Thursday, 25 September 2014

Cask Ale Week brings 18,000 beers and free pints

Cask Ale Week 2014 starts today, although as it runs until Sunday 5th October I suppose it's really only a week if, like the mad French revolutionaries, you support a decimal week of 10 days.

Anyhoo... There's all sorts of things going on, including free beer, meet-the-brewer sessions, festivals, ale trails and so on. And there 's the launch of this year's Cask Report, which says there's now over 18,000 different beers available in Britain, the majority of which are cask-conditioned or real ale. (It actually says “available each year” but I find that hard to believe as it could imply 70 new beers being added every working day. Although as Britain now has around 1300 breweries, I suppose that is just improbable, not impossible!)

One of the interesting snippets from the report is that publicans are for more stuck in the mud on real ale stereotypes than drinkers are. It says that 43% of publicans agreed with the statement ‘Most cask ale drinkers are middle aged men with beards and sandals’ and 41% agreed with the statement ‘Women don’t like cask ale’, while only a fraction of that number of drinkers agreed.

“These are outdated stereotypes that need to be consigned to the proverbial slop bucket,” said the report's author Pete Brown, “and as the beer revolution and the real savouring of taste continues, no doubt they will be.” It is a worry however, because if publicans believe that sort of nonsense they could harm both the availability and the reputation of real ale. You can read Pete's initial summary of the research behind the report on his blog here.

Oh yes, free beer: one source is the FreeDrinkPubs website. Register on the site and it'll email you a coupon that you can print off. You can only redeem it at participating pubs – mostly pubco pubs selling national brands, but many of them are excellent places to drink.

Another is reportedly the Daily Telegraph this coming Saturday (27th September) which will carry a free pint token, and then there's the likes of pubco TCG (formerly the Tattershall Castle Group), which as well as its former namesake on the Thames also has several dozen other venues around the country. It's running a promo called Proud of our Ale until 9th November; this includes a buy-six-get-one-free offer, which is not quite as generous as the more traditional BOGOF, but every little helps – especially when there's also 20% off for CAMRA members, which I guess equates to buy-five-get-one-free. Can you combine the two for buy-six-get-two-free? No idea, but here's hoping!

Have you seen any more free beer or discount offers? Let me know below. Cheers m'dears...

Friday, 12 September 2014

Spoons gets craftier

JD Wetherspoon is rolling out craft keg beers across 200 pubs, with availability due from 1st October. The first two beers on tap will be BrewDog's pretentiously named and pompously launched This.Is.Lager., while the other will be an American-style IPA from well regarded US brewer Devils Backbone, but contract brewed in the UK (so I hear) by Adnams.

Here's the tap badges, aren't they dreadful?

The DB one doesn't even tell you the beer name, never mind its style or strength. Still, I foresee local managers coming up with creative fixes for this.

JDW will also be stocking Lagunitas IPA and Rogue American Amber in bottles, according to its Twitter account - presumably these will be the US-made versions. Apparently the Sixpoint beers are staying around, by the way.

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Guinness looks to the past for new Porters

After many months of planning, here we have it: two new Porters from Guinness, both of them “inspired by” historical recipes and aimed, if not at the craft beer bars, then certainly at those pubs and bars who like to carry a varied beer menu. They come from Diageo's relatively new The Brewers Project, set up to enable its brewers “to explore new recipes, reinterpret old ones and collaborate freely”.

The first, Guinness Dublin Porter, is a 3.8% dark beer based on a recipe from 1796, which will surprise those who believed that historical beers tended to be stronger than this. "3.5% to 3.8% would have been typical of working men's Porters at that time," explained Guinness archivist Evelyn Roche, adding that Porter strengths started rising from this sub-4% region coming into the 1800s.

This version was described by its brewer Peter Simpson as “more accessible than Guinness Draught,” and will be available in keg and bottle. It's all-grain, with small amounts of both roasted and raw barley, and hopped with English Goldings. “One of the biggest challenges was interpreting the quantities and units used, and then it was the type of hops used,” Peter explained. “It got to the point where we settled on Goldings which would have been one of the most common types at the time.”

I found it a pleasant Porter, if a bit watery. There's a touch of coffee on the nose, then caramel, hints of roast chocolate and a light bitterness. It's not so different from the many other Porters at around this strength, including several supermarket own-brands, but of course they don't have the Guinness name on the label.

Available in bottles only and at 6%, Guinness West Indies Porter is based on a recipe from 1801 which Evelyn said was the precursor to Foreign Extra Stout. It's dry-bitter with notes of coffee, liquorice, a touch of old leather, and maybe a hint of nuttiness. By comparison, FES is drier, a little more bitter and has sourish notes – the latter deliberately concocted these days, in a special bacterial souring plant within St James's Gate.

Sadly for the Guinness folk, who had planned a surprise launch at a secret venue in hipster Spitalfields, their embargo was broken by Morrisons which had the new beers on its shelves the day before the official launch. I suspect that Words Have Been Had....

