Northern Restaurant and Bar, and The Changing Face of American Craft Beer in the UK

Guest writer Rowan Molyneux visited this years Northern Restaurant and Bar in Manchester to offer us her view on the highlights to look out for;

On Tuesday 18th and Wednesday 19th of March, the Northern Restaurant and Bar Show was in full swing. The North’s biggest hospitality event, NRB played host to scores of exhibitors, and members of the hospitality industry converged on Manchester Central from all over the UK. With almost 7000 people pouring through the doors over the course of the show, the mood was vibrant and jolly, with visitors and exhibitors alike making connections, exchanging business cards and tips, and of course, sampling the food and drink which was flowing freely as companies proudly showed off their wares. The two-day event was frequently punctuated by masterclasses, talks and demonstrations from chefs, brewers and brand representatives, with the Chairman’s Reserve Cocktail Competition showcasing the skill of bartenders from across the UK. Also present was an exclusive pop-up bar created by Almost Famous, epitomising the restaurant’s irreverent vibe on a more compact scale; let it be known that their aniseed and chilli alcoholic slushie was a force to be reckoned with!

With hundreds of products on show, it’s been inordinately difficult to whittle down the amazing offerings to a manageable list, but eventually I managed to put together a little selection of the brands and events which particularly piqued my interest over the two days. Without further ado, I present to you ‘Molyneux’s Northern Restaurant and Bar Picks 2014’.

First up, an unusual product from God’s own county: Masons Dry Yorkshire Gin. Produced in small batches, this 42% highly sippable gin showcases interesting flavours – mingled tones of fennel, black pepper, zest, juniper and pine result from a mix of citrus, their own juniper bushes, and a secret botanical blend. Recommended serves include lime, green apple, orange peel, or, intriguingly, grapefruit and black pepper.

Next is Penderyn, a single malt Welsh whisky. Wales seems to be a lot more visible in the drinks world these days, being the home of amazing craft beers from breweries such as The Celt Experience and Tiny Rebel. Now Penderyn, the only whisky distillery in Wales, are making their mark with their single malt. Recently featured in a Guardian article showcasing five of the best whisky masterclasses around, their core range consists of a trio of 46% whiskies. Madeira is aged in ex-bourbon barrels and finished in ex-Madeira wine casks, giving it lots of toffee and dark dried fruit flavours. Sherrywood is aged in Oloroso sherry casks, allowing a dryness to briefly interrupt the rounded sweetness of caramel and sultana. Their Penderyn Peated is, of course, full of sweet smokiness, interspersed with vanilla and a hint of citrus. At the distillery they also produce Brecon Five Vodka, Brecon Gin, and Merlyn Welsh Cream Liqueur – as an Irish Cream devotee, I’m desperate to get my hands on a bottle of this!

Vodka has to be pretty good to impress me, but Snow Queen has done just that. At 40%, this organic vodka from Khazakstan uses organic wheat and pure spring water, and is distilled five times. Snow Queen is so remarkably silky smooth that you can sip it, straight, at room temperature. I don’t know about you, but my days of putting vodka in the freezer are over..!

Another spirit which I found highly enjoyable without it being chilled down was the newly launched Admiral Vernon’s Old J Tiki Fire Spiced Rum, 75.5%. You’d never have guessed the ABV just by tasting it; there is a huge hit of warmth there, but the harsh burn you might expect from a rum this strong just isn’t present. In its place, there are heavy vanilla flavours, and a little lime at the back of the palate. This is a rum with power and impact, and I look forward to seeing it being used in cocktails soon.

With regard to events, the Chairman’s Reserve Cocktail Competition was an amazing showcase for the talent of cocktail bartenders at the top of their game both in Manchester and further afield. The winner, Adam from Corridor (#UnderNewManagement) in Salford took showmanship to the next level with the help of his glamorous assistant ‘Hilary the cow’, who roamed the room dispensing alcoholic goodness from her udders while Adam talked the crowd through his cocktail, mixing it with efficiency and flair. He was a worthy winner, and he – and the very close runner up, Tom from Kosmonaut – will be visiting St Lucia for the rum trip of a lifetime later this year.

One talk I wouldn’t have dreamed of missing was ‘The Changing Face of American Craft Beer’, led by Will Evans of Cave Direct on behalf of Kona Brewing Co – a brewery with the charming tagline, ‘Liquid Aloha’. Those who know me will be aware that I am, first and foremost, a beer geek, having been firmly entrenched in the industry for the last five years, in which time I’ve seen the availability of a wide selection of American craft beers skyrocket. Using the Hawaiian brewery Kona Brewing Co’s core range as an example, Will spoke about how to slowly introduce standard lager drinkers to craft beer, one step at a time – but first, he provided us with a little history. In the 1970s, the state of brewing in America was pretty dire, with only 44 breweries in the whole country; many of them making dull, insipid lager. This lack of any decent choice led to the homebrew revolution as Americans began to make the flavoursome beers that they themselves wanted to drink. Microbreweries sprung up, and today there are around 2500 breweries making craft beer in the United States. Every American has a relatively local craft brewer, and this is also gradually becoming true of the UK, with the range and quality of lovingly made beers skyrocketing over the last few years. Consumer demand has risen sharply, and customers who have previously habitually swilled back pints of ‘premium’ lager have become open to trying a more artisanal product. So, how do we convert fans of mainstream lager to craft beer, which often contains flavours which can be challenging to the unsuspecting? It’s all about the progression.

The first Kona beer we try is Longboard Island Lager: a German-style pilsner at 4.6%, its big malt character balanced by the high alpha acid Hallertau hop. This makes the beer clean, refreshing, and above all, accessible. Pilsners are marvellous gateway beers, eminently quaffable, gradually introducing more flavour than a mainstream lager without being a shock to the system. From there, the next step in the journey is to introduce your customers to a pale ale. Still nothing too bitter or strong– now is not the time to try and get them drinking Magic Rock’s Cannonball! – but here is where you move into ales and introduce a fruitier hop profile with a big aroma. Big Wave is Kona’s golden ale at 4.4%, showcasing Galaxy and Citra hops with a huge passionfruit aroma and tropical fruit on the palate, supported by apricots and dried fruit. The hop profile absolutely is the star attraction, but this is still a light and easy-drinking beer. The low ABV makes it an accessible next step up from lager. Will tells us that this beer would be wonderful paired with a pineapple and pulled pork burrito. Now that sounds like a plan!

And then, of course, it’s onwards and upwards to the full on, uncompromising beers that craft beer geeks obsess over. We’re talking hugely bitter fruity double IPAs, deep dark rich imperial stouts, and mouth-puckering lambics. This is a level which not everyone will enjoy, but it’s the top rung of the artisanal beer ladder. The last beer in our tasting session, Kona’s Fire Rock pale ale at 6%, is towards the less extreme end of this level, but its ABV may scare off the more traditional beer drinker. It’s a hop-forward beer with higher bitterness, but this is balanced by the caramel flavours from the strong malt backbone. This beer, Will opines, would be best paired with barbecue food, as the caramelised meat complements the malt, and the hop bitterness cuts through the char. Drinking beer with meat: always good advice! This talk gave a concise history of where American craft beer has come from, and provided industry folk with an easy-to-follow map for gradually introducing one’s customers to more interesting beer. Cheers Will, and thanks for the samples!

The show will return to Manchester on the 17th and 18th of March, 2015. If you missed out this year, put it in your diary now – I’ll see you there.

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