Tuesday, 19 October 2021

You won't be Haacht off by these Belgian classics

Haacht is certainly a name I recognised, not just as the brewer of M&S Belgian Lager(!) but as one of the older family breweries in Belgium. So when I spotted its bar at this year’s Brew//LDN show, I was curious: with all the problems over Brexit red tape and with fewer mainland lorries coming over to the UK, why would a Belgian brewer be entering the UK market right now?

Haacht's Matthew Langley at Brew/LDN
“Haacht sees the UK as the biggest European beer market, but also a complex one,” explained UK country manager Matthew Langley (left). “The UK has so many different beer categories, it’s not at all like Belgium. Setting up a subsidiary here is a real commitment to the UK market, and we have to set up now to smooth the imports – everybody is really confused about the rules.” 

The brewery has three main families of beers, plus a few individual brands and outliers, such as its Belgian Pilsner, Primus. Super 8 is the more mainstream line – Export is a pale lager, Flandrien is a strong (6.4%) blonde ale, Blanche is as you might guess a Witbier, and then there’s IPA (6%), which is more traditionally English in style than American or Belgian. For now, only the IPA and Flandrien are coming to the UK.

Then there’s the Charles Quint line of three strong beers, which aren’t coming over, and thirdly, the family that Belgian beer lovers are most likely to recognise which is the Tongerlo abbey beers. 

These remind us that, while Trappist beers can only be brewed in the abbey precincts, almost all ‘abbey beers’ are actually brewed commercially, with the brewer having licensed or bought the name. Here, there’s three regulars – Tongerlo Lux is the Blond (6%), then the Dubbel is Tongerlo Nox (6.5%), and lastly there’s the Tripel, Tongerlo Prior (9%).

So what of the beers? 

Haacht had Super 8 IPA on draught at the show – deep chestnut-brown and dry-sweet, with notes of toasty malt, biscuit and grapefruit, it’s a very nice modern take on a classic English IPA. Flandrien on the other hand is more classically Belgian in style – a little candy sugar and spicy hops, its sweetness balanced by a drying alcohol warmth. If you like Leffe, say, you’ll probably like this. 

Tongerlo Nox/Brune
Why two Belgian Blond ales in the mix? Well, Tongerlo Lux is noticeably different from Flandrien – sweetish, yes, but with estery notes of melon and spiced apple, and a crisp dry edge. It’s lovely, but then the other Tongerlo beers are even better. 

Nox (right) is dark and plummy-sweet, lightly roasty and ashy, with hints of wine and cocoa, and a drying hoppy bitterness. Prior Tripel is fruity and lightly floral, full-bodied and estery-smooth, with hints of Weissbier-like banana and lemon, and a boozy warmth balanced by peppery drying hops. 

All in all, it’s a pretty solid line-up. Nothing too crafty, but well-made examples of Belgian – and English – classics. Langley adds that, in Belgium at least, Haacht also has several seasonals such as a Belgian Saison and a Tongerlo Christmas beer. “They’re also going to bring out a Stout,” he added. “On one level they’re very staid, and on another they continually surprise me!”

Sunday, 17 October 2021

It's Oktober, time for a Festbier

It’s Oktober, and these days, that means Oktoberfestbier*! Finding a decent Festbier used to be a bit of a trial outside Germany – and more particularly, outside Munich**. That’s changed now though, thanks to North London’s music-inspired Signature Brew, and the latest iteration of its Festbier, Luftballon.

When I tried last year’s brew of Luftballon, it seemed just a little light for the style, but this year’s release is smack on target. It’s smooth and malty-sweet, lightly bready and toasty, with drying hoppy notes and a mild bitterness, mouth-filling yet somehow also light and not cloying. Just the ticket, both for Oktoberfest and more generally for an autumn afternoon or evening...

*Or at least it does for the non-Americans out there – most American breweries that brew Oktoberfestbiers stick to a variation on the amber-brown Märzen style, whereas the Bavarians almost all switched about half a century ago from Märzens to golden Festbiers. 

