Mashtun and Meow

Saturday, 3 October 2015

A Birthday Brewdog Tour

We love a bit of a roadtrip every now and again, and having been kindly invited up to the Brewdog brewery by malt master Angelos (who we first met at this excellent homebrew competition), Jim decided that a 400 mile journey up to Ellon would be a great way to spend his birthday. and frankly the only way to travel to a craft beer Mecca would be to make the quasi-religious Hajj via the various Brewdog bars on the pilgrimage.

Seeing as it's rather a long way from Sheffield, we made a proper long weekend of it, calling at as many Brewdog bars as we could on the way, just to stick with a bit of a theme! Obviously we also found many more fantastic places on our travels... look out for another post in the near future for these.

Our plan was to begin on home soil in Brewdog Sheffield, before heading up to Newcastle and then on to Edinburgh, with an overnight stay in each city, then on to Aberdeen and finally the Big Dog - the brewery itself in Ellon. The bars all follow a similar mould... always slightly industrial, with booths, matte black paint and walls clad in what can surely only be made from a sports hall floor. With slightly different offerings from Stone, Mikkeller and Boon or Weihenstephan on the guest lines and at least eight of the host beers on the other taps, there is always a beer for everyone. Whilst the beer list and venues are similar, it's the staff that set each apart and give the bars a distinctive character. Every single person we spoke to behind the bar was helpful, knowledgeable and enthusiastic, and polite enough to seem interested in our slightly odd quest!

Clockwise from top left: Brewdog Newcastle, Dundee, Aberdeen and Edinburgh
En route to Aberdeen, we decided to add in a somewhat impromptu trip to Dundee, where the Royal Exchange building plays host to the ornate bar. Due to it being only part way through our drive, as we sat twiddling our thumbs for the lunchtime opening we drew straws for the designated driver. As the bar opened, Laura opted for a Fritz-Limo apple juice. Jim clutching the figurative long straw more than made up for this, indulging in the 8% Molotov Lite from Evil Twin. For the birthday boy, this was the perfect opener to the proceedings, light, floral and a nice accompaniment to the beef and Five AM Saint pie. Moving on to Stone - Points Unknown, another ludicrously strong pre-afternoon beer in the form of a Belgian style tripel at 9.5%, which has been barrel aged in wine and tequila before being blended with a delightfully fresh West Coast DIPA, to form an awesomely rounded, hoppy, slightly tart, massively boozy and all round stunning drink.

By Monday it's definitely fair to say we were adequately warmed up to complete our pilgrimage to the brewery itself, along with the Dogtap there. Based in Ellon, a half hour bus journey north of Aberdeen, it is absolutely ENORMOUS and still clearly in the process of rapid growth.

Upon arriving at the brewery, we were greeted by Angelos who was to be our guide and beer guru for the afternoon. The bar attached to the brewery follows the same pattern as the rest, except with the reflective majesty of the pilot kit at one end. As we moved to through to the large building behind the bar, wandering through a maze of impossibly shiny stainless steel, we began to see the scale of what the Brewdog machine has become, with three massive fermenting vessels in the centre of the building and a £3million bottling plant taking up around half of the space of the main warehouse.

We were firstly shown the four main brewing vessels (mashtun, lautertun, kettle and whirlpool) - a setup that allows 4 different beers to be on the go simultaneously and up to 10 brews a day to be produced. Our tour continued along to conditioning tanks and the dry hopping stage of the process, where we were lucky enough to have a taste of the super chilled and ridiculously fresh beers. The highlights were the legendary Punk IPA, with an outrageously juicy hop character, and Tokyo - at around 17% and -1 degrees, it was practically a syrup, fruity, sticky and downright delicious. Black Eyed King, which becomes the base of the "Dog" series of beers, was also phenomenal. Many of the fermenting vessels are situated outside the brewery building itself... with 15 that can contain 800 hectolitres, it's not hard to imagine why. The sheer scale of absolutely everything just blew us away... despite being familiar with many a brewery, we'd truly never seen anything like it. Again, the enthusiasm of those working there was obvious, and the whole building felt a bit like a beehive, everyone working busily as a team and the air filled with an electric innovation. With their recent milestone of £10million through crowd funding, we will no doubt see many more exciting things coming from this remote corner of Scotland.

