Monday 30 June 2014

Cask beer in Ireland

For all those who think Irish beer is synonymous with nitrogenated stuff in a keg – well, you'd be right, on average. I knew there were also new wave keg and bottled beers on the up, but the possibility of Irish cask real ale hadn't really crossed my mind before going out to Dublin for last weekend's European Beer Bloggers Conference.

Yet it was something that pretty much all the Irish brewers I met mentioned – and with hindsight, why wouldn't it be? Plenty of Irish drinkers and brewers will have sampled real ale while visiting the UK, and of course the US – which is a major inspiration for other craft beer 'movements' – is getting into cask too.

We even had one handpump at the Irish brewers' beerex at the conference – serving new wave brewster Sarah Roarty's wonderful N17 Oatmeal Stout, as it happens, and showing it off very well too. Most of the other brewers I spoke with were also sending casks out or planning to do so.

They all said how awkward or even difficult it is though – not because of any problems with casking, but because any remnants of an earlier Irish cask experience were drowned during the 20th century by a flood of nitrogenated black stuff and carbonated yellow stuff.

Ronan Brennan
So not only is there a big shortage of cellaring skills these days, there's not even that many handpumps. Ronan Brennan, the co-founder of Galway's Hooker Brewery – which pretty much invented modern Irish Pale Ale – told me it's not long since there were just twelve in the entire country, and even now it's probably only three dozen.

“It's also very difficult to know what happens to the cask after you drop it off,” he said – it could be mistreated, or not given long enough to settle and condition.

And as brewer Brian Short from the Brown Paper Bag Project added, if a drinker gets a bad pint, it's often the brewer not the bar that gets the blame.

“The dilemma for cask is that a whole lot of responsibility lies with the pub,” Brian said. “Cask is wonderful in the right hands, but in the wrong hands it can be insipid or even vinegar.” I have to say, my own experience bore that out – a pint of cask stout in one of Dublin's top craft beer pubs was not actually bad, but it was seriously lacking in condition and rather dull as a result.

But wait – it gets worse. Brewers told me about another factor distinct to Ireland which affects both cask and keg craft brewers alike: many pubs don't even know how to clean their beer lines any more.

That's because as the brewing industry consolidated after WW2, almost all of it ended up in the hands of just two macro-brewers when Murphys bought Beamish. Those brewers then tried to make life as easy as possible for pubs and bars, which included supplying the taps and even doing their line-cleaning.

So now craft brewers find themselves having both to commission their own taps, because there's almost no guest taps available, and to hire mobile technicians to do what in other countries the publican is responsible for!

Things are changing though for Irish cask ale. The number of handpumps continues to rise, and so does customers interest. Shane Long, the founder of Cork's Franciscan Well brewery – now part of the MolsonCoors empire alongside Cornwall's Sharps – holds an annual cask ale festival at his brewery tap. At the first, in 2011, they had just 14 cask ales (from a range of breweries) and people were sceptical whether it would sell. This year, he says they sold 50 firkins over a weekend. 

Saturday 28 June 2014

Blogs from the Black Stuff

Guinness gatehouse
It still amazes me just how iconic Guinness is to Dublin. When people I know heard I was in Dublin, some said they assumed I'd be drinking it at every opportunity. The brewery's impressive visitors centre is Ireland's most popular tourist attraction, and the company inspires fierce loyalty especially among older Dubliners, thanks to generous sponsorship of arts, sports and the city in general.

It's also very easy to be snobbish though about such a mass market mega-brand. Not only is it a familiar choice world-wide for people who are wary of the unknown, but it's been somewhat simplified over the years – oh, and Guinness was the major culprit in the consolidation that wiped out almost the entire 19th century and early 20th century Irish brewing industry.

But when the opportunity came to visit Diageo Ireland's brand spanking new and extremely shiny new Guinness brewery at St James's Gate, as part of the 2014 European Beer Bloggers Conference, I was hardly going to turn it down, was I? And what a facility it is! Massive stainless steel brew kettles capable of holding 1000 hectolitres each, in a brewhouse that has cost €100m or so, and will probably brew 4 million hl of stout a year, plus 1.2 million hl of ale and lager. That's almost a billion* pints a year in total, 70% of which will go for export.

