The Treasure of the Sierra Nevada

Sierra Nevada beers served at the White Horse Parson's Green
Sierra Nevada beers served at the White Horse Parson’s Green

There is much talk of consolidation in beer circles at the moment. It seems to received wisdom on both sides of the Atlantic seems to be that the craft beer boom has left us overbreweried, which will inevitably lead to the big global players snapping up bargains by buying out the biggest craft players, while many of the smaller ones will simply fall by the wayside.

I’ve no real idea whether that’s true or not, and no strong opinion on whether or not it’s a bad thing if it is. Anecdotally, I know that a number of smaller brewers in the UK have quietly shut up shop recently, but it’s hard to say if that’s a trend. The nature of business failure is that breweries tend to arrive with a PR fanfare and depart with barely a whisper.

Equally, I know craft purists who vowed that not another drop of Camden Town Brewery beer would pass their lips after the business was sold to AB InBev in 2015, and who have sworn off BrewDog since its founders sold 22% of the company to private equity firm TSG Consumer Partners earlier this year.

Personally, I find that I can enjoy Meantime IPA just as well now that the merry-go-round has stopped and it’s owned by Asahi of Japan, and I have no doubt I’ll continue to enjoy a pint of Young’s Ordinary when Marston’s takes over the brand just as much as I did when Wandsworth’s finest first moved to Bedford under the stewardship of Charles Wells. I’ve worked with at least two entrepreneurs who’ve swanned off with a few mill as a result of flogging the fruits of their labours, and I don’t begrudge them a penny of it – although the fact that I’m still working and they’re not is a good indicator of the extent of my own business acumen. 

Steve Grossman at Sierra Nevada dinner at the White Horse Parson's Green
Steve Grossman at Sierra Nevada dinner at the White Horse Parson’s Green

Nevertheless, it’s also good to know that there are independent breweries out there that stick to their guns. So, I was delighted to accept an invitation recently to a beer and food matching dinner at south west London’s temple of beer, the White Horse at Parson’s Green. The event was hosted by Steve Grossman of California’s Sierra Nevada brewery, one of the true pioneers of the US craft beer movement. The event was part of pub group Mitchells & Butler’s summer craft beer festival, and an opportunity to sample some Sierra Nevada beers we don’t see as often over here as the Pale Ale or Torpedo Extra IPA.

Founded in the 1970s by Steve’s brother Ken, over the years Sierra Nevada has built a repertoire of seasonal and speciality beers, with its passion for hops at the heart of its programme,  that keep it’s loyal customers coming back for more. Sierra Nevada remains resolutely family-owned, with a new generation of Grossmans now coming into the business.  

Steve admitted to me they’d had some “interesting conversations” with bigger players over the years but, in line with the brewery’s commitment to sustainability and long-term investment – Sierra Nevada has won awards for its approach to energy and water use at its two US breweries – there are no plans to change the ownership structure.

Given that Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is a top 20 US beer brand, the Grossmans seem to be doing a pretty good job without outside funding. In the UK, the beers are distributed by Fuller’s, with the flagship beers now a standard part of the back bar fridge range in Fuller’s pubs. 

The menu at the White Horse was:

*Asparagus salad with Sierra Nevada Summerfest

*Palate cleanser – Sierra Nevada Peach IPA sorbet

* Lamb rump with Sierra Nevada River Ryed

* Rhubarb crumble with Sierra Nevada Tropical Torpedo

*Cheese board – Stinking Bishop, Colston Basset blue, Keen’s Cheddar and Innes goats cheese log with Torpedo.

Cheeseboard at Sierra Nevada dinner at the White Horse Parson's Green
Cheeseboard at Sierra Nevada dinner at the White Horse Parson’s Green

Of the beers themselves, the Sierra Nevada Torpedo Tropical IPA  is definitely one I’ll seek out again. Made with Amarillo, Mosaic, Citra, El Dorado and Comet hops, it has wonderful flavours of mango, papaya, and passionfruit to counter the intense hop character. River Ryed has real pepper/spice notes that would, I suspect, make it a beer that would go sublimely with a vindaloo.

Of the food matches, the kitchen team at the White Horse produced superb food, with Sierra Nevada Peach IPA sorbet a real highlight. However, they saved the best for last. The cheeseboard, especially the Colston Basset blue cheese, was an inspired match with Torpedo Extra IPA, with the intensely bitter Magnum, Crystal and Citra hops a true contrast to the rich, sticky sweet/savoury cheese.

So, long may Sierra Nevada stay independent.  Unless they don’t. In which case, f*** it, I’m still having a Torpedo with my Stilton at Christmas.

