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Hair of the Dog: What we learned at Brewdog’s 2015 #PunkAGM

It’s been just over a week since Brewdog’s 2015 AGM. The hop-haze has finally lifted. My ears have stopped ringing. And I can be in a room with alcohol again.

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Note: not all mine

The ubiquitous craft beer company‘s AGM isn’t your average AGM, as I explained to my photographer, Will, when he asked if this was a tie and chinos or a jeans kind of event.

Back in 2010, the company started trading B-shares in an effort to raise capital. Its investors were, by and large, craft beer fans, drawn in as much by discounts and bonuses as brand loyalty. The scheme – dubbed Equity for Punks – was a roaring success and, in five years, has raised over £6M.

But as a business, what do you do when the majority of your shareholders are beer-lovin’, mohawk-sporting, tie-eschewing punks? Turn AGM on its head and hold a festival instead.

Hopefully not holding out for an actual AGM for punks

Hopefully not here because of a terrible misunderstanding about the title #PunkAGM

We arrived in Scotland – courtesy of Brewdog, who invited us and covered the trip – early Saturday morning, the slate-grey streets of Aberdeen glowing in the sunshine as we landed, slingshot (with Scotland’s angriest taxi driver) around the outskirts of town and on to the colossal warehouse that would house the event.

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Inside punks, PR and press – drinks in hand – quickly got down to business; the annual report that opened the day’s tastings. And oh, how beleaguered Tesco must wish its shareholders were punks. Brewdog’s founders, James Watt and Martin Dickie, crossed the packed arena floor to raucous cheering, through a forest of raised glasses full – or, in most cases, part-full – of the beers that they would reveal had underpinned a year of unprecedented growth.

It’s testament to Brewdog’s army of punks – of which there were 14,500 before the AGM – that the 6,000 or so of them in attendance (the maximum the event could host) not only showed up early enough for the address, but listened with rapt attention. I didn’t begrudge James and Martin the six-pack they had on stage with them – tie-wearing corporates their shareholders are not, but that doesn’t mean they’ll take bad news well.

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But of course, this is Brewdog; arguably one of the craft beer Renaissance’s most overwhelming success stories. There was no bad news. The company’s turnover for 2014 was up a staggering 64 per cent, to £29.6M. Their gross profit – up 66 percent – was £11.5M, and with overheads of £7.8M, ended up with a net profit pre-tax of £3.7M. Brewdog has grown by 71 per cent in the last three years. Behind it all? “We’re committed to making as many people as possible passionate about craft beer,” James explained.

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Brewdog comes under fire, particularly in the London bubble, for its aggressive marketing, its appropriation of punk, and doing too well, too quickly. A few years ago it was criticised for the inconsistency of its ubiquitous IPA, Punk. But is this a case of the classic, British distrust of success?

Speaking personally, I’m a fan of Brewdog’s brash, hoppy beers, which speak to my palate. I like that I can get them everywhere, from Sainsbury’s local to Wetherspoons, in Oslo via Florence.

I fell for them even harder at the AGM when I ran my stock feminist sort-of-trick question, “do you brew beers specifically aimed at women?”, past Alex Myers, Director at Manifest, who handle Brewdog’s PR, between drinks.

“All our beers are for everyone,” he said, immediately, and with conviction. 10/10 answer. Not a whiff of, “why, of course, we have a 3 per cent cherry-flavoured beer, and one that tastes like chocolate…”

Finally, you can’t deny Brewdogs’ fans’ passion – made manifest in the whopping number of shares sold – be they the punks, or the two Scots on stage clutching their cans of craft.

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Brewdog has done a comprehensive round-up of the AGM announcements here. Our top lines…

US EXPANSION

Brewdog, which incredibly still still brews out of one, soon-to-be-expanded site at in Ellon in Aberdeenshire, is expanding production and heading stateside, with plans to open a 42-acre sister brewery in Columbus, Ohio. Dog Bless America, indeed.

NEW BEERS

Born to Die, an imperial IPA with a life-span of just 35 days, was our beer of the weekend, so great news that it’s going to be made marginally more widely available. The plan is to brew two batches that will appear in 660ml bottles and be available on keg. The beer we tried (that will die on 4 July!) was extravagantly hoppy, delicious and citrus-fresh. Will swears he was sweating hops the next day. BD also announced its first Equity Punk-inspired brew, a 6.5% chocolate and coconut stout, and a collaboration with Beavertown called “Coffee and cigarettes”, which is exactly what those members of Team Beavertown aboard our early morning return flight to London on Sunday looked like they needed.

