Category Archives: Festivals/Events

ICIP revs up for GBBF 2014

It doesn’t seem possible that it’s almost time for another CAMRA Great British Beer Festival. Last year’s event marked our first foray into the murky world of beer blogging, and we kicked off the ICIP project with an investigation into where women fitted into this real ale lark, and what women at the festival thought about beer.

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GBBF 2013

This year, returning as a seasoned Beer Blogger (my press pass says so and everything), I’ll be hitting up the trade session. The massive benefit of this is that ALL the beers will be available and nothing will have run out (until at least halfway through said trade session, I imagine). With this in mind, I’ve been perusing the beer list with quite some excitement.

Young's LogI’m having a bit of a real ale love-in right now. This was partly borne out of necessity – living on the fringes of south London, us Wimbledon-ites are somewhat excluded from the craft beer boom that seems to be invading the rest of the capital. We have the great By The Horns half a mile away, and The Antelope over in Tooting, but beyond that, there’s not much craftiness about. What we have in abundance, however, are Young’s pubs.

While we can occasionally hunt down an offering from the likes of Meantime or even Rocky Head at these pubs, generally it’s traditional ale all the way, often Wells and Young’s own brews. These tend to be the classics – Young’s Bitter (3.7%), Special (4.5%), London Gold (4%).

Maybe it was the effect of sitting on the edge of Wimbledon Common in the sun on a lazy Sunday at the Crooked Billet. Maybe I had been to too many craft beer bars and festivals and drunk one too many kegged 7% hoppy IPAs. But I started to remember how much I enjoyed lower ABV ales. I started to feel a twinge of disappointment if I walked into a pub dominated by keg lines. I even passed over keg and opted for Orchard Pig cider if I spotted it on occasion.

With a newfound passion for real ale, it appears that GBBF couldn’t come at a better time for me.

the_great_british_beer_festival_2014The beer list this year is dizzying, with over 900 ales, ciders and perries. As well as a healthy list of British offerings, there are also beers from countries as diverse as Japan, Sweden, Sri Lanka, not to mention the inevitable swathe of American, German and Czech brews (many of which will be kegged or bottled).

When presented with such a huge array of options at a festival, there is always the temptation to go for beers with unusual tasting notes and breweries you haven’t heard of. Sometimes this can end in disaster, but often you can find some real gems (the downside being that it may not be until the following year that you encounter the brewery again if they’re not local).

There’s the added pressure, as the event runs on, of estimating your beer saturation limit. How many tasters and halves can you get through without falling over? I remember an ex-colleague going to the 2010 GBBF and boasting he got through 38 halves (this figure is unsubstantiated), but that’s sadly not an option for little old me. Is it worth passing up on that tantalising half of Thornbridge Jaipur so you can try the potentially dodgy beer from Lincolnshire which proports to have a toffee-pumpkin-mocha-oak chip-cobwebby horse blanket aroma? And how will you live with yourself if you don’t try it to find out?! That’s not to mention the ciders and perries – often neglected in favour of the beers.

1150547_1389865414573752_639728861_oSkimming the list, I have to admit to being ignorant of the vast majority of the breweries represented. The odd name leaps out- Fyne Ales, Brewsters, Camerons – along with the big daddies such as Fullers and Greene King. But for the most part, I’ll be flying blind, with only the programme tasting notes to guide me.

I’m sure that after a few halves I’ll inevitably do something stupid (there’s a Black Cherry Mild* – that could very well be it). But, sometimes, that feels like it’s all part of the adventure of exploring new beers. It’s about learning what you like, what you don’t like, and having a bloody good time.

-PS

*I have just looked this up and have seen that it’s won bucketloads of awards. So maybe I should be less judgemental about my hypothetical inebriated beer choices.

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Summer Brew Fest 2014

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There are more breweries in London these days than there are terrifying statue-mimes in Covent Garden. Statistically speaking, if you’re not busily home-brewing your own smoky tribute to the Capital’s gaslit past, your neighbours, Tube driver, takeaway delivery lady or Evening Standard pusher probably is.

DSC_0010So it made sense to get everyone together in a car park in London Fields (where else?) and condense London’s micro-brewing macrocosm into … er … a microcosm again. Arranged in a circle around Space Studios, right next door to London Fields Brewery‘s own brewery tap, the first inaugural Summer Brew Fest – which showcased London brewers – epitomised the city’s drinking scene: super-friendly, more street food than you could fit into a cul-de-sac, and on the staggering side of pricey. Full disclosure – ICIP didn’t pay for two of our three tickets, which cost £30 each + booking fee for an afternoon session and included 15 beer tokens (at a third each, that’s roughly five pints).

