Tuesday, 22 December 2015

A reminder that hops don't equal bitterness

Many beer lovers know that hops and bitterness aren't the same thing – you can get bitterness from several other sources, including herbs and roasted grain, and hops are also important for flavour and aroma – but it seems others don't realise this.

Two things brought this to mind recently: first, the claim by US brewery Dogfish Head to have brewed “the hoppiest beer ever documented” when what they meant was the most bitter, and then quite unexpectedly a bottle of Guinness's pitch at the craft lager market, Hop House 13. The latter was developed by Guinness's pilot brewers at The Brewers Project, like the Dublin Porter, West Indies Porter and Golden Ale before it, and like them it has of course migrated to the main brewery for mass production.

Hop House 13 arrived as a freebie from Guinness's PR company, along with a suitably-branded glass and even an engraved wooden beermat – there is nothing subtle about the branding here! Named after a storeroom at the St James's Gate brewery in Dublin, Hop House 13 has been on limited release for a little while (I'd seen a few mentions from Irish beer bloggers, for instance) but apparently they're now preparing a big push for it.

So what's it like, and why the hops & bitterness references? Well, it's hoppy – the underlying beer is a typical malty-sweet Eurolager with notes of sweetcorn, but there's a rich hoppy-herbal layer of flavour over the top, with hints of peach, lemon and hay, and that resinous quality you get from a sack of dried hops. What there isn't is anything much in the way of bitterness.

It's pretty good, and rather better than the average Eurolager, but to my palate it seems a bit two-dimensional, as if they've taken a regular beer and layered a swathe of flavour onto it. And after a bit of pondering, I reckon that it shows how the big brewers are targeting craft – in this case, with a flavoured-up beer that is clearly not your average macro lager, yet isn't going to frighten the horses.

So while I've had far better hoppy lagers – for example, Trainings Lager from Hannover's Mashsee Brewery, or India Pale Lager from Redwell in Norwich – I can still see Hop House 13 doing pretty well.

Thursday, 3 December 2015

Two years of Fourpure

It's amazing how much can happen in two years. A helpless newborn baby can turn into a determined, highly mobile and stroppy toddler, and a vast-seeming industrial unit with a shiny new brewkit looking very small and slightly lost at the back can turn into something so chock-full of stuff that it needs almost triple the floorspace.

Image used with permission of totalales.co.uk"
So when we turned up for an open-Saturday that was also both a party to mark Fourpure's second anniversary – not of its set-up, but of its first brew – and a launch for two new beers, the available space for guests was a mite crowded. It was also raining outside, which on the one hand forced everyone indoors but on the other presumably persuaded some people to stay at home and avoid adding to the crush.

Fortunately, everyone was in a good mood, even the toddler. And there's no passing traffic because Fourpure's at the back of an industrial estate where everything else is shut on at the weekend, so our only worries when she escaped outside were the puddles.

The two new beers were Southern Latitude, a fruity and bitter 4.7% 'South Pacific pale ale' with Australian hops, and Northern Latitude, a gorgeous Scandinavian-inspired 6.4% Rye IPA, dry-bitter and warming, full of toasted toffee and pine resin notes – Fourpure has quite a decent export business to Scandinavia now, incidentally.

Sumac Wheat
Among the others on the bar that were new to me were Morning Star, which was an excellent full-bodied, roasty and chocolatey 7.1% Imperial Porter (historically that'd be a Stout, but never mind!), Red Rye Session IPA which was 4% and cloudy, but had lovely pine aromas and a crisp dry-sweet body, and a 5.2% wheat ale using the Middle Eastern spice Sumac. This Sumac Wheat was an unattractive murky tan colour with equally unappealing sour yeasty aromas, but thankfully it tasted much better that it looked and smelled, balancing a dry earthy bitterness with light fruity sweetness.

As well as my first sight of the reorganised brewery bar, which now has 16 taps, giving them 10 for regulars and six for experimental brews, the visit was my first chance to see one of those experimental brews in production. Alongside the main 35hl (20 barrels, stretched a little) brewkit, Fourpure has a 1hl (100litre) pilot kit, which by the look of it is made from steel kegs, and this is where those extra six beers come from.

The live brew

For the open day, brewers Nick and JT were at work in front of the crowd, live-brewing an IPA using the new Lemondrop hop variety. These experimental brews are their chance to try out new ideas and of course to test different hop and malt varieties. “Our core range is very much 'to style', so this is our chance to be a bit more exclusive,” explained JT – in between helping explain to the toddler's elder brother how beer is made and letting him investigate its ingredients and the spent malt...

