Tag Archives: Beer

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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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

 

Pork Choc – Montezuma’s and Hogs Back Brewery launch Chocolate Lager

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Regular ICIP readers will already know that my love of beer is matched by my love of chocolate. I actually have a chocolate cupboard at home (I’m not even joking). Being the chocoholic that I am, I am on the mailing list for Montezuma’s, the Sussex-based chocolatiers, and you can find several of their products in my Special Chocolate Cupboard. So when an email pinged through advertising a collaborative beer with Hogs Back Brewery – a Chocolate Lager – I could barely believe my luck.

Hogs Back Brewery, who you may know for their bitter, T.E.A (Traditional English Ale, 4.2%), have spent 6 months working with Montezuma’s to create this new beer. “For ages I thought there were too many mainstream, unimaginative chocolate/alcohol combinations,” says David Pattinson, Head of Sales at Hogs Back. “Simon and Helen Patterson at Montezuma’s felt the same, so we decided we would create something new and hopefully innovative to take chocolate and alcohol in a different direction. I didn’t have to push them too hard…”

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What immediately surprised us about the beer was the choice of style. We’re used to chocolatey notes in stouts and porters, but not in a lager. “We haven’t ended up quite where we expected – you would intuitively think a dark chocolate beer would be dark – this isn’t, and that makes it quite intriguing,” says Rupert Thompson, owner of the brewery. So what made them decide to go with this flavouring in a lighter beer? “We sat around a table with the Montezuma’s team, and the old beer guys amongst us were wondering which of our dark beers would it be,” says David. “Then they asked why we couldn’t try the lager. We did, were staggered by how well the hop lifts the chocolate. After that, the decision was made and we cracked on with production.”

Apparently chocolate can cause problems when brewing – you can’t add it directly to the beer when you brew because of the fat content. So the brewery infused the beer with Montezuma’s Lordy Lord chocolate – 70% dark choccy with cacao nibs – by maceration and gentle extraction. “Our base beer is our Hogstar Lager, which is infused with the nibs and chocolate from Lordy Lord,” says David. “Exactly when Miles (Chesterman, Head Brewer at Hogs Back) adds the infusion is something he would need to tell you, but I suspect he’d have to kill you first.”

DSC_0794Hogstar is itself a relatively new addition to Hogs Back’s repertoire. Well-known for their traditional range, the 4.5% lager was a bit of a departure from their usual style, and was launched late last year. It is brewed with five different hops to bring out both bitterness and aroma, as well as lager malts, a hint of crystal malt and botanical extracts. It is then matured for over a month, during which time the lager’s flavours deepen and develop. It is unusual for modern commercial lagers to be matured like this, although of course, this is the traditional way that this style was made. It is unpasteurised and the carbonation develops naturally.

The beer pours clear and golden, perhaps a shade darker than you would expect, and the quality of the lager shines through when you taste it. The brewery describes it as ‘a light, fresh, refreshing beer carrying a rich but well balanced chocolate and hop flavour, evident both on the nose and on the palette’. We got huge hits of cocoa on the nose, a sweetness that was reminiscent of soft fruits and berries. Mr Pip likened it to cherry hot chocolate. But underneath that sweetness was that distinctive pilsner hoppy sourness that promised more than a gimicky flavoured beer.

Our previous experiences with chocolate-flavoured beers have been pretty bad (Hotel Chocolat, we are looking at you), but Chocolate Lager finally soothed my chocolatey beer nightmares. It tastes nothing like you’d expect after such a rich and sweet nose. The beer has light carbonation and has the crisp, fresh feel that you’d hope for from a lager, with a clean mouthfeel. There is a decent hit of bitterness across the back of the tongue but also a delicate and subtle sweet cocoa aftertaste which complements the bitterness rather than making you feel like you’re swilling a syrupy soft drink. It really is delicious.

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“As projects go, beer and chocolate is probably about as good as it gets!” says Simon Pattinson, co-founder of Montezuma’s. “This is one of the few chocolate lagers in the world and definitely a challenge to perceived wisdom, but give it a go and be prepared to open your mind to a lager that flies in the face of convention!” The interesting pairing could also lend itself to food and beer matching, as Rupert suggests: “Chocolate puddings are notoriously difficult to complement with wines but could work very well if this lager were added to dessert menus”.

Has the success of this collaboration whetted the brewery’s appetite for further chocolatey brews? “I hope we can do something else; reactions to this beer have been so good even at this early stage,” says David. “Personally I fancy having a crack at our Barley Wine (A Over T or Aromas Over Tongham, 9%) to see if we can marry a very complex rich beer with a chocolate and look at tackling something almost like a liqueur.”

The beer is available from the Hogs Back webshop and their brewery shop in Tongham, Surrey. Making the most of the Father’s Day present-buying rush, Montezuma’s is selling the beer on their website as part of nifty gift sets which include the Lordy Lord chocolate. Frankly, the “Happy Father’s Day” labels emblazoned all over these is not deterring us from buying them all for ourselves. Not in the slightest.

Want more beer and chocolate? Check out our coverage of the Dea Latis beer and chocolate matching event, which includes Montezuma’s Peeling Amorous chocolate.

– PS

He ain’t heavy, he’s my brewer

Sometimes the Twitterverse throws you opportunities too good to pass up.

