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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