The Tipping Point

We've all been there. It's just usually we don't know at the time.

There's a point in a toper's day when you know you've had a fair few beers. It's just before you catch the eye of your mates who are staring at you, wondering why you're shouting / dancing / have fallen asleep and woken with a jolt. It's way before you buy a kebab from the place where a recently-met couple are copulating by the fruit machine.

Perhaps it's more of a home-drinking thing. Where you still have the time and the space to listen to your mis-firing synapses. When the fridge is empty and you have to peruse your beer collection for the next willing victim. How you're still cognisent and beer-snobby enough to not open a beer that's at the wrong temperature. What do you chose? Why do you still feel drawn to that 750 of shit-kickingly good beer?

Who's with me? Who knows where this is heading?

Your hand hovers over a bottle. You're calculating ABV, volume, consumption time. You're wondering what if... what if I drink it, what will I end up drinking next? Will I end up opening something stupidly good and ruining it? Will I just pass out on the sofa? Am I confusing myself with someone who actually gives a shit?

And so you open the bottle. You twist the cage, tempt the cork up, splash a little into a glass. And you know. This was your tipping point. Tomorrow, you will feel like a shit sandwich that's been on a back-burner. Your internal organs will try and join an awkwardly-arranged queue to demonstrate against you. But you have to remember...

.. you knew your tipping point. You knew that from thereon in, the only direction your evening would take would be one that's shuddering towards hell in a hardcart.

But you didn't care. Because you have a world-class beer in your hands.

I'm right there, right now. And for tomorrow's hangover, I can only be eternally grateful. The greatest thing about drinking beyond your tipping point? Having the full knowledge that it's a top-quality beer that took you over there.


On Brewdog, the End Of History and stuffed beaver

Brewdog may tell you that shoving a bottle of freeze-distilled beer down a squirrel’s throat marks their End of History. I say – why stop at woodland creatures? I want to see the following stuffed with bottles:

- a kitten that cries pure iso-alpha acid extract when you tickle its belly

- Don Shenker (chief executive of Alcohol Concern) who vomits ethyl alcohol when you push the right button. And every button is the right button

- a haggis (preferably a mature male from the Western Isles) that seeps smoked malt from its pores. If haggis is out of season, substitute with a badger. And substitute paws for pores.

- a rampant unicorn astride a rainbow with a bottle of double-tripel-barrel-aged-smoked-hefeweizen where its horn should be

- a beaver stuffed with Hardcore. Although I do believe something similar may already exist within the realms of certain gentlemen’s entertainment websites.

- a salmon on Speedball leaping majestically over a knackered old shark.

- a gruffalo sporting the world’s bitterest beer, brewed from the bile of those critics who, like, er, just don’t get ‘it’.

Remember, if you keep reading your Fukuyama*, he tells us that “history cannot come to an end as long as modern natural science has no end… within the next couple of generations we will have knowledge and technologies that will allow us to accomplish what social engineers of the past failed to do”. Making us one happy planet of hop worshippers has got to be on the Brewdog agenda. As long as they don’t intend on inserting it into a chameleon.

* Second thoughts: the last man in a bottle, published in The National Interest, summer 1999


When is a beer festival not a beer festival?

When it's at the Coach and Horses, Dronfield, Derbyshire.

When the pub turns itself inside out, nearly all the tables and chairs ending up outside.

When it then buckets down with rain but everyone's still smiling under canvass.

When the music isn't a dodgy tribute band but some of the freshest and finest acts from the UK blues scene.

When the food isn't a burnt burger but a Southern-states BBQ smorgasbord of wings 'n ribs 'n jambalaya.

When the beers aren't random blends with daft names but some of the most inventive casks from the UK's most progressive breweries - Thornbridge, Brewdog, Fyne Ales, Williams, Dark Star, Marble, Hawkshead, Roosters.

When locals and tickers and Tweeters and brewers sit round tables and have a riotous time.

Last weekend was more than a beer festival. It was living, breathing proof that good beer is enhanced dramatically by good people in a good location having a good time.

