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. 

Thursday, 18 August 2016

Going Dutch

It’s the European Beer Writers & Bloggers Conference this coming weekend, and I'm looking forward to seeing friends old and new. This year we are in Amsterdam, I’ve actually been here in Holland (yes, Nord-Holland, not just the Netherlands) since Monday, and nice it is too.

Maibock x Weizen, anyone?
At least the beer isn’t as flat as the landscape, though there isn’t too much else to say about a choice of Amstel, Heineken and Hertog Jan – the latter is the local AB-InBev property, and is probably the least uninteresting of the three!

Yesterday I discovered a few more: several from Texels, plus Sanctus Adalberti which claims to be an abbey beer from nearby Egmont – until you read the label and discover it’s really brewed in Belgium (at De Proef, the contract brewery also used by Mikkeller and many others). Oh well!

All were drinkable, although none really stood out. I will try a couple more of the Texels when I get the chance though, as they show promise.



Saturday, 13 August 2016

The march of the little brown bottles

A seismic change is underway in the German beer industry, and few things demonstrate it as clearly as this: the original doppelbock, the classic Paulaner Salvator, is now in 33cl bottles.

The standard size for Salvator, like almost every other German beer, has been a half-litre bottle - or latterly for some, a 50cl can. There were a few exceptions - Einbecker for instance, with its stumpy 33s, the flip-top 33s of Flensburger, and of course the little green bottles of Becks - but at least they had an individual look. But more and more now, instead you see the brown long-neck 33 that's become an international standard.

It certainly looks like the Craft Beer revolution over the last few years in Germany has played a big part in this change. Perhaps to position their beers more as connoisseur items, or maybe to disguise their higher prices (which, to be fair, are at least partly due to using more and higher-quality ingredients), the new-wave craft brewers have generally preferred the smaller bottles. And when the macrobrewers went crafty, such as the cloudy brown Kellerbiers of Köstritzer, Krombacher and others, they too went into 33s.

That the German macrobrewers are also now shifting their mainstream products - some Pils brands have been available in both sizes for a while, but only a few - is telling. Again, part of it will be to increase revenues - selling a 33 for 99 cents is €3 a litre, versus maybe €2.20 a litre last year.

Another part though will be the changing expectations and preferences of drinkers, especially as beer becomes less of a generic commodity and more individual. Few people want to quaff a half-litre of something special; instead we prefer to savour something more like a half-pint, which for the Imperially-challenged is 284ml.

My one sadness in this will be if it turns good beer into less of a sharing experience. A 50cl bottle can easily be shared between two or three, or four at a pinch. Try sharing a 33 four ways and you start to look like craft geeks at a ticker-fest...