Beer Geek Brewdogfest: Two Days of Decadence
On Wednesday, Mike and I stumbled into Manchester for what we knew was going to be a pretty lovely evening out: beer and a Pearl Jam gig. The latter was as wonderful as we knew it would be; the former was a rather happy surprise.
Of course, when waiting for the train to Manchester we HAD to call in the York Tap, because otherwise we might suffer dehydration/hop-withdrawal on the journey. Popping in, we weren’t super excited by the selection (as variable as ever then) but then it was a Wednesday afternoon so we should have been drinking ‘session beer’ anyway. I feel so dirty having said that now…
Marble - Lagonda IPA
We all know Lagonda, or we thought we did. Then all these different trial versions turned up last year, and then we thought they’d settled on a recipe (this pump clip showed no such ‘trial’ subtitle) but quite frankly we sort of hope they keep on tweaking it. It was just a bit unbalanced - it had a lovely Nelson Sauvin nose on it that was very grapey and pleasing, but it just didn’t back it up. Imagine Kipling lite and you’re on the right path. Frankly, Dobber or Utility are much better.
Raw - Hop Pole
It isn’t often we find Raw in York, and being a Derbyshire lad originally Mike had to try this one out of patriotism. It was certainly punchy for a 4.1% beer (yes, this was session beer *sigh*) but the result was that it came out rather full flavoured and hoppy, but it was too bitter for the body to carry off, and it just left a bit of an unpleasant tacky finish in the mouth. Could have been better - maybe if they bump it up to… I don’t know, 6%ish and up the dry-hopping?
After a brief beer-free period on the train, we soon realised our hands were quivering. Delirium Tremens was clearly about to kick in, so to stave off the inevitable we headed in to Manchester on the lookout for beer. We’d been intending to visit the recently-opened Manchester Brewdog bar for a while, but with much the same ambivalence as we regard most things Brewdog: self-consciously hip, aggressively idealistic, but, in spite of everything, really really good.
I know how this sounds, but I really don’t want to like Brewdog: they’re publicity hungry, pretentious, and vocally against selling out to the man whilst simultaneouslybeingthe man; they loudly denounce cask beer, tread on other breweries’ toes, their customer service is awful… I could go on. Despite this, though, they’ve opened a lot of doors in the UK craft beer industry: their beer is innovative, idiosyncratic and generally very good, and I know it. Whatever my opinions of their PR, branding and general attitude towards marketing, I can’t deny they usually turn out a very good pint (or half).
Brewdog Manchester is as hipster as I expected it to be: bare walls, minimal furniture, high ceilings, industrial lighting; super-cool staff who fist-bumped me (cringeworthy, although strangely endearing) when I remarked that I was an IPA person; a menu advertising ‘punk rock pizzas’ and ‘badass burgers’. Still, the atmosphere was nice, the music was good and the food was amazing: I pretty much inhaled the veggie pizza. I can’t hate Brewdog. I just can’t.
We can, however, completely disagree with their bottle menu. What a bloody mess: it’s sorted by category, which is a somewhat irritating system if you’re not a craft beer newbie (we know, we know: it’s excellent for the newcomers to find certain styles and get their bearings) because you just can’t find anything. Mike was looking for their selection of Saisons and Wild Ales, looked in this section and found nothing he wanted. He then went to the fridge and saw a bottle of Evil Twin’s Without You I’m Nothing, which is a sour ale. It may be brownish, but listing it with the amber ales, as it turned out was the case, is a bit silly: anyone who likes Amber ales and tries it might just think it’s off and get upset.
The second issue is that they were listed by name, with brewery listed second, all in one line with no real spacing… it made it very hard to navigate and search for specific brewers. We just ended up looking at the fridge, which resulted in the bar staff hovering a lot and getting a little impatient with us as we took longer than 30 seconds to select a beer. They remained in good humour, and weren’t rude or anything, but you could tell they were getting a little antsy as we bombarded them with questions/requests for prices (which varied between understandable, ridiculous, and worryingly affordable) and struggled to decide, despite the bar being well staffed and quiet.
