Tuesday, 16 March 2021

How many 'styles' can one beer have - and what is Amber Ale anyhow?

Beer styles are a perennial topic for discussion among beer geeks - sorry, I mean 'aficionados'! I was in just such a debate last week, discussing whether a particular brew should be classed as Bitter, Pale Ale or Golden Ale. 

Over on sites such as Ratebeer and Untappd, and among the BCJP beer judges, it's even worse - does this particular Amber/Red Ale meet the specs for Irish Red or would it be better listed as American Amber? Is this Pale Ale - English, Pale Ale - American or Pale Ale - International? And how do we differentiate between Lager - Strong and Bock - Helles?

So when the news came through that Asahi has refreshed* the branding for Fuller's London Pride I was struck not so much by the new imagery - very nice though it is, with an impressively subtle combination of modernity and continuity of tradition - but by the fascinating image they published alongside the news, showing how Pride's branding has changed over time. 

The name's unchanged of course, and the griffin is always there, but just look at how the description changes!

* Distinctive Best Bitter 
* Special Pale Ale
* Outstanding Premium Ale (superlative overload...)
* Original Ale, and now...
* Outstanding Amber Ale

London Pride branding

So one beer has at various times in its history been Best Bitter, Pale Ale, Premium Ale, whatever that is, and today it's Amber Ale. OK, so now tell me what you reckon the difference is between Bitter and Pale Ale? đŸ€”

It also confirms something I've been saying for a while now: Amber Ale is just another word for Bitter. (And yes, American Amber Ale is just American Bitter!)

It's the same thing that happened with Mild. Marketing types decided that Mild was no longer an attractive word to use, that it didn't describe the beer accurately (and to be fair, they're right - Mild originally meant un-aged, not Mild in flavour) and that it put consumers off. So they renamed it Dark Ale - I'm guessing the marketeers were probably lager drinkers, so weren't aware of pale Milds...

Now it's the turn of Bitter. In recent years more and more brown bitters have been renamed Amber Ale, or in some cases Ruby Ale (although we are crossing into Brown Ale territory here, as well). 

Let me say it again then: 

Amber Ale is just Bitter under a new name.

Dark Ale is just Mild under a new name

Oh, and historically at least, Bitter was synonymous with Pale Ale - and by the look of it, for many brewers it still is. Or am I wrong?? 

*Well, I say 'refreshed', they say 'unveiled a striking new brand identity' 😉

Sunday, 14 March 2021

Drink local

One of the few compensations of lockdown is that, while I really miss the pub, it’s been a chance to connect with local breweries in new ways. In particular, with draught outlets few and far between, many breweries have not just ramped up their “small pack” production – that’s cans and bottles to you and me – but they’ve also found ways to deliver locally, often for free. 

For example, while it’s my closest brewery, the Ealing Brewing taproom in Brentford is shut for now and the only place to get their beer has been click-and-collect at the original brewpub in Northfields. Sadly, that’s not on a regular route of mine any more, so when I heard they were now doing local delivery I got an order straight in. 

I've only a few bottles left – here’s some of the empties – but they’ve all impressed thus far. A couple of Saisons, including spicy Gan Bei, a couple of very nice fruited sours – properly, but not overly, sour – two strong bitters, one of them brewed with Kveik,  a couple of IPAs and a rich and complex Imperial Brown Ale. 

Then there’s Weird Beard up in Hanwell. I’ve placed several orders with them during lockdown, it helps that their minimum order for free delivery is lower for locals – I reckon sometimes the staff deliver them on their way home! Most recently, there’s been two fine Black IPAs and their excellent black barleywine, Gaslight the Electorate. (They don’t just brew black beers, by the way, they also do great IPAs, a nice Pils, and now a great example of a Helles too – although it seems to me to be closer to a Dortmunder than the expected MĂŒnchner!)

This is my most recent order with them, it includes Orange & Black which is the beer they did for the BrewDog Collabfest a few months ago. We had this as one of our dozen festival crowlers (canned from the tap in the pub) and it was excellent, so I wanted to try the properly canned version. 

More recently, an opportunity came up to take part in a tasting session with another local brewery, Portobello – well, it’s t’other side of Acton but that’s still only five miles, and they deliver free inside the M25. So now there’s a mixed box from there and also Big Hug, a contract brewer that currently brews at Portobello. I’m looking forward to that little lot! 