Live brewJT added that the pilot kit had also produced Milky Mohican, an unusual Chai beer that I'd just tried from the bar. Essentially they'd brewed this with torrified wheat for a milky texture, then tried blending in varying amounts of cold-brewed Chai spiced tea, before settling on a 10% addition for public release. (Annoyingly, all the photos I took of the live-brew have totally vanished, so this one's nicked off Fourpure's Twitter feed!)

He also ran through the expansion plans. Fourpure's taking over another similarly-sized industrial unit nearby for processing and packaging, so the bright tanks and canning line will move there. A large railway arch will also be taken on, as both a distribution centre and a cold-store for lagering.

More interesting for aficionados is that a wall of wooden barrels will fill the brewery space freed up by moving out the packaging stores. Barrel-ageing of beer is immensely fashionable and is also key to producing certain styles such as Lambics and Bretted beers, but as JT noted, it is not a short-term thing – they expect it will take four years to work out which are the best barrels and for those to develop the right microflora inside.

Surfing the Zeitgeist
So what has enabled Fourpure to grow so fast? One thing seems to have been having investors with deep enough pockets. That allowed them to go straight for a decent-sized brewkit, then as sales ramped up all they needed to add was more fermenters and more packaging capacity. JT noted that most of the tanks are now 70hl and take two brews to fill, while the biggest – used for beers that need a decent lagering time – takes a stonking four brews.

I suspect another thing was the way they focused first on getting a few well-made beers in volume into the sort of venues that wanted “craft” but couldn't handle cask ale, such as bars and restaurants, then swiftly pivoted to a broader range of short-run beers once the market opened up. The ability to can without having to do 100,000 at a time – Fourpure was the very first UK brewery to buy its own microcanning line – also widened the distribution opportunities.

Two years ago I was predicting that Fourpure would become a straightforward supplier of crafty beer styles to a local mainstream market, as the craft-keg equivalent of a old-fashioned regional cask brewer perhaps. It has certainly achieved that – the other day I spotted several of its taps in an outdoor kiosk by London's South Bank Centre, for example.

Yet it has also evolved alongside the craft beer market, becoming something rather more innovative – just like some of those regionals have, I suppose. It's similar to the solid yet adaptive business plans that seem to have served other start-ups well, for example Windsor & Eton and Truman's. What shall we call it – surfing the zeitgeist?

Friday, 27 November 2015

Public omnibuses, in the land of the car? Yes – and A-very fine beer too!

Part 2 of my touring Boulder's breweries and brewpubs, back in October. Part 1 is here.

I think I must have visited Boulder's Avery Brewing Company 10 years ago on a pre-festival breweries tour ahead of the Great American Beer Festival. My memory's a bit vague, but I have a recollection of a typical “microbrewery in an large garage” type of set-up in a generic industrial unit. If I remember rightly, what made it different from the others we visited was it did sour and barrel-aged beers at a time when those were far from fashionable.

An hour or two before the hordes descend...
Anyway, somewhere along the line they got my email address and have been dutifully sending me their monthly newsletter for pretty much an entire decade. I almost unsubscribed a couple of times, but then a few weeks ago I was glad I hadn't done, because they invited me (and presumably a few hundred others) to a launch party and a free pint of this year's 8.3% Old Jubilation winter ale. And for the first time in a decade it was going to be while I was not only on the right continent, but in the right town!

So after a bit of breakfast, it was into town to find the bus station. Yes, pretty much every US city I've been to has a viable public transport system – if you're willing to put in the effort needed to figure out how it works in terms of fares, stops, etc. It helped a little that Boulder comes under the Denver Regional Transportation District (RTD), and I'd used Denver buses in the past, but really it wasn't that hard to scope out the routes on Google Maps, check the RTD website for timings, and so on.

So there I was just after lunch, waiting for bus 205 with coins in hand – the ticket machines don't give change. Sure, the bus carried a little age, but it was clean and comfortable, and like many other bus companies they've adopted the system of giving a recorded announcement ahead of each stop. (When London Transport did this, they found it greatly increased travellers' confidence, and no wonder!)

