Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Meantime's minibar takes an arty approach to beer

Inside the pop-up pub
Is Meantime Brewery’s latest publicity wheeze a tiny bar or a bijou art gallery? A bit of both really – the art side is because the 6ft by 8ft (1.8m by 2.4m) bar in the pop-up pub, which is called the Make Time For It after Meantime’s current promo campaign, has been furnished and decorated by six rather excellent artists and craftspeople from around Britain.

The guests – a maximum of three, although I’m sure you could fit more in if they stood – sit on a bench created by from recycled material by furniture designer Liam Hopkins of Manchester’s Lazerian, drink from pint glasses designed by James Adlington and hand-blown at his Bristol Blue Glass workshop, and the bar is lit by a neon installation created in Leeds by Julia Bickerstaff of Neoncraft.

Bottled neon?
Even the wallpaper is bespoke – designed by Marion Parola and Yvonne Elliott of Bespoke Atelier in Glasgow, it features climbing greenery to evoke hopbines, with the trademark Meantime cogwheel peeping out here and there. So too is the bartender’s waistcoat, designed by Brighton tailor Gresham Blake, and including specially woven “brewing process” fabric. The finishing touch is a gorgeous gilded pub mirror from London-based creative signwriter Ged Palmer’s Luminor studio.

Detail of the waistcoat
Equally important, the beer is bespoke as well – Meantime brewer Ciaran Giblin sat down with each of the artists to create a beer around them and brew it on Meantime's pilot brewkit. “I was told ‘You’ve got to get the personality of the craftsman into a beer,’ which I thought was a bit of fun,” he explained.

Sadly, although it’s a temporary pop-up bar and is therefore portable – they claim it fits in the back of a Transit van* – it wasn’t present at last week’s press launch in the clock tower above London St Pancras station. The artworks and beers did though, except for one which had already run out, and so did most of the creators involved, all of whom had enjoyed the process.

“Ciaran talked to us and got a sense of how we work,” said Marion Parola. She added that since she’s French and Yvonne is Scottish, he came up with a dark Scotch ale aged in Cognac barrels and then blended back with young beer – the rich and smooth result, called Maison Hop, was probably the star of the five we got to sample.

Ciaran checks the beer...
One demand Meantime put on the creatives was that they had just six weeks to do the job – this was to tie in with the six weeks that it would take to brew their beer from start to finish, and it’s what the Make Time campaign is about. It seems that brewers everywhere are noticing that fast and cheap may please the accountants, but it doesn’t keep drinkers happy (Anheuser-Busch has even resorted to plagiarising a rival’s advertising campaign on the subject, as Pete Brown angrily and amusingly alleged on his blog last week).

My one problem with the whole project was that the creatives weren’t paid for their work, unless you count getting a few cases of ‘their’ beer. As a freelance, I’m not a big fan of working for ‘exposure’ as it’s quite hard to spend... Sometimes though you do stuff, and it doesn’t matter that it was free because it was fun and you got something else useful out of it – a bit like writing this blog, really.

Luminor Pale Ale
And that’s how signwriter Ged Palmer approached it. “It took me months to get over doing things for exposure,” he laughed. “But at least with this I get a beer with my name on it!” He also got to work with loose gold leaf which he enjoys doing, and like the others he got a gorgeously filmed and edited promotional video showing him at work – you can find these on YouTube or the Meantime website.

If you’d like to visit the Make Time For It pop-up pub and see the artworks – oh, and collect a free pint too – it’s in Peninsula Square, North Greenwich, near the Millennium Dome, until Sunday 30th October. You’ll have to book a 20 minute visit online though, or take pot-luck. Quite what happens to it all after Sunday, I don’t know – I’ll ask...

*Long wheelbase, rather than short, I suspect!

Here's the six beers brewed for the project, as Meantime describes them:

Hop Back (Manchester): A classic mild beer with a spiced berry aroma for a modern twist

Maison Hop (Glasgow): A rich and smoky cognac barrel-aged black ale with hints of smooth vanilla.

Time to Time (Leeds): A Saison de Nuit that will light up your taste buds with vibrant fruit flavours.

Hourglass (Bristol): Crisp, dry pilsner with fresh pressed apple notes inspired by cider. The sugars from the fermentation come from a blend of malt and apple juice, giving a fruity twist to a classic dry pilsner.

The Tweedster (Brighton): Passionfruit wheat beer packed full of punchy, vibrant fruit flavours, well balanced against a beautiful wheat beer backbone.

Luminor (London): a hoppy pale ale with zesty citrus flavours from the wild Sussex Hop.

