Month: March 2016

Traceability and Terroir

The terms traceability and terroir are massively important when it comes to selling high quality coffee, tea and wine – but much less so in beer. This blog post suggest some of the reasons the beer industry hasn’t fully embraced these terms as yet, and some signs that it is changing.

Wine, coffee and tea jump out as clear examples, but there are many more where part of the attraction of a high quality (craft/artisan/premium/whatever) product is that the customer knows where it – and it’s components – came from. That traceability conveys a belief that all the individuals involved, from the farmer to the seller, will have been treated at least somewhat fairly. That perception may or may not be true for individual cases, but overall I believe that businesses which are willing to be open about their sourcing will tend to behave more fairly than those who are unwilling. This traceability also allows farmers and suppliers to build their own reputations with the end consumer, which builds demand for things made using their produce.

Terroir is a wine term, meaning the flavour imparted to a natural product by the land on which it is grown – incorporating everything from the effect of the micro-climate, the soil chemistry, altitude and much more. It’s part of what drives wine, coffee and tea geeks – that the same plant stock, grown on different farms but using the same techniques, will produce different flavours.

Wine is well known for the value that appellations and farm reputation can add to a bottle, but this is true in coffee and tea too. Coffee farms which have a reputation (possibly through Cup of Excellence or World Barista Championship success) can be highly sought after. Teas produced from famous tea trees, such as Dan Congs and similar, attract high premiums. Rarely does beer achieve this. There are still sought after beers, but this is typically from buzz around the brewery, not because of their ingredients. The brewers are seen as the ones who create flavour, rather than focusing on the role their ingredients plays.

Why is this? Well, most obviously, even a simple beer combines water, malted barley, hops and yeast – all of which impact the result. On top of that, the brewing process is more complex than the others mentioned. This certainly makes it more difficult for a drinker to pick out what differences are due to ingredients and which to the process. This is further complicated by the interaction of those ingredients – the flavour contribution of the hops, for example, is far from a simple result of amounts and times of hop additions. It’s not even entirely determined during the boil, but also by factors like the yeast used and all the many variables that in turn effect fermentation.

On a pragmatic note, it’s also more difficult for small breweries to source distinctive ingredients. Breweries don’t control the barley that a maltser uses – they can only chose the maltser they buy from. Nor can they chose the hop farm they work with – they can only chose from the options the hop merchant gives them. This is an issue for small coffee roasters too – they can only buy what importers offer. However, demand drives the market and you can see coffee importers recognising the needs of their customers for traceability, exclusivity and terroir in their sourcing. We may yet see more of this from hop merchants and maltsters.

So, given all these challenges, why should we think terroir and traceability will take off in beer? Well, firstly we look to the U.S., who have lead the way in many craft beer trends. Rogue, massive by the U.K. craft beer standards, now have their own Hop and Barley farms. A read of Stan Heironymus’ Brewing Elements book Hops also tells stories of more and more brewers traveling to hop farms and searching for clarity of their sourcing process for their own production purposes – ripe for becoming blog posts and marketing. Similar stories appear in John Mallett’s Malt book from the same series (although there is no doubt barley varieties have received far less buzz than hops).

Secondly, good small brewers need to charge more for their beers to cover the ingredients they use and the extra time and hours of work it needs versus a less technically proficient product or one which has benefited from economies of scale. Sooner or later, traceability and terroir will (I hope?) become tools in justifying this to consumers.

Additionally, we can look to the audience for these beers. Single hop beer series have been around for a while now – BrewDog’s IPA is Dead is the first I remember trying, with Cloudwater’s series of four British hopped lagers being the most recent. I don’t think I’m alone in my interest in these kind of brewing experiments, given the apparent interest brewers are still showing in making them. So, what about the next step? What about two beers both single hopped with Cascade, but one with British Cascade and one with American Cascade? What about two beers single hopped, but with the same hop grown on different farms?

Finally, while brewers haven’t embraced this link to farmers, there has quietly been movement from the other side. Stocks Farm, in Suckley near Worcester, grows hops and apples. Since the 2014 harvest they have been selling hops from the farm online, to homebrewers around the world. For homebrewers in the U.K. this is a big step forward – many homebrew shops sell hops that don’t even list their year of harvest, let alone details on their origin. This has given homebrewers the chance to try not only try hops with traceability but new and exciting hop varietals – last year it was Jester, and this year tiny lots of GP75 & GN37 went on sale, experimental new varieties that they are trialing on the farm.

