Tuesday, 20 February 2018

The Bermondsey Beer Mile is flourishing again

A couple of years ago, I came to the conclusion that the Bermondsey Beer Mile had lost its appeal. It had jumped the shark, a victim of its own success. The Kernel had closed its drinking area, and the other brewery taps were often overwhelmed – some, like Partizan, had a bar but little seating space.

What a difference those two years have made. OK, even on a freezing day in February, respected and well known places such as Brew By Numbers and Anspach & Hobday still get busy, and Eebria – one of the newer bars – was so rammed I didn't even bother trying to get served. Apart from that, and despite the many groups of people strolling from venue to venue, it mostly felt comfortable.

Fourpure, now times two
The overall story is expansion – existing breweries moving and growing, new ones moving in, more beer retailers, and so on. At the eastern end, Fourpure has taken over into the industrial unit next door. This has added a lot of production and workspace for them, but has also allowed the taproom to expand, with more seating space and a new bar. They also now have a proper spacious indoor toilet block, which highlights just how shamefully dismal are the loos in pretty much every other local brewery and bar.

Heading west, Partizan’s move to a new and much bigger site, with both indoor and outdoor seating, was long overdue. Being an industrial building, the taproom might be a bit overly echoey and noisy for some, but it has much more space and a bigger bar (right) with guest taps too – when I visited, there were several Kernel beers on.

The move also freed up two railway arches on Almond Road, making room for not one but two new breweries. Well, one isn’t totally new – the highly experimental Affinity Brew Co moved down from Tottenham. And the other, Spartan Brewery, isn’t totally a brewery as it doesn’t yet have its brewkit in (they’re brewing up the road at Ubrew for now).

To make it even better, while the other breweries on the Mile – with the notable exception of Southwark – are keg-focused for their draught beers, both these new ones plan to package a significant proportion in cask. Sadly, neither had cask on when I visited, although Spartan co-founder Colin Brooks said he’d like cask to eventually become the majority of their production, and they’ll have casks at London Drinker Beer Festival next month.

Meanwhile, Affinity (left) is organising a weekend Bermondsey cask beer festival for April 7th-8th. Co-hosted by Partizan, this will feature 30 breweries from up and down the country, each brewery supplying two different casks, one for Saturday and the other for Sunday. Tickets are available online and cost a fiver for each day – that covers a glass, a programme and your first half, then it's a fiver a pint. And no, I don't know if there's a refund on Sunday if you still have your glass from Saturday!

Saturday, 17 February 2018

Low-alcohol is the future – but for whom?

Do you drink low or non-alcoholic beers? Why – or more importantly, why not?

The beer and pub establishment has largely failed to notice or build on a growing interest in low and non-alcoholic drinks. That’s according to producers and promoters speaking in a panel discussion (pictured below) at the recent PubShowUK in London – and when I think about what I‘ve seen in the industry, I think they could well be right.

Initially I was cautious – like other bloggers who’ve written on the topic, I’ve seen low & non-alcoholic (LNA) beers* come and go over the years. And even after I tried a few of the new breed and found them pretty good, I wasn’t sure I would actually go on to buy them regularly.

What I’m being reminded though is that I and those other writers are not the target market. We more typically seek out new and flavoursome beers – which often means high ABV to carry the flavour, with LNA as an occasional curiosity. But the wider market is rather different, with retail analyst company Nielsen last year reporting that annual sales were up 17% by volume, which it said was the highest growth in five years.

It helps that there’s now a much wider range of LNA beers available – and the NA ones in particular are miles ahead of the stuff we were offered 10 or 20 years ago, such as Kaliber or Swan Light. Most of this is down to greatly improved brewing techniques, including new yeasts that produce fermented flavours but very little alcohol – most modern craft NA beer uses these, rather than de-alcoholisation. It means you can even get acceptable NA stouts and American IPAs.

And that’s before we take into account other LNA drinks that a pub or bar might serve, such as ‘mocktails’, craft sodas and even specialist teas.

They look old, but aren't
I’ve certainly seen an upsurge in craft sodas in Germany – it sometimes seems as if every beer brewery now also markets a non-alcoholic Fassbrause**. These “brewer’s sodas” (right) are sometimes shandy (radler) made with NA beer, but most often they’re just flavoured sodas – a few are even hop-flavoured. As an aside, they’re usually marketed with a heavy dose of history and tradition, yet they are very much a modern trend. And being packaged like a beer, with a brewery label on, they’re clearly acceptable to many beer drinkers.