Half-price, seven-token entry set you back £15, while on the day legend had it you could grab a ticket for a tenner, which included three beer tokens. Now, even in London ten pounds is a lot to spend on a pint, and thirty pounds is steep for an afternoon’s drinking, particularly when other venues (Craft, for example, was holding a birthday party in Clerkenwell) were hosting free gigs just round the corner.

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But to Summer Brew Fest’s credit this was one of the very few times that the all-inclusive label stuck. ICIP’s trio of drinkers couldn’t get through all 45 of our beer tokens and – as regular readers will be aware – we’re extremely good at getting through beer tokens. From a punter’s POV this was an extremely well-run festival: our nicely branded third-glass literally overfloweth(ed) with tokens; there was an attractive beer list with tasting notes and some genuinely handy guidance for beer-tasting; there were kegs of water in the middle of the beer circuit where you could rinse your glass between sessions. Crucially, of course, there was beer, brought together from across the 32 (thanks, Google!) boroughs of London.

DSC_0015We ran straight into our friends from Bear Hug Brewing – who we met for the first time at Craft Beer Rising, when they – and their beer – were literally just days old. Coincidentally we had the inside skinny on their social calendar because North London is a small place and everyone goes to the same parties, so managed to wheedle our way into trying their delicious Spirit Pale Ale (5.2%) as well as revisiting their lovely Hibernation White IPA (5.6%).

DSC_0030A shuffle to the left and a conceptual bound over the river we discovered newbies Hammerton Brewery who, it turns out, brew a stone’s throw from Liz in Islington, not that she’d throw stones at a nice brewery. Their Islington Lager (4.7%) – light and hoppy – managed to very briefly turn her away from the double IPAs on offer, while N7 (5.2%) – their light, session-able pale ale made a great summer drink.

As ICIP casually drank our way around London without risk of getting stuck on the Northern line, experts from London Field’s homebrew course ran live masterclasses in brewing from a stand on the periphery of the beer circle. ICIP didn’t attend because we had a job to do, viz, try all the beers, and we know all about brewing thanks to Adnams, but from the excitable crowd it sounded like these innovative “Beer Geek” sessions provided added bang for your buck.

DSC_0054It was great to see some breweries from south of the river, an area taking its time to catch up with the beer boom in the north east of London. Onwards, then, to Rocky Head Brewery, who brew in Southfields, whose delicious blonde pale ale Zen was a real find – called Zen because it sits perfectly in the middle of their range, it packed more of a punch than its 4.8% per cent suggested.

DSC_0049It is always a pleasure to catch up with Pip and Mr Pip’s local brewery, By The Horns, based in Tooting. They were showcasing their kegged Hopslinger IPA (5.9%) as well as touting some tantalising bottles of a couple of their new brews – Bastard Brag Black IPA (7.4%) and Sour to the People (4.8%).

Pip, suffering from IPA fatigue, made a beeline to Hackney Brewery‘s retro stand, complete with ceramic pump handles, for a glug of their outstanding Best Bitter (4.4%). Liz, meanwhile, found her beer of the festival in their Mosaic TNT (4.4%), a great showcase for a great hop.

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Via a much-needed darker beer from pizza-masters Crate, ICIP finally moved onto the ciders, to which we are quickly becoming converted. Throwing caution to the wind we fell upon Thistly Cross and tried their Ginger Cider (4%), Elderflower Cider (4%), Original Cider (7.2%!) and the jaw-droppingly jam-laden Strawberry Cider (4%), which is made with more fresh strawberries than our overnight oats (ICIP: as on-trend with our breakfasts as we are with our beer).

London, you did great. We came away from the festival proud that there are more breweries in stumbling distance of our respective lairs than there are Tesco Metros. The absence of some of London’s really big hitters – Kernel, say, and Beavertown, who really could have fallen straight into the festival if they headed the right way from Duke’s Brew and Que – gave some smaller brewers a chance to shine. But we were faced with the perennial London issue: at what point will our city become saturated with hop-bomb IPAs? Competition is a good thing – it means that creative brewers can come out with Cucumber and Juniper Saison, for example – but it also means that beer drinkers like Pip eventually get to the point in beer festivals when they swear blind that if they see one more IPA they’re going to look as mournful as this mournful-looking dog.

