Thursday, September 14, 2017

Don't mix your drinks

'Don't mix your drinks.' Sound advice, but I rarely listened, even on the best-behaved of evenings. Delighting in the next day's forecast of pain that followed a cocktail of red wine, whisky, maybe a rum, porter, a DIPA and so on. Maybe even a proper cocktail. Dinner would be chips.

Best practise for blogging and social media, too, is all about sticking to the one subject. Owning it, whether that be bikes or beer, fashion or fiction. Stick to a USP, say the experts, and go heavy on the U. They also command you use a picture.

Well, this wee beer diary has been very beer focused since my very first post almost five years ago: a brew by Alechemy, purchased at the now sadly shut Hippo Beers on Great Western Road.

But the blog's been quiet for the past year (though I've continued to write about beer, whisky and gin in other capacities). Not since I was blown away by a batch of beers sent from a new-ish brewery called Fierce in 2016 have I taken the time to sit down and try to put my sense of tastes into words.

And while the real world got madder in this blog's five-year life, in my world I felt the beer reviews got better, evolving from the mildly cringey "This IPA is a full flavoured, hoppy and delicious beer" to a regular (and paid!) beer review in The Herald that had quotes, interviews, tasting notes and everything. Even paid advertising.

I spent the first meagre but magnificent earnings from that column on a bottle of GlenDronach Revival 15 yo from the Good Spirits Company in Glasgow. I was blown away by it, and remember it now a couple of years later with great fondness. It was seriously stunning, and at that point was the most expensive whisky I'd ever bought (I think it was about £60). It must have been one of the last ones around as the range is now on a three-year sabbatical due to lack of stock causing the price to rocket.  

All of which serves as a rather long and self-indulgent introduction to the predictably earth-shattering announcement that it's time for something new. Time I listened to the advice and kept the great and the grain, the old and the new, the boozing and the swimming all very separate.

So, the vlogs, blogs and swimming logs continue here on my scottishswimmer blog.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Fierce Beer have the right attitude

Fierce Beers' new range of beers.
There’ve been wave after wave of new breweries opening over the past five or so years. Established newcomers such as Fallen, Tempest, AlechemyBlack Metal Brewery and Top Out and a good few others don’t seem like the babes on the block anymore. Not by a long shot. 

And in their wake another wave. This past year we’ve done well. Up Front Brewing, Dead End Brew, Camper Van all making a mark in the past 12 months or so. Most of these have been fairly lo-fi breweries, taking the leap from homebrewer to professional, or a professional brewer going their own way in the case of Up Front, and most cases using word of mouth to push their popularity rather than a PR budget. 

And there’s Fierce Beer, a bold brewing outfit from Dyce, near Aberdeen, who officially began life last year but who have clearly been impressing the right people for longer because they’ve just upped their game substantially with new premises and new brewkit, and have just recently released ten beers. 

Ten. All with nicely made up labels with Photoshop montages and jaggedy, edgy writing. And they’ve also had the budget to hire a PR, who in her, err, wisdom saw fit to send me some beers in the hope I’d write about them. 

And so here we are. 

First off, I was skeptical. Fierce is one of those words that Tyra Banks owned on America’s Next Top Model. (That clip is bonkers by the way.) 

Or maybe it was the logo. An angry looking hop that made me think of wee Banksy stencilling an radge strawberry onto a wall somewhere. Or maybe an alien silhouette with a beard, and a jaggy beret. Or Shaggy meets Paul from the film Paul. Anyhow it’s stuck in my head and done its job. So well done Fierce, a striking bit of branding there. 

Fierce also colour-code the angry hop-berry to help you know what you’re drinking. Green for porter, purple for IPA, blue for pale. Red is fruit beers, obviously. I think that’s right ... Maybe check the site first.

And then there were the names. Ginja Ninja is neat, though it’s a spicy beast not a ginger beast which is what I was looking for. Eskimo Joe is a cool coffee and vanilla pale. Works. Day Shift, a lovely, big hopped pale. Granadilla Guerilla is big fruit basket IPA of beautiful passion fruit flavours. I loved it. Juicy, packed, heavy bodied and solid. 

And then there was Dirty Sanchez. Maybe that phrase means something to you. Maybe it doesn’t. But for god’s sake don’t look it up on Urban Dictionary at work. A touch of chilli gives you a wee burn at the back of the throat. The beer. I’m talking about the beer here. 