In October 2013, ICIP and the – at the time, very new – Little Brother Brewery started following each other. We said hi, felt a pang of disappointment when we realised they were based over the North Sea in Norway, and made some wistful comment about coming to visit if we were ever feeling flush.

Eight months later, we had booked a Scandinavian jaunt which was going to include a stay in Oslo, Little Brother’s hometown. A few emails later, and we were on for a visit.

littlebro1Founded in mid-2013 by brothers Andrew and Cameron Manson, the brewery has just been granted its production license and is now officially the smallest commercial brewery in Oslo. “I was brewing in uni in Brisbane in the laundry with my brother and some flatmates,” Cameron reminisces. “When I moved to Europe, I got back into brewing. When I first moved to Oslo, my neighbour gave me a bottle of homebrew which really impressed me. So I decided to pick up the hobby again.”

lilbro5The ball is just starting to get rolling for Little Brother. “We got our first order the other day, actually,” Cameron tells us, proudly. “We have three orders now! It’s Oslo beer week next month and we’ll be selling some kegs to the organisers, Grünerløkka Brygghus.” They will also be releasing a bottled beer which will be sold in local pub, Cafe Sara. “We’ll be hand bottling, and we’re using 750ml bottles because you pay a tax per bottle in Norway. You have to pay a recycling company because they are then responsible for cleaning away all the rubbish. So you choose big bottles to get the most out of each one. If you have a container over 4 litres then you don’t pay, so the key kegs are going to be important.” It sounds like a lot of red tape for a small company starting out. “It’s costly and it takes time, but getting the kegs will help a lot. That’ll save time, then we can just do bottles for restaurants.”

The brewery still isn’t the day job for Cameron, who manages a bar at an upmarket Oslo hotel. “I plan the roster so that I can work in the brewery. It’s hard work, but now we’re getting a few orders in, and we’ve got our license in place, it’s working out.” With interest in the brewery picking up, he is hopeful that he may be able to focus more on Little Brother as time goes on: “maybe in a year’s time I can even think about this being a full time thing.”

lilbro3Despite coming from London, home of very expensive craft beer, we’re still reeling from the prices of beer in Norway. “Ah, sure, it’s pricey, but then wages are pretty high here as well. If people weren’t profitable they couldn’t make a good business – everything’s costly, but then again, I think minimum wage is about 140NOK (c. £14).” We’re stunned by this – we’re pretty sure the minimum wage is about half that in the UK. No wonder we’re finding everything more expensive in Scandinavia. The other issue is where the beer can be sold. You can only buy beer up to 4.7% in shops (and at limited times). Any alcoholic drinks over this percentage are sold exclusively at the government-owned Vinmonopolet. “I’m going to brew this wheat beer to about 4.6% so I can try to get it into the supermarket,” says Cameron. “I’d go higher if I could, but then it would never make it into the shops. The IPA will never make it into a supermarket!”

Despite the costs and the bureaucracy, craft beer seems to be booming here, maybe even more so than back home. “Apparently there’s a new brewery opening every month in Norway,” Cameron agrees. “Even the homebrew shops have expanded massively since I started out. The one I go to has gone from two to thirty employees in two years.” On our trip, we saw a huge range of styles available – everything from European pilsners through to a Cassis Tripel that nearly finished us off (thanks, Nøgne ø). Is there a particular style that sets Norwegian hearts racing? “Definitely IPA. The first beer that we’re going to release is an IPA; we’re playing it safe there. I think the core range will be the IPA and a wheat beer.”

lilbro4But Little Brother clearly won’t be content to stick with the basics. “I’m trying the wheat beer four ways; the same grain bill, brewed with local honey and then with a different yeast for each one. I’ll dry hop with a couple of different varieties of hops. In one I’m going to try adding the dried skins of coffee beans. It doesn’t really taste like coffee, it’s more of a tea flavour. So I’m gonna add that with the dry hops and leave it for seven days.” And Cameron has other plans up his sleeve. “I’m also going to do an imperial coffee stout – I’ll coarse grind the Mexican coffee I’m using, then bag it and then just stick it in like dry hops. This will be mashed at a high temperature and there will be lots of residual sugar, then I’ll referment it with champagne yeast in the bottle so it’ll have a sweetness and a malt backbone that’ll handle the acidity. The coffee has dark berry flavours, so it’ll go well with the chocolate and coffee flavours from the beer.”

lilbro1So where does Cameron get his inspiration for such creative brewing? “I do surf the net a lot. If I like a beer I’ll look for some sort of clone recipe to try and find out what hop or yeast is used. I try a lot of different beers too; lately I’ve been trying single hop ales because you really get the profile of the hops without having to brew with each one, and really understand flavours.” Cameron’s passion for brewing is obvious. “I always remember the first time I tried beer was in the pub with my dad, and I hated it. I thought: ‘I’ll never like beer’. Now I realise that it was just shit beer, and I still don’t like it now!” It seems unlikely that a young adult growing up in Norway would have the same problem. We’re staggered by the choice here.