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Then there’s the cost. With beer festival tickets now hitting 90s-era Glastonbury prices (the upcoming London Craft Beer Festival will set you back £35 and GBBF is £26 for the whole festival), will there come a point when punters decide they could just as easily have a nice sit down in one of London’s great craft pubs or spend a day out at a brewery tap, instead of tying themselves into a boozey half-marathon, a race against time to neck as many thirds as possible before being turfed out for the evening session?

Summer Brew Fest solved this conundrum by being winningly friendly and unashamedly geeky, bringing together beer-lovers from both sides of the bar. ICIP, towards the end of our visit, had to plead with the breweries’ uber-keen beer evangelists not to fill our glasses to overflowing, lest we plummeted into the dregs buckets before we make it to the novelty Indian snacks van. The homebrew courses were a great addition. We came away, yes, with tastebuds joyously subdued by hops and the gently giddiness of women who’ve spent happy hours drinking 7% grog, but also with the sense that London, its myriad brewers, landlords, bloggers and other vested interests, has to figure out how to balance its alcoholic ecosystem before it collapses in on itself, and all that’s left is some delicious-tasting foam.

Check out more of our pics from the event on our Facebook page.

-ED

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ICIP’s thirst birthday

It barely seems possible that it’s been almost a whole year since we began our foray into the world of beer blogging.

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ICIP at GBBF, August 2013

Since last August, things have exploded. We’ve clambered into beer cellars. We’ve visited breweries, pubs and two hop farms. We have interviewed no less than three beer sommeliers. We brewed our very own IPA (thanks, Adnams!). We got 500 followers on Twitter and met innumerable fab beery people. We baked with beer, ate beer ice cream and read books about beer. We even found the time to drink some beer, would you believe.

We felt that this auspicious occasion deserved some kind of celebration. And we want you, dear readers, to join us.

On Friday 15th August at around 1900 we will be descending on the best pub in London, The Queen’s Head. We’re working with the landlord to line up some of our favourite beers from over the last year to share with you all – details to follow nearer the time!

We’ve got a Facebook event up and you can also keep an eye on our Facebook and Twitter pages.

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The (other) EU election

Have you ever tried every single beer at a beer festival?

Have you ever tried every single beer at a beer festival and then voted coherently?

Have you ever tried every single beer at a beer festival, voted coherently, tried to go to Jamaica, then watched Jurassic Park, in its entirety, twice?

Earlier this month ICIP and our guest reporter, the outstanding Miranda Heneghan, did.

Now, before you get outraged and blame us for Nigel Farage’s recent smugfest, I should clarify that our voting took place within the safe confines of the British Craft Beer Challenge, five summer days that take the beer festival and shake it up with shots of patriotism.

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Spread over five rounds at London Field’s Brewhouse in Hackney, east London, each date pits the best of British craft beer against the best of the rest – Europe, the USA and the Commonwealth. Punters are issued a frighteningly authentic ballot slip (or ballot slips, in one case of BLATANT ELECTORAL FRAUD that we uncovered using our journalistic skills and the power of drunk) and given the chance to vote for the best GB, best “other” and best overall.

Back in May, GB’s North took on the South with a beer menu that’ll make you prouder than toasting England into the final sixteen (says me on Paddy Power), with Magic Rock’s storming Inhuman Canonball claiming it for the Northerners. Still to look forward to are GB vs the USA on 5 July; GB vs the Commonwealth on 9 August and what promises to be a very Grand Finale on 13 September.

Round two – GB vs Europe on 31 May – couldn’t have picked a better news cycle. Anti-Europe party UKIP’s extraordinary victory in the local elections dominated the Saturday papers the very morning that ICIP stuffed ourselves with porridge (the afternoon drinker’s friend) and ambled over to London Field’s Brewhouse, menu in hand. Caught up in a drunken electoral flashback, would be able to stop ourselves scrawling “ANYONE BUT UKIP” on our ballot papers?

ICIP had made a list of the beers we wanted to try, and ICIP never remembers to make a list, so we were disappointed to discover on arrival that a mistake at the printers led to the distribution of the wrong beer list. Nothing kills your buzz at a brewery like discovering the beers you were most excited about aren’t putting in an appearance, particularly when you deliberately arrive at the start to stop this from happening and, in so doing, MISS THE END OF SATURDAY KITCHEN OMFG.