Complicating all of this in the UK, though, is the soft drinks levy, or ‘sugar tax’, which takes effect in two months time. This is going to add to the cost of anything with added sugar – and it includes drinks with up to 1.2% alcohol. That’ll exempt packaged 2% shandies, say, and anything with no sugar added, such as drinks based on pure fruit juice, but it will cover drinks mixed at the bar, whether it’s a ‘lager-top’ or a St Clements. According to the trade press, suppliers are already responding by reducing the sugar content of their sodas, but it’s still an issue.

So, back to the LNA panel debate at Pub18. They were saying that what the market really needs – and what’s already appearing, but needs more support from the pub and bar trade – is a new breed of grown-up soft drinks. Whether that’s non-alcoholic (or yes, low alcohol) beers, fruit juice mixes, mocktails or flavoured tonic waters is up to you.

A (very tasty!) adult soft drink
When the presenter, Laura Willoughby of ‘mindful drinking’ (ie. LNA) promoter Club Soda, asked for questions from the floor, I waited to see if any of the assembled licensees, barstaff and other trade figures would ask about pricing. No one did, so I asked it: how do you justify charging as much for LNA as for a fully-taxed alcoholic drink?

With the benefit of hindsight, the answers from Laura and other panellists – who included Gemma Catlin from The City Pub Company and twin sisters Joyce and Raissa de Haas, whose company Double Dutch Drinks does the afore-mentioned flavoured tonics – were predictable. They’re ‘premium products’ (and craft beer isn’t?), they’re produced in small batches which puts up the production cost (must be getting less true as volumes rise, eg. with LNA beers), they require the same amount of work from barstaff, they’re lifestyle choices, and so on.

All true, of course, but I suspect they omitted the biggest one, which is “Because we can.” By which I mean, because they’re targeting a different, new and fashion-conscious customer base: the Generation Zs and Millennials who have money to spend and want entertainment, but are drinking less alcohol, or so we are told.

Laura came closest to it when she pointed out that all if a bar can offer is a sticky-sweet lemonade or cola, then adults like her will choose water – and that means zero revenue to the bar. On that basis, if 'soft drinks for grown-ups' get people back into pubs and bars, and that helps keep those open for the rest of us, then seriously, I am not complaining!

So, back to the original question: do you drink low or non-alcoholic beers, and why – or why not?

*Of course, what counts as low-alcohol varies from place to place. For example in Germany, where the norm is 5%, light (Leicht) beers are typically 3% or 3.5%, whereas in the UK the norm is more like 4%, and ‘lower’ for tax purposes means below 2.8%

**Many already do at least one NA beer, either one that meets the legal definition of under 0.5%, or increasingly one that is actually 0.0% alcohol. 

Sunday, 21 January 2018

What really killed Watney's Red Barrel?

Red Barrel reborn
People who remember the Keg Wars of the 1960s still talk of how keg bitters were pasteurised and fizzed-up, knocking much of the character out. Some of the stupider ones also talk of today’s keg craft beer as if it’s treated the same (they’re wrong – much of it would fit CAMRA’s definition of real ale), and a few will also trot out how keg bitter was supposedly brewed cheaply and “full of chemicals”.

Full of chemicals? For the pedant, pretty much everything is a chemical – salt is a chemical, even water – but that’s not what they mean. They mean additives and impurities, things that probably wouldn’t be permitted under food regulations. Again, they’re almost certainly wrong – unless you count “processing aids” such as PVPP*, which is permitted under the Reinheitsgebot for instance.

Yet they might also be sort-of right, in a weird way that they probably wouldn’t recognise, and for something that they would almost certainly not think of as a “chemical” – and that is sugar.

