Words & Photos - Matthew Curtis
I often over-enthuse about how I love the USA beer scene with reckless abandon, it’s not just the beer that’s got me captivated but the very vibe that runs all the way from the brewer to the consumer. When I came back from my first trip to the States, which you can read about here, I was captivated not just by the hop forward brews that were transforming my taste buds but the tap room culture that’s at the heart of the local community. In many parts of the US local craft beer nuts are encouraged to swing by the brewery for a growler refill whilst stopping for a couple of pints and a chat with passionate bar staff and down to earth brewers. They are the most popular hang outs for local workers, students and fans of craft brewed beer alike.
When I returned to the UK after my first trip to the States I not only craved a sensory barrage of hops and malt but I also wished that there were more bars that catered for my new found tastes. My wish was soon granted as bars such as the Euston Tap and the Craft Beer Companystarted popping up like daffodils in spring but despite these bars being excellent I still desired to feel the ‘tap room’ culture that I had observed across the pond.
This is what the bar looks like after several pints of Pale Ale
Camden Town brewery was established in 2010, by coincidence the same year I started to become an established beer nerd and I remember the first time I enjoyed Camden Town Pale ale at the Bloomsbury Bowling Lanes, since then I have followed their development closely. Now, creating the same community feel in London is quite different to creating it in a small town in northern Colorado but when I heard that Camden Town were going to build a bar and open up to their adoring public I felt that finally the UK brewing scene was catching up to it’s transatlantic cousin and sorely wished that the bar would carry the great vibe that I felt in the States.
Earlier in the month they had their debut public opening as they launched their US hopped lager ‘USA Hells’ but as I work on Saturdays I couldn’t make it down so when I saw that there would be a second opening last Friday I yelped with a little excitement and hastily emailed a bunch of friends to see if they fancied visiting with me. As chance would have it my Dad, who lives in Fort Collins, Colorado and frequents the tap room at Odell brewing with alarming regularity was also in town and in a further twist of fate one of the three guest beers that Camden Town would be tapping along with Sierra Nevada Ruthless Rye PA and Ska Brewing Modus Hoperandi was Odell IPA. I thought it would be an excellent chance to see how well these hyper hopped US brews fare after they have completed their trek across the Atlantic as the IPA is my Dads regular tipple, I was also wondering how he would react to the price as he is used to paying just $3.00 for a 16 ounce pint.
For the record I didn’t make any tasting notes on this trip as it was more about socialising with friends and experiencing the brewery itself than over analysing every drop of beer that slipped down my throat. I started the evening with a pint of USA Hells, now I’m not normally a lager drinker as I generally find it too gassy and lacking a bit in substance for my tastes but I was very impressed by this beer. It smells faintly of lemon juice and elderflower and this translates perfectly into the taste which is backed by a lively, refreshing lager base. It was very easy to drink and easily up their with some of the best lagers I’ve had but those zingy USA hops appeal to my personal tastes more than the peppery, earthy notes you usually get with the Saaz variety. I’d definitely sip USA Hells on a hot summers day but it was a Friday night and I was ready for something a bit more robust so moved on to my old favourite Camden Town Pale Ale. I’ve had this beer on numerous occasions in both bottle and on keg but never has it tasted so fresh and flavoursome as it did this time, it smelt of lemon rind, grapefruit and a bouquet of spring blooms and tasted incredible. The malts were robust but never too sweet and the bitterness was wonderfully balanced, zesty, but not too bitter, my perfect idea of a session beer and I did indeed come back for several more pints of this later in the evening.
I only really drink wheat beers in the hot summer sun so I skipped the Camden wheat effort and sent my Dad to the bar for a pint of Camden Ink
a stout that’s served using a nitro-keg. It’s my understanding that nitrogen fuelled kegs produce smaller bubbles resulting in a creamier mouth feel than standard carbon dioxide based kegs and so Ink is not dissimilar to Guinness in appearance. The taste though, is quite a lot better, imagine if you will the roasted malt flavour of around ten pints of Guinness condensed into a single pint then dry hopped for good measure. Once you get past the beautiful smell of roasted coffee beans you get a lovely deep espresso flavour backed with burnt toast and then a long, lingering bitter grapefruit finish. It’s a beautiful beer and definitely one for stout aficionados and fans of beers such as Magic Rock ‘Dark Arts’.
Strong branding is prevalent throughout the brewery
I then moved on to the guest selection, two of which I have never tried before. My dad commented after his first sip of Modus Hoperandi that this was ‘definitely more his thing’ proving that living in the town that contains both Odell and New Belgium wrecks your palate (he also commented that earlier in the evening he had a pint of cask ale and couldn’t taste a thing!) This IPA from Ska brewing was a delight, the malt character was a lot more present than the other pale beers I had sampled this evening but unlike the roasted flavour of Ink these were much sweeter, like chewy toffee in the Ska and in the Sierra Nevada Ruthless Rye PA it was like a sickly caramel and I actually found it a little too sweet for my tastes. I love the grassy, piney hop character of the Modus Hoperandi and vowed to track it down in a bottle when I’m in the States next month so that I can taste it with a fresher palate. This shouldn’t be a problem seeing as Ska brewing are also based in Colorado. I did enjoy the Ruthless but I’ve had better beers from Sierra Nevada so I’m not too fussed about trying this again.
We then made our way to the bar to get some of the holy elixir, Odell IPA. When we ordered it (my Dad refused to have a half so forked out £6.00 for a pint because ‘that’s what he usually has’) the barman commented that ‘this is the best beer we have on tonight’ and he wasn’t wrong. I don’t really feel the need to describe Odell IPA to you, it’s probably one of the best examples of an American IPA and one of the best beers being brewed at the moment, it’s pretty easy to track it down here in the UK so you have no excuse not to try some. The real test was passed when my Dad said he couldn’t really tell the difference here to how it would taste in the tap room back at Odells which is a real testament to how well hop forward beers keep in a keg as long as they are drank within a relatively short period of time.
After my half of Odell IPA I felt that it would be rude not to have another as it truly was the best beer of the evening but then I returned to the Camden Town Pale. I was initially worried that the big USA brews would have over coloured my palate but the wonderful citrus notes still cut through and so carried on drinking it until inevitable oblivion ensued. Perhaps my one complaint of the evening was that the choice of guest beer was all too similar, they were all American IPA’s and it would have been nice to have a slightly broader selection of styles to choose from.
So does Camden Town Brewery have the tap room vibe that I feel has been the missing element to the craft beer culture that’s blossoming in the UK? Yes, it has it in spades, down to the USA style pump handles, each beer listed complete with IBU and which hops have been used in the brew and although they don’t fill growlers they do have an off license so you can take some bottles home with you! The brewery officially opens up in April and I look forward to making many more visits when it does. I’d also like to give a special ‘big-up’ to Big Apple Hot Dogs for providing some fantastic food to go with some fantastic beers and congratulate Camden Town Brewery on such a successful evening, keep it up guys.