When I got off and headed into the industrial estate that Avery moved back in February this year, I was over an hour early though. That's because in the process of checking the route I'd found a second brewery resident there that I'd never heard of before, and where Avery didn't open until 3pm, this one opened at 2…

Asher Brewing Company's main claim to fame is that when it opened in 2009 it was the first all-organic brewery in Colorado – I presume there's been others since then. Tucked away among workshops and offices, the taproom was cool and bright, with at least half a dozen beers on draught. It was an unusual mix of a clean space with cheerful service and a sense of activist grunge. I liked it, but I can see it wouldn't be to everyone's taste.

The beers were certainly well made, the best being the Green Bullet IPA which had a nice balance of chewy dry-sweet malt and aromatic hoppy bitterness. The others I tried – I had a flight of six tasters, including a properly (but not overly) bitter Kölsch and a chewy Double IPA – were almost as good. The one exception was a slightly insipid and over-gassy brown ale.

From there it was a short walk back to Avery, where there was already a small crowd on the terrace outside the bar. As I walked up, I had to marvel a little at the purpose-built structure in front of me – it combines brewery, packaging plant, barrel ageing stores, restaurant, bar, shop and of course offices, and it's hard to imagine that it had only been in operation for eight months.

My pint of Old Jube
The bar was already getting busy, even though it was the middle of Monday afternoon, but I was able to get a seat at the bar. The gimmick for the Old Jube launch was you had to wear a sweater to claim your pint – it being sunny and pretty warm outside of course – and there were several on view besides mine. I wouldn't normally start an afternoon session with an eight percenter, but hey, needs must… I just had time to enjoy the rich and lightly toasty brew, with its hints of toffee, cola and apple, before heading upstairs to join one of the regular free brewery tours. More on that in the next post in this series….

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

More beer myths that just won't DIE!

"Landing-Bacon" by Henry A. Bacon - http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/ff/Panoramic_Boston.jpg. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Landing-Bacon.PNG#/media/File:Landing-Bacon.PNG
Uh-oh, the refugees are coming!
This time it's the "sources of fresh water were untrustworthy—often reliably fatal—and scarce. Beer, on the other hand, was always boiled prior to fermentation, making it safe to drink" one, via a chirpy article on Vinepair. I assume the main story is simply lifted from somewhere else, by the way, as Lisa Grimm wrote a much better and significantly corrected version for Serious Eats back in 2012, but presumably checking for accuracy was above the Vinepair author's pay-grade. 

So in summary, there is no evidence the medieval mind considered or knew water to be unhealthy. Bad water was a concern, but people had their own guidelines on how to tell good from bad. If you want more evidence, look at how long it took Dr John Snow to persuade people that cholera was spread via water. That was in the 1800s -- more than two centuries after the Mayflower -- and it was also when they realised that drinking beer was safer than well-water.

Plus, boiling the wort for beer before fermentation seems to have come in some time after the introduction of hops (remembering here that in mediaeval times, ale was unhopped, beer was hopped). Boiling modifies the acids in the hops and is needed to fully activate their bitterness and preservative qualities. Before hops, there was no need to boil.

What you did need was hot water for the mash, as it's how you get the fermentable sugars out of the malted grain. This heating would have been enough to kill most bugs, but was not a boil. Apart from anything else, at a time when a fire meant collecting or buying firewood, unnecessary boiling would have been a waste of expensive and/or scarce fuel.

The truth seems to be that drinking water was not fashionable among the middle classes in 1620 -- it was something that only poor people did, and the religious fanatics aboard the Mayflower were not poor people.

Thursday, 12 November 2015

Do Germans really know where their beer comes from?

Brewed right up on Germany's North Sea coast in East Frisia, Jever was formerly renowned as one of the country's most bitter Pilsners. That powerful bitterness – now widely believed to have been moderated somewhat, both to save money and to dumb it down a little – was in former days typical of beers right across the north, or so another brewmaster from the Baltic coast once told me.

So in a country still wedded to its local beers, what was this pride of the north doing way down south in Frankfurt, where it sat on supermarket shelves between beers from local giant Binding and its regional rival Licher?

It was a chance conversation of sorts on the beer-lover's website Untappd that helped me realise why – and in the process to be reminded of the consolidation in the German brewing industry, and how the average drinker probably has no idea who their beer really comes from.

What I'd forgotten was that Jever is now owned by Radeberger Gruppe, a brewing combine so big that it counts as a macro-brewer under the definitions used by the US Brewers Association. Radeberger also owns Binding, which of course has the local distribution business sewn up and can easily get a stablemate or two onto the shelves.

