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!

Do you want the truth or something beautiful?

Gypsy, contract or fake brewers as they are sometimes known, clearly have a place in the current brewing scene but not everyone agrees with their presence or practices.

Jean Hummler of Moeder Lambic is one of those who certainly doesn’t agree.

During the conference he climbed upon his soapbox and provided a passionate and spirited outburst and has certainly stirred up what is already a subject of much debate.

The point that Mr Hummler was trying to get across was that the blogging community really need to tell the truth in what they write and they should almost weed out the fake brewers and shame them for their practises.  He has some strong feelings about his friend Mikkeller, but by Jeans definition, the work that Mikkeller is doing and the way he is acting, he is not a brewer, he is a beer designer.  Who Jean, in his own words doesn’t give a shit about.

Now that’s all well and good, but surely what’s important here is that by whatever means a beer is brewed or conceived, as long as the end result is good, what does it matter, right?

And Mikellers brewing activities have created some spectacular and also some quite intriguing beers.

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I’m not going to delve too deeply into this but the views of others at the conference should be considered before you can really come to any kind of conclusion on the current industry practises.

Chris Sullivan, of Stone Brewing Berlin, spoke to me and provided a great point about the relevance of gypsy/contract brewers. He views it as a ‘way in’, or ‘foot in the door’ to brewing for the home brewer or smaller brewer.  Who on their own may not have the means to set up a full blown brewing operation. It is also a way to rejuvenate old and possibly tired breweries whose production may have wained or are maybe struggling.  Which he cites has been the case for some German breweries.

So by allowing gypsy/contract breweries this can have two huge benefits. One for the brewer trying to make a name for themselves and also for the older breweries who may be looking for some inspiration to continue or improve. Some, and clearly Jean Hummler, see this as a massive problem, as by the dictionary definition of a brewer and brewery they can almost be viewed as being fake.

There are other views too, such as this held by An De Ryck of Brewery De Ryck. She believes that without that fundamental and historic link between brewer and his brewery, there is no brewer.  She believes that you must eat, sleep and breathe the brewery to truly be recognised as a brewer.  And it is this link that is clearly missing from the whole process whilst a contract brew is taking place.

Coming away from the conference, I pondered a lot on this matter and felt as if the content I’d heard at the conference could and should be expanded on.

So on my return home I decided to talk with The Occasional Brewery, a young, local nano-brewery whose brewing capacity is checked to 100 litres.

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Toby, and Fin the head brewer, shared these thoughts, over a beer of course.

We started our operations by expanding on our home brewing, we stepped up from brewing as a hobby and made it into our business.  As a small brewery we see contract brewing as a great way to further expand operations and make beer available to a bigger audience.  It’s a good way to grow a business without so much of the initial financial outlay, which can offer a little more security too.

By remaining relatively small, we have a lot of freedom when it comes to making decisions about what we brew; which is something that you don’t necessarily see in the larger commercial breweries.

But you also have to remember that commercial brewers are all out to make money, it’s their business, and the beer is just a product of that.  All business has to be profitable for it to remain viable, and if that requires the services of another business, well that’s just life.  You’ll encounter contracting and sub-contracting in all types of business, the world would be a very different place without it.

Mikkeller has clearly found a gap in the market and by being a good entrepreneur and businessman he is taking full advantage of it.  He is also feeding his knowledge and experience directly back into the beer market for others to experience first hand.

We as brewers, and also the consumer can learn a lot from what he is doing.  He’s not stuck with any kind of tradition or fallen into a specific category, and he’s been very successful in the process.  He’s just gone about his business, giving the bird to everyone else and just carried on in a way he’s sees fit.

The man should be respected for this.

Saisons in the sun, part three. Bruges

The four phoned man is back with us this morning, which makes for an interesting air at my birthday breakfast. More guests have spied his cellular antics and appear curious.

Following breakfast we make our way to the station, via taxi of course. The train to Bruges arrives, we board and depart on the perfect geometry of the track beneath the birdsnest of the catenary. Precisely 1 hour and 6 minutes later we arrive and all around is the smell of chocolate.

Wandering away from the station and down the quaint cobbled streets some kid rattles past on his monkey bike. Nearing the centre, the clatter of suitcases on the cobbles fade and is replaced by the ringing of bicycle bells and horseshoes.

An awning shouts ‘beers’, I respond, ‘ok in a minute!’ We enter the beer shops and I feel like a kid in a sweet shop, my wife is one as she enters a chocolatier. I’m slightly overwhelmed by the choice so we continue our stroll.

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Further towards the centre of Bruges, a West Highland Terrier reminds us of home and we sit for a drink. A light, malty Bruges Blonde from the barrel it is, along with her kir royal.

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A sign in a shop window proclaiming ‘There are so many beautiful reasons to be happy’ catches my eye. In Belgium, beer is all of them, and as I pick up two bottles of Westmalle Tripel for €1.50 each, this is confirmed.

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Taking on water as we walk away from the square we happen across a bar of 400 beers going by the name of Cambrinus. Quickly I establish my choice of Forestinne Ambrosia. A spicy, piney, speciality amber beer. At 7.5% it’s pure nectar.

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Our seat at the bar is booked all day……

Hopus, as chosen by my wife, is next. 5 hops, 8.3%, flip top bottle and sexy glass, I’m all over it….

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Next, I ask the bar man for his recommendation and end up with a truly breathtaking hoppy blonde. Triporteur from Heaven. With a bucket load of familiar hops in a Belgian blonde, I have a new favourite colour…….I later discover that the hops are East Kent Golding, Styrian Golding and Cascade.

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We thank our host and continue to stroll around the back streets of Bruges. I vape and she enters a vintage shop, bicycles whizz past. Tourists litter the place as we admire the passing swans.

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Further along, I hear the cry, ‘do you want more beer?’ as we come across the beer wall. Hmmmm, thinking time required.

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At least I’ve found my beer scooter.

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I take a Westmalle Dubel, place myself adjacent to the canal and end up discussing the history of the Kwak glass with some Americans who happen to land next to me. They were in search of some English beer of all things, so I imagine they were pretty disappointed with the Belgian treats they brought to their table.

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Leaving the Americans behind to ponder their next move, we enter the Bottle Shop, stock up and continue on.

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Further stocking up takes place at Brown Sugar as we head back to the station via a quick caffeine boost and a top up of the draw.

On board the air conditioned comfort of the double deck 18.08 from Bruges, we head back to Brussels.

To be continued when I return to Brussels at the end of August for the European Beer Bloggers Conference. #EBBC15

Part one here, part two here!