100 Best Breweries

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Craft Beer: 100 Best Breweries in the World, published by Future Publishing and written by Chris Hall, Matt Curtis, Leigh Linley, Ruari O’Toole and Craig Heap recently hit the shelves. 100 Best Breweries. 100. Best. Let’s think about that for a moment.

What is a best brewery, exactly? What does it look like? Can you touch it? Would you know one if you saw one? Sure you would. Sit yourself down with a pen and paper, a few beers, and you could easily write a list of the best 100 breweries. That’s your list. Now show it to your friend, compare with his list. Suddenly bottles are being smashed against table edges, beer mats are being throwing like shurikens and there’s 100 best body pieces flying across the bar.

The killing of the poet, Christopher Marlowe

The original writing team was eight strong. Only five of us survived that initial putting together of the list. That was Day One of the project. Craft Wankers were quickly beginning to look like an endangered species. We knew we had to do something if we wanted to see it through. So we begged. We got on our hands and knees.

“Please, Mr Future Publishing, you gotta call it something else, like 100 Very Nice breweries!”

Mr Future leered down from behind his desk and spoke in that way 1930s gangsters do, “Nyah, boys! “Nice” don’t shift the copies, see! It’s gotta be “best”, see! You just write it, we knows what’s best for the publishing side!”

The division of Future Publishing that handled bookazines is now sadly out of business. At night I wonder if we killed them, with our relentless copy about obscure breweries in China that they then had to sub-edit and source imagery for. I heard a rumour they lost a photographer out in the Czech Republic. It’s a curious thing, print media, a lumbering beast with a slow turning circle. So slow, in fact, there are breweries that have come so far in such a short space of time that I questionif I would have put them forward had we done the project this month, instead of a few months ago.

Whatever the hell breweries are on it, it’s an interesting list. When Chris and I did “365 Best Beers”, we knew not everyone would agree with all of our choices. Still, when there’s 365 of them and you see one you don’t like, you can just shrug it off and move on.

Breweries, however, are a whole different kettle of hops. These are the gleaming, steaming furnaces of sweat and toil, where brewer’s dreams are poured into mash tuns and raw hope is fermented into liquid victory or bland defeat. Everyone has a brewery they love, that one brewery that never fails to turn out beers that always sing sweet songs to our tongues, and woe betide anyone who puts together a list of best breweries that doesn’t include it. (The opposite is also true, of course; we all have that one brewery we hate, who exist solely to assault our palates with beer that tastes like Satan’s froth, and woe betide anyone who puts together a ‘Best Breweries’ list that includes that brewery!)

So, if you read 100 Best Breweries, you’re going to react in one of three ways, probably:

1)      “I love that brewery!” You like our choice. You love [insert brewery name here], you think [insert brewery beer here] is one of the best beers you’ve ever had. Go us, go you, and go [insert brewery name here]! High five.

2)      “What?! You chose tweedle-dee brewery! But what about tweedle-dum brewery! They’re clearly far superior!” Before the red mist can settle you’re abusing us on Twitter for our crimes against beer. That’s cool (@craigheap by the way).

3)      “Huh, never heard of that brewery”.

The third point is the most telling, I think. With over 1,100 breweries in the UK, and over 2,500 breweries in the US, let alone the untold thousands worldwide, compiling a list of 100 of the best breweries (that everyone can agree on?!) actually seems impossible when you take a step back.

Why not just do 100 Best UK breweries? Oh, the publisher intends for this to be sold in the US & UK? Okay, split the difference, 50 British and 50 American breweries? Oh, the publisher received angry calls at 4am from rowdy Australians the last time they did that (how did 365 Best Beers end up in Australia?) – fair enough. 100 Best Breweries from across the world it is then.

With the global scale as a template, it then came down to representation of significant beer drinking and producing nations. The main areas we drew from fell to Belgium, the Czech Republic, Germany, Great Britain and the United States; after that, we began to cast our eye to hotspots and emerging regions. We discovered plenty of piping hot craft beer scenes that were achingly close but not quite there yet. If this bookazine-thingy had been written just a little later down the line you can bet that list would be radically different in order to reflect the evolving form of the global beer scene.