Huge thanks to Cat and the team at the Coach for making the weekend a highlight of my beery summer so far. And props to Darth Kiwi - I mean Kelly Ryan - for his unstinting energy and enthusiasm.


Norfolk World Tour 2010: The Places

Smart cafés, ye olde pubs, refurbished bars and the largest beer shop in Europe. There were many places that made Norfolk drinking a fantastic experience; here's an in-no-order top ten;


Even just typing its name takes me back to balmy evenings and great, great beer. Sharing market-fresh food and stunning beers with head Humpty Dumpty, Stephen George, and his family at their home was an honour. And not only does Steve brew some darn tasty beers, he knocks up a mean guacamole too. The steep drop down to the riverside for beers at the Lord Nelson was only slightly buttock-clenching - perhaps moreso for Mrs Scoop as I was in 'control' of her wheelchair - and the reward was great Norfolk beers in one of those pubs that you dream about on summer evenings; cool inside, quenching beers, friendly locals. Just downriver is the Ship, a pub with great food and plenty of room outside where you can watch birds lurking at the water's edge and see the occasional train trundle across the swing bridge.

Berney Arms Inn

I can try and explain what it's like at the Berney Arms Inn, but it still feels slightly surreal. It's one of the remotest pubs in England, by virtue of there being no public road for four miles. You can catch a train to Berney Arms, half a mile away, which is (natch) England's remotest railway station. You can walk the Wherryman's Way to it from Norwich or Yarmouth. You could, of course, moor your boat right outside. And when you get there... tip-top beers from Humpty Dumpty, the breeze blowing off Breydon Water, room outside in the sun or inside in the wood-panelled bar. We did the obvious thing on a baking hot day - we sat outside and ate a huuuuuuuge mixed grill.

Mariners Tavern, Great Yarmouth

A pub that came to my attention as an ex-Lacons pun, current Good Beer Guide entry and a CAMRA branch pub of the year. After a morning enjoying the cheesy-seaside experience, albeit plagued by pollen beetles, finding a good pub was in order. The Mariners didn't disappoint; heaps of St Austell beers seemed odd but the Crouch Vale Sonnet was heavenly. Sat in a cool lounge, adorned with heaps of brewery memorabilia, far away from the braying bingo-wings, the Mariners was a true bolt-hole for an hour.

Adnams Cellar and Kitchen, Southwold

Having mentally spent my wages for the next three months whilst perusing the wine in their Southwold shop, I was ready for an Adnams beer in their hometown. So it was a pleasant surprise to find an airy café behind the store, especially when it had cold bottles of their decently-wheaty Spindrift on offer. The food looked gobsmackingly-fresh - I'm still not too sure how we avoided the cheeseboard - and the suntrap outdoor area gave me a chance to enjoy an Adnams beer whilst spending too long a time pouring over their catalogue...

Ugly Bug, Colton

We found this place last year after a visit to the Royal Norfolk Show; looking for a place to stay near Norwich this year, we were keen to return. It feels like it's in the middle of nowhere but it's only a ten minute drive from superstores and the Park & Ride. It's laid back and open plan. The landlord, John Lainchbury, actually brings the menu board over to you. The beer is local and top-quality (Humpty Dumpty's Little Sharpie was on whilst we stayed). The food is local, fresh and plentiful (with the likes of samphire, crab, fish, duck...). The room we stayed in was clean, comfy and a ten-second walk to the bar. No noise at kicking-out time, a relaxed vibe at breakfast and a mad-as-a-box-of-frogs-dog - Alfie - who never seemed to stop running. An absolutely outstanding pub.

The Plough, Norwich

Amongst the eclectic mix of music shops, chandlers and arts venues on St Benedict's Street in Norwich there's a sixteenth century pub serving twenty-first century beer with a timeless feel. The Plough offered whitewash and pine, chilled music, a cordial welcome and bloody good beer. The only thing that annoys me about Grain Brewery beer - the Plough is a Grain pub - is that I can't get enough of it. Major props to the barman who knows a knackered toper when he sees one - I ordered a pint of Harvest Moon and was offered a pint of iced water to go with it. The wander down to Norwich's legendary pub, the Fat Cat, was just worth it but... truth be told, I'd have rather stayed at the Plough and chilled a little longer.

