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.