Sunday, 14 July 2019

The beers we almost forgot

If you’re running a craft beer bar or specialist real ale pub that caters to aficionados, it’s relatively simple – in concept at least, though less so in execution! You offer a range of styles, rotating as often as you can manage, always with something new and/or weird – and also with a known-brand but unusual lager for your less adventurous visitors, or the non-aficionado friends and other halves.

But what about venues where craft beer isn’t the main or only offering, such as restaurants, cafés or ‘regular’ pubs. The constant chasing after fashion and novelty is a never-ending game. Constant novelty, but it’s a business model that’s tough to scale and make reliable. Even those brewers famed for their frequent special releases usually try to build up a solid baseline of regular beers as well, just like craft bars needs that regular tap for those customers who ‘just want a beer’.

I arrived late at this month’s Imbibe Live trade show at Olympia, but just in time to catch Mitch Adams’ final talk and tasting, “Back to the Future”. In it, he encouraged retailers in particular to forget modern beer trends and fashions for a moment, and instead pay attention to some of the beers – and perhaps more significantly, beer styles – that have dropped off the headlines, but still deserve some love.

In particular, he highlighted Helles & Vienna (golden & amber) Lagers, Hefeweizen, Golden Ale, West Coast IPA, and Tripel. I might quibble with one or two of his exemplars – Stiegl Gold isn’t my favourite Helles, I’m afraid – but others were excellent choices. Erdinger Weisse for instance, and Ska’s Modus Hoperandi for classic American IPA, while I'd say Brooklyn Lager is the best Vienna Lager in volume production. 

He’s got a very good point here, although as implied earlier I have no fears for lager. We’re seeing more and more craft lagers – it does seem to be lager that most ‘just-a-beer’ drinkers go for. So you make your craft lager a bit more malty and flavoursome than the big brands, easy drinking but nothing too scary, nothing too different…

The crafty (re)birth of lager

Even in Germany, where the craft beer movement grew up in large part in opposition to the industrialisation of beer, you can see this happening. German industrial Pils is yellow, fizzy, light-bodied and remarkably samey. Craft beer therefore set out to be the opposite – it’s at least hazy if not downright murky, amber-brown or even darker, malty, and comparatively heavy with aroma and flavour.

While that trend’s not gone away, more and more modern microbrewers are now producing a Pils or a Helles too. It’s partly that they have customers who want novelty, but familiar novelty, and partly the realisation that making a really good lager is hard. So if you want to show your skills as a brewer, it’s one way to do it.

Choose your guests

But while offering a regular craft lager for the ‘just-a-beer’ customers works for the specialist beer venue, what about the reverse – a ‘regular’ catering for aficionados? Maybe it should be a guest Vienna, or a blond lager and a West Coast IPA. And it can’t hurt to have bottles of a reliable Weizen and Tripel (or Dubbel) in the fridge.

What do you think – are we worrying too much? Does this happen already? Or is there still too much focus on fashion?

Saturday, 29 June 2019

Jubel gets crafty with the lager-top

Maybe you already saw Jubel’s attractive bright-yet-minimalist labels on the shelves in Sainsbury’s, but like me, you weren’t convinced by the idea of sweetened, fruit-flavoured beer. Flavoured beer is quite traditional though in some ways and places, so I was pleased when one of my local pubs announced a meet-the-brewer visit from Jubel Beer.

We had two varieties to taste, Alpine which is peach-flavoured, and Urban which has elderflower syrup added. They had just launched a third, Grapefruit, but it hadn’t reached London yet. I tried the Urban first and was pleasantly surprised. Yes, it’s sweet – much too sweet for my liking – but the elderflower adds an intriguing grape-like note, with the result ending up like a cross between lager and a sweet white wine.

Alpine is less subtle, with in-your-face fruitiness and the rather light base-beer almost lost in the background. “Craft beer is all the thing now, but it’s too hoppy for some,” noted Jubel rep Adam, which I’m afraid I translated as ‘This is beer for people who don’t actually like beer, but still want to be seen drinking it.’

