Sunday, 19 April 2015

Beer In Essex: Bottling It - Part One: Billericay to Felstar

Beer In Essex
Bottling It - Part One: Billericay to Felstar

I thought long and hard before embarking on this journey, unsure as to whether I would start it at all. Beer reviews can often be mind-numbingly boring with descriptions and tasting notes ad infinitum of beers that you've already had or aren't remotely interested in. If you're not into those, and I wouldn't honestly blame you, then it's probably best that you stop reading and look elsewhere as I'm afraid that this is the route that I'm going to take here although I do have my reasons for doing so.

Firstly I am innately curious. Most of the beers I have gathered together are not only new to me, some of them will be new to many drinkers in Essex being recently released or only available in certain areas and some are from the newest breweries in the county. Not all breweries are covered as plenty don't bottle their beer at all and I haven't been able to obtain every single beer from the ones that I will be featuring but I have tried to cover as wide a range as I can, searching for the best that Essex has to offer without dwelling on the standard or more well known offerings.

Secondly, I am treating this exploration into the bottled beers of Essex almost as a right of passage. The inclination to do this has been nagging at me for some time, gnawing at my soul until I eventually gave in and followed my heart. It's something that I feel I need to do in order to be able to continue my Essex beer odyssey, almost as if it were an obstacle I need to overcome or I can go no farther. I won't be doing it in all in one go however but I need to launch it now and see where it carries me.

Finally, well almost, I want to present a partial snapshot of some of the bottled beer available in Essex right now, with some notable exceptions, trying to discover if it's worth buying (although I appreciate that this is subjective) and hoping that I'll discover a real gem or two along the way. If you are at all familiar with the post that set me on this path, An Open Letter To Essex Brewers And Breweries, you will already be aware of my frustrations. I plan to write a follow-up post shortly as I have seen another side to the story in the wake of  its publication, but I won't get ahead of myself at this point as its time to open my first bottle and get started.

I have decided to proceed alphabetically by brewery as it appeals to my sense of order and seems to me to be the logical thing to do. It should also give a degree of navigation should the reader wish to dip in and out of these posts at leisure or highlight a particular beer at a later date. The first Essex brewery alphabetically is therefore Billericay Brewing, so that is where I will begin.

I have already featured Billericay Brewing twice in the past so if you would like to find out the story of this brewery then you may wish to read this post followed by this one, which will give you a good idea of how they got to the point where they are at now. Because of this I shall only be featuring a single beer of theirs on this occasion, Rhythm Stick (4.8%) which the label describes as a 'rich hoppy amber ale made with American and British hops', and one which I confess I haven't tried before. Pouring a hazy amber, the aroma is predominantly one of biscuity maltiness with an undercurrent of plum and nectarine struggling to break through. It's quite bitter with some fruity caramel but again it's the malts that dominate adding a veneer of wholemeal biscuit that's a touch woody in places and I feel that I'm not really getting the hoppiness that I was promised in the description. It's pleasant to drink, inoffensive and unobtrusive, but that's not really what I was looking for although I appreciate that many will be and this certainly is a fine beer. In my opinion the best beer from this brewery is the deliciously chocolatey Chapel Street Porter, although the Mild Bill was tasting very good recently, given an extra boost from a generous helping of chocolate malt, so those two would probably be my choice. Trevor has started to experiment with dry hopping and plans to feature some different beer styles, so watch out for much more from Billericay brewing in the near future.

Even though the Bishop Nick is a relative newcomer it has a legacy that stretches back 160 years. It's founder, Nelion Ridley, is the son of the last chairman of Ridleys Brewery, the largest in Essex when it was sold to Greene King in 2005, which was then promptly closed. The new brewery site is some 10 miles from the old Hartford End brewery and is situated Braintree, once the centre of hop cultivation in the county. Bishop Nick have a portfolio of three core beers with eleven occasional and seasonal specials. I was able to obtain their 1555 (4.3%) which is named after the year that Nicholas Ridley, the original Bishop Nick and a direct ancestor of Nelion was burnt at the stake in Oxford for heresy on the orders of 'Bloody Mary'. It pours a gorgeous reddish-brown, a tawny colour you might say, with a thin white head and has the aroma of fizzy cherry pip sweets and orange zest. It's smooth and juicy with a flash of papaya with a hint of cherry, and it's rather delicious despite a rather thin body detracting slightly from the experience. There's a little toffee caramel in the finish that's quite subdued and on the whole this is very clean tasting and rather delightful. This is a very accomplished beer, one that bears the hallmark of a family steeped in brewing history and is certainly well worth seeking out.

