Thursday, 7 March 2019

The Devil is in the barrels

After an evening in the Bottleshop Bermondsey with the folks from Duvel Moortgat UK, who were launching the latest Duvel Barrel-Aged edition, I’m still in two minds about barrel-aged beers. Are they better as they come from the barrel, or should you taste them carefully and blend back for a ‘beerier’ flavour profile?

This is the third year Moortgat has run this project. The first batch used 100 Kentucky Bourbon barrels, said Duvel UK marketing manager Natalya Watson, while  the second had 190 and the latest was put into 351 barrels last year. She wasn’t sure if they were new barrels every year, but from reading Duvel's website I think they re-use them after re-impregnating with fresh Bourbon.

They now have barrels from six different distilleries, including Four Roses, Buffalo Trace, Heaven Hill, Jack Daniels and so on. This highlights the challenge of acquiring used barrels in bulk, which is why I reckon they're being re-used. The aged beer was all blended together for consistency before bottling, Natalya said. Bourbon barrels are 200 litres or 53 US gallons, and each yielded enough to fill around 240 75cl bottles – I suppose the 10% disparity must be leakage and other ‘process losses’.

The result is an amber-brown beer that almost glows in the glass and has aromas of sweet vanilla Bourbon, quite unlike the yellow of Duvel itself, with its lemony spicy-hoppy nose. The barrel-aged version is rather sweeter too and warming, with more vanilla and an unexpected faint salty note in the finish.

Draught Duvel
It’s a lovely beer, and people all around were enjoying it for itself, but for me it was a little too barrel-heavy – too much like drinking Bourbon. So since we had both on hand, I tried mixing some Duvel Barrel-Aged with bottled Duvel in about a 50/50 blend. The result was a little lighter, drier and more bitter, livelier (the barrel version had only a very light sparkle) and yes, beerier. I’m not sure what this proves, however, apart from the fact that tastes and preferences vary!

Natalya also introduced those of us who’d not met it before to Duvel on Tap. This is not a draught version of bottle-conditioned Duvel, but the same beer put into kegs and keg-conditioned (yes – if it weren’t for the carbonation that would make it real ale). She explained that the distinction is important because Belgian brewers typically adjust their recipes for kegging, in particular lowering the carbonation to avoid fobbing (excessive froth).

Duvel’s brewers didn’t want to do that, so instead they came up with a new dispense system for their branded fonts. The problem was that it’s a remarkably gassy beer – its CO2 content is twice that of standard keg beers and three times that of many craft beers. The solution involved two metres of 3mm piping (far narrower than usual, and non-reusable as it’s too fine to clean) to ‘break’ the pressure in the keg, plus anti-fobbing training for the barstaff.

The initial problem for me was that it was too heavily chilled. Duvel recommends 5C for the bottled version, which I think is already too cold, but I reckon the tap beer was even colder (annoyingly, I’d no thermometer with me to check). Still, too cold is better than too warm, and once the chill had lifted the beer opened up considerably while remaining very drinkable.

Mind you, despite being the same 8.5% brew as the bottled Duvel (and Duvel Tripel Hop) we’d been drinking earlier, it didn’t seem as complex. The hops were still there, but not the lemony-spicy note – I wonder why, if they’d got everything else pretty much the same? Still, a lovely beer and one to watch out for.

My thanks once more to Duvel for supplying free beers and arranging the tasting, and my apologies again for how long it's been since I last posted here. Life keeps getting in the way...

Tuesday, 1 January 2019

What is bottle-conditioning – and why do we do it?

“Bottle-conditioned beers are not some sort of poor relation to cask, they exist in their own right,” declared John Keeling, former head brewer at Fuller’s, now retired. “A bottle-conditioned beer can never ever be the same as a cask beer, the reason is it will probably be a lot older.” He explained that while most cask beer has a shelf life measured in weeks, “most bottle-conditioned beers haven’t even left the warehouse at 6 weeks old!

“So it will have changed flavour, and secondly it will have more fizz in it. Bottle-conditioned beers are the supreme example of packaging beers. You do get some ingress of oxygen but the yeast mops it up – we opened a bottle of 1979 Vintage, for example, and the yeast was still viable.”

