Wednesday, 26 August 2015

London Beer City: A Retrospective

For the second year running London went mad for beer in the second week of August (even more mad than usual, I mean), and again this year there were far more London Beer City events on than you could possibly manage to attend. This time round we sat down with the programme and ticked off everything we were remotely interested in... but obviously that was still way too many. We ruthlessly whittled the list down to one or two events per day and cleared any non-beer related things from our diaries. And, maybe, most important of all: we cleared the entire final weekend so that we could spend it at home with the curtains drawn.

1. Cask Tasting Event at We Brought Beer (Wednesday 5th August)
Starting London Beer City a bit early we visited our local bottle shop, where there are usually four keg beers on tap for drinking at the shop or taking away in growlers of various sizes. In honour of LBC they had put on six casks from six different breweries to highlight the joy of cask ale and celebrate their first birthday (there would be even more casks on later in the week). On the night of the launch we got to take part in a (free) tasting event conducted by the brewing legend, Derek Prentice.

As experienced homebrewers (and scientists by training and/or profession) we are familiar with the four ingredients of beer and how they are used, and we've stood or sat through many a talk on how beer is made. That said, I found it a pleasure to listen to a more ‘technical’ edition of this speech. As well as brewing at a number of long standing breweries (e.g. Fullers and Trumans), Derek also teaches apprentice brewers who are studying for a brewing qualification. It was a pleasure and an honour to get to talk to him about beer and brewing.

The cask beers were obviously of secondary interest to meeting Derek, but during the organised tasting we sampled Burning Sky Arise, Cloudwater Session IPA, and Wimbledon Tower Special Pale Ale. They were all good beers which we were happy to drink but the outright winner was the Wimbledon Tower (from Derek’s new brewing venture). It had everything you could want in a cask pale ale: a well balanced hop bitterness and malt character, and a thirst-quenching dry finish making you crave another sip. But the most notable thing about it was its vibrant fruity nose, for me it was peaches, but other people got soft red fruits. And where did all of this outrageous fruit come from? Dry hopping with Target (used along with two other British hops for bittering and flavour). I enjoyed this refreshing use of  British hops - really nice to see in the current British brewing culture of 'Citra this' and 'Mosaic that'.

2. Opening Party at BrewDog Shepherd's Bush (Friday 7th August)
If there was an influx of people who were there especially for the launch of LBC or whether it was just a typical Friday night in Shepherd’s Bush, I couldn’t really tell. Although when I was at the bar shortly before 6pm a group arrived who were there specifically to try Lizard Bride (a new BrewDog beer launching at 6pm that day), who were expressing mild embarrassment at themselves for having to wait for a beer to come on. But there was certainly a general air of good feeling when London Beer City organiser, Will Hawkes, jumped on the bar to introduce his week long programme of beer activity. Later on we won some prizes at beer bingo (although we were sad to miss the beer quiz at BDSB later in the week). It was a low key Friday night, but ideal preparation for the manic week ahead.

3. GBBF at Olympia (Tuesday 11th August)
It’s always a pleasure to catch up with our friends from out of town but yet again I’m left wondering why we bother with this event. Too many of the British cask beers I tried were just not in great condition and I find this really sad. Every year I keep hoping that I'll try some British cask beers which do not disappoint me but every year it's the same. The German beers were the best things we tasted at GBBF. As always I get sucked into trying stuff from the US cask bar but this is generally a hit and miss affair.

One tap short of a takeover
4. Thornbridge Tap Takeover at Craft Beer Co (Tuesday 11th August)
In hindsight I wish we had just gone here instead of GBBF as the cask (and keg) beers were in better condition. If I had visitors in town from the US this year (as I have had for previous GBBFs) I would have just brought them here instead and said, "here is some great British beer for you to try." Plenty of variety in style with all of the consistency of quality you can expect from Thornbridge. With so many beers on tap I got to tick off a couple of Thornbridge beers which have been evading me for a while (Cocoa Wonderland and Bear State).

5. Mid-week opening at Brew By Numbers (Wednesday 12th August)
Kernel, Partizan and Brew By Numbers came together to offer their beers to the general public on a weekday evening, this year it was the turn of BBNo to host. As anyone who has visited Bermondsey on a Saturday will be aware it gets busy down there, at times it is insanely busy. If you are bothered by big crowds (as I am these days) then you tend to limit your visits to Bermondsey, which is a shame because we’d like to spend more time drinking beers from Kernel, Partizan and BBNo at source. But on this occasion the queues for the bar were minimal or non-existent and we were even able to talk to the employees – who are usually run ragged and unable to stop for a chat.

Hard to decide between the Kernel Mosaic Stout and BBNo Black IPA
So for us this night was about great company first and foremost, with the beer was run a very close second. The beery highlights were the Kernel’s Mosaic Dry Stout (that magical mystery hop, which can be used in so many different ways and can seemingly do no wrong), and the BBNo 15|02 BIPA Citra. As someone who is fussy about black IPA as a style, who has had many a discussion with pro brewers and homebrewers and beer writers about it, this particular beer offered me an angle I’ve yet to experience with this beer style before: a fresh green hop character. One of the things I enjoy about a BIPA is how if the malt bill is done right then the beer still be enjoyable when the hop character has faded away a little (if not, it gets as stale as a standard IPA when the hops fade out). Sadly, I don’t get to witness this often enough as most BIPA are not quite ‘roasty’ enough for my liking. In fact this particular beer, 15|02, wasn't roasty enough but it had this amazing FRESHNESS OF GREEN HOPS to it that contrasted very nicely with the dark malts present. Obviously, that’s not going to persist too long – it was very much a ‘drink fresh’ moment. But I’m glad I was there to catch it.

