Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Genesis of a Band Beer

Well, OK – as far as I know there isn’t a Genesis-branded beer yet, but there are quite a few others. From Iron Maiden’s Trooper via Status Quo’s Piledriver to AC/DC Rock or Bust ‘premium lager’, it’s starting to look like any band serious about its merchandising has to have a fan-beer. Some also have branded ciders and even wines – how very rock’n’roll…

Guess which is cask?
So an invitation to the official launch of the new Motörhead beer made me curious: just how do these brews come about? And who’d want a lager flavoured with JD & coke anyway? Just joking – JD&C might have been Lemmy’s favourite tipple, but the new beer is actually an American Pale Ale named for the band’s eulogy to its eponymous Röad Crew.[1]

It’s brewed by Cameron’s, a 150-year-old family-run brewery in Hartlepool, and the brewery’s head of marketing Yousef Doubooni says it was the band’s management that approached them about a beer, not vice versa. And unlike some of those other band beers, where band members actually visited the brewery and discussed beer, in this case it was left to Cameron’s to suggest ideas, send over samples, and so on.

Of course, there’s the minor point here that since Lemmy’s death in 2015, Motörhead-the-band “isn’t touring”, as Yousef tactfully put it. So we are talking now about Motörhead-the-brand, which is still very strong, to judge by the number of inscribed t-shirts, leather jackets and so on at the beer launch. (Many of the wearers were there to see former Motörhead guitarist Phil Campbell play with his new band The Bastard Sons[2]. Sadly, something went drastically wrong with the audio gear and they cancelled.)

Why an American Pale Ale? “We sell a lot of Trooper in our pubs, so it was important to have something different,” Yousef says. Camerons has also done seasonal APAs before, he adds, plus it has its crafty Head of Steam pub chain where it does quite a bit of ‘white label’ testing of new brews from its 10-barrel pilot brewery[3].

The bottled version is stronger
The first thing of interest is Röad Crew’s on offer in three different packages: cask and keg at 4.5%, and bottled at 5%. A higher ABV for a bottled version is pretty common now, Yousef says that as well as “maintaining the flavour better, it also suits the export market better – they prefer 5-plus.” The export market’s a key one for a beer that’s essentially a bottling of an international brand, with the initial targets being Switzerland, Italy, Germany, Serbia and Slovenia. And no, I’ve no idea why Motörhead should go down so well in the Balkans!

We got to try all three formats at the launch; sadly, the cask version was totally lacking in condition, but the keg and bottle versions were both fine and eminently quaffable. Röad Crew is a well-made albeit fairly typical APA – hints of orange on the nose, then lightly honeyed golden malt with a fruity bitterness.

The one thing it doesn't do, beyond the artwork on the labels and pumpclips, is say anything about Motörhead. I guess it’s a reminder of the extent to which music is a merchandising business now – and that relatively few musicians are actually interested in brewing!

[1] It’s just “(We are) The Road Crew” on the Ace of Spades track list, but some numpty has added the obligatory misplaced accent to the beer name, which would make it sound more like Roe-add Crew. Sigh. (Go Back)
[2] Bastard was Mötorhead’s original band name. (Go Back)
[3] Cameron's main brewery can do 300 barrel batches, but currently does a lot of half-length 150bbl batches. I get a distinct sense that 120-150bbl is a sweetspot in the UK brewing market right now – it seems to fit well with contract bottlers, pub chains, etc. (Go Back)

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

A tale of Owls, Pussycats, Dodos and micropubs

The micropub revolution has reached West London – Ealing, to be precise, where in a week's time the population should have jumped from zero to two. The first one officially opened last Friday: called The Owl and The Pussycat*, it’s not too far from Northfields tube station, and even better, it has its own brewery.

If you’ve not been to a micropub before, they’re a relatively new phenomenon that was first recognised just over a decade ago, yet they embody ideals that are many centuries older. Typically, it’s a single room – often a former shop – converted into a small pub. The Micropub Association definition adds that it “listens to its customers, mainly serves cask ales, promotes conversation, shuns all forms of electronic entertainment and dabbles in traditional pub snacks.”

Mark, Roger Protz and Paul at the opening
The Owl and The Pussycat fits that to a tee. It’s the brainchild of two ex-teachers, Mark Yarnell and Paul Nock, and it took them almost a year to get it off the ground, what with finding premises and a brewing kit, and persuading the local authority to give them planning permission.