But, of course, on to the beer. Everything was bottle and keg, of course, but then we know which brewery this is. Guest offerings were pretty lovely: plenty of American beer, a few unexpected Mikkellers, some breweries I’d never heard of. Brewdog’s own beers were irritatingly pricey, considering they’re clearly the bar’s bread and butter, but they had a few pretty exciting things on which until now we hadn’t had the chance to try. Kegged beers we tried (over two visits, and aided by Mat and Hipster Mike/Mr Lightfoot) included:
Brewdog - Dead Pony Club
A 3.8% APA, which I hadn’t been too excited about trying, but decided to give a go. A delightful surprise: despite its diminutive strength, its sticky, piney hop aroma was impressively intense. Clean and grapefruity on the palate and very refreshing; a little lacking in body considering the intensity of the hop flavour, but given its ABV that’s hardly unexpected. Nothing incredible, but really very nice.
Hitachino Nest - Amber Ale
Having tried Japanese beer before… and deciding to forget about them, with the exception of one or two of them which were to be remembered as reference points for mediocre lagers, it was time to try one from a Japanese craft brewery! This was sweet, honeyed, and liquorice-tastic on the nose, and was pleasant and syrupy on the palate. The flavours went through the same gamut as the aroma, but finished with a delicate, yet pleasingly abrasive, hop bitterness. Very good considering it’s a style that is often a bit dull/done badly.
Green Flash - Double Stout
It was all going so well, and then Annis decided to try this. It was terrible: everything up to this point suddenly looked shit, quite frankly. This was like drinking coffee and chocolate, condensed into a paste and rubbed with beer until the two became a gloopy mess of awesome dessert sauce. As we are wont to do, we enjoyed this one: fudgey imperial stout death with a delicious oaky/peaty finish that just added a bit of a savoury counterpoint to the predominantly sweet initial flavours. Absolutely stunning.
Lagunitas - Maximus IPA
Not to be outdone, Mike went for this. We decided immediately that Hipster Mike had to have this when he came the next day. It lives up to its name, with its maximal flavour, immense palate, and huge bitterness. This is how American IPAs SHOULD be done. It smells very typically American - that sweet honey-ish breakfast cereal, refreshingly clean malt aroma was punctuated with tangerines and lemon peel. Rich, sweet malt with a massive mouthfeel and lingering tropical and pine bitterness. Definitely one of the best we tried all weekend.
On Thursday, we met friends and briefly defected to Port Street Beer House, a long-beloved craft beer pub in the Northern Quarter, where we sat outside in the rain and took full advantage of their current selection. There, I had:
Mikkeller - 1000 IBU Ultramate (4.9%)
Despite the differentiating tag making it sounding like a brand of condom, I was pretty intrigued to try this. Anything this bitter is simultaneously a curiosity and a challenge; we haven’t been lucky enough to get hold of a bottle of the full-strength 1000 IBU, but I was still pretty interested as to how something so bitter would sit at a lower ABV. 1000 international bitterness units is a theoretical level of bitterness, of course, but considering a bottle of Stella is probably about 20 IBUs, you can imagine what sort of undertaking it is to drink this beer.
It smells very very piney, but that isn’t really much of a clue as to what it’s like to drink, other than it contains a lot of hops. Quite simply, drinking it is like chewing grapefruit pith after eating mango sorbet: there’s a lot of fruitiness in there, but the flavours are quickly eclipsed by the EXTREME BITTERNESS that follows and claws at your throat as you swallow.
