Monday, 5 October 2015

Jesus inna cask

An 11.4% Imperial Stout (brewed with English liquorice and dark muscovado), on cask and at less than a tenner a pint? I don't mind if I do -- it could be just what I need to fire up the creative synapses...

Surprisingly, although the mouthfeel is sweet and syrupy, it is actually a little more dry and roasty on the palate. Yes, there's liquorice in there, plus the umami notes typical of many strong stouts, and hints of cocoa and treacle. Yum.

Serious kudos to Siren for cask conditioning this monster. Although my dear gods, this teeters on the edge of not quite being beer. I'm not sure what else it might turn into though -- hoppy and malty Port, perhaps? A less herbal form of Gammel Dansk? :-D

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Porter is black beer, but is it Schwarzbier?

German Porter, now there's a thing. There's quite a few about now from the more craft-inspired breweries, but they're usually more in an American Porter vein, so when I came across mentions of versions dating back at least to the early 1900s on Ron Pattinson's blog, I was intrigued. How did Porter get over there, I wondered – did it filter south from the Baltic?

At the same time, Germany has its own dark beer styles, in particular Schwarzbier, which tends to be a northern and eastern speciality. These days, this is normally a black lager, malty, dry and medium-bitter, and sometimes described as black Pils (Dunkel Pils) although it's usually not as hoppy as a normal Helles Pils. I find many Schwarzbiers have a distinctive ashy note, although as the BJCP guidelines say, Schwarzbier doesn't usually have a burnt character.

Anyway, when I spotted a new-to-me German Porter in the Getränkemarkt – Distelhäuser Black Pearl – I had to pick up a bottle. And extremely nice it was too – roasty and dry-bitter, with a little red-fruity tartness and hints of toffee and liquorice. But there too was something I hadn't expected: an ashy cocoa note that reminded me of nothing so much as Schwarzbier.

Then back in London, a new-to-me English Porter – Dissident, from South London's Gipsy Hill Brewery. Again, very nice, and again those ashy-bitter cocoa and red fruit notes. In fact, my notes say it made me think of what a cask-conditioned Schwarzbier might be like.

But if they're so similar, which came first and what's going on here – is it a case of parallel evolution, or an exchange of ideas among brewers, or has modern Schwarzbier somehow evolved from a bottom-fermented Porter?!

When I dug into the subject, it turned out that there's a bit of truth in all three options. Schwarzbier in the general sense of dark beer is an ancient thing everywhere – for example, archaeologists found evidence of dark beer in an iron age Celtic tomb in northern Bavaria, dating to around 800 BCE.

With the end of the middle ages, beer began moving around – by the 1600s, England was importing a heavy sweet North German beer called Mumme (or Mum), which appears to have been regarded as a black beer. By the 1700s, the Porter brewers of London were producing strong matured beers for export, and so were the Schwarzbier brewers of Köstritz.

Things moved some more in the late 1700s and early 1800s. According to local archives translated on the Zythopoeia blog, English Ales and Porters became very fashionable in Germany, and of course the local brewers worked to copy them. Interestingly, just like English brewers of Sweet Stout and Brunswick's Mumme brewers, by the late 1800s they were marketing their sweet Schwarzbier as a great tonic, suitable for invalids and breastfeeding mothers.

So there it is: the parallel evolution of dark beers, plus the introduction of new ideas from abroad (whether from Germany to England or vice versa), the effects of fashion, and of course brewers finding out what works. Porter and Schwarzbier aren't quite the same thing, but they are much closer cousins than many people might realise.

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Three 'Cheers!' for Big Beery Night

Here's something for all readers who are, like me, thoroughly fed up with the nannying neo-prohibitionist nonsense of DryJanuary, Drythalon, GoSoberForOctober* and all that -- fellow bloggers Steve of the Beer O'Clock Show and Phil of Beersay have come up with Big Beery Night, a night to both celebrate beer and donate to charity.

It's the evening of Friday 25th September, which is also the date of MacMillan's World's Biggest Coffee Morning, so you can follow your Kaffee und Kuchen with a nice beer in that same most excellent cause.

All you have to do is drink the beer, Tweet/Instagram your choice using the tag #BigBeeryNight, and then donate the cost of your beer to MacMillan. They've even set up a dedicated #BigBeeryNight JustGiving page for our donations.

See you then, I hope!

*The arrogant and insolent assumption that the only reason to drink beer is to get drunk says a lot more about their behaviour than about mine and yours.

Monday, 14 September 2015

Rewriting history down Greenwich way

SAB-Miller was late into the craft beer market, but it has decided to catch up quickly - by rewriting history.

Through its Meantime Brewing subsidiary it has commissioned a mobile app that's an audio tour of "significant locations from London’s brewing past", and which just happens to end up at "our state-of-the-art Meantime Brewery – where the UK craft beer revolution was born in 1999."

