Goose Island LDN Block Party 2017: breaking into the mainstream

Back for a second year, Goose Island Brewery's LDN Block Party returned to Red Market in Shoreditch last weekend, bringing beer, street food and live music in the heart of East London. New and rare beers were available to ticketholders in the confines of the urban outdoor event space, where bars and a line-up of bands entertained a spirited crowd.

Goose Island LDN Block Party

The Block Party epitomises what an enormous event budget can deliver: an ample selection of beer, including a selection of rare, barrel-aged styles, a well-known indie band and an enthusiastic team representing the brand behind every bar. Goose Island, owned by Anheuser-Busch InBev, pulled out all of the big stops and repeated the success of last year’s inaugural LND Block Party, and the event – with a £10 entry fee – sold out days in advance.

The crowd was a combination of beer drinkers and gig goers – although these weren’t mutually exclusive. There were just as many revellers there for the headlining act, White Lies, as there were for the drinks. The main stage side bar was met with a constant flow of people, while the more tucked away bars – concealed in adjacent rooms or requiring some exploration – remained manageable. Wayfaring paid off, as the Bourbon County Stout and sour beers didn’t require much of a wait.

Goose Island LDN Block Party

The House of Funk, an indoor bar emulating the noisy ambiance of a nightclub, was serving up the Goose Island vintage ales range, from the wild ale Lolita, with puckering tartness from raspberries added to the wine barrel, to Halia, a farmhouse ale aged in wine barrels with whole peaches. Visitors were treated to a spread of four cheeses paired with four ales. They were also given the opportunity to discuss the menu with an Advanced Cicerone, Jonny Tyson, who was behind the bar.

Goose Island LDN Block Party
Goose Island LDN Block Party

Once of the upstairs spaces was christened Blocktoberfest, where a jovial, lederhosen-clad host welcomed guests. Here, the new collaboration between Goose Island and German brewery Spaten Brauerei, also part of the AB-InBev family, the 6.3% unfiltered Keller Märzen, was a traditional dark German lager. It was apt for the time of year and boasted sweet caramel notes from the darker malt, followed by a rush of a warming alcohol. It was a surprisingly strong beer, but ideal to wash down hotdogs from Engine Hot Dogs, conveniently located beside the bar.

Goose Island LDN Block Party

Across the yard was a second upstairs space, this one a bit tighter area. Joining the set-up of tables and chairs was a piano pressed against the bar, where pianists filled the air with a roster of classic singalong tunes in between the live music sets below. Here, the revered Bourbon County Stout was poured by Goose Island Brand Ambassador, Joshua Smith; the 2015 vintage was a velvety chocolate-rich delight.

In addition to this, there was a selection of Bourbon County Brand Regal Rye Stout, Grand Prestige Vatgerijpt and the 2 year reserve Bourbon County Brand Barleywine. Josh also broke out bottles from his personal collection to offer as palate cleansers between the rich, boozy stouts, including Goose Island’s Class of '88 Belgian ale and delightfully sparkling La Bonté with pear from Wicked Weed Brewing.

Goose Island LDN Block Party

As a follow-up, this year’s LDN Block Party was another impressively sleek feat, just as you'd expect from a big American brewery. Goose Island have nailed the format, bringing plenty of beer to keep the crowds going well after the music stops. You have to marvel at the execution of their London-based events, which have channelled a largely mainstream audience keen to experience the event as a whole; not everyone was eking out the unusual or rare, but the was crowd happy to be a part of it with a beer in hand.

A massive thank you to the Goose Island PR team, who very kindly invited me along to this event.

Craft Beer Rising 2017: bringing together craft breweries and big beer

For the fifth year, Craft Beer Rising returned to the Old Truman Brewery in East London, showcasing 170 breweries from the UK and further afield. Proving to be the largest manifestation of the festival to date, an adjacent hall was added to the floor map and the layout was improved to increase the thoroughfare space for roving drinkers.

Public sessions of CBR were attended by 2,000 people from Friday to Sunday - all of which were sold out in advance - and Time Out London was given exclusive first access to a preview session on Thursday night for their readers.

