Monday 27 August 2012

Meanwhile in German beer, it's 1971 all over again...

I'm curious – do you think of German beer as aspirational, or worthy of emulation? Or is Germany merely one of the places you go to when you feel like drinking a properly-made lager?

It's funny how things come together every now and then. Just recently I was chatting (on Twitter – O tempora o mores!) with Old Worthy brewer Nick Ravenhall about my experience of beer here in Germany, and in particular how little variety there is. More on that later – I've a fairly long article in the process of drafting – but his comment that it sounded “maybe like the UK 20 years ago” made me think.

I didn't reply straight away though, as I was wondering if 20 was the right number. Then today along came a blog post from Boak & Bailey in which they quote the April 1972 edition of the British consumer magazine Which? on keg beer:

“…none smelled very strongly in the glass — none was either unpleasant or very pleasant. As far as taste went, the overwhelming impression of our tasters was that none of the keg bitters had any very characteristic taste… we also carried out a standard laboratory test for hop-bitterness. These results confirmed how similar the keg beers were.”

It immediately reminded me of another article earlier this year, reporting on a German TV programme which openly said the unsayable: that German beer has become samey, is made to a (low) budget, and has been outclassed by the rest of the world.

Looks rather similar, doesn't it? So perhaps I was right to pause and reflect – and maybe the correct number was 40 years, not 20.

Of course in Britain what changed things was the appearance in 1971 of CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale, a single-issue pressure group which in its first decade was described as the “most successful consumer campaign in Europe”. These days it may have its foibles, but its influence has been world-wide – including the USA – and I'm absolutely certain that without CAMRA we not have the variety of beer that we have today.

Can something similar happen in Germany, 40 years on? One of the biggest oddities in European beer for me is the fact that Germany, almost alone among great beer-producing nations and unlike most of its neighbours, does not have an equivalent of CAMRA. Check the membership list of the European Beer Consumers' Union if you don't believe me.

So it might look as if the time is absolutely right for a German “Campaign for Interesting Beer”; sadly though I fear it is not quite that simple, for a bunch of reasons that I plan to return to in another article.

In the meantime though I welcome your thoughts, dear reader. German beer: worthy, or dull?

Friday 10 August 2012

US brewing goes from strength to strength

There's more brewers in the USA now than at any time since 1887, according to figures put out by the US Brewers Association earlier this week. The total now stands at 2,126 breweries – that's up from a low of just 89 in the late 1970s, ignoring the nominal figure of zero during Prohibition of course!

The Brewers Association (BA), which is the trade group for small and independent brewers in the US, also tracks breweries in planning: it says there's 1,252 more breweries in the works, up from 725 this time last year. Beer sales were up in the first half of this year too, by 14% in dollar terms and 12% in revenues – yes, that means prices went up too...

“Beer-passionate Americans are opening breweries at a rate faster than at any time since the day Prohibition ended for the beverage of moderation,” said BA director Paul Gatza. “There is nearly a new brewery opening for every day of the year, benefiting beer lovers and communities in every area across the country.”

He added that 97% of those operating US brewers are 'craft breweries', although the BA's definition of craft might look a little odd to UK eyes. It says an American craft brewer is “small, independent, and traditional” - but by small it means an annual production of less than 6 million barrels, which is about 7 million hectolitres.

That's a heck of a lot! By comparison, the bigger UK regional breweries brew less than half a million barrels a year, even allowing for the slight difference between UK and US sizes, and in 2009 the entire membership of SIBA brewed less than 2m hl. Really this definition just serves to exclude the likes of AB-Inbev and MillerCoors – the latter's megabrewery in Golden CO alone can brew 23m barrels a year.

Still, it's all good news for lover of good beer, as Paul Gatka noted. “Generally, most craft brewers are continuing to see strong growth in production, sales, brewing capacity and employment, which is to be celebrated during challenged times for many of today’s small businesses,” He said. “Plus it’s a fact that beer drinkers are responding to the quality and diversity created by small American brewing companies. India pale ales, seasonal beers, Belgian-inspired ales and a range of specialty beers are just a few of the beer styles that are growing rapidly.”