A few others also had that chilli thing going on too. Fuego Feroz chief among them. I wasn’t mad on it, but a couple of my pals liked it a lot. Certainly different, and, err, fiery. Which is kinda fierce. Check the Tyra clip if you still need persuaded. 

Peanut Riot (great), Cranachan Killer (ok), clues in the name both helped position the brand character and gave you a hint of what you were about to be consuming. 

I’m assuming that WAS NOT the case with Sanchez. 

For me, the Cafe Racer porter was standout. Solid, thick, rich, it was like eating a rich chocolate pudding at your granny’s after she’s just been polishing the furniture and has made herself a cup of coffee (and she likes it black). 

So as an opening salvo from this souped-up brewery, I can’t wait to see what Fierce Beer will bring out next. And if you’ve not yet tried their beers do try them out, they make some cracking, interesting beers.  

Thursday, September 01, 2016

Another Craft Beer Festival for Scotland

Dan Quille (left) and Richard Servranckx of Craft Beer Revolution Beer Festival
Wow. Another craft beer festival comes to Scotland. This time from a couple of blokes called Richard Servranckx and Dan Quille.

Richard and Dan hail from Leith in Edinburgh, and this November they plan on putting on the Craft Beer Revolution Beer Festival in the city's Assembly Roxy.

The line-up's sweet. Pilot, Howling Hops, Top Out, Spey Valley, Six Degrees North, Up Front Brewing, Panda Frog Project and its sister Mordue, Fallen Brewing, Northern Alchemy, Tryst, Fyne Ales, Alechemy, Parisis and Arbikie Gin & Vodka.

Brilliant, huh? Oh, and it's a three-day bash. From November 24-26.

Food will come from Scoff, The Buffalo Truck and the Babu Bombay Street Kitchen. Cleaver & Keg Charcuterie Trollies will meander around the festival offering cured meats to pair with the beers available. Hmmm, maybe not one for vegans and vegetarians then ...?

But what I also like is that these guys are putting a bit of social enterprise into the mix, too. Brewgooder - who donate a share of profits to clean water projects in the majority world countries - are both sponsors and beneficiaries of the Craft Beer Revolution's charity pitch.

Clearly, this is likely to be another great addition to a busy calendar of beery events in Scotland. So I was a wee bit bemused when I read the following in the boys' press release, quoting Dan as saying:
"I recently visited America and was blown away by how popular craft beer was there. Here in Edinburgh it’s still the norm to go into a bar and order a pint of one of the big brands, so we decided to put our love of micro-brewed beer to good use and organise a festival that will introduce people to the amazing range of craft beers that are produced here on our doorstep and support the craft beer industry."

I'd like to think that ordering a pint of Big Brand isn't so much the norm nowadays, but maybe that's me and the pubs I infrequently visit and the few mates whose company I rarely get to enjoy. I also think that the brewery list is going to excite those folks who've already been introduced to craft beer. But hey, how many beer festivals have I organised? Still, the quote irked a wee bit as it suggested Scotland as a good beer-loving nation isn't that far down the road of craft. I'd suggest it is. But then I haven't been to America either.

Since moving to Edinburgh, I've been frankly blown away by how many pubs sell good beer from good breweries, and also how far Glasgow still has to go, though it's no wasteland. Having said that, my wee local in the East has a better range of beers than most of the pubs along Byres Road.

Big money is being invested in wee breweries. Expansion, rebrands, upgrades and launches are continuing. That there's another beer festival being launched just shows how turned on people are to good beer. So good on you Dan and Richard. I hope it's a big success. I'm looking forward to this one.

Tickets are a tenner though you can get them for £8 if you buy in the next couple of weeks.

See for tickets and more info, and see the graphic below for the breweries involved. Belter!

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Beer review: Altbier by Top Out Brewery

The Cone IPA from Top Out Brewery
The Cone IPA from Top Out Brewery 
Top Out are a cracking brewery based in the south of Edinburgh. They've a quirky origins story, a strong visual identity courtesy of Ordnance Survey, and some make very fine beer indeed.

Prior to brewing professionally, Top Out's co-founders Philip 'Moo' Birch and Michael Hopert worked as a street lighting engineer in Yorkshire and a German living in London selling whisky. And though they both liked beer, their paths weren't destined to cross.

But a chance conversation at a wedding between Moo (childhood nickname, no one knows why) and Michael's girlfriend Jenny (Moo: "I'd love to open a brewery"; Jenny: "So does my boyfriend, you should meet him.") was the first step towards the creation of one of Scotland's best new independent breweries.

