Friday, 1 December 2017

Cask Wars: Revenge of the Kegï

The toxic legacy of the long-vanquished Kegï hangs over a beer-galaxy struggling to rebuild from the Cask Wars of the 70s. Now, a small band of Craft Warriors seeks to re-unify the divided houses of the Beerati, but the entrenched Stickinnamuds still hold out for the Empire and the Old Order…

It’s ironic, really: the country that saved real ale and cask conditioning for the world is now the one that risks losing it – and all because of an artificial divide that was defined 40 years ago, to serve the needs of a very different time.

That was one of the messages that came out of a seminar held in London a few weeks ago to mark the release of the 2017 edition of the Cask Report, which surveys both drinkers and vendors on the state of the beer business. A key element in this year’s report is the rebranding of cask as also being craft – something that’s a no-brainer in most other countries, where the presence of a handpump enhances a beer-bar’s craft credentials, rather than distracting from them.

To listen to Cask Report author Paul Nunny, of the quality checking group Caskmarque, cask is a bellwether – or perhaps a canary – for the whole pub industry. He cited statistics showing that consumers as a whole see handpulls as marking out ‘a proper pub’, and that cask drinkers are more likely to move pubs if the ale quality isn’t up to snuff.

“Cask drinkers matter because 42% of them go to the pub weekly or more, they are more loyal to their local, they spend more – £1030 a year, 30% more than average, and they are often the ones recommending the pub [to the rest of their party],” Nunny added.

In the seminar, several speakers expressed amazement that anyone might think cask ale wasn’t already part of the craft spectrum. Clearly they’re not CAMRA members – even those of us that are quite happy with a cask=craft definition are well aware of the “keg is always evil” diehards.

“The first key step is to stop being distracted by definitions – cask has to move forward under the banner of craft beer, which it is,” commented James Coyle, the managing director of Innis & Gunn which recently added cask to its keg and bottle line-up. “The trend in America is pulling back from highly-hopped beers towards more sessionable beers. They’re not concerned about the definition of cask, for example craft brewer Shipyard also brews Old Thumper.”

I guess part of the problem is that cask and craft are orthogonal terms. Even if you believe craft is more than just a meaningless marketing term – and many will argue it’s on a par with other empty words such as Premium or Traditional – it refers to a completely different set of properties. Cask ale can be made by hand or in an automated industrial-scale brewhouse, while craft can mean traditional and anti-industrial, or modern and challenging.

The trouble is, we’re stuck with both.

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Is real ale too cheap? Or is craft keg too dear?

Price hikes could be on the way for Britain’s cask ale lovers, if recommendations in the Cask Report 2018 are followed. According to the report, which is based on a survey of 2000 drinkers, 90% of cask drinkers say they don’t have a fixed budget in mind when they go for a beer.

I know that the lower price of cask ale versus craft keg has long been a bugbear for some brewers and bloggers. But rather than criticise the craft keggers for profiteering, they usually complain that cask is too cheap – after all, they say, the ingredients are the same. They do have a point of course, if we can compare like with like, but some craft keg beers use more malt and hops than the average real ale, so they will have a more expensive 'bill of materials'.

The distribution task is similar, too. Craft keggers whine that Keykegs and the like cost money and are one-way vessels, which might be a valid complaint if they weren’t thereby relieving themselves of the cost of buying, retrieving and washing casks for re-use. Plus, they do have the option of reusable kegs.

But there are also sound reasons for keeping cask prices lower at the point of sale, if possible. Quite simply, a cask goes off once it’s open, so you need to sell it as soon as possible (unless you resort to a gas blanket or other dodgy behaviour that can adversely affect the process of cask-conditioning). Keg on the other hand will stay fresh enough for weeks, so you can afford to keep it on sale longer, while you wait for enough mugs to come along and pay two quid a pint extra for what’s essentially the same beer as on the next-door handpump.

Cask Report author Paul Nunny is right that people will pay more for their beer if the offer is right – it’s just that it doesn’t have to be down to beer quality. I know two pubs in Hammersmith right next door to each other. In one, a pint of real ale is £4.50ish, in the other it can be literally half that – and there’s not much difference in variety and quality between the two – in fact the cheaper one probably has the greater variety .

