Swan Valley Breweries

My, what a shift – Saturday: hanging out under Perth’s washed-out-blue skies, walking through heat-shimmering orange-dusty car parks, enjoying almost-40°C (104°F) temperatures, and necking cold beers. Today: back in English winter. Not exactly freezing – but a chilly ~10°C (50°F), grey, damp.

Feral Brewery, Swan Valley, Perth, Western Australia

Summer – Feral Brewery, Swan Valley, Perth, Western Australia

Winter - Carpark, Gatwick Airport, West Sussex, England

Winter – Carpark, Gatwick Airport, West Sussex, England

Anyway – on said hot and sunny Saturday I took a beery flash-tour of the Swan Valley, Perth’s doorstep “Wine Region” – which, like my homeland Margaret River Wine Region, has developed a small co-industry of boutique drink-in breweries. In nearly 20 years growing up in Western Australia and then a subsequent 15 years visiting about once a year I have never actually set foot in the Swan Valley. I’ve avoided Perth and surrounds in general to be honest… I prefer it “down home”. However on this trip I decided to explore where beer was at around the capital city, and the Swan Valley is home to a small but varied brewing cluster. If you’re interested in a specific brewery I visited you can jump to: Ironbark Brewery, Elmar’s Brewery, or Feral Brewery – alas we were unable to visit Mash or Duckstein.

View Swan Valley Breweries in a larger map

Ironbark Brewery (sign with Colin)

Ironbark Brewery

Ironbark Brewery
Summary: OK beers, shambolic service

Ironbark is the closest Swan Valley brewery to Perth city – we arrived at the brewery just before midday and wandered into the bar. The place has a cluttered “Heath Robinson” feel, like I was trespassing on some Aussie tinkerers verandah. The midday heat was at its near-40°C full-force – the supposedly cooling mist-spray seemed to vapourise before it could reach you… a cold beer was in order!

Ironbark Brewery - Entrance

Ironbark Brewery entrance

The good news was that being midday it was before Saturday’s 1pm-4pm “beer tasters blackout” – presumably something done to avoid hassle when the place is heaving with tourist-bus crowds. However on asking for one I was initially refused “we don’t do beer tasters on Saturdays”. “But”, said I, “your sign clearly says from 1pm”. I’m met with some consternation – someone got it wrong I’m told. They reluctantly offer me a tasting platter, I accept and make my choices – it take a little time as there are no notes about the beers on offer. I say nothing about the fact that the 1pm being a mere typo is hard to believe given it is displayed in two locations in the bar, is on their website, and also printed on every copy of their menu – none of which seem super-recently printed. (AU$10 for 5x 80ml samples.)

Beer Board

Beer Board

We gathered our beers and retreated to a patio table (it’s all patio here). The good news: the beers were fine. Although not outstanding, I was happy enough drinking them and would certainly enjoy a glass or two more from the selection – my notes, written at time of tasting:

  • Country Wheat – 4.4% – “top fermented ale with estery flavours”
    (right) Loads of orange peel, very nice & refreshing though intense.
  • Aussie Pils – 4.4% – “brewed using Saaz hops”
    (2nd from right) Fruity & a little odd. But quite drinkable.
  • Blokes Brown – 5% – “brown ale”
    (middle) A bit TCPish – handful of smoked malt. Not easy going. Seaweedy.
  • Hannans – 5.5% – “typical Australian style lager”
    (2nd from left) Very light, herbal fruity, sort of fejoa-like. Peppery.
  • Munich Lager – 4.5% – “bottom fermented beer using Munich malt”
    (left) Clean and lightly caramel. Medicinal herby note to finish.
Ironbark Brewery - Beer Tasters

Ironbark Brewery – Beer Tasters

Ironbark Brewery - Beer Board

Beer (and “pear cider”) Board

In retrospect, thinking back to the fruity/estery type flavours, I’m left pondering the possibility of over-warm fermentation temperatures and what yeast(s) they’re using. Not critically mind you, more in the spirit of wanting to know more about things. The Hannans is the beer of the set that I most enjoyed, the Country Wheat just a bit too overdone in the orange-peel department, the Blokes Brown a bit too rough, and the other two exhibiting a little too much medicinal oddness. That said, I’d be happy enough drinking a middy of any of them – none were bad. (It really should be kept in mind that when I write my beer descriptions I’m looking at the edges: the “hints”, “zests”, and “notes” that make a beer different – often potential flaws – if I think a beer is bad or good I’ll say so, if I don’t say it is either then it is OK.)

Having enjoyed my tasting selection I returned to the bar to fill in a couple of gaps and to see if I could get a bottle of their stronger “IPA” to take away with me. For good reason the girl at the bar is reluctant: I’m not going straight home, the car is going to be a hot place to keep a beer, the beer will be unhappy (I’ve already mentioned the near-40°C heat). Good advice, sensible service. So I ask for a “middy” to enjoy now. I’m charged $7.50 – and note that their sign advertising the beer says it is $6.50. Another woman at the bar, the “1pm is midday” one from earlier chimes in with “that’s the bottle price”. Well, it says “middy” on the board against the price…. more bullshit service. I question how long they’ve been doing this beer thing… 17 years I’m told. Amazing that they’ve been in business that long and still can’t get their shit together on the service front. Anyway, I did enjoy my final two beers despite the hassle, finishing on the Warrior Ale IPA-type-thing-with-honey-in was certainly ending on a high-note:

  • Colin with Rousies & Warrior Ale (right)

    Colin with Rousies & Warrior Ale (right)

    Rousies – 4.4% – “German style lager”
    (left) Light malt blast, Kat says “Green King Twang”, I think a bit Burton-y. Good though, IMO.