Introducing the panel
He was speaking at an event hosted by Marston's a few weeks ago, when a group of brewers and beer writers got together to discuss the past, present and future of bottle conditioning. We’d actually started by talking about the widespread assumption – fuelled in part by CAMRA’s ‘Real Ale in a Bottle’ (RAIB) validation scheme – that bottle-conditioned (BC) beers and real ales are the same thing.

Cask as a precursor

Was John Keeling right, though? Certainly there are clear links between real ale and bottle-conditioning. For a start, if you produce cask beer then it’s easier to do a BC version – you just bottle the cask version, said Harviestoun’s Stuart Cail. The advantage is that if you bottle it right – he uses big hand-bottled flip-tops – you can make it ‘premium’ and add a bit of theatre in a market where as he put it, “cask is not esteemed.”

Aged & conditioned Ola Dubh
Where it gets more interesting is when you use bottle-conditioning as just one step in a more complex process, he added. By way of example he offered a BC version of Harviestoun’s already highly regarded Ola Dubh (Black Oil) which had been aged in Highland Park whisky casks then krausened – dosed with fresh wort – to return it to life. The result was stunningly good, rich and heavy with a whisky tint, treacle-sweet yet burnt-dry, fruity and complex.

Along with John Keeling’s reminder that “in BC you get negative and positive reactions. They go in waves” as different microorganisms get to work on different components in the beer, it made me think: They’re both right, aren’t they? Yes, you can readily bottle beer brewed for cask, but that doesn’t automatically mean it ends up as ‘cask in a bottle’, because what happens to it next can be very different.

It certainly can be a route to ‘bottled cask’, as Marston’s brewer Pat McGinty explained. Marston’s wanted bottled Pedigree to taste more like the cask version, so its brewers had to do a lot of trials to work out the best way to achieve that. “We got way more of a fruited flavour when we put yeast in,” Pat said. “After a couple of weeks it had more carbonation, and was more recognisable as the cask beer.”

Something a lot of brewers (including Fuller’s) do is to filter and then reseed with fresh yeast for the bottle – preferably a different ‘sticky’ one that will settle to the bottom. Marston’s didn’t need to do that though, thanks to its yeast and the celebrated Burton Union fermentation system. “The Burton system traps the yeast and we can crop it nice and fresh,” Pat said. “It’s great for brewing but also perfect for bottle conditioning – most yeasts flocculate at the top but Marston’s yeast hasn’t made up its mind!”

He added, “Two weeks after we produce the beer, we bottle and cellar it. We put a 12-month shelf life on it, you can consume it beyond that but really its flavour will develop beyond [the intention of] the brand.”

Going through the four seasons

There we have it again – give it time and it’ll go further, even more so if you give it a bit of variation in storage, added John Keeling: “They would not have had temp control in the past. To me going through the four seasons makes sense, why not let it go the way it wants to go – and the way the outside temperature wants it to go?”

John told a tale about the development of Fuller’s Vintage Ale to illustrate the changes that time can bring. “When we developed 1845 [in 1995] we put one year shelf-life on it, but when we tasted it at one year old it was even better, so we had the idea of doing a vintage like you would with wine. Because the first Vintage Ale was 8.5%, we decided to put three years on it, we couldn’t put longer because the labelling regulations said you couldn’t. Now you can, and we put 10 years on!”

To illustrate, he offered tastings of the 2017 and 2010 Vintages. The former was rich and warming, fruit and lightly peppery, while the latter had picked up light oxidation notes – iodine, a little dry dustiness, a faint woody note – reminiscent of an old Madeira wine, in fact.

Not everyone filters and re-seeds the beer with fresh yeast, mind you. St Austell head brewer Roger Ryman told how they used to do that, dating back to his strong witbier Clouded White winning the Tesco Beer Challenge. “It was unfiltered in the competition – we had to ask if market was ready for that, and we decided to filter then reseed,” he admitted.

When the St Austell brewers subsequently tasted aged beers, they discovered that while others were showing signs of age, Clouded White was not. So then they did a BC Admirals Ale and two years later they added Proper Job to the BC list.

