Sunday, September 24, 2017

Into the Wild

Inchcailloch and Clairinch wild swimming
I was asked today where my favourite place to swim was*.

Loch Lomond, Skye, Loch Katrine, Iona, Loch Awe, the rivers of rural Perthshire, Portobello, Gullane, Largs, Aberdour … in fairness the list of options isn't that long, but there are only two serious contenders: Loch Lomond and Iona.

Both are profound landmarks on my journey to becoming a swimmer, and both I predict will feature in several as yet unwritten posts.

It seems fair to start with Loch Lomond.

It was, after all, Loch Lomond where I first seriously swam, and it's within Loch Lomond that I have my first loch-swimming memory, and it's Loch Lomond I first wrote about in this article published two years ago in the Sunday Herald.

Read the edited piece if you like (click the link at the very least). But in what must surely be the height of laziness (perhaps you could spin it into a remarkable feat of ink-driven efficiency) I present below the original non-edited, non-subbed, non-proofed and non-published version, as filed by email to my friend Susan Flockhart, the Sunday Herald's superb Features Editor.

Standing in our trunks, goggles and bright rubber hats, the fishermen, in their camouflage fatigues, eye us with weary irritation and mild disbelief. Who else would be down by the loch this early in the morning?

Moments ago we were mooching around at the road end. Windmilling our arms. Eyeing the water. Nervous, over-loud laughter and a weak groan of a hangover. Those in their wetsuits - the suits - taking a bit of ritualistic heat from the skin swimmers. Usually someone asks: why are we doing this?

Then the hats go on - silicon, two, the outer one lurid – and force our hand. We strip to our trunks, no hanging about, and stride, occasionally with purpose, often with trepidation, towards the jetty and our jump-off point.

Sometimes there's a bit of banter with the fishermen - you guys are crazy; you guys are crazy. Occasionally the irritation shows - we’re about to scare the fish after all. Sometimes it’s just us and the ducks. Most days though, it's a mild-mannered, friendly acceptance. This loch and this jetty are public and fishing licence and bagsied space or not we all get to share these waters.

So we stand on the edge of the jetty. Early morning light around us and cold black water beneath, and again that question, that nagging doubt that all of us skin swimmers (barring a few hardened veterans) ask: why am I doing this?

And it’s a question more and more people answering for themselves. As last weekend’s ultra-popular Great Scottish Swim showed, thousands of people are making the leap from the pool to Britain’s cold waters and joining official clubs or taking part in small groups like ours or even going out on their own; seeking to enjoy the experience of swimming in lochs, seas and rivers, as far removed from the pool as the treadmill is to fell-running.

But growing popularity or not, standing fearful on the edge of shock and cold water, there's a part of me - every time - that wonders if I’m crazy. There's also excitement, anticipation and a compulsion, too. Motivations, like a river's tributaries, come together, build up in force and volume until they wash away any lingering mental resistance and there's nothing to do but jump.

The jump is both the easiest and hardest part of the swim. Physically all you have to do is lean out, step forward, let yourself go. Dive if you want to. Mentally, however, you have to hammer down your instincts and block out your fears. Best not to think about it and just get on with it.

We are brought up to fear the water, and rightly so. It’s dangerous and unfeeling and does not discriminate between young children and old folks. We’re taught to swim in swimming pools where the greatest danger is a verruca or slipping on your bum; where bored guards whistle at bad behaviour; where the water is warm and clear; where the stench of chlorine indicates the presence of urine; where the only living thing is you and other swimmers in a big bath, all nicely safe and sanitized … apart from the pee.

The loch, of course, is neither safe nor sanitised. It’s wild and beautiful, the hills - Ben Lomond, Conic Hill, the Arrochar Alps on a good day – framing the big sky above us. Across the water lies the tree-soaked peak of nearby Inchcailloch, one of Loch Lomond’s largest islands. The vast expanse of black water all around us. Moored yachts to our left, their halyards chiming against the masts on those windy days when white-topped waves promise a bit of chop. You learn to read the wind and waves and choose your route accordingly. It’s best to return with the current.

Time freezes in those first few moments in the water. Your senses are on overload. The nerves on your skin - every one of them - screaming out. Like a thousand small electric shocks all over your body. The water is muddy green brown, lighter than the black viewed from the pier, but you still can’t see much. You kick to the surface. Your lungs going like the clappers, relief or concern as you gauge the temperature. Sometimes if it’s really cold, there’s panic.

