Category Archives: Interviews

From little acorns… the unstoppable rise of Oakham Ales

According to CAMRA, there are now 52 breweries in London compared to 44 last year and 23 the year before that. With so much beer being brewed in the capital right now, we’re spoilt for choice, and sometimes it’s easy to overlook the exciting stuff happening elsewhere across our fair land.

So ICIP is delighted to meet with Oakham Ales, an innovative brewery from Cambridgeshire, to remind us that there is much, much more to discover beyond the mysterious force field of the M25.

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“I’ve been with Oakham for just over nine years, and it has changed so much in that time,” says Nigel Wattam, Commercial Manager at the brewery. “Back then, there were nine or ten of us and we did everything; we racked the beers, we delivered, everything. We’re up to 40 people now.”

Originally established in Oakham, Rutland, in 1993, the company moved to Peterborough in 1998 and opened a new brewery in 2006. Currently, Oakham is churning out a staggering 6.5m pints a year. There is increasing international demand for their beer, and they now export to countries as far flung as New Zealand and Hong Kong. “It’s been in Australia, it was in a shop a couple of blocks away from the White House, it even went to Brazil before the World Cup! So it’s popping up all over. I lose touch where it’s going to be honest!” says Nigel. “I was chatting to our friends from Arbor Brewery,” chimes in Nick Jones, National Accounts Sales Manager, “And they’d been talking to distributors in Rome. They said: ‘I saw a fucking Green Devil lorry driving around Rome, what’s going on?!’”

But the brewery is still hugely popular on its home turf in the UK, managing to walk the tightrope between traditional ale fans and the more recent beer geek boomers. It’s rare to find a brewery showing up in Greene King pubs and winning awards at CAMRA’s GBBF but also on offer at a pump takeover at The Craft Beer Co.

“The one constant as the brewery has grown is that the quality has stayed the same,” says Nigel. “Everyone will have some problems with cask ale, but the ethos has always been you’ll always get the flavour, we’ll always use loads of hops and the quality has to be right. If it’s not right, it’ll just sit there and it won’t go out.”

“Consistency is the key,” agrees Darren Moore, manager of Oaka in Kennington, one of the brewery’s pubs (on which more later). “I’ve never had a bad cask from Oakham. That says everything about the brewery. Some other breweries… sometimes their beer is amazing, and sometimes it’s awful. The customer won’t understand that; consistency is so important.”

“You only have to supply a few bad lines and the landlord will lose confidence in you,” Nigel nods. “Even I was surprised about the number of things we check on. By the time we rack it and get it in the barrel, it should be as perfect as we can get it. Sure, it occasionally gets a bit hot in someone’s cellar, but there shouldn’t be anything else that goes wrong with it. And that is why we get so few returns.” This seems to be the crux of Oakham’s success. “We’ve got some great relationships with some big players in the free trade that other producers would love to have, but we’ve got the reputation in some places where they daren’t take the beer off the bar. They shift so much in a week and the quality is there… as long as we don’t do anything mental, it’s there as long as the landlord is!”

Oakademy_of_Excellence_Logo1Recognising the importance of their relationship with their suppliers, Oakham have started up the ‘Oakacademy of Excellence’, a suppliers club. “It’s been going a little over 5 years now and anyone who stocks our beers permanently can join the Oakademy,” explains Nigel. “We make some special beers that only they can get hold of, we do glassware for them, the sales guys visit them regularly, and we have an annual event where we invite them down and have a few beers and a bite to eat. They get support for their loyalty.”

“Unlike some other breweries, we still have people on the road,” says Nick. “It’s still a face-to-face industry with us, and publicans like that. It’s not an email business.”

“For people like me, having those two or three extra beers draws people in. People look forward to them,” Darren agrees.

We are yet to touch on Oakham’s frontrunner… Citra.

500citraUnless you’ve been living under a rock for the last few years, it’s highly unlikely that you wouldn’t recognise the cheeky little anthropomorphized hop flower grinning out from the Oakham Ales Citra label. Two-time Gold winner of the International Beer Challenge, this fruity, hoppy 4.2% APA has taken the beer world by storm.

“Our biggest Citra stockist is The Wellington in Birmingham,” says Nigel. “They will do close to 900 pints a week on one pump!” But the beer is not just popular in pubs. “In the last 18 months to two years, the bottles have actually gone potty. And Citra is the biggest by some way – it’s over 50% of our bottle sales.”

Demonstrating its wide appeal, Bottled Citra is sold in Waitrose and Tesco supermarkets, as well as a variation of the recipe (at a slightly more potent 4.9%) being available in Marks and Spencer where it is rebranded under the store’s own label.