Trade sessions were split across two days, on Thursday and Friday afternoons, open to industry representatives. All of these tweaks – from the size of the event, the number of participating breweries and the additional sessions – demonstrate that craft beer is still drawing in a hugely receptive audience. Of all of the beer festivals in the city, this one engages the largest section of members of the general public – that is, people who drink beer and are perhaps craft-curious –in addition to fully-fledged beer geeks. Some of the latter group scrutinised the commercial nature of the event, which included breweries on the bill that aren’t independently owned (the defining marker of a craft brewery in the United Kingdom).

The second hall and the energy of London breweries

Craft Beer Rising 2017 Hall

It was easy enough to beeline to the stands that were of specific interest. Many of these were hosted in the smaller second hall, which was much less congested and populated by some fantastic London breweries, including Brew by Numbers, Orbit Beers, Mondo Brewing Company and Hammerton Brewery. The main hall was heaving – especially during the Saturday evening session – where big beer and craft breweries wrestled for the attention of drinkers.

While the number of vendors increased this year, it felt like London breweries were still thinly represented. We have nearly 100 breweries operating in the city, but only a handful of these were in attendance. Despite the venue's Brick Lane location, some East London breweries were conspicuously missing, including the Five Points Brewing Company, Hackney Brewery and Signature Brew. The expense of attending CBR is costly for both a stand and the provision of gratis beer for trade sessions; this can be prohibitive or unjustifiable for smaller operations.

Craft Beer Rising 2017 Brewheadz

One of the most energetic and engaged stalls were new to the local scene: Brewheadz, a Tottenham-based brewery and only few months old. Their team of four exuded the tireless passion that you get from a fledgling business and their beers were meticulously turned out. Their Kitchen Porter had coffee notes that were reminiscent of a cold brew, paired with rich chocolate and sticky toffee notes.

Craft Beer Rising 2017 Brew by Numbers

At Brew by Numbers, the 21|08 Pale Ale (Ekuanot & Wai-iti) was a juicy pale bursting with tangerine notes and finishing on a perfect dry bitterness. It was fresh, vibrant and stood out as one of the best pales on offer at the event; unlike some of their recent dank, hazy attempts, this reverted to a more classic APA style and nailed it.

Meanwhile, Hammerton's Baron H was a curious wonder, a black IPA liberally hopped and steeped with Earl Grey leaf, which imparted a subtle earthiness to the beer. It was balanced and easily enjoyed.

International breweries entice crowds

Craft Beer Rising 2017 New Zealand Beer Collective

The flipside of CBR is the International contingency, which grants drinkers to experience craft breweries from across the globe. Australia’s Prancing Pony Brewery has been making a big push in the UK market and had a strong selection of beers, including their India Red Ale, which was crowned the Supreme Champion Beer by the International Beer Challenge judges in 2016. Garage Beer Co from Spain also generated ample praise for their excellent modern styles. Availability of some Belgian beers, including Westmalle Dubbel on tap at the Cave Direct stand and lambics flowing at Boon Brewery, went down a treat. The New Zealand Beer Collective was also a hub of activity, where they were flying through kegs of their Tuatara Brewery Tiramisu Stout.

Collaborations still holding their own

Craft Beer Rising 2017 Deya Brewery

The beer of the festival was indisputably the Deya Brewery Company and Verdant Brewery Co collaboration, High Planes Drifter DIPA, which disappeared quickly in 500ml tallboy cans. It reappeared on Saturday night, causing drinkers to clamber around the stall for it's 8pm launch. The beer is a stunner: a beautiful hazy golden number, replete with juicy citrus notes, intense tropical aromas and a creamy sweetness that is balanced by a clean, bitter kick. This 8% beer is supremely drinkable and redolent of the recent Cloudwater Brew Co's DIPAs, where explosive line-ups of mangoes, citrus and pineapple dominate. Deya are new on the radar of many beer drinkers, hailing from Cheltenham. Verdant have continued to please palates with their juicy pales, so this collaboration really showcases talent from both breweries.

Craft Beer Rising 2017 Wild Beer Co

Another collaboration highlight of the festival was the Wild Beer Co and Magic Rock Brewing collaboration, Men who Stare at Oats, a bretted New England IPA with Lupulin Power and oats in the grain bill. Lupulin is the yellow oil pods inside of a hop cone, where all of the oils and alpha and beta acids are contained. The powder is twice as effective in imparting flavour and bitterness compared to standard hops. This was a complex beer with a body boasting New England characteristics - hazy and murky to the eye - and some big aromas and flavours, including citrus and pineapple with hints of green earthiness and sweet porridge.