“It took three-or four years to find traction in the market, we were worried about its reception in the supermarket,” Roger continued. “Every brewer gets those unhappy Monday morning emails, ‘I bought your beer and found bits in it,’ but for every one of those there’s thousands of other happy drinkers.”

The challenge, he added, is once your beer is selling well and you’re on double-shifts at the brewery, how do you find time to filter and re-seed it? So Roger experimented with unfiltered beer instead, and luckily the yeast in Proper Job settled really tightly, yielding an excellent result. So after a visit to Marston’s to see what they were doing, he designed a set-up that blends yeast and beer in controlled amounts as it goes to the bottle-filler.

“We put quite a bit of automation around it, I thought it was unique,” he laughed. “Then I visited Westmalle, I’m looking at the bottling line – and there’s their yeast tank the same as I'd designed! So we brewers find the same solutions to the same problems.”

Ageing in cask – and in cans

But to come back to the original question, is bottle-conditioned beer definitively different from real ale? Well, yes – if you take today’s real ales as your examples. But historically, probably not because in the past any vessel could potentially be used to age beer. In the old days, stock ales were aged in wooden casks, often in the brewery yard. While it’s rare to age cask beers these days, it is sometimes done, and I’d argue the difference is as much to do with expectations as anything else – we expect cask ale to be fresh, not aged.

Moor's award-winning OFW is now can-conditioned
And cask-ageing is making a comeback – if, like some commentators, you regard cans as tiny kegs or casks… One of the pioneers here is Justin Hawke of Moor Beer, whose canned beers were the first to be accredited by CAMRA as real ale – that is, they contain live yeast, and the beer continues to develop (condition or referment) in the can.

“We had to work with the manufacturer on can-conditioning,” he said. “It was a bit crazy! We measure the sugar and yeast content in our lab, then we literally package the same beer into can and keg.” Justin added that refermentation makes the beer more stable, such that “unfined casks will keep for ages.”

He continued, “We go through a full refermentation, we crash-cool the beer pretty much to freezing to settle it out, then we warm it up in special temperature-controlled areas to get that refermentation to happen. It’s at least three weeks, some beers are longer – it’s a massive cost because we’re sitting on beer for an extended period, but it gives that evolution of flavour. My friends who brew tank beer will get the perfectly-fresh hop aroma that we will not get – our yeast interacts with the hops and changes the flavour. It gives a much more rounded mouth, you lose a little flavour but gain depth and shelf life and stability.”

The numbers game

The aftermath....
One thing is for sure – whatever the motivation, the popularity of bottle-conditioned beer shows no sign of abating. Jeff Evans, formerly editor of CAMRA’s Good Beer Guide, and more recently of the Good Bottled Beer Guide, pointed out that “at the founding of CAMRA, only five bottle-conditioned beers were known to be in regular production,” a decline which he argued had been driven in part by better bottling technology which made it possible to give people the clearer beer they wanted.

It can hardly be a coincidence that the number started growing again as CAMRA first introduced a BC category into its competitions, and then began listing BC beers in the Good Beer Guide. By the time the listing was spun off as the Good Bottled Beer Guide the number was well over 100, and by the most recent edition it was a shade under 2000.

Producing a new edition would be a daunting prospect. It would need to consider over 3000 from the UK, said Jeff, plus more from abroad, where some brewers have long preferred the softer texture of unfiltered live beer.

Would it be worthwhile – do people still seek it BC beer out, I wonder? Or it is a case of it’s expected or assumed that some will be BC? Let us know in the comments below… Happy New Year!

Tuesday, 4 December 2018

The fun and challenges of beer and food matching

It’s been a bit of a feast of beer and food pairings lately, first at the annual dinner of the British Guild of Beer Writers and then at the rather excellent Hero of Maida gastropub in London’s Maida Vale, where UK beer distributor Euroboozer kindly hosted a “beery brunch” for writers. The former focused on British beers, naturally enough, while the latter included Austrian, Belgian and Danish brews – Euroboozer represents Schremser, Steigl, Boon and Mikkeller, among others.

It was fascinating to see how much better some pairings worked than others, but also to be reminded that although there was general agreement, different people of course preferred different pairings.
The rule of thumb with beer and food matching is you either go for complementary flavours or contrasts. For instance, a hoppy IPA can work well with curry, which to me implies complementary, but it can also match cheese, where the bitterness doesn’t so much contrast as cut through the oils.

