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