So forget the title. Relax. They’re just some very nice breweries. Together they form a sort of mosaic of the world beer scene – displaying where it has come from, where it is now, and where it’s going in the near future.

If an agonising, blow by blow account of how this sort of thing is put together interests you, then head over to Matt Curtis’ blog post, while Chris Hall’s post actually tells you more about what you can find inside it. It was a pleasure working alongside Matt, Ruari and Leigh, as well as returning to work with Chris, who also felt my relief at having some of the pressure taken off. That first project very nearly put me in the hospital…

100 Best Very Nice Breweries is available from WH Smiths and online. For the money you would do better with the print version, it may be a dying art form but that’s exactly what it looks like – art. But hey, I’m sure it looks great in hi-def on your iPads and whatnot. Finally, feel free to send in your own “Best 100 Breweries” lists – if we can all put down the broken bottles for just a moment, it can be quite a fun exercise while enjoying a few beers. Email them, post them here in the comments, or relentlessly bombard my Twitter stream – one Tweet per brewery – until I go mad. Better yet, drive past on a moped shouting through a megaphone like that dude from Modern Toss. It’s all good. Enjoy.

The Waterguard (Cardiff)

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The Waterguard is probably the least likely looking Samuel Smith’s pub in Britain. The Tadcaster brewery owns around 200 public houses, most in the north of England but with a few scattered along the M4 corridor and a couple in Scotland. Samuel Smith’s sticks hard to old fashioned values, with their own cooper, open slate fermenting vessels and horse-drawn drays still being used at the Old Brewery. This appetite for the old fashioned also extends to their pubs, many of which have a distinct Victorian feel to them.

IMAG0926IMAG0925Their houses range from fantastic gin palaces in the heart of London to seedy, back alley boozers in Leeds. Regardless of location and grandeur, or lack of, they always have a brown quality, ‘like the inside of an old teapot’, to quote from Withnail & I. The impressive, castle-fronted Waterguard with its Yorkshire rose flag flying high from the turrets seems no different when you first step in past the imposing oak door and into the brown front room.

This room, and the one immediately to the right, formed the offices of the Surveyor and the Chief Preventive Officer of the Cardiff Waterguard. Along with the sturdy leather benches and irongrated fireplaces, you could almost expect to see Her Majesty’s Preventive Officers greeting you gruffly as they pour loose leaf tea into chipped china teacups.

These rooms and the castle fronting once formed part of the original Waterguard castle in Cardiff Bay, originally built at Roath Dock in 1853. From here, the Preventive Men of Customs & Excise would head out onto the docks and search incoming vessels for contraband. In 1993, during the redevelopment of the Bay, the entire building was loaded onto the back of a lorry and moved 140 metres to its present location.

In 2001 the building became a Sam Smith’s pub; however, the cosy offices of the Waterguard wouldn’t have made a very sizeable pub by themselves and so a much larger extension was built on the back of the castle. This is where the iconic brown Victoriana suddenly vanishes as you step out of the front chamber and into a vast room that’s bright and airy, with steel columns supporting the high-ceiling and a huge glass back wall overlooking the BBC television studios across the docks.

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The back also overlooks a good sized patch of grass, shaded by a few trees and surrounded by the water’s edge. To the left there’s an impressive lightship and to the right there’s a kid’s play area. The Waterguard doesn’t own this patch of land and often pins up notices asking you not take drinks out beyond the edge of their narrow beer garden. All the same, when the sun is shining, the kids are restless and other folk fancy a refreshing beer, the entire area is quickly annexed by Waterguard customers. It almost has the picturesque ideal Orwell wrote of in his essay Moon Under Water.

After a long and well-fought Great British Beer Festival, I once came to this ‘beer garden’ and nursed my shattered body back to health with sunlight, a copy of Beer Magazine and a bottle of Taddy Porter. Although I was still in the heart of the city, the Bay, and especially this pocket, has the quality of seeming like a much quieter coastal town at times.

