A lesson in Employee Engagement from New Belgium Brewing Company

It’s no secret amongst my friends and work colleagues that I have a seriously heightened passion for craft beer. I absolutely love the stuff. Any opportunity for me to blend both my personal and work interests, especially when craft beer is involved, cannot be missed. What drives and interests me most at work is employee engagement, the subject itself but also the opportunity for me to help inform our clients on how to be even better at it. I thought it might be interesting for me to explore how one of the most iconic craft breweries in the U.S., New Belgium Brewing Company, were able to brew up a culture that is highly supportive of employee engagement. This acts as a lesson to others on the techniques you can employ to drive your culture and engagement levels.

For all organisations, regardless of their size, industry specialism or location, getting a handle on talent attraction, employee turnover and productivity means first getting to grips with employee engagement. This is especially true for those in the food & beverage/hospitality industry where the challenges faced when retaining and motivating employees are amplified due to higher levels of staff turnover, the ability to introduce initiatives to engage the workforce couldn’t be more important.

"For example, a 2015 report from Deloitte showed that employee turnover in the hospitality industry can reach as high as 31%, representing a significant challenge for hiring and retaining skilled workers.

Having worked in this industry myself as a youngster for a company with a terrible culture, my applause goes out to those that are able to challenge the status quo and transform their working environment. For New Belgium Brewing Company, the option to simply accept the challenges in their industry around employee engagement and retention simply wasn’t an option. Here we’ll look at how a leading craft brewery in the U.S. was able to position themselves as an employer of choice by creating an environment and culture that is highly supportive of commitment, passion and engagement. I won’t judge you if you fancy drinking a beer whilst reading this, but you get extra points if it’s a New Belgium.  

(Photo credit: New Belgium Brewing Company, Graphics Hub)

(Photo credit: New Belgium Brewing Company, Graphics Hub)

A Leading Company with Direction and Cause...

New Belgium Brewing Company, who started their Colorado-based brewing operations in 1991, are now the 4th largest producer of craft beers in the U.S. and the 8th largest overall beer producer in the U.S. (Brewers Association, 2016). After 25 years in business, they now employ in excess of 650 “coworkers”, as they refer to their employees, across a multitude of roles. They distribute their beers to 38 states in the U.S. and 2014 saw them brew 945,000 barrels of beer. With such a heavy reliance on efficiency, accuracy and quality, the emphasis placed on the value of their workforce is extremely high.

(Photo credit: New Belgium Brewing Company, Graphics Hub)

(Photo credit: New Belgium Brewing Company, Graphics Hub)

Distinct Core Values & Beliefs

Central to New Belgium’s success as a business and an employer of choice is their distinctive set of core values & beliefs. With an outsider's perspective, I have always felt that they set the bar very high when it comes to defining themselves and their culture. From the very beginning, the business chose to forge a “Purpose Statement” and set of values that they wanted to stand for, reinforce and permeate across the entire organisation.

"New Belgium's Purpose Statement: To manifest our love and talent by crafting our customers' favourite brands and proving business can be a force for good.

For New Belgium, their purpose statement and set of core values isn’t without function. Instead, it is a statement to the outside world about what New Belgium Brewing Company stand for and why they exist. For their “coworkers”, this helps to clearly define why they should bother getting out of bed every day, why their individual role contributes to a wider mission and sets clear guidelines for what it means to be a New Belgium “coworker”, not just an “employee”. For attracting future talent, in what is an extremely competitive candidate marketplace within Brewing & Distilling, it enables the business to give potential future employees a glimpse into the working conditions, culture and habits of the organisation.

 

High Involvement Culture

You could however easily argue that a purpose statement and set of core values could be nothing more than another set of buzzwords nailed to the wall that don’t in fact mean very much. We’ve all seen countless times the disparity between what an organisation says that they stand for and what employees think they actually stand for (Look your company up on Glassdoor, you might be surprised with what people have to say).

However, at New Belgium their values define everything that they do and is apparent in what they refer to as their “High Involvement Culture” (www.newbelgium.com). By this, they refer to the ways that they include and involve their “coworkers” in key business decisions and frequent updates on performance in a completely transparent way. Whether that’s their monthly and annual meetings where all 650+ employees get together to discuss important issues and decisions, or their open-book management policy where everyone has access to key financials and future plans, New Belgium try to create a culture of involvement and transparency. They even offer training to all “coworkers” around how to interpret financial information and reports as part of their initial orientation, which helps to make sure everyone is fully informed at all times. (Forbes, 2015). I’m lucky enough to work for a company that also practices full transparency and regular communication, which has a huge impact on the engagement I have with my work.

