A taste of the Rainbow at Siren Craft Brewery

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Now in its fourth year of existence, the annual launch of The Rainbow Project is one of the most anticipated events in every beer geek’s calendar. The Project, which started life at Siren Craft Brewery in Berkshire in 2013, has in recent years produced some of the most highly sought after beers in the UK beer industry, including Buxton & Omnipollo’s (in)famous Yellow Belly in 2014 and Hawkshead & Crooked Stave’s Key Lime Tau last year. For the 2016 Project, seven UK breweries teamed up with counterparts from New Zealand to each brew a beer, as ever, based on a colour of the rainbow. The beers were launched at parties across the country on Saturday 17 September, and I, along with many others, headed to where it all began at Siren, eager to sample this year’s offerings.

Arriving into Wokingham train station around half one, I am greeted by the sight of a huge white double decker bus crammed full of adults more excitable than a group of children on Christmas. We pile on, and make the short bus ride to the industrial estate in Finchampsted, where Siren call home. There is already a sizeable queue on arrival, and we pass the time slugging back cans of Gamma Ray being sold by one the volunteers at the event. Soon, we are the proud owners of a pristine Rainbow Project glass and ready to get stuck in.

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As well as the seven Rainbow beers, there are offerings from each of the breweries involved in the project, as well as a small number from those involved in the collaborations in previous years, such as Cigar City, and three from local microbrewery Elusive Brewing Co., who brew out of a small 5 Barrel kit in a storage unit just round the corner from Siren. Food is provided courtesy of street food vendors Original Patty Men & Louisiana Chilli Shack and snack specialists Serious Pig and Karkli. Siren are also selling some of their own bottled beers, as well as some pretty swanky looking merch. Beers are purchased using tokens, which cost £2 and can be exchanged for either a third or a half a pint, depending on the beer in question. Despite ominous clouds suggesting the contrary, it remains dry throughout the day, making for a vibrant but not too overcrowded atmosphere inside the brewery.

I decide to begin proceedings with Sourbet, a 3.7% Raspberry and Lemon Berliner Weisse from Wellington-based Fork Brewing. A delicately tart and refreshing session strength beer, it provides me with a little time to weigh up my options and plot my route to eventual and inevitable oblivion. I am stuck by the demographic of the punters visiting the brewery, with the average clientele somewhat older than I’d anticipated, showing that it isn’t just trendy youngsters who have bought into the hype surrounding the Rainbow Project and ever-growing UK craft movement. There are also a pleasing amount of women at the brewery, further debunking the myth that drinking beer is a male-dominated pastime.

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Fearful that the combined thirst of the attendees would exhaust Siren’s limited supply of the seven beers I’d made the visit to try, I head over to bar five and grab a third of Magic Rock & Fork Brewing’s collaboration – The Upside Down. Inspired by the colour yellow, the beer is a 6% Kettle-Soured, Tropical Fruit Wit Beer, fermented entirely using Brett Trois, a yeast strain formerly thought to be Brettanomyces. Upon initially tasting The Upside Down, it isn’t hard to see why the yeast strain was mistakenly identified, with a strong tart and funky-like mouthfeel that is remarkably Brett-esque being produced. A healthy dry-hop dosage of Citra, Equinox, Simcoe and Mosaic give the beer huge tropical aromas, only aided by the addition of passionfruit and mango juice. The kettle-souring of the beer to a P.H. of 3.6 prior to boiling locks in a base-level of tartness which compliments the juicy fruit flavours excellently. I’m (half) tempted to go back for another.

Next up its a quick hop over to bar four and the turn of Project debutants Burning Sky. Replacing Buxton in this year’s Project is a tough ask, and Burning Sky were paired with Auckland’s Liberty Brewing Co to brew a beer based on the colour Orange. Branded as an “eclectic, borderless beer”, Descent into the Maelstrom is a 6.6% pale fermented with an Ardennes yeast strain and aged in White Burgendy Barrels. Post ageing, Descent into the Maelstrom was injected with a hefty dose of orange and grapefruit zest, before being dry hopped with Nelson Sauvin and Motueka hops. However, after Magic Rock/Fork’s tropical fruit explosion, unfortunately I find Descent into the Maelstrom a little disappointing. The barrel ageing process, combined with the Nelson Sauvin, produces a long, dry, almost vinegary finish that dominates the palette and gives a powerful alcohol hit that I didn’t need or expect before 3pm.

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Luckily, Rainbow beer number three is quite possibly the best of the lot. Never one to do things by halves, Wild Beer Co took their colour of blue more metaphorically than literally, teaming up with 8 Wired to produce Black and Blue, a raw, unhopped, unboiled bourbon cask barrel aged sour inspired by the concept of a French black & blue steak. The result is nothing short of spectacular; an intensely acidic, almost lambic-esque beer that is perfectly balanced and incredibly tangy. Probably as close as any UK brewery has gotten to Belgium in terms of sour beer.

My favourite of last year’s Rainbow beers was Cumbria based Hawkshead’s Key Lime Tau, a kettle soured lactose infused Golden Ale that was so good, they brewed it again earlier in the year. Consequently, I can’t wait to get my paws on their 2016 offering, a 6% seafood gose with New Zealand hops and green gooseberries, made in collaboration with Yeastie Boys. Brewed with Loch Fyne Oysters and green lipped mussels from New Zealand, Kai Moana Gose is lightly tart and has a slight salty edge, although neither of the two flavours is overpowering. In fact, there is very little overpowering about the beer at all; an excellent palette cleanser that would be perfect paired alongside a seafood dish, but that doesn’t enthuse me in quite the same way as Wild Beer Co or Magic Rock’s efforts.