The real difference is one is a Spoons and the other a Nicholsons, so you’re paying – or not – for the latter’s nicer ambience, with its trad pubby furniture and feel, significantly fresher air and bigger windows. Oh, and the different clientele, of course.

How much extra are you willing to pay for better quality ale? Is the craft keg premium fair and sustainable or just manipulation of markets and fashions?

Apologies for the delay in getting this post and the next one online – it's a few weeks now since the launch of the Cask Report and the accompanying seminar for licensees and pub operators on how to make more of cask ale, but work intervened and my reports fell through the cracks... Oops. 

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Waitrose plans a beery splash with Fuller's & Friends

Waitrose is the place to shop tomorrow, or so it seems! The upmarket retailer has snagged itself a bunch of interesting beer exclusives, and Monday 13th November is when they’re due to arrive on the shelves. (edit: maybe wait until later this week before going in - if my local branch is anything to go by, they'll go on the shelves as and when the delivery happens and the staff have time...) It’s not just the Fuller’s & Friends mixed six-pack of collaboration brews, which I’ll write more about in a moment – the others I know of are two more bottled Fuller’s beers, namely the 10.7% Imperial Stout 2017 and Vintage Ale 2017, and an exclusive beer from Thornbridge.

The latter is a Gose made with watermelon juice. Originally brewed by Londoner Josh Smith, it was the winner of the Waitrose-sponsored 2017 Great British Homebrew Challenge, and one of the prizes is this competition is to have your beer brewed commercially by Thornbridge. The beer’s name, Mr Smith Gose To…, references both its brewer and the 1939 Frank Capra film, ‘Mr Smith goes* to Washington’.

By coincidence, I met Thornbridge’s head brew Rob Lovatt, who was one of the Homebrew Challenge judges, at the launch of Fuller’s & Friends – he is also one of the latter. He noted that one of his aims with the 7.1% Fuller’s/Thornbridge brew, a Red Rye Ale named Flora & the Griffin after the two breweries’ mascots, was that it would age well in bottle – all six F&F beers are bottle-conditioned.

Explaining the F&F project, Fuller’s head brewer Georgina Young said that although the idea came from her predecessor John Keeling, who is now brewing director and brand ambassador, a lot of the drive behind F&F came from Fuller’s marketing department and from Waitrose itself – after all, you can’t do something like this if you don’t have an outlet for the results.

Essentially she paired each of her six brewers with another brewery, each pairing discussed what they would brew, where possible they did a pilot batch at the other brewery – these were the beers that appeared in cask at London Craft Beer Festival and a few other places back in the summer – and then they brewed and bottled the full production batches at Fuller’s during the autumn. “My team have really shown their capabilities, working with their partners,” she said, adding with a grin: “I haven’t been involved in brewing any of the beers, I just wielded the big stick!”

She presented the six, and their brewers, more or less in order of ABV, so first up was the 4.8% collaboration with Fourpure, which is also the only lager in the set. Some have already given Galleon dry-hopped lager the new-fangled tag of India Pale Lager, or IPL, but it’s much more about aroma and flavour than bitterness. The brewers were keen to use the new Loral hop; it has floral qualities so they then paired it with the grape character of Nelson Sauvin hops.

I’ve had dry-hopped lagers before so wasn’t expecting a lot, but Galleon – the  beer's name is meant to reference the meeting of old and new on the Thames – really impressed me, especially as I was incredibly lucky to try it cask-conditioned from a handpump, as well as in bottle.

As Georgina explained, “We thought for fun we’d run off a firkin [cask] of each beer. I’m not sure it’s right for all of them…” Well, I don’t know about the latter, because this cask lager was excellent – fresh lemony malt overlaid with spicy-sweet and floral hops, and a mild pleasing bitterness. It’s also quite possibly the first cask beer that kegophiliac brewery Fourpure has ever produced, and it showed just what they are missing by shunning cask.

Georgina introduces the Matariki brewers,
Fuller's Hayley and Marble's JK. 
Next up was what was probably my favourite of the six, albeit just a nose ahead: Matariki, a New Zealand Saison brewed with Manchester’s Marble. Dry-sweet and lightly funky, with notes of golden malt and grapes, it was best on cask which gave it a slightly creaminess, but is still jolly good in bottle. Its name is a nod to the seasonal origins of the style, said Hayley Marlor, the Fuller's half of the collaboration – Matariki is the New Zealand name of a constellation that appears around harvest time.

