Wednesday, 7 December 2016

The art of hype: Meantime’s bonkers mini-bar

So a few days after meeting the ‘Make Time For it’ artists and enjoying their works – that list of artists includes brewer Ciaran Giblin, of course – I found a few hours to wander over to the Millennium Dome and see the results in all their glory in the completed pop-up pub.

And what a sudden dose of reality it was. Walking up, I could see the ‘pub’ was basically an 8’x6’ shed – B&Q or Wickes, it’s hard to tell – painted white and with furniture plonked in it. It was parked under the roof of a walkway, so I guess they weren’t too confident in its ability to withstand the London rain!

Inside was a friendly welcome and good beer. It all looked a bit thrown-together though – for instance, the tall taps on the bar were purely decorative, with the two beers actually coming from a portable keg unit on the floor behind. The neon lights sat awkwardly on the bar-top, and the hand-made glasses were glued to a shelf to prevent theft. The gorgeous mirror hung unremarked in a corner, and the special bench was hard to see in such a small space.

The two artworks readily visible were the intricate wallpaper and the tailored waistcoat, but of course the latter had to be worn by whichever barperson was serving – and sadly its cut wasn’t so flattering on the lady who was on duty when I visited.

But what a great publicity stunt it was! As well as generous newspaper coverage ahead of opening, they’d had photographers and TV people visiting the shed all week – a crew from a Dutch music TV channel arrived as I was leaving. And while you were supposed to book, they had had a lot more drop-ins than expected. The free beer, thanks to new owner Asahi’s publicity budget, might have played a part in this…

I also learnt a bit more about the ‘new’ Meantime. The pilot brewery there, funded and installed last year by previous owner SAB-Miller (which sold Meantime, Peroni and Grolsch to Asahi in order to get approval for its merger with AB-InBev), has been brewing an experimental new beer every other week this year. This is where the six artist-collaborated beers came from, and several more one-offs were on sale nearby in Meantime’s Beer Box, which is a couple of shipping containers converted into a bijou craft beer bar.

In addition, I discovered that while the SAB-InBev deal only completed this October, the sale of Meantime and the others took place several months earlier. Apparently the new Asahi employees each received a welcoming pack of sample beers from around the new Asahi empire. I can well imagine the scene as they opened them – a Eurolager from here, a Eurolager from there, and – oh look, another Eurolager. Yummy!

Incredibly annoyingly, I can’t find any of the photos I took during my visit, although I do have a couple of the Beer Box, so in the mean time here’s one of that. Sigh.


Thursday, 24 November 2016

Bourbon County Stout's low-volume UK debut


‘Tis the season for publicity stunts, or so it would seem. Tomorrow at 11am, the UK’s entire allocation of Goose Island’s Bourbon County Brand Stout – just 100 bottles – goes on sale at Clapton Craft’s shop in London’s Kentish Town.

Goose's 'innovation brewer' Tim Faith
In the US this beer is legendary for attracting long queues of eager buyers when it goes on sale on their 'Black Friday', and Goose Island is hoping to create a similar effect here. That’s why it hosted a launch party last night in trendy Shoreditch, with brewer and barrel-ageing expert Tim Faith visiting from Chicago. He treated beer writers and other guests to samples both of last year’s and this year’s BCBS – the latter on tap, with only a single solitary bottle present, mainly for photographic purposes.

The irony is that while the bottles will be priced at £20 each, the total value of the UK’s allocation must be many times less than the cost of the launch party. To be fair though it was also the UK launch for Goose’s Winter Ale, plus it’s all part of a long-running charm offensive, as Goose owner AB-InBev seeks to build up its craft beer sales here via Pioneer Brewing Co, its UK distribution subsidiary.

Tim first ran us through the history of BCBS, originally the celebratory 1000th brew at the original Goose Island brewpub. It was the first beer to be matured in Bourbon barrels with the intention of picking up the remaining whiskey flavours – the barrel-aging also adds a couple of % to the 11.5%-12% it’s brewed to. The barrels dramatically change the beer’s flavour, as it smoothes out the bitterness and picks up notes from the wood sugars, the charred lining and of course the Bourbon, and the result has been hugely popular – Tim said they brew it throughout the year now to meet demand, blending each year’s older and younger barrels for bottling at an average age of 10 or 11 months.

Just four of 5000-6000 in total
It’s not all been plain sailing though. For one thing, I heard that while there were still queues, it didn’t immediately sell out last year and was still available a while later, perhaps because of that increased production.

More importantly though, several 2015 batches of BCBS suffered from infection (or more accurately ‘contamination’, said Tim, who is a microbiology graduate) with an alcohol-tolerant lactobacillus bug. This seems to have got in while the barrels – they use thousands a year, mostly from Kentucky’s Heaven Hill – were in storage prior to filling with stout. The problem was that this bug is a late starter, so the beer tasted fine before bottling, and the off-tastes didn’t appear until later.

(This kind of thing is not unknown – the first brew of Harvey’s Imperial Stout in 1999 also had an unexpected late-starting secondary fermentation, from a wild yeast. It cut in around nine months after bottling, when its extra CO2 pushed out the cork, although thankfully it didn’t add off-flavours.)

Goose’s response was two-fold: refunds to buyers, and a decision to stabilise the 2016 edition before bottling by pasteurising it. The latter attracted a lot of criticism, with some saying they wouldn’t buy pasteurised beer.

For now, the 2016 stout is gorgeous – it’s rich and thick, with oak and umami notes, a light bitterness and warming alcohol to counter the sweetness. What’s unclear is how – or indeed if at all – it will age in the bottle.

As an example of the latter process, a friend who’d also tried the 2015 back in February confirmed that it’s changed significantly since then. The 2015 version we tried was not as thick as the 2016 but was perhaps a bit more complex – after a year in bottle it has a startlingly strong coconut aroma, plus I detected notes of vanilla, cocoa, old leather and dried fig.

I can’t help wondering if the 2016 is really worth £20 a bottle tomorrow, especially when it is only $10 or so in the US and when there are other excellent Imperial Stouts around now. On the plus side, there’s not many others at 14%, BCBS is something of a legend, and there should be a bit of a fuss made for those willing to queue up in advance at Clapton Craft tomorrow – I can't say what, but in the US you might get coffee and doughnuts for example, maybe with brewery swag too for the first few in the line.

One thing I do know is that Tim's due to be there tomorrow morning, so if you want to meet the brewer before he flies home, this could be your chance!

Friday, 18 November 2016

Lapwing monks brew up a new tradition

Koningshoeven Abbey, the home of the La Trappe beers, was once the only Trappist brewery in the Netherlands, but it now has a younger Dutch sibling. This is Brouwerij de Kiewit (Lapwing Brewery) at Abbidji Maria Toevlucht (Mary the refugee), whose Zundert Trappist ale launched in 2013. Unlike La Trappe but like most other Trappist beers, Zundert is actually brewed by monks, not by monastery employees, although one consequence is a limitation on production, as Henri Reuchlin – the consultant and beer blogger who helped set up the brewery – explained in a presentation to this year’s European Beer Writers & Bloggers Conference in Amsterdam.

The brewkit is vast for religious reasons
The monks’ attitude is “We brew for a living but we don’t live for brewing,” he said, adding that they therefore decided to brew just once a month so it didn’t cut too much into their other activities. To compensate, they installed a far larger brewkit than they’d otherwise have needed. This lets them do a month’s worth – currently 250hl – in one go, leaving more time for monking, plus of course they only need one fermenter rather than the several that a secular micro would install.

