Fourpure's big upgrade: the new brewhouse in Bermondsey

Last night, hundreds of industry guests packed into Fourpure Brewing Co’s new brewhouse and taproom in Bermondsey. It marked the launch of their housewarming ceremonies, which will continue this Saturday, when members of the public can step inside the space and admire the brewery’s gleaming new kit.

The brewhouse is best described as sleek and state-of-the-art, comprised of pieces from the US, Germany and China that were painstakingly assembled and wielded together. It boldly asserts that one of London’s second largest craft breweries, second only to Fuller's Brewery, is shifting gears into the fast lane.

Since 2013, Fourpure has taken the quality of their beer earnestly, but their new £2.5 million, 40hL (approximately 24 bbL) GEA Craft Star set-up will grant them with complete control over every aspect of the brewing process. In addition to this, the efficient new kit will boost the brewery's productivity substantially.

Fourpure Brewery

Staff were teeming with enthusiasm about the upgrade and renovations, offering whistle-stop tours around the brewery, beaming over their new lauter tun in particular, a piece of equipment that strains sweet wort from spent grains after the mashing process. In most smaller scale craft breweries, it’s common for the lautering process to occur inside the mash tun (the benefit here is this is one less piece of expensive equipment and it saves space in a cramped railway arch).

Fourpure Brewery

The addition of a lauter tun also accelerates the brewing process, meaning that wort can be transferred quickly out of the mash tun, freeing it up for another mashing in. We were told that this increases productivity to the extent that Fourpure will be able to brew seven ­– maybe eight in a pinch ­– times a day. Everything is automated, monitored by brewers via control panels, making the act of brewing less intuitive and more accurate. It might extinguish the romanticised image of hirsute brewers standing over the steaming mash with paddle in hand, but the result is greater volumes of beer, brewed with more consistency.

Which, given the rampant growth of the brewery, who peddled their beer at events in 15 countries last year and are currently importing their beer around the globe (Canada is next on the map), is key. Despite their international conquests, they still manage to sell up to 40% of their beer in the vicinity of South East London. The balance between local and global demand is remarkable, especially without the financial backing of Big Beer.

As the saying goes, the proof is in the pudding. Fourepure brewed up six special launch beers, all on their new kit, to serve up during their housewarming event. The Easy Peeler citrus session IPA presented juicy tangerine on the nose and palate and a smooth, balanced flavour, making it an easy-drinking, zippy beer. The Beerhall Helles was a smooth, clean Munich-style Helles with a dose of bready malt. Deep South, a peach sour, was rammed with juicy, soft peaches and showcased their new kit’s capability for kettle souring. We also enjoyed the Saharan Sun blood orange saison, a tangy citrus bomb with interestimg phenolic hints from the saison yeast.

Fourpure Brewery

The beers on offer were fresh, bold and innovative – qualities already attributed to Fourpure, but will now become synonymous with the brewery thanks to their investment in brewing technology and equipment.

Tickets to the Fourpure Brewhouse Warming this Saturday are sold out, but walk-ins will be admitted on the day.

Renegade Brewery: West Berkshire shows its rebellious side

West Berkshire Brewery established Renegade Brewery in 2015 as an arm under which to release a fresh, modern range of craft beers for today’s drinker. To complement West Berkshire’s established range of traditional cask ales, Renegade aims to foster the creative and experimental sides of their young brewers.

Renegade launched a range of beers this week to coincide with the opening of their state of the art brewery. They’ve not only moved to a new premises, but have upgraded their brew kit and packaging facilities, giving them ample space to produce more beer and continue to scale up. The brewery is entirely bespoke and carried a £6 million price tag, but the new 60HL set-up means that they can amp up their current production volume while focusing on some more audacious styles and recipes.

Renegade Brewery Cans

As the name suggests, Renegade looks to push boundaries and appeal to craft drinkers. They’ve naturally taken inspiration from bold and hoppy American styles, trying to emulate their big flavours while maintaining drinkability. They’re not looking to alienate their West Berkshire customer base, but this is a brewery that is keeping up with the times and embracing a changing industry landscape. We’ve seen other traditional breweries embrace the call for different tastes and styles, such as Windsor and Eton Brewery’s Uprising Craft Brewing range.

The beers were launched this week at The Depot in Islington, which is Renegade’s first pub venture, and guests were invited to taste four of their beers on keg and in cans. The vibrant, clear branding easily differentiates the beers from West Berkshire’s established range, giving the beers the contemporary angle that they’re aiming for.

Renegade Brewery

Two lagers were pouring on the evening, one Craft Lager – a satisfying take on the style that uses a complete bill of UK ingredients, from Maris Otter malt to Progress and Fuggles hops. Lagered for six weeks, it’s an easy-going crisp and clean beer. The second lager was more remarkable, brewed in the Vienna style. It’s darker, sweeter and presents a creamier mouthfeel than the Craft, with ample biscuit notes from the darker malts, making it more interesting and slightly more complex on the palate.

Their India Session Ale comes in at 4.2% and uses Mosaic and Citra hops for some big, tropical fruit flavours. It ends on an intensely bitter pithiness, making it a good choice for those who enjoy a brash, unapologetic beer at a surprisingly sessionable strength.

The West Coast Pale Ale pays homage to the big, juicy style hailing from the USA’s West Coast. Bundles of explosive C hops – Cascade, Columbus and Chinook – join Summit to create a beer that delivers bursting grapefruit aroma and citrus flavours to make for another unrepentant and satisfying drink.