Interestingly, both menus featured scallops – they’re clearly the shellfish of the moment. In one case, seared scallops were paired with Chalky’s Bite from Sharp’s, in the other the scallops were baked and served alongside Sonnenkönig II, a 9.5% Double Witbier aged in Tequila barrels (left), which comes from the pilot brewery of Austria’s best-known lager brand Steigl.

Both combinations worked very well. The dry tang of Sonnenkönig against the fishy sweetness of the baked scallops, and the spicy maltiness of Chalky’s Bite – a 6.8% herbed strong ale that makes me think of a Belgian Tripel – with the toastier seared scallops. A second fish dish, smoked haddock tartare, was paired with Riesling People, a hazy IPA brewed with grape juice – it’s one of Danish brewer Mikkeller’s takes on the modern beer-wine hybrid style. Again, a lovely beer, almost gin-like in its dryness, but for me it didn’t bring out the flavour of the fish.

Moving on, brunch brought us brioche buns filled with bacon, cheese and egg, paired with Boon Oude Geuze Black Label. This is a stunningly good beer, the driest Geuze that Boon produces, and it did a great job of contrasting with the lightly fatty and salty character of the bacon and cheese. I’ll try to remember Gueze as an option for cheese and charcuterie in the future!

The main course for dinner, roasted Welsh lamb, brought not one but two pairings. The intended one was Fourpure’s smoky-sweet and rich Oatmeal Stout. This is a very fine beer, but somehow the combination of that sweetness with the equally rich meatiness of the lamb didn’t work as well for me as the second beer on the table – Marble’s tropical and resinous Hopoplata. This gorgeous 7.2% West Coast IPA was intended to pair with the vegetarian option, but worked extremely well with the lamb – its hoppy and bitter fruitiness contrasted with the meat, each bringing out the richness of the other.

Back at brunch, the meat course was an amazingly delicious Gascon black pudding with white beans (right), served with Steel Toe Milk Stout from America’s Ska Brewing. This time, the creamy and slightly smoky sweetness worked excellently well, perhaps because of the softer – though equally rich and lovely – flavour and texture of the black pudding.

Time for dessert, and a sticky-toffee pudding paired with OTT, a classic 7% old ale from Hog’s Back. This match did a great job of bringing out the cocoa and fruit cake notes in the beer. We also had on the table a bottle of Greene King’s Heritage Vintage Fine Ale – a rather excellent strong ale brewed with Chevallier heritage barley – so for curiosity’s sake I also tried that with the pudding. Dry-sweet and lightly toasty, it too worked very well, confirming strong ales as a good pudding choice!

While brunch now moved on to a liquid course – a tart and tangy Boon/Mikkeller collaboration where they aged Geuze in white Vermouth foeders – dinner wrapped up with an amazing range of British cheeses, quite simply the best cheeseboard I’ve had in a long time. They were served with another strong ale, this time from the far north – Orkney Brewery’s 10% Dark Island Reserve. With such a variety of cheeses, the aim (according to the tasting notes from fellow writer Jacopo Mazzeo) was to provide a beer complex enough to complement them all. It worked well, although now I can’t help wondering how the cheese would have gone with something like that white Vermouth Gueze or perhaps a strong Farmhouse Saison…

Sunday, 28 October 2018

Nationwide beer festival kicks off with London Brewing Co

The last time I visited London Brewing Co, it was a small brewkit in the corner of the kitchen at the Bull pub in Highgate. Now, it’s a 10 hectolitre microbrewery in its own space*, and it’s been appearing in 40 Nicholson’s pubs up and down the country as the opening act in that pubco’s Autumn 2018 Beer Showcase, which opened last month.

St Pancras IPA
“We’ve been brewing non-stop for this,” says LBC boss Senan Sexton. The brewery has produced 12 cask ales for the festival, some are their regulars and others are variants of previous brews, done specially for Nicholson’s.

Normally LBC’s production is 40% to 50% cask ale, rather than 100%, he says, adding that “Cask isn’t the most profitable, but it’s the most important. It’s low-margin for brewers but we’re not too worried as we can scale up and down.”

