Wednesday, 25 November 2015

A date with Darkness

Whilst I do my fair share of thinking about (and drinking) beer, I don’t really do very much beer-related stuff. I don’t even go to pubs as often as I probably should, never mind travelling the country to do so; I have never been to a tap takeover, beer dinner, or even a beer festival. There are many reasons for this, but after breaking this drought at Dark Star meet-the-brewer event at Brighton’s North Laine Brewhouse last week, I'm determined to change that pattern.

The North Laine is a great space – part US-style brewpub and restaurant, part Bavarian beer hall, and can hold a lot of people, so it’s great to see them putting their extra capacity to good use with events like these. As we arrive, there’s already a small group clustered around the hand pumps at the end of the bar. Initially, we’re greeted with bad news – Dark Star’s head brewer Andy Patterson is in bed with the flu and won’t be making it. Luckily, one of the other brewers, Amir (new to the brewery after stints at Beavertown and Hackney), and director Paul Reed are here instead.

These are exciting times for Dark Star. For as long as I've lived here, their beers have been ever-present on bars across Sussex, but their reach is far greater than that of a small regional brewery. Alongside the Partridge, near the brewery, and the Evening Star in Brighton, they’re looking to open several new pubs – the first site, in Horsham, is scheduled for early next year. They also reveal this evening that they've outgrown their facilities in Partridge Green and are starting to look for new, larger premises.

Equally exciting for me is the launch of their new seasonal – Rockhead, an American brown ale, and I dive straight into a pint as people continue to arrive. I’d tried this recently from keg at the Star and was very impressed – served this way, the body is full and creamy, thick without becoming hard work. The cask version this evening is even better – it’s in fantastic condition and the hops taste hugely fresh and vibrant without threatening to wash out the foundation of warming malt. This balance isn’t always there in US-hopped brown ales, which can often come off more like black IPAs, but at the base of Rockhead are all the flavours I’m looking for in the style – caramel, cola, a little chocolate. The only American hop here is Amarillo, which lends a peachy sweetness, whilst Australian-grown Citra and a trio of British fuggles, Goldings and Admiral bring citrus bitterness.

Once everyone’s here, Paul and Amir each give a brief talk, giving some background on the brewery and their range of beers. There’s a raffle draw, in which I win a pint – I choose Revelation, which tastes all the sweeter as it’s free. Amir tells us that they use a device called a ‘hoptimiser’ in making this beer – it’s like a giant tea bag which infuses the beer with hops without directly adding them, giving the beer a smoother quality. Makes sense to me – my pint is full of juicy hop flavour, but is in no way spiky or dry. It’s fantastic.

After some plates of food are brought out for everyone to share, we hear from Laine’s head brewer Nic Donald, who talks us through the beers made in-house here, along with a quick brewery tour. When Sidony asks a question about sour beer, he’s even generous to share a sample of a pink grapefruit beer, soured in the kettle with Greek yoghurt and a dunk from some grain sacks, that he’s brewed at one of the company’s London pubs. It’s very good and I’d be delighted to see something similar on offer at the North Laine.

Beer is, quite obviously, best in a social situation. That social situation needn't be anything more complicated than a group of people talking. Beer is also good at enabling such situations, and not only through its inhibition-lowering qualities. A glass of beer in everyone’s hand is a great leveller and conversation starter, and that’s why these kinds of events can offer as much to the greenest novice as they can to the hardened beer nerds. My new year’s resolution for 2016 ought to be to do more of this sort of thing.

Monday, 9 November 2015

Who shares wins

Sharing beer with friends is great. That sounds obvious, I know, but I hardly ever do it. I sit down to drink with friends often, of course, but beyond the occasional “here, taste this”, or, “can I try a taste of yours?” we don’t share beer, and usually sit together drinking different things. The phenomenon of the bottle share clearly appeals to this desire for a group to experience the same beers together. It’s also a great excuse to actually open some of the special beers in your collection. It’s a near-universally acknowledged truth that once beers have been squirrelled away for a special occasion, this occasion never arrives. Some beers improve with age, but it’s a lot more fun to drink beer than to hide it in a cupboard.