Moving closer to home, in fact not very far from where I live and work is Calcott Hall Farm, the new location of the Brentwood Brewing Company who have been brewing commercially since 2006. They were formed after a conversation in a pub when David Holmes and Roland Kannor decided they would set out to brew better beer than had been drinking, and with Sophie de Ronde joining them as their head brewer in 2008 they certainly did, with their beer winning awards at local festivals as well as national acclaim from SIBA. A change of premises in 2013, and a change of head brewer in 2014 saw Sophie leaving to be replaced by Roland's son Ethan, who from what I gather is working on some new beers of his own design. As they are practically on my doorstep and as I haven't featured them since I brewed at their old brewery back in 2012, I popped over to see them and grabbed some of their more interesting beers to review.

I've chose Ale Mary (4.3%) first of all as rather unusually it was brewed in association with the Shenfield Operatic Society on the occasion of their production of the musical Sister Act. Many brewers have brewed many beers for many reasons over the years, so brewing one to celebrate a four show production at the Queens Theatre in Hornchurch seems as good a reason as any. I am initially attracted by the words 'heavily hopped with Cascade' on the label but physically shiver upon reading 'golden ale' as a description as I have made no secret of my antipathy towards this style. It pours a wonderfully clear golden colour with a thin white head, exactly as you might expect, and it does have that lovely grapefruit peel and spicy citrus character associated with the Cascade hop.There's a nice bitter bite and prickle of carbonation as it rolls over the tongue with a water biscuit maltiness lightly touched with grapefruit citrus and this takes this clean-tasting beer through to the finish. If you like golden ales then you certainly won't go wrong here, and the speed with which I drank this beer certainly bears testament to its finesse.

When it came to choosing the beers that I was going to feature from Brentwood there was always one beer that simply had to be on my list as it's a beer that I associate with the brewery above all others and possibly my favourite beer from the brewery. Chockwork Orange (6.5%) is indeed a chocolatey beer and it really is brewed with oranges, and I was once promised a polypin of it if I ever managed to drink the equivalent of a barrel of the stuff. Sadly the brewer that set me that challenge has since moved on which is a bit of a shame as I must have been getting close by now. It pours a jet black with an off-white head, and is surprisingly thin but its aroma is very distinctive with its dark chocolate, molasses and bitter orange peel scent. There's more bitter chocolate, slightly figgy with a little orange zest in the taste and it's very drinkable given its high abv. Despite feeling quite thin it has plenty of flavour, and it's flavour that builds the more you drink it but not overpoweringly so, and compels you to go back for more and more. I like this beer a lot and I'd drink it again and again without question but it doesn't excite me quite the way it used to. I need to see if some of the most recent offerings give me the buzz that this one used to.

The Special Reserve (7.0%) was brewed in a small batch in 2013 and released in a grand total of 100 bottles towards the end of 2014. Some of the initial releases came with a little red Father Christmas hat on top of the 275ml bottles but I've that, in the brewery shop at least, they now have a Brentwood Brewing Company label tied to the label around their necks. It is described as having the richness of an Old Ale with the depth and smoothness of an Imperial Stout, and despite the low numbers bottled it is still available locally as perhaps the high abv and slightly higher price point putting off some customers. Pouring a deep rich dark brown with a thin but sustained cream-coloured head with a wonderful aroma packed full of blackberries, redcurrants and cranberries laid over a thin coffee and chocolate base. It's thinner over the tongue than I was expecting and has a decent level of carbonation leading to a jammy chocolate taste, and if you can imagine an apricot and blackcurrant jam tart on a chocolatey pastry base then you wouldn't be too far off. The finish has more of the same, slightly more concentrated if anything, it's lip-smackingly tart and fruity, I like this a lot. As it wasn't difficult to get hold of I confess that I have purchased quite a few bottles of this and I'm rather glad that I did as I suspect that this bottle-conditioned beer will develop nicely for a few more years to come. This is definitely the kind of beer that I would like to see more of in the future and I'd like to see Brentwood release more of these experimental batches in smaller bottles as if they are of this quality then I'll certainly be snapping them up.