“It’s crazy that one beer should make a brewery so famous, especially in London,” says Darren. “The brewery just smells of Citra,” agrees Nick. “When I open an M&S bottle at home I just think ‘ah, that’s my work!’ because it’s just that distinctive smell.”

“Every year our Head Brewer, John Bryan, goes over to American and he’ll taste and smell the hops in person,” says Nigel. “Each field is different and he’ll choose the best for us. You could have 20 fields of Citra hops and he’ll pick the two that are best. John thinks that the US hops are the best in the world; that’s why he uses them.”

Because of the all-encompassing fame of Citra, we’re shocked to hear that it’s not the brewery’s biggest seller overall. “JHB (Jeffrey Hudson Bitter, 3.8%) is the biggest cask sale,” says Nick. “Bishop’s Farewell (4.6%) actually edges second on cask.”

With a hophead Head Brewer, Oakham’s core range of beers lean towards a particular flavour profile. “People say ‘why don’t you make a brown beer?’, and I say, if you’re a carrot farmer, don’t grow potatoes,” says Nick. “Our identity is pale ales.” But this doesn’t mean that their range is limited. “We have the Black Hole Porter (5.5%) on all year round, and we have Hawse Buckler (5.6%) which is another dark beer,” says Nigel. “Alongside the four seasonal we have four aged or vintage beers which are usually available all year round, as well as an Oakademy special. Then we’re normally got something wheedled away on what we call the compost heap, which has been there a while. Like the Black Baron (8.8%), which is fantastic.”

DSC_0199“I think at the moment we have 12 available, I think at Chelmsford Beer Festival three weeks ago we had 15 on,” recalls Nick. We’re shocked – is it difficult to juggle producing that many beers? “It’s not as difficult as it would appear because six of them would be aged beers which can be brewed, put in a cold room and then released any time we want,” he explains. “So we’ve got the five core beers brewed at least weekly, then the Oakademy beers every month, the seasonal beers every quarter, then four quarterly specials – they’re supposed to run on to each other but they don’t because they keep selling out! – and then the aged and vintaged.” We’re tantalised by the sound of Oakham’s vintage range. “The aged beers can sit in the cold room for one, two, three years… they just develop another level,” says Nick. “I’ve had 3 year old Atilla (7.5%) that tasted absolutely fantastic,” reminisces Nigel.

Producing these highly-hopped beers comes at a price – hops don’t come cheap. “Even though it’s a bit more expensive, we’re pretty sure if someone has one pint of our beer, they’ll come back and have another one, which is what you want people to do!” says Nigel. In the capital, we’re not shocked to pay £6 for a pint of craft beer. But is it harder to convince drinkers up in their homeland of Cambridgeshire, for example, to pay more? “From my point of view, I sell my beer for a £1 more than it sells in Peterborough, but that’s because I have more to pay out,” says Darren. “It’s not the price of a cask! I’m from Yorkshire and I wouldn’t dream of spending more than £3 on a pint there! Whereas in London I’ll pay £7 for a pint of Kernel IPA because I know how much it costs them to brew it. It’s understanding it, and people understand that things cost more here.”

“Price can be an issue with some outlets,” says Nigel. “We do have to stick to our guns sometimes and say we know it’s a bit pricier, but it’s a quality product. We think that when you put it on the bar, you’ll sell it; you won’t have leftovers you’ll have to throw away. You try and strike a balance. Hopefully you’ll have a guy that’ll come back the next night to drink it again because he knows you’ve got it on.”

“Make the same cash margin and see what happens,” is Nick’s challenge. “The people who stock our beers regularly and successfully will say, ‘no problem, JHB £3.20, some other bollocks at £3, and JHB still sells more’. And people come back and drink it again. There’s a commercial argument there that people support.”

Not content with producing a range of popular and delicious beers, the brewery also partakes in a spot of beer and food pairing. When you think of sitting down to a Thai, Chinese or Japanese meal, what drink do you immediately associate with it? A bitter green tea? The fruity acidity of sake? Perhaps a cold lager-style beer like Chang or Asahi?

How about a pint of ale? Not too sure? Think again.

DSC_0195The Oaka Group – a sister company to Oakham Ales – operates five venues uniquely specialising in pairing their beers with contemporary dishes from the Far East. The brainchild of founders Patcharee Shaweewan and Paul Hook, the chain features three venues in Peterborough, one in Birmingham, and, as of 2013, one in London.

On ICIP’s first visit to Pan-Asian restaurant Oaka, we were initially bemused at the sight of hand pumps on the bar, but were quickly converted. Heavily favouring the citrussy, piney zing of American hops, Oakham Ales’ range is an excellent match for the oriental menu. The bitter, hoppy ales cut through hotter, chilli-based dishes, but the freshness of those US hops also complement the invigorating Asian flavours of lemongrass, coriander, lime and ginger. This successful blend of east and west is a characteristically individual move by a brand who excel in pushing the envelope.

