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.

Citra Session

Citra. Just what is it, why are so many of us infatuated with it? What makes this hop so special and constantly drooled over? Are you guilty of hunting down a beer that has the magic word on its label just to taste, well, just to taste what exactly?

The Citra hop, aka HBC 394, has been developed by the Hop Breeding Company and promises to impart ‘interesting citrus and tropical fruit characters to beer’. The hops parentage lay in Hallertau Mittelfrüh, US Tettnang, Brewer’s Gold and East Kent Golding. That may go some way in explaining the varieties of flavours you can expect to receive from the hop, but just what are those flavours?

Now the tropical fruits I get, but what is interesting citrus? I suppose if you crossed a lemon with something like a banana, that could be quite interesting, or could it?

Either way, there is no escaping just how popular the Citra hop is and pretty much every brewery has a beer that includes it. Whether it be a traditional multiple hop beer, or just a single hop variety, there is no shortage of beers available to satisfy your Citra cravings.

For now, I’m focusing on single hop beers and I have gathered together a small collection, of varying styles, that will hopefully show just exactly what it is Citra can offer when used on it’s own.

So, it’s over to the breweries.

Oakham Ales, Citra.

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This was first brewed back in 2009 after John Bryan, the production director and former head brewer at Oakham Ales, made his annual trip to the hop fields of North West America where he discovered the Citra hop. At the time Citra had never been used in the UK and only a small number of US brewers had brewed with it. Immediately after making the discovery John arranged for a quantity of the hop to be sent back to the UK to start brewing. Unable to contain his excitement, he organised for the hop to be flown home as the boat journey would have taken too long!

Such was the reception and good feedback that the beer received, it was added to their permanent range in 2010. And now, after winning many awards, this beer has definitely brought our attention to Citra, or is it the other way around? Either way, it has set the benchmark for all other single hop Citra beers.

Tasting this beer is quite special, and if you have never sampled Citra before, then it will open your eyes.

The aroma is prominent and formed of a good load of passion fruit and mango with a nice hint of citrus. It’s like chucking your nose in a fruit bowl and bringing out a beer. To taste there’s no hint of malt and the fruits carry on nicely with that citrus edge. The finish is dry and bitter, and then the malts show their face, leaving behind a slight breadiness all ready for the next expectant mouthful.

At 4.6%, you can have a great session with this and the bitterness is set just so to keep you coming back. But if you do fancy a little more, then you must seek out their Green Devil IPA. Also brewed with only Citra, this is the original Citra’s bigger brother!

Isca Ales, Citra.

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Brewed locally to me in Dawlish, Devon, this beer has had a troublesome life. It went about upsetting the locals as apparently it was too far from the norm; And I thought Devon was full of Londoners?

But this didn’t stop Isca and brewing of this beer has continued, like Brunel’s GWR, at full steam.

After Isca Ales had sampled Oakhams offering, they decided that Citra was the hop for them. Brewed using Maris Otter malt, wheat and Nottingham ale yeast, it ended up at a truly breakfastable 3.8%. This is one of the lightest Citra beers I have come across and certainly the lightest here.

The aroma is delicate, as you’d expect, but it holds itself well and the spring freshness coupled to pithy passion fruit is subtle but inviting. On the tongue it’s gently malted and the fruits really get to work leaving quite a dry finish along with a mild bitterness.

Great Heck, Citra.

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This is a pale brewed to 4.5% where bitterness and carbonation have been kept deliberately low to allow the full fruitiness of the hop to shine through. The aim of this beer was to make it taste as close as possible to the smell of sticking your head in a bag of Citra hops. Having never done that myself I can’t vouch for it’s success, but as it’s brewed using mainly pale malts, with a little touch of Munich, and an American style yeast strain, which adds little to the flavour and offers a very complete fermentation, the hop is allowed to shine without being hampered by the other ingredients.

