Beavertown Extravaganza 2017: paving the way for modern UK beer festivals

All eyes were on the inaugural Beavertown Extravaganza, an ambitious venture held across two sessions between the 8th and 9th September. Held at London Printworks in Canada Water, a former newspaper printing factory with 119,200 sq ft of floor space, the festival was a showcase of craft beer involving over 70 breweries from across the globe.

The Extravaganza was more than an excuse to overindulge, as Beavertown Brewery invited Good Beer Hunting to curate a schedule of insightful industry talks and discussions as part of the Symposium, which ran across both days. Guests included keynote speakers Steve Grossman, brand ambassador for Sierra Nevada Brewing Company, and Beavertown founder Logan Plant. Panel interviews with brewers and brewery representatives offered an analysis of trends and the state of craft beer today. 

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The Extravaganza attracted crowds of 4,000 attendees per session and tickets sold out months in advance. For £55, ticketholders were entitled to unlimited 100ml pours throughout their seven hour drinking slot. There were 16 food vendors on hand from KERB, London’s leading rally of food trucks, which included offerings from the likes of Burger & Beyond, Mother Clucker and Decatur.

To ensure that everything ran smoothly, Beavertown did their homework in recent months– they were in attendance at Mikkeller Beer Celebration Copenhagen to understand the minutiae of what makes a successful beer festival. They also ran a series of ticketed events in their taproom involving Trillium Brewing Company, giving drinkers a rare opportunity to sample beer from the venerated Massachusetts brewery in the UK.

It was a steep learning curve for the brewery after being on the end of a torrent of complaints from attendees following their Be(aver) My Valentine beer festival in February 2016. The free event saw an unprecedented number of revellers show up, causing hours of queuing for entry, and the industrial lot lacked facilities to cater to such great crowds. The feedback –especially the scathing online gripes– was clearly sobering for the brewery. For a large-scale event such as the Extravaganza, some mistakes were patently not going to be repeated.

Beavertown Extravaganza 2017

At Canada Water station, volunteers were on hand to usher the Extravaganza crowds to the nearby venue. Arriving at the factory, there was no queue for entry and large groups arrived at least an hour in advance to line their stomachs. Many lingered outside the entrance to the first room in anticipation of the session start time. When the doors were thrown open, individuals predictably sprinted towards the stalls of Swedish gypsy brewers Omnipollo and Brooklyn's Other Half Brewing Company.

For those who continued beyond the Rocket Room, they then encountered the Rainbow Room, where each of this year’s Rainbow Project beers could be sampled. These beers are an annual release of transatlantic collaborations between UK breweries and a different country each year, with seven US breweries participating in 2017. Two stalls stood as the end of this thoroughfare area, bathed in ambient purple light.

Walking through to the Skulloon Room, ample seating space was arranged around a Routemaster emblazoned with a Beavertown banner. Queues quickly amassed for Trillium, Three Floyds Brewing Co, Modern Times Beer and Cloudwater Brew Co while other fantastic offerings from California’s Green Cheek Beer Company and Cellarmaking Brewing Company and Toronto’s Bellwoods Brewery required no wait.

Beavertown Extravaganza 2017 J. Wakefield

The UFO Room didn’t attract the same snaking queues, and while Jester King Brewery from Texas and Miami’s J. Wakefield Brewing drew in crowds, they were swiftly serving drinkers. Volunteers manned the stalls, some working alongside brewers, an army clad in a tie-dye t-shirt uniform. About 150 volunteers had signed up for both days respectively, working one session in exchange for a free ticket on the alternate day, and ensured that lines kept moving.

Breweries were pouring beer from two taps, some offering six beers and others offering four during each session. Unsurprisingly, the most sought after stalls were quick to run out- take Omnipollo, for instance, who ran dry within a few hours each day. Friday saw a number of stalls empty out before the end of the night, a matter that caused uproar online. Some attendees complained that given the £55 ticket price, they should have a decent selection of beer pouring well into the night. Beavertown took this criticism on-board for the Saturday session, ensuring that stalls had Neck Oil and Gamma Ray to fall back on once their kegs were finished.

Beavertown Extravaganza 2017

The selection of beers available from US breweries at a UK festival was unparalleled – and the abundance of fresh and notable beers wasn’t limited to the most hyped breweries in attendance. Yes, some of the most memorable beers did require a wait, including Zombie Dust from Three Floyds, a hazy single hop pale ale with big resinous, juicy flavours; the rich and boozy Vietnamese Speedway from Alesmith Brewing Company; and the beautifully tart and fruity SpontanPentadrupleblueberry from Mikkeller.

