Thursday, 24 July 2014

West Coast IPA - English launch tour

Green Flash head brewer Chuck Silva is in England right now to launch the European brewed West Coast IPA. The brewery's UK distributor The Bottle Shop has set up a tour for him to visit outlets around the country – and no, I've no idea why they have no dates in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland.

The remaining dates for this tour are:

Thursday 24th July - Leeds
6.30pm: North Bar - 24 New Briggate, Leeds, West Yorkshire, LS1 6NU

Friday 25th July - Sheffield
3pm: Beer Central - Outlet MS3, The Moor Market. Sheffield, S1 4PF
5pm: Shakespeare’s Pub - 146-148 Gibraltar St, Sheffield, S Yorks, S3 8UB

Saturday 26th July - Liverpool
3pm: The 23 Club/The Clove Hitch, 23 Hope Street Liverpool, L1 9BQ

Thursday 31st July – London
5pm: Harrild & Sons - 26 Farringdon St, London, EC4A 4AB
7pm: Earl Of Essex - 25 Danbury St, London, N1 8LE
9pm: Kings Arms - 11A Buckfast St, London, E2 6EY

Friday 1st August – London
7pm: BrewDog Shepherds Bush - 15-19 Goldhawk Road, London, W12 8QQ

Saturday 2nd August – London (Beer for Brunch Event)
Midday: BrewDog Shoreditch - 51-55 Bethnal Green Rd, London, E1 6LA

Sunday 3rd August – Cambridge
2pm: The Pint Shop - 10 Peas Hill, Cambridge, CB2 3PN

Annoyingly, the entire tour takes place while I'm out of the country. Bah!!

San Diego invades Europe

American craft brewers are waking up to European opportunities. Oh sure, they've been exporting here for years, but this week has seen not one but two super-hoppy San Diego brewers announce that they will actually brew in Europe.

Stone's site in Berlin
The biggest news was Stone Brewing, well known for the likes of Arrogant Bastard Ale. There's been rumours about Stone opening a European brewery for a few years now, with at least one redundant old English brewery fingered as a possible location, but the reality has turned out quite different: Stone is building a brewery and pub/beer garden in Berlin!

First to the draw however was Green Flash, which is already co-brewing its iconic West Coast IPA in 240-hl batches at St Feuillien in Belgium. It's claimed that this is not just a licence deal, like the one that saw Shepherd Neame brew imitation Sam Adams, but a 'production partnership', whatever that exactly means.

“We’ve been pursuing European distribution of West Coast IPA for some time, however the obvious challenges in delivering fresh IPA to the region have been a huge roadblock,” said GF co-founder Mike Hinkley. “After testing various export scenarios on a small scale, it became apparent that the quality of our IPA when transported to Europe was not ideal and cost-prohibitive for consumers. We were not satisfied with the customer experience and felt we had to come up with a better solution.”

St Feuillien is already noted for its hoppy beers and has done collaboration beers with Green Flash in the past, so the two teams already know each other well. GF's brewmaster Chuck Silva has spent a fair portion of the last year in Belgium, working on getting the flavour profile just right – the one difference between the US and Belgian versions is that the latter will be bottle-conditioned “to protect beer quality in areas of Europe where unrefrigerated conditions may be unavoidable.” I can see this version becoming a hot item with US beer aficionados....

Meanwhile, Stone's plans are considerably more ambitious, and involve an initial investment of $25 million, plus an Indiegogo crowd-funding campaign to raise more. The company is leasing a massive 7000m2 of space in three refurbished buildings that were built in the 1900s as part of a gasworks – they had to be expensively decontaminated as part of the refurbishment process. Due to open in late 2015 or early 2016, the buildings will house a 70-barrel brewery, a shop, an event space and a farm-to-table restaurant – Stone is keen on the slow food movement.

There will also be an 'American-style beer garden', though quite how that differs from a German-style beer garden I don't know, especially when so much about US beer is derived from Germany. Many of the earliest American brewers were German immigrants, from Anheuser and Busch onwards, and while Stone is pretty eclectic, some US breweries still focus on German-derived beer styles rather than British or Belgian, say.

“Once open, we will bring Germany and the rest of Europe a taste of our craft beer vision, and look forward to sharing the unique beers that we have spent the last 18 years brewing,” declared Stone CEO and co-founder Greg Koch (another German surname, of course).

Yet while some of the US media has taken a nationalist 'young upstarts teaching the oldies how to do it' line, ignoring – or more likely, ignorant of – the fact that many German and other European brewers are already aboard the craft beer bandwagon, Koch was more modest.

