Posts tagged ‘craft beer’

February 12, 2014

Change? I’d rather you didn’t…

A warning: I shall repeatedly use the phrase “craft keg” to refer to a cross-section of beers currently available that do not fit in with CAMRA’s definition of Real Ale. I can’t think of a better term that would mean anything to enough people so that’s what I’ll have to use, even though I dislike the term. If you can’t deal with that, don’t read on!

Yesterday I picked up on a blog post by Tandleman here that itself referred to a letter in CAMRA’s What’s Brewing by Tim Webb. Apparently Mr Webb wants CAMRA to change and embrace the brave new world of “craft keg” and other great improvements in the world of beer. In his blog post Tandleman is, perhaps not surprisingly, somewhat more reserved about the level of change CAMRA should make, but agrees there should be some change.

What surprised me more, as a CAMRA member myself who has long said that the organisation needs to change it’s attitudes to avoid being left behind, and as part of the team behind one of the different sorts of beer festival that have grown up in the last couple of years on the back of the “craft” boom, is that I thought, “No!”.

I thought it quite vehemently actually. But I think I have sound reasons. I don’t suggest CAMRA doesn’t need to change in some ways, to become a little more tolerant and accepting of other’s (including a portion of its own membership) foibles. To modernise its language and eliminate misinformation. But to embrace and extend beyond its Real Ale focus? No.

The thing is, we now have a newly vibrant and I believe still growing beer scene where Cask Ale and Craft Keg can co-exist quite happily if proponents of one don’t take that to be the same as opposing the other – in fact you can be “for” both as many, if not most, drinkers are . A number of events have sprung up catering for the new market who want a mixture of great beers in both cask and keg – I should know, I’m involved in one of them. But what happens if CAMRA changes completely to embrace this? What if every beer festival they run starts to look like an IndyMan, a Craft Beer Rising, or a Beer Bash? Gradually, those events that set out to be something different all round start to lose some of their unique qualities. They start to look less different to every other event and eventually you might reach the point where they are simply an independent event of no real difference to the CAMRA one down the road. And when these events are seen as no different to any other, those with modest resources as opposed to backed by a large organisation, will be the ones to disappear. The (re-)homogenisation of beer festivals, just like the homogenisation of beer that was part of the reason CAMRA came to be in the first place. *

So yes CAMRA, acknowledge there are other good beers, be welcoming of the fact, don’t oppose them, but continue to fight for Real Ale, for pubs, for what you stand for. Strive for improvement. Leave room for others to do their thing and coexist happily, collaborate and be friends. But don’t feel you have to change because all good beer has to have a CAMRA-approved badge. Just to do the above well is change enough, and UK beer will be all the better for it.

* maybe that’s extreme. Maybe it would never go that far. But can you be sure it wouldn’t?

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August 19, 2013

An “alternative” year

It seems that the year of “alternative”* beer festivals runs from September to August (as opposed to the more compact “season”, which it might be argued goes from March to October).  In the past 12 months there have been, I reckon, seven** debuts.  Three in the North, another three in London and one in the Midlands.  As we approach the end of August we come full circle and it is satisfying to see the first of them coming back round in just a few weeks’ time, marking the start of year two.  To be honest though, looking back on them all it is quite incredible that seven such events all started up within a 12-month period.

I’m sorry to say that I only actually managed to get to three of these this year – IndyMan and Craft Beer Rising, along with (obviously) Birmingham Beer Bash.  That said I’ve seen enough reports from the others to get a real feel for how they all approached the task of being different.  And the thing that really strikes me is just how different they all were.  Yes, there were common aspects, shared aims, but all delivered in a variety of ways.  It’s going to be interesting to see how each one changes in their second year, and I’m confident that most if not all will be back for year two, each bigger and better than the first.  Will there be more?  That remains to be seen.  There are certainly parts of the country that are under-represented but I know from first-hand experience that it takes balls to put something like this on, and financial success – at least in year one – is not guaranteed.

What has certainly been proven this year is that there is a market, an appetite, for something different, and I think it is fair to say that is exactly what has been provided, with a helping of flair.  I look forward to getting to visit a few of the events I missed out on this year.