No waiting was required for the Haterade Berlinner from J. Wakfield, perfectly imitating the bubble-gum flavour profile of a fruit punch Gatorade, and the intensely drinkable Appreciation Barrel-aged Saison with boysenberry from Sante Adairius Rustic Ales, which burst with dry sour cherries and farmhouse funk. Finally, Heavy Lord, a collaborative effort between Beavertown and Three Floyds, a Bourbon barrel aged imperial stout with cacao and vanilla, was served on cask and draught. Dispensed on cask, it was exceptional, allowing the coffee and vanilla notes to shine.

Quibbles aside, the ambiance of the Extravaganza surpassed the atmosphere from many more established – and expensive – beer festivals. Spread out across the expansive Printworks venue, there was generous seating and room for movement or general loitering with a drink in your hand. The music came in lively bursts and even the toilets were beyond sufficient for 4,000 people. The KERB food village merits further acknowledgment, ensuring that a variety of cuisines were represented and dietary requirements were catered for.

The crux of where Beavertown succeeded and recent festivals have underwhelmed has everything to do with the details; the venue, still equipped with giant abandoned printing presses, brimmed with character and food options had been carefully vetted. The energy of the crowd was palpable, and even for those not prepared to commit themselves to a lengthy queue and instead floated between stalls, none of the beers disappointed. Despite the size of the event, it wasn't soulless. It found the pulse of a zeitgeist: the resurgence in popularity that independent breweries are enjoying right now across the country.

The Beavertown Extravaganza made a rousing debut and for the details that missed the mark, these will hopefully be ironed out in time for the 2018 follow-up. But on the whole, this is an enormously welcome addition to the beer calendar that further solidifies the position of London as a global craft beer capital.

The Five Points' Brick Field Brown launch: Pete Brown and respecting malts

Many beer drinkers are hesitant to admit that they’re cask-dodgers. A line of hand pumps at the bar doesn’t always parallel to the allure of something on keg, especially for the drinker with a modern and adventurous palate. They’re open-minded to cask ales, but the siren call of a new style- or perhaps an arsenal of American hops- is sexier. This seems to be especially relevant with the younger generation of drinkers, who weren’t weened on Newcastle Brown or other once ubiquitous British staples down the pub.

And then there’s a demographic who didn’t grow up in Great Britain at all, and have settled in London, met with its burgeoning brewing landscape, where every neighbourhood has a taproom or bar proffering a series of British breweries making American, German or experimental styles. These drinkers didn’t stand a chance- they were thrust into the jaws of a ‘craft revolution’, where rotating kegs promise a shifting canvas of infinite beers.

Yes, we all have our favourite dependable beers, often squirreled away in our fridges at home, but a novel choice pulls us in with gravitational force. Then the fear of missing out takes control, a side effect of hours spent trawling through beer blogs, Twitter newsfeeds or beer rating apps, always on the hunt for a new release, a seasonal or small batch beer when available. But if they’re not, we’re happy to revisit our preferred IPA.

Some beer drinkers might not identify with this struggle, but there’s an undeniable discomfort with real ales for others- and it’s not because we don’t appreciate cask ales. We know that, by definition, they are unfiltered and unpasteurised; the majority of beer aficionados have developed a palate for live beers and aren’t troubled by the notion of a presence of yeast in our pint. So why are we so uncomfortable with cask?

Well, beer writer Pete Brown has a theory: British breweries simply aren’t making commendable examples of traditional British styles. He blames our very British outlook for this- which, especially within the culinary and imbibing realms, sees us looking outwards rather than in. We have an appetite for what everyone else has because we deem our attempts insipid in comparison. While he speaks of traditional styles of British beers in general, this is intrinsically linked to cask ales. For many, it’s the malty sweet ales with little hop character that just don’t appeal. So, Brown asks, why don’t we strive to improve?

Speaking at the launch of The Five Point Brewing Company’s Brick Field Brown on cask at the charming The Harp pub in Covent Garden, Brown extrapolated on this dilemma. Take this beer, a traditional brown ale that’s been amplified for modern tastes. On keg, it exemplifies wonderful aromas of roasted malts and caramel with a line-up of chewy maltiness, chocolate, nuts and coffee. A nuance of earthiness from Willamette hops also shines through. On cask, it’s completely transformed. It maintains the complex nose and profile without a blast of carbon dioxide pressure. The chocolate aromas come to forefront and are more detectable in this form.