Wednesday 8 August 2012

It's stout Jim, but not as we know it: Durham White Stout

White Stout is the ultimate beer in our "White Range". While the word "stout" has come to mean a dark beer, the original meaning was strong and true. Before the porter brewers commandeered the word to mean a stout, or strong, porter, it referred to any strong beer. We have rehabilitated and improved the genre. White Stout is a very pale, full bodied, strong beer. American Columbus hops are used throughout to give massive floral and resinous character. At a strength of 7.2% this is a true stout. Indeed, few modern stouts of any colour are true to the word for strong.

A golden ale of considerable strength and matching hoppiness, this is quite a beer. It even feels heavy in the hand, as it yields up aromas of peachy malt and citrussy hops, before becoming simultaneously floral, dry-malty and bitter in the mouth, and then leaving you with a moreish peppery-bitter finish. It's all rather nice and disturbingly drinkable for 7.2%...

But what is it? Beer aficionados seem confused and unimpressed by the brewery's explanation, as copied above. Untappd users have instead unilaterally declared it to be an Imperial Pale Ale, while Ratebeerians listed it as an English strong ale. Enter it for one of the American beer competitions, with their rigid style guides, and they'd probably have kittens.

Yes, “stout” originally just meant strong, but in the beer world was it commonly used for anything other than Porter?

Back at Olympia

Given that GBBF moved to Earls Court a few years ago because it had out-grown Olympia, some people were nonplussed by the move back this year. OK, it was forced this year by Earls Court being used for some sports fest, but the question was how would it cope?

Extremely well, is the answer! Olympia's Grand Hall has been expanded in the intervening years, so the exhibition floor now extends quite a long way beyond the south-western end of the arched roof. Here's a pic showing what I mean - there, past the balcony of the main hall, you can see not one, but two new floor spaces.

Both these spaces are in use - most notably the Bieres Sans Frontieres foreign beer bar has been split in three, with the German & Czech beers given a generous space of their own upstairs (although as I noted elsewhere, this might more accurately be called the Bavarian & Budvar Bar, as I could see very little from the rest of Germany (or indeed Czechia) apart from Jever, Früh Kölsch and a couple of Alts).

Also in use is the balcony. Some of it is needed for CAMRA backstage stuff, but more than half is given over to seating for visitors, as is quite a large part of that south-western extension to the hall, on both levels - this pic shows the upstairs area. One of the perennial complaints about GBBF at Olympia in the old days was the (perceived) shortage of tables; no-one can honestly try that one this week.

There's some cracking ales around, too. Give me Olympia and proper beer, rather than the Olympics and boring Dutch fizz, any day...

Tuesday 7 August 2012

The new champion: Coniston no.9 Barley Wine

Well, no-one can complain that this year's Champion Beer of Britain is too golden, or yet another mild! Coniston no.9 Barley Wine is an 8.5% chewy and warming hunk of a beer - not exactly a monster, but at the very least a large furry beast. It's also the strongest beer ever to win CBoB.

The award, announced just an hour or so back on-stage at the Great British Beer Festival by Roger Protz, went to Coniston Brewery's no.9 Barley Wine, an 8.5% beer so exclusive that it doesn't even feature in the brewery's promo leaflets.
David Smith, a jug of no.9, & the CBoB shield

Once the beer's creator, David Smith, had recovered his composure a little, I asked him about its background and how it fits with the brewery's other products. He said Coniston's beers have been getting stronger, from its start with a 3.6% bitter.

"This is more in the vein of Gold Label, or perhaps Sam Smith's Strong Golden," he added. "It is quite light for a barley wine, but nicely balanced, with enough malt and not over-hopped."

