Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Beers Of London Series 68. Meantime - Barbados Rum Barrel Aged Greenwich Ale

Beers Of London Series
68. Meantime - Barbados Rum Barrel Aged Greenwich Ale 6.0%

If you've followed this blog since its inception you may remember that I reviewed the Bourbon barrel aged version of this beer back in April last year. You may also remember that even though I enjoyed it I was a little disappointed that more of the Bourbon character didn't reveal itself.

You may well ask then why I would want to review a beer that might be almost indistinguishable from one that I've already covered, After all it's essentially the same beer, still brewed with seven different malts, brewed the same way in the same place with the only difference being the vessel in which it was aged. Well, first of all I admit that I'm a sucker for a smart box or tin and this one, with its rather garish nautical theme caught my eye as I came down the escalator at my local Marks and Spencer. Secondly I'm rather partial to Meantime beer, the people that work there are friendly and they invite me to lots of events, I'll be at the re-launch of their Union Lager next Tuesday if I can avoid the proposed tube strike, and these things are always rather well run. If everything goes to plan then I'll be writing about that soon. This beer is aged for five months in the rum barrels which, according to the information on the bottle was brought back by sailors who are traditionally partial to the stuff.

Onto the beer itself. Out of the box the bottle is corked and caged, a good thing you may think however this one was a bit stiff and a little tricky to open, but at least I know it was relatively airtight. At first glance it appears almost pitch black in the glass with a creamy beige head, but holding it up to the light you can see it's actually a deep dark ruby red, and really rather beautiful. The aroma is thick with coffee, chocolate and blackberry with a faint mustiness that you might associate with damp wood lurking right at the back. Daintily smooth as it glides across the tongue there's an initial thrust of coffee flavour which is rather pleasing, but this is pushed roughly to one side by a jarring metallic sharpness which isn't very nice at all. Not to be put off, I put this down to it being too cold and as I warmed it in my hands that nastiness retreated and it was transformed  into a wonderful coconut, chocolate and pineapple combination of flavours which is both interesting and tasty. The more it warms the harder the malts work, pushing burnt toast and espresso coffee flavours into the mix and it's here that those subtle vanilla tones creep in, rounding off the edges of any harshness, easing you into a creamy fruity finish with lots of lovely muted coffee and chocolate flavours. Be warned though, let it actually get to room temperature (admittedly I have the heating on) and it loses all its subtlety and becomes a bit of a gooey chocolate mess to be honest, a little too bitter for my taste and not good at all.

This beer has distinct similarities with its Bourbon barrel aged cousin but its nuances are all its own, and I can only attribute this to the Barbados Rum barrels, however it does have a definite temperature 'sweet spot' where it all comes together in perfect harmony and sings a beautiful song. Let it go beyond that at your peril.

Sunday, 26 January 2014

Beers Of London Series: 67. Brew By Numbers 06I01 & 06I02

Beers Of London Series
67. Brew By Numbers
06 01 Belgian Blonde Three Grain 7.3%
06 02 Belgian Blonde Three Grain Oaked 7.3%

After two new breweries for my last two reviews I thought I'd visit an old favourite this time. That, and I noted that these were bottled just under a year ago and now seemed a good a time as any to open them. I mentioned in my last Beer By Numbers review back in October that they had just moved premises and would be opening on a Saturday. I'm pleased to say that this is now a reality and they also have a lovely shiny website that tells you all about them, their beer and what's available. I haven't been there myself yet but will be popping along for a visit soon where I hope to have a chat to the brewers and drink some more of their beer.

Until then however I'll make do with my stock and will be drinking and reviewing these two Belgian Blondes today that I picked them up on a sun soaked day last Spring at Craft Beer Co. in Clerkenwell. We sank a couple there too after a long walk across town on a day very different from the one I'm writing this review on, as I sit here with the wind howling and the rain lashing the conservatory. These two are currently the only Belgian Blonde ales that Brew By Numbers produce, and are both brewed with un-malted wheat, barley and oats (hence the Three Grain) with the only difference being that 06 02 is aged on French oak chips although for what period I cannot say, as although the second was bottled 3-4 weeks after the first I don't know how long they were conditioned for prior to bottling.

The first 06 01 pours a beautifully vibrant and effervescent golden yellow, throwing an enormous white head but it's the freshness of the aroma that is absolutely stunning. There's lemon peel and a big punch of melon and juicy tangerine with a crisp undercurrent of crushed coriander seed orange and a touch of golden syrup sweetness, it truly is invigorating and inviting. Initially smooth but this is just a  ruse as a stab of bitterness quickly catches you off-guard before leaching some thick golden citrus juiciness, sluggish with some bright honey flavours becoming more dense and with the addition of some orange spiciness as it moves seamlessly into the finish. This is rich with more orange, lemon and honey and that spicy coriander seed coming back to round it all off nicely, it's simply wonderful.
Time to see if those French oak chips make a difference.