With wide-reaching appeal and a good eye for development, Oakham’s growth looks set to continue. They’ve recently acquired a wine division (Bellwether), and began producing a cider in conjunction with Hogan’s last year (Oaple, 5.8% and made with apples from ICIP’s friends at Stocks Farm!). Earlier this week, Citra walked away with two awards at GBBF (Gold in the Golden Ale category and Silver in the Supreme Champion competition), proving its popularity with real ale drinkers. With the success of Green Devil on keg, they will only admit to “looking at” something in the lager or black IPA line, but whatever they come up with, we will certainly look forward to it with high expectations.

– PS

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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

When a plan comes together: Camden Town and Adnams collaborate

In the distant future, as robots pour space pints of synthahol in bars run by a be-hatted Whoopi Goldberg (is the top line too early for a Star Trek reference?), people will look back on the beer boom of 2013/14 and wonder why everyone got so het up about cask vs keg. Why couldn’t we just get along? Camden Town brewery (hip hopsters based in North London) and Adnams Brewery (established alesters from Southwold) have had enough of the fight. They’ve collaborated over a new ale – called South Town – and decided to throw it a party at Camden HQ.

That’s on ICIP’s doorstep, so on a balmy Saturday afternoon we meandered through the North London sun (no, really!) to visit Adnams in their new, temporary home. And hadn’t Adnams made themselves at home. We were greeted by the sight of Camden’s long beer garden, sandwiched between gritty industrial plots, dotted with Adnams’ deckchairs; something of a change of scene for them, used as they are to sunset behind a lighthouse rather than sunset behind a graffitied Amy Winehouse tribute.

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South Town (would you believe it’s taken me this long to realise the beer is a mash-up of the locations of the two breweries) was served at a dedicated cask bar, accessible only if you shelled out £12 for a six-stamp card (a half was one stamp, a pint two, so at three pints for £12 a bargain in this part of town) (also fun because stamp cards, like loyalty cards, make me inexplicably competitive and OCD along the lines of: WE’VE GOT TWO AND A HALF STAMPS LEFT IF WE ADD UP THESE TWO CARDS YOU CAN’T LEAVE NOW I DON’T CARE IF YOU CAN’T SEE).

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South Town pours a long, amber pint. It’s approachable and drinkable, and at 4.9% the perfect pint to go with the hours of rugby with which the party happened to coincide. A first glug gave way to SO MUCH much hops (Topaz, Summer, Ella and Galaxy), which resolved in the kind of mellow sweetness you expect from an ale. This was achieved by using four different malts – Pale Ale, Light Crystal, Crystal Rye and Golden Naked Oats. I could drink pints of South Town (I did drink pints of South Town!) and not get bored (I didn’t get bored!) which is more than can be said for many ales.

“Camden are cool in a very cool way and we’re cool in a cask ale way” – Adnams’ Fergus Fitzgerald

South Town was brewed at Adnams’ brewery in Southwold. They picked up the cheque and agreed a retail price with Camden, who buy up and sell stock as they see fit. Beer nerds that we are, we wanted to know more of the story behind the brew: why did Camden, who don’t do cask, want to brew with Adnams, who exude old english ale from their idyllic seaside brewery? We tracked down head brewers Alex “Camden” Troncoso and Fergus “Adnams” Fitzgerald to find out more about what brought these two together.

“We’re both cool in different ways,” Fergus explained. “Camden are cool in a very cool way and we’re cool in a cask ale way. So it was a good way to get together.”

Ideas and recipes flew back and forwards across the interwebs. An idea for a stout and a porter eventually evolved into a hoppy ale.

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Alex Troncoso

“We used a huge amount of hops,” Alex agreed. “More than two times the amount Camden’s pale ale is hopped.” Of course, this made the brew expensive – those hops don’t come cheap.

We were delighted to hear (I MEAN OF COURSE WE COULD TELL JUST BY TASTE) that South Town was brewed with Adnams’ famous yeast. “Part of the collaboration is that we both add something to it, so most of what we add is the yeast,” Fergus tells us. “With our own yeast we’re relatively confident what it’s going to do. Then you can use it as a base and paint a new picture on top.”

“It’s like making 20,000 litres of soup and hoping it will taste OK!” – Camden’s Alex Troncoso

Fergus Fitzgerald

Fergus Fitzgerald

Using a familiar yeast, Fergus added, can be a helpful constant in a nerve-wracking project. “You’re changing so many other things – you want something that you possibly could rely on. If you do enough one-offs, eventually something will go wrong and you’ll end up dumping it. You can’t do that many experiments and not expect to have a failure. You have to accept that’s going to happen.”

