Thursday 23 March 2017

Sharp’s tricks the senses

Last week I went on a virtual holiday, courtesy of Sharp’s Brewery who billed it as an In-flight Beer Experience. We didn’t fly very far – in fact we didn’t move at all – but there was indeed beer along the way. The most interesting part, though, was that it physically demonstrated a bunch of things that even trained beer-tasters normally only talk about.

Sam pours the beers
The venue was the same one used for the beer & food matching session that Sharp’s did for last year’s London Beer Week. Which is to say it’s a long-wheelbase van fitted inside with a tiny lobby leading to a long and narrow bar. A single bench facing the bar provides seating for six but it’s a tight fit – if you’re the first one in, don’t expect to get out in a hurry...

Our barman, Sharp’s beer sommelier Sam, fed us three beers in turn, asking us to say what we thought. They seemed pretty different but he then revealed they were all Pilsners – and two of them were the same beer, Sharp’s Cornish Pils! He had used a wide mix of sensory inputs to trick our senses into perceiving them differently – the sound of the seaside for one of them, subtly adding grapefruit aroma into the air for another, and the mood lighting kept changing colour.

It was really well done. I was aware of the coloured mood lighting, but only because it made it so hard to judge the colours of the beers. I didn't spot the smells, and being unable to go back and re-taste beer #1 later, as you would do when judging, made it impossible to compensate for how each successive drink coloured your whole palate.

Orange essence over dry ice...
At the end, and after explaining some of what had happened, he poured us a last drink – a cocktail of a splash of a gin sour in some more Pils. Initially there was just a tart lemony-herbal edge to the drink, but then he poured a liquid containing orange oils over some dry ice (!) to flood the space with aroma. Now the drink tasted more citrusy, and even orangey.

So what was the lesson? Well, when you learn to taste and judge beer, one of the things you’re warned about – but rarely experience so clearly in reality – is that your sense of taste can be affected by all sorts of external factors such as background smells, lighting, even the seating, as well as by spicy food or what you were drinking before – and just before starting the experiment a friend had passed me a neat Glenfiddich, aged in an IPA barrel...  No wonder the first Pils had tasted so light!

We also got to try Sharp’s excellent Camel Valley Pilsner, which is a collaboration with Cornwall’s largest vineyard, Camel Valley. It’s the regular Pils refermented with Champagne yeast in the classic Methode Champenoise, and it’s lovely, with a thicker body, an orange note, and a hint of farmhouse ale, the refermentation also pushes the ABV up by 1%. The first batch is almost gone, but I was glad to hear there’s a second, much larger one, on the way!

If you ever get the chance to go on one of these Sharp’s tasting events, I’d highly recommend it. They are not all the same – they change the themes around and have multiple beer sommeliers hosting them, so even if you’re offered the In-flight Experience it will most likely be different to mine.

Friday 17 March 2017

Going 'craft Irish' for St Patrick's Day

It's St Patrick's Day today, and while I don't especially approve of either cruelty to snakes, or evangelism, it seems an appropriate opportunity to write about Irish beer – and especially about the Irish beer that doesn't come from a huge and shiny brewery near the banks of the Liffey.

And yet, when I was invited to this year's Spirit of Sharing showcase of crafted Irish drinks at the Republic's embassy in London, the thing that struck me was that this time the brewers were just a small minority – just three of them*, far outnumbered by producers of spirits. It felt like a big change from last year, when microbreweries were the dominant presence.

Metal cans from Metalman
Interestingly, although the breweries taking part were outnumbered they had pride of place, being the first things visitors saw as they entered the event. I was delighted to see Metalman Brewing there – it’s one of Ireland’s oldest new-wave micros, having celebrated its sixth anniversary in production earlier this month – and to finally get a chance to chat in person with brewer and co-founder Gráinne Walsh. We’d spoken on the phone a couple of years ago when I was writing about microcanning, which Metalman was also the first in Ireland to adopt.

From one core product in cans back then – the pale ale that’s still its flagship – Metalman has now expanded to four core beers plus a range of seasonals, and thanks to ‘can’tinued innovation (which I plan to write more about soon) they are all canned. The other core lines are an amber IPA, a spiced wheat lager, and believe it or not, a smoked chili Porter! “It’s the slowest of the four, so we only brew it once a month,” admits Gráinne, “but yes, it’s core – we’re brave!”

