Golden Pints 2014

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Here is a run down of my Golden Pints for 2014 (run by Beer Reviews Andy). This represents a collection of brewery visits, beer festivals, football trips and, more recently, trips to London to visit historic pubs interspersed with the latest craft beer bars for my Taverns in Town project.

Best UK Cask Beer

Tiny Rebel Cwtch – I first had this on cask in Reading in March and any time I’ve seen it since I’ve had to buy it.

Honourable mentions for Adnams Ghost Ship and Kissingate Six Crows.

Best UK Keg Beer

As a rule, I tend to opt for cask over keg, but the star of the London Craft Beer Festival for me was Weird Beard Double Perle. A truly fantastic beer.

Best UK bottled or canned

Beavertown seem to have nailed their range and Gamma Ray in a can is now my go to train beer. But my beer of the year in this category is Brewdog Jackhammer.

Best Overseas Draught

Lagunitas IPA wins for me here. I used to say I wouldn’tever pay more than £4 a pint for beer. For this I will happily make an exception.

Best Overseas Bottled or Canned

One of the stories of the year has been Wetherspoon’s foray into craft beer. A bottle of Lagunitas IPA for £2.50 – yes please!

Best Collaboration

Twickenham Ales / Kissingate Nooksack APA. First tried at the Horsham Spring Equinox Beer Festival. And then a few more times since at the brewery.

Best overall beer

Tiny Rebel Cwtch.

Best branding pump clip or label

Beavertown – I love the artwork on their cans, bottles and pumpclips.

Best UK brewery

A tricky one. I love the range and consistency of Thornbridge and Dark Star and I love some of the invention coming out of some of the newer breweries like Weird Beard.

I have to give this to Beavertown. Great beers and a great range. Gamma Ray, Smog Rocket and Neck Oil are all great core beers.

Best overseas brewery

I’m not sure I can really judge this as I don’t really drink enough. But I’ll say Westmalle, who gave us lots of free tasters at the Visit Flanders section of the London Craft Beer Festival in August. I’m looking forward to visiting and meeting the monks next May!

Best new brewery opening

Fourpure – I think they actually opened in 2013. But they only caught my attention with the launch of the range in cans earlier this year. Everything I’ve tried has been very good.

Pub / bar of the year

I award this to a pub I hadn’t been to before. This year it’s The Alehouse in Reading. A fabulous little pub – it could qualify as a micro pub – with an excellent ale line up and lots of interesting nooks and crannies, making it very atmospheric.

Best new pub / bar opening

Mother Kellys in Bethnal Green. Top notch. Trendy, without being achingly so. Superb line up of beers and the bottled range in the fridges is something else.

Best festival

The London Craft Beer Festival, which I wrote about here.

Best supermarket

No contest – Waitrose. I would have been very hard to put together a good budget beer advent calendar without it! I have used Horsham, Cobham and Salisvury and all have a great range and brilliant offers.

Best Indy retailer

Oddbins – nice to see a decent craft range all around London.

Online retailer

Ales by Mail are my ‘go to’ online retailer.

Best beer book or magazine

Well for Christmas I received a subscription to Hop and Barley and Brew Britannia by Boak and Bailey, and while they are both great at first glance I haven’t read them yet. So I’m going to go for Original Gravity magazine. Only one issue so far, but good stuff.

Best beer app

Craft Beer London. Invaluable as I look to discover good drinking places in between my Taverns in Town.

Simon H Johnson award for best beer Twitterer

Always informative and interesting, never too intrusive in my timeline and well balanced in opinion: Boak and Bailey.

Best brewery web / Social Media

Brewdog remain the best by a mile.

 

So there you have it. What will 2015 have in store? I have 37 Taverns in Town left to visit. Early in the year I should be visiting New York for work. In May I visit Berlin for a stag do and then have a nice beery trip to Antwerp booked after winning the Visit Flanders competition at the London Craft Beer Festival.

 

 

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The Tyranny of Choice: Why a Big Beer Range Could Hinder the Growth of ‘Craft’

When I first published a version of this article in March 2011, the craft beer ‘Mecca’, with dozens of beer options was a new concept. Now, in London, this type of bar seems almost ubiquitous as pubs race to have the biggest range and appeal to the craft beer mavens. This week came the news of the potential for more and more pubs to become free of the beer tie. This would be good for the beer consumer, was one of the arguments I saw, because it will increase choice. While I agree with this to an extent, publicans need to be careful about how they present beer to new or infrequent drinkers. This modification of my original article reveals why:

There was excitement as I travelled into London on the train after work on Monday. I was going for my first trip to Cask Pub & Kitchen in Pimlico to meet a former colleague for dinner. When I arrived it was heaving. It turned out it was a meet the brewer evening for Bristol Beer Factory. In the end we didn’t stay long. We couldn’t get a table to eat and it was a little too packed and noisy to have a comfortable conversation.