Initially the site was run as a monastic farm, having been given to refugee monks from France in 1899. However, a century later, fewer and fewer novices were entering the monkish world. With the number in the community declining and their average age increasing, the monks decided to sell their livestock and land – the latter becoming a nature reserve – and find other ways to ‘worship through work’ and make some funds.

Although brewing was an obvious option, and they could send two brothers to train with other breweries, what to brew was less obvious. There being no local tradition or historic recipe to work with, they decided to invent one. “We gave a table of monks many samples to try, from Gueuze to Rauchbier, and asked them their preferences,” explains Reuchlin.

The brewers check for quality
“The first thing they agreed on was the copper colour. They also decided on brewing only one beer, and they didn’t want to copy an existing beer.” They nodded to Trappist tradition as well with its locally-inspired name and simple label design, which features a lapwing and other designs copied from the abbey church.

They also needed somewhere to put the brewkit, and a disused barn was an obvious choice. It is a historic building though, so all its internal features such as roof trusses had to stay visible, and the nature reserve gave them a limited building season – they couldn’t build in Spring because the birds were breeding, nor in Autumn when it was the turn of the bats!

They got it done though, and the resulting brewhouse is a gem, with translucent plastic walls that admit plenty of light yet leave the wooden structure intact. Inside gleams a huge modern brewkit in shiny steel – sadly we can only glimpse it in photos, as the brewery (like certain others of its Trappist siblings) is not open to the public.

Its one product is a warming 8% brew somewhere between a Dubbel and a Tripel, bottled offsite and best served at 10-14C, according to its brewers. “We originally said 8-10C, but decided warmer was better. At a warmer temperature it develops from sweet to herbal spiciness,” Reuchlin says. And pretty good it is too, with that spicy-hoppy note balancing sweeter caramel and dried fruit.

Thursday, 17 November 2016

The Trappist sun-trap

Lodewijk checks the blonde too...
Sitting in the August sun in the beer garden at Koningshoeven Abbey, home of the famous La Trappe beers, brewmaster Lodewijk Swinkels admits he has no plans to expand the abbey brewery’s range, for example by adding more seasonal beers to the La Trappe Bock that’s currently in his hand. “We asked the monks, and they said eight is enough,” he smiles.

Fortunately, the regular range is already excellent, as is the Bock: “Dutch Bock is different from German,” he says. “Most are sweetened, but not mine!” The others include a Dubbel, Tripel, organic Puur, the only Trappist Witbier, Isid’Or, and the Quadrupel that founded a whole style. Plus, he’s pleasing the beer geeks anyway with a six-year-old Quadrupel barrel-aging project.

La Trappe Bock
It’s no surprise though that he had to ask the monks. It is their brewery after all, just as the International Trappist Organisation’s rules says it has to be – if they want to put the T-word on the label, that is. And if there’s something Trappists like even more than beer, it is rules.

Indeed, their life is all about obeying rules – the Rule of St Benedict, to be specific. Historically they took it more seriously than most: their order was founded by people who thought that other monks and nuns weren’t following the rules strictly enough. So it is little wonder that they created rules to govern the brewing of Trappist beers too.

Monastery beers

The tradition of monastic brewing is centuries old. Monks and nuns brewed both for their own consumption (self-sufficiency being one of the rules) and for the travellers and pilgrims who visited them, but as time went by, more and more of it became secular. The beer was contracted out to local breweries, for instance, or a local private brewer bought the rights to the name.

Formerly the Sheepfold
Brewery
The Trappists are an exception. Perhaps because they were relative latecomers – having been a reformist movement within the Cistercians for 200 years, they only became an independent order in 1893 – or maybe because they were more commercially-minded. As monks and nuns fleeing the French Revolution and its aftermath set up new monasteries elsewhere, most notably in the Low Countries, brewing was one of the first things they turned to generate income to fund their lifestyle.

I’m not a fan of organised religions in general, but most do have their good points. In the case of the Trappists, one of their best features is that when they do something they do it properly, without cutting corners to bump up profit margins. Perhaps that’s why their beer seems to have quite quickly earned a good reputation.

Fire was an ever-present
risk for breweries, so
they often had their own
fire engines, as here.
But when the Trappists realised in the 1950s and 60s (about 100 years after Chimay had been the first to sell its beer) that their name was being used by commercial organisations, they reacted in a very modern way to protect their brand: they sued, and then set up a private association – the ITO – with rules to manage the use of the brand and its Authentic Trappist Product (ATP) trademark, which is also applied to abbey-made cheese, soap, bread and all sorts of other things.

Key rules include a requirement for the work to take place physically within the abbey, with monks at least supervising operations (lay-workers are OK), and for the operating surplus to go to financing the abbey and charitable works (the latter also covers religious missions and the like). There’s other rules – or perhaps guidelines – too. For instance, they don’t use images of the monks or nuns to promote beer, and more recently seem to have stopped using images of the abbeys too. It will say Trappist on the label, but there won’t be the cheesy paintings of red-cheeked monks that you see on many commercially-made German ‘Klosterbiers’.

Commerce meets contemplation

Although the Belgian abbeys such as Westmalle and Westvleteren are better known in beery circles, Koningshoeven in Dutch Brabant is by far the largest of the dozen or so Trappist breweries around the world. Indeed, it is run for the monks on a commercial basis by Brouwerij Bavaria, one of the Netherlands’ largest brewing companies, though there must still be monks involved if they want to keep the ATP logo on the label. (When they first involved Bavaria in 1999, they gave up their ATP certification for five years while they made sure the deal would work, but it’s back now.)

The new brewhouse
Brouwerij Bavaria handles La Trappe’s logistics and distribution too, which explains why the beers are so well known, and the abbey also brews for a number of other brands – at various times it brewed Jopen and Chimay beers, and it still brews Urthel for example, although Swinkels says that increasing demand for the La Trappe beers means he is trying to cut back on the contract work.

Bavaria’s involvement funded a new brewhouse, shoehorned in alongside the old one to stay within the abbey walls, as required There’s also an up-to-date bottling and kegging line in the abbey, and a large visitors' centre with restaurant, bar and that sunny beer garden.

I know some are sniffy about the commercial partnership – I was dubious too, and it’s sad to note that its partnership with the abbey gave Bavaria the excuse it needed to close the old Kroon brewery in Oirschot, acquired just a couple of years earlier. Fortunately though the quality of the beer shines through. Perhaps it’s an advantage that Bavaria is Dutch, not multinational, or maybe it’s those Trappist rules keeping them honest...

I met Lodewijk on a tour organised by VisitBrabant ahead of this year's European Beer Writers & Bloggers conference. We all paid for the tour ourselves, the caveat is that we were at the same time the guests of VisitBrabant who booked the beer tastings and covered our hotel stay. 

Koningshoeven Abbey is not too far from several other Trappist breweries over the border in Belgium, and VisitBrabant links up with its counterpart there to do cycling tours where you can visit half a dozen of them over a few days. Nice!

Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Meantime's minibar takes an arty approach to beer

Inside the pop-up pub
Is Meantime Brewery’s latest publicity wheeze a tiny bar or a bijou art gallery? A bit of both really – the art side is because the 6ft by 8ft (1.8m by 2.4m) bar in the pop-up pub, which is called the Make Time For It after Meantime’s current promo campaign, has been furnished and decorated by six rather excellent artists and craftspeople from around Britain.