I have to confess that I thought long and hard before finally deciding to include this beer in the line up. However, bearing in mind that this is an exploration into Essex beer, that I am trying to find something outstanding amongst the mundane, then on balance I reasoned that this beer had to go in. You may think that Strawberry 'N' Lime (4.0%) is a very rare thing indeed, an Essex fruit beer, except that it isn't, at least not from Brentwood. They commonly brew with local produce, with a Chestnut Stout made with chestnuts from nearby South Weald Park, and Plumberry, a beer brewed using locally grown plums and blackberries. Reading back through my beer notes I noticed that they also brewed a beer called Strawberry Blonde last year and I remember that I rather liked it. Having your brewery on a farm, especially one that has its own farm shop clearly has its advantages. Pouring a hazy straw colour with a shockingly white head it smells faintly of those sugary biscuits heart-shaped that come with a small splodge of jam in the middle that I remember from childhood holidays to France. There's a citrus twist in there too, but if pushed I'd have it pegged as sour orange rather than lime. It is delightfully bubbly as it hits the tongue, delivering a sweet fruit-cocktail of flavours featuring strawberry, peach and lime, but these aren't at all muddled but distinctive and pleasingly refreshing. There is the faintest notion of artificiality about the taste but this is fleeting as you are drinking it, emerging once again in the ragged finish that has some touches of astringency. This isn't a sophisticated beer but it is rather good and I can see it going down rather well at barbecues this summer. It's not at all what I was expecting and beers like this make me smile and realise that I really shouldn't judge a book by its cover, or indeed a beer by its label.

Despite this being a local beer and one that I felt that I had to include I admit that its high price tag made me swallow hard before I bought it. At £29.99 a bottle, Van Kannor (7.7%) was commissioned by Roland to celebrate the birth of his first grandchild, the name being the full and proper one however, one that hadn't been used since the outbreak of the Second World War. A limited run of 1000 bottles, it is triple fermented with beer, wine and Champagne yeast, hand riddled and turned, it comes in a corked and caged 750ml bottle so I'm expecting something a bit special. It pours a beautiful golden colour with lots of spritzy carbonation just as you might expect, and has a wonderfully tart and fruity peach aroma with a hint of allspice in the background. Smooth as silk over the tongue, this bites at the top of the palate first of all releasing a honeyed peach juice flavour coupled with a white pepper and coriander seed spiciness that fills the mouth with a pleasingly warm sensation. This is a superb beer, the finish isn't overpowering it's subtle and refined, and where the flavour fades quickly it lingers for a long time. This is an extremely balanced piece of brewing by Sophie de Ronde and was the last beer she brewed for Brentwood, and I would say that it's one of the best beers currently available in Essex. It is expensive, but if you're looking for a local beer for a special occasion then you should look no further than this.

The Colchester Brewery Limited are currently in their fourth year of production, although the three founders Tom Knox, Roger Clark and Andy Bone have all had previous experience as head brewer, sales director and MD respectively at Nethergate's Growler brewery. They brew using the double drop method where primary fermentation takes place in one vessel before being 'dropped' under gravity to a secondary fermenter below with the aim of producing a cleaner, less infection-prone beer. They have a range of bottled beer, but I've only chosen one, the Brazilian (4.6%) coffee and vanilla porter brewed, as you might expect, using Brazilian coffee and fresh vanilla pods and sporting a label that cheekily resembles that of a well coffee shop chain that originated in the US city of Seattle. It pours a deep dark brown, very like a black coffee with a creamy head crowning it, however it is the aroma that draws me in with its seductive sugary white chocolate and vanilla scent that reminds me very much of a particular milk stout, but I can't for the life of me remember which one. An initial hit of milk chocolate is swept away by a wonderfully creamy vanilla flavour before the coffee rises to prominence to create an incredibly delicious melange of tastes and sensations in the mouth. This fades ever so slowly to leave an oily sugary cream taste that has me licking my lips with delight. This is simply the best porter/floater-coffee mash-up you could possibly imagine, rich and self-indulgent and I would happily drink one of these following dessert, or maybe even instead of it.

The oldest brewery in the county is probably the one that most people bring to mind when thinking about Essex beer. This is due in no small part to the fact that its flagship beer won CAMRA's Champion Beer of Britain accolade two years in a row. Formed in 1981 by beer enthusiasts Colin Bocking and Rob Walster (although Rob is no longer involved with the business) Crouch Vale Brewery are known for their clean, crisp beers, particularly their range of single hop beers made using some of the newest varieties. I have chosen three of their beers to review here with the main factor being availability, however with the exception of the first beer you might come across a completely different selection. All are worthy of your time and money.