Rebirth, the 6% collaboration with Bristol’s Moor Beer that takes the original 1971 recipe for Fuller’s ESB and gives it a 21st century twist, was the only one I’d already tried on cask back in the summer. Where that version was lightly resinous and jammy, with herbal bitterness, this one is more toffee and marmalade, with bright hoppiness. "We did tweak the recipe slightly as we had it too dark, but it is the same beer," said Moor’s Justin Hawke, adding that the other difference from the pilot is of course that he brews all his beers unfined.

He added that, coming from the US where Fuller’s ESB is a classic that has spawned an entire beer style, “I had expected it to be 100 years old, and was surprised to find the first brew was only in 1971!” The ESB recipe has been revised since then, bringing the ABV down and eliminating the adjuncts to make it all-malt. Said Justin, “The old recipe has US, Australian, Slovenian and UK hops, so we decided to update it to what it could be if it used fresh hops from those countries today.”

I’ve already mentioned Flora & the Griffin – it’s sweet and faintly tart, with hints of caramelised and spiced nuts – so next up is the 7% New England IPA, a collaboration with Manchester craft beer darlings Cloudwater. NE IPAs are all about thick hop flavours and aromas, rather than bitterness, so as Fuller’s Henry explained, the planning for this was all about how much hops they could get in at every stage of the process: “It was, would we still be able to empty the fermenter if we put in 80 kilos? At every point I’m thinking ‘Will this beer get out of this vessel?’ – and it did!”

A notable oddity is that where NE IPAs are usually cloudy, this one came out clear – “I don’t know what happened there,” said Henry. I checked though, and it was also one of only two beers in the set that weren’t pilot-brewed. The justification was that Cloudwater rarely repeats its beers, but I fear it showed. It’s definitely not a dud – it’s a nice beer, richly hoppy and fruity-crisp – but I suspect it’s not what it could or perhaps should have been.

Also 7% but saved for last as it is both the only dark and the only smoked beer in the set, is Peat Souper, a collaboration with Cumbria’s HardKnott that was designed as a way to make HardKnott’s impressive Rhetoric #4 12% Imperial Stout more accessible by hybridising it with Fuller’s Black Cab and London Porter. And amazingly, it works! If you know the three beers, you can detect them all in there - rich and lightly smoky Rhetoric, chocolatey Black Cab and faintly roasty and vinous like the London Porter.

Hardknott’s Dave Bailey said the biggest problem had been the amount of notoriously pungent peat-smoked malt in the recipe, which Fuller’s staff had worried would taint subsequent brews in the same vessels. They suggested halving the amount, but he stood firm and eventually won – they had to start at 4am as the last brew of the week, but were able to use the peated malt because the brew was timed just before those particular vessels had their six-monthly overhaul and extra-deep clean.

All in all, Fuller's & Friends is an impressive project. The beers demonstrate variety and innovation, yet at the same time they are all about accessibility and drinkability, rather than pushing the extremes. Not every brewery can achieve that, but as Rob Lovatt noted, “I have great respect for Fuller’s. Drinkability is something Fuller’s has down to a tee, and other brewers could learn a lot from that.“

The value for Fuller's – which as Georgina Young says, now "embraces doing collaborations with partners big and small" – seems clear too. Of course, the big thing is the marketing opportunity, and you can certainly see why they're pitching the boxed set as an ideal Christmas gift for the beerily-inclined!

But there's also the 'rising tide that floats all boats' aspects. All the brewers involved seem to have learnt something, whether it's guests who normally brew on something eight or ten times smaller and non-automated, or Fuller's brewers who had never manually dug out a mash-tun before! And just as importantly, they all appear to have had a great time. 

*I’m afraid that when I see attempted puns like this, my first thought is that someone doesn’t know how to pronounce Gose (hint: “Go-ser”). Ah well, never mind – I plan to buy and try the beer anyway! 

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

The end is nigh for London Drinker beer festival

I heard a sad bit of news from organiser Christine Cryne last night: the 2018 London Drinker Beer & Cider Festival will be the last. The hall in the Camden Centre is closing, and in the absence of anyone willing to take over running the festival and find it a new venue, that's it.