In 1999 Meantime was (a) in a lock-up in Charlton, it only moved to its current Blackwall Lane site in 2010; and (b) about as 'craft' as any other German-style lager brewery.

Even in 2005 when it released interpretations of historic London Porter and IPA in 750ml bottles (from its Penhall Road site, the one in between Charlton and Blackwall Lane), it was mostly a lager factory. It's done some very nice beers since, but the cradle of UK craft beer? Hardly.

Sunday, 13 September 2015

German Murky, Belgian style, in French barrels

Holy Cowl Belgian-style Tripel is one of those wannabe-crafty German beers that's been on my OK-so-I'm-curious wishlist for a while now. It's from Craftwerk Brewing, which is the crafty arm of Pilsner giant Bitburger Braugruppe. Pretty much every German brewery seems to have a craft beer line these days, often (as in this case) with a hybrid Anglo-German name, and in some cases with its own microbrewery - Craftwerk uses Bitburger's pilot-brewery.

So when I spotted it in one of my supermarket sweeps during our recent trip over, I picked up a bottle - despite it costing twice as much as the average German craft beer, which in turn costs three times what regular beer costs. Not only was it Holy Cowl, it was from the new barrel-aged limited edition of 4500 bottles, now sold-out according the Craftwerk website.

Why did I choose to open it this evening? Well, it was in the beer fridge for one thing, but also I've just come back from Belgium, so it set me thinking about how German brewers so rarely look there for beer ideas. And that in turn set me wondering what it could tell me about the state of German craft(y) beer.

I'm in two minds about Craftwerk Barrel Aged. One the one hand it's so wannabe-crafty it almost hurts. It's German Murky - industrial macro-lager is clear as a bell, so murkiness is an assertion that you're rejecting that. It's a bit too red winey (12 months in French oak barrels, says the website), and I've had several Belgian Tripels lately, and this isn't one of those. And it's been tidied up, in a quality-focused macrobrew sort of way - there's not much sense of handmade here. 

On the other hand, it is actually rather tasty. Bitter yet thoroughly fruity, dry-sweet, woody and just the faintest bretty sour note. Perhaps the most interesting thing is that even though it's been tidied-up I don't get the sense that it's also been dumbed down so as not to frighten the horses (or the marketing department), which is what I get from some other crafty operations.

Sunday, 6 September 2015

Looking for common ground in Belgian brewing

The legendary Saison brewery
If all I'd attended while I was in Belgium was the first day of the European Beer Writers Conference, I might have imagined that there was not much alternative to the industrial beers of AB-InBev apart from the die-hard traditionalists of the Belgian Family Brewers association.

Fortunately, talking to some of the brewers on the pre- and post-conference tours, and also at the beerex on the conference's second day, a different picture emerged. It also became clear just why the BFB members are so fiercely pro-heritage and against the likes of gypsy and contract brewers – they are the last two dozen proud survivors of a long tradition that once included hundreds of family breweries. As in every other European country, the others all closed down and/or sold out to the macrobrewers, most likely because a younger generation of the owning family preferred a new Porsche to some hard work.

The tours introduced us to Lambic breweries, for instance. Some old enough to join the BFB with its 50-year age minimum, and others mere striplings in comparison yet already leaders in their art (more on these in a later post). Meanwhile, meeting newer brewers at the beerex gave another view of a vibrant and youthful brewing culture, as did visiting Beer Project Brussels to see its nearly-complete new 10hl brewkit.

Kristof Vandenbussche
One of those at the beerex was Fort Lapin, a new yet traditionally focused brewery from Bruges/Brugge. As an aside, visitors tend to think of Bruges as a beer city, yet Fort Lapin is now one of just two commercial breweries operating there, the other being De Halve Maan (The Half Moon). That's the scale of how much brewing Belgium has lost over the decades.

Being only four years old or thereabouts, Fort Lapin is definitely not eligible to join BFB. Formerly a keen home-brewer, owner Kristof Vandenbussche is a heating engineer by trade, and he was able to use his technical skills to build most of the brewkit himself, using old dairy tanks and even doing his own welding. As a result, he estimates that the 10hl brewery cost him perhaps €100,000 over the years, the biggest expense being the bottling line. That might look a lot, but is less than 20% of what the Brussels Beer Project has invested in its all-new brewery and bottling line.

Another aside: one of the problems Belgian brewers face is that, perhaps driven by price competition among the macrobrewers, people expect beer to be cheap. As a result, Kristof noted that he earned more last year from the 4000 people who paid to visit his brewery than he did from selling beer.

He brews seasonals and specials, plus three standards of Belgian brewing as his regulars: Dubbel, Tripel and Quadrupel, all of them spiced and the Dubbel being amber from hibiscus flowers, rather than the more usual brown.