 It is only brewed once a year at present, in the autumn, though they are looking at adding a second brew in spring. This could explain why it won overall gold here, but not at the Winter Ales Festival back in January - it is now almost a year old, and the maturity definitely shows through in its rich and winey character.

The only drawback to adding a second brew is the length of time it needs, David said. It needs nine days to ferment, and they sometimes need to re-pitch it with fresh yeast halfway through to renew the fermentation.

He added that, as well as helping to revive a historic style of beer, Coniston also uses a trick familiar to brewers from a century ago, which is to add some freshly fermented ale - in this case the 1998 Champion Beer of Britain, Coniston Bluebird - to each cask to enliven it again for its cask conditioning.

The beer itself? I picked up syrup, smoke and treacle on the nose, it's got touches of seaside and a syrupy, faintly oily body, then a dry finish with burnt marmalade and a well balanced hoppy bitterness.A worthy winner.

Friday 3 August 2012

BeerViking at GBBF

I will be at the Great British Beer Festival next week, in search of stories, writing work and beer, mostly in that order! On Tuesday I'm taking part in the Champion Beer of Britain judging, then after that I plan to do some blogging and news writing from the festival floor.

Of course, thanks to the ongoing economic disaster that is the Olympics, GBBF has been displaced from Earls Court back to its former home at Olympia. I can't say I'm too sorry – Earls Court was bigger, sure, but it's a horribly noisy space with ghastly orange sodium lighting. And given all the news reports that London is all-but deserted, thanks to people fleeing the corporate and political ego-fest that is Stratford 2012, Olympia ought to be big enough...

Actually, that's an important point to make – if you've been thinking about coming to GBBF, but were put off by fears of transport chaos and rip-off pricing, think again. Many of the hotels and other businesses that thought they could whack up their prices for the summer are having to hastily retract, and there's some considerable bargains on offer as they desperately try to pull in customers. And as far as transport's concerned, we ought to be OK as we're on the west side of town, away from avoid-at-all-cost hotspots such as London Bridge.

See you there....

Thursday 2 August 2012

Peat and honey: Old Worthy Scottish Pale Ale

It's not often that I get a bottle of ale in the post – and while I'm here in Germany it will probably be even less common! So it was a very pleasant surprise to receive a carefully-wrapped bottle of Old Worthy Scottish Pale Ale just before we left London.

It's all part of a promotion for a new brewer on the Isle of Skye, although until it gets its own kit set up, Old Worthy Brewing Co. is contract brewing on the 20-barrel plant at the Isle of Skye Brewery. The bottle was a gift from Nick Ravenhall, who set up Old Worthy to create a distinctively Scottish beer, made with a portion of peated malt as whisky is – but not trying to go down the barrel-aged route. It's also the only beer Old Worthy will offer, at least for now.

Scotland has a great brewing heritage – back in Victorian times it was a big source of Pale Ale for the India trade (IPA, in other words – which also makes this my IPAday post!), albeit mostly from Alloa on the east coast, not Skye on the west. And whisky starts its life as ale, although it is not hopped. Old Worthy, which claims to take its name from the “old worthies” who worked at the distilleries, adds both hops and a touch of honey.

The beer pours a medium-gold colour with a big foamy white head, and yes, there's the honey and a little smoke on the nose, along with a touch of biscuity malt – Maris Otter is the variety used – and a faint note of dry hay from the hops. In the mouth, there's more malt and honey, juicy to begin with but rapidly turning drier, the hops then come through more strongly in a dry and faintly spicy aftertaste. The smokiness comes through again at the finish, but it's quite restrained, and all in all Nick's achieved a very nice balance here. My only reservation is that my sample was a bit gassier than I like.

Nick's also been promoting Old Worthy to craft beer fans in the Nordic countries – in fact by the look of it it's gone on general sale there about a week earlier than its UK retail launch, which is due next week. (I'm hoping that means it'll be at the Great British Beer Festival, like me...)