Sunday, 28 August 2011

Dear Diary.... (part 2)

Dear Diary,

My head is really awhirl at the moment - I forgot to mention the very thing that prompted me to open you yesterday!

Tomorrow morning (on Monday), just after 8am, on BBC Radio Leeds, I've been asked to do come in and do an interview about the closure of Leeds' Tetleys brewery, and what that means for the beer scene in the city. I'm very much looking forward to it.

It reminds me that a little while ago, I wrote a piece for Leigh at The Good Stuff. He was doing a guest post for another blog and asked for a quick soundbite about the closure. Me being me, I couldn't stop writing, and unfortunately the soundbite ended up as a short essay. I suppose here is as good a place as any to reproduce it. Until next time, dear diary....


There will be an older generation of drinkers who mourn the closure of the Tetley brewery as though it were the death of a close relative. And there will be a younger generation of drinkers who wonder what all the fuss is about.

The older generation are wrong to mourn its closing - it's true that the presence of Tetley's in Leeds is an important cultural artefact, but once Tetley's became Carlsberg-Tetley's, its days were numbered. And the younger generation are wrong to ignore its closure - the maxim that you need to know your past before you can know your future rings true here.

While the mantle of beer production in Leeds now passes to Leeds Brewery, Tetley's the brand still exists. How you feel about the relocation of production isn't about how the beer tastes, or how an international business has treated its assets. It's about a personal story, about how you relate to current affairs and weave them into your personal history.

So my plea is neither to bury Tetley's nor to praise it. The old guard have spent years complaining about how the beer isn't what it was - that's the nature of nostalgia. And the new brooms will most likely have tried it once and dismissed it as old-fashioned - that's the nature of youth. What I urge both parties to do is see the cultural significance of this event, and use it as a spur to their drinking habits - local, global, traditional, innovative, it's about integrity. Drink what you like, and like what you drink, but do it for the right reasons - not solely for the sake of tradition, nor solely for the sake of fashion, but do it because it has a deeper meaning.

Beer is about storytelling, sociability, and an exchange of ideas. It's a centuries old tradition that will endure beyond a particular brand, and it's a story that needs retelling every day to be kept alive. Whether that's over a pint of local ale in a local pub, or at home over a bottle of beer that has a ruinous number of air miles attached to it, I'm not sure it matters. However you perform it, enjoy the ritual and keep the faith.

Saturday, 27 August 2011

Dear Diary.....

Dear Diary, what a couple of weeks it's been.

Karen (my business partner) has been away on holiday for the last two weeks, and the experience of piloting the business on my own has been both exhilarating and exhausting in equal measures. Add to this a lot of top-secret behind-the-scenes stuff, some of which will in all probability never be public knowledge, and it's been quite a trip. A lot of the secret stuff has been keeping me awake at night, and has involved a fair amount of tossing and a little turning, but it's all good, believe me.

As if I didn't have enough on my plate, I've also started another blog. Leeds Homebrew is an attempt to get the homebrewers in and around my fair city to share recipes, meet up once a quarter, and give honest and supportive evaluation of each other's efforts. I have to admit to being a little disappointed about the initial take up in contributions or feedback, but I guess we'll set up the first two meets and see what happens.

Looking forward, I can see that I have a busy few weeks ahead of me. It seems that I'm scheduled to hold a tasting event at the music venue The Deaf Institute in Manchester this Tuesday. I think it's a combined public-staff session, but I'm sure if people want more information, they can contact the venue directly.

I also need to find time this week to get my entry together for the annual British Guild of Beer Writers awards dinner. I've had a pretty good year, despite being worked to the bone for the last 6 months, and I do hope I get recognised for both my exceptional talent and understated modesty.

The 15th will see me at North Bar in Leeds, drinking the beer that I brewed with Denzil from Great Heck Brewery, Heckstra-Ordinary Best Bitter. I may even say a few words about it, and about how it's an attempt to make an ordinary brown bitter for the 21st century. I haven't tried it myself, and so I may be setting myself up for a fall, but hey, that's the nature of being a wide-eyed loner at the frontiers of craft beer (whatever that may eventually turn out to mean).

Later in the month, I'm heading to London for a day to judge the Sainsbury's beer competition, and hopefully meet wine bloke Olly Smith. Olly won a competiton a few years ago organised by Hardy's called "Wine Idol". I was going to enter it myself, but sadly never got it together - how different my life may be today if I had! But Olly seems like a good chap, and I look forward to meeting in him in all his bequiffed and ruddy-cheeked glory.

I've also just received a cheeky email from the folk who are doing the PR for SIBA, asking me to plug their Great Northern Beer Festival on my blog. They're clearly a bit new at this, as it's customary to offer something in return for a favour - usually a couple of tickets, or something - but I'm sure that they'll get the idea eventually.

