Back in the olden days, all the way back in 2009, I did a review of the year in which I gave my personal 'Brewer of the Year' award to Fullers' John Keeling, and the runner-up to Stuart Ross, then working in a three-barrel plant in the cellar of Sheffield's Hillsborough Hotel. "Stuart just brews what he feels like brewing, constantly experimenting," I wrote, "I don’t think he knows how good a brewer he is."
I think he does know how good he is now. But he's still brewing the beers he wants to drink.
In 2011, Richard Burhouse, who ran an internet beer mail order company called MyBreweryTap, whisked Stuart away from Hillsborough and enabled him to design and build the brewery his talent deserved. In May of that year, Magic Rock opened for business.
|The Magic Rock iconography. Stuart once dressed as the bearded lady on the left. It made me want to put bleach in my eyes.|
Both men shared a passion for American West Coast pale ales and IPAs. They branded these beers in cool, quirky, circus-based iconography and gave them names like High Wire and Cannonball. They chimed with the taste of the emerging craft beer scene, and as Stuart points out, benefited hugely fromBrew Dog's decision to cease production of cask beer. Within months, Magic Rock had a national profile and has been struggling to keep up with demand ever since.
Having known Stuart for so long, I was very proud of him when he turned up for the first of a new series of meet the brewer events at The Draft House in Charlotte Street, in central London, dubbed Sunday Sessions.
|Any resemblance between the characters above and the monumentally hungover guests in the room is purely coincidental.|
'NoHo', as I have never called it, is quiet on a Sunday and the pub is usually shut. This meant the whole intimate space could be given over to a ticketed event, with just the occasional speculative punter having to be apologetically shown the door. Max Chater, whose Russell Kane-style quiff has previously brought joy to customers of Brew Dog and the excellent Dean Swift, wanted a relaxed, easy Sunday afternoon feel, and a food matching element to the tasting of the beers. This gave him an excuse to show off various culinary tricks such as truffles with 'bacon dust' and hot wings that made the Beer Widow weep and choke quite dramatically - much to everyone's amusement.
|Perhaps the late morning fry-up beforehand had not been a good idea.|
The first beer, Circus of Sour (3.5% ABV) was a sour Berlinerweisse, "a very simple style of beer that can be very difficult to make". The sourness comes from natural lactobacillus on the wheat malt. Normally in brewing this could be killed by the boil, but here the wort is steeped in the kettle for 24 hours to allow it to get to work and sour the malt. You then get a sour beer without using a wild yeast. The resulting beer is thin in a good way, tart and cleansing, vaguely reminiscent of freshly made lemonade.
The food match didn't really work for me - the Lancashire Poacher was a beautiful cheese, creamy and nutty, but instead of the beer cutting through the cheese as it should in theory, my palate instead felt like it had been hooked up between two horses trying to gallop in opposite directions.
Clown Juice (7% ABV) is a hoppy Belgian style wheat. Before you know this, the combination of citrus hops and big banana notes from the yeast fool you into thinking you're tasting some kind of tropical fruit infusion. It was paired with sausage and sauerkraut which squared off against each other, the beer bringing them together much more cohesively - a great pairing.
High Wire (5.5% ABV) is a 'San Diego-style' pale ale according to Stuart. He got to go to San Diego a year ago and tour some of the breweries that inspired him. He was encouraged by how close his beers were to what he tasted over there.
He says that while Magic Rock still packages most of its beer in cask, beers like this work much better on keg. "There's a peak to it that only lasts about a day on cask," he says, "after that, as soon as there's oxygen in the cask, the hop character starts to decay."
The wings come out with this one, the heat steadily growing until your palate is aflame. The beer is a cooling balm, and when the fire is out, the hops just sing.
|You can tell he's a craft brewer. That beard is where he carries his hops.|
Cannonball (7.4% ABV) is Stuart's favourite beer. Very dry, very hoppy, it's West Coast through and through. Matched with a gently spicy chorizo, the piney, resin hops wrap up each mouthful very nicely, like a present.
Rapture (4.6% ABV) is an amber ale, a style I'd love to see a lot more of. Hops, much as we love them, tend to shine best not when they are the one and only dimension to a beer, but when they have something to work off and spar with. Stuart is feeling the effects by this point. "Er... Red beer. Lots of hops. That's about it," he says by way of introduction, before diving for one of Max's curry-scented Scotch eggs.
The slow pace suits the afternoon perfectly. It seems everyone in the pub has a stinking hangover. By the time the High Wire came out, the pain had receded to be replaced with the 'Hey, we can DO this!" euphoria that the hair of the dog brings. But the energy is short-lived, and we're pining for duvets by the time Dark Arts (6% ABV) comes out.
This muscular stout was aged in a Bruichladdich barrel that had already had a beer aged in it. Perhaps because of where the barrel had been, after a few months the beer started to develop a sour character that shouldn't have been there. If it's going to go sour, it should be the right kind of sour, thought Stuart, and he added raspberries and a lambic starter to create a geueze stout. There's vibrant, fizzy fruit that almost hides the coffee and dark chocolate until the end. The truffles, one with the special 'bacon dust', vanish too quickly for any serious thoughts about how good the match is, which is probably all that needs to be said anyway.
|Fridges positioned where you can see their contents. Who knew?|
There's a lot to love about Draft House, which somehow makes the craft beer scene feel welcoming to a broader audience. And one thing I love the most is their enthusiasm for third-of-a-pint glasses. The glassware is elegant, stemmed and branded, and feels like a great way to sample these beers. Over four hours, we've drunk a total of two pints. It feels like more.
The Sunday Sessions will take place on the last Sunday of every month. The next one, at the end of November, is with Logan Plant from Beavertown. Tickets are £20 a pop and well worth it for a lazy Sunday afternoon that taxes your tastebuds and, occasionally, your brain, and could only be improved by the option of being tucked in for a little nap half way through.