Tapstone, Opium Wars. A beer on the silky side of hoppiness.

Brewer of, perhaps, the most interesting beer at the recent CAMRA Festival of Winter Ales in Exeter, is the Tapstone Brewing Co, and that beer is Opium Wars.  Billed as ‘An unfined dark brown beer.  Strong hop aroma and citrus flavours and a lingering finish’ it is in actual fact an oily, black IPA.  Unfortunately by the time I’d managed to get myself to the festival, this beer had run out.  However, on further investigation I discovered that the Tapstone Brewing Co is based in Chard, and I have just started a new job working out of, you’ve guessed it, Chard.  So, off I went to find the brewery and get me some of that beer.

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Chard is not a big place, and neither is the industrial estate on which the brewery is based, but could I find it?  Eventually after driving round and round for the whole of my lunch break, I saw a clue.  A white van parked outside a nondescript unit with beer casks peeking out of it’s open door.  This has to be it, and there it was.  The unit door was open so in I walked, to find James Davies, the brewer.  After a quick introduction, I was led into the business part of the brewery.  Not big either, but all the kit was there and the room smelled absolutely incredible.  I’m sure James’s nose has become accustomed to the smell, but it was a glorious dose of fruity tropical hops, and I was in heaven.

At the rear of the brewery are the two main vessels, and contained in one was the next batch Opium Wars.  Still conditioning, I was told it wouldn’t be ready for a couple of weeks.  We discussed pumps and flow rates, and agreed that I should return after said conditioning time had elapsed.

A few weeks later I returned to the brewery.  When I arrived James was casking up a new, low abv beer, called Zen Garden.  At 3.6% this is the lowest strength beer that the brewery has produced.  The aim was to create a massively hopped, light beer with a decent body.  And after a quick taste, I can confirm that it’s pretty much met that mark.

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We picked up from our previous conversation and began to talk oxygen and the way that it affects beer.  James’s desire to rule out any oxidation that could occur is evident when you see just how full my bottle was.  But even filled to this level James isn’t satisfied.  As in his mind, the bottle should be filled to the brim, to fully preserve all the hoppy goodness contained within and prevent any oxidation from occurring.

Now, back to the main reason for my visits, Opium Wars.  This beer never usually reaches bottles, in fact, none of Tapstone’s beer usually ever makes it into bottles.  So I have been very fortunate to be able to obtain this bottle and I am also very grateful.

Let’s start with the label.  With its simple graphics and just enough information to tell you what’s inside, it’s like what you’d expect to find on a white label promo record.  And during my record collecting days, these ‘white labels’ were the hens teeth and most collectable of all records.  I’ve still got boxes of vinyl, all doing exactly what I’m not going to do with this beer, ageing.

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The beer, pours a very dark brown with its grassy, roasted chocolate notes making their way around the room and deep into your nostrils.  As it’s luscious, slick, velvety body lands on your tongue, your senses are kicked into life by the light citrus, cherries and bitter chocolate contained within.  And the presence of the dark chocolate leaves behind a sublime bitter finish that just lingers, and lingers, and lingers.

This is a truly stunning example of a black IPA, it’s not just an unfined dark brown beer with a strong hop aroma, citrus flavours and a lingering finish.  No, this is much, much more than that.  The depth of the flavour and complexity are outstanding.  It’s balanced too.  The aroma hits you first and that flavour just drags you in.  Not to mention the feel of the thing.  It’s absolutely magnificent.

 

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2015, my year in beer. Part one.

For me, 2015 started like pretty much every year before it, on January the 1st.  However, this year we were in Cardiff with friends and I was warming up for the New Year and also a visit to a Brewdog bar, funnily enough the one in Cardiff.  As you’ll know this was to be my first visit to one of their establishments and I was like a child on Christmas Eve who could not sleep with excitement.

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When we arrived, I was not disappointed either.  The whole experience was thoroughly enjoyable and it was a pleasure to go there and sample the beer.  The staff were also fantastic.  Following my visit I put hand to keyboard and wrote Hoppy Craftmas, which just ended up as another entry in my blog, which at the time I felt wasn’t really getting the response I would have liked.  Now I realised that I couldn’t expect the world to drop everything and home in on my blog overnight, after all I had only been compiling it for a few months, but I felt that I had to improve things and I really wanted them to too.

