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.

Opium Wars

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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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.