Renegade Brewery

While it was a shame to see no dark beers or slightly more off-kilter styles available at the launch, these have been promised down the line. For a debut, the range of lagers and pales proved drinkable and deliver on some punchy flavours. The enthusiasm of their young, passionate sales team demonstrated that they’re taking their foray into craft territory very seriously. But most importantly, they hold a lot of promise as an established brewery clearly open to learning new tricks. 

Thank you to them team at Renegade for the invitation to the launch.

Five Points x Field Day Citrus Pale: getting fruity with cat cans

For the second year running, Hackney's The Five Points Brewing Company has teamed up with Field Day to brew the superlative summer beer. The brief was simple: to produce a thirst-quenching and highly sessionable drink, ideal for, say, one of East London’s premier music festivals. Field Day is taking place at Victoria Park on Saturday the 3rd June 2017, but don't worry – the beer will stick around all summer long.

In 2016, the Five Points x Field Day partnership resulted in the Ten Points, a delicious extra pale that has since been inducted into the Five Points’ range as their XPA. The XPA recipe was slightly refined, making it a touch more bitter, but its ABV remains at 4%, resulting in a breezily, yet intensely flavoursome, choice. This year, there are two notable aspects to the collaboration: it’s a fruit beer – a first for The Five Points – and, well, cats. Yes, the cans are adorned with five feisty felines.

Five Points Brewing Co Field Day Citrus Pale

An obvious detour from the clean and consistent Five Points branding, the cats are all in good fun; they refer to this year’s Field Day branding, which prominently features fluffy friends. It’s irreverent, eye-catching and a conversation point; the five cats featured across the cans as a photograph set upon an orange sherbet background actually belong to members of the brewery (with the exception of one puss, Noodles, who is owned by the Field Day organiser). The cats will be rolled out one-by-one and currently Astrid, a black and white beauty with piercing green eyes, has been unveiled.

The visuals are only the beginning, though. The beer, Field Day Citrus Pale, saw the Five Points foraying into unfamiliar territory. Working alongside their good pals and neighbours, Square Root London, they acquired both grapefruit and Sicilian lemons in abundance. The former hailed from a farm that isn’t certified organic yet – but is on the cusp – and the lemons are organic. The zest from these prime ingredients was added to the beer in addition to Mosiac hops, another first for Five Points. Mosaic was selected for this venture because of its versatility and intensely fruit-forward qualities.

The Citrus Pale comes in at 4.2% and is clean and crisp, but don’t expect too much fruit character. Instead, the subtle hints of citrus are a background feature that linger nicely in the aftertaste. It’s accessible and refreshing, making it the perfect choice for a diverse crowd. The 16 BBL batch was split into two tanks and there’s talk of one being dry-hopped for even more prominent aromas and flavour. However, there’s a chance that the delicate grapefruit notes will be lost and that the final product will be hazier as a consequence.

Five Points Brewing Co Field Day Brew

Using fruit in a beer presents its own problems, mostly with issues of clarity – this has been overcome by extending the boil by 15 minutes. Because it would require lenghty periods of time in fermentation to clarify the beer further, the small amount of cloudiness has been embraced. And if you get a cloudy pint of Citrus Pale, you know that it’s fresh.

Five Points Brewing Co Hop Gun

With a dry-hopped batch of Citrus Pale proposed, this will give the Five Points an opportunity to use their newly acquired hop gun, equipment that emphasises the aromas in a beer. The entire contents of a fermenter vessel is circulated through the hop gun, increasing the quantity of essential oils present in the finished beer. The circulation process takes a couple of hours and this is a substantial brewery investment that will result in more delicious beers for years to come. The brewery has also splashed out on a state-of-the-art lab, which will allow them to monitor quality and ensure consistency of their beers going forward.

Five Points Brewing Co Barrels

With the inevitable success of the Citrus Pale in addition to their popular Five Points Pale and Pils, the final addition to the Five Points inventory comes as a relief to their space issues: a new arch, situated just next door from the brewery, has recently been acquired after lengthy negotiations with Network Rail. There’s now space for their barrel aging project, where the Railway Porter and Old Greg’s Barley Wine happily sits contained in wine barrels from Burgundy, France.

So we can relish a summer of moggy puns from the Five Points on social media. And seeing as there's a plethora of exciting developments going on behind the scenes too, even if felines don't take your fancy, there's a great deal to look forward to from the brewery. In the meanwhile, the Citrus Pale is a perfect way to welcome the Summer of 2017. Now if we could only find a sun beam to sprawl out in...

I was invited to taste the Citrus Pale by the Five Points, but this has not affected my opinions.

Beer Boars: the virtues of group brewing and the Braumeister

In a group brewing session, more eyes and hands make the process a smooth and stress-free endeavour. Couple this with a Braumeister, which ensures that anyone can brew, no matter what their level of experience.

Measuring out malts and throwing in hops is the most difficult part of working on a Braumeister, which is an all-in-one brewing machine, a single vessel that operated on a fully automatic control system. They’re easy to sanitise and the malt is kept off direct heat to avoid burning. No racking is required, which is the messy process of transferring wort, usually via a siphon. So it’s a matter of turning it on and letting it transition through every step of the brewing process on a timer. Easy-peasy, right?