The guests – a maximum of three, although I’m sure you could fit more in if they stood – sit on a bench created by from recycled material by furniture designer Liam Hopkins of Manchester’s Lazerian, drink from pint glasses designed by James Adlington and hand-blown at his Bristol Blue Glass workshop, and the bar is lit by a neon installation created in Leeds by Julia Bickerstaff of Neoncraft.

Bottled neon?
Even the wallpaper is bespoke – designed by Marion Parola and Yvonne Elliott of Bespoke Atelier in Glasgow, it features climbing greenery to evoke hopbines, with the trademark Meantime cogwheel peeping out here and there. So too is the bartender’s waistcoat, designed by Brighton tailor Gresham Blake, and including specially woven “brewing process” fabric. The finishing touch is a gorgeous gilded pub mirror from London-based creative signwriter Ged Palmer’s Luminor studio.

Detail of the waistcoat
Equally important, the beer is bespoke as well – Meantime brewer Ciaran Giblin sat down with each of the artists to create a beer around them and brew it on Meantime's pilot brewkit. “I was told ‘You’ve got to get the personality of the craftsman into a beer,’ which I thought was a bit of fun,” he explained.

Sadly, although it’s a temporary pop-up bar and is therefore portable – they claim it fits in the back of a Transit van* – it wasn’t present at last week’s press launch in the clock tower above London St Pancras station. The artworks and beers did though, except for one which had already run out, and so did most of the creators involved, all of whom had enjoyed the process.

“Ciaran talked to us and got a sense of how we work,” said Marion Parola. She added that since she’s French and Yvonne is Scottish, he came up with a dark Scotch ale aged in Cognac barrels and then blended back with young beer – the rich and smooth result, called Maison Hop, was probably the star of the five we got to sample.

Ciaran checks the beer...
One demand Meantime put on the creatives was that they had just six weeks to do the job – this was to tie in with the six weeks that it would take to brew their beer from start to finish, and it’s what the Make Time campaign is about. It seems that brewers everywhere are noticing that fast and cheap may please the accountants, but it doesn’t keep drinkers happy (Anheuser-Busch has even resorted to plagiarising a rival’s advertising campaign on the subject, as Pete Brown angrily and amusingly alleged on his blog last week).

My one problem with the whole project was that the creatives weren’t paid for their work, unless you count getting a few cases of ‘their’ beer. As a freelance, I’m not a big fan of working for ‘exposure’ as it’s quite hard to spend... Sometimes though you do stuff, and it doesn’t matter that it was free because it was fun and you got something else useful out of it – a bit like writing this blog, really.

Luminor Pale Ale
And that’s how signwriter Ged Palmer approached it. “It took me months to get over doing things for exposure,” he laughed. “But at least with this I get a beer with my name on it!” He also got to work with loose gold leaf which he enjoys doing, and like the others he got a gorgeously filmed and edited promotional video showing him at work – you can find these on YouTube or the Meantime website.

If you’d like to visit the Make Time For It pop-up pub and see the artworks – oh, and collect a free pint too – it’s in Peninsula Square, North Greenwich, near the Millennium Dome, until Sunday 30th October. You’ll have to book a 20 minute visit online though, or take pot-luck. Quite what happens to it all after Sunday, I don’t know – I’ll ask...

*Long wheelbase, rather than short, I suspect!


Here's the six beers brewed for the project, as Meantime describes them:

Hop Back (Manchester): A classic mild beer with a spiced berry aroma for a modern twist

Maison Hop (Glasgow): A rich and smoky cognac barrel-aged black ale with hints of smooth vanilla.

Time to Time (Leeds): A Saison de Nuit that will light up your taste buds with vibrant fruit flavours.

Hourglass (Bristol): Crisp, dry pilsner with fresh pressed apple notes inspired by cider. The sugars from the fermentation come from a blend of malt and apple juice, giving a fruity twist to a classic dry pilsner.

The Tweedster (Brighton): Passionfruit wheat beer packed full of punchy, vibrant fruit flavours, well balanced against a beautiful wheat beer backbone.

Luminor (London): a hoppy pale ale with zesty citrus flavours from the wild Sussex Hop.

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

A cider-maker hops to it

It probably hasn’t escaped your notice that, like hoppy beer, flavoured cider is more than a little bit fashionable. So over in the States, someone had the idea of combining the two – hops and cider that is, not beer and cider, which is Snakebite and can easily get the unwary drinker into all sorts of trouble…

And now England’s Purity Brewing has collaborated with another well-known English name, Westons Cider, to follow suit. The result is Pure Hopped Cider, which combines Herefordshire apples with Worcestershire-grown Target hops – its creators are very proud of its local origins and traceable ingredients. It came out last month and Purity kindly sent me a can to try.

The first surprise was the aromatic hoppy hit on the nose as the can hissed open – it's the smell of uncooked dry hops, not of beer. The liquid pours a cloudy yellow-gold with a light sparkle but no head. In the glass, the aroma is more of scrumpy cider with an unexpected hint of ginger beer – the proper yeasty lemony kind, not the fizzy soda version.

It's sweeter on the palate than I like, but not grossly so. There's a lightly tart apple and lemon note, again a distant note of ginger beer and a touch of hops. It's unusual to get that leafy hoppiness unaccompanied by bitterness – it’s the boiling in brewing that brings out the bitterness, of course.

Would I try it again? Sure – it’s an intriguing mix and a nice cider, even if I normally prefer my ciders a little drier than this. It does make me wonder what a proper dry scrumpy would be like when dry-hopped, though!

Friday, 23 September 2016

Goose Island’s Bretty push into the UK

There is a certain irony in an AB-Inbev brewery recreating a 19th century beer that demonstrates how wildly inaccurate craft IPAs are from a historical perspective. But that is what Goose Island’s one-off Brewery Yard Stock Pale Ale does – although if you look at it another way, it is also bang in line with modern craft beer fashions, being both barrel-aged and secondary-fermented with Brettanomyces. Irony indeed!

Ron & Mike show off Brewery Yard
Brewery Yard came about after Goose Island's brewing innovation manager Mike Siegel contacted beer historian Ron Pattinson, inviting him to help recreate a historical recipe. Speaking at the beer’s UK launch at the Rake, in London’s Borough Market, Mike said that with Goose Island being inspired by the English brewing tradition he wanted an English recipe, and to give Ron something to work with, “I came up with two things – I wanted it aged in wood barrels and I wanted to use Brettanomyces. He came up almost immediately with Stock Pale Ale.”

“I’d tried to persuade loads of people before to brew this beer, Mike was the first gullible idiot to take me up,” Ron joked. He added that in the 19th century, “Pale Ale [and by extension IPA] wasn’t meant to be drunk young, it was meant to be aged for a long time. For example, bottled Bass was probably at least 12 months old before anyone got to drink it. It is a very different concept, the complete opposite of how we do IPA today – people liked the aged flavour and were willing to pay extra for it.”

Unlike Porter, which was aged in giant vats, Pale Ale was aged in barrels. In some cases they were just left stacked for months in the brewery yard, hence the new brew’s name. Stock, which meant aged, was the opposite of mild – Ron pointed out that Mild was not originally a style of beer, it simply defined how the beer was treated before sale: “Mild and Stock would have been the same recipe, except Stock had 50% more hops and a secondary Brett fermentation.”

