Tuesday, December 20

The Alfa Romeo Of Craft Beers

I once considered the French the most enigmatic, creative and poetic European race, but now believe that mantle should be transferred to the people of Italy. A few days ago a sample of LABI beers arrived on my doorstep and I have been completely mesmerized ever since – by the flamboyance the beers themselves and their mysterious origins. All I can tell you is that these distinctively robust and idiosyncratic beers – the range includes a fragrant lager (la Bionda), a Christmassy Belgian ale (la Rossa), an aromatic India Pale Ale (la Ambrata), a complex wheat beer (la Bianca) and a super sexy Imperial Stout (la Nera) – come from a little brewery in the Veneto region of northern of Italy. The company was apparently launched by three friends – Paolo, Stefano and (head brewer) Fabio – who wanted to create some distinctively Italian craft beers that could accompany some of their favourite regional dishes. The company website, although packed with romantic phrases about art, passion and destiny, is remarkably short on detail. I’m still not sure when the brewery was launched or even what the name LABI stands for, but I can tell you that these excellent handcrafted beers are now available in Australia thanks to importer Torino Food Service. Its account manager Martin Nickson tells me that several Sydney restaurants including Pendolino, Lot. 1, Kipling’s Garage Bar (Turramurra) and La Fiamma Pizzeria (Ettalong Beach) are now serving these beautifully handcrafted beers. They are also being sold at a few independent retailers such as Amatos Liquor Mart in Leichhardt and Tom’s Cellars (West Pymble and North Turramurra). Prices for the handsome 750ml bottlers range from $16 to $18, but no one who tastes these beers will quibble about their cost. I’d rather a single bottle of LABI than an entire case of Peroni. The sheer audacity of these beers is impressive. I’d venture to say that la Bionda has rewritten the textbook on lagers – a true Italian stallion, but complex, multi-layered and herbaceous. But in truth, it’s hard to find fault with any of these beers, although with Christmas on the horizon I’d suggest a couple of bottles of la Nera for the family dinner table. Wickedly rich, with hints of liquorice and coffee, this black beauty is the perfect accompaniment to your Christmas pud or mince pies. Italian craft beers have truly arrived – and in style.

For a full list of stockists contact Martin Nickson on
0413 362 744 or email him on martin@torino.com.au

To learn more about the beers visit http://labibeer.com

Monday, November 28

London Landmark Reopens

Often billed as the UK's original gastro-pub The Engineer in Primrose Hill, North London, has re-opened after an extensive make-over. The once knock-about corner pub, popular with the local film and TV fraternity and named after the Victorian maestro Brunel, has emerged with plenty of glossy interiors, but minus the grit and personality which made it so popular throughout the 80s and 90s. As a resident of Gloucester Avenue, The Engineer was much more than a local -- it was a meeting place for the full panoply of life in NW1, from high to low. The legendary Sunday lunches were a particular highlight. Things turned sour in 2011 when the landlords, Mitchells & Butlers, chose not to renew the lease of long-term managers Tamsin Olivier and and Abigail Osborne. A rally to save the pub was attended by a Who's Who of the British entertainment world, including the actor Robert Powell. Despite M & B's assurances that The Engineer would not be absorbed into one of its pub chains, that's exactly what seems to have happened. A glowing press release describes the new-look interiors ("muted blue tones and pretty flowered walls"), extensive list of craft beers, "curated" wine list and classic cocktails.The food offering has also been dumbed down to include burgers, fish and chips and "tapas-style plates". But with so many pubs closing in the UK at the moment, perhaps we should be grateful that The Engineer has survived into the 21st Century. According to the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) 1,444 pubs closed in the UK in 2015 – 500 in London alone. Anyone who is prepared to save a pub, even with  mint arancini balls and overpriced pinot grigio, should be applauded. So I will reserve judgement on the new-look Engineer until I see it for myself. Give me Robert Powell and a couple of pints of London Pride and I'll be happy.

The Engineer, 65 Gloucester Avenue, London, NW1 8JH. Phone: 020 7483 1890; www.theengineerprimrosehill.co.uk

Friday, November 18

Chasing Blondes, Mad Abbots and Mother Goose in Port Macquarie

Port Macquarie, on the mid-north coast of New South Wales, is Australia's third oldest penal settlement. Does this perhaps explain why it has such a thirst for strong ale? As a guest of the recent Tastings on Hastings food festival I was able to explore the region's burgeoning craft beer scene, which is spearheaded by Black Duck Brewing and the Little Brewing Company – two operations which embrace quite different, almost contradictory, brewing philosophies. Best known for its Wicked Elf range, Little Brewing makes a range American, Czech, Belgian, German and British style beers. Despite the wacky labels, the beers here are authentic, delicate and beautifully structured. The flavours may be bold, but head brewer Warwick Little, who once studied winemaking, never strays too far from the original recipe. "We brew beers without compromise, yet fervently true to style,” he says. Look out for Wicked Elf Kolsch which is triumph of restraint and yet at 4.9%ABV still packs a meaty punch. Fans of Belgian-style beers will enjoy the Mad Abbot Tripel (9.5%ABV), a smooth, fruity and complex ale which will augment any Christmas Day table. The spic and span brewery, which opened in 2007, will soon open a dedicated tasting deck. Mad Abbot and Wicked Elf beers are available at Dan Murphy’s and BWS stores.