It’s pretty insane. I think it would probably work better at a higher ABV; obviously the bitterness is meant to be the centrepiece, but I think more sweetness and mouthfeel would make it a truly enjoyable drink, as opposed to one which is interesting but something to tolerate. Mind you, Mr Lightfoot did say it was his favourite beer of the night…
Bristol Beer Factory - Milk Stout (4.5%)
After the 1000 IBU, this old favourite was like drinking a comforting cup of Ovaltine after eating a vindaloo: an old favourite, much easier to drink, but impossible to get much out of once your tastebuds have been burnt off. It’s sweet, creamy and chocolate-roasty, and very thick; from experience I know I like it very much, but my palate definitely wasn’t up to much by that point…
Mikkeller It’s Alight!
The ‘session beer’ version of It’s Alive! The pity is that it loses the creamy sweet body of the ‘regular’ version, which was an absolute stunner, and comes out as a very light refreshing lager that tastes a bit sour. It was nice, but by no means is it fabulous.
Mikkeller - Hoppy Easter
A very well balanced IPA - it’s fruity, sweet, and delicious although not as bitter as expected (considering it’s apparently a rebranding of Green Gold, which is certainly more bitter). Grapefruit, mango, sweat…. all the things we love in an IPA are here, and here in a very well orchestrated cacophony of delights, so yes definitely have a sip on this one if you fancy a proper American style IPA.
Stone - Arrogant Bastard
We all know, and love, Arrogant Bastard - huge, malty, abrasive, and as brash as the shit on the label leads to you expect. This was primarily for the benefit of Mat, who’d just returned from Japan (and all the shitty grain-lagers he could bathe in) - Mike shared a bottle to get his craft beer reserves filled up again before he heads back. Reviewing Arrogant Bastard is pointless. It’s fabulously unapologetic, go drink it.
Marble/Emelisse - Earl Grey IPA
Having tried some of Emelisse’s (admittedly variable) wares, Mike was reportedly quite disappointed when he tried the last collaboration with Marble - a fairly standard, but slightly hoppier than usual, bitter (Bubberman’s Best). This, however, was far more interesting: it’s above the magic 5% mark, increasing the probability that it will taste of something, it’s got Earl Grey in, and it’s an IPA. What could possibly go wrong?! Well, not much actually: sweet, refreshing, floral and delicate, this beer is all these things. There was a moment in the middle of the experience were the tea and hops step on each others’ toes a little, creating a slightly cardboardy/gluey flavour that wasn’t wonderful, but on the whole a pleasant drink that indeed tastes of tea and hops. If you don’t get to try it on draught, they have bottled it in corked/caged 750mls too, get on it if you fancy something new :)
After an arduous slog through the Mancunian monsoon that had swept in, we headed to the Rice Bowl and ate large quantities of Asian food, fortifying our tummies for the final push through the Craft Beer tour of Manchester. That’s right: we were returning to Brewdog to try more things (because let’s face it, we had a time-limit imposed on us by the gig the night before!) We felt like dirty hipsters hanging out there so much, but the beer selection was fabulous bottle-wise, and the kegs were pretty good too. Also Hipster Mike had to be returned to his natural habitat (presumably).
The first thing we did was get Hipster Mike and his lapels a Maximus because he likes hoppy things.
Brewdog - Libertine Black Ale:
Surprisingly good. Very meaty, sweaty aroma from a shedload of Simcoe (or some other similarly immense hop) that was well offset by a light but roasty body. As unbalanced as every BIPA inevitably must be, but decidedly a very good version of the style for a UK brewer.
Hipster Mike wrote about this one:
“Beer is good. This (Brewdog) is pretty Hipster so it’s a good job I’m a pretty hipster. The previous bar (Port Street) was less hipster so I was like a bit meh because nobody noticed my lapels but I think it was ok. My favourite thing was the 1000IBU beer because it was just about right for me; my least favourite was the aforementioned lack of lapel appreciation.”
As you can no doubt tell, this was a glowing review of the Libertine.
Southern Tier - Old Man Winter
I picked this up because, up to this point, we’ve only had their porter, Mokah, and Jah-va, although we have a Gemini just chilling in the cupboard awaiting the right moment.