Despite the brewery still being very much in its infancy, Little Brother has big plans for the future. “Right now we’re looking at getting some funding to get some large equipment – we want two conical fermenters, a palette of kegs and a palette of bottles so we can really start operating. What we’d love to aim at a beer cafe, similar to what Mikkeller has done. We’re going to do a beer club here at the brewery as well, hopefully. We’ll get fridges, and we already have a hop-back so we can serve beers through the fresh hops.” And what of worldwide domination? “Well, my brother is back home. He’s an architect and photographer and he does all of our design and the website. In the distant future we’d like to open up down there. Craft beer is becoming bigger there now too.”

littlebro2It’s been exciting to witness the birth of a new brewery which is already doing some really innovative and exciting things with their beer after just a few months, and with such great plans for the future. We can’t wait to see what Little Brother come up with now they have their production license – we can only hope they’re prepared to ship overseas!

Want more? You can read more about our boozy trip around Denmark and Norway.

– PS

Skål! – our boozy Nordic saga (part two)

If you missed part one, which focusses on our boozy experiences in Denmark, read it here!schous

Beer pretty much slapped us in the face from the moment we got to Oslo, with excellent beer almost literally within grabbing distance: from our hotel window we could see the remains of the Schous Brewery just over the road. Founded in 1800 and closed down in 1981, this is still home to the Schouskjelleren Mikrobryggeri in an atmospheric cellar under what’s left of the old premises. After nearly having a heart-attack at the price of beer in Norway (even higher than in Denmark, as if it was possible), we tucked into a Joca Blonde (5.5%) and a “Female of the Species” Single Hop Nelson (5.1%), both delicious. It was interesting to see what was popular with beer fans over the North Sea, and we were surprised to see a couple of beers by ICIP favourite Thornbridge as well as Brewdog on the blackboard behind the bar.

Our next beer experience came courtesy of a random Twitter exchange from back in October 2013, when ICIP and Little Brother Brewery started following each other. At the time, we weren’t expecting to ever get the chance to visit them, so when we found out we’d be in town just a few weeks after they got their production license, making them the smallest commercial brewery in Oslo, everything fell neatly into place.

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We were welcomed to the microbrewery by co-owner Cameron Manson (the eponymous little brother – big bro Andrew is based in Brisbane, where they hope to expand to in the future). We don’t want to spoil too much, because we’re planning on dedicating a whole post to our trip to Little Brother, but it was clear from chatting to Cameron that the Oslo beer scene is flourishing just as much as it is back home in London, with new microbreweries popping up and plenty of experimentation: “Apparently there’s a new brewery opening every month in Norway,” he told us. “Even the homebrew shops have expanded massively since I started out.”

After our tour of the brewery we took the opportunity to ask for some local advice, and Cameron gamely drew us up a list of bars to sniff out for good beer. Fortuitously, one of them was very close to our hotel (what an excellent choice of accommodation this was turning out to be!). This was Cafe Sara, a pub full of trendy young things, friendly staff, some interesting offerings on the taps and a well-stocked beer fridge. It ended up being a messy night.

The damage:

Single Sara – Christianssand Brygghus and Cafe Sara collab (5.7%)
Pensjonisten – Bryggerhuset Veholt (5.8%)
Odin’s Tipple – Haandbryggeriet (11%)
Osen Lager – Tonga Gardsøl (6%)
Cassis Trippel – Nøgne Ø (9.5%)
Humlekanon – Haandbryggeriet (7.5%)

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We’re not entirely sure how we got home.

We tried to lay off a bit for the next couple of days (visiting whole galleries of Edvard Munch is quite harrowing enough in itself without being hungover as well, thanks), but still managed a trip to another of Cameron’s recommendations: Smelteverket.

Situated in artisan food court Mathallen (think modern Nordic Borough Market and you’re getting warm), Smelteverket boasts “Norway’s longest bar”, with no less than twenty windows looking out over the Akerselva river. They also stock a range of Norwegian beers on tap and in bottles, and we had a try of a couple of beers by local brewery Grünerløkka (Løkka/crow White IPA, 6%, and Thorvalds Red Batch #17, 5.1%) and Haandbryggeriet (American Pale, 4.5%). We were very happy nursing these beauties until it was time to jet off to our final Scandi destination: we were Bergen-bound.

bryggenBergen is an absurdly beautiful place. As we stepped off the bus into Bryggen, we could hardly believe our eyes. The town is nestled between seven hills and seven fjords, and the busy harbour is lined with colourful, higgledy-piggledy wooden buildings.

Being that much further North than we’re used to, it was still light pretty far into the evening, which made the temptation to sit outside a bar with a beer and a blanket even more powerful. So we could hardly believe it when we realised that there was a very swish, very new-looking craft beer bar at the end of the road from our hotel.

7fjellWe were sold the moment we walked through the door at Una Bryggeri & Kjøkken, which was so new the builders were still drilling and hammering upstairs, and I had to use the men’s loo because the women’s wasn’t plumbed in yet. This trendy bar will be brewing its own stuff very soon, but in the meantime, we tucked into a Porter by Voss Bryggeri (7%) and a Walkendorff Amber Ale (6%) by the very local 7 Fjell Bryggeri.

It turns out that good beer is not at all hard to find in Bergen. We stumbled across Pingvinen (“Penguin”) in the sleepy backstreets, where we nearly collapsed under the weight of probably the freshest and most delicious prawn smørbrød in the world and glasses of Lervig Aktiebryggeri Hoppy Joe (4.7%). We also enjoyed a quiet drink in the quirky Kafe Kippers, set in an old sardine canning factory, where we tried Waldemars Mikrobryggeri Hveteøl (4.7%) and a Vossa Pale Ale (6%) by Voss.