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

A cider-maker hops to it

It probably hasn’t escaped your notice that, like hoppy beer, flavoured cider is more than a little bit fashionable. So over in the States, someone had the idea of combining the two – hops and cider that is, not beer and cider, which is Snakebite and can easily get the unwary drinker into all sorts of trouble…

And now England’s Purity Brewing has collaborated with another well-known English name, Westons Cider, to follow suit. The result is Pure Hopped Cider, which combines Herefordshire apples with Worcestershire-grown Target hops – its creators are very proud of its local origins and traceable ingredients. It came out last month and Purity kindly sent me a can to try.

The first surprise was the aromatic hoppy hit on the nose as the can hissed open – it's the smell of uncooked dry hops, not of beer. The liquid pours a cloudy yellow-gold with a light sparkle but no head. In the glass, the aroma is more of scrumpy cider with an unexpected hint of ginger beer – the proper yeasty lemony kind, not the fizzy soda version.

It's sweeter on the palate than I like, but not grossly so. There's a lightly tart apple and lemon note, again a distant note of ginger beer and a touch of hops. It's unusual to get that leafy hoppiness unaccompanied by bitterness – it’s the boiling in brewing that brings out the bitterness, of course.

Would I try it again? Sure – it’s an intriguing mix and a nice cider, even if I normally prefer my ciders a little drier than this. It does make me wonder what a proper dry scrumpy would be like when dry-hopped, though!

Friday, 23 September 2016

Goose Island’s Bretty push into the UK

There is a certain irony in an AB-Inbev brewery recreating a 19th century beer that demonstrates how wildly inaccurate craft IPAs are from a historical perspective. But that is what Goose Island’s one-off Brewery Yard Stock Pale Ale does – although if you look at it another way, it is also bang in line with modern craft beer fashions, being both barrel-aged and secondary-fermented with Brettanomyces. Irony indeed!

Ron & Mike show off Brewery Yard
Brewery Yard came about after Goose Island's brewing innovation manager Mike Siegel contacted beer historian Ron Pattinson, inviting him to help recreate a historical recipe. Speaking at the beer’s UK launch at the Rake, in London’s Borough Market, Mike said that with Goose Island being inspired by the English brewing tradition he wanted an English recipe, and to give Ron something to work with, “I came up with two things – I wanted it aged in wood barrels and I wanted to use Brettanomyces. He came up almost immediately with Stock Pale Ale.”

“I’d tried to persuade loads of people before to brew this beer, Mike was the first gullible idiot to take me up,” Ron joked. He added that in the 19th century, “Pale Ale [and by extension IPA] wasn’t meant to be drunk young, it was meant to be aged for a long time. For example, bottled Bass was probably at least 12 months old before anyone got to drink it. It is a very different concept, the complete opposite of how we do IPA today – people liked the aged flavour and were willing to pay extra for it.”

Unlike Porter, which was aged in giant vats, Pale Ale was aged in barrels. In some cases they were just left stacked for months in the brewery yard, hence the new brew’s name. Stock, which meant aged, was the opposite of mild – Ron pointed out that Mild was not originally a style of beer, it simply defined how the beer was treated before sale: “Mild and Stock would have been the same recipe, except Stock had 50% more hops and a secondary Brett fermentation.”

Based on an 1877 Trumans recipe for a Pale Ale from Burton-on-Trent, Brewery Yard seems about as authentic as you can get using modern ingredients. Mike used floor-malted English barley, plus English Goldings and US Cluster hops – American hops were widely used in Britain in the 1800s, but for bittering and their preservative value, not for their flavour which was generally disliked. In the absence of the neutral Memel oak barrels that 19th century brewers preferred, he took Bourbon barrels that had already been used for beer twice, so most of the whiskey character was gone, and steamed them thoroughly.

“It was a year in the planning, it spent 11 months in barrel and was then bottled in June,” Mike said. “Two and a half years is a long time to work on a beer project, I had to keep telling Ron to be patient!”

So was it worth the wait? From the drinker’s perspective, very definitely so. The first thing you notice about the beer, apart from its golden-brown colour and initially fluffy head, is a characteristic Bretty aroma – tart and almost fruity, reminiscent perhaps of ascorbic acid. Then there is a potent dry bitterness with herbal notes to it, and a tart woody winey palate. It really is fascinating – and worryingly drinkable for something that weighs in at 8.4% ABV!