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Some might despair that these systems reduce brewing to an automated activity, but this type of all-in-one brewing permits a lot of versatility: it means that budding homebrewers can experiment with a variety of styles and hops. This was the objective of February’s Beer Boars group brew, based at the Brew Club headquarters in Clapton. Under the watchful eye of Tiago Falcone, a seasoned brewer from Beavertown Brewery, attendees made three pale ales. Working on a trio of Braumeister systems, teams used identical malt bills with a different hop in each recipe. This meant that the three distinct hops were the prime focus of each batch and each beer would demonstrate their respective unique characteristics. Mandarina Bavaria (Germany), Azacca (USA) and Nelson Sauvin (NZ) hops were used. Everyone would get two 330ml bottles of each batch to take home, sample and understand the variations between each one.

Tiago had never used a Braumeister before, so it was a group learning exercise. Once the malts were weighed and the mashing began, everyone had the opportunity to chat with Tiago about brewing, his job and beer more generally. Experienced homebrewers showed up with their recent trials in tow, sharing the fruits of the labour with fellow attendees. Tiago was happy to give helpful and constructive feedback and seemed genuinely impressed with the calibre of some of these beers; he commended a powerful Russian imperial stout and an IPA that had been – perhaps somewhat graciously – compared to Beavertown’s own session IPA, Neck Oil. But it had the requisite bold juicy flavours and a low ABV to made it an intensely drinkable attempt in its own right.

The onsite bar offered some great beers, including Mondo Brewing Company's Jazz Cabbage and The Solvay Society’s Coulomb Dry-Hopped Saison. Pints were a steal at £4 each, but there was plenty of accomplished homebrews also being poured and proffered in exchange for an honest opinion. It was a great introduction – or continued education – to brewing in an extremely candid and welcoming environment. The Braumeister afforded attendees the freedom to socialise and critique each other's recipes while the wort bubbled away.

Beer Boars is a new venture from Simon Pipola, formerly of Home Brew Depot, whose micro batch kit was used here. Simon is passionate about promoting homebrewing as an accessible and social activity for all beer enthusiasts. Combining an eager group ready to learn and an impressive line-up of guest brewers, this community-based project is a springboard for anyone, from the curious to the confident homebrewers, to learn about beer. Joining Beer Boars is free, gives members a discounted rate and a early-bird sign-up period for these gatherings (£10 instead of the £12 non-member fee).

Granting access to a comfortable open space in Clapton and promoting the opportunity to bend the ear of brewers from some of London's most exciting craft breweries, Beer Boars is a good bet for drinkers toying with the idea of having a go at brewing. The gatherings occur monthly and everyone is welcome to come along to enjoy some engaging discussion in a casual and friendly setting. Even if you're not certain that homebrewing is for you, the evening is surprisingly chummy and nobody will really hold it against you if you'd rather chat about beer instead of making it.

Adventures in homebrewing: mashing in/out, sparging, the boil and fermentation

Plenty of people homebrew in London, proving that it’s possible to produce your own beer in a cramped kitchen of a teeny flat. A stove and a sink – that’s apparently all you need for all-grain brewing. Sounds pretty straightforward, right? Well, I discovered that if ingenuity isn’t your strongest skill, perhaps you’re not destined to pursue a career as a brewmaster. But don't let that prohibit you from dabbling with a homebrew kit and making a small batch of a beer style. Home Brew Depot sells such kits and I received one at Christmas; naturally, I was chomping at the bit to make a questionable attempt at an IPA.

For beginners, the IPA is a reliable style of beer to recreate, mostly because it relies on a dry-hopping at day seven of fermentation to give it lasting bold flavour. In other words: it’s easy to disguise any mistakes made in the initial preparation of the beer. The Home Brew Depot IPA kit comes with most of the tools required for a brew, including ingredients and a step-by-step instruction sheet. A glass demijohn, a glass thermometer, no-rinse sanitiser, a siphon/flow tap and a bubble airlock are also included. However, unless you have a sieve and a funnel handy, you’ll have to make a quick trip to Wilko’s. A large stockpot is also crucial to the process.

Although I wanted to get stuck-in, the first and most tantamount rule of brewing is sanitising absolutely everything. Impatient people take heed – this can be a lengthy and dull chore. Mixing water with non-rinse sanitiser in a washing basin, it was difficult to submerge everything in the solution at once, meaning that a thorough wiping down with a clean cloth was necessary. Already I was anxious about not adequately scrubbing everything and the effect of this on the final product. All was left for fifteen minutes to bob away in the basin and then dried.

With the first critical stage complete, I merrily moved on to filling the stockpot (actually a pasta pot) with 2.5L of water and bringing this to that sweet spot temperature, 72 degrees Celsius. Don’t underestimate how long it can take to heat up water – brewing naturally demands patience in spades. And homebrewing at this level, without the luxury of built-in thermometers or such gadgets, also calls for a locked gaze on that glass thermometer, tracking the mercury as it soars or falls.

Water heated, in went a bag of Maris Otter malt, which was occasionally stirred and left to steep in the warm water to convert starch molecules into fermentable sugars – this is called mashing in. Like making a mammoth portion of porridge, the grains stew in the water and require intermittent agitation. The mash has to be kept between 63 and 68 degrees Celsius at all times. Although the water was at 72 degrees when the grains went in, that plummeted quickly and required more fiddling with the heat to get it up again. Once there, I found it difficult to maintain a consistent temperature at first, but eventually turned the heat down and kept a close eye on it for 60 minutes.

During this pause, I realised that I would need two additional large vessels to sparge the grains. I panicked. We didn’t have two more stockpots, pasta pots, or anything immediately equivalent. This type of unanticipated blockade is where that ingenuity helps. I hastily sanitised as many pots and pans possible to accommodate soggy malts and more water. Sparging is the process where the sugars are separated from the grains, accomplished by running water through the malt. With a second pair of hands, we had to so some juggling here, transferring our grains from our stockpot to a metal bowl and rinsing out our only large pot. Placing the sieve over the clean pot, we transferred the malt over, finding that our sieve was too small for purpose. We had to rotate our malts throughout the process – again, not ideal, but accomplished.