Starting to feel the effects of a long afternoon of drinking, we tactically decide to purchase some posh-pepperami beer sticks from Serious Pig to soak up some of the alcohol. After numerous complex and sour beers, I’m really starting to crave a no-nonsense IPA. Luckily, Parrotdog and Garage Project are only too happy to oblige, and after a brief respite we indulge ourselves with the former’s delicately floral Forget me Not and the latter’s dank and resinous Pernicious Weed. Clearly its not just us and the US who can brew great hoppy beers…

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With time of the essence and alcohol tolerance limited, however,  I quickly decide to return once again to the Rainbow Project beers. Up next is Beavertown and Parrotdog’s Universal Mind, a historic Dortmund style Adambier coming in at a whopping 10.5%. Traditionally dark in colour and aged in wood for over a year, Adambiers are no longer brewed commercially, but the style has been revived with a unique twist for this year’s Rainbow Project. Universal Mind is a heavy, peaty, boozy and almost barley wine-esque red ale, given an almost Port-like quality by the two years it spent in Marsala wine barrels. It couldn’t be further from the other Rainbow beers I have tried up until this point in proceedings, and it makes for a nice change of direction in what has been a day dominated by pales and sours.

Of course, a trip to Finchampsted wouldn’t be complete without a trip round the corner to visit Elusive Brewing, a 5BBL microbrewery on the same industrial estate run by former homebrewer-turned-pro Andy Parker. Brewing just once a week since opening in April, Elusive Brewing are still at the very early stages of development and expansion, but are already producing a diverse range of fantastic beers on a kit partially paid for by Andy’s homebrewing exploits (Winning a Craft Beer Co. competition provided him with £5,000 & gave him the chance to brew commercially with Dark Star). Andy already has plans to take over the storage unit next door for extra fermentation space, and having tasted all three of Elusive’s beers for sale on the day, I can confirm that this is very good news indeed.

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Returning to Siren, I decide it is time to hit up Original Pattymen for my dirty burger fix. After some deliberation, I go all out for the Bourbon Butt plug; a monster of a beerburger with bourbon spiked peanut butter, bacon jam and cheddar cheese. The end-product has me quite literally salivating at the mouth and is demolished within seconds, leaving me craving another. I wash it down with  a third of Bloody Notorious, an 8% Blood Orange Double IPA brewed by Beavertown in collaboration with Boneyard, a match made in heaven. Now firmly the wrong side of tipsy, I head for the penultimate Rainbow Project beer, Royal Ale, an 8.5% English Barley Wine with riesling grape juice. Originally set to be brewed by Partizan and Panhead, the beer ended up being made solely by the London based brewery in acrimonious circumstances after Panhead were bought out by Lion group, who are in turn owned by Japanese beverage giant Kirin. As it turns out, Royal Ale is possibly my least favourite of the Rainbow beers, a little bit on the thin side and lacking in any standout qualities or characteristics.

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Finally, I head on over to bar one to sample Siren’s own Rainbow beer, Blacklight banana, brewed in collaboration with Wellington brewery Garage Project. Based on the colour indigo, the beer is a 9.2% Imperial Stout with bananas, molasses and bourbon barrel aged coffee. The indigo connection comes from the bananas, which apparently glow indigo under UV light when ripe. Blacklight Banana is an intensely sweet and silky smooth stout, with a huge banana hit and a deceptive drinkability for its strength. It is a worthy beer to round off the Rainbow Project and indeed the evening, and the train ride back to London flies past in a booze-induced daze, penetrated only by the slight regret of not having been able to try all of the other beers on offer throughout the day.

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On the whole the 2016 Rainbow Project launch party has to go down as an unqualified success. Thanks must go to all the breweries involved and to the volunteers who helped out on the day, but particularly to Siren, who hosted a brilliant event that was welcoming and friendly, yet also incredibly well organised and great value for money. I’ll almost certainly be back again for next year’s event.

 

In conversation with… Robin Wright, Co-Founder of Pig & Porter Brewing Co.

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*BEEP*, *BEEP*… *BEEP*, *BEEP*

It’s five forty-five am on a Thursday morning, and I’m rudely awoken by the unpleasant sound of my alarm clock, jolting me out of a deep slumber. I groan, haul myself out of bed and into the shower, before getting dressed and slipping out the back door at just gone half six. My destination is the brewery of Tunbridge Wells based Pig & Porter, located on a small industrial estate a few minutes from High Brooms station. I’ve volunteered to help out on a brewday in exchange for the opportunity to learn more about the brewery, and to observe the process of brewing on an industrial scale.

The story of Pig & Porter isn’t a simple one to map out, having no real definitive beginning or official start date. “It wasn’t the most planned of businesses from the word go,” Robin Wright, who runs the administrative side of the brewery, admits, “I’d known Sean (Ayling) for twenty odd years through cricket. He was a keen homebrewer and used to keep foisting various different brews upon me. I was living in a very remote part of East Sussex, running a Recruitment business and also getting quite involved with all the activities in the local village; flower shows, fetes etc., and I just thought to myself; burgers and beers might be a little bit more interesting than this!”

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Sean, meanwhile, was struggling to make ends meet in the sales industry after changes to his company’s pay structure. Finding it cheaper to brew than buy beer in the supermarket, he started to produce more beer in the hope of selling it with Robin at the Ashburnham village fete. “We got some of Sean’s beers in on a very small scale,” Robin recounts, “we then we started getting asked to do barn-dances, peoples weddings, and we started to think to ourselves ‘is there some mileage in this?’”

Around this time, Robin went blind in one eye. “All of a sudden I woke up one day having lost the sight in my right eye,” he recalls, “It required a series of operations to fix and gave me a load of time off work” Whilst recovering, Robin came up with a plan alongside Sean to take the business further, hoping to run an event catering business that produced a little bit of beer, thus giving birth to the Pig & Porter name. “We started to really get things off the ground late in 2012 as a registered business,” he says, “and around that time we were ringing around various different breweries asking to brew on their kits. A couple of them said yes and they explained to us that what we needed for events was a fraction of what even a microbrewery could produce, but that we may as well do a full brew and sell the rest to pubs.