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But life goes on, and the brewhouse’s chalkboard reassured us that the beers that were available more than justified our missing The Omelette Challenge just this once. We put our feet up on a sunny bench in the yard (London Fields regulars will know what a treat that was) a mere forward-plummet from where staff were honing their made-to-order pizza skills, and opted for thirds (look, mum! Forward-planning!) of Italian beer to start.

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What a mistake.

One mouthful of Toccalmato’s delicious Zona Cesarini, a 6.6 per cent Pale Ale, and we wondered if we might as well pack up and go home. ICIP hit hop heaven with this mix of Japanese, American, Australian and New Zealand varieties, every bit as fruity and floral as you’d expect in a beer exploding with passionfruit, banana and marzipan.

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Brewfist’s Spaceman (7%) revealed more of what the Italians can do, with a mango-y IPA layered with bitter grapefruit. Italian craft beer is really superb at the moment – ICIP has very fond memories of discovering it for the first time in Rome bar Ma Che Siete Venuti A Fà– and the Challenge’s selection showed that off. Birra del Borgo’s Reale Extra Double IPA was also outstanding – Christmas-rich with sweet fruits that reminded ICIP of Chewits (really!)

More punters trickled in – still quite a gentle crowd for a joint we normally associate with jam-packed summer Saturdays sweated out to gypsy-swing in one of the brewhouse’s inside bars – and a band struck up. We ate some freshly-made pizzas and wondered why half of Hackney hadn’t shown up.

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We were having such a good time we decided to do what any good beer writer would do in that situation: try every beer at the festival. It’s what would annoy Farage the most, we agreed. So, while we could still write/read/see, we made a plan, and set to it.

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A victim of the mysterious printing accident, we rattled through Germany’s, um, one offering: Paulaner’s Dunkel, a dark wheat beer, which while clean and hazelnut-y felt thin after the Italian flavour-bombs. Fast on to Denmark, then, which regular readers will know Is an ICIP favourite, and offerings from Denmark’s Mikkeller and Tool breweries.

“My tasting notes said ‘nooooooooo’,” of their lambic gueuze collab, Betelgeuze, London Field’s barman tells us. But we rather liked it – Miranda picked out tamarind in the 5.5 per cent brew (tamarind! she can come again!) while Liz settled on sour cherry. It was a good beer to punctuate the super-hopped thirds we had gravitated towards, of which Mikkeler’s Green Gold was a fine example but Tool’s Reparationsbajer left something to be desired.

Team GB fell violently foul of the mysterious printing error, leaving us with a handful of the expected offerings from Arbor, HarbourBrewdog and London Fields themselves – and some notable omissions (where were you, Kernel? Beaverton? Brew by Numbers?). Playing at home, LF triumphed with their new summer brew, a 5 per cent white IPA called Three Weiss Monkeys, which was full-bodied, creamy and banana-y with tasty white chocolate notes, while Arbor’s Double Black IPA shone with coffee, liquorice, pepper and burnt chocolate.

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With the reckless abandon of footballers in the 93rd minute (OH YES I DID) ICIP finished the afternoon with the two strongest beers on offer, which was clearly an excellent idea. Boozey, thick and toffee-y, Brewdog’s 10.5% Barley Wine, Shipwrecker Circus, did for Liz in a blaze of glory; while Miranda took on Belgium’s 9% D’Achouffe IPA, by Houblon Chouffe, and won. There are, as you might expect, very few tasting notes for this last pair that make any sense at all.

The Indian state of Kerala (bear with me) prohibits the sale or consumption of alcohol on election days, as Liz discovered to her immense annoyance while there recently. ICIP can now exclusively confirm that this is entirely unnecessary, for after a mere three goes we be-drunkenly managed to successfully cast our ballot. Science!

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Triumphant and commemorative beer glasses held high, ICIP strolled urbanely home to enjoy a nutritious and home-cooked dinner. The end.

Alternative ending: this happened…

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Then this happened …

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Then we ordered £50-worth of Indian takeaway and watched Jurassic Park twice from beginning to end and passed out. That’s chaos theory.

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We stayed glued to the Challenge’s Facebook page until the results were revealed (sadly, minus a Dimbleby and LSD-esque electoral visualisation WE LOVE YOU BBC ELECTION COVERAGE). Brewfist, quite rightly, won for Team Europe with a delicious Grape IPA brewed with Denmark’s Tool,and London Fields stormed to victory for Team GB with Three Weiss Monkeys. There were two winners overall: Tool’s Hibernate – a toasty wheat beer that tasted a bit like honeydew – and, that home advantage again, London Fields.

