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.

However.

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.

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.

Getting Fresh

Fresh beer is good. While there are beers that can be aged, beer is at its best when it’s released by the brewer from the brewery. There are discussions underway in the UK about what constitutes “craft” brewing, spearheaded by BrewDog, and I think that quality aspect is a central one. A craft brewery takes pride in their product to the point of not wanting to put out a sub-standard batch, or a brew that isn’t quite done. Of course, commercial pressures being what they are, this is easier said than done, and no-one wants to dump an entire brew if it’s at all avoidable.

That said, the quicker you get a brew into your hands after it’s out of the brewery, the better. Hop aromas sing and jump out of your glass. The carbonation is zingy and zesty, and if the beer is bottle-conditioned, there is no fear of yeast death contributing flavors to make the beer taste off. That’s why I, and several other people, tend to avoid imported (often American) hoppy beers unless they are explicitly the freshest they can be. Pale, hoppy beers that are old taste muted, caramelly, and grainy. If you are in the UK and have tried an American import IPA and thought it unexcitingly sweet, that’s what you’ve had.

That’s why I was especially excited to see this fact about the Sierra Nevada tap takeover at the Craft Beer Company Islington on Monday 10 March 2014:

Now that’s fresh. I couldn’t wait to taste Torpedo like I tasted it back in California, zesty with Citra and punchy bitterness. The Torpedo you get in the UK has, more often than not, gone through who-knows-how-many hands before ending up on your supermarket shelf.

No, it’s not environmentally friendly in the least to air-freight kegs of beer. I know that, and was paying a premium (£5.95 for a half pint of Narwhal Imperial Stout) for the privilege. But it’s a rare treat. This isn’t something that they do all the time, and neither should they. There are incredible beers being produced locally in the UK, and those should be the beers of daily consumption.

Craft Beer Company Islington was buzzing if not full when I arrived at 6pm, but soon packed to the rafters with friendly faces. It got very warm very quickly indoors, and the respite of the beer garden/smoking area was minimal thanks to outdoor heaters being on full blast. Still, it made the beer go down an absolute treat!

Sierra Nevada’s Ken Grossman was present, and gave a short introduction to the company and the beers, thanking everyone who had come out on a Monday night. Turns out that the beers they shipped were in fact a second lot – the first had frozen on their way over the Atlantic because the company transporting them usually deals in frozen foods! But regardless, it was heartening to hear that Sierra Nevada too insist on refrigerated transport to keep the beer as fresh as possible. Lagunitas teamed up with Adnams last year to bring beers in large refrigerated tanks (essentially, conditioning on the way!) and got them to guarantee refrigeration to the point of dispense. Sadly, the kegs and bottles of Sierra Nevada that I’ve sometimes had in the UK have suffered of that last leg problem, having been kept in a warehouse or similar in ambient temperatures for too long. More breweries insisting on it for their export beers can’t be a bad thing, though.

What did I think of the beers, then? Torpedo was amazing, a zesty thirst-quenching belter of an IPA. Narwhal on draft was a real treat, and belied its 10.2% ABV by its silky-smooth body. I had not even heard of the Two-Headed Ruthless, the double/imperial version of Ruthless Rye, but it was an incredible beer that had all its components of rye spice, hop bitterness and malt toffee sweetness both prominent and in balance at the same time. A stand-out beer, and better than regular Ruthless which I’ve always found a little bit thin and lacking in the rye spiciness.

I have to give a special mention to Fyne Ales’ Jarl that my friend Stu bought when all the Sierra Nevada beers had run out (yeah, all gone on the night). Even to my lupulin threshold shift-addled nose, thinking “yeah, I guess this beer smells nice” more often than really getting a hop hit, was singing Hallelujah at the stink of hops rising out of the pint glass. I love that feeling, and that experience is also the inspiration for the name of this blog. Things are better with more Simcoe, generally. Not that Jarl, in particular, has any.

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