Friday, 18 May 2018

Gluten-free beer tasting

To follow my blog on how gluten-free beers are made, I enlisted some selfless volunteers to help me taste several examples to see how they compared to standard beers. One was a coeliac who for several years has had little beer, apart from the occasional gluten-free light lager.

We started with a trio of barley-based beers. The first two say they use low-gluten barley and a brewing process that further minimises gluten, while the latter doesn't say how it's de-glutenised, which means it's probably Brewer's Clarex.

Bellfield Bohemian Pilsner: A golden beer with a very slight head and light aromas of dry hay, biscuit, a little sweetcorn – making it pretty close to style. The body did seem to me to be a little thin for a Czech-style Pils, but beyond that it is malty and dry-sweet, with light dry bitterness. It's a nice example of a lager, and was well liked by our coeliac taster.

Bellfield Lawless Village IPA: It's orange-brown and toasty, with touches of Seville orange and caramel, a note of grapefruit pith and a hint of lemon on the finish. Don't expect American hops or bitterness – this is a nice classic British-style IPA that you wouldn't know was gluten-free – and indeed, why should you?

Glebe Farm Wellington Bomber: Described as a Porter, it seemed more in the Brown Ale vein to me. It has aromas of toast, cocoa and a little cola, then the body was a little watery, with roasted malt, palate-drying cocoa, and a sweet, burnt sugar note. We found it a bit confused and thin; however, I suspect our bottle – bought from a farm shop – had suffered a bit of oxidation in storage.

We followed with a trio of non-barley beers, brewed instead from malted rice and other grains, including millet and quinoa. All are from Autumn Ales, and like the Bellfield beers were kindly donated by the brewer.

Alt Brew No.01: Labelled as a Bavarian-style Pilsner, it's light-bodied – certainly a lot lighter than the average Eurolager, and maybe even a bit thin. I don't think it's bitter enough for Bavarian Pils, but it went down well with the other tasters, who agreed it made a nice summer drink.

Alt Brew No.02: A Golden Ale, it pours a bright amber-brown with a lasting head. The nose is hoppy-fresh with a hint of citrus. Then there's crisp bitterness and lightly sweet, with a toasted edge and a slight astringency. This a nice zesty beer, and was the only one liked by all our tasters.

Alt Brew No.03: Brewing a dark and roasty Stout without barley is a challenge, but Autumn has come pretty close with this dark brown brew. It's a little thin compared to many other Stouts, and was too 'burnt' for some of our tasters, but for dark beer fans there's a light milky sweetness in the midbody, plus notes of bitter chocolate before an ashy-burnt finish.

Overall, even though these are such different beer styles, I think some conclusions are fair. As a regular drinker of all sorts, my favourite was the excellent Lawless IPA, while the Pilsners seemed not quite authentic. However, the latter were popular with the tasters who hadn't drunk much ale in recent years, but who still appreciated something better than Eurolager.

The one we all agreed on liking was the Alt Brew No.02. Yes, it's that classic golden ale crossover beer – well put together, and appealing to ale and lager drinkers alike.

Ultimately though, the most amazing thing is that while Autumn Brewing and Bellfield Brewery are special, in that they brew only gluten-free beer and don't rely on Clarex, this was just a sample of what's available now in terms of gluten-free beer. So whether you're a super-sensitive coeliac or simply have an intuition you're gluten-intolerant, at least now you can enjoy a decent beer. Cheers to that!

Sunday, 6 May 2018

The brewers going gluten-free for health and profit*

There's been specialist gluten-free beers for a while now, often using the same gluten-free grains as the traditional sorghum and millet beers of Africa. However, few have managed to really replicate the aroma and flavour of beers made from malt, or indeed the range of beers possible with malt – light lagers were just about the only thing possible. Until relatively recently, that is.

Why does it matter? While gluten-free and wheat-free are lifestyle choices for some people these days, for those who have coeliac disease, gluten can genuinely and seriously damage your health.  So when you're diagnosed as coeliac, as a close relative of mine was, you need to give up gluten – and it's in an amazing number of things these days, one of them of course being beer.

Yes, there's the specialist free-from brands such as Greens, as well as obvious gluten-free (g/f) alternatives such as cider and wine, but it's not the same. So over the last three years or so I've been intrigued to see more regular breweries adding g/f beers – often as versions of their regular beers, such as Greene King's g/f IPA and Old Speckled Hen, and Damm's Daura range – and so I set out to learn more.

