Wednesday, 26 August 2015

London Beer City: A Retrospective

For the second year running London went mad for beer in the second week of August (even more mad than usual, I mean), and again this year there were far more London Beer City events on than you could possibly manage to attend. This time round we sat down with the programme and ticked off everything we were remotely interested in... but obviously that was still way too many. We ruthlessly whittled the list down to one or two events per day and cleared any non-beer related things from our diaries. And, maybe, most important of all: we cleared the entire final weekend so that we could spend it at home with the curtains drawn.

1. Cask Tasting Event at We Brought Beer (Wednesday 5th August)
Starting London Beer City a bit early we visited our local bottle shop, where there are usually four keg beers on tap for drinking at the shop or taking away in growlers of various sizes. In honour of LBC they had put on six casks from six different breweries to highlight the joy of cask ale and celebrate their first birthday (there would be even more casks on later in the week). On the night of the launch we got to take part in a (free) tasting event conducted by the brewing legend, Derek Prentice.

As experienced homebrewers (and scientists by training and/or profession) we are familiar with the four ingredients of beer and how they are used, and we've stood or sat through many a talk on how beer is made. That said, I found it a pleasure to listen to a more ‘technical’ edition of this speech. As well as brewing at a number of long standing breweries (e.g. Fullers and Trumans), Derek also teaches apprentice brewers who are studying for a brewing qualification. It was a pleasure and an honour to get to talk to him about beer and brewing.

The cask beers were obviously of secondary interest to meeting Derek, but during the organised tasting we sampled Burning Sky Arise, Cloudwater Session IPA, and Wimbledon Tower Special Pale Ale. They were all good beers which we were happy to drink but the outright winner was the Wimbledon Tower (from Derek’s new brewing venture). It had everything you could want in a cask pale ale: a well balanced hop bitterness and malt character, and a thirst-quenching dry finish making you crave another sip. But the most notable thing about it was its vibrant fruity nose, for me it was peaches, but other people got soft red fruits. And where did all of this outrageous fruit come from? Dry hopping with Target (used along with two other British hops for bittering and flavour). I enjoyed this refreshing use of  British hops - really nice to see in the current British brewing culture of 'Citra this' and 'Mosaic that'.

2. Opening Party at BrewDog Shepherd's Bush (Friday 7th August)
If there was an influx of people who were there especially for the launch of LBC or whether it was just a typical Friday night in Shepherd’s Bush, I couldn’t really tell. Although when I was at the bar shortly before 6pm a group arrived who were there specifically to try Lizard Bride (a new BrewDog beer launching at 6pm that day), who were expressing mild embarrassment at themselves for having to wait for a beer to come on. But there was certainly a general air of good feeling when London Beer City organiser, Will Hawkes, jumped on the bar to introduce his week long programme of beer activity. Later on we won some prizes at beer bingo (although we were sad to miss the beer quiz at BDSB later in the week). It was a low key Friday night, but ideal preparation for the manic week ahead.

3. GBBF at Olympia (Tuesday 11th August)
It’s always a pleasure to catch up with our friends from out of town but yet again I’m left wondering why we bother with this event. Too many of the British cask beers I tried were just not in great condition and I find this really sad. Every year I keep hoping that I'll try some British cask beers which do not disappoint me but every year it's the same. The German beers were the best things we tasted at GBBF. As always I get sucked into trying stuff from the US cask bar but this is generally a hit and miss affair.

One tap short of a takeover
4. Thornbridge Tap Takeover at Craft Beer Co (Tuesday 11th August)
In hindsight I wish we had just gone here instead of GBBF as the cask (and keg) beers were in better condition. If I had visitors in town from the US this year (as I have had for previous GBBFs) I would have just brought them here instead and said, "here is some great British beer for you to try." Plenty of variety in style with all of the consistency of quality you can expect from Thornbridge. With so many beers on tap I got to tick off a couple of Thornbridge beers which have been evading me for a while (Cocoa Wonderland and Bear State).

5. Mid-week opening at Brew By Numbers (Wednesday 12th August)
Kernel, Partizan and Brew By Numbers came together to offer their beers to the general public on a weekday evening, this year it was the turn of BBNo to host. As anyone who has visited Bermondsey on a Saturday will be aware it gets busy down there, at times it is insanely busy. If you are bothered by big crowds (as I am these days) then you tend to limit your visits to Bermondsey, which is a shame because we’d like to spend more time drinking beers from Kernel, Partizan and BBNo at source. But on this occasion the queues for the bar were minimal or non-existent and we were even able to talk to the employees – who are usually run ragged and unable to stop for a chat.

