Like Beatlemania but for fruit beer

Something quite odd happened in Arizona this Summer. The effects may have gone further afield but I didn’t. Right here in Phoenix during the fiercest summer, people were flying into their cars when they saw on social media that beer had arrived from a Viking-themed brewery in Fargo, North Dakota.

Phoenicians were queuing up outside to get their hands on the latest arrivals from Drekker Brewing. They have some very on point IPAs, pastry sours but the big draw for everyone is their ridiculously thick fruit sours. Hitting around the 7% mark, they’re the bastard offspring of a saison and a smoothie. Did I get involved in the madness too?

Yes. It was a crazy summer. Things are calming down now. The beers stay on the shelves for a day or two rather than vanishing in an hour. I wouldn’t be surprised if the brewers of Arizona don’t all hit us with thick fruit sours for Summer 2021.


Either the madness has calmed down a little or Drekker just realized they had to ship more to Phoenix but you can grab them easily on the shelves now a lot of the time. Not seen a big sour smoothie trend in Phoenix yet, though…

Magic Rock takeover response

As Huddersfield is my hometown and I love craft beer, nothing made me prouder than the success of Magic Rock Brewing. I was nothing short of ecstatic when they opened their taproom within walking distance of where I worked at the time and a similar distance from where I grew up. I held my work leaving do there, had birthdays there and proudly took a Magic Rock t-shirt with me to America.

Many have reacted negatively to the news that Australian company Lion have purchased a 100% stake in the company, complaining that “selling out” will always lead to a drop in quality. I’ve listened to the for and against arguments about these kinds of purchases before many times and can see the valid points on both sides. I’d never, for instance, bother buying a bottle of Ballast Point’s Sculpin IPA anymore but I visited one of their actual taprooms in San Diego and found a treasure trove of exciting, adventurous beers still being made and served there.

I understand companies want to grow and not stay still. I can comprehend how big a deal it would be for them to have cans of their main brews sold on the shelves of big stores and I know that I’m not the target audience for that kind of thing. Breweries can make mass produced boring beers for the mainstream and still make beautiful craft beers for the fans.

However, there is a more troubling fact in this corporate take over. One that has lead me to unfollow Magic Rock on all social media, to give my t-shirt away and instruct the current custodian of my Magic Rock glassware to recyle it instead of holding it for my next visit.

Lion is wholly owned by Japanese brewer Kirin and last year Amnesty International accussed them of making donations to the military in Myanmar at the height of brutal ethnic cleansing. Kirin’s response was to deny the donations were for the military, something proven false by online statements from Myanmar’s Commander-in-Chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.

I love to see people from my hometown do well and I’ve always been proud of Magic Rock’s success. When the news was first announced I was prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt but when I found out about the Kirin/Myanmar connection, things took on a different shade. Sure, international companies have to adapt to local customs in their different markets and sometimes that does involve politcial contributions which is always shady but forgiveable. However, financially supporting rape, torture, genocide and displacement is never acceptable. So, even if they do start distributing their beers over here, I’m not going to be giving them a cent.

Goose Island – Bourbon County

I had only been living in the USA for four months back in 2016 when my local craft beer shop decided to create a social media event on Black Friday for something called “Bourbon County” by Goose Island. I was a little puzzled as I associated that brewery more with mainstream beers like IPA, pales, mock Belgian and lager. I did a little research and it turned out this is the original bourbon barrel-aged beer.

As well as the main beer, our local store had all these variants like barleywine, coffee and such like. So, after work I went down the store and all they had left was the regular.

I used the term “all they had” maybe a little too frivolously, though as it did rock my socks off. I rarely give beers more than 4 out of 5 on untappd but this one managed to squeeze a 4.5 out of me. My post said “Sparklingly rich stout with those oaky bourbon flavours in full effect. The beer equivilant of stilton”. As a lifelong stilton-worshipper, that’s some high praise.

2017 came around and I wanted to try one of the variations so I persuaded my wife to go to the beer shop while I was at work. She kindly did but still all they had left was 2017’s regular Bourbon County.

I got so caught up in the moment that aside from taking the photo, I didnt make any notes or check it in on untappd. My entry for the day after just says “VERY rich” and again gets 4.5. Fuzzy, happy memories.

