Why Mess with Perfection

Whatever your opinion is of Camden Town Brewery they must be given real kudos (along with a couple other London breweries) for breaking the chokehold that dull macro beers had on London (and further afield of course). They are sometimes accused of not brewing the most exciting or experimental range of core beers but have cut loose when “collabing” with other breweries. Personally I don’t give a shit if they’re unlikely to brew a salmon, swiss chard and satsuma Double IPA (Oh I want a credit if someone actually makes a Triple S DIPA).

What they are doing very successfully (something that also seems to upset some people) is brewing very drinkable beers that are broadly enjoyed by a wide range of consumers. The type of people they are converting (in large numbers) used to probably drink Fosters, Stella or in the case of my wife, white wine before her exposure to Hells Lager.

I like their Unfiltered Hells, Pale Ale and Camden Ink is a nice alternative to Guinness. But for me the jewel in the Camden Town crown is IHL aka India Hells Lager. A hybrid that Vulcan mind melds those two styles into one of the Screen Shot 2015-03-10 at 17.43.59most dangerously delicious beers I have tasted. A roller coaster combination of crispness, tropical fruit, offering total refreshment and drinkability. In short, pure pleasure.

unnamedSo it was with some excitement when I was invited to their launch of Barrel Aged India Hells Lager the other week. Brilliant I thought, a pimped out IHL.

The result was anything but. A subdued nose hinted at hay and tinned pineapple. The palate was slightly antiseptic, very firm, resinous with a woody tannic feel and a far off agave heat.

I found it painfully dry, a touch astringent, but sadly lacking body and any discernable fruit flavour. It wasn’t undrinkable, but I didn’t enjoy it. It made me a bit sad really, by putting IHL into those barrels they purged everything that (in my opinion) made it a truly great beer. A real waste of perfectly glug-able IHL.

More cynically the timing of the launch made me question the inspiration behind putting that wonderful beer into bourbon and tequila barrels in the first place. The reason for my scepticism is that CTB happen to be in the midst of launching a crowdfunding initiative to raise money to build a new brewery. Becoming a Hells Raiser looks an interesting investment if you like their beers and want to “diversify your portfolio”. At the time of writing, they had reached their intended target but it’s still open. 

I couldn’t help feeling that the release of a below par, barrel-aged version of their newly anointed gold winning beer was nothing more than a well-timed PR stunt. Marketed with much pomp and ceremony as some treasured one off, whose purpose was simply to drive more investment. That’s me being cynical mind. 

All that said I have a lot of respect for CTown and it’s going to take a lot more than the abuse of my dearest IHL to get me to poo-poo them on a permanent basis.

They are a brewery with purpose, vision and a great following. Their success and pervasiveness have become such, that I have even started to take them for granted when beer spotting as I walk into a pub. My eyes are accustomed to their logo and the pioneer in me keeps scanning for something a little more off piste.

But you can guarantee they’re what I’ll order every time if the alternatives are just plain “piste”.

 

Too crafty for our own good?

You would think me being a beer lover, that I would be finding the manic pace at which new breweries are opening up around the country universally positive. Well, you would be mostly right. 

On the bright side, it can be thrilling to spy a never before seen logo on a pump clip as you sidle up to the bar of well-stocked alehouse. That fizzing sense of discovery, a bubbling quiet joy every time you raise a glass to sip an unfamiliar nectar, as yet so full of potential. 

Speaking of alehouses, the number of pubs and restaurants dedicating themselves to good beer increases at breakneck speed. Thus offering an even broader stage, from which the ever multiplying men and women who brew are given voice to shine. 

And it’s not just us drinkers that are being given a new lease on life, many of these breweries are literally enriching their communities by providing gainful employment (after years of decline in manufacturing and primary industry). Plus those opening up a brewery tap can bring social regeneration and the creation of a hub to come together in neighbourhoods robbed of their pubs by closure and conversion into a Tesco Metro.

So what’s the dark side?

Well, if everyone was brewing great beer, there wouldn’t be.

Case in point; I recently bought six bottles from three newish microbreweries (2 beers from each) that were all local to me in SE London. I had visions of the glowing reviews I would write, shouting the praises of the fine craft breweries in my own backyard. But unfortunately I found the beers in the main to be: lacklustre, poorly executed or just plain faulty.Rather than name and shame them, here are my tasting notes, with beers 1 and 2 being from the same brewery and so on.