NEW BARS

Brewdog also announced a slew of new Brewdog bars, including (deep breath) Leeds, Glasgow, Berlin, Brighton, Oslo, Rome, Leicester, Brussels, and, most importantly, because it’s at the end of my road, in Angel, Islington as well as London’s Soho, which will apparently also have a beer-themed sex shop (Bd’s PR didn’t explicitly deny this, so… you heard it here first, until you didn’t…)

FULL OF SPIRIT and IN THE DOG HOUSE

Finally, BD also announced that they would be opening a craft distillery, promising “we are going to smash the world of spirits forever”, and shared some tantalising details about its planned hotel, The Kennel in Ellon, to be the first completely beer-focused hotel in the UK, with beer on tap in every room.

“2014 was ace,” James told us, a broad understatement.

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THE BEERS

With the AGM down, it was on to some serious drinking, with not a watercooler or peppermint tea in sight. In our experience, the layout this year worked well and queues for the half-dozen or so bars were short (except for the food pop-ups outside – we legitimately queued for 50 minutes for a burrito). The beer wasn’t breathtakingly cheap – £10 bought you six tokens, and most beers (served in pints, 1/2s, 2/3s and 1/3) cost two or three tokens – so at £2.50-£3 a third a hair’s cheaper than London prices for some, but a generous £2 a pint for others (like Punk IPA).

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Team ICIP drank our way round most of the bars (why do you think it took so long to write this post?); our top tips:

Born to Die 04.07.2015: Just glorious. Fresh, US-hops, with zingy grapefruit notes. Full-bodied hop punch. Did I mention it’s hoppy? Basically my dream beer.

Dog D: At 16 per cent, this hefty imperial stout was not a beer to mess with. Or drink at the end of the night, as I did, which probably explains why I had to have a nice lie down on the floor of the departure lounge the next morning. Aged in oak barrels, it exudes chilli, black treacle, vanilla and whiskey notes. For 28 hours after you drink it. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

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Jack Hammer: Another hop bomber, this one a more gentle 7.2%. Looking back, it’s probably a bad sign that my tasting notes rendered this “gentle” by mid afternoon. No matter! More US-hops here, palette-meltingly bitter, also more widely available than the beers above. Might start a petition for Sainsbury’s to start stocking this one.

Ballast Point, Sculpin Habanero: There were beers other than Brewdog, and this stole the show. I can only really claim to have had a half pint of this, because so bowled over was I by the seedy habanero kick – unlike any other chilli beer I have ever tasted – that I offered a mouthful of it to everyone I encountered just to see the looks on their faces. Extraordinary.

THE BANDS

Turns out that after a few pints of double-digit strength beer, I both recall the words to and enjoy many more Idewild, Twin Atlantic and Pulled Apart by Horses songs than I realised. Leaping around like a lunatic to Scottish emo was the perfect end to a fab day. But, this is a beer blog, not a music blog, so this entry is mostly an opportunity to showcase the one good photo I took with Will’s camera.

SO PROUD

SO PROUD

THE REST…

We only attended one tasting session – with Brewdog’s own brewers, and of lovely Dog D – and it was great. You do have to fork over precious beer tokens to attend, but it’s well worth it; in fact, apart from booking the subsequent week off, making more of those sessions is pretty much all we’d do differently next year.

Because, Dog willing, we’ll be back, and we’ll see you down the front.

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Beer of the Week: Orbit ‘Leaf’ Rauch Alt

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA“It tastes like garlic. And Werther’s Originals!” Promised the promotor of the cause of Leaf, our Beer of the Week.

Never ones to shirk away from a flavour combo that sounds like a Masterchef ingredients challenge gone awry, ICIP scooped up a few bottles of this altbeir-style smoked beer from Orbit, a relatively-new entry to the London craft brewing map.

Leaf is a “Rauch Alt”, which took (me) some unpicking. Rauchbier is an old, German beer style, typically smokey (rauch means smoke in German, I learned thanks to this beer) because the young malt is dried over beech wood. Altbier – literally, “old beer” – is a German-style brown ale.

So, label glossed, we were expecting a smokey brown ale – and, man, is that what this beer delivers.