Using three saucepans, we heated up the water needed to filter through the grains and into the pot below to collect our wort, the sweet water from the sugars flushed out from the grains.

We somehow repeated this recirculation cycle three times. The chaos subsided and the wort could be brought to a boil, when the bittering hops, Cascade, could be added. The wort bubbled away for another 45 minutes before the aroma hops, Cascade and Citra, were thrown in, then a further fifteen minutes to allow the hop pellets to dissolve and impart their aromatic properties to the wort. Then wort is then taken off heat and plunged into a bucket filled with ice to cool down. We achieved a lower temperature than we desired very quickly (the optimum temperature to pitch your yeast is 21 degrees Celcius as it will allow it to eat away at the sugars most happily). 

The cooled wort was then transferred to our glass demijohn over the sink – this was very much another two person endeavour that required pouring the heavy pot through a funnel into the jar. Once transferred, the dried yeast was added, immediately reacting to the sweet liquid within, fizzing away as it began to convert sugars into alcohol and carbon dioxide. The bung cap was wedged in and the bubbles airlock put in place. The demijohn was placed in a corner of our living room to ferment due to lack of dark corners in our flat.

The roadblocks encountered and some temperature issues might mean that my IPA isn’t the most accurate or palatable rendition of the style, but it was great insight into the brewing process on a microscopic scale. I now see how it would be easily scaled up and simplified, but our restricted space means that the pipe dream of a 20L brew will have to wait. But the beer is looking good – and very active – bubbling away.

On the seventh day, last Sunday, the fermenting beer was dry-hopped with more Cascade hops for flavour. Bottling happens at day ten - tomorrow - and will undoubtedly be an equally as messy and dizzying process.

But if you saw the photograph of me bottling my dad's homebrewed stout in my last post, you know that I'm already an expert with a bottling wand, so it might just be smooth sailing from here.

Halifax, Nova Scotia: brewing across the capital

A port city heavily populated with university students and a longstanding beer drinking culture, Halifax is in a prime position to embrace a growing beer market. Capital of Nova Scotia and home of the Alexander Keith's Brewery, founded in 1820 and one of the oldest commercial breweries in North America, the city boasts a pub culture driven by nostalgia that's typical in areas with a high population of UK immigrants. After Canadian, the top three ethnicities represented in Halifax’s population are English, Scottish and Irish respectively.

The age and background of a large section of its inhabitants- and the region’s history- are the perfect ingredients for a thriving beer scene. Haligonians have also proved willing to pay a premium to support independent breweries and the local beer industry. Now that the fire has been stoked, the city has gone into hyper drive, seeing a wealth of breweries, styles of beer and an evolving image of an archetypal beer drinker transform and mutate into something unrecognisable to anyone who left the city as recently as three years ago.

Enter Stillwell, the starting point

For many, Stillwell Bar kick-started the fervour of drinking local when it appeared on the scene in November 2013 in Halifax. Before then, the city was home to craft breweries such as Garrison Brewing Co and Propeller Brewing Co, whose growler stations were popular with locals, and some bars like the Henry House and Rock Bottom were microbrewing. It wasn’t impossible to source something small-batch and exciting, but only the passionately devout were bothered. The rest were merely regaled about the prolific beer cultures in larger Canadian hubs and on America’s east coast from colleagues.

Of course, it wouldn’t take long before a saving grace would manifest itself and open up channels to expose Haligonians to the notable beer being brewed in Nova Scotia. Breweries were popping up across the province, producing high quality beer that was more flavoursome, more audacious and more inventive then ever before. Stillwell represented them across 12 taps- 11 dedicated to beer and one to cider- allowing many to drink fresh- and often unfiltered- local beer in a stylish but unintimidating environment.

Stillwell’s location in the heart of Halifax’s busy downtown district has made it a highly visible venue in an area with heavy footfall. They’ve also experimented with pop-up beer gardens in alternative locations, including on the bustling waterfront in 2015, an area were tourists and residents collide to enjoy a stroll along the harbour or patron expensive restaurants overlooking the water. They had ten taps flowing from a shipping container-cum-bar all summer, but lost the tender to pitch up on the same location for a second year. In 2016, the beer garden landed on Spring Garden Road, a shopping destination next to the city’s Public Gardens and proximate to one of Halifax’s largest universities, Dalhousie University.

In the new outdoor site, the banquet tables are lined up in an empty lot, set under strings of twinkling fairy lights. Food comes in the form of 10-12 small barbecue-themed dishes, all curated to complement an afternoon or evening drinking session. There’s also a dairy bar onsite, proffering soft serve cones that were exceptional enough to draw in crowds in their own right.

This is how you popularise good beer- Stillwell gave Halifax the shot in the arm that it desperately needed to draw in crowds with a great atmosphere, erudite staff and- most importantly- a breadth of styles from some of Nova Scotia’s premier breweries.

Good Robot and quirky brewing

In December 2015, Good Robot Brewing Company opened its taproom. Brewing since May, the brewery was the brainchild of three former Dalhousie University students and friends, Angus Campbell, Josh Counsil and head brewer Doug Kehoe. Originally carrying the moniker of Wrought Iron Brewery- a nod to their engineering background- the founders had a change of heart and rebranded the operation Good Robot Brewing two weeks before their launch. This madcap move aptly summarises the ethos of the brewery- they consciously distanced themselves from a serious and patriarchal image to something quirky, playful and with a broad appeal. This is discernible in their brand, their brewing and their engagement with drinkers, and it has resonated well with younger crowds in particular.