2018 comes along and I was determined to get variants. My local store confirmed they were getting three different variants so I booked the morning off work and got up early. I arrived five minutes before opening time (they open an hour earlier at 9am for Bourbon County day).

They’d already opened doors and were handing out numbered queu tickets to people. I was number 27. They only had two cases of the variants and when they opened them at 9 on the dot I noticed there were 12 bottles per case. Even with the one bottle per person rule, if everyone in front of me bought the whole range, I would once again be left with just the regular.

As it happens, most people in front did buy the set at $73+taxes. Most but not all so there was still Wheatwine and Chocolate Orange left. Oddly, the first variant to sell out was the vanilla stout which puzzles me as that is the one kind of stout I’ve never been able to get along with.

The Wheatwine seemed completely unrelated to the main beer except for having been matured in bourbon barrels. It’s the first year they have made it though they have previously made barleywine as part of the series which is almost the same thing. The gentle taste of wheatwine really worked as an apt vessel for the strong bourbon barrel flavors. Its definitely not a starting point for the first timer unless you have an aversion to stout. It’s a little dearer than the regular Bourbon County but not by much so if you’re looking to try something different its perfect.

The chocolate orange version, made by adding cocoa nibs and orange peel to the barrel adds only a fraction of difference. While those lovely flavors are discernable and appreciable, they are deep beneath the overpowering taste of a stout that’s been left in an old bourbon barrel for ages. It adds an 8% improvement for the tastebuds at a 48% price increase. It may look more appeasing in the photos than previous years regular beers but I do have a much better camera this year.

Lovely as the original is, what is the point in spending nearly double on a slight variant? Is it one upmanship so you can boast that you drank something most other people can’t? I hope so because otherwise the attraction may be the veneer of respectability granted by such an air of prestige for a beer around the 15% mark. With it tasting so delicious it’s gone in no time at all and the effects are clearly felt!

The times have changed a lot since this beer launched. Now many breweries produce barrel aged stouts of distinction. They are even easier to find with Founders not only now mass producing their Kentucky Breakfast Stout but also reducing its price. While Bourbon County is no longer the unique experience it once was, it is still an amazing beer. Every stout lover needs to at least try the main beer, just remember to enjoy responsibly!

Lonesome Valley Brewing, Prescott Valley

3040 N Windsong Dr Prescott Valley, AZ

Hiking around Lynx Lake this Summer I began to develop a considerable thirst and took to my phone to see if there were any breweries in the vicinity. I was delighted to see this alluringly named place was just a few miles away and on the way home. My designated driver was down with the plan and it was payday. Dogs allowed on the patio and food served. Deal.

Sadly, despite the name and the close proximity to a local beauty spot, the bar is by a busy road in a built up area. That all went out of the window though when their Hoptumis Pryem pale ale hit my tastebuds. Oh God after an August hike it was like first aid for my throat. A certifiable classic pale and impossible not to gulp down.

Next target was The Riveter, a rosemary sour. Mightily tart and so refreshing that it bordered on decadent. By this point the food had arrived and stone me if that was not the best soft pretzel I have ever eaten, even better than the ones in Germany.

What was really crazy though were the men’s toilets. Decorated with beer matts from all over the worlds, many quite old including the English ones. Some I’d not seen since I was a small child in the beer garden with a bottle of coke and a bag of Seabrook’s crisps. Sadly my phone had died so no evidence this visit.

I took away a growler fill of Power Jam, a traditional porter with no crazy flourishes, just straight up classic style. Sorry about the dirty draining matt under it. That’s my home not their brewery!

Its not exactly my local but I will be back.

First two photos by Chris Letson.

Modern Times Lomaland Fermentorium, San Diego

3725 Greenwood St San Diego, CA

When it comes to American craft ale, Modern Times seem to have taken the throne these last couple of years. Whether it’s my local beer shop in Phoenix or the celebrated Tor Beers back home in West Yorkshire, their beers are prominent on display and sell fast.

So, after a quick trip to L.A. we failed to head straight back to Phoenix. The magnetic pull of Modern Times drew us South to San Diego to check out one of their brewery locations. There are about three visitable MT sites there now but the Lomaland Fermentorium was the easiest to get to from the freeway.

Right in the heart of an industrial district, this huge unit was a hive of activity with actual brewing (and roasting) going on. We came hoping they’d have lots of tasty onsite exclusives that you dont get in a can at your local. We were not disappointed, in fact we were overwhelmed. It took all of us a while to work out what to do.