With the greater complexity of beer’s components, it’s likely that it will never put terroir and traceability front and centre in the way high end wine, coffee and tea have. However, I hope these qualities will be increasingly considered and emphasised by farmers, brewers and beer sellers as a way to compete in a marketplace where it is increasingly difficult to find new twists to make a beer distinctive.

A Weekend in London (or Birmingham pull your finger out)

London is immense, visiting for a couple of days means don’t fritter the time away but also don’t rush around like an idiot… but have a bit of a plan in mind, especially if you want to sample some good beers. And so it came to pass that on Friday 12th February after a pleasant trip to Marylebone Deb & I got the tube out to Islington to pay our first visit to 20160212_150334the Earl of Essex, a pub which we’d heard good things about. It had recently got its cask lines back which was good because I didn’t want anything too strong so was able to have 3 rather tasty pale ales from Redemption, Cloudwater, and Five Points, which went very well with my fish and chips. It was a chilly day so to keep me warm I finished with a rather delightful stout from Left Hand Brewery. As has happened before, I visit these places thinking they are going to be packed with beardy beer geeks like me, but no, just a couple of tables of normal people…because for some people this isn’t anything out of the ordinary but just their local pub in a residential street. So, yes, that’s a local pub with 3 cask and 12 keg lines and a great bottle selection. After checking into our Airbnb apartment in Tottenham and having a bit of a rest we made our way south and east to Hackney Wick for the evening and another first, the Howling Hops tank bar. 20160212_195121As the name suggests, the beer is served from a tank, and a story in the Evening Standard last summer not long after the bar had opened said the following – “The appeal of these specially treated tanks is that they keep their contents in a brewery-like state by eliminating air contact, thus creating fresher, more reliable beer. This in turn means that unlike kegged, bottled or canned beer it doesn’t have to be pasteurised or filtered. As a result it maintains more of its natural character and subtle flavours — it’s the natural wine of the beer world.” And it is a great little venue serving really tasty fresh beer, what looked like nice food (we didn’t have any) and playing a good selection of music. The 3 beers I had were of a high standard from the light abv easy drinking Riding Pale, through the mid range 5.2% Australian pale to the big bold flavours of the 7% IPA Export #2.


Saturday included a trip to Duck and Rice in Soho, a Chinese “gastropub” with a decent range on cask and keg inc Magic Rock and Wild Beer, but I stuck to the Fresh Pilsner Urquell tank beer which went very well with the food, the fried Green peppercorn chicken wings were exemplary.  The main event, after our trip to the theatre in the afternoon, was the Beavermyvalentine party at the Beavertown brewery…so what to say about this?  Much has already been written about the queues and the beer running out so I don’t feel the need to add to that, and I am extremely confident that the for the 5th Birthday the guys will have learnt a lot.  Suffice to say that due to a combination of meeting an ex work colleague, drinking Beavertown beer for the most part, which let’s be honest is no great hardship, and staying in an apartment that was literally 2 mins walk away we had a good time.  20160213_213503Add in the fact that we took back to the apartment some Double Chin and a Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde pack and a splendid time was guaranteed for all… I have to say the both the Double Chin & Mr Hyde were exceptional beers.

Sunday featured a trip to the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition and a fantastic Sunday lunch at Blacklock, as recommended by @andylownslow, before a few late afternoon libations, firstly at the Cross Keys in Covent Garden whilst Deb did a bit of shopping. I was a bit surprised because I always thought of this as a Brodies pub but they had Purity and Windsor and Eton on as well, but the pint of Topaz I had was very nice. Then we took a walk up Holborn to the Holborn Whippet, another venue I’d heard great things about from our friend Steve Nicholls amongst others. Serving both cask and keg it was a great little place that we felt quite comfortable in, and I was quite fortunate that they had one of the specials from the previous days Beavertown festival. This was another exceptional beer, Baever Double White IPA brewed in collaboration with  AEgir Bryggeri. It was a bit wit like but very full flavoured and easy drinking for its 8% abv, in fact it was so good I had 2. 