Their flagship beer is the Goseface Killah, a beer that’s laced with salinity, coriander and a tart kiss. It’s a relatively pared back gose, where the sourness is heavily balanced with sweet fruity notes, but this is a good introduction to sour beers for the dubious. It’s a nice summer sipper that’s been exceptionally popular with visitors, demonstrating a growing appetite for styles that veer from the more ubiquitous pales and IPAs.

A highly experimental and unorthodox approach sees Good Robot churning out a number of styles with unusual adjuncts and twists- in September 2016, beers including 4th Chamber, a sour ale, the Leave Me Blue Kentucky Common corn ale and Ol' Scurvy Bastard, a margarita inspired saison/farmhouse ale. Although some of their brewing is occasionally cacophonous, their playfulness is admirable and people are lapping it up, especially in the confines of their charming beer garden, which serves as an oasis on a stretch of Robie Street in the North side of the city that is otherwise occupied with car dealerships and parking lots. Tables are lined up on a bed of AstroTurf, backing on to the open brewery and drinkers are attended by friendly staff. The taproom is spacious inside, boasting a mezzanine space, booths and tables and a décor that’s as bright and cheery as the beer.

Unfiltered but not unfocused

Perhaps the most jarring contrast to Good Robot’s beers and philosophy comes from only a short and walkable distance away on North Street. There’s no bubbly beer garden here, but instead there’s the Charm School, an ironically labelled pub and growler filling station adjacent to the brewery. Anyone familiar with Unfiltered Brewing will appreciate this sarcasm- this is a brewery with a hardened reputation for accomplished beer without the bullshit. Their marketing strategy is prickly and occasionally offensive to some, their policies are contentious, but their beer- well, it’s outstanding. They excel in unapologetic and brash IPAs that embody as much attitude as the brewery’s founders.

Diametrically opposed to nice guys Good Robot, it’s Unfiltered’s brewery- not its taproom or beer garden-that’s the showpiece. In 2015, Greg Nash, notorious for being the province’s ‘rock star brewer’, launched the business with Andrew Murphy, a professional photographer with an equal fixation on producing good, solid and hop-heavy beers. The brewery is something out of a big budget sci-fi film: impossibly pristine, sterile and highly functional. Although it’s only 1,200 square feet, this might be the most customised brewery in Atlantic Canada. For those fortunate to get a glimpse inside the operation, they wouldn’t believe that this was a real brewing site- everything gleams with clinical tidiness. It’s evident how much has been invested in setting the space up and on the brewing kit and how much care is taken during every brew.

As the brewery’s name implies, all beers are unfiltered, but that doesn’t apply to the brewery’s offerings- what makes the cut is intensively vetted and scrutinised, as Nash has concentrated on reliable and consistent core beers. The Exile on North Street IPA is abundant with the resinous pine, citrus and the judicious helping of hops that you’d expect, but perfectly rendered for balance with a sharp bitterness in the finish. It’s a beautifully rich beer packed with a time bomb of flavour. The Twelve Years to Zion DIPA packs even more of a wallop for the hopheads, a hazy golden beer that masks its ABV with juicy tropical aromas, nice sweet malts balanced with bracing bitterness.

While they might be on the opposite end of the spectrum when it comes to conforming to conventions and engaging with the general public, their beer has remained revered and Nash is widely respected in the industry. People baulk at their candour, but this is a brewery that only wants to deliver beer that’s worth the journey- they don’t bottle or can and you won’t find them on the Nova Scotia Liquor Corporation’s shelves. So if drinkers want to quench their thirst, they have to go to the source (or hope to find them on keg at Stillwell).

Despite their off-kilter strategy and disinterest in good PR, Haligonians are still making a beeline to North Street for the beer. This is an instance where the beer really does speak for itself and, contrary to all expectations; the staff at the Charm School are very congenial and as astute as the beer.

More headway for Halifax

This is just a snapshot of the breweries and taprooms that are helping form the Halifax beer drinking scene in 2016. Another brewery, 2 Crows Brewing Company, is set to open a 20 bbl (barrels) site any day now in the downtown area, but details are scant. North Brewing Co, who operate a growler station out of Battery Park in across the harbour in Dartmouth, are located in the city’s North end on Agricola Street with a focus on Belgian styles.

This is an ongoing narrative that will continue to unfurl across the coming months an years, where the landscape of drinking and the choice will expand as drinkers become more discerning and demanding. While a glut of new breweries have sprung up in Dartmouth in 2016, there’s still an abundance of room for new businesses in the capital’s urban core. 

As such, expect a lengthy postscript to this story. By the summer of 2017, there's no telling what Haligonians- and Nova Scotians- will be drinking.

Shelburne, Nova Scotia: Boxing Rock is rolling with the punches

Boxing Rock Brewing Co takes its moniker from a local maritime legend in Shelburne, Nova Scotia. The story goes that the Boxing Rock was a site where disgruntled crewmen were left to reconcile their differences; they could either box each other until one survivor prevailed, or put their quarrel to bed over a beer. The association is apt, marrying the brewery’s coastal roots on the province’s south shore with the testimony that their beer is- simply put- legendary. Based on their current runaway popularity with Nova Scotian drinkers, it can’t be refuted that there’s something mythical coming out of Shelburne.