That review in Which?
I didn’t become a beer drinker until a while after the seminal 1972 review of keg beer in Which? magazine – its criticisms helped drive the growth of CAMRA and the rebirth of cask – so I didn’t experience 1960s keg bitter. I’ve read quite a bit though about the likes of Whitbread Trophy, Double Diamond, Worthington E, and of course the legendary Watney’s Red Barrel, including the interesting tale that some of these beers were also available in cask form in small volumes, and were considerably better like that.**

So when I heard that one of my local brewpubs, The Owl and The Pussycat in Northfields, had brewed a cask recreation of 1963 Watney’s Red Barrel to a recipe devised by beer historian Ron Pattinson, I knew I had to try it. Earlier this week, I did just that, and it wasn’t half bad! It was also by far the pub’s bestseller, selling almost an entire firkin on the first night it was available, which will have had a fair bit to do with nostalgia and curiosity.

As I sipped my Red Barrel, a fairly pale amber-brown beer of 4.4% ABV, I detected light malt, a moderate and slightly earthy bitterness, and touches of biscuit and fruit. Yet I also found myself thinking how unlike modern bitters it was, even the keg ones. There’s lots around the same strength, but even the golden ones tend to be fuller-bodied, a little sweeter, a little more flavour-forward.

It was when I spoke to the brewer that I got an inkling of what was going on. He mentioned that the Red Barrel recipe was very different from their other ales in two ways: it contained a significant amount of sugar, and was relatively highly attenuated, meaning more of the sugars were fermented out to leave a drier body.

Re-reading some of Ron’s writing on those 60s beers, it makes sense. The grists of the period – grist is the mixture of malt and other fermentables – were typically 10% to 15% sugar (although he notes that Red Barrel used less than that). The typical reason for adding sugar and other adjuncts (sources of fermentable sugars) is to lighten the body, in a milder easy-drinking, don’t-frighten-the-horses sort of way. It can also improve stability and heads retention – and yes, it can save money (though not always).

So maybe, just maybe, the real reason people found 60s keg bitter insipid wasn’t just the blandifying effects of pasteurisation and fizz – though I’m sure they were (and are) important – but the fact that it started out as a light-bodied and fairly dry brew. In cask, it could just about overcome its limitations, but killed and kegged, well the poor thing didn’t stand a chance.

*PVPP (polyvinyl polypyrrolidone, or Polyclar) is a powdered plastic used as a clarifier. Anti-Reinheitsgebot campaigners say that the rule is simply a marketing tool of the big German brewers – and that it lets them cheat by claiming the PVPP is filtered out after use, so it doesn’t count as an “ingredient”. The German beer purity law also failed to prevent a 2016 scandal when some beers were found to contain traces of glyphosate weedkiller at a level up to 300 times that permitted in drinking water. The beers had been made only with malt, hops, yeast and water of course, but the malt had been made from contaminated barley. 

**Around 20 years ago I sometimes drank a perfectly acceptable cask ale branded as Worthington E, but I'm pretty sure it was nothing like the 60s version!

Thursday, 28 December 2017

Winter beer & food matching

To re-purpose an old joke, beer/food matching events are like buses – none for ages, then three come along at once. Just to confuse things, I’ll write about the first of the triad separately, as the food-matching element there didn’t coalesce that well, so it ended up being secondary to the chance to taste beers from DE15, which is Marston’s new nanobrewery.

Instead, let’s start the following day, with the British Guild of Beer Writers’ annual dinner. A team of four had worked together on curating the menu. One of them told me some of the staff of the hotel where we had the dinner had joined in too, but to learn rather than advise, as they don’t do this kind of thing routinely – indeed, one reason for running these events outside the ‘beer world’ is to evangelise.

Modus Operandi
We began with roasted Arctic cod, served over a fennel-based bedding and paired with 01/31 Saison from Brew By Numbers, which features two New Zealand hops (Motueka and Wai-Iti) and one Australian (Vic Secret), all of which typically contribute notes of tropical fruit and an assortment of citrus. The Saison was delicious on its own and also worked pretty well with the fish, although for me the latter’s almost-vegetal character didn’t quite mesh with the fruitiness of the beer.

The top pairing was the main course: roasted duck breast with roasted salsify, celeriac and orange sauce, matched with Wild Beer’s Modus Operandi, a complex and fascinating sour red ale. This was also the course with a veggie alternative – roasted aubergine and salsify, again with orange and celeriac (among other things!), but partnered instead with Wimbledon Brewery’s Quartermaine IPA.

Of course, everyone simply had to try both beers “just in case”, and yes, the toasty-crisp and malty-bitter Quartermaine could have gone well with either, but didn’t go as well with the duck as the Modus did, while the Modus overpowered the roasted veg. So, great choices there.