“We have no attitude that we are coming to save anybody or conquer anybody,” he said in an interview. He acknowledged that there is already a craft beer movement challenging the German brewing giants, and added, “We are coming to add our shoulder, to help push that boulder up the hill.”

So why Berlin and Belgium? I can think of several reasons, an obvious one is they are in the Eurozone, which simplifies your exporting to the rest of the EU. Another is they both have strong beer heritages, which should make it easier to find both staff and customers, and of course they have good English language skills.

The last thing is that, unlike the UK where there is already a strong craft brewing industry (both new-wave and traditional), the beer revolution has only recently kicked off on the mainland. Sure, there's lots of micro and nano brewers, and many of the old brewers are trying to adjust and produce crafty sidelines, but the market is still growing, with plenty of opportunity.

Monday, 21 July 2014

Cocoa, lemon and freshly sharpened pencils

Here's my notes on the Pilsner Urquell London Brew-Off beers. An instructive aspect was that the beers were offered for tasting with small plastic cup, in part to discourage people from pouring too much, as there was only a few litres of each one.

Unfortunately the smell of these cups overwhelmed those of the beer, and it was only when I switched to tasting similarly small measures but from a PU small glass tankard that I could appreciate the aromas.

Soundbite (4.8%) was a well constructed hoppy golden lager, with light caramel and nut notes and a touch of apple. Here's the board listing its recipe and brewing profile – there was one of these printed for each beer. My vote: 3.5/5

Pegasus (4.8%) was reminiscent of a pale ale, with light aromas of lemon and cedar – or as I wrote at the time, freshly sharpened pencils. I noticed this on a couple of the others too, and I think it must be down to the Czech Kazbek hops, which I've not knowingly encountered before. In the glass it was faintly nutty, with a touch of melon and a dry-bitter finish. My vote 2.5/5

Another Fine Mash (5.7%) was intended to be amber but actually came out closer to the average Munich Dunkel. Hazy brown with cocoa on the nose and a spicy malty body with hints of forest fruits, it was dry-bitter yet faintly sweet in the finish. My vote: 4/5

Czech Please (5.2%) had touches of golden malt and honeydew melon on the nose. The body was more like a Vienna/Pils hybrid, with faint spicy notes and hint of toffee leading to a sweet finish. My vote: 2.5/5

Velvet Pilsner (5%) was hazy gold – the Brew-Off beers were all bottled unfiltered – with a faintly woody and nutty nose (those pencil sharpenings again). I detected faint cocoa notes and a light nuttiness. My vote: 3/5

Citron (4.6%) as the name implies was meant as a modern citrusy twist on Pilsner. Cloudy yellow, its light aromas of lemon and grapefruit continued into the body, where they played along with a faint pepperiness and a hint of sherbet. My vote 4/5

Sunday, 20 July 2014

When is a Pilsner not a Pilsner?

“It's a lovely beer, but it's not to style/not an X” is one of the cliches of beer judging, especially where the revered-by-many BJCP (Beer Judge Certification Program) guidelines come into play. And so it must have been at the final round of the Pilsner Urquell London Brew-Off, which was judged at the White Horse on Parsons Green last week.

The competition's premise was simple: six teams of non-brewers and amateur brewers were invited to brew a new beer using classic Pilsner ingredients. Two of the teams were from the London pubs that sell draught Pilsner Urquel from the tank, while the rest were mostly beer writers, broadcasters and bloggers. In a nod to various popular cookery shows, as well as the main ingredients they were given a bunch of other ones to choose from to make their beer distinctive. They also had technical support from London Beer Lab and Windsor & Eton Brewery.

I wasn't there for the two brew days, but various of the people involved have written or filmed about it, including Martyn Cornell, Tandleman, I Love Good Beer and the Craft Beer Channel.

In each case, the first brews were done on a 20-litre Speidel Braumeister home-brew machine from Germany – the project was a promo for those guys, as well as for Pilsner Urquell and its parent SAB-Miller. The resulting beers were fermented and lagered, bottled and labelled, and them presented for (free!) public consumption. As well as signboards introducing each brew and proper labels for the bottles, PU's PR team had even printed up beer mats with the six names on, so you could tick the one you liked most and post the mat into a ballot box.

The top three went on to a run-off panel comprising PU brewmaster Václav Berka, PU marketing man Mark Dredge, and flavour psychologist Greg Tucker. They picked a winner, which will be scaled up and brewed commercially by Windsor & Eton, to go on sale on September 12th at the White Horse's European Beer Festival. 

All the beers were decent – a tribute to the teams and to Braumeister, I guess – and some were actually rather good. Speaking to people at the judging about which of the beers they liked best, the names that kept coming up were Citron and Another Fine Mash, yet neither of these was the eventual winner.