The drinks are another aspect of Sam Smith’s quirkiness. Everything they sell is solely their own, brewed at the Old Brewery in Tadcaster. Anything else they can’t produce, such as spirits and soft drinks, is produced specifically for them, and sold under branding you won’t see elsewhere. There’s not a guest ale on sight in a Smith’s pub.

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The range varies from pub to pub but generally they try to cover all the bases in terms of cask and keg, while the bottles are less predictable. The Waterguard has Double 4 Lager, Alpine Lager, the Wheat Beer, Best Bitter and Stout amongst its line up, but no mild.

Sam Smith’s pubs have earned their reputation and a core of dedicated customers through two things: consistency and value. They almost all look like ‘old man pubs’ (yet with individual character to separate them from the JD Wetherspoon chain-look), selling the same range of drinks in what is typically excellent condition – I’ve never had a bad pint in a Sam Smith’s pub -  and all at knock-down prices.

In the north, you can buy a round of three pints for a fiver and still have change for your piggy bank. The Waterguard isn’t in the north, though. Whether due to transport costs, high rates for being a modern building in Cardiff Bay, or slapping on a tourist premium, the Waterguard more-or-less prices like a normal pub, though many of the bottles cost around a fiver.

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There’s something about the ambience of a Sam Smith’s pub that cries ‘neutral ground’. Here you can find all walks of life – there’s no debate over whether it’s a hipster hangout or a boozer “just for locals” (and-heaven-help-you-if-you’re-not-a-local-and-you-walk-in-there!); in a Sam Smith’s pub you’ll find the old soaks drinking side-by-side with office workers, students and young parents.

The Waterguard draws less of a diverse demographic due to its far-flung location, but you’ll still see a couple of regulars alongside media types from the BBC studios and workers from the Welsh Assembly, with tourists passing through.

They sell food but I’ve never eaten there, and there’s a darts board but I’ve never used it. The Bay is an excellent place to walk a dog, particularly along the Barrage, but in spite of this the Bay pubs don’t seem to tolerate dogs. The Waterguard did allow us to bring in Sam, a Labrador we were dog-sitting one time, providing he stayed confined to the front section (yes, the part that is essentially an antique, rather than the easily wiped-down glass-and-chrome part). IMAG0928

The staff personally didn’t mind about the dog and came over on flimsy pretences of wiping tables and neatening chairs so they could stroke and play with him – it was a better response than the cold shoulder another Bay pub gave us ten minutes earlier. (Note: I recently discovered a sign stating they’re dog friendly, so maybe this now applies throughout the pub.)

The staff have always been decent at the Waterguard; a touch more relaxed and friendly than their counterparts over at the other pubs in the Bay. This is perhaps down to the volume of trade – the Waterguard ticks over at a steady pace, except in summer when the beer garden draws in the masses, while the other pubs have more footfall and a seemingly higher staff turnover.

It’s an uncommon pub in an uncommon part of Cardiff; one that is often overlooked compared to noisier neighbours elsewhere in the Bay or the City Centre, but perhaps benefits because of this.

Red Harvest: Brewday AG#1

Red Harvest Watermelon Wheat Beer

1kg wheat malt
1kg lager malt
250g carared

10g Saaz @ 60 mins
10g Saaz @ 10 mins
15g Saaz @ 0 mins

2.6kg watermelon flesh (original weight of melon 3.6kg) @ 0 mins

Wheat yeast
Campden tablet to treat the water

(Brewed on 06/04/14 – Recipe is designed for 10 litre BIAB batch)

The original concept was a melon wheat beer, made with watermelon and galia melon. Two main changes occurred along the way.

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Firstly, I pondered the name for a while. I’m a big fan of hardboiled fiction and film noir, so you may come to notice a trend with the way I name my beers. It struck me that Red Harvest, a novel by Dashiell Hammet (author of the Maltese Falcon) sounded good for a wheat beer and I vaguely recalled that red wheat beers are a thing. Not having any red wheat, but some leftover carared from the ruby ale homebrew competition, I decided I would throw some carared into the grain bill to give it a red colour.