“Because South Town was brewed at Adnams, most of the stress was there,” Alex says. “This end … we’ve been in this situation before. It’s like making 20,000 litres of soup and hoping it will taste OK!”

Well, ICIP is happy to relate that this batch of soup definitely turned out ok. Were Fergus and Alex happy?

“Stoked,” says Alex. “It tastes like I’d hoped,” Fergus agreed. “This was more stressful for Alex because I could test it! It’s got elements of Camden and Adnams.”

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Channelling Paxo, ICIP lands the difficult final question: What’s your favourite beer from the other’s brewery?

“My trip to Southwold changed my opinion,” Alex admits. “My favourite used to be Ghost Ship – now it’s Adnams’ Oyster Stout!”

“Camden Hells Lager,” says Fergus, without missing a beat. “It’s the one I’ve drunk most, but you learn with brewing there are a couple of difficult things to brew: low alcohol beer and good lager. It’s really difficult to brew, technically. You’ve got nowhere to hide – you haven’t got enough flavours to hide the little inconsistencies. You’ve got to get everything right.”

South Town gets a lot right, so we were excited when Alex and Fergus left the proverbial brewery door open for another collaboration brew. Come winter, I’m holding out for a Camden Wold stout.

You can buy a mini keg of South Town from Adnams or try it at any of the pubs listed here, or at Nicholsons Spring Ale festival.

Want more? Check out our posts on the Camden brewery tour and our day out brewing with Adnams.

 DSC_0022– ED

Back to school – an interview with Jane Peyton

Jane-Peyton

Beer made out of Christmas trees? Booze and witchcraft? All in a day’s work for author, sommelier and School of Booze founder Jane Peyton. We caught up with Jane this week to hear all about her work spotlighting British hops; learnt how and why women went from prolific brewers to a beer minority; and were treated to an excerpt from her new book Beer O’Clock.

It Comes In Pints: Your first beer – we’ve been told – was a pint of Tetley Mild. Can you tell us what your top beers are today?

Jane Peyton: It depends on my mood, the weather and reasons for drinking (i.e. quaffing or sipping) but beers I go back to again and again are:

ICIP: Have you found your tastes have changed over time?

JP: Yes – I really like sour beers – gueuze and Red Flander ale such a Duchesse de Bourgogne. When I was younger I was not keen. I also like big fruity barley wines, whereas 10 years ago I was not a fan.

ICIP: You have worked on some collaboration brews, most notably with Brewsters, Fuller’s, Ilkley Brewery. How did you make the jump from drinking beer to brewing it?

JP: There has been a trend for the past few years of some breweries inviting beer writers/sommeliers to collaborate/co-create brews. It’s great fun for the non-pros and hopefully fun for the breweries too. It brings in new ideas to a brewery for brews or ingredients that the brewer might not otherwise have thought of. I’ve been lucky enough to have been invited to collaborate on brews with several breweries from giants such as Fuller’s, smaller operations such as Brewster’s and Ilkley Brewery, and brew pubs such as Brewhouse & Kitchen in Portsmouth. And it is so fascinating for a beer lover to have chance to experience up close the magic that goes into creating their favourite drink.

ICIP: Beer O’Clock, the beer brewed for the release of your new book of the same name, was a green-hopped beer, which is quite a rare style due to the short-time frame available to use the fresh hops. What made you decide to go for this type of beer for the launch of the book? Does it have special significance for you?

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JP: I brewed the beer with Sara Barton, owner of Brewster’s and current British Brewer of the Year. I wanted to create a delicious golden coloured session beer that showcased how amazing English hops are.  I wanted the beer to have a single varietal hop in it so drinkers could think: “wow – one single hop can do all this for aroma, flavour and bitterness.” (Most British beers have between 2 and 4 different varietals of hops in them).

This meant finding a really significant hop.

I had other requirements of the hop too – I wanted it to have been developed by Dr Peter Darby, the world’s leading hop breeder (he is an Englishman based in Kent), for it to be grown on Stocks Farm in Worcestershire – this farm is owned by Ali Capper and her husband. Ali’s farm grows enough hops each year to make 45 million pints of beer. Ali is the publicity manager for the British Hop Association and is a great ambassador for the beauty of British hops.

And finally, to make it even more tricky in finding the perfect hop, I wanted to use green hops. This means that the hop is harvested the day before brew day and shipped overnight from the farm to the brewery where the hops must be used within hours otherwise they start going mildewy, ie. the hops are fresh rather than dried as most hops are. Green hops can only be used at harvest time, and hops ripen at different rates and at different times so the logistics of getting the hops is not easy. The hop we used for Beer O’Clock was ‘First Gold’ and it ticked all the boxes of my criteria. First Gold is also the world’s first hedgerow hop so it is more sustainable to grow as it is more resistant to hop disease and needs less spraying. It is a spectacular hop in aroma and flavour and I was so pleased with how the beer turned out. That is all down the brilliance of Sara Barton.

