As we enter 2015, I thought it might be appropriate to look back at the brews I’ve enjoyed and reviewed for The Brewclub during 2014, and maybe look forward to the new year.
It’s been a great year for beers and brewing in the UK.
Yes, pubs are still closing at an alarming rate, but I frequently hear of specialist ‘craft beer’ bars opening. Brewdog now have seventeen bars around the UK and a further seven internationally, while Thornbridge now boast eleven pubs. Craft beer bars have opened at London’s Kings Cross and Euston railway stations, there’s a great bar on (and called) Platform One of Sheffield station in Yorkshire and one is planned for Manchester Piccadilly railway station.
Microbreweries continue to spring up. At the start of the century (just 14 years ago) there were 500 breweries across the UK, that number has nearly trebled, while in Essex (my ‘manor’ – imagine England’s answer to New Jersey) the number of microbreweries has grown in twenty years from just three to nearly twenty. This has been encouraged, surprisingly, by UK Government tax break that gives a 50 per cent discount on duty to those who brew less than 5,000 hectolitres (around 900,000 pints) a year. Many microbreweries resist expansion beyond that break point, while some – like the aforementioned Brewdog and Thornbridge, along with others like Meantime – continue to expand, while remaining true to their craft beer roots.
And so to my Top Five beers of the year, and this year it’s been tricky. I’ve enjoyed some excellent brews, from modern craft breweries, mainstream breweries that are embracing new world hops, and some recreated classics.
Shepherd Neame IPA 6.1% ABV
A great recreation of a classic 1880’s IPA. Forget all your namby-pamby APA’s and hop bombs, this is a brew that a British Trooper somewhere on the North-West frontier, over looking the Khyber Pass would recognise as an IPA. It’s a glass of history from Britain’s oldest established (continously brewing) brewer – founded 1698.
“The flavour is initially metallic, but not unpleasant, with hints of caramel and biscuit underneath the hops. …It’s medium to full bodied, and frankly dangerous, there’s little to suggest that there’s 6.1% alcohol lurking in there.”
Truemans Export Pale Ale 6% ABV
Another recreation of a historic classic, this one from a resurrected brewery – Truemans – that can trace its history back to the Great Fire of London in 1666, albeit with a 15 year hiatus.
I know some purists can’t bring themselves to call the new brewery ‘Truemans’ but they seem to be doing the right thing, calling on former Truemans’ brewmasters and so on.
As I wrote at the time: “…the flavour doesn’t disappoint either, it’s powerful, there are heady hops to the fore, modern hops, despite the vintage of the recipe. There’s a solid, but subtle malt base, and the 6% alcohol lurks threateningly behind. It’s eminently quaffable, really refreshing and, with that 6% alcohol content, dangerous. I found myself reaching, all too easily, for a second.”
Marston’s New World Pale Ale 4.1% ABV
This one was a very pleasant surprise, not least because it was delivered by the beer pixies, courtesy of those nice people at Marstons.
“The flavour starts with those new world hops, up front and tickling your palate. There’s tropical fruit in there; melon, peaches and pineapple, with pale, but old school, malt backing up those hops, providing a reassuring sense of stability. It’s not a ‘craft beer hop-bomb’ but nor is it an old man’s bitter. As such it serves as an excellent bridge between old-school and hip. The more I drink this, the more I enjoy it.”
This brew reassured me that traditional breweries (Marstons trace their history back to 1890) can successfully embrace modern hops, a great balance between the old and new.
Green Flash West Coast IPA 8.1% ABV
A modern classic which, at the time, I gave 4½ Brewclub Stars, and but for the punitive cost of this 8.1% brew it would have been 5 stars, I described this as “‘extravagantly hopped’ and with Casacade, Centennial, Citra, Columbus and Simcoe hops in the mix that’s extravagant both in style and volume. That said, it’s well balanced, not a ‘hop bomb’ by any stretch of the imagination. And at 8.1% ABV it deserves to be treated with a degree of respect.”
Celt Experience Seven Flowers Double IPA – 8.1% ABV
Another modern classic, and again a potent brew at 8.1% ABV which I awarded the full five Brewclub Stars – “A brew comprising seven different hops (Cascade, Citra, East Kent Goldings, Hallertauer Hersbrucker, Simcoe, Tomahawk, and Warrior) was concocted with over sixty ‘hop interventions’ and ‘Seven Flowers’ Ale, brewed to a hearty 8.1% ABV was the result.”
Courage Imperial Russian Stout – 10% ABV
Another resurrection, of a classic, if not the classic, Imperial Stout, tracing its heritage back to 1869 or thereabouts.
“The flavour is rich and warming, ideal for a chilly Russian night. We’re talking coffee, ristretto coffee, no namby-pamby espresso here, and hints of the darkest, purest chocolate.
This is the real deal, again with hints of tar and resin, there are chocolate, amber and pale ale malts in there with, copious quantities of Hersbrucker and Styrian Goldings hops.”
Another glass of history, and another five Brewclub Stars.
My beer of the year? No, sorry, it’s too close to call, there have been so many epic brews. But many of these brews are difficult to source, while my local pub (and supermarket) now stock the Shepherd Neame IPA, so I find myself drinking that more frequently than the rest.
As to the coming year, I have a very special Truemans brew, along with a set of Brewdog’s ‘Russian Doll’ brews on my shelf – ‘Russian Doll’ is a set of four beers brewed using the same malt and hops, but brewed to different strengths and styles, there’s also a set of ‘varietal’ brews, each made using a single hop, and some brews from my local brewery… plus whatever I can find in my beer fridge, or at my local brew-mongers.
It’s looking like it could be another interesting year!