They want "to go out with a bang" though, and have lots planned for the final edition, which runs from Wednesday to Friday, the 14th-16th March. It includes judging the Champion Beer of London, competitions for the best low-alcohol (3% or under) beer in London and the best amateur cidermaker, a bring & buy stand, tutored tastings with five London brewers, a free pub quiz, and a VIP session for CAMRA members. 

And once again all the draught beers, cask and keg, will be London-brewed or from members of the London Brewers Alliance, which includes a couple from a little further out. All this info and more is in the downloadable festival newsletter.

The festival will be officially opened by Fuller's John Keeling, at lunchtime on Wednesday 14th March.

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

36 hours in RiNo part 2

Part 1 is here

I didn’t manage to fit as much into the evening as I’d hoped, partly because the jetlag was catching up and partly because I’d already knocked off the low-hanging fruit. One place I did want to go, because I visited the brewery a dozen years ago and wanted to catch up, was Great Divide. They’re down-town, but fortunately they also have a site now in RiNo where their barrel-ageing and packaging takes place. Of course there’s also a taproom there, and it’s within walking distance of a few more breweries, so that was target number one.

In hindsight, perhaps I didn’t need to walk everywhere. As well as city buses – for a US city, Denver has a very good public transport system – there’s the inevitable Ubers and Lyfts, and a free shuttle looping between the various arty nexuses. Walking gave my brewery crawl a focus though, plus you see more, and I think I only saw the shuttle once, so I’ve no idea how long the wait might have been!

The walk over to Great Divide reminded me just how much this isn’t a walking part of town, however. Run-down low-rise business premises, dusty and sun-bleached old houses – and roadworks, lots of them. Then you suddenly reach a regenerating area: the side roads are still dirt and gravel, but the scruffy yards surrounded by chainlink fencing are interspersed with well-lit new buildings, with more still under construction.

Like most of the other buildings, Great Divide’s barrel store is just a box, but one with large windows through which you can see – yes, barrels, lots of them (though it is by no means full, not at all). It’s a warm and easy place, though its location away from the main population clusters may explain why it closes at 10pm most nights. The bar itself is quite typical, with a long row of taps along the bar-back, and a list that includes several Farmhouse ales/Saisons and sours, reminding me that the sour beer fashion is still in full swing.

My curiosity piqued, I ended up trying three Saisons – Colette, Apricot Colette and Nadia Kali, the latter including hibiscus, ginger and lemon peel – and the Strawberry Rhubarb sour, before finally tackling the brewery’s flagship Yeti Imperial Stout, in this case in its 9.5% Espresso Oak-Aged version. I wasn’t wowed by the latter. Compared to the regular Yeti which I’ve had before, this version was just too much – especially too much bitter coffee and burnt bitterness. In hindsight it’s possible my tiredness had affected my palate, but still, I’d love to try blending a bottle of this with regular Yeti to see if it would integrate everything a bit better.

All the other four were rather good, with the funky-spicy and peppery-bitter Colette at 7.3% winning for me. It’s a great example of a style that’s already complex and interesting, without the need to tart it up – although to be fair the apricot version did run it a close second!

Mockery Brewing, a short walk away down an unpaved street, is rather different. Set up just three years ago when this area was taking off*, it pitches itself as a bit of an iconoclast (hmm!) and sure enough its beer list is eclectic. There’s the usual IPA, Blonde and barrel-aged, but there’s also Bretted and fruited beers, a salted Scotch ale, and what was meant to be a smoked Weizen, although it wasn’t a patch on the Schlenkerla Weizen which for me epitomises this “style”.

Best of the bunch were a well-made peppery and estery Rye Saison, and Funken Stupor, a dry and spicy Bretted pale ale that was a collaboration with Novel Strand. The latter is a Denver brewery so new it isn’t even open yet – no signs of a saturating beer market here yet, eh?

The funny thing is that although Mockery ought to feel pretentious, it didn’t. Arty and modern, yes, but the vibe was friendly and fun, and the beers were all decent or better. Yes, there was one that was also a bit confused flavourwise (Stuck in Rumination, their rum barrel-aged DIPA), but that’s true in so many Denver taprooms, and the overall feel was more that they were having a bit of fun messing with beer styles and treatments.