ICIP: Are you planning any other collaborations in future? Are there any ideas or particular types of beer you want to experiment with?

JP: I will be doing a collaboration with Ilkley Brewery in January. We have not decided what style yet but I have a few ideas. The last brew I did with Ilkley Brewery is called The Norseman and contains Christmas trees. It was just awarded Champion Beer of Otley Brewery (Yorkshire) and is now part of the main range of Ilkley Brewery’s beers.

I will also be brewing again soon at Brewster’s but have not decided what to do yet. The season will influence what style we brew as mainstream drinkers’ tastes tend to move with the weather – i.e. darker heavier beers in winter and lighter hoppier brews in warmer weather.

ICIP: As an historic booze expert you cover the cultural history of a range of drinks other than beer (and discuss them at length in your book School of Booze) – is beer your top tipple? Does its history interest you in particular?

JP: Yes, beer is my passion. I really like sparkling wine too but if I only had one choice of booze it would be beer. Beer also has the most significance to early human development and history than any other alcoholic drink. Its history is very colourful. Throughout history beer was a drink for everyone – whereas until recently, wine was for high status people. Consequently there are much more interesting stories about beer history than there are about wine history, or the history of any other alcoholic drink. Beer and wine (and mead) are the alcoholic drinks that have been drunk for longer than any other booze.

ICIP: We’ve read numerous articles and interviews where you describe the connections between ale-wives and witchcraft. Why do you think women have gone from being so prominent (70 per cent of brewers!) in brewing to barely being associated with even drinking beer over just a few hundred years?

JP: In England this was to do with the fact that beer was originally made at home by women. Surplus ale would be sold to people who did not brew at home. After the Black Death the demand for beer increased because labourers could get higher wages. They wanted to spend their extra money on ale. Around the same time England started fighting wars overseas. Soldiers received eight pints a day as their ration. This meant that a regular and secure supply of ale/beer was essential. Women brewing at home could not brew enough beer. From then on beer was made in bulk in breweries. Women generally did not work outside the home, they could not get credit from moneylenders to build breweries, and they could not own their own property (it belonged to their husbands). This, and the fact that beer became a lucrative industry that men wanted to get in on sidelined women as the primary brewers.

See here for an article I wrote for Stylist online about the link between witchcraft and female brewers.

ICIP: As a beer sommelier you know a lot about beer and food matching – can you explain some of the basic principles of pairing food and beer for a novice?

JP: Here is an excerpt from Beer o’ Clock to explain some of the guidelines of beer & food matching.

DSC_0032“Why is beer so perfect for matching with food?  For flavour and texture but also for the practical fact that beer is up to 95% water so it refreshes the mouth and clears the palate – and that is the number one reason why we have liquid with our food. Beer contains carbon dioxide an efficient palate scrubber which prepares the mouth for the next morsel. Even real ale with no discernible bubbles contains dissolved CO2 which adds a note of invigorating acidity and lightens up the richness of food. Hops contain varying degrees of bitterness and they also act like knives cutting through flavour and texture and both of these properties are refreshing.

When pairing beer with food this is the mantra – Cut, Complement, or Contrast.

Cut: choose a beer that cuts through the flavour or body of the food.  For instance fish & chips with a crisp refreshing beer to cut through the fat, and citrus hops to complement the fish.

Complement: choose a beer that will complement the flavours of the food. For instance, spicy food with a beer containing spicy hops.

Contrast: choose a beer that is a complete contrast to the food. For instance big flavoured chocolatey porter or stout with delicate salty oysters.

But rules can be broken and it is fun to experiment to see which beers work with certain dishes.”

ICIP: What beers are on your Christmas list? Are there any beers you can recommend to match with Christmas fare like the turkey dinner, the Xmas pud…?

JP: Lots of beers for Christmas dinner!  I would go for a flute of Deus (a French beer made with Champagne yeast) as an aperitif before dinner, a hoppy pale ale for the main course, a big barley wine for mince pies, porter for Christmas pud, or Christmas cake and Stilton cheese, Belgian kriek or Frambozen for trifle. Fuller’s Vintage Ale in a brandy balloon or snifter glass on its own as a digestive.

Beer O’Clock: Craft, Cask and Culture and School of Booze: An Insider’s Guide to Libations, Tipples and Brews are available now.