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So on New Years Eve of 2012, Sean brewed Pig & Porter’s first proper beer, a tried and tested homebrew recipe called Red Spider Rye, a 4.8 per cent red ale with rye malts that still makes up a part of the brewery’s core range today. The beer was a huge hit, with Robin managing to sell it to local pubs that were interested in their fledgling brewery. “We brewed at about six different places, including at one point brewing more than Bedlam brewery were on their own kit,” Robin tells me with a smile, “but I think we only did about eight brews up until the end of the summer whilst we were doing the event catering business. We were just too busy.”

Around the end of that summer, Sean and Robin were made aware that the Old Tunbridge Wells Brewery site was available, having been sat idle for some time. They agreed a deal to share the 10-barrel site, which still remains their home to this day, with Tumanny Albion Brewing Company. “Sean wasn’t able to give up his day job at this point so that meant brewing on a Saturday,” Robin continues, “which also rather conveniently meant we had to make a decision about the food because all the events were on the weekends.” In the end, Pig & Porter decided to focus on the beer, relinquishing the catering side of the business, although their love of food remains as strong as ever, evidenced by the almighty fry up Sean cooks for us after mashing in the grain.

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After around a year of sharing, it became clear that both breweries needed to expand, and Pig & Porter eventually took over the entire Tunbridge Wells site themselves. “That was the point where Sean had to make a decision about the day job and we had to decide to take the plunge ourselves and try and make this work as a business,” Robin says, “and since then we’ve been full time and reached capacity some time ago.” In May, the brewery added a shiny new 15-barrel fermenter from China to the existing three 10-barrels they already had, and they now produce around 80 casks a week. “We’ll reach full capacity again at some point soon, and then its really a case of working out how big we want to grow and how we do that organically,” Robin says, “We didn’t come into the industry with any track record or any master plan, and it really has evolved quite quickly.”

Another huge step in the brewery’s growth came with the appointment of George Fisher as assistant brewer on a full-time basis (also in May), enabling Robin to focus on the administrative side of the business. “I’ve done assistant and helper to Sean, and I find the process of creating new beers really interesting,” he says, “but that’s really his area. He runs the brewery and I run the business.

“George coming on board was another big step because its just taken the sheer exhaustion out of it, and the slightly split shifts we’re operating means that Sean doesn’t have six 5 am starts on the trot which is a bit much!”

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Far from just being an extra pair of hands, George leads the brew on the day of my visit, with Sean having to rush off to make some deliveries. The beer in question being brewed is Dance First, a 4.2 per cent Stout with crystal, chocolate and black malts. Whilst we wait for the kettle to boil, we busy ourselves by putting some Weird Pig, a 5.5 per cent Californian Common Ale originally brewed in collaboration with Weird Beard, into kegs outside. The brewery has also collaborated with numerous other breweries across the country, including Blackjack and Runnaway brewery in Manchester. “I think there’s a lot to be said for doing collabs,” Robin enthuses, “you’re making something that’s a one off, two heads are definitely better than one, you share a lot of information and you have a lot of fun doing it”

“I think they certainly helped us a lot at the start, particularly when we brewed with Blackjack. It gave us a foothold into some of the most famous bars up there, and a soft introduction to that area by a brewery that people know and like.

“We haven’t done quite as many recently, but they’ve helped position us slightly differently in the market as to what kind of a brewery we are – as a small little brewery coming out of Kent where there isn’t a lot of ‘craft’ so to speak – we wanted to get ourselves out there and say ‘this is the kind of brewery we are, these are the kind of beers we’re making.’”

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As Pig & Porter have grown, their repertoire of beer has expanded quite significantly from their initial core range, having recently brewed Pig Cubed, a mango saison to celebrate Birmingham Beer Bash, and Double Think, an 8.6 per cent double IPA. “We’ve produced a lot of new beers recently; we’re also looking at making a very full on imperial stout,” Robin tells me, “but unfortunately we cant keep brewing new things with only a limited amount of fermenters. There’s a point at which we have to keep regularly brewing the ones that are becoming established, such as the Skylarking (a 4 per cent session IPA).” Nonetheless, the brewery are also planning to start ageing some of their beers, doing limited bottling in-house, and recently launched a new single hop pale ale series.

As the brewday comes to a close, I ask Robin what he thinks the best bit about being a part of the brewing industry is, and what the biggest challenges Pig & Porter face are. “I love the variety and the people in the industry,” he says, “compared to any other job I’ve had it’s a really nice industry; very open, very friendly, very collaborative – even if you don’t get out much to actually talk to all these lovely people!

“I’d say the biggest problem is keeping the plates spinning as you’re growing; you’ve got to think long term about where you’re going as a brewery but there’s hardly ever any time in the week for that. We’ve got sales, brewing, distribution, keeping the cashflow going, and taking a step back from all of that is really hard work. I thought I got my weekends back about a year and a half ago but it never really happened!”

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Looking forward into the future, Sean and Robin are on the lookout for new investment to help further grow the brewery site, “you might find it hard to believe having just spent a day here but we reckon we can squeeze one more 15-barrel fementer in here at this site,” Robin chuckles, “but after that we’ll be looking at some possible alternatives.

“It’s been an interesting experience brewing on a kit that we didn’t commission; we would never have started with this if we’d had the vast investment that some breweries have had, but it’s helped us to learn a lot about all the different systems and processes. I think we’re going to try and source some funding for a new place in about two years time somewhere a bit closer to home (Sean lives in Whitstable and Robin is from Hastings), maybe in the Ashford area”

With plans to move into canning their beer sometime in the future, as well as eventually having a taproom at a new site, it seems unlikely Sean, Robin and George will be getting their weekends back again anytime soon…

*DISCLAIMER*

 In return for my agonisingly long day of back-breaking manual labour, the guys at Pig & Porter provided me with a traditional brewday breakfast, a growler of Skylarking pale ale and four bottles of their Gothic Imperial Stout to take home. Seemed like a fair trade to me!