After a pit stop in the tap room - a Five AM Saint for Jim, and a stunning sour cherry pilot brew for Laura, it was time to get the bus back to Aberdeen and grab a good night's kip ready for the 7 hour drive home the following day. Totally worth it.



Monday, 31 August 2015

Dispense with the Gimmicks

Earlier this week, Buxton Brewery announced they will no longer be producing cask beer unless it's for their brewery tap house, citing concerns over cask loss and quality control, and overall a market that doesn't take kindly to more expensive casks of beer. This is a big step for a brewery to make and an interesting statement, to cut out what is traditionally the backbone of pretty much every UK brewery in terms of sales.

There are other breweries taking similar steps although not as far as disregarding casks altogether, but selling beer through different dispense such as keg, bottle and more recently can. The most notable of these is probably Beavertown, but with Magic Rock equipping their new brewery in Huddersfield with a canning line they don't seem to be far off the pace. Whilst these techniques of dispense can be all well and good, I am starting to struggle justifying them as the best thing for the beer (which is at the end of the day what really matters). For myself, whilst initially I was dismayed at the concept of drinking from a can, my discountenance soon dissipated after a can of Roosters Baby Faced Assassin, which is now one of my favourite beers. After my gateway Assassin I quickly drank through Beavertowns, with on the whole positive results, 8 Ball Rye and Neck Oil being the standout options. But... then there is Smog Rocket, a beer which I know should be a tremendous beer in taste, but for me everything else was lacking. The body was a little thin and a lot of what should've been a big smoke element was amiss. This is in contrast to the all round bolder experience gained from drinking this beer on cask (sadly a much rarer opportunity) which is surely the way the brewery intended it to taste... why, then, produce a poorer alternative of the same beer by canning it? Don't get me wrong, it wasn't bad in can, just not quite right.

There are reportedly three new breweries opening every week in the UK at the moment and because of this each has to do their utmost to stand out from the continually growing roster of newbies. A new offering to the Sheffield market, North Union, has taken the decision to produce only keg and bottle, recognising that in producing cask beer in a city with coming up to twenty breweries it would be difficult to offer anything new to the market. This for me is a good example of a brewery unwilling to take part in what Buxton have highlighted as another factor in their caskless operation, "a depressed cask market place flooded with poor to average cask beer, sold cheap." Breweries desperate to sell their beer often offer much lower prices for their casks, causing some publicans to set unrealistic price boundaries for their cask purchases, ultimately resulting in poorer choice and lower quality for the drinker at the bar. As well as this, a landlord or cellar manager needs no qualifications, experience or knowledge to run a pub. You can get a pint of poorly kept cask beer that is in no way representative of how the product left the brewery stores. This lack of control over cask is also cited by Buxton as a factor in their recent decision, whilst keg beer leaves the brewery in much the same condition as it is served. But a well maintained cellar and competently kept casks for me will almost always outstrip that of the quality of other dispense methods.

The US is a big part of both the craft keg and canning market - in both respects they are at least 20 years ahead of us, and therefore can consistently rely on their own techniques and experience. By contrast, jumping in head first into the premise of canning and keg will not always end with success. As we see more breweries trying to break into the market, we are going to see hits and I fear a lot more misses in terms of how beer is provided to the consumer. Let's also not forget that all this is against the decree of CAMRA, still a powerful driver of opinion for a good portion of beer drinkers. I just hope that we can work through what could be a tumultuous time for the industry and iron out some of the lower quality canning techniques before it becomes too unreliable, which may lead to consumer mistrust. But still at the heart of everything we need to be looking at what is best for each beer, rather than a blanket approach to an entire range.

But for now, I'm going to retire with a Northern Monk Strannik... in bottle... at room temperature.