Why not? As far as I could tell, it was because the blogger teams who'd made them had been a little too cavalier in their interpretation of the challenge. Another Fine Mash came out as a Dunkel for example, and as one of the PU crew said, there was no way a dark beer was going to win. The golden colour is just too intrinsic to the PU mythos, never mind that other brewmasters are today cheerfully producing Black Pilsner, hazy Landbier Pils and who knows what else.

So the beer that will be brewed commercially is Soundbite, brewed by a team from Bethnal Green's Strongroom bar. The runners-up were Pegasus, brewed by a team from the White Horse, and public favourite Another Fine Mash. Interestingly, the Strongroom and the White Horse are PU's two London tankovna – pubs that sell draught PU from a large tank. Was favouritism involved? I suspect it was more a case that barstaff used to selling Pilsner know what to aim for when invited to create a new Pilsner.

Thursday, 3 July 2014

De-skilling the pub trade to shut out competition

The Church
Just after I wrote about Irish cask beer, mentioning the widespread lack (or loss) of line-cleaning and cellaring knowledge in the pub trade there, an interesting comment came in via Twitter from our conference venue The Church:

"The trade has been dumbed down with any real training/apprenticeships gone."

It reminded me of a couple of conversations I had with other EBBC attendees last week, when we wondered why mega-brewers would behave like this - basically, they are taking over all the technical beery stuff that goes on in a pub. After all, doesn't it cost them extra to do that?

As far as I can see the answer is simple: it raises the hurdles facing any competitor looking to break into the business. You now have an on-trade - and to some extent also a customer base - that is fearful of change, of the unknown. Better the devil you know, and all that.

It extends especially to cask ale - something else Ronan Brennan said to me was that "Bars want to take it on, but they worry about waste." He explained that they see you have to pull beer through each day, you can't sell the dregs and so on, and they contrast that with a keg where they know almost to the millilitre how much they can sell.

But it also extends to new keg beers. If you as a microbrewer want to sell into a de-skilled bar, you have to provide the same level of support that the mega-brewers do. You have to provide taps. You probably have to provide cooling gear too, as what's there will belong to the mega-brewer.

As for the pub, it's so much easier just to take another product line from your existing supplier. See that bar now offering Kilkenny, Smithwicks Pale Ale and Carlsberg alongside Guinness? They're all Diageo Ireland brands. The one offering Amstel and Sol alongside Beamish or Murphys? They're all Heineken brands.

It's sad but true. In a market where others are stressing how skilled their staff are - think coffee shops and their baristas - it's in the big beer suppliers' interest to keep the publican dependent on them, being a shopkeeper rather than an artist.

Thankfully, it doesn't always work. The photo above is of the Black Sheep pub in Dublin, and shows just what's possible with determined and knowledgeable management and staff (there's also three handpumps around the bar).

And with Wetherspoons about to open its first pub south of the border, in the Dublin suburb of Blackrock - reportedly with a big real ale presence - you can't exactly see them handing their cellaring over to outsiders, can you?

Still, it might explain why in most places you go, the choice will be keg black stuff or keg yellow fizz. 

Monday, 30 June 2014

Cask beer in Ireland

For all those who think Irish beer is synonymous with nitrogenated stuff in a keg – well, you'd be right, on average. I knew there were also new wave keg and bottled beers on the up, but the possibility of Irish cask real ale hadn't really crossed my mind before going out to Dublin for last weekend's European Beer Bloggers Conference.

Yet it was something that pretty much all the Irish brewers I met mentioned – and with hindsight, why wouldn't it be? Plenty of Irish drinkers and brewers will have sampled real ale while visiting the UK, and of course the US – which is a major inspiration for other craft beer 'movements' – is getting into cask too.

We even had one handpump at the Irish brewers' beerex at the conference – serving new wave brewster Sarah Roarty's wonderful N17 Oatmeal Stout, as it happens, and showing it off very well too. Most of the other brewers I spoke with were also sending casks out or planning to do so.

They all said how awkward or even difficult it is though – not because of any problems with casking, but because any remnants of an earlier Irish cask experience were drowned during the 20th century by a flood of nitrogenated black stuff and carbonated yellow stuff.

Ronan Brennan
So not only is there a big shortage of cellaring skills these days, there's not even that many handpumps. Ronan Brennan, the co-founder of Galway's Hooker Brewery – which pretty much invented modern Irish Pale Ale – told me it's not long since there were just twelve in the entire country, and even now it's probably only three dozen.

“It's also very difficult to know what happens to the cask after you drop it off,” he said – it could be mistreated, or not given long enough to settle and condition.

And as brewer Brian Short from the Brown Paper Bag Project added, if a drinker gets a bad pint, it's often the brewer not the bar that gets the blame.