(Photo credit: New Belgium Brewing Company, Graphics Hub)

(Photo credit: New Belgium Brewing Company, Graphics Hub)

 

100% Employee Ownership

Other than a clear purpose statement and set of core values, how else do you motivate your workforce to be passionate, committed and accountable for their individual roles? You could try introducing an Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP). As a more extreme initiative, an ESOP is essentially a program that enables part of or the entire workforce to have stock ownership interest in the organisation.

An extract from New Belgium’s website on the press release in 2012 read: “New Belgium Brewing is excited to announce that the company’s Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP) has purchased the balance of company shares, making it 100% employee-owned. New Belgium, brewer of a wide variety of award-winning beers including Fat Tire Amber Ale, has been a partial ESOP since 2000 with a controlling interest held by co-founder Kim Jordan and her family. This transition will put the company on a path to control their destiny into the foreseeable future.”

By making New Belgium 100% employee-owned, they have been able to completely change the employer-employee relationship. Now every single individual has a vested interest in the success of the business and this will undoubtedly breed a culture of accountability, commitment and engagement. Employee Engagement can loosely be defined as the cultural and emotional attachment that employees have to the organisation they work for, so what better way to create a culture of engagement than by empowering employees by giving them a voice and a seat at the table.

"There is a great sense of pride in most successful craft breweries that starts with the founders and continues all the way through the organisation. If you add employee ownership, the engagement, pride and dedication increase exponentially." (The New Brewer, BrewersAssocation.org, 2014) 

New Belgium are not alone in their ambitious Employee Stock Ownership Plan’s, as other craft breweries such as Odell Brewing, Left Hand, Harpoon and Deschutes are a few examples which are now at least partly owned by their employees through an ESOP (Forbes, 2015). Happy employees surely has to help create better beer, so I hope to see more breweries looking at ways to engage and empower their employees.

It might not be right for your organisation to start dividing up the ownership of the business amongst employees, but the message is that involving employees in key decisions and giving them a voice can have an incredible impact on the way they view their work and you as their employer.

 

Incredible Benefits

Making sure that you get your reward and benefits package right can ensure that you continue to attract the best and most highly skilled candidates within your industry. Getting it wrong can result in you losing the best candidates to the competition. As you’d expect, with New Belgium having a clear attitude towards employee value and opportunity, they have introduced a benefits package that aligns with these beliefs.

Aside from the Employee Stock Ownership Plan previously mentioned, “coworkers” have access to a long list of attractive benefits beyond their salary such as:

  • 12 free beers a week, and one after every shift
  • Anniversary milestones bonuses from free bikes, paid trips to Belgium and 4-week paid sabbaticals
  • Profit sharing scheme
  • 100% coverage of health-care premiums

By offering benefits other than what is included in any standard corporate list, New Belgium send a strong message to current and future “coworkers” that they value their employees and want to create an environment that is both positive and motivating. Their benefits package is unique to their organisation which also reinforces the care and attention that has gone into putting it together.

(Photo credit: New Belgium Brewing Company, Graphics Hub)

(Photo credit: New Belgium Brewing Company, Graphics Hub)

 

What to take away from this.

It’s clear to see that by using a number of different ingredients, New Belgium has been able to brew up a positive working culture that focuses on improving the employer-employee relationship. By creating a distinct set of company values, involving employees in key decisions, enabling employees to have a stake in the business and having a robust reward and benefits structure, they have positioned themselves as an employer of choice in a very competitive industry.

There are infinite ways to improve employee engagement in any organisation, but the most important thing is to make engagement happen. Focus on one key area at a time, and once you’ve nailed it more onto the next. Soon you’ll find that people will want to work for your organisation and will stay longer whilst working harder.

If you happen to come across a New Belgium beer the next time you’re at the bar, it’s worth thinking about how employee engagement has helped to make it so damn tasty.

Check out www.newbelgium.com for further info.

 

Heady Topper: Understanding "Hype" in the context of beer

"Hype" is a powerful force in our commodity driven culture. It has a huge impact on our buying habits as consumers and at times we find ourselves going to extreme and costly lengths to secure the products we desire (or that we think we desire). The science behind hype shows us that "extravagant or intensive publicity or promotion" can cause us to lose our shit, queue for days outside of End Clothing in Newcastle, whilst sleeping in a tent, to get hold of some moon-boot looking Adidas trainers that were designed by Kanye West (just to confirm, I witnessed this and didn't actually get involved. I'm not a moron). 

In the context of beer, it's seems easy for an average Pale Ale brewed by two ambidextrous twin sisters in the foothills of Mount Everest to become the most sought after liquid on earth (I don't think this beer actually exists, but send me one if it does). With the social media powerhouses of Facebook, Instagram and Twitter acting as one of the primary mediums for breweries to promote and publicise new releases or limited editions, it's easy to contract the contagious social disease that is FOMO (Fear of missing out). FOMO is a phenomenon that has arisen off the back of the success of social media and causes the publicity and promotion of certain products, places and activities to create a profound sense of desire. No one likes to be left out! 