I'm sure this is great for production volumes up at the Jever brewery, but as Radeberger tries to capitalise on the beer's fame to turn it into a national brand, it also explains why the beer's become less bitter, if its target market is now people who'd otherwise drink frankly quite dull Pilsners such as Binding and Licher.

Incidentally, if that doesn't give enough idea of the scale of the hidden consolidation, I'll add that Binding also produces Schöfferhofer Hefeweizen, Clausthaler non-alcoholic beer, and the MAB brands. It's also responsible for BraufactuM, Radeberger's pitch at the craft beer market, which produces some jolly decent but way over-priced hoppy versions of IPA, Brown ale, Kölsch and other less usual beer styles.

Looking up the chain, Radeberger is owned by Dr Oetker – yes, the pizza and baking soda combine – while Licher is owned by another German brewing combine, Bitburger.

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Mo' beer for Movember

A silver Spitfire
Movember is here, and for the fifth year in a row this annual grow-a-moustache-for-charity event is being supported by Shepherd Neame. This time, the Kent brewery has signed its well-known Spitfire ale up as a full 'supporting partner' -- Spitfire brand manager Will Upfield said the brewery's raised more than £200,000 for Movember over the last five years.

"For Movember, we're doing a re-brand with moustachioed bottles and pump-clips, and point-of-sale kits with bar-runners and t-shirts," he added. Sheps is also running a competition to invent your own 'Mo-Beer'.

In addition, Sheps is putting its new Spitfire Gold out in bottles this month, which is earlier than planned. It wasn't due for supermarket release until February, once the Yule rush is out of the way, but Will said that Morrisons asked to take it earlier as an exclusive.

Razor clams & angel-hair pasta
To promote both Movember and Spitfire Gold, Sheps organised a moustache-themed dinner featuring such hairy delights as:

· Shaved courgette & goatee cheese parcels
· Razor clams & angel hair pasta
· Hare & Spitfire ale pie with pastry moustaches and tash potatoes
· Sticky stubble pudding

All very silly -- and very, very tasty!

So how's the Spitfire Gold, which has been out in cask form since earlier this year? Well, it's clearly meant as a cross-over beer -- it's a sweet golden ale intended to lure lager drinkers over to ale, and as such is not really my thing. Sure, there's a slight piney note and a hint of bitterness, but overall it's like someone brewed a Eurolager as an ale. Still, I'm told the cask version has been popular with Sheps landlords, as they're keen for a beer of this kind to compete in this growing end of the market.

It seems an odd use of the branding though. Not only is it (as Will acknowledged) completely different from what I'd call 'proper Spitfire', but as far as I know there never were any gold Spitfires. The closest, I guess, would have been the few silver paint and polished aluminium examples, as seen above. (Spot the former plane geek...)

Another beer myth that just won't die

Not one of the IPA ones this time, but Porter. Into my inbox this morning pops a press release from Moorhouse's, announcing that Pendle Porter is back as its monthly seasonal.

OK, it's a very nice beer and they need to keep their name in people's minds. What's annoying though is the reference to "the striking pump clip design, which celebrates the 19th century market porters that found the style so ‘restorative’ they lent their name to the brew" -- and sure enough, there's a cheerful market porter pictured with a pint.

This myth been so thoroughly debunked it's annoying to see it still floating around. The drink was named after the far more numerous London street and river porters, not the minority of market porters. In the 1800s, before vans and bikes, pretty much everything that needed to travel within a city was carried by a porter -- and they needed plenty of nourishing liquid to stay fuelled.

Sadly, its a myth that was perpetuated by Michael Jackson, among others, which means it'll be extra-hard to kill off.

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Mapping the price of a pint

The regional cost of beer is doing the rounds this week -- anyone know why? The following intriguing infographic (I guess this means infographics are still über-trendy, then) just turned up in my email.

Its main sources appear to be a seven-week old press release for the Good Pub Guide 2016 (which also appears to be the source of a slightly naff video posted yesterday on the Evening Standard website) and data from PintPrice.com which I'm not wholly convinced by, not least because it has two different prices for Bruges/Brugge and three very different ones for Brussels, which suggests a shortage of editing or moderation.

I'm also unsure why it was published by an apartment rental firm! But as I said at the top it's intriguing, and it is properly referenced. So I offer it here, with caveats, for your interest...