The only same way around it was to all order little 5oz sampler glasses of what was on offer and pass it round the group. We tried sours, pales, hazy IPAs, porters and, most importantly, barrel aged stouts. Nothing let us down and we had some very high hopes to start with. It was a liquid banquet.

It’s a palace of good beer. There’s no food on offer other than cakes and cookies but they let you bring your own so who cares? This isnt a gastropub, this is an all year long beer festival. San Diego is a wonderful city and well worth visiting anyway so if you do go, make sure you make some time for Modern Times.

Warm beer and cold hearts

As an Englishman living out in Arizona, I often find when talking beer with the locals, a question or remark will come up about the English liking their beer warm. For in America all beer is served at fridge temperature. Sometimes I have picked up a can at my local gas station and found it too cold to even handle for more than a few seconds. Of course, if you’re going to drink Bud Light, it really does make sense to serve it at damn near freezing temperature to disguise the fact that there’s nothing to taste. That is because the colder the drink, the harder it is to taste it. Remember the first time as a kid you had warm soda/pop and it tasted awful? That’s because it really does taste awful, you just normally hide the fact by burying it in ice.

Ale brewing in England goes right back into the fuzzy mists of time, long before the invention of the refrigerator or even the first attempts at artificial refrigeration in the 1700s. England is not know for its tropical heat and the English developed a simple technique for keeping their beer cool, storing it in the cellar. Cask Marquee, England’s leading organization promoting traditional cask ale and its traditional serving methods, expects the beer to be served between 50f (10c) to 57.2f (14c) when they audit a pub to see if it can receive their official seal of approval.

57f might sound warm at first, if you compare it to air temperature but its a different story for liquids. The National Center For Water Safety classifies 60 to 50f as “Very Dangerous/Immediately Life-threatening”. So, if a mad scientist miniaturized you and dropped you in a nice pint of English best bitter, you really would be done for, although I can think of worse ways to go. The point is, it really cannot be that warm if it can kill you, can it? The beer is not served warm, it is just cool not ice cold.

Aside from the lethal properties of traditional English beer temperature, science also shows that extreme temperatures alter our perception of taste. The first sip of beer from the fridge might feel the most refreshing but the last sip has the most flavor. When I lived in England, in a house built onto the side of a steep hill, I could keep all my beer at the perfect drinking temperature by putting them at the back of the cupboard on the wall that faced nothing but cold earth. Now, if I want to taste what the brewer tasted then when it comes to English beer, I let it sit out of the refrigerator for 10-20 minutes before drinking it.

Now you will notice I drop the word “traditional” before saying “English beer” in this article repeatedly. That is because in recent years, there has been a huge interest in new American-style craft beer in the whole of the UK, starting off first of all with Scottish brewers Brewdog breaking the mould back in 2007. They have gone from strength to strength (with plenty of controversy along the way) and have been joined by such stalwarts as Magic Rock, Thornbridge, Northern Monk, Vocation and many more. The modern British ale will often be found ice cold in the fridge. Newer bars will have powerfully hoppy American-style IPAs served cold from a keg for a much greater price.

Although, as you can tell, my love for traditional English ale is undiminished, it is not something I drink very often here. True traditional English ale is served freshly in the cask with no stabilizers or preservatives. If I do see an English ale on tap then I never touch it because the temperature will be wrong, it must have been pumped full of chemicals to survive the journey here and it is always by one of the big, mass-producers, churned out on a vast production line without craft, love or care. There is Samuel Smiths who bottled condition their ales for exports but that is a whole other story right there. Luckily, there are a number of Arizona brewers who make their own Cask Ales such as Mother Road and Wanderlust in Flagstaff and Sunn Up in Phoenix. I’ll take those over imports any day.

When I next get to England, I will be diving head-first into the traditional ales as well as my favorite cutting-edge craft brewers, but until then I think I will mostly stick to my local, cold craft ales.

Vocation Brewery

IMG_20150813_203008Vocation Brewery first caught my attention in Calan’s Micropub in Hebden Bridge in the May last year. My first introduction to their beer was a very traditional pale ale called Bread and Butter. I was told they were a new local brewery and assumed like most breweries in this region, that their others beers would be traditional kinds too and as the Summer heat kicked in, I was seeking out craft beer at a colder temperature.