Thursday, 20 August 2015

Buxton Tap House

An impromptu camping trip to the peaks brought us merrily to Buxton - and at a great time too. You might have noticed we're big fans of Buxton Brewery (you can find our review of Battle Horse here, and see how Two Ton IPA got our anniversary off to a cracking start here) and a visit to their homeland was long overdue. Our trip fortuitously coincided with a tap takeover from Stockholm's finest, Omnipollo, which was truly something to behold - featuring twelve of some of the most outlandish gypsy brews we've ever come across, served both via cask and keg, in the low ceilinged and cosily decorated snug of the Buxton Tap.

Our opening round was of a glass of Magic #4.21 and Magic #90,000, the former a raspberry and vanilla smoothie IPA and the latter made with blueberry, pecan, almond and again vanilla. Both of these beers were richened and emboldened with lactose, giving body to the fresh fruitiness of the berries. The raspberry IPA was a lip smacker at every sip, and the blueberry version, whilst the nuttiness was not overly pronounced, was bold and tart with fruitiness and had an inviting cheesecake-style aroma.

To follow we had Bianca (6%), surely the first (and perhaps only!) mango lassi gose. Mango puree provided a tropical hit, with lactose to add to the body, and salt which prevented everything from being too sickly. Fairly odd, but an interesting and tasty beverage. To accompany this, Mr. M had the similarly bonkers-sounding protein shake IIPA, reportedly made with pure protein, which gave a chewiness to the beer that balanced really well with the hop bitterness. Who knew 8% double IPAs worked so well with Ovaltine flavours?!

It was at this point that we intended to buy some of the food that had been specifically curated for the takeover event, but as we reached 3 o'clock the menus were all removed from the table by a surly looking gent, who assured us that it was our mistake when we said the sign outside suggested food was available all day. Obviously if a chef wants a break in the quieter middle period of the afternoon there's nothing wrong with that whatsoever, but we were a little taken aback by the rude treatment and (incorrect) information we received, and left in a bit of a hungry huff. EXHIBIT A.

However a chip butty from the local chippy followed by a pint of the always outstanding Titanic Plum Porter at the Cheshire Cheese down the road soon alleviated our disgruntlement, and we returned back to the Tap to be greeted by a new set of staff behind the bar - pleased to report these were all friendly and helpful. Perhaps the man from earlier was just hungry too...

Upon our return, menus had been placed back on the table, so we ordered a selection of the platters of the smoked food and a pair of half pints and retreated to conquer the rest of the spectacular beer. Ham hock terrine accompanied with a tomato salsa soon arrived, along with smoked duck with wilted spinach and garlic. On the side we opted for a chilli and garlic mac & cheese. 

The food went down beautifully with a couple of Buxton beers - the Rednik stout's light smoky nature balanced with the rest of the malt and paired really nicely with the ham hock, and Axe Edge IPA, who's hop character features Amarillo, Citra and Nelson Sauvin, worked well to cut through some of the fattiness of the duck.

Then we came to the main reason we travelled the hour from Sheffield... last year's Buxton and Omnipollo Rainbow Project collaboration, a peanut butter biscuit stout... Yellow Belly.

We're talking Yellow Belly not just on keg, not even just a barrel aged version with vanilla beans, cocoa nibs and lactose on cask, but also to top that all off a Yellow Belly candied bacon toffee cheesecake. This triumvirate of dark, sticky luxuriousness was just spectacular. With each iteration offering a different perspective, this was a treat that literally brought tears to Mrs M's eyes. The cask "Yellow Belly Sunday" at 12% was enormously rich and boozy, and tasted almost like there had been a shot of bourbon sneaked into the glass, with a smooth creamy sweetness that came through at the end. The standard version at a lowly 11%, served on keg, had an odd but pleasant bubbling sensation across the tongue from the carbonation, which soon died as the thickness of the almost treacle textured beer grew. In both versions, the lightly salted nut character of peanut butter came through intensely with a delicate biscuit maltiness. The cheesecake just exacerbated all of this deliciousness in spades - and we are now firmly of the opinion that all puddings should come with a liberal sprinkling of candied meat. Ridiculously good - this is one of the few colossally hyped beers that went further than just meeting our expectations and blew them out of the water.  