Feargal Murray outside brewhouse #3
This is the fourth brewhouse on the site, said Feargal Murray, Guinness master brewer and global brand ambassador (there's that mega-brand again), and the first to be bring in all the latest automation and sustainability technologies. Quite what will happen to the second and third brewhouses, which currently lie derelict – the first from 1759 is of course long gone – isn't clear. There was a plan during the boom times of 2007-8 to sell off the site for development, but resistance from the city council put paid to that. The second plan as I understand it was to build a new big brewery at outside Dublin at Leixlip – which was where Arthur Guinness started brewing in the 1750s, by the way – but retaining a smaller one on part of the St James's Gate site for heritage reasons. The economic bust put paid to that one, however.

Brewhouse #4 also replaces several other breweries – Diageo has closed its Dundalk, Kilkenny and Waterford sites, with hundreds of job losses, and moved all its Irish beer production to Dublin. As well as stouts and Harp lager, St James's Gate now brews both Bud and Carlsberg under licence, plus the Smithwicks ale brands.

There's also a 10-barrel pilot brewery, an extract plant producing “essence of Guinness” for the company's other 40+ production sites around the world, a huge malt roastery, and all sorts of other things going on, including bacterial souring of beer under controlled conditions – a small amount of soured beer is blended into the Foreign Extra Stout.

The visit was fascinating, and the brewers as dedicated to their craft as almost any I've met. There's a mass of history on site, including the remains of miles of narrow-gauge railway (left), and a tunnel between the two halves of the site that was designed by one of the architects of the London Tube. I find the main brands a bit bland – especially the variations they're now doing on Smithwicks ale, in an attempt to be 'crafty' – but perhaps that's an inevitable part of the inertia and conservatism that comes from working within a huge company.

The stand-outs really were the minor brands – the 8% Guinness Special Export that's brewed for Belgian distributor John Martin for instance, and Night Porter, the wonderful chocolate porter than won Diageo Ireland's annual brewing competition for its staff. Sadly the latter is only on sale within the company – a missed opportunity, I suspect.

* US-style short billion of course

Friday 27 June 2014

German beer is not all blond

When I was last back in Germany, earlier this year, I had an idea. I've spent quite a bit of time in Germany over the last 20 years or so, and then lived there for over a year. I quite quickly got bored of Pils and Helles, so I started looking for something more interesting, and in the process I learnt quite a bit about the beer heritage that most Germans have forgotten.

For instance, German beer being blond lager is relatively recent, about 100 years old. If you go back to the mid-1800s, it was mostly an ale country, and even the lager was brown. You can't see it on the surface now, but it's still there when you look deeper – the imposition of the alien Reinheitsgebot did a lot of damage to traditional ale culture, but some survived.

So I thought, why not put it to the test? I've a bunch of beer-loving friends and colleagues, most of whom have probably heard me bang on about this at least once. So let's buy a crate of historically-inspired beer and show them what I'm talking about – testing my ability to run a guided tasting at the same time...

I couldn't get everything I wanted, but I found good alternatives for pretty much everything, and then a few weeks ago I finally got off my arse and booked a venue – the swish mezzanine at the very friendly (and excellently beery) Kew Gardens Hotel. Needless to say, several of those I invited were out of the country, working or otherwise unavailable, but in the end eight of us sat down to enjoy some German beer that you can't usually get outside its area of origin.

Here's the list of beers we drank our way through, along with a few of my notes:

Unertl Weissbier
This is an ur-Weisse (original-style Weisse), intended to be like the 18th century Bavarian Weizen before pale malt (an English innovation, by the way) was introduced. Brown rather than gold, and faintly smoky, with caramel and fruit notes, and just a hint of winey sourness.

Brauerei Simon Spezial
A Franconian braunbier (brown beer), this is the historic style of Franconia – most country breweries still make one. They are bottom-fermented now, but must once have been ales, I guess. Nutty and spicy, with a little toffee and bread.