Life is peachy

Adam passes the beers round
Everything has to have an origin story these days, it seems, and as Adam explained, this one involves two students on a skiing holiday in the French Alps and encountering Demi Pêche, which is the local variant of a lager-top – beer with a dash of peach syrup.

He says they came back to London and, after graduation, initially tried renting brewing capacity and making something similar using peaches in the brew. That didn’t work well though, so they decided to make their own peach syrup. They added this to a contract-brewed gluten-free lager – one of the two founders is Coeliac, says Adam – and sold the result in bottles. (There’s also a YouTube version of this story.)

So why was I meeting Adam, who’s actually on the sales side, covering London and the South East, rather than one of the founders? That was down to their need for more production capacity and money for expansion, both of which came from picking up the whole operation and moving it to Cornwall, landing in Penryn, near Falmouth. This is just 20-odd miles from St Austell Brewery, and it helped them get a grant from the EU’s European Regional Development Fund, one of whose aims is to boost the economies of places like Cornwall.

Just a taste...
A launch across the south-west of England followed, and then a listing with Fuller’s (we were talking in The George IV, a big yet cosy Fuller’s pub in Chiswick). And then late last year came the big one – a nationwide launch in 600 Sainsbury’s shops.

Should you buy some? Well, if you or your friends are sweet-toothed and enjoy drinks such as the mixes of beer and fruit juice* produced on the Continent – and especially if they are Coeliac too – then give them a go. The elderflower one could also be interesting for anyone who like sweet white wines and wants to try something a bit different.

*Note that these are fruit-flavoured drinks but they are not ‘fruit beers’, as the fruit is not there during the brewing or fermentation. They are closer to shandies, or what the Germans more practically call a Biermix.

Monday, 17 June 2019

How can Innis & Gunn be both barrel-aged and available everywhere?

It’s rare to visit a brewery these days that doesn’t have a barrel-ageing programme of some sort. It might just be a dozen or so wooden casks stacked up in a corner, or it might be a dedicated storeroom or even a whole warehouse full of casks. For most though, barrel-aged beers are specialist small-batch products – a whisk(e)y cask is two hectolitres, and ought to yield enough to fill between 500 and 600 33cl bottles.

Dougal with samples of chips and beer
That’s scalable to hundreds of casks and hectolitres, which is tolerable for those speciality beers (700 hl of Duvel BA, say, or Goose Island BCBS). But what if your annual production is heading for 150,000 hectolitres, and you need to barrel-age pretty much all of it? If you’re Dougal Gunn Sharp, the boss of Scottish brewer Innis & Gunn, it means applying some science…

To start with, they developed the Oakerator, which circulated beer through treated oak chips in a tank. Then two years ago they switched back to using real Bourbon barrels – but barrels that had been broken into their staves, then turned into wood chips and toasted to differing degrees to “open up the wood” and yield different flavours. Both methods resemble the oak-chip techniques used by some large wineries and are used for the same reasons – to do more, and faster, with less wood. Though because in this case the brewers are also looking for Bourbon flavours, they don’t even have the option to use large wooden tanks.

Once the beer is on the barrel chips, “We apply different temperatures and pressures to get different flavours in, such as that Bourbon vanilla note. It’s like using a pressure cooker,” explained Dougal when we met at an Innis & Gunn beer matching evening in London last month.

Flavour targets

“We know exactly where we want to be, the flavours we want,” he added. “We’re about warm, smooth characteristics, but not too many of them. The starting beer is something of a blank canvas – not too hoppy, and brewed with our own yeast, selected for the flavours we want.”

Along the way, they have learnt a lot about what works when it comes to barrel-ageing. “For example, barrel-aging goes better with some styles than others – it needs some ‘weight’ to carry it,” he said, adding though that you don’t want to overdo it. As a result, most Innis & Gunn beers have quite a short aging period: “We don’t need longer than 5-30 days, though we could go to months [for certain beers].

“The timing also depends for example on the time of year – it really is quite a scientific process. The right flavours for us are vanilla, toffee and so on – once you leave the beer longer it begins to change and you begin to round off some of the more robust characteristics. The key thing here is to be able barrel-age a beer that isn’t 10 or 11%, without having to liquor it down.” (That’s to say, without having the aged version come out at 11% and then blend it down to a more saleable strength.)