My memory of this beer from last Spring is rather clear as I remember being unable ascertain any hint of the oak but that the flavour was muted and the body thicker and more viscous than it's un-oaked companion. On opening this bottle it was handy I had the glass handy as it was a bit of a gusher however it poured rather smoothly and if anything was slightly lighter in colour than its predecessor, but I managed to dump some of the yeast from the bottle into the glass making it a little cloudy. The aroma is spicier too. Those fruity aromas are still there, but thicker and have faded into the background with the coriander seed coming to the fore. Accompanying it is an aroma reminiscent of freshly sanded wood and there's another perfume element too, something that reminds me of lilies with a hint of vanilla that I can only assume has come from the oak. There's no stab of bitterness over the tongue here either, it smooth and spicy, tender and warming, with the flavour of watermelon fading in before being quickly overridden with honey, lemon, white pepper and coriander spice. The finish is drier too, with those flavours melting away leaving only the ghost of that sanded wood aroma.
 To be perfectly honest I'm quite astonished by the difference that nearly a years worth of aging has made to these bottles. They were bought at the same place at the same time and kept next to each other in the same box under the same condition, but they have diverged better and more noticeably than I could have hoped while still retaining the character of the original beer. Where 06 01 was vibrant and fruity, 06 02 is smoother and more controlled, more compact and almost introspective compared to its outgoing brother. I liked these beers a lot last Spring, but I have to say that I like them even more now.

Friday, 17 January 2014

Beers Of London Series: 66. Strawman Brewery - Saison 3.9%

Beers Of London Series
66. Strawman Brewery - Saison 3.9%

Sometimes I see a bottle of beer somewhere, be it in a shop or a pub or even a warehouse, and the label intrigues me enough to take a closer look. On occasion I put the bottle back and carry on browsing but sometimes I know full well that that particular bottle is coming home with me. That was very much the case when I saw this particular bottle in the fridge at The Cock Tavern in Hackney and asked Tim, the barman, about it.

You are most likely aware when I hear about a new London brewery and even more so when I get to taste their beer, this series is testament enough to that, but I always want to know more about the folk that made it. Quite often a brewery's website discloses very little about the people behind the beer, take a look at Strawman Brewery's website here to see evidence of that, but luckily for me they were kind enough to answer some of my questions when I e-mailed them recently.

Strawman is comprised of Tom Barratt and Brendan Harrington who both grew up in a town with an incredibly rich brewing heritage, Burton-on-Trent and indeed had family that worked in and around the Burton breweries. They both moved to London when the micro-brewing boom was beginning to gain momentum, and as they were too poor to be drinking beer at London prices they set up a pilot brewery in a small arch at the north end of London Fields. Brendan had been a homebrewer for quite some time and as they were discovering new tastes and flavours in the beer they were able to obtain locally they began trying to emulate them. They say that there are so many good London breweries around at the moment that trying to pick who has influenced and inspired them would be a difficult task although they do particularly like the beers from the Wild Beer Company, Summer Wine, Howlin' Hops and Pressure Drop.

When trying to decide on a name for their brewery, Brendan happened upon this image of a Strohmann (a German word which literally translates as 'man of straw') in a copy of National Geographic he was reading at the time. The picture struck a chord with him, and the Strawman Brewery was born.

They have four main beers which they brew on a regular basis, a House Pale Ale in which the recipe changes with each brew, Amber, a American-style amber ale, Munich, a well-hopped single-malt pale with has a nice malty edge to it, and Saison, which is the beer I'm drinking tonight. They also have a few other beers which you may be lucky enough to pick up, Rype, a rye pale ale, Fonk, a strong spiced Belgian-style ale, a Belgian-style stout, and a peat-smoked Porter, with either a Dubbel or a Bock coming along soon. They are also in the process of up-sizing and moving across London to Peckham where they have bigger premises and bigger plans.

Back to the beer in hand. It pours a pale lemony yellow colour with a voluminous pure white head that takes a while to settle. I have to confess that I let a little of the sediment slip in as well making it a little cloudy, not overly so though as I had noticed a fair amount in the bottom of the bottle. The aroma it bright and spicy with lemon zest and white pepper notes bringing to mind a warm spring morning with a warm breeze blowing through the honeysuckle and bringing its delicate fragrance lightly to your nostrils. There's a tingle of carbonation as it passes over the tongue leaving the flavour of squeezed lemon juice and lime cordial before drying quickly with a burst of crushed coriander seed and more white pepper leaving a pleasant orangey spiciness that fills the mouth before fading slowly into the finish.

