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?