“I was teaching for 24 years, people said we were crazy, but a year later here we are,” says Paul. Fortunately the local support has been tremendous – as the letter-writing campaign that backed their planning application shows, locals have been fascinated by the project. Indeed, when the pair opened briefly before Christmas to test the waters, they were almost drunk dry and had to bring in emergency supplies from a friendly microbrewery.

In the long run they aim to be self-sufficient in beer though, thanks to having their own nanobrewery in the back room, working under the name Marko Paulo. Their UK-made 200-litre brewkit** took London’s tally of breweries to 92, and it allows them to fill five nine-gallon firkins (casks) per brew. Alternatively, they have 40-litre kegs for beers better suited to gas dispense – on my visit that meant an authentic German-style Oktoberfest-Märzen and a West Coast-inspired IPA.

The Marko Paulo Brewery
Rather unusually, they also have smaller casks: 4.5-gallon pins. Mark explains that the use of pins allows them to offer a wider range of beers – they have six handpumps and two keg taps, which could easily be a recipe for tired beer if it took too long for a cask to sell out. “Using pins keeps the beer fresh and let’s us keep variety on,” he says.

“We are brewing twice a week, and are pretty much at capacity now,” adds Paul. They’re limited not just by only having two fermenters – each brew takes about a week to ferment – but by how many filled casks and kegs they can fit in their cold-store.

The plan is to have two core beers, most probably their excellent Coal Porter and a best bitter, plus a rotating range of others. For example, at the opening event, which was kicked of by an entertaining talk on London’s brew history from Good Beer Guide editor and fellow*** beer-writer Roger Protz, we were treated to a mild, two pale ales (one of them ‘single hop and grain’ – I guess that makes for a more entertaining acronym than the more usual ‘single malt and single hop’!) and a hoppy bitter.

Mark says they hope to do collaboration brews with local home-brewers, and perhaps run a home-brew club. And they plan to run beer-and-cheese tastings/pairings with their next-door neighbours Cheddar Deli.

On top of all that, incredibly the local micropub population is about to double. One of the other guests at The Owl and The Pussycat’s official opening was Lucy, who is due to open her own micropub this coming Saturday. It’s called The Dodo and is in Hanwell, just up the road from Northfields. She’s not planning to brew, instead pouring a wide range of mainly London-brewed beers.

*The name comes from the bookshop that formerly occupied the site.
**made by Elite of Swindon, I noticed. 
***he’s been at it a lot longer than me, mind, and a lot more successfully too!

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Going Wild at the Tate

I’ve been following The Wild Beer Co. for some years now, and not just because it’s based in my childhood home of Somerset*, or because it picked up early on those fascinating printed bottles. It’s because it was the first British new-wave craft brewery to specialise in, as the name implies, wild yeasts.

That means bugs like Brettanomyces (Brett to its friends), Pediococcus, Lactobacillus and a number of others. As we’re now discovering, thanks to the diligent work of historians, these were incredibly important right up to the 1800s – Brett in particular was how Stock Ales and vatted Porters were aged. However, while they’re still very important in traditional Belgian brewing, they fell out of favour in most other places, typically with tastes changing to prefer fresher (Mild) beers.

Lemony & sour-sweet: Wild Beer's
The Blend Summer 2016
So I was delighted to hear that the Tate’s tap take-over series would include a meet-the-brewer session with Wild Beer. I wasn’t the only one excited, either – it was pretty full, with a pleasantly varied crowd, as they poured us thirds of four different Wild Beers. (Sadly, the Modus Operandi was off – strange for a sour beer I know, but there really is a difference between wanted and unwanted sournesses!)

As co-founder Andrew Cooper tells it, when in 2012 he and Brett** Ellis started Wild Beer – based on a cheese farm, as it happens – they wanted to explore what wild yeasts could do: “At that time, a lot of people were experimenting with hops, but no one was really experimenting with yeast. We took lessons from Belgium, but also from the whisky and wine worlds – we wanted to make aged beers.”

He adds, “We kind of reverse-engineer our beers – we know what flavour we want to end up with, so it’s about flavours and ingredients, not beer styles.”

The attraction of wild yeasts is the complex flavours they can yield. As Andrew says, “A standard yeast might produce 25 flavour compounds, Brett produces 125.”

Part of this is because they can ferment things that regular Saccharomyces beer yeasts cannot, such as complex sugars and carbohydrates. The downside for the brewer is that they are slow-burners, hence their use in beers that are matured in vats or foeders over many months or even years. “Brett will just keep going – in a barrel it’ll even ferment the cellulose in the wood,” Andrew exclaims.

