Monday 24 December 2012

Golden Pints 2012

With 2012 in the Common Era almost over, I'm finally having a stab at the Golden Pints. This is a set of beery awards instituted by writers Andy Mogg and Mark Dredge; the idea is that anyone who wants to do so can offer their list, Mark then compiles a “best of” listing on his blog – I hope there will be an update to his initial posting here from 10th December!

The list starts with several standard categories, then we're free to add categories of our own as we wish – non-UK writers are invited to substitute their own location for “UK”; as I'm both, I'll add categories for Germany.

Best UK Draught Beer
1. Windsor & Eton Conqueror 1075 – all the Conqueror variants are superb, but I was lucky enough to catch the full-strength one on cask when it's normally only available in bottles. In bottle it's great, in cask and well-kept, it's stunning.
2. Thornbridge Bracia (Pedro Ximénez Aged) – I'm going to be strict here and only vote for beers I drank during 2012. This eliminates some of my favourites as they're seasonal and I wasn't in the country at the right time. This was one where I was in the right place and time – and fortunately had enough cash on me, as it was £12 a pint!
3. Twickenham Entire Butt – I got to try this at the brewery, it's an experiment by brewer Tom Madeiros to try producing an old-style porter by blending aged strong ale with fresh bitter and for me it worked brilliantly. I wasn't sure if I should include it here as it was a one-off, but apparently it has had a limited commercial release so here it is...

Best UK Bottled or Canned Beer
1. The Kernel Export Stout London 1890 – Evin's historical beers are just so complex and wonderful, especially the Stouts.
2. Fullers Vintage Ale 1999 – all the Vintage Ales are great, and usually more so with a few years on them, it so happens that this 13 year-old was the one I enjoyed this year.
I'm tempted to put the Twickenham Entire Butt in here too, as I was gifted a litre in a bottle to take home to Mrs BeerViking, but it's not regularly bottled, so...
3. The Kernel Imperial Brown Stout London 1856.

Best German Draught Beer
This is a tough one, because finding anything other than (boring) Pils or Weizen on draught is tough, except in places with local specialities such as Rauchbier and Braunbier in Bamberg, maybe Märzen in Munich, or Kölsch in Cologne.
1. Klindworths Sauensieker Pale Ale – where most German brewpubs' output is pretty staid, these guys like to have fun. Their take on an English Pale Ale is a bit of a hop-bomb, yet malty and well balanced.
2. Paffgen Kölsch – on tap at the tap. Fresh beer is not always best, but this was one time when it was – well, as fresh as lagered beer can be.
3. Maisels Dampfbier – one of the few darker beers I can get regularly on draught, this Steambeer is a lovely example of a Franconian amber ale.

Best German Bottled or Canned Beer
If I wasn't pulling them out separately, I'd quite possibly not have any German bottled beer in here at all. There's a lot of good German beer and some very good German beer, but I've not found a lot of really really good German beer yet. Some brewers are starting to experiment with different flavours and so on, but quite cautiously so far.
1. Kyritzer Mord und Totschlag – from a North German abbey brewery that's done a number of recreations of medieval dark beers, this one's a smoked black-beer from the 1700s.
2. Weltenburger Kloster Asam Bock – one of the classic Doppelbocks, rich and sweet, yet roasty and burnt.
3. Propeller Nachtflug - that rare beast, a German Imperial Stout, it's rich, dry, roasty and slightly salty (and no, it doesn't have double-headed eagles on the label!).
Andechser and Einbecker would both be in here as absolute classics, along with Störtebeker Stark-Bier, except I'm being even more strict in this section, and listing only beers that were new to me this year.

Best (non German or UK) Draught Beer
1. Emelisse Imperial Russian Stout – as black as sin, and almost as tasty.
2. Southern Tier Choklat – a superb Stout made with cocoa.
3. Evil Twin Yin – UK or not? I'll say not as it's a Danish brew, even though the brewing apparently took place at Brewdog. It's black and thick as liquorice, and as tasty as the best bits of coffee, port, liquorice and treacle toffee, all rolled together.