Hard to decide between the Kernel Mosaic Stout and BBNo Black IPA
So for us this night was about great company first and foremost, with the beer was run a very close second. The beery highlights were the Kernel’s Mosaic Dry Stout (that magical mystery hop, which can be used in so many different ways and can seemingly do no wrong), and the BBNo 15|02 BIPA Citra. As someone who is fussy about black IPA as a style, who has had many a discussion with pro brewers and homebrewers and beer writers about it, this particular beer offered me an angle I’ve yet to experience with this beer style before: a fresh green hop character. One of the things I enjoy about a BIPA is how if the malt bill is done right then the beer still be enjoyable when the hop character has faded away a little (if not, it gets as stale as a standard IPA when the hops fade out). Sadly, I don’t get to witness this often enough as most BIPA are not quite ‘roasty’ enough for my liking. In fact this particular beer, 15|02, wasn't roasty enough but it had this amazing FRESHNESS OF GREEN HOPS to it that contrasted very nicely with the dark malts present. Obviously, that’s not going to persist too long – it was very much a ‘drink fresh’ moment. But I’m glad I was there to catch it.

But the icing on the cake of this fantastic evening was the bottled BBNo 14|02 - a BA tripel, brewed with Wai-iti, one of my favourite hops: a zesty lemon fragranced delight from NZ. BBNo are well known for their saisons, of which they have produced many variants, and my favourite of all of those is the 01|08 Wai-iti. Saisons often have naturally occurring lemon aroma and flavour from the yeast but this hop really amped that beer up to a zesty wonder. I'd already bought a bottle of the 14|02 from the brewery when it was released and had been advised by them to age it a while yet. So when I was shown their fridge toward the end of the night and asked what I fancied trying I pointed at the 14|02 and said, ‘THAT ONE!’ It did not disappoint. If you’ve ever cooked lemons, as part of a savoury meal, to the point where they caramelise, become sweet and lose their bitterness but still retain the refreshing zing of a citrus fruit...well, that’s precisely what I got from this beer. A definite contender for my beer of the year so far.


6. Coffee vs. Beer at The Department of Coffee & Social Affairs (Thursday 13th August)
One event we really fancied doing during LBC was the beer and cheese matching sessions, but having recently held our own private beer and cheese event we couldn’t really justify the cost of us both attending a session with so much else going on. But another keen interest we have aside from cheese is coffee, which we love but feel like we know hardly anything about it. It seemed like the cost of the event could be justified in order to advance our knowledge.

Sensory perception 

At the start of the event we learned how to taste coffee correctly (which similar to but not exactly the same as tasting beer - it makes a more unpleasant noise), starting off with a reminder that almost everything you taste is informed by its aroma. We then went through five paired rounds of blind tasting, first sampling the beer and voicing our thoughts and then doing the same for the coffee. Finally we were asked to vote on whether we preferred the beer or the coffee option from each pairing. The very first round (which I felt was a little bit of a cheat) was Carling vs Nescafe. The other rounds featured a wheat beer, a sour beer, a ‘hoppy porter’ (which we still feel we were correct to identify blind as a BIPA), and a stout – each beer was paired with a coffee which had similar or related elements to its flavour profile. This was a real eye opener and we’re really glad we did it. For example, prior to this experience I couldn’t quite have gotten my head round how you could pair a sour beer with a coffee. But you can!

We went away feeling like beer is easy and simple (to deconstruct) while coffee is ultra subtle and nuanced with layers that we can’t even begin to approach at this point. Yet, we still feel like we learned a lot from this event and can begin to appreciate the enormous spectrum of what you are able to taste in a coffee. We will definitely be taking more time to over our coffee in the future and will begin to learn the basics of the myriad ways in which processing affects what ends up in your cup.

7. London Craft Beer Festival at Oval Space (Friday 14th August)
I was looking forward to this event as comfortable territory, knowing we would get to see yet more friends from near and far; knowing there would be great beers both new and familiar to me. I wasn’t disappointed. As with last year, Chris was pouring beers for Weird Beard and I was roaming around the place solo. This year I even lent a hand to pour a few beers for WB. Had I thought about this in advance I might have volunteered to pour for Magic Rock, especially had I known they were bringing some Big Top with them. On second thoughts it’s probably best for everyone that I didn’t as I got so excited when I saw Big Top had gone on that I knocked down their blackboard in my haste to get some in my glass. :)

The unlimited small pours (90ml) worked perfectly well. As far as I can see it is better for both the customer and person serving them if neither has to faff around with taking payment and I think that doing away with tokens all together is preferable. I’ve seen a complaint that the small pour does not encourage sensible drinking. This makes me think that there really is no pleasing some people. If you find yourself in a long conversation and your glass is dry you could either position yourself near a bar so that you can easily obtain another refill or *gasp* get yourself a glass full of water to drink while you’re chatting from one of the many water dispensing points. If someone cannot move away from the mindset of drinking pints to the point where drinking anything that isn't a pint bothers them, this type festival probably isn't for them. It's about trying lots of beers, not about how much you can drink. That concept goes beyond beer festivals too. For some of us, at least.