So if you’ve not ordered locally yet, have a look around and see what’s available. There’s still time before your local pub's beer garden reopens – if indeed it has one. 

Friday, 1 January 2021

Beerviking's Golden Pints 2020

Watching the beer industry adjust to the reality of 2020 has been a mixture of fascination and horror. Seeing the production of cask beer crash has been terrifying – if there’s one thing I’ve really missed, it’s been good real ales, in a pub – yet on the other hand it feels as if the huge pivot to bottling and even more so to canning (“small pack” as it’s called) has brought increased beery diversity.  

And even as breweries have struggled, and many have closed, others have opened – there’s even a new cask and can-focused micro opened this very month not far from me, which I plan to get to before long. 

Best UK cask beer: without a doubt, it was when one of my locals got not one but three casks of Fuller’s 2020 Vintage Ale, and served them all in those few weeks of semi-freedom from October to November. Rich and malty, with notes of orange and Port, just thinking about it makes me angry again – all those Covid-safe pubs forced to close now, while no one does anything about the nose-bandits and other Covidiots inside supermarkets. 

Best UK keg beer: I’m going to list Fierce’s gorgeous Big Chomp here as it was a crowler – a draught beer canned in a bar, in this case Brewdog Tower Hill. A 9% barrel-aged chocolate & caramel stout, it was one of a case I ordered when Brewdog switched to crowlers to save the 1000 kegs brewed for its Collabfest 2020. Afterwards, I wished I’d ordered the random pales case as well as the random dark – and perhaps two of each, they were that good!

Best UK bottled beer: Beer52 has been a good source for me this year, not monthly but bimonthly or so. I know some snobs don’t like it, but this year it has replaced previous errors such as licence(fake)-brewing an entire monthly case with popular and successful Cyberfest “online festival” cases, containing the likes of Harviestoun’s gorgeously boozy Old Engine Oil Engineer's Reserve, with its notes of toasted plums, chocolate and raisins. 

Best UK canned beer: labelled as a black Barleywine and sporting a label entirely appropriate for the times, it’s Weird Beard’s Gaslight the Electorate. Black and heavy, with notes of liquorice, tar, coffee and berries, and almost enough to help you forget living in a country governed by corrupt idiots and venal liars. 

Best overseas draught: There’s not been so much this year, oddly enough. But back in January we had a rare evening out in Hamburg, ending up at top craft bar Alles Elbe, where they were hosting a “Meet the brewers” for new-wave cuckoo outfits Blech.Brut and Atelier der BraukĂŒnste. It was the former’s Vivid Dreams, a hazy 7.3% IPA, that topped the evening – lightly creamy and warming, and as vividly hoppy as its name might suggest. 

Best overseas bottled: Another one from a Beer52 Cyberfest case, WRCLW Tonka, Vanilla and Chocolate Baltic Porter Nitro from Poland’s Browar Stu MostĂłw was rich and heavy, and stunningly good. 

Best overseas canned: Bottles still dominated in many of the places I get my beer from, notably in Germany, so this was a tougher one to work out. In the end it’s a tie between two hazy Double IPAs, both from central Europe, more or less. One was another Beer52 offering, East Coast DIPA (8%) from Croatia’s The Garden, the other was Test Trace Isolate (9.5%) from Atelier der BraukĂŒnste, which I picked up on a brief but welcome visit to Bamberg.

Best collaboration: Who now remembers the other disasters occupying the headlines a year ago? Back in January, Pressure Drop hosted a fundraiser at its Tottenham brewery for Australian bushfire relief and we went along with the kids. It got pretty rammed as the afternoon went on, but the queues moved along, there was an Aussie barbie and Aussie cakes, and there were donated delicacies such as Pressure Drop / Left Handed Giant Escape Pod, a 10% Imperial milk stout, redolent of toasted coconut, dark chocolate and a fruity bitterness. 

And on that wistful note of remembering “the before times”, I’m going to end. It’s almost midnight and timer to get this posted… Happy New Year, Frohes neues Jahr, godt nytĂ„r to you all, and here’s to a better 2021. Cheers! 

Monday, 28 December 2020

Floats like a butterfly, Stings like a beer

You know those old stories about mulling beer with a red-hot poker? It turns out there’s a very similar tradition in Germany, too – and my Yule gift from my brother-in-law was a genuine beer-mulling tool, or Bierstachel. (This translates as beer-stinger, so I assume it’s a wordplay on Bienenstachel or bee-stinger.) 