Kett's Tavern, Norwich

When you've spent the morning meandering alongside the River Wensum, when Cathedral and Cow Tower have long since been lost to your sky-line, when you reach the medieval Bishop's Bridge and fancy a pint... keep walking a wee while longer. At the base of Kett's Hill, there's a rangy multi-level pub that serves bacon buttys all day, good value nosh at lunch (fish finger sandwich: top nom) and Indian food from a nearby curry house in the evenings, alongside an impressive array of the counties best beers. Wolf Golden Jackal is a staple offering - it appears on their very competitive meal deals at lunch - just another reason why the pub is well worth seeking out.

The Three Horseshoes, Warham

Another of my all-time favourite Norfolk pubs. Why? Some of the best pub food I've ever tasted - their pies, puddings and flans are superlative. Some of the best draught cider I've ever tasted - from just up on the coast at Whin Hill. By far and away the best pint of Woodforde's Wherry that I've ever tasted - straight from the barrel. No chips, no screaming kids, no hassle. It's a bit of a Bagpuss pub, frayed around the edges, but I can think of no finer place in North Norfolk in which to drop down a mental gear or two and enjoy some of the finest beer and food that the county has to offer.

The Bull, Little Walsingham

Yes, it serves Suffolk cider (Aspalls). Yes, it's slightly pricey. Yes, it's often full of clueless pilgrims from the nearby shrine. Just imagine this; a pub you visit every year on holiday where, shortly after you've ditched your luggage, you're sat outside in the sun with a cool pint, the weekend papers and a bag of crisps. Drudgery drops from your shoulders. Everything slows. Time becomes elastic. That's what the Bull means to me. No photo required.

Beers of Europe

The biggest beer store in Europe. Local beers. European beers. US beers. World beers. Bargain beers. Brews as rare as rocking-horse-shit. I bought bottles of beers I'd been drinking all week (Humpty Dumpty Little Sharpie). Bottles I'd had sips from once before (De Molen Mout & Mocca). Bottles that I've writhed around in ecstasy over before (Cantillon Lou Pepe Framboise). Bottles for friends, bottles for neighbours. And I always end up buying another ruddy glass that I really have no room for but, hey, it looks cool. A photo doesn't do the place justice, so watch their video instead:

A fantastic trip; generous people, beautiful scenery, superb food and drink, relaxing and invigorating times. Bottomless thanks to Stephen and Lesley George of Humpty Dumpty, John and Alison at the Ugly Bug, Glynis and Richard at the Old School, East Barsham and countless others who made it this a Norfolk (and slightly-Suffolk) World Tour to remember.


Norfolk World Tour 2010: The Beers and Ciders

Last week's Norfolk jaunt took me and my better half to topering venues old and new with a none-too-Reluctant Scoop or two. Here's the top ten highlights in no apparent order.

Humpty Dumpty - Wherryman's Way IPA

It may be brewed in sleepy Reedham but this IPA has USA stamped all over it. Caramalt gold with assertive levels of Target, Centennial and Simcoe, a bomber of 7.4% hopped gorgeousness was my first beer of the holiday and the one that left the most lasting impression. When a brewer hands you his beer, when you both sip and both smile, it feels darn fine. More about this beer in a Bottled Up feature soon.

Humpty Dumpty - Little Sharpie

Drank this with the brewer at his local, drank it by the river at one of England's remotest pubs, drank it again at the pub we stayed at later in the week. I've bought bottles to drink at home for whenever I want that relaxed Norfolk feeling. Little Sharpie is a GBBF-medal-winning bitter that proved time and again to be perfectly sessionable.

Crouch Vale Sonnet

I went to Yarmouth in search of local beer and found this instead. Magnificently pale, smooth citrics and just the Saaz-ish effect that I hoped the Sonnet hop was capable of delivering.