Best (non German or UK) Bottled or Canned Beer
1. Nøgne Ø Imperial Stout
2. Thisted Limfjords Double Brown Stout
3. Long Trail Brewmaster Series Imperial Porter

I have a sneaking suspicion that my drinking preferences might be showing by now....

Best Overall Beer
W&E Conqueror 1075 – I've been doing some thinking and reading around Black IPA, as well as discussing it with beer historians, and I've come to suspect that it is a genuine historical style, but with the wrong name. Everyone knows the story of IPA, that it was shipped to India for the troops – well, no it wasn't. IPA was shipped to India for the officers and gentry – the troops got Porter. Indeed, Ron Pattinson's research suggests Porter shipments to India were more than double those of IPA – and that Export India Porter was a hopped-up 1800s Porter at around 7-8%. Not far off a Double Black IPA, eh? 

Best UK Brewery
Magic Rock – for consistency, variety and fun. OK, so none of their beers made it into my top three individually, but Magic Rock's average is significantly above almost any other UK brewery working today.

Best German Brewery
Klindworths, I must go and visit them soon!

Best (non German or UK) Brewery
Alvinne, for great beer and also for the Alvinne Craft Beer Festival.

Pub/Bar of the Year
It's a bit of a zoo, but as a bar and for craft keg I still like the Euston Tap. For cask ale and a proper pub experience, it's my London local, the Magpie & Crown in Brentford.

Beer Festival of the Year
Another tough one. It was great to have GBBF back at Olympia this year, and I enjoyed working at the Twickenham beer festival too, but for the variety of both people and beer I think it has to be the Alvinne Craft Beer Festival.

Supermarket of the Year
OK, this is a beer supermarket, but all the branches of Hol'Ab I've used have impressed me. Like most German drinks shops there's crates and crates of boring Pils, but there's usually a whole wall lined with unusual stuff as well, a lot from Franconia and Bavaria-proper but also some others too. Don't expect to find much foreign beer though, unless you're desperate for Guinness or Heineken, or are a gastarbeiter needing Tyskie or Lech for a taste of home.

Independent Retailer of the Year
Bierland in Hamburg, for a great selection of hard-to-find German beers, plus a sprinkling of decent foreign stuff.

Best Beer Blog or Website
1. Shut Up About Barclay Perkins – more beer history than you can shake a stick at, the dry numbers amply counterbalanced by Ron Pattinson's erudition and dry wit.
2. Pete Brown's BeerBlog – great writing.
3. Boak and Bailey – almost always thought-provoking.

Food and Beer Pairing of the Year
The London City of Beer launch at the Red Herring, in particular Fuller's Bengal Lancer with a variety of cheeses. I should try more IPA/cheese pairings.

In 2013 I’d most like to...
Get more beer writing gigs, lead more guided tastings, get to the European Beer Bloggers Conference again, and generally get to more beer events.

Dear gods, I'm already over 1300 words – no wonder this has taken days to research and write... Merry Yule and Frohe Weihnachten, everyone!

Friday 14 December 2012

My week on the Kölsch

It was the trip to visit friends who live just outside Cologne that gave me the idea. The mothers and children were off to an indoor play-centre on Saturday afternoon, so I decided to take the train into the city and see what I could find...

Looking up local brewpubs on RateBeer gave me the start: there were several listed and mapped, none of them especially near the Hauptbahnhof, but hey, it was a nice day for a walk. My first target was Päffgen which was a lovely old place but a bit confusing. The entrance corridor is also the busy service area supplying the waiters from the kitchen, so for a moment you wonder if you've accidentally gone in the wrong door.  