  • Warrior Ale – 7% – “40 IBU beer, made with local banksia honey”
    (right) Yum. Rich dark honey comes through, finishing with a beaut hop resin from the Galaxy.

We were going to eat at Ironbark – the idea of wood fired pizza was appetizing. But having seen the pizza being constructed on pre-made cardboard-stiff bases, and in light of the general service level experienced, we decided to move on to the next brewery instead.

I would recommend visiting Ironback Brewery to try out the beers, but probably do your best to to avoid the busyness of Saturday… and the pizza (if you have “standards” for “woodfired pizza”).

Ironbark Brewery - Patio

Ironbark Patio

Elmar’s in the Valley
Summary: slick, good service, clean beers

A German-esque brewery with a “glass kettle” – the theme here is “purity”. “A key feature of Elmar’s in the Valley is a giant glass kettle, used to enhance the flavours and purity of the beers.” They tag themselves as a “micro glass brewery”, which to me just sounds a bit odd – an attempt at humour perhaps.

Elmar's - Outside

Elmar’s – Outside

We stepped from the heat into the cool air-conditioned building with relief… short-lived since, understandably, they were busy and we had to take a table outside on the somewhat greenhouse-like open verandah. Once again cold beer beckoned!

Emar's - Beer List (1)

Emar’s – Beer List (1)

Elmar's - Beer List (2)

Elmar’s – Beer List (2)

Elmar's - Marzen

Elmar’s – Marzen (Lack of “ä” true to their list!)

Our table was next to the outside bar where we discovered that only a handful of the beers on the list were available. Thus my order for the Cloudy Pils and my brother’s for the Schwarzbier were met with a sad shaking of the head. So I grabbed a mug of the 4.8% Marzen – which was an acceptable “beery” beer but not quite reminiscent of märzens as I’ve experienced them, it didn’t quite have enough “oom pah”.

  • Marzen – 4.8%
    A beery beer.

We had ourselves a quick lunch at Elmar’s – a simple plate of cold bits and pieces and some breads and dip. Not a bad selection and amount as a light lunch for five. Although not particularly outstanding – like the beer a certain something was lacking, no real flavour excitement.

Elmar's - Beer Tasters

Elmar’s – Beer Tasters

After eating I wandered into the inside bar – and discovered that the beers we had originally wanted were available in there. (My sister had been told the inside selection was the same as the outside selection – perhaps we had just come at a bad between-keg moment.) So I was able to try a selection of three more beer samples. (AU$5 for 3x 80ml samples.)

  • Schwarzbier – 5%
    (left) Oo, roasty toasty, good stuff.
  • Over Draught – 4.8%
    (right) Malty sweet but very pleasant ice cold on a hot day. Estery and quite complex.
  • Cloudy Pils – 4.8%
    (middle) Smooth & slips down easy. Excellent finishing bite. Lemon pithy hop zest.

Overall the beers here hit a little above what I was expecting for the Aussie take on German-esque beers. Past experience has led me to expect a suffusion of blandosity. Nothing here really made me tingle… but the variation was good and the beers rather clean & crisp flavoured compared to Ironbark. The Schwarzbier and Cloudy Pils were both very more-ish – though they need to put more “schwarz” in their schwarzbier in my opinion, as more evident in the photo below!

Colin With Elmar's Beers

Colin With Elmar’s Beers – Schwarzbier on left.


Mash Brewing - Not Open

Mash Brewing – Not Open

Mash Brewing
Summary: not open

We rocked up at Mash and things immediately didn’t look quite right. A large group of vaguely bored and perturbed looking blokes were milling about under a tree and the carpark was virtually empty. Closer inspection revealed that the brewery was:


Bummer! I hope the tour-group didn’t have to wait long for their pick-up.

Duckstein Brewery
Summary: not open

We’d decided to skip Duckstein as it was immediately after the similarly Germanic Elma’s. I’d also already been to Duckstein’s place down Margaret River way on a previous visit home – albeit not reviewed the experience (I think “typically bland” comes to mind). I also can’t help but think of Duckburg every time I hear or see the word “Duckstein” – so I have trouble taking them seriously in my head! But given the Mash situation we backtracked to try Duckstein out instead. Alas! Alack! Duckstein had a sign out “Closed for Function”. Ho hum… there was nothing for it but to trek off to the other side of the valley to…

Feral Brewing - Kat & Sign

Feral Brewing – Kat & Sign

Feral Brewing Company
Summary: AWESOME!

Feral can be found all alone on the east side of the Swan Valley (every other Swan Valley brewery being on the west). Feral is probably the only name in this list a British beer drinker is likely to have heard of – and that’s mainly thanks to Wetherspoon’s. Feral is one of the breweries they collaborate with for the “international” selection in the festival beer list, twice now in fact. They’re also the only brewery in this visit that I’ve tried beer from before – as bottled Feral White, Porter, and Hop Hog are readily available in bottle shops and also quite a few pubs.