In the absence of a more formally organised bottle share event, I recently invited a couple of friends round for a small but perfectly formed gathering of my own. The idea was to bring a beer that you wanted to share – not necessarily anything expensive or rare, though larger bottles are best, but something that you might not casually crack open and might benefit from some discussion.

We kicked off with Wiper & True’s plum pudding porter. I usually wouldn't start with a dark beer, but before I’d had a chance to raise the issue of sequencing, my friend Scott had eagerly popped the cap off with a lighter. An astringent, roasty bitterness is my first impression – this is something I enjoy in dark beers - followed by a boozy, brandy-like warmth. The plum and other additional flavours are far from overpowering, and in fact I might not have picked them out without being told they were in there. The fruit comes across as a general richness and depth of flavour, and whilst there’s some warming spice in the finish, it stops well short of tacky novelty Christmas beer territory. Classily done.

My own headlining contribution was BrewDog’s latest Born to Die double IPA. Despite having said I wanted to open something from my stash, I decided to go out and buy this instead. I've been reading a lot about US IPAs recently, and reports of fresh pours of the likes of Pliny the Elder and Heady Topper, legendary hop-bombs which I have never been lucky enough to taste, provokes a state in me which I can only describe as anguish. A beer like Born to Die is, I figured, the closest I’ll get for now. And, whilst I find the blundering BrewDog P.R. machine extremely tedious, they do pale and hoppy very well.

Born to Die smells like Haribo, and tastes like fruit juice. It’s very pale – IPAs of this strength are often closer to amber in colour. The object, it would seem, is to produce a beer as pale as possible, with little malt character, to further accentuate those fresh, juicy hops.  It’s citrus zest, pineapple and mango and, despite the hop dominance, to me it’s not excessively dry or bitter or extreme. The slick mouthfeel only makes it more drinkable. This might be my Platonic ideal of an IPA, or as close as I've come to it thus far.

Next was Wild Beer’s Ninkasi. I’ve tried this before and was distinctly impressed, and this occasion is no different. It’s instantly reminiscent of Orval in it’s peppery yeast character and dry effervescence. There’s more tropical fruit hop presence than I remember – as Scott points out, it actually tastes a bit like Lilt. It’s an indulgent, decadent beer, and I'm happy to have another bottle in my possession.

I’d also previously enjoyed Mikkeller’s It’s Alive! –specifically the Grand Marnier barrel-aged edition, which is exactly what my friend Ollie brought along. That was around two years ago, and got me very excited – it was probably the first beer I’d tried with such a prominent Belgian yeast character, and I remember exclaiming “this beer tastes like champagne!” Unfortunately, tonight’s bottle is an example of time being unkind to a beer. All the complexity I remember is gone, leaving behind a beer that’s flat, overly musty with Brett, and tasting overwhelmingly like sherry.

Thornbridge’s Rhubard de Saison followed. The recipe comes from a homebrewer who won the chance to have Thornbridge brew his beer. It smells bizarrely like Sprite (the second fizzy pop comparison of the evening), and my first mouthful seems to taste of almost nothing – it’s unbelievably bland. But the flavour builds and builds, and a beer of significant complexity reveals itself. The ever-so-slightly tart rhubarb and dry, spicy saison yeast is a perfect marriage, and a medicinal, herbal quality (eucalyptus?) adds depth. The body is a little thin for my liking, but that’s a small gripe.

I stopped taking notes then, though a few more bottles were opened. They were, from memory, Thornbridge and Wild Beer's Tart (disappointingly bland, especially as I really enjoyed it on keg), Duvel Tripel Hop 2015 (still great, though the hemp-like hop dankness has mellowed since I last tasted it, and more of the classic Duvel flavour shone through) and Buxton’s New World Saison (simply a beautiful, harmonious beer).

So if, like me, you haven’t made time to share beer with your friends in too long, clear a Saturday night and fill the fridge. It’s a lot of fun.