I'd read that you may need to share a table, but when I tried to do just that in the salon, the waiter told me all the tables there were booked (for a group, I think he said). Fortunately the glassed-over yard at the back had plenty of room, and it didn't take too long to get the waiter's attention and order - what else? There isn't anything! - a Päffgen Kölsch. 

Kölsch is a top-fermented (obergärig in German) and warm-fermented (15-20C, versus 5-9C for bottom-fermenting) style, like British ales - though with its own ingredient list, of course. The other difference is that, after fermentation, Kölsch is lagered, ie. matured in tanks in a cold cellar before casking. 

And despite my cold, it was gorgeous - gold with a white head, a light aroma of hops and cereal, fruity and crisp, with peachy malt notes and a well balanced hoppy bitterness. So I wasn't too upset when I discovered another local custom, which is that the waiters tour around with a special tray called a Kranz, this has holes to hold the 20cl cylindrical Stange glasses that the beer's traditionally served in. The Kranz is loaded up with full glasses, and when they see an empty glass they simply replace it with a full one and add a pencil mark to your beermat...  

Next on my route was Hellers but to my considerable surprise it was closed! I later discovered it doesn't open until 5pm, which might make a certain sense on weekdays, but not on a Saturday, surely? 

So with dusk falling and my legs getting just a tad tired, it was back towards the station and my third target, Malzmühle (Malt-mill), the home of Mühlen Kölsch. By now it was nearly 4pm on a Saturday in December, with the Christmas market in full swing not far away, so it was already very busy - and still getting busier...

Again, it didn't take too long to catch a waiter's attention, and the next time a Kranz passed by it delivered me a Stange. This too was good - a nice balance of hops and malt, with a dry and hoppy finish. Not quite as good as the Pfaffen perhaps, but certainly good enough to stay for a second!

Waiting for my lift when I got off the train, I had an idea: there was a supermarket over the road, and given its location near Cologne it was bound to stock Kölsch. (The German beer market is rather local - a shop near Cologne might have five or six Kölsches, whereas one outside that area might have none or maybe Früh, which seems to be the most widely distributed.) Sure enough, it had a couple I'd not seen before - and then when my wonderful wife turned up with the car, she'd been shopping too and found me four more I'd not tried before!
So I was able to spend the following week or so tasting different Kölsch beers - and it was an interesting experience. Kölsch has a certain legendary status among beer-buffs as one of the few remaining old German ale styles - those beers that survived the 19th century onslaught of bottom-fermented lager and then the 19th-20th century massacre perpetrated by Pilsner.

Yes, many Germans don't seem to realise it, but German Pilsner is barely a century old. Ancient brewing tradition? Yeah, right - pull the other one... 

Anyway, some of these were rather nice - the Peters especially, plus the Gaffel and the Richmodis (not surprisingly, as it's also a Gaffel brand - brewery closures and consolidations happened here too). But while the other three were OK, I might as well have been drinking Pils - I found little that was distinctively Kölsch about them. 

It's almost as if the breweries had said, "Well, we've got this traditional name that everyone's very proud of, but Pils is the big seller. Why don't we knock all the flavour out and Pilsify it, then the Pils drinkers might buy it." So sad, it really is - and how lucky I was to start this particular set with one of the best!

PS. Via a helpful comment (below) I subsequently learnt that Kölsch brewing had pretty much died out by WW2, and was only revived by a concerted effort in the 1950s. Most, if not all, of the local breweries had gone over to the likes of Pils and Weizen by that time, which would explain the character of modern Kölsch. 

Certainly, medieval Kölsch would have been significantly different from the modern version - it would not have been crystal-clear and golden, for a start. There's a load of Kölsch history on the Kölner Brauerei Verband website (all in German, mind you!), I've had a dig through but I can't yet find any descriptions of medieval Kölsch bar a reference to "good brown beer" or somesuch. 

Thursday 13 December 2012

Is that craft beer - or merely crafty beer?