Until next time, dear diary.....

Sunday, 21 August 2011


When Pete Brown, Mark Dredge and I went up to BrewDog to brew our eponymous beer, I spent a good chunk of the drive from Aberdeen to Fraserburgh talking to James Watt about how I wanted to start a homebrew school in Leeds. Basically, have a very small plant (say 25 litre) that people who were interested in brewing, but didn't know where to start, could come and brew under supervision, leave the beer to ferment, and then bottle it themselves. I have to admit that my constant blathering was mainly help to keep my mind off how hideously hungover/drunk I felt, but sadly the idea never got off the ground.

I started homebrewing as a way of understanding the process and pitfalls that go to make up the finished product. It was sort of an academic interest, just without any academic rigour - hence me tipping away 35 litres of infected homebrew this evening (note to self: obsess more about sanitation). It also helps that, if everything goes right, you end up with a few cases of beer at the end of the process. By virtue of it being (a) really fresh and (b) the fruit of your own labour, you usually get something pretty enjoyable out of it too.

I've been given quite a bit of homebrew lately, and there are two questions that these precious bottles raise for me. Firstly, should they be judged at all, or just silently drunk (or poured away)? And secondly, if they are to be judged and evaluated, should they be judged against commercial beers, or should we cut some slack?

Going back to a point that I made in my previous post, I'm quite happy to give polite, honest feedback to anybody, as I'm sure plenty of brewers will know by now. So I was wondering if there was any mileage in starting a group blog, based in Leeds, for homebrewers to post recipes on, and then meet quarterly to try the beers that they are brewing?

In fact, to take it a step further, I've created a blog around which to base the idea - Leeds Homebrew (we can change the name later) - and I've posted my first ever homebrew recipe on there. The format of that post is what I hope will be a standard format for recipes posted - if you want to add liquor treatment, or any other details, then please do. But recipe first, comments second.

If you'd like to get involved, and think that you can meet once a quarter, and bring some homebrew along, then why not get involved? The only stipulation is that the beer brought along has to be made at home. Commercial brewers are welcome, but you can't bring beer that you've made on your big shiny kit at work. If you want to contribute, email me and I'll add you as an author on the blog - zak(at)

But to get back to the original point - are these homebrews for drinking or review?

(Bottles pictured (L-R) - @GhostDrinker - "Red Room", Dean @MrFoleys - "Suspicious Minds", @cheeeseboiger - "Construkt", Craig (I thought it was @craighall, but it isn't, sorry - please get in touch!) - "Resonance Cascade", @thebarleyswine (missing in action) - "Saison Brett" & "Transcontinental Shit Mix", @iamlonewolf - "Arctic Stout"

Saturday, 13 August 2011

To The Crafterati: An Apology

There's been a lot of debate lately (notably on Beer Birra Bier and Tandleman's blogs respectively) around how best to go about reporting bad beer experiences. This is a topic close to my heart, as I've been accused on more than one occasion of being one of the 'cheery beery' crowd - reporting how great everything is, and never passing comment on anything bad.

Like many commentators, I think it's a tough call. I prefer to focus on the good experiences, but that's not to say that I never give bad feedback. The majority of my reporting back is direct to the brewers. Plenty of times over the last few years, I've had need to tell people that their work isn't up to snuff, and I'm not talking about taking a pint back - most often, it's been multiple cases, or a whole run of one beer, and once, nearly a full pallet of bottles.

Most of the time, there's no need to 'go public' with these things. Sometimes beer does make it into the supply chain before a fault is spotted, but in relatively small quantities. I've seen beers pass into circulation, and people pass comment on them. Most of the time, these beers are withdrawn or sent back. It's irritating when this happens, but is mostly handled correctly by brewers.

But that's not the main thrust of this post. The main idea here is to pick up on some things I said about The Crafterati a little while ago. I'm happy to hold up my hands and say that I was wrong about a few things in that post, or at least gave the wrong impression about what I thought. And here's why.

When I see people criticising 'boring brown beer', it irritates me. It irritates me because these 'boring brown beers' are part of our brewing heritage, and these are the beers that inspired a generation of American craft brewers. They were inspired by imports to the US in the 80s, or by visiting the UK, and then they brewed beer with local ingredients. And when Ken Grossman chose local Cascade hops with which to make Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, he defined a beer style, and to a lesser degree, the entire American craft brewing movement. And we all know how influential that movement is in the UK today.