Later on, but before brewing the recipe, I learned red wheat is actually a winter variety of wheat; it has more protein, so lends a fuller, richer taste to wheat beer but assumedly with added haze. It isn’t actually red in colour. By this point though it was too late – I wanted Red Harvest to live up to its name. Therefore I threw in the carared I had left over from the ruby ale competition.

The second significant change was the melons. I have the Flavour Thesauraus by Niki Segnit, an excellent book for creating new recipes (intended for cooking but can also be applied to brewing), which states that galia and watermelon pair well. However, after I bought the watermelon and hefted the sucker I realised any more melon would probably be overkill – I took it home and it weighed nearly four kilos. Also there’s cost to consider, the watermelon cost me £4 (reduced from £5!) so I wanted to reign in the expense a little bit.

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Two nights before the brewday I hacked up the watermelon, scooping out the flesh from the skin and picking out each seed with the tip of a knife. Then I threw the chunks into a large stockpot, mashed them with a potato masher and gradually heated it up to 73c to pasteurize it. I wanted it pasteurized to kill off any wild bacteria that may exist in the fruit flesh. It also helped turn the large chunks into a soup-like consistency. The soup was then decanted into jars, tubs, whatever, and placed into the freezer – partly to prevent it spoiling before brewday, but also to help further break down the chunks.

fresh from the freezer: 2.6kg of frozen watermelon soup

fresh from the freezer: 2.6kg of frozen watermelon soup

After that, brewday was fairly standard. I aimed for 90 minute mash but failed and stopped at 75 – keeping a BIAB brewpot at consistent mash temperature is a damn pain. The semi-thawed melon was thrown in at flameout and from there it dissolved, with a just a few remaining chunks floating around the brewpot.

The other main change form the norm was the pitching rate – a standard yeast sachet is sufficient for 5 gallons, so I normally halve mine given that my batches are around 2 gallons; however, I didn’t see the need to keep half a wheat yeast sachet hanging around and given all the juicy, sugary watermelon kicking around I figured the pot would be better off with a whole sachet of yeast.

Cooling stage: the addition of the watermelon topped the wort up to a full 10 litres.

Cooling stage: the addition of the watermelon topped the wort up to a full 10 litres.

And that’s that. The OG came out at 1.040, which is at the low end for a wheat beer but clearly the addition of all that watery watermelon will have dropped the OG. Hopefully it’ll come out as a low strength, pleasantly refreshing thirst quencher in time for the summer.

New beers from Tiny Rebel

Fans of Tiny Rebel beers will be pleased to hear they’re launching three new beers. It’s been a busy old time down at Tiny Towers, with new kit being installed and further growth in the beer pipeline. I’m just going to share this announcement which appeared on their website recently:

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Triple Belgian Yeast Blend, Belgian Blonde Ale 6%

Not the catchiest name we’ve ever come up with but it does exactly what it says on the tin. Created on the back of Gazz’s slight obsession for yeast our latest beer is having its debut on tap at both Urban Tap House and The Craft Beer Co. Craft 100 festival simultaneously this Thursday 3rd April. As the name suggests we have used 3 original yeast strains that have been blended into one. The strains are – 1 Belgian Ale type and 2 Trappists! All sorts of delightful aromas and flavours are thrown out in this mash-up of yeasts.

One Inch Punch 3.9%

We released this little number 2 weeks back as a Tiny Batch Edition and it turned out to be our quickest selling beer to date, not just at the brewery but 360 pints were sold in just 3 hours down at Urban Tap House. So by popular demand One Inch Punch has made its way in to our gang of core beers and will be making its return to our beer list in two weeks time. This 3.9% session has been hopped and dry hopped with Mosaic and backed up with a bulky malt bill to give some body behind the punch.