Beauty and the Yeast: catching up with Beer Beauty’s Marverine Cole

Marverine Cole - Beer Beauty - woman with bottles of real ale (2) This week ICIP has been lucky enough to chat to another of their beery heroes – Marverine Cole of Beer Beauty. Marverine is one of the eight female Beer Sommeliers in the UK as well as an award-winning beer writer, TV presenter and journalist, so we were very excited to ask her a few questions about her love of beer and her recommendations for our boozy Christmas lists.

It Comes In Pints: We read that you used to be a red wine drinker. Did you have one pint that caused an epiphany or was your love of beer a slow development?
Marverine Cole: It was one sip from a half pint of Beartown Brewery’s Peach Melbear which switched a light blub on in my head. I was hooked on finding other tasty beers with such impact ever since that day.

ICIP: You are a bit of a trailblazer for women who love beer – the first woman to win a gold award at British Guild of Beer Writers, one of only 8 female beer sommeliers in the UK – have you seen things open up for women beer fans since you’ve started being interested in beer?
MC: I think blogs like yours show there’s a real thirst for beer amongst women. We want to know more about it and where we can get hold of some good stuff! The fact that I’ve appeared on female-focussed shows like The Alan Titchmarsh Show and This Morning with Holly Willoughby openly exclaiming her love of beer shows the tide is turning. I’m hugely excited by the fact that more and more women are getting interested. The Cask Ale Report also shows there’s an army of women who regularly enjoy cask ale too.

ICIP: You write a lot on your website, Beer Beauty, about how you love to convert women to beer. How do you go about introducing a die-hard wine and spirit drinker to beer? Is there a style or brand you tend to start them with?
MC: I’ve never been one to say forsake all other drinks and drink beer. I still enjoy red wine and I love gin and vodka. I drink what I fancy when I fancy, although the social situations you’re in and the people you’re with might change the playing field.
I would start anyone on Fuller’s Honeydew – the sweetness of the organic honey coupled with the light bitterness and the punch of it being a 5% beer ticks many boxes for women who are beer-curious. The rich golden colour, the aroma, the taste and the alcoholic kick all nod towards a female palette – we like strong drinks with something about them. We don’t all want a pale, weak tasteless ales – of which there are many on the market, sadly. I think it’s more about making suggestions to women of beers I’ve loved and like the taste of in the hope that they will experiment and try some. I have a Top Ten Beers for Brew-bies on my website which is my Starter For Ten for anyone – male or female – who wants an idea of where to start.

ICIP: What are the most common misconceptions you hear from women about beer?
MC: That it’s fattening, is full of calories and fat and cholesterol and that all beers are bitter.

ICIP: You must taste hundreds of beers, but do you have a personal favourite style or type of beer that you hanker after?
MC: I often can’t say no to an Imperial Russian Stout!

ICIP: What breweries do you think are making the most exciting and delicious beer at the moment? Do you have any beers that you would recommend?
MC: I love Beavertown Brewery in Hackney – terrific beers, superb hook up with Dukes Brew & Que and, of course, the West Midlands connection tugs at my heartstrings too because Logan is a Midlander, like me. I love Sadler’s Ales from the Black Country – their Mud City Stout is extraordinary. I think Crate, another Hackney brewery is pretty happening at the moment too.

ICIP: As a beer sommelier you know a lot about beer and food matching – can you explain some of the basic principles of pairing food and beer for a novice?
MC: I always aim for a beer to compliment food and not contrast or fight it. But it obviously depends on the flavour explosion you want in your mouth. I think the less pronounced the spice or bitterness in a beer, the more versatile it will be. I love a good clean Pilsner-style beer with herby pork loin, whereas a really hard-hitting bitter IPA will nestle perfectly next to a spicy Thai curry. A fruity beer might work well with a dessert – I always like to pair something like a Belgian cherry wheat beer with a sour, sharp cherry tart, maybe with swirls of chocolate on the top or served with chocolate ice-cream!

ICIP: What beers are on your Christmas list? Are there any beers you can recommend to match with Christmas fare?
MC: The best and most versatile recommendation for a Xmas table beer is Bosteel’s Deus at 11.5%, which I took on This Morning last year. Produced in the way Champagne is, it’s pineapple-like on the nose, with champagne like bubbles in the glass. Serve it in a flute; it’s so special that it works with both the spiciest of meals and the most delicate of flavours. Get it from a specialist beer store. Ask them to order it in NOW! As for others – I’m waiting for a few more Christmas beers to arrive but I’ve been wowed by both the limited edition Thornbridge Imperial Raspberry Stout (10%) and the BoxSteam Brewery’s Evening Star (7.5%) – a new strong dark porter from them.