To explain further, Märzen was more or less a stronger version of what we now know as Vienna lager – the amber beers that succeeded Dunkel lagers as the mainstream drinker’s choice. Meanwhile, Festbier is basically a strong version of Munich Helles, the golden beer that in turn displaced Vienna amber in the Bavarian public’s affections. 

And yes, I know that if the Munich Oktoberfest had been running this year it would be over by now...  

**The six Munich Oktoberfestbiers are all fine brews and eminently quaffable, but having a choice is nice – and there’s always something a bit uncomfortable about a cartel. (The Big Six Munich brewers are the only ones legally allowed to use the term ‘Oktoberfestbier’ and sell it at the Wiesn. In my opinion, if that isn’t a cartel then I don’t know what is!) 

Still, hopefully next year Munich will get that more choice too, as upstart Giesinger Bräu has reportedly broken through at last and got permission to become the seventh member of the Oktoberfestbier gang, alongside Paulaner & Hacker-Pschorr (both owned by Schörghuber), Spatenbräu & Löwenbräu (both now AB-Inbev) & the two independents Augustiner & Hofbräu-München.

Thursday, 30 September 2021

The return of Allsopp's and the legend of IPA

If you’re at all interested in the history of beer, you will have seen the name Samuel Allsopp. the pioneering brewer and exporter of India Pale Ale. He and his sons built their Burton-on-Trent brewery into one of the largest in the world, before some unfortunate business decisions by Samuel’s grandson combined with a market slump to push it into receivership in 1911. 

But now it’s back: one of Samuel’s descendants, Jamie Allsopp (left), has re-established the name and worked with Jim Appelbee, the former head brewer at Molson Coors’ William Worthington’s brewery in Burton-upon-Trent, to turn recipes from the only surviving Allsopp’s brewing ledger into beers for more modern ingredients and tastes. They’re starting with two, a Pale Ale and of course – how could they not! – a classic British IPA. 

Jamie Allsopp has also reacquired some of the Allsopp’s trademarks, including the famous upright red hand, which had subsequently been taken over and used by first Ind Coope (which was 'Ind Coope & Allsopp' as late as 1953) and then Carlsberg. Most recently the mark had been bought by BrewDog, for a historical IPA project which as far as I can tell never bore fruit. 

The family legacy was all around when he was growing up, Jamie says. “We had mirrors, and jugs, and ashtrays – there was Allsopp’s memorabilia on every table.” He adds that while for his father it was just family history, his grandfather had remembered the brewery business. 

The old Allsopp’s brewery is long gone, of course, with a Carlsberg factory now on the site, so having located recipes he needed a brewery for them. He found one in Sheffield, some 50 miles from Burton, where Mark Simmonite had a 16-barrel plant originally built for another project. 

“The old records were specific enough that they could be interpreted,” Jamie says. “The IPA has not really changed, just a drop of ABV – it would have been more like 7% back then. Our Pale Ale is nothing like the 1700s, but it’s similar to later Pale Ales.” He notes that while the recipes have been modernised, both beers use a proportion of malted Chevallier barley, a heritage variety that dates back to the 1800s

The result is two classic British-style beers – the Pale Ale (4.4% bottled, 4.0% in cask) is refreshing, malty and drying, with a slight earthy note, while the IPA (5.6% in bottle, 5.0% casked) is smooth and lightly sweet under a drying hoppy-woody topnote.

So what’s next for the revived Samuel Allsopp & Sons? The new website shows a Lager Beer, although it’s not on sale yet. Its 1897 purchase of an expensive lager brewing plant was one of the ill-timed decisions that helped crash the original Allsopp’s. The market wasn’t ready for Allsopp’s Lager back then,* although the redundant plant was later moved to Alloa and used to brew the predecessors of Skol lager. 

Jamie also notes that before Napoleon closed off the European market to British brewers, and before the IPA trade opened up, the company was one of several shipping Porter to Russia. Then from the 1850s there was Allsopp’s Arctic Ale, originally 11% and brewed to accompany expeditions heading to, yes, the Arctic. Indeed, Jamie bought a bottle of a later Arctic Ale brew, the 9% 1875 version, at auction last year. Could a Porter, an Arctic Ale, or even a Russian Imperial Stout be next on the Allsopp’s menu? “Watch this space,” is all he’ll say. 