I met Senan, head brewer Richard, and second brewer George, at the Coal Hole on London’s Strand, where the pub’s staff had arranged a treat for us and a number of their regulars: a beer and food pairing, matching five beers with different dishes. The Coal Hole is a classic Nicholson’s pub, all dark wood and polished brass – very much an updated version of the image that many people will have of the classic English pub.

In fact I wonder if that “modern-traditional” style is why Nicholson’s pubs are so popular with their locals, yet often overlooked by others. Nicholson’s is part of pubco M&B, so sometimes it gets disparaged along with the likes of Punch and Enterprise. In truth though, its pubs are generally rather nice – and more importantly, they keep a very decent pint of real ale (or at least the ones I know do!).

The first beer we try is St Pancras IPA, brewed and named for the 150th anniversary this year of the railway station where barrels of beer arrived from Burton-on-Trent and were stored for onward distribution. It’s a lovely beer – toasty-sweet and malty-dry in what we now tend to think of as the classic English IPA style. It goes very nicely with the fried nibbles presented by the pub, with the caramel malt complementing the caramelisation in the batter.

Senan serves up the brownies
The other beers are just as good, from Admiral of the Red, a red ale that’s spicy and lightly tangy, through 100 Oysters, a dry Stout which is indeed brewed with 100 oysters and is complex and dark, to Gigglemug. The latter is a change of pace – after relatively rich cask ales, Richard wants to show he can do lighter keg beers too – this is a fruity and lightly floral American Pale Ale.

We finish with a bite of chocolate brownie to accompany Senan’s piece de resistance, Samson’s Riddle. A big and chewy 9.5% Imperial Stout that included black treacle in the brew, it’s been aged in Bourbon barrels before a couple of years of bottle conditioning. It’s good now, and should only improve – if you can find a bottle, that is.

Although technically LBC’s slot in the Nicholson’s Beer Showcase is over, I hear there are still ales available in some of the pubs around the country. It’d be a shame to miss them, but then again there’s plenty more good beer coming up – Siren is next, with a range that includes a number of specials.

*Still in a pub, but now it’s The Bohemia, in North Finchley.

Friday, 5 October 2018

Fuller's micro is a model in many ways

Visitors to Fuller's refurbished brewery shop have known for some time that a new pilot brewery was coming – you can see it behind a glass wall at the back of the shop. It was still under construction when the shop reopened though, and it didn't officially start brewing until quite recently.

Sadly, I missed the official opening, but when I read about it I wondered where the beers brewed there would end up. To find out, I of course looked on Untappd for check-ins and there they were, in the brewery shop. So one lunchtime last week I nipped over there for a look.

As I walked around the shop to see what I could find, I could also see through the glass a brewer, back turned to me, busily shovelling out the mash tun. I spotted several of the beers on the growler bar, available in two-litre takeaways, then looked up to see the brewer waving at me – it was Hayley Marlor (who was, incidentally, co-creator of Matariki, my favourite beer from the first Fuller's & Friends series which is back in the shops), and she invited me in for a look around.

The pilot brewery is built to more or less replicate the large one, so it includes items you'd normally not find in a 16hl/10 barrel microbrewery, such as a Steel's Masher. But it's also been given some features to make it more of a showcase (and incidentally easier to manage) such as a vertical window into the side of the mash tun. This means the brewer can see what's going on under the surface, and is rather unusual, to say the least.

Of course it can't replicate the main brewery exactly. For instance the volumes are lower, so you don't get the same hydrostatic pressures build up in the fermenters, and that changes how the yeast works. But it lets them come close, so as well as testing new ingredients and recipes it will help train new brewers on the main brewery processes.

Hayley said that as well as doing test brews and short-run beers, the brewkit will be used to pilot some of the future Fuller's & Friends collaborations. In particular, that's those with breweries overseas – with the UK collaborations so far, they've done the pilot batch at the partner brewery, then moved to Chiswick for the main production run, but that's rather less practical when the partner is half way around the world.

The idea is that each of Fuller's brewers will have charge of the pilot brewery for a year – Hayley was lucky enough to be the first. She expects to brew once a week to start with, and has already done several brews. Hopefully, as well as the growlers we'll see some casks and bottles available around London and at festivals before too long!