Beer-hype causes people to queue for new releases, spend shitloads persuading someone to post you a beer from abroad and to trade your favourite crafty's in return for something elusive. I'm no stranger to this phenomenon and always have a list in my mind of the next rare beers I must get hold of.

Heady Topper by The Alchemist was one such beer, and is widely recognised as one of the most sought after brews on the planet. Check any beer review website such as RateBeer or BeerAdvocate and you'll see thousands of reviews that add up to this beer being marked as 100/100. Brewed in Vermont with almost zero exports to wider US states let alone the UK, it's gathered a hardcore following of hop-heads that swear it's the best Double IPA/Imperial IPA on the planet, ever. 

Through the magic of Instagram I was able to wangle one off of a fellow hop-head, who was kind enough to spare one out of some beer mail he had received from the US. After the parcel was delivered, I carried it home from work in my arms like a new born baby, assuming everyone in a hoodie that I walked past was looking to intercept and mug me before I got home. Luckily I made it back alive, and was excited to crack this beauty open and see what all the fuss was about. It had even maintained a cold temperature in the packaging, like it was destined to be drank immediately.

DRINK FROM THE CAN is written in block capitals at the top of the can. Not only is this beer tough to get hold of, it's also telling me what to do. It must be female! The smell that oozes from the can after opening it is a mixture of pine, citrus, grapefruit and general hop-amazingness. I tried it out of both the can and from a glass, the can won. It gave the beer a much more intense and longer lasting flavour, or maybe that's just the hype talking. I have never tried a more intensely hop-forward IPA/DIPA. It coats your entire mouth with a swirling tidal wave of sweetness, bitterness, then sweetness, then more bitterness and all laced with incredibly fresh and piney flavours. I've had a fair few IPA's/DIPA's in the last few years but this really did tick all the boxes. It had me thinking that the hype attached to this beer might actually be legitimate!

I had wanted to try Heady Topper for so long that the beer was gone in all of 4 minutes. Literally about 5 big gulps and it was back to an empty can. I tried my best to be as objective as possible whilst drinking Heady but the build-up, combined with everything I had read about it, culminated in making this an incredible beer experience.

In the case of Heady Topper, it lives up to the hype. It might not be the best beer in the world ever but it sure is one of the best IPA's I have ever had. Would I drink it everyday if it was brewed locally? The answer is probably yes, but there is a chance that the rarity and hype attached to Heady help to make the experience of drinking it better than it actually is.

Next on my hype list is Pliny the Elder from Russian River Brewing Company, which I hope to be drowning in when I visit California at the end of March. Objective reviews to follow of course. 

Have I just contributed to beer-hype? Oops.

Exploring Edinburgh's beer scene (despite the efforts of Storm Frank)

After spending a day experiencing the craft beer scene in Edinburgh and battling the effects of Storm Frank, here's an account of the top spots we came across for good beer and storm sheltering. 


Introducing Edinburgh. The "Athens of the North". Auld Reekie. Edina. The capital of Scotland has acquired a number of different nicknames over the years, each of which attract a different audience. On this particular occasion, a stormy day in December, I was attracted to Edinburgh to see what it's craft beer scene has to offer. 

We arrived just as Storm Frank was doing his worst. Immensely strong wind and rain that flew directly into your eyeballs. Thanks for that, Frank. But, undeterred, we had a loose route in mind that would see us visit some of the greatest craft beer destinations that the city has to offer. 


THE HANGING BAT

What started out in 2012 as "the first bar in the UK not to offer pints", The Hanging Bat has established itself as a well respected destination for trying well crafted UK beer. I very rarely order a pint of anything and believe that 2/3rds is the way forward, so this fact didn't faze me at all. Check any source discussing craft beer in Edinburgh and this spot is sure to crop up. 

From the outside, it's another one of those blink-and-you'll-miss-it kind of bars. Extremely minimal design with a grey paint that seemed to blend in seamlessly with the drab Scottish sky overhead. I'm starting to think that this minimalist design is an attempt to stop your average Joe just wandering in hoping for a cold Stella. The kind of place where if you didn't know exactly where you were going you wouldn't find it. I'm glad we did.

A beautifully lit and inviting space. On cask we had offerings from Magic Rock, Arbor and Hawkshead. On keg we had beers from Cloudwater, Weird Beard, Wylam, Pilot, MooR and Fourpure, just to name a few. Behind the bar was an extremely respectable fridge housing some international brews also. Interestingly for a brew pub, The Hanging Bat only had one of their Alpha Project beers on tap which was their DIPA. In the fridge they had a few of the Hanging Bat beers, which I found out were brewed onsite at Drygate Brewing in Glasgow. The Hanging Bat don't yet have their own full scale brewing facility but have a small 50L brew kit at the back of the bar where they develop their small batch Alpha Project beers. 