Part of this expansion is down to a bigger brewkit, which they finally got up and running about 18 months ago. The problem for Irish craft brewers, and the reason some are looking to the export market, is that the growth in domestic demand isn’t keeping up with the growth in supply – and there are still new contract brands and new breweries setting up, says Gráinne. That’s not too bad for her company – she notes that they didn’t expand the brewhouse so that they could scale their production linearly, instead it was because they were having to brew way too often and inefficiently on the old kit.

As well as the pale ale, she’d brought along their spiced wheat lager Equinox, which is a tasty refreshing brew, dry-sweet with lightly citrus notes, plus two of the current seasonals, Ginger and Sgt Pepper. Ginger does what it says on the tin – a warming ginger note over a slightly dusty blond ale – while Sgt Pepper is a lightly funky farmhouse Saison with well judged notes of sage and white pepper.

Kinnegar's Libby Carton
The other two brewers both describe themselves as making farmhouse beers, although Donegal’s Kinnegar Brewing is in the process of expanding from its current farm-based 10hl kit to a new 35hl brewhouse located in the nearby town. Kinnegar’s Libby Carton had a very impressive array of bottles in front of her: all seven of their core beers, plus four of the specials that she and her other half, American brewer Rick, do “when we have the time and capacity.”

Black Rye IPA is a new one on me
Their bottled beers are all unfiltered, unpasteurised and naturally carbonated, although Libby says they’re not bottle-conditioned as such. “We do have draught lines as well,” she adds, “but it’s difficult because you have to keep that line supplied – with the same beer, too! We’re lucky in a way that we started with packaged beer.” Of those I tried, the regulars were all good, as long as you don’t mind a slight haze. The standouts were all from the specials range, though, especially the peppery and spicy-fruity Swingletree, which is a strong Saison, a rich foreign stout called Flying Saucer, and my personal favourite, Black Bucket, a beautifully complex black rye IPA.

Although they’re waiting for the new brewhouse for their main export push, which will feature 330ml bottles replacing the current 500mls, you can find Kinnegar beers on tap all over the UK this weekend as they’re St Patrick’s Day guests in the Brewdog bars, the Rake, the Tate Modern bar, and several others – see their blog for a list.

Last but far from least was Brehon Brewhouse – Seamus McMahon reckons he is the only dairy farmer in the country who also has a brewery on his farm. He says he’s into brewing partly to boost the local economy – the brewery employs five people and uses locally grown malt too, while the waste can go for animal feed. “We’ve doubled the size of the brewery since we set up in 2014, and will double again this year,” he says, adding that he’s in 50 pubs around the area as well as several supermarket groups.

He has a fairly typical range for an Irish micro – a blonde ale, a red, an IPA and slightly unusually, both a porter and a stout, though he didn’t have the porter with him. The ones I tried were all good examples of their styles, with the Ulster Black Oatmeal Stout standing out as very pleasant and quaffable. What’s an Ulster beer doing at the Irish Embassy, you ask? Well, the historical Ulster is nine counties, only six of which are now part of the UK. Both Brehon and Kinnegar are therefore technically Ulster breweries, even though they’re in the Republic.

As I said, it was however spirits that dominated – mostly whiskey of course, but also poitín (aka potcheen, which is basically unaged whiskey), plus 'craft' vodka and gin. Irish whiskey’s presence you’d understand – it’s reportedly the fastest growing spirit in the world – but vodka and gin? Not only are they currently hip, especially gin, but they don't need time, unlike Irish whiskey which by law must be matured at least three years before it can be sold. So if you are starting a distillery, white spirits are good to get you going while you wait for your whiskey to come of age.

One change from last year was that more of the spirits producers seemed to actually be distilling now, although as most only set up their stills within the last two years, few had their own whiskey yet. Instead, they typically get started by buying already-aged whiskey in bulk, then ageing it some more and blending it for resale.

The other was just how many new faces there were. Most of the participants – and all the breweries – were new from last year. This may be deliberate by the organisers at Bord Bia (the Irish Food Board), as the event's role is as a venue for producers who're not yet exporting to the UK. All in all, an excellent event by Bord Bia: my thanks go to them, and of course to the ambassador Dan Mulhall, for being such good hosts.