* I’m refusing to use the “c” word here, while noting that three of the events in question use it in their own names, while one uses it for the legal entity behind the event.  I’d argue that these are all the true beer festivals, rather than the rather more prevalent cask ale festivals, but I’ve done that already, here (https://othertonales.wordpress.com/2012/06/21/so-is-it-a-beer-festival-really).  I find it hard to group things together in this way though without applying some sort of label.

** I struggled over whether Edinburgh, spread across several bars rather than a single venue, fitted into the same mould.  It probably does, but it wasn’t a debut this year, so I’ve not counted it here – I would definitely include it on my calendar of such events for the future though.

July 25, 2013

T-2 – a session sells out

One more day of setup to go. I’d say tomorrow but clearly from the time of this post it is actually today. I don’t think I’ve got a single one of these posts out on the day to which they actually apply, have I?

A slightly quiet day but not without its dramas and excitements. The high being the selling out of Friday evening tickets. We have tried to allow a few to be kept back for walk-up sales but maybe we should release these as advance tickets, given the level of demand. We’ll see.

An interesting fact about tomorrow. I think it may be the first time the team of ten behind the Beer Bash have all been in the same place at the same time. Seems incredible really.

Time for bed. It’s an early start for the biggest day of setup, T-1!

July 23, 2013

T-4 the road trip

Short and sweet today. We went north, and then east across the Pennines. Huddersfield was the target and we returned with three portions of keg bar and assorted ancillaries. We also returned west with beer from Magic Rock and Northern Monk. The North is, indeed, coming.

Back to Manchester for collections from Blackjack and Marble, plus a dodgy-looking backstreet exchange to take on kegs from Hardknott in the shadow of the railway arches while angry drivers waited for us to move the vans involved in this seemingly illicit deal. At Marble the firkin of Decadence was decanted from a vessel twice its size, the compensation for the Earl Grey IPA having failed to pass the exacting quality control standards. Plus the chance for a taste. If you don’t get the chance to try this at Birmingham Beer Bash then you clearly haven’t been trying hard enough. Wonderous, and exquisite.

Off then to deliver posters to friendly locations in the Northern Quarter, before returning back to the Midlands, ready to deliver to site at the crack of dawn (ish). All in all a lovely day, made even more lovely by ticket sales which went through the roof on what has proved to be our busiest day yet, double any day previously. So many tickets are now on the verge of selling out. That is a brilliant thing.

It was all great. Until later. Until an occurrence which shall remain undisclosed for another week, until I can do it justice.

For now though there is only one focus. Tomorrow (today), Beer Bash hits site.

July 21, 2013

T-6 and T-5 – the calm before the storm?

Well the intention of writing a post a day clearly failed.  To be fair Saturday was somewhat taken up by a barbecue for family, friends, neighbours and those of the Bash team who could make it.  Naturally conversation amongst certain of us was fairly one-tracked, but at this stage in the proceedings there’s only so much you can do by talking.  So T-6 came and went.

Today (well, once again, yesterday, as it is another late finish) has been a day of catching up on emails while I have the chance – for Monday is the start of the real setup activity.  We’re off first thing to collect a few beers and some of the bars, so it’ll be a long day on the road.  I’m sure there will be tweets from the team as we head up to Huddersfield and Manchester and back again, so watch out for news on our progress.

Great news today with the selling out of the second of our two dining sessions.  These are both full up and other than a last minute entry into the competition run with the Birmingham Mail and Post, there simply is no way anyone else can get in.  Tickets have been selling rapidly over the weekend too, and Friday evening and Saturday afternoon sessions are close to selling out.  We’ve had to reduce the number of walk-up tickets we were holding back to keep up with the demand for advance ones, so if these are the sessions that interest you then you really do need to get in there quick.

Also if you are still waiting for your e-tickets to appear in your Inbox, then please take a few moments to check your spam / junk mail folder.  We’ve had a lot of people who hadn’t had their tickets, but once prompted to check they’ve been found in the spam folder.  This isn’t always the case though and so if you still haven’t got your tickets please email us so we can get them resent.

So, not much of an update this time I’m afraid, but watch out for the reports from tomorrow when we start getting really hands on!

