Tuesday, 21 April 2015

What brings foreign brewers to work for Wetherspoons?

Earlier this year, craft brewers from around the world flew home after a week's brewing at some of Britain's oldest and most traditional real ale breweries. Last month, the fruits of their - unpaid! - handiwork went on sale at 950+ pubs around the country, as part of JD Wetherspoon's spring real ale festival.

And this was only the latest of several such collaborations, albeit one of the largest, with ten collaboration beers on offer this time. So what is it that attracts these successful brewers - all of them highly regarded at home, whether that's the USA, Australia, Spain or even Brazil – to come to the UK and brew cask ale for Wetherspoons? Especially when, while they get their travel paid for, they're otherwise working for free – it's a real busman's holiday.

Celebration time for the international guests at the Crosse Keys
Luckily, I had the chance to chat with many of those involved, both from abroad and their UK hosts, at a meet-the-brewers event hosted by Wetherspoons at its grand Crosse Keys pub in the City of London. For almost all the visitors, it was the opportunity to do something new and rather different, not least because many of them don't have any experience of brewing cask-conditioned beer.

“We do bottled-conditioning and kegs – cask beer is totally unknown in South Africa, it's a whole new experience,” said Brian Stewart of Shongweni Brewery, who brewed a cask version of his Durban Pale Ale at Batemans. “Some of the American brewers have gone back and started doing cask themselves. Others want UK exposure for possible future exports,” added Dave Aucutt of East-West Ales, who is the beer manager for Wetherspoons' real ale festivals (and is also the Dave pictured on the JDW Real Ale website).

Capacity counts

Then there are the volumes involved. To feature in a Wetherspoon's national festival, you need to be able to brew maybe 200 barrels of your beer. The guest brewers will typically have modern 10 or 20 barrel brewkits of their own, in gleaming stainless steel, so it is quite a thrill to come to a centuries-old family brewery with a capacity of maybe ten times that – and that leads on to the historical angle.

“It's a blast for them, brewing on older and more traditional plants,” said Simon Yates, assistant head brewer at Marston's. “It's the experience of doing something different, seeing a different brewery – we brewed with Hook Norton,” agreed Dave Edney of Australia's Mountain Goat Brewery, adding that you can't get much more historic than Hooky's Victorian tower brewery.

And of course there is Britain's world-class ale heritage more generally, which is way too easy for us Brits to forget, what with all the excitement over craft beers and so on. The fact is that all these brewers look to the British ale tradition for inspiration for at least some of their craft beers. For example, although Brian Stewart said that with South Africa being so hot, the main market is for “easy-drinking beers to watch cricket by”, and that he also brews German and American-inspired beers, his flagship Pale Ale is inspired by IPA dropped off at the Cape by ships on their way to India.

He added that he learnt a huge amount from working with Batemans head brewer Martin Cullimore. “Martin is like a walking encyclopædia on brewing and the technology,” he said. “I will take back a lot of understanding of the technology – he's a very good mentor.”

And what of working with Wetherspoons? After all, while many British beer fans love 'Spoons' for its championing of craft real ale (and now of craft beer in general) at affordable prices – it planned to sell three million pints over the 17 days of its real ale festival – others regard it with horror. To them it's a beery McDonald's, a corporate monster undercutting 'real pubs'.

Clearer vision

Perhaps with the clearer vision that comes from not being so close to the topic, the visitors I spoke with were uniformly enthusiastic. “You get an email saying 'Come to Britain and brew one of your ales to be sold in 950 pubs'! How could you resist that? Sure, there's US pub chains, but it's not the same,” said Tyler Brown, who brewed a version of his Barley Brown's ESA at Marston's.

He added that while exploring Britain he discovered just how varied Wetherspoons can be. “In Edinburgh we went to the Alexander Graham Bell and then to the Standing Order. They're the same company and they have the same menus, but they have an entirely different clientèle.”