But the real highlight of our trip was yet to come.

You can’t visit Bergen without going on some sort of excursion out into the nearby fjords. We had planned ahead and were booked into a day-long trip which would – hopefully – give us a taste of the incredible scenery Norway has to offer.

vergenWe would begin with one of the most scenic rail journeys in the world: from Bergen to Myrdal, in the mountains, where we would board the Flåmsbana. This special railway is the steepest standard gauge railway in Europe, and has been running since 1940. This would take us down from the snowy mountains and into the tiny village of Flåm, nestled at the end of the Aurlandsfjorden. There we would board a boat for an epic five and a half hour boat ride through the Sognefjord and back to Bergen.

While this was the cause for much excitement, we were not anticipating beer to play a part of this day. Unless we dropped back into Una after we got back, of course.

jumperAfter about 200 photos and much gawping, we arrived in Flåm. Just to  emphasise this: Flåm is tiny. Dwarfed by the comically huge cruise ships that park up in the fjord, it basically offers a few hotels, a slightly tired museum, a couple of sad cafes and several shops selling Scandinavian knitwear.

Oh, and a mind-blowing microbrewery and pub.

We thought we were hallucinating when we saw a sign for the “Ægir Brewery and Pub”, and definitely started to question our senses as we rounded the corner to see the Viking-esque wooden building, complete with dragons carved on the roof.

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My friends, it was a practically spiritual experience.

aegir6Inside, away from the chilly mountain air was a 9-metre floor-to-ceiling open fireplace with pelt-covered seating around it. The seats were made of roughly hewn tree stumps. The tap handles were made from antlers.

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I wanted to weep for joy. I began to curse the fact that I only had a hour and a half before I had to board a STUPID boat to go on a STUPID INCREDIBLE ONCE-IN-A-LIFETIME FJORD TOUR.

Founded in 2007 by Norwegian Aud Melås and American brewer Evan Lewis, the brewery has been steadily expanding over the last few years and has also opened a distillery. They won Norwegian Brewpub of the Year three years on the trot, and we’re not surprised.

aegir5We stayed as long as we physically could without missing our boat, sampling the following:

Ævenue (6% saison)
Sumbel Porter (4.7%)
Ægir IPA (6.5%)
Rallar Amber Ale (4.5%)

The range of beers on offer was fantastic – the brewery’s website lists styles as diverse as barley wine, Scotch ale, bock and blonde amongst its regular, year-round selection.

We found ourselves lured to the bottle shop even though we knew full well that our cases were already stuffed with Nørrebro bottles from Denmark. “I’ll just leave some clothes behind”, I insisted, clanking my way down the gangplank and onto the boat.

Sadly, all good things must come to an end. Checked out of our hotel, our Lonely Planets exhausted, and with just a couple of hours to go before we had to catch the bus to the airport, we bedded down back at Una. We finished our trip with 7 Fjell’s Svartediket Black IPA (7%) and a We Love Wheat Collaboration between Lervig and Nøgne Ø (7.9%). I reflected, as I supped my delicious, wallet-destroying Norwegian beer, that we were ending our holiday by doing exactly what we hadn’t really anticipated doing at the start of the trip – just kicking back with a couple of beers.

dutyfreeInspecting our boozy swag on our return to London (yes, we did buy more delicious beer in duty free), I marvelled at how beer had shaped our holiday, and how it had accented every high point. From our chance meeting with Arizona Wilderness in Mikkeller Bar and the mindblowing tasting menu at Nørrebro, through to the tour of Little Brother and our Ægir epiphany in Flåm, it truly had been a boozy Nordic saga; a real adventure.

The Scandinavian countries are often touted as the happiest in the world. Having checked out the beer, we think we understand why. Skål!

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– PS

Skål! – our boozy Nordic saga (part one)*

*Wanted to call this “Boozin’ with the Moomins”. Found out Moomins are Finnish. Did not visit Finland. For helvede!

Mr Pip and I aren’t really very good at holidays.

Well, more accurately, we’re not good at relaxing holidays. We’ve never done a beach holiday together, never visited a spa or willed away multiple hours in a café watching the locals. Our holidays are usually planned with almost military precision: armed with maps and Lonely Planets we storm our way through capital cities and tourist spots, leaving a string of museums, stately homes and art galleries in our wake. Our recent trip to Scandinavia is a case in point. We were there for ten days and managed to clock up, by our estimates, over 60 miles of walking (no mean feat given that one of those days was entirely sedentary on trains and boats in the Norwegian fjords).

While I’ll admit to being the driving force behind this, Mr Pip is very much the Lieutenant to my Captain. We make good travel companions because we enjoy a similar – unbalanced – mix of doing stuff and chilling out (i.e. sleeping off all that walking). I find just immersing myself in being somewhere completely “other” relaxing in itself – being able to leave all thoughts of work and the washing and the fact that the front door is sticking behind me.