If you happen to be in town during London Beer City and you like beer (whether you live there or are just visiting) there are more beer-related activities on offer than you can actually physically go to.  You will be spoiled for choice. Some events have an entry fee but many do not. If you enjoy matching beer and food there are a wide variety of options to choose from across a spectrum of budgets. If you enjoy meeting brewers, you're in luck: there are brewers all over the place just waiting to talk to you about their beers. If you want to learn more about brewing or even have go yourself, there are events to suit you. In short, there is so much variety (including lots of things I haven't even hinted at here) that there should be something to please everyone.

Post by Emma

Monday, 10 August 2015

Beer & Cheese: A Match Made in Heaven


Cheese makes beer even more delicious

In an effort to learn more about styles of cheese and to gain a better understanding of beer and cheese pairing we selected nine different beer styles and matched them with cheese. We gave these pairings our full attention and recorded our findings in detail. We reaffirmed our love of some Belgian beer styles and fell head over heels for aged Gouda and Brillat-Savarin. 

Fig 1.0: The unsullied cheese board(s)

I’ve long been a lover of both beer and cheese. I eaten cheese while drinking beer plenty of times in the past but I’ve never really done it in a serious structured fashion before where I’ve put thought into it in advance. For my birthday last month I was given a book on matching beer and cheese (it was from Chris so I’m pretty sure there was an ulterior motive there) so that I might learn more about different styles of cheese. I read it in a frenzied, non-linear fashion, flicking around between the beer styles, staring longingly at the pictures. Very soon I’d cleared a day (possibly even a whole weekend) in our diaries which we could devote to the serious consideration of cheese and beer. 

I planned this event as a kind of luxury at-home experience and I was willing to pay for quality ingredients, maybe somewhere approaching what I’d be prepared to spend on a meal eaten at a restaurant. So, no, this it is not a cheap alternative to going out; I would consider it more like something you’d do to treat yourself or for a special occasion.

I was aiming to have five or six courses but just in case I wasn’t able to easily source all the beer and/or cheese styles I was after I planned for extra courses just in case. I’m sure you know what I’m going to say next. Yes, we ended up all doing nine pairings in the end.

A variety of different beer styles was what I was after for the pairings, especially those styles we don’t drink too often. From that list of selected beer styles I read through the suggested pairings for each. At the most basic level you’re looking for a cheese to compare or contrast with your beer. By the time I’d gone through the suggestions for each style I had a core of about six styles of cheese, most of which could be tried with each different beer.

Once I my cheese wish list was complete I contacted our local cheese expert, Manish (from Good Taste Food in Gipsy Hill) to check if he could supply everything I wanted. As for the beers, we already had many of them in our beer cupboard but the rest I picked up on the Friday evening from BottleDog or Chris picked up on Saturday from We Brought Beer in Balham.

On the Saturday morning I was positively giddy about going to get my cheeses, skipping off like Little Red Riding Hood with her basket. [NB I am actually eating cheese right now as I type this] I was pretty greedy with the portion sizes because I didn’t want us to run short during the event, plus I wanted leftover cheese too. The intention was for this to be done around the time of the evening meal but I confess that we just couldn't wait that long and started at about 4pm.

See Table 1.0 for the pairings, by round, and the overall ‘winner’ of each round. The winner was the pairing which brought out the best in both the cheese and the beer. In most, but not all, cases we agreed on the winners.


(Flensburger Pilsner)
- Sharpham Brie
- Brillat-Savarin
- Dutch Mistress
(Westmalle Dubble)
- Aged Gouda
Aged Gouda
(Cantillon, “Belgian Flag” Gueuze)
- Aged Gouda
- Brillat-Savarin
- Sharpham Brie
(La Trappe Tripel)
- Maroilles
- Brillat-Savarin
- Aged Gouda
Imperial Stout
(Buxton Rain Shadow)
- Brillat-Savarin
- Aged Gouda
- Cashel Blue
Cashel Blue
Imperial IPA
(Crema Brewery Here’s What You Could’ve Won)
- Brillat-Savarin
- Mature cheddar
- Aged Gouda
- Sharpham Brie
Chris: Brillat-Savarin
Emma: Aged Gouda
(Aecht Schlenkerla Märzen)
- Aged Gouda
- Blue de Gex

Chris: none of the above
Emma: Aged Gouda
(Dupont Saison)
- Blue de Gex
- Maroilles
Chris: Blue de Gex
Emma: Maroilles
(Magic Rock Strongman 2013)
- Aged Gouda
- Brillat-Savarin
- Cashel Blue
- Maroilles
Table 1.0: Numbered rounds of beer styles and the cheeses they were paired with
(see Table 1.2 for cheese descriptions)

Sharpham Brie
Cow’s milk brie from Devon
Brillat Savarin
French triple cream cheese containing >75% fat
Dutch Mistress
Goat’s cheese from Shropshire
Cashel Blue
Semi-soft Irish blue cheese
Blue de Gex
French aged blue cheese
Rindwashed cow’s cheese from France
Table 1.2: Cheese descriptions

Each of the cheeses was gosh-darned delicious in its own right and so were the beers (which we knew before we started doing the pairings) so we were starting from a very solid platform of tastiness. Everything was going to be good, but the question was: ‘how good?’