The host brewers were enthusiastic about Spoons too, though for different reasons. “You don't make a lot of profit [selling to Wetherspoons], but it does make one and it helps with your volumes, which reduces your overall malt bill and so on,” said Martin Cullimore. It's also great for the visibility of both your brewery and your beer, added Adnams brewer and quality manager Belinda Jennings.

And they were just as enthusiastic about the overseas collaborations as their visitors were. “The first thing is it's enjoyable doing something a bit different,” said Simon Yates. “A lot [of the guests] are not formally trained brewers, what's great is their enthusiasm and passion – it's very invigorating,” added Martin Cullimore.

In addition, while the guests may learn about cask conditioning and brewing in volume, the hosts learn too. “They're often more adventurous with ingredients, for example we might never have thought of using pink peppercorns,” said Belinda Jennings. She added that they could even rebrew some of their collaborations themselves – with the guest's permission of course.

Collaboration or copy?

Talking of which. are they collaboration brews or are they really just cask versions of the guest's original beer? “Sometimes the aim is to recreate the original as closely as possible, for example when we did Harpoon IPA,” said Simon Yates. “Others are interpretations, maybe they're not as strong as at home so they're better suited to pints rather than 12oz measures, such as the Devils Backbone American IPA we brew at Banks's.”

The festival included St Patrick's Day
Much of the time though, it's effectively a new beer – even more so in this festival, because the overarching theme was that all 50 festival beers would be brewed using only British-grown hops (which in practice meant English hops, because so little is grown in Wales and Scotland). Apparently there's now 27 or 28 different hops grown in Britain, ranging from established varieties such as Fuggles and Goldings to newer ones like Archer, Boadicea and Jester, and even English-grown Cascade. The festival beers featured 24 of them, as not all could be sourced in sufficient quantities.

“The beer will be different – it's our existing recipe, but the water is different, the hops are different, and of course cask conditioning is not the same as brewery conditioning,” confirmed Brian Stewart. This also lead Dave Edney to articulate the one big regret shared by the guest brewers, who were already heading home several weeks before the festival ales would be ready to sell. “It's a pity we can't taste the beer – it's a different yeast and water so it won't be the same,” he said.

As mentioned, one of the reasons for pairing the guests with experienced cask ale brewers is to help them brew their recipes in this new-to-them way. Unfortunately, while this concept usually works well – sometimes startlingly well, as with the more recent Caledonian-brewed Nøgne Ø Asian Pale Ale, or the Adnams/Rogue Brutal IPA earlier this year – I'm not sure that it meshed with the spring festival's theme of British hops. Of the international brewers' beers I tried, a couple were pretty good but most were only so-so.

I think that the problem was they were being asked to use unfamiliar ingredients as well as different processes. So where normally the host brewer can help adapt their recipe as needed, this time they were in effect creating a new recipe. Plus there was no time for test brews, so if neither the host nor the guest had brewed a similar combination before, then it's all educated guesswork.

But all in all, it's a brilliant idea. The brewers get to share ideas and expertise, drinkers get some new and hopefully top-notch cask beers, and horizons are broadened all round. That to me is a very large part of what modern (craft, if you like) brewing is all about, and I thoroughly applaud Wetherspoons for supporting and encouraging it.

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Hamburg's nice and nasty surprises

We're in Germany around easter, and last week allowed a trip into Hamburg for two beery events. First was the weekly Open Bottle at the Craft Beer Store in Sternschanze – this is a weekly free tasting of a new beer, sometimes from the adjacent Ratsherrn Brauerei and sometimes from elsewhere.

This one turned out to be a chance to catch up with Ian Pyle, the Bavarian/American/British-trained brewmaster who runs Ratsherrn's pilot brewery, and to sample something unexpected: a cider that he calls Appelwien – that's Apfelwein in the local Plattdeutsch (Low German) dialect. He was also pouring Steuerbord, his new dry-hopped Pils.

