Friday, 24 October 2014

Kick Ass Ales

With more small breweries than ever before in the UK, it's not a great surprise that one has made it out to Santorini. What does surprise, however, is just how good this brewery is! Pulling off the main road in Meso Gonia, I was searching for the big industrial unit that I was sure would be the home of Santorini Brewing Company (a.k.a. Donkey Brewing Company). In fact, we almost drove past the brew house, which didn't appear much bigger than any of the other buildings and was whitewashed in the traditional style. Yet we couldn't help but notice the giant pump-clip stuck to the front facade - their trademark - either the result of months of careful thought, or a stroke of marketing genius, or both. Witty, eye-catching and "different", it reminded me a lot of the Blue Monkey brand back home. I'm going to be controversial here and say that branding has clearly worked miracles for Blue Monkey. Whilst I appreciate that they have won multiple awards, including Nottingham Beer of the Year four times, I can't understand how - aside from their dark Guerrilla, I find their beer really average at best. I just don't get it. In a similar vain, my immediate impression of Santorini Brewing Company was that at least if their product was average, I bet their marketing and branding carried them through. Even their slogan "hip hoppy, kick ass ales" was brilliant. 

The brewery is owned by four unlikely fellows - Yannis Paraskevopoulos the owner of Gaia Winery, along with a Serbian Head Brewer, an English ex-buyer for Oddbins and an American ale enthusiast. Their combined knowledge and experience in different aspects of the market seems to have been one of the keys to the brewery's great success. Just like the four carefully selected ingredients of malted barley, hops, water and yeast in real ale, each of these guys was there for a specific purpose.

Stepping inside I was faced with probably the most impressive brew kit I had ever come across. Just  last week I had been chatting to my father-in-law Richard, who owns North Star Brewery in Ilkeston, about changes he'd like to make to his kit "in an ideal world". Literally everything on our "wish list" was on this kit. Two out of two for the Donkey. The layout of the brewery was smart - with a big bar and gift shop stocking t-shirts, key rings and hats emblazoned with the clever branding and (of course) lots of beer, overlooking the second-hand but pristine and mightily impressive bottling and labelling machine.

Around the corner was the main kit - boiling vessel, mash tun, FVs and six smaller FVs for secondary fermentation to occur under more controlled conditions before casking or bottling. The kit was all from an Austrian company [Fleck's] and it was no surprise that the Austrians had thought of everything. If they could make it more efficient, more controllable, more measurable at every stage or more simple they had done it. The thought that kept flowing through my mind is "this must have cost a small fortune..." - it was the Benz of brew kits. Since opening in 2011 they have already had to replace the whole kit, tripling in size to keep up with demand - not a great surprise from what I had seen so far. At full capacity they brew 75,000 litres [just shy of 1,850 casks in our money] of the stuff a year and they still can't keep up.

The final thing to note was that the whole place was spotless. I've been to too many breweries in the UK where I've thought either "do I really want to drink a product made here?", or even as bad as "how have the hygiene regulators not noticed this?". With a long history in the pharmaceutical industry, I'm glad to say that Richard's operation at North Star is similarly carefully managed, but I always thought of that as somewhat of a rarity in the brewing world.

So the beer... I must say that I taste beer just the same way as I taste wine - a set order of characteristics that I go through; colour, clarity, nose and aroma in the bottle, viscosity when pouring, aroma in the glass, [an addition for beer] texture, colour and size of the "head", initial taste [bitter, sweet, sour], secondary and tertiary flavours and finally length and flavour of the finish.

Santorini Brewing Co, Yellow Donkey, 5.0%
This golden beer, their "staple" was exactly what it said on the tin. Just as is the tradition with European lagers, there's no room for wasted effort on wishy-washy sub 4%-ers. This was summarised in another rib-tickling slogan, which amused me for a good few minutes - "people who drink light beer do not like the taste of beer, they just like to pee a lot". Aurora and Styrian Golding hops from Slovenia gave all three beers their characteristic undertone of pine on the nose. The head was a bit "fizzy" for my liking, but fairly characteristic for a paler ale. Not too bitter, as can be the case with overly-hopped pales. Cascade from Oregon brought the citrus hit, along with the more unusual Motneka from New Zealand. There was also a hint of bitter tea in the finish, which can also be attributed to the Sturian Golding. A subtle sweetness from the malt followed, before a long finish that was a bit spicy [possibly from the farmesene in the Aurora hops] and a bit metallic, which I attributed to the local water. One important thing to note is that all of their beers contain no fining or filtering so, while the beers are cloudy, I actually really like this. Despite best efforts, I'm certain that fining beer affects the quality and purity of the flavour so it's nice to have it au naturelle, as it should be.
Vi-beer-o Score: 3.5 stars

Santorini Brewing Co, Red Donkey, 5.5%
As the name suggests, this beer is darker in colour. Chestnut in fact, but that doesn't have the same ring to it in the marketing scheme. Again, cloudy as hell [but we like that...] and an undertone of pine from the Slovenian hops. They also bring an element of ripe stone-fruit and a hint of caramel before the hoppy bitterness kicks in on the finish. This time, the offering from Oregon is the fashionable Citra hop, accompanied by Nelson Sauvin from New Zealand. This combination of hops gives me a flavour described as the bitter oils extruded from squeezing the zest of an orange. Belgian-style yeast makes the whole package more fruity and full-bodied, again with a lingering finish.
Vi-beer-o Score: 3.5 stars

Santorini Brewing Co, Crazy Donkey, 6.5%
This is their Champagne, their premier Cru - and just to make the point clear, they present it in a Champagne bottle. Love it. The beer itself is an IPA. "Do you want to hear an interesting fact about IPA?", the guide gleefully asked. I couldn't resist stealing her thunder and replied "it never made it to India, it was too good.". Damn, should have amused her. That was clearly her party piece... Nothing left to do but taste the beer. In typical IPA style there was a big citrus hit from the Citra and the cleverly selected Nelson Sauvin did actually add a grape or white wine element. This was followed by a spicy tropical fruit flavour [I'd say pineapple] and a hoppy caramel finish. While I'm generally a lover of darker ales, this was clearly a top IPA - smart, sophisticated, cleverly thought through and delightfully presented. It's special and these guys really do deserve all the success that they get!
Vi-beer-o Score: 4.5 stars

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