Big Beer

big_beerI love traveling to Belgium, Italy, Denmark and the US for amazing “big” beers, whether by the nature of beer geek’isms, or US craft beer gaining a following in the UK, we have a growing band of UK brewers who’re willing to have a go, whether to show that they can do it too…

Of course you’ll have all heard of Thornbridge, Stephano and Kelly up there in beautiful Ashford on the Water are brewing up a storm of great beers, the Bracia, Alliance series and of course the excellent Jaipur IPA. They don’t only brew Big Beer, look out for their Ashford, a particular fave of mine.

We are of course blessed with many many brewers in this country, some, if not many, who focus on the classic British cask ale. And, long may they continue to do so, as sure as shit there ‘aint quite nothing like a pint in your local of fresh locally brewed ale.  (Gadds’ Number 7 hitting the spot for me, recently, given this amount of sun we’re having here in Kent.)

But, there are times when a really big beer, nails it.    You can’t say it’s only a cold weather style, because the 75’F of San Diego, big hops, big malt and all that comes with it, just hit’s the spot as a sundowner.   Of course you could go with a few Levitation or Yuseff’s excellent Calico, which is often a livener, after killing a day in the sun – call it rehydration?.  But, then San Francisco isn’t as warm as San Diego, and they looooove big hops.    The Danes love big hops and bigger imperial stouts too.  So, is it just because we, as Brits, put simply like to have a few before the alcohol kicks in?

So who brews big beer in the UK?

You have a look through the rosta of brewers willing to have a go, Thornbridge, Lovionds, Gadds, Moor… not just the equipment, the actual brewers, is it because they are all from outside, or have lived outside the UK?

Back in February, I was talking to a young American brewer, who’d interned as a brewer in the UK, he was scathing about the brewery he used to work at, that they never brewed any thing over 4.5%, whereas now he’s back in the Bay Area, his lightest beer is 4.5%…  Of course we’re all aware that alcohol doesn’t equate to flavour, balance and grace across ones tongue.  But aren’t there times when a bit of hop agression, malt succulence or aroma whallop hits the spot?

Spending time around many beer drinking friends, they love a beer that really grabs them, the experiential beer has a real place on their loves and likes of beer, as much as the more quaffable?

I suppose the brewery that gets plaudits, and some knockers, is Moor.   JJJ IPA is a really big beer, at 9.3% and enough hops to make 3 batches of a straight pale ale, you might say it’s hoppy! (With nearly 700 kg of malt and over 11.5 kg of hops) They went through problems making it, killing a pump on the first batch.    JJJ actually “goes beyond the it’s just a Ratebeer beer…” , the awards it garners don’t just come from the standing and desirability it has on Ratebeer. In case you haven’t heard, Somerland Gold won Bronze and JJJ IPA won Gold for the second year running at the Maltings SIBA southwest festival – judged by Brewers, Landlords and CAMRA commitee types/members. These awards are amazing, but the real buzz was the very enthusiastic response from the crowd when the JJJ award was announced. Clearly there was a lot of love in the room, Justin wants to thank everyone dearly for it.

This is one big beer. Actually, forget the ABV, which is just a by-product of the craziness that. James and Josh, two young dynamic beer literate chaps from the awesome Queen’s Arms, Corton Denham, and Justin Hawke (hence JJJ) have a shared passion for great beers and were lamenting the lack of true big American IPAs in the UK. So they decided to brew our “own version of heaven”. Double IPA was just not good enough – they really wanted to brew a triple IPA. “Triple the gravity, triple the colour, and more than triple the hops“.  Deep copper in colour, over the top in aroma and flavour, but somehow still remaining (somewhat) balanced, this beer is not for the faint of heart. “And if you don’t like hops, don’t even think about it.

Having brewed beers of similar, and heavier – both on my garage system and Triple Rock, Berkeley – this is no mean feat – especially on a system not really best suited for this mass of ingredients!

I recently travelled down to hang out with Justin, James and Josh, as I have done on previous occasions… such a long way to Somerset from Kent, especially when they decide to shut the M25 or M3.   Justin brought out a melange of great hoppy beers, from the US, Denmark and Belgium (yes, their slowly figuring hops out in there!)   Amongst the collection was a 1 year old bottle of JJJ IPA, that had been stored in fridge like conditions from the first batch.  Awesome was an understatement.   It was up there with big hoppy monsters from San Diego!

Funny, writing this, remembering how I first came to know JJJ IPA, actually be introduced to it.   There is a local beer fest, almost the “Extreme BeerFest” of the UK; Dover Festival of Winter Ales, AKA WhiteCliffs beer fest.   Ian, of, an old friend, had arrived early.  By sight he’d been through the range of beers, promptly berated me for my tardy arrival, then jammed a glass of “taste this!” in my hand…    I was left with a wow moment, are they bringing American IPA’s to Dover now?   Nah, can’t be I thought.   Still a few goes more and this was certainly a rare treat.   Excellent we announced.    The week following I was in San Francisco, for a series of events, one the awesome Double IPA fest at the Bistro, in Hayward.  The JJJ IPA would have held up reallllly well there, in fact I would think it would draw far more plaudit there than here.

