When I grow up I want to be like John Keeling

The Great British Beer Festival* has been a whirlwind of people and laughter and celebration of all that is amazing about beer and brewing. The cornucopia of flavours and aromas that beers from not just the UK but around the world has been mind and palate blowing and even though I still have another day there, I don’t want it to end.

My left leg and recently snapped Achilles tendon has another agenda though… So I sit here now in Knightsbridge, wallowing through an inbox of emails, my ankle wrapped in an ice pack and a large egg-sized lump of scar tissue pulsing away under my skin where the healing continues. Stupid rugby!

The flipside is that there have been a couple of highlights already in this manic week. Firstly, having around 150-200 people turn up on Monday night for a Meet the Brewer event at the Cask Pub and Kitchen in Pimlico was absolutely awesome. I’ve never had to shout myself hoarse to such a group of enthusiastic imbibers before, and the brilliant Martin from Cask even put ten of our Thornbridge brews on tap, meaning there was something for everyone. Just when I thought the night was as good as it could get, Doug Odell from Odell Brewing arrived and we got to taste our recent collaboration brew, the 5.9% Colorado Red together and discuss what subtle improvements we could make. I was also really pleased with how well the experimental Bolvig went down… a little decadent twist on Saint Petersburg with the addition of coffee beans, vanilla pods and coconut.

Tuesday afternoon saw another beery highlight, with Tony from Fuller’s inviting me along to the release of their second Brewer’s Reserve. This time expertly aged in Cognac barrels (the first Brewers Reserve had its time in Glenmorangie casks). Beer writer extraordinaire Adrian Tierney-Jones does a lot better than I do at explaining the event, but needless to say, it made me want to be just like John Keeling

The legendary John (photo from the Fuller's website)

Sure, I’d never have the telltale Mancunian accent, that Northern drawl on the last enunciated words that is characteristic of John’s delivery, but I’d love to be able to hold an audience like John does. To enthuse and quip and amuse with brewing anecdotes and the voyage of discovery that creating beer holds. Hell, the patience to save as many Vintage Ales as he can to do parallel tastings is a gift in itself isn’t it!?

I’ve just looked through the brief notes I put into my phone about the beers we tried… The 2009 Vintage Ale with its concerto of cereal, barley sugars (the sweet that is – sucked and sniffed, not straight from the wrapper as John explained), tangerine and subtle lemon. The slightly vinous finish, whisper of almond and clean bitterness. It was a cracker and one to put in the cellar for a few years for sure.

The 2006 Vintage Ale showing the benefits of the aging process with an almost creamy texture, even a shade of Highland whiskey, some yeasty goodness and undercurrents of, well, currants actually. It was mouth poetry.

It didn’t stop there and the Brewer’s Reserve No.1 was brought out, having been aged in whiskey casks. I remembered trying a bunch of John’s experimental beers back in 2007 at a Barrel-Aging seminar that the British Guild of Beer Writers had held. Culminating from this research, it had been expertly blended… a mixture of the wood aged brew, Golden Pride, ESB and 1845. I tasted this when it first came out last year and was amazed at the  difference the year had made. From something that had shown a lot of whiskey character, this now came out all caramel malt-like, with warming wisps of boozy heat, sherry and fruitcake. Adrian Tierney-Jones picked up a hint of Brettanomyces which I also noticed. For those that don’t know what this is, I recommend you all go and buy a bottle of Orval from Belgium and you’ll get the finest hints of horse-blanket and funk and medicinal band aid that characterises this fascinating yeast.

Last was the Brewer’s Reserve No.2 aged in Cognac casks and coming through with perfumed pear drop and apple esters (my notes say Pink Lady Apple juice, probably helped that I’d had some of this the day before!), warming alcohol and the finest hint of marzipan. This was an exquisite beer and I already look forward to tasting it again in a year or two.

Brewer's Reserve No.2 (from the Fuller's website)

You can probably see why I want to be like John. To have the ability to craft beers that can stand the test of time and do it in a way that shows the innovation that has been lacking for too long in British Brewing. This year the GBBF had the ever-popular BSF bar, showcasing the great beers from the US and the rest of the beer world. It was always busy and seems to get larger every year with people waxing lyrical about the quality and diversity of the beers.

Let’s see this begin to happen for British beers too! Cheer John, you’re an inspiration.

*Our Jaipur took out Gold in the Strong Bitters section at the Champion Beer of Britain competition at this year’s festival… yay for us!