June 26, 2013

The final countdown…

If you know where to look, as you head south out of Birmingham New Street on the train (just as I did as I wrote this) and glance out of the window at just the right moment, you can briefly follow the canal cutting its way through the back streets of Digbeth.  A building stands proud above the former industrial district currently getting its second wind as a place of business and arts, its upper stories leaning out over the narrow strip of water, a large blue banner hanging down revealing its identity.

The Icehouse, centrepiece of the group of Victorian buildings now known as The Bond Company.  A place of history where once upon a time huge quantities of ice were produced for use in the local markets, surely making it the coolest place around.

Exactly one month from now, once again this site is destined to be the coolest place going as it makes another little dent on history.  The first Birmingham Beer Bash.  July 26th and 27th.

The list of breweries sending beer, and in many cases attending in person, has continued to grow and there are still a handful left to announce. It is, quite frankly, a stunning list, the like of which Birmingham has never seen.  From established breweries that have been at the vanguard of bold and progressive brewing for some time, to some of the new upstarts only recently coming to the scene and even launching their beers at the festival, we think we’ve found some of the best the country has to offer.  We’ve also had to make hard choices about breweries that aren’t there.  It simply wasn’t possible to include everyone we wanted to, but we think we’ve made the right choices and hope you’ll love what we’ve put together.

It isn’t just about drinking great beer though.  The “fringe” programme has been gradually coming together, and a week or so ago we finally announced our headline acts.  The seminars on hops and malt are a unique opportunity to learn more about what goes into the beer in your glass and they’ll both be presented by industry experts, Paul Corbett of Farams and Dom Driscoll of Thornbridge respectively.  We’re about to add to this with the list of tutored tastings that will be taking place throughout the weekend – places will be limited so you’ll need to sign up for these when you arrive at the festival, and if you follow our announcements on Twitter (@BirminghamCubed) and Facebook (BirminghamBeerBash) in the next week or so you’ll soon see why you’d want to do that!

Finally the food.  The beer and food matching dinners, served up by two of Birmingham’s finest chefs – Brad Carter (Carters of Moseley) and Luke Tipping (Simpsons, Edgbaston) – are a gourmet masterpiece and (if it really worked like that) would possibly make us the first Michelin-starred beer festival!  Take a look at the menus on our website and book quickly to avoid missing out on a fabulous opportunity because tickets are selling fast.  There’s also a great selection of local street food from great suppliers so there should be something for everyone.

We’d love to see you there.  All of you.  But we probably can’t fit you all in.  So make sure you get your tickets in advance because there really is no guarantee of tickets being available on the door.  Come and say hi to me (@OthertonAleman) and all of the organising team – Carl (@CarlDurose), Chris (@ckdsaddlers), Dan (@mediocre_dan), David (@mrdavidj), Jen (@ilovecherryreds), Krishan (@StirchleyWines), Shaun (@19irishdragon), Stewart (@TheRealStewbert) and Tim (@PolymathTim).

You might also want to watch out for an article on us and our stunning new poster in the Birmingham Post this week, and if you’re listening to BBC Radio WM on Friday morning you might just hear us on the Adrian Goldberg programme.

30 days to go.  My how time flies!

July 25, 2012

The Italian Job

It’s been a quiet couple of weeks for me, in terms of both tweeting and blogging.  Simply a case of there not being enough hours in the day and too many things going on at the same time – I’ll go into that in more detail in another post soon.  However, a major reason is because I was lucky enough to go to Rome two weeks ago for a conference.

Now before you start getting too jealous, this was for work (i.e. non-beer-related work) purposes with little opportunity for free time outside the conference agenda (no, honestly, that’s true!).  Even when you did have some free time Rome itself was actually some 15 miles away from the overpriced hotel in which we were holed up.  However, the opportunity did arise for a few hours in the city itself, and as would be expected I made the most of this time to sample a taste of the growing craft beer scene in Italy.

I’d seen favourable reports on Rome’s beer opportunities, with Mark Dredge’s Pencil & Spoon blog being particularly useful preparation.  A few minutes with Google Maps before I left and I established just how close three highly recommended venues were, so once I got into the city and left some colleagues cooing at the tourist sights (which I’d seen on a previous visit) I headed off to find Open Baladin.