Ian noted that Appelwien was fermented from Holsteiner Cox and Boskoop apple juice, which was supplied unpasteurised by a local producer Leev, and used wine yeast – he doesn't want wild yeast around his brewery! He said he wanted it to be more along the lines of Normandy cider than British scrumpy, although there was no French-style maceration, which sweetens the brew a bit more. And although the apple varieties used are better known as eating apples, he said the juice is actually slightly more acidic than that from bittersweet British cider apples.

The result is very drinkable, with a fruity nose that has almost a white wine character, and a dry-sweet tangy body. I found it a little sweet in the finish, but Ian said the residual sugar level was actually pretty low, so maybe it's just my preference for bone-dry perries!

So what's it like switching from beer to cider-making? “It's easy for a brewer, although there's a lot of best practice to learn and you need to select your ingredients and your yeast carefully,” Ian said. He did small trial batches using three different apple juices and three different yeasts before settling on the Cox/Boskoop pairing with Muller-Thurgau yeast.

Steuerbord was quite a different proposition. Dry-hopped or late-hopped – Hopfenstopfen in German – with Opal, Saphir and Smaragd, it was aromatic, dryish and crisp, but with surprisingly little bitterness. Ian said that the hops were almost all whirlpool additions, as he wanted to emphasise aroma over bitterness. The crisp dryness comes more from it having a very low residual extract (ie. most of the sugars are fermented out).

Overall it had a slightly biscuity character, and I picked up hints of peach and lemon, plus a faint salty and flinty mineral edge. It's an intriguing beer that shows just how varied Pilsners can be, at least when a brewer bothers to try something different from the generic Bitburger/Krombacher/etc style.

The evening's second event was Reinheitsverbot (which approximately translates to "beer purity banned"), a beer launch at a bar not far from the Reeperbahn that's trying to build itself as a craft beer venue. It's a regular introductory evening for their beers of the month, albeit without the free tastings. I was looking forward to it as they were easter beers I'd not tried before – or I was until I walked in there, and discovered it was one of the few all-smoking venues left in Germany (pubs often have a smoking room, but the main bar will be smoke-free).

Worse, there wasn't any ventilation and although the place had just opened for the evening and I was the only non-staffer in there, the ashtrays were still full. It stank as if they wanted it to stink. I felt physically sick and did something I've not done in a while – turn on my heel and leave. Quite apart from not wanting to end up smelling like an ashtray myself, trying to taste decent beer in such an environment would have been a waste.

On the plus side, heading back earlier than planned meant I was in time for dinner and some extremely nice red wine, so the evening was still a win.

Thursday, 26 March 2015

Guinness Golden Ale - colonist or cannibal? (And it's not even golden!)

In a way, the news that Guinness is launching a bottled ale* takes it right back to its origins – it originally brewed ales, not Porter, and Arthur Guinness rented St James Gate in 1759 as an ale brewery. However, unlike the previous two new beers from its pilot brewery, Guinness Golden Ale is not based on anything historic.

Instead, it was created by Guinness brewer Peter Simpson in the St James Gate pilot brewery, home to The Brewers Project, which was set up to try out new ingredients and new recipes. I'm told he wanted to make a cross-over beer – an ale that would appeal to lager drinkers and bring them over to ale.

Which makes it all the more odd that the result is a crisp and malty brown bitter. It is well made and drinkable, with light floral and biscuit notes on the nose, and then a dry-sweet and crisply bitter body with a faint hint of the toasted caramel that's characteristic of many winter beers.

The problem is that apart from the Guinness name, there is nothing here that stands out. I'd drink it again quite cheerfully – it's a good beer – but it is little different from a dozen other 'premium bottled ales'. And the one thing I can't see it being is a cross-over beer for the lager crowd. It's not blonde enough, not light enough, and quite frankly it's too beery.

So what is it for? Occupying shelf space and leveraging the Guinness name can only take you so far – if it doesn't continue to sell, it won't keep that shelf space.

