core strength

core strength

Until recently, when a new brewery opened in Britain, it started with a bitter. It might then go on to brew a best bitter, a pale ale or even a stout but then several years ago something changed. Though some new breweries still follow what could be called the traditional path (mostly brewpubs and rural breweries), it’s becoming increasingly outdated.

On Thursday 13th October I went to a Siren Craft Brew tap takeover in London along with a craft beer Meetup group. To me, Siren Craft Brew was the first new brewery to create completely different beers not just as specials but as its core range. This confident new chapter in beer started in 2012 and never deviated back toward the norm. As a nation, we were obviously ready for this new stage in our drinking culture.

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Siren Craft Brew inhabits the countryside of the home counties. It’s situated in a business park in Finchampstead, Berkshire but unlike rural names like Chiltern, Hall & Woodhouse, Exmoor, St Austell, Timothy Taylor or Hook Norton, it eschews the traditional. There are no wheat sheafs, anchors, clergy or ploughs to be seen on the pump clips. The nostalgia for the maritime and the agricultural has been replaced by a more Mediterranean guiltless pleasure.

 

dscf4832The recipes aren’t about tradition either but indulgence. The basic range consists of silky oat bodies, fragrant aromas and citrussy new world flavours. The mainstay also sees the return to Britain of the rich chocolatey breakfast stout once beloved by labourers, and at the other end of the spectrum, the sour dry-hopped Calypso.

 

The artwork on the bottles is reminiscent not of session beer but of luxury. The siren depicted is a cross between a pre-raphaelite female, a Klimt muse and the character Durham Red from the comic 2000 AD. She even has a touch of the Starbucks logo about her. To my mind, a possible forerunner could’ve been the reclining figure that represents Brewsters Brewery. These women are a world away from tired British smut – the swollen women’s anatomy on Hobgoblin pump clips, naughty seaside postcards, the confessions of a plumbers mate.

Instead, it brought to mind imagery more commonly associated with high-end desserts, perfume or even wine. The website itself alludes to fine wines and some of its aged beers fulfil the analogy: I can imagine someone leaving his guests to reappear from the cellar blowing the dust off a bottle of Siren Craft Brew he laid down several years earlier and announcing the vintage.

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Now on the badges, the artwork still represents sirens but also drops of oil/blood dispersing in liquid like unfurling tendrils with the hop flowers opening out at the edges. I think this was a part of an artistic meme later taken up by breweries like Cloudwater whereby those primary splashes have been deconstructed again into component parts: they’ve become the abstract shapes representing a synaesthesia of taste and aroma in Cloudwater’s own branding. Or maybe it’s just what I read into it.

Siren Craft Brew and its evolving beer range isn’t the only thing that causes me to pause in my tracks, however. There’s also the venue the tap takeover is happening in.

dscf4826The Draft House on Tower Bridge Road is part of a small chain of pubs that beer lovers could only have dreamt of a few years ago. Not only does the beer occupy centre stage like a burlesque act under the bar’s seductive red glow, but there are beer menus too – a phenomenon once known only to Brussels.

 

I pace around the inside. In some ways it’s less comfortable than a pub. It’s certainly less intimate. The bar doesn’t have a landlord or landlady but a shift manager. There aren’t any dogs sprawled out on the floor, and yes, there is a lot of neon which I hate whether in its pre-ironic, actual ironic or post-ironic form. It also has hideous 1970s style goblet patterns on the wallpaper. Some of the seating is like an American diner. The signage for food and events is like a cinema foyer. The dimmed lights bathing each section are the hue of the coloured bulbs of an underground laboratory. Somehow these flights of ague and distemper balance each other out into a welcoming warmth

Along with the tested comfort of Sound Wave, Broken Dream and Liquid Mistress on tap, there is their chilli beer 5-Alarm, Pompelmocello – a grapefruit IPA, Amigos Britanicos – a farmhouse ale with lime, honey and chilli, and Tidal Wave – a 10% IPA based on a barrel aged cask of Sound Wave.

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The grapefruit IPA didn’t taste like the Citra hop as I’d imagined, but is refreshing like the oval cells in citrus flesh are exploding on the tongue. It’s cool and sharp like zest spray. The Tidal Wave reminds me of the orange cream centres in chocolate assortment boxes combined with the cool freshness of orange peel.

From Siren’s vast portfolio, I’ve drunk beers aged on cedar wood, gorged on the clay-like depth of Ryesing Tides and wrestled with their braggot Uncle Zester. I’ve been soothed by their tea-infused beers, tantalised by their peach cream IPA and been given a wedgie by their black Brett Gose. I’ve downed seaweed and cloudberry beer, sipped a dessert of cacao nibs and cypress wood and kept vampires at bay with their blackberry IPA.

Could it be that these challenging and, frankly, mad beers become the core range of other breweries in a few years time? They could be the new norm just as the bitter, best bitter and stout were of the recent yesteryear.

Getting a brew on: tea-infused beers

 
Coffees with heads you could stick flakes into have usurped our dainty cups of tea. When visiting people’s homes, tea was always the default offering. Coffee was a backup choice – back there with cocoa, hot chocolate and Ovaltine. Perhaps Britain’s decline in the world correlates with the dearth of raising our little finger. 
 