Basically, what I’m getting at here is… I didn’t really factor beer into my holiday before we went. I wasn’t planning to sit in the bar all day. I thought about visiting Hamlet’s Castle and seeing some Viking boats and seeing the fjords, but despite beer being a massive part of my life, we only really got as far as booking a dinner at a brewery-cum-restaurant in Copenhagen for our anniversary before we whizzed off to Denmark.

And that’s what made the boozy wonder that was our Scandi trip all the more special.

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Our first taste of Scandi beer came in the form of a Tuborg Green (4.6%), sitting in the sun, with a plate of herrings next to the canal in Nyhavn, Copenhagen. You couldn’t get any more Danish if you tried. But this was exactly the type of beer experience I had been expecting – and not getting excited about. The beer was stock lager, the type of stuff I purposefully do not touch at home. I noticed that most of the restaurants and bars we looked into seemed to have the same, ominously green Tuborg and Carlsberg taps. “Oh well”, I thought, “I can deal with soft drinks and the occasional gin and tonic this holiday”.

Then Nørrebro Bryghus came out of nowhere and rocked our world.

norrebro glassSituated in what The Guardian once likened to “the Brixton of Copenhagen”, Nørrebro Bryghus is one of many trendy bars and restaurants popping up in this part of Denmark’s capital. Launched in 2003, the brewery has always had food and beer matching in its sights, marrying the rising popularity of both Scandi food and craft beer: “The brewhouse politely reminded the Nordic foodies something that Danish gastronomy seemed to have forgotten,” trumpeted their website, “that the best drink in combination with Nordic flavour is often the wonderful Nordic beer.” They also claim that they could very well be “the best beer restaurant in Scandinavia”, so we didn’t really think we could pass this one up (especially since we didn’t fancy taking out a second mortgage to eat at Noma).

Initially drawn in by their five-course tasting menu with matched beers, we arrived early for our reservation and started off with a drink in the downstairs bar. Set against a backdrop of the brewery itself, which is open for visitors’ inspection, the bar was bustling and cosy. The beer menu immediately got our hearts racing. American brown ale! Bock! Barley wine! We quickly began our descent into heavenly beery oblivion.

It was a night to remember.

norrebroglassesOur food and beer matched menu was exquisite; exactly what we had dreamed of when we had read about “New Nordic Cuisine”. It was so good, I accidentally ate all of my first course before I thought to take a photo. We also spent ages waxing lyrical to each other full-mouthed across the table about being served what literally appeared to be clouds made out of mustard.

The menu was as follows:

  • Cauliflower with mushroom purée and wild garlic paired with Çeske Böhmer Pilsner (5%)
  • Gravlax with hops, asparagus, nuts and mustard paired with New York Lager (5.2%)
  • Slow cooked beef chuck, potato purée and smoked jus paired with Ravnsborg Rød (5.5%)
  • 3 kinds of Danish cheese with sour sweet and crunchy “goodies” paired with Maharaja Double IPA (7.6%)
  • Lemon curd and wheat beer mousse with honey and oat crisps paired with Lemon Ale (3.5%)
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Our minds well and truly blown, we staggered back to our hotel ready to totally reassess Denmark’s beery offerings. As if by magic, our perception filters reset themselves. Yes, Tuborg and Carlsberg were ubiquitous. But we began to spot names like Nørrebro and Herslev Bryghus popping up on menus in restaurants, and even found bottles for sale in local supermarkets. We found a microbrewery, Bryggeriet Apollo, right in the heart of touristland, next to Tivoli, and an American diner offering a range of both local and international brews. Beer came back into focus for us, and before long we were google-mapping frantically in an attempt to find one of the Mikkeller bars.

“Gypsy” brewer Mikkeller (Mikkel Borg Bjergsø) doesn’t run a brewery in the strictest sense of the word, and has instead been traveling around brewing collaboration brews with other breweries since 2006. Initially created with friend Kristian Keller, hence the name, Mikkeller brews Noma’s house beer, exports to over 40 countries and has bars in San Francisco, Stockholm and Bangkok. A search for Mikkeller on Untappd now brings up a mind-boggling 700+ results. So you can see why we were keen to sniff out one of the bars in city where it all began.

mikkellerbar After a particularly long day of walking we ended up at the original Mikkeller Bar on Viktoriagade, thirsty and expecting great things. Tucked away in an area with a distinctly Shoreditch-y vibe, the bar was minimalist and trendy, and had a pleasingly massive blackboard listing 20 beers on tap, as well as a huge bottle menu.

mikkellerglass“Checking out the bar” inevitably ended up being three rounds and we tried Vesterbrown Ale (5%), Beer Geek Bacon (7.5% oatmeal stout), Vesterbro Wit (5%), Cream Ale (5%), Beer Geek Vanilla Shake (13%) and 10 (6.9%), between us – several unusual, all delicious. Thank goodness for relatively small craft beer portions.

We also had a mad social media moment in Mikkeller Bar – Mr Pip had a notification from Twitter informing him that several people he followed had started following Arizona Wilderness Brewing. He looked over to the bar to see brewers Jonathan Buford and Patrick Ware, who were still in town after the previous weekend’s Copenhagen Beer Celebration. Before long we were engaged in happy, boozy conversation. Beer really is an international language, and its speakers are the friendliest in the world.