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Sonic Boom 6.8%

We love IPA’s. We haven’t brewed a new IPA in ages. Let’s brew a new IPA! With Urban IPA and Hadouken already well established we had to sit down and have a serious think about this one. The result was a Red IPA, full of our house yeast flavour, a big malty backbone and hopped with loads of Citra giving it a generous bitterness……..simple, but very effective.

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BO’HO 5%

Somebody say BOOOO!!!! Yes, Bo’Ho is our 1st every lager. Not just any lager, it’s an Unfiltered Bohemian Lager that has been chillin in our conditioning tank for the past 4 weeks.

Like all authentic style beers we managed to source a traditional style Bohemian Lager strain to produce a beer with a decent malt back bone, fruity aroma and clean crisp finish. Traditional pilsner malt made up the majority of the malt bill whilst the bohemian Saaz hops being the flavouring hop.

Who ever said lagers couldn’t be awesome?

 

Who’d go to EBBC Dublin?

With June fast approaching we’re heading closer to the annual European Beer Bloggers Conference. In 2012 it was held in Leeds, last year in Edinburgh, and this year Dublin is the venue. There’s presently a lower number of attendees signed up than the organisers would like, hence their call to arms a few days ago.

There’s a healthy number of beer bloggers in Britain alone, you only have to spend a few minutes on Twitter to find that out, so it’s interesting that only approximately 28 people are showing as having registered so far (roughly 23 when you remove sponsor reps and organisers). There were already murmurs of dissent in the beer blogging ranks, with Beermack giving his reasons for dropping out over a fortnight ago, but it was that call to arms from the organisers which disturbed the shaky structure, bringing down the cool exterior of leading professional beer writers and spilling fury over the Twitterscape.

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The above concerns are mainly professional (ie not paying speakers) and don’t impact on rank and file bloggers and writers in quite the same way. The cost to individual attendees is relative once you take all factors into account, though it is certainly something to consider. The location has caused some unrest; Dublin isn’t a practical jaunt for everyone to make, though with the majority of Europe’s beer bloggers being based in Britain it’s a closer option than Prague or Munich. Truth be told I put forward a pitch for it to be held in Cardiff, a comfortable two hour train journey from London, but that’s another story.

There’s also the usual concerns about sponsorship from big brewers, namely Guinness/Diageo and Molson Coors. British beer bloggers love the underdog, we enjoy supporting one-man garage breweries and independent bars, so it can be a bit discomforting when we’re offered stipends and stipulations, and don’t get to see lots of independent Irish breweries at their best on their home turf. The lack of a live blogging session is particularly regrettable.

Whatever the cause of friction, dissent and unease, it’s not a problem EBBC hasn’t faced before. At last year’s event I spoke to someone who had done some advisory work for the organisers (Zephyr Adventures), and he intimated that Edinburgh 2013 barely came together – that event also had a low registration turnout up until the eleventh hour, when finally a late surge pushed the numbers to nearly 75.

Even during the success of 2013, it was openly stated that EBBC 2014 might never happen. So I was pleased when it was announced that it would be held in Dublin. It’s an event I’m looking forward to for several reasons, not least because each time I go could easily be the last, so I want to make the effort.

For me, living in the hinterlands of Cardiff, going to EBBC Edinburgh was a valuable means of finally putting Twitter handles to actual faces – it seems like there’s a craft beer party going down almost every day in London, so rare opportunities like EBBC are useful for, dare I say it, networking.

New drinking comrades were made and working partnerships were established. Recently I’ve collaborated on a magazine with people I met at EBBC Edinburgh – for me, that magazine (available from your local retailer soon) only came together because I went to Edinburgh.

In those three brief days I enjoyed Edinburgh’s best bars under the guidance of some its natives and residents. I ate haggis for breakfast, haggis for dinner and haggis for tea. I ate and drank up the culture. I saw Edinburgh’s beery underbelly at its finest. That’s something I hope to achieve with Dublin, a city I’ve never been to before but have heard so much about as a city of beer.