Sours and stouts, some of the best of CBR

Some of the most memorable beers of this year's CBR weren't aggressively bitter or ludicrously dry-hopped. Instead, there was an expansive selection of laudable tangy fruit beers and velvety stouts.

Craft Beer Rising 2017 Tiny Rebel

The Cherry Bomb sour on cask from Tiny Rebel Brewing Co was sweet and lip-puckering tart, pouring a glimmering ruby hue. I found this modern spin on a kriek immensely enjoyable, a no brainer for sweltering temperatures. Their Stay Puft marshmallow stout was just as delicious, balancing fruitiness with smokiness and plenty of chocolate notes.

Craft Beer Rising 2017 Laine Brew Co

You can't help but get caught up by Laine Brew Co's unbridled enthusiasm. They brought along some of their small-batch projects brewed in the People Park's Tavern, a favourite boozer sitting on the periphery of Victoria Park in East London. Their effusive playfulness is manifested in their vibrant range and some of the pilot beers were interesting - I enjoyed a Twisted Lips Citrus Gose that packed a huge lemon and lime hit and a hint of salinity. This is a beer to quell those who proclaim that they don't like beer, because, in reality, it isn't very beery at all. But it had huge potential for an effortless summer tipple.

Craft Beer Rising 2017 East London Brewery

Other worthy mentions include the stunning Imperial Stout from East London Brewing Co, a decadent and boozy beer with luxurious notes of sticky dark fruit and intense chocolate with a whiff of citrus, making it easy to swirl around the palate and savour. The limited edition swing-top bottles that appeared at the ELB stand were elegant and impossible to resist.

Goose Island and Fuller's: the breweries in the basement

Located in the bowels of the Old Truman Brewery was the illusive Goose Island Brewery Taproom and the Fuller's Brewery's London Pride pop-up headquarters. The former was a quintessential pit-stop, where attendees could wander in and have a chat with Goose Island representatives, including brewers who had been flown in from Chicago. They would generously refill a glass with our of their vintage ales or - if you had timed your visit to coincide with their Bourbon County Stout being put on - something even rarer. The atmosphere was convivial, with drinkers being coaxed to play games and given ample time and attention from staff when pulling up a seat to the bar.

Craft Beer Rising 2017 Fullers

A talking point of CRB this year was the unveiling of an unfiltered version of Fuller's London Pride on keg. Known as a cask serve staple, this is a modernising of a classic London beer, hoping to tap into the movement of drinkers towards unfiltered pints. Unfiltered is the same foundation recipe of the iconic London Pride, with the addition of dry-hopping for a more full-flavoured drink (and obviously served at a colder temperature). While palatable, it was difficult to compare this beer to some of the more audacious styles and punchy numbers on offer in the hall above.

Where craft and corporate meet

Despite the presence of small, big and international breweries, CBR 2017 demonstrated a palpable sense of community between all vendors and a shared love of good beer. The selection catered to a range of tastes, but the energy from London's own was a remarkable thing.

Drinkers would undoubtedly benefit from a larger local presence; for a significant proportion of the crowd, this is good exposure to the craft breweries of the city's other boroughs. The balance between big beer and craft needs to be fostered to draw in crowds from all sides of the beer drinking spectrum. The one thing that this year's festival solidified was that the appetite for craft beer is still voracious in London and we can look forward to an even larger scale CBR in 2018.

I attended the trade sessions of Craft Beer Rising on a media pass, but paid for tickets for the Saturday evening public session.

2016 in review: Goose Island LDN party and Bourbon County launch

As 2016 draws to a close, it seems appropriate to shine a light on some of the events that unfolded across the past year, but have gone overlooked. This isn’t a critique of how memorable each event was in isolation, but rather an observation of how vast the beer scene in the city has become. By March 2016, the number of new breweries in London increased by 24%, introducing 36 new businesses, and this figure has continued to increase.

Given that the amount of breweries in London currently hovers around 80, there’s no scarcity of occasions to attend, whether it’s attending a launch or accessing a range of beers from a much lauded brewery from outside the city - from Bristol, Manchester or even further afield. It’s been a tremendous year for beer events. Simply put, there just isn’t enough time to divulge them all.

A number of events this year have stood out, but have remained buried in my photo library and fuzzy memory. As the year prepares to take its final bow (or final blow, given the general tendency of 2016 up to this point), it’s fitting to revive the brief snapshots of these eclipsed highlights.