Adnams Spindrift

On our day trip to Suffolk, a bottle of this served at the Adnams Cellar and Kitchen store in Southwold was exactly what I needed on a hot day. Just enough wheat in there made for a refreshingly soft mouthfeel alongside delicate notes of oranges and lemons.

Grain Harvest Moon

My first visit to Grain's new Norwich pub, The Plough, was a highlight of the week. Harvest Moon was one of the reasons why - sweet malts, grassy hops, lemon edges and a slightly pine finish.

Wolf Golden Jackal

After a meandering riverside walk that had me crying out for a cool, calm, low-ABV beer, this was spot-on. A full fruity hop flavour with lingering bitterness.

Woodforde's Wherry

The very definition of Norfolk session bitter. Drinkable almost everywhere you find it, it really comes into its own at the Three Horseshoes in Warham where it's served on gravity from behind the bar. And it's borderline warm. And I swear it tastes all the better for it - like warm toffee apple with a subtle spicy dusting.

Fox IPA and Fox Branthill Pioneer

Having carped on before about how more cafés ought to serve local bottled beer, it was good to see just that in Norfolk. Fox brew a solid range of bottled beer; I found their robust, marmaladey IPA at Pensthorpe Nature Reserve and their dry, fudgy Branthill Pioneer in the Stables Café at Holkham Hall. Top marks to the latter for keeping the beer in the fridge - the IPA was still good but oozed everywhere like a warm, yeasty volcano. Both beers were accompanied by one of the finest pork pies in England, from Bray's Cottage.

Aspall Draught Suffolk Cyder

Yes, I know it's from Suffolk. But it's my just-so cider; just dry enough, just refreshing enough. And there are times when a cask beer, no matter how clean-cut and calm-flavoured, just doesn't cut it. When only a crisp cider will do. And Aspall's does it perfectly.

Whin Hill Medium Sparking Cider

Once I've got a taste for cider, mind, it's hard to satiate that apple itch. A trip to Wells-next-the-Sea gives it a damn good scratch, though. In a hillside car park, you'll find cider nirvana. Jim Fergusson and Pete Lynn sell a range of carefully crafted ciders, perrys and apple juices that are made and sold on the premises. Their 'medium sparkling' is possibly the finest artisinal cider in the UK. It actually tastes apple-fleshy, it itches along and offers up just enough tartness to let you know what you're drinking.

There were plenty more besides, but they're the ones I'd keep an eye out for if you're Norfolk-Suffolk-bound. There'll be more tomorrow about the places where I drank them.


Review: 1001 Beers You Must Try Before You Die

I was considering subcontracting this review to Jeremy Clarkson, the demin-clad hyperbole from Top Gear. Or perhaps Nigel Tufnel of Spinal Tap fame. Jezza would undoubtedly say that 1001 is a better book than Ben McFarland's World's Best Beers because this one has one more beer in it. Nige would concur; coz it's one higher. But surely the clincher is quality, not quantity? On a now-cramped 'must-try' beery bookshelf, groaning with weighty tomes that are thicker than a whale omelette, is there room for another?

I'd say so. Not only do you get coverage of a wide range of world brews, but it's written by an impressive array of over forty beer writers. Adrian Tierney-Jones does an admirable job as editor and contributor whilst roping in the expert opinion of reviewers from all over the world, such as Stan Hieronymus, Joris Pattyn and Jay Brooks. The book eschews a style-based structure and plumps for a colour-palette approach; that means shoe-horning those awkward beers into a 'speciality' section which rather unstitches the thread developed, although I'd doubt anyone would ever read the book section-by-section anyway.

The layout is clean and clear; brewery and beer background are covered in between 100 - 300 words along with concise tasting notes in a separate section. The accompanying pictures are bold and simple, perhaps a pump clip or a bottle and glass combo. What I really liked are the diverse collection of beer and brewery illustrations scattered liberally throughout; posters, stamps, watercolours, labels, signage, sculptures and a host of others that are as attractive as the text itself.