I love some boring brown bitters. Hook Norton Old Hooky, Batemans XXXB, Wadworths 6X - classics all. They taste great, and are living icons of a classic ale brewing tradition. I like boring brown bitter so much that when Denzil at Great Heck Brewing invited me for a brew day (that's him mashing in - yes, that's quite a full mash tun), I wanted to do an ordinary brown bitter with knobs on. Sure, it's a single-hop beer, dry-hopped with a shedload of Apollo, but at it's heart, there's crystal and amber malt. Yummy, nutty, and ordinary with knobs on. It's like a great meat and potato pie - done well, it's indisputably fabulous. Denzil and I will be launching it at North Bar in the next couple of weeks - do come along and let us know what you think.

But hold on. Those beers that I love are have been around forever - that's part of their appeal to me. What is inexcusable - and here's where I'm making kissy-kissy to the crafterati - is that there is still a lot of crappy brown beer being made. If you're going to make a beer that takes a classic as its model - say Bateman's XXXB for the sake of argument - you'd better damn well improve on it. Every week, I receive samples of beer that are both dull and badly made. And that isn't good enough. And so this is the bit where I set out my stall and say sorry to The Crafterati - you're right, there's no excuse for that sort of rubbish.

Of course, that knife cuts both ways. To use a recent example, on International IPA Day, at Mr Foleys, I bought a couple of beers that I left after a few sips - there's no excuse for making unbalanced, clumsy hop-and-malt bombs either. So along with a new tranche of traditional brewers making inexcusably boring and faulty beer, we have a new wave of radical brewers occasionally trying too hard.

Change is good, but change for the sake of it - substituting the new crappy for the old crappy - strikes me as a bit pointless.

Friday, 5 August 2011

Magic Rock Brewing: The Bottles

Last night's IPA day event at Mr Foleys in Leeds was a lot of fun. Beer, people, blather, and the chance for a few people to be utterly fabulous in their own way (yes, I was one of the fabulous, just for one night). But of course, it wasn't about the people, even people as fabulous as me. It was about the beer.

There's a bit of a paradox to good beer, in that if it's really good, it doesn't hang around for long. I'm not sure which was the first IPA to sell out - maybe it was the Rooster's Underdog? - but Magic Rock Human Cannonball, their double IPA, sold out early on too. But, as Leigh at The Good Stuff says, more on this later.

Magic Rock Rapture (4.6%abv) is a red ale, which I have a sneaking suspicion is becoming a style that more 'craft' brewers are seeing as a 'must-have' in their range. Rapture has a really nutty aroma, alongside a faintly spicy hop character. On the palate, more nutty malt leads the way - biscuity amber malt seems to be prominent, which is fine by me. Overall, the beer is quite malt driven, which I actually quite liked - a respite from the 'more hops with everything' approach that is so prevalent at the moment. [EDIT - as Neil from eating isn't cheating points out, this beer is hoppier than I make it sound here. A bottle tried today was much hoppier than I remember, so perhaps I had a duff bottle?]

Having said that, High Wire (5.5%abv) is hoptastic, and will be immediately familiar to anyone who has tried any of brewer Stuart Ross's beers before. Pale malt lays a blank canvas against which citrus and hop character is deployed, to dazzling effect. Mango, lime, jasmine, this pushes all my buttons, and at that strength, happily qualifies for my 'ruinously drinkable' tag.

If you were at Foleys on Tuesday, you'll have heard me say a little bit about the cross-pollination of ideas between British and American brewing cultures. Cannonball (7.4%abv - surely not the first beer to be brewed to strength with an eye on the incoming strong beer tax later this year?) straddles those two cultures like a colossus, keeping a weather eye on rumbustious malty English ales, and hop-led American beasts. It's big and chunky, and shows its strength with a little warmth, but I actually quite enjoy that slightly raucous quality.

And that would be the end of the bottle reviews, but for the kindness of the guys at Magic Rock, who hand-bottled me a sample of their IIPA Human Cannonball, pictured left arriving on a pallet of their beers. Hey, you might have to buy a pallet of beers to get it, but that's what being fabulous means. Human Cannonball (9.2%abv) picks up where Cannonball leaves off, more raucous and rumbustious, the sort of beer that kicks open your mouth, bum rushes your palate, and grafittis HAVE IT!! in fluorescent paint on your olfactory bulb. It's not big, it's not clever, and that's the point. There's room for grace and elegance, and there's room for stoopid fun, just as there's room for both Brian Eno and MC Hellshit & DJ Carhouse in my music collection.

And so when people started saying "noooo!" at the bar around 10pm, it was because the biggest, stoopidest beer of the evening had run out before they'd got a chance to try it. I was working up to it myself, and didn't get to try it on the night, stopping at Thornbridge Geminus (8.5%abv), a kick-ass concoction of hops, malt, rye and muscovado sugar. Happily, I'd tried it a few days earlier, and damn, anyone saying "noooo!" doesn't know the half of it.

Magic Rock. Hell yeah.