Feral - Plentiful Bar Staff

Plentiful Feral Bar Staff

As with Elmar’s the place was heaving when we got there – we were glad they had a table available, also outside. Thankfully the mist-spray was effective and a light breeze had come up so it was pleasant sitting out on the deep shady verandah. I popped inside to grab a selection of beers – a set-menu style tasting tray was advertised so I went for that, also noting that all the beers were offered in an 80ml tasting size as well as “regular” and “large” glasses. The pre-selected tasting tray was a delight of variety! (AU$16.50 for 6x 80ml samples.)

  • Sly Fox – 4.7% – “Summer Ale”
    (left) Beaut light little hop gremlin. Light fizzy passionfruit juice.
  • White – 4.6% – “White Beer (Witbier)”
    (2nd from left) Vanilla-sweet coriander cream soda. Lemony.
  • Amber – 3.6% – “Australian Amber Ale”
    (3rd from left) Peachy resin pepper melon.
  • Hop Hog – 5.8% – “American IPA”
    (3rd from right) Super sweet lychee juice. Quite different to the bottle.
  • Smoked Porter – 4.7% – “Porter”
    (2nd from right) Cabanossi on the nose, less so in the mouth, rich sweet shlenkerla-like body but less intense. Herbal cough syrup end.
  • Karma Citra – 5.9% – “Black IPA”
    (right) Wow. It’s warmed up a bit by now and comes across just like a very good cask BIPA. Or maybe BD EFP’11.
Feral - Tasting Tray

Feral – Tasting Tray

A hard-hitting lineup of flavoursome enjoyment. I wanted more of everything really, but there were beers untried so I grabbed a few more samples.

  • Barrique O’Karma – 6.6% – “Barrique Fermented Black IPA”
    (primary fermentation new French oak!)
    (left) Tastes like BIPA that’s been in a barrel. Hops slightly muted, and a great sandalwoody spice picked up. Beaut beer.
  • Boris – 11.5% – “Russian Imperial Stout”
    (2nd from left) Pow – alcoholic licorice rod. “liquid vegimite” says one of the party. Wish I could have more.
  • Fantapants – 8.5% – “Imperial Red IPA”
    (2nd from left) Toasted rye, light antiseptic, zesty. Big hop resin.
  • Raging Flem – 7.6% – “Belgian Style IPA”
    (right) Iffy. Sort of melony overripe fruit. A bit nasty.
Feral - Tasters

Colin’s struggling now…

Score so far: 10 beers, 9 lovely, 1 rather horrid. That’s pretty damn good going. The Raging Flem just didn’t taste right or good to me – this often happens when I see the words “Belgian” and “IPA” near each other. The name may not be helping with the perception here… on the other hand I just love the catchy name “Fantapants”, no idea why. The Barrique O’Karma – barrel-fermented version of Karma Citra I presume – is outstanding, phenomenal, memorable…. barrel-fermenting beer in new oak! Not sure if I’ve had a beer made this way before… I guess this is something that neatly comes out of brewing beer in a wine producing part of the world. I wonder what they do with the used oak. I’ve had “barrel aged” IPAs, which are generally so-so on the “IPA” front, hops subdued – but this is punchy, fresh, zesty, but also… barrely.

Feeling mildly-drunkenly gung-ho and on-a-roll, I pop back to the bar inside to mop up whatever I haven’t tried yet… just a couple more beers (a few from the list were unavailable).

  • Feral - Final Beers

    Feral – Final Beers

    The Runt – 4.7% – “APA”
    (left) Smells like Oakham Citra, tastes like Japanese green pepper.

  • B.F.H. – 5.8% – “Barrel Fermented Hog”
    (another barrel-fermented offering, the equivalent of Hop Hog)
    (middle) Yep, barrelled Ipa. Sandalwoody zest and a vivid memory of hops. Another stunner if you like wood.

When I wrote the above “vivid memory of hops” I’d not realised the B.F.H. was primary fermented in new oak and then dry-hopped as per usual. Again, like Barrique O’Karma, quite unlike the usual “barrel” + “IPA” experience. Another stunner – as I noted at the time. I bought a large glass of The Runt (which I had previously sampled) as a cleanser… and it is a good’un for the job. This little pair were a most excellent finish to a grand day out drinking. Sadly none of the really exciting beers were available to take away in bottles – maybe they are never offered in bottle?

It was time to head, somewhat reluctantly, home… I’d certainly had my fill of beer for the trip, and my family companions were probably a bit tired of my beer nerdery, plus my poor sister was our “skipper” and we needed to get her home so she could enjoy a beer herself!

Feral Brewery

Feral Brewery

Do It…
Do visit the Swan Valley breweries and do give the full set a chance, they all have something to offer (I expect Duckstein and Mash are worthy as well, and hope to fill them in on some future trip home).

For the “craft beer” drinker & nerd Feral is certainly and clearly where the elusive and ill-defined “it” is “at”. There’s really no comparing Feral to the other two breweries I visited. Feral is the seriously-“craft”, flavour-driven, experience-delivering *KAPOW* rockstar here. If there’s a flaw it’s that there was too much to take in during my single all-too-short visit! I wanted more of nearly everything… unless you really must go on a mad ticker-frenzy tour of the Swan Valley then I recommend making Feral a solid day-trip destination, work slowly and appreciatively through the beers over 3 or 4 hours on one day, then do all the breweries on the west side of the valley on another day. If you don’t have time for two days – just stick with Feral.