So if you've already got Ben McFarland's book, ought you make space on the shelf for this one? Absolutely. Both are complimentary; 1001 Beers has some great reference detail and backstory, World's Best Beers has an idiosyncratic approach and dry wit. I still think the format could do away with any kind of forced structure and just go with an A-Z approach; similarly, I'd like to see some seemingly sacred-cow beers left out to pasture rather than be reviewed just because they have near-iconic stature. But perhaps we'll see that if we ever get to '5000 Beers You Must Try But Probably Won't Live Long Enough To Drink Them All'.

For those of us who like a well-written reference work that you can happily meander through whilst enjoying a beer, 1001 Beers is a must-have addition to your beery bookshelf.

1001 Beers You Must Try Before You Die is published in the UK by Octopus Books. In the US, it's titled 1001 Beers You Must Taste Before You Die and is published by Universe.

Many thanks to Octopus for the review copy.


Bottled Up: Mikkeller Black Hole

Sometimes, I fear beer. That there will become a point when a bottle is no longer just a beverage but an event horizon, a beer experience that will suck me in and wring me dry.

Mikkeller beers have pushed me close to the edge before. Sensory overload lurks around the corner whenever I open one of their bottles. So intense, such a broad spectrum of flavours and feelings that are packed in, that you learn to expect the unexpected.

And so it goes with Black Hole. Here's a beer that becomes the very definition of no compromise; a 13% imperial stout that's balanced only in the sense that holding a sumo wrestler under each arm is balanced too. Immense bitterness is matched by honey sweetness. My only tasting note reads; "as if they've tarmac'd their way through a coffee shop at breakfast time - hot tar, chocolate brownie, cold coffee, burnt toast, honey nut clusters, orange segments, spicy bagels and a hidden booze stash".

It's not a beer you drink, it's a beer you climb inside and look outward to see the rest of the beer-universe unravelling around you.

Distribution of Black Hole is sporadic in the UK. My advice is, if you see it, buy two. One to drink now, one to drink when you make it back out alive. You'll have earned it.


Henry the Gnome reviews Caldera IPA

Welcome our guest reviewer, Henry the Gnome, who will be bringing you his unique brand of succinct and honest summaries of his favourite beers this summer. Take it away, Henry!


World Cup Beer Sweepstake: Paraguay

It's a simple story, really. Once upon a time, in a land far far away, the owner of a flooring company persuaded a maverick brewer to use an aromatic wood that can stop bullets at point blank range to make barrels for aging beer. So let me take you on a journey from the heart of South America's 'Green Hell' to a dining table in a sleepy English village, via the second smallest of the United States. It's the tempestuous relationship between the world's hardest wood, sixteenth best football team and a desperate writer. And it starts in Paraguay.

Having been nominated to write about Paraguay for the World Cup Beer Sweepstake, many of my queries were answered with a question mark. Where exactly was Paraguay? What beers do they brew? What are the populace's personal habits? Are the forests really crammed full of ageing Nazis? My usual degree of in-depth research was called for. Half an hour on Wikipedia and three beers later, I still wasn't much the wiser.

Fortunately, there's always someone on the t'interweb that a desperate writer can turn to. Such as a more successful, wittier, entertaining writer. John Gimlette has travelled extensively throughout South America and his book, 'At The Tomb Of The Inflatable Pig', is probably the definitive travelogue for Paraguay. It's a rollicking good read as he meets "cannibals, Jesuits, Anabaptists, Australian socialists, talented smugglers, dictators and their mad mistresses". And the odd Nazi, obviously. I asked him what he remembered of the beers. "The best beer brewed in Paraguay was Baviera", John told me. He recalled that it was "... very Germanic in its flavour. Given the climate it was always sold very cold". The downtown bars in the capital, Asuncion, served the stuff in foaming Maßkrug; the availability of bratwurst is sadly unrecorded.

That Paraguay should proffer a Germanic lager isn't really unusual. Partly because hot countries and pale lagers are made for each other. Partly because Paraguay has a rich history of European in-migration. The Spanish may have colonised the place but the country has become a haven for Germans, Italians and Russians through the years. So, I had high hopes of securing some kind of lager steeped in European tradition. How hard could it be to find one?

