“Craft Beer” = Permission To Err?

It struck me that we in the UK hadn’t had the navel-gazing debate of what constitutes “craft beer” for a while, so I, while quite literally gazing at my navel in the shower, had a revelation.

Would a definition of a “craft brewery” be one that is allowed to make mistakes and not be lambasted or lampooned for it? Would such a definition allow for the creativity, openness and experimentation inherent in bringing an industry forward, which is what craft beer at its best does?

Hear me out on this.

I’ll break this down into three categories, in which errors and how they are both managed and perceived play a role. These are Openness, Experimentation and Authenticity of Voice.

Let’s treat these in turn.



As per Jonny’s excellent post on social media employed by UK breweries, openness is a huge selling point for the smaller breweries gaining respect and retaining traction. When things don’t go to plan, openly communicating it and taking the financial hit of any recalls or reclamations proactively rather than after being called out on is, for me, a mark of a “craft” brewery.

I am more than aware that breweries exist in a capitalist society as enterprises needing to generate revenue to remain in business. But there’s a social capital aspect to craft brewing that stems from wearing your heart on your sleeve. Coming out and saying your beer is sick and should get better with time is one way of being open. Another one is not hiding behind “trade secrets” but rather sharing knowledge in the knowledge that more good beer is better for the world. What Jonny calls the blurring of a personal and business account blends into the third category of authenticity of voice, but plays a role in this openness category too. If you can feel that a brewery is open and honest, much like a brewer can be when you meet them, you will appreciate their craft all the more.


This is where errors and mistakes and how they’re handled really come to the fore. There isn’t a person who’s “into beer” who doesn’t respect Dany Prignon of Fantome for what he does. Is it always a success? Is it hell. There’s a reason you “spin the wheel of Dany” even with a known variant of his ever-inventive saison. He admits to errors, but couches it in an incredibly candid statement: “pas TROP commercial!“.

Experimentation is at the very heart of craft brewing. Who would have thought a few years ago that the conventional wisdom of “you have to put bittering hops in to your beer at the start of the boil” would be so completely upended by the wave of New England brewers and their worldwide imitators? As such, a craft brewer should be able to try something new and untested, and hold their hands up if it doesn’t work, while providing details on the process they took. Think of it as the scientific method, but for brewing, brought crashing into a market ever hungry for new things. Although, that said, I’m not advocating for a fully open-source approach to recipe development – more a kind of “by the way, adding lactose to a Brett-spiked braggot that was aged on hedgehog nests in grappa barrels doesn’t work, if you don’t believe it, come try Trash Bear before we pour it out”.

If you take the opposite of “craft beer” to be “big beer,” craft beer talks about hop varieties leading to changes in beer, whereas big beer comes at you with polished, refined product that has gone through numerous focus groups and brand massagers, possibly ending up utterly bizarre.

It doesn’t have to be utterly out there and then coming to the buying public with Catholic-levels of apology, but rather a balance of trying new things and shooting for the stars with an admission of failure when things don’t necessarily pan out.

Craft beer is not a mature industry. It has matured a lot, as it would be expected to, but the barrier to entry remains fairly low, especially in Europe. As a conceptual category it’s ripe for open, experimental new entrants, who don’t necessarily have to get everything right every time. But they need to be open and genuine about their efforts in doing it.

Authenticity of Voice

For me, the strength of “craft brewing” is in the stories it tells. This figures into the sense of a voice of the brewery, whether it be playful, deadly-serious about its craft, or anything else. There’s a sense of dialogue, a talking “with” a craft brewer, rather than a one-way advertising communication of large-scale business. That means that honesty plays a role, and might require the admission of mistakes or inherent bias informing a brewer’s decisions.

Being smaller-scale, as many craft breweries are, also brings the day-to-day of production and decision-making closer to public scrutiny. Craft breweries can solicit opinions on branding, recipes, and so on, without appearing hapless or not knowing what they are doing. That said, having a solid branding and an identity is crucial in establishing oneself first of all, and critical in forming that sense of authenticity.