Ironbark is charmingly rustic, and like dogs and dog owners the Ironbark beers have their own rustic similarity to the venue. On a cooler & quieter day I can imagine myself enjoying a few proper glasses of their beer, but none of them felt like several-glasses-of beers. Elmar’s – slick is the word – clean venue, clean beers, but not boring. I could happily enjoy a hot summer’s day at Elmar’s just downing cold glasses of that Cloudy Pils punctuated with one or two of the others. Where Ironbark has a DIY-family-business shorts-n-tshirt feel Elmar’s presents as professional and business-suited.

If I lived in Perth I’d be happy to return and give each brewery a proper lunchtime session – although in all cases I think a weekday visit would be recommended. Saturday, in summer, close to the “festive season”… they were all about as packed as you can imagine (no doubt there’ll be total chaos and hell once the summer holiday break hits).

The beer is well and truly worth seeking in the Swan Valley.

Drink Moor Beer — Letchworth Beer of the Festival Presentation

In November 2012 Kathlene and I had the privilege to form a tiny delegation from North Hertfordshire CAMRA to visit the Moor Beer Company in Somerset. The purpose of our visit: to present the “Beer of the Festival” award won by their beer Revival at the 2012 Letchworth Beer and Cider festival. As reported in the previous edition of Pints of View this is a light golden and hoppy beer at 3.8% ABV. Revival was notable from the moment I first broached the cask to be rewarded by a burst of intense aroma, it was like breathing hops. The beer won the festival by popular vote, obtaining twice the number of votes of the runners up.

When you see the owl, you're there.

When you see the owl, you’re there.

Given that Somerset is a bit of a trek from North Hertfordshire we arranged to visit the brewery on a Saturday and stay overnight in a nearby inn recommended by the brewery’s owner and head brewer, Justin Hawke. After checking into the inn we continued on to the brewery… and drove straight past the small side-road it’s on. Returning back eastwards we spotted the correct turn, there was a large road sign visible from the west but no matching sign to be seen from the east. Tricky! We were soon outside a large green farm shed, a wooden owl on a bicycle wheel atop, and us knocking on the brewery door.

The wall-of-awards

The wall-of-awards

We were ushered to a corner to admire Moor’s wall of awards to keep us out of the way at first. A yeast transfer was taking place at the time and you need to be careful with your yeast! This gave us a good opportunity to study our surrounds. Moor is a typical example of a working brewery, all serious concrete and stainless steel. There is a scattering of pallets, boxes, kegs, and one luxury-item: a bottling machine. The yeast was soon safely dealt with and we were able to get the business of the award presentation and photography out of the way. We were then able to enjoy a few beer samples and have a good discussion with Justin, his staff, and a couple of local visitors. The topic, unsurprisingly, was beer — but in particular Justin’s strongly held views on matter of good beer.

Justin prefers to make, sell, and drink what he calls natural beer and doesn’t like using finings in his cask ales. These “finings” we’re talking about here are a chemical substance derived from certain types of fish which is added to cask ales to help them clear faster and brighter. The action of finings is to make yeast in the beer clump up and sink to the bottom of the barrel. The primary problem most people have with finings is that their use makes cask ale unacceptable to strict vegetarians. However Justin doesn’t believe leaving finings out is good only for vegetarians, but that it also makes the beer more flavoursome and enjoyable. Flavour components, especially hop oils, stick to small particles that are pulled down to the bottom of the barrel and thus out of your pint of beer. I have heard others counter that the haze can also carry undesirable flavours and I suspect that this is an argument that could go on for quite some time. At the end of the day the truth is in the mouth of the beer drinker.

I tasted Justin’s cask ales in unfined-form at our excellent inn, the Queen’s Arms in Cortham Denham, and can very much say that the ale was in incredibly fine form. There was a slight haze to the beer, enough to put a frown on the face of many cask ale drinkers even though the beer tastes perfectly good. This, I think, is where the battle-lines lie for unfined ales: the culture of cask ale is one where a beer will not usually be considered perfect unless it is crystal-clear. This may change over time as awareness grows, it may also be aided by the growing popularity of more heavily hopped IPAs. These strong and very hoppy ales tend to carry a “hop haze” irrespective of whether they’re fined or not.

Only time will tell on the matter of whether unfined cask ales will gain a wide acceptance in the UK. Personally I hope they do, both for the sake of my vegetarian friends and also for the simple fact that Justin’s ales do taste incredibly good. The cask of Revival we had at the Letchworth Beer Festival was fined we believe, we will certainly try to have Moor beers at future beer festivals and when this happens the beers will be unfined. You see, Justin used his last finings in December 2012 and from January 2013 all Moor beer will be unfined. You can read more about Moor Beer Company, their beers, and their stance on finings on the brewery’s website: http://moorbeer.co.uk/

I’ll leave you where I started, with Moor Brewing Co’s very fitting slogan:
“Drink Moor Beer!”

Us with the Moor team

L-R: Richard Cann (Asst. Brewer), Tom Scrancher (Asst. Brewer), Justin Hawke (Owner & Brewer), Yvan & Kathlene (N.Herts Committee), Mike Cable (Asst. Brewer), and Fred Wilde (West Country Ales)

Bottled Moor beers are available online through West Country Ales, who have a shop-front in the picturesque Cheddar Gorge. Fred Wilde, shop owner, was at the presentation and we visited his shop the next day to find a great selection of beers. Beaut Cheddar cheddar from across the road, and great west country ale… perfect. You can order Moor beers online here: http://www.westcountryales.co.uk/ — follow Fred on Twitter: @westcountryales.

