Saturday, 23 July 2016

65 beers in one day – easy, right?

Off we go for round one
Judging at the International Beer Challenge for the first time was both hard work and great fun. You might expect the latter for something involving gallons upon gallons of beer, but not the former, right?

Well, look at it this way: our table was just one of ten, each of which had around 60-70 different beers to taste. Every one of us judges needed to taste each of our beers and discuss it, before deciding if it merited a bronze, silver or gold medal. That’s a lot of different flavours to assess – then try to clear off your palate, ready for the next one!

As usual with beer judging – I’ve judged other competitions before, but not one on this scale – the beers were presented in groups. Some of these were obvious, for example a tray of British-style pale ales and bitters or one of Hefeweizens, while others were defined more broadly – by the use of cherries, say, or by being gluten-free. The beers were all anonymous, and because they can be from anywhere in the world, the chance of accurately recognising one without any clues was pretty slim.

The most interesting bit was the interplay with the other judges, who in my case included another writer, a beer sommelier who also runs beer tours, and two people working in beer retail. For each beer, we’d examine, sniff, taste and then write notes, before discussing its medal-worthiness. Sometimes the accuracy of their descriptions or flaw-spotting was startling – the exact tropical fruit aromas, say, or that a sample was oxidised – while on occasion I’d spot a flaw before they did.

The IBC asks you to judge each beer on its individual merit – “would you recommend this to someone else?” – rather than ‘judging to style’, as you do for the big American competitions. Judging to style means each entry not only has to be a good beer, but it also has to fit the often hair-splitting technical definition for the style of beer that it purports to be. The best-known style guide is the US-originated Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) listing which you can download or find in mobile app form.

Still going, several rounds later
If you are planning to taste several different beers, the general rule is to start with the lowest in alcohol strength and work up, and that’s how each grouping was presented to us. Mostly this worked well, though occasionally you’d get a stronger-flavoured one in the middle of the group and have to nibble a cracker and sip some water (actually we sipped a lot of water!) so it didn’t affect your judgement of the next one. The alternative rule for beer tasting is to start with the subtler ones and work up to the stronger flavours, but of course you have to know what beers you are drinking to do that.

Fortunately we got very few that were either faulty or lacking in some other way, although we also only got a few absolute gold-medal crackers. Almost all were competent, and a decent proportion were ones I’d happily order again – if only I knew what they were, of course. The oddest was probably the soured Dunkel – I like sour beer styles, but this one didn’t quite hang together well enough, so we requested a fresh sample from a new bottle, and yup, it wasn’t meant to be sour...

So, a really interesting day’s work, and a very impressive effort by the organisers at Agile Media, which publishes several drinks-related titles, such as Off Licence News and Harpers Wine & Spirit. I was especially impressed by the patience and dexterity of the servers bringing us the samples, and by the thoroughness and efficiency of the organising staff, who ensured we both got and turned in all the right paperwork at the right time.

Monday, 13 June 2016

A box of hoppy little Duvels

Almost ten years ago, a Belgian brewery launched an dry-hopped version of its signature strong blond ale. Intended as a one-off, it sold out within just three days – after which its fans demanded it be brewed again. The brewmaster agreed, on condition that they could gather 10,000 signatures. In short order their petition had 17,000 signatures, and the legend of Duvel Tripel Hop was born.

It took three years, but eventually Duvel brewmaster Hedwig Neven was as good as his word, and he rebrewed Tripel Hop, complete with its distinctive Amarillo third hopping. This second release was a success too, and in 2012 he made the beer an annual special – but using a different third hop each year. (The two other hops used in each annual brew are the same as in regular Duvel, which means Czech Saaz and Slovenian Styrian Goldings.)

Needless to say, the beers became fan favourites, with each new release eagerly awaited by beer lovers. Duvel Tripel Hop even helped inspire a new beer style or description: Belgian IPA. It is a term that Hedwig Neven and other traditional Belgian brewers don’t much like, though – to Duvel, it’s still a strong blond ale, albeit a hopped-up one.

But the fans faced a problem: while you could compare each new release with your notes from past years, comparing the actual beers wasn’t really feasible. Sure, you could save bottles from year to year, but hop character wanes with time, so comparing a fresh brew to one that’s two or three years old would be quite unrealistic.

The original rebrewed
So when it came time to brew the sixth edition, the Duvel folks had an idea – why not rebrew all the others as well and let people compare them? And that’s exactly what they did, packaging six 33cl bottles as a boxed set and making a game of it, inviting drinkers to vote for their gold, silver and bronze medallists.

