It’s official, for those who don’t already know, I know nothing about new breweries. I don’t really go to beer festivals unless I have to and I don’t follow many people on Twitter. Thankfully for the past two years Beavertown have been kind enough to invite us to their birthday party where I meet interesting people who are apparently quite well known to everyone else bar me. Last year was Beerbliotek & BFM who we now work with, and this year an affable chap called Rozzi, from a brewery called Basqueland. I’d never heard of them, although Jamie had and had even tried their beer.
Rozzi and I got nattering, I was introduced to Kevin and Ben (also owners, Kevin (CEO) is a former chef and Ben (the head brewer) and was known as Rooster when he worked for Stone Brewing & Port Brewing back in San Diego) who were both plastered. It was a fun night. We subsequently got an invite, to go see what they do and how they do it, and I wanted an excuse to go to Spain* (this will be the running theme in these blogs). We looked at flights and booked for early May. A handy 2hr direct flight to Bilbao followed by a short journey in Rozzi’s car, and we were in San Sebastian. Which is an utter toilet. Oh hang on, no, it’s amazing.
*Being in Basque I should probably say that despite visiting them, I still haven’t been to Spain.
Jamie had been scheduled to come on the trip, but plans changed so for four days I was stuck with he of the Salmon trousers and cricket chat, Sir Timothy Blades Esq. Tim has a tendency to remember things that have happened, and I don’t. Which is why he’ll be writing the rest of this blog.
Cap’n Norbert Kolsch.
Basqueland Brewing Project specialise in big beer. Full flavoured with more than an echo of their SoCal origins, ringing with crystal clear flavours. This is why they marry so well with the uncomplicated but intense cuisine of the region. You very much order a whole plate of one ingredient, garnished simply with rarely more than the delicious rock salt and thick olive oil* found across much of the Iberian peninsula (I’m already running out of ways to not refer to this as “Spain”, but it’s an issue worth tiptoeing around). Now, when your standard lunch is about 2.5kgs of steak (more on that shortly) and you’re some adventurous American craft brewers, it might be presumed that you wouldn’t fill your shiny stainless steel with a delicate, Central European hybrid style beer.
Well. Those in the know, know that consistency and drinkability are the true markers of potential in a fledgling craft brewery, and Cap’n Norbert Kolsch ticks all boxes on that front. It might not blow any ratings sites open, though we expect pale lagers to become surprisingly more popular on RateBeer in the near future, but when it’s hot and you need to wash down a big lunch, it is killer. But why should be filling our shelves with an imported kolsch, Tim? Well, show me a good Scottish one. Plus, we flew to Bilbao quicker than a train gets to Aberdeen.
Anyway, back to the meat. And what meat! I don’t hand out meat hyperbole very often, not since school anyway, but these rib steaks (Txuleta) were just beautiful, cooked simply on a kind of charcoal flattop. Rare, fatty, and unnecessary after multiple pintxos. This was afternoon on day 3 and a with a little palate fatigue there was no need for a big pairing - the 4.9% and bready, lightly floral Cap’n Norbert Kolsch did just enough. Some generous measures of brandy helped keep it all down.
*Basque, and indeed Spanish, olive oil over Italian. Every time. Lo siento no lo siento.
AUPA - All United Pale Ale
Aupa is a common Basque greeting, very much their “ciao” if you will. So where better place to start on day 1. If the drive from Bilbao to San Sebastian is a little too much, or runs anywhere near a mealtime, please do yourself the favour of stopping in Orio. This unnecessarily gorgeous port town was where we first made friends with Besugo. This is sea bream, cooked whole on an open grill and smothered in the Basque culinary meme of rock salt and olive oil, with vast chunks of garlic added late in cooking. Our first fish bae was at Xixario Asador where we gatecrashed Basque Mother’s Day. Rozzi did a great job as mum and interspersed BBP’s session beers with Txakolis - a local white wine, acidic and mild in alcohol. Incidentally, the true fishy love story was with Rodaballo, Turbot to us, cooked in a similar way. Asador Portuetxe, an restaurant run byBBP’s first ever employee Borjas - a man perhaps perennially hungover - served us a 1.7kg Rodaballo on day 2 for dinner. The fish, and the tiny teardrop peas it was served with (“Basque Caviar”) demonstrate the elegance and amazing flavour which can be achieved with simplicity. BBP’s beers carry some of this philosophy, something we can forget as an industry in an age of novelty beers.
AUPA, carrying a positive message for a divided region in its acronym moniker, sticks long in the memory as a fantastic example of a clean American Pale Ale. Columbus hops give the perfect bitterness to a 5.3% pale malt base and a little earthiness on the nose, but with none of the onion hop in the East Coast murk bombs this is the antidote to. Cascade finishes the classic hop bill with some resinous qualities - big floral and citrus lead aromas from the dry-hopping. Don’t think too hard. Just dangle your feet over the side of the marina, hit four of these, and then a gin and tonic.