There really is no better place to start than with their flagship beer Brewers Gold (4.0%) which accounts for around fifty percent of their output. It's hard to believe that this beer is fifteen years old, a summer seasonal that made the jump to the permanent range due to customer demand, and it can be found regularly on cask in some of the better pubs in the county. It pours a bright golden colour, just as its name suggests, with a tight white head and an unmistakable grapefruit aroma this really is a wonderful beer. It's whole grapefruit as well, juicy flesh, pith, peel and all, slightly spicy and sugary sweet, and despite its carbonation it is soft and gentle as it purrs over the tongue. Grapefruit and blackcurrant flavours rise to prominence, juicy and dry at the same time and with the faintest touch of honey sweetness just for good measure. The finish is a little oily with some grapefruit peel notes that make you feel like you've just finished sucking on a grapefruit flavoured wine gum, if such a thing existed, and this lasts for quite some time. This is a fantastic beer when found on top form, pass it up at your peril.

Amarillo (5.0%) is another single hop varietal beer, brewed using the hop of the same name. The hop's name is a registered trademark of Virgil Gamache Farms Inc. and was discovered in one of their hop yards in Washington State, USA. Tolerant to the most common hop diseases, it is used for both flavouring and bittering purposes. It pours a very similar colour to the Brewers Gold, if not identical, but as soon as you bring it to your lips the aroma immediately tells you that this is a very different beer. It has the scent of orange peel, lime zest as well a malty biscuit tang about it, and it is pleasantly rough and bitter over the tongue. An initial flavour of flapjack on the tongue is quickly replaced with a burst of zesty orange juice although this is not a juicy beer, carrying with it a hint of dry grapefruit citrus and a twist of lime. The finish is quite understated at first, a little wishy-washy even before an oily orange peel flavour emerges an then, right at the end, the grapefruit comes bouncing back. It is no surprise that this is such a popular beer as it is very easy to drink, all the flavours particularly distinctive and blend together effortlessly, and this is why I like it too.

The last beer I am reviewing from Crouch Vale on this occasion is their Anchor Street Porter (4.9%) but I seem to have come across some conflicting information when looking up its availability. I picked this up rather easily locally and many of my usual Crouch Vale stockists had plenty of bottles, and although I see it is listed as a year-round beer I notice that the Beer Advocate website says that it is retired and no longer in production. Trying to establish the truth I contacted the brewery directly with this question, and they responded that it is indeed retired, albeit with occasional re-union tours. The beer itself is described as a classic Porter made using roasted barley and chocolate malt to bring different flavour elements as well as colour, and Pioneer hops for both flavour and bitterness. It pours a deep dark brown with some ruby red highlights and a tight creamy off-white head. The aroma is a little spicy with nutmeg and clove and their is a definite smoky edge to its blackcurrant fruitiness. Bitter and a touch tart over the tongue, blackcurrant flavour slides in and this brings with it some dark cherry and chocolate for good measure, this really is a very satisfying beer. The finish is where that almost festive spiciness present in the aroma asserts itself, and tied together with some dark fruit and a hint of chocolate it has a wonderful complexity to it. This is a beer that punches well above its weight, performing a seductive dance on the tongue it is very good indeed.

The Essex Brewery Company is a new brewery about which I know very little information. Their website is still under construction and there are barely any mentions of them on the internet at all. What I do know however is that it is run by a chap called Ian and that from the address I have found then they would appear to brew on the same site as the Pitfield/Dominion brewery. Thankfully I have been invited over to visit them soon so expect s full report to be forthcoming in a later post (which you can read here).

The only beer I have to taste from them is their Grumpy Old Men (4.6%), bottle-conditioned, and one that is designed, so the label states, to help you 'relax, mellow and enjoy'. It pours a deep amber/tawny colour, throwing a dense off-white head upon pouring. The aroma is a curious mixture of chestnut, grapefruit peel and lime zest but there's also a cream soda/lemon sorbet element that is really rather enticing. Rough and rather bitter carbonation leads to woody raspberry and blackcurrant flavour laid over a crunchy Bourbon crumb, but there's a slightly savoury meaty caramel taste that it is a little at odds with the sweetness and is seemingly stopping it being as good as it might be. The finish is dry with more chestnut flavour and a little astringency that gradually expands before expiring in a surprisingly jammy raspberry conclusion. The more this beer warms the better it becomes. The bitterness and astringency fades somewhat, and although still present it allows that fruitiness to emerge a little more from the shadows. I'm looking forward to seeing what else the Essex Brewery Company are up to, and who they actually are. Expect a full report here in a few weeks.

