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Now in its fourth year of existence, the annual launch of The Rainbow Project is one of the most anticipated events in every beer geek's calendar. The Project, which started life at Siren Craft Brewery in Berkshire in 2013, has in recent years produced some of the most highly sought after beers in the UK beer industry, including Buxton & Omnipollo's (in)famous Yellow Belly in 2014 and Hawkshead & Crooked Stave's Key Lime Tau last year.
For the 2016 Project, seven UK breweries teamed up with counterparts from New Zealand to each brew a beer, as ever, based on a colour of the rainbow. The beers were launched at parties across the country on Saturday 17 September, and I, along with many others, headed to where it all began at Siren, eager to sample this year's offerings.
Arriving into Wokingham train station around half one, I am greeted by the sight of a huge white double decker bus crammed full of adults more excitable than a group of children on Christmas. We pile on, and make the short bus ride to the industrial estate in Finchampsted, where Siren call home. There is already a sizeable queue on arrival, and we pass the time slugging back cans of Gamma Ray being sold by one the volunteers at the event. Soon, we are the proud owners of a pristine Rainbow Project glass and ready to get stuck in.
As well as the seven Rainbow beers, there are offerings from each of the breweries involved in the project, as well as a small number from those involved in the collaborations in previous years, such as Cigar City, and three from local microbrewery Elusive Brewing Co., who brew out of a small 5 Barrel kit in a storage unit just round the corner from Siren. Food is provided courtesy of street food vendors Original Patty Men & Louisiana Chilli Shack and snack specialists Serious Pig and Karkli. Siren are also selling some of their own bottled beers, as well as some pretty swanky looking merch. Beers are purchased using tokens, which cost £2 and can be exchanged for either a third or a half a pint, depending on the beer in question. Despite ominous clouds suggesting the contrary, it remains dry throughout the day, making for a vibrant but not too overcrowded atmosphere inside the brewery.
I decide to begin proceedings with Sourbet, a 3.7% Raspberry and Lemon Berliner Weisse from Wellington-based Fork Brewing. A delicately tart and refreshing session strength beer, it provides me with a little time to weigh up my options and plot my route to eventual and inevitable oblivion. I am stuck by the demographic of the punters visiting the brewery, with the average clientele somewhat older than I'd anticipated, showing that it isn't just trendy youngsters who have bought into the hype surrounding the Rainbow Project and ever-growing UK craft movement. There are also a pleasing amount of women at the brewery, further debunking the myth that drinking beer is a male-dominated pastime.
Fearful that the combined thirst of the attendees would exhaust Siren's limited supply of the seven beers I'd made the visit to try, I head over to bar five and grab a third of Magic Rock & Fork Brewing's collaboration - The Upside Down. Inspired by the colour yellow, the beer is a 6% Kettle-Soured, Tropical Fruit Wit Beer, fermented entirely using Brett Trois, a yeast strain formerly thought to be Brettanomyces. Upon initially tasting The Upside Down, it isn't hard to see why the yeast strain was mistakenly identified, with a strong tart and funky-like mouthfeel that is remarkably Brett-esque being produced. A healthy dry-hop dosage of Citra, Equinox, Simcoe and Mosaic give the beer huge tropical aromas, only aided by the addition of passionfruit and mango juice. The kettle-souring of the beer to a P.H. of 3.6 prior to boiling locks in a base-level of tartness which compliments the juicy fruit flavours excellently. I'm (half) tempted to go back for another.
Next up its a quick hop over to bar four and the turn of Project debutants Burning Sky. Replacing Buxton in this year's Project is a tough ask, and Burning Sky were paired with Auckland's Liberty Brewing Co to brew a beer based on the colour Orange. Branded as an "eclectic, borderless beer", Descent into the Maelstrom is a 6.6% pale fermented with an Ardennes yeast strain and aged in White Burgendy Barrels. Post ageing, Descent into the Maelstrom was injected with a hefty dose of orange and grapefruit zest, before being dry hopped with Nelson Sauvin and Motueka hops. However, after Magic Rock/Fork's tropical fruit explosion, unfortunately I find Descent into the Maelstrom a little disappointing. The barrel ageing process, combined with the Nelson Sauvin, produces a long, dry, almost vinegary finish that dominates the palette and gives a powerful alcohol hit that I didn't need or expect before 3pm.
Luckily, Rainbow beer number three is quite possibly the best of the lot. Never one to do things by halves, Wild Beer Co took their colour of blue more metaphorically than literally, teaming up with 8 Wired to produce Black and Blue, a raw, unhopped, unboiled bourbon cask barrel aged sour inspired by the concept of a French black & blue steak. The result is nothing short of spectacular; an intensely acidic, almost lambic-esque beer that is perfectly balanced and incredibly tangy. Probably as close as any UK brewery has gotten to Belgium in terms of sour beer.