Peter Simpson and the new/old Porters
The Porters are the first commercial fruit from the pilot brewery at St James's Gate. This has both an automated one hectolitre (100 litre) brewkit and a manual 10hl plant similar to what you'd find in many microbreweries. Peter explained that the pilot brewery is used for several things besides developing new beers – brewing the winners of the Diageo annual staff beer-creation competition, testing ingredients for flavour stability, trying out new processes and so on.

However, he stressed that they are not specials or one-offs – they are now permanent members of the Guinness range, and have graduated to being brewed several hundred hectolitres at a time in the vast and brand-new Brewhouse no.4 at St James's Gate.

And he says Diageo is not jumping on the craft bandwagon – rather, this is an attempt to widen the Guinness range in a market that increasingly seeks variety. As he explained, “I think craft has enabled us, in that it really is a revolution in taste, and we're bringing Guinness back to what it used to be.”

So what of the beers? Sure, the tickers and completists will hunt them down, if they haven't been to Morrisons already. For the rest of us, they add a more modern take on Porter – and yes, Guinness is hoping to win another foot of supermarket shelf space in the three-for-a-fiver 'premium beers' rack, where it has only been represented by FES. They are well made and presented – though not bottle-conditioned – and certainly worth trying for anyone who likes dark beers (as I do).

As a beer aficionado though, I can't help sensing a missed opportunity. It's fascinating – Guinness is full of wonderfully skilled brewers who are passionate about what they do. They have first-rate gear to work with and massive resources in terms of sourcing ingredients and so on, yet the finished product almost always has an ever so slight feel of dumbed-downness about it. It's as if it gets filtered through the Diageo bureaucracy, and in the process made just a bit safer, just a bit more average.

The one exception I can think of is the 8% ABV Guinness Special Export, which as I understand it is produced not to the specifications of Diageo but to those of its Belgian distributor John Martin. There might be a clue there.

Still, as one of the Guinness staff said, these are the first two of what they hope will be a bigger range. Perhaps if they see success in the market the Diageo high-ups will relax a little and trust their brewers, allowing future brews to push the envelope a bit more. It is a challenge though – Peter mentioned that his team's been experimenting with barrel-ageing beers, including a Special Export aged in a rum barrel that came out at 13% and was “absolutely delicious!” The problem of course is translating such things to the sort of volumes that Guinness needs to operate at. 

Thursday, 4 September 2014

London Fields Eastside Saison

The latest in London Fields Brewery's occasional Bootlegger series is a 5.5% Saison, and what a nice example of the style it is. It's also cask-conditioned and on handpump, which makes it all the more refreshing and genuine - I mentioned this to LFB head brewer Fabio Israel (I'll post a longer interview with him here as soon as I get the time) and he agreed that it's more "farmhouse" than the fizzy versions you'll find in the craft bars.

Just to prove the point, the taproom also had the Saison on keg, but that version was lacklustre and ordinary, all fizz and no knickers you might say (but probably wouldn't!).

So anyway, the cask version is a deep gold and the first impression is almost a Dortmunder Export, malty and faintly sweet, before that funky farmhouse Saison note sweeps in, accompanied by a dry and lightly peppery bitterness. There's also ginger and grains of paradise (another gingery spice) in there, contributing a spiciness most evident in the aftertaste.

Saison is still fashionable in the UK, although some might argue it has already jumped the shark in the US, to be supplanted by the likes of Farmhouse IPA (essentially an even hoppier Saison). Meanwhile in places such as Germany it is only just taking off. I had my first two German Saisons (and one of those was actually brewed in Belgium) earlier this year. A spiced cask version makes it a bit more interesting and is to be applauded - look out for it!

(Disclaimer: I'm sat in the brewery taproom ahead of tonight's public launch for the beer, and have a glass of cask Eastside Saison in front of me...)

Saturday, 30 August 2014

Fuller's open day

Hooves bigger than my head!
Many thanks to the Fuller's team and all their friends and helpers for an excellent open day at the Griffin Brewery today. The small Vikings enjoyed their horse-drawn dray (well, wagon) ride, plus the barbeque, the cake stall, the face-painting and the tombola. Oh ,and the fire engine!

As I had to drive them there, I partook only gently of the outdoor bar, which offered keg Frontier, Cornish cider and cask Pride for the equivalent of £1 a pint*, but there was a fuller (ho ho) range on in the Hock Cellar, including Fuller's Summer Ale and Gale's Beachcomber next to each other on the bar.

Also in the cellar was an opportunity to taste some of the bottled beers, a tombola, and a "decorate your own mini-cask with stickers" corner for the kids. Sadly, the mini-cask the boy decorated and brought home was empty...

*I say "the equivalent" as the currency for most of this was bottletops. You could buy a bag of 10 for a fiver (they're new and unused ones so don't go rooting round to see if you have any used ones in the bin!) then 'spend' them on the bars and stalls.