The best craft breweries have a voice that communicates with you, takes you along for a ride and makes you feel part of the excitement of what they’re doing. Going back to the relative immaturity of the industry sector, there is much to be excited about, and lots of people to engage with. Craft beer can – and should – be fun, rather than about absolutely polished image projection. Craft brewers are real people, and craft breweries employ real, honest, imperfect folk. Let those imperfections shine, I say.

Copenhagen Beer Celebration 2016

CBC LogoI figure a week’s recovery after this year’s Copenhagen Beer Celebration is enough to have some thoughts gathered about what went down. I’m aiming to have a set of impressions, both positive and not, both for personal comparison and for anyone thinking about attending the event.

Copenhagen treated us to some absolutely glorious weather pretty much throughout the long weekend. It’s a wonderful city, and hard to believe that as little as five years ago there was barely a beer scene there. Now the city still dominated by the presence of Carslberg is absolutely buzzing with fresh brewing ideas and places serving beer alongside hugely inventive food.

On the face of it, the concept of CBC is simple. Each brewery invited by Mikkel (of Mikkeller fame) brings two beers per session. When those beers run out, the brewery does not replace them until the next session. Attendees are free to wander and sample any beers to their hearts’ content. The price of attendance is steep, at about £50 per session or ca. £200 for all 4. Add to that the cost of travel and accommodation, and it’s definitely an investment. To do some false maths, did I have enough beer to warrant the price tag? In terms of pints, probably not. Indulge me here, but assuming that a Copenhagen pint is about £10, you’d have to have about 57 50ml festival pours during a 4 hour session to make up that cost. But, like I said, that’s false math. Where else in the world would you be able to have fresh Hill Farmstead beers under the same roof as choice picks from Boneyard, Surly and 18th Street? That’s got to have some value to it.

OksnehallenCopenhagen Beer Celebration is first and foremost a massive beer festival, but it seems like for the entire week preceding there were events that were at least equally as cool, geeky or interesting. There were tap takeovers from breweries at places like Fermentoren, and To Ol’s massive new venture Brus had its opening to coincide with the start of CBC.

The key piece of advice with regard to CBC in my opinion would be to pick your battles. In order to be in with a chance to try Dark Lord, say, you would have to get in a venue-length line that just didn’t die until the keg kicked. However, there are just so many insane beers available, being served with the people who made them present, that I didn’t feel hard done by not queueing up for it. If anything, I ended up having serendipitous discoveries instead! Similarly, I didn’t fancy lining up for an hour to be poured Hill Farmstead beers the night before the festival at Warpigs, and instead went to another bar around the corner from the meatpacking district for spectacular sunshine and lovely conversation.

Shaun Hill of Hill Farmstead

Shaun Hill looking a bit worse for wear

The crowd at CBC is intensely, intensely geeky about the beer. There are no hangers-on – the commitment to a specific session coupled with the price means that if you are at the festival, you want to be there. Everyone was super cool about it, and there was much sharing of knowledge, passion and of course glasses. The only blemish would have been an asshole who mouthed off at the Surly stand about how they hadn’t “brought any rare shit” and instead he could “go to the brewery and get cans of any of these”. He of course wouldn’t take Todd Haug’s word that none of the beers being poured at that session were available in can or that we were in Europe where there is categorically no Surly distribution!

Admittedly, this was my first year attending the festival, meaning I had not attended when the event was at the sports hall. Instead, Oksnehallen provided an airy, well-lit and open space which I think worked quite well, apart from it being quite loud.

Tired Hands Brewing humorWhat, then, could have used improving? Not a whole lot, overall. My biggest gripe was the fact that water was sold rather than being given away. I know Mikkel is a master squeezer of profit, but £5 for a 500ml bottle of water seemed steep. Just have some water fountains! Be a responsible host!

Kind of related, running glass rinsers with 20L corny kegs meant that they were constantly running out of water for rinsing. I get that the venue was only set up to be a beer festival temporarily, but a bit more infrastructure would have helped.

Obviously, the weather was entirely out of the hands of the organisers, but with 1500-plus people packed into a hall drinking small sippy cups as fast as they can, the sun on Friday meant that it got incredibly warm in the venue. More than once I had to just go outside and sit on the kerb feeling the breeze before braving the hall again. Some sort of air conditioning wouldn’t have gone amiss.