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Rockin' the beer in Boulder

They do like their boulders...

Last week I spent a few days in Boulder, Colorado. I was there on non-beer related business, but these days you can't go to Colorado and not drink beer – even if it isn't exactly the capital of American craft beer, it is certainly a heartland for it.

And Boulder, just a few miles outside Denver, is in turn one of the top places for beer within Colorado – along with Fort Collins up to the north, home to New Belgium Brewing and one of the main Anheuser-Busch breweries, and of course Denver itself. In addition, while Denver is home to the Great American Beer Festival, Boulder is home to the US Brewers Association, which organises GABF – and is also the source for that much argued-over US definition of Craft Beer.

West - very west! - Flanders
So on my trip to Boulder, there was plenty to explore – even after I decided to focus my spare time specifically on brewpubs and brewery taps. I started with Sunday brunch at West Flanders Brewing Company, a brewpub which as its name implies does quite a few Belgian-inspired beers. It's conveniently located on Pearl Street, Boulder's old high street which is now mostly a pedestrianised boutique shopping mall. The pub followed a pattern that became familiar – far deeeper that it is wide, stretching far back from seats on the pavement past serving tanks of beer, the brewery itself and the kitchen.

I was slightly surprised to find myself the only one ordering beer at 10am – it was Sunday, after all! – but was pretty pleased with my breakfast omelette and my tasting flight, which included an excellent Saison, a tasty Wet Hop Pale Ale, a decent Belgian dark ale and an OK abbey Tripel. Plus it's a cool, modern place with lovely staff and a relaxed vibe.

Next, it was off to the other end of Pearl to Mountain Sun where I was meeting a friend via Untappd who'd come up from Denver for the afternoon. Mountain Sun is part of a small group of brewpubs and has a hippyish ambience, with tables packed close enough to be cosy without being crowded. The mixed crowd produced a buzz of conversation.

Colorado Kind Ale
Again, I chose a tasting flight, this time of six beers. Most of these brewpubs will pour you several small measures – typically four to six quarter-pints, so 4oz or 5oz each – of your chosen beers, and charge you not much more than the cost of a pint or a pint and a half. Particularly good here were the Colorado Kind Ale (an excellent interpretation of Fuller's ESB) and the Java Porter.

Our next destination was Twisted Pine Brewing, a little bit out of town. It's probably about 20 minutes walk, but we – like many of the other visitors we found there – drove instead. I'd had a few of its beers on a previous visit to Colorado and was curious to try more, so it was great to see the list of over a dozen regulars and specials on the brewery tap's blackboard.

The brewery tap is mostly natural pine, unsurprisingly enough. It was about half full and there was American football on TV – this is a Sunday afternoon thing in bars, apparently – with a couple of groups cheering fairly raucously.

We did find a couple of duds – a strange watery alleged Grätzer that tasted more like smoky Lemon Barley Water, and a spice-laden murky grey-brown soup of a pumpkin pie spice beer. Guys, I know America is the land of excess, and that this is even more true in craft beer, but trust me: when it comes to spice in beer, less is more!

On the plus side, Eleven Birds – a chewy and hoppy beer in the Belgian brown ale mould – was excellent, as were a Saison called 20 To Life (celebrating the brewery's 20th anniversary) and a powerful 8% Bretted and barrel-aged IPA called Funk In The Trunk.

From here we headed back into town and Walnut Brewery, a spacious and airy brewpub which is part of the same organisation as the extensive Rolling Rock chain. More like a converted warehouse inside, there's huge brand images of its house beers on the walls, and the brewery is visible above and behind the bar on a sort of mezzanine level. All the usual American craft beer styles were on offer and well made – Pale Ale, IPA, brown ale, stout, Irish Red, etc. The IPA, Red and Pale Ales were notably good. The one exception to an otherwise predictable range was a Black Lager that turned out to be a decent interpretation of a Schwarzbier.

My friend had to head home at this point for family dinner. It was still only mid-evening, so after bidding him a safe trip I decided to walk back to West Flanders to try some more from its extensive range. This time I picked from the higher end of the strength and flavour spectrum, where the IPAs live. The star was actually the one non-IPA – Recreational Smoke Porter, rich, dry and complex, though with no dope but lots of woodsmoke. The others were heavily hop-forward, without enough of anything else to carry it really well. The Black IPA and the Imperial IPA were pretty good regardless, but in the 'regular' Third Kingdom IPA it was just too aggressive.