It begins
So it begins...
The first time I came across one of these was about eight years ago at one of the very first craft beer festivals in Germany. A rep from Schneider Weisse was using a long red-hot poker thingy on glasses of Aventinus, and the delectable brew was becoming even more gorgeous as it acquired a tight foam, a caramelised note and a slight warmth. 

His Bierstachel had a hollow cylinder on the end, while mine (and others I’ve seen since then in photos) has a spherical end. 

Anyway, tonight I gave mine its first use. The instructions say 100 seconds on a gas burner, then plunge it in. The visible result was the same as eight years ago – a tight foam erupts from the liquid, with a renewed foaming if you move the poker around. 

end result
The end result
And the taste? Hard to say really – it’s knocked out the excessive gas, obviously, and lifted the temperature a bit, though less than one might expect. There’s a little more caramelisation perhaps, but with a dark beer (this was Dark Season from Bitburger's crafty arm Craftwerk, allegedly a 5.6% stout but more like a dark ale really) it’s hard to be sure. 

But definitely intriguing! My immediate thought though was they’re way too cautious (or optimistic) with the heating instructions. 

When I’ve seen others doing it, they’re using a blowtorch or equivalent and getting the thing to a dull red, which I’m not even sure I can do on a gas cooker. So, a hotter source of heat needed – and more experimentation. Oh dear, what hardship. 😂

Saturday, 7 November 2020

Under lockdown, maybe we can travel by beer instead?

I had hoped to be trying out the latest addition to London's beer tourism this weekend: the Blackhorse Beer Mile in Tottenham, which takes the walker to the Exale, Wild Card and Signature breweries, and also the Truman’s Social Club which I understand is the new Truman’s brewery tap. Sadly, the inept B Johnscum and his corrupt crew of venal dullards and sociopathic idiots put paid to that. 

Thankfully though, I can still enjoy a little bit of canned Tottenham at home, courtesy of the afore-mentioned Signature Brew. Despite the pandemic, their musically-inclined brewers have been churning out new brews this summer and autumn, as well as their core beers. 

What caught my interest in particular was that they had done a couple of Bavarian classics. Now maybe it’s my imagination, or maybe it’s the brewers’ lockdown restlessness, but I get the sense there’s a bit of international beer style sharing going on. For instance, via Untappd I’ve seen quite a few German micros and brewpubs doing red ales for autumn, while some of the UK brewers have been working on classic German styles in return. 

The two they kindly sent samples of were In The Dark, a 5.1% Bamberg-inspired Rauchbier, and Luftballon, a 5.5% Helles Festbier, usefully labelled with the warning, “Please do not drink 99 of them.” 

So, how do they stack up to their prototypes? In The Dark has all the right pieces – beech smoke, burnt toffee notes, some dry bitterness – but somehow they don’t quite fit together. I suspect it’s just a bit too light-bodied – all the Franconian Rauchbiers I can think of are maltier than this, and most are at least 5.4%. Even my mug a few weeks ago of Spezial’s Rauchbier Lager (4.9%) had a bit more body than this. 

On the other hand, for all that Nena is from North-Rhine Westphalia rather than Munich, Luftballon is bang in the landing zone. Sweetish and lightly bready, with a dry-grassy hoppy bitterness, it’s a little chewy like its Bavarian brethren. Essentially it does exactly what a Festbier sets out to do, which is to take a Munich Helles and wind it up to 10. (One day they’ll get it to 11, but not yet!)

While I’m here, I should also mention some other Signature specials. C-Sharp is one of the modern breed of fruited sours, which is to say they’re not actually very sour – in fact, most of them are out-tarted by the macro-brewed Berliner Kindl Weisse you can buy in most German supermarkets. 

C-Sharp’s differentiating point is lemon, not just from Citra hops but also from Sicilian lemons. It puts me in mind of both Limoncello and the Limoncello beers I’ve tried – despite the lemon juice aromas, C-Sharp is more lemon-and-lime tangy than tart, and fairly sticky-sweet too. It's intriguing, but I think I’d prefer it a bit more beery – if I had another can I’d try blending it with a West Coast IPA or somesuch.

The next is Equaliser, whose gimmick is to take a hazy New England IPA and transpose it to the Antipodes, substituting Australian and New Zealand hops for the usual American varieties. And by gum(tree), it works really well. Notes of white grapes, orange and lychee, smooth and juicy, and with a firm bitter kick – very nice.