This is a beer that at first glance may not appear to be bringing anything new to the table as, if we're honest about it saisons, or more accurately beers brewed using a saison yeast, are ubiquitous at the moment. However upon tasting I noticed how clean and defined the flavours were, coming together in a logical and rather elegant manner, slightly understated but nonetheless confident and accomplished. I'm afraid to say that this is the only Strawman beer that I've had. Their current situation means that their beers are currently produced in quite small batches and spread rather thinly over a relatively small area of East London. Keep an eye out for them though, especially with their imminent relocation as if this beer is anything to go by then you're in for a real treat.

Sunday, 12 January 2014

Beers Of London Series: 65 Upstart Brewing - Alpha 4.3%

Beers Of London Series
65.Upstart Brewing - Alpha 4.3%

I'm always excited when I come across a new London brewery, and when the founder and brewer turns up on my doorstep with two bottles of their first commercial beer and a t-shirt as well then that's probably about as good as it gets as far as I'm concerned. That, as you've probably guessed is exactly what happened just before Christmas when James Weir, a Yorkshireman (he grew up about two-hundred yards from Timothy Taylor's in Keighley) and former City fund manager having previously requested my address, presented himself at my door with his Alpha beer and appropriate t-shirt to match.
Unfortunately I was at work at the time so I've yet to meet James, a situation I should be rectifying soon, however he was kind enough to answer a few questions I e-mailed to him so I'm able to tell you a bit more about him and his new brewery before I get on to the beer itself.

Some of you may remember hearing about the Wanstead Brewery on twitter around the middle of last year, but James wasn't really happy with the name feeling it might be rather limiting, particular with the wider more European vision he has for his brewery and brewing. That's not to say the he is ashamed of the area in which he resides, far from it, he has lived in East London for the past eleven years and the last four of those in Wanstead itself and thinks it's a lovely place to be, but in drawing influences from the European lager tradition and British cask beer and to a lesser extent the US craft beer scene then 'Upstart' was chosen to emphasise the challenger nature of the brewery and its products. Identifying that many of the newer London breweries were brewing copycat West Coast IPA's and high abv hoppy beers, he want to challenge the assumption that this is the only way to go and look at our own brewing tradition here in the UK, as well as that of our European neighbours and mine the vein of our rich heritage and especially with regard to hops.

A self-taught home brewer with some ten years experience it was initially, by his own admission, very much trial and error at the beginning, but he began to get more serious about five years ago when he bought a commercial pilot brewery and set it up in his garage. This year he begins studying for his Diploma in Brewing with the Institute Of Brewing and Distillers this year and is currently learning a lot about the bizarre world of barley procreation. As far as beer is concerned, he has an Amber 'Steam' beer in development using lager yeast, fermented at ale temperatures and heavily dry-hopped as well as a Table-Beer produced from the second and third runnings of same beer with the aim to fill a gap in the market for the more discerning drinker who doesn't want a 7% hop bomb but desires something a little tastier than Greene King IPA.

Alpha is as I mentioned and you might gather from the name, James's first commercial beer, a Pale Ale brewed with Magnum, Fuggle and Hallertauer hops on a base of Belgian Aromatic and Wheat malts. It pours a beautiful dark honey colour with a fluffy off-white head, alive with a steady stream of tiny bubbles and, in my bottle, some clumps of yeast, testament to my haphazard and unobservant pouring. I'm not someone who is averse to a little yeast in his beer, and even if I were it soon settles to the bottom of the glass leaving the beer perfectly clear. The head takes a little while to settle down but when it does an aroma of banana, mango, lightly tangerine juice infused cream and a hint of white pepper spiciness. Surprisingly full bodied in the mouth, it prickles the tip of the tongue with its carbonation. There's a little pear, nectarine and some pithy citrus juice in there, more clementine this time rather than the tangerine I detected in the aroma, with a pervading woodland earthiness running through it that I've come to associate with fresh English hops. A light dusting of white pepper and coriander seeds completes the initial picture, leading to quite a crisp finish  with a sprinkling of shortbread biscuit crumbs but the echoes of the tastes of the main body of the beer linger a while like flavoursome phantoms.

There is much to admire about this beer flavourwise but what I particularly enjoy is that having found out about James's background and influences I can see these perfectly reflected in every element of this beer, separate and yet united in a very balanced Pale Ale. I'm looking forward to seeing where he goes from here as his approach seems a little different to some if not all of the other brewers I've featured so far in this series, and I'll hopefully be able to meet him in person to discuss beer and maybe have a few drinks with him in February. I wish him every success.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Beers Of London Series: 64 . London Fields Brewery - Black Frost Stout 6.0% ... and a few words on Christmas beer

Beers Of London Series
64. London Fields Brewery - Black Frost Stout 6.0%
... and a few words on Christmas beer

First of all I want to start off the New Year with a bit of a moan.
I think the majority of us would agree that there's something magical about this time of year. From the first Christmas lights appearing on high streets in mid-to-late November, preparing for he big day, buying the presents, suddenly having a diary full of social occasions and things to do, the Christmas Radio Times and the Christmas specials, and copious amounts of food and drink, the Christmas and New Year period is a time like no other. It feels special. There's a certain sense of anticipation and expectation mixed with frantic despair that turns into happiness when it all comes together. The relief when it's all over and especially the sense of warmth, relaxation and kinship with your fellow man when you are able to get some time to yourself and settle down to stare mindlessly at the television or for some quiet introspective contemplation as the wind and rain howls outside with perhaps a glass or two of something a little different, maybe stronger, darker, richer, spicier, or just a little more expensive. After all, it is Christmas.