The Innis & Gunn story combines serendipity with family history – Dougal’s father Russell was the head brewer who rescued Caledonian Brewery. Russell Sharp also had extensive experience in the distillery business, and he founded Innis & Gunn with his two sons – its name comes from their middle names – as a joint-venture with whisky producer William Grant, shortly before Scottish & Newcastle took control of Caledonian.

William Grant wanted ale to ‘season’ Bourbon casks before they were used to age whisky, the original plan being that the beer would then be disposed of. But workers who tried it liked it, and so a new business was born, one which is now run by Dougal after a management buyout a decade ago.

Looking back to when it all began , Dougal said that one thing the founders realised was that while a good product was essential, it wasn’t enough. “Beer at the time was unsophisticated compared to the wine industry,” he explained. “So we made it look different, and we got people to realise it wasn’t beer for just chucking down [your throat].” And it has to be said that they did a great job of getting the presentation right, from the name to the bottle designs.

Science for volume, age for speciality

The second release of Vanishing Point
The scientific approach has also enabled Innis & Gunn to considerably ramp up production – the company now produces six regular beers, of which only the lager is not wood-aged, plus a number of seasonals and specials. Most if not all of the latter are still aged in actual barrels, and many are primarily or exclusively for export, such as Vanishing Point, its delicious 11% Imperial Stout, which gets 12 months in first-fill Bourbon barrels.

The company currently contract-brews its volume brands at the Tennents brewery in Glasgow. However, for pilot brews, smaller runs and cask ales it has a 50hl brewkit at Perth-based Inveralmond Brewery, which it took over a few years ago. More ambitiously, it also has a £20 million project to build a new brewhouse in Edinburgh – part funded by private equity and part by crowdfunding – with the aim of bringing all production back in-house.

Whatever you think of the idea of using toasted barrel chips instead of real barrels, the resulting ales are both good quality and undeniably popular. They sell well not just in the UK but also in export markets, most notably Canada where it’s the number one imported craft beer*, but also in Sweden, the US, and elsewhere. Quite a success story both for beer and for barrel-ageing.

*In fact it’s so popular in Canada that the Innis & Gunn earlier this year announced plans to brew and keg several of its core beers at Brunswick Brewery in Toronto, using the same recipes, ingredients and processes as in Scotland. The two breweries have already worked together on a couple of collaboration brews, and plan to do more of those too.  

Monday, 10 June 2019

What's wrong with Bavarian Pale Ale?

It’s getting so that, when I see the words Bayrisch Pale Ale, I reach for my sink plug. Bavaria is famous for several beery things, but precisely none of them is Pale Ale.

I can see why they try – a crisp American Pale Ale is what most traditional German brewers seem to think of when they “Hmm, we really ought to do something about this Craft Bier fashion.” That or possibly an American IPA – but mostly APA.

It’s partly because Sierra Nevada Pale Ale has been readily available there for a good few years now, so it has come to epitomise Craft Bier for many Germans. Of course, SNPA was just as enlightening for pioneering British brewers back in the 1980s, the difference perhaps being that they already knew how to brew ales, they were just trying to make them less old-fashioned.

To be fair, in a few parts of Germany ale is understood to a degree. I don’t count Cologne here, mind you, as modern Kölsch is a warm-fermented lager, nor do I count Hefeweizen, which bears only technical similarities with ale. But knowledge has survived in a few of the Alt (old-style, ie. top-fermented) traditions – and of course there are now many brewers who have trained abroad, in places where ale never died.

So I’m not dissing all German Pale Ales, not by a long straw. It’s just I can’t remember when last I had one from Bavaria (or nearby) that was any good. Just recently, the ‘not good’ list has included Hohenthanner Schlossbrauerei Bayrisch Pale Ale, and Perlenzauber German Pale Ale from Herrnbräu in Ingolstadt (yes, that Ingolstadt, the home of the Einheitsgebot), but there’s been others.