Dark Side of the Moo
For a change, dessert was light-coloured, but paired with a dark beer – in this case, apple & rosemary mousse with caramel ice cream, with a bottle of Dark Side of the Moo, a 7% Imperial Porter from Old Dairy Brewery. Roasty-dry and pithy-bitter, with notes of coffee, ashes and strawberry, the latter is almost an Imperial Schwarzbier, and it provided an interesting contrast to the creamy-sweet dessert. A good reminder that when you’re food-matching, a good contrast can be even more complementary than a strong similarity.

The cheeseboard also brought a less traditional pairing – rather than a Barleywine, or perhaps an ESB, they went for a richly-hoppy and fruity-dry American-style IPA, namely Fourpure’s 6.4% Shape Shifter. And it worked well – the earthy hoppiness, with its fruity and onion skin notes, cut through the creaminess of the cheddars and the other cheeses.

Beer rack at Borough Wines Hackney
The third set of matches the following morning was very different. I was one of a small group invited to brunch by Borough Wines & Beers, a company which used to be called simply Borough Wines but has pivoted into beer in a significant way – you’ll now find a small but well curated range in each shop, and it even brews its own beers in the basement of its Hackney shop, on a nano-brewery appropriately called Brewery Below. Also in that basement are a tiny kitchen and Pete’s Dining Room, which is an event space with – rather unusually – an iron grille for a door. It turns out this is not a prison for beer writers, it’s just that this was originally the basement of a bank, and this was the vault.

This time, the menu was all about showing how well a good London-brewed beer can work with spicy food – well, after an introductory beer cocktail. Featuring grapefruit, lemon, elderflower liqueur and Pilsner, this was tasty yet the beeriness was rather low-key. Beer cocktails have been popular in some places for many years, has their time come in London?

Alt & savoury brioche
Anyway, after that it was on to Orbit Neu, a Düsseldorf-style Altbier (yes, there are other Altbier styles) brewed in South London. I’ve enjoyed Neu before but not as it was here, paired with a sweet brioche bun filled with sliced spicy chorizo, a dab of sweet chilli jam, and avocado. And it worked well, the malty sweetness of the Alt complementing and smoothing the spicyness of the food.

Next up was a sort of daal, made with tarka beans and accompanied by Beavertown’s collaboration The You Zoo. The latter is an IPA which at 7.5% verges on the Double, and features two ingredients that have been very fashionable among edgy brewers in recent years – yuzu, which is a citrus fruit, and tea, in this case Formosa Oolong. To my surprise, it was the food that expanded the beer here, with the daal bringing out the beer’s fruity bitterness.

Yuzu IPA & daal
It was fish next – “blue corn smoked haddock arepa” – I had to look up the latter, it’s an unleavened maize bread from South America, so I assume it’s the arepa, not the smoke, that’s blue corn. I also hadn’t realised that blue was one of the many colours that maize comes in, but it is! Anyway, this was served with Hop Chowdah, a 6.9% New England IPA from Mondo in Battersea. Murky and fruity-hoppy with mild peppery and orange notes, this was excellent with the spices.

So yes, IPAs and bitters do indeed go very well with spicy food, which makes it doubly frustrating that most curry houses have such crap beer lists.

Also frustrating though were my own attempts to do beer and food matching over the holidays. I think part of the problem was that I was trying to match to foods I’d not yet tasted, because we hadn’t finished cooking and they were stuff we’d not cooked before. It’s salutary to recall that in both these cases, the ‘curators’ had worked with samples of both the beers and the menus. You can do a lot with guesswork, but you really need a taste to work with. Ah well.

And on that note, I wish all my readers a Happy New Year, full of excellent beer and food. May your bottles never gush and may all your bars be beery ones!
Beery types behind bars

Friday, 1 December 2017

Cask Wars: Revenge of the Kegï

The toxic legacy of the long-vanquished Kegï hangs over a beer-galaxy struggling to rebuild from the Cask Wars of the 60s and 70s. Now, a small band of Craft Warriors seeks to re-unify the divided houses of the Beerati, but the entrenched Stickinnamuds still hold out for the Empire and the Old Order…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The trouble is, we’re stuck with both.

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Waitrose plans a beery splash with Fuller's & Friends

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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