If you run a pub or beer festival, we bought our Moor “Revival” from one of London’s newer beer distribution companies: Liberty Beer, they don’t currently have any regular deliveries within Hertfordshire but may be able to arrange something for you if you get in touch: http://libertybeer.co.uk/ — they’re on Twitter too: @liberty_beer.

Finally — this write-up was created as a North Hertfordshire CAMRA contribution to the Feb/Mar edition of Hertfordshire’s “Pints of View” newsletter, find it in your local Hertfordshire pub or online here: http://www.hertsale.org.uk/?newsletter


Independent Manchester Beer Convention

Wow… what a weekend!

IMBC Keg Hall – Calm Before The Storm…

The Port Street Beer House folk behind the festival deserve our praise, and thanks, for making it happen. Above all, I hope it is a business success as well as a huge social success. We need more @IndyManBeerCon gigs. I’m sure that, like myself, all beer lovers throughout the nation are hoping this is just the start… I’ve already caught wind of a potential London event of this sort kicking off for 2013.

IMBC Keg Hall – Full-Swing…

Our recent beer festival left us with empty casks that we needed to drop back at Summer Wine and Buxton breweries. Oh, look, there’s this “Indy Man Beer Con” thing happening… several of our friends will be there… could be interesting. They want volunteers too, well – why not? So on Wednesday we scooted north to Holmfirth then south over the wonderful-driving Woodhead Pass to overnight in Buxton. (For beer go to the Queen’s Head or the Old Hall Hotel – we had great condition Buxton ales in both.) Then on Thursday we popped up to Manchester to help out with the IMBC set-up… a day that predictably ended in beer. Much, maybe too much, excellent beer at BrewDog Manchester and Port Street Beer House. The evening was shared with fellow Twitter beer folk & Untapped users Kirk and Chris… as you can guess it was an evening of total beer geekery. Anyway… the next day the festival begins!

IMBC Cask Hall

Weirdly for 2 days of beer festival, I actually didn’t manage to tick off even half the beers I was interested in. Next time perhaps I should focus less on chatting & volunteering and more on the drinking part?! I’m going to list some beer highlights now… at the risk of leaving things out & alienating brewers and fellow drinkers…

  • Dark Star, Critical MassDark Star, Critical Mass (2009) – mmm… rich, dry, bretty stout. Aged since 2009 in-cask with brett yeast perhaps? I can’t find any definitive info online about this particular beer! Right up my alley though.
  • Ilkley, Green Goddess – thick, sweet, spiced dessert of a Belgian “bitter”. It magically has worked, somehow, and tastes luscious. When I was behind the cask bar, this was one of the beers people were coming back to for more.
  • Dark Star, Belgian IPA – this didn’t work for me, though many people loved it – it’s not you, it’s me… However I found it interesting, especially beside the Ilkley offering. To me there was little of that lovely American hop character left in the beer, and just a huge spike of bitterness in the middle of the palate. (Dark Star need to put more info on their website, this one isn’t there either!)
  • Wild Beer Co, Modus Operandi – a brewery I’ll be watching out for. I love “wild” beers, my nose and mouth don’t mind even a lot of wet goat, sourness, funkiness, etc. The MO was balanced & smooth though, a rich & dark saisony sorta beast.
  • Magic Juice ClownMagic Rock, Clown Juice – mainly because Stu, the Magic Juice Clown. But also because it is a great beer.
  • Hardknott, Queboid – don’t misunderstand, I don’t rate Hardknott beers just because Ann & Dave are my friends. I stalked and badgered the Hardknott folk, and eventually got to know them, because I like their beer. I’m a Queboid fan and have a small collection of bottles spanning several batches going back about 3 years. This was my first experience of it on draught, and it was goooood! Dave’s really perfecting it, if not perfected. (Though I do prefer it a few degrees warmer than it was, between 8 and 10C.) I spent some time at the Hardknott bar and did enjoy introducing people to this beer and sharing in their newfound love of Queboid. (I was in no way threatening in suggesting they should love it… really, I swear.)
  • Hop RocketBitches Brewing, Chocolate Chilli Stout – through a “hop rocket” full of chillies, and with an extra smoked naga chilli thrown in just for fun. WEAPONIZED STOUT! I had this beer for about 2 hours before topping it up with more of the stout and by that time merely placing it in the vicinity of your lips caused them to try and crawl back into my mouth and down my throat. Naga foolishness aside, the stout was a grand obsidian elixir – my favourite type of beer.
  • Buxton, Tsar – following that previous point, need I say any more?
  • @MacChater prepares @SWBrewery beery cocktailsSummer Wine – the whole mixology tasting session! I’m a flavour fiend, and this sort of monkeying around with people’s perceptions & entrenched ideas about food and drink is right up my alley. Beer as a cocktail ingredient?! Don’t be daft! … but why not? Their beers themselves are brilliant, and of course divisive as any such creatures will be. Stout with ginger? Beer with licorice? Good thing I love both ginger and licorice. The gin and Paracelsus beer cocktail was just too much gin for me, I like gin… but in this case it dominated. Less next time? The rum and Calico Jack, with chocolate orange wedge, was a huge success on my tongue. I’m going to have to buy more Calico Jack now I think. Massive thanks to @MaxChater for putting this together in collaboration with the Summer Wine dudes.
  • Lovibonds, 69 IPA – a legendary beer that I’ve never managed to get into my mouth until IMBC. It really lives up to its reputation. Lovely IPA and I really must visit Lovibonds sometime… and buy a case of it. :)
  • Tempest, Brodies, Thornbridge, Kernel, Marble… too much amazing craft beer? Never! But every one I didn’t get to experience is a wrench to the heart & a deep sobbing in the soul in memory of beers still untried. Sour beers shouldn’t go unmentioned. Cantilion on cask! The Lovibonds Sour Grapes! Oh my, the sheer diversity of it all…
IMBC Cask Bar@SWBrewery Barista & the Quantum/@NorthTeaPower collab at the coffee bar!Kegs!