British Guild of Beer Writers Dinner 2009

I don’t know if it’s normal or not for brewers to join the Beer Writer’s Guild, but to be honest, I really enjoy writing about my favourite subject in the world. I began writing when I spent a 3 year stint teaching English in South Korea. Just a monthly article for a local community paper back home highlighting what I was doing over there and how interesting and fascinating the Korean culture and country was. I’ve always enjoyed writing. If I hadn’t followed my other passion, science, at university, I would have definitely studied English.

Before I came to the UK, I didn’t know there was such a thing as a Guild of Beer Writers. I had studied for an Institute and Guild of Brewing (now the Institute of Brewing and Distilling) exam whilst a trainee brewer back in NZ and this was my first encounter with the world of Guilds . The Dungeons and Dragons geek in me always thought it was pretty cool that there were still such things as Guilds in the Old World and I half-imagined dudes in hooded cloaks walking through dusty, pillared halls and discussing the Secrets of the Yeast, shifty eyes looking for random assassins from the rival Wine and Whiskey guilds that were bound to attack and steal secrets aplenty. It’s always good to have an imagination.

So there I was, attending my first ever Guild dinner as a fully fledged member. Simon, Alex and I arrived at the venue and began chatting to the myriad of familiar faces that had already gathered in the reception area. There was a fantastic selection of welcome drinks. Offerings from Brains (SA, SA Gold, Dark and the Rev. James), Caledonian (Deuchars IPA, 80/-, Flying Dutchman, Double Dark), Molson Coors (Blue Moon, Grolsch Weizen, Worthington White Shield, Zatec), Shepherd Neame (Bishops Finger, Spitfire, Whitstable Bay) and Well’s and Young’s (Bombardier, Young’s Special London Ale, Young’s Bitter). But I also noticed that one of my favourite lagers, Budvar had a stand. We made a bee-line for the fridge, sampling a few of the nibbles on the way. Tuna Nicoise tartlets, Maki rolls, Pear and Stilton on crumpets, Lamb kofta… yum! The Budvar lager was a great first beer, quenching the palate perfectly and easily blending into the Budvar Dark that followed, all cappuccino and hints of sweetness.

We caught up with Alastair Hook from Meantime Brewery, who excitedly told us of his new brewery expansion and briefly chatted to Sean Franklin from the esteemed Roosters Brewery and Alastair Gilmour, beer writer extraordinaire, resplendent in his tartan tie.

Eventually we were called into the dining area where we were welcomed by the Guild Chairman, Tim Hampson and introduced to the menu by yet another esteemed beer journalist, Adrian Tierney-Jones and the Hilton London Tower Bridge’s Head Chef, Christian Honor.

Maybe it was just a coincidence, but the tables were all named after hops, and we sat at Perle. As I type, we have a fantastic Dry-Hopped Light Ale sitting in one of our conditioning tanks that we thought would be a fantastic tribute to European hops. At 3.3% AbV, it sits at the more challenging end of the spectrum in terms of creating a beer with a lot of flavour. We used Vienna malt as our base malt instead of the usual Maris Otter pale ale and also went for dextrin and caramalt to give a bit of a nutty, biscuit flavour and a little body. Hop-wise, it was all about Saaz, Tettnang and Santiam. “Santiam?” I hear you all cry? Well, its parentage is mostly European (Tettnang and Hallertau Mittelfruh) with a hint of the US, so we thought it was close enough. As well as using first wort hopping (that’s adding the first load of hops into the copper as you begin running off the wort from the mash) we also dry-hopped in the fermenter with the wonderfully fragrant Perle and again in the conditioning tank with Celeia from Slovenia. The Perle from this season is so good, that I thought we should really honour this beer and named it Pearl (we had also previously done a similar ale at 2.7% with the brilliant German noble hop, Saphir… yep, we called that Sapphire). So to cut a long story short, sitting at the Perle table was quite fitting.

The meal began with a Black Shetland mussel and Margate clam chowder with chilli. Creamy and decadent with some delightful edible garnishes, this worked brilliantly with the Meantime Pilsener it was matched with. The Pilsener come across with touches of bready malt and a lovely noble, slightly grassy hop aroma. The bitterness was crisp and clean and a brilliant cleanser after each mouthfeel of silky soup.

Smoked venison with goat’s cheese on a fig and apple juice terrine was next. Cylindrical like some type of meat-lovers Sushi roll, each mouthful was heavenly. The creamy goat’s cheese saturated the tongue with fats and oils and softened the beautiful, thinly sliced venison that surrounded it. Small cubes of beetroot held hands with the venison, that slightly earthy flavour from both combining wonderfully, eagerly balanced by the slightly tart-sweet combination of apple juice and red wine vinegar.  But it was the beer that brought it all together. Duchesse De Bourgogne by the Verhaeghe brewery in West Flanders is an exquisite example of the sour red-brown beers that the Belgians do so well. Hints of soft acidity, balsamic-soaked cherries, a background of oak and even a touch of fig that works perfectly with the terrine upon which the venison roll rested. Everyone needs to taste food like this with beer like this. E-v-e-r-y-o-n-e.