The one question that remained for me was, given that Jamie is a wealthy Old Etonian ex-financier, is this more than just a rich man’s vanity project? Being able to self-fund certainly makes something like this far easier to do, yet at the same time Jamie’s deep affection for the Allsopp’s history is almost palpable, and it's clear that he genuinely wants to revive it. 

In fact, it feels as if it’s something he has long wanted to do, but only now has the time and resources for. “I worked in finance for 20 years, but this was my lifetime ambition,” he smiles. “Selling pints – now I wake up every morning happy!”

*Curiously, there is already an Allsopps Lager in Kenya, named for where it's brewed, in the Nairobi suburb of Allsops. 

Thursday, 23 September 2021

Interesting times for cask ale

There’s been quite a bit of worry recently about the future of cask ale – or real ale, as many prefer to call it. Cask’s share of the beer market has declined in recent years and then it took another big hit from the Covid-19 lockdowns. That’s because almost all cask ale is sold via pubs, and they were closed. 

Wild Card's hazy cask Pale
Cask also faces other challenges though. Many drinkers expect it to cost less than keg craft beers, for example, even though it can be just as expensive to produce and typically requires more care in the pub to get it conditioned and to serve it just right. 

Even before the pandemic, some brewers had been talking about the need to increase the price of a cask pint to restore a bit of profit margin. Others had largely or wholly moved to keg as it was the only way they saw to make a decent return – and of course the pandemic-driven move to selling bottles and cans, instead of draught beers, has accelerated that shift. 

Similarly, the uncertainty involved in the post-lockdown reopening of pubs seems to have encouraged many to reduce the number of cask pumps in use – and some to drop cask altogether. Pub visitor numbers are both down and unreliable, by all accounts, so I can see it’s a risk – after all, once you tap a cask, it needs to sell within days, whereas a keg can stay good for weeks. 

The paradox is that demand for cask doesn’t seem to have fallen as much as the more pessimistic brewers had feared or expected. Twice recently, I’ve spoken with London-area brewers who say their cask sales are up, in part because others have dropped out of the business. 

'Small pack' at Brockley
The first was on a trip with a CAMRA group to visit Wild Card which now has its own pub, The Tavern on the Hill, near the brewery in Walthamstow. As well as several of Wild Card’s keg beers, this popular local has two of its cask ales on handpump, usually the simply-named Pale and Best. In fact, these two beers were created for the pub – many of the regulars are cask drinkers, so when the brewery took the pub over, it either had to buy cask ale in from elsewhere or brew some itself! 

Wild Card co-founder William Harris said that although the majority of each 20hl cask brew is sold via The Tavern on the Hill, “people really want cask from us, partly because a lot of firms have pulled out from it. Mostly it’s cask-led pubs looking for suppliers, and it’s mainly a London issue – outside London there’s still plenty of cask around.” 

And then on a visit to Hither Green, near Lewisham, I discovered that Brockley Brewery was also nearby. In the brewery taproom I was surprised to find that as the (inevitable, these days) cans on sale, they had four cask ales on draught, all dispensed by gravity from casks in the coldstore, and to learn that Brockley's production is now around 50% cask. The story was similar – it’s picked up cask sales volume from other breweries who have dropped out of the business. 

Is all of this good news or bad? I’m not really sure, but I do find it interesting – as in the apocryphal ‘curse’, “May you live in interesting times.” 

Friday, 10 September 2021

Tasting chocolate instead of beer? It's an Olympian task!

Honey liqueur
Honey dissolved in whisky? Sure, why not!
There’s not been too many big food and drinks fairs in the last 18 months, so the trip over to London Olympia this week for the Speciality & Fine Food Fair was welcome on many levels. One of the first things that struck me was the sheer diversity of the food and drink exhibitors, and the next was how much commonality there was within that. I spotted several offering different sorts of monthly meal kits, for example, plus a number offering assorted honeys and honey derivatives. 

Plant-based products were another grouping, including vegan ice lollies, and of course lots of snack brands – crisps and the like. A drinks quarter offered any number of craft gins and rums, modern whiskys and liqueurs, hard seltzers and so on – even a mobile gin distillery, though for flavouring pre-made spirit rather than distilling it afresh. What there wasn’t much of, as far as I could see, was beer. 