It's good to see a statement today from the US Brewers Association (BA) standing up for its definition of craft beer, and against deceptive practices by the big brewers such as setting up crafty sub-brands - even though the big brewers are BA members and are important to its funding.

In particular, the BA makes it clear that if a craft brewery - which it defines as one producing less than 6m barrels a year* - is more than 25% owned by a big brewer then it no longer qualifies as 'craft'. That means Goose Island is no longer officially 'craft', nor are Mendocino Brewing or Old Dominion, say. Imitation craft brands such as MillerCoors' Blue Moon are also excluded of course - there's a full non-craft list online here (PDF).

The statement goes on to say that the problem is not that the big brewers are trying to capitalise on the success of craft beer - hey, that's business - but that they are doing it covertly and unfairly.

The BA explains: "It's important to remember that if a large brewer has a controlling share of a smaller producing brewery, the brewer is, by definition, not craft.

"However, many non-standard, non-light 'crafty' beers found in the marketplace today are not labeled as products of large breweries. So when someone is drinking a Blue Moon Belgian Wheat Beer, they often believe that it's from a craft brewer, since there is no clear indication that it's made by SABMiller. The same goes for Shock Top, a brand that is 100 percent owned by Anheuser-Bush InBev, and several others that are owned by a multinational brewing and beverage company.

"The large, multinational brewers appear to be deliberately attempting to blur the lines between their crafty, craft-like beers and true craft beers from today's small and independent brewers. We call for transparency in brand ownership and for information to be clearly presented in a way that allows beer drinkers to make an informed choice about who brewed the beer they are drinking.

"And for those passionate beer lovers out there, we ask that you take the time to familiarize yourself with who is brewing the beer you are drinking. Is it a product of a small and independent brewer? Or is it from a crafty large brewer, seeking to capitalize on the mounting success of small and independent craft brewers?"

Strong stuff, eh?

*This is a very US-centric definition, as I noted in an earlier post here!

Friday 7 December 2012

Cold and fizzy: how to kill craft beer in one easy lesson

Reading about fellow beer blogger Ed's visit to the Meantime Old Brewery in Greenwich, I was first amused and then saddened to learn that “the keg stout was cold, thin and fizzy.

He added: “What do people see in craft keg? I suspect to do it right you need to make a totally over the top imbalanced beer and then knock enough flavour out of it by kegging to make it drinkable.”

It amused me because I suspect this is what happens if you get people who are used to handling mega-brew chilled crud and ask them to look after craft keg. All the marketing, and all the drinkers who know no better, tell them if it's keg it's meant to be cold and fizzy.

And it saddened me because it's almost exactly my experience of American craft beer about 10 years ago, and I hoped we'd learnt something in the meantime. Back then I was being served beer that was too cold and too fizzy, presumably so it wouldn't frighten off the average American drinker. I learnt that the trick was to stir some of the gas out and let it come up a few degrees to release the flavour. It needed patience though, and it should not have been necessary.

Part of the problem seemed to be a kind of vicious circle – it was as if the craft brewers were making their beers really punchy so they'd stand a chance of surviving the chilling and fizzing, so the bars chilled them ever harder to keep a lid on that scary flavour – scary to anyone used to Lite Lager, anyhow.

(To make it worse, the US was just then getting interested in cask ale, and some brewers simply tried casking their existing beers and serving at 10-12C. I remember a pint in Denver that was barely drinkable – powerful flavours that worked well in keg at 5-6C, say, were not at all pleasant when served “warm and flat” by US standards.)

I really really want the world-wide craft beer revolution to work, but for that to happen the trade needs to understand that this isn't the easy-care keg crud that had CAMRA up in arms in the 70s, and which the big lager brands are still punting out. Just like real ale, craft keg needs care – perhaps not quite as much, but it still has to be at the right temperature and in good condition.

Have you had a crap pint of craft beer lately? If you have, what do you think was wrong with it – and did it leave you willing to have another try?