Our last port of call was the Covent Garden branch of the Craft Beer Co, a company whom I’m hoping see fit to open a branch in Birmingham sooner rather than later. Amazing choice of beer, and also whiskey, friendly and helpful staff, plus some nice snacks that wewere able to have with our train beer on the journey back to Birmingham. We enjoyed an Amarillo Mosaic IPA from Kernel and Nang Tani, a salted caramel chocolate banana stout from Alphabet Brewing Company.

Deb next to a momento of the old home town..

So what can we conclude from this… where does Birmingham fit into the UK beer scene? If we look at the Premier league of beer towns and cities are we really in the same position as Aston Villa, stuck at the bottom? One expects London to be different due to it’s size, although reading that there are now 80 breweries is somewhat taking the piss, but we are still a long way behind many places in terms of choice. A city centre bottle shop would be nice, we are still waiting for the Birmingham Tap to show up, and a branch of the Craft Beer Co wouldn’t go amiss.  And this isn’t to denigrate the places we already have, or the news that Loki have started selling beer and that Peel and Stone have a new bar opening in Harborne. But I just feel we have a little way to go yet to catch up with Manchester, Leeds, Huddersfield etc, but until then let’s keep supporting the great places we have in the City and surrounding area…

NMBCo, carrying on the tradition

nbm2 On Thursday 18th February Tilt bar in Birmingham staged their first tap takeover and meet the brewer event with Northern Monk from Leeds. In the house was head brewer Brian Dickson to give us a short history of the brewery and talk us through the beers on offer. They started as cuckoo brewers, doing their beers on other people’s equipment, before setting up a permanent base in August 2014 in a grade II listed old flax mill building in Leeds. Starting off with 3 fermenters they have doubled up to 6 and are a 10 barrel plant currently on gyle 170, brewing every day for cask, keg, and cans. In the beginning 60% of the beers went in cask, but that has dropped to 25% now.

20160218_210830Working my way through the board I started with the Pale which is primarily a cask beer and used mainly British hops but with a bit of Cascade as well. Next up was Eternal, a session ipa which was juicy and piney and at only 4.1% eminently drinkable. The New World ipa was probably the 1st of their beers I had back in the summer of 2013 at the 1st Birmingham Beer Bash, at the time I described it as a “lovely ipa, complex, fragrant, tasty”, and although they have been tweaking the recipe in the last 18 months it is an excellent drink, fantastically hoppy, this version had Chinook and Simcoe. On to the dark side with Northern Star, a mocha porter done in collaboration with Leeds North Star coffee roasters using 8kg of coffee in a cold brew and lactose in the boil giving a really nice chocolate, coffee and vanilla taste combination. And talking of collaborations I had to try the Tilted Monk, described as a coffee cream ale and brewed with the help of the Kirk at Tilt. Like an idiot I expected it to be dark, but it was a nice amber colour with quite a subtle earthy coffee flavour, again using lactose, Origin coffee from Nicaragua, and Rakau hops from New Zealand.  Last, but certainly not least, was Rapscallion a brew based on a historic recipe from the 1640’s called Purl, also known as Wormwood Ale which included orange peel and leaves from the senna plant.  For this version Brian told us they used an all UK hop bill and added orange zest and just enough crushed ginger to give a gentle kick. It certainly had a nice orangey flavour with a little spiceyness to it.

20160218_212150Over the course of a very relaxed evening I was able to chat with Brian and it was good to hear some stories from The Grove in Huddersfield, where he had worked for 7 years, a place my wife and I hope to be visiting in the near future.  And the brewery seems to be going from strength to strength, it now has 4 brewers, and last year opened the Refectory Tap Room in Leeds, another venue I have heard good things about. So thanks to Kirk, Rich and Brian for a nice night, already looking forward to the next MTB later this month.

Brum Beer Profiles: Tilt

In one of our previous blogs; Brum Beer Scene we discussed the changing landscape of the Birmingham Beer Scene.  One of the catalysts for that blog was the opening of Tilt‘, so it was only right that they became the first of our Brum Beer Profiles, a series we hope will shine a light on the venues, breweries, people and events that are helping to make the Birmingham scene so exciting.