*Well, three and a half – Dingle Distillery, which was there with its whiskeys, is an offshoot of the Porterhouse brewery and pub group, so it had some Porterhouse bottles on its embassy table. This is also why the London Porterhouse this week was advertising a Dingle whiskey tasting.

Tuesday 14 March 2017

Truman's gets all Kölschy

Tank lager for all to see
The invitation to the launch by Truman’s Brewery of a new ‘tank lager’ didn’t really grab my attention at first. After all, I’m not entirely persuaded that these tank beers are a Good Thing. Brewers claim it keeps the beer fresher, among other things, but there’s a bit of me that sees it as just a dressed-up version of the practice much-derided in the 1960s and 70s where keg beer was tankered to the pub, pumped in via a hose, and served from a large tank in the cellar – although in the modern versions the tank is made a feature of the bar, rather than being hidden away.

What piqued my curiosity was noticing that Truman’s RAW Lager was described as Kölsch-style, meaning it is top or warm-fermented like an ale, before being cold-matured as a Lagerbier*. (It was also described as unfiltered, meaning it’s not a Kölsch but a Wiess/Wieß, an even rarer style that’s made a minor comeback during the current German craft beer revolution – but that’s another story!)

The Kölsch aspect rang bells because it’s far from the only example I’ve come across lately. At the extremes, last year I met some new Irish craft brewers who had a Kölsch-style as the lager-equivalent in their range, usually alongside an Irish Red, a pale ale and the inevitable stout. I even heard of some North American beer-geek bars having four or five different Kölsches on tap at the same time.

Just a few years ago, Kölsch was one of those legendary things: not only was it a lagered ale but it was a Beer from the Old Days (in theory, at least**) that you could pretty much only get in its birthplace of Cologne – bar a few one-offs. I recall the now-defunct West London brewery Grand Union doing one in 2004, for example.

So how come Kölsch-style beers – done properly, I hope! – now seem to be pretty much everywhere? Part of it, especially inside Germany, is the realisation that while the name is protected – it's one of the few that has Europe-wide legal protection, not just protection within Germany like Berliner Weisse – the style is not. Indeed, the real historical Kölsch (as opposed to the modern version) would probably have had close cousins across a wide region. So now for example you can drink Bönnsch from nearby Bonn, a bit further south there's Trilsch from Trier, and most recently Bölsch from a jokey Berlin brewpub.

But it's also the realisation that for an ale brewer, it's a much easier step than going all the way to bottom-fermented lagers. It's also significantly cheaper, as Howling Hops head brewer Tim O’Rourke explained a few months ago while I tasted his cask-conditioned Kölsch-style beer, in both natural and smoked-tea variants. He’s done proper Pilsners too, but they tied up chilled tanks for many weeks while the beer fermented out and then matured. Kölsch could be done in half the time, which is superb when you’re short on space and you need lager to sell, not expensive ingredients locked up in storage for weeks on end.

The big brewers have known this for rather longer. Indeed, there’s been hard-to-confirm tales for many years that some of the major UK lager brands are top-fermented before lagering. One of the few to confirm this is Fuller’s brewing director John Keeling, whose Frontier lager is a top-fermented beer.

Enough about the wider world of Kölsch though: what of Truman’s RAW Lager? Firstly, no, I don’t know why it’s RAW in capitals. But there it was, I’d guess 500 litres of it, in a gleaming copper cylinder hanging above the bar of The Eagle, a newly-reopened (and Truman’s-affiliated) gastropub in Ladbroke Grove, which I hope to write more about later.

This glass is too big for authentic Kölsch!
Truman’s head of marketing Jasper Hossack confirmed the time element: “Our previous lager brews only went to a few selected customers – mostly old Truman's pubs, as it happens, We had to keep a small footprint with them because while ale takes a week [to ferment], lager takes up to a month.” He noted that the brewery is also installing three new 120-barrel fermenting vessels – their brewkit is 40-barrels so they’ll have to brew three times to fill each one, but with the longer overall process for RAW that’s not a problem.

He added that while a brewer can work around faults in an ale, “With lager there’s nothing to hide behind. You have to be so on-it, make sure it’s conditioned properly and so on. The tanker also takes a step out of the process as there’s no filling kegs.”

The first sips of RAW are tasty, refreshing and authentic: lightly hoppy, with dry-grassy and peppery noble hop notes over slightly sweet golden malt. Order a pint though, and further down the glass it changes. It becomes sweeter and yes, there’s a hint of a generic Brit-brewed Eurolager.