Mikkeller Bar Viktoriagade

The original Mikkeller bar

Would I go again? Yes, definitely. Would I stump up for an all-singing all-dancing all-session Pink ticket? Not so sure. That’s purely out of a sense of self-preservation, mind. Doing two full working days of sampling leaves you taxed both mentally and physically, not to mention the fringe events in the evenings! I’d like to enjoy the whole thing more, feel the vibe of the place. I’m not a beer ticker by any means, so not being able to try the kumquat tequila barrel imperial mild from Brewery Boogaloo at the Green session wouldn’t necessarily be the end of the world for me. At no point did I feel like my world would have been worsened by not getting to try a particular beer.


There were some true standouts, which made the experience incredibly awesome. Most of them being complete surprises to me helped! In no particular order, here’s a couple of choice picks from CBC 2016 to get you keen for the caliber of beer available:

Hill Farmstead Sumner
This 5.2% American Pale Ale is everything I love about beer in a glass. Like a blast of sunshine, apricots and cut grass, finishing dry and moreish. I said at the time that there was nothing I would change about the beer. Absolute pinnacle of the style. I went back a few times to the point where the volunteer pouring it just filled my glass.

Surly Pils
It’s a hot day. My friends are nursing fledgling sunburns. There is a cool breeze blowing outside. The Surly/18th Street/3 Floyds contingent are blasting out death metal from a portable speaker. I have a glass of Surly Pils hopped with Spater Select. It’s grassy, bitter, dry and refreshing. It’s exactly what the doctor ordered. A true set and setting moment.

Angry Chair German Chocolate Cupcake Stout
Who are these guys from Florida? Is this the most out there beer concept at CBC? (No.)

Incredibly rich. Like, stupendously so. Thick chewy mouthfeel, and slips down surprisingly easily. I have no idea how they made this, but it’s stuck with me since, being a massive fan of chocolate brownies.

Bokkereyder logoBokkereyder Pinot Kriek
Bokkereyder have precious little information about them out there. They did, however, have the best-looking stand of the entire festival, and were up for a chat which was super illuminating and almost worth its own post. Their beer was nothing short of stunning, and I feel privileged to have tried them, especially the Pinot Kriek. This deep, funky berry-filled beer had the depth of something like Lou Pepe kriek but with a bit of something else, something elusive. An absolute revelation.

Half Acre Double Daisy Cutter
Having got to try Daisy Cutter earlier in the year, I knew Half Acre had to be on my hit list at CBC. Double Daisy Cutter did everything an American double India Pale Ale should. It was bitter, it was sweet, it was juicy, it was aromatic and it was treacherously moreish.

Rare Barrel Impossible Soul
Another incredible experience was to have the brewers of the newest wave of American sour beer pour their darlings for you. Impossible Soul was a complex but incredibly mouth-drying experience, going to show that American Wild Ale is a distinct thing that has absolutely come to its own. Impossible Soul ended up having a bit of a miracle berry effect, as after swallowing it everything, including my saliva, tasted sweet.

Independent Manchester Beer Convention 2015

There are already multiple excellent writeups of this year’s Indyman Beer Con, but I thought I’d jot down a few thoughts mainly for personal reference if I ever would have to look into putting on an event at any scale. (Also, I seem to not have taken any amount of pictures of the festival, so I apologise for the text-heavy post)


The Victoria Baths just south of Central Manchester is a great venue for a beer festival, the sloping floor of some of the pools notwithstanding. The grand Edwardian surroundings have plenty of air in the main halls to not feel cramped, but also feature nooks and space for socializing. The key is to get the number of attendees to match the available space without the whole thing turning into a giant noise pit.

The distance from the immediate city centre surroundings worked really well too, meaning that it was a destination. You came for your session(s) purposefully, without distractions from around. However, it did mean that you were limited to the food offering on site, which while good, did clearly best work if you were at the festival for only a single session.


I may be in the minority in liking paying for the food stalls in tokens just like I did for beer, given that by Saturday the stalls were accepting cash as well. It was nice to know that I could get an amount of festival currency and not have to worry about change and someone taking card.