In August, with my friends Jake & Sophie, I promoted the Tor Ist Das! festival and we wanted a local brewery to supply our beer. I was quite surprised when Jake told me he had done the deal with Vocation Brewery as he was very much the craft drinkerer. I was even more surprised when he told me all the beers we were getting were going to be hoppy IPAs. I’d clearly gotten the wrong idea about Vocation.

The big weekend arrived and so did the beers. We had a ton of cans of Heart & Soul IPA (4.4%), quite a few cans of Life & Death IPA (6.5%) and a small amount of bottles of Divide & Conquer black IPA (6.5%). Nothing there for the traditionalists but you could definitely have said the same thing about our music line-up. Throughout the daytime for each day, I stuck to the Heart & Soul. It is just as hoppy tasting as many craft ales twice its strength and wonderfully refreshing. I’m normally the kind of guy who changes beer with every pint but a day on the Heart & Soul felt just great.

As it got darker, I switched to the Life & Death IPA, the big brother of Heart & Soul. While I had no complaints at all about Heart & Soul, I could feel things ramping up with this one. The hops feel a bit spicier and the alcohol content makes it tingle more, although it is riskily suppable.
IMG_20151102_190532Finally, for the headliner, I tried a Divide & Conquer. If ever there was a beer to drink while operating the smoke machine for a black metal legend, this was it. It feels like quite a luxury drink and magnificently hoppy. Sadly, there were none left for day 2 but the same technique of starting on Heart & Soul then switching to the Life & Death at night worked beautifully and everyone else seemed to do the same. We got a lot of compliments both from our punters and from the bands about the Vocation beers, which were new to nearly all of them.

Ever since that weekend, I’ve felt a deep affection for Vocation and though I rarely revisit beers (always seeking new thrills), I do keep on coming back to these ones again and again. It is partly emotional memory and partly how good they are. I’ve also enjoyed their Pride and Joy American pale ale, the majestic Naughty & Nice chocolate stout and even a few of their ongoing Chop & Change series which sees them experimenting with different styles for cask.

It came as no surprise to me when I learned that Vocation was set up by an experienced brewer. It’s the new brainchild of John Hickling who founded the Blue Monkey Brewery in Nottingham but Vocation is on a whole higher level than his previous work. In fact, having indulged their brewings on many occasions now, I feel it is entirely justified to say that Vocation are the most important brewery to open in the North since Magic Rock.

Rainbow Project 2015

The meteoric rise of Magic Rock continues. First they open up in Huddersfield in 2011 and immediately make a big splash, winning awards left right and centre. 2015 they move to bigger premises right where I grew up in BIrkby and they open a brewery tap on the site, just a short walk from my work. The Brewery Tap there immediately became as essential as the beers. Many out of towners make the pilgrimage despite it being a little but out of the town centre, lured by the promise of many Magic Rock beers all on tap at one place.

Yet this is not about how wonderful the Magic Rock Tap is (and it is). This is about the mind-blowing beer festival they hosted. Last year’s Rainbow Project happened in London and saw various UK brewers making beers especially for the festival. This years, the stakes were higher. 7 UK breweries collaborating with 7 US breweries to make 7 special brews for this years beer festival. 2015 also saw it happening simultaneously at London’s Beavertown Brewery and at Huddersfield’s Magic Rock.

On top of that, every UK brewery had at least one of their beers on tap and all the American breweries had multiple beers on tap. Oh, and lots of street food stalls selling everything from wood fired pizza to exotic eastern dishes.

We got there before doors opened at twelve and there was already a massive queue, buzzing with anticipation. The icing on the cake was the sun stayed out all day so there was plenty of room for everyone to sit down and enjoy the booze. So, here’s the Rainbow Project specials in all their glory:

A collaboration between Lake District brewers Hawkshead and Denver Colorado brewery, Crooked Stave, the Key Lime Tau really was something extra special. A sweet taste that haunted my dreams for months afterwards. I hunted down bottles of it and sought it out at beer festivals. A legend of a beer. Beer of the year.




Beavertown/ Dogfish Head – Anja

tingling, sour berrie tasting beastie….like unripe blackberries gone really naughty






Wild Beer Co + Firestone Walker – Violet Underground

Another sour but oddly pale with a kind of grapefruit taste to it






Partizan + Prairie – Real Time Saison

Not that sour, oddly, but tasted like marijuana! Must have been the lemongrass?