Goose Island: Block Party LDN (Saturday, 24 September 2016)

Goose Island Brewery hails from Chicago and is a macro, part of the AB InBev family, that took great pains to resonate with London drinkers in 2016. The first of these occasions was the inaugural London leg of their annual block party, a sold-out event held in RED Market, Shoreditch. Thousands of revellers were tempted by the promise of street food vendors, a live set from English band Everything Everything and a beer selection that included their much sought after Bourbon County Stout and vintage ales. Brewers were flown over from the windy city and John Hall, founder and CEO of Goose Island, welcomed press to sample the rare beers in advance of the crowds; this included their Sofie and Juliette, the former a saison and the latter a wild ale, and the elusive 2014 Bourbon County in addition to a variation on the original, the Bourbon County Templeton Rye.

The enigma surrounding the Bourbon County drew in a curious crowd of bloggers, journalists and industry friends. The turn-out was due to the rare opportunity afforded to sample the barrel-aged beer in the UK. Stories of people queuing for hours to get their hands on a bottle in the USA drifted across the pond and stirred up sufficient intrigue. 

The rich flavour of the Bourbon County is undeniable. The 2014 batch was redolent of smoked leather, both in aroma and taste, but in a highly pleasant way. With a viscous mouthfeel, this complex barrel-aged stout is loaded with flavours of tobacco, molasses, dark chocolate and espresso. Complex, deep and boozy, it felt worthy of an occasion. Boasting an ABV of 13.8%, it certainly merited one.

The event was a high point of the summer, attracting a group of people who were curious to take a peek behind the Goose Island veil. Given the strength of some of the beers on offer, memories of the event slip into a haze of oompah bands entertaining drinkers, the wafting smells of barbecue and even a moment of clarity where John Hall happily obliged to down an oyster or two in our presence.

This was not only an introduction for many to the Bourbon County, but also a preview of what was to come. 2016 was a momentous year for Goose Island generating a buzz around London, indicative of their intent to start pushing for a market share in the UK.

Goose Island:  Bourbon County Stout launch preview (Thursday, 24 November 2016)

Juxtaposed to the extensive LDN Block Party, Goose Island invited a small group of writers and journalists to sample 2016’s Bourbon County before it was launched for the first time in the UK. Due to be stocked in a single bottle shop in North West London and limited to 100 bottles on the day, the PR machine was in full-throttle. Based on photographs and videos taken on the launch day, Friday the 25 November, it appeared to work - there was a cluster of eager individuals who dedicated their morning to queue for a bottle, which retailed for £20.

On the evening, Joshua Smith, UK Brand Ambassador, and Tim Faith, Innovation Brewer, introduced the Bourbon County, explaining the origins of the concept and tasting notes. Before the 2016 batch was circulated, Tim explained the primary difference between this and last year’s variation: the 2016 has been pasteurised and is the first edition to undergo this treatment. This was due to several bottlings of the 2015 batch that were infected with lactobacillus-related bacteria and recalled; pasteurisation removes any chance of this happening again.

The 2016 batch was tasted alongside the 2015 edition for comparison – while the variations between the two were subtle, they were distinguishable. The 2015 Bourbon County was aged longer in the barrels and the depth of certain nuances and the mouthfeel varied accordingly; the 2016 had a fresher more herbal quality and lacked some of the potent richness of the former, which made it lighter on the palate. Hints of vanilla were more pronounced in the newer edition as well, imparting a mellow sweetness to the beer.

Again, the budget of a macro brewery allowed for decadent touches on the night, including free-flowing taps, KERB vendor Annie Mae's scooping out generous servings of macaroni and cheese and artisan donuts from St John’s Bakery. Goose Island representatives took questions then mingled with the crowd throughout the evening. Attendees were also treated to the new UK release of the Goose Island Winter Ale, but this was overshadowed with the palpable anticipation to tap into the Bourbon County.

Two different events where no expense was spared. It was therefore not terribly surprising when Goose Island announced plans for the opening of their first permanent European site in Balham, a Vintage Ale House. Whether or not Goose Island will continue to invest in these types of glitzy affairs has yet to be seen now that they have a UK base. But it's set a benchmark for UK breweries to perhaps emulate, so we might be seeing similar affairs from our homegrown (and still independent) talents in 2017.