Across town the Black Duck Brewery, which opened its doors four years ago, makes beers which are more tailored to local tastes and Port Macquarie’s summery climate. “People want a cold fizzy beer that doesn’t beat them up too much,” says co-founder and head brewer Al Owen. “The paler beers, like Beach House Blonde and Golden Goose, are always easier to sell. Our Aussie lager walks out the door.” Unlike the Little Brewing Company, Black Duck Brewing relies entirely on local distribution – and the occasional guest tap at one of the city’s pubs. “It’s grown really strongly over the last couple of years,” he says. “We try to work as closely as we can with the local businesses – most of the pubs will give us a spare tap if they can. The local [brewery] reps are really good to us.” The brewery also serves pizza and ploughman’s platters. The tasting paddles ($5) are excellent value. Owen, a former civil engineer, discovered the world of craft beer during a trip to the UK in 2005. Luckily, he found a complete brewing kit lying in storage in nearby Wauchope. ”It was purely opportunistic,” he says. Plans are already underway to substantially expand the brewery’ modest 50,000 litre a year capacity and also hopes to develop its boutique gin-making operation. “People keep buying it, so I keep making it,” says Owen.

So anyone heading north over the long NSW summer holidays should allocate some time to explore Port Macquarie’s small, but energetic craft beer scene. And keep your eyes peeled for self-styled gypsy brewer MooreBeer, which is hoping to establish a permanent base in the city soon.

Mark Chipperfield travelled to Port Macquarie as a guest of Port Macquarie-Hastings Council (www.portmacquarieinfo.com.au) and Destination NSW (www.visitnsw.com.au).

Thursday, November 10

Oaks Launches Beer Den

Instead of rushing into the bottle shop at The Oaks Hotel in Neutral Bay for a bottle of sav blanc or six-pack of commercial lager patrons will now be able to explore the fabulous world of craft beer.

At 10pm tonight the hotel’s compact bottle shop on Military Road will transform itself into a Craft Beer Den – complete with mood lighting, a groovy soundtrack, gourmet sandwiches and a range of exotic brews from around the planet. Guests pay a small corkage fee (from $2 to $4) plus the cost of their chosen tipple. Discounts available on selected beers.

“It’s about utilizing the space in a different way,” says hotel licensee Alex Cooper. “We have 116 different craft beers in stock – so how cool is it to choose something you’ve never tasted before?”

The Oaks Hotel, 118 Military Road, Neutral Bay 2089. Phone: 02 9953 5515; www.oakshotel.com.auwww.oakshotel.com.au. The new-look beer den operates midweek 10pm to 12am and Thursday to Saturday 10pm to 1.30am.

Thursday, August 25

Ahoy My Beauties! It’s Adnams

It’s not often a writer gets to use the word ‘serendipity’ in his or her copy without blushing but that’s precisely how I’d describe my encounter with Adnams Brewery – one of Britain’s oldest independent brewers.
Two days after picking up a couple of bottles of Adnam’s Broadside at my local bottle shop in Adelaide I received a chirpy email from Caroline Walker, the company’s public relations maestro, telling me that the Suffolk brewery has begun shipping Broadside, a fruity dark ale, and Ghost Ship, a refreshing pale ale, to Australia in volume. Bingo!
I’d already fallen in love with Broadside, a beautifully crafted beer, dark hued and with a lovely caramel aftertaste, but needed to return to the store for a couple of cans of Ghost Ship – a surprisingly light, New World pale ale (which uses three types of American hops).
Both beers have travelled well from the UK and are fresh and clean tasting, but watch out for the Ghost Ship 440ml cans which are very gassy. Open carefully, preferable in the sink. I had no such issues with Broadside, a traditional English ale packed with rich Christmas cake flavours, which is being exported in handsome 500ml bottles.
Caroline tells me that Broadside commemorates the Battle of Solebay, when the Dutch Fleet surprised a joint Anglo-French armada off the south coast of England in 1672. Preparations for the naval engagement were apparently hampered by the fact that most of the English sailors were getting sloshed on local Suffolk beer – the precursor of the lovely ruby red brew now being made by Adnams. The naval engagement ended in a draw, by the way.
As a passionate advocate of English beer, especially traditional bitter, I’m delighted to see Adnams enter the Australian market. Ten years ago the only UK beer on our shelves was Newcastle Brown or, if you were lucky, a bottle of Theakston Old Peculiar long past its prime. How things have changed! Big retailers such as BWS, Dan Murphy’s and Vintage Cellars are now importing a wide range of British beers and, thankfully, Australian prejudice about “flat, warm” English ale is slowly fading – although not completely. Young, open-minded Australian and New Zealand craft brewers can take much of the credit for making English ales, stouts and porters cool again and perhaps paving the way for brewers such as Adnams to fire a broadside (pun intended) across the tastebuds of complacent middle-aged Australian beer drinkers who remain wedded to commercial ice-cold lager –  which a brewing mate of mine in the Hunter Valley calls  “lawnmower beer”, the type of forgettable froth you sink after mowing the grass on a hot day. So get out there and try a robust, food-friendly English ale – and look out for the special Adnams summer promotion at Dan Murphy’s stores during November and December.