Pretty amber colour with a thin beige head, it smells lovely and malty: like a farmyard almost in its raw maltinosity. It tastes super malty, with hints of lemon popping through to break it up, finishing with a coffee and liquorice roundness. It began to get a bit boring as it went down, which resulted in it sticking around longer (the paradox that is beer boredom), but it was nice enough. Somewhere between Odell’s 90 Shilling and Arrogant Bastard in flavour profile - water the latter down with double the quantity of the former and it’d probably taste quite similar.
Hipster Mike had a, typically Brewdog, Hops Kill Nazis and, I don’t know if it’s just me, but this has definitely not got as much flavour or body as the last time I had it. We had a keg from when it was a one off, rather than a Prototype series beer or an occasional (as now seems the case) and it was still a little underwhelming then - quite clean flavours compared to the red IPA I usually hope for, with a rather tamer hop profile than expected. Just a little disappointing, and easily the worst ‘proper’ IPA of the trip, although that’s not too bad given the company it was keeping.
Mat had a Punk IPA, but reviewing that would be redundant. We know Punk, it used to be better but is still a very good beer to have as part of your core line-up. It used to be remarkable, now it’s a variable but good staple.
Mike had Mikkeller’s Fra Via Til next. We’d saved a barrel aged bottle of this for Christmas fun, and were sadly unimpressed. It didn’t do much, it just tasted kind of ashy and brown. However, this was incredible: it smells of liquidised bread, and while it indeed started a little tart and brown-ale-y, it developed a wonderful complexity of flavours: faintly spiced, a little bitter, wonderfully sweet and chocolatey, with just a bit of ashiness in the finish to counteract any cloying residue, it’s just an incredible dessert beer.
Then, as birds of a feather flock together, Paul (whom we met at the Mikkeller single hop tasting at Port Street, and who recently returned to craft beer reviews, following the completion of his ‘tramp juice round-up’) arrived. He was incredulous that we never tried Sink the Bismarck!, primarily because Mike’s place of work no longer buys it in, the relative scarcity of it in recent times, and the fact that Penguin just sounded like it was going to be nicer. We shared a measure of it between us, and needless to say the reaction was overwhelmingly positive. Especially from Hipster Mike.
Sink the Bismarck was in no way subtle - you can tell it’s condensed Hardcore IPA from the huge hop hit, which is joined in the assault on your face by a wonderful alcohol burn. It’s so deliciously sweet and pungent that to describe it just seems a bit silly - you just need to try the damn thing, because frankly you’ll never have anything quite like it if you don’t. Everyone agrees this was wonderful, and definitely easier to drink than Penguin, although they each have their place in the dessert beer pantheon.
The only thing left to say, really, is that despite all the Brewdog concerns that, as ever, abound, their bar in Manchester did offer a delightful experience. The staff were knowledgeable, the beer selection is fabulous, the pricing is actually variable… but everything was done well. The atmosphere was a little lacking in the full light of day, when you could see just how professionally the grime and wear-n-tear had been applied to the walls and furnishing, but once the lights came down in the evening it really cosied up. It was refreshing to see how mixed their clientele were too: Port Street is predominantly occupied by craft beer types, and is wonderful, whereas Brewdog was filled with business people, groups of ladies and men of all ages, it was just that little bit more wide-ranging in its public appeal. While this may be because of its more central location, right near a major tram stop, it also speaks to the sheer amount of good work Brewdog have actually done for the craft beer scene (whilst irrevocably destroying they way in for their competition). Their form of arch-capitalist-industrial-punk-style branding, coupled with a very bright sign out front really seems to invite people in, and even if it’s all so staged and ‘safe’ it hurts, it works. It’s like craft beer Disney Land - a safe environment for your first steps in to Craft Beer geekery. Once you’ve found the ropes, we’ll see you all soon enough.
In Port Street, of course.