I'm sat at my kitchen table, laptop in front of me, leant back, arms folded, brow furrowed, staring ponderously at the glass of beer in front of me. It's a pose I strike only three or four times a year, perhaps. It's the pose that asks the question 'What is this that I'm drinking?'
I'm drinking a beer from Torrside brewery based in New Mills, Derbyshire. Officially opened last year and taking their name from the Torrs gorge running through the town, the brewery is the creation of three Manchester-circuit well known ex-homebrewers; Chris Clough, Peter Sidwell and Nick Wright.
At the moment, Torrside are making gentle waves in Manchester bars with their moreish range of pale ales, though they are yet to establish a core range. This is perhaps unsurprising with the trio of brewers still working full time jobs around their recent venture. "Our initial plan was to brew a series of different beers over our first year and whittle them down into some sort of core range," Chris tells me.
Yet it is a busy market out there, with social media announcing the arrival of a new Greater Manchester brewery every week. What then made Torrside stand out for me; stand out enough to even put fingers to keys for them?
It is that they brew the beers I've been willing any British brewery to make a decent fist of for years. Torrside brewery have an obvious love of Barley Wines and Rauchbier. These two favourite styles of mine are gloriously under-represented by an enormous British beer scene, yet here we have a relatively new brewery challenging them early on - and conquering them.
Franconia is a 5.2% Rauchbier that is clear homage to the Schlenkerla classic. And it is on cask. British made Rauchbier - clearly distinctive from the poorly made "smoked porters" knocking around - served in cask form. It's very near to its Bamberg counterpart in quality too. "We love smoked beers - two out of three of us are borderline obsessed with them - so we will definitely be brewing more in the future. When we do have a core range, then Franconia will almost certainly become one of them."
The Barley Wines came with the release of their "Monsters" series. The beers in this procession are Torrside's special edition small batch brews, created through part-gyling. If you haven't come across part-gyle beers before, Chris explained them clearly to me:
"Basically, that involves producing two beers of different strengths from the same set of ingredients. When you steep grains in the mash tun and then run off the sweet wort, the wort starts off strong and gradually gets weaker. What we are doing is taking off the strongest wort at the start and brewing a separate beer from it. For example, the American Barley Wine was brewed with the first runnings of our bitter "No Frills"."
The American Barley Wine mentioned here was a chalice of beer beauty, romanced upon by Jim from Beers Manchester no less. I thoroughly understood his joy. The English version differed, as it should, with a sweet biscuity and bready flavour throughout I likened to supermarket doughnuts (as a compliment.) Both are contenders, as facetious an accolade as it may be, for my beer of the year. I love a good Barley Wine and these were terrific examples. Why then are we not seeing more in this country?
"This is probably down to commercial reasons as much as anything else," Chris offers. "If you're not doing parti-gyle brewing like we do (it's a fairly rare practice on the whole), then brewing strong beers can place quite a strain on a brewery." He lists high ingredients, high duty and low commercial appeal as further potential reasons. It's a shame as high-strength IPAs and Imperial Stouts seem to do fine when there is no stronger beer enjoyment than a well made Barley Wine. There could be light at the end of the tunnel though. "We'd love to see more breweries producing Barley Wines, and it could well happen if the much-shouted-about hop shortage comes to pass."
So we come back to my kitchen table and the beer in front of me. For years I've wanted the combination of those two underused beer styles to infiltrate themselves into my cellar. Whilst every flavourful collaboration imaginable has been churned out by the world's infinite number of breweries, I have still not happened across the obvious combining of rauch with barley wine - until Torrside announced the first of their (hopefully) annual Rauchwine.
This isn't an exaggeration either. Quick Google searches will show that, aside from a special edition version of Stone's Old Guardian, the idea of Smoked Barley Wine is mostly confined to the homebrew forums. Have Torrside created the first in style? "The Rauchwine was something Peter had brewed at home previously. Given the part-gyle option, and the fact that we were brewing a batch of Rauchbier, it seemed like an obvious thing to do. We're not claiming to have created a new style, but we're not aware of any others."
Yet potential is one thing but execution is quite another. I stare inquisitively at the glass in front of me. The Rauchwine looks dreadful. It’s as flat as a festival beer. It’s a shade between keg shandy and Vimto. The nose has the smoky rauch malt present, but it is mixed with a lavender sweetness that brings an unpleasant perfume like scent.
Then you taste it.
And I haven’t. I haven’t tasted it before.
The big meaty delicious chunk of smoked meat against a chewy sweet toffee flavour is familiar yet entirely new to me. It’s sweet and smoky; like bacon soaked in maple syrup. It's a big slab of smoked cheese paired with a sweet fruit chutney. It's the flakey pulled fat of slow cooked barbecue meat drizzled in honey.
It's long and warming yet disappearing rapidly. The initial prominent smokiness in the mouth paves wave to great sweetness in the finish.
It doesn’t exist. I can’t think where this beer exists.
It sits as flat as a dessert wine asking me to judge its aesthetics but the taste has overwhelmed it.
And it can certainly be improved which is frighteningly brilliant. This is the first batch and they will undoubtedly have spotted flaws my surroundings can't see presently.
I'm sat at my kitchen table, laptop in front of me, leant back, arms folded, brow furrowed, staring ponderously at the glass of beer in front of me. I know I have to type something down. I know I have to write about the brewery producing these beers.
It is the time of the over-crowded market and the hundred similar tasting pales. A brewery needs to really stand out to make me - or any other drinkers - sit up and pay attention. Whilst the choice of styles available here will obviously appeal to me, I've no doubt they can convert the masses ignoring them. If not, Torrside's other more approachable beers will do the trick anyway. They are a team of experienced brewers with huge potential.
Speaking of standing out, a final word on the artwork of Torrside, that evokes a little of the Hayao Miyazaki love for me. I especially love the little fellow appearing on bottles of Junga.
"All of our artwork is by Emma Sidwell, who also happens to be Peter's wife. Apart from the logos, most of the artwork on our bottle labels and pump clips features small sections of larger paintings in Emma's portfolio. Her work is often ultra-detailed, so it lends itself to picking snippets that fit with the beer. The hop monster on the Junga label is actually the one exception. Emma drew that one afternoon while the rest of us were working our way along the bar at Buxton Taphouse! It was originally intended for a hugely hoppy beer, but we felt that it suited our Euro-Hop series, as that's going to be all about unsung hops."
With this much potential, I can only hope that Torrside Brewery are in it for the long haul. I hope as time goes on they can deliver the consistency and regularity their promising start suggests and their prominence requires. Their extensive brewing knowledge should just about help them do that. If not, leave all the Rauchwine to me. I feel it was made for me.
For more information on the brewery and the brewers, read this excellent post by Yes! Ale.
Torrside are holding a Brewery Tap Event this Friday and Saturday. And plan to the last Saturday of each month in future.
For more of Emma Sidwell's artwork see here