Below you'll see the Weird Beard Little Things That Kill Session IPA and also the Small Beer Stout from Cloudwater that we went for. It was 12 midday and these were two absolutely cracking beers to get the day started with. The Hanging Bat definitely set the bar high and if this is the standard of craft beer bars across Edinburgh, then we were in for a treat. 


THE BEER KITCHEN BY INNIS & GUNN

The Beer Kitchen is the beer-meets-food destination from Edinburgh based brewers, Innis & Gunn. I must confess to not having tried too much of their range in the past, but they seem to have a pretty strong shelf presence in a lot of supermarkets which should make it easy for me to get hold of in future. This was to be our destination for lunch and a good chance to load up on fuel for the days drinking. Local brews and what seemed to be an incredible menu, what could be better?

An incredibly smart interior, branded brewers barrels stacked in piles and an extensive list of Innis & Gunn and guest beers. First impressions were strong. I opted for their Toasted Oak IPA. The name itself and flavours depicted definitely had me interested. The toasted and vanilla flavours from the oak ageing process were prominent on both the aroma and flavour. The silky vanilla and woody scents blended well with what seemed to be a fairly pale malt bill. Not much hop aroma but a good bitterness throughout. A very interesting brew!

Pairing the Toasted Oak IPA with their House Smoked Ham Hock sandwich was a revelation. The oakyness of the beer paired harmoniously with the smokey ham and was brought to life with the zing from the piccalilli. Joy. 

Just before leaving, I spotted a beautifully designed tall boy can sitting on one of their merchandise shelves. I had to look close as the initial design didn't fit within their branding for core beers. Having not seen their beer in cans or this design before, it was a must to get one to take home. 

If you're looking for a great line-up of beers where you can pair them with fresh and local food then check out The Beer Kitchen, it will not disappoint. 


THE POTTING SHED

Located a few minutes south of the central station, The Potting Shed is a pretty eccentric gardening themed bar and restaurant. It does exactly what it says on the tin, gardening equipment from rakes to watering cans were fixed around the walls and ceilings and the decor was exactly how your Grandma would like her potting shed.

The beer list wasn't exhaustive but what it did include was worth having. I was in the mood for something strong and bitter, so opted for The Kernel's Citra, Zeus and Simcoe IPA. Masses of mango, passionfruit and grapefruit on the nose with a flavour to match. The Potting Shed was a really quirky bar and I would have liked to have spent a bit more time there. 


ANDREW USHER & CO.

Brewers of beer and expert whiskey blenders, Andrew Usher & Co.'s brew pub and bar creates the perfect environment for a Scottish booze adventure. Take the stairs down, past a wallpaper collage of brewing equipment and techniques and you'll find a great place to shelter from any impending storms. 

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Andrew Usher & Co. brew a number of their own beers on site and house their shiny brewing facility on display behind thick glass at the back of the bar. At least 15 beers on tap (4 of their own) and a few more on cask made us spoilt for choice. Not complaining!

We opted for their Mint Choc Porter and Hefeweizen which was infused with blood oranges. Both were extremely clean and well executed brews. The porter was basically After Eights in a glass and the hefeweizen was refreshing and had a great citrus punch from the blood orange. We could see and almost touch the brewing facility whilst drinking these beers, which is one of my favourite aspects of any brew pub. It felt like a New York dive bar that had been tidied and the lights turned on. Add the onsite brewing facility into the mix and this makes it an essential part of any Edinburgh beer trip. 


BLACKFRIARS

Looking for a smart and modern bar with a solid craft beer menu? Blackfriars might just be for you. Hidden down a side street sit's Blackfriars, an independent and contemporary bar with a seasonal and mediterranean inspired bar menu to accompany your craft beers. The bar sits right next to their same named restaurant, which was unfortunately closed when we arrived due to the time of year. 

The Kernel, Mikkeller, Siren, Beavertown, Burning Sky and other national and international beers were on offer. We went for the Session IPA from Burning Sky and Breakfast Stout from Siren. Two of my favourite styles and two incredible beers. The bar staff were extremely welcoming and interested to hear where we had been and what we thought of the craft beer bars we had visited so far. I would definitely come back to Blackfriars and would be keen to try out the restaurant as well. 


