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
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!