Should you ever pay a visit to the Felstar Brewery, and I strongly advise that you do if you are in the area, then be sure that you don't disturb the rather aggressive geese as you make your way smart wooden shed with its self-satisfied chicken logo that is the brewery shop. Started in 2001 by two Italian brothers Marcello (known as Franco) and Guiseppe (known as Paolo) Davanzo at the Felstar Vineyard, the oldest commercial vineyard in East Anglia, their ambition to produce great beer was fueled by their discovery of, and passion for real ale. Their bottles, which can be very limited in number, are available from the brewery shop as well as selected local off licences. Take no notice of the opening times on their website, it hasn't been updated for many years as I found to my cost when I drove there to pick up some beer for this review only to find it closed. Fortunately I have been carefully storing a couple of bottles of their stronger beers for the last six years or so, and this is the perfect opportunity to see if they have stood the test of time and hopefully show that Essex brewers can produce beers that are robust enough for cellaring.

I shall start with the Felstar Triple (9.2%) whose label only displays the name, which I am assuming denotes the style, as well as the ingredients: malted barley, molasses, hops, wheat and finings. This bottle has a 'Best Before End' date of November 2012, so I am anxious and a little apprehensive as I open it. Pouring a glossy jet black with a surprising amount of carbonation considering its age it has the most amazing aroma, full of chocolate, sherry, molasses, vanilla and woody notes, with half a twist of black pepper just for good measure. A touch prickly over the tongue before smoothing out gently, it throws up such an array of deliciously rich flavours at you that it is extremely hard to pick a solitary element out and hold on to it at first sip. Delving a little deeper I find fig, date, blackberry, black pepper, dark cocoa-rich chocolate, a twist of lemon zest and lots and lots of sticky black molasses. The finish dries out wonderfully with some dusty oak notes leaving a great big splodge of gooey fig and raisin puree right in the middle of my tongue and this stays for an absolute age, allowing me to chew it over at my leisure. This really has aged astonishingly well and I feel that I have been fortunate enough to catch it at its peak. I gather that the abv may have been reduced to 7.0% for later editions but if you ever come across this version again then put it away for a few years, and if you are lucky enough to have this particular bottling then now would seem a very good time to drink it.

As it is just past Easter as I write this a beer called Festive Ale (9.2%) might not seem the most appropriate to be drinking now, but Christmas beer or not, and this was brewed for Christmas in 2009 I believe, I'm searching for the best that Essex has to offer so any beer is fair game. It pours a deepdark brown with a thin beige head, but it is the aroma that grabs my attention straight away. It's like a vintage port that's been laced with Belgian chocolate, a seductive musty black magic that draws me to it but one which comes with a warning says it's no slouch in the alcohol stakes. An initial prickle of carbonation is followed by a smooth rich fruitiness that tastes like chocolate blackberries on steroids but surprisingly with an aqueous gap before it roars back to life with some shocking almond and raspberry highlights. The finish is slightly dusty at first but this leads into a wonderful chocolate raspberry aftertaste that it hard to beat, but it's one that doesn't last as long as I would have liked. This does have one advantage however as it makes me go back the glass to experience that rush of flavours all over again. This really is a very special beer, full of fruit and chocolate and alcohol, it's also another beer that has kept astonishingly well and has developed into a monster. From an admittedly very small sample, but with one hundred percent success rate I would guess that the higher abv Felstar beers age exceptionally well, so if you're looking for an Essex brewery whose beers you want to cellar then you won't go too far wrong here.

Here ends the first part of my beer bottle journey. I have plenty more breweries to explore in future posts with plenty of bottles in hand, and I'm excited to conclude that if this selection is anything to go by then I will have a lot more great beer to get through. I hope that I have proved that Essex brewers are brewing great beer even though it may not appear so from some of the offerings that show up in the county's pubs and bars. Essex brewers are being creative, and if you'd like to find out more about them and their beer then I'm very sure they would be more than happy to respond to your enquiries.

Happy exploring, and if you come across something that you think I might be interested in then please let me know. You can find me on twitter at @1970sBoy or leave a comment in the section below. Either way you'll be sure of a reply.

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