We had the chance to chat with Kirk and Rich, the masterminds behind Tilt, and ask them a few questions about their great venue.


Whilst Kirk was working in Birmingham city centre, Rich had left his job as an electrical engineer and began working at the Brewdog bar, a place Kirk had worked briefly when the bar first opened.  After a while, he felt like he wanted to do something different. He’d come back from Leeds and been inspired by Tallboys, and began thinking about opening a bottle shop that also sold coffee. A friendship with Kirk, which started through their
shared passions for popular culture and beer led to them discussing doing this together, with Kirk adding that they should be selling beer on draft as well.  Independently they both came across a location in City Arcade, a grand Victorian building that had seen a few
different ventures, but which promised easy access to the three Birmingham Railway stations and the tram when the new route opens.

2016-01-13 20.51.03With the help from family they set about renovating the place, using local businesses for the rather impressive Tilt sign, writing in the windows, and JamJar Lights on Bristol Street, Southside, Birmingham, for their distinctive lighting.  Once open they continued to support local businesses by using coffee from Quarterhorse amongst others, and cakes and other baked goods from Bake, who are based in Edgbaston. The latter, change on a regular basis making it ideal for repeat visits, because the cakes are exceptionally good.  And in keeping with this independent spirit, you can now use your Independent Birmingham card to get 15% off tea, coffee and cakes.

MBBCUK – How did you get interested in beer? 

Kirk – When I was 18, I was a young CAMRA member and used to do a lot of volunteering at the Winter Ales Festival in Manchester as I lived in Liverpool at the time.  There used to be a brewery called Cain’s in Liverpool and they did the Formidable Ale cans, and I used to love those.  It was good beer at that time, for a good price. They did a Victorian ale one year, and that was the tipping point for me, where I started to really like beer.  I was just at that age where I wanted to try more and12814014_590109354478327_3154224515894002607_n more stuff and as I did, I got more involved.

When I hit 21, I went from Denver, Colorado to San Francisco.  We actually went to do different rollercoasters at theme parks, but when I got off the plane my friend and I, both had a list of bars we wanted to try.  After we’d done all the theme parks, we went in search of all these different breweries and little pubs!  The brewing scene even then, in America was unbelievable.  In Denver, we went to the Falling Rock Tap House, which is really famous now.  It was famous back then, but we never knew that, and could have been drinking some really famous beers without knowing!    The scene in America was amazing and ever since I came back I realised how much the beer scene had evolved in America and how little it had here.

I fell out of love with CAMRA, some years later, while following a Ramstein tour’ we decided to visit the Brewdog Bars we had been reading about. I then found Stirchley Wines who did a half decent selection at the time and had a bit of Great Divide and some Mikeller. They had all the Brewdog stuff and it was at that point that I started to get really excited, and begun to get more involved with Beer Advocate again, and started trading beers with others. When Brewdog was opening in Birmingham I thought that was a good shout, so worked there for a bit.

MBBCUK – How did the idea of Tilt come about?

2016-01-13 21.52.54Kirk
– Rich and I went to see the Avengers together – we’d only really just started hanging out at that point, So we went to see Avengers – Age of Ultron, and Rich had said he’d really wanted to open a bottle bar in Great Western Arcade, and it had always been in the back of my mind that’d I’d wanted to start a bar, and I was really unhappy with my job. He seemed really passionate about it and then I went home and I really thought about it and because of my love of beer just decided it was either now or never!  So the next day I text him and asked him if he was really serious about it, because that’s part of the thing, you need people that are serious.  He said he was, so I asked him if he wanted to team up and do something together.  Then really, what we are and what we’re about came from there.