We had held off the inevitable visit to the Carlsberg Visitors Centre until our final day in Copenhagen. A little outside of the city centre, we kept finding excuses to put it off, and our beery epiphanies with the likes of Nørrebro Bryghus and Mikkeller weren’t making the prospect of free Carlsberg any more appealing.

carlsbergbottles1So we were pleasantly surprised by our very enjoyable visit to Carlsberg. Blighted by memories of sipping from lukewarm green cans at grotty university house parties, it was easy to forget that Carlsberg has a long and interesting history. The visitors centre is housed in the original brewery which dates right back to 1847, and guides you through the brewery’s story, from J.C. Jacobsen’s stagecoach journey from Munich with his precious brewing yeast stored in a hatbox, through to its takeover of Tuborg and climb to 4th largest brewery group in the world. The museum, spread through the historic buildings, is impressive, and supplemented by the largest collection of unopened beer bottles in the world… over 22,000 at last count. We thoroughly enjoyed looking out for familiar labels… and finding some interesting international versions of the Carlsberg brand. The centre also boasts working stables where their horses – now only used as “brand ambassadors” – are kept.

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When we saw that our ticket had included two free drinks, we have to admit we weren’t that enthused. I even considered passing up on the offer. But after a bit of a walk from the train station and a wander around the complex we quite fancied a drink, and we approached the bar with some trepidation. It was with pleasant surprise that we saw that there were a few more interesting beers on offer.

We took the opportunity to try a Tuborg Rød (4.3%), a seasonal dark lager only brewed in May each year. While this wasn’t exactly Mikkeller, it was substantially more flavourful than my dim memories of those green cans all those years ago. Perhaps I had been wrong to dismiss Carlsberg out of hand for all this time.

jacobsenThis feeling was cemented by our second freebie. On the recommendation of the bartender we went for the Jacobsen Original Dark Lager (5.8%), brewed to the oldest recipe in the Carlsberg archives, from 1854. Jacobsen is Carlsberg’s “upscale” arm, founded in 2005 and making some more varied styles such as wit and dubbel. We were impressed with the Dark Lager, and a little upset that their offerings only came in 750ml bottles in the shop (as our luggage was already stuffed with Nørrebro bottles by this point).

We had come a long way from our initial disappointing glass of Tuborg in Nyhavn. Denmark had shown itself to have plenty to offer in terms of beer, and we wished that we had done a bit more research before arriving. But time was against us, and Denmark’s cousin to the north, Norway, before us. Surely, we thought, Norway can’t top this.

We were wrong. So wrong. And you can find out just how wrong, in part two.

bottles1– 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

Top of the hops

As certified beer geeks, we thought we knew quite a bit about hops. We can take a good guess at what country’s hops have gone into a beer by giving it a good sniff. We can rattle off a list of varieties from Amarillo to Zythos. We saw some German hop yards from the Munich to Nuremberg train, once. ‘We’re practically experts’, we thought.

It turns out we were wrong.

“That is the lupulin gland in the base of the flower, and this contains the alpha acid, the beta acid and all the hop oils,” says Ali Capper, owner of Stocks Farm and Publicity Director of the British Hop Association. ICIP is staring at a cross section of a hop flower and feeling very, very ignorant. “Depending on what analysis you look at, you sometimes get 10-12 oils listed, but the key ones are myrcene, humulene and farnesene. There are over 400 hop oils.”

ICIP has left the familiar hustle and bustle of the capital and swapped it for rural Worcestershire. We’ve come to Stocks Farm in Suckley, Worcestershire to meet with Ali, who has graciously offered to be our teacher for the day. And we are learning a lot.

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Ali has picked up on our current lack of knowledge and is thankfully starting us off with some basics about the world of hop growing. “Germany and America are about 35% of world hop production each,” she tells us. “The UK is only about 1.6%; we’re tiny. Australia and New Zealand together wouldn’t be as big as the UK.”

We’re stunned by this – we thought that Antipodean hops were all the rage. “Honestly, New Zealand is small – about 400 hectares,” Ali insists. “It makes a lot of noise; they’re just very good at marketing.” This is something that Ali believes the British are less good at – and she attaches a lot of weight to this when discussing the decline of the British hop industry. “We’ve forgotten how to talk about what we do. We’re typically British – we put them in the warehouse and hope somebody buys them. Literally. We haven’t been standing on the rooftops shouting about it like the New Zealanders have.”

DSC_0004From a peak of around 30,000 hectares in the late 19th century, hop farming in the UK has been shrinking progressively despite the recent boom in brewing, with only 1,000 hectares of hops growing today. This slow attrition of what was very much part of British heritage clearly struck a chord with Ali. “My husband’s father bought the farm in 1962, but this farm has farmed hops for at least 200 years,” she tells us as we sit out the rain with coffee in the farm kitchen. “A couple of years ago we had 100 acres of hops which were less than marginal. If you looked at the numbers, it was costing us money to grow and sell them. And my husband, who had farmed hops his whole life, was saying ‘we’re going to have to stop because we’re not making any money’. That’s a really big deal.” But Ali wasn’t going down without a fight. “I said: give me three years and I’ll see if I can turn this ship around.”

It was a worthy cause, but where do you start when attempting to revive an ailing industry? “I started thinking: what if I try to market British hops as a brand? What’s special about us?” says Ali, bringing her previous experience in marketing and advertising to the fore. “Well, firstly, 1.6% makes us a niche. In market terms we don’t need to worry about industrial scale brewers.”