The commonest fault is vegetal or cooked sweetcorn notes, which means DMS. This is a big giveaway as far I can see, because while it’s a fault in ales, a bit of DMS is part of the character of many lager styles. It suggests to me that these are experienced lager brewers working off their patch and getting it wrong.

It’s ironic really. Most ale brewers I’ve spoken to acknowledge how hard it is to make really good lagers. Perhaps there are Bavarian brewers who believe that lager is therefore the pinnacle of the art, and that ale should therefore be easy by comparison.

Or perhaps they imagine it’s like making a Hefeweizen, just with a different yeast and without the wheat... That might explain why there’s so much loose yeast in there that if you want a reasonably clear pour, you’re going to have to leave 15% or 20% in the bottle. For Pete’s sake, either give it a light filter, or if you do want to bottle-condition, use a properly sticky yeast for it!

OK, rant over. As ever, please feel free to recommend good Bavarian ales – or even to disagree with me! – in the comments below. Cheers!

Sunday, 12 May 2019

Nothing says Brutal quite like an English IPA

If there’s one thing big brewers are good at, it’s spotting an opportunity in the market. This of course is why they almost all have subsidiaries producing and/or distributing craft-type beers. Sweden’s biggest brewer, Spendrups, is no exception: if you’ve tried the Pistonhead lagers that you’ll find now in most big UK supermarkets, you’ve already met its beer – or rather, the beer of its crafty offshoot, Brutal Brewing.

Sweden's best-selling IPA
Brutal has quite a few more beers on the Swedish market though, and has decided that the time is right to also bring some of those to the UK, with a big launch at Craft Beer Rising earlier this year. The flagship of its range is the appropriately-named A Ship Full of IPA – I’m told this is now “the best-selling IPA in Sweden” – and it is in my glass right now, courtesy of Brutal’s UK distributor Proof Drinks.

Also coming to the UK are the non-alcoholic version of Ship Full – as predicted last year, n/a beers are growing in popularity – plus three or four others. Some that I’ve bought and drunk in Sweden are not coming over though, for whatever reason.

So, what of the beers? Ship Full is a 5.8% IPA in the deep brown malty-toasty English mould, but brought up to date East Coast-style with a decent wodge of New World hops, including American Cascade and Amarillo, and Australian Galaxy. It’s dry-bitter with fruity notes over toasted toffee-malt sweetness, and is very drinkable, even if it’s not so very different from many other brown IPAs.

Also coming over is Hale to Nothing, a 4.5% English Pale Ale. This has light citrus notes reminiscent of lime or lemongrass, and it’s simple and quite light, drinking more like a lager than an ale. Then there’s 5.1% Cirrus Cloudy Lager, which again is drinkable and pleasantly aromatic, but a little dull on the palate, and 3.5% Session Pale Ale, which I’ve not yet tried.

The complete UK range
Incidentally, the Session Pale Ale is one of several 3.5% beers that Brutal sells in Sweden – 3.5% is the maximum that supermarkets there are allowed to sell. For anything stronger, you have to go to one of the state alcohol monopoly shops, Vinmonopolet, which have much more restricted opening hours. One other at 3.5% that I tried in Sweden was Brutal’s hoppy lager Sir-Taste-a-Lot, whose name would risk falling foul of Trades Descriptions laws here, as it doesn’t – although it does smell nicely hoppy.

So, what to make of Brutal Brewing? The beers are well-made and very approachable, as you’d expect given their pedigree. I wouldn’t seek them out, but I’d be quite happy to be offered Ship Full, Hale or Cirrus again (I still think their best though is Pistonhead Full Amber, which is a lovely interpretation of a Vienna amber lager).

Overall they are, as you’d probably also expect, safe bets and far from brutal. There’s nothing here to attract the aficionado, but equally there’s nothing to frighten the horses. This is 'crafty beer' – craft for the mainstream, with any real brutality smoothed off by the marketing people.