I guess this is why in Cologne’s pubs, Kölsch is only ever served in 20cl ‘Stange’ glasses – it needs to be drunk fresh, so as you finish one Stange the waiter quickly replaces it. Maybe Truman’s should consider investing in some branded Stanges lined for third-pint measures – that’s 19cl, so close enough, and it’d make a neat talking point!

*One of the problems with beer terminology is that ale and lager are not opposites – the terms refer to different parts of the brewing process. So you can lager a top-fermented ale, as the Kölsch and Alt brewers do, and I guess you could equally well sell a bottom-fermented beer without lagering it (does anyone ever do this? I’ve a suspicion it’s what at least some of the reinvented Zwickls and Kellerbiers amount to). 

**Modern Kölsch is largely a 20th century creation, developed to compete with Pilsner, Helles and Export lagers – remember here that the Bavarian Einheitsgebot [Law of Sameness] wasn't imposed on Northern Germany until the very early 1900s. Indeed, in the years of devastation following WW2 the Cologne brewers were rebuilding themselves as Pils brewers, before the founders of the Kölsch-Konvention persuaded them of the value of tradition.

Wednesday 1 March 2017

Beery times in old London town

We’ve a beery few weeks in London right now. Last week was Craft Beer Rising, where I had a great time discussing the state of the industry with various of the excellent brewers there – more about that in what’s planned to be a series of future blog posts.

Then next week is North London CAMRA’s London Drinker Beer Festival, and the week after that is DrinkUp.London’s London Beer Week*. The latter, which runs from Monday 13th ot Sunday 19th March, seems to have split up with Craft Beer Rising – last year CBR was the anchor event for LBW, but this year they’re separate events. Oh, and earlier in February was the trade show Pub17 which I didn’t get to this year, but by all accounts it’s developing more and more of a craft beer flavour.

London Drinker is going to be interesting this year, as for the first time it will feature only London real ales – the last couple of years it’s had a London bar, but at least half the beers were from elsewhere in the country. Now, with almost 100 breweries active in the capital it can showcase the best beer it has to offer, whether in cask, keg, bottle or potentially can. There is even going to be a Champion Beer of London competition.

Meanwhile, London Beer Week has moved this year from Brick Lane’s Old Truman Brewery (where Craft Beer Rising has just taken place) to Hackney’s Oval Space (the venue for last year’s London Craft Beer Festival, but that’s moving to Shoreditch this year). As well as brewery-run events, DrinkUp.London is running its own three-day festival at Oval Space, called the Beer Edit. Confused yet?

I’m looking forward to the Beer Edit, albeit with some guarded scepticism! That’s because there’s no beer list for it yet that I’ve seen, just mentions of some of the “brands” taking part – and so far they’re all big ones from outside London, but then this is a week of beer in London, not necessarily of London.

Sharp’s and Guinness are headlining again, both of them put on a good show last year and look set to repeat that this year. Sharp’s will again have a full range of beers including a couple of specials, plus a beer and food matching experience, while Guinness will once more feature unusual beers from its Open Gate Brewery, which is the former pilot brewery at Dublin’s St James’ Gate now operating as an experimental craft brewpub. Beyond that we’re promised Czech Staropramen (a MolsonCoors brand, like Sharp’s) and Pabst Blue Ribbon, which is an American lager that was for a while ‘ironically cool’.

Some of the other London Beer Week events look both more local and rather excellent. For example, the rickshaw beer tours which take you to three different London breweries or taprooms, with a beer at each. They’re sponsored by Jameson’s, which is promoting its whiskey aged in stout barrels (if I remember rightly, this is Franciscan Well Shandon Stout – the brewery then takes Jameson whiskey barrels and ages beer in them!), so they’re only £10 per person.

There’s also a Courage-themed walking tour which visits both the site of the legendary brewery near Tower Bridge, and the new Southwark Brewery which is producing special Courage SE1 cask ales. And there’s a bunch of bars doing LBW specials such as beer cocktails – see the Beer Week website for details.

All in all it’s a great time for beer in London, as befits what was once – and may yet be again – the greatest brewing city in the world. Have fun!

*not to be confused with London Beer City week in August, which is when London Craft Beer Festival and the Great British Beer Festival take place.