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The Brewhouse wasn’t packed the whole time we were there (from noon until about who-knows-but-from-Facebook-we-can-tell-it-was-still-light-o’clock), which is a mystery to us. Without a doubt, and with printing errors factored in, the Challenge showcased some outstanding beers in a fun new format. And we should know, because we tried all of them. Put the last few rounds in your calendar right now; exercise your democratic right to be snobby about beer; and make sure you arrive early. But please leave us the sunny bench.

– ED

Green fingers in Greenwich – Meantime establishes hop farm on the meridian

When someone says “hop farm”, it conjures up a certain mental image. Since our trip to the rolling green fields of Worcestershire to visit Stocks Farm in April, we think of acres of posts and wirework stretching away seemingly into infinity while birds chirp in the hedgerows and the Malverns loom in the distance. We do not think of the sound of a construction site, graffiti and the porcupine-like spectre of the O2.

London brewers Meantime have set out to change that.

DSC_0778ICIP has come to the launch event for the new Meantime hop farm, situated on the Greenwich Peninsula. The site is opposite Canary Wharf, behind the O2, and quite literally right on the Meridian Line – a green wooden plank running straight through the planters marks it out. As locations go, it’s pretty iconic.

DSC_0766This new venture has been developed since the success of Meantime’s “Hops in a Box” project last year, which cumulated in the production of 1,000 bottles of Hop City Porter – a beer made with hops grown across London. This year they’ve taken it a step further by setting up the first permanent hop farm in London for over 100 years.

“London is an exciting place to be a brewer right now. The variety of ingredients at our disposal is huge and it allows us to pack flavour into our beer,” says Rich Myers, Marketing Director at Meantime. “I hope that our hop farm will make more of the public aware of that fact. The beer we will create is about championing our Capital’s rich brewing heritage.”

The baby hops aren’t visible right now, buried somewhere under a sea of cheery marigolds, but we’re reliably informed that there are 48 plants growing on the plot. Keeping with the traditional English vibe, they are all Fuggles.

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“As soon as I saw the site, I knew I wanted to be involved,” says Kate Lonergan, Director at Blacheath Windowbox, the landscape company responsible for creating the hop farm. “I immediately saw the theatrical potential. I wanted to make it an installation, a beacon – a fun moment on The Thames path which had it’s own integrity and connection with it’s surroundings. I suppose I saw the possibilities, not the negatives.”

Despite Kate’s enthusiasm, there were some significant challenges to overcome. Firstly, she had never worked with hops before. “I contacted a number of hop specialists to chat about it,” she said. “Luckily hops are perennials and I work with them all the time!” Working alongside the Essentially Hops company from Kent, Kate’s team were able to set up the posts based on a commercial hop pole configuration, on a slightly smaller scale. They were also able to source authentic coir (natural fibre from coconut husks) and hop pegs.

DSC_0774The next challenge was the location. There’s a very good reason that the banks of the Thames are not already teeming with hop farms. “I knew we would have problems with wind due to the site’s proximity to the river, and the massive turbine at the O2 creates a wind vortex,” she explains. “So I suggested the triangular formation so the hops could protect themselves a bit, casting shadow and providing a wind break. I have had water support installed through root refreshers which kick in only when the plants are under stress through lack of surface water.”

The plants will need to be trained clockwise around the strings as they grow and carefully tended over the coming months. Meantime are hoping to harvest around 9lbs of hop buds from the site – enough for a 10 hectolitre batch of beer to be brewed this coming autumn.

Despite all the practical considerations of how to best grow the hops here on the Peninsula, Meantime have also worked hard on the look and feel of the site, to establish this as an “urban oasis”. Keeping a modern, urban vibe, the planters have been decorated with graffiti by the street artist Xenz. Kate says that the brewery weren’t sure about this idea at first, but that everyone has been delighted with the results. “I was so pleased Xenz included bees and butterflies in his design; the site is full of the critters thanks to the marigolds we planted and also the wild blackberries, hollyhocks and poppies growing around here. The marigolds should also hopefully deter pests!”

Nick Miller, Meantime's CEO

Nick Miller, Meantime’s CEO

Builders are hard at work just a few metres away, and it is clear that this is an early addition to what will be a huge regeneration in this area of Greenwich. “We owe a big thank you to Knight Dragon [company investing in the development], who we work with closely on the Peninsula,” says Nick Miller, Meantime’s CEO. “They work very closely with the community in Greenwich; we are the benefactors of that and we are extremely grateful for all their support.”