I consider myself knowledgeable and well-versed in beer styles and different breweries. Yet there was something I found quite intimidating about the place. Not in a threatening way at all. Yes, there were some superior beer ‘experts’ hovering at the bar.  The kind of people that make you feel a little uncomfortable if you seem uncertain about what to choose. But I can cope with that.

The choice was amazing. There were ten beers on from Bristol Beer Factory and then countless others on keg and in bottles, many of which I was unfamiliar with.  Great as it seemed, on the surface, it was this vast choice that caused most of my discomfort.

In marketing there’s a phenomenon known as the ‘tyranny of choice’. This pertains to retailing in particular. As people have become richer and as distribution channels have become more efficient, myriad new products have become available to us. In the seventies the average supermarket carried about 10,000 lines. Nowadays that figure is closer to 50,000. There was a time when you had a choice of two or three different types of orange juice at the supermarket, now it’s more like about 30. The received wisdom would have us believe that increasing choice will make us happier, but in fact the reverse can be true. During the cold war, this choice, relative to the Eastern Bloc was held up as a paragon. Increased choice appears, on the surface, to have improved our lives. But in actual fact, there comes a point where too many choices become stressful.

For an example of this, one only has to walk into the local purveyor of mobile phones.  The choices on offer are bamboozling. Handsets, price plans, insurance options. I just want a phone! The information I have to take in is too much and I leave befuddled to do some more research online. That’s why the insurance comparison sites have done so well. They curate the mass of choices down to a manageable number for you to compare based on your basic needs.

When you walk into a pub though, you don’t have the luxury of being able to go away and do some research. You need to try a beer at least twice before you can form a real opinion on it. It’s difficult to form an opinion based on a taster. So what to do then, if like me you’ve walked into a packed pub and there is a choice of 300 or more beers? Well me, I like to try new things, so I just started on the left of the bar, checked the ABV wasn’t too high (it was a Monday night!) and tried the first couple. That fact it was so busy meant I didn’t feel that I could ask the barman for advice. And there didn’t appear to be any literature on the beer range to help me.

Cask is an extreme example aimed at the real experts. But it shows that pubs hoping to cater for a more mainstream crowd have an educational job to do. When faced with an enormous array of beer many of us will opt for the safe option. With more and more micro-breweries springing up, it’s only going to get harder. And that’s before we think about the vast array of new or re-introduced beer styles or hop varieties.

The publican needs to become the curator, selecting the beers and teaching his or her customers about them. Offering free tasters to curious punters is one option. But I maintain that you have to drink a full pint and most likely two, before you can judge a beer. Pubs must also make sure that they do keep a regular line-up behind the bar. People don’t  adapt well to continuous change and as we have seen, too much choice can cause stress. Tasting evenings and meet the brewer events are great, but whatever you do, try to be inclusive and not just appeal to the beer ‘geeks’.

I’d be very interested to hear what others think of this. Please comment below.

For more on the ‘Tyranny of Choice’, see this excellent article from the Economist.

King of Beer Festivals: London Craft Beer Festival 2014

I read with interest last year about the London Craft Beer Festival (LCBF) and the controversy surrounding it being pitched against the Great British Beer Festival (GBBF). As I had grown somewhat tired of the GBBF in recent years, I decided this year to try out its hipper, trendier cousin in East London.

I stayed with my friend, and drinking companion for the evening, Tom in Clapton. On the way to his house I checked out his nearest boozers on the wonderful Craft Beer London app. Within a mile of his house he has four 5-star rated craft beer establishments, with a further five within two miles.

My Host

My Clapton host with the most

When I moved to London 14 years ago, people didn’t go to Hackney after dark and, in any case, it was hard to reach by public transport and there was nothing much to see there. It’s testament to the gradual gentrification of London’s suburbs and the craft beer explosion of the past five years that this is now a beer (and food) destination, attracting folks from neighbouring areas, thirsty for the latest and greatest brews.

To the festival

Thursday evening began in a rainy queue outside Oval Space, Hackney’s premier event space. With no umbrella the only consolation was some free beer being handed out by Camden Town Brewery from a smart little van. However, we were soon in and had our hands on five beer tokens, good for a third of a pint each, our festival programme and rather stylish beer glasses.

The glasses were marked with a third of a pint line for your token-based big pours and a taster line, which allowed you unlimited small (90ml – about a sixth of a pint) pours from any of the brewers exhibiting. Before the event, a few people had questioned me on the value of the £35 entry fee and whether I’d get my money’s worth. Let’s examine the difference between the GBBF and the LCBF:

GBBF

LCBF

Entry

£8 for CAMRA members / £10vin advance / £12 on the door

£35
Programme

Free for CAMRA members / £2

Free

Glass

£3 – sale or return

Free

Price of six pints of beer

£21

Free

So in actual fact, price-wise there’s very little in it. Can you drink six pints at LCBF? Well that’s roughly five big pours and 26 small pours. So it depends on your capacity and how much you chat rather than drink. There were 21 breweries with about 70-80 beers to choose from, so there was plenty of choice. And that’s before we even take Visit Flanders into account.