Beer 1 – Hazy brown, fluffy head. Fragrant mango and pineapple, subtle pine. Brown bread, creamy yeast, savoury, pithy, ultra dry, iodine, some clean lines, nice texture, complex. Decent.

Beer 2 – Volcano, lava head, just pouring out, lively deep muscovado. Green mango, hints burnt sugar, faint watermelon, killer dry, woody tannins, bit sharp. Ok.

Beer 3 – Flat. Hazy. Cardboard. Faulty.

Beer 4 – No head, no fizz. Deep mahogany brown. Copper filings, metallic, burnt coffee, nutty, sweaty. Faulty.

Beer 5 – Golden fizzy but no head. Old fashioned sweets, cloying butterscotch. Woody, tannic, burnt sugar, flat, medicinal, vegetal. Faulty.

Beer 6 – Deep chestnut, fine foam. Nutella, intense Reese’s peanut butter cup. Sour, slightly sickly chestnut. Tastes fake. Drinkable, but not enjoyable. Poor.

Now I feel it’s worth giving fledgeling breweries a chance to bed in and find their feet. With any new operation, you expect some teething issues. So I am all for second chances.

But what needs to happen fairly quickly is to establish two or three core beers that can be counted on regardless of how (cask, keg, bottle or can) or where they’re served. Nothing is more galling to a commentator than to share their excitement about a great new beer only to have a colleague try it and say it was shite. The amount of inconsistency out there is truly worrying. Now admittedly there be a will few cases that the venues are to blame for a piss poor pint (too old, wrong temperature, improper handling/storage or inadequate rest after delivery), but I would argue that below average or faulty beers often arrive that way.

Even some of the more successful craft brewers get it wrong sometimes. I tasted a pumpkin ale from an established player a few months back and it was so awful I nearly spat it back in the glass. Arguably, people are experimenting and trying to break new ground with their beers, which is to be applauded. But why put out a sub-standard beer? Are some microbrewers under such intense financial pressure that pouring a flawed or substandard brew down the drain is simply not an option?

Now not liking what’s on offer from some breweries isn’t down to “bad beers”, it’s personal taste and I totally respect that. Sometimes…

“There has never been a more exciting time to be a beer drinker” was the chanted mantra at the British Guild of Beer Writers Awards last December (see the video produced by yours truly here), it was the same the year before, and ditto the year before that.

It’s true, but there’s also never been a more hit and miss time for adventurous beer drinkers.

My issue? Craft has become some kind of byword for quality, which ironically in some cases can be quite the opposite. I’ve certainly had my fair share of dull, faulty or undrinkable craft beers. What’s more, if you hit a bad run, one could quite easily develop a “fear of faults”. A creeping dread that begins to take the place of that childlike excitement.

And it’s not just me that’s getting wary. Airing my concerns over beers with two esteemed industry compadres, I was surprised to hear them passionately echoing my feelings of reserve when it came to trying “the new beer”. Often preferring to stick to the craft they knew rather than risk shelling out good money for a crap or faulty beer from an operation they were unfamiliar with.

In September 2014, according to CAMRA there were 1285 breweries in the UK, with 170 born in the previous 12 months. Now it’s the pessimist in me but how long can this upward trend be sustained? Speaking to an established London brewer about a year ago, he confided in me that he already thought there were too many breweries in the capital. Perhaps feeling the heat a bit, but I thought it was very telling.

Despite all the collaborations and questionable bonhomie craft beer is becoming an intensely competitive market in the UK with it only set to get more challenging with new breweries literally springing up underfoot on this wee island. Not even mentioning imports from powerhouse US, Belgian, Czech and German outfits.

The sad reality is that the many who simply aren’t good enough, sufficiently financed, or properly marketed will die off. Over time, fewer and fewer will take their place while the stronger established craft breweries mop up more of the market.

But I must end on a more positive note as it’s far from doom and gloom.

Here’s a soothing soundbite from that rogue of a scribe, entertainer and thrice Beer Writer of the Year Ben McFarland who quoth “The fact that we in the midst of a beer renaissance…”.

Renaissance,  a rebirth. Because the glory days of beer are indeed back again. There’s more than enough talented, passionate brewers brewing excellent beer out there to keep us all happy for a very long time.

It is my sincere belief that beer lovers will remain spoiled for choice in terms of the diversity, high quality and complexity of flavour we have come to expect, never returning to those dark days of the 80’s and 90’s.

At least hopefully, not in my lifetime…

*Artwork by Mr DnE