This can cause problems for the brewer, such as if a yeast kicks back into life unexpectedly. For example, both Harvey’s with its initial 1999 brew of Imperial Extra Double Stout and Goose Island with its 2015 Bourbon County Stout suffered from an extra wild fermentation starting months after the beer had been bottled. In Harvey’s case it meant corks being forced out, while for BCS it meant sour notes, “gushing”, and the less-than-popular decision to pasteurise future BCS editions.

Trendy Juice: murky as anything, but
deliciously fruity and resinous
The bigger worry though is if the wild yeasts escape and go where they’re not wanted. Says Andrew, “We understand Brett, we respect it, and we clean a lot! In four years we’ve never had any cross-contamination on the bottling line, it’s three years since we had any on the kegging line.” He adds that they also have two complete sets of hoses for moving beer around, one for sours and one for normies.

Which reminds me that, while three of the beers on show that evening were mostly sours and wilds, Wild Beer also does whole range of slightly more conventional brews: IPAs, stouts and so on – our 4th was their beautifully complex and fruity Trendy Juice IPA.

So although the sours are what started the brewery, Andrew says that those are now down to 20 or so, out of a total range of 35 beers. “Sour beers take a long time and are really expensive to make,” he explains, “so you have to have some beers that you can get out there faster.”

It’s clear that the fear of cross-contamination is always there, however, so with that and the fact that they now brew around ten times a week on their 15-barrel brewkit, it is no surprise that expansion is planned. The aim, he says, is to have two brewkits, one for the big sellers and the other all about barrel-ageing and wild yeast.***

What of the remaining three beers? All were good, but my least favourite was Black & Blue, their collaboration with New Zealand’s 8 Wired for the 2016 International Rainbow Project. It was interesting, especially in its use of peppercorns, bourbon barrels and zero hops, but too sweet for my liking.

Rather better was the 2016 Summer Blend. Inspired by Belgian Gueuze, this sees several of their barrel-aged beers of different ages blended together to produce a fascinating dry-sweet and sour beer, with a mouth-puckering lemony tartness and a complex mix of honey and fruit notes.

The best for me though was the very last keg of their Amuse Gooseberry, a Lambic-styled beer fermented in this case with gooseberries and aged in white wine barrels. Tart and lightly fruity with lemony and berry notes, it was delicious.

An interesting and enjoyable evening then - it certainly broadened my knowledge of wild yeast, and helped me make useful connections between some other stuff I’d already learnt. My thanks to Andrew Cooper for speaking so well and handling all the questions with aplomb and good humour!

*Although the brewery is quite a long way over from where I did my growing-up.
**I'm sure he gets fed up with the nominative determinism jokes.
***Brewdog is doing something similar, incidentally, building a whole separate brewery for its sours.

Friday, 6 January 2017

Tapping the Tate

Late last summer I discovered that the Tate Modern – the ex-power station that’s now an art gallery on London’s South Bank – not only has a new extension with a bar in it, but that bar is bidding to become a craft beer destination, with a monthly series of tap take-overs where it hosts modern British brewers.

By Jim Linwood from London - The New Tate Modern Extension - London., CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50556806
Opened last June, the new extension is called the Switch House and looks like a tapering yet twisted tower. Apparently there was a bit of controversy over the design... The bar, on the ground floor – or at least, on the entrance level, which is not the same thing – is long and sort of L-shaped. It is also not cheap (330ml bottles & cans average £6, the new price-point for up-market venues), so the £10 tickets for the tap take-overs, where you can taste five of a brewery’s beers and also hear the brewer speak, are pretty decent value – especially given that you get a third of a pint of each beer, and the line-up typically includes a rarity or two.

On the downside, I’m told we are not likely to see cask beer at the Terrace Bar any time soon, as the ‘cellar’ is too far away, plus there isn’t enough free space on the bar-back to put a cask there on gravity. There’s two clusters of keg taps though, serving half a dozen beers plus what looks to be a triad of draught house wines, plus fridges with a decent collection of bottles and cans. The latter has a London focus, eg. Fourpure (which also brews the house beer, Switch House Pale Ale), Orbit, Kernel and Partizan.

I was over there a couple of months back for a tap take-over by Wild Beer, which I'll write about once I get my notes sorted out. 

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

The art of hype: Meantime’s bonkers mini-bar

So a few days after meeting the ‘Make Time For it’ artists and enjoying their works – that list of artists includes brewer Ciaran Giblin, of course – I found a few hours to wander over to the Millennium Dome and see the results in all their glory in the completed pop-up pub.