With vastly larger hop-growing areas, the Germans and Americans have spent many years investing on their breeding programmes, developing varieties high in the all-important alpha acid. This is what lends the hops their bittering quality. “Historically, alpha has been a commodity, and industrial scale brewers have been buying it up,” says Ali. “Our highest alpha varieties were 14-16% alpha, whereas the US and Germany have varieties that are over 20%. It’s a numbers game. If their variety has 4-5% more alpha per kilo, you can’t compete.” But things have changed, and Ali believes that it’s all down to craft beer: “Craft brewing has changed the landscape, and that’s down to hop usage. To demonstrate that, consider that craft brewing now represents 8% of all US beer production. But it buys over 40% of the hops. Industrial-scale brewers want to use as few hops as possible.”

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With hop usage on the rise, and a growing demand for more range as brewers began to experiment, it was the perfect time to push British hops back onto the world stage. “I rang Dr Peter Derby, our hop breeder, and asked him to co-author a paper with me. The premise of the paper was ‘what makes British hops unique, scientifically?’. Because I could put any old marketing blurb on it. I wanted the facts,” says Ali. Their research threw up some fascinating results.

“What makes British hops entirely unique is our climate. It is maritime, but it is dull maritime,” Ali tells us. “There is even precipitation throughout the year – we’re the only hop growing area in the world which on the whole doesn’t irrigate. There are some exceptions in Kent on light sandy soil where they do, but the majority of our crop here in the UK isn’t irrigated.”

So what does this mean for the hops? Ali and Peter got an analytical analysis of several hop varieties grown in the UK, the US and in New Zealand, and compared the results. “The only part of the analysis that was different was myrcene, which is an indicator of monoterpenes… and they are an indicator for aroma intensity,” says Ali. “We have lower myrcene in hops grown in Britain, mostly because of sunlight levels. So a variety grown in the UK will have lower aroma intensity levels than the same hop grown in the USA or Australia.”

Oh. Well… that’s a bit of a shame, isn’t it? Does that mean that our hops are a bit… bland?

“No,” Ali says emphatically. “This is where it’s special. Lower myrcene means there’s more room for everything else. That’s a long list. It means that the hop flavour from a British hop is more complex because there’s more room for the other flavour indicators. The aromas have more range, more breadth and more depth.” Perhaps we’ve been blinded by the craze of mouth-puckeringly hoppy IPAs. “If you think what are we famous for in terms of world brewing, we’re known for very drinkable, sessionable beers – the reason why we can produce these is the breadth in our hops. One dimensional beers are great for one pint, but they don’t bring people back for another. American craft brewers are experimenting with British hops and the commercial reality that they can deliver session beers.”

logo-e1346773961375“So that’s the USP – delicate, complex aromas,” Ali concludes. With this identified, she set about shaking up the British Hop Association (previously The National Hop Association). In fact, the renaming was her own suggestion: “Our best visual mnemonic is the Union Jack, so I said we had to be the British Hop Association,” she explains. “They needed a website, one place where anybody – brewers in particular – can go for the correct information on British hops, because there’s a lot of misinformation out there. We needed to work with our merchants, to make marketing plans to get them to sell better on our behalf. And we needed to start standing on the rooftops and shouting about what is special about British hops.”

It is hugely impressive what Ali has achieved in the last two years. “There’s no big PR agency; there’s just me. When the media pick up the phone to speak to someone about British hops they’re amazed to be speaking to someone who farms, and that they can come to a farm. But I think that has helped a lot.”

The BHA is a group of growers who fund three main ventures: their breeding programme, crop protection lobbying and – more recently, under Ali’s tutelage – their marketing efforts. This new addition to their agenda is particularly important, she believes, as even well-seasoned brewing professionals don’t seem to know half as much about British hops as they think they do.

“There are over twenty British hops being grown commercially, but most experienced brewers have only brewed with a handful. None of them have tried them all. My challenge to the brewing industry was to go and try what’s on offer before you beat us up for what’s not available. And that has had a lot of traction.” She cites Admiral – recently experiencing a boost in popularity – as a prime example. “Suddenly everyone is talking about Admiral again. But it’s only because we started the dialogue. That’s our job as growers; to keep the dialogue up.”

Our introduction to the world of hops complete, and the rain finally clearing up outside, we head out to see the hop yards first hand. On our way we pass through some of the 100 acres of apple orchards also situated at Stocks Farm, currently displaying some bodacious blossom. Having seen some of the tall posts and wires from a distance at the top of the valley, we’re a bit confused when Ali comes to a halt in front of what looks like a scant hedgerow.

DSC_0024“We pioneered low trellis hop growing,” she explains. “With a high trellis hop, you have to string it by hand every year, and you have to tie the plants clockwise around the string. But with this system we would hope to get a 20-25 year life from the post and wirework and 7-10 year life on the net, because it’s UV light resistant. The plant is perennial and self-training. So it’s quite important from a labour perspective.” A further benefit of this system is that the hops can be harvested mechanically rather than the entire plant being taken away to have the flowers stripped from the bine. “Our hop picking machine is quite delicate. A lot of American machinery thrashes the hops. Because ours are seeded they are more delicate and more easily broken up.”