Beer and coffee hybrids can be quite special. The alcohol relaxes and loosens you out, the coffee stimulates and hones you to a point. I find that on occasion the mixture of booze and caffeine can bring on a headache – especially if its ABV pounds into double figures.
 
This vertical tasting sees beers from Siren Craft Brew in Finchampstead, Hammerton Brewery in Islington and Pope’s Yard Brewery in Watford. Each different beer style has been blended with the herbal, the relaxing and the invigorating: tea.
         
 
 
Siren Craft Brew – Vermont Tea Party – bottle conditioned 3.6%
 
loose leaf pale ale with earl grey tea and lemon zest 
 
 
This beer is based on Siren’s original tea beer – Love of Work. The yeast is from Vermont. Citrus zest has been used to complement Chinook, Citra, Equinox and Amarillo hops. 
 
Decanted, the colour is lemony and turgid. The head rocks up like white nougat. You can hear it popping like Rice Crispies as it declines.
 
On the nose I certainly get the lemon zest but also some dark gritty malt like pumpernickel bread. The carbonation is zinging. 
 
The malt in the aroma isn’t reflected on the palate. Lemon is the strongest taste that comes through. It’s easy-going, maybe not surprising considering its svelte ABV.
 
I like it. The beer made no claims of having a complicated character. It’s perfect for sipping outside in the summer – ideal for watching Wimbledon. The refreshment’s similar to a lime cordial or a lemon squash with the added “herbal high” of the tea. I do get a calming feeling; my heart rate feels as though it’s slowing.
 
photo source: Wikipedia


The leaves of the traditional tea plant – Camellia Sinensis – contain L-theanine linked with reducing mental and physical stress, improving cognitive performance and lowering blood pressure. When brewers dry-hop, it’s virtually the same process as adding tea leaves to hot water. The heat teases out the oils and flavonoids.
 
 
 
Hammerton Brewery – Baron H – bottle conditioned 5.8%

earl grey black IPA
 
Baron H is short for Baron Howick, aka Earl Grey – the Prime Minister the tea is named after. This ale is hopped with Chinook, Cascade, Mosaic, Columbus and Summit. 
 
The colour of the ale is deepest cola burgundy. The head is beige and beautiful; it builds high into a whisked batter of mismatched bubbles.
 
The aroma is appetising: a mixture of bergamot, ginger and chocolate malt. It smells more like a seed-based or wholegrain snack bar.
 
First sip is like a draught of coffee but it harbours friends with benefits. You’re led through a solenoid able to shoot you down three legs: the calming tea earthiness, the buzzing roast caffeine hit or the sweet stout creaminess. In fact, you’ll travel down each simultaneously. 
 
It has a smooth malty mouthfeel too but the carbonation gives it vitality. There’s even a fennel note – presumably from the earl grey. There’s also a mild Marmite note (I’m a lover rather than a hater btw) and an zincy mineral water edge.
 
There’s loads going on but it’s well compiled and eminently moreable. You’l feel sated at the end.
 
photo source: Wikipedia


Tea today is a varied creature. For one thing, unlike coffee beans, it isn’t actually anything specific. Different teas (more accurately “tisanes”) are made from different plants, buds, petals, fruits, roots, leaves and stems. In the last week alone I’ve had peppermint, stinging nettle, popcorn and roast almond tea.
 
 
Pope’s Yard Brewery – LSP – bottle conditioned 10.2%

lapsing souchong porter 
 
 
This porter is made with many malts – Maris Otter, Crystal, torrified wheat, roast barley and black and chocolate malt. Target and Golding hops are then used with molasses.
 
The beer in the glass is pitch black and impenetrable to light. All I can see is the reflection of my nose made bulbous by the glass’ curves. There’s a brief head the colour of brown sugar that releases a sigh as it goes down; high ABV beers don’t often retain a mousse.
 
On the nose I get bitumen and liquorice. It smells like a rich dark dessert. It’s tantalising. The liquid when you rock it back and forth is viscous – again, no surprise for such a boozy heavyweight.
 
When I sip it with my schnoz almost touching the surface of the beer, I get peripheral minty notes on the inhale and get memories of Vicks VapoRub. You can feel the alcohol pixellate you but thankfully you can’t taste it. Bergamot comes through as you down it. It’s sticky on the lips like figs and there’s a taste a bit like biro ink.
 
On the palate it’s tangy with a fruity spiritous edge – stewed dark fruits – plums, blackberries, damsons, and black cherries. It reminds me also of the brandy you get in Kirsch chocolate liqueur sticks
 
It doesn’t weigh as heavy as you might think but considering the punch it packs, isn’t quite as interesting or intense as it could be.
 

Conclusion?
               
 
The Lapsang Souchong porter is still worth investigating but outmatched in this taste-off. With another palate, another mood and another climate these thoughts could change.
 
My runner up would be Vermont Tea Party for its sunlight. The brewery is building a portfolio of bold recipes that occupy each weight division. This beer’s been brewed at the right time of year and quite a few hours could be whiled away on this. I think it could also be great on cask. I will seek it out for this summer’s beer garden sittings.
 

Baron H definitely wins this session. There’s so much going on you can dine out on it but it’s not so heavy you couldn’t have a several of them. It’s just right for its bottle dose. Each sip is a short cruise around the senses. I love how none of the characteristics overwhelm one another. I think it would go really well with an evening of Scandi crime drama on TV and a slice of coffee cake.