Fig 2.0 Round 1
We had a few revelations during the tasting. The first was regarding the beers. Yes, of course we’ve drunk pilsners and Belgian beers plenty of times before. We know what they taste like, right? Well, what we did on this occasion was sit down with the beer at a table completely cleared of other distractions. We weren’t chatting to our mates in the pub or watching something on TV at the same time. We were really paying attention to the beer and giving it our full consideration. Our first thought was: blimey, we really don’t drink enough good pilsners. How often are we guilty of overlooking them for hoppier, more bitter beers? Then the dubbel and the tripel: wow. Doing this matching event really relit our fire for Belgian beers, both in their own right and as beers to pair with food. 

Another interesting discovery concerned the 'strength' of the cheeses. As a child I often found mature cheddars to give me a slight allergic reaction. However, sometimes other aged cheeses will still give me a similar 'itchy' reaction. I always thought this was just me and my weirdly over-reactive immune system. But we both experienced an irritation after eating the Blue de Gex (a kind of prickling and itching in the mouth), to the point where we could only have a very thin sliver otherwise it just wasn't pleasant. While writing up our results I learned that this allergic reaction to mature cheeses is the same condition people get when they eat fish which has been allowed to sit around and degrade: the amino acid histidine present in the fish is broken down to histamine, which causes a temporary allergic reaction known as 'scombroid fish poisoning'. #science

Fig 3.0: Round 2
All the pairings were educational for us and I could easily go into detail on every single one. But to pick just a few of the most striking pairings – the most memorable for us both was probably the first round. Pilsner vs. Brillat-Savarin: this seems counter intuitive, putting a delicate ‘mild-mannered’ beer up against a super creamy, rich cheese that’s scarily high in fat. But it works incredibly well. The high carbonation of the dry, refreshing pilsner cleanses and refreshes the palate between each bite of the creamy cheese, literally washing away the fat of the triple cream. In turn the ever-so-slightly sour tang of the cheese brings out the malt flavour of the beer. This is a pairing which contrasts both textures and flavours. When I was sampling the cheeses before buying them Manish told me that the textbook pairing for Brillat-Savarin is champagne so I suppose it makes perfect sense for it to pair so well with a pilsner.

The other two outstanding pairings were the Belgian beers. The dubbel with the aged Gouda was a match which made me smile a lot. This time it was a 'like pairs with like' match, with the sweet caramel notes of the malts snuggling up to the nutty sweetness of the cheese. It was a caramel match made in heaven. The tripel and the rind-washed cheese was a match where two robust characters meet each other head on and neither one gives any ground. I’ve long been a fan of the funk of a rind-washed cheese, but it can be overwhelming. The slight alcohol heat and the slightly sweet malt flavours of the beer easily hold their own against the intensity of the farmyard funk of the cheese. The dry finish of the beer contrasts with the rich creamy texture of the cheese. So with this round we had a comparison and a contrast within the same pairing.

Fig 4.0: Round 4
Our love of beer and cheese was renewed and reinvigorated by this evening of indulgence. It definitely made me want to try new pairings but also just pay more attention to beer and food pairings in general. I’d definitely recommend it to anyone who enjoys beer (and likes cheese, obviously). Our event was pretty extravagant but you don’t need to have nine different courses! Even just choosing one or two beers to try with two cheeses would be a really good experience, especially if you choose beer styles you don’t often drink.

Finally, I just cannot express how much I love Brillat-Savarin. What a cheese. It seems to pair with absolutely everything you put it next to. It’s magical.

I will admit that the day after we did this we were completely cheesed off. We couldn't look a cheese in the eye, touch a cheese or even think about a cheese without feeling uncomfortable (this was a difficult day as the remaining bits of our fridge that weren't stuffed with beer and hops were occupied by cheese). I think this comes down to us having started our cheese-a-thon at 4pm... yet by 10pm, we were STILL eating cheese. We were simply overwhelmed and so far past cheese that we were Beyond Cheese. But after a 24 hour cheese break we were able to think favourably about it again and get on with finishing off the leftovers.

1. Fletcher, Jane.  Cheese & Beer. Kansas City, Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2013.  

[Post by Emma]