What it might do is act as a cross-over to tempt curious Draught Guinness drinkers to try ale. It's hard to imagine Guinness doing that deliberately, but the business guru's mantra is “cannibalise your business before someone else does it for you”, and perhaps someone there has picked up on that.

Of course the risk is that once you have expanded their taste horizons, they could quickly move on to yet more new ale experiences.

What do you think – is Guinness taking a risk here, or simply colonising a bit more space on the supermarket shelf?

*under its own name. Of course it already has Smithwicks and others.

Friday, 20 March 2015

Belgium's Eclipse proves far more satisfying than London's

Today was not just a solar eclipse – albeit a largely invisible one here in London – and the new moon*, it was also the vernal equinox. Which is why Duvel Moortgat chose today for the UK launch of Duvel Tripel Hop 2015, featuring an American hop called Equinox alongside the regular Saaz and Styrian Goldings varieties. (Then again the beer's been out in Belgium and the Netherlands for a couple of weeks now, even though they get their vernal equinox on the same date as us!)

It turns out this is also likely to be the last Tripel Hop with a year date on it. The plan is to switch to naming each new release after the additional hop, so this one is already being described as Tripel Hop Equinox, while last year's becomes Tripel Hop Mosaic and so on. “People talk about the year, not the hops, but the hops are what's special about each one,” explained Matt Willson, Duvel Moortgat's UK general manager.

Whatever you call it, the beer is delicious – it smells almost Saison-like, with Equinox adding a floral and faintly peachy note. There's a huge drying alcohol bite from its 9.5% ABV, with a peppery and lightly citrus body – I guess that's as much the Saaz and Styrians as the Equinox. It finishes dry and floral, with hints of honey and tangerine, the latter again being Equinox I think.

Duvel is also launching into the UK market two beers from Boulevard, the US craft brewery that it bought about 18 months ago (it also owns New York's Ommegang). One's the highly regarded Tank 7 Farmhouse Ale – a crisp and funky beer, with a big chewy body, thanks in part to 8.5% ABV, and a firm grapefruit and peppery bitter edge. I've had this before, but not as fresh and punchy as it was this time. It put me more in mind of a Farmhouse IPA and it stood up remarkably well to spicy food. This could easily be my new go-to beer for curry!

The other's Boulevard's Single-Wide IPA, 'only' 5.7% but still full-bodied and with grapefruit and pine resin notes on the nose. There's citrus bitterness and honeyed malt, but the body is more earthy than I expected. It too is delicious, and somehow mid-Atlantic in style, seeming to combine elements of both American and (modern) English IPAs.

While chatting with Matt at the launch event, he reminded me of the history of Tripel Hop. As the name implies, it's a hopped-up Tripel using three different hops

“The hops are chosen by Hedwig – he picked an American one this year as a nod to Boulevard,” Matt says. “It's an interesting market in the US now – it's all about provenance,” he adds, noting that with craft beer so local and the breweries mostly so small, Boulevard is now the seventh largest in the country on annual production of just 240,000 hectolitres.

Meanwhile, the UK market is becoming more price-sensitive, he says, especially as foreign craft beers begin to be produced locally, just like all those 'world lagers' that are really brewed in Wales or Kent, say. The biggest example recently is Sam Adams, now brewed under licence by Shepherd Neame.

“It means they can undercut their US rivals on price,” he adds. “I believe in provenance, but then I would!” In order to compete and yet stay true to their origins, companies such as Duvel are having to come up with creative ways to compete.
, and it arose from a bet between Duvel's head brewer Hedwig Neven and members of Zythos, the Belgian beer consumers group. It was first brewed in a very limited quantity in 2007, that brew was repeated in 2010, and it then became an annual special from 2012, but this time with a different third hop each year.

For instance, rather than replicate La Chouffe (one of a Duvel Moortgat roster that also includes De Koninck, Liefmanns and Maredsous) in the US and the Boulevard beers in Belgium, they ship the former over in kegs to the US, then refill the empty kegs with Boulevard beer and send them back. Result: lower costs, greener distribution, and of course happy drinkers...