The next few minutes are critical, especially in water below 14C. You have to start swimming immediately to keep your core temperature up. Though your body’s fully immersed and an icy grip claws your limbs, putting your face in the water is painfully challenging. Breathing is difficult. Doubly so if you’re hyperventilating from cold water shock.

Adrenaline kicks in. Your body remembers all those lengths of the pool and your feet start to kick and arms rotate. You breathe, reach out, grab a ball of water, pull it down, push it away. Repeat. The face goes in the water for a few more seconds. Repeat again. The gulping for air, frantic and panicky like a landed fish, slows. Breathing becomes controlled. You repeat again and again and before you know it you’re a hundred metres from shore and the strokes, the kicks and the breathing are all coming together.

We’re moving gracefully, controlled and together through the water. The rhythm of swimming feels efficient and smooth. Confidence returns. The sound and feel of water passing along your skin begin to merge. The swishing sound you hear wraps around you like a musical blanket, interrupted by a slow percussion of exhalations that roll out from the side of your face. There is a beauty to this type of swimming that is impossible to describe. Endorphins build, and the question shifts from why do we do this to why would you not?

The physical and mental health benefits of cold water swimming are well recorded, both anecdotally and in terms of medical studies. Regular dips, scientists say, can help to reduce blood pressure and cholesterol; boost the immune system; condition your skin; and improve libido and fertility. Though they may not be lean or in perfect shape, most wild swimmers will say they’ve never felt so fit, rarely get colds and generally feel happier.

Dr Pat MacLaren, a skin swimmer, explains that medical studies are increasingly looking at the physical benefits of exposure to cold water. “Recent findings,” he says, “show additional benefits of swimming may come from the exposure to cold rather than the exercise itself. Repeated cold exposure may condition the body into diverting calories from the production of white fat - generally stored under the skin - into brown fat, which is stored more around organs and which behaves slightly differently.”

Brown fat, he says, produces more heat when it is burned, or “utilised”. This, he adds, “has obvious benefits for surviving in cold environments though it does this relatively inefficiently, meaning you use up more fat reserves”.

Pat believes there’s a lot of scope to reap the benefits of this effect, particularly as the country faces an obesity epidemic. “You may burn more calories doing exercise in a cold environment than in a temperature neutral environment; the theory being that cold exposure triggers a change in the way the body stores excess calories.”

But he warns: “Before people rush off into a cold loch to shed some weight, it’s worth remembering that cold is dangerous and cold water doubly so. Safe conditioning requires repeated graded exposures. Having said that, much as I hate the 6am starts and icy cold water of April, cold water swimming is a wonderful thing to do, great for your physical and mental health.”

Our safety conscious society would have us believe otherwise. Municipal swimming pools deeper than five feet are becoming a rare thing, and every year, amid grim news reports of people drowning in our coastal waters, rivers or quarries, there are fresh warnings to stay clear of the water. Strong swimmers, though, tend not to drown, and of the 338 drownings in the UK last year, 36 were swimming related (worryingly, six of those were in a pool). The majority of drownings - 138 - were from those who had been walking or running alongside the riverbank or coast and had fallen in.

But if jumping into cold water was as natural to us as running or riding a bike, would drownings decrease? Evidence from Germany, which has a much healthier attitude to wild swimming (though, to be fair, warmer waters too), suggests wider participation in wild swimming would have no negative impact on drownings, and may mean even fewer. In Scotland, where obesity and heart disease are rife, it could hardly do any harm.

For Karen Weir, who competes in international sub-6C races, extreme cold water swimming is, she admits, an obsession. She says: “Since taking up open water swimming it would be fair to say I’ve seen an improvement in my health. It may or may not be connected but I very rarely catch a cold now and for me mentally it definitely is a good stress buster. No matter how my day has gone or how bad I feel, once I have been in the water I always come out refreshed, happy and planning my next swim. Don’t get me wrong, there are times when I am standing on the shore on a dark, damp wintry night thinking why I am doing this, but once I am in the water I love every minute of it!”

It’s an attitude common to most wild swimmers; a compunction to do this, not just for the fun, beautiful experience of the swim itself, but the beneficial after-effects for your body and mind.

