Monday, 6 December 2021

Mad scientists take on low-alcohol beer brewing

One of the great things about beer and brewing is that there’s always something more to learn, and rarely is that more true than of the fast-evolving non-alcoholic and low alcohol – NoLo, or sometimes LNA – segment. 

I’ve written a couple of times before about the improving quality of British low-alcohol beer and the ensuing NoLo sales growth but only touched lightly on how they’re made. How did we get from the thin and slightly soapy de-alcoholised lagers of yesteryear to a world where we have enjoyable non-alc IPAs and Porters?

And sure enough, the production of modern NoLo beers turns out to be a fascinating business, on a par almost with the companies chasing synthetic meat or dairy-free vegan cheese. On the one hand, in beer, meat and cheese, we humans have discovered things that are delicious and relatively easy to produce. 

But on the other, we’ve come to recognize they have major flaws. While nourishing and tasty, they can also contribute to poor health, and both meat and dairy production can be environmentally destructive, whether in terms of degraded grazing land or the greenhouse gases that animals emit. 

Thankfully beer does not suffer so much on the latter score. Yes, it requires lots of energy to boil and mash, but that can be renewable for instance. And breweries are much better now at reducing their water usage, although even the most efficient still consume two or three pints of clean water for every pint of beer. 

Bye-bye Saccharomyces

NoLo brewers have often been a bit cagey on their processes though, referring only to “special yeasts” and the like. So it was great to get deeper into the topics earlier this year with John, a haematology doc by day and one of the self-proclaimed ‘mad scientists’ behind new brewery Sheep in Wolf’s Clothing by night. 

“It’s hard to grow organisms that don’t eat sugar, to brew beers that don’t taste like either hopped water or wort,” he said, when we met at this year's Brew//LDN. “We’ve been isolating yeast from for example Kombucha [fermented tea] and the National Collection of Yeast Cultures. You want a yeast that doesn’t eat maltose but will eat glucose, then you adjust the wort to be drier.

“You want it to work slowly, producing esters and other flavour compounds. Fermentation is what makes beer taste like beer, but you want it to ferment with the least alcohol and the most flavour.” It certainly worked well for their zesty and light 0.5% Easy Rinder citrus hefeweizen, made with real mandarin orange rind. 

Growing interest in lower-strength 'table beers' 

John added though that’s it’s not all about 0.5%ers: “2.8% is still important – that’s the tax break*. We have three beers there.” I tried a couple of these, I wasn’t taken by the Short Stack blueberry wheat beer, but the whisky barrel-aged Black Lager was very good, starting light, with classic Schwarzbier notes of coffee and ash, then filling out as the whisky comes through. (They blend back with fresh beer, of course, to keep it at 2.8% despite the whisky.)

And he said it’s easier to make gluten-free beers if they’re non-alc, too, because the grist – the amount of malt used – is smaller. “They’re already down to 30ppm of gluten so there’s less to take out.” Like many brewers, they then use enzymes – Brewer’s Clarex – to take out as much as possible of the remainder. 

If there’s a downside, said John, it’s pricing. Sure, the alcohol duty is lower, “but the ingredients are the same whether you brew to 5% or 0.5%.”

*UK beer duty is approximately halved for low-strength brews (between 1.2% and 2.8% alcohol - under 1.2% there's no duty payable) and increased for beers over 7.5%. 

Wednesday, 3 November 2021

IPA-lovers subscription scheme offers limited editions and shares

Do you love IPAs? Do you love IPAs enough to subscribe to and crowdfund a new brewer who will make nothing else – and will send you half a dozen cans of a new limited-edition IPA every month?

That’s the proposal for Standard Brew Co, a new venture from Milo Oddi, the former head brewer for London’s Beer+Burger chain. So far he’s done three New England IPAs – two 6% prototypes and the first subscription beer at 4%. 

He says though that from here on each month’s subscription brew will be a different IPA type, from Session IPAs to Triple IPAs “and everything in between.” No word yet on whether that includes the likes of Sour IPA or Black IPA – I’m doubtful, but you never know!

Certainly the first of those subscription beers, cunningly named IPA #003, is a very tasty start. Tropical, juicy and hoppy-dry, it features Citra Cryo and Mosaic hops, adds wheat and oats for a soft and fluffy body, and uses the popular Verdant NEIPA yeast. It is, as they say, very crushable.  

Why six of the same brew? “It has always been about sharing,” Milo says. “Whether that be sharing the beer at garden parties, taking it to friends’ dinners or even gifting it as presents.” 

If this sounds like your bag – if you’re already buying six-packs or even 24-packs of IPAs, say – there’s an extra hook. Subscribe for 12 months at £25 a month (including shipping), and as well as six 440ml cans each month, he’ll also give you twelve shares in the company, making you a co-owner.*

You can read more, and sign up, on the Standard Brew Co website. There’s also a special code “LOVEIPA” to get your first month free. 

Now, who’s going to start something similar to brew all different kinds of Porters and Stouts?? đŸ˜

*Of sorts - these shares are non-transferable and non-voting.

Monday, 1 November 2021

No more cask Fuller's Vintage this autumn

 If, like me, you look forward to a few glasses - or even pints - of Fuller's Vintage Ale each autumn, you're going to be sadly disappointed this year. Unless, that is, you caught it at the London Craft Beer Festival back in August.

Cask-conditioned Vintage Ale 2020
The background is that, while most of each year's Vintage Ale brew goes into bottles, Fuller's always puts some into casks. A few of these go to beer festivals local to the brewery, and most go to a small number of cask-led Fuller's pubs. A couple of the Fuller's pubs I visit normally get two or three each, which they serve from around October onwards - last years' was especially delicious. 

This year, however, there has been a problem. I heard from multiple sources that the casks had been sent out, but had then been recalled by the brewery. So I asked for more information and this is the reply I received: 

"We released a very small quantity of Vintage Ale 2021 on cask this year at London Craft Beer Festival in August and a handful of pubs during Cask Ale Week.

"Unfortunately, as time progressed, we weren’t completely happy with how some of the Vintage Ale 2021 casks were tasting when we sampled them. 

"There were a few cases of low cell counts, which left them susceptible to oxidation. While they posed no safety risk, we did recommend to the pubs that still had stock to withdraw from sale. 

"Hope that is helpful to know. We’re sorry for any disappointment caused. Our priority is always ensuring consumers enjoy our beers and experience cask at its best."  

It's hard to judge from the outside, but it looks like something went badly wrong while the beer was being prepared for cask. This involves filtering the beer and then reseeding it with the right amount of fresh yeast for that secondary conditioning in-cask. 

It all seems rather odd. Yes, it can be a ticklish process to get right, but Fuller's brewers should have plenty of experience here, and under normal circumstances you then have experienced cellar staff in the pubs who are able to make the final quality decision. 

Yet the reports I've seen from LCBF suggest the Vintage Ale was unusually sweet this year. Could someone have forgotten to reseed it with fresh yeast? Or what else might have gone wrong? Either way, it is disappointing - but still, better no beer than bad beer, I guess. 

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 MĂ€rzen style, whereas the Bavarians almost all switched about half a century ago from MĂ€rzens to golden Festbiers. 

To explain further, MĂ€rzen 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 BrĂ€u 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), SpatenbrĂ€u & LöwenbrĂ€u (both now AB-Inbev) & the two independents Augustiner & HofbrĂ€u-MĂŒnchen.

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.”