Sauce for the Goose – the Vintage Ale House opens in Balham

by John Porter

Balham is, as Peter Sellers famously observed, the “gateway to the south”, but it was, a little disappointingly, not the late Goon’s sketch that bought Chicago brewer Goose Island from its home in the cradle of urban blues music to the dubious glamour of South London.

If John Lee Hooker ordered his usual ‘One Scotch, One Bourbon and One Beer’ at the Goose Island Vintage Ale House in Balham, the beer on offer would be from the Goose Island range back in Chicago in his adopted city.

These are, I admit, two completely different introductory paragraphs.  I’m equally fond of them both, but I’m going to struggle to link them, so take your pick.

To business.  In December 2016, the Goose Island Vintage Ale House opened in perhaps unexpected location of Ramsden Road in Balham. Marking the first pub venture for Goose Island outside the Americas, as might be expected the Vintage Ale House serves the brewers core range on draught including Goose Island IPA, Green Line Ale, and Four Star Pils.

More interestingly, also on offer – when available – is the legendary Bourbon County Stout, as well as the seven-strong range of barrel-aged Belgian style beers, dubbed the ‘seven sisters’. These Belgian-inspired beers are aged for 18 months in wine barrels, each with 50lbs of a different fruit added. Each is sold in 70cl champagne-style bottles, and bottle conditioned with a five-year shelf life. The range includes Gillian, named for X-Files actor Gillian Anderson, who once worked at the Goose Island brewpub. Bottled at 9.5% ABV, this farmhouse ale is blended with white pepper, strawberry, and honey.

Other sisters include pale ale Matilda, a 7% ABV farmhouse ale fermented with wild yeast, Sofie, a 6.5% pale ales aged with orange peel, and Madame Rose, a 6.7% ABV brown ale made with wild yeast and aged with cherries.

At the Vintage Ale House, a bottle of one of these beers will set you back somewhere from £18 and £25, and come with suggested food matches rom a bistro-style menu that includes Porter & Molasses Glazed Beef Cheeks or the Roasted Cod and Seafood Fregola.

If that strikes you as a challenging sell to the standard Balham punter, I initially agreed with you. As a native south Londoner who went to primary school a stone’s throw from the location of the Vintage Ale House – if you can throw a stone half a mile -I’d be the last to disparage the area, but even so…

Fortunately, I had the very good luck to be invited to a dinner hosted by Goose Island founder John Hall and president Ken Stout and had the opportunity to ask a few searching questions.

To start, with, why Balham? Although acknowledging that they left the exact choice of location to someone with more local knowledge, John told me: “I spent time in London, and enjoyed the pub scene, way before I opened Goose island. I also spent time in other parts of Europe, and wondered why we didn’t have the same atmosphere and beers in the States.

“The biggest influence on what I did, of any one thing, was Fuller’s. So, I opened a brewpub, and we sold beers of the world, put probably more than anything we sold English style ales, hand pulled.

When the opportunity came to expand, we thought why not go back to London. We’ve had our beers over here since 2002/2003, and over the years as craft beer has become more popular, we’ve done well. London’s huge, and we wanted to find a neighbourhood where we could fit in and establish ourselves, we wanted to be part of a community. That’s part of what we are.”

 Ken points out that “when John started the original brewpubs in Clybourn Avenue in 1988, it was a seedy area – there were ladies of the night, and it wasn’t necessarily the safest part of Chicago. Greg, John’s son, would walk down the middle of the street to get to the pub –  he didn’t want to be on the sidewalk, he wanted to be under lights. But since then that neighbourhood has become a gem.”

I mention that Balham has been through similar changes of its own, for example with gentrification among having seen the once-notorious Bedford Hill tone down its act considerably. Ken said: “I’m not saying we’re her to save Balham. But we’ve been part of the resurgence of the community in Chicago, and we’d love to be part of the resurgence that’s happening in Balham.”

So, what about the audience for those premium beers? John says: “In the States, we really pioneered brewing wine-like beers. When we bought out Matilda and Sofie, we were nervous originally, and we underpriced them, which hurt us little bit. But today, you’ve got beers out there that aren’t as good, that are priced higher.

“We have a selection of our beers here that are as worthy as any wine to go with a great meal. This is where we show people how to do that, show them how proud we are of these beers.”

Ken elaborates: “We’re trying to be part of the elevation of beer. These beers are for the developed palate. They’re influenced by the Belgian tradition but they’re very dry, there is no residual sugar. They’re for a palate that doesn’t want sweet and cloying, they’re tart and dry.”

While walk-in trade will enjoy the draught offer, John expects the vintage beers, paired with food, to attract a destination trade – “it’s going to be word of mouth.” The focus is on staff who understand the beers, along with the presentation, including bespoke stemmed glassware.