Magic Rock + Cigar City – Cigarro Roja Magico

Very dry and hoppy with an aromatic aftertaste






Buxton + Arizona Wilderness – Deep Valley Rainbow

Just the sourest beer I ever tasted! An extraordinary hit on the tastebuds






Siren + Surly – Blue Sky Sea

Wow, this was one salty beer. Definitely one for beer explorers not for casuals but I enjoyed it a hell of a lot. In fact, if it hadn’t been for the Key Lime Tau, this would have been beer of the year for me.

After those 7 belters, I was definitely feeling the effects a little but with so much American beer over here in Yorkshire, we had to keep going a little longer. Of particular interest to me was the beers over from Arizona Wilderness in Phoenix as I’m going to live there soon so it felt like the done thing despite the hefty import price. It was worth it and made me feel optimistic about my future, although I kno w I will miss having something like Magic Rock around.

Special thanks to Scott Patient, who’ll also be missed.

Papago Brewing, Scottsdale, Arizona

2017 update. Sadly, this wonderful bar has gone the way of history. The lease ended and the location was earmarked for redevelopment. BAH! But the legacy lives on through Huss Brewing whom we will write about soon.

Papago front

Craft beer in America is a booming business these days. It seems that nowadays every little gas station has a chiller full of the local brews with a few state favourites and the demand for it in bars and restaurants is ever growing. Papago Brewing, though, is no zeitgeist surfer, they have been espousing the best refreshments in the Valley of the Sun since 2001. Not only that, but they also brew their own as well.

The first thing that strikes you on entering the bar, after the gigantic wooden statue of a native American, is the vast chiller* section. Taking up most wall opposite the bar, they are stocked with bottled beers from around the world but the majority of it is taken up with some of America’s finest. On the Belgian front, all the the big names are stocked like Chimay and Gulden Draak. As is usual in America, the English selection consists almost entirely of the big breweries and is kept at chiller temperature but in their defence this is Arizona and cool spaces are not easy to come by outside of a chiller. You would probably need oil company drills to dig very deep underground to get an English cellar temperature.

papago inside

They also have a great range of draft beers with 30 taps on daily rotation and usually include an English beer though I have never sampled it there because…well, I can get plenty of that at home and why would I want the same old when I could get a real glass of Stone IPA from the tap?

Whilst like most craft breweries, Papago serves food including some amazing pizzas and soft pretzels, it still feels like somewhere you can while away the hours. There is even an internet-connected jukebox which can be operated via cell* phone apps. With the app allowing you to create playlists anytime, trying to find the most obscure music you can on it becomes an obsessive bar pastime, especially as the old CD jukebox had such sterling selection. However, for those who just want a quieter drink, there is a side room with no speakers in it so only those with the hearing of a bat will be able to tell what music is playing in the bar.

papago serves

Arizona gets very hot most of the time and even in Winter, Scottsdale is still a t-shirt town. Papago is the perfect antidote, a vital desert watering hole offering an oasis of sanity and good taste.

*fridge. Seen as how I am talking about a bar in America, I might as well use the local lingo.
*mobile. See above

2020 post script. Today I found myself in the area and this is how it looks now.

Rat and Ratchet, Huddersfield

Returning to your old hometown is always a strange experience because everything changes. Developments and dereliction changes the whole face of your old stomping ground. Family businesses gobbled up by chains and thriving ends of town suddenly deserted. All my old drinking holes demolished, developed, rebranded or refurbished into oblivion. All except one.

When I first went drinking in Huddersfield in 1992, ale was the norm and every single town centre pub sold cask ales. Back then, the Rat & Ratchet was most noted for an excellent old jukebox and a Frank Zappa “Heavy Shit” poster. Yet as the big breweries switched to stabalised lager and novelty themes, the Rat & Ratchet somehow stood still. As the world around it changed, it became defined as a “real ale pub” simply by doing what it always did. Today they still have that excellent, very old jukebox and the “Heavy Shit” is still there.

I happened to revisit for the first time in four years to find the pub now has a brewery beneath and were having a beer festival celebrating their own beers. I was in a hops mood but managed to find something light, mellow and hoppy each time while still getting a different beer. Having been heavily dissappointed by another pubs own brews recently, it was good to see some quality being brewed down there. Long may the Rat continue. Heres to an IPA there in ten years time