Top Out Brewery from Edinburgh (they only moved north to Edinburgh because Jenny applied for, and got, a job in a hospital lab there) are looking ahead to celebrating their third year in business. And within a relatively short space of time they've brought out several super beers. Chief among these was their flagship IPA The Cone, which, sadly, fell out of production due to the notorious shortage of Simcoe hops (although it made a welcome guest appearance at the Great Scottish Beer Celebration in March). It also got them a few headlines.

Undeterred, Moo and Michael have steadily been expanding their core range, with each new beer showing a different Ordnance Survey map of mountain peaks "topped out" by head-brewer and mountaineer Michael; a neat bit of branding there.

Top Out, incidentally, also host gypsy brewers Black Metal Brewery, another young independent founded by Jaan Ratsep, and which uses Michael and Moo's brewkit to produce their own beers. Black Metal has a massive following from rock music fans but deserves to be more widely available.

Six outstanding Top Out beers

Altbier lager/ale hybrid (4.5%)
Label shows: Ben Wyvis
The best of Top Out's trio of new release, Altbier is a brown ale that draws its inspiration from the brewpubs of Dusseldorf. The aroma - light malts, soft earth - gives little away. Below the surface are gentle flavours of sweet malt - figs and Christmas pudding - set against a well-weighted dose of bittering, delivering a crisp, clean beer. There are also, unsurprisingly, echoes of lager here - the German hops playing their part. The texture is smooth, waxy and warming, and hints of maple syrup, tart grape and cherries come through. Fun and serious, Altbier tastes like a German fairground.

The Cone IPA (6.8%)
Label shows: Ben Lomond
A big, beautiful IPA with a pungent hop aroma of fresh citrus, and flavours of earthy spiciness, grapefruit and sweet mandarins, balanced against a highly satisfying bitterness. A classic beer with a limited lifespan. Ridiculously drinkable. Grab them while you can.

South Face red IPA (5.9%)
Label shows: Bidean nam Bian
Another of Top Out's new releases. A reddish brown beer with hints of mango. Light aroma belies its bitter and dry character. Flavours of pine, tropical fruits, toast and coastal breeze. A decent follow-up to The Cone.

Copper Hied ginger ale (3.4%)
Label shows: Beinn Ime
The third of Top Out's new releases. While the light aroma of ginger has you expecting a sticky sugary beer, you're quickly taken from an initial sweet dash of ginger to a more balanced style of beer with spices, tart gooseberry and a bitter finish. Refreshing and different.

Smoked porter (5.6%)
Label shows: Liathach
A delicious dark beer with flavours of wood fires and treacle. Starts sweet, with some dried fruits, then a finish of bitter coffee and chocolate. The smokiness lingers throughout - makes you think of eating bacon on Islay.

Blood Revenge rye stout (6.6%)
By Black Metal Brewery
An honourable mention for Top Out's lodgers, Black Metal. Their best beer, Blood Revenge, gives off a blast of sweet malt, treacle and spices that is usurped by a brief tart hit then flavours of vanilla, chocolate and toffee apple before finishing long, dry and bitter. A belter.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Beer reviews: Six awesome American beers

Anchor Porter
Anchor Porter
A lot is being said and written about America right now, with most reasoned folks genuinely fearing for its political future. I wrote this beer column a while back for The Herald newspaper - quite some time back in fact - for America's Independence Day when the political landscape wasn't looking quite so worrying. Regards the article, not too much has changed so I reckon it's a rehash here. Besides, the beers are still awesome!

As the birthplace of the so-called craft beer revolution, and home to about 3,400 breweries, the US has plenty to celebrate.

Over the past 30 years or so, American breweries have been changing the way people drink and think about beer, not just in the US but all over the world, from Bristol to Brazil, Aberdeen to Auckland, exporting not just bottles of good beers, but also the innovation and reinvention, and, crucially, hops such as Amarillo, Cascade and Simcoe.

But it wasn't always so. Not so long ago, way back in 1983, there were only 80 breweries operating in the US; the bulk of them producing the insipid pale ale that too many people still think of as American beer. But a handful of micro-breweries, mostly born out of scaled-up homebrewing kits, were crossing European styles with the hops in their own back yard, brewing new flavours, reinventing styles such as the IPA and English bitter, while more established breweries, such as Anchor Brewing, were growing their fanbase, upping operations and selling interstate.

As happens in America, things then moved fast. By 1994, 80 breweries had become 400; by 2003 it was about 1500, and last year the total was about 3,400.