The limitations in detail on the free map from the hotel became obvious as soon as I got within a couple of streets of where I knew I wanted to be.  It took a few circuits of the narrow back streets though until I found the one that I was looking for – on the map, for future reference, it is the unmarked road between the two other unmarked roads…

Nearly empty when I walked in, it was cool and refreshing compared to the fairly sweltering heat outside.  A vast array of bottles behind the bar, and taps upon it, greeted me and it took a few minutes to take it all in.  Sitting down with a menu I felt it only right to plump for the house brewry, and settled on Baladin’s Nora – a 6.8% Saison.  It was a good start.  Refreshing, just slightly tart, a fine example of a style I am beginning to really get into.  Of course it didn’t last long, and so back to the menu for another look.  Having already decided I’d try as many different Italian breweries as I could I moved onto an IPA, with LA9 (6.5%) from L’Olmain – nothing wrong with it but nothing special I’ve since concluded (as on checking my notes it didn’t drive me to write anythning further at the time!).  Time for a third beer, to be my final one here, and it was back to a Saison style.  My eye was well and truly caught by the description which my rudimentary mastery of the Italian language seemed to tell me was a Black Saison, and when it arrived indeed it was!  A collaboration between Extraomnes and Toccalmatto, Tainted Love (4.7%) tasted all Saison, but was definitely approaching black in colour with a malty aroma.  Possibly not quite as tasty as the Nora, but another delicious beer all the same.

With some reluctance I dragged myself out, and headed on just across the river to Ma Che Siete Venuti A Fa (aka the Football Bar).  I was glad I decided to tear myself away from the beer selection at Open Baladin, because there were some crackers here too.  A much smaller, cosier bar panelled in wood as opposed to the open, slightly industrial feel at the previous venue, I felt quite at home here.  Tipopils (Birrificio Italiano, 5.2%) was on the bar giving me a chance to try this beer which I’ve seen raved about.  It was nice, and better than many pilsners I’ve tasted, but didn’t exactly set things alight for me.  So that gone, I moved along to yet another Italian brewer, Brewfist, and their Spaceman IPA (7%).  This was a marked improvement, and is a beer I’ll keep an eye out for in the future.  It was overshadowed though by what followed – D’uvabeer (brewed by Loverbeer at 8%) was a sour ale and I loved it.  A dirty, cloudy, raspberry red in appearance, and a gorgeous tangy taste, I think I’d have stayed for a second if time wasn’t running out, my appetite building up, and the bustle of Bir e Fud calling me from across the street.

So, I picked my way through what was becoming an increasingly busy Friday evening street scene and found a space inside the bar where I could see the beer selection and order some food.  Back to a Saison with Duchessa by Borgo (6%) and followed by Rehop IPA from Toccalmatto (5%).  This was definitely the top IPA from my selections of the evening – it cut through the strong flavours of tomato and basil from my plate and asserted itself forcefully but deservedly onto my tastebuds.  Really good stuff.  Too quickly though it was time for one last throw of the dice, and I plumped for a nice light(!) Imperial Stout to finish off on.  Verdi (Ducato, 8.2%) was a fine bold beer and a pleasant way to finish off a tour of 9 Italian beers from 9 different brewers.

So, conclusions?  Well I’d now love to go back and spend some more time discovering the craft beers of Italy not least through the bars of Rome, and would advise anyone visiting there to call into one or more, and make sure you allow yourself plenty of time to appreciate it!  The two highlights were Rehop and D’uvabeer, though in fact I’d quite happily drink any of the beers I tried again, and again, and again.  Clearly Italy knows a thing or two about making good beer, and in Rome at least there are some great places to sample them.

As a footnote, I had to double-take as I wandered back past an off-licence window, when I saw various bottles of Hardknott and other UK beers lined up on the shelves…

June 21, 2012

So is it a *beer* festival? Really?