It pours a clean, ember-y red, with a melting, sandy head. Once you get past the woody smoke on the nose, Leaf reveals all sorts of interesting, complex layers – soft cheese, something quite earthy, butterscotch and – yep, garlic.

Taste-wise it manages some impressive special effects; like a sweet out of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory it hits you with toffee caramel – so far, so brown ale – with, I thought, a tang of citrus. But that rolls away to peaty, Islay whisky. Warmed just slightly, it feels afterwards like woodsmoke is billowing around your mouth. It’s almost disconcerting and clings a good minute after you’ve finished, like the morning after a bonfire.

For me, there wasn’t much left behind after the smoke died out. But I’m a tongue-numbed hop addict and my taste-testers disagreed completely, detecting butterscotch-y notes long after I’d chugged another few mouthfuls to recreate the brilliant smoke effect.

Even though it didn’t linger enough for my palate, this is a fun beer from an exciting newish brewery. Orbit works out of a double railway arch in Walworth in south east London (what is it with breweries and arches?); they have a core range of three beers (a kolsch, an altbeir and a pale ale) and some limited edition bottles, of which Leaf is one. I tried Seven, their stout, at Islington Craft this week – it was brilliant – so I suggest stocking up on anything you can lay your hands on.

At a glance

A smouldering brown ale; smokey and complex. Drink alone (I mean without food. You know what I mean) or with chocolate-y puddings, smoked, salty (vegan alternatives to ed.) meat

ABV: 6.2% 

Cost: £2.40 at Green Lane Larder, in north London, which we recently discovered and is absolutely brilliant so please don’t all go there at once and buy all the delicious beer :'(

When is a Guinness not a Guinness?

… when it’s a golden ale?

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We loved the beers that emerged from Guinness’ last Brewers’ Project, historic reinterpretations of a pair of 200-year old porter recipes that transmogrified into a Dublin Porter and a West Indies Porter last September.

So we were excited to hear that, for beer experiment number three, a brewery famous for making a beer so chunky and dark it was practically a health food supplement would come out with a golden ale.

Born in a microbrewery at the Guinness brewery in Dublin, the Golden Ale pours crystal clear and sunset-amber, with an exuberantly cloudy head that did slightly collapse in on itself. There’s a lot of fruit on the nose, which makes its initial dryness even more surprising – this is a malty, biscuity dryness rather than a hoppy one. Speaking as someone whose palate is regularly blown by IIPAs and nuclear saisons, Guinness’ Golden Ale – by virtue of its extreme lightness – tasted to me honeyed and sweetly light, weirdly not unlike the Kolsch I sampled in Cologne recently.

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Spookily, something in this beer did remind me of Guinness’ trademark stout. The Golden Ale is brewed with Guinness yeast, but I doubt I could tell one yeast strain from another if it walked up and gave me its business card, so this association could be down to a: reading the press release a lot and b: obstinately drinking it out of a Guinness glass for kicks. Nevertheless, like many beer drinkers, I have a special place in my heart for Guinness – its Dublin HQ was the first brewery I visited, it was my major source of vitamin intake throughout university – so it was nice to get a heady whiff of something so familiar.

Brewer Peter Simpson said this was intended to be a balanced beer “that would appeal to a broad range of people”. I’d agree with that – at 4.5% abv, I could imagine happily drinking pint after pint of this with a Sunday roast. Ideally outside in a sunny pub garden. But it’s a session, not an event, ale; it’s polite, to hop-bomb pales like Kernel and BrewDog what Guinness’ stout is to a bottled-black hole from Mikkeler.

Renowned for their stout, Guinness was always going to fall foul of the seasons among those drinkers who wouldn’t touch a dark beer after the 30 May. This Pale is a truly respectable shapeshift onto the premium ale market – starkly different (in colour alone) but true to its roots. For a company that’s largely been brewing the same beer for 256 years, that’s not bad going.

At a glance:

Guinness Golden Ale
4.5% abv

Drink: with food, sunshine, reckless abandon; if you’re a fan of other Golden Ales like Fullers’ Honeydew

Available in selected pubs and shops

ICIP was sent two bottles of Guinness Golden Ale to sample

Beer of the Week: Anspach & Hobday “The Stout Porter”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnspach & Hobday, a microbrewery in Bermondsey in south London, taps the vintage vibe of the Victorian brewing quarter where it sits in the shadow of the Shard.