For me, personally, the IMBC was actually more about people anyway. Friends who I’ve met several times like @HardKnott Dave & Ann, Twitter-personalities who I’d had yet to meet like @SimonHJohnson, even coffee gods like @HasBean Steve! Not to mention brewers… many, many excellent brewers. Also folk like myself from the fringes of the beer scene – brought together in one place by the love of really great beer. Nothing else I’ve been to in the UK is comparable… GBBF, for example, doesn’t come close. It is probably a density issue – IMBC was simply wall-to-wall with the sort of beer people you want to meet. It turned out there were people there I should have met but somehow missed, chances are we were within a couple of meters of each other. So, while the IMBC beers were astounding, it really was the people that made this festival come alive. People were the magic-ingredient, beer the not-so-secret-sauce.

The quality didn’t stop at the beer and people however. The organisers had gone out of their way to get it all right. Food wasn’t an afterthought, as it too often is. Not only was there a beer & food matched dinner available to those organised enough to book it – the general festival food was varied & exciting. Gourmet hot-dogs, brilliant quality curries, and a selection of the old staple pig products. I tried them all, everything was up to scratch. If only some didn’t run out of food so early! And COFFEE! I’m a coffee geek as well as a beer geek – quality HasBean filter coffees thanks to the wonderful people at @NorthTeaPower in the afternoon? Yes please! On top of this having @acousticcoffee Dale and @HasBean Steve at the festival was almost overload… context switching between drinking & talking coffee, and serving, drinking & talking beer almost broke me I think.

Sausage inna bun queue...

Sausage inna bun time…

Posh pie!

Posh pie!

IMBC coffee heroes!

IMBC coffee heroes!

The venue too… stunning. If you’re in Manchester you must visit the Victoria Baths. Such an exciting building to hold a beer festival in, so many nooks and crannies, such architecture! You’ll get the general idea from their own website, and some of the festival photos. If there was one downside it was the capacity of the men’s toilets. I suspect this may have been part of the reason the venue was limited to 500 tickets per session when I’m sure the bars could have supported at least 50% more. Next time I wonder if a trailer of toilets out the back might be a reasonable addition to proceedings.

The “what is craft beer” debate raged on throughout the festival. We’ll never have a satisfactory definition for something so based in the eye of the beholder. Though for me, in this moment, I’m thinking craft beer is IN the beholder. Craft beer is people. Brilliant, wonderful, friendly, diverse people.

Get some Clown Juice in you!

Get some Clown Juice in you...

Don’t just take my word for it though — here’s more:

The English Experiment

On dropping off some empty firkins at Hardknott brewery just before the Jubilee weekend I was lucky enough to be handed a bottle of a new beer by @HardknottSarah – it was “The English Experiment“. This beer is the result of the rumoured collaboration between @HardknottDave & @FullersJohn – do go and read Dave’s blog post about it, and definitely watch the accompanying video!

We intended to give it a try during the long weekend, which we spent tramping over hills in Galloway Forest Park. So I lugged this bottle of beer up into the hills with me – so an idea was born, how about I take a photo of the beer on top of every Donald we ascend? Yeah, it’s a bit daft – but it’s the sort of thing I do for a laugh.

It also seems quite appropriate that we started out near Bruce’s Stone above Loch Trool – the site of a battle where Robert the Bruce humiliated the English (so I read). So here’s a bit of England coming back conquer in these hills… well, sort of!

So, here is The English Experiment – Scottish hill walking beer – a photo log.

Day 1: The Dungeon Range

The English Experiment atop Craignaw - 645m - a Graham & Donald

The English Experiment atop Dungeon Hill - 620m - a Donald - next destination, Mullwharchar, in the background

The English Experiment atop Mullwharchar - 692m - a Graham & Donald - in the distance: Loch Macaterick to the left, Loch Doon to the right

 Day 2: Range of the Awful Hand

The English Experiment atop Merrick, the highest Donald of them all - 843m - a Corbet & Donald

The English Experiment atop Kirriereoch Hill - 786m - a Donald

The English Experiment atop Tarfessock - 697m - a Donald

The English Experiment atop Shalloch on Minnoch - 768m - a Corbett & Donald - this is not the actual top, that's the cairn at 775m but I didn't realise at the time and didn't take a photo there!