Founded in 2012, Boxing Rock aspired to balance new technology and innovation with tried and tested brewing methods. It’s not surprising that its founders, Emily Tipton and Henry Pedro, both come from an engineering background. This is a prevalent trend across Nova Scotia’s independent breweries, where the majority of brewers boast impressive academic credentials in the vein of engineering and microbiology degrees. This scientific nous has played a pivotal role in the remarkable speed at which fledging breweries are transforming the drinking culture in the province.

While a methodological approach to brewing is beneficial to guarantee consistent batches and ensure that beer is packaged and delivered to customers in prime condition, this doesn’t imply that Boxing Rock are playing it safe. On the contrary, they’ve challenged local palates with not only their collaborations- often working alongside other Nova Scotian favourites such as Big Spruce Brewing and Tatamagouche Brewery- but even their core beers are unconventional.

Their best selling beer is The Vicar’s Cross, a double IPA. Despite it's ABV of 8.5%, it's enormously drinkable with a smooth body and tempered bitterness courtesy of a lovely malt base that whispers of caramel and butterscotch. Temptation Red Ale is another highly characterful beer that benefits from strong hop flavours attributed to a judicious amount of hopping, both throughout the brew then followed by dry-hopping, which is balanced with a chewy malty backbone. The red has appeased many drinkers who don’t usually have a fondness for the style.

The Boxing Rock brewery is bordered by forest and, like Big Spruce in Cape Breton, seems to exist symbiotically with its woodland surroundings. It’s a modern construct fused with the homeliness of a timber lodge, welcoming visitors to sample beers in the tasting room and offering regular brewery tours over the weekends. There’s an on-site merchandise and bottle shop and growler station and- on our visit- a crowd of people were participating in a spot of friendly axe throwing outside. It proved the quintessential Canadian experience.

The brewhouse hosts a 17 barrel (bbl) kit and is spacious enough to sustain further growth. Unlike many rural breweries in the province, Boxing Rock had the foresight to invest in their kit from the get-go and plan for expansion; we were advised by one of their brewers that there was no immediate plan for further development aside from the addition of another bright tank and the vague possibility of another fermentation tank in the near future. The owners are satisfied with current production levels. But he admitted that over the summer of 2016, the brewery was only able to keep up with demand in Nova Scotia alone and not from the adjacent provinces of New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island.

Outside of trendy taprooms, a DIPA like Vicar's Cross is destined to be a harder sale, but that’s where the easily palatable Hunk Dory Pale Ale shines. It has manifested itself on drink lists across the province- I found it on offer in small communities on both the mainland and on Cape Breton island at restaurants purveying lobster suppers. Once again, this is an apposite analogy of the traditional clashing with the new: tourists donning ridiculous plastic lobster bibs in a rural community hall, washing down their crustaceans with the finest local brews available.

Hunky Dory is another beer that’s perfectly poised to act as a gateway into a fuller and more open-minded way of drinking. It’s bright, clean and bursting with citrus aromas and a palate of green tea with earthy and floral notes. Balanced and approachable, this beer is also readily available in the Nova Scotia Liquor Corporation (NSLC) branches; this is significant because of how liquor distribution works in the province. The NSLC is the sole distributor of alcohol with the exception of a handful of privately owned boutique stores. Alcohol isn’t sold in grocery stores, nor do Nova Scotians have the luxury of a local off-licence.

The upshot is that the average drinker will source their domestic rations from their closest NSLC, so the local breweries represented here are those that will reach this crucial demographic. And this is the most challenging pitch, targeting customers who haven’t necessary crossed the threshold in search of local or independent offerings. The converted craft drinkers are already filling up their growlers elsewhere or fastidiously studying the shelves of specialist shops.

Despite being thrown into the ring with the big breweries in the NSLC stores, Boxing Rock has faired remarkably well. This might be a testament to the willingness of Nova Scotians to eat and drink local, a movement that's gained roaring momentum over the past few years and fuelled the ubiquity of farmers’ markets up and down the province. Halifax is home to the oldest continuously operating farmer's market in North America, which has run out of several locations since 1750 (including the original site of the Alexander Keith’s brewery, which was featured on the blog here).

Another interesting point was the brewery's preference for bottling. They've opted not to can and this looks unlikely to change in the coming months, as they’ve deemed bottles to be logistically advantageous. Their 650ml sharing bottles are popular on the shelves of the NSLC, especially in the case of Vicar’s Cross, and might be a contributing factor to its astonishing success. Customers are less wary of a fiery DIPA if they’re encouraged to split it between two- or several- friends. Again, the brewery is swimming against the tide with this approach, as many new breweries are moving straight into canning, but it hasn’t impeded their success And they’ve kept busy this year, having brewed at least 15 different styles of beer since May 2016.

While their contract with the NSLC has been both lucrative for the brewery and for boosting the profiles of Nova Scotian beer more generally, their bottles are supplied six months in advance to ensure that they can fulfil their orders and keep shelves stocked. This beer inevitably sits in a warehouse in the interim before sold to the public, giving even more incentive for aficionados to visit the brewery for the freshest examples, or to purchase it from boutique stores or taprooms, where it’s certain that beer is rotated to guarantee that it’s served at its best.

As with the majority of small breweries in Nova Scotia, Boxing Rock launched without any notion of how the local beer industry would explode or how quickly they would be embraced by imbibers. Despite this, they’re managed to keep their head above water. Unlike many of the rural breweries we visited, who are now undergoing expansion to keep up with soaring demand, it’s unlikely that Boxing Rock will change much in the coming years.