BREWDOG EDINBURGH

Every good city needs a good BrewDog bar. BrewDog Edinburgh is quite possibly the smallest of their bars I have visited but don't let their small stature trick you into thinking that this isn't worth a visit. As with any of their bars, you can expect a solid range of their headline beers alongside a number of small batch and guest brews. I was glad to see that their Milk Stout was pouring, as this has been one of my favourite releases from BrewDog this year. An addictive concoction of silky vanilla, chocolate and coffee!

Before visiting BrewDog Edinburgh I had heard rumours about their pizza's being the best in town. They even self proclaim that they are "the best damn homemade pizzas in Auld Reekie". Now I doubt that the city is known for being a pizza mecca, but still, that's a pretty big claim. See below an image of their Iron Fist Pizza. A combination of prosciutto ham, spinach, mushrooms and an egg. Never had an egg on your pizza before? It's essential you try this pizza. And a beer. Or two. 


Despite Storm Frank trying his best to blow us into the river Leith, our trip to Edinburgh showcased some of the best craft beer spots that the city has to offer. It's not all shortbread, whisky and kilts, although if that's your things then stick to the Royal Mile. The city houses a number of great independent and unique bars and restaurants that should tickle anyones fancy. We'll certainly be heading back to Auld Reekie as soon as we can. You should check it out too.  

 

Barcelona Beer City: How best to avoid San Miguel with my top beer spots

Exploring the best craft beer bars in the Catalan capital of culture.

If you've been on a beach holiday to Spain in the last decade then you'll know how difficult it is to find a decent beer amongst all the San Miguel, Estrella and Mahou. Now I'm not one to drink Imperial Russian Stouts beside the pool in 35 degree heat, but nor am I happy to work my way through a plethora of samey, bland and fizzy generic lagers whilst on my well-earned holiday. For a nation that sits within the top 25 greatest beer consuming countries globally (Food Republic, 2014), Spain certainly doesn't spring to mind when planning a "beercation" (to go on vacation for beer related activities). I'm betting you'll use that term in future now. But with any major city in the world, large populations demand diversity and choice. Why in a city where there are 1000 varieties of cheese, wine and cured meats should beer be any different? The "craft beer movement" is turning heads no matter where you live in the world, and Barcelona sits right at the heart of the Spanish Revolución Cerveza Artesanal.

My recent visit to Barcelona has changed my opinion completely of what Spanish beer can be and should be. Bars, bottle shops and breweries are haven's within the city for anyone in search of craft. Leave your preconceptions at the airport exit door, make sure to visit a few key places (handy that this blog exists, right?) and you will fall in love with Barcelona Beer City.


BlackLab Brewhouse

We stumbled across BlackLab Brewhouse & Kitchen almost by accident whilst wandering around the marina in the 20 degree October sun. All the research I had done on craft beer spots in Barcelona pointed towards this microbrewery and restaurant. BlackLab pride themselves on creating "natural beer, unfiltered and unpasteurised with the finest ingredients available, all natural, and local whenever possible". They have a modest but modern brewhouse on show behind glass panels and every inch of the internal design and branding was screaming US influence. 

After grabbing a couple of beers we took a seat on one of the benches out at the front of the building. I went for the El Sonador Session IPA (3.5%). Incredibly hoppy and flavourful for such a low ABV, it was brimming with citrus and tropical fruit. We also had the Pink Lady Raspberry Wheat Ale, which was extremely well executed and subtly spiked with raspberry. 

Photo 18-10-2015, 12 13 58.jpg

Sitting less than 5 metres from where our beers were brewed was great, the bar and seating area have been extremely well designed and the location makes it a near perfect retreat from the crowds by the Marina. 


Kaelderkold

When the crowds on the world famous tree-lined pedestrian street, La Rambla, get too much to handle you might find yourself wanting to dart down the nearest side street and throw yourself into the first fountain you encounter to avoid the pickpockets that your friends guaranteed would get you. I didn't even see anyone that looked remotely like a pickpocket (which raises the question, what do they look like?). Despite my valuables not being at risk I still found myself wanting to get away from the slow-walking crowds as soon as possible. Located less than a minute off the main aforementioned street sits Kaelderkold, an unassuming and shoe-box sized craft beer bar. 

Scribbled on a wall of chalk boards, the beers on offer included a variety of styles from Spain, UK, US & Germany. It's essentially a well-lit dive bar and reminded me of some of the spots we had found in NYC last year: narrow, low ceilinged bars with almost as much board space as wall space.

Despite the offerings from across the globe, we both decided to go with 2 local beers from the Barcelona based Fort Brewing Company. The first was their IPA, which was a super hoppy and malt-forward brew, reminding me of somewhere between Founders Centennial and Oskar Blues Dale's Pale Ale. It was extremely sweet, bitter and resinous, a very well-balanced IPA. The second beer was their Oatmeal Porter. This was a dark, silky and also liberally hopped porter that contrasted the IPA nicely. 