Based on an 1877 Trumans recipe for a Pale Ale from Burton-on-Trent, Brewery Yard seems about as authentic as you can get using modern ingredients. Mike used floor-malted English barley, plus English Goldings and US Cluster hops – American hops were widely used in Britain in the 1800s, but for bittering and their preservative value, not for their flavour which was generally disliked. In the absence of the neutral Memel oak barrels that 19th century brewers preferred, he took Bourbon barrels that had already been used for beer twice, so most of the whiskey character was gone, and steamed them thoroughly.

“It was a year in the planning, it spent 11 months in barrel and was then bottled in June,” Mike said. “Two and a half years is a long time to work on a beer project, I had to keep telling Ron to be patient!”

So was it worth the wait? From the drinker’s perspective, very definitely so. The first thing you notice about the beer, apart from its golden-brown colour and initially fluffy head, is a characteristic Bretty aroma – tart and almost fruity, reminiscent perhaps of ascorbic acid. Then there is a potent dry bitterness with herbal notes to it, and a tart woody winey palate. It really is fascinating – and worryingly drinkable for something that weighs in at 8.4% ABV!

Ron reckoned it was also quite possibly the most expensive beer Goose Island has ever done – its Chicago brewery is a 50-barrel (almost 6000 litre) plant, but by the time all the losses in the process were accounted for, there only about 20 barrels left. Of that, just over 2000 litres made it into 75cl bottles, and 600 of those have come to the UK (where they’re priced at £20 each).

As well as losses in the barrel-ageing, a huge amount was lost during hopping – Brewery Yard used whole-leaf hops, which the brewkit was not designed for, and a lot of wort was left in the wet hops afterwards.

Mike talks beer with a happy drinker
“We’re really happy with how the beer turned out, it is truly the definition of unique,” Mike said. It’s likely to stay that way too – when I asked if he’d consider re-brewing it, he implied it was unlikely: “I’d probably look for an even more difficult project!”

It’s great that Goose Island is still able to do projects like this, even if, as one of the other guests at the launch (brewer and Brett expert Ed) pointed out they’ve perhaps played it a bit safe by using Brettanomyces Claussenii, which is one of the subtler Brett strains. And of course one reason they have the capacity for projects like this and their sours at Fulton is that their main brands such as Goose IPA, 312 Urban Wheat and Honkers are now produced at massive east and west-coast breweries belonging to their parent company, AB-Inbev.

The financial weight of AB-Inbev is also behind Goose Island’s push into the UK. The Brewery Yard launch was part of this, but so is the UK edition of its Block Party series tomorrow in Shoreditch – basically an afternoon of live music, with bars and food stalls – and so too was the appointment last year of a European brand ambassador, Josh Smith, who was formerly at the White Horse on Parsons Green.

“We don’t want to send beer over with no support – the storytelling and training is a big part of it,” Josh explained. He added that, unlike US brewers who’re brewing in Europe, Goose will continue to bring its beers in from the US. He explained it’s all about the logistics – an area where AB-Inbev has been a big help – with the beer being shipped and stored chilled all the way.

As well as introducing Four Star Pils and Green Line Pale Ale to the UK this month, Josh is keen to get 312 Urban Wheat as a regular on draught – he sees it as a good crossover or gateway beer for lager drinkers – and on bringing Goose’s seasonals in too. In the battle for the soul of craft beer, it really is 'interesting times'!

Sunday, 11 September 2016

Balancing insular vs international on a German island

Two of Insel-Brauerei's regular brews
I finally realised what’s been puzzling me about the beers from the Rügener Insel-Brauerei, a new brewery opened in 2015 on the German Baltic island of Rügen. The Insel beers are very consciously Craft – they are available in both 33cl and 75cl sizes, with attractive and unusual paper wrappers instead of labels, and they are pricey, at almost €10 a litre.

To top it off the beers are all top-fermented* and bottle-conditioned, in a country where making an IPA alongside your half-dozen lagers is still considered a bit adventurous, and Insel produces almost nothing that most people would consider a traditional German beer style. Instead there’s stouts, pale ales, a witbier and several Belgian styles.

What puzzled me though was that the Insel beers I’d tried didn’t seem terribly interesting. Oh sure, they were well made – the brewery was founded by Marcus Berberich, an experienced brewmaster who was formerly managing director at Störtebeker Braumanufaktur in nearby Stralsund, so I’d expect nothing less. (He really does need to sort out their yeast though, as it doesn’t settle well enough and the beers are too gassy, so it’s hard not to pour them cloudy.)

The thing was that they lacked the depth I would look for in a beer in this price bracket, plus they didn’t seem true to style. I wasn’t alone in thinking this – the beers get low marks from quite a few of the serious tasters on Ratebeer. Others seem to love them, however, and they look to be selling OK.

Now though, I think I may have a mental handle on what’s going on here. These are products designed to appeal to gourmets and the fashion-conscious, in a country where beer drinkers have been conditioned by the big brewers (via their disgraceful manipulation of the Reinheitsgebot) to be suspicious of anything different and/or foreign.

So if these foreign-styled beers still seem rather German to me – a Belgian Tripel that reminded me of a Maibock, to give the most recent example – perhaps that is deliberate. A case of taking a subtle German-friendly approach: “Don’t frighten ze horses” and all that.

The odd thing is that once I started thinking about this, my enjoyment of the beers increased. It just goes to remind you how much our impressions of a drink are affected not just by aroma and flavour, but by expectations, price and all sort of external factors, such as where we are actually drinking it.

Will I buy more Insel-Brauerei beers? It’s a slightly unfair question because I’m pretty sure I’m not their target market. I certainly don’t plan to buy more of the pricey big bottles, but if I see 33cl bottles of their sours, say, my curiosity may well take over – it does a lot of that!


*This must make life a lot easier for a German brewer, because the rules are significantly different for top-fermented beers – in particular, what most people think of as the Reinheitsgebot does not apply. (It is of course rather more complex than this, but this will do for a summary!)

Thursday, 25 August 2016

Family fun at Fuller's

Photo: Fuller's
We've been to the annual Open Day at Fuller's a few times now, and they've all been good fun. "Dray" rides - actually a passenger cart, but drawn by real, huge, dray horses - and craft activities in the Hock Cellar for the kids, plus brewery tours and beer for the grown-ups, and live music and a BBQ for everyone. What's not to like?!

One year they even had a fire engine in attendance, for the kids to sit in and try on helmets, etc - at least until it and the crew got called away... This year there's also a 10k Fun Run that same morning.

Anyway, it's on Saturday 3rd September from 11am to 4pm. I hope I don't need to explain where! But if I do, check out the Open Day website linked above. :)

Saturday, 20 August 2016

Does Dutch beer define itself?

Waiting for the bus into Amsterdam this morning, for the second day of the 2016 European Beer Writers & Bloggers Conference, I was thinking about the Dutch craft brewers – both new and old – that we’ve met so far. The first question that came to my mind was whether there was some common thread that could hint at a "Dutch identity" for craft beer – and the second was whether that first question was actually redundant...