This hefty, tarry stout porter recalls smokey post-industrial brewing – proper porter. It pours full fat milk thick with a light, lasting head.

Like the sort of dark chocolate you buy on a whim in artisan delicatessen, this tastes almost mouth-puckeringly cocoa-y. But it’s balanced by mellow vanilla notes. Pack in some leathery smokey fireplace-y undertones and you’ve got a smashing beer to string out the last few blustery days before the clocks change and we all start drinking pilsner.

Hops: British East Kent Golding & American Cascade

ABV: 8.5% 

Cost: £3.70 at Highbury Vinters

Bite-sized beer breaks – a new series!

Beer was the last thing on my mind when I recklessly decided to undertake a series of £100 weekend citybreaks. It was demoted to the hinterland beneath “where will I sleep?” and “will I be able to walk to and from the airport?”

These citybreaks are an attempt to prove that travel shouldn’t just be for the wealthy. Us penniless, deskbound 9-5ers should be able to break out too. My £100, all I could spare per month, would have to cover everything: flights, transport to and from the airport, accommodation, food, museum admissions… etc. Because anyone can nab cheap flights between Tuesday-Thursday, I decided to make it more difficult: each break must fall within a weekend. I returned from 36 (admittedly boozeless) hours in Gothenburg, Sweden, in late January, with five pence left in my budget. Giddy with success I reckoned that, if I could make it round one of the most expensive cities in Europe with money left over, I could afford the odd delicious half on the next holiday. Particularly when that next holiday was in Cologne. Bitesized beer breaks are super-speedy top tips for drinking on a budget in Europe. For more budget travel tips and stuff to do when you’ve only got a couple of Euro to rub together, see Liz’s columns in The Independent on Sunday (starting in April). Rhinegold Cologne in west Germany is best known in beery circles for kölsch, a phenomenally light speciality lager brewed to very specific requirements laid out by the Köln (Cologne) Brewery Association. According to the Kölsch-Konvention a beer can only be called kölsch if it fulfils strict purity requirements, among which are that it is brewed in the city, has a gravity between between 11 and 14º Plato (4.4%-5.2%), is filtered but slightly hoppy. Kölsch’s history is interlinked with that of its parent city. Just two of Cologne’s 40 breweries survived the Second World War; subsequently it fought off other popular German beers to peak at 370 million liters in 1980. Thirteen breweries in Cologne currently produce kölsch, of which we visited two of the most popular – Gaffel am Dom and Früh. Gaffel am Dom For the full (if admittedly touristy) Kölsch experience, visit Gaffel’s cavernous brewhouse in the shadow of Cologne’s magnificent cathedral (the Dom). If you just want to drink you need to head to the bar on the far side of the restaurant – tables are reserved for dining only, we discovered after about thirty minutes forlornly trying to flag down the phantom-like beer ninjas, or Köbes, who make tall, frosty glasses of the stuff appear next to you every time you finish your drink (unless you cover your glass with your coaster – top tip!). IMG_20150221_173558 The brewery was founded in 1908 by the Becker Brothers and is best known for the top-fermented Gaffel Kölsch still brewed in its cellars. DSC_1005The beer, which comes in at a mere £1.23 per 200ml glass, is crisp, fruity and breathlessly light. Because it is served in such small glasses it is always ice cold, and comes clear, pale yellow with a ghost of a head. Every new glass is recorded on your coaster, which makes this an excellent option for thrifty and thirsty travellers. As long as your maths doesn’t let you down. We got through 12 glasses over the course of one Bundesliga match, which cost us just over 20 Euro. The German guy sharing our space at the bar told us that it doesn’t count as a night out in Cologne unless you get through 22 glasses, but we were happy to chalk this one down as an evening in and have clearer heads for a Sunday morning stroll down the Rhine. FrühCentury-old Früh‘s main brewpub stands a stone’s throw from the cathedral (handily five minutes from Gaffel am Dom, if you’re time-constrained. IMG_20150222_181943Früh is much drier and more crisp than Gaffel’s slightly fruity kölsch, with a more pronounced cereal-malt taste. We stood by tables in the brewpub’s vaulted, medieval entrance and watched the phenomenally efficient workflow that goes into filling every waiter’s “garland” – a round holster – with tall, thin glasses. It pours crystal clear and slightly-straw yellow, like kölsch should. The beer is .10 cents more expensive per glass – 1.80 euro – than at Gaffel. We preferred the latter’s long, noisy beerhalls to Früh’s darker cellars – but if you’ve got time it’s definitely worth the short trek across town to compare the two. A beer tour of Cologne is eminently achievable on a budget. The booze is cheap and delicious and, thanks to the brilliant waiters and ever-updated coaster recording system, you can keep track of your budget. Food in the brewpubs we visited was also reasonable; although on one memorable occasion that was admittedly just a really, really big plate of chips. Best of the rest: If ICIP had time, we’d have liked to try Sion and Peters Brauhaus Try it at home: Thornbridge make a delicious Kölsch-style beer (they have to call it that because of the purity laws) called Tzara. Brewer Rob Lovatt talks through the process of making it in a blogpost for insidebeer.