On the other hand, by and large the prices were quite steep. The general average price for a third-of-a-pint pour was (by my reckoning) two tokens, equating to £2. This worked great if the beer was something I would not be likely to see elsewhere, such as the excellent Against the Grain Brewery stuff, but for standard-strength UK stuff it wasn’t cheap. Special commendation must be made for Magic Rock Brewing for their £1 Simpleton pours, though!


I genuinely wish there had been a better way to communicate the events and any changes to programming. I know this comes back to the venue and its limitations, multiple rooms and outside space, but a man talking into a megaphone while the piped-in music still blasts at full volume was not conducive to getting attention.

I also have to critique the music. I know it’s incredibly hard to please everyone over the four days the festival was happening, but the live acts were in my opinion dire. While I love Dolly Parton covers as much as the next guy, a hipsterrific quintet with a vocalist who didn’t face the public and swayed like a stereotypical mentally-disturbed character in a movie while singing really didn’t grab anyone. Perhaps better suited to a basement bar, not a high-energy beer festival.

BrewDog doing a live brew outside on Sunday did attract attention, but I felt it could have used more of a platform (quite literally). It seemed a bit tucked away the way it was, next to the food trucks and marquee.



BrewDog’s brewer, Franz, will teach you about beer

I tried some fantastic beers over the weekend, and met some wonderful people involved in their making. I find this is the optimal way to run a festival – make sure that staff from your brewery are actually present and able to give you a run-down of the beers, knowingly explain your business ethos/history and share in the love of the beverage. The attending breweries were clearly chosen with care, but I found it strange that reportedly the festival organizers chose the beers to be exhibited from lists provided by the breweries. Surely the breweries themselves should get final say on what they showcase?

That said, I have to be honest and say that I found the inevitable “what beer(s) did you like most?” questions both during and after the festival incredibly difficult to answer. On the one hand, being summoned to try some “funky farm shit” from Brew By Numbers showing off some barrel-aged Belgian-style beers stood out, but I count those guys as friends. I was very impressed with Põhjala beers, with their stout being a standout, but while excellent, didn’t do anything new as such. I know this shows me off as a jaded hipster, but so be it. However, if you get your hands on any Magic Rock/Arizona Wilderness Cross-Pollination heather honey IPA, you can thank me later.


I can see why people raved about Indyman previously. I liked my first time going. The crowd is friendly, the brewers are in attendance, the venue is beautiful and intriguing, and the selection of breweries/beers is excellent. It’s not without its issues, but I would definitely recommend it even as is. That said, a full weekend of it left me wrecked for an entire week if not more afterwards, which is why I am only writing this now.

Other Half Brewing in London, 30 September 2015

I had a chance to collar Sam Richardson, one of the partners of Other Half Brewing, on the occasion of the Brooklyn brewery’s tap takeover at the King’s Arms on Buckfast Street at the end of September. After that brief candid chat, a few choice quotes stuck in my mind. Here they are, in no particular order, along with my thoughts.

“I don’t think the IPAs travelled particularly well. If I was to do this again, I’d have them flown over.”

This statement of candour from the person who made the beer was more than appreciated. Quite often, you get a brewery rep, excited about the prospect of opening or expanding a market, wax lyrical about the quality of the beer the punters are sampling. While around me London beer fans were sampling and complimenting the flavors of the various IPAs the pub had on from Other Half, I couldn’t help but think there was a certain muted characteristic to them, or a lack of balance. The double IPA, All That and Then Some, in particular had a harsh boozy heat to it that I wouldn’t expect from such a hyped brewery.

According to Richardson, the beers had arrived via normal channels, by definition spending about a month at sea. However, with the size of their production, getting enough kegs for an event of this type meant that some beers inevitably waited for some time before the full quantity was shipped out. Compared to the freshness of India Pale Ales in the United States, the difference was marked. At the same time, it highlighted the quality and freshness of IPA available from domestic producers in the UK.

“This isn’t a sales thing for us. It’s an excuse to get over here, see what’s happening.”

Other Half are a small brewery. They are not in a position to export outside New York state, let alone outside the United States. This one-off was as much a learning experience for the brewery partners and a chance to network as it was for us drinkers to get to try their beers. Richardson did mention that they had space in their marketing budget for events like this, and I am glad they chose to use it this way, as the beers were by and large very, very good. The wood-aged and sour beers, in particular, were absolutely stunning.