My favourite of last year's Rainbow beers was Cumbria based Hawkshead's Key Lime Tau, a kettle soured lactose infused Golden Ale that was so good, they brewed it again earlier in the year. Consequently, I can't wait to get my paws on their 2016 offering, a 6% seafood gose with New Zealand hops and green gooseberries, made in collaboration with Yeastie Boys. Brewed with Loch Fyne Oysters and green lipped mussels from New Zealand, Kai Moana Gose is lightly tart and has a slight salty edge, although neither of the two flavours is overpowering. In fact, there is very little overpowering about the beer at all; an excellent palette cleanser that would be perfect paired alongside a seafood dish, but that doesn't enthuse me in quite the same way as Wild Beer Co or Magic Rock's efforts.
Starting to feel the effects of a long afternoon of drinking, we tactically decide to purchase some posh-pepperami beer sticks from Serious Pig to soak up some of the alcohol. After numerous complex and sour beers, I'm really starting to crave a no-nonsense IPA. Luckily, Parrotdog and Garage Project are only too happy to oblige, and after a brief respite we indulge ourselves with the former's delicately floral Forget me Not and the latter's dank and resinous Pernicious Weed. Clearly its not just us and the US who can brew great hoppy beers...
With time of the essence and alcohol tolerance limited, however, I quickly decide to return once again to the Rainbow Project beers. Up next is Beavertown and Parrotdog's Universal Mind, a historic Dortmund style Adambier coming in at a whopping 10.5%. Traditionally dark in colour and aged in wood for over a year, Adambiers are no longer brewed commercially, but the style has been revived with a unique twist for this year's Rainbow Project. Universal Mind is a heavy, peaty, boozy and almost barley wine-esque red ale, given an almost Port-like quality by the two years it spent in Marsala wine barrels. It couldn't be further from the other Rainbow beers I have tried up until this point in proceedings, and it makes for a nice change of direction in what has been a day dominated by pales and sours.
Of course, a trip to Finchampsted wouldn't be complete without a trip round the corner to visit Elusive Brewing, a 5BBL microbrewery on the same industrial estate run by former homebrewer-turned-pro Andy Parker. Brewing just once a week since opening in April, Elusive Brewing are still at the very early stages of development and expansion, but are already producing a diverse range of fantastic beers on a kit partially paid for by Andy's homebrewing exploits (Winning a Craft Beer Co. competition provided him with £5,000 & gave him the chance to brew commercially with Dark Star). Andy already has plans to take over the storage unit next door for extra fermentation space, and having tasted all three of Elusive's beers for sale on the day, I can confirm that this is very good news indeed.
Returning to Siren, I decide it is time to hit up Original Pattymen for my dirty burger fix. After some deliberation, I go all out for the Bourbon Butt plug; a monster of a beerburger with bourbon spiked peanut butter, bacon jam and cheddar cheese. The end-product has me quite literally salivating at the mouth and is demolished within seconds, leaving me craving another. I wash it down with a third of Bloody Notorious, an 8% Blood Orange Double IPA brewed by Beavertown in collaboration with Boneyard, a match made in heaven. Now firmly the wrong side of tipsy, I head for the penultimate Rainbow Project beer, Royal Ale, an 8.5% English Barley Wine with riesling grape juice. Originally set to be brewed by Partizan and Panhead, the beer ended up being made solely by the London based brewery in acrimonious circumstances after Panhead were bought out by Lion group, who are in turn owned by Japanese beverage giant Kirin. As it turns out, Royal Ale is possibly my least favourite of the Rainbow beers, a little bit on the thin side and lacking in any standout qualities or characteristics.
Finally, I head on over to bar one to sample Siren's own Rainbow beer, Blacklight banana, brewed in collaboration with Wellington brewery Garage Project. Based on the colour indigo, the beer is a 9.2% Imperial Stout with bananas, molasses and bourbon barrel aged coffee. The indigo connection comes from the bananas, which apparently glow indigo under UV light when ripe. Blacklight Banana is an intensely sweet and silky smooth stout, with a huge banana hit and a deceptive drinkability for its strength. It is a worthy beer to round off the Rainbow Project and indeed the evening, and the train ride back to London flies past in a booze-induced daze, penetrated only by the slight regret of not having been able to try all of the other beers on offer throughout the day.
On the whole the 2016 Rainbow Project launch party has to go down as an unqualified success. Thanks must go to all the breweries involved and to the volunteers who helped out on the day, but particularly to Siren, who hosted a brilliant event that was welcoming and friendly, yet also incredibly well organised and great value for money.