Yesterday we had an informative session about the history of Dutch brewing. One of the presenters, Michel Ordeman, is “Head of Church” at Jopenkerk, a brewery-restaurant in Haarlem created by microbrewer Jopen, but is also co-founder of the Campaign for Netherlands Beer Styles. The other, Rick Kempen, is a long-time Untappd friend of mine who works for beer distributor (and conference co-sponsor) Bier & Co.

Jasper gets animated
Among other things, they brought up the story of how the late-mediaeval towns collected ingredient lists from brewers to ensure only permitted things were used and that tax was paid. Sadly the tax rolls don’t record the actual brewing processes, but Jopen has still used them to recreate versions of those herbed and spiced beers, such as Koyt and Gruit.

Among the other brewers we met, styles such as Witbier and Saison were much in evidence, alongside the inevitable (and often very well executed) IPAs, Porters and barrel-aged Stouts. Some half-dismiss the former as Belgian, and yet all these beers – Gruit ales, spiced wheat beers, farmhouse ales – are part of a shared tradition right across northern Europe. Today’s national borders are still relatively new in this part of the world.

An interesting aside was that we also met two or three craft Pilsners. Craft brewers have tended to ignore Pils in the past, says Jasper Langbroek of Kompaan in The Hague, because Pils was what the industrial brewers called their yellow lager. Now though, Dutch microbrewers have rediscovered the real thing (or at least the real thing as it exists today, because all beer styles evolve!) on visits to Bavaria and the Czech Republic.

“Four years ago we said we wouldn’t brew Pils, then we were on holiday in Germany and tasted the local beer, so the next time a customer asked us for Pils we decided to do this,” explains Focke Hettinga of the Zwolse Pils that he brews with his wife as – the beer is named for their home town of Zwolle. The anti-industrial thread is still visible in both Kompaan Pils and Zwolse though – both are notably fuller-bodied than the megabrews, with Kompaan adding a percentage of wheat malt and Zwolse’s extra malt and hops making it remarkably rich and warming for the style.

Both brewers had wheat beers too – Hettinga Bier was pouring its Ijssel Wit, a very nice zesty and spicy example of the style, while Kompaan had gone instead for an American Wheat Ale, using US ale yeast and more hops for a lighter more bitter body and less Hefe fruitiness. Add the hoppy Wits we met elsewhere and it’s clear this is a style with a lot of room to play.

We also met a couple of excellent Farmhouse Ales (Saisons to many, but that really confuses American tourists in Germany, where Saisonbier simply means the current seasonal beer) during the live beer-blogging session – this is beer-tasting as speed-dating, with each brewer given 5 minutes to introduce themselves and their beer.

Saison5 from Utrecht’s Brouwerij Maximus was a nice example – dry, hoppy-bitter, lightly funky and refreshing – but the star of the show here was the Brettalicious from Oersop in Nijmegen. It’s a hybrid Bretted Saison, matured in their foudres (wooden vats) with a mix of brettanomyces and lactobacillus bacteria – the former add complex funky flavours and the latter a light tartness, as of Berliner Weisse for example.  Not to everyone’s taste for sure, but I found it quite delicious.

Friday, 19 August 2016

Beers of Brabant

As a historian I’d been well aware of Brabant as one of the major Duchies of medieval Europe, but apart from occasionally noticing the name on “Welcome to...” road signs while whizzing through the Low Countries, I have to confess I’d not really been aware of its modern existence. Until this week, that is, when VisitBrabant invited me and several other beer writers & bloggers to, well, visit Brabant and discover its beer.

While you might not have connected the two before, it turns out Brabant – which includes Eindhoven, Breda and Tilburg, as well as its ‘capital’ of De Bosch – has a long brewing heritage. From our base at the aptly-named Hotel Central in Den Bosch (aka s’Hertogenbosch, which means the Duke’s Forest), we first sallied out to Koningshoeven Abbey, the home of La Trappe, one of the original Trappist breweries. More on that in a later post. Keen cyclist Nathalie from VisitBrabant then lead us on an hour-long bike ride to the village of Oirschot – it’s a great country for cycling, being relatively flat and having plenty of dedicated cyclepaths, and luckily we had great weather.

Kroon memorabilia
Oirschot was formerly home to Kroon, one of the few regional Dutch brewers to survive the massive waves of consolidation during the 20th century. It was finally bought in the 90s and closed in 2000 – oddly enough it was a victim of its new parent Brouwerij Bavaria subsequently also linking up with La Trappe and not needing the Kroon brewery any more.

Then two years ago, a new brewery called Brouwerij Vandeoirsprong opened on the Kroon site, aiming to combine traditional styles with a bit of new-wave pizazz. We liked the Vandeoirsprong taproom, and from what I hear so do the locals, flocking at weekends to what’s now the village’s only brewery – it of course had over a dozen before the closures of the late 1800s. Why did they close? Newly fashionable Pils, in large part – if you had no cool caves nearby, the shift to lager beers required significant investment in refrigeration equipment. As elsewhere, many smaller breweries could not afford this and closed or sold up, a process exacerbated by the large brewers wanting to expand by consolidation and acquisition.

Vandeoirsprong taproom
Anyway, the taproom is in the old bottling hall and has an industrial chic, all white tiles and concrete. There is also a brewery museum with the old Kroon brewkit and all sorts of other gear and memorabilia, it’s only labelled in Dutch for now but I think that will change. The beer garden too is littered – oops, I mean decorated! – with old brewing gear such as wort coolers.

If I’ve one caveat about Vandeoirsprong, it’s that they might be trying to produce and sell too many beers too soon. I think they had eight of their own on tap, and while the Hop-Wit and OPA were pretty clean and tasty, some of the others seemed a little rough around the edges and needed work. But it is only their first full season in operation, their brewer is still learning, and I’m sure they will all improve.

The third brewery of the day was back in Den Bosch. Stadsbrouwerij van Kollenburg t’Kolleke is the house-brewery at Cafe Bar le Duc. It’s now the only brewery in the old city, although there is a large Heineken factory on the outskirts – again, there would have been dozens in the Middle Ages. Brewer/co-owner Jan van Kollenburg sells around 80% of his production sells through his bar, with the rest being a mix of bottled off-sales, and supplies to others bars around town of a new beer called Jheronimus, produced to mark the 500th anniversary of the death of eponymous local artist Hieronymus Bosch.

Shiny shiny at t'Kolleke
Bar le Duc has the look of a classic old cafe, all brown wood and beery memorabilia. As well as an excellent local food menu and Jan’s beers on tap, it also has guest beers and a bottle list – the primary focus for both being the Low Countries with just a few outliers, such as the one American Trappist beer and a beer each from Spain and Germany. The house beers were variable, but the intriguingly herbal Blond and the Dubbel with liquorice were both pretty good, as was the Jheronimus.

Den Bosch looks like a really good city for beer bars - as well as Le Duc there's several more in the old city, including to my surprise a bar belonging to top English brewery Thornbridge. Maybe that's why all the other bars around have little or no British beers!

Technically we’re in North Brabant, the only quarter of the old Duchy that stayed in the Netherlands when Belgium split off in 1830 – the actual history is more complex, this is the simple version! The other Brabants are even more beery, in particular Flemish Brabant which contains several well-known abbey breweries (eg. Affligem, Grimbergen) and whose capital of Leuven is the home of Stella Artois. Nathalie mentioned that as well as the touring cycle routes on her side of the border, there is a Trappist cycle route that visits the Belgian Trappists as well as La Trappe. Now there’s a good way to build up a thirst!

