Like many brewers in the UK, we don't hide the inspiration we take from the US craft brewing scene. The IPAs brewed over the past decade or so, with the flavour-packed hops at their disposal, have inspired and driven the UK scene to the great place we now find it. A pilgrimage across the pond to sample the finest beers fresh from the source and the opportunity to learn face to face with those behind them is high on any brewers wish list.
Our friendship with Against the Grain Brewery goes back to IMBC 2014. As a full time brewery we were very much in our infancy, having been in production just two months when we took our place in Room 2 at the Victoria Baths. To also be offered the opportunity to host their head brewer Adam Watson for a collaboration the following week was an exciting proposition which we didn't hesitate in agreeing to, and so Bruno's Cassock, a 6% Smoked ESB, was born. At the following year's festival we got to meet Adam's business partner Sam Cruz, at which point the words 'Return colab' may have been uttered in passing. Better start looking at flights to the states...
No messing around, a few emails later and I'm on a plane (and another plane, and another) to Louisville, Kentucky for a 3 week visit to learn all I can. Not the destination I'd have expected if I imagined my first trip to the States, but I was in good hands.
AtG began life as a brewpub and smokehouse built into the local baseball stadium Sluggers Field. This is still the heart of the business, home to a 15bbl Brewery on two levels above the bar and kitchen. I was straight down there the first day to meet up with Sam & Adam and get the tour of both the original brewery and their new 30bbl Production facility a few miles down the road.
Coming out of brewing and packaging full throttle 6 days a week, the first thing I noticed was the change of pace! There are many advantages to being able to knock out 60 barrels of wort in two turns over less than 10 hours, and they were doing this twice a week. Likewise a 2700p/hr 12-head rotary canning machine can package that same volume in a matter of hours.
It was good being down at Pdx day to day, losing it over their magnificent centrifuge, learning plenty on barrel ageing and being greeted every morning by their resident purring pest control, Penny. I was also regularly amused by the US's often unusual laws. There was a Bock Fest (Ask me about the goat racing....) the first weekend of my stay, with all the local brewers present pouring their take on the style. I say 'their', it's illegal for a brewer to pour his own beer at such events, and so each brewer was having to pour their neighbours, while they stood next tap along pouring his. Bizarre.
There was of course much more to see outside of production and thankfully Adam was a willing guide. Beginning with other Louisville rising stars such as 'Great Flood' & 'Akasha', we later ventured 90 mins down the highway to Lexington, home of 'Country Boy' and 'Ethereal' amongst others. Keep an eye for the latter in particular as they grow, some of the most wonderful wild beers you could wish to try. One benefit of having a microbiologist on the team.
I was keen to venture further and so, thanks to the glamour of Megabus, I lined up a couple of days in the windy city, Chicago. Windy? It was arctic! Thankfully the fantastic Drew Fox of 18th Street Brewing had kindly offered to put me up when we met at AtG the previous week and so I had another generous chaffeur through the worst of the weather. The 21 year old me, who had his mind opened by their classic India Pale Ale, ticked the original Goose Island Clybourn brewpub off his bucket list whilst the brewer of today spent a very happy few hours at Three Floyds supping Zombie Dust and marvelling at their new bottling hall. Visits to Spiteful Brewing and Half Acre left me loaded down with 6-packs and bombers as I staggered in to one of the best bars I've encountered, Local Option for a few last beers before heading back. There was no time unfortunately to get a brew on with Drew, but we put together a recipe for a special sour, so watch this space on that one.
I did however get to hook up with Adam for the return collaboration, the primary reason I was out there in the first place. We'd missed Bruno and so we decide amp him up and bring him back. The new version will come in around 7% and hopefully find its way back to the UK in time, if not before, for IMBC 2016. Speaking of which, a recipe is in place for brew number 3, to be launched at this year's festival. This will be a new recipe and a whole new beast!
And so back to the UK, with a (slightly delayed but thankfully safe) suitcase full of beer to share with the team back at Monk HQ. The trip was as fruitful and educational as I'd hoped and I'm already working to introduce what I've learnt into production at home. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to the great folks at Against the Grain for looking after me, pouring copious beer my way and politely nodding as they understood nothing I was saying. We look forward to extending the same welcome to Adam and Sam when they return in October!
Keep racing those Goats, folks!