But the icing on the cake of this fantastic evening was the bottled BBNo 14|02 - a BA tripel, brewed with Wai-iti, one of my favourite hops: a zesty lemon fragranced delight from NZ. BBNo are well known for their saisons, of which they have produced many variants, and my favourite of all of those is the 01|08 Wai-iti. Saisons often have naturally occurring lemon aroma and flavour from the yeast but this hop really amped that beer up to a zesty wonder. I'd already bought a bottle of the 14|02 from the brewery when it was released and had been advised by them to age it a while yet. So when I was shown their fridge toward the end of the night and asked what I fancied trying I pointed at the 14|02 and said, ‘THAT ONE!’ It did not disappoint. If you’ve ever cooked lemons, as part of a savoury meal, to the point where they caramelise, become sweet and lose their bitterness but still retain the refreshing zing of a citrus fruit...well, that’s precisely what I got from this beer. A definite contender for my beer of the year so far.


6. Coffee vs. Beer at The Department of Coffee & Social Affairs (Thursday 13th August)
One event we really fancied doing during LBC was the beer and cheese matching sessions, but having recently held our own private beer and cheese event we couldn’t really justify the cost of us both attending a session with so much else going on. But another keen interest we have aside from cheese is coffee, which we love but feel like we know hardly anything about it. It seemed like the cost of the event could be justified in order to advance our knowledge.

Sensory perception 

At the start of the event we learned how to taste coffee correctly (which similar to but not exactly the same as tasting beer - it makes a more unpleasant noise), starting off with a reminder that almost everything you taste is informed by its aroma. We then went through five paired rounds of blind tasting, first sampling the beer and voicing our thoughts and then doing the same for the coffee. Finally we were asked to vote on whether we preferred the beer or the coffee option from each pairing. The very first round (which I felt was a little bit of a cheat) was Carling vs Nescafe. The other rounds featured a wheat beer, a sour beer, a ‘hoppy porter’ (which we still feel we were correct to identify blind as a BIPA), and a stout – each beer was paired with a coffee which had similar or related elements to its flavour profile. This was a real eye opener and we’re really glad we did it. For example, prior to this experience I couldn’t quite have gotten my head round how you could pair a sour beer with a coffee. But you can!

We went away feeling like beer is easy and simple (to deconstruct) while coffee is ultra subtle and nuanced with layers that we can’t even begin to approach at this point. Yet, we still feel like we learned a lot from this event and can begin to appreciate the enormous spectrum of what you are able to taste in a coffee. We will definitely be taking more time to over our coffee in the future and will begin to learn the basics of the myriad ways in which processing affects what ends up in your cup.

7. London Craft Beer Festival at Oval Space (Friday 14th August)
I was looking forward to this event as comfortable territory, knowing we would get to see yet more friends from near and far; knowing there would be great beers both new and familiar to me. I wasn’t disappointed. As with last year, Chris was pouring beers for Weird Beard and I was roaming around the place solo. This year I even lent a hand to pour a few beers for WB. Had I thought about this in advance I might have volunteered to pour for Magic Rock, especially had I known they were bringing some Big Top with them. On second thoughts it’s probably best for everyone that I didn’t as I got so excited when I saw Big Top had gone on that I knocked down their blackboard in my haste to get some in my glass. :)

The unlimited small pours (90ml) worked perfectly well. As far as I can see it is better for both the customer and person serving them if neither has to faff around with taking payment and I think that doing away with tokens all together is preferable. I’ve seen a complaint that the small pour does not encourage sensible drinking. This makes me think that there really is no pleasing some people. If you find yourself in a long conversation and your glass is dry you could either position yourself near a bar so that you can easily obtain another refill or *gasp* get yourself a glass full of water to drink while you’re chatting from one of the many water dispensing points. If someone cannot move away from the mindset of drinking pints to the point where drinking anything that isn't a pint bothers them, this type festival probably isn't for them. It's about trying lots of beers, not about how much you can drink. That concept goes beyond beer festivals too. For some of us, at least.

If you happen to be in town during London Beer City and you like beer (whether you live there or are just visiting) there are more beer-related activities on offer than you can actually physically go to.  You will be spoiled for choice. Some events have an entry fee but many do not. If you enjoy matching beer and food there are a wide variety of options to choose from across a spectrum of budgets. If you enjoy meeting brewers, you're in luck: there are brewers all over the place just waiting to talk to you about their beers. If you want to learn more about brewing or even have go yourself, there are events to suit you. In short, there is so much variety (including lots of things I haven't even hinted at here) that there should be something to please everyone.

Post by Emma


Ed said...

I'm impressed by your stamina, the GBBF trade day wiped me out for the week.

doug said...

Sounds like an excellent time.

I totally would have opted for a Thornbridge tap takeover instead of GBBF.

Emma said...

Ed: It's all in the planning! Plan for things you definitely 100% want to do, then pencil some stuff that you'll only do if you feel up to it. For us that was going to Brew By Numbers on the Wednesday, which we decided to go for on the day because we realised we could go home after work for a shower and a pizza before going out. If you're going to work as normal that week then beer stuff has to fit sensibly around that.

Doug: Absolutely. I was thinking of you guys. Fresh Halcyon plus 30-odd other Thornbridge beers on tap. Sounds like a great week in its own right.


Zak Avery said...

Kelly Ryan (ex-Thornbridge) once told me that they used Target as a finishing hop in Halcyon (either late kettle or dry hop, I don't remember). I couldn't tell whether he was was giving me a brewer's yarn or not - maybe not, as it turns out.

Unknown said...

hi, do you have an email address that I can contact you on? Thanks, Natalie

Emma said...


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