As I have written before, collaboration brewing generally results in great marketing and muddled beers.
That’s not surprising, given that collaboration brewing is a marketing exercise before it is a brewing exercise, where there is the potential for clashing philosophies and flavours, along with the temptation to attempt styles with which one or all of the collaborators has no experience. And when the collaboration is “high concept”, the risk of a mess comes perilously close to a certainty.
Collaboration concepts don’t come much higher than Beavertown Brewery’s “Seven Deadly Sins”: to celebrate its seventh birthday this weekend, this excellent and hugely successful North-East London craft-brewing titan invited seven other brewers to create seven exclusive beers around the eponymous theme.
Did the beers live up to their names? Were they anything more than a slick marketing exercise?
Well, Wrath was an angry red cherry beer, Gluttony was a “blueberry pancake breakfast barleywine” and Lust was pitched as a “Valentine’s day milk chocolate stout” (all because the lady loves Milk Tray, I suppose). Maybe, just maybe, there was some ironic intent in making Sloth an abbey beer, given the centrality of work to Cistercian life. Try as I might, however, I couldn’t figure out the links between Greed, Pride, Envy and their respective beers.
Nonetheless, more important than the thematic coherence of the project was the fact that none of these beers was unpleasant, and, in my view, three were good and two were excellent.
I think this unexpected result owed a lot to Beavertown’s apparently “hands-off” approach to the collaborations. Its stylistic fingerprints were not much in evidence, as though it had conceived the project less as a classic collaboration and more as a simple showcase for its guest’s signature flavours.
It was notable that these were all new, very small and lesser-known breweries. I should like to think that this was a deliberate choice rather than one forced, after the Heineken deal, by a lack of willing higher-profile collaborators. Either way, the “blueberry pancake breakfast barleywine” aside, it resulted in a refreshing lack of extreme, adjunct-addled beers: the guest breweries appeared to recognize an opportunity to raise their profile, and they all produced something to delineate the essentials of their respective styles.
My afternoon started with Pride, a Honey Saison made with Beavertown’s neighbours at Hale Brewing. This is a tiny, shipping-container outfit established last year, specialising in pale and sour ales, with a penchant for unusual aromatics.
An exceptionally light ale, with just a background tartness, Pride was a platform for the mostly honey-derived aromatics of violet, heather and thyme, offered with considerable delicacy.
I think the honey must have been added late to the boil and fermented right through, as the beer was highly-attenuated and, for me, a little too dry, even for the Saison style. The current vogue for dry Saisons and enzyme-driven Brut IPAs suggests that there is a ready market for this kind of thing, however—and indeed, on a hot August afternoon I might have enjoyed its refreshing straightforwardness more than I did on this February day.
Next up was Envy, another delicate and dry beer, this time from Affinity Brewing Co, Beavertown’s one-time neighbours in Tottenham Hale, now located in the craft-beer hub around Bermondsey in South-East London.
The designation Spiced IPA is enough to strike fear into the heart of any beer lover, but this was a subtle affair, finishing with just the merest hint of warming, fruity coriander to complement an equally moderate hop bitterness. Affinity’s range includes a Saison made with lime and coriander, and this brew showed a sure hand with similar aromatics. The lemon-and-pepper hop aroma also pointed to the now well-established trend away from boisterous American hops towards more complex noble and New Zealand varieties.
My third beer of the day, and the second honey beer, was perhaps my favourite of the seven—and certainly my favourite of the pale styles.
Greed was a Honey Mӓrzenbier made with Braybrooke Beer Co, a farmhouse brewery established in Leicestershire in 2017. Thanks to a close association with Stephan Michel of Mahrs Brӓu in Bamberg, Braybrooke is rapidly building a reputation as one of the most authentic producers on the U.K.’s ultra-trendy craft-lager scene.
