Thursday 26 March 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday 20 March 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday 14 March 2015

CBR: Sharp words on Doom Bar and Stout

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

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

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

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

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

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

The dark beer revolution

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

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

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

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

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

Friday 6 March 2015

The strange tale of English Lambic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday 5 March 2015

Craft Beer Rising: meeting Lagunitas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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