And what a sudden dose of reality it was. Walking up, I could see the ‘pub’ was basically an 8’x6’ shed – B&Q or Wickes, it’s hard to tell – painted white and with furniture plonked in it. It was parked under the roof of a walkway, so I guess they weren’t too confident in its ability to withstand the London rain!

Inside was a friendly welcome and good beer. It all looked a bit thrown-together though – for instance, the tall taps on the bar were purely decorative, with the two beers actually coming from a portable keg unit on the floor behind. The neon lights sat awkwardly on the bar-top, and the hand-made glasses were glued to a shelf to prevent theft. The gorgeous mirror hung unremarked in a corner, and the special bench was hard to see in such a small space.

The two artworks readily visible were the intricate wallpaper and the tailored waistcoat, but of course the latter had to be worn by whichever barperson was serving – and sadly its cut wasn’t so flattering on the lady who was on duty when I visited.

But what a great publicity stunt it was! As well as generous newspaper coverage ahead of opening, they’d had photographers and TV people visiting the shed all week – a crew from a Dutch music TV channel arrived as I was leaving. And while you were supposed to book, they had had a lot more drop-ins than expected. The free beer, thanks to new owner Asahi’s publicity budget, might have played a part in this…

I also learnt a bit more about the ‘new’ Meantime. The pilot brewery there, funded and installed last year by previous owner SAB-Miller (which sold Meantime, Peroni and Grolsch to Asahi in order to get approval for its merger with AB-InBev), has been brewing an experimental new beer every other week this year. This is where the six artist-collaborated beers came from, and several more one-offs were on sale nearby in Meantime’s Beer Box, which is a couple of shipping containers converted into a bijou craft beer bar.

In addition, I discovered that while the SAB-InBev deal only completed this October, the sale of Meantime and the others took place several months earlier. Apparently the new Asahi employees each received a welcoming pack of sample beers from around the new Asahi empire. I can well imagine the scene as they opened them – a Eurolager from here, a Eurolager from there, and – oh look, another Eurolager. Yummy!

Incredibly annoyingly, I can’t find any of the photos I took during my visit, although I do have a couple of the Beer Box, so in the mean time here’s one of that. Sigh.

Thursday, 24 November 2016

Bourbon County Stout's low-volume UK debut

‘Tis the season for publicity stunts, or so it would seem. Tomorrow at 11am, the UK’s entire allocation of Goose Island’s Bourbon County Brand Stout – just 100 bottles – goes on sale at Clapton Craft’s shop in London’s Kentish Town.

Goose's 'innovation brewer' Tim Faith
In the US this beer is legendary for attracting long queues of eager buyers when it goes on sale on their 'Black Friday', and Goose Island is hoping to create a similar effect here. That’s why it hosted a launch party last night in trendy Shoreditch, with brewer and barrel-ageing expert Tim Faith visiting from Chicago. He treated beer writers and other guests to samples both of last year’s and this year’s BCBS – the latter on tap, with only a single solitary bottle present, mainly for photographic purposes.

The irony is that while the bottles will be priced at £20 each, the total value of the UK’s allocation must be many times less than the cost of the launch party. To be fair though it was also the UK launch for Goose’s Winter Ale, plus it’s all part of a long-running charm offensive, as Goose owner AB-InBev seeks to build up its craft beer sales here via Pioneer Brewing Co, its UK distribution subsidiary.

Tim first ran us through the history of BCBS, originally the celebratory 1000th brew at the original Goose Island brewpub. It was the first beer to be matured in Bourbon barrels with the intention of picking up the remaining whiskey flavours – the barrel-aging also adds a couple of % to the 11.5%-12% it’s brewed to. The barrels dramatically change the beer’s flavour, as it smoothes out the bitterness and picks up notes from the wood sugars, the charred lining and of course the Bourbon, and the result has been hugely popular – Tim said they brew it throughout the year now to meet demand, blending each year’s older and younger barrels for bottling at an average age of 10 or 11 months.

Just four of 5000-6000 in total
It’s not all been plain sailing though. For one thing, I heard that while there were still queues, it didn’t immediately sell out last year and was still available a while later, perhaps because of that increased production.

More importantly though, several 2015 batches of BCBS suffered from infection (or more accurately ‘contamination’, said Tim, who is a microbiology graduate) with an alcohol-tolerant lactobacillus bug. This seems to have got in while the barrels – they use thousands a year, mostly from Kentucky’s Heaven Hill – were in storage prior to filling with stout. The problem was that this bug is a late starter, so the beer tasted fine before bottling, and the off-tastes didn’t appear until later.