 

 

Ich bin ein Berliner (Weisse) – A beery tour of Germany’s capital

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Bleary-eyed and barely recovered from post-Glastonbury flu, I find myself in the departures room at Gatwick South Terminal at half five on a Thursday morning. In a bout of spontaneity a month earlier, I had booked flights to visit an old university friend in Berlin; not even bothering to consider the implications of needing to be at the airport a good four hours before I usually wake up. Like a member of the living dead, I shuffle off in search of caffeine before making my way to the departure gate, boarding my third flight in as many weeks. A short ninety minute flight later, and I’m in Germany’s capital city, still sleep deprived and now attempting to navigate a foreign metro across to Wedding in the city’s North-West where my friend Emily resides. Having won my battle with the train and successfully found Emily’s flat, I’m feeling ready for a beer. I look at my watch realise it’s still not even 11am.

Luckily, I don’t have to wait long before I can get cracking on finding the (quite considerable) list of bars that I have compiled and intend to visit over the weekend. Or so I think. Emily has a polish class all afternoon, and so after a short U-bahn ride into Mitte, the city’s most central district, I find myself alone once again in Berlin’s bustling hub. Biding my time until when I consider to be a socially acceptable hour to begin drinking, I hop on a train down to Ostbahnhof and stroll down the East side Gallery – a 1.3km long section of the Berlin Wall next to the river Spree. Tourists are posing for selfies and striking poses left, right and centre, but I’m content just to move among them and soak up the atmosphere of a city steeped in culture and history. I cross the river into Kreuzberg – the city’s edgiest and, in my opinion, coolest district. My aim at this point was simple; Eat grubby street food and have a beer. Luckily, White Trash – a fast food restaurant just off the river front – is well equipped to handle both of these requirements. A mis-match of endearing grungy, almost punk-like decor and reasonably priced grub (I pay €7.50 for a two course lunch – salad/soup and a burger – plus a small Hefeweizen) makes me feel very much at home. The restaurant is open until the early hours of the morning serving drinks and hosting live music events, and even has a tattoo studio inside (more on that later…)

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Having whetted my appetite at lunch, I am firmly now in beer-mode, and head off in search of Hopfenreich – my number one destination for the trip. I am devastated, therefore, to arrive on the corner of Sieauer Straße only to discover that it doesn’t open until 4pm, leaving me with a frustrating hour and a half to wait. Undeterred, I keep walking until I reach Markthalle Neun, the home of Heidenpeters brewery. I’m soon cursing my luck again, however, as I enter to discover no obvious signs of life at the brewery’s tap. “Do these people not understand the joys of daytime drinking?” I think to myself as I exit and make tracks for Bierkombinat Kreuzberg, another nearby pub that has been recommended to me. Yet again, my search is in vain, as the sign on the door informs me they won’t be opening until 6pm. By this point in proceedings, I am gagging for a beer and highly frustrated. I resolve to pop into a local Späti (cornershops famous for selling cheap beer for consumption in the street) and pick up a bland Pilsner to swig on in a nearby park whilst I count down the hours until 4pm.

Returning to Hopfenreich, my anger at the seemingly late opening times of Berlin’s pubs instantly dissipates. A proper monster of a pub, Hopfenreich, like many of the new wave of craft beer bars in Berlin, opened around two years ago and now boasts twenty two different taps as well as a great number of bottles. I launch straight in with a 0.3l of Heidenpeter’s Mosaic Pale ale, an easy drinking 5.1% pale that is easily the best thing I’ve tasted so far – although the competition isn’t exactly fierce at this point. The friendly Danish barkeep makes for great company as I perch at the bar, and we’re soon chatting away about Berliner Weisses, Double IPAs and everything in-between. His girlfriend recommends I head back down to Heidenpeters and informs me that it is ‘Street Food Thursday’ in Markthalle Neun. I don’t need much convincing, and make plans to meet Emily there for some dinner and to check out Heidenpeters tap-room.

The tap room, as it turns out, is less a room and more a small corner of Markthalle Neun, which is heaving with foodies when we arrive. Heidenpeters have just three beers on tap, one of which is the Mosaic Pale I had at Hopfenreich, but their Holledauer Weizen IPA is a superb German twist on a classic West-Coast IPA. We guzzle down a couple of them at an impressive rate, before wandering around the hall in search of more unhealthy-looking street food. In the end we plump for a scintillatingly good Paneer tikka masala wrap, stuffed full of salad and creamy sauce, a steal at just €6. Stuffed to the brim and exhausted from my early start, we watch the football in a rooftop bar (bizarrely located above a carpark) before heading back to bed.

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The following morning we take a leisurely stroll around the city, taking in the Humboldt University (where Emily studies), Alexanderplatz, The Brandenberg gate and The Reichstag. The more touristy areas in the middle of the city centre don’t charm me in quite the same way as Kreuzberg did the day before, but it at least gives me a sense of having taken in some of Berlin’s major sites and not just the insides of its bars. Emily, in typical Emily fashion, has left a project deadline until the last minute, and has to rush off to the library after lunch. I take the opportunity to hop on the S-Bahn over to Friedrichshain in the East of the city, and walk up to Bierlieb, a small bottle shop and tap room on Petersburger Straße. I arrive shortly after opening and make small talk with the manager/bartender, before ordering a Berliner Weisse by BRLO Brwhouse and sitting outside in the sunshine. The beer is delicately tart, with a lingering sweetness, and I ask the manager where the brewery is based. “Right here in Berlin,” she tells me, “just underneath U Gleisdreieck station.” I stare at her blankly, and she quickly realises I’m not familiar with the city, and then kindly proceeds to write me a list of the bars and breweries I ought to visit in the city, organised by neighbourhood. I thank her profusely, staying on for another half – this time of Berliner Berg Lager – before jumping on a tram up into Prenzlauerberg in search of some of the bars she recommends.