By day 4 I think Chris and I were so overwhelmed with the brilliant quality of everything we had enjoyed in San Sebastian - hospitality, food, meetings involving popcorn, cider, wine, beer, bars, beer, aquariums - that we had to take a few hours out to immerse ourselves in emails to avoid becoming giddy. Sakona coffee is the stand out caffeine emporium with BBP beer on tap and coffee to rival anything in the UK. Its pretty much a lone warrior on the coffee scene out there but others will follow soon.
Equinox (pronounced eh-kee-nox with the Basque lilt) is an absurdly smashable American Wheat Ale showcasing the hop formerly of the same name, now Ekuanot. We had neglected it a little earlier in our trip and scoffed somewhat as Rozzi & Rooster saw off schooner after schooner while we dabbled in Imparable & Coco Chango. But at a high class bar and burger joint we learned the error of our ways. With the Aupa keg kicked the night before, we switched to this 4.8% wheat ale to temper the hot, melty goodness of the best cheeseburgers in town and it worked tremendously. The high proportion of wheat in the malt bill gave the big, cuddly mouthfeel that makes wheat beers great partners to so many meals. However, a neutral ale strain and cooler fermentation means a cleaner, less estery character - it seems drier, more like an APA - so it cuts through monolithic plates of burgers and fries with ease.
Meaning unstoppable, at 6.8% this IPA certainly takes some slowing down. From our personal experience, it will stop you first. Truly west coast in style, this has a clean, bright bitterness and a subtle, well hidden warming alcohol. If you miss IPAs from 2012, heck even eighteen months ago - drink loads of this. It travels pretty well to us too, BBP are fully committed to cold storage and freshness (we saw our pallet all good to go in the enormous cold store.
Imparable is best enjoyed in a cavernous warehouse brewery on a Sunday afternoon. Fortunately there was one handy in San Sebastian. Replete with popcorn machine and dartboard, wave after wave of IPA, as good as any coming out of the West Coast of the US, washed down salty puffs of air and miserable treble ones. BBP’s taproom is a simple set up, with a few taps pouring on a short line straight from kegs in the coldstore. Not much else is needed. However, when offered the opportunity to drink Coco Chango straight from the tank, you do not refuse. An imperial porter, with heavy additions of rye and oats to ramp up that mouthfeel, the roasted bitterness is tempered by additions of high quality cocoa nibs and toasted coconut. It coats every forgotten crevice of the mouth but then somehow slips away just as easily, and is a must for any big dark beer drinker.
Chris somehow managed to get his hands on a bottle of Alvin (he forgets if Rozzi gave it to him or if he just waltzed in to the cold store and helped himself). An Imperial Stout made with coffee beans, whole vanilla bean and chocolate, which was helpfully lying about in small bottle quantities. It was as rich as it sounds. An attempt was made to order some, presumably in a pathetic attempt to redeem himself for his petty theft, but sadly they were all out. We’ve begged them to make more.
Appendix - Cider
While Arraun and Begi Haundi deserve a mention, it would be rude to conclude this post without mentioning the Basque cider which played such a huge part in our trip. Zapiain have been making Sidra in pretty much the same way, on the same site, and all in the same family since at least 1595. Records before that are a little hazy, but cider production has occurred on that site for around 1000 years. These guys are now a pretty big operation but use only Basque apples supplemented with Normandy cider apples, pressed & fermented on site. No concentrate, no preservatives.
Basque cider sits somewhere between the brett-heavy Normandy ciders and English farmhouse versions - there is definitely some funk which grows throughout the year, but more important is a biting acidity to cut through the oily fish and fatty meat that dominates the local diet. It is fantastic stuff, a unique flavour with endless culinary possibilities, and the consumption of it involves no small amount of theatre. Even standard table pouring is done from the the greatest possible height into wide, flat based glasses. Supposedly to aerate the drink, which has a very slight natural carbonation with no additional CO2, it is very definitely an act of showing one’s skill against other hosts.
Even more dramatic, and with a greater splash radius, is the act of “Txotx.” The oak barriques containing the drink are plugged with tiny wooden pins (there is little pressure inside to force them out). The host removes one to cause a steady, stream of cider to curve onto the floor and you have to catch it in the glass, going lower in turn than the previous person. After a visit to a cider house, you come out with your forearms drenched in it so there is absolutely no doubt where you have spent the evening. We’re sure there are easier ways to catch drink drivers.
We are hoping to bring some of this unique drink across and with it a version of an ice cider which is…well, it’s something else. But I’ve run out of adjectives - pack plenty if you go to San Sebastian.