Ken says: “Our square footage isn’t huge here, but It’s not just about the number of people who come through the door, it’s finding the right people, those who really appreciate the experience. They become ambassadors without even knowing it, they tell their friends.”

The Balham opening has been made possible, at least in part by the investment in Goose Island by the world’s biggest brewer. AB InBev, which acquired Goose Island in 2011. Ken explains: “Since our partnership with AB InBev began in 2011 we’ve grown almost five times over in terms of volume, just in the US.  Any expansion projects, like the Vintage Ale House in Balham, don’t happen if we’re not succeeding as an individual business unit.”

John says: “I made the decision to sell because they told me, and I believed them, that they were buying us for what we could contribute.  Ken, who I hired many years ago, is now president and running the company, and I couldn’t be prouder, I love the beer, but I love the people even more.”

As for the prospects of further Vintage Ale Houses, Ken acknowledges: “If it works really well we’re going to want to do it in other great cities that have a beer culture. So Brussels would make a lot of sense, Paris would make a lot of sense, so would Rome and Milan.

And taking the concept back to the USA? Ken says: “We don’t really have an answer, we don’t know yet. We’re going to tend this garden and see what works. What can we do back home in Chicago potentially with something like this? It’s exciting to think about.”  John sums up: “I’ll be disappointed if we don’t.”

 

Whisky Chaser: The Glenfiddich IPA Experiment

by John Porter

I have a complicated relationship with whisky, dating back over 35 years to an ill-judged evening in the bar at uni and an early-hours visit to the A&E department at Colchester General Hospital. When the runes are right and the wind’s in the right direction, an unexpected whiff of Scotland’s finest can still summon up memories best left buried, a reaction I’m sure Proust never had to a madeleine.

On the other hand, I love IPA. I loved IPA before it was fashionable, and I’ll still love IPA when the last hipster’s moustache wax has hardened beyond the ability of science to save the density from dragging its wearer to the earth’s core.

So, it was with somewhat mixed feelings that I accepted an invitation to a masterclass to mark the launch of the Glenfiddich IPA Experiment, a collaboration between venerable distiller William Grant & Sons and the upstart Speyside Craft Brewery. Despite the 125-year age gap between William Grant setting up shop in 1887 and Speyside just four years ago, the two family-run enterprise have joined forces in the shape of Glenfiddich malt master Brian Kinsman and Speyside brewer Seb Jones.

The main result of the collaboration is a single malt whisky finished in IPA casks, with the 43% ABV Glenfiddich IPA Experiment now available from selected retailers, and being served in Young’s pubs as part of the pub operators Whisky Tide promotion.

Seb had three tries at creating an IPA before he came up with the flavour he was after. He says: “We did three trial recipes, each was a single hop IPA. The hop that made the grade was Challenger – which is a UK hop similar to that used in the original IPAs. This was serendipitous as the barometer of choice was with flavour profile and cellulose (wood) interaction.”

The resulting beer was kept in American oak casks, which were them emptied and filled with the whisky. That’s a very simple description of a very complicated process, but fortunately we were equipped with a handy, simple-to-follow guide that can explain it far better than I can:

All clear now? Excellent.  What I can do is tell you how the result tastes. Under the watchful eye of both Glenfiddich Ambassador Mark Thomson, as well as Seb Jones himself, attendees as the masterclass has the chance to sample the whisky, the IPA created by Seb to go in the barrels, and also the barrel-aged beer that subsequently emerged.

Taking the whisky first, the essential sweetness of every whisky is the first thing that hit my tastebuds. Beer and whisky are, essentially, the same products – whisky is distilled beer or, more accurately, distilled ale, given that the original distinction was that ale was unhopped and beer had hops added to counteract that sweetness.

On a second sip – always go back for a second sip – the citrus sharpness and fresh hop flavours have definitely had an interesting effect on the whisky.

More interesting was the beer. The original 6% ABV IPA created by Seb is, as he admits himself, fairly in-your-face thanks to the need for the beer to leave a chunk of its essence in the barrel. The earthy, peppery hop notes are up front, with the grapefruit and floral flavours harder to find.

The second beer is far more interesting. Its time in the barrel has knocked the rough edges of the more robust hop flavours to create a rounded, smooth IPA that delivers some unexpected flavours including, to my palate at least, liquorice and vanilla.

Whether whisky and I are every entirely comfortable with each other remains to be seen, but if brewers and distillers working together can create beers of this calibre, I’m definitely on board for the brews.  

Pictured: Speyside brewer Seb Jones and Glenfiddich Ambassador Mark Thomson