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,
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.

Thursday, 17 November 2016

The Trappist sun-trap

Lodewijk checks the blonde too...
Sitting in the August sun in the beer garden at Koningshoeven Abbey, home of the famous La Trappe beers, brewmaster Lodewijk Swinkels admits he has no plans to expand the abbey brewery’s range, for example by adding more seasonal beers to the La Trappe Bock that’s currently in his hand. “We asked the monks, and they said eight is enough,” he smiles.

Fortunately, the regular range is already excellent, as is the Bock: “Dutch Bock is different from German,” he says. “Most are sweetened, but not mine!” The others include a Dubbel, Tripel, organic Puur, the only Trappist Witbier, Isid’Or, and the Quadrupel that founded a whole style. Plus, he’s pleasing the beer geeks anyway with a six-year-old Quadrupel barrel-aging project.

La Trappe Bock
It’s no surprise though that he had to ask the monks. It is their brewery after all, just as the International Trappist Organisation’s rules says it has to be – if they want to put the T-word on the label, that is. And if there’s something Trappists like even more than beer, it is rules.

Indeed, their life is all about obeying rules – the Rule of St Benedict, to be specific. Historically they took it more seriously than most: their order was founded by people who thought that other monks and nuns weren’t following the rules strictly enough. So it is little wonder that they created rules to govern the brewing of Trappist beers too.

Monastery beers

The tradition of monastic brewing is centuries old. Monks and nuns brewed both for their own consumption (self-sufficiency being one of the rules) and for the travellers and pilgrims who visited them, but as time went by, more and more of it became secular. The beer was contracted out to local breweries, for instance, or a local private brewer bought the rights to the name.

Formerly the Sheepfold
The Trappists are an exception. Perhaps because they were relative latecomers – having been a reformist movement within the Cistercians for 200 years, they only became an independent order in 1893 – or maybe because they were more commercially-minded. As monks and nuns fleeing the French Revolution and its aftermath set up new monasteries elsewhere, most notably in the Low Countries, brewing was one of the first things they turned to generate income to fund their lifestyle.

I’m not a fan of organised religions in general, but most do have their good points. In the case of the Trappists, one of their best features is that when they do something they do it properly, without cutting corners to bump up profit margins. Perhaps that’s why their beer seems to have quite quickly earned a good reputation.

Fire was an ever-present
risk for breweries, so
they often had their own
fire engines, as here.
But when the Trappists realised in the 1950s and 60s (about 100 years after Chimay had been the first to sell its beer) that their name was being used by commercial organisations, they reacted in a very modern way to protect their brand: they sued, and then set up a private association – the ITO – with rules to manage the use of the brand and its Authentic Trappist Product (ATP) trademark, which is also applied to abbey-made cheese, soap, bread and all sorts of other things.

Key rules include a requirement for the work to take place physically within the abbey, with monks at least supervising operations (lay-workers are OK), and for the operating surplus to go to financing the abbey and charitable works (the latter also covers religious missions and the like). There’s other rules – or perhaps guidelines – too. For instance, they don’t use images of the monks or nuns to promote beer, and more recently seem to have stopped using images of the abbeys too. It will say Trappist on the label, but there won’t be the cheesy paintings of red-cheeked monks that you see on many commercially-made German ‘Klosterbiers’.

Commerce meets contemplation

Although the Belgian abbeys such as Westmalle and Westvleteren are better known in beery circles, Koningshoeven in Dutch Brabant is by far the largest of the dozen or so Trappist breweries around the world. Indeed, it is run for the monks on a commercial basis by Brouwerij Bavaria, one of the Netherlands’ largest brewing companies, though there must still be monks involved if they want to keep the ATP logo on the label. (When they first involved Bavaria in 1999, they gave up their ATP certification for five years while they made sure the deal would work, but it’s back now.)

The new brewhouse
Brouwerij Bavaria handles La Trappe’s logistics and distribution too, which explains why the beers are so well known, and the abbey also brews for a number of other brands – at various times it brewed Jopen and Chimay beers, and it still brews Urthel for example, although Swinkels says that increasing demand for the La Trappe beers means he is trying to cut back on the contract work.

Bavaria’s involvement funded a new brewhouse, shoehorned in alongside the old one to stay within the abbey walls, as required There’s also an up-to-date bottling and kegging line in the abbey, and a large visitors' centre with restaurant, bar and that sunny beer garden.

I know some are sniffy about the commercial partnership – I was dubious too, and it’s sad to note that its partnership with the abbey gave Bavaria the excuse it needed to close the old Kroon brewery in Oirschot, acquired just a couple of years earlier. Fortunately though the quality of the beer shines through. Perhaps it’s an advantage that Bavaria is Dutch, not multinational, or maybe it’s those Trappist rules keeping them honest...

I met Lodewijk on a tour organised by VisitBrabant ahead of this year's European Beer Writers & Bloggers conference. We all paid for the tour ourselves, the caveat is that we were at the same time the guests of VisitBrabant who booked the beer tastings and covered our hotel stay. 

Koningshoeven Abbey is not too far from several other Trappist breweries over the border in Belgium, and VisitBrabant links up with its counterpart there to do cycling tours where you can visit half a dozen of them over a few days. Nice!

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.