. It can no longer be called a fad, it has become a revolution, an upsurge in the appreciation of good quality beer, brewed by people with a real passion for what they do, who aren't afraid to experiment and push those boundaries, and there are no signs that this is abating.

Although Camden Town Brewery has only been in existence since 2010 it no longer seems like one of the new kids on the block, neither however does it seem out of date or traditional in any sense as it is constantly evolving, bringing out new and exciting beers on a regular basis. The India Hells Lager is the latest of these, and it could be argued that it is the most exciting.

"Why do you keep changing the beers, dropping some and bringing out new ones?" I asked Alex Troncosco, Head Brewer and Development Director, recently, "Is it that you just get bored?"
"Partly" he laughed "and partly due to the availability of ingredients. We're always looking to improve on what we've done before. Learn from that and make something better."

Earlier this week I was at the 'Our Good Lord Lager' event, part of the '7 Days Of IHL' hosted by Camden Town Brewery at a converted gallery close to Camden Road Overground station. This had been transformed into the 'Temple Of IHL', the venue for the whole weeks celebration and the official launch of their new India Hells Lager.

Where some breweries may have an evening launch of a new beer with bloggers and writers invited for a taste and a chat to the brewer and staff, Camden Town Brewery opted instead for a whole seven day celebration consisting of various events centred around the IHL, all except one of which weren't at the brewery at all.

The 'Our Good Lord Lager' session was hosted by Alex who talked extensively about the their three current lagers, the flagship Hells with it's crisp dry finish, the sharp, pine accented Pils, a beer that I actually prefer to the Hells, and the new India Hells Lager that replaces the USA Hells in this triumvirate. We were treated to some technical information on lagering temperature and conditioning periods, which is obviously a huge factor in enabling such crisp flavours and essential in producing a dry and clean finish, but I was interested to here him praise larger producers and the way they are able to come out with such a reliably consistent product. This is of course necessary, particularly as a brewery grows in popularity and builds a fan base of drinkers who want their favourite beer just the way they like it time and again.

Brewed with Magnum, Mohawk, Chinook and Simcoe hops, this India Hells Lager (or IHL for short) aims to deliver the high hop-hitting intensity of a US-style IPA coupled with the balance and dry finish of a classic German-style lager. Seen as the natural successor to their Indian Summer Lager, this is a little different from all previous offerings from Camden Town Brewery in that it is only available in cans.

It pours a golden yellow, a little hazy but only a touch, with a thin off-white head that dissipates into barely more than a whisper. The aroma is, as you might expect big and enticing, full of the promise of pine and peach juice, mango and passion fruit, and it has to be said that this beer delivers on that promise in spades. Sharp and bitter over the tongue, there's in incursion of biscuity maltiness before all of those flavours prominent in the aroma collide and explode, filling the mouth with juicy citrus bitterness, quickly followed by a sprinkling of sugared lime zest that cleanses the palate. It's this flavour, candied lime peel if you will, that takes you through to the finish, clean and crisp but with faint echoes of lime and a dryness that doesn't overwhelm but is just enough to make you crave more. There's balance here too despite it's frankly insane crescendo, with every element delivering pitch perfectly to become a beer that as a whole is much more than the sum of its parts.

This is a beer that will change your perceptions about what a lager is, and what a lager can be. A culmination of brewing experience and experimentation, a high point in the evolution of the craft beer revolution. Matt Curtis described this beer as a "game changer" and I'm inclined to agree, it really is that good. As I mentioned before it is only available in cans with a BBE of six months from canning, meaning Camden Town Brewery want you to drink this as fresh as possible. These should be widely available from next week, so go and pick some up.
I paid for my ticket for 'Our Good Lord Lager'. It was £10 which was I think was a bargain for the beers I drank, the talk from Alex, notwithstanding the conversation and access to the brewer. I was there with Steve Bentall (pictured below) from the Beer O'Clock Show podcast, and after it was over we were able to get a brief interview with Alex (pictured above) which will feature on this weeks show (due out on Friday 14th November) and when this is available I'll post a link to that too. For full disclosure too I have to add that I was subsequently invited back for the 'Full Moon Party' at which all the beer (which was all IHL) and food was free of charge. This was a more informal affair, but was a good chance to catch up with some beery folk that I hadn't seen for a while.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

I Have A Thing About Blondes

I Have A Thing About Blondes 
In which I argue with myself about a style that frustrates me

I have a thing about blondes, they just don't excite me any more, and to be honest it's been an awful long time since I saw one that turned my head.