And so to bed, with jetlag still lurking and a case of the munchies!

Part 2: Public omnibuses, in the land of the car? Yes – and A-very fine beer too!

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Death and life of a great British pub

Very long but worthwhile: an absolutely excellent read on the battle to save a classic London pub, including a portrait of an example of the predatory scum seeking to destroy our pubs for pure personal profit.

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.

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Meeting the Revisionists

Early last year, Marston's released a new range of beers under the Revisionist Beers brand, to be distributed in cask and keg, and in bottles via Tesco. The idea was that the company's several brewmasters were each given the opportunity to recreate a beer style that appealed to them, but which might normally not be associated with a name like Marston's.

The styles chosen were pretty varied, from Hefeweizen and Black IPA, to Saison and California Steam Beer. To be honest, so were the results – some were good, others were forgettable, and overall it was hard not to get the sense that the brewers were staying on the safe side of the road.

So when the news came through that the range was to be extended, both on cask and in bottle, and that Marston's was to add another new seasonal range – this time of single-hopped Revisionist cask ales – I was intrigued, to say the least.

Some drinkers seem to dislike Marston's. They tar it with the same brush they use for Greene King, which is notorious for buying and closing down smaller breweries, then transferring their beers to its own brewery but pretending they were still brewed in the original location.

Yet Marston's isn't like that at all. Sure, it has bought other breweries, such as  Jennings, Banks's, Wychwood/Brakspear and Ringwood, but it has deliberately kept them open and in production. Yes, it has an overall brand and a big company image, and yes, sometimes it moves beer brands around, but there's no pretence or dishonesty about it – if you want to know where a beer was brewed, in my experience you can usually find out.

When I got to meet some of the people behind the Revisionist and single-hop beers, it was interesting to see how much the various breweries in the group cooperate and collaborate, and also to ask about the thinking behind the new beers – and whether there is any dumbing-down coming in from the sales and marketing department.

The answer to the last question was a definite no. Instead, I got a sense that the brewers already know their market (which is firmly grounded in Marston's own pubs, although quite a lot of beer also goes to other pubcos) and just how far they can go off-piste.

This is of course one of the biggest problems in any industry – when the market changes, how do you get your people to let go of all the assumptions that underpin what they do, and which have become so deeply embedded that they probably don't even realise they are there?

It's why engineering companies set up 'skunkworks' and it's probably why AB-InBev is busily buying small US craft breweries instead of getting its own highly-skilled brewers to produce Triple IPAs and Imperial Oatmeal Stouts. And if both Guinness and Greene King have not had the success they would like with their crafty beer ranges, it explains that too.

Genevieve Upton
In some ways though, I can see Marston's geographically-diversified structure offering some help here. Its breweries have retained their own beers and identities, to some extent anyway. Talking to Genevieve Upton, brewmaster and 'innovations brewer' at Marston's Brewery in Burton-on-Trent, I gathered that having different breweries available adds all sorts of flexibility. That's not only in the type of brewing kit available but in its capacity too – some of the other breweries, such as Ringwood, can handle short-run products much more efficiently than the main Marston's plant, for instance.

Genevieve also mentioned that some of the Revisionist beers – in particular the cask ales – take a process that brewers must carry out anyhow, which is doing test brews with new hops, and turn it to commercial value, allowing beer lovers to join in the process.

So while the single-hop Archer that I tried earlier this year had a pleasant earthy bitterness with hints of white strawberry (yes, really!), it also lacked depth and complexity – in essence, it showed why brewers normally use several hops in a beer, each one for a particular purpose.

And without brewing Revisionist single-hop Archer, Genevieve and her colleagues wouldn't know how best to use this new hop in the future. I rather like being able to join in with that process – how about you?

Monday, 24 August 2015

Belgium, man! Belgium.

So, only just back from family holidays in Germany, and in a few days it will be time to leave again. I'll be hopping on the train to Brussels for a weekend debating the nature of beer journalism and ways to 'do better social media' at this year's European Beer Bloggers Conference.

I've been to two of these before, in Leeds and Dublin, and each time I came away having learnt a lot in all sorts of areas, whether it's how to make better use of Twitter and YouTube, how to describe beer better and pair it with food, or the way local beer cultures all over Europe are growing ever richer, more complex and more interesting.