As hard as finding a virgin in Sheffield on a Friday night.

The usual suspects of online retailing had a Paraguayan-shaped hole in their portfolios. Not too surprising, perhaps; why import 'exotic' pale lagers half way around the world when the likes of Brahma, Brazil's finest, is actually brewed in a shed within easy reach of a UK motorway? Emails to the Paraguayan Embassy went unanswered. OK, so lager distribution may not be on the top of their international relations agenda. I was getting even more desperate, which usually leads to one of two things. Either a wallow in the limpid pool of self-pity and anxiety or the development of a plan so cunning you could subtly reword it and pretend you stole it from Edmund Blackadder. 

Somebody on Twitter may have suggested it. Certainly, beergenie mentions it. But in my mind's eye, I had a bolt-from-the-blue moment. US brewers Dogfish Head brew a beer called Palo Santo Marron. That beer is aged in a wooden tank. Palo Santo wood. That grows as Palo Santo trees. In the 'Green Hell', Gran Chaco, of... Paraguay. I do believe the popular football phrase is BACK OF THE NET!!!

The backstory of the beer, henceforth to be known as DFHPSM, is worth telling if you've never heard it. John Gasparine, a Baltimore businessman who runs a flooring company, was sourcing woods in Paraguay when he came across bulnesia sarmientoi, known in the country as 'Palo Santo'; holy wood. He noticed how dense it was, heavier than water. That it had natural lubrication from the oils contained within. That it was at the top end of the Janka scale that rates the hardness of wood flooring. So far, so interior design. But Gasparine was attracted by its aromatic quality. And he loved his beer. And he reckoned that a beer aged on Palo Santo wood could be awesome. It would need an awesome brewer to make it happen. But he knew of one - Dogfish Head.

His call to DFH boss Sam Calagione elicited a straightforward reply: "Get a shitload!"

Over four thousand feet of the stuff was needed. That's a lot to cut given that the trees are willowy and three times harder than oak. Would the boards really be strong enough? Gasparine's guide pulled a .38 revolver and shot into a trunk from five feet away. The bullet hardly made a scratch. The order was placed.

The result was a tank over fifteen feet high and ten feet wide with a volume of ten thousand gallons at a cost of $140,000. It was the largest wooden brewing vessel built in the US since Prohibition.  "If Dogfish were a publically traded company", said Calagione, "I'd have been fired for this". The 12% brown ale that makes it out the other side is renowned for adopting the caramel-vanilla notes of the Palo Santo wood and so I was looking forward immensely to trying the beer.

As to exactly when and where, I wasn't sure. Paraguay seemed to be fairly handy- silver medalists at the 2004 Olympics and all that - so I was hoping they'd have a good run. They were stocky, plucky, relentless footballers who made the Italians look fairly ordinary. They showed Slovakia how to play the game. They showed New Zealand... well, not a lot, in truth. They dangled Japan onto the end of long balls and the occasional thumping. And so they managed to scrape their way into the quarter finals against Spain, played on the first day of my Norfolk holiday. I believe the popular football phrase is GAME ON!!!

An e-mail reservation was sent to Beers Of Europe for two bottles of DFHPSM, which were picked up on the way through Norfolk. Saturday night was spent with the head of Humpty Dumpty Brewery, Stephen George, and his family at their home in the sleepy Broads village of Reedham. We drank beer. Oh boy, did we drink beer. And I totally forgot about the football. I get like that when I start the evening by drinking 7% IPA. We rolled down the suicidally-steep hill into the river - I mean, into the pub - at some late stage of the evening when the highlights were showing. A ball was billowing the back of the onion bag and I was over-animatedly gesticulating and shouting "WAS THAT PARAGUAY?!?!".

That answer was, er, no. Those old colonialists had done it again. I believe the popular football phrase is SICK AS A PARROT :-(

Let's look on the bright side. Throughout the World Cup, Paraguay proved to be handy at the long ball (476 passes, more than Brazil, fifth highest overall) and keeping on the move (550 km, sixth highest overall) which was only tempered slightly by the number of fouls they committed (third highest, more than Spain) and handballs (third highest once again). Victor Caceres proved to be so popular with referees that he was the most booked player in the tournament. But losing out to the eventual winners is something that the founding father of Paraguayan football, a Dutch sports instructor called William Paats, would surely have been proud of.