If I understood rightly, all the income from selling them goes to one of three local charities, depending on the type of tops you chose to buy, with the goods actually being donated. A nice touch, and a lot better than simply giving things away.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Stout 'n' Sour

Normally I'm a big fan of sour beers such as Berliner Weisse, Gose and Gueuze. It does help though if they are brewed to be that way. Tonight's example - a Baltic Night stout from Oxfordshire's Compass Brewery, which I picked up in the local Oddbins - is a bit more challenging, as while it has a tartness on the nose and a pronounced sour character, I can't believe it is meant to be like that.

Indeed, the brewer's original description referred to "a well balanced roasted bitterness as well as a hoppy aroma." It added that "The high percentage of roasted barley that we use to create it also gives it a lovely hint of coffee and a long dry moreish cocoa finish."

The cocoa and roast coffee are definitely there, but so is an intrusive sourness, and it's not the Brettanomyces sourness one might expect in an aged stout, but more the lactic sourness of Berliner Weisse. Turning to Ratebeer I see I'm not alone - several other recent reviews refer to a sourness or a lactic tang.

I'm trying to enjoy it anyway. I like sours as I said, and stout is a favourite of mine too, so I'm trying to tell myself this might be what you'd get if you tried crossing two styles, as Schneider Weisse did with its latest Tap X, Porter Weisse. It's kind of growing on me, but only kind of!

Interestingly, I see Compass does make at least one beer as a seasonal that is meant to be sour.

Incidentally, there was an earlier omen that not all was well here. When we talk about cracking a bottle open, we don't usually mean it literally. But tonight it's exactly what I did - the bottle rim came away with the cap! I poured the beer anyway, but through a tea-strainer. And I suspect the bottle-opener rather than the bottle - it's one I rarely use, grabbed since my once-trusty Swiss Army Knife has gone AWOL.

Have any readers had similar strange hybrid beery experiences? (Or seen my Swiss Army Knife?!?)

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Cool times at the London Craft Beer Festival

So that's the second London Craft Beer Festival – and what a nice event it is! I was there on the Friday for the second session, but at the time of writing there were still tickets available for the Saturday night and Sunday sessions.

Ours was an afternoon session, so there was no music – apparently it really livened up in the evening with bands playing. I'm not upset to have missed that because it would have made it a lot harder to chat with fellow drinkers and the folk from the breweries. Indeed, there was a lot of serendipitious chatting going on, the “What have you got there? What's been good so far? Have you heard the Test Match score?” sort of thing.

Needless to say, there were lots of interesting beers, plus a few experiments that didn't really work! It's done on an all-inclusive tasting approach, where your £35 ticket covers as many 90ml (one-sixth of a pint, 3.3oz) tastings as you want, plus you get four tokens for third-pint pours – although there was so much to sample that I only got around to using one of my tokens.  If you've been to the Great American Beer Festival, say, or more recently the Copenhagen Beer Celebration, you'll recognise the model.

It also wasn't too crowded – I don't think it was a total sell-out, but you wouldn't want it much fuller than this. That made for short waits at the bar and a more relaxed atmosphere to chat. One of the fascinating things about beer is that there is always something more to learn. No matter how much I've already learnt and can explain to others, every time I talk to people in the business I learn something new – and so it was yesterday, with techie discussions on how to condition beer, side-effects of sour mashing, and the like.

Oh, and while it was promoted as a beer festival for London, and a lot of the brewers present are from London (eg. Kernel, Partizan, Brew By Numbers, Pressure Drop, Redchurch), several are not, including two from the US and three from Belgium.

On the other hand, LCBF was not an unalloyed success. In particular, the cask ale – this bar featured the likes of Redemption, Burning Sky, Kirkstall and Sierra Nevada (the latter sent over in the same consignment that they send to GBBF) – was too warm by a few degrees, making it somewhat lifeless. I wasn't the only one who noticed, and one of the other visitors told me that as we left, staff were trying to sort it out.

Lack of experience handling casks? Perhaps, and I'd suggest that the organisers call round the cellar managers who do the local CAMRA beer festivals for help – except that one penalty of running your festival at the same time as GBBF is that they will all be busy there this week! I'm sure it will be fixed for next year, anyway.

Scenic Bethnal Green
I do wonder too about the ticket price - £35 seems quite a big hurdle to jump, but maybe that's just me, as you could easily pay that much for a night out in town. Plus, maybe it allows the organisers to keep attendance at a comfortable level. It certainly doesn't have the oppressive zoo-like feel of GBBF, and felt more relaxed than many local CAMRA festivals.

I guess if you sampled every beer there and used all your extra tokens, you could get maybe ten or a dozen pints down you (and there were several in excess of 10% ABV), which in theory makes it excellent value. I'm not sure I know many people who could manage 60-70 drinks in five hours though. Not aficionados who want to enjoy what they're drinking, anyhow... (I only managed 20-ish, but then I was also trying to interview people and take notes.)

All in all then, will I go again next year? Here's hoping!

Disclaimer: I got a discounted ticket at the "friends and press" price (Friday afternoon trade session only), hence my musings about the £35 full price.