Vito, the Five Points brewer responsible for the Brick Field Brown, briefly spoke about his inspiration to pay homage to a style of beer that he was passionate about. It has taken an Italian brewer from a British brewery to appreciate the form of a brown ale- so perhaps Brown is correct in his supposition that as Brits, we’re too busy looking elsewhere for a muse. Vito carefully explained that in this beer, the malt bill is the nucleus- he used seven malts in the grist, all British, to impart a depth and complexity to the body and mouthfeel. The hops, Willamette are American- but this was for the sake of the consistency that they provided in comparison to British varietals. Finally, the Brick Field Brown is a southern brown ale- characterised by a darker hue and a sweeter profile with strong coffee and chocolate notes when compared to its northern cousin.

Brown picked up on the starring role of malts in British brewing, regaling the crowd with the conception story of Sierra Nevada’s Pale Ale, the seminal beer often credited for popularising the craft beer movement in the United States (and is still the second best selling craft beer in the country). It’s told that the beer spawned from a botched attempt to recreate Fuller’s Brewery's ESB, demonstrating the influence that British styles have across the pond.

Our obsession with hops has resulted in drinkers overlooking the crucial role that malts contribute to beer. Brown joked that these days, everyone has a favourite hop- just as five years ago, everyone was partial to a particular style of wine. To showcase more British styles, we have to consider malts as a key component to our enjoyment of a beer; this might especially be the case after a faltering of the value of Sterling post Brexit, when access to American hops might be curtailed and British hops- with their more earthy and subdued flavour notes- are readily available.

Vito predicted a movement towards more subdued styles of beer in the coming years, with lagers stealing the glory from aggressive IPAs. Perhaps this shift away from American beers will also see a proliferation in British styles. In turn, we might see resurgence in cask beers as we develop a palate for malty styles, so it might be time to embrace the hand pump.

After all, it’s more difficult to disguise a bad beer with a focus on malt- there’s nothing hidden behind a judicious dry-hopping here. So we might have a lot of delicate and complex renditions to look forward to. 

I was kindly invited to attend the Brick Field Brown launch by the Five Points Brewery.

London Beer City 2016: a round-up of ceremonies

As quickly as it arrived, bringing elation into the hearts of London’s beer drinkers, London Beer City 2016 came to a thunderous conclusion. It concluded with the fourth London Craft Beer Festival, but there was a succession of events that unfolded across ten days in August- and each one was varied and unmissable in its own right.

While it was physically impossible to attend everything billed in the schedule, I participated in a good cross-section of this year’s offerings. Almost a week later- and after a well-earned repose from the amount of beer consumed and socialising - I’m ready to recapitulate some of my personal highlights.

From 5 – 14 August- The London Beer Hunt: Undertaken alongside friends at Honest Brew, I set out on a wild goose chase around East London, ricocheting from pub to pub equipped with only a map and some cryptic clues. We collected a series of words from five stops to reveal a password, entitling us to a free 2/3 pint of the London Beer City pale at the final venue. Apps and smartphones were permitted, so we were never left in the lurch, but the real fun came from the expedition itself- I discovered some unfamiliar spots with killer selections of beer flowing, including The King’s Arms , where we worked our way through their Sierra Nevada Brewing Company tap takeover and tactfully secured their last can of Mikkeller's Hallo Ich Bin Berliner Weisse Sour Cherries. We also managed to swill examples from Siren Craft Brew and Forest Road Brewing Co along the way, making the Beer Hunt a very fruitful endeavour.

Saturday the 6 August- The London Beer City Opening Party: held at The Five Points Brewing Co’swarehouse yard, I penned an in-depth overview of this event here. This was the perfect harbinger of things to come- I caught up with some old friends, met some new ones and tried a range of impressive beer. Each of the tasting sessions were first-rate and gave the opportunity to sample some exciting and rare examples from Beavertown Brewery’s Phantom Series and the Tempus Project, revisit some favourites from Five Points and further appreciate the excellent range at Fourpure Brewing Co. The weather was tremendous and the rotating beers- over 40 throughout the afternoon- kept the atmosphere buzzing as kegs were switched over.

Sunday the 7 August- The Hangover Club with Northern Monk at The Duke’s Head: Emceed by beer writer Matt Curtis, this was the ideal event following the opening party, allowing us to nurse our hangovers in a very congenial setting. In the presence of Brain Dickson, brewer from Northern Monk Brew Co, a group of us were treated to a smoked porter brewed especially for the event, a punchy Bloody Mary, the new Smallbanger shandy from Square Root Soda and a journey through some of Northern Monk’s range. A mini-podcast interview was recorded onsite and there was free-flowing banter in the environs of The Duke’s Head, a pub that purveys a commendable section of local beer.