And then there's this year's brew of Signature Festival Saison – clean and dry-sweet, lightly funky and fruity, with hints of pepper and St Clements. Quite delicious! So, no black horses but three palpable hits and a couple of near-misses. That'll do for now. Cheers...

Sunday, 6 September 2020

On the Bierkeller, not in it

LöwenbrĂ€u Buttenheim 
Normally, you know where you are with a Bierkeller – in a large basement hall, full of tables, benches and yes, beer. It means ‘beer cellar’, right? Yet there we were, actually drinking on a wooded hillside in Franconia. So why do the locals call what anyone else would say is a Biergarten, a Bierkeller?

The answer is that there will indeed be a real Keller, or cellar, under here somewhere. Back in the days before artificial refrigeration was invented, breweries needed somewhere cool to lager their beer for months on end, especially during the warm summers when they couldn’t brew.

If there weren’t natural caves around to use, they went into the hills around the town and dug their own – cellars that stayed at a constant 8 degrees C all year round, thanks to their earth insulation. And if there weren’t already shady trees on top, they planted some – typically broad-leaved horse chestnuts, Kastanie in German, which is why so many Bierkellers (and Biergartens) have names such as Kastaniengarten.

So now you have a cellar in the woods, full of beer. What’s more natural than to put a few tables and benches out the front, and drink some of that beer? And the name stuck, but you go “auf den Bierkeller” – on the cellar, not in it.

As luck would have it – well, in truth luck had very little to do with it – our recent trip to Buttenheim put us within walking distance of two popular Bierkellers. In need of dinner on our arrival, we were told LöwenbrĂ€u Buttenheim had the better food offering, even if it wasn’t the more scenic of the two.

The food was indeed good, and so was the location – OK, so its view of the town was dominated by the tower of local rival St. GeorgenBrĂ€u Buttenheim, but the bierkeller itself rises up the hillside in tree-shaded terraces. At the top is a covered area, like a hall with no walls, and beyond that are the woods – and in the woods, a play area complete with zipwire which delighted the kids. As with most Bierkellers, it’s all self-service – you order food and beer at serveries, the beer to take back to your table with you and the food to pick up when your number is called. You clear your own table and return the empties to the appropriate hatch, too.

It's a simple menu at Roppelt's
A couple of days later we again needed a place to eat and for the kids to run about, so I grabbed the opportunity for a return visit to somewhere I fondly remembered from seven years ago: Roppelt’s Keller, not far away in Stierlimbach. It was already busy by late afternoon on a weekday, but thankfully we were just early enough to get both a parking space and a table – of course by the time we left, still in daylight, it was even busier.

 There’s obviously been changes in the time since our last visit – the playground, which was large even back then, had been seriously upgraded and I think moved, the woods had grown (surprise!) and I reckon there’s more tables now. But as long as you ignore the wasps, it’s lovely – great beer, nature, stuff to amuse the kids, and a good range of the local equivalent of pub-grub, so sausages, sandwiches, chops and so on. Bang on trend, they even have an alcohol-free version of their Kellerbier, and pretty decent it is too.

Buttenheim at sunset
Talking of beer, at most Kellers you’ll only find one or two draught offerings. First and foremost is the Kellerbier, then there might also be a Weizen or a seasonal, such as a MĂ€rzen. There’s usually a few bottles on offer, often the Weizen will be bottled too.

It wasn’t until late on our last evening in town when I finally made it to the St. GeorgenBrĂ€u Keller. I’ve had a few of their beers before – the brewery is fairly substantial and its bottled beers are fairly widely distributed. They even can their Kellerbier now! It feels more planned and organised than most other Bierkellers I've been to, and perhaps just a little less characterful – there’s a proper bar, and the terraces are even and straight. But whatever – there’s excellent Kellerbier and Helles on tap, plenty of room, and the sunset view across the town is gorgeous.

Friday, 7 August 2020

Back to Bamberg

After a day in the Franconian countryside, it was time to head for the Big City – or at least one of the biggest in the world of beer: Bamberg. The local beer scene has changed a fair bit since I was there seven years ago, so I was really looking forward to exploring some of the new places. The challenge, since the plan was a bit of touristing and shopping in the morning with the kids, before I got the afternoon to myself, was to find somewhere the kids would enjoy. Luckily, while it wasn’t easy to spot on its dusty suburban street, Hopfengarten Bamberg proved an excellent and friendly choice. 