Having drunk our way through the majority of the beer board (bettered by our good beery pal Steve, who managed to sample them all... reckon Buxton should do medals for this) it was time for a stumble back to the tent ready for tomorrow's adventures with a Derbyshire Wayfarer.



Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Magic Rock Tap, Huddersfield

We've been fans of Magic Rock beers for quite some time, and they're one of those that we always make a beeline for at the bar - their wonderfully juicy West Coast Pale Ale, High Wire (5.5%) is one of Laura's firm favourites (and luckily enough it's frequently available at one of our locals, the Rutland Arms) - and they're also making quite a name for themselves with some really special brews. We've been chomping at the bit to get to their brewery tap in Huddersfield since it opened in June this year, and finally made the trip through the glorious Yorkshire countryside last weekend.

We started off with something pretty light, Dancing Bear - a steam beer style pilsner weighing in at 4.5%. Refreshing and grassy, it was certainly a welcome opening act.

Next up was Big Top - an India Red Ale with humongous hop flavours, massively aromatic and tropical at 7.4%. Alongside this we grabbed ourselves a burger from Fat Hippo, usually Newcastle based but with a nifty little Burger Bar which travels around the country. The Tap invites along different food vendors each weekend, meaning there's always something different to try, and we were mightily impressed by the offering this week. We both picked the PB&J burger - succulent beef, perfectly cooked to order, topped with peanut butter and bacon jam, which may now be our new favourite condiment (a bold claim for a couple who have designated condiment shelves in both the cupboard and the fridge). Fat Hippo will be in Sheffield at the next Peddler market in October and we'd definitely recommend them to anyone in the area.

After filling our bellies, we were treated to a quick look around the new brewery itself, which has doubled production capacity for Magic Rock. The first brew had taken place just the day before, so everything was very shiny and new... we even got a sneak peek at the new canning line, which has now been officially announced! Watch this space...

Now then. Those really special brews we mentioned at the beginning of this post? Here goes. Firstly was Dark Arts stout - cocoa nib edition (6%), which had been aged in bourbon barrels for two years with cocoa nibs and vanilla added for the last few months. The aroma was incredible, intensely chocolatey and oh so inviting. On the palate was creamy chocolate with a dry pure cocoa backbone which prevented the beer from becoming cloying, and the vanilla coming through to enhance the flavours imparted by the barrel. As well as this treat, we also enormously enjoyed the Pedro Ximenez barrel aged Bearded Lady, a 10.5% imperial stout. Sumptuously sticky, it was rich with raisins and treacle whilst retaining a great level of balance, and was just a perfect example of just how good a barrel aged beer can be.

The whole experience of drinking at the Magic Rock Tap was just a delight - the staff were all friendly and keen to share their extensive knowledge of the beers on offer, the atmosphere and decor give you a great feel for what the brewery is all about, and everything is achingly "craft" without being in any way twattishly pretentious. A new favourite and definitely not to be missed!



Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Summer gardens and growing your own

Something a little different today! We've finally got some summer weather here in Sheffield, and have been spending much more time out in our garden, dining al fresco and enjoying a refreshing beer or two in the sunshine. Laura was recently invited to judge a "Dream Summer Garden" competition run by Conservatory Land (you can read all about this and see all of the winning entries here) which has definitely provided us with more inspiration and so many of the boards proved that you don't need an enormous garden to create a beautiful space. Ours is fairly tiny, but after two and a half years of living here we've eventually managed to get it not only looking lovely, but also pretty productive - with a herb garden, vegetable plants, and a raspberry patch which started life as a single stick and is now giving us literally hundreds of fruits! We've also planted a random selection of wildflowers which have done a brilliant job of attracting bees and butterflies as well as adding some much needed splashes of colour.

Although they don't quite live up to the standard set by the Pinterest competition, here's a few snaps of our little garden...

Many thanks to Conservatory Land for inviting Mrs M to be a part of their competition, and hope all the winners had a wonderful time at the RHS Hyde Hall Flower Show!