BierCaB

In a nutshell, BierCaB was the highlight of my trip to Barcelona (in a beer sense that is). An extremely modern and contemporary interior combined with a better beer selection than some of my favourite craft spots in the UK. It is easy to see how BierCaB were able to secure the title of "Best Beer Bar in Spain" by RateBeer in 2013.  

With 30 local and international taps and an impressive beer fridge, we really were spoilt for choice. The beers on tap were displayed on a number of digital screens around the bar and this is possibly the best I have seen this executed to date. When we arrived there was a tap-takover underway from the UK based Siren Craft Brew, offering at least 20 of their beers.

Above and on the left we have their Broken Dream stout which had been aged in Speyside Whisky barrels. This suped-up version of their 6% breakfast stout was a swirl of coffee, chocolate with a subtle underlying whisky and oak flavour. On the right was their Grapefruit IPA and I was looking forward to seeing how it stood up against the others of this similar style that I have tried this year. An incredible amount of grapefruit and hop aroma on the nose combined with a palate-wrecking grapefruit sweetness and bitterness. I absolutely loved this beer and it might be the best grapefruit spiked IPA that I have tried to date and probably the winning beer from the entire trip.

Right next door to the bar is their BierCaB Shop. It had an impressive beer fridge housing beers from across the globe. For the beer geek and beer tourist alike there were t-shirts, glasses and the usual merchandise you could expect from a shop like this. A great little bottle shop and a good accompaniment to their incredible bar.  


Ale&Hop

It is either due to trendy creatives or the limited shop front space that the majority of bars in Barcelona are signposted with extreme minimalism. Blink and you'll miss them. With any city that you don't know too well, I believe your best approach to finding good food or beer spots is to go where the locals go. Hoards of what we assumed were locals were pouring into and out of this stylish little bar. Ale&Hop is another narrow and unassuming craft beer bar based in the heart of Barcelona. 2 years running (2013-2014) they have achieved the accolade of the "Best Restaurant for Beer in Spain" from RateBeer. Quite a title and our experience did not disappoint.

Take a seat at their bar and you'll find 8 beers on keg, 2 on cask and an incredible little beer fridge. The food menu is a combination of classic and modern Spanish dishes. We opted for the sweet potato patatas bravas which was outstanding. But what to pair it with?

On the left is a 9.8% Russian Imperial Stout by Mission Brewery (San Diego, CA). It was a decadent, boozey and chocolatey stout which was laced with aromas and flavours of roast coffee. On the right is Nor'Hop Golden Ale by Moor Beer Co. (Bristol, UK). The colour of this rich and hoppy ale lived up to the name, and it was a revelation to have such a well executed beer on cask, which I usually avoid.


Garage Beer Co.

Some of my favourite bars in the world are those where you can see the brewhouse, where rows of shiny fermentation vessels act as the backdrop and where your beer doesn't have to travel too far to get to you. Garage Beer Co. occupy a narrow space which is a combination of polished concrete floors, exposed brick work and artwork. What more could you want from a quirky brewpub?

On tap they had 7 beers ranging in style from saison's to black IPAs, what to go for? It was handy that a few of the brewers were behind the bar serving, as they were able to give some tips on what was tasting best on the day.

The winning beer from Garage was their In Green We Trust Session IPA. If the freshest hops and tastiest citrus fruits in the world somehow met and reproduced, this beer would be spawned to showcase both of their best traits. Giving the term "sessionable' new meaning I was knocking back pints of this IPA in less than 10 minutes. Well crafted beers and a great environment to spend a few hours getting amongst Spanish artisanal brews.


Edge Brewing

Arguably the largest craft brewery in Barcelona, Edge Brewing have established themselves as a modern beer mecca in this cultured and traditional city. Approaching their 3rd year in production, the brewery was set-up by two Americans who were hoping to bring the experience and brewing traditions from their homeland to Barcelona. Their reputation has risen to such heights that they achieved the award for "Top New Brewer in the World" in 2014 by RateBeer. There was no way I would miss an opportunity to check out their space so we popped in on the Friday evening for their "Come and Explore Session", which included a tour, tasting and party.

They occupy a large industrial unit just outside of the city centre. High ceilings stacked with pallets, masses of floor space filled with kegs and an immaculately clean brewhouse in it's own secluded room. The brewhouse sits just behind their tap room and it was great to be able to try their beers whilst watching a brew underway through the large glass panels. We were invited into the brewhouse room for a tour of their facility and equipment, which was a good laugh and pretty informative.