The first thing I learnt about was Brewer's Clarex – not to be confused with the many other Clarexes out there, which range from assorted pills to a form of acrylic glass. Brewer's Clarex is an enzyme that was originally developed to stabilise beer faster, but it was subsequently discovered that it also has a de-glutenising effect. It doesn't remove it all, but beer treated with it will typically have well below 20 parts-per-million (ppm) of gluten, which means you can legally call it gluten-free (once it has been lab-tested as such, of course), and it should be safe for all but the most sensitive of coeliacs.

This is how the majority of the new wave of g/f beers are made, and it means they taste little or no different from beer that hasn't been Clarexed. Indeed, the widespread use of Brewer's Clarex simply as a stabiliser also means there will be beers out there that are g/f for practical purposes but are not labelled or accredited as such, typically because the brewers don’t want the additional cost of testing, or can't guarantee every single batch will be below 20ppm. So if you were to taste-test g/f beer versus non-g/f beer, you could find you're accidentally comparing like with like!

However, even this process is not good enough for every coeliac. In addition, some, such as the coeliac founders of Edinburgh's Bellfield Brewery, argue that the by-products of de-glutenisation can themselves be harmful. So instead of enzymes, they use very-low-gluten barley malt, along with g/f adjuncts such as maize, in a brewing process that they say also minimises gluten.

I met Bellfield back in February at Craft Beer Rising, where beer seller Robert Shepherd said that the result of all this is beers that routinely test below 10ppm, which counts as 'gluten-absent'. (This level is not hard to find – Daura claims 3ppm, for example – but it’s unusual in a barley beer that's not been enzyme-treated.)

But what of the other g/f grains used in European-style brewing, such as maize and rice? Although they have been used for many years, they have not had great reputations – their main purpose is to add fermentables without adding body, making a 'thinner' beer, hence the beer-geek distaste for American Bud as "thin, tasteless rice beer".

It turns out though that does not have to be the case. When I met Peter Briggs (left) of Autumn Brewing at the PubShowUK earlier this year, he introduced me to a stout, a lager and an amber ale which are gluten-absent but still taste like all-malt beers – because they are malt beer. It's just not barley malt.

He uses malted rice, millet and quinoa (!), sourced from specialist maltsters in the US. Malting, where the grain is germinated then kiln-dried before it grows too much, is a key process in making beer. Not only does germination help convert the starch in the grain into fermentable sugars, but both it and the subsequent kilning also alter its flavour and colour. Indeed, the degree of kilning used can produce a broad range of drastically different results, from light lager malts to the dark roasted malts that give stouts and porters their colour and flavour. Peter reckons Autumn is (or was – who knows!) the first brewer in Europe to import these malts and brew with them.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of all this – and the most positive thing to come out of the g/f lifestyle movement – is that it's boosted the availability of g/f beer for everyone, including the coeliacs who need it most keenly. Bellfield's Robert Shepherd even spun it into a business benefit for the g/f brewer: "Most beers can only reach around 90% of the market – there's people who can't drink them. We're both gluten-free and vegan, so we can reach 100%."

Coming up next: the coeliac's gluten-free taste test

*Profit? Maybe – I hope so, anyway. This is a tough market to operate in, because it normally involves extra production & testing costs and therefore higher prices, which makes it harder to also reach the mainstream buyer. 

Saturday, 21 April 2018

Tis the season for Irish Saison

It's Irish Saison beer night tonight, for no obvious reason except that I was gifted a couple of bottles at the Irish embassy's craft drinks night last month. First up is Grunt, a 4.8% Saison from Dublin-based Hope Beer, a name that's new to me, although it turns out they're almost three years old.

It pours with an aroma that puzzled me for a moment, then I realised: gin! A check of the label, and yes, this is that relatively rare thing, a spiced Saison. Most brewers let the yeast and hops add the spicy notes, but this one has added juniper, lemongrass and bergamot. The result is initially disconcerting – the spices overpower the Saison flavours, with a dry-edged bitterness that doesn't invite one to quaff.

Read the label some more though, and it becomes obvious that this is a beer for drinking with food, not merely for drinking! Hope suggests pairing with seafood or cheese, and sure enough, a slice of the latter lifts and brightens the flavour of the beer considerably, smoothing the harsh edge in the process. I was impressed – generally one tries to find a pairing where good beer and good food complement each other; rarely does one find a beer that really shines when drunk with food!

The second comes from a brewery I already knew, Boyne Brewhouse of County Meath, but when I last spoke with export director Peter Cooney, I think they were still contract-brewing while they built their own brewery. Two years on, it was great to see how the beers have improved – they were decent then but a little pedestrian, now they are solid, with an expanded range that includes some brilliant beers.