*these two will inevitably coincide, if you think about the astrodynamics involved.

Saturday, 14 March 2015

CBR: Sharp words on Doom Bar and Stout

“The hardest thing to do as a brewer is to make a beer that makes people come back for more.” That's Stuart Howe, then the director of brewing for Sharp's Brewery, talking in London on the first day of Craft Beer Rising, where Sharp's was a major sponsor. Barely two weeks later it was revealed that he was leaving Molson Coor's-owned Sharp's to join another West Country stalwart, Butcombe Brewery, itself recently bought by Liberation Group from the Channel Islands.

The folk at Sharp's get a lot of stick in certain quarters for the blandness of Doom Bar, which may well now be the UK's top ale brand. I admit I'm one of those who sigh inwardly if I enter a pub and the only handpump visible is a Doom Bar one – because poorly-served pints have made it a sign for me of a pub that sells on branding, not beer quality.

That reaction's unfair to the brewers though, because as Stuart continued: “I kill myself to make the same beer every week, I come in and taste it, and if it's different I blend it back until it's the same.” I guess the truth is that I am not the target market for Doom Bar – people who want something familiar, who might occasionally try something else but then go back to the known quantity.

And of course one of Stuart's successes at Sharp's after the Molson Coor's take-over was to carry on producing innovative beers alongside the bigger brands, most notably his Connoisseur's Choice range of specialist styles and spiced beers. It was always Doom Bar though that got the marketing.

His recruitment by Butcombe (again as brewing director) will therefore feed the fears of those who always thought the Molson-Coors takeover would see Sharp's become part of a corporate machine driven primarily by branding. In contrast, the Butcome/Liberation combination is very much a craft and real ale-driven business. Then again, it could also be that Stuart wants to get back to brewing, having moved to more of an oversight role within MC where he had overall responsibility for three breweries: Sharp's, Franciscan Well in Cork, and the currently mothballed William Worthington's brewery in Burton.

“William Worthington closed two months after I took over,” he said, adding that it was due to problems getting the plant to meet MC's health and safety standards. Reading between the lines, it seems it was a victim (although of course the hope is that it will eventually re-open) of the collision between big brewery costs and small brewery economics, due to it being an integral part of a much bigger factory. 

The dark beer revolution

We often read now that Porters and Stouts are back in fashion – they're certainly my favourites, and it's become almost a mark of self-respect for a craft brewery to add a distinctive dark beer to its range. So it was interesting to hear Stuart express a contrary view when I asked what plans Sharp's had in that direction.

“Stouts don't sell,” he said. “Year on year, Guinness sales in the UK go down 10% to 15%. Dubbel Coffee Stout is the worst seller in our Connoisseur range.”

The problem for me is the definition of Stout. Plenty of microbrewers have tried to produce beers to compete with Guinness, but few have succeeded, perhaps because Guinness is not really part of the growing Stout & Porter market – in many ways it is a market all of its own. It could simply be that macrobrewed Stout is being affected by the same changes in taste and fashion as macro-lager.

However, that doesn't explain why Molson Coor's with all its expertise can't sell Dubbel Coffee Stout. Perhaps once again it is back to the collision between big and small, with sales strategies that are designed to sell big brands being entirely unsuited to selling small-scale craft products. If so, it could bode badly for the big brewers' crafty plans in general. Interesting times, eh?

This is the fourth in a series of write-ups from London's Craft Beer Rising, which took place on 19th-22nd February 2015 at the Old Truman Brewery on Brick Lane. There's one or two more to come, when time permits.

Friday, 6 March 2015

The strange tale of English Lambic

One of the more interesting set of taps I spotted at Craft Beer Rising was on the Elgood's bar – as well as a couple of fruit-infused Weissbiers, they included one for its English Lambic beer, which I never got to try when it originally came out. Seeing as Lambic is a sour beer speciality of Belgium, and more specifically of the Pajottenland area, more than a few eyebrows were raised when a 220-year old English family brewer announced that it was going to brew one.