BPB shopfront
Beer Project Brussels is quite a different kettle of wort. Its beers are much more in the modern fusion vein, so for example there's one that crosses a Tripel with a Bavarian-style Hefeweizen, a Belgian IPA brewed with bread Sumerian-style, and a Belgian twist on Black IPA. The beer recipes were crowd-sourced via social networking, with founders Olivier de Brauwere and Sébastien Morvan contract-brewing at Brouwerij Anders in Limburg.

They also part-funded their new pilot brewery in central Brussels via crowdfunding, with more than 1200 people contributing €160 each, for which they are each due to receive 12 beers a year for the rest of their lives. (That looks like a pretty good deal to me – maybe 10% to 15% return on investment. I assume it excludes shipping though!)

It's bigger on the inside!
The result is something like a Tardis – when I visited BPB's address at the scruffier end of Antoine Dansaert Straat last week I found a dusty unassuming shopfront. Behind this, they were at work building a small shop and tasting room, but walk deeper in and the whole place opens up into a big 500 square metre workspace, lined with bare brick walls and fitted with a shiny new Braukon 10hl brewkit. Since I visited, photos on Facebook show that the first 10hl fermenters have arrived, as has a bottling line capable of filling 1500 bottles an hour.

So far, so micro. But as I mentioned, this is only intended as a pilot brewery – the most successful of the new recipes will go to Brouwerij Anders for full-scale brewing.

The two strands of non-macro Belgian brewing could almost exist in different worlds. In one of the sessions, a Family Brewers speaker mentioned that on average it took their members 1.2 years to introduce a new beer – that's 14 months, though I think several of them are rather faster now! By comparison, the Beer Project plans to create (they prefer the term co-create, as they'll use input from social networks) 20 new beers each year.

The consequence? The BFB speaker added that “family brewers really think things through and think of the next generation.” In contrast, the younger breweries are happy to do short-run specials and one-offs – you could argue that they prioritise the drinkers, on the basis that if they're happy the company will do well. It's an old, old chasm, and one which both sides will need to bridge.

Saturday, 29 August 2015

Belgian beer at the crossroads

Palm's beer wagon
To say I've learnt a lot about traditional Belgian beer in the last couple of days would be putting it mildly. It's because I'm in Brussels at this year's European Beer Bloggers and Writers Conference*, and I've spent much of that time with members of the Belgian Family Brewers association, which is the conference's top sponsor.

Being able to talk to these brewers – and these days you do get to meet the brewer, where 20 years ago you met the owner or managing director, while the brewer was probably kept out of sight with the other technicians – was hugely informing. We talked about the intricacies of beer maturation, the use of spices and barrel-ageing, the different ways to make sour beers, and lots more.

That said, it's also clear that Belgian beer is at a crossroads of sorts. In one direction you have the BFB members, all of them family-run companies who've been brewing for at least 50 years (you can't join otherwise!) and many of whom are in their fifth or sixth generation of family management, in another of course you have AB-InBev, with its HQ here in Belgium and brands such as Stella Artois and Jupiler, in a third you have new young breweries, whether traditionally-focused or craft/fusion-inspired, and in the fourth are the private-labellers, making cheap beer to be relabelled as supermarket own-brands.

De Ryck's blond
You also have a saturated and declining market where the primary way for small brewers to grow is to export – the country produces 18 million hectolitres of beer a year, imports another one million, and exports 11 million. As one of the BFB spokespeople put it, it produces ten times its demographic weight in beer. (Interestingly, the only other countries exporting anything like as much of their production are close by – they are Denmark and the Netherlands, presumably for Carlsberg & Heineken.)

All of which is why the BFB is sponsoring the conference, of course – although there were times yesterday afternoon though when it felt more like the only sponsor, not just the top one. Where were the young breweries or even the Trappists?

I'm in two minds about the BFB. Its focus on tradition and family – it requires members to have been brewing for at least 50 years, they also have to be family-owned, with several breweries now in the 5th  or 6th generation – is admirable, but some of its tactics come over as defensive and lacklustre. At a press conference yesterday it announced an advertising campaign focusing on the family-owned aspect which would not have looked out of place 50 years ago.

Barrel ageing at Dubuisson
Still, its members make some lovely beers. There's classic Belgian styles such as its spicy golden pale ales, Dubbels and Tripels of course, but there's also innovations, such as Dubuisson's wine barrel-aged versions of its Bush Blond, Lindeman's collaboration with Mikkeller on Spontanbasil, a weirdly fascinating herbal Lambic, and the growing use of dry hopping and ageing on oak chips.

The question I'm still turning over in my mind is whether these are really innovations, or just the latest fads, followed in order to target the huge US market, where for many beer-lovers Belgium remains the epitome of specialist beer.

*Since some people seem to worry about these things, the disclaimer is that yes, we get given quite a bit of beer at EBBC, but we've also paid to attend, paid to get here and paid for hotel rooms – for most of us that's a few hundred quid.