There are no bittering hops used at all, with a small amount being added 30 minutes from end of boil, followed by a large amount at the end of the boil and another large amount being used for dry hopping.

This makes for a proper English style session beer, albeit with a strong American influence. And in the words of the brewer, when you’ve finished, you want another. And I’m afraid I’m inclined to agree with that statement!

The tasting of this beer is fairly similar to the Isca offering but the aroma is fuller and there is more of it. There is a satisfying tropical flavour with the slightest hint of nettles. It’s also quite pithy too. The beer has quite a light body but it’s far from being thin, and the fruitiness of the hop is presented cleanly with the malts staying well back.

If you think Citra is the only hop Great Heck have used for a one hop wonder, then you’d be wrong; they usually brew one to try out a new hop variety and will continue to do so each time a new hop is unveiled, just to see what it can bring to the party. And in the cases of Citra, Simcoe and Columbus the results have been so good they were brewed again!

But just brewing the same beer over and over isn’t one of Great Hecks rules; each time a beer is brewed again it’s tweaked to ensure there is continuous improvement.

Brew By Numbers, Saison Citra 01|01.

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A Citra Saison?  Interesting I hear you say.  Well, you’d be right.  This is Brew By Numbers own, modern interpretation of Belgian farmhouse ale which uses the Citra hop in a classic Saison recipe.

Both Dave & Tom, being big fans of the Saison style, explored its versatility through experimentation, and discovered it was a great blank canvas that they could enhance by using different hops, fruit, spices, tea and many more ingredients that you may not necessarily associate with beer.  And this, their first take on a Saison has been brewed to show exactly what they can achieve with this style.

The Pilsner malt, low colour Maris Otter, along with wheat malt and flaked wheat, make the base of this beer conform to the style and gives the beer a slightly hazy in glass presence with a nice pillowy head; which is characteristic of malted and unmalted grains.

The flavour profile of a French saison yeast is preferred, as it yields a nice dry and peppery finish, without too much banana. The spice and funk present in the yeast also play off well with the passionfruit and mango supplied by Citra, which itself can be quite funky; a trait that works well with the farmhouse style and unusually so for a US hop. In this case, hop pellets were the preferred tool as opposed to leaves, due to the greater flavour given up. On top of this, coriander and crushed black pepper were added to enhance the characteristics of the fruity yeast.

The strength has been determined mainly by tradition; you have to remember the origin of the Saison was to provide refreshment for farm workers when the water was less than safe.  It also aims to be refreshing and light but without the heavy alcoholic content found in some other beers of this style.

The aroma of this beer is very different to all the rest here; it’s zesty, yeasty and a little spicy too.  The appearance is exactly as previously described, although mine was a little less hazy than I was expecting.  There is the mildest hint of banana on tasting but it’s so small it doesn’t interfere with the spice and passion fruit contained within.  It’s also very yeasty and bready, which makes it feel nice and wholesome.  It’s so full of flavour, each mouthful varies slightly as the beer opens up but that just adds to the satisfaction the beer brings.  The finish is quite dry and really does lend itself to a sequel.

When it comes to single hop beers, Brew By Numbers believe they can be used as good educational tools for brewers and drinkers alike.  As quite often, the more ingredient laden the beer is, the more muddled the flavours can become and nuances that can be discovered in a single hop beer can sometimes be lost.

This Saison isn’t their only single hop beer either, Mosaic has been used in an IPA, session IPA, Tripel and also a Saison.  The scarce Nelson Sauvin is another hop that they love, and they’re also very interested in the new Noble varieties such as Hallertau Blanc.

The Kernel, Citra IPA.

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Where do you start with The Kernel? With such a concise catalogue of beer it’s hard to not find the beer you want. And their Citra IPA isn’t the only beer they’ve produced using only this hop; they also offer a table beer at 3%, a pale at 5% and this the IPA at 7%.