By now it was well past 11pm, still early for some but sadly way too late for the nearby Crooked Stave taproom. So it was time to wend my tired way back via yet another route, thanking 3UK for free data roaming and Google Maps as I went. I genuinely did a double-take on walking past a darkened building, glancing in, and spotting what was very obviously a shiny steel brewery of some size. It turned out to be the new Blue Moon brewery-restaurant – the original Blue Moon Brewery in the Denver baseball stadium may well have been the first of the ersatz "crafty micros” when it was set up by Coors just over 20 years ago.

Tomorrow would be another busy day – into the city, sadly too early for the downtown taprooms, to get the bus up to Boulder. It was only a short time in Denver, but an interesting one – a view of how much modern beer and brewing can help regenerate, but how it also is at risk from pulling in what we used to call yuppies. Maybe that's just the way this process works, and we've all failed to spot – or have just ignored – that the next step in the so-called regeneration process is yuppification. Sad.

*They have a 3rd birthday party set for 4th November. 

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

36 hours in RiNo part 1

Earlier this year I went to a conference in Boulder, Colorado. Much as I like Boulder itself, this meant flying into Denver, and it’s been many years since I explored that city’s beery pleasures. So I arranged to travel out a couple of days early and have most of a weekend in Denver. Rather than stay in the centre or south, where I’d been before, I decided to explore the northern side of town, more specifically the up-and-coming arty area of RiNo, or River North.

Some of 'old' RiNo survives
Five or ten years ago, I don't think there wasn't much reason for most people to visit this part of northern Denver – especially not after dark! Flat, dusty and sun-baked, like much of the south-western US, it was an area of railway sidings, light industrial units and warehouses. There were local residents, but mainly poorer ones.

With time, that included artists and hippies as they were priced out of other areas, and following them came the hipsters and the semi-curse of arty areas everywhere – gentrification. I say semi-curse because while it's driving property prices up and by the look of it pushing industry out, it's pulling in infrastructure investment – I haven't seen so many building sites and roadworks in ages.

Black Shirt: less Moseley, more metal
And of course what infrastructure expansion is complete these days without a craft brewery or brewpub? One RiNo brewer said from almost nothing four years ago, he now has 13 other breweries within a mile, and I can well believe it. There's even more downtown, of course, but that's more like two miles away and they've been there rather longer - since 1988 in the case of Wynkoop, Colorado's first brewpub and craft brewery.

RiNo had the advantage for me of being on the train line from the airport to the main station, so with a bit of planning (and a 3-UK SIM card for free roaming data in case I needed to re-check the map) I could get off a couple of stops early and walk to the room I’d booked through AirBnB.  On my walk I heard cheerful noises and spotted Black Shirt, one of the local brewpubs. So after dropping off my bag, I headed back there.

It’s a friendly place, with modern art for sale on the walls and a crowd that seemed more grunge and arty-local than hipster. The beer was the usual ‘craft’ mixture of styles – a very nice Saison alongside assorted IPAs, a Porter, a Stout and of course something barrel-aged, in this case a sour ale aged in bourbon barrels. Most were rather good, even the inevitable Kölsch, a style that’s everywhere now and has emerged as a gateway beer, not just for lager drinkers exploring ale but for ale brewers looking for an easy way to produce something lagery.

Epic's airy and bright
Waking the following morning, I made coffee and started planning my afternoon. Epic Brewing's tap-room was in the right direction and opened earlier than some of the others, so that was my first target. Walking in, it was clear that a lot of money had been spent here – a theme that was to flow through the afternoon. After a couple of excellent beers chosen from the dozen-plus taps serving the clean and airy bar area, it was time for their first guided brewery tour of the day.

It turns out this isn’t the original Epic – it’s an offshoot of a Utah brewery, which opened a Denver branch in 2013 to get around Utah’s strict alcohol laws. For example, in Colorado you can sell packaged beer direct from the brewery.

Old foeders too
When it opened in an old high-roofed auto workshop, Epic was one of the first in the area; it’s now 50% bigger than its parent and while its brewlength is still a ‘micro’ 20 barrels, they’re brewing 24 hours a day, five days a week, and its array of fermenting vessels (FVs) includes ones holding 120 and 180 barrels. These are for the biggest sellers, needless to say. Having as many as nine brews go into one FV also helps with consistency, as it smooths out batch variation.