“I don’t go to the Great American Beer Festival anymore”.

The US craft beer scene is huge compared to anything that is happening in the UK. The fact that a brewer can choose to deliberately distance themselves from the hoolabaloo that is the spectacle of GABF and still gain a momentous following is encouraging to artisan producers who do (necessarily) court mass markets. The fact that in a country as brimming with fresh, innovative beers as the United States, a brewery that is less than two years old can make waves like Modern Times have is encouraging to everyone interested in beer. There is scope for cool things, and we can expect to see plenty, even with the consolidation and acquisition initiated by the big breweries.

Classy Nuance – A Sign of the Times

The beer scene in London has arguably never been as healthy as in 2014. Pubs previously catering to drinkers from the least-common-denominator supplier lists now have surprising amounts of locally-brewed bottles if not more unusual draft choices available too. Traditional bottle shops have expanded their selections to include breweries from the Bermondsey Beer Mile, and new specialist beer shops have opened around the city in the past 12 months.*

There are clear trends that breweries follow. While you can’t exactly pin these to calendar years, variations on saisons have certainly been a feature of 2014. Beavertown Brewery bust out canned versions of their hoppy Quelle Saison, The Kernel released various versions of their Bière de Saison (including a Burgundy-barrel aged, sour-blended one that hits like all the hipster credentials), Brew By Numbers really made a splash with their spiced saisons, and just to prove a point about the versatility of the style, Anspach and Hobday released a pfeffernusse-spiced saison as their Christmas beer.

Over the several years I’ve been involved in serious-level appreciation of beer, on various sides of the bar and brewery, a constant feature has been an American customer asking “Do you have anything hoppy?” meaning strongly-punchy C-hop-flavored IPA. Subtler, lower ABV English counterparts have rarely cut the mustard for them. Of course, there are breweries catering for that hop craving lovers of American craft beer may want to satisfy: Magic Rock’s Cannonball and Buxton’s lovely Axe Edge are just two examples. But while a new, small brewery might be expected to produce an IPA (because let’s face it, it is the style that defines “craft” beer more than any other, given the whole movement is aping recent American history) UK breweries can and thankfully do play with subtlety.

It’s that subtlety that I’d like to toast, and it’s saison I’ll choose to highlight, given it seems to bend every which way in its loose style categorization. We are lucky as drinkers in London to be able to not just have to endure hop bomb after hop bomb, but to have breweries making more measured, nuanced and balanced drinks which nonetheless lack nothing in flavor. If anything, by not shoving a drinker’s mouth full of hops they can be enjoyed for longer. It may even be a sign of a maturing of this newest wave of beer brewers, not to mention consumers, that they can take a style which relies on nuance for its character and create successful products.

So, in 2015, please do keep brewing crazy new beers. Please do keep brewing those C-hop IPAs so that our homesick (or stuck in their ways?) American friends can get their haaawp fix. Please keep consistency in mind, but brew one-off beers because why not. But please also showcase those more nuanced beers, beers of quaffable strength, beers with enough character to savour if wanted, but not required. Because in order to truly win over the market and their drinking habits, we can’t blow through our palates constantly.

*Full disclosure: I’m involved with one of these bottle shops.

Sunday Sessions with Thornbridge at the Draft House, London

The past Sunday saw the end of a pretty crazy week for me, but it ended in a wonderful fashion. I was absolutely wiped from the exceptional demand we’d had at the opening of BottleDog, which I’m now involved in running, and the goodbye party for a dear friend and ex-manager that went on far too late into the wee hours of Sunday. Still, I had booked myself for Sunday Sessions at the Draft House, which I have shamefully not been able to attend before due to my silly schedule of working 6-7 days a week for the past 18 months. I’ve come to know Max and Maire, the organizers of the Sessions, and I’m glad I could finally make it as I knew it’d be good.

It did help that one of my favorite breweries were the focus of the event. The mighty Thornbridge, brewers of classic English beers like Jaipur, Wild Swan and (Wild) Raven, paired with imaginative dishes spanning the range of beers they’ve made. I mean, a done deal doesn’t even begin to describe it.