Veldensteiner Landbier
A lightly smoky country-style brown beer. Landbier is not a type of beer, it's just a qualifier, like “traditional” or “real”. Sweetish and malty, with touches of plum and a dry-bitter finish.

Hövels Original
Akin to Alt and formerly called Hövels Bitterbier, this really is a rather nice German brown bitter! Earthy and hoppy, with slight roasty notes.

Only as I unpacked did I realise I'd actually included not two but three brown bitters. Yes, once upon a time Germany, like England, was a country of brown bitter beers. The Einheitsgebot (German joke – it means Law of Sameness) and the ensuing lager flood murdered many of them, but a few survive in pockets in various parts of Germany.

You can find dark beers in most of Germany. As with the pale lagers, they have tended to verge towards their Bavarian equivalent, which is Munich Dunkel, but not always.

Vielanker Schwarz
A classic East German black beer. Tends to be quite roasty – this one has hints of coffee and plum, some roasty malt and burnt caramel, plus a light bitterness and a faintly salty and ashy finish.

Dithmarscher Dunkel
A dark beer in the northern (Nordisch) style, which means hoppier and more bitter than down south – think Jever versus the average German Pils. There's a light burnt-bitterness with hints of toast, and dry and grassy hops

Again, Dunkel by itself is not a style, it's a shade or range of shades – often it means the style Munich Dunkel, but sometimes it's simply a beer that isn't Helles or light.

Vielanker Winterbock
Originally a North German strong ale, Bock was adopted and converted to lager brewing by the Bavarians. Winterbock is a  variant of Dunkelbock, usually with toasted caramel notes, and it seems to be mostly a Northern thing – I wanted one in here both to show off Bock and to show how German brewers have evolved the style a little. Vielanker's version, from the north-eastern state of Mecklenburg, is toffee-ish with smoky notes, sweetish but with a lightly bitter finish.

Andechser Doppelbock Dunkel
This is listed on Ratebeer as one of the best beers in Germany, and I tend to think they underestimate it... I discovered I had a couple of these in store so I brought them along as an extra, to show what the best Bavarian strong Bocks are like. There's lots of sweet malt and dried fruit in there, plus a roastiness and plenty of alcohol – this is one dangerously drinkable beer!

Everyone seemed to enjoy the evening, and the beers went very well. While I might well choose a different mix if doing this again, this one worked well and highlighted just how much more there is to traditional German beer than blond lagers – and of course if you add in the modern craft movement and the more innovative brewpubs, there is lots more still. Fun, eh?

Saturday 7 June 2014

I went shopping

Oops! An old favourite, a couple of one-offs and some curiosities. It's to make up for not having been along the Bermondsey Beer Mile for months.... And anyway, I just happened to be passing The Good Wine Shop in Kew village, where they've just added Beavertown and Fourpure to their craft range.

I'm looking forward to trying them all - once I've drunk the current backlog. Oops again...

Sunday 1 June 2014

Rocking the Brewdog

It was over to BrewDog Shepherds Bush on Saturday night for the Magic Rock tap take-over. That's 25 different beers, ranging from 2.6% to 11% (I think), and all available on tap at the same time.

As you might imagine those beers varied a bit, from the sublime to the if-you-ask-me a bit iffy, but overall the level was very high. Stars included the Villainous Vienna IPA and the Farmhouse IPA that was a collaboration with Norway's Lervig - the latter and its beers was one of the most enjoyable discoveries of our trip to Norway last summer.

Also extremely good were the Slapstick "India wit" (ie. a hopfenweisse) aged in Tequila barrels, which gave it a warming depth that beautifully complemented the fruity character of the beer, and Un-Human Cannonball, Magic Rock's near-legendary and excellently balanced triple IPA.

But perhaps the highest marks go to the BD Sheps Bush team, who were all in fancy dress to match Magic Rock's circus theme - from the manager as ringmaster, through a bearded lady and a very cute lion, to the mime artist who had us all applauding her ability to do table service while staying in (silent) character throughout.

Photo by Jackie the LambicQueen, used by permission.