Like most micros Epic also does barrel-ageing, but unlike most they have foeders too – tall wooden vessels that tower over the bar area. They do some kegging and bottling, but most of the beer that goes offsite is canned on an automated microcanning line. Sadly, while they do export to a few countries, none of them’s this side of the Atlantic.

By now it was starting to get a whole lot busier, and the food truck had opened for lunch – Colorado might be relatively relaxed about brewing and selling beer, but apparently it’s a pain getting the permits to sell hot food as well. So most brewery taps and brewpubs skirt around it by inviting mobile canteens to park up outside and then allowing patrons to bring their food inside.

Industrial chic at Ratio
It was the same at my next stop, Ratio Beerworks, a brewpub where the Texas BBQ truck served up a paper plate of excellent pulled pork for just a few dollars. Ratio was an odd one otherwise – all the beers were well made and tasty, yet somehow it felt like there wasn’t any great inspiration and it was trying just a bit too hard to be fashionable. Then again, while its ‘industrial chic’ concrete and sheet-steel styling would be pretty drab in another climate, in the Colorado sunshine it worked pretty well. The terrace in particular was cheerful and bustling with groups of friends, most with lunch in mind and several with dogs in tow.

Respite from the heat
Our Mutual Friend was a bit of a shock at first. After the airiness of Epic and the sunny terrace at Ratio, it seemed, well, gloomy! Before long though I came to welcome the cool shade inside what felt almost like someone’s front parlour, albeit a very large one. Beyond the bar, I could see into the space behind where the 7-barrel brewkit lives, and above the bar was an eclectic list of beers – a few of the craft-standards you see almost everywhere now, such as IPA and Saison, but also a Mild, a Winter Warmer (in the Colorado summer?!?) and a Smoked Pumpkin Ale – I assume it was the malt that was smoked, not the pumpkin, but you never know.

The OMF beers were more variable – the Smoked Pumpkin and the Raspberry Sour were excellent, for example, but the Mild was a bit odd – notes of toasted fruit and rye bread don’t say Mild to me. I liked the place though, and would have stayed longer, if not for the jetlag catching up. It was time for a siesta, before the evening part of the crawl…. 

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Five Stages of Craft Beer

Most of the “craft beer revolutions” I’ve seen went through broadly the same stages. They’re not always in exactly the same order, and of course some brewers might jump a step or several steps – and you might notice a small amount of cynicism here – but I reckon you will find them all pretty much anywhere…

1. Discover American Pale Ale and IPA, be amazed by how much flavour it has compared to the industrially-produced and heavily-advertised lowest common denominator swill you’ve been drinking, and copy it verbatim. This is how most craft beer movements start.
1a. Ditto, but with British or Belgian ales.

2. Finally realise that if you’re just going to copy the Americans you probably can’t win – the real thing is better and has economies of scale. Plus it’s increasingly available everywhere, especially as good US breweries sell out to (or ‘partner with’) multinationals who already have strong distribution networks. Your only real advantage is local provenance, so you substitute local ingredients, for example to produce a German IPA or an Italian Saison.

3. Try to come up with a pretentious twist – adding pink peppercorns, say, or ageing in Tequila barrels. Of course, there’s a good chance other small brewers will also think of it, in which case it’ll be passé even before it hits the shelves. Worse, a few of the regional brewers are pretty fast to copy this sort of thing, again with better economies of scale and distribution channels. Still, if you’re the kind who rarely brews the same thing twice you’ll be onto a new fashion by then.

4. Rediscover – or in extreme cases, invent – local beer styles or traditions, then revive them and give them a ‘modern twist’. Sour Altbiers, cloying cherry beers, and souped-up Grodziskies.

5. Finally realise that what most people want is what they already know, but that some of them are willing to pay for better quality – or for a version with a better, more fashionable image. For example, many German craft brewers grew up in opposition to fizzy, bright yellow, industrially-produced ‘TV beer’, with murky ales becoming a signifier of rebellious authenticity. It’s ironic then that quite a few of them are now making Craft Pils, or Craft Lagerbier.

Have I missed any stages?