Sunday, 26 July 2015

Italian beers from Birrificio Gjulia

Whilst Italy is not yet particularly well known in the UK for its craft beer production, there are more and more breweries now beginning to reach our shores and Gjulia is one of them. Made by Marco and Massimo Zorzettig, brothers with a family tradition which lies more in wine production than in brewing, all Gjulia's beers use malt grown on their very own land. The emphasis across the range is on sustainability, locality, and quality, which it certainly carries in absolute spades.

IPA, 5.8%
The newest release from Gjulia, created using their homegrown hops, this poured a little hazy, and we managed to work out from our very basic Italian that it's unfiltered and bottle conditioned. The vibrant aroma hits the nose full of fruit and juicy hop character. The bottle conditioning provides a beautiful carbonation that tingles along the tongue and hints towards a similar mouthfeel to a good white wine. Flavours of citrus, particularly pithy grapefruit, are vivid throughout, alongside a gently floral elderflower character. The hop flavours are bold without being out of balance, providing a pleasantly soft level of bitterness on the finish. Full-bodied, fruity and fresh.

Nostrana Organic Ale, 5%
Again slightly hazy, this blonde beer made entirely with organic ingredients was almost shimmery - gorgeous in the glass. On the nose, lightly perfumed with notes of orange blossom, delicate and dry with a tropical fruit esther character from the yeast. On the palate, there's tons of intense juicy fruits, in particular mandarin segments and passion fruit. This is coupled with a lovely crispness that is almost reminiscent of a Belgian-style pale ale. Refreshing and very elegant.

Overall, we were hugely impressed by the product coming out of Gjulia. The branding is superb and the bottles themselves look great, seemingly inspired by the Zorzettig brothers' background in winemaking. The beers can be approached in much the same way as a fine wine and worked really well with food - we went for homemade tagliatelle with smoked salmon, courgette and lemon to pair with the IPA, and pan fried pork fillets with apple and sweet potato to go alongside the Nostrana. With the growing demand for international beer that we're currently seeing in the UK, we certainly hope to see more of Birra Gjulia on these shores.



Disclaimer: we were kindly sent these two beers to review, however opinions are all our own. Many thanks to Birrificio Gjulia!

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Barrel Aged Beers from Siren Craft Brew

Siren are one of those breweries that you just can't help but get excited about. Established in 2012 with the intention of pushing barrel ageing to the fore, Siren have quickly become renowned for their innovative brews, and clever ways of crafting complex, intriguingly good beers. The brewery even contains a specially built ageing room to accommodate the many product lines and experiment with barrelled beers.

From Siren's most recent wave of barrel aged releases, Long Forgotten Journey is a barley wine flavoured with honey and orange peel and left to sit in a Grand Marnier cask. On the nose, it's initially quite boozy (as you'd probably expect from the 10% ABV), with wafts of light citrus, and a definite sweetness which lingers beyond that. The taste itself is fragrant and sweet, with a nicely robust fresh honey flavour tempering what can often be a pretty bold beer style in the form of a barley wine. A welcome pithy bitterness comes in right at the end. Undoubtedly absolutely yummy, but it tastes a little unfinished... with a best before date of 2018 on the bottle we were left wondering if we'd cracked this open too early, or if perhaps it would have benefitted from a little longer in the barrel. All the right flavours are there, but the overall impression doesn't quite have the harmony we've come to expect from a beer that's been barrel aged.

Which leads us quite nicely on to the second of this evening's beers: Maiden 2014. Like the Long Forgotten Journey, Maiden 2014 (11.1%) began life as a barley wine, but has undergone a more complex journey to reach the bottle... a journey which has taken time. Created from a multitude of barrels, and comprising 10% last year's Maiden release, the beer is meticulously selected and blended to produce a real labour of love. Hints of sherry come through on the nose with pleasing sweetness. At first sip light and delicate, the extra time left for the flavours to develop really comes through on the palate, which becomes sumptuously rich and well balanced, reminiscent of fruit cake. A dark chocolate bitterness hovers on the roof of the mouth for an age after drinking. A very well executed beer, to be sipped on in much the same way as a fine wine.

Patience is most definitely a virtue.