In steps Twitter.  After the visit to Brewdog, we were out and having a few drinks with some friends and the subject of my blog was mentioned.  I happened to be the only person in the room who didn’t have a Twitter account, I wasn’t that bothered about this to be honest, as I didn’t see what the fuss was about!

So, right then, my wife tweeted Brewdog and shared my blog post with them.  She received a reply almost instantly and I couldn’t believe it!  Somebody, who I’ve mentioned in my blog, is actually reading it!  Right there and then I logged on to Twitter and set up an account.  But who to follow?  I knew plenty of breweries and other beery stuff but where do you start?  The remainder of my evening and the journey home was spent with phone in hand trawling through the apparently endless list of breweries on Twitter.  This was fantastic, and I followed everybody who sprung to mind.

Later in January, my wife and I were due to go to London for her birthday, and I, being the caring husband that I am, thought I’d leave her for a few hours and go and do some drinking.  I, like so many other people, went to Bermondsey and cruised the beer  mile, on foot.  On the way over I thought, right, don’t drink too much, you have to write something afterwards.

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And write something I did, and on arrival at The Kernel, with trusty phone in one hand and a beer in the other, I set about making a few notes of what I was going through.  What I came up with was Bermondsey Arches Breweries.

However, two or three beers down, I ventured back to the bar and thought I’d take their Saison. Not really knowing much about the style and having never tried one before, I ordered.  Wow! Initially I didn’t know what to make of it, that flavour was so intense and sharp, and like none of the pales that preceded it, I almost poured it away!  I really wasn’t sure about it to be honest, which is why I didn’t include it in my piece about the visit.

Looking back, I find it strange though, because I absolutely love a Saison now and if it wasn’t for this first taste that opened my eyes to the style, I would probably never have tried more.

Back home and sat on Twitter, again, I discovered Goodbeertweets and Imdrinkingnow, great pages who people tweet and share the beer they’re drinking, fantastic idea.  It was through this that got me tweeting more about the beer that I was drinking, and sharing it in the process without having to give any of it away either!  Genius!

Brewdog were also tweeting about what people were drinking, and I tweeted them a picture of their Russian Doll set that I had bought a few weeks earlier.  The reply I received was totally unexpected.

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Originally I hadn’t intended on writing anything about these beers, but seeing as they’d asked, I will!!  And yes, my wife was in Berlin that weekend, and my Date with the Russians was on.  But I still don’t really know where the inspiration behind the idea came from!  The post just happened, and it ended up requiring hardly any editing!

Following this, I didn’t know what to write about.  And then I saw that Innis & Gunn were about to release a beer that coincided with the film Fifty Shades of Grey.  The beer was to be called 50 Shades of Green.  I have to admit now that I’m a sucker for something that would appear to be a little rare or slightly different, so I opened my wallet and bought a bottle.  I’m not going to repeat the price, but those who know, know.

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I was expecting to be blown away by this beer, but unfortunately I wasn’t, and I really craved something that I could get my teeth into.

We had a trip to Budapest booked with the same friends we spent New Year with and I couldn’t wait.  On the days leading up to the holiday we researched places to go, namely beer places, but some nice restaurants too.  I had no idea that there was any sort of craft scene in Budapest, but as it happens, there is.

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The beers I tasted here were amazing, and I felt right at home in Léhütös,  The events of our trip also spawned my next post, Budapest? But I don’t even like George Ezra! Which, done from memory was rather tricky, yet yielded a result that I was happy with.  But looking back, I knew I should have taken notes as we went.

After this, I went in search of my next topic, so bring on Citra Session.

The Citra Session

Citra containing beers are everywhere, but what I was interested in was the single hop varieties that would allow the hop to be itself.  I collected what I thought were six, single hop Citra beers, only to find that one of them was only dry hopped with Citra and contained other hops in the brewing process.  I was massively disappointed with this as Citra Star by Anarchy Brew is a fantastic little beer which offered so much flavour!  It was a shame that I couldn’t include it.