My first port of call in Prenzlauerberg is Monterey Bar, located on Danziger Straße, just a few minutes walk from Prenzlauer Allee S-Bahn station. The bar specialises in whiskey and craft beer, with over 150 bottles and ten taps, and opens at 5pm each day. On offer on the day of my visit is a mixture of British and German beers, including offerings from Oakham, Buxton, Wild Beer Co and Berliner Berg. Resisting the (quite considerable) urge to pay €12 for a bottle of Westvleteren 12, I opt for a Kernel Scans IPA, my first British beer of the trip, and get chatting to a couple of Scandinavians at the bar. We swap stories, with me amusing them with my description of fat bearded old men at CAMRA’s Great British Beer Festival, and them making me extremely jealous with tales of their antics at Copenhagen Beer Celebration.

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Before long, it is time for me to head off and reconvene with Emily for dinner. I suggest Salt n’ Bone, a restaurant I’d been recommended prior to my visit, fully in the knowledge that the beer selection there had been confirmed to me by the manager of Bierlieb as being excellent. Luckily, Emily agrees and so I make the short walk to Shliemannstraße to meet her. I almost jump for joy on arriving and seeing the names of Buxton and Omnipollo plastered across the beer board outside. The restaurant had clearly recently had a tap takeover, with at least four of the beers on tap belonging to the Derbyshire-based brewery. I order a Coral Seas, a seaweed Gose collaboration with To Øl and scour the food menu, eventually plumping for a stunning veggie bean burger with aubergine and fries covered in chipotle nacho cheese sauce. Gorged, we head back to Emily’s flat before heading out for the evening.

Our evening begins in BadFish bar, a New York style bar close to Schönhauser Allee, back in Prenzlauerberg. According to Emily, it is ‘Canada Day’, and some of her Canadian friends want to celebrate and promise us free shots if we wear red or white. Sure enough, as we enter, me clad in a maroon flannel shirt, shots are handed to us. What they neglect to tell me, however, was that they are shots of Jameson’s Whiskey. Reeling and feeling like I might be seeing my veggie burger again sooner than anticipated, I order a a Schoppe Brau Flower Power IPA, which turns out to be a mildly disappointing if inoffensive Pale ale. The group soon decide its time for beer pong, and before I know it I’m half-cut and having a whirl of a time, despite it only being midnight. “We’ll probably go to the techno club about two-ish and stay out till seven or eight,” Emily tells me, much to my horror and mild disbelief. I decide to take it easy for a while, and pick up a Club Matte, a caffeinated drink, for the tube over to Kreuzberg. Having heard many a story about the strictness of Berlin’s doorstaff, I’m pleasantly surprised to be allowed into the club without a hitch, although slightly affronted by the extortionate €10 entry fee. In the end we only manage to make it until 5am, before throwing in the towel and heading home as the sun rises across the Berlin skyline.

It’s safe to say the following morning is a complete write off. After much groaning and a healthy dose of self-pity, I eventually haul myself from my slumber sometime around two and try to kid myself that I’m being touristy by heading to the Jewish Museum and Checkpoint Charlie on Friedrichstraße. By six or so in the evening, however, I’m ready to drink again, and head off in search of BRLO Brwhouse. Sure enough, right under U Gleisdreieck station I find a set of shipping containers and a small seating area not dissimilar to the Beavertown taproom in Tottenham Hale. The sun is shining and I feel rather pleased with myself as I sip on a German IPA and lose myself listening to the excellent music wafting from a nearby set of speakers. I start to get peckish, and decide to take a risk on the dubious sounding ‘mixed pickles’ being offered by the food stall, and instantly regret it as I am handed what are effectively cold vegetables in brine. I leave them untouched.

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Frustrated with myself, I jump back on the train, grabbing some pizza on the way, before arriving at Kaschk, a very trendy craft beer and coffee shop, in time for a quick half before the Germany game begins. There is a distinct Brewdog vibe to this hipster hangout located right outside Rose-Luxemburg-Platz U-Bahn station, and this is reflected in the price, with most of the beers costing the wrong side of €4 for a 0.3l glass. Still, with twelve beers on tap and in a central location, it’s probably worth a visit if you’re serious about beer or coffee. I finish up my beer and head to Prater Garten, Berlin’s oldest beer garden, to meet some old work friends and watch the Germany match. We drink far too much pilsner and I end up back in Monterey bar until almost 2am. Whoops.

Sunday begins much in the same way as Saturday, with a hefty hangover and a long lie in. We meet some of Emily’s friends for a brunch that ends up being more of a late lunch, before taking a lazy stroll through the markets in Mauerpark, next to the Max-Schmeling Arena. Each Sunday, a mobile sound system is set up and locals and tourists come together for what is commonly referred to as ‘Bearpit Karaoke.’ We watch with mild amusement for a little while, swigging on more pilsner to keep the hangovers at bay. I decide to take Emily to White Trash for dinner, partly just because I want an excuse to go back to Kreuzberg before I leave. We order a huge plate of nachos and beer battered onion rings, washed down with a glass of König Ludwig Hell. Before we can leave White Trash, however, there’s something I have to tick off my bucket-list. We head inside the restaurant to the tattoo parlour and I immortalise the Beeson on Beer brand with a permanent souvenir of my trip to Berlin. Mum & Dad, if you’re reading this; I’m so sorry…

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We round off the weekend with a quick visit to Vagabund Brauerei, a microbrewery near to Emily’s flat. The pub has a welcoming and old fashioned decor, with four of their beers on tap, as well as a reasonably large bottle selection. Another nice touch is allowing customers to bring in food from local restaurants and take-aways, compensating for the lack of kitchen on site. The American Pale Ale and Double IPA are both superb and the perfect way to cap off a fantastic weekend, and it is with great regret that I leave Emily’s flat at half four the following morning to return back to the UK.

It speaks volumes about the sheer quality and quantity of craft beer bars that have sprung up in Berlin in recent years that even in a weekend totally dominated by the pursuit of good beer, I was unable to get even close to visiting all of the bars I had been recommended by friends, fellow bloggers and locals during my stay. The city has a incredible array of pubs, restaurants, street food vendors and clubs, and the atmosphere is nearly always lively, friendly and welcoming. To put it simply, I cannot wait to be back.