Seeing as we're meeting in Belgium, and two of the event's sponsors are Visit Flanders and the Belgian Family Brewers association (others include Pilsner Urquell and several more individual Belgian brewers), the brewery visits and the sessions on the evolution of Belgian beer past, present and future is likely to top my agenda. It's a big area of interest for me – it's a good few years since I discovered and enjoyed my first Gueuze, followed by other interesting Belgian beers whether sour or sweet. Then three or so years ago we attended the Alvinne Craft Beer Festival and discovered yet more innovative Belgian brewing, among much else.

But I'm looking forward almost as much to the blogging-related conference sessions, and to the ones on beer-pairing and – a special for Belgium, this – on the science of brewing and ageing sour beers. And of course to visiting Brussels, a city that's often unfairly disparaged in Britain for hosting large parts of the EU machinery, but which has charms and fine food and drink of its own, and which I've not visited in at least two decades.

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Beck's crafty triad is less inspired than it claims

So earlier this year, the boys from Bremen made their pitch for the craft beer market with the launch of three new beers, Beck's Pale Ale, 1873 Pils and Amber Lager - and atl ast I have managed to catch up with all three.

The packaging is undeniably lovely and it's clearly a pitch at the modern-twist-on-a-historical-classic market. Kudos to them for trying that, and especially for not lazily cloning Sierra Nevada Pale Ale like everyone else.

Unfortunately, whether they were constrained by the Marketing department or simply by the innate corporate unwillingness to risk frightening the horses, the results are lacklustre - not actually bad, but definitely missing their targets.

Take the Pale Ale. "Inspired by England" it says on the bottle, so at 6.3% it appears to be a modern take on a 19th century pale ale. Sadly it instead ends up as the bastard child of a Märzen and a bitter Pils - there's a bit of toasted caramel and tropical fruit in there, but all under a lingering acrid bitterness.

Meanwhile the "Inspired by Germany" 1873 Pils at 6% is more uninspired than inspired. Grainy, dry-bitter and rather one-dimensional, it exemplifies those unimaginative German brewers who think hops are just for bittering, and that flavour and (non-grassy) aroma hops are only for foreigners and other weirdos.

The best of the three for me is the 5.7% Amber Lager, a slightly hopped-up take on a classic Vienna lager, with toasty toffee notes. However, it too gets a harsh bitter finish, and on the label is "Inspired by Australia" - WTF is that about?

Together, I guess these beers show that 'craft beer' (whatever you take it to mean, and German brewers are as likely to tie it to tradition as to US craft beer) is now totally mainstream in Germany. There's hardly a brewery big or small that isn't trying to do something crafty.

Unfortunately, while some of the results are excellent and intriguing, too many are definite me-too offerings. In short, Germany's craft beer bandwagon is still rolling, but how much longer can it keep going under the weight, as everyone and his hund jumps aboard?

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Guest post: Getting trained for a job in beer

This guest post comes from Ran at the Carling Partnership -- a recruitment company specialising in the brewing industry, not the Danish brewer! It's an overview of some of the training opportunities available world-wide for anyone wanting a job in beer. If you know of any other good ones, do please add a comment.

Beer Industry Courses and Qualifications
Over the past five years, the global beer industry has demonstrated high levels of growth, increasing in size by an average of 3.2% per annum (Ibisworld.com, 2015). The industry directly employs nearly half a million people world-wide with global revenues reaching an estimated $136 billion USD in 2015.

In recent years, growth in established beer markets like Europe and the United States remains relatively stable, while the levels of growth from emerging economies like China has accelerated. Between 2002 and 2011, the Chinese beer market went from being the same size as the US market, to double the size of the US market (Platologic.co.uk, 2015). In fact, the most popular beer in the world is a Chinese beer! Every day more people in emerging economies are beginning to enjoy beer which is driving the industry forward.

The Growth of Craft Beer
The past 10 years have been a period of great change within the beer industry. Many beer companies have been involved in mergers and acquisitions, creating huge multi-national businesses. The biggest four brewers in the market (AB InBev, SABMiller, Heineken and Carlsberg) now have a combined global market share of more than 50% (Economicsonline.co.uk, 2015).

At the same time, diversity has increased with new players entering the market and the craft beer movement taking off. In the United States it is estimated that craft beers now make up 11% (22.77 billion USD) of the market share, driving 22% ($19.6 billion USD) of sales growth (Sizemore, 2015). There are now thousands of small-scale craft breweries around the world.