I was kindly invited to both Goose Island events by their PR agency, Shine.

Beer & food pairing: keeping things simple

You’ve probably already noticed, but beer and food pairing events are very much on trend. As far as routine brewery events go, pairing nights are catching up with the abundance of tap takeovers held in pubs across London, which easily amount to several on any given week. Whether it’s a lavish five course meal with drinks curated by a Cicerone-qualified expert, or a more modest monthly beer and cheese night, beer drinkers are discovering how hops, malts and yeast can harmonise with the ingredients used in a dish. Both beer and food recipes can be dissected into a list of individual components, each imparting a distinct flavour. There’s a wide scope for these to play off each other – the trick is finding the perfect pairing.

Demonstrated at the Darker Days III event held at The Duke’s Head at the beginning of the month, Ghanaian food was matched with some surprising contrasts – from barley wine to imperial stouts – and British beer was married with a cuisine influenced by warm climate and some ingredients that aren't indigenous to these shores. Despite being a world apart, the drinks and dishes came together in unison. Warming spices in the barley wine were mirrored in plantain bites, chicken encased within a malt-based batter hummed with the chewy notes of a brown ale and a chocolate brownie was matched with a silky, rich imperial stout.

Some of these flavour combinations are elementary and classic - chocolate will always marry well with a rich, chocolatey stout, for instance. And spicy foods will always call for something clean, like the crispness or a pilsner or an easily downed lager. These innocuous pairing rules aren’t controversial or deemed acquired tastes; slowly people seem to be coming around to the notion that exemplary food can be safely complemented with beer. Despite this, It will undoubtedly be some time before we’re met with anything but a wine menu in an upmarket restaurant. But there are rumblings afoot.

Beer aficionados might curtail red and white wines with confidence and ease, flipping to the back of a hefty drinks menu to see what beers are featured. A recent trip to The Ginger Pig in Brighton saw us doing just that, opting for a balance of local beers from Dark Star Brewing and Gun Brewery in addition to a bottle of wine to accompany an extravagant three course meal. For our mains, we stuck with wine, but in retrospect, the ribeye steak with its creamed shallot and red wine sauce could have withstood a malty red or brown ale, given the depth of the jus. The roast skate wing, a fish dish that would traditionally call for a crisp white, could have equally paired with a pilsner, where there’s little risk of hops dominating the palate and detracting from the lightness of the dish.

Last week, International Izakaya, a food and beer pairing evening, was held in Shoreditch. It was aimed at those in the restaurant industry, foodies and writers. It promoted the beer/food matching concept, emphasising that it applies even with more refined cuisine. For the occasion, four London chefs, including Elizabeth Allen, former head chef at Michelin-starred Pidgin, served up a menu that comprised ‘beer bouches’ and several courses. Each dished was served alongside a selection from a Ciceron-qualified beer sommelier. The beers were rare, including the Halia and Bourbon County Stout from Goose Island’s vintage ales range and Birra del borgo’s L’Equilibrista, a wild sour with pronounced wine characteristics from an Italian brewery. The food was as extravagant as the beers. All was on point, but the simple enjoyment of the marriage between food and drink was lost in the grandiose offerings of the occasion.

A more bare-bones and achievable attempt can be replicated at home. We held a dinner party with friends on the weekend, with homemade tandoori chicken, potato saak with raita, poppadums and coconut rice on the menu. Although the temptation of going against the grain - and what was coherent to my palate - with something smouldering to match the tandoori flavours or perhaps something with an acerbic edge to cut through the spices, it was still a pilsner, the Five Points Brewing Co’s Pils, and the Lightbulb Extra Pale Ale from Verdant Brewing Co that were the clear frontrunners. But maybe that's the trick: not to over-egg things.

Like our meals, which don't need to be convoluted to be delicious, sometimes simplicity is best. But the quality of a beer still makes a difference - other macro brewery pilsners were sampled, but lacked flavour profiles that were pronounced enough to stand up against a fiery tandoori main. While open to the unexpected, there's no denying that a solid pilsner or lager can still enhance a meal, but, like experimenting with styles of beer, there's still room for defying our senses. Suddenly a rich porter with a steak might just make sense.

I was invited to Word of Mouth's International Izakaya beer and food pairing meal at the Hill & Szrok Public House as a guest.