Ne bois pas de la Kro – A guide to good beer in France

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When my brother and I booked tickets for the Euro 2016 football championships back in July of last year, good beer wasn’t really on the agenda. The location of the tournament seemed an obvious obstacle; previous trips to France having been dominated by the grape rather than the hop. Nonetheless, with a little help from some beery friends and everyone’s favourite search engine, we head out armed with a list of venues large enough to surely find at least one good place to drink beer. Much to my surprise, however, we find that the beer scene in France has been vastly misrepresented, and that nearly every venue we visit has a good selection and variety of local and international beers on offer. Our trip takes us to three different cities, within all of which we find bars and bottle shops selling beer that wouldn’t have been out of place in bars and pubs in London, Brussels, Prague or anywhere else on the continent.

Paris

France’s capital city is our first destination, and in my mind was surely the place we were most likely to find good beer, being the hugely diverse and multicultural city that it is. After finding our feet and getting our bearings, our first venture is to take a walk along the Seine to the south-east of the city, where we find L’express de Lyon, a small bar located on the corner between the Boulevard Diderot and Rue de Lyon, less than two minutes walk from the Gare de Lyon. The exterior is very similar to that of any other train station bar-come-cafe, but upon stepping inside, it becomes clear that it is anything but. On the day of our visit there are 14 beers on tap, with regular faces such as Punk IPA, La Chouffe and Chimay Tripel alongside some other French, Danish and Belgian beers. Josh and I opt for two of the French beers – HopHopHop Sorachi Ace from Brasserie Correzienne and IPA Sous Senart by Brasserie Parisis. Both are absolutely excellent. L’express de Lyon also has a (fairly limited) selection of bottles including Tripel Karmeleit and Orval, and we leave the bar feeling increasingly optimistic for what the rest of the bars on our list have in store.

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Next up is a trip to slightly gritty but colourful part of 11th arrondissement and a visit to La Fine Mousse. This fashionable bar, and restaurant of the same name across the road, wouldn’t look out of place in the hippest areas of London or Berlin, and it boasts twenty taps dispensing beers from all the corners of Europe, from Tiny Rebel and Moor in the UK, to Belgium’s De Ranke and Evil Twin from Denmark. The bar staff are friendly and helpful, recommending the Italian Elav brewery’s Accoustic Indie Lager after I feebly ask for something “houblonnée” (hoppy) in broken French. With Charcuterie and Cheese boards being served as light snacks, and bearded bartenders aplenty, La Fine Mousse is probably the closest thing to a British craft beer bar as you’re likely to find in Paris.

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For a slightly more authentic Parisienne experience, however, I recommend Les Trois 8, our next port of call, located just five minutes away on Rue Victor Letalle. The decor could hardly be further from the slightly shiny and minimalist nature of La Fine Mousse, with beer mats, pump clips and other paraphernalia dotted across the walls. The bar front is shabby and inside it is slightly dingy. The beer, however, is fantastic, with 8 taps and a bottle list that includes some extremely rare Lambics I’ve not seen anywhere outside of Belgium before. We get chatting to two friendly Swedish blokes in the bar, who let us try some of their Lambic (which is unfortunately slightly out of our price range at €33 a bottle) and recommend we visit Paname Brewing Company on the Bassin de la Villette in the 19th arrondissement in the north-east of the city. We head out there on our last day in Paris, arriving greatly in need of a beer after underestimating the length of the walk from our apartment. Luckily, they are well equipped to deal with our needs, with eight of their own beers (brewed on-site) and four guest beers on tap. Their black IPA, Bête Noire, and their IPA, Barge du Canal, are particular highlights. The food is also excellent, if a little on the British gasto-pub side.

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Fully refreshed and stuffed with burger, we make tracks for the fanzone to watch the England vs Wales game, but are thwarted by a bout of torrential rain and instead make the tactical decision to pop into Frog Revolution near the Bastille. The bar is part of a chain of English pubs in Paris, Toulouse and Bordeaux that sell exclusively their own beer. The service is good and the game is being shown in English, but the beer is distinctly disappointing. I get the impression that FrogBeer are the kind of company attempting to jump on the “craft beer” hype in the hope of making a quick buck, rather than out of any love for the product itself. Nonetheless, the nearby La Moustache Blanche is an excellent independent bottle-shop, with a mixture of English, Belgian, French, Scandinavian and American beers. I pick up a bottle of Pankot Palace, a Chai Milk Stout brewed by Weird Beard and French brewery La Débauche, and we leave Paris extremely content but significantly lighter of pocket.

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Lille

Our visit to Lille is but a brief one, spending just 13 hours in the city for the Russia vs Slovakia game before heading back to Paris that evening. We almost decide against going to the town in the North-East of France on account of the crowd trouble at the England vs Russia game earlier in the week, but in the end just vow to be extra careful to avoid any possible clashes between the fans. On reflection this was a fantastic decision, as Lille proves to be a brilliant city, both in terms of its quaint charm and beauty, and also its great selection of bars, pubs and bottle-shops. For lunch, we stop at Estaminet Chez La Vieille; a rustic and extremely authentic restaurant that is popular with locals and tourists alike. The restaurant specialises in local cuisine and regional dishes at very reasonable prices, with a three course lunch menu for just €12.50. I choose the famous Fricadelle, a regional speciality sausage Belgium and the north of France, whilst Josh opts for a Pork shoulder in a cheesy sauce. The food is both wholesome and delicious, and great value for money. The proximity of Lille to the Belgian border is evident in the selection of beer on offer at the restaurant. “We don’t do wine here… Beer, beer, beer!” explains the jovial waitress to a confused looking group of Russians sat next to us. We enjoy an Amber and a Tripel from Saint Landelin with our meals, whilst our Russian neighbours struggle to comprehend the bottle of Cuvée des Janquilles they’ve ordered by accident.