Wednesday the 10 August- New Zealand Embassy and Hellzapoppin Launch with Yeastie Boys and Signature Brew at The Commercial Tavern: In advance of undertaking the London Beer Hunt, our team convened at the Commercial Tavern on a very special night- it perhaps wasn’t that serendipitous, as it transpired that a large contingency of our team were Kiwis. Irrespective of this, we showed up with plenty of time to sample the excellent range of beers showcasing New Zealand breweries, including Hellzapoppin from The Yeastie Boys, a hot smoked IPA that packed a wallop of heat and barbecue char. We also had a sneaky sip of Gunnamatta- a Yeastie Boys classic- and tried the Anticipation, a Japanese rice beer on cask and collaboration with Signature Brew. The apex of the evening was meeting Stu McKinlay, one half of the transoceanic Yeastie Boys duo, who is one of the friendliest and sprightly brewers in the business.

From 12 – 14 August- The London Craft Beer Festival: East London’s Oval Space hosted the climax of London Beer City 2016, welcoming over thirty breweries to proffer their most exciting and faithful core beers to a teeming group of enthusiasts. Across three days (and six sessions), drinkers had the opportunity to sample some rare and small-batch beers in addition to some more innovative iterations. Again, I wrote extensively about the beers that I tried across two afternoons here, but there were some perceptible trends, including: barrel aging, fruit-infused sours and some seriously moreish stouts. The cask yard, sponsored by Fuller’s Brewery, was a nice addition and held a plethora of treasures, including Dark Star Brewing Co’s Espresso Stout. As far as a closing ceremony goes, it was a befitting one that brought industry and non-industry types together in celebration of the evolution and growth of London’s beer culture.

This is only the briefest of round-ups of the incredible events that took place from the 5 - 14 August 2016 for London Beer City, but hopefully it pays an adequate homage to another successful festival. If nothing else, let this whet appetites for next year’s edition, which will undeniably be more expansive with even more events crammed into ten days.

London Craft Beer Festival 2016: a review

Last week, I recounted my experience at the London Beer City 2016 opening party. This set a convivial tone for the ten day event and it was only befitting that it concluded on equal terms.

Enter the London Craft Beer Festival, spanning across three days over six sessions from the 12-14 August in East London’s Oval Space. Over thirty breweries were represented, ranging from local familiars to lesser known International brewers. Both keg and cask were featured- Fuller’s Brewery sponsored an entire Cask Yard- and a pop-up bottle shop from Beer Merchants was on site, brimming with rarities to take home. Attendees were beer lovers of every ilk, migrating from stand to stand, sampling and deliberating as they went.

The LCBF, now in its fourth year, has nearly outgrown its britches. Most sessions sold out in advance and the size of the crowds has perceptively grown from previous years. Even the Friday afternoon trade session- habitually a smaller, more casual affair- was teeming with passionate aficionados unconnected to the beer industry. 

Glorious summer weather persisted throughout the weekend with temperatures lingering in the low-to-mid twenties well into the evenings. Industrial fans brought some relief as the main space began to feel like a greenhouse, but there was also ample outdoor space. This included a terrace where Fourpure Brewing Co was set up, perfectly positioned for drinkers who had escaped the stifling heat. The Cask Yard also afforded refuge from the crowds, hosting live music on a small stage and boasting a more low-key ambiance.

Each brewery present at the LCBF alternated their kegs for each session. Magic Rock Brewing Co proffered The Rule of Thirds IPA on Friday and Saturday saw Rhubarbella, a rhubarb braggot. Brew by Numbers dispensed their 14|03 tripel, Ella, late Saturday night, but Friday afternoon drinkers eagerly flocked to taste π|07 from their Pilot Series, a mixed fermentation saison hopped with Enigma, Nelson and Motueka. These examples only scratch the surface of the shuffling, but every session brought another extensive checklist of fresh beers to sample.

I had the privilege to attend three sessions across the weekend and was in a perpetual circuit, tasting everything that caught my eye or was brought to my attention, especially during the trade session. Friday heralded some exemplary beer from a powerhouse bill of breweries. My personal highlights were counterbalanced with some disappointments and, admittedly, my preferences were influenced by the clinging humidity. I generally favoured saisons, pale ales and sours.

I particularly enjoyed the Framboise BA Syrah from Bermondsey’s Anspach & Hobday, a sour/wild ale with qualities of a sublime thirst-quencher: it boasted a juicy, pleasant tartness and finished with bone-dry crispness. Denmark’s wunderkind brewery, To Øl, also had a raspberry beer on: the Roses are Brett saison. It was a deep ruby colour with more sourness on the nose than the Framboise, but revealed the same soft tartness from the fruit and a sharp, refreshing finish.