And there are some very good reasons for this too; they find that different characteristics of the hop are apparent in
different intensities at the different abvs. So when it comes to selecting a beer, you are offered a real choice to suit your mood, food or just whatever your preference may be!

The Kernel brew a lot of beers in this form as they often prefer the singular expression of, and essence, that you only get in single hopped beers. Pretty much every conceivable hop has been used too, so if you want an IPA or a pale with a specific hop, you’ll get it here.

All of their single hop beers have been brewed with just one goal; to smell and taste exactly like the hop by letting the hop express itself, and in this case, Citra.

Brewed with a low colour Maris Otter to provide a firm body but not interfere with the hops, a Cal Ale yeast, which is fairly neutral, is also used but takes a back seat to allow the hop to shine through. The same malt and yeast is used in all of their beers for the same reasons and also to get consistent results where the hops takes the lead.  And when I asked the brewery what they thought made this beer work, their answer was simply, Citra.

On to the tasting,

And I just happened to have a nice fresh beer which was bottled just one month before my tasting.
Darker in colour than the previous pales, the massive passion fruit aroma just leaps out of the glass and plants itself right in the depths of your nostrils. This is fantastic, and tasting is full and luscious . It’s quite sweet, but not sticky, with the fruits there in abundance and a slight bready maltyness is evident too. The finish leaves you licking your teeth to try and get every last drop! The higher abv certainly gives it a lot more presence and this is definitely one to savour, possibly.

But if this wasn’t enough, and you were looking for something a little more, lets say intense, then the Kernel have in the past brewed a Double Citra at around 9%.  Now I am yet to sample this, and I do know there is quite a demand for this beer to be brewed again, so it’s over to the Kernel to fill the void as it were….

Occasional Brewery, Citra Nocturnum.

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Now if the earlier mention of HBC 394 didn’t get your adenoids twitching, then the beer spotters amongst you will notice that this is their 19th brew, and another unique one at that.

Citra Nocturnum is a beer designed to showcase the awesomeness of the hop Citra, but in a bit of a different way, porter style rather than pale like many breweries have already done.

The malt base of the beer itself is an adaptation of a Barclay Perkins porter recipe, with the addition of Citra for bittering, flavour and aroma, followed by a double dry hopping.

And in using Maris Otter, brown, chocolate, Munich, black and crystal malts, along with US-05 yeast, the big hop flavours are backed up with a smooth roastiness after their initial impact.

I was lucky enough to obtain a few bottles of this on the same day that they arrived in the shop, again, making this one fresh beer. And it’s freshness is so visible on just the slightest crack of the top. The smell just oozes out of this on pouring. It’s quite viscous, which you’d expect for a good porter, but that intense aroma is baffling. With your eyes closed it’s a fresh bowl of fruit in a tobacconist come coffee shop; The passion fruit and tobacco aroma coupled with coffee is intriguing to say the least.

Tasting on the other hand, is just staggering. The punchiness from the hop is awesome and the deep malty flavours really add to the complexity of this beer. Never before have I sampled a porter that tastes this fresh and inviting.

Brewed to 6.7%, it has a bit more kick, but it’s not something you couldn’t still enjoy a few of.

And in case you were wondering where the name came from, Nocturnum is the Latin adjective of Noturnus.  Meaning ‘of, or belonging to the night’.  Which in the mind of the brewers, seemed pretty appropriate for a dark beer that has a little something about it, and rightly so.

The Citra Session

This has been good fun, trying all these beers and having a little Citra off. Although, as good as they are, I do often wonder why there are quite so many pales brewed.

The Porter and the Saison show that by using a little lateral thinking, Citra can be used to create a beer that truly does stand out from the rest. Don’t get me wrong, I’d happily drink all of these beers again, but it is nice to see something a little different.

But then equally, the high number of pales is largely irrelevant as they are all different, and they do have their own place.  Let me put it this way, if these beers were the results of a brewing contest where the rules were to use only the Citra hop and then have complete freedom over the rest of the ingredients; then you can now see that each brewer has interpreted the instructions in their own way and we have ended up with six unique beers.  Even though in reality one may be emulating another, they are all still different.