Mmm, chocolate...
So I decided to become a chocolate blogger for the afternoon – there were a lot of chocolatiers out there! And it seemed like each had its gimmick: there was single-estate chocolate, volcanic island chocolate, illustrated chocolate, chocolate so fresh it has to be kept chilled, and lots more. See my Twitter for more photos and details…

At last though I found a few beers. First was Fungtn, which is pronounced Function but with a nod to ‘funghi’ because, as well as being alcohol and gluten-free, it has mushrooms in it… They’re not just any old funghi either, they’re “adaptogenic functional mushrooms” as used in traditional eastern medicine. Oh-ho. There wasn’t time on site for more than a sip to confirm that yes, they’re good lo-no brews, but fuller reviews of Chaga dark lager, Lion’s Mane IPA and Reishi Citra beer will follow.

And then just as the show was wrapping up, I discovered PR Dutch Drinks who distribute in the UK for 20-odd craft breweries from I think you can guess where. They include the likes of Uiltje, Poesiat en Kater, Kompaan, Emelisse, De Molen and Brouwerij t’ IJ (and yes, I know that not all of those are independent now). 

Mobile gin still
OK, who doesn't fancy owning a mobile still?
Of course, while chatting with the company’s Eric Bestebreur I had to ask whether his imports had been affected by the widely-reported border disruptions. “Normally our deliveries took four days from leaving the brewery, but our first shipment after Brexit took seven weeks,” he said. He added that it’s now down to three to four weeks, but that the real problem is not so much the product being delayed – although I do notice a fair few “sold out” messages on their website – it’s financial. 

This is partly the extra cost of transport and of having valuable goods in limbo for weeks on end, but it’s also payment terms: being on 30-day terms with your supplier is not much use if the goods take 30 days to arrive! “We’ve had to change the definition of delivery,” he says. 

I hope to catch up with Eric again at some point – he also runs The Bolton, a pub in nearby Earls Court with a specialist Dutch & Belgian beer bar upstairs called Proeflokaal Rembrandt. (I notice this is also where you can pick up your Dutch Drinks orders, and avoid delivery fees.) 

Just coming back to Olympia after more than a year was startling too, as almost the whole area now seems to be a building site. At the eastern end, the Grand Hall and National Hall are still there – they are Grade II listed buildings – but they’re shrouded and fenced-off, and even inside the lobby it was almost impossible to hear yourself think due to what sounded like a pneumatic drill just behind a wooden partition. 

Meanwhile at the western end of the site, pretty much everything has been demolished. It turns out that most of Olympia is being rebuilt, with lots of new office space (just in time for the work-from-home and hybrid-working revolution, hah!), two hotels, new public spaces, a 1,575-seat theatre, and an exhibition hall with a 3,500-seat live music arena on top of it. Completion is due in 2024. 

Tuesday, 10 August 2021

German Pale Ale: when a beer is defined not by what it is, but by what it's not

Beer bottle & glass
A bit of a gusher...
Just recently I’ve has a few German pale ales and amber ales, and noticed something common to them all – a yeasty roughness on the palate, and sometimes on the nose too. The malty body is still there, along with fruity modern-style hops, but overall it’s nothing like the clean brew you’d expect in the US, or in most other countries with a US-influenced ‘craft beer revolution’ underway.

It set me thinking. What are the fundamental things setting a well-made pale ale apart from a lager? There may be fruity esters from the warmer ale fermentation, say, but they can be minimised. The existence of Kölsch – which to the uninitiated might appear to be a pale hoppy lager, but some which beer geeks insist on calling a pale ale – shows how close the two can be, as do several British ‘lagers’ that are actually warm-fermented, such as Fuller’s Frontier.

In the opposite direction, so too do the snobbish descriptions I’ve read online of Eichbaum’s clean and smooth Steam Brew Session IPA as “lagery”. Then what’s going on with these rough-edged and yeasty brews?