The tap room is modern, spacious and what I would imagine any US brewery tap room to look like: long reclaimed wooden benches, those quirky lightbulbs that seem to be cropping up everywhere and an outstanding selection of beers. We worked our way through their Porter, American Pale, Rye Ale, Red Ale, Porter with cocoa nibs and vanilla pods and finally their Juggernaut Double IPA (pictured above). All of their beers were clean, well executed and true to their US style origins. The winner out of all of these was the Juggernaut, which lived up to its name by smashing you in the face with its unrelenting hop fists. Hugely aromatic with citrus and pine combined with a sweet, resinous and malty flavour. Incredible!


Should you visit Barcelona?

Absolutely yes! Barcelona may be in it's infancy on the global scale of craft beer development, but it is experiencing its very own Revolución Cerveza Artesanal where bars, bottle shops, breweries and brewpubs are working like crazy to convert the San Miguel drinking Spanish to proper artisanal beer. With the city leading the way for craft beer in Spain I am hoping that the rest of the country will soon follow suit. 

 

The 2015 Prototype Series from BrewDog: Which one gets my vote?

Choosing a winner from this years Prototype Series by BrewDog. 

What do the guys over at BrewDog get up to when they aren't busy brewing their core range of award winning and globally renowned beers? The simple answer is innovation. Their annual Prototype Series is a prime example of this, giving the craft beer loving nation a chance to try 4 new brews that are usually a world away from what is typically on the boards at your local bar. 

4 beers. One vote. Having tried the series you get a chance to vote for your favourite, with enough votes from the public securing one of these beers a regular place behind the bar. Isn't democracy the best? You might not have heard of the Prototype Series before, but I'm sure you'll be familiar with BrewDog beers such as Cocoa Psycho, Jackhammer and Vagabond which all emerged off the back of this annual beer voting bonanza. 

The 2015 series includes a Hopped-up Brown Ale, Session India Pale Lager, Milk Stout and a Black IPA. A pretty solid foursome, right? 

 

HOPPED-UP BROWN ALE

Living in Newcastle, when ever I hear the term "brown ale" I immediately think of Newcy Brown (Newcastle Brown Ale). It is pretty much a staple in the North East but not a style I would necessarily gravitate towards. With an open mind I was looking forward to seeing what the "hopped-up" element of this beer could bring to a brown ale. It had very little noticeable aroma, just a mellow malt and hop character. The first sip is a combination of caramel, treacle and strong dark malt flavours. The sweetness produced from the 6-ingredient malt bill balances nicely with the palate-wrecking 85 IBU bitterness from Columbus, Simcoe, Citra and Centennial hops. After the first sip I wasn't convinced. However, after a few more the balance of sweet vs. bitter in this beer really started to develop and left me wanting another.

 

SESSION INDIA PALE LAGER

The name is a bit of a mouthful but it's a pretty accurate summary of this beer. A pale ale, matured like a lager, heavily dry-hopped like an IPA with a relatively low ABV of 4.4% making it sessionable. This IPL is brewed solely with Pilsner malt and then hopped with Chinook, Simcoe, Citra, Amarillo and Mosaic. True to the "lager" part of its name, it was absolutely crystal clear with a pretty solid carbonation. On the nose it was a cocktail of acidic citrus fruits and hops. The hoppy citrus taste disappeared quickly but left a very clean and dry finish. This IPL didn't blow me away but nor was it a disappointment, making it easy to finish the whole bottle in only a few minutes. 

 

MILK STOUT

You might ask, "Is there milk in this beer?". Milk as we know it is not actually added to this style of beer but lactose, a sugar derived from milk, is present to create a sweet and silky flavour. I've been drinking this Milk Stout at BrewDog Newcastle for a few weeks now and if it's on the board, I'll order it. Out of the bottle it is a rich, chocolatey, sweet and luxurious stout. The roasty, chocolate and coffee aroma lures you into this decadent beer and I could genuinely drink this all day. Amazing out of a bottle, but even better on keg. The ultimate winter beer. Dessert in a glass. 

 

BLACK IPA

I must admit, Libertine Black Ale by BrewDog is an absolute black beauty. If I'm in the mood for something dark but hoppy it's a go-to beer in their bars. This Black IPA unfortunately doesn't come close. It pours jet black and had a decent head, looking just like a porter. There was a pretty mild hop aroma coming from the single hop addition of Simcoe. The flavour again was very mild. Not enough hop flavour, not enough bitterness, not much of anything. Instantly forgettable. I shall say no more. 

 

THE WINNER

And the winner is...............the Milk Stout. It's an almost perfect milk stout which has been executed extremely well and I hope it makes it into the core range. I'm going to head to the voting page (Click Here) and place my vote right now. Democracy wins again.