So to finish, I must say a massive thank you to all the breweries for their Citra beers! And thank you for providing the information that without which this post would not have been possible.

Nigel Wattam at Oakham Ales
Andy at Isca Ales
Denzil Vallance at Great Heck Brewing Company
Dave, Tom and Chris at Brew By Numbers
Evin at The Kernel Brewery
Toby & Fin at The Occasional Brewing Company

Beer & Bacon I hear you say?

So last Saturday and Sunday, this happened. The inaugural Beer and Bacon Festival in Topsham. I had my instructions which were to not get drunk. Well, I’m sure I could cope with that. All I want is a tiny little taste………of as much beer as I can lay my hands on! The food was good too, but much of it resembled something like a Peppa Pig jigsaw. Don’t get me wrong, I love bacon. Who doesn’t? But the real reason for the visit was the beer after all.

Now on stepping up to the bar I see a few names I recognise and some I don’t. The Exeter Brewery and The Exe Valley brewery were present along with Branscombe Vale Brewery who brought with them Branscombe Mild. Now this beer is something of a rarity in these parts as apparently us southerners don’t drink a pint o mild any longer and most of it ends up a little further north!
Hanlons were also here, unfortunately their Copper Glow had all been drunk but the Port Stout was still on. Now if you like a good malty, toasty, chocolatey stout, this is one for you. It’s not heavy at all and the tickle of port and fruitiness of the hops just finish it off nicely.

Now, tucked in the corner of the main marquee I made a truly fantastic discovery; The Occasional Brewing Company. These guys have only been around for a matter of weeks, but they really know how to brew something special.  When I saw a chalk board with the words Hop, Porter, IPA and Fragaria, I knew walking away would be a mistake.

Small batches, rammed full of passion, knowledge and the odd fake moustache, have lead to some truly outstanding and unique beers. It’s so refreshing to see a new, local brewery, so excited by their work.

The flavour the OBC have managed to cram inside their beers just blew me away. The pales’ are all so fruity and bitter, and their dry crispness really makes for a clean drink. The porter, which I will add was supplied with a full background talk on its history, is sublime. Massive fruit notes but malty and toasty at the same time. Really quaffable and oh so addictive!

I was intrigued by the Fragaria, as not only had I never seen a beer by that name, but if I’m honest I’m not sure I’d even heard the word before? Fragaria, a genus of flowering plants in the rose family known as strawberries for their edible fruits. Now that’s all well and good for the biological geeks, but what about the beer? I’ll be honest I’ve never been a fan of fruit beers, but this is different, very different. Forget Frulli and all the fruity wheat beers, this has a refined taste of strawberries with a subtle hint of vanilla coupled to a fine stout base. All of this makes for a beer that’s in a league of its own. It’s just sweet enough without being overpowering and the smoothness of the vanilla and stout really make this beer a joy to drink.

Right, that leaves just one more Occassional Beer. The horrendously massive Imperial IPA. I truly believe they lost count of the number of hop varieties they crammed into this beer. It also wouldn’t surprise me if they forgot they had this brewing, and ended up with the truly breathalyser insulting 9.6% ABV when they realised it was still there! Now for me, this is what it’s all about. Unashamedly, almost offensively, massively hopped pale ale. Surprisingly darker than I expected, but still with a glorious deep golden hue. This beer is immense, like the Yorkie of beers; no balls, need not apply. This is a brew to savour, if you can manage to not sup it all up at once. Your heart will race as it sets your buds on fire. All those hops really set it off and you actually end up with a very drinkable beer. The aftertaste almost burns as it sets your mouth alive. And all of that happens long after the aroma rids you of all known nasal ailments.
I’m so impressed with the Occasional Brewing Company, you now have a customer for life.