Caveat: we all paid for the tour ourselves, however we were at the same time the guests of VisitBrabant who booked the beer tastings and covered our hotel stay. 

Thursday, 18 August 2016

Going Dutch

It’s the European Beer Writers & Bloggers Conference this coming weekend, and I'm looking forward to seeing friends old and new. This year we are in Amsterdam, I’ve actually been here in Holland (yes, Nord-Holland, not just the Netherlands) since Monday, and nice it is too.

Maibock x Weizen, anyone?
At least the beer isn’t as flat as the landscape, though there isn’t too much else to say about a choice of Amstel, Heineken and Hertog Jan – the latter is the local AB-InBev property, and is probably the least uninteresting of the three!

Yesterday I discovered a few more: several from Texels, plus Sanctus Adalberti which claims to be an abbey beer from nearby Egmont – until you read the label and discover it’s really brewed in Belgium (at De Proef, the contract brewery also used by Mikkeller and many others). Oh well!

All were drinkable, although none really stood out. I will try a couple more of the Texels when I get the chance though, as they show promise.



Saturday, 13 August 2016

The march of the little brown bottles

A seismic change is underway in the German beer industry, and few things demonstrate it as clearly as this: the original doppelbock, the classic Paulaner Salvator, is now in 33cl bottles.

The standard size for Salvator, like almost every other German beer, has been a half-litre bottle - or latterly for some, a 50cl can. There were a few exceptions - Einbecker for instance, with its stumpy 33s, the flip-top 33s of Flensburger, and of course the little green bottles of Becks - but at least they had an individual look. But more and more now, instead you see the brown long-neck 33 that's become an international standard.

It certainly looks like the Craft Beer revolution over the last few years in Germany has played a big part in this change. Perhaps to position their beers more as connoisseur items, or maybe to disguise their higher prices (which, to be fair, are at least partly due to using more and higher-quality ingredients), the new-wave craft brewers have generally preferred the smaller bottles. And when the macrobrewers went crafty, such as the cloudy brown Kellerbiers of Köstritzer, Krombacher and others, they too went into 33s.

That the German macrobrewers are also now shifting their mainstream products - some Pils brands have been available in both sizes for a while, but only a few - is telling. Again, part of it will be to increase revenues - selling a 33 for 99 cents is €3 a litre, versus maybe €2.20 a litre last year.

Another part though will be the changing expectations and preferences of drinkers, especially as beer becomes less of a generic commodity and more individual. Few people want to quaff a half-litre of something special; instead we prefer to savour something more like a half-pint, which for the Imperially-challenged is 284ml.

My one sadness in this will be if it turns good beer into less of a sharing experience. A 50cl bottle can easily be shared between two or three, or four at a pinch. Try sharing a 33 four ways and you start to look like craft geeks at a ticker-fest...

Sunday, 7 August 2016

Norman de Biere, or She aims to Conquer

I’ve taken part in several Battle of Hastings re-enactments, so it was bound to pique my curiosity when I was contacted by a Normandy brewery about to launch its vegan beers into the UK market using 1066-themed branding. More curious still was its Franglais name – Le Brewery – and French-free website.

So it was off to The Rake, the pioneering craft beer pub by London’s Borough Market, for the UK launch, to try the beers and meet the people behind them. It turns out Le Brewery is an expat operation, set up by Steve Skews in 2001 with help from brewing consultant David Smith, who also developed the recipes. They sourced a second-hand 10 barrel brewkit in Britain and shipped it over to Normandy to brew mainly for the British expat community there.

April enjoys Lady Edith
What’s changed now is the ownership. Steve was looking to retire, while entrepreneur April Chandler was looking for a farm – she had moved to France with the intention of growing organic vegetables. To switch from farming to brewing vegan beer and importing it back into the UK as a health drink is not an obvious career route, but it’s one that April is doing her very best to make work.

It helps that she has the zeal of a convert – to beer, that is. A health enthusiast who has written a book on workouts and another on cocktails, the latter focused on good quality, healthy ingredients, she used to think beer was beer. She says that all changed when she met Steve and he helped her realise just how natural and healthy is craft ale (the French call it Biere Artisanale, which Le Brewery has wittily anglicised to Art Is An Ale).

“I didn’t understand at first, because I didn’t come from the beer world.,” April says, “but then I brewed with Steve and it was like, Gosh!” So with David Smith still advising, Le Brewery is back in production with a professional brewer and a range of eight beers; they also have a cider made for them locally in the semi-sweet Normandy style.

Only the cider, called Queen Edith, and two of the beers – Mysterieuse Lady and Norman Gold – are coming to UK supermarket shelves though. Norman Gold is a classic golden ale, with light dry and spicy notes over a sweetish malt body, while Mysterieuse Lady is rather more unusual, being an elderflower ale with a high proportion of wheat in it. Very perfumed and a little sweet in the finish, it’s smooth, lightly fruity and had an interesting distant tartness.

Le Brewery's Norman Gold
Le Brewery’s production is real ale, most of it bottled-conditioned in 75cl cider bottles with champagne corks and wire ties, plus a small amount of cask ale for those few bars in Normandy that know how to look after it – again, it tends to be an expat thing, says David. The two beers for the UK are not brewed in Normandy, however, nor are they real ales. The UK trade will get 330ml bottles containing filtered beer brewed at Wadworths. (April says she plans to import other beers in the range for specialist beer shops – Le Brewery already exports to the US.)

I’m not normally a fan of licence-brewed beers. Whether it’s Russian-made Carlsberg, Sam Adams from Faversham, or Bud and San Miguel brewed just about anywhere, it suggests to me that the brand is more important than the beverage. Still, while Le Brewery is definitely trying to build a brand, you have to cut it some slack because you can’t supply the likes of Tesco from a 10-barrel kit. They would have to contract the UK-bound brews out somewhere, and I guess that given the customs issues it makes more sense to contract-brew in England rather than France.

I expect the beers to do well – “free-from” products are in vogue, they’re well made with a twist of individuality, and they look good. It helps too that April is a professed optimist. For instance, faced with the prospect of Brexit, her reaction is that maybe it will ease the crap she has to deal with from assorted customs regimes. Her take is that the EU and the Single Market are too much orientated to favour the big corporations, and that leaving could change that*.

It’s also really nice to see another brewer commercially promoting proper beer as what it is: a healthy, natural product. Sure, Le Brewery isn’t the first to do it, but another voice in the choir is always welcome. Cheers, April!


*I can’t help thinking though that the real issue is simply scale and regularity. From what I hear, once you are exporting a full pallet – or better yet, a full lorry – and doing it regularly, things smooth out.

As an aside, this highlights that, with the exception of the personal import allowance, the Single Market is a flat lie as far as the drinks business is concerned. Even commercially exporting beer from Germany to the Netherlands can be a challenge, never mind getting it across the Channel. The tax and duty regimes around Europe are so wildly, utterly, ludicrously different – usually for no reasons other than fear, emotion and religion – that it’s impossible to harmonise.

Saturday, 6 August 2016

Beer beer beer...

It's the 24th Egham Beer Festival this weekend - it's not 24 years old, mind you, they get the number by holding it three times a year. If you're in the London area I thoroughly recommend it. It's held in the Egham United Services Club, which is just a short walk from Egham BR, and it's all real ale (there's a discount on entrance for CAMRA members). There's eight ales on handpump in the club itself, with dozens more on handpump and a gravity stillage in the yard out back.