Flantastic

Flantastic

Our ticket to LCBF also entitled us to visit the Flanders exhibition in the ‘Pickle Factory’ across the road. Here there were live beer cookery demonstrations and breweries giving out cheese and yet more free tasters of their beer. Het Anker, with their wonderful Tripel, Westmalle with their exquisite Dubbel and Duvel Moortgat with tasters of Liefmans, Vedett, De Koninck and Duvel made this a wonderful diversion from the main event.

So what’s particularly good about LCBF?

One of the great things about LCBF is that you actually get served by, for the most part, the people who actually brew the beer. This doesn’t thrill me in a celebrity spotting kind of way (although I was oddly star-struck by Stuart Ross from Magic Rock), but actually being able to talk beer with truly knowledgeable people was absolutely brilliant.

Brewer crush?

Brewer crush?

Another nice aspect is that if you don’t like a beer you haven’t actually paid for it, so you don’t feel bad about pouring it away into one of the buckets provided for glass swilling. So if something’s not to your liking you don’t have to nurse a pint of it for half an hour while your companions are enjoying theirs.

And then there’s the entertainment. A backdrop of extremely funky tunes, played by excellent DJ’s accompanied our Thursday night drinking and the line-up of bands and DJ’s for the other sessions looked, I was informed by more knowledgeable companion, stellar.

What of the people? What was the crowd like to drink with? Well, one thing that struck me was the vast array of people there. If I had feared an achingly hipster tone to proceedings, then I couldn’t have been more wrong. Sure it was younger than any beer festival I’d ever attended (I felt a bit old in fact – at 35!) and there were one or two impressive beards on display, but generally speaking this was simply a collection of beer lovers. And I suspected that most of them would have been happy to visit the GBBF as well. We were all simply brought together by a general love of beer.

The beers

There were some absolutely wonderful beers on offer, with ABVs ranging from 3.0% to 12%+, styles ranging from lagers to pale ales to stouts and porters, and a whole host of flavours including Dandelion and Burdock, Lemon Sour and Coffee. I tried at least one beer from every brewery and was on my way back round the room again when time caught up with us.

Beer of the festival

Beer of the festival!

My beer of the festival had to be Weird Beard’s Double Perle – a fabulous, much stronger, 100th brew edition of their Black Perle dark IPA. Honourable mentions must go to Weird Beard’s Holy Hoppin’ Hell, Thornbridge Halcyon (kegged only the day before and tasting amzing), Howling Hops’s Rye Gose, Buxton’s Ace Edge (yes – a Sorachi Ace version of Axe Edge) and Siren Sound Wave. I have to say, I didn’t taste a bad beer and some were truly delightful, even exceptional.

Will I be back?

I can’t wait for LCBF 2015. And I’ll be telling all my beer appreciating friends about it too. The only thing I might improve is the range and price of the food. Overall though, this is a wonderful festival, not to be missed. 10/10.

The return of Sussex Brews

I used to tweet and write about beer. Under the name ‘Sussexbrews’ I had a well read blog and 1,200 Twitter followers.

But I became disillusioned with the whole ‘craft beer bubble’. The thing I’d spent years being interested in and talking about was getting big.

And I didn’t have anything left to say. So I deleted my blog and my Twitter account. Lost without a trace, never to return.

A couple of things recently made me change my mind and start tweeting and blogging again.

First I went along to the Horsham Spring Equinox Beer Festival. It was a great event, with lots of excellent local beer. I felt the buzz again.

We met a great couple called Lari and Pat all the way from Colorado (where they work at Pike’s Peak Brewing).

Why were they in Horsham, I wondered? Whenever they are in the UK they pick a beer festival to come to and this was it.

Pat was fed up with the hoppy race to the bottom that’s going on in the US. I agreed. A trip to New York in 2012 had led me to the same conclusion and said I feared the same here.

Craft hops at the expense of the real craft of creating a well balanced beer.

We shared a mutual love of the English session beer. And  I realised that my love of beer isn’t a fad or trend.  I need to be expressing it and telling people about it again.

Then I read a great article by Jeff Alworth (@beervana): Zen and the Art of Appreciating Simple Beers.

It’s about beer appreciation being a circular journey.

“First you love beer naively, out of a simple joy.

Then your head gets filled with a bunch of crap about what’s good and you begin disliking beer out of blind prejudice.

Finally you come back to appreciating beer for its own nature.

(And conversely, that appreciation makes you aware of how many intense beers are badly made and lack the harmony and integration that are the hallmarks of a good beer in any style).”

This article really made me wish I hadn’t jacked it all in.

So here I am. Blogging again. And tweeting again. Thanks Jeff, and thanks Pat!

You can check out my Twitter feed: @strangebeers