Nowadays, good American beers are a common sight on the shelves on British supermarkets and beer shops. So much so that we've come to expect the presence of Stone Brewing, or Goose Island or Brooklyn, sitting alongside our own BrewDog, Black Isle or Williams Brothers.

Anchor Porter (5.6%) by Anchor Brewing Company (California)A classic that dates back to 1972. Aroma is spicy earthiness, with hints of rum, prunes and pine forest. Taste-wise, it's smooth vanilla and roasted sweet malts, toasted coconut, nectarine and coffee, easing into a gentle, bitter finish. Beautifully textured, this is the benchmark for porters.

90 shilling (5.3%) by Odell Brewing (Colorado)A take on the Scottish ales, and dating from 1989. Aroma is light roasted malt with spices, earth and acorns. Initially peppery, it closes with a sweet aftertaste, while notes of pineapple, gingerbread and blackberry are all served up along the way. It's dark amber, complex, medium bodied and very well weighted.

Torpedo Extra IPA (7.2%) by Sierra Nevada Brewing Company (California)The brewery may dates form 1979, but this deep gold "hop bomb" is only a few years old, dating from 2009. Aroma is a blast of pungent hops, floral with hay, new carpet and sports mixture sweeties. The big hop flavours continue on tasting, where you're hit by a sensory explosion in your mouth - pine resin, Galia melon and pear, before moving to a lip-smackingly bitter and dry finish.

Arrogant Bastard (7.2%) by Stone Brewing Co (California) (7.2%)Stone have only been around since 1996, though it feels like they've been around for far longer, such is the impact they've made. In under two decades they've gone from brewing 10,000 pints to about 700,000 pints, and they're now the largest brewery in Southern California. One of their most famous beers is Arrogant Bastard, another big beer that's big on hops and alcohol. It's a brooding coppery amber ale, with sweet caramel malts, vanilla and smokiness, but it's the whack of pine resin hops that dominates from beginning to end.

Gonzo Imperial Porter (9.2%) by Flying Dog (Maryland)Anchor might have the humble porter nailed but it's Flying Dog who have one of the greatest Imperial Porters around. This pours black, sultry, sexy. Aroma is coffee, liquorice, vanilla and sultanas; taste-wise it's an absolute joy. The roasted coffee and liquorice are there, as is a balancing sweetness with vanilla and stone fruits, ending in a smooth bitter finish. A joy.

Brooklyn Lager (5.2%) by Brooklyn Brewery (New York)Pours a soft gold with a citrus oranges and sweet mandarins, and made with both German and US hops. Crisp and deliciously refreshing, it's a prime example of a great American lager.

Of them all, Gonzo nails it for me. Enjoy!

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Sell Me Ishmael - Introducing Up Front Brewing

It was inevitable that brewer Jake Griffin would one day launch his own brewery. It was just a matter of where, when, who and what. 

Brewer Jake Griffin
Brewer Jake Griffin on tour!
Up Front Brewing launched in Glasgow in March this year, unleashing two great beers - Ishmael IPA and Ahab stout - at the Inn Deep pub in Kelvinbridge. They sold out in a couple of days.

In fact, his first batch of kegs sold out quickly pretty much everywhere they went, such was the strength of Jake’s reputation, and indeed the growing praise for Ahab and Ishmael.  

Jake Griffin made a name for himself in 2012 when he and his pal Chris Lewis (who’s just set up his own Dead End Brew Machine) won a homebrew contest, organised by the Institute of Brewing & Distilling, with their brain-melting Zombier porter. The beer raised eyebrows and secured Jake a stint at Fyne Ales. The Argyll brewery also went on to unleash the beer to an eager public. 

A few years later and Jake graduated to become head brewer at Drygate, though the plans for his own brewery had clearly been fermenting for quite some time. 

Rather than regarding his a rival, his current employers are fully supportive - Up Front is based out of Drygate, and Jake has a canning contract with Williams Brothers of Alloa (who part-own Drygate). In fact, Drygate is home to a few other “gypsy” breweries - Floodline, Monolith and Heidrun.

Jake’s also working on sorting out a national distribution deal, and the ambitious brewer is this weekend transporting 500 of his cans down to Bristol for the Festival of Apathy, organised by artist Stanley Donwood, the man behind pretty much all of Radiohead’s artwork. Jake’s also hoping to get along to a few beer festivals closer to home, assuming he can get the time off!