Let’s imagine there’s a city – we’ll call it Davestown for sake of argument – which has had an annual beer festival for many years. But Davestown Beer Festival only sells real / cask ales. Some enthusiastic upstarts want to hold a festival celebrating a more diverse range of beers – including many that don’t fall into the real / cask ale definition. A festival that is perhaps more befitting the broad term of Davestown Beer Festival. But obviously calling it that would be confusing at the very least – there can’t really be two. And there’s no intention to compete with the existing festival, the plan is to complement it, so there’s no desire for creating antagonism with the organisers of the existing festival.

So how do they name their festival? Some useful adjective to better describe the scope of the beers on offer perhaps? But what? It’s about good, or even great beer, but calling it the Davestown Great Beer Festival feels like a dig at the existing Davestown (presumably not so great by implication!) Beer Festival. Good Beer or Fine Beer have the same problem. What other term is there? Davestown International Beer Festival? Well that might work as long as there is definitely a good showing of international beers, but that isn’t necessarily the case, or the focus might be primarily on British beers. What else can the organisers do? Perhaps it can be Davestown Craft Beer Festival? Well it works, but as we all know Craft is a hugely subjective term and causes all sorts of disagreement. Could it even alienate key parts of the target market for the festival who object to or interpret differently the use of the word?

The problem is the original Davestown Beer Festival has (in hindsight, and no doubt without any ill intentions) rather unfairly taken the generic term and used it for a very specific purpose – real / cask ale. So there’s a need to have a word to help categorise this beer festival as something other than a real / cask ale beer festival. I don’t mind if that word isn’t craft, but I don’t know what else it would be.

And if it is craft, then a clear explanation of what that is understood to mean by the organisers of the festival is essential so that everyone else can at least understand what the event is all about, even if they don’t necessarily subscribe to the same definition of craft themselves.

In the meantime the debate about the “C” word rages on, particularly recently with this post from Hardknott Dave and this one from Zac Avery.

May 4, 2012

#TheSession63 – The Beer Moment

In this month’s session Pete Brown invites us to consider “The Beer Moment” and what it means to us.  In keeping with his appeal for us to switch off and float downstream, my mind immediately latched onto the word “moment” and it took me straight back to A-level physics.  In between setting things on fire, putting scary quantities of electrical current through them, and generally avoiding anything too mentally strenuous, there were actually a few things that stuck, and “moment” was one of them.  Rather than thinking about a moment as a point in time, my mind turned to its meaning as a force causing movement around a turning point.  Or, I suppose, a tipping point.

In the context of the beer scene in Birmingham (which is, by a small margin over Stoke, my nearest major city, and at least sometimes my work location too) much has been written already this year about how we lag behind other major (though generally smaller) cities in terms of the beer revolution.  There are glimmers of hope on the horizon, with the opening of the Post Office Vaults just before Christmas, and plans for Brewdog to open up in the city later in the year.  Interest in great beer is growing, or rather it is becoming more vocal, and surely there are exciting times ahead.

So, for me, 2012 is shaping up to be the year of Birmingham’s “moment”, both in the sense of it being a time where something is happening, and (back to the physics here) a powerful turning force, creating change in the drinking scene in the second city. 

As mentioned above, at the end of 2011 the Post Office Vaults came onto the scene, and that has been a breath of fresh air (figuratively at least, being a somewhat subterranean venue!) with a rapid expansion in the range of foreign bottled beers alongside a good selection of British ales.  Almost every time I go in the place is busy, and there is a buzz there that is great to see.  A buzz that is fuelled by the great beers that are available, and it is fantastic to see just how popular so much of the wide variety of styles and flavours is becoming.  Clearly the demand is there for exciting beers of all types.

Then a few weeks ago Twissup hit Birmingham, and a number of the more vocal enthusiasts for Birmingham’s beer scene got together and enjoyed a few hours of extremely responsible drinking, mostly meeting up for the first time with people with whom we’d all been communicating via Twitter for a while, and forming stronger relationships as a result.  It may have been the first of its kind here in Birmingham, but it certainly won’t be the last.  You can read more about that in recent posts on the subject, from both myself and Danny Brown.