EBBC Edinburgh also introduced me to Scottish brewers that I rarely see in South Wales. Come on, think about this, how often do you see independent Irish beers in England or Wales? Whether they’re showcased at the conference or not, I will find those Irish beers in Dublin’s bars and pubs and learn their ways.

In spite of being nearly haggissed and beered to death, coming away from last year’s EBBC left me energised. All that talk of beer blogging felt like getting a power up – I wanted to write 10 blog articles a day. Sure, I didn’t manage that in the end, but there was a feel-good boost that lingered for months afterwards, and (hopefully) came through in my writing.

There are other reasons almost too many to list: meeting Garrett Oliver, drinking in the Hanging Bat, learning more about beer sommeliers, the Stewart Brewery tour, and so on. Lastly, for what it’s worth, EBBC Edinburgh 2013 was the forge where the term ‘craft wanker’ was cast. You can’t ignore that sort of legacy.

Don’t mistake this post for a call to arms. This isn’t an attempt to counter anyone’s anti-EBBC views, I accept that you have them; this isn’t an attempt to convince people to go, it’s your choice. I just want to express what I got out of last year’s event. I can honestly say I had a good time and I’d love to meet more of the beer blogging community – there are so many more Twitter handles that I’ve yet to put a face to. If you do come to Dublin EBBC then look me up as I’d love to have a drink with you.

Finally, let’s go out with a smile. Here’s a gem shown at last year’s conference:

<p><a href=”http://vimeo.com/64558227″>GBW – SHIT BEER GEEKS SAY</a> from <a href=”http://vimeo.com/user10842049″>GOOD BEER WEEK</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

A return to Rapture, Cardiff’s first underwater bar

The barman holds the glass to catch the last precious drop of Poseidon’s Tears from the keg font. The 18% Black IPA has been pumped in from the van Klomp Brouwerij in Belgium, along three hundred miles of pipeline to the Rapture bar just beneath Cardiff’s waters. Every inch of that pipe has been stuffed with fresh hops, making it the world’s longest hop rocket. At £340 per half it may be expensive but the packed out drinking establishment is testament to how far Cardiff’s first underwater bar has come since it opened on 1 June, 2013.

My initial meeting with Andrew Ryan, the bar’s founder and creator, was a chance encounter and so too was the last. The normally dynamic individual, often seen charging around to attend to the minutiae of every business matter, was strangely thoughtful as he looked out from the thick glass window of his bar across the seascape of the Bay.

Any normal man might have been worried at the sight of construction going on just over the way, but Ryan merely smiled and stroked his moustache. “I thought it would take them longer,” he announced to me from across the bar. “The parasites have come to feast on what the Great Man has built.”

I looked around for a convenient excuse to leave. Ryan’s self-aggrandising speeches had a tendency to go on for a bit, or end abruptly when they were about to become interesting. At £340 per half pint though I was in no rush to abandon my glass of Poseidon’s Tears, and it was really was exquisite, so I stayed.

“Brain’s are building their Aqua Nova pub right over there. They can see me, and still they have the audacity to call it the Bay’s first underwater pub. They’re all flocking in now. Punch Taverns are opening the Punch Bowl; they claim that will be a self-contained dome! Wetherspoons are making a fleet of Wethersubmarines! Others will follow.”

“You seem rather pleased by all of this, Mr Ryan. I thought you came to the bottom of the sea to escape the, er…”

“The parasites, and the beer bloggers, and the regulations!” he whirled on me, foam flecked around his lips. “I did, and I’ll do it again. Their bar won’t be open until Summer 2015,” Ryan jabbed a finger at the distant construction crew of the Aqua Nova, “and by then I’ll have a chain of moon pubs!”

“And where will you go when Brain’s copy that? Or JD Wethermoon’s, perhaps?”

Andrew Ryan’s eyes glazed over in shock; this was the first time I’d ever known him to be stunned into silence. Just outside the window, an underwater construction worker was jumping over a shark. Whether it was that or the prospect of being followed into space that had silenced Ryan, I wasn’t sure; either way, I used the rare opportunity to down my drink and leave.