Given the breakneck speed that everything seems to be changing across the industry, a sense of continuity is novel and welcome. But don't expect the same stability reflected in their beer- it's guaranteed that the styles and iterations coming from this brewery will become more audacious with time.

Sheet Harbour, Nova Scotia: Sober Island, where craft brewing goes rural

A couple of hours outside Halifax lies Sheet Harbour, situated on the scenic stretch of Nova Scotia’s Eastern Shore. Awash with picturesque oceanic views, the community is inhabited by a population of 800 and relies primarily on tourism, fishing and forestry. Although technically part of the Halifax Regional Municipality, it’s approximately 120 kilometres outside of the city centre. It feels like another world altogether, where land, property and family trades are passed down and local roots can be traced back several generations.

Given the size of Sheet Harbour and the distance away from Halifax, it’s incredible to think that there’s a craft brewery making a name for itself here, located in the centre of this small community- but that’s exactly what’s happening. After a mere five months in operation, Sober Island Brewing Company is on the cusp of its first stage of expansion, moving from a 1/2 barrel (bbl) system above the Henley House Pub & Restaurant to a 7 bbl kit in its own purpose-built extension. Land has just been broken on the new site, which is annexed to the Henley House, and the tanks, bought second-hand from Big Spruce Brewing in Cape Breton, are ready to install. Further kit is due for delivery in December this year. Last week, the foundations had been dug and concrete was due to be poured any day.

But this is just the beginning for Sober Island. Rebecca Atkinson, the brewery’s founder, explained that they were at the stage where the expansion was compulsory- with the assistance of another brewer, she had gone from brewing one to several batches at once and there was no more space available to keep up with mounting demand. Even their mobile truck, a converted horse trailer where beer was dispensed at local events and food markets, had its fridges filled to the brim with fermenting beer.

While the brewery’s success has been unprecedented, Rebecca is resolute on winning the local community’s approval and enticing visitors passing through the Eastern Shore to drink her beer at the source. She’s adamant that the business remains in the area and the beer is good enough to beckon drinkers outside of the confines of Nova Scotia’s urban centres. Sober Island proudly promotes itself as a small town brewery with big ideas.

The brewery’s flagship is an oyster stout, something that resonates well with the east coast’s traditions. Using live oysters from local suppliers in the boil, a nod to the lifeblood of most coastal communities, this is the perfect style of beer for Nova Scotia. Naturally, it pairs well with the seafood so amply represented on menus up and down the province, giving it relevance to not only to beer drinkers, but within the cultural tapestry and culinary history of the area.

The beer stands up as well. The oysters lend a light minerality to the body of the stout, which also demonstrates the characteristics of a well-rendered version of the style. Medium-bodied and dispensed on nitro, this is a highly drinkable dark beer with rich aromas of espresso and chocolate and a touch of salinity in the finish from the oysters. It’s a solid achievement by the brewery of a hugely underrepresented variation of a stout in the region.

The brewery’s other styles include an English Golden Rye and a Private Ale ordinary bitter- but Rebecca has yet to settle on the brewery’s core range and indicated that the summer rye might become a seasonal offering. It’s a good session beer with the sunshine in mind- perhaps not as covetable during the harsher, colder months- and the idea of a winter iteration was being considered. I liked its maltiness in particular, which gave it a nice bready nose and a mellifluous body with hints of caramel and only slight bitterness. The colour is hazy golden- and the haze has caused Rebecca endless frustration, as this is a consistent issue with her batches that she can’t overcome. Even after speaking with numerous brewers, the cause of the haze remains a mystery. She recalls only one batch coming out clear, but no notes were taken on this particular brew and it has never been replicated. Regardless, the haze wasn’t particularly noticeable nor problematic for us.

Nearby tourist destination, Liscombe Lodge, has two dedicated lines for Sober Island’s beers and they have on occasion been represented in taprooms in Halifax and Dartmouth, but supply has limited this. While the interim expansion will increase production significantly, Rebecca’s ultimate ambition is to move to brewery to the real Sober Island, which is located approximately ten minutes away from Sheet Harbour. The land there is privately owned and has been passed down through a local family, but they are still in the stages of agreeing an arrangement whereby the brewery can erect a permanent site to include a taproom and space for local events. Rebecca hopes to move to a 20 bbl system on Sober Island by 2019 and draw in crowds to the community.

In the meanwhile, there are more proximate milestones pending for Sober Island. They are foraying into cask- and there was a small batch pilot brew of a beer fermented with locally foraged mushrooms for this purpose- and the first IPA was being fine-tuned on a Grainfather brewing system. Preferring an English style that isn’t dominated by hop flavour, instead opting for a nicely balanced maltiness, this will counterbalance the abundance of aggressively hoppy IPAs that are on trend and prolific across the province. Although the brewery has already dabbled in canning exclusively in crowler-sized vessels, which are 946 ml sharing cans, the oyster stout will be given this treatment in a smaller can soon.

Given her determination to get more beer drinkers out to the Eastern Shore, Rebecca aspires to see the Henley House site offering a growler station soon. And in one further step to keep every component of Sober Island’s beer as local as possible, she hopes to eventually source her malt from local malthouse, Horton Ridge, who supply other Nova Scotian brewers with grain, including Big Spruce Brewing and Tatamagouche Brewing Co on the North Shore. However, it’s currently not within the fledging brewery’s financial scope to afford local malts just yet. Rebecca hopes that the government might eventually offer craft breweries a subsidy to allow for this.