For me, beer has always been a mater of horses for courses, nothing quite like an ice cold bottle of Flag Special in Marakesh night market, where sticky black imperial stouts would be completely insane, and reading Mark Dredge’s post on his blog about beer, taking them abroad… A sneaky bottle, I can understand too. (Greece isn’t known as a craft beer hotspot, but I am sure with people like Alex down there things will change.)

In the same instance, I love milds, “ordinary” bitters and the modern bright hoppy pale ales, championed by Oakham and Darkstar et al.  But, I also love those big brassy american hop bombs, so, to get one made here like JJJ is such a great treat.    I hear from Josh and James that the locals down there aren’t intimidated by the 9%, I guess from the weight they drink in cider…?!

For gods sake, Imperial Stouts and Barley wines originally came from this country!  don’t fear them, embrace these modern brews… do you want it to get like Cricket…?  (thinking it’ll be a great series, very close… )

Watch this space, (and twitter) for early announcements of the JJJ IPA arrival, along with Old Freddie Walker and Somerland Gold


3, maybe 4, Breweries to keep an eye on… #1

Rather than a predictions post – I am usually a wee bit to far ahead – but, here’s number 1.

I am doing this in no particular order, in some sense this might take me a while. We need breweries in the UK, with brewers who know how to brew world Class beers.

I am sure that the majority of the readers of this blog will have heard of Thornbridge, Oakham, Marble, et al. These guys are making some of the most exciting beers in the UK. Add Kelham Island, Roosters, Durham, and a couple of other brewers – we are starting to get a number of breweries that know how to produce great beers! I do suppose some of it is driven by travel, experiencing beers brewed in more competitive environments. The time frame of those breweries emergence is somewhat distorted by the listing, but that’s not the point… just they are breweries who are doing some interesting things.

(Putting my brewing hat on, we are so stuffed by Tax barriers in the UK, we do miss out on the possibilities of big beer, or long aging in barrel, hell even the Hop Growers and Maltsters would aprove – brewing bigger beers… C’mon, mr DutyPerson… get back to reality, allow our brewers to be creative. I am well aware that the taxation is what makes our beers distinctive; low alcohol, balanced flavours )

I tend to shy away from beers, who’s labels espouse hoppiness, balance, smooth; probably the biggest indication of blandness. I love flavour. And this is a brewery that knows how to do it!  Bringing a real new world complexity to British Cask Ale.



Some history:

I was first introduced to this breweries beers by a good friend, Ian Harrison, of Pubs and, at the Dover Beer Festival, 2008. I sort of knew of them for their very nice winter warmer Freddy Walker, a major award winner from way back. But the beer that I was introduced to was, JJJ IPA. A monster of a hoppy beer – when first sampled, massive hops, tangerine, citrus, and complimented with a monster of a malt body… so unusual for a UK brewery… this Imperial IPA developed a cult following, with some of the best ratings for UK beers on the internet. And he gained a reputation for leading some of the most informative and entertaining beer tastings around. Some of his beers have been called extreme, either because of high hopping or alcohol content. But the truth is that he won’t drink bland, boring beer – and neither should you! He brews beers to dazzle your taste buds, not just to pour down your neck. I had to investigate further. I vanished in to the blue yonder straight after the beerfestival to San Francisco. But, this beer was still in my head when I returned. I had been to the Double IPA festival at the Bistro, Hayward, and I was certain that this beer would have held up along side notable beers like UberHoppy, Denogonizer, and HopSalad – and Dreadnaught.

Further investigation was needed, Seemingly that he’d been growing quietly off the radar. After exchanging emails – it became obvious that Justin Hawke is Californian, explaining the liberal use of Chinook, Cascade, Centennial hops, whilst still keeping one eye on the UK beer scene – and what the local drinkers actually want.

He won several more major awards, including 3 medals and the overall runner up at last year’s Maltings Beer Festival for JJJ IPA. Not content with a broad portfolio of beer styles and awards already, they added a new beer, Hoppiness (6.5%), at the end of the year which is another over the top IPA in Justin’s native California style. The brewery is investing heavily in 2009, both in personnel and equipment. For those unable to head to Somerset to taste the beers, they will be bottle conditioning them by hand in the coming months.

A recent ‘phone conversation “ I’ve added a new beer to my permanent portfolio called Hoppiness (6.5%). One day I may actually get back to brewing session strength beers that I can sell to pubs! Feedback so far from landlords has been pretty amazing. I’ve heard “the best beer I’ve served at my pub,” “the best beer I’ve had in a year,” “customers say it’s the best beer they’ve had in their life.” I finally got to taste it at a pub last week and must admit that I was pretty blown away. I guess you would classify it as a California style IPA, but with more malt and ester flavours. It’s definitely got plenty of hops, but isn’t an over the top hop bomb. I think you’d like it.” damn,… save me some!

The now award winning brewer Justin Hawke, finally completed his acquisition of Moor Beer at the end of 2008, which saw the end to another very successful year.

Congratulations and onwards!