Ron reckoned it was also quite possibly the most expensive beer Goose Island has ever done – its Chicago brewery is a 50-barrel (almost 6000 litre) plant, but by the time all the losses in the process were accounted for, there only about 20 barrels left. Of that, just over 2000 litres made it into 75cl bottles, and 600 of those have come to the UK (where they’re priced at £20 each).

As well as losses in the barrel-ageing, a huge amount was lost during hopping – Brewery Yard used whole-leaf hops, which the brewkit was not designed for, and a lot of wort was left in the wet hops afterwards.

Mike talks beer with a happy drinker
“We’re really happy with how the beer turned out, it is truly the definition of unique,” Mike said. It’s likely to stay that way too – when I asked if he’d consider re-brewing it, he implied it was unlikely: “I’d probably look for an even more difficult project!”

It’s great that Goose Island is still able to do projects like this, even if, as one of the other guests at the launch (brewer and Brett expert Ed) pointed out they’ve perhaps played it a bit safe by using Brettanomyces Claussenii, which is one of the subtler Brett strains. And of course one reason they have the capacity for projects like this and their sours at Fulton is that their main brands such as Goose IPA, 312 Urban Wheat and Honkers are now produced at massive east and west-coast breweries belonging to their parent company, AB-Inbev.

The financial weight of AB-Inbev is also behind Goose Island’s push into the UK. The Brewery Yard launch was part of this, but so is the UK edition of its Block Party series tomorrow in Shoreditch – basically an afternoon of live music, with bars and food stalls – and so too was the appointment last year of a European brand ambassador, Josh Smith, who was formerly at the White Horse on Parsons Green.

“We don’t want to send beer over with no support – the storytelling and training is a big part of it,” Josh explained. He added that, unlike US brewers who’re brewing in Europe, Goose will continue to bring its beers in from the US. He explained it’s all about the logistics – an area where AB-Inbev has been a big help – with the beer being shipped and stored chilled all the way.

As well as introducing Four Star Pils and Green Line Pale Ale to the UK this month, Josh is keen to get 312 Urban Wheat as a regular on draught – he sees it as a good crossover or gateway beer for lager drinkers – and on bringing Goose’s seasonals in too. In the battle for the soul of craft beer, it really is 'interesting times'!

Sunday, 11 September 2016

Balancing insular vs international on a German island

Two of Insel-Brauerei's regular brews
I finally realised what’s been puzzling me about the beers from the Rügener Insel-Brauerei, a new brewery opened in 2015 on the German Baltic island of Rügen. The Insel beers are very consciously Craft – they are available in both 33cl and 75cl sizes, with attractive and unusual paper wrappers instead of labels, and they are pricey, at almost €10 a litre.

To top it off the beers are all top-fermented* and bottle-conditioned, in a country where making an IPA alongside your half-dozen lagers is still considered a bit adventurous, and Insel produces almost nothing that most people would consider a traditional German beer style. Instead there’s stouts, pale ales, a witbier and several Belgian styles.

What puzzled me though was that the Insel beers I’d tried didn’t seem terribly interesting. Oh sure, they were well made – the brewery was founded by Marcus Berberich, an experienced brewmaster who was formerly managing director at Störtebeker Braumanufaktur in nearby Stralsund, so I’d expect nothing less. (He really does need to sort out their yeast though, as it doesn’t settle well enough and the beers are too gassy, so it’s hard not to pour them cloudy.)

The thing was that they lacked the depth I would look for in a beer in this price bracket, plus they didn’t seem true to style. I wasn’t alone in thinking this – the beers get low marks from quite a few of the serious tasters on Ratebeer. Others seem to love them, however, and they look to be selling OK.

Now though, I think I may have a mental handle on what’s going on here. These are products designed to appeal to gourmets and the fashion-conscious, in a country where beer drinkers have been conditioned by the big brewers (via their disgraceful manipulation of the Reinheitsgebot) to be suspicious of anything different and/or foreign.

So if these foreign-styled beers still seem rather German to me – a Belgian Tripel that reminded me of a Maibock, to give the most recent example – perhaps that is deliberate. A case of taking a subtle German-friendly approach: “Don’t frighten ze horses” and all that.

The odd thing is that once I started thinking about this, my enjoyment of the beers increased. It just goes to remind you how much our impressions of a drink are affected not just by aroma and flavour, but by expectations, price and all sort of external factors, such as where we are actually drinking it.

Will I buy more Insel-Brauerei beers? It’s a slightly unfair question because I’m pretty sure I’m not their target market. I certainly don’t plan to buy more of the pricey big bottles, but if I see 33cl bottles of their sours, say, my curiosity may well take over – it does a lot of that!