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After the game, we head back from the Stadium and into town, finding a superb bottle-shop called L’Abbaye des Saveurs, not far from the Notre Dame de la Treille. With over 220 bottles, mostly from Belgium and France, we are soon cursing our lack of hold luggage for the return flight back to England, but pick up a 75cl bottle of Lindeman’s Cuvée René Gueuze for under €6 to enjoy later that evening. The prices were, on the whole, definitely cheaper than Paris and indeed many places in Britain, and with Lille being just an hour and a half or so on the Eurostar from England, a return visit will almost certainly be on the cards in the future. Our final port of call before hopping on the train back to Paris was La Capsule, a speciality craft beer bar just around the corner from L’Abbaye des Saveurs, and owned by the same person. The bar is almost empty when we arrive, around five minutes after it opens, but within half an hour is heaving with punters. La Capsule is probably my favourite out of all the bars we visit over the course of the week, due mainly to the sheer delight of finding a pub that serves Cantillon on hand-pump. I foolishly decide to have two halves (one of the Rhubarb and one of the Rose de Gambrinus) in my over-stimulated state, and spend the entirety of the return journey to Paris unable to feel my tongue, much to Josh’s amusement.

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Bordeaux

The final destination of our trip was two nights spent deep in wine country in the South-Western city of Bordeaux. Arriving mid-morning and unable to get into our hotel until 3pm, we do the thing any reasonable person would do, and head in search of a place to drink. Unfortunately for us, we make the mistake of thinking L’Amirale Bière is a bar and not a bottle-shop, as turns out to be the case. Even worse, it isn’t even open until 3pm, which is a huge shame as the selection looks excellent and we neglect to return before the end of the weekend. Just up the road and thankfully open is La Cave des Moines, another bottle-shop with a great selection particularly of locality beers. I buy a locally produced American pale ale and proceed to forget all about it until the flight home, by which point I am too hungover and tired to even consider drinking it. Shame, it looked very tasty. Increasingly desperate to find somewhere that actually sold beer to be drunk immediately, we pop into Apollo, a cafe in a square near L’Amirale Bière, and sup on some Vedette IPA whilst waiting for our room and for two of our friends to arrive.

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When our friends appear, we wander off in search of lunch and stumble across Jaqen Craft Beer Bar on Rue Beaubadat. The bar opened in December of last year, and is run by two young beer fanatics Benjamin and Cédric, both of whom are in the bar when we arrive and happily chat to us about the football and the beers on draft, of which there are six. The bar is deserted at 3pm on a Friday, but when we return on Saturday night, it is heaving, with young hip punters pouring out and drinking on the street outside. The beer is absolutely smashing as well, with a heavy focus on French beers from breweries such as Les Brasseurs du Grand Paris, La Débauche and Brasserie Correzienne. There are also a significant number of bottles for sale to drink in or take away, including beers from Magic Rock, Beavertown, Siren and even Anspach & Hobday, who are a very long way from home! Trendy, cool and English-friendly, it is hard find a bar I would recommend visiting more than Jaqen in Bordeaux.

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After a quick trip back to the hotel, we begrudgingly head to The Frog & Rasbif, another FrogBeer bar, for some happy hour beers and to watch some of the football. Again, the beer is disappointing, but at least it is fairly cheap at €4.50 a pint. After a spot to eat at Padang Padang, a lovely Oriental restaurant with Affligem Blond on tap, we head for Café De Moins, a vibrant student-style bar near to the Pont de Pierre and just off the Cours Victor Hugo. There are silver taps all along the front of the bar, and a good selection of Wheat beers, IPAs and a couple of stouts too, mostly from Belgium or France. The atmosphere in the bar on the Saturday night is electric, despite Ireland’s heavy defeat to Belgium earlier in the day, and a foosball table keeps us entertained whilst we sup on our beers. It isn’t a speciality craft beer bar, but Café De Moins is a great pub in its own right, with pool, darts, and live music all on offer. My only criticism would be that the beer is a tad on the expensive side, with the exception of the Pilsner, which costs only €10 for a pitcher, but is fairly bland and uninspiring. Before long, however, we are too inebriated to care and happily slurp on pitcher after pitcher until we find ourselves shirtless and singing the Irish national anthem with a mass group of fans in the middle of the pub at gone 2am…

We all have dreadful hangovers the next day.

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On the whole, despite France still perhaps being a little bit behind the major players in Europe when it comes to beer, this trip showed that if you know where to look, you really can get good beer in almost any city in the world. We drank excellent beers and found fantastic bars in all three cities we visited, and even managed to sneak in a couple of Kronenbourg’s on the tram to the football match in Bordeaux, just for good measure.

Exeter Ale Society Versus Bristol Pub Crawl

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It’s about 12:20pm on the Friday of a bank holiday weekend and my brother Josh and I have just stepped off the train from Cardiff, slightly hungover after one beer too many in the Urban Tap House the night before. We make our way to the arrivals boards and locate the platform on which the train carrying the rest of The University of Exeter’s Real Ale Society will soon arrive. The train pulls in and a group of burly men dressed in sailors uniforms stumble off, chanting boisterously and already looking somewhat worse for wear. Luckily this isn’t my friends, but a group on a stag-do. “I hope they’re not headed where we’re heading,” I remark to Josh, who laughs nervously in agreement. Thankfully, that was the last we saw of the band of merry men, who unlike us, obviously weren’t as fussed about sussing out the best beer Bristol has to offer. A few minutes later, the remaining twelve members of our group appear and we set off in search of liquid refreshment to soothe our aching heads.

On our way to our first stop, I chat to Ed, a close friend who I helped to set up the society with in our first year of university. Having started out as just a small group of friends who enjoyed drinking and needed an excuse for more frequent visits to the pub, the society has grown exponentially and now has over 120 paying members. We reminisce about some of our memories from the last three years, including a similar trip taken a year ago. “The weather isn’t quite as nice as last year,” I say nervously; having prepared for the worst after seeing storms had been forecast. “Yeah, but we’ve got a lot more society money to spend!” Ed retorts jovially, before showing me a considerable sum of money in a plastic wallet. “That’s all for today?” I exclaim, “It’s going to be a long day….”