 Day 3: Rhinns of The Kells

The English Experiment atop Coran of Portmark - 623m - a Donald

The English Experiment atop Meaul - 695m - a Donald

The English Experiment atop Carlin's Cairn - 807m - a Donald - looking SW towards Merrick with Loch Enoch below

The English Experiment atop Corserine - 814m - a Corbett & Donald - our last hill of the trip

So, that’s 11 Donalds! Not bad for a weekend – and they include 3 Corbetts and 2 Grahams as well. A few more hills bagged… no, I’m not a hill bagger really, but I feel I could become one. We walked around 70km in 2.5 days, punctuated by a couple of wild camps. One idyllic, beside Loch Enoch – though it was a windy night. The other midge infested (thankfully we have a good tent) near Loch Doon.

The Beer

Well, we never did get around to drinking it during the walk. It never really felt quite the right time. However, when we got home we made a point of sitting down and letting our taste-buds become acquainted with this beer. I believes it achieves its aim, it is an essentially English rendition of what most of us now think of as an “IPA” (after the US style) and the new hops do seem to add a twist of the different. (Recall I’m an Aussie, and here I am talking about “essentially English” – hah, YMMV!) Great to see work being done on developing local hop varieties, in this case by Charles Faram. I think these hops must come through with earthier and more dark-fruit tones, more alike to traditional English hop flavours – with less of the zing, citrus, and tropical fruit of new world hops. I look forward to seeing more of Landlady, Bishop, Archer, and Baron and can’t wait for someone to present them in single-hop format.  All in all, The English Experiment was a highly enjoyable beer, of a style akin to the Durham Brewery Bombay 106 IPA, rather than the likes of BrewDog’s Punk – we’ll be ordering ourselves a few more bottles from the Hardknott shop shortly!

What you want to do is get yourself to the official release at The Rake in London early in the evening of Monday June 11th – The English Experiment will be available in cask! Hope I can get there myself! (Might be a bit difficult alas.) Failing that, order some of this great beer online.

We did get to drink one beer during our walk at least – the other bottle I was lugging with me was a Hardknott Code Black. Another excellent beer. Now, if only Hardknott put some of their beer in cans so once the beer is drunk the remaining pack weight is much less!

Camp near Loch Doon - real fire, necessary to keep the midges at bay!

NWAF 2011: The Pubs

Manchester Pubs

When visiting a new city or town for an evening or more I usually do a bit of a Google to find the most recommend pubs in the area (the Good Beer Guide is both too large to lug around and has a bad habit of directing me to terrible pubs.) In the case of our trip to Manchester for the National Winter Ales Festival we already knew about one pub at least: the famous Marble Arch brewpub. We found out about another through a recommendation from a friend on Twitter: The Las O’Gowrie. The third pub we found in Manchester entirely by chance: The Old Wellington. There’s also a fourth pub in this saga: The Euston Tap. Since our train from Manchester landed us in Euston at about 17:30 a trip to this bright new star of the craft beer scene was inevitable.

In the order we visited them I present the pubs of our great Manchester National Winter Ales Festival excursion.

The Old Wellington

Thornbridge “Wild Holly”

Our only pub “discovery” of the trip was made in passing. As we headed toward the Manchester Cathedral we passed a somewhat historic looking pub and peered through the window… we spied a BrewDog logo! Alpha Dog! A brew we’d not tried before. It was tasty and quite bitter with a distinct Horlicks malt note on the nose. Somewhat reminiscent of the, much stronger, Dogma. I wonder if there is something similar in the recipe.

The pub was the The Old Wellington, situated between the Manchester Cathedral and the Manchester Arndale (possibly the biggest “mall” I’ve ever seen, mammoth in fact, quite horrid.) We also tried Thornbridge’s “Wild Holly” and a Vicious “American Wheat IPA”. The “Wild Holly” was interesting, passed through the sparkler into a tulip beer glass it came out and settled looking almost exactly like a pint of Guinness. That’s where the similarity ends, this beer had a flavour reminiscent of lightly smoked sweetcure bacon. There were a couple of other ales on, 6 handpumps in all I think.

A couple of interesting beer facts about this pub: half the beer was dark & the pumps were all fitted with sparklers. The latter was probably why our beers were served a bit on the short side: About 1cm of foam, despite the fact that gruff and grumpy-looking young barman seemed to make some effort to top the beers up. Aside from that small issue all the beers we tried were flavoursome and in excellent condition.

We liked The Old Wellington enough that we returned on our last day in Manchester to try the food. (Rather than risk some other random pub of unknown beer quality.) The verdict: great pub food, well executed. My lamb shank pie was excellent with a crisp puff lid and rich gravy. To double our luck the BrewDog Alpha Dog had been replaced by cask 5AM Saint: this hoppy & robust beer went well with the lamb pie. The only negative: being Saturday, the place was busy. However this did give us the chance to see more of the interior of the building, which has a remarkable history, it’s worth looking around.

I noticed from the licensing information that the pub was owned by Mitchells & Butlers. Wonders never cease I suppose.

Lamb Shank Pie

The Marble Arch

Marble Arch tilework

After our stop at the The Old Wellington we took a chilly wander up to the Marble Arch. (Get a website dudes!) This is the brewpub and brewery-tap of Marble Brewery, a mighty fine pub it is too. The bar area is characterful, with great tiling (I presume this is original) and a floor that slopes down toward the bar. If you’ve had a few don’t worry: it’s the floor that’s tipping you toward the bar, not the beer (perhaps!) This is a true historic treasure of an old public house.