And there's always the beer.  Stacks of tobacco, cherry, chocolate, spices and that vanilla-caramel-boozy-pudding feeling. There's a hell of a lot of flavour packed in there. Like those footballers, it's a stocky little thing that punches above its weight and proves to be as hard as nails.

The last words have to be in Guarani, the indigenous language of Paraguay. It's claimed that up to 90% of the population understand it -  which is gobsmacking given their ethnic and cultural diversity. There's no letter W. Y is a vowel sound. And all you need to know about it, me and DFHPSM that night  is:

Tuicha oka'u. Che ha'u; Che ka'u.

(Very drunk. I drink; I'm a drunk)


Thornbridge Hall Charity Garden Party

Just a quickie - if you fancy a day sauntering around great gardens, eating knockout food, gazing upon the most delectable stained glass and drinking some of the county's best beers -whilst raising money for charity - the Thornbridge Hall Garden Party is on tomorrow.

In the heart of the Peak District, the Hall is opened up for the day allowing visitor's access to the private grounds and into the hall itself. With a craft fair, fun fair, brass band, falconry display and plenty of live music, it's a great family day out. And there will be lashings of Thornbridge ale on sale too.

Read all about this year's event here and see my write-up from last year here.


The Session #41: Craft Beers Inspired by Homebrewing

Let's say you're a professional brewer. That you wake up, day in, day out, rain or shine, feeling shit or feeling great, and you go brew. You load hoppers, stir mash, control run-off, fire coppers, transfer and rack and clean, clean, clean, clean. Then you drag your bones home. Why the hell would you want to homebrew when you get back?

For the love of beer. For the passion that inspired you to become a pro-brewer. For the kick that experimentation gives. For the unalloyed joy that resides in a small-batch beast that was crafted on the kitchen table/ in the garage. And because, one day, that homebrew recipe may travel to work with you and get ramped up beyond your wildest expectations.

So here's the tale of a homebrew that the homebrewer never tasted but went on to become a cult beer after the recipe travelled half way around the world. Back in his native New Zealand, James Kemp was an award-winning homebrewer who specialised in heavyweight brews. Before he moved to the UK, his Dad asked him to brew a stout. Which, even though James can knock up an impy as good as the rest of them, he wasn't too keen on doing. So instead he devised a dark beer which, in his own words, he'd "hop the wahoo out of it"!

How did it turn out? Well, James only ever got a taster out of the fermenter before he left for England. But the joy of joining a progressive brewery like Thornbridge meant that the recipe was soon to be unleashed commercially. Perhaps it helps that the Thornbridge brewery manager is a fellow Kiwi. Perhaps it helps that Thornbridge aren't afraid of using huge clods of Nelson Sauvin, the hop that formed the backbone to the original homebrew. Anyhoo, that recipe was ramped up with additions of Centennial and Sorachi Ace and became Thornbridge's first black 'IPA'; Raven.

It's neither the time nor place for me to start unfurling my anti-black-IPA argument. Suffice to say, this beer starts awesomely and gets better from thereon in. Like citric chocolate; the deepest flavoured ganache with a tropical twang. And it's here because a homebrewer had the balls to say; this beer ought to be commercial. To have faith in a beer you never got to taste; for your colleagues to have that faith in you and let you brew it. Not too shabby :-)

So, award-winning homebrewer turns recipe into style-defying classic. What does he do for an encore? Well, he keeps brewing - at home as well on the 'big kit'. Because homebrewers don't stop being homebrewers just because they turn pro. Here's the experimentation, the craftsmanship. That's why James in insatiable on a homebrew kit - a wee heavy with a Trappist yeast, a smoked imperial oatmeal stout. That's where the next barnstorming Thornbridge beer may come from. And for that reason, I'm eternally grateful that some commercial brewers never stop homebrewing.