Sure, it’s bad for smaller brewers because it sets people’s price expectations at macro levels – the big brewers can always produce and sell more cheaply. But even craft beer fans may want to keep something decent yet safe in, whether for uncomplicated evenings or when there’s guests over. And of course for some drinkers, crafty beer might just be the gateway that opens the door to a world of wonderment. Here’s hoping.

Thursday, 18 April 2019

Checking out the Czechs

If you’re a beer-lover, Czech Beer Week UK from the 17th-23rd of June is something to look forward to. Czech beer culture is one* of the world’s greatest, yet curiously it is one that most people will have only seen a small slice of.

From traditional to craft, and back again.
Indeed, pretty much all we saw in the UK until a few years ago were a those big-brands owned by multinationals – chiefly Staropramen (owned by Bass, now Coors), Pilsner Urquell (SABMiller, now Asahi), and perhaps Krušovice (Heineken). That has been changing, with a few more coming in, but while some are family-owned, such as Bernard, others are yet more big-brand subsidiaries – Kozel and Radegast are both Urquell/Asahi, for example.

There is plenty more change to come, though – even more so this year, as their government export agency CzechTrade is working to bring more small brewers to the UK market via importers such as Euroboozer and Pivovar UK, as I discovered last summer at the Czech Beer Day event that it held for the trade.

Just as English brown bitters tend to resemble each other, many Czech beers are also very similar in style – some are better than others, but most are recognisably similar golden lagers. That’s no surprise, according to one of the brewery reps I chatted with at Czech Beer Day last year. “Czech customers are still very local-orientated, so all the breweries produce similar beers, but for their locale,” he said.

He added an important note on naming: “All are Pilsner-style. Nobody says ‘Pilsner lager’ though, they just say Lager. Urquell is from Pilsen so it’s Pilsner, but they all use the Pilsner technique.” In other words, don’t call a Czech lager Pilsner if it’s not from Pilsen! (You can probably get away with 'Pils' though...)

Of course, there are other Czech beers too, including the inevitable IPAs and ales of other sorts. As everywhere, Czechia is having a Craft Beer revolution of sorts, and true to form this has generated quite a few local copies of styles from elsewhere – American IPAs, English pale ales, and so on. We had a few at Czech Beer Day, those I tried (mainly from Pivovars Permon & Clock) were very nice examples of their styles.

Sometimes the tradition is the craft. 
This variety is also a sign that Czech brewing is definitely on the up. It’s a far cry from just a few years ago, when things looked pretty bad, when the nationalisations of the Communist period were followed by a somewhat botched privatisation process which led to yet more brewery consolidations and closures. Now, as well as newly-formed breweries, there’s even been some closed ones brought back into production, such as Jarošovský, whose Ležák 12% was definitely my favourite lager of last Czech Beer Day, and a few contract-brewed brands, such as Praga (pictured).

Useful things to know if you want to get into Czech lager culture include a few key words such as Světlý – pale, Tmavé/Tmavý – dark, and Ležák – lager. Then there is Granát, which translates both as grenade and garnet – the semi-precious stone being the appropriate one here! Originally it was a blend of light and dark lagers that produced the deep red colour it was named for, but now it is often brewed ‘entire’, as we say in English, meaning as a single beer. It’s also sometimes called Temně, or semi-dark.

And there’s how the beer is poured. A few years ago, I went to an event hosted by Urquell, where their spokes-barman explained that there’s at least three main styles of pour, some of them distinctly weird. I was a little sceptical at the time, but another brewery rep at Czech Beer Day last year confirmed at least some of the details, adding that it varies between breweries too.

A thick head is essential, she said, adding that “People also believe the head retention shows the quality of the ingredients.” Apart from ‘beer with a head’, the other main pours are ‘milk’ which is all foam, and ‘snyt’ which is more foam than beer – drinkers believe this helps the beer stay fresh in the glass. Yes, I’m still sceptical! Still, however you pour it and whatever the colour, Czech out the beers – you'll almost certainly find something you like...

*Alongside British, of course, which is where Groll & co got the pale malt technology for Pilsner, and Belgian, which has become the custodian of legendary and almost-lost beer styles that were once common across Northern Europe. 