Coolship #2
For a start, Lambic beers are traditionally fermented in open vessels using wild yeasts, in a process that's remarkably hard to manage – if you want something drinkable at the end of it, that is. And yet Elgood's managed it, and Coolship – named after the fermenting vessels – got a very good response. Well, apart from a pub which sent its cask back, complaining that it had gone sour...

“That one pub sent it back, but they reordered it two months later when they realised!” said Elgoods sales manager Marcus Beecher. He added that the response had been so good that the CBR offering was actually the second brew of Coolship, and that there's a third in the process – it takes at least nine months to ferment, Marcus said, and around 18 months in total, so it is something of a labour of love.

Of course, being naturally fermented, Coolship #2 is subtly different from the original (and no doubt Coolship #3 will be a little different again). For a start it came out at 6% alcohol rather than 6.8%. It too is a hit though – it won silver in the speciality beers category at this year's International Brewing Awards, and now it's being launched in bottled form.

“A lot of our area's wild yeast is from fruit – we're surrounded by fruit farms,” Marcus said, and yes, there was indeed a faint strawberry note to the beer. Otherwise it was dry, tart and refreshingly sour, with notes of sour lemons and green apples.

Perhaps more exciting still was a tap promising Coolship Dark – yes, a dark Lambic, and perhaps the only one in the world, according to Marcus. “We've always been good at dark beers [Elgood's Black Dog mild has won many awards] so we thought we would combine the two,” he explained. “The Belgians never made a dark Lambic, so as far as we know it's a world first.” The result is an interesting blend of sourness and dark aromas and flavours – burnt toffee, a little treacle and a hint of something like Marmite.

He added, “We will do a Geueze once we have enough beer held back and aged.” Interesting beers ahead indeed.

This is my third in a series of write-ups from London's Craft Beer Rising, which took place on 19th-22nd February 2015 at the Old Truman Brewery on Brick Lane. There's a couple more to come, as soon as time permits!

Thursday, 5 March 2015

Craft Beer Rising: meeting Lagunitas

Increasingly, the biggest threat to European breweries trying to emulate American beer styles is the Americans themselves. At CBR, I had a chat with a local rep from one of those breweries, California's Lagunitas, whose eponymous and classic American IPA was hard to find in the UK not long ago, but is now available nationwide via JD Wetherspoon.

“The Wetherspoons exposure is great for us,” said "ales & marketing" rep Ben Caruso, who was busy pouring IPA, Lagunitas Pils and the hoppy 7.85% golden ale Lagunitas Sucks. (The latter was originally a one-off, brewed as a self-deprecating apology one year when the company had to cancel production of its winter seasonal Brown Shugga Ale. Ironically it turned into a bigger hit than the seasonal it apologised for.)

It really doesn't suck!
What surprised me was that all the beers were on draught, when the Wetherspoons distribution is all bottled. Apparently Lagunitas has invested in ramping up its keg distribution here, selling on via Adnams – Ben explained that it takes just 12 to 14 days now to bring kegs over in a refrigerated ship, “so they're as fresh here as they are back home.”

He said Lagunitas prices its kegs for the beer to retail at around £5 or £5.50 a pint – intending a reasonable price for a fresh premium import, rather than a rip-off. “You get some American beers selling here at £8 a pint, and that's for beer that isn't even fresh,” he exclaimed.

Initially it's just the IPA on draught here, with IPA, Pils and Sucks imported in bottled form. More kegs will follow though, with Pils probably being the next addition to the UK regular line-up.

Could Lagunitas follow other US brewers in setting up production in Europe? There's nothing planned, but it would certainly be a lot cheaper without all those import taxes, Ben said. He added though that it would have to be their own brewery, because they'd never licence their beers to another brewer.

This is the second in a series of write-ups from London's Craft Beer Rising, which took place on 19th-22nd February 2015 at the Old Truman Brewery on Brick Lane.