Next time: Brno, in the Czech Republic

After that: Copenhagen in Denmark. Any tips? Tweet us @icipints or leave a comment

[Edited 26/3/15: Früh’s brewery did not survive the Second World War, as originally suggested in this article]

– ED

Loveable Rogue

It’s a dull, dark night in early January, and ICIP has been lucky enough to be invited to a special dinner at The Bull in Highgate, north London, hosted by American brewery Rogue Ales. Established in Oregon in 1988, Rogue has been one of the frontrunners of the American beer revolution, and their chunky, distinctive bottles are a common sight in fridges in beer-loving bars across London.

This dinner was to mark a visit from their Brewmaster, John Maier, a man with a beard so famous it has its own Twitter account and blog. John has been visiting the UK primarily to brew with our friends at Adnams, and the resulting Brutal IPA is going to be featured in JD Wetherspoon pubs across the country.

Rogue had taken the opportunity to host this multi-course beer and food paired spectacular while John was passing through the capital, and as we duck out of the miserable weather into the cosy confines of The Bull the bar is already buzzing with brewers, beer writers and distributors eager to see what the night has in store.

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Before we commence noshing, we start with an old favourite – Dead Guy Ale, a 6.5% maibock. With a beautiful red tint in the glass, the beer has a powerful malty nose but a hoppy finish courtesy of European Saaz and Perle that really lifts it. We’re off to a great start.

beard_beer1Next up are canapés – sesame prawns with a sweet and sour veggie garnish – accompanied by a glass of Beard Beer (5.5%), a brew with a backstory so crazy, we thought it was a joke until we had it confirmed by John himself. The legend goes that the yeast for this Belgian beer was cultivated in John’s beard. Apparently they snipped a bit off, took it to the lab, and brewed with the resulting strain. John has been growing his beard since 1978, and his yeast has certainly produced a fine vintage (sorry). It packs the classic Belgian aromas you’d expect, bready and rich, and has tart red fruit flavours. It’s a good foil for the sweet and sour Asian flavours as well as providing enough carbonation to cut through the palate-coating sauce.

rogue_farms_chipotle_aleWe take our seats for our starter, which is a fondue made with the very beer we will be enjoying next – Chipotle Ale (5.5%). This amber ale is brewed with jalapeño peppers, which, John tells us, Rogue grow themselves on their farm back in Oregon. Rogue now grow a huge amount of their own produce, and John proudly reels off a list for us – hops, barley, rye, hazelnuts, marionberries – even pumpkins, which he says they slow roast for a week in a pizza oven to caramelise them before they’re used in their Pumpkin Patch Ale. Twenty kilos of smoked chillies are added to each brew of Chipotle Ale, tied up in a bag and added to the kettle during the boil. The result is a beer with a subtly smoky nose, a big punch of maltiness and a well-judged warmth to finish. It blends fabulously with our fondue, adding a depth and richness to the cheese.

rogue_farms_oregasmic_ale2Rogue’s passion for locally-sourced ingredients is made even more apparent with their next offering – OREgasmic Ale (6.5%). This IPA is brewed exclusively using ingredients from Rogue’s home state, Oregon. John tells us that this full-bodied beer uses many hop varieties, all grown by the brewery, and that its strong malt backbone allows them to hop it hard. This, he says, stops it from becoming “so bone dry it crunches your palate”. The beer is paired with confit duck served with a waffle and maple glaze, and it works nicely. There are the familiar punchy pine and citrus notes from the US hops, but it is balanced by a slight caramel sweetness. It managed to walk the tightrope and both cuts through the fatty meat and complements the sweet waffle and glaze.

