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.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Beer Review: Chew Chew by Fallen Brewing

Chew Chew by Fallen Brewing
Chew Chew by Fallen Brewing
Fallen Brewing have been around for a few years now, brewing some outstandingly awesome beers from their brewery in pretty Stirlingshire village of Kippen.

Fallen might be a wee brewery in a wee village but owner Paul Fallen has some big ideas backed up by some brilliant beers. Whether it's an easy-going lager or a challenging hop-heavy IPA, their four original beers and five specials can be enjoyed by a broad range of beer drinkers. The accessible and easy to drink, yet also complex enough for the connoisseur. Quite a feat.

Fallen began life in 2012, though the idea for the brewery had seeded a few years before when founder Paul Fallen was given a homebrew kit (a Woodforde's Wherry bitter) by his wife. At the time Paul worked for an Oxford-based genetics company, but after several years making beer at home he decided to use his scientific background to help him turn his hobby into a business.

Fallen spent the first couple of years contract brewing (when a larger brewery makes your beer to your recipe), tinkering recipes, and building up their reputation and distribution. Last year, they finally opened up their own brewery in a converted station shed in Kippen, bumping up their output from about 1400 pints a week to more than 6000. Not only did this give Paul complete control over what went into the bottles, it also allowed him to perfect their look: the labels, for example, show the skyline visible from the brewery looking north to Ben Ledi, Stuc A' Chroin and Ben Vorlich.

The beers themselves tend towards American and New Zealand hops and big but accessible flavours. As Paul says: "Anyone should be able to come to my bar and order something they're going to enjoy."

From a one-man operation, Fallen now employ a team of five locals, and have grown their offering of just four beers and added another five core, what Paul now calls the Station Specials, among them Chew Chew (6%), a salted caramel milk stout.

The aroma on Chew Chew is sweet chocolate and thick, rich syrupy malts. Like Shreddies with heaps of treacle poured on top. It's a dark, dark beer, as black as any beer you'll see for a while, with a thick, creamy head the colour of light sand.

But this beast has a big beautiful personality. Its texture is smooth and velvet, though there's a wee rush of life at the start as you move off on this beer trip.

Chew Chew eases in at first, then in flow flavours of liquorice, vanilla, sea salt and juicy blackcurrant. The sweet caramel malts provide a strong and smooth balance with hints of fudge and lactose adding to the beer's solid character.

Then, without really noticing, you're enjoying a gentle dose of bittering in the back of the mouth before the beer moves towards a smooth, clean finale that leaves a mildly bitter and salty aftertaste in its wake.

Five other Fallen beers to get your chops on
Dragonfly amber ale (4.6%)Beautifully balanced amber ale, with sweet citrus and pine hops resting gently against a rich caramel malt backbone. Great with everything.

Blackhouse porter (5%)The big peaty smoke and roasted flavours with touches of coffee and chocolate and fruity hops make this dark beer a firm favourite. Don't waste it on its own. Enjoy with a glass of Talisker.

Odyssey blonde (4.1%)This refreshing lagerish beer has had its hop levels upped over the years, but it remains an easy-drinking, accessible beer - a good gateway beer for potential converts. It's got a fruity aroma, with fresh citrus flavours and a crisp, dry finish.

Just The Ticket pale ale (4%)One of the new releases from Fallen, Just The Ticket is a refreshing pale ale brewed with US and New Zealand hops. Crisp and zesty with plenty of tropical and citrus flavours and aromas coming through.

Platform C IPA (6.3%)A strong and bold IPA with pungent new world hops and an easy-going juicy base. Bursting with flavour: pine, resin, citrus and toffee.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Review: Six Beer Clubs

This review, like most of the others on this blog, was initially written for my Herald column. Unlike most of them however, this one was kind of time sensitive. Life happens.

I wrote this for father's day 2015, and rather than wait until father's day 2016, I'm posting it for Mother's Day, because this week we've had International Women's Day a couple of days after Mother's Day. And, well, women like beer too, so you guys might like beer clubs, too, I guess.

