Here’s my terrible confession about the Pizza Port Tap Takeover at Cask Pub & Kitchen recently: I was a bit disappointed. The service at Cask, normally excellent, was a bit spotty on the night – at one point I saw four staff members walking about behind the bar, not one of them taking orders, from me or anyone else. In their defense, the place was busier than usual. So there was that. Then there was the beer. Pizza Port has been getting a lot of hype in Europe recently – but if you look at RateBeer (as a yardstick, not the final word), Pizza Port actually has relatively few top-ranked beer these days. Most that reach our shores come from the Carlsbad branch (Pizza Port is a brewpub/restaurant “chain” of sorts with four locations in Southern California) but if I got it correctly there was also a few from one of the other branch available, not sure which one. Anyway – I don’t think they’re as hyped in the US as they actually are here. And I don’t think they’ve actually earned that hype either.
The last leg of my Baltic journey about a month-and-a-half back took me to Lithuania. I’ve been there several times before and know and admire their beer culture. Even their macro brews are totally OK – all the major breweries make a decent porter and main Lithuanian brewery Svyturys won a couple of medals in the World Beer Cup recently, including a Gold in the Dortmunder/Export or German-style Oktoberfest beer category for their Svyturys Ekstra.
But the real reason to love Lithuanian beer culture is the profusion of local beers and breweries – I hesitate to use words like “micro” and “craft” as Lithuania so far is not at all influenced by the US beer scene but quite happy with their own brewing traditions. This inevitably leads to offerings being a bit samey – small breweries typically brew a lager, a dark lager, a porter and a farmhouse beer – often they all come in filtered and unfiltered varieties, and sometimes there’s a wheat beer in there, but that’s about it. But when these offerings are executed to a pretty high standards, it’s still OK – in my opinion, Lithuanian dark lagers are second to none, often a bit heavier and with a better mouthfeel than your typical dark lager, more akin to altbiers or schwarzbiers than plain dark lagers. And even though it gets a bit samey, some breweries have some delightfully oddball offerings. Two of my favourites are Vilniaus Alus, the only brewery in the capital, and Čižo Alus, a small family-run brewery (owner is Ramunas Čižo, a fourth-generation brewer – the family has been brewing on the same site since 1865). As breweries, they couldn’t be more different: Vilniaus Alus is more of a small-scale macro brewery that exports quite a lot of their brews to their neighbouring countries, whereas Ramunas Čižo makes only one beer that hardly makes it outside the lake Sartai area except for a few specialist pubs and restaurants in Vilnius and Kaunas.
I did it again: I drank too much beer. But what could I do? It was the Craft Beer Company 1st Anniversary Weekend on June 30 – July 1. I go there so often it feels like the place has been around forever rather than for just one year – they’re already a London institution and a world beer lover destination. And as expected the lineup of beers was something special: a lot of it must have come from Copenhagen Beer Celebration as many rare beers from there made a repeat performance in London. Not that I mind one bit as I got to try a lot of the stuff I missed at CBC, as well as have more of beers I was convinced I would never have the chance to try again. And the evening ended with not one but two proper whales… Here are my unsystematic observations, sorted by brewery this time:
Other than the beer festival, Riga is not overflowing with craft beer – with one shining exception (or two, depending on how you count). This is the S.Brevinga “empire” which consists of a pub and restaurant in the Old Town of Riga (right near Dome Square/Doma Laukums, here’s a map) with a bottle shop next to it, and then another bottle shop/bar in Berga Bazars, a trendy mall in downtown Riga (here’s another map). The pub is S. Brevinga alus un viskija bars (S. Brevinga Beer and Whisky Bar, for those of you Latvian-challenged), the bottle shop/bar is S. Brevinga Alus Salons, and they are both essential visits for the craft beer fan in Riga.
As any good London beer geek would be, I am of course a member of Fuller’s Fine Ale Club, and the other day my free membership really paid off (ha ha). I was among the lucky 20 Fine Ale Club members to be invited to the launch of Fuller’s new seasonal offering, Wild River. Wild River is an American-style Pale Ale hopped with Williamette, Liberty, Cascade and Chinook hops and is, according to John Keeling of Fuller’s, inspired by the US craft beer scene.
The tasting event was held at Fuller’s pub The Banker, a dungeon-like place under the arches of Cannon Street railway station. Guests were lubricated with Fuller’s Discovery before the main event, and treated to a roomful of snazzy branding. To quote John Keeling, “It took us two months to come up with the recipe for the beer, and two and a half years to come up with the name and branding”. I’m not surprised – it must have taken a while to figure out those cardboard bear traps! Jokes aside, it was a very nice and well-run event – I ended up chatting quite a bit to beer profile extraordinaire Phil Lowry, and all-round nice chap. As I recall, conversation ranged from how to make the best US-style barbecue to the political situation in the Ukraine (if you thought we geeks only talk beer at events, think again).
Yes, yes, but what about the beer? Well, here’s the review:
My recent stay in the Baltics (Latvia and Lithuania 23 May – 9 June) coincided not-so-coincidentally with Latvia Beer Fest, the main beer festival of Latvia – this year held in Vermanes Park in central Riga. I’ve been to the Baltics before and I really enjoy the beers there (particularly the Lithuanian ones – Lithuania has a great brewing heritage), though there is relatively little variety – regular and dark lager being the typical mainstays, but there are some surprises.