It helps that it's part of a larger group that also makes whiskey and cider – for example, I tasted Peter's prize-winning barrel-aged Imperial Stout, which spends four to six months in casks that once held sherry, but more recently held his Boann whiskey for 30 months. It was gorgeous, but more intriguing still was the fact that he's now cycling the casks back again, so after the beer they are refilled with spirit to make Stout-barrel-aged whiskey, then he'll refill with beer, and so on. "I'm not sure how many times I can do it though," he laughs. 

Anyway, Boyne's Irish Craft Saison doesn't disappoint. It has the classic Belgian estery and slightly funky nose. There's lemony golden malt, firm peppery and pithy bitterness, a touch of peaches and cream, and at 5.5% a light chewiness to it. A little too gassy for my taste, but otherwise a very well-executed example.

Friday, 20 April 2018

Where's Waldo? Down the pub

It's 4.20pm on April 20th – 4/20 in American parlance – and Lagunitas Brewery market manager Finny is in London for the 2018 launch of Waldo's Special Ale, one of the brewery's annual one-offs. "Happy 4:20!" he announces merrily, before taking a mouthful of the beer and launching into its origin story.

Finny – real name Andrew Finsness, but known to all by his nickname – clearly loves telling a story. This one is the 1971 tale of five high school students, who called themselves the Waldos because their favoured hang-out was by the school wall. They had acquired a 'treasure map' which would allegedly lead them to an abandoned marijuana plantation, and they agreed to meet at 4.20pm each day after school to go and look for it.

The way the story goes, they never found it, but somehow "4:20" entered the counter-culture as a term for smoking a joint. Then 40 years later, the founders of Lagunitas – who knew the term well – made a connection. Hops and marijuana are closely related plants, so with richly herbaceous and hop-forward ('dank') beers in vogue, they got in touch with the Waldos and invited them to come and help brew a beer that would both celebrate the 420 legend and that herbal sub-culture.

Finny spins a tale
The result is a triple IPA – triple in this sense means above about 10% alcohol, says Finny – that is brewed just once a year. That might not sound much, but the brew length at Lagunitas is 250 US barrels, which is a shade under 30,000 litres, and most of its fermenters take three brews, so a single batch is almost 90,000 litres or a quarter of a million bottles.

The beer varies a little from year to year in terms of alcohol strength (it's 11.3% this year) and the exact mix of hops, but regardless of that, it is the hoppiest and dankest beer that the brewery produces. And what a brew it is – rich and flavoursome, very bitter, yet well balanced because of its smooth and dank texture.  

It's also the first time that it had officially crossed the Atlantic, with April 20th launch events in several European cities. This, as Finny and his colleagues acknowledge, is one of the welcome results of Heineken's 2017 takeover of Lagunitas – it's now the craft flagship of the Heineken empire family, and has the Dutch giant's marketing and distribution muscle behind it.

Indeed, apart from a growing confidence and ambition, it is hard to tell that much has changed at Lagunitas since the acquisition – the playful, charitable and iconoclastic family feel is still in evidence. One has to hope that this will last.

Wednesday, 11 April 2018

West Cork's new meadery offers a modern take on an ancient tradition

If your idea of Irish mead is that rich and smooth, but tooth-crackingly sweet Bunratty stuff, you could be in for not one but two pleasant surprises. The first, Kinsale Atlantic Dry, is a light, crisp and flavoursome honey-wine – dry, yet still a little soft on the palate.

The second, Wild Red Mead, is a gorgeous red Melomel (fruited mead) which while still distinctly honey-toned, also carries the berry notes of rich red wines. When we met at last month's Irish drinks event at the London embassy, its creator Denis Dempsey (left) explained that where the Dry is fermented with 300kg of honey per batch, the Red replaces just 40kg of the honey with an astonishing 400kg of Irish blackcurrants and cherries – hence those lovely fruity Cabernet notes.

"Even sweet blackcurrants are only 14% sugar," he said, as we compared notes on mead-making. With my own redcurrant Melomel, I found that the dryness from swapping half a pound of honey for a pound of fruit (so 2:1 rather than 10:1, on my far smaller batches) accentuated the tangy currant flavours, but he's aiming for a richer, rounder result – and he hits that target most excellently.

Although his meads are made in Kinsale in West Cork – "an amazing foodie place," as Denis put it – and the fruit is Irish, the honey is Spanish because Ireland simply doesn't produce enough to be cost-effective. The mead retails at €22 (around £20) a bottle as it is.