Check out Marverine’s website, Beer Beauty, and follow her on Twitter @BeerBeauty and @TVMarv

Hitting the Marque: half an hour with Beer Sommelier Annabel Smith

ImageWhat’s the number one beer-myth women have fallen for? Are slimming clubs to blame for our messed up relationship with beer? Could our cave women ancestors be responsible for our taste in hops?

Annabel Smith has been Training Manager at Cask Marque for nearly a decade, is a member of the British Guild of Beer Writers, and is one of just 40 Beer Academy-accredited Beer Sommeliers in the UK. She is a founding member of Dea Latis, a project encouraging women to drink more beer, and regularly hosts tutored tastings to men and women alike. It Comes In Pints? had a chat with Annabel about her relationship with beer, what was involved in becoming a sommelier and why she thinks beer is yet to be embraced by women en masse.

It Comes In Pints?: Have you always been a beer drinker?
Annabel Smith: Since I’ve legally been allowed to drink beer, yes! It’s something I’ve gravitated towards partly because of part time work I did after I left college – working in a pub, basically. I’m of the generation where most girls drank pints of beer.

ICIP: What kind of beer in particular were you drinking then? Has your palate evolved over time?
AS: Definitely lager. It wasn’t ale at that point, but it was all kind of interconnected with the work I started doing. I started working in a pub full-time and it was very anti-lager, it was a very traditional ale house. I learned a lot there about what to do with the beer in the cellar, how to look after it, how it was different from lager. I realised it had an awful lot more flavour than mass-produced lagers that I had been drinking, and part of the job was you never ever sold the beer to a customer without trying it first thing every morning to make sure it was absolutely perfect.

ICIP: What was the process of becoming qualified as a Beer Sommelier?
AS: I had to prove that I had hosted a number of tutored tastings, that I’d helped businesses to choose beers to go with menus, that I had changed people’s opinions about beer. That was actually the most time-consuming part, putting together the proof of evidence file. Then I had to take an advanced Beer Academy (BA) course. You tasted hundreds of different styles of beer and then you sat a one-to-one examination. A BA examiner brought out 21 samples of beer for me to try. I had to say where the beer came from, what style of beer it was, what hops and malt I thought had been used, even attempt to identify the brand, all from a blind tasting. For the food matching, the examiner hands you a menu and asks you to pick five beers to go with starters, mains and desserts. They don’t want you to reel out something you’ve read in a book, what they want to see is your opinion about a beer. For example, a lot of people say stout goes with oysters. And I don’t get it, I’ve never understood that match at all. I think that stout goes brilliantly with apple pie and custard. Every weekend I went out and bought three different styles of beer and just took them home, had a bit of cheese and a bit of pâté, and just filled out notebooks with my own tasting notes. They said don’t be afraid to challenge what previous experts have said about beer. So it is quite a fun accreditation to go for!

ICIP: There are 40 Beer Academy-accredited Beer Sommeliers in the UK and 8 of them are women – the press seems to make a point of calling you a female Beer Sommelier. Do you ever get fed up with being described this way?
AS: I think this is all contributing to interest in the category. If it means getting a piece in the paper, I don’t mind at all if it says “female beer sommelier”, because at least beer is being written about. For the last twenty years there’s been sod all written about beer, really, and all of a sudden it has started to become interesting again to the media.

ICIP: Obviously a lot of your work at Cask Marque is to do with cask ale, so where do you stand on the cask vs keg, real ale vs craft beer debate?
AS: At Cask Marque, what we’re doing is testing the quality of cask ale in the on-trade. But we do get a lot of brewers, especially big multinationals, coming to us and saying “we also want you to test our lager or our stout”. So in the trade we’re about all beer, not just cask ale. My opinion on the whole kind of craft movement is, if it’s a really well-produced beer, and it’s kept correctly and served correctly, I have no issue with how it’s being packaged.

ICIP: We spoke to some women at GBBF who said that they felt they need to back up their opinions on beer with knowledge so as not to be “caught out” whereas they felt men can bluff about beer. Do you agree?
AS: Ooh, that’s quite an interesting point! I think generally, when you think about food in general, if women have a brilliant dish in a restaurant, they have a natural curiosity as to how it was made, how the flavours were achieved. I think men would just go “that was a brilliant meal!” Women are more naturally curious about variety of flavours and trying to understand why they enjoy something, but equally why they don’t enjoy something.

ICIP: When you’re talking about beer or recommending beer, do you change what you say depending on whether your audience is women or men?
AS: If I’m talking to a group of women they usually come in with some very definite preconceptions about beer. It might be a general “I don’t drink it, so I don’t like it”, or “it’s a man’s drink”. So with women I give them a bit of history about why they don’t drink beer, and why it’s so embedded in male culture, then go on to bust some of the myths. With men, it’s much more about how important the beer industry is to the economy. I tailor it towards ages as well. I talked to a WI group a few weeks ago who were all sixty-plus so I did a lot of little stories, like in the 1930s how popular Guinness was, and they all remembered all the old Guinness adverts. If I’d given that talk to a group of 18 year olds it wouldn’t have been relevant.