One of the things I like about it is that it usually features an excellent variety of beer, including several rarities or festival specials - this year there were two or three breweries I'd never even heard of before! The other thing that marks it out, but I hadn't quite put my finger on until now, is just how well kept the beers are. Even the stuff outside is usually in tip-top condition. Sure, there's the occasional duffer, but they're a tiny minority.

My favourite beers of the festival were all London or Thames Valley brews, as it happens. Husk Pale, from Silvertown in East London, was peachy-malty with hints of white wine and an astringent bitterness. Shadow of the Beast from Elusive Brewing, a very recent start-up located near Siren Craft Brew in Finchamstead, was a gorgeously rich Black IPA, burnt-bitter with treacle and pine notes, and Dove Tree was a fascinating collaboration brew from two of my 'locals', Park Brewery in Kingston, and Kew Brewery - badged as a White IPA, it had aromas of peach and bergamot over a dry-bitter yet creamy-textured and fruity body.

The only regret was that some of the most intriguing beers in the festival programme had not yet been broached when I was there on Friday afternoon. The festival runs until Sunday though, so you may still have a chance to catch them!

Saturday, 23 July 2016

65 beers in one day – easy, right?

Off we go for round one
Judging at the International Beer Challenge for the first time was both hard work and great fun. You might expect the latter for something involving gallons upon gallons of beer, but not the former, right?

Well, look at it this way: our table was just one of ten, each of which had around 60-70 different beers to taste. Every one of us judges needed to taste each of our beers and discuss it, before deciding if it merited a bronze, silver or gold medal. That’s a lot of different flavours to assess – then try to clear off your palate, ready for the next one!

As usual with beer judging – I’ve judged other competitions before, but not one on this scale – the beers were presented in groups. Some of these were obvious, for example a tray of British-style pale ales and bitters or one of Hefeweizens, while others were defined more broadly – by the use of cherries, say, or by being gluten-free. The beers were all anonymous, and because they can be from anywhere in the world, the chance of accurately recognising one without any clues was pretty slim.

The most interesting bit was the interplay with the other judges, who in my case included another writer, a beer sommelier who also runs beer tours, and two people working in beer retail. For each beer, we’d examine, sniff, taste and then write notes, before discussing its medal-worthiness. Sometimes the accuracy of their descriptions or flaw-spotting was startling – the exact tropical fruit aromas, say, or that a sample was oxidised – while on occasion I’d spot a flaw before they did.

The IBC asks you to judge each beer on its individual merit – “would you recommend this to someone else?” – rather than ‘judging to style’, as you do for the big American competitions. Judging to style means each entry not only has to be a good beer, but it also has to fit the often hair-splitting technical definition for the style of beer that it purports to be. The best-known style guide is the US-originated Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) listing which you can download or find in mobile app form.

Still going, several rounds later
If you are planning to taste several different beers, the general rule is to start with the lowest in alcohol strength and work up, and that’s how each grouping was presented to us. Mostly this worked well, though occasionally you’d get a stronger-flavoured one in the middle of the group and have to nibble a cracker and sip some water (actually we sipped a lot of water!) so it didn’t affect your judgement of the next one. The alternative rule for beer tasting is to start with the subtler ones and work up to the stronger flavours, but of course you have to know what beers you are drinking to do that.

Fortunately we got very few that were either faulty or lacking in some other way, although we also only got a few absolute gold-medal crackers. Almost all were competent, and a decent proportion were ones I’d happily order again – if only I knew what they were, of course. The oddest was probably the soured Dunkel – I like sour beer styles, but this one didn’t quite hang together well enough, so we requested a fresh sample from a new bottle, and yup, it wasn’t meant to be sour...

So, a really interesting day’s work, and a very impressive effort by the organisers at Agile Media, which publishes several drinks-related titles, such as Off Licence News and Harpers Wine & Spirit. I was especially impressed by the patience and dexterity of the servers bringing us the samples, and by the thoroughness and efficiency of the organising staff, who ensured we both got and turned in all the right paperwork at the right time.

Monday, 13 June 2016

A box of hoppy little Duvels


Almost ten years ago, a Belgian brewery launched an dry-hopped version of its signature strong blond ale. Intended as a one-off, it sold out within just three days – after which its fans demanded it be brewed again. The brewmaster agreed, on condition that they could gather 10,000 signatures. In short order their petition had 17,000 signatures, and the legend of Duvel Tripel Hop was born.

It took three years, but eventually Duvel brewmaster Hedwig Neven was as good as his word, and he rebrewed Tripel Hop, complete with its distinctive Amarillo third hopping. This second release was a success too, and in 2012 he made the beer an annual special – but using a different third hop each year. (The two other hops used in each annual brew are the same as in regular Duvel, which means Czech Saaz and Slovenian Styrian Goldings.)

Needless to say, the beers became fan favourites, with each new release eagerly awaited by beer lovers. Duvel Tripel Hop even helped inspire a new beer style or description: Belgian IPA. It is a term that Hedwig Neven and other traditional Belgian brewers don’t much like, though – to Duvel, it’s still a strong blond ale, albeit a hopped-up one.

But the fans faced a problem: while you could compare each new release with your notes from past years, comparing the actual beers wasn’t really feasible. Sure, you could save bottles from year to year, but hop character wanes with time, so comparing a fresh brew to one that’s two or three years old would be quite unrealistic.

The original rebrewed
So when it came time to brew the sixth edition, the Duvel folks had an idea – why not rebrew all the others as well and let people compare them? And that’s exactly what they did, packaging six 33cl bottles as a boxed set and making a game of it, inviting drinkers to vote for their gold, silver and bronze medallists.

Sadly, they then went a step further. The plan is that the winning variety will become the new permanent Duvel Tripel Hop. On the plus side, this means the beer will be available all year round, but the downside is it also means no more annual variations. I guess they figure that, in today’s hop-driven market, if they can get a boost in sales to the wider market it will compensate for losing the mystique and the fan following.

That’s the story, but what of the beers? I was lucky enough to be invited to taste all six varieties at a Duvel-hosted event a little while back, and it was fascinating to see that while they were the same base beer and they obviously had a lot of similarities, that one change in hopping had quite dramatic results.

For instance, #1’s Amarillo offered up aromas of sage and pepper alongside a peachy aroma, and gave herby-spicy notes on the palate, while the Citra hops instead gave #2 distinctive aromas of grapefruit pith plus a bitterness of bitter lemons and dry grass.

My favourite!
I’d had #3 – the 2013 edition, with Sorachi Ace – when it came out, but was happy to try it again and compare notes (the two brews matched well). It’s another spicy and dry-bitter one, though this time with aromas of citrus and mint leaves. Mosaic hops gave #4 hints of orange, mint and melon on the nose, the peppery bitterness less aggressive, letting the malt show through a little more for a bitter-sweet finish.

With #5 (Equinox), the new brew diverged a little from my previous notes. There’s still hints of Saison funkiness and pear drops on the nose, and touches of tangerine and honey on the palate, but this brew seemed a little more fruity and the honey notes verged more toward caramel.

Using an experimental hop called HBC-291, from the Yakima Valley, #6 is the new edition for 2016. I found it rather more subtle, smooth and less bitter than the other five, with faint notes of rosemary and ground pepper on the nose and a light lemony tartness.