voodoo_pretzel_raspberry__chocolate1We’re a little alarmed when our hosts present us with bubblegum pink bottles of Voodoo Doughnut Pretzel, Raspberry & Chocolate Ale (5.4%). To call the packaging eye-catching would be an understatement, and as a rule we are not fans of crazily-flavoured beers. The nose doesn’t encourage us – it literally smells of jam doughnuts, and while jam doughnuts are very nice, this is not a doughnut. This is meant to be a beer. John tells us that the base for this beer is the Mocha Porter, and that it is de-hopped before the other eyebrow-raising ingredients are added. This is one of several collaborations with Oregon-based Voodoo Doughnuts, and appropriately it is being served with cinnamon doughnuts and chocolate sauce. Despite our trepidation, the beer holds its own. In the same way that it didn’t smell like beer, it certainly doesn’t taste of doughnuts or pretzels. “They wanted to add stuff like pretzels to the lauter tun,” John remembers, “and I said sure, but you’ll never be able to taste them!”. While he’s right on the baked goods front, the less sweet elements – the bitter cocoa and sharp raspberry – really do come through, and the subtly parching mouthfeel helps cut through the sweet stodginess of our dessert. We’re pleasantly surprised, and have learned yet again not to judge a beer by its bottle.

lAllegroPorterBottleNext up are our petit fours, which once again incorporate the beer they are paired with – Allegro Coffee Porter. This 7.2% Baltic Porter was added to the most delicious peanut butter and chocolate truffles we have ever eaten, and the bitterness of the toasted malt perfectly cuts through the mouth-coatingly rich treats. John tells us that strong cold-infused coffee is used – and you certainly get this both on the nose and on the palate – but there is a sweetness there too, a hint of caramel, or maybe vanilla.

xs_imperial_ipaJust when we thought the night couldn’t get much better, we’re presented with our digestif – a generous glass of XS I²PA – a seriously intense Imperial IPA clocking in at 9.5%. John tells us that this beer was dry hopped with a range of Rogue’s own US hops, which explains both the resin and pine notes and the tang of citrus on the nose. The parching hoppy bitterness you’d expect from the style is well-balanced with an almost caramel flavour from the malt. It is delicious and far too drinkable for the ABV.

Like many other breweries, there is a distinctive signature flavour detectable in all of their beers. While this is often down to the yeast a brewer favours, in this case, I think that the “Rogue” quality is all down to their use of malt, much of it home-grown. Personally, I’m really not a hophead (that’s Liz’s department), and I think what I like about Rogue’s beers so much is that all of the styles, even the hoppiest IPAs, have a strong malt backbone that balances out any excessive punch of citrus or acerbic aftertaste that ensures you can’t drink anything else all evening. I even find myself polishing off my large helping of XS I²PA despite the fact that I usually steer well clear of Imperial IPAs all together.

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Rogue are particularly known for their promotion of beer and food matching, their bottles and website providing the kind of detailed info on IBUs and attenuation you don’t often see, and they make pairing suggestions for all their beers. This is a topic that sparks plenty of discussion on our somewhat international table: we are sitting with both a Dutch and an Italian beer importer. We go on to chat at length about beer’s perceived lack of sophistication when compared to wine, why this has come about, and how this misconception can be challenged. We talk about beer’s current image, both in the UK and abroad, and how men – and women – have played a part in its history, and can change its future. It is always a pleasure to have the opportunity to socialise within the beer community, and it was particularly interesting to speak with colleagues from overseas to get a different perspective on the beer world.

We had an incredible evening – great food, top notch beer, fabulous company, and, best of all, the chance to shake hands with a true giant of the American craft beer movement.

Big thanks to Mitch and the team at The Bull, and to John, Gary and the rest of the guys at Rogue.

– PS

Christmas cheer, mistletoe and beer

2014 has shot by in a blur and unbelievably, Christmas is almost upon us once again. For us that has meant digging out the box of decorations from under the spare room bed, an almost military-scale operation of trying to plan how we are going to visit all of the family over the holiday and me considering taking out shares in the companies who make cinnamon and ground ginger. It has begun.