At first, it looks like the entrance to a yard, then there's greenery hinting at a hidden garden, then a passage between dusty greenhouses, and finally it opens up into a huge area behind the houses. Hopfengarten is just a part of it, but there is indeed a hop garden with long tables under arches of hops, there’s a sandpit and a pond (=happy kids!), fruit trees, a herb garden and more. Gardeners were at work fixing things up – I think that, like many places, it had not long been open again after the long Coronavirus shutdown.

It was still early in the day, we were the only visitors and although the bar was advertising their special edition herbal and fruit beers, nothing was pouring. Thankfully, after we’d said hello and poked around the garden a bit, we were asked if we’d like samples – Kellerpils and Rotbier, straight from the fermenters of “the smallest brewery in town” (it looked to be a 100 or 200-litre brewkit). And very nice they were too, while we sat amongst the greenery.  

As we walked into the centre for the shops and some lunch, I spotted another new place to check out – Zum Sternla. Well, it’s not exactly new, in fact they claim the site dates back to 1380, although it’s only been a pub for 250 years or so. What is new though is that last year they put a brewhouse into an extension built onto the rear of the pub.

The biergarten in the courtyard here showed how seriously some venues here are taking social distancing. Large panels between the tables turned each one into almost an alcove, table staff everywhere wear masks or face-shields, and even outdoors in a biergarten you have to cover your face while moving around – the mask can only come off when you are seated. (In contrast, it felt really weird going into a pub in Chiswick this week where no one, not even the staff, had a mask on.) 

Zum Sternla Roggenbier, nur ein schnitt!
The beers were fairly typical for the area and for a German brewpub – a golden lager (Vollbier Export), a Pils and a Zwickel, which I believe is the Vollbier but unfiltered. Luckily, my visit also coincided with the first tapping of their new seasonal Roggenbier, which proved to be a nice example of the style – it’s a top-fermented beer similar to a Hefeweizen, but made with rye not wheat.

Of course it’s not all traditional local beer styles in Bamberg, but it can be hard to find anything else! So while I wanted to catch up with a couple of ‘new wave’ Bamberg brewers we’d met while we were all visiting Hamburg earlier this year, I knew it wasn’t going to be too easy. For a start, both Blech.Brut and Atelier der Braukunst are what’s known in Germany as ‘cuckoo brewers’, sharing or renting brewing capacity from others, so a brewery visit was out of the question. And most of the beer shops just focus on the wealth of traditional local brewing. 

Fortunately I’d been recommended to one that didn’t, namely the local branch of Die Bierothek, a group of craft beer shops. Again it was somewhere new to me – or at least I’m pretty sure it wasn’t there seven years ago, as I’d have walked past it on my evening perambulations between our rented apartment and Brauerei Spezial!

What's in the hand sanitiser?!
I find myself in two minds about craft beer shops. On the one hand, everything costs more – there’s classic Franconian beers in this one at €2 or €3 a bottle, but which I’d picked up the day before for €1 to €1.50 at a supermarket on the Memmelsdorf road. On the other, they have beers that I doubt you’d find anywhere else in the area – even some of the rural Franconian stuff probably doesn’t normally travel into the city! So I picked up a few cans – and once you’re into the €6/can area the additional margin is minimal anyhow – and made way for other shoppers. 

Of course something was bound to go wrong, and it did. I’d carefully avoided making my trip on the Monday, as that’s often the day-off for places that open over the weekend (“Montag Ruhetag”), but what I’d missed was that quite a few venues now close Mon-Weds or even Sun-Weds inclusive – and one of them was my next target, another newcomer called Landwinkl BrĂ€u. Ah well, a restorative mug of Rauchbier in the Brauerei Spezial courtyard was only a few hundred yards away...  

Just two more targets left on my list. The first was Aecht Schlenkerla, not for a drink as time was running a bit short, but to pick up bottles of their three new low-alcohol beers: the unsmoked Bamberger Heinzlein Hell & Dunkel, and Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier Hansla. They’re reputedly based on historical examples – the local equivalent of ‘small beer’, I assume. 

The last was a bit more of a struggle, but worth it – the long haul up Kaulberg to Brauerei Griefenklau. It’s another favourite venue, and I was just early enough to get half a table at the end of the biergarten, overlooking the gardens below and with this green and leafy view across to Die Altenburg on the hill opposite. A lovely place to sit and sip a Zwicklbier as dusk began to creep in.