In its current manifestation, as an onsite microbrewery in the Henley House, three styles of Sober Island’s beer can be enjoyed on a tranquil balcony setting in Sheet Harbour where the bustle of Halifax seems like a distant memory. On a Thursday night, the pub is a hotbed of activity, where locals gather for a weekly quiz, a beer and a chinwag. The pub’s menu also offers a satisfying counterpoint to the beer, with all fish  delivered, shucked and prepared that day.

Obvious jokes aside with reference to the Sober Island moniker, this is a brewery founded in rural Nova Scotia, but that hasn't impeded its innovations or growth. In the coming years, Sober Island will be a destination for visitors to fully immerse themselves in the province's culture, where the sea air and the shellfish mingle with hops and malts to create a beer that's manifestly Nova Scotian- and, like the province itself, it's a beautiful thing.

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Worts and all: a novice’s foray into all-grain brewing

Before last week, my only experience brewing beer was in childhood. I spent quality time with my dad- who occasionally knocked up a batch of stout- when he needed an extra pair of dexterous hands. But even then, my responsibility was limited to bottling. Nearly twenty years on, I’m united with most of my generation in proclaiming that I’m a beer aficionado- but I’d never dream of calling myself an expert.

To bolster my knowledge of the brewing process, I enrolled on UBrew’s all-grain brewing course. I received a gift voucher after threatening to delve into the realm of home brewing- while easily said, I was honestly convinced that I lacked the precision, patience and even scientific understanding to run a domestic operation. But suddenly there were no excuses and- realistically- the worst case scenario was that our batch would be unpalatable. Even then, I’d still choke it down as a matter of pride.

The course ran on a Saturday afternoon from 12:30, winding up just after 17:00. We were presented with three beer tokens upon arrival and introduced to our brewer and tutor, Stuart. He revealed that we would be brewing an American-style IPA using four hops: Columbus, Cascade, Mosaic and Simcoe. There were 12 in our group and we were stationed in the heart of the bustling, fully-functional brewery. Using the same professional kit as UBrew members, we were provided with a recipe card that meant zilch to us at first glance.

Beginning with dried out barley, identified as Maris Otter, Stuart explained that this was a neutral malted grain that would showcase the flavour profile of the all-important hops. Acting as the backbone to our IPA, the Maris Otter would also lend a clear colour to the finished glorious product.

We were introduced to the four varieties of hops in either whole leaf or pellet form. Stuart talked us through each one: Columbus was aggressive, bitter and used to balance the sweetness of the malt; Cascade and Mosaic were fruity and would provide juicy citrus flavours; and Simcoe was highly aromatic.

After heating our water in a HLT pot, the barley was added to the mash tun container one heaping bowlful at a time. Working on a single batch as a group, we collaborated on each step. I scooped the barley as my cohorts added water and stirred the resulting porridge-like mash. Stuart supervised, ensuring that we maintained a temperature of 67 degrees Celsius throughout the process. Once Stuart was happy with the mash, it was left to sit for 40 minutes. The introduction of water and heat activates the barley, causing the sugars in the grain to break down- yes, some science is involved, but only in small doses.

After grabbing a quick beer in the adjacent taproom, we were ready to sparge. Stuart explained that sparging involved rinsing out the sugars and compacting the grain by recirculating the wort. This involved one volunteer pouring water over the grain while another caught the drained water, the barley acting as a natural filtration system. The jugs were then exchanged to repeat the process. It took a good fifteen minutes before the water was running clear- with each circulation, we could see that the amount of sediment present lessened and clarity was improved.

The wort was then transferred to a boiling kettle and left to boil for an hour, providing another welcome opportunity to visit the taproom and reward our hard work.

Upon reconvening, the bitter Columbus hops were added to the pot for a 60 minute boil to counterbalance the sugars stripped from the grain. Then in went the Cascade and Mosaic for 10 minutes for flavour, followed by the Simcoe for five minutes for aroma. The boiling process helped eliminate undesirable flavours that develop from the breakdown of acids and proteins- Stewart likened these to baked beans. Definitely not part of the typical IPA flavour profile.

We aerated the wort and cooled it down before introducing the activated yeast. This is where fermentation begins- and in approximately two weeks, we’ll be ready to rock up to UBrew and pick up our share: six bottles each. Stuart would see to further hops being added, a process known as dry-hopping, about three days before it’s bottled for an extra kick of bold, bursting flavour. When prompted to name our brew, the moniker ‘Arch Nemesis’ was proposed in homage to the arches that we were brewing under.

The full day all-grain brewing course is essential for anyone curious about home brewing. Running as a collective tutored session, it’s convivial and communal- everybody got their hands dirty (though some needed more encouragement than others). It provides an excellent basis for understanding the entire brewing process from grain to glass.

Not being particularly scientifically-minded, I was anxious that my understanding would be murky at best, but the process was remarkably accessible. Everyone asked pertinent questions and Stuart was both patient and erudite. The afternoon flew by with ample time for beer breaks between the various sitting and boiling stages. The atmosphere was casual and sociable as well, making me feel that I was among friends- the kind of friends who appreciate a good pint, no less. Good friends.

I’m confident that I left the all-grain course with the ability and know-how to launch into some home brewing experimentation. I’ve already looked into the more intensive Brew Academy courses offered by UBrew, which are more hands-on, focused on more challenging styles and where batches are brewed in smaller groups.

In the meanwhile, I’m putting my home brewing ambitions on hold until I’ve sampled our Arch Nemesis IPA. Not that I’ll tell you that it’s anything but aggressive, hop-forward and a prime iteration of a classic American style IPA, of course.