Last week, Red Hook’s Sixpoint Brewery flung open their brewhouse doors and ushered in two visiting brewers from the bitter cold. And while that event, in and of itself, is quite commonplace in today’s bustling New York brewing scene, these guests weren’t merely dropping in from one of the five boroughs’ many local craft outlets, hoping to barter for a bag of grain, borrow a piece of kegging equipment or conspire about a future one-off collaboration. No, these folks had made a much longer journey, traveling all the way from the UK as a part of a special relationship formed between Sixpoint and England’s venerable Adnams Southwold Brewery.
In terms of beer culture, there’s a deep divide separating the UK from America. Though our British forefathers (and foremothers, as it were) have been brewing beer for eons, today’s styles and practices are considered somewhat tame in flavor and limited in breadth in comparison to American trends. What’s more, these mellow British brews are primarily served at cellar temperature and on cask, a traditional method of pouring beer that involves pumping the beer from the keg by hand without the aid — and extra carbonation — forced CO2 provides. The end result, often called “Real Ale” due to its sole reliance on active yeast, is a much flatter and warmer product than most Americans trained on chilly Rocky Mountain suds can stomach. Yet, it’s slowly being introduced into the domestic market as craft connoisseurs exalt the method’s authenticity and the pared down, easily detectable flavor profiles the process highlights.
The partnership dates back to August, 2013, when Sixpoint was selected by JD Wetherspoon, a chain of widely known, craft-focused British pubs, to pour their beer alongside other respected breweries at an international showcase. “Weatherspoon approached us first,” explained Sixpoint Brewing Manager Heather McReynolds. We were sitting in a tented cabana overlooking a bank of shuffleboard courts at the kitschy Royal Palms in Gowanus. Every so often, an oversized Jenga tower tumbled to the ground, interrupting our conversation with a resounding crash. “They were putting on a craft brewer’s showcase, so they selected a couple of American breweries they were interested in and invited them to come over and partner with English breweries to make an exclusive cask only beer for their pubs. I think there’s a thousand? It’s a lot of beer.”
By selecting the 143-year-old Adnams as Sixpoint’s brewing partner, Weatherspoons set the ball rolling for a partnership that extended far beyond the showcase. “We went over one or two other times to do these small, one-off collaborations with Adnams — again, all cask and only for Weatherspoon pubs,” McReynolds continued, passing a tall pitcher of Sweet Action across the table to Adnams’ Belinda Jennings, her British counterpart. “Then, in March of 2014, we started sending our cans over to the UK to be sold at those pubs. As part of that agreement, we go back to Adnams every quarter and do an exclusive brew just for them. And now it’s their turn to come to us.”
Jennings, Adnams Quality Manager and Brewer, piped up from her corner of the lavish booth. “A British company approached me to see if we could provide any beer to this Craft Brewers Conference in Portland — which we can’t, directly. They wanted us to make a British beer, but it had to be brewed in America, so that’s where it got tricky,” she said. “But actually, as it turned out, the timing worked out really well. We were thinking about this trip and I just thought, ‘Oh, yeah, you guys distribute to Portland, and that’s where the beer has to go!’”
How did the Sixpoint fleet fare on cask? “They were tons of fun because at first, we were making Righteous and Bengali, and it was really cool to try these beers in a new format,” answered McReynolds enthusiastically.
“It was very tasty,” added Jennings. “Yeah, it did work well. I must say, it’s probably better in keg, because it is a stronger beer, but all the Sixpoint beers are just cracking in the UK — they’ve all gone down very well. Make it Rain — Make it Rain was a good one.”
“Yeah, Make it Rain, “ started McReynolds, laughing. “Since we’ve done Bengali and Righteous, we’ve come up with new brews that we’ve only done over there, and of course, I had to explain to more than one person what that name actually referred to. I definitely sent a couple of these folks links to music videos.”
“I wasn’t even sure if I could open those on my work computer,” said Jennings. “We don’t really have that saying in England.”
“It was just a rap video!” countered McReynolds. “But still,” she continued. “I was so proud of that beer. Alcohol-wise, it was probably 5%, which is high for English standards. Hoppy-wise, I don’t think it was hoppy enough to be considered an IPA. I’d say it was a Pale Ale. Well, our kind of Pale Ale.
“Very hoppy. Yeah, and a little toasty,” added Jennings. “The combination of temperature and the low carbonation, it was beautiful. It was a beautifully done beer.”
“It was all-American, all very, very fresh, citrus and things like that. I was so, so happy with it,” recounted McReynolds. “It just made me realize that it’s almost like cask is the best sort of venue for American hops.”
Hops, American or otherwise, were not the main focus of this trip’s Brooklyn-brewed and Portland-bound collaboration. Jennings and fellow Adnams brewer Dan Gooderham had spent the day toiling away with McReynolds and Sixpoint’s Kier Hamilton to create a German-style Altbier, a traditional brown ale known for its smooth body and delicate flavor profile.
“We talked about doing something English with an American twist, or American with an English twist, or using an English ingredient or something like that,” explained McReynolds. “And then, I think it was Kier who said, ‘Well, fuck it. They might not want to do anything English at all — they make all our English beers.’ So I threw it out there — ‘We could just make something else entirely different.’ And Belinda said, ‘Yeah, yeah, let’s do that!’”
“Yeah, it was a different style for both of us, which neither of us had done,” added Jennings.
“It’s only 32 kegs,” said McReynolds. “So, it’s just a one off, single batch kind of thing, and it’ll mostly be in the New York market. And I think it went really well today. But, unfortunately — well, I don’t know if this is unfortunately…”
“I would say fortunately!” laughed Jennings.
“The gravity. We overshot our gravity, so instead of it being a 4.8 or 5% ABV beer, it’ll be a bit higher than that. It’ll be an interesting Altbier, but not a very true to style Altbier,” McReynolds admitted. “It’s not going to be crazy alcoholic, but it might get to six percent.”
“Six point-something!” bantered Jennings with a lifted pint glass, eliciting a cheer from Sixpoint Jenga team. And with independent spirit that could only be described as American, she added, “But really, what’s a true style these days?”