“This is quite special,” Ali says, crouching by the trellis. “This is Endeavour.” This hop was created by Peter Derby, the result of the BHA’s breeding programme. “One parent is Cascade and the other was a wild English male. So it has some of the same citrussy properties as Cascade but with a broader spectrum of blackcurranty, summer fruit type aromas. It’s a gorgeous hop.” With last year’s crop going almost exclusively to St Austell and Marstons, Ali says there will  be more available this year. “I am really excited by what the craft brewers will do with it – they didn’t really have access to it last year.”

As we stomp down the hillside we see the more familiar tall hop yards come into view. “You’ve got your post and your wirework, and that the top there are little hooks,” Ali points out. “In the ground we’ve got a metal peg, and in March we come through with a long pole with a hook on the end called a monkey and we use that to take the string onto the top hook, down onto the peg, up and down, by hand. Then the team come back and tie the hop clockwise – always clockwise, otherwise it falls off! Then we burn off what’s left on the ground to help the plant concentrate its growth upwards.” The time-saving benefits of the low trellis system are becoming more and more apparent. “If it’s windy in April and May they all fall off and you have to come back and do it again,” she says. “By July they’ll have hit the top, in August and September they put out their lateral growth, and then the hop. The flowering is triggered by the shortening of daylight length.”

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As we look through the web of strings disappearing into the distance, it strikes us that this is a lot of hop. Do they really have to harvest all this at once? Ali beckons us over to some rather sad, crispy looking plants in the next yard. “This is Target. And it looks like it’s dying! This is one of the last varieties that we harvest – we can’t do it all at once! In order to manage the staging of stringing and tying what we do with some of the varieties is burn them back chemically and then they regrow later. By that time we’re ready to tie them. Target is one of the later ones we harvest, usually early October, so it doesn’t need to get going yet, it’s still got some time.”

As we begin walking back up to the farmhouse, we’re reflecting on the amazing amount of (wo)man-power that goes into growing this special plant that we have taken so much for granted. It seems like a tough job in and of itself, even before you take into account the unpredictable weather we’ve had over the last few years in the UK, and also the threat of pests and disease. “I don’t know how you feel about pesticides; it’s a debate we can have, but it’s very difficult in our maritime climate to grow horticultural crops without some armoury of crop protection because we’ve got downy or powdery mildew and pests like aphids and red spider,” explains Ali. “Hops are a minor crop, so they get very little attention from chemical companies. It means our armoury of chemicals diminishes every year.”

We listen to horror stories of what sounds like the hop world equivalent to BSE or foot and mouth – verticillium wilt (it even sounds like a comic book villain): “It’s a disease borne on the soil, so it’s moved by boots from farm to farm. It kills the plant and once it gets into your soil, if you have a variety that is susceptible to it, it will continue to kill the plants if you replant,” Ali says. “There were some outbreaks in the 40s and 50s and since then work has been done to grow varieties that are wilt-resistant. But some varieties, like Fuggle, are not. So there are  fewer and fewer farms it can grow on. Often on a farm which hasn’t had wilt you’ll be asked to wear their boots, to park off the farm, so that there’s no chance that you can infect the land.” We look at our own footwear suspiciously, eyeing them for evil spores. “Wilt is a big contributor to the reason why British hops have declined,” Ali adds. “When we had it the Germans didn’t, and they were busy exporting. There was a time when the German and British growers were about the same, but they have grown as we have fallen behind.”

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Back at the farm, there’s just time to check out the old hop kiln before we have to leave. This is attached to the farmhouse – the previous owners obviously liked living dangerously – and is now mostly used for events and teaching. “You can imagine coal fires on the ground floor, pushing heat up by fans. The floors there were a wire mesh, so that would have been the kiln.” Ali points out an enormous contraption in the middle of the room. “That is an original hop press. It hasn’t been used since the 1970s, but it was engineered at the Bruff in Suckley. That is the engineering name of the most famous hop picking machine in the world. In New Zealand, Tasmania and in America you will find Bruff hop pickers. So it’s gone off all over the world, but it’s from Suckley.”DSC_0069

It’s this sort of history, and Ali’s passion for it, that make it clear why she fought so hard to revive the industry. “I am determined that we are not going to let this industry die. I am determined that we’re not going to have to replant 100 acres of hops. And fundamentally I am determined that we are going to be paid a sustainable return for what we’re growing – all British hop growers.” Ali isn’t naive about the challenges ahead. “It’s a huge job to do. But it’s about getting those clear messages out there about what makes us different, getting people excited about existing and new British hop varieties, and getting brewers to explore.”

DSC_0071Before we wave goodbye to the farm, Ali points us in the direction of nearby Ledbury for lunch, recommending a bottle shop run by a local cider producer who uses Stocks Farm’s apples. After almost being converted from beer to cider after sampling a few snifters of Worcestershire and Herefordshire’s finest, we notice some local beers for sale. There, front and centre, are bottles of Mayfields Brewery beers, proudly emblazoned with Ali’s ‘made with British hops’ logo.

Naturally, we take a few home with us… knowing that we would have a new appreciation for every complex, nuanced mouthful.

The British Hop Association website is a great resource for anyone wanting to learn more about hops, how they are grown and the history of hop growing in Britain.

You can see more pictures from our trip on our Facebook page

– PS

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