Then of course there’s German beer culture. Americans often prioritise this one, perhaps biased by their huge influx of German brewers in the 1800s (think Anheuser, Busch, Pabst, Coors, Schlitz et al). But even there, much is owed to what’s now Czechia – most obviously, Bud is named for Budweis in Bohemia, although a local surely wouldn’t recognise it as a Bohemian Lager. 

Monday, 25 March 2019

Tracking down modern mead in south London

Now there’s something you don’t see every day: mead on tap. And not just that, there’s even frozen mead cocktails and seasonal meads made with specific honeys. Welcome to Gosnells at the Coal Rooms, upstairs in old railway station buildings at Peckham Rye, which officially opened just a week ago.

Peckham, as in “Only Fools and Horses”, “Desmond’s” and Rose Tyler’s council estate home? Yup, that’s the one. While the station is now surrounded by grime and graffiti, it must once have been pretty grand. The area seems to be recovering some of that too, judging from how busy the upmarket restaurant on the ground floor was, even on a Monday evening.

Peckham Rye station
It’s also where Gosnells brewery is – about two minutes from the station, said Tom Gosnell. He added that there is a small taproom there, but it’s on an industrial estate, so the town centre made a lot more sense for their ‘proper’ brewery tap. And a nice mellow set-up it is too, with a relaxed gastro feel to it, excellent bar food from the restaurant kitchen downstairs, and of course mead on tap.

Gosnells London Mead is medium-sweet to my taste, light-bodied with distinct but not cloying honey notes. If it’s chilled, an unusual aroma of orange juice emerges too. It is also quite light in alcohol terms, at ‘just’ 5.5%, making it a Hydromel in meadmaking parlance. By comparison, most commercial and home-made meads will be honeywines upwards of 12%, with popular sweet fake-meads such as Lindisfarne and Bunratty weighing in at almost 15% (they’re fake because they’re actually grape wines with added honey).

Gosnells Mead
Tom told me that, like other commercial meadmakers I’ve met, he fell in love with the drink in the US, where artisan meaderies have been a thing for at least 20 years. “The US was the first time I’d had really good commercial mead,” he said. “There’s something like 500 meaderies there now.”

He said he came up with his recipe about four and a half years ago. It has a kilo of honey per five litres of water, and a Pilsner lager yeast – by comparison, mine has around twice the proportion of honey and a wine yeast – and that they stop the fermentation and pasteurise to get the desired flavour and strength.

Although the regular brew was called London Mead*, the locative referred to where it’s made, not the ingredients – it’s actually made with Spanish orange blossom honey (hence the aroma). It’s the same problem I’ve heard before – there just isn’t enough locally-produced honey. Gosnells can get sufficient local honey to make monthly single-origin specials, however, such as the 8% ABV Biggin Hill mead that we also sampled, which was made using honey from Kentish beekeeper “Dave from Biggin Hill”. This was rather drier than the draught mead, and had an intriguing almost beer-like malty character.

Tom Gosnell
“It shows two extremes of what you can achieve with mead,” Tom explained. “It’s all about doing something different with the honey you’ve got – you taste the honey and adjust the process...” He added that they – he has a head brewer now, rather than making it all himself – also do specials with adjuncts, meaning extra flavourings such as hibiscus or hops. Indeed, one of the others we tasted was their intriguingly tangy Citra Sea Mead, which is flavoured with lemon peel, tarragon, Citra hops and a dash of sea salt.

Add in the mead cocktails list and the ability to pour it simply cool or completely chilled, and it’s a surprisingly broad palette of flavours. As Tom declared at the official opening, “There’s a lot you can do with mead, it’s going to be a very exciting year this year!”

*I say it ‘was’ called London Mead because it went through a rebranding last year. It’s now simply called Gosnells, and is sold in 75cl bottles instead of 330ml. The aim was to move away from the usual association of mead with beer – for example, major beer-lovers websites such as Ratebeer and Untappd also list both meads and ciders – and towards the wine market instead. I can’t help thinking that would make more sense for a 12% honeywine mead than a 5.5% hydromel, but there you go.