ICIP: What’s the number one myth you’ve come across when you’re talking to women about beer?
AS: That beer’s fattening.

ICIP: So how do you dispel that?
AS: It’s less calories than any other drink you can order across a bar, other than water. Take half a pint of beer, a medium sized glass of wine, so 125ml, and a single spirit and mixer. The beer is right at the bottom of the scale, that’s 80 calories, then we go to 120 calories for your wine and 130 calories for the spirit. I know categorically who is promoting this myth, and it’s slimming clubs in this country. They say if you’re on a diet, you must drink vodka and slimline tonic – it’s a load of rubbish! It’s purely to do with lifestyle, for example if you go out and have five pints of beer, the last thing you fancy eating afterwards is a salad. You always go for your carb-laden things. It’s the hops in the beer that are causing you to crave those fatty foods. Hops themselves are a very distant cousin of the cannabis family. So you’ve got minimal amount of hops in beer, but it’s the hops that are causing you to crave certain types of food.

ICIP: Like the munchies?
AS: Basically, yeah!

ICIP: Do you find when women sit down and try beer, the problem is mostly the flavour and they need to find a taste they like, or that the problem is mostly image?
AS: The biggest problem we have is the fact that they’ve never been given an opportunity to try it in the first place. If you actually put a glass of beer in somebody’s hand and say “why don’t you try that”, the first barrier to it is colour. If you put a very black beer in a non-beer drinker’s hand, especially a woman, they’ll go “ooh, it looks really thick and heavy and I’m frightened of it!”. If you put a very pale, blonde beer in a woman’s hand they go “that looks quite nice and refreshing actually”, because they relate more to it in terms of lager or white wine.

I think the second thing is bitterness level, because women have a far heightened sense of bitterness than men do. The average number of tastebuds is 10,000, but women have a lot more than men. Basically when we were cave women, the blokes would go out and hunt for food and we would stay in the cave with our children. When the blokes came back with food, women would always chew it before they gave it to a child to make sure it was safe. If they tasted anything which was bitter it set off a receptor in the brain saying “don’t give this to a child; it’s poisonous”. We’ve retained that bitterness receptor in the brain; you can tell, when a lot of women drink bitter beers, they scrunch their face up, and it’s purely this reflex going off in the brain going “it’s not safe”. Whereas men have lost that reflex in the brain and they can take far higher levels of bitterness.

ICIP: So what’s a good entry beer for women in general? If you were trying to get women into beer for the first time?
AS: Okay, I’d certainly go for something a bit floral, a bit sweeter, and I’d always go for a light colour, but not necessarily a fruit beer. It’s almost like putting sugar coating on it. In my opinion, any beer that you’ve brewed specifically for women always fails in the marketplace. Because women just go “you know what, if it’s not good enough for men, I’m not bothered about drinking it, so don’t try to fuss it up as something feminine”. I’d always say, don’t go for one that’s very, very bitter, very heavily hopped, because you’ll put your first time beer-drinker off for good. Strangely enough a lot of women like mild. Mild is quite an old-fashioned beer but it’s low in strength and it’s a lot sweeter than other darker beers. But of course, mild is almost black in colour, so as soon as they see it, it’s like a dichotomy between the appearance and flavour, whereas if you could just put a blindfold on them and give them a glass of mild, I bet they wouldn’t believe it if you whipped the blindfold off and said you’ve just been drinking a very dark beer!

I think also we’ve got a bit of an issue in that most women I speak to absolutely hate the glassware that beer is served in. It just makes a change to our perception of beer if it’s served in a lovely glass.

ICIP: Do you think that’s something that the craft beer environment has that normal pubs maybe don’t?
AS: I think it’s a massive advantage they have. Most of the family-owned breweries in the UK are still run by men, and it’s sixth, seventh generation of brewing and they should have recognised long ago that there is room in the market for having nice, stemmed glassware. I actually did an experiment at one of the breweries in North Yorkshire, hosting a ladies’ beer and food evening. The last beer of the evening, I used the same beer but I put some of it into half-pint glasses and some of it into wine glasses.. 90% of the women said they liked the wine glass, and I said “you’ve actually tasted exactly the same beer”. Because of that glass, they thought it was a better quality product, it was nicer to drink, it was a better experience. It doesn’t cost much to do that, does it?

To find out more about Dea Latis and their events check out their blog or find them on Twitter.