For the launch party, the brewery have rolled out the “Half Pint” – a van doubling as a portable bar – and have a BBQ on the go while drinkers sit on hay bales. They are serving up their latest brew, Californian Pale Ale (5.5%), a beer which takes its inspiration from American pale ales while still paying homage to the British styles which in turn influenced these US beers. It is made with both Slovenian Celeila and American Crystal hops, giving it a fruity and fresh nose, and uses East Anglian malt, which lends it a subtle sweet lift to balance the bitterness. The beer is delicious – light and fresh enough for a refreshing summer pint, but with enough flavour and complexity to satisfy our beer geekiness.

DSC_0776As the sun begins to sink behind the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf and the beer continues to flow, it is impossible not to be infected by Meantime’s obvious passion for their latest project. They are clearly hugely proud of their London roots and by their connection to Greenwich.

“This is probably the only hop farm directly on the Meridian,” says Nick. “We’re very proud of that. Our name is Meantime, and we are growing one of the most important raw materials of our beer on the meantime.”

ICIP is hoping to return to the hop farm to report on its progress, but in the meantime (!), you can visit Meantime’s Facebook page to see how the hops are getting on. You can also follow the progress of other keen hop growers across London on the #hopsinabox hashtag on Twitter.

DSC_0761– PS

 

Unite Pale Ale, and unification indeed

Unable to attend the launch of a special beer brewed for International Women’s Collaboration Brew Day due to a trip to India (D) and a trip to a hop farm (Pip), ICIP knew it couldn’t let this event go by undocumented. So we asked roving reporter Sharona for the lowdown on what we missed…

When ICIP asked if I could write about the launch of Unite Pale Ale at Wild Card Brewery on April 26th, I was reluctant. I mean, I’m not a beer writer. I’m not ANY kind of writer. My tasting notes at the end of any drink-fuelled day tend to be beer names hastily and illegibly scrawled, supplemented with smiley faces and A++++’s in direct proportion to my intake. And these ICIP girls, WELL. They know their stuff. They’re actual JOURNALISTS. They can QUOTE people. ACCURATELY*.

But if there’s one thing I love, it’s a good party. And that Saturday afternoon, Wild Card’s event did not disappoint. Full of wine, women, and song (read: beer, women, and BBQ), there was nothing not to love.

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International Women’s Collaboration Brew Day (IWCB) came about as the brain child of Sophie De Ronde of Brentwood Brewing Company, who I think we can all agree is one of the most crush-worthy** women in the beer industry. Brewed on International Women’s Day (March 8th), Unite Pale Ale is the collective work of brewsters from all over the world, including Britain, the US, Australia, Canada, Ireland, and New Zealand. Project Venus and the Pink Boots Society were an essential part of the effort.

The beer had some parameters (4% ABV pale ale made with Cascade hops), but the rest was left to the brewsters’ creativity. “We went mad with ours,” says Britain’s Beer Sommelier of the Year, Jane Peyton, who was brewing with Brentwood. “There wasn’t a thing left but the kitchen sink by the time we were done. In fact, that may have gone in, too.”*

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Not pictured: kitchen sink.

The three Unite Pale Ales being poured at the April 26th launch party were Brentwood’s Unite Pale Ale, brewed with Sara Carter (Triple FFF), Jaega Wise (Wildcard), Susanna Forbes (Drink Britain), Jane Peyton (School of Booze), Cassandra Orford (Fuller’s), Helen Wardle (Ales by Mail), and friends Victoria Leyshon and Samantha Warner. Gadds’ Unite Pale Ale was brewed by Sue Fisher with Allegra Copps (SEB), Angela Malloy, Rebecca Lee, and Helen Watkins. Brewsters‘ special blend was made by owner, brewer, and girl-about-town Sara Barton and Kathy Brittan of Oldershaw. To cap the day, a USA Unite Pale Ale was sent by Kristi Griner of Capitol City, “brewed by a dozen area beer goddesses, homebrewers, and professionals.”***

It just couldn’t get better. And as the sun began to set on that special day, golden light filtering through the trees of the park as we all talked and laughed in the good humour that can only come about as the result of like-minded camaraderie and lots of alcohol, Sophie swirled the liquid amber in her pint glass and said aloud what we had all been thinking: “This – this right here – is a job well done.”*

IMG_2853And it was.