Karen, who helps organise the Wild West Swimmers community on Facebook and plan many of their swims, admits she finds the extreme cold water challenging - she took part in a non-wetsuit race in Estonia at 2C - though for her that’s an incentive rather than a drawback.

She adds: “It would be fair to say I am slightly obsessed with it. I can’t wait for my next swim no matter how big or small, just being in the water is all I need. There is no better feeling than to be in a loch early in the morning or during winter when there’s hardly a soul around. It is so peaceful and the scenery is stunning. Even if we go to the same venue, no two swims are the same. There are no lane restrictions, no overcrowding, no chlorine. It’s just perfect and I am able to enjoy this with some great friends.”

My small group of swimming friends stop to tread water in the loch. We look around and check each other is fine. A quick catch-up. But we can’t stop too long. This might be good for us, but, our bodies remind us, the clock is ticking, and although this might be a social event our conversations are marked by their brevity. Why do we do this, I ask? The answers are quick fire: Because it’s here. What else would I do? Because George (our coach) tells me to. Bad back, hate pools. I just love it.

Sometimes, we’re up early enough to catch the sunrise; the first light breaking through the clouds and kissing the land around us, its warmth noticeable and welcome. We’ve swam in storms and fog, difficult conditions adding to the challenge. On calm days, the long branches of oak, birch, alder and hazel trees reach out from the island of Inchcailloch, their long fingers dipping into the water, disrupting their reflection. Some distance past a heron stands eyeing us, completely unfazed as we swim by. A family of ducks crosses our paths just metres away, their feathers get caught up our wake. Swans still lurk menacingly.

But we don't always pay attention to the wildlife above the surface. Often it's what lurks beneath that focuses attention. Goggled eyes on the lookout for limbs, bodies, tentacles, monsters, and, worst of all, pike or jellyfish.

And so the swim resumes, as it must. And amid a frog’s eye views of the landscape around us, we catch glimpses of each other. Arms raised mid-stoke, bright hats between waves, a ghostly pale body alongside you below the surface; for a moment causing a rush of fantastical panic it’s a monster about to take you down to a watery grave.

Irrational fears rear their head without warning. The mind can start to play tricks on you. Temperature variations in the water have you wondering about the onset of hypothermia. Half-submerged branches become the limbs of sea monsters; wet leaves stick to you and give you a shiver greater than mild hypothermia. Weeds seek to wrap their tendrils around your ankles. Fear and fantasy rise up as your core temperature declines and the rational mind starts to slip away. I practise the alphabet and word games to stay alert. Other times my thoughts simply wander.
There is, of course, danger here, and not just from motor boats. Hypothermia, when it shifts from mild to moderate, is scary and serious. But like climbing, the exposure and calculated risk is part of the fun of being out in the water. The challenge of being in an alien environment you alone must get through is addictive, though you need to be aware of the risks: failure is not an option out here.

But we don’t fail and after an hour or so we return with the current. Those same waves we had to slog through – attempts to breathe answered with a mouthful of water; an arm stroke finding nothing but air; your face slapping the water on a down wave - now pushing us back to the jetty. We’re needing to get warm yet sad it’s over.

The fishermen are gone and the car park is deserted. There’s no one to witness our bodies emerge, cold, shaking, yet glowing from the euphoria. You have to move quick here – even out the water your core temperature will still be dropping. Numbness in fingers heeds the removal of swimming caps, the donning of T-shirts, underwear. Socks can be a nightmare. Shivering jaws and stabbing pains in the feet. But above all a buzz. The grins stuck on our shivering jaws as we try to warm up, already making suggestions for our next swim: Loch Chon, Loch Ard, Mull to Iona, Raasay to Skye, Cumbrae to Largs. Someone says Corryvreckan.

Why do we swim? It’s our coach George Love who sums it up best.

Asked why he swims, he replies: “Easy. It makes me feel alive more than anything else.”

*In Scotland! In a Ullswater versus Croatia face/off, I'm sorry England but Croatia smashes it.

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 ignored the single-focus advice and started mixing my thinks again (ouch, sorry). So from now on, this blog will be a blend of interests that form my own character - the drinker, the swimmer, the geeky boardgamer. Maybe even the writer.

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