What we undoubtedly all need to dissipate the stress of all that shopping, baking, wrapping, cooking, planning and decorating is a nice drink. Christmas tends to be a bit of a boozy free-for-all, with a lot of the drinks usually forgotten at the back of the cabinet making an appearance – when else do you fancy a sherry mid-afternoon?! But somewhere between the champagne over breakfast and the port with your cheese in the evening as you duel over the Monopoly board, beer sometimes gets edged out of the picture.

This is a shame, because there are a huge number of breweries producing seasonal festive beers, many of which would go nicely with your Christmas pudding or a nice chunk of sharp cheddar. ICIP took it upon ourselves to sample a few of these Christmas tipples to give you some ideas.

DSC_0013Fyne Ales – “Nice” (5.2%) and “Naughty” (5.2%)
It was great to see Fyne Ales trying something a little bit different to the usual porters, stouts and barley wines on offer at this time of year, and their white IPA and black ale offer two very different drinking experiences.

We know we’re all beer geeks together here, but for the uninitiated – white IPAs are basically the lovechild of an IPA and a Belgian wit, using a wheat base and sometimes spicing. Nice poured with a light, frothy head and had a crisp, light, lemony nose with an underlying earthy hoppiness. It had an astringent mouthfeel with grapefruit and lemon peel notes (turns out it is brewed with fresh citrus peel, so no surprise there), and has a lingering bitterness which will be thanks to its smack of US hops including Citra, Galaxy and Summit. Interestingly, Mr Pip commented he was picking up an almost pilsner-like flavour, and after some research we discovered that the NZ hop Motueka, which is used in Nice, has Saaz parentage. Not just a pretty face!

On the other end of the spectrum, Naughty poured jet black with a light latte-coloured head. We got a red berry nose, which combined both the sweetness and sourness of fruits like redcurrants, and we also picked up a chocolate note. It was highly carbonated and initially had quite a dry, parching mouthfeel, a real charred punch of all the toasted malts – no less than eight different varieties were used, including black and chocolate malt. There was also a hoppy kick from the Centennial, but this gave way to a smooth chocolatey finish and sweet berry notes to match the aroma. Whilst trying to describe the flavour, Mr Pip started talking about the charred roasted peppers we had for dinner the previous evening. I had started to mock him until we discovered that Naughty has been spiked with ancho chillies. I conceded the rest of the bottle to him after that, as it turns out that anchos are known for having fruity flavour characteristics.  I’d better watch out, or he’ll have me out of a job.

DSC_0066“Holly Daze” (5%)
Fyne Ales call their seasonal dark amber ale, Holly Daze, “the antidote to Christmas”, making a point of not using any festive spicing, but instead focusing on producing “a refreshing beer to clear the palate”.  It pours deep amber with a frothy head and has a malty aroma, with a light stone fruit note and slight caramel sweetness at the back. The flavour is initially quite rich and bready but gives way to a grassy hop bitterness and a clean finish.

DSC_0059Ilkley – Mary Christmas (4.7%)
This blonde ale poured golden with a light frothy head. We got a whiff of nutmeg and cloves on the nose as well as orange peel and some bready, malty notes – a kind of marmalade on toast scenario. It had a relatively high carbonation and a rounded flavour that left a lingering citrus peel bitterness. We also picked up the festive spices again which warmed the back of the throat and also got a hint of tropical fruit, no doubt from the Australian hops used. This married well with the Caribbean rum Ilkley brewed with – a perfect pairing. Light and clean, this was a good foil to the heavier stouts and porters we tried later on.

DSC_0025By The Horns – Jolly’s Revenge (5.5%) 
This poured jet black with a creamy head, and had a complex aroma. We got coffee and caramel, and a hard-to-pin-down spiciness that reminded us of rye bread. There was also a sweetness which was reminiscent of a milk stout. It was bitter on the palate with a charred, toasted malt flavour and a quite a parching, dry mouthfeel which was no doubt the result of the addition of some US hops.

DSC_0031Hogs Back – Advent Ale (4.4%)
This ale poured with a thin head, and had an aroma of red fruit and berries which came across as quite tart – almost like cranberries or raspberries. It had a soft mouthfeel with very light carbonation and tasted quite tangy with a slight sourness that was faintly reminiscent of a fruity lambic. It had a dry finish which gave through to a liquorice sweetness, and perhaps a metallic, molasses note too. We were really impressed by Advent Ale and think this could well be the beer we stick with for most of the big day.