This increase in diversity is good news for people looking to make a career in the industry. There are more employers competing for the best people and more job opportunities in diverse locations. The positive outlook for the global beer industry is a very good sign for people interested in working within the sector.

Job Opportunities in the Beer Industry
Jobs in the beer industry tend to fall into one of four broad categories:
  • Jobs in Beer Production
  • Jobs in Beer Marketing & Sales
  • Jobs in Hospitality
  • Jobs in Beer Distribution and Administration
Jobs in Beer Production
One of the quickest ways to get into the beer industry is by working at an entry-level position for a brewery. Some of the entry-level positions in beer production include:
  • Cellar work — keeping the brewery clean and running well, moving equipment
  • Packaging and distribution — working on the factory line and putting beer onto trucks
  • Basic Maintenance work — replacing worn equipment and installing new equipment
There are often opportunities for people to work their way up from these entry-level positions to more advanced jobs in beer production. If you are working at a smaller brewery, you may find yourself doing all kind of jobs around the place including helping the brewer with manual work.

Other roles at the production level which require more experience and training include:
  • Assistant brewer — making beer to the instructions of the head brewer
  • Head Brewer — the main person responsible for how the beer is being made
  • Brewhouse Operations — keeps the facilities that make the beer running smoothly
  • Packaging Operations — keeps the bottling and packaging processes running smoothly
  • Quality Control Tester — ensures the final product is of a certain quality
For many of these production line roles in a brewery, various kinds of technical skills and experience are necessary. For example, to work in brewhouse operations, you will probably need experience working in factories, ability to maintain machinery, experience with electrical appliances and familiarity with the raw materials that go into making beer.

Some of the more advanced roles in beer production may require a college degree. Working as an operations manager for a large brewery will probably require a business, supply chain management, logistics or engineering degree.

Some of the most reputable courses which can help you get started in beer production include:
  • Central Washington University Craft Beer Certificate (USA)
Jobs in Beer Marketing & Sales
Sales and marketing jobs in the brewing industry can be at the wholesaler, distributor or consumer level. You might be designing advertising campaigns for consumers, marketing your product to liquor shops or getting your brewery’s beer into more bars. Most sales and marketing jobs will require relevant experience with some requiring a college degree.

If you already have sales and marketing experience or a degree, you could also undertake a further education for the beer industry specifically, for example:
Many marketing and sales positions only require sales experience and a general familiarity with beer and the brewing industry. That level of familiarity can be gained by working in a bar, liquor shop or by being a home-brewer.

Jobs in Hospitality
With the increase in craft breweries, there has also been an increase in brewpubs. That is where the brewery has a pub directly attached to it. Brewpubs require hospitality workers with good beer knowledge. There are many jobs available for event managers, tour guides, beer educators and tasting room servers within the beer industry.

All of these roles require experience in the hospitality industry and a good working knowledge of beer. One way to acquire this knowledge is by taking a course. Some of the best beer knowledge course include:
Jobs in Beer Distribution and Administration
Just like any other business organisation, breweries need accountants, warehouse managers, logistics managers, administrators and business managers.

It can be an advantage to add relevant industry knowledge by adding a qualification like:
Information by The Carling Partnership an international recruitment agency in the beer and brewing industry.

Ibisworld.com,. (2015). Global Beer Manufacturing Market Research | IBISWorld. Retrieved 8 July 2015, from ibisworld.com/industry/global/global-beer-manufacturing.html

Economicsonline.co.uk,. (2015). Brewing. Retrieved 8 July 2015, from economicsonline.co.uk/Business_economics/Brewing.html

Platologic.co.uk,. (2015). PR World Beer Market 2012 and Top Brands 2011. Retrieved 8 July 2015, from platologic.co.uk/pr_world_beer_market_2012_and_top_brands_2011.htm

Reuters,. (2015). Global beer market to grow by 2 pct in 2015 - Plato. Retrieved 8 July 2015, from reuters.com/article/2015/02/27/beverages-beer-idUSL5N0W12XS20150227

Sizemore, C. (2015). Why Big Beer is Struggling in the Age of Craft Beer. Forbes. Retrieved 8 July 2015, from forbes.com/sites/moneybuilder/2015/06/09/why-big-beer-is-struggling-in-the-age-of-craft-beer/