*Any quotes in this particular article are entirely made up. 

**Because she’s brilliant and I have a crush on her.

***An accurate quote! An accurate quote! 

– SS

Hopping into Spring: an afternoon at the Nicholson’s Spring Ale Festival

Spring is in the air! Somewhere, no doubt, adorable lambs are gamboling through drifts of cherry blossom as fuzzy chicks escape their chocolate eggs and frolic among daffodils.

ICIP wouldn’t know, because we live in central London, where the turn of the seasons is celebrated in the time-honoured way… with a seasonal beer festival. Forget daylight savings: here we know that winter is [not] coming because the stouts disappear and you can’t move for wheat beer. Our buddies at Nicholson’s Pubs dropped us a copy of the menu for their Spring Ale Festival (which runs Monday 24th March to Saturday 19th April) so, using the mad skills we honed at Craft Beer Rising, ICIP charted a well-balanced, open-minded course through the ales on offer.

coleholeAlas, the best laid plans of beer bloggers seldom work out. By the time we arrived at The Coal Hole on The Strand for a run-through with its manager Annie Power, a number of beers had sold out, just two weeks into the festival. These included Loch Ness‘s Hoppyness, Revolutions‘ Clash London Porter, Adnams‘ Mosaic Pale, Itchen Valley‘s Blackcurrant Mild, Adnams & Camden collab South Town and Butcombe‘s Haka. Spring ales, Annie confirmed, are going down a storm. “IPAs are doing very well,” she told us. “People working in the City tweet us to say: ‘I’ll be there by five, I hope there’s some left!’”

And no wonder they’re selling out: you can score money off beer instantly (is there any better sentence in the English language?) by joining Nicholson’s Hop Circle IN THE PUB ITSELF, by scanning one of the many QR codes (those big square barcodes that you wave your phone at like you’re in The Matrix) around the bar. Luckily for us there is plenty left to taste, and we trust Annie to take us off-piste.

stonehengeWe start with a glass of Inveralmond‘s Ossian, a delicious, spring-tastic IPA. Rich and full, the well-rounded Fuggles balanced out other hops. The lovely Ossian nearly went down the wrong way, though, when Annie set out some glasses of bright green beer on the bar. This was our first taste of Stonehenge Ales‘ Sign of Spring, which Annie assured us was naturally green, not some kind of Frankenbeer. Yes, it was very zingy and refreshing, but it was hard to say where the citrus started and the optical I’M DRINKING LIME JUICE illusion ended.

solutionIn between puzzled sips of green, Annie explained why the festival was going so well. “This year they balanced the menu better,” she says, of Nicholson’s HQ. “They had mild and porters. Collaboration brews are very popular – people know it’s beer they can only get in a Nicholson’s.” Punters are voting for their favourite beers on Twitter throughout the festival, with the winner securing a guest spot at Nicholson’s pubs. At the moment the Pete Brown and Brains collaboration, The Solution, is in the lead (much to our delight – it was our favourite at the tasting we attended in March). Rich and fruity, it was a pleasure to have the opportunity to drink this again.

skinnersNext we try an offering from the Skinners Brewery – River Cottage EPA, brewed for the home farm of the TV chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. The beer is, Annie tells us, “typically Cornish”. It’s light, floral and delicate – and we were pleased to taste the UK Cascade hop holding its own. Jarrow Brewery‘s Isis, which we try next, is similar –  floral, citrus-y, well balanced beer. It’s sweeter than River Cottage but the hops round this off with a bitter finish. We move on to Ilkley‘s Rye and Dry – a great dessert beer, all caramel, sweet and citrus. Such a dessert beer, in fact, that ICIP’s tasting notes shriek in barely-legible shorthand “WHAT’S THAT FRENCH PUDDING?” A quick Google suggests oranges with caramel, which is exactly what this beer tasted like, but there doesn’t seem to be any evidence it is French, but that doesn’t matter because it’s delicious. We finish with a mouthful of malty, toasty Balmy Mild by Cropton Brewery.