*This must make life a lot easier for a German brewer, because the rules are significantly different for top-fermented beers – in particular, what most people think of as the Reinheitsgebot does not apply. (It is of course rather more complex than this, but this will do for a summary!)

Thursday, 25 August 2016

Family fun at Fuller's

Photo: Fuller's
We've been to the annual Open Day at Fuller's a few times now, and they've all been good fun. "Dray" rides - actually a passenger cart, but drawn by real, huge, dray horses - and craft activities in the Hock Cellar for the kids, plus brewery tours and beer for the grown-ups, and live music and a BBQ for everyone. What's not to like?!

One year they even had a fire engine in attendance, for the kids to sit in and try on helmets, etc - at least until it and the crew got called away... This year there's also a 10k Fun Run that same morning.

Anyway, it's on Saturday 3rd September from 11am to 4pm. I hope I don't need to explain where! But if I do, check out the Open Day website linked above. :)

Saturday, 20 August 2016

Does Dutch beer define itself?

Waiting for the bus into Amsterdam this morning, for the second day of the 2016 European Beer Writers & Bloggers Conference, I was thinking about the Dutch craft brewers – both new and old – that we’ve met so far. The first question that came to my mind was whether there was some common thread that could hint at a "Dutch identity" for craft beer – and the second was whether that first question was actually redundant...

Yesterday we had an informative session about the history of Dutch brewing. One of the presenters, Michel Ordeman, is “Head of Church” at Jopenkerk, a brewery-restaurant in Haarlem created by microbrewer Jopen, but is also co-founder of the Campaign for Netherlands Beer Styles. The other, Rick Kempen, is a long-time Untappd friend of mine who works for beer distributor (and conference co-sponsor) Bier & Co.

Jasper gets animated
Among other things, they brought up the story of how the late-mediaeval towns collected ingredient lists from brewers to ensure only permitted things were used and that tax was paid. Sadly the tax rolls don’t record the actual brewing processes, but Jopen has still used them to recreate versions of those herbed and spiced beers, such as Koyt and Gruit.

Among the other brewers we met, styles such as Witbier and Saison were much in evidence, alongside the inevitable (and often very well executed) IPAs, Porters and barrel-aged Stouts. Some half-dismiss the former as Belgian, and yet all these beers – Gruit ales, spiced wheat beers, farmhouse ales – are part of a shared tradition right across northern Europe. Today’s national borders are still relatively new in this part of the world.

An interesting aside was that we also met two or three craft Pilsners. Craft brewers have tended to ignore Pils in the past, says Jasper Langbroek of Kompaan in The Hague, because Pils was what the industrial brewers called their yellow lager. Now though, Dutch microbrewers have rediscovered the real thing (or at least the real thing as it exists today, because all beer styles evolve!) on visits to Bavaria and the Czech Republic.

“Four years ago we said we wouldn’t brew Pils, then we were on holiday in Germany and tasted the local beer, so the next time a customer asked us for Pils we decided to do this,” explains Focke Hettinga of the Zwolse Pils that he brews with his wife as – the beer is named for their home town of Zwolle. The anti-industrial thread is still visible in both Kompaan Pils and Zwolse though – both are notably fuller-bodied than the megabrews, with Kompaan adding a percentage of wheat malt and Zwolse’s extra malt and hops making it remarkably rich and warming for the style.

Both brewers had wheat beers too – Hettinga Bier was pouring its Ijssel Wit, a very nice zesty and spicy example of the style, while Kompaan had gone instead for an American Wheat Ale, using US ale yeast and more hops for a lighter more bitter body and less Hefe fruitiness. Add the hoppy Wits we met elsewhere and it’s clear this is a style with a lot of room to play.

We also met a couple of excellent Farmhouse Ales (Saisons to many, but that really confuses American tourists in Germany, where Saisonbier simply means the current seasonal beer) during the live beer-blogging session – this is beer-tasting as speed-dating, with each brewer given 5 minutes to introduce themselves and their beer.

Saison5 from Utrecht’s Brouwerij Maximus was a nice example – dry, hoppy-bitter, lightly funky and refreshing – but the star of the show here was the Brettalicious from Oersop in Nijmegen. It’s a hybrid Bretted Saison, matured in their foudres (wooden vats) with a mix of brettanomyces and lactobacillus bacteria – the former add complex funky flavours and the latter a light tartness, as of Berliner Weisse for example.  Not to everyone’s taste for sure, but I found it quite delicious.