It was also intriguing after the tasting to compare notes with the other tasters and see just how varied our top choices were. It was a difficult choice, but Mosaic was my favourite, just ahead of Equinox and Sorachi Ace, but others preferred Citra or even the original Amarillo version.

Now we wait to see the results of the popular vote. In the meantime, several online shops still have the six-packs in stock (eg. Beermerchants) if you fancy making your own choice. I also hear some people have experimented with blending the different editions, typically all six together (Octo Hop?) but it could also be interesting to try mixing them in pairs...

My thanks to Duvel for supplying free beers and arranging the 'vertical tasting', and my apologies for how long it's been since I last posted here!

Friday, 22 April 2016

When is a brewery not a brewery?


Brewing kit at Ubrew
London now has 101 breweries, according to recent figures. Except that it doesn’t – talking to CAMRA folk in the know*, their estimate is that at least 10 to 15 of the brewing companies are actually nomad brewers**, who brew batches from time to time at one of three or four sites where you can go along and rent a commercial-grade brewkit. The best known of these ‘open source breweries’ is Ubrew in Bermondsey.

Then there’s another half a dozen that are ‘resting’ for whatever reason, and a few more where you have two brewers sharing a brewkit. This all means that the total of actual physical breweries is probably still in the 75-80 region.

That means it has pretty much stabilised in the last couple of years. There have been a few closures, but they’ve been more or less matched by new openings – often with the latter using the brewing kit sold off by the former.

The nomad issue echoes a conversation I had at London Drinker Beer Festival with a couple of brewers from more established (and here I mean a few years, not 100 years!) breweries. As one of them noted, “Ubrew is messing up the market. The beers are still good, but it confuses things because people are saying they’re a new brewery when they’re actually using Ubrew.”

Sour grapes, or are the nomad brewers genuinely sowing confusion in the market? Their beers certainly look the part, but does actually owning the brewkit make a difference to the quality?



*London CAMRA (of which I'm a member) tracks its local brewing closely, even though a lot of it isn’t real ale. It’s partly for completeness and partly because even breweries that mostly do keg beer often also do bottle-conditioned beers and cask-conditioned specials.

**Nomad has become popular as the least potentially-offensive of the available terms. ‘Gypsy’ as preferred by the likes of Mikkeller, is regarded by many as pejorative, and ‘cuckoo’ has unpleasant connotations – would you put up with a cuckoo brewer in your brewery if you knew they were planning to elbow your own chicks over the edge of the nest?

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Raising a toast to Her Maj

As I write this, tomorrow is the 90th birthday of HM Queen Elizabeth II. You might think that when you’re one of the richest women in the world, with pretty much unlimited medical resources available, reaching 90 is no great surprise. But none of the previous Windsor monarchs made it past 77, and even if you go back to the Hanoverians, even George III and Victoria only just made it into their 80s.

So I was quite happy to raise a glass to Her Maj this afternoon, at the launch of the first Royal birthday-themed beer I’ve seen so far: Greene King’s Purple Reign. If you want to follow suit, Purple Reign’s due to be on 1000 Greene King bars around the country through May and June as one of their seasonal specials.

The beer itself is a fairly average 4.2% malty-sweet golden ale that isn’t going to frighten the corgis. Apparently it includes four different hop varieties: Challenger, Pilgrim, Styrians and First Gold. I found this hard to believe at first, but after a second try they emerged blinking into the sunlight – or rather, into an earthy and faintly herbal bitterness with distant hints of berries.

As to the name, the GK crew alluded to purple as a royal colour, and of course most people will know the song. Or will they? GK might have been thinking of Prince’s Purple Rain, but had they looked further there’s also some rap-crap actually called Purple Reign, with lovely lyrics such as:

If young Metro don't trust you, I'm gon' shoot you
Aye somebody uh, calls somebody get some molly
I need some good sauce, clean sauce

Mind you, you could wonder about the aptness of Prince’s lyrics:

I never meant to cause you any sorrow
I never meant to cause you any pain
I only wanted one time to see you laughing

But still – beer, the pub, and the Queen. What more could any decent Brit ask for? 😃

There's chocolate cake in there somewhere!

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Exploring Belgian beer beyond the abbeys

With several British companies already offering subscribers a monthly box of new bottled beers, you might think there isn’t much room in the market here for yet another monthly beer box. Belgibeer’s Dario Ceccarelli thinks otherwise though, and having built up his business across mainland Europe, he has just opened a UK office as well.

The difference is that other beer clubs might focus on British brewers, say, or try to do a world’s-best type of thing that’s great for new explorers but probably won’t impress aficionados (“A bottle of Orval/Vedett IPA/Flensburger Gold? Mr Ambassador, you’re spoiling us!”). However, each monthly Belgibeer box contains only beers from a single brewery – and as its name implies, all the breweries are Belgian.

Dario opens a box of beer...
“With its similar culture, France is our biggest market now, but the UK is our next target,” said Dario when I met him over a glass of Piraat Triple Hop at the opening of the London office. He added, “We want to broaden people’s expectations beyond abbeys – we work with ‘the other’ Belgian brewers.”

He said that even though many drinkers – and most Belgians – think they know Belgian beer, they don’t really. That’s due to the market dominance of AB-Inbev (Stella, Jupiler, Leffe, Hoegaarden...) and to a lesser extent Heineken (Maes, Grimbergen, Affligem...), which means that pretty much anywhere you go in Belgium, you will see the same macrobrews on the menu. Yet the country has hundreds of good small brewers, almost all of them little known abroad. Some produce only traditional Belgian styles, a few focus on international craft styles, and many brew the best of both worlds.

The volume he’s able to buy means that these brewers will sometimes do specials for him, for example packaging a beer that’s normally only in 70cl bottles in smaller ones instead. Also in the box you get a Belgibeer magazine profiling the brewery and introducing the beers – they visit each brewery they work with. It’s trilingual (English, French and Dutch) and is both slightly cute and a bit politically incorrect, in a way that suggests Belgium must be fortunate enough to lack a bunch of humourless drinks-nannies like the Portman Group.

As well as subscribing for regular deliveries, you can buy one-off cases and a range of ‘extras’, ranging from branded glasses to bottles of Westvleteren 8 and 12. Dario noted that beer boxes have become a popular gift item – he said that in France 80% of Belgibeer’s clients are women, with many of them buying the boxes as gifts through a gift-box website.

If I have a minor reservation, it is that other beer clubs typically send eight (or 12) different bottles. Like most smaller brewers though, Belgian breweries produce a relatively modest range of beers at any one time, so each Belgibeer box only contains four different brews (two bottles of each). Still, the aim is to have each box as internally varied as possible, and the breweries chosen are often little known outside their provinces, never mind outside Belgium.

For example, I’d not heard before of some of the breweries featured recently, such as Brasserie de Cazeau and Brasserie Sainte Hélène, both in Wallonia. Others I’d heard of but barely sampled, such as Vicaris and De Dochter van de Korenaar. One recent box was from van Steenberge, and while I’d had the regular Piraat 10.5 before, the box’s other three beers were new to me – including the excellent Triple Hop and the Gulden Draak 9000 Quad.

Belgibeer’s UK pricing depends how long you subscribe for, fitting in with the competition at around £3 a bottle. That’s pretty good for delivered beer, especially when quite a bit of it is over 6% – and much of it is likely to be unavailable anywhere else in the UK.