croptonLooking around The Coal Hole – which, early afternoon on a Saturday, overflows with tourists, but on weekdays draws a smart business crowd – we wonder if Nicholson’s is at risk of putting off its regulars by doling out green beer and cherry-flavoured ale. “We keep on the traditional ales like Fuller’s London Pride,” says Annie. “We don’t want to force the ‘Jims’ of this world to change their habits” – she nods towards an older man enjoying a quiet pint at the bar, probably blissfully unaware and unconcerned that a pair of over-excited beer bloggers are INSTAGRAMMINGTWEETINGPINTERESTINGTUMBLERING frenetically around him. “London Pride will continue to sell,” she adds. One trick of the trade, Annie tells us, is effective deployment of sparkler. The sheen and added fizz can give otherwise leftfield brews sudden mass appeal. “You have to gauge the customer,” she tells us. “The sparkler is handy with people from Yorkshire. They’re used to Tetley, for example, and we don’t sell that, but if you offer them a pint of cask ale with a sparkler they find a beer they can drink all weekend.” Ladies, she adds, have proved more daring than the blokes. Women have “a more discerning palate,” she concludes.

What, then, is a spring beer? Something with lots of blossom, floral and citrus notes, light and quaffable? “The traditional idea of a spring ale is something that has connotations of pale, blonde, 4%, hoppy, zesty, not too much of anything,” Annie agrees. And yet – Nicholson’s has done a roaring trade in punchy, strong beers, bitter IPAs and, incredibly, porter. “This festival has made a mockery of that!” Annie concludes. Even better, the festival has proved something Annie knew well: that people will travel for a speciality beer. “We should be on that,” she says. “We should always have at least one speciality. This festival proves that that does work.” Beer drinkers in general have become more fluent – Annie tells us that the tasting paddles of three halves have proved very popular. This presents a certain challenge for Nicholson’s, too – pubs try to stock different beers to their neighbours, so that customers ‘doing the rounds’ don’t keep encountering the same beer. “It takes an extra bit of planning,” Annie agrees.

It’s time to bring up the “W” word, because it’s impossible to ignore the fact that Nicholson’s major competitor, Wetherspoons, runs their spring festival at exactly the same time. With three collaboration beers brewed with Sixpoint Brewery in Brooklyn, New York, on offer at the cheeky price of c£2.90 a can [check out fellow beer-blogger Nate’s review here], Wetherspoons have upped their game. “I always go and have a nose around,” Annie admits. “They’re getting better – obviously they’ve been taking notes from us! Some of what they were doing at the last one was an abomination. The staff had no clue and they didn’t have enough beer! It left a lot to be desired, but they are getting better. Competition is healthy.” Annie admits she is jealous of the canned Brooklyn collab. “I wish we could do that,” she sighs. But she thinks her prayers have been answered: Nicholson’s are to experiment with stocking some craft beer in bottles – and The Coal Hole is going to be at the forefront of the new initiative. “There’s a market there,” she confirms.

But Nicholson’s have little to fear from their competitors. Well-informed staff – of which there are 28 at The Coal Hole, 20 in Front of House – are one of Nicholson’s greatest sells. “I don’t expect them to love every beer; we change so often,” Annie says of the staff who are proficiently getting on with their day around us. “But I want them to know the basics. I’m not pretending they’re ale gurus – my cask master is! – but that is part of their education. A big winner for customers is ‘try before you buy’ – that’s good customer service. We ask: what do you normally drink? Then lead them from there. Some people are a bit cheeky but it still leads to a sale.” Regular readers may remember that ICIP like to close up our trips to Nicholson’s with a rare foray into the world of cider (ICIP admittedly frequently has no memory of this). Annie’s happy to oblige. One cider, Orchard Pig‘s Explorer, has already sold out. But we’re more than happy with a glass of astringent, green apple-y Aspall Cyderkyn and the smoother Orchard Pig Philosopher.

beersICIP leave Annie to her busy bar and stagger off down The Strand to The Coal Hole’s closest neighbor, The Wellington, to test the Nicholson’s ale diffusion and to decipher our notes before they dissolve completely into irretrievable squiggles and happy ticks. Sure enough, the bar is stocked with beers that weren’t on at The Coal Hole, so we close our day with the Rudgate Brewery Cherry Pale – as you’d expect, a very sweet floral nose, initially very bitter but tapering off to quite a flowery finish – and the light, sharp and grassy St Austell Proper Job.

The countryside can keep their lambs and chicks. Cheers.

The Nicholson’s Spring Ale Festival will run from Monday 24th March to Saturday 19th April at Nicholson’s Pubs across the country. You can find more information and a copy of the programme on their website.

Want more? Check out our coverage of previous Nicholson’s Ale Festivals (Autumn and Winter 2013) and of the beer and food pairing evening showcasing the Brains Brewery collabs which will be available during the festival.

– ED