The aforementioned Brew by Numbers π|07 mixed fermentation saison was a beautifully balanced summer libation that favoured honey-like sweetness from the tropical hops over lip-puckering tanginess. Perhaps the most surprising saison iteration of the day was a spontaneous collaboration between Wiper and True and Partizan Brewing Ltd- I was keen to sample the former’s Barley Wine Keeper Beer, but held some reservations about a sweet drink boasting an ABV of 10%. I was offered a sample blended with Partizan’s Raspberry Lemon saison with the assurance that it married well. The result was crisp raspberry lemonade, the sweetness of the barley wine tempered by the tartness and soft carbonation of the saison. A future collaboration, perhaps?

One of the stars of LCBF was irrefutably Omnipollo, the terrifically imaginative brewers from Sweden, and their Bianca Mango Lassi Gose soft serve. Their Mango Lassi gose, an explosively juicy beer with mango pulp and a hint of sea salt, was topped with a swirl of soft serve ice cream. It was idiosyncratic and popular- given the Sahara-like conditions inside the venue, this hybrid beer/soft serve drew an perpetual queue throughout both the Friday and Saturday sessions.

Cloudwater Brew Co generated a frenzy of anticipation as the Saturday afternoon session kicked off; the new versions 6 and 7 of their ever-transforming DIPA, both relying on a different strain of yeast in fermentation, were available. Although drinkers made a beeline to their stall, the kegs lasted for two hours. The version 6 seemed to sway most palates, demonstrating explosive fruity notes that were sweet, tropical and dangerously palatable, its ABV masked entirely. My preference was the version 7- albeit somewhat controversially. The huge fruit characteristics were dialed down and there was a pleasantly bitter finish that achieved a perfect balance. Both were intensely drinkable, however.

During the Saturday session, Weird Beard Brew Co were dispensing some notable beers, most notably the Hops Maiden England, an English pale ale showcasing UK hop varietals- this version featured Olicana, UK Cascade and UK Chinook hops. It was a shift away from the earthy and malty profiles of traditional English ales; instead, it exerted more character with citrus and resinous qualities associated with US varieties. We later tried their newly launched imperial IPA, Defacer- an assault of Sorachi Ace lightly tempered with toffee and malty notes. But the hops prevailed- I’m a fan of Sorachi Ace and this was serious rocket fuel.

The Beavertown Brewery stall was also a hub of activity, serving some rare examples from their Phantom series, which focuses on infused Berliner Weisse and gose styles. I spotted the Dame Melba Phantom (peach and raspberry), Pearvert Phantom (pear and gooseberry), Yuzilla Phantom (yuzu and dried lime), St Clements (Blood Orange and Lemon) and Earl Phantom (dry-hopped with Earl Grey tea). From the recent Tempus Project, the brewery's experimentation with wild yeast and bacteria and barrel aging, both collaborations with Founders Brewing Co briefly appeared- the Brux and Claussenii Brettanomyces IPAs- and also the Deimos, a sherry barrel aged Weizendoppelbock. Those that I was fortunate enough to catch were equally impressive- all of the Phantoms were deliciously sour and intensely flavoursome.

Turning to darker beers and harking back to Beavertown, their 'Spresso scotch barrel aged imperial espresso stout was a potent hit of rich espresso, proving highly aromatic and intensely smooth on the palate. The devilish Nao Pecan Mudcake stout from Omnipollo is more of a liquified dessert than a beer- and perilously drinkable. Yellow Belly, a peanut butter biscuit stout collaboration between Buxton Brewery and Omnipollo, was just as moreish with a harmonious blend of sticky sweet and savoury flavours.

The Cask Yard made its maiden appearance at LCBF this year- located only a short jaunt from Oval Space, it was still overlooked by many attendees. We were free to work our way through a vast range, including Sierra Nevada Brewing Co’s Torpedo IPA , Double Summer from the Yeastie Boys Brewery and Fuller's and the Espresso Stout from Dark Star Brew Co, which retained a complex spectrum of characteristics from the expresso beans. It was reminiscent of a cold brew coffee- mellow sweetness without lingering acidity.

As each session unfolded, I found myself revisiting the same beers in succession. Despite feeling that I’d undertaken a drinking odyssey of epic proportions, I missed some laudable beers and overlooked some breweries entirely. But as my stamina waned, I was drawn towards the dance floor and the real spirit of LCBF resonated with me: I was drinking great beer in the company of great people.

So there you have it: London Beer City 2016 came to a close at the London Craft Beer Festival with a group of us belting out Together in Electric Dreams, hugging glasses of Brew by Numbers’ 14|03 Tripel. It's not difficult to see why it drew such large crowds this year and leaves me wondering how it will evolve to meet the increased interest in 2017.