Friday, 19 August 2016

Beers of Brabant

As a historian I’d been well aware of Brabant as one of the major Duchies of medieval Europe, but apart from occasionally noticing the name on “Welcome to...” road signs while whizzing through the Low Countries, I have to confess I’d not really been aware of its modern existence. Until this week, that is, when VisitBrabant invited me and several other beer writers & bloggers to, well, visit Brabant and discover its beer.

While you might not have connected the two before, it turns out Brabant – which includes Eindhoven, Breda and Tilburg, as well as its ‘capital’ of De Bosch – has a long brewing heritage. From our base at the aptly-named Hotel Central in Den Bosch (aka s’Hertogenbosch, which means the Duke’s Forest), we first sallied out to Koningshoeven Abbey, the home of La Trappe, one of the original Trappist breweries. More on that in a later post. Keen cyclist Nathalie from VisitBrabant then lead us on an hour-long bike ride to the village of Oirschot – it’s a great country for cycling, being relatively flat and having plenty of dedicated cyclepaths, and luckily we had great weather.

Kroon memorabilia
Oirschot was formerly home to Kroon, one of the few regional Dutch brewers to survive the massive waves of consolidation during the 20th century. It was finally bought in the 90s and closed in 2000 – oddly enough it was a victim of its new parent Brouwerij Bavaria subsequently also linking up with La Trappe and not needing the Kroon brewery any more.

Then two years ago, a new brewery called Brouwerij Vandeoirsprong opened on the Kroon site, aiming to combine traditional styles with a bit of new-wave pizazz. We liked the Vandeoirsprong taproom, and from what I hear so do the locals, flocking at weekends to what’s now the village’s only brewery – it of course had over a dozen before the closures of the late 1800s. Why did they close? Newly fashionable Pils, in large part – if you had no cool caves nearby, the shift to lager beers required significant investment in refrigeration equipment. As elsewhere, many smaller breweries could not afford this and closed or sold up, a process exacerbated by the large brewers wanting to expand by consolidation and acquisition.

Vandeoirsprong taproom
Anyway, the taproom is in the old bottling hall and has an industrial chic, all white tiles and concrete. There is also a brewery museum with the old Kroon brewkit and all sorts of other gear and memorabilia, it’s only labelled in Dutch for now but I think that will change. The beer garden too is littered – oops, I mean decorated! – with old brewing gear such as wort coolers.

If I’ve one caveat about Vandeoirsprong, it’s that they might be trying to produce and sell too many beers too soon. I think they had eight of their own on tap, and while the Hop-Wit and OPA were pretty clean and tasty, some of the others seemed a little rough around the edges and needed work. But it is only their first full season in operation, their brewer is still learning, and I’m sure they will all improve.

The third brewery of the day was back in Den Bosch. Stadsbrouwerij van Kollenburg t’Kolleke is the house-brewery at Cafe Bar le Duc. It’s now the only brewery in the old city, although there is a large Heineken factory on the outskirts – again, there would have been dozens in the Middle Ages. Brewer/co-owner Jan van Kollenburg sells around 80% of his production sells through his bar, with the rest being a mix of bottled off-sales, and supplies to others bars around town of a new beer called Jheronimus, produced to mark the 500th anniversary of the death of eponymous local artist Hieronymus Bosch.

Shiny shiny at t'Kolleke
Bar le Duc has the look of a classic old cafe, all brown wood and beery memorabilia. As well as an excellent local food menu and Jan’s beers on tap, it also has guest beers and a bottle list – the primary focus for both being the Low Countries with just a few outliers, such as the one American Trappist beer and a beer each from Spain and Germany. The house beers were variable, but the intriguingly herbal Blond and the Dubbel with liquorice were both pretty good, as was the Jheronimus.

Den Bosch looks like a really good city for beer bars - as well as Le Duc there's several more in the old city, including to my surprise a bar belonging to top English brewery Thornbridge. Maybe that's why all the other bars around have little or no British beers!

Technically we’re in North Brabant, the only quarter of the old Duchy that stayed in the Netherlands when Belgium split off in 1830 – the actual history is more complex, this is the simple version! The other Brabants are even more beery, in particular Flemish Brabant which contains several well-known abbey breweries (eg. Affligem, Grimbergen) and whose capital of Leuven is the home of Stella Artois. Nathalie mentioned that as well as the touring cycle routes on her side of the border, there is a Trappist cycle route that visits the Belgian Trappists as well as La Trappe. Now there’s a good way to build up a thirst!

Caveat: we all paid for the tour ourselves, however we were at the same time the guests of VisitBrabant who booked the beer tastings and covered our hotel stay.