This was a well-lagered beer, delivering a good, clean balance of fat Munich-malt sweetness with wave after wave of noble-hop herbs and spices. But the honey lifted the entire experience, giving the beer luxurious stickiness as well as delicate floral aromatics to complement the hops. There was none of the dryness that can often result when invert sugars provide a high proportion of the fementables: I suspect that the honey was added post-fermentation; or that the brewers carried out a triple-decoction mash to achieve a deep caramelisation of non-fermentable malt sugars.
However it was done, the result was a superbly-crafted beer.
Wrath was, fittingly, a murky-red Cherry Sour Ale made with Vault City Brewing, an exciting new sour beer specialist from Edinburgh. The name may also have inspired the deployment of Kveik, a Norwegian farmhouse yeast mix that has been gaining attention since Lars Marius Garshol started writing about it five years ago, and which has a reputation for furiously violent fermentations at angrily hot temperatures.
One might have anticipated a riot of funky, wild flavours from a fermentation agent such as this. Not a bit of it. The beer was clean and fresh—tart, certainly, but not fungal or earthy. The result was a good balance of sweet and sour with a direct cherry aroma.
After an angry exchange it is always good to kiss and make-up, so the next beer had to be Lust, made with Beak Brewery, another farmhouse brewer, now settled in Sussex after a history of nomadic beer making since 2015.
Like Hale Brewing, Beak’s range indicates a predilection for unusual aromatics, but the philosophy also accentuates “food-centric” beers. The latter was most evident in this beer, which exhibited a deep love and appreciation for the silky pleasures of milk chocolate. Smooth, creamy, and marvellous in its simplicity, this was a seductive brew and one of the two “Deadly Sins” that I would describe as excellent.
Of the seven breweries involved in this collaboration, Birmingham’s Burning Soul (established 2016) and Manchester’s Wander Beyond (established 2017) are the two that follow the craft-beer template that is now beginning to feel a little old-fashioned, which is to turn out numerous small variations on the pale ale, stout, saison and sour styles, as opposed to the more recently favoured approach of adopting a closely-defined “philosophy” and specialising.
Neither of the two beers they contributed to Beavertown’s birthday celebration were poor, but in my opinion, they were the least confident and the least clearly-articulated—and I wonder whether the general lack of brewing focus has something to do with that.
Burning Soul’s Sloth was not the best example of the much-abused “Belgian Style Quad” style that I have ever tasted, but neither was it the worst. Locating itself very much in the spiritous, Gulden Draak area, it delivered abundantly in the burnt sugar, fig, rum, brandy and vanilla departments, but it did so at the expense of some fairly hot, solvent-tasting fusels and a thin, highly-attenuated body. It may require a year or two in the cellar to find its true character.
Gluttony invited excess, of course, and Wander Beyond went for broke with its Blackberry Pancake Breakfast Barleywine. My first impression was that this was just a soup of chemicals finishing with a bitter bite, but as I settled down to it, I began to appreciate the fact that there was a clear but not overpowering flavour of blackberry, a bit of caramel and maple syrup and even, yes, a sort of doughy pancake element. In the end, I enjoyed this beer much more than I expected to, and was most impressed with how cleanly it had been fermented—the label indicated a ponderous 14.8% ABV, but there was no hint of that strength compromising the beer’s drinkability.
Wander Beyond also provided my final beer for the road. In addition to the Seven Deadly Sins, Beavertown’s collaborators were pouring 30 beers from 18 lines in the guest bar throughout the day. I went for a glass of Coconut Crater, Wander Beyond’s Imperial Coconut Milk Stout, and it showed them to be much more than throw-everything-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks brewers: simple, direct, chock-full of coconut aromatics and, again, very drinkable for its 12% ABV, this helped me to give Gluttony the benefit of any residual doubt.
In all, Beavertown’s Seven Deadly Sins extravaganza proved itself to be much more than a great marketing exercise—although it was that, too, and no worse for it. This was a wonderful way to celebrate seven years of huge success and rapid growth and to look forward to the next step in becoming a genuinely major international beer brand, all while providing a platform for some of the U.K.’s most interesting new brewing businesses.
Having avoided the usual “sins” of collaborative brewing, these were all “deadly” serious beers.