Our main was a slow braised rabbit leg in a roasted rabbit saddle on a white bean puree and with good old chunky chips. As great as the chips were, they could have easily been left off as the rabbit was great on its own. Not as gamey as some wild rabbit I have eaten, but wonderfully moist and tender with hints of both chicken and pork in its full flavour. This was matched with Ringwood Old Thumper. This was the first time I had tried this beer and I have to admit, I think I need to try it on cask. There was a touch of ketone, almost acetone-like and the alcoholic character (it weighs in at 5.6%) was quite dominant. There was some dry fruit there which had the potential to work well with the rabbit, but for me the rawness pushed this away from being a great match. I think on paper, this would have been bang on, but it just wasn’t quite right. That and I’m very diplomatic 🙂

The cheese course was next and it was already going to be tough to fit it all in. Luckily, for every course we were sharing four bottles of beer between ten people, which meant we were having just enough of each beer to allow us to have a great beer-food experience without bloating ourselves with excess liquid. A whole baked camembert with soused (pickled) black grapes and nice crisp breadsticks married perfectly with a 2005 Fuller’s Vintage Ale. The beer was full of fig and green sultana with just the tiniest hint of Brettanomyces (which was hotly debated by James McRorie of the Durden Beer Circle who insisted it was a character that came from some old speciality malts). No matter, the match was fantastic, all warm, creamy, luscious cheese and lashings of fruit (yeah, I loved Enid Blyton as a kid). Yet another reason to shake John Keeling from Fullers’ hand every time you see him!

Last but not least, even though my tight-fitting suit pants popped a few stitches in protest, was an incredibly rich chocolate tower with walnuts, Tonka beans and heavenly caramel with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. I’d never heard of Tonka beans before (though had played with Tonka trucks as a child… does that count?) and upon researching found that they often have vanilla and almond like aromas. Would love to play around with these in a brew but apparently they have quite a bit of coumarin in them and in large doses this can affect the liver and act as an anti-coagulant. Funnily enough, this compound is also present in the herb Woodruff, which we grow at Thornbridge and has a wonderful almond aroma. Woodruff was traditionally used in brewing and is still added in syrup form to the sour Berliner Weisse beers. The desert was incredible, though I just couldn’t finish it. The beer that was matched with this was Flying Dog’s Gonzo Imperial Porter, an incredible beer. Its nose smacked of lemon-sherbert balls covered in milk chocolate, it was light, yet rich in the mouth and I was really looking forward to tasting it with the dessert. But the dessert was just a bit too chocolaty (if that is possible), a bit too rich and the beer suffered slightly. It didn’t help that I stuffed excessively large helpings into my mouth… maybe if I’d had smaller tastings, it would have allowed the beer to come through a lot better. I would have loved to see this rich treat matched with the intense Harveys Imperial Stout, which isn’t loved by all, but is definitely an intensely flavoured beer that may have matched this lush dessert. It would have also been fitting considering Miles Jenner took out the Guild Brewer of the Year award this year.

Speaking of the awards, was absolutely awesome to see the omni-enthusiastic Mark Dredge from the acclaimed Pencil and Spoon blog pick up the New Media award and Ben McFarland win the Beer and Food Writing Award with his fantastic World’s Best Beers: 1000 Unmissable Brews from Portland to Prague. I think this is one of the best presented beer tomes around and the section from El Bulli is brilliant! Was great to see another new blogger, Dave Bailey, pick up an award for his brilliant Woolpack Dave blog about life brewing and running a pub. A great social commentary on life surrounded by beer and one I can relate to very easily.

Pete Brown picked up the Budvar John White Travel Bursary and the coveted Michael Jackson Gold Tankard Award as Beer Writer of the Year. Completely deserved in my opinion, what with his epic journey and the resultant Hops and Glory (which you should all buy for your beer loving Dad’s this year for Christmas) on the history of India Pale Ale.

It was also great to see Alastair Gilmour and Jeff Evans get awarded. Jeff contributes a plethora of information, both in books and on the internet and I love Alastair’s writing style – it’s very user friendly, factual and a pleasure to read.

All in all, it was a great night and I’d recommend you all start tap-tap-tapping on the keyboard or scribbling frantically on random pieces of A4 paper, join the Guild, don some robes and start whispering to each other while reading ancient leather-bound books about the secrets of fermentology…

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