"They better have the DIPA!" Cloudwater Brew Co. Tour & Tasting

Cloudwater Brew Co, Manchester

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Introducing "The Brewery Tour". The perfect day out for anyone looking to geek-out about craft beer. A chance to meet the brewer(s) face to face and find out what really goes on behind closed doors. How on earth do they actually make this world-beating brew that I'm drinking? Let's find out. 

Nestled in the centre of an unassuming industrial estate just outside of Central Manchester, Cloudwater Brew Co. occupy a spacious but well packed unit and have created a solid reputation for themselves in an insanely short period of time. Having been in business for less than a year their reputation for quality seasonal beers and a fresh approach to branding & design has catapulted their growth within the UK craft beer scene. To check out what these guys were up to behind the scenes I brought along a mate of mine who was equally as impressed by the Cloudwater beers we had tried to date, and both of us were prepared for a big session. 

As the keenest of beans, we were the first to arrive for the tour at 11am and were greeted by a familiar face. I bumped into the owner Paul at Craft Beer Calling in Newcastle earlier in the year and remembered him instantly. Having only been in the brewery for about a minute we were offered a pour of their Red Ale in one of their signature glasses (which tasted insanely fresh) and allowed to mosey around whilst the other punters arrived. 

Beers in hand the tour began. Paul showed us around the brewery, pretty much walking us through their brewing cycle from start to finish, describing each piece of equipment before moving on to the next section. My first impressions were that the brewery was extremely tidy, very logically laid out and generally a pretty cool place! I was happy to be spending a few hours here knowing there were more beers to come. Heavy electronic music blasting out of the speakers certainly added to the atmosphere. 

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It was obvious by the pile of barrels in the middle of the room that Cloudwater were full swing into their barrel-ageing program. So much so that they actually have another space around the corner which is dedicated solely to housing the barrels whilst time works its magic on the contents. One of the larger barrels was an ex Ardbeg Distillery 2005 Whiskey barrel which was soon to be filled with an 11% version of the Cloudwater Porter. These barrels reportedly cost £500 each to buy from the distillery after use, which is much more than I would have expected! The beer will sit and age in the barrel for at least a few months, so watch this space to see what is released in 2016. 

After the tour, Paul brought the group over to the Tap Room area for the tasting part of this tour. Carafe in hand, Paul walked over to the row of fermentation/maturation vessels and decanted some of their 7.5% Sorachi Ace and vanilla pod porter. It had a huge hop aroma on the nose from the Sorachi Ace, which I wasn't expecting from a porter. Combined with massive chocolate and toasty flavours and a silky subtleness from the vanilla pods, this really was a beast of a beer to be sampling before midday. 

Did anyone hear that Cloudwater had recently released a DIPA? Thought so. Having tried this at the Freetrade Inn release event a few weeks ago in Newcastle on keg and later in the day out of a bottle, I was extremely excited to try this fresh from the source. Generous pours of this 9% Double IPA were gladly received, and I swear I could already smell the aroma as he was bringing the filled glasses over from the taps. It was a tropical hop-bomb which hid any sign of booze almost completely, which for me is the gauge of a good DIPA/TIPA. Having seen the beer haul that Paul brought back from his trip to California earlier in the year it was clear to see where his inspiration for this epic beer came from. 

With me visiting California over Easter next year I was interested to find out Paul's opinion of the world famous and massively hyped Pliny the Elder IPA by Russian River Brewing. He said it was OK. Not the answer I was expecting as the hype for this beer online is crazy, with many people swearing by it as the best beer in the world. His response that "surrounding certain beers with hype impacts the consumers experience and also their spending behaviour". Fair point.  

From the discussion around hype and reputation, Paul said unashamedly that Cloudwater view the quality of their beers to date as 6/10. Despite how well their beers are being received across the country it seems they have their feet placed firmly on the ground and know that there is still work to be done. If the beers I tried today were a 6/10 then I am looking forward to seeing a 9 or 10/10 (if that even exists). 

The release of the DIPA seemed to come and go in an instant, but I was lucky enough to be able to bag a few of their bottles to enjoy over a week or two. Hoping that we don't have to wait until the same time next year for another release of this beer, as it was incredible and stood up against some of the best Double IPA's I have tried this year.

The tour & tasting at Cloudwater was eye opening, informative and good fun. Paul knows how to keep a crowd entertained and the beers on offer were all outstanding. I left the brewery with a very positive impression of Cloudwater. They have an extremely passionate man at the helm and I'm confident he will steer the business in the right direction. Their ethos of using seasonal brewing ingredients helps them to stand out of what is a very busy craft beer crowd. 

If you live in Manchester, visit Cloudwater. If you don't live Manchester get yourself there for a visit as it's a great way to spend a few hours and the beer is outstanding. 

Address: Units 7-8, Piccadilly Trading Estate, Manchester, M1 2NP