Sadly, they then went a step further. The plan is that the winning variety will become the new permanent Duvel Tripel Hop. On the plus side, this means the beer will be available all year round, but the downside is it also means no more annual variations. I guess they figure that, in today’s hop-driven market, if they can get a boost in sales to the wider market it will compensate for losing the mystique and the fan following.

That’s the story, but what of the beers? I was lucky enough to be invited to taste all six varieties at a Duvel-hosted event a little while back, and it was fascinating to see that while they were the same base beer and they obviously had a lot of similarities, that one change in hopping had quite dramatic results.

For instance, #1’s Amarillo offered up aromas of sage and pepper alongside a peachy aroma, and gave herby-spicy notes on the palate, while the Citra hops instead gave #2 distinctive aromas of grapefruit pith plus a bitterness of bitter lemons and dry grass.

My favourite!
I’d had #3 – the 2013 edition, with Sorachi Ace – when it came out, but was happy to try it again and compare notes (the two brews matched well). It’s another spicy and dry-bitter one, though this time with aromas of citrus and mint leaves. Mosaic hops gave #4 hints of orange, mint and melon on the nose, the peppery bitterness less aggressive, letting the malt show through a little more for a bitter-sweet finish.

With #5 (Equinox), the new brew diverged a little from my previous notes. There’s still hints of Saison funkiness and pear drops on the nose, and touches of tangerine and honey on the palate, but this brew seemed a little more fruity and the honey notes verged more toward caramel.

Using an experimental hop called HBC-291, from the Yakima Valley, #6 is the new edition for 2016. I found it rather more subtle, smooth and less bitter than the other five, with faint notes of rosemary and ground pepper on the nose and a light lemony tartness.

It was also intriguing after the tasting to compare notes with the other tasters and see just how varied our top choices were. It was a difficult choice, but Mosaic was my favourite, just ahead of Equinox and Sorachi Ace, but others preferred Citra or even the original Amarillo version.

Now we wait to see the results of the popular vote. In the meantime, several online shops still have the six-packs in stock (eg. Beermerchants) if you fancy making your own choice. I also hear some people have experimented with blending the different editions, typically all six together (Octo Hop?) but it could also be interesting to try mixing them in pairs...

My thanks to Duvel for supplying free beers and arranging the 'vertical tasting', and my apologies for how long it's been since I last posted here!

Friday, 22 April 2016

When is a brewery not a brewery?

Brewing kit at Ubrew
London now has 101 breweries, according to recent figures. Except that it doesn’t – talking to CAMRA folk in the know*, their estimate is that at least 10 to 15 of the brewing companies are actually nomad brewers**, who brew batches from time to time at one of three or four sites where you can go along and rent a commercial-grade brewkit. The best known of these ‘open source breweries’ is Ubrew in Bermondsey.

Then there’s another half a dozen that are ‘resting’ for whatever reason, and a few more where you have two brewers sharing a brewkit. This all means that the total of actual physical breweries is probably still in the 75-80 region.

That means it has pretty much stabilised in the last couple of years. There have been a few closures, but they’ve been more or less matched by new openings – often with the latter using the brewing kit sold off by the former.

The nomad issue echoes a conversation I had at London Drinker Beer Festival with a couple of brewers from more established (and here I mean a few years, not 100 years!) breweries. As one of them noted, “Ubrew is messing up the market. The beers are still good, but it confuses things because people are saying they’re a new brewery when they’re actually using Ubrew.”

Sour grapes, or are the nomad brewers genuinely sowing confusion in the market? Their beers certainly look the part, but does actually owning the brewkit make a difference to the quality?

*London CAMRA (of which I'm a member) tracks its local brewing closely, even though a lot of it isn’t real ale. It’s partly for completeness and partly because even breweries that mostly do keg beer often also do bottle-conditioned beers and cask-conditioned specials.

**Nomad has become popular as the least potentially-offensive of the available terms. ‘Gypsy’ as preferred by the likes of Mikkeller, is regarded by many as pejorative, and ‘cuckoo’ has unpleasant connotations – would you put up with a cuckoo brewer in your brewery if you knew they were planning to elbow your own chicks over the edge of the nest?

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Raising a toast to Her Maj

As I write this, tomorrow is the 90th birthday of HM Queen Elizabeth II. You might think that when you’re one of the richest women in the world, with pretty much unlimited medical resources available, reaching 90 is no great surprise. But none of the previous Windsor monarchs made it past 77, and even if you go back to the Hanoverians, even George III and Victoria only just made it into their 80s.