(This kind of thing is not unknown – the first brew of Harvey’s Imperial Stout in 1999 also had an unexpected late-starting secondary fermentation, from a wild yeast. It cut in around nine months after bottling, when its extra CO2 pushed out the cork, although thankfully it didn’t add off-flavours.)

Goose’s response was two-fold: refunds to buyers, and a decision to stabilise the 2016 edition before bottling by pasteurising it. The latter attracted a lot of criticism, with some saying they wouldn’t buy pasteurised beer.

For now, the 2016 stout is gorgeous – it’s rich and thick, with oak and umami notes, a light bitterness and warming alcohol to counter the sweetness. What’s unclear is how – or indeed if at all – it will age in the bottle.

As an example of the latter process, a friend who’d also tried the 2015 back in February confirmed that it’s changed significantly since then. The 2015 version we tried was not as thick as the 2016 but was perhaps a bit more complex – after a year in bottle it has a startlingly strong coconut aroma, plus I detected notes of vanilla, cocoa, old leather and dried fig.

I can’t help wondering if the 2016 is really worth £20 a bottle tomorrow, especially when it is only $10 or so in the US and when there are other excellent Imperial Stouts around now. On the plus side, there’s not many others at 14%, BCBS is something of a legend, and there should be a bit of a fuss made for those willing to queue up in advance at Clapton Craft tomorrow – I can't say what, but in the US you might get coffee and doughnuts for example, maybe with brewery swag too for the first few in the line.

One thing I do know is that Tim's due to be there tomorrow morning, so if you want to meet the brewer before he flies home, this could be your chance!

Friday, 18 November 2016

Lapwing monks brew up a new tradition

Koningshoeven Abbey, the home of the La Trappe beers, was once the only Trappist brewery in the Netherlands, but it now has a younger Dutch sibling. This is Brouwerij de Kiewit (Lapwing Brewery) at Abbidji Maria Toevlucht (Mary the refugee), whose Zundert Trappist ale launched in 2013. Unlike La Trappe but like most other Trappist beers, Zundert is actually brewed by monks, not by monastery employees, although one consequence is a limitation on production, as Henri Reuchlin – the consultant and beer blogger who helped set up the brewery – explained in a presentation to this year’s European Beer Writers & Bloggers Conference in Amsterdam.

The brewkit is vast for religious reasons
The monks’ attitude is “We brew for a living but we don’t live for brewing,” he said, adding that they therefore decided to brew just once a month so it didn’t cut too much into their other activities. To compensate, they installed a far larger brewkit than they’d otherwise have needed. This lets them do a month’s worth – currently 250hl – in one go, leaving more time for monking, plus of course they only need one fermenter rather than the several that a secular micro would install.

Initially the site was run as a monastic farm, having been given to refugee monks from France in 1899. However, a century later, fewer and fewer novices were entering the monkish world. With the number in the community declining and their average age increasing, the monks decided to sell their livestock and land – the latter becoming a nature reserve – and find other ways to ‘worship through work’ and make some funds.

Although brewing was an obvious option, and they could send two brothers to train with other breweries, what to brew was less obvious. There being no local tradition or historic recipe to work with, they decided to invent one. “We gave a table of monks many samples to try, from Gueuze to Rauchbier, and asked them their preferences,” explains Reuchlin.

The brewers check for quality
“The first thing they agreed on was the copper colour. They also decided on brewing only one beer, and they didn’t want to copy an existing beer.” They nodded to Trappist tradition as well with its locally-inspired name and simple label design, which features a lapwing and other designs copied from the abbey church.

They also needed somewhere to put the brewkit, and a disused barn was an obvious choice. It is a historic building though, so all its internal features such as roof trusses had to stay visible, and the nature reserve gave them a limited building season – they couldn’t build in Spring because the birds were breeding, nor in Autumn when it was the turn of the bats!

They got it done though, and the resulting brewhouse is a gem, with translucent plastic walls that admit plenty of light yet leave the wooden structure intact. Inside gleams a huge modern brewkit in shiny steel – sadly we can only glimpse it in photos, as the brewery (like certain others of its Trappist siblings) is not open to the public.

Its one product is a warming 8% brew somewhere between a Dubbel and a Tripel, bottled offsite and best served at 10-14C, according to its brewers. “We originally said 8-10C, but decided warmer was better. At a warmer temperature it develops from sweet to herbal spiciness,” Reuchlin says. And pretty good it is too, with that spicy-hoppy note balancing sweeter caramel and dried fruit.