“The dilemma for cask is that a whole lot of responsibility lies with the pub,” Brian said. “Cask is wonderful in the right hands, but in the wrong hands it can be insipid or even vinegar.” I have to say, my own experience bore that out – a pint of cask stout in one of Dublin's top craft beer pubs was not actually bad, but it was seriously lacking in condition and rather dull as a result.

But wait – it gets worse. Brewers told me about another factor distinct to Ireland which affects both cask and keg craft brewers alike: many pubs don't even know how to clean their beer lines any more.

That's because as the brewing industry consolidated after WW2, almost all of it ended up in the hands of just two macro-brewers when Murphys bought Beamish. Those brewers then tried to make life as easy as possible for pubs and bars, which included supplying the taps and even doing their line-cleaning.

So now craft brewers find themselves having both to commission their own taps, because there's almost no guest taps available, and to hire mobile technicians to do what in other countries the publican is responsible for!

Things are changing though for Irish cask ale. The number of handpumps continues to rise, and so does customers interest. Shane Long, the founder of Cork's Franciscan Well brewery – now part of the MolsonCoors empire alongside Cornwall's Sharps – holds an annual cask ale festival at his brewery tap. At the first, in 2011, they had just 14 cask ales (from a range of breweries) and people were sceptical whether it would sell. This year, he says they sold 50 firkins over a weekend. 

Saturday, 28 June 2014

Blogs from the Black Stuff

Guinness gatehouse
It still amazes me just how iconic Guinness is to Dublin. When people I know heard I was in Dublin, some said they assumed I'd be drinking it at every opportunity. The brewery's impressive visitors centre is Ireland's most popular tourist attraction, and the company inspires fierce loyalty especially among older Dubliners, thanks to generous sponsorship of arts, sports and the city in general.

It's also very easy to be snobbish though about such a mass market mega-brand. Not only is it a familiar choice world-wide for people who are wary of the unknown, but it's been somewhat simplified over the years – oh, and Guinness was the major culprit in the consolidation that wiped out almost the entire 19th century and early 20th century Irish brewing industry.

But when the opportunity came to visit Diageo Ireland's brand spanking new and extremely shiny new Guinness brewery at St James's Gate, as part of the 2014 European Beer Bloggers Conference, I was hardly going to turn it down, was I? And what a facility it is! Massive stainless steel brew kettles capable of holding 1000 hectolitres each, in a brewhouse that has cost €100m or so, and will probably brew 4 million hl of stout a year, plus 1.2 million hl of ale and lager. That's almost a billion* pints a year in total, 70% of which will go for export.

Feargal Murray outside brewhouse #3
This is the fourth brewhouse on the site, said Feargal Murray, Guinness master brewer and global brand ambassador (there's that mega-brand again), and the first to be bring in all the latest automation and sustainability technologies. Quite what will happen to the second and third brewhouses, which currently lie derelict – the first from 1759 is of course long gone – isn't clear. There was a plan during the boom times of 2007-8 to sell off the site for development, but resistance from the city council put paid to that. The second plan as I understand it was to build a new big brewery at outside Dublin at Leixlip – which was where Arthur Guinness started brewing in the 1750s, by the way – but retaining a smaller one on part of the St James's Gate site for heritage reasons. The economic bust put paid to that one, however.

Brewhouse #4 also replaces several other breweries – Diageo has closed its Dundalk, Kilkenny and Waterford sites, with hundreds of job losses, and moved all its Irish beer production to Dublin. As well as stouts and Harp lager, St James's Gate now brews both Bud and Carlsberg under licence, plus the Smithwicks ale brands.

There's also a 10-barrel pilot brewery, an extract plant producing “essence of Guinness” for the company's other 40+ production sites around the world, a huge malt roastery, and all sorts of other things going on, including bacterial souring of beer under controlled conditions – a small amount of soured beer is blended into the Foreign Extra Stout.

The visit was fascinating, and the brewers as dedicated to their craft as almost any I've met. There's a mass of history on site, including the remains of miles of narrow-gauge railway (left), and a tunnel between the two halves of the site that was designed by one of the architects of the London Tube. I find the main brands a bit bland – especially the variations they're now doing on Smithwicks ale, in an attempt to be 'crafty' – but perhaps that's an inevitable part of the inertia and conservatism that comes from working within a huge company.

The stand-outs really were the minor brands – the 8% Guinness Special Export that's brewed for Belgian distributor John Martin for instance, and Night Porter, the wonderful chocolate porter than won Diageo Ireland's annual brewing competition for its staff. Sadly the latter is only on sale within the company – a missed opportunity, I suspect.

* US-style short billion of course