So I was quite happy to raise a glass to Her Maj this afternoon, at the launch of the first Royal birthday-themed beer I’ve seen so far: Greene King’s Purple Reign. If you want to follow suit, Purple Reign’s due to be on 1000 Greene King bars around the country through May and June as one of their seasonal specials.

The beer itself is a fairly average 4.2% malty-sweet golden ale that isn’t going to frighten the corgis. Apparently it includes four different hop varieties: Challenger, Pilgrim, Styrians and First Gold. I found this hard to believe at first, but after a second try they emerged blinking into the sunlight – or rather, into an earthy and faintly herbal bitterness with distant hints of berries.

As to the name, the GK crew alluded to purple as a royal colour, and of course most people will know the song. Or will they? GK might have been thinking of Prince’s Purple Rain, but had they looked further there’s also some rap-crap actually called Purple Reign, with lovely lyrics such as:

If young Metro don't trust you, I'm gon' shoot you
Aye somebody uh, calls somebody get some molly
I need some good sauce, clean sauce

Mind you, you could wonder about the aptness of Prince’s lyrics:

I never meant to cause you any sorrow
I never meant to cause you any pain
I only wanted one time to see you laughing

But still – beer, the pub, and the Queen. What more could any decent Brit ask for? 😃

There's chocolate cake in there somewhere!

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Exploring Belgian beer beyond the abbeys

With several British companies already offering subscribers a monthly box of new bottled beers, you might think there isn’t much room in the market here for yet another monthly beer box. Belgibeer’s Dario Ceccarelli thinks otherwise though, and having built up his business across mainland Europe, he has just opened a UK office as well.

The difference is that other beer clubs might focus on British brewers, say, or try to do a world’s-best type of thing that’s great for new explorers but probably won’t impress aficionados (“A bottle of Orval/Vedett IPA/Flensburger Gold? Mr Ambassador, you’re spoiling us!”). However, each monthly Belgibeer box contains only beers from a single brewery – and as its name implies, all the breweries are Belgian.

Dario opens a box of beer...
“With its similar culture, France is our biggest market now, but the UK is our next target,” said Dario when I met him over a glass of Piraat Triple Hop at the opening of the London office. He added, “We want to broaden people’s expectations beyond abbeys – we work with ‘the other’ Belgian brewers.”

He said that even though many drinkers – and most Belgians – think they know Belgian beer, they don’t really. That’s due to the market dominance of AB-Inbev (Stella, Jupiler, Leffe, Hoegaarden...) and to a lesser extent Heineken (Maes, Grimbergen, Affligem...), which means that pretty much anywhere you go in Belgium, you will see the same macrobrews on the menu. Yet the country has hundreds of good small brewers, almost all of them little known abroad. Some produce only traditional Belgian styles, a few focus on international craft styles, and many brew the best of both worlds.

The volume he’s able to buy means that these brewers will sometimes do specials for him, for example packaging a beer that’s normally only in 70cl bottles in smaller ones instead. Also in the box you get a Belgibeer magazine profiling the brewery and introducing the beers – they visit each brewery they work with. It’s trilingual (English, French and Dutch) and is both slightly cute and a bit politically incorrect, in a way that suggests Belgium must be fortunate enough to lack a bunch of humourless drinks-nannies like the Portman Group.

As well as subscribing for regular deliveries, you can buy one-off cases and a range of ‘extras’, ranging from branded glasses to bottles of Westvleteren 8 and 12. Dario noted that beer boxes have become a popular gift item – he said that in France 80% of Belgibeer’s clients are women, with many of them buying the boxes as gifts through a gift-box website.

If I have a minor reservation, it is that other beer clubs typically send eight (or 12) different bottles. Like most smaller brewers though, Belgian breweries produce a relatively modest range of beers at any one time, so each Belgibeer box only contains four different brews (two bottles of each). Still, the aim is to have each box as internally varied as possible, and the breweries chosen are often little known outside their provinces, never mind outside Belgium.

For example, I’d not heard before of some of the breweries featured recently, such as Brasserie de Cazeau and Brasserie Sainte Hélène, both in Wallonia. Others I’d heard of but barely sampled, such as Vicaris and De Dochter van de Korenaar. One recent box was from van Steenberge, and while I’d had the regular Piraat 10.5 before, the box’s other three beers were new to me – including the excellent Triple Hop and the Gulden Draak 9000 Quad.

Belgibeer’s UK pricing depends how long you subscribe for, fitting in with the competition at around £3 a bottle. That’s pretty good for delivered beer, especially when quite a bit of it is over 6% – and much of it is likely to be unavailable anywhere else in the UK.