So I'm rejigging it slightly for the ladies...

This mother's day, most mum's will be fair chuffed with a lie-in and a mug of tea.

But if you really want to spoil the old dear, order her a box of beer and have it delivered to the door.

Beer clubs have been popping up over the past few years, tapping into the explosion of craft beer as well as the growing confidence in buying drink online.

The idea is simple - you pay a monthly subscription and they send you a box of interesting beers each month or quarter. You then sensibly drink these beers, and, if you like, keep the subscription going. They're a brilliant way for anyone - not just mums - to discover new styles and breweries, especially if you're not lucky enough to live near a good beer shop.

One great beer club is Edinburgh-based Launched in 2013, founder James Brown got the idea during a motorbike road trip to Spain with his dad. Stopping off at wee pubs and brewhouses, he wanted to share these rare and new-found beers with drinkers back home and so came up with his beer club business idea.

Beer52's subscription is £24 per month and that gets you eight beers to your door. They also throw in occasional free gifts and a copy of Ferment, their excellent beer-focused magazine. Beer-wise, there's a good spread of beers and styles in the box, and they're usually held together by some theme or idea. They work with well-known breweries such as Stewarts, Buxton and Evil Twin, as well as others that are less well known. Heard of Ceriux or Weird Beard?

Like a couple of other beer clubs, Beer52 have started doing collaboration beers with partner breweries. This month, for example, subscribers will receive a rhubarb saison by Borders brewery Tempest. By all accounts it's delicious.

Five other beer clubs to join
Taking its name (loosely) from the Esperanto for "tipsy", EeBria has two beer clubs: the Discovery and the Brewery. The former contains a mix of styles curated from a range of UK breweries - some well known, other less so - and is designed to offer a balanced selection. The Brewery Club is a showcase of one particular brewery, and is shipped direct so it's fresh from the bottling line. Previous participants include some crackers: The Kernel, Siren, Fyne Ales, Brew By Numbers, Partizan. Costs from £30 for 12 beers plus postage.

Hippo Beers
This Glasgow beer specialist now offers a sliding scale of beer clubs, depending on your tastes and wallet size. The team pick you a bespoke selection of beers based on your preferences. With a revolving stock of some 350 beers you can be guaranteed something new, and, unlike some of the larger beer clubs, small-batch beers from wee breweries. Costs from £30.

Spun out of a gourmet food company, and inspired by the success of other craft beer clubs, Edinburgh-based Flavourly offers bespoke boxes tailored to member's preferences and styles. They also have an online shop, so if there's a beer you want again you can order it with your next box. Cost £20 for eight bottles.
Beer Hawk
What began as a conversation in a bar in Harrogate in 2012 has exploded into a slick online beer retailer that offers an impressive range of good beers from around the world. Since taking the decision to "quit the corporate job to set up a beer company", co-founder Mark Roberts has built up an online retailer that sells individual bottles and mixed cases as well as its premium beer club, which boasts some exclusive beers from partner breweries. Costs £40 plus postage for 15 bottles.
A little bit different this one. They send you 12 bottles every 12 weeks, with the idea being subscribers drink the same beer each week and share their thoughts with the rest of the BeerBods community. Or you can drink them all in one go and reorder. They work with some great breweries, and boast some pretty cool collaborations: the last one was with a 7% saison from Bristol's Wiper + True. Costs £36 every 12 weeks.

And finally ...
It's also worth mentioning BrewDog who are planning to launch their beer club in the next few weeks. This one, however, is exclusive to their equity-punk shareholders only, so you might want to consider investing in their latest crowdfunding efforts. Details still to be confirmed, but they're looking at a subscription of about £40 for 12 beers a month, though that's still to be confirmed. As well as new and exclusive BrewDog beers, expect some great ales from the likes of Mikeller, Dark Horse and Stone.