Our first port of call is The Moor Brewery Tap, located about a ten minute walk from the station. As we approach, I wonder aloud just exactly how much of my short adult life has been spent seeking out obscure watering holes on industrial estates, much to the amusement of the rest of the group. Since opening in 2014 after the brewery moved into the city from Pitney, The Moor Tap has become one of my favourite spots to drink at, and is a staple of any visit to Bristol. The Tap is a single rectangular room bolted onto the front of the brewery, decorated with a mixture of Moor merchandise and Star Wars paraphernalia. Featuring ten keg lines of Moor’s beers on rotation, as well as cans, bottles, growlers and T shirts to take away, it’s the ideal place for us to start our crawl.

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We pile into the small room and order thirteen halves straight away. The majority of the group plump for So’Hop, a 4.1% Pale hopped entirely with Southern Hemisphere hops that slides down our thirsty gullets all too quickly. On the day of our visit, the Tap are hosting a three day party with live music, street food and two new beers. Unfortunately for us, Friday’s food offering – MEATliquour burgers – don’t arrive until 5pm. Fortunately for us, however, the first of their new beers – Pale Modern Ale – is already on the bar ready for us to sample. A real juicy banger of a Pale Ale, with a little more of a malty backbone than the So’Hop, PMA is the ideal second half pint of the day. We stay at Moor until around half two, and even then are reluctant to leave, so good is the beer, company and hospitality. We even get to meet Baz, the resident brewery dog, although he seemed more interested in eating our packed lunches than saying hello to us.

Thoroughly refreshed and feeling very content, we leave Moor behind and head further into the industrial estate to visit Left Handed Giant Brewing Company, who very kindly agreed to open their brewery tap early to accommodate for our visit. With only five beers on tap, the selection isn’t quite as extensive as Moor, but the US Pale ale is as good as anything I’d had up to that point in the day. Jack, Bruce and Eddie are hard at work when we arrive, but are only to happy to show us around the site whilst we enjoy their beers. Jack takes us into the back and shows us their 200 litre brew-kit which they use to test their recipes and make some of their more experimental brews. Having opened early in 2015, they use commercial brewing equipment from other breweries to make the majority of their beer and supply Small Bar on King Street as well as numerous other pubs in the South-West. With the weather holding up for the time being, we head outside to enjoy some more beers and play basketball with an improvised hoop attached to a fork-lift that had been set up by Jack and Eddie that very afternoon.

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All too quickly we had to move on. With time of the essence and lots of pubs still to visit, we bid farewell to Left Handed Giant and head for town. Next up was a quick visit to Brewdog Bristol on the bank of the river. We arrive somewhat flustered and just in time, with the heavens promptly opening and drenching the masses that had just finished work for the weekend. Initially we decide to just stay for the one drink before heading to King Street, but Joshua has other ideas, using his Brewdog bucks to purchase four beers including a half of Stone’s latest Russian Imperial Stout. With the weather trapping us for the time being, we all take it in turns to steal sips of Joshua’s beer and make light work of our own drinks. The bar was soon heaving with thirsty punters and we make our escape during a brief break in the downpour and make the short walk to King Street.

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I never fully understood the expression “Like a kid in a candy shop” until I first visited King Street back in 2014. The sheer number of superb pubs to chose from, all located within a two minute or so walk from each other, is a beer geek’s paradise, and we waste no time in heading for The Beer Emporium to continue boozing. The bar is located entirely underground and has an almost Belgian feel to it, which is definitely not a bad thing to try and imitate. After drinking almost exclusively keg beers until this point, I opt for New Bristol brewery’s Japan, a 4.8% Pale with Japanese Green Tea, which is in excellent condition on cask and has a very floral and slightly sweet taste. We only stay for the one half in the Emporium, mainly due to the effects of a solid five hours of drinking with only packed lunches to sustain us.

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Before we could get dinner and settle for the evening, we had one more stop to make. The Famous Royal Navy Volunteer is an old fashioned-looking pub located just up the road from The Beer Emporium, and the previous night had hosted a Siren tap takeover, with 29 beers from the Berkshire based brewery on tap. At this point in proceedings, I make the very sensible decision to go for The Chardonnay barrel aged version of Life’s a Peach, coming in at a whopping 8% proof. Needless to say, this knocks me out of action for a while, so I retreat outside to enjoy a spot of people watching on the bustling King Street whilst the rest of the group seeks out dinner.

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Our final pub of the day is just across the road and is probably my favourite out of the plethora on offer on King Street. Small Bar is everything a proper pub should be, with superb beer choice, excellent spirits, and most importantly at this point, good grub. I grab a token from Ed to exchange for a third of Omega, a 6% Belgian sour from Brouwerij Alvinne and order a Butternut squash with cheese, hand-cut fries and salsa. I am soon cursing my vegetarian diet, however, when a disappointingly undercooked squash arrives twenty five minutes or so later. Nonetheless, this small blip on my day is soon remedied by the purchase of half a Cloudwater Imperial Stout; we’re firmly into the silly beer part of the evening by this point. I’m the only one feeling a little worse for wear, with Joshua having bitten off more than he could chew in Brewdog and drunkenly announcing he had to go home, before promptly returning twenty minutes later and continuing to drink. We round off the evening with a swift half of Siren Caribbean Chocolate Cake in The Volunteer before running through the rain back to the station in time to catch the train back to Exeter.

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All in all, it is a fantastically boozy day out and a fitting send off to cap three brilliant years of involvement with the Real Ale Society. A special thanks must go to Ed for steering the ship so admirably throughout his time as President, and to the bar staff, owners and brewers at all the brilliant pubs, breweries and tap-rooms we visited over the course of the day, and those we didn’t have the time to make it to. Bristol truly is an incredible city for beer, and my only regret would be not making the trip more often throughout my three years of university in Exeter.