DSC_0035Bath Ales – Festivity (5%)
This poured thick and dark, and had a hint of ruby-red in the glass. We got a hit of rum and raisin on the nose, and also hints of caramel, biscuit and vanilla. It had a drying mouthfeel with a bitter cocoa/chocolately note giving way to charred coffee, courtesy of that roasted choc malt, but the bitterness doesn’t linger. There is a vanilla sweetness right at the finish, too. One of our favourites.

DSC_0038St Peter’s – Christmas Ale (7%)
This poured deep amber and unlike a lot of the other festive beers which went in for richer, festive flavours, this had peachy, apricot and even grape notes on the nose. There was a definite estery element there too which translated into a marzipan/cherry pit flavour when we tasted it. It had quite a creamy, smooth mouthfeel and a sharp, herbal hoppy bitterness which almost went through to medicinal towards the end.

DSC_0057Wychwood – Bah Humbug (6%)
This poured without much of a head but had an attractive burnished copper colour when held up to the light. The aroma was unmistakably of British hops – grassy and peppery, with a sour twang – with a slight spicy sweetness at the back and a breadiness from the Maris Otter malt. When we tasted it, it had quite a thin mouthfeel with high carbonation. Initially we got bitter and herbal notes which were almost citrussy or lemony, which gave way to a slight cinnamony warmth towards the finish.

harveyHarvey’s Christmas Ale (7.5%)
We’ve hit barley wine territory – this is serious, after dinner cheeseboard stuff. Harvey’s Christmas Ale poured an incredible tawny colour without a head, clear with a deep reddish hue. We got dried fruit on the nose with a hint of boozy Christmassy spirits such as brandy or rum. It had a smooth, almost oily mouthfeel with a slight, clean carbonation at the finish, and was surprisingly sweet – a treacly, iron-like tang. Despite being very rich it gave away to a dry, parching finish and a lingering bitterness which offset that heaviness. Definitely one for an after-dinner snifter.

DSC_0064Adnams – Tally Ho Ho Ho (7.2%)
Described on the bottle as “an unashamedly strong winter warmer”, we approached this one with caution. It poured deep ruby – an absolutely gorgeous colour – and had a strong aroma of tart green apples and pear drops, with a hint of raisin. The flavour is rich boozy fruitcake with a grassy hop bitterness to counterbalance the sweetness of molasses and liquorice. Smooth, velvety mouthfeel with quite a high carbonation – possibly the result of this batch being bottle conditioned with live yeast. We also loved the label, which trades the usual Tally-Ho horse and rider for Santa and Rudolph. A class act.

DSC_0060Brouwerij d’Achouffe – N’Ice Chouffe (10%)
What comes after the after-dinner snifters? A nightcap, perhaps? We’re bringing out the big guns – it wouldn’t be Christmas without some face-meltingly strong Belgian stuff. N’Ice Chouffe poured a chestnutty brown with reddish hue and a creamy head. You get dried fruit and caramel on the nose and perhaps an estery, bubblegummy note at the back. It is highly carbonated with an almost chewy mouthfeel, and has the distinctive Belgian yeast flavour profile; it is rich and boozy, with a balancing sweetness which may be the caramel character of the malt. Has a fresh, clean finish.

DSC_0068Brouwerij Huyghe – Delirium Christmas (10%)
This poured deep amber with a reddish tinge and only a thin head. We got raspberry, cherry and almond on the nose along with a punch of bubblegum and banana ester notes – all very sweet scents. It had quite a high carbonation and, initially, a silky mouthfeel which gave way to a dry finish, although curiously there was no hoppy flavour behind this. It left quite a medicinal, herbal, almost sour taste in the mouth, but this was not unpleasant, and it balanced well with the rich, Belgian yeast and marzipan flavours.

We were hugely impressed by the sheer range of festive beers out there – there is certainly something to cater for everyone’s tastes, whether you like your high-percentage barley wines, spicy porters or even lighter beers. We’d love to hear what you’re planning to crack open over Christmas – do let us know, either in the comments, on Twitter or on Facebook.

We’d like to take this opportunity to wish all our readers a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. Have a fantastic holiday, and here’s to a healthy, happy 2015 to all of you. Cheers!

– PS

Full disclosure – some of these beers were sent to us as samples, others we bought for ourselves.