Sunday, 3 April 2016

CAMRA's revitalisation project pits faith vs fitness

Error: Purpose not found?
In the business world, a fitness-for-purpose review is pretty standard these days. When you’ve been going for a few years, the chances are that your founding mission – massively innovative as it once was – no longer matters as much, and while you might still be doing OK commercially, the real growth is going to younger, more in-tune competitors.

Seen in that context, CAMRA’s Revitalisation Project, which has been seizing headlines for the last few days, merely prompts the question: How come it took you so long?

But of course with a membership organisation it is not quite as simple as it is in business. That’s even more true when some of your members are so stuck in the 1970s mud that they still think all kegs are the work of the devil, or that there is no such thing as American cask ale (I’ve read both of these opinions recently).

It’s more like working with a religion rather than a business – sure, you can ordain change from on high, if you’re willing to accept schism. Otherwise change is more likely to be measured in decades or centuries.

The allusion to religion ties in too with the rise of non-cask craft beer (as opposed to traditional cask craft beer, of course!). All of a sudden, the comfortable faith that cask is the One True Way to tasty beer is being undermined, both in public opinion and in the trade. No one should be surprised if some cask zealots* react by hardening rather than softening their stance, no matter how shaky or absurd their reasoning might seem by objective standards.

Some have suggested CAMRA didn’t entirely help with its “Is this the end of CAMRA?” teaser. What it meant was that the campaign might decide to choose a new mission and a new name. However, when you’re an editor trying to grab readers, or a TV presenter more concerned with displaying your sarcastic wit than with exploring the topic (hello BBC Breakfast), of course an invented conflict such as ‘CAMRA vs craft beer’ makes much better headlines than the scrupulous truth.

Thankfully, most of the stories beneath the headlines have been pretty balanced, and the coverage achieved – for which CAMRA’s publicity team should be commended – means there can’t be many drinkers unaware of the Revitalisation Project.

I’m not going to pre-judge the process – the consultation has barely started, and while the meetings scheduled around the UK are members-only, the survey is open to both members and non-members alike.

All I know is it’s going to be tough. A new mission for CAMRA will undoubtedly lose some members, but should also bring the opportunity to pick up more.

*Now that I think about it, this probably applies to the anti-CAMRA zealots too. You know, the ones who still think it’s all twiggy brown bitter, drunk by stereotypical bearded and sandalled Enemies of Progress.

Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Murky beer at Fuller's - and it's deliberate

Last week I accidentally found myself at the launch of a new beer. There I was at the Fuller’s brewery for a very interesting seminar on re-creating historic beers (of which, more later), when a brand new beer was announced – and it wasn’t a Fuller’s brew, either!

John & Justin
Brought up from Bristol specially by Moor Beer Co’s head brewer Justin Hawke, Relentless Optimism was immensely fashionably – and very appropriately, given our location in a real ale heartland – available to taste in cask-conditioned, keg-conditioned and can-conditioned form. Once CAMRA’s technical group catches up (and they’ve already validated keg-conditioning), all three formats will be acknowledged as real ale.

It’s a three-way collaboration between Justin, his guest Fernando Campoy of Spain’s Cerveza Domus, and Fuller’s John Keeling. It seems Justin and Fernando decided to brew a "non-traditional" interpretation of ESB, and thought who better to ask for advice than the man whose ESB is that rare thing – a brew that founded an entire new style of beer.

“They contacted me because they wanted to make an ESB, and they thought I might know something about it,” John joked. “So one Saturday I got the train down to Bristol and helped them brew one.”

“We wanted a modern twist on ESB,” Justin added. “It’s unfined because that leaves more flavour in the beer, and we worked with some modern British hop varieties – Admiral, Minstrel, Keyworth and UK-grown Chinook. We used a traditional ale yeast too.”

So what’s the beer like? For a start it was cloudy in all three formats – not quite Bristol Murky, but close! It looks and tastes quite different from Fuller’s ESB, yet you can see similarities in how the toffeeish malt balances the herbal and resinous bitterness.

It was also very interesting to see how each serving format emphasised different aspects of the beer – as John said, the cask version had a bigger mouthfeel, while keg dispense emphasised the hops a little more. Some people preferred the can-conditioned version though, perhaps because it came somewhere in the middle – a nice bright hoppiness, but still with that caramelly body and a decent alcohol warmth.

John said Fuller’s will buy some casks of Relentless Optimism and release them to some of its pubs, though he added that “It will be a step forward for some of them, because they won’t be used to hazy beer. We generally prefer finings because our customers expect it.”

Cloudy beer in a Fuller’s pub, yet nothing’s wrong – who’d have thought it? :)