Donwood also happens to be the man who designed Up Front’s labels (how Jake and Stanley met is a story in itself by the way). His labels are distinctive and beautiful - sweeping black and light lines of an angry sea surround the titular characters. See below of pics. 

But how do they taste? Having missed the launch, I picked up a couple of Up Front’s cans from newly opened beer shop Grunting Growler in Finnieston.

Ahab is a smooth, rich and multi-layered stout with heaps of fruity US hop flavours smoothly balanced against black coffee, roasted and chocolate notes, with some sweetness and a wee bit of smokiness there too. At 6%, Ahab stout is easy to drink, waxy, medium bodied and full of flavour and character. And it’s black dark like the fatal captain’s own watery tomb.   

In contrast, Jake’s other launch beer was Ishmael. A hearty US-style IPA, also 6%, that pours a glowing amber with a thick white head. Again, Jake’s gone for hefty amounts of American hops, with grapefruit, tangerine and resin flavours all singing out. A clean, robust toffee-like malt backbone remains like an anchor. Ishmael IPA is lively and big of character, with a long-lasting finish that, like the poor sailor himself, stays with you until the bitter end. 

Ahab stout by Up Front Brewing

Ishmael IPA by Up Front Brewing

Monday, March 21, 2016

Beer Reviews: Wookey Jack by Firestone Walker and five other great Black IPAs

Wookey Jack by Firestone Walker
Wookey Jack by Firestone Walker
Over the past couple of decades, as folks have woken up to great beer, we've seen the emergence of new styles and flavours as innovative brewers put their own slant on old recipes, as well as the revival of very old styles.

One of the newer styles to gain popularity is the oxymoronic Black IPA.

India Pale Ales are heavily hopped light-coloured beers that date from the heyday of the British Empire. Black IPAs, however, hail from the 1990s, when craft breweries on America's East and West coasts started added heaps of their local hops to dark malty beers to create lip-smacking bittering, exciting aromas and juicy, fruity flavours.

"Black IPAs," explains Derek Hoy of specialists Hippo Beers in Glasgow, " are stunning and complex beers when done well. It can be really difficult for brewers to get the balance right but when they do, the results are incredible."

For an incredible example of the style, try Wookey Jack black rye IPA (8.3%) from California's Firestone Walker. As Derek Hoy says: "Until now Firestone Walker have been one of the many excellent American craft breweries largely out of reach of UK-based beer fans. They've won 'Best Mid-sized Brewery' four times at the Beer World Cup and rightly so; and their arrival in the UK has created a real air of excitement."

Firestone Walker's Wookey Jack is one of the best examples of the Black IPA style you will ever get your hands on. So take your time with this one. And buy two.

First off, the aroma is a pungent blast of fresh hops, caramel, orange, citrus and earthy spices. You could breathe it in and die happy.

The flavour, though, is just divine. The alcohol is there, but it's in no way distracting. Instead, you'll enjoy amazingly complex flavours of dried figs, raisins, roasted coffee, rye spices, plum, caramel and grapefruit.

But what makes this beer so great is the balance. The sweet malts and bittering and aroma hops all blend perfectly together, building up to a long, smooth and woody conclusion that closes with a long and multi-layered velvety finish. Beautiful.

Five other great Black IPAs

In the Dark We Live (7.2%)
One of the best Black IPAs around. This beautifully balanced and deliciously complex beer brings out flavours of coffee and toasted malts, citrus pine, dark berries and spices. The aroma is intense; the finish long. A triumph from the team at Tempest Brewing Co in Galashiels.

Bea black rye IPA (6%)
The sweet aroma of fresh hops and rich treacle doesn't prepare you for the black coffee bitterness of this beer from Rotterdam's Kaapse Brouwers. It's tangy with a long, salty finish with subtle tropical hop flavours easing in under the domineering malts.

Magic 8 Ball (7%)
Tropical fruits - pineapple, grapefruit and mango - abound in this dark velvety beer from Magic Rock in Huddersfield. Rich roasted malt flavours, hints of coffee and chocolate, and a juicy centre that evolves into medium bitter finish.

India Pale Ale Black (6.8%)
The big, big hops really overwhelm the dark malts in this black IPA, from Londoners Kernel, whose take on the style ramps up the juicy bitterness and grapefruit flavours.

Sanda Black IPA (5.5%)
A recent revision of Fyne Ale's recipe turned this black IPA from alright to awesome. Along with coffee-like bittering and toasted malts, it's heavily hopped using Nelson Sauvin from New Zealand, blasting out juicy-fruit flavours of gooseberry and passion fruit.