Unfortunately there weren’t too many of those surprises at Latvia Beer Fest – as someone pointed out, this was a beer festival with emphasis on the “festival” rather than the “beer”. The venue was great – a big park in the center of town had been cordoned off and filled with beer stalls, tables, chairs, bouncy castles for the kids (at least I assume they were for the kids) and other sundry activities. The whole thing had a very family-friendly vibe to it and indeed I saw a lot of families there (there was a whole big play area for kids next to the bouncy castles) – it all felt very safe and relaxed and I did not see a single fall-d0wn-drunk person during the whole weekend. There were plenty of food options – my favourite beer snack was the freshly deep-fried potato
crisp spiral on a stick (see picture), but there was a lot of other rustic, beer festival-type food: sausages, sauerkraut (love sauerkraut!), kebabs, fried potatoes, ribs etc etc (nothing much for vegetarians though). The beer stalls were spread out around the park rather than concentrated in one part, which also made the atmosphere more relaxed as it prevented crowding – if there was a long line at one beer stall you could always go to the next one. So all in all, the festival aspects were great.
As I hinted at in my previous post, Copenhagen Beer Celebration was such a massive event that it was difficult to wrap your head around. Not because it was huge, because it wasn’t – 25 breweries and 1000 tickets sold each day are numbers dwarfed by those at, say, GBBF, GABF or the regular Copenhagen Beer Festival. No, it was overwhelming because of the sheer quality on display – these were some of the world’s best brewers bringing some of the world’s best beer, lots of limited releases and intriguing, out-there stuff (when Brian Strumke of Stillwater Artisanal Ales says he put juniper in a beer, he means the whole juniper bush, berries, wood, needles and all), lots of once-in-a-lifetime beer experiences. I admit I was overwhelmed, but in the end I and my tastebuds came out unscathed (whether my liver did the same if open for debate), and I think my survival was helped by my adherence to five simple principles. I am sharing these principles here in the hope that they may help other fellow beer-geeks survive CBC-type events without collapsing in a beergastic, spasmodic heap one hour into the festival (gasping “Too… much… great… beer…”). Here we go:
1. I just let go.
In the festival programme, I counted 198 different beers on offer over two days – and that’s not including all the beers that were unlisted. Brodie’s Beers had brought many more beers than those listed in the programme, and so had De Struise (and they brought 25-odd beers to begin with!), Cigar City and many others. And as I have said repeatedly, many of these were limited releases – not that I am primarily a ticker (OK then, I am a bit of a ticker), but most of these limited releases sounded so darned good (wouldn’t you want to try a Mikkeller Brunch Weasel Vanilla Cognac Edition?). So in order to enjoy the Celebration to its fullest, I just had to let go and realize that I would not be able to sample all the beers I wanted to sample. I would inevitably miss some rarity or other because I was elsewhere occupied when the cask/leg came on. Some stuff was bound to run out. So I dialed down my ticker madness and decided to just enjoy what I got and not go around with a list of must-drink beers, ticking them in mechanical fashion. Many of my beers were impulse purchases – and I was never once disappointed.
I had this glorious plan that I would live-blog from the recent Copenhagen Beer Celebration, with several updates per day, lots of pictures… but I was too busy drinking beer, and hanging out with great brewers and fellow beer geeks from around the world. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, as they say. In fact, ever since I’ve come home I’ve actually wrestled with how to actually approach writing about CBC, as it was so massive, so good, so filled with beer (43 samples in two days at the festival – then there was Sour & Bitter, our night at Fermentoren, the 20+ bottles I bought at Ølbutikken and Barleywine and that my Norwegian colleague brought me) that I have had trouble digesting it all (no pun intended) and wrap my head and my tastebuds around the whole thing. So in the end I decided to take the easy way out and do a couple of CBC-related lists – because we all love lists, right?
Yesterday I was at that beer ticker-event of the year known as Sour & Bitter, a beer-and-food party organized by Drikkeriget as a kind of kick-off/warm-up event for Copenhagen Beer Celebration (which starts today). The line-up was drool-inducing indeed: lots of rare stuff from lambic masters 3 Fonteinen (including a release of their much-anticipated 2010 Framboos), The Bruery, Lost Abbey, and Pizza Port (first time in Europe!). Very high tick factor, in other words – someone even remarked that all the information released by Drikkeriget before the event just emphasised how rare the beers were, with not a word on whether they were any good.
But I mustn’t grumble: the whole thing was excellent, with a very friendly atmosphere. It was very open and easy to chat to the brewers and the fellow beer-geeks. The love of beer and food shone through everything – food was provided by Mmm… Zonen for madkultur, and served in a set of small “stations” where the guests assembled their own nibbles also using components handed out in brown paper bags – very pretentious in a surprisingly un-pretentious way, if that makes any sense.
I’m an avid follower of Pumpclip Parade, a blog that collects, as they put it “Aesthetic Atrocities From The World Of Real Ale” – pumpclips and beer labels that are in such poor taste and with such horrible artwork/design that it is enough to put you off drinking for the rest of the night. Or week. I was therefore happy (in a watching-a-train-wreck kind of way) to be able to contribute what is possibly the worst and most offensive label art I’ve ever seen to the blog in question. Head on over and check out the horror – there’s no way I’m posting it here.