I was really keen to get started on something pretty quickly and used to walk past this building every day for six or seven years and had always loved this place.  I’d always had a dream of opening my bar in this premises.  We met with the agents and viewed this place and I put an offer in.  We then started thinking about start up loans etc. and about what we wanted to do here.  Rich always wanted a bottle bar, but I felt it was really important to have draught and also started thinking about ways we could make money here, as a lot of bars are dead in the day time.  We actually wanted a place where we could open in the morning and evening, and then started thinking about coffee. Both of us love coffee but didn’t know a huge amount about it, so started looking for someone with those skills when we were hiring.  I also loved pinball and the dive bar kind of feel, but wanted something a little more refined.  I told Rich I wanted pinball machines, but he didn’t think it would work.  I said it was going to work and that I was having pinball machines, and he asked how many and I said ‘well how many do you think will fit 2016-01-13 21.52.37along that wall!  We then started looking for pinball machines and finally fell on Pinball Heaven.  I talked to them and explained what we were considering, and he said he loved it and that he’d had the vision of someone doing a pinball bar for years! So that’s how we came up with the three: Beer, Coffee and Pinball.  Our ethos is about trying to do the best we possibly can in all three fields.  If it feels right, we’ll do it.  It’s not about us setting loads of goals and it’s been a real learning process which we’re adapting to all the time.  If something doesn’t work, we change it.  We do a lot of the work ourselves and are learning a lot of skills as we go along. As long as everyone is having a good time here, that’s the main thing for us.

MBBCUK – What’s been the biggest challenge you’ve had to overcome during opening?

Kirk – I think there’s always the worry of actually getting people into the bar.  We’re still new and getting our name out there.  That’s the hardest thing, trying to predict people knowing what they want and how best to do that.

MBBCUK – Are you getting a lot of regular clientele into the bar?

Kirk – Yeah, we know certain people who come in every morning for their coffee and then at lunch time for a half, then we get people who come in during the night time for the beer and for the pinball as well.

MBBCUK – How do you feel about the location, is that working as you’re a little bit of the beaten track aren’t you?

Kirk – I think that’s the best way to be as we’re not competing with Brewdog and we’re not competing with Cherry Reds, we’re individual to ourselves and we don’t see anyone as competition.  The thing I’ve always said, is that if we can support other businesses it’d be great.  The only competition I have is with myself, I always want to be making sure I can get great new beer in and making sure we’re doing our best.  Hopefully people are enjoying what we do – I actually think it’s a good thing being off the beaten track, because people come, and when they come in again we know we’re doing a good job.

 MBBCUK -How do you choose the beers for Tilt?12524345_584975824991680_7469105457674528164_n

Kirk – I do all the beer buying as I know a lot of the brewers and have a good relationship with them.  Each week the wholesalers will send us a weekly availability and that’s where we buy a lot of the beers from abroad from.  Then a lot of the UK breweries don’t actually send to anyone so we have to go direct to the breweries and email them to ask for availability each week.  Once I get an idea of what special beers are out that week, I then tailor what we have to make sure we get a great range.  I then use Eebria who stock a lot of smaller breweries.  It works out really well.  I always try and plan a board that has a bit of everything to make sure it appeals to everyone and try and make sure the prices are kept down, It’s not all just about making money, it’s also about making sure we can get other types of beers on the lines. I think we’ve done well – we’ve had over 100 different kegs on over the last two and half months and we’ve got agreements with a lot of the breweries now that they’ll save a keg of their special beers for us, so we don’t have to go and pick them up straight away.

MBBCUK -Can you give an example of one of the changes you will be making?

Kirk – The thing we’re going to change this year is our bottle range.  We’re actually going to cut it down by a hell of a lot, I think to about 15 bees, but they’re all going to be sharing bottles.  What we’ve found is because we get so many kegs in, a lot of people will stick to those and not buy the bottles, so we want to focus on something a bit more special but that people can share with friends and make it a bit of an experience for them.

MBBCUK  -What’s your opinion on the Birmingham beer scene at the moment?

Kirk – I don’t really have an opinion on it in the grand scheme of things.  I’m quite boring, I’ve got kids, so I don’t really get out that much!!  That said, on a whole, it could be a lot better.  I’ve never understood why Birmingham is where it’s at when you look at places like Leeds, Sheffield and Manchester and things are springing up all the time. That’s one of the main reasons I was pretty confident in taking the jump to open this business as I knew there was a gap that could be taken.  I really hope more places do open in Birmingham as I think it’d be great for the scene.