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This piece took over two months to put together and to this day has been my most viewed entry, with nearly five hundred views to date.  I felt like a minor celebrity in the days after posting; the number of favourites and retweets just kept on growing!  And a few people I spoke to were amazed I received a response from The Kernel, as they tend to shy away from social media.  But the response I got was fantastic, and I am so grateful to them and the other contributors alike.

But now I was really stuck.  Where on earth do I take my blog after this?  I felt mentally exhausted and was completely clueless about what subject to do next!

Hops & Crafts, Exeter’s newest bottle shop, is now open for business.

Situated in McCoys Arcade in Fore Street, alongside a wide array of local independent traders, the shelves are primed, ready to quench the needs of thirsty Exonians with a battery of craft beer and local ales.

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With the unfortunate departure of Whistle Wines from Queen Street earlier in the year, Exeter City Centre was crying out for a good bottle shop, and Hops & Crafts has filled the void with an outstanding variety of offerings from the likes of Beavertown, Siren, The Kernel and many, many more; Some of which are unfamiliar to me, but no doubt, in time, will become less so.

But what I really wanted to know was, just how did Exeter become home to this bijou beer boutique?

Being one of the first customers through the door on opening day, I was able to quiz the proprietor, Chris Harper, to get a little insight on his beery journey from Fort Collins, Colorado, all the way to Exeter.

My taste for craft beer developed whilst living in Fort Collins between 2004 & 2012, this was when a microbrewery was a microbrewery, and not craft. When we arrived in Fort Collins there were five breweries.  This number had increased to eight on our leaving, but now the total amounts to more than a dozen!

On top of the breweries, the local taprooms also played a part in the huge beer culture in the area. Feeding the locals with all the knowledge and the beer that they craved. These became the destination of choice when you had guests from out of town to entertain or where you went any day of the week to try some new project beer the brewers did just for fun.

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My love for Belgian beers started in Fort Collins too, at the hugely popular hometown brewer gone rockstar big – New Belgium Brewing Co.  A brewery who exclusively brewed Belgian style beer, but their range has since expanded to include various other styles too.  

So if you couple all of this, to the classic American liquor stores where you could go in and choose from dozens, if not hundreds of beers, then you’ll see why I felt like Exeter was a let down in the beer department.  The problem I had with the local beer was that it just wasn’t what I was used to, and although I did eventually begin to appreciate the traditional ales, I never found anything that I truly loved.

It is somewhat of an understatement to say we were spoiled for choice in Fort Collins and since moving to Exeter I had been longing for a better selection of good beer.

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During a cycling trip to Belgium in 2013, where I brought back far more beer than I could actually carry, I discovered that the so called ‘special’ beers, that commanded a premium at home, were available in pretty much every convenience store and at normal prices too.  This was fantastic, however, once again, I knew I was ruined on British beer.  

I knew there was room for improvement, and after sampling some Magic Rock and Wild Beer at the Beer Cellar, my eyes were opened to the other side of the British brewing industry.  The Beer Cellar may only have been host to four taps and a few bottles, but, I knew there was hope.

I’ve never considered myself the entrepreneurial type, but after dwelling on the thought of opening a bottle shop, I decided it was time to put my videography background on the back burner and concentrate on this new venture.  The idea was stuck inside my head for a long time and when I eventually pitched it to my wife, she embraced it and said I should do it!  

After completing the course to obtain my Personal License in July of this year, things came along nicely, right up to the opening of the shop last Friday.

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The response prior to opening had been fantastic, and I’m looking forward to seeing how it all develops.  I just hope the brewers and distributors will acknowledge that there is a population south of Bristol who likes good beer, and when they do, I’ll be a lot better off and have a lot more to offer folks like you!

So, come on people of Exeter, the next time you’re in town make sure you head down to McCoys arcade, pop in to Hops & Crafts and stock up your beer cupboard with something a little different.

Follow Hops & Crafts on Twitter here.

Or visit their website.