And the future, well, it is fairly well known that Brewdog have been looking at a venue in central Birmingham to open up another in their rapidly expanded chain of bars, and word on the street is that all being well later this summer we’ll be seeing that venue opening up.  That can only be a good catalyst for further growth and expansion in the variety and quality of beer available in Birmingham.  I welcome their arrival and the challenges they will present to the local beer scene, although its location pretty much right on my direct walking route from the office to the station will be its own personal challenge to me, and a temptation I shall enjoy giving in to.

Three individual moments in time there, two past and one future, all contributing to the growing force for change that I think will finally see 2012 being Birmingham’s “Beer Moment”.  Returning once more to the physics, a moment is a force, and the more force applied the greater the change.  Come and be a part of that change; come and be a part of the moment. Let’s turn a moment into momentum.

And, of course I couldn’t leave this today without saying, may the fourth be with you…

February 29, 2012

The constant quest for variety…

Variety. It’s a double-edged sword. I guess like everything else it is best applied in moderation. When it comes to beer I have a preference for trying new things, seeking out beers and brewers that I haven’t tried before, or dabbling in styles that are new to me. On arrival at a beer festival I’m almost certainly going to be heading towards the names of breweries that I haven’t had the chance to sample in the past. Sometimes this can result in finding a little gem, other times I find something I’ll know to avoid next time – that’s part of the beauty of beer, there’s so much scope for variety, as long as you open yourself up to the risk that there are some that simply don’t appeal.

On the other hand, taking this approach sometimes means I’m torn between the new and unknown territory waiting to be explored, and the more comfortable, familiar, favourites that you know are worth a revisit. Especially when it is a known favourite that you only get to have once in a blue moon. Exploring new things was what brought me to taste Magic Rock High Wire, which instantly became one of my top beers of 2011. Even better that I was able to taste keg and cask versions on consecutive nights and discover both great similarities and subtle differences in the two. As a result of this discovery, what was a new beer to me is now one that tempts me away from experiencing other new beers on the occasions when I encounter it again.

My favourite venues are also those that provide a good variety, particularly where the range is sufficient for me to swap between pale and dark, strong and light, hoppy and mild. But more than that, ideally I want to move between cask, keg and bottled beers too. For a new pub to really capture my heart it needs to offer me the maximum variety. There’s been a lot of discussion in the blogosphere about how my nearest city of Birmingham needs to have a great new beer venue, and for me it will be one that offers me all of the above. The most recent new addition to the central Birmingham pub scene does well in the cask and foreign bottles stakes. The whispered-about rumours of a Brewdog bar would bring some great keg and bottled beers. Both will be priority detinations for me (assuming in the latter case it actually happens). But if swapping between cask and keg also means changing venue then I’ll reserve the right to remain just a tiny bit disappointed. I keep in my mind another firm favourite – the Euston Tap – which is not unique in its offering of a wide range of good cask, keg and bottled beer and very much look forward to the day when a similar “one stop shop” opens up a little closer to home.

However, the big question for me when constantly seeking variety is whether a one-off tasting of a particular beer can be a reaonable basis on which to make a proper judgement of it. Is it right to dismiss a brewer’s range because you tried it once and it wasn’t to your taste? What if it was badly-kept (confidence here depends how well you know your venue I guess) or at the end of a barrel? I’ve had the same beer in the same pub a few days apart, and it can make a huge difference. What if you’re basing your experience of a whole style on a single example which might even not be classified very well? If you never try anything of that style again on that basis you could miss out on something you actually would really like. And sometimes I find it takes time for some beers to grow on you, when it would be easy to dismiss on a first tasting.

I think the answer, for me, is that you can’t make a sweeping judgement based on a single sample, it is necessary to revisit, maybe at a different time, in a different context or a different place, and try again. But in the quest for variety, for new experience, sometimes that opportunity doesn’t always come again, or by the time it does, you’ve forgotten the details of the previous experience altogether. That’s what I find anyway. Maybe I should be keeping notes of what I’ve tried, so I can check back more readily. I certainly don’t want to give up on seeking out new beers, sticking just to what I already know. But perhaps there is also some merit in returning to old favourites more often as well.

What I do know above all else is that there is a stunning variety of beer out there, and I’m happy to keep experiencing as much of it as I can!