The amazing thing, given how very good the meads are, is that he and his wife Kate only set up Kinsale Mead Co last year. Denis said their research included visiting a number of meaderies in the US – there are dozens of them there, making a huge variety of drinks. They also did test brews and tried different yeasts (they mostly use a white wine yeast now) before launching in Ireland last September.

We talked a little more about mead-making techniques, before Denis added a piece of advice for mead consumption: "It works well in cocktails, too," he said. Now there's an intriguing thought!

Wednesday, 4 April 2018

Moor Beer opens up on the Bermondsey Beer Mile

Moor Beer's new Vaults and Taproom in London's Bermondsey is now officially open – it's actually been open for several weeks, but perhaps that was unofficial opening! Anyway, Friday last week saw various writers and other people from the beer business come to meet brewer Justin Hawke, sample his beers, take a look around his new venture, and if they chose, stay on for Arrogant Sour London, a festival of yes, sour beers from Italy that Justin was hosting that evening.

Located in the inevitable railway arch, the Moor Taproom is just a few doors (or arches) up from Brew by Numbers and The Kernel, and is on the other side of the viaduct from Anspach & Hobday, UBrew and BottleShop – yes, it's the latest addition to the Bermondsey Beer Mile. Indeed, one of the first people I saw on arriving was Kernel owner Evin O'Riordain, chatting with Draft House head of beer Alex Stevenson while making a neighbourly visit.

Justin (centre) opens Arrogant Sour London
As the name implies, this isn't going to house a brewery – that's staying put in Bristol, where Moor's original taproom is. But as well as a bar, it is also Moor's distribution hub for the London area and its new barrel-store – Justin explained that they've totally run out of space in Bristol, so it makes sense to move his barrel-ageing work to London, even at four times the rent.

Moor is committed to both cask and keg beers, and both feature on the bar here – six casks on a gravity stillage visible behind the bar, plus a dozen keg taps. On our visit the cask ales ranged from 3.8% Revival pale ale, to the stunningly good 7.3% Luke Sloewalker, which is Moor's Old Freddy Walker* strong ale, aged on Justin's hand-picked local sloes. The kegs featured several more Star Wars-inspired names, including Return of the Empire IPA, Dark Alliance stout, and a wonderful 8% Double New England IPA called Rey of Light.

It all backs up what I discovered a few weeks ago – that the Bermondsey beer scene is undergoing growth and a welcome revival. Hopefully, this time it won't get swamped by stag parties and inadequate toilet facilities!

*This multi-award-winning ale and the slogan "Drink Moor Beer" are all that's left of the brewery's former incarnation on a farm in North Somerset. 

The art of whiskey is more in ageing and blending than distilling

Whiskey blender Louise McGuane at work
I'd not heard the term 'whiskey bonding' until last week, at the third of the Irish Embassy's annual presentations of 'craft drinks' from Ireland, when I tasted a new whiskey called JJ Corry The Gael, from a producer called Chapel Gate.

When I met new-wave Irish craft whiskey producers before – yes, there's 'craft' everything these days – I discovered that while some were building distilleries, they were also buying ready-distilled spirit in from elsewhere and ageing and blending it for sale.

For many – including two excellent examples I'd tasted earlier that evening, namely Boann Distillery's bourbon and sherry-aged The Whistler, and Writer's Tears from Walsh Whiskey – this is so they can get their brand to market and have some money coming in while they get their distillery up and running.

Their problem is that you can't legally sell your own whiskey until it's three years old, so you need something to sell in the meantime. (This is also one reason for the upsurge in craft vodka and gin, by the way, as they are things you can sell un-aged.)

Chapel Gate currently has no plans to distill its own spirit, however. Instead, founder Louise McGuane talks of reviving whiskey bonding, which she describes as a 19th century tradition where wholesalers and even pubs would buy in whiskey and age it 'in bond', which is to say without tax paid. Like them, she buys in various old barrels and the spirit to fill them with, or even ready-filled barrels.

Once the whiskey is aged – and the main flavours of whiskey all come from the barrels – she combines the many different flavours to create her preferred blend. The result is lighter in colour than the others I tried, lightly fragrant, fruity and smoky, and perhaps a little drier too.

As soon as I heard the story (there's a fuller version here), I recognised it: it is also the story of Scotch blending, and it is how well-known names such as Chivas Regal and Famous Grouse originated. The big difference is that in those cases the same company now owns both the blend(er) and the contributing distilleries.