Thursday, 20 September 2018

What's so special about £12.50?

London's beer scene is kicking into gear again, with two excellent events coming up on consecutive weekends. They are quite different though – the only things they have in common are beer and a ticket price of £12.50, and the latter similarity puzzles me more than perhaps it ought to! Is this going to be the "new norm" for festivals – I guess it's equivalent to three beers at central London rates – or is there something else about this number that I've missed?

First up is Goose Island's LDN Block Party this coming Saturday 22nd at The Oval in Bethnal Green. Sadly it’s sold out already, but there’s a few people selling spares on the event’s Facebook page. If you do have a ticket (and note that they cover admission but not your beer and food), you should be in for a good time – I went last year when it was at a venue near Old Street, and it was excellent. Good bands on stage, with bars and foodstalls nearby, or if you wanted a change of ambience there were other bars indoors.

Last year these included the Alpine-themed Blocktoberfest bar where they launched their Spaten-brewed Keller Märzen, another pouring many of the variations on Bourbon County Stout, some of them rather rare, and House of Funk, a bar specialising in Goose Island’s many sours and wild ales. The evening’s more music-focused, with indie band The Vaccines headlining this year, but if you go earlier – it runs from 3pm to 11pm – there’s other activities going on. Last year there was a guided cheese & beer pairing in the wilds & sours bar, for example.

Yes, I know Goose Island is macro-owned these days, but it’s hung on to at least some of its indie soul – and let’s face it, without AB-Inbev’s money behind it, we in the UK probably wouldn’t be enjoying nearly as many of its excellent beers now.

Anyway, where was I? Oh yes, £12.50 is also the cost of a ticket to Craft Beer Cares in Hackney on Saturday 29th and Sunday 30th. It’s a very different event from the Block Party – the beer’s more independent, there’s no live music that I’m aware of, it’s all for charity – and perhaps most importantly of all, your ticket includes your first beer tokens!

There's also several contributing breweries to add to the list I mentioned last time, including Five Points, Lervig and Whiplash, and there's still tickets available. So if you’re in town and haven’t booked one yet, get over there and get one – or if you're a bit more of a glutton, get one for each of the three sessions... I wonder if there's anyone who'll do that! All being well, I'll see you there on the Sunday afternoon (yes, change of plan).




Thursday, 23 August 2018

Charity beer fest Craft Beer Cares is back

Last year's festival
There's a bunch of beery things coming up in London over the next few weeks, but the one I think I'm looking forward to most is Craft Beer Cares – I've already bought my ticket. This beer festival run for charity was a really good event last year – excellent beer, all donated by the brewers, plus side-events such as a beer raffle with great prizes.

This year's edition takes place at London Fields Brewery in Hackney – or rather, at the brewery's event space around the corner on Mentmore Place E8. They're expecting beer from more than 20 breweries, and proceeds from the event (which raised more than £6000 last year) will be donated to London-based anti violence charity Art Against Knives.

“We have the fortune to be able to build on our first event with a bigger venue, more beer, and more sessions, to be more accessible and hopefully raise even more money for charity this year,” said Gautam Bhatnagar, the event's founder. “We couldn’t do it without the kindness and donations of the breweries involved, the volunteers and the logistical help of many distributors in the industry.”

Craft Beer Cares will run three sessions, from 11am-5pm and 6pm-12am on Saturday 29th, and 12pm-6pm on Sunday 30th. Tickets are £12.50 per session, which includes a festival glass and tokens for four half-pints – you can of course buy more tokens on site.

The breweries due to take part in Craft Beer Cares 2018 include:
Beavertown
Brew By Numbers
Brooklyn
Canopy
Cloudwater
Dry and Bitter
Fourpure
Gipsy Hill
Kernel
London Fields
Magic Rock
Modern Times
Northern Monk
NZ Beer Collective
Partizan
Siren
Thornbridge
Weird Beard
Wylam
Yeastie Boys

There's more to be confirmed, say the organisers. Based on last year's event, we can expect maybe eight or ten beers to be available on draught at any one time, plus others in bottle or can, and new kegs coming on tap as others run out.

Tickets for Craft Beer Cares are available via Eventbrite.