Then it struck me: it’s most likely a legacy from the early days of German ‘craft beer’, when the most important thing seemed to be to differentiate yourself from the industrial Pils producers. So if their beer was golden, hoppy and as bright as a new pin, yours needed to be murky amber and tasting of yeast.

I had hoped it would have changed by now. After all, what inspired many new-wave brewers in Germany and around the world were the big flavours and aromas of golden-bright Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and its ilk. The opportunity is still there to create great Pale Ales, and differentiate or localise them by using all-German ingredients.

It’d be a huge shame if, instead of capitalising on the broader palette of aromas and flavours available to them, it turns out many German brewers – and drinkers – still prefer to lazily define German Pale Ale as “Hey look, it’s definitely not Pils!”

What's your experience - have you found a great German Pale Ale? Do you like the yeasty-rough edge, and am I missing something here?

Thursday, 5 August 2021

What’s the best city for beer?

It’s one of those questions that's really hard to answer. I mean, first of all you have to set parameters – what terms do you judge “best” by? And what do you mean by “beer” – craft beer, or anything from industrial lager onwards? On top of that, how reliable is your data to start with?

But in the quest for a headline – and to incidentally promote its other activities – the Money.co.uk website has given it a go. Working on the three measures of price, brewery density and bar density, it lists the top three as Asheville (in North Carolina), Prague and Krakow, with major craft beer destinations such as Denver, San Francisco and yes, London, way down the list.  

Top 10 Best Cities in the World for Beer Drinkers

Rank

City

Country

Breweries per 10,000 people

Bars, pubs & clubs per 10,000 people

Average price per pint (£)

Overall score

1

Asheville

United States

2.80

7.86

£3.58

8.41

2

Prague

Czech Republic

0.76

5.86

£1.34

6.88

3

Kraków

Poland

0.39

2.46

£1.89

4.79

4

Fort Collins

United States

1.29

1.41

£2.87

4.72

5

Cincinnati

United States

1.02

2.70

£3.58

4.46

5

Buenos Aires

Argentina

0.21

0.89

£1.17

4.46

7

Austin

United States

0.53

2.69

£2.87

4.4

8

Dublin

Ireland

0.54

5.66

£4.70

4.36

9

Wrocław

Poland

0.42

0.92

£1.70

4.35

10

Grand Rapids

United States

0.85

1.59

£2.87

4.31

What they’ve done is to take brewery numbers from Ratebeer, venue counts from TripAdvisor, and the average price per pint from cost-of-living tracking site Numbeo

Those who know the US scene will not be surprised by presence there of Asheville, a party-town full of small breweries, nor I suspect by Fort Collins, where 20+ craft brewers, most notably New Belgium and Odell, have grown in the shadow of a massive Budweiser factory. Prague and Krakow, on the other hand, benefit more from low beer prices and thriving nightlife. 

Pricing – or rather the extortionate rate of beer tax in the UK – is a big part of what pushes London to an absurd 39th out of 40. And that’s despite London having more than twice as many breweries as any other city on the list, and being second only to Tokyo in its number of venues. Well, that and the fact that Money’s analyst has normalised by population, which drops sprawling London down below even Antwerp and Anchorage on "Breweries per 10,000 people".

Re-sorting the full list of 40 cities it’s interesting to see other effects apparently at work. For example, craft beer meccas such as Portland Oregon, San Diego and Denver report beer prices around $6 a pint, while in the likes of Kansas City and Milwaukee it’s nearer $4. 

Is that because more people in the latter two drink cheaper macro, or because they’re less fashionable and wealthy areas, so prices are lower? I don’t know – although a quick look at Numbeo suggests that its data may not be the most reliable as it merely quotes average prices for “domestic” and “imported” beers. This is a crappy old Americanism from the days when the typical menu choice was Bud/Miller/Coors for Joe Regular, and Heineken or Amstel for Joe Posh.  

It’s all a bit of fun though, and it certainly generates a few ideas for places to visit, as well as a picture of what you can expect to be charged in different countries around the world. Just don't take Money's promotion of debit cards as gospel – cash remains king in many places, including Germany where pre-pandemic habits are reasserting themselves.  

Let's rephrase it them: what’s your favourite city for beers, and why?