Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Beer - Atticus Finch Beer School #2

"I love that this is called 'Beer School', because the word 'school' is the collective noun for a gathering of drinkers", quipped Willie Simpson as he opened the second Blackhearts & Sparrows and Atticus Finch Beer School.

After enviously reading the Eat Drink Stagger blog post about Beer School #1 last year ("Be schooled in all things beery"), I was keen to make sure I didn't miss the next one that came around. When the event was finally announced in February and I saw that the "teachers" for the day would be Willie Simpson (Seven Sheds Brewery and renowned beer writer) and Simon Walkenhorst (Hargreaves Hill Brewing Company), I had purchased tickets before anyone could say Brettanomyces!

After a cool Summer, March 6th was a surprisingly hot and sunny Sunday afternoon. The wife and I arrived at Atticus Finch a little after the start time of 3pm (Sorry we're late, Sir. Public Transport, ya'know). Thankfully, the class was yet to begin.

The 50 pupils gathered throughout the courtyard/beer-garden, which appropriately includes a hop vine creeping over the fence from their next door neighbours. The class was made up of a clear male majority. Overall, most students seemed to be both local and already craft beer orientated. Therefore, this was no Beer 101, but more of a MasterClass in beer.

With all the shaded spots occupied, we found a seat along the fence, opened the beautifully presented folded-A4 "text book" and prepared for the drinking learning to begin.

The first beer of the lesson was a strange pick, the massive Infinium, a recently released champagne-like beer from a collaboration between Weihenstephan and The Boston Beer Company, which I wrote about on Australian Brews News (which also notes Willie Simpson's initial reaction to the beer):

Although Infinium is an impressive beer with a big but dry flavour, it is a beer that is best enjoyed during a cool evening or with dinner instead of during a hot mid-afternoon. Also, over time it seems to be thickening a little with yeasty vegemite notes overdeveloping. So if you are seeking to buy and try the current batch of Infinium, get it soon!

Willie spoke of his aversion to collaboration beers as little more than a PR exercise, whilst Simon countered with his recent experience in producing the Two Hills Maibock in collaboration with Red Hill Brewery.

Following Infinium, the full list of beers sampled across the afternoon (in groups of 3 at a time) was:
  • Moo Brew Pilsner*
  • Haregreaves Hill ESB
  • Seven Sheds Kentish Ale*
  • Renaissance Discovery APA
  • Sierra Nevada Northern Harvest Americal Ale*
  • Mountain Goat Rare Breed Double Hightail Ale
  • Feral Brewing Hop Hog IPA
  • Kriek de Ranke
  • Anderson Valley Imperial IPA
  • Meantime Chocolate
  • Hargreaves Hill Abbey Dubbel*
  • Seven Sheds Willie Warmer Spiced Ale*
  • Rochefort 10 Trappistes Quadrupel
  • Mikkeller Viktoria Porter
  • Holgate Brewhouse Empress Imperial Mocha Porter
* indicates a beer that I had not previously encountered on my beer journey.

The beer line-up was indeed impressive and diverse. The order could have done with some finesse though and the conditions didn't suit too many of the beers in the second half. "There goes the open-air Beer School" Simon declared when we hit the hoppy beers are he explained how sunlight destroys the hops influence.

I have no desire to detract from this excellent event. However, I will make the following assessment notes about Beer School #2 (and only because I believe that the feedback is constructive and welcomed, as well as already providing Blackheart's beer manager Eden Gilbert with the following notes...)

The glass shapes and sizes - a beer pot glass, a small wine glass and a water tumbler - were not really utilised effectively. After the first few rounds, the glass which was filled with the next beer to taste was simply whichever glass was available. Although, considering the pace that the event moved along, as well as and the small number of staff tasked with filling 50 glasses, they did a commendable job with coordinating the event. Hence, I cannot really complain about drinking an Imperial Porter from a water tumbler...that would simply be beer-snobbery!

I will note that the Sierra Nevada Northern Harvest American Ale was rather disappointing. I suspect that it is a grey import (with Phoenix Beers only just now bringing Sierra Nevada into Australia legitimately) and therefore who knows how old this beer was or how it had been treated during the long journey to Oz.

Additionally, throwing in Kriek de Ranke in at half way was a bit messed up, as it destroyed the palate. A palate cleansing aged Gueuze may have been the better choice over a fruity Kriek at this point.

And in all honesty, by the time the class hit the big final three of the Rochefort 10, Mikkeller Viktoria and the (hmmmm YES) Holgate one was really in a position to learn anything about these beers other than they are big dark rich beers ( it was a good thing I have tried them all before!).

OK, enough of the beer-snob hypercriticism now. Beer School also did things very very well (in comparison to many of the other beer tasting event occurring throughout Australia).

Foremost, the teachers brought in for the event were relevant local academics of the highest quality, providing a privileged experience for us students.

Simon Walkenhorst and Willie Simpson are highly respected brewers in Australia. They proved to be very good communicators and complimented each other with their shared passion for the creative art of beer and brewing to a sense rather than a style.

The primary point of learning that Willie and Simon conveyed was an appreciation of how and why each of the beers are brewed, with particular insight into their own brewing stories and practices, along with guidance in the appropriate occasion to enjoy such a beer.

It was valuable to hear how Simon creates his Abbey Dubbel using a yeast strain from the Westmalle Brewery and high fermentation temperatures, which provide a strong raisin character and a element of funk. I struggled a little with the flavour and body balance of the Hargreaves Hill Abbey Dubbel, but was reassured to hear that Simon likes the beers "funky charm" (ie, it is not a fault by the brewer's character).

Beyond the beers that I already love (namely Hargreaves ESB, 'Goat's Double Hightail, Feral Hop Hog, Rochefort 10), my beer highlight of the day Willie's Kentish Ale, the flagship beer of Seven Sheds. The beer was designed as "something between the Fuller's London Pride and ESB".

Cooper-red in appearance, the Kentish Ale is a complex English ale that is easy drinking and a little rustic. It provides a healthy aroma of fruit and some biscuit. The taste is predominately malt driven with a caramel sweetness, yet nicely balanced by the Golding and Fuggel hops from Kent, England. The medium body is fairly smooth and the finish is long and bitter I look forward to one day enjoying this beer on tap.

I enjoyed learning about Willie's approach to brewing. He likes to imagine how an English brewery made beer 150 years ago and seeks to brew in such a manner. This includes a basic hop-back system that comprises of a recycled 80L Boags keg.

Nonetheless, the beer-joy of the day came at the end with our second taste (following GABS) of the Holgate Empress. It was the beer we went back to, purchasing another pot from the bar after the class wrapped up around 6pm.

The limited staff handled the event exceptionally by simply being friendly and helpful people. Furthermore, one of my pet peeves at such events - fresh water supply - was not an issue at Beer School, with water jugs regularly replenished.

The event closed with a lottery draw and giveaways of beers and brewery merch, leaving all in high spirits.

Overall, the friendly and relaxed atmosphere and social interaction at this Beer School was excellent. Despite the heavy impact of the sun and high alcohol content, it was an enjoyable and educational event. Most of all, unlike most other schooling attendances, it was delightful afternoon at Beer School.

I am now a big fan of Atticus Finch as a bar and venue, alongside my continuing appreciation for the quality of service and range provided by Blackhearts & Sparrows.

And finally, a BIG SHOUT OUT of thanks to all the brewers and distributors who supported the event with stock, including Innspire, Phoenix Beers, Holgate, Moo Brew, Mountain Goat and The Great Northern Hotel!

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