MBBCUK -What are your plans going forward?2016-01-13 21.56.52

Kirk – We knew we couldn’t do everything we wanted before we opened.  We knew we needed the bar and the toilets etc. so we concentrated on that as much as we could and then once we had some money coming in we were able to add things like the art work etc.  So now, I see us at phase two.  We knew pretty much straight away that the tables upstairs weren’t right and that we needed to add more tables so we’ve just picked up a load of new tables for the upstairs.   We really want to utilise the downstairs better.  We’ll also put tables in between the pinball machines for people to put their drinks on as we knew that was something that was missing.  Then downstairs we’ve already got some more tables which are ready for when we re-decorate down there.  We’re going to be installing five or six more pinball machines down there so we’ll have about thirteen in total.  Then we’re going to put a door on the toilet to make sure they’re split off and there’s a bit of painting that needs doing.  I’d like to think that’ll all be done in the next two or three months, then the format will stay the same for the next few years.

MBBCUK  -Are you going to be having any events?

Kirk – We’ve  got Beavertown coming in March and we’re in touch with Omnipollo – hopefully we’ll be having an art exhibition and a tap take over with them which will be something different!  We’ve also got the Pinball League starting which will be the first Monday of every month and we’ll also be doing a Homebrew Club, and we’re also going to be coffee tastings and training as well as the Mikeller Running Club.  We’ve got so many different ideas, but we just want to try and balance it so we’ve got something different each week so it’s not too intense and we have an event every day!

We would like to thank Kirk and Rich for taking their time to meet with us.  We hope you enjoyed this blog and will return to read future profiles and learn more about the fantastic beer scene across the Midlands.

Compiled and co-authored by Dave Hopkins & Bob Maxfield


Cloudwater at the Craven

metaimage I missed the 1st Cloudwater MTB event at the Craven Arms because we were on holiday, but I’d had a few of their beers and enjoyed them, giving them decent marks on Untappd. These included Summer Range – Session IPA,Table Beer, Citrus Gose, Autumn Range – NZ Hopfen Weisse, plus the IPA, which I described as “lots of fruit upfront, hint of bitterness but quite boozy” and the 1st DIPA, “does taste bloomin strong, getting melon and peach flavours”. I had the latter 2 during a lunch hour, so probably didn’t really do them justice. But then towards the end of last year as a lot of people were almost describing them as the 2nd coming I personally hit a patch of just ok beers from them and was wondering what the fuss was all about. And then in quick succession in February I had 4 really excellent beers, the easy drinking Pale Ale, DIPA V2, (“this is very good, maximum hops but not too overpoweringly alcohol”), Autumn Range – IPA (“ Really good, great aroma and big fruity flavour…”), and the Imperial stout. And so to leap day and the launch of the Spring collection at the Craven with Paul, Al and Lucy from the brewery. The model of focusing on the seasonality of ingredients seems to work really well, meaning fresher beers and styles to suit said seasons.Their talk focused on this, although they admitted it had thrown up a few problems that they didn’t quite foresee. However, for a brewery that has really only been open for just over a year they seem to be doing a good job as far as the end product that we, the drinkers, get to enjoy.
And so to the beers on the night, which I have to say were all uniformly excellent…I stuck to cask and began with the US Light Mosaic which at 3.5% was particularly good – so good that I had 2 pints and then went back the next day for another, which in these days of Untappd ticking is quite unusual. I also had the Nelson Sauvin which was naturally cloudy due to the use of Vermont yeast, a newish strain that makes the beer hazy but imparts flavours of mango and peach on top. This was also used in the Vermont ESB unsurprisingly, which was an excellent example of the style. I didn’t get to try the Citra IPA but heard it was very good. As for the guys and girls from the brewery, they seemed a nice bunch…I was particularly impressed by their commitment to making sure everything was tip top in their beers and not being afraid to throw away the brews that weren’t working, but even more so to their openness. This begins with them having all the malts, cloudwaterdoybklsls-593x363hops and yeast used listed on their bottles, to putting the recipes and techniques used on their blog for anyone to read, which as a home brewer is quite fascinating. Here is a link to the one for the first version of their Double IPA
So I think 2016 looks like an exciting year for the brewery as they consolidate their successes and look to expand on their ‘Drink Fresh’, ‘Small Batch’ and ‘Hibernate Range’. I did say at one point that drinking their beers says a lot more about the brewery than I ever could, but if this has piqued your interest in finding out more I suggest that you check out their website, and urge your local publican and bottle shops to stock their beers if they don’t already do so…I don’t think you’ll be disappointed