The selection of Marble beers here is, of course, excellent. Bonus: the selection of cheese is also excellent. We had a 9-cheese platter and the cheese was so good that I’ll forgive the fact that one of my stiltons seemed to have magically become a brie. Marble’s strong Chocolate Dubbel was a most excellent accompaniment to my selection of strong-flavoured cheese. I liked the Dubbel so much that we bought an expensive 75cl bottle of it to take home.

We tried a few other Marble beers at the pub and one of the most memorable was the “Ginger”. Comparing this to the (competing?) Robinson’s “Ginger” we had the previous day at the NWAF was an interesting exercise. I like both, but easily prefer Marble’s offering. The Marble “Ginger” tastes like beer with a big hit of ginger, the Robinson’s “Ginger” tastes like ginger-beer.

We’d had a few pints by this stage of the day and sensibility dictated that we make our way back to the hotel for a break and some dinner. We were up for another trip to the NWAF in the evening. I’d have loved to visit the Marble Arch again but we didn’t get the opportunity, I’ll certainly be back should I be in Manchester again. NWAF 2012?

Cheese and Chocolate Dubbel!

The Las O’Gowrie

Anchor Beer

Our third pub of the trip was the Las O’Gowrie – advertised to us as “good but studenty”. We popped in here after dinner on our final night (Friday) after spending the afternoon at our third NWAF session. To be honest we found the cask ale a bit average – but adequate. I suspect we might have just been a little unlucky with the guests. What was there was half Greene King (IPA, Abbot, and XX Mild) and half low ABV “session bitters”. The session ales were not bad, mind you, the Betty’s Bitter was tasty despite the low ABV. But after a day sampling imperial stouts we wanted something with a bit more body. We quickly moved on to the small but decent selection of bottled foreign beers. The highlight bottled beer was the Anchor “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year” – a dark, herbal, spiced beer that was quite quaffable for a its 5.5% ABV.

The Friday night crowd in the pub was mixed and only notable as we’d been told to expect it to be “studenty”. In truth there were more over-30s than under-30s in the bar, and it only felt “a bit studenty” to me. (Yes, there are plenty of over-30 students, I know… but these probably weren’t them.) That said, the place was definitely geeky. Walls adorned with old computer game relics and original graphic novel prints, most by by cartoonist Ade Salmon. We grabbed a corner in the snug “snug” and sunk a few beers before heading back to the hotel (about 300m up the road.)

In real ale terms the Las O’Gowrie goes down in my books as “well worth a visit if you’re nearby”. As a visitor I wouldn’t trek across town for the place, but if I lived next door I’d be a regular.

The Euston Tap

If you follow the UK beer Twitterati and bloggerati then you’ll have heard of the Euston Tap. The amount of positive feedback I’ve heard about this place is possibly unrivalled. It’s a relatively new bar residing in one of the gatehouses of Euston station, I recall it having once been a café. The Euston Tap is known for its “craft ale”, as opposed to “real ale” – and most of its craft ale fame amongst people I follow stems from their supply of beers from the US. That said, on advertising the Euston Tap to a contact I referred to it as “not real-aley” – then felt immediately silly, there’s 8 cask lines! It’s just that there are another 19 lines stocked with the best of UK, European, and US kegged beers.

Beer List: Left

Beer List: Right

Stepping into the place you’re right in front of the bar, which is backed by a wall covered in beer taps. The public area is a U-shape around this bar with some stools to the outer edges and a spiral staircase in one corner. Both back walls, either side of the bar, are taken up with large glass-doored refrigerators, above which are blackboards advertising the list of draught beers available. Essentially you walk through the door to be met by an entire wall of beer. A little dizzying for this beer geek! Especially when you look closer. The draught and bottle selection is made up of local and international names of renown, and more exciting still, there’s bits and bobs unheard of to all but regulars and the seriously hardcore beer geeks. Beers known and loved, beers heard-of and wished-for, beers unknown – waiting to be discovered! OK, I’m getting a little melodramatic now.

So, what did we sup? We kicked off with a couple of cask ales, not wanting to let the side down – we were on our way home from the CAMRA National Winter Ales Festival after all! The Osset “Big Red” and Darkstar “Partridge” wet out whistles well. After this we moved on to the US, Kat on dark beers and me on pale ales. Sierra Nevada “Stout” was a tasty dry brew and Anchor “Porter” chocolaty dessert. The pale ales were Stone “Cali-Belgique”, Matuska “Raptor”, and Odell “5 Barrel”; to be honest the latter two didn’t do it for me, the Stone was smooth and very drinkable. None of them provided the hop-bomb I was hoping for.

Moving back the locals solved this. Thornbridge “Raven”, that most fashionable of oxymoronic beasts, a “Black IPA”. All big dark stout flavours with punchy aromatic hops. I stuck with this for another half, followed by an accidental pint (surely I wasn’t slurring my words yet?) Truly happy we then went home with a couple of bottles of US imperial stout (oh my poor wallet and liver.)

So, verdict? The Euston Tap is, at this moment, my favourite pub in London. Though I’m perfectly happy in several others: The Rake, The White Horse (especially for bottled beers), and the Market Porter when I’m in a cask ale mood (often.) The Euston tap has the best range of draught beer I’ve seen so far in the UK.

Spiral Staircases Rock

Not much else to say…

Get yourself to the National Winter Ales Festival in 2012. Enjoy the beer, but also remember to enjoy the pubs. Remember that it is excellent pubs like these that keep the beer world pumping.