I have to say that one of the aspects I enjoy most of all during the festive season, after the children are in bed and asleep, is being able to pour myself a thick treacly beer into a snifter and let it warm in my hands as I take in the aroma and, with smaller sips than, explore and investigate all the taste and flavours all around my palate, immersing myself in it's complexities. Some of the very best beers I've had have been at this time of year and lend themselves to that very experience. It's a time of year that I tend to spend more time indoors, and as the strength of the beer is generally higher than I would normally choose then I go for quality over quantity whenever I can. I'm also a sucker for a Christmas beer. Call it a silly festive name, stick a picture of a snowman on the label and I'm all over it like poorly draped tinsel on the Christmas tree. I simply love them. I've had many delicious Christmas beers over the years, and it's an area in which I think that Belgian and US breweries particularly excel, with most breweries having their Christmas offerings in the shops around mid-November, giving you plenty of time to make your selections to drink during the time of goodwill to all men, or to buy to give as presents to those who may appreciate them. Plenty of UK brewers have a Christmas offering too. Quite often they're spicier and sweeter than their standard fair, perhaps a little stronger too, and they tend to vary dramatically in quality which is a shame, but it's always nice to see some breweries making a bit of an effort. Two which stick in my mind from 2013 are Compass - Tannenbaum, brewed with spruce needles from Christmas Common in Oxfordshire, and Green Jack - Red Robin, a beer that was as red as it's namesakes breast. And here, at last, I get to my point of contention. There are around forty breweries in London right now, with about thirty three or thirty four producing beer on a regular basis and new brews being created month by month. Why then is this the only beer that I could find produced by a London brewer with even the most tenuous nod to Christmas and the wintry season? I find that quite astonishing.

Is it because we are all too super-cool in London to be associated with the festivities and crushing crowds of this time of this time of year, standing slightly aloof and smiling in a rather condescending way? If it is then produce a beer that references that for goodness sake. I personally think that all breweries should do a 'Christmas special' with brewers showcasing their talents to do something a little different, a little grander, than usual. I realise of course that Beavertown did just that this year, with both of their boxed and barrel-aged releases, but would it have been too much to ask for at least one of the boxes to have a seasonal reference? Aeroplanes, medals and skulls don't really do it for me this time of year. I realise that it isn't entirely practical for all breweries to do this, but something from the London breweries that I love so much would have been nice.

I'm not planning on starting a campaign or anything like that, I'm just asking for London breweries to do something a little seasonal. Quite a few of them managed it for Halloween, so I'm hoping for better things in Christmas 2014.

So, now that I've got that off my chest I'll move on to tonight's beer. London Fields Black Frost Stout has been the brewery's seasonal offering for the past two years, with it first appearing around the end of November 2012. I regretted not being able to get any last Christmas having heard good things, so when I saw it in Oddbins near London Bridge station I snapped one up.
The packaging alone signifies that it's something a bit different, it's like opening a present wrapped tightly in tissue paper, perhaps a little too tightly in my opinion as it took me a while to untwist and get to the cap. That was however only because I wanted to preserve some of the paper neatly for photographic purposes, and I could just as easily have torn into it with great enthusiasm and gusto in the same manner as my son did with his presents on Christmas morning. Finally reaching my prize I was eventually able to pour the jet black contents into my glass, and with it's thin beige head it most certainly was black, there was no light coming through this beer at all, not even when I briefly held it close to the bulb. It had the most delicious aroma too, full of liquorice and grapefruit peel, mango and chocolate, and the lightest dusting of orange zest adding a sharp oily citrus note. Smooth over the tongue and perhaps a little thin, it certainly doesn't hold back when it comes to flavour, with subtle coffee and dark chocolate at first, building slowly, grabbing some plum flavour here, some mango there, and a twist of black pepper too, becoming oilier and more bitter with some lovely chocolate and coffee flavours lasting long into the deliciously tongue-coating finish.

This is an incredibly smooth and flavoursome beer and I like it a lot. I'd also like to thank London Fields for brewing it again, and especially for brewing a beer with a seasonal theme. This is exactly the sort of thing I like to drink at this time of year, I just wish more London brewers did festive beers as I'd particularly like to do a 'Christmas Beers Of London Series' at the end of the year.