Making me hungry again

Scotch Egg with rocket salad and a glass of Thornbridge Sequoia ale

Feeling decidedly tired, as alluded to in the first paragraph up there, I missed the billed start time of the event, but given that Max announced on my entry that the delay was entirely up to me and that we could now get started, I didn’t actually miss anything but friendly chat. My apologies to anyone and everyone.

Sunday Sessions are a cool thing, where the small and intimate venue of the Charlotte Street location of the Draft House is turned into a private venue on a day they are normally closed. “Why Sunday Roast when you can Sunday Session?” asked Max in his introduction to the afternoon. Everyone there was really keenly into the event, which is unsurprising given you have to book in advance and the thing regularly sells out far before the date.

The brewery members in attendance give a brief introduction to themselves and their work, and describe each beer in turn. Max, as the Master of Ceremonies, then explains the peculiar pairings by way of rapid-fire word and flavor association. “So in the Halcyon we have that tropical fruitiness, in that there is grapefruit, grapefruit and mango from the dish, complementing each other. You have a mass of sharp bitterness, so a dollop of coconut mayonnaise to balance it out – coconut to keep things tropical…” and so on. You can tell that he’s studied his flavor wheels and palate associations thoroughly, despite putting himself down as “just a beer person, not into food”. Then again, he’s not the one actually cooking on the day!

Crab Mango baskets

Crab Mango, paired with Thornbridge Halcyon

We started out with a bang, the abovementioned Halcyon (7.4%) paired with Crab Mango that was an absolute delight, complexly layered textures (crispness from the rice paper, soft and creamy mayonnaise, slightly chewy crab meat) and a zing that matched the beer well. Technical details about the hopping process of the beer were dished out by brewer Dom Driscoll, while descriptive patter was provided by sales guy James Buchanan. Their contrasting styles and approaches worked really well.

The atmosphere was super jovial and pleasant. There is nothing quite like the relaxed feel of Sunday drinking, when you’re not pressured to have Friday beers after a week from hell, or going all-out on a Saturday, dolled up to the nines. Instead, we were there both for the experience and for each other, united in our love of what beer and food could collectively be.

Scallops and Jaipur

Scallops wrapped in parma ham, served with seared asparagus and buttermilk. And Jaipur.

Dom and James entertained the crowd by mentioning how in their local vicinity, “Jaipured” is now an euphemism for someone excessively boozed up, and “Jaipoorly” is used for the aftermath of a night on their most popular beer. That can’t do anything but tickle egos in the best possible way. We made our way through a wonderful lamb’s meat scotch egg paired with the Sequoia amber ale, one of those beautiful thoroughly English comfort experiences that banish the dreariness of the climate and scenery away, wrapping you up in the warmth of a wood-panelled, low-ceilinged pub somewhere away from the world.

Dessert: Banana Cake with gin and sugar and Otto and omg

Dessert: Banana Cake with gin and sugar and Otto and omg

I won’t bore you with all the dishes, but will share how the afternoon came to a close: with a pairing of the Otto weizenbock (think banana, caramel, that sweetness on the outside of French toast, and cloves) with a banana cake, banana crisp and sugarwork along with a gin grattachecca (which was basically a slush puppie with booze). The banana cake wasn’t overly fruity, instead displaying the cinnamony, cardamomy spicey characteristics of carrot cake. Superb.

Can you tell I enjoyed myself, despite starting the day worse for wear? It cemented Thornbridge as a guardian of traditional styles in the UK (their biere de garde stood up to any Saison I’d ever had) and an innovator (Imperial Raspberry Stout, sheesh!) worthy of many an accolade. The Draft House events team deserves applause as well, given their attention to detail, capability of turning out quality dishes not uncomparable to stuff you’d see on Masterchef – and I don’t mean the preliminary rounds – and fearless championing of indulgent events of sipping on small amounts of beer while enjoying taster-sized morsels of things that made me go “I wish I had a bowl of that!” on multiple occasions.

Keep an eye on the usual social media channels and the Sunday Sessions website if you fancy going to the next one. You’ll more likely than not see me in attendance, swapping homebrew bottles with other nutcases like myself.