Obviously I'm talking about blonde ales here, or golden ales if you prefer, those straw coloured, malt forward, English pale ale variants.

They used to start appearing on bars in late April and early May, a trickle at first becoming a flood by June and gradually fading away around mid-October when the darker, stronger beers began to muscle there way back onto the scene. In some pubs they often are the only style of beer you can get in the Summer, and now they have tendency to pop up at any time of year, whatever the season.

They're easy to spot too, hovering around the 4.0% abv mark and with names that usually begin with the words, Summer, Sun or Sunny, or more predictably Golden or a misogynistic play on the word Blonde (or Blond) with an equally (dis)tasteful pump clip or bottle label to match.
"I mean, we're all lads together aren't we, you know, and it's just a bit of harmless fun. I ain't a sexist or nothing, some of my best friends are women and they'd tell you so. It's just beer anyway, and men drink it and we all like women don't we, right?"
The title of this piece is no mistake.

Exmoor Ales produced what is regarded as the first modern Golden Ale back in 1986, but it was Hopback's Summer Lightning that first brought my attention to the style back in the early nineteen nineties and these were both different enough for drinkers to take notice and embrace it fully. I have to admit that I still have a penchant for both of these beers and even though there were of course many copiers at the time, they would show up sporadically here and there and in fairly limited quantities which made them rather sought after. To use a well worn phrase, those were the days, and now things are markedly different.

It's not just these reasons however. I now find that these beers are just bland.

Last night I was in The West End Tap in Lincoln. This is a fine pub, previously called The Vine, but now rejuvenated and reopened as a Free House with a good selection of well kept and well chosen beer, cask, keg and bottle. I'm afraid I'm going to have to single out a beer here as it was this beer that got me thinking about this style and that beer was Atom Brewery's Blonde Ale. This is by no means a rant against Atom Brewery, I've enjoyed there beers every time that I've had them, their pump clips are easily identifiable (it's a kind of atomic cloud-like design in case you don't know) and the beers are clean tasting and refreshing. I had however just finished drinking Anarchy Brew Co.'s excellent Quiet Riot, and the Blonde Ale afterwards just tasted safe, nice enough but just well just like it should. I would say as well that the Atom was one of the best I've had, and before anyone wants to put me straight I am fully aware that Anarchy's Blonde Star is their biggest seller.

There are lots and lots and lots of blonde/golden ales out there and much as every US brewery seemingly has to have a big hoppy IPA in it's stable, the same can be said of British brewers when its comes to a Blonde. They're popular too as this article from the Guardian in February 2013 reports, this beer is seen a rise in sales being championed from all sides as the 'gateway' to real ale, weaning the lager drinker off their diet of fizzy 'Euro-lager' onto a more traditional English-style of beer (and we could argue that one for a while), but could it be the reason that they are so popular is that drinkers are swapping one bland style for another?

I'm not including Belgian Blonde ales in this mix of course, they are a different style entirely often full of fruit and/or spices, often high in alcohol and with a characteristically dry finish. They're a style I like a lot, and it should be noted that this post is my own opinion (although in discussion with my wife she was inclined to agree with me).

So, having said the blonde ales are bland, generic, ubiquitous and wide-open to puerile sexist imagery I'll draw this piece to a close. Sales of Golden Ales are apparently booming so people are clearly buying and enjoying and it is therefore obviously a good thing for the beer industry as a whole. I'm also sure that the sales of these beers are helping keep some breweries heads above the waterline as it's a style that that people know and will turn to when